Dialing down the fantasy

I’m a polyfantasist: any degree of fantastic content and any degree of naturalism are both fun. For the moment, I’m focusing on one historical cluster of play-and-design: variously called hedge fantasy, mud-and-shit fantasy, “iron” fantasy, sometimes overlapping with historical fantasy, with games that sought it through the lens of deep culture and realism. It’s played as naturalistic as possible, to the extent of not particularly supporting “adventuring party” play. You play in the culture, of the culture, daily life in the culture, with events arising from the geography, ecology, and immediate social history. Play-acivity includes family, society, camping, weather, seasons, daily life, bodily functions to some extent, pain, fatigue, and the ups & downs & details of wealth.

I like it, and as far as I can tell, most people do, but it tends to get overtaken in practice. Although it’s not hard to do it with Chivalry & Sorcery, early RuneQuest, Ysgarth, and aspects of Advanced D&D, these games do grade into more extravagant and colorful magic and party-squad play, and a lot of games like Rolemaster only glance this way a bit and effectively set it aside in favor of a melee/missile arcane/divine assault/sneak squad on some kind of mission, “fantasy” or not. So really dedicated examples are not very common. Bushido goes this way easily if people want to. Powers & Perils is a pretty good one, as is the early Burning Wheel (I don’t know about the later versions). Maybe Ars Magica if play focused primarily on Grogs and occasional Companions. Circle of Hands and The Riddle of Steel wouldn’t count despite being notably gritty, as they are both also heinously all-Elric all-wild-magic all-the-time. I’m talking about really going all-out on this variable and excluding most others.

Footnote: role-playing terms or spheres of play have mostly swerved toward magic as super powers or at least hyper-significant psychedelica, but this “grunty dirty” version has swerved away. So a somewhat artificial split has arisen between (i) dressing up modern values and fun-to-watch powers in thin fantasy clothes and escalating self-reference, vs. (ii) playing so deeply into the fictional culture and content, and expected to take it so seriously and humorlessly, that you can’t do anything except to grind through the elaborate character creation algorithms and, in play, to act out the textual descriptions. Let’s ignore these. I want to talk about real play, not weird gamer swerves.

The strongest example I can think of is Harnmaster. I should clarify: all I know of the game is the original 1986 core book, which probably shocks anyone who’s familiar with this title. I’ve been recently educated (and alarmed) to learn how extensive and contentious its development became, so, insiders, please don’t data-dump about it. For anyone who’s interested, there are two competing “official homes of” sources: Kelestia.com | The official online home of Hârn and HârnMaster and Intro to HârnWorld – Columbia Games.

Surprising no one, I have dipped into all that material only minimally, taking the original core book as given and using one or two other early sources to round out my understanding for the purpose of using it (the core book). Here’s a character for you to look at.

Briefly, she’s a villager born to a wealthy thrall but fostered by a freeman tenant farmer family, whom she doesn’t get along with. She’s also a niece of the clan headman. Metaphysically she’s born on Savon 6, therefore under the sign of Tai the Lantern Bearer. She’s not strong, agile, or alert, but is good with more intimate senses and has a nice voice, as well as having a good memory. She favors the goddess Peony and is pretty pious and law-abiding. She has problems with alchohol and a fear of drowning (these are considered minimal or potential for player-characters). You can see from the attached notes that I considered religious training, thespian, or embalming, and I chose the latter, adding some physician and knife skill  on that basis. [the attached sheet is from a later version of the game so I had to write in some of the features and ignore others]

There is a faint chance, perhaps upon making seventy or eighty characters, to arrive at someone with higher social status or a good shot at sorcery. For many of the more likely, humbler outcomes, there’s still room to bulk up combat abilities via the militia. But most characters, made up one at a time, per person, for play, are going to look a lot like this. And believe me, she’s healthy and hale compared to the possible nearsighted, agoraphobic, Will-deficient, metaphysically unfortunate stableboy with intestinal worms whose whole family hates him … and he’s well-off compared to other results you might get.

The really practical question is this: given a demographic, probabilistic, representative approach to character creation, you get someone who would indeed emerge from and fit right into exactly this imagined semi-historical low-tech location … but, given their extreme ordinariness, so what?

OK, one bit of critique for clarity: it’s easy to see how playing this way can falter: long lectures about things like currency and customs, or the historical run-up to current circumstances, or ever-proliferating and ever-more-elaborate maps … basically, the error of explaining without anything happening right now being fun enough to be worth explaining. All of which is extra excruciating when applied to magic. Again, though, I want to take the positive view, so let’s set bad play and complaining aside, and look at the strengths and potential for good play.

  • The location, which I decided is in fact the island of Harn, and which is subject to difficult feuds and slow-burning religious politics; therefore, a rural region somewhere there; also, one must have some orcish presence in the area as orcs in this game are very much their own irresistible thing. So we have effects upon the precise place of play which operate at a larger scale, but which might land any number of events or persons in our laps. It’s village life, yes, but village life with disruptions.
  • The person, whom I hope you can see is both “just some village corpse-handler with a drinking problem,” and “someone who may decide to do a thing, some day, tomorrow, or perhaps even today, which changes everything for everyone in ways she may not even understand.”

Anyone who’s cared even a little about anything I write about can see what this is really about: an actionable situation, from the point of view of anyone playing. Everyone is doing something: clan headman and everyone else in the village region, player-characters, various high-status people whom we might not even ever see, the local orcs … what happens and even what it’s about are effectively thrown into the air to see what comes down, and the player-characters operate at the very least as a lens for the primary experience, and often as key actors even if they or anyone would never have expected it.

This was originally a Patreon post, about three months ago. I asked people – instead of debating or seeking clarification – to mention more role-playing titles which qualify, especially those which go pretty far down this road at the expense of most modern wizard fantasy tropes, and about their experiences playing this way, whether in bits and parts, or entirely so. The comments are included here as well:

Everyone is invited to add more thoughts here to continue the discussion.

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9 responses to “Dialing down the fantasy”

  1. Generalising from my “The war is over…” remark, I suggest that it helps (it isn’t strictly necessary) if the situation is one where the characters have to do “something”, if only out of sheer survival.

    Naturally, that “something” can’t be “continue with ordinary life”. The characters have to proactively do something else.

    If they want to be chicken thieves, good on them.

    It isn’t necessary to hand them a quest if they are looking for trouble on their own.

    • I think you’re right, but the really rigorous phrasing or framing for the idea remains un-constructed.

      These days, I try it like this: “elements in the situation are unstable.” Any element will do: environmental or motivational, player-character or anyone else, et cetera.

      It seems to me as well that “unstable” might apply to things which would, in other circumstances, be ordinary life, as well as to things which are notable or unusual.

  2. Instability leads to crisis.

    As an exercise, I’ll try and make a “story” out of this character and the sparse setting notes.

    I’ll skip the orcs as an external factor, and focus on internal ones. Likewise, I’ll leave out magic – but the belief in it can be useful. (“She’s a witch!”)

    A starting point: she’s a corpse handler. There’s a corpse! Somebody has died. There’s something fishy about the death. She has an alchemy skill – maybe it was poison. Does she tell people about it? Investigate it? Cover it up?

    Who is the victim? The clan head? One of the members of her estranged family? Whodunnit? One of these? Why? What did they actually do?

    Did she do it? Alcoholism – maybe she has some lost time when she passed out? Who was she with? Where did she go? What did she do? The player can decide this, or decide that she resisted the temptation to get drunk in the first place.

    She seems fairly low status, with known grudges that could allow her to be blamed. (“She’s a witch!”) There could be some other scapegoat, if blaming her seems implausible.

    Possible action scene: she has to choose between the risk of drowning and some more certain fate…

    Blah blah… elaborate to taste.

    Anyway, the point of that is that it is all based on what is known about the character and the village. There’s no need to provide breadcrumbs – it’s all pushed by the death, which is situationally plausible, if not necessarily derived. There is no guaranteed endpoint. The next situation can emerge from play.

    So, yes, actionable play can arise from what at first glance appears as a static situation, without an external push.

    I was hoping that this would help with the framing/phrasing stuff. It probably doesn’t.

    • I think it’s useful. In practice, I’m reasonably competent with it. My concerns with the terms is more about pedagogy, i.e., how others learn to do this instead of confounding situational content with a specific trajectory of events and/or a dedicated climax.

  3. OK, then, so what did I actually do? Can this help outline part of a teachable technique?

    Well, I took an established situation. In this case you outlined it, but it could just as easily have been the product of a multi-person to-and-fro process. A key part was the character, which means that the “player” was involved, not just the “GM”. (The quotes are meant to indicate that there is no single necessary distribution of authorities. I will dispense with them from now on.)

    At this point the situation was in the realm of potential. Static isn’t the right word.

    What I did was add a kinetic element – the body – which needed to be responded to. This was derived from the situation – I thought of it because the character was an embalmer – but once it was introduced it became part of the situation. The situation changed.

    Now, in fact, I could have done that with any character, since anyone can find a body, but that leads us off into “adventure writing”. No bad thing in and of itself, but not what we are on about here.

    So there’s a technique. Add a dynamic/kinetic element to a static/potential situation. Not subtle, but it makes things start happening.

    Naturally it shouldn’t be “the locomotive leaves the station. The trip down the railroad has begun.”, but that is a different issue. Or is it?

    Player agency? The player has to (re)act, but how they do so is up to them.

    My brain hurts.

  4. I read *Wolves of God* with this post and its orientation toward play in my mind the whole time. First: it has rules for cattle raiding! An immediate point in its favor.

    I have a lot to say–or rather discuss–about everything else I read, but I won’t dump that here all at once, because it can only come out as a system overview and that’s not what we’re here for.

    Regarding this as a cluster of goals for play:

    ‘It’s played as naturalistic as possible, to the extent of not particularly supporting “adventuring party” play. You play in the culture, of the culture, daily life in the culture, with events arising from the geography, ecology, and immediate social history. Play-acivity includes family, society, camping, weather, seasons, daily life, bodily functions to some extent, pain, fatigue, and the ups & downs & details of wealth.’

    *Wolves of God* very much applies. It is set in A.D 710 Sub-Roman Britain, with Angles and Saxons and Jutes and the Wealh (native Britons) all shaking spears at one another and stealing cows. It has magic, though a pretty lowly and mythologically-grounded version.

    In terms of culture and society, characters are basically made up of a Background and a Class. Your background might be Thrall, Ceorl (“churl”), Hunter, Ealderman, Minsterkind, etc. All roles that are very much of the society. Here as elsewhere, the sharpie is needed. When social class distinctions arise that may threaten the ever-important adventuring party, they are weaseled out of. If you have the Ealderman background, “something” happened before play that caused you to lose your honor and position in society. If you’re a thrall, “something” happened to free you before play.

    The three classes (with a fourth possible as an admixture of any two) are Warrior, Saint, and Galdorman. Warriors are the backbone of society, thoroughly *of it*. Saints sit on the edge of it, but in a positive way, too holy. Galdorman sit on the edge of it, but in a negative way, too pagan.

    As far as I’m concerned, this makes for any number of wonderful concoctions for situation-focused play situated in its time-and-place.

    The further one gets into the book, the more the sharpie is needed. Reading it not as an “OSR” game or a reskinned “D&D”, but desiring to take it honestly and very much on its own terms, it is completely jarring when offhand mentions of “heroes” (aka PCs) or the “adventuring party” are made. An England where no such thing is described as existing or as needed fills the book, and then the assumption that we gotta all be together doing this wandering warband thing rears up out of nowhere. In places the text ignores all of the culturally-situated procedures for situation generation and is like, “remember, you gotta hook the players. This historical stuff is odd, so just use a dungeon.”

    It’s not even that, coming out of naturalistic play, we couldn’t end up doing some of the “adventuring party” things that the book contains. But that is very different when we come to it out of being genuinely interested in the basic situations arising from daily life in the period than when we go, “okay, I get it, it’s a reskinned D&D, let’s find the quest-giver and go to the dungeon.”

    I’m going to make a character, and if that provides further insight worth posting about, I’ll do so.

    • I forgot to add an important point: one table-design element is needed to make the societally-focused situation come alive, I think. It’s simply that as part of character creation, NPCs are going to have to be made by the players of PCs in order to flesh out connections and daily life. I’ve already made my own little matrix for directing this creation, probably subconsciously influenced by the *Sorcerer* diagram.

    • I’m with you on all of this for sure. I have one bit of response for one variable: who makes up relevant NPCs. I don’t think that who matters, so much as how they are played by the responsible people, let’s say call that a GM. There is such a thing as playing situationally, in terms of backstory and in terms of the moment at hand.

      Referencing the Sorcerer diagram helps reinforce my point, I hope, because its purpose is strictly and only the opening of the first moments of play, per person. It doesn’t matter who originally made up which characters or other components.

    • Very good point. It felt important to me, as I was conceptualizing the NPC-creation procedure, to have it be in the hands of the players. Why? When I get down to it, it’s for the same reason the text proper contains “hooks”–to get the players to want to do this thing.

      Which is of course total bullshit. No amount of design is going to get people excited to do something they are not already excited to do.

      So yeah, who makes those NPCs is not a critical variable.

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