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/strange...so 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."
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.