Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Anchors of Fantasy

Mr. Raymond Feist is not the world's most original writer, but his books continually top bestseller lists. Forgotten Realms novels regularly feature predictable characters doing predictable things, but still manage to have a hefty market penetration. What do they have in common?

I believe both offer anchors to the reader. In Feist’s case, many of his cultures or nations are thinly-disguised real-life cultures or old fantasy stereotypes. Feist does not spend much time, if any, detailing anything new in fantasy; he gives the reader something familiar as a point reference, tells any truly new cultural descriptors to get the hell out of the way, and writes his story. No one’s saying it’s the most creative literature ever, but it’s also been read by about 7 million more people than anything I’ve ever written.

In the Forgotten Realms, you do have some real-world analogues, but Realms novelists have the benefit of writing about a world defined (and that has defined) multiple standard fantasy tropes in the world’s most popular roleplaying game. Again, Realms authors don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time out—though to be fair, at times they do come up with an original idea or two.

These anchors are common in fantasy today, whether it be tabletop gaming or a fantasy novel. Predictability and easy definition are sometimes loathed by those seeking more exotic fantasy, but there is a reason that the most popular fantasy works retain a mainstream definition and point of reference. It keeps the entry barrier down, and allows people to more easily immerse themselves in a game or a novel.

I have seen games and books (some written by good friends) that completely overdo the entire anchor concept. They are too staid, too predictable, too similar to the mundane world to be effective escapist fare. On the other hand, I have seen truly esoteric or eclectic fantasy efforts (T├ękumel, anyone?) which remain niche at best. It’s not that you can’t create less familiar fantasy that has an easy entry point, it’s just apparently a harder task for many.

If you want true accessibility for your work, think first in vanilla, then add your sprinkles and toppings.


Quim said...

Same thing is said in Robin's Lwas of Good Game Mastering. So you both are right. There's nothing wrong in exotic fantasy but the decrease in accessibility is something to bear in mind should you want such a product penetrate the market.

Rob Conley said...

If you want true accessibility for your work, think first in vanilla, then add your sprinkles and toppings.

Pretty much describes one of the main principles behind my Majestic Wilderlands. Why many of my gods are named the way they are such as Set, Mitra, Thoth, Nephthys, Silvanus, etc.

Wickedmurph said...

I'm with you on this. When I campaign build, I tend to use real historical cultures, preferably in a similar geographic area to where they lived on earth, since culture is often tied to geography. I can then "reskin" them into orcs or elves, add some fantasy flair over top, and have something that is both fantasy and recognizable.

In my current campaign, orcs are much more like post-contact Native Americans, if somewhat more warlike. With a profusion of tribes, languages and fighting styles. There is a ton of material to use, and most people aren't too familiar with Native history, so it doesn't feel too much like... Viking Dwarves... again...

rologutwein said...

Exactly. I hear a lot of 'poo pooing' of game settings that have a 'medieval europe' flair to them. But honestly, that is a great basis to build a gaming world on. As you said, it provides a point of entry for people, enough familiarity to want to open the door. What you do with the world beyond that is what is going to make it unique (or not).

A case in point for this is the console/PC game 'Dragon Age: Origins'. I've heard several reviewers criticize the game for being to 'generic' fantasy (because it has elves, dwarves, mages, etc.). But honestly, THAT is a genre. If you change it TOO much, then it becomes something entirely different. It would be like taking a Western movie and then changing things around so they all ride giant chickens. Yeah, it may be 'different', but it isn't a 'western'.

I'm of the opinion that a 'generic' or 'derivative' setting isn't a bad thing—depending on how it is used.

stirgessuck said...

I'm reminded of this S. John Ross article: Five Elements of Commercially-Viable RPG Design

Tyson J. Hayes said...

I think part of the reason the Forgotten Realms books and their ilk are so popular is the immediate familiarity people have with them. When a person picks up a Star Wars novel they've already been introduced into the world through the movies, or the video games and want more of the same.

I wish it wasn't quite as true so we could see more innovation in the books, but I'm just as guilty as everyone else in reading and enjoying them. :)

Wickedmurph said...

On the other hand, I don't read the Forgotten Realms or Star Wars books anymore. I've pretty much gotten past them. I read stuff like China Meiville and Steven Erikson and R Scott Bakker because they are capable of creating that world without using *as many* shortcuts. In a novel, that can be a wonderful experience, if you're up for it.

But for gaming, I like to use shortcuts. It gives the players more information in less time if they can make some assumptions. Plus, it saves me time.

Another way to look at it is as cultural themes. There are only so many basic ways of living/organizing a larger society, so if you categorize some of them, you can mix and match easily. So instead of saying "Viking-Like", you can say Iron-age technology, dairy/herding based economy supplemented by trade/raiding, highly naval, patriarchal society. Fond of axes.

John Stephens said...

Nick Lowe's essay on the subject back in 1986 makes the same point:


Well worth reading.

Zachary The First said...

Really good commentary and links all around, guys. Thanks for the thought!

JoeGKushner said...

I agree. It's one of the reasons some others, like good old Terry Brooks and his Shanara series, are up there.

clash bowley said...

Well, I never claimed to "get" Fantasy anyway. Epic Fail.