Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Road to Englandia

Englandia, my fourth and ongoing D&D campaign world, is my current recipe for a fun campaign setting to run.

My ravenous studies in science, history, sociology, and anthropology satisfied my drive to learn but left me unable to enjoy either the random fantasies of my first childhood campaign world or the arbitrarily organized and highly derivative fantasies of Dagorëa, my second campaign world. Both originality and intense verisimilitude have become necessary ingredients in my fantasy play.

However, six years of developing and running Nia Revo, my extremely detailed and original third campaign world, was enough to teach me that inventing a reality from scratch is more work than fun. After three years of running games there, from 1989 to 1992, the increasing intensity of my work life reduced my free time and energy too much to support both running games and the necessary investment in inventing their reality, so I gave up active gaming and spent the last three years of Nia Revo building a notebook detailing its physics, languages, writing systems, history, etc. That turned into an expectations trap, in which the more time and energy I put into the development of the game without actually playing, the more impossible it became to justify all that investment. By 1995 I was burned out and had forgotten how to have fun.

It was clear we had to try something else.

Fortunately, that was the summer Mike Ryan interviewed with Beverly to work for Wizards of the Coast as an editor for the game Magic: The Gathering. Mike liked to DM, so for two years I played and did not DM. Those two years rekindled my love of the game and gave my DMing muscles some time off. Playing in Mike's game taught me that I can't DM unless I play, that the fun of play helps me enjoy life and makes me more playful, and that the tensions and irritations of play stimulate my creativity.

I thought back over my life and realized that D&D was the fountain of my creativity. I learned to draw better for D&D. I learned to write better for D&D. I learned cartography, linguistics, calendars, architecture, geography, storytelling, psychology, and dozens of other things to improve my D&D games. And it worked. My adult games were so much more interesting to me and my players than those of my childhood.


After Mike's game ended in 1996, Beverly and I talked about the rundown of Nia Revo and the lesson I learned from playing with Mike, that I needed to play and DM—that I needed to play to be able to DM—and that I was a better and happier person for doing both.

We talked about the tension between my need for verisimilitude and my need to have the work of DMing be manageable, to fit within our crazy work lives. The limited free time in our schedules meant I had to give up on achieving fantasy realism by inventing it.

Instead, we decided to borrow it.

From history.

Because ultimately, no matter how good I am at simulating history and geography, the results will never be as realistic as reality itself. In hindsight it's obvious, but it took me about twenty years of gaming to relent and admit it to myself.

So over dinner one night in April of 1997, Beverly and I talked through the range of options for when and where to set a new historical campaign. We needed an era that had a lot of interesting cultural diversity, intensity, and turmoil, a time that had a lot of historical material to work with, but a place that didn't, a place where the historical record was sparse enough that we could embroider without unraveling it.

As students of history, we knew that during the Dark Ages the Arab world was the dazzling place to be—and China, the Americas, and many other places were also historically rich and marvelous—but that Europe was a poorly documented cultural backwater, some places more than others. Case in point, from the time the Romans left until the Conqueror's scribes compiled the Domesday Book lie six hundred years only sketchily documented by some chronicles, law codes, deeds, legal documentation, and so on—a lovely but tattered weave on which to embroider our little revels.

And so it was we settled on Saxons and Celts and Picts, Vikings and Magyars and Moors, a series of adventures set on the British Isles starting January 1st, 1000. I named it Englandia in honor of Alfred the Great's lifework and in echo of Jean Sibelius's masterful anthem.

. . .

I never realized it before researching this blog, but Englandia may well never have come about were it not for Mike's fun and fascinating 1995–6 D&D game with us, which rekindled my love of the game. He's like Englandia's godfather, and he was one of its first players. Thanks, man.

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