dungeons and dragons

Deep Master, Deep Issues: Reflections on Four Years of Dungeon Mastery

Last weekend, I finally managed to bring my D&D campaign to a close.  I started conceptualizing the story that became this campaign close to ten years ago, in a different city, with different ambitions.  It was part of my first serious attempt to be a Dungeon Master, after two previous games that devolved into high-powered absurdity.  It evolved hand-in-hand with the expansion of my campaign setting, a homemade version of the detailed worlds published for reference and inspiration.  The end of this long-running game gives me a lot to think about, including what to do with all this extra free time.  Somehow, I think I’ll find something.

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A World Gone Comfortably Mad

Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons with me knows that my favorite themes and monsters always tie back to the aberrant.  The D&D category of “aberrations” is where the particularly bizarre composite creatures, the monsters with mind-control powers, and monsters that manipulate the forms of others tend to be.  Here reside the giant paralytic tentacle-caterpillars, formless multiple-minded masses with the ability to attack through moveable portals, and mounds of flesh that constantly shriek alien curses from their thousands of mouths.  It is difficult to beat their thematic potential and stage presence, even with such iconic creatures as manticores and sphinxes.  Fantasy adventurers who encounter an aberration don’t get to dismiss it as “we fought a dragon”—they always require a description.

In recent years, these strange creatures became not just strange for its own sake, which is good enough, but strange in a cosmic sense.  Recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as dozens of other fantasy properties, draw on the fictional universes created by H. P. Lovecraft to provide background for their aberrations.  Once upon a time, many of these aberrant creatures simply were, but now, most of them are implicitly or explicitly tied to a distant dimension whose laws bear no resemblance to those of the rest of the cosmos; owe fealty to alien masters that wish to unmake the universe; break the minds of those who attempt to understand them; or otherwise unsubtly nod to the antics of Lovecraft’s creations.

Lovecraft’s fiction first appealed to me as an atheist.  Lovecraft had no fondness for religion, and few of the religious characters and themes in his fiction say anything good about any variety of it.  Deeper than that, though, the central conceit of Lovecraft’s world is that the underlying nature of reality is far beyond humankind.  Lovecraft’s world is not for us.  Earth is a blip in a teeming cosmos; life on earth is the youthful dalliance of an insignificant planet.  A full description of Lovecraft’s universe begins eons before the emergence of humankind and proceeds for millions of years after the last human is forgotten.   Humans are a footnote, tiny against the cosmic impact of creatures such as the Elder Things and the Great Race of Yith, and still smaller against the power of beings like Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Hastur, and Azathoth.  These beings command forces utterly beyond the physics known to Lovecraft’s humans, reshaping life into new servile forms and manipulating hidden dimensions of space.  To all of these creatures, humanity is a diversion at best, and a distraction at worst; our irrelevance to them is as the irrelevance of seaside huts to a tsunami, or, sometimes, as deer to a hunter.  Learning that the commanding forces of the cosmos have no affection or regard for humanity and would no more consider us in their actions or goals as an earthquake does is the final straw that undoes the sanity of numerous Lovecraft protagonists, the truth that fills his stories with their supposed horror.

I always found the thought…comforting.

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