Discuss: Three fantasies

Some comments showed up at Facebook about the two Fantasy Heartbreaker essays, and I’m a little tired of facepalming. It’s been a long road of experiencing and reflecting upon what became of fantasy during my lifetime, and the original essays are a blink of a moment during that process. Let’s see what the long view might hold.

I did a little essay with the briefest possible introduction to three terms; D&D fantasy, fantasy heartbreaker, pink slime fantasy. You can rightly imagine me veering off into subroutines and explanations and whatnot in each case, then deciding to start over. More than once.

So, here are some nuances – think of them as what you might hear when listening at the door of each term.

  • D&D fantasy: sequential tournament modules like the Giants series don’t count; the R series from Mentzer’s award-running run at RPGA do (and as implied in the video, are practically definitive); the A series is an important indicator because the tourney versions were converted into “saga” versions for publication.
  • Also for D&D fantasy, Dragonlance and The Forgotten Realms are arguably the ur-examples, but they are so explicitly crossed-over that I’m more interested in the more diffuse examples that were not designed and marketed as such. In other words, if D&D fantasy weren’t already happening, then DL and FR might not have been implemented.
  • Fantasy heartbreaker: most of them try to “fix” D&D without succeeding; by contrast, most OSR publications avow not to “fix” D&D but often succeed. Also, games of both types often inadvertently become something good on their own which is not identifiable with the acknowledged or implied source game or assumptions of play.
  • Pink slime fantasy: the term “vanilla” keeps coming up in discussion, but that term is stupendously bogus. There is no vanilla fantasy, e.g., Lord of the Rings, Prydain, Narnia, The Worm Ouroboros, and The Broken Sword are metal as hell, and metal itself wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Burroughs and Howard. I stomp on its inclusion.

The economics are very helpful in understanding the differences. Fantasy heartbreakers are utterly marginal, being the unwanted fringe within a fringe cottage industry; pink slime fantasy is the outcome of hyper-mass promotion and marketing at an economic level way above the “weight” of formerly-known fantasy content; and D&D fantasy is an odd side-effect of gamers writing novels +  novels serving as the procedural model for play.

If you don’t have Circle of Hands, then I’m a little worried about the heartbreaker discussion because you aren’t seeing my reflections on the original essays. If you do have it but skipped that chapter because “it’s not the game,” peek at it a bit, I beg you. Oh, and although I hadn’t hit upon the term yet, the Naked Went the Gamer essay is all about (anti) pink slime.

Venning is irresistible and at least possibly historically necessary to discuss, so let me try a couple, including a couple of non-overlaps for comparison:

  • Pink slime fantasy by itself: The Sword of Shannara, especially later installments (yes, there is a further overlap here with pastiche, but not all pastiche is syncretic/homogenized, which Shannara is)
  • D&D fantasy + pink slime fantasy: The Iron Tower trilogy, The Wheel of Time
  • Fantasy heartbreaker + D&D fantasy: most of the games mentioned in the essays, but most uncompromisingly in Fifth Cycle, Forge: Out of Chaos, and Deathstalkers
  • D&D fantasy by itself: God Stalk

The Finding D&D posts and videos are a big deal here too, but they’d be involved as a fourth issue, not as a subset to any of these three.

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10 responses to “Discuss: Three fantasies”

  1. On pink slime fantasy

    This pass at the discussion made me realize – the processing-to-pink-slime thing happens in many ways. At the moment, it's making entire sense to me to say I've read a HELL of a lot of pink slime ERB (Edgar Rice Burroughs). You can make a case that some later ERB is itself pink slime ERB. And yeah, "good" or not – that really depends. I certainly enjoyed some reading some of these, and regret wasting time on others.

    More to say on D&D Fantasy for sure, but not today.

    • I agree, there are many ways to pink slime, or rather, depending on the multiple points of origin, lots and lots of things that happen to creative work, or its ongoing production, go toward it. In one of my design curriculum videos, I talk about two fantasy authors (one mediocre, one all-time great) whose shorter work was extended through contracts and editor pressure into longer versions, and arguably, diminished ones.

      I'm mostly interested in what's done with it rather than how it got that way. To continue with the meat product analogy, the most urgent questions concern its distribution, marketing, and above-all its reception into normalized status, because, once that's occurred, new/later production doesn't start with its own point of origin at all, but instead dips into the vat as if it were the point of origin.

      Here's probably the most important point about that: because anyone can create magnificent fantasy from anything, pink slime included. Theoretically. Perhaps even historically, if we were to examine the highly-massaged British processing of Greek and medieval fantasy into palatable 19th-century empire form, and then see what weird/isolated Brits and spunky American pulp-scribblers were to do with it a generation later.

      But that "can," i.e., the possibility or capability, bobs in a sea of "not," i.e., we are inundated with pink slime, the more so because it is so evidently the source to make more of itself, as if the vat now had generation/regeneration powers. Uniquely so? Maybe.

      That's my laser-point of focus if the discussion could ever manage to arrive there from all the defensive tumult. First, whether the twentieth-century innovations and sophistications of making the slime were and are simply too powerful now for that to occur (the gloom and doom, "not like the old days" question). Second, if it's happening, where, because it would definitely be under our noses but utterly missed for what it is, because that's how it always works.

    • Second, if it's happening, where, because it would definitely be under our noses but utterly missed for what it is, because that's how it always works.

      I think the "it" in "if it's happening" is "magnificent fantasy from anything, pink slime included" – is that right?If so – man, I want some answers there! My own list is very, VERY slim and contains all-too-many caveats.The first question … well, the forces are incredibly powerful. That needs acknowledgement, and maybe some analysis. TOO powerful to overcome at ALL? I'm going to assume "no", just to remain sane.

    • I think the "it" in "if it's happening" is "magnificent fantasy from anything, pink slime included" – is that right?

      Correct.

  2. Observations

    Listening to the description of Pink Slime, it occurs to me that the movement to make vegetable matter taste like meat still upholds the idea. Maybe even better since its taking not meat and turning it into meat

    This got me thinking about my experience reading Earthsea and Butler's Xenogenesis as two examples. From, book to book, because at least in Earthsea's case it was not meant to be a series, we see a change in protagonists and situation. Even if the books are related, they may very well be telling different stories. And in fact are telling different stories.

    Where as D&D fantasy, any content is directly related to previous and following content. The constraints imposed in D&D fantasy make it possible to play wrong or not play at all, depending on how you go. 

    Just thinking out loud. 

  3. Different Observations

    Looking back at this…

    Fantasy literature is actually in pretty good shape these days.

    Sure, there is the endless churn of Forgotten Realms books, Harry Potter knockoffs and so on, but there is a fair amount of superior work hitting mainstream bookstores.

    Try finding books by Neil Gaiman or China Miéville, for example – there is a fair chance they are there. (In English speaking countries, of course. Probably less so in Sweden, for instance.)

    The late Terry Pratchett is worth a mention in that he took pretty generic ingredients and made interesting things from them. For all the wizards, witches, werewolves and golems, his later Discworld books were firmly about the modern world. That's pretty much what fantasy can, if not should, be. Of course he's been dead for a few years now – but his books are still on the shelves. Good fantasy from pink slime? Maybe, maybe not, but close. Naturally, because he was so prolific, he arguably became a bit repetitive. Meh. Even the weakest Pratchett is better than the best Martin, or, heaven help us, Goodkind. (Now there is a deep personal hate – if I ever got around to writing a fantasy novel, it would be, in part, a polemic against Goodkind.)

    RPGs on the other hand – even in my little city I can think of five different shops that sell D&D products. That's without putting any effort into looking. There might be a couple of others. A couple of these five also sell Pathfinder. One, the most specialized, has some other games. Nothing else, of course. In other words, it's not to hard to come across RPGs – as long as they are D&D.

    So superior fantasy literature can compete in a mass market, but the smaller, but not-so-underground, RPG market is close to monopolized.

  4. If you’ll believe it, D&D Fantasy was almost my introduction to fantasy. In fact, in terms of the word denoting a collection of genre tropes, I’d say that straight up, it *was*.

    I read the Narnia books as a kid, but they weren’t part of any broader experience with fantasy, and didn’t fit into any rubric of fantasy (I didn’t have any). Growing up in an evangelical household I understood them very much in Christian allegorical terms. As far as the fantastic in general goes, I recall reading (and enjoying quite a bit) a single collection of sci-fi short stories. But other than that, during my youth I always headed straight for the “fiction” section of the library.

    Which is where, in fact, The Fellowship of the Ring was shelved in my high school’s library when I found it circa 1999. I had finished my book during the reading period and needed a new one, and what the hell, this one grabbed me. Maybe I was familiar with the author’s name; I recall my brother’s black paperback Hobbit with a disgusting, evil-looking creature on the cover fighting a fat man with a cape and a sword. It was an utter turnoff. But once I pulled Fellowship from the shelf, the story becomes the common one: Tolkien captured me.

    After this we have a confluence of desires. One, I wanted more of what Tolkien gave me. Two, I was at this time very interested in roleplaying but utterly unsure of how to approach it. As a shy Christian kid hobby spaces were alien and frightening (and much of what they had unappealing; cf. that repulsive hobbit cover and very small contact with genre fiction), and anyway forbidden. The hangover from the Satanic Panic was a headache that lasted the entire 90s in my house. But I was an enthusiastic player of video games, and especially so-called roleplaying video games (the japanese ones), and I knew one could go deeper: that it all started in books with complicated rules around imagining and simulation, and this concept was extremely appealing to me.

    Find me there at the fantasy section, looking, yes, at Dragonlance. I followed up Tolkien with Dragons of Autumn Twilight and at the time I loved it. I loved that the derivation of the narrative and its rules from a game was clear. I felt that I was playing vicariously. I would have read or watched actual play enthusiastically at the time if it had existed.

    I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this little slice of autobiography, but if I can I’ll tie it more closely to the post: “D&D fantasy is an odd side-effect of gamers writing novels + novels serving as the procedural model for play.”

    Although I delved deeply into Dragonlance, ripping through a ton of novels the summer I turned sixteen, once I did actually start playing roleplaying games eight years later, they absolutely did not serve as my procedural model for play. I immediately encountered GM control tactics and story-leading and decisions that weren’t decisions and bounced off of it hard. No thanks. If I want something packaged and game-like I can go back to reading Dragonlance.

    • I was not in fact familiar with that cover, so I searched a bit …

      That’s quite bad luck given all the whimsical or evocative or interesting pop-art cover designs the title has featured.

      I’m thinking about how you were hesitant about it partly on Christian grounds, given that the author, now at least, is an acknowledged serious Christian contributor to literature, on a par with C. S. Lewis if not so determinedly argumentative. In the early 1990s, it seems to me as if the culture available to a kid was drained of the information to form the tools to process the information available, and even then it was available only in uninformative forms.

    • Exactly. The larger culture and especially the American Evangelical culture.

      And yep! That’s the cover. I wasn’t consciously hesitant about it on Christian grounds, but you can be sure that the psychic sea I was swimming in set me up to have an aversion to it.

    • I’m glad you brought up D&D Fantasy, because it typically takes a back seat to the Pink Slime topic just because the latter is so interesting. But D&D Fantasy is probably the most relevant for what we do.

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