Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Absurdity and Wonder

Nick Bogan kindly reminded me of a post I intended to make yesterday, about an article by Paul Mason in issue 32 of his Imazine online 'zine. In that article, "No Limits," which is an irreverent but nonetheless insightful piece about the history of our hobby, Mason spends some time discussing the growing importance of "ecology" (or "the living dungeon") in the construction of dungeons, starting around 1979 or 1980. I intended to make a post about it, because it touches on yesterday's post about "The Ecology of the Piercer." Here's what Mason has to say on the subject:
In Dungeons & Dragons, you see, there was (is, for all I know) a monster called the Piercer. It would hang from the ceiling of a tunnel, pretending to be a stalactite, preparing to drop on unwary travellers. It was ridiculous. What happens if you apply the principles of the living dungeon to this monster? The answer was a hilarious article by Chris Elliot and Dick Edwards, ‘The Ecology of the Piercer’. Chris and Dick followed it up with other Ecology articles on such monsters as the Catoblepas, and the Land Shark. All were funny, but the biggest joke was yet to come. A copy of DragonLords found its way into the possession of Gary Gygax, and he, enjoying the original article, had it reprinted in The Dragon. But, and this is a big but, everyone took it seriously! It spawned a series that ran in The Dragon for years.

Now many conclusions can be drawn from this. One is about the remarkable absence of a sense of irony to be observed in many role-playing gamers, especially Americans. But that’s neither here nor there. The one I’m interested in is the fact that a series of articles exploring the ecology of monsters (a trait also to be observed in Glorantha, especially with reference to trolls) inevitably removes the sense of the marvellous, the sense of ‘magic’ from the game’s monsters. You end up playing a game about a conflict between species on a planet exhibiting an extreme variety in its biology. Finally it dawns on you that your game is more David Attenborough’s World of Nature than Beowulf, and you wonder why you’re playing these games.

It is ironic that Empire of the Petal Throne, a game which is set on a planet with conflict between a wide variety of strange species, nevertheless has far more sense of mystery and strangeness about its ‘monsters’ and its ‘underworlds’. In fact, I’d say that, although it is by no means limited to this, EPT represents both one of the very earliest games to lend themselves naturally to the living dungeon, and one of the very finest expressions of that approach.

So the living dungeon, which was brought in to reduce the Sense of Absurdity, ended up undermining the Sense of Wonder.
There's a reason why I say that the Silver Age sprang in part from a decadent interpretation of Gygaxian naturalism, one so concerned with building "realistic" fantasy worlds that it inadvertently leeched away much of fantasy's power and appeal. This is a tendency in the hobby of long pedigree and is, in some sense, a logical consequence of the very first time an orc was given game stats or a magic item quantified in terms of its benefits to a player character. It's not, I think, an inevitable consequence, but the excesses of the Silver Age grew organically from roots put down at the very start of the hobby. They were responses to genuine concerns on the part of devoted gamers and, while I decry them in hindsight, my own acceptance of them at the time cannot be denied. As old men sometimes say of outlandish fads from their youths: it was the style at the time.

25 comments:

  1. In designing a mountain range for my own setting, I had decided that portions of each mountain had been carved into huge statues of dwarven kings. A friend was appualed at this and began questioning how it was done and how much it would cost. I looked at him and said...Magic.

    Eric!

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  2. I'm not sure about the "absence of a sense of irony". In my experience, most gamers can appreciate a concept from an ironic perspective *and* approach it openly.

    As far as ecology in fantasy gaming, I never did care for it. From a heroic or high-fantasy view, you want monsters to be mythical, almost - just beatable by the right person or party.

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  3. It is good to see Imazine is once again available online; it used to be hosted at a dead site for a long-long time, and I thought it was lost forever.

    No Limits is a very sensible article, and it has long been one of my favourites. What it has to say about the misunderstood "ecologisation" of dungeons and campaign worlds should at least be considered and understood by someone trying to understand the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons.

    While we are at it, I will take the opportunity to recommend Brilliance & Dross in RPG Artwork, one of the definitive pieces on why the pursuit of "realism" has resulted in art which is technically adept but artistically uninteresting. Check it out in issue #37: http://firedrake.org/panurge/imazine37.pdf

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  4. You have to balance it a little bit, I think.
    In my first campaign, I once had a mountain that was something like two or three times as tall as Everest. The players just found that broke their willing suspension of disbelief. So I think a "touch" of realism is good, but no need to overdo it or, more importantly, let it straightjacket your imagination. I remember a comment made by (I think) Lin Carter, that fantasy needs to be self-consistent, not necessarily science-consistent.

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  5. "a logical consequence of the very first time an orc was given game stats or a magic item quantified in terms of its benefits to a player character."

    Yes, this. Once you begin to quantify so that interaction's more than just completely arbitrary and random are possible this is going to happen.

    There's nothing more inherently ridiculous in wanting to know how piercers breed than there is in wanting to know their hit dice. It's just you've got to be aware of the consequences and try to work against the banality this quantification leads to.

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  6. I can't agree with his criticism of the Troll ecology, though - in my case, at least, Trollpak underlined not just how different the Uz are, but also how much that difference is tied in with their pantheons, gods, and magic. The Uz are the most inspirational Gloranthan race because you can see how their arbitrariness ties into their myth, which is how Glorantha is "supposed" to be and is one of the strengths of the human cultures.

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  7. I am not necessarily a fan of naturalism. If given a choice of naturalism and well-designed game mechanics, mechanics always wins (which is why I see the movement towards better math in the hobby as distinct from the naturalism movement). However, what really improved my games was a sense of connectedness between encounters.

    In some of the old tourney-style modules, like White Plume Mountain, the rooms where encapsulated encounters and nothing you did in one room really had all that much effect on another room. That was horrible for dramatic pacing. And I think some of the naturalism movement was a reaction to that.

    For example, a castle infiltration where you keep track of alertness levels is really great for tension. This is particularly true when one guard running away can completely destroy the mission and turn it into a matter of survival. Now, how detailed a rule system do you need to make for this? Can it be by-the-seat narrative or does it need a formal rule structure? That is less important in my book as long as the player understands cause-and-effect and can make meaningful steps to avoid the undesirable outcomes.

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  8. >A friend was appualed at this and began questioning how it was done and how much it would cost. I looked at him and said...Magic.<

    Yeah, that was a standard reply back in the day. And later the comedian/magician The Amazing Jonathan put it even better. Whenever he did a series of rapid fire tricks, he'd shout "Fuck you! It's magic!" after each one.

    I do like a mix, and when you need a location to be natural, you can do that. And some thing are just the occurance of wizards, gods, or ambient magic energy. In a game where a third of the monsters seem to have some "mad magicians lab" origin, I don't think many questions need a real world answer.

    It may be weird, but I like that a Piercer can be some kind of crab with a stalagtite on it's back, or some bizzare cone creature with big blinking cartoon eyes on it. Right now I'm not sure which I want it to be.

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  9. Noisms "Let's Read the 2e Monstrous Manual" download...

    http://www.mediafire.com/?5zoiwd08e5ds6dw

    ...is a master class in both the limitations and potentials of "Ecologically thought out" design.

    It's free and definitely worth checking out.

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  10. Naturalism is a must in my campaigns. Things have to make sense, except when they don't. If your game has a very strong, very concrete base of real world stuff, like ecology, then you can really blow the character's minds when truly fantastic things start happening.
    One of my favorite tricks is establishing predictable patterns and rules so that I can break them in creative and sometimes very subtle ways.

    Also, the D&D source materials provide enough beasties that are fantastical by their very nature.

    My point is this: If everything is fantastic, then nothing is. But if your PC's are muck-dwelling peasants and all of a sudden some aquatic tart throws a magic sword at them, that's incredible!

    If you live in a world where even beggars have magic shoes and everyone rides a hippogriff, then what's a minotaur?

    The higher your baseline on the "Fantasy Scale" then the harder you have to push things to make them seem amazing. I call it: The Dragonball Z Effect.

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  11. While I still has some doubts about the decadence part, there's a lot of food for thought on Mason's position. And yes, I do believe that D&D today totally lacks a sense of wonder (and has an excess of seriouness)... Paizo (I believe) is doing a lot better in this regard, but not much different from TSR during AD&D 2nd.

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  12. This post and discussion remind me of my own reaction to Paizo's (fairly recent) publication, "Misfit Monsters Redeemed." It's a short monster book that specifically sets out to make some of the more overtly ridiculous monsters more appealing. It does this in large part by creating extensive backstories and Silver Age-style ecologies for monsters.

    I actually thought it was a fun book (and written with a definite sense of self-awareness about what they were doing); but as with the "Ecology" article series, at the end of the day the monsters actually seemed a bit less interesting than they had been when they were just random bizarre creatures that made no logical sense. I felt that I'd gotten what I asked for--backstories that made sense of the most goofy MM critters--but not what I really wanted, which was something that provided a bit of semi-naturalist context for these creatures without sacrificing their "What the heck?!" appeal.

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  13. In some of the old tourney-style modules, like White Plume Mountain, the rooms where encapsulated encounters and nothing you did in one room really had all that much effect on another room. That was horrible for dramatic pacing. And I think some of the naturalism movement was a reaction to that.

    Definitely. That's why I think the move toward "naturalism" or "fantastic realism" is perfectly understandable. It's a reasonable reaction to the absurdities of tournament-style funhouse dungeons and one I myself embraced back in the day. Nowadays, I feel less positive about its overall effect on D&D, though there's no denying that, even now, I try to bear some of its more cogent criticisms in mind when I design dungeons and adventure locales.

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  14. what I really wanted, which was something that provided a bit of semi-naturalist context for these creatures without sacrificing their "What the heck?!" appeal.

    That's the trick, isn't it?

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  15. You know, I tend to agree, but at the same time, sticking the word "weird" in there gets you David Attenborough’s Weird World of Nature, and I'd play the heck out of that. But then that's sort of the point.

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  16. There’s something magical about that moment when you learn new information which makes you see old information in a new light. That’s a kind of magic that is indispensable in this hobby for me. The Ecology of the Piercer is one way to do it. It doesn’t kill the magic but is a way to create some magic.

    Not every mystery in the game world needs to have its secrets uncovered. And the secrets that are uncovered don’t need to be naturalistic. And if they publish a book with all the mysteries explained in naturalistic style, then that will kill the magic.

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  17. You end up playing a game about a conflict between species on a planet exhibiting an extreme variety in its biology. Finally it dawns on you that your game is more David Attenborough’s World of Nature than Beowulf, and you wonder why you’re playing these games.

    See, now, this is where I'm confused. Beowulf's monsters make perfect sense; in fact, it gives them a backstory that links all the way back to prehistory. It's pretty naturalistic for a 9th-century adventure story.

    It sounds like this guy is, really, just ragging on SF.

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  18. People who play these sorts of games and try to find some sort of logic to them is quite absurd.

    We are talking about a game with orcs, fairies, and dragons.

    Logic? Really?

    The only thing that should be logical is the game mechanics.

    Other than that, you're asking for too much.

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  19. I liked these articles at first until we got to the one with the medusa that invented the male version that helped consume petrified victims. This made no sense to me and seemed like a long stretch to try and justify the medusa as a some kind of natural creature when it's exactly the opposite of that! Most of us even then knew the myth that originated the thing - why are we trying to come up with a logical explanation for this thing? At least that's how I felt at the time. I like a lot of Ed's stuff but that one really hit me as "wrong". I wouldn't have been that concerned about it even then but this kind of stuff started to leak into the Monster Manuals and to become a part of player expectations and had to be worked around at times.

    Even now I am much more on board with that whole "sense of wonder" angle than I am with "let's try to define everything in scientific terms" or "it's not realistic enough" views. I would expect Star Trek or Traveller to take a shot at coming up with a natural explanation for weird beasties but I don't really need it in D&D.

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  20. I think a major flaw of the article linked and quoted in the post is that assumes that the hobby went from one extreme to another when in reality for most gamers that's not really what happened at all. I mean, he's not entirely wrong with his portrayal of gaming trends, but by assuming that it went back and forth like some kind of Thermidor reaction, he creates a false problem for himself to solve, in my opinion.

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  21. I see this as also being part of a larger question about the value (or lack thereof) of specificity in RPG products. I generally find RPG products that stimulate me to come up with my own answers to have more lasting value than ones that provide specific answers, but when I am having trouble coming up with ideas, the specific answers are more useful.

    Outside of the realm of monster and dungeon ecologies, an RPG book that I think does a good job of filling the first role is the original Eberron setting for 3e. Unlike, say, the contemporary Forgotten Realms setting, Eberron was specifically designed with the intent that many of the major secrets of the campaign were to be left unresolved in the setting books so that the DM could come up with his or her own explanations. Leaving information out of RPG supplements is nothing new, but what Eberron excelled at was giving you interesting questions to try to answer. What is the true nature of the divine power worshiped by the Church of the Silver Flame? What caused the Day of Mourning (when a whole nation was destroyed in a single day)? Why were there a bunch of clues that pointed to the existence of a missing or forgotten deity in the main pantheon?

    Contrast with with a setting like Ptolus (which I also love) which gives you the answer to any question you might wish to ask but in the process can paralyze you with too much inane data.

    Both approaches can be useful, but I think that supplements of the first kind are harder to write well, and are therefor in shorter supply.

    (As a side note, I'd like to second Zak's recommendation of noism's collected "Let's Read the 2e Monstrous Manual" threads. It's very revealing on this issue, among many others.)

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  22. The issue of realism vs. wonder is a pendulum that can swing too far either way. Some aspects of a fantasy world should not be readily understood. Games should preserve the wonder (and confusion) found in medieval bestiaries, in which familiar beasts sit next to nonsensical monstrosities.

    On the other hand, the world should make sense at some basic level. Creatures have basic needs and motivations. It's not unreasonable for a player to ask "How does the City-State feed its people?" and use that answer when they plan how to stir up unrest in the city by causing food shortages.

    Suppose that the players want to capture the orcs' home village, freeing enslaved NPCs while the orcs' raiding party is away. If the orcs' leaders actually transform prisoners into additional orcs through twisted rituals (instead of breeding more conventional ways), there may be clues that an alert player could notice and use to their advantage. (BTW, that would explain why orcs desire and readily breed with other species: They're actually transformed from those species!)

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  23. @Telecanter

    There's nothing more inherently ridiculous in wanting to know how piercers breed than there is in wanting to know their hit dice. It's just you've got to be aware of the consequences and try to work against the banality this quantification leads to.

    This I can't agree with. We are, after all, playing a game, not writing fantasy. The hit dice are needed for the game. Breeding info is not.

    In my ideal game, information (to follow the example) about piercer ecology would arise naturally out of game play because the PCs decided it was worth investigating. Or because it was involved in the component of a dark ritual. Or because a magician was manufacturing them out of his attic. Or whatever.

    I think many of the ideas in these ecology articles are interesting, but it's the quest to make everything make sense at once that is problematic. In some ways, this is the same problem as that of cannon in official settings.

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  24. @Sir Wulf

    If the orcs' leaders actually transform prisoners into additional orcs through twisted rituals (instead of breeding more conventional ways)

    This is awesome. I've been toying with a similar idea myself.

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  25. Brendan,

    I can't take credit for that one: Author John Ringo used something similar in his Council Wars series, novels that use a background of science fiction to present an interesting mix of fantasy tropes.

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