Shout out to RaRa-Rasputin and his Youtube channel. Go subscribe and support his work. He had a great interview with James Raggi, the author of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, has this wonderful discussion about why he set his game in the 17th Century. Around the 15-minute mark we get this:
When people play medieval fantasy, they are not playing like medieval. There's so many modern assumptions still in there, and the 17th Century is when those things are starting to exist, so they make sense as far as how people play anyway.
This is a fascinating quote, and there are many in here, and one about Middle Ages settings that make me feel that a true Middle Age game is so far away from our "modern" experience that it would almost seem like playing in a sci-fi setting than anything we associate with traditional "medieval fantasy" as we know it in tabletop gaming.
You take the concept of serfs and peasants, and how they belonged to the land, could not leave or move to a new town, and were more considered property of the local lord. That isn't anything we know in traditional fantasy gaming, it is borderline controversial to even mention these days, and framed as science-fiction we are more ready to accept this as a concept. Seriously, if you did a big-budget sci-fi movie where evil Earth corporations enslaved an alien race and used them for labor, that would be something you could mentally frame and accept easier than accepting the fact we used to do this to each other on this planet.
This one statement sends me down the rabbit hole of reading history. An ACKS game, played right in a true Middle Ages setting, is not at all like a Lamentations game in the 17th Century. ACKS would feel like playing sci-fi, and I dare say the farther back you go, the more sci-fi things become.
The modern experience is a very small window in time. It is the one we are the most familiar with, and it is the framing we use to look at other people and other times with.
When you consider the "modern fantasy" generic world, and this world is this almost "all ages sort of generic Tolkien meets MMO" world. It is built off safe fantasy art, sterilized by corporate sensitivity reviewers, double checked so it won't anger Twitter or the stockholders, and it becomes this self-sustaining force that permeates every fantasy game.
Generic fantasy has become this manner of speaking, dress, world building, and a look and style that I feel is decidedly like a "modern world dress up" with some fantasy architecture thrown in there. Harry Potter is the great example of modern-relatable characters, very modern in outlook and manners, living in a fantasy world. All of the TV tropes in Xena and Hercules, those direct-to-video fantasy movies, animation, and those sort of modern people in fancy dress living in a world with fantasy replacements for modern conveniences.
I feel this world mixed with a set of rules even enforces a manner of acting, such as someone who behaves like they are playing a set of rules instead of playing a character in a real world. The world takes on this manner of acting, and people in the world act like they are playing one version of a fantasy game instead of acting like real people in a realistic world.
D&D 4th Edition felt like it had this problem in an acute manner. It did not feel like a real world, at least not to us, it felt like the world of a video game MMO following a specific set of rules. There was this layer of the artificial put on top of everything, how people in the world behaved, the governments, wars, conflicts, exploration, rural life, city life, and every other facet of that reality. The fact the planes are integrated into the world and a part of normal life. The gods are real and "end bosses" for the world.
My Fantasy, My Perspective
With the current edition of D&D we have a huge Magic the Gathering influence, and this high-technology magic feeling where magic can do anything for zero cost. For fans, it is great to see those worlds come alive. But it does bring in a culture, sort of nebulous reality that can be anything to anyone, and it changes the fantasy reality to a "be anything and do anything" sort of world with multiple dimensions, modern influences, and a lot of - I don't want to say baggage - but assumptions that can mean anything to anyone is the better word. It does feel more nebulous and that "the world exists from my perspective" is a modern thing and also a powerful force of marketing the game.
I feel modern fantasy is evolving from the "generic MMO fantasy setting" to more of the world is "your perception of fantasy, and every perception is valid" sort of experience. There is also this feeling of empowerment delivered with the game, almost like a Power Rangers sort of thing, but tailored for a mass audience. Because I play a powerful wizard in game I somehow have more power in the real world sort of sales pitch.
They blur fantasy with reality, which in previous editions of the game was a no-no because of the effect it had on some people's perception of reality.
Also, the zero-cost magic thing is also troubling to me, as our current world is dealing with resource shortages, pollution, worker suffrage, and great imbalances of trade from this "infinite consumerism" mentality. Infinite magic is the Amazon.com one-click anything goes mentality, and I can see why big companies don't want you questioning it. More on this later, but infinite magic I feel enables the "my reality, my fantasy" experience these companies are shipping today.
I need my cell phone. I need my mass transit. I need my freedom of speech, freedom of association, and other human rights. I need my airline travel. I need my Internet. I need my speedy travel. I need my public education, schools, and universities. I need my on-call law enforcement with detectives and judicial resolution. I need my familiar governmental authorities and government programs. I need my modern outlook and assumptions. I don't want people of different heritages fighting or coming into conflict. The world must be cosmopolitan with dragon-folk, demon-bloods, and other fantastic races walking around without any differences, bad blood, mistreatment, or suspicion.
Very few of these things are in the historical record. They get Harry Pottered into a lot of these settings. The farther you go back, the more alien the world becomes in all of these regards.
The modernization of modern fantasy RPGs is this commercial force in making a product more acceptable to a mass audience. Some call it a Disney-ification of rules systems once they go mainstream, and you see that in some of the newer movie and series reboots as well.
I feel when companies add these fantasy conveniences where they create "magic parallel technology" for what are things we are used to in the modern world, something is lost. We aren't immersing ourselves in a unique world or time anymore. We don't have to be curious and figure things out. We don't have to learn the lands, peoples, and cultures. We have our traditional Western and current-day assumptions and biases preloaded into the setting and everything feels comfortable. The setting is pre-colonized with our biases and we don't need to learn to adjust to a different time and place.
We are still stuck in the modern world, the one just around us in our daily life, and never escaping it.
The OSR = Room to Explore
I feel this is why I am gravitating more towards the OSR. There is room for experiences outside of that generic fantasy core that has been overdone and I feel become a stereotype of the Western and Internet-centric experience.
How can we ever learn to understand and respect other cultures if we are constantly transposing our own reality onto everything we experience?
The OSR has a lot of room to explore, grow, and find niches that spur me to read history and understand a time outside my own. Also, to understand things from a non-Western perspective. ACKS got me deeply enthralled with the Middle Ages experience of faith, lordship, the pitiful worker experience, and the entire forging kingdoms through blood and conquest. Are there bad-controversial things in the game by today's standards such as forced-servitude? Yes. But as a player, I am free to fight them and correct that wrong, if I choose. The game doesn't erase things it doesn't want me to see.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess got me deeply into horror fiction and also the parallel horror of colonialism. Are there bad-controversial things this game? Yes, it is a horror game. But we need the terrible in here so we can confront our own fears and feelings about how Western society (and to be honest, a lot of non-Western societies) was built off the backs and blood of others. The game does not hide that truth that is integral to the horror experience.
ACKS and Lamentations have me buying and reading history. My real-world life and experience are growing, and I am educating myself as a life-long learner. Modern fantasy feels like a frozen TV dinner in comparison. It doesn't nourish me mentally, challenge me to rethink what I am told on the Internet, and give me that depth of knowledge that makes me an interesting person.
Lion & Dragon can also be mentioned here, but I am still reading that game and it looks like a fun one.
Are there less-heavy options in the OSR? We got Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, and Castles & Crusades that can fill the need. They can easily do "modern fantasy" if that is your thing, or they can do a lot of other things. The games aren't really written to enforce one world or style of play. If I want a game that doesn't challenge assumptions and delivers the modern feeling, they are all here.
We have Dungeon Crawl Classics out here too for a more Heavy Metal fantasy experience of gonzo anything goes play. And there are many others, from a Conan-style game to sci-fi, hexcrawls, gangsters, and many other options.
But most importantly, I have that choice, and I can play these grim and gritty and with any assumption I want. And I am not having modernity forced on my game because the rules include it as a requirement to make the game comfortable to a mainstream audience.
Also, the room I am finding to explore in the OSR is not only in the games I have to read and enjoy, but the room inside myself I have to grow as a person in my experience and knowledge.