Christmas past, present, and future

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.

23 thoughts on “Christmas past, present, and future

  1. Mind you, D&D survived by being bought out by the company that owned the product that basically killed RPGs….

  2. There’s a lot to be said for crumbling castles and darkened gates.

    “Activate Light Spell! What the heck? Why didn’t it work?” 😉

  3. I don’t think there is a writer out there that, in his or her more cynical moments, hasn’t had the thought of “I just file off the serial numbers and send it off to a different house.”

    Probably can’t be helped – we Homo Sapiens Sapiens have been telling stories ever since the word was invented – probably before that, when it was a matter of a lot of arm-waving and other pantomime. (It is interesting that the researches who worked with Koko, flawed as their study was, seized upon her telling of stories as the proof of sapient behavior.)

    But the best authors not only file off the serial numbers – they give it a new paint job, chrome hubcaps, and real leather seats. Maybe plug in a V8 engine. They can turn a Honda Civic into a custom Bentley when they set their minds to it…

    Pulling this off is what I aspire to when I really think about it.

  4. It’s a sense of wonder and possibility, or at least it is for me. This time will I be good/clever/brave/lucky enough to get through, grab the treasure, outsmart the bandits and avoid the cave troll? And all in a world that my mind paints as far more dramatic and amazing than even the GameMaster could imagine. *clatterclatterclatter* Come on dice, give me a little, just a little . . .

  5. ‘If you’re like me, you’re trying to pull it off yourself.’

    That’s the plan – join the pantheon, leave something behind that’s worth the time spent.

    I never played D&D, but I remember the Tom Hanks movie where he is stuck in that land. It’s VERY old.

  6. I’m trying my hand at DM this week for the family for the first time. 3.5 because we own it. Husband and I played before back when we had a one and a two year old. Now those two are fourteen and nearly thirteen, and the ten and eight year old want to play, too.
    We started working on characters over Thanksgiving, but now it’s time to play. I’m writing a scenario myself because, well, there are lots of dead links to beginner scenarios online but most of them are dead and the rest are specific to the DM who wrote them’s world, and half the fun is in making my own world (all the fun, perhaps?).
    Any advice for me? Besides don’t kill the boys’ characters because they were bratty about doing their chores, I mean, I do grasp that much!

    1. For new DM’s, be prepared to improvise massively. That well thought out and carefully prepared adventure can go off the rails in an instant, because players have minds of their own. Your house, your rules, so you can bend here and there on a roll or two or give bonus experience for good roleplay, but always remember to leave room for the players to play. Drop hints, give broad outlines, leave room for the imagination to run wild.

      And always have a backup encounter to throw into the mix, just in case. Sometimes you need to throw monsters and traps at them to give yourself a little breathing room (combat is pretty easy once you have the hang of it).

      Lastly, have fun. That’s the point, after all!

    2. Either start the characters at level three or give them 3 maximized Hit Dice at level 1. Reason being is that you won’t have to fudge nearly as many dice rolls to avoid one hit K.O.s. I’m pretty sure every session before we started doing that somebody’s character was 1HKOd before level 3 every time.

      1. 3 maximized hit dice at level 1? What blasphemy is this?!

        Don’t listen to him, and don’t fudge dice rolls! Don’t cheat your players, and they won’t cheat you.

    3. Character death is an integral and incredibly fun part of the experience. Losing characters is an opportunity for the players to try new things and tell fun war stories about the epic (or tragic) way in which their last character died.

      The game I’m in now even has a giant sticky note graveyard.

      My other recommendation is don’t try to use your position as DM to tell the story you want to tell; instead, create a series of situational ‘toys’ for the players to interact with. Be flexible and reactive; don’t railroad. After each session, ask your players what they would be interested in doing next session, what some of their goals would be, and try to plan content within that framework – in that way, they will discover your world and content and appreciate that sense of discovery way more than if a DM tried to shove it down their throats by saying “Okay, this is what you guys are doing now”.

  7. I remember Christmas, 1981. It was my first as a married man. I gave my wife a very carefully selected miniature of her favorite character in my world.

    Over the years, I have put everything I learned as a GM to good use; first as a comic book writer, then as a professionally performing storyteller (I still do this), and now as an indie SF writer with four novels released in 2016. I doubt any of this would have ever happened had Gygax and Arneson not changed my life with their original three-book set I bought in 1976.

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane, Brad.

  8. 5e definitely pushed the nostalgia button hard for me.
    I loathed 3.*e, Didn’t care about 4e one way or the other. But 5e has me wanting to run games in D&D again. (And that’s saying something, considering my normal modus operandi involves at least 8 sourcebooks from wildly different genres and a binder full of notes about how I’m going to make them mesh nicely together.)

  9. I remember a prolonged discussion of covers at Goodreads where I don’t think there was a single person who approved of photograph covers for high fantasy: art only!

  10. I got an AD&D Ravenloft box set from the member of my old gaming group who rolled a natural 20 on a proposal. The note on the box said “please?”

    Looks like I’m running a Ravenloft campaign next year 🙂

    And this time, I’ll have my son as the paladin. Maybe they’ll make it out alive. *evil laugh*

  11. “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.”

    Sorry, no. Did anyone critiquing Kary English’s “Totaled” think to point out how it compared to one of C. L. Moore’s best short stories? Did any of the people complaining about John C. Wright’s “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” have someone point out to them the fact that it was perfectly in line with the sort of thing Lord Dunsany had written…? No.

    There isn’t a whole lot of staring backward going on. More like a very large number of people that can’t read anything from before 1980 explaining why the classics of sff just don’t work anymore. People like Aliette de Bodard admit to not having read Vance. Meanwhile Mary Shelly is routinely put on the same level as Verne and Wells while Burroughs is quietly dropped from the sff narrative.

    It’s bonkers. Today’s sff is so watered down and fans are so ignorant of what things were like before Star Wars and Shanarra, they can’t imagine what things were like when Tolkien was unknown and John Carter was synonymous with science fiction.

    Sff writers aren’t innovating on the basis of 100 years of science fiction. Indeed, most of the big wheels at the big time conventions are going onto writer’s panels to fall all over themselves pretending that there is no canon. Or worse, that everyone has their own canon.

    It’s bunk.

    “Dungeons & Dragons was hardly original. It lifted liberally from Tolkien.”

    Hardly original? You have got to be kidding me. It was the among the most phenomenal ideas in gaming of all time. And it did not lift just from Tolkien, but from a good dozen authors which just about everyone would have read in the seventies and which very quickly became all but unknown to the fantasy fans that came later. Indeed, most dedicated fantasy readers today think the genre starts with Terry Brooks, continues with Robert Jordan, culminates into R.A. Salvatore, and then ends with George R. R. Martin.

    When people like that look at D&D all that they can imagine is that it must have borrowed directly from Tolkien more than anything else. That’s not the case at all. Just like people commenting on pulp stories from before 1940 assume that they must all have been like what you’d get if you extrapolated backwards from lousy science fiction movies of the fifties. The full story is way more interesting than that.

      1. One reason it was cancelled was that during the writer’s strike that interrupted its season, an earthquake damaged their major exterior location to the point where it was unsafe to shoot there. I took Production Design and some VFX related classes from the Production Designer for the series….

    1. Apparently there is a lot of documented source material in Appendix N. Someone has even created a reading list based upon it.

      I’d guess it’s not well known because, well, “N”? Who reads something through the Nth appendix?

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