Thursday, 7 July 2022

The D&D Campaign as Shaggy Dog Story and Biography

It's often said that OSR campaigns eschew narrative, or indeed are not "narrativist". This is wrong. A better way of putting it is that OSR campaigns are not like novels, but are more like shaggy dog stories - or biographies.

A shaggy dog story is one which has no identifiable overarching plot or climax, no purpose, and which involves many digressions:

I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois–got him of a man by the name of Yates–Bill Yates–maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon–Baptist–and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west. Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson–Sarah Wilkerson–good cretur, she was–one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was–no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all–it was a galoot by the name of Filkins–I disremember his first name; but he was a stump–come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul–had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’ other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow–the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, “Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear”–and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again–wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’t much difference, anyway; becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yaller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow. Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on; it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig–Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife–a ratty old buzzard, he was...

-From Mark Twain, Roughing It...

Almost any OSR campaign you care to chronicle rapidly takes on this quality. This, for example, is an account of just a portion of the weekly campaign I've been running for the past 18 months. The idea that there is no narrative per se to an OSR game is therefore wrong; there is one. It's just not directed.

I think it was Robert Caro - the exact quotation escapes me - who said that you can only really understand a person's life story by reading it in the order in which it was lived. It's no good writing a biography of somebody divided by theme. You have to begin at the beginning and go through to the end, because that's how the figure in question encountered the events of his life. History in general is like this: thematic histories usually suck, because the point about human affairs is that they are chronologically ordered. Events follow one another, and to therefore to get a grasp on one you have to know what happened before it and what happened afterwards. This may allow one to identify themes retrospectively, but the actual telling of the tale has to happen in chronological order.

A biography is very like a shaggy dog story in this sense. It's one damned thing after another, the only coherent thread really being that the narrative follows what happens to one person across time. There is no necessary climax, no discernible plot, and many digressions. 

Very few people do this, but it would be possible I think, once a long-running campaign is over, to - like a Robert Caro or Charles Moore - go back over it and identify themes that emerge; to write, as it were, the biography of the game. It's probably important to do this once the whole thing is over, to avoid pre-empting things, and requires some sort of a log to be kept. I'd be interested to know if anybody has ever attempted this.

10 comments:

  1. I understand that several of John C Wright's works are retellings of campaigns he has played or run.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I never knew anything about John C Wright but after investigating I think I'll give him a read. Thanks!

      Delete
  2. I've never heard of anyone going back and making note of themes in a campaign when it was all over. But in a sense, that's the exact opposite of how most people effectively do it. Your choice of system and campaign world tend to focus in on, and support, certain themes and leitmotifs.

    Off the top of my head: if you use Blades in the Dark, you're going to tend to get gritty Noir. If you use Call of Cthulhu, you're going to tend to see a lot of mystery and cautious descent into the dangerous unknown. If you go with an OSR hexcrawl, especially with XP-for-gold rules, the primary theme will usually be, as the singer sang, "I'm gonna be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender."

    After all, why would anybody (other than maybe Weis and Hickman) go back and do a comprehensive write-up of a completed campaign? The tale is in the telling, and while records can be useful for memory over long campaigns, the story itself is more along the lines of "you had to be there." IMO 芋

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True in most cases, but I think it could be a fun exercise regardless.

      Delete
  3. Not quite the same thing as what you are talking about, but the Dwarf Fortress game is famous for people summarizing and retelling the course of their game as a story, because the game itself generates such a rich backdrop.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've tried to get into Dwarf Fortress but had no idea this was the case. Can you recommend a particularly good one?

      Delete
    2. A (the?) classic example of the form is Boatmurdered: https://lparchive.org/Dwarf-Fortress-Boatmurdered/Introduction/

      Delete
  4. Thematic history can often be quite good IF it focuses on one theme and really nails that theme down. Often strictly chronological history ends up being "here's this tree take a good look at it, now take a look at the next tree, and the next and the next and the next." You do remember some details but after a while it all blends together and it become hard to pick out trends from all of the details.

    I listen to a lot of history podcasts while running and often the more thematic ones (like "Tides of History" which is pretty solid despite some flaws) stick in my heads better than the "let's chug our way through a country's history, one king at a time!" ones.

    For what kind of literature D&D campaigns resemble, consider Icelandic Sagas which are often about just one damn thing after another. Egil's Saga is a good model as it's about one guy instead of sprawling family feuds. The legendary sagas (about ancient heroes) are apparently good for this but I, sadly, haven't read them. Mean to get around to that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that to the extent that bad narrative history is bad, and good thematic history is good. It's just that thematic history in my experience is almost always the result of a scholar trying too hard to do something innovative rather than just telling the damn story of what happened.

      Delete
  5. A good characteristic, thanks. Though we actually CAN make coherent narratives of biographies, etc. But mainly post-factum ("it was at this time that d'Artagnan learned that..." ;) ). It was actually a common usage in autobiographies. And remember that a whole genre of dog, etc. stories - shaggy or otherwise - provided a coherent narratives with clear ideas to feed readers.
    What is especially funny is that a classical shaggy dog story as presented by Twain - also feeds readers a clear idea (that most people are not especially coherent and that life itself is free from our ideas ; )) ).
    So - why not? We can improvise (players and DMs together), then come up with a coherent story in retelling later, and there's nothing to stop us - even if our coherent story is about the incoherence of life as reflected in this medium... :))
    Mike

    ReplyDelete