Of Monsters and Manuals

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Player’s Handbook

Blogging suffered a cruel downturn this past decade, all but displaced by social media feeds and their 280-characters-or-less bumper stickers. That’s why I hold today’s bloggers in such high regard, particularly hobbyists and amateurs not drawing a steady income off their hard work.

One blogger I’ve followed through the downturn is noisms over at Monsters and Manuals, a site dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. I’ve been meaning to write this for a couple of years now but kept putting it off. Now is the time. His twelve-year-old blog celebrated its 1,500th post last August and he’s still cranking out entries. That’s impressive. Kudos.

(I haven’t played D&D since the late 1980s. How I discovered Monsters and Manuals will have to be the subject of another post.)

Much of my admiration for noisms is simply the dedication required in producing posts regularly for over a decade. He’s also done well to stay on topic (so many blogs wander off their chosen path to spout politics or shill product) without feeling straitjacketed to a single subject.

More than these reasons, I discovered in Monsters and Manuals a blogger with a fine-tuned radar for exploring creativity.

I recently picked up a collection of Orwell’s critical essays and was sucked in by his discursive writing style. Orwell seamlessly moves from one topic to another without ever losing sight of the essay’s primary focus. Reading Orwell dissect Dickens’ and Kipling’s politics is following a busy bee through a lush garden of orchids and varietals. There’s a similar dynamic at Monsters and Manuals. noisms draws from philosophy, linguistics, history, British culture, and more, all in the service of exploring what makes role-playing different from—and perhaps better than—other narrative forms.

Photographs of odd entryways as starting points for dungeon adventures. British gardens as inspiration for a fantasy setting. Thoughts on the “ontological flicker” of postmodern critical theory. Actual D&D as Marxist praxis. And a defense of violence, at least, a highly-qualified one. It’s a rich stew.

Even in this hundred-word post on Super Mario Bros. as absurdist art, noisms drops something fairly profound for anyone writing a novel, play, or film script to consider:

In creating a long-lasting, interesting and innovative fantasy setting, then, I think the most important thing may well simply be to come up with, say, a dozen or so ideas, themes or tropes and make sure they appear consistently. What those ideas, themes or tropes are is probably of secondary importance to their repetitive use.

I would say that applies to all manner of story, not merely fantasy settings. All great work has an internal logic. Even if we don’t share its values, the pleasure is experiencing, even living within, that internal logic for a short period of time. (“A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver.”) Repetition of themes or tropes reinforces the internal logic of a character, or an ethic, or a condition, or a world.

Or this, the profession of beekeeping as a creative constraint:

The point is simply this: once constraints are set in place, creativity starts to flourish. Envisage human creativity like water: without barriers it floods endlessly in a very thin and ever-spreading sheen. With constraint it bursts upwards like a fountain.

The best proof I can offer of Monsters and Manual’s wide peripheral vision is a role-playing game noisms developed called Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. Its premise: The player characters are exploring the dream-memories of an ancient crocodile asleep in a lake:

In its mind are memories of such antiquity that all trace of them have faded elsewhere in the world. Beasts long extinct whose bones are now dust. Spirits whose substance have gradually tattered and frayed down the eons until nothing remains. Civilizations which have risen and fallen and whose ruins are no longer even part of distant legend. Lands which have sunk beneath seas so deep that not even the kraken have seen them. The crocodile witnessed it all and those memories live inside it still.

As a setting for a game world, is it successful? I have no idea. But it’s so strange, so ambitious, so weird, I can only admire the effort.

A more down-to-earth effort is his game There is Therefore a Strange Land:

[The players] might be dilettantes, scholars, satanists, priests, or alchemists. One of them inherits the study of a dead uncle or aunt who was clearly Up To Something. In this study is a portal, or portals, which lead to another World or Worlds…the existence of the other Worlds is also known by others, who will want to buy whatever the [players] can bring back, kill them as rivals, and so on…Picture a group of scholars from Regency-era London going to Athas and bringing back a cannibal halfling to sell to the Prince of Brunswick, all the while trying to avoid being noticed by their rivals, thieves, or high society.

What I love about this premise is how the off-world adventuring is not the only meat of the game. It’s also returning to 19th-century London with bizarre artifacts, finding a fence to move them, dealing with robbers and toughs, and navigating the powdered wigs jockeying for position around the Crown. Although set pre-Victorian, I can’t help but visualize the game as the formalism of H. G. Wells meets the street life of Dickens with The King in Yellow thrown in for measure—I don’t know if I want to play that game, but I would certainly like to read that book.

What I see in Monsters and Manuals is a writer who remains wide open to inspiration from traditional and nontraditional sources. I’ve discussed inspiration before, but I’ve neglected writing how to develop an internal “lightning rod” for inspiration: Maintaining an inquisitive mind that stirs loose subconscious, even primal, thoughts to the surface; not rejecting those ideas out-of-hand because they’re silly or or absurd or embarrassing or transgressive; and most importantly, recording everything for later.

It’s apparent to me noisms has developed a lightning rod for role-playing games—his creative mulch is music, countryside walks, philosophical treatises, news clippings, and more. Any writer would do well to do likewise.

Airplane book for a long flight: Bloodline of the Holy Grail

Bloodline of the Holy Grail by Laurence Gardner

What faulty thinking compelled me to pick up this doorstop twenty years ago is lost to me today. With no reading material on hand, in a Munich airport bookstore and facing a direct flight home, I probably thought Laurence Gardner’s beefy Bloodline of the Holy Grail was making the best of a bad situation.

Airport bookstores and newsstands are, by and large, a waste of time for me. Most of them stock novels riding high on the New York Times bestseller list, self-help guides, business books for business people looking to maximize their potentialities, and a smattering of classic thrillers perpetually in-demand. (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo books seem to fit this last category.) I rarely find a book worth reading among their stacks, but that hasn’t stopped me when I’m desperate for a way to pass this time midair.

Bloodline of the Holy Grail fits the bill as a long-flight read due to its sheer bulk. Chewing through its four hundred and fifty pages to pass the time on a red-eye is a solution…assuming you’re willing to suspend critical thought and rational consideration.

Bloodline is a repackaging of the more widely known Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the sprawling pseudo-historical conspiracy theory disguised as academic research. The bare-bones outline of Holy Blood, Holy Grail was lifted by Dan Brown as background for his thriller The Da Vinci Code (which resulted in a lawsuit against Brown). Laurence Gardner undoubtedly cribbed Holy Blood for Bloodline as well, although toward different ends.

Both book’s premises are that Jesus did not die on the cross, but was rescued by his followers and resuscitated without the knowledge of his Roman executors. The notion of Jesus surviving his crucifixion is not new. What’s new is to weaponize it into an attack on these books’ favorite targets. In the case of Holy Blood, it’s the Catholic church. In the case of Bloodline, it’s the British royal family.

According to both books, Jesus married Mary Magdalene, raised a family, and anonymously died of natural causes. Mary and children sailed to France and established what became the Merovingian dynasty—that is, the foundation for all major royal lineages in Western European. You read that right.

Bloodline spins out of control from there, as though it wasn’t reeling fast enough. To connect Jesus’ bloodline to the major European monarchies, Gardner rewrites two thousand years of Western history with a horse-breeder’s attention to genealogy. He even injects into his history figures of Biblical and Arthurian legend, presenting them as living, breathing persons instead of the fiction they are. The Holy Grail on the cover of the book? Gardner drops the canard where the word San Greal is a corruption of Sang Real (royal blood), another longstanding bunk theory unsubstantiated by the historical record.

Up to this point Bloodline tracks closely to Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I was not aware of the latter book when I was on my flight. Although I bought into none of Gardner’s hogwash, I was thoroughly impressed with his conviction and persistence. It’s much like Oliver Stone’s JFK, another ripping yarn I relish while my intellect whispers in my ear: Factually, this is all crap. Years later, when Da Vinci Code became a hot ticket, I was sure Dan Brown had ripped off Laurence Gardner, not knowing Gardner had, in turn, ripped off the earlier source. Lots of pigs have fed at the trough of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

On my flight I found myself thumbing ahead, skipping page after page of Gardner’s tedious revisionism recounted in picayune detail. Like the high-minded JFK conspiracy theory books of the 1970s, Bloodline is chock full of footnotes and references to historical research. And, like those JFK conspiracy books, the tornado of references serves to obscure the questionable, if not dishonest, interpretation of that material.

HRH Prince Michael James Alexander Stewart
Michel Roger Lafosse

Bloodline comes to a crashing conclusion when it declares the current royal family of Britain are illegitimate throne-bearers. Gardner announces the proper King of Scotland (and direct descendant of Jesus Christ!) is HRH Prince Michael James Alexander Stewart, a Belgian named Michel Lafosse who contends he’s the head of the Royal House of Stuart, a lineage otherwise considered extinct. With only a few more pseudo-historical yoga poses, Gardner proves Lafosse should be the King of England as well.

That’s it. This entire four hundred fifty page book is an argument claiming some bloke is the rightful occupant of Buckingham Palace. Gardner concludes with a frosty condemnation of democracy and pining for a return to a proper constitutional monarchy.

Author Laurence Gardner liked titles almost as much as Lafosse does. Gardner was “Chevalier Labhran de St. Germain” and “the appointed Jacobite Historiographer Royal”—that is, he worked for Lafosse. Most if not all of his titles were bestowed by Lafosse, who also showered invented titles on himself. The moment one learns of this incestuous relationship between the king and his genealogist, the ulterior motivations behind this turd of a book crystallizes before your eyes. The Guardian scoffed at this circle jerk of title inflation as a “web of imposture,” an elegant phrase to describe a sad and delusional fraud.

Bloodline of the Holy Grail is the most exhausting shaggy dog story I’ve ever read (and I’ve read Tristram Shandy, the shaggiest of them all). It may also be the most ambitious vanity project ever published. To plow through so much dense mud and be handed such a smelly egg in the final pages almost led me to throw the book out the plane window as we were landing.

Still, Bloodline stands as the missing link between Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code—a historical thriller presented as dry fact, opening in the ancient Holy Lands with a botched crucifixion and culminating in a modern-day secret king denied his crown. If Gardner had been more entrepreneurial-minded and abandoned his penchant for toffee-nosed honorifics (“Prior of the Sacred Kindred of St. Columba”? “Attache to the Grand Protectorate of the Imperial Dragon Court, 1408”?), he could have pumped Bloodline into a full-blooded 1990s thriller and beaten Dan Brown to the winner’s circle by nearly a decade. After all, the public has shown a bottomless appetite for Bible conspiracies and Holy Grail histories. How many metric tons of trees have been ground to pulp to distribute this crap worldwide?

Recommended for a long flight? Go reread The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo instead. Better yet, read Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ to absorb the life of a Jesus more fragile and human than any conspiracy writer could devise.