Monday, November 25, 2019

Weird Revisited: The Elements of Bronze Age Four-Color Fantasy

By Bronze Age, I mean the Bronze Age of Comics, which largely conicides with the 1970s. Any readers of this blog will know that's an era I have some affection for [since I now do a podcast on it!]--particularly its fantasy comics. These comics (particularly when original to the comics medium and not adaptation) present a flavor of fantasy distinct from other fantasy genres or media.

I feel like this sort of fantasy would make for a good game, and I don't think that's really been done. Warriors & Warlocks supposedly set up to do this, but that supplement really winds up adapting a wider range of fantasy to the Mutant & Mastermind system. I've been trying to think of the elements/tropes of this sort of thing:

1. Very much a “Points of Light” thing with large stretches of wilderness and clusters of civilization.

2. Cities tend to look more fantastic ancient world/Arabian Knights/Cecil B. Demille spectacle than grotty Medievalism

3. Above ground ruins and natural obstacles as more common adventure locales than underground “dungeons.”

4. Fantastic terrain is more common (because it makes for good visuals).

5. Magic-users generally fall into 1 of three categories: 1) almost god-like patrons (who maybe secretly be of Type 2); 2) villains; 3) bumbling,  sometimes comedic helpers, makers of anachronistic references.

6. Magic tends to be visual and flashy.

7. Elves and dwarves (or Elfs and Dwarfs, more likely) are more Disney and Keebler than Tolkien. They are less powerful than humans and perhaps comedy relief.

8. Beings that stand between humans and gods (like Tolkien elves) are either extremely rare, degenerate, or both.

9. Monsters tend to be unique or very uncommon (even if of a recognized “type”). There are seldom nonhuman territories. More fairy tale naturalism than Gygaxian naturalism.

10. Magic items are rare and tend to be unique.

11. Frequent faux-Lovecraftian references, but virtually no cosmicism.

12. Sometimes, there's a Moorcockian as filtered through Starlin sense of cosmic struggle.

13. Armor is as a signifier of profession/role (soldier) or intention (the hero goes to war) rather than actual protection.

This is not an exhaustive list, I'm sure, and it bears some overlap with pulp fantasy/sword & sorcery and fantasy/sword & sandal films that influenced it, and rpg fantasy that arose around the same time, but I think it has elements on emphasis distinct from those forms.

8 comments:

JB said...

I'm quite partial to this style of fantasy myself (and take quite a bit of inspiration from it, especially old Red Sonja comics). I've seen attempts in recent years (in comics) to recapture the feelings of this era, with decidedly mixed results. Nothing quite like the original stuff.

Unfortunately (for me) fantasy tropes have "moved on;" there aren't as many people out there who think of THIS as their reference for their imagined visuals. Too much "High fantasy" of the late 80, too much Harry Potter, too much Game of Thrones, etc. ...even Peter Jackson's Tolkien folks have had a tremendous influence on the fantasy visuals of today's fans.

Which is all fine (I enjoy much of this stuff to a degree)...but give me some subhumans and ancient snake cults, too!

I think it's fairly easy to adapt this particular genre to old school D&D play (duh, D&D was at least partially inspired by the fantasy of the time). Dwarves and handlings (easily re-skinned as Keebler-like "wood elves") are much less potent compared to their human counterparts (especially in OD&D), and elves can become your decadent "ancient race" (a la Melniboneans, Atlanteans, Numenoreans, whatever). Regarding trope number 13 (armor as decoration or story cue) I think it's possible to recreate this by being absolutely diligent about encumbrance and its impact...especially if you incorporate some elements of climate impact in a warmer, pre-Ice Age world.

And, yes, I think it's fairly easy to incorporate clerics and their "self-contained religions" into this type of fantasy. While there's a lot of overlap between wizards and priests in sword & sorcery, there's enough variety in Bronze Age fantasy that you incorporate multiple types of magic users...some more "pious" and some more "worldly" (in the manner of Avatar from Bakshi's Wizards).

I'm not entirely clear by what you mean by "virtually no cosmicism." Are you talking about adventures on other planes/dimension/planets (and being concerned about the goings on in those worlds)? I think that, in this particular genre, it may just be that the "mundane world" of the heroes is strange and unusual enough without the need for strange dimensions (or perhaps there's some overlap between the fairy realms and the mundane). But may

Anyway I dig on these particular visuals...it's part of the reason *I* have affection for the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon which, I feel, incorporates most (if not all) of these tropes. Being a kids Saturday morning cartoon, it misses on the blood and guts of a good Sonja story...but it otherwise checks nearly every box you've got here, missing (maybe) only #12.

Trey said...

By cosmicism, I think I meant less adventuring on other planes than cosmic forces being powerful and important. I think it differs from Moorcock in this regard.

OD&D certainly has some similarities, but the resource management concerns, the relative weakness of the PCs, and PC magic types work against it.

JB said...

Hmm. I want to ruminate on this a bit, as I'm not quite sure I agree.

Trey said...

I just never seen Conan or Claw the Unconquered poking around with a 10 foot pole or running from a goblin. :)

JB said...

@ Trey:

True dat.

But concerns over food and water, exhaustion and dying mounts (overland travel)...these things are a bit more common.

While Conan & company can feel pretty "super-heroic" at times (as befits a comic book medium), I think this can be modeled by the OD&D rule about allowing fighters to gain 1/attack/level against 1HD creatures (like normal men, cannibal savages, etc.)...in fact, the rule is an adaptation from Chainmail (where a hero or superhero would roll 4 or 8 attack dice respectively) and, I'd argue, was directly based/inspired on the super heroic traits of such pulp action characters.

Low level magic feels very much in line with young wizards...it's only the old beards encountered (i.e. NPCs) that would have the more potent stuff...but maybe I need to think of some examples in the genre. Right now I'm having a hard time thinking of anyone but literary characters of the time (Shmendrick from The Last Unicorn comes immediately to mind). Still, who's to say Elric was a powerful sorcerer at the beginning of his career? He has access to a great many tomes/scrolls and magical items (his ring) that allow him to perform feats like summoning demons and opening gates, but he himself is rather limited (again, I realize that's straying into the literary realm, but a lot of these comics were based on pulp literature, and there were indies producing comics based on the books). ElfQuest, I think, also fits the Bronze Age fantasy category, and it's magic is pretty "low" on the scale.

Anne said...

"Armor as intention" is a really good point.

I've been noticing a bit more recently, things that are conventions of visual media, either because they look good, or simply because of the need to make something very visible to tell a story.

Like the way that whenever someone needs to draw a bit of their own blood they make a huge slash across their own palm. (!!!) Or the way that even self-contained spacefaring societies jettison their dead rather than recycling them. Both bad ideas, both virtually necessary for visual storytelling.

I feel like armor as profession / armor as intention gets at that too.

Trey said...

Good points. I suppose those things are less necessary in the theater of the mind of RPGs...on the other hand, we are all so steeped in a visual media oriented culture that we have likely internalized a lot of these details so it might be worth invoking them.

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