"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Media has a Dungeons & Dragons Problem

THE OLD ADDAGE tells us "lightning doesn't strike twice." Tell that to Dungeons & Dragons.

Created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax and published back in 1974, there is something about Dungeons & Dragons, or "D&D," that repeatedly makes it the focus of moral panics. It might have something to do with it being an entirely new kind of art form. There is a portion of the general public that cannot wrap their brains around role-playing games, of which D&D was the first. Things people don't understand, they fear.

In the 1980s it was the Right obsessing over the game. Frequently (and erroneously) blamed for suicides, murders and depression, in 1984 quoting a police chief the Omaha World Herald wrote:

[Dungeons & Dragons] appeals to very intelligent people, who use their imagination to manipulate characters and work through a series of mazes to achieve treasures and avoid falling into the dungeon. "My undertstanding [sic] is that once you reach a certain point where you are the master, your only way out is death," Stallcup said. "That way no one can beat you."

Obviously the only thing the article got correct was that D&D appealed to intelligent people.

The next year, American media company Knight-Ridder was covering attempts by a group called BADD ("Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons") and published the following little gem:

"Dungeons & Dragons is essentially a worship of violence," said Dr. Thomas Radecki of Champaign, Ill., a psychiatrist and chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Washington, D.C. "...Talk to people that have played it. It's very fascinating. It's a game of fun. But when you have fun with murder, that's dangerous. When you make a game out of war, that's harmful. The game is full of human sacrifice, eating babies, drinking blood, rape, murder of every variety, curses of insanity. It's just a very violent game."

Shortly after this, of course, the same criticisms would refocus on video games, a narrative that continues to this day. Suffice it to say I have my doubts Dr. Radecki ever actually saw the game played. While some of those things do exist in D&D, they are also literary staples. You could find all of that in the Bible. More to the point, because those things might exist in the game it didn't mean D&D was condoning it. My feeling on the subject is best summarized by British occultist Aleister Crowley, who quipped "the world of magic is a mirror, wherein who sees muck is muck." The same is true of any art.

In 1986 the Richmond Times-Dispatch, under the headline "Game Said to Inspire Mind, Raise Satan" quoted Republican candidate for state attorney general Winston Matthews:

D&D teaches Satan-worship, spell-casting, witchcraft, rape, suicide and assassination.

This was at the start of the full swing "Satanic Panic," and literally hundreds of media articles would soon follow associating D&D with black magic and the Guy Downstairs. It became such a popular drum to beat that even 60 Minutes got on the bandwagon.

Now as I said, some of this had to do with people who didn't really understand what the game was. On the other hand, I think we could also say these criticisms came from people who could not fully separate fantasy from reality. D&D was, and is, a game. An entertainment. More to the point, it is a fantasy. Aside from elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons the game often featured a black and white cosmology where gods were real and concepts like Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil were concrete realities. This is not the world we live in. 

Well, not the world rational people live in.

But before we cluck our tongues at the silly right-wing religious nuts and their inability to separate make-believe from real life, the exact same thing is happening to D&D again these days...and this time it is coming from the pearl-clutchers on the Left.

Two days ago Gizmodo published an article "Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons." This is just the latest of a very long series. Last month the UK Independent asked "Can Dungeons & Dragons banish its racism problem?" Last year ComicYears informed us "Dungeons & Dragons Has A Race Problem They Aren't Doing Enough To Fix." And Wired told us in 2020 "Dungeon & Dragons' Racial Reckoning is Long Overdue."

The crux of this argument, if you can call it such, is summed up in the Gizmodo piece as "Racial bioessentialism is a core design crutch for Dungeons & Dragons." Bioessentialism is basically the idea that biology plays a larger role in identity than culture, socio-economic status, or environment. The article quotes Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of D&D, who are trying to respond to the criticism:

“throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.” 

The article goes on to say:

With this one statement, WotC confirmed what most people already knew; that the fantasy of race in Dungeons & Dragons is sometimes racist in a way that reflects the racial dynamics that continue to oppress people of color across the world. To depict an entire group of people as “monstrous and evil”–e.g. because orcs are born to orc parents, they are evil–is the very definition of racial bioessentialism. To do so, even in fiction, is reductive and monolithic, and encourages real-world stereotyping at the expense of the racial “other.”

It is hard to know what to say to any of this, and what is truly remarkable is that D&D once again seems to be dealing with people who do not understand the concept of fiction. Yes, D&D had human sacrifice and devils and demons...but that did not mean it was encouraging such things. They were fictions within a story. And yes, D&D has malevolent beings. But so does folklore, and this is a game based in folkloric roots. Goblins and kobolds (both found in the game) date back in the English language to at least the 12th century, where they are described as wicked and evil entities. Dark Elves, the inspiration for the Drow mentioned above, are described in the Norse Eddas as being blacker than pitch and wicked. This was not a racial slur. The Dark Elves were "black" because they were the personifications of the underworld and night. 

D&D is a game with unicorns and dragons and gods and devils...things that do not exist. More to the point, many D&D campaigns assume the existence of moral qualities as concrete cosmological forces, just as Tolkien did. Good and Evil are as as real in these settings as heat and light...and that is why we call it fantasy. Orcs are not evil just because they were born to orc parents. They are evil because this is a fantasy game where evil is personified.

And in a case of history repeating itself, D&D is backing down. Back in 1989, the second edition of AD&D removed all references to devils and demons, assassins, thieves, and whatever else the morality police objected to. Today they are doing it again by capitulating once more. When the 3rd edition of D&D appeared in 2000, enough sanity had returned to the world that the devils and demons were put back in. Hopefully twenty years from now sanity will return again   

Are there people who will look at Orcs--as they have with Tolkien--and see real-world racism in them? Sure, but these are the people Crowley was talking about. They look in the mirror and see only what is in themselves.

Hat tip to Chris Higgins who wrote an article back in 2012 referencing one of mine. It gives a lot fuller treatment of the "D&D panic" of the 80s than I do here.

Monday, September 12, 2022

THE GROUNDING OF GLORANTHA: Making the Impossible Believable

Blood and Wood

I ran my current group through one of my favorite episodes of The Company of the Dragon yesterday.

"Blood and Wood" is the first chapter of a possible trilogy of stories in which the Company crosses paths with the Aldryami, the "elves" of Glorantha. In a relatively spoiler-free nutshell, the player characters are thrust between two factions in a land dispute that is spiraling out of control into ever-growing bloodshed. The Company can take one side or the other, try to make peace, or stay out of it. Each of those choices comes with consequences.

The scenario features my favorite thing about Glorantha: there are no "good guys" here. In the "Thoughts On Running Glorantha" section I wrote: 

Because the setting is all about the clash of cultures and religions--just as our own terrestrial history is--the tired cliches of black and white, good and evil, light and dark do not work terribly well in Glorantha and give way to more complicated shades of gray. The Lunar soldiers the Company fights are not orcs. They have spouses, and children, and loved ones. They follow a religion they believe in and follow an Emperor they see as just. It just so happens that their agenda is at cross-purposes with the wants and needs of the Sartarites. How far you rub the faces of the players in these uncomfortable facts is entirely up to you. The point is in Glorantha people fight because they differ, not because one side is “good” and the other “evil.”
The Company of the Dragon, p. 101

"Blood and Wood" is all about this. Both sides have done terrible things, both sides are out for blood, and both sides insist the other started it. If this were a different fantasy setting, the player characters would come across a poor group of villagers being terrorized by marauding orcs and know exactly what to to do. They are the "heroes," it is their job to defend them.

But "hero" is a word we need to use very carefully in Glorantha. It probably doesn't mean what you think it does.


hero (n)
late 14c., "man of superhuman strength or physical courage," from Old French heroe (14c., Modern French héros), from Latin heros (plural heroes) "hero, demi-god, illustrious man," from Greek hērōs (plural hērōes) "demi-god," a variant singular of which was hērōe.

Going back to the ancient Greek, "hero" meant "demi-god." It signified a measure of divine power, not necessarily with any moral component or admirable qualities. When it first arrives in English it indicates the "superhuman," but as the Enlightenment arrived and humanity became ever more skeptical anything greater than us could possibly exist we applied the word ever more increasingly to ourselves:

a person who is admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great 

the main character or the main male character in a book or film, who is usually good 

someone who you admire very much

Thus, Achilles is certainly a hero in the Greek sense, but his penchant for dragging his slain enemies around behind his chariot might disqualify him from the modern use of the term. Heracles is a Greek hero too, and while we can just overlook the nasty business of his murdering his own wife and children (cue the "Agatha" theme "it was Hera all along!") it's harder to give him a pass for flying into a rage when chastised by his music teacher Linus and then beating Linus to death with his own lyre.

The thing is, just like the Greek gods, the Greek heroes were morally ambiguous beings.

This is not to say they were not worshipped or admired: they were...but so too were the gods. And this is a point that brings us straight back to Glorantha. While the Greeks worshipped Achilles, the Romans were cooler on him. Virgil called him a merciless butcher. Horace called him a child murderer. Catullus and Ovid labeled him a rapist and pederast. Why? Because he was a Greek hero. Imagine what the Sartarities say about Jar-Eel the Razoress, or how they talk about Argrath in Glamour.

Glorantha, a Bronze Age world, leans towards the ancient Greek definition of hero. It doesn't mean "the good guy" and it doesn't mean a protagonist we should expect to save the day.

What's In A Name

I've already argued that I think RuneQuest qualifies, in many ways, as an "Old School" game. I won't reiterate those arguments there, save to summarize.

The general concept of "Old School" is that prior to 2000, RPGs--particularly fantasy RPGs--tended to focus on player characters who were weaker, more fragile, and more morally dubious than post-2000 RPGs. I don't necessarily agree with this. It lays too much blame (credit?) at Wizard's of the Coasts' door. I think the date can be pushed back further to 1990, but essentially there has been a decades long transformation of the player character into the "hero."

No? Go no further than to compare the 1st edition of the Player's Handbook to the 5th:

The 1st edition has a party of adventurers, surrounded by their retainers, in a dungeon. We see a few dead humanoids scattered about as they scrabble to pluck gems from a statue's eyes. 5th edition? A single character is taking on a giant, looking like they just stepped off the cover of a Marvel comic. In case the message is too subtle for you, the 5e cover tells you this book will help you create heroic characters (this is a step back from 2008's 4th edition, which preferred to straight up refer to player characters as "heroes").

This is a total, complete, transformation. Gary Gygax, author of the 1st edition, viewed a "campaign" as the adventures occurring within a specific sandbox. He would run multiple groups of players in the same sandbox and they all existed there at the same time. For example, if the Friday night group penetrated the local dungeon, and your group arrives on Sunday, you will find the goblins dead and the treasure looted. This is completely different from the modern definition, where a "campaign" is a bit like an ensemble TV show, the ongoing story of a specific group of characters. They are the stars. They are the heroes.

As this ideological shift occurred, game mechanics evolved as well to make the player characters stronger, hardier, more spectacular. They were given tools to control the narrative. Combats were expected to be balanced so that they were never too tough for the stars of the show. The days of the Old School meat grinder, where you might expect to go through several characters, are long gone (outside of the OSR or "Old School Revival" and a few throwbacks...like RuneQuest).

And this brings me back to Glorantha.

Hero Wars appeared in 2000, and appeared in a retitled edition in 2003 as HeroQuest. This was, officially, the new Gloranthan game. HW/HQ was very much a product of the new times. Player characters were referred to as "heroes," and it was a narrative system that moved away from RuneQuest's casual lethality and "let the dice fall as they may" ethos. It was followed in 2009 and 2015 by reworked editions of HeroQuest with a system that doubled down on the narrative approach and the "heroes" as the center of their story. Challenges, for example, were designed to scale compared to the number of adventures the characters--sorry, the "heroes"--had played. 

Now let's be totally clear here...HeroQuest was a design masterpiece. It did exactly what it was designed to do. And the argument could be made that it suits a world of Jar-Eels and Harreks and Argraths and Crimson Bats better than its predecessor.

My distaste for it was a matter of taste, that's all. Glorantha had always felt real to me because the world was so detailed, the cultures so believable, the magic system so solid, and the combat so simulationist. RuneQuest characters were not Hollywood action heroes. Encounters were not balanced. Combat wasn't "sport" it was "war." Sometimes, characters failed. They failed often and sometimes unfairly. They were driven by beliefs and loyalties and ambitions. Glorantha felt real to because the system was grounded and because the world did not revolve around the player characters. It operated by its own rules, not the needs of their arcs. 

And RuneQuest underscored this by calling them "adventurers," not "heroes."

Back to Blood and Snow

The reason I dragged you down this detour was because the game last night didn't just exemplify what I love about Glorantha but also about RuneQuest. Not only was the Company dragged into this messy conflict, the dice were truly against them.

Though they attempted, valiantly, to talk to the two sides out of open war, every chance at persuasion failed (and in some cases backfired). The result was tragedy as the Company looked on and the two sides went into battle.

Now, these players were introduced to Glorantha through the HeroQuest version of Six Seasons in Sartar. While they had replayed Six Seasons in RQthey are only a few seasons into the sequel, and this was the first time, really, that they experienced the design approach differences in the two games. 

Being Old School, RuneQuest requires more strategy and planning than many modern games. This is true of combat, but also other aspects of the game. If you just charge in, expecting the game mechanics to support that approach, the dice will likely show you the error of that decision. The issue from my perspective as a long-time RQ player is that they didn't come up with a unified strategy. Each player character tackled the problem themselves, from their own angles, just as game designs which tell you that you are the "hero" condition you to do. They didn't tackle it as a "team."

The good news is that all enjoyed the session--and it is my hope that they will come to embrace the "Tao of RuneQuest" after a few more sessions and see that failure also drives forward the game. Dice, like life, are cruel, but that is all part of the experience. For me, it might have been my favorite session thus far, showcasing why Glorantha and RuneQuest are an unbeatable combination. Once you set aside the hero moniker and the expectations that come with it, the real adventure begins.      


Sunday, September 11, 2022


A Brief Bit of Autobiography

When I was seventeen, I wrote my first play.

My English teacher persuaded me to do it. New York was launching the first “Young Playwrights Competition,” and she knew that I was a writer. She thought the competition was ideal for me. I was not as certain, however. I’d written two novels by that time, and a number of short stories, but never a play. Prose was more my thing. Still, my teacher was persuasive and the prize—seeing your play produced and staged—was too tempting to pass up. I decided to give it a try.

Mara ended up taking first place out of five hundred entries (as a side note I entered again the next year with The Wine of Violence and took first place again). It was the story of three young men who reunite a year after they were all in a horrific car accident. One of them was left paralyzed from the waist down. One of them was traumatized (what later we would call PTSD). The third—the driver during the accident—is blasé about the entire thing. There was, however, a fourth victim that night…the young woman driving the car they collided with. She was killed.

No sooner do they reunite than a sudden blizzard—the same weather conditions as the night of the accident—snows them in. Housebound, the power and phones go out. There is the sound of an accident and a young woman stumbles to the door before collapsing. They take her inside and tend to the unconscious stranger.

As they do, hidden resentments slowly surface. The traumatized young man resents the driver, who seems completely callous about the incident. The young man in the wheelchair resents the other two for being able to walk away from the accident. The driver resents that the other two hold him responsible, that they seem to think he should feel guilty. Tensions mount and it ends in murder and suicide. Only the wheelchair bound narrator remains…and the unconscious guest.

She awakes soon after the violence, and (you guessed it) confirms she was the fourth victim that night. Just as the wheelchair bound man invited the other two, he summoned her from the grave. This was his revenge as much as hers. When the ghost vanishes we are left with the narrator, who stares out into the blizzard and debates rolling out into it to quietly freeze to death.

I received a lot of praise for Mara. The editor of the Albany paper said it exemplified all the classic conflicts, man versus man, man versus himself, man versus nature, man versus the supernatural. The reviews were generally positive. I worked closely with the director, and was there for the auditions and castings, and took my bow hand-in-hand with the company at the end of opening night. For a young writer, it is the kind of validation you dream of. I was very lucky.

Before writing Mara, I had gone back and researched the craft. I read every play I could get my hands on. Shakespeare. Ibsen. Williams. Miller. That was how I learned stage directions and the inner workings of a play. But what people asked me most about it was where the idea had come from. What my inspiration was. 

The answer to that was simple. 

Peter Straub.

Ghost Stories

Peter Straub (1943 - 2022) left us last week. I was deeply saddened by his passing. While pre-teen me was inspired to write by Stephen King, adolescent me was driven by admiration for Straub. To my mind, Peter Straub was to the ghost story what Shirley Jackson was to the haunted house novel.  He was the master of the genre. Straub’s ghosts—always female—are not insubstantial wraiths but manifest as flesh and blood entities. They haunt by corrupting their victims and inducing mental breakdowns. Here, I’d like to talk about three of my favorites. 

1975’s Julia was Straub’s first foray into the genre. A young American woman living in London flees her domineering husband (with the aid of his younger brother, and it is unclear if he does this out of genuine concern for Julia, desire for her, or just to piss off his brother). She has just recovered from a mental breakdown in the wake of killing her own daughter. The little girl had been choking to death, and Julia performed a tracheotomy to try and save her. But as soon as Julia moves into her new house, there are disturbances, which may or may not be hauntings. She begins to catch glimpses of a little blonde girl who looks strikingly like her daughter. The most dramatic is at a park near her home, where she spies the girl in a sandbox…

Almost immediately, she saw the blonde girl again. The child was sitting on the ground at some distance from a group of other children, boys and girls who were watching her…the blonde girl was working at something intently with her hands, wholly concentrated on it. Her face was sweetly serious…this is what gave it the aspect of a performance…

When Julia goes back to the sandbox she finds a turtle mutilated in the sand. It looks like the blonde girl had given it a tracheotomy.

Things intensify and Julia cannot be certain if this girl is a hallucination, a ghost, her daughter, or her husband trying to drive her mad.

Straub followed this with 1977’s If You Could See Me Now. Miles Teagarden is a recently widowed English professor who returns to the rural community where his grandmother once lived to write his dissertation. Or so we are at first led to believe. In the summer of 1955, Miles and his cousin Alison—whom he was in love with—made a promise to meet up there again twenty years later, in 1975. That is what brings him back. The only catch is that Alison died that summer…and he is expecting her to keep her promise anyway.

No sooner than he takes up residence there young girls begin getting murdered in the community, just as Alison had been. The police suspect him. He suspects Alison. And the reader is not quite sure who to trust.

The novel that put Straub on the map, however, was 1979’s Ghost Story.

Probably his most famous solo work (Straub cowrote both The Talisman and The Black House with Stephen King), Ghost Story is a ghost story about ghost stories. A group of old men, the “Chowder Society,” hold meetings where they tell each other ghost stories, each of which the reader gets to share. They are bound together by a terrible secret. When they were college boys, a mysterious older woman came into their lives, seducing them, playing mind-games with them, and ending their innocence. An argument and some alcohol leads to them accidentally killing her, and then hiding the body and covering the murder up.

Meanwhile, Donald Wanderly, the nephew of one of these men, becomes a successful author and lands a university teaching position. There, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young graduate student, Alma Mobley. But there is something wrong with Alma, something cold and alien that becomes ever more evident in the relationship. One of the most chilling scenes comes when he touches her skin one night and feels an electric shock of revulsion, as if he had just touched a dead body or slug. Later, he wakes to find her standing naked in front of the window. He asks her what’s wrong and she answers “I saw a ghost.” Later, he begins to believe she said “I am a ghost,” and later still…”you are a ghost.” When he ends the relationship Alma re-emerges engaged to his brother soon after. Donald tries to warn him about Alma but his brother dismisses it all as jealousy. Then the brother ends up committing suicide.

The members of the Chowder Society reach out to him for help as they become increasingly convinced their past has come back to haunt them, that the woman they killed is back and may have indeed been his Alma. There is more at work here than this, however, and they begin to understand the nature of the shape shifting horror they are dealing with. Wanderly kidnaps a little girl he firmly believes is the latest manifestation of Alma, and in this interaction we get to the heart of the novel and its conception of the ghost story:

Okay, let’s try again,” he said. “What are you?”

For the first time since he had taken her into the car she really smiled… “You know,” she said.

He insisted. “What are you?”

She smiled all through her amazing response. “I am you.”

“No. I am me. You are you.”

“I am you.

Straub is perfecting a thesis here he proposed first in Julia, namely that the Ghost is really ourselves. He frames Ghost Story with the myth of Narcissus, because for him the ghost is our own reflection and our morbid obsession with it. Julia is haunted by her past, by the death of her daughter. Miles Teagarden is haunted by the memory of Alison and the effect her death had on his life. The Chowder Society is haunted by the woman they killed. None of these people can let the past go, and by staring back into the abyss of their traumatic experiences, the abyss in turn stares back into them. 

Straub went on to write several novels in multiple genres. Shadowland is a fantasy novel about a magician who learns real magic, Koko is a novel about Vietnam, The Hellfire Club is a straight up thriller, et cetera. But to my mind, his ghost stories were a high water mark, not merely for him but for that form of literature.