My Next Novel: Escaping from a Bad D&D Campaign

And by “bad,” of course I mean “awesome.” I’ve written before about how Dungeons & Dragons was a pretty important part of my adolescence. Not only did it prod me out of my introverted shell and entice me to interact with a few close friends, it stoked an interest in mythology, fantasy, and adventure that continues to this day.

But let’s face it: Old-school D&D as played by über-nerdy teenagers was usually a hot mess—a glorious hot mess, but a hot mess all the same. If you were first exposed to D&D in the 70s or early 80s, and that corresponded to your junior high or high school years, you know of which I speak. What I mean is that some of the tropes of D&D are a bit unconventional, even within the fantasy genre. For example…

There are Loads and Loads of “Races”

D&D has always been a fantasy kitchen sink. That’s part of its charm. Beings from Norse and Arthurian mythology rub elbows with creatures from ancient Greece, China, the Middle East, and realms even further afield. Add to that the creatures that sprung like Athena fully formed from the minds of Gary Gygax and company.

That diversity extends to the humanoid fantasy “races” found in the game. (I’ve explained before that I don’t care for the terminology of fantasy “races.” But I’m using the term here so you know what I’m talking about.) At first, if you didn’t want to play as a human, your choices were elf, dwarf, or hobbit—the latter quickly adjusted to halfling when the Tolkien estate <ahem> took exception to TSR’s use of the term. It was only a matter of time before half-elves were added. Then came half-orcs, gnomes, various sub-classes of elves, and even more fanciful creatures. And if you look at the intelligent monsters that aren’t (usually) permitted as player classes, you’ve got to add goblins, kobolds, gnolls, lizard men, nymphs and satyrs, giants, dragons, an assortment of demons and devils…you get the idea.

I heard somewhere that Gary Gygax literally couldn’t conceive of why everybody didn’t want to play a plain vanilla human fighter. That’s why those early editions put caps on how high non-humans could advance in levels: he wanted non-humans to be rare!

Soon, however, humans effectively became the minority, if not in the campaign setting then at least in the makeup of the average adventuring party. (Fair play compels me to acknowledge that the Fellowship of the Ring consisted of four hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, a quasi-angelic being, and only two humans!) (Snark compels me to acknowledge that the only thing rarer than Men in LOTR was Women.)

Magic Is Everywhere

I’m pretty sure that every member of my old D&D group operated under the assumption that, if an item existed in the rule books, it was bound to exist somewhere in the campaign setting. Half the point of playing D&D was accumulating the most whiz-bang magical goodies: flaming swords, enchanted armor, various and sundry wands, staves, rings, and potions. And these were the good old days where you could wander into any fair-sized city and find a “magic shop” where some of these items were even available off the shelf.

And this is before considering the vast supernatural powers most player-characters could wield. From the beginning until today, decent D&D parties always have at least one or two decent spell-casters. The parties that don’t tend not to survive for very long, because even if the players don’t have access to spells, you can bet the bad guys do!

But even the non-spell-casting types are usually capable of physics-defying feats of strength, stealth, endurance, or what have you. And don’t get me started on psionics! In short, the genre of D&D has always favored larger-than-life heroes with access to powers and abilities far beyond those of mortals. (Seems I’ve heard that line before…) In the early days when I was playing, we didn’t worry about that in the least; it was all part of the awesome.

So What?

In short, D&D has tended from the start to favor a great diversity of non-human characters interacting in a setting in which, far from being the stuff of misguided superstition, magic is as commonplace as blackberry bushes. That’s a marvelous setting for a game of fantasy adventure. But it isn’t the “real world.” Now, I don’t mean it’s a flaw that D&D has wizards and dragons and such because they don’t actually exist. I’m not that thick! I’m saying the classic D&D setting isn’t even the “real world” in the sense that people alive in the Middle Ages would never have recognized it as theirs, notwithstanding the fact that they would have been earnestly afraid of witches and ghosts and truly awed by the fantastical creatures scholars described in their bestiaries.

It is, however, a world that those medieval people would have heard of, be they peasant or king. It’s the world in which many of their favorite stories were set, a world that shaped their imagination and their cultural ideals by setting them against a place so obviously different that the conventional rules no longer applied.

It is, in a word, Faery Land.

It’s the place heroes go to fight dragons and rescue princesses before eventually finding their way back to the ordinary world to live happily ever after.

So, what if somebody who’d grown up in this high-powered, magic-rich, and decidedly non-human-centric D&D campaign found it advisable to leave? Where would he go? What would he do? What alliances might he forge with the inhabitants of whatever new world he landed in? What foes might he have to face there?

And what if this new world was ours?




Tolkien and Lewis Were Not Big Fans of Disney

So says Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura:

It’s no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were legendary frenemies. But while they may have sparred over fantasy and religion, they shared one little-known viewpoint: a disdain for the works of Walt Disney.

Literary friendships are often thought of in the driest abstract, with learned people of letters sitting in stuffy rooms debating only the most important intellectual issues. But like anyone, sometimes a couple of authors just go to the movies. And on at least one occasion, the architect of Middle-earth and the father of Narnia went and saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs together.

According to an account in the J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Tolkien didn’t go see Snow White until some time after its 1938 U.K. release, when he attended the animated film with Lewis. Lewis had previously seen the film with his brother, and definitely had some opinions. In a 1939 letter to his friend A.K. Hamilton, Lewis wrote of Snow White (and Disney himself):

Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might not have come of it if this man had been educated–or even brought up in a decent society?

In another instance, Lewis called the evil queen’s design unoriginal, and described the dwarves as having, “bloated, drunken, low comedy faces.”

It just gets better from there.

Why Do Dwarves Have Scottish Accents?

Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura ponders why we associate certain (English) accents with fantasy creatures such as dwarves, elves, and trolls:

As radio and film adaptations of Tolkien’s works were released in later decades, you can see the slow evolution of the dwarven accent from the low British of 1977’s cartoon version of The Hobbit, to the more stylized accents of the pair of dwarves in 1985’s Legend, to the Welsh-by-way-of-Scotland grumblings of John Rhys Davies’ Gimli from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, right into the aggressive rolled R’s of Hearthstone’s dwarven Innkeeper.

“What you get is a sense of Celticness,” says Dominic Watt, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Speech Science at the University of York. Watt explains that many of the virtues associated with the stereotypical fantasy dwarf are also associated with the Scottish accent. “Scottish accents tend to be evaluated pretty positively,” he says. “Shrewdness, honesty, straight-forward speaking. Those are the sorts of ideas that the accent tends to evoke.” Watt also says that there are similar cultural stereotypes surrounding the drinking habits of dwarves and Scots.

He goes on to discuss the “culturally sophisticated” high-born accent of Tolkienesque elves, West Country hobbits, and Cockney orcs and trolls—which came about almost by accident:

Maybe the fantasy accent that can be most directly tied to Tolkien’s text is the working-class Cockney accent so often given to orcs and other sentient brutes in modern fantasy. Here we can look directly at the depiction of the trio of trolls in The Hobbit, which are written in a strangely modern dialect—a technique Tolkien rarely used, and later regretted. “In particular, he regretted making their language so recognizably modern. They wouldn’t say words like ‘blimey,’ for instance,” says Olsen.

In the later Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien’s orcs would speak in harsh, but basically correct common parlance, but in the larger view of the fantasy genre, the damage was done.

When you read a novel featuring elves, dwarves, or other fantastic races, what sort of accent do you hear in your head?

Understanding Tolkien

Thanks to Keitha Sargent for this engaging summary of some of the things that made J. R. R. Tolkien tick.

To get the most out of Tolkien’s works, it is important to understand a little about the man, his life, passions and views. Several things shaped the imagination from which Middle Earth emerged: his childhood in England, his experiences in the First World War, and his love for ‘Northern’ myth and literature.

Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents. When he was 3, his father died, and in 1896 the family settled in a small village in central England. In 1966, Tolkien described the place as “a kind of lost paradise” and, for the rest of his life, it remained an ideal. Tolkien had a deep love for England, even suggesting that, thanks to a sort of race-memory, he recognised the Anglo-Saxon language when he first encountered it as a boy.

Closely related to his love for England was his distaste for the modern world. This extended even to literature. For a professor, he was remarkably ignorant of contemporary writers and used to joke “English Literature endedwith Chaucer”, inverting the cliché that Chaucer was ‘father’ of the language. For Tolkien, ‘modern’ was a word with negative connotations; to him it meant industrialism, machines, overcrowding, noise and speed. In 1933, he returned to the village of his childhood and wrote bitterly that the place had been engulfed by trams, roads, and hideous housing estates.

And so on

Sunday Inspiration: Darkness

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.
—Samwise Gamgee, via J. R. R. Tolkien