Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Epic Trend

I created this essay a few years back in response to something Rob wrote in association with Pied Piper Publishing. I recently took it in a different direction and submitted it as a scholarly article. This is the original, (non-scholarly) version. I just put it here because I don't know what else to do with it and hope that someone might find it worth a read. I'm no expert on design, but I've always loved this game . . . .

In the first edition of the Piper's Corner, Rob Kuntz made an editorial comment noting the now long-established trend in both Fantasy literature and FRPG toward the epic:

Barbarians and adventurers, fortune
seekers and other more-or-less fantastic
folk graced our past fantasy feed.
Conans, Fafyrds, Thongors, Kyrics, and
a slew of others. Where did they go?
Informed readers would mostly agree
that publishers no longer (or rarely) serve
this fare, that it has played itself out and
fallen as a barbaric example of itself to
the rise of regurgitated “Epic” fantasy.
So too is this seemingly emulated in the
FRPG field. Everything is about saving
the world now rather than having fun,
free-booting and mere adventuring.
Child-hood fancies have been regulated
to a high-brow, moralistic atmosphere,
and all of these “ stories” (Jack and
the Beanstalk anyone?) no doubt find no
room for expression either.

No longer is it satisfactory to take sword in hand, slay a few orcs and gather up a little well-earned loot, but now even the smallest adventure must be part of a larger quest in which the fate of humanity itself is at stake, the players being (of course) integral (if unwitting) partners in a vast cosmic dance occupying some moralistic high ground. Although Rob (and others, notably Benoist Poire on April 14, 2009) have more fully elaborated in this blog on the role of myth in D&D, I have a few thoughts I’d like to add.

The epic trend is not a terribly recent phenomenon. You can see it playing out in TSRs product lines in the 1980s.  Individual, isolated adventures (Tomb of Horrors, Caves of Chaos, White Plume Mountain) give way to the connected and epic fare of the Dragonlance series.  Of course, this is too simplistic -- before Dragonlance came the Slaver series and even EGG (the master creator of the episodic, decidedly non-epic, hack and slash adventure) connected the Giant Series with the Descent series and then topped it off with a rather epic conflict with a divine opponent (although I know he had help from others along the way).  It was never clear whether any action in GDQ was to save the world, but it at least benefited one large corner of it.  So, even before Dragonlance, in the heyday of AD&D's fun-loving "mere adventuring", there was a trend to the epic, if only a slight one. 

However, I'm getting a head of myself: I haven't really defined what I see as the content of epic or of Rob's comments about it.   There are many ideas wound up in Rob's comment, not all of which I can address.  The first is that there is a difference between the moralistic seriousness and grand scope/sweep of many modern adventures and the more amoral (just for fun, it's a game, don't worry about the now-orphaned children of those dead orcs) traditional adventure.  These two elements of grand sweep and morality aren't necessarily inseparable -- just because something is "epic" in scope (large, long, intricate, with a pattern all laid out for folks to follow in which the fate of the world is at stake), doesn't necessarily mean it must be moralistic -- or does it?  Saving the world does mean acting selflessly, sacrificing the good of the individual for the needs of the community.  That's a highly moralistic act. If epic can be defined as embodying the values of a nation or culture, morality is necessarily part of it. Moreover, the suggestion that the DM in an epic campaign somehow scripts or plots out before hand the moralistic path the players are to follow is troubling.  If (e.g.) the Dragonlance series is the prototype for how epic must be handled in D&D, the epic adventure doesn't really leave the players with too much choice and that (as many philosophers of morality will tell you, including Immanuel Kant), drains any morality from the activity -- perhaps we could say the characters are acting morally, but certainly not the players.  The kind of structure or railroading that goes with many epic campaigns seems almost necessary to chart the moral path such epic campaigns require -- but by removing player choice from the game, you wind up not with an epic so much as a morality play. The translation of a literary epic into an RPG undermines both the essence of epic and RPG: the problem with the epic in D&D is not just with its moralistic, non-episodic tone, but with its authorial proscription, with its control of the player's acts and choices.

Therefore, in suggesting that the epic trend has existed in D&D almost since the beginning, my purpose isn't to question Rob's assertion that there is a more recent (and perhaps undesirable) epic bias, but to give some thoughts on the place of epic elements in the FRPG by looking back at one of the intellectual forebears of the game: not EGG this time, but Fritz Leiber. Through an analysis of his first published Fafhrd and Mouser story I want to suggest that the best D&D Campaigns (in my opinion) evolve into a “mosaic epic” rather than the “proscriptive epic” I’ve been detailing above; in doing so, I think this game we love offers some possibilities for profound reflection on, of all things, the nature of the human condition.

Going through some back issues of Dragon magazine recently, I was startled to note the pervasive presence of Leiber in its early pages.  I knew EGG had greatly admired his work, had adapted Nehwon into FRPG supplements and knew him personally; however, I didn't realize the extent to which the early Dragon (at least) relied on Leiber's presence to establish a market.  Leiber and a friend from the U of Chicago, Harry Fischer, had (as many know) invented the (in)famous heroes Fafhrd and Gray Mouser as part of an imaginative game, a kind of precursor to D&D in which versions of each player would go together on adventures, some of which, I suppose, formed the basis of Leiber's Nehwon stories.  I'm unsure of its extent, but Leiber seems to have had a fairly profound influence on the D&D game -- EGG must have certainly read all the Nehwon stories voraciously, even if he didn't borrow the "role playing" aspect from Leiber and Fisher (that aspect arising independently from EGG's and Arneson's experiments in war gaming).  The first published Fafhrd and Mouser story appeared in 1939 in Unknown as "Two Sought Adventure."  I mention it not to suggest it's in any way the primary influence on the shape of the early D&D adventure (Howard's Conan stories, Lovecraft's dark sublimity, Vance's picaresque, Smith's work -- they all have an equal or greater claim to that), but merely to claim an interpretation of this story is one way to understand the role of the episodic and the epic in the FRPG.

The genesis of this first published adventure seemingly has nothing to do with the epic, nor with any moral high ground.  Fafhrd and the Mouser are greedy (or at least poor), have found a clue to a supposedly great treasure in the southern woods, and have mounted an expedition to liberate it.  They're going to steal, loot a tower, and kill (albeit in self defence) in order to succeed.  This is standard (you might even say prototypical or paradigmatic) fare for the episodic, incidental D&D adventure of the 70's and 80's.  It's fairly clear that Fafhrd and Mouser have no (or at least very few) moral qualms about anything they're doing, nor are they doing it for any "greater good" or epic purpose other than to satisfy their own appetites for amusement, wine and women.  It's also pretty clear that Leiber himself had few qualms about writing such stuff because to him, as to the heroes themselves, all of this -- the searching, the fighting, unraveling the tower's mystery -- it's all just a game, at least at the start.

Urgaan himself (the architect of the tower in which the treasure is hidden) started the game long ago, planting (as the adventurers find out) a series of clues to lure thieves to his tower for some unknown purpose, perhaps to test the mettle of his mighty, but unidentified guardian.  Fafhrd and Mouser enter into the spirit of the contest, racing against another player (Lord Rannarsh and his men) and winning the first engagement (an attempted ambush by that other player) through keen senses and decisive action, all the while maintaining a jocular and playful mood in the spirit of good sportsmanship.

The gaming references continue as the pair reach a cottage close to the clearing in which the treasure tower stands.  Not only does Mouser play puppets with the little girl who lives there (and aren't all story characters puppets of their author's will?) but he hears of a game the little girl plays with the "giant" of the clearing, one that supposedly lives inside the tower:

 . . .There be a magic circle I must not cross [at the edge of the clearing around the tower].  And I say to myself there be a giant inside . . . Every day, almost, I play a game with him.  I pretend to be going to cross the magic circle.  And he watches from inside the door [of the tower], where I can't see him, and he thinks I'm going to cross . . . and I get closer and closer to the circle, closer and closer.  But I never cross.

Both adventurers feel this child's story is a pleasant addition or spice to the adventure they still don't take too seriously.  It's as though they see themselves as inhabitants of a rational, mundane world who are skirting the borders of a faerie tale, a tale neither believes can be real.  The duo soon find themselves playing a decidedly unenchanting version of this game, as Rannarsh and his men approach the tower next morning -- since the clearing around the tower is open ground, a killing field, all the players keep to the sheltering trees, trying various stratagems to best their opponents.  Fafhrd and Mouser win, of course, but not before the game begins to take on a slightly more serious tone. The last sequence of the battle pits Fafhrd against two of Rannarsh's henchmen, at which time, Leiber emphasizes, the hero is in grave peril for his life:

[Fafhrd] knew that the ancient sagas told of heroes who could best four or more men at swordplay.  He also knew that such sagas were lies, providing the hero's opponents were reasonably competent.

Although Leiber's main point is likely to distinguish himself and his work from that of Robert E. Howard, to show that his heroes are less than epic protagonists and more like real people with real emotions, motivations and the like, the effect of this is also to distinguish the Nehwon adventure from the epic.  Epics (Leiber is saying) are lies; they don't accord with human experience -- by contrast, Leiber (at least at this point) seems to suggest that his (then new and innovative) brand of fantasy will more closely reflect such human experience.

However, just at the moment Leiber seems to banish both epic and fantasy, they reassert themselves with a vengeance. There is no rational explanation for the anxiety Fafhrd and Mouser feel as they enter the tower, yet the anxiety exists powerfully.  Although the duo’s motivations may be the decidedly-mundane ones of greed and curiosity, they cross paths with one on a truly selfless and epic quest.  With the appearance of Arvlan, Urgann’s descendant who has dedicated his life to undoing the evil instigated by his forebear so long ago, the epic trend appears in Nehwon, only to be dismissed.  With Arvlan’s death, and the duo’s more cagey, effective, and less idealistic engagement with the problems they face, epic and the epic heroes who participate in them, again seem rather out of fashion.  The problem with epic heroes is they have few choices except to die -- Fafhrd and Mouser want to live, as any normal person would.

The important point here (I think) is that the story to this moment has maintained the same kind of light and playful tone as you might see in EGG’s Castle Zagyg (which I understand mirrors a similar tone in the original Greyhawk Campaign) -- this isn’t a game about epic heroes, but somewhat shady characters willing to kill the monsters and take their stuff. Fafhrd’s near death experience slightly complicates this picture by suggesting that all games (like D&D) are played by complex individuals who can bleed and die (and cry) -- that games can affect us in a very real sense. The story further complicates this picture by suggesting that, just as in Leiber’s tale, a game (such as a D&D campaign) can have (and is in fact greatly enriched by) a brush with epic elements.  Just as the story would be too banal without Arvlan, so the campaign needs to at least touch on something greater than its characters or players, while still offering those players real and meaningful choices.  Mouser doesn’t have to abandon his quest for the jewels to save the little girl, but he does and, in doing so, becomes just a bit more like Arvlan.  Although Fafhrd isn’t given an opportunity for self sacrifice he, as the author’s stand in, does get a glimpse of something even greater -- a grand mosaic pattern that he can only barely comprehend.  Removing the lid to the gems’ container:

His gaze shifted to the mercurous heavy fluid, where it bulged up between, and he saw distorted reflections of stars and constellations which he recognized, stars and constellations which would be visible now in the sky overhead, were it not for the concealing brilliance of the sun. An awesome wonder engulfed him.  His gaze shifted back to the gems.  There was something tremendously meaningful about their complex arrangement, something that seemed to speak of overwhelming truths in an alien symbolism . . . .

Caught in an episodic adventure, Fafhrd still manages to catch a glimpse of the vast patterns of which he is a part. Call Urgaan a Dungeon Master and Fafhrd a player authoring his own story (which is very much what Leiber was) and you get I think the perfect embodiment of the ideal interaction between the episodic and the epic for D&D: the episodic maintains freedom of choice for the player while still contextualizing itself as part of a larger pattern.  The resulting “mosaic epic” is, after all, what EGG gives us in GDQ.  In that series is the pattern for an epic D&D campaign that is not proscriptive of choice or morality.  This is what Gary knew (whether or not his conception of the game was influenced by Leiber) and what perhaps defines “old school” to a great extent.

The epic has always been part of the game -- it’s by participating in the epic that the game can tell us who we are, through the invocation of Jungian archetypes and the offering of real moral choices and challenges to players.  In doing this, the game becomes OUR epic, in which we plumb the depths of our own good or evil, law or chaos.  I felt, in the midst of my longest running campaign, as though a script was being written as we played -- that random or nonsensical elements arising at one point came to fit into an almost predetermined pattern as we went, a pattern as mysterious to me as my players.  I’ve always felt the most special thing about this game is that it can tell us, in the midst of such a pattern, about who we are.  Yes, it’s fun, yes it’s just a game; however, as Leiber points out in his story, life is full of such games -- life is in fact very much a game of episodic adventures participating in a greater pattern  (albeit one we most often retrospectively construct).  If this is true, games, especially ones in which we construct epic reflections of our hopes and fears, become more than games, revealing “overwhelming truths in an alien symbolism” that are nothing less than the pattern of life itself.


Geffyl said...

"It is not in the dice to hold our destiny but in ourselves."

That being said, this was a very interesting read. There's more of role than of roll about our hobby. That tends to be forgotten with our "big-payoff-seeking" culture.

Everyone wants to be Superman without a Kryptonite allergy.

DHBoggs said...

I'm curious; can you share where you submitted your article? I haven't come across a journal that seemed friendly to the more philosophical aspects of gaming.

Endymion said...

I haven't found one either, although I think that Extrapolation (the journal) might be open to such things. When I reworked the essay, however, I moved it away from gaming specifically and focused more on what the gaming motif in the story implies about the 1930s pulps and (more broadly) ideology.

I think, though, that anchoring a discussion of gaming in more widely-accepted literature (like Leiber) might enable publication on gaming. It would be pushing the academic envelope, however (as you suggest). There has been some controversy about the scholarly study of popular fantasy -- most fantasy theorists want to ignore the popular stuff, but some feel that gives a very false sense of the field.

Thanks to both of you for reading, by the way. I appreciate the comments.

bombasticus said...

Happy to see this.

bombasticus said...

Something a bit more substantive on second reading: how does "Adept's Gambit" fit into this landscape that shifts between "realistic" historical fiction -- the fields we know -- and the pure flights of wish fulfillment that come after? It's a strange story and as far as I know almost entirely undiscussed within the Nehwon cycle.

Endymion said...

"Adept's Gambit" always seems a little out of place, I think maybe because it's the first one he wrote and it went through many revisions, many based on the advice of Lovecraft who himself often wrote stories that blurred the borders of historical fact and fantasy. So, there's a generic influence there -- Leiber was cutting his teeth and searching for a market and mode to express these free play stories that had developed with Fischer. There's more that could be done with the historical aspects, though, especially since he COULD have fairly easily purged them in a final revision and situated the whole thing in Nehwon (I always wanted to visit Tilsilinilit -- spelling?). Since he didn't, he probably wanted to make a point.

I think Leiber often (always?) saw fantasy as a reflection of reality, the two bleeding together in a metaphor reflecting on cultural and ideological influences as well as psychological theories of reality construction. Bruce Byfield's "Witches of the Mind" explores some aspects of this, but I think more recent notions of the relationship between fantasy and paranoia get us closer to what Leiber might be getting at. Anra's castle at the end is a physical embodiment of his mind and castles are typical fantasy fare. Are all constructions of reality simply paranoid fantasy and do Faf and Mouser become drawn into that reality as puppet-characters under the thumb of their author/master/Anra/Leiber? There's definitely something there (but probably more interesting than what I'm seeing right now).

Anyway, thanks for reading.

bombasticus said...

Thanks for the reply and again for the original. I like where this is going and think we can tease out what's in there. Just not today!

Rob Kuntz said...

Nice article and departure point from my original commentary.

My thoughts are somewhat sparse, but here goes: The actual preference of the market (published and sold fantasy) has gravitated towards the epic sweep of life ever since the first fantasy was written, which was an epic, and which was the Odyssey by Homer. Back then there were no printing presses or TVs and the greatest avenue of expression was the he oral, whether through direct story telling or in the budding performing arts of Greece. Today, by contrast, story relation has shifted into a lower gear as mass communication/consumerism merged--mere story telling has shifted into print and electronic feeds and this is how the masses receive this feed. Now, Enter RPG which collides with this paradigm and should, given its intrinsic form, shift the paradigm back to the revered standard of story telling. Instead it is gobbled up in the sweep of "modernized fiction", formalized and sold. With that comes a need to keep the masses interested because the competition is strong due to globalization of communication (no longer must we walk 20 leagues to see a performance of "The Frogs" when we can go online, click a TV or saunter 5 minutes to a a local theater). In keeping the masses interested comes the formula epic. Bigger. Bigger. More sweeping. Over and over.

We would probably all agree that anything can be epic: To a child eying a leaf for the first time, for instance. In that is contained the world, at least for the child.

This also touches upon why story telling, rather than story reading, or story repeating, actually informs and grows us more, IMO, than does being otherwise transported through someone else's window on life.

Rambling aside. Now to coffee

Endymion said...

Nice. Thanks for replying.

And Homer was originally story TELLING rather than reading -- the Iliad and Odyssey arising from an oral tradition, as did Gilgamesh, an epic predating Homer by several centuries. In some recent investigations into Leiber, I felt that D&D's original episodic feel likely arose from the nature of the pulps. They were short stories, woven together into larger arcs. I imagine Gary liked those a fair amount. So, market and generic forces shaped the original feel of the game and then there was a culture shift in the 70's and 80's. I'd be interested to speculate on why that happened. Was it just Gary's increased absence from the Lake Geneva hub (developing the cartoon in California and then being ousted) or a broader cultural trend, maybe younger folks raised on Tolkien rather than Conan?

Hmmmm . . . .

Rob Kuntz said...

Yes, Gilgamesh has it by a nose.

The market push, if you read my last interview at Hill Cantons, started with a creative side-step into the promised land of money. This lead to a dumbed down version of the game from what we playtested and as originally published. Key t othis were PM adventures with a formulaic mode in story (A, B, C structure); and that exists to this day. This canned approach COULD have been depleted with the rise of the so-called OSR, but instead they replicated it as well (You are what you consume; thus you promote what you are...). Gary was not absent for this; he was the director of it. Thus the :"change" was not cultural, but now due to that same culture shift there is little room for reclaiming a past where 100% of all gamers playing the Original game were creators.