Dig it: from now through January 10, 2010 the Metropolitan Museum of Art is running an exhibit on the arms and armor of the samurai from the Heian through the Edo Period–basically, seven centuries of katanas, o-yoroi, kabutos, and all those other crazy things we ogled in the centerfold of Cook’s Oriental Adventures. If you’re in New York, or planning to visit for the holidays, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
We hit the place this afternoon, but because one of our traveling companions was a bored little kid, we didn’t get to see as much as I might like. Since the items on display change every week, I’m going to organize a Red Boxer expedition sometime soon.
There is some genuinely cool stuff there, including a video of the forging of the sword-blades. This included a guy whose family has been sword-polishers for fourteen generations. The method seems to involve a series of stones, decreasing in size until you’re polishing the thing with grains of dust. Also, during the forging, the swordsmiths placed types of clay onto the molten steel, creating patterns of discoloration that could only be seen when the sword was perfectly polished: basically, a kind of invisible ink type of deal. There are zillions of sword blades on display, to the point I got bored looking at them, but they also have naginata (glaive) and yari (spear) blades as well, and several suits of incredibly cool armor which surely was too fantastical to ever be used in battle.
Treasure’s one of those things that everyone loves in Dungeons & Dragons, but frankly all I usually care about is its value in gold: the idea of appreciating this stuff for its own sake, or marveling at it, is completely foreign to me. “Emeralds? Uh, okay. I rush straight into town and find the emerald guy. What’s he give me for it?” As Ben “Mr. West Marches” Robbins mentions, players will actually listen to exposition when it’s described through treasure. But also, players will appreciate fancy descriptions of art, if it’s art that can be used to kill dudes. Collecting the life’s work of a particular swordsmith could be a pretty neat quest, especially if the stuff is forged so well that it’s practically magical.
As an example of ridiculous art objects which definitely say something about the setting they’re embedded in, here’s a helmet where, for some reason, the guy wanted a gilt praying mantis on his forehead. In person, it looks freaky as hell and also completely ridiculous. If you poked him in the forehead he’d fall over and never be able to get back up. The mantis’s body is made from wood, the wings are papier-mache, and both are coated in a fine layer of gold.
The Met, of course, also has a couple centuries of European arms and armor too, along with just about every single pole-arm Gygax ever fetishized, so you can do a compare-and-contrast. (Does anyone else think it’s weird that you’re in a museum, looking at Fine Art after Fine Art, and then suddenly there’s this room full of Full Plate?) And also, recreations of ancient Egyptian temples, as well as zillions of works of art from Medieval Europe. (There probably ought to be more religious-themed art objects in D&D – it seems like for about a thousand years the only works of art Europeans knew how to produce were pieces of Jesus fan-fic – and in a game like Tavis’s explorations into the Caverns of Thracia, we ought to be tripping over generations of religious iconography, all of which will be mined for expository information and fitted into Maldoor’s database.) But until then, here’s a sword: