Monday, 5 January 2015

Dragged by Fate

Fate leads him who follows it, and drags him who resists. 

Detail of kings playing a board game, from a 14th century Napoli manuscript, courtesy of the British Library

The electronic trail to follow will consist in a hodgepodge of inspiration and lucubration connected to a small role-playing campaign active in the backwoods of western Japan. The start of the New Year pressured me to embark on some sort of record concurrent with our decision to discard, or at least shelve indefinitely, the setting we have been running since the inception of the campaign; and I hope likewise that this record will serve in some wise to expose the flaws in the approach we have taken until now, while exploring other possibilities that might work better.

Approximately two years ago, when a good friend suggested we resurrect the game of Dungeons and Dragons in memory of our enjoyment as young teenagers, we merely thought it would be a goofy thing for a bunch of middle-aged married men to sit around and do while drinking abusively--certainly something far too silly to write about even in private, much less for broadcast into cyberspace--but since  running this game connects so intrinsically to my interests in history, geography, writing, and storytelling, it seems to now justify a modicum of sporadic scribbling. I became the Dungeon Master by default and, though two of the others have condescended to take the reins at different points, they seem generally to return to my hands, and so I feel compelled to expend some fraction of my spare time in developing my skill in this capacity.

I teach at a university, and one of the recent class projects required students to perform English songs. It being the holiday season, many opted for Christmas songs, though some were pop, and most sets of lyrics given me were two or more pages long. The exception was one sheet produced by a young man who has been in my class almost every semester since I started working there, not having managed to attain a passing mark thus far. His group's lyric sheet, in its entirety, read:

Kiyoshi konoyoru

The Qing dynasty, this night
A star is light.
A child of help
In mother's chest.
The chest which would like to sleep is inexpensive.

At a cursory glance, the utter incomprehensibility of this word salad escaped my attention, and I merely commented in passing that it was rather short. The student asked me if it was too short, and I said I wasn't sure before I gave a closer look at the words.

As Dr. Seuss famously asked, 'What the fuck is this shit?'

It wasn't until the end of class that the young man apologetically produced a full set of English lyrics, with the explanation that earlier he had 'translated the lyrics directly' from Japanese.

The song was 'Silent Night'.

Just as we have, apparently, some teachers on hand who believe that Google Translate is a perfectly legitimate tool, I gather from several conversations--I cannot vouch for trends on the Great Web, because I don't read many blogs--that the most popular approach to running an AD&D campaign is to purchase the rule books and some modules, create characters by dice rolls following the prescribed methods, and then smush them through a sort of Play-Doh Fun Factory of role-playing. Answers to any questions that arise in the course of the game, any loose ends to be tied, and an awful lot of the creativity, are all sought in someone else's mass-produced design.

When we started playing, not knowing any better, I chose a prefab 'world', embellished it with a bit of what I knew of the actual Middle Ages, and followed the rules, scouring the Web for adventure hooks. The more I played this way, the more blatant became the inconsistencies, contradictions, and outright stupidities. The degree of effort I had put forth was comparable to that of feeding a text through a translation software rather than taking the time to produce an accurate, or even comprehensible, piece of my own design; and the results betrayed this.

Although the flaws seemed to grate less on my players' nerves than on my own--especially since those player characters that survived almost since the beginning had acquired significant power and property--during our last session of 2014 the group acquiesced to my suggestion that we test a series of different campaign settings and choose one in which to continue.

The inspiration for the creation of multiple campaign worlds comes from the DMing handbook How to Run by Alexis D.Smolensk, who offered a challenge to prospective DMs to work for a month each on a series of worlds. I accepted this challenge with mixed results, owing mainly to a varying degree of inspiration and perseverance on my part.

At time of writing, the most enjoyable part of the game remains researching relevant aspects of the real world. Some of my players voiced the objection that too much reality would reduce the possibilities in the game, but I'm convinced that using reality as a starting point leads to a greater wealth of ideas than beginning with a blank slate, for until now that approach has proved overwhelmingly to lead more to a reliance on tropes and stereotypes than to compelling or original fantasy.

Although scholarship has underscored the weaknesses of what I perceive to be the popular approach to this game, some of the six men who gather at my house every couple of weeks were understandably reluctant to 'reboot'; but maugre the challenges inherent in starting over, if any of you are reading this, I hope you will appreciate my efforts to provide a better experience.

For the rest of 2015, I will attempt to update this at least weekly with details of the mistakes I made and efforts I continue to make to not repeat similar ones in future.


  1. Enjoying the blog as a fellow Smolensk reader and expat in Japan. Are you running a game in country?

  2. Absolutely! We're in the boondocks of Tottori, and I'm chuffed that someone found my blog already. Thanks for reading!

  3. What's with the title?
    Eloquent, Just, and Mighty Death.
    Any reasoning behind this?

    1. It was used as an exclamation by a character in the novel Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley, and it stuck with me when I read it; but it was originally coined by Sir Walter Raleigh, although I didn't know that at the time. The full quote is:

      O ELOQUENT, just, and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet!

      I think that fairly eloquently and justly sums up the copious amount of death we see in any AD&D campaign.