Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Fantastic is Fantasy?

I know I shouldn't, but it's a bit like a dog worrying at a bone. On those dull days in the office when no actual work seems to happen, but a lot of "station keeping" goes on, I typically surf over to the forums (usually at Giant in the Playground since they're terribly entertaining and infuriating at times and the Kenzer & Co. boards since Dave and Jolly and their crew are just so damned cool for refusing to be just "another turd in the pot" company) and pick on the New School folks. It's a bit hypocritical, I know, since I'm not really and Old School kind of guy, but sometimes they just tickle me.

Today and yesterday, though, they actually got me to thinking on a couple of things. Primarily, the discussion of what level of the fantastic is "right" for a game. Just how strange, fantastic, or downright odd do things get before one draws the line? As things on the internet go, there was no real room for moderate views in this discussion. You were either for, what was termed, dull and "Tolkienian" fantasy, or you would permit anything and everything (specifically, everything and anything that a player wanted, but that's another argument entirely). The example that got dredged up from the fevered recesses of somebody's mind was that you could either be playing Greyhawk with nothing but the core Human, Elf, Dwarf etc. core races and classes, or you would play in a game where the players could create a sentient squirrel wizard riding in the "cockpit/wand turret" of a constructed flesh golem mobile platform.

I swear on all that is holy that I'm not making that last bit up. See for yourself.

My first reaction has got to be . . . why the fuck would you want to play such an absurd character? What possible interest would you have in it? I mean that seriously. What connection could you make to even access such a concept as anything other than a monster? Why would it not simply be swarmed by folks the instant it stepped into public and slain for the abomination that it is? And of course, the opposite would be just ye olde boring D&D campaign right?

Now that the thought's been rattling around in my brain, slowly eating at my sanity (if it weren't for my horse, I would not have gone back to school that year . . .), I have to ask myself at this point whether there's a real difference between such a . . . thing . . . and the concept of wizards conjuring fireballs from thin air and giant winged reptiles with terminal halitosis hoarding coins and magical items? I like to say often that there's a difference between suspending your disbelief, and hanging it by the neck until dead, and that this clearly falls on that side of the line, but why is that on one side, and the dwarf on the other? Huge metropolitan campaigns where everybody plays as their favorite monster race on that side, and the race preference charts on the other? I mean hell, I'm in the middle of working through some material for Thylia, and I stumbled across a line where I traced a particular artifact to extra-terrestrials, and I'm OK with that, but still something that wierd as even the sentien necromantic rodent sticks in my craw.

James has talked about this in passing over at Grognardia (and I'm not throwing up a link because I'm far too lazy and if you read this you're most certainly familiar with his work) as it concerns that notable module about and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and Gamma World. He termed it Science Fantasy, and I think it's fair to say that in its original inception, D&D was, as much as Gamma World, a science fantasy game rather than a strict fantasy game. In the end, I find myself much more comfortable on the Fantasy side of that equation, even so far as to prefer fantasy literature that reads less like fantasy and more like medieval period pieces - A Song of Ice and Fire as case in point.

Am I wrong to sit here and strip out such things from "my" game? Am I hammering D&D into a mold that it doesn't really entirely fit? The answer is, I don't know. What I do know, though, is that the more strangeness (specifically, the more breaks from our own reality that we are forced to make) in a game, the harder it becomes for the players and the DM to insert themselves into the world and interact with it. It becomes less about exploring, and more about constnatly trying to keep your feet and learn about the next thing that's been changed. The wierder things get, the more quickly I, as a player, get thrown out of immersion.

And I suppose that I'm a real fuddy who should just hang up his dice because in browsing through a PDF of The Savage Frontier supplement for the Forgotten Realms, I'm forced to admit that, while the background material is excellent, most of the interesting locations that they call out to attention just drive me creatively up the wall. The stronghold of Ascelhorn, now fallen after its occupants had dealings with Hell in order to preserve their power, now known as Hellgate Keep (or something like that): good. It's interesting, and provoking. It then goes on to say that the keep is now ruiled by a type VI demon with hordes of minion demons and undead and that it is a terrible place on the brink of conquering the entire North: not so good. As much as I like demons and devils, and I really do, for some unidentifiable reason, this just . . . ugh. And it's largely the same for much of the Forgotten Realms. It seems that magic and "fantasy" are just leaking out of its pores, every page screaming D&D adventure. If anything, the best way I can describe it is that the Realms are just too . . . well . . ."too D&D." They're too heavily influenced by the way the game works, allowing mechanics and rules books to shape the realm than letting the rules serve the world setting, as I see Greyhawk doing for the most part.

I honestly have no conclusion here, other than to say that this is bothering me with some absurd shame about not being fantasy enough. Am I wrong here? Where do others draw their line between what does and does not make it into a D&D, or any other system's campaign?


  1. I try to 'never say never'.

    If you are honestly happy with hard limits on what passes for fantasy, and your players are happy with that, too, then what does it matter what others say/think/blog?

    Have fun,

  2. Different people have different tolerances for inexplicable gonzo in their games. One man's stark Tolkienian low fantasy setting is another man's boring clichefest. If you don't want the intensely whacky in your game, well, that's just as much a personal taste thing as how much you season your food.

    No right. No wrong. Just tastes.

    But what do I know? I'm a guy who uses Bagpuss, the Clangers and Top Gear's Stig to gank PCs and has decided that his game universe works in whatever way seems fun at that moment. ;)

  3. Everything has its place, and various D&D campaigns can have different themes and require different levels of suspension of disbelief. However, weird fantasy only really works in a mundane context. The more mundane the context, the higher the impact of the contrast. There is a line between fantasy and farce, but no reason it should not be crossed for entertainment either.

  4. As previous posters have said, it is down to personal preference. Everyone has an idea of what constitutes fantasy, but I personally believe in stretching those ideas from time to time. What may seem boring and cliched serves to support anything more avant garde that can be layered over that. I think it was Dungeons and Digressions recently who said his wife would only play if the setting was the Dordoigne where they had holidayed in previous years. I think this illustrates someone's limit of what is acceptable. Even fantasy has to have its roots in reality so that the step from real to believable is not too jarring and the suspension of disbelief can take place comfortably. I think this is why a lot of people have no truck at all with fantasy in any form, to them it's just too different to be believable.