Tags: fantasy

the point of Fantasy Gaming (tm)

About 5 years ago I had a horrible, but inevitable, realization. I was no longer getting anything new from the kinds of fantasy games that I was playing in or running. From the epic Kythianos game, to the grittier low-magic adaptations that folk were trying... I'd seen it all before. And over the intervening time, I've not really seen anything that caused me to reconsider my gut feeling about fantasy games. Instead, I've been feeling a growing nostalgia for the experiences which are so familiar but unattainable.

It is, of course, absurd to claim to have explored all that fantasy, with its implicit limitless range, has to offer. And I'm not pretending to make that claim. I've never played in the long-term Ars Magica Troupe environment, or really had a deep political game in the Empire of the Petal Throne. But these games, and others that I could list in tedious succession, don't rely on the core of the Fantastic experience for their pleasure. Neither did the last two campaigns I played in, for all their nominal character of the fantastic.

Just what the two lynch pins of fantasy are, in terms of fantasy gaming, was brought into clarity by my two Nostalgia expeditions recently. I ran Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and Luke ran When a Star Falls. Each of which had its moments, but failed in some way to scratch the deepest itch which had prompted my involvement.

The first pin was admirably inserted and full leverage was applied by mr_orgue in AtCotRG: The Thirst for Adventure. This is truly fundamental to the kind of game I grew up on, and it was something I never even realized existed. Characters are dropped into the game world, and without any really specific motivation, seek out fame, fortune and the attendant dangers.

It wasn't until Luke ran UK4 that I realized how out-dated this very idea was. The whole theoretical construct of kickers, bangs, and the like, are all built around the idea that PCs won't just make their own fun, but need prompting by forces external to themselves. And since the advent of V:TM, I think everyone has successively been adopting this idea that you need to tailor your adventures to the character. Which is anathema to the whole Old School notion of the Thirst for Adventure, which requires any group, however mis-matched and ill-prepared, to simply jump in boots and all and make the thing fun.

What we're breeding is analogous to a generation of fussy eaters. We talk a lot about the Old School railroads, and ex machina stuff; but I don't think that's really what was going on. People got onto the railway cars, and held on for dear life! The expectation was that the characters would actively seek out the action. In comparison, especially with the modern idea of kickers, you've got a character who is potentially just going to meander in some dull way until the GM follows the instructions implicit in the kicker. In some ways, this puts even more onus back onto the GM for creating the game's interest. The opposite, surely, of the intent of this tool? It transforms the action-seeking part of the player's job from an active role where they must choose to act, to a more passive one where nothing is required of them until the GM orchestrates a pre-arranged interlude.

The second lynch pin of fantasy gaming was really only revealed to me in my discussions with Luke about the problems with the UK4 run. I suggested a greater emphasis on what is, structurally in the plot, a minor information gathering NPC. Luke was completely uncomprehending of why I thought that this NPC should be important, and I didn't realize until the conversation had ended what I was actually getting at: In Search of the Unknown.

Fundamental to the whole notion of Fantasy is that in some fundamental way it is inexplicable. In essence, the opposite of Clarke's well-worn law: Whatever is sufficiently well explained ceases to be magical. I wanted a greater emphasis on that moment in the adventure because it was amongst the least explicable moments that we had. The rest was just commonplace tactical stuff and a bit of routine NPC-ruffing.

The problems of arranging something that's incomprehensible and yet compellingly interesting are not trivial. But without some hat-tip towards this second pin, I think you end up with a game where the "fantasy" is merely window dressing to some other genre. Wizards become psykers, monks become super heroes. And so on.

Play in that mode of ultimate inexplicability is something that is very poorly supported by most modern fantasy RPGs. Most seek to successively strip away the fantastical, so that you end up with a pseudo-historical game, like Pendragon, or try to apply ever more intricate logic to the problem. The homogenisation of D&D moving from 2nd ed to 3rd ed is of this order. Why do Clerical and Magical spells need to both be on a scale of 1-9? Because they're functionally and now fundamentally similar. With the movement in 4e to having each class exhibit different flavours of the same approximate order of powers... I'd suggest it's gone too far. But maybe that's just me.

Unfortunately, I think the wide-eyed innocence that engenders these two core ideas of the Old School is very hard to recapture once it starts to slip through your fingers. It's like trying to be young again, and despite the impossibility of this, I don't suppose I'm really going to stop trying. Wish me luck.