Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Fantasy RPG In-Group and Out-Group

I was sitting looking at my bookshelf earlier on this evening, and my eyes for some reason fell on Galilee, a doorstep by Clive Barker from the late 90s that I only vaguely remember reading. The thought occurred to me: I can't remember the last time, if ever, I saw anybody in any online role playing discussion of any description refer to any of Clive Barker's work whatsoever.

Then it hit me: Clive Barker, for some reason, is in the fantasy RPG out-group. There is a cluster of writers - shifty exiles and outcasts lurking just outside the borders our collective subconscious, like a pack of stray dogs or feral cats waiting for scraps which never come - whose work, while extremely popular with readers, never gets much of a mention when we fantasy RPG enthusiasts gather together to discuss our influences and inspirations.

Who else am I talking about? Well:

CS Lewis - out-group.
Guy Gavriel Kay - out-group.
Robert Holdstock - out-group.
Piers Antony - out-group.
Stephen Donaldson - out-group.
Terry Goodkind - out-group.
Julian May - out-group.
Robert Silverberg - out-group.
Harry Turtledove - out-group.
Tad Williams - out-group.
David Eddings? Out-group.

Against these are arrayed the in-group. Robert E Howard, HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, JRR Tolkien, Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, natch. China Mieville. M John Harrison. Michael Moorcock. George RR Martin. Lord Dunsany. Fritz Leiber. Glenn Cook. Lewis Carroll. Zelazny, probably?

What is it which defines whether a writer ends up in one camp or the other? We don't have big enough samples to make definitive statements, but I think casting my eye over the other we can suggest that there are certain indicators of toxicity to fantasy RPG fandom.

Provisional List of Indicators of Toxicity to Fantasy RPG Fandom

1) A sense of being "too popular", particularly if there is a feeling that the writer in question has dumbed-down in order to get mass appeal (David Eddings, Tad Williams, Piers Antony, Julian May).

2) The writer being notable for having certain religious or political beliefs which are not widely shared by RPG nerds (CS Lewis, Terry Goodkind).

3) Mixing the "real world" or real historical events with the fantastical (Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Holdstock, Harry Turtledove, and I guess you could include Clive Barker in that).

4) A feeling of being "high fantasy" (whatever that means) versus "pulp" (whatever that means) (this, I think, includes most of the names on my list).

5) Not being in Appendix N.

42 comments:

  1. 5 is certainly a biggie for some. Barker was certainly a big influence on the Kult RPG, and certain elements of Hellraiser and Cabal made it into numerous Vampire and Shadowrun games I have played in or run, especially in the late 90s.

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  2. Robert Holdstock’s alter-egos would make the in-group. Raven Swordsmistress of Chaos or Berserker, anyone?

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  3. I don't quite follow your taxonomy here. Lovecraft, for example, would fall foul of (2) and (3), and Howard certainly of (2) and probably (1). And (quite unreasonably, in my view), the profound Catholicism and modest conservatism of Tolkien and Wolfe would probably have them ruled out by (2) in the eyes of a fair few.

    I'll confess to disliking Eddings' stuff since I read it as an eight- or nine-year-old; highly derivative and *no memorable monsters* (I can't remember a single one, if there were any). And that would lead me to a different, and simpler, taxonomy: the *good* and the *bad*. I'd argue that of your outgroup, Lewis, Holdstock, Silverberg, Kay (on the strength of his pseudo-historical novels, *not* The Summer Tree) and (somewhat grudgingly) Donaldson are *good*, while Eddings and Goodkind are *bad* - by which I mean they're derivative and, crucially, *uninspiring*. I can't profess much knowledge of the others, but despite having read one or two novels by May, I can remember nothing whatsoever about them - not a good sign.

    Now, I'd argue that all of the writers in your in-group are *good* - or at least *inspring*. I confess to struggling with Howard, as he's such a terrible sentence-by-sentence writer, but it's very easy to loot his stories for gaming ideas. You could argue the same for a lot of Lovecraft, but his best stories are excellent, and all of them have rich pickings for games. The rest are all pretty good in their own way AND you could stuff a game with excellent monsters and NPCS by pillaging their work.

    Could you really say the same about David Eddings? I mean, if a friend said to me, "We're doing a Mythago Wood-based gaming session", I'd be all in. And The Silver Chair's a pretty good D&D campaign. But The Belgariad? Really?

    Anyway, an interesting post (as ever)!

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    1. That's true - I wanted to add somewhere that some of the "in-group" have some of the indicators of toxicity, but this is outweighed by other factors, but forgot.

      Don't get me wrong - I think David Eddings' stuff is dreadful. But wasn't there some cool stuff in The Belgariad or The Mallorean about magic being a way of summoning demons? I seem to vaguely remember that.

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    2. I'll take your word for it - it was a long time ago! - but my overwhelming impression of the books was their utter blandness (and deep disappointment when a potentially monstrous species turned out to be shaven-headed humans or whatever). I think the yield of cool stuff was extremely low - whereas whatever book Michael Moorcock had knocked off over a weekend would yield all manner of riches.

      Another point, though, is that different games have different in-groups. For Dragon Warriors, for example, Mythago Wood was definitely "in" (whether or not it was an influence on the writing, it was certainly an influence on lots of players - and Dave Morris has certainly drawn on it since). A DW Appendix N would include Vance's Lyonesse and plenty of Holdstock, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, I suspect, along with all manner of "primary sources".

      I also think that Lewis is "in" in all kinds of subtle, perhaps unacknowledged ways. Would the D&D Underdark be quite the same without The Silver Chair, I wonder? And did Lewis and Pauline Baynes create the notion of minotaurs as species rather than individual? I suspect they did. The Middenmurk blogger's take on this passage certainly resonated with me:

      http://middenmurk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/but-such-people.html

      Guy Gavriel Kay's a funny one. I only read a couple of his things recently. I loved River of Stars (the not-the-fall-of-the-Northern-Song one), but thought The Summer Tree pretty dreadful. But I suspect an awful lot of RPG campaigns are rather like The Summer Tree ...

      On a slight tangent, I wonder if A Wizard of Earthsea (and sequels) is in a funny kind of space as a magnificent secondary-world fantasy that has had very little influence on RPGs. I could well be wrong about the influence ...

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    3. Elenium was better than the Belgariad, and had at least somewhat more interesting ideas. Not by much, admittedly, but I feel compelled to defend my guilty pleasure author a little bit. Eddings's strength is in dialogue not ideas, though, and that isn't very good at inspiring others. I would still also argue that he popularized a lot of cliches and tropes that you see all the time in gaming. For example, his books feature straight up boss battles.

      Overall, though, your point is pretty good.

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    4. Maybe I should revisit some of my old Eddings books if I can find them. I do remember even as a teenager thinking of his books as being in a way influenced more by the romance genre than the fantasy one in that they were all about the relationships between the characters (whether sexual or otherwise). As I recall, the first book of the Mallorean is basically a parlour piece about marital problems between the main character and his new wife, with a bit of excitement tacked on the end in the form of a big battle.

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    5. To switch threads briefly (which seems a dreadful breach of cyber-etiquette), it did occur to me in ruminating on Eddings over the last few days that there was something sit-com like in some of his work.

      That is to say, a lot of the joy (and hence, page space) comes from interactions between a set group of characters rather than a given set of wonderful sights or an intricate plot.

      None of this need be bad - but it might account in a wider sense for Guardians of the West (Book One of the Mallorean) and for the out-group status.

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    6. Yes, you could well be right. You've inspired me to dig out his books, anyway, from wherever I've got them stashed - which I fear might mean a trip to my loft...

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  4. Subject matter might play a part - a world of sufficient violence is perhaps deemed necessary to get the core of RPG workings in. Something like Silverberg's Majipoor or Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy aren't quite there.

    [Cf. comments on here towards the bottom: http://udan-adan.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/osr-aesthetics-of-ruin.html]

    Can't say I ever thought about Eddings that way, but I see it clear enough. A little too typical of it's kind, whatever the quality.

    I have to say, I always assumed the Chronicles of Narnia would be in the background reading of a given fantasy RPG fan, even if they might not be currently relevant.

    Of the in-group, it is also the case that it narrows by specific work also; Gene Wolfe has written works in the real world or something like enough. Likewise, I think Silverberg's Nightwings would slot into the in-group.

    What of William Hope Hodgson, Fletcher Pratt [The Well of the Unicorn] ER Eddison? Mieville has commented relatively positively on Hodgson (introduction to the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition); I think Moorcock has on Well of the Unicorn. Eddison is probably out-group; the Jacobean element may be the wrong kind of wierdness.

    Edgar Rice Burroughs surely must be in-group, even if his influences aren't on the sleeves of the fandom in the same way.

    What of A Voyage to Arcturus? Lud-in-the-Mist?

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    1. Yeah, Burroughs is definitely in the in-group, and I think you're right about violence.

      I've still never got around to reading The Well of the Unicorn. I will eventually.

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    2. The Well of the Unicorn is pretty tough going for the first 10-20 chapters, as I recall - but worth persisting with.

      I confess, I have a great deal of Eddings still on my shelves. This article has made me very tempted dig into in search of promising material.

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    3. Solomon, if you want to read Eddings, go for the Elenium rather than the Belgariad.

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    4. Worry not - I have read the Elenium - as well as the Tamuli.

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    5. I read both the Elenium AND the Tamuli and can remember almost nothing about them. They are the Sparhawk ones, right?

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    6. Indeed. A touch darker in tone than the Belgariad; more consciously Medieval (knightly orders, monotheism, crusades). You can imagine if they were written more recently or adapted for television they might end up as Martin pastiche. All magic in them is clerical, as I remember.

      The Elenium has a weightier feel to it than the Belgariad; older characters, nastier monsters (the Seeker in The Ruby Knight springs to mind). There is a digressive episode of Hammer horror.

      The Tamuli takes it all out of the Pseudo-European continent and gets a little more 'out there' working up the exoticism (an imperial city with roofs covered in mother-of-pearl, the titular Domes of Fire-vastly expensive and showy, as one character comments - but you have to keep up the tradition). To say nothing of the people made of light.

      Both of them have the slightly on the nose habit of monsters or alien entities often having something of a scientific explanation; they come from a different planet and hence breath a different atmosphere and hence must reside in a gas-filled mine. That often feels a little out, perhaps due to the manner of its exposition. But it's in a tradition of outside knowledge with things like Poul Andersons Three Hearts and Three Lions - or indeed a player on the tabletop recognising certain symptoms of a disease that their character might not.

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    7. In one of Eddings' books (I think one of the Mallorean ones) there is an attack by monsters-which-aren't-called-zombies-but-which-are-zombies-really which is quite effectively done, if I remember right. He may have missed his calling as a horror writer.

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    8. Well, on the basis that somebody had to do it: http://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/david-eddings-useful-source.html

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  5. I wouldn't assume there is even a loose consensus on a fantasy in-group for osr rpgs. I prize language and imagination, where language is literary and imagination is otherly but coherent. Many prefer cosy familiarity in language and ideas, sometimes coloured with the violence and grit which has come from contemporary film but which is already a tedious fad.

    Horror can be assumed to be out-group unless it has an SF sensibility, like in Lovecraft, the Romero Trilogy or Alien because Horror has such narrative irresponsibility that intelligent players in those worlds would constantly throw up their hands and roll their eyes at the lack of logic and rigour and implausible unexplained behind the curtain rubbish which delights fans who let's face it tremor at their own shadows.

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    1. You might almost say that people who don't like horror don't like it because they prefer cosy familiarity in language and ideas.

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    2. Those who believe cosiness and horror between them span the whole of literature might say that. Nerds for instance.

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    3. Naturally Kent pisses on without actually putting up anything he thinks is good.

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    4. The very imaginative writers -- Eddison, Hodgson, Tolkien

      The imaginative writers -- Vance, Leiber, Wolfe, Peake, Morris

      The imaginative scribblers -- Howard, Lovecraft, CA Smith, Dunsany

      The unimaginative scribblers -- the other lot read by gamers.


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    5. The words "broken" and "record" spring to mind... How many times have you written a comment like this on my blog or somebody else's?

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    6. Well, there isn't much sign the message is getting through.

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  6. Barker's writing and art have been a huge influence in my world-building. Weaveworld and Imajica helped shape the sort of peoples and magic I favor in fantasy. I think Barker gets overlooked by fantasy fans constantly because he became so known for this one horror thing. Every person I've ever mentioned him to says "the Hellraiser guy?" without fail because that's all they know.

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  7. I suite agree with JC, it must be something else than the taxonomy you describe. I would argue about the authors as well: the only place I've seen Mieville mentioned is on G+, by a sorry handful of usual suspects (never managed to finish reading a Mieville novel or to see the slightest connection with RPGs). I've heard Goodkind, and especially Tad Williams mentioned a lot at the game table on the other hand.

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  8. I am... not too sure about this out group list.

    I know this is anecdotal (ie it's just me) but Gavriel Kay was a *major* influence on my "pseudo-earth" home brewed RPG campaigns. In fact, when I am done running my yoon-suin game, I had thought of returning to that concept, only to discover that Kay had written a book *exactly where I wanted to have my next game* (in Dubronik, see children of the earth and sky). Now I don't know if I should abandon the idea or use the book as my campaign manual ha!

    Ancalagon

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    1. You need to mention him more, then!

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    2. Well who am I, just some random internet guy? I'm not a published gaming author after all ;)

      To get back to your OP, Tolkien definitely fails #4

      Ancalagon

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  9. Blending history and fantasy is exactly why Guy Gavriel Kay is part of my personal fantasy rpg in-group.

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  10. What about the sadly recently departed Ursula le Guin? Huge influence on me, fantasy-wise, growing up.

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    1. I think Le Guin is not exactly out-group but she very rarely gets a mention as an inspiration I think.

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  11. FWIW Barker did make it into Pathfinder's Appendix N---one of the core devil types is a Cenobyte with the serial numbers filed off and "The Hellbound Heart" is actually no. 1 in the Core Rulebook's suggested reading list. I mean I'm pretty sure they wanted to just say "Hellraiser" but it had to be a list of books...

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  12. New category : the authors that get cited in-group but only for jokes : Pratchett, the Monty Pythons ...(Kaamelott for French people)
    (With fond reference to the DM of the Rings : http://shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=673)

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  13. I think CS Lewis surely has some influence; he's just massively overshadowed by Tolkien. He certainly influenced some of my worldbuilding anyway, and there's an Aslan-based god in Forgotten Realms.

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  14. Interesting stuff! you might be right: toxicity!

    funny think, I was a big fan of Goodkind, but I must admit some books are not as good. Maybe because he tried to have the readers think about life? and some weird teenage fantasy stuff?

    Me and some of my close gaming friends read him, but otherwise, never heard of at a table or on a blog

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    1. I really liked "Wizard's First Rule" when I read it as a teenager. That was decades ago now, though.

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  15. GGK and Holdstock are close to my heart for fantasy backgrounds. Kay particularly shows how to twist a real background into a setting for a role playing game. Holdstock just draws me in with how he played with myth.

    Someone else mentioned le Guin. My first D&D game was heavily influenced by the original Earthsea trilogy. The ideas are great.

    I re-read the Belgariad for the first time in 25 years last year. It’s actually quite fun and full of energy, so long as you expect a more pulp styled book dressed as more serious fantasy. I agree that the Elenium was better but maybe not by as much as I think because I can’t remember much about it!

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