Monday, June 8, 2009

H. P. Lovecraft Did Not Write Adventures

The Old-School Renaissance has been plumping pretty hard for emphasizing the pulp (or "weird") fiction roots of gaming. This seemed, at first, to be a useful corrective to the High Fantasy elements that have come to dominate fantasy gaming since the mid-80's (although I do wonder why no ones seems to be making the parallel push for emphasizing the lost medievalism). Since the standard bearers of High Fantasy have been, at best, 2rd rate hacks of Dragonlance, which was itself a 3rd rate hack of The Lord of the Rings, I can shed no tears at seeing this style avoided. However, I am beginning to think that this whole corrective may be going too far.

Before I go on, I should make something clear: I love pulp fiction. I particularly love that sub-set called Sword & Sorcery. Whereas I would rather commit anatomical impossibilities than read another sub-par retread of Tolkien, I will gladly read sub-par S&S stories. Just bear that in mind when reading the rest of this.

James M. has been one of the more eloquent exponents of this (as he usually is). The OSR has seen such responses as Geoffrey McKinney's Supplement V: Carcossa, which channels the Weird Fantasy vibe and turns it up to 11. James Raggi's has two such offerings in Fight On! Issue 4, with the magic of Duvan'Ku and what might be mistakenly called an adventure set there. Raggi's writing is top-notch and atmospheric as hell. But in reading The Tower and Spells of Duvan’Ku, I found myself really taken aback. Because whatever it is, the Tower is not an adventure. Raggi is very explicit about his assumptions and tells us up front that this setting is a death-trap, that no one is expected to get out alive, and that he is writing a story of Weird Horror.

This is highly problematic to me for several reasons. First, because in trying to evoke a certain style of fiction, this piece descends into blatant rail-roading. While the PC's may have free choice whether or not to enter the Tower, they are basically screwed whatever they do therein. And lest anyone think I am picking on Raggi (I really enjoy a lot of his work), this isn't isolated to any single writer. Fight On! Issues 2 and 4 both contain wonderfully atmospheric scenarios for Empire of the Petal Throne which make the Dragonlance series seem improvisational by comparison. It is as if the lack of control experienced by weird fiction protagonists seduced writers into trying to reproduce that situation in a game. And that is just bad design.

My second problem is where I take the title of the post. Raggi's Tower of Duvan'Ku is a wonderful bit of Clark Ashton Smith-style weird fantasy. That is a huge accomplishment in mind, since Smith was the best of the Weird Tales Trinity in my estimation. But I wouldn't want to play in any D&D game that tries to emulate anything of Smith other than flavour (or Lovecraft. And yes, you are pointing out that the post title references Lovecraft and not Smith. Lovecraft is punchier to write and less complex to visualize in context. I think the point stands but feel free to get annoyed about this). I'd gladly steal colour elements from Smith, Lovecraft, Hodgson, etc., but I would never try to emulate their stories. In fact, I believe that trying to emulate any stories, whether Weird Fiction or High Fantasy, is a mistake in gaming.

Zulgyan at Zeta Orionis recently posted the argument that the history of gaming sees a struggle, almost a dialectic, between High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery. He sees old-school gaming as much more similar to S&S and that the players have been in a continual yearning toward High Fantasy, by which he means both character entitlement to heroism and the telling of a coherent, pre-planned story. I'm a big fan of Zulgyan's setting posts and he makes a good argument, but as much as I want to accept the conceptual neatness of it, I can not.

I think the argument misses a key distinction, which is not that between High Fantasy and S&S, but between literature and gaming. Both genres of literature are about stories, which are not random concatenations of events, but involve shaping and manipulation of events to create a narrative. D&D, at it's base, in my opinion, is about the struggle to level up. And in old-school, that comes about exactly through that unplanned assemblage of events that are the anathema of story. As Mike Mornard has said, story only exists in retrospect in this style of play. Thus both genres are inappropriate to old-school play in this sense. Certainly, elements of either or both can be introduced for colour (Hobbits! Rangers! Blackrazor!). But that's just colour.

S&S literature is about Heroes (in the original sense): larger than life fellows who trample thrones etc. They are far more competent than regular humans. They are that way in their first appearances and they are that way in the final appearances. They do not "level-up", even if the circumstances of their life change of the course of their story. Contrariwise, High Fantasy protagonists often do "level-up", with the prototypical specimen being the Farm Lad who goes out and becomes King or a Jedi or whatever. But, as Zulgyan rightly points out, those stories depend upon a number of elements that are equally inappropriate for old-school play, such as destinies and a frequent lack of motivation; the Reluctant Hero can be enjoyable in books, but makes for a terrible old-school character.

I think the phenomena that is being described is not so much a shift from a game wanting to be S&S to a game wanting to be High Fantasy, as it is from a game based upon war-gaming to a game based upon literature (specifically, heroic fantasy of whatever stripe). And that fits right into the natural history of this hobby. D&D was created and first played by war-gamers. War-games have no "story" as such and the characters are, at heart, just pieces. But the second-generation of gamers (such as myself) came to D&D without any war-gaming background. We, instead, generally came to the game from having read The Hobbit or whatever. Notice how the 1981 Moldvay rules make this explicit. That made our approach different, as we expected more of a story.

War-gaming has faded in popularity, but the fantasy genre remains strong; stronger actually than in the 70's. That reinforces it's influence upon gamers. Having said that, I'm really not sure how computer games fit into this. I'm afraid that I never really played them much and always found them a poor substitute (at best) for role-playing. However, I know that more and more gamers get into the hobby via computer games.

The point of this post is not to dissuade one from sampling the joys of pulp fiction or from using elements in one's games. But I do believe that one has to be careful in distinguishing games from stories and recognize what can be profitably lifted and what needs to remain outside of the game.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where Have All the Bloggers Gone?

I notice that a large proportion of those gaming blogs I subscribe to are on hiatus, taking a breather, or otherwise still. The World of Thool, Jeff Rient's site, Amityville Mike's Society and so on. Heck, even James M has slowed his breakneck pace. I wonder if this is because of summer vacations taking over the imaginations of folks?

If this continues, I shall be forced to start posting more regularly. :)