About Me

Thursday, March 26, 2015


There was a special place I used to go to go for inspiration. There are other places as well. This one I discovered in the Spring of 2003. It's where the Allentown line crosses over NJ Route 206. It's a strip of back woods maybe 200 yards long and of varying width between 30 and 100 or so yards of some tall trees and tangled undergrowth. It is bounded on the South by the railroad tracks and on the North by a bunch of nice middle to upper middle suburbanite houses with large unfenced back yards opening on a field of green grass and the tree line starts in 50-100 yards. The other side of the tracks is zoned for light industrial use, with some light manufacturing and truck yards, and the empty that used to be dominated by a giant steel girder manufacturing shed. I did some aerial photo research, and the last time that place was used for business was in the summer/fall of 1985, thereafter it was abandoned and sat vacant. For a time it was used as an art studio by some wannabe modern sculptor, who was cutting half inch thick steel plate into grotesquely painted giant paper dolls. There was a life-size crucifix with a faceless Savior, and another one standing among the grotesque images of grossly obese people humping each other. I kid you not, there was a demonic feel, if you looked at that studio in the front office section of that hangar sized metal shed with a football-field sized concrete pad to support all the machinery.



Outside that grotesque workshop was a totally different story. It was a vacant lot overgrown with tall grass and dwarf pine trees. The ground was red clay and it was a beautiful stage for sunsets. The lot was bounded to the east by a large automotive junk yard, and the woods on the other side of the tracks had both, nice footpaths, fallen trees to sit on, and Poison Ivy. I would avoid the grotesque sculptures and walk around the area deep in contemplation. Towards the 206 was the backyards for a garden shop nursery, and late in the summer evenings I can sit and hide in the back of the green-houses, and nobody would know I was there. I sat there with a bottle of wine and fell asleep, waking up early in the morning to a humid night chill, and drove the one hour back home in the city to beat the morning  traffic. Things changed, as they inevitably must. The greenhouse and the garden center went first. They built a vacant parking lot instead. No biggie. Then they laid the pipeline and the drainage for some real estate development on the western edge of the back woods, but nothing became of it. I did some research on the vacant lot, couldn't find anything, other than that the junk yard wanted to expand there, and they got the go ahead in 2007, but they had to meet the safety requirement for the fire marshal. I found that out in 2010. In 2014, they finally expanded and cordoned off the entire lot south of the railroad tracks with an electric fence. What do you expect from a salvage yard for the late model car wrecks useful for expensive parts?

And here is the surprise. For a long time I have worked on the problem of presenting a wilderness adventure for D&D play. There is a reason, why there is plenty written about dungeon adventure design, but little of comparable elegance regarding the wilderness exploration. There is a lot written on the so-called Hex-Crawls - 43 square mile hexes, enter one per day, roll for a monster and a possible dungeon encounter. This is an abstract overlay of a dungeon grid over the outdoors adventure. I spent a lifetime hiking in the outdoors, and I am fully aware, that colorful depth, variety and beauty of the outdoor environment is lost in a typical D&D game. Do you draw a detailed map showing every nook and crevice or do you pencil in the area and then have the players walk through the generic "forest" while rolling for encounters? I came upon an elegant solution for vivid outdoors adventures. One of the concepts for wilderness representation is the interplay between the open and closed topography. An open topography is the predominant terrain with uniform descriptive features, across which the players move. The closed topography is delineated by boundaries and concealment, forming enclosed areas. More densely forested areas, thickets; areas bisected by mountains, rivers, highways, bodies of water, islands, have closed topography, similar to rooms in the underground dungeon.

With regards to this sacred growth, before they tore down the structure and enclosed the area, there were footpaths through it, with people going North and South, the back woods were open to human traffic. Once the lot was fenced in, the human traffic stopped, and the area became closed, a dead end back woods with no visitors. The surprise came, when I expected the dead end woods to become more overgrown and wild, for nature to take hold and bloom, but the opposite has happened. Having lost the human traffic (or was it the demonic sculpture shop?) the woods have lost their atmosphere of mystery. Before, there was a sense of the surreal, like you were standing before a painting, near a gateway, and all you had to do was turn the key, and enter it. Once upon a time, I was sitting on the edge of the embankment, concealed by a tree and smoking, waiting for the freight train to go by. There was rain, and all of a sudden there was a lightning strike. There was an echoing boom, like from the artillery. And there was another lightning strike, and another and another, maybe five in all, and they were all hitting that metal structure. Get it? Big metal structure... Lightning hitting it... But the feel was as if something weird was happening, like the artillery barrage from heavens!

Once the area became closed off, just the opposite happened. The atmosphere of the mysterious has left the place. The forest did not blossom either. Maybe it was the winter storm, that uprooted a lot of trees, but the place became more dead and decaying. The dead tree trunks were moist and slick with decay. There are spider webs and thorny brambles everywhere. These back woods have the dead feel of nothingness to them devoid of mystery, and you don't feel like going there. I still do, to walk along the railroad tracks, and the place is still a sea of tranquility, but it's not the same and there are other places that have the mysterious feel to them.