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Friday, 25 November 2016

Four ways into fantasy

This is the text of a talk I gave at a role-playing convention in Coventry in the late '80s. I'd been sweet-talked into doing it by Gail Baker and Paul Mason. I thought what I'd do was throw out something contentious and then get a debate going. In those days I was quite combative about good fantasy. Ah, but you say 'good' is an elite word? All right, then!
There are a number of qualitatively different ways in which the fantasy element can be incorporated into a fantasy role-playing campaign. These different “registers” are built into the game world.

At one end of the spectrum, worlds such as Tekumel or Jorune are essentially Realist fantasies, in that all aspects of the world are viewed as logical and internally consistent. Such worlds are “absolute sub-creations”, to use Tolkien’s phrase. Tolkien’s words on the successful sub-creator apply equally to the referee of a Realist fantasy:
“He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it while you are, as it were, inside.”
Obviously the magic of Tekumel or Jorune is not rationally feasible in true scientific terms, but it is treated as logical within the framework of the fantasy. We are asked only to believe that in these worlds there exists a natural phenomenon that is indistinguishable from magic. The day-to-day logic of a Realist fantasy world is as close as possible to that of the real world. This is not to say that characters in the world will be like modern individuals, but their understanding of their world will ride on the same logic as ours. Nations go to war for political reasons, and people in the world resist convenient categorization as “good”, “evil”, “chaotic” or whatever. On Tekumel, Baron Ald of Yan Kor is prosecuting a war against his southern neighbors, the Tsolyani, because an expansionist policy is the only way to unify the fragmented Yan Koryani political structure. The war has become more bitter for certain acts perpetrated by the Tsolyani, most notably the massacre at the fortress of Ke’er. For their part, the Tsolyani regard Ald as a renegade – he was formerly a foreign mercenary in their army. When the whole situation is studied it is rather difficult to say who is in the right, and this is what one would expect of any Realist fantasy.

The most common environment in games and fiction is the Pseudo-Real fantasy. The mark of an Pseudo-Real fantasy is that it shows the roots of its creation. Most are based on medieval Europe and usually make no bones about this. The setting for RuneQuest 3 is overtly called Fantasy Europe, and Legend from Dragon Warriors is but a thinly disguised evocation of the medieval world as medieval people believed it to be. Other Pseudo-Real settings are possible (for instance Bushido’s Nippon) but all share the same heritage: they swipe much of their scenery from things we are all familiar with, on an intellectual and/or emotional level. Such a world cannot be utterly accepted as real, as it will contain elements which the players cannot avoid recognizing as fantastical. A Realist fantasy can fool your subconscious with the semblance of internal logic – it is the viable “Secondary World” Tolkien speaks of. But the only approach to a Pseudo-Real world is the temporary suspension of disbelief. Tolkien seems to be addressing us on this, too:
“But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make believe.”
This would make the Pseudo-Real world seem like a pretty poor thing in comparison to Realist fantasy. In fact, I would say (using reasoning much like Tolkien’s) that it can never quite match up as a game setting. It does, however, have its interesting features. It allows the players to explore the re-creation of legendary themes and imaginative landscapes we all share. Certainly it is easier to enter the half-familiar territory of a Pseudo-Real campaign, especially if you’re not playing frequently with a group of intensely committed gamers, than it is to key in to the fully reshaped tropes of a Realist campaign.

A step further from the real world is the Semi-Mythic fantasy. There is no longer any need for events to follow a “real” pattern, and the world cannot be accepted on an intellectual level. You must enter it as a make-believe. Rather than lurking as a half-glimpsed shadowy force that occasionally impinges on the world (as in a Pseudo-Real setting), the power of magic in the Semi-Mythic universe is great enough to affect world events. Often such a world is “kind of” medieval Europe, but with an overlay of dark lords, barbarian hordes of chaos, and taverns full of drunken dwarves. People wage war because they are Evil with a capital e, and are opposed by other people who are therefore Good. At its very worst this kind of environment is the stereotypical DnD cod-medieval world, and is to be encountered all too wearisomely often in fantastic fiction. But if handled expertly it can be very powerful indeed, tapping into tremendous emotional sources. It can be approached through the channels of dream, and the great Semi-Mythic achievements are perhaps Glorantha and Tolkien’s own Middle Earth.

Perhaps it is misleading to look at these various kinds of fantasy in a linear sequence depending on the amount of “myth” in the mixture. That is one categorization, but it is also worth considering the way in which the fantasy must be approached and experienced. With the final category, the Mythic fantasy, we have come almost full-circle. Such a world is not accessible on a realistic level, but the player (or reader) must shift his own role to one where his perception of the world is “real-like”. A Mythic fantasy is one where archetypal figures and landscapes are directly represented in the world. There will be no complex social setups; the world seems dark, passionate and primeval. Characters are apt to be hall-heroes full of human foibles but capable of great glory: Dark Age gangs à la Beowulf. Players thus see this world through different eyes. It is not realistic from our modern standpoint, but to the player-characters no other world is conceivable. The suspension of disbelief is no longer a problem, no longer grates against the player’s imagination, because the primal nature of the Mythic environment is so raw and primally strong that reason is lulled into submission. In such a world a hero might learn from a wise woman that if he swims the Rymchild Sea with a silver coin in his mouth, he will come to the Land of the Dead. If he rides far enough north he might come to an endless wall, beyond whose gate lies Faerie. Emotion, poetry and dream act with the force of natural law.

Player-characters in a Mythic world can be expected to adopt a dramatic rather than a pragmatic attitude, as they are almost conscious that the events of their lives are not real and immediate, but are in some sense outside of time. A riddling contest may be accepted and entered into with gusto, seen by the character as the proper way to deal with a challenge. A taboo such as is common in folktales (not to wander from the path, not to ask a specific question, etc) will be understood by the character to apply with a force greater than the intellect can grasp – whereas a character on a Realist world like Tekumel would surely require a more logical basis for his actions.

I know of no pure Mythic world in fantasy gaming, though I’m sure they are out there. Pendragon comes the closest of the games I’ve played, as it deliberately sets out to create an obviously unreal time and place, spurring players towards an immersion in the character-attitudes appropriate to that. A campaign based on the adventures of the Norse gods or Grimm's fairy tales would be even nearer to the mark.

Such are the categories. Now, what use are they? There are several lessons to be learned by considering the different categories of fantasy. First, it pays never to mix the approach of one category with the setting of another. As a very simple example, very few people in real life make a definite decision to act in a particular way simply because they see it as “good” or “evil”. In a Realist world it would be inappropriate for characters to talk in those terms. They might say, “We can’t do this; it isn’t right.” But they certainly would not say, “We can’t do that, we’d be acting like we’re chaotic-evil.” Yet in a universe where Chaos is widely accepted as a physical force (as in a teenager’s bedroom), although not realistic, it is credible for characters to take account of it in their discussions.

The other error lies in mixing elements of two categories. Both are usually devalued in the process. In the context of Jorune, it is perfectly reasonable to give the history, habits and social structure of an alien race like the thriddle. They are simply a group of intelligent nonhumans, and can be presented factually just as Larry Niven portrays his kzin, puppeteers, and so on. In the context of a Pseudo-Real or Semi-Mythic fantasy, it is not reasonable to do the same thing for dwarves and elves. Elves represent more than just the outer image; in a science fiction game, people with pointy ears are called Vulcans and we can be told all about them. But in fantasy, elves stand for something in relation to humanity; their soullessness and mystery stirs something in our imagination, and means that they have some bearing on what we are. They have a myth-value which is debased if they are treated as just a nonhuman race. See Robert Dale’s review of the Mayfair sourcebooks in White Dwarf 57 for a more extensive tirade on this theme.

A corollary to this is the use of elves, dwarves, etc, as player-characters. While that might be an interesting experiment for a good role-player over a single evening’s gaming, it can only have a negative effect in the long term. With the best will in the world, if I am playing an elf and adventuring for some reason with a bunch of humans, how long will the music of Faerie hang about me? How long before we reach the crass dungeoneering approach of “Elf at the back with his bow ready, the front rank hits the door...”? If you are trying to play the part of an elf, you must ask yourself a lot of rather mundane questions. Do elves sit in taverns and get drunk? Do they belch and have hangovers? Do they pick their noses, crap and get colds? These are questions that not only should never be answered, they should never be asked.

To focus upon a myth-figure with such boorish scrutiny is to strip away the fragile tissue of suspended disbelief on which it rests. You enter what Michael Polling calls the Cycle of Taxonomic Reduction. Elves cease to be viable myth-images, so (since even the most dedicated aficionado of pulp high fantasy must possess a vestigial imagination) it soon becomes clear one must create something else to fulfill their function in the fantasy environment. Searching a bit deeper into folklore to replace the now unmysterious elf, one might find drow, or spriggans, or bogles. But as soon as these are duly written up and codified, they too are devalued and the desperate slide continues. It is possible to apply a few game-safeguards (“this race is for NPCs only” or “the GM may choose from the following facts about the race, some of which may be only half-truths”) but these do not stop the rot entirely. A close look at any game’s monster listings usually turns up several valiant attempts at remythologisation. I have just flipped through the Fiend Folio, where the meenlock and revenant are good examples. But on the barren soil of rules and stats they can never be more than a pale after-image of the original myths.

This is more important now than ever before because we have a lot of new blood entering the fantasy role-playing hobby. Giving newcomers tips on how to role-play or design good scenarios should not come before warnings on how to preserve the wildness and power of their fantasy. Someone whose induction to fantasy role-playing gets mired in the compatibility of human-orc genetics and contemplating the lifecycle of trolls is on a downward spiral of diminishing imaginative returns. I think we shall not have done our duty by the hobby if we fail to take a stand against that.

Recommended reading
Tree and Leaf by J.R.R.Tolkien
The Language of the Night by Ursula LeGuin (especially the essay “From Elfland to Ploughkeepsie”)
Red as Blood by Tanith Lee
Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn

There are of course no definite boundaries between the fantasy categories I have defined here (categories should always be taken with a pinch of salt in any case), but the following are good fantasy works that illustrate the point:

Man of Gold by M.A.R.Barker (Realist)
Lyonesse by Jack Vance (Pseudo-Real)
Night’s Master by Tanith Lee (Semi-Mythic)
The Penguin Book of the Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Mythic)


  1. A couple of points / questions: -

    1) What's the origin of these sub-genre labels - realist, pseudo-real, semi-mythic, mythic? Are they drawn from one of the sources on the reading list here?

    2) Okay, in a sci-fi game you can have people with pointy ears, and they're called Vulcans, and the player can learn how long a Vulcan year is, and the average Vulcan lifespan, and so on... But in sci-fi fiction, at least, the aliens often fulfil the same roles as the elves you've described here. They exist because they reflect a very specific aspect of humanity – of us, the audience. This week's episode of Star Trek TNG focuses on gender identity, and so the Enterprise travels to a planet of androgynous (and intolerant) beings; the hive-mind nature of the Borg collective contrasts so sharply with the notion of individuality, and freedom, that assimilation by the Borg represents the worst kind of slavery.

    Okay, granted, the 'aliens of the week' are sometimes presented in a ham-handed way.

    Vulcans are a special case. In Star Trek, Spock's emotionlessness serves to highlight the emotiveness of humanity – it's been pointed out elsewhere that Kirk, McCoy and Spock respectively embody the Greek notions of ethos, pathos and logos. And, in that original series, Vulcans remain a mystery – when Pon'farr drives Spock crazy, and he hijacks the Enterprise to go home and fight Kirk with a giant cotton bud, nobody knows what's happening. It's only in the Motion Picture that Vulcans begin to get any real depth, as a species.

    And, staying with Star Trek, this is where the longevity of the series works against its best interests, and dulls any sense of wonder in the way you've mentioned in the post here. A legion of different writers have varying ideas about how to present the series, and some of them are... less than great. In the original series, Pon'farr was a mystery, and a way of showing the bestial creature lurking beneath the logical exterior; by the time Star Trek Voyager rolls around, it's become so routine that the crew of the ship are marking it on a calendar to calculate Tuvok's age.

    Likewise, when it's time to do a movie featuring the Borg, and the scriptwriter throws in a 'Borg Queen' – because it's more cinematic to fight against a single, identifiable 'baddie' – well, that neatly destroys the entire concept of that race. Bravo.

    At least, that's how things tend to go in science-fiction fiction. Would the same be true in a sci-fi game? I'd hope that a GM would maintain an element of the unknown – the unknown which is, in some sense, recognisable within ourselves.

    Y'see, Dave, any mention of Vulcans just gives me an excuse to talk at length about Star Trek.

    1. Go right ahead, Paul! Star Trek may have gone on too long (though I liked the first reboot movie) as so many series do.

      And Doctor Who has the same problem with Davros as you highlight with the Borg Queen. Terry Nation put him in Genesis for that great ending when the Daleks come into their own. They don't need him. But writers since them keep bringing him back so they can have superhero scenes between him and the Doctor. Oh well, everything turns to crap if it goes on long enough.

      Wrt the terms - I just made them up. For a much more carefully considered argument, check out Farah Mendlesohn's book Rhetorics of Fantasy. I should add it to the reading list above, actually.

  2. Where do you fit works of modern/urban fantasy? I remember a trilogy from the 90s written by Rosemary Edgehill that started with The Sword of Maiden's Tears that felt just kind of heartbreakingly real.

    1. They're usually Pseudo-Real, aren't they? In the sense that the story is set in an alternate New York, Tokyo, etc, where elves exist and magic works.

  3. I founded this really interesting, it's exactly the sort of thing that keeps me checking in on this blog once a week. More of this ilk please!

  4. Joe Dever has died.

    1. If Jamie looks at the comments, maybe he'll share some memories here. I only spoke to Joe a couple of times, but he and Gary Chalk both knew Jamie well from their time working together at Games Workshop. All I can add is the trivium that Joe once won a Dungeons and Dragons tournament. I remember being surprised because up till then I'd never heard of anybody "winning" at roleplaying.

    2. There's a short obit for Joe by Stuart Lloyd on his blog: