Monday, January 31, 2022

Roadside Picnic Basket Book Club - 1 - Roadside Picnic

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a series of conversations between me and Trey Causey from From the Sorcerer's Skull about dungeon crawling science fiction. Our first conversation, and the club namer, is about one of the most famous works of Russian science fiction - Roadside Picnic. So pull up a picnic basket, and enjoy our chat!

Anne - I wanted to chat with you, because I know you're putting together a sort of Appendix N for some adventures in space, and I saw you mention Roadside Picnic as a source to draw from.

I really enjoy Roadside Picnic but it also occurs to me that it's kind of "having a moment" right now. I feel like I see a lot of people mentioning it as a potential inspiration.

Trey - It comes up a lot. It's one of Humza's favorites, for instance. 

Anne - It's very versatile in that sense, because if I recall correctly, Humza's setting is a pre-colonial fantasy North Africa, while you're talking about off-world adventures in a spacefaring future. But I can see the appeal in both cases.

Trey - Besides being a good book, I think it appeals to folks interested in games of treasure-seekers exploring weird and dangerous places is because that's exactly what it does!

I think it's probably a better inspiration for the "classic play" style of D&D than say Raiders of the Lost Ark because the protagonists aren't particularly heroic types and the dangers are weirder and more fantastical. It has scenes that are perhaps the modern equivalent of poking around with 10 foot poles. 

Anne - In a way it almost surprises me that it's not the textual basis for classic D&D adventures. 

But it occurs to me that maybe we should each take a turn summarizing the book, in case anyone reading this is wondering what we're talking about. I assume there are a few people who didn't rush off to Wikipedia the moment they saw a book title they hadn't read.

Trey - Sure, let me respond to that point about inspiring D&D first, if you don't mind. I think D&D is how D&D is by accident. It's like Star Trek Monopoly, in a sense. They used only the trappings and widgets of things they liked but repurposed them to something their wargamer minds knew how to handle. I think classical play is an ahistorical attempt to make these accidents of history make sense. 

Anne - I think what we now call "classic play" is as much a creation of the OSR scene in the early 2010s as it is a revival of any way that people actually used to play in the 1970s. From what I can tell, there were a lot of different playstyles back then, because people who didn't learn the game directly from Gygax or Arenson had to figure it out for themselves, and what they came up with was usually different from one another. So the OSR style of inching through a trap filled deathmaze is more like the canonization of one version of the past than a recognition of a single best or most common experience.

Trey - I think that's correct. It has antecedents, but it was one choice of many.

Anne - I feel like some OSR people disclaim any personal creativity and try to say that Gary invented it all, but to me it seems obvious that they invented new things and made choices about what to carry forward from the past. 

Trey - That's true.

Anne - I want to come back to your Star Trek Monopoly metaphor in a second, but we probably should describe the book first.

Trey - So Roadside Picnic is a Soviet-era Russian science fiction novel by the Strugatsky brothers that deals with the aftermath of a strange, presumably extraterrestrial "Visitation" at 6 locations across the globe. These locations are left altered in weird ways. There are anomalous artifacts and weird substances. As the governments try to keep a lid on these "zones" and exploit what they can technologically, a culture of stalkers arises that sneak into zones and take things to sell on the black market.

Anne - I like how much of the Strugatsky's invented language you managed to work your summary! I see it as a story about poor criminals with no other options for a decent living going into a bizarre environment, filled with deadly traps, to seek magic treasures, in a world where everyone is shockingly blasé to the wonders and the horrors of the Zone / dungeon. Even the treasures they find, which should inspire awe, get called "swag," and some types are common enough that they aren't even particularly valuable. 

The D&D attitude is there, alongside a plot structure that mirrors the classic dungeon delve.

Trey - I think the "poor criminals" part is interesting. Red is initially working for the government. Does the government exploration end? Or is it just Red finds the idea of making more money off the risk's he's taking more enticing?

Anne - There's even a guy who's infamous for bringing in hirelings to get killed on his behalf.

Trey - Yep. He's got a nickname, as I recall - The Buzzard!

Anne - Yes! It's been a couple years since I read it, but I think he's also the guy who loses all the bones in his legs to an encounter with Witch's Jelly.

Trey - Yeah. But I think it isn't so much they have no other options, but that these blue collar guys see this as a quicker way to wealth. It's dangerous, but there's a hint some of them are sort of thrillseekers, too, as I recall. What they do is seductive.

Anne - There are really two kinds of Stalkers, right? There are the blue collar workers who are doing it for the government, and the black market criminals who just want to sell swag to the highest bidder. Plus the occasional scientific tourist who wants to actually learn more about the weirdness of the Zone.

Trey - And of course, we learn the governments are benefiting from the black market trade, too.

Anne - Thrillseeking is a good way of describing it. These guys are looking for adventure as well as money. They're adventurers.

Trey - Back to D&D again!

Anne - Okay, so a minute ago, you compared D&D to Star Trek Monopoly. Could you say more about what you mean by that?

Trey - Sure. It's my shorthand for the trappings of one thing, but the substance of another. Star Trek Monopoly pays lip service to Star Trek, but is really just monopoly. A game that purports to be about Conan, or Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, or Gandalf, but is instead about dying in holes in the ground, has a similar sort of disconnect. I hasten to add, this does not mean it’s bad.

Anne - That's worth pointing out! But right, Conan doesn't work in a team, Gandalf never got eaten by a Gelatinous Cube while trying to steal Smaug's gold, etc.

Trey - Neither carry 10 foot poles!

Anne - I think that's also what I mean when I say I'm surprised Roadside Picnic wasn't a conscious influence. Because D&D is kind of like the plot Roadside Picnic, but with the cast of The Hobbit swapped in to replace the Russian lumpen-proletariat. 

Trey - I think that's right. It also makes me think how it might be interesting to think about a version of The Hobbit where the desolation of Smaug was a Zone!

Anne - True, we could all certainly lean in harder to the weirdness of the dungeon!

Trey - I do think there are ways in which D&D isn't like Roadside Picnic, of course, besides the modern setting. One, dungeon environments are mostly new spaces to adventurers with unknown dangers. The zones (mostly) seem known to the stalkers we follow, it's just a matter of if they can avoid the dangers. Two, they never haul about large amounts of valuables. No hordes of coins for them. Three, there aren't really monsters in the zones: just "traps" and "hazards."  I think you could do a "rationalized D&D" that was more like a medieval-ish RP, but as it stands D&D is a little bit Roadside Picnic and a little bit The Hobbit. Awkwardly.

Monday, January 24, 2022

My Weird & Wonderful Interview with maxcan7

At the start of the year, or maybe it was the end of the last one, maxcan7 of Weird & Wonderful Worlds messaged me to ask if I'd like to participate in his ongoing interview series. I agreed, and in the last couple weeks we found a time to sit down for a chat.

Thank you to maxcan7 for the opportunity to participate in this project, and for the chance to talk about myself and my views on the online RPG scene.