Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Marion Zimmer Bradley Taught Me (Part 1)

I’ve been reading a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley lately…which is to say I’ve been reading A LOT lately (or a lot for me, anyway…my days of reading a new novel weekly or even monthly are long in the past). However, I purposefully picked up a whole slew of MZB paperbacks from the used bookstore the other day as I was doing research into the literary tradition of psionics (or more accurately, “mental powers”) within fantasy, and I remembered Ms. Bradley using a lot of that in her writing. So I picked up half a dozen Darkover novels.


Let me first say that I’ve long been an MZB fan, though I haven’t read all that many of her books. I think I first came across her in her Lythande character portrayed in the Aspirin's Thieves World books. Later, I read The Mists of Avalon (of course…absolutely required reading for any King Arthur buffs) and The Fall of Atlantis (because I’m an Atlantis buff, too).

[and, yes, I’m aware that the latter book is actually a republishing of two earlier stories that had different titles]

But Darkover was never a series I got into. For one thing, it’s not really a “series” so much as a SETTING for a bunch of novels and short stories. Similar to McAffery’s Pern, Darkover is a planet that has been colonized by humans of the future…humans that lose touch with their earth roots and develop their own culture and history over several hundred or thousand years.

As with Pern, the Darkover setting and extensive history provides fertile ground for a number of different tales that highlight the human experience without being set around any particular protagonist or set of characters. In fact, I’ve so far read four of the Darkover novels and each has been from a vastly different epoch of the world. For those familiar with the series, the books I’ve read so far are:

- Darkover Landfall
- Stormqueen
- Hawkmistress
- Heritage of Hastur

Right now I’m working on The Shattered Chain, and I really want to pick up The World Wreckers.

Okay, so, great JB. You like the books. You’re a fan. Now let’s get to the point of the post…exactly WHAT has Marion Zimmer Bradley taught you?


In some ways, she’s RE-teaching me things I already knew but forgot. For example, fantasy/sci-fi adventure doesn’t have to include combat to be powerful, dangerous, dramatic, or life-and-death.


I remember reading a comment on someone’s blog (maybe even mine), that fantasy role-playing games require some sort of combat system because, for a game to BE a fantasy adventure RPG, COMBAT needs to be involved. I know this echoes a sentiment expressed by my brother in a discussion we had awhile back (when talking about RPG design) that people EXPECT some sort of combat/fighting action to take place in any role-playing game.

Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

Just because Dungeons and Dragons has a combat system and makes combat a part of the game does NOT mean combat is a requirement for any fantasy adventure game. ‘Fantasy adventure” is NOT defined by fighting or mortal conflict. It isn’t. The classic “hero’s journey” involves over-coming strife and proving one’s courage (and may involve mortal combat…I’ll have to check that on wikipedia), but it isn’t necessary for a fantasy story to be an “adventure.” I think I was two to three hundred pages into Hawkmistress before any sort of armed encounter occurred…a bird got shot by an arrow (and let me tell you, that was a deeply moving and emotional chapter!). Prior to THAT, the only “fight scene” in the book involved a girl kneeing a dude in the crotch to prevent attempted rape. Period. End of fight.

Was there adventure and danger and dramatic conflict present within those several hundred pages? Yes. Was there mortal peril for the protagonist and companions? Yes. Was their hardship and challenge, both physical and mental? Yes.

But combat? Melee? Armed conflict? Nope, none of it.

Darkover Landfall has no armed conflict at all. Yes, many people die. A guy does get killed by a “monster” (he is stung by a tiny scorpion ant) and some throats get slit in their sleep…but nothing that would require a combat “system.”

Heritage of Hastur talks a lot about the martial training of the Guard corps. It has a lot of talk about the breech of weapons compacts. There is much discussion on duels and challenges and several instances requiring/demanding revenge/justice. But the only “fights” involve one guy getting held (on two separate occasions) and being beaten unconscious.

Stormqueen! has some more siege stuff, but not a single fight involving any of the main characters.

All of these books are “adventures.” They have people traveling/going places, facing hardship, experiencing conflict, being “challenged” (physically, mentally, and emotionally)…and yet no one draws a sword and fights anyone. And on Darkover, most everyone carries a sword at some point. Darkover is nothing if not a sword culture for God’s sake!

Okay so that’s #1 that I’ve learned from MZB…you can have people going on adventures and not getting involved in “combat” per se. People being conflicted…hell, DYING…and no weapons being drawn. That’s Numero Uno.

Numero Dos:
A party of adventurers can have multiple motivations and yet still be cooperative in the aid of a greater whole.

Not sub-plots (though motivations in novels/stories often lead to sub-plots and side treks), but MOTIVATIONS.

Now, I realize that novels and RPGs are NOT the same thing…just as novels and films aren’t (they both tell stories, but they do so in entirely different fashions). RPGs are GAMES and as such they are PLAYED. While you can have a story develop from an RPG session (and can even actively work towards that end with a game that facilitates a narratavist agenda…like, say, Sorcerer), any story that is created is a cooperative or JOINT venture between the players involved, and thus cannot readily be dictated by any one single author…not even a railroading DM…without some consent of the players involved.

[don’t believe me? I (as DM) say, “okay, you guys are here.” Player A says, “My character would never go there.” I (as DM) say, “tough, you are there” (or DM provides some complex justification for the use of force, it doesn’t matter). Player A says, “I kill myself.” End of story…literally!]

In general, when the desired outcome of an RPG session is to have SOME semblance of story (even just, “we all went to this place and did X, Y. and Z”), the easiest way to get that cooperation between players is for the DM/GM to get players motivated in the same direction. For example:

“The Big Bad Guy threatens the kingdom. You have heard that the Amazing Artifact can put an end to his evil reign, if you only you can retrieve it from the Mysterious Dungeon.”

But characters CAN have major motivations…in fact, their whole raison d’etre…as THE THING that determines/inspires action, even though it seems a minor “plot” to the whole grand scheme of things.

For example, often in the Darkover books there’s some grand overarching plot that is DIRECTLY IMPACTED OR PERTAINING TO THE PROTAGONISTS (for example, the whole “realm” is in danger due to a war of succession…and the protagonist is the actual heir to the throne, not some side bystander/rube that gets drawn into the mess a la the Dragonlance heroes, for example), and yet the whole world shattering plot is a SECONDARY motivation to the character’s own likes/loves, hates/schemes, whatever. And having it as such does not prevent the characters (often, Ms. Bradley’s books present more than one protagonist or “main character”) from working as a team towards the main goal…but it enriches how they get there, the journey they are taking.

Again this is not something that’s especially new, just something I haven’t sat down and considered for a while. I may not be especially clear, so let me see if I can illustrate with an example:

Imagine a (D&D) adventuring party as a “special forces” type unit…a small group of proficient, heroic types designed to work together as a team to overcome obstacles and succeed at mission scenarios…you know, 4th edition style play.

I realize that this is the way Dungeons & Dragons has evolved through the last 2-3 iterations, but understand it bears NO semblance to the original literary traditions that inspired it. Instead it seems more inspired by The Dirty Dozen, The Seven Samurai, Mission Impossible or some other action film designed to spotlight a variety of special effects in different action sequences…the better to amuse and entertain the audience (in this case, the audience being the RPG players themselves).

Even The Lord of the Rings is somewhat guilty of this type of dross…especially the film version (which showcases the burly axe-swinging dwarf, versus the suave sword-swinging ranger, versus the acrobatic arrow-slinging elf). But Tolkien was telling an Epic story and the true protagonists are, of course, Frodo and Sam and their heroic struggles…NOT the actions of certain flamboyant characters.

[and by the way I DO enjoy the LotR films and have watched them multiple times]

Now, compare THAT type of “special forces for the sake of overcoming evil obstacle” group with a group of individuals, each with his or her own motivation (and not necessarily possessing aims in line with their fellows), that happen to be joined in common cause, but whose cause comes SECONDARY to their own personal (and sometime selfish desires)…you know, kind of like real life with real, independent thinking folks?

For a “cheesy example” let’s look at the protagonists of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. Silly, right? But look at these misfits. They have great powers at their disposal (when they occasionally get their shit together) AND they have an over-riding goal (to find some way home), and yet their own motivations and desires often overwhelm practicality or actually sabotage and cause their own group trouble. Eric is an f’ing coward hiding behind his wealthy background, Diana is some sort of foolhardy adrenaline junkie, Presto and Bobby are constantly attempting to “prove themselves” to the others (Bobby that he’s old enough to hang with the big kids and Presto that he’s not some gigantic nerd with a “worthless gift”). Hank is the Boy Scout, always trying to “Do the Right Thing,” and Sheila secretly carries a torch for the blonde archer and hopes to impress him. I mean, all of them are teenagers with self-esteem issues, but they manifest those issues in different ways, making for an interesting mix (if not one that is incredibly efficient in overcoming obstacles/challenges). And cheesy or not, the cartoon wasn’t something I’d call a comedy.

In my old D&D campaigns, players DID have motivations for their characters, and any particular adventure dreamt up by the DM was totally secondary to the aims of the characters…Lucky was always looking for new magical writings to fatten his spell book, Sunstarr was always trying to impress the ladies, my character was always trying to amass power and show everyone else up (‘cause I was a big jerk)…whether or not we actually achieved any GOAL for an adventure was completely secondary to the story that we were telling about our characters and what they did and how they did it…in other words, by their actions, which were often in conflict with any actual objectives set forth by our GM.

In fact, this harkens back to what my brother was saying the other day about wanting more motivation, more background for his characters…that the random Hat and Relationship charts were a good start but not enough, and that the adventure background itself didn’t seem to be enough motivation. It’s one thing when players bring their own specific, concrete goals and motives to the table…but the Dungeons & Dragons itself doesn’t necessarily provide “meat enough” to build a character.


  1. good post, and judging from your description, i think i might enjoy the works of mzb. i guess i'll take a look at one soon. haven't heard about her before.

  2. I enjoyed this post immensely. It has been years since I've read MZB. Many of her early Darkover books were great fodder for my Fantasy & Sci-Fi RPGames.