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Fantasy is Not Dead

Matt Snyder March 16, 2000

Each month in this column, I'll discuss fantasy role-playing. In this first installment, I want to establish that the scope of fantasy role-playing involves a lot more than swords & sorcery, dungeons & ... well you get the idea. I won't limit myself to discussing that conventional style of fantasy in this column, and I hope you don't limit yourself in your gaming! In fact, go out to your local game store and get any one of the games I mention below. They're fantastic.

What is “fantasy role-playing”? Good question. Defining the term might be more complex than you might think. Of course it includes what most would agree is traditional fantasy -- worlds filled with elves, dragons, wizards and knights, the usual fantasy fare. But fantasy gaming isn't limited to Tolkien-esque realms, though the professor certainly has influenced the hobby. There is dark fantasy (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay), swashbuckling fantasy (7th Sea), historical fantasy (Pendragon), Oriental fantasy (Legend of the Five Rings) and more.

Then there are other sub-genres that may not fit the more conventional definition of fantasy. Fading Suns is a sublime blend of genres that's as much fantasy as it is science fiction. Games like Mage: the Ascension, Unknown Armies, and Tribe 8 redefine the maturing fantasy role-playing hobby. In a nod to fellow rpg.net writer Gareth Michael Skarka, I'll mention his work-in-progress UnderWord, a fine example of how to stretch the definition of fantasy gaming in new, intriguing directions. Fantasy role-playing is better off with games like these.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “So what? I know what is and isn't a fantasy game.” Sure, most gamers do have an intuitive feel for what kind of fantasy game they want to play. Heck, many have created their fantasy realms or even game systems with just the right mix for their own specific interests and tastes. I applaud such efforts.

But “conventional” fantasy role-playing seems to have been taken for granted lately. Sure, fantasy role-playing still quietly rules in bookstores and basements, but it's become old hat. There is little in the way of significant innovation. All the interest seems to be focused on companies like White Wolf, Pinnacle Entertainment Group and others. By comparison to innovative games by these and other companies, fantasy games and gamers seem to get a bad wrap, perhaps because their games are perceived as sometimes less sophisticated than newer games or more prone to adolescent hack-and-slash treasure hoarding.

Fantasy is not dead

And yet, there are hordes of fantasy gamers out there, bad reputation and all. There are crazed hack-and-slashers, of course, but there are also some great gamers. I know, I've even role-played with a few. They have creative ideas that propel their role-playing to the next level. All of my greatest role-playing experiences took place in a fantasy game of one kind or another. As a GM and game designer, I find myself working on fantasy settings and campaigns almost exclusively. I guess I could blame that on friends who don't want to explore other role-playing genres like science fiction, but the truth is I love good old THAC0-infested fantasy, almost as much as they do. I think Fritz Leiber says it better than I ever could in a letter to Harry Fischer, his co-creator of those endearing swordsmen Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser:

We still have those great foreknowledges of ourselves that you call adolescent fantasies. But they will become mouldy and rotten and the trolls will creep into them greedily if we do not act soon. Our dreams will become the nests of the little gray ones, unless ...

That, in a nutshell, is what fantasy role-playing is all about -- for all us.

So I eagerly await more innovation in this genre. There are some storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Wizards of the Coast will release the much-hyped Dungeons & Dragons third edition late next summer. Love it or hate it, this should be good for the rpg industry, and hopefully bring some fresh, creative ideas to fantasy role-playing. Meanwhile, there are rumors from the dark cubicles of White Wolf that a fantasy game is in the works. I have hopes that such a product from White Wolf will help usher in the next generation of fantasy role-playing.

My only fear is that these two rpg industry behemoths will eventually stamp out other creative efforts from smaller publishers and amateurs. Consider this a preemptive call to those people not to give up – the role-playing hobby needs the original games and ideas that you people can deliver.

II. It's magic

Magic is perhaps the most important aspect of fantasy role-playing. I don't mean just the spells that magic-users toss around or the scads of magical artifacts and items characters collect. I'm talking about magic, that mysterious force that makes fantasy worlds so unlike our own.

It's quite easy to overlook the significance and meaning of magic in a fantasy game, but magic and its role in your fantasy world should be a defining force. That is, magic should help define the characters, creatures, culture, events and history of any great fantasy campaign. Its place in that world should capture the spirit of what your game is all about. Magic can be the greatest device you've got as both a player and GM.

Let's take a well-known example. The mage class in AD&D is a favorite for many fantasy role-players. But what is all that magic they've got at their fingertips? Mostly, it's a collection of spells to be tossed around for the benefit of player characters (and some non-player characters). But there is little in the way of explanation of magical energy in AD&D. What is magic and where does it come from? Who controls it and why? What effect does it have on the world at large, and, more importantly, what effect does it have on player characters?

If you answer these questions, you'll find all kinds of new ideas for plots, developments, and character growth in your role-playing. Let's try some brief answers using a hypothetical fantasy realm that might use the AD&D rules.

1. What is magic and where did it come from?
In this world, we'll say that magic is the residual power that was “left over” when the gods created an imperfect, material world. This energy threatened to corrupt their creation, so the gods granted mortals the power to wield magic to counter this entropy. Unfortunately, the power can be used to further this cause as well, or further the even more petty desires of the mortals.

This explains magic as the forces beyond the realm the characters can see. Magic, as a remnant of the energy used to create the world, is outside creation. It is, therefore, mysterious and unknown to most inhabitants.

In game terms, this means normal folk are very superstitious and often fearful of magic and those who use it. Magic is an alien force that could threaten their lives. We could, therefore, give all mages a penalty in most social situations because of this. Further, perhaps we could create rules for fear of magic, though this is often better handled through role-playing and judgment of the GM.

2. Who controls magic?
Only those who can make sense of an alien script in ancient metal tomes can master the power of its words. Studying these mystical books of lore grants the ability to wield magical powers of varying intensity.

The many levels of spells are those magical teachings handed down from mages of the past who have beheld the secrets of the gods and kept them in books of inscribed brass and gold. Most of these intricate metal tomes are kept in isolated schools of magic, while some books have been lost for centuries. Certain spells are named after famous masters, while the names of others are lost and forgotten.

In game terms, this means that only mages can cast spells, just as the AD&D rules state. But with this explanation, mages get one slight perk – they can read magic at all times. Their minds can, with study, comprehend the ancient lore of the gods to create -- and destroy -- through magic.

3. Why do they control magic?
Mages are born with the ability to decipher the runes because they are the descendents of those blessed by the gods, though some would call them cursed. No one knows how or why their ancestors became mages.

There are no specific rule considerations that come to mind. However, there are important role-playing considerations. Players must detail their character's history, including magical lineage and what school they learned to cast the magic of the gods. Perhaps a character's parents were influential mages, but now political forces would exact their revenge or stamp out the evil influence they believe is present the character. Finally, perhaps the GM could create a reason why mages' ancestors were able to wield magic, and use that history in an interesting storyline.

4. What effects does it have on the world at large?
Magic has a very real and dangerous effect on this world. Primarily, it causes entropic effects on creation, warping the original plan of the gods. Monsters are created or mutated, and the landscape is twisted or decaying.

In game terms, this explains the existence of many monsters or magical phenomena in our fantasy setting. We could select a number of creatures that are present in your world to create a unique bestiary. For example, we could include chimeras as twisted, mutated beasts, but choose not to include, say, displacer beasts because they don't quite fit what we have in mind. Better yet, we could create new and unique monsters that inhabit the world. Come up with a description, some statistics and an origin for how the creatures came about. Players love to encounter new ideas and challenges, particularly in a game that so many players know so much about.

5. What effects does magic have on player characters?
The answer to this question is up to the players. It can only be answered through role-playing in a magical world. This is the fun part!

This is a fairly simple example of what you can do with magic in your role-playing ventures. There are more questions to consider. (For example, how do clerics fit into this magical realm?) You'll find that as you creatively answer these questions in your world, more thoughful and useful questions will spring up. Soon, you'll have a magical realm that is much more interesting to explore.

Your turn

I hope to hear some of your ideas in the discussion forum. Maybe you can answer these and other questions for your own game world, or perhaps you have a favorite magic system and explanation.

Until next month,
Matt Snyder

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