Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Light Fantastic ... and Eight Other Fantasy Esthetics

Recently I was debating over whether or not to emphasize mundane abilities for wizards, finally making the call against. Then a number of other things blipped across my mental radar. Doing research on the history of D&D encumbrance rules, I flicked open the 2nd Edition Players' handbook for the first time in ages, marvelling at the mundane exactitude of its encumbrance rules and equipment lists. Zak had a long evisceration of a 4th Ed. module with special attention to the muddy art style. Then back to 2nd edition, trying to figure out what exactly galled me about the majority of the art pieces, and why that gall coalesced around the Elmore frontispiece ...

Yeehaw! All 7 feet of it!
Okay, one thing is that it's prosaic. There's actually some sly humor here if you look at it right. The adventurers are cast as a modern-day group of deer hunters or marlin fishers posing with their big prize. They've strung the dragon up - why, exactly? Who's taking the photo? It's a witty anachronism, but one that drags us away from the fantastic nature of dragons, into the realm of weekend warriors and twelve-point bucks.

The other thing that didn't match my gaming esthetic was the lightness of the piece. Not in terms of humor - humor can be dark, too. Rather, what I mean these are clearly a bunch of characters, blessed with 4d6-drop-lowest stats and maximum hit points at creation, who have just ganked what can only be a hatchling green dragon*. For this mighty feat the DM has seen fit to award a shoebox-sized treasure hoard. This piece conveys the exact opposite of "dangerous." The exact opposite of squaring off against a 30 foot high efreeti. The only sign that the party has faced danger are three little claw marks on the trouser leg of the hulking chainmailed fighter.

Call one axis, then, "light/dark". It's defined by danger - in a game system's mechanics and in the game's art. But what's the other axis? Going back to the first gripe, it's the fantastic versus prosaic. This is a hard distinction to define, especially in a genre where everything technically counts as fantastic. Let me throw out some examples that do it for me. In a prosaic fantasy world:
  • The plot is motivated by material concerns, like trade routes or dynastic politics. 
  • Full encumbrance rules are in effect.
  • Magic may be rare or common, but it is normalized and understood, more like a science than an art.
  • Character classes have "mundane" skills to go alongside their outstanding abilities.
  • The equipment list is long and comprehensive. It illustrates the importance of using and managing material resources.
  • The game system works like a textbook, with rules for every conceivable situation no matter how mundane. Halfway to this is the "almanac" apprach taken by first edition AD&D, where various micro-systems are sprinkled throughout as examples for DMs to improvise other material (and the first 10 years of Dragon magazine are packed with just this kind of improvised material).

The full esthetic alignment grid appears below; with "Tough" being in between light and dark (an environment that is difficult and dangerous, but ultimately surmountable through sheer force of will) and "Worlds Collide" being a commonly seen situation where prosaic characters are thrust into a fantastic universe. On it I've distributed a number of game systems and settings according to my overall sense of where they fall.

A couple of observations from this:

1. It's easy now to see why 2nd edition D&D was the way it was. TSR's mass-marketing of D&D, especially the kiddie market, required a diagonal flight from the Weird; a renunciation of the devils (and demons) and all their works. First to go were the BIG RED DEVILS on the core rulebook covers, then the comfy esthetic of 2nd edition followed suit in a big way. An important thing to realize is they didn't actually succeed in making D&D more attractive to kids, who always have reveled in stories, films, and comics full of blood, gore and evil. But they made it more attractive to parents. This is why I liked 2nd edition AD&D when it came out in my early twenties. I was trying hard to be a Grown-Up; the Light Prosaic, with its sober rules and materialistic detail, fit the bill.

2. I can't for the life of me fit 4th edition in here. There may be some kind of disconnection between its visual esthetics and its actual gameplay, though.

3. My current game is in the "Tough/Worlds Collide" sector, edging to Dark. What's your favored mode?

* Yeah, I know, a hatchling green dragon by the Monstrous Compendium has 7 Hit Dice despite being at most 5' long in the body. But that doesn't look like a 7HD monster.


  1. into the realm of weekend warriors

    Yet, in a way, is that not what roleplayers are? "Last Saturday me and my mates played D&D and we killed a dragon!"

    I doubt such cleverness was the intention, but it could be read that way.

  2. Our main gamimg group has always been a worlds collide style. The game we're currently playing is a police procedural, set in Waterdeep, with an multidimensional invasion of Illithid as a background menace. We play really light on the prosaic stuff, since it's not a normal "adventuring" setting at all.

  3. Also, from my brief experience with it, 4th edition is light/fantastic, but probably the lightest one on the list... threatening to float away.

    Pathfinder, which I enjoy even though the rules keep giving my rock simple half orc barbarian new special abilities every 2 levels that I have to write down and then ignore, I'd put at the right hand side of the worlds collide box, drifting up or down depending on the GM.

  4. The only sign that the party has faced danger are three little claw marks on the trouser leg of the hulking chainmailed fighter.

    i guess you missed to see the 4 places that the female warrior got hurt on her legs also ??

  5. Interesting analysis.. I strongly tend to prosaic, myself, especially given how reliable magic is in all version of D&D (there's never been an 'official' spell failure or backfire system that was part of the core rules), and how much the rules (again, all editions) assume the relative commonality of magic items and monsters. My world often resemble later seasons of Buffy or Angel in the sense that you'll have people saying, in-character, "OK, this looks like a bone devil, they're known to be immune to X and Y but can't do Z, standard tactics." Some find this utterly horrible and immersion-destroying; I find it immersion enhancing, because it makes it feel, to me, more like a real world with real people in it -- just one with devils, wizards, and dragons. ("Greyhawk meets Astro City" would be a quick summary of my preferred style, I suppose.)

  6. Your bullet list, when applied to movies, explains why Episodes I, II, and III of Star Wars sucked.

  7. I prefer settings that make sense, whether they're prosaic or fantastic. I despise monsters that exist simply for the sake of being weird. It just seems hackish.

    I was wondering if you can give me an example of how OD&D was nestled between weird and gritty? I've been working on a setting, and I've been inspired by some of the OD&D clones that I've found. The rules don't come through as weird and gritty to me. Though it's possible I'm just not reading into them enough.

  8. Over here from Jeff Rients's blog.

    I'd change some details of your grid. Hârn, played with Hârnmaster, fits more in the Dark Prosaic corner than Runequest does. I'd switch the latter and the former. Also, why list "Hârn" separately from rules, but list Glorantha by its ruleset? But those are really minor quibbles, so whatever, ignore me on that.

    I have a certain preference, in gaming, for the Prosaic (using your definition). I might prefer a slightly more abstract method of figuring encumbrance (the Encumbrance by Stone and LotFPWFRP methods seem perfect to me), but I think that encumbrance is a useful and important variable for players to work with and around. I think that issues of trade routes and dynastic politics are excellent ways of giving the players something to do that leads their characters into adventurous situations - by their own choices! I like game mechanics that have a broad applicability, so that they can be pressed into use for resolving most situations (GURPS is notable, as is the BRP/Runequest Resistance Table). And "Mundane" skills give players options (though I admit to preferring more open skill systems, such as AD&D's "secondary skills", Akrasia's skill system found in Savage Swords of Athanor, or Top Secret's AOKs, to the heavily circumscribed skill systems that are showing up these days) for action that they might not have otherwise. Similarly, a wide variety of equipment available both gives the players options and also (combined with encumbrance) requires them to carefully manage resources. To me, resource management is perhaps as much as half the game. Magic systems almost have to be made "normalized and understood" for game purposes, at least so long as player-characters are given access to magic. Pendragon, of course, is a notable exception to this, but then players are not given regular access to magical powers in that game (4th edition excepted).

    As for the other axis of your grid, I much prefer the Tough and Dark versions to the Light. I don't think that I'd like to play in a Light game much at all. This is one of my arguments with "story games" and most latter-day RPGs that buy into the "storytelling" paradigm. But that's a conversation for another time and place.

  9. Not being a D&D fan but being a big fan of Elmore's art, I see this image as extremely D&D-ish in nature.

    While there is indeed a tongue-in-cheek element to the 'hunters and their kill photograph' nature that seems to go along with the image, I disagree with your assessment that, "This piece conveys the exact opposite of "dangerous." The exact opposite of squaring off against a 30 foot high efreeti. The only sign that the party has faced danger are three little claw marks on the trouser leg of the hulking chainmailed fighter."

    Perhaps the beast was not dangerous to this particular PC party but did it need to be? If a group of your average D&D player characters came upon a dragon that they pretty much knew they could kill and take it's stuff, and that said stuff was a shoebox of gold and jewels, are you saying they wouldn't go for it? Of course they would. A heck of a lot faster than they'd take on an efreet. We (GMs) can hope for heroism and bravery all we want but most D&D parties consist of opportunists. This isn't a Supers game we're talking about.

    The fault (if one sees a fault here) is with the DM developing a serious challenge for the players in order to get...serious loot? The same shoebox? I am unclear on that as far as your post.

    Further, your criteria for a 'prosaic fantasy world' is a bit confusing to me. At least in trying to determine, from your chart and list, what I like in a campaign.

    When GM I might consider trade routes 'material' (they will make money) but dynastic polices would seem a role-playing/social/political feature. Of course I may be misunderstanding where you're coming from.

    My magic and skills work the way you suggest but I don't use encumberance and I don't like the text approach to the rulebook. Am I prosaic, fantastic, worlds collide or something else?

    In the end, I guess I am not quite sure I get this post even though I find it interesting. It has made me ask questions of my own style and how it differs from that of others.

  10. I'd quibble a bit over which games go in which categories too. But that's by-the-by; I like the chart and actually I've thought about these sorts of definitional issues in the past (here and here).

    Personally I'm easy - I like games from every single category in their own way... except probably the Fantastic/Heroic like Exalted. I have a lot of time for the heroic/prosaic aesthetic and "feel" of 2nd edition AD&D in particular. I like the idea of "adventure" for its own sake, in the form of exploration and (fairly innocent) derring-do. 2nd edition AD&D PCs are Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, and Warwick Davies, and I have a weakness for that sort of thing.

  11. @Kelvin: Yep, on an unconscious level (at least) that may be part of the humor value of the piece.

    @Kenwolf: OK, she does look a little worse for wear over on the right there. But the overall mood of the piece is pretty hale and hearty, at least to me.

    @Nate:"I was wondering if you can give me an example of how OD&D was nestled between weird and gritty?"

    Well, at low levels, you would be facing unnameable horrors and incomprehensible magical tricks, but doing so with bottles of flaming oils and chickens thrown down stairs. Kind of like Lovecraft's Witch-House where the nameless horror gets dealt with using carboys of industrial-grade acid.

    @Barking Alien: A game in practice can, of course, deviate from this scheme in strange and unique ways. I'm referring more to the way the official rules or setting can convey a) danger vs. ease and b) the unexplainable vs. the explainable. These tend to swing one way or another even though individual worldmakers create their own way. I think you could make a successful game pulling from all four corners in different times, areas and aspects.

  12. It's funny because this was always one of my favorite pieces of art from D&D. Where others see a humorous ganking, i see a group of mid-level (3-5?) adventurers who are rightfully pleased with themselves and their luck because they survived a very hard fight and won a nice treasure. It points out that even a small dragon is still a DRAGON, and quite capable of ripping up an adventuring party if the DM handles it properly. They are clearly posing for a portrait to commemorate their deed. Probably commissioned by the same wealthy minor lord who set them on the task of slaying the beast that had been terrorizing his holdings.

  13. I like to think that this group of PCs is level 2-3, killed off a dragon, and got really excited about their little shoebox of loot. They're going to go back to town and by the time the stories are passed around the dragon will have been 20' long and breathing fire.

    I agree with the "photo of the fishermen" thing, though, which I never worked out before. No cameras, so why are they posing? They didn't string up the dragon just to drain its blood out like a deer, because that would take a long time and they wouldn't pose for it.

    I take it, overall, as a very down to earth Elmore piece. It's a group of lowbies, hard workers, who succeeded against reasonable odds. It has Tramp's stability with Elmore's style. It's like this is a message saying, yes you're first level now, but that doesn't mean you have to wait until level 16 to fight a dragon. But don't expect Smaug treasure unless you fight a Smaug dragon! This shoebox is just a taste. Bon apetit!

  14. 4e mechanics are designed to operate as light fantastic mechanically, while 'fooling*' the player into thinking it's tough fantastic. It does this through mechanisms that encourage the player to think of his PC as being in much more danger than he really is. The death mechanics are a good example.

    *Part of this is a willing engagement.

  15. I always thought I would like the Elmore picture more if we saw the Dragon's mom, pissed off and about to pounce, coming towards us from the background.

  16. re-reading this after 18 months or so I can actually engage with what you're saying. And I agree, and mostly find "light" just mystifying: it's simply not what I want to do.

    I think I'm down in the southwest corner of that chart (funnily, since I also grew up in the southwest: darkest mummerzet), though I'm also fond of tough/worlds collide. I kinda try to have that whole quadrant in Tartary (though I think my players mostly apprehend it as Carcosa-level horribleness). What I strongly dislike (unless it's really the point of the setting) is wonderless magic. That seems to be either wilfully self-contradictory or tragic to me, like a toothless shark.