Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Through Whose Looking Glass?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.: "Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable."

Samuel Johnson wrote, "Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble."

Faulkner once said, "Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself."

Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world."

Nietzsche wrote, "The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe."

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." Albert Einstein

"If I am what I have and if I lose what I have, who then am I?" German psychologist Erich Fromm

Voltaire wrote, "There are some that only employ words for the purpose of disguising their thoughts."

"Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?"  James Madison

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"The Court Martial of Hiller C. Ranton"

"The Court Martial of Hiller C. Ranton"

Testimony of the Naval Court of Inquiry regarding the sinking of Captain Ranton's ship, the "Banal."


Court Record 1. On the morning of 21 August Cpt. Ranton ordered his ship to steer a course through uncharted waters of what is now known as Shallow Bay.  The result of this order lead the ship to hit a coral reef, tearing a hole in the Banal's hull.  Immediate flooding occurred and the ship sank to its deck.  There was no loss of life.  The HMS Dragon was dispatched to rescue survivors after receiving an S.O.S. from the Banal.  The Dragon arrived at the following scene as described by its officer of the deck, Lt. Commander Gestalt:

"The whole scene was chaos.  Naval personnel gazing this way and that, some shouting orders, but most in a mad rush to collect floating objects as fast as they could.  I distinctly recall Captain Ranton amid this turmoil trying to organize the mess.  He floundered from one group to the next whereat he read from one of the two texts he held separately in each hand.  Upon noting the arrival of Dragon he swam to us and we hauled him aboard.  Then began the retrieval of the Banal's crew."

In further testimony Lt. Commander Gestalt notes Captain Ranton's demeanor:

"It was one of haggardness brought upon by drink, I'd say.  His eyes were focused away from me as I sought to get him out of his wet clothes.  He fiercely gripped two books which he intended not to be parted from, but with some gentle persuasion I claimed these, plus a third from his trowser's back  pocket…"

Court Record 2.  These three titles are hereafter included in the court record as exhibits, E/A, E/B, E/C:

E/A: "How to do Anything, Anywhere, Anytime and Under Any Condition, So Help Me Goebbels"  --authors, various; edited and with commentary by H. C. Ranton

E/B:  "My Camp"  --original author's inscription defaced throughout and signed instead by Captain Ranton as the inditer

E/C:  "Mixology Made Easy" --Swill Press, 2002

Court Record 3.  Banal Crew Testimonies, abstracts.

1st Mate Noermynd:  "It all seemed so strange, you know?  We were well read and all, the Captain saw to that with his books. He'd rail on us to learn his ways; he was relentless in teaching us about every contingency, how to expect any course change in anything.  I  just don't understand how this happened; I really don't…"

Of special note are those testimonies of new recruits, known as Newbies by the Banal's crew:

Seaman Uppend:  "Well, with all due respect for the Captain and the officers, I was rightly confused.  He and they kept at us newcomers, saying that we had to read what they were reading to really know anything, and not to think, just do, you know?  One time I gave a suggestion and one of the officers, well, he looked in this book and said, "'Nope, it's not in here, doesn't apply, get back to duty.'"

Seaman Zerozum:  "There was so much pressure on the ship and every one talked the same, I mean, you know, THE SAME, repeating things over and over which I'd never heard at the Academy, but who was I, just a Newbie and scoffed at.  "They'd teach me," so many said, and I tried to believe, I did…"

Court Record 4.  Captain Ranton's testimony, abstracts.

"I followed protocol. I do it by the book and only the book, so help me…. ah… I do it by the book."

"I taught them by the book, even when we'd foundered I read passages in the water to inspire "My Camp," eh, erh, my crew, that is.  Yes.  My crew.  I followed protocol, I did it by the book.  How else is one to be inspired?  That is how I was taught, that is how I command, how I teach.  By the book and only by the book, so help me… ah, yes…"

When court appointed Navy psychologists were allowed to cross examine Captain Ranton they asked if the first book (E/A) was the book used in heightening crew response.  He refused to answer the question, but it is noted that he continued to look at exhibit E/A from then on out while requesting various mixed drinks.

Conclusion:  It is the Court's conclusion that Captain Ranton be penalized in full for violations of military code as set forth in the attached rider, Duty Codes Violated.  Captain Ranton is hereby discharged without ceremony and remanded to the Naval Care Facility at Long Beach for detoxification to last no more than 3 months. At his request the Long Beach Naval Hospital will provide a detention cell of bamboo for his comfort and ease.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Favorite Steve Jobs Quotes X2

"Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sir Ken Robinson: On Creativity

"I think it would be misleading, because the reason is people have to take a personal journey. This is your life, it’s not my life and you have to figure out what you want from it. What we can do, I think, is give people some navigational tools for that trip and some clear principles and examples and some techniques that they can use.
"It’s a two-way journey. The first is, in terms of being in your element and finding your greatest strength, is you have to go inward. You’re a unique person. Everybody is unique, a unique moment in history, and you have to be prepared to be honest with yourself and to spend time with yourself evaluating either the interest you know you’ve got or the ones you thought you would like to explore but never did. The things that you were drawn to, the things that you haven’t yet tried, the things that you would liked to have explored but you never did, the things that maybe you did but you were stopped from taking any further. But you have to do your own map of yourself. The book will have some help for that."  Sir Ken Robinson, from an interview here.

Two Books He has Written:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Save Me From Tomorrow: In Pictures

“The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed”—Hitler's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels

Monday, August 22, 2011

Emile and Event Streams: A Moral Viewpoint on DMs and Players as People

This is my final online post regarding the GM Challenge now raging towards its ultimate conclusion at various blogs.  This was noted in a recent topic in which I made my points. However, they were probably not as clear as I had hoped.  Such is this medium's lack and much can be lost in translation; but in retrospect I will say that I have read the vast majority of these posts by each contributing author.  Whereas Grendlewulf and the fine chap at Gothridge Manor come close to the idea it is my opinion that these still do not go back far enough in the event stream to pin down what I consider to be the most important point.

I will further explain by posing among the commentary some fictitious (though not tongue-in-cheek) examples; for this "Build a Better GM"challenge is certainly beginning to look like a group of older artists, say from the late 1800's to early 1900's, who upon gathering at Paris or Brussels find themselves sipping tea or coffee whilst discussing among themselves their various techniques.

Event Stream

Back drop:  A notable art gallery.  Seated in one of the viewing rooms are several artists who have a number of their pieces on display and within view.  They openly discuss the merits of these and the techniques used in crafting them...

Seurat (to Gaugin):  Your paintings jump before the eyes, Guagin!  They illuminate even this dull parlor.
(looking sidelong at Van Gogh): Unlike poor Vincent's, which are too dark, I fear.

Gaugin (absently):  Ah, but the hand minds the eye's choice in such matters, does it not?  True, the shades are darker, and in Paris his works do not sell as well, mostly for lack of appreciation of them I'd say, but they do voice his intent.

Van Gogh (to both):  I paint what I feel.  I express.  And I do not want for others; it is not that I detest light so much as I can appreciate the darker shades, as well.  Life is my palette and no other.

Seurat:  Yes, indeed, but you miss the greater import of which Gaugin has exposed in part.  Impressionism, Vincent, is now upon us.  The galleries, the institutes which you despise, they are alive with it!  The students, the public and the art sellers, they all clamor for more.  You are not adapting to the times; even your brother thinks so.

Van Gogh:  Times change as do moods.  There have been masters before us and there will be many that follow.  I am not concerned with the past or the future, but only with that moment when I apply my brush.

Gaugin:  Well said, Vincent; and in that you remain you, Seurat remains himself and I remain Gaugin.  Time for some more refreshments.  Absinthe anyone?

Note:  The 3rd highest priced painting to sell in the world was VVG's last self-portrait:  72+ million dollars.  He is notable for being one of the few to resist institutional learning (i.e., conformist views of the time), though he had some institutional training in anatomy/human proportion. Though having great respect for the artists of his time and their methods he stayed to his own course.  He did not start painting until he was 20 years of age.

Moral Questions1 (grouped):  How best will we as neophyte instructors of RPG teach newcomers who seek learning, and in the broadest possible sense of that term, when we just could be, just may be, be teaching another M. A. R. Barker to be without even knowing it?  And who is to say that all players or DMs could not be up and coming geniuses?  For as Picasso said:

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

My commentary from the second response in that thread:

Let's extend the process a little further. What if the creative force of an individual gravitates towards more story-telling as they find in that process certain ways to improve latent talents and interests, whether theirs and/or in concert with a group who might share that interest?  It is possible by design to create such matter as hereby concluded, say in creating a city and having as the adventuring focus the intrigues of a greater political backdrop therein. This is only one example of the range that is possible within expression; and that cannot be treated as a lump sum technique, but will instead be fashioned according to taste and need as their story unfolds.

..."There are no tricks, no short-cuts." And I mean this generally, as an aggregate that cannot be passed along to a group.  If they exist at all it is within the specific confines of an individual who has implemented these according to their creative thrust; and that creative thrust depends on a personalized and very singular story*.

*Note:  Easily restated as--"...creative thrust depends on a personalized and very singular approach."

Let me conclude this part by saying that the bolded sentence--If they exist at all it is within the specific confines of an individual who has implemented these according to their creative thrust;--refers in fact to what all of those responding to the challenge have indeed emulated! Each and every one of you has discovered over time, by learning, by challenge, by reading, by thinking, and by many other methods distinct to each and every one of you, you have discovered and brought into being from your experiences 3 creative particles. There was value in that learning, that discovery for you, wasn't there?  That is why you can feel assured now in presenting these points.  And now you want to pass yours along to "Build" (I suppose that means create) those in an image of it as you faintly understand it.  In so doing you hope to help those who supposedly can not help themselves (even though each of you have done so in each and every case, that is, over time you have learned and progressed).

Moral Questions2 (grouped):  Doesn't this very combined process expose all too clearly a dichotomy?  In implementing this to "indoctrinate" newcomers and thus steer them among the choices presented, is this not channeling them along different paths that each of you took for arriving at your own individual viewpoints?  How does this fit within the description and exercise of individuality for newcomers as each and every one of you have experienced for yourselves?  If your past experiences and processes have produced for yourselves a heightened degree of knowledge, what are the consequences of not allowing (or foreshortening) that same learning and growth path to occur in others?  Do you agree or disagree that only value-added experiences spur growth (if you believe that these two mix, then please refer to the preceding question which I reiterate as my last)? 

Continuing Upon the Event Stream...

A short conversation between Socrates and a student, Ancient Greece

Student:  Socrates.  As you have instructed me, I have a question.
Socrates (nods):  Continue.
Student (smiling):  Who taught the first teacher?
Socrates (unshaken):  Life.
Student (puzzled):  If that is true then I need only to learn life; and if that is true, then why am I here and why do you teach?
Socrates:  In answer to the first:  You have not acquired that path due to indolence, a common human failing.  In that lies the answer to the second.

Moral Questions3 (grouped):  Are we to assume that every newcomer who is drawn to our creative hobby is doing so only for base reasons, such as:  Boredom?  Companionship? Lack of anything else better to do? Game-play fun? Or might they have been attracted for some of the same reasons that many of us were?  Such as artistic inclination? Creative freedom?  Related intellectual pursuits? Broadening of knowledge?  The list is endless, of course, in both extremes, so how do we best serve the whole without limiting its parts?

Conclusion:  We are dealing with unique individuals; they are not plug-and-play objects easily fitted one after the other into categories no matter what we think is true, or is the "norm," amongst ourselves.  We owe it to newcomers and ourselves to be cautious and concerned in the matter of teaching and its methods.

These are the "3" I feel most strongly promote that balanced goal:

1.  Each person is different, thus you have an obligation to identify that difference and nurture it in the best way that you can for their benefit.  This specific tact will benefit the whole group.

2.  That this course is best served by specific approaches rather than inundating each individual with a shot-gun blast of information and choices.  This will allow each person the time to grow, understand and communicate their needs and interests, which thereafter can be honed by your participation in a mentoring situation.

3. Through this course you as the DM and your players will grow and excel, not just in the game, but in life as well.  It will prepare your players for DMing with a courage they have won, a knowledge they have gained, and all through your patience, perseverance and subtle guidance.

Ending event stream, Master Owl and the Grasshopper

Master Owl:  What is best?  To serve or to be served?
Grasshopper:  They are one in the same, Master Owl.
Master Owl (pausing):  How so?
Grasshopper:  In either I do my best and appreciate the contentment displayed in the acts
Master Owl:  You are wise, grasshopper...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Another Look at Garden of the Plantmaster (1987 version)

At Fire in the Jungle.

And for those who never got the colorized map and key released in the online version, circa 1996:

Friday, August 19, 2011

Interesting Discussion Starting at HC

here: http://hillcantons.blogspot.com/

in the topic entitled: Building a Better GM: A Challenge

I interject my thoughts about the base assumption by pointing to a separation of technique and creative force, which seemingly has been lumped into one facet of a "How To?" process.  My response is posted there and is quoted below.

You are confusing technique with creative force. There is no "How to" to CF, that is bred at birth, greatly expanded (or not) during childhood,  intuitively practiced in later years (or not) and thereafter grown and sustained (or not) by each and every individual.

It is like asking, "How best is it to write?" as I have knowledge of the techniques of writing. The best answer to mastering any such hands-on subject is to do it and therein find your own creative form.  This addresses "form" vs "formula" the latter which seems so prevalent in this medium.

Each DM's form will also differ according to the range of material being presented  "in each moment,"  just as different types of stories have varying  weights applied to  them at different times by the author creating these.Also note the last question of my [recent] interview as this is a better starting point, mastering story, for any GM as far as techniques go, and this too cannot be tricked into being.

Also, this question is being asked in a vacuum.  It addresses current DMs (i.e. largely considered as a whole, "veteran DMs") and their thoughts on this as culled from experience but does not, as far as I can see within it, address fledgling DMs, that is, newcomers to the art.  While exclusionary, it paints a definite process which was not true for those veterans when newcomers themselves.

The process of learning to DM/story-telling is best discovered in the trenches by  creating our own dungeons/locales.  This personalizes the experience 100% and builds in layers of confidence, objectivity and other enhancements of a greater type not found in running  pre-made adventures. The difference between creating your own story and reading it aloud rather than reading aloud another's. 

For the most part many of us were weaned  in "Fun House" climes; but whatever the "adventure"  environment, one learns rudiments and essentials and these thereafter take root and grow according to the prevailing creative force in every individual as expressed through personal understanding and application, and in differing degrees.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


   "Vain are the thousand creeds
 That move men's hearts: unutterably vain;
    Worthless as withered weeds,
 Or idlest froth amid the boundless main..."  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Just Dropping In

It's always good to say hello now and then.

I have been occupied with rest ever since my return from NTRPGCON 3.  I have managed to finish an interview started months ago and that should be published on another blog very soon.

Fight On! magazine will  be dedicating an issue to me, I believe it's #14, and Allan Grohe is sending them an article I originally published in Wargames Magazine, IIRC, back in 1977 or thereabouts.

My immediate projects proceed slowly while matching the re-energizing I'm getting from a very demanding personal and health challenging 2010. 

North Texas wore me out, however, fun though it always is.  The Workshop was a great success and I will run it again next year.  The adventure we designed in the six hours participants colluded to do so was DMed by me the very next day , though the players in that might as well have been zombies, instead, as they were frightfully slow, disorganized and made me, tired as I was throughout the entire convention, seem spry by comparison.  Hate to say it, but that's the truth.

It has been tentatively named, "The Mad House"; and it will eventually find print through NTRPGCON as an added way of generating income for the convention.

One participant in the workshop said during it, "Wow!  I cannot believe what we've accomplished in an hour's time!" They were a good crew; and my hat goes off to them and to David Rhea, Doug's son, who participated at an ever increasing and creative pace as we continued.  He wishes to design solid adventures and called the whole ordeal, "Just Crazy!" 

That's about it.  I will not be posting too much on a regular basis, sorry.  The pace I kept up before, coupled with the demands of writing and research, means that I have to cut somewhere.  I just don't have the energy for blogs and forums and even my Q&A on DF has suffered due to this.  However, that means that I can concentrate on the creative for print, and that has been my only concern for years, so it is not alien to me.

Pied Piper Publishing is no more due to my health.  I cannot manage it on all levels.  It was a nice run under the imprint; but imprints are just that.  I will continue to write when time, health and inspiration combine and allow me to do so.

Find out more when my interview is published; should be very soon.

Good Gaming to all!


PS--I wish to thank all of you, especially Scottz, for the wonderful articles that you posted here and wish you all continued good luck with your creative endeavors!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Valhalla Rising

Well, Robilar, wherever you are, I hope your treasury is full and your dragons well-fed.

While you're out perhaps exploring the City of the Gods, I was wondering if anyone hanging about here had any thoughts on the movie "Valhalla Rising." I just saw it and was baffled. I read a few reviews and they're split into two camps -- those who see it as genius and those who regard it as a steaming pile of dung. I am of both opinions, strangely. This is what I wrote in reaction to one of those negative reviews and I was wondering if anyone had an enlightened (and enlightening) take on it -- even if it's a violently negative one:

I enjoyed your review: it perfectly described half of my reaction to this movie. But the other half of me wanted this movie to say and mean something. I actually got invested in two of the characters , One-Eye and the Boy (predictably, I think). I felt the cinematography was breath taking and invested with symbolic meaning – but for the life of me I couldn’t decode it (at least on a first viewing – I don’t know if I’ll give it a second look). The strange thing is that I’m usually pretty good at finding meaning – it’s what I do for a living (teaching and writing about some of the most obscure English poetry ever conceived). I also know a fair bit about old Norse mythology and about mythic syncretism – e.g. the relationship between the stories of Odin (a one-eyed sacrifice) and Christ – but, still, the meaning wasn’t really coming together.

However, after reading some extremely negative reviews of the film (including yours – which I really have no argument with) and a few positive ones (that call it “genius” without really saying why), I started to cobble something together. The violence of that negative reception, is that anything like the violence in the film? Your review isn’t really “violent” per se, but it is frustrated and pissed-off, right? You want the film to say something (like me) and it doesn’t – isn’t that a bit like One Eye? There are interpreters (like the Boy) – various reviewers you might say – and they make guesses at what his meaning is, what One-Eye is doing or thinks or wants – but he’s as mute as a hanged Odin, as mute as this film. People try to enslave, beat, dominate and control One Eye but, like the totally obscure meaning of this film, it/he can’t really be summed up and “controlled” by any one explanation. In the end, One Eye is killed by multiple figures all as enigmatic and silent as himself – multiple meanings that can go in all kinds of different directions (and simply fade into the wilderness). It’s a meta-film, you might say, about interpreting film.

I think this also relates to the mythic syncretism of the movie – how it wants to draw parallels between Odin and Christ, how they are echoes of each other in many ways. As the Chieftain says to the kid in that interminable boat scene, the story of Christ essentially gives you an explanation for who you are and where you’re going: it puts the chaos of experience in order. That’s a fairly interesting take on religious motivations (although it’s been done before). The need to make meaning from a film is the same need that gives rise to religion.

I usually don’t like interpretations such as this because it assumes there’s a meaning (that it’s all about meaning-making) when, in fact, it could just be a poorly crafted movie. I felt frustrated through the whole experience, thinking that I deserved just a few clues about what was going on – but your review got me thinking and I feel better, now. I don’t imagine I’ve convinced you, but I wouldn’t mind hearing from some of the people above who felt they “got it” – I’d like further clarification. I realize that, to the extent that I’ve made any meaning out of this film, it just amounts to an act of faith.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cold Texts Have Moved...

The 'droning' continues on its own site:

See you there...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


If you can spare a couple of minutes, please watch this great presentation on Changing Education Paradigms from the RSA. It mentions divergent thinking and multiple solutions...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review - Bennett's Six Medieval Men and Women

Old School 'D&D' and games carrying on its spirit are really about characters. How they live. How they die. What principles make a brash wizard or a humble fighter go into the dark? Fortune? Glory? The challenge of fighting evil?

Given these questions, which each player and DM answers in their own way, a perennial 'discussion' bounces around the Internet about a character's 'endgame'. What happens when fortune and glory are earned by a character over a course of time?

H.S. Bennett's book, Six Medieval Men & Women, can offer DM's and players some simple and accessible ideas on fleshing out the active life of a hero or heroine and basic treatments for campaign life beyond the dungeon. The book casts a light on the following lives from history (linked below to their Wikipedia articles):
  1. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
  2. Sir John Fastolf
  3. Thomas Hoccleve
  4. Margaret Paston (Mrs. Paston doesn't have her own Wikipedia page, but the family letters do.)
  5. Margery Kempe
  6. Richard Bradwater (in an ironic twist, the only peasant written about in the book doesn't have a Wikipedia entry. Some things never change...)
It's fair to say that much of fantasy's symbolic language is drawn from medieval Europe, particularly the original World of Greyhawk setting materials and modules which I drone on and on about. From the Greyhawk/Gygaxian corner of fantasy worlds, the personages above and the lives they lead can be particularly inspirational. As the DM is the players true 'link' to the campaign world - not the dice - the way that historical characters interact with the world around them is particularly valuable and should be studied by everyone.

From the book's text on its subjects, a DM can take away much insight:
  • Humphrey's life gives insight into familial and political connections and the lives of royalty. While most adventurers don't necessarily hail from the 'upper class' strata of a game world, the rise and fall of a nobleman offers useful NPC background info. Humphrey's life suggests the value of characters building connections with the powerful, and his life offers more than a few 'slots' where adventurers 'outside the system' could gain prestige. As a member of the Order of the Garter, it ties in with chivalrous (or nefarious...) orders and how such pledges and allegiances both build stability but are rarely protection against the winds of political change. A peasant can, perhaps, rise above his station by exemplary deeds - a noble is always in the cross hairs of political intrigue and dare not ignore it.
  • Falstof's life is perhaps the most valuable insight into the 'endgame' mentioned above. What does a fighting man in the service of a lord do with his wealth? At no point in the book are there mentions of strongholds or dungeons to protect huge chests filled with gold. In medieval history, wealth was invested and Sir John spent most of the latter part of his life at a desk managing the wealth and property of his lifetime. It suggests that even for the most 'epic' warrior, the 'endgame' path is one of literacy, management, dealing with subordinates and paid specialists, visiting judges and hiring clerks. In short, everything that a battlefield is not. For those players not willing to 'settle down' or seeking the 'thrill of the hunt', Falstof's life offers plenty of reason to jump at the high level challenges of distant lands, other planes, or expeditions into the unknown. This chapter is a treasure trove for a DM's campaign, and new adventurers can find several opportunities in the service of an aging adventurer trying to keep his stronghold(s) alive and healthy.
  • Tom Hoccleve's life is perhaps the most antithetical to an adventurer's and yet closest to our own time period: he was a clerk. Note that, prior to the printing press, such clerks were important parts of the bureaucratic machinery of both Church and governments. Interacting with clerks to fetch or deliver documents could be a great 'pre-adventuring' career for player characters, and the bureaucratic background of a kingdom is overflowing with NPC's.
  • Margaret Paston's life, as expressed in the book, puts the role of wife in the spotlight during the time period in which she lived - a time of great turbulence in England. It is a revealing chapter - showing much more of the 'feminine half of history' that rarely enters into chronicles - and portrays a character of great competence and determination holding a family and their property in her care.
  • Margery Kempe's trials and tribulations will be a strike against the romantic image of adventuring clerics. She was a mystic and religious pilgrim, causing disruption in many places in her journeys, but keeping steadfast in her faith. She was married and bore fourteen children before being 'chosen' for a path of faith and pilgrimage, so she was not born into fanaticism. Her story and her sufferings along her strange and winding path is good fuel for campaigns that involve different faiths and service to gods. An adventurer without a weapon, and a traveller without a fixed destination, her gifts and the responses those gifts evoked are certainly great material.
  • Finally, Richard Bradwater's chapter gives us a tiny glimpse into a peasant 'hellraiser' and troublemaker. This chapter's value to a DM isn't just the glimpse - it is the description of the background of courts, grievances, and 'official' interaction between peasant and ruler that is of greatest value. If the 'endgame' of a character is to be discussed, then the institution and maintenance of justice and order through a regular 'court' structure is something worth paying attention to.
Those who can get their hands on this book will not suffer through a dry text - the chapters aren't very long and are taken from a series of lectures. A certain 'condensation' of life is presented and each chapter reads very smoothly and quickly.

Bennett's LibraryThing Link

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Reality of Fantasy

"One's real life is so often the life that one does not lead." -- Oscar Wilde

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ziegler's The Black Death

Chance favors only those who court her.

I was thinking recently about a well known 'elemental temple' and it's fungal demonic 'lady', I started reading about fungi, disease, and planes of existence. I thought about the role that disease could play to an agrarian culture, and how the failure of a single year's crop could send ripples forward that could doom a small village. Life. Death. Poison. Crops. Cycles. Growth without Mind. Panic. Fear. I was lucky enough, in this state of mind, to find a used copy of Philip Ziegler's The Black Death.

There are a few things that truly define the wonderful, beautiful yet troubled abstraction known as Western Civilization. The shift from polytheism to monotheism would be one. The scientific method would be another. The printing press. Seafaring. Electric light to push back The Night.

One of the most significant is the Black Death, or more appropriately, the effects of the Black Death on how we think, how we behave, and what we believe in.

Ziegler's text, written in 1969, offers a comfortable readability and is not a 'dry history book', as the events of the Black Death that are not his primary focus. Rather, the real 'subject' of the book is the Plague's aftermath and impact. Things happened in Europe between the years 1348 and 1350 that were a lot more than just a body count.

The Short Review
Buy it and read it. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history. As someone who 'drones on an on about modules', I strongly urge DM's to read this and consider Gygaxian D&D, and Greyhawk materials, in this time period. A Gygaxian-flavored campaign is strangely like Europe before the spread of the Plague, even though much of the game's worlds fall within an 'ascendant/post-apocalyptic' symbolic base.

Image below from Wikimedia

The Longer Review
Just some brief information from the book's text.

Chapter 1: Origins and Nature - A background of what the pandemic really was, and its three forms (attacking the flesh, blood, and breath). It mentions the ecological disruptions in the Far East, which combined with the Little Ice Age, caused a friendly stage for a pandemic. It is significant that the concept of an airborne disease clouded investigations into the cause and spread of the illnesses during the period, as only one of the three forms was truly airborne

Chapter 2: The State of Europe is a concise look at the stage set prior to the Plague's wrath, and it was already a grim stage. Civilization in Europe had, in a sense, stalled. Climactic catastrophes and conflict over resources were already putting 'the West' in peril. To quote the text:
 “The most grave consequence was a series of disastrous harvests. There were famines in England in 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292 and 1311.” which, added to the overpopulation and under cultivation of resources was already a disaster in the making and Zeigler mentions the fallacy of considering the Black Death to be a natural counterbalance to overpopulation like a Malthusian Catastrophe.

Other chapters go into more detail about different countries and how they reacted and are listed below:
  • Italy
  • France: the State of Medical Knowledge
  • The rest of Continental Europe
  • Arrival in England: the West Country
  • Progress Across the South
  • Sussex, Kent and East Anglia
  • The Midlands and the North of England
  • The Welsh Borders, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland
  • The Toll in Lives
  • The Social and Economic Consequences
  • Education, Agriculture and Architecture
High Points
Of special note to our context of classic D&D are a few select chapters from the text's coverage of this horrible period of time:
  • Chapter 5 - Germany: the Flagellants and the Persecution of the Jews covers the inevitable downward spiral mix of faith, desperation, and breakdowns of order. In reading about the Flagellants, you will see echoes of every 'evil cult' that ripples through classic D&D materials, only much more severe. The frightening parts of this chapter aren't the activities that took place during that time (including self-mutilation and attempts at resurrection of corpses) or the Church's eventual suppression of them. The horror is that these weren't 'evil' people at all - they represented a penitent fanaticism and an attempt to create the 'divine miracle cure' by cleansing away sin. In spite of the beliefs of the time, the data suggests that the Church did not fail, overall, to attend to the sick and the poor: records indicate the Church sustained very heavy losses of personnel to the Plague. Unfortunately, as the Clergy represented a pillar of social order that often contained the only educated persons for miles, their absence and dwindling numbers offered fewer hands that could write, fewer eyes that could read, and fewer minds that could inspire.

    When even the penitent fanaticism failed, scapegoating of Europeans who were Jewish, Arab, or even lepers became common as lawlessness took hold. The Kosher diet was a very good defense against consuming contaminated meat, and persecution of Jews seen as 'suspicious survivors' swept through many of the areas ravaged by plague. Both of these horrors are useful reading for a game world that takes evil and brutality seriously.
  • For anyone creating a medieval city, Chapter 9 London: Hygiene and the Medieval City is bound to be of great use to build more detail into the day to day living of the time period, particularly at a time of crisis. London was ravaged. I'll quote from this chapter:

     “Not only had many of the efficient cleaners died or deserted their post and the machinery for the enforcement of the law been strained beyond its capacities but also technical problem of transporting something over twenty thousand corpses to the burial grounds had an imposed an extra and unexpected burden on the skeleton force which remained”
  • In Chapter 17 The Effects on the Church and Man's Mind, Zeigler confronts the real object of his quest: what did the Black Death do the survivors? I offer below some quotes from the text:

     “The villagers observed with interest that the parish priest was just likely, indeed more likely, to die of the plague than his parishioners. God's wrath seemed just as hot against Church as against people: a significant commentary on those preachers who denounced all their fellows with such tedious zest. [...] That the parson was mortal, everyone knew, that he ate, drank, defecated and in due course died. Often, indeed, he came from the same village as his flock and had relations living near him to testify that he was but flesh and blood. Yet, with his ordination, surely he acquired too a touch of the superhuman; remained a man but became a man apart? After the plague, his vulnerability so strikingly exposed, all trace of the superhuman must have vanished.”

    Unfortunately, like in any crisis, those of heroic nobility really do give their lives for their beliefs, and those that remain are, perhaps, less likely to die to save their neighbor. This affected the medieval Church, in addition to the massive amounts of wealth that were willed to it from wealthier patrons (in some cases, whole families were wiped out, leaving no heirs).

    Further, monastic orders took a huge hit during the Plague. While there was a certain safety to 'run for the hills', a monastery's cloistered environs had no hope of stopping certain types of the plague, particularly infected livestock.
    In general, much anti-clerical philosophy is borne of this era, and Medieval man felt the Church had failed him. Without free flow of information and record keeping, the isolation of villages from each other meant that any information was hearsay, if any came at all.

    Socially, the massive decline in the numbers making up the labor pool caused a massive shift in the relationship between landowner and laborer. This culminated in the Peasant's Revolt, which Zeigler sees as a direct result of this shift. Indeed, our modern definition of 'social unrest' or 'revolt' could be spawned from this.

    (On a personal note, I found this chapter to be integral to understanding the spawn of Colonization and the search for the New World (relating to my C1 posts). It's almost like, unable to combat God's Wrath, those that 'conquered' the New World had, in fact, found 'Eden' and committed a terrible revenge against the 'Adam and Eve' that they found there.)
Zeigler as DM?
In Chapter 13: The Plague in a Medieval Village, Zeigler hits what I consider the high point: an attempt to theoretically model a real village during the spread of the Plague. It is classic 'worldbuilding' and presents the imaginary village of Blakwater. A few quotes from the text:

“It was entertaining to listen to the tale of travellers in the same spirit as, to-day, one might crowd to hear the words of an astronaut; but only the romantic or the reckless actually want to go to the moon and the inhabitant of Blakwater was no more likely to want to go to London or to Calais.”

“Though Roger himself made a point of keeping the domestic animals out of the house this was by no means an invariable rule. In some of the houses goats, sheep and sometimes even cows lived jumbled up with the family, spreading their fleas amid the soiled straw and adding their smells to the rich compound which the medieval household could generate without such extra help.”

“[...] on the fringe of the village, a ramshackle hovel provided shelter of a sort for poor Mad Meg; deformed from birth, shunned by her contemporaries and now grown crazed in squalid loneliness.  Some said that she was a witch and the children used to enjoy chanting rude slogans outside her hut but nobody seriously believed that she could make successful mischief.”

“With the parson's death and the steward away the steward's clerk was the only villager left who knew how to read and write.”

You get the idea. What happens to these... characters reads like a good piece of background text for an adventure, and yet plumbs the depths of horror in a world without access to the magic that is so integral to tabletop fantasy and its roots in pulp writings.

The subject of this book relates directly to your gaming for a few reasons:

Gaming and gambling have a long history, but by the 1400's were becoming almost epidemic. Rolling the bones - pitting fate against Chance, became extremely popular in Europe after the Black Death. Gaming continues, but it's interesting that despite the adversity D&D suffered decades ago, no one attacked it as a 'game of chance', even though players really do put their fate in the hands of dice rolls.

While many classic D&D adventures seem like 'natural snapshots', I would submit that, from a historical perspective, they reflect the 'pre-Plague' Europe hovering at the edge of disaster and needing heroes while also being 'post apocalyptic and ascendant'. Is Greyhawk a schizophrenic environment or a conflicted one? I believe it's neither and part of the 'glow' of the classic adventures is, in truth, a dual-themed game world: a place existing before one disaster, but after a previous one.

Finally, note that most of the multitudes that were slain by the Black Death were peasants, raised without education in a time of faith and living in small villages rich with folklore. Did their parents, in an attempt to keep them close to home and safe, fill their imaginations with 'monsters in the forest' or 'goblins in those caves by the creek'? They have no grave markers, and in some cases, no records of their existence. Did they, working the fields by day, dream of being heroes?

If so, then the popular fantasy theme of 'a nobody rising to become a hero' may be something imprinted on us from this terrible period of time. What did a peasant child dream of in 1348?

Are you playing out the dreams of the lost and nameless dead? Are you silently fulfilling their wishes when you role up a character?

Something to think about in a New Year.