Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Quick Response to Malcolm the Cynic

This is from the comment thread on the previous post:

“You can prefer pre-Tolkienian fantasy if you like. You can dislike how too many people copied Tolkien if you’d like. But one thing you cannot do, at least not honestly or at least accurately, is claim that Tolkien didn’t make exactly what he wanted to make exactly the way he wanted to make it.”

I agree.

Going down that path at all is clearly not constructive. It was a mistake.

Those of you that wanted me to explicitly walk that stuff back before trying a different angle on this… consider it done!

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Tolkien Really is Derivative

Check out this bit from Barbarian Book Club:

I honestly came to the challenge and expected to read a few fun stories, sword and sorcery types. Instead, I read Dunsany and everything I thought I knew about fantasy was demolished. I’ve spent the last two weeks devouring his work and won’t stop until I’m done with everything I can find. Reading modern fantasy without going back to Dunsany is like eating just a bit of frosting and some sprinkles instead of the whole magnificent piece of cake.

Pardon me for saying it, but… hey y’all, I told you so!

You thought I was off my rocker. You thought I’d gone off the deep end. You thought I was unhinged. Mentally disturbed. Deranged even. Too bad for you, I wasn’t!

So let’s talk about this. Why would it be fair to argue that Tolkien was in fact derivative? You’ve got to admit… there’s a lot more challenge to arguing that than the usual line you get about the sad, sad man that was heroically fighting a rearguard action to preserve all that was good and right and true as the captains of civilization’s remnants steeled themselves to commit to a truly titanic self-destruct sequence.

Oh, but that stings, doesn’t it? Face it. You don’t even want to entertain the thought. Well hey, cut the feigned outrage routine and think for a moment. Consider this thought from one of Tolkien’s pub mates:

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

What is it then that Tolkien shared with, say, Frank Herbert that would have united him against the era in which Lord Dunsany hailed from?

There is a profound break there. You see something similar in the gap between Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Not that Leiber wasn’t a supremely talented writer that has a well deserved place in the fantasy and science canon. Not that I can’t recommend that you read and enjoy his work. But something vital fell through the cracks in a matter of a couple of decades– to the point where people that think they are heavy into sword and sorcery are going to be stunned when they finally have a first hand encounter with the man that laid the groundwork that established the conventions of that genre in the first place.

The gap between Tolkien and Dunsany is very much like that. But it goes even deeper and is more astonishing. How even to begin to describe it? I would put it this way: Lord Dunsany wrote pure, undiluted fantasy. The Lord of the Rings in contrast follows along with the precepts of what would ultimately be termed speculative fiction.

And there is indeed a world of difference between the two.

Should RPG Campaigns Have a Plot?

The question is asked, “What are your favorite ways of coming up with an engaging campaign plot line for role playing games?”

My answer to this is that it’s an inherently wrongheaded question: If your campaign has a plot line, you are not just doing it wrong. You have repudiated the very concept of fantasy role-playing games!

The most common structure in “plot oriented” game sessions is going to be the Pathfinder/Wizards series of combat encounters that are perfectly balanced to the party’s assets such that they can win against a “boss” of some sort with their last hit point. At the campaign level, you would then have a series of these scenarios that are strung together that all culminate into a satisfying climax where something resembling an epic plot is resolved.

This is no doubt a lot of people playing tabletop games in this manner. Is it legitimate or is it intrinsically, morally, and ethically wrong to do it that way? Now, you might think I’m being facetious, unnecessarily bombastic, or just plain silly… but I honestly think that it really is WRONG. And the reason is… it’s boring!

Not that we didn’t have linear adventures in the bad old days before this new type of play became the norm. I just ran the Car Wars adventure “Convoy” for someone this summer and it’s about as linear as it gets. Heck, even the combats are played out on road sections where the average speed of the combatants is sixty miles an hour.

But note that little bit of a fractal-like quality emerging here: road combats like this are intrinsically less interesting than the insane ballet of destruction that goes on in the arenas. The elimination of dimensionality in game-play really is boring. “Convoy” compensates for this by moving the more significant aspects of player choice up to the resource management level. It’s not any one combat that matters. It’s how you pace yourself to get through them all in time that counts.

But what happens at the end? Everything suddenly opens up! The surviving drivers split up their take. Players kick back with an Uncle Albert’s catalog and go shopping for ways to pimp out their rides. They look back on everything that went wrong in the session and start hashing out ways to avoid that stuff the next time around.

This sort of planning is the bread and butter of any rpg session, but the next thing that happens is the best part. When the dust finally settles, the referee turns to the players and asks… “what do you do now?”

And while you may have used somebody else’s convention scenario to get your campaign off the ground, I would argue that you really haven’t started playing until you ask this question. It really is the entire point of this enterprise, and if your game system or campaign system precludes it from ever truly and honestly being asked, you’re not really playing a genuine role-playing game.

(And note that James Streissand’s answer to this question on Quora is predicated on the players having a choice even of which type of campaign to pursue. This is solid… and it mirrors the same type of choices available to players when they’re dropped into even a classic module like B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Ah, and check out his expansion on this over at his blog. I think it’s clear we are pretty well on the same page with this. To be precise, I would say that role-playing games do not have plots. They have situations at the campaign, adventure, and encounter level which the players are free to interact with however they wish– as long as they accept the consequences!)

Tolkien and Modernity

Tolkien was ahead of his time. And that’s precisely what I object to about him. And you know it’s real. People experience a culture shock when they go look up his forgotten contemporaries that they don’t with his work.

You can see it, too, in where people struggle with him. I tend to like the parts that people complain about the most. And detest things that blow past other people.

Aragorn patrolling dangerous countryside with a broken sword for one thing. How utterly, embarrassingly British. Something as portentous and mythical as that, reduced to a cheap subversion along the lines of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. The anti-Conan did not originate with Michael Moorcock’s Elric– no, it’s right here! And it’s preposterous.

Tom Bombadil, in contrast, has always been my favorite part. It’s Tolkien tipping his hat to the old fantasy he was about to pave over. It’s weird and wondrous. Marvelous and whimsical. Untainted by the coming pain and regret. It’s not fully explained, either. Even better, (and wacky fan theories aside) it plays havoc with the book’s painstakingly crafted mythos.

It’s the first thing to go when anyone tasked with retelling Frodo’s tale for today’s audiences begins the editing process. Because while people today love Tolkien, they hate fantasy. And it’s both his genius and his curse that he could produce a brand of it that is not so offensive to our modern, post-Christian culture.

Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Go Read Lord Dunsany, Dang It!

Tolkien is derivative.

He was very much a man of his time. His work today is recognized as being inherently conservative and deeply Catholic. And yes, it is truly a masterpiece, one of the great works of the English language. But he also was a man of his times. He was thoroughly immersed in modernism. He was surrounded by snide progressive hecklers that chided him mercilessly. He went from being shell shocked in The Great War to watching the countryside be utterly consumed by “progress”.

I hate to say it, but this is not at all the proper context for someone to write the definitive fantasy story of all time. If you haven’t read the signature fantasy works that predate his influence, you won’t be able to imagine this being the case, but the man really did pull his punches. He tiptoed around themes and questions that deserved to be met head on. He truncated his creative palette for the same reason authors do today: he wanted to be taken seriously and he knew there would be consequences for not walking the line.

What’s the alternative, you ask? Well… if you want to see what a full-throated expression of what an unadulterated fantasy genre could be like without the taint of Modernity and despair, then look no further than Lord Dunsany.

My favorite story of his is “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” I will say nothing to spoil this one for you. Seriously, go read it. No commentary can do it justice. I can’t name a single story that can compete with this one in terms of its capacity to produce undiluted wonder. It is the very definition of fantastic. In comparison, every author after Dunsany might as well have hid their light under a bushel basket.

For people wanting a more explicit handling of the central problem that “real” Fantasy must necessarily address, see “The Kith of the Elf Folk”. If “half elfs” are just another fantasy race in your imaginary worlds, I have to say… you are brain damaged. This is a sort of dementia that is on par with vampires being divorced from Christian lore and concepts of damnation. The correct answer for what is going on with this are unimaginable to most people because Tolkien either toned down his answer or else was so careful in filing the serial numbers off of what he produced that people could enjoy his work without thinking deeply about the consequences of elves and men intermingling when the former are necessarily barred from heaven.

For a third Dunsany story that brings something different to the table than either of these, I recommend “The Journey of the King.” Now, many people have chided me saying that reading “Appendix N” is not sufficient for people to get a solid grounding in the roots of fantasy. Don’t read a pile of yellowed paperbacks and pulp magazines, they say, but go read the stuff that the Appendix N authors themselves used for inspiration. It sounds good. It sounds smart. And heck, I actually agree with it. But without a doubt the one book that casts by far the longest shadow over the fantasy genre is going to be The King James Bible. This story shows why. If you want to tackle life’s toughest questions, if you want to create something that sounds authentic, like it may have really happened in the ancient world… if you want to be fluent in the patterns of language that create a palpable sense of portentousness and wisdom, if you want to tap in to that part of the human psyche that still had this very real concern that we’ve done something to offend a primal and jealous force… then read that book!

Or at the very least, go read Lord Dunsany and see how his immersion in that particular volume gave him a power and a command of the language that no creator since his time has enjoyed.