The subject is near and dear to my heart – I spend much of my time adding to the store of it, working on my ability to add to the store of it, or thinking about how to better work on my ability.
So naturally I’ve been fighting for weeks on how to write this post.
I still don’t know.
It is impossible to be certain at what point humans began to compose, from their imagination, the stuff of legend – tales not about gods, or about the deification of substance or phenomena, but stories about beasts, heroes, peoples, great battles and great catastrophes – in substance, the heart and soul of D&D. We continue today to craft and form the very same themes and conflicts that were alive in Gilgamesh, and carried down through the ages into Shang-ti, Homer, Aeneas, Amaterasu Omikami and so on.
Early versions of these stories – told around camps in forms we will never know – would exist for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before any soul would write them down. In the case of many such legends, it is uncertain whether there was a single author; most classicists would insist that there could not have been. Writing was an enormously difficult undertaking in an age without modern ink, pens or paper – a group effort seems necessary. Gilgamesh has no identified author, nor do the Eddas nor Beowulf; so too are hundreds of tales whose scribers are lost to history. Homer’s existence is hotly debated, as is his actual contribution ... once again, the same can be said for a variety of authors, right up to Shakespeare. It is evidence that literature is a sort of ‘group think’ ... an identifying cultural template with which an entire society identifies.
We often see a D&D settlement as being rather cosmopolitan, similar to our own experience with settlements, from fifty persons to fifty thousand. Truth is, most settlements prior to the Renaissance were set in cultural concrete – every person within a given culture would see every event from a similar point of view, from the template of the stories and legends they were rased into.
And thus, if one member of the village was inclined to help the party, likelihood is, every member would be – and they would associate that helping with stories from the past, the similarity of the character’s pleas, their situation or even their appearance. Discord would be a rare thing (as the Greeks understood, for moments of discord were viewed as notable and otherworldly, and not common).
Now, obviously most worlds of the imagination are going to pay very little attention to literature and its importance. To begin with, building up an entire literary motif for even one cultural entity is an impossible task for one person. At best, most people might manage the sort of lame effort accomplished by The Next Generation: “Darmok at Tanagra ... when the walls fell.” It is not as though an entire culture could speak meaningfully using three or four phrases, as represented in the episode – but it just wasn’t in it for the writers to produce more ‘deeply meaningful’ phrases ... or the producers felt there wasn’t time.
Most attempts within an RPG to create the sentiments that motivate a culture are going to find themselves up against a wall – that being that as people they themselves are already steeped in a particular literary culture: Earth’s. When we consider alternate cultures, we are trapped in our own. Discordant cultures naturally fit into patterns, such as the Polynesians vs. the Tibetans, or the Bantu vs. the Norse. Try inventing a new culture, and you will slip helplessly into the rehashing of an existing Earth culture. This, of course, being the bane of every science fiction/fantasy writer.
Worse, we’re not even familiar with the literary past of those cultures we know. I know Greek, and Roman, and English naturally, but what do I know of Hungarian folk tales? I may land a party into a West African habitat, but I’m not West African, I don’t know how they think, I can only guess. I’m stuck in my own western monoculture, and as such the ‘world’ I create is the monocultural world of my experience.
The best I can do is to read and try to absorb as much non-white culture as I can get my hands on, and hope that expands my strengths as a DM. I must argue that the improvement of a DM depends on the same thing that improves anyone: travel more, read more, learn more – break from your culture and think in another way than your own. If you want your characters to feel as though they are in an ‘adventure,’ it is your only hope.
I want just to make one more, largely unconnected point, about the struggle of the bard. I think I have created a decent character class – I’ve been testing it for more than a year, I am running three different bards in different campaigns and everyone seems happy. The characters are influential and not overly so ... they’re balanced.
What I cannot help noticing is that the characters seem disconnected where it comes to purpose. Since this ties into the point I’ve just made, I thought I’d address that here.
The tendency is for bards to see their ‘contribution’ to the world of art in terms of the very overused, very limited conception of ‘hero worship.’ How often has it been said in pulp fiction, “I shall tell the tale of your greatness” ... or words to that effect? Yet this is only half the effort.
It is hard to grasp, apparently, but the greater purpose in story-telling is not to have a nice tale to tell at a fireside. It really is to change the world. The fighter may perform an heroic deed by means such as Horatius at the Bridge, but the bard performs his or her heroic accomplishment by the production of a work like L’Morte de Arthur. Yes, it is a tale of hero worship. It is also a tale of ethical conduct, sacrifice, mortality, decay, moral triumph ... in short, themes which far surpass the crummy outlines of a man who won a combat.
But I don’t fault the players of bards. It is an illusion, so that they might pretend to be creative, as a fighter allows a player to pretend to be combative. Still, I should wish to suggest that bards occasionally consider the wider variety of what constitutes art in the world. I’ve never heard of a bard in D&D who desired to create a work of love poetry – such as Omar Khayyam or the Song of Songs; no bard ever thinks of a history along the lines of Herodotus; what player considers sarcasm or humor, like Juvenal or humor and tragedy, like Shakespeare?
There are more tales in the world than heroic tales, Horatio. Not every cultural reference we make comes from great deeds – some, quite often, come from immortal failures. We shorten ourselves at the knees when we have take so small a view.