Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Medieval America" Nice, Safe, Derivative, and Boring.

While browsing the various gaming blogs I came across Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands and their lost continent/science fantasy setting, Abraxas. Being a connoisseur of wild and different role playing settings I was instantly sucked into their world of teleporter gates, terror bird riding warriors, psychic magic, and other strangeness. I dropped him a comment asking if they had any plans to publish Abraxas as an RPG setting, either for their upcoming Fabled Lands RPG or another system. Dave Morris responded:
We did think about publishing an Abraxas RPG using my Tirikelu rules system, SM. Tirikelu was originally created for Tekumel and should make a good fit. But, as a dedicated Tekumel player, I have seen how the gaming public prefer "medieval America" as a fantasy setting and so I suspect the level of interest in such a project would be miniscule - unfortunately.
I can only assume that this"medieval America" setting that Dave is referring to the standard, much-recycled, Tolkien-esque setting used just about every fantasy role-playing game from the White Box to Pathfinder: A feudal (sometimes with Renaissance touches) pseudo-European world with elves, dwarves, halflings, clerics, liche lords, chromatic/metallic dragons, etc. We've all played them and they were all of this was great fun...

...when I was 15-years-old. I'm 36 years old now, and the whole archetypical fantasy setting has gotten very, very old.

I can't blame Dave for his reluctance to take a chance with Abraxas in the current gaming market. After all, the artist proposes, but the consumer disposes. However, I think his comment on "medieval America," speaks volumes about gamers and the gaming industry.

We've all noticed how Hollywood has been consistently turning out nothing but sequels and remakes with very little that can be called "new" or "original." Movie and TV writers and producers have found what will draw in viewers and they aren't about to risk millions on a concept that could flop. Sadly, despite it's reputation for "creativity," the same for the gaming industry. They found their "formula" and they since their purpose is to make money, they will slavishly follow it. From time to time you'll get a truly weird and wonderful settings like Tekumel, Journe,  Talislantia, or Carcosa but these setting are largely ignored by all but a niche community. Capitalism is about making a profit, not creativity.

However, it's a bit of cop-out to lay the blame solely at the feet of game designers. After all, they are merely responding to the demands of the gamer. They want the same-old-same-old fantasy game. However, while these settings are safe and familiar, they tend eventually to breed stagnation. I got out of fantasy gaming for well over a decade because I was sick of traditional setting paradigm. I didn't get back in until a fellow online gamer introduced me to Empire of the Petal Throne and my interest in the genre was rekindled. Most won't be so lucky. They'll leave the hobby and slowly and surely, role playing games will fade away entirely.

For the sake fantasy gaming, I think it's about time that fantasy gamers dare to try new things, new worlds, and new concepts. That means we have to leave our safe comfort zones of traditional fantasy and start adventuring in new and uncharted territories, Whether it's Tsolyanu, Barsoom, or Abraxas.


  1. Sing it, brother! I'm right there with you: no more vanilla fantasy for me, please. And "medieval America" is exactly what I call it, too, although I also mean (and dislike) that expansionist, racist, Manifest Destiny, wild west thing that so many OSRites love.

    But there are problems.
    1. the low concept issue, for getting people involved. High concept is something you can pitch to a movie exec in an elevator because it's made out of familiar parts, low concept is something you can't explain in less than half an hour. All the settings you cite are so resolutely low concept that really you should give the players the rulebooks to read a couple of weeks before you start playing so they have an idea of what characters to make and are jazzed to get involved. I love that, but I've seen it fail repeatedly even in long-running, patient and nerdly gaming groups if it's not presented carefully. It is definitely a limiting factor on spreading the word.
    2. looking around the OSR, there seem to be lots of people who really love vanilla fantasy. Even folks like Alexis who want their games to be art also want goblins who shut up and are stupid little Tolkien rejects. I think they see the specialness of their game coming from somewhere else - somewhere I can't always follow them.
    3. I personally get as jaded on exoticism for its own sake as I do on vanilla. Sadly, I feel Talislanta has quite a bit of this, even if it also has good qualities. I can understand being resistant to having to learn about issho and dyshas and all that when it's not obvious how any of it is different from magic. And I see the curse of this from both sides, because there's something in, say, 1980 Flash Gordon that really speaks to me, but other people won't get that spark off it, they won't think "cool" about that particular exotic detail, and if I build my world about it they'll go "meh," while I go "meh" over their Wookiees or gorge trolls.

    So for now I'm thinking more about fantasies that start close to Earth history and reveal their secrets slowly. But I'm damned there too because the histories I really want to tell aren't European.

  2. I think the familiar is always going to resonate more with some people than the new. I think there's a market for new, though--Tekumel is still around, after all.

    Even the setting's you mention are treading familiar ground in some ways, though. They're all still science fantasy sort of setting--and I love those, but newer, different things have been done. How about move weird fantasy to a different level of technology, like Mieville's Bas-Lag or Gilman's Half-Made World, or thinking beyond the pulp weird tropes like Jay Lake's Mainspring series--an alternate history were the universe quite literally runs on clockwork?

  3. Hearty agreement. My hope is that people who are working away at their strange new worlds will keep doing so, and sharing a bit with the rest of us. Though he used tons of mythological types and folklore for material, the first time I read Tolkien it was WEIRD--it didn't seem vanilla at all. I think the boring material is that which is regurgitated Tolkien, or regurgitated Gygax, etc. That's how vanilla happens, for me at least. Fortunately, I have a lot of hope in the talents and imaginations of many writers right here in our midst. I don't know about commercial releases, but I think we will continue to see awesome flavor coming out.

  4. I had the name feeling when I first encountered Dune. It seemed so exotic. Jaded old man that I am now, its hard to find anything that elicits as much of a reaction.