Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Thinking about something Dark Lady Alice said, and something that Lamentations of the Flame Princess posted some days ago. D&D is not a book.

And this is one of the reasons why despite all the blog posts in the D&D blogosphere about the influence of writers on their various role playing games, I find myself with nothing to say.

I have torn my way through Howard, Norman, Leiber, Moorcock, Asprin, Anthony and god knows how many other fantasy writers, along with classic authors like Wells, Butler, Verne, Swift, Haggard, Melville (Typee, not Moby Dick and quite a few others. Add to that a lot of science fiction, occult fiction and period fiction. I've been reading more or less continuously since six years of age, and writing since the age of twelve. The latter is something that I now do as part of my living. And yet...

D&D is not a book.

I don't approach the game from the perspective of a told story, as I've written before, but I do appreciate the intervention of plots. Here are some of the recent plots that have affected my players in the last year. They are running two sets of characters at the moment: the main party with their primary henchmen; and their secondary henchmen. The former group are 7-9th level, the latter 2-4th.

a) Rescuing a harem of 15 girls being taken by ogres to their master in Khorezm; the girls were captured in western Turan (Turkmenistan), en route from Persia.

b) Returning the girls to their fathers, winning presents, including a tome protecting them from the scrying devices employed by the master in Khorezm.

c) One of the girls, not having a father on this plane of existence, falling in love with a player. Subsequently discovering the girl to be an Amazon, Antiope to be exact (in mortal form without fighting ability), and the complex difficulties in returning her to her father (and surrendering the love affair).

d) Because half my players are women, to make a case about chest pounding male players I had the party cross the path of some Egyptians in the eastern deserts of Iran (while still trying to return Antiope), who offered a chance at a Deck of Many Things. Always good for a laugh. Two players drew the same card, enmity from a devil...

e) Which eventually ended with both being taken alive into a lesser plane of Hell, which led to their rescue, involving a Knight Templar and several allies to get the party into hell and get them out again before getting overwhelmed, rescuing the two hapless players.

f) But before the rescue from Hell, the party deciding to settle down and store their wealth and other goods on a fief in Transylvania, below the Carpathian mountains, a gift from a grateful father.

g) A long meeting between the party and the inevitable hobgoblin lair in the Carpathians (my hobgoblins can level up to 9th and include wizards/clerics).

h) The secondary henchmen, left in charge of the fief, doing some cleaning out of left over hobgoblins, smugglers, highwaymen and one recent encounter with a wererat.

i) and finally, the party having escaped from hell, now lost hopelessly in the Timan Mountains west of the Urals, in October, about 62 degrees N latitude (they were able to reach the entrance of hell by being teleported there, they have no teleportation spell allowing them to return).

It has always been popular in my memory, going back thirty years, for people to take the events surrounding their campaigns, or the campaigns in which they run, to try and "write a story" on it. These have been, since the dawn of time, the most boring, most insidiously annoying stories ever to have been written. They are long, rambling, lacking in character development and hopelessly incomprehensible to the outside reader. And yet, they continue to be written.

What makes most role-playing associated writings shit IS the total lack of character and theme...just as the presence of character and theme in most quality novels gets in the way of their usefulness for D&D. I need plot, not character development. I leave character up to the players.

And frankly, I make better plots than exist in most of the stories. I can't rely on the characters being dumb. Without the presence of alignments, I can't count on the characters rescuing the damsels (although they have, right?), and if they do, they're free to rape and kill them (it was discussed), sell them to the highest bidder (also discussed), force them to work as pack mules (discussed) or decide to do the ogre's work for them and take them to the master in Khorezm (discussed and discarded).

What I mean is, I don't know what the party is going to do. I had the girls beg to be taken to their fathers, whereupon the women in the party argued for that against the men, with a great deal of parleying about it. If they had decided to butcher the girls, I wouldn't have tried to stop it...and it would have created a plot where the one girl's father went after the party.

The random nature of the party's choices (ignore that they're in hell, go find them) sort of destroys the usefulness of using any sort of fictional plot as a guideline for me. So I just make up this shit as I go along, figuring out what the most likely consequence is going to be for any particular action and going with that.

For example: let's take that bastard in Khorezm. His name is Patroclus (known to the party) and he's an 18th level mage (also known to the party). He's stuck trying to track the party by material means (he's a little pissed at losing Antiope, as well as the other girls, who were all daughters of shiekhs and minor emirs in Persia), and the party has managed to teleport TWICE since getting the tome against scrying. Makes it difficult. As a result, the party has heard nothing about him for about eight months, and that's how I want it.

Because the day is going to come that one of them gets a little bit more famous, or meets with someone who might also know Patroclus (who isn't a nobody), and watch the party shit bricks when that comes out.

The less wary the party is before that, the better.


sirlarkins said...

I've used certain characters or events from my games in my writing, but I've never tried to replicate a given campaign or adventure in fictive form. You're absolutely right--fiction and gaming are two completely separate ways of telling of story, and trying to force one into the other is just a recipe for disaster.

I've had the misfortune to read game-inspired fiction where you can almost see the author recreating the original system's combat sequence--"Oh, this guy must have the initiative now. He just rolled to hit...and missed."

BTW, I love the historical D&D setting you've got going here.

KenHR said...

Spot-on post. Plot - what a prof once defined to me as "someone trying to do something," about as perfect a definition as I can think of - is all you need for an impetus to the campaign.

I think what a lot of people don't understand is that stories don't happen as we live our lives and go about doing what we need or want to do. Life is messy, non-linear, full of sidetracks and distractions, even if we're seemingly proceeding toward a clear goal. So approaching a campaign as a "story" from the outset is wrong-headed.

Stories come after the fact, when we look back and try to make sense of the mess we've just gotten ourselves through. To make that story interesting to others, we might re-arrange events to add tension, add or subtract details for emphasis, etc. Life is not so tidy as a novel.

Which is why the best stories coming from RPG campaigns are those told by people just BSing about an episode or encounter in last night's or last week's or last year's game. Tales are in the telling, not the living.