Adventure preparation done right

It’s RPG blog carnival time again, this time at the Questing GM, and the topic is “how to be a better Games Master.” There’s lots of good advice – I like what Carl at Back Screen Pass has to say, though I’m dubious about any claim that I have any strengths except my ability to describe stuff – and I think Geek Ken is right to say that you should try to play often if you’re going to DM, because I don’t think I play enough and I sometimes forget what works and what doesn’t for players.

So, Carl’s advice is to play to your strengths, and I think my main strength is the ability to describe stuff. I think my DMing style is often based on building up a strong picture of things and letting the players enjoy the action that follows even if the details – the combat and skill resolution, for example – are clunky or not entirely satisfactory. The fun is in the experience, not necessarily the details of how it panned out, and provided everyone is able to see the vision, everyone gets to enjoy it.

The problem then is getting ideas to describe, from the very broad vision of worlds through the narrower vision of particular characters and scenarios, to the momentary vision of what happens from point to point in an adventure or scene. My solution to this is simple – I steal stuff outrageously from as many cultural sources as I can. I lift from music, novels, comics, movies, literature, my day-to-day experiences, anything I can get my hands on. It’s unlikely that (outside of the Lord of the Rings and Buffy) my players have seen much of what I’ve lifted, so occasionally someone will notice I’m copying but in general they won’t see a pattern. And of course even if they do, I just have to leaven it a bit with something novel, and they’ll never know. After a few campaigns all the players change and I can steal from myself too, it’s perfect. As Chumbawumba said (and they said it first!!!), there is nothing new under the sun, so why be ashamed? Things I’ve stolen include…

  • Magua from The Last of the Mohicans, who I stole wholesale and dumped straight into my last campaign, name, manners, speech patterns and all
  • Dragon-hunting from Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a beautiful moment in science fiction history (and I really want to steal the title at some point too)(and I’ve stolen this idea twice)
  • Ship names from Iain M. Banks
  • Ideas for spells, schools of magic and famous magicians from English literary genres (Romantics, Regency novelists, etc.)
  • Settings for adventures from, for example Ocean Thermal Energy Convertors (there was a ghost in the top room)
  • Monsters and equipment from role-playing settings as diverse as Dark Space, Shadowrun, Talislanta, Skyrealms of Jorune, and Traveller:2300
  • Adventure locations from real life – Tottori Castle and Lundy Island, Devon spring to mind but there have been many others

One big benefit of this is that the players are provided with something they know (except, obviously, in the case of Talislanta) and this gives them something to hang their own imagination onto. For example, a spell system based on existing literary genres made it very easy for the player playing a Priest to just make up new spells, and some of them were doozies – Suffer Not a Witch was a type of Dispel Magic, and Reveal the Spirit was a kind of Fascinate spell that worked really nicely into the narrative of the story. It’s easy for everyone to both invent the spell and visualise the effect when it’s tied to something they know, and gives everyone a grounding from which to develop a shared vision of the campaign. This is probably why I largely set my campaigns on Earth, with real historical or possible future scenarios to hold them together.

The forces of evolution, tectonic plates, and 500 years of English creative history trump any crap I’ve got to offer, so I just steal shamelessly from the lot, and serve up to my characters a smorgasboard of rebranded ideas that I’ve tried to stuff together into a coherent framework. Don’t be shy! No-one’s going to sue you, and if you describe it well, the players won’t even notice…

I’m fairly confident that Noisms, Sir Grognard, and in fact any the people on my blogroll except (maybe) Wax Banks would be quick to describe themselves as “not really much of a post-modernist,” and probably even be quite quick to tell me exactly what they think of the idea. But if we go and check, for example, the website of any of the role-playing bloggers regularly visited, we will soon find a pastiche of interests. For example, today on Grognardia we can see his current reading is Lord Darcy, classic pulp, but if we go back in time a bit we’ll find he was reading Conan, or Lord of the Rings, and we’ll find posts about Gamma World (which is obviously drawn from 50s popular fear of nuclear holocaust, and the lurid visions of its aftermath which were common in the media then). Over at Noisms’ place we find a heady mix of Tibetan mythology, classic sword and sorcery, some Cthulhu (a common theme across blogs), and an American (?) cartoon with Japanese animation, plus a graph and a bit of piracy.There’s some film noir in there too during his Warhammer period.

All of this, of course, against a regular backdrop of D&D, whose Appendices contain a highly eclectic reading list and which was itself influenced by such diverse arcana as Lord of the Rings, Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, ’30s pulp fiction, military history, and Jack Vance’s 60s science-fantasy. It’s a pastiche. And what is the classic theory of the pastiche? Post-modernism.

D&D is really just a mechanism for drawing together a whole bunch of quite disparate genres, themes, broad ideals and even creative media. We have miniatures at Grognardia, mapping at Eiglophian press, illustration at Back Screen Pass, possibly some music to set the scene, and of course everywhere we have that medium unique to role-playing – dice!! About the only new thing about it is the rules by which the merging is done – rules which bind the genres and the creative media altogether through the interaction of a group of people, but the first rule of which is that the rules themselves are mutable and open to challenge. It’s just a mechanism for reinterpreting diverse texts; and a mechanism, at that, which is subject to dispute even as the process is underway.

Which makes it post-modernism in a nutshell. It’s a critical theory! A synthesis!

Consider even the creative process by which all of this pastiche is synthesized. A group of players get together at a table. One might be completely naive to the whole process, one is probably a die-hard Lord of the Rings and pulp fantasy fan, one might have a strong interest in westerns and 50s memorabilia, another might be actually quite disinterested in fantasy and more of a sci-fi guy, and another might be heavily into anime and mecha. Another person creates a world, usually by pasting together a bunch of ideas they stole from other genres, and everyone creates a story collaboratively, using a set of rules which they argue about and change where necessary (the medium is itself contested during the creative process!) Also, the whole thing often happens in the presence of at least 2 mind-altering substances (caffeine and alcohol). At the end of the night, the DM writes it all up and chucks it on the internet, where it becomes… a text!

And, to chuck a final beautiful post-modern irony onto the whole thing, it’s safe to say that aside from a certain Dr. P[1],  and a certain Barbarian S[2], I’ve almost never had players who had any interest in post-modernism and who, if offered an opportunity to comment on this much-reviled form of modern art theory, will give a knee-jerk dismissive response, based on some kind of latent fear of “relativism”. They’re more likely to lay claim to an aesthetic, moral and cultural background in modernism, romanticism or neo-classicism than they are any kind of more recent wank like post-modernism. Yet there they are, clustered around a table, producing the perfect post-modern text, leaving Baudrillard and his shabby theories in the dust as they form from the raw material of multiple disparate texts and creative media the material of a perfect post-modern pastiche. This perfect post-modern art form is created by people who reject the underlying cultural theory almost in its entirety, and lay claim (mostly) to the very ethos it is supposed to replace!

We are all, as the Germans might say, post-modernists now…

fn1: whose critical interpretations of Bladerunner, by the way, were fantastic!

fn2: who had 2 mothers, not by a previous marriage scenario, and was studying genocide studies

In my previous post I mentioned stumbling across an analysis of cyberpunk and orientalism, which interests me for a lot of reasons, and I’ve subsequently decided that since I’m living in the shadow of the zaibatsu without a job, maybe it’s time I embarked on a shady criminal information-hacking project, so I’m going to try and read through the thesis I found and draw together some kind of themes or conclusions from the tangled mess that is postmodern critique.

… So to start with I thought I’d do a survey of what is already available on the internet about cyberpunk and postmodernism. According to this (awesomely brief) description,

markers of postmodernism recurring in cyberpunk include: the commodification of culture, the invasive development of information technology, a decentering and fragmentation of the “individual”; and a blurring of the boundaries between “high” and “popular” culture.

which maybe helps to pin down why cyberpunk is considered to have such strong links to postmodernism, and also to nihilism – which, incidentally, I didn’t realise had a whole branch of academic theory devoted to it, primarily stemming from the work of Baudrillard. I don’t want to pursue the discussion of nihilism too far though because I find it seems to get incomprehensible very rapidly. Interestingly though, the intersection of cyberpunk, nihilism – which posits an absence of external morality – and postmodernism, with its reputed objection to “truth”[1], draws in a lot of young christians. For example, this blog describes some common misconceptions about postmodernism held by its christian critics, and maybe helps to show what postmodernism is not. Obviously, those whose religion is based on a single text are going to have some big issues with postmodernism, which is all about criticising the relationship between “the text”[2] and “truth”.

Modern feminism has also found an interest in cyberpunk, as a fictional representation of the liberating effect of technology for modern women. This is briefly discussed here, with again some reference to the Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway.  This could be interesting if it led me back to Haraway, whose work I struggled with many years ago with the help of a friend. I hope it doesn’t, though, because I’m largely not up to dealing with her language… But I don’t think I’ll be pursuing any further feminist involvement in cyberpunk in and of itself (though I may stumble across some in time), because I only have limited time and my main concern is the Orientalist part[4].

The thesis I have started reading states its perspective on the importance of cyberpunk for postmodernism in the introduction:

Cyberpunk’s postmodern scene, the flow of people, goods, information and power across international boundaries, is theorized in Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism as the cultural logic of late or third stage multinational capitalism, fully explicated in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(1991). Importantly, Jameson finds cyberpunk to be a significant manifestation of this, the “supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself”(419). … Moreover, this postmodern scene, a global array of disjunctive flows, specifically encompasses Japan: the multinationals, for example, are depicted as Japanese zaibatsu.

I’m inclined to agree with most of this position, though I’m going to skip over the supreme importance bit to see what our resident theorist has to say about Gibson’s view of Japan from the perspective of Orientalism, which he goes on to say will try to

“get beyond the reified polarities of East versus West” and in a “concrete way attempt to understand the heterogeneous and often odd developments” (Culture and Imperialism 41). By exploring a number of particular theoretical positions and terminologies, my intention is to work toward highlighting the dynamic of reflexivity inherent in postmodern orientalism.

(The quotes here are quotes of Said). This paragraph is easier understood in the context of the abstract, in which our resident theorist explains that his view of “postmodern orientalism” describes

uneven, paradoxical, interconnected and mutually implicated cultural transactions at the threshold of East-West relations. The thesis explores this by first examining cyberpunk’s unremarked relationship with countercultural formations (rock music), practices (drugs) and manifestations of Oriental otherness in popular culture.

This distinguishes the modern cyberpunk narrative of the orient from that of previous centuries, described by Said, in which the imaginative process is entirely one way – western writers and academics taking parts of the orient that appealed to them to form their own pastiche of cultural and aesthetic ideals of the orient which suit their own stereotypes; and then using these to bolster a definition of the West in opposition to an imagined Orient. In the cyberpunk world, characterised by postmodern orientalism, the Orient is actively engaging with, challenging or subverting the images which western writers and academics form of the East, and importing its own distorted images of the West, in a form of postmodern cultural exchange.

This cultural exchange is very interesting to me, and has been a topic of rumination for me on my other blog ever since I came to Japan. It’s clear that the West “dreams” the orient[5], not seeing much of what is really happening here; but at the same time the Orient has its own fantasies of the west, which have become increasingly influential in the west as the power of Japanese and Chinese media enables them to project their own images of the West back to it[6]. Both parts of the world also have their dreams of their own identity, and often these definitions are constructed at least partially in contrast to their dual opposite; but recently, with increased cultural exchange, it’s possible to see these identities becoming more diverse (at least in the Orient) as the “Other” hemisphere becomes less alien and the distinction between “Eastern” and “Western” blurs. I am interested to see if this phenomenon is sufficiently identifiable as to be described by a theory of postmodern orientalism, and that’s why I’m reading this thesis…

So, that’s the outline of what we’re aiming for. Strap yourselves in kids. We’ve taken the Blue pill…

[1] I think this is a misreading of postmodernist theory, which mainly seems to argue that the way we interpret truth is coloured by our cultural and linguistic assumptions. There’s an excellent example of this in the paper “The Egg and the Sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on sterotypical male-female roles”, Emily Martin, Signs(1991): 16(3), 485-501.

[2] “the text” is like a classic postmodern bullshit bingo cliche, but I actually think it’s a really useful word for catching the broad sense of what post-modernists[3] talk about when they do their critical analyses

[3] I’m really quite certain that I routinely confuse post-modernists and deconstructuralists, (deconstructionists?), but I don’t care because it’s their fault not mine. Nobody confuses a statistician and a mathematician, do they?

[4] Though actually I doubt one would have to google very far to find that Orientalism as a concept would have been significantly boosted by better consideration of gender relations…

[5] mostly, in the case of Japan, through a series of wet dreams or nightmares, but still…

[6] Consider, for example, the West as presented to the West by Miyazaki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or in Full Metal Alchemist[7]

[7] I just want to point out here that if I was going to be a proper academic wanker like Said I would present these names in untranslated Japanese, on the assumption that you, dear reader, can just read everything, or that if you can’t you’re a worthless loser who doesn’t deserve to know what I’m talking about. Aren’t I nice?