Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On Classic Fantasy in RPGs

I have about a half hour to write this before I go to bed, but it’s been knocking around in my head all day, and I sort of need to get it out. So understand if it’s a little less polished than my usual rambling diatribes of drivel and inanity.

Two things led here. The first is a book I read on the publishing of science fiction and fantasy by Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder. It was published a dozen years ago, but a lot of the advice in the book really holds up, and I’ve found a lot of it invaluable as advice at the game table too, especially the bits about how to structure a story and stuff you probably shouldn’t write a book about. I’m sad I don’t have my copy anymore, because there are a lot of times (like much of today) when I would really like to flip through it and reference something. The something in particular here is an oft-forgotten branch of fantasy literature, the branch that doesn’t involve any flaming swords of ice giants or whatever. It’s sort of the grandpappy of epic fantasy, the first forays into the impossible as firmly grounded by the rules of the possible. These are the Alice in Wonderland stories, or the Wizard of Oz stores, or the Narnia stories (though to be fair, Narnia has its fair share of swords and monsters and the like). These were stories in which the events that take place make no sense except as an extension of the psychology of the protagonists. Things happen to Alice that make no goddamn sense at all, but when considered in terms of her struggles in her real life become perfectly sensible in an allegorical sense. Dorothy’s relationships with the fantasy creatures in Oz reflect the relationships she has with people in her every-day life as well, and her quest to find her way home, a quest that she didn’t have to go on at all to find the answer, is one that provides her the insights she needs to overcome her anxieties. This sort of fantasy doesn’t happen all that often anymore, though there are some more contemporary examples. The two that spring to mind immediately are Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and the Gunslinger (when taken out of context from the rest of the books in the Dark Tower series, though some certainly retain the same feel).

If I remember correctly, Doctorow and Schroeder call this sort of fantastic tale “Classic Fantasy,” though I’ve also seen it described as “Victorian Fantasy.” Could be wrong, I can’t flip through the book.

The second thing that brought me to this subject was the entirely lovely Tale of Sand. Written by a young Jim Henson, the story follows a fellow called Mac through a strange desert while he is chased down by a villainous gunman for unspecified reasons. It was never turned into a movie during Henson’s lifetime, but this year an intrepid Ramon Perez got a hold of it and kicked it into life as a graphic novel. Perez’ line art is some of the most distinctive in the role-playing game industry. His work on RIFTS and Legend of Five Rings was spectacular and the comics he’s worked on never fail to stun with their incredible action shots and unique framing. He’s one of my favorite illustrators, and his work on Tale of Sand was out of this world.

Tale of Sand is very much a classic fantasy. There are a lot of things that happen, from the very beginning, that make no sense at all outside the context of the protagonist’s psychology, from being given a map, and told to mind it carefully (but “don’t trust the map"), to having the villain and the recurrent young lady make their Big Reveal, the whole thing is a clusterfuck of strange occurances, and weird scenes. It’s beautifully rendered, it’s incredibly well crafted, but if you’re not trying to figure out what is going on in Mac’s head, the whole story makes about as much sense as a badger in a fez doing your taxes in the lifeguard’s chair at the kiddy pool. There is no reason for him to be running, there is no understandable motivation for the antagonist, the events that crop up and the characters Mac interacts with would seem entirely random if not for the fact that he clearly invented them from aspects of his own psyche.

So I read that today, and my first thought on putting the book down was “That was a damned fine book, and I’m glad I bought it.” The second thought was “Why can’t role-playing games do that?”

Role-playing games as we currently understand them are woefully inadequate tools for this sort of storytelling. In my experience, there are a total of two games that could be capable of handling this sort of narrative weirdness, and one of them is a role-playing game in only the most cursory sense. Nobilis, by the lovely Jenna Morrin, can handle classic fantasy narrative when it really bends itself to the idea; it provides a level of authorship that few role-playing games can really handle, though the presence of a Hollyhock God actually diminishes the effect of putting that much narrative control into the hands of the players. And Insects of God, by the incredible Jason L Blair, is probably the closest I’ve ever seen to a device capable of handling classic fantasy in a role-playing game, but it’s not really a role-playing game in the strictest sense of the word. No one is playing a role, players take turns narrating the entirety of the protagonists last moments on earth.

Now, it could well be that people just don’t want to play this sort of role-playing game. Not everyone wants to play a game where characters are psychoanalyzed during play, and there is certainly a contingent of players who believe that this sort of thing would be deeply boring. But I think that there are enough players with an interest in this sort of gaming that it would be remiss of us to not try and build a system that would allow for this sort of story to grow out of a game (someone recently said on twitter that “role-playing games aren’t games about characters in stories, they’re games that result in stories about characters,” and I liked that; also, I’m paraphrasing). So, how do we build a game that results in these sorts of stories? How do we take what is rumbling inside a character and spraypaint the walls with it? How to we build characters that will naturally create reflections of aspects of themselves within the context of the game?

That’s what I’m going to spend the next week or so looking at, I think.

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