I’ve always felt I missed something important about why my first encounters with Dungeons & Dragons were so powerful to me. When I wrote my essay for Baen early this year, I began to fit some pieces together, but as is my weakness, I struggled to tackle the complex while missing the obvious. With D&D, and fantasy literature, I’ve had this intuition that something is right under my nose that I’m missing. I’ll lay out some pieces to this puzzle that I’ve gathered over the years and then try to make them fit together.
1. My fourth-grade teacher, and still my friend after three-and-a-half decades, read our class The Hobbit. When I took up The Lord of the Rings on my own a few years later, I found it was not a book written for kids. The Hobbit stood in relation to LotR like the D&D Basic Set did in relation to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, two of my other deep studies at the time. I got equal enjoyment out of the simpler and more advanced versions of each work, and in both cases, skipping to the advanced version would have deprived me of a satisfying progression.
The Hobbit gets you into Tolkien’s saga with a strong narrative voice, a relatively episodic plot, and sketchier detail. The lands between Bilbo’s front door and Rivendell have a small fraction of the resolution that they do in The Lord of the Rings. When we revisit that space, guided by a more sober, erudite narrator, it’s both familiar and wonderfully strange. We’re better equipped to look.
2. In her excellent book of essays on fantasy The Language of the Night, Ursula LeGuin states that she’s glad she didn’t read the The Lord of the Rings early in her writing development because she thought its powerful influence might have overwhelmed her own sensibilities. Her essays make a great case that fantasy is properly not just like any other fiction with different trappings. It speaks in the language of the archetypes and the collective unconscious and has a different logic from realistic fiction and demands a different critical approach. I’ve thought of this book often in the twenty-five years since I first read it.
3. On Christmas break from work, I read The Prisoner of Azkaban just after it came out, and it struck me as appropriate to the tone of the holiday, with a kind of low-stakes innocence, despite the monsters and peril. Christmas in the US is celebrated as a break from serious stuff, as a time to indulge our kids with both sweets and magic rendered in bright, primary colors. It’s a return to first principles: naïve goodness, generosity, simple greed, and animals that fly. It’s Die Hard viewed while drinking fine scotch, or a fantasy movie like Harry Potter. It’s a time of moral complexity at refreshingly low resolution.
4. I re-read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics last month and felt that his triangle diagram that relates abstract pictures, symbolic meaning, and straight representation on the three vertices somehow made a statement about fantasy that I’d been missing, if only I could figure out what.
5. Just this morning I picked up the old D&D Basic Set blue book from 1977 and studied the cover, with its stirring but somewhat cartoonish image of a wizard and warrior ambushing a dragon on its hoard. I felt a tug to look through the book, remembering the feeling of excitement I had when I first saw it as a young kid, and I flipped through the pages, admiring its simple but effective artwork. When I got to the image of the purple worm, one of the roughest sketches, I considered how the worm would be depicted in a contemporary, high-production-value book or in the trailer for a blockbuster movie like The Hobbit coming out in a few months….
And then it clicked.
When I played D&D as a kid or read The Hobbit, I didn’t imagine a fantasy world that was realistic and high-resolution. It was cartoonish. Everything had a meaning close to its surface — that is, it was lo-res and toward the middle of McCloud’s triangular plane, away from representation toward both pictorial abstraction and semantics. The early Basic Set art and the covers to the advanced guides trained me to imagine a new gaming session at this level of detail. Probably more due to budget than anything else, the early books had to cut distracting frills, which doesn’t mean the art was simple. Dave Trampier in particular rendered the right elements at just the right level of detail to kick your imagination into high gear.
Thanks to advanced computer graphics in movies and games, kids probably now imagine fantasy worlds in higher res with greater detail, but this comes at a price. Their own imaginations become co-opted by the slick, commercialized products of others. Just as LeGuin thought that The Lord of the Rings might have polluted her if she’d encountered it as a young writer, watching The Lord of the Rings presents a hazard to young roleplayers, writers, and readers.
Imagining a world is a very personal experience, especially imagining a high fantasy world, which draws its power from universal symbols that, nevertheless, have a unique relevance to your inner life. Your monsters are to an extent everyone else’s monsters, but not at high resolution, not at your first encounter with them. Trying to imagine a high fantasy world in realistic detail using images produced by others is being a spectator rather than a participant, a scavenger versus a creator. Participating is not necessarily more fun, but it’s more fulfilling.
So I suggest starting with a lo-res vision as a DM or a player, and maybe as a fantasy writer, too. Start in your head with blank canvas and wide simple lines, straightforward passions and antagonisms, clear goals. Start with a cartoon world, and then fill in detail and color until you find the right emotional tone. Or start with high-res images and strip it down. Either way, adjust the hue and contrast, turn the dials until you feel your excitement, your understanding, and your belief in your vision reach their peak. Start inhabiting your world at the lowest resolution that most intrigues you, that convinces you of its potential reality while allowing you to easily conjure new props and characters into it.
If you’re a “bad” artist, draw bad pictures and simple maps. If you’re a “bad” writer, write bad prose. If you’re a “bad” actor, chew the scenery anyway. Work at the speed that keeps you engaged and making progress. If you’re working too slow, take the advice of the late poet laureate William Stafford: “lower your standards and keep going.” Revel in the badness even as you try to do better. And don’t listen to the jaded pros: I’ve been an editor for two decades; I’ve gone the route of second-guessing every word I put down, of shooting for straight A’s.
It’s not worth it.
When starting on a new quest, you may start very simple indeed, especially in playing D&D. As you build the story, assuming it survives for long, you will add detail and sharpen the resolution, maybe someday to the level of a dazzling commercial product. Regardless, you’ll have brought something better into the world than the secondhand visions of other people.