Following the theme of talking about different genres started a couple weeks ago, this week I want you to take a moment to think about the fantasy genre, particularly as it relates to roleplaying games.
What makes something fantasy? If one took the the typical supers game and added magic spells to it, would that make it fantasy? What if the supers protecting Manhattan were actually all descendants of an ancient elven empire, drawing upon the powers of the ancient elves, and the villains were all the descendants of the orcs? Is it fantasy then?
How much to “fantasy” is the trappings and how much is mood/tone/theme, etc.?
So now that you've given it some thought: What aspects of a fantasy scenario differentiate it from any other type of scenario?
What typical roleplaying game features or aspects are problematic in a fantasy scenario?
What do you as a player, given your personal play style preferences, like or dislike about fantasy scenarios?
Going to off tangent a second before I answer. Growing up, there were two geek genres: fantasy and sci-fi. Ok, there might have been horror also, and comic books. Fantasy was everything similar to Tolkien's Middle Earth, and Sci-Fi was everything similar to the strange worlds of early writers in that genre. The problem was all the books or writers that didn't really fit into these categories. Now we have speculative fiction as a big umbrella holding everything.
Since DnD is such a big part of tabletop history, it got to define fantasy, and it was likely influenced a good bit by Tolkien's works.
Take the defining concepts of Middle Earth, and as long as you don't stray too far from them, you are still considered a fantasy game. The city of Tolkien is pretty close to the center of the country of Fantasy. I think fantasy is a lot about the trappings, in a way similar to Sci-Fi. Take the bunch of the DnD settings (Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Planescape, Dark Sun, Eberron, Ravenloft, etc. etc.), and they all have a variety of mood/tone/theme, yet they have similar trappings that go beyond shared mechanics. This isn't true with other systems, say GURPS's campaign settings (Yrth, Infinite Worlds, Transhuman Space, Discworld, etc.).
Some of the trappings are:
1. Magic >> Technology: There is usually some magic in the setting. The technology is usually pretty primitive or unreliable.
2. Swords are cool: This is seen in a table of melee-type weapons that are actually used to solve problems.
3. Fantastic Creatures and Races: Dragons, elves, spirits, dwarves, gods, monsters, and so on. Often these connect up with the Magic. (For example, dragons are huge massive creatures that can easily fly, despite the limits of physics.)
4. High Adventure: Despite the fact that there are civilizations thousands of years more ancient than the real world human race, the world is primarily wild and untamed.
While not all games have all the Fantasy trappings, they often have at least some of them.
I can't think of anything off-hand that fantasy can't do, though it does sometimes get stuck in certain patterns. I think experimentation and invention sometimes are rare in fantasy games, though there are exceptions (Ars Magica, the new order in Dragonlance Age of Mortals). There is often the feeling that some elf or lich somewhere has already learned everything you could possibly know. Ethics and morals often play a strange role in such games. Lawful good character can slaughter chaotic evil creatures and not really feel any guilt. Some settings have dealt with this differently though.
I can generally enjoy a fantasy game, but often, the games are forgettable in the long run. It is like pizza in that way. Most pizza just melds together into the averaging of all pizza in memory. Standing out is difficult for both fantasy games and pizza, and often it stands out by being worse than the average.
While the inclusion of magic is often a big part of the fantasy genre I think the more important part, for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, is the exclusion of technology. Sword swinging epics like Conan the Barbarian or Game of Thrones seem like fantasy to me, despite having very little magic. On the other hand the game Shadowrun has elves, orcs, and magic, but still feels like more of a SciFi setting to me than a fantasy one.
As I think about this, I consider that both major Supers settings (DC and Marvel) have both tech and magic. You have supers (heroes and villains) who are aliens (ex: Martian Manhunter, Groot), who are wizards (Dr. Strange, Zatara), who are tech-based (Iron Man, Batman), and even those who are gods (the Olympians, the Asgardians) and those who are magical creatures (elves and dwarves and the like appear in both universes). I would consider first that supers is going to be very hard to differentiate between scifi and fantasy. Really, I would argue that supers is a genre arising out of the meeting of these tropes.
Looking at all this, I'd say that the main distinction between fantasy and other genres (like scifi, or even what generally makes it distinct from supers) is what Micah called the “High adventure” element.
MicahIt's not perfect - you have genres of scifi that take place in wild and untamed worlds (cf. space cowboys). But those very often don't have the “thousands of years ancient” civilizations. Though, again, that's not perfect (cf. Mass Effect), but combining those two elements (wild and untamed with ancient civs), you've greatly narrowed the field of overlap between the genres. Add in the characteristic fantasy magic, and I'd say you're very solidly fantasy and not scifi or supers.
Despite the fact that there are civilizations thousands of years more ancient than the real world human race, the world is primarily wild and untamed.
Throwing out a couple more settings that are arguably fantasy to consider:
Star Wars is arguably fantasy, despite the presence of high technology. Thinking back to the first Star Wars movie, it's arguably not science fiction. Sure there is fantastic tech in the setting, but the movie is really more about the rediscovery of ancient magic (“The Force”) than it is about speculative science or anything. It's certainly not about speculative science in the way that anything by Arthur C. Clarke or Heinlein is.
The Dresden Files is but one example of “Urban Fantasy” which one may or may not lump in with other fantasy. But in it you have modern tech, along with valkyries, fairies, etc. Urban Arcana is another example of urban fantasy, with its orcs with machine guns.
That said, neither Star Wars nor Dresden Files is really about the technology, even if it is present in the setting.
Re: the superheroes example, I find that Kenneth Hite's Axes of Design are a useful lense in considering pretty much any question about tone or genre as it relates to Supers (which is one of my favorite genres). Earth-616 (in Marvel) and Earth One (in DC) are great examples of “high blue” worlds, where there's magic and aliens and gods and mutants and technology and pretty much everything else you could imagine. The inclusion of magic doesn't make these stories or settings fantasy, in my mind.
I agree that the exclusion of technology is important to fantasy - this is one of the reasons that many fantasy sub-genres like urban fantasy often create “other worlds” where all the magic stuff happens and/or create reasons why magic and technology don't play well together (see The Dresden Files). That said, I think that magic is also necessary. Stories that exclude technology and have absolutely no magic are generally more “historical fiction” or “alternate history” than “fantasy.” Really, Conan is as much defined by his opposition to the ever-present “evil wizards” of Hyboria (Thoth-Amon, Thulsa Doom, etc.) as he is by his non-magical skillset. I cannot at the moment call to mind any story with no magic that I would call “fantasy,” and there is a world of difference between worlds where all sane people acknowledge dragons and wizards totally exist or have existed even if they've never seen one (Conan & ASoIaF) and worlds where there is NO magic but there are knights and lords or culture-equivalent, and the nations and maps are different.
I agree with Micah that I can't think of much that fantasy as a genre can't do, thanks to magic. I will say that something I don't like about many fantasy settings and something which is often an inherent roleplaying game assumption is that some intelligent races are always (or even usually) stupid, evil, etc. I should point out that I have no problems with demons and fairies and so on being bound by their natures in this way; I actually really like the whole “human beings are the only ones with the will to actually choose between good and evil” trope of some settings. I don't like when there are tons of other sentient, not-inherently-“magical” races like orcs and elves, wherein orcs are evil and elves are good and dwarves are greedy but generally okay guys. If it's not explicitly stated to be magically infused into your very essence (demons, fairies), I have a really hard time accepting that a setting with a sentient race that is RACIALLY EVIL isn't promoting some really problematically racist ideas, even unconsciously.
On Magic and Technology:
I am curious if there are any fantasy settings that don't have magic or some equivalent supernatural element.
Many fantasy settings have some technology, but usually it is low-tech black powder weapons or horribly unpredictable steam punk gadgets usually built by some sort of gnome or halfling.
I think I consider Urban Fantasy a really separate branch of the Spec Fic tree. Beyond magic, it feels very different.
On Evil Species:
The issue of always-evil sentient humanoid races is worth discussing. I think it is a by-product of a lot of the myths Tolkien originally used. A lot of myths about goblins, trolls, kobalds, imps, changelings, etc. are pretty dark, and Tolkien needed any enemy army to complement his protagonists. Elves, very magical beings, were corrupted with terrible magics to make the orcs if I remember correctly. That fits with the whole demon/fairy thing possibly, and reminds me of the Reavers in Firefly.
However, this trope sort of has been taken and used again and again, and I think it is sort of lazy storytelling. There are a lot of interesting stories that can be told when that trope is avoided. Some examples are intrigue, diplomacy, unlikely alliances, culture clash, etc. A non-fantasy example of this is the difference between the Klingons in the original series and Next Generation. They are a lot more interesting in the latter.
On the issue of whether canonically-evil species in a fantasy setting is unconsciously promoting racist ideas, I think that is a murky gray area that connects to the larger issue of responsible storytelling. On one hand, does the violence in games (video, tabletop, boffer) used as a means to resolve problems unconsciously promote the idea that violence is acceptable in the real world? I would say no, though very frequently, someone forms a crusade against something using this argument (comic books, rap music, video games). On the other hand, does media's poor treatment of sexual assault cause problems for society at large? I would argue for yes on that point. I have no idea where always-evil species fall on that spectrum.
I would classify the original Star Wars trilogy as fantasy because there's no pseudoscience behind the Force - the Jedi and Sith are members of opposing religions, both of which can manipulate the life force of the universe. It's highly mystical. However, the prequel trilogy is scifi because the mysticism is gone: the Force is no longer a mystical force but a pseudoscientific field generated by symbiotic cellular parasites.
Mysticism is important in fantasy. You don't have to explain how magic/the Force works; they just do. In scifi, you need at least some pseudoscientific explanation.
In both scifi and fantasy, science/technology and magic are generally opposed. In fantasy, magic > tech; in scifi, magic < tech. Dresden and Harry Potter are both urban fantasy - taking place in the late 20th/early 21st century West, so high-tech, but in both cases, magic trumps tech. Indeed, in Dresden, magic destroys tech just by its mere presence. Though Dresden presents tech as being more reliable for the non-magical (he even keeps an entirely mechanical gun as his backup), anything sufficiently sophisticated breaks down in the presence of magic.
And in the original Star Wars trilogy, the re-emergence and dominance of the mystical Force is the major theme. This mystical energy and its use is superior to tech: Luke switches off his targeting computer to instead use the Force to guide his aim. I think it's most telling in this exchange:
Admiral Motti: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they have obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest we use it!The superiority of the Force is the major theme running throughout the first trilogy.
Darth Vader: Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
Admiral Motti: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you enough clairvoyance to find the rebels' hidden fortress…
Vader makes a pinching motion and Motti starts choking
Darth Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.
Edited Berggeistermeister (June 23, 2014 20:32:34)
Similar to above messages, I personally see Fantasy as a setting that is hard to describe because it is huge. In fact, I can't seen an overarching setting that is larger. Between High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, “Low Fantasy”. It's really hard to talk about High Fantasy and Urban Fantasy is the same context, for me, because they're so different?
I would agree that, to some degree, mysticism is important for Fantasy. An element of magic is what magic is, and magic isn't explained or broken down, or if it is, it's only into a more mystical bent. Magic might be broken down to be explained to be one's ability to channel the natural energy of leylines that run through the world, but that still feels vaguely mystical to me. The above example of the Force and its manipulation across the series rings fairly true to my interpretation of Fantasy as well, although the sheer volume of technology in Star Wars makes it hard for me to call it Fantasy, as a purist who doesn't generally enjoy Science Fiction as a genre (where “SciFi” has boundaries locked in “Science!” and “Technology!' and ”Spaceships!“ and what have you).
I would also agree with Matt that, mythology aside, the prevalence of ”inherently evil“ races in the (High) Fantasy genre, especially in RPGs, is somewhat annoying to me. You can justify it all day long, but I find that trope both uninteresting on an out of character and in character level. I dislike most ”Black and White morality" compasses, and this is another example of the concept.