Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In Which The Warlock Tries to "Make it New"...

Bear with me here. Back in the day (the early 1900s, that is), when the Modernists roamed the Earth, poet Ezra Pound wrote "Make it New!". In the book, he set forth the concepts of a revolution of language and literature, in which even the smallest concepts are revisited, resulting in drastic changes to fundamental ideas. Pound himself was a devotee of Dante Alighieri, and produced his own Cantos centered around The Divine Comedy, but with massive alterations in structure and in metaplot.

Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

Therein lies the rub and, for that matter, our subject for today's blog: newness! If you've been following along, I've been working diligently on my Deadlands game, trying to blend it with Stephen King's Dark Tower mythos and his larger, gestalt world. You'd think that'd be an easy task--toss in an Overlook hotel here, a creepy sewer-dwelling clown there, and the task is complete, right?

Wrong. In the postmodern era, King himself has assembled a pastiche of thematic concepts that started with Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, to the spaghetti westerns of yesteryear, to the venerable (and immensely gamed-out) Lord of the Rings, to Pound's Modernist buddy T.S. Eliot. Ask any "sane" reader, and an assembly of this magnitude seems schizophrenic on a good day.

The Dark Tower

So, of course, on top of all of this, I'm trying to fit the themes of alternate history (a la Harry Turtledove) as well as elements from Deadlands' own canon. Difficult? Monumental! To say that one cannot serve two masters is something of a misnomer here, but it becomes a massive challenge to provide more than lip service to the combination of canon, inspiring works, and ones' own ideas.

But, it's gaming "work" that needs doing. I was originally drawn to Deadlands for its uniqueness in gaming--in a medium slavishly attached to fantasy cliche, it was a breath of clean winter air in my lungs. Similarly, while still in classic D&D, the Eberron setting inverted so many generic fantasy tropes that it could hardly be recognized as D&D until you broke out the d20s! World War II-era Berlin, dropped into a fantasy world? Zombie "Soviet" soldiers, marching to war against dinosaur-riding tribal halflings? Sentient robots fighting psychic spies aboard lightning-driven trains? Sign me up!

It's this concept of 'newness' and originality, even when (as a GM) you're pulling from other sources, that keeps people pulling up a chair to your gaming table every week. Games that center around only one central pillar, be it mechanical or thematic, are destined to fail, simply due to disinterest. Players want more, and it's our job as a GM to give it to them!

The same can be said for games that are linked too closely to the idea of 'canon'--which, in some ways, tips my hand in terms of my relationship with the RPGA. In a medium that supposedly values and rewards creativity, the "Living" campaigns reward mediocrity and repetition. Similarly, I have been openly lambasting Wizards of the Coast's D&D Essentials line for being overly slavish to nostaligic ideas, many of which were clung to without rhyme or reason. Instead of embracing the mechanical creativity of 4e--which, even within its own mechanics, had been evolving!--the design team took a deliberate step backwards, which will leave the game worse for the taking.

John, over at World vs. Hero expounds on this idea, as he was providing contest advice for some of the entrants on his website. There, John breaks it down in terms of a combination of "Originality" and "Allure". The neat thing is, though: originality does not necessarily mean 'without inspirations'. Rather, he elaborates that:

...originality is a rather fluid state, and we should not be paralyzed into inaction for fear of being unoriginal. When honesty precedes the presentation of creativity, the quality of “being original” becomes “being true to a fresh vision of old and new ideas,” and, under this definition, our art may be judged fairly for what it is...

John, brother--Ezra and Thomas would be proud!

The core of gaming, if it is to ever be taken somewhat seriously as an artistic medium (or to continue on into the "Twitter" era), is to blend new ideas with the fundamental archetypes that serve as the foundation of our collective hobby. Slavish devotion to canon, for whatever reason, leads only to stagnation and, eventually, dismissal. In the end, we're a jaded group. We've been there, and done that. We've killed the orc, taken his pie, and moved on.

Give me something new!

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