Archive for November, 2010

27
Nov
10

barbelith

The other day Tavis wrote a great blog post that introduced me to the term transmedia: “storytelling [where] content becomes invasive and fully permeates the audience’s lifestyle.”  What the fuck is this thing?  Where does it come from?  How do we use it in our culture?  And what do we do with it?

"Those rocks look like Star Wars"

My earliest recollection of this phenomenon was when, at age 7, I looked at a breakwater at the Jersey shore.  Big chunks of briny, barnacled rock, piled against a pier of rotting wood and rusty metal covered in verdigris.  And I thought, “Those rocks look like Star Wars.”

And immediately, it struck me that everything looked like Star Wars.  Every part of my existence was an evocation of Star Wars in some way: the sworl of fibers on my towel looked like a bounty hunter; the words my parents spoke connoted Star Wars characters; our spice rack was proof that the people who packaged McCormick spices were died-in-the-wool Star Wars fans.

Star Wars became a (literal) inter-media experience: it intermediated between any and all of my perceptions of reality.  All that which exists contained a parable about Star Wars if I had but the wit to perceive it.

Same was true, at a different point of my life, with Marvel comic books.  (With massive amounts of preparation I can still turn on “Marvel vision,” but it’s not a healthy thing for me.)  I had some pretty unsettling experiences with Philip K. Dick’s VALIS as well.  Curiously, I’ve never had this experience with role-playing games.  I’ve never had “D&D vision,” though I suspect Tavis sees in this spectrum almost all the time.

This integration between consciousness and myth is old, old.  You go to an art museum and for about 500 years Christian imagery dominates the entire output of pretty much every artist in Europe, in every creative medium.  And for all we know this sort of imaginative immersion may be far, far older.  Julian Jaynes, whose work I’m not really competent to evaluate, theorizes that for most of human existence we lived in a sort of low-grade delusional state.

Arguable basis for human consciousness and Neolithic priest-kings; foundation stone of Western culture.  And it can now make us a shitload of money!

I went to see Harry Potter 7.1: The Deathly Inexplicables tonight.  Obviously Harry Potter’s a transmedia thing, but so were all of the trailers: Chronicles of Narnia, the Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, Yogi Bear.  All desperately trying to make kids see in “Green Hornet vision” wherever they go.  (To make matters worse, all of this stuff is pretty much the same dang-ol’ thing, which makes me wonder how much of it we need.  Apparently we need however much of it will continue to make a profit.)

About ten years ago I interviewed some of my father’s family to learn about life in the 1940’s.  What struck me is how . . . barren their childhoods seemed to me, because they didn’t have any of the transmedial womb that so characterized childhoods in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century.  They had “The Shadow,” and Superman comic books, and Buster Brown.  But it’s not clear that they lived that shit.  They (mostly) didn’t develop “Shadow vision” to see what evil lurked in the hearts of men.

what was being a child like?

I see my own childhood as a consumer interface with mass-marketed transmedia.  (“Gee, this is the shopping mall where we bought this toy 26 years ago.  Oh, and over there I read that comic.  Oh, those were the days!”)  I’m actually kind of proud and happy about this!  It seems strange and sad to me that my father missed out.

But isn’t it odd that we have this seemingly age-old instinct to create not just an imaginary story, but an imaginary super-story, an imaginary womb?

Is it a healthy thing that we’re teaching children this stuff without any reflection?  (At least a few of them have been dreaming in “D&D vision,” by their own account, the way I occasionally dream in “Ultima vision.”  I realize modern kids will do this about Pokemon or whatever, but it feels a little strange to have introduced this particular theme.)

And, if like it or not this transmedia experience is an inescapable part of modern life – our films, our books, our politics are all turning into these meta-narratives, these lifestyle entertainment environments – how do we go about creating virtual experiences that are worthwhile and meaningful amid a flooded marketplace?

I think Tavis’s observation that RPG’s are pretty much nothing but the transmedia experience (“Okay, today I’m an elf”), and tabletop in particular is a DIY punk rock method of doing so.  But why do we do it?  And are there ways to do it better?

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24
Nov
10

Imaginary Entertainment Environments, Transmedia, and the Old-School Renaissance

This is another post growing out of the Of Wizards and Wookies panel discussion, which featured memoirists Ethan Gilsdorf and Tony Pacitti talking about their respective experiences in gaming/fantasy and Star Wars fandom. During the Q&A period I wanted to come up with a question that they could both answer, but wound up being unable to unpack the idea I wanted them to discuss sufficiently without doing that thing that drives me nuts in Q&A sessions – “please call on me so I get to talk and show off how smart I am, there isn’t actually a question here but I’ll raise my intonation at the end so it looks like one?” Here’s another attempt.

It seems to me like one of the interesting connections between D&D and Star Wars is that they’re both what Daniel Mackay calls “imaginary entertainment environments”. For D&D, this is an essential characteristic of what it’s all about; for Star Wars, it’s something the franchise grew into. In The Fantasy Role-Playing Games: A New Performing Art, Mackay writes:

From its early roots in war gaming, the fictional setting of the role-playing game has been very important. After all, the thrill of war games was not only the thrill of leading an army of soldiers to victory over an opposing force, but also the sense that the victorious player had just won an historic battle, often a battle that may have been lost in the history books. The emphasis of the fictitious setting did not recede when Dave Arneson began to run his early fantasy role-playing games. In fact, much of the appeal of the early role-playing games was the opportunity to pretend to live within another world. The episodic nature of role-playing games calls for a consistent, memorable setting within which the characters can interact. The theater of the role-playing game needs a stage.

This stage – the consistent world, which different characters can explore discrete but inter-related pieces of throughout their many separate adventures – is the imaginary entertainment environment. In the abstract for a presentation he gave at 2006’s International Workshop on Strange Convergences,  Mackay wrote:

The role-playing game is responsible for introducing the idea of the imaginary entertainment environment, or shared world, to the world of commercial entertainment. Always latent in both occidental and oriental mythologies, the role-playing game allowed for the identification of a fictional setting that changes over time (diegetically) and that has those changes communicated to the audience/participants through a variety of media. Throughout the eighties and nineties, the role-playing game influenced commercial entertainment forms in such a way that the consistency of the fictional setting, across media, was emphasized.

This claim that role-playing games introduced the idea of a consistent world which can be experienced through many different approaches – what folks call transmedia nowadays – is originally made by Lawrence Shick in 1991’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games:

The popular genre of “shared world” fantasy and science-fiction books, in which a number of different authors write interconnected stories set in a consensus fiction world, was derived from the consensus storytelluing of role-playing games. In fact, many of today’s most popular fantasy novels are based directly on role-playing game worlds.

It’s easy to see how my generation of kids who grew up with D&D were also eager consumers of each step in Star Wars’ transformation from a single cinematic experience into a comprehensive imaginary entertainment environment. Watching the film left me with a powerful desire to spend more time in the world it presented; the marketing of action figures that I could use to play out my own Star Wars fantasies generated movie-industry-transforming profits; within a decade I could simulate the whole-body experience of being there in the Star Tours ride at Disney World, and on the way out I was funneled through a gift shop that carried West End Games’ Star Wars RPG. Full circle back to the original (and for me still the greatest) way to temporarily live in a fictional universe.

To my regret, I didn’t pick up WEG’s d6 classic; in 1987 I was already too busy trying to deny who I was in the service of seeming cool and getting laid (here I sigh not only over all the games I could have been playing, but also all the girls I could have gotten somewhere with if my primary concern in life hadn’t been worrying what others thought of me). But I do remember vividly my first transmedia experience, Jon Freeman and Paul Reiche III’s Electronic Arts game Murder on the Zinderneuf. Courtesy of my Atari 800XL, I became a detective who finds clues and interviews suspects to learn the secret of the crime. The manual notes that one of the suspects “has been overheard in the middle of the night crying out in an unfamiliar foreign tongue.” When I first encountered this in the game – Ia, ia, Cthulu f’tagn! – a pure sense-of-wonder thrill ran down my spine.

As a nerdy teen-aged outsider I was fascinated with following the traces of secret knowledge that interconnected the stories of Lovecraft’s mythos. Here was a chance to be on the inside of something concealed from lesser minds, and to unexpectedly encounter a reference to this occult lore in a computer game was like having a rock star come up and flash me my little clubhouse’s secret recognition signals. Transmedia shattered the confines of my adolescent world to reveal one that was awesomely vast and connected by hidden passageways accessible only to the fannish elite.

For those who don’t recognize Paul Reiche’s name from the Grognardia interview, his biography in the Murder on the Zinderneuf manual supports Mackay’s link between RPGs and imaginary entertainment environments:

Paul Reiche, a co-founder of Fantasy Art Enterprises, is the author/designer of several role-playing games and supplements including The Necromican, Booty & the Beasts, and (with a little help) Ringworld. He toiled for a time in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where he produced more games and supplements and some Dungeons & Dragons revisions evidently considered too heretical to see the light of day. He now belongs to CTHULHU, a loose organization of TSR “alumni” who publish the world’s funniest newsletter.

Interconnected worlds have gone from being a thrill to a turn-off for me. Asked for my favorite Heinlein novel, I chose the modest standalone A Door Into Summer in part because it was never subsumed into Number of the Beast’s once mind-blowing revelation that dude, all the author’s work is just glimpses of an ineffably huge tapestry that stretches from Oz to the Bible. And the Dragonlance series, which Mackay uses as a central example of how commercial imaginary entertainment environments started as role-playing products and expanded into other media, is also the old-school renaissance’s go-to example of everything that went wrong with our hobby in the late TSR era.

I think this is another example of how the OSR is both a product of, and a reaction to, the way that RPGs conquered the world. We know that it’s awesome to visit a world that seems to exist independently and stretch far beyond any one glimpse of its inner workings. But we’ve been having that experience for so much longer than the average consumer that if the imaginary world isn’t exactly tailored to our needs as gamers, it’s not worth paying for; complaints that role-playing gamers relate to commercial transmedia content in a cynical fashion don’t surprise me at all.

The old-school renaissance seeks to recapture a time when the imaginary entertainment environment was the creation of hobbyists and fans instead of marketing teams. Often, we choose a setting developed at the dawn of RPGs and seek to prune its transmedia exfoliations down to a manageable canon. As Mackay recognized, this has long been one of the ways gamers deal with the growth of commercial imaginary entertainment environments. I think the OSR’s unique spin is that we don’t just stop at deciding to include only content released before a certain date, like deciding to play in a Star Wars universe based only on the first film; as hobbyists we go back and try to reconstruct stuff that the creators promised during that golden age, but never delivered. Note that it takes a massive, Internet-connected fan base to produce the 0.001% of people who’ll be interested in doing this kind of scholarship: the OSR needs the modern mass market of geek culture to be able to consider a hobbyist alternative.

But even more essentially, the Old-School Renaissance encourages us to turn back the clock by creating new shared worlds for ourselves, starting with a blank slate and letting the universe we’ll inhabit accumulate through the process of play. The thrill I got from the Cthulu reference in Murder on the Zinderneuf was based on my identification with a subcultural group: that’s marketing. The thrill I got when I met a D&D player whose character was a cleric of a faith based on the misadventures of one of my characters was personal and direct: that’s unique.

Being a fan of an imaginary entertainment environment can give you the feeling of living in a vast universe, but being a fan of the original spirit of D&D – rather than its commercial outgrowth that I first saw replacing player’s imaginations in the early ’90s, when for the first time there was enough stuff published that you could spend a hobby’s worth of hours reading other’s work instead of making it up yourself – lets you become one of its creators.

23
Nov
10

Friends of the Starship Warden

On the way to the excellent Wizards & Wookies discussion last night, I re-read parts of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, and was struck by this passage in particular :

And then there was Jim Ward, another of my idols, a fact I hadn’t realized until I met him. A former TSR employee, novelist, and game designer, Ward had written my favorite D&D spin-off game, Gamma World, a mutation of his Metamorphosis Alpha, the first-ever science fiction RPG. No longer in print, Gamma World was a similar RPG, but set in a postapocalyptic world full of mutant humanoids, messianic cults, and irradiated ruins. A dark but ideal antidote to the Reagan-era arms-race dread I had experienced as a teenager. “That gamers are portrayed as nerds drives me nuts,” Ward offered me without any prompting. “It irritates me when people do that to my hobby.”

This section of the book, recounting author Ethan Gilsdorf’s visit to the Lake Geneva Gaming Convention, resonated with me because it so accurately captured the emotions and experiences I’ve had at LGGC’s successor, Gary Con. Unfortunately, it also reminded me of some bad news I’ve been meaning to share. Tim Kask writes:

Jim Ward, author or co-author of [many awesome things in addition to those mentioned above]  and just all around nice guy and creative madman, is ill. Very ill. He has had to cancel appearances at several cons to which he was invited since last spring. He has been diagnosed, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, with a serious neurological disorder. The gaming world came close to saying goodbye to yet another of the pioneers of RPGing several months ago. The experts say that Jim’s condition is treatable and manageable, but will remain very serious forever. Jim is very, very slowly recovering; every day is a new skirmmish with the disorder. He still suffers from acute bouts of dizziness and a pervasive lassitude due to bodily energy issues.

While this is sadly in the category of Things that Suck But What Can You Do, Tim goes on to present something you can do:

While Jim and his family are fortunate to have some health insurance, the co-pays are mounting at an alarming rate, having hit five digits some while ago and showing no signs of abating any time soon. While we can’t make Jim well, perhaps we can alleviate some of his financial worries and remove some of the burden from his family. I hope you can help my friend of 35 years in his most low-down time.

When I learned of Jim’s illness, I picked up the Metamorphosis Alpha adventure The House on the Hill and the four issues of the MA magazine MAJOR at RPG. now, and also volunteered to donate material to the fundraising book Craig J. Brain has proposed. I’m glad that there’s now a way to contribute more directly and immediately, and if you’re a fan of Jim’s work I hope you’ll join me in making a PayPal donation to defray his medical expenses.

22
Nov
10

Of Wizards and Wookies

Of Wizards and Wookies: A Panel Discussion on Gaming & Fandom” is taking place tonight from 7:30 – 8:30 at the WORD bookstore in Brooklyn (see event page). The featured speakers are Tony Pacitti, author of My Best Friend is a Wookie, and Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks, who clued me into this event via a comment here at the Mule.

I’m looking forward to it, and hope to see other readers there! Since an announcement of an event in NYC is not useful for many of y’all, however, here are some preliminary thoughts about gaming and fandom.

Back in the ’80s, when I was in high school and college, I was among the nerdiest people I knew. But these days, doing things like Nerd Trivia at Recess makes me realize that, in just about every aspect of nerdlidom, I just can’t compete.

I think what’s happened is that geek culture has expanded. When I was younger, the domain of nerdliness was small enough that it was possible to master it all. I knew and cared more about computers, about science fiction and fantasy, about videogames, about tabletop games, about anime, about Hong Kong cinema, and about comic books than almost all of the people I’d ever encounter.

But as geeks have taken over the world, each of the domains that falls under the nerd umbrella has expanded. One thing this means is that the bar has been raised; nowadays a great many people know more about computers than I do, because computers have become interesting to just about everybody so there’s a lot more competition.

Another implication of the expanded umbrella is that each of the things it covers are farther apart. Back in the day, if you were a manga fan, the weather was unfriendly for you elsewhere in society; you’d need to take shelter under the same little umbrella as me, so we’d get to know one another and gain an above-average familiarity with one another’s interests. As the worlds of manga and gaming have spilled into the larger culture, this expansion means that if I’m at the center of my world I’m further away from the borders of yours; what happens over there has largely become foreign to me.

The umbrella has grown not just because there’s more room for nerdery in the world at large, but also because the size of each sub-domain has grown. TOR editor David Hartwell has said that he remembers 1970 as the year when there was enough science fiction and fantasy published that an average fan could no longer read it all. Before then, everyone seized upon every scrap there was; you might not like the Gor novels, but you read them nevertheless because you had a monkey on your back that would accept them as food. After 1970 there was enough SF/F around that you could afford to be choosy about what you consumed, subcultures formed that didn’t share a mutual experience of reading all the same stuff, and their disagreements were no longer based on the same corpus.

Back in the ’80s, it simply wasn’t possible to know all that much about role-playing games. By the end of the decade there were Usenet discussions on rec.games.frp and books like Lawrence Shick’s Heroic Worlds, but I don’t think I read either of them. It’s hard to remember what things were like before the Internet made it possible to read a blog that gets you interested in an obscure title, which you can then research on Wikipedia before picking it up used from a vast decentralized used-book marketplace. I have less time for and interest in other aspects of geek culture because, for the first time in my life, it’s been possible to dive really deeply into the one thing that particularly suits my taste; the monkey on my back has become a discriminating connoisseur.

To tie this back to gaming, I think it’s important to realize that Dungeons & Dragons is the product of an even more concentrated nerd culture than the one I grew up with. The reason that it made sense for the Judges Guild Journal to run a comic strip in which a parody of the Star Trek crew visits the starship Nostromo was that their audience was defined by its appetite for all things fantastic, monstrous, and heroic; movies and TV shows that fed this appetite were so few and far between that they were certain to be a touchstone for all gamers. The tendency of modern gamers to disdain admixtures of science fiction and fantasy reflects a world in which there’s enough published in each genre to support fans of one but not the other. I get the feeling that in the ’70s you’d be running games for the motley crew who all happened to be under the nerd umbrella: Society for Creative Anachronism medieval recreationists, Japanese monster movie enthusiasts, hard science fiction fans, hippies sporting ‘Frodo Lives’ buttons. The gonzo cross-genre spirit of early D&D reflects this catch-all audience, unlike today when you can fill a gaming table with people who are all deeply into a specific D&D universe like the Forgotten Realms or Paizo’s Golarion; such games can put much sharper limits on what is or isn’t part of the fantasy, because the great mass of published material means there’s plenty to work with even when you stay within the narrowest of lines.

The old-school renaissance in RPGs is a phenomenon made possible by the expansion of the nerd umbrella. We take advantage of the fact that there’s been such an increase in the amount of D&D stuff that exists to focus on the one particular thing we like. The amount of stuff published by the OSR far exceeds what I could easily get my hands on in the ’80s, and the vast increase in information (commentary, evangelism, scholarship) means that an ordinary enthusiast like me can learn much more about the roots of role-playing forty years after the fact than I could when they were only a decade old!

The OSR is also a reaction to the loss of a unified geek culture. Back in the day, I could be pretty sure that I knew enough about Star Wars to have a conversation with someone I sat down to play D&D with. Nowadays, both universes have expanded, so that I’ll get lost when the conversation turns to mitochlondrians and Sith Lords, just like you may be lost by at-will powers and Reflex defenses.

The reason the old-school movement spends so much time going back to the books Gygax listed in the DMG’s Appendix N is because they help us form a canon that’s finite enough for us to use it as the basis of shared experience. It’s a relief to be able to say yes, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance are what we’re talking about here, but not Terry Brooks and David Eddings or Record of Lodoss War; we spend a lot of time worrying about the importance of Tolkien, and being purists about Howard’s Conan vs. Sprague/DeCamp’s, because these are the authors who spill over into a mass audience big enough to be its own thing, distinct from the little geek culture Arneson, Bledsaw, and Gygax came from. The virtue of having a manageably-sized and mutually-agreed-upon canon is real and valuable even if it’s a self-conscious exaggeration and ossification of what the original scene was about.

Why is a canon necessary? I think it’s because role-playing games thrive on cliches. To make a shared fantasy, we need shared assumptions. And the one thing we share is Dungeons & Dragons itself. The mash-up of genres and traditions under the original nerd umbrella is one of D&D‘s greatest strengths. The reason I want to work with the ’70s sources – that I look to “Kung Fu Fighting” instead of Bridge of Birds for my monk, to Blackmoor and Expedition to Barrier Peaks instead of Chronicles of an Age of Darkness for my fantastic high technology, to Ray Harryhausen instead of Soldier of the Mists for my Greek myth – is that I can be sure someone who’s interested in playing TSR-era D&D is drawing from that same well. Even if you’ve never seen or read any of these originals, you’ve read the game that sprang from them. It doesn’t matter if we’ve both read Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock; if my extrapolation of ideas like Law and Chaos is based on their work, it’s more likely to accord with your purely D&D-based conception, because D&D is itself a similar extrapolation.

Sure, the OSR is revisionist, but it’s also wisely said that everyone has 20/20 vision in hindsight. I think it’s remarkable that we are now able to know so much about the particular geek culture out of which D&D created its glorious syncretism, and in my personal experience, becoming a fan of the things that inspired the game’s creators makes playing D&D more fun regardless of which edition you play.

18
Nov
10

Dungeons and Dragons in Non-Contemporary Art

After the art and discussion at the excellent “Dungeons and Dragons in Contemporary Art” panel (November 6 at the Allegra LaViola gallery), I couldn’t leave off thinking about fantasy as a kind of (forgive me!) discursive mode.  Looking at Casey Jex Smith’s ‘Lehi’s Vision’, in particular, suggested a mutable fantastic mode as historical artifact; it depicts a Modern, architectural fantastic that calls to mind Albany’s Empire State Plaza, the emblematic colonial (and ancient) fantastic of the Sphinx-guarded tomb, a corporal fantasy reminiscent of the Bosch’s demons and Raleigh’s natives in the 16th century, the environmental fantasies of Hokusai’s water, and a suggestive contemporary fantastic of sublimated video-gamers watched over by smiling Beholders.

Lehi's Vision - Casey Jex Smith

Chris Hagerty also touched on the changeable character of fantasy in history in his discussion of Alma-Tadema’s mythic Greco-Roman history of Victorian England, and Piranesi’s 18th century dungeonesque architectural fantasies. I was still thinking about the panel and show the following week, when I visited two exhibitions at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The first,  “Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress”, is drawn from the NYPL and Morgan collections of Twain material, and includes some of the gouache drawings that illustrated Clemens’s published works.  Many of the drawings are allegorical, and as a group seem heavily influenced by the style of newspaper cartoons.  One was particularly eye-catching: ‘They Passed in Review’ from Following the Equator (1898).  Drawn by Dan Beard, also known for founding the Boy Scouts, it depicts (to borrow from the text) Twain in the “mellow dream-haze of history”: He stands in an attitude of surprise or fright,  confronted by a procession of hybrid creatures.

They Passed in Review - Daniel Carter Beard

Much of Following the Equator deals with Clemens’s travel in the South African Transvaal, his disgust with the effects of colonialism on both the colonists and the colonized, and his frustration with the tolerance of racial oppression.  This all comes to a head in the Boer Wars, and Beard’s drawing foregrounds these events in the drawing in the person of Paul Kruger, presented with the body of a rhino, and a dark-skinned man with the body of an antelope (probably a reference to the Matabele).  They are among a group of regionalized colonial hybrids pushed forward by a parade of aristocratically-dressed centaurs, but also surrounded by a Pinto-Cowboy hybrid and some animal hybrids.  I am tempted to read the drawing as a proposition that colonialism made monsters of us all, but fended off from the claim by the shadowy presence of a herd of caveman-mammoth hybrids in the distance.  The illustration suggests a critical assessment of Clemens’s historical moment, but one attached to a longer view of monstrosity in human history.

The second exhibition, “Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings: 1961-1968”, includes some material that gestures back to the specific questions motivating the panel.  In particular, two pieces from the mid 60’s, the drawings for “Temple of Apollo” (1964) and “Diana” (1965), seemed almost like illustrations from the Moldvay rules.

The exhibit notes that, as he perfected his benday dot technique, Lichtenstein deployed the patterns more texturally.  He also drew subjects from material outside of the print forms from which he developed his visual style.  “Temple of Apollo” is based on a photograph for a Greek tourist postcard, the eponymous temple fallen into ruin.  The temple is rendered in a simple line.  The background has a banded appearance created by allowing two fields of very slightly offset dots to overlap.  I found myself comparing the piece to the Moldvay Basic illustrations for the Carrion Crawler and the Skeleton; a reaction partially explained by the formal similarity of the work, but also by the role of the post-apocalypse in D&D’s mode of fantasy.  As Tavis Allison observed in the Escapist: “If you’ve got darkness encroaching, ruins, and fallen empires, then you’ve got the Dungeons & Dragons apocalypse, whether it’s 2008 or 1975.”  I also think back to Zak Smith’s observation that D&D may function as a shared visual lexicon, and wonder to what extent that language is comprehensive as well as expressive.

Lichtenstein and LaForce

“Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress” and “Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings: 1961-1968” are on view at The Morgan Library and Museum through January 2, 2011.  The museum is free to the public Fridays after 7pm.

12
Nov
10

D&D in Contemporary Art: Video of the Panel & Discussion

Thanks to Allegra LaViola, who hosted the “Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art” panel at her gallery on November 6, 2011 and arranged for the proceedings to be recorded,  and youtube user crentao, who segmented and uploaded the footage, these videos capture the complete discussion!

In Part 1, the artists who were present introduce themselves: from left to right, Casey Jex Smith, Sean McCarthy, Ryan Browning, Chris Hagerty, and Tim Hutchings. Mat Brinkman and Zak Smith, who are listed in the opening title, contributed videos that were shown during the event (segments 2 & 3). Brody Condon also sent a video of Lawful Evil, a Hackmaster session he helped organize at the ART LA 2007 fair, which we weren’t able to present due to time constraints. It’s a fascinating piece that raises lots of questions, which I hope we’ll be able to explore in a future panel when Brody is in town.

Part 2 presents the video Mat Brinkman contributed, but unfortunately without the benefit of the information he gave us about the video. I’m told that Mat has graciously accepted our explanation of the screw-up that led to this being omitted, but I want to apologize here all the same. Here’s what he said in the email attachment I was missing:

HAILS PANEL~GOERS! MY NAME IS MAT BRINKMAN.  I’M A DRAWER AND A DUNGEON MASTER (1ST ED AD&D ONLY) AND HAVE PLAYED D&D ON AND OFF SINCE 1980. I DON’T HAVE TOO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT CONTEMPORARY ART, ANYTHING REALLY. HERE ARE TWO DRAWINGS FROM MY CAMPAIGN:

BOTH ARE HALF~OGRES. BOTH ARE DECEASED.

OTHERWISE, I WOULD LIKE TO TAKE THIS TIME TO PAY HOMAGE TO MY FAVORITE D&D ARTIST, JIM HOLLOWAY (2ND DAVID TRAMPIER, 3RD EROL OTIS), AND TO MY FAVORITE D&D PLAYING MUSIC, THE BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA SOUNDTRACK.  THESE ARE, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF ONE I BELIEVE, NEW JIM ARTS.

ALL DOWNLOADED FROM DRAGONSFOOT.  THE VIDEO MONTAGE IS CONSTRUCTED BY DAMON PACKARD…       ROLL FILM PLEASE!

Here is the video itself, rather than a video of the video being projected on a wall:

In the Dragonsfoot thread, hellhound passes on some info “From Damon the producer:”

The clips are mostly from a 1981 TV movie called “The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire” which was essentially a dungeons & dragons plot and some bits from “The Raven Flies” (1983) and “Sorceress” (1982) They’re all fairly obscure (unavailable on DVD) and came from old VHS transfers.

Back to the panel discussion, Part 3 has Zak Smith’s video, and the start of Casey Jex Smith’s presentation.

Here is Zak’s video itself:

Casey’s presentation concludes in Part 4:

Part 5 has Sean McCarthy’s succinct and incisive presentation, and the start of Ryan Browning’s.

Part 6 has the conclusion of Ryan’s presentation and the beginning of Chris Hagerty’s.

Chris’s presentation continues in part 7.

Part 8 has the end of Chris’s presentation and the start of Tim Hutching’s.

Tim’s presentation continues in part 9.

Part 10 has the end of Tim’s presentation and discussion of questions from myself and the audience.

In retrospect I fault myself as moderator for not leaving more time for discussion, which hopefully I can rectify by organizing another panel to pursue this topic further!

05
Nov
10

Contemporary Art and RPG Illustration

Early in the email conversation between Ryan Browning, Tim Hutchings, Chris Hagerty, and myself that led to the upcoming panel on Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art, Tim suggested “Let’s think about some topics that might interest artist/gamer types.” The one I’ll trace in this post was:

The creation of something brand new upon the earth (RPGs) which is then completely defined through a handful of illustrators (Erol Otus, Trampier, etc) who may or may not have played the games.

I wrote back to encourage the conversation to pursue the relationship between art and illustration, and resolve Tim’s may or may not:

TSR’s “big three”, Otus, Trampier, and Sutherland, were all game-players of one kind or another. Otus has said: “We were all playing D&D a lot.” Sutherland co-authored Demonweb Pits with Gygax and as a child “played war games with his artistic dad using plastic molded figures they repainted to be historically accurate“. Trampier co-designed the great hex wargame Titan; his RPG pedigree is less well-confirmed (apparently he drew on the walls of a place called Linda’s where TSR guys liked to drink and got hired that way) but I can’t imagine that anyone working for TSR back in the day managed never to play D&D.

I’m tempted to draw an old-school/new-school distinction (or at least Golden Age/Silver Age distinction) by saying that more technically proficient guys like Elmore, Parkinson, and Easley weren’t players, but a little Googling doesn’t back me up.

Parkinson: “Now, I was introduced to D&D many years ago in a city far far away. Chicago I believe, and the year was….Uh, nevermind what the year was…But what is important is how much I liked the game. It was so much fun I found myself and four other people, two of which were also artists that started the same night I did, getting together every weekend to play.”

Elmore was also TSR staff and Gygax’s favorite artist; it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t also rolling dice.

Later I found and shared a quotation from Elmore that was especially interesting because it made explicit how playing the game influenced the TSR staff’s approach:

We played D&D. I had played it once before I went to work there. Keith Parkinson played it a lot and ran a campaign there for three or four years. We played every lunch, and we’d usually meet once or twice a month and play all night at somebody’s house.

It was good for us, too, because we were consumers of the game and were confronting the same adventures and problems that the consumers were. That helped us in painting, too.

From the very onset… I wanted to work the whole scene. I got there and said, “Look, I’ve only played a couple of times, but it seems like, in this game, everything is important — the landscape, the weather, if you’re in a dungeon. Everything is important.”

At that time in fantasy art, it was very popular to do figures in fog. You’d do one figure and then just sort of fog the background out. I said, “This is not about figures in fog. It’s about the land, the trees, the terrain, everything.” I really pushed to do the whole scene. Keith Parkinson caught on that fast. That’s how he believed, too. Jeff is more of a figures-in-fog kind of painter. As soon as they started playing the game, they saw how effective it was.

Larry Elmore, "Dragon Slayers, and Proud of It"

Ryan said:

Those early D&D illustrators (Otus, Trampier, Sutherland) defined my earliest foundations of artistic taste – I was pretty young when they came out but my brother had quite a few modules and the core books. He never let me touch them, they were like gold. There was something medieval about their work (not just the imagery of weaponry and dragons) that’s disappeared in game illustration. Like Tavis said, I think there is something to say about old-school players and the early illustrations. Some of them were pretty dreamlike or psychedelic (magic) and others very theatrically dramatic, lacking environment – more conducive to a theater-of-the-mind attitude of play. Everything now is hyper real… with the minis and everything especially – its all about visualization. This reminds me – the first character I ever rolled was a (gnome?) illusionist with 18/00 strength. I guess I didn’t understand the rules, and I probably cheated with the dice, but man, that was an awesome character… I couldn’t wait to bend some bars.

In talking about his background as a gamer, Chris had mentioned his relationship to game illustration:

I do however credit RPGs and game culture for starting me out as a visual artist… All those bitchin pictures in my D&D books were always way more interesting than any other subject I studied in school. I essentially went to art school to become a game illustrator but ditched out of that program focus after the first semester when I found out illustrators don’t get to always draw what they want. So here I am now, still loving to play these fun games but they kind of maintain a different part of my brainspace than what I want to do the art thing for. Recently I have been enjoying a slight resurgence in doing game illustration and crafting game design objects purely for my own enjoyment. I think because they don’t have to interact with anybody else except my fellow players, it gives me a simple pleasure.

Ryan followed up on this:

Chris, I like that you mentioned making illustrations for your own games and benefit – I also thought about becoming an illustrator, and then was convinced by one of my teachers that it wasn’t what I wanted (for the same reason you gave – that I could not draw whatever I liked). I just realized that I’ve been actively avoiding drawing the figure for about 4 years (ever since I went to grad school) as I’ve been avoiding dumbly falling into illustration. I really miss it, especially now as I’m getting back into gaming. I’ll have to start drawing my own stuff again too.

Chris replied:

I think this is a really common shared experience with about half of us or more coming from comics love and the other portion from RPG game illustration. There was a mixture of different reasons why I wanted to make my profession as an artist as opposed to illustrator. Mainly it dealt with the breadth of communication that I could pursue with fine art as opposed to doing freelance work for game companies and whatnot. Up until college I had been heavily involved with forms of escapism like RPGs and I made the decision to turn more outward in the work I wanted to spend my time on. I could go on for quite a while on escapism in art and some of it’s model sources for the games we play now [here he linked the images below] but I fear I have typed too much already.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Untitled etching (called "The Drawbridge"), plate VII (of 16) from the series The Imaginary Prisons (Le Carceri d'Invenzione), Rome, 1761 edition (reworked from 1745)

 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "Unconscious Rivals", 1893

I totally can relate to Ryan’s stopped time of doing game/lowbrow drawings, although my reasons were that after college, I felt I was highly skilled observational draftsmen and it was downright embarrassing to do such lousy game illustrations, when I tried, at the same time. I am now starting to be at the point where I can blow my time on the game drawings and accept them as a fun activity if I have the time to spare. It was hard for me as an artist to thinks of multiple levels of art making, not so much mind-pollution, more like guilt at time I wasn’t spending in the studio.

In response to this and Chris’s earlier statement “illustrators don’t get to always draw what they want,” I wrote:

When I do freelance writing for RPGs, I’m sometimes in the position of trying to get an illustrator to draw what I tell them to. This is mysterious (because it passes through an art director’s hands as well) and sometimes frustrating (esp. because I have little training in suggesting illustrations, and there are often good reasons for the other agents in the process to say “no, what Tavis describes here won’t work”). I always try to write my art orders to focus on non-white characters using medieval-realistic equipment in situations that really emerge in play, and the output is often white heroes in anime-stylized gear in situations that happen in fantasy novels or the player’s daydream about playing D&D but don’t get any attention at the table.

Originally: "This lithe and athletic survivor is wearing HIDE ARMOR made from the gray, spiky plates of a macetail behemoth. Her skin is dark brown, and her curly black hair is kept short; on Earth, one would assume that she was from Africa. She has a simple, functional, and deadly-looking GREATAXE strapped over her back, and a coil of rope at her belt."

In contrast, the great Trampier illustrations like confronting a magic mouth or opening a treasure chest are very specific to D&D and are the collective focus of play when they happen.

 

David A. Trampier, published by TSR in the 1979 AD&D Players Handbook

David A. Trampier, published by TSR in the 1979 AD&D Players Handbook

As a freelancer I’m currently in a different mindset than y’all mentioned about illustration and art school: nowadays I like being told “write about this specific thing under a work-for-hire contract that gives away all your rights” because it’s relaxing for me to approach creativity as just a job. When I was younger artistic freedom and self-expression were a lot more important to me, but that wound up being stressful because having more involvement in it meant I was more insecure about its success and reception, which seemed like a referendum on my self-worth. (This was especially true before I moved to NYC and started doing psychotherapy, which Woody Allen had conditioned me to think of, like bagels, as an essential part of a New Yorker’s lifestyle.)

During the time I was away from gaming I wrote science fiction, but when I sold a story to Asimov’s I got anxious about how I was going to follow up that success. After I got back into RPGs, writing for games felt easier because I was filling in the blanks in a structured format, without the terrifying expanse of blank canvas that came from sitting down and thinking “Today I must write a SF story from scratch.” I got three of my friends started a company to self-publish some monster books we’d pitched to another publisher who wanted all the rights; doing it ourselves meant we had creative control but lost money, so there’s definitely an appeal for me these days in knowing that if I write something for WotC I will get paid on time, and if people think it sucks it’s not entirely my fault (sometimes their editing and developing team makes the published article better than my manuscript, and sometimes not) and besides I already cashed the check so to hell with what they think!

Last night after one of the Red Box games, Eric (that game’s DM) was talking about self-publishing some old-school adventures etc. and enlisting Chris as an illustrator, which I think would rock! I may well decide to jump on that bandwagon, which would interestingly be a move towards more artistic license than I get as a freelancer at the same time that Chris accepts less by working within the confines of illustrating a text.

One thing that I like about game writing (and also the grant writing that I do as a day job) is that it’s collaborative. That is as important to my enjoyment as the fact that it’s more structured. Fiction writing felt awfully lonely with just me and the keyboard!

Ryan replied:

I really understand the thing about working alone on a creative project. I’m tempted constantly to go play a flash game or something as I try to paint – or anything easier than thinking about what to do next with my work. Working with people sounds nice – I teach, and I like that, but a lot of my students drive me crazy. And, paychecks really are a benefit that can’t be overlooked – I need more of them!

The illustration that didn’t quite turn out is hilarious when you explain what it should have been. It looks like D&D nature porn. The RPG audience probably won’t ever kick it’s preference for chain-mail bikinis though. WoW-looking elf chicks might die out someday soon… I hope.

 

Karyn Lewis, "Chainmail Bikini"

Tim’s suggestion opened a really interesting vein. I think there’s still a lot to talk about concerning the breadth of communication granted to the contemporary artist vs. the limitations of an illustrator working within a text, as well as issues about the critical reception of each that I hope the panel will explore further. A question I raised early on is still unanswered for me:

Do we award guys like Otus and Trampier a different status than modern RPG artists who work for a company that has an actual art director, while early TSR almost certainly had a much higher degree of creative freedom?

Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow is an example of an artist independently choosing to work within the limitations of illustrating an existing text. When we emailed him about taking part in the discussion, he also raised the issue of critical reception:

I feel like any decent panel on art & RPGs, if it isn’t going to get mired entirely in hippie post-performance art theoretics, needs to seriously address precisely this question: Why is the alleged difference between commercial artists: Dave Trampier, Ian Miller, Gary Gygax et al. and gallery artists taken seriously at all by anyone–ESPECIALLY now that pretty much any gallery in New York will show a picture of a 3-headed dragon eating a spaceman with a laser gun if its presented properly and any game company is capable of producing trendy, self-aware, post-human Ballardian sci-fi or whatever? Is this merely a commercial reality or does it point to fundamentally different aims?




Past Adventures of the Mule

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