Sunday, May 16, 2021

Whimsy

Weird dreams this morning, right before waking: was watching "young people" (late teens, early twenties) live their lives in small towns. Places like you find in central and eastern Washington: Ritzville, Winthrope, Leavenworth, Cle Elum maybe. Having fun with each other but mainly complaining about where they lived and how they wanted to get out or get back (to college, presumably) to somewhere more interesting. "The deadest part of my week has been my time spent here, except for my shift" one girl complained to her friends as they worked the kitchen of some eatery...maybe a summer job, earning money off the city tourists traveling to Chelan (or wherever) to get away from their rat-race life.

I've never lived in a small town. I've visited them often enough, seen them in film (of course), had friends and relatives who lived in or were from small towns. I have no idea what it's really like (and, of course, each town is different) and my views are surely biased by the folks I've talked to who wanted to get away...obviously, small towns continue to exist and have (small) populations so SOME people enjoy living there. Other people were not made for (or meant for) the life into which they were born. My mother wasn't...she moved to "the big city" (Seattle) from Missoula when she was 18. Neither was my wife, who escaped via travel (as an exchange student) multiple times before she met me.

Me, I was meant for the town I live in. Oh, I don't always feel that way...there are plenty of times when I find Seattlites to be annoying as hell, and understand why some parts of the country hate our particular piece of the American pie. I get it, and I sometimes feel like a man out of place, even here. The concerns some folks have (which aren't real concerns) or their approach to concerns I share, or their attitude towards...oh, any number of things. Stupid, stupid Seattle. And, no, it's not just the transplants from other parts of the country (we've had a lot of those the last 30 years)...there was stupid here even since my youth. I've had a few good friends, living here, and they've been evenly divided between "natives" (like myself) and "newbies" (people who moved here less than 25 years ago). 

[if you're not a native, but have lived here more than 25 years, you're simply considered a "local"]

Thank goodness for the internet where I have been able to interact with many more like-minded people. I assume they're "like-minded" because the only thing I have access to IS their mind: their thoughts spilling out on pages and blog posts just as mine do. Sure, it's possible that some are lying or crazy or whatnot ("Mama, we ALL crayzee here") but most of what I read tends to have a good measure of "soul baring," making for a decent window into someone's brain. Beware the persons unwilling to discuss their personal connections to the material they're discussing!

One gamer dude blog I've been reading a lot of recently (the last year or three...tough to keep track of that kind o thing) has been Prince of Nothing over at Age of Dusk. I like Prince's writing, I enjoy his (rather dark) sense of humor, I appreciate (much of) his stance with regard to gaming. Based on several strong reviews, I picked up print copies of his adventures The Red Prophet Rises and The Palace of Unquiet Repose

Eh.

I am weary. I am old. I am curmudgeonly. Know This O Prince, and take what I have to say with a grain of salt: I will probably not be running these adventures

I understand that I am technically a part of "the OSR" or whatever, but these days that's about as meaningful as saying "I'm into tabletop role-playing games." The OSR is a very large pond...as is Dungeons & Dragons!...and I am but a single fish circling a particular piece of the shoreline (I won't carry the analogy any farther, because it will get weird). My type of "old school gaming" is different from what so many people are doing these days...it's just...*sigh* how to explain? How to explain in a way that's helpful? Helpful to those few fish swimming in my part of the pond?

About 20-some years ago, my buddy Kris, AKA "The Doctor" (he is not a doctor) gave me an adventure he penned (typed); it sits next to me as I type this. It's in a blue folder with those metal bendy thingys used to hold three-punched notebook paper. In small, black letters on the cover are the words Black Rock Island. The cover page calls it The Dungeon of Black Rock Island, and notes that it is: "an Adventure for 1st edition AD&D; 5-6 characters level 8-10." The first paragraph before launching into the adventure proper says:
BACKGROUND:
You have come to the city of Appleton, on the shores of the Sea of Serenity. You have come together in one way or another, be you long time friends or having just met somewhere along the paths that brought you all here. It is springtime and the time is ripe for adventure. This is good because the fair is in town this week. Fun and frolic for one and all. And just the place to get caught up in a tale you will all tell your grandchildren about some day...
The Doc was no great shakes as a writer. He was born and raised in Edmonds, just north of Shoreline (which used to be "unincorporated Seattle," back when I was growing up). He got through high school and spent his adult working life as a cook in various restaurants. He was a metalhead and a hell of a guitarist, but never did the "band thing" so far as I know (we would jam sometimes). He enjoyed smoking weed and drinking beer, drawing and painting. We shot a lot of pool together. In his mid-20s he "became" (was diagnosed) bi-polar manic-depressive after witnessing a traumatic event (someone being stabbed in a parking lot behind the restaurant he worked at). He got on medication, and then SSI, and soon became unable to work. He's bopped around a bit the last 20 years (living with various siblings and halfway homes since his parents died); the last time I saw him in person, he looked about 78 years old (he's two years older than me)...he'd lost all his teeth (had a hard time talking), his hands had some sort of palsy that prevented him from playing music or painting; overweight, bald, crooked posture, waiting to die.

I met the Doc circa 1997 and we gamed more than a few times together: usually AD&D, but also 2E a couple times, Vampire, Maelstrom (Story Engine), Top Secret, as well as my entire stint with 3E (we both became disgusted with it about the same time). I did some of my first "on-line" gaming with him (both PBEM and in chat rooms...no cameras back then). After he moved away from the area (too expensive) we still kept in touch (not gaming, though) until I moved to Paraguay, though I can reach him on Facebook (just messaged with him yesterday, in fact). Despite our vast differences as individuals, we are kindred spirits. Knowing him as I do, I think he might actually HATE the stuff Prince has written:
4. Rodeo
This area is 120 yards X 80 yards. It is completely fenced off and the center if filled with loose dirt. As you approach, you hear a man's voice calling out, "WIN 500 GOLD - RIDE THE WILD IGUANADON - WIN 500 GOLD!!!" At one end of the ring is indeed an iguanadon. It's mouth is roped shut and it's claws are covered with some kind of leather gloves. There is a small, crude saddle on its back and you can see even from this distance that it is stained with blood.
Kris's adventure design exhibits the "box text" style prevalent in 1980s D&D modules, but it is mercifully short in most places. Since he couldn't make actual boxes for the text, each entry uses black ink for the read aloud bit and follows with red ink for the stats and DM information. All encounter areas correspond to a number on the map. Here's an example (I'll use italics instead of red font):
9. Milo's Amazing Flying Machine
There is a small lineup of about 20 people waiting to board. A smiling Halfling, apparently Milo, waves people to come aboard. He shouts, "Come one, come all! Men, women, and children! Take a ride on my fantastic flying ship! Right this way now!"
If questioned about the function of the ship or where he came across it, Milo will tell the party it was passed down from his grandfather, Olnick Featherstram, who was a great sailor and explorer The ship was discovered on one of his many fantastic voyages. He's not sure how the enchantment works, but he does know how to sail it. If pressed further for details on the origin of the ship, Milo will simply say that, "It was a long time ago that my grandfather discovered this ship and I'm really not sure how it was that he came across it."
There's no excessive backstory for the adventure; a list of rumors can be heard if the PCs visit the food area of the fairgrounds. Most encounters help funnel the party to take a ride on the airship, which will be attacked by an evil wizard and his fire newt henchmen riding a giant flying whale. Assuming the party survives the attack, the ship will be forced to crash land on Black Rock Island, the abode of the said evil wizard (and his gnome assassin henchman!). The whole adventure is delightfully whimsical: magic statues ask riddles and spray poison if answered incorrectly. The gnome has a maze on dungeon level 2 that he likes to stalk PCs in (reminiscent of Enter the Dragon or Man with the Golden Gun). Xorns that demand silver. A dragon turtle on level three lives in a giant fishbowl, complete with miniature castle (answering the creature's riddle correctly allows party's to raise the portcullis and find the treasure inside...if they can breathe water). Down three long flights of stairs, in its own sub-level, a Type V demon waits in the middle of its large chamber, described as follows:
44a. Type V Demon
The walls and floor of this room are smeared with blood. And a crude pentagram has been drawn in blood, covering the floor. It is dimly illuminated by four candelabras, one in each corner of the room. There is a dark crevasse in the wall on the other side of the room. Suddenly, there is a flash and a Type V Demon appears in the center of the room. She attacks you on sight.
Type V Demon (AC -7/-5, move 12", HD 7+7, hp 62...
I love this entry. I love that it offers no information whatsoever why a Type V demon is here...players don't care anyway, they're just going to attack, so why bother (probably it was summoned by the wizard using a cacodaemon spell and HE still hasn't decided what to do with her). I love that the read aloud simply says "a Type V Demon appears;" this is an AD&D adventure written circa 2000 or 2001...everyone who's playing this knows what the hell a Type V demon is (and if not, you can show the players the MM illustration; the page number is listed in the monster's stat block). The PCs are supposed to be 8th to 10th level, after all. 

There's no treasure with the Type V demon...the crack in the wall leads to a small cave where the party will find the dismembered body of Appleton's mayor, Regis Fane Wellington III. But there IS treasure to be found in the dungeon: hundreds of thousands, squirreled away in various areas (and not a small amount of magical treasure, too) as befits an adventure for characters of the suggested level. 

No, it's not great "design" or high concept stuff. But it's both fun and dangerous. And rewarding, too, not just for looting (little x.p, bonuses abound, like the critically injured passengers of the crashed airship who will die off on a daily basis...the party can earn 1,000 x.p. for each one saved). It's an adventure that's written to be played in the style that Kris and I grew up playing. It's meant to be experienced as a game, in-play.

This sense of whimsy and playability isn't present in a lot of the newer OSR stuff...even the good stuff, the well-written stuff with an eye towards usability and design. Prince's stuff is plenty moody and evocative, but there's a lot of "awful" in it. Not awful writing or design, but just awfulness. His world is grim and perilous and dark and everything sucks and is awful and if the players are winning they're still probably losing because it feels like everything in this world is shitty and it's only a matter of time before you get stabbed in the back or robbed or lose your soul to some demonic purpose. That's not my kind of escapism...that kind of thing should potentially happen in the game, but it shouldn't be inevitable

Do folks grok me? I LIKE swords & sorcery of the darker variety...I just ordered two Elric hardcover graphic novels last week! I'm a fan of Karl Wagner's Kane. I read post-apocalyptic fiction which almost never has anything like a "happy" ending. But...dammit! Elric still searches for his happy ending, even if he continually makes incredibly poor choices, dooming himself...his destruction is caused by his own hubris, not some inevitability of doom and gloom! 

It's like folks can't get over the whole "killing monsters for money" thing. These people must all be assholes, living in an asshole world, because only assholes murder people and take their stuff. Yeah, that's true...IN REAL LIFE! It's like people keep forgetting this is a game with talking dragons and evil faeries (goblins) and shit. Oh, the humanity of our orcish brethren! Not to mention the grell lurking in the corner.

[Black Rock Island DOES have an encounter with a grell. It has no treasure]

Maybe this is part of why I keep coming back to Dragonlance. Dragonlance is stupid, pretentious (at times), poorly designed (for its game), and inconsistently written. But it still has whimsy to it (more so in the original novels)...it's not a true post-apocalyptic fantasy...it's "post-apocalypse lite." It's D&D...when the PCs meet some hobgoblins on the road, they talk to them before the (probably inevitable) bloodletting by the side of the road.  In the novel, the talking is nice and civilized; after the combat, the victorious PCs are fairly gleeful at the murders they've just committed. This kind of thing, for me, harkens back to an Alexander Dumas tale: the musketeers are all fine and dandy exchanging barbs and witticisms (i.e. communicating), and just as easy at dealing death (with nary a sign of remorse). It's adventure fiction. D&D is adventure fiction that you get to play. 

Game of Thrones isn't adventure fiction (it ain't historical fiction either); it's blood opera and sadness and awfulness. There's neither whimsy nor adventure nor fun to be found in the books I've read (I've only read the first couple). It doesn't work as D&D, though maybe it'd be okay as re-skinned fantasy melodrama like Pendragon. I wouldn't know because, in the end, it's not really my cup o tea for longterm play (nor that of my "kindred spirit" gamers). 

But I'm hopelessly obtuse; hopelessly behind the times. I've watched Big Trouble in Little China a couple dozen times over the years, and it was only yesterday (not watching it) that I thought about the fact that, hey! Those people they rescue from the bamboo cages when they're freeing Margot and have that fight when the ninja chicks on the bridge and whatnot? Most of those people were victims of human trafficking, destined to be involuntarily addicted to heroin and forced into prostitution! That's like incredibly creepy, shitty awful stuff, that I completely ignored in my mind for decades! As I said, I am hopelessly obtuse...but if my mind didn't once consider "who are these people the protagonists are breaking out of cages" it's because I was so caught up in the story being told by director...not one of oppression and slavery and humanity's awfulness towards each other, but gleeful adventure fiction. Delightfully whimsical. 

Anyway. This is what I've been thinking about since yesterday. Saturday was a delightful day: sunny and beautiful. Got to watch my kid's last soccer game in the morning (followed by a pizza party), then watched him play Little League ball in the afternoon (I love watching Little League...it's the Bad News Bears out there, every day, every team), before ordering pizza (again) for dinner. Couple cold beers to wash it down with followed by the Mariners clawing their way back to .500 (that's not going to last) and then early to bed (for me) to sleep off the second vaccination dose I got administered at 7:45am. I feel good today, even though I'm about out of coffee...but I'll make another pot as soon as I finish posting this. 

Whimsy. It ain't so bad one or two days a week. And how often per week do you get to play D&D?

15 comments:

  1. I'm sorry about your pal's circumstances I hope that things get better for him.

    His adventure is one that I'd have liked to play in - it sounds fun and full of amazing ideas.

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    1. @ Jacob:

      Oh, I didn’t mean to write a “poor me” post on his behalf (though I’ve done that before)...really just wanted to contrast the “new old school” with the “old old school.” And while my buddy was plenty metal, he’d probably look at something like Mork Borg and say, ‘This thing SUCKS.’

      (and, to be honest, Prince might say much the same)

      I’ve actually never run Black Rock Island, though I may well have play-tested it for Kris. I thought the flying whale was pretty awesome, and I’m not particularly into gonzo. But, then, I don’t think his adventure IS particularly “gonzo;” it’s D&D. The whale is a surprise, highly unusual, not a regular part of the setting. Same with the airship (which is un-detailed and destroyed anyway...it’s a plot device for the adventure not the “flying carpet service” found in Mentzer’s Karameikos). Fire newts and lava children are part of the AD&D world, and are fine for an adventure set on a mysterious, volcanic island of black rock.

      It’s not trolls in the marketplace or something.

      Anyway. I might publish it for him one of these days...just for fun. Helping a brother out and all that (he’s already given me his blessing in this regard).

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  2. Maybe it is really good idea to publish this adventure? I'm sure there are some people who would play something like this. I agree that OSR is too dark too often.

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    1. I definitely like me some darkness...saccharine sweet vanilla fantasy is far more grating on my sensibilities.

      But "too dark too often?" Yeah, maybe. There's a certain niche that LotFP sought to fill and that has inspired (perhaps) too much emulation. Or maybe game designers are just a bunch of dudes that like wallowing in the darkness...
      ; )

      I'll see about converting my buddy's adventure to a PDF or something.

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  3. One of the guys in my circle of gamers keeps trying to run different variations of a "grimdark/metal" setting. And the only time it seemed to work well was when he made it a post-apoc sci-fantasy game instead of medievalish fantasy. But he also has system ADD so keeps wanting to restart a new campaign with a new OSR ruleset every few months.

    It's fine every now and then, but after a while, yet another fierce mutated beast, yet another corrupt magical sludge that will maybe do something helpful by may turn your arm into a crab claw gets tiresome without some whimsy to balance it out.

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    1. I wonder if Gamma World would hold the same level of popularity without the silliness to balance out the PA darkness.

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    2. I doubt it. I've made attempts to play more "serious" PA games, and they are challenging, but don't really spur the imagination the way GW does. Like you say in your addendum post, the whimsy helps to build the experience that players want.

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  4. I understand where you're coming from. That was always one of the things that bothered me about the later Mystara products, too much gonzo filler stuff. I like the occasional whimsy buy not extreme gonzo in my games. I like the idea of the flying city of serraine, but I dont like all the weird stuff described in the supplement, putting all of that together in the way they did just makes it read as very dull to me. Same thing with the hollow world, I like the idea, it's weird and out there and hardens back to the roots of pulp fiction, but the execution is kinda lackluster. I've always had weird whimsical things in the games I run, but they're only weird because they don't happen all the time. The stories we tell of past games aren't about killing monsters and taking their treasure, but of the weird shit we saw or did in the game.

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    1. It's a fine line, and a tough one to tread. I think you have to start with a base "normal" premise and then add touches of weirdness. Doing this makes the game 'magical' as opposed to 'gonzo.'

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  5. I think many times people simply miss the point of whimsy. All the grim and dark and grit and awful can be great - it's thematic and evocative. However, every so often you have release the tension. That's why the trope is called "comic relief" - the whole point is to create a release valve on all this tension that the setting, or story, has created. Even Vampire the Masquerade has humor in it.

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    1. I see "whimsy" and "comic relief" as two different things. I can think of examples where they overlap, but they definitely don't need to do so.

      Sometimes humor is just humor. A lot of grim-dark fiction and gaming has humor. On the other hand, I don't think my friend's "whimsical" adventure is meant to be humorous at all (any humor in it, I feel, is purely unintentional). Kris was never what I'd call a humorous or jokey person, and took most things very seriously...perhaps too seriously.

      Hmm. I may need to write an addendum.

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  6. Interesting post and discussion.

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  7. It is a pity that my work is not to your taste, but I understand your reasoning as emerging from a deeply felt personal preference, more then any perceived problem with it. Believe it or not, I also like most adventures with a healthy dose of whimsy in it.

    But this is not my muse. Whether by birth or circumstance my muse is a dark one, and what I wrote was the culmination of a singular vision, something grand, horrendous and of terrible splendour. If this is not what the buyer wants, then Palace will probably not provide.

    I am not a fan of the crap-sack fantasy aesthetic of Game of Thrones or the Witcher, but the grand psychedelic misery of Elric, We Are All Legends or Black Company is another matter. Is not the whole point of Elric that he is ultimately a pawn of The Balance, forced inexorably to some terrible doom that he must eventually face? While the Gods Laugh or the sublime Stormbringer have that pagan weight of inexorable doom, poorly understood. There is an infinetely better version of Game of Thrones, and it was called Lyonesse and written by Jack Vance.

    I might even agree that there is too much crapsack fantasy in the OSR, but with Palace I hoped to give this tiresome misery tourism the gravitas, the weight, the awful majesty that it needs. The original point of Grimdark fantasy was never that Life Suxx, it was that only by testing oneself against the worst, can heroism and human virtue shine the brightest.

    There is one exception worthy of mention. The works of R.Scott Bakker have in them a deep pessimism, transfixed against a truly momentous scale. Characters are heroic, not in a sense of positive qualities (they have few), but in the more ancient pagan sense, for sheer magnitude and force of personality. I think Bakker's work is terrific, but I also recognize that if everything would be like that it would be a joyless mess.

    So mostly on board with less grimdark, more vanilla or heroic fantasy, more whimsey. Whether I shall be able to follow, we shall see.

    But not quite yet! There are two more parts at least to write.

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    1. Don't take my "impressions" (they're not "reviews" if I haven't played them) too hard, man. I'm just a jackass with a blog. Really.

      I beg to differ on the "point" of Elric's stories, but that is for another discussion. Suffice is to say that I have enjoyed them since I fist discovered them (circa 35 years ago) and continue to spend both coin and eyesight on Moorcock's "stuff"...in various media.

      I appreciate your dark muse. You are not the first creator I've encountered whose tastes run that way. Yours is a grand intellect with Homer and Milton as your guideposts. Sadly, I tread amongst more flimsy mortals.

      Good luck with your next two books. I will probably purchase them as well.
      ; )

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    2. Hahaha the "jackass with a blog" line is one I use frequently so its interesting to be on the receiving end for once ;)

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