Thursday, January 10, 2013

Increasing the Magic

Lovely Elmore-painting (D&D).
Over the last decade or so, beginning with my first readings of A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords all those years ago, my affection for fantasy literature and games has steadily become 'darker' in the sense that, especially in gaming, I've gravitated towards the fantasy that is dark and gritty. Where I before George R.R. Martin enjoyed Tolkien's works and had explored to some extent a couple of similar fantasies (The Wheel of Time, Conan the Barbarian and a few books based on the Dungeons & Dragons-license), after George I became more enamored by the grittier ways of fantasy. Following Martin's fantastic novels it seems that almost every kind of fantasy - be it literature, gaming, art - became darker and grittier, and that more novelists sought to subvert the tropes of 'classic' high fantasy as worn down by Tolkien's many imitators. 
In roleplaying games, more and more "dark and gritty" and "realistic" games were made, which in turn allowed Ice & Fire-fans to create games that ran closer to Westeros and the medieval age than, say, Middle-earth. 

At the time that I discovered Ice and Fire, I was running an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign set in a world of my own making. Gradually the setting, the stories and the characters became more similar to the way Martin portrays his fantasy world - dungeons and wizard's towers were replaced with politics and the struggle of the smallfolk, gods rising from the ground to smite the party replaced by grueling civil wars and murder and betrayal; characters became the focal point - in the end, the high fantasy that AD&D was geared towards could no longer serve us and we turned to the grittiest, most deadly RPG published (as far as I know): The Riddle of Steel, published by Driftwood Publishing. The game, unfortunately, is out of print but we've been using the system for many years and never looked back. There are a few additional books to the core rules - Of Beasts and Men, Companion and The Flower of Battle - and these have served my gaming group all the way. The system is perfect for Ice & Fire-style games as it focuses on character and its combat system seeks to emulate medieval sword fighting. It's a complex game, no doubt, with a number of flaws, but it allowed us to create an epic story - going on for six years in real-time - and it allowed us to create stories, characters and situations in the same style as Martin's novels.

Looking back on it, I see that I in several cases lifted stuff straight from Westeros; the characters served an order protecting a physical barrier in the landscape, for example - complete with black cloaks and cold environments (only they were in a mountain range separating the continent instead of a Wall); the complex family trees were also heavily influenced by how Martin handles these things; several Martin characters appeared in disguise, so to speak; and we loved playing it. The players knew that this was a harsh and unforgiving world, the odds were against them, but they persevered (well, one early character death aside) and there definitely was a palpable thrill to playing in a Westeros-like world. If you'd be interested in reading some campaign journals and setting descriptions from the first five or so years of our homebrew The Riddle of Steel game, you can check out 'The Empyrean Chronicles'. I kind of stopped updating it a long time ago, but there's some stuff there if you like reading other people's RPG stuff. 

The Fellowship of the Ring by the Hildebrandt brothers.
However, in the last couple of years we've moved apart and play only occasionally to advance the story, either by getting together for a weekend or running an evening's session using Google Plus and the excellent Roll20. At the same time, I've moved on from my Martin obsession and discovered Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont's fantasy world. This in turn has led to me introducing stranger elements to the story, slowly shifting a bit toward epic fantasy again. The Malazan world occupies a strange place between the two extremes; it is more epic and fantastic than Middle-earth, yet it also has that down and dirty quality of Westeros (in fact, it's even harsher at times). 

Now, I've met some new folks who live nearby and we've decided to roleplay together. The first time I met them, I introduced them to The Riddle of Steel but after the session I felt burned out on it. I thought at first that it was the complexity of the game and having to teach it to the new players that was making me less enthusiastic; then, when on the next meeting we tried A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, I realized that I felt just the same after that session. Then it hit me. I'm a bit burned out on the low fantasy grit; you can only play so many years before you've "seen it all", so to speak. With game worlds with little or no magic, no peculiar Tolkienesque races and a certain deadliness, you need a pretty strong story to keep it going and I felt perhaps that after so many years gaming in the blood-red mud of medieval fantasy, it was about time to seek...higher fantasy. 

So for this weekend, when I'm meeting the new guys again, I've asked for just one more game attempt before settling on what kind of campaign to run, and I've gone way back. I've dug up my old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons stuff and have spent a little time this week preparing a first session of a campaign set in the classic Forgotten Realms setting. Instead of an over-arching plot I'll go for the sandbox approach, starting off with a relatively small area and let the players go ahead and forge their legends. After many years of low fantasy gaming it will be hard, perhaps, to get into an almost Disney-like fantasy world full of silliness and implausibilities, but at the same time I long for that charming feeling of playing with those polyhedral dice, pull out those big maps from the tattered Realms box and just have fun with it. 

Digging up old school fantasy stuff. I loves.

It will be refreshing, I  hope, to not look to deep into character motivations, backgrounds, family ties; to not juggle distances and time and making sure everything is connected perfectly almost like a novel. Instead, I am ready to once again play foul Orcs and goblins and bash some player character skulls. Instead of intricate politics and warfare, I'll be content to let the players take their characters wherever they want, and do whatever they feel like and settle back and just enjoy some good old-fashioned epic fantasy. 

All this led me to think that the increase of magic throughout A Song of Ice and Fire is a good thing; if it were just as "medieval" all the way we might tire of the ramifications; with magic burgeoning, rules are stretched and as a reader you know that anything can happen. I do wonder just how far Martin will take the supernatural in the coming novels; if you read the recent Arianne preview chapter, it's written like a historical fantasy; substitute "Dorne" for "medieval Spain" and it could have been part of a historical novel - but of course there are many other POVs where magic is prevalent. Hey, the TV's on in the background and someone just said on History Channel that "winter is almost here". I'll take that as a sign.

Knowing me and my gaming ADHD, I'll probably hanker for some medieval fantasy next week. But first, the casting of spells and the exploration of ancient ruins filled with magical deathtraps! Woo! And who knows, maybe we'll end up seeing a fellowship of adventurers questing their way through Westeros toward the Others in the north, carrying magical swords, wielding mystical powers and ... hey, that could actually happen. Kind of.

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