Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Eberron and Clashing Inspirations

My friend Chris (of Chris's Invincible Super-Blog fame) invited me to play in the new game he's starting up--a Pathfinder campaign in the Eberron setting.

In getting ready for the game, I've been perusing the Eberron Campaign Setting book--something I haven't really looked at since I purchased it in curiosity, because it was the winner of WOTC's setting contest. The introduction has a section on the "Tone of Eberron." I think a lot of the elements mentioned here--the emphasis on "cinematic" action, the blending of pulp and medieval fantasy conventions--go a long way to explaining what the judges at WOTC found appealing about the setting. There's also references to "a thousand shades of gray" and "dark adventure," which seem to suggest moral ambiguity and edginess--things the kids are thought to be into.

What drew my attention in particular is that Eberron's version of the old "Appendix N" are all film references, not literary ones. Nothing wrong with that, in particular. The list of inspirations for my current campaign contains a filmography. What's particular interesting is not that its a list of films, but rather that its a fairly disparate group of films.

I can put Brotherhood of the Wolf, and From Hell together. These are "cinematic" (in the since of visually dynamic) and somewhat "dark" in tone. Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Mummy certainly fit together with over-the-top action and a bit of humor. Maybe Sleepy Hollow and Brotherhood and of the Wolf bridge the cap between those two and From Hell in slightly different ways.

The ones that really have me scratching my head are Name of the Rose, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon. I can put Name and Maltese together, or Maltese and Casablanca, so maybe by the transitive property I can group the three, but I have a harder time putting them with most of the films above.

I'm sure I'm over-thinking this. I firmly believe that inspirations can have dissonance as well as consonance. But without any explanation, I sort of think these references were slapped together for very superficial reasons without much thought to how one might conceptualize their elements to come up with a coherent "feel" for the setting.

Luckily, I'm not the DM this time, so I don't have to put those things together, and I'm certainly won't deny that there are some cool elements to Eberron, for all that.

And in the end, its gaming--with friends.  And that ain't bad.

6 comments:

NetherWerks said...

I find the films listed as inspiration far more interesting than the setting they inspired. But then I like the idea of smashing Captain Blood with War of the Worlds for pirates versus martians. I guess I'm just not the target audience. Heh. Now I want to watch Name of the Rose again. And Brotherhood of the Wolf. Cool.

Trey said...

You know both Name of the Rose and Brotherhood of the Wolf do have a mystery angle, and a big dose of medieval religiousness (even in Brotherhood's non-Medieval) setting, so maybe they're not as far off as I was originally thinking.

Red said...

Those that enjoy Name of the Rose may enjoy Cadfael. It isn't quite as dark but they are interesting investigative mysteries in fairly accurate (and ecclesiastical) setting.

Joshua said...

I think the disparateness is what makes it interesting. For too long, fantasy fans have struggled to get out of their trenches, to see or explore the world outside of their narrow bands of convention. Barring true innovation, combining disparate influences in unusual and unexpected ways is the best (and easiest) way to accomplish that.

I also think that there's a subcultural zeitgeist of sorts going on doing just that within fantasy. What is Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora if not Oceans 11 grafted onto fantasy? What is China Mieville's Bas-Lag setting if not fantasy with a heavy dose of Charles Dickens, H. P. Lovecraft and other equally dissonant influences? What are the Hawk & Fisher stories if not classic whodunit mysteries grafted into a fantasy setting? What is Star Wars if not classic bildungsroman fantasy set in space? What is A Fistful of Dollars if not a samurai story told in the American Old West?

Fantasy needs to break out of it's stifling chimneys and see influences from other genres, other convention sets and other ways of doing things. Endlessly retreading in the footsteps of Tolkien, or Howard, or whatever is tired.

Anyway, I'm a little surprised to see you mentioning the filmography of Eberron as too disparate for your tastes; the stuff I read on this blog is certainly ecclectic in inspiration and tone. What exactly about combining The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Brotherhood of the Wolf doesn't work for you?

Trey said...

Hey Joshua, thanks for the cogent response. Sounds like we agree totally that new vistas for fantasy is a good thing.

Before tackling Eberron directly, I would say I see several of your examples differently--for example, other than having a plot stolen from Yojimbo (which was, recall, an attempt by Kurosawa to translate a Western to his cultural idiom) what are the samurai aspects of Fist Full of Dollars?

I think my last paragraph says it wasn’t too disparate a filmography for my tastes (I like all of those films), but that it isn’t explained how they work here in any way. My problem with Eberron is that it tells rather than shows. It’s a neat fantasy world with some cool elements that wants me to take it as a genre blend--but it doesn’t show me that. I can’t get from the book how those films are meant to inform my game. Is it merely plot-wise, thematic elements, visuals, what? Ok, ok, its “pulp”--but pulp isn’t a genre. Hard-boiled detectives aren’t Doc Savage, and neither of them are Solomon Kane. Give me some guidance, Eberron book, on making the things you think are cool about those disparate films come alive in my game!

Joshua said...

Ah, that makes a lot of sense. Personally, I think that maybe they're not all supposed to apply at the same time; i.e., one campaign could be Doc Savage and Indiana Jones while another could be Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett while a third could be... I dunno, Name of the Rose or something. But you're right that it doesn't really tell us how those elements are meant to be used, or what exactly about them the setting creators and authors thought was emulation-worthy.

I see my own setting as a conglomeration of very disparate elements, but the elements that I cite as inspirational, I can at least see specifically *how* I think that they're inspirational. For example, if I say Robert Ludlum is an influence, I don't just mean, "go read The Holcroft Covenent or watch The Bourne Identity and you'll be all set," I mean specifically that I like the idea of urgent conspiracies with PCs that are barely one step ahead (or perhaps one step behind) shadowy conspiracies. When I say that my setting borrows from Sergio Leone, I mean specifically that rural areas are oppressed by bandits, the climate is harsh and unforgiving, and that it's a dog eat dog world where the strong prey on the weak unless someone else strong positions himself between them, etc.

In other words, I've got specific lines from the elements that I think are inspirational to coherent and concrete attributes of my setting and my games, not just vague, "hey, this is cool; watch this movie and it'll help you enjoy the game more."