Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Realistic Fantasy

Monsters and Manuals is back with a post about the quixotic quest for ‘realism’ in fantasy adventure games. Noisms makes the point that even convincing works of fantasy fiction are set in worlds that are only as ‘realistic’ as necessary for the suspension of disbelief. I think this is an important thing to consider when engaging in world building for fantasy gaming, but I think that a distinction must also be drawn between the veneers of 'historical credibility/accuracy' that work for fiction, and the veneers that work for a game, particularly a fantasy adventure game such as D&D.

A work of fiction can get by with very rare monsters, just one site of adventure, or even just one adventure - because the whole thing is a massive railroad. I've tried playing Lord of the Rings like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, but I still haven’t got the bit where I can make a decision. A fantasy world made for fiction can have a more convincing veneer of ‘realism’ because most of the world can be filled with the mundane. Adventure doesn’t need to be everywhere, it doesn’t need to be in lots of places, it just needs to be in the one place the characters go.

They've taken the railroad to Isengard! To Isengard! To Isengard!

A game such as D&D needs adventure to be everywhere. It needs to be in enough places that the exercise of player character ‘freedom’ does not depend on quantum dungeons appearing wherever the players go, or years of in-game mundanity while the player characters traverse the world without coming across the Lair of the Spider Queen, or the Crypts of the Last Men, or… These travels might involve peril, even opportunities for interesting roleplay, but not for fantasy adventure.

In the end we are back to my post on Titan – and I promise to switch to another topic soon; we’ve been playing using the elegant mechanics of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but with the tone of the game taken from D&D read through Titan – which in summary, even if you don’t like adventurers as ‘rock stars’, is that a world for fantasy adventure needs to be a world packed with fantasy adventure. If accurately representing medieval demographics, economics, politics etc. gets in the way of this, then these have to be done away with. OR, the inconsistencies have to be glossed over – this is the cost of playing a fantasy adventure game in a pseudo-historical setting.     


  1. I've often been accused of lamenting the lack of realism in fantasy fiction. The thing is, it can and should exist. Just because the rules of a fantasy world are different (for instance they have a magic system and dragons are commonplace) doesn't mean that silly random events can just be waved off with phrases like "he's a wizard, he can do anything he wants". No matter how fantastic a setting is, rules inherently exist and should be adhered to consistently or the narrative will become flimsy and uninteresting.

    I see D&D as kind of like the fantasy version of a soap opera - the characters live 'normal', 'realistic' lives but are constantly beset by drama.

  2. I guess the problem with striving for 'realism' (rather than a measure of consistency) is that a 'realistic' world with name level Fighters (who are superhuman), never mind a world with name level Magic Users, would be so alien in social structure and economics that it would require even more suspension of disbelief than having a pseudo-feudal medieval society in which there are dragons and magicians.

    But D&D as a fantasy soap opera... hmmm, let me think about that for a bit.

  3. It's an interesting point you make about games needing monsters to be common. I agree it's a problem, but I'm not sure there isn't a solution.

    Like in the game I'm currently running, I'll drop some clues that there's a megadungeon under the Old Town(see link below), but it's the players' call whether they want to investigate. If not, that's fine, they can suffice with more mundane adventure fighting the Wehrmacht.

  4. Your remark about fantasy fiction being a railroad is true on a certain level (of course bad fantasy fiction almost signposts its railroady qualities with incredible escapes from certain doom, characters turning up just when needed and magic powers varying in response to the needs of the plot) but what needs to be borne in mind is that the story itself is only what has been constructed after the events within it have taken place. There always needs to be, implicit in the narrative, a sense that things could have gone otherwise, or there is no tension in the telling of the tale.

    I covered this in my post on The Mummy and would beg the reader's indulgence to quote at length from that post:

    "Like a lot of films, I would describe the Mummy as a dungeon that went successfully for the party. No-one wants to go and see a film where Brendan Fraser gets killed in his first encounter with flesh-eating scarabs. Rachel Weisz being sprayed with salt acid would make a great dungeon anecdote “Yeah, but there was that time when my character thought she’d found where the magic book was hidden, but she failed her Dexterity roll and… ”

    A lot of DMs (tending towards the younger and newer) make the mistake, when they see a cool film, of trying to replicate the events of that film in their dungeons, rather than using the film as inspiration to create a scenario in which the events of the film could take place if all went well for the party."

    Sorry for the long quote there.

  5. No apologies needed - I like that example a lot.