Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"'The Philosophy of Composition" in Roleplaying Games, Pt. 1: Effect

One of my favorite pieces on writing is Edgar Allen Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," which he wrote for a semiyearly literary magazine. He explains his own perspective on how he writes poetry and fiction. While I don't agree with every claim Poe makes, I do find it a useful perspective.

d12 Notions in Poe's "Philosophy of Composition"

  1. Start by deciding on the effect you intend to evoke, usually at the denouement. It's not a striking event but a striking feeling that makes good stories.
  2. An evocative effect has an ordinary occurrence and peculiar tone, a peculiar occurrence and ordinary tone, or both a peculiar occurrence and tone. 
  3. The steps of composition are not born of literary frenzy but deliberate and traceable steps.
  4. A work must be experienced in one sitting to have unity of effect-- this is why poems and short stories are preferable to novels. Long pieces are just strings of short pieces.
  5. You should only write poems about Beauty-- the effect which elevates the soul.
  6. Use the best tools available to achieve your intended effect.
  7. Melancholy is the most legitimate of the poetical tones.
  8. Refrains are more effective when they are used in varied contexts.
  9. Every word of The Raven was written to maximize melancholy and beauty.
  10. The death of a beautiful woman is the most beautiful possible subject of poetry.
  11. No poet in centuries has though of doing anything original.
  12. At the end, the effect's undercurrent should become transcendent.

The first part of this series (?) will assess the use of effect in storytelling and its application to roleplaying games.

Tell me this isn't an OSR PC. Art by Harry Clarke

Poe says that core of any story is its effect-- the central feeling or perception that the story is built around. In The Pit and the Pendulum, this is the apprehension of the blade swinging slowly through the protagonist. In The Tell-tale Heart, this is the paranoiac frenzy with with the protagonist reveals his crime. Other, longer works have several effects strung together, and it is often the effect of those heightened moments that are most memorable and commendable. When I think of the Lord of the Rings, I think of the intractable council of Elrond and the weight of Frodo's offer to carry the Ring, or I think of the terrible fatigue of crawling through Mordor. When I think of Les Miserables, I think of that graceful moment when the priest refuses to turn in Valjean, or I think of the certain and Utopian fervor that buoys a doomed revolution.

Poe describes a writer as a deliberate and conscious composer, who sets out a definite structure to their work. Obviously, this is not apt for roleplaying games, where meaningful choices are shared by the players and all outcomes are uncertain. However, I think that GMs who focus on preparing effect can be successful:

d4 Reasons to Focus on Effect

  1. Preparing only enough material to create a literary effect is efficient, because you will definitely use all your prepared material for each item the players encounter. 
  2. Literary effect is often impressive to players, since it seems deliberate and difficult to contrive without actually being so. 
  3. Aiming for effect focuses you on what makes your creative ideas interesting, and therefore can boost your creative output.
  4. This method is especially apt to weekly stories: it does not require special inspiration and it keeps each session memorable.
I've noticed that a lot of OSR writers actually summarize room encounters in dungeons by prepping for effect. Instead of a large paragraph of mostly irrelevant details, it is seen as good practice to write a few sentence fragments that evoke the exact occurrence and tone of the encounter. This recognizes that a description is useless if a GM doesn't know what to do with it.

In the next entry to this series, I will try to write a dungeon (or quick adventure or whatever) using the method Poe laid out for The Raven. Obviously, I'll have to make adaptions where he goes into phonetics and meter. I will also probably not restrict myself to only writing about the death of a beautiful woman.

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