Posts Tagged ‘transmedia


The Shadow out of Providence

I am currently in Norway collecting data on wilderness encounters, which I will share when my internet access is less limited. However in the interim Ezra Claverie’s very worthy Kickstarter for a Lovecraftian meta-textThe Shadow out of Providence, is about to reach the end of its funding campaign, as he was kind enough to remind me:

Tumble out of your hammock, seaman! I’ve orders for ye!

Run aloft to the very top of the Mule Abides, and sing out that you’ve spotted _The Shadow out of Providence_. Tell the lads to row for it with all their might, and we may yet return with a hold full of oil.

I’m offering an extra measure of rum for all the crew if we exceed our goal by a thousand Yankee dollars. Videlicett, if we raise $8,500, “the hardcover will have marbled endpapers, and every backer’s name will appear in the book, on the roster of the lost members of the 8th American-Soviet Friendship Expedition (which, sadly, had no survivors). This list will be separate from the acknowledgments, and part of ‘The Vostok Dossier’.”

Update #9, which I just posted, contains the full details, if ye should forget, or if ye should find the lingo of an old sea-captain less than transparent.

–Cap’n Ezra

One of the main attractions of this project for old-schoolers may be the new illustrations by Erol Otus, see below. However there is much to be said (which I guess I also need to say in a future post) for the proposition that Lovecraft and his circle of correspondents invented a key component of roleplaying, the idea of a shared world which was gradually revealed by the stories of individual protagonists. Of course, many of these protagonists died horribly in proper old-school fashion because D&D and the Cthulu Mythos are both the story of the world, not the story of the heroes in it. I’ve written before about how seeing the Mythos appear in the Electronic Arts game Murder on the Zinderneuf was my first transmedia experience, and I think it’s not jus a fondness for monsters that causes Lovecraft is named in Appendix N and beloved of roleplayers everywhere. Ezra’s metatext promises to be a worthy and exciting addition to this canon; check it out, I think you’ll dig it.Image



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?


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.

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2023

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