Friday, March 18, 2016

Dystopic Fantasy: Magic and the Human Will

In my post-Revenant world, I want to build up some assumptions about a genre I would like to create called dystopic fantasy. I want to take your typical MMO-flavored pap of traditional high-fantasy pen-and-paper games and turn them on their head.

Now I know I could just play a realistic game, such as Warhammer Fantasy or Legend and get my dystopic fill, but I wanted to try to search for some better rules of the road for the genre, in particular, rules regarding character power and character creation. Some of my thoughts are as follows:
  • Magic and special powers should never eclipse the power of a human's will
That one is important, because too often you will start out with a great dystopian feel, and all of a sudden someone introduces a fireball or teleport spell and the high-fantasy power creep comes into the game. It's over at that point, the door is open, and the game gets taken over with lightning bolt flinging mages casting shield spells while using crystal balls with ESP to target enemies. I don't want "do it all" magic, and the power of a single man's will should be the ultimate power in the game.

Warhammer Fantasy has high magic spells (at least the last edition I bought), some of the standard tropes of high-fantasy crowd-pleasing RPGs are in there, like your fireballs and other tropes. Sometimes a game will come along and say "there is a high cost to magic" and use that as a sort of excuse to put in the high-fantasy trope spells, but in my experience, those "high costs to magic" usually get worked around or ignored unless you have a really strict and unpopular referee.

But the fact super-power spells exist take away the golden rule, a human's will and personal strength should be the ultimate power in the game. Magic can exist, and preferably it should be this strange and unexplainable force, never to be min-max'ed or gamed as a source of power. It can't become a "character building" piece, or something to factor into DPS. It can't. It sucks when it falls into the MMO model, reliable and predictable, and then the slippery slope starts and the game becomes about magic instead of about a deadly, realistic, and darkly themed world.

If there is a goal out there in the wilderness, putting on your mud-caked hiking boots and setting out on an expedition of dozens of men should be the path you take. You may not make it, but summoning up a flying carpet, teleporting, shape-changing into a bear, or summoning a pack of elk to ride on should not be an option.

Think of magic in dystopic fantasy as the "curse" cast upon Hugh Glass in the movie Revenant. The bear spirit, Indians, land, or something out there cursed him to die. To break this curse he needed to undergo many trials, and his sheer force of will and ability to cling to life broke that spell upon him, and allowed him to enact revenge. But breaking that curse had a price, and that price was revenge by his hand in the end. That is how magic should feel, this strange, unexplainable, almost Lovecraftian force that shapes nature, fate, death, and fate by a capricious, alien force of uncaring will.

To predict magic would be like trying to predict fate and nature itself.

You can't rule it with a paragraph about "magic missile" nor control it in any way.

But why would you? It would, ultimately, be cheating life and the human will and an easy way out. Controlling magic would also be like trying to tame that bear in the movie, and it would probably kill you at best. I don't want "Marvel Superheroes - the High Fantasy RPG the MMO" I want something that has that black and deadly feel, something deadly, and something where one man's actions can matter. A potion of healing and a magic wand just can't help you here, and it is that heroic and gut feeling of mastery, willpower, and skill that makes a hero...a hero.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Revenant, RPGs, and Heroism

A beautiful movie. When it comes to RPGs, especially high-magic and high-fantasy, it leaves me wondering. I like realism. I like the grim and gritty. I dislike the entitlement and empowerment of the current crop of pen-and-paper RPGs, where characters feel like they are some superhero in the middle of an overused CG Matrix-style 360 slow-motion shot where everyone is fighting and using cool powers like of out of some 2010's era Avengers movie.

It makes me want to go back to Mongoose's Legend, frankly.

While I like my escapism and fantasy tropes, it all feels so mixed up. World of Warcraft meets MMOs meets D&D meets Pathfinder and it all becomes some high-magic joke where mages walk all over the story with infinite cast fire-blast magic, solve everything divination spells, character builds, max-ing DPS, and nothing feels like it is taken seriously any more. That essential quality of a hero sacrificing is lost to min-maxing and magic so prevalent and powerful you could never do a Revenant style story. Not in a million years with a high-fantasy game.

"Let's level to the point where we get the spells to solve this," is what I hear from players.

Granted, low-magic survival and gritty roleplay isn't high-fantasy fare. It doesn't even fall into the genre. "Play another game," is what I feel, because I don't feel I can recreate that experience for players, not in a high-fantasy game. Not with MMO-inspired classes and rules. Not with the constant focus being on wealth and power accumulation, levels and experience points.

Maybe I will get over this feeling, but then again, something primal calls to me. Something that feels real, in the silly way pen-and-paper games try to model reality. Something where survival is the real measure of heroism and achievement, where facing incredible odds and living to tell the tale is the stuff of legends.

It's just one of those movies that makes you think, and it puts a lot of fantasy gaming assumptions under the harsh spotlight of "why is this fun?" Or more importantly "what do I feel is fun for me?"