Sunday 2 October 2011

Resonant Meaning in the Fantastic

Let's get back to the jewelled mosaic of perfect little scenes of wonder and fascination that I last examined as a replacement for the naturalistic churn of monster races and by-the-book magic in D&D.

The problem with that mosaic is that without some underlying sequence  to it, it eventually grows meaningless and dull. The cure for that, then, is to arrange the tiles in some sort of scheme that has resonant meaning.

1. The Initiatory Progression. This is the hidden thread connecting the "levels" of the standard adventure dungeon. The rootless monsters, pointless tricks and riddles, sadistic deceptions, and weird environments have out-of-frame meaning as initiatory challenges to the followers of the Dungeon Mystery Religion. As the players progress, the challenges become harder and more varied, and they acquire level titles and cultic secrets like good Mithraists or Freemasons. It's this lurking text that explains why even the most random gonzo collection of levels exerts a narrative pull. But imagine the flow of meaning that opens up when some of the other techniques are layered onto it ...
2. Mock-Naturalism. A naturalistic initiatory progression behaves like a film noir; with progress comes revelation of the hidden web of corruption, the material ironmongery underneath the noble ideals. Mock-naturalism, though, commodifies the intangible in a whimsical and mysterious way, without reducing it to solid matter. The goblins steal dreams from sleeping children, which they then weave into pixie-nets and sell to the muffled merchants from Mars. Demons traffic in soul coins. What this is not, though, is demystification. If the magic sun gems are really radioactive rocks, we leave the fantastic entirely.
3. Power Struggles. Trade and production can coexist in the fantastic with the other common structure of the naturalistic world: struggle. A war between day and night, between heaven and hell, between mountain and sea has the potential to fix in place all manner of combatants, neutrals, vacillators, turncoats. Each side has its own style and esthetics, and there need not be only two. The discovery of these hidden powers is itself an initiation.
4. System of the Cosmos. An expedition to the southern polar land reveals unthought-of abysses of history that conclusively dethrone man as lord of the earth. The initiatory path reveals the mystic meanings of the ten numerals, tracing the zigzag path of creation back from World to Essence. The sins, the planets, the spectral colors all reveal a comforting and powerful structure to the universe. And the horror genre reveals instead a system that is malevolent or wholly uncaring. The goal of this knowledge can be power, godhood, immortality, the salvation of the earth, or merely to know the truth, which is reason enough for many.

I strongly believe that looking back in a few years' time, the prize for the best mega-dungeon, super-campaign or whatever will go to the experience that weaves the most of these elements of meaning into itself.


  1. I'm really fascinated by 1 and can see how 3 could lend structure to the oddest fantastic realm, but 2 and 4 still seem learnable, no?

    For example, the recent film Trollhunter gives a pretty thorough, though bogus, ecology of the troll. I thought it was fun, but once you know it, they become a known entity and no longer fantastic. Wouldn't learning that goblins steal dreams result in the same thing? Or is the nature of what is ultimately knowable different somehow, dreams being more diffuse than what trolls eat and how long they gestate.

    Same question for 4. If I learn that adulterers will spend eternity in a whirlwind, how is that different than knowing how long a potion will last, or what all the second level spells are called? Because I can't use it? Is that the difference, just patterns and reasons underlying the fantasy that are too nebulous or distant to be manipulated?

  2. @TC: Yeah, I don't see learnability as standing in the way of wonder. After all, the point of the game is to explore, learn and figure things out. It's (a) having a complete materialistic solution available or hinted at and (b) being able to use that solution as a technology that become a problem. So, I think your half-answers to your own questions are in the right direction.

  3. I think the difference is predictability. Most of the examples given can not be predicted - once you have the information you can use it, but not before. Also, it cannot be used to extrapolate much else - the fact is in isolation. The goblins weave dreams into nets. Do they therefore make anything else from anything else (I dunno... socks out of hopes maybe). No they don't. it's dreams into nets and that's it (unless the DM says otherwise). No how or why, just an isolated fact.

    It is all, when it comes down to it, about surprise.