Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On Being Surprised

The many errands I had to run on Monday gave me an excuse to crack open 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons and Dragons while waiting in various doctors' offices or treating myself to a ludicrously tasty lunch at Maggie Rita's. It's a heck of a fun read with lots of history of D&D from its creation up until around the time TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast. It also includes short essays by various luminaries in which they detail how they first encountered D&D and what it meant to them when they were young--and continues to mean to them as adults. Just finished reading it during my lunch break at work yesterday (Friday) and it got me good and anxious to keep up my exploration of weird and fantastic worlds.

One moment really struck me and I’ve pondered it throughout the week. Ed Greenwood, who actually created the Forgotten Realms setting, writes extensively about the experience of providing TSR with his decades'-worth of materials about Faerun. What I found particularly interesting was Greenwood’s insights about the process of seeing his private imaginative landscape expanded and transformed by collaborations with other talented people:

The one thing the Realms couldn’t do as long as it was just ‘my world’ was surprise me, and both game and fiction writers (like Jeff and Kate Grubb, Elaine Cunningham, and Bob Salvatore) gave me pleasant surprises and added new Realms characters that I wanted to meet. […]
My greatest delight in the unfolding Realms was watching other creators race off madly in all directions across the misty gaps n the landscape I’d handed to Jeff.

The capacity to be surprised by a world you helped create: that’s a beautiful thing to have. I especially love the image of game developers as adventurers rushing “off madly in all directions” to bring an (almost) fully-realized Faerun to the players and readers who would inhabit it. (None of this excuses the crappiness of the one R.A. Salvatore novel I read a couple years ago, of course. But I think I'm ready to forgive and let the healing begin.)

When we went to Asgard on Tuesday for our second night of D&D my half-orc barbarian Naja spent a good chunk of the night swinging and missing at a massive crocodile, getting swept down various sewers, and not killing kobolds. It was kind of lame (stupid, malevolent dice) but also kind of fun. And wholly satisfying.

Decisions I make for my character have consequences—so do the random rolls of the dice. So do the no-doubt deeply evil behind-the-screen machinations of our godlike Dungeon Master.
It’s that potent alchemical reaction between intention, imagination, and the mysteries of the dice that gives Dungeons & Dragons the power to surprise. I still love me some World of Warcraft but no computer game can really replicate D&D's capacity for suspense and reward (or mind-numbing disappointment, which is almost as good in its own perverse way.)

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