wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: June, 2015

If I ran D&D…

If I ran the RPG department at Wizards of the Cost — the company that produces D&D and Magic: The Gathering, purchased a few years ago by Hasbro — I’d start with three changes:

More modules and settings. D&D’s forty years old. When people share experiences of the game, they tend to involve the starter adventures (especially B2 Keep on the Borderlands and the terrible 4e adventure Keep on the Shadowfell), or else later classic modules (Ravenloft, Tomb of Horrors). What did these modules have in common? They were cheap and plentiful and they did what they wanted within a pretty expansive envelope of content and quality.

D&D 5e came out last year. Since then, in addition to the three (excellent) corebooks, a terrible DM screen, and the Starter Set, WotC has farmed out production of three full-colour hardcover ‘supermodules’ comprising two campaigns, both meant to take players from level 3 to level 15 or so.

Presumably this makes good financial sense. It makes no creative sense at all.

Under WotC’s stewardship, D&D has put out fewer, longer modules. One possible reason is that they’re not that good at it: they can’t commit to serious Narrative play, and aren’t imaginatively free enough to make superb location-based adventures. One of the best-loved 3e modules, Red Hand of Doom, is (at best) an unusually refined vanilla D&D adventure. Almost nothing written for 4e generated any sensawunda at all, and only a few snatches of the 5e Monster Manual have done so.

But if WotC wanted to alter the way two generations of kids understand the fantastic, just like TSR did, they’d be taking risks — and the ideal place for risk-taking, if you’re D&D’s publisher, is modules and settings.

If I were boss, I’d announce a line of experimental adventures and a series of compact settings from the most interesting writers in the RPG hobby. Yoon-Suin, Deep Carbon Observatory, Death Frost Doom…the OSR (which is really about DIY creativity, not old-fashioned gaming) has produced some amazing stuff, never mind the ‘indie’ community. WotC reaches the biggest audience in RPGs by a large margin. They have money to spend than any other RPG company. They should be at the cutting edge of RPG design, not the middle of the pack.

Shit, why not sell something like Pelgrane’s Blood on the Snow, full of short settings and campaign frames, and invite actually interesting designers and writers to do the work? Why isn’t Ken Hite writing for WotC?!

If Paizo can take (small) risks, WotC certainly can. They won’t dilute the brand; anyone who thinks so is a coward or an idiot.

Market the vast TSR D&D archive as content for 5e. This is a no-brainer. Right now the dndclassics.com site sells lots of old-school D&D products to guys in their 30s and 40s. They should be selling to teenagers. dndclassics.com should absolutely be part of contemporary D&D culture (since gaming culture is hopelessly indebted to D&D). If only WotC weren’t treating those PDF-only releases as afterthoughts…

The best of the old stuff would radicalize 5e. (Can you imagine a reissued Encyclopedia Magica with, say, 32 pages of discussion about the role of magic items in a home campaign? Only that can never happen, because we’ve already had the premium reprint of the much less interesting 3.5 Magic Item Compendium…) I’d rather that they make new stuff, obviously, but failing that, they should be advertising the old modules as new 5e content and putting out expansive guides to repurposing existing material for your home campaign.

Failing to capitalize on dndclassics.com, not as a nostalgic flea market but as a supply of new 5e material, is world-class incompetence on WotC/Hasbro’s part.

Take chances on interesting, ‘unsafe’ art. 5e looks clean and professional and utterly boring — visually indistinguishable from all the other vanilla fantasy crap out there. Hire a risk-taking artistic director and fill the WotC art stable with artists who matter. Is John Blanche available? Tony DiTerlizzi? Bill Willingham? Frank Quitely? Why hasn’t WotC asked? They have the money, they have the pull. Jesus, why haven’t they asked Zak Smith to illustrate a module? (He says they can’t afford his paintings — OK, commission ink drawings instead.)

WotC should be putting out exciting, beautiful products, and worrying a hell of a lot less about whether the work is ‘safe.’ I’ve paid serious money for secondhand Warhammer books solely because of the fantastic art. I’m not alone in this.

D&D’s value isn’t in its rules, it’s in its power to intrigue, excite, inspire, and haunt its players. WotC has sacrificed that power. It’s shortsighted.


Terry Pratchett, PYRAMIDS.

Picked it up on the spur of the moment at lunch yesterday, finished during lunch today. The opening is a boys’-own-adventure sequence that reads like Harry Potter Done Right(er), and the first half of the book stands with the best of Pratchett that I’ve read — you can tell Pratchett was enjoying the change of scenery.

But the apocalyptic finale feels an awful lot like the last 100ish pages of nearly every Pratchett novel I’ve read: basically the end of Return of the Jedi played for marvelous comedy. I loved it, like any sane person, but I’m reminded that, as with Wodehouse, once Pratchett’s plotwheels are in motion it’s all about comic energy and character. (This isn’t true of Reaper Man, in which the climax of the Death storyline is its most memorable part. Though on the other hand, I couldn’t tell you even now how the Windle Poons story ends…)

Thus far, most of the Discworld books I’ve read (this is the sixth in the last few months, the ninth(!) overall) have been perfectly formed. Unlike the Pythonesque Hitchhiker’s Guide books, which end with odd anticlimaxes, Pratchett’s novels never fail to do the reqwyrt, narratologically speaking. They’re structured like proper pulp stories. But I see what other readers warned me about: it’s important to break up your Discworld reading with other books, or the rhythms can start to seem too familiar.

Still, I got what I always get from Pratchett’s writing: a clever bit of plot, a bunch of belly laughs, characters I found myself falling in love with, and unexpected tears (which at this point aren’t so unexpected). As always, I’m so grateful for these books.

Tables and chairs.

I’ve only just realized, what, seven years later? that there isn’t a desk in my bedroom anymore.

It’s like life is a thing that happens all by itself.

When I ‘lived alone’ — in group houses, usually with a girlfriend, because I’m not strong that way — I preferred a small room with a desk right near the bed. I’d wake up pleasantly late if I had the option, roll/slide/ooze from the bed to the desk chair, and get writing or emailing or just soulkilling-via-Internet.

For a long time my desk was a giant wooden door purchased for a couple of books at Home Depot, perched atop a couple of filing cabinets. Every square inch of it was covered in papers, used rice bowls, clean/dirty clothes…

A girlfriend and I broke up and I kept her smaller but genotypically desk-y desk, which had a ‘hutch,’ which I lost along the way. She kept the Madeleine L’Engle books. And the Great Wheel goes ’round.

When my now-wife and I moved in together, Just the Two of Us — this was, what, seven years ago? — I inherited the ex’s desk, not yet hutchless, and trashed the door-top. The desk ended up in our study. We had a study! Every square inch of wall was shelves. We couldn’t quarantine our books that way anymore, but it made sense then; downstairs was for TV and dinner and guests. (We had guests!)

Now we have a son, nearly five years old, and at some point we replaced the dour black desk with a tiny little brown desk from Target, specifically chosen by an organization consultant (her visit was a gift from an extremely thoughtful in-law) to fit in the tiny space between two shelves.

And we have a third floor, but no study as such. We keep the desk there, and sleep in a room that’s perhaps twice as big as the bed, which our son visits every morning on his way to his daily Alexandrian training in ruling the world justly but sternly by wit and (if need be) force of arms.

In the morning I wake up — often first of the three of us, and my wife’s almost always last, since her eerie metabolism wants nine hours of sleep if possible, though it’s never possible — and try to sneak quietly downstairs to…well, to do this.

There’s a rotating list of perhaps ten websites I peek in on in the mornings, several of which really are ‘hate-reads’: sites which give me pleasure proportional to the contempt or (somewhat healthier) dislike or disrespect I feel for the people who post there. The New York Times falls into this category at times, as did the Klein/Yglesias blogs back when those guys mattered. Nerd/fan blogs and forums, especially forum.rpg.net, belong here. (I always wondered, when I was a kid, why tabletop RPGs were treated as if radioactive. Thirty minutes reading the D&D forum at rpg.net will clear up any confusion on that point.)

I used to check whedonesque.com and a host of screenwriter blogs daily — more than that — and now I wish I’d just spent that time writing. Over the last few years I’ve written a handful of books but I could’ve written a few more if I’d just refrained from writing, say, 10,000-word forum posts about whether the end of Angel was a cliffhanger. (Non-newsflash: it wasn’t.)

There’s a copy of Munchkin Treasure Hunt on the table next to me, which hopefully we’ll play today. It’s good fun. I’ve just eaten a fruit bar. I won’t even set foot on the third floor today, except to do laundry (it’s Sunday after all). There are Legos all over the floor and I see in my email that someone has posted to Quora a detailed explanation of how Petyr Baelish is responsible for the downfall of the Starks. I bought some graph paper and my son and I have been mapping Thunderdelve Mountain in our copious free time. And the Great Wheel goes ’round.

What this thing is, if/when it is indeed a thing.

I’m tempted to post, say, reviews of D&D modules here, starting with the giant 5th edition campaign Princes of the Apocalypse, about which (on reading, not playing) I have the usual mixed feelings and strong baseless opinions. Plus there would be pictures of dragons, or even dungeons.

But I don’t yet know what kind of site this is. It took me a few years to figure out with waxbanks.typepad.com. Hopefully this won’t take that long.

Cognitive music.

In Denver the other day, Zac and I were talking about ‘cognitive music,’ an idea that’s stayed with me ever since I encountered it Harold Bloom’s giant book on Shakespeare. Bloom uses it to mean the pleasure that audiences take from the unique contours of a fictional (or, presumably, real) mind — specifically Hamlet’s. Bloom insists that Hamlet is smarter than any human can possibly be: impossibly quick-witted, terrifyingly insightful, genuinely engaging with cosmic questions while negotiating intrigues of heart and court. Whatever other pleasures the play offers, the chief attraction of Hamlet is Hamlet, specifically his modes of thought. We sit through four hours of variations on the question ‘To be or not to be?’ for the same reason we listen to B.B. King going up the blues scale and back down: the music the mind makes in motion. (Or the ‘heart,’ though that’s a complicated metaphor for another day.)

David Mamet sez we go to the theatre to bear witness to acts of will, of courage — and that the purpose of art is only delight.

On top of being a beautiful turn of phrase that reminds us that Harold Bloom used to rap about bop and modernist poetry with Bud Powell, ‘cognitive music’ throws light on the appeal of ‘boring “literary” novels about self-loathing academics in which nothing actually happens,’ i.e., High Literary Fiction. If you see the great triumph of Hamlet as the creation of a vast cognitive machine, or I guess simulation, then you can probably guess why a book like Franzen’s The Corrections would ship with both the masterful domestic chapters about the old midwestern couple and their children (good!) and the sub-Pynchon horseshit that passes for Franzen’s ‘comic’ material (bad!). The way of conceptualizing (the state of a relationship, or an industry, or a nation) is the appeal.

Digression: The difference between Franzen and, say, DFW or Pynchon in this regard is that the latter two are/were vastly smarter and, at least in Pynchon’s case, vastly better-adjusted than Franzen — plus much, much funnier. Pynchon’s characters run around inside his books, rather than painstakingly posing. They’re alive because he so very much is. In the fiction I’ve read, DFW sometimes seemed to be obsessively describing each movement of his action figures rather than just playing with them; the solution to this problem, of course, is to play with something more complex than an action figure, or to get over yourself; and for some people the latter is impossible. Digression over.

The reason Ulysses matters is that it depicts real human emotions in obsessive detail, partaking of codes/modes of representation that engage you in a startling variety of ways all at once — not for nothing are Joyce’s two big novels called ‘symphonic.’ Every register, every timbre, tempo, rhythm, language of harmony, melodic contour…unlike the claustrophobic Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses seems to’ve been written (for the most part) unself-consciously, Finnegans Wake even moreso. (The Wake might be the most selfless piece of art we’ve got.) Joyce’s big books proceed according to logics that don’t feel stagey or manipulative. To me, anyway. I love his writing because I love the voices he thinks in. I don’t mind that, in conventional plot terms, little happens in Ulysses (which I read with life-changing joy in college) and nothing at all in the Wake (which I regularly read parts of with day-changing joy), because a novel isn’t a recounting of events but a machine for generating states of mind.

The most effective way to wreck people’s hearts with words just happens to be representation of comprehensible human action. Stories, in other words. But that needn’t be essential to us to be the best-yet strategy for mind alteration. The only standard for whether a book works is whether/how it works on you.

Art is machinery for psychotropism-at-a-distance.

Pointer to a post not yet written

The pleasure of music is music.

The pleasure of improvisation is cognitive music.

Why (not) me

Where does a writer’s authority come from? Where does my authority come from? (Susan Sontag)

From having written, presumably. I’ve read less than I might’ve, and watched more TV — though more and less than most, respectively — but I sit down to turn what I’ve seen into something new, for you (everything you’ve read of mine was for you) to see without seeing.

‘Where does my authority come from?’ doesn’t interest me. It doesn’t even occur to me to ask. Lucky me. You read and like, or don’t, or love or hate or don’t, I dunno. Or even click away. There are listicles; there are image galleries, largely counterfeit or stolen. There’re the great works of thousands of years. All I can do is write a thing and hope you like it.

I don’t even need to write ‘as well as I can,’ though I imagine you can tell when I do so. Not now, for instance. Tossing this off. Outboard thought is the thing, I think. Maybe authority comes from generating a mode of thought (thought is contagious) partly through writing, hanging out in bars or nerd stores, actually sitting and thinking, riding a bike, taking care of people, wondering about the climate, buying a computer once every few years, knowing how to build cool things with Legos, disliking certain kinds of music, dismissing Lindsey Graham as a bit of a moron, losing a bit of weight. Obesity and dreams are contagious, I hear. Though not equally so, over the Internet at least.

This could’ve been worse. I’m not sure how, but I’m sure of it.