The fantasy campaign I run is an ongoing project that is like an old friend to me. I named it A Light in the Darkness, because of the imagery associated with most fantasy genres I enjoy. Many of the hamlets, towns and cities in fantasy feel like waypoints in an otherwise inhospitable environment. Even the D&D DMG calls these places “points of light”. There always seems to be this constant fear of “darkness falling” and the dark itself, is almost entirely a place of absolute terror to the goodly heroes in the text who certainly aren’t from around there! But there are other reasons why A Light in the Darkness feels like an appropriate title and it has less to do with the fantasy genre. For starters, I want the decisions the party will make to become more and more important. Inevitably, these seem to be those that revolve around the ultimate fight, Good vs. Evil. It’s really the same in nearly all published campaign’s I’ve read. It’s a hero’s journey and one to me that literally is about what is inside of us, more than what is around us.
I’m sure every game master out there has wanted their groups to at some point come to at least appreciate the world they are building, if only to tear it down and kill all it’s dungeon monsters! Many of us perhaps though, like me, want our friends, in the form of imaginary elves, dwarves and minotaurs with battle axes to find something important in the journey. We want to create a story with them that is worthy of the time we spend together. A friend of mine once called this “shared storytelling” and it’s known in literature and other places.
Fantasy to me, maybe thanks to Tolkien, maybe thanks to the monsters I loved reading about in books about ancient Greece for example, feels like it’s the most connected with mythology even though archetypes, as my amazing mythology professor taught me once, are found throughout literature of all kinds. Each fantasy world has to build their mythology I suppose, and even though the literal journeys they take are what we talk about, I don’t think that is why we are so captivated by them. And I wonder sometimes if we don’t enjoy it so much, just as we enjoy reading novels that feature a similar path, because of our own paths in life.
It seems to me, the more I read about our own world’s history, the more I see people are constantly waging a mental war, and sometimes physical ones, between that which they call good, and that which they call evil. United we stand, divided we fall. Strength through discipline. Pride comes before a fall. To the victor go the spoils. Each life story is a lesson, and each lesson is a small part of what makes us, us, at any one point in the collective. One might even say it is the great driving force of the human race. A mythology teacher once told me it is the defining characteristic of our race to seek order, to eliminate chaos whenever and wherever we can. Depending on your point of view, I suppose that chaos could be “good”, or that could be “bad”.
I thought then that I would explain, maybe just to myself, I am not really sure, how the concept of A Light in the Darkness came to be. In short, I see it as none other than one piece in a great woven puzzle of stories meant to find the human condition, and the battle we wage daily in order to separate order from chaos in our lives.
For me, the concept began in the understanding of the archetypes and patterns of a study of mythology. From Norse gods, to Egyptian books of the dead. Star Wars, to Point Break. They are all there to be sure. But it didn’t begin to cement itself in my mind until I saw a series of statues once outside of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, France.
To illustrate the idea of this magnificent battle we wage through time, consider the artwork found throughout the world. On my most recent adventure, for example, I saw the battle waged between virtue and sin in central Italy.
Botticelli’s great masterpiece in the Uffizi. Notice that the most significant panel is Fortitude.
Evagrius, a monk who was born in Istanbul and traveled to Egypt, drew up a list of eight egregious sins. Later, these eight became a more centralized seven depicted in the renaissance and henceforth.
To Evagrius, the worst of these was pride, or the love of self.
In Basillica Santa Croce in Florence lies Dante. Dante’s Inferno illustrates the journey into the circles of hell. Although Dante drew on a lifetime of knowledge and study, one could argue this is the basis for D&D’s planes of hell. This journey into hell, which reminds me of several D&D campaigns, is really metaphorical for our own journey. Do we stay in the light? Or do we dwell in darkness?
Next to Dante in Santa Croce, lies Galileo. The dichotomy of allegory and reality is not lost on the person standing among their tombs. Dante, who reasoned within. Galileo, who searched for answers far far away, so to speak. It’s even more striking in Rome when you see the Parthenon, a once Roman temple dedicated to the gods who represent various virtues and traits of humanity, now a church dedicated to the virtues of Christianity which are nearly identical in nature. Even more incredible, adjacent to the Parthenon is the apartment in which Galileo was imprisoned for a time because of his refusal to withdraw his statements. Unbelievably to me, awe-inspiring really, is that throughout these periods of time, throughout these canons of gods, or lack there of, that all of these people went on a journey to understand their role, their existence. Their efforts are now immortalized in the works of art there so we can remember too. Is the Galilean Journey through experimantation really so different than his theological contemporaries? It may surprise us to know how theological Galileo was himself!
And finally, there is nothing I think more central to the idea of good and evil than the wall behind the dais in the Sistine Chapel. Whether religious or not, spiritual or not, we can all I think appreciate the battle we share as humans to remain in the light, and not be dragged down into the darkness. What an image to depict the countless lives throughout the ages, all fighting the same demons, and hoping for the same magnificent transcendence.
In a way, what I found amazing is how the more different all these depictions and traditions and journeys are, the more they really are exactly the same. And not just a little bit, but absolutely identical. In each, whether mortal or godly, each of us has to decide what we do. We battle with our darkness, as we try to remain in the light.
I think it’s a fitting way to look at another end of a Light in the Darkness campaign arc.
Who will remain in the light? Who will give in to darkness? I can’t wait to find out.