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Of Maps, Imaginings and Me 2 May 2012

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Life, Ponderings, Role-Playing Games.

According to the Good Book, in the book of Genesis it starts with God. “In [the] beginning God….” According to St John the Divine, in conscious imitation and in knowledge of platonic philosophy, “In the beginning was the Word.” My gaming encounters, recounted elsewhere, would lead others to say that “In the beginning was the Wyrm.” But for me, very near the start of all things, if not the absolute, “In the beginning is the map.”

Everything has to start somewhere (and setting aside the fact that my best thoughts occur in the shower) usually it all starts with a squiggle, a symbol or a sigil. Imagination, creativity, the exercise of that wonderful ability to go elsewhere in the mind, to see beyond what is, to conceive beyond the empirical, rational and clinical. It’s an incredible thing, at so many levels. Which may explain why all to often I am frustrated in my creativity.

Frustrated so often by a failure to focus or by the non-conjunction of opportunity and inspiration, aided and abetted, perhaps, by a combination of normal factors of life (such as the tendency to see the state of the little lounge after the girls have been running riot in it for a few days and divert into tidy-up mode!)

Perhaps some of it actually can be explained by returning to the map. I’ve always loved them, and owe a debt beyond words to that teacher who taught me how to read them, so many years ago at Primary School. Suddenly the world opens up in a simple, but profound, model and allows travel beyond sight, site and body. (Maybe it also explains my antipathy to much in the way of satellite navigation and online digital mapping potrays the world, by default in an emasculated blandness that may well be fit for purpose, but frighteningly uneducational).

Maps of what are, are wonderful, as are maps of what were. (And at this point I must admit to the sadness when I think of the maps that showed what was, but have since been discarded as realities changed, rather than kept as reminders. I did after all use a map from 1786 as the base for my PhD, which still yet may appear online in all its ‘glory’).

And then there is the beauty of many of those things that are not. The map that takes us beyond reality, ceasing to a model of what is, and becoming a model of what can, or could, or should be. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a glorious example of that, even if I worry sometimes that the sheer triumph of the cinematic representations of the last decade will not only elevate the film plots over the splendour of the books, but also the beauty of the real world locations over the depictions of the mind’s eye.

For me, though, and this may seem a little strange, one of the best bits of any such cartography, whether it be Middle Earth, Glorantha or H.P.Lovecraft’s Dreamlands as illustrated by the map in the Chaosium RPG supplement of the same name, are those that show nothing. Maps, from a theoretical perspective, are selective. A model is a simplification of reality, not reality itself. Thus, the argument runs, there might well be something wonderful in Minhiriath or East of the Sea of Rhûn, in the moraines of Valind’s Glacier or little-mapped Pralorela, south of Sarnath or west of Zais. Fertile grounds indeed for the fevered imagination of a would-be RPG author! It is not insignificant that what I have seen of mine, published in fanzine Tradetalk was based on just such a speculation, a land illustrated on a map and precious little else. It is gratifying that even something as simple as the names and a tiny portion of description are actually now “official”, having made it into Blood Over Gold.

However, since I would dearly like to see more of my vain words published (and appreciated) such map-inspired derivative work has its problems. To start with it is derivative – creation and imagination are dependent upon others. From the outset you are sitting on the shoulders of giants. You are beholden to a corpus of pre-existent material whether official (and still potentially contradictory) or simply the interpretation of other users. It is part of the price you pay for the leg-up, and potentially a dear one. The Caratan material, already published (and probably due a reboot) has the advantage of sitting in a location where development can fairly safely be carried out, should time allow, without too much fear, exactly because of it’s relative remoteness. Likewise with Thorula, the island of ice. The work on the Balkoth Tribe of Sartar on the other hand, despite being a marginal location in Sartar, is more clearly a part of a bigger developed whole, and unlike some RPG settings, a whole for which the future is to some degree known. I cannot simply develop the “now” but need a far greater grasp of the surroundings, and the “next”, and how any events can, and maybe more importantly cannot, shape that “next.”

As I writing this now, in part because I am struggling with direction, even though I have time, what ways forward does this imply?

Firstly, perhaps there is a need to make my peace with the label “derivative”. I may not like to admit it, but I like creating afresh. Except as the wise author of the book of Ecclesiastes puts it “there is nothing new under the sun”. We are all dependent upon that which has gone before, the stereotypes, the tropes, the cultural patterns of thought. Whatever I do will owe a debt to somebody or something else to some degree, it’s a matter of finding the balance.

Secondly I either need to reconcile my aspirations with reality, or change the reality. At present there are some things I simply cannot do. I can quite happily (and enjoyably) produce vignettes and small colour pieces. I cannot so easily “write that book” whether it be The Balkoth Campaign or Nod (for Wordplay), or some other work. For that I need to thoroughly re-visit my time managment, to consider the obligations of work and family that cannot be changed, and decide whether it is important enough.

And, of course, there is another element. Writing for RPGs is not the only form of writing. (I’m blogging, aren’t I?) It doesn’t have to be directly playable (which given time constraints is not necessarily a bad thing). It can be set within the common universe as colour. I could launch off in a different setting, explore Geofiction once more, or even leave the RPG milieu behind, not that I can see that happening.

Most importantly of all, why do I do this? At the moment it’s simply because I enjoy it. It is a reflection of a desire to spend time with a group of friends, many of whom I wish I knew better, a desire to contribute to a wider community. Nobody is forcing me to do it, and I even dare say, I don’t think anyone would mind too much if I didn’t (except me!)

You could, and maybe should, rightly argue that creativity is an exercise of something God-given and that in pursuing it and recognising the Ultimate Author, the very process is an act of worship, but I think that’s for another day…



1. steffon worthington (@sjworthington) - 2 May 2012

Theres nothing worse than a fantasy world without a map. I need to locate myself in the world. I dont draw any fantasy maps anymore… just real world location plans 😦

Dr Moose - 2 May 2012

Indeed! I meant to mention Zelkasari, but got distracted. There’s a lot of potential in the Twinight Setting.

2. The Death of Paper Maps? « Life, Faith and Role-Playing Games - 12 October 2012

[…] blogged about this before, here and here, at least, so I’m interested to see how the BBC is catching up! But the […]

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