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#1 August 14, 2014 18:10:44

beholdsa
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

This week I want people to again look at the fantasy genre. This time instead of trying to define the genre, I want to example common plots and tropes of the genre. Take some time to think about it. Then answer the two questions below:

  • What are your favorite fantasy plots/tropes?
  • What are your least favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

Example:
  • What are your favorite fantasy plots/tropes? I'm a big fan of the “everyman hero out of his depths” trope, or at least the “the hero is the person you wouldn't expect” trope. For example, in “The Hobbit” Bilbo is a (bumbling at first) everyman hero who gets swept up in events. In the Dragonlance Chronicles Tika is an innkeeper who spends much of the early book bashing people with a shield because she has no formal training with weapons. Halfling detecting Sam Warble in the Warhammer novel “Beasts in Velvet” is simply the least corrupt member of the dock watch, and the only one who wants to look further into the Altdorf serial killer.
  • What are your least favorite fantasy plots/tropes? Characters that are little more than their species or class stereotype. I don't mind it so much if the character starts out like a stereotype and then has a character arc that moves away from that. But when the character's most distinguishing feature is “he's an elf” it's kind of lame. For bad examples see numerous kender characters in many of the Dragonlance spin-off books. For a good example, see the kender Nightshade in the Dragonlance book “Amber and Ashes.” He at least has distinguishing traits such as “creepily curious about undead,” “has strangely intelligent dog” and “uncontrolled mystic ability.” A notable runner up for “least favorite fantasy trope” goes to stories that involve constant travel with little in the way of reoccurring secondary characters.

Edited beholdsa (August 14, 2014 18:12:10)

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#2 August 18, 2014 00:18:44

Micah
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

What are your favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

I like the “magic as a dangerous and mysterious power.” Some settings take this pretty far into “magic is corrupting or calls to evil,” but I don't think it necessarily needs to go that far. Shadowrun (while not fantasy exactly) has megacorporations spending billions, and a street shaman can learn something new from a random free spirit in some back alley. Magic needs to be inscrutable, unlike something like science which is logical and reasonable.

I like “holding the line” - the last kingdom, the last line against an unstoppable army, etc. It adds an epic feel to things. It sometimes connects up with the unlikely hero trope.

I sort of like the whole “prove your worth” trope where the character has to prove he or she deserves to be ruler or wield the magic Macguffin or get into the Lonely Mountain or whatever. A good number of the characters in Lord of Rings are good examples of this (Aragon, Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, etc.). Oddly more of a meritocracy than medieval society actually was.

What are your least favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

I dislike the “Some things are just good, and Some things are just evil” trope. Rather than looking into motives and actual application, some magic is just bad (necromancy), some people are just bad (evil humanoid of the setting), some areas are just cursed, and so on. I've gotten into trouble in games where I trusted someone where the setting said I shouldn't have.

“Chaos is always evil.” D&D 4th edition simplified alignments making “evil” and “chaotic evil” (the super strength version for when regular evil is not enough). Chaos may be anarchy, but it is also freedom. Supreme order may be civility and laws, but it is also oppression when taken to extremes. I find the moral oversimplification problematic.

“One solution problem.” While a story where there is one solution “throw the ring into Mt. Doom” might be interesting, it sort of sucks in a game. I don't like too much railroading.

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#3 August 18, 2014 00:22:26

Brian
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

What are your favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

I'm also a fan of the everyman over his head. I'm also a fan of the charlatan, specifically of the intersection of charlatanism and real magic (think the wizard of Oz). One of my favorite things about game of thrones is the ambiguity between which things are real magic and which are charlatanism, and the idea that comes up from time to time that even those that possess real magic need to fall back on charlatanism from time to time to maintain their status.

I'm also a fan of dangerous (risky & terrifying)magic, and cutting deals and making pacts with strange creatures as a source of magic.

What are your least favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

I don't have an easy name for it. It's Danerys Targaryen (and every Targaryen who wasn't crazy). It's every elf society based on Tolkien's High Elves. It's the idea that some class of being in the setting is just born to rule, is special, is just objectively better than the average guy and knows it. Haughty, entitled and perfect. And born to it.

I think greatness comes from your sweat, not from your blood, and I want my fantasy to back that up.

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#4 August 18, 2014 16:07:13

Berggeistermeister
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

Favorite Trope
I think my favorite fantasy trope or theme would be post-cataclysm rebuilding. Like in my favorite Warhammer novel, Riders of the Dead, the main characters are a knight and his squire who are part of a massive Empire army that gets wiped out early in the book. One character is captured by the Chaotic warband and the other manages to escape with foreign fighters who he thinks are running away. Both are trying to survive in worlds utterly alien to them, and they both have fantastic development as they adapt to their new realities.

Least Favorite Trope
Women in fantasy are terribly-done. Most often, a woman is a reward for the main hero–her sole role is to make him happy at the end of his quest, which is usually for her. She's not a person; she's a MacGuffin, an object. Other times, women are treated like beholdsa was talking about–that's their role, their archetype. You have the brave warrior, the elf, the dwarf, and the woman.

Fantasy has long struggled with its portrayal of women. I think it's getting better, but it has a long way to go.



Veritas est

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#5 August 19, 2014 23:22:20

Kat_Davis
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

What are your favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

I, too, love the “Everyman Ascends to a Position of Power” trope. I like seeing the growth of an unlikely hero growing into “their destiny”, and accepting. Similarly, I like seeing the grizzled destined hero who “turned from that path long ago” return to it and accept it. Strider syndrome, as it were. Mostly I like seeing people growing into great things, or otherwise accepting great things.

What are your least favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

Similarly to Micah, I really dislike “Some things are born evil”, unless the trope is later subverted. I dislike evil being something that is born instead of made. Everyone and everything should have a choice.

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#6 August 20, 2014 15:56:08

beholdsa
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

Kat Davis
Similarly to Micah, I really dislike “Some things are born evil”, unless the trope is later subverted. I dislike evil being something that is born instead of made. Everyone and everything should have a choice.

Since this seems to be a common dislike, let me ask a few questions of people about why they dislike it. It may help to understand what parts people dislike or don't mind.

“Innately evil” species such as orcs seem to be unpopular. Does this dislike also hold true for demons being innately evil? Or for nameless things from the far realms/beyond reality being innately evil? If it holds true for one, but not the other: Why? What distinguishes the two?

Similarly, “innately evil” practices such as necromancy in some settings seem to be unpopular. How is saying “necromancy is innately evil in this setting” different from saying “torturing someone to death is innately evil in this setting”? Or are they different at all? Why?

There's no right or wrong answer here. I'm just curious what the trail of thought leading up to “I don't like this trope” is.

Edited beholdsa (August 20, 2014 15:57:05)

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#7 August 20, 2014 16:53:39

Micah
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

I dislike the reverse as well “all elves are good” for example. If something has free will, it should be capable of good or evil.

It is tough to break things down exactly. I think that is probably a big part of the demon vs. orc example. Demons have a variety of origin myths, in some they chose to fall, in some, they are an evil part of the creation, without free will. Either of these is fine with me.

Orcs in fantasy have a bunch of origin, and some of them I have more of an issue with. “ ”Orcs were elves tortured and corrupted by magic“ - may be ok and similar to the demon example. ”Orcs, despite having free will, are just evil and worship evil and should die" - a bit of a problem. There are grey areas as well. In Ultima, they were created by magic combining elements of humans and various animals. They weren't as smart on average as humans, but not actually evil, though competition over resources and borders tended to lead to conflict. They were a neutral to hostile power depending on the situation. It led to interesting stories.

There are times when it makes sense for a species to treated this way in fantasy. For example, mindflayers - an alien parasitic organism that can't follow conventional morality because of the need for survival (by being implanted in another being's brain).

The necromancy and torture example is interesting. Fantasy is a much more a black-and-white morality genre than, say, the Cold War intrigue, so maybe it makes sense to have hard rules on what is or isn't allowed. It is sort of strange though when the setting permits and sometimes encourages me to kill someone, but not make his lifeless corpse dance. It also seems strange that despite some evil magic being a common weapon of the enemy, there is no careful study into it at all, because the study of evil is evil!

Maybe it is just that in the fantasy settings, some things fall under morality and are flexible (killing, torture), but other things are irredeemable corrupting powers that should never be used (necromancy). It may just be how I'm used to looking at science/technology and that is clouding my trope-o-vision. Science can be used to create atomic horrors or life-saving antibiotics.

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#8 August 20, 2014 17:54:58

Mkamm
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

What are your favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

Since (as previously discussed) one of the defining features and arguably THE defining feature of fantasy is magic, my favorite plot involves magical corruption and the choices that surround it. One of the things I love most about Star Wars, which I consider “space fantasy,” is that it makes explicit how easy it is for good people to do bad things and the self-reinforcing nature of that cycle via the storytelling tool of the Dark Side. The first step of falling to the Dark Side is choosing to let your emotions dictate your course of action. It's very easy and satisfying to do this, which is mirrored in the quick power that the Dark Side offers compared to years of training and meditation to master self-control.* I love settings and stories where the hero is constantly beset by the chance to make seemingly-small compromises in exchange for magical power, because in my mind this is the best depiction of how many actual real-life evil acts happen. Good people make small compromises to achieve good ends, and quickly lose control.

Despite my interest in magical corruption plots, I actually don't like Warhammer so much, because all magic in Warhammer corrupts the user. Some things corrupt slower than others, but it's not really possible for humans to use magic long-term without going insane, no matter what they do. The only winning move for this magic system is not to play. Not playing is not fun.

What are your least favorite fantasy plots/tropes?

Much of how traditional settings like D&D handle paladins, especially the whole “no having evil associates” thing. How are you supposed to help evil people find a better path without associating with them? It's as though the setting is saying, “all evil people are good for is smiting.” People don't stop being people because they're evil. Due to stuff like this, the class that has the strictest code of conduct and whose members must always be Lawful Good has somehow become the class that has the largest jerk stigma attached to it. What message does that send about law and goodness? Ideally, every adventuring party should want to have a paladin; instead, when someone announces they're playing one, everyone groans.

On necromancy: I think the reason necromancy is frequently mechanic'd as “evil” is because it's a bodily autonomy issue. In our society, the deceased's wishes for their remains are the highest authority about what gets done with those remains; if that is unclear, family members work it out. No one can harvest your organs unless you consented beforehand, regardless of how many lives it would save, just because you're “not using them anymore.” Ideally, someone who explicitly gave you permission to re-animate them as a zombie after they died could be re-animated without it being evil, but that's something that seldom happens in most settings. It might seem arbitrary, but I think it's rooted in real-world cultural norms just as much as not torturing people.

*Just to head it off at the pass, because this always happens when I discuss emotions and the Dark Side, I'm not saying emotions are evil, and neither does Star Wars. Having emotions is normal and healthy. Acknowledging and expressing emotions is normal and healthy. Acting purely on emotional response without examining the reasons behind those emotions and the logic behind those urges is not healthy. Remember, the original form of the Jedi Code was “Emotion, yet peace.” It's good to acknowledge and express emotions, but not to use them as an excuse for acting selfishly or harming others.

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#9 August 20, 2014 19:29:25

Micah
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

I can see your point on bodily autonomy. I still feel that torture in most fantasy settings is usually treated as a gray area, while necromancy is usually pretty far in the black. I can think of a few times where a character of ours went into that gray area.

Maybe it reflects the real world. The public view of torture has shifted a bit in the last 15-20 years (a huge number Americans think torture is justifiable at times), while organ donation numbers have not actually increased (there have been a few actual drop in the number of organ donors in my lifetime).

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#10 August 21, 2014 12:35:12

beholdsa
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Aug. 20th: Fantasy Plots & Tropes

Micah
It is sort of strange though when the setting permits and sometimes encourages me to kill someone, but not make his lifeless corpse dance. It also seems strange that despite some evil magic being a common weapon of the enemy, there is no careful study into it at all, because the study of evil is evil!

You make a good point here.

Micah
I can see your point on bodily autonomy. I still feel that torture in most fantasy settings is usually treated as a gray area, while necromancy is usually pretty far in the black. I can think of a few times where a character of ours went into that gray area.

It still seems odd to me that people might see torture in fantasy as a gray area. I've always seen it as solidly to the evil side through and through. But I could be the odd man out here.

In my mind combat in a lot of fantasy settings is often paired with archaic notions of honor or righteousness. This way player characters can still pretend to have some sort of moral high ground despite all the murderizing, you know, because “we fought with honor,” “we brutally murdered them for the right reasons,” “it was a good clean death,” “the god of justice told us to do it,” etc.

That said, I think there is something of an appeal to running the traditional black-and-white morality fantasy game. I know real-world morality doesn't work that way, and that's one more suspension of disbelief one has to swallow (along with the existence of magic and everything else), but running such a game means one can avoid the whole sticky issue of trying to ram real-world morality into a game that's in large part a violence simulator.

Trying to work through complex moral/ethical issues in an RPG strikes me as the sort of activity that some players may find fun, and others would not. Come to think of it, that may be a good future session question.

Edited beholdsa (August 21, 2014 16:29:46)

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