hit counter code Back to Unreality

Back to Unreality
Author: John L. Campbell

The war-scarred veteran stands alone on the battlements of a windy keep, hard eyes fixed on the distance, his face and hands creased with weather and time. He wears the simple but unmistakable tunic of a warrior, his armor beneath battered and dented. Slung low on one hip is his blade, the leather of its grip worn smooth, the steel nicked but sharp. The wind brushes his silvering hair, and pennants bearing his coat of arms flutter on towers high above.

He sees not the majestic, snow-capped peaks and dark forests of his lands, pays no mind to the peaceful clusters of thatch roofed villages in the valley below his stronghold, woodsmoke curling from chimneys in the chill of an October morning. He looks to the horizon, to a challenge he cannot see but feels approaching. He closes his eyes. It has been long since he knew the fury of battle, the raging blood and thunder of hooves, heard the cries of the wounded, the echo of victory horns sounding over fields of the fallen. The ghosts are with him as always, but they have been silent these long years.

No longer.

They call to him, whisper of what once was, and remind him his mind is still sharp, his hands still strong.

It is time to draw his blade once more.

Coming out of a self-imposed creative retirement has been, and continues to be for me, a challenge worthy of a little dramatic prose. It is at least 10 years since my keyboard has seen much action beyond business proposals, spreadsheet entries, work-related e-mails, training doctrine and other mindless blather used in the pursuit of keeping the lights on and using a shopping cart for shopping, not residential relocation. Yet there was a time, much like our hero on the castle wall, when things were different.

During my mid teens and throughout my twenties, I existed in that blissful and elusive state of “Being Creative,” specifically with the written word, but also in the realm of verbal and interactive storytelling. This manifested itself through repeated attempts at noveling and short story writing. Primarily, though, I engaged in the mystical art of Dungeon Mastering (it’s a verb to me, and didn’t flag green on my grammar editor, so deal with it.) Although the results of the first two of these weighty endeavors were much akin to giving birth after months of anguished labor, only to have my spawn shunned by all save a select few (most of my literary spawn hide in the bottom of a trunk in my den, whispering to one another, well away from the daylight) it was Dungeon Mastering which really allowed me to unsheathe that creative blade and carve out the stuff of legends.

At least that’s how I remember it.

In more realistic retrospect, my tours of duty as a DM may not have been the stuff of epics, but it was certainly a lot of fun, and remains one of the most memorable parts of my life. The fact that those days are forever linked to some of the best people I know makes it all the more wonderful. I suspect, and desperately hope, it was the same for them.

Now before the tears flow and the healing can begin with a big group embrace, allow me to get back on track. We were discussing creativity. For me as a DM, the problem was often not a lack of it, but an over abundance coupled with a hint of OCD. I often felt the need not only to describe the contents of the coat closet in the back left bedroom of the villain’s summer villa on the lake, but to detail what might be found in the pocket of each garment. And of course what type of fish were in the lake, what it smelled like, the type of trees used to build the summer villa, the color and richness of the marble in the foyer, what mountain range the marble came from…you get the idea.

I believe it was the details that brought my worlds to life, combined with several other factors; I am more than a little taken with the sound of my own voice; My vocabulary arsenal is relatively well-stocked; I have an acquaintance with the dramatics of mood, setting and suspense; I battle against a tendency towards being a control freak; I love a good story. In the end, it’s all about storytelling and the desire to entertain. Add to all this a wild imagination and an audience of supportive, friendly gamers, and you have the quintessential DM.

At least that’s how I remember it.

This is not to say I was always beloved by the unwashed masses or even my players (who, after fourteen hour gaming sessions, often fit the previous category.) There were numerous times when I faced absolute refusal to accept my rulings as final, open revolt, and the assurance that if I threw just one more Type IV demon at this wounded party I would be bound and dragged behind a rusty Dodge pickup, prior to being buried alive by a pair of giggling Andersens. Stories for another time.

I pulled through, and my groups stayed with me, bless their black hearts. For those of you who DM when the mood strikes you or commit to it full time with religious fervor, I implore you to remember that you are there for the players. You will certainly take pleasure from running a campaign, but they are the reason you do what you do.

Weren’t you supposed to be keeping me on task? See that, you allowed me to stray again. What kind of shepherd are you? What’s that? Your players slaughtered the shepherd shortly after entering the village? I see…one of those groups…

So, coming out of retirement. Why? What diabolical force could drive me from the safety and normalcy of the Outerlands, where 8-headed beasts roamed with names like Mortgage Payments, Getting Promoted at Work and Having Normal Conversations at Social Functions…? What could possibly compel a middle-aged ex-writer to strap on his double action keyboard (with the ivory grips) and walk back out into the dusty street of that badland town called Fiction?

My muse came home.

She showed up the other day looking scruffy and well-traveled and ready to work. She just pushed past me and dropped her bags on my desk, sneering with disdain at a stack of annual employee evaluations I had yet to complete. While I stood in the doorway with a rather stupid look on my face, wondering how I could get her to go away, she informed me that she had somehow gotten herself on a Federal watch list and that travel was difficult for her right now. She didn’t say how long she’d stay.

As I craftily announced that my sofa sleeper had been lost in a farming accident, and that she would have to find a motel, preferably beyond state lines, my sweet and gentle muse hitched up her flowered sundress, exposed her black Doc Martens and kicked me square in the Creatives. And thus the writing began once again. While I pound out the words with something less than grace and more like industrial meat cutting, my muse busies herself with raiding the fridge and digging change out of the couch, offering such helpful tidbits as, “How about a sword-weilding ninja llama caught off guard at a Bavarian cheese festival,” and “don’t you think dwarves would be as proud of their back hair as they are of their beards?”

Where’s that corporate guide to understanding my health benefits?

She is relentless, however, and I now find myself in a place where the new novel is half finished, and the desire to suggest, discuss, preach and profess is upon me. My friend Mr. Haney as been gracious enough to offer a forum for the occasional piece of short fiction, and the odd article on DM insights and storytelling dynamics. He has my gratitude. Should my crazed ramblings sneak past this Grand High Editor and Master of the Website, you’ll have the opportunity to decide if those words help your own DM creativity, give you a couple of laughs, or are just plain old crap. If the latter, I invite you to sentence them to join their older siblings in the spawn box.

So here we go. You know, there was a time when I could set a mood, capture the imagination, entertain and enchant an audience…

At least that’s how I remember it.