Rudyard And Ringworld
This is a continution of the RPG Blogger’s Network blog carnival theme, on what non-RPG material inspires or informs your games. My previous entry on this topic is here. Today we (well, me… er… I) look at two other factors from my formative years which have contributed to my ideas of gameplay, world design, and general sense of… I don’t know if there’s a word. Something like ‘aesthetic’, something like ‘scope’, something like ‘the feeling that those things give me’. Stupid English language with its stupid limited vocabulary of only a quarter million words or so.
Read on for more!
I was introduced to Ringworld at roughly the same time I was introduced to D&D, somewhere around 1978/1979. Some people’s more formative memories of the end of Junior High and the beginning of High School involve girls, kisses, trying to get to second base, not being 100% sure what second base was… (These days, “second base” is probably “First threeway broadcast on the Web”. I hate modern kids.). For me, the most important events of those early teen years involved books and games. On the other hand, this stuff was actually pretty vital for my eventually getting laid, as social activities like D&D dragged me somewhat out of my shell and gave me some modicum of interpersonal skills, self confidence, and the ability to adopt personas as needed to accomplish a specific task. Contrary to myth, playing D&D didn’t delay the onset of my sexual experiences, it’s what made such experiences possible in the first place. Without D&D, I do not think I would have grown into a person capable of at least limited participation in social activities. But that’s a tale for another rant.
Anyway, Ringworld. My first Larry Niven book, and probably the best book he wrote, which is sad when you realize it was written in the early 1970s and he’s kept writing since then… sorry, Larry, your latest stuff is just…well… anyway, Ringworld. Were there memorable characters? Oh, hell yeah! Louis Wu, Teela, Speaker, Nessus… all instantly recognizable, defined, and iconic. Was it a tale of deep and meaningful emotion, of rich character development that spoke to the soul of a generation? Uhm… no. It spoke to my soul, but my soul listens to different things than most souls do. The characters of Ringworld were walking plot devices, existing solely to provide viewpoins whereby the reader was dragged from one amazing visual spectacle to the next, from one amazing idea to the next, with the Ringworld itself, the most canonicalBig Dumb Object in sci-fi history, as the centerpiece of it all. But even the Ringworld itself is just a piece of the vast scope of history and time that is the Known Space universe.
I wrote earlier how much I wanted to make worlds. Ringworld showed me the kind of worlds I wanted to make. Vast ones. Vast physically and temporally, worlds with ancient histories and immense areas, worlds in which I could fit any idea. I admit it. I like big. Maybe it’s a guy thing. And Ringworld to some extent is an aspect of the “metal” ethos that defined early D&D and early gaming, the entire “Whoa, dude!” mentality, the breathless, “And then he like TOTALLY kicked the guy’s heart out through his SPINE!” point of view. I mean, the book starts with a future world which has casual teleportation and cheap faster than light travel and the birthday party for a 200 year old man, setting this as a base line, and then we get EVEN FASTER faster-than-light travel and EVEN BETTER teleportation and people who are THOUSANDS of years old and the ringworld itself, a surface area of three million Earth with floating cities and the entire Earth existing, in replicate, as a 1-to-1 scale MAP in the middle of an OCEAN which holds a good dozen OTHER such maps.
So, yeah. Ringworld was a major inspiration for me. It’s a pity the Ringworld RPG didn’t survive longer; you could have written supplements for it for centuries.
Coming a bit later in my life than Ringworld — summer of my sophomore year, I think — I discovered Rudyard Kipling, by which I mean, his poetry, not the bowdlerized, suitable-for-kiddies crap that is all most people know of Kipling, but Kipling at his best, evoking vision and emotion and resonance with what shreds of soul I have in a way few other poets have ever managed. Leslie Fish’s “Cold Iron” was my gateway drug, as I suspect it was for a lot of people, but I actually read on, and I still have my “Complete Poems” tucked away, though these days, I am more likely to seek out the words on the Internet. Back then, though, you had to dig through dead trees to find information. A dark, primitive, era.
How did Kipling inform my gaming, you may ask? In much the same way that some of the other things I’ve mentioned here have… by giving me a sense of scope, scale, and time, but also by doing more to help personalize it, to show me that worlds do need people in them to make them more than just collections of concepts. The most important poem, for me, was Puck’s Song, in essence, centuries of English history in a few stanzas. It was a small seed which eventually led to the world I spent most of my worldbuilding time on in college, more detailed work than anything I’d done before, and which I still draw bits and pieces from today. (By “detailed”, I do not mean “particularly original”, mind you.) While I had of course studied history, I’d always studied it the way most people did — badly. A series of dates and events, discrete moments which happened and then went away. The poem, though, showed me a different way of viewing history, of seeing the past through the echoes it left on the present, of standing in a spot and thinking of all the things that had transpired there, all the ghosts, all the memories and reflections. Much of his work, his best work, resonates on this theme, of depth, of time stretching forward and back, of emotion rebounding off the landscape like fading shouts. Kipling taught me of the basic sameness of humanity, of beauty and desolation and loneliness, of determination despite defeat. These things echo in my games, to the extent I can manage to convery them, and also in my life.