Friday, 17 January 2014

Generic Fantasy As the Mundane

In Playing At the World, Jon Peterson classifies  many of the novels that inspired D&D as transportation narratives, where a guy (always a guy) from the present, real world is somehow taken to a fantastic land, where they have adventures and find our their true potential.  Three Hearts and Three Lions (which I recently re-read) the John Carter of Mars series, the Complete Enchanter series, all fit this bill.

The Lord of the Rings also kind of fits this bill indirectly. The hobbit heroes start from a place where folkways and technology are similar to 18th century rural England (showing how Tolkien represented "home"), and journey to a world inspired by Dark Ages sagas and medieval Crusader romances.

Eventually the brew of all the sources mentioned above and more gave rise to the "standard D&D fantasy" genre, which took on a life of its own. Somewhere, there is a tavern, with a bard singing, a tough barkeep (level 5 fighter at least), a dour dwarf, a haughty elf, an old one-armed guy with a map to sell, an uptight paladin and a thief worrying where his next Guild dues payment is coming from. By now this allegedly wondrous setting is so familiar that it's the venue of choice for new players, who already come pre-loaded with its assumptions from a diet since childhood of computer RPGs and generic fantasy fiction.


What's striking - or at least, true in my case - is that long-term campaigns themselves try to shake free at some point, with a transportation from this world of generic fantasy to a different one. This can be literal, in the case of Gary Gygax's dimensional portals beneath Castle Greyhawk, or figurative, as in the many high-level classic modules that involve ruins in the jungle or desert with a faux Egyptian or Mesoamerican flavor. Sending your dwarves and knights into a science fantasy adventure, too, is a classic move

Also remarkably, very few campaigns follow the opposite trajectory, starting out in an "exotic" setting and using the perspective of those characters to see Generic Fantasyland in a new light. The only fictional example I can think of is the book and film The Thirteenth Warrior, which proposes to demystify the Beowulf myth and Norsemen in general by having a character from civilized Arabia play the fish-out-of-water. The equivalent, maybe, is to have Empire of the Petal Throne characters wind up in Greyhawk.

Perhaps the weirdest move, and one rarely tried, is to send your fantasyland characters into the actual, historical Middle Ages - where your nonhumans are circus freaks, your wizardry and religion gets you burnt at the stake, you can be hanged as vagrants on manorial lands (that is, in 95% of civilization), and jolly taverns with busty wenches are few and far between. As masters or players of the game, there's a grand irony in being more comfortable with the endlessly repeated, Tolkien-meets Renfaire fiction than the gritty, rats-and-fleas reality.

9 comments:

  1. Portal Suggestion by John Slater from Land of Nod.

    1 - Alien city during an important ritual. There is a 50% chance the visitors are welcomed as emissaries from the gods and imprisoned in a palace of alien pleasures (if only the PCs could digest the alien food) and a 50% chance they are treated as intruders and put to death by a thousand searing rays
    ...
    2 - Step into a cellar at the moment Aleister Crowley is summoning a demon; Crowley must pass a system shock test or suffer a heart attack. His patrons may not take kindly to the intrusion.
    ...
    3 - Pass through an atomic feedback flux loop onto the starship Warden. Everyone must pass a DC 15 Constitution throw or suffer a physical mutation.
    ...
    4 - Find themselves in a cluttered wardrobe that leads into wartime England. They are welcomed by a man in a natty suit (Merlin) and pressed into a mission to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
    .. .
    5 – Characters walk into the lowest level of Castle Greyhawk with no memories of how they got there.
    ...
    6 - Step into a massive submerged cavern and the grand council of dolphins. A dolphin mage will work fast to summon up airy water.
    ...
    7 - Awaken in a brilliant woodland on Midsummer Night; cavort with fey both good and evil.
    ...
    8 - Find themselves on a barren world as representatives of Law in a gladiatorial combat with their opposites from another universe as the representatives of Chaos.
    ...
    9 - Enter a padded cell of Bedlam asylum, where they must save a mad woman from the evil machinations of Cthulhu, for she alone can open the portal back to their world.
    ...
    10 - Step onto a solar barque making its way across the skies of a mythic earth, moments before it passes into Hades.

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  2. I do not think it is always a guy, actually.

    Alice in Wonderland, Terisa in The Mirror of her Dreams, the dimension-hopping schoolgirls of much anime, and so forth. Some of this may be a change in mores, but not all of those stories are that recent.

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    1. Sure, I was thinking more of Appendix N type literature, but Gary did do a tribute to Alice.

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  3. Which is a tangent, and in any case I agree with your main point, but would say that it is more an issue of common language. Despite the fact that I have rarely (perhaps never) either run or played in such a generic fantasy setting, it does form a kind of touchstone.

    There are also structural reasons that campaigns often follow the path to strangeness or extremity, in that increasing character power almost demands some sort of craziness in order to challenge the characters on paper and newness in order to create a sense of wonder in players.

    Maybe having PCs transported to modern day New York would be a better example of transit to mundanity then to the middle ages, which really is a foreign country to most of us.

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  4. "Maybe having PCs transported to modern day New York would be a better example of transit to mundanity then to the middle ages, which really is a foreign country to most of us."

    Deep in my collection is the (never played) is IM1, The Immortal Storm. I bought it because it was a D&D module (I have never owned the Immortal Set), and was baffled by maps of New York and Chicago that looked like something from Marvel Super Heroes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Immortal_Storm_%28module%29

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    1. Not to mention the "modern-day adventuring" in Dragon Magazine #57 ...

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    2. And "The City Beyond the Gate" in Dragon #100.

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