Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Marion Zimmer Bradley Taught Me (Part 2)

[continued from here. Please note that while the entire first half of this post was written while flying across the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night, much of this half was written AFTER being back a couple days]

Hmm….okay, what else have I learned from MZB and the Darkover novels? I mean, in addition to the fact that Carcosa was the name of a Darkover domain long before it was used for what’s his name’s supplement? And that cultural differences based on gender can make for interesting campaign settings by themselves?

Well, let’s see: fantasy and science fiction (i.e. “futuristic fantasy”) can work just fine, in tandem, when done in the right scale…that’s something I think MZB got right (though, again, I really want to check out Sharra’s Exile and The World Wreckers to get the full scoop on the Terran-Darkovan relations).

Not to dwell too much on this particular issue, but from MZB’s own notes I gather she felt this was part of what made the Darkover setting fresh or different from other fantasy worlds: the juxtaposition of two disparate cultures (one high-tech/space-spanning and one “barbarian”/sword-wielding). While I’ve yet to read the earliest books/stories in the series, the subject matter appears to be similar to the “stranger in a strange land” fantasy recently discussed over at Grognardia…not surprising when you consider works like Star of Danger were being written in the early 1960s.

What else…well, I’ve also learned that the right cultural bias for a game/campaign can be used to justify a lot of house rules. For Example: why do Darkovans carry swords instead of firearms? Because of their cultural contract, The Compact, that makes it un-lawful to attack anyone at distance (as any person must face the same threat of dying as the person against whom they seek to do harm). See the Battle Tech Clans as an RPG example using the opposite tact.

I’ve learned new ways to use intrigue and political ramifications (as well as family ties and loyalties) to create discord, drama, and conflict. But that all’s just window dressing (I didn’t LEARN anything, per se, but there are plenty of ideas and plots that are totally ripe for plundering for my own games)…let’s get back to another “ah ha!” moment.

The campaign setting.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my new writing projects is, in fact, a campaign setting or “world setting” for the B/X game, a little thing I’m calling Land of Ash. In fact, it was research for this particular writing project (still in its earliest stages) that led me to the Darkover books in the first place (to get some fresh ideas on the use of psi powers).

Now, I could write a few dozen pages on how reading Darkover actually made me want to chuck the whole Land of Ash “desert setting” in favor of a Darkover knock-off “snow setting” (as with Spain, I find a LOT of campaign inspiration in MZB’s world of Darkover). But those “second-guessing” notions have been put to rest at this point…cool as it would be, I’ve already done a chunk of work on Land of Ash…not to mention I am totally Jonesin’ to see some sepia-toned artwork (*hope*hope*). Also, why flirt with potential lawsuits from the MZB estate (my understanding is they’ve already put the kybosh on Darkover fan fiction)?

No, I’m still talking about learning new stuff…and Bradley’s approach to her own setting material is plenty educational, specifically with regard to the multiple epochs of Darkover.

The Age of Founding
The Age of Chaos
The Age of the Hundred Kingdoms
The Age of the Seven Kingdoms
The Age of Terran Re-Contact

What you have in Dakrover is not one particular campaign setting but FIVE. All are set on the same distinct world, with the same specific geography, inhabitants, and climate (not to mention little things like a LACK OF METAL and PSYCHOTROPIC FLORA)…but each different Age/epoch determines what the base conflict of the time IS as well as the cities/political structure and the technologies (i.e. “equipment list”) available to the characters.

How sweet is that? If I was to set Keep of the Borderlands in a Darkover-like world (not a bad idea when you think of it), it would become centuries old fortress-monastery much like Nevarsin or Castle Alderan and the conflicts and drama would change simply depending on the epoch used.

And every time I succeeded at achieving a TPK with a particular party of adventurers, I could change the setting and give the new PCs legends from the old PCs’ actions/demise.

I dig on this and really find it an exciting possibility for a D&D campaign setting. After all, most “settings” presented by TSR-WotC assumes a kind of everyone’s-all-adventuring-around-the-same-year kind of thang. It’s not much different for other RPGs either…Middle Earth Role-Playing assumes you’re somewhere in the 3rd Age, Stormbringer that you’re adventuring sometime AFTER the decline of Melnibone (but before Elric blows up the world), Pendragon places you square during the reign of Arthur (not in the age of Uther or post-Morte).

I suppose the Star Wars RPG (beginning with WEG’s 2nd edition up through WotC’s Saga edition) provides the closest thing to a Darkover-like campaign setting. There are distinct “eras” one can play in (Knights of the Old Republic, Clone Wars, Empire, or New Republic to name the four main ones), all set in the same universe. However, while the villains may change somewhat from Era to Era, the technology (ships, sabers, blasters) stays pretty much the same.

Contrast that with Darkover: playing during the Age of Founding (shortly after Darkover Landfall) would mean access to nothing but the most primitive gear and the very beginning of psychic technology (pre-Tower). During the Age of Chaos, laran tech is at its height with air cars and super weapons. The Hundred Kingdoms is well-established feudal kingdoms (a la Pendragon with psionics) but very few holdover remains from the Age of Chaos...kind of a post-apocalypse setting, really. And by the time of the Seven Domains and the Compact (but pre-Terran contact) the use of laran at all is extremely limited (and its technological “wonders of the past” are safely locked away).

And when you get to the final Age with the Terran spacemen? All bets are off as high technology meets barbarian feudalism and ancient laran secrets being unearthed to compete with the Terrans on an equal footing!

One small geographic map, limiting the realms of exploration to certain accessible, non-polar ice cap mountains, valleys and cold desert plateaus. A couple-few types of native fauna and flora to lend consistency (not to mention “other-worldliness”). Psychic powers in varying (if limited) degrees of potency. And then a cross-section of choice on antagonists, political spectrums, CUSTOMS/TRADITIONS (an important part of Darkovan life and one that varies from Age to Age), and technology.

That’s a tasty setting. And one that could probably be mocked up in 64 pages or less.
; )

Okay, okay…ENOUGH! I’ve got other things to get to today (including prepping for yet another session at the Baranof after a two week lay-off…and I’ve got two new players showing up!). MZB is a great read, with plenty of food for thought. I’d strongly suggest checking out some of her work (I know she’s not in the Moldvay bibliography, but perhaps she’s in Appendix N?) for ideas and inspiration.
: )


  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    Carcosa is actually much older than MZB. I highly recommend Chambers' "The King in Yellow" its about a book that if read drives you crazy, but this is 1895, before that idea was a cliche. And it's creepy.

  2. I won the Ace double novel version of Planet Savers/Sword of Aldones the other day, but the seller contacted me shortly thereafter to tell me he didn't actually have it in stock. I wound up spending the money on a BAF edition of The Worm Ouroboros instead, because I've wanted that edition for a while.

    Still hoping to snag the first few Darkover books at some point soon.

  3. One of my Backburner Projects is a Call of Cthulhu campaign that doesn't cross continents -- why bother competing with Masks of Nyarlathotep? -- but instead crosses time periods, from Hyperborea all the way to the modern day, and perhaps beyond. One day I might finish it.

  4. Nice comments on futuristic fantasy. I really enjoy that in novels/games when done right.

  5. Telecanter's right about Carcosa being older than Bradley, but he hasn't gone back far enough. Everyone who refers to Carcosa is ultimately drawing on Ambrose Bierce's story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." Everyone. Chambers, Lovecraft, Derleth, MZB, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Geoffrey McKiney: they're all drawing on Bierce or someone who drew on him. (Watt-Evans is probably drawing on Chambers, since he also has the King in Yellow as a character.)

    On another note: JB, I recommend Sharra's Exile highly; you'd also probably like The Spell Sword, The Forbidden Tower, and The Bloody Sun.

  6. @John Harper: Currently reading Sharra's far, so good!
    : )