Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Sunburns and Shoals, Making Nature Matter in D&D

I am currently enjoying a vacation with my sons by the seaside, and have allowed myself long lazy days on the beach away from technology. For entertainment, I've been re-reading some of the Fighting Fantasy books I loved as a child. I have been playing games with friends online and been refueling my imagination.

One thing that has been on my mind, as I have been staring out at the ocean is how to get both the Earthly and the Sublime into my TTRPGs. 

The Earthly

The Earthly has been on my mind because I have been enjoying things like picking wild fruit, eating from farmer's markets, and watching my kids as they collect shells and gems off the beach. Life, lived away from the computer in a small town moves with the rhythms of the world around them. I plan my days based on the tide, my meals based on the catch. I even plan my art breaks and filming based on the light.

My boys go to bed at sunset and wake with the sunrise.

In the grind of working and living plugged in and in a city, you get disconnected from the awareness of life and its patterns around you. It deprives you of a sense of well-being, and of calm and patience.

Characters in a fantasy world where humans live off the Earth and have to work with nature's rhythms should reflect it, not just in prose, but in how NPCs act. How monsters behave. I am often not aware of what season it is in D&D, let alone where the tide is at, or where the sun is in the sky. Nor are the characters around my PCs. 

I would love to find ways of making the NPCs of tiny, lonely country towns feel like people in the tiny seaside community I am calling home right now. I think I need to write an adventure about sea caves and the tides, something  a bit like Michael Prescott's The Mouth of Spring.

The Sublime

The Divine Immanent in Nature is something I have been experiencing a lot lately. That sense you get when you are looking at the natural world and see how absolutely amazing, complex, and beautiful life is. How it seems like a gift to you from a higher power.

I am staying on a river with dozens of eagles, herons, cormorants and ospreys living along it, it is hard not to watch these incredible birds in a clear sky, or see the Milky Way painted purple across a clear, sky with no human light to mute the stars and not feel like God is talking to you.

There have been moments every day, no matter what kind of day I am having, that took my breath away and reminded me how small and temporary my problems are.

This feeling is central to how Paganism understood their gods and Giants. How do you capture that in a game like Dungeons & Dragons where deities are often just very complicated NPCs or nothing more than the brand name of your Cleric's battery?

I think this is why I love the game Overlight with its spirit points in theory, even though the game has a strange, klunky engine. A character who stops to enjoy natural wonders where they find them is given fuel for their divine power. If I could find a way to take that and put it in D&D that made sense, I think it would be worth my time.

Why Care?

Dungeons & Dragons is a product of modern culture and sensibilities. It does not do a good job of creating a Medievalesque or Pagan world, because the characters in it exist only to provide backdrop for the PCs unless interacted with. They are in a quantum state, having no needs or interests until attention is directed upon them, and the same is true of the Elements: weather only exists when the PCs, GM, or dice say it is important. Despite the fact that NPCs are theoretically agrarian, pantheistic, pagan, and poor, they come off more like white-collar urbanites, because that is the sensibility we bring into the game.  

NPCs and how they live in rhythm with their environment is a non-issue until players tune into it, even though the world would be richer if such things were there a priori to in-game attention. Our worlds are poorer for its lack of tides and breathtaking scenery, and peoples who live by one and build their faith around the other.

At the end of the day if we were to ask ourselves:

  • What inspires the NPCs of this region? 
  • How do they use the wind, water, and animals around them?
  • How does the weather, light, tides, and animal cycles determine how they pace themselves?
  • What natural things are so important to them it appears in their art and religion?
  • What local dishes can you expect in their homes?

We could create towns that seem incredibly alive and removed from our modern age and technology. 

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