Saturday, April 2, 2016

Tolkien As Bad GM vs The German Illustrator (Thought Eater)

Here is a pair of entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ETS" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Reading Tolkien Is Like Gaming With A Bad GM

My first attempt to read Tolkien was in middle school, when I read the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t want to finish it, but I’d picked it for a book report or something and by the time I realized I didn’t like it, it was too late to switch to something else. A few years later, I read The Hobbit and really enjoyed it. I decided maybe I was just too young the first time around, and started the trilogy again. This time I got about halfway through the second book before deciding The Hobbit was an anomaly and giving up on Middle Earth. Many years later, the movies were announced and I decided that if the guy who made Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles was willing to dedica te the better part of a decade to these books, I needed to give them another try. Once again, I made it about halfway through the second book before getting bored with it. 

The Middle Earth books have good characters, a good story, and a richly-detailed setting, but I  just can’t get through them. Part of the problem is Tolkien’s writing style. I tend to prefer writers who embrace Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” so Tolkien’s overwritten prose just isn’t my thing. To his credit, at least Tolkien uses one unit of well-written (if overwrought) prose to describe one thing or aspect of a thing rather than spewing a bunch of repetitive nonsense in the apparent belief that the more words you use, the smarter you are. I gave up on Game of Thrones when I hit a sentence that used three adjectives, a couple of adverbs, two similes, and a handful of metaphors so inapplicable even Dan Brown wouldn’t try to pass them off as legitimate that each informed me that blood was red. Tolkien’s writing style is kind of pretentious, but at least it’s not bad writing. 

While Tolkien’s writing isn’t my bag, the reason reading his books is like gaming with a bad GM is that he had a tendency to tell rather than show. You don’t feel like you’re reading an adventure story, you feel like you’re reading a history textbook or a series of encyclopedia entries. There’s no momentum to the story. The same thing happens in a bad game, but in a different format. You burst through the door, sword in hand ready to bash some orc...and then you have to stop and wait for the GM to read a purple-prose-filled description from a grey box in the module (or worse, his own bad writing), often in a droning monotone. Or you spend an entire contrived scene dealing with a cha racter, landmark, or other game world artifact that adds little or nothing to the story but is shoehorned into the session because the GM (or whoever wrote the supplement) created it and by God it’s going to show up in the story. Or the game grinds to a halt for 20 minutes while the GM looks through his notes for some detail nobody cares about. Or the GM (especially during character creation) tells you “you can’t do that” for some obscure game-world reason. 

Basically, my problem with Tolkien is that Middle Earth is so over-designed that he spends more time telling the reader about the world than telling them the story. The Tolkien school of over-design, which has been embraced by most gamers, tells you that more detail means a better world, but in my experience it’s more likely to slow the adventure to a crawl, limit character options, and bore the players with minutia. It’s not the quantity of details that’s important, it’s the quality. A few telling details that help the players (or readers) visualize and understand the flavor of a place will make it seem more alive than a whole book full of detailed information about its system of gover nment, imports and exports, demographics, and history and telling them who would play an NPC in the movie gives them a better sense of the character than giving them a Wikipedia-style entry. The players need a few details they can latch onto, not huge piles of data that make their eyes glaze over.   

Another problem I’ve seen with overly designed worlds, especially in games, is that when someone puts that much time and effort into something, they don’t like other people breaking it. As a result, the players may feel railroaded because the GM resists any course of action that might cause a major upheaval that isn’t part of the storyline the GM planned for. If the players do manage to change the status quo, the GM immediately goes into damage control mode to contrive ways of returning everything back to the way it was (or as close to it as possible). 

You can really see the Tolkien’s over-design when you compare him to someone  like Robert E. Howard. When Tolkien mentions some far-away place, he usually gives you a lot of detail that’s mostly irrelevant to the current scene or story. By the time he gets back to the action, you’ve forgotten what was happening. When Howard mentions some faraway place, he may give you a short and evocative description, but then it’s right back to Conan and his mighty thews. The reader only learns more when and if Conan ends up there, or when more information is needed to move the plot along. This difference is in part due to economics: Tolkien was a well-off Oxford professor, so he had plenty of time t o spend designing his world. Howard was grinding out stories to pay the rent, so he didn’t have the luxury of wasting on unnecessary world building. The unintentional result is that Tolkien’s world feels like a museum where you can look at exhibits and hear lectures, while Howard’s feels like a living world full of mystery and adventure. 

A few years ago, some friends and I were talking about the difference between Tolkien-style fantasy and American fantasy. During the conversation, I mentioned my theory that Tolkien’s meticulous world design actually detracted from his stories and that part of the appeal of the pulp stories is the sense that so much of the world is unknown and therefore full of potential. The conversation led to a pick-up sword & sorcery game that turned into an occasional ongoing campaign (we’re spread out over several states and have conflicting schedules that so far haven’t allowed us to play online). In part to test my theory and in part because it made taking turns as GM easier, we decided that a ll world design had to happen “on-screen.” You can brainstorm all you want, but nothing’s cannon until the characters encounter it themselves during a session. We’ve only played the game a handful of times, but since everyone’s still excited about the game despite the long (sometimes a year or more) hiatuses between sessions, it seems to be working. The things we know about the world wouldn’t come close to filling a typical D&D sourcebook, but the things we don’t know about the world are infinite, and those are the parts we can’t wait to discover. 

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "REH
" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

“Say something original about any RPG illustrator” is one of the subjects of the second round of the thought eater essay contest. I call Patrick and ask him if I can come over to talk to him about his work. He says he has too much to do, he needs to fix his brother’s computer, do a poster for a filipino film festival and whatnot. He adds that he has founded a company half a year ago, turning board games into apps and that I can’t imagine how much work that is. After we talk on the phone for an hour, he invites me to come and see him anyway.

No matter when you call him, Patrick is overworked. When he started out as an illustrator and layouter for small German RPG companies, we met a couple of times to play 40K on his carpet, using tooth brushes to represent Tyranid Lictors and shoe boxes for buildings. A cool thing about Patrick is that he has a film playing in his head, when most people are trying to figure out how the rules work. In those days he consumed nothing but a bowl of rice and a bottle of beer a day to save money and he tried not to sleep too much to work more. Once, he got up at 6 on a Monday morning, after working till 4 because of some deadline, and immediately did some pushups. He collapsed and had to creep to the telephone to call a doctor. The doctor said: “You need more free time. Do you have a hobby?” Then we started to play 40K a lot. Of course, Patrick got a bit obsessive about it, painting the same miniatures over and over again and planning extensive campaigns we never played. I remember, he tried to persuade me once to paint a whole chaos space marine army over the weekend. Eventually we stopped playing 40K.

Writing this essay isn’t easy. “Original” and “interesting” are not my main concerns. I think nobody wrote about Patrick before. In general, writing about another person, especially about an old friend should be done with some respect. My problem is, I always see the funny side of things, and Patrick does not like this, I’m afraid. Humour is a disrespectful thing and Patrick has high moral standards. Once he complained that I do “slapstick routines” of other people. That’s not true, but I know what he means. Also Patrick easily feels misunderstood and offended. We had endless discussions playing 40K. About how many terminators can leave a rhino in one round or if Wall Street is an evil place or not.

I’m at his house for about an hour, watching him repair his brother’s computer. Then his brother leaves to fetch some food and we sit down and talk. “Did you write down any questions?”, he asks. “No. No.” We talk about his work. He says in Germany RPG illustrators are not well paid. If you want to do this, you often compete against people drawing ghouls and fairies as a side job or hobby, and if illustrators are really good, they stop working for German companies and start working for international ones. “There are RPG illustrators who draw day and night. They kick ass. They are like a machete. I’m not one of them. I’m a Swiss army knife. I can do a lot of things. If detailed wood carving is required, I’m the man you are looking for.”

He shows me a book he did the layout for. He is proud of the result, but complains about the process. Apparently he got into a fight about his payment with the publisher. “Did you draw this dwarf?”, I ask. “No.” He shows me some illustrations on the side of the pages, some dice, a weapon. “I did this. And this and this.” “Do you still do illustrations as private commissions? For people who need a picture of their character?” “Yes. I like to do that. It’s not well paid either. But I can try out new techniques. Grow.” “How much do you take for a picture?” “45€”

I ask Patrick: “Do you think fantasy illustrations can be original?”

I’m thinking: Maybe the emphasis on “original” is an American thing. The idea that you can discover a new land, the great planes of the West, moon and mars. In Europe every stone has been turned around a thousand times.

Patrick says, you could call the shift from simple black and white drawings in early RPG books to coloured realistic illustrations in recent publications “original”. Now realism becomes more and more important, he adds.

I’m thinking: Why is that so? How can realism be important, depicting things that do not exist outside our heads?

Patrick: “All good fantasy illustrators can draw realistic pictures of human beings in different dynamic heroic poses. What makes one better than the other is the background.” “The background? You mean, the world they create?” “Yes”, he says.

I show him A RED & PLEASANT LAND by Zak Smith. It’s an awkward moment. Patrick knows that I like the book and I know that he doesn’t. And he knows that I know that. I ask: “Do you think this is original?” The question feels like a trap. He says: “No. It’s retro.” He says something about “künstlerische Bohème”. I have no idea what he means. He asks how popular the book is. “It won 4 ENnie awards.” “I have never heard about the ENnie awards.” “They are very important RPG industry awards, I guess. Also, Zak Smith was one of the advisors for the new edition of D&D.” “Sometimes people get into positions like that because of their popularity in social media networks”, Patrick says. This doesn’t lead anywhere. Patrick is in his fight mode now. He can’t accept that somebody, whose work he doesn’t like, can still be very successful.

I try something else. We are on his balcony now. Patrick smokes a cigarette. I say: “When I worked as a second assistant for a theatre director in Frankfurt who was an asshole, screaming at people for making little mistakes, no, not even mistakes, for opening a door during rehearsal, I went to a cinema near the train station and watched PULP FICTION and was blown off my seat. I had never seen anything like it. Did you ever feel like that looking at the work of any RPG illustrator?” Patrick goes back inside, to his bookshelf, and brings the book DEGENESIS by Christian Günther and Marko Djurdjevic. “Yes. This book. Take a look at it. Man, I’m sorry. I think I have to help my brother finish fixing his computer now.” “Yes, of course. It’s late. You know, I always respected you a lot because you never gave up your dreams.” “But I did give up my dreams.” “You worked for the biggest German tabletop and RPG companies. And you seem to be more clear about your work now. You always wanted to be in charge of things. You even wanted to be the boss, when we played 40K, and now you have your own company.” He lights another cigarette. He says: “In political discussions with your cousin, you sometimes thought I was stupid, because my ideas are unpopular. I have talked a lot about these things with my father and other people, I have informed myself, about conspiracy theories and such things. This gives me a lot of self-confidence.” “Ok.” “Do me a favour. Please don’t mention my name or what companies I worked for.” “Ok. Why?” “That’s better. You can make stuff up.” “You want me to write a realistic essay about an imaginary fantasy illustrator?” “Yes.” “Can I call you Patrick?” “Yes.”

While Patrick is deleting files on his brother’s computer, I sit in the other room and flick through DEGENESIS and the latest edition of DAS SCHWARZE AUGE which looks a bit like a low budget copy of D&D. That’s the problem with German pop culture. It always imitates its big brother. I look at all kinds of creatures called Katzenhexe, Krötenhexe, Rabenhexe, Gindos, der hundsköpfige Tod and Dushani, die Stimme der Fäulnis. In my head I go through the things Patrick has said: “A game like DAS SCHWARZE AUGE has more depth than D&D, but the rules are not streamlined, too complicated. These days, people buy it out of nostalgia, without ever playing it.” I remember a discussion we once had about how the 40K ruleset has more depth than PIRATES! by Flagship Games. Depth? What the fuck?

Before I leave, Patrick’s brother says: “I hope I didn’t take too much time away from what you wanted to do with Patrick.” “No, actually, I took your time. Patrick wanted to repair your computer. I’m sorry.”

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