If you’re not from Canada, you probably don’t know that In February of 2017 we lost a pillar of Canadiana; a goliath of storytelling and all around amazing guy. Stuart Mclean was a Broadcaster, humorist, monologist, three-time winner of the Steven Leacock Memorial medal for humour, and member of the Order of Canada. He is best known for his story series, the Vinyl Café hosted by CBC and presented live at his annual Christmas Tour. With his passing I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering his legacy and the impact he had on my life. What could best be described as fables of Dave, Morley, and the rest of the gang are so deeply embedded in my psyche that his characters are basically family now. Stuart McLean was a powerful storyteller and I’ve been trying to emulate his work for years, and this has certainly impacted the way I DM. Here are a few of the lessons I learned from my master, Stuart McLean.
1. Sometimes it’s the Small Things That Lead to Great Adventures
In “No Tax on Truffles” and “Boy Wanted” Dave’s Son Sam picks up a magazine on cooking in a doctor’s office and 11 years later (actual years, the first episode was broadcast in 2001, the second in 2012) Sam gets his first job at Harmon’s, working for the man who sold him his first truffle. Sometimes a seemingly innocuous and commonplace occurrence can lead to big things. Like Sam reading a magazine out of boredom, my PCs go through far too many simple and meaningless interactions on a daily basis to talk about in any session. But that doesn’t mean I can’t plant tiny, almost imperceptible seeds of adventure for them and bury it in the soil of other adventures and rewards. An interesting book with no apparent value might be something that one of them decides to reads around the campfire at night. Perchance they find a simple piece of jewellery that, a dozen sessions later, leads them to the noble person who it was stolen from. Whatever the mechanism I love to put seeming innocuous pieces into my sessions that lead to big things down the road.
2. Mood is Everything
Perhaps no story of Stuart’s captures mood like “Summer of Stars”. Weaving background and imagery into a story so memorable that just the thought of it still makes me smile and remember it like I was at Grandma’s housing chasing crashed UFOs. Sometimes in my campaign I spend just a few words to set the scene, is it dark or light; raining or clear. But the best times are the long and slow build; the stories that start with a memory, rise slowly through tension, seasoned with descriptive narrative, and ending in a rich tapestry of imagery. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth it. For me it starts with a reoccurring NPC, someone the PCs already have a connection to and memories of. The conflict starts small, a simple request for help or a small job that needs doing. I like to scatter descriptive narrative throughout the story giving them just enough that they fill in the blanks with their imagination then I like to finish in a place truly memorable but somehow linked back to the original NPC.
3. The Best Stories are Relatable.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness, so for me, the time Dave and Morley celebrated their anniversary on a Canoe trip is definitely something I can relate to. It’s how relatable Dave, Morley, and their neighbours’ misadventures are that makes Stuart’s stories so incredible. So now I spend far too much time thinking and planning what might happen to a group of friends stumbling home after a long night at the pub when they are stumbling through a city of magic and thieves’ guilds, doppelgangers and portals. I wonder, why don’t more ambushes happen when a PC is using the latrine and where does the struggle to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly fit into my campaign? I always try to introduce simple and relatable mechanisms into the NPCs adventures.
4. The World is Full of Normal People
The Town of Big Narrows, where Dave grew up is populated with extraordinarily normal people who, despite being fictional, have a special place in my heart. Even in a fantasy world, most people will be, for lack of a better word, common. Most adventurers come from humble beginnings and so do most of my villains. I’ve found that some of the most endearing NPCs are the most normal, the citizens that come from some place in my shared cultural identity with my players. But the true magic of this happens when the PCs discover that their nemesis is actually just a farm boy who, through some struggle or another, finds themselves in opposition with the party (I love watching the moral struggle play across their faces). I suppose what I’m trying to say about NPCs is best summed up in the motto of Dave’s store, The Vinyl Café, “We May Not be Big, But We’re Small”; so I try to never undervalue the impact that a simple, although well placed character with a small part can have.
5. Make ‘em Cry.
Of all the stories I have ever heard or read, Morte d’Arthur is the saddest. I’ve also shared the loss of a family pet and so a measure of empathy and sadness is inevitable. However, to feel the full depth of the story I needed to have first listened to “Turkey’s are Terrific”, “Arthur the Dog”, and a dozen other stories where Arthur the potato stealing dog insinuated himself into my heart. I try to embrace tragedy in my stories but I’ve learned that to do this properly takes time. I’ve found that it often starts with the players bonding with some random and unexpected NPC. I cultivate that relationship and build out a more in-depth back-story for them and increase the interactions. Many levels later, after the player’s have come to rely on those interactions, tragedy strikes.
6. There is Magic in the Mystery.
“Hello Monster” is a story where Dave gets stuck in the storm sewer and finds himself in a hilarious and ultimately futile conversation with a young boy who believes Dave is a sewer monster. I’ve learned that sometimes the mystery is the most magical part of the high fantasy campaign. I used to feel the need to be able to explain every magical effect or impossible feat using the literature provided; but now, if there is no easy answer I use allusion and mystery. I like to leave the player’s in the dark, just a little bit. Never quite knowing the whole story gives them room to fill in the blanks with their own imagination and like the boy who may live his life telling people about the sewer monsters of the Toronto suburbs, the PCs will have their own stories to tell.
As all of us fans struggle through the realization that Stuart is gone and there will be no more Vinyl Café I know that he would not want us to mourn him for long. Instead I choose to remember the legacy of one of the world’s best storytellers and to try, in my small way, to ensure that the legacy lives on through my own creative works. Stuart, you will be missed, thank you for the years of entertainment and thank you for the endless laughter, tears, and memories.
Bryan recommends that everyone immediately start downloading the Vinyl Café podcasts by CBC. Also, go buy one of his books. To hear a tribute to Stuart McLean and his work go to: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/vinyl-cafe/episode/11713626
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.