Thursday, May 16, 2019

"'The Philosophy of Composition" in Roleplaying Games, Pt. 2: The Rotting Library

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.

Read Part 1: Effect

The second part of this series will attempt to use Poe's step-by-step method for composition to make a small dungeon. (Spoiler: I will ultimately decide this is of limited value.)

In the first entry of the series, I focused primarily on Poe's literary theory but much of the essay is detailed instruction on how to write the Raven, his most famous work. I'll run through that quick now, since we'll need the method as well as the theory to make a good go of this experiment.

d12 Steps of Composition

  1. Consideration of extent-- can it be experienced in one sitting, or what?
  2. Choice of the effect to be conveyed-- can it be universally appreciated?
  3. Choice of tone-- can we capture the effect's highest manifestation?
  4. Determining the pivot-- can we apply the same refrain to novel situations?
  5. Determining the character of the pivot-- can we make repeated elements apt to our goals?
  6. Creation of supreme points-- how far can we take the details?
  7. Combining pivots and points-- can we integrate everything smoothly?
  8. Considering the denouement-- what are we building to?
  9. Determining the locale-- can we connect things in an accountable way?
  10. Deliberating on the points-- can we cleave as close as possible to the effect?
  11. Contrasting the fantastic-- can we vary the middle from the ending?
  12. Considering the ending-- can we make the effect transcendent and emblematic?

Poe was definitely a partisan in how to make some of these choices. To him, the best effect is beauty and the best tone is melancholy. We're going to deliberately avoid that in this experiment, since the method should apply even in other cases than those. In Poe's case, "pivots" are literal poetic refrains, and the "character" of the pivot is the literal phonetics of the word that serves as the refrain. e.g. Nevermore.
Art by Harry Clarke

Steps 1-5: Setting Goals
Step one is the consideration of the extent. This step is fairly simple. I want the dungeon to be "experienced" by players in about one session. This can be difficult for a GM to ordain, so it's alright to be very approximate. A larger dungeon in this framework should be considered as a string of stories, which can be difficult in the OSR jaquaying ideal. Not impossible, and worth going into in a later article.

Step two is the choice of the effect. Poe would say that you have to choose "beauty," but I think I'm going to arbitrarily decide to portray "failure" instead. Step three, tone, is much the same. I'm not sure what the highest manifestation of failure is but I think I will express it here with a grateful tone, since that seems poetical to me.

Steps four and five are the "refrain" of the dungeon. This is where Poe would determine that a bird repeating "Nevermore" is tonally appropriate. Since gratitude is the tone we're going for, we want the central pivot of the dungeon to express gratitude. A quick brainstorm turns up: trophies, fan letters, memorials. Let's go with memorials as the pivot of the dungeon, since that seems easy to integrate and poignant.

Step 6: the Bones
Step six the creation of supreme points. We need to find the epitome of failure, express it through memorials, and throw out a lot of different points to express it. Since this is a dungeon, these points need to be game-able-- monsters, NPCs, puzzles, riddles, items, and the like.

d6 Could the epitome of failure be...

  1. a failed invasion of a weaker nation?
  2. hubris that causes great destruction?
  3. the inability to preserve a legacy?
  4. betrayal of your deepest ideals?
  5. extinction
  6. the failure to act at all?
Hmm. I kind of like the inability to preserve a legacy. Some of those other ideas are promising, so we'll keep an eye out to integrate them. Maybe this legacy was a great library of the world's collected knowledge that was chronically mismanaged, so that most of the valuable information eroded away while political appointments of the library's guardians rendered the rest of the collection inane, censored, partisan, and inaccurate. Remember this all has to be in a grateful tone. There can be factions of mournful scholars who've begun to worship the writers of bygone ages, shrines where piles of rot are carefully reconstructed into their previous forms as tomes, bookhunters who go out into the world to restore the collection, requests from foreign scholars who don't know how far the library has fallen requesting access, refugees of the choices made by rulers who relied on the despoiled library (failed invasions! hubris! betrayal!), rows of fig trees slowly dying, appreciative barbarians living among the stacks and hunting animals.
Art by Harry Clarke

Step 7: the Meat
Step 7 is combining the pivots and the points. Here Poe would be figuring out how the mournful lover meets and interacts with the raven's refrain. From step 6 we know that the points revolve around this fallen library. In a sense, this library is a memorial but we can emphasize the pivot even more by placing smaller memorials in the library itself, maybe at the ends of each wing-- a memorial to a great writer or scholar who contributed to that wing's contents. These can be those shrines to book reconstruction. It's around here that we would sketch out any map.

d6 Memorial-Shrines and their Wings
  1. St. Litarsus. A high-ranking priest who was patron to many great treatises. Priests at the shrine have covered everything in sanctifying seals, pulling pages together at random in hopes of revealed wisdom. This wing has piles of former books, with giant bookworms rising when the piles are disturbed.
  2. Alhonsa, the Prince of Ryuset. The controversial conqueror who originally commissioned the library. Scholars at the shrine still trying to answer all the letters and take inventory. This wing is sparsely populated by strange animals.
  3. Belocha. A poetess and critic of the status quo. Barbarians pray here and try to teach themselves how to read. This wing is overrun by nature and un-nature.
  4. Jaymet Calmar. A knight and master of classical, high-status literature. Bookhunters drink from the steam running off the statue and try to un-redact vandalized tomes. This wing has a couple hornet nests and deranged former censors who offer nonsensical, elitist riddles.
  5. Gertrude of Ugen. Anatomist and zoologist. Refugees pile up food and blankets-- a few rotting articles worsen the rest. This wing is not overrun-- it is overrunning the surrounding area. "Where did we store that plague extract?" A literal jungle.
  6. Alhonsa the Great. Descendant of the first Alhonsa, wrote many folios and investigative fiction. Assistant researchers consider taking what books they can, burning the library down, and starting anew. Wing scraped clean, home to radical faction that wants to kill anyone who has visited the library.
Steps 8-12: Climax
Step 8 asks "what are we building to?" What is the culmination of the expedition to the library? This probably involves figuring out the presumed objective. The culmination is the point at which the pivot fully expresses the tone of the effect. In the case of the Raven, this is when the sorrowful lover asks the Raven if he will ever be reunited with his beloved and the raven tells him it will never happen. In the case of the library, the memorials are used to heighten the notion of gratitude despite failure. Maybe the party has been sent to channel a magic ritual through all six memorials at once to reveal a hidden trove of knowledge-- the last gift of the library to the world? This could be an interesting coordination challenge that might require them to enlist the aid of some NPCs if there aren't enough people in the party.

We technically got ahead of ourselves with step 9. Apparently Poe didn't consider where this raven would meet this sorrowful lover until now. I can't really see how to wait on making decisions about the locale until this point for dungeon design, so I would just use this step as an opportunity to make sure that the layout of the dungeon is coming together in more detail. 

Step 10 involves going back to the points we started in step 7 and iterating on them, constant trying to wring as much of the tone and theme out of them as we can. Maybe one of the bookhunter NPCs is covered in tattoos of the names of the fallen, and the books now lost, i.e. a living monument. Maybe the mad censors are only dangerous because they are so inept that their hospitality is dangerous, i.e. personified failure. Maybe the fig trees were a failed attempt to breed fruit which wouldn't attract insects, and not only attracts them but is bitterly poisonous. Maybe every item in the library has a plaque explaining whose donation made its presence possible. You could really iterate on this forever.

In doing this, we're sort of naturally contrasting the fantastic, which is step 11. We're trying to make sure that no one detail overshadows the climax of the library, and that there is enough variation that the whole place doesn't feel like a gratitude-and-failure theme park. Here we can introduce contrasts. The ungrateful mercenary. The idealistic engineer revitalizing the card catalogue.

We end on step 12. Notably, this is not the climax of the story. That's step 8, the denouement. This is the parting impression the effect leaves, when it becomes fully emblematic and explicit. The entire library should be communicating the effect as loudly as possible, but its here that the tone is more definitely stated. In this case, maybe the spirits of the the six founders of the library's wings arrive to thank the party for their aid or to commiserate with their failure. That could be an interesting conversation, and it brings the memorials full circle.

Reviewing the Method
Well I certainly enjoyed myself, and I think Poe's steps have helped us make a perfectly nice dungeon. There's a good thematic consistency and trying to follow the steps in order gave the creative process a nice regimen. On the other hand, the whole thing is finicky and a little needless. Probably I could abbreviate the process to half as many elements and lose almost nothing. I'm also not sure that the rotting library could be easily played through in one session, so on that goal I definitely failed.

I might want to try to do this one more time in a less theoretical context. Probably if I tried to use it to plan out my next Holy Selmat session I would lay off some of the intricacies and constrain myself to the plausible for what the party is likely to do.

I still think that focus on effect is good practice, and keeping some broad themes in mind can confer a pleasant consistency but Poe's philosophy of composition is just a little too rigid.

No comments:

Post a Comment