Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fantasy Technically

An evil spell has been cast upon me. It is the only explanation.

I am in the mood for Fantasy.

And let me tell you...that sucks.

In my 36 years of gaming, I have rarely found any great Fantasy RPGs. I am completely serious.

With a few exceptions, I think Fantasy RPGs are among my least favorite games, not just because I'm not much of a fan of the 'traditional' approach to the genre but because, IMHO, practically all the Fantasy Role Playing Games I have encountered take an approach to the mechanics and theme that I find counter to what Fantasy is about.

Most Fantasy RPGs, especially those that are trying to simulate a quasi-medieval European default setting, pay way too much attention to details that have little to no bearing on the fantastic or heroic.

It's amazing to me how technical Fantasy RPGs get. Aside from the Original and Basic versions of Dungeons and Dragons, which have their fair share of technical elements of course, the first, second and even third generation Fantasy RPGs were akin to treatises on medieval warfare.

While few games gave much attention to the more mundane elements of life in a medieval town (something a young Barking Alien could have really used as I had no clue what a 12th century English city was like), pages and pages would be spent on weapon speeds, types of weapons, armor, wounds and wound effects and the like.

The magic system of these old games were no different, sometimes being  quite cumbersome and complex, while at the same time completely taking the magic out of the arcane. The names of the spells didn't help - Magic Missile, Dimension Door, Pyrotechnics, Displacement - are these spells for a game of wizardry and magic or terms for a physics exam?

I found this unintentionally funny from the Wiki entry on Rolemaster:

"Rolemaster is sometimes derisively called 'Chartmaster' or 'Rulemonster' for depending upon numerous tables and charts for character generation and resolving game actions, and for its perceived vast array of rules covering every possible situation. Supporters of the game argue that many of these rules and charts are entirely optional."

While detractors mock it for being too chart heavy, supporters stand by it by saying the charts are optional. They don't stand behind it by saying they're necessary.

It just seems about three times the work went into determining how hard it is to make a shot with your bow and arrow if you are not facing and are behind a wall with two-thirds cover than went into making magic, creatures and other elements of the game mysterious, interesting and most of all, things that serve a purpose outside killing and stealing.

Now granted, I am no fool, I know why this is. The earliest RPGs came from D&D and D&D came from wargaming.  At the same time, the oft pointed to source materials of the much vaunted Appendix N (cue lightning and thunder effects) don't display nearly the level of 'realistic' detail that many Fantasy RPGs attempt to simulate.

Unless for dramatic effect, neither Fritz Lieber nor Michael Moorcock worried a damn about weapon speed factors or their size damage. Tolkien was not especially interested in naming the 'spells' Gandalf cast, if they even were spells and not mystic powers from on high. There is actually very little 'realism' of the manner many Fantasy RPG have tried to emulate to be found in the classics of Fantasy fiction. Why then do we get a Discover Channel 'Ancient Warriors' mini-series when we open up the rulebooks of many Fantasy Games?

I'm looking at you Metal, Magic and Lore.

Anyway, my quest to explore this new desire to run something in a Fantasy vein may be greatly effected by not only finding the right system but finding the time. Work, personal life (such as it is) and other projects are making it difficult to focus on this, which is unfortunate as focusing is exact what I would need to do. An answer to my 'What Fantasy Game Works For Me?' dilemma hasn't simply popped into my head. It will require a good deal of digging and research but again, time is a factor.

Barking Alien

(Posting may be a bit wonky the rest of the month although I hope that's not the case. Finances and other things are turning out to require more of my attention than I expected. Just FYI.)


A few acknowledgements:

Rest In Peace Michael Ansara, who, among other great roles, playing Klingon Commander Kang on Star Trek.

Margaret Pellegrini, one of the three surviving Munchkin actors from the 1939 Wizard of Oz films passed yesterday at the age of 89.

On a happier note:


The Muppets Most Wanted, sequel to The Muppets now has a teaser trailer.


  1. FATE?
    FATE Accelerated?

    The Combat (conflict) system is abstract (or at least not tactics!) but flexible enough to telescope in or out as you choose.

    Magic seems to be up to you and your players (i.e. "you're playing a wizard so you can cast spells, what do you want your spell to do") so it can look the way you want.

    I think...

  2. It's really quite a challenge to make magic "mysterious" when it is something that a player uses - in a story, the magician is mysterious because the reader, and nonmagician, do not understand how he is effecting the magic, or how the effects manifest. It is hard to be terribly mysterious to yourself using the procedures that you have mastered, whether they are a checklist of spells, or a combination of freeform effects that you pick. Other than just using a D&D-like list of spells and just making the individual spells freaky (I am always in favor of making the individual spells freaky) the best i can think way to make magic actually "mysterious" is to develop some kind of negotiation-based system where the magician , rather than being someone who causes magic, becomes more of someone who has the skillset or connections to have magic done on his behalf. This decouples the magic somewhat from the procedure the magician uses and makes it more unpredictable in a more qualitative way than a warhammer/DCC style "roll to see if you fuck up the spell" system.

    1. I completely agree with you Cole. It is very difficult to create an air of mystery around magic if it is akin to, let's say, a plumber fixing your sink.

      The plumber has a wrench, knows how a wrench works and after looking at your leak, knows a wrench will fix it. Let's assume this man is a trained professional, he took plumbing courses, studied drains and pipes and so forth. Fixing sinks is what he does.

      Now let's take a look at a Mage. This Mage is a learned and accomplished individual, having spent years apprenticing and studying magic. She knows how magic works, how to make it do what she wants, etc. When asked to hold a door closed, magically lock it, she casts Hold Portal (which she has practiced dozens of times) and it is held. Ta-Da! Reliable, effective, not in the least mysterious or magical.

      So what to do?

      In my D&D-But-Not world of Aerth, Wizards (Mage is the equivalent of saying 'Magic User'. There are many different types of Mages) are actually depicted as noted above on purpose, with the added atmosphere that they are a bit like Scientists or researchers at MIT. They can produce effects that are virtually identical time after time and teach it to others. They can not alter the effects of a given spell once it has been developed and therefore constantly work to create new spells. It is a Science of sorts or it replaces what we think of as Science in that universe.

      Sorcerors on the other hand are very different. They function much more like the negotiation based magicians you describe above. Sorcerors are largely summoners or people who call upon otherworldly entities to either do magic for them or give them a little bit of magic in exchange for some favor or task.

      These approaches work in my D&D but I'm hoping to do something a little different here with my next Fantasy game, though as yet I am not sure what.

  3. I wonder if you might like Dragon Warriors, an old classic fantasy RPG from Britain that really tried to create that sense of mystery and legend surrounding the supernatural while having strong cultural ties to medieval Europe. In the introduction it says "Our aim was to put something dark, spooky, and magical back into fantasy role-playing. Loathing the medieval Disneyland of Dungeons & Dragons, with its theme-park taverns, comedy dwarves and cannon-fodder profusion of monsters, we made Legend (the name of the world) as vividly dreamlike as the Middle Ages seem in stories...Walking into a tavern in Legend and finding an elf at the bar would be like strolling into your real-life local and seeing a polar bear."

  4. I like Dragon Warriors, but in my opinion it is really very similar to D&D.

  5. I like the principles you describe for Dragon Warriors but from my (albeit distant) memory of it, I'd have to agree with Cole.

    My next post will begin to discuss those few Fantasy games I do like and what it is about them that differs from the D&D standard.

  6. You just did a number of posts about Anime games, why not use one of them for fantasy? I always wanted to try Big Eyes, Small Mouth 2nd ed. with BESM fantasy, if you can find them.

  7. As stated above "mystery" is not something you can really have when players are using magic - they have to have some idea of options and limitations to use it and that's the enemy of "mystery".

    You can have "flexibility" and flavor to a greater degree than D&D. I think Shadowrun, Warhammer FRP, and even GURPS all have magic systems that are mechanically very flavorful and less rigid than D&D.

    For a set of rules that fits your preferences more I can think of two options:

    1) Fantasy Hero - I don't remember your take on this, is it too hard to separate from Champions? Because for flexibility it's hard to beat a Hero System variable power pool (if you want to let your players go that far) and you can mechanically enforce whatever flavor and style elements you feel are important.

    2) Cortex Plus, ala Marvel Heroic, adapted for a fantasy campaign. Much less worry about mechanical details and a ton of adaptability makes it seem like this might be good fit for you. It seems like it could be a lot of fun and would definitely not feel like D&D. Plus it gives you a chance to tinker and we all like that, right?

    1. There are a number of games with less rigid magic systems than D&D. Actually, a lot. You bring up some interesting ones as, with the exception of GURPS, I find the others you point to just as rigid or limiting as D&D. Of course, I am several editions behind on both Shadowrun and WHFRP. Things may have changed.

      As to Fantasy Hero, yes, too similar to Champions means my guys (already genre deficient) will simply turn it into Superheroes. My D&D world is already like that. I am going for something very different this time out.

      Cortex Plus. Hmmm. You don't improve. Bottom line, it's a fun game but I can't sell it to my group for long term campaign play.

  8. Pardon the somewhat tangential ideas.

    I found myself nodding, except then you invoked Appendix N and I found myself not agreeing anymore, because I'm quite aware of the change in fantasy literature over the years. This isn't meant to be cherry picking as much as an example. One of the Harold Shea stories falls into the Conn. Yankee trope where the modern man teaches the backward people something modern, in this case the idea that a sword has a point. Which is just a bit of the author's own life, where he fenced being misapplied. For that matter Neal Stephenson has recently become obsessed with "proper" fight scenes as well. These aren't only examples, quite a few of the fantasy writers who gamed and joined the SCA have studied medieval combat and not just medieval combat. With the rise of the "new Social History" they've studied and tried to get right customs, technology, armor making,architecture, etc... All to bring a realism to their works. Admittedly some of the older fantasy writers didn't bother, much as Errol Flynn's sword fighting was good enough for his movies, their knowledge was good enough for the time. Yet writers like S.M. Sterling have made their careers by integrating the shift from great man history to social history, by upending those slightly cheese tropes in favor of more "realistic" tropes. Just as George RR Martin has caused some excitement (at least in me) by his use of somewhat realistic ties in medieval society.

    Even the examples you give are somewhat deceptive. Sure Tolkien's fight scenes didn't get into details, but look at what he did detail. Being a linguistics professor, he bothered to invent languages, an entire mythology, and a history of the world. Why? Because it lends a sense of realism.

    I admit there is a confusion of magic spells, but you start to realize that many are basically expend this number of spell points, you do this many damage dice. The differences between the powerful damage spells are often just minor differences. This one is against a single foe, this one affects many foes. This one is fire, this as ice. Same result of dead people, but a different visual, and marginally different strategies. Sure it'd be nice to operate an open ended system, perhaps an emulation of Roger Zelazny's Changeling series, but can you imagine the difficulty of pulling off a system like that? The endless in-game bickering as you tried to apply these vague rules?

  9. @Gort's Friend - While I appreciate the difference in opinion, the examples you give of more modern authors are just that, more modern.

    Looking here at Appendix N right at this very moment, I see no mention of Shea, Stephenson or George R. R. Martin.

    That is to say, my point still stands as what I was referring to was what the what the game's designers used as inspiration. Not being time travelers, they certainly didn't reference books that had yet to come out. Books that, for all we know (and trust me we know a little something) were influenced by Dungeons & Dragons have come out before them.

    All I am saying in the post above is that you wouldn't make a sweet cake with a ton of cayenne pepper or a paint a room you intended to be bright and cheery in dark colors. Why then are D&D and other Fantasy/Magical games so scientific and technical sounding?

    Yes, you make a great point about Tolkien and language. It invites realism to be sure. But what invites a sense of wonder? Therein lies the Holy Grail (pardon the pun) of Medieval Fantasy, especially as depicted in gaming.