Gimbling in the Wabe – Of Role Playing and Story Telling
Recently, an interesting article came up on the Tor/Forge blog, or at least one that was very interesting to me – in fact, it resonated. Written by author and gamer James L. Sutter, it was a post entitled “What Roleplaying Teaches Writers” exploring the ties between participating in a role playing game (known as an “RPG”) and writing fiction.
Why did it resonate with me? It’s how, after a long hiatus, I started writing again.
I won’t go into the gory details of how I got into gaming, or how it helped shape me as a person (although some of you out there who know me will already have an inkling of it, as fellow gamers and role players). I will say that my gaming tended towards a more social platform of “MMORPGs” (Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games), usually nowadays shortened even further to “MMOs”, where one could go a step further than simply (simply!) creating a backstory for your character or inserting a dynamic internal dialog to the missions, quests and interaction of your player character with its surrounding environs.
In an MMORPG you are sharing the game world with many other players, in real time. This allows a person sitting at a computer terminal, typing on a keyboard, to inhabit a different personae in a fantasy environment, to move around in that environment. While virtually all games have an end in sight – winning! – in an MMO, the playing itself can be the strongest draw. If an RPGer is very lucky, the MMO will support more than just “running around in character,” allowing them to expand on the normal kill-the-enemy/beat-the-boss scenario. The best RPG will have, for example, a robust crafting system bolstering an ingame economy that enhances player interaction, a dynamic world that can be explored outside of quest/conquest areas, gathering places (inns, taverns, cantinas, even private housing modules) where players can interact, and an intuitive ingame communication system (both public and private) where characters can socialize on any number of levels.
I’ve had some amazing experiences in games such as these, when I’ve been able to link up with other like-minded role players, where we create our own stories that unfold within the environment that the game has set up for us. But those times were few and far between.
What I found more available, and what really awoke my creative juices, was something called forum role play, where those who wanted to explore story lines set up by a gaming environment without the constraints of actually being in that environment could create written, coherent stories in tandem with other players. Usually within the auspices of a gaming guild’s website, or a fan site with a role playing forum, people could spin fleshed out stories while staying in character: as elves or men or dwarves in Middle-earth (Lord of the Rings Online), as rebels or imperials within the Star Wars universe (Star Wars Galaxies), or as denizens of Azeroth using the lore of the Alliance and the Horde (World of Warcraft), for example.
It was in forum role play that the home bound person I was took flight. Within the environment of Lord of the Rings Online I was able to become Mailea, a cloistered elf who hungered for adventure and ended up as shield maiden for Galadriel at the fall of Dol Guldur; in World of Warcraft I took up the mantle of the Sin’Dorei warlock Tayr, caught up in a case of mistaken identity that through her scheming she hoped to manipulate into power and riches, but got far more than she bargained for. In Star Wars Galaxies, I became Ydat Ykai, the Zabraki scout, the unintentional recipient of a Wookie life debt, who then teamed up with the gruff, wooly bounty hunter; the contracts they hunted often led them to biting off more than they could easily chew.
None of these stories were of my own making, exclusively. There was always at least one other person involved, and most often four or five other players who also inhabited characters and created original content, who crafted posts that moved the action forward as their own imaginations dictated within the framework of an agreed-upon arc. Participants in these story telling “threads” had to be nimble and intuitive. This was community story telling at its finest.
There were certain agreed-upon rules to follow. The lore of whichever game was at the heart of the role play had to be followed. While a strict turn-based mandate was rarely laid down, it was generally considered polite to let each established participant have a chance to post in the thread before changing the course of the story. It was considered bad form to jump into an established story thread without asking permission (which could be done “in character” in the thread or in an OCC – out of character – request). And you never, ever took over someone else’s character simply to achieve your own character’s aims without permission. That was hard, sometimes.
But when it worked, when a group of like-minded folks with strong writing skills, a respect of the game lore and a love of role play came together to create an engaging and fast moving story line within a shared environment, the experience was magical. For me, it changed my life. It proved to me that yes, I could write, and sometimes, write well.
At the risk of seeming egotistical, I leave you with an example of a forum role play I did, many years ago, which grew out of relationships I had made in one game that bled over into another (which is an incredibly fun thing to have happen). But first, a bit of background.
The Aerthyrian Sovereignty is an online gaming community with a strong association with World of Warcraft. For a while, the guild made a foray into Lord of the Rings Online, and this role-playing thread was begun in the guild’s LOTRO forums. The characters of Kael and Aegeus, however, have populated the imagination of AS founder Ben (“DK”) Teague and Seth (“Fizzledark”) Hale through many adventures, in many disparate gaming worlds. I was honored to share a few moments of imagination with them, as the mysterious Mirestal. We have all since moved on, but the story remains.
I hope you enjoy this snippet of a tale set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, where Mirestal, who has been clandestinely tracking the adventurer Kael and the mystic Aegeus (along with their squire, Smithers), first reveals herself.
The rain continued to fall, finding its way even through the branches of the trees, cold and cutting. It quieted the birds and stilled the small creatures in the forest, kept the larger ones in hiding. It saturated the ground and made even careful movement treacherous. It ran in rivulets down her cloak and dripped off the peak of her hood, unheeded.
She barely noticed the rain, save to draw her cloak more closely around herself. Instead, her attention was focused on the three travelers as they descended into the crevasse, down, towards the cave she knew waited at the end of the cleft. Cursing under her breath, she moved silently after them.
Kael took a single step into the cave and let his eyes adjust to the darkness. A quick perusal showed nothing to raise concern – no gnawed bones, no stray materials strewn around, no sizeable cobwebs. No fetid orders assaulted his nostrils, other than the dampness of the cave itself. His skin tingled, but that was due to the damp and the cold and the dark. He heard no growls, no scramblings or scratchings, nothing but the drip of water trickling from the damp walls into a pool set somewhere deep in the cave.
He motioned the others to come forward, and they entered, shaking the water from their hair and their clothes as best they could. Aegeus said nothing, but Smithers’ teeth were chattering from the damp and the cold of the rain.
“Fire is out of the question, I’m afraid,” Kael confirmed, as the others looked about, “There is no fuel here and I’m not about to go out looking for anything that might burn – it’s not like we would find anything anyway. But I suggest we get out of robes and cloaks as far as we can, and let them dry on their own, and let ourselves air out.”
“Good idea,” Aegeus agreed, and he began to wrestle out of his outer cloak, which had become heavy and water-logged. “But…but….” Smithers objected, his teeth still chattering and his body shaking with chill. “Come, lad,” Aegeus encouraged, “you’ll feel warmer once you get these wet things off, and let your skin dry.”
Soon the men were stripped down to breeches and linen shirts, all save for Kael who went bare-chested, as well. They listened to the rain outside for minutes, punctuated only by rumbling thunder and occasional flashes of lightning high overhead. Smithers’ teeth were no longer chattering, and before long he was scratching random designs on the cave floor. Aegeus sighed, and daydreamed. Quickly, discomfort had been replaced by boredom.
Kael got up, dusted his hands on his breeches, and started towards the back of the cave. “What are you doing?” the priest asked, and Smithers looked up questioningly. “Relax,” Kael said, “I’m just going to do some exploring. Check out that pool back there and see if it really is the end of the cave, or if it leads somewhere else.” Carefully he started to pick his way through the darkness.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thunder crashed as Kael spun into a defensive crouch while Aegeus lunged for his staff, and time paused as the ground shook and all held frozen. The newcomer, however, stood at ease, even though her hand rested gently on the hilt of her sword. She took no further step forward.
Kael regained his composure first. “And why do you give such counsel, stranger?” At his words, everyone relaxed a little, but Aegeus was the only one to let his weapon dip.
“First things, first,” she said, and made to unsling her pack from her back. Kael tensed again, but she spoke with a wry chuckle. “Relax,” she said, and held up what looked to be a clod of earth.
“What’s that?” Smithers asked, somewhat suspiciously.
“Aurochs dung,” she said matter of factly, and knelt down, flint appearing between nimble fingers. In moments she had produced a flame, and the cave flickered into life as she held up the makeshift torch. She caught Smithers’ incredulous eye. “Always keep a few lumps of aurochs dung in the bottom of your pack,” she said conspiratorially, “They are neat, compact, and burn slowly and cleanly. If you pick them up when they are dry, they don’t even smell.”
It was true. As she held the makeshift torch aloft, they were able to get a better look at their surroundings, and at her. As if in answer to an unvoiced question, she pushed back her hood until it fell to her shoulders, exposing a face delicate in appearance, with graceful, upswept eyebrows and ears that peaked through dark hair pulled back in a single plait. Her eyes, however, were serious, and held countless years and experiences in their depths.
“You’re….. you’re an elf!” Smithers blurted out in the innocence of youth.
She smiled then, and handed the boy the torch. “Now I see why they have brought you along,” she said in voice that held a touch of sarcasm, and yet was not unkind, “to make sure that no one misses the obvious.” She undid the silver clasp at her neck – an intricate knot of metalwork surrounding the initials AS – and removed the cloak from her shoulders. Stepping back to the mouth of the cave, she gave the cape a sharp shake, and then laid it carefully over some outcroppings near where the garments of the men were drying. She was dressed in unadorned woodsman style, breeches tucked into high boots (each with a internal bootstrap knife, Kael noticed) and white linen shirt, a brushed leather laced vest. None were wet save her boots. At her hip was sheathed a nimble sword, and Kael was willing to wager that there were more weapons concealed elsewhere. She was somewhat short for an elf – something that must help her disguise herself while in the company of men – but she was lithe and graceful, as was the norm for her kind, although she moved without beguilement or pretense, as though long unaware of her affect.
“So tell me, then,” said Kael, in an attempt to reassert himself, “what brings you here, and why do you caution me about this cave?”
She moved to Smithers, and took the torch from him. “This is no mere cave,” she said, in a hushed tone, and holding the torch aloft, made her slow way to the back of the cavern. “Have you not heard of the Pool of Absolution?”
Kael looked over to Aegeus, who in turn looked at the elf maiden with hooded eyes. “The Pool of Absolution?” he questioned. “Isn’t that the legend of a magical pool, whose water, once drunk, will free you from whatever guilt may burden your soul?”
“Yes,” she said simply, as she continued to make her careful way to the back of the cave. The shadows retreated before the smoldering torch.
“Let me guess,” Kael said dryly as the paused at the edge of the pool, “there’s more to it than that.”
She glanced at him askance, then turned back to the pool. “Many years ago, a young maid fell in love with a soldier. He was a good man, but beneath her rank, and although their love was true, the family forbade the marriage. So the couple, as young couples will do, made plans to leave together – he to desert his ranks and she to vanish from her family. When her brother, who loved her almost too much, found out about the plot, he rode to the barracks where the soldier was staying, and called him out. Heated words turned to threats and then to heated actions. Each man believed that he was fighting for the greater honor and they struck out at each other in hot-headed passion. In the end, the soldier lay dead at the feet of his beloved’s brother, who, once he was purged of the blood lust of battle, was beset with regret and with sorrow for what he had done.
“When his sister found out about the death of her beloved, she slew herself. With her dying words she cursed her brother to forever live with the burden of the slaying of true love. The brother, bereft, wandered the countryside, wild and disheveled, crying out to the gods to take his misery from him, to release him from his burden.”
“Why did he not kill himself, then?” Smithers interrupted.
“Ah, indeed, why did he not?” the maiden replied. “Perhaps he tried, but could not complete the deed. Perhaps part of him knew that he was not completely to blame for the death of his sister and her beloved, and that knowledge stayed his hand.”
“Unwarranted death for any cause is not the will of the light,” Aegeus added softly. “This is part of why we are born with such a strong will to live.”
The elf maiden looked hard at the old priest before continuing. “Finally the brother’s pleas made their way to the Moriquendi, where Nienna took pity on his sorrow and suffering. She bade her sister Este to help persuade Ulmo, keeper of the waters, to crafts a pool of forgetfulness. Ulmo relented, but warned that the folly of men must not be rewarded, and charged Nienna to enchant the pool so that its release was not without cost.”
She paused and let their gaze move from her face to the placid waters on the pool, disturbed by only the small ripples caused by droplets from the damp of the cave walls falling on its serene surface. The water was clear, and clean, inviting. Kael moved towards it, but the Elven maiden’s hand whipped out and held him back.
“Do not touch it, son of Gondor,” she cautioned. “One drop and yes, your burdens will be lifted, but so will your joys and loves.”
“I do not need your caution, lady,” Kael responded, “I fear not the judgment of the gods.”
“Bravely said, indeed,” she countered, “but meaningless.” Her eyes locked with Kael’s and neither looked away. “One sip from the waters of the Pool of Absolution, and yes, all your burdens will be released, for your heart and your mind will no longer carry the memory of deeds done that cannot be undone, hurts meted out callously, or that which we hold as our bitterest disappointments.” She held the challenge in his eyes and did not let it drop.
“But so also,” she said slowly, “will you forget the love that you shared with those in your life, as well as your accomplishments, your joys, and the wisps of the past that you carry with you for comfort. The pool does not play favorites. It takes away all.”
“Whoa…..” Smithers let out a long breath of amazement, and even Aegeus shifted in discomfort. Kael glanced over at them, and when he brought his eyes back to the Elven maiden, she was no longer looking at him, but gazing again at the water before them all.
“When the brother drank of these waters, he forgot the hurt he had done to his family, and to his king, but he also forgot his family and his king. He lived, but as an empty vessel, broken and useless. All knowledge of the past was gone, and none of the present could return him to his life of consequence. He ended up as a simpleton, cleaning out stables, needing to be reminded to wash himself, and even at times to eat. He died from being kicked by a horse when he forgot to not approach from behind.”
She shook her head in genuine pity. “It is best that we solve our own problems and seek a way to live with our own sorrows, rather than relying on the pity of the gods.” Then rousing herself, she turned and headed back to the mouth of the cave. “There is water plenty coming from the sky, and I have some sustenance that I carry with me. You are welcome to share a repast with me while we wait for the rains to cease. Then you must be on your way.”
“Why do you say that?” Kael questioned. “What do you know of us?”
She did not look up from rummaging in her pack as she replied, “I know you are followed, and that those who follow you bear you no welcome. I know you have killed, and most likely will kill again, if pressed. I also know that you flee something far greater than what is held in your reckoning.”
The men looked at each other with veiled alarm. Who was this mysterious person who seemed to know so much about them, and yet was completely unknown to them? Kael took two steps to the elven woman, and taking her by the arm, hauled her to her feet. But before he could react further, there was a glittering knife at his throat.
She spoke softly so only he could make out her words. “Move against me at your own risk, human. I have no love of my task and could just as easily break my vow on the tiniest of excuses.” Her dark eyes were leveled straight at him, yet they held no malice or challenge. He released her and took one step back, but stood there obstinate and unmoving.
“Just who are you, and why are you here?”
She sheathed her knife and looked around at each of the three in turn. “My name is Mirestal, and I am of the Aerthyrian Sovereignty. I have been sent here to help you and to keep you safe against those who would move against you.”
“But who sent you?” Kael pressed.
“A friend,” she replied, and would say no more.