Lately, I’ve been on a George Martin kick. My mother found a fine deal on the Dreamsongs books a little while back, and I had been poring through them before the business of moving put much of my reading endeavors to the side. Dreamsongs are collections of his short stories from the various avenues of publishing. Some are drawn from his Wild Cards series, others from the sci-fi mags of the times, and still others come from collections that he built the stories specifically for. There are the occasional story treatments and screenplays for teelvision (Martin did write for the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone and the Beauty and the Beast TV series with Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman), alongside the works that got him his various industry awards. They form an interesting time capsule of his career, both good and bad, following him up to the point where he started work on A Game of Thrones.
Martin’s work is … interesting. I’ve read and re-read the five volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire enough times to be able to dissect the finer points with careful ease. They rank amongst my favorite books of any time period, and I can debate the complexity and detail as well as any. To this day, I’m firmly of the opinion that Martin ran a very long campaign in Westeros, likely using some esoteric system like Pendragon as its base. (He did, after all, run a Superworld game for some years that became the basis for his Wild Cards anthology series. His love of Chaosium‘s BRP System is well documented.)
Many of the Dreamsongs stories are drawn from his science fiction stories, which largely reside in a greater shared universe, not unlike Alan Dean Fosters Humanx stories. This was the fashion of the time, and it serves well enough for these stories. According to the Wiki entry, these were in his “Thousand Worlds” setting. These included “A Song for Lya,” which netted him the Hugo Award in 1975, and The Dying of the Light, his first novel in 1977.
Most of Martin’s science fiction feels too closely tied to the time period that he wrote in, as though one could change out elements of other 1970’s sci-fi and emerge with the same result. It comes across as being by the numbers on a lot of the stories, and the only theme that seems to break the surface in any of the works is a feeling of quiet, desperate loneliness. A fair number of his protagonists are stuck captaining starships across interminable voids, isolated among the stars as they consider all that they have left behind. Even “A Song for Lya” has this as an underlying theme, with the characters confronting their internal misery and need to find some way to belong.
There isn’t a lot to adapt into a game with these stories, sadly.
And it doesn’t stop with the shorter works, either. His rather excellent later novels of the 1980’s, Fevre Dream and Armageddon Rag (both of which I’m sure I’ll touch upon later) have solitary protagonists that search for some sort of meaning and companionship in their lives. I have little doubt that Martin was working out some issues at the time, and it required him to undergo the crucible of TV writing before he managed to exorcise those particular personal demons. Ned Stark has his touches of stoic loneliness, but at least he got married and had children. Most of his regrets come from other sources.
There was one story within the larger Dreamsongs compilation that struck a chord with me, however. This was “With Morning Comes Mistfall,” the first of his works to be nominated for any awards, netting him consideration for both the Hugo and Nebula.
The story concerns itself with questions of mystery and what happens to the romance of the world if all of the questions are answered and the truth carefully measured. The story’s setting, Wraithworld, is a world of heavy, cloaking fogs that ebb and flow throughout the day and conceal strange unknowns. There is a certain mythology that surrounds the inhabitants of the mists, raising the question of whether or not there is a new sort of lifeform (or perhaps an older, stranger one in the form of strange phantoms) that generates and is concealed within the obfuscation.
The story itself resolves very little, settling on the idea that either science can never truly know the eldritch or unknowable or that measuring and quantifying things only removes that part of world that offers romance or value. There isn’t a great deal of plot hung upon the story, as it tends to be a philosophical meditation on the attraction of mystery.
That said, the setting of Wraithworld is ultimately wonderful for creating new and more tightly grounded settings for one’s own game worlds. The Mistfall of the title concerns the daily flow of mists from the upper reaches of the habitable peaks on the world, flowing down into the perennially shrouded valleys where none stray. The mythology of the planet holds that the Mists in the valleys hide stranger things that prey upon those too foolish to seek higher and safer ground. Ancient ruins scatter in the lowlands, lost to most inquiries and assumed to be haunted by the spectres of the unknown.
For my purposes, this has formed the basis of a new Star Wars setting. I had considered using it as a jumping off point for either a series of convention games (something I still tend to wrestle with, since my main experience at conventions tends to be either shopping or trying to mingle with various industry personages) or the spine of a city-based campaign.
In my setting, the planet of Orvaskir is an Outer Rim waystation, sparsely inhabited due to the ever-present mists that cloud the lower elevations. There is a minor and vaguely toothless Imperial presence on the planet, and the flotsam of the galactic criminal underworld tends to wash up here, seeking to avoid too much attention from the larger powers.
The mists themselves hide the previous attempts to colonize and stake industry on the planet, large abandoned factories and mining concerns built in an earlier and more optimistic era and left to moulder when the encroaching elements forced them to be vacated. (This aspect draws much more heavily from the motifs of the Borderlands video games, with the great, rusting machinery of the past is left to the savages that rise in its shadows.) I’ve also chosen to give it a visual representation drawn from images of the Sea of Clouds in China, in the Huangshan Mountains.
For my own purposes, I haven’t sought to define the mists themselves too much, but my assumption is that they are some unresolved form of life that reacts to the Force. Some great tragedy of the past has caused these phantoms to reject the intrusions of galactic citizens, and this is the reason that nothing survives too long in the echoing distortions of the fog. More likely than not, there is some long-forgotten Jedi temple deep within the lowlands, waiting for some pure-hearted scion of the Force to be able to part the mists and delve within its secrets.
This ties in with the mysterious cave on Dagobah (which was later explained in the EU, to various success) and gives some in-universe meaning to the overarching mysteries. I’ve drawn in more detail as to how the specific factions on the planet are going to operate, giving it something of a street level setting compared to the normal galactic backdrop of the Star Wars milieu.