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Tabletop Meditations #11: Elves

Elves, the humanoid embodiments of beauty and grace armed with the wisdom of ages as well as a not insignificant amount of magical power. They are ubiquitous in modern fantasy but once upon a time Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, and fairies were synonymous and virtually the same thing.

The popular concept of an “elf” is a tall, angelically beautiful humanoid akin to a human being with a pair of pointed ears possibly armed with a head full of arcane knowledge. In concept elves have mutated from obscure references in ancient myth and then into the fairies of Victorian nursery stories ultimately taking their core modern form in the work of J.R.R Tolkien. In a way, the transformation of the “elf” resembles, at least superficially, the evolution of one of the most infamous characters in literature, Lucifer.

“[O]n the second day of creation, one of the archangels, in fact the highest archangel of all, had through pride attempted to set himself up to be worshipped as an equal to God (2 Enoch 29.4-5; cf. 1 John 3:8). The Latin translation of Isa 14:12 names this individual “Lucifer”.” [Van der Toorn, Karel. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition. Brill Academic Publishers, The Netherlands. 246]

This reference in the King James Bible was to be taken by John Milton and shaped as Tolkien did the elves, into the character of Lucifer the fallen angel onto which the popular idea of the Devil/Satan persona hangs.

Lucifer “Light-bearer” in Latin; used in Classical mythology with reference to the planet Venus as a morning star. The name appears in Isaiah 14:12 – “How art thou Fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” –[…] the misinterpretation of this passage resulted in Lucifer being added to the list of names associated with SATAN; it became popular in this sense following John MILTON’s use of it in Paradise Lost (1667). [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Lucifer]

The Devil had (or has depending on your beliefs) many names but the one most identified with the archfiend nowadays is the popularized one, his name before the fall. The current concept of elves in popular culture has followed a similar line of evolution as the Evil One but first, what exactly is an elf as defined in the popular culture of today?

Elves in the popular mind are the humanoid embodiment of beauty, grace, and wisdom and of a race each of whose members are effectively immortal. They are beautiful, skilled, wise, and may wield some mystical powers. When it comes to roleplaying games (RPGs) they are often one of many such creatures segregated into arbitrary categories referred to as “Races”.

The term “race” when used in the context of RPGs and this article, refers to a character classification based on assumed or actual genetic stock (in actual taxonomy it would be Species) that determines special benefits and penalties within the game as well as any other flavor or baggage that comes packaged with it. There is some controversy attached to this idea as fictional races served as narrative devices washing out individual identities of its members in favor of coloring the whole as evil hordes or semi-metaphoric masses for some other purpose by the author(s). This in turn translated into RPGs where a character’s race began to predetermine certain aspects of the character regardless of any other factors especially when it comes to moral predestination, i.e. the “evil races”. For now, and in this article “Race” in the context of RPGs will be treated more as character modifying packages with no attached moral predetermination.

The modern idea of the elf began as vague references in various mythic cycles, in particular the Nordic, Scandinavian, Teutonic, and Germanic myths, beginning as creatures of near god-like power and then with time reducing to evil dwarves and tiny fairies. Strangely enough, dwarves began as ‘dark’ or ‘evil’ elves of the earth only later to retain their diminutive size and craft abilities as their cousins the  ‘light elves’ regained their stature.

Originally a dwarfish being of Germanic mythology, possessed of magical powers which it used for the good or ill of mankind. Later the name was used for a malignant imp, and then for FAIRY creatures that dance on the grass in the full moon and so on.  [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Elf]

Elves are defined in Bulfinch’s Mythology as: “Spiritual beings of many powers and dispositions, some being evil, and some good.” and goes on to say that: “The Edda mentions another class of beings, inferior to the gods, but still possessed of great power; these were called Elves. The white spirits, or Elves of Light, were exceedingly fair, more brilliant than the sun, and clad in garments of a delicate and transparent texture. They loved the light, were kindly disposed to mankind, and generally appeared as fair and lovely children. Their country was called Alfheim, and was the domain of Freyr, the god of the sun, in whose light they were always sporting.” [Martin, Richard ed. 1991. Bulfinch’s Mythology. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York, NY. 302]

Here elves already possess much of what the modern roleplayer associates with them even the vague relationship with the moon. However, they seem to have a lot more mystical power than usual and are a bit small being akin to children at this point. Also elves seem, as Lucifer in the bible, to appear more as references though the elves play little if any active parts in the myths that birthed them.

Light elves and dark elves and the inhabitants of Niflheim are mentioned in the myths from time to time, but they do not have an active part to play in them. [Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. Xxxviii]

It’s somewhere at this point that elves and fairies begin to become confused although it’s not very clear that elves were fairies to begin with or vice versa.

The other common English term for an individual fairy was “elf”, and this derived not from Latin but from the Nordic and Teutonic languages, reaching England with invasions from the Continent. In Scandinavia, the word for “elves” was alfar, which – appropriately, since fairies were tied to things of the earth – had to do with mountains and water. [Constable, George ed. 1984. The Enchanted World: Fairies and Elves. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 10-11]

To complicate things elves were divided into good and evil strains as well. “The alfar of Scandanavia were believed to be divided into good and bad branches: the Liosálfar, or Light Elves, who were air dwellers; and the Döckálfar, or Dark Elves, whose kingdoms were beneath the ground.” [Constable. 11.] As they became increasingly delineated from dwarves they also lost their explicit relationship with the deep earth.

[I]n Celtic myth elves are far more closely related to the world of FAERIE, which makes them creatures of light and air, whereas dwarfs are creatures of darkness and earth. [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Elves.]

Elves and dwarves were also segregated by morality at this time more commonly known as alignment in tabletop roleplaying circles. “In Nordic myth the good elves live in Alfheim while the black (bad) elves live in Svartheim. The Svarts are shown as dwarfs or goblins[.]” [Clute. Elves] It is at this point dwarves can be left behind as they branch off in another direction away from elves. As dwarves and goblins became Svarts and began to split from the general faerie host elves seemed to melt further into the mass especially when elves reached the Victorian era. “Throughout the Victorian period, elves and fairies are interchangeable.” [Clute. Elves]

The 19th century saw an unprecedented growth in children’s fiction with the late 19th and early 20th centuries being referred to as the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” [according to Wikipedia]. This mode of fiction often incorporated fantasy elements specifically fairies and faerie folk and among those, elves proved extremely popular. Of course, elves again began to mutate to suit their audience.

A subset of fictional elves – brownies – were considered to appeal particularly to children. Brownies derive from Scottish FOLKLORE, where they are depicted as helpful faerie folk who attach themselves to a household and assist in running it; if they are offended, though, their mischievous side surfaces and they become hobgoblins […]. Brownies were […] popularized in the USA by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) with his illustrated brownie poems in St. Nicholas Magazine, which later appeared in the first of several books, The Brownies: Their Book (coll 1887). The popularity of these books meant that the brownie was firmly entrapped in the realm of CHILDREN’S FANTASY. [Clute. Elves]

As time marched on past the Victorian era fantasy writers began to adopt the ancient image of the elf as a vestige of an elder world though still leaving the elf firmly in the realm of fairy. Namely Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and Poul Anderson in The Broken Sword (1954) where the elves regained their stature but were still inextricably linked with the world of faerie. It wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) that elves, though still relics of an older world though not necessarily a wholly faerie realm, gain what is the core of the modern concept of elves.

It was not until the 20th century that authors sought to establish elves as a distinct part of Faerie [.][…] Elves thus became acceptable adult “packaging” for fairies, and in that sense elves ceased to be playful and mischievous: they became secret guardians of Faerie, aristocratic and full of the wisdom of the ancient world. [Clute. Elves]

This is where J.R.R. Tolkien, a name forever linked with high fantasy and very specific fantasy races including the aforementioned Dwarves and Goblins among others, comes into the picture to sculpt the idea of elves into a more familiar form than they had heretofore taken.

Thus Eru, the One, who the Earthborn know as Ilúvatar, created the fairest race that ever was made and the wisest. Ilúvatar declared that Elves would have and make more beauty than any earthly creatures and they would possess the greatest happiness and deepest sorrow. They would be immortal and ageless, so they might live as long as the Earth lived. They would never know sickness and pestilence, but their bodies would be like the Earth in substance and could be destroyed. [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 84]

Tolkien forever transformed the elf from fairy tale denizen into the majestic demi-angelic beings the idea of which forms the core of today’s idea of the creatures within his Legendarium which includes the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. They were beautiful, human-size, wise, and gifted with certain supernatural talents.

These people were the Quendi, who are called Elves, and when they came into being the first thing they perceived was the light of new stars. […] And further, when the new light entered the eyes of Elves in that awakening moment it was held there, so that ever after it shone from those eyes. [Day. 84]

It was from Tolkien’s Quendi that the core of what would morph into the Elf fantasy RPG race came when adapted by Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons. It was also Tolkien that completely broke the dwarves from elves making them into completely unrelated races within his elaborate Legendarium.

Elves, certainly as depicted by J.R.R. TOLKIEN but also as portrayed in some early FAIRYTALES, tend to be more graceful than dwarfs, are seemingly ageless, and though mischievous are not warlike. [Clute. Elves]

Gary Gygax kept the heart of the elf from Tolkien and reintroduced some elements reminiscent of their fey origin. “They concern themselves with the natural beauty around them, dancing and frolicking, playing and singing unless necessity dictates otherwise. Because elves love nature, they are not fond of ships or mines, but of growing things and the lands under the sky.” [Gygax, Gary. 1979. Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide. TSR Games. 16] This as compared to Tolkien’s model and this: “Elf (plu. Elves) Fairies of diminutive size, supposed to be fond of practical jokes. (Anglo-Saxon, ælf)” [Rockwood. Fairies.] It was after this that the elven race was born as RPGers currently know it along with their occasionally controversial brethren: the black-skinned subterranean Drow (an evil elven sub-race) whom followed in 1977.

Elves at this point, aside from the seemingly endless parade of variants, were completely apart from Dwarves, Goblins, Brownies, and generally other faerie-folk which had themselves become fantasy races in their own rights each with their own variations and so-called sub-races. Even the equally ubiquitous Orc, another invention of J.R.R. Tolkien, began as elves within the Legendarium only to be transformed by their creator (his inspirations from myth notwithstanding) into a wholly ‘evil race’.

Within the deepest Pits of Utumno, in the First Age of Stars, it is said Melkor committed his greatest blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons, and with hideous acts of torture he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a Goblin race of slaves who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. […] These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate. The only joy of these creatures was in the pain of others, for the blood that flowed within Orcs was both black and cold. [Day. 198]

As a result Orcs are perceived as a race of essentially demi-human monsters completely unrelated to elves in most current RPG games as well as in the minds and imaginations of players.

The elf as they stand now in the tabletop RPG world is the picture of physical beauty and grace, possessed of wisdom seemingly drawn from the experience of their ancient (and usually dwindling) race almost as some sort of racial memory, and with a penchant and natural born talent for the magical arts. “Magic fascinates elves, however, and if they have a weakness it lies in this desire.” [Gygax. 16.] They have also had some of their fairy nature added back into the mix. “Their humor is clever, as are their songs and poetry.” [Gygax. 16.]

Basically, elves had been elevated far above their former status as simple fairy-folk in effect regaining their initial high-position in popular myth but all the while inhabiting an earthly station among the other mortal races. By being the most beautiful race in existence but also the most capable particularly when it comes to their level of wisdom and magical ability they lessen the abilities of the other races in comparison. Due to this near perfection especially when self-perceived, elves can become somewhat insufferable as characters particularly when the game or story is treating them in such a way as to give this mode of thought (and in effect, behavior) credence.

This has led, somewhat justifiably, to a certain level resistance in the gaming community against anything having to do with elves, good or evil. This distaste for anything elvish arises not only as part of fatigue due to their omnipresence in fantasy but as a reaction to their seeming perfection above all other races and how many choose to portray them. Take a human character as opposed to an Elven character for example: an elven wizard is more wise and powerful than a human one, an elven druid is much more in tune with nature if not almost one with it, and an elven ranger is essentially legendary whereas a human ranger is on the face of things, second rate.

When you have an elf especially one that is constantly speaking down to their fellow adventurers in-game on a habitual basis this breeds more than a little resentment and leads to the destructive stereotyping of elves in general. In an apparent attempt to assuage this problem before it should raise in-game, or perhaps because it did immediately arise, Gary Gygax wrote in the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979): “If elves tend towards haughtiness and arrogance at times, they are not inclined to regard their friends and associates as anything other than equals.” [Gygax. 16.]

But attitude no matter how justified it may be is not the only way elves have gotten under the skin of some gamers. Racial issues have also arisen probably due in part to a pedestal being included with the elven race especially since the portrayal of elves as not just perfect but popularly as Caucasian. This in turn has justifiably injected controversy into one their better known variations, the subterranean Drow whom are seemingly meant to be a literal negative image of the prototypical Caucasian elf.

The Drows’ black skin and white hair being the reverse of the fair-skinned, dark-haired light-elf but they are also marked as an evil race. The predestined evilness of the Dark Elves ensuring a perception or moral inferiority on the part of the Drow as opposed to their cousins. The culmination of the superiority of the elf and their black-skinned and evil sub-race has ignited more than a few furious debates about racism in roleplaying.

Ultimately, we arrive at the defining traits of elves in the popular imagination: beauty, grace, effective immortality, and wisdom. In addition to these amazing inherent abilities they are also equal in stature to humans. “Their size would be the same as that of Men, who were still to be created, but Elves would be stronger in spirit and limb[.]” [Day. 84]

Elves are physically beautiful; they are flawless and pretty, with both the females and males of the species being beauteous possessing near angelic features.

Their hair is like spun gold or woven silver or polished jet, and starlight glimmers all about them on their hair, eyes, silken clothes and jeweled hands. There is always light on the Elven face, and the sound of their voices is various and beautiful and subtle as water. Of all their arts they excel best at speech, song and poetry. [Day. 84.]

Elves are graceful that is, they possess a natural elegance of movement often translated as Dexterity into RPGs or some extra ability with certain items or weapons or at tasks/skills that call for maneuverability such as balance and especially at handling the bow and arrow.

Elves are also effectively immortal, that is they cannot die from old age or natural causes; they tend to get stronger and of course all the more wise as they age but they can still be killed as can any other mortal.

Elves would not grow weak with age, only wiser and more fair. [Day. 84]

The wisdom of elves permeates the whole race and is rarely a wholly earned thing through experience but rather inherited. All elves tend to have a high level of good sense and practicality but also a deep reservoir of knowledge retained from their elders occasionally almost more as a racial memory in certain cases. They have access to knowledge and wisdom collected by and as the natural cultural sedimentation of a most likely very ancient civilization.

Elves were the first of all people on Earth to speak with voices and no earthly creatures before them sang. [Day. 84]

All of these strong points and advantages do seem to paint the elven race as a race of superior humanoids that excel at everything. However, there are certain aspects of their character which does seem to arise not just with roleplayers, especially those who honestly take heart in elven superiority, but come packaged together with them as the flip side of their positive aspects.

With superior wisdom there would come with it a supreme arrogance which may not only diminish the capacity for good judgment but the possibility of completely counteracting it. This arrogance would only increase with age as the elder of the race would have experience in many instances where their wisdom won out and so would become more and more reliant on it eventually too much leading to a disease of destructive arrogance among the elder race as a whole as the young would, and somewhat rightly, always yield to the guidance maybe even the tyranny of the old.

Another fundamental attribute which has its own balancing flip side is elvish beauty. Such a gaggle of beauties would not see extreme beauty as an exception but as a fundamental, anyone else less attractive than the accepted low point, which would be unfairly high among a race of angel-faces, would be shunned as disgusting or even suspect especially if beauty is considered a virtue in and of itself. Elvish beauty can lead to a sublime superficiality where they would immediately pass judgment based on the level of physical attractiveness of any given individual. Giving them a penchant for judging others based on appearance which would be both harsh and unfair when in comparison to their own almost supernatural beauty.

Elvish beauty may also lead to expectation and the arrogance of the beautiful when surrounded by those who worship beauty and are not as attractive as their foci, after a while an elven adventurer among the rabble may not only resent the others as underserving of their company but also expect to be waited on or treated in a superior manner as compared to their non-elven companions.

Their longevity as well can with enough time become a negative where the elves fall victim to the senility of a vanishing civilization and the supreme arrogance of those that have seen it all as well as a seemingly fatal lethargy or disinterest in the outside and younger world and races. Basically this would be the final nail in their collective coffins with a senile culture falling victim to a plague of utter arrogance and superficiality with a final and apocalyptic apathy to mark their pitiable end. But I guess that depends on the setting. These negative aspects are a part of their being as much as the positive especially in the context of active RPG campaigns.

Thus, the current picture of the elf is one of a beautiful, graceful, immortal, and wise race of (mostly) benevolent beings even if they may be a bit playful or mischievous at times with great skill at the bow and with magic. In current tabletop RPGs elves adhere to these basic qualities and have gained innumerable others based on their author(s) increasing the number of elven races and sub-races exponentially. Weirdly, this brings us back to the case of the Prince of Darkness due to the sheer variety (at least in name) of elves.

Intertestamental and later Jewish texts ascribe the Devil a variety of names and activities. [Van Der Toorn. 246]

All-in-all elves as they appear in the current state of RPGs is the result of a long evolution started in the dim recesses of mythology to the nursery tales of the Victorians to the Legendarium of one of the most famous of all authors of fantasy. It is in the worlds and games of the tabletop that the fantasy existence of elves has been deeply probed and explored revealing controversy and their more negative aspects discovered and hopefully overcome.

Tabletop Meditations #10: Death

Mentioning the grim reaper conjures up the gruesome image of death, a worm-eaten skeleton cloaked in rot-black and bearing a scythe used to cut-down the living like chaff which manifests personally or through its followers especially in the fantasy realms of role-playing games. Whatever its guise it is inevitably an inescapable force as present in the fictional universe as it is a process in the actual and it is inevitable that Player Characters (PCs) will die on occasion. How should the player, the Game-Master (GM), and the adventurer group as a whole handle it when a Player Character (PC) is cut-down in their prime?

When characters are killed regardless of the cause or where the fault may lie and ignoring such phenomena as DoDs (Dungeons of Death) and Killer GMs, it can have an emotional impact on the player and on the course of the campaign in general. The player’s feeling of loss probably originates from losing something that they have in effect birthed directly from their imaginations and possibly spent quite some time molding, building and adapting. Players in other words tend to specialize in their characters making all transitions to new characters, not just due to death either, fairly difficult. The intimate knowledge the player has of their character has to be let go, partially forgotten in order for them to move on. Such options as building a character of a different race, culture, or character class than their former character can help as well as preventing them from consciously or unconsciously recreating their old character.

The player may also feel the emotional impact of sudden loss which is comprised of surprise, disappointment, and what amounts to the sting of ‘losing the game’. Of course as individuals, players will feel any combination of the previous and at varying degrees. Any shame or scorn the group heaps upon them due to their negative reaction or visible disappointment will only magnify these negative feelings and will discourage new players from returning and may give them second thoughts about joining any other gaming groups they may encounter in the future. A sensible amount of sensitivity in these situations is usually called for although if a character dies in a bizarre, stupid, or just plain comedic way, then laughing at it or telling stories about it in good humor are typically not out of line. Criticism of how the player directed their character can wait however allowing for a little time to pass (probably until the next game session) and should come in the form of helpful non-condescending advice.

When PCs die it has the most immediate and most emotional impact on the PC’s player but it also can throw a major wrench into the GMs plans and send the campaign head-on into a dead-end or cause it to tailspin into chaos. This occurs when the dead character was involved in at least one important unresolved plotline. Even unimportant plotlines can have a cumulative effect on the campaign if the number of unresolved plots tied to a dead character is numerous. Some of said plots will be simply cut-off essentially being resolved by the character’s death unable to continue but may still leaving behind a feeling of irresolution. This sense of incompletion can be used by the Game-Master to generate some new hooks. This remains true for those threads that are vitally important to the campaign as well. The sense of needing to have an end to these loose-ends is an opening and chance to catch the attentions of the living PCs.

In the advent of character death the GM needs to make a quick assessment as to exactly which plotlines have been cut-off and which simply leave the group with a feeling of emptiness and which are necessary to steer the campaign. The GM needs to think of ways to reattach the important threads back to the surviving members if they have not already done so in the course of play up to that point. At the very least, the GM needs alternate lines, back-up plans, to work around the loss or drop clues so as to cause the survivors to seek out the loose threads. The GM, with the player’s permission, can also use this as an opportunity to clue the other PCs in on certain hidden aspects of the dead character letting them get to know the deceased character in an indirect way adding a little more deepness to the game.

This all rides on the assumption of course that death is not something that is easy to overcome. In role-playing games and especially those in the fantasy genre, the settings tend to alter the nature of death itself making it in some situations more an inconvenience rather than the ultimate fate of a living being. This is reliant on how death is treated in the setting material, by the GM, and by the player group. Magical resurrection is typically the solution to “bring back” dead characters so any dependent plots are only temporarily stalled taking some of the difficulty from the role of the GM reducing death to a simple narrative device. Of course, there are other implications to this approach both mechanically and sociologically/philosophically in respect to the game world. The effects on the attitudes of the world’s occupants can range from complete indifference to the phenomena of death to outright non-morality when it comes to certain actions such as murder. What does it matter if the victim will be resurrected easily even though there may still be psychological damage to tend with after suffering such a trauma? Mechanically the questions to answer regarding resurrection are its availability, its difficulty, and stipulations (if any). All three points can and should be regulated by the GM but if the GM is using material authored by a third-party such as a purchased setting and/or supplements their hands may be tied, especially if the group objects, the alteration may ‘break’ the setting/world, or the GM has already set an in-game precedent (probably for plot convenience).

There are 3 basic mechanical approaches to the nature of death in an RPG: Resurrection, Permanent Death (also referred to as Perma-Death), and No-Death. The thrill of narrowly avoiding death is a great motivator for players and is the primary (and for the GM easiest) source of suspense in dire situations. Precluding death of any kind when regarding the PCs eliminates this and in effect does reduce the fun a bit although it will make all the players feel “safe” foisting more weight onto the shoulders of the GM to set-up the thrills. Another trade-off to this approach is that the GM doesn’t have to worry about random deaths throwing a wrench into their plans. Players should feel that there is risk in the game world concerning their characters. This opens an easy avenue for the GM to create tension. But the GM should stop short of just “knocking one off” just to send a message to their players. Done right death will be a palpable presence in the game whenever the players pick up their dice in a risky situation. Death also opens the possibility of death-defying heroics and the potential for self-sacrifice. Characters can suffer near-death experiences and players can enjoy or suffer the excitement of escaping the slavering jaws of death some may even make it a habit to tempt death whenever they can precluding the need to make an “example” out of anyone. However, this approach can elevate emotions and exacerbate player reaction if a PC bites it at the height of the action.

Permanent death may heighten the tension but it in my experience it seems to cause the players to tread a little too lightly especially if they’re attached to their characters they tend to want to err on the side of caution every time bogging the game down and reducing the potential for action immensely. Permanent death should be a shadow hanging over the PCs imaginary heads but there should always be a possibility for reversing the course (often magic or divine intervention become the narrative devices in this mode) though this option shouldn’t be easy or readily available to just anyone for reasons discussed previously.

Another aspect of in-game death that can become an issue is its level of apparent randomness. Random death is a real possibility when including death in the game (the dice do fall where they may). Basically this happens when without intending to the GM presents a situation where a PC is killed and the GM had planned otherwise. This is also true of NPCs though a dead NPC is easier to “write out” and find a way around their plotline also the emotional component is much less pronounced as well even if the NPC is well-liked maybe even beloved by the group. The players, without much need for sensitivity can treat NPC-death as a role-playing opportunity. Players should however mind the GM’s pride in such situations. Of course, death shouldn’t appear as too random to the point that players feel it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re just going to die anyway. If the players begin to take that attitude then the GM may have made things a bit too difficult and may need to pull it back a little.

The nature of death in TRPGs is largely determined by the participants and secondarily by the published materials that they are using. This is also largely true of what amounts to the afterlife of the deceased character as well. Sometimes a setting, usually fantasy settings, will have a literal afterlife for dead characters to progress into and possibly adventure through (sometimes even while their still living). This essentially creates a no-death situation when viewed at certain angles but generally disengages the sense of loss that should accompany death even if the separation from the in-game living may be there, it usually can be breached if it hasn’t already especially concerning certain RPG character archetypes. By the breaching of the barrier between life and death I do mean the actual ability to communicate with the dead, travel into the dimensions of the dead (the actual afterlife), or otherwise have a factual or working knowledge that there is indeed an afterlife and perhaps even its nature is also known. If the barrier remains intact and even if communication with the afterlife is possible, its nature remains ambiguous then the main question is about what has the dead PC left behind.

How is the dead character going to be remembered, what is the in-game legacy that they’ve left, and how long will it remain?  Players can treat the death of their characters as the final character development; in essence it is exactly that. It should be determined how they are remembered and how the NPCs that knew them will react such as building a monument, composing a song, the character’s name figuring into a legend or song of the event especially if there are witnesses. Also do not discount the heaping of scorn onto their name if they died foolishly and perhaps a divisive tract authored for manipulative purposes. What is the nature of their commemoration? If the character has relatives or offspring will they carry on the legacy of the dead character? The group as a whole with the GMs guidance should take some time and figure out what the legacy of the dead character is. This ad-hoc eulogy may also help to bring home the loss to the group providing for a somewhat solemn role-playing opp.

The legacy of the departed character consists of the lasting opinions of the NPCs that have encountered them or that had relationships with them including relatives and descendants. These opinions and whatever personal anecdotes a character, especially NPCs, carry may only last as long as the character themselves particularly if nothing was recorded or commemorative works composed with respect to the game world. It will also include any leftover material wealth which will definitely come to the attention of their companions probably more immediately than the GM would like. Any dwellings or items and literary works that the character has created or influenced in-game will stand as a testament to their existence within the game-world even leaving a legacy in the form of a uniquely customized item or weapon which can at least carry their name onward if not standing as a reminder of their story/legend. But as with most stories it’s the most sensational bit that will burn its image into the minds of the players, PCs, and NPCs. Probably the most critical part of the deceased’s legacy, the bit that will be the most likely remembered, is how they died.

With the inclusion of death as stated before there is the potential for the glorious heroic death and the potential for self-sacrifice. Critically this allows players the opportunities to commit their characters to the Good Death. Players should never be forced or pushed into sacrificing their characters; it should be their choice. The good death is a death that happens on the terms of the character for the most part and from their death the potential for something good and lasting to come of it. This can mean the player chooses to have their character face death with discipline and bravery and eyes wide open or have them fight to the bitter and all too obvious end. The good death is the player’s choice and that which plays to their character either displaying their personality, serving as a redeeming development, or a heroic end. The Good-Death in an odd way contributes to the wholeness of the character. Any way you cut it, it is the end of that character’s personal story but an end with a flourish that will be remembered (if there’s a witness to remember it that is).

A good death should carry some kind of meaning as well not just for the character themselves but especially for the player whose character it was. Hopefully this meaning carries over to the group as a whole and at its best will influence the campaign in a positive way. If nothing else it should inspire some interesting war-stories. A good death can help to soften the personal blow that the player feels as well. Of course, if the character dies randomly their death may just be a fact of in-game life.

RPG-Death should be reasonably random in nature and be somewhat defeatable under special circumstances. Death in role-playing games doesn’t and in most cases shouldn’t follow the parameters of Perma-Death and definitely not seem to be entirely random. It should serve in its primary capacity to add a definitive element of thrill and risk into the game as well as provide opportunities for the PCs for a Good Death and as the final character development rather than merely the bitter end of a character. Where the players may have to deal with the death of a character in personal terms the GM has to deal with the death of PCs and the sudden deaths of NPCs in primarily mechanical ones.

The GM must keep track of their plot-points and the threads which wind and braid throughout their campaign and have backup plans for the important plotlines as well as a finely-honed talent for quickly and neatly tying together severed plotlines when necessary especially when confronted with a sudden and unexpected character death. The GM should also keep in mind the mechanical capacities of the PCs so as not to have to experience the unintentional extermination of the entire adventuring group in what is known as the Total Party Kill (TPK) phenomena. There is no recovering a game from a TPK as everyone is probably going to have to generate new characters that will probably not have any meaningful connections with the previous characters at all though it is possible to generate PCs that are related in various ways to the former not to mention the use of apprentices, protégés, and squires. These may pick-up any dangling threads left over by their predecessors but will definitely not be able to pick back up every single one to reboot the previous campaign. Also GMs shouldn’t use character death to punish players or as an excuse to penalize them though there should be consequences (which can invest the players in their current or new characters even more if handled correctly). Basically, don’t intentionally try to kill PCs especially since sometimes Random Death can still rear its ugly head when you least expect it.

Death like most other components of TRPGs is an opportunity to deepen the game and add to the experience of all of the participants. It is a component which contains thrills, risk, and strong emotions in strange and varying amounts and which leaves an indelible mark on the memory. It is a very heavy subject even where concerning RPGs and is almost a living part of them as sometimes it can be just as unpredictable and out of the GMs hands as in real-life but the nature of which can be altered and borders regulated to maximize enjoyment and make the most of the game.

Tabletop Meditations #9: Campaign Structure

As a work of traditional fiction has a basic underlying structure so does a Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TRPG). Story, Plot(s), Scenes, and Story-Beats are the building blocks of traditional fiction. Likewise, the structure to a TRPG is built of a Campaign, Adventure(s), Episodes, and Play Units. As knowledge of the basic structures of fiction can help authors write their stories the knowledge of the basic structures found within TRPGs can help to sharpen a Game-master’s communication skills and adventure-writing/story-telling prowess. Both traditional fiction and role-playing games structures are tiered and begin with the most basic of building blocks, the smallest units composing those higher up with those of higher tiers increasing in complication. The most basic building block of a fictional narrative is the Story-Beat.

A Story-Beat is an emotive change in a character or exchange between characters (as in action/reaction) and which is replaced in RPG Narratology with the social exchange between the participants; these being the Game-Master (GM) and the Players. As the characters that are involved are the Player Characters (PCs) controlled by the players and the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) run by the GM is where the story-beats lie. The story-beats are smeared across realities that is they are present inside of the game world and outside the game world among the participants and as there is not always an emotive change marked in certain specific characters determined by a single author but is dependent on the exchange of information on what the characters are feeling and doing and how the players themselves are reacting to what is going on within the game. Since the emotional change so to speak is distributed over multiple people and existent partially in a shared fiction, it is the exchange of information between these participants and frames of experience (a la Frame Analysis) that is of importance here with each single exchange between participants known as a Play Unit.

GMs should take note, always take down notes by the way, of the exchanges that seem to be important either those that contain a nugget of info that the GM can play on later, those that apply directly to the current action in the game, and those that may hint or directly spell-out character traits and especially player interest and reaction. GMs should initiate exchanges with vivid and characterized descriptions playing to the interest of the players and/or their characters in order to hook them immediately. It is also vital that the GM’s narration contain enough information for the players to act on but not overwhelm them with too many extraneous details. It should entice the players to ask questions and/or act maintaining longer and more frequent exchanges improving the overall flow of a campaign. These exchanges are what construct the game world in the minds of all the participants. Multiple Play Units will build a single fictive scene.

In fiction a Scene is a unit of action within a story marked by a change of time or place (change of scene) and which contains an event which moves the story forward. Note that the entrance of other characters can also demarcate scenes. Essentially the same can be said of TRPGs save that sometimes the demarcation of a scene is more reliant on the presentation of a question, puzzle, or problem by the GM without the scene changing in time or place with characters dying in between these exchanges as well as certain characters simply vanishing or becoming suddenly scarce altering the scene, meaning it’s slightly less structured strictly speaking. Thusly, within the context of RPG Narratology it is probably more befitting to call these units Episodes instead of scenes. An episode in the context of TRPG narratology is a related grouping of related Play Units where the setting/background does not have to be fixed. An example of this is a conversation between 2 PCs while walking through a magic portal beginning before they walked through and continuing through and on the other side, the backdrop changes radically but the episode is composed of the exchanges between the PCs. This somewhat transient notion in TRPGs can be difficult when trying to translate between traditional narrative and TRPG narrative especially in such instances as trying to blog a personal (or a character’s) tabletop experiences. Those that blog their experiences around the table may try to demarcate portions of the campaign by Session instead of by traditional narrative units or even those of TRPGs being discussed here.

However, a TRPG session is not a very appropriate unit as it contains both real-world interaction and the exchanges between participants which build the fantasy world of the game. In addition, as most game sessions often run a few to several hours, there will be tons of information most of it being extraneous to the narrative the blogger may be pursuing aside from the world-building elements. A full session will also probably not have a clean break at the end or a cleanly demarcated beginning especially if the session begins on a continuation of a battle which began last session or on such an incident which has stretched across several sessions. Thus, a single session can consist of several Episodes strictly speaking and may not even contain whole Episodes at the beginning and ending. Not to mention distributed episodes, that is small exchanges or incidents that connect into a single episode but which are not temporally contiguous (they don’t follow each other in occurrence), are separated by other unrelated exchanges and/or episodes or are otherwise composed of out-of-sequence Play Units.

When writing or setting up for episodes a GM need only bank on multiple exchanges where they hope to end on a desirable result from their perspective. Basically, the GM will want the PCs to end up after this series of exchanges in a place or situation that either leads directly to another planned episode or that which they believe that they can work with, giving them fodder for more episodes further down the line. Keeping Play Units and Episodes in mind a GM can structure their thoughts and ideas while running the game and writing for their campaign. A game-master can learn to keep tidbits of info in mind and group them together later when it comes time to act on them in-game helping to form the threads that run through campaigns which the GM’s writing and narration helps to bind together into adventures.

Multiple related Episodes will accumulate to build an Adventure which may or may not be consecutive or broken up among episodes that take the Campaign in different directions or digressions which will matter later connecting to other non-contiguous episodes or future episodes. Basically in fiction this is Plot/plotlines. Plot is a sequence of events divided into Scenes each single scene often presenting a single event. A fictive plot is constructed of a sequence of scenes (as are Subplots but for the purposes of this article there is really no distinction between Plots and Subplots). A minimum of 3 scenes construct the traditional plot in fiction with a beginning, middle, and end type of striation within the text. In a TRPG, plot is essentially constructed of 3 vital exchanges or episodes which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. As the building blocks of a TRPG plot is constructed of a series of bundles of exchanges guided by the writing (the GM’s and any other authors of any of the material they may be utilizing for the game as well) within the context of the game world and which is very mercurial and apt to change direction and nature suddenly and unpredictably even from the GM’s perspective, it is most useful to refer to TRPG Plot as an Adventure. An Adventure is a single plotline that can be followed through a campaign referring only to the game and meta-game elements necessary to communicate said plot.

An adventure is of course slightly more complex than the previous two lower tier structures (Play Units and Episodes). As stated before an adventure is composed of three parts which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. These component parts need not be in equal size or be executed in roughly equal spans of time (either real or in-game). Each component is however, an episode. Presentation refers to an exchange initiated by the GM which presents information that gives the players something to be solved or acted upon in such a way as to lead them to another scene or episode though whether the players follow this to the next episodic component of the current adventure is unpredictable and may require the GM to make another go at the Presentation or put a hold on the current adventure to go on a player-fueled tangent. The next in the strict sequence of episodes that build an adventure is Complication.  A complication is the consequences of the players’ action(s) or an additional bit of information which throws a wrench into the players’ plans basically it’s a bump in the road or any type of obstruction separating the players from their goals that they otherwise couldn’t predict or that didn’t exist beforehand. The solution that they find should ideally lead them to the next component episode, the Twist. ‘Twist’ refers to yet another unforeseen consequence of the players’ current action(s)/previous solution, or the addition of another element by the GM which the players probably didn’t plan on appearing; this element however should have had clues as to its nature and its possible appearance scattered throughout the previous episodes that the players have already played through.

The episodic structure of adventures can be demonstrated in certain methods of writing adventures, adventure in the sense of current common usage that is, such as the Hook, Line & Sinker (HLS) format which structures adventures into 3 tiers. This structure though does not have to be limited to just 3 episodes it may take more to get the PCs to go along with it (if they ever do which is probably a hint to the GM to just drop it and present something else) or for them to progress through each single stage. The HLS format puts the plot-hook in the beginning episode to immediately try to capture the players’ attention by having the GM play to their characters’ motivations but a GM should also try to play on the players’ interests as well. Basically, it’s giving the players a reason to act and can also be inserted between the Presentation and Complication stages as well if the PCs were initially uninterested. Placing this ‘reason’ at the very beginning places a fair amount of trust in the players’ abilities not just to pick up on it but also their will to act on it. Putting it off until it can be used as the bridge between the Presentation and Complication phases can give the players more to latch onto adding to the likelihood of their taking action.

This brings us to the overarching super-structure underlying both fiction and TRPGs. In fiction this structure which is composed from the bottom up of Story-Beats, Scenes, and Plot is Story. A Story is the text resulting from the totality of the aforementioned structures with the addition of characters, details, and the background (that may or may not involve world-building) in which the events of the story take place. Of course, these underlying structures which authors of fiction use to construct their stories vary so much from those of TRPGs at this point it is probably more efficient to call the Story of a TRPG a Campaign. A Campaign is the totality of all of the game and meta-game exchanges, participant characters (both PCs and NPCs), any material that the GM used regardless of original source or author(s), and the game world where the campaign has taken place. It is from this accumulation of detail and narration from which the participants can extract their personal narratives from the point of view as either their character(s), as a player, or a combination of the two. It is also in this higher tier structure where the world-building occurs as world-building is done through the accumulation of information gleaned from the gaming material and from the information drawn or resulting from certain exchanges and demonstrated in certain episodes. Adventures help to propel the characters and thus players through this shared world which they not only can alter through the actions of their characters but also help to construct episodically.

A TRPG Campaign is built of adventures, episodes, and finally communicative exchanges between the participants called Play Units. Knowledge of these basic structures will allow the GM to plot out adventures and help their improvisation technique when dealing with at-the-table exchanges within the context of the game world which serves as the sandbox for the players. Game-masters can seize control of their writing through the use of the 3-tier structure of adventures and can collect information learned from certain episodes to direct the flow of the campaign. They can break down the campaign and its subsequent adventures into episodes allowing them to find and pick up lost threads (ones not intentionally dropped that is) within the campaign and gain a deeper knowledge of the PCs and maybe even their players perhaps even themselves (when it comes to gaming style).

Tabletop Meditations #8: Magic

Magic in RPG’s can be approached in one of two primary fashions by the game system itself. These tworpg theory - magic ways are essentially defined as Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic. The latter, Technology as Magic, starts in the known, the audience already has a fair idea of how it works, and works to create mystery by obscuring the knowledge of the audience of said technology with the ignorance of its characters often substituting mystical names for technological terms. Magic as Technology on the other hand, begins with the unknown and has to strain to quantify magic as technology using its own mystical terms. Basically one simply obscures known machinery and the other tries to construct said machinery from a fuzzy set of its own rules. It is from these core ideas that each builds its atmosphere and all other aspects of its magic.

In the context of TRPGs (Tabletop Role-Playing Games) this means that the way the rules that govern the magic system and the flavor of that system will be dependent on which core idea it’s using. Fantasy TRPGs need a rule-system whether this system integrates certain aspects of the game such as magic into the core system or uses a separate more modular approach the system will have to deal with magic using rules. Essentially in fantasy-gaming the ill-logic of magic is logically structured.

“Fantasy was accompanied by strict rationality: players followed complex rules laid out in dauntingly thick rulebooks. […] This combination of logic fancy was pursued in the name of modern enchantment, as players imagined themselves as heroic warriors, clever thieves, or subtle mages exploring a mysterious world teeming with adventure and danger.” [Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press.101]

Rules are a necessary logical component, the ‘hard’ bits of a rule system as opposed to the soft, which places RPG fantasies and thus RPG magic into an awkward place where it is required to maintain a careful balancing act between mystery and being ‘workable’ (in game terms). This of course affects play in a fundamental way as well as how the Game-Master (GM) and players may portray magic in character within the confines of the game world. When using magic that works from principles already well-known to the participants out-of-game, or at least has that feeling of mundanity to it, magical abilities and spells are less a subject of wonder and taken more for granted with certain types of players using their meta-knowledge to quantify every bit of magic they come across sometimes to the detriment of the game.

These types will attempt to pierce the veil and remove any unknowns they stumble upon especially when confronting opposing magic-users ferreting out potential weaknesses and gaps in their mystical abilities which they or their companions can take unfair advantage of. If done from within the game with characters that are supposed to be knowledgeable in such situations this is in fact a good thing though a clever GM may be able to counter such meta-gaming if they know their players well enough.

I am of the opinion that using the Magic as Technology approach is the better choice regarding TRPG magic systems. Science as magic drains magic of all of its, well, MAGIC. As science provides technological explanations built right in, it does provide a suspension of disbelief but it reduces, greatly, the air of mystery that magic should have hovering all about it. What I mean by that is when working a game from the Technology as Magic angle you start at a well-defined and completely known place with little or no pall of mystery hanging over magic lacking an element of the unknown to it.

When you start in the reverse position, Magic as Technology, you start in the void and have to work on ways to quantify it or give it shape allowing for a system designer to leave it ‘workable’ but also allowing them to leave gaps in non-game areas creating sometimes as a side effect (and with little added effort) the ‘fluffy’ bits.

When referring to ‘magic’, I am referring to the supernatural ability to make things happen whether they are seemingly scientifically impossible or not with ‘technology’ being the machinery developed from the practical application of science/knowledge; both in the context of tabletop role-playing games. Both technology and magic seem to want to arrive at the same basic end, make something that would’ve otherwise been without them impossible to happen.

However, each starts at a very different place. As I stated before technology starts within the known with results that will be repeatable with little variation and its effects with a definite cause distinguishing it from magic. Magic will have results that will be mostly repeatable (to make it usable within a gaming context) but with unpredictable variation and the cause of its effects might be no more definable than “it’s magic”. Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic are very different in concept and in execution.

Technology as Magic is the mistaking of highly advanced technology as magic basically best described by the famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It being the third of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws. Clarke’s Three Laws have everything to do with the ability to have vision beyond the limits of contemporaneous science and not using those current limits as the measure to gauge what is impossible. Proceeding from Clarke’s 3 laws magic, though it may be able to perform the impossible may still only be misunderstood technology.

The only thing left to distinguish it from technology, after disengaging it from sci-fi tropes, is the mystery of it, the apprehension of its dangers, and to wrap it in plenty of atmosphere. However, when dealing with technology even misidentified tech it is easy to predict that those studying it using scientific principles will eventually figure it out especially if those investigators are following the spirit of Clarke’s Three Laws, unless the investigators are prevented from probing its mysteries by certain social aspects such as superstition and religion especially when it comes to things forbidden or sacred. The discovering of the mysterious tech’s principles and mechanisms will push the boundaries of the current scientific knowledge throwing a big wrench into any ongoing campaign. Technology has predefined boundaries which must be pushed outward by investigation and experimentation.

“However, the unexpressed converse of Clarke’s “Law” has proved even more attractive: if technology looks like magic, could magic not have been misunderstood as technology?” [Clute & Nicholls. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 765]

A perfect example of Technology as Magic can be drawn from the fiction of Henry Kuttner and his 1965 novel The Dark World:

“And such minds, with their new powers, would develop tools for those powers. The wands. Though no technician, I could understand their principle. Science tends toward simpler mechanisms; the klystron and the magnetron are little more than metal bars. Yet, under the right conditions, given energy and direction, they are powerful machines. […] Well, the wands tapped the tremendous electromagnetic energy of the planet, which is, afterall, simply a gargantuan magnet. As for the directive impulse, trained minds could easily supply that.” [Kuttner, Henry. 2008 ed. The Dark World. Paizo Publishing. Bellevue, WA.  84-85]

Functionally within TRPGs this idea is very ‘easy’, the rules governing this false magic are the same as those dealing with technology only the terminology would need be altered to transform technological functions into pseudo-mystical terms which may carry some shallow sense of mystery with them. Within the game the characters may regard the tech as magic and may treat it with reverence and fear but eventually through simple in-game experience eventually they will begin to move from ignorance towards knowledge at least in the use of it and maybe even gaining basic repair skills when dealing with it.

Probably, sooner than the character the players will begin to recognize, if they hadn’t already, that the game’s ‘magic’ is just technology wrapped up in pseudo-mysticism. The game will inevitably move towards discovery as the players and thus their characters figure out what works, what doesn’t, and the how and why of it all. Technology as Magic will always move towards just technology throwing off the thin veil of fantasy revealing the game to be within the realm of sci-fi. Granted, this could come off as pretty cool the first time but inevitably players will feel the lack of mystery in that aspect of the game unless they are primarily interested in that genre.

The immediate advantages to this approach especially within the context of RPG’s are that the terms are easy to communicate, the game rules which deal with in-game tech will be doing double-duty needing only a quick reworking of terminology when dealing with tech-magic, and the idea has a potential ‘twist’ to it. As stated before this type of ‘magic’ is starting at a common and well-known place and so it follows that its terms are typically explicit right off the bat making it easy to communicate its ideas. This allows the ease of expressing descriptions and leaving a lot not said as it doesn’t need description.

This also leads to the ease of imagination; those involved can more easily picture techno-magic with less descriptive text. The game rules will be trim as there does not need to be a whole subsystem for magic only the system of rules meant for technology with some modification when it comes to the names for things and their functions translated into mystical sounding terms. It helps also to grant magic itself a little more believability up until the magic is revealed to be technology (the twist). Of course, this reveals the potential ‘twist’ of this approach to be somewhat hollow.

The ‘twist’ is a one-shot, after it’s been utilized that’s it, it’s done, the players (more likely just their characters) have discovered the mind-blowing secret to the game world and that’s it. So this strength is somewhat lacking and exists more as a bonus than a solid advantage of the tech-magic concept. Another major weakness, probably the most obvious in starting with technology and moving into mysticism is that any air of mystery is essentially shallow and the nature of any inherent dangers will already be known.

Magic as Technology is trying to treat something that cannot be decidedly defined within mundane scientific terms but can still be accessed and used with at least a fair amount of reliability to achieve desired ends. It only requires that parts of its system be known in order to be of use. This allows the impossible to be made possible and which works fairly reliably but it is not entirely clear how it works and any explanations will ultimately refer back to some ambiguous ‘source’ or power. It may provide obvious violations of scientific laws though it may also go along somewhat with them on occasion wherever it may lend credence to the magic in doing so that is.

Of course, a sharp Game-Master will know that if you introduce too many predictable scientific laws into the magic system then players will be quick to take advantage as those principles may be very familiar to them providing open and clear avenues for them to essentially ‘break’ the current incarnation of the game.

A perfect example of Magic as Technology in fiction can be drawn from The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud: “Adelbrand’s Pentacle … its extra lines and incantations double locked the door and forced you to remain for further orders. It was a complex magical formula that required adult stamina and concentration [.]” [Stroud, Jonathan. 2003. The Bartimaeus Trilogy Book One: The Amulet of Samarkand. Miramax Books, New York. Pg.80] In the Bartimaeus trilogy magic is treated as a science but there is always more to know and there is a long history and legacy of magic penetrating society.

Magic is definitely defined as supernatural (i.e. summoning demons to do your bidding much as in the Sorcerer Rpg by Ron Edwards) but magicians are specially trained through tomes and incantations to summon the demons who are the root of their power and a source of unpredictability and great danger (mostly due to their potential in being characters themselves and not just a mindless ‘source’; essentially NPC potential). The magic is given its own internal logic not logic based on science essentially being a technology of pure magic.

Functionally within TRPGs Magic as Technology is quantifying the functional parts of magic in terms that allow it to be manipulated in-game by the participants without revealing it in toto. It provides a mystery to be explored by the players’ characters in-game, it brings with it a sense of the mysterious which can be exploited by the GM, and requires only portions at any one-time to be known to be used.

This approach can have a certain risk-factor attached to its use that technology often does not have and even if it does that risk is still within known parameters whereas magic can have very random results when it gets loose. Just as well the GM can characterize the vagaries of magic as well as perhaps the universal force of magic itself sometimes almost as a character in and of itself though fairly vague on most, and hopefully the most strategic, points of its existence leading to more of a ‘sense’ and feel rather than anything that can be easily pinned down (i.e. the fluffy bits). Its boundaries unlike those of techno-magic are not well defined and most certainly lack the comfort of the familiar.

It will defeat the meta-knowledge that players can bring with them unless they’re already familiar with that specific system of magic though if it is well-designed there will still be blind-spots and risks that they may have still only a vague idea of. It not only allows but demands exploration not just in-game by the characters but also within the meta-game by the players and the GM. They will need to experiment, probe, quest, and explore discovering its advantages and sometimes suffering its strange consequences.

All of these are great advantages in the realms of game and the fun found therein. The malleability of Magic as Technology prevents those characters in command of its power of having too much power in that their knowledge can’t be all-encompassing, they simply can’t know all there is to know about magic. It allows more flexibility for the GM to work their ‘magic’ on the game. This great fluidity is also a part of this idea’s inherent weaknesses.

The weaknesses found with starting in the unknown is that one has to struggle to quantify the ‘workable’ bits without revealing/defining too much and that an entire mystical system may have to be constructed in order to lend more functionality and believability to the magic which may move towards Technology as Magic if it is over-defined. Examples of this can be found in the various strains of Vancian Magic systems with some lacking in arcane flavor others taking care to sprinkle in the proper measure of spice and mystery. Another potential weakness is the built-in mystery of this approach which is also the primary strength.

The mystery can be a disadvantage as it makes it more difficult to quantify it logically as a rule-set. In kind, in-game effects and other aspects may be hard to describe or the GM has to give more thought as to how to communicate it as there may be a lot of possible nuance putting more of a strain on the GM especially when firing off of the cuff. Also rules cannot do double-duty as magic requires its own separate rule system adding a whole other branch to the game system rule set. In fact, the magic system itself may branch out into different subsets of itself. This is also a part of its strength in that a branching magic system provides open terrain for the participants to explore possibly serving as its own adventure within an adventure in the hands of a good RPG writer and a skilled Game-Master.

Both approaches, Technology as Magic and Magic as Technology, strive to achieve desired results using means that are potentially ‘workable’ in-game. Also, both attempt to add believability to magic either grounding it in a realistic setting and/or defining it using mundane terminology (both being methods of Rationalized Fantasy). Both approaches hinge on certain questions of coherence and believability. Coherence in terms of RPG’s is definitely crucial in terms of codifying the logic into rules that can be utilized by the participants to help build their fantasy game world and being able to frame it within a certain rhetoric.

“Coherency is crucial to creating the ironic mimesis of the immersive fantasy. It is possible to create a world in which anything can and does happen. But if one does this, then it is impossible to make the characters questioning and extrapolating beings. In a fully immersive fantasy, the actors must be able to engage with their world; they must be able to scrape its surface and discover something deeper than a stage set. An ongoing example that can arise is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Because there is no system of magic, no sense of what each kind of magic can achieve, the choice of potions versus wand spells versus magic objects is frequently arbitrary and prevents planning- Hermione’s use of a transformation potion requiring the risky business of securing genetic material is one such occasion. One cannot but wonder why there is no safer, wand-based spell. There may be a reason, but as there are no rules, Hermione cannot make choices or argue her choice.” [Mendlesohn, Farah. 2008. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT. 63-64]

Believability is required by both works of fiction and RPG’s in order to assist reader/participant immersion. If something strikes the players as completely absurd or unbelievable it can throw them straight out of the game and anyone who’s ever played a TRPG can understand how hard it may be to submerge yourself within the fantasy in the first place when you’re surrounded by interesting people. Basically, suspension of disbelief is as important to roleplaying as to fiction.

However, Technology as Magic has limited but ‘push-able’ borders, the other, Magic as Technology, seems boundless. Technology as Magic has to have the veneer of mystery applied to it, the other must be pulled out from the shadows and with some effort but which reveals only that there is more to discover. One works from well-defined and known principles and the other comes from the swirling ether of the unknown.

Magic as Technology has the advantage when referring to player exploration and mutability, and makes it easy to establish mystery even dread for the consequences (either known or completely unforeseen) which outweighs the disadvantage of the difficulty when converting it into a codified magic rules system. TRPG magic systems should have a set system which can be converted to rules and have the ‘workable’ hard-bits for the benefit of the participants but there should be enough grey areas or ‘mess’ allowing the GM some nuance and leave a sufficient level of discovery to the players. The rules themselves shouldn’t be too-complex nor be overly-defined trying to sharply define every aspect of magic though well-defined rules for magic do not necessarily stand to demystify magic either.

“It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” [Pratchett, Terry. 2004. The Wee Free Men. Harper Trophy]

Tabletop Meditations #7: RPG Narrative

Discussions about the writing and running of tabletop games in terms of fictional narratives or as a sort of collective fiction or exercise in communal story-telling are very common as are the debates brought about by such subjects. Especially when discussing the writing of Game-Masters and the use of not only the terms but the devices of fictional narrative. According to my own personal experiences in roleplaying in both the Game-Master and Player roles as well as an avid reader of fiction, Fiction Narrative and RPG Narratives are completely different.

“RPGs cannot easily be characterised in terms of standard narrative theories, presenting a different approach to narrative. Their interactive character-based approach differs both from the classical Aristotelian theory and the analytical models proposed by the French Structuralists.” [Louchart, Sandy & Aylett, Ruth. 2003. Intelligent Virtual Agents: Solving the Narrative Paradox in VEs – Lessons from RPGs. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, Germany. 245]

Narratives in fiction and that of Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TRPGs) are fundamentally different even though they have certain similarities. From the smallest units used in their composition to visualizations of their basic overall narrative structures to how they are composed (authored) and to what audience they are meant for both forms have an array of differences though in these differences also lay similarities.

Narrative in its most basic sense is a chronology of events which build upon or relate to one another from which the basis of story and plot is built.

“Chronology is made up of identifiable events or episodes. These episodes are identified by where they occurred (the setting) and by recalling who was there (the characters). The moments in between which are often not remembered serve to merely link one with another.” [Minot, Stephen. 1993. Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey. 177-178]

As narrative is a very basic element of story, plot may be considered a separate idea artificially constructed by the author(s) where concerning fiction to give the narrative direction.

Plot, as opposed to narrative, is constructed in order to follow the narrative to an ends which can carry personal meanings or messages and is meant to immerse and propel the reader along the course plotted out beforehand by the author(s). Narrative is not constructed of plot but plot does steer narrative in a certain direction that is determined by the author(s). In Fiction Narrative plot is directed by the author(s) and similarly in TRPGs plot can be said to be the same as all the participants (GM and Players) are in place of the author(s). However, in RPG’s plots are less ‘plotted’ rather than constructed by the interaction of the participants against some sort of framework previously setup by the Game-Master which can be termed ‘Adventure’ as the equivalent of ‘Plot’ where concerning TRPG narrative.

“The Game-Master exercises control at a high level over narrative unfolding, plot, pace and the structure of the story. Since the a priori plot line for a campaign is only hypothetical, the Game-Master needs specific tools – in the form of […] encounters […] – to gain some control over the overall campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The TRPG narrative is collectively gathered from the participation of the GM and players including the accumulation of details authored by each whereas the plot of standard fiction is determined by the author(s) and is often carefully constructed to follow the intended narrative.

“A fictional plot is a weaving together of events that are interrelated and which work toward a conclusion.” [Minot.183]

The plot of fiction and TRPGs are similar on a very basic level and this is where the confusion between Fiction Narrative and that of TRPGs can produce unfavorable results which should be familiar to most TRPG gamers.

The desire to change the shape of the adventure and/or campaign into that of a traditional fiction narrative on the part of the GM is the prime example of the confusion between TRPG narrative and Fiction Narrative. When the GM behaves in this manner they essentially hijack the agency of the players taking away their power to affect the game world and alter the shape of the story. This is called ‘railroading’ and is often to the detriment of the game (however, I have met and played with those that prefer the rails and often spend time in-game seeking them out).

“While the DM [Dungeon-Master] can limit players’ actions, in reality, the players have a great deal of agency in creating the story of the TRPG.” [Grouling-Cover, Jennifer. 2010. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. 49]

Essentially when trying to steer the roleplaying game into the territory of narrative fiction the railroad-GM begins to exclude a major part of the gaming experience and excising an essential part of the TRPG that makes it unique and apart from standard fiction. Railroading is the practice of forcing the players to stay within the confines of a plotline written or in the mind of the Game-Master thereby changing the very nature of the game. Where the GM has acted more as an author of a choose-your-own-adventure book rather than acting in the more appropriate referee mode though commonly in tabletop RPG’s (TRPG’s) the GM may author elements of the adventure particularly the background elements of the campaign world perhaps even the campaign world itself. “The player in a TRPG [Tabletop Role-Playing Game] is not out to discover the secret to the DM’s story but to help create that story through active participation [.]” [Grouling-Cover. 37] There is no sole author when it comes to roleplaying.

The GM acts less as an author of fiction or the care-taker of an all-important storyline but should behave more as an arbiter of the rules, a referee when it comes to negotiating in-game conundrums, and maintain control of the game using the tools available to them such as encounters, playing on meta-knowledge of the players, and the capability of the characters among a few others.

“The Game-Master expects that the encounters specifically created for a session, will trigger actions, reactions, discussions or decisions from the party in such a way that an anticipated plot will unfold. This plot however has a hypothetical aspect since what actually happens is the direct result of the party’s generated reactions to the different encounters. They can be used by the Games Master to shape and pace the dramatic unfolding of the narrative as well as presenting the main source of entertainment to the players, and embodying key events in the construction of the plot. Their smooth orchestration by the Game-Master is critical to the creation, development and unfolding of an RPG campaign.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246]

The GM makes use of in-game devices such as encounters, expressing scenarios that the players may happen upon or induce through their behavior, and determining when the element of chance is required to be relied upon which typically takes the shape of a dice roll of some type. If the party gets too far off the path of the adventure at hand threatening take the campaign into territory which would diminish the overall fun for the group then it is the GM’s responsibility to get them back onto the trail as it were by intervening in certain ways.

“Interventions are generally caused either by players taking longer than expected in dealing with encounters or by the story branching in an unexpected manner. Branching may occur when the party incorrectly determines their role and what is expected from them, pursues future plot events omitting essential encounters or attempts to reinvent themselves. The need for interventions illustrates the plot’s provisional nature and stresses on the Game-Master’s preparation and flexibility.” [Louchart & Aylett. 246-247]

This can be avoided with certain other GM techniques such as “sandboxing” or keeping the details of the adventure as fluid as possible allowing the actions of the player to codify them and the Game-Master should allow themselves the flexibility to work those elements into the adventure allowing them to keep a firm hold on the direction of the campaign.

“Because the DM [Dungeon-Master] cannot predict players’ actions, he or she can not [sic] know what direction the story might take or what parts of the world might be explored. While the DM may control the world to an extent, this control is far more ephemeral than that of an author.” [Grouling-Cover. 92]

In the classical understanding of narrative the author constructs the fictional world, the characters, directs their actions within it, and develops the plot-line via the chronology of events within the story. “[…] RPGs work with a hypothetical plot which is dynamically modified, the mechanisms supporting this dynamic modification seem to rely … on out-of-character and out-of-play direct interactions.” [Louchart & Aylett. 248] Right off the bat it is evident that the narrative of TRPGs is very fluid and mimetic as compared to that of fiction which is much more monolithic. Of course, plot and narrative in both veins are composed of smaller more basic bits. These smaller parts of Fiction Narrative and TRPGs respectively are Scenes, Story-Beats, Episodes, and Play-Units.

Fiction narrative is written by a single author or group of authors who for the most part are all considered primary authors with each more or less contributing an equal amount of material to the story. Authors write for a captive audience whom as they read have no choice but to follow the narrative set down by the author upon whose shoulders and skill rests the ability to keep the readers immersed and in a state of suspense. This allows for a structured plotline running through the events contained in the narrative to make sense of them to the authors’ ends.

The underlying structure for fiction narrative known as Dramatic Structure when visualized appears very similar if not identical to a Bell-Curve (a more strict analysis could yield something more akin to Freytag’s Pyramid but this is a more general discussion) with the climax of the story, the height of the action, occurring at a single point. Of course, the events following the plot often will increase in intensity building up to the climax afterwards the main plotline if not all plot-lines including those attached to participant characters are tied up ending the story. High points on the curve would be points of high-energy and/or action and the low points would of course be lulls in the action. Each of these points represents a single scene or event, the building blocks of the story.

Fiction “is made up of a sequence of related scenes [and] is a construction of units in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” [Minot.184] A scene is the smallest unit of story and each scene is built of beats which are marked changes in the fuzzy or emotional bits or ‘feel’ (not to be confused with mood) in a scene. Story-Beats are the smallest unit that makes up fiction most often applied to screenwriting, or as defined by Robert Mckee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997) as an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.

In fact, by this definition the GM and the players are included in the story which is not far from the truth of the matter but it is a little lacking when it comes to TRPG’s due to the breaking out of bounds of the ‘story’. Instead of Story-Beats that make up fiction’s narrative, in roleplaying the smallest unit of narrative is a Play-Unit which consists of a scenario (presented by the Game Master) + decision (made by the players) which then may lead to action (a high point) or inaction (a low point). [Edwards, Ron. 2001. Sorcerer & Sword. Adept Press, Chicago. Pg.80] Basically the Story-Beat of fiction narrative can translate with some work to the Play Unit of TRPG’s. Similarly, scenes can absolutely be drawn from the narrative that forms during play thus relating RPG Narratives to that of fiction and as fiction has its smallest units (technically the scene and emotively the action beat) so does the narrative that evolves from a roleplaying game session.

However, the narrative flow of TRPG’s as opposed to the narrative flow in fiction is very different.

“A narrative in a RPG is here defined as a description through game play of a series of events created by the interaction of two or more participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

The narrative flow of an RPG campaign is essentially a sine-wave with the high points being moments of action and the low points being those of calm or inaction, the definitions of the highs and lows being identical to those of fiction narrative.

The narrative flow of fiction usually moves upwards climbing towards a climax (or anti-climax) with the high and low points on the visualized graph being much the same as that of those on the Sine-Wave of TRPG’s but may be increasing in intensity as the author can reliably craft or manipulate these events in order to do so, in RPG’s the events as they also depend on the unpredictable actions of the players and many times on an element of chance (the dice) will have varying and sometimes seemingly random variances in intensity/thrill-level.

In the same vein, the thrill-level may be at variance for each of the players as well. This is because the narrative of a TRPG is authored by not just a specific individual or group but a whole gamut of folks from the Game-Master, each individual Player, to the deeper levels of authorship which may not be personally present during the game such as the authors of additional supplemental game material.

Basically, it’s the participants who share the authoring of the TRPG Narrative not to diminish the work of the GM whose responsibility it is to both referee games and often provide background material and characters as well as incorporating any supplemental material into the campaign. This also includes authors that are not direct participants in the campaign those authors that have written material used to supplement the game by the participants thereby creating several levels of authorship with the players at the shallower end.

“Although RPG players have a good idea of the overall story in which they are involved, they are more concerned by the development of their characters and their focus is situated at a fairly low level within the overall story, the individual level.” [Louchart & Aylett. 247]

Essentially, it is more helpful to refer to what is called Story in Fiction Narrative as a Campaign in the context of TRPGs as the authorship of narrative between TRPGs and fiction is so very different.

“The creation of a campaign is a collaborative process where the characters, as well as the worlds and environments in which the campaign is set, are developed in common accord between the Game-Master and the players. […] This laborious but highly participative creation process allows the Games Master to prepare the campaign episodes with a good understanding and knowledge of the different characters and world involved. This favours the delivery of a highly flexible narrative structure[.]” [Louchart & Aylett. 245]

The narrative of a TRPG is dynamic, it is a contributive exercise involving the players and the GM and commonly other remote authors where the narrative is simply not consistent across its audience.

“Game play is dynamic and, as it relies upon input from the player, can at least possibly differ for each player. Any narrative will be experienced by a player as a result of their game play. As the game play of each player differs, so their narratives may differ.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 54]

This can dramatically alter the narratives not only retold by each participant when recounting their experiences but their view of the campaign through the experiences of their character and their own meta-game experiences actually playing the game around the table.

“The narrative experienced by a player will be informed by the total sum of their game play experience.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55]

This very fluid structure and continual nature of the narrative structure of TRPG campaigns seems that it would be at a sublime disadvantage when it comes to the attentions of a passive audience.

A Campaign World is the collection of information that forms the background essentially the stage on which the game occurs and where the characters act. This is aside from the TRPG narrative component equivalent to story in fiction narrative. A campaign world is often referred to as the setting, the place where the adventures happen.

“Campaign settings are designed not to tell stories, but to create spaces for stories.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

What differentiates these game settings from the worlds of traditional fiction narratives is that the players have agency within the world having the power to leave their marks on it.

“[W]hile the world exists independently from the way the characters and players progress through it, the participants of TRPGs do influence the development of the world.” [Grouling-Cover. 77]

The players and even the GM change and build the setting as they progress through their adventures and thus the fantasy world. In many cases it’s the players’ interest in the world that surrounds their characters (the PC’s) that fills in the minute details and sometimes even creates whole new aspects and features within the setting.

“The interests of the players and the questions they ask also affect the world in more detailed ways that more directly influence the narrative.” [Grouling-Cover. 78]

This is not to say the players and their characters have ultimate say in the course of events unintentional or otherwise, the GM still has certain planned events which can alter the player characters’ paths.

“Many details of the world get fleshed out only as the players (characters) progress through them; however, certain events in the world progress regardless of the characters’ involvement with them.” [Grouling-Cover. 79]

In TRPGs it’s the audience that has agency over the narrative.

The audience that TRPGs are written for or rather meant to entertain is the participants around the table playing the game. “A RPG narrative is not made for an audience, but for the people participating.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 55] The audience of an RPG Campaign is also its authors. When it comes to relating their adventures the players and Game-Masters will form their tales into narratives from their point of view which may be from outside of the game or from within coming from a specific character. These ‘tales from the table’ often divide the narrative into scenes which are extracted from the over-arching campaign. These scenes as they are called in fiction narrative are better referred to as Episodes in TRPGs.

In TRPGs episodes can be a smaller part of an overall campaign or be limited to a single gaming session especially where the group is playing out a specific scenario in the game. It is also especially useful when referring to Episodic Play where the participants in a gaming group may shift, meaning the group is not composed of a fixed membership of individuals or even set number of participants at any one time where using one-shot type scenarios is a particularly useful tactic on the GM’s part to be able to get a game together and keep it together perhaps only later trying to tie them together into a greater campaign. The TRPG campaign like the Story of fiction is composed of Episodes as a story is drawn from a series of scenes. These scenes are composed of smaller pieces, story-beats, and thus an episode is also composed of what are also essentially story-beats better referred to as Play-Units in the context of TRPGs.

As defined before a Play-Unit consists of a situation presented by the GM and a decision made on this scenario by the player(s). The most fundamental bit of TRPGs is a back-and-forth between the participants.

“[An] RPG narrative is constructed by a continual process of communication and feedback between the participants.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 58]

This interaction is communicated through the context of the rule system they are using.

“Rule books… provide rules that assist participants in creating and controlling their storyworld. These books create the system that is used to structure the game.” [Grouling-Cover. 11]

It is through this filtering medium that the participants are able to negotiate and come to agreement as to what will become a part of the campaign and a reality in their collective fiction.

Negotiation describes the way the group uses social interaction to decide how the events will progress in the narrative… negotiation is a process of reaching a point that successfully lets the story progress.” [Grouling-Cover. 33]

It is from this seemingly basic unit of interaction that the TRPG story, a campaign, evolves from the collective imaginations of the participants, the RPG Group, most likely using material drawn from multiple sources and authors.

The basic smallest building blocks of both types of narratives are similar but still different as they serve different purposes. As discussed previously authors place story-beats of their fiction narrative in order to move the plot along using events which ultimately will lead to the climax of the story. The narrative and indeed the plot that can be extracted from a TRPG session seems to be an emergent narrative, that is it evolves and grows though the GM may set the player group on the path to a certain event and/or climax (which in RPG’s is more of a chapter-mark or framing device) and may completely diverge into completely unforeseen territory. The philosophy of the TRPG is essentially “story now”, the players and indeed the GM will want to enjoy their game NOW, and if any of them find it boring they do have the freedom to try to find the fun in any way that they can.

“The key concept is simple: Story Now. Not “It’ll add up to a story someday,” or “Your character will be tough enough to start a story some day [sic],” or even, “You don’t know this, but a really cool story is underlying these adventures.” No. Story now means that the conflicts and resolutions played out openly on the table are engaging and coherent, at that moment.  […] It means the proposition of conflict, the pivotal role of the heroes’ decisions, and a resolution of the conflict.” [Edwards.80]

When it comes to levels of authorship, traditional fiction is a little more streamlined than the multiple levels found in even a cursory glance at TRPGs. Often there is only a single level with the author(s) being the primary having full control over the narrative and its components. This of course is not taking into account certain series of books or fictional universes where multiple authors contribute to multiple works all set in the same world or universe such as in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

In TRPGs authorship is a multi-level dynamic and liquid thing where not only the participants create fictive elements amongst themselves when interacting through the medium of the game but when adding in elements from materials written by other authors. In roleplaying games the authorship also overlaps with the audience as the participants produce their campaign narrative for their own entertainment whereas when it comes to fiction the author(s) produce their stories for an audience that has no agency within the author’s fictive world. The final demonstration of the absolute difference between the narrative structure of TRPGs and that of Fiction is the visualizations of their general underlying structure, the difference between the potentially perpetual Sine-Wave structure of RPGs and the finite Bell-Curve structure of classical fiction narrative.

In conclusion, RPG Narrative Flow is very different from that of Fiction Narrative Flow which can be demonstrated by comparing any of the most basic components of either not to mention the dramatic difference illustrated by way of their line-graph visualizations. RPG narratives are unlike that of the Narratives of Fiction alternating in action or high points with low points at pretty regular intervals as a sine-wave whereas Fiction Narrative has a definitive structure that escalates in action & drama moving towards a climax. In RPG Narratives a set piece may mark a climax and (hopefully) coincide with a high-point providing some closure to most of the prescient story-lines that were prominent in the campaign.

The various components of either type of narrative can be said to be related and can be translated in limited terms back and forth. Fiction is often plundered for ideas for use in the game world and the basic elements of fiction can be extracted from a campaign narrative with the most bottom level translation between fiction’s Story-Beat and Play-Unit being approximate at best. There are relations between the two different narrative styles and structures but a TRPG is not a novel though a novel can be extracted from the conglomeration of story and detail created through the play of an RPG campaign if the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist and the Dragonlance books can stand as examples.

However, the most important difference, at least in my opinion, between the narrative flow of classical fiction and that of TRPGs is player agency and the shared authorship of all involved regardless of their level of participation.

“This [the TRPG Narrative form] is fundamentally different to many other narrative forms, in that the participants have an active role in shaping the future form of the narrative.” [Hitchens & Drachen. 59]

Tabletop Meditations #6: Dragons

They are both majestic and terrifyingly powerful beasts that dominate both the air and the land with their fearsome talons and vicious teeth. They wield the power of fire or poison and scales like shields. These great lizards have been used as symbols for heavenly or hellish might as well as to adorn the shields and banners of knights and kings. In fable and the popular mind they exhibit the penchant for kidnapping (and a peculiar appetite for) young maidens and stand as the ultimate examples of overwhelming greed when portrayed sleeping on hill-tall piles of treasure, their hoards of gold. Dragons are a staple, and occasionally the focus of, tabletop roleplaying games and, as several other ‘classic’ RP monsters they have been drawn not only from popular fiction but up from the deepest mists of time and mythology.

“Described and feared by human cultures worldwide from the earliest times, the dragon exists in a vast range of forms and abodes in myth and legend.” [McGovern, Una, ed. 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragons]

Classically dragons are split into two primary classifications especially when it comes to mythological comparisons though the primary features of the RPG dragon are found mostly with one, the dragon of European lore but the contemporary idea of which seems to move ever closer to the mannerisms of the other, the Eastern Dragon, in both role-playing games and fiction. There is a stark contrast between to these two classic types so much so that they appear to be near mirror opposites. These two classifications are defined as The Eastern Dragon and the Western Dragon.

Western dragons are the classic evil monster and have an appearance familiar to anyone who has had even a glancing association with popular fantasy fiction and/or role-playing games. They have bat-like wings, four limbs that end in nasty claws, crocodilian jaws studded with ripping teeth, a tail like a bullwhip, horns on the head (perhaps owed to their Christian religious symbology), and occasionally a barb at the end of the tail.

“The classical Western dragon is a malevolent fire-breathing monster encased in an armour of shimmering scales, borne upon four powerful limbs with talon-equipped feet, and sporting a pair of huge leathery wings, plus a long tail tipped with a poisonous barb or arrow-headed sting.” [McGovern. Dragon]

The European tail-barb however seems to be a recent, comparatively speaking, addition acquired by some dragons from the heraldic likeness, more reserved these days for dragon-like monsters such as Wyverns.

“In nearly all modern representations the tail, like the tongue, will be found ending in a barb, but it should be observed that this is a comparatively recent addition. All dragons of the Tudor period were invariably represented without any such additions to their tails.” [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. 225]

One of the most ancient stories involving dragons and the one that best demonstrates the shear ‘epicness’ of the creatures is the Mesopotamian creation myth wherein Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, hunts down and slays the she-dragon Tiamat.

“Marduk searched the universe for Tiamat, his dragon mother. […] He spread his net across the void and caught her in it [.] Then, taking aim with his bow, Marduk shot an arrow between Tiamat’s open jaws, straight down into her heart. Then he disposed of Tiamat’s […] monstrous carcass. He split her skull and severed her arteries; he cleft her body “like a fish into its two parts,” from one of which he fashioned the firmament and from the other the solid earth.” [Constable, George, ed. 1984. The Enchanted World: Dragons. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 14, 18]

From the very beginning dragons and the power contained in their awesome forms shaped, and in this case formed, the natural world.

“Having positioned the celestial bodies, Marduk used Tiamat’s spit for clouds, placed a mountain on her head, and made an outlet from her eyes for the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris.” [van der Toorn, Karel. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition. Brill Academic Publishers, The Netherlands. Tiamat]

The dragon goddess stood as an embodiment of a single massive natural force, all the salt-water of the earth. “Tiamat is the personified primeval ocean [.]” [van der Toorn. Tiamat] In the Old Testament a term translated as “the deep” and that is etymologically related to Tiamat is frequently used not only as a designation of the primeval sea but also to denote the cosmic sea (Yam) on which the world floats, “and from which all water comes, as well as any large body of water, including rivers, and the depth of the sea and the earth.” [van der Toorn. Tiamat]

In Medieval Europe and England the dragon was a symbol of Satan and thus inherently evil and wielded a significant amount of supernatural power requiring a righteous (and blessed) hero to eliminate the beast.

“In western myth battles with dragons symbolize the struggle between good and evil or the mastering of man’s base nature and reflect early Christian beliefs. Rescuing a maiden from a dragon represents the release of pure forces after vanquishing evil. Treasure-guarding dragons often signify the struggle to attain coveted inner knowledge.” [Wilkinson, Kathryn, ed. 2008. Signs & Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to their Origins and Meanings. DK Publishing. Dragons]

Perhaps the best known examples of the medieval Western dragon popular today are the story of St. George and the dragon and that of Sigurd the dragon-slayer and Fafnir (the dwarf/dragon) in the Icelandic Volsunga Saga popularized by Richard Wagner in his 1876 Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). The dragon may have been acquired as a symbol of the devil by medieval Europeans due to the portrayal of the creatures in the bible; namely in the New Testament in Revelations, the Apocrypha, and in the Greek texts of the Pseudepigrapha.

“The dragon has often a fiery appearance, behaves in an aggressive, insolent and lecherous way and often represents the powers of chaos, especially in primordial times. The dragon is sometimes connected with natural phenomena like storm, flood or drought.” [van der Toorn. Dragon]

They are also, sometimes still, associated with serpents which are in turn related in symbolic terms if not also in appearance to the serpent in the Garden of Eden which tempted Eve with the apple.

“A dragon is a fabulous winged crocodile, usually represented as of large size, with a serpent’s tail, so that dragon and SERPENT are sometimes interchangeable.” [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragon]

This of course, continuing in the biblical vein, leads us to dragons as the ultimate symbol of evil as the serpent of the garden is taken popularly to be Satan in one of his favorite guises.

“In most Mediterranean and European MYTHOLOGIES, SERPENTS are associated with evil, and dragons, a sort of super-serpent, are more evil still.” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Dragons]

The concept of the dragon was originally inseparable from that of serpents and was in fact synonymous for ages. This association and synonymy with serpents began with the etymology of the word ‘dragon’ itself.

“The Greek word drakēn is related to drakos, ‘eye’, and in classical legend the idea of watching is retained in the story of the dragon who guards the golden apples in the Garden of the HESPERIDES, and in the story of CADMUS.” [Rockwood. Dragon]

Later the romans appropriated the Greek word giving it a more recognizable form.

“In Latin, the Greek word was converted to draco, and it came to mean “giant snake.” To the Romans the dragon was a giant snake, probably a python from India or Africa.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1982. The Encyclopedia of Monsters. Dorset Press, New York. 228]

This serpent-dragon concept continued well into the middle ages especially in England.

“Most British dragons… are of the worm variety – lacking wings and legs, with lengthy, elongate bodies, and emitting poisonous vapours rather than fire.”  [McGovern, Una, ed. 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragon]

In time the image of the dragon with its association with elemental and physical might was integrated into the heraldic arms of certain individuals and families.

“Among the ancient Britons and the Welsh the dragon was the national symbol on the war standard. Hence the term PENDRAGON for the dux bellorum, or leader in war.”  [Rockwood. Dragon]

It seems not until they were adopted as heraldic monsters gracing the banners of noble families and warlords did they begin to take on their more recognizable form.

“The head of a dragon is like nothing else in heraldry, and from what source it originated or what basis existed for ancient heraldic artists to imagine it from must remain a mystery, … It is like nothing else in heaven or on earth. [T]he wings of the dragon are always represented as the wings of a bat[.]” [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. 224]

By the end of the middle ages the Western Dragon had attained its classic appearance, monstrous attitude, and symbolic meaning. It was a powerful beast with breath of fire and an evil disposition which only champions of good could quell. Eastern dragons however were primordial beasts which were often beneficial to humankind.

“Oriental dragons are very different from the dragons of the West. Oriental mythology includes many kinds of dragons, and collectively they influence and control every aspect of nature and the affairs of mankind. In stark contrast to their Western counterparts, Oriental dragons are exceedingly wise, are capable of flying without the aid of wings and (aside from spasmodic outbursts of anger) they appear relatively benevolent in their interactions with humanity. They are also revered – to the extent that many of the East’s most ancient and august human lineages claim direct descent from a dragon.” [McGovern. Dragon]

The Eastern Dragon appears as a scaled serpentine creature with the branching horns of a stag and eagle-talons on their four feet. They often have ‘feelers’ on either side of their toothy maw identical to those of a catfish, are portrayed as aquatic, and/or soaring playfully through the clouds with the ability to fly through the air without the aid of wings.

“In China dragons were Associated with the weather and were thought to be rain-bringers; some of the country’s worst floods were attributed to humans upsetting a dragon. Chinese dragons were believed to control water, vital for crops. In contrast, western dragons control fire.” [Wilkinson. 36]

In the East, dragons were powerful elemental beings to be revered and feared when offended. They wielded a significant amount of mystical ability and not just the ability to swim through the air as they did through water but the ability to exert a divine level of control over the weather and over the water in which they lived.

“Dragons were held to exercise control over rainfall, and are often depicted playing with a ball or pearl (symbol of thunder) among the rainclouds.” [Whittaker, Clio. 2007. An Introduction to Oriental Mythology. Quantum Publishing Ltd., London. 38]

Basically, Eastern Dragons brought immense elemental power with them being not just a powerful supernatural force in the world; they were of the world, a part of the very natural world that their existence would seem to defy. They combined certain mystical aspects of nature.

“[T]he dragon began as a benign symbol representing the fertilizing waters of the serpent and the divine “breath of life” of the bird; the latter also associated with it sky deities and rulers. Later the dragon became symbolically ambivalent, and was seen as both creative and destructive.” [Wilkinson. Dragons]

They also gained the power of symbolism absorbing and incorporating certain human aspects.

“They are symbols of great power, spiritual and temporal, and are associated with wisdom, strength, and the creative forces of nature. They are revered and temples are dedicated to them.” [Wilkinson. Dragons]

Seemingly as the Western Dragon carried the sheer physical menace and viciousness now associated with the RPG Dragon, the Eastern Dragon seems to have brought the mystical and elemental abilities as well as the superior spiritual attributes found to a lesser extent in humanity. Of course, the current trends in both pop-literature and roleplaying games have begun forging the two together along with heaps of personality.

“The dragons of Chinese mythology, by contrast [to those of the Western sort], are usually benevolent. This tradition has facilitated REVISIONIST FANTASY about dragons of the Western sort.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

The RPG dragon draws from both mythological types as well as from popular fiction all hung on the skeleton of the war-gaming dragon. Dragons as did wizards, started as simple field pieces of surprising power on the fields of fantasy battles waged in the early heyday of miniature war-gaming. These dragons pretty much took solely from the Western type dragon requiring only the physical might and fire breath (not to mention the advantage of flight) on the field. They evolved as did the first major role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, from the war game but were also injected with some new DNA found in certain works of fantasy fiction.

These works are listed in Appendix N from the 1977 edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax where he cites them as primary inspirations for the game. Of primary interest are the Elric books by Michael Moorcock and of course, the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these series of books having much to do with the current form of RPG Dragons. When it comes to Moorcock’s tales of Elric, the morose albino black-rune-sword wielding dragon-riding prince, it is within the Dreaming City (not specifically cited in Appendix N but it was published originally in 1961, well within time to inspire Gary Gygax) that the form of the current era RPG dragon takes shape.

“They were dragons, without doubt! The great reptiles were some miles away, but Elric knew the stamp of the huge flying beasts. The average wing-span of these near-extinct monsters was some thirty feet across. Their snake-like bodies, beginning in a narrow snouted head and terminating in a dreadful whip of a tail were forty feet long and although they did not breathe the legendary fire and smoke, Elric knew that their venom was combustible and could set fire to wood or Fabric on contact.” [Moorcock, Michael. The Elric Saga, Part I. Nelson Doubleday Inc. Garden City, New York. 305]

To that framework built of the war-game field piece and fleshed out with the physical-ness of Elric’s dragons the next influence to add to the RPG Dragon, an element which would train the sights of greedy adventurers forevermore in their direction, is the work of Tolkien.

In particular the Hobbit, the work of his cited in Appendix N and so a direct relation, and the dragon Smaug which is present within. Smaug, a flying fire-breathing beast, seizes the dwarven kingdom of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain for himself and covets the unbelievable mass of treasure within as his hoard atop which he slumbers.

“There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.” [Tolkien, J.R.R. 1997. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 184]

Of course, Tolkien modeled Smaug after the traditional European mythic dragon in particular Fafnir; Smaug is greedy, covetous, and pure malignant evil, a perfect example of the classic Western Dragon. Tolkien’s Inklings compatriot C.S. Lewis attributed the same quality to his version of the monster equating it more however as a symbol of greed, one of the seven deadly sins.

“Dragons are emblems of covetousness – when, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) C.S. Lewis’s Eustace is turned into one, it is by thinking covetous thoughts about the horde he has come across. Wagner’s Fafner has similarly opted to change into a dragon in order to better guard the CURSE-ridden hoard for which he has already sacrificed his brother. Though dragons like Tolkien’s Smaug are typologically related to the Satanic dragon of Christianity, their hoard derives from the Norse version of dragonishness. This is at once one of their defining characteristics and their Achilles’ Heel; it is because he has suffered a theft from his hoard that Smaug emerges, and is thus killed.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

This hoarding trait is definitely present in RP Dragons if not one of their primary distinguishing traits.

Other works attached details to the RPG Dragon and explained details and behaviors of dragons in order to increase believability and foster reader immersion. These works used, and some continue to use, techniques known as Rationalized Fantasy, that is “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence.” [Clute & Grant. Rationalized Fantasy.] These works add in taxonomies, species, detailed or not so detailed explanations of draconic physiology and anatomy as well behavior even psychology. These works includes the likes of the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, and the more recent Temeraire series of books authored by Naomi Novik.

These types of fantasy novels add in multiple details fitting dragons into the natural world making them powerful, majestic, but still fearsome beasts that may be preternatural but very much animals with a niche all their own – they like the rest of the animal kingdom including the whole of humankind are biological entities with a definite anatomy. Peter Dickinson’s work, The Flight of Dragons, is a testament to the rationalization of fantastic beasts laying out a blue-print for how the various aspects of the mythical creature could fit into the mundane world.

“[M]y theory is that the particular specialisation of dragons was that they evolved a unique mode of flight. They grew to their enourmous size because size was necessary if they were to fly successfully. They breathed fire because they had to. Their “blood” had seemingly magical properties because a particular chemical reaction was necessary for their mode of flight. And so on. At the remoter fringes of the theory I think I can show how the life-form that evolved through this specialisation came to prefer for its diet young ladies of noble breeding.” [Dickinson, Peter. 1979. The Flight of Dragons. Perrot Publishing Limited. 16]

However, the foremost of these works would be Anne McCaffrey’s the Dragonriders of Pern where the dragons were differentiated from each other by the colors of their scales to which size was also attached (Gold, Bronze, Brown, Blue, Green, with gold being the largest and green the smallest); a sort of color-coding as it were. The Pern series of books are more sci-fi than fantasy and the Pernese dragons are described as genetically modified versions of Pern’s native fire-lizards only resembling the mythical dragon in that they resemble fire-breathing winged dinosaurs, in fact dubbed “dragons” due to that resemblance by the planetary colonists that bred them.

When it comes to mating the Pern series of novels are very descriptive mostly from an emotional angle. The Pernese dragons share a telepathic link with their riders and influence the sexuality of their riders and others around them particularly evident during the described mating ritual. The sexuality of the Pernese dragons does have a definite relationship with the sexuality of their riders and to whom they will “impress” due to their intense tele-empathic bond, later clarified by the author herself [McCaffrey, Anne. 2000. Pern’s Renewable Airforce]. This talk of dragon-sex brings us to a strange behavior attributed to dragons in the popular imagination and myth, the awkward habit of kidnapping maidens.

“Dragons’ legendary habit of devouring maidens is something many fantasists have tried to rationalize. Because dragons are seen as solitary, they have to have some sort of sexuality, and eating virgins fits the bill.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

This component of the draconic personality is often ignored or simply left out by most contemporary fiction and role-playing games. It was added by medieval literature.

“In medieval romance captive ladies were often guarded by dragons.” [Rockwood. Dragon]

An element of this strange trans-species draconic sexuality can be found in the Eastern Dragon as well.

“Dragons represent the male yang element.” [Whittaker. 38]

The philosophy behind Ying and Yang is that apparently contrary, not necessarily opposing, forces have an element of each other within themselves because they are interconnected. Ying and yang are an indivisible whole with Yin being the passive and/or feminine element and Yang, the dominant/male element.

In most of the fiction mentioned previously, dragons are used as either massively powerful weapons or, especially in Smaug’s case, the primary threat of the story which must be overcome. In all of these cases dragons are just essentially plot devices for the most part, the dragons in Temeraire are much more integrated as characters, however as Fiction Narrative and RPG Narratives are completely different dragons are primarily used in RPG’s as campaign-enders or set-pieces as the great threat marking a sort of chapter or book-end in a tabletop campaign.

They are ideal foils for Player Characters, great lumbering powerful beasts with fiery breath and a penchant for constructing or at least occupying complex often maze-like lairs which probably evolved in game-play starting as simple cave-lairs and quickly becoming something more complex as gameplay demanded. The penetration into the depths of a dragon’s lair can be a campaign in and of itself.

“As often as not, whether intelligent or bestial, dragons are the hunter, not the hunted. Standing as they do as a gate between life and death and as flesh-and-blood beings that are nonetheless magical in their essence, they are LIMINAL BEINGS often connected with the getting of wisdom rather than merely enemies to be confronted. A conversation with a dragon is always a kind of duel, a struggle to refuse hypnotism or mastery.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

RPG Dragons typically are not just a random encounter.

The dragon has evolved from a term essentially describing only a sharp-eyed serpent to a majestic beast representing primordial supernatural power. This traditional malleability of the dragon continues especially in the fantasy today not just as a symbol but as a literalized creature with certain authors building their own details not just to increase reader interest but also believability onto the mythical framework, the most influential in the realm of roleplaying being Michael Moorcock, Ann McCaffrey, and, of course, Tolkien. The mythical dragon is the root of certain RPG tropes when it comes to dragons: dragon-slayers (Marduk), half-dragons (the Chinese dragon).

The malleability of myth and the additions of fantasy authors have inspired the dragon-rider and the draconic character in roleplaying as well. The idea of dragons not only in RPG’s but in mythology itself seems to change to suit the role the creatures are set to play but have always represented an epic and earth-shattering experience wielding massive amounts of primordial magical power. “Mythology reveals the dragon as both creator and destroyer and involves epic themes such as cosmic chaos, creation, and rebirth.” [Wilkinson. Dragons] Dragons have evolved from the idea of gigantic serpents into a vast array of fantastical animals with their own biology and anatomies as varied and numerous as water on the face of the earth.

“There is a particular affinity between dragons and water in all its natural forms: seas, rivers, lakes, rain.” [Whittaker. 38]

The first RPG dragons were derived from fiction which borrowed from myth and took their form from war-games. Dragons in RPG’s have a deep and long lineage and thus can be very useful to the creative and clever Game-Master. Dragons can be built and designed by the GM using the transformative fictive elements found in popular fantasy fiction, and many already have been.

The GM should think of specific links to their setting such as special adaptations that would bind the native dragons inextricably to that setting. Creating believable dragons helps to not only surprise the players but grounds them within the campaign world providing a deeper level of immersion; the same result desired by the fiction authors via the same method. Coloration, scale patterns, the presence of hair, and any number of odd physical features or bizarre powers are all options. Dragons continue to evolve in the human mind shaped by the immense creative forces contained therein and so will continue to evolve and change with not only literature but also with fantasy roleplaying games in general.

Tabletop Meditations #5: On Vancian Magic

When it comes to magic in tabletop role-playing games my opinion is a bit conventional in the sense that I dislike Vancian Magic, a system of RPG magic inspired by the Dying Earth series of books and stories authored by Jack Vance. I do acknowledge its importance in not that it was essentially the first codified system but that it is vital to the formation of the tools and ideas in turning magic towards tabletop gaming from whence most current RPG magic systems spring, the magic system I authored included. I don’t particularly care for it because it tends to be trite in my opinion and restrictive as well as losing the mystery or ‘fluffy’ aspects of magic.

It treats spells as pre-packaged single purpose weapons which the wizard “fires & forgets”. The ‘spells as ammunition’ mindset probably owes its inception in the roots of tabletop RPG’s, namely War-Gaming. Aside from justifications for the in-game impact of a Vancian magic system such as the Surgeon Metaphor and the Alzheimer’s comparison, I think it’s also generally not great for mystery or atmosphere and definitely more afforded to war and video-gaming. Though to be fair the descriptions of magic used in the Dying Earth, from whence it is inspired, are definitely apart from the gaming adaptations of Gygax & Arneson. It is more conducive to the fiction of Jack Vance (of course) than role-playing a mage character and more-so in a setting much less like Vance’s Dying Earth.

‘Vancian’ magic is too artificial and strict for my taste but provides a stepping stone when it comes to game design. It does, as is one of the popular arguments against this strain of gaming magic, turns spell-casters into field pieces to be pointed at the enemy as mystic artillery. Don’t get me wrong sometimes I like this aspect of the good ‘ole fire-ball slinging type wizard.

My preference for magic includes a healthy dose of mystery and risk involved as when I play a mage I like to experiment with my abilities even if I might get burned in the end, or blown up which has happened. Game magic does need its well-defined or ‘hard’ aspects to be playable. If magic is too ‘fluffy’ or ill-defined it makes the in-game use of it too esoteric though if it is weighed down by too many rules and calculations then the learning curve for players becomes a bit too steep.

A Game-Master should keep the player characters questioning exactly what an enemy mage may be doing or what they may be pursuing due to the softer aspects of magic and know that it can’t be good or have at least a rough idea motivating them to take action against their enemy as the ‘hard’ aspects will be known to them at least in a ‘meta’ sense and these if overly defined may give the game away in the knowing.

The ‘hard’ aspects of an RPG are the bits of the game defined either in broad terms or in very quantified ‘Hard’ terms creating elements that can be manipulated in game terms allowing players and thus their characters to work with that game aspect, in this case magic, easily due to its consisting primarily of either clear cut rules and/or numeric values. They are also a necessary and operative part of the system and cannot be removed without breaking the system.

Another frequently used name for these ‘hard’ bits is ‘crunch’ but that is also applied to refer to additional more optional bits as well so I will be using the former term throughout this article. In contrast a ‘fluffy’ aspect refers to a soft/fuzzy aspect or something not solidly defined in game terms but may be covered by a broad rule requiring the GM and/or players to interpret it in respect to game-play if it becomes necessary but which still has some sort of impact on game play. Basically anything not solidly or explicitly defined by the game system but still operative in-game which is not outside of the game system.

The workability of magic or what makes something ‘workable’ for a game are the ‘hard’ aspects defined within the game system allowing the participants (Players and Game-Master) not only to understand the general overall concept behind them but also how to use them while still being able to play with the ‘soft’ parts lending some demi-officiated “wriggle room”.

The ‘hard’ gaming aspects of magic allow the participants to grab a hold of the concept like handles and manipulate it as if it were a system of dials, switches, and levers. Now this is exactly how Vancian systems operate but the condemnation, I believe, belongs to the sorry fact that it’s also how most Vancian-based magic systems feel especially if they’re not steeped in the proper atmosphere. They feel very mechanical.

“[M]agic, when present, can do anything, but obeys certain rules according to its nature. Generally ideas as to its nature are left undefined. Attempts to write a system or define the rules […] can produce shallow and simplistic fantasies.” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Magic]

This core problem with Vancian magic can be traced back to Vance himself and his possible attitude towards the idea of magic if this can be extrapolated from his highly influential work.

“Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed primarily upon utility, rather than basic understanding.” [Vance, Jack. 1998. The Compleat Dying Earth. SFBC edition. pg. 582]

The Vancian Magic system originally appeared in Dungeons & Dragons and packages magic into strictly defined “spells” with mostly inflexible game applicable stats along with a description of effects. It is a rules-based magic system which is reliant on and mainly composed of functional rules. The spell-caster using Vancian magic must “memorize” their spells which allows them to cast a certain number of spells per day, this number being based on their caster experience level and the spell list from which they are allowed to memorize spells. The casting often involves certain “components” such as hand gestures and chants etc. and after the casting the memorized spell is essentially forgotten.

“When subsequently cast – by speaking or some other means – the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held.” [Gygax, Gary. 2001. Jack Vance & the D&D Game. The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol.1, No.1. Pelgrane Press Ltd.]

Which leads us to a major complaint about this system of magic is that of the memorization of spells and the ability to memorize multiple instances of the same spell which after casting are then forgotten which is often compared, unjustifiably, to a form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s complaint being that spell-casters after casting a spell completely forget it as if it were never in their heads similar in effect to an Alzheimer’s patient but only in a very selective (and superficial) manner which is not quite equivalent to the real-life disease.

This manner expending of spell magic can be explained within the game system in several different ways but the cognitive dissonance that it can inspire takes some out of the game, me included. It is readily evident even during play that it is completely artificial, designed to work within a game.

“To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game.” [Gygax. 2001. Emphasis mine.]

Not to say that deliberately designing a magic system to function as a part of a game is inherently a bad thing; it just shouldn’t be too evident.

Like the rest of tabletop roleplaying the Vancian Magic System has its primordial origins in the world of war-gaming and was directly inspired by Jack Vance’s the Dying Earth, being adapted by Gary Gygax to Dungeons & Dragons.

“Just what portions of these works, the subsequent AD&D game, stemmed from inspiration related to the writing of Jack Vance? Several elements, the unquestioned foremost being the magic system used in these games.” [Gygax. 2001]

Essentially the current idea of the magic-user began with Dave Arneson’s seminal Blackmoor campaign which evolved from his miniature war-gaming sessions. Magic as a feature of war-gaming entered into the scene as a means to reenact fantasy battles found in fiction in particular those found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the desire to add in new features, most likely out of boredom, to war-games and move beyond just reenacting historical battles but it was not until the fantasy supplement added to the back of the first edition of the Chainmail miniature rules in 1971 by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren that the course of RPG Magic was set.

“Magic spells are the purview of the “Wizard” type in Chainmail. Although unexceptional as melee fighters, Wizards have two ranged attacks they can employ: a “fire ball” and a “lightning bolt”. The former explodes like a thrown bomb, creating a circle of carnage,…, while the latter extends in a straight line from the Wizard, annihilating those in its path.” [Peterson, John. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. pg.42]

A second edition quickly followed in 1972 due to the first edition being a hit.

Chainmail in its second edition thus set a precedent, a foundational one for the future Magic-user class, that Wizards may have inferior or superior levels of power relative to other Wizards, and that some powerful spells may not be cast by Wizards of lesser ability.” [Peterson. 163]

Around the same time Dave Arneson began to apply the fantasy rules to his war-gaming sessions which soon mutated into the Blackmoor campaign setting.

“By the time he brought his Blackmoor campaign to Gygax’s attention, Arneson had introduced a number of innovations in the Chainmail magic system, not all of which would ultimately become a part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Notably, Blackmoor wizards were ranked by numerical level rather than by hierarchical titles [.] … In addition to levels of Wizards, spells themselves were sorted into ranks representing difficulty or power [.]” [Peterson. 165]

The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons later followed this in 1974 with its own integrated magic system. Ultimately though, it was gamers that gave it the name which persists today.

“Because I explained this often, attributing its inspiration to Jack Vance, the D&D magic system of memorized then forgotten spells was dubbed by gamers “the Vancian magic system”.” [Gygax. 2001]

Vancian magic has a few readily evident strengths. Packaging spells into easily digestible bites rendering them infinitely useable in-game making that aspect of magic supremely ‘workable’ though limited in its mutability is absolutely one. Predictability is another easy to discern strong point in that it makes the GM’s job easier allowing them to have some fore knowledge of what’s at the players’ disposable at any given time. Its primary contribution to RPG magic is something that I myself have a penchant for, modularity though in a limited sense. It excels at the ‘hard’ bits of a roleplaying system due mainly to its creation in the war-gaming arena where wizards (and druids) were field pieces.

Another bonus of a purely Vancian system is the forcing of players to think strategically when playing mages memorizing only the spells they think may need later.

“Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.” [Vance. 1998. 5]

Bad choices however, can lead to a Vancian wizard to become near useless left with nothing to do but either get killed or try to hide in an encounter especially in an unforeseen/unaccounted for one.

There are some fundamental weaknesses. The first is also one of its strengths the nifty packaging of spells which makes them easy to use also makes them fairly inflexible without some special caveats being added into the game (the Feat mechanic being an example). Another inherent in such a mechanical system of magic is that it is unrealistic (so-to-speak) being based on strange logic used in and more appropriate to Jack Vance’s fiction where it is a narrative device as it naturally would-be and was meant to be in the first place; narrative in a work of fiction and that in an RPG being very different.

It’s over-definition not just disallowing for in-game flexibility but it also restricts subtle variation. In fact, variation requires that brand new spells be authored. This ‘rules based’ form of magic also seems to lack in consequences even for the “over-use” of magic leading to a few in-game questions such as the question of technology and wide-spread utilitarian use of magic but those will not be addressed here.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fiction is peculiarly suitable for adaptation into the realm of gaming due to its belonging to a certain strain of fantasy fiction known as Rationalized Fantasy. In Rationalized Fantasy “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence. In such works the laws of MAGIC may be carefully codified, often through elaborate systems of mysticism[.]” [Clute. 801] Basically it’s where something fantastical is explicable in mundane terms. Jack Vance definitely quantified spell-casting and sorcery in this work.

“Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” [Vance. 19]

He even seemed to invent the idea of naming spells in effect packing them and their effects into solid armaments equivalent, but much more powerful than, a standard weapon such as a sword rendering libraries as potent as armories.

“Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.” [Vance. 23]

This is not to say the wizards and magicians found in his fictions could not wield swords and daggers in fact, they routinely did; a decided difference between Vance’s fiction and the “Vancian” system of magic.

In effect with Rationalized Fantasy, the atmosphere of mysticism and mystery which I feel should surround magic in an RPG can be diminished by overly technical game terminology or mundane in-game explanations and too complex a construction of game-mechanics. RPG magic systems should try to maintain atmosphere as well as provide some easy to use and understand ‘hard’ aspects not to mention provide some flexibility.

The main points which are important to an RPG magic system are a sense of ‘workability’, an element of risk to the caster in addition to those on the receiving end, flexibility in its in-game use, and details helping along the atmosphere which should hang over magic and spell-casters like a pall. RPG magic requires definition but that shouldn’t absolutely define its every edge. Magic requires certain ‘hard’ meta-game aspects required to be made use of in-game these should be kept to only the necessities for ease of use and on top of that, a certain measure of risk to the caster and their companions.

Hard aspects should be spare but allow ‘workability’ in a meta-sense more than in-game as that can be explained with mythology or a character-eye view of the game world adding even more color to the game. Risk is essential and provides a sort of ‘internal questing’ the mage character can do providing a thrill with just the casting of a spell as well as all the other potential arcane and enigmatic risks when on the search for or even just perusing certain esoterica.

Magic should also have a sense of its own volition. The artifice shouldn’t be inside of the magic present in a game but should be a structure on top of it through which the magic-user conducts their craft mostly consisting, within the game, the belief system from which they pull their explanations for it. Magic itself should be a nearly autonomous, amorphous mass writhing just underneath the surface of in-game reality.

Is the Vancian system of magic a fair equivocation to magic as presented in Jack Vance’s work? A little, it is somewhat starkly defined in the Dying Earth books but is not as sharply defined as it is within the Vancian system adapted from his work. It is from his work that libraries and moldy old tomes have become synonymous with the RPG magic-user not to diminish the influence of Gandalf the Grey.

“The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.” [Vance. 4]

In most Vancian systems magic grimoires, the spell books of wizards, are nigh useless to non-mage characters, unless they know whom to sell them to that is, but in the Dying Earth non-mages could make use of the magic though  not to the extent as a dedicated spell-caster. The Vance character Cugel the Clever, from which certain aspects of the D&D thief class were taken aside from Fritz Leiber’s the Gray Mouser, and whose specialties are self-absorption and being picaresque rather than anything akin to Vance’s disciplined craft but in a pinch he too can cram a few spells in his skull.

“Cugel opened and read; finding an appropriate spell, he held the fire-ball close the better to encompass the activating syllables. There were four lines of words, thirty-one syllables in all. Cugel forced them into his brain, where they lay like stones.” [Vance.271]

In his fiction unlike in games that make use of a Vancian system books of spells are useful to anyone who can read, very similar to such items found in lore and more in line with the popular idea of the wizard.

“In the popular imagination, magicians always had books, or libraries of books, containing all their magical secrets. These books were jealously guarded, for if the knowledge they contained fell into the hands of the unwise or the unworthy, anything might happen.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1985. The Encyclopedia of the Strange. New York. Dorset Press. pg.216]

The Dying Earth stories do indeed keep to this idea better than the “Vancian” magic system model. This brings us to another complaint about Vancian systems which did not originate from Vance’s fiction, the ability of mages to memorize more than one instance of the same spell. In the Dying Earth, Mazirian the magician after casting a spell at a homunculus which he was extracting from his vats but to no effect and quickly found himself within its grip. “The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain.” [Vance. 1998. 20]

In fact, none of his mages “encompass” (memorize) more than a single copy of any individual spell in any of the stories. Of course as stated before, the narrative of fiction and that of an RPG game are very different animals.

RPG magic should have flexibility. Modularity in this respect is probably the best way to go from a design standpoint allowing the participants to make use of whatever parts of the system they require at that moment. Modularity also encourages mixing and matching. Game-magic should encourage PC-mages to explore in-game magic not just in its casting but in the formulating of new spells, altering old spells, and hunting down legends, mythical spells and items as well as hard to find components. Players and thus their mage characters should feel as if they’re penetrating the deep mysteries of the (game) universe encouraging exploration.

Also, do not count out the consequences of magic as well not just to counter any perceived in-game over-reliance on it but the effects of magic accruing over-time within the setting as well, where spell-casters may be responsible for some of the supernatural woes found in the game setting shaping non-casters’ opinions about mages and magic. The side-effects of spells, the warping of the world and dimensions, magical residue and even magical contamination are other such approaches to the consequence angle.

Details add flavor and lend to the atmosphere tied to magic and can help make ‘fluffy’ bits of the system to be a little more coherent and help to steer players towards certain decisions when dealing with the softer aspects of a system. Atmosphere is built from not only the GM’s words at the table but also added to by certain details such as specified components and description of ceremony etc. and use of the ‘fluffy’ bits. Keep in mind strange and mostly non-functional details that can evince reactions from players and/or their characters are very important.

Players may know how their mages work their magic in-game from a mechanics standpoint but certain details especially those that accumulate over time from an array of game components within the magic system not all or any of them need be functional in-play either. However, over-use of this tactic may diminish the impact of this strategy and so it should be used sparingly but not so sparingly that it can be ignored. These details can seem, in the minds of players and perhaps even GM’s, to amount to a puzzle to which no one has all of the pieces or a riddle with no answer hinting at something stranger just beyond understanding.

Though RPG magic essentially came from war gaming and evolved into quantified Vancian Magic then began to be adapted into various systems of game magic with varying ‘fluffy’ and ‘hard’ aspects/quantities it does not mean that RPG magic should always be strictly defined in its execution all the time. Vancian magic was necessary that it gave a baseline for what was necessary to make magic a ‘workable’ aspect in RPGs by quantifying it in game terms.

The original purpose of the spell-slinger was to serve as mystic field artillery on the field of battle in war-games later becoming the “swiss army knife” characters of OD&D. I find Vancian magic too clear-cut and inflexible, I desire a magic system that allows for flexibility and variation; magic that can serve as its own quest maybe even its own self-contained world within the world of the game.

Spells should be more than ammunition, magic can be a quest unto itself all wrapped in an air of mystery providing yet another avenue of adventure besides Dungeon Crawls, MacGuffin Quests, Bug-Hunts, and Monster-Slaying. RPG magic should be ‘workable’, should carry risk in the practice if not by its mere presence, should have flexibility, and should carry a certain air or atmosphere. When I run a mage I want the arcane power and knowledge that they wield to be something extraordinary and supernatural invoking wonder and trepidation in those not so inclined (or talented). Magic however does need to be ‘workable’ in-game and not just by the GM but also by the players so it may be fully explored, its mysteries penetrated, and the unfathomable risks experienced.

Tabletop Meditations #4: Dungeons

Skulking carefully through a web-choked and shadow-drowned passage, a thick grey sheet of dust over the flagstone floor and the scattered bones probably those of other adventurers hopefully of a lesser skill, watching where you step and hoping the next is not your last propelled onward by the dream of snatching the promised treasure and escaping with your life.

This should be familiar to any avid role-player even those who’ve only had a cursory experience with the hobby as a description of the prototypical Dungeon Crawl. In these games mazes are crawling with strange and often bizarre beasties for the players to battle and treacherous with traps and pitfalls to impede their progress as well as studded with treasures to tempt them. These mazes are most often constructed of various chambers linked by a confusing network of passageways and corridors not to mention stairwells.

Dungeons, ever present in roleplaying games and sometimes the sole focus of a game, imprison their inmates within a complex or maze of rooms often peppered with an assortment of puzzles/riddles, traps, hazards, treasures, and monsters. In my gaming experience dungeons are always, even if not by intention, a confusing conglomeration of chambers meant to serve as a playing field where characters test their mettle and the players test their cunning against that of the Game-Master or the author of the dungeon.

The well-designed fantasy dungeon demands players work as a team, cause characters to take on the roles to which they’re best suited, and pit the Game Master directly against the players though allowing some distance between responsibility and any lethal results within the game. The modern conception of the roleplaying dungeon is not just the fantasy of fulfilling greedy impulses and living out dreams of glory but the path of its evolution and its pedigree down through history makes the fantasy dungeon much more. It is however, a modern invention inspired and informed by certain historical facts, myth, and ideas presented in fiction.

‘Dungeon’ is a colorful word that delivers certain images, sensory information, and can carry certain connotations by its mere mention. It brings to mind not only the medieval justice system but conjures into the imagination skulking enemies, deep and dark chambers dripping with slime and moisture, and such iconic objects as chains & torture collars and hidden treasures. The word itself begs for at least a brief exploration of its etymology.

The English dungeon has an etymology that rises from the French donjon (which translates to keep or great tower) but is more akin in usage and meaning to the French oubliette which means literally “forgotten place”. It is probable that since an often small and high chamber in the keep was used to house a prisoner that dungeon became, eventually, synonymous with ‘prison’. Fiction and horror movies would later alloy the imagery of the torture chamber to ‘dungeon’ also adding to its connotations and power of imagery further making it inevitable that the word and the ideas/images that it carried would find its way into fantasy roleplaying games not to mention the use of the word as an indictment of a cramped and/or damp isolated room in which many tabletop gamers would be accused of incessantly playing their games in.

Dungeons in roleplaying games seem to encompass three central ideas which are essential to their composition. These basic ideas are imprisonment, puzzlement (like a physical riddle, a travel puzzle), and exploration (what’s around the next corner). These three ideas also relate very closely to the idea of the maze or labyrinth. Whereas dungeons contemporaneous with tabletop RPG’s are a very new idea the concept of the maze/labyrinth dates back thousands of years into antiquity and definitely has contributed to the modern concept of the dungeon.

Mazes themselves do adhere very closely to the three core ideas of dungeons and it is no surprise that many modern dungeons resemble them. The maze as a symbol lends some of its meaning to dungeons and that is the circuitous route of a human life represented in its twisted corridors with dead-ends aptly named.

Inspiration for the titular roleplaying dungeon can be found throughout history and in ancient myth but cannot be pinpointed to any singular instance or structure though several instances carry very obvious components of the modern dungeon. The roleplaying dungeon has its roots in the Egyptian tombs, the European and English hedge-mazes, the myth of the Cretan labyrinth, and the medieval bottle-prison, the oubliette.

The Egyptian influence especially where it comes to traps and maze-like tombs is nearly self-evident. The ancient Egyptians employed false rooms, secret doors, and simple traps such as concealed pits, hematite powder (if inhaled it shredded the lungs causing the tomb-raider to drown in their own blood), and used huge granite blocks to secure tomb entrances occasionally inscribed with a death-curse, mostly for effect. The Egyptian tombs fit perfectly in with the idea of Exploration and add a sense of danger and risk to the idea of the fantasy dungeon due to the traps laid for and the cyclopean security measures as proof against tomb-raiders. Not to mention such history-based stories as the Curse of Tutankhamen in modern myth contributing an air of mysticism and mystery to the sense of danger.

As Egyptian tombs carry the idea of exploration, hedge-mazes bear the idea of puzzlement, and the medieval Oubliette carries the core idea of Imprisonment. In the Black Tower of castle Roumeli Hissar, built probably by Alexios Comnenus about 1100 A.D. – “[a] dark passage near the head of the stairway leads to the crown of a deep circular oubliette, which is constructed in the thickness of the wall and has no window or any other entrance than this passage. [A] prisoner impelled along the passage and pushed through the opening would fall in utter darkness to the bottom of the chamber 13 ft. below. This is probably one of the earliest examples of a true oubliette, of which there are very few.” [Toy, Sidney. 1939. Castles: Their Construction and History, 1984 Reprint. New York, Dover Publications Inc. pg.83, Emphasis Mine.]

These rather infamous “bottle-prisons” so named due to the bottle-shape of their interiors were probably historically used more for storage than serving as imprisonment as most medieval justice involved execution or fines rather than prison sentences.

“Important prisoners, such as members of the nobility, were sometimes held for ransom […] in a castle’s dungeon.” [Cantor, Norman F., ed. 1999. The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Penguin Putnam Inc. Prisons and Punishment]

As a prison these could serve as pretty inescapable cells though they were dirt floored and situated at the base and in the foundations of castle towers making tunneling somewhat impractical.

Hedge-mazes, a particular example being that which figures in the English myth of Fair Rosamond, which existed in Europe and England for hundreds of years, also figure into the evolution of the idea of the modern fantasy dungeon. Though most archetypical RPG dungeons are subterranean and built of stone the maze that was used to keep King Henry VI’s indiscretions with Rosamond hidden from his jealous queen is considered (probably mistakenly) as a maze of evergreens but the fair treasure, often symbolized by a rose, at the center is a key idea which has carried over into the modern concept.

The hedge-maze brings with it the puzzle aspect, a puzzle that must be solved and the established goal reached. That English maze concealed not only a prize as it were but also served to keep a secret only available to those who were either cunning or treacherous enough to solve it. Of course, Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, did eventually solve it using a spool of thread to the doom of his young and beautiful mistress very much like Theseus in the maze of the Minotaur but there it was the triumph of the hero and the death of the beast.

The Cretan labyrinth, that which contained the Minotaur, probably served as the core inspiration and model of the English myth as it like King Henry’s maze was cleverly built by a master builder, Daedalus but who unlike Louis of Bourbourg, the architect of the English maze, was later forced to escape from a tower prison with his unfortunate son, Icarus. These labyrinth-myths bring to the modern concept the idea of a central prize and that of an occupying monster.

Inspired by history the roleplaying dungeon has been equipped with the imprisonment capability (and escape fantasy) of an oubliette, the complexity of the Cretan maze, and the deliberate dangers of an Egyptian tomb with the puzzle and the game aspect of the hedge-maze. However, it is apparent with a little investigation that the current concept of a roleplaying dungeon is inspired by history but historically a ‘dungeon’ was not existent in its current form even as a prison cell and most probably originated in the Italian Renaissance becoming synonymous with torture chambers and being shaped into the archetypical medieval prison in the gothic novels of the nineteenth century. It seems a modern idea which evolved within the context of the roleplaying game, at least the idea of the treasure-trap laden monster haunted gauntlet certainly is.

The fantasy RPG dungeon’s history can be followed and is somewhat well-documented. The idea itself evolving with the early years of roleplaying games emerging at around the same time as fantasy gaming from the War-Gaming hobby where an opposing army would mine its way under the fortifications of the castle they are sieging into unexpected lower chambers and storerooms which then developed shortly into deliberately constructed gauntlets for heroes to traverse.

At about the time of the evolution of roleplaying games from the primordial soup of war-gaming the idea for dungeons began and one of the major influences of course was popular literature especially that authored by J.R.R. Tolkien, namely Moria the Black Chasm.

“Some spoke of Moria: the mighty works of our fathers that are called in our own tongue Khazad-dum…too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear. Long have its vast mansions lain empty since the children of Durin fled.” [Tolkien, J.R.R., 1994 (1966 ed.), The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Company, SFBC edition. pg.234]

No doubt mines have become a type of dungeon within the modern incarnation of roleplaying games among others but they definitely, at least in my mind, are an early inspiration in the development of dungeons in roleplaying.  Of course, that comes with the popular knowledge that Tolkien’s shadow looms large over the early roleplaying games not exclusively involving dungeons and the trend in fantasy fiction of that time (the early to mid-1970’s) so it should be no surprise that the mines of Moria could have added to the concept at its earliest stages.

“[T]he creators of D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] were inspired by the empirically detailed fantasy texts of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lieber and others[.]” [Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press. pg.101]

“One of the peculiar developments in the past few decades has been the rise of the “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Magic” industries. These role-playing games are derived directly from epic fantasy. They owe everything to the original writers like [Robert E.] Howard and Tolkien.” [Moorcock, Michael. 2004. Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. MonkeyBrain Books. pgs.146-147]

The evolution of the roleplaying dungeon can be marked as beginning within the game of Blackmoor written by Dave Arneson.

“Arneson…shifted the game from the battlefield of traditional war games into large indoor settings such as castles, caverns, and mines. In one of Arneson’s most successful games, the characters were sent to infiltrate Blackmoor Castle through its sewer to open the gates. … To reach the gate, the character had to traverse the castle’s dungeons, which were full of various guards and monsters. … Similar scenarios became standard for fantasy roleplaying games. The indoor environments of the games were known as “dungeons” regardless of the actual nature or purpose of the space. In 1972, Arneson attended Gen Con in Lake Geneva and ran his Castle Blackmoor scenario for convention goers.” [Laycock, Joseph P. 2015. Dangerous Games. University of California Press. pg.41]

Soon after its debut Dave Arneson would refine and expand his design.

“The second issue of the [Blackmoor] Gazette [and Rumormonger], which details events of the late spring of 1972, provides the first mention of the counterintuitive but seminal notion that the “dungeons” beneath Castle Blackmoor were a place where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” By this point, [Dave] Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.” [Peterson, Jon. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. 2012. pg.68]

Not soon after a participant in a Blackmoor game would take the idea of the RPG dungeon and run with it.

“[A] Minneapolis local named Louis Fallert attended one of the University of Minnesota Military History Club meetings and there joined a Blackmoor dungeon expedition. […] After playing in Blackmoor, Fallert felt an irresistible urge to adapt and reinvent it for his own use[.]” (Peterson. 460) Mike Wood, who attended the meetings where Fallert unveiled the Castle Keep game writing a commentary of the foray he witnessed: “[He] was directing […] a couple [of] people in a game he’d just put together, sort of a simulation of intrepid heroes wandering around in a dungeon seeking to find treasure and avoiding death at the hands of trolls, orcs and other perils.” [Peterson. 460-461]

Again the idea would course down to other players within the gaming community and begin to spread as rules were codified and roleplaying games began to roll out. Craig van Grasstek was one of the three original players that Louis Fallert let into his Castle Keep in 1974 in Minneapolis. Grasstek decided to write down a set of rules, his Rules to the Game of Dungeon (1974).

“The problem seems to have been one of standardization: “since there are so many different mazes, run by so many […], there are bound to be many discrepancies and idiosyncrasies among them,” Grasstek writes in his foreword.” [Peterson. 485]

Not long after the standardization of the roleplaying dungeon was a fixed play space within the imagination of gamers everywhere. The idea also began to expand into other game realms which were themselves in their infancy. The precursor to all computer adventure games, Adventure, merged spelunking with the maze and elements already codified in the early roleplaying dungeons alloying the meaning of the word in most gamers if not people’s minds. It was developed in 1975 and 1976 by Will Crowther for the enjoyment of “non-computer people”. He created it as a fantasy recreation of his caving; he was an accomplished caver, mostly as a game for his daughters. It was influenced by “some aspects” of the game Dungeons & Dragons which he had been playing. [Montfort, Nick. 2003. Twisty Little Passages. The MIT Press. pg. 10]

“[I]t requires the exploration of a secret dungeon (which most likely would force most players to take up cartography to navigate) where one defeats adversaries and escapes with treasures.” [Peterson, Jon. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. 2012. pg.620]

Will Crowther was however heavily inspired by a roleplaying game titled Mirkwood Tales as told by Barry Gold in an article entitled “Computers and Fantasy Gaming” for Alarums #30 in January 1978 [Peterson.616]. The Mirkwood Tales roleplaying game was a Tolkien themed variant of Dungeons & Dragons authored by Eric S. Roberts around 1977 set in the world of Middle-Earth and adapting the races found in the Lord of the Rings as Player Races: elves, dwarves, and hobbits though “Tolkien is relegated to the second credit” in the Acknowledgments section of the game manuscript.

“It moreover relies on underworld exploration, combat and treasure to drive an engaging narrative.” [Peterson. 617]

Of course with the codification of the modern idea of the dungeon it wasn’t long before those that were too well designed or deliberately made to be unfair to players became common enough to garner the moniker ‘Dungeons of Death’. A Dungeon of Death being a “dungeon that is considered extremely difficult, in which few characters survive.” [Fine, Gary Alan. 1983. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press. pg.29]

Even with these bumps in the road dungeons infiltrated and soaked into fantasy roleplaying becoming ubiquitous even in fiction. They could be found everywhere with any kind of subterranean environment becoming a dungeon.

“Dungeons are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. […] If the Dungeon is a pit of the type called an oubliette, on the other hand, you are justified in slight melancholy.” [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. Dungeons]

Roleplaying groups are often wont to find and discover dungeons to explore sometimes exclusively setting out to crawl through such constructs in a style of play referred to as “delving” or as “delves” as in dungeon-delving or more commonly engaged in what is called a Dungeon Crawl.

A ‘crawl’ can refer to anything from breaking into a tricksy guild-house (esp. thieves’ or assassins’ guilds), a mages’ tower, invading a dragon’s lair, or wandering through a cave system. It presents the players and their characters with a challenge which begs to be met as well as granting them bragging rights after meeting that challenge and (hopefully) conquering it. Within the context of a roleplaying game a dungeon serves a couple of major purposes.

The first is to provide a pretty straight forward thrill-packed section of a game campaign. The other major purpose of a dungeon is to provide a stretch in the game which can endure anywhere from one to many sessions where the Game Master just has to rely on the material (hopefully) already written giving them a little break other than running the game itself and having to deal with off-the-cuff bits which dungeons accomplish, mostly, by limiting the wandering scope of the player characters.

“Arneson explained: A dungeon is nice and self-contained. Players can’t go romping over the countryside, and you can control the situation.” [Laycock. 41]

While the running of a dungeon has certain advantages when it comes to the GM’s role they also come with some caveats on the GM’s part as well.

The designing of dungeons demands a particular set of skills and an eye for detail. The Dungeon-Master must know the players that will be entering the dungeon (their ‘delvers’), be familiar with the design of mazes, and a penchant for engaging the delvers within the dungeon. The design of a dungeon requires a certain level of cruelty, ingenuity, and the ability to come up with or adopt details and puzzles that are appropriate to the player group.

The minimum components required to qualify as a ‘dungeon’, at least in my opinion, are a few passages twisted about at least a single room with a minimum of one tricky door, a single trap, and a single monster with maybe a puzzle or riddle thrown in for good measure. Note also a well-designed dungeon should have a balance, but not a particularly predictable, scattering of traps, hazards, obstacles, treasures, monsters, and puzzles which are hopefully not beyond the ability of both the players and their characters.

There are plenty of pre-generated dungeons out there in the ether for purchase or free, known as “Dungeon Modules” taking the hassle and fairly involved work of designing and generating a dungeon off of the GM save for the minor alteration usually needed to work the module into the current campaign and maybe even some modifications to fit it into the game system that the GM may be using at the time especially with those modules written for specific systems. Of course there are a lot pre-gen modules that are “system neutral”. Actual dungeon design is a time consuming endeavor with map-making only the tip of the ice burg though I find that it works better to begin with the map.

Initially you should probably decide on a rough number of rooms to work with and try to keep the number well within that you are confident you can spend the amount of time needed on the design (and decoration) of each depending on the level of detail required per individual chamber. It can get pretty boring when the players are wandering around from empty room filled with detritus to empty room with a pile of rubble or trash strewn over the chamber floor.

Not diminish the use of empty rooms especially when the players have become justifiably paranoid and finally happen upon an empty chamber then take painstaking measures to be careful while making their way through it not to mention the expressions on their faces after they’ve gotten through and have realized it was indeed just an empty room. After deciding on how many chambers you’re going to use you should also know already if the chamber for any reason will require a specific shape or modifications on the map especially when it comes to areas or other rooms outside of that chamber.

This is very necessary when dealing with Trap-Rooms, rooms that are designed as giant traps which are often elaborate and should be used sparingly as these can be particularly deadly. Other map considerations are the support systems and architecture required for certain features such as pools of various types of liquids which would require a source and a drain along with some valves somewhere that can be opened or closed as well as pipes/piping but an inlet and a drain are the most necessary in this particular situation also when dealing with flooding chambers or passageways which also require the addition of an air vent for the escaping air.

Also do not discount mechanical and gear-box areas on the map that may be located above, below or adjacent to a trap/trap-room as well. There are also other considerations that could come into play such as air-vents, sky-light type openings, the floor which can be stone, covered in tiles or flagstones, or be compacted soil etc. Support pillars are a minor consideration but can be useful when there are enemies adding in nice places for cover and to use for ambush and should be placed where it’s obvious that they may be needed for structure but when it comes to a fantasy dungeon the latter use is preferable as you don’t need to be an architect to draw a dungeon map unless the details start to knock on the delvers’ suspension of disbelief.

The second step in this process would be to draw the map and arrange the rooms in a way that serves your purpose maybe even making use of labyrinth or maze logic when it comes to the passageways connecting the individual chambers. You should after or just before this stage figure out the obstacles you’re going to throw in the way of the player characters especially doors, collapsed areas, and large bits of detritus, and simple traps which should be mapped. Of course simple traps and doors could be placed in afterwards if they don’t require complex mechanics or support structures that influence the area on the map around them.

Doors can be simple roadblocks, such as a locked iron door or a barred wooden one, or be somewhat complex with special traps and devices built into them. Another thing to keep in mind even while drawing or building the map are the monsters/enemies found wandering within the dungeon and/or occupying certain chambers. Unless there are special circumstances (namely magic, special devices, or super-science) they will need living quarters and the necessary amenities: food, water, etc.

Probably why most dungeons, even those that are not tombs, have a lot of undead and golem type monsters wandering about them as well as the seemingly ever-present rodent and insect-based creatures whom can be relied upon to provide for themselves in the filth of the place also don’t overlook monstrous fungi which may be feeding off of certain bits of the structure of the dungeon itself not to mention the remains of its victims.

After your map is done you can place the smaller components doors, traps, monsters and then come up with the individual matter (writing for the narration) for the chambers which should be a short couple of sentences setting the general atmosphere of the room (scent, sight, and temperature) along with the play components/features within the chamber. Each of those may have a brief description attached to them as well as the general physical description of any readily apparent enemy within as well. Combined together this matter is what composes the entirety of the room description.

A room description is what the GM will narrate to the players when their characters either look into the chamber or when they enter it all based of course on what the characters can logically see at the time based on their positions and point of view. Voila! You have a functional dungeon. The basic steps in designing a dungeon are: Decide on the number of rooms, decide what extra support features will need to be mapped, draw the map, come up with and place the smaller features such as traps/doors, come up with and place enemies keeping in mind the amenities they will need to survive (also known as Dungeon Ecology), and then come up with the details/descriptions needed for each chamber not discounting those for the smaller components as well as enemies. Note also that a well-designed dungeon should have a balanced, but not particularly predictable, scattering of traps, hazards, obstacles, treasures, monsters, and puzzles which is hopefully not beyond the ability of both players and their characters.

Dungeons are a common and even archetypical dare I say cliché scenario found in contemporary roleplaying games and is a mode of play that may also dominate the type of play in which certain ‘dungeoneering’ groups will participate. In roleplaying the term is associated with scenarios involving a map which can be simple or complex with chambers and passages populated with traps, hazards, enemies, and treasures to be had applying to anything from the under-passages of a castle or city sewer to a cave complex, dragon’s lair, or even the interior of a wizard’s tower. Dungeons never quite existed historically in the form the word is now associated with though it still carries some of the historic weight and imagery associated with the word given it by history and literature.

The modern dungeon was inspired and influenced not just by history especially due to the evolution of RPG’s from historical war-gaming but by popular fiction, possibly more so, especially J.R.R. Tolkien and the mines of Moria featured in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The mythological/historical inspirations range from the hazardous tombs of ancient Egypt to the decorated hedge-mazes of 16th and 18th century Europe and Britain not to mention the raging-bull in the room of the Cretan Labyrinth.

In some ways dungeons are directly linked to such ideas as mazes/labyrinths and make use of other ideas with equally as long lineages such as riddles, magic, and monsters. It was developed at the birth of roleplaying games not solely invented by a single person but evolved by the contributions of early roleplayers and their ‘referees’ one of the central figures being a prime contributor to the birth of roleplaying, Dave Arneson.

His Blackmoor campaign is of central interest where concerning dungeons and the refinement and spreading of the dungeon scenario by such individuals as Louis Fallert, Craig van Grasstek, and Will Crowther. Within the context of a roleplaying game session a dungeon can help the GM maintain control by limiting the scope of the game into a finite self-contained space and limit the range of the player characters whose imperative it is to wander. It also adds in some action and thrills to a campaign with little effort due to the nature of such scenarios. For these two reasons the dungeon has become a central part of the roleplaying experience not to mention they can also be fun to design and populate. Designing a dungeon can be as fun as delving and is definitely an exercise in creativity but it can be rather time-intensive. Fortunately there are dungeon-modules galore that can be had for free or purchased via multiple outlets.

A dungeon presents the puzzlement and symbolism of the maze, the potential to trap and imprison like the oubliette, the thrill of exploration as the tombs of ancient Egypt, and the power of mytho-historic imagery and the clichés presented by fantasy fiction stirred into the pot. With it a dungeon drags the connotations of reward and danger as well as the test of cunning to escape and bypass the traps, the strength to overcome resident foes, and the intelligence to solve its puzzles. Even the word ‘dungeon’ itself has the weight of history and color of imagery associated with it that which transcends the gaming table and adds a certain power to any maze-like challenge dubbed as such. Due to the ease of acquirement as well as the ease of design of dungeons along with the fun to be had while delving should leave no questions as to why dungeons are so popular in the current state of roleplaying games.

Tabletop Meditations #3: Mazes

What comes to mind when either of the words ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ are uttered anytime in a roleplaying session, at least to me, is the moist stench of mist haunted corridors carrying the promise of treasure at the goal, the danger of hidden traps along the way, and the ever-present threat of monsters lurking in musty shadowy depths. The idea of the maze or labyrinth has been around since what seems like the beginning of history.

“Patterns for mazes are very ancient and have been found incised on rocks or tablets in many prehistoric cultures around the world, from Ireland to Greece.” [McGovern, Una. ed., 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Mazes]

The basic ideas which they connote can be found in virtually every roleplaying game ever played especially in the form of the ever ubiquitous ‘dungeon’ but seem to not be particularly common outside of the dungeon context in my experience and often not utilized to their full potential when they are. Apparently they’re seen as simple puzzles, a minor obstruction to the players’ progress through an adventure often solved with a single die roll.

Puzzles that are often droll and take too long to figure out for those wandering aimlessly through them or too easy for those with a handful of time-tested tricks at their disposal. When mazes and labyrinths are implemented in a roleplaying game it’s typically as a design choice when dealing with dungeons; complexes of chambers studded with traps, treasures, and monsters, commonly subterranean. Mazes in roleplaying games do serve as a challenge to be overcome, a complex puzzle to be solved, a set-piece which can carry some symbolic weight. They carry an air of strange fascination and a certain mythical richness which a clever game-master can turn to the advantage of their game. The first place to start would be the inherent vagueness of the terminology namely the difference between a maze and a labyrinth.

The usage of the words ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ for the most part are interchangeable but have been, and will be in this article, defined by the branching or singularity of their path(s).

“Technically, a maze contains many pathways, only one of which leads to the center (multicursal), while a labyrinth has only a single path that always leads to the center (unicursal). Ancient labyrinths and mazes were devised as symbolic traps for malevolent spirits, while medieval ones represented symbolic pilgrimages.” [Wilkinson, Kathryn ed., 2008. Signs & Symbols. First American Edition. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. pg.290]

Basically mazes and labyrinths can be said to “be roughly divided into two types as regards the principle of their design, namely, into unicursal and multicursal types, or, as some say, into “non-puzzle” and “puzzle” types respectively.” [Matthews, W.H., c.1922. Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development. Kessinger Legacy Reprints ed., Kessinger Publishing LLC. pg.184]

But to be fair “Neither the etymology nor the origin of the labyrinth has been fully explained.” [Grafton, Most, & Settis. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pg.505]

I will however for the sake of both brevity and clarity refer to ‘labyrinths’ as those with a single meditative path and ‘mazes’ as labyrinths that are more puzzle-like “where the path is determined by the choices made at intersections[.]”(Grafton. Labyrinth.)

As symbols mazes and labyrinths carry some mythic potency that has captivated the human imagination through the ages aside from them being simple distractions. The spiral on which the first labyrinths were undoubtedly based was a symbol of significant meaning representing both the path of life and encompassing the entire world within it.

“[The spiral] is an ancient symbol of energy (which was thought to flow in spirals) and of life’s rhythm.” [Wilkinson. 285]

The meander which came from the spiral became the symbolic circuitous route of the human lifetime and from these ritual walkways the labyrinth and then ultimately the maze evolved.

“[T]he archetypical maze was a pattern, usually cut in turf, to be traversed in a religious or magical ceremony, while the archetypical – though not the first – labyrinth was that built by DAEDALUS to hold the MINOTAUR. Usage has blurred the distinction, but mazes tend to be submitted to voluntarily as a GAME or RITUAL[.]” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Labyrinths]

The pagan roots of the symbolic maze inevitably became obscured and the maze found its way into medieval Christianity to be set into the polished floors of cathedrals and churches.

“Medieval culture Christianized the symbol [-] the path that leads via turnings and detours to the center represents the circumambulations of human existence in a world of sin[.]” [Grafton. 505]

The concept of the maze/labyrinth dates back thousands of years deep into antiquity arising from the mists of history at first with symbolic and pseudo-magical importance gaining religious significance later then as they became secularized they evolved into a form of entertainment taking on the puzzle aspect.

“Spirals and meanders, precursors to the labyrinth, have been found among the cave paintings of prehistoric peoples[.]” [Ronnberg, Amy ed., 2010. The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany. TASCHEN]

Later examples of the labyrinth concept can also be found on Mycenaean clay tablets from Pylos dated as early as 1200 BCE [Grafton] illustrating the immense length of time the labyrinth has occupied the mind of humanity but the most ancient designs are hardly those that come to mind when the words labyrinth or maze are mentioned the precursors of the modern concept being more akin to the spiral as they were unicursal.

When thinking back on the history of the concept however what comes to mind and what draws more interest especially that of gamers if I don’t say so myself, are Egyptian tombs, the maze of the Minotaur, among a few other examples.

The chief labyrinths of antiquity, those which may fit more with the current fantasy concept, were that of Egypt (1800 CE built by Petesuchis or Tithoes near Lake Moeris; it had 3,000 apartments, half of which were underground), the Cretan Labyrinth (1st Century BC, built by Daedalus to imprison the minotaur), the Cretan Conduit (had 1,000 branches or turnings), that of the Lemnians (built by Smilis, Rholus, and Theodorus, it had 150 columns so finely adjusted a child could turn them; vestiges of it were still in existence in the time of Pliny around the 1st century AD), the Labyrinth of Clusium (built by Lars Porsena, king of Etruria for his tomb), that of the Samians (540 BC built by Theodorus, its mentioned by Pliny, Herodotus, and Strabo among others), and the Labyrinth at Woodstock, Oxfordshire (built by Henry II to protect the fair Rosamond). [Rockwood, Camilla ed., 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. 18th ed. Hopetoun Crescent, Edinburgh. Chamber Harrap Publishers Ltd.]

The Cretan Labyrinth also known as the Maze of the Minotaur being the most famous of the aforementioned and probably the single most influential when it comes to the inspiration of the modern-day fantasy maze. In Greek myth it was said to have been constructed by Daedalus to contain the monstrous offspring of the Minoan Queen Pasiphae (conceived between her and the Cretan Bull after a love spell/curse put on her by the god Poseidon) built by the command of Minos the Cretan king.

This maze over the other mytho-historical examples is singularly vital to the concept of current fantasy dungeons as, like the fantastical dungeons of today, it contained a monster, the bull-headed Minotaur, and was solved by the hero, Theseus, after slaying the monster. Even Theseus’ solution, a ball of magic twine given to him by the Minoan Princess Ariadne, has become the go to archetypical solution the very first thing most dungeon delvers think of when they enter any labyrinthine complex suspected of being a maze. It’s also telling that the name of the path of a labyrinth/maze, the meander, found its etymology in Daedalus’ inspiration for the Cretan maze.

“Daedalus is said to have taken his inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth from the Menderes, a winding river of Phrygia.” [Rockwood. Meander]

Another well-known maze probably loosely based on the Cretan myth brings us to Britain circa the 1100’s.

“In Britain, mazes were carved into turf as long ago as pre-Roman times and many of great antiquity have survived.” [McGovern. Mazes]

Rosamond’s maze, the name probably originated from the Latin phrase rosa mundi meaning the ‘rose of the world’, was built as a strangely ostentatious method of concealing an English king’s illicit affair. The central part of the story, a prominent story in English historical lore mentioned briefly by Charles Dickens in his Child’s History of England, concerns Rosamond de Clifford as the mistress of English king Henry II whom had the maze built as a measure to conceal his indiscretions with the fair lady in his park at Woodstock in Oxfordshire.

Eventually of course the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, heard of the affair, penetrated the maze by following a thread [Rockwood], found and forced poor Rosamond a choice between a dagger and a bowl of poison to end her life and “she drained the latter and became forthwith defunct”. [Matthews. 164]. This story does involve historical figures but is on its face just a myth as its core story elements are parallel to those of the Cretan myth; it was built by royal command, the story involved the imprisonment/concealment of a secret a result of the fidelity of the royal couple, and the presence of a fiendishly clever architect.

The architect of this tale being “a certain workman named Louis of Bourbourg, with a skill in woodwork very little different from that of Daedalus, was employed in building the house and made there a nearly inextricable labyrinth, containing recess within recess, room within room, turning within turning”. [Matthews. 111]

Popular belief portrays this maze as a hedge or garden maze though the famous ‘bower’ (house) of the myth was described as being of stone and timber.

“It would appear…that the “bower” was a labyrinth of an architectural kind…not, as popularly believed, a maze of evergreens”. [Matthews. 165]

For a significant length of time outdoor hedge-mazes dominated the popular imagination starting around the 1600’s the zeitgeist probably coloring the myth of the Lady of the Bower. The other major influence besides the type of labyrinth present in the previous myths and probably the second if not the first image to spring to mind when mentioning labyrinths or mazes are the turf labyrinths of Britain and the hedge-mazes of Victorian Europe.

“Hundreds of topiary & hedge mazes were realized for amusement in the gardens of Europe in the 16th through the 18th centuries.” [Grafton. 606]

These open air mazes with walls of living foliage served as game-like distractions for nearly 300 years, and some continue to this day, evolving from the Knot Gardens of Renaissance Europe themselves probably modeled after the turf spirals that can be found throughout Europe and Britain dating back to the iron and possibly stone ages. Knot gardens, or parterre, are very formal square-framed gardens planted with a variety of aromatic plants and culinary herbs laid out in an intricate design and serve to illustrate the human mastery of nature.

“The square enclosure represents stability and the Earth; the pattern and chosen plants may symbolize love or religion.” [Wilkinson. 245]

The paths between these gardens were laid with fine gravel as were often the meanders between the hedges of mazes. It’s not unfathomable that as a spiral could give birth to the knot design thus the knot garden could change into the contemplative labyrinth and then the game-like maze. The boundaries and passages of these hedge-mazes were of course composed from hedges of aromatic herbs then aromatic shrubs with later and current mazes using boxwood.

“In some cases limes or hornbeams were “plashed,” i.e., their branches were so trained and intertwined as to form a continuous wall of verdure.” [Matthews. 117]

Labyrinths had moved from having a mystical or religious connotation to a secular form of entertainment.

“The more secular image of Daedalus as the personification of human skill and of the genius of the architect gained momentum with the Renaissance.” [Grafton. 505]

Hedge mazes had gained a playful atmosphere by this time with undoubtedly at least a few souls probably still traipsing along the meanders as a contemplative exercise subconsciously harkening back to the early turf labyrinths. The playful airs may have also had some romantic possibilities for couples out on a late night stroll as well; at least one would like to think. Of course, hedge mazes have a few practical considerations such as upkeep and the obvious weakness that walls of verdure imply.

“The hedges require very frequent trimming, and sometimes partial renewal, the latter especially in those cases where unscrupulous visitors are not prevented, by barbed wire or other means, from short-circuiting the convolutions.” [Matthews. 145]

Hedge mazes became a sort of fad throughout this period and continued to evolve with those with the means to have these sorts of gardens planned and planted adding in decorations and statuary to the green with the best specimen of these highly refined hedge mazes to be found in 17th-century France.

“In practically all types of maze it became the fashion to relieve the monotony of the walks by placing statues, vases, seats, fountains, and other ornaments at various points. This kind of thing reached a climax of extravagance in the latter part of the seventeenth century, when J.Hardouin-Mansart constructed for Louis XIV the famous labyrinth in the smaller park at Versailles.” [Matthews. 117]

The hedge maze at Versailles had water fountains and statuary based on Aesop’s Fables with portions of poetry on plaques by each statue. Of course eventually the upkeep, the requirement on the horticultural skill of the groundkeepers, and the waning of the trend saw the end of the hedge maze as common public feature.

“Towards the end of the eighteenth century the taste for mazes in private gardens had to some extent declined, but as an adjunct to places of public amusement the topiary labyrinth was still in great demand.” [Matthews. 137]

It’s these latter types of hedge mazes that are no doubt the primary inspirations (especially that of Versailles unfortunately destroyed in 1778 when it was replaced by an arboretum by Louis XVI) for the roleplaying dungeon-maze which benefited from the mythical complexity of the Cretan maze and the extravagance and game-feel of a hedge-maze.

Mazes had progressed from mystical symbols with magical powers to imprison spirits to contemplative exercises of religion into a pastime, a game.

“By the time maze-makers in Britain began using hedges instead of patterns cut into turf the original motivations may have been lost, leaving an amusing pastime in the place of meaningful ritual.” [McGovern. Mazes]

Essentially in the context of roleplaying games a maze is a tour puzzle (a puzzle where the player takes a trip around the game-zone from beginning to end retrieving certain objects along the way). A maze is a puzzle that must be solved by finding the exit (or goal) after entering meaning the player must accept the challenge by entering into the labyrinth essentially trapping themselves within; only victory or death awaits at the end.

These mazes are most often constructed of various chambers linked by a confusing network of passageways and corridors. Traditionally constructed mazes, those consisting of only corridors and twisty passages, are rarely played through in a roleplaying game session usually relegated to a single “intelligence check” representing a specific amount of in-game time per singular check in which the player characters can solve the maze-puzzle  (in my experience typically 1 day).

This is due to the shear monotony of traversing only passageways even those sprinkled with monsters, traps, and hazards. Labyrinths on the other hand are more frequent in the form of ruins, caves, and the lairs of villains usually consisting of various chambers and corridors which have a roundabout, primarily single path of travel allowing both the occupants and the player characters to move freely through them, the aim usually being to confront the villains and monsters on their own turf.

Labyrinths really only lengthen the time the players spend working their way towards their ultimate goal, a duel with the ‘big bad’ serving more in the capacity of a gauntlet rather than a contemplative trip though GM’s shouldn’t discount this aspect if there is a twist when it comes to the final villain. When it comes to the puzzle-like mazes however, if the players are aware of what they’re about to enter they will usually take some precautions which are frankly, ages old but nonetheless effective, mostly.

Answering these tricks of the trade is always the responsibility of the master of the maze. These titular tricks being – the ball of twine, leaving a trail of crumbs or pebbles, making marks with chalk or charcoal, and following either the left or right hand wall. The ball of twine (Ariadne’s golden thread) as employed by Theseus is utilized by attaching it to an anchor at the entrance and then as the meanderer walks away they let the string unspool and thus leaving behind an easy to follow trail.

This can be just as easily defeated by creating a lack of anchor points, using string snipping doors, fiber-chewing pests that infest the maze, or cleverly placed flames. Dropping a trail of crumbs/pebbles (the old Hansel and Gretel trick) is just as easily defeated by having pests or other such creatures following the trail and either eating it up or sweeping it away also chasms and flowing water can stop this strategy dead creating a cut-off point for the trail.

Using chalk or charcoal markings at certain intervals typically on a wall (a strategy taken from spelunking) can be defeated with moist or slick walls, mark erasing pests, and even some sort of mischief involving duplicating or moving the marks around via some sort of enchantment or by resident spirits/faeries or sliding/flipping panels. It is also wise not to ignore the possibility of moving or rotating walls as well. The only real way to defeat the following of a single wall is to have the start or finish of the maze at the center which is surrounded by a looping passageway possibly employing a few other design tactics to lead the cheater(s) astray. In order to make a maze that is more difficult to solve a Game Master (GM) has a few options to work with.

The GM can limit the number of solutions (a single solution being the hardest), the longer the solution path is the more difficult the maze or at least the longer someone has to spend within it giving more time for them to get lost, and adding in irregular features to the maze can increase its difficulty greatly. Adding loops can throw off meanderers (those not on the solution path being the most effective) as well as subtle curves and odd angles which can discombobulate the players’ spatial sense especially if you use certain magical features such as extra-dimensional spaces.

Multi-level mazes can definitely confuse things where the solution path travels through multiple floors. Roundabout passages that lead meanderers to a destination other than expected are also in the maze-master’s toolbox. These passages should appear that they go in one direction but are designed in such a way, typically a spiral, so that they go in another. Landmark features can also be manipulated in order to fool those trying to use landmarks and memorization to mark their way. Adding in statuary or frescoes that are duplicated elsewhere in the maze will always confuse those attempting this most basic but usually fairly effective method. Of course, the standard GM toolbox suffices especially when it comes to enticements in the form of sparkly treasures and gems in order to lure adventurers off of the true path and into a trap or interesting encounter.

The maze with its long legacy, its mytho-symbolic power, and the fun of a puzzle is infinitely useful to game-masters and to roleplaying in general. In either its unicursal or multicursal guise mazes are a common staple of the fantasy adventure (maybe the fantasy genre in Toto) and functions in a dual capacity first as an action set-piece and then serving the story at a symbolic level adding a little literary dimension to a campaign. Essentially a maze in a roleplaying game is attached to three basic ideas: imprisonment (like the titular dungeon), puzzlement (like a physical riddle, a travel puzzle), and exploration (what’s around the next corner).

It’s the Game Master functioning as the Maze-Master whose responsibility it is to add an air of mystery to the dungeon-mazes that are to be explored by the players as well as making them challenging (but not impossibly hard, use your best judgment based on the individuals in your group and their level of teamwork) and add in the fantastic elements. The maze, an element of mythology, history, and fantasy known and recognizable by virtually everyone is a useful element likewise, in fantasy roleplaying games. Mazes and labyrinths lend themselves to the roleplaying hobby in a few potent respects; they can serve as more than simple puzzles or obstacles, bringing with them a certain symbolic significance which can surface regardless of the level of subtlety or crudeness with which they are presented in-game. “The twists and turns of a maze represent life’s pathway. Entering it is equated with death, while emerging is rebirth.” (Wilkinson. 245 – emphasis mine)

Tabletop Meditations #2: Riddles

Riddles seem to be underutilized in roleplaying games, at least the ones I’ve been present for as both a player and Game Master. The Riddle of the Sphinx to Oedipus, Samson’s Riddle to the Philistines (Judges 14:14 – 14:18), puzzles and word-games upon which the life of a hero balanced and the doom of the Philistines was set.

Riddles need not be just the pun-ridden games of the Victorian nursery; ancient ciphers and cunning supernatural riddlers populate the yellowed pages of fantasy tales and legendry showing that great adventures are not just about exploration and action but also about solving riddles which can be adventures in and of themselves. Thus roleplaying sessions can be greatly enriched by the strategic use and shrewd construction of riddles by the Game Master. Riddles are a poetic mode of language of great antiquity not only meant to present a puzzle but also communicate a transformative perspective and carry a deeper meaning. A good riddle should be clear, fair, present a challenge to its audience, and have somewhat of an aesthetic appeal as well as having an element of engagement that draws its listeners in like moths to a flame.

A riddle is a short composition posing a question where the object of the riddle is to obfuscate the question itself forcing the listener (the riddlee) to decipher the question and in the deciphering the answer is reached through the clues discovered within the riddle.

“The riddle is a short lyric poem that poses a question, the answer to which lies hidden in hints.” [Turco, Luis. 1986. The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. Expanded ed. Hanover, NH: New England University Press. pg.134]

Apart from any strict structural definition of a riddle it’s the context that makes an expression with descriptive elements, whether written or verbal, into the question part of the riddle. A riddle presents its clues in a roundabout way or with an altered perspective and poses its question. These few and simple parts allow riddles to take on a wide variety of structures from lyrical poetry, songs, simple rhymes, short stories, as well as seemingly straight forward questions in non-poetic language. It is the context in which the riddle asks its question which is of importance. The clues set up in the riddle can imply the answer or yet another clue depending on their juxtaposition to the question part of the riddle.

The riddle can be thought to exist in its own world constructed by the riddler and explored by the riddle – very applicable to fantasy roleplaying indeed. The use of language in a different or unfamiliar way within the riddle itself can alter the initial impressions not just muddying the clarity of the statement or question but providing a completely bizarre and alien picture that appears to be something entirely different until its mysteries are penetrated and the machinery of the riddle is exposed. The Riddlee’s task is to turn the unfamiliar world of the riddle into the familiar.

“The way in which the riddlee arrives at the riddle’s answer involves understanding the relationship of the parts of the riddle and grasping a new ordering of things, and along with it the meaning of the riddle.” [Montfort, Nick. 2003. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. The MIT Press. pg.50]

Merely stating the answer to the riddle is not enough for the solution. The riddlee that has truly reached the solution must be able to completely explain the riddle-question and how each of the clues operates. To be fully solved the Riddlee must solve the riddle announcing the solution, and explain the riddler’s intent with reference to the clues. As it is the riddlee’s role to solve the riddle it is the riddler’s role to construct their riddle fairly and present it with clarity.

A riddle must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling (Montfort). A riddle presents something familiar in a transformative and unfamiliar way, if the riddle concerns something that is unknown to the riddlee then it becomes unsolvable. A riddle communicates the known and is ineffective in carrying information about the unknown to the uninitiated.

Take the Sphinx’s riddle for example which asks (what follows is a popular modern version, there are several different versions of this riddle), “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” The answer given by Oedipus was “Man”. The question the monster posed was itself obscured by substituting the major phases of a human life (infancy, adulthood, and advanced-age) with another unit of time often poetically associated with those phases (morning, noon, and night) but still allowing them to serve as clues leading to the answer for one who can figure out how to look at the riddle when an infant one crawls (walking on four legs in the morning), when an adult one walks on two legs, and the third leg in old age would be a cane.

This last clue changing the number of legs to three pulls double duty not only performing as a clue but also narrowing the potential answer as well probably confusing the unfortunates which the Sphinx strangled and ate. Though difficult the Sphinx’s riddle is a fair riddle, the hardest part of composing a riddle is making sure that it’s fair. Good riddles rely on description and metaphor with absolute clarity of meaning being reserved only for the solution and the presentation of the language of the riddle.

The easier it is for the riddlee to understand the language of the riddle the more they can be assured that the riddle is fair. Of course, such aspects of the riddle as required prior knowledge, the more the riddle is a logic puzzle the less the riddler has to rely on the riddlees’ knowledge but the riddle may become overly genericized as a result, and difficulty should be taken into account. The riddler must construct their riddle fairly that is fair in the metaphorical clues provided within the riddle itself in relation to the riddlee. A riddle without clues or with those insufficient to lead to the answer is unfair even if its language is easily understood.

To pass into the city of Thebes, Oedipus had to answer the Sphinx’s riddle which presented an obstacle in the narrative for the hero to overcome but with cunning rather than shear brawn. In that mode the Sphinx rather than presenting itself as a classic sword & sorcery monster, takes up the position of what is known as a Guardian of the Threshold.

“Generally, any GUARDIAN OF THE THRESHOLD is likely to require the answer to a riddle.” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Riddles]

Samson’s riddle to the Philistines, however, is a great example of a bad riddle specifically an unfair one. His riddle, “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet”, has clues within it but the greatest clue the one required by the riddlee, in this case the Philistines, to know in order to solve it is not present in the riddle itself. It’s unfair to those lacking Samson’s life perspective basically it’s unfair to everyone except Samson himself (and the reader of the tale). The answer is the honey he had taken from the honey-combs that he found in the body of a lion that he had slain (Judges 14:6) after he had passed back by its corpse later. He never let anyone else know from where he had obtained the honey. His riddle is contextually unfair.

Of course, within the context of the tale the purpose of the riddle was more of a pretense for other events, it’s more of a literary device in service of the tale its quality is not of any actual importance within the narrative. Another well-known and very unfair riddle of almost an identical nature is that of Rumpelstiltskin’s which is meant to be unsolvable by the story’s heroine, giving her three days to guess his name. Another example of an unfair riddle is the Mad Hatter’s riddle asked of Alice, “when is a raven like a writing desk”, he admittedly didn’t know the answer to his own riddle. Of course, all three of these examples of the unfair riddle served other purposes within the narratives of which they are a part. The riddle of the Sphinx is a fair riddle but is also a part of a greater narrative relating to the previous unfair three to which the riddlee displayed his cunning by presenting the answer and the explanation of the question. In a roleplaying session riddles NEED to be fair to the players; of course if the player characters are posing a riddle then of course it will not carry that requirement.

When it comes to the roleplaying tabletop, riddles can add to the RP element of a game engaging the players and encouraging teamwork when attempting to solve it. Riddles can help to add an air of mystery to a game session as well as deepening the world setting.

The riddle itself should have reason to exist and take elements from the setting in which it and the characters exist firmly embedding it in the game world. The riddle should be crafted to avoid modern/real-world knowledge that is not present in the game world. Essentially what works for a newspaper puzzle is probably not going to work within the game world. A riddle posed by the GM should be incorporated into the adventure in a manner that emphasizes its importance such as needing to answer a riddle to open a riddle-door behind which a serious goal is hidden, pass a Threshold Guardian that the players can’t otherwise just beat-down, or occur at a critical point in the communal narrative of the campaign.

Any puzzle, not just riddles, needs to feel like an important part of an adventure, not a simple barrier that can prevent the players from enjoying the game. Not every riddle needs to be a work of poetry or even entirely original when used within the context of a roleplaying session but the Game Master as the riddler must keep fairness and clarity in mind as well as figuring out how to engage the players. The riddle itself needs to be engaging and hold the players’ (and thus the characters’) attentions.

The riddle needs a reason to exist and a purpose there should also be a reason that the players actually want to solve it. Giving players at least an implied benefit and/or penalty if they do or don’t solve the riddle even if it’s just to propel an important plot point or trigger and event helps to engage them.  They should have some sort of an idea of the consequences of either success or failure perhaps both and if they have a choice the implications of accepting the challenge.

Riddles can be constructed rather quickly by GM’s in their basest form in a few simple steps. First, think of an object (the answer), think about how to describe that object (specifically the vocabulary involved which will both obfuscate and carry the clues), and once you finish that you need to think of ways to tell your players this in a less obvious but more interesting way (this is where phrasing and any literary devices can be applied), then try to put together the riddle in such a way that’s interesting but also clear in that the riddlees will be able to understand the riddle itself keeping the clues in mind. Working backward from the answer makes sure that your riddle has a definite answer.

Also check to make sure that the riddle is fair, the players should have the knowledge that will allow them to not only find the clues but also to process them to formulate the answer. When dealing with groups, then the tidbits of required knowledge can be distributed among the individual players forcing them to work as a group to solve the riddle. Note also the use of riddles should also be minded by the GM based not only on the nature of the group and what they may enjoy about the roleplaying experience but also the commonality of a riddle and its importance to the game.

Not just a reward behind a riddle-door or the attainment of access from the Guardian of the Threshold but as a device that can add to the depth of the fantasy world and have consequences in the answering. Rarity is also a factor; if riddles are fairly common then they become less valuable as a roleplaying device the use of riddles as simple obstructions in a dungeon cheapens them likening them to the typical traps found in such a place.

The ancient art of riddling can add a certain mysterious depth to a roleplaying setting as well as adding a little cerebral fun to a game session lending a little diversity to the exploration, action, and strategic aspects of the game while also encompassing all of those ideas at the same time.