Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

Ursus

Today’s post comes rather late. I don’t apologize. I was busy desecrating the game of golf with some old friends, too seldom seen. Later the day involved overcooking meat on the grill and sweating off a pound or two adjusting the crib so that my hyperactive offspring doesn’t crawl out of it in the night.

Tonight, after scrubbing burnt barbeque sauce from the grill, I’m reviewing Ursus of Ultima Thule by Avram Davidson. In previous posts I’ve commented on some of the authors and titles from Appendix N of the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. It’s not a bad list, Appendix N. Sometimes I read something I think ought to be in some sort of Appendix N supplement, a few loose leaves of paper distributed periodically to those of us with a DMG that we can fold in between the covers, appending Appendix N. Avram Davidson is one of those authors I think fits.

Davidson is perhaps less well known than his talents deserve. I know him primarily for a historical fantasy character, a hardcase sort of character from the sword-and-sorcery school whose adventures are set around the turn of the millenium Mediterranean. I picked up Ursus on the strength of Davidson’s short story writing.

I wasn’t disappointed. He’s written an early iron age fantasy, in the lost civilization tradition of stories set in Atlantis or Mu. He employs a highly stylized narrative voice. I can see that being off-putting for some readers, but it worked for me. Ursus is a short novel, far from the expected massive word count of today’s books. Probably for the best, the poetic style might have worn out its welcome had the book ran on much longer.

Ursus is tbe coming-of-age story of a man who – Conan fashion – becomes a king. The eponymous Ursus is a boy by the name of Arn who discovers his heritage as a shape-shifter, a were-bear. He lives during a time when wooly mammoths still roam the far north, a time during which non-human races still exist. A dying king is dealing with ‘iron-sickness,’ a sort of chronic plague of rust. Arn finds himself caught up in the matter, meeting his father, learning something of his heritage, questing for a cure to the iron-sickness, and becoming a man.

I can see the book serving as inspiration for a game involving late ice age characters and/or shapeshifters. I can also, as I said, see readers putting the book down after the first chapter, unwilling to engage with the voice the author chose for the story. Me, I liked it and I’ll keep my eye out for more of Avram Davidson’s fiction.

Knights of Badassdom, Film Review

Courtesy of my local library, yesterday I watched “Knights of Badassdom.” I’ll say at the outset that I had low expectations. Unfortunately, I hadn’t set them low enough.

“Knights of Badassdom” is the story of a LARP gone horribly wrong. For the uninitiated, LARP stands for ‘Live Action Roleplaying.’ It is tabletop roleplaying – e.g., Dungeons and Dragons –  removed from the table, taken outside and mashed up with amateur improv. It isn’t a pastime I have any experience with. Nor, frankly, do I have any interest in it. I believe it was Jerry Holkins of “Penny Arcade” fame who said “not everything is for you.” Sums it up, I think. Those that dig LARP, dig LARP. That it isn’t for me shouldn’t mean a damn thing to the aficianados.

I remember reading “Dream Park” as a kid and thinking how cool the concept sounded of taking on fantastical adventures in person. It doesn’t appeal to me as an adult. I don’t think I could get past the amusement park aspect, the self-consciousness of acting a part.  I’ve watched a few Society for Creative Anachronism combats. As a form of fencing, a regulated combat sport, I can appreciate the draw. But the rest of the in-character theatrics doesn’t move me. I don’t think I’d be able to get past the artificiality of it. Sitting at a table with a few friends and rolling dice is about as far as I can go with adult make believe. I’m just playing a game then, not pretending it goes any further than sheets of notebook paper and a map. And even that I’ve not had an opportunity to indulge in for too long.

The point is, I approached this film as an outsider. How an actual LARPer might view this take on his weekend fun, I don’t know.

So, on to the film. It is a mashup film, a nerd comedy crossed with a horror film. Nothing wrong with the concept. Cross-genre entertainments can yield fun results. Here though, the experiment failed. The horror is played for laughs, along the lines of “Army of Darkness” and the gore and special effects are of comparable quality. That is, deliberately campy, the scares so cheesy that they are obviously not intended to be taken seriously. While that worked for “Army of Darkness” it fell flat here.

The actors gave it their all. In fact the acting was fine across the board. And that is about all the praise I can bestow. Steve Zahn and Peter Dinklage are both excellent, but they can only do so much with the flat, caricatures they were given to play.

The hero’s journey is predictable, the love interest unlikely. I suppose the film was intended as some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy. I don’t know. I do know that I’ve seen better films exploring the sub-culture that is LARPing. “Role Models” for instance. Maybe some of the laughs were mean, but I found the film largely sympathetic to both LARPers and LARPing. And unlike “Knights of Badassdom” the jokes are actually funny. Even the no-budget “Unicorn City” provided a more interesting story and deeper characterization.

So, “Knights of Badassdom.” Can’t recommend it.

New Edition of Dungeons & Dragons

So it appears that yet another edition of Dungeons & Dragons has hit the shelves, or at least a preliminary starter version. If you’ve been waiting for this, then congratulations. I hope you like it. Me, I still have dog-eared, battered copies of the three core books for AD&D. Should I ever have the opportunity to play again I’ve already got the rules. I don’t feel any personal compulsion to buy another version. What I’ve got is sufficient for fun and games.

Some people like to tinker, house ruling existing games. Some continue searching for the perfect rule set, the elusive tool box that will cater to an individual preference along the realism/abstraction, narrative/gamist continuum. Good luck, I say. I’ve adjusted, fiddled, fine-tuned, etc. when I played with some frequency, though the trend was always to come back to the rules as written (as best as I could figure them out. I won’t pretend that AD&D is a model of clarity.) I suppose now I’d just be happy to play the occasional pick up game. I couldn’t justify purchasing new books, even if I felt for some reason that the ones I already own were somehow lacking.

I’ve read that some appreciate the new rules facilitating storytelling. Well, to each his own. The point is to have fun, and if that’s what you want from the game, good on ya. For my part, I want to play a game. If I want to tell a story, I write one. I don’t play for narrative satisfaction or character development. I play for the challenges. Sometimes you win, sometimes you get the hell out of there. Sometimes you get killed. That’s the game. And for that, I don’t need to buy a new edition.

But I wish the product well, and I hope that those of you who are looking for the ideal version have finally found it.

L. Sprague de Camp, Appendix N.

I come to praise L. Sprague de Camp; let others bury him in undeserved, virulent dudgeon.

The man’s fingerprints are all over science fiction and fantasy from the Golden Age of science fiction up until the end of the Twentieth Century. He more than earned his place in Appendix N. He was prolific, fighting in the Isaac Asimov weight category (though, let’s face it, Asimov remains undefeated for sheer volume of publication.) De Camp’s writing was urbane, learned, witty, and full of clever innuendo. I, for one, love it.

The Face in the Frost

The_Face_in_the_Frost_-_John_Bellairs

This another of my erratically spaced web log posts concerning the books of Appendix N. Today I consider “The Face in the Frost” by John Bellairs, a delightfully charming short novel.

Bellairs is known for children’s books and at first glance “The Face in the Frost” seems to fit that categorization. It begins whimsically. And a certain sense of whimsy suffuses the entire narrative. But the story soon turns onto increasingly dark pathways. This is not a children’s book.  Real dread prevents the comical adventures of Prospero (“not the one you are thinking of”) and Roger Bacon from becoming too light to take seriously.

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont managed a rare feat: they transformed their role-playing game campaign into a series of interesting and readable novels.  It’s a trick worthy of remark.  Some of the novels Steven Brust and of China Mieville show evidence of a similar exploit of literary legerdemain.  But given that most role-playing games are, by nature, a distillation of existing tropes, a deliberate homogenization, it is truly impressive to see something unique emerge, a story that doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a fourth or fifth generation photocopy.

The seams do on occasion show through in Erikson and Esselmont’s books.  While they’ve rebranded the demi-human races as laid down by the Ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, an observant reader can get glimpses of the original product beneath.  “Edur” instead of “Eldar” (or elf.)  “Trell” instead of “Troll” (or some form of ogre/half-ogre.)  The clues are there, though in fairness they’ve rendered such archeology a pointless exercise; their creations are essentially sui generis.

The magical systems are fresh, showing no evidence of derivation from the Vancian system employed by D&D.  But at least one character wears his class openly on his sleeve.  Karsa is quite clearly Erikson’s effort to explore the Barbarian class as well as taking Robert E. Howard’s ruminations on barbarism versus civilization out for an extended exploration.

The books provide plenty of evidence to refute those who still claim that fantasy is “merely”* escapist fiction, with no greater merit.  The books explore philosophy, archaeology, historiography, religion, politics, war, psychology.  In fact the very depth, and the fact that the two writers show no hesitation to throw the reader deep into the woods without map or compass, dissuades some readers from tackling the pile of doorstops that comprise the still-ongoing series.

Well, I’m not dissuaded.  I may not agree with the Erikson or Esselmont on certain points of politics or the ideal aesthetic of the female figure, but I’m sold on these novels and I’m in for the long haul.  In fact, after writing this, I need to return to “Blood & Bones.”

Happy reading.

*See J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous remarks on escapism.

Appendix N Part 1.

Appendix N Part 1.

This is the first in an irregular series of posts on the books of Appendix N. To illuminate those not in the know, Appendix N appeared in the appendices of “The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons “Dungeon Master’s Guide.” It is a partial listing of the books and authors that influenced Gary Gygax’s contribution to the creation of the game. It is a solid, if incomplete, source of recommended works of pulp fiction.

In this installment I’ll consider the first entry of Appendix N: Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions,” “The Broken Sword,” and “The High Crusade.”

Poul Anderson’s fingerprints smudge all components of D&D. “Three Hearts and Three Lions” directly informed the D&D version of the Troll and the Paladin character class, to provide a couple examples. The book describes the adventures of Holger Carlsen, a World War II solider who finds himself in a quasi-medieval fantasy realm of dwarfs and faeries and magicians and monsters along with knights, Christians, and Saracens.

“The Broken Sword” is Nordic rather than high medieval fantasy. Think elves and vikings. It features the doomed adventures of Skafloc, a changeling raised in the halls of Imric the elf. Where “Three Hearts” is light in tone and swashbuckling “The Broken Sword” is grim and lyrical, full of the ‘northern thing,’ fatalistic and tragic.

Arguably these two books were more directly influential to D&D’s conception of elves than Professor Tolkien’s writings. Anderson’s faerie-folk were soulless, distinctly non-Christian; amoral when not actively malevolent; seductive and sexual creatures. Tolkien acknowledged this folkloric tradition in”Smith of Wooton Major” and to some extent in “The Silmarillion” but the elves of Middle Earth must necessarily be perceived in a more heroic light than Anderson’s.

“The High Crusade” is a romp. An alien space ship lands near the castle of an English baron. The baron, Sir Roger, captures the ship, commandeering it for transport to France, but is instead taken to the stars where he begins a campaign of interstellar conquest. There are players of Dungeons & Dragons who grumble at the intrusion of science fiction elements into ‘pure’ fantasy. But the pulp literature predating the game did this as a matter of course. If one is to make the not unreasonable assumption that the books listed in Appendix N inspired not only the game itself but also the manner and type of scenarios the game’s creators played, then the sort of hybrid represented by “The High Crusade” is encoded in the very DNA of D&D.

I give all three books a high recommendation, allowing a slight personal preference for “Three Hearts and Three Lions.”

Role Playing Games: Gaming and Story telling.

I enjoy role playing games for the mental challenge, for the puzzles, the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles, the creative utilization of resources. I don’t play for the story telling. I appreciate that other people derive pleasure partly – or even entirely – from the interactive story telling aspect. Fair enough. It would be a dull world if everyone viewed it exactly as I do. Some excellent books have grown from such games. But for me the enjoyment lies in the game play rather than in the amateur theatrics. (I don’t use the expression in any derogatory sense; I think it is an accurate description of the style of dialogue and dialect employed by gamers – whether an actor by trade or not – committed to the active role playing of a character.) I can get into character when circumstances indicate I should, I just do so as a means to an end rather than for its own sake. I’m interested in completing the challenge, triumphing over the next encounter, leveling up. If I need to pretend I’m actually conversing with some savage, demi-human chieftain in order to achieve the current goal then so be it. But I do so to achieve the goal, not to become a participant in a narrative.

I prefer story telling as a unidirectional activity; either creating or experiencing. While playing a game I’m not greatly interested in helping steer someone else’s story (or being trapped on the rails of someone else’s story, unerringly directed toward a set conclusion.) And if I’m running the game instead of playing I may strew it with plot-like elements but with no intention of shoe-horning player characters into the role of Characters performing functions essential to the narration of my story.

Stories I prefer to get from stories. Not to say that fiction doesn’t influence my gaming (my sadly infrequent gaming.) I may base my PC upon a fictional character or throw in elements of a story I’ve just read in into the adventure I’ve sketched (and boy are my RPG adventures sketchy.)

Of course if a story happens to grow organically by the culmination of the adventure who am I to complain?

Do you play games as a means of group story telling?