Getting Weird: Why I Can Never Run A Grounded Campaign

It is all my players’ faults. I set up the campaign, one where magic is rare and magical creatures are alien and dangerous, where culture and technology are based strictly on a real world society at a particular time and where the primary conflicts are built around maintaining order as the larger social structure collapses. What do they do? They decide to play dragon men with a penchant for building armies of street urchins, demon bound warlocks that want to sell magical trinkets and marry into the nobility, civilization hating gnomes at war with colossal squirrel royalty and all manner of other weirdness. What’s a DM to do?

 

The answer, it turns out, is to say, “Yes.” Or, at least, “Yes, but,” with the possible inclusion of the occasional begrudging, “Fiiiiine.”

 

First of all, I can hardly blame them for grabbing on to the weird fantasy elements I myself put into the setting.

 

I only like “realism” in my fantasy insofar as it gives me firm foundation on which to build. Moreover, historical cultures, even in pastiche, provide ready resources when I do not know a thing or need to fill in details that I might not have considered. What do nobles in the court wear? I look up 15th century English noble attire on Wikipedia. What kinds of names do these people have? There’s a website for that. Is plate armor worn yet? I happen to have a book within arm’s (ha!) reach  to tell me. It isn’t that I am going for historical accuracy, just something approaching consistency or verisimilitude.

 

But all that mundane historical stuff gets very stale very quickly. I grew up on a cocktail of D&D, comic book super heroes, video games and pulp science fiction and fantasy. If there is a more incestuous family of weird fantasy influences, I’ve not had the pleasure of partaking. So once I established the lords and ladies and guilds and what not, I threw in the dimensional rifts from which monsters spring, the ancient Celtic and Norse inspired faerie races, the lost civilization of unknowable otherworldy wizards whose vaults and libraries wait to be plundered for arcane secrets and the city sized dragon that killed a king and brought about a (regional, at least) Apocalypse. This is the structure of the fun built onto that solid foundation and it should be no surprise to me (and, yet, is every time) that the players want to not only engage that stuff but expand on it leave their own weird fantasy marks on the world. That is, after all, why players show up at the table in the first place, isn’t it?

 

What I find interesting in my own process is that I always think I want to rely on my own imagination. I think I want to lay out the world and its denizens and locations and systems and then let the players move through it freely, yet constrained — as if it were a museum, all look and no touch. I do that every time, it seems, but just as inevitably I realize what my kids already know: museums aren’t actually any fun unless they are the sort in which you get to touch stuff. Maybe I think too much of my imagination, or too little of the players’, or it is simply that I cultivated a thing in my mind and I just want to share it so I am a little jealous of it in those first few outings. The reality is, though, that players improve the exhibits. Imagine how much more fun Michelangelo’s David would be if the Accademia Gallery kept a box of costume clothes and water based paints nearby and told visitors to go at it? Letting players dress up and paint the world I have created is like that.

 

This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to allowing players to run amok, creatively speaking. First and most obviously, they usually do not have the whole story as it relates to setting secrets. If a player wants element X to work one way, but in the DM only notes it is actually part of situation Y it can be a little touch to navigate. Usually I can say something as simple as, “That thing is sort of off limits to players,” which has the added benefit of suddenly attracting that player’s attention to it. After all, I wouldn’t both including a secret if I did not want the player’s to uncover it, would I? Other times it is easy enough to let the player (and their character) believe a thing is X when it is actually Y. The look on their faces will be worth it in the end.

 

To be honest, either of those scenarios are relatively rare. Usually a player comes up with an idea or extrapolation I would never have considered. That’s the beauty of the cooperative nature of D&D and other RPGs. People complain about “movies made by committee” for big budget Hollywood releases, and for certain too many cooks can ruin the stew. But in D&D, I have found that generally speaking the more input, the more ideas floating around the table, the more fun everyone has and the better off the game is. Plus, it has the added benefit of taking a whole lot of work off my shoulders and, frankly, I am a Lazy DM.

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The World is a Phoenix: The Post-Post Apocalypse

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I love the Post Apocalypse. I love mutant bears with lasers coming out of their eyes. I love libidinous frog men trying to keep Rowdy Roddy Pipe down. I love spike covered muscle cars and psychic dogs and cross country treks in tricked out APCs and the rockabilly battles of Old Vegas. But as much as I love the post apocalypse, it is really all prelude, because what I really love is the post-post apocalypse: when civilization rises from the ashes like the titular mythical bird of this post.

 

Stories about the end of civilization are fun. Characters are given permission to go native and lose their inhibitions, and in the context of games (both tabletop and electronic) you are too. It’s cathartic, blasting mutants and zombies and cyborgs and mutant-zombie-cyborgs. But it is also ultimately limited: the world is dying and man is fading and no amount of weird super-science or gritty survivalism can change that. But when the spark of renewed hope appears, when it looks like the world might just crawl out of the crater, that is when things get interesting. I would contend that much of the best post apocalyptic fiction is actually post-post apocalyptic, because it is not about the End, but the New Beginning.

 

Let’s take for example a pinnacle of the genre: Fallout. Across many games and some tie-in media, the world of Fallout is celebrated as a perfect post apocalyptic story. Except it isn’t. From the very first Fallout game, it is a story about hope: can you find the water purifier chip and save your people. Along the way, it turns into a story about how new powers are trying to control the new world and usher it into a new age. That doesn’t sound like a whimper or a bang. Fallout 2 is more explicit in its metaphor, casting the player as an uncivilized tribal that enters and embraces the new civilization. By the most recent Fallout 4 you actually create, manage and preserve civilization in the form of settlements.

 

When post apocalyptic stories center around creating a new world order, abolishing the monstrosities of the past, reclaiming lost knowledge or otherwise building something new, they transform into post-post apocalyptic ones. Now, sometimes it is a bit of a bait and switch: The Walking Dead, both on the small screen and on the page, is a post apocalyptic story. it flirts with hope but ultimately smashes it with a baseball bat or devours it with a horde of the cannibal dead. The original Mad Max qualifies as well: there is no real sense that things are going to get better by the end of that film; they gangs will just keep fighting one another until all the gas is gone. Interestingly, The Road Warrior transforms into a post post apocalyptic tale just at the very end when we hear the narration of the feral boy grown into an aged storyteller: there is hope and a world beyond Max’s diesel powered Hell. Both Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road are, like the later Fallout games, more explicit in their embracing of the post-post apocalypse. Each of those films promises a future.

 

Narratives more easily recognizable as post-post apocalyptic are often set much longer after The End. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a recognizable example of this, if a bit less fantastical and weird science than much else in the genre. The tabletop role-playing game Numenera from Monte Cook qualifies, too, along with the upcoming (and awesome looking) Horizon: Zero Dawn Playstation game. In each of these examples, enough time has passed that the world is on its way to healing (although usually things are still much more primitive than they were prior to the apocalypse). Here the events of the apocalypse and subsequent rebirth serve as a stage for whatever drama is to follow, rather than the plot itself. The slate has not only been wiped clean but new social, political, religious and cultural structures have been built and these worlds often have similar features to second world fantasies. My own upcoming novel Elger and the Moon fits into this category.

 

There is an optimism in the post-post apocalyptic genre that makes me happy. I like to think that however badly we screw it up, humans are just smart, tenacious and lucky enough to avoid completely destroying ourselves. The struggle to survive is interesting but it is also exhausting, and with all the things in the real world that seem so hopeless sometimes, a dash of hope in my leisure-time adventures is much appreciated.

Elger Update: The Words, They Are Written

It has been a long time since I mentioned my novel Elger and the Moon, which I began in earnest a little over 15 months ago and finished the first draft of just less than a year ago now. Well, the last day of 2016 turned out to be the day I finished the editing process (which I did with the input of a good friend who is also a professional editor). That means the book is done!

 

Well, the words anyway. It seems there is a lot more work yet to be done. I hemmed and hawed over whether to submit it to publishers and agents, or to self publish. I finally decided on the latter. I am not especially good at selling anything, let alone myself, but I am even less patient and the prospect of waiting years to find a publisher and then see it published was too daunting. So instead I will cinch up my mantaloons and do what I need to to get it out there and seen. From there, it is up to, well, you guys.

 

Over the next weeks expect to see more news about Elger here as well as other things. Table top (or virtual table top) gaming is still a huge part of my life and I have much to share on that front, as well as thoughts and opinions of everything from the awesomness that is the newest Star Wars to my complete and utter spasmodic anticipation for Horizon: Zero Dawn. Long story short: expect more geekiness out of me than you saw in 2016, as well as a little of the promotion (which I am no good at).

 

Happy New Year!