Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Remembering to Find Escape in Fantasy

 What a pity. Love is, I think, wasted on the young.”

Cardinal Richelieu, The Three Musketeers (1993)

Christmas train succumbs
to holiday chaos.
I am finding some solace immersing myself in my current work designing a fantasy roleplaying game setting...when I can. The demands of the holiday season often supersede other activities and priorities (as I’ve noted before). But between gift wrapping, decorating the tree, setting up the trains, wrestling with the outdoor string lights, and the everyday interruptions of “Dad can you do this?” and “Honey did you take care of that?” and everyone’s favorite, “What are we having for dinner?” I managed to savor the few moments I got to immerse myself in my roleplaying game writing.

Everything seemed much simpler in my youth. I’d come home from school and, if the neighborhood kids weren’t around playing Dungeons & Dragons, Kingmaker, King of the Tabletop, or various amateur games of our own design, I’d plug into my headphones, put on my favorite soundtrack record, and retreat into my imaginary game worlds. Sometimes I’d just daydream about locations, characters, monsters, traps, and other elements to incorporate in a future adventure. Other times I’d read rules and sourcebooks, getting lost in aspects of the game I’d use at the table. I played a few solo adventures. I used lots of graph paper sketching out maps. I even got around to writing a few basic modules that seem horribly amateurish today. After a few hours I’d break for dinner and the eventual few hours of homework before bed.

Roleplaying games offer many enjoyable experiences beyond simply playing the game (though this remains a core aspect). We read them, wrapping our heads around often complex game procedures and transporting us into the fantastic worlds they describe. We try creating a few characters using those rules and imagine where they might fit in the game setting and what deeds they might undertake there. We find inspiration in gamemaster advice, adventure ideas, and short scenarios demonstrating how rules and game world work together...and inevitably we begin tinkering with everything, adjusting elements to suit our particular play style and sense of setting. Ultimately we start planning our own adventures or mapping out our own corners of the world, sometimes just jotting down a few notes and sketches, other times developing more complete materials on par with published scenarios and sourcebooks. We immerse ourselves in game preparation activities whether or not we actually get the game to the table with others. How many of us have purchased (and continue to purchase) games we’ve read cover-to-cover but never actually played? Yet we find our own satisfaction in them beyond the actual playing of the game.

I rarelyindulge in this degree of immersion these days. I’ve enjoyed diving into a few roleplaying game books in recent years – S. John Ross’ Uresia: Grave of Heaven, Shawn Tomkin’s Ironsworn, and Tales from the Loop come to mind – but on the whole I just don’t have the time or energy (though I’ve been tempted by quite a few). As adults we’re beset by mountains of obligations and responsibilities, often with little of anything left over for us to simply sit back and enjoy (more often we just collapse in weary, exasperated piles of flesh until our batteries are partially recharged).

As I spent considerable mental and emotional reserves coping with the holiday season – along with the other anxieties regularly plaguing my mind – I worked harder to carve out time and creative energy to focus on my fantasy roleplaying game setting. I have a huge file of notes, an outline, partially written paragraphs, a few tables, and some relatively complete sections of text...enough that it sometimes overwhelms me when I sit down and survey it all. To force things into more manageable bits, I’ve created a template for setting elements deserving one or two pages (and possibly more, but I want to force myself to avoid unnecessary bloat). It also helps me to determine, when necessary, if an interesting aspect of one section deserves its own page or two. Here I can focus on developing one focused element of the setting. I immerse myself in the subject at hand. How would a gamemaster describe it to players? How would I as a character interact with it? What must a gamemaster know as background that isn’t immediately apparent on the surface yet affects how things work? I imagine what it’s like to interact with this element on a character level. I have other prompts and techniques I’ve learned and want to use as I imaginatively lose myself in each aspect of the setting.

Of course condensing this to a page or two requires the inevitable trimming, revision, and tightening to make sure the words on the page engage and inspire readers.It’s a different aspect of game design and writing, one I sometimes take on at this stage and sometimes later as the mood strikes me. My initial goal remains to focus on keeping my imagination and interest fired up to develop setting elements by exploring how I might interact with them as gamemaster, character, and, in a sense, day-dreamer.

I’ll see where this leads: how productive it proves, how it engages me, how ideas develop into inspirational material for games, and what kind of immersive relief it gives me from real-world anxieties. Hopefully I’ll soon have a spread or two to show off as a preview...along with a long-overdue post with more teasers about The Mage-Blight Hills setting.

What a glorious gift is imagination, and what satisfaction it affords.”

Thomas Mann

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