Thursday 27 April 2023
I have been intending for some time to do a series of posts on Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight, which I recently re-read (after having had a first pass at it sometime in the mid-noughties) and thought worthy of much comment.
The first thing to say about it is its cosmology and how that sheds light on a big problem that Planescape encountered and which I discussed here. This is that, in an infinite setting, with infinite possibility, it is difficult to imbue events with any meaning. Instead, as I put it in that post, everything comes across as 'intangible, airy, ineffectual'. I might better have used the word 'inert'.
The cosmology of The Wizard Knight is something akin to that presented in Planescape. We have a series of infinite planes which have a kind of alignment-based composition (in this case, Elysion, at the top, is the most pure and good, home of the Most High God, and Niflheim, at the bottom, is the most base and profane, home of the Most Low God; the planes in the middle are shades between them). The central plane, Mythgarthr, is akin to the Prime Material Plane, where human beings live.
The relationship between the planes is also Planescape-esque, with characters being able to move from one to the other to a certain extent. There are no portals exactly between the planes; rather, one simply travels literally upwards or downwards from one to the other. (If one is in Aelfrice, one's sky is literally Mythgarthr - so unless one is below Mythgarthr's sea, one lives in shadow; one can also descend to Muspel, home of dragons, by going down tunnels far enough.) But the basic idea - of travellers from the most 'human' plane going to other ones on adventures - is roughly similar.
But this is also where things start to diverge. Planescape was very much a product of the 1990s, in which 'edginess' and being the anti-hero was in vogue. This meant that all of the planes were conceptualised as being essentially equal. There was no real hierarchy between them. Yes, the 'Upper Planes' were the ones of good alignment and the 'Lower Planes' bad, but this had absolutely no in-game consequence. This was in keeping with the orthodox TSR position of the day on alignments - that good and evil, law and chaos had to be 'in balance'. This was even depicted as a known quality of the multiverse in-game; in 2nd edition AD&D characters of True Neutral alignment were actually presented as seeking to consciously preserve the balance between the alignments through their actions.
(Incidentally, the text of Planescape is strangely coy about the relationship between the good and evil planes - the only real conflict that gets any 'air time' is the Blood War, fought between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil respectively.)
The Wizard Knight, however, assumes a hierarchy, and this actually matters. It is easier to go down than up - almost anyone can accidentally wander into Aelfrice, and going to Muspel and Niflheim is a relatively simply matter of physically descending into the bowels of the Earth. But it is very hard for Aelf to go to Mythgarthr, and almost no human beings are permitted to go to Skai, let alone Kleos. Time also flows differently in the different planes, so that what seems like an hour in Aelfrice may be weeks or months in Mythgarthr, and the main character disappears to Skai for what seems like a very brief period (I think from memory it is just a few hours, though I might be wrong about that) but comes back as a comparatively old man, having spent decades in the upper plane.
In addition to this, there is supposed to be a relationship of veneration between the inhabitants of lower planes vis-a-vis those in the upper ones. Humans, on Mythgarthr, are supposed to worship the Overcyns, who are the gods of Skai. And the Aelf of Aelfrice are supposed to worship humans. At the same time, humans and Overcyns are supposed to set a good example to those in the plane below and model for them the right behaviour; again from memory, I think it is implied that this is so that ultimately everybody in the hierarchy can eventually ascend all the way up to Elysion, but, again, I could be wrong about that. (The book is over 1000 pages long and written by Gene Wolfe, so don't expect me to get every detail right!)
This, however, in practice often gets perverted - most notably by the Aelf, who come up to Mythgarthr when they can. Their magical prowess ensures that humans, particularly those who have lost their moorings by being badly ruled or falling on hard times, start to worship them instead. Similarly, although Skai is objectively better than Mythgarthr, it is riven by conflict between good and evil, and the malformed spawn of the evil gods comes falling down to Mythgarthr in the form of hideous giants - the Angrborn. This throws everything into disorder, and (without spoiling the plot), righting it is one of the things the story is about. (I say one of the things - I think what it is mostly about is a boy growing up into a man, but that's a subject for a future post.)
What Wolfe provides, in The Wizard Knight, is therefore a cosmology that feels dynamic. There is something for its inhabitants to strive for, and a wider telos, if you will, in which they can become integrated. There is a way for their actions to really matter.
Why Planescape doesn't feel dynamic in the same way is something of a mystery, because of course the authors of the setting actually tried their damnedest to imbue it with the kinds of themes that are infused through The Wizard Knight. In Planescape, one of the idealised things that PCs are supposed to be doing - it is suggested - is reshaping the planes through their actions: by ridding, for example, a chunk of the Outlands of chaos and evil, they can actually tip its geography into Mount Olympus or Arcadia. Or, by acting in the name of a God (although the writers called these 'Powers') of one kind or another, they can literally physically enlarge his or her sphere of influence. And, of course, the PCs can themselves aspire to ascend to Godhood and carve out a realm of their own, individually or collectively.
The mystery is at least partly solved by reflecting on how awkwardly the engine of D&D fit into that thematic chassis. Without wishing once more to channel Ron Edwards, there is a basic incoherence that results from using the mechanics of AD&D, which were originally designed for dungeon/hexmap exploration games on a sandbox model (as we all surely now accept), to run campaigns that are orthogonal to that theme. By the time Planescape was being written, that incoherence had become intolerable and unsatisfying - AD&D 2nd edition was being ripped apart at the seams by trying to stay true to the game's mechanics while insisting on grand narrative and plot arcs, to which those mechanics were not at all suited. (This is strongly evident in Planescape's bizarre and half-arsed introduction of a Belief Point economy.)
To do Planescape justice, one really needed a system that was something like Pendragon's, in which the game is to a certain extent about the PCs forging themselves into paradigms of knighthood, and the most important stats are those concerning values and personality. There is an unwritten but much better version of Planescape out there in the ether, in which PCs' stats are largely to do with belief and values, and they roll against these stats in order to effect change in their surroundings. This would be a game worth playing and an exercise worth doing. And in making the relationship between setting and mechanics more coherent, it would give Planescape campaigns a sense of being about something more than simply wandering about in an infinite multiverse. It would, like The Wizard Knight, thereby present its cosmology with more seriousness and weight.
Posted by noisms at 04:51