Monday, March 14, 2016

More English than Tolkien

I haven't posted here in a while for a couple of reasons.

• School's nuts.  Quantum II, EM II, and Astrophyics (which is fucking awesome and kind of tears it; when I go to grad school, it's gonna be for cosmology or astronomy).

• I've been very heavily back into writing fiction again (yay!), which produces a high all of its own which is very different from refereeing an RPG.  When you run an RPG, it's like being up on stage for a few hours—you're under constant pressure to think on your feet, to perform, and the adrenaline buzz gives you "DM's high".  Spending a day cranking out a story chapter or a screenplay, on the other hand, feels very much like running a marathon—and the feeling that accompanies finishing it is indistinguishable from "runner's high".

• Mostly, though, my Sunday D&D campaigns have simply continued apace.  The player characters are finally exploring the northern reaches of Shade Isle, which means they're finally within reach of solving two or three of the major central plot dilemmas which have arisen over the course of the campaign.  (1) Anarxis, the great black dragon who stole the dwarves' lands a hundred years ago: the PCs have discovered that his great size and power is artificial, the result of Frankensteinian alchemy on the part of a mad alchemist who once served (and futilely loved) the queen-mother of the dwarves; (the 8th level party still hasn't nutted up and gone after the dragon directly yet, though).  (2) The evil god or arch-fiend (it's unclear which) behind all the madness, known variously as Izatu-Baal, the Fiend-General of Hellfire, and Ardrick the Red, has some macguffin weaknesses (four ruby eyes of Izatu-Baal and the god-made, fiend-slaying sword, Fyndattr) which can be assembled to put the kibosh on his plans to materialize in the world.  Of course, that still hasn't helped the party figure out what to do about Ardrick's son, Domstag, the entity behind the doomsday-cult of Shade Abbey.  (3) Shade Isle has already repelled one direct invasion from Dolheim, the small but powerful police-state that was using it as a pœnal colony.  Might the Black Prince Svartsen try again?  Or will the PCs take the fight to him?  (Can this campaign even last that long?)

I do have a hard time sustaining a campaign's momentum for more than a year.  And it's March again, which means that this is basically the one-year mark.  And ohmygodohmygodohmygod am I feeling the gamer ADD!  So many other ideas, settings, and systems to try out.  (I'm still waiting to get that Risus campaign off the ground.)

This finally segues me back into the thing that I really wanted to talk about.  I've discovered that I like Risus so much that I've pretty much abandoned all hope of finishing my Decimus Engine system anytime soon.  I have no need for it: I've finally found a rules-light game that scratches the itch.  That said, I do still need to develop the setting that I intended to go with it, the Lands of Ælyewinn.

What started as a shameless and unabashed Middle-Earth (and Mithgar) knockoff (as opposed to the fantasy kitchen-sinks that Gaia and Færith were) has these days, in my mind, drifted off more in the direction of later folk- and fairy-tale.  I realized that in order to give Ælyewinn its own distinct flavor, I would have to "De-Tolkienize" it—which largely means de-Norseifying it.  The setting is still strongly Saxon-flavored, but I'm going to mix into that a heaping helping of post-Norman folklore.  Basically, the kinds of fairy tales that one would have encountered pre-Tolkien: instead of elves and dwarves, you have fairies and dwarfs.  No such thing as an orc or an ent or a halfling.

It's weirdly freeing to cast off the yoke of the standard Tolkien (and indeed standard D&D) formula.  A fantasy RPG without elves and orcs seems rather heretical, doesn't it?  But it's also uncanny and familiar (after all, I came to Tolkien fairly late in life—I only read The Hobbit in 4th grade, and didn't get around to LotR until junior high).  I grew up on L. Frank Baum, whose writings are very firmly ensconced in the old fairy-tale tradition (even if they're a weird, fin de siècle American, and decidedly modern-for-their-day reaction to the old Grimms' tales).

Imagine sitting around, playing an RPG; and the referee says, "you encounter a dwarf".  For 99% of gamers, the image that springs to mind is a heavily armored, Scottish-accent, ale-swilling, 4' tall, 4' wide, musclebound axe-murderer.  But—cast aside that assumption for a moment—and 99% of ordinary people (at least prior to the release of the Peter Jackson LotR movies) would probably have a gut-reaction imagination that conjures up a gobliny little man in a pointy hat and pointy, curly-toed shoes, ready to speak in rhymes or cast an evil spell on you, Rumpelstiltskin style.  THAT'S the vibe I want to shoot for.  Good old fashioned English fairy-tales, where the Norse myth is only a bare echo of a distant past (rather than the foregrounded "mythic history of England" that Tolkien was trying to conjure up).

So; more on how that's worked out next time.


  1. Just consider all "demihumans" to be the races of a single species called "faerie" (or "fairy" or whatever). Humans come in different colors; faeries come in different heights and beard lengths.

    I mean, that's the real English folklore, right? Seelie versus Unseelie and all that?

    [hobbits are just puffed up brownies]

    1. Yeah, but that might be going a little TOO nuts, to just open the floodgates like that. I still like my settings to have a certain simple parsimony to them. I want something similar to, but not exactly, the classic spread of elf, dwarf, hobbit, and orc. Something that says, "hey, this is as simple as classic D&D, pick one of these 4–5 options" …but I also want something with just a slightly more archaic vibe than "20th century fantasy novels" (which, let's face it, even if you buy into the whole OSR freakout "pulp novels, not high fantasy, bah!" thing, modern D&D culture is entirely steeped in).

  2. I was turning over something similar in my mind in regards to magical dwarves and hobbits. (Willow, anyone?) Sadly, my Swords & Wizardry ambitions are on hold while I run my "steampunk ghostbusters" Savage Worlds game.

    Glad to hear things are going well for you. Tell the Sunday gang I said hello. Is Henrik still a semi-permanent resident of Damman...Dam...the dwarf castle?

    1. Will do. Yep, Henrik still resides at Dämmendell, doing the mad weapons-scientist thing. Doug's druid just hit level 9, so he's become the sort of "elder statesman" for the whole adventuring party.