Monday, 26 September 2011

Non-Banal D&D

I'm becoming more and more interested in this notion of more genuinely mythical and fantastical fantasy gaming, which doesn't seek to catalogue everything and make it knowable and explainable, but attempts to retain as much mystery as possible. I'd like to call this romanticist D&D, but that might lead the dull and ignorant to think I'm talking about something like Blue Rose; likewise, if I call it non-classicist D&D such people will imagine I'm talking about 4th edition. So perhaps I'll settle for the slightly less problematic fantastical D&D, or maybe the more-arrogant sounding non-banal D&D. Whatever; I'm rambling.

What are the core characteristics of what I'm talking about, for those among you who haven't read every single post I've ever written since April 2008? I'm tempted to use for my manifesto something M. John Harrison once wrote, which I think is probably the most perceptive essay ever written about the fantasy genre (even if I think it almost totally misunderstands Tolkien). He wrote it specifically about his aims in writing his Viriconium books, but much of the piece speaks to fantasy in general. It is worth quoting at length:

The great modern fantasies were written out of religious, philosophical and psychological landscapes. They were sermons. They were metaphors. They were rhetoric. They were books, which means that the one thing they actually weren’t was countries with people in them. 
The commercial fantasy that has replaced them is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them. 
Literalisation is important to both writers and readers of commercial fantasy. The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes—their appearance of being a whole world–is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over “Tolkien’s World.”
Given this, another trajectory (reflecting, of course, another invitation to consume) immediately presents itself: the relationship between fantasy and games—medieval re-enactment societies, role-play, and computer games. Games are centred on control. “Re-enactment” is essentially revision, which is essentially reassertion of control, or domestication. (The “defusing sequels” produced by Hollywood have the same effect: as in Aliens, in which the original insuperable threat is diminished, the paranoid inscape colonised. Life with the alien is difficult, but—thanks to our nukes and our angry motherhood no longer so impossible as it seemed.)
“What would it be really like to live in the world of…?” is an inappropriate question, a category error. You understand this immediately you ask it of the inscape of, say, Samuel Beckett or Wyndham Lewis. I didn’t want it asked (and I certainly didn’t want it answered) of Viriconium, so I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice. That is because—like Middle-Earth—it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological. “Viriconium” is a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair. At the same time it is an unashamed postmodern fiction of the heart, out of which all the values we yearn for most have been swept precisely so that we will try to put them back again (and, in that attempt, look at them afresh).

Now, you might argue that, as roleplayers, "What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" is quite frankly one of the most appropriate questions you could possibly ask. Isn't that a large part of what gives a game a sense of reality and (that awful word) verisimilitude?

I would argue that, yes, if you want to be a classicist then this is a very important question. And I also want to say as I have elsewhere that this is fine - good, even. Sometimes I want to be a classicist too, and the games I run at the moment are, broadly, classicist ones. (I say at the moment because the point of this post is that I'm thinking about something else.) But I would also argue that if you want something truly romanticist or fantastical, you have to get away from asking that sort of question. Rather than asking "What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" your question(s) should instead be (and here I refer back to Harrison): "What about the world of ... gives it the appearance of being a whole world and thus makes it deep, exhilarating and anxiety-creating?"

You can do romanticist fantasy very easily with games like In A Wicked Age (one which I have heard lots about but only recently purchased). In fact, In A Wicked Age is tailor-made for it, primarily because of the way it handles conflict - i.e. in a way which doesn't really use statistics or numbers to decide consequences but on something more 'mysterious' (what is negotiated and agreed to) - and the way it handles set-up - i.e. through cooperative interpretation of randomly generated and nebulous 'oracles'.

But much as I love In A Wicked Age, there is part of me that does not want to sacrifice the kind of strategic thinking that makes D&D (proper D&D) what it is. In A Wicked Age has strategy, but it is story-based strategy: you don't really manoeuvre for mechanical benefits for your character, but for your own benefit in creating a narrative you enjoy. Your character doesn't gain experience, money and items through adventure and clever thinking the way he does in D&D.

There must be a way, then, of making D&D somehow more fantastical, mysterious and romanticist while retaining the elements which make it a game. How? This is the question that is occupying my thoughts at the moment.


  1. The most basic way to keep everything mysterious is to avoid proper names. Just describe the monsters and avoid naming them — even the peasants who are describing the attack describe "a horde of jabbering demonic things" rather than goblins or "an angel descended from above, it took the people with its hundred eyes" rather than a beholder.

    You can also keep your plot mysterious by constantly reframing it. Things seem one way until a new revelation suggests that the first perspective isn't necessarily wrong, but was incomplete or suspect; turn your campaign into a paraprosdokian.

    Finally, the dungeon is pretty mysterious on its own, and frequently operates on its own logic. If your party is just a group delving into a megadungeon, they can only be certain that things will be underground, and that it will probably get tougher on the way down. Everything else is unknown.

    The only problem with the above advice, of course, is that you risk straying into the territory of the quantum ogre. But I'm sure you can strike a balance between mysteriousness and player agency without much difficulty.

  2. I blame Gygaxian Naturalism and the 1E Monster Manual... the most amazing D&D book ever made, and also the most constraining.

    The moment you decide that goblins hatch from pumpkins blessed on Halloween night by the Goblin King, that Bugbears slip into the world from the Nightmare Realm in order to hide in closets and terrorize people, you put that sense of wonder and mystery back into the myriad monsters out there, and take a big step away from "Classicism".

    So that's where I'd start - whimsical monster origins, origins that are unknown or barely imagined by human folk.

    I also like the idea of having mundane (banal) areas where ordinary folk live, The Realms of Man™, and areas where you cross over into the more mysterious land - you see that dynamic at play in Three Hearts and Three Lions, with the separation of the lands of Law and Chaos / Faerie, or the twilit elf lands in The King of Elfland's Daughter.

    We do need more "Romantic" D&D support; I anticipate running a family game in another year or two, when my daughter is older, that will very much leave behind horror themes for these more fantastic paths.

  3. I think the best example is don't explain things people wouldn't know. Leave questions unanswered no matter how much people want to know them.

  4. Give the players wild rumors to orient themselves from; the kind of unsubstantiated claims like the big fish that got away. They don't even have to be true.

    During the game I ran last night one of my players wanted to find a library to gather information about local flora and fauna. I explained to him that no such establishment or book existed because no one has done the cataloging yet. So he took it upon himself to buy a journal, ink, and pens to do the task.

  5. I would have a hard time accepting a gameworld that actively resisted being understood. I personally enjoy delving into and uncovering mysteries - perhaps mysteries that reveal further unknowns, but not things that remain unknowable. I would describe it as the information game within the greater game - the part where the reward for paying attention to the game is comprehension and the ability to predict actions and outcomes.

    Admittedly, something that can be comprehended is rendered banal, and I can only applaud the desire to inject more of the fantastical into one's fantasy world. This is probably a false dichotomy, though - I'm fine with some mysteries remaining elusive, and I suspect that some of your mysteries become resolved and comprehended to avoid frustrating the audience (be it player or reader).

    Regarding the essay you've quoted, I don't think it's fundamentally incorrect to have a fantasy world in which things can be understood and commonplace. It's not a fairy tale anymore, though - it's a speculative fiction tale with a veneer of fantasy. The writers that the essayist attacks may well be justly attacked, though, because they have themselves failed to understand that shift.

    Obviously you've given me a good bit to chew on here. Thanks for posting!

  6. The best way doesn't really withstand repeated use.

    Have your players think they are going to be in a game set in a mundane world. Have them read the rulebook for that mundane setting (say, Twilight 2000 or Boot Hill or James Bond 007).

    Then you introduce the monsters and magic. You know the rules for that, the players do not.

    Once the magic and monsters are in the rulebook, the players can study that and it becomes mundane.

    In a sort of inverse way, this is what Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was about.

  7. @roger
    I'd clal that "the easiest way" rather than "the best way".

    You can pull a book off a shelf in a genre and have it stay pretty much in that genre the whole time and it still surprises you. And it's the -fact- that it's showing you unexplored territory that's surprising.

    The "barrier peaks" trick always just seems (kinda like you said) like a one-liner. It works once, then players go Oh, I get it....

    Thinking up weird new things all the time seems much better but harder.

    Plus I think once a world's been "barrier peaked" in enough different ways it can settle into a kind of moodless banality all its own. Like a world made of bad Dragonmirth cartoons.

  8. @Zak: Yeah, it's not the best thing to base a campaign around, I was thinking more of one-shots.

    Now, the problem with the novel analogy is that the novelist isn't obliged to provide a system of the world (rules). In fiction, lots more can be obscured, or built upon the reader's assumptions about the normal world.

    Here is what I was trying to get at and maybe this second run-up works better. The players start out knowing a rule set that is all about mundane stuff - physical feats, fighting, knowledge skills ... This satisfies their need to think they know something about the game system.

    All the rules about things in the game that you want to keep fantastic are the DM's and behind the screen.

    Player wants to be a magic-user? Here's a book you found in your uncle's house. You can read it because you learned the magic script from one of his almanacs while he was sleeping off a binge. You have no idea what any of the pages do or how magic works.

    Or if that is too harsh, then have a tiny sphere of mundane magic - three, four starter spells - and vast oceans of the unknown.

    Ideally, if not plausibly considering the patterns of fragmentation in gaming, you'd have a game where the mundane content is shared but each GM house-hacks the fantastic according to widely different recipes.

  9. @Roger,

    I would be a big fan of that kind of thing. The typical problem is that players need to be able to look up what their spells do - otherwise the DM has to stop what he's doing and look up the details of the spell's effect. Certainly a DM could copy the description of each spell and hand it to the player when the character learns the spell, though this is the kind of work that only some players and DMs find fun.

  10. I am having exactly the same desire. I think a big part is limiting character possibilities, especially at the beginning. If you let them play drow, then drow will seem much less mysterious.

    I think James Raggi and LotFP have done work here too. In some sense, I think the "weird" in Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is exactly this sense of mystery, which is why he advocated things like not using classic monsters and magic items, and offers tools like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, so monsters are closer to sui generis. Now, I've yet to actually play a LotFP game the way it is meant to be played, I have merely enjoyed it academically, so I can't say I speak from experience.

    I love Beedo's suggestions too. Systematization is the death of mystery. I think the biggest problem is dealing with the shared assumptions that players are likely to have. If you say goblin, they are going expect a certain thing, and to disabuse them of those expectations is going to require a lot of game time (or players interested enough in reading all your custom mythology). Sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn't.

  11. I think it would require a lot of randomization and ad-hoc work. Start with the minimum knowledge and go from there. It also helps to have a backstory where the players don't know what to expect. In any case, it means a lot of work for the DM. How can we make that easier?

    I think we could remove some of that difficulty from the DM and put it on the module designer. It would help to produce more modular gaming materials. Have a random way of generating the contents of the locations in the dungeon(and even the dungeon map itself). Have a random way of creating monster stats. Have a random way of creating the new spells a particular caster can choose from at any given level.

    The point isn't just to reskin--that's sort of like fudging dice rolls. The point is that even if the player were to theoretically read the entire module, they'd still be in the dark.

  12. Most of these comments seem to boil down to "make your game more like Lost," which was (for a while) a great Romantic mystery. There's also a good reason why Lost dribbled its secrets out very slowly at the start, though: the mysterious campaign risks being devalued as the mysteries are revealed - the fun part is the swirl of outrageous possibilities, the promise that the world might not be what you thought it was (which means you needed to think it was something to start with).

    The best way doesn't really withstand repeated use
    I fear could be generalized to "mysterious, evocative fantasy doesn't really withstand repeated use." There's the joy of discovery, the anxiety of unknown stakes and outcomes. Which I guess is what Zak's getting at with his "endless invention" solution: keep it fresh, keep it new and unknown. The trouble with this is that it also risks becoming its own kind of banal, like the monster of the week in Star Trek/Scooby Doo. Exactly those elements which are not novel and mysterious tend to become the focus unless the mysterious elements are given meaning by repeat interaction - made important to the players as parts of a cohesively mysterious whole.

    And, as you point out, the players need to be able to play in the world - introduce their own strategic thinking, which can rub up against the world and produce novel results (cf Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; the character of Aiken Drum in Julian May's Saga of the Exiles, and boy does this page suck all the magic out of that).

    ...I guess I'm with Roger. Let the players be masters of some realm of activity, a toolset they can use and banalify all they want. And keep an iron Chinese wall in place between that player space and the mysterious world setting. Magic systems and monster manuals tend to breach this Chinese wall, and that's why they're often problematic. But it's also those breaches that offer the best purchase for trying to puzzle out the mysteries, if they're handled like alchemical combinations rather than like encyclopedia entries.

  13. You remind me of The Prisoner (the 60s original, not the remake), and some of the advice in the GURPS The Prisoner... "To fully describe the world of The Prisoner would be to destroy it. It is a world of possibilities, not definite realities."

  14. I'm now accepting bets on how long it takes the Tao of D&D guy to do a poo-poo post regarding this topic. You heard it here first.

  15. DRANCE: I like his approach - it's perfectly valid. I think we just appreciate different things in the fantasy genre. But yeah, knowing him (if he reads this - he's expressed a degree of hostility to my blog in the past) he might have something to say.