Thursday, May 29, 2014

Past Clarity

I have not written this post to shame anyone, nor slap the back of anyone's hand.  Rather, I hope to take a hand or two and gently turn the reader around, so that they are able to see what I see.

I greatly appreciate all the work that many of you have done in helping to edit the book.  That is sincere. However, I find something troubling about some editing, that I feel goes to make a larger point regarding the way in which we role-play.

Suppose we take this description.

At night there is the bottle and I.  The candle gutters on the table between us, but I do not see the light, only the bottle, for it's relationship with me has consumed me for many years.  Dimmer and dimmer now it becomes, yet it is always there, always ready to uncork and fill my glass.  Always I am thinking on it, missing it, awaiting the moment when it and I will be together again.  It grows dark, and in time I drowse.  The lights are all gone now, until the morning, when the sun rises and I am alive again.

I worry when someone looks at any sort of writing, whether it is the prose above or contemplation about what a player might do in a campaign, with an eye to making it 'clearer.'  Clear is good.  Clear is excellent, and helps teach.  But clarity for the sake of clarity is shallow, and misses much of the context that is included past the words.

For example, in the passage above, I might find someone offering advice about the word 'drowse,' telling me, "I think you mean to say, 'sleep.' "  Therein lies trouble.  For if the reader read the word 'drowse,' and understood that I meant falling asleep, then obviously the word 'drowse' was clear, was it not?  No one would read the above and suppose that I had gone to the market, or that I'd taken up the bottle, broke it and cut my wrists.  The meaning is clear . . . demonstrably so, since I was told to use the word 'sleep' to replace it.

'Drowse' offers me content that the word 'sleep' doesn't offer.  To begin with, as the candle diminishes, and it grows dark, there is action going on.  Drowse implies that I haven't quite gotten off to sleep, or that I am in the process of nearly sleeping, so that it isn't as absolute as sleep.  It suggests that through the night, I never succeeded in fully sleeping.  Moreover, drowse is the same root as drown, which is the nature of slipping into drunkedness, and offers a contrast with the 'alive again' in the last statement, in which I am now not 'drowned.'  Additionally, there is a distinct meter to the word drowse; double-u's slide, and soft esses carry on, even into silence, where as the 'puh' sound at the end of sleep has a finality to it, like a closing door.  This makes the word somewhat more absolute.  Finally, the word drowse wasn't chosen randomly; it was chosen especially for this passage, to reflect a relationship with other words, to give the correct meaning.

When we 'clarify' things, we often efface much of the content that is below the surface, that is the greater gestalt behind the passage than the mere construct.  The use of words to convey a message, or an emotion, includes the understanding that the flexibility of words can also be used to make us feel a message that we do not see in the text.  Why do we like certain passages - for the words alone?  No.  For the feel behind the words.  That is why we occasionally use phrases such as, "In the long haul," or "Of course," because these reflect a way of talking, of communicating, that puts the reader at their ease and invokes a friendly atmosphere.  The removal of such phases, because they are "not needed," is to suggest that language isn't communication, it is building a brick wall.  Utilitarian but dull.

The presentation of the role-playing game is no different.  The dungeon, the world, the non-player characters, these are not a collection of frame planks nailed together to form shapes and programmed response.  A hall is not merely a hall.  It is the message behind why the hall has come to be.  Even a hall wants context.  In describing the hall, do not think that by defining the stones or the dimensions that you have built a hall in your world.  Name the hall that you have been in, the construct of which was defined by the pasteboard or the shell of planks within.  The hall serves.  It is a conduit.  See past the shape and see the future-past within the hall's presence.

There are creatures who use this hall every day, who pass through here on the way to someplace else, who are bored with this hall, who hate the distance this hall creates between where they have come from and where they are going.  Why do they use the hall, why was so much effort taken in its construction, how does its character - its appearance - matter to the denizens for whom this hall is not a fifty foot passage, but a part of their home?

Get out of your frame.  There are so many people out there making uber-dungeons who have utterly forgotten the purpose for which halls and rooms exist.  They have created patterns of shapes that serve for geometric hypnosis - to allow their to eyes scan over the mindless patterns they have created.  Cultures have long understood the power of geometry to transcend the mortal coil - there is a natural predilection in our consciousness that allows us to gaze at geometry and stop thinking.

I do not want to make dungeons to promote an absence of thought or purpose, or to make towns and regions that serve as nothing more than flat, empty tables that have clarity as their only virtue.  There is more to the world than clarity, more to our happiness and our pleasure than merely the things that we can see or describe in absolute terms.

The reader who replaces a word in a passage habitually out of a pedantry for 'clarity' is not reading.  The DM who thinks that a world is made of material things alone has utterly lost their understanding for what a world is.  We have a reason we make things.  It is not merely to explain ourselves, but to express ourselves - your creatures in your world, no less so.  They too are familiar with their surroundings, they too have an opinion about what they make and see, for those things matter to them.  They would not make a fifty-foot hallway between rooms merely because fifty feet sounded like a good distance.  That is fifty feet of drilling, fifty feet of hauling away stone and laying pavement and facing, fifty feet of quarrying to get the right stones and fifty feet they must walk every day between their beds and the kitchen.  Why would they do this, and what does it mean?

Turn yourselves around, and see more than what you can measure with your eyes.  It is time to go the next step forward in your education.

But . . . if this all seems abusive, then I am sorry.  That is sincere also.  And I am sorry for including the following, but Stephen Fry is always worth presenting:




15 comments:

Jeremiah Scott said...

The only thing I would've revised is, "the bottle and me." (Object vs. subject.)

But point well taken. You illustrate a trap I fall into a lot on first revision, then I have to go back on second revision and "un-fix" things.

The application of the principle to D&D is very insightful. It gives me something to think about, because I wonder if I've been doing that too.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hm. 'object.' 'subject.'

The urge to force the bottle into being the object and me into being the subject is telling. Poetically, since the bottle is running the show in the passage, I am technically the object, and the bottle is technically the subject. Which would mean I put them in the right order.

Why do you think that was unintentional?

Jeremiah Scott said...

"The bottle and I" is the object of the sentence. You and the bottle both being the object of "there is." Therefore you should use me, not I. You wouldn't say, "There is only I," you would say, "There is only me." There's no interpretation required.

kimbo said...

object and subject or perspective and non perspective

the man drinks the wine
then the wine drinks the wine
and finally it is the wine drinking the man

Alexis Smolensk said...

Wow.

Jeremiah. Friend. I know what the object of a predicate is. Take note of a whole lot of things in your response. The use of the word, 'should,' for example. 'Should.' And if this rule is broken, say, intentionally, by a writer, making a point about leaping to the idea that grammar means more than sense, what is the consequence that I am facing if I 'shouldn't' obey the rule? Jail time?

"The bottle and I" is a grammatical twist on the object/subject declension on the first-person pronoun, which I can quote you chapter and verse. Yet, you walked right into the urge to teach your grandmother to suck eggs.

This is exactly the point I made from the beginning. Language isn't a box, Jeremiah. It is a tool. And there are more uses in that tool, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Jeremiah Scott said...

Ah, good point.

I wrote another long-winded reply, but it's obvious the communication receiving part of my brain is not functioning at 100% right now and I don't want to inflame things further.

Suffice to say, I concede your excellent point and I admit my propensity for rushing to fix intentional grammar errors.

I was only mightily confused by your first reply, where you said, "The urge to force the bottle into being the object and me into being the subject...," and then, "I am technically the object, and the bottle is technically the subject."

I was never choosing between you and the bottle as object/subject and I wanted to clarify that. And your use of "technically" made me think maybe you didn't know what was grammatically correct. (Which really made me scratch my head.)

Alas, I stand corrected.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I am all smiles here. Someone had to walk into that trap.

Sorry about 'technically' - I did not mean that word in terms of grammar, but rather connotative meaning . . . but so it goes. Language starts wars, too.

Jeremiah Scott said...

In gaming and life, I'm usually the first to fall into a trap. Something about acting before thinking...

Dave Cesarano said...

There are so many people out there making uber-dungeons who have utterly forgotten the purpose for which halls and rooms exist. They have created patterns of shapes that serve for geometric hypnosis - to allow their to eyes scan over the mindless patterns they have created.

And this is why, though I respect the Old School Renaissance in gaming, can really have no part in it. The fetishizing of the mega-dungeon, with its nonsense construction, takes ultimate precedence in so many OSR blogs. There's this quest for a purist, Gygaxian D&D which, to me, never really seems to even approach something for which I can suspend disbelief, either as player or GM. I'm constantly and thoroughly aware that I'm playing a game, sending a character into a nonsense, surreal maze of intricately ridiculous traps and puzzles that somehow houses entire breathing yet practically unsustainable ecosystems. Attempts to rationalize it as "a wizard did it" abound (cf. Undermountain in Waterdeep of The Forgotten Realms) or that the dungeon itself is some sort of magical, living breathing entity. (Personally, if the dungeon were somehow a sort of conscious entity, I feel it would be done more satisfyingly through horror as per the novel The House of Leaves.) Gygax's own Castle Greyhawk is the mythic antecedent for many of these and have so thoroughly shaped the conception of these Old School gamers' approach to gaming that they literally revel in the absurdity of the entire thing.

The dungeon, the world, the non-player characters, these are not a collection of frame planks nailed together to form shapes and programmed response. A hall is not merely a hall. It is the message behind why the hall has come to be. Even a hall wants context. In describing the hall, do not think that by defining the stones or the dimensions that you have built a hall in your world. Name the hall that you have been in, the construct of which was defined by the pasteboard or the shell of planks within. The hall serves. It is a conduit. See past the shape and see the future-past within the hall's presence.

Absolutely. Indeed. And yet no dungeon I've seen emerging from the OSR or the ancient modules of yore, nor even the reports of those who have "glimpsed" Gygax's own maps and charts of Castle Greyhawk ever indicate that there was really any rhyme or reason. Even the Labyrinth Daedalus designed for Minos to imprison the Minotaur had a purpose and made sense. And yet, for some reason, beyond a hundred 5 x 10 foot doors there is a 50 x 50 foot room with a 10 ft x 40 ft dragon that could, in no reasonable, rational world, ever fit through them. Those doors all follow the same basic rules for opening (they're all stuck and need to be forced). The hallway that leads to fifteen rooms filled with orcs is laden with traps that said orcs never feel the need to disarm just in case one of them slips and accidentally triggers one and kills himself and his companions. Heck, those orcs never seem to leave their rooms and wandering monsters never seem to trip over or trigger them, either. Everything exists in this strange vacuum. It is as bad as faulty video-game logic--perhaps the very antecedent of such bad logic in the first place.

Ian Pinder said...

I had a whole bunch of text written as a response to this, then realised it basically just amounted to saying "Bravo" to Alexis's post and Dave Cesarano's comment.

To counter any accusations of rabid sycophancy, I will however say that I would have suggested that "... for it's relationship with me has consumed me for many years" should be "for its relationship with me"...etc.

Now waiting for the inevitable comment pointing out typo's or incorrect grammar in my comment...

Words to prove I'm not a robot? "shall buser". Clearly a person who abuses the word 'shall' by not following the prescriptivist rule (Heretics!!!)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nice, Pinder.

The "it's" is there because of Stephen Fry's video. I expect editors like you to clean it up for me. That's what editors are for.

We should appreciate, I suppose, all the little monkeys willing to spend their time to clean up our punctuation and grammar. It's work and monkeys are good for that.

(Nothing personal meant towards the good people who do it for me from the goodness of their hearts!)

Ian Pinder said...

That'll teach me to post a comment without watching the video - I'll make a point of watching it when I get home (which I must admit I would have done anyway because as you say Stephen Fry is always worth watching/listening to).

Apologies if my comment caused annoyance.

You're certainly right about correcting spelling etc. being monkey work (important monkey work, but monkey work none the less).

My previous comment originally included a section on how difficult it is to do anything more than 'monkey work' when it comes to editing the text of someone who knows what they want to say and how to say it - which of course just brought me back around to your post which made the same point extremely clearly, so I abandoned it.

The rest was just a (bad) attempt to make fun of those who claim your blog is only read/commented on by sycophants and of course an expression of raging pedantry.

I should have abandoned that as well.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hell no, Ian.

Every time someone agrees with me, it annoys the living shit out of all those people who think that y'all ought to agree with them. They only make statements about sick'ofants because it makes them feel superior and important, and they knows that makes all you nagga'lovers out there nervous. That way you shut da hell up, so you don't roll oder der fuffin' boats, don't ya know?

Alan Harrison said...

In my own line of work there has been over a decade of pushing to "clarify" legal documents. There even is a treatise on how to write contracts more clearly. And that treatise, itself, very clearly prescribes some changes to be made ....

Yet the danger of "clarifying" is that people too often resort to that verb as a eupheme for "simplifying," which means, in reference to the interactions of complex thinking agents (whether a commercial transaction or the construction of imagined edifices): "getting it wrong."

Intentionally, I wonder, was your last comment meant to riff on that sort of "clarification" of human relations?

Alexis Smolensk said...

More to demonstrate how easy it is to understand when grammar and spelling are tossed out.