Saturday, June 8, 2013

I'd Like More Fantastic in My Fantasy, Please

Right now I'm watching 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger'.  Aside from Patrick Wayne's disappointing performance it's a pretty good fantasy film.  I like the boat rowed by a giant bronze minotaur, and the evil queen's transformative potion leaving her with the foot of a seagull when she runs out of potion.  It reminds me of the things I really love about fantasy.

I like a lot of other B-grade fantasy movies for similar reasons.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been a fantastic actor, and at the beginning of his career he was even less so, but 'Conan the Barbarian' is a favorite of mine for its fantastic elements, like Thulsa Doom transforming into a giant serpent and the magic ceremony the wizard performs to prevent Conan from dying.  I like 'Conan the Destroyer' and 'Red Sonja' and 'The Beastmaster' and 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' and other films, because they too have moments of the fantastic that appeal to me.  Each fantastic thing seems to be unique in its world.  Not everyone can transform into a giant snake, not every statue of a god will become a raging monster if you replace a missing part, no one else knows the same magic as the evil queen.

I love playing D&D.  I love playing fantasy RPGs.  But one of the problems I find in playing such games where the elements of fantasy have been codified and standardized is that those elements are no longer fantastic.  Wizards go to schools to learn wizardry, and everyone knows about it.  No one marvels when a wizard summons fire from nothing or starts to fly without wings. 

If my character has the required skill and makes a successful dice roll, I can know what that weird-looking monster is, even if the character has never seen one before - and what's more, I can know what it does and what it's vulnerable to.  Of course, if I roll poorly I might not get any information, but I can't help but know that in a book somewhere that creature's abilities and just how much damage it can withstand before it dies are all written down in a template.  It's hard to set aside that metagame knowledge and pretend that the thing is strange to me.  Even if my character hasn't seen it before, I still know it's probably not unique in the game world.  My character isn't the first person ever to see such a monster.

Of course I realize that if I and my fellow players are going to enjoy our shared gaming experience without getting into disagreements about how the shared world operates, we have to have rules that standardize things.  Otherwise we'd end up like a couple of six-year-olds on the playground arguing over whether "Bang bang, I shot you" really means that the victim is dead.  But I can't help feeling sometimes that all that standardization and designing of rules for every situation makes things seem a bit too ordinary.  When you can go into any town and buy magic wands, the world has lost some of its sense of wonder.

Some of that, I know, is a function of the kind of games we play.  Our group tends toward "high magic" campaigns, where magic is fairly commonplace.  I don't necessarily want to play in a "low magic" game, where magic is incredibly rare.  I wouldn't enjoy that.  But I wouldn't mind a game where things seem a little more fantastic. Sometimes it seems that magic and monsters in fantasy RPGs have become as commonplace as televisions and automobiles in the real world.  I'd like those classic elements of fantasy to be a little more like computers were when I was a child - only huge corporations and governments had them, and while the average person had heard of them, most people didn't know anything about how they worked or even what they looked like.

I want to play a wizard and have people stare in amazement at even my simplest spells, or be able to scare off bandits just by displaying some magical power.  I want to encounter monsters that none of the characters have ever seen before, that haven't been described in any book in any library in the game world.  I want to see a world where the player characters really are special, and there aren't other adventuring groups like them around every corner.  I don't want to make it too difficult for us to have fun playing.  I just want to have a little more "fantastic" in my fantasy.

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