Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Towering Castle Beneath the Stormy Night Sky

Pop quiz: match these opening lines to the above games--the new "5e" D&D Basic (2014), Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2012), Swords & Wizardry Complete (2010) and Dungeons & Dragons (1974):

TREASURE and glittering gems; dark places beneath the earth where monsters dwell; magic circles, pentagrams and pentacles; runes of evil import, and iron-banded doors of mouldering oak; wizards of vast power, living in their isolated towers above black seaside cliffs; great-horned demons in their bloody lairs; massive stone idols with jeweled eyes and hieroglyphic pedestals, carved in the distant eons before the young civilizations of humankind; strange and glowing orbs, floating in the air above rusted metal grates leading to deeper levels of the underground passageways…
It is about flying carpets and cursed blades, about hooded priests gathered for unspeakable rites in their forgotten temples; it is about adventure and about perilous undertakings, forcing back the evil creatures of Chaos from the borderlands of embattled civilization; it is about battle-scarred warriors and deadly sorcerers…

Being a Referee is like being an artist, a manager, an accountant, and that crazy old guy that lives in the park that everyone avoids because he’s always talking to himself, all in one. Although hopefully you won’t be talking to yourself. At least not while anyone is listening.

ONCE UPON A TIME, long, long ago there was a little group known as the Castle and Crusade Society. Their fantasy rules were published, and to this writer's knowledge, brought about much of the current interest in fantasy wargaming. For a time the group grew and prospered, and Dave Arneson decided to begin a medieval fantasy campaign game for his active Twin Cities club. From the map of the "land" of the "Great Kingdom" and environs — the territory of the C & C Society — Dave located a nice bog wherein to nest the weird enclave of "Blackmoor", a spot between the "Great Kingdom" and the fearsome "Egg of Coot". From the CHAINMAIL fantasy rules he drew ideas for a far more complex and exciting game, and thus began a campaign which still thrives as of this writing! In due course the news reached my ears, and the result is what you have in your hands at this moment. While the C & C Society is no longer, its spirit lives on, and we believe that all wargamers who are interested in the medieval period, not just fantasy buffs, will enjoy playing DUNGEONS and DRAGONS. Its possibilities go far beyond any previous offerings anywhere!

The DUNGEONS & DRAGONS ROLEPLAYING GAME IS ABOUT storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, D&D is driven by imagination. It’s about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents.

It's a pretty easy quiz, obviously, for people who have read or played these games or who know a bit about the authors or the historical context. And for anyone paying attention, the point of the exercise should be immediately clear. Only one excerpt uses the term "imagination" (and if you count the variant, "imagine", it mentions it twice) yet the prose in that piece is without doubt the least imaginative (and the dullest and most boring) of the four.

The precise character of the selections differ somewhat of course. One is an attempt to get you excited about the game in question by immediately transporting you into a fantastic world. Another is a sort of self-deprecating and funny introduction to how to "run" a game. The third is an all-over-the-place and quirky piece focusing partly on the historical circumstances of how the game in question came to be created. And the fourth is of course a straight introduction. Are the first three authors Nobel-Prize winning stylists? I don't know. Perhaps not. Who is? But they--Matt Finch and James Raggi--are (or in the case of the late Gary Gygax, were) damn good "amateur" writers who felt it important to start the text of their rules right off with strong, interesting adult prose--even though they knew that children were a big part of their audience (okay, maybe Raggi doesn't write for children, but still). I don't know who the author of the D&D Basic excerpt is. And even if I did spend a few seconds to investigate, I imagine that the opening text to one of the flagship games of a major game company is somewhat of a joint effort. The point is not to criticize or blame any particular person. The author (whether or not the text was modified or overseen by others) is undoubtedly a talented game designer and probably a pretty good writer. (He has a good paying job doing this and I don't. And there is probably a reason for that.) But that doesn't absolve the text.

It's terrible. Boring. Clipped. Unimaginative. It reads like one of those excruciatingly awful high-school history textbooks that have had all the color leeched out to avoid offending anyone and to make it understandable to readers in the lowest tenth percentile, or perhaps a book report written by an intelligent 7th grader who has mastered the rules of grammar, but has no particular desire to make her writing particularly interesting or exciting (it's only a book report).

Well, after all (so the counter-argument goes) it's a mass-market product. There are certain things they have to do and that are expected given the economics and their market niche and the corporate culture that they are a part of, etc., etc., etc. You're naive if you think otherwise. Well, putting aside one obvious retort to that--must all prose intended for the "mass-market" be insipid?--even if that were an explanation or a justification for why it happened, that doesn't change the fact. If you thought my prose was insipid, and I told you that the reason for that was because I was promised a million dollars if I would make it insipid, that wouldn't change anything for you. That wouldn't or shouldn't make you any more likely to buy or even pay attention to my product.

Does it matter? After all, it's only a game.

Yes. It does. 5e D&D Basic asserts that it is at the pinnacle of role-playing games. It builds (so it claims) on the experience gained in the design, writing and play of the previous four editions and three generations, forty years and literally millions of players. Thousands of hours and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into its development, and the best they can come up with is:

[Dungeons & Dragons] is about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents.

The dull, completely unimaginative prose is one way that contemporary "D&D" smothers the imagination of its players. There are other ways that it does this, of course. But this as good an example as any.


  1. I agree with you sentiment. I do think there is a place for the D&D 5ed style writing. I think you should start with the flavor text, your best flavor text, and then move into the technical description of what that means from the player side of things. I think there is a place for both styles of writing in a basic rpg. I do think that Basic has kind of dropped the ball on some of its writing.

  2. This goes beyond RPG. Go to a Museum and they are all kid friendly with "hands on" crap that don't teach anything. Just one more step in dumbing down America.

  3. It appears that the aims of the Horace Mann-inspired American public education system have been achieved. Reason #5,467,231 to home school: The production of much better prose for our favorite hobby.