Friday, February 10, 2012

The Third Pillar – Escape

You know, I have a pretty good life. I have a beautiful family that I love very much. I have caring parents and in-laws. I have two (beagle) dogs who, while obnoxious at times, are a lot of fun and no more than what I deserve. I own a nice house. I have a car that runs. My wife and I both have decent jobs, and there’s food on our table every night. I have a large TV to watch large TV shows. I live in a city with professional sports teams that provide hours of entertainment. I have several bookshelves over-flowing with books and games. And if that wasn’t enough, I live in a pretty nice city with a lot of recreational activity, both indoors and out.

My life is fantastic, and I feel truly blessed to live it. And yet sometimes reality just isn’t good enough.

Welcome to Escapism 101.

There’s no getting around it (at least not to my mind): one of the major draws of the Dungeons & Dragons game is the fantasy of playing an imaginary character in an imaginary world where magic and monsters abound. The challenge and reward that are the first two pillars might keep folks coming back for more, but it’s the temptation to play a wizard or sword-wielding elf (or whatever) that sucks people in in the first place.

Now I (personally) use the term “fantasy role-playing” to discuss most RPGs. After all, the word fantasy simply means “the realm of imagination” or “make believe,” and pretending to be a secret agent or rugged cowboy is just as fantasy (for me) as pretending to be Bilbo Baggins.

But for purpose of the Third Pillar, when I use the term fantasy (and to be fair, it would probably be more clear to call the pillar “Fantasy Escape” instead of just “Escape”)…*ahem* When I use the term “fantasy” in reference to the Third Pillar, I’m talking about the literary term “fantasy,” which involves aspects of the supernatural and magic in addition to the imaginary or make-believe.

When it comes to fantasy literature, there are several sub-genres that are espoused, both in terms of theme and setting. Dungeons & Dragons, being originally inspired by fantasy literature, makes a clumsy swipe at the bunch and draws subgenres from both of those:

From the theme subgenre: Sword & Sorcery (example: Robert E. Howard)
From the setting subgenre: High Fantasy (example: J.R.R. Tolkien)

The reason why people have such a hard time deciding which it is, is because it is in fact BOTH…and comparing S&S to HF is comparing apples to oranges, not Braeburns to Granny Smiths.

[we’ll get back to the pillar in a moment; this needs a little set-up]

The high fantasy SETTING subgenre of literary fantasy fiction is defined by being set in an alternative world, one in which magic and the supernatural exists. Themes of high fantasy can include conflicts of epic scope, and generally have a “good vs. evil” thing going on. Protagonists are lone heroes that start young (or immature anyway) and grow into their abilities/confidence over time, sometimes walking the road of the Heroic Saga, and sometimes not.

The sword & sorcery THEME subgenre of literary fantasy fiction is characterized by fast paced action and danger that threatens its heroes on a personal level. The scope of conflict is immediate and immanent to the hero, not some looming Dark Lord. Sword & sorcery heroes tend to be competent wanderers, disinclined to settle down, instead going “where the action is.” Their adventures often include elements of magic and the supernatural (thus distinguishing them from historic adventure fiction and the like).

Got it? So what we have in D&D is a mash-up of THEME and SETTING…you get an alternate world filled with magic and the supernatural (elves and dragons and wizards, etc.). You have good versus evil. And you have heroes growing into their own, becoming important parts of the setting (at least if you choose to play the game into high levels, becoming kings and queens and whatnot). At the same time the scale of conflict is, more often than not, IMMEDIATE to what’s right in front of you. Do you defeat the antagonist? Do you set-off the trap? Do your party members find the gemstone you’ve hidden up your left nostril?

The fact that your characters are “competent wanderers” (at least in the mid-levels) and scurrilous rogues (default characterization for pre-1983 editions) makes characterization of PCs even more S&S-esque. You're Fafhrd, not Elrond, more often than not.

The third pillar upon which D&D is built…and without which, you don’t really have a D&D game…is its ability to allow you to escape into this fantasy mash-up. This escape...escape from our mundane lives, nice (or terrible) as they are…allows us to experience (vicariously, with our imagination) two very distinct things simultaneously:

1) What it means to live and breathe in a high fantasy world.
2) What it means to live the life of a rough-and-tumble, S&S hero.

Now THAT’s a powerful combination.

With only one of those things, you run the risk of losing part of the draw of the game.

For example, take out the high fantasy and leave only the S&S and you run the risk of players becoming incredibly cynical and callous to the game. Take the Stormbringer game for example. The original game was a great piece of sword & sorcery RPG…including the idea that life is short or transitory at best and often ends in messy spillage of organs. Having no “end game,” and very little character growth over time, players were expected to survive as long as possible while “adventuring” until meeting their inevitable gruesome demise (as occurs to all characters in Moorcock’s Elric books). I’ve played Stormbringer many times and enjoyed it, but it never turns into anything “long term.”

Ron Edwards’s supplement Sorcerer & Sword (for use with his Sorcerer game) is explicit in its attempt to emulate the S&S literary genre. It also is a “short-term” (3 or 5 session) game. This has quite a bit to do with Sorcerer’s game play aspects, but the rules eminently emulate the inspirational literature.

Contrast that with a game that leaves out the S&S and focuses only on the High Fantasy. Actually, that’s kind of a trick question as few RPGs will really spurn the individual character in order to pay honor the overarching setting. Perhaps MERPS, Star Wars (I consider it fantasy, even though set in space), or ElfQuest, might be examples. When I’ve played or run these games in the past, players (including moi) were often lost as to “well, what do we do now?” And especially with the licensed games, there’s a feeling of “none of my adventures matter, because it’s really Frodo/Luke/Cutter who’s going out and accomplishing the world changing/saving, breast-beating fantasy that I only wish I could.”

Sure, you can call this silly on my part; chalk it up to me not having enough imagination to revisit, say, Middle Earth and rework The Lord of the Rings' plot for the player characters to take the place of Frodo and company. But why should I bother? I mean, I have Dungeons & Dragons…here’s a system that does what I want it to do with very minimal tweaking. With its Tolkien species and its Vancian magic, not to mention Howardian shrines and tombs begging to be robbed of gold and jewels, D&D caries just about the right mix of heroic and epic for my fantasy escape.

And it’s easily customizable! Look at the archetypes (classes) that are available! Look at all the fantasy worlds available for exploration!

That last is the bit that appeals even to the guy tasked with the responsibility of DM. The participants taking the role of “player characters” get to live their daydream life in the fantasy world, swinging swords, slinging spells, talking smack to ogres, etc. You can fall off the edge of a cliff or get bitten by a giant spider or snake and still miraculously survive (with a lucky die roll or two)…unlike, say, real life. But while PCs get to run their characters, it’s the DM that gets to run the world.

And there are so many to choose from! When I was a kid we used Greyhawk, and as a teen we were exploring the Known World of Mystarra. But besides published ones (personally, I like the ideas behind Dark Sun and, to a lesser extent, Krynn and Shadow Dell) you have the whole range of fantasy literature to draw upon: CA Smith’s Averiogne, Howard’s Hyboria, the fantasy Scandanavia of Elizabeth Boyer, Tolkien, Lewis, Lahnkmer, Xanth, Darkover, Sanctuary. I’ve been reading Dave Chandler’s Ancient Blades trilogy lately (more on that later) and the deeper I get into it, the more I want to build a campaign setting based on HIS world.

But it’s just as easy and entertaining an escape to design and develop your OWN world. Personally, I dig on both my Goblin Wars and Land of Ice settings, but Raggi’s horrific New World and Wetmore's Anomalous Subsurface Dungeon and Jimm Johnson's Planet Eris are weird-cool-fun…and I’d love to do something with just a baseline version of Arneson’s Blackmoor (meaning just “OD&D + Supplement II”).

Escapism and “fantasy” are part of MOST RPGs, it’s true. But D&D’s particular brand of fantasy escapism…giant, high fantasy setting coupled with individual badass heroes…is one of the integral parts of the game. One of the *ahem* foundational pillars of the game. And something that needs to be accounted for when building any “new” edition of D&D. And part of accounting for that is in terms of actual game play.

Now this next bit may evoke some disagreement: I’m willing to live with that. I have said in the past that, despite its name, I don’t feel 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons really is “D&D.” Yes, it has the name. Yes, it has some of the tropes. But compared to the previous 5 to 8 editions (however, you choose to count ‘em), I don’t think the game AS WRITTEN provides the same game play experience. And the controversial part of that opinion is that I haven’t played it, and I haven’t skimmed more than a few pages of the text. But I have seen it played, and I’ve read reviews, and I’ve talked with people who have played it. And from that “hearsay” it would seem that both the challenge and reward pillars of earlier editions are dialed WAY DOWN in the 4th edition.

However, it’s when we come to the literary fantasy roots that make up the third pillar of D&D, that 4E REALLY seems to take a nosedive into something else. Gone is the exploration of a high fantasy setting…instead, we have set piece encounter followed by set piece encounter with little other “action.” Gone is the individual hero to be replaced by superheroes that mechanically are little different in effectiveness from each other, instead having individual color rather than true distinction. Even D20, for all its flaws, felt MORE like the fantasy escape I’ve grown to know over the years than 4th Edition, the latter of which seems (from appearance) to have all the heart-and-soul of a board game or war game (i.e. “not much”).

What I want…what a lot of folks who enjoy D&D, in any edition, want…is to get lost, temporarily, in a fantasy world. One separate and outside the one we live in. One filled with magic and wonder and the supernatural. One in which the individual counts for something, when one individual can make a serious difference…because in this story, your character is the protagonist and your choices and behavior are at the forefront of the saga.

Now, if we accept that “fantasy escape” is the third pillar, how do we incorporate that into the modular design of a new edition? Some possible examples might include:

- Specific setting add-ons that change the play of the game (changing game play, keeping it fresh, giving participants new “dimensions” to explore).
- Rules (or add-on systems) that allow individual behavior to have an impact on the world...things that encourage role-playing (i.e. escape into character), ideally non-class-specific but setting driven: luck points, sworn oaths and vows, one-on-one dueling, rules of attraction (for romance), aging and deterioration (character mortality)…all things that make the game more complicated, but richer in character
- Setting specific magic and supernatural effects
- Different ideas for challenges and rewards (the first two pillars) based on fantasy escape. How many of us in real life get to lead troops on a battlefield? How many of us get to jockey for status within the faerie courts? How many of us have ever had the opportunity to raise a dragon from the time it’s hatched to be a companion, mount, and/or supernatural familiar?

[here endeth the Third Pillar post...I have one more post in this series for tomorrow]


  1. You make a very good point. And, I have actually played 4E and I must tell you that you hit on every point. I feel that 4E is D&D like. I remember someone once saying if they called it the "Wizard's of the Coast Action Hour" it might be more enjoyable and less grating.

  2. You really hit the nail on the head with your literary and game analyses, and your explanation of the interaction between the two. I was nodding the whole way through. Most salient and coherent discussion of what fantasy roleplay is about that I've ever seen.

  3. I'm really enjoying this series.

    I've played 4e, and you can replicate an Old School experience if your DM designs a scenario in the Old School style (e.g., by applying the wisdom set forth in these three pillars posts). This requires the DM to ignore 4e encounter design recommendations, because if you follow them, every battle will last an hour or so, causing your game to bog down badly.