Thursday, May 19, 2011

Nights That Bump the Thing

Jovial Priest tells me that he wants his players to feel that "they are masters of their own destiny," and I assume he is anxious about it since he made the point more than once.  I, personally, don't believe in destiny ... and if there were a destiny, I certainly don't think anyone would be in control of it.  Either way, I can't think of anything more anathema to the drama of a campaign than in leading the players to think they are the masters of all they survey, just because they ARE players.  At least three quarters of the tension I build up in a single campaign is in emphasizing to my players that the world is a damn scary place, and that it will rip them a new one given half a chance.  Of that remaining quarter, a good 3/16ths comes from dicking my players around making them think the big scary world is going to rip, and right now, only to produce a feeling of relief when it turns out things aren't as bad as they looked.

That leaves 1/16th of the game spent in player comfort.  They have to rest sometime.

My perception that a world - any world - is not something one has authority over probably comes from my being Canadian.  There is a fundamental difference between Canadians and Americans - of which, as it happens, both groups tend not to be aware.  I learned it myself in my second year of university, when my eyes were forced open with Harold Innis and Northrop Frye.  And while it may seem strange for the nationality of the DM to influence the way in which a game is played, the game is based upon the personality of the players, and personality is influenced by environment.  Allow me to explain.

It is an American motif that the wilderness is something that was meant to be conquered.  American history, with which I am very familiar, revolves around wars perpetrated against the previous inhabitants of the land comprising the nation as it exists now, and wars perpetrated against others wanting that same land.  In other words, the land was seized.  There is nothing more American than the ideal of the individual American settler battling against all odds to force the land to produce wealth.  The land, it must be said, has always been treated as something that is controlled.  The perception is deeply held in the American pysche, and for good reason.  The land was controlled.  It was reworked, reshaped, and brought into line with the desires of the American people.

When an American moves off into the tamed wilderness, there is a sense that this is one's domain, the backyard of one's owned property.  There is even a tendency to believe that the wilderness wouldn't dare harm those who deign to walk within it.  Of course, that occasionally proves to be wrong ... but only occasionally.  There was a recent case in the news where a Canadian couple, following a GPS tracker, managed to lose themselves in the back country of Nevada.  The woman was found after 48 days.  As far as I know the man is still missing.

I want to make the point about how strange it is when this happens to Canadians ... and how Canadian's feel when they hear about it.  My American friends are pissed at the GPS tracker, how it shouldn't have led them astray and how the company ought to be sued.  My Canadian friends feel, generally, that the couple deserved what happened to them.  Idiots.

The reason for that is that Canadians do not trust their wilderness.  They don't believe it can be tamed, or controlled, or made to serve its masters.  This is wholly because our wilderness, as opposed to the American wilderness, is a much nastier, colder, more deadly place.  It has driven Canadians into what Northrop Frye called a 'garrison mentality.'  In his words (emphasis added by me),

"Small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological ‘frontier,’ separated from one another and from their American and British [Canadian] cultural sources: communities that provide all that their members have in the way of distinctively human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting - such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality....In such a society the terror is not for the common enemy....The real terror comes when the individual feels himself becoming an individual, pulling away from the group, losing the sense of driving power that the group gives him, aware of a conflict within himself far subtler than the struggle of morality against evil."

The greatest fear, then, is being alone, and that community is security.  And within the D&D campaign, not just the community made up by the party, but the community of the town, the village, the protective influence of the manor structure and even that implied by the existence of a road, which suggests maintenance and authority - even if only on a very small scale.

I believe the Medieval mentality is closer to that of Canada than of the United States, particularly in those northern parts of Europe like Scandinavia, or parts more isolated, like Poland or the highlands of southern France.  Canada is a wide, untamed country, even in this day and age, and it is likely to continue to be one for some time.  The land here is not so easy to build roads across as in the States; the weather is not so moderate; and the opportunities for crop growing and land exploitation are not nearly so rich.  The wilderness will simply kill you ... even if you are prepared for it.

We were discussing last week of how persons of low level or hit points could expect to enter the wilderness for a day or two and survive.  I'd like to point out here that, though that might be true, ordinary persons did not travel into the wilderness at all, for any reason.  Most persons never had any reason to leave their small plots of land, the nearby meadow, the well-tended copses where they foraged their pigs or the edges of the local creek.  Most persons were born, lived and died within 7 miles of the place where they were born, never going anywhere.  And when they did go elsewhere, such as with the Crusades, a War, they tended to suffer Death from Famine and Pestilence in large numbers.  Beyond one's little world rode the four horsemen ... and there wasn't any question about it.

I wonder sometimes if most people who play D&D really have any idea of just how menacing the wilderness can be.  At present, I'm reading this marvelous book which has been on my shelf for at least a decade, and which I have never seriously picked up.  It is Arthur Swinson's description of Kohima, the battle fought in 1944 in Assam in the eastern part of India.  I am finding I could write a post about virtually any paragraph ... but i want now to post something that describes the wilderness over which the British fought the Japanese:

“The Naga Hills form the northern sector of the great mountain barrier between Burma and India, which runs down from the Himalayas to the sea.  To the south lie the Lushai hills and below them the Chin Hills.  From end to end the barrier is some six hundred miles long and up to two hundred across; it is a very inhospitable region indeed.  The ridges, and therefore the valleys and rivers between them, run from north to south, making any lateral movement extremely hazardous and difficult, even in fine weather.  But Assam is wet and includes Charapunge, the wettest place on earth where eight hundred inches of rain have been recorded in a single year.  In the monsoon, which lasts from mid-May till early September, the jungle paths sink deep in the mud, and the smallest streams swell quickly into great rivers and cascade towards the south.  There is no comfort for man or beast in ‘those hellish jungle mountains’ as General Slim called them; and the insects are an endless torment.  There are sand flies, ticks, mosquitoes and leeches.  The latter crawl up your legs during the night and suck your blood till they become swollen to [the] bursting point.  The mosquitoes must be the largest and most persistent in the world; some strains, such as those around Mao, bringing up great septic sores, and anyone whose face has been attacked might well be in the terminal stages of smallpox.  Where insects abound there is always disease; and in Assam one is prey to dengue, scrub typhus, malaria, cholera, scabies, yaws, sprue and every known form of dysentery.  There is also the Naga sore, caused by pulling off leeches and leaving their heads beneath the flesh.  After four to five days a small blister appears which grows steadily till it is five or six inches across, and destroys not only skin but flesh, and even muscles.  The stink from this putrefaction is foul in the extreme, and, unless adequate medical care is available, the victim may die.  The correct course (as the troops soon learned) is to let the leech have its fill of blood and drop off, or burn it with a cigarette end.”

That's a long quote.  But it needed to be posted in its entirety.  Every detail richly describes how characters travelling through such a region would be likely to die regardless of enemies.  They would suffer damage, considerable damage, and not in some silly manner that left them one magical hit point at the end of a week.  Human beings did enter that forest in 1944, they did die of all those things described above, and they did it with relatively modern equipment and medicine, and with care and concern for the participants.  Even a powerful cleric or a mage would be hard pressed to eradicate every bug, cure every disease, administer to every ill, and to do so for a party of more than six to eight persons.

The Naga Hills of Burma and India go Canada one better ... but I would imagine a DM from that region would have a strong sense that the dangers of a campaign are not limited to things that go bump in the night.  The NIGHT itself is a legitimate enemy.  It's presence and it's influence over the party are very much in the main stream.

This was very much in my mind when I perked at the sound of Zzarchov's damage for wilderness travel in the first place.


  1. "And while it may seem strange for the nationality of the DM to influence the way in which a game is played, the game is based upon the personality of the players, and personality is influenced by environment."

    I don't want to go too far down the postmodern lit-crit rabbit hole, but I think this is an entirely accurate observation.

    In fact, I would say that some highly American historical myths were hard-wired into D&D itself by its American authors: the idea of wilderness clearing at higher levels; supercharged class mobility; blah blah. (Which isn't really to disparage the game as much as it is just to acknowledge that.)

    I like your Canadian take on wilderness; it is wilderness that it is greater and more mysterious than a tamable one--a theme that I think heightens the fantasy aspects more as a result.

  2. I knew you had some Frye in your mind...

  3. I forgot to add that there is another very American counter-tradition of wilderness as spoiled Eden. Wilderness was an idyllic thing destroyed by the wanton greed of our forefathers. It shares the same root though of wilderness not being a thing to be feared.

  4. Ah, that last was Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French moron whom the American Fathers embraced hook, line and sinker. Without getting too much into the lit-crit rabbit hole, one could say my perspective would be that of Rousseau's anti-thesis, the Marquis de Sade.

    And I laugh as I use that reference, because of the post YOU wrote today, ckutalik.

    But de Sade is not ALL what people think he is.

  5. This is interesting. It was an American, unfortunately, that came up with the concept of "Manifest Destiny," and I think that's the origin of the major difference between how Canada and America came to be. Leave it to an American to come up with some self-righteous concept, all bound up with pseudo-religious nonsense (a side effect of our damned Puritan heritage), that miraculously includes the idea that God wants us to conquer X land. It's plagiarized right from the Bible, i.e. "go forth and multiply." All very convenient. What a d-bag that guy must have been...and then there's the nation of d-bags that believed what he said.

    Look, I am indeed American, but I am not a lemming. I don't go in for that blind patriotism thing. I know that our history is full of atrocities committed in the name of the people. And I think it sucks.

    Turning now to the gaming aspect of your post, I agree that the players should never feel at ease with the world around their characters, be it wilderness or city or dungeon. And if they DO become complacent, that's when you rip the cowl from before their eyes and plunge them back into the cold reality of the world. That happened to my gaming group just last night. We'd been impersonating city guards for a while now, and had taken it for granted that we were doing so with impunity. Then we went back to our favorite tavern last night, and found the real city guard waiting for us...

    BTW, where you start the sentence with "When an American moves off into the tamed wilderness...", I think you meant "untamed."

  6. I did indeed mean 'tamed.' I was speaking of the 'wilderness' as it is now ... the processed areas like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park where millions of visitors tramp over the supposedly 'preserved' landscape, commercialized and modified for American comfort.

    But yes, there remains untamed wilderness in America. Obviously it's enough to endanger even a Canadian couple. If said woman had been sitting off road in March in central B.C., however, she wouldn't have been found alive. In America, you have to go to Alaska to find that kind of wilderness.

  7. As somebody who lives in the interior mountains of BC, I agree with your basic characterization of the Canadian wilderness as "menacing".

    I've had situations where it's literally taken me hours of serious physical effort to travel just a few miles, and encountered rockfalls, fast creeks, swamps, devils club, vertical cliffs, hundreds of deadfalls and lakes within those few miles.

    I've come back from hikes where my Jack Russell terrier, ball of energy that he is, collapsed upon reaching the door. Also, I was not wearing armor, carrying weapons, or fending of goblins on these hikes.

    Although between grizzly bears and goblins, I might take goblins.

    That being said, I've worked and lived in Alaska, and the Alaskan concept of the wilderness as a dangerous place is probably even more pronounced than the Canadian one, for all that the Alaskans are very palpably American.

    Probably it's more about exposure to the realities of the wilderness than about cultural baggage. Most populated parts of the USA are much more densely populated than areas north of the 49th.

  8. I was in Africa in the mid '90's. Talk about a place with some scary critters. I was a 22 year old Marine infantryman loaded to the gills with ammo and explosives. That place scared me.

  9. Right now I have just these last few days returned from the US and the truth of your statement really burns in my brain. Everyone I talked to waxed on about how much fun it must be to camp in Canada.

    I hate camping. I hate camping because If I am goaded into camping I refuse to go to some stupid campsite with a minivan 10 feet from my tent, and a shower complex a block away. I drag my friends to the middle of nowhere. We clear a spot to set a tent. We dig and built a fire pit, and finally after a coyote pinned some people into a tent a few years ago we build a simple wood and rope stockade around our site. We dig a latrine, we get eaten by swarms of bugs until the alcohol kicks in and we don't notice it. People inevitably lose or forget to pack important things, best(worst) case scenario a church key. We fish and someone gets sick eating the fish for the next breakfast.

    Then after 3 days of this we get sick of it and wait another year until nostalgia makes someone say "We should go camping!".

    Seeing as its May 24 this EXTRA EXTRA sticks in my mind. This behaviour no doubt HIGHLY impacted my mindset that wilderness travel is bad.

  10. Luckily Alexis I am Australian and thus understand the harshness of the wilderness, though we would call it the outback or the bush. Fear of the bush, or more likely respect for the bush, probably explains why 90% of Australians live on the coast.

    So, accepting that the Old Forest is something to be feared, and if you still accept Zzarchov had a good idea that wilderness travel leads to hit point loss, what game mechanic should we use?

    What do you use Zzarchov?

  11. The rules are all available on my design blog, but there have been some major changes to both clerical healing and damage that for a quick recap it may be simpler to refer to the system I used in 2e.

    A die of damage per week, with modifiers based on equipment, gear and retainers. For partial weak, partial damage. Specific skills would reduce damage (ie, rangers would take less, mountaineering would make you take a point less per die, etc).

    This still didn't get around the infinite mobile hospital that is a cleric, but that isn't specifically a travel thing, its a damage thing. There is a reason clerics being "Use or lose em" healing batteries was one of the first thing I chopped.

  12. I'm kind of disappointed here Alexis. I expected you to go a little deeper than surface level into the American motif you described. There is a lot more good material to mine there than you touched on. Of course, this is a D&D blog so maybe the higher standard shouldn't apply.

    But I will offer up something on my end to add some substance to my comment.

    What was the last big 'American' wilderness project? The Panama Canal? So what has the intervening 100 years done to the motif? Even the popular culture perception of the old west has changed in that time from the clean cut white hats vs black hats to the revisionist western...

  13. No wilderness was ever tamed. We just put our foot print on it. Here in the Carolinas I can deer hunt one mile off the main road and be in an area that you shouldn't be "screwing around" in. There just happens to be a gas station very close.

  14. Well written. I too like to emphasize the fact that world is a big and dangerous place, and PC’s must pick their battles carefully. However, you might be reading too much in JP’s words. “Masters of their own destiny” might just mean “no GM railroading”.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.