Originally posted on Tuesday 11-06-2012 02:01 AM at koboldquarterly.com
Ask anyone who knows me, and theyíll tell you that Iím definitely not a reactionary type. I consider myself to be progressive about most things. But in some regards, Iím an unapologetic originalist. I almost always prefer the first recording of a song to the cover version, the original version of a movie to the remake, authentic ethnic food to an anglicized, family restaurant dish, and charcoal over propane. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that Iím not entirely sold on the whole theory of progress idea. Looking at the ancient world, one has to wonder whether weíve really come as far as we like to think we have. Sure, modern medicine with penicillin and vaccinations is great, and itís tough to imagine life without the Internet anymore even though itís been around for less than half of my lifetime.
But ask yourself, what does the 21st Century offer to rival the seven wonders of the ancient world?
The American Society of Civil Engineers has a list of modern engineering wonders and, make no mistake, itís impressive. Yet I canít escape the nagging feeling that our steel mills, steam-driven excavators, tower cranes, and computer-aided structural analysis constitute cheating on some level.
The question is not whether we could re-master the 3rd Century B.C. technology that built the Colossus of Rhodes the first time around. Iím sure we could. The question is whether weíd have the stomach for it. Could we muster the political and economic fortitude to spend 40 years piling behemoth stones with our backs and our hands until they made a pyramid that would last 5,000 years?
To my mind, at least, the ancient worldís monuments of bronze and stone have a magnificence that canít be matched by modern constructions of steel and concrete, no matter how high we pile them up. Maybe thatís because a part of me can still imagine gazing at the Temple of Artemis or the Statue of Zeus, with little knowledge of machines beyond the lever and the ramp, and wondering with amazement, ďHow did they do it?Ē
We humans are the only creatures on this planet with the drive to build monuments, and that drive seems to be universal among us. Some element in our nature pushes us to make things that are taller, wider, more permanent, and more beautiful than anything has ever been before. Is it because we just canít get enough of those opposable thumbs? To impress the hairy monkeys with our big brains? To reassure ourselves that we are masters of the universe? Or do we build monuments because we are the only creatures who foresee our own deaths?
One thing is certain. If elves, dwarves, halflings, dragonborn, giants, Klingons, droyne, and badders share that spark of essential humanness, then they, too, will build monuments. With the aid of magic, mutations, and antigravity tech, their marvels might well put ours to shame.
Whatís vital in your fictional universe is that the sense of wonder isnít made humdrum by magic and technology. If the Burj Khalifa seems less impressive to you than the Lighthouse of Alexandria, then you know what Iím talking about.
Monuments inspire awe because of what they convey about the human spirit. They measure the limit of what humans can achieve. If magic or technology reduces the question of whatís possible to a question of return-on-investment, then the impossible task becomes finding a way to stir feelings of true wonder in readers and players.
About the Author: Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently heís a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the earlier entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!