Monday, 13 March 2017

I Got a Bad Desire

Occasionally I write a post that I half-finish but have to put to one side as a draft because I can't figure out where I'm going with it (I've been sitting on half a post called "The Secret Game Within 5th Edition" for about 18 months now - the second half will come to me eventually I suppose.)

One I've had going since last summer is "If You Go Down to the Woods Today". Here it is:

Whether the jungles of South East Asia, the taiga of Siberia, or the ancient mixed woodlands of Europe, forests fascinate me. I like being in them and I like thinking about them: to be in a forest is to be completely surrounded in a gaia-like ecosystem, made all the more interesting because it obscures your vision and plays tricks with sound. This means that exploring a forest is a bit like exploring an overland dungeon - you never know what is around the next corner.

Bill Bryson described being in a forest nicely in A Walk in the Woods:

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.

And yet on the other hand, as he also puts it:

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.  
Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really.  
You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.  
There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter.  
At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.

Existing in a mobile Zen mode is nice, but not really what an RPG session is all about. In other words, exploring a forest in real life is fun and interesting, but in reality also full of nothing-much-at-all in terms of excitement, danger, and adventure.

I finally have the second half. It involves fire-fighting. Check out this post by Cedric: It's about elven fire-fighters trying to protect a forest - a nice idea in itself. But follow the link in the comments to Patrick's interview with Dungeon Smash about forest fires (or just click right there) - and look at the pictures and read the words and tell me you wouldn't want to play in a fantasy forest fire-fighter campaign. Not only putting out fires but carrying out rescues, fighting fire-starting invaders, and maintaining peace between forest rivals.

PCs protecting things is another field of potential campaigning which I don't think has been well-explored in published settings. This is largely because of Zak's old Superman Sandbox Problem. I have thought about that problem - namely that rogues (or villains) are typically inherently proactive whereas heroes/protectors are typically inherently reactive - quite a bit down the years, and really there's no way round it: protectors are inherently reactive by definition. If there are no external threats there's nothing to protect, so the DM has to do a lot of work thinking up those threats, or have really good ways of randomly generating them, or be really good at improvising. Meanwhile the players don't have a massive amount of agency because they're just going to be sitting on their arses waiting to find out what the "threat of the week" is and then trying to defeat it.

There is no way around this, but there's no reason why it should stop anybody. So, just to riff on the idea a little: a potential response to the Superman Sandbox Problem is doubling-down on it. Forget thinking up different threats - the threat is always the same. There is a permanent fire in the forest. That's because fire spirits of various kinds are there (maybe ruled by an Efreeti?) and they intend to spread come what may - they have to. The PCs are locked in an eternal struggle with the forest fire, which constantly moves as the fire spirits shift resources; it also retreats from certain areas with the vagaries of weather, climate and also the actions of the fire-fighters. But it is never completely extinguished and often grows. This means that sometimes the PCs are working to head off the spread of the fire in a certain direction; sometimes they are rescuing the inhabitants of a threatened area; sometimes fighting insurgents; sometimes working in areas the fire has vacated to aid in restoration and regrowth, and so forth. You don't deal with the Superman Sandbox Problem; you embrace it.


  1. concerning the first, foresty, part of this post: if you have'nt read wolfe's knight/wizard duology it starts with the walk in the woods and treats forest as a liminal, in-between-worlds, space. check it out.

    1. Yes, I've read it. I really like the first volume (really, really like it) but had a tough time with the second.

  2. One thing you might want to add or consider with this is that, in many environments, forests need to burn. A lot of environments have a natural, or at least 'expected' fire regime which means the plant systems work in a certain way if the whole place is on fire at particular intervals.

    One of the reasons Dungeon Smash is chasing fires all over the American south is because Amiraindians had a particular relationship with fire and their environment (burn it occasionally, move around a lot if you need to) and Euro-Americans came in with a very different kind if expectation (high population density, prevent all fires when possible, add mechanisation to that as we go into the 19thC) and they just don't work well together. With some pretty serious effects since the longer you suppress large fires then the more fuels build up and then when a fire does start it's even more uncontrollable and destructive than previously.

    So whether a place should be on fire, and how often that should be happening, is an assumption that has some strong cultural elements, and there are worthy opinions on both sides.

    1. Yep - you should read "1491" if you never have. It's all about how Native Americans (throughout the Americas) manipulated their natural environment in all sorts of ways, often with fire.

      I was thinking about this more from a pseudo-English perspective. The woods are green and damp and fire is an unnatural threat. But you could make a way more subtle and interesting game in which the fire fighters also have to deal with other groups who are keen on keeping the eternal fire going.

  3. This post stirs in me all kinds of thoughts, and feelings, though not necessarily about the post's content itself.

    I guess protecting a forest from fires, or guarding the wall thing in Game of Thrones (whatever it's called - I am not a fan so I don't really know the ins and out of it) could be fun, but it's not my thing. As a GM, and as a player I can't imagine doing one type of thing for adventure after adventure, in the same location. I think I'd self afflict an arrow to the knee.

    Likewise forests - love the beauty, and majesty of real ones, seen some great artwork involving them, read some wonderful prose. That said I hope I never encounter another forest in a fantasy RPG again as long as I live. Forests are to RPGs what Starbucks are to New York City - you can't travel 200 ft in any direction without bumping into one.

    What intrigues me is the Superman Sandbox Problem. It's problem I've never really encountered in all my years of Superhero gaming. I think I see why though. I may need to do a post about it.

    I'd be really curious to hear about a 'protecting the area' campaign someone has run successfully. Specifically, defending a very focused area from a specific threat. It's hard to imagine running it long term.

  4. I do look forward to that 5e "secret game" post.

    As to the actual topic: I've had this idea in my mind (never did anything with it) of a very large forest (like you, inspired by Siberia) where fires would be caused by this large flying castle held aloft by enormous jets blasting ridiculous amounts of fire downward. As this castle periodically lifted off and relocated, it would set large fires along the way.

    I'm not sure why this idea is stuck in my brain.