Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gardens of the Moon: Literature in Fantasy Roleplaying

Dungeons and Dragons is in its 4th edition and as far as I'm concerned that game is better than ever. I love the rules, and the wealth of material available. I love the adventure modules and the minis and the computer programs for creating characters. But if I were to air one gripe about the contemporary game, it be the focus on "new-fangled fantasy", the aesthetics of comic books, manga and video games. While these are all well and good, I miss seeing the old literary sources applied to the modern rules.

Archaic Art Forms
The myth and literature that the fantasy genre was built upon is often mentioned but rarely mined for material these days. Back in the old days(!) Dragon Magazine used to run quite a few articles translating various historical and mythical characters and settings into game terms, complete with bibliographies. I don't see much of that in today's D&D blogosphere. One of the great things about D&D is that it provides an excuse for indulging in anachronistic art forms and subject matter. One of my favorites is the epic poem.

As a DM, I am always devising excuses to drop yet another poem by Yeats or Clark Ashton Smith on my unsuspecting players. I love to write introductions to scenes and locations that imitate the purple prose of my favorite fantasy authors, like Smith, Robert E. Howard, and R.R. Eddison. Perhaps a fragment can be used as a riddle, or to illuminate a character, or at least, to fill out a library in far more detail than necessary.

To me, this mixing of storytelling genres is one of the great strengths of the hobby. Adding different types of prose and verse to our improvisational dialogues and descriptions can only add to the depth and atmosphere of a game. Quotations and old literary forms can be a great way to establish a tone of high adventure at the gaming table, and also to recommend further reading to your players!

Sketches from the Old Masters
I propose to follow this post with a series wherein I attempt to rectify the situation. I will publish a series of articles that directly uses source material to inspire adventures, locations, and encounters for D&D games. My sources reflect my own prejudices of course. They will include poems by Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard, and scenes from both authors fiction as well as that of R.R. Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros". All of these are veterans of the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. The reader may wonder at the absence of Lovecraft on my short list, but I think that of all source literature, Lovecraft is perhaps the most fashionable at the moment, and least in need of reintroduction.

Stay tuned for the "Castle of Dreams".

More Than a Game: An RPG Manifesto

When I dig through my files and piles of old gaming material the things that tickle me and bring a smile to my face are the hand-made maps and character drawings, painted mini figs, verbose letters from one villain to another, distressed and singed to be more "scroll-like".

Avid players of roleplaying games understand much of the appeal of the game is that it is wondrous and creative on many levels. The tactile joys of rolling dice and pushing miniatures around, the theater of stories both epic and ignoble (which never turn out quite the way the DM envisioned!), and the friendships we develop all contribute to the tabletop experience. There are books of new rules, plastic miniatures, dungeon tiles, and computer programs (all great stuff!), begging to stimulate our minds, but it is when I think of the objects players produce I am inspired by the RPGs I have played and run. Here's to the arts and crafts of D&D!

The best thing about tabletop gaming, which it shares with war-gaming, but most emphatically does not share with video games, is the spontaneous outpouring of creativity that goes along with every session of a game. At the very least we have the clumsy theater of role playing our characters and trying to make sense an imaginary world, but those golden the evenings end with someone having drawn a map, another promising to write out the glib limerick that struck the villain dumb, and a third convinced to paint his own mini fig for next week. These are not great works of art, often barely competent, but that is not the point, and no one cares about quality. We are not creating in order to be judged, but for the purest of reasons, spontaneous expression of joy and fascination, a gesture toward the collective fantasia.

The Arts and Crafts of tabletop are anachronistic, but they are inevitable in the process of playing, and they are what makes the hobby more than a game. There are dozens of products out there, pdfs, pre-painted minis, adventure modules that might be a higher quality than what we do ourselves, but we are roleplaying express our own imaginations and so there's still nothing quite so charming as our own imperfect products of our collective imaginations.

To those who may read this: What are some of your favorite ephemera from playing rpgs?
Here's one of mine: