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Fantasy Rising: The Power of the Fantasy Genre

What a World!

Matt Snyder
July 20, 2001  

I've been reading the fantasy gamer's bible lately. By that I mean, of course, Lord of the Rings.

Now, love it or hate it, that's the seminal work as far as fantasy gaming is concerned. Forget this verbose upstart Jordan! The good professor's work has almost single-handedly influenced the most popular genre in gaming today. Yes, yes, there are other fantasy literature innovators -- Lord Dunsany, for example, or work by Howard, Leiber and Moorcock. But Tolkien remains the gauge by which all of fantasy is measured.

I've also been reading a lot of articles about Tolkien -- mainly sparked by the upcoming movie release -- posts on RPG.net's main forum, other RPG-related communities, and even a few posts here on my own column's forum. There are hordes of Tolkien lovers out there, and they've voiced their loyal respect for his work. But, there are also several detractors who would diminish Tolkien for his prose or verse or just his overall "tweediness."

That's fair, I suppose. Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other related work cannot be without flaw, and it isn't. It certainly isn't the book of the century, as it was voted recently in a readers poll by Britain's Channel 4 and the Waterstone's bookstores. (My personal nod for that honor goes to James Joyce's Ulysses, but I digress.) My recent re-reading has endeared me to the book's lofty prose and tweedy qualities, but I can see where many readers are turned off.

My own beef with Tolkien's work is its omnipresence. His work has become so influential, so archetypal that new, inventive fantasy world ideas are hard to come by in fantasy gaming.

There's really no denying the influence Middle-Earth has in fantasy gaming. Look no further than the usual races, which remain largely as Tolkien conceived them (or at least "reconceived" some of them from myth). We have Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings, who are indeed called halflings at times in the Lord of the Ring, a fact I had forgotten. Then there are those villains that everyone loves to hate, the orcs.

There are dozens of games or settings with these same races. Heck, we even have settings that react to these archetypes. Shadowrun, for example, is a "what if cyberpunk met fantasy" scenario that, naturally, includes elves, dwarves, and even orcs. Darksun was an effort to turn fantasy on its ear ... by using fantasy's usual trappings. These are a reactions to Tolkien's influence in gaming, an attempt to change the usual assumptions about the genre.

That's been one result of his widespread influence. There have been notable efforts in fantasy gaming to create something else. Something different and fresh. In doing that, in trying to shrug off the guiding hand of the professor, a few of us have discredited his work and his influence. We're sometimes rather like a rebellious teen who sees nothing good in parental guidance, and instead sees only limitations and stereotypes.

But, like it or not, his work is marvelous. It's only limiting if you let it be, I say. Whether or not you like Lord of the Rings as a novel, I challenge you to create a setting as convincing and rich all while being entirely entertaining. I mean, let's face it, they guy had style. Hell, the guy created his own friggin' languages! Middle-earth is wondrous and awe-inspiring, and still has room for those lovable, down-home hobbits. His is a world we want to explore.

That's my opinion, of course. For some people, Middle-earth's specific elements don't do much in the way of inspiration. But what about his process? What about his technique? Tolkien is a master craftsman of something we gamers sometimes take for granted -- a compelling world. I mean, heck, if good settings come in a hardback book for $40 or less, why bother, right? World building can be a difficult and daunting task, and most of us don't have the time. But I say we should bother, partly because it's a lot of fun to create worlds, and partly because there's plenty new stuff to create!

Matt's world-building tip No. 1: Keep it simple, stupid (K.I.S.S.).

I can really appreciate Tolkien's world-building after trying to do some of my own for the last several years. He has wonderful details, epic histories, a sweeping landscape, and peoples and races with flavored cultures. But it took him years and years to create all that, years of crafting a language, writing a mythological history for the realm, to say nothing of writing the novels The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

My own creations are far less detailed, but I had great success in a D&D campaign I ran a couple years ago that centered on a single kingdom. I had a vague idea of what lay beyond the borders of Ashlond, but I didn't need to detail even the bordering nations to inspire some good gaming. To flavor the campaign a bit, I crafted an ancient history of the Akhalen, a race of progenitors that wielded potent magics in a continent-sprawling empire. But the only thing that mattered about the Akhalen to my players was that the last empress of their empire was a necromancer queen who now conspired in the mountains north of Ashlond to rule again. My fellow players unearthed enough Akhalen history (and artifacts, naturally) to make them want to kick that necromancer queen back to the netherworld for good and become heroes of the realm.

The time involved in creating Ashlond was relatively little. I created a basic map, populated with two significant cities, some interesting geographical features like the Myrwald Forest and the Goblyn Marshes, and some interesting characters like Jhekis Deviltail and Fergal the Beardless. It probably took me no more than a month of creating between classes to have enough material to begin the campaign.

Matt's world-building tip No. 2: Identify YOUR influences.

While it's hard to see farther back than Tolkien, the man wasn't without his influences. Most of his magical ideas stem from Anglo-Saxon myth, on which he was an expert. Other notions may have derived from Finnish myth and other northern European traditions. The effect in his work is a concordant realm in which elements blend beautifully.

The notion of identifying influences while creating has interested me greatly of late. I keep questioning whether, in our media-soaked world, my influences are too diverse and discordant. My solution is to embrace those diverse influences, but still create a world that emerges with its own consistent identity.

In the campaign I described above, I can list a number of influences, including Braveheart (Ashlond was rather like Scotland), Arthurian myth, American Indian myth, Icelandic sagas, Joseph Campbell, Myth (the video game, of all things) and, of course, Tolkien himself. When I encountered something, perhaps while reading, watching a movie, or playing a video game, I thought, "Hey, I like this. It's meaningful to me. How can I make this work in the campaign, and how I can I do it so it blends into the setting?" The amalgam of influences converged into an epic heroic quest that my fellow players and I enjoyed.

Matt's world-building tip No. 3: Create something new

I don't think Tolkien had any intention of launching an entire genre in publishing, but the success of Lord of the Rings made fantasy a viable (i.e. very profitable) publishing category. Ever since he's been imitated to death, particularly in fantasy gaming. But I think Tolkien was an inspired individual who created something wondrous, unique and inviting.

I think the realization that I needed to do something different than Tolkien had was somewhere in the back of my brain when crafting the Ashlond campaign. My conscious "reaction" to the usual fantasy types was to eliminate the usual humanoids -- particularly the orcs, but also hobgoblins, ogres, etc. -- from my world altogether and replace them with a slightly different kind of creature, the goblyn.

In that setting, I created goblyns as a mutable, devilish enemy that took many sizes and forms. In effect, they ranged from usual D&D goblin size up to even hill giant size. The goblyns were wicked, cruel, fearless and fearsome, and my players loved to hate them! The goblyns were literally born from the evil deeds of mortals, a fact one fellow player, who played a paladin character, discovered one session to his horror. He set out from then on to eliminate those evil incarnates!

My use of "goblyns" was hardly revolutionary or original, but it was something sufficiently different to interest our gaming group. The players got a wholly new delight with a slightly different and often unpredictable enemy. Mutated goblyns were everywhere, and the players never seemed to tire of driving the evil hordes back to the nightmares from whence they came!

Now, all this about creating something new and different said, I don't think creating something different for difference's sake is worthwhile. I think different is good, but it has to be something more -- something you find entertaining and perhaps even meaningful to you and your players.

The World Building Challenge

Ok, now it's your turn. I want to challenge everyone out there in RPG.net land to either create a world, or describe one you've been working one for a while, and share it with Fantasy Rising. Send me a description of the fantasy setting of your creation, and I'll pick out an outstanding candidate or two to examine here next month. I'll interview the creators, and we'll talk about the creative process for their setting. Don't worry about creating the next seminal work in fantasy. Just do as the professor does, and share with us a world we'd want to explore! Email me at What do you think? Go to forum!\n"; $file = "http://www.rpg.net/$subdir/list2.php?f=$num"; if (readfile($file) == 0) { echo "(0 messages so far)
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All Fantasy Rising columns by Matt Snyder

  • Heroes real and imagined November 16, 2001
  • What a World, Part Two October 2, 2001
  • What a World July 20, 2001
  • Welcome to the Machine June 22, 2001
  • Back to basics March 7, 2001
  • Off to the races April 28, 2000
  • Fantasy is Not Dead March 16, 2000

    Other columns at RPGnet

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