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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)

Friday 18 November 2016

At the Fey Lantern festival

I've posted write-ups from our games before, fully aware that reading about other groups' escapades can be like hearing somebody recount last night's dream, but I think that now and again write-ups are justified as they give a flavor of what tends to happen in our Legend sessions. Not that your Legend needs to be anything like mine and Oliver's, no sirree, but occasionally I get asked the question, and here's one way of answering it.

This description of a session is by Frazer Payne, who was running a Dragon Warriors campaign at the time. (Very retro for our group; we normally use GURPS 4e.) My character went by the name of Sir Lazarus. He called himself that because he believed he had been slain in the course of joust with a mysterious knight at a bridge. The player-characters' patron, a mysterious wizard, brought him back to life, but the magic didn't restore him from the ghastly pallor of death, hence he had a very low Looks score. Arundel was Tim Savin; Katherine was Zelah Meyer; Helsceatha was an elementalist played by Aaron Fortune. I forget the other PCs right now.
Jewelspider Campaign
Session 4 write-up by Frazer Payne

Silas led his horse gingerly into the icy black pool. Ripples spread too slowly. As he entered, so he also seemed to emerge, so that for a moment he had the hair-raising sense that he was breaking the surface into an upside down world. His companions followed.

They rose out of a pool identical to the one they had entered: circular, with wide steps winding out of the bottomless depths. The steps led up into a great stone hall. Two upper floors and a beamed roof had collapsed to the flag-stones revealing a gloomy sky. A new ceiling, a tracery of tree branches, could faintly be seen through the drifts of mist that hung in the cold, still air.

The pool lay in an alcove against one long wall. To the right, an opening led into a tower. To the left, where -perhaps- the great doors had been, the wall was gone. In its place was dense forest. The forest crowded in through the windows too, vines questing ahead to clutch the dead hall’s stone bones from the inside.

The pool settled behind them. Slowly, a great bloom of silt rose from the depths of the pool until it clouded the surface. Silence boomed.

Lazarus and Uric went to examine the tower. The door was gone, leaving a black hole. Going through, they found stairs leading up. But only six. The rest of the stairway had collapsed into rubble. The wall of the tower had given way too, rent from top to bottom. In its stead there grew a tall fir tree. Its branches had grown into the tower, filling it. Pieces of masonry hung trapped in its blackness.

Lazarus touched the broken stone. It was newly broken, perhaps within the last couple of weeks. This was no ancient ruin but the site of sudden and recent violence. He retreated, thoughtful.

But Arundel dared the climb. He snaked between the branches, working his way higher and higher, until the branches grew so close together that he feared he would have to shirk his armour in order to get through. He was close to the top but could get no further. He climbed out through the gap in the wall, and made his way inch by inch upwards, the forest floor – faint through the mist – far below him. Looking out, he saw that the trees all around were at least a third higher than the great hall.

Finally he reached the top of the tower. Half the floor was all that remained. Gazing from the ramparts, he saw the forest stretched away in all directions.

Resting against the battlements was a mirror. At first glance, its frame was of the most ornate metalwork: iron and copper and gold. But closer inspection showed that the metal, twisted together, was as it might have been when it was delved from deep beneath the earth: lumpen, pitted, meteoric. The mirror was a sheet of polished metal, blackened and spotted with age. Arundel’s reflection was faint and dim. Strapping it to himself, he made his way back down through the boughs and brought the mirror before his friends. Since the hall was perhaps once Glayve’s own, the mirror seemed likely to be the sorcerer’s property too. Curious, each looked into the mirror in turn.

Arundel went first, for the mirror was his prize. At first he could see nothing. Then, faintly, he began to perceive a pale shape moving in the darkness. It appeared to be a maiden, dressed in white, running down a path that led into a black forest. He had a strange feeling that he knew the girl. She was distressed, and seemed to be trying to find a way forward through the trees, even though she was sore afraid of them. He sensed that she was fearful for someone deep inside the forest. Suddenly, the branches contorted, adopting a more fearful aspect. The mirror went dark.

Next, Katherine took up the mirror.

“I can see my father’s farmstead,” she whispered. “The forest is growing around it, encircling it.” She frowned. Her home, to the north of Jewelspider, was a good half a league from the forest edge. What she had seen could not possibly be real. Perhaps this mirror showed only lies or phantoms?

While the others strained their eyes, none of them could see anything in the mirror until it came to Lazarus.

Lazarus saw a scattering of faint lights in a great darkness. “Perhaps it is the night sky,” he thought. Then, one by one, the lights scattered away into the darkness until he was following only a handful. He sensed they were travelling through the darkness together. One by one, each light flickered and vanished until only a single light remained. Then Lazarus sensed that what he was seeing was, in fact, glinting metal. Suddenly it was enclosed be velvet blackness, lit as if by an infernal flame before being engulfed.

Lazarus pondered the vision as his companions made camp. And even though he was very tired, sleep took a long time to come to him.

Silas took first watch. He soon felt quite alone, sitting by the dim fire, though he told himself it was only boredom. He decided to go hunting. Making his way out into the silent forest, he found himself amongst ferns as tall as a man, and dwarfed by trees that would have towered over a cathedral. Venturing further, he noticed that the trees were tallest near the great hall. Those further away were of far more normal growth, though no less discomforting. There was no game to be found.

He returned to stir Uric.

The muddied water in the pool lurched. Something huge had moved just below the surface. The forest seemed to flex, branches swelling forward, vines clenching the walls tighter. The hall sagged. The floor cracked and buckled. The pool swirled again, and silt and brick dust boiled to the surface.

Everyone was awake now. Helsceatha lurched to his feet and clutched the air. Bellowing words of power, he drew his fists to his chest. With a roar, the wall behind the pool bulged and burst to tumble onto the pool. But the stones fell in and disappeared, and did not fill it at all. Quickly, they led the horses out of the hall and into the forest.

They did not know where – or even when- they were. Which way was north? If this was Jewelspider, which was the way out and which would lead deeper into the forest?

Lazarus examined the great trunks of the trees. Moss had grown on one side, while mushrooms grew among the roots on the other. “East is that way,” he announced with confidence, and so they set off.

It was not long before they came across a path leading northeast to southwest. The mist was still thick, but they could hear that a gorge was close to the south edge of the path. Water churned deep below. They walked for long hours, with the path twisting before them beneath the black boughs of the forest. They ached in their bones. Lack of sleep was taking its toll, so, as evening came on they made camp.

“We should get off the road,” said Uric.

“Anyone could track us on this frosted ground” said Arundel. “Even I, with only passing skill, could follow our trail… anyone intent on finding us could do so”. And, dejectedly, the others agreed. And so they got down in the middle of the bleak path and set a watch.

It was during Lazarus’ watch that Freer awoke. He was weak from his wound, his mind wandering, but he talked quietly to Lazarus about the moment when his former friend, Argelise, had dealt him the deadly blow. He talked about the rag of cloth that Argelise had clutched in his sword hand, ripped from Freer’s own cloak. “That token allowed those puppet-making demons able to deliver this blow to me, I am sure of it,” he whispered, looking fearfully at the black-edged wound in his arm. Then he slept.

Helsceatha had a dream. He was low to the ground, running through the forest as fast as he could go, his arms laden with trinkets. He awoke to find his shadow servant had escaped. Quick as a flash he raised the alarm. From his dream he knew where to search, and the companions ran, bleary eyed, into the forest in pursuit.

Lazarus saw a dark shape in the shadow of a tree and loosed an arrow. Running through the frosted ferns, they gathered around the tangle of roots where the arrow had landed. The frost was disturbed, as if some small animal had gone through death throws on the spot, and the arrow lay in the middle, its tip and shaft burned black. Scattered around were the various items that Helsceatha had purloined, with the help of the shadow servant, from Glayve’s cart. Helsceatha bent to pick them up, careful to recover each one.

They stepped out of the forest to see a barren land stretched out below them. Furrowed fields lay, white and silent under the frost. Far away in the mist the glint of lanterns marked a village. They met a young man on the road leading a donkey. He was cautious of anyone who would dare the Jewelspider road, especially at this time of year, but told them about the village of Hecund.

A festival would take place there in two days time, the Fey Lantern Feast. Banquet tables lined the forest edge in readiness. Before long, rich and poor from miles around would gather to feast, and perhaps be joined by the faerie folk themselves. Notaries would venture beyond the forest eaves with elaborate lanterns. Maidens would enter the forest bearing candles, there to learn the name of the man who would marry them. Of course, said the boy, no iron or steel would be welcome, for the faerie folk cannot bear its presence.

In the town, all was bustle. Young and old, rich and poor, were making ready. The streets were alive with the construction of elaborate lanterns for the festival. There was much honour to be gained by having the finest lantern, for only the best were likely to draw the faerie folk forth. Strange, brightly decorated masks were being made from wood pulp: long, gawping fish-heads, cattle muzzles, arched faerie faces.

The companions took refuge in a stable, as all the inns were full.

Lazarus decided to raise some funds by selling the strange, glowing globe that Silas had delivered from Glayve. Negotiations with a merchant were not to his liking. But word quickly spread of his wares. A carriage drew up on the cobbles outside the stable, and a liveried servant called the companions to the door. Lazarus stepped to the front, picking straw from his clothes. The item had drawn the attention of the haughty Lady Grey, eager to find an unusual bauble to light her festival lantern. Her offer seemed good to him, so he sold Silas’ globe too.

Silas was more concerned with the lady’s maid, and before long had negotiated a meeting with her. “This evening, at the back window of the old mill house, where my lady is guesting,” she hissed, and the carriage rolled away.

Friday 11 November 2016

Checking in on Fabled Lands book 7

A guest post today from Paul Gresty, who is currently chained to his desk completing The Serpent King's Domain, the long-awaited seventh book in the Fabled Lands series.

Dave has kindly invited me to write a few words on the Fabled Lands blog to talk about progress on The Serpent King's Domain. If you've been following the Kickstarter backer updates, some of the information here will be familiar – and some will be brand new.

It's been a busy year in Ankon-Konu. The Serpent King's Domain will be longer than any of the Fabled Lands books so far. Currently, the draft of the book is sitting at one-thousand-and-something paragraphs. And we're really into the home stretch now – the random encounters are finished, all the main quests are done; we're at the point where we're fleshing out the cities a little, and adding some of those touches that every Fabled Lands book needs (“How much does it cost to book passage to Smogmaw?”).

It's hard to talk about my progress on Fabled Lands without also mentioning The Frankenstein Wars, another Kickstarter project that took place around the same time, and my other big project of 2016. Both projects are moving steadily towards their conclusion; the deadline for a full draft of both texts is imminent (for more information on TFW, feel free to go check out this project update that recently went online.

Regarding The Serpent King's Domain, one of the jobs that remains is to go back and fill in some of the treasures that the player can discover, and include some new and interesting magic items – things that fit neatly alongside the artefacts that you can discover in the first six books, but that also have a healthy dose of originality as well.

I'll confess that item creation is an area I've found surprisingly challenging. I don't want to make SKD into some sort of arms race – the player's focus shouldn't solely be on picking up super-powered items; nor do I want every player to have the same list of possessions once they've thoroughly explored the book. One tentative idea is to include items that have both advantages and disadvantages, such as:
If you possess (XXXXXXX ITEMS TO CONSTRUCT CLOAK) Bellentacq can, quite reluctantly, create a darkling cloak. Such a cloak will grant a +7 bonus to your THIEVERY score while you possess it, but it will also temporarily reduce your SANCTITY score to 1, and prevent your SANCTITY score from rising by any means (including bonuses from other items). Note that you need not actually wear the cloak to receive this effect; so long as it is in your possession these changes to your Ability scores will apply (also note that, of course, leaving this cloak in storage will remove its effect from you). If you ask Bellentacq to carry out this work, remove the requisite items from your Adventure Sheet. In their place note darkling cloak (+7 THIEVERY, SANCTITY temporarily reduced to 1). Should you discard the cloak, or store it somewhere, you lose the bonus to THIEVERY, but your SANCTITY score will return to its normal value. Turn back to 167.
So, you have an item that grants a great big bonus to THIEVERY – but your SANCTITY will take a hit. Is the gain worth the loss? I'm guessing that some players will think it is, and some won't.

Another way to differentiate equipment lists for different playthroughs might be to include items that have various powers for different professions – which has a handy knock-on effect of helping to distinguish the various professions at higher ranks. For example:
The sacrosanct sabre will grant a COMBAT bonus equal to half the wielder's SANCTITY, rounding down, and not including bonuses from items. So, a wielder with a SANCTITY of 11 would use the sabre as a COMBAT +5 weapon. In addition, if a Priest possesses this item, this will allow him or her to have a maximum of two SANCTITY blessings at any one time (rather than the normal maximum of one).
If you keep this item, note the sacrosanct sabre (COMBAT bonus = half SANCTITY) on your Adventure Sheet.
Turn to 488.
The specific advantage for a Priest character is not enormous here; it's more a distinction that adds flavour rather than one that grants world-shattering power. Certainly, the item should be cheaper, or easier to acquire, than some of the COMBAT +6 weapons that appear in the first books (since that's the maximum bonus it'll have anyway).

For a while I've been thinking about opening a discussion on magic items on the Fabled Lands Facebook group – but then I got angry at the internet and deleted my Facebook account. Regardless, I'll open up that conversation here, instead – what sort of items do people want to see in The Serpent King's Domain? Feel free to chime in in the comments section below, or even to contact me directly by hitting the link.

Really, if people have any ideas for magic items – maybe something that isn't too powerful, that fits in with the jungle-themed setting – I would love, love, love to hear them.

So, to round up: the text is nearing completion. Expect a full first draft around Christmastime – which will then have to go through editing and page layout and whatnot. Regarding artwork, we've been talking to both Kevin Jenkins (cover) and Russ Nicholson (interiors) recently. It's a little soon to make big pronouncements, but that's moving forward as well. I'll tentatively say that project backers will have a book in their hands in the early part of 2017.