Saturday, December 19, 2009

More on "Grand Unified Theories" in Fantasy and Associated Musings

See the original post Here.

Further discussion on Grognardia Here.

So it turns out my musing on Grand Unified Theories and the Unknown in Fantasy has inspired some vigorous discussion, especially on Grognardia. A lot of interesting points were brought up, several of which touch upon other aspects of fantasy role playing, so I figured it would be worthwhile to continue the discussion.

Firsts of all, as a generalization, it seems to me that the Unknown/Grand Unified Theory divide represents a sea change in the fantasy genre. With exceptions, such a Middle Earth and Tekumel, most old time fantasy properties dealt with an unknown, nebulous world. When the Tolkein pastiches started becoming the Fantasy Status Quo (presumably in the early 80s) many of these setting had a "Grand Unified Theory" that explained the world and it's history, magic and metaphysics.

Now this isn't always a Bad Thing. Sometimes such efforts transcend the printed word and become sublime works that engender a sense of wonder and may even touch upon the big questions of reason, reality and philosophy. The Silmarillion is a great example of such works, and as one of the originators of this phenomenon it shouldn't be surprising that it stands head-and-shoulders above many of the imitators that followed.

However, I don't imagine Middle Earth to be a compelling venue for adventure. Sure, I could get down with some battling the forcers of Sauron and Morgoth while trying to protect the good people of Middle Earth. But it's all for naught and a pointless struggle, as the "physics" (metaphysics) of Middle Earth dictate that God/good will eventually triumph. Now, this is theologically sound of the Catholic professor Tolkein, but it doesn't motivate me to adventure in this world knowing that good will eventually triumph and that the world will become less magic and more mundane over time, until it is our world.

Another good example of a well-defined fantasy world is M.A.R. Barkers Tekumel. While Tekumel is a very detailed, with histories, languages, scripts, and cultures that have been developed for over half-a-century, as some have pointed out there are still "mysteries" in Tekumel. Although the history and world of Tekumel are detailed, we still don't know Tekumel's "Grand Unified Theory." How did the world get ripped into an extradimensional space? What are the gods and their relation to man? How does magic work? As far as I know, these questions have never been answered, and there are further mysteries, such as the Pylons and Silver Suits, that I find compelling. Plus it seems to me that there is a lot of elbow room in Tekumel's giant hexes for a referee to create his own version of the world.

In discussion about the topic many have brought up, rightfully so, that detail and history are not necessarily the enemy of Adventure! You can have a compelling campaign world with histories and known geography. But I think a distinction should be made about "over-defining" the world, especially when it comes to issues of destiny, fate and metaphysics.

History, geography, and so forth can always be fragmentary or contradictory, thereby engendering a sense of mystery. However, with metaphysics and fate, you may want avoid making the players feel like their characters are running in hamster wheels in the game of the gods. Being chained to fate and prophecy may be a good way of stretching out a series of fantasy novels over several volumes or exploring issues of free will and determinism, but I'm a free man and I resent being a playing piece in a chessgame being played by metaphysical forces. I'm sure many players enjoy having an epic part to play in the weave of history, and it's a motif that verges upon being the standard in modern fantasy, but it doesn't work for me. The adventures of Paul Mau'adib are a great read, but I wouldn't want to play him! And philosophically speaking, I do believe that humans gain and learn more by forging their own path through life than doing what is expected of or planned out for them.

Another issue brought up in discussions of "Grand Unified Theory" Fantasy is that it can be a Bad Thing as it can hinder "Collaborative Worldbuilding." In the interest of full disclosure, although I find collaborative worldbuilding creative and interesting and would be interested in participating in such a venture, when it comes to Planet Algol I'm an autocratic demiurge. Most of the campaign elements spring into my imagination as almost fully-realized "Platonic Forms," like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Now they are generally not original ideas, being systhesis and distillation of the inspirations behind Planet Algol, but when I think about elements of the world, I find myself having a very firm idea of what they are.

Now this is partially an issue of "Ego Attachment" ("I have the Best ideas for this campaign world you ignorant peons!") , but there are other issues at stake. As one of the themes of Planet Algol is exploration of an irrational, largely unknown world and contending with it's hostile environments and situations, I'm generally not interested in using collaborative worldbuilding methods for the campaign. The characters are attempting to learn about and survive in this bizarre, weird world, and for the players to have any large degree of influence upon the nature of this world seems counterproductive. If the campaign had a different theme/tone, I do believe that collaborative worldbuilding could be appropriate and exciting, but it seems unsuitable for an old-school hexcrawl game and I have concerns about the impact that giving the players any great degree of "narrative control" about the nature of the world would have on the mystery/unknown nature of the world.


  1. Very interesting ideas. I wonder where my game world falls? I started it when I was a kid in the late 70's, and have used it ever since (to this day using AD&D first edition). Because of this, the land and lots of the world are fleshed out (more in my mind than on paper...I don't have my notebooks from the 80's, for example), and new players can tell pretty quickly how in touch I am with the world. In gaming terms, I grew up with it, and it with me.

    So..."Ego Attachment."

  2. @Blair:
    Here is my explanation as to how to have both a Unified Whatsit and Sandboxing and PC Freedom:

    Best, :D