Know, oh resplendent readers, that the tale before you is set in a time when the ancient littoral civilisations, the ancient empires of the West, had reached their considerable peak of cultural achievement. Let me tell you something, it is an epic, lords and ladies. And there will be elves.
Well, perhaps I'm not being entirely straight with you. To be honest, it is a story about stories of adventure, heroism and all that lah-dee-dah. Stories and the people who tell them. Make them anew, break them, and cast their defiance into the sharp and pointy teeth of chance with ten and twenty-sided dice.
The illuminated will recognise from the above description that this a story of own Great Game – call it role-playing, call it Dungeons & Dragons if your lawyer permits, or just call it gaming for simplicity's sake. Even, if you're prone to hyperbole, call it the pinnacle of our culture and the ultimate synthesis of all disciplines. Some may bestow that accolade elsewhere, there are those who may speak of some affair with glass beads, and wild and hairy heretics may even speak of Boggle or Whack-a-Mole. We, however, shall have no truck with such ludic (and ludicrous) deviation.
Was I addressing an audience of the scholars and aesthetes of the Game, no further explanation from me would be required. Yet I have been asked to spin this fancy for a broader audience. An all-to-predictable gesture by my commissioners and sponsors. Sex it up, they say. Make it a five-volume epic with a name ending in -iad, they implore (Old-ropiad, perhaps).
In response, I sigh, and remind myself that while in theory I have a duty to none but my Muse, in practice I have very real duties to my cats, my landlord and my ex-wife, in roughly that order of priority.
So, role-playing. Let's give you a couple of definitions to be going on with.
So, first, your theatrical definition, darlings and dramaturges. If I were to say interactive storytelling to you, what does that do for you? Well, try this: humans have always told one another stories. What we tend to forget in this Age of the Paperback (and the coming Age of the Kindle) is that a story is not just something you buy on a three for two deal in a well-known bookshop but a collective experience.
What if we're all back around the camp-fire (or the kitchen table) telling each other a story, each playing different characters? Collaborating in the creation of a shared world, in whatever genre? Both spectators and actors, or spect-actors, to use a neologism from radical theatre. If you can dig that, then the rules and the polyhedral dice just become a way of resolving that old question – can my favourite character do that? Can he jump the ravine? Can she cast that spell? Can he make the Kessel Run in less than 50 parsecs? No big deal.
With me? No? Okay, if that tripped too many of your hot buttons for pretension, try this second attempt. Imagine a co-operative board game where all but one of the players work together to explore a dungeon, a haunted house or space station. They find treasure, fight monsters and become more powerful. The remaining player designs the dungeon or whatever and controls the traps and monsters.
Then take away the board and the pieces and ask all the players to run the game in their heads, with the ... ah ... dungeon master describing the situation and the others having their characters react to it. Here, in what you might call the war-gaming tradition in role-playing, tactics are paramount and rules matter, while character is a nice to have, not an essential item.
You can probably tell from this where my own sympathies lie without me having to spell them out for you. Just don't get me started on W**** of W**craft and it's on-line bastard brood.
What, you would have my name too? Such things have power, you know? [Pause] Do you know, I almost said that with a straight face, but I was never any good at poker. All I'm saying is that the pointy hat and the beard come with the role, and you won't find me wearing them in the bar later. Read what I said about the compromise between art and commerce.
So if it's all the same with you I'd rather keep my name out of this. But apart from that you're in safe hands. I know my THACO from my AC, my Azathoth from my Agadoo. *
What? Do I look like I was there for Temple of Elemental Evil the first time around? Cheeky sod! Let's say I remember second edition and stop asking personal questions, okay?
Any more questions? Good. So, what are you waiting for? Speak, friend and enter!
(*) The only way Lovecraft could have topped the image of a blind, idiot, formless god at the centre of the universe writhing to the feeble piping of an unseen flute would have been the vision of it gyrating to the horrific refrain of 'Agadoo-doo-doo / Push pineapple shake the tree...' Sanity checks all round, I fear