Tuesday, December 18, 2018

5e: The Challenges That Scene Presents

This is the third consecutive post I've written about 5th edition; do not worry, the bloom will fall from the rose.  It is only that I first wrote my 3rd lab for the RPG 201 course, only to feel that it needs another try.  I'm going to get some distance on it first, probably post it tomorrow ~ and instead plow into another of these posts instead.

Let's begin with the balance of the 5th Edition Player's Handbook Preface,
“The first characters and adventures you create will probably be a collection of clichés. That’s true of everyone, from the greatest Dungeon Masters in history on down. Accept this reality and move on to create the second character or adventure, which will be better, and then the third, which will be better still. Repeat that over the course of time, and soon you be able to create anything, from a character’s background story to an epic world of fantasy adventure.
“Once you have that skill, it’s yours forever. Countless writers, artists and other creators can trace their beginnings to a few pages of D&D notes, a handful of dice and a kitchen table.”

With very moderate reservations, I agree strongly with the above. These two paragraphs express their intent plainly and with purpose. I would prefer to quote them, praise them and move on ... only when I turn to the next page, page 5, titled "Introduction," I find that everything in the above text is sliced clean into the hazard.

I'll explain, but first I want to say again that it is not my intent to nit-pick, to look for small or unimportant errors and faults, especially in order to criticize unnecessarily. At times throughout this post, I will stop and explain exactly why I'm making a particular point, so that the reader will see that my issues are neither small nor unimportant, but rather damning evidence of the amateurish work herein.

First, let us quote the opening paragraph of the Introduction:
"The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, D&D is driven by imagination. It’s about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents."

The emphasis is my own.  We have just had it explained to us the page before that when we start to make adventures, we will probably create a collection of cliches.  It is clear that we are to be forgiven for this, because we are just starting out, yet presumably a collection of cliches is something to laugh about and think on later, "Oh, what a bunch of amateurs we were."

Yet here we are, talking about a game driven by imagination, and we are slapped with the cliche, "A dark and story night ..."

Mon dieu!

Do we not know that the notion of starting any idea with the conception of a storm at night is a cliche so famously gauche that it initiated a writing contest specifically to mock cliches, still going strong since its founding in 1982?  Yet here we are, in 2014, setting the stage with this as an example of how "imaginative" D&D is.

Okay.  Okay, okay, okay.  Let's move on.  What follows is a passage that will be familiar to most of you, as it is quoted from the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, written by Bruce R. Cordell and James Wyatt.  It was released in 2006 for the D&D 3.5 ruleset.  Here is the passage the 5th Ed. P.H. quotes:
“Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before you. Crumbling towers of stone keep a silent watch over the approach. They look like abandoned guardhouses. Beyond these, a wide chasm gapes, disappearing into the deep fog below. A lower drawbridge spans the chasm, leading to an arched entrance to the castle courtyard. The chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight. From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles stare at you from hollow sockets and grin hideously. A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of the Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard.”

For my part, I do not care if there are cliches in this or not.  Apart from pedants, it is recognized that most of the English language is made up of one form of cliche or another, repeated so often that these become patterns of speech and hardly noticed in everyday life.  "How are you?" is a cliche, yet it is said twenty times a day between strangers who do business or seek answers, because it is convenient and comes direct to the point.  A cliche offers clarity and directness, better than more flowery language that can confuse and unnecessarily obfuscate the purpose of writing.  That the above contains cliches is a matter of complete indifference to me.

Yet, the writers of the book felt compelled to disparage cliches directly, connecting them with inexperience and, hah hah, what a bunch of crappy adventure writing we did when we first started off, eh?  The writers cannot disparage the use of cliches and then present THIS nest of cliches after telling us that "the Greatest Dungeon Masters in History" transcended cliches and produced "an epic world of fantasy adventure."

It demands a belly laugh.

Here are the cliches I see in the above: “craggy peaks,” “sudden turn,” “crumbling towers,” “keep a silent watch,” “disappearing into the deep,” “spans the chasm,” “creak in the wind,” “atop the walls,” “hollow sockets,” “grin hideously,” “spilling into the courtyard.” These are ancient clichés, everyone, with one appearing in nearly every sentence of the introduction.  I do not point these out with relish, but with baffled confusion.  What group of publishers, having the whole repertoire of the company's lexicon to draw from, decided that this was work of the highest merit?

Moreover, throughout the passage there are inconsistencies that cry for a literary appraisal.  Once again, let me stress, I have no concerns whatsoever about the content here ~ only the language that was chosen as evidence of great imagination.  It matters not to me where the Castle Ravenloft is related to the craggy peaks or the road ... but the language tells me that we do not see the castle after passing through the craggy peaks, but only after the road takes a sudden turn.  It is clear from the passage that Ravenloft is huge - yet we do not see it between the trees, we do not see it from the pass between the craggy peaks ... we only see it after the road turns?

Forgive me.  That would seem to be small and unimportant, but this was the passage chosen from thousands of potential paragraphs in hundreds of potential modules ... and in the first sentence the scale of the castle vs. the road is at odds with the presentation.

Then we are told that the towers of stone keep a silent watch ... but lest we confuse the issue, we are told they look abandoned. Why present this first as a poetic anthropormorphism, only to shatter it at once with a stark admittance?  What service does this do ... and what logic is it to tell us the "towers" look like guard "houses?"  Granted, it is true that guard houses can be tall, but then a resident of the period would have described them as guard houses from the start, and not as towers at all.  Is the writer even sure what a tower or a guard house is?

The examples compound.  We are told the chasm is wide, so we must assume that if we're on this side of it, and we haven't crossed, the actual gate, portcullis and doors are a fair distance away.  Yet the gargoyles that are "atop the high strong walls" are described to us as though we were but twenty feet away.  We are able to see that they stare at us and that their eye sockets are hollow.  We are able to see what sort of grins they possess.  Would they not, from our vantage point beyond the wide chasm and beneath the high walls, seem but vague smudges?  Particularly as we have also had this scene set by the Introduction paragraph as happening under a "stormy night sky;" would we even be able to tell they were gargoyles?

What of these drawbridge chains, straining from weight.  The drawbridge is lowered. The chains exist to pull the drawbridge up, to a place where it does not weigh heavily upon the chains.  When the drawbridge is down, it is made to rest upon stone braces built into the sides of the gap. That is because very heavy things are dragged into castles, like massive blocks of stone, that would break a level platform hung on chains alone no matter how thick or new they were. How come these imaginaries of epic fantasy don’t know how drawbridges work?

And what of the portcullis that is "green with growth."  Given that it is night, and green is remarkably hard to distinguish at night, how do we know this is growth?  I have learned from a moment's investigation, though it is not included in the text above, that this green growth is slime.  How is it that we are able to recognize this slime at this distance?  Or that the portcullis is rotting, or even that is it made of wood (though we might guess it)?

Take note: we've already been told that there is a courtyard beyond the entrance ... and four sentences later we are told that the castle doors are open.  Should we not have assumed that, else how would we know there was a courtyard?  Yet we know why the open door was not mentioned before; it is there to set up the rich, warm light that spills into the courtyard.  From whence is this light coming?  From the stormy night?  Or from within?  If from within, should not the light spill out from the courtyard?  And how much light is this, that will light a courtyard of a castle as large as Ravenloft?  And how, under this stormy night sky, is the light "warm"?  Welcome, surely, but ...
And while the reader grits teeth and clenches fists, hearing me disparage the sanctity of the Ravenloft introduction, I point out that these 128 words of description would drive an editor to cover the page red with pen.  At least it is spelled correctly.

To say again: I am fine with the content.  I am fine with Ravenloft as an adventure, with all the vampires.  Yet with that said, this is a poor example, on its own, to show how we rise to the challenge of describing this scene.  If this is what the publishers believe is the epitome of giving structure to stories, does this not give cause to reconsider the publishers' expertise in designing a book of this stature?

Why, I want to ask, did the publishers not write something new?


Ozymandias said...

Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Transformers movies.

D&D 5th Edition.

Mediocrity is king. You don't need to work hard to be a success. Any old crap will do.

It's like the lottery: the chance of any one person winning is just plain stupid but since someone wins (eventually), people play.

The irony is that the audience doesn't notice (or doesn't care) that the text undercuts its own message.

Alexis Smolensk said...

True dat. But let's shine light on the mediocrity.

JB said...

I appreciate the shining.

I recently made the acquaintance of the Siriux XM radio station "Hair Nation" which plays only rock music of the "hair metal" variety circa 1983-90. Besides being amazed at how many bands/songs I remembered (despite not having heard or though of this music in decades), I was astounded by the virtuosos of performance. Yes, much of the lyrical content is trite or objectionable or downright dumb, much of the riffs, beats, and solos are repetitive, but the sheer amount of SKILL on display (in the guitar playing and vocal acrobatics) are pretty darn amazing. At one time, there was a plethora of talented musicians, glutting an already saturated market, simply trying to make a buck (and eventually causing a backlash against their excesses). How much time and energy went in to practicing and playing this music?

And now...well, decent rock music is in short supply these days. But record companies somehow continue to limp along as a business. Something else is extracting cash from the wallets of the masses.

A.F.W Junior said...

"is about storytelling...". I quit.