Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Departure from the norm to something different?

I haven't blogged in a few years honestly.  I had every intention too, but lets face it, life happens.  At some point I had desired in my mind's eye to be a writer.  However, I have found that writing is a far more intense effort then I had first expected.  Sure the ideas flood in, you jot them down quickly, but what I have found is that my ideas always come more like a Dungeon Master.  By that I mean, a large story arc, with several small encounters built in, but not a coherent long strain of thought.  I guess the best way to let you all understand is, A dungeon master provides what the eyes see, what noses smell, what the players hear and touch.  He plays every nefarious villain, with alignments to guide "how" that non player character will act.  But he does not write complex dialogue beyond what his creatures and villains need to say.  The innkeeper may seem very verbose, but you can bet if you start drilling me after a bit I am going to stumble,

Taking all of this into account, and examining my very large stack of failed writing attempts, what exactly was my issue.  I could spin a great yarn around a table but could never make it past 30 or so pages in writing a book of any kind before I just lost the drive, lost the thread of thought even with the outline I had produced.  I pondered this question for about a year now.  Was I just lazy?  Was I just making excuses.  Then in November I read a little book called "The Empire of Imagination"  In this book the writer, Michael Witwer, examines the life and inspirations behind Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons.  It is a very honest, and unflinching look at the life of a man whom in his genesis, was not your typical "Nerd"  More James Dean then Sheldon Cooper.  Do not get me wrong, by his late 20's he was firmly entrenched in nerddom and the seeds of what would one day become Dungeons and Dragons were starting to sprout.

Something more important happened to me from reading this book.  I felt inspired.  So many of Gygax's life experiences were mirrored in my own past.  Here is a guy who got it.  He had 1000's of ideas firing around and only a fraction hit paper.  More importantly he understood something that I think a lot of Dungeon Masters miss.  The piece I was missing in my own writing was the dialogue that happens around the table.  The players provide the story through their own roleplaying.  When my son cackles with glee at his nefarious Cleric of Nerull getting away with some evil deed, My daughters roar of triumph when she takes out the orc that was about to kill the druid with a single shot from her bow...those are the details that the players bring to the tale.   Gygax got this early on.  In the late 70's as D&D was hitting the height of its popularity, players and DM's alike began crying out for more and more information relating too Gary's version of Greyhawk.  Gamers have chomped at the bit to find out what the 13 levels of Castle Greyhawk held.  But Gary, while still a business man, felt it was crucial that every game be unique to the group.  That modules be just guidelines and not hard fixed instructions as to how the game was to progress.

I also realized something.  When TSR was helmed by Gary, game products were designed for mostly the DM in mind.  This did not cause the product overload because if you got 6 D&D players usually 1 or 2 maximum are DM's, the rest are all players.  Production was kept to as close to demand oriented as it could be.  Players generally speaking in Gary's Day bought the players handbook, and MAYBE the monster manuals.  Other then that most products were reserved for the DM's eyes only.  This was because Gary did not want people trying to replicate what he was doing in Lake Geneva with Luke, Ernie, Rob, Elise and others.  He wanted us to make our own stories and tales.  In fact, as evidence of this, if you read any of his old responses on the Troll Lord games boards even, he was still answering the same questions I found him answering in 1979 in Dragon magazine.  Do dwarf women have beards?  Why cant elves be paladins or rangers or druids?  Over and over the same litany of questions.  But if you compare his 1979 answer to his 2006 answer, you see a vastly different Gary.

I theorize the difference in the answer is not just maturity, but instead understanding.  You see Gary had come to see his beloved game and what the money seeking harpies of certain companies have become, and what that effect had caused to occur within his own creation.  In order to make money, TSR switched its focus from tools and guidelines to spoonfeeding.  If you look at the product changes from 1st to 2nd edition AD&D, they became more spoon fed and less outlines or skeletons. So now players and DM's alike were not even rationalizing their own explanations for these questions.  Instead they were waiting for someone, anyone to tell them this is the reason why an elf cant do this etc etc.  This was only further egged on by the fact that TSR copped to the demands of the player base and began reversing some of these design decisions.  Suddenly to capture that player market they produced a glut of kit books, and player options.  TSR went after the players hardcore.  But as their business history shows, that was kind of a huge mistake for them.  Instead of focusing on how to increase their market appeal and attract new gamers, they opted to follow the 80's model used in comic books, baseball cards and the like.  Flood the market till it bursts with product.  

I promise this long winded explanation will eventually get back to my writing.  It ties together with the culture I was immersed in.  I was a young pre-teen and teen in the late 80's to early 90's stretch of gaming.  Though I got into D&D around 1982, I was very young and it was the red basic book with holes punched in it for binder use.  I did not graduate to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons till around 1985/86 which is when sadly Gary had been screwed out of his own company by a particularly vicious breed of gold seeking harpies.  I had no idea that 2nd edition did not come from the mind of the man that had inspired me but instead as a ploy in part to further stick it in and break it off in the guy who and invented the hobby in the first place.  I gobbled up whatever I could afford with my chore money and regularly begged my parents for trips to 25th Century five and dime in Bloomington, Indiana to pick up the latest bit of D&D goodness.  I paused over shrink wrapped modules in B-Dalton and Waldenbooks, and when the computer RPG versions hit the market I was the first kid to grab up the golden boxed treasures.  The whole time, much like a hero in a Poul Anderson novel I was being led away from my goal is writing and being creative that Gary had intended and instead being driven into the "don't think for yourself and create, buy buy buy and just regurgitate" medium that our hobby became and nearly died too.

In fact it is fair to say, even though I collect RPG's, I honestly was not collecting out of a desire to learn something new, most of them got flipped through once or twice and then sat upon a shelf, untouched and unused because and I quote "I WAS NOT ACTUALLY USING THEM".  You see even then at the height of second edition, I was still doing things like adapting Arcanum second edition to my game, or writing my own intense plots, that inevitably did not take place in the realms, or dragonlance or even greyhawk, but instead my own world Aenarion.  But I was so blinded to the fact that I was doing the hobby as the creator had intended that instead I still felt like I was doing something wrong.  Now let's be clear.  The glut of D&D products that were made are still high quality fun products by great authors.  I am not in any fashion knocking them, and were I in the author's position and offered the chance to write an adventure my way and get paid for it, or hell even see my name in print, I would have been all over it.  The politics and morality attached to pulling something farther and farther away from the vision of it's creator never once would have dawned on me.

So, fast forward to 3rd edition, I was in the military, and frankly moving quite a bit which made gaming pretty harsh.  I continued to run my world of Aenarion though frankly, it had devolved more into being just Forgotten Realms with touches of my world stuck in here and there...till at last by the time 3.5 was announced, I had completely given over to just running published modules with slight alterations as needed.  I think it was later when 4th edition came out to replace it and I was showing up to these tiny little sessions with me and a handful 14-18 year old kids for a 3 hour encounter adventure that I finally said forget this.  I knew in my heart something was wrong.  I knew now that while these kids had the right spirit, they were lacking the true vision of what the game was about.  It was all meta gaming min/maxing characters as the game became more World of Warcraft and less D&D.  

Now I was a 30 year old man with 2 very young children.  I was a civilian and my dreams of Dungeons and Dragons were just that...dreams.  Coupled with a Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and Diabetes within the same week and within months of just having a new daughter born and frankly, I was just done.  The spark that was my imagination burned low, and while I still tried to recapture writing adventures and short stories, my mind was spent just trying to figure out my own adventure with all these new challenges.  A few years later I met an on again off again friend named Sergio who also liked to roll bones.  We worked at Sherwin Williams for years together through some hectic times and built up a strong work relationship that just somehow never found its way into a strong out of work relationship.  We started and stopped half a dozen games over the course of the next few years as work and real life always won out.  I just could never get into 4th edition.  Something was missing from it, like a beautiful woman with no soul, I would pour through the 4th edition books and find pretty pictures and jaw dropping concepts but frankly the gameplay was all about dice rolling and not the "ROLE" of the character.  Something was beginning to break loose inside me that wanted answers but they were still a few years in coming.

Fast forward to 2015.  My kids now being pre teens and being extremely smart, loved to be read too.  My wife and I took so much pleasure doing this that at 10 and 12 years of age we are still reading to them even right now.  Not only that but a year or two before that I started bringing them to the table.  My son ,who is very logically minded, began to love the math and tactics of 4th edition.  I kept trying to explain to him how it was just not daddy's cup of tea, but he loved it so much we still ran many a game.  However then I discover this:

and soon my mind was blown yet again.  I poured over the website, researched the history of the authors and artists and became intrigued.  These were guys from my era making a product that was in the vein of what I remember.  Not only that, they were doing it for a reason I could back, to honor the memory of the man that gave this hobby to me.  I then knew what it was I had to do...but you will have to wait to find out what happened in my next blog entry!

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