Category Archives: Art

Writers: Play Some D&D

It’s been pretty well established by this point in my life that I am a nerd of many sorts. Theatre, sci-fi, fantasy, board games, video games, math, logic, philosophy, mythology, religion… there’s a lot of nerdy in me. So it shouldn’t come even remotely as a surprise that I have played a LOT of Dungeons & Dragons in my day.

My first introduction to the game, though it was ultimately not an accurate representation at all, was back in the summer after my 7th grade year when I was 12 years old. It was, I believe, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition… I don’t remember much of it at all, but again. Not very accurate. Still, somewhere in my room right now is the first character sheet I ever had.

Since then, I’ve played 3e, 3.5e, 4e and am currently in a group playing the D&D Next edition. I’ve been the Dungeon Master for two different (ultimately falling apart) 3.5 campaigns. I’ve played Pathfinder, Iron Kingdoms and even a d20 system a friend of mine created. I’ve done some role-playing online and have oodles and oodles of ridiculous stories to tell about the various campaigns.

Most people find the game to be instantly associated with the nerdiest of the nerdy. I suppose that’s a little fair… while high fantasy and the like have been becoming more and more acceptable over the years (just look at the successes of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” books, as well as HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), it’s more acceptable to observe fantasy, not attempt to live it out. D&D and other role-playing tabletop games are predicated on the notion that one designs a character with a story and interjects themselves, via that character, into a fantasy world. Granted, not every tabletop RPG is set in fantasy, but that’s where D&D began.

Even so, despite it being “super nerdy,” it has seeped into our culture just a bit. You have the people that seem to think D&D is something where people learn witchcraft and are members of the occult… As well as the people that know how laughable that is and like to point out how sessions of D&D usually go. Season 2 of the absolutely wonderful TV show “Community” has a fantastic, hilarious and kinda accurate episode titled “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” that is well worth the watch (you need Hulu Plus for that link, sadly).

The point is, though, whether you think it’s crazy nerdy and has some ridiculous stigma on it or not, if you’re a writer… I think you would do well to play this game.

I realized the other day, when writing the background for my character in the current campaign I’m playing, I’ve written more detailed character story and background for some of my D&D characters than I have for some of my characters in my stories and scripts. That’s not to say that I don’t have good backgrounds for the non-D&D characters… I just don’t tend to write them out and consider all the aspects of their previous lives. However, in D&D, I tend to tell very detailed stories about their pasts and how they came to where they are now.

It’s a really good writing exercise, especially when you limit yourself. As someone that tends to prefer the classics of poetry and art, where the product must conform to a certain style or limitation, I feel that talent, skill, creativity and thought are more thoroughly applied and utilized than in styles where slapping anything together counts. Anyone can buy three blank canvases and call it art or take random paragraphs from random books, tape them together on a page and call it poetry. But how many people can write something truly heartbreaking and moving with only 140 syllables in 14 lines of iambic pentameter and a rhyming scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG? I refer of course to the sonnet, of which some guy named Shakespeare wrote several.

It’s not easy to make something conform to limitations. But it is certainly an exercise worth trying, especially if you find your characters lack depth. Here’s my suggestion, as these are the ways I’ve found the most character work: Find some people to play D&D with. Find other writers or friends that know what they’re doing. You can do a preset campaign or let yourself/another writer write a story/world for you all to play in. But when you’re making your character, give yourself restrictions. In most versions of D&D, you can give your character flaws, which detriment your character but allow for extra benefits to balance it out. A lot of people will do this to make ridiculously powerful characters, but don’t focus on the game play so much as the character. People are flawed. How does that affect your character? Alternatively, ask your DM if you can bend certain rules, so long as you get a good story out of it.

For example, the current campaign I’m playing is in D&D Next, which is still basically in beta, so there’s a lot missing. My favorite class, the cleric, only has three domains to choose from at the moment… and none of the gods of Faerun in the domain I want to use have the right alignment for my character. I could have just changed my character’s alignment, but I decided to write a story behind it. Why would someone that disagrees with a certain deity’s way of life be a priest for that deity? And so, my story was written.

You don’t necessarily have to play D&D or any tabletop RPG to pull off this exercise. But I think D&D is a good template with a lot of creative options you may not consider… and playing the game will let you see how honest you can be to your character and keeping him or her consistent in certain situations. Plus… D&D with the right people can be LOADS of fun. 🙂 Give it a try some day.

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Breaking The Leg: “The Freese Collection” Collaboration

Sometimes, sadly, there are showings of the arts that occur in Tuscaloosa that go without much notification or notice, particularly in the local media. Fortunately, I’ve caught wind (and sight) of one such artistic collaboration, and want to let you know about it.

“The Freese Collection” Collaboration is a collaboration between the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance, specifically dance, and the art department. Held at Moody Music Concert Hall today and Friday (with the opening night being on Wednesday), the collaboration is a collection of artistic works called the Nall Art Show outside the concert hall, with the dance show starting at 7:30 p.m., utilizing members of the Alabama Repertory Dance Theatre.

“The Freese Collection” in particular is a world premiere of a solo organ performance by Faythe Freese, professor of organ at UA. The show is about an hour in length and features choreography from Cornelius Carter, Sarah Barry and Rita Snyder.

It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a show utilizing the large organ in the Moody Concert Hall, and the first dance show I’ve seen in some time. I strongly suggest you go see the show to not only support the arts but also to enjoy the talent and hard work of the dancers who do an absolutely fantastic job.

One note I will make: This is in Moody Music Hall. Not Morgan Auditorium. I made that mistake. It is NOT fun trying to get from Morgan to Moody in 15 minutes.

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I Can’t Stand Modern “Art”

This is a bit of a rant I had recently, and one I’ve had over the years in various capacities… It’s probably the single issue I’m most close-minded about. I hate that I’m so close-minded about anything, but if there’s something to be close-minded about, I guess this is decently innocuous.

It starts with a rant about poetry. I cannot stand e. e. cummings. His total disregard for the standards of the English language itself denigrate the communicative purposes of the written word. But he isn’t even close to the worst offender in poetry, not in my mind.

Back when I was a freshman in college, I took a class called “Arts in Tuscaloosa.” It was an honors class that was supposed to cover my fine arts credit. We met twice a week, once in small groups of 10 or so, and once with the entire class of 50 to 100 kids. My roommate was in the large class with me. That class was very fond of modern art. We had to, as assignments, go and experience art, food, culture in different ways and turn in responses. Those responses could be written, but they had some really ridiculous requirement banning the use of adjectives, I believe, in those responses. They could also be creative. I went for creative and sketched. I’m not the best sketch artist, but I tried. I put effort into it, was clearly creative… still couldn’t get above a B- for my work. Meanwhile, my roommate decided to see how little effort he could put into a response. We saw a dance show together, “Dance! Alabama” in fall of 2006. He went to PowerPoint and created a slide with a light to dark blue gradient, the words “Dance! Alabama 2006” aligned right at the top, and three crappy ClipArt dancers at the bottom. He got an A+, and I refused to return to the class ever again.

Not so great for my grades, perhaps, but whatever. That class annoyed the crap out of me.

As you might guess, they were quite fond of modern art and modern poetry in there. In our large class lectures, we would listen to a guest speaker each week. The only one I remember was Hank Lazer. I remember because I hated his poetry. He told us in the class that, basically, poetry could be just random words you find on the street amalgamated together. As an example, he had a “poem” that had a random paragraph from the Alabama Code of Law every other stanza.

I hated that poetry and I hated the assertion that random words thrown haphazardly onto paper, words not even necessarily your own, could create poetry. That’s not poetry, that’s a word collage, and not even a well done one, not with his descriptions. He didn’t talk about why you used the random words, he talked like you just throw your hand into the hat and pull out something random.

Beyond poetry, modern art annoys me further still. Look at this thing about a piece called “Three Blank Canvases.” Just three canvases, painted white. Or three canvases with what looks like sections of a science textbook printed on them. If these things are defined as art, how does art have meaning and worth? Is this blog I’m writing art? Is a photograph I take of my cluttered work desk art? And what about performance art? If someone burns all their possessions on a street corner, is that art or someone that needs new stuff/therapy? Is it only art if we just call it art? Where’s the line drawn? If a guy rapes a woman in public, but calls it performance art, is it? What if it’s consensual sex, is it art then? Is self-immolation art if that’s what someone calls it?

Part of the problem is that art loses the artist’s meaning in the eyes of the viewer. The audience determines something’s artistic value and meaning. So, some people can find things beautiful and perhaps even “artistic” where I might rant and rail against it. But I think there needs to be a line, parameters drawn. You can find it beautiful or thought-provoking, but that doesn’t mean it’s art. Sitting at the piano doing nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds isn’t music, John Cage, it’s just silence and laziness. I swear, if anyone “performs” that piece near me, I’m jumping on stage to do my own song and dance, and they can’t stop me because I’m part of the “ambient noise” then.

It’s frustrating to me to think of the great artists like Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt… I think of writers like William Shakespeare and Robert Browning and Edgar Allen Poe and Sylvia Plath and William Wordsworth… Musicians like Beethoven and Mozart and Bach… Many of these people, these artists, had struggles. Van Gogh suffered from depression that led to his suicide. Plath had the same problem. Michelangelo nearly went blind painting the Sistine Chapel. Mozart had various problems, some of which likely stemmed from his being bandied about at such a young age. Beethoven was deaf.

I’m not saying personal struggle is necessary for artists, but these artists struggled in their own lives and in their works. It took effort, caused pain, took time. Their art had purpose and true devotion poured in, whether you enjoy the final product or not. And that’s something I just don’t see too often with modern art. I know I’m a bit of a heretic among my artistic and culture-loving friends for saying this, but there is so much in modern art that just doesn’t seem like art to me. Maybe Plato was right and there is an objective form for beauty or art. Or maybe I’m just narrow-minded. After all, many of the artists I named were branded heretical for pushing the bounds in their days, going largely unnoticed or deemed unworthy to be considered artists.

But that’s my thoughts.

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