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Illustrated Manuals and the Truth of Fiction

black box movement

“Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him; an aspiration to provide himself with a second handle on existence through his imagination.”

Chinua Achebe, The Truth of Fiction
Convocation Lecture, University of Ife, 1978

The Truth of Fiction

Beyond the assertions of the Black Box Movement, there is another philosophical reason for the lack of illustrations in Dancing Lights Press products. In short, I want you to make it your own. I know that the world has shifted away from reading things to watching them. We seem to be losing the ability to visualize things, because we continually have them shown to us. There is some benefit, in terms of building community, to having a shared frame of reference in the form of a drawing or painting. But it also makes things less personal.

I want people to be able to bring their own perspectives and experiences to the table. The more established canon there is, however, the harder that becomes. Illustrations codify what a monster, magic item, or weapon looks like. That to some degree negates your ability to describe things in your own terms, in the context of how you’re interpreting genre and setting elements. It’s more difficult to overlay your own symbolism, or to make it relevant to the experiences of your players. Illustration creates an expectation for those players.

…such a fiction of the end is like infinity plus one and imaginary numbers in mathematics, something we know does not exist, but which helps us to make sense of and to move in the world.

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction

I know that a percentage of tabletop roleplayers assert that it’s all in fun. “Shut up and kill some orcs already”, they’ll decry, rejecting that there can be more to it than rolling dice and having a few laughs. “It’s just a game,” they’ll say, when decades of lived experiences indicate that it is most certainly more than that. For the hobby to be meaningful, for it to feel worthwhile, I have to reject such reductive assessments. Tabletop roleplaying can be cathartic. To be cathartic, it has to be relatable and that requires it to be personal. This is the truth of fiction, any fiction. There has to be something for use to connect with.

We can create idealized versions of ourselves, or at least people we wished we could be, vicariously live their lives. Together without our friends we can create better worlds, and escape into them for a time. Through adventures we can allegorically or metaphorically tackle the issues we feel powerless against in the real world. It’s a way to not just get away from our troubles, but to take back a little bit of our confidence and self-esteem. When the world we live in doesn’t make sense we can flee to one that’s not supposed to, and still impose some sort of logic upon it.

If tabletop roleplaying is art, then it is the players and the guide who are the artists. Not the designer of the mechanics, nor the author of the setting, nor the illustrator whose work stuff the pages. It’s what is created around the table that matters. My role as a writer and designer is to provide you with the tools to do with, without introducing obstacles. Illustrations, in my assessment, are more often than not obstacles.

About Dancing Lights Press

Dancing Lights Press publishes creative aids and story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.

About Berin Kinsman

Berin Kinsman is a writer, game designer, and owner/publisher at Dancing Lights Press. An American by accident of birth, he currently lives in Finland with his wife, artist Katie Kinsman.

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