Secret Santa struck early this year — thanks (I suspect) to Larry Correia and Co., of Writer Nerd Game Night fame. I received a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, as well as 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. Both of which have stunning production values, including mountains of full-color glossy interior art. Gaming certainly has come a loooooooong way since I received my boxed copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, back in 1981. I still have the dog-eared Basic manual, though the box itself deteriorated and went to the dumpster a long time ago. Looking through my small heap of D&D material — prior to 5th Edition, my most recent purchase seems to have been the 1989 2nd Edition Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook — I was overcome by an almost overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Largely because of the artwork that adorned those old D&D pamphlets and hardbound manuals.
I’ve said it before — in conversation with Bob Eggleton — that I am not necessarily a fan of the hyper-realistic science fiction and fantasy artwork that has become common in the era of digital painting. It’s not that such artwork isn’t amazing. It is. But there is a quality to the older-style art (which typified so much about 1970s and 1980s SF/F publishing) that I call better-than-real. And by that I mean the artwork projects a kind of mythic quality. Telling so much without words. Luring the reader (or player) into a new adventure, with fantastic, otherworldly imagery that doesn’t try to replicate reality as much as it surpasses reality.
Segue: does modern SF/F storytelling surpass reality? Or dwell too much on it? Good question.
It’s been a long time since J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs first amazed their respective audiences. Hell, it’s been a long time since Frank Herbert, or Anne McCaffrey, or Robert Heinlein appeared in the pages of a magazine like Analog. Modern SF&F authors are constantly staring backward at over 100 years of robust SF&F storytelling. We’re expected to be aware of it all, recognize its influence on everything we’ve consumed or modeled our own work on; for decades. And this pushes us relentlessly to innovate: style, taste, content, subject matter, all of which makes the field ever more esoteric. Because there is so little “new” left over for us to play with.
As I’ve said several times in the past two years. We (the field) don’t have any common touchstones anymore. Even Dungeons & Dragons is no longer the centerpiece of nerd life that it once was. Because the number of paper-and-dice role-playing games has exploded since the 1970s. Not to mention the monumental success of digital role-playing games. You can pass right through adolescence, and never roll a D20, nor have to make a saving throw — on paper.
Looking at the old D&D material, though, I felt strangely reassured. Some of the old magic (of Christmas 1981) came roaring back at me, for Christmas 2016. As if 35 years ceased to exist — in the blink of an eye — and I could see everything fresh again.
Not an easy thing to do. Or at least it’s not easy for me. I am no different from anybody else. I feel the gravitational pull of my years. My generation has never known a time without ever-present SF/F saturation — in our games, our movies, and our books. It’s been everywhere, and in everything. Tens of creators turned into hundreds of creators, and hundreds of creators turned into thousands of creators, and now you have tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of creators all feverishly blazing away on various forms of SF/F. Each of us hoping to be on the next big wave. Create the next blockbuster franchise. More SF/F product being produced by more competent, creative people than at any time in the field’s whole history!
How the heck does a person hope to stay afloat in that kind of media storm? Movies and books and games and stories, relentlessly pouring forth with ever-greater volume and velocity, each year.
Yet, it must be pointed out that Dungeons & Dragons has persevered through it all. As a coherent, definable product. With a coherent, definable fan base that now spans at least three generations, or more. And it’s not the rules that hold people rapt. It’s the idea behind the rules. Of a bold hero — or heroine — standing at the black maw of a crumbled castle’s gate. Inside may be horrors, or riches, or both. There’s only one way to find out. Draw your sword. Motion your companions forward. Adventure awaits.
I think this is largely true of the best novels, and novel series, too. Stylistic innovation, thematic allegory, topical relevance, these are a bit like the rules of a role-playing game. They may define how the game gets played, but they are not the heart of the game itself. Timelessness requires tapping into the audience’s desire — to explore that proverbial ruined keep on the outer marches of the civilized frontier. Wealth. Romance. Danger. Conquest. A chance to prove one’s worth and ability. See things no one else has ever seen. These are components every society has — woven into the fabric of its ancient myths. As modern storytellers we are faced with a similar task. Can we present the readership with a compelling adventure? Will that adventure matter to the readership, when all is said and done?
Tolkien pulled it off. Orson Scott Card pulled it off. J.K. Rowling pulled it off.
You can probably name at least half a dozen others (on your personal list) who pulled it off.
If you’re like me, you’re trying to pull it off yourself.
My sense is that too many of us spend too much time with our eyes on the rear-view mirror — afraid of being accused of borrowing too much. Or devoting frenzied effort to cross-mashing what has gone before, in our desire to manufacture something original.
Dungeons & Dragons was hardly original. It lifted liberally from Tolkien.
And became the king of an entire genre of games — reigning to this very day.
I need to spend more time looking at my D&D stuff. As a reminder — of the eternal magic contained therein. Timeless. Ready to be unleashed within any number of fertile imaginations. Regardless of age, gender, or ideological inclination.
There’s a lot to be said for crumbling castles and darkened gates.