Dreams & Dragons

I had a wild dream about D&D last night. One of those all-consuming dreams that rocks my world. My dream life has been quiescent for several years, but it has come roaring back just in the last few months. Much of the dream is fragments now, but I thought I’d write down what I remembered. Maybe I’ll remember more as I write.

I had a longstanding gaming group for much of my adulthood; over twenty years we gamed together.  But some how over the last several years we just … stopped.  This dream was about that.

The dream was about a huge, epic D campaign that my old group played. A campaign that consumed our whole lives, that we ordered our lives around. Like the campaigns we played when we were young.

When I first woke up, I was sure this was a campaign we had actually played, but as I tried to remember, I realized, no, this was unique to the dream. A whole world in my dream. God, I wish I could remember it all!

The dream proceeded in stages, moving outward like the layers of an onion.

The first layer, we actually were the characters, living the adventure. We visited a lord’s halls and were feasting. We were there visiting as his guests, but we had come because we suspected something hinky was going on in his domain, and we were trying to find out what it was. We were pretending to be honored guests, but were actually there to spy on him. We attended a banquet where we bragged about our martial accomplishments and flattered the lord obsequiously to make him friendly to us. We were already at this point high-level characters and had fought many battles together, had many war stories and knew each other well.

Then the dream stepped out one level, and we were us, ourselves, my old core D&D group — myself, my husband, my bother, his roommate, our friends Charlie & Bill, etc. — playing that module. We snooped around the lord’s domain. His manor house was large and opulent, containing many rooms that were broken out on a kind of holographic map – the library, the women’s quarters. You would touch a room on the map and it would rise up as a holographic projection. Super-cool.  There was, of course, some kind of monster in the dungeons. More kind of Lovecraftian than standard D hack and slash. Shapeless, tentacles, malevolent. Yes, I am remembering things. Intense fighting and magic.

Then the dream stepped out again, and we were hanging and decompressing after the session, going over it as we used to do. It was good to see and play with our old friend Jonny again, who we lost touch with years ago. He was our Dungeon Master through all those years.  Strangely enough, we were still in the manor house, but it was us, the real people, hanging in a drawing room and processing.

Then the dream stepped out again, and it was us, now, our present-day selves, reminiscing about this campaign that had been so epic and transformative for us. I was specifically trying to recapture the magic at this point, looking over the campaign book. The campaign was contained in a thick hardback book, like the Ptolus campaign, with all the modules, maps, a bestiary and prestige classes, everything. And it was like a living book — it had printed pages, but then other pages came to life , showed animations or came off the page as holographic moving pictures. It was amazing. And we were saying to each other, “Remember when we did this, remember when we did that? Yeah, that was cool, that was great, we had so much fun.”

And I turned to my dear old friend Bill and I said, “Bill, how did we do this? How could we let this happen? How did we let this fall out of our lives? We had such a good time. It was such a big part of our lives, how could we let it slip away?”

It felt like a message from the deepest part of myself. It had that epic, mythic quality. Numinous quality.  I feel, this morning now, like, fuck writing. Fuck crafting. Fuck my job. I want to have a D&D campaign.

I wish I could remember more. Just fragments. There was a module called the Tomb of Ra. The milieu was sort of a desert milieu. But not a cheesy, Arabian Nights sort of milieu, even less Western. More like Dune, maybe? But D&D-level technology, with magic. More sort of Bronze Age. Not a howling desert, like the Empty Quarter, more arid scrubland, like Palestine maybe? People had tattoos, which were used in magic somehow. And there were magical dogs, wise and powerful dogs that people kept as familiars and used in magic somehow. But the dogs were alignment-neutral, the good guys and the bad guys both had them.

In the lord’s domain, the leaders in the town had parasites that were controlling their brains, that made them act according to some sinister plan.  Lovecraftian, as I said.

The campaign had a quality like the Dragonlance campaign, as I understand it, which my friends played before I joined; it starts with a rather quotidian module in a village, and then moves out and gets bigger and bigger until you’re in a war for the entire realm. A showdown between good and evil, very LOTR feel. Tents — many of the races and peoples were nomadic, and that brought a very different flavor to it from standard European medieval tropes. Gnolls, the default humanoid race seemed to be gnolls. Towering mountains to the north, that we adventured in for a while, looking for a vital artifact.

My brother Peter’s character was a kind of halfing, more like a kender. He was young and naive, who had been sent from a little country village to travel with a band of adventurers, to learn to fight, to overcome a monster or evil wizard that had threatened and dominated the village for generations. So he was very naive and clueless, first level, but he was a fighter after all, and he was a little scrapper — he was in the front rank and gave as good as he got every time. He earned tattoos that were warrior marks of distinction.

It’s a continual torture to me that I have this creative power in my dream state — I can create whole words, whole lived lifetimes, years of time, without even trying.  Which power I can barely access when I’m awake. Everyone does! Even if they don’t remember it upon waking.  Maddening!

But I really do have to ask myself that, what I cried out to Bill. How did we let this go? Dungeons & Dragons.  It was the best part of us in some ways. The most magical part.  And what to do about it now?

“Dances with Noble Savages” and the Origin of this Hoary Old Meme.

So I was hanging out at my friend Dennis’s and we were watching some old movie on TCM, something about the Boxer Rebellion in China I think, one of those crappy movies from before the era of political correctness (or even common sense) full of white people playing fake Asians.  Yellowface.  Ugh, that’s the worst.  So we were talking about Asian themed films and Dennis asked us, “Did you see THE LAST SAMURAI?”

Yes, we’ve seen it (my husband and I, not the royal we here).  It was a beautiful movie — every scene was perfectly composed and gorgeous.  “But,” I said, “it was that same old story, the civilized white man goes and lives with the native people and absorbs their simple native wisdom and becomes their hero.  DANCES WITH SAMURAI.  God, why do we keep telling that story?  The ancient Romans probably had stories about centurions going over the wall and becoming one with the Gauls. That story is decrepit!  Why do we keep telling it?”

Well, I think I’ve figured it out.  Maybe this was obvious to everyone and I was just being monumentally obtuse, but I think I figured it out, on Saturday night when I was watching another movie: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS.

Yeah, Moses.  Moses is the archetype of this story.

You know the story I’m talking about.  It has shown up endlessly in big-budget Hollywood films in the last couple decades — most notably, DANCES WITH WOLVES and AVATAR, but also THE LAST SAMURAI and a horde of lesser imitators.  I haven’t seen it, but people tell me Disney’s POCAHONTAS is the same story.

A disenchanted white man leaves civilization and goes into the wilderness, hoping to find .. something  — peace or surcease or a way to forget his troubles.  Sam Worthington in AVATAR is literally trying to leave his crippled body behind with a Na’vi avatar.  Same idea though.

And in the wilderness, he discovers the native people, and becomes enamored of them.  He lives among them and studies their ways, which are so much more authentic and meaningful than those of his own decadent civilization.  He falls in love with a native woman – usually the chief’s daughter, of course.  He becomes one of them, these noble savages.  But more than that, the becomes the best of them, their leader, their prophet, because of the synthesis of his civilized sensibility with the humble wisdom of the natives.  Toruk Makto.  The chosen one.  (Can you tell how fucking sick I am of this storyline?)

So, Moses.  Think about it.  Moses was a prince of Egypt, the most civilized, the greatest nation on earth at that time (and for thousands of years.)  But he renounced his princedom and went to live with the desert nomads, the Hebrews, the slaves.  The noble primitives.  He lives as one of them, takes a wife from among them, has children that he raises as Hebrew.  But, with this “Mighty Whitey” trope as they call it on TV Tropes, he is, as described, the best of them, the very Prophet of God.

And he leads his people against impossible odds into battle with their enemies, the Egyptians, who hold the Hebrews in slavery.  This time it’s mostly a spiritual battle, with the plagues and all, but it’s still a battle.  And wonder of wonders, he wins, and leads his people to the Promised Land.

Do you see it?  It’s so obvious to me now, I can’t believe I never noticed it before.

So clearly, this is one of the root stories in Western civilization.  No wonder we keep retelling it.

But in the modern telling, we have subverted this trope, and not necessarily in a good way.  In the Moses story, the tale is really about the Hebrews; it is their origin story.  Moses comes to deliver them.  The slaves are freed from Egypt and given the Law and the covenant at Mount Sinai.

But in the modern American versions of this story, the people come to save the hero.  The civilized man is purified and uplifted by his adoption by the natives.  Kevin Costner escapes the trauma of the Civil War among the Lakota.  Sam Worthington’s consciousness is actually transferred into a Na’vi body in AVATAR.  The story is about his salvation, not the people’s.  Kevin Costner can’t save the Lakota in DANCES WITH WOLVES.  No one can.  But they save him.  Tom Cruise resolves his alcoholism and his PTSD while living with Japanese samurai — it”s he who is the Last Samurai, not Ken Watanabe or any, you know, actual Japanese person.

The protagonists of these movies undertake the Hero’s Journey into the “special world” of the native people, and they do the usual Hero’s Journey things, overcoming challenges, acquiring allies, facing their great ordeal.  But at the end, they don’t go back to their “ordinary world” (Western culture)  with the wisdom and the skills they have learned.  No, instead they stay chilling with the native people and their required native honey in the Special World, having abandoned their home, and thus failing in the whole basic task of the Hero’s Journey.

It’s the same story as the Moses narrative, but the emphasis is changed.  The emphasis is on the individual, not the people, on his personal salvation, not the benefit of the community.

So it becomes a tale of self-indulgence and white privilege, not heroic sacrifice, and that is probably why I dislike it so much.  That people in Hollywood feel the need to compulsively retell this bastardized version of this story is not a good thing.  I suppose you could just attribute it to laziness and sloppy storytelling, but I think it’s deeper than that.  Obviously we feel the need to purge ourselves of the corruptions of modern, Western, industrialized society.  And rightly so.  But we’re doing it in these stories by co-opting the lifeways of indigenous, often oppressed people — even if they are imaginary ones, like the Na’vi in AVATAR.  That is wrong, and it won’t give us what we need.  No hero lives forever in his private Idaho.  The hero has to come back, else the quest has failed.

I guess modern culture is what you get when the hero fails in his quest.  That would explain a lot.