Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

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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Big Screen Ballyhoo – “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way:

I didn’t like this movie all that much. I am one of two people I know that thinks the same. Overwhelming popular opinion is that the movie was fantastic. My personal opinion was that it was simply okay.

Now, if the “Lord of the Rings” fans could just put away their pointy objects, I’ll try to explain why.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is the first of three films by Peter Jackson attempting to cover the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” as well as set up the trilogy as a prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Originally, it was planned to be two films, so the trailer has several scenes that are likely to be in the next movie. Or the super extended mega-special 500 hour DVD Blu-Ray version. Whichever.

Anyway, the movie starts with the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) beginning to write the book of his adventures for Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). The prologue setting up the back story of “The Hobbit” begins, with Bilbo telling the tale of the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor and its desolation by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, though not really heard in this movie). The movie then sets up these events as occurring on the day of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday, the event at the beginning of “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” With that intro set up, we’re taken back into the past, with young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) smoking a pipe while Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) attempts to solicit Bilbo’s presence on an adventure.

Gandalf basically tricks Bilbo, utilizing his hospitality, into becoming host for 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who are looking for a 14th member, a burglar in particular, to join them in their quest to retake Erebor from Smaug. After some hemming, hawing and singing, Bilbo eventually runs after them the next morning and begins the adventure.

For those that read “The Hobbit,” the movie goes all the way to the escape of the company from their entrapment in the trees, just before entering Mirkwood Forest. The company journeys from Hobbiton to Rivendell, meeting less than fully intelligent trolls and violent orcs on the way, then through the Misty Mountains, where they get trapped in Goblin Town and Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finds a special ring that will look quite familiar to anyone that watched “Lord of the Rings.”

Jackson has also added several plot elements to the movie that exist outside the original book. During the events of “The Hobbit,” Gandalf often disappeared. In “The Silmarillion” and other Tolkien literature, we learn why, and a lot of that is set up in this movie. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) has discovered an encroaching evil, a powerful necromancer, in the forest of Mirkwood. Gandalf’s extraneous adventures deal with that specific plot, though it will almost certainly feature more heavily during the company’s journey through Mirkwood and to The Lonely Mountain.

I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, though not in the 48 frames per second format that many are heavily criticizing. The experience lasted about 3 and a quarter hours (the movie itself lasting about 2 hours and 50 minutes) and had lots of goodies for the nerds (my favorite example being a shared line between Gandalf and Thorin when transitioning from the escape from Goblin Town to being trapped in the fir trees: “Out of the frying pan…” “…and into the fire,” which are names of the chapters in the book), but I honestly just didn’t like it that much.

Now, some of the extraneous stuff was nice, I thought. For example, the story behind Thorin’s name, Oakenshield, was included. I really enjoyed that. But, honestly. This was going to be two movies. It’s now three. You do not need to have it nearly 3 hours long. The movie felt overly stretched out, like there was a ton of filler bogging it down. Also, the tone of the movie felt really awkward.

“The Hobbit” was originally written as a children’s book. Admittedly, it’s a pretty heavy children’s book that deals with some heavy, dramatic stuff, but on the whole it’s got a bit of a light-hearted nature to it, particularly in the beginning. It has its harrowing adventure and stuff, but it’s told in a lighter way, so to speak. It has a bunch of songs, too, which Jackson did include in the first movie (the best easily being the Misty Mountains Song that featured in the trailer). The movie’s tone seemed almost bipolar, though, unable to find a good middle ground between intensely dramatic massive adrenaline pumping adventure and glory and lighthearted humor, which is a bit disappointing because I thought that line was actually pretty easily walked during “Lord of the Rings.” But, honestly, it felt almost like an episode of “Dragon Ball Z” at times with all the fighting happening over and over and over again, fights that lasted so very long. In actuality, upon hindsight, there may have only been about four fights, but they took up so much time and attention that they seemed almost like the majority of the film. If you include harrowing escapes, that drama is the majority of the movie. Or so it felt like. It weighs heavily and steals attention, and is sometimes unnecessary. The length of the battle in Goblin Town, as well as the (I’m almost certain entirely invented for the movie) scene on the Misty Mountains where the company finds themselves precariously perched were particular offenders. The slow “Noooooo” must have been used five or six times in the movie, continuing to remind everyone that it’s a super serious deal, except when it’s being silly and light.

But the thing that irked me most about this movie was the music. It has a beautiful score, don’t get me wrong. And as I said, the Misty Mountains Song was fantastic. But the music is almost non-stop. It keeps playing on and on and on, constantly trying to remind the audience “You should be feeling sad right now!” Most movies do this, but the score seemed to drown out several moments that should have been focused on the acting in the scene. The movie’s finale is the best example I can think of, the one that really just sent me over the edge of being annoyed.

Now, to be fair, I grew up with the Rankin/Bass cartoon film “The Hobbit,” and I think that it is perhaps the most perfect Hobbit film that could be made. I think it’s fantastic. But I think that people that liked “Lord of the Rings” an intense amount will really enjoy this movie… and it’s not necessarily a bad movie. It’s fine. It’s just overly long (I started drifting off during the Riddles in the Dark scene), overly cluttered, “tone deaf” so to speak, too intense with the music and completely lacking an intimacy that the original story had. And, for book purists, it has some pretty awkward inaccuracies, I think. Or, well, things that I kept noticing weren’t quite right, often because of the extra bits he added in, that annoyed me. Like when the dwarves fight with Bert, William and Tom.

Ultimately, you’ll probably enjoy it if a) you haven’t read the book and/or b) you really liked “Lord of the Rings.” I just think it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe the next two will be better.

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From Your Local Library – “The Sword Of Shannara” By Terry Brooks

Finally, I’m doing one of these book review things about a series that Jim Butcher didn’t write.

Jim Butcher is very easily my favorite author of my adult life. Terry Brooks, however, snagged me as a child. When I was younger, perusing the school library for books that would grant me large numbers of those ever so coveted AR Points (enough of those would get me to a party with prizes), I stumbled upon a large book that promised a fantasy world just right for my childhood imagination. While I had seen “The Hobbit,” I had never read any of the “Lord of the Rings” books, finding them a bit long and dry for me at the time.

And, ever since, I’ve been hooked.

Brooks had been writing since high school, but like many of us, struggled to find “his genre.” That’s a struggle I perhaps know too well, if this blog is any indication. He started writing “The Sword of Shannara” in 1967 at the ripe old age of 23. It then took him 7 years to finish.

And I am not feeling so terrible about taking so long on my play now.

The book, published in 1977, is very clearly an homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic. In fact, one of the main complaints from detractors of the book is that it is far too much like the “Lord of the Rings” series.

It’s a fair argument, I suppose. There are Dwarves and Elves and Goblins and Trolls and Man. No Hobbits, though. A group of varied peoples of varied races travel together, led by a mystical man with magical powers, in search of a mystical item to bring to the home of the “big bad,” the unambiguously evil Warlock Lord and his black cloaked minions, who seeks to create war amongst the races. On the trip, the character that must carry the item to their victory becomes separated from the group, joins with characters unrelated to the original group, including a crazed little creature that wants the item all to itself, and carries out the mission while the main group attempts to prevent a war and the invasion of one of the largest cities of Man, currently ruled by a crazed man that is being tainted by the words of a mystic working for the “big bad.”

Clearly, there are some similarities.

There are also some keen differences as well. The details are, of course, different. The tale is also far shorter and far less clear in the moral standings of some of the characters, especially the Gandalf analogue, the druid Allanon. The evolution of the land of Shannara is different, but those are details more clearly explained as the series travels on. But the influence is still quite strongly there, as is the influence Tolkien had on most modern high fantasy.

It’s very easy to disregard this book as a poor attempt to simply rewrite Tolkien’s epic works. In fact, having reread the book just recently, the first time in quite a long time, I noticed that Brooks is not at the top of his game in this book. But, again, this is his first published work, one that was sprawled across 7 years during law school.

Having written 22 novels in the Shannara series (though 3 appear to be a totally different series at first), with 3 more currently planned, the evolution of Brooks’ voice and distinct style can be clearly marked. Even in his first trilogy, the growth of Brooks as a writer from book to book is amazing. And, in my opinion, well worth it.

“The Sword of Shannara” is, perhaps, rather derivative. I mean, it’s no “Twilight” to “Harry Potter,” thank God, but it definitely borrows some of the glow and appeal of the first and better in a similar fashion. The writing style is a bit sporadic, never fully focusing on any one character or view point. And there is far less dialogue and far more inner monologue or description of dialogue than I perhaps like.

But it’s an introduction. It’s a start to a series that sprawls across several books, filled with glorious twists and turns, deep mythologies and political intrigues, and a style of magic that continues to evolve and develop as the books do.

If you like Tolkien, and I mean the books and not the movies, then you will perhaps find yourself enjoying the more compact, lighter “Sword of Shannara.” And, if you do find yourself enjoying it even with its flaws, keep going in the series. Perhaps I’ll review some of the later books from the series at a later time… but for now, let me just say: It gets far more refined and interesting in both writing style and plot.

So, give it a try and see if you like it.

…and maybe one of these days, I’ll have a book to talk about that isn’t sci-fi/fantasy. …unlikely, but it’s possible.

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