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Fantastic Fantasy!

July 25, 2012

For a genre that takes its name from the fantastic, many fantasy settings tend to be rather, well, samey – an overly-familiar mishmash of classical, medieval and renaissance Europe with a dash of modern America that doesn’t usually make much sense. Even the fantastic elements – magic, monsters and non-human races – just don’t seem that fantastic in many worlds. Rather than the fantastic, fantasy settings largely seem to rest firmly in the familiar. It’s understandable, to a degree, but doesn’t do the genre justice, not when you can have the same situation with just one or two games rather than dozens covering the same ground.

I suppose a lot of the games come from someone deciding that they want to do something different with the fantasy genre, yet they never seem to succeed. There are a few exceptions – Tekumel and Glorantha stand-out from the crowd – but, in the main, games stick to the tried and tested. The same sorts of characters take on the same sorts of foes in the same sorts of adventures across the same sorts of lands.

Now, I can understand that many people don’t want to step outside their comfort zone – after all, gaming is about having fun – and it’s not my place to state that they are all having ‘badwrongfun’. If someone is enjoying gaming in the traditional manner in a traditional fantasy world, there’s nothing wrong with it and they should carry right on doing that if that’s what they want. What annoys me is that there isn’t the variety in fantasy settings for those who would like something a bit different (and, which might just tempt a few others out of their comfort zones if done well).

Part of the problem is lack of reference points. In theory, a lot of gamers would love to play in worlds that do not match the fantasy stereotypes, but they struggle to either get into the right mindset or just plain don’t know what to do in a setting (something not always helped in the past by settings that either do not provide sufficient information or just default to the fantasy standards of hacking-and-slashing and dungeoncrawling, relegating the unusual setting to a mere role as scenery). Between cultural links and Hollywood history, as well as copious fantasy novels, the standard fantasy setting is well-known to most gamers, meaning games can get away with, for example, just saying Dwarf, Elf or Knight and leaving the gamers to fill in the details. That’s not something you can do with an unfamiliar setting.

Although it is possible to go with the genuinely alien fantasy setting or one that follows through to the logical conclusion the quirks of standard fantasy assumptions, there is a simpler way to achieve a truly fantastic fantasy setting – adopt a different era or region of the world that doesn’t show up in regular fantasy. Pseudo-Celts, Mongols and Middle Easterners appear on the fringes of quasi-Europe, but their own settings are much rarer and those more exotic still even less so.

Part of the problem is that Gamers are Eurocentric – they are either Europeans or Americans whose culture is strongly influenced by Europe, and, in the main, white. Thus, their influences for fantasy are primarily those of Europe and its Americanised depictions. In the English-speaking gaming world, the focus is even more tightly upon western Europe. You will sometimes see the cultures on the fringes of Europe appear on the fringes of its fantasy equivalent and it is not uncommon for aspects of the American West to filter in with stereotypical Plains Indians, and Forest Indians might filter in, too, as some primitive human tribe or Wood Elf culture. The only cultures to buck this trend are the Aztecs, who seem to have a powerful grip on the gamer mind (albeit most often as blood-sacrificing villains rather than a true culture), and China/Japan (usually blurred together), thanks to their fashionability (oddly, Korea doesn’t usually get a mention).

When someone does call for diversity, in gaming as in film, TV and literature, it is usually Africans who are co-opted into service. Compared to some sections of the arts, this makes a lot of sense in gaming given that the Orient gets quite a bit of exposure (compare the debates about the Doctor’s companions’ skin colours prior to the revival of the series when diversity was directly correlated to dark skin tones, ignoring the fact that, historically, presently, and most likely also in the future, the Chinese are the single largest grouping of people, yet seemingly have been ignored by the time traveller in favour of the British!). It also makes a lot of sense from the American point of view, as, Hispanics being subsumed into the European (and, to a lesser extent, Aztec) presence in gaming, African Americans are the largest non-White demographic. Yet, most attempts at an African setting are quite stereotypical in nature and are informed by the central and southern portions of the continent in the ‘Scramble For Africa’ period – ironic, given that the ancestors of African Americans came from West Africa.

The civilisations of West Africa are fascinating and would make a wonderful setting for a roleplaying game, so it was wonderful to discover a thread on RPG.net discussing creating a fantasy setting based upon Nigeria. Similarly, settings inspired by East Africa and Monomatapa during the late medieval period would be a wonderful antidote to the usual African fare.

But, what really surprises me is that India hasn’t inspired a setting. After all, it would be perfect, whether modelled historically or mythologically. Even though Americans might not be as familiar with the country, you would think that Britain’s long association with it would have inspired someone! Although, when I say it surprises me that it hasn’t inspired a setting, I am not being entirely honest. In a general sense, it is a surprise; but, when you look at what information is available aabout Indian history and culture, it isn’t – it is ridiculously difficult to find decent books, all the more so given that not only do Indian academics speak English, but many English-speakers were exposed to India. In a recent bookshop visit, I found twice as much on ‘marginalised’ Africa, and half the books on the history of India were on its modern and colonial history. As far as ancient history goes, India largely exists for Alexander the Great to invade (and anyone who knows anything about Alexander’s impact on India knows that that is a bad joke as far as history goes!), even the Graeco-Indian culture that did have an impact on India gets little mention. The only other source for gamers to plunder – assuming you are planning outright fantasy rather than a historical setting – are Theosophist and New Age texts, and even those are not as available as once they were.

I would love to see more settings inspired by other parts of the world, but it looks like not only will those of us who want them have to create them, but it may well involve a great deal of work. Still, I think it’d be worth it!

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