Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Heroic Fantasy and Barbarian Conquerors

I'll get back to my ongoing AD ASTRA project momentarily—but first a small diversion.

I don't play ACKS, but I'm aware of it as a relatively highly regarded derivation—or completion almost, if you will—of the BECMI progression, with a much better defined endgame.  That's not really what I'm interested in for my own gaming, no matter how much I may look at that theoretically and say that it sounds pretty nice, but I admit that the ACKS folks (Autarch LLC) seems like a decent bunch of guys who really kind of get the whole pulp aesthetic for the most part, even if they look at it through a much more gamist lens than I do.  So, I was pretty intrigued when I saw an announcement on Kickstarter that talks about two new products of theirs coming out that go in an even more overtly pulp direction (as opposed to the overtly D&D direction of ACKS.)  Check out these samples:

On the Heroic Fantasy Handbook:
What do we mean by “heroic fantasy flavor”? It’s the flavor that J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard have in common, once you remove what’s different. Tolkien and Howard are usually considered opposites—high fantasy versus swords & sorcery, British versus American, literary versus pulp, and so on. But if they are opposites, they are opposite faces of the same coin, and that coin is heroic fantasy. Their worlds have more in common with each other, and with those of luminaries such as E.R. Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and Michael Moorcock, than with any of their contemporary epigones. Heroic fantasy is set in a world like our own world, one that might even be our world, in its distant past or far future. Its heroes, though men and women of extraordinary talent and drive, have none of the “super-powers” now common in contemporary fantasy (especially games). They do not typically teleport, fly, shoot fire, or raise the dead. Magic in heroic fantasy is more subtle and nuanced than in contemporary fantasy. It works with what is, rather than creating what is not. A magician cannot teleport straight to his friend’s distant castle, though his whispered dreams might reach his friend across the black gulfs of space. A magician will not fling magic missiles, but he might call down lightning from a storm, or capsize a boat with a wave. Working magic might require lengthy ceremonies, terrible sacrifices, or the power of primeval places. And those who use magic risk corruption. Even the wisest can lose their mind, body, and soul if they tamper with dark magic. That’s heroic fantasy.   
Cleaving away decades worth of detritus of assumptions and expectations about how characters heal, fight, and adventure—how magic works—what spells do—and more, the Heroic Fantasy Handbook offers a fresh way to play with familiar D20 fantasy mechanics. The Heroic Fantasy Handbook is designed for use with the Adventurer Conqueror King System™ (ACKS™) but is readily compatible with other fantasy role-playing games built on the same core rules. 
Sounds cool?  I think so.  I mean, if I really wanted truly rooted sword & sorcery fantasy, I'd probably go even further and check out Crypts & Things or something—but they're clearly on the right path.  I'm also intrigued by their paragraph above comparing Tolkien and Howard.  Although I hadn't quite made all the neurons connect myself, I was coming around to a proto-version of that same concept myself, so when I read it, it really clicked.  They're right, of course—Tolkien and Howard had more in common than not.  Sure, the immediate source material wasn't exactly the same (Old English and Norse mythology vs. an Orientalist approach similar to Vathek, Yog-Sothothery and swashbuckling historical fiction) but their approach was actually really similar.  The tone wasn't necessarily so—otherwise, I wouldn't have dabbled with MIDDLE-EARTH REMIXED as an overtly sword & sorcery setting, but that's not as much of an obstacle to seeing the comparisons as you'd think.

Anyway, if you're interested in more, check out the link.  Like I said, ACKS isn't quite up my alley; I certainly prefer different rules with my D&D alternatives, but I don't really prefer more rules.  I'm sure that it's still rules-lite relative to Pathfinder, or d20, or even AD&D—but the only D&D game that my preferred style approaches in terms of rules-liteness is White Box OD&D or it's clones.  But this is a very welcome development in the OSR—the ability to look beyond the most immediate inspirations of the game and take it to an even more primal suite of inspirations altogether.  As an aside, the Autarch guys also seem willing to be a bit playful.

Now, if you scroll down past the Heroic Fantasy Handbook, there's another product that they're also selling via the same Kickstarter, the Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu setting book.  Check out what it says about that one:
While the Heroic Fantasy Handbook explores the classic heroic fantasy genre, Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu embraces what might be called “barbarian fantasy” or perhaps “pulp fantasy.” Barbarian fantasy is an amalgam of three distinct but related genres. The first is sword & sorcery literature, exemplified by the likes of Howard's Conan and Moorcock's Elric. This genre counterpoises corrupt, decaying cities and empires with rough-edged barbarian upstarts. It contrasts the decadence of urban life with the vigor of those untainted by it. This might have been inspired by the fall of decadent Rome to the Germanic "barbarians" who set themselves as kings of its ruins, or even by Samson's divine-inspired exploits against the urbanized Philistines.   
The second is sword & planet, exemplified by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, a fantastic vision of Mars. This genre explores similar themes to those of sword & sorcery but does accept certain "science fiction" elements such as alien planets, radium pistols, flying craft, and other technological wonders. Sword & planet still follows the vision of a morally-ambiguous 'outsider' protagonist, archetypically an earthling on Mars, using his might to smash the decadent villainy of the local society. 
The third is science fantasy proper. This book, however, presents a "science fiction" milieu closer to a fantastic setting once the outer trappings of starships and rayguns are stripped off it. This genre is exemplified by space princesses, dashing interstellar rogues, space combat which looks suspiciously similar to WWII air combat, and a relative disregard of actual science when it conflicts with the plot. The same tropes of the barbarian fantasy genre also apply here: it is easy to envision the mighty lost-world barbarian smashing through the ranks of raygun-wielding aliens with his massive sword, answering their advanced technology with his brute strength.   
With barbarian fantasy as its inspiration, Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu presents new monsters, magical items, technology, spells, classes, and variant rules, all packaged together in Kanahu, a dangerous world of pulp fantasy. Kanahu draws on the myths of the Ancient Near East and pre-Colombian Mesoamerica and blends them together into a gonzo milieu with dinosaurs, Cthulhoid creatures, giant insects, crazy sorcerers, muscled barbarians, city-states, alien visitors, and super-scientific technology. 
Now, I'll quibble just a bit with the notion that this has "morally ambiguous" characters—most works, especially of sword & planet are not morally ambiguous at all—they're strait up heroic.  That's the problem with thinking that Elric exemplifies that genre, rather than being a deliberate deconstruction of the genre, I suppose.  But all things considered, that's a minor quibble.  Quite honestly, they had me at "space princesses".

I quite like the concept of spending less time worrying about genre barriers and walls within this sphere of genres that really only differ based on a few superficial trappings.  Sword & sorcery and science fantasy, as they point out, are essentially exactly the same except that one has a sword & sandal look to it, and the other has a Star Wars look to it.  Sword & planet is actually slightly different, lacking (in most cases) the overt magic and fantasy, but having instead equally fantastic pseudo-scientific wonders which bridges the aesthetic gap between them.

Anyhoo, while this is hardly rocket science, or even anything particular innovative or new, it is true that it's often hard without specifically agreeing to do so, to blur genre lines and do something that deliberately eschews that hard and fast genre lines traditions.  Even I, who have said for some time that I like that, am often surprised at myself in terms of how much I fall back into genre traditions.  But where have I done it right?  Rightish?  Looking at some of my tags that are homebrew alphabetically, what have I got?
  • AD ASTRA—science fantasy, much like Star Wars with wizards and knights in space.
  • CULT OF UNDEATH—this is D&D + supernatural horror, which is only a minor tweak to D&D to begin with.
  • DARK•HERITAGE—sword & sorcery (perhaps leaning towards more horror than most) + Westerns + pirates.  The latest iteration is more sword & sorcery + some Barsoom + post Roman Great Britain + the Old West.
  • DREAMLANDS REMIXED—sword & sorcery based, a bit, on existing primal sword & sorcery settings.
  • EBERRON REMIXED—a D&D setting with just a twist of my own to be slightly less D&Dish.  Some believe that Eberron is already a pretty genre-bending setting to begin with, but I think that's only really true for people who aren't very familiar with genre bending.  Eberrron is swashbuckling pulp action, with D&D.  My "remix" is more about the rules than the setting, really.
  • FALLEN SONS—sword & sorcery with an emphasis on horror.  I haven't done enough development on it to really say anything meaningful about it though.
  • MAMMOTH LORDSClan of the Cave Bear + Conan's Hyborian Age
  • MIDDLE-EARTH REVISITED—Tolkien modified to be overtly sword & sorcery
  • MYTHS REVISITED—mythology + comic books
  • ODD D&D—It's D&D, but with very different rules and an unusual setting.  Not really genre bending, just unusual.
  • REALMS TRAVELER—This is kitbashed rather than homebrewed, and it's all D&D stuff.  Like ODD D&D, it's highly unusual, but doesn't really blend genres.
  • SOLNOR—And the last homebrew effort, such as it is given that it's just a post or two with some high level discussion, is also just unusual D&D, not anything that's more blended than that.
  • STAR WARS REMIXED—Just Star Wars as is, except with an advanced time-line so I can go my own way setting-wise. And home-brewed rules, of course.
Now—I also happen to like stuff that stays within its "proper" genre chimney.  The point of all this isn't that "breaking genres is automatically good."  Rather, it's that "breaking genres can be good, and shouldn't be shied away from for its own sake."  As always, do what you like—but do so without "worrying" about things that you shouldn't feel obligated to worry about.

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