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Tuesday 24 August 2010

Believing in faerie

Recent posts and comments about Dragon Warriors, in particular the discussion about how Paul Mason used centaurs in "The Tower of Horglin", have been reminding me why I prefer "low fantasy" over the kind of setting used in most FRP games, and specifically how that preference shaped the DW world of Legend. I characterize it as low fantasy because Legend itself is intended as a pretty realistic milieu into which the fantastic occasionally intrudes. Because centaurs and elves and whatnot are not part of the infrastructure of the society, there is no necessity in DW to treat them as ethnic groups with their own customs and ecology. Instead, they stand for something in the human psyche. They can be (as fantasy should be) illogical and dreamlike.

The article below, in which I explain the thinking behind that preference, originally appeared in the DW fanzine Ordo Draconis which contains loads of useful material for roleplaying campaigns and is not tied exclusively to the DW rules either. It's well worth a look. (Incidentally, there is also a band called Ordo Draconis and their second album was released by Opus Magnum Records, while Magnum Opus Press publishes 2nd edition Dragon Warriors. So you see, there is a God and He has nothing better to do.)

If you've already come across this little article in OD, apologies for repeating it here. My excuse is that many Fabled Lands players may not be all that familiar with what's going on with DW and yet may still find it interesting. The line of reasoning behind these choices when I originally created Legend is pretty much the same as is elaborated in this post on the Lawful Indifferent blog - ie, human beings are so diverse and complex that you'll never get to the end of them, while PC elves and dwarves are just a way of avoiding immersion through stereotypes.

The FL world, of course, is all awash with high fantasy quests and not at all like Legend. So with that caveat in mind, here's the article...


Lafcadio Hearn wrote a story about a mujina that haunted a stretch of road in old Tokyo. The mujina appeared as a woman without a face, terrifying travellers at night. Because the term “mujina” had not been seen in the West, readers assumed that it meant a creature that had no face. Eventually the word achieved its reductio ad absurdum: an entry in a the monster manual for a dozen fantasy role-playing games that were either set in the Orient or had reached the point of desperation where another few dozen new creatures were needed to sell a supplement and it didn’t matter what part of the world they came from.

The truth is, mujina doesn’t mean a creature with no face. It’s just a word for a goblin, sprite or imp, derived in fact from the medieval Japanese superstition that badgers and foxes were mischievous faerie critters. And the blank face? Just a spooky magic trick. Hearn – a folklorist, not a biologist - never intended it as the defining characteristic of a species.

Elf, dwarf, goblin. Where do those words come from? From the mind of Man, who is never happier than when he’s managed to tie a label on something and put it in a display cabinet.

All very well in our world, but this is Legend. Darwin is never going to exist here. The magic of Legend is not a science and, despite the convenience of the game rules, magic doesn’t yield to strictly logical principles. The creatures of faerie that we may call elves and dwarves may have very different ideas of how to categorize themselves.
Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf,
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye ca’ me fairy,
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie.
The fays of Legend are not the elves and dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or of Dungeons & Dragons. For one thing, they are rare. The people of Legend believe in elves and dwarves, but they don’t expect ever to meet one. They hope never to meet one, put it that way. Because they are rare, there is misinformation about them; conflicting stories. And because this is Legend, those conflicting stories may all be true. Logic sits in the corner without a dance partner, disapproving and ignored.

But what are fays, or faerie folk? They are the degenerate remnants of pagan nature spirits whose power has sapped away with the coming of the True Faith. As nature spirits, they take their form and their nature from the living landscape. In forests they are shadowy, agile, willowy. In mountains they are squat and strong as barrels. Out on the moors they are gnarled, spiteful and dank-breathed. You can call those elves and dwarves and goblins, but to the creatures themselves the terms would seem irrelevant. No doubt they do see themselves as distinct from each other, but the urge to fit things into categories is not part of a fay’s outlook. Referring to them as species like that means even less than the concept of race among humans.

As you travel about Legend, you’ll encounter local beliefs in the faeries just as you might have done in Cornwall or the Scottish Highlands not so very long ago. When a Cornumbrian tells you of mischievous pookas and an Erewornian tells you of murderous redcaps, the nature of the creature they are describing may simply be the vernacular penchant of the fays, shaped by countryside and weather and the attitudes of mortals.

More often, though, the talk in taverns is of a specific local fay: Long Lankin or Old Ned or Jack Hollyshoes. No two are exactly alike. A hobgoblin is just a goblin that nearly did for you. There’s no such thing as a genome we can use to pin down their faerie lineage. If you want to GM them properly, you can put that rulebook away for a start.
“My name is Eildonas of Hulda Hoo,” I tell him as we walk.
“I take you to be one of the Grey Elves,” he says with a sidelong glance, provoking in me a short laugh, since such categories only interest mortals.
What the fays do recognize is territorial sovereignty and status. An elf of the forest regards himself as cultured aristocracy, and may even model his manners on the etiquette of a mortal court. The kobolds or dwarves of crags and caverns are a more rough-hewn breed, but still pride themselves on having noble status. A mean creature of the moors and ditches, whether you call it a goblin or a boggart, knows its place in the hierarchy of faerie.

Now, all of this is the way it works in “real” Legend – that’s my and Oliver’s Legend. (You did get that I put "real" in inverted commas, right?) You’ve bought the Dragon Warriors books, so your Legend is entirely up to you. We don’t have no truck with authorial privilege in these parts. But I do have a good reason for recommending that you don’t start neatly indexing elves and dwarves and what-have-you into suitable player-character templates. That’s because it will ruin your game.

Mike Polling (the author of “The Key of Tirandor”, an excellent scenario in White Dwarf #49-50 that is to be reprinted in In From The Cold) describes a problem in fantasy fiction and gaming that he calls taxonomic reduction. It begins with a demand for details about elves, for example - their social organization, clothing, breeding habits, and so on. So you get a supplement with all that stuff… hit points for Grey Elves, magic for High Elves, eye colour and what they eat. Now you can play an elf. But actually all you are playing is another kind of human being.

Okay, so now your players start to sense that something has gone. Elves used to be mysterious. Now they know more about them than they do about Yanomami Indians. So you have to bring in something new. You scour legends until you find Trows, say, or Sith. Just words. Now they take the place of the elves who have been filed and categorized into meaninglessness. Yet pretty soon a player says, “How can I get to play a trow character?” and the whole reductive process begins again.

The point is: you don’t need player-character elves or dwarves. Unless of course you want to recreate Lord of the Rings in your games, in which case stop playing Legend right now because it’s not that kind of setting - what you want is D&D or MERP. Human beings (or rather mortals, as the term is in Legend) already have infinite diversity. If you aren’t able to find that in your own role-playing ability, dressing up as an elf isn’t going to do it for you.

We have to have the rules in role-playing, but they’re a necessary evil. They shouldn’t be allowed to shape the way we think about the world and characters. And most especially they shouldn’t be allowed to stifle the magic and mystery that’s the whole point of choosing Legend as your game world in the first place.

Of course, DW is a game system as well as a milieu. So you're perfectly at liberty to chuck out the low-magic medieval setting and spooky flavour and just use the rules for combat and magic. My own gaming group did it the other way round: our games are set in Legend but we use our own GURPS variant, 7URPS.

By the way here's a nice little companion comment on fairies by Alan Moore. And if you should be interested in running games in the authentic Legend style, it's worth tracking down copies of Maureen Duffy's book The Erotic World of Faery and Susanna Clarke's brilliant short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu.


  1. I think I'm going to link this blog post whenever I get in a discussion about how "low fantasy" doesn't equal "boring." I'd much rather play in this world than another saccharine, pastel-hued, codified Greyhawk knockoff.

    Very, very cool stuff.

  2. Great post. It's a shame though that this wasn't represented more in the actual rules of DW -indeed, it's often contradicted! I don't think the scenarios were enough to get the message across to many of the gms and players.

    I must admit my own version of Legend, although mythical and magical on the surface (as far as the characters where concerned) had an underlying thread of cold, hard logic behind everything, including the inscrutable fay. Even so, encounters with faerie where extremely rare in my campaigns - the primary antagonists being men, monsters or the undead (but never, ever orcs or halflings!). :)

  3. I'd never make the real bad guy in a campaign anything but human, because it seems a cop-out somehow. I don't mean that the players can't be in real danger from fays - I recall a particularly tense session when two of us in the Iron Men campaign decided to climb up a crag for an afternoon's fighting practice, and the clashing of our swords angered the dwarven king of the mountain. That was great, but dwarven kings and elf lords are threats in the way a tornado or a flood is a threat. It's in their nature to endanger you. For villainy to bite, it needs the empathy that comes from knowing it's another human who's plotting to destroy you.

    For years I harboured the idea of doing a new DW book, "Jewelspider", which would do away with the generic fantasy elements (halflings, etc - never used them myself) and just present Legend as it "really" is. Now there's some possibility, if Magnum Opus Press continue the 2nd edition DW books, that Jewelspider could come out in some form with material by Frazer Payne and others. In the meantime, let me recommend Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy which has a lot of the authentic Legend flavour imo.

  4. You mention here that FL was completely unlike Legend - really? Maybe I'm just not clear on the exact difference between low and high fantasy, but they key thing that set both worlds apart (from competitors, I mean; not from each other) seemed to me to be in the mythology - the way you looked further back into the past and drew your creatures directly from myths and legends, rather than most fantasy writers who seem to think Tolkien was born in a vacuum. The elves of Golnir, the mermaids in the ocean, the endless horrible spirits of Akatsurai... these all operated on more traditional terms than the usual Tolkien elves or dwarves. Magic in FL was always a thing of, well, magic, rather than a science.

    In any case I'm glad that's the path you chose to go down, with both DW and (in my opinion) FL; it's far more interesting than the alternative. (Incidentally, anyone keen on more traditional faerie folk over Tolkien's types should read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the crowning achievement in fantasy fiction of the last decade).

  5. Fingers crossed for the Jewelspider book - it would be a definite must-buy, just like In From The Cold.

  6. Mitch - FL seems to me to be quite a high-fantasy world. You can buy resurrection at temples, for example, and magical goods are sold at the markets. But I am still quite proud of it and I thank you for your kind words about both worlds. (Oh, and JS&MN is my favourite fantasy novel of all time.)

    Jiminy - there does seem to be a question mark over further DW books, but I'm very hopeful and would love to see Jewelspider come out, especially if it incorporates any material from our own campaigns set around that area. I don't know if my "Wayland's Smithy" scenario ended up in any of the new DW books, but that's the closest in flavour to what I had in mind for Jewelspider.

  7. I thought the high/low fantasy distinction was passé? :) Anyway, I get your point and couldn´t be happier: I´ve always loved DW and Legend, ever since I bought the first three books in London years ago. But even though the atmoshphere is great I too notice the difference between what you write here and the flavour of the books. So Jewelspider sounds like a great idea!

    At the end of your post you link to this interview with Alan Moore and I´m curious: Do you also believe in faeries, in the way he does? You do know Moore nowadays calls himself a magician? I´m curious because Imagination fascinates me and it´s interesting what fantasy writers has to say about it.

    Keep up your good work!

  8. Ps. For some interesting articles on faerie lore, visit and choose 'F'.

  9. Great site there, Joakim - I can see a lot of that stuff being very useful for Mirabilis!

    I agree with Moore when he says, "I believe these things are real; I do not believe they are real outside the world of ideas and the mind."

    That is, fairies are as real as beauty or justice or love. Not real in the way that the rain is real, or the sun, or fish and chips.

    Now what's interesting is that Moore calls himself a magician and I call myself a scientist, even though we have (it seems) the exact same views about the reality of fantastic things. We're both right :) The folks I feel sorry for are the ones who insist on the *literal* existence of fairies - or flying saucers, or dowsing, or what-have-you - because it seems to me they have something missing from their imagination.

  10. I've always loved the grim-fantasy elements in DW. The cackling goblins who curse villagers, the pale noblewoman who keeps the souls of knights kept in a silver chalice, and the persistant fear of the unknown. It's still my hope that we'll get to do an Algandy sourcebook for DW at some point...myself and the other writer had some rather grim ideas for the place. :)

  11. I'd love to see that, Kieran. Our own games have been mostly restricted to Ellesland, though we did have campaigns set in both Krarth (you think Ellesland is grim and folkloric?) and Ferromaine.

    If Algandy were Spain, maybe I should have bent the coast around to make Moorish invasions more likely in the past. Or maybe you have a different take on it? I have no fixed conceptions, I'm just interested to see what you do with the place.

  12. I had often wondered if Algandy was Spain because of some names that sounded rather Germanic (ex: King Vergang)and because of its huge forests with Elves within. However, Castilia used to have forests, but they were burnt during the wars against the Moors. For an eventual campaign taking place in Algandy, I had planned as language to use an existing auxiliary language based on Romance like Interlingua. (Sambahsa is based on Angaté, the language of Ferromaine and Selentium).
    Let's not forget that Blood Sword took place in Krarth, Wyrd and Crescentium (and these are among the best gamebooks ever made !). One book written by Dave (I have downloaded it recently) of the Golden Dragon series seems to begin in Achtan (southern Kurland) and takes place on a sunken island off Emphidor.


  13. Olivier, I guess you're thinking of The Eye of the Dragon? It was originally an Empire of the Petal Throne scenario, set in the ruins of Ngala in the Flats of Tsehelnu west of Jakalla. (The book is dedicated to Professor M A R Barker.) Then, when I came to create the detailed map of Legend, I retrofitted Eye of the Dragon into Kurland. Convoluted, huh? :)

    If I were setting a campaign in Algandy, I might start by looking at Dunsany's novel The Chronicles of Shadow Valley. Possibly that's rather late in history to fit into the rest of Legend, though. As for why Algandy's king should have a Germanic name - hmm, your guess is a good as mine.

  14. I have just checked; that's indeed the Eye of Dragon and that's indeed convoluted. One of the notables of Achtan, bears a Ferromanian name:Cotullio.
    In truth, the first kings of Spain had all Germanic names, since they were Wisigoths !

  15. Some of the ideas we threw about for Algandy can be seen in the NPCs in the Friends or Foes book. I've got this vision of a dark land in the grip of a tyrant, filled with intrigue, and waiting to explode into religious mania. At the same time I see a land where they've scored the obvious "magic" elements away driving them into the dark forests that Algandy is famous for. You won't see an arrogent Sorcerer looking down his nose at you in this country...but beyond the firelite something dark may trade favours for your soul.

  16. Intrigue... darkness... soul-trading. Kieran, I like it! Though, to be honest, you won't find many sorcerers lording it over people in Ellesland either. Even Cynewulf Magister is always lurking just that little bit off at the fringes, never openly at Montombre's side - even if he is, as most believe, the true power behind the throne.

    Olivier, actually I think I can retrospectively explain that. Cotullio is one of the governing body of the university in Achtan, which would include scholars from far and wide, so it's perfectly possible he would be from Ferromaine.

  17. A propos, I have always wondered why, and despite the fact they speak the same language (Angaté), Ferromanians tend to have Italian sounding names like Cotullio or Senfriti, while Selentine names seem rather Armenian or something like that (Cosmogoran, Hirgandan...)

  18. Last months Fortean Times (Issue 265) had an article titled "The Monster Manual" which discusses (quite lightly) how the categorisation and codification of strange creatures can skew the reporting of them. You might find the article interesting as it covers quite similar ground but from a different perspective.

  19. Thanks Zhu - a very interesting article that can be found here: