Cultural subtext of modern fantasy gaming

My brother brought me a bunch of materials on the D&D 4e today. I’ve also been reading about this and other topics from the internet lately. The new D&D seems to be quite interesting as far as rules design goes; the rules disregard all high-level decisions made by the players so far, which would seem to imply that the actual game part only operates as set-piece battles on a battle grid. Of course not that interesting as a traditional adventure roleplaying game, but the new-style combat-oriented D&D will certainly benefit from having rules to match. Many people have complained that the new D&D resembles a computer game more than anything else, but that’s not a crime.

However, I rather doubt that I’m going to play the game. From what I’ve seen the new D&D is the same kind of geeky trash that the third edition was, insofar as the fictional content goes. Violence porn with little regard for nuances of setting or situation, disconnected from any cultural roots whatsoever. Just looking at the kind of art they illustrate popular (or wannabe-popular, as the case may be) roleplaying games with makes me want to retch, frankly.

Perhaps I should explain myself a bit better here. While the cultural trend I’m discussing has been going on for a decade, now, my current inspiration came from looking through the new D&D materials while concurrently checking out the news on Paizo’s new D&D alternative. The image here is from Paizo’s page, I’m using it to illustrate my point: while the artistic style and content represented by the barbarian girl here has been the default approach to fantasy roleplaying since the end of the nineties, I still find myself getting immensely annoyed whenever this kind of art is used in different contexts. I simply hate the subtext of this stuff, and in all its prevalence, it’s speaking of a kind of roleplaying subculture that I want to have no part in.

Considering how cultural subtext is always in the eye of the beholder, it’s perhaps best if I read the image there out for those who don’t know what I’m annoyed about:

  • The girl is armed to a ridiculous degree, with weapons that defy reality. This art style uses large and exotic weapons to evoke an ambience of “cool” for the character. As we can see from her face, she’s ready and willing to fight, and she’s dangerous and exotic.
  • The bare midriff and thong are obviously there to emphasize her sexual availability. Pretty simple.
  • She’s powerful and independent, with no regard for norms of society or even the laws of physics. After all, she’s working with that sword-like thing, presumably.

Certainly this is all harmless entertainment, objectively speaking, but personally I want no part in such geeky, exploitative wish-fulfilment fantasies, especially when they celebrate violence and unbound, uncaring power. In real-life context this is pretty similar to fascist propaganda and seems to have little to offer for adults, or even sensitive youngsters. Another half of my indignation is, naturally, the fact that the chosen anime-like visuals seem so obvious and self-evident that only a dim teenager would miss the prepackaged message.

(Yes, I’m not exactly first in complaining about the anime-like visuals in recent rpg products. My belief here is that we’re not simply protesting an artistic style, but a cultural subtext the artist is trying to impart: the exaggerated visual style is used to emphasize character-centric power-fantasy that is foreign to the roots of our own fantasy roleplaying.)

I’m not saying that there’s no place in the world for stylized, wuxia-like roleplaying games. I’m just annoyed how not only are colorful, cartoony visuals hitched to a message of self-empowerment via violence porn, but also how all fantasy roleplaying seems to be going that way as a matter of course. Originally the idea of “fantasy” as a literary genre was derived from historical romance, which was the reason I got into it in my youth. Now I’m just sad and bewildered by the modern D&D, which seems to require stuff like sunrods (a magical flashlight) in the setting as a stylistic issue. This interpretation of “fantasy” that emphasizes power-fantasy fulfillment instead of historical romanticism is simply a wholly different animal, one I have little interest in.

Continuing the discussion

Roleplayers rarely discuss the content of their games in aesthetic terms, as opposed to the technical. This doesn’t mean that we do not disagree, it just means that we choose to ignore the ostensibly less pertinent issues in favor of the immediate. In case of the overall aesthetic of play it would probably be rather useful and interesting for all of us to answer to this kind of question: Why are you interested in the Star Wars setting? Why is Glorantha cool? What does the World of Darkness represent to you? In some cases it might well be that the generic cultural focus would explain more than superficial technical differences between different styles of roleplaying.

22 Responses to “Cultural subtext of modern fantasy gaming”

  1. Willem Says:

    I really like this issue you’ve raised. I don’t want to belittle the exploitative wish-fulfillment aspect to role-playing (it met needs, at a certain age, that I didn’t know how to address any other way), but once we’ve moved on to more adult sensibilities, what then?

    Does it just come down to aesthetics, or does it even go to a ‘different phases of life’. Do the stories I enact through role-playing need to address different issues for different whole arenas of life – childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle-age, elderhood. Each of these have their own vital missions – childhood to learn and explore, adolescence to individuate. Adulthood to manage the tension between self and service to other. And on and on.

    Thanks for this.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s a good call, Willem; what is art for? Specifically, what kind of culture “should” we make or consume? At this point I’m just noting that the aesthetic issue here does not fully correspond to narratives: a D&D-like adventure game doesn’t really have a narrative as its main focus. Instead, the aesthetic ethos latches onto the challenge structure of the game. Part of my annoyment with the wish-fulfillment fantasy power trip are the utterly moronic safety rails modern D&D builds for characters as it tries to ensure that nobody ever has to lose.

    Another point is that while I agree that wish-fulfillment is pretty harmless and a part of human life, exploitative violence-porn wish-fulfillment doesn’t seem so good to me, personally. I’m far from a prude, but it bothers me a bit how far a modern adventure rpg takes its single-minded devotion to being a pretty demi-god with a big weapon. When I was young, our fantasy adventures had more to do with exploring a fantasy setting and less about ogling cheesecake whilst engaged in a monty haul. Then again, we didn’t play D&D when I was young, so that might have something to do with it.

    Eh, I sound like a whiny bitch even to myself. It’s not exactly the end of the world if old roleplayers don’t like the new age of plastic superficiality. I should write a long post about the traditional rpg fantasy genre vs. post-tolkien high fantasy literature vs. high fantasy in roleplaying before I start bashing modern D&D, really; I’m not so sure that anybody understands that my gripe here is a lamentation over the loss of the cultural ties fantasy adventure roleplaying used to have towards the literate world, rather than just me being narrow-minded about new-style encounter-based D&D gaming.

  3. benlehman Says:

    What annoys me is that it takes the worst of American superhero art and tries to pass it off as Japanese-style. Manga is cleaner, smoother, more inviting, and more humanistic.


  4. nitessine Says:

    Eh. I think you’re making an analytical error. The illustration is from a Paizo Publishing module for the current edition of D&D, while you’ve apparently been reading previews for the next edition. They’re fundamentally different games on pretty much every level, from design philosophy to target demographics.

    Sure, she’s geared for cool, but she’s not exactly pretty and her dress and armour are far more functional than the stuff we saw before the end of the nineties. The sword is ridiculous, sure, but those are omnipresent. Her own body proportions, at least, are realistic and do not suggest an anachronistic plastic surgery.

    I mean, before the third edition of D&D, and the dungeonpunk style, female adventurers still customarily wore chainmail bikini, chainmail spandex, or something of comparable functionality and protective value. The current edition of D&D has taken steps away from that. A bare midriff and a huge sword is nothing to complain about.

    To put it all into perspective…
    The previous edition had this:
    The next edition will have this:
    The current edition has this:
    Exalted has this:

    “Exploitative violence porn” doesn’t really describe my experiences with D&D 3E, and what I’ve been playing with the RPGA is as close to the marketed baseline as it gets. Well, I’ll give you “violence porn” with the Fantastic Locations adventures (basically very boring, overly long tactical combat scenarios with a semblance of plot), but those number six, out of some six hundred.

    D&D has always been character-centric, and the characters have always been powerful, a notch above the common man in their abilities, with innate potential for greatness. The fourth box to follow the Red Box D&D was the Immortal Rules. Essentially, the biggest changes since then are that the women got more clothes and better-looking haircuts.

    D&D has never been realistic. It’s a patchwork of influences from a multitude of high fantasy and sword-and-sorcery authors, coated with a thin veneer of historical artifacts separated from their contexts. Half of the gear list didn’t exist in period with the other half, and then there’s stuff that just didn’t exist, period. Every edition has just updated its influences to encompass the new stuff in the market, to avoid stagnation. We have Darth Maul to thank of the two-bladed sword.

    That said, most of your criticisms do apply. Just not to the current edition. Wait a few months, and then you’ll be right. Pathfinder RPG is a smart and popular move, and many will not pick up the new edition of D&D, and the shelf packed with third edition books only one of the reasons.

  5. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Those are all good points, Jukka. If you don’t mind, I’ll take some time and formulate another blog post to explain the wider backgrounds of my annoyance. There’s more to it than just the visual style of depicting females.

    I should also say that I doubt not one second that people have, and will continue to play D&D, Exalted and everything else in many imaginable styles, emphasizing and de-emphasizing different features. This doesn’t mean that I’m just imagining the cultural ideas proffered by the game texts; I just prefer to confine my own play to games where I don’t need to ignore bits and pieces like I need to do with current editions of D&D to make it seem interesting and challenging to me.

  6. Sami Says:

    “While the cultural trend I’m discussing here has been going on for a decade”, you wrote. I was going to trash your statement by referring to several other “last generations'” (1980s’) rpg product covers and other images, but to my surprise I didn’t find as exploitative images. Violence is there for sure throughout the whole spectrum, but back in the past women characters – when rarely displayed – had more clothes on. However, I’ve been told that in 1970s’ D&D products were decorated with pictures of partially nude fantasy girls. Therefore I’d say that this has more to do with the moral panic; self-censorship as a reaction to the judgement passed on to D&D. Once the public opinion accepted the idea that everything from toothbrushes to music to insurances could be marketed with sex, rpg products just followed the example.

    The more interesting thing is your idea about historical romance as the source of fantasy. My take is that the source is in national epics (Anglo-Saxon literature), which combined fairy tales (folk mythology) with homeric-fascistic features. Sword and sorcery is its descendant and the beacon for major fantasy rpg trends. I’m definately looking forward to read more about your view.

  7. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Actually, Sami, the nude slave girl thing has a completely different cultural background from the superhero stuff today. Also, the anti-feminist leanings of game art are not my main problem, it’s just a symptom. I’ll explain in length later.

    I also just now read what Wikipedia thinks “historical romance” means. (Yes, I tend to link to stuff without even looking at it, apparently.) Pardon my limited English, but f***king Harlequin books were not my intended source material here. Rather, I was thinking of Sir Walter Scott. It seems Wikipedia calls his genre “historical novel” for some reason. Anyway: not only was the basis of pre-Tolkien fantasy literature in historical romance, the historical wargaming hobby on which D&D is based got its aesthetic basis from the same sources. It’s a shared aesthetic premise which roughly claims that there is romance and heroic adventure in the past and in the lifestyles connected to the past; it’s the source and reason for why fantasy literature as a genre fetishizes horses, swords, torches, campfires, heraldry and the whole semi-medieval milieu that used to attach so naturally to fantasy gaming. Moving away from that into what gaming today calls “high fantasy” (different from high fantasy in literature, you know) simply isn’t working for me, aesthetically.

    Perhaps it’s best if I write some more about all this stuff later this week. Apparently it’s less than obvious why I’m annoyed and disinterested by the recent trend in game art and design.

  8. roleplay Says:

    Go home! If you aren’t going to let players meddle with the game, or allow them the freedom to see things the way they want to see them, you shouldn’t be gaming.

  9. Burgeri Says:

    I wonder what the hell that guy was referring to.

    Carry on, please.

  10. My hate-on for big swords « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] hate-on for big swords 1.5.2008 — Eero Tuovinen OK, I’m going back to the topic from last month, which I chose and choose to frame in personal terms: I don’t like the kind of fantasy modern […]

  11. Depiction of women in rpgs « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] of women in rpgs 4.5.2008 — Eero Tuovinen OK, so both Jukka and Sami raised the question earlier, so I feel compelled to outline it in some greater length. That question is, of course, […]

  12. Brand Robins Says:


    This recent series of posts leaves me wanting to ask if you’ve read Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic by Mark Edmundson.

    If you have, yay!

    If not, I would recommend checking it out. Though he has a very different direction than you, he ends up talking about a lot of the same issues of singular narratives (his opinion is that the gothic hero-villain and narcissistic sexuality has eclipsed all other narratives in pop culture), sexuality, violence, and wish fullfilment. It’s quite worth checking out.

  13. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation; I haven’t gotten that far as of yet.

  14. Raven Daegmorgan Says:

    Man, Eero, this whole series of posts is so…dismissive and insulting to anyone who prefers a different aesthetic than you that I can’t really bring myself to respond to it because…

    …well, there’s no common ground to discuss it, as well as overcoming the “sophisticated tastes” rhetoric it drips with and the social position into which that puts anyone who disagrees (“I not only have to defend my point, but prove I am also mature despite your views of my tastes as shallow, immature, impolite, and a host of other denigrating and dismissive verbiage.”)

    Really, I’ve heard the very same arguments from modern feminists arguing against pornography: “Only clueless rednecks and non-genteel culture likes or discusses THAT sort of thing, and women are just hurting themselves and…” Nonsense.

    Frankly, your posts on this subject have read like “D&D sucks! It’s for those filthy, immature ROLL-players! Not us intelligent, mature ROLE-playing sophisticates.” I would expect different from someone who understands the fundamental point of GNS.

  15. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Would it be any help if I claimed that from where I’m standing, this is just me trying to expose and explain my own gut feeling? While I myself very much am accepting of different aesthetics, my gut is not – I can’t tell you that I appreciate something I don’t without lying about it.

    The best I can do is to once again affirm that yes, I think that it’s fine and dandy that people have different aesthetics. I associate this computer gamey, violent and superficial aesthetic with childish play culture (again, an aesthetic description) I’ve myself witnessed, but that hardly means that I want to revile others for interpreting and associating differently. I’m just trying to explain here why I don’t derive much enjoyment from modern fantasy game aesthetics, and if somebody does, that’s his business.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been often, at one point almost routinely, been accused of all kinds of things based on my aesthetics: it’s not uncommon for snide old-school roleplayers to say that anybody who is not happy with dungeon adventuring is only doing roleplaying to destroy the hobby and elevate themselves into the cultural hegemony of a new interactive art form only suitable for gullible morons bred on establishment art from birth. I don’t personally think that much can be gained by this kind of characterization, taste being as subjective as it is – the best we can do is to expose and explain our tastes and thus draw attention to values others might wish to take into account when creating art for us. After all, if I’m not allowed to say that I don’t enjoy hyperviolence in adventure fantasy, then how could anybody cater to me in the marketplace?

    What do you think of that last paragraph of the post, Raven? I’m interested in whether you think that roleplayers can discuss aesthetics at all, or are we really doomed to bicker over mechanics solely, as doing otherwise would without fail become a personal attack against another person’s lifestyle.

    I for one would be interested in a subtext reading of the modern fantasy rpg from somebody who actually digs this stuff – would such a person see empowerment and exciting action where I see posing plastic barbies and spoon-fed fantasy fulfilment? I don’t know, as I haven’t really seen anybody trying to verbalize why they actively like this aesthetic. If somebody tried to explain why those magical flashlights are a mad-cool part of the high-magic fantasy setting, perhaps that’d help me appreciate the stuff in its own context; as things stand I don’t understand, and thus don’t like, either.

  16. Raven Daegmorgan Says:

    After thinking about it some, I think my point might have been better made by saying: I understand your point, but took exception to how it was made.

    For me, there’s a difference between saying “this is not for me” and “this is for uncultured rednecks”, and I think in this instance, you made your point about the aesthetics you enjoy by unconsciously tarring people with different aesthetics through certain choices of word and phrase.

    Make sense?

    So, that said, what’s so cool about the modern high-magic fantasy trip? What’s cool about magical flashlights instead of lanterns? Well, frankly, what’s cool about lanterns?

    There’s a number of ways to answer the question: if we’re talking a high-magic world…then where’s the magic? Why isn’t it more apparent? Why isn’t magic inexorably woven into the fabric of society? In this context, how is a magical flashlight any different from a Babylonian demon-bowl?

    So we’re talking a sort of verisimilitude: magic is real, often-seen, and some minor kind of it is utilized regularly by all sorts of people. It’s a sort of sci-fi aesthetic to the fantasy, where normally we would be asking “how does this technology affect the world?” we are instead asking the same about magic, which helps bring the magic into focus as a real thing here-and-now in the imagined world.

    Another reason is that we play fantasy games to experience fantasy and magic and wonder. Unfortunately, many fantasy games of previous eras only provided that magic and wonder at high levels of play that many groups simply never achieve (as I recall, most play occurs at mid-levels of play), leaving them stuck in a pseudo-medieval world which has magic…somewhere. But not here.

    So basic equipment with a magical twist? That’s like Luke Skywalker with a lightsaber — which is (afterall) just a glowing sword in a world of laser blasters and super-technology if we want to get technical…and in that context it’s like “WHAT?! Huh? A sword? Whoopie.”

    Of course, it’s more than that because there’s a whole mythology behind it: the lightsaber has meaning beyond what it technically is, a whole story, a whole idea, a whole aesthetic. It’s the same with “a magical flashlight”: a sunrod. There’s

    Now, if we’re talking play aesthetics, for example Exalted, then we’re talking experiencing and creating mythology. You play the strong, beautiful people because, well, that’s what mythology is about: the archetypes of perfection that speak to the human soul on deep levels. You’re playing Hercules, Thor, Freya, Aphrodite, Set, Vishnu, Samson, or a thousand others by other names.

    And mythology isn’t about lanterns and pseudo-medieval verisimilitude and the economic realities of coin exchanges. It’s about flying chariots pulled by dragons and magical hammers that throw lightning and lone heroes cutting down whole armies and the towering halls of the gods lit by magical orbs forged from the sun and smashing craters into the world with ridiculously-sized weapons out of which angry giants and fickle elves and endless avenging ghosts crawl. It’s about fantasy and empowerment from the most ancient tradition of stories.

    Being “regular folks” has nothing on that. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, only differences between “low fantasy” (S&S, Howard, Harn), “epic fantasy” (LotR), and “mythic fantasy”.

    Alright, that’s my five-minute brain dump.

  17. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    You’re making perfect sense about my gut feelings being offensive, Raven. Thing is, when I say that some aesthetic choice reminds me of stuff children might like… what can I say? That’s what it reminds me of, I see the same aesthetic mechanics at work in modern D&D and Harry Potter. I agree that one might be bothered by me associating certain aesthetic memes with crassly commercial, spoonfed, hypocritical commercial culture directed at children and other easily influenced individuals, but that’s still just my gut talking – for all I know the textual matter is actually implemented in a sophisticated and humanistic manner among its adult afficinados.

    That said, I like your explanation of D&D fantasy as alternative scifi. I have gut-level difficulty taking that as interesting (mostly to do with the magic having no well-thought background; scifi is interesting because I know what a gluon particle is, while D&D magic is a simple black box with minimal cultural meaning), but I can see how a lot of silliness in D&D could be considered seriously if you approached it with that premise.

    In case these weren’t rhetorical:

    magic flashlight vs. lantern: I tried to touch upon this one in some of that writing – the point in hanging around with lanterns, horses and swords in fantasy fiction, to me, is to explore a romantized depiction of pre-industrial historical society. So the lantern is cooler because it draws our attention to how life has been and might be different instead of same, as the magic flashlight would have it. The flashlight makes the setting resemble our own world instead of the world of the past.
    magic flashlight vs. Babylonian demon bowl: The demon bowl implies a cosmology that used to, and still does, have meaning and significance for humans. It also just happens to have a specific cultural background that explains and contextualizes it. The magic flashlight, on the other hand, is just somebody being lame because they aren’t really interested in fantasy, but in having a worry-free light source in their fiction.

    The explanation about fantasy feeling fantastic only if it’s chock-full of batshit weirdness is something that makes an appearance in the 4th edition DMG as well – it says something like “there should be fantastical terrains in all combat encounters so that the players won’t forget that they’re playing a fantasy game”. Utter weirdness to me, that; I don’t buy it that undisciplined pushing of weirdness does anything except distance players from the fiction – at least that’s what D&D tends to do with me, now that I’m playing the new edition by the book and wondering what the heck those Dragonborn are supposed to be about.

    (You have a mythology for Sunrods, by the way? It’s as if it got cut away by a censor there.)

    As a final point, what you say of Exalted and mythology is something I’ve often been told when I critique the game. For some reason I’m not seeing the mythic in that game, I’m just seeing a long, long list of rules that separate player characters from consequences and mortal people of the setting, so as to faciliate their careless whim in a manner I’d mostly equate with some sort of übermensch fantasy. The gods and heroes I’m familiar with from the myths of the world are actually in a much more constrained, precarious position, ridden by fate and threatened by their own foibles as well as their enemies. I remember vividly how annoyed I was by Exalted when it first came out due to how it affirmed and set to stone the (usually) subtextual relationship of post-tolkienist fantasy protagonist to the sorry wretches who don’t happen to have destiny and ancestral magics by their side in the world. I guess I’m just a democrat at heart, so I get annoyed with the glorification and justification of unearned power that is Exalted.

    But, anyway; this is probably a better topic for a forum or some such. I don’t mind debating the relative literary interest of rpg fantasy vs. literary antecedents, but a blog isn’t a very welcoming discussion platform – if you’re interested in continuing this, we might do so at some rpg forum, for example.

  18. Raven Daegmorgan Says:

    I’ll just say again there are ways, I think, to state “these are my feelings” that doesn’t have overt “and you guys suck” implications. Not that everything with implications means what someone implies from it, but I found even trying to read it charitably, it came off more as judgement rather than personal revelation. But I don’t want to belabor the point and I probably am, so that’s all/the last I’ll say on it:

    You have a mythology for Sunrods, by the way? It’s as if it got cut away by a censor there.

    Huh, that’s weird (unfortunately, I don’t recall exactly what I meant to put there). But your question about having a mythology for sunrods raises a really interesting and perhaps accidental point.

    Perhaps the difference in our viewpoints — in your view of the sunrod as just a magical flashlight — comes from the fact that when I was talking about sunrods, lightsabers, and demon-bowls, I assumed you would just “get” how they all tie together, how they were all alike and of-a-kind, rather than the sunrod lacking in some respect.

    I get that from where you state your view is that the sunrod is just some guy being lame and wanting a worry-free lightsource in the fiction. That makes me scratch my head in confusion because I don’t see the sunrod lacking that background.

    It seems obvious to me that its existence in the literature provides contextual clues as to its broader meta-cultural meaning in the game: a meaning that says, at the very least, “this is a world of magic” and “people use magic here like they did in the ancient days: like we use technology today” and “the use of magic is ingrained into society”.

    The sunrod doesn’t need to be associated with Jedi Knights to have a mythology, or have an overt place in giving us a picture of that culture and the importance/role of magic within it.

    Because from it we know there are magicians, we know they are common — or that perhaps certain basic magic is commonly used by the people — and we know we can find and should expect minor magical trinkets around every corner.

    We also know that having uninterrupted light is important enough to these people that their magicians instill sunlight into rods as a matter of course, to the point you can buy them from…well, somewhere (campaigns can flesh out the specifics).

    All that makes it very much a “how it could have been different” romanticizing for me, because we now have magic as the human force taming the world instead of technology. It’s a validation of the ancient days of demons bowls — which are, if we want to break things down to their mundane variables, just mouse traps for nasty supernatural critters.

    But that’s the thing: we’re making magic a real thing and looking at ancient human society as it exists with that force, not just human society and how it exists with dragons.

    It even occurs to me that if you’re looking for a romanticized version of pre-industrial society, then you should ditch the wizards, dragons, and magic. Because if you’re playing high-fantasy mixed into your romantic medieval genre, you’re doing something wrong.

    In such a case, it is as if one isn’t paying attention to the world/culture/society-changing effects widespread use of magic would have on the setting, the behavior of its people, and the goods available to those people.

    To me, it is as though you’re complaining D&D isn’t medieval romanticism with a few spots of magical color, since D&D isn’t medieval romanticism but high fantasy with a few spots of medieval color.

    That’s kind of like complaining your wife isn’t Asian-enough when your wife happens to be she’s Caucasian.

    I know, I may completely off-base with that analysis, but that’s what the situation seems like to me. You’re not liking the thing for being what it is, when what it is isn’t what you want it to be.

    To reverse the discourse: my issue is that I don’t want to plod around in some pseudo-fantasy setting that is little better than the medieval ages with different names, something that ends up being badly disguised history with some wizards and a dragon or two tossed in.

    To me that’s not a mature style of play, it’s badly overdone sold regularly to children because they’ve never seen it before and won’t question it too hard. It isn’t…interesting or unique to me, and occupies what I see as the typically dreary and derivative post-Tolkien fantasy.

    When I want high fantasy, I want Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance, early Ursula LeGuin and Glen Cook and ‘Dreamlands’ Lovecraft. If there are powerful wizards and magics and gods and other weirdness in the world, I want more than a veneer of it over a historical or romanticized pseudo-medieval society.

    If we’re going to play through a romanticized concept of the middle ages, and magic is going to be a factor, then I want it to be a factor. What would a medieval people have used magic to do when they could make light with it, mend torn garments, and so forth? Here’s a bunch of peasants using magical charms that really work because the superstitions are real.

    And that’s why I don’t get what’s so fun about lanterns — or rather, why lanterns are romantic and sunrods are…cheap power-gaming(?).

    All of which I say to point out: obviously we are on completely different sides of the fence of experience here. I can see where you’re coming from, but I’m just not accepting the validity of your criticisms in the face of my preferences.

    As to Exalted, I’m not sure how you get that view of the game, so I’m not sure how to respond. Quite seriously, if you hadn’t said you were critiquing Exalted, I wouldn’t have known what game you were talking about.

    Because I don’t know what game you’re speaking of when you state the protagonists aren’t in a “constrained, precarious position, ridden by fate and threatened by their own foibles as well as their enemies” nor the idea that it exemplifies “the glorification and justification of unearned power” and especially the way you see it as encouraging the treatment non-Exalts.

    (Hell, I’m a big commie, so I think I’d object if the game were supporting and glorifying the politics of the powerful abusing the proletariat.)

    Regardless, I hope my view makes more sense to you, and if anything was unclear, feel free to ask me to clarify. I’ll do my best.

  19. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s good stuff, Raven; an interesting read. We’re obviously looking at D&D-style “high fantasy” (I’m using scare quotes, yes; I don’t quite accept that nomenclature when high fantasy means something completely different in literature) from very different perspectives if you’re seriously comparing it to fantastists in literature like the ones you mention. I find that those fantastists, when I’m reading them, can’t really be compared to current D&D in terms of purpose and theme. The former are very measured in their use of fantastic motifs and purposeful in execution, while the D&D fiction is increasingly formed out of haphazard leavings of a hack’n slash computer game riddled with facile teleportation, instant resurrection, trivial healing abilities, sunrods and all that other stuff that makes the setting of the typical modern fantasy game the weird and superficial place it is.

    That said, it’s no skin off my nose if you find interesting depths in the fiction of these games. I accept it that D&D is not stylistically the kind of fantasy I’d be interested in (so far so that I don’t even recognize any style in it apart from a hodge-podge of short-term justifications for a computer gamey environment) – you’ll note that I made no claims in this series of blog posts that it should be, I just wrote about why it fails in engendering any fictional interest in me. The most significant purpose in this kind of blog posting is not in trying to convince others that they are somehow wrong in liking the things they like; rather, I just wanted to put to words one reason for why I am not playing the same games many others are. I’d hope that others reading this might wish to consider whether their products would or could serve me and others with similar viewpoints better; likewise, somebody similarly confused as to why modern rpgs seem unappealing to them might find some common ground in my words. I can’t really hope to achieve anything more with some swiftly composed essays, can I?

    (A significant undercurrent of these posts, by the by, was the idea that fantasy adventure rpgs during the ’70s and ’80s exhibited much more general acceptance and encouragement for the kind of fictional endeavours I appreciate. D&D, for example, was rather restrained in its core materials for quite a while, with little foothold for eXXtreme fantasy and outright faciliation of the hack’n slash cycle. So I don’t think it’s entirely fair to characterize my comparison of current fantasy rpg stylings with some other eras as requiring the game to be something it’s not.)

    As to Exalted, I haven’t been following it for near-on five years at this point, so I wouldn’t really want to debate anybody point-for-point on the meaning of the text itself. Suffice to say that my impression at the time was pretty clear-cut, and it was based on careful reading of a dozen supplements and half a dozen sessions of play; no need to try to elevate that one reader’s impression into anything more authoritative than that, though.

  20. Brand Robins Says:


    Long, long after the rest of the discussion I’d come back and read the last couple posts by you and the mighty Raven and something occurred to me.

    See, I have vast and lasting aesthetic and ethical problems with large swaths of modern fantasy (games and literature), which in many areas overlap with yours but in other areas sharply diverge.

    In thinking on the division, it occurs to me that my problem in the area is a matter of hegemony. I hate any fantasy in which the fantastic world we see is either 1) simply a recreation of the same social models and cultural-technological-economic forces that dominate our world in fantasy drag, and 2) uses the growing dialectic of ur-facisim and power fantasy as the only possible escape from that hegemonic control.

    So, yes, I hate sunrods. Not because I like lanterns or the romanticization of the late middle ages. (Hate it too, actually.) I hate it because its really a way to make the world of the fantasy work just the same as our world. Like Raven says “they just use magic the way we use technology.” But where he finds it useful, I find it maddening. Its still the same object-based, post-enlightenment, consumerist, paradigm of interaction — but now its made not just the way it is now, but into a more hegemonic “the basic way it must be.”

    See, fantasy to me is about stepping outside the norms of our culture, about escaping the hegemony that leads to idiot works like Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” These fantasy games that make all world basically our world (but with more fascism) thus fail me. They not only don’t look at alternatives to the status quo, they make our status quo the natural and normative status quo across all possible universes. So dominant is our hegemony that we can’t even question it in fiction. It’s too hard, and easy fun means we must accept the only pill left to swallow.

    Of course, the other part about it is the places where the PCs (and other “magical special” characters) are allowed to step outside the hegemony are by being Ur-Facists. The violence, the narcissism, the lack of consequences… all these things that you talked about are positioned in these games as the way that the game is different than life. Not because the world is essentially different, but because the characters are essentially different than the loser races of the world.

    Which, of course, is both an ethically dangerous place, but also is a failure to challenge the hegemony again. Because that kind of sado-masochistic narcissism and power fantasy is part of our current hegemonic discourse. Even in the one area where it gets challenged, the dominant voice is challenged only in exactly the way it wants to be.

    I think its worth noting, this is where I part ways with you on Exalted. Exalted is many of the things you say about it, and I’ve no doubt most people play it that way. But whenever I’ve played Exalted (and I’ve played a fair bit), the game has taken a sharp turn away from it. The power and “special status” the PCs get is a problem. The PCs are what is wrong with the world, and in facing that they have to come up with ways of structuring their world that fall outside modern western hegemonic norms. So, for me, Exalted starts off with the Ur-Fascist power-fantasy tropes, but then in play quickly turns them on their head and makes them the problem to be solved.

    How much of that is due to mechanics and structure, and how much is due to the aesthetic pressure placed upon the game by my group, I’m not yet ready to speculate about.

  21. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Good thoughts, Brand. Looking at the topic with fresh eyes after a while, I, too, have a further bit to say: I stand behind everything I said about this topic before, but I need to focus my point a bit by saying that my gripe with modern fantasy is not basically that it’s wish-fulfillment, fascist, this or that – the basic problem in truth is that it is only this same old thing, derivative and done badly to boot.

    I’m basically an uncaring meritocrat at heart: I don’t care if the modern fantastist wants to celebrate technocracy and fascist ideals in his fantasy literature, if only he did this with style, artistic vision and originality. Reading what I wrote earlier, I see this point getting lost in the fact that what we have in this branch of literary culture right now is basically an endless sea of mediocrity that rides these themes – so naturally I end up pointing towards other aesthetic topics just because originality is good, imagination is good and being able to pick your own path is good. But it’s not really the sunrod that makes this stuff stink, it’s the uncaring lack of literary passion. If you’re going to be a technocratic fascist whose fantasy world celebrates magical technology and an upper class chosen by gods, at least depict this with conviction and some higher ideals and passion than just copying what others have done before and satisfying the lowest common denominator with your work. So the sunrod as an idea in itself does not really bother me, it’s the artistically mediocre purpose of utilizing magic merely as a safe and comfortable tool that annoys me. It has no meaning except to provide a simple equipment list for a game that in truth has nothing to do with the fantastic concept of magic.

    As for Exalted – yes, that’s pretty much how I’d play the game as well. Must be something wrong with my reading comprehension, though, as the way I read it years ago basically consisted of getting convinced that the writers and the setting fully support and celebrate the moral supremacy of the supermen. I ultimately answered this by hacking the setting metaphysics quite a long ways to create some real support for other truths. I’m especially fond of the rules I created for Infernal Exalted – this was before any of the supplements, so if I wanted Infernal, I created them myself; in my version they were not corrupted Solars (an odious ideology to presume that the only way to get celestial power is to have it bestowed by the celestial leaders), but instead specifically mortal humans willing to sell their existence to demons to compete in a world where the very metaphysics basically make that existence meaningless. I also gave them powers that largely manipulated the virtues in different ways and gave some bite to this otherwise marginal part of the mechanics. In many ways they resembled an evil version of Sidereals that were published somewhat later.

  22. Brand Robins Says:


    So far as the writers of Exalted go, having known a few of them IRL, I can tell you that they’re a rather divisive lot. Several of them HATE the superman mentality, a few of them utterly relish it. Grabowski, Libertarian that he was, was of… divided mind about it much of the time.

    As far as the aesthetic issues go, again, I agree with you but only so far. I would prefer original and passionate fascism to mediocre progressivism, if only slightly. But in the end I’m too caught in moral concerns to be able to assign meritocratic weight based upon aesthetics above ethics.

    However, I think the current problem is that both are mediocre, phatic, and endlessly churned out with diffident repetition. The genre, as a whole, has become comfort food — to be consumed while watching TV, to warm the belly with the expected, and aims for nothing higher.

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