Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Two Towers of Fantasy

I think my post yesterday might have been misinterpreted, so I feel a clarification is in order: although it is true that half of me wants to have no playable races other than humans, the other half of me recoils at the thought. My position is entirely more ambiguous than the tone of the rant suggests.

I think the problem is that the fantasy genre is really two rather different genres which have somehow become entwined because of superficial similarities. (This is at least partly because the literati despise fantasy and know nothing about it other than "Isn't it all to do with swords and magic and goblins and other childish escapist stuff?") I like both of these genres equally, and want to represent them in my D&D gaming, and this is where the irreconcilable conflict between the banalifying systematiser noisms and the romantic mysterious dreamer noisms is fought out.

What are the two genres? You might call the first, loosely, the Scientifiction tradition and the second, just as loosely, the Romantic tradition; or, to summon up the spirit of Robert M. Pirsig, we could perhaps summarise it as Classicism vs. Romanticism. (In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig describes how his Romantic friend flatly refuses to study mechanics because he prefers to live with the mystery of how his strange BMW works, whereas Pirsig himself, the Classicist, likes to apply reason and rationality to his motorcycling hobby and spends much of his time studying mechanical engineering.) Let's expand on what I mean by these.

Classicist Fantasy, or the Scientifiction Tradition

Classicist Fantasy concerns itself with rationality, where made-up worlds work along logical and reasonable lines. It is the fantasy of people like George R. R. Martin, Dan Simmons, Phillip Pullman, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay and Steven Erikson - writers who concern themselves with creating worlds which make sense on a rational level and where everything is ultimately explainable and explained (even if of course they contain such nonexistent things as magic and monsters). It isn't about making fantasy scientifically accurate - that would be a nonsense - it is rather to do with internal consistency. People behave as they do in 'the real world' and interact with things around them - boats, swords, dragons, wizards - in a holistic way, the same way in which we in our world interact with boats, guns, cars and aeroplanes. The human beings in A Song of Ice and Fire behave like human beings in our world, technology is roughly contemporaneous to that of England at the time of the Wars of the Roses, and we can easily imagine a person transported from York circa 1485 to Westeros feeling completely at home there. The fantasy is based on a rational view of the universe, in which everything makes sense to the people within it.

I call it 'Scientifiction' because it comes from the same impulse which drives the Science Fiction of people like Isaac Asimov. Asimov created imaginative other realities, but they were firmly grounded in reason: robots do this, because this. There was no mystery to proceedings, despite the fact that it is entirely imaginary. And I suspect this sort of fantasy appeals to people in the same way that Star Trek does - there is wonder and escapism there, but you can catalogue it and analyse it in terms of internal consistency and logic. It is fantastical, but comprehensible.

Romantic Fantasy

The Romantic Tradition, on the other hand, doesn't try to present us with a holistic, rational world; as with Pirsig's friend in Zen..., the point is not to understand, but to revel in the unknown and unknowable. Once you begin to comprehend, you destroy the fragile magic and weirdness, and shatter the mystery. You make it mundane. It is the fantasy of writers like Lord Dunsany, M. John Harrison, John Crowley, Michael Moorcock, and Mervyn Peake; writers for whom strangeness and other-worldliness is as much the point as are the plot and characters, and in which there seemingly is no internal logic or rational world. In Viriconium, the city and characters change from story to story and yet stay the same; in Little, Big the fairies are one thing and then they're another; in Time and the Gods the universe is governed by capricious beings whose true motives can only be guessed at. You're not supposed to bother approaching such books expecting them to make sense; you're supposed to revel in the fact that they don't - except perhaps on some intuitive, emotional level. They are about incomprehensibility and that is why they are fun.

For whatever reason, it's the Classicist tradition which seems to have come to dominate "D&D fantasy" as we have come to know it. I believe this is at least partly to do with the nature of gaming itself: there needs to be rationality in order for there to be a game with agreed rules. But I also sometimes think it is to do with gamers, because it is undoubtedly true that there is something within the nerdish, the bookish, and the dorkish (and I include myself in this) which seeks comfort in statistics and charts and tables and lists. Such things speak to our insecurities and anal retentive tendencies. We like control, and order. Many of us are socially inept, and bad at functioning in a group without the sort of guidelines and regulations which rulebooks provide. Classicist fantasy is more comfortable than the Romantic kind for people like us.

I like both traditions, and think there's a place for both. My recent posts have mostly been about trying to redress the balance slightly in favour of Romanticism, but there is value and worth in the other and I'd hate to imply otherwise. I like George R. R. Martin and M. John Harrison equally and couldn't choose between them.

(As an afterword, I don't think it's an accident that the greatest fantasy author - Tolkien - had his foot firmly in both camps. His linguistic creations and his obsessive chronicling were unquestionably Scientifictionalist. But his myth-making and his delight in Tom Bombadilesque mysteries point towards a dyed-in-the-wool Romantic. Maybe that's part of the weird chemistry that makes his books so enjoyable.)


  1. Another excellent and thought provoking post.

  2. Not surprising to me that the classicist view prevails in RPGs; unlike the romanticist settings, there's actually something that it's like to live in those settings. Romanticism, at least as discussed here, is purely a literary trick. There's no point in roleplaying in it, because the only viable role is that of author.

    Back when people actually believed in Elves and Fairies they were just as thoroughgoing classicists as any RPG nerd. They did not think of them as unknown and unknowable; they were mysterious, but that's not the same thing at all. The things that they believed that they knew despite the rarity of encounters, they believed were consistent. Brownies were not Pukas were not Black Annis. You could appease Brownies with bowls of milk, Pucas were safe if scary to ride, where Kelpies were dangerous and sought to drown their victims in the nearest river or lake, etc. They believed the world was a strange place, full of mysterious and potentially dangerous beings and phenomena... but they didn't believe it was arbitrary, constantly changing and shifting in ways that made it impossible to ken. You might not know why a fairy so delighted in mischief, but you knew that it did, just as you knew that turning one's coat inside out could prevent you from being led astray by sprites.

    For an RPG I really think that you can and should be able to have as much mystery and wonder as you want without resorting to literary tricks of making empty or contradictory referents. Give the Elves strange motives and have them refuse to explain them to humans, sure; but don't make it so they have no motives, culture, or game-world existence other than the text the GM creates as they're encountered and expect the players to go along with the idea that there's still something that it's like to be in that world.

  3. Jamused: I really think you're arguing for the same thing I am - a mixture of classicism and romanticism. Out and out classicism would be: Brownies can be appeased with milk because milk has x effect on their physiology, which pacifies them. I'm sure you'd agree that isn't very interesting and makes Brownies rather bland. The best way is surely, "Brownies can be pacified by milk, but we don't know why" - there is inifinitely more magic in that sentence than there is in the former.

    Also: I don't agree that people were as thoroughgoing classicists as you do. I think they, like all people who have ever been, were a mixture. Some were more classicist than others and some were more romantic than others, just like people are today in whatever field. To simplify grossly: Modern day classicists tend towards atheism, 'active' agnosticism, or creative design. Modern day romanticists tend towards 'blind' religious faith. In a similar way, a thousand years ago there were probably Europeans who either didn't believe in fairies or believed they were part of the natural world and knowable, and some people who were just plain superstitious. Most were somewhere in between.

  4. @noisms- Actually, I disagree about the "milk as X effect on brownies"; I think that as long as the players don't know that piece of information, it's still perfectly mysterious to them, but if the DM knows what X is (sleepy, drunk, out-of-phase with the human world, grateful that their children will live, etc) that can really add to the world and the stories in that world. If milk pacifies brownies but the reason for it is no more than that the GM has made it axiomatic that "milk pacifies brownies" that's a poor substitute, and if you have a lot of that in your world it's going to eventually give the players the feeling of trying to walk into a trompe-l'oeil painting.

    (I dropped the bit about its physiological effect, because even in our world that kind of mixing of levels is a red herring. You really can talk about people getting angry, say, without going into capillary dilation, adrenalin, heightened blood pressure, and so forth.)

  5. Jamused: If milk pacifies brownies but the reason for it is no more than that the GM has made it axiomatic that "milk pacifies brownies" that's a poor substitute, and if you have a lot of that in your world it's going to eventually give the players the feeling of trying to walk into a trompe-l'oeil painting.

    It was axiomatic to suspicious Europeans 1000 years ago that milk pacified brownies, but they didn't know why, and indeed couldn't have known why, seeing as how brownies didn't exist. Did that make it less real to them, or like "walking into a trompe-l'oieil painting"? I don't think so.

    I don't see why the DM has to have an explanation for why brownies like milk any more than, say, they have to have an explanation for why a catoblepas has death gaze.

  6. Actually, that's exactly what I think. It was only because brownies don't exist that the details about them could stay comfortably at the trompe-l'oieil level forever. If people of the time had actually been able to interact with them, they would have discovered and understood more about them, even if it was still mixed with ignorance and superstition (e.g. mice generating spontaneously from dirty straw.)

    In an RPG you can have--indeed are more-or-less forced to have--a bunch of stuff that starts as trompe-l'oieil, just because you don't have the time and energy to detail everything. But what happens when the PCs interact with it? You can try to keep them at arms-length forever so the illusion is preserved (perhaps they only ever see elves in the distance, or signs that they've passed, but you never allow them to actually meet elves and converse with them), but I think that if you rely too heavily on that, if too much of your world has velvet ropes to keep the players at a distance where it can stay inexplicable, it's going to diminish the role-playing experience.

  7. But on the other hand, I think providing too much information also diminishes it. Once the mystery has gone you can't get it back, and once something has become anodyne who wants to interact with it anymore?

  8. Well, yeah, that's why I keep emphasizing exoticism rather than mystery as a sustainable RPG goal. The setting features that stand up best in my campaigns are the ones where the players still think they're odd and noteworthy even years after they've been exposed to the details. I get a particular thrill when the old hands explain to the newbies things like just why robbing the dead is a really bad idea in Neng....

  9. A noble, attainable goal, one that you share with lots of folks.

    The games I've seen which seem to accomplish the romanticism best are those that successfully communicate to the players what kids of things should be in the world, rather than a list of what things are in it. Cultivating a sense of the fantastic requires the regular introduction of new weird things, so rather than give a finite, knowable list, a procedure (though often more loosely defined than that word connotes) for adding to the list will give a longer lasting impression.

    A recent stand-out in my purchases has been In A Wicked Age. I say "was," because I lost it before I could play it. Very frustrating, but I did read it all first, for whatever that's worth.

  10. Nick: That's true, and something which D&D actually manages admirably with the ease with which people can create new things for it.

  11. Try having a read of the '2nd apocalypse' book series. There are 7 of them at the moment, but they are very good and really put interesting twists on classic fantasy tropes like elves and orcs.

    it's quite horrific have been warned.

    1. I'm not a great fan of Bakker, I'm afraid. I tried reading his books but something in them just doesn't sit right with me.

  12. The appeal of classicism has nothing at all to do with anything you've guessed at here.