Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote, describes Hidalgo Alonso Quijana, who, because of his faithful reading of books about chivalry, comes to believe that everything they say is true and decides to become a knight-errant himself. He assumes the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha and, accompanied by a peasant, Sancho Panza, who serves him as a squire, sets forth in search of adventures. Don Quixote interprets all that he encounters in accordance with his readings and thus imagines himself to be living in a world quite different from the one familiar to the ordinary men he meets. Windmills are thus transformed into giants, and this illusion, together with many others, is the basis for the beatings and misadventures suffered by the intrepid hero. After the knight’s second sally in search of adventure, friends and neighbours in his village decide to force him to forget his wild fancy and to reintegrate himself into his former life. The “knight” insists upon following his calling, but at the end of the first part of the book they make him return to his home by means of a sly strategem. In the second part the hidalgo leaves for the third time and alternately gives indication of folly and of wisdom in a dazzling array of artistic inventions by the author. Don Quixote finally recognizes that romances of chivalry are mere lying inventions, but upon recovering the clarity of his mind, he loses his life.
Voltaire’s work, Candide, describes Candide, an unsophisticated youth, as he goes through many adventures. Everywhere he travels he encounters intolerable abuses and the placid attitude of Earth’s people that accept them. Candide loses his home because he loves above his rank, is forced into military service, sees the horrors of war, witnesses material and moral destruction though the Lisbon earthquake, suffers from the Inquisition, flees to South America, visits Jesuit-ruled Paraguay and the wonderland of Eldorado, returns to Europe and finally settles with his companions near Constantinople, to “cultivate his garden,” which is to say to gain his life by the work of his hands, for “work alone makes life bearable, keeps away boredom, vice and need.”
To begin with, I am not--in speaking as a DM--a story-teller. I am a simulationist*. The characters in my campaign, unlike those of Cervantes or Voltaire, are not driven by my thematic needs, but by their own peculiar motivations. I have a problem with the story-telling argument because, outside of D&D, I AM a storyteller and novelist…and I can assure my gentle reader that the method is very different.
But let’s not quibble. I raise the two examples above because I believe they correctly divide the whole D&D community, if there is one. Certainly, one of a sort exists online among bloggers, who condone or eschew each others work, linking here and commenting there, blasting, propagating, propagandizing and quibbling. But I said I would not quibble and I won’t. Here and now I wish only to be a good biologist and stick a few needles in things.
(Second time I’ve used that metaphor on a blog post in the last month. I must like it.)
Without question, Hidalgo and Sancho are the vast proportion of would-be players, and the main thrust towards which the business community is oriented. They believe themselves heroes, they run about following elaborate adventures, they carry huge egos and massive delusional frameworks which require little more than a giant, a princess in distress and a pile of gold to satisfy. The perception is that the world is inherently good, that this good must be protected and by GUM, we’re the characters to do it. And if we fuck up along the way, well that’s no problem, its fun, its good for the humour of it, nothing ultimately matters except the size of our pounding hearts and the strength of our pounding swords. It is a fantasy, after all. It isn’t real. It isn’t meant to be real. For gawd’s sake, I can’t slay a dragon without my wind machine +5 and my cape of excessive charisma +8 firmly clasped at my throat.
And let’s get on board with that for a minute. It is Saturday night. I have had a shitty week, my boss is an asshole who couldn’t even spell D&D and all I want now is to drink a few beers with my buddies, shout royally at a dismembered troll or two and make believe that the magic testicles of ugliness in the jar hanging from my backpack belong to that rat fuck that hangs his workout clothes in the third floor washroom so that the place smells ranker than hell when I have to use it before getting out of my cubicle by five P.M.
Is that so much to ask? And is it so much to ask for another half-decent module so my buddies and I can get started at 6 P.M. on the dot without my having to spend my rare free time all week getting the fucking thing prepared? Could it have maybe a monster or two in it we haven’t killed before, and possibly a problem I need my brain to solve, and maybe one decent bit of fluff that doesn’t sound like its been rehashed forty times by people with nothing to do but sit in the WOTC bathroom because the bastards served crab puffs again at the monthly writer’s meeting? Please. Astound me. Astound my friends. Hank wants to rip his sorcerer’s blade of tiny chewing mouths into the belly of some bizarre subetheral beast while Donny’s bards screams tunes “to plug heart valves” on his master-crafted lyre to the Immortal Hits part Eight (received from the Great Bard Ronco) before the clock strikes ten and Wayne has to catch the last number 84 bus before it leaves.
It is hard to be a hero.
I am on record as saying the players are not; but perhaps that is because I am not a Cervantean. My worlds are not full of kindly persons who take pity on folly-driven knights out for a good time. I’ve written this already; I won’t expand on that subject further, except to say that it relates excellently to Voltaire’s universe.
Voltaire’s characters are not excellent to each other. They are monsters. Not in the sense that they boil out of caverns to serve master wizards half a continent away, but in the daily unpleasantness that we normally experience. The boss. The bastard and his work-out clothes. The number 84 bus.
There are rarer D&D worlds which do not fit well with modules, which are crafted to obey the synthetic twisted imaginations of their manufacturers--worlds in which behind every smile hides a wife-murdering axe swinger, a denizen of the lower depths or a man who has arrived to collect the taxes. Worlds with the methodical discomfort of a H.P. Lovecraft novel. A Voltairian world, if you will.
It is always perceived that such worlds must be humourless. Everything is so serious, every misspoken word becomes a dangerous liability, every opened case becomes the release of a hideous curse ending with a vast city burning in flames. How, in the name of everything unholy, is a world like this ever any fun?
Well, there are two kinds of humour. There is the brutish, slapstick variety, and there is the tension-releasing, often black variety. Snatch is an excellent modern example of the latter. A death-dealing grotesque circus, deliciously satirical and often maddeningly pleasurable--because the moment of tension ending makes laughter easier.
You will never sell products for the Voltairian universe. For DMs who practice the method, it remains a private thing. Outsiders are welcome to play…but suggestions of new monsters or tools or the like have no uses there. The universe is a fait accompli; if it was meant to exist, it will suggest itself to the mind of the maker, in its entirety, without the need of another source.
Which is what makes all us Voltairians such righteous bastards, I suppose.
* I have since discovered that 'simulationist' does not mean what I thought it meant. Alexis, Feb 14, 2016.