Revelations of a Dungeon Master

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This post will delve into the mysterious world of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) and reveal some shocking details about being a Dungeon Master. It is almost quaint to imagine how this fantasy role playing game, first introduced in 1977, is still being played today. Massive multiplayer 3D video games like World of Warcraft, video sharing websites like YouTube, Snapchat and other screen-based media would seem to be more engaging forms of entertainment compared to the dice and miniatures tabletop game. But I can attest to the modern popularity of AD&D first hand, as my 13 year old son, his friend and I have been playing every other Saturday night since 2012.

The popular new TV series Stranger Things makes frequent references to the game, using it as a plot-framing device and to help characterize the 1980’s setting. The game was very popular at the time, but became the subject of controversy when a 10 year old player committed suicide in 1982. His mother Patricia Pulling, searching for answers, assumed it was because of a curse put on his character in the after school D&D club he was a member of. Blaming the high school principal and publishers of the game, she campaigned to link D&D to Satanism and the occult. At the core of her argument against D&D was her assertion that, “a significant amount of youngsters are having difficulty with separating fantasy from reality”. Introverted young people needed to be protected against their own imaginations, so under pressure from Pulling and other religious groups, the publishers of D&D changed core elements of the game in 1989 2nd edition.

Gone were references to demons and devils; these entities became rebranded as tanar’ri and baatezu, respectively. Also absent was the assassin character class, with the thief class renamed as the rogue, and players could no longer have characters of the half-orc race. Similar business-related decisions further weakened subsequent editions, leading to an obsequious, token version of a game that was once edgy and irreverent.

loremasterVersion 3.5 is an especially bloated, unwieldy example of the parade of money driven rewrites. Needlessly complicated, rules such as “when someone gets a 20 on an attack roll, you should point out that this is a threat, not a critical hit” (version 3.5 D&D Core Rulebook II, pg. 26) take major amounts of fun out of playing. Come on, people. One look at the illustration of the Loremaster character class from pg. 191 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide also proves my point.

When my son was in 4th grade, the hot TV show on Cartoon Network was Adventure Time, which is heavily influenced by AD&D. He asked if he could try the role playing game, and soon I found myself acquiring many of the same miniatures and rule books I had back in 1981. I used many of the ideas presented by Dave Hargrave in his Arduin Grimore, including the fabled Critical Hit table, the liberal blend of sci-fi and fantasy and other rich embellishments that make the game more interesting.

Personally, AD&D has always been about the magic of how the game table scene looks; painted miniatures, dungeon walls and dice like precious gems. I did my best to convey that feeling of wonder to my players, even adding the touches of candlelight in a darkened room and Baroque background music.

I especially enjoyed painting the miniatures, some of which were vintage cast lead pieces miniaturefrom as far back as 1976. Together with the jewel-like set of dice, dark grey foam rubber for dungeon walls, wine corks for columns and miniature trees made from hobby store moss and sticks from the back yard, these game pieces were gateways to the realm of fantasy and imagination where D&D lives. I kept all the miniatures hidden from my young players until they encountered them in the game for the sake of mystery. Their faces lit up when I finally set them on the table and combat began.

In that environment we enjoyed imagining the game action, each of us seeing it in our minds eye. In describing what happened during an adventure, I made a point to involve as many of the five senses as possible for a more immersive experience. For example, the acrid stench of trolls breath, the tortured screams of attacking ghouls, the chill of the stone hallways, and the mayhem and debauchery of the drinking taverns. I would borrow from everything I could remember, Moorecock books, Frazetta paintings, any interesting names I heard, and fantasy films ranging from Labyrinth to Legend. It was useful to have a list of interesting names in reach for the inevitable improvisation required of a Dungeon Master. I also made liberal use of different voices for the many non-player characters, monsters and other entities, and insisted my players speak appropriately during gameplay. “Dude, watch out for that Orc, bro” was unacceptable.

While I always had a basic idea of the plot of an adventure, I allowed my players to exercise their free will (to a point) as a metaphor for real life. We began each session of the game by reciting the rules, “Don’t interrupt, wait to speak. Just like reality, if you’re stupid, you will die. If you’re smart, you will gain magic items and level up”.

Recently I have given up my unlimited power in order for my players to experience the game from a different perspective. I am now a lowly player character at the mercy of a 13 year old Dungeon Master, but enjoying it perhaps even more than I once did 30 years ago.

The Force in Sci Fi-Fantasy

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This post will discuss The Force as related to theories and concepts such as Qi, the Ether and quantum physics. I’m indulging my own fascination with the topic because my 44th birthday is tomorrow and I’m giving this article to myself as a present in order to love it even more. I was 5 years old when the first Star Wars came out, and the Force was to me the most spectacular element of the film.

Fans of Star Wars must wonder if there is some truth to this fictional concept for the franchise to remain as popular as it has. According to the Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars film, “the Force is an energy field created by all living things. It binds us and it penetrates us, it’s what holds the Galaxy together.” He later went on to answer Luke Skywalker‘s question as to if it controls our actions with, “partially, but it also responds to your commands”.

In the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi Master Yoda went into depth about the Force during Luke’s training. He explained,”a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they”. When asked how to tell the good side from the dark, he said, “You will know when you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack”. The phenomenal effects of the Force include seeing the future, speaking mind to mind with others across great distance, telekinesis, mind control and manipulating electricity. This concept was interesting enough as a five year old, but it becomes even more interesting as I continue to learn about similar non-fiction concepts over the years.

For instance, in the obscure book by Cyril Davson The Physics of the Primary State of Matter, based on the work of Austrian scientist-inventor Karl Schappeller, he describes an “all-pervading consciousness” saturating all space both outside and within the cosmos (pp. 38-40). The texture of space inside the boundary of the cosmos is the Ether, a conscious-physical ‘energy soil’ forming the background of all energies, matter and physical phenomenon. The ether is a fluid-like conduit for energies like electricity, magnetism, and even thoughts. In terms of theoretical physics, the Ether would seem to have the some of the same characteristics as The Force.

In terms of the Hindu religion, the concept of Brahman is also similar to the Force. Brahaman is a single unifying principle from which all life and matter emerge, and to which all return. The concept of Brahaman is expressed as an infinite and eternal consciousness that is the essence of all that exists physically. Also similar in terms of the duality of the Force is Zoroasterism, a belief system from the ancient Persian Empire. Zoroasterism is one of the world’s oldest religions, dating back to the 6th century BC. It was a notably monotheistic religion from an era when polytheism was common. Based on the writings of the prophet Zarathustra, Zoroasterism taught the importance of using free will to choose sides in the cosmic struggle of light and darkness. The virtues of doing the right thing, truth and good thought, deeds and words were the path that lead to the perfection and renewal of the world. This reminds us of the belief system of the Jedi and  frequent references in Star Wars to the light and dark sides of the force.

yin-yang-symbolThe icon of Yin and Yang central to the Taoist philosophy is also similar to the dualistic nature of the Force. Yin and Yang are both manifestations of Chi, the universal life force present in all energy and matter. Another definition of Chi is ‘ether’. When Luke Skywalker asks Master Yoda if the dark side of the force is stronger than the good, Yoda replies, “No. Easier, quicker, more seductive”. Like the image of Chi manifested as Yin and Yang, the two aspects of the Force are equal opposites in the same way that all that everything that exists also casts a shadow.

From the realm of quantum physics, the Force is recognizable in the quantum field theory of matter. In The Tao of Physics, p. 199, Physicist Hermann Weyl theorizes that everything that exists is basically ultra high intensity electrical charges in a universe-sized electrical field. Like static on a three dimensional television screen, this field is the background supporting ‘denser’ forms of energy like electricity and magnetism, as well as the atomic particles that comprise matter. Weyl’s theory recalls Master Yoda’s statement from The Empire Strikes Back, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter”.

The Force is the underlying thread that has kept people engaged with the Star Wars franchise for over 40 years. We eagerly await a deeper understanding of the Force in the upcoming next two Star Wars films.

The Science of Magic

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This post will look into the science of magic, both in the ‘real’ world and the realm of speculative fiction. Is science indeed magic? Are the two concepts related somehow? If so, where is the dividing line between them? Read on…

In the ancient past, science WAS magic. The needs of primitive humans beyond those attainable by mind and muscle were accomplished through the technology of intent and belief, known then as magic. Creating a bountiful hunt, calling on ancestors for wisdom, influencing the weather and healing were some examples. Though miraculous, the practice of magic had to follow certain rules, such as knowing the name of the spirit to be called on, knowing specific ingredients for spells, and only attempting some forms of magic during favorable times (like under a full Moon).

Over centuries, the practice of magic became more sophisticated, culminating into the proto-science known as alchemy. Alchemy was the basis of the scientific method, relying on measurements, laboratories and specialized instruments. Unlike the discipline that would become science, alchemy also dealt with astronomy and the occult, concepts which are difficult to quantify. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 1500’s, the field of medicine would branch off from alchemy, becoming the first ‘official’ science.

The technology of using intent and belief in ‘supernatural‘ forces for magic eventually gave way to belief in science, which manipulated ‘natural‘ forces such as the elements, magnetism and electricity to make magic “real”. Feats such as levitation, clairaudience and clairvoyance (hearing and seeing at a distance) curing disease and other extraordinary accomplishments are now achieved with the technology of machines.

In a sense, technology has replaced magic items as the tools used to perform miracles. For example, the launch button for a nuclear ICMB has become the modern version of The One Ring from Tolkien‘s famous fantasy novels. And the wings formed by Daedalus for he and Icarus to escape the Isle of Minos have become private jets and helicopters. Since flight, instantaneous communication at a distance and other things not possible with ordinary means are all derived from the intricate manipulation of natural forces, nature herself could be considered magic.

As far as we have come scientifically, much of nature remains mysterious such as how the human brain works (we still have no computer-based artificial intelligence as smart as the human mind) and where and how the universe was formed, for example. Science is constantly progressing toward a complete understanding of everything in nature currently beyond explanation.

So much for reality; on to the science of magic in fiction. Mixing technology and magic results in concepts like Magitek, found in the video game Final Fantasy VI. Magitek, or magical technology, is weapons and equipment enchanted with the distilled life force of magical creatures called Espers. In the Final Fantasy universe, the Gestahlian Empire rises to power by enslaving and draining many such espers, forming a major plot device for the storyline of the game.

The 1980’s anime series Aura Battler Dunbine represents the science of magic by featuring giant robots made from the enchanted bodies of giant insects, which serves as amplifiers for the aura of their pilots. This anime also makes use of time travel, as the the main character is displayed form modern day Earth to the sword and sorcery land of Byston Well.

Other notable video related to the science of magic include The Flight of Dragons, The Star Wars saga, Time Bandits, Ghostbusters and Highlander. There is a long legacy of the science of magic in fictional literature, including the macabre H. P. Lovecraft novels, featuring alien demons and science so advanced it resembles magic, but the understanding of which drives mortals insane. Also notable are The Incomplete Enchanter by Harold Shea, Lawrence Watt-EvansWorlds of Shadow trilogy, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, the Dragaera books by Steven Brust and Piers Anthony‘s Apprentice Adept series.

A few graphic novels featuring the science of magic are Judge Dredd, The New Gods, Saga, both Secret Wars by Marvel, and Frank Miller‘s Ronin.

Some video games steeped in the science of magic are all of the Final Fantasy titles, Xenoblade, Crystalis, Chrono Trigger, Kingdom Hearts, the Guilty Gear series, The Elder Scrolls, The Longest Journey series, the Star Ocean series, Wizardry 7 and 8, Doom, and more recently Destiny. Some role playing games that take place in a science of magic setting are Destroy the Godmodder and The Arduin Adventure by the renowned Dave Hargrave.

The science of magic continues to be a font of intriguing content spanning all known forms of media. It remains as the ‘pi‘ of genres, a fictional constant producing questions, answers, and more questions ad nauseum. What does the science of magic mean to you, dear reader? Please comment below so that we might continue the conversation.