D&D General Enchantment

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
So this one's going to be long and...different. I've no concern with nuts here. Bolts can stuff themselves. This is about what I've always loved most in both D&D and fantasy fiction and what I'm trying (fitfully) to bring into my just-started campaign. But for this highly unnecessary prologue, I will begin with...what shall I call it? A kind of excursus to my campaign (or perhaps just a footnote run amok), written last summer while sitting at the auto mechanic's to get my baby fixed. I'll end with questions. Lots of questions.

IS IT ENCHANTMENT OR WONDER THAT I CONTEMPLATE? Enchantment. What made me worry momentarily is the fact that enchantment includes wonder as a precondition.​
Why is the enchanting so enchanting, after all? Isn’t it because the whole phenomenon urges us to change our understanding of things and, with it, our lives? Our consciences use guilt to urge us to change; Beauty uses enchantment. I’m going to play on this and emphasize it throughout the campaign. I don’t think I should explain this part of it to them until we’re all done or nearly finished, (remember, enchantment also requires that things pass unexplained and even inexplicable: if it isn’t strange, it won’t enchant) but this is the way I’m going to thread the entire adventure together.​
It’s a basic rule that I affirm: it is not truly magical unless and until you can see it in the mundane world around you. In order to enchant, it has to plausibly sit somewhere in the world you take for granted so that it can seduce you into stopping taking it for granted. That experience of piercing beauty in nature whispering of something more than mere Beauty is centrally tied to what drove Lilith, Phantastes, and Spirited Away. The religious elements in the first two certainly drove the storyline as animism did the latter, but it was the aesthetic response to beauty hiding inside the mundane that made all three enchanting. Well, that and the hint of something more hiding behind Beauty and giving it its life. Beauty hiding inside the mundane—that’s where a strong sense of magic originates. It’s certainly the source of mine.​
So, my maxim right now is, “Let the lamppost stay a mystery.”
It's the things you don't understand (and even can't) that really get your mind going, isn't it?​
Two principles from neuroscience I’ll exploit: (a) the brain’s pattern-seeking function as the primary driver of cognition, and (b) the amygdala’s role in both smell and the fight-or-flight response (it seems strange to have these two closely bound together until you contemplate it in terms of evolutionary biology, whereupon it all becomes perfectly obvious, efficient, and intuitive).​
A third principle, but here taken from the likes of Borges and, to a lesser extent, Kafka: taking the ordinary and making it strange to excite the imagination. Borges especially does this admirably. His Labyrinths uses all sorts of arcane and obscure things from real life, faithfully rendered, and weaves them into his paranoia-inducing fictions. In the infinite library we find stuff from philosophers like Kant and Meinong, both accurately represented. What fiction writers do that anymore? How could they??? They’ve never even read these guys and so have no clue such resources exist. I mean, there are a tiny few: Peter Hoeg did it in Borderliners, but that fact also made him rare.​
There is one other current author who gets this: Susanna Clarke. She demonstrated her excellence in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but reached a new height in Piranesi. Her work is almost a combination of MacDonald and Borges—it’s remarkable, really. I’ve not seen anyone else do anything like this.​
What is it that makes a MacDonald story unlike others? It isn’t just use of ancient mythology: others do that. It's the use of a kind of suggestive confusion, of mysteries that admit no solution—use of wonder, in simplest terms—that makes his tales unlike others. This is common across Phantastes, Lilith, and his less-loved novels. It's also what Miyazaki achieved in Spirited Away. It inspired men like Lewis and Tolkien to write the way they did; it changed literature in the twentieth-century and has carried its influence, however fitfully, into this one. I take it to be a permanent change like the invention of the novel at the end of the eighteenth century. So, in this light I want to include a strong element not just of discovery, but specifically of wonder: things that unequivocally do add up and fit into some larger pattern somewhere, but that equally unequivocally defy players' ability to see where or how they fit. You can see that you’re inside some larger pattern, but you cannot see the pattern; at a basic level, the things you work with and places you stay remain both alien and suggestive: that is perhaps half of what charms and enchants in a fairy tale. For example, the first time a child reading Narnia learns the origin and properties of the wardrobe and the lamppost in the Lantern Waste is an aesthetically lovely moment (I remember it well). But that loveliness exists only because for so long the whole thing went unexplained. Had Lewis spelled the whole thing out right at the end of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, its power to enchant would have died there. This, after all, is why I so energetically disagree with reading the Narnia books in the order the publisher wants and insist instead on reading them in their order of printing. For Lucy’s discovery of the wardrobe and the lamppost to enchant us, it needs to be mysterious—it needs to hint at the promise of some explanation we do not receive. That’s what really gets a mind running.​

  • How do I bring this feeling of enchantment into the fabric of my campaign. Some things I've done I know will help, but how do I weave it into the whole thing?
  • One thing I will do is use smell a lot more than is usual: smell memory is humans' strongest faculty of memory, yet we overlook it almost entirely today. That's one "enchantment hook" I know how to use and already worked out last year.
  • Is it enough only to engender wonder sometimes? I mean, there's no way to make every scene and every scene's every interaction a site of enchantment; much of what I build does have to stay ordinary in order for any of this to work, I suspect. "An eye that's always dazzled never sees anything." - Me, about five minutes ago. So maybe sometimes a piece of the adventure won't enchant, but will at least inspire wonder, while others, if I play them rightly, will enchant.
  • So how do I determine how much is too much and how much too little?
  • And how in all hot, hopping Hades do I get it in there???
  • Is this impossible? There are a lot of beautiful dreams that, for all their beauty, we simply cannot achieve. Is this one of those?
  • I've been in a lot of "orcs 'n' pretzels" campaigns that were fun and satisfying; maybe I shouldn't aim too high?
  • Has anyone tried this before? How did they work it? What tricks did they come up with to bring a genuine feeling of enchantment into their campaign world?
So it's late in East Coast America now. I should stop here, do some reading in bed, and fall asleep.

"Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over."

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Enchantment comes when you start describing magic or any heroic action using your own words. Thus the DM can encourage players to describe freely their actions.

Enchantment is often dispel when you read aloud text rules to make sure that you will obtain desired result.
Enchantment is obliterated when making rule lawyer debate.

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
Enchantment comes when you start describing magic or any heroic action using your own words. Thus the DM can encourage players to describe freely their actions.
Thank you. ^^ This much has to be right: a terse, evocative description of what the party actually sees, hears, etc. is always preferable; it's more immersive and therefore engrossing. I certainly understand and agree.
Enchantment is often dispel when you read aloud text rules to make sure that you will obtain desired result.
Enchantment is obliterated when making rule lawyer debate.
Preach it. I mean, I know rules questions inevitably come up from time to time, but obsessing over them is such a mistake IMO.

Beyond making the experience more immersive, though, I'm trying to bring actual fairy-tale-style enchantment into the game: that curious combination of the alien and the familiar whereby everything we thought we knew is instinctively thrown into question and now even a simple hand gesture can seem portentous. I so have not figured out how to pull this off: all I know right now is that I want to.

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