Sunday, February 8, 2015

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Have you ever gotten to something from a roundabout way?

On RPG.net, on a thread, "Are there any books of Advice for RPG Players?", user king_kaboom mentioned Stephen King's novel, On Writing. My mom is a huge fan of Stephen King so I raided her library and sure enough, she had a copy of the book.

I quickly devoured it. If you're a writer, a person who wants to write, or just want to read a quick moving first person narration, On Writing should be right up your alley. Highly recommended.

But then, how did I get to Oliver Twist?

Stephen King, much like the original Dungeon Master's Guide, has his own 'Appendix N', but his is "And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist". I've cribbed a few of the books for my next trip to Half-Price Books and looked on Amazon.

One of the books was a free version, Oliver Twist!

This may sound strange, but I can't recall having seeing Oliver Twist much less reading it. I know some of the famous lines like when Oliver is asking for more porridge mind you, but that's probably from culture assimilation from movie commercials as opposed to actually having seen the movie.

It's an interesting reading experience. The terminology is vastly different than the words in common use today. Some of it reflects rather strangely on modern society.

"The oldest inhabitants recollected no period at which measles had been so prevalent, or so fatal to infant existence; and many were the mournful processions which little Oliver headed, in a hat-band reaching down to his knees, to the indescribable admiration and emotion of all the mothers in the town."

"'What do you mean by this?' said Sikes; backing the inquiry with a very common imprecation concerning the most beautiful of human features: which, if it were heard above, only once out of every fifty thousand times that it is uttered below, would render blindness as common a disorder as measles: 'what do you mean by it? "

It's odd to hear how measles in a book published in 1838 is talking about the horrors of a disease that people are fighting against vaccination today. Ugh.

It's a prime example of how things that were life threatening and taken in a far different manner today are dismissed. How the arrogance of 'modern' man allows us such freedom that we think we know better because we haven't had to suffer through the horrors that a disease being so common might bring.

In terms of Oliver Twist? I am for the most part unimpressed. It might be the time it was written. It might be the methodology in which is was written. It might be that I prefer the characters in the books I read to have more agency in their own affairs.

Oliver for much of the book is either laid up sick, shot, or awaiting as he suffers one type of imprisonment over another. That's not the type of character I would hope players would make at my table.

The book might have been better off if it had been called The Tale of Mr. Brownlow or something of that nature. Oliver suffers much misfortune, but on several occasions is saved from the worst aspects of life by strangers who have no reason to take him in. In those aspects it's a feel good story.

But some of the other characters provide more interesting.

For example, the Artful Dodger. He embodies several things that make him stand out as a worthy character. For one, while a child, he dresses in adult clothing that's too large for him. For another, he is 'serious' as an adult. He also has respect for his mentor, Fagin. He also has some friendship with Oliver, although he has no problems abandoning Oliver when necessity calls for it.

As an outside look, the other thing that's interesting about the Artful Dodger, is that he's caught on an almost unrelated incident. It's not that he's caught that's the problem, it's that the world will never know how great the Artful Dodger was as a thief. If the Artful Dodger were to boast of his numerous exploits, it would doom his fellow rogues. Can't have that. The rogues themselves have a good time recalling his many adventures and successes. 

That would be a solid way of characters having to look for information. The rogue they need to know about is dead and apparently wasn't that good of a thief. Those who know where to look for the information though, may find a whole different layer under the 'upper crust' that knows the truth of how valuable a rogue that died was!

Another bit that's probably not used too often in RPGs, is the unintended consequences. One of the characters is a rogue whose main characteristic is his reliance on violence. He quickly learns that there is a bit of difference between being a thief and a murderer as the murderer attracts far more attention and from a far different crowd than just a thief. 

There's also a great deal of locations in the book that could bear some transporting straight to a campaign. One of the things that may strike old friends of the series Thieves World was the 'Maze' where alleys made things treacherous and death lurked around every corner.  Past such structures in London is found Jacob's Island

From Oliver Twist, "... crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it - as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob's Island."

If you look at that wiki entry and have no ideas on how to put it into a game system, well, we're looking at things differently. 

When I read something like Oliver Twist, even if it's not full of swordsmen and magicians battling the tides of chaos and other classic chestnuts, it's important to think, "Well, what COULD I use." As often as not, there are many things ranging from a certain feel of the setting being read, to names, to habits and physical descriptions.

When reading, try to keep an open mind as to what may be useful as opposed to what may not be useful.

I can easily see someone using Oliver Twist as the basis for a Thieves World style campaign or breaking out the very OSR book Haven and using it as the basis for a whole different series of rogues.

For those who've read Stephen King's On Writing, are there any other books that you would prioritize in his booklist? For those who've read other older books like Oliver Twist, have you found yourself pondering why or how such a book has survived the test of time?

Leave a comment below!