Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Fantasy

I'm still "out" on the whole fantasy thing. I do like fantasy - I want to be clear on that. But I don't like main stream "High Fantasy" which is what nearly everyone means when they say fantasy. So this leave me in a funny position when it comes to D&D. And really when you talk fantasy and high fantasy in particular your talking about every ones Uncle Underground old "D&D".

Lets take it as a given, my Fantasy campaigns were less then fantastic, ehe (I have one exception I ran a good game of Runequest which morphed into Warhammer Fantasy but this is hardly High Fantasy).

Oh sure I've run my fair share from OD&D, RedBox B/X, and AD&D1e, 3.5 and some 4thed but none stand out [not entirely true The campaign with Allen Ball and Kev as Dark Robe and Severlan was alrigth but]. Most were not more then a string of prepackaged adventures [the Dark Robe game included]. I really struggle as a DM in coping with the change in the game which each new level brings. As well other nuances of the game, like magic items, magic users even monsters. I really like what the Old school D&D movement says about making the game your own and making those tweaks to the game which give you the best result.   

I would like to have a good fantasy campaign under my belt. I really would.  So naturally I'm looking at D&D and I'm considering source material and a sandbox game. 

The first step, it seems to me is understanding what I do like in fantasy. So I've been analyzing what I can do to deliver a good fantasy game when innately I don't find "High fantasy" that attractive. Ultimately my answer may well be ... "do what your good at. Not all GM's can be good at everything and you run a damn fine Sci-fi or horror game so just stick with what your good at... (thanks go to S. John Ross for his Star Trek Narrator's Toolkit for Last Unicorn Games which had some great hobby advice in it. By the way I await his redux of Uresia: Grave of Heaven with excitement - I'd love to get my hands on the copy I lent to a "friend" though I'd settle for getting my hands on the "friend". Remember girls and boys never lone a book you cant afford to give).

SO I need to make a determination between High-Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery and the sub-genres. 

Starting with High-Fantasy fiction then; I've seen it defined but I'm going to provide a definition I feel I can work with. This is a swipe from Wilson and Alroy [(credited) Although I have moved their ten to five and vis-a-vis] and its close to other definitions, so very serviceable here. The most expansive definition makes everything after five optional.

  1. A targeted audience of adults or teens, not children
  2. A made-up world (or continent, or at least country)
  3. Made-up cultures, sometimes with made-up languages and religions
  4. Medieval technology, often with a feudal social structure 
  5. Earth men allowed, but no interstellar travel
  6. Magic, often practiced by wizards and the like
  7. Non-human races like elves and dwarves
  8. Monsters like trolls and mythical creatures like unicorns
  9. A pantheon of gods who meddle in human affairs
  10. Epic battles of good and evil

Adults to consume the product. Check... I want it accessible to kids though (one of the reasons I think the Hobbit superior to Lord of the Rings [for me] is the sense of wonder it instills when I read it.). And I want to maybe some times involve by son now he is showing interest.

A made-up world and made-up cultures; I like world building. Its a lot of fun and if your an artist and get get it down on a map it also looks cool. Like this one. Ohh how cool. But honestly can you really build a world with all the nuance of Earth... Are Earths societies and cultures and geography really so staid the author needs to "go elsewhere".

Anyway I guess new maps and cultures engage the imagination and well that's both interesting engaging and fun for the reader. Replacing Earth with a faux-Earth is what I question. I prefer to have Earth/Fantasy-Earth as a counterpoint. I guess the assumption is that they do... However in a fantasy world that base line would not be there. I also know we cant get away from it. 

Medieval technology level and a feudal social structure... is a really odd one in my mind. What about Renaissance level, Bronze Age, Stone age. Anarchy? A completely different social structure which naturally evolved? This is very rare in literature. Rpg's have tried. mostly with very limited success.

I also don't really like the look of real historical plate mail ( I should say that most of it, nearly all of it, is of a fashion I cant connect with - some of it predominantly from Germany I can like). Essentially armour from around ~ 1375 and on wards starts to look unappealing and well begins to really require a horse. (this reminds me I have to talk about Dungeons vs other adventure locations - maybe next post) Fantasy plate mail with its heavy-metal zeitgeist is just funny to me. On the other hand a bare chested Conan or harness wearing John Cater. Just works for me (although grated in the books he is often actually in Chain mail weather permitting. And Chain mail, IS cool IMHO) At this level of metallurgy we are getting good firearms too... where are they in our fantasy. For some reason they "Break" fantasy. Although they are in RPG settings they lag behind in fantasy literature or at least in the novels I have bothered to pick up.      

Medieval as a definition of time period is very broad as well. Oh you know just a short ten centuries 0.0. Yep form ~5th century to the 15th century. and apparently High Fantasy is "limited" to just Medieval interpretations. Will these worlds ever progress to a high technology Socioeconomic footing? There seems to be a defacto assumption they are static and will never develop technology above the Medieval - and remember Medieval philosophy and thought was very different from ours (is this because magic gets in the way of this development? Where did the recent idea of Steam punk come from?) ... Most rpg High-fantasy is really the same as walking down the main street, when comparing the way people think about things in this world. I can tell you attitudes on Earth to death and child labor have certainly changed. Not to mention that if your a woman ..well life is just very different now for a woman in terms of rights ...your no longer property for a start. Even for the average "citizen" i.e. voter in a Medieval world things are very different the modern concept of "nation" which we just live with was foreign.  Thank good we have had these changes. Its probably fair to have this reflected in our fantasy too. Only I want to understand the reasons for this in that unique world aside from Earths history. While we are at it are these worlds constantly in a state of flux - peace doesn't seem to exist. I'm ok with the adventures happening on the frontier and being lawless, rough and fraught with monsters of all type. Conversely the  homelands being settled and peaceful would be good too. But you very really see the peace or what the people are fighting for. Its just assumed.

Earth men are allowed and are often the base "stock"/life form.  Fair enough it makes telling a tell a whole lot easier... but if we are doing this - i.e. bringing Men for eases sake why didnt we do that with Earth and make some type of alternate history?

Magic. Lets face it Magic is cool. Wish fulfillment and teenage power fantasies still resonate in many a person and Magic in a novel give an outlet for these desires. If its linked tot he story and the plot all the better, less so if its just window dressing ... at lease that's my thinking. The True Game by Sheri S. Tepper    
Plus for me I like the occult overtones of magic and the fact that magic has a "source". Its either from within us, or from around us like an old friend told me when I was a kid "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." Or other explanations are also equally cool and frees the imagination. But I really like the dramatic elements provided by magical schools and practitioners of different types of magic not to mention priests and other religious orders who also seem to have access to magic in these settings (or certainly do in RPG's).  

For me I get really stuck on number seven, mainly for races like hobbits and dwarves, they just don't do it for me. You see I'm not big on demi-humans - ok call me racist if you like but please acknowledge that I like "Talislanta" a truly inspired work of fantasy and a high-fantasy rpg I do like. Ratkin - now there is a race that do it for me way better then Hobbits/Halflings. Bloodguard there is another awesome race. (thank you Stephen Donaldson it doesn't absolve you of the travesty of Thomas Covenant aka "the waste of space" but that's one cool race/class).I even like Elves!

On the other hand I love monsters ... but I like my monsters mean. I'm not sure I need Orc/Klingons in my fantasy. Human bandits, cultist and savages are more horrifying to me ... especially if they are eating flesh. I have a special hate/fear of cannibalism which I recognize as really primal and to me having the Orc which is essentially a brutish dark/green skinned human with or with out pig features, is watering down my monsters. Take note of something Dracula, Alien, Predator essentially solo monsters to begin with. In true American fashion more is better so we got the spin offs. But a Solo monster implied that our numbers meant nothing it was coming to keeeeeeell you weather you had your buddy with you or not. You couldn't run. You couldn't and you certainly couldn't out fight it. Whats more it left you so scared you couldn't even use your best weapon against it ... your intellect. shhh lay down and die in pools of your own fear stained excrement you pathetic food stuff.... See that's a monster. Grendel was a monster. The Minotaur was a monster. Jack the Ripper was a monster. But then so were those little tinny cute Compsognathus the "chick-sized" swarming-piranha-like-pack-dinosaurs [By the way fossil evidences now suggests Compsognathus was somewhat larger more on the order of scale of a Kobold Turkey]. Anyway Monsters should come in two varieties. Scary due to being unknown and deadly due to past behavior. If its not one of these its essentially a Race with a part in the socioeconomic life of the milieu.    

So High fantasy books and my ratings and what I can take from them for a fantasy game... 

* J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (set in Middle-earth).
  • I'm glad I read it. Its the connerstone of High Fantasy if not the originator (others gave birth to this field Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison to mention a couple) I re-read it recently and I was socked at how archaic and pompous Aragorn's dialog was. There are a number of things to admire in the world. The comprehensive history of Men and Elves but its odd to me the Hobbits have such a "dropped-freshly-into-it" feeling. I don't feel they are as well integrated. Really Peter Jackson's movies forever colour my perception of the book now - I think for worse - The films were great films ... I'm not sure they really reflect the books "tone" overly well. Dwaves still remain very much hairy, beer swilling endomoph stereotypes. I think H.C. Anderson's dwarves were better. I don't understand why dwarves mine so prodigiously - as opposed to men etc. The Elves are perfection and the other books which go into elf history and the history of Middle Earth are very interesting.  Spell casters in this world are also rare and powerful if we are to go purely from the ones noted in the novels. Either that or magic use is so subtle as to be relatively unnoticeable to the reader and hence not really the formulaic/hermetic type of spell use but something closer to glamor and fairy magic maybe. More dedicated Tolkien scholars could tell us I'm sure  
* Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara and its sequels.
  • I like the sort of Little House on the Prairie feel I get from reading the very beginning of this novel. I have to say I did find this more enjoyable then LotR but I knew I was meant to like LotR more. What about it did I like more. I cant put my finder on it. Certainly the Tim and Greg Hildebrandt from the edition I read played a large part. Particularly Skull Kingdom. When your a teen a Skull shaped mountain is just super cool. I must remember if I go forward with a Fantasy game as I build what will be the sandpit I need to include places like that on the map. I think also at the time we were playing a lot of Divine Right and this and that game stuck together in my imagination. 
* Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Saga and others
  • I'm of mixed feelings on these novels. I again want to like them more then I really do. I think Silverthorne is his Empire Strikes back. I cant really think of anything I really want from this in terms of world building or fantasy gaming... I't maybe time for a re-read.
* David Eddings' Belgariad and The Malloreon
  •  The Belgariad. What a fantastic would of stereotypes. I love the simplicity of this world and it really feels like a D&D trype of world to me. Admittedly magic is rare and very powerful (actually I think the only place its not is around a rpg table even then its powerful really).
* Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series
  •  I've tried to get into this book three times and I cant get past the first few chapters. I'm told its great. Its one I would like to experience an its on my list to re-try.
* Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels
  • These I really do like although they feel more a kids novel to me.
 * George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series
  • Now this is where its at in my opinion. However these have as much in common with regular High Fantasy gaming as a historical museum does. I've heard it compared to the war of the roses and I dont really see the similarities I love that the characters don't seem to have script immunity. I like watching the struggle for power across Westeros and I like the unpredictable nature of  the story. The take out for me from these is to let the dice fall where they may. That unpredictability makes for powerful stories and an "edge" to the session you cant get any other way. 
* Margaret Weis's and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance series
  • So these are the closest to rpg'ing and yet ... the teen fic part I can manage with its the fitting it to D&D editing which I'm less happy with. Or should I say the disparity between parts of the books where this is done and then other parts where its not. I utterly hate how players picked up Raistlin Majere and used that character. I find him a bit of a caricature. However Lord Soth was a great villain and I like the dragon mythology even if the Dragon Lances themselves where a bit of an after thought (as I wrote this I was thinking what if they had the feel of a jedi's lightsaber and further more were polymorphic weapons which could assume the form of a rod/1h-sword/2-hsword/lance/ and could even act as a short ranged weapon by "lancing" out to hit a target at distance ... hum that's got to go in my notebooks too)  
 * Roger Zelazny's Amber series and Lord of Light
  • Like  George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series these are leagues away from your average fantasy game. However there are huge similarities between this and Planescape. I had the original audiobooks of Amber read by RZ himself. He did Corwin's dialogue like a hard boiled private eye which forever changed  my view of them. I think after that they maybe they have more in common with Lord of Light then is immediately apparent. 
  • Which is a great book in its own right. Possibly his best work. Its true trans humanist fiction written in 1967. I can see its influence in Empire of the Petal Throne and Jorune (at lest I think that I can not really sure if they credit inspiration or not) My Many Stalwart Heroes game was an effort to try and do this using FATE. My players find FATE hard - well any game where they have to visualize the character first. They find they grow into the character over time. Anyway as a result we put that game on hold. I had always through we could pick it up again and use Savage Worlds as the engine to power the game. I now think I could also try using Ubiquity a favorite game system of mine or use a retro-clone even try maybe the wonderful and elegant Stars with out Number as a engine. That game really appeals to me for its fantastic example of a great game in a self contained package. You could go with just that one book some dice and a few friends.   
* Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series
  • This is a very mature attempt at fantasy and its not a Tolkien clone which is appreciated. I like many of the races and the world has lots of nice fantasy elements. I appropriate Thomas Covenan's confusion at binging in the predicament he is in. I really don't on the other hand appreciate the maudlin, self serving, petulant, sado-masochistic, coward that he is. Really a good anti-hero I guess because I hate him with a passion.      
* Robin Hobb's The Farseer Trilogy
  • I wanted to like this book. But predictably didn't. I found much of the fever dream sequences of the recovering Fitz annoying and I also found the number of time she beat Fitz to a pulp to be repetitious the "magic" as also wee bit irritating to me. I also found the story to be quite straight forward and predictable. I think to myself that if  George R. R. Martin wrote this story Fitz is dead very early and we really have quite a different and potentially more exciting novel. ehe. 
The other thing I want to acknowledge is there is a huge difference between a novel and a RPG. One is very structured and polished and to a large degree a private creation under your control. RPG's a unique in that they are an emergent entertainment involving the group. One thing I have learned is all the preplanned and meticulous campaign material a GM designs before a game and plonks down as background is as nothing to what happens at the game table. Table is really cannon. So Show dont tell and work what you like into your game sessions otherwise its just stuff sitting in your head and the unread player handout you spent time slaving over.   

So those are the ones you know... next blog some of my influences in the form of novels, movies and possibly even games.

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