Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Whacky and Wierd VS. the Familiar and the Pseudo-Real

There's something to be said for the wierd. Thool is a very cool place, what with a seeming dearth of the ordinary and an overabundance of "just plain wierd shit." Scott has managed to create a world that is new enough and strange enough to our modern way of thinking, and our way of perceiving even simple daily tasks, that he's emphasized the acts of exploration and discovery as ends in and of themselves. The players will spend, likely, as much time learning about the world around them as they do rooting through ancient dungeons to their greedy, shivled hearts' content. And that's a great thing.

Hargrave's Arduin - actually, technically speaking, it's The World of Khaas and I recommend that book to, well, everybody - is, in my estimation, the poster child of the whacky, wierd, and zany campaign worlds. As far as I can tell, it's just about the only place where anthropoid insects, weasels, and panda are standard player races. Not to mention Saurig (aka, lizard men), Kobbits (half kobold, half hobbit, with wings), and Throon (near giant sized four armed humanoids that are dumber than a box of rocks and especially fond of pumpkin). Then there's Rune Weavers, Star Powered Mages, and Techno's (the guys that get to play around with high technology while their buddies carry around sharpened sticks). And, of course, we can't forget that some of the most famous games of Arduin included elements adapted from (i.e. stolen en toto) popular sources including Jedi and Storm Troopers. It all merged together in a kind of pleasant and goofy mish-mash as a thing in and of itself. Once there, you wouldn't question why your 5th level Fighter is scrambling for cover from the orc mortar squadron freshly timewarped from an alternate WWII somewhere in the vast and strange multi-verse.

Of course, one can't let Mutant Future or Gamma World go by without mention either. Science Fantasy at its high point and, in my opinion, the true inheritors of the pulp fiction genre in gaming more so than D&D if only because they lacked the inhibitions that later got piled on.

Gonzo playstyle leads to great levels of creativity and can often avoid what can be yet another boring "might as well be Greyhawk" world. After a while, all but the most fantastic of fantasy worlds can become dull, and it's times like those that we run off in search of border bending stuff.

In the end, though, there are problems that I have with all of this, not least of which is that many of us . . . ok some of us . . . ok, maybe just me . . . have a near fetish level appreciation for verisimilitude and "realism." That's not entirely right as it's more along the lines of looking for plausible explanations. In the Forgotten Realms setting, there's a great desert in the middle of which rests of glacier. Supposedly, I suppose, that's supposed to spark creativity and interest in explaining/discovering why that glacier is there, or why that desert is there, or whatever, but in the end, it seems to boil down to "a wizard did it" which isn't any kind of explanation at all. It's baseless wierdness. This might be why I like Arduin to some extent, because the wierdness has a relatively plausible explanation behind it all - a massive tear in the space-time continuum leading to massive and repeated crossings between Khaas and pretty much everywhere else leading to a general rule of thumb "if it stands even a remote chance of being cool, go for it."

Another issue I find is that it often turns into scenery porn. Either the DM has spent more time pouring love into the setting than he has creating an actually interesting (or at least pursuable) adventure, or it's so strange that the players spend more time trying to get their bearings: how often can you worry about whether that large animal you ride on is a horse, or a warm-blooded reptilian spider before you start to lose interest? This is absolutely the reason why I'm a great fan of low fantasy, especially stuff like A Song of Ice and Fire. It's fantastic enough, but not so strange that readers spend more time flipping back and forth between the text and the mandatory glossary just trying to figure out what a "whojunkiz" is and why it's hurting somebody's "yambotheric."

Assimov said it best, I think, when he said at some point that his first rule of writing good science fiction was to ask the audience to believe only one unbelieveable thing. This applies just as much to Fantasy as it does to anything else. You could have the sun rise in the North and set in the East, but why? What purpose does it have other than to lend some faux exoticism? Those multiple suns in the Tatooinian sky were there only to let us know quickly (as if we hadn't figured it out by now) that the crew really wasn't just wandering around in Tunisia. Everything added above the "normal" should have purpose.

Taken too far, and it ends up turing the focus of the game towards experiencing strange new worlds rather than adventuring in them. For me, the focuse of D&D always was and always should be on the actions of the characters, whether they choose to make heroes of themselves, or whether they restrain themselves to merely robbing crypts for the gold and grave goods they might find. Or they might choose to become grand explorers, but then it's their choice rather than neccessity because the world is so disparate from the world that the players know that they spend more time trying to figure it all out rather than actually adventuring. Keeping things closer to the real world gives the players a metahporical leg to stand on before the wierd-shit-o-meter spikes.

The worst thing, I think, is when this turns into the gimmick settings. "It's like Greyhawk, but with . . ." Dark Sun is like Greyhawk, but with really dry weather and lots of psionics. Dragonlance is just like Greyhawk, but with lots of dragons and a super-simplistic view of morality and interpersonal relationships. Eberron is just like Greyhawk, but with "magical technology." The world becomes a shtick rather than anything living and breathing.


  1. I've been using the same gameworld that I created as a kid. I never did "Arduinize" the world no matter how much I loved the cartoonish and outlandish nature of Hargraves stuff. I always found the original three book good reading (still have a couple of battered and ragged copies), but my gameworld tends to stay on the "low fantasy" side (if by that you mean having a little restraint with the nutso stuff).

    I did manage to run a Phraint in some games back in the 80's, and have an awesome figure for it. He was dark, shiny blue in color. Loved that bug.

  2. In my view, "low fantasy" typically means less overt magic, more character, and less stereotypical "fantastic" elements. Basically, a really good story with some fantastic elements added.