Of Fantasy and Fitness

IMG_0015Tolkien’s hobbits, with their mills and postal service and gardeners, are “historically” anachronistic, and as such even the hobbit heroes prefer their adventures tucked safely away in books where they belong while the hobbits themselves stay snug in their holes with their pipes and their beer and their warming fires. I’m going to use this as a model of modernity, and yet the hobbits’ culture is not entirely our own. It can be assumed that their prodigious amounts of comfort food are grown by themselves, organically, which requires hard work; their children roam the fields and forests in search of physical entertainments, and, again, their more specifically “escapist” entertainments are in books, not in video screens and headsets and speakers as they are for so many in our current generation.

There is much psychological ore to be mined out of this need — even for those of us lucky enough to be living in periods and places of relative safety and prosperity — to yearn for and fantasize for difficult, violent, even horrific times and situations. This little essay makes no attempt to address such a difficult dichotomy. Instead I want to address the apparent disparity between what so many moderns appear to value in their fantasies vs their behaviors in “reality.”

With what I’m about to say, I do not intend to perpetuate the stereotype that gamers are sugar-addicted, fat and lazy (or thin and hyperactive, for that matter). Indeed, I’m not sure if the health problems and lifestyle choices that assail the gamer community are significantly larger in proportion than those within any sub-community within the developed western and westernized nations. What I’m addressing is the disparity between the health of many gamers vs what I’m assuming must be their idealized selves.

A close friend has shared with me that, in his 20s, he struck upon a profound and transformative insight. He had been spending hours of his “real” life exercising his Grand Theft Auto character to improve that character’s abilities. And then he thought, “I can do this to myself. For real.” And he did. He became a lean and muscular man.

I didn’t pay much attention to my own health during high school and in my 20s. Perhaps it had something to do with that legendary sense of invulnerability or that belief that one has all the time in the world (or too little of it, conversely, for the apocalyptically minded who believe they are fated to die like a rockstar at 27). Or perhaps it has something to do with the stereotypical apathy of youth. But I had been raised by a mother who had put good stuff into me — she had been ahead of the curve from everything from healthy, organic eating to avoiding all things artificial such as synthetic clothes and carpeting and perfumes. I had a genetic reserve from which, during my coming-of-age, I made extensive withdrawals. However, as it says in the Bible, raise a child in the ways of the Lord and, when he is older, he will not depart from it: as an adult, I returned to my mother’s “faith.”

Still, though I try to follow a correct diet now, though I get plenty of exercise by walking, whenever possible, to my destinations, and though I get even more exercise through gardening and added benefits from eating organic fruits grown by my own hands, I still don’t exercise enough to reach my fantasy ideal. This is because exercise–real exercise–is just so boring. In a very real way modernity has turned much of humanity into caged hamsters. No longer do humans grow to heroic statures by adhering to the evolutionary tradition of farming by hand, by hunting and tracking and fishing and yes, I suppose, by warring, but instead they run, indoors, on a moving track, or they pull on weighted pulleys, all the while surrounded by glowing screens and inspirational rock or metal music.

So, as I’ve said, I get it. Modern difficulty with diet is one thing, because of addictions to sugars and fats and even more nefarious substances such as artificial colors and sweeteners, but the sheer act of physical activity, without any apparent purpose outside of the act itself, is boring. We try to make this second more entertaining by, as I said, listening to music (I myself listen to Wardruna while on the rowing machine) or watching something on a screen, but, for many of us, this is not enough.

For awhile there I thought our fantasy entertainment itself might save us from our sedentary disasters. It’s no secret that many of us seek greater and greater immersion in our fantasy entertainment. Hence the Oculus Rift. But before I gave up playing video games, after completing the beautiful Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I would have thought gamers would want more than mere 3D surround. I was waiting for full interaction. You know what I’m talking about, right? If a player desires to swing a sword, she would have to actually swing a virtual weapon, not press a button. If he wants to run to or from enemies, he would have to actually run, not toggle a joystick. In this way, I had dreamed, one would be able to fully immerse oneself in the fantasy. As a fortunate side effect, one could get physically fit, getting all that closer to being the actual ideal rather than just dreaming about it.

Innovations slightly like this, I understand, have been attempted. But I hear that they haven’t worked so well. First, shortcuts around the fully intended effect have been found (flicking the wrist, for example, rather than fully swinging the arm). Second, anecdotally I have heard that many gamers have pushed back at the notion of true physicality in their games. In other words, they would rather that the experience remain wholly in the realm of idealized fantasy in the mind rather than it actually intrude onto their physical bodies in the form of sweating pores and racing hearts.

One reader of the current Dark Horse run of Conan comics, in criticizing a leaner representation of a youthful Conan, said he read and looked at Conan for workout inspiration. I can relate. When I read Conan, and feel his savage heart burning inside my own, and look at all those beautiful bodies that Conan gets to enjoy, I am motivated to do the same. So I’m surprised that this doesn’t happen more often. It seems like the marriage of the ideal forms to real action in a video game should be the answer.

But I suppose that some people — perhaps even most of us — just don’t like physical activity. Moreover, maybe people aren’t motivated by fantasy because the nature of their favorite fantasies themselves might be different from what I’ve been talking about. Both Tolkien’s and Howard’s fantasies, after all, were more grounded in reality than not. Off hand, I can think of no better articulation of this than what is described in ACKS’s recent Kickstarter. These days, however, our heroes don’t need to work for it. They receive or are born with these “powers” and bam wammo! (In fact, many characters receive their powers through victimization of some sort — what might this say about our psychological zeitgeist?) No need to work out, no need to eat right, no need to do much at all unless one is drawn into a situation or happens to have a sense of moral uprightness or social responsibility. Even properties that are allegedly backward-looking towards premodernity, such as the furthest iterations of D&D and Pathfinder and World of Warcraft and (possibly?) League of Legends, have lightning blasting out of people’s fingers and atomic-blast magic swords so large no figure that slight possibly should be able to lift them and spells that give the powers of speed and flight and even teleportation. When these figures are the ideals it’s clear why actual physical activity is, at least in the popular imagination, so devalued.

To reiterate, I’m not sure what all of this means for our psychological zeitgeist, but I hope to use my gaming to inform my active life and, conversely, my active life (through endorphins and actual experience and inspiration — exercise has been proven to increase creativity and intelligence, after all!) to inform my gaming life. Skol!

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Chapter Five: Skark’s House

Sorcerer - Valendron
A fairly representative sorcerer for Hross? Blood will tell, though.

Hross indeed had to jog to keep up with Bevulf’s long, swift strides. So much so that he kenned little of the sights on the way to Skark’s house. As with Eirvit, who was making much of the same trip just behind him, however, he was aware of the scent of spoiled fish that gave way to a fresher breeze as they neared the rope bridge to Deadeye Rock. Then, passing it, he became aware of another smell, something quite strong but fairly pleasant. Continue reading

Chapter Four: Deadeye Rock

“Cataratas del Niagara”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was way beyond Eirvit’s power, this bogey in the basement, but it absolutely could not be allowed to remain. There was nothing for it but to go back to Deadeye Rock and speak to Mother, Aldis. Truthfully, Eirvit wondered if even her mother would be strong enough for the bogey, but hopefully she could do something. In the meantime…

Eirvit watched Bevulf, striding down the path, his two-handed, juice-streaming blade wagging loosely from one arm. Hross followed the barbarian from a discreet distance. Eirvit guessed that they were heading for Skark’s House. Knowing it, her heart misgave her: something terrible approached, some tragedy loomed, and she might be powerless to stop it. Continue reading

Chapter Three: Pest Control

A Bloodrager. Instead of the Barbarian, maybe this image is more representative of Bevulf, though Bevulf doesn't have the
A Bloodrager. Instead of the Barbarian, maybe this image is more representative of Bevulf, though Bevulf doesn’t have the “taint” of sorcery. (Not yet anyway?) 🙂

Bevulf staggered out of the kitchen, walked as far as the budding apple tree, and collapsed with his back against the trunk’s south side so that he could face the sun. Skild was some dozen paces beyond him in the yard, prone on her back in the greening spring lawn, gulping the air as if she hoped to taste the sunlight in it. Bevulf had to admit he didn’t feel much different, though he hoped he was hiding it better. He held up a hand. It trembled ever so slightly. Inside, aftershocks from his ordeal raised his blood and constricted his organs. Never had he felt as powerless as he had just a moment ago, when the idle will of another had frozen him in his tracks, enervated him despite his every nerve and muscle and tendon straining to move. That had been the most terrifying thing; it diminished the force of the images of his dead parents, images of his mother and his father both fallen and frozen on the Field of Winter Blight but, in this nightmare vision, still somehow alive, trapped and frozen as Bevulf had been just a moment before, cursed to remain conscious always and always suffering from cold but somehow never able to move. Bevulf was ashamed that his own misfortune was more terrifying than the imagined ones of his parents. Continue reading

Chapter Two: The Root Cellar

"Pieter Quast Jansz. - Cellar Interior - Google Art Project" by Pieter Quast Jansz. (1605/1606 - 1647) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Pieter Quast Jansz. – Cellar Interior – Google Art Project” by Pieter Quast Jansz. (1605/1606 – 1647) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the kitchen, Nanny looked up from her stitching. As she had earlier, Skild noticed Nanny’s eyes flicker towards the bolted cellar door. The steward knew something. “What’s down there?” Skild asked.

Nanny sighed and rested her stitching on her expansive lap. “Nothing good,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you.”

“Is that why you keep it bolted?” Eirvit was at her sister’s elbow. “The bolt has no lock. You’re not trying to keep children out, but something in.”

“Whatever’s down there cannot be kept in nor out,” Nanny said. “The bolt is symbolic only.” Continue reading

Adventure One: Hammers Under Cold Hearth

Some more words of introduction:

GamemasteryI’m not sure how best to present these materials. Recently I returned to fantasy roleplaying, after a hiatus of more than ten years. There have been two gaming watersheds in my life: in middle school and the first part of high school and in my early twenties, when I first started having children. Perhaps during the latter period I began to feel my age and felt the need to re-experience what brought me most joy in life. That may be true again, as I recently have fathered yet one more child. Besides my new age, location, and gaming community, what I have noticed is most different about my GMing style now as compared to my last experience is the level of preparation I’m bringing to the game. In short, before I used to prepare hardly at all. I worked with no established campaign world, but just let the world reveal itself through the stories that I happened to spin during adventures. This time I not only find myself working within a campaign world but writing thousands of words in preparation for my game sessions in what amounts to something, in appearance, quite similar to published gaming materials. I therefore have decided to share these materials here, in addition to the fiction that I will be writing in tandem with the events of my campaign. Continue reading

Meet the Player Characters!

PZO9238_500As I have said elsewhere, though I had been intrigued by Pathfinder for some time and had purchased a number of materials, I didn’t finally get a game going until one of my sons motivated me one Sunday morning to bring all my materials down to River Quest Games and see if we could get some more interest. The night before, my son had convinced El Gibbs to join us the next morning, but in truth I felt that her agreement had been one of best intentions and that we actually wouldn’t see her the following day. I was wrong: we saw her, and two others joined our company. Continue reading