Sunday, April 11, 2010

Stuck in Medieval with You

I may ramble a bit here as the argument is still forming...

I've been thinking of late about fantasy, both as a literary and rpg genre, and whether there's room for old school-style adventuring outside the bounds of "medieval fantasy."

Obviously, I don't mean the literal, real-world European Middle Ages, but stories with a technology level somewhere between the Iron Age and the Renaissance. Sure, at least on the blogosphere, there's been an emergence of science fantasy, mixing remnant super-science with more primitive technology. Some of these baroque worlds are pretty divergent from real world analogs. There's a definite sort of Heavy Metal dream-logic feel to some, which tosses all sorts of technological assumptions out the window. Still, even in these worlds, one gets the feeling there's a fair number of swords being swung.

I don't think the issue comes down just the firearms, though maybe that's a bigger deal than I'm allowing. Is there any reason dungeon-delving couldn't be accomplished with more "modern" weapons? Would there presence drastically alter the mood?

There's the subgenre of urban fantasy, which may be underrepresented in rpgs, but does exist. Urban fantasy, though, rooted in bringing fantasy to the familiar, doesn't really capture the unknowable aspect that underpins a lot of pulp fantasy. Too much unknown in an urban fantasy setting, and its likely to veer into more of a horror mode.

Then there's fantasy in sort of Victorian-esque settings--what's often called steampunk--a term which really seems to easier to apply as a certain sort of visual aesthetic than literary genre. Some of works often placed in this category, like China Mieville's Bas-Lag stories, and the works of Stephen Hunt take place in full-fledged "secondary worlds," not the usual alternate histories. Mieville's work in particular, could no doubt serve as inspiration for a dungeoneering-based rpg (there are even D&D-style adventurers making an appearance in Perdido Street Station), but is there an rpg work in this direction yet?

Heading across the Atlantic would give us Western (meaning the genre, of course) fantasy. Stephen King's Dark Tower series is even an example of secondary world (epic) Western fantasy, to contrast with the more common alternate history fantasy of, say, Deadlands. There was a d20 supplement or two that grafted elves and dwarves into the Old West, which seems to a surefire way to suck any "unknowability" or "weird" out of the setting with the leech of predictability.

That's been precisely the problem with a lot of fantasy space opera/fantasy-space. We get Dragonstar instead of Starlin's Dreadstar. Really, no works have given us weird space fantasy, or dungeon (asteroid?)-delving space fantasy, as far as I know.

So fantasy with firearms is clearly do-able, but its tougher to find those fantasies combined with a world designed for pulp fantasy--picaresque, secondary world settings, with elements of weird, and the unknown/unknowable. I'm not convinced this can't be done, though.

It seems to me what you need is a setting that is removed enough for our time to have been mythologized a bit, much in the same way that the pre-modern world has been. You could set a dungeon-delving campaign in an alternate 1960s, but then you would get urban fantasy (of a sort) not pulp fantasy. The Old West and Victorian England, are definitely mythologized enough, but probably so are the Roaring Twenties and the Napoleonic era, and others. The future is--ironically--pretty mythologized too, but set things too near-future and you're in urban fantasyland.

While traditional fantasy will always have a preeminent place in my heart, I can't help but think that these other eras can be mined for new settings to expand the vistas of fantasy gaming. I'm not sure adventurers should be confine to a technological level that's largely a historical artifact of the fantasy genre's evolution.

I'm gonna think more about that.


Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Aliens and Space Hulk are sci-fi dungeon delving. Warhammer 40k it self seems to mix space and horror and space and fantasy quite a bit. Same with several Palldium Rifts settings.

Trey said...

Do you mean the film Aliens? It may have sorta dungeon-delving, but what it isn't is fantasy.

Warhammer 40k I forgot about. I'd guess it counts --though it has an awful lot of medievalisms, and elves (and originally) dwarves.

Which Rfits settings were you thinking of? I'd say the Phase World settings are decidedly superheroic, which doesn't make them fit the pulp fantasy bill, in fact even baseline Rifts has megadamage, mecha, and flame-on bursters--though I'll grant you could play the sort of game I'm talking about in Rfits with some modification.

Matthew Slepin said...

I had a thought about doing a game set in the Raj during the 1800's:

Trey said...

Cool idea. That's the sort of thing I'd like to see more of.

netherwerks said...

Interesting post. There seems to be a lot of disagreement and arguing over things like Pulp versus Weird versus Urban. I prefer to just tell the story, play the game and see where the setting takes things. I just picked-up 100 different Nick Carter paperbacks at an estate sale. Pulp Espionage (The Killmaster) much like the Avenger or Remo/The Destroyer, Mack Bolan, etc. Fun stuff. I'm hoping to get some good ideas for bringing more espionage into things...

Trey said...

I agree that its more fun not to be bound by preconceived (i.e. historical) boundaries of genres...but a common language for communcation is usual, and you do have to manage peoples expectations, which means either some degree of fidelity to a genre/genres or a lot of explanation beforehand.