Recently, I have returned to playing tabletop RPGs with great enthusiasm – the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is a quite excellent game that improves upon the previous editions. In many ways, I enjoy running a game more than actually playing in one; being the DM/GM permits me to create societies and scenarios for other people to run up against, exercising greater planned creativity than improvised actions in response to someone else’s scenario within a ruleset (for this reason, collaborative games like Fiasco and Ribbon Drive are much more fun to play for me).
As part of my running games, I enjoy creating imagined worlds and traditions. Recently, I have been reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and its first-hand view of a period of history – much like the Letters of Pliny – has proved invaluable in helping me make worlds that feel alive and credible, while my love of fantasy fiction (particularly those pseudo-historical works of Guy Gavriel Kay) is rich inspiration for the fantastical.
Thus, I wrote this, as some idea possibly for a game I may run in the future – an excerpt, perhaps, from a fantastical Pillow Book or diary in its tone. It describes someone reflecting on the last minutes of preparation for some religious festival – the details of the culture or festival did not seem important when I wrote it, those details could be filled in if I returned to the setting.
In a past article about Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series I talked about how a key part of the setting and overall mood is a result of the sense of inevitability and inescapability that is created. Routine becomes destructive and insular, and as a result any kind of change – even change from a traditionally “evil” source – is welcome to the reader. This ties in to what I see as an interesting possibility for historical or pseudohistorical fiction – an exploration of evil. The concept of the empirical novel, central to science-fiction in its consideration of the effects of a setting on its inhabitants, becomes interestingly mutated when the settings and attitudes being explored are real ones or close to real ones.
It’s been a while since I wrote an article in this series and it’s because I wanted to write something positive. However I have until very recently been unable to find any genre fiction that didn’t fill me with a crushing sense of disappointment; I went from the underwhelming books of Joe Abercrombie to the unremarkable but at least interesting in terms of setting Nylon Angel by Marianne de Pierres, and from there tried the Malazan series. The latter showed the most promise but fell too far into the traps of other fantasy in that its setting was so reliant on explanations of things, exposition (some of which was only made really clear in glossaries and appendices) and chunks of verse that weren’t naturalistically slotted into the writing to be truly enjoyable. Once you got over the terminology and the central conceit (that humans resented, rather than welcomed, the interference of the pantheon in their affairs), what was left was a very ordinary fantasy setting to my mind.