Creative abreaction and vanilla fantasy

Continuing the discussion from Ought I to change the name "Flat Black"?:

After designing Flat Black as a reaction against Tonio Loewald’s Flawed Utopia I got a similar bee in my bonnet about the things that RP gamers tell each other “actually” in fantasy settings, which are usually far from universally true in mediæval Europe and often not even accurate concerning northern France and the champion country of England. Hugely often we assume that fantasy is “just like mediaeval Europe but with magic”. And that strikes me as tragically unimaginative. I revolted by devising a fantasy setting in which I systematically contradicted the lazy assumptions of pseudomediaeval fantasy, and called it “Jehannum”*.

  • Fantasyland is in the northern temperate latitudes. I put Jehannum in the tropics.
  • Fantasyland is occupied by white people. The Jehannese have warm reddish-brown skin tones, straight to wavy coarse black hair, and usually brown, hazel, or (rarely) green eyes. They are generally not very tall, and tend to be slender to athletic in build.
  • Fantasyland is on the west coast of a continent. I made Jehannum an archipelago.
  • Fantasyland has a cool to mild temperate maritime climate with marked seasonality and snow in winter. Jehannum is hot and humid all year round.
  • Fantasyland subsists on seasonal wheat agriculture in which peasants (remarkably) own or rent circumscribed compact farms. I gave Jehannum Javanese-style irrigated rice agriculture in which peasants co-operate in “water societies” to share and re-use irrigation water.
  • Fantasyland is feudal. Jehannum has a political set-up that is really a lot more like the reign of James II† with a dash of the Achaemenid Empire.
  • Fantasyland is ruled by an equestrian military aristocracy. In Jehannum the aristocrats sail ships rather than ride horses, and are more mercantile than military. Their social and political dominance is contested by landowning gentry from the non-coastal parts and by tradesman-citizens in the cities.
  • Fantasyland is agrarian. Jehannum is largely urban.
  • Fantasyland has nuclear households. Jehannum has extended households.
  • In Fantasyland buildings are made of stone or brick, sometimes of wattle & daub. In Jehannum they are often made of bamboo, matting, and thatch; in the countryside they stand on poles or posts to keep the floor off the wet ground. There are lots of roofed areas with no walls. “Windows” are often covered by fixed grilles to exclude marauding leopards.
  • Fantasyland has sexual mores based on those of Europe in the Renaissance and after. Jehannum normalises age-structured homoromantic relationships (often sexual) for unmarried people.
  • In Fantasyland women wear dresses and men wear trousers, boots, and sleeved tunics, sometimes with capes. In Jehannum people wear rather little, and their clothes are draped rather than tailored.
  • Fantasyland has powerful gods of human activities such as love, rulership, war, and hunting, or of other abstractions such as death. Jehannum is animist: the only gods are the spirits of physical things such as the Sun, particular islands and mountains and rivers and fields, of houses and boats and castles.
  • Fantasyland has temples in which priests represent the gods to the people and channel divine power. In Jehannum priests are functionally the diplomats who are chosen by a community to represent the people to the gods. They manage offerings and negotiate deals.
  • In Fantasyland the priesthood is a career. In Jehannum it is the final phase of the career of a retired politician and former warrior.
  • In Fantasyland big community ceremonies are either devoted to the gods, or are political, or are seasonal and agricultural. In Jehannum they are about commemorating the heroes of the community.
  • Fantasyland has elves and dwarves and hobbits under assumed names, and orcs. Jehannum has a race that can fly and a race that can breathe underwater, and no “monsters” who are born deserving to be killed.
  • Fantasyland has Good and Evil. Jehannum has people.

And so on. There was a lot§ in Jehannum based on ancient Greece¶, some on mediaeval Japan, a little on Enlightenment England. Some of it — such as the operations of the World of Dreams in producing ghosts, exemplars, and avatars — was original or seemed so at the time. But a lot of it consisted of inversions or other defiance of the feeble clichés of Fantasyland.

I am afraid that this sounds snobbish, but the majority of fantasy seems to have been set in Fantasyland with no consideration of any alternative, and I find that dreadfully disappointing. Why should fantasy keep defaulting back to “Fantasyland”, this vague and inconsistent setting that is “just like mediaeval Europe except with magic”, as guessed at from the works of writers and film-makers who have, generally, known nothing about social or economic history and cared less. With the infinite universe of possibility before us, why does so much fantasy eschew imagination and originality? Why are all high fantasy Fantasylands so much the same? Why do we never even get ancient India with magic, ancient China with Taoism, or ancient Greece with mageia?

* Later I changed its name to “Gehennum” for phonological reasons that no longer seem compelling.

† Later, that became the “Classical Period”, and Gehennum sprouted an “Archaic Period” with politics and government like Greece in the early 5th Century BC and a “Decadent Period” with politics like Japan in the Muromachi Period.

§ The original players’ briefing was six pages of truly tiny type — operating the laserwriters in the ANU libraries was expensive for poor students back then, but we all had good eyes. Gehennum eventually grew 36 pages of 12-point Times, a map or two, and a 72,000-word alphabetical encyclopaedia that I wrote during a bout of hypomania over Easter 1991.

¶ One long-time player described it to a newcomer by saying “[i]magine that the population of mediaval Indonesia were hypnotised and told to behave like Ancient Greeks”.

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I don’t think it’s contentious that Tolkien was trying to write legendry for England, and if one regards genre fantasy as cargo-culted Tolkien (which I tend to) then most of your points about Fantasyland can be ascribed to that. Tolkien did it, and people like Tolkien, so we do it too; and insofar as we do things differently, it feels less like Fantasyland.

(I assume that everyone here has a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. If not, correct this error. It was written at least in part because Diana was one of the contributors to and checkers of the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, and got hacked off with having to be polite; they eventually settled on the term “genre fantasy” because “rotefant” seemed too rude. Personally I favour Extruded Fantasy Product.)

And if what you want is a dungeon-bash game (which is still 90%+ of the market), I think there’s a limit to how much weird stuff you can put in and still get the players, so that’ll tend to reinforce the tendencies of genre fantasy to fall into the usual patterns for lack of reason to do anything else.

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I have run one campaign that was “just like medieval Europe but with magic.” The player characters were fourteen-year-old boys enrolled in the Faculty of Magic at England’s third university, Worminghall (“wummel”). As I recall, we had the youngest son of a wealthy knight, the bastard son of a nobleman’s cook, two Welsh cousins from prosperous rural households, and an orphaned boy raised by a dragon. They spent most of their time inside the town walls, where the most anarchic element was not the absence of law but the presence of two clashing laws, Town and Gown, in which they were definitely Gown.

Probably the biggest departure from dungeon fantasy was that there was nothing of “fighter, mage, cleric, thief.” All five boys were students aspiring to wizardry; and all five were officially clergy, because that was the legal status of students at the time. The setting’s standard way of dividing up roles was earth/water/air/fire, and I think we had at least one boy in each.

I haven’t actually done dungeon fantasy in decades. I thought that might be a problem when we moved to Riverside, but once I found a gaming club, I was always able to recruit players who were up for something different—first a steam age campaign set on dying Mars, then a Mage: The Ascension campaign set in Edwardian London and environments (there was one notable expedition to the Hundred Acre Wood, where they encountered a former Verbena turned Marauder).

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For many and probably most gamers the setting is not the point, it is a flimsy painted backdrop to enact a traditional power fantasy in front of.

There is certainly a market for nontraditional settings, but in my experience it is dominated by stuff that can be easily summarized in a page. Stuff where you need to read significant amount to understand and play is niche, and often more admired from afar than played.

Portus Argenti, the base location of Tapestry, sort of has these four.

On the matter of household structure, Emmanuel Todd talks about something like eight household and kinship patterns distributed across the world, with the primary split being exogamy versus endogamy. The main Anglosphere pattern is exogamy, sons forming their own households rather than staying under their fathers’ authority, and inheritance eventually going to one son rather than being divided equally—or so Todd says. That pattern seems well suited to producing adventurers: Sons are free to make their own decisions, many sons are going to have to make their own way, and sons who succeed will be marrying someone from a different lineage and thus have to learn to deal with strangers.

The Urbes Septemplex aren’t all the way to sons being independent; wealthy families have some control over the younger generation by providing them access to capital. On the other hand, Hanno put his personal funds into buying a share of a long distance trade ship and finding crew and cargo, and the success of the first long voyage has let him come back to his family on better terms (as the son of a junior wife, he formerly ranked rather low). Portus Argenti has ended up having elements taken from Sumer, Rome, and Regency England. . . .

I’ve just been reading a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis, in one of which he praises Tolkien for giving his readers the kind of depth of historical background that is associated with the Matter of Britain—but as the work of one man, not an entire literary tradition. He comments on other novels of fantasy (apparently ones he liked) that give the feeling that the world didn’t exist until shortly before the first scene in the novel.

In a gaming context, I associate that kind of “sound stage” feeling with, for example, Feng Shui, which seems to make that one of its selling points. My tastes are otherwise; I handed it back to the friend who had lent it to me, resolved never to have anything to do with it, and it played a big part in convincing me that Robin Laws’s work was not for me. I like to have worked out a mass of backstory that the players will never encounter, so that my GMing decisions are firmly grounded.

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Sure. This is about taste, and sweet, cheap, and easy orange pop type product is almost always going to outsell difficult, expensive, and complex scotch. Doesn’t mean scotch is better than pop or vice versa, just that they are serving very different sections of the beverage market.

I can’t find the link, but Sean Punch said something a few years back along the lines of “90% of the RPG market is D&D, and 90% of what’s left is other dungeon-fantasy games”. That’s why the DFRPG happened, to try to capture some of that second slice. Those of us who like to do non-dungeony things, while we’re clearly overrepresented in the sort of places where we hang out, are a tiny minority even among role-players. (Just look at RPG StackExchange.)

I’m sure he’s right, but you know, I find that sad. I don’t aspire to high literary art, but I think that RPGs can offer the kinds of pleasure that can be found in fiction; they can even (sometimes) move their audiences emotionally, which I think is the essential element of art. I regret that the skills and tools I’ve spent so many years developing are of so little use for what a lot of people seem to be looking for.

Though I suppose when you come to the point, I don’t need a primary audience bigger than ten or twenty people, as I can’t run games for more than that.

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The reason I bring up to the point is just to say, well, when it seems as if everyone out there wants to bash dungeons and one is on one’s own trying to go in a different direction, there’s a bias in audience size which is going to make things look that way and it’s not any worse than it used to be.