End of August Update

(Yes, I know it’s September now. Shush.)

The last month’s been interesting. My gut reaction is to say “No, it hasn’t been fruitful” but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Jiharel sat on the backburner through August, although it’s still bouncing around in my mind, with a lot of the same challenges and wonderings as I discussed last month.

For the most part, I’ve been working on a rules document for the RuneQuest tabletop game. It’s one I play pretty much every weekend with my friends, and while we play a lot we don’t actually have a written, comprehensive rules document for how one of the game’s magic systems work. We’re using sorcery rules picked and taken anywhere from the 1984 release of RuneQuest by Avalon Hill, to a major unofficial publication online called “Western Sorcery” by Sandy Petersen (who worked on various previous official editions of RuneQuest, and designed the original editions of the tabletop game Call of Cthuhlu) from the 90’s, to other Petersen work not intended for the world RuneQuest is played in, Glorantha–but rather taken from a world called Tekumel that I still know basically nothing about–and even oral rules we’ve come up with at the table as a “good enough” and never written down. It’s kind of a pain in the ass.

(Like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Glorantha and Tekumel are both “secondary worlds,” with unique histories, cultures, and mythologies reflecting Earth.)

So far, I’m at just under 35,000 words on this thing. It’s big, way bigger than I expected. It’s also the first project which vaguely comes under “writing” that I’ve been really deeply sucked into in a long time. Emotionally, it’s satisfying watching this grow, and handing a new section of the first draft rules out to my friends each Friday. Of course, the whole thing isn’t only rules. I’ve been taking rules from the documents noted above and adding interpretation, making up lore–explanations of what’s going on “in world,” not just mechanically with game numbers–adding a few things, taking a few things out, tweaking what doesn’t make sense to me, yadda yadda yadda. My end vision is something I can drop on the table and say “There! Now we don’t have to argue about what this means anymore.”

Of course this is a lot of fun for me, and a project I’m enjoying working on for hours, and those are good and valid things which will hopefully leave my mind more rejuvenated when I return to mucking about with Jiharel and other Akhelas content. But at the same time, this does feel a little unproductive, because it isn’t work which I’ll be able to turn into career-type stuff. It is not my content on many, many levels (and I’m not trying to represent that I’m really bringing something innovative into it), and while there’s a fan community for RuneQuest which will hopefully enjoy this, I doubt the rules my friends and I agree upon will be a good mix with the recently released new edition, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

(Brief thoughts on RQG: I like it, but it has flaws. If you like tabletop RPGs but have only played games based on d20 like Pathfinder or D&D 5E, I recommend checking RQG out. I personally love how closely it meshes the game rules, character creation, and the setting together. The issues have a lot to do with balance when the numbers are looked at more closely, but I personally don’t think the problems are of a type which will hamper new players overmuch.)

So it’s a fun project, but doesn’t really add to long-term goals for me. I’m going to keep working on it, at least until we’ve got a finished first draft to work from. An upside to this is that it is a good way to practice seeing and feeling what writing for game design looks like. Game design is an aspect of writing that I find interesting, but which it’s incredibly unlikely I’ll stumble across coursework for in my MFA. I tend to think that in terms of world-building, approaching the project from a design perspective gives a great deal of good thought and opportunity because you need to build the world as a sandbox, prepared for someone else. The illusion of reality which most texts build (Tolkien calls this having the “inner consistency of reality” in “On Fairy-Stories”) needs to be another level of developed for a game, because when done right, someone playing a game in this way imaginatively enters the game in an active way, rather than the sort-of passive way which occurs while reading. (Not that this “passivity” at all means unengaged!)

I’ve been reading random things recently, and even tried writing up an actual reading list, which may or may not end up being followed. It’s tacked to the wall, in any case, and I’ll have to see what happens.

I’m still at the top of The List, reading Campell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s a work of comparative mythology, maybe the seminal work (I’m not sure) in the modern field. So far, I’ve found it an enjoyable, slightly dense read. Campbell frequently alludes to, retells, quotes from, or summarizes myths from all over the world, which I have personally found delightful. Since my work with Akhelas dabbles in inventing a mythology (something I’m currently calling the Lightswar Cycle is at the heart of it, although I only have the barest of sketches) in addition to the “historic” portions, it’s useful for me to read more broadly in this way, and especially in the context of a scholar reflecting on how the different stories share elements with one another.

What I find most charming about the book, though, is Campbell’s enthusiasm. He seems to genuinely, seriously enjoy reading and retelling the many stories he includes. Campbell isn’t just writing as an academic analyzing; he’s also trying to play the role of tale-teller. I think that’s why The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been regarded by many as a classic of the 20th century.

Now, because of the academic elements he doesn’t quite succeed as tale-teller. He blends the two well, but I think that blending mostly works for an audience open to both academia and enchantment. The discussions of symbolism and psychology (drawing deeply on Freud and Jung) grow detailed enough to be a real distraction from the tales, and conversely the tales are told in just enough loving detail to distract too far from the argument. I’m personally in a place where I can read and enjoy the work, but I imagine that readers either approaching it strictly academically, or approaching it as a collection of hero-tales, would each be frustrated by the combination. You’ve got to want at least a little of both.

I’m finding Campbell’s book a bit useful for thinking about Jiharel in particular, too. One of the issues I’m struggling with is where to start the story, and how to get readers caring if I choose to start it late, where the moments are that I really care about. One of these huge moments, which has been in my head for some years, is intentionally supposed to feel mythic, and really was drawing on some knowledge of the Journey Campbell discusses before I’d read his actual work.

Efraim’s sister Lenor is kidnapped, and taken across the great Garadrum mountains. In my current draft, this happens some chapters in, after exploring why she’s kidnapped, a bit of the setting, and placing out the events of warring nations. Efraim and Alayn (his best friend, and Lenor’s lover) chase after, into the Pass of Night, a narrow canyon which leads down through the mountains. It is guarded by Melanchthon the Great, the most ancient dragon living, who fled the Lightswar and has lurked beneath the mountains ever since. Smoke billows from his mouth and covers the narrow crack of sky above, and Melanchthon and Efraim do battle (maybe several rounds, retreats and assaults, etc). Once they win through, Efraim and Alayn find themselves in a strange land, of which they’ve heard only rumors. They walk out of the mountains into a forest of pale trees, which bear dark green leaves in spearhead shape, and continue the pursuit…

Reading Campbell, this episode (in parts intentionally, in parts by happy accident) is incredibly similar to the passage into the Underworld (Christ dying on the Cross, Gandalf falling in Moria, Harry entering King’s Cross in The Deathly Hallows), which I think was on purpose when I devised the episode. One of the ways I’m trying to reflect on the plot is the mythic narrative Campbell talks about, which includes some Elixir either stolen to the Underworld, or to be retrieved from it. Now, one of my goals in elaborating beyond this episode and Journey pattern was to make Lenor more than just “the thing to rescue,” but (perhaps disturbingly) thinking of her that way, fitting into a form of the Journey pattern more closely, is something I’m finding fruitful. The honest form of this story is the “mythic” version, not really the “historical” one, and the mythic one best starts at or near this moment, this Descent. Still things being thought over.

Hrm. Maybe I’ll try writing up a short-form version of the story, focusing on it as a Journey story. That could be interesting.

In the past month (before I made The List) I also read the novel Circe by Madeline Miller. I think I’d like to write a real review on it–I’m in a spot where I hopefully can notice enough interesting things to say something interesting in turn–but knowing me, and knowing my habits, that’s not probable. So a few comments here are wise.

Her classical study shines through in many places. I recall vividly a moment where she alludes to one of Sappho’s poems in just a brief phrase, such that I like to imagine it was to amuse her, not to be “literary” or “clever,” and that I caught it nearly by accident. She also generally has a good feel for how the classical Greeks felt about the gods throughout the piece, even though it’s narrated by one of those gods herself. (In Miller’s novel, Circe is a daughter of Helios, the titan who drives the Sun; I cannot recall if it’s the same in The Odyssey.) 

The plot is episodic, but not done poorly. Circe is eventually exiled to an island, and consequently most other moments of plot must come from outside her home. This makes a sort of strange feel to the book, but it wasn’t done badly. I would describe the episodes not as making a unified plot of events. They do build a complete story, with a surprising and satisfying emotional climax. I also really enjoyed how Miller handled Odysseus, presenting him first as clever hero, then as… well, not a villain, but less than a hero. He comes across as very human, and in such a way that (to me) his weak moments didn’t make him less of a Great Man sort of figure. I found the portions revolving around Odysseus (which is about the last third of the novel, really) to be quite poignant by the end; a well-written reflection upon the sorts of terrible things “Great Men” do out of necessity, and what sort of character is required to be a hero, Great and Awful.

If you’ve got the taste for Greek mythology, Circe’s probably worth reading. Same for general literary readers. I’m not sure for fantasy readers; it’s very good, but fits more into a quieter vein of fantasy, with less of the spectacle and great big magic things going on. Those things occur off-screen, where the “main” events of the mythology are taking place–Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Trojan War, and so on. This is an intentional choice of Miller’s, and I think it a good one, but I’m not sure I can say that Circe will be the preferred flavor for a random fantasy reader’s palate. Even with her magic, the story engages more with the tropes of literary fiction and mythology than it does with the fantasy genre.

I don’t know if I’ll post again before September (shh, this is actually August, remember?) or not. The weekly posting kind of works for me, but these longer summaries and musings also kind of work too. Ostensibly, it gives me more time to be working on my writing/reading/school stuff. Even with a supersized post like this one, it’s still less time taken than writing a post every week.

If there are thoughts on which you prefer, for those of you who read me frequently, I’d love to hear them. Comments are open, below.

To all, have a good month!

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