Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Realistic' Fantasy

Some time ago, I wrote an entry about players who get upset about rules in RPGs that don't accurately emulate real-world physics. In that entry, I pointed out the oxymoronic attitude of demanding that a rules system that mimics in excruciating detail realistic swordfighting but have no problem playing an elven wizard who shoots lightning bolts from his fingertips.

I stand by that attitude. If you're going to let your demand for realism impede your own ability to enjoy the game (let alone other people's), then why are you playing a fantasy game in the first place?

But this entry is not about that phenomenon. I'm not going to stress about the physics of the setting. Instead, I'm going to stress about the setting itself.

Don't get me wrong. I'd never let this issue get in the way of me or anyone else playing whatever game they want in whatever way they want. It's just something I tend to think about on occasion.

I was thinking about it today as a result of a map I was working on. I adapted this from one I found online several years ago. I think I used it in the GURPS Fantasy/Supers game I ran for a friend, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I've had it floating around for many years, and I'm still pleased with it for many reasons, not least of which is because of the aesthetic quality of the map itself. So I decided to make a digital version of it. Here it is:

A map of a medieval/fantasy village called Fos. A river runs from the upper left towards the centre, snakes around some trees, then bends towards the lower left corner where it runs off the page. On the left of the river are many buildings of various sizes, with several roads passing amongst them. Some of the buildings are colour coded to indicate the locations of smiths, taverns, woodworkers, and tailors; others are labelled (including the town hall, inn, mill, marketplace, and two temples of different fictional religions. Three bridges lead across the river, with the main road passing by some more roads and buildings on the right side of the river. Many trees are scattered throughout the village, as well as several clumps in the upper right corner, where a ridge provides some alteration in the terrain.

One of the things I most like about it is that the buildings and the layout of the town itself are based on what I know of early medieval towns.

For example, before the advent of automobiles, it was extremely uncommon to have streets laid out in grids. There weren't districts like modern cities have (such as residential areas and business areas), but instead, homes and shops are intermingled throughout. Especially in smaller villages such as this one, homes weren't multi-room affairs, but small shacks that consist of a single room with benches to serve both as seats and beds, with a place for a fire in the middle.

Here's what I mean: just outside of the city of York in northern England is a museum called Murton Park. A large section is a recreation of a small Viking village. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of what it looked like, based on archaeological and historical evidence:

The first photo, of a small group of people standing next to a long building with several smaller houses nearby, shows the longhouse, which served as a meeting place, for village business, festivals, and the like. The rest of the buildings were more like the houses on the right of that photo, and in the second photo (the one that shows several of the smaller houses with a narrow road wending between them). Each of these was the home of a single family, who shared the one room that made up the house. The last photo shows the interior of one such home; just a single room with benches to sit and sleep on, and a small fire pit in the centre.

This is, of course, just one basis for a fantasy town. Depending on your preferences, you might base it on more 'high medieval' designs, such as the layout of the German city of Marburg in the 12th Century. Or you might model your settings on how the Greek city of Aigio looked in the 6th Century.

The point is that many fantasy settings suffer from what Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá termed 'flinstonization:' the tendency to view the past through the filter of what we know in the present. But how much more interesting, how much more exotic, would these fantasy worlds (which are supposed to feel exotic; after all, they are 'fantasy' worlds) be if we changed up such simple things as how the towns are laid out, and why.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking. I may make more maps like this for people to use. Keep an eye out. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Playing the Villains

A few months ago, I posted an entry about the various forms of heroism that can be encountered in mythology and literature. In it, I took a brief look at some of the different definitions of what it means to be a hero.

But what if we look at the other side of the proverbial coin? What about playing the villain?

This is not a new idea. In 1971, author John Gardner used one of the primary villains of the Beowulf saga as the protagonist of his own novel, reframing the story so that it was no longer a simple clear-cut case of a hero fighting against evil. A few years ago, Disney reworked their Sleeping Beauty film to tell the story from the point of view of the villain, whom they transformed from a malevolent being into a redeemable character motivated by revenge. Alan Moore's comic Watchmen was a deep look at the nature of the 'good vs evil' trope to examine the real world version of the phenomenon. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles recasts the monsters of folklore into dynamic characters with motivations and goals of their own, not always driven purely out of malice. This concept was further explored in the first of the World of Darkness games: Vampire: The Masquerade, as well as most of the follow-up games. Then, in an additional twist, the antagonists of the primary character groups in those games were expanded as well, to give players the option to play characters who were seen as monsters by the monsters. For example, in Vampire, where the monsters become the protagonists, the Player's Guide to the Sabbat allowed players to take on the role of the antagonists (the hedonistic, often malevolent counter-sect to the 'good guy' sect of the Camarilla). This trend continued in Wraith: The Oblivion with the Spectres sourcebook, and in Changeling: The Dreaming with The Autumn People and The Shadow Court (examining two different version of 'the enemies' of the fae).

Even in the most basic of all roleplaying games, it is possible to play evil characters. Dungeons and Dragons allows players to choose one of three 'evil' alignments (Lawful Evil: those who hold 'demonic' agendas, but maintain respect for honour, reliability, and accept tradition and systems of authority; Chaotic Evil: those who not only have 'evil' goals but actively rebel against normal systems of societal interactions; and Neutral Evil: those who work towards 'evil' goals but do not feel compelled to either follow nor rebel against authority and social customs.

This concept of playing the 'villains' is parodied (or perhaps merely highlighted) in many works. The Order of the Stick #497 includes an evil adventuring party using the Plane Shift spell to enter and attack spirits in the Lawful Good afterlife. Earlier, in strip #194, they had the story's antagonists (who are very clearly of an Evil alignment) fighting off a series of Good-aligned monsters in a castle, inverting the usual trope of heroes wandering down corridors fighting Evil-aligned monsters.

The point is, this is neither new nor uncommon.

Now, of course, there are some stories (and, resultantly, some games) in which the concept of 'good vs evil' is eschewed for a more real-world paradigm, in which every person is the hero of his own story. This maps very well to the aforementioned Watchmen comic (less so to the film), as well as the original X-Men films (especially the first one, from 2000) in which Magneto and the other members of the Brotherhood of Mutants are, though unquestionably the antagonists of the story, working for a goal that is at least somewhat altruistic. By most normal definitions, this precludes the characters from being described as 'evil.' This situation is grounded in the reality of the comics on which the films were based; in the original Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, when the Beyonder brings various superheroes and supervillains together to explore the concept of 'good vs evil,' he has no concept of what the comics normally treat as 'good' or 'evil,' and so must devise his own criteria. He settles on the definitions of 'fights for him/herself' for evil and 'fights for others' as good. Using these criteria, he places Magneto in the 'good' camp, because Magneto doesn't fight for himself, but for the protection of all mutants. This led to the character being considered one of the universe's superheroes for a while (even joining the X-Men for a time).

But regardless, there is certainly a justification for playing one of the 'bad guys.' To paraphrase the character of Lenny Nero from Strange Days, '...everyone needs to take a walk to the dark end of the street sometimes. It's what we are. Now, the risks are out of line. ...So you [write up a character and roll some dice], get what you need, almost as good as the real thing, and a lot safer.'

That's one of the things that is so enjoyable about RPGs. You get to be someone else for a while. Every now and then, it can be cathartic to slip into the persona of a villain and indulge your darker impulses. And for that, it can be fun on occasion to play the 'bad guys.'

Next week, we'll look at this topic a little more. In the meantime, go forth, play some games, and don't forget to

Game on!