Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dull, Plodding Am I


I am told haven’t got a fantastical bone in my body (just an opinion). I may have overdone it on the intrinsic world design. But honestly, world design makes a more practical subject matter – throw up a few maps, a few charts, describe how to organize an economic system, and the blog writes itself. I’ve been coasting on that these last two years, and I apologize. I just haven’t taken the time to write about unreal things.

Of course, a year ago for my online campaign I did have two dopplegangers gate in a demon using bard’s blood, devastating a German town in the process. But shit, that was a year ago. What have I done lately?

Nothing, really. I haven’t invented forty-five monsters for DMs to use. I haven’t invented forty-six spells to add to the various spellcasters’ canons. I haven’t written in detail the social customs of vampire-salamander halflings dwelling on the fringes of the Habertslinger Dynasty’s Eighth Kingdom. I have not drafted out a single dungeon level. I have not invented and blogged about a single complicated party-killing trap. I have produced no lengthy list of NPCs, no scale maps of Inns or Keeps, and not a single new magic item. I am amiss. I apologize for these glaring oversights.

How do I expect to keep gentle readers if I don’t make an effort? Obviously these are things I will apply myself towards immediately.

But ...

A fantastical imagination has a pedigree that is difficult to establish. How does anyone ‘prove’ the quality of their imagination?  In life, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell someone at a party who asked if I had a good imagination that, ‘Hey, I’m a writer.’ Since it is something I do as a profession, I feel justified in pulling it out and presenting my work as credentials ... I invent stuff all the time. Nothing I publish professionally makes it to this blog however ... because, well, other people have paid for it and I don’t have the legal right to print it here. Obviously, I’m not anxious to give the name that is published under, certainly not on the Net. The gentle reader should understand that.

The fiction I write doesn’t happen to be fantasy fiction. That seems odd for a D&D fanboy, I know ... but I don’t actually read fantasy fiction, as I find most of it fits the quality of that jerkass Eddings. In a word, bleh. I once read Howard, Leiber, Anthony and Asprin ravenously, but now I find it all quite juvenile and unprovoking. The stuff I write tends to be either humour or violent (thrillers or erotic). At any rate, anything I do write that’s fiction I would hold back from this blog because I would hope to be paid for it. No one will buy if its already here. The only stuff I print on line is the stuff I’m sure will never get published.

Besides, fiction in a blog is deadly, deadly dull, is it not? I usually think so.

So tossing out the writer argument, what can I present here to prove that I have a ‘fantastical’ imagination? Well, hell. How is a fantastical DM supposed to play?

I play a sandbox campaign. To me, arguments that my campaign should be more fantastical suggests that it should be filled with creatures or elements that have astounding – that is, flat out unbelievable – qualities. The party should be walking along and suddenly have to hide because some Stephen King’s Mist-sized creature goes marching past and into the distance. Rivers should spontaneously flood or rise up to talk to the party, to obstruct or give precious clues about such and such a magical castle. The universe should be filled with magic mouths and clever pipe-smoking caterpillars, or possessed of weather where the rain falls upwards from the ground or where little girls in petticoats fall from the sky with witch-crushing frequency. Oh, yes, none of these are from my imagination. I don’t have any, remember?

To be honest, now and then I throw out such efforts. The last in my offline party occurred several months ago, where the party was convinced to leap from a high height by logic, to find themselves plunging, then transported into The One Tree - that in turn led to every geographical point on the Earth simultaneously.  They then met a very old version of one party member (proving he couldn't die) in the process. Of course, that party member had once been trapped on an upper level of hell ... but that's another story.  The proof is suspect, naturally.  This is D&D.

My party speaks of this late adventure often, and I am happy that the way they speak of it suggests I ran the incident rather well. More than often, as any DM can tell you, getting that gonzo in a campaign can wind up being a very embarrassing experience ... as in, “Shit, this whole sequence is ridiculous – can we just go to an inn now?”

Thing is, anything extraordinarily fantastical will either be fluff in the extreme, or the representation of something so powerful that the party will be forced to adopt the only behavior that will enable them to live ... that is, agree with whatever the huge fantastical thing says. Basically, railroading. (Please don't argue the Star Trek V gambit).

But then there is this whole other fantastical thing that just pisses me off. That being what Asimov would call the Class A effect resulting from the Class F stimulus (not to disparage a brilliant story). An example would be the party tossing a jar of firewater at an enemy mook - and burning down the entire city in the process. Just because it was really, really cool that way. You know, the firewater just happened to be thrown at a really flammable building, just just happened to be full of lamp oil, that then exploded ...

Insert head banging here.

Now this is really what I hear when I’m accused of not being fantastical enough. That is, I don’t allow parties to spontaneously reorganize the whole fabric of my world just by existing and being player characters. Another example? The third-level party enters an alley to find three mooks beating a guy up. They destroy the mooks, and the guy turns out to be the King of France. What’s more, he is SO grateful that he gives the party five thousand square miles of personal fief and a thousand man army to guard it ... including twenty 9th level lords to order about. Yep. That’s pretty fantastical.

Like I say, I have no imagination. In my trite, vapid, grey, odourless, numbing, flacid and robotic way, I insist on parties living like people in a believable world. It’s a weakness.


Zak S said...

-I feel like the fun in the game is derived from playing in the DM's imagination. If your game works according to relatively "gritty" or "real world" rules, then that is the fiction that the players have chosen to enjoy that day. When I'm watching Cassavetes I'm not pissed off because I'm not watching Harryhausen.

-That guy who wrote that comment yesterday is a troll or just someone with serious asperger's and I think you should ignore him.

-And yeah, I sympathize entirely with the "working artist not wanting to give away shit for free" thing.

Alexis said...

I depend on people like that, Zak. Can't get a reputation for kicking puppies without having puppies.

In truth, occasionally it makes me remember, "Damn, yes, I wanted to comment on exactly that thing."

Isle said...

Hm... I'm actually quite fond of the fantastical and whimsical, of giving players the absurd power to do the world-changing and unexpected. But if I'm going to run such a game, I'd rather run it in a system more suited to abstract storygaming (TAO Games' Polaris comes to mind, maybe Savage Worlds).

Any opinions on whether other systems are suitable for such "fantastical" stuff, or is it just unsuitable for gaming, period?

Kent said...

Since the quotes belong to me let me remove my hat and silence its tinkling bells for a moment of seriousness.

I find your campaign method compelling because it is so extreme. Encyclopedic realism presented with the devotion of an anchorite. You have chosen a very particular path to follow and my comment was merely a puckish reminder that you cannot have your cake and eat it. Extreme realism and the fancy free are awkward bedfellows. I suspect you know this and are content with your choice.

More importantly you are honest enough to accept criticism even of the clumsy, ambiguous sort that will fit in a brief comment. In your earnestness you did not detect the light heartedness in a train of adjectives intended only to counter the tongue-in-cheek arrogance of your own post.

Goodwill and respect I am more uncomfortable showing than the other thing. 'Tis there nonetheless.

*puts hat back on*

[@Zak S: *rolls eyes*]

Zzarchov said...

Maybe its my technocrat background here, but I personally believe there is a lot of creativity involved in organization. Creativity does not have to equate to chaos, just because a lot of self-labelled 'creative' types use such a model.

There is much to be said in terms of creativity of engineering and organization, often it requires more work for the creation of subtle perfection than the 'gonzo attention grabber'.

Blurting out your idea of a "killer dog who has a mouth full of bees and he shoots bees from his mouth when he barks" does not seem more creative to me than determining a way to calculate how the biology of dwarves would cause wars to occur over different patches of land in the long term.

Ryan said...

As one of the players in the above mentioned online campaign, I must say that it was definitely not the AD&D experience (or the fantasy/swords-and-sorcery) to which I was accustomed. I learned a lot from it, and while I don't think it is a play style I could keep up with for an extended amount of time, it did give me a lot of things to think about regarding world building and internal consistency, and I am glad to have had the experience.

I will also say that having a relatively "low" amount of the blatantly fantastical makes it all the more exciting when the dopplegangers and demons show up.

Frederic said...

not reading any fantasy anymore? you're missing out on some great stuff (I like Pratchett's way of "fantasising" everyday's life, I think you might like it.)

Anonymous said...

Alexis, by any reasonable measure you're a great DM. If people can't appreciate that and the profound level of detail and thought behind the world you describe here and on the campaign blog I don't know what game they're playing. Probably none.

Zak: not sure I get the severe Asperger's comment... as a guy who lives with an Aspie I've always found Alexis's wonderful rants closer to my expereince of the condition than the post, which was way too... passive agressive?

Carl said...

Did someone accuse you of running a boring game?

As someone who knows of your game only from the posts you've put online and an evening of conversation where gaming was casually mentioned, but where I got to see firsthand the tools you use to run your game, I can say with high confidence that your game is not boring.

Further I think you're one of the most creative Dungeon Masters I've ever met. You've tackled the two problems I've found nearly insurmountable as a Dungeon Master: suspension of disbelief, and campaign world depth.

And Alexis, you've inspired me. You've made me want to do better with my game and you've showed me the way to do it.

I need to get back to meticulously detailing the calendar for the upcoming campaign year now. This week I'm hoping to start mapping Italia so I can come up with a decent economic picture of Roma.