Monday, May 17, 2021

Whimsy - An Addendum

I guess I have a few more things to say following yesterday's "Whimsy" post. I'll try to keep the digressions to a bare minimum. 

When I talk about whimsy in Dungeons & Dragons or adventure/game design, I'm using the definition from my old Merriam-Webster dictionary:
a fanciful or fantastic device, object, or creation esp. in writing or art
I don't mean capriciousness, nor light hearted or humorous, and I certainly don't mean "gonzo," which my MW simply defines as:
...which is what you tend to get (in gaming) when you pile too much weird on top of weird.

When I wrote that Dragonlance was "post-apocalypse lite," I did not mean to imply it was light-hearted. I'm just saying that its particular version of PA fiction isn't quite as heavy and serious as what one finds in a "harder" look at the genre (considering "hard" to be like "hard science fiction"). And please don't infer my use of the terms "heavy" and "serious" to be "dark and awful" ...I'm saying it's not well thought out (see prior posts on steel currency and religion in DL). 

Dragonlance, for all its flaws, has whimsy. A treetop village is whimsy. A wizard cursed with hourglass eyes is whimsy. A dragon holding an elven king hostage in his own dreams is whimsy. And, yes, even a "steel currency" is whimsy...if also utter nonsense. 

No ewoks, just whimsy.

But for all its pretensions at being "epic fantasy," Dragonlance (at least in its fiction) is surprisingly down-to-earth. The characters care about money to pay for stuff. Their love lives are complicated and messy. People die of old age, get beat up, hurt, fall ill with sickness. They complain about things. They get annoyed with and yell at each other. It's not Tolkien. It's not Star Wars, following the exploits of some "chosen one." These people end up being the "heroes of the Lance," but ANYone could have been "heroes of the Lance" if they'd been in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time...the reason we're following this particular group is because they are the shmucks that ended up with the job and we want to watch how exactly that happened.

[okay, there is SOME pretentious "chosen one" stuff in DL...Goldmoon and Riverwind, for example, or Raistlin being a vessel for Fistandantilus, or Tanis just "happening" to have a past relationship with a Dragon Highlord. But the other characters are more-or-less interchangeable with ANY D&D miscreants]

That, for me, is what makes whimsy work. If you have this "normal" world (assuming, for the moment, that monsters and magic-users are "normal") with otherwise normal challenges (politics and economics, combat being a dangerous proposition, etc.) THEN the injection of the occasional strangeness can produce a feeling of "magic." Whimsy can produce wonder. And that makes for a cool/better game experience.

When EVERYthing is weird/ much so that the weird/strange becomes "business as usual"...that's when you get into gonzo territory. And that's a territory I don't generally like to hang out in. Maybe because it lacks a true "normal" point of reference for me to use in orienting myself to the material at hand.

Consider the animated Heavy Metal film.  The climactic short, Taarna, is pretty lame/throwaway as a story because so much of it is just weird on weird. It's an interesting visual image (at times), but the only scene that works for me at all is the one in the bar, because it reference so many tropes viewed in the western (gunslinger) genre. The BEST short of the bunch is probably Den of Earth because while the thing piles gonzo weirdness on top of gonzo weirdness it has a running narration from John Candy providing a "normal dude" commentary on all the weirdness. Despite its psychedelic plot/visuals it never loses its viewers' perspective or orientation.

"This mutant speaks
pretty good English."
Some OSR stuff...even some of the best OSR stuff...just has a hard time with this. Operation Unfathomable (which I own in hardcopy) is an example that springs immediately to mind. It's weird on top of weird with no chance to catch one's breath, no true respite from the gonzo, no chance to sit back and take stock. It's still cool, incredibly imaginative and evocative, definitely a fun read...and probably NOT an adventure I'll ever run. I want long-term campaign play (or gaming that has the potential for campaign play) not one-off weirdness. A world that will develop over time in recognizable fashion by the actions of the players, not something that starts strange, stays strange, and only gets stranger.  That ain't whimsy!

Neither is whimsy (necessarily) humorous or light-hearted. My buddy, Kris, who wrote the Black Rock Island adventure? Not a humorous dude. Too serious, one might say, though given to a terse chuckle when something (rarely) tickles his funny bone. Knowing him as I do, I'd say any humor or slapstick in the adventure is completely unintentional. He just isn't a jokey kind of guy (and the things that he does find amusing aren't always the same as the average person). Most humorous and "punny" stuff injected into old TSR adventures he'd call "dumb." And the black humor found in stuff like Warhammer FRP would just go straight over his head...just wouldn't even register.

Yes, whimsy can be light-hearted and humorous. A race of kleptomaniac halflings cannot help but draw chuckles if used with some restraint (they're really not much different from the mischievous house brownies of folklore). So can foodstuffs with magical properties. So can talking monsters that exhibit human-style foibles and personality flaws.

In the long-running AD&D campaign of my youth we had one character with an intelligent talking sword. It was beefy...a +4 broadsword with both dancing and defending properties, if I remember correctly...but it just would not shut up. Thing had a British accent, so was called "Chap" and the PC would argue with it constantly (it had a higher intelligence than its wielder). Both fanciful and amusing, after the character was retired from play, she'd still show up as a (shared) NPC, an occasional bit of comic relief in our games.

Comic relief has probably always been a necessary part of D&D play, because the game can be very tense and very emotional even when its not grim, dark, and awful. But comic relief isn't the point of "whimsy." Whimsy's purpose is to add magic to a game that might otherwise resemble nothing more than a numbers tracking game...whether you're talking hit points or gold or encumbrance or experience. D&D is more than just resource management and friends kabitzing around a table. And whimsy, in the right dosage, helps elevate the experience of play to something even more fanciful and fantastical.

That, I think, is what this game is all about: experiencing a fantasy. Folks may have additional reasons for playing, but they pale in comparison. There are better role-playing games for competition, challenge, and telling stories. But nothing's quite like D&D when you can add a bit of whimsy.

All right, that's enough for now.


  1. I like grim, dark awfulness... but not to the point of saturation. I also enjoy humor and whimsy, but would rather go for weirdness over laughs if running D&D. A comedy RPG is another matter, though.

    Points for mentioning Heavy Metal, which is dark, humorous, and weird; however you lost points for calling the Taarna segment a lame throwaway.

    The market allows one to go in any number of directions, which is one of the reasons I love the indie/DIY/OSR scene.

    1. "Lame throwaway" is perhaps too strong a phrase, but I find it to be mostly unmemorable save for the bar scene (and I've watched the film a half dozen times at least). For the climactic short of the film, it was fairly anticlimactic.

      Yeah, "saturation" might be the point I'm trying to get at. Maybe. Hmmm...

      I SUPPOSE that...when it comes to D&D...I don't particularly want my game to be MYTHIC in scope. Because the game is filled with real players dealing with close-to-earth issues (like life, death, and gold) the setting and adventures presented have to be somewhat relatable. If you live in a world populated with chained gods and crawling gods and the corpses of gods that were slain by the generation prior (all as a low level adventurer)...well, that's kind of outside the purview of the game, IMO. I appreciate Prince of Nothing's POV: he's a big fan of Homer and Milton and it shows in the scope and scale of his writing. That's attaching too much importance to the PCs (if they are to become god-killers) OR it makes players too small in the scheme of things (if they are "normal dudes" who are just going to get eaten by these titanic monstrosities).

      Fairy tales can be dark, grim, and perilous...the best ones generally are. But there's a difference between mythic heroes (Beowulf, Sigurd, Heracles, Achilles) and fairy tale heroes (often orphans, second sons, kids, retired soldiers, etc). Bilbo Baggins is a fairy tale hero. So is Conan, though at times he verges on the mythic. Elric would be mythic except for his albinism. I don't want PCs that are Gilgamesh, and I don't think the game supports mythic play very well.

      RE The Market (for games) theory. The reality is there are trends and momentum and much of it is set by the pursuit of the dollar. Someone sees grimdark is selling and makes their own knockoff. If Timberlands becomes a big deal, you may see more offering resembling Wampus Country. Etc.

      Also, it's not even about money. Especially with our DIY scene, a lot seems to be about being "in." Yeah, I can do that kind of thing, too, hey man we're, like, on the same wavelength kind of thing. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, and there sometimes appears to be a lot of (sincere) flatterers out there. A way to get noticed. A way to connect with people who like the same geeky thing (RPGs) that you do.

      Which is fine and all. I'm just saying there's more going on here than just "pure creativity."

  2. Hey JB! Thanks for the shoutout actually. I would have to disagree with your assessment that meeting with gods is outside the purview of DnD. If you look at the Appendix N, there's tonnes of stories of heroes encountering Ancient Evils, perhaps diminished by time. Elric, Conan, Faffhrd...they have all tackled with gods every once in a while.

    I get the argument you are making (you killed a god at level 3, what do you do at 5?), which is a clever re-iteration of my criticism of Palace of the Blood King, but I don't think it can strictly be applied here. The thing that they find in the Palace is not a god, it is the Remnant of one. A big thing in S&S and the Age of Dusk in particular is that you encounter the remnants of ages that were greater, but that time has not been kind. It infuses the work with a type of scope that I'd like to see more in DnD. So yes, be bold, be daring, be epic if you must, but don't make the mistake of Palace of the Blood Queen and make the king of all Vampires a 10 HD vampire with 2 guards.

    I am indeed a great fan of Homer & Milton and what a lot of DnD modules lack is that they come across as Banal, the antithesis of fantasy. I agree that the human world should be more mundane, in this semi-case the city of Iotha, an antiquities city of seers, soldiers and thugs, and this is offset against a sunken palace under the desert made by a long-dead empire. Hell yes! That's a place I want to visit. Not every time I step outside. But at LEAST once!

    As for what you do at level 7 if you have killed a demigod at 5, well...I have some ideas.

    1. I look forward to seeing them.

      I haven't dug too deeply into the Age of Dusk but my "impression" is that the place is very much of the Dying Earth variety, the last throes of Rangnarok. Let's be honest: a name like "Age of Dusk" hearkens back to "twilight of the gods," no? Is it not supposed to?

      Such a setting is...for me...a little pessimistic. Elric is a pessimistic fellow, but he adventures around a land called "The Young Kingdoms." There's HOPE there...and Elric is looking for hope! And he screws it all up with his own issues and flushes the thing down the toilet. And that's more than 'okay'...that's cool! That's a great story to read! But the destruction of the world wasn't inevitable...and settings like Age of Dusk feel like that final blow is just around the corner.

      Settings without hope do not (in my opinion) make for great, long term play. They're okay for one-offs and certain types of blood opera fantasy (I like Blood Red Sands).

      Tackling lesser gods (Conan versus the frost giants or "the God in the Jar;" Elric versus the Burning God or Balo the Jester of Chaos) is VERY pulp sword & sorcery. Lord help me, though, I think:

      A) it's been overdone by recent adventure offerings (from the OSR, and possibly Ye Old WotC), and

      B) it's not been...well, it's not been done well enough. The execution has been...poor.

      But that's a subject for a whole 'nother post, reviewing something that I've been wanting to review but have put off because...well, because it's an adventure that I haven't run (that I CAN'T run).

      RE Shoutouts:

      You're welcome. No such thing as bad publicity, right? Sell lots of books, man!
      : )

  3. I think you can make the point that, like in any tragedy, it was Elric's poor decisions that led him to become fate's pawn, but once Stormbringer kicks in, there is a choice between a world ruled by chaos or a world consigned to oblivion so that a newer, brighter world may emerge, and this is a terribly grim fate to consider. The parallel with Ragnarok is obvious.

    I think settings without whimsey or levity do not work in the long run, but settings like Warhammer 40k are very grimdark and are nevertheless very rich, playable places with varied characters.

    I think if you could manage to distill the right approach to portraying S&S style deities in DnD, complete with a few examples, you'd be doing the OSR a huge favor.

    Best of luck with the next post, count me interested. And my thanks for your support (Double Silver Bestseller and Bronze besteller so far, not bad for a single publication!).

    1. RE WH40K:

      The original Warhammer 40,000 was a farce, rife with satire; to some, it still his, but the original levity has been replaced with an All Too Serious Heroism (which can itself be viewed with irony/mockery), but which serves as a "light" in the darkness of the setting.

      That being said 40K is a war game and I think it does a good job of making players have no sympathy for gleefully murdering their opponents and letting their own troops die. I usually field a Khorne army.

      RE S&S Gods & OSR Favors:

      Um...wait, what did I just sign up for? Let me ponder this weight that's been placed upon my shoulders. Ugh...I had been planning on finishing this damn DL1 adventure today. (*sigh*)

      Let's shoot for having something on Thursday.

      RE Book Sales:

      I am SOOO jealous of your success. But it's well deserved I'm sure. Keep up the solid work.
      ; )

  4. R.E. Wh40k.
    It has a very good (albeit modern/Runequest derived) rpg based on the activities of the Inquisition that I ran for quite a few years before I came back to DnD again. The murky world of futurogothic espionage allows for rather more shades of grey then your usual Imps v. Chaos smash. Very cool.

    I had always assumed the players would serve as the 'light' in any Age of Dusk adventure that they experience, but I should not argue with an impression, offered in good faith.

    It would be interesting to see you try I think. Thursday!

    1. Mmm...make that Friday (perhaps). I really want to finish prepping for my Thursday game and the post (which I've started) is looking to be a bit of a bear.

  5. I read though that as carefully as I could, as did I the comments.

    I both agree and disagree on Taarna, but am always happy to see of one my fave films talked about (beyond "It's Too immature!". yeah, watch some Family Guy or Nut Shack and tell me HM is bad Adult Animation...). Personally I believe if the thing was reedited, so Taarna get's dressed and then flies off before the Loc-Nar even lands, then the owness on people dying is off her. But that is just me.

    Reading your desire for something not to doom and gloom - which I get, I despise Edge and Grim Dark - but not too off the wall... might I recommend WIZARDS, the Ralph Bakshi movie? Very surreal and unconventional movie, but it's characters are very grounded, the bloodshed low scale and personal, and it's tone very Early Dragon Lance.

    If not, The Adventures of baron Munchausen also has what you are looking for. It is a massive, surreal the dawn of The age of Reason, about a grouchy old man gathering his compatriots to protect a single town.

    Hope those click with you. I know that the OSR does dip into the grim and grisly pool a bit much,. Sure, Mork Borg is kidding, and I can like dark, but at this point, something that looked like Rankin/Bass and Vanillaware having a baby would be a breath of fresh air!

    Wish me luck playing a HEAVY METAL inspired game tomorrow. 👍

    1. Good luck (though how can you need luck when you're playing a Heavy Metal inspired game? For a single session of three, that would be awesome).

      Bakshi's Wizards is a great film, one I've seen many times and enjoyed. It provides a lot of inspiration for my own game...especially the idea of humanoids as "mutants."

      Baron Munchausen is a little too late in the game for D&D inspiration...but I *am* a fan of the BM RPG.
      ; )

    2. Glad they clicked with you. Though I am curious, are they the breed of Whimsy you where describing above?

      (As for the game, I am testing out a game in an HM or 2000 AD ancient earth sort of setting. Pretty Neat).