Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jules Verne and the Anti-Action

Making my way through a few of his books lately, I am completely surprised, yet again, how absolutely nothing ever actually happens in a Jules Verne story. Except travel.

It's just people going around and looking at stuff. Yes, this is a slight exaggeration, but only slight. There is no tension in his stories, at least none that lasts past the next chapter. It's just observation. Ohh, look at that rock. Those fishies are neat! Doesn't matter if we miss the 5pm train, we can catch the 5:15 and make an extra connection over there and save 5 minutes! Taken prisoner? For life? No bother, look at all this cool stuff down here!

Like anyone gives a shit about which exact streets the guy took going across New York, but there it is.

And why does this stuff happen? Because the prime observer (calling these guys "protagonists" would imply they're doing stuff, I think) just wants to see new stuff and learn things for the sake of it.

And this is not a bad thing.

For me, it helps tame the idea of what an adventure can be. It doesn't have to be blood and thunder or dread and terror. Environment is a character. A fantastic environment doesn't always have to be just the backdrop against which other stuff happens.

I'm jealous.

Hundreds and hundreds of pages of characters just looking at stuff in different locations, scarcely interacting with what they're looking at, and it's charming and engaging all the same.

Traveling thousands of miles and not stopping, yet much rich description along the way, giving every place its own atmosphere. Helpful when basing it off of real life, but I couldn't even do this sort of overview of cities I've lived in.

Not that Jules Verne: The RPG would necessarily be the most fun thing to play (same as how Lord of the Rings isn't necessarily the best to base assumptions off of when running RPGs), but how much greater would my campaign be if I used the techniques of Jules Verne to bring all of my waypoints, incidental scenery, and other usually unimportant locations to life?


  1. I would suggest that Jules Verne, among many others of his time, might have considered exploration to actually be an 'action'.

    It opens up an issue with D&D - Should the act of travelling/exploring grant XP to characters, and if so, how much?

    If I don't kill any monsters or take any treasure, should my character progress at a slower rate than others?

  2. 19th century: the last great age of exploration. A time when 'just going and looking at something' could be a heroic endeavour in itself.

    That said, I always preferred the Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger stories (Lost World, The Day The Earth Screamed, The Deadly Cloud, etc.) to Verne.

    @sorcerers: the XPloration idea that was doing the rounds a little while ago seems ideal for travelogue/touristquest adventures.

  3. >>That said, I always preferred the Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger stories (Lost World, The Day The Earth Screamed, The Deadly Cloud, etc.) to Verne.

    A collection of those stories is actually on the shelf, next on the list.

  4. Jim, I think that enviornment as character is something you have no trouble with.

    That being said, I seem to recall Jeff Rients posting something about xp for discovering certain locations in his campaign world. (At least, I think it was Jeff... it was awhile ago.) Someone told me that old Rolemaster used to award a certain number of xp for distance travelled.

    It is definitely something to consider. Some of the best sessions I've had in my weekly AD&D game have been those where the party simply explores and interacts with their enviornment, without killing or looting. Technically, these sessions should be worth 0 xp, but I always give them something because I find the exploration sessions so damned enjoyable.

    ...also, now I want to read Jules Verne again.

  5. It's an interesting one and I guess it links into discussions about awarding xp. I ran the first adventure in "The Three Brides" and there was no combat, no loot except the reward for solving the mystery and the only dice-rolling was for some theify sneaky. I gave a modest story award it seemed churlish to give nothing for an enjoyable and engrossing session.

  6. Sorry for the nonsensical sentences and grammatical errors. I need to read what I have written before posting in future.

  7. >>I gave a modest story award it seemed churlish to give nothing for an enjoyable and engrossing session.

    In my campaign, the murder mystery was actually a distraction for the PCs going on to Death Frost Doom.

    Although the XP for the session was very light, the charm given to the PCs saved one of their asses down in that dungeon (and they never knew it!).

    Also, the gypsies have popped up again a time or two on the road, always giving information and minor aid when they are encountered.

    A lack of XP doesn't necessarily mean a lack of rewards.

  8. In my campaign one of the female PCs made out with Anthoni the incredibly handsome gypsy.
    She rolled on Kellri's sexual encounters/reactions chart and got the result "get crabs" but she seemed to think he was worth it :-D

    Thye've still got the charm so it might save their asses down the line.

  9. There is also very little "action" in Lovecraft's masterpieces:

    At the Mountains of Madness
    The Shadow out of Time
    The Mound

    I suspect that action is often a "crutch", and this explains why books such as Forgotten Realms novels are just one fight after another. Because they have no sense of wonder, they are reduced to relying upon "action".

    (Another great book with very little action but a palpable sense of wonder is David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus.)

    This entire conversation illustrates for me the essential heart of D&D: The exploration of the wondrous, or (as B1 puts it) "In Search of the Unknown". Any D&D player who wants any further "motivation" frankly baffles me.

  10. Clark Ashton Smith does this sort of thing quite a bit too, but... I dunno, when CAS has the "looking around this weird place where nothing happens," it seems far less engaging that when Verne does it.

    Probably because Verne is either talking about stuff that is or could be real and Smith just seems to try to hard to impress with pointless oddity.

  11. An interesting and surprising post, James.

  12. Not as surprising for me, but certainly interesting, And food for thought.

    I've long been a fan Jules Verne. : )

  13. @JB: I was surprised by James' appreciation of the 'Grand Tour' story-telling device, not the device itself. :)