"Oddities" in fantasy settings - the case against "consistency"

pemerton

Legend
I recently watched the Return of the King film with my family, and the (second-last) ending, where the "last ship" sails from the Grey Havens, prompted the thought that has led to this post.

JRRT is probably the most famous conceiver of a fantasy setting, and that setting - Middle Earth - is widely regarded as a high point for evocative, verisimilitudinous and thematically sophisticated world building.

So it's interesting to note how many "one offs", how much "ad hocery" there is in the setting:

*Gollum is a unique adversary, with his ability to live in the dark eating only fish and Goblins, his toughness, resilience, and ability to strangle, his ability to relentlessly follow the Fellowship and Frodo;

*Tom Bombadil - nuff said - but also Goldberry, and Old Man Willow on the borders of The Shire;

*The Barrow Wights, and the Barrow Downs more generally - all this adventure on the way between The Shire and Bree, yet apparently undisturbed until the Ring-Bearer goes past; and the White Tower too, with its unique Palantir;

*Gandalf's (one-time) knowledge of every spell, and the suggestion that the Mouth of Sauron is a sorcerer, yet the apparent lack of spell casting by anyone in the story but Gandalf and Saruman;

*Boromir's journey across tracts of wilderness to find his way to Rivendell just in time for the great Council, in the same world where Gimli doesn't know that Balin and all his fellow-Dwarves lie dead i Moria;

*And what I was reminded of the other day - Frodo and Bilbo, neither an Elf, both nevertheless travelling to the Undying Lands on a ship from the Havens; and despite Cirdan having sailed, Sam - by repute - later taking the same journey on the straight road; and later still, Gimli sailing with Legolas to the Undying Lands.​

Although there are things in Middle Earth that are typical, even "rules" - eg the difference in the "afterlife" of Elves and Men (and Hobbits sharing, one assumes, the Gift of the One to Men); and various orders of being - the story of LotR is full of contradictions of these.

In the Burning Wheel Character Burner (Revised, p13), Luke Crane writes:

If the GM proposes a game without magic, there's always that one player who's got to play the last mage. And you know what? That's good. Before the game has even started we have a spark of conflict - we have the player getting involved in shaping the situation. Discuss the situation of the game as you discuss your character concept. Tie them both together - a dying world without magic, the last mage, the quest to restore the land. In one volley of discussion you've got an epic in the making. Start mixing in the other character concepts - they should all be so tied to the background - and you have the makings of a game. The cult priestess sworn to aid the last mage - and then spill his blood so that the world can be reborn; the Lore High Inquisitor whose duty it is to hunt the Gifted, but whose own brother is the last hope. Now we're talking.​

I think consistency in a FRPG setting, in the sense of "a place for everything, and nothing out of place* is overrated. LotR is driven by departures from such consistency at just about every point.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

niklinna

satisfied?
Well, there's a fine line between original and cliché—or is it a wide, smudged, blurry line? or is it whoever got there first?—but I do find it's the spaces where players can find ways to be exceptional—not necessarily in degree of awesome, but just in being rare or unique, that I find most engaging to play. I very briefly got to playtest 13th Age (2nd edition in the works), and their One Unique Thing really led to some neat stuff in our party of starting adventurers. I wouldn't have minded continuing (and would be happy to give it another go, although the playtesting is probably over by now?)

I recently started the CRPG Black Geyser, and made up my character from the available stock race & class options, cool, cool, the usual, and then very early on I found out I was the Chosen One, destined to blah blah, just because. My interest in continuing kinda vanished right there. Yeah, yeah, it's a computer game so it has to be prescripted, but really? I'm just prophesied to be great? I'd rather have just been told hey, bad stuff is going down, you're a noob but you have to deal with it. Learn fast, and you might help avert a disaster.
 


A game isn't a book. A book isn't a game. The things that make them interesting and entertaining are vastly different and should not be conflated.

Creativity and unique elements are great, to a point. But IMNSHO, if someone is just going to ad hoc whatever they want to make an interesting story with no respect to consistency, my presence as a player is largely unnecessary. I'd rather read that book than play that game. Rules and consistency are what grounds the game and all the players. Consistency is the foundation that unique elements are built on; without a standard for commonality, nothing is rare or special. And establishing a consistent baseline for the fantasy world is even more critical in games where simulation is frowned upon. YMMV.
 

pemerton

Legend
Creativity and unique elements are great, to a point. But IMNSHO, if someone is just going to ad hoc whatever they want to make an interesting story with no respect to consistency, my presence as a player is largely unnecessary.
I don't really know what you have in mind. If you're talking about the GM establishing fiction in a fairly trad-style RPG, how would you even know if the GM is being ad hoc or consistent, given most of their notes are secret?

In my post, I quoted Luke Crane about player ad hoc-ery for a reason.
 


I think this touches upon what I will call the whole 'edgelord*' discussion -- when is someone wanting to play something special positive engagement with a creative endeavor and when is it a self-serving attempt to narratively dominate a shared fictional landscape with their own pet project.
*ugh, that word.:rolleyes:

In general, I think the best advice/general trend for what works is that you should look for hooks that are the first orange in a narrative landscape, not one that turns over all the apple carts. Much of the above Tolkien examples fall into this category. There are unique monsters, each with a non-repeated schtick. Boromir has a moment of badassery (/preternatural timing) that shows a little of how special they are... but replicates nothing more than having been summoned for the great Council of Rivendell. Even Tom Bombadil's case of being some bizarre little demigod possibly immune to the 'dark lord's plot to conquer the world' narrative everyone else has to go through works because it is specific to his own little hex in the wilderness and can't be used to derail the main plot or premise of the fictional world.

Luke Crane's example of someone wanting to play the last mage is actually one that I would use with the most caution/only with complete buy-in from everyone else involved. Being the last mage in the world has profound impact on what happens for the rest of the world (and thus what the GM can do, and also realistically what they have to do); it impacts what other players/characters can play as, do, and react to the now-unique fellow characters (and also risks them feeling like playing a support role in someone else's story); and it means that the entire game world reacts profoundly to that one character making significant decisions/dying/succeeding/failing.
Well, there's a fine line between original and cliché—or is it a wide, smudged, blurry line? or is it whoever got there first?—but I do find it's the spaces where players can find ways to be exceptional—not necessarily in degree of awesome, but just in being rare or unique, that I find most engaging to play.
I'm not too troubled by cliche, when it comes to RPGing. What I like is a player throwing themself into it!
Again, this is a spectrum, and there are few right answers excepting what does or doesn't feel right. We all (of a certain length of gaming) experienced Drizzt clones, and that was clearly a cliché too far. At the same time, some even more well-worn tropes like small village boy dreaming of growing up to become a (skewed vision of what it means to be a) great knight are effectively ever-fresh.
Creativity and unique elements are great, to a point. But IMNSHO, if someone is just going to ad hoc whatever they want to make an interesting story with no respect to consistency, my presence as a player is largely unnecessary. I'd rather read that book than play that game. Rules and consistency are what grounds the game and all the players. Consistency is the foundation that unique elements are built on; without a standard for commonality, nothing is rare or special. And establishing a consistent baseline for the fantasy world is even more critical in games where simulation is frowned upon. YMMV.
I think you are seeing the real-concern scenario of a GM-novel on top of this one. To be sure, this kind of situation will have more collective-fiction elements at the expense of shared-game elements than other campaigns, but it's not inherent that this will be a GM-dominated event.
 

pemerton

Legend
the entire game world reacts profoundly to that one character making significant decisions/dying/succeeding/failing.
Well, the "entire game world" may not know that this particular person is the last mage. (Eg his brother, the High Inquisitor, may be keeping it secret).

But in my experience RPGing becomes better when the fates of the PCs are of concern to the NPCs who are at the centre of the shared fiction.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
This isn't a case against consistency, it's a case against "sameyness."

Consistency, in terms of world-building and design, is typically used as a shorthand for "how things work," i.e. internal consistency. That doesn't mean that there can't be exceptions to those rules, as Luke Crane cogently notes; it just means that those exceptions need to be contextualized with regard to the wider rules of how the setting functions.

You can absolutely have someone who's simply a better spellcaster than everyone else; you just need to be able to lay down why that is and extrapolate what that means for the setting as a whole. If the character has found a loophole in magical theory that anyone can use, then be prepared for people to be skeptical as to why no one has ever found that particular principle before (which doesn't mean it's necessarily a bad idea, but it will be questioned as to why this particular character was the first one ever to stumble across it, why can't the other PC mages use it, etc.). That's different than if they happen to be the scion of two ancient bloodlines who've intermingled for the first time in them, and had their latent power catalyzed because they just so happened to be at a nexus of ley lines when a once-in-five-thousand-year celestial conjunction occurred, etc.

The key is to develop exceptions so that how they fit into the wider aspects of the setting makes them interesting, rather than being something they have to work against (or, for that matter, lets them overshadow other PCs).
 
Last edited:

Well, the "entire game world" may not know that this particular person is the last mage. (Eg his brother, the High Inquisitor, may be keeping it secret).
Well sure. We can come up with any number of hypothetical scenarios, each with different outcomes. However, what I really was getting at was if the campaign is set up as being, in part or in total, about the journey of the last mage, well then having them die/give up their quest/lose their magic/etc. has big consequences with regard to what are we actually doing rattling about in this setup.
But in my experience RPGing becomes better when the fates of the PCs are of concern to the NPCs who are at the centre of the shared fiction.
I think that's the fundamental point of theoretical contention which determines whether someone will be on board with the OP premise. Is it better for the world to be reacting to the PCs or the PCs to be reacting to the world (or any given mixture of the two).
 

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top