What Does Your World Do For a Living?

There’s quite a lot of fuss in fantasy fandoms about “high” and “low” fantasy, with a great deal of time and trouble going into working out exactly what high fantasy or low fantasy is, and their various characteristics.

The Full Fantasy Genre Menu. Would you like some additional Character Peril with that, or maybe some Tired Stereotypes on the side?

One of the bigger themes in this debate this that high fantasy is world-changing, while low fantasy is not. But I’d disagree  with this; while the perfect good guys (and guys it does tend to be) may stop the bad guys/prop up the status quo and  get their reward, the world seems to kind of trundle on in the background, without much to say either way. There are perfectly valid complaints that much high fantasy is elitist, but that isn’t my main bugbear with it at present. I sometimes read and think “so what would happen if they were to fail?”, and don’t get much of an idea. The plots of many stories, even the highest of high fantasy, are somewhat immaterial to the world that gets created. Sure, some nations will change, and maybe some powerful magic will be unleashed, but why is that particularly interesting? Fantasy isn’t known for its unique political structures and magic and bad guys isn’t particularly new, so I’d much rather read about some well-written characters in a less earth-shattering novel. This is why, for example, I prefer A Song of Ice and Fire to the Belgariad. The latter has mythic figures walking with the main character trying to retrieve an object of earth-shattering potency, but the only outcome I could discern from this would be that the bad guy wins; the latter shows you the personal stakes of each of the characters in the political conflicts, which makes it much more interesting.

But what really gets me hooked is the whys of the world, the metaphysics and how that relates to the plot. I just fail to see the point in much fantasy where it’s just kings and politics, or even just kings and dragons. Tell me why dragons are possible and part of the ecosystem and things get mildly interesting. Tell me that dragons are manifestations of a god that is splintered in various ways and at war with itself, and you’ve got my attention in a whole manner of ways. I guess where I’m going with this is that fantasy worlds need to be more fantastical, much more different to the pseduo-medieval European setting which inspires most of it, and making the metaphysics of the world part of the plot of any given story is a fairly simple way to do that.

And in a related bit of shameless self-promotion, I’m going to upload a second story of creation and apocalypse for Mists of Albion. I envisioned it somewhat as the book of Genesis and Revelation for one of the major faiths of the world, as I’ve been doing a lot of reading into the various gnostic heresies of Christianity recently and I really like the alternative spins on the “standard” template we get these days about Mediæval Christianity. I’ll possibly delve into some serious discussion of these at a later date, simply because I find them really intriguing and a potential source of ideas for world creation that fall outside the usual realms of thought in this area.

In the meantime, please read my latest contribution to the Mists setting. Let me know what you think!

Posted in Commentary, Fantasy, Mists of Albion | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What is Humanity, Anyway?

Following on from my last post about non-human fantasy races, I’ve been scratching my head lately thinking about how humanity gets presented in fantasy and science fiction. Most particularly what the differences are in the two genres, and what it tends to mean.

Firstly, a slight addendum to my last post; the thought that certain characteristics are inherent in certain racial types. This is bad beyond writing, as it teaches people to stereotype groups of people based on shared cultural or racial characteristics. Which leads to all sorts of nasty prejudices. It also stymies creativity, as people learn to think that things “must” be a certain way, because they’ve already been done that way, when just a little thought on the logical consequences of the race’s condition could lead to some fantastically original results.

Apart from, it seems, humanity in fantasy novels. This is most apparent in roleplaying settings rather than fantasy, where humans are often given bonuses for being “adaptable” or “innovative” in a way that other races aren’t. And this is just packaged up as some nice set of skill bonuses to compensate for their lack of “racial” bonuses, with no real questions asked as to what actually makes humans different, or what humanity actually is.

Contrast this with the way humanity gets treated in science fiction; it gets warped, changed, the boundaries pushed  and prodded fairly regularly. While this isn’t always done well, the questions get asked. What is the right response for a human in a given situation? When does a human stop being a human? Classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? pose these questions as central points of the plot.

When fantasy does this, it tends to talk in terms of going beyond human, rather than remaining human. Even one of the best examples of this (I think), the Vampire: the Masquerade roleplaying game, has a modern-day base setting, not necessarily fantasy as such (although there is a fantastic Dark Ages expansion).

Why is this? Partly I think it’s down to the nature of fantasy, most of which gets treated as “backwards looking”, so the assumption is that the characters in fantasy will be more “primitive” than present-day humanity, which goes hand-in-hand with fantasy’s tendency to ignore progress. Why look around at what humanity is, or where it can go, when the writer is half thinking that the characters aren’t there yet? But there’s no reason why thing can’t be different from our own history and development, apart from the constant argument of why fantasy societies don’t develop gunpowder. It’s fantasy, for crying out loud!

There’s also the centrality of the Hero’s Journey trope that I’ve commented on before, which tends to get pitched as an external journey, rather than an internal one, which can wind up as a cultural description rather than a reflective exploration of humanity. While I’ve heard it said that other races can point to different aspects of humanity, I’ve rarely seen it done. Middle-earth Elves are angels of stasis, dwarves are industrious and grumpy, and orcs are barbaric and evil. This implies nothing about humanity, at least until you get to the Silmarillion, where Tolkien gets moralistic about humanity’s behaviour via the rather crude measure of how close humans are to the Elven ideal, which is never questioned (at least, not obviously). Other settings rarely go this far, pointing out the differences between the races and leaving it at that. The reader is often left thinking “so what?”

One of the ways that fantasy could at least begin to ask these sorts of questions is to go transformative, which is the foundation of several science fiction and horror explorations of humanity; when something about a person changes, what remains the same? This should be a tool that’s readily open to fantasy, with its previous legacy of changelings in folktales, frogs turning into princes and so on. Or even Beauty and the Beast.

Note that to be effective this needs to be a personal change, not a racial one. If someone just gets a new set of abilities and a new automatically accepting social group, they just enjoy their new kewl powerz and carry on as before. To get into the guts of humanity, the lines need to be fuzzier. Why do we judge on appearance? What do we judge in this way? Are certain behaviours intrinsic and logical? If not, why? These are all questions that can be explored as a character changes identity in various ways, but this cannot be just a jump from one box into another, as the boxes tend to come with their own set of assumed answers, without exploring them.

There’s also the question of origins, which also doesn’t get raised often. The only fantasy series that I know of that openly question this is again Middle-earth (that radical, Tolkien!) and the Elder Scrolls games, where humanity and elves (or “mer”, more correctly) are explicitly descended from various fragments of divinity, and their differences shape and are shaped by their cultural outlooks. It doesn’t go a whole way in exploring humanity, partly because the games need to be geared to make any race playable, but it sets up the metaphysical pre-requisites for it far more than many books.

And as a shameless plug, the fantasy world I’m developing for Mists of Albion should be chock-full of these questions about what makes humanity. Because identity is so flexible in Albion due to environmental factors, what makes a person what they are or accepted in their communities will become a major part of how the societies there work. A person’s identity and nature can be easily manipulated and changed by their own actions and those of others, or the world around them. How do you maintain a sense of self or humanity in those circumstances? Who or what do you trust? These will be central questions the world will try to answer.

Watch this space for more on this soon! In the meantime, please leave any comments, criticisms, scathing denunciations etc in the comments.

Posted in Analysis, Commentary, Magic: the Gathering, Roleplaying games | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where Are All The Fat Elves? The Need to Rethink Fantasy Races

Why do fantasy races exist? To provide something different, the fantastical element, maybe. Although plenty of fantasy, such as Robert E Howard’s Conan, manages a fair amount of fantasy without non-human characters (but still manages to get in some comments about race). To shine a spotlight on a particular aspect of the human condition, even if they don’t look human? This allows races to function as a shorthand for a particular set of characteristics, and show their consequences or likely actions in any given situation.

But these aren’t really enough for me. Fantasy races in general tend to be the typical elf, dwarf, orc, dragon, troll etc etc, with little variation in what these are. There is the occasional setting that breaks away from this and makes something new, but by and large these races are quite often the same.

Orc

But what if he just wants a hug?

This wouldn’t be a problem, if there was some variety in character. But it very often isn’t. Elves are proud, aloof and astonishingly competent (when’s the last time you saw or read about a short, clumsy  and personable elf?), dwarfs (or dwarves, depending on your linguistic bent) are bearded, stubborn, honourable and skilled craftsmen who have a peculiar dislike for swords. Orcs, although they have received a more varied treatment recently, are often senseless antagonists who love violence.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these presentations, but they seem to get trotted out for every single example of every race. Races become personalities, with very little variation apart from in the world of roleplaying, where players can and do come up with incredibly varied and convoluted backstories for their characters. But in the main body of fiction, racial characteristics come into play far too much.

This can be argued that there are national characteristics for human beings as well, but these aren’t determined by “race” but generally by culture. And most importantly, they aren’t universal. While we may have Brits that constantly talk about nothing but the weather and never grumble about anything, or Yanks who are loud and eat too much, neither of these define every UK or US citizen. So why should they define every member of the dwarven or elven races?

This way of thinking is damaging on more than one level in fantasy, as it creates expectations in the readers as well as the characters. It implies an essentialism that just doesn’t exist in the real world; people aren’t bad because they’re orcs, or good because they’re elves, they are good or bad because of what they do, the choices they make (despite the claims of authors like Howard and Lovecraft to the contrary). Ultimately, it’s because of the kind of person they are. Which is not down to an “essential nature” but a whole raft of factors from upbringing, to culture, to genetics, to life experiences etc etc. Getting out of thinking of race as a universal touchpoint for fantasy characters opens up many more avenues for thinking about heroes, villains (or not having villains at all), accomplices and back-up characters in original ways.

One springboard into doing this is thinking in terms of species rather than race. This means that certain physiological characteristics will hold true, but all personality traits are variable, depending on environment and upbringing. This set-up allows for a lot more variety in creating characters, and while cultures might be similar to those tropes we know already in fantasy, at least it allows some potential for characterisation beyond being the “stock” dwarf or elf.

I’ve been reworking the background for Mists of Albion with Hypersleeper recently; things had got rather staid and conflicting, so we’re trying to get some more unified themes into the setting and more solid basis to expand the world than the increasingly disparate setting we did have. One of the main things we want to do is reinvent perceptions of race so there are effectively no “races” as such within the world, just collections of particular characteristics that lean towards particular groups of behaviours or abilities. A given individual may have a certain number of these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree, but will never have a standard set. This will allow for a more fluid and varied conception of characters in the world, who will hopefully be better for it.

Posted in Analysis, Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Not Proud to be a Geek: Needs to be resaid

Sexism in Geek Media

I’ve stumbled across this marvellous post from Storming the Ivory Tower that needs to be exposed to a broader audience (as narrow as my current readership is). It’s a scathing indictment of geek culture and how narrow-minded, inward-looking and downright offensive it has become.

I think the main problem is that being a geek has become a thing now (thank you very much, Big Bang Theory), with almost-defined boundaries that need to be rigidly adhered to in order to “count”. Geekdom has become a thing to be defended, aspired to with a rigidity that allows no dissent. Which is disgusting. Why can’t we have creativity and nice ideas without the need for them to be anything other than ideas to be explored and expanded? But no, these things mean something beyond themselves, and used in some form of self-promotion and identification. And then defended viciously because any attack becomes personal.

Anyway, I feel like I’m rambling, and Keeper puts it much better than I could. Go read his article and do something about making your corner of the world a more inclusive place. Think about what you like, and what they mean. Don’t stop other people from exploring their ideas and having opinions on the same thing. And please, please, please, learn to welcome new people, help them to enjoy the things you enjoy without feeling threatened or belittled or in any way worse than you. You’re all people, trying to enjoy life. Why isn’t that enough?

 

 

 

 

Next time I’ll try to get back to a reasonably regular posting schedule, I’ve had some thoughts bubbling away about Mists of Albion, and darkness in fantasy. I’ll try to get them into some workable form soon.

Posted in Analysis, Commentary | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Fantasy is Badly in Need of the Renaissance

Apologies for the lapse in posting recently, life and appendicitis have been getting in the way of things.

Think about Mediæval Europe for a second. What sort of pictures do you get? Is it one full of unrelenting peasant drudgery, consignment to the scrapheap by birth, dominance of a politicised church and rural peasants struggling to scrape a living from the soil? Or is it a broadly urbanised population with knights in plate armour, a well-established merchant class and people who are a little more willing to speak openly against the priests? If it’s the latter, you’ll be thinking about the Renaissance.

But many “Mediæval” fantasy settings will operate like this, and yet retain several of the trappings and attitudes of the earlier period. The end result tends to be a nonsensical mishmash that has to be modified heavily if it is to make sense.

While I know that alternative worlds don’t have to follow the same development as our own (this has been acknowledged as a generally bad thing), some thought towards the consequences of this state would be nice, and alongside it some differences in the governmental structures. Many of the Mediæval-Renaissance states (“states” being present is another discussion altogether) of fantasy have non-dynastic monarchical governments, simlar to the Doge of Venice and other rulers of the Italian city-states, but still cling to the trappings of kingship and the like. It would be nice to see some forms of government that are actively different to the variety of historical governments and exploring their consequences.

Which I suppose is my main point for this post; the settings present in Generic Fantasy mainly and Urban Fantasy in particular (to bring things to the present day) is to hold everything in an environment constant, while introducing a new element (like magic to Medieval/Renaissance Europe or dragons to New York), and expecting things to otherwise remain the same. There is little acknowledgement of the social effects of the new element, or on their development. If you have a setting where magic wands are freely available, then gunpowder (and therefore large plate armour) is unlikely to develop as there are already far more efficient ways of killing people. What is likely to happen is that various magic-specific defences will be produced and used, and magic wands will become more refined. And, as I’ve pointed out previously, the magic-users will have an effect on the social and power structures that they are part of, which will in turn influence their development.

This will in turn alter the development of things like agriculture and warfare, and the tools that are used with them. And so the society won’t develop as our world has, as there are different social and technological pressures acting on it; the addition of one variable will change the whole social equation. Which will hopefully lead to a reinvigoration of the fantasy genre, with a more thoroughgoing and fresher world creation, another form of Renaissance altogether.

Any thoughts on this? Please post some comments below!

Posted in Commentary, Fantasy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gathering Magic: Spells for Magic: the Multiverse

I thought it was about time I elaborated on the spells and the spellcasting process in Magic: the Multiverse, before I put them up on that section of the website. There are several problems about how the spellcasting model of the card game could be slotted into a roleplaying context, mostly to do with the large number of keywords and in particular the zones that regulate the spellcasting process in the cardgame. What they represent in the narrative of the game is discussed in this article on the Magic: the Gathering website. I’ll give a brief outline of the spellcasting process here before discussing the conversion process.

To begin with, an outline of the spellcasting model of the cardgame. Spells are drawn from a repertoire (called a library) into readiness in the player’s hand, from which spells can be cast. Certain spells can be cast at any time (including in response to other spells; this includes all countermagic), others only during a players’ own turn. Some spells are cast and are gone, others remain in play and carry on having an effect. Some summon creatures, whether as cards or tokens. All of this can be relatively easily simulated with roleplaying mechanics.

When spells are resolved (through being countered, having their effect and finishing, or leaving play another way), they go to an area called the graveyard. This represents two different things, according to the article: it is both a physical place where creatures go to die, and the more conceptual space which represents history more generally, the past full of previously cast spells. This dichotomy is a little difficult to simulate in a roleplaying game, which I’ll discuss in a second.

There’s also the “removed from game” zone, now called Exile, which is where spells that are obliterated go: spells can be relatively easily brought back from the graveyard, it’s much harder to bring them back from Exile.

So how is all this adapted into a roleplaying game? Spellcasting characters have a repertoire of spells to choose from, and spells they can readily cast. These aren’t the same thing; spells that a character knows and those they have to hand need to be kept separate. This could be quite similar to the readied spell slots of Dungeons & Dragons (seven spell slots, to represent a standard MtG hand size), although I really don’t like the idea of having a daily quota of spells that replenishes through rest. This also isn’t the way that MtG novels appear to portray spellcasting; casters get tired and unable to cast spells through lack of mana, not lack of memory. And from what we can see in the novels, mana replenishes a lot quicker than on a daily basis.

This might just be because the characters in the novels don’t cast flurries of spells like in the card game, but any roleplaying game needs to account for this sort of possibility. My initial thought to avoid the refresh mechanic (should it be avoided? I think so, but let me know below if you disagree!) is to allow a player to choose if a spell goes out of a character’s repertoire. While this may seem slightly overpowered, this will hopefully be balanced by other game mechanics, which I’ll explain below.

A fantastic card in the card game. A potential game-breaker in a roleplaying game.

A problem that’s linked to this, but indepedent of it, is that of limiting when particular spells are cast. Repeated casts of Wrath of God will make the game somewhat boring, for example. To get round this, Hypersleeper and I developed the notion of “greater” and “lesser” mana. Lesser mana is used to cast spells that don’t have more than one of a particular mana symbol. This can be replenished quickly (on a per-turn basis during turn-based combat, for example), so you can cast relatively minor spells on a regular basis. Greater mana must be used to cast spells with more than one of the same mana symbol in its casting cost. For example, Wrath of God would cost 2 lesser mana and 2 greater mana. Greater mana replenishes at a slower rate than lesser mana. So you cast lots of spells using greater mana, you’re likely to run out of mana fast.

This requires that mana replenishes, as it does in the card game at the start of each player’s turn. The novels portray mana as regenerating slowly over time, so the untapping mechanic is convenience rather than reality. If we simply make it that a character recovers 1 lesser mana per combat turn, while they recover greater mana at a rate of 1 per day. This can be mana of any colour.

This means that keeping spells with lots of greater mana costs in your readied spell slots is a bad idea. There are also different kinds of spells, which have different casting restrictions. In order to simulate countermagic and other instant-level spells without having a series of actions that interrupt the turn sequence, the normal turn sequence of roleplaying games need to be suspended, and a system like the ticks used in Exalted needs to be brought in. The different kinds of spells’ properties and casting times are outlined below.

Non-creature spells

Sorceries – in MtG, these are one-time non-creature spells that can only be cast in your own turn. They are in many ways the most basic kind of spell. Either they have a standard casting time based on their type, or their converted mana cost. I’m not settled on which of these options would be better.

Instants – as their name suggests, these one-time spells can be cast instantly; that is, at any point, including an opponent’s turn. These should take maybe half the time of sorceries to cast, or half their converted mana cost. If the tick-based turn system is being used, announced actions take a certain number of ticks to resolve, and changing actions mid-flow generally has some sort of penalty. To represent snap casts of countermagic or some sort of spell, the penalties for casting instants in this way should be less than other actions.

Enchantments – these spells affect either entities or the world, and remain in play once cast. They can only be cast during a player’s turn. These should take at least the same amount of time as sorceries, maybe more to balance out their longer-lasting nature. So they can either take double the standard time of sorceries, or double their converted mana cost.

These spells don’t leave a character’s readied slots when cast, but if a character wants to bring new spells from their repertoire to their readied list they must move a spell from their readied slots to their graveyard, unless they have a way to increases their number of readied slots beyond seven.

Creature spells

These deserve their own discussion section, as they’re one of the most frequently cast spells in the card game, but I’m not sure they should be in the roleplaying game. If they were, the game would become a mini-wargame, with tactical maps and the like. I know this is the way some people like playing roleplaying games, but I want to keep the option open for those who don’t want to play this way, so creature spells need to be toned down to account for this.

This can be done through a tension that exists within the game; a debate about what creature spells are. Are they pulling actual creatures through the Blind Eternities to serve the summoner, or are they magical images of the creatures in question? This has never been completely answered by MtG’s flavour department. This can be exploited to our benefit when designing this system. Some spells cause creature tokens to be created, rather than being creature spells themselves. Spells like this can be considered to be magical images of creatures woven out of aether, and creature spells are summoning actual creatures.

In order of them to be actual creatures, the planeswalker would need to have secured the creature’s allegiance in order to guarantee their willingness to serve when summoned. This limits the pool of creatures to those the planeswalker has personally secured; there is not a limitless reservoir of creatures to draw on. So creature spells summoning actual creatures (not generating tokens) would go to the graveyard because the thing they summoned is already here and can’t be summoned again. Planeswalkers may return the creatures they summoned at any point, but note that this doesn’t return the spell to their repertoire immediately; creatures need time to recouperate after being sucked through the Blind Eternities.

Artefacts

Artefacts are another kettle of fish altogether, one that I haven’t completely figured out. The rough picture I had in my head was that the casting cost of the artefacts were their “activation” cost for one scene of a roleplaying game, not their “summoning” cost, so they don’t go to the graveyard when cast, but they still take up a slot in character’s readied spells.

——

To round these notes off, there are various mechanics around card hands in the card game that can be quickly and easily simulated in a roleplaying format:

Card drawing – the mechanic of drawing a card every turn can be dispensed with entirely, as cards aren’t cycled through in the same way by casting. Rather, when a character has an empty readied slot, it is automatically filled with a spell of their choice from their repertoire (there are no cards, and so no way to randomise the draw), up to the usual maximum of sevens slots.

Some cards have effects of card drawing. This can be represented by an additional temporary readied slot for every card drawn, until the end of a full tick cycle.

—–

That’s it for now. I’ll post these rules up in a clearer format with less discussion in the Magic: the Multiverse section of this website soon, along with an outline of the turn sequence mechanics that will make several of these points make sense!

Posted in Analysis, Magic: the Gathering, Roleplaying games | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Advance warning of semi-hiatus

It’s been longer than usual since I last posted something on here. There are a mixture of reasons for that; partly because I was away for Easter, but mainly because I’m now starting on some ethnographic work for The Geek Anthropologist. I’ll be looking at roles and social interactions across different sections of a particular forum, which will be taking up a lot of my time.

I’ll be posting research notes from the basis of my findings on that blog and linking it back here, but that will be less regular than my current posts have been.

As a final hurrah before this, I’ll be posting up the rules for spells and the combat turn sequence for Magic: the Multiverse tomorrow or later today, and a discussion of the choices and details I went through.

Posted in Site Admin | Tagged , , | Leave a comment