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Fantasy Rising: The Power of the Fantasy Genre

Welcome to the machine

Matt Snyder
June 22, 2001  

As resident fantasy columnist here at RPG.net, I didn't foresee me writing a column -- a fantasy column -- about technology. That sort of thing is usually reserved for James Maliszewski's Hard Science. But, here I am, doing just that -- writing about technology. What's the world coming to?.

There was a time when I cringed at the very notion of "technology" invading my perfectly enjoyable fantasy settings.

Take those wonderfully amusing gnomes of Mt. Nevermind, for instance. Who can forget them. I had a love/hate relationship with Dragonlance's gnomes. Oh, they were plenty amusing, but their dubious contraptions bothered my sense of the Dragonlance world. It was, after all, a fantasy world. What's with all this technology?!? Somehow, their catapult-elevators and other ill-conceived devices tainted that wondrous setting for me.

I have long since lost interest in Dragonlance (and the amazing thing is that the gnomes had nothing to do with it). Take a slightly more current example -- Mage: The Ascension. When I picked up this game in its first edition, I had no interest whatsoever in the Sons of Ether and their silly tinkering. I wanted magic, darn it! Mysticism! These mad-scientists mages challenged my view of this ultra-cool fantasy, albeit modern fantasy, game.

Now, I find the Sons of Ether one of the most intriguing traditions in the game. Looking back, I wonder why my perspective has changed. What's warmed me to the notion of technology "invading" my escapist fantasy pursuits?

First, I've come the realization that, when it comes to fantasy settings, calling something "technology" is a bit of a misnomer. After all, isn't full plate armor technology? Heck, even concepts like basic agriculture or stone tools are technology, so saying technology has no place in fantasy settings is just missing the mark.

That said, I think it's generally understood that when referring to "technology," I'm referring to extraordinary things, like steam power, clockwork machines, firearms (especially firearms), and sometime even more high-tech trappings. These are things that, for many gamers, just don't seem to have a natural place in many settings.

But at what point do elements in a game become "technology" that challenges our unspoken rules about what fantasy is all about? What's the defining line between fantasy and technology? I think as I've matured -- as we've all matured as gamers -- that line blurs more and more. The technology has crept past my scrying devices with great games like 7th Sea and Tribe 8. I consider both wonderful fantasy, but both clearly have elements of technology that seems to work well!

It's this creeping influence that's warmed me to technology in fantasy. Over time, these elements of technology have become far more acceptable than my more prejudicial fantasy tastes might once have allowed. Here's just a sample of "technological" elements in RPGs over the last several years that come quickly to mind:

  • Castle Falkenstein -- 'nuff said!
  • Earthdawn's airships and cannons
  • The aforementioned Sons of Ether of Mage: The Ascension.
  • 7th Sea's Renaissance-era devices, like firearms and, heck, even grappling guns!
  • UnderWorld's steampunk elements, most notably the Junkmen breed!
  • Tribe 8's Keepers, who hoard technology from the world before.

Outside of tabletop gaming, we have some other great influences:

  • Wonderful fiction settings like Jack Vance's Dying Earth or C.S. Friedman's Cold Fire trilogy.
  • Alan Moore's comic miniseries "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" -- a Victorian steampunk feast for the eyes and mind.
  • The entire Myst experience, which gives vision to fantastical machinery.
  • Thief and Thief II computer games, which pit the player against a conspiracy of techno-cults (and to which I'm currently addicted ... must write ... not play ...)
  • The much-hyped, much-delayed Arcanum, an upcoming computer game that looks to be the perfect example of fantasy meets steampunk.

These few entertaining examples went a long way toward winning me over (as did many others), expanding my idea of what's cool in fantasy, what "fits." Reading a game that incorporates technology as cleverly as Mage: the Ascension or simply seeing Thief II's awesome look and feel goes a long way toward shaping one's view of what fantasy is.

OK, so before S. John Ross chalks this column up as yet another "rant on the concrete dais in the middle of the lawn," (See Mirror, mirror on the wall ), I have a few suggestions for handling technology in fantasy gaming, with examples from my game-in-progress, Dreamspire (see my previous columns for more info).

Like clockwork

In Dreamspire, I really wanted incorporate some elements of steampunk-ish technology -- things like clockwork machinery, steam-powered elevators, automatons, etc. Those elements had to mix in with a medieval flavor of kings, queens and royal courts. So, I had to consider the implications of technologies that might ruin the functionality as well as the tone of the game. For example, I decided against allowing any kind of firearms in the game. That level of technology just didn't seem to fit with the courtly intrigue and nightmarish fantasy tones of Dreamspire.

Don't just accept technology as another cool tool in you fantasy setting. I'm as guilty of the "cool factor" as the next geeky gamer (who doesn't love flintlock pistols?!?), but I realize there have to be limits to what works. Higher-end technology can have a serious effect on your fantasy world. Consider the implications of introducing firearms into a world with medieval technology. And what about the ability to craft flying machines? Those kinds of technology could really shake up a world, whether it's warfare, economics or the politics of power.

Also, it's important to consider what the technology in fantasy settings represents to you. If you read my previous column, you know I'm keen on symbolism, the meanings behind the memes. That's something I'm consciously considering as I put Dreamspire's setting together. Technology is part of the game. But its inclusion is representative of something more psychological.

Here's a specific example. There's a guild of neutral-minded folks called the Clockworkers. Their role in Dreamspire is to create and maintain the myriad technologies of the realm, like complicated elevator devices, clockwork golem servants, and even the colossal machinery that literally holds the citadel together and keeps it in motion. But, the Clockworkers' single most important task is as keepers of the soul-clocks, mechanical time-keeping devices that house the souls of Dreamspire's denizens.

In Dreamspire, there are a finite number of souls, and a corresponding finite number of roles. A character enters the realm as a replacement for someone who has passed on before him or her. So, for example, if Kallic the Minstrel is murdered, another minstrel will come along sooner or later to take his role. While Kallic's body has been destroyed, his "clock keeps ticking" and his role must be filled. It's the Clockworkers who see that this process continues. While the rival royal families wage silent wars against one another, the Clockmakers hold real power -- control over the populace itself. Only the guildsmen, with their arcane knowledge, can maintain the soul-clocks. Only they can create and destroy the machines, which allows them to control the number of souls in Dreamspire.

In creating this aspect of Dreamspire's setting, I was consciously thinking about what the Clockworkers represented and, more importantly, what their strange devices symbolized. I suppose originally they were created to satisfy my "wouldn't it be cool" factor, but they -- and their technology -- evolved into a meaningful symbol in the game. They have become a mysterious political power that holds direct sway over the fate of everyone in the citadel, and their technology has become a metaphor for the soul.

That wraps it up for this month. I hope this column has sparked some ideas for your fantasy gaming. As always, drop me an email if you have questions or suggestions. Until next month, see you on the forums.

Have a good one,
Matt TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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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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