Thursday, February 28, 2019

Mix N Match

I've (probably) mentioned this in the past, but I really enjoy watching the reality show Top Chef. Personally, I'm not much of a cook, and while I'm not adverse to learning how to cook, cooking good food generally takes a loooong time...more time than I like to spend preparing my fuel. Sure this is yet another personal flaw...I don't grow my veggies or slaughter my own meat either...but while I may not have a "full appreciation" of my food, I can honestly say I have a great respect for people who do. Also, I like to eat at their restaurants whenever I can afford it.

Anyway, the thing about Top Chef is that (in addition to the sheer expression of creativity on display), is that it's fun to watch the various challenges, which usually involve a specific ingredient (or ingredients), a particular theme, or both. Top Chef's main imitator (which I don't like as much but do occasionally watch) is a show called Chopped which has pared the premise down to a specific format: cook three courses (starter, entree, and dessert) over three rounds, each round containing three specific ingredients that must be used in the dish. Each round, one of the four contestants is "chopped" till there's only one left.

[Chopped is really more of a poor man's Iron Chef. The original, mind you...I have never been able to sit through the American version and Bobby Flay is such a fraud]

I was thinking just how much fantasy these days, and especially fantasy in, of, and for role-playing games tends to echo this formula: authors and designers are taking the same "fantasy ingredients" and attempt to produce a "winning dish" (i.e. something that sells well) by "cooking" them up in different ways. Which elements exactly? Something like fighters, wizards, elves, dwarves, hobbits, monsters, treasure, good, and evil. Often thieves and cleric-ish types, too.

Now, I loves me my Tolkien: his work is inspiring, his writing often beautiful, and his world (and language) building pretty off-the-chart. But while his stuff is mythic in scope and I enjoy reading it, I can't say it's my favorite fantasy. Middle Earth isn't even the kind of fantasy world I'd want to play in or a base a campaign off.

Still, some authors dig Tolkien enough to throw their own "spin" at his epic (Brooks, Donaldson, Jordon...I'm looking at you) and there's no doubt his world has left an impression that's hard to escape. But Tolkien emulators aside, is there a point we reach when we stop liking the taste of the ingredients, no matter how well or original the manner in which they're cooked?

Maybe it's a silly question. For the author or game designer, there's something about the challenge of working with familiar elements that gets our juices flowing. And there's been some great art created from these elements: I look at Wendy Pini's "space elves," or Bakshi's Wizards, or even David Chandler's Ancient Blades trilogy (which, to my eyes is clearly inspired by B/X Dungeons & Dragons). Even the television show Game of Thrones is a ton of fun and offers yet another take on elves and monsters and gold acquisition (I find Martin's books to be a bit less fun).

But, silly question or not, I think it's worth asking: is it sustainable? Giving the fantasy critters guns and bionic implants worked for Shadowrun. Blowing up the fantasy world and making the hobbits cannibals and the dwarves into gladiators worked (somewhat) for Dark Sun. But there are more than a few games and game settings that the fantasy ingredients didn't work for. I'd be interested in seeing the financials for Al-Qadim...there's been no release of AQ material (as far as I know) since it was published with 2nd edition AD&D, and there was quite a bit of material written for it in the TSR days (material that could easily be swiped and re-purposed, as WotC likes to do).

Still without elves
...or audience!
On the other hand fantasy games that don't include these familiar ingredients simply haven't found the same level of popularity. Tekumel and Talislanta have their niche market, but it's a small niche; I would guess that the folks currently running an "old school" D&D campaign probably outnumber the total number of players who have ever run a game in M.A.R. Barker's world, but what I know is that it's really hard to find ANY blogs about Talislanta on Ye Old Internet. People may be playing fantasy with "no elves," but they sure aren't talking much about it.

Yes, yes...I realize there are more kinds of "fantasy" than just the sword-swinging type. I've been reading a lot of Scooby Apocalypse lately (more on that later), and awesome fantasy that it is, there's nary a sword to be seen. But what I'm most interested in, gaming-wise (which is kind of the point of this post...and this blog) is the sword-swinging brand of fantasy...and you just don't see all that much of that kind of thing without some sort of pointy eared, elfin-types running around.

[yes, Shadowrun has swords, too...magic swords even]

I guess I'm just wondering this morning (as I scratch around for something to write about besides tieflings...again), does the inclusion of Tolkien elements automatically make something "knockoff fantasy?" If it's a game that includes these elements is it basically just a re-imagined form of D&D (and thus, a form of fantasy heartbreaker)? And does it matter? Should it matter?

Maybe it doesn't; maybe there are more important things to be concerned about. I was wandering around the internet today (looking for ANY kind of Talislanta stuff), and I accidentally fell down the "Alt-Right rabbit hole" of blogging, SciFi, and gaming. Wow, So much fucking awful. I'd rather spend any amount of time with tiefling/dragonborn-loving players then spend an hour in a room with those folks. Box of stupid indeed! I know atheists who are doing God's will on this planet better than these "Christians" (making a kinder, gentler, more compassionate world). What a pile of anger and hatred...a steaming, stinking pile.  Fuck...that...noise.


ANYhoo, my daughter has a playdate with her friend today (the daughter of my son's First Communion teacher), so I've got some vacuuming and straightening up to do; their plan is to play "pirates" ...we don't have any Barbie stuff in my house...and I need to make sure they've got all their cutlasses and costumes ready to go. I'll try to write something more useful later today, though I can't guarantee it won't be about tieflings.
; )


  1. McDonald’s is more popular than three-star restaurants too. It’s okay to eat both.

  2. I also found this fantasy treasure trove. Skyrealms of Jorune. I don't know it very well, but a bunch of stuff there is free so why not?

  3. Talislanta is one of the games that has been on my shelf for years. It's in my bucket list to run, deep down in the bucket, but it is in there.

  4. One thing I really love about the digital book and print on demand markets is that they allow niche games, old and new, to make it into people's hands. I may never get around to playing something like Dogs in the Vinyard or Spears of Dawn, but I am happy knowing that someone out there is doing it.

  5. I do think the "constraint breeds creativity" is true to an extent, and meat and potatoes staples will always be staples. On the other hand, I definitely like something different (and sometimes really different!) for variety on occasion.

    In some ways, though, I think the OSR scene went down the weird fiction rabbit hole for so long (interesting whole though it might be) that among OSRish stuff a well-done, flavorful trad fantasy thing might well be interesting. Maybe this is being done, and I'm just missing it.