This month, because we’re working on all-new Setting Shards, this blog is all about genre. What we play, what we read, and what the smeg is it? [Ste Note: Appropriately enough, my brother considers Red Dwarf fantasy – rather than sci-fi. He even commissioned a Red Dwarf themed card for the fantasy Concept Cards deck…]
In one sense, genre is a fiction (see what I did there?) It’s trying to put games (or books, or films, or whatever) into categories. Creative types usually hate being pigeonholed. There are three kinds of people who like genre-lising. People trying to understand creative works – academics and critics. People who are trying to file creators – publishers who can talk about ‘fantasy authors’ or cinema owners who screen ‘arthouse films’ And people trying to sell you something similar to what you already like – “customers who bought this also looked at …”
But as with so much creative, it’s quite hard to fit things neatly into boxes. This month we’re going to try to sketch in the edges of some big genre classifications; look at games that fit, and ones that don’t quite; and talk about why using genres might actually help you play – whether it’s to help find new games, or new material for the ones you’ve already got (*cough* Shards *cough*cough*)
We figured fantasy goes first, because DnD. It’s probably the oldest RPG; certainly the most heavily marketed; and probably the widest played. Therefore DnD in all its myriad variants has come to define the industry. (I, like anyone with sense, am going to exclude Spelljammer, which is DnD In Space) So fantasy is a place to begin.
But how to define fantasy? The classic core is medieval tech level, with magic; and featuring elves and dwarves, and probably some races one could describe as ‘touched’ – beastkin, nephilim (half -angels), affriti (fire-blessed), whatever. Yet almost every example world I can think of breaks some of that, some of the time. I’m going to start by excluding the whole sub-genre of urban fantasy, because Amy wants to talk about that later. Cyber-punk-fantasy is a rule unto itself (magiopunk?) becuase you have to detail the interaction between magic and technology.
I’ve played not-medieval – the swashbuckling Lace of Steel, and both Fate and WOD adaptations in Ancient Rome. I’ve heard good things about a Norman era LRP, and hope to crew a Mag-eolithic era one (Stone Age with a few magical exceptions). I’ve played mostly-human Ars Magica. My major LRP has only two races – humans and orcs.
Whatever medium we’re looking at, it probably isn’t fantasy without magic – and yet Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials manages to have a parallel pseudo-science that fills the same narrative role. Even seemingly-middle-of-the-genre Game of Thrones has very little actual magic. Whether you consider the arts of the magisters to be magic rather depends on whether you subscribe to Clarke’s definition – ‘Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.’ Magisters feel like scientists, so I’m going with the theory _they_ understand what they’re doing, even if we don’t.
GoT has dragons and undead, and a few clerical healing effects – but not much in the fireball and lightning department. Much of the supernatural is attributed to Gods – but is the distinction between magic and the divine that clear cut?
On the subject of Gods, there probably are some. Rare is the fantasy world without some kind of divine influence – whether that be a paladin’s Lay On Hands; or a demigod hero. Mythology is a whole sub-genre, and contains gems such as Nephilim – lovely ideas, system is a contender for Worst Ever; In Nomine, which was apparently written in response to Jack Chick; and Mazes & Minotaurs, which I keep meaning to play, since I hear good things about it.
I think the problem I’m running into here is why do we bother? Fantasy – stripped of elves and dragons – is about people.We can look through young Garion’s eyes as a mere kitchen hand, and see a what-if world – if lifting things were just a levitate spell away, what use cranes? Why, in a world where a low-level cleric can Create Food and Water, are there still people going hungry? If you had the power to summon lightning with a few words, what would you do with that power? And our stories become about characters and their actions – so, no different to historical or scifi or romance.
Fantasy’s easier than most genres to be a Big Damn Hero in. This RealLife LRP is really hard to make any meaningful influence on – all the best plots are hoovered up by the GM’s mates. But fantasy games allow us to be the hero – warrior or wizard – because if you’ve just saved the kingdom from a dragon, the king looks a bit underwhelming. But best leave him to get on with the boring bits like feeding everyone and opening schools; you’ve got a new evil to conquer.
We might head off to space; we might spend a while being super, we might even dip a toe into eldritch horror. But we come back to fantasy because it’s heroic, it’s familiar, and it’s darned fun. Excuse me, I’m going to go dip into my bookshelves. Which, by the way, I’ve just acquired more of. What should I fill the gaps with?