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.


  1. >>First, because in trying to evoke a certain style of fiction, this piece descends into blatant rail-roading.

    Thanks for the critique. It's the most extensive I've received on the piece, and I do appreciate such an even-handed analysis.

    I both agree and disagree (of course!). I think you covered the most important element about The Tower: It really shouldn't be considered a proper adventure, but rather an elaborate trap.

    (Spoilers from this point on for anyone that might care...)

    I do take exception to the "railroading" accusation. The piece does not assume the PCs go along with the setup, it does not assume the PCs go into the Tower, it does not assume they follow the rituals described.

    At no point is a character required to do anything - it's just that characters can be in a spot of bother when they go beyond a certain point and the jaws of the trap clamp shut. Even then the danger involved is directly related to the characters' choice of whether to follow the suggested ritual. A party of second level characters (within the suggested level range) charging up the Tower in full gear is not going to be slaughtered. If the party is third or greater level this very well may be nothing more than a minor encounter.

    Yet a single character fooled into dumping all of his gear and going up is in very serious trouble. I'm not sure a single player out there, except maybe a complete rookie, would ever put themselves in such a vulnerable position anyway. And the adventure doesn't assume that anyone would - it just describes what happens if there is some fool gullible enough to do so.

    As to the "story" of The Tower, I don't think that having a story in games is bad... as long as that story stops when the PCs are introduced. The backstory and setup of The Tower is merely bait for the trap. Addleton has his own story and will tell it. His story and his following of his own quest does not lock the PCs into any course of action that they must take. There are a million things the PCs may do that disrupt Addleton's story (kill him, take his stuff, visit the Tower by themselves comes to mind), and none of them ruin The Tower.

    Story is only bad when players are *forced* into one.

  2. Thanks for taking my comment in the spirit it was meant.

    You are probably correct that "rail-roading" is not precisely correct in re the Tower. As I noted in the following sentence, I get that the players aren't forced to enter the Tower or do anything particular once they get in there. Except, probably, to die horribly. There just isn't much meaningful choice available to them once they are in. If there is a term here that's more accurate, that's the one I meant to use.

    Nor do I have any problem with back-story. The story that I was talking about, and what I think the Story of the Tower is is this: PC's enter Tower and die horribly. All sorts of S&S precedent for that. But the story really ought to be : PC's enter the Tower and...well, we'll have to see what happens next. They could come out on top or do so-so or die nobly or die horribly or...

    You say that this needn't be the Story, but in the piece, you talk about denying the PC's equipment and say something explicit (I don't have it in front of me at the moment) about them dying.

  3. >>You say that this needn't be the Story, but in the piece, you talk about denying the PC's equipment and say something explicit (I don't have it in front of me at the moment) about them dying.

    You are correct about what I wrote, but that outcome is entirely dependent on characters willingly dropping their gear and marching upstairs alone. Nobody forces them to do so. They don't get charmed, there is no magic doorway that zaps them or their gear to another location.

    And the penalty for characters not following the given instructions is merely that the guards will attack. That's very reasonable I think.

    The Tower specifically mentions what happens if its inhabitants are defeated/destroyed, which does prove that I had other possibilities in mind than "enter the tower, all die."

  4. One way you could argue that the Tower is railroading is maybe to say that there is usually one one way to go, and that it makes it linear.

  5. Interesting post, and one with which I broadly agree.

    One thing that I disagree with, though, is this claim about S&S heroes: "They do not "level-up"".

    Really? It seems that 'Conan, King of Aquilonia' is much more experienced than the relatively young and inexperienced Conan of the 'Frost Giant's Daughter'. The same seems true of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and other S&S heroes (at least those with tales describing different stages in their lives).

  6. One of my more contentious views, it seems. Conan, to me, is actually, perfectly representative: his circumstances change throughout the stories, but he is super-competent in his very first outing--he defeats two Frost Giants and nearly rapes the Frost Giant's Daughter, something which clearly didn't happen every day.

    Elric may not have his magic penis in his first outing, but he still demonstrates to be the powerful sonuvabitch in the Young Kingdoms. He acquires a dubious patron and a wicked sword--doesn't get new powers.

    Is Kane any less a masterful, immortal psychopath in early tales than later?

    Leiber's duo presents an interesting case. They are both surely less competent in thier respective origin stories. But those stories were written way out of sequence. And once we get past those, I really don't see a difference between the Mouser of, say, Two Sought Adventure and that of Rime Isle.

    And that brings up a significant aspect: sequence. High Fantasy stories tell one extended tale from beginning to end. But S&S series don't. They hop around in time with geenraly little real connection between the stories. "Leveling up" is a sequence that S&S heroes don't experience.

    IMO and all that.

  7. "he is super-competent in his very first outing"

    I don't think that Conan being 'super-competent' throughout all of his stories rules out his learning from experience and becoming 'more competent' over time. At least that's my impression reading the Conan stories.

    At the very least, I don't think that this marks a difference between S&S stories and High Fantasy stories. Both Aragorn and Gandalf seem to be 'super-competent' from the very beginning.

    Perhaps the phenomenon of 'leveling up' simply is not reflected obviously in most fiction, whether S&S or High Fantasy.

  8. Well, look at Frodo in LotR or Bilbo in The Hobbit (both of whom, I'd contend, are the actual progatonists). Both seem to "level up", going from semi-useless gentlemen to wilderness adventurers.

    Of ocurse, I'm not saying that "levelling up" is neccesarily part of any fantasy. The point of the original post was that literature is different than gaming. But I think that the storyline of bold/foolish nobodies becoming Heroes (or dying in the attempt) is particurly ill-suited to S&S.