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 fantasy adventure roleplaying games like D&D and Exalted seem to offer nowadays. This being a personal opinion does not, of course, preclude looking for reasons and values behind the opinion.
I’ll be discussing the differences between roleplaying game fantasies here. I recommend some brief history of fantasy literature as a starter, mainly because it makes it easier to distinguish my point here. Some key ideas to take from such study:
- “High fantasy” vs. “low fantasy” as some kind of a power-level thing (that is, something where you argue about how many magic swords the setting presents per kilometer squared) is a RPG-specific phenomenon that is hardly relevant for literature, where “high” means romantized depiction and “low” means realism or pessimism.
- A central theme of fantasy literature, and the reason for the quaint milieu, is an interest in pre-modern societies. In fantasy literature the society in question is often ahistorical, but the basic conceits are the same, regardless. Specifically important are concepts such as heroism, social injustice and civilization are all rooted in this – this is important, as urban fantasy can’t be distinguished from the classical style without the distinction.
- Fantasy literature developed in separate strains in Europe and the US during the first half of last century. Knowing the detailed differences between fairy tale fantasy, pulp fantasy, sword & sorcery and so on is useful for figuring out what kind of fantasy roleplaying is doing at any given point in time.
Now, onwards to my own topic:
Different kinds of roleplaying fantasy
For practical purposes, I want to distinguish between different operative meanings of the concept of “fantasy” in roleplaying. Specifically:
- The common umbrella understanding of “fantasy” in roleplaying is inextricably connected to fantasy literature: fantasy adventure games are games that emulate and have a resemblance to fantasy novels. There are wizards and dragons in it, in other words. Or at least barbarian warriors going at it with giant snakes; the pertinent point is literary genre heritage, not specific memes.
- Another understanding of the concept is that “fantasy” is positive empowerment. This is an every-day meaning of the word, but it’s also deeply relevant to fantasy roleplaying because many roleplayers have, especially these days, conflated the two meanings: to play a fantasy game means to play a game that allows the players some harmless entertainment where they get to be heroic, beautiful, powerful or whatever they desire.
- Yet another understanding is that “fantasy” is a literary sub-category of “speculative fiction”, wherein a given speculative reality depiction falls into “scifi” if it has spaceships or cyborgs and “fantasy” if it doesn’t, except if it’s set on earth, in which case it’s either “alternate history” or “urban fantasy”. (OK, in reality it’s a bit more complex than that. Not pertinent.) This differs quite a bit from the first definition up there, for even if every post-tolkienist fantasy writer is also a writer of speculative fiction, not nearly everything that is “fantastic” in the sense of being set in an imaginary world is fantasy in the sense of being a literary descendant of romanticism, fairy tales, pulp fantasy and whatever else you might consider the forebearers of modern fantasy literature.
- It is notable that the original meaning of fantasy, “something that is not real, but rather, imagined”, is not at all pertinent for fantasy roleplaying. The origins of fantasy literature are very much in the process of inserting made-up things into everyday reality, but that’s not the case in roleplaying. So even if this meaning is the oldest and most generic of them all, it’s a red herring for analysing roleplaying.
The above differentiations are important for figuring out what I like and what I don’t; I don’t exactly like anything and everything that gets called “fantasy”. My first instict when we’re speaking of fantasy adventure roleplaying is that we’re going to do some adventuring in a traditional fantasy setting – the kind that emphasizes and reflects our view of the historical past in the same manner that fantasy literature does. The problem in a nutshell is that modern roleplaying fantasy has floated into a world of its own that often enough really is “fantastic” by definitions 2-4, above.
The differences between old-style fantasy adventure and new style
Now we’re getting to the core of this business. Here’s how I see new-style fantasy adventure:
- The setting is a nice pseudo-medieval world that conveniently lacks any of the challenging and difficult features such fantasy worlds have traditionally included. As D&D GM’s guidelines pretty clearly have it (this was in 3.5 GM’s guide, part the deux, unless I’m fantasizing it), the game world should be egalitarian, clean and uncontroversial, as those features distract from adventuring. Personally, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I learned that D&D fantasy characters apparently use magic flashlights in the next edition to see in the dark, to coin a rather mundane example from my recent reading. Apparently lanterns are somehow contrary to the style of the fiction now.
- Player characters are the protagonists of their own epic movie by right. Players need to have the right to choose who and what their characters are, and nothing permanently bad should ever happen to the characters. The players should be encouraged to make their characters distinctive and cool by inventing a suitably personal shtick and playing to it. (I’m going by the rules and play advice of D&D, Exalted and most other modern fantasy games here.)
- The GM is mandated to build epic storylines that thrust the player characters into a pretty strained combination of monty haul dungeoneering and high drama. (Exalted dungeon adventures are especially hilarious in this regard.) Failure is really not an option here, either.
- The package is sold with offensively shallow aesthetics that emphasize cinematic notions of cool action adventure that resembles superhero comics more than anything I’d recognize as fantasy literature. Exploitation of the female figure is just a small part of this, the whole visual milieu of modern fantasy games seems ridiculous to me with its exaggerated weaponry, weird coiffures, constant hammering of violent action… it really, truly has little in common with the kind of fantasy games I’m used to appreciating.
These features taken together paint the picture of a game that I’m not very interested in playing. They emphasize wish-fulfilment fantasy in lieu of literary memes and promote a model of play where player satisfaction is derived from pandering gratification and ensured success, not any kind of real interaction between the players. To hone the point, here are some features of old-style fantasy roleplaying worlds that I think are pretty fun, but also rather contradictory with the new games:
- A repeating theme of fantasy gaming in my youth was exploration of primitive lifestyle. It was important to us that our adventurers lived in this slightly romantical milieu of the past where people got around on horseback, slept under the stars next to a campfire, battled with trolls and argued with evil barons or whatever. In other words, the memes of fantasy literature were important in that kind of fantasy gaming, which is actively undermined by the stylistical choices made in these new games. The specific kind of literary fantasy is a pretty moot point (I might as well write of dark and dirty cities, traitorous thieves and corrupt officials, which is another sub-type of classic RPG fantasy imagery) when the game setting is actively built to faciliate disjointed power-up fantasy with little literary depth.
- The constrained character interaction with setting and setting-derived challenge was and is a central part of how I like to engage with the fantasy setting. I like that my character may fail and has to act within the rules of the setting to succeed in his life. I like that the setting might influence who and what my character is. The new fantasy gaming rules-sets are without fail arrayed against this value-set in allowing and assuming character identity to flow from mechanical choices made prior to play in character optimization sessions.
- Fantasy adventure never was about unconstrained violence and stringed-together martial encounters for me, which is a huge part of why D&D always seemed a bit off to me. My own fantasy campaigns have usually been equal parts social encounters, travel and action scenes, but the latter have rarely been the kind of set-piece battles D&D advocates – the opposition might be too strong or weak compared to player characters for that, for example, or there might not even be any particular opposition to slay.
The hasty reader might conclude that I’m just bitching about D&D as compared to Runequest, especially considering that my own early fantasy gaming experiences were with the latter. But I don’t truly think myself that early D&D is nearly as aggravating as the modern stuff, either – it’s idiosyncratic and truly its own subgenre what with all the dungeoneering and weird monsters, but it’s also down to earth, restrained and intricate. Even AD&D 2nd edition, which was the first version I read and played, is actually nothing like the 3rd edition magic item extravaganza. (Of course, the setting sourcebooks are another matter entirely, but the Player’s Handbook and GM’s guide read like a normal fantasy adventure game instead of a single-minded magical commando operation sourcebook like the 3rd edition, for all its good points, does.)
Wherefrom started my estrangement
I was not particularly bothered by the 3rd edition D&D, actually. The original publications for that are pretty restrained and even classical in places. Sourcebooks for the game are more annoying, but even those pale next to Exalted, which was so awful that I first bitched about it for a week, then played a short campaign of it, then read a dozen sourcebooks as they came out just out of morbid curiousity and frustration. (We’re talking roughly 2001-2003 here, up to the Sidereals splatbook or so.) As I said at the beginning of my last post, I got a strong flashback to all this from reading 4th edition preview materials – a kind of realization that actually, all fantasy gaming publication nowadays seems to be pretty exaltified.
(I should write about Exalted and Harry Potter at some point, my thinking at the time is pretty funny stuff. I suspect that my friends were actually worried with me when everything I read around that time came back with me ranting in rage about talentless fascist crypto-elitists controlling our fantasy literature. Luckily I resolved this at some point by stopping reading all those books that just made me angry.)
I should note that I have nothing in particular against wuxia, anime, superheroes or any other genre of literature. My annoyance here is not so much about that, but about the lame and superficial way modern designers seem to be taking in replacing classical fantasy with whatever it is they’re doing. It’s really not even wuxia, anime or superheroes, those things all have rhyme and reason I fail to see in the stylistical movement that controls mainstream RPG literature.
It’s also, of course, pertinent to note here that while D&D and other commercially pointed RPG publication is going wherever it is going, there is, of course, lots of alternative material out there for all kinds of tastes. I’ve been sorely tempted for a while by the Green Ronin Thieves’ World Gift Set at Amazon, for example: I haven’t familiarized myself much at all with the alternative d20 stuff that came out in droves a couple of years ago, so looking into that might be interesting. Thieves’ World was a pulpy sword & sorcery anthology series in the beginning of the ’80s; I have some rather high opinions about it and it’s pretty much everything that those modern fantasy RPGs are not, so a d20 game built from that might prove entertaining one way or another.
The strange part
The strange part here is that while I seem to have no sympathy at all for the 4th edition D&D aesthetics, the actual rules system should by rights be something rather original and coherent. Everything I’ve read so far seems like it’ll be a quite fun game as long as you engage it within its own context. I just can’t make my mind go with the flow as regards the visual imagery and fantasy worlds used with the rules – they’re all constantly hammering childish and superficial details that leave me little choice but to disconnect from the cheesy setting stuff altogether, considering the game as a pure tactical exercise and not an adventure game at all.