Sunday, September 4, 2011

Keeping the oral tradition alive

Recently, NETFLIX released STNG to their instant programming. (STNG is geek speak for Star Trek the Next Generation). This gave me a chance to subject my children to the Klingon Civil War and my favorite Trek episode of all time “Darmok”. I was a little surprised by my children’s lack of understanding of the concept of communicating via “Oral Tradition”. When the episode originally aired in 1991 (Epidode 202 ,Season 5) I was already familiar with the oldest heroic story, Gilgamesh, which is referred to in the episode. I also was well versed in Homer, from my name sake Troy, and Beowulf. After all who doesn’t love Vikings. My kids had none of this knowledge to draw on and thus the episode’s meaning eluded them. After some intense discussion we came around to D&D, ie something that as a family that we have in common. I asked my eldest if I said Keidwe at Gosamar’s temple, what would it mean to him? He said, “A traitorous bard, who died.”  Eventually, we got it all sorted out.

Which reminded me of the dwarves in Barb and JC Hendee's "Through Stone and Sea". In the series the dwarves, a literate race, choose only to record the greatest achievements. The reason of course is that writing in stone is hard and takes real effort. Therefore, most of their history is taught and learned by rote. They believe that a person's words are a commodity to be traded for and just as valuable as silver or gold. Its an interesting concept and creates some difficult interactions that I won't delve into here. (Did I mention, I am a huge fan of dwarves?)

This brings me around to the real point of this article. D&D is a form of oral tradition. Everyone has been cornered by the guy who wants to tell you about his character or campaign. We communicate the histories of our adventures in much the same way as Homer heard the telling of the Illiad and the Odyssey or the Grimm brothers absorbed the Fairy Tales of the Black Forest. Over the last few weeks as I thought about the writing styles of these Epic tales an idea struck me. I almost cried out, “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!” Homer uses the oft repeated terms swift footed Achilles or glancing-helmed Hector. Even when Achilles is moping in his tents or Hector is in council with his father, these terms are used in place of their names. A moping Greek warrior is hardly fleet of foot while sitting on his hind-quarters but Homer still uses the term to refer to Achilles.  This method of description helped Orators with a catalog of characters, some minor and some major, to remember each name and their place in the story.

As I prepare my current campaign, a 4E version of Frandor’s Keep, I noted the names that the Kenzer Co writers used that stuck in my head.  Kiparus “call me Kip”, or Kylamar “Shorty” the Prophet are just a few examples. These NPCs stick out in my mind because their names are descriptive and not simply a series of letters. Kiparus is memorable due to the fact that he is friendly and draws the PCs in under arm as he says call me “Kip”. Shorty on the other hand is a tall lanky delusional.

Chris Perkins, among other writers and DMs, talks about making NPCs memorable with distinctive voices, quirks, gestures and habits. I am slowly coming to realize that naming a NPC Stuttering Stan not only triggers my memory for how to present him, but also triggers a mental image for my players even before I speak in character. Players calling out to go see the stuttering man, helps me to locate him quickly amongst my files without having to worry about a spreadsheet that can be sorted by name as well as description.

The telling of tales is a part of human history and culture. Despite the growing uses for the internet, it is sometimes the ancient methods that shed light on the play of today.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Gilgamesh, a king. Gilgamesh, a king. At Uruk. He tormented his subjects. He made them angry. They cried out aloud, "Send us a companion for our king! Spare us from his madness!" Enkidu, a wild man... from the forest, entered the city. They fought in the temple. They fought in the streets. Gilgamesh defeated Enkidu. They became great friends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.
Captain Dathon: [faintly] At Uruk.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The... the new friends went out into the desert together, where the Great Bull of Heaven was killing men by the hundreds. Enkidu caught the Bull by the tail. Gilgamesh struck him with his sword.
Captain Dathon: [laughing] Gilgamesh.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: They were... victorious. But... Enkidu fell to the ground, struck down by the gods. And Gilgamesh... wept bitter tears, saying, "He who was my companion, through adventure and hardship, is gone forever."
[Captain Dathon dies]

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