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.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.
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.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
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: