Wednesday, November 07, 2018

On Fantasy

One could make a case that Fantasy is the original mode of fiction in all of Western civilization and the various relatives, such as they are, of Western civilization.  What could be more fantastic that the Twelve Labors of Hercules, the story of the Trojan War as told in the Iliad, or the voyage home of Odysseus?  From the Celts, the Norse, the Aryans, and various Mesopotamians we get similar results; heroic men striding exotic and fantastic landscapes to fight supernatural villains and strange monsters; many of which remain with us as part of our cultural touchstones in the fantasy genre and fairy tales today; dragons, trolls, goblins, griffons, etc.

Most of these, while sometimes taking place in exotic and make-believe locales, also take place in the world that the tellers and their audience would have been familiar with; when Jason and the Argonauts head towards Colchis where they find the Golden Fleece and Medea, Colchis was a well-known location not far from the Greek Euxine Sea cities of Phasis and the (probably ethnic Georgian) city known to them as Dioscurias.  Prometheus was reputed to be in the mountains nearby as well.

Although this isn't the case now, fantasy for many years did this; it was reluctant to take too firm a leave of the familiar shores, and made numerous references to real world peoples, places and things.  One of the earliest to break with this was William Morris, one of the clear founders of the fantasy genre as we know it, who wrote very early fantasy novels like The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World's End.  Both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were fans of his work, and it was inspirational to them, at least in the sense that it gave them the idea of the kinds of things that they could write, if nothing else.  Robert E. Howard made some ties between his Hyborian Age (and earlier Thurian Age) and the real world, but they are also, effectively, true secondary world fantasies as well.  By this I mean, it takes place in a discrete, self-contained fantasy setting that, while it may bear resemblances to the real world, is not meant to be connected to them in any way whatsoever.

And this is the mode in which fantasy has become known to fans of the genre today; it's secondary world unique, discrete setting, and it's pseudo-Medievalism.  (The Conan stories are also Medievalist, although this is often forgotten, because Conan tends to spend more time in Mediterranean locations that are a bit more exotic than his Howard's fake Romano-Frankish, or glorified Lombard Aquilonian Empire, Anglo-Saxon Brythunians, pseudo-Gaelic Cimmerians, etc. that are familiar to us from Early Medieval history, although with new names, geographies and histories.)  In fact, I'd daresay that most people wouldn't recognize fantasy without a kind of Renaissance Festival look and feel to it, and those works that deliberately change that do so particularly to stand out.  And honestly; they don't change it all that much.  Changing Medieval Western Europe as your kinda sorta baseline to the Roman Empire or Imperial Japan, or something like that, will only feel like a big change in a genre that's relatively tightly bound to begin with.

There has been a little bit of very specific and unusual deviations from this.  There's a big genre of urban fantasy, for instance, which does not utilize secondary world, and takes place in the modern world, just with fantasy elements all over the place.  Some of the more experimental stuff comes in different venues.  Star Wars (and some of the space opera stuff it was based on, like Dune, or others) has often been called swashbuckling fantasy in space, and why not; it's got monsters, dark lords, sword fights, princesses, wizards, etc.  The Dark Tower is the only fantasy work that I know of that utilizes some of the visual and character cues from Westerns in a secondary fantasy world.  There's been a bit more success with steampunk and even dieselpunk fantasy, especially in the world of video games.  The Tannhauser board game (and a few tie-in novels) provide a pretty sweet fantasy World War 2 setting; although it's alternate (fantasy) history rather than a true secondary world. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies prove that Golden Age of Piracy fantasy would work very well, although they don't create a fictional secondary world setting, sadly.

But why not?  I actually think space fantasy is relatively well-served (and my own Ad Astra game does a credible job of showing what I think that should look like anyway) but it's just about the only non-Medieval fantasy that really has any legs, and people usually don't consider it fantasy anyway, but rather some kind of science fiction.  The two that I'd really like to see are pirates and cowboys & injuns converted to fantasy with a true, secondary fictional world.  This means... what; modifying Ad Astra or Fantasy Hack (or DH5, maybe—which is already almost identical to Fantasy Hack anyway) to have cowboys and cowboy-like technology and cowboy-like setting assumptions baked into the rules.

And, of course, it'd need a setting.  Maybe some fiction would be fun.

Although this has been something that's been on my mind for literally years, I haven't done much with it other than some rather hesitant, half-hearted steps in that direction with DH4; although it was only one of many influences that got sucked into DH4, so it was too watered down to really feel like "Western fantasy."

Now; there are three Microlite games already that I'm aware of, because they're included in the big ole Microlite Collecton PDF already; Tumbleweed, Gunsmoke & Goblins and Owl Hoot Trail.  Both look pretty nifty, although I think maybe they try too hard to be atmospheric in the way that they're written and how they've renamed stats, skills, classes, etc. that are already familiar to us from other games.  I'd probably re-read them again, focus on harmonizing with Fantasy Hack conventions as good as possible, and then borrow whatever good ideas they have into a custom Fantasy Hack designed to be Western Hack.  Then I'll do Swashbuckling Hack too, focused on the type of stuff you see in The Three Musketeers and Captain Blood and stuff like that.  Neither is particularly difficult to get out of Fantasy Hack as it is, and in fact, with some very minor additions of equipment rules and maybe giving some thought to some kind of vehicle and mounted combat options.  Fantasy Hack has a nod to mounted chases, but in a cowboy setting, you've got stagecoaches, wild horse chases, and whatnot, and if you don't account for them at least as well as Ad Astra accounted for spaceship combat, then you're probably missing the boat seriously with your game, which doesn't have one of the key things that it needs in it to be successful.  Speaking of missing the boat, Swashcbuckling Hack may well need something with cannons, ships, and whatnot, given that the Golden Age of Piracy is such an important point of influence.

Both Western Hack and Swashbuckling Hack can be done, I'd think, not as stand-alone games, but as Optional and Alternate Appendices that further "hack" the rules of Fantasy Hack, but which require it to run.  Heck; maybe I'll add Noir Hack to it while I'm at it.  But honestly, what they most need are settings.

I think part of the reason I'm feeling particularly motivated is because of how much fun I'm having with Red Dead Redemption 2.  But it doesn't really do everything I want.  I find that the game is sometimes too punitive; you can't do anything without having the long arm of the law come down on you.  My son who played GTA5 the most thinks it's a bit odd that the law is much more frustrating in RDR2 than in GTA5, because by the terms of the genre itself, you'd expect the other way around.

I also really like the fake Old West of the RDR games.  Places like Blackwater, New Hanover, Saint Denis, West Elizabeth, Nuevo Paraiso, the Grizzly Mountains, etc. sound very much like places in the real west... but they're not.  Just like the places of Upmeads, Cheaping Knowe, the Long Lake, Mirkwood, Bree, the Burg of the Four Friths or Rivendell sound like places that ring with that Olde World charm, even though they're fictional places too.  But RDR doesn't take place in a true secondary world either; although they are fictional territories (or states, or whatever they are) they're fictional territories within the US, and numerous references to real places like New York City and California, and Japan and Spain and Peking, etc. pepper the dialogue of the characters too.  So, it's close, but not quite.

And although RDR has a lot of weird easter eggs; Nosferatu stalks the city of Saint Denis, UFOs appear in two places if you're there at the right time of night, and there's even a ghost train that runs along a certain section of track at midnight, and there's the bones of something that is, I presume, supposed to be a sasquatch, it's also not a fantasy game.  The weirdest thing you have to actually fight isn't anything like a dragon, or a cyclops; it's a hungry grizzly bear.

Now granted, fantasy can be overwrought with the fantastic, to the point where it has no ability to reach you emotionally anymore, because it's freakin' all over the place.  Good fantasy is actually somewhat discrete, and doesn't throw the fantastic at you non-stop, but contrasts it with the familiar and mundane, which is actually what you see most of the time.  While hobbits are, of course, a fantasy race, they are a great stand-in for mundane, regular Edwardian England as Tolkien understood it and loved it, so when Bilbo and later Frodo and the others have to travel across the length and breadth of the setting, we as the readers get to experience much of the sense of wonder that they as the characters do.  Which isn't all the time; it comes in discrete chunks, like the horror the Old Forest, the strange fairytale Tom Bombadil, the terror of the Ringwraiths and the barrow-wights, the wonder of Rivendell and Lothlorien, etc.

Which are punctuated by lots of travel and challenges across a landscape that you or I might not find unfamiliar.

Anyway, the rules add-ons and modifications aren't going to be too difficult to pull off. It's the settings that is going to be important.  I've got some work to do there.  But given that it's something that I've had in the back of my mind for a long time now, it's probably time that I start spelling out a few details as they come to me, and for that reason, I've created (of course) two new tags; Western Hack and Swashbuckling Hack.  They will be used for rules posts, setting posts, and general discussion about the initiatives.

And, here's a few images to get you ready for what's coming, although don't take these images as indicative of anything specific you'll see in my stuff.  These are just some images I found online.  But like I said; because both of these ideas are vastly under-served, there aren't a lot of images out there that really work anyway.  And some of them are way too steampunky for my taste; steampunk and the Old West in fantasy are not the same thing at all.


Simon J. Hogwood said...

A nice meaty post with a lot to think through. In the case of swashbuckling/pirates, I think part of the problem is that fantasy as a whole, particularly in gaming, has sort of gobbled it up - take, for example, the Freeport and Razor Coast settings, which are swashbuckling on the surface but rest on D&D foundations even when they're trying to be system neutral.

As far as the Westerns go, I wonder if one issue is that the era was quite short - less than a hundred years by most reckonings - as well as being relatively recent, so it becomes harder to disassociate the imagery with the historical background.

Seeing as how you're taking Western inspiration from Red Dead Redemption, I wonder if you've encountered anything of Sea of Thieves? I haven't played the game itself, but the tie-in material I've seen seems like it might be interesting to draw from.

Desdichado said...

No, I hadn't even heard of Sea of Thieves before. I should have a look, though.