It’s been far too long since I’ve been able to play any role-playing games. Mostly I’ve been so busy, and there’s been so many new things in my life that I haven’t had time to miss it, but the last couple days I’ve been getting the urge in a strong way. I’ve begun daydreaming the next game I want to run, and that has led me to some thoughts about the fantasy genre as represented in gaming…
Fantasy in gaming is essentially a genre term that has completely moved away from it’s root. Really there is nothing “fantastic” about RPG fantasy settings. That is because all of the supposed fantastic elements are really just natural, presumed parts of the setting. Dragons in D&D aren’t any more fantastic than a hippopotamus is in Africa. Depending on the setting they may be rare, exciting, or significant, but they aren’t fantastic. No one is surprised to encounter a dragon. Dragons are in the title.
To be sure there are “high-fantasy” settings for games, and “low-fantasy” settings and you might think I was just expressing a preference for the latter, but that is not really what I mean. Low-fantasy implies that the magical or fantastic elements are rarer, but they are nonetheless native elements, expected, even required elements of the setting. For a game or setting to even qualify as fantasy such things must be a given.
Fantasy as a genre, of course, owes a huge debt to Tolkein, but almost all fantasy since Tolkein has followed after the LoTR trilogy rather than the Hobbit. In LoTR, elves, wizards, dragons, orcs, magic and demons are all simply assumed. They are part of the background of the story, not the substance of it. The story isn’t about Frodo venturing out in the world and discovering to his shock that it is inhabited by magical beings. In the Hobbit by contrast, Bilbo is on a constant adventure of discovery from step one. Gandalf’s encounter with the trolls who turn to stone by daylight is far more “fantastic” than Gandalf’s face-off with the Balrog – at least in the sense that I am after.
What I am looking for is the sense of wonder or mystery attached to the fantastic that a character like Alice feels when she falls through the looking glass. It is what all the ancient heroic journeys are about – a Celtic hero is tricked into entering Faerie, a young warrior sets off on a sea-voyage and is beset by sea-monsters, the old-crone turns out to be a powerful sorceress… What happens in these stories is that the “fantastic” is discovered rather than presumed. It is fantastic precisely because it is unbelievable, it breaks the known rules, it doesn’t conform to our expectations of reality, it conforms to something deeper and more inscrutable.
There ARE games out there which can involve the fantastic in the sense I mean here.
Mage the Ascension comes to mind right away. There is no better game for subjecting the players to a collective experience of discovery, and breaking or pealing away the nature of reality. Where I feel Mage isn’t meeting my current craving is that it is too open-ended, so open-ended it verges on the surreal. It would be difficult with Mage to tell a story about a Celtic hero that didn’t end up involving space aliens and werewolves.
Changeling the Lost is almost the reverse of what I’ve described. The characters in this game are coming home from their journey of discovery into the fantastic. It definitely captures the wonder and mystery, but it is ultimately more cynical than I want.
Everyday Heroes is another. I have yet to play this game, but it seems to set out to accomplish precisely what I’ve described. If I have a problem it’s that being “everyday” has very limited appeal. Even Bilbo ends up becoming a clever, and adept thief with a magical ring that makes him invisible.
Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, if it ever gets published, is another option. This game would be perfect for a medieval setting, my only question is how it will handle fantasy elements like magic and monsters. Until that question is answered it is tough to say whether this game will work.
GURPS, of course, is always a viable choice. It is good because the bias of the system is toward realism, making fantasy elements in GURPS already seem out of place. It would be easy as well to start with something very realistic and slowly weave in magic and monsters into the game with the rules as established. GURPS might really be my best choice here, but GURPS has the perpetual downside of being super-crunchy. My GM style tends to work best in a rules-light atmosphere, but GURPS is meant to be hacked…
Whatever system I end up choosing (or if I come up with something homebrew), the game I’m slowly brewing up in my mind starts out as a medieval adventure story with historical-realism as its basic assumption. Indeed, I might even keep the players in the dark about my plans to incorporate monsters and magic into the game. The idea being that the players are genuinely surprised to encounter goblins in the woods (and therefore perhaps genuinely frightened). Let the fantasy slowly unravel before them and lead them on a journey of discovery that D&D could never replicate.