Fantastic: Assumption or exception?

3 July, 2010 at 9:16 pm (definition, game design, roleplaying, rpg theory) (, , , )

In most roleplaying settings there is something I call here fantastic: Something the players are not familiar with.

Exception

Lovecraft mythos, sword and sorcery, horror in general, LotFP’s products (this post of mister Raggi inspired my post), stories where characters discover that they (and nearly only they) have some strange powers, Stalker and Praedor.

Most of the setting is normal, non-fantastic, and typically draws heavily from the real world (present state, history, or low-key scifi). There fantastic is something that breaks the normal setting – it works with completely different principles, if any.

Assumption

Glorantha, Zelazy’s Amber, Nobilis, Carcosa, Tékumel.

These settings are fundamentally different from our reality. They work by different principles, and what is exotic and fantastic to us might be common and usual for residents of these worlds, and vice versa.

Why bother?

A setting where the fantastic is assumed can be explored to find out how it works, and supposing the setting has sufficiently interesting premises, this can be good play. A roleplaying game is a good medium for such an exploration because it allows many people to contribute and further allows several issues to be explored.

Settings with fantastic principles can also make certain dramatic issues very explicit and easy to treat via gaming. Sibling rivalry and broken families are good subjects behind any game set in Zelazny’s Amber where the amberites are played, as almost everything that happens can be traced back to some family member (at least by the first five books). This is also the justification for fantasy and science fiction as vessels of serious literature.

Settings where the fantastic is something exceptional are usually easy to understand (of equal difficulty to relevant setting minus the fantastic, assuming the fantastic is not the player characters, in which case there is more complexity). Unnatural makes sense as a concept. The fantastic creates interesting situations (in both senses mentioned above).

For short I would recommend a setting that is not entirely fantastic, simply to make learning it not a problem. A setting common to everyone would of course work, too.

The third way

There are also so-called fantasy settings where the assumptions are like those of the real world and yet where there is little uncanny even to the residents of the setting. This is the vanilla fantasy setting, which to me has no value – fantasy without the fantastic has no reason, no justification, and provides no interest. I’d love to hear from anyone who disagrees, since I almost certainly am missing something.

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Setting element: Those who fight the forest.

8 January, 2008 at 7:21 pm (game design, game element) (, , , )

This setting element started as an exercise in setting design. First posting happened on the Campaign Builders’ Guide.

Design goals: To make a setting suitable for many gaming styles, including the exemplified by Dogs in the Vineyard, and to further make it one that has themes that engaging to me on personal level. The setting has seen some play-by-post action, which is currently on hold because one player is serving his year in the FDF. The game hopefully continues after that.

History

Once upon a time there was a magnificient forest, untainted by civilisation. Humanity came and hacked and burned. Significant areas are now devoid of forest, but vibrant with farms, livestock and even a few cities. Now the forest is coming back.

The forest

It is dark, ancient and malicious. It wants to conquer your lands. Beasts mundane and mystical have been sighted. Few who dare to enter the woods come back, fewer still untainted.

Yet the forest is not without a weakness. An iron fence keeps a village safe from the enroachment of beasts. An iron blade is what can slay the beasts. An iron amulet protects one from the vile sorceries practiced by witches.

The people

Men and women are weak. They open the gates and let the forest in. They worship dead gods of the ancient forest-dwellers. They give away their amulets to be cured from a disease. They huddle behind their gates and let their blades rust. They neglect the fences during cold winter nights. They build with wood, not stone.

The banished, the outlaws, the poor, the diseased, the heretics, the muggers, those are the only people who have no choice but live next to the forest. No noble, no merchant would ever live there. Few are brave, or foolish, enough to visit the border. Most live in their secure castles and fabulous palaces, caring little of the forest and even less of those who live next to it.

The wardens

The nobles with no money, the bastards, the wealthy or influential who have earned the ire of the powers that be, the nonexistant children of the clergy are trained as wardens. They are taught to fight, to pray, to help. They travel from border village to next, slaying beasts and heathens, bringing news, murdering, raping, robbing, saving innocents, repairing the iron fence, holding sermons, smothering rebellions. They are the law near the forest. Theirs is the power over life and death, over sin and salvation. They are trained to be righteous, just, and careful saviors of the poor. Many are murderous, cunning, lecherous thugs. They hunt rogue wardens as often as beasts of the forest.

In play

A group of wardens, together for safety and watching over each other, enters a border village. Maybe they need to identify the witch, whose evil eye has cursed the doubtless devout priest. Maybe they need to judge the witch: She heals people and works as a midwife, the best of the region. Her magic is tainted by moss, rot and corruption, yet it is used for good. What’s a warden to do? Maybe they need to bring down the wolf of huge size and great cunning, which has slain all herds and some men. No villager has the courage to tread outside after dusk. Maybe a village is full of heretics worshipping the ancient pagan gods. Slaying everyone is not feasible. Maybe a rogue warden tracked down is enjoying quiet country life with his new-found wife rumoured to be a witch.

The themes

There is man fighting the forest (I am on the forest’s side). There is new religion against the old one (I support the old). Behind all conflicts are humans.

That said, do go and play it as a heroic monsterslaying spree. It is adaptable. It can be investigation, travelogue, hacking and slashing, or a tragic full of angst and moral dilemmas. That’s the point.

Add it to an existing setting. Some fringe area, possibly an island, where humanity recently arrived. It may be a jungle or a marsh. It may be a distant planet or moon, far from conventional trade routes.

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