On its way: STRANGER SON, Book Three of the Bridge Daughter Cycle

Usually I’m reticent to pre-announce, but I’ve been getting emails, so…

Stranger Son by Jim Nelson

Today I sent the third book of the Bridge Daughter Cycle, Stranger Son, off to the copyeditor. I’m getting covers and other material assembled as I write this.

Stranger Son picks up sixteen years after the conclusion of Hagar’s Mother. I don’t want to spoil too much, but will say it takes place in a near-future California after a bout of political turmoil.

If you’ve not read Bridge Daughter or Hagar’s Mother yet, you can dive in now and (fingers crossed) be caught up in time for the third book’s release.

No release date at the moment. Watch this space for more news.

Oracular dice

Photo by Diacritica (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Writing about Monsters and Manuals and rereading the abandoned Dungeons & Dragons blog Grognardia led me to think about a few more D&D-related topics, like dice and randomness.

All those funny-shaped D&D dice, subject of endless mirth and memes, serve a purpose quite different than moving a pawn around a playing board. D&D’s reliance on chance for story events—combat, encountering monsters, dealing with hirelings—represents an

embrace of events beyond your control as an integral part of the gaming experience…the ‘story’ arises from the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction; it isn’t something you can set out to create.

Grognardia called this “the oracular power of dice,” a phrase I understood straightaway when I first read it.

While Gygaxian Naturalism may make D&D like playing within a fiction, there is no single author of the story. In any D&D session there’s the referee, the players, and the dice. The dice are the third team on the field.

Even the referee is subject to the winds of chance. If she dispatches a band of goblins at the players intending a slaughter, bad dice rolls on her part (or good rolls on theirs) may thwart her plans. Even if she tries to assist the players through a rough patch, the dice may decide otherwise. A novelist can put an authorial thumb on the scales to tip fortune toward or against his character. In D&D, the referee doesn’t have the same absolute freedom.

That’s not to say D&D is a game of mere luck. The referee and players make most of the decisions throughout the game. Gygax wisely corralled dice rolls to specific situations, containing their entropy to key decisive moments. (The history of D&D’s polyhedrons—originally, all were Platonic solids—is an interesting story in its own right.)

Everyone who plays D&D long enough develops a futility toward the capriciousness of the dice. Take away the dice, though, and you have something that’s not D&D.

Combining cooperation with chance reminds me of exquisite corpse, where multiple artists contribute portions to the final picture, even though none of them are permitted to see the rest of the page until the drawing is completed. The obvious difference is that in D&D the story’s contributions are guided by dice rolls rather than obscuring the page.

One exquisite corpse variant is Sentence Drawing Sentence, which I participated in many years ago:

  1. The first person writes a sentence
  2. The next person draws a picture beneath the sentence in reaction
  3. The next person writes a sentence beneath the drawing in reaction
  4. And so on until the page is full

The paper is folded back with each addition so the next person can only see the prior sentence or drawing.

Sentence Drawing Sentence

Philip K. Dick threw I Ching coins while plotting The Man in the High Castle. The game …and then we died has players drawing Tarot cards to build a collaborative story of a gruesome death. (An obituary-writing game? Why not.)

Introducing cooperation and randomness to the creative process isn’t cheating, it’s adding more creativity. Embrace “the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction.” These small chaos-es release the tight grip our ordered minds wish to exert over our creations, that impulse to micromanage every little detail of a short story or novel. Such creative games also fine-tune the internal “lighting rod of inspiration” I’ve written about before by introducing elements out-of-the-blue we may not have considered otherwise.

A different kind of naturalism

T1: The Village of Hommlet by E. Gary Gygax
Original cover of
The Village of Hommlet

My previous posts on the blogs Monsters and Manuals and Grognardia led me to look back on Dungeons & Dragons, a game whose influence on me is pronounced, even if I haven’t played it since I was a teenager.

One topic blogger James Maliszewski explored in depth was “Gygaxian Naturalism,” his term for D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax’s aesthetic sensibilities:

The intention behind Gygaxian Naturalism is to paint a picture of a “real” world, which is to say, a world that exists for reasons other than purely gaming ones. The implication is that monsters have lives of their own and thus go about their business doing various things until they encounter the player characters. … I don’t mean to imply that [D&D] is realistic in any meaningful sense, only that its fantasy follows “natural” laws of a sort, much in the way that, for example, I know that there are squirrels and raccoons and rabbits in my neighborhood who go about their business when I’m not seeing them in my yard or chasing them away from my recycling bins.

Before Grognardia I’d never heard anyone describe D&D as naturalistic, and yet the moment I read this post I knew exactly what Maliszewski was referring to. Gygax breathed an internal logic into his game. His fantasy world is a dynamic and mutable place rather than a static backdrop.

The creatures that inhabit this fantasy world don’t merely exist as wooden cut-outs in a shooting gallery. They coexist within an ecosystem. Minotaurs prefer solitary existences while goblins live in tribes. There’s a pecking order. In Against the Giants, the players discover the Hill Giants answer to the Frost Giants, and the Frost Giants answer to the Fire Giants…and all the giants answer to the elves underground.

Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet is an exemplar of D&D naturalism. The village is a medieval Winesburg, Ohio of nosy innkeepers and petty intrigues and split alliances—oh, and there’s an evil-worshiping death cult ten miles outside of town. One reviewer notes Hommlet “is a place with history and its history shapes and affects its layout, mood and inhabitants.”

Those inhabitants don’t exist merely to impart exposition or direct the adventurers to the dungeon entrance. They have ambitions, suspicions, and secrets. They share useful and baseless rumors. A widower farmer and his spinster daughter live in town. They are the black sheep of the village and not well-liked. They’ve stashed seventy-three silver coins in the hollow of a tree—there could be a story within all these details, a story within the larger story. Another farmer’s son likes his brew a bit too much and will wag his tongue if drunk under the table, while the town brewer’s nephew can hold his ale and then some. One elderly farmer is ex-military but would rather talk about any matter other than fighting. More question marks, more history.

And yet, it’s possible, even likely, none of these inhabitants or their situations will be faced by the players. Like Hemingway’s iceberg, Gygax’s inclusion of these details make the setting richer even if little of it is presented in-game. The players may never meet the farmer’s daughter, they may never drink at the inn, and they may never become involved in Hommlet’s inner squabbles. But if these details do become relevant, the game referee is expected to honor the villagers’ best interests and play to their strengths and weaknesses the way a character actor might develop a backstory for his brief role.

How does this correspond to naturalism in literature, especially American literature? In work like McTeague or The Awakening, characters are cursed to accede to the drives of base instincts rather than follow established civilized norms. Greed is innate. Lust cannot be tamed. (Brew cannot be avoided.)

Naturalism presents “nature as an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings.” Gygaxian Naturalism certainly meets this criteria. Man is of no concern not only to animals, but also bugbears, dragons, and gods, demigods, and demons. The infamous D&D dice act as passionless Fates that hold the players’ futures in their hands. The players start as insignificant creatures in the great chain of being, only becoming a problem when they burst into a lair bearing swords and torches. A player character’s death is mourned by few, if anyone.

When I was in grade school, two of my favorite short stores were “Leinigen Versus the Ants” and “The Most Dangerous Game.” Both are high naturalism, and both are very D&D-like in their telling.

In the introduction to The Village of Hommlet, Gygax writes “there are wheels within wheels in Hommlet and the lands around, and behind each character there is another, the circles growing wider and the figures shadowy but very powerful.” It’s not deep, nuanced stuff, but it’s enough sophistication to give players a lurking sense they are but minor actors in a larger drama. Gygaxian Naturalism is a big reason why playing D&D felt like acting within a story rather than playing a sword & sorcery video game sans computer.

Of grognards and grimoires

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition
Dungeons & Dragons
Basic Edition (1977)

Last time I wrote of my praise for Monsters and Manuals, a long-running blog on role-playing games. How I came across Monsters and Manuals is a story itself.

In 2012 I somehow found myself reading a now-defunct Dungeons & Dragons blog called Grognardia. Now, I haven’t played D&D since Ronald Reagan was president, although I was active in the game throughout the 1980s. Why I came across the blog is long-forgotten to me, but there I was reading about D&D in theory and operation.

Grognardia was a bit of a revelation: People—adults—were still playing D&D, even after the rise of the Internet and smart phones and hellaciously ambitious video games. For years I’d thought back on D&D as an odd teenage avocation of mine, a 1980s trend that faded with Rubik’s Cube and glam metal. For me in 2012, the image of four to eight people around a table with paper and pencil rolling saving throws was a sepia-tone daguerreotype of a more innocent age. Now I know better. D&D (and role-playing in general) has changed and evolved, but it’s still going strong.

Reading Grognardia’s love-letters to Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, and its many tributes to old-timey role-playing was a massive syringe injection of nostalgia. Reading closely, I deduced blogger James Maliszewski was about my age and had been introduced to D&D around the same time I was (the late 1970s).

Grognardia gave Maliszewski a platform to lay out his dim, gimlet-eyed views of the state of D&D in the 2000s. In fact, Maliszewski held a pretty dim view of all things D&D after about 1983. (Dragonlance Ruined Everything”, “I Hate Change”) His scheme of D&D’s eras has the game exiting its Golden Age before 1983 and waving goodbye to its Silver Age around 1989. From there, in Grognardia’s estimation, Dungeons & Dragons was downhill.

Reading Grognardia for the first time made me feel like Mel Brooks’ 2,000 year-old man stepping out from a 33 A.D. time capsule and discovering people are still abuzz over that Jesus guy. I lost contact with D&D after 1987 (or so) and Grognardia was my re-introduction to the community. Amazingly, I found the community was talking about the state of D&D prior to 1987.

Maliszewski’s writing is forceful, lucid, and mostly consistent. The early Grognardia posts were manifesto-like, each chiseled from a bedrock belief in old-school D&D, each post a brick set in mortar like a fervent believer building a country church by hand. His brimstone sermons on original intent and calls for a return to the soil earned him a wide fan base at his blog’s height a decade ago.

Alas—and you probably saw this coming—cracks in his reputation began to appear not long after I began reading his blog. (Like most Internet dramas, it’s a mildly complicated story and better explained by him and others.) Grognarida ceased updates soon thereafter, and I so searched for a replacement blog to fill the nostalgic void. That’s how I discovered Monsters and Manuals, which I’ve been reading ever since.

While writing my last post, I spent some time revisiting Grognardia. I’d not read it since my first encounter in 2012. The reread gave me a new appreciation for Maliszewski’s idiosyncratic but thoughtful perspectives. Back in 2012, his posts forced me to evaluate (and reevaluate) my memories of D&D and its impact and history. In my reread, I found myself returning to those evaluations once more.

I’m by no means a D&D insider, so my thoughts on the game may earn a collective yawn from the community, but I’ll record them in future posts in case they’re of interest to anyone.

Other posts on Grognardia and D&D