Channelling Gogol: Escape into fantasy…

It seems to have been a while since the internet was last graced with my long form musings about the ever changing ‘new normal’.  I suspect this may be because I have found a new outlet for my excess stupidity: a subject which I intend to form the meat of this post (only time will tell whether I prove capable of delivering on this threat).

I think we are well into month five of the lockdown, though I am starting to lose my belief in the reality of the before times and also seem to have increasing difficulty navigating verb tenses successfully.  Many years ago, there was a radio comedy called the Million Pound Radio Show and its most famous product was the pirate sketch.  This has much to recommend it but, relevant to our current situation, it did raise the issue that pirates only speaks in the present tense and that use of the pluperfect was a planking offence.  If this hypothesis is true, I am becoming increasingly piratical: though have yet to handle being home alone by acquiring a parrot companion or seeking to stockpile pieces of eight.

With the easing of lockdown, the pubs have re-opened and I have been to a pub.  The only pub I have visited since March is the Guide Dog (which, in no coincidence whatsoever, was the last pub I visited in the before times), though I have visited it on multiple occasions since 14 July.  It is a place that I still feel safe (and not just because it is my second home) and their systems around social distancing and the “plus” element of current guidance seem very well thought out. I’m sure other pubs are also excellent but I am focusing my economic and hepatic energies and increased risk profile on supporting my favourite.  On Wednesday, a couple of my diaspora of friends returned to the city and the Guide Dog and it was lovely to see them in the flesh, rather than via my (very decent) desktop screen at home, and a slight excess of support may have occurred.

Talking of the flesh, last weekend I managed to catch some live music, courtesy of the spacing and reduced contagion offered by the great outdoors, on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  At one point, I did get quite wet but it was worth it to reclaim another little portion of my old life.  I am having to re-learn the etiquette of live music as, unlike a live stream, people can hear and see what you are doing and joining in is not always appropriate!

The main new novelty in my life, and the sponge which is absorbing most of my creative juices, is Generic Fantasy Landia™.  I feel that I have mentioned that in the run up to lock down, in addition to stacks of books I also bought a Dungeons and Dragons Starter Kit: I was fully aware of the dangers of being stuck with my own company for an extended period.  Sadly, this does not permit me to grow either my own dungeons or dragons: both of which would have been interesting projects in their own right.  What it does provide is five pre-baked characters, a set of dice with various numbers of faces, some basic instructions for play and a fully written adventure.

Using this Starter Kit and Zoom, I and three friends (recently increased to four) have been learning to play D&D.  I have taken the role of Dungeon Master and my friends are playing the part of itinerant adventurers who can, eventually, be tempted out of the virtual pub and onto a quest.

The first adventure, I ‘borrowed’ lock-stock-and-barrel from a YouTube video on how to be a Dungeon Master.  We had very little idea what we were doing, but had just enough of the rules broadly understood to make it work and establish that it was something we could have fun doing.  We also established some of the ‘features’ of our version of D&D which I’m fairly sure are not part of the traditional game and would horrify purists.  The subsequent two adventures, I have ‘written’ from scratch raiding my memories for ideas.  This means that our adventures are set in a somewhat generic fantasy world, based only loosely on the Forgotten Realms of the D&D 5e canon (I’m not sure the Forgotten Realms have an Ikea or a proto GoApe): it started out being called Generic Fantasy Land but this very quickly morphed to its enduring name of Generic Fantasy Landia.

D&D is a very open-ended form of game, which means that monsters and non-player characters (NPCs) are not stuck with a fixed range of activities but can do anything they (meaning I) want and I can convince myself is in character.  The adventurers can (and regularly do) go off piste in unexpected – often suicidal – ways: which can require some quick thinking on my part (which does not always occur quickly).  As time goes on, we are getting through fewer resurrection potions than at the start, though some monsters do have to pull their punches (and I may have to fake the odd low dice throw) from time to time to avoid an unplanned massacre.

Given that I am writing the adventures and given the nature of my friends, our version of D&D (named D and Franken D) has rather more of the Carry On! franchise about it than I suspect is wholly authentic.  When a new adventurer joined the party a couple of weeks ago, I was concerned that they might struggle to fit into the innuendo-ridden world of GFL and my sometimes creative interpretation of the rules: I needn’t have worried, they fitted right in!  They are not yet fully into expecting trapdoors everywhere  and vandalising everything in sight, but given the company they are now keeping this can only be a matter of time…

To counter some of the more reprehensible features of GFL, I am quite hot on geological accuracy and am trying to do some consistent world building.  All settlements in GFL are named after European power stations and the only mountain range (so far) is named after a painter (I am reminded that I need to name a river).  Early in the first adventure I wrote, the team find a notebook and I felt it wasn’t enough just to describe it: so I drew the necessary map and wrote some terrible riddle-based poetry to provide some clues as to how to proceed with the adventure.  I learned the important lesson not to create a map which requires drawing quite so many trees in future but really enjoyed the ‘art’ aspect of the project.  So, for later in the adventure I drew a geologically realistic limestone cavern and a room using single point perspective (casting my mind back to my last technical drawing lesson from 1979).  I now find myself regularly buying new art supplies to improve the quality (debatable) of the visual aids I’m providing to make each adventure more immersive.  I have since drawn a pub, a further map and a town surrounded by a wooden palisade with a castle above.  I am currently working on a town plan and have experimented with 2-point perspective: luckily standard D&D does have cubical monsters!

In the first couple of adventures, other than bar staff there were no NPCs for the team to talk to, just monsters to fight.  However, for the current adventure I am attempting to create a range of characters for people to interact with other than at sword, bow or wand-tip.  This is really pushing my very limited ability to produce viably different accents for different characters: as it is, characters’ accents wander very widely even within a sentence and I have a tendency to forget what accent they had last week (I need to take better notes!).  I am not (yet) able to draw the characters: another potential project to see me through lockdown!

The existence of GFL has really made Sunday nights something special, if exceedingly silly, and a highlight of my lockdown weeks.  It is also now giving me lots to do during the week and a reason to play with the visual arts for the first time since the 1970s.  I now understand loads of nerd-references from film and TV that somewhat passed me by at the time.  I do worry that I am becoming slightly obsessed and I am starting to un-ironically use such references: I did find myself bemoaning my -2 Dexterity when attempting to perform a task earlier in the week.

I feel I’ve rambled for long enough and GFL prep calls: NPCs won’t name themselves or prepare their own clues, so I must step into the breach…

 

Labial kinetics

At some point, as they learn to read, the vast majority of children become capable of following a text without speaking out loud and then without even moving their lips.  Given that my childhood has now vanished, coughing, into the pea-souper of history, I had fondly imagined that I too had mastered this particular skill.  So it was that, yesterday evening, I suffered the most impertinent of awakenings.  On mature reflection (or as mature as my essential childishness permits), I realised that there had been portents in existence for some time for those with the wit to interpret them.

Before the few, tiny quanta of respect GofaDM readers still retain for the author melt back into the foaming medium of space-time, I should make clear that I can read the phrase “bottle of beer” without resort to the hard sound associated with the letter G and with my mouth remaining tightly shut (well, except as required for breathing).  Indeed, I can read the vast majority of novels, web-pages and many a treatise on science or the humanities without recourse to my oscular musculature.  However, there are three major areas of exception to my otherwise condign mastery of this somewhat basic text processing skill.

1.  Foreign vocabulary

The voices in my head are entirely confident when reading my mother tongue, but sometimes require a little help with words taken from another language.  When I was reading a lot of Spanish, this task could also be accomplished while my lips slept – though given its current, very rusty status, the language of Cervantes might require a little help these days.  For a really unfamiliar tongue, one where I am feeling my way through the words and experimenting with possible pronunciations, I may even need to give voice (sotto voce) to the sounds.

2.  Dialect and accents

If the text requires the use of a strong dialect or a strong accent, then the unaided voices in my head can struggle to do it justice.  Sometimes a little labial motion or even voicing of the text can help – though, anyone who has seen me attempt an accent will recognise that this voicing may be counterproductive.  I can produce accents other than my own, but normally I have no idea what they will be until they have emerged, blinking into the world of sound – and often, not even then.  Even if the accent is recognisable, it will rarely have been what was intended – and, as a result, I try not to reveal the nature of the intended accent and just claim any available credit for the one that eventually issues forth from twixt my lips.

The same issue can occur if I am trying to recapture the sound or cadences of the author’s voice, as I have recently tried with A L Kennedy, Adam Gopnik and David Sedaris.

3.  Poetry

The voices in my head are terrible reciters of poetry – perhaps a lack of experience tells against them.  They make a total hash of anything with metrical form, specific patterns of stress or alliteration or the use of caesura.  in consequence, to gain anything like the full heft of a poem, my lips must move and often my voice must be fully engaged.

Last night, I foolishly attempted to read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in a relatively well-lit public space whilst waiting for a gig to start.  This, staying true to many of the precepts of Anglo-Saxon poetry, runs almost the full gamut of poetic devices and so my lips were in near constant motion.  An important lesson was learned!  In future, I shall only read this work in the privacy of my own home or while wearing a suitable poetry-reading mask: i.e. one which conceals (at least) the lower third of my face from view.  I wonder if this could be an accessory to accompany my earlier development of Bookshop Blinkers™?  From a branding perspective, I think I’d want my Verse Vail™ to avoid a look overly reminiscent of either a surgeon or dandy highwayman – then again, given that many a performance poet will stand to deliver his stanzas, the latter might be appropriate…