Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Don't Like Grand Unified Theories in Fantasy

I'm sure we're all aware of the phenomenon in fantasy franchises of "Grand Unified Theories." Usually prologues, appendices, wise characters, and so forth provide the exposition, usually along the lines of:
"88,000 thousand years ago the universe split into two halves, Kerishala the bright aspect and Valkalka the dark aspect. They worked together to make the world but quarreled thereby engendering a whole bunch of history. History.. history.. history... Magic is the lifesblood of Kerishala and Valkalka flowing through the matter of the world. Yadda Yadda Yaddaa... Prophecy this, Prophecy That."
Of course the protagonist(s) are tied up with all this business, as well as the plot of the next three or thirteen books. And there's detailed large-scale and small-scale maps, sometimes of the entirety of known civilization!

Although this can be done well, I consider The Silmarillion to be a sublime example of such efforts; usually I hate that shit. Many contemporary fantasy rpg settings lay out the history of the world, who/what the gods are, how magic works, and so forth-- often in excruciating detail. I do consider Gary Gygax's Aerth setting to be an exception, as it is a good fantasy setting that deals with a "known world," but it is also more of a late renaissance/age-of-sail setting, so it works in that context. Plus the Epic of Aerth book could have been significantly shorter.

Fantasy at its most primal deals in the Unknown. The world is a collision between the logical and the illogical. Incomprehensible forces are at play. In old school pulp fantasy, the default setting was a world in which only fragments of history were known, where magic and the gods were mysteries; where the world was largely unmapped and unknown.

It's hard to reconcile that weird, unknown fantasy vibe when the universe has a known history and a heavy internal logic.

With Planet Algol I don't know what the gods are. I don't know how magic works. I don't know the history of the planet aside from broad strokes. I don't have a map of the planet. I don't even know what year it is on Earth. Although one could learn details about specific elements and their history, the whole and history of Planet Algol is unknowable, as well as illogical and irrational.

Now for some Nifelheim:


  1. Your reference to the Silmarillion ailed it: like most of the hideous falws of modern fantasy, it is something that Tolkien did well and that everyone else does as crappy, third-rate imitation.

    At this point in my life, if a setting starts with the History of the Cosmos and/or the Gods, I put it away immediately.

    See also: pointless, made-up fantasy calendars.

  2. I quite agree, if for no other reason than I like the players to have a hand in making up the setting. Sort of that players-first approach to adventure creation, only writ large. If they come up with a great idea for the campaign setting's history, I don't want a hugely detailed document get in the way of creativity at the table.

  3. I agree heartily. Outside of a few lines of flavor text to set a scene, who needs an exhaustive amount of information?

    Hit the ground running and make history happen, that is what player's should be doing, not fretting over ten thousand years of past events.

    I do use gods, out of necessity, they are detailed enough to give my players a hint of what is out there. So, if the Spider God doesn't pay attention to you, or the insane Lemmy bard-god, maybe the drunken and drugged out Patsy Stone goddess will get you in her sites. Either way, it is pretty dismal when the gods pay attention to you in my world.

  4. Once more in something a bit more like English:
    I don't like them either. You know that thing that you always see in pulp sf wherein people come from a "possible" future? Well my setting is the braided product of countless mutually contradictory "possible" pasts.
    For some reason, right now, I'm thinking about the scene in Dhalgen where everyone sees two moons in the sky.

  5. @kelvingreen: I'm more of an autocrat when it comes to my campaign, although I do think that collaborative worldbuilding is cool and exciting. I just have a very specific vision of Planet Algol that verges on "Platonic Forms" in my fevered imagination, despite how nebulous and undefined it is.

    @ancinetvault: Lemmy bard-god?! I must have missed that one, with the Hawkwind thing in my game maybe someone needs to make an appearance...

  6. I think you've got a false dichtomy here in the since that detail need not be the enemy of the unknown--only certain kinds of detail. MAR Barker's Tekumel is a perfect example of this. This is a fairly "pulpy" world with a lot of weird elements, yet has a lot of detail and a history where the broad strokes are well known.

    However, knowing that Tekumel was thrown into a pocket dimension does relieve the mystery of how? or by whom?

    "Gods" exist, definitively, but what are they exactly, and why are they so interested in humans?

    Other place related mysterious abound--like what's the deal with the Unstraightened City, or the Silver Suits and the Pylona, or the Geiji Interdimensional Trading company?

    And these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

  7. > I think you've got a false dichtomy here in the since that detail need not be the enemy of the unknown--only certain kinds of detail. MAR Barker's Tekumel is a perfect example of this.

    Good call!

    Besides, The Silmarillion was by no means "complete" when Tolkien died and that didn't stop LotR from being a darned good story even though he had no idea where that was going as writing it. Heck, he even had to change The Hobbit since it was impossible to reconcile Gollum /giving/ Bilbo the ring, as originally written.

    IMHO there's no reason why backstory - fragmentary or hugely in-depth - should be any hindrance to gameplay, so long as the GM applies that in a manner which is considerate of her/his players. (And if they wish to write an in-depth "book" about their world/universe on the side, no problems ;)