One-on-One: The Dramatic Importance of the Duel
This is something of a gaming post, but also a writing post, and also something about politics. Been thinking about that debate coming up tonight (and who hasn’t been?) and whether I want to watch or not and why. To a large extent, I feel like most people have already made up their minds about Trump and Clinton. I mean, how could they not? What on earth could either of them say to change anybody’s mind at this point? Now, I don’t actually know how many people are undecided – maybe it’s a lot – but even in that case, I have a hard time imagining that this debate is going to sway them. One wonders why we have the debate at all, if everything is all pretty well set in the public imagination.
I think a lot of it is because there’s gonna be a fight, and we’re invited to watch.
The duel – facing your foe mano a mano – is an ancient and hallowed tradition not only in history, but in mythology and story as well. Beowulf against Grendel, David against Goliath, Gandalf against the Balrog, Miyamoto Musashi against Sasaki Kojiro – two opponents doing battle for honor, glory, revenge, or even simply survival is old as the hills and universal as song. It is an inherently dramatic scene; it stirs the imagination effortlessly. Each combatant, representing their ideals and their supporters, facing one another in a defining conflict that can only end in a new understanding, either of the world, themselves, or each other. The duel is the symbolic manifestation of change itself.
And yet role-playing games are so often diametrically opposed to them. One of my biggest complaints about D&D (and about the systems derived from its lineage) is that there is seldom any good way to have a one-on-one battle that is interesting. It takes a lot of gymnastics to get those things to work, since D&D is inherently an ensemble game and no fool would go into battle alone when they could have a cleric there to boost them back up to normal. Thing is, though, without duels, beating the villain just becomes a kind of curb-stomping mob scene. Six mighty “heroes” surround the giant, pull it to the ground, and stab it until its dead and there isn’t a damned thing the giant can do. Kinda underwhelming, guys.
In this sense, though, there’s a fair amount of reality in RPGs: in real life, why the hell would you fight somebody one-on-one outside of foolish notions of manhood and honor? Bring five of your friends to the hill at dawn and beat the crap out of that jerk who challenged you and go home alive, right? Historically speaking, this is one of the things the Romans figured out (borrowed from Alexander) that screwed over the Celts and other “barbaric” tribes in their way: the Roman legions operated as one cohesive fighting group, whereas many of these tribes were just groups of warriors out for individual glory. The legions just ground them down and marched over them – not perhaps personally glorious, but victory itself was glory enough for Rome.
In fiction, the author has to jump through hoops to set up their one-on-one battles. They just don’t happen by themselves, you know? No cop in real life says to his unit “leave Mendoza for me!” No soldier on the front is going to stand back while his sergeant engages in a knife fight with an enemy combatant. Notions of “honor” and “good form” are fun and all, but in the broad history of the world, they aren’t precisely “real.” And, in particular, the person who is willing to bring a gun to that knife-fight, the person who sees nothing wrong in ganging up on the lone warrior to destroy him, well, they’re the ones who usually win. Because duels are pretty foolish.
However, we hang such importance on them in our popular imagination. We crave that moment when Vader challenges Skywalker, when Inigo finally catches up with Count Rugen. We love it because we want to know that our heroes are real – that these champions of ours can walk out there and smite evil all by themselves, without us backing them up. It makes us feel good, to know our heroes are the genuine article. Never mind that such knowledge is an illusion, an orchestrated sham – our heroes in real life don’t stand by themselves, but exist as a representative of a network of people devoted to our welfare. The firefighter who carries you out of the burning building gets the glory, but the 911 dispatcher and his fellow firefighters and the engineers who designed his gear got him there. We see the individual, but we forget the legion that made victory possible.
Nowhere is this irony more pronounced than in a “debate” between two people who, while potent individuals in their own right, are standing on a stage doing battle in the most coached, stilted, and artificial of circumstances. When Clinton or Trump speak, they are not speaking as one person – they are speaking as the heads of a movement, of a political party, of an electorate whose support they seek. They have very little power of their own to shape events – not without the millions of people who they hope will vote them into office, where they will again serve as the capstone of an administrative structure that is as collective and collaborative as their campaign is now. But does any of that really matter to us on an emotional level? Not at all.
We want our duel. We want to see our champion victorious. We want to believe in heroes, no matter how we manipulate the world to make them seem real.