Thursday, April 5, 2018

Lost Artifacts of D&D: a failed saving throw against nostalgia

To the consternation of some of my close friends, I lost interest in playing D&D. My enthusiasm for role-playing was cannibalized by miniature painting and board games. But the one thing I deeply miss about D&D is the artifacts. Not the "Artifacts" (like the Eye of Vecna) that lurked in the back of the 1st edition Dungeons Masters Guide (although I guess I miss those too), but the artifacts that we the players created: the maps, the notebooks, sketches and letters that we used to illustrate and embroider the game.

Last week, I was going through some of my papers and found one such document: a hand-bound book that my friend Beth made for me and that I used to record the adventures of my longest lived character, a Samurai named Jiun. I played him from about 2003 to 2007. A great deal of my enjoyment of this character flowed from this notebook: as the character's diary, it gave me a venue to explore his idiosyncratic world-view, inspired by Japanese warriors and poets like Ikkyu, Uesugi Kenshin and especially Tesshu, who developed a whole philosophy of violence around "the sword of no-sword". 

You can see Jiun's self-portrait from this notebook in the picture above. This sketch is clearly influenced by the model for the Samurai from the Talisman Adventure (sculpted by Aly Morrison, 1986):

Perhaps my favourite part of Jiun was that he had a Bertie-and-Jeeves type of relationship with his elderly manservant, Master Ryokan (a character influenced by the real-life Zen monk of the same name). I imagined Ryokan as more than an retainer who followed Jiun into exile into the western lands: he was a surrogate father who had trained Jiun in swordplay, poetry and meditation since earliest childhood. Below, is a sketch of Ryokan from Jiun's notebook. Coincidentally, he bears a close resemblance to my own Zen teacher, Yangil Sunim, with whom I have my own Bertie-and-Jeeves type relationship (although it's unclear to me who is who in our comic routine).

The notebook gave me a chance to record out group's adventures as Jiun would have seen them. This chiefly involved a lot of poetry, and sometimes little dialogues between Jiun and Master Ryokan...

Jiun's sketches and poetry loosely refer to some of the interests that I had at the time (and still have): calligraphy, Zen literature and Chinese painting. While rolling dice in our game, I would also be flipping through books like the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679).

The notebook also gave me an excuse to engage in one of my favourite activities: cartography. Of the many gifts that J.R.R. Tokien has given to us, the joy of fantasy map-making is not the least.

My group and I had an eclectic campaign: although we were playing D&D 3.5, many of the adventures incorporated elements from Michael Moorcock, Mervyn Peake, Star Wars and H.P. Lovecraft. It was a big jolly mess. For instance, here's a page from our rendition of A Rough Night at the Three Feathers, the greatest Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay scenario every written:

There is a real magic to artifacts like Jiun's notebook. I've spent so many good hours role-playing with my friends. And yet, with the passing of the years, almost all of that time has slipped away: the dramatic battles, the petty arguments, the unlikely escapes, the painful losses. You just sort of forget all of these unforgettable moments. Or at least, you forget them until you find one of these artifacts, and you feel the magic return to life.