Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Question of Setting and Fantasy

In which the author indulges himself in airy speculation, which may not really add up to much of substance.

A property of speculative fiction settings is that the question gets posed: how is this world different to our own?

We answer this rather promptly; often in the first section of the chosen medium. The First Chapter has a propaganda broadcast by a dystopian regime; the First Panel illustrates a trip through time; the First Scene displays stars and star-faring vessels; Character Creation offers us the chance to play a Dwarf, Elf or Goblin.

There is a question beyond this that a certain narrative strand in some works of fiction and the mediums of video and tabletop gaming offer a manner of answering. To whit, why is this setting different?

That is to say, we get to delve into the world and not just walk through it but grasp it. To know the secrets of that cosmos and pick them apart. It’s a power fantasy in its own right. Not “I have power because I’m the biggest, meanest, toughest Son of a Bantha in twelve star systems” but “I have power because I have walked through realms without number; and I have drunk deep of the well of knowledge. My tongue speaks the language of the angels and the runes of life are carved on my bones.”

[We might think of this as the Mage-type power fantasy; the mean-tough-champion-heavyweight-of-the-known-universe is the Warrior.

We might think of one or two further, mimicking traditional RPG roles “I have power because I can get out of anything: by donning my cloak of invisibility, with a well-placed arrow, a witty quip, a cunning plan or a bout of Errol Flynn swordplay.” Call this the Rogue.

Again, “I have power because I am a beacon of (a particular, in-universe) morality and ethical practice.” Call this the Cleric.

If you know your Norse Myth, let’s say, in order as above “I want to be....Thor/Odin/Loki/Baldur.”

This is as much how one uses power as how one gains power. They feed off one another.
Mix and match or exaggerate certain elements from above the above to suit any given scenario. Paladins – and Superman – mix Warrior and Cleric. Bards, Diplomats and Con-Artists take to extremes the witty quip of the Rogue.

Just because your Cleric worships a Satan analogue doesn’t mean she isn’t a Cleric. Just because your Warrior has a given code, that doesn’t make him a Cleric; IE, even if he will only kill in a ‘fair fight’, that doesn’t mean he sees any less appeal in “crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of the women.” Just because your Mage is only an Apprentice, it doesn’t mean she isn’t a Mage and isn’t fueling that fantasy.

Just because the main character or the character you have created is a Soldier or a Spy or a Priest it doesn’t mean they aren’t playing off the Mage-Fantasy. George Smiley is a Spy, but he unearths mysteries and comes to the truth: like a Mage. A Conspiracy Thriller will frequently have a Physically Able, Combat-Ready Protagonist. Of course, the fantasy and the character can very easily align: smuggler Han Solo plays nicely as a Rogue.

Television, Literature and Cinema portrays these rather than letting you control them. It’s step away from “I want to be Thor!” but not a complete removal. In contemporary terms, James Bond is a Rogue, President Bartlet is a Cleric (Separation of Church and State?), Sherlock Holmes is a Mage and John McClane is a Warrior. ]

So: one of the primaries joys of these works of fiction is the Wizard-Joy, the Mage Fantasy. It’s the moment when Winston Smith reads On The Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism . We learn the back-story, the ins and outs. Even if in Nineteen Eighty-Four this is undercut and doubt is raised, the moment when it happens is somewhat empowering. The moment when the curtain is pulled back; when you find out what the magician has up his sleeve; a moment common to Fantasy and Horror. Indeed, even if in a RPG the available literature is rarely conclusive or definite or deliberately leaves a mystery unsolved for doubt and discussion, the fact of having all the literature on the topic available is wonderful. Gandalf doesn’t just kill people; any idiot with a sword can do that (if you will). He rarely chucks fireballs about. But he knows an awful lot.

Similarly (after a fashion), Old Ben Kenobi, Jedi Master in A New Hope. He is sparing in his application of violence. He can find his way round the Death Star without a map (whether or not this is a canon Jedi power, it certainly looks a lot like that). He can get you a ride out of here onboard the Millennium Falcon. (A crucial thing to consider, that. Kenobi doesn’t just do the in-universe equivalent of teaching Luke the Apostles’ Creed and spouting some exposition. He can handle Mos Eisley lowlifes and Sith Lords. Sometimes.)

Where to end all this? Some works feed a certain power fantasy; one such fantasy is that of the mage. I come to the realisation that the works I enjoy have an element of this about them (one of my favourite moments in role-playing was just such a moment; one of my former GM’s favourite moments was building on the background I had written, tickling my 'mage-instinct') and the works I create are created to indulge this. So if I run a tabletop game for you or send you a short story, bear this in mind!

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