A Science-Fictional Approach to Fantasy

By | December 22, 2012


This past weekend, like a good geek, I went to go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  Twice.  In both 24-FPS 2D, and 48-FPS 3D.  The difference between the two experiences was remarkable: I found that the 24-FPS was blurry in some parts and  desperately lacking in detail while the 48-FPS had more than enough detail, but occasionally suffered from strange “speedups” that made things look like they were moving in fast-forward for 20-30 seconds at a time.

Overall, I had a good time at both showings, and would highly recommend seeing it in the High Frame Rate.  Watching it the second time and marveling at the details, I had some time to think about Infinite Earths and our approach to setting, what it means to be generic, and the balance between them both in the context of writing the rules of the game.  More on that, after the break:

While watching The Hobbit, I was struck by the non-Fellowship races: the orcs and goblins.  While these races, to my eyes, had some significant similarities between their various members, sometimes they seemed to be completely different species altogether: the goblin king, for instance, was almost certainly a different “species” when compared to the majority of goblins in his kingdom, and perhaps even when compared to the little scribe goblin that reminded me so much of Salacious Crumb from Return of the Jedi.  Another fine example would be Azog the Defiler: while he was an orc, his bone and facial structure were different enough from the other orcs that he would seem to be an entirely different subspecies.

When discussing this with Sarah and Ray, Sarah brought up a good point: that in most fantasy, the “monster” races are exactly that, monsters, and as a result the approach to them is generally more of a “corruption and ugliness of what is normal” as opposed to “a consistent alternative species.”  As a result, you traditionally get lots of sub-species with the same label: Tolkien’s orcs, for instance, have several specially-bred subgroups such as the Uruk-hai, Snufflers, etc.

This made me realize the very different approach we have been taking to designing the races available in the Infinite Earths core ruleset.  What we have been trying to do with our races is explicitly not make them monstrous but, instead, to design them along different paths of evolution informed by their traditional roles in fantasy.  We’ve been designing their biology first, then extrapolating from that logical sociological paradigms which they would follow, in order to identify the kinds of cultures they would form and their relationships with other races.  All of this we’ve done to reduce the idea that Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes (or Halflings, though we’ve gotten rid of those as a race) aren’t the only races that are “good,” and that Orcs and Goblins are inherently “evil.”  Yes, there’s always the caveat that “not all members of evil races are evil, let’s trot out that old hat Drizzt,” but that’s the problem: it’s a caveat.  The races are still described in terms of being villains, with an aside that they can be something else, as opposed to just describing them without that extra “and these are villains and you should probably kill them because if you see them, they’re likely up to no good.”

And I’m going to be honest, here:  my primary diet of fiction is not fantasy.  It’s science fiction/science fantasy and comic books.  I’m a bigger fan of Starfleet than Middle-Earth, I admire Iron Man more than Conan.  And that has really informed our approach to developing our races and settings, because it never even struck me to think of the different races that will populate our worlds as corruptions and monsters.  Smaug is just as likely to be a lonely old dragon just trying to get by as he is to be a nation-destroying terror after a comfortable bed of gold; it all depends on the nature of the story you want to tell.

Part of the Infinite in Infinite Earths is removing that stricture that says that any race that’s not a default player race is presented as a monster.  And part of removing that stricture is placing orcs and goblins in the default player races, and by changing the way we present various “monsters” so that they’re not just monsters, but have a cultural significance within their own races.

But that brings up another point, one that I will be honest troubles me:  every decision makes the rules less generic.  One of our goals was to create a generic fantasy roleplaying system, divorcing setting from rules.  But the very approach to presenting those rules creates setting and story.

For example, let’s take a look at elves.  Elves are generally presented as ethereal and beautiful, and highly magical.  But are they beautiful because of glamers, such as they are in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?  Or are they beautiful because they are, such as in Tolkien?  Are they tall or short?  Do they freely mingle in human societies, or do they retreat to stay in their forests?  If they are in their forests because they have been forced there, or because they prefer the solitude?  If they are so intensely magical, why have they not forced their will upon the world?  Or have they?

The answer to every one of those questions creates a specific kind of elf, a less-generic elf and one which is less ready to fit into whatever world the Adventure Guide wants to create.  If we decide elves retreat into their forests to stay away from mankind, that means that an Adventure Guide has to contradict the ruleset in order to present elves as the dominant magical rulers of the world.  And while, yes, there is always “rule zero” to say that the Adventure Guide/GM trumps the rulebook. . .we’ve been pretty clear that that is not the approach we want to use with Infinite Earths.

So the other option is to present races without much character, or with descriptions so broad they are almost meaningless.  But by doing so, we lose some fundamental character, and the rules themselves become less interesting.  Which leads to the question, should the rules be interesting in and of themselves, or should they simply be a minimalized framework and arbitration system, and the real “meat” instead should be in setting materials?

This is a tough question, and one we’re really wrestling with.  Because the rules can also be used to deliver information that inspires the imagination, and who wants to play with a set of rules that, by trying not to interfere with your imagination, demonstrates no imagination of its own?  And there’s also the question of art: can we really sprinkle art throughout our product, depicting what we imagine, when we might be tromping on your imagination as a result?  Or do we take that risk, hoping to inspire?

One thing has become abundantly clear to us, as we think on these issues:  these questions are the reasons why the major rulesets now are so setting-specific.  The authors of those rules chose to answer these questions by presenting their setting, and the rules for that setting, simultaneously.  Presenting the rules in that way is actually a solution to a problem, not a problem in and of itself.

Today we learned 🙂

We’ll see you next weekend for our last post of 2012.  In the meanwhile, there are some holidays that different folks might be celebrating, so for all of you: may you have a happy whatever-holiday-you-celebrate, be it Christmas or Kwanzaa or Pancha Ganapati.  And for those of you whose holidays have already come and gone, such as Hanukkah or Bodhi Day, we hope you had a great one of those, too!

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