On Normalizing the Fantastic

So I was watching the excellent, under-rated John Carter the other day.

It is a fantastic, strange movie. You know what gets only a single descriptive phrase?

The mobile city of Zodanga

Oh, by the way, our city walks. That's all.

It is this "Normalization of the Fantastic" that makes adventure into high adventure. All too often we focus on the dull and pedantic laboring under the mistaken belief that somehow adding truly fantastic elements reduces their splendor.

If that weren't the entire point, we might be in trouble!

It's high adventure because of the fantastic environment. The adventurers live in a world where the cloud castles strafe the land and a 'giant' giant sits by the sea. These fantastic things are normal to the characters that inhabit the world. We spend all this time on monsters and magic items to have plain 'ole medieval cities, societies, castles and dungeons.

I think this is from two great fears as creators of games.

First is the fear of complexity. We feel that to introduce a fantastic element, we must suddenly do a great deal of work.

Second is the fear of the rational modern mind. We feel that if we can't explain or understand something thoroughly we won't be able to explain it to our players.

The Easy Route to High Adventure

The first fear is complexity. I've found, through years of play that this concern has always been greatly overstated. There are dozens of pages of articles in early dragon magazines talking about the power of guns to unbalance your game. But really, it's not that different from a bow or wand. The rules for any new item can be as complex or as simple as you want. 

The angst over rules for a waterfall that falls up is just that. Angst. You have water rules. You have falling rules. What else do you need? Most games contain the building blocks of whatever you need to handle things as unique and complex as you wish. 

What's more, is even most of that effort is wasted. If you just put a giant stone face the size of a mountain that weeps boulders and rocks in your game, you probably won't ever need any rules for it at all, much less any that are so complicated they can't be handled immediately during play. If you know it's ok to stop the game for a moment and say "I'm not sure, give me a second to think about how I should handle this." then even very difficult issues are solved simply.

The second fear is of the endless advantage a player with a rational modern mind can derive. The key to handling this is to remember that the worlds we describe aren't driven by physics and science. Once you go down that road, every giant collapses and suffocates under his own weight. When players start trying to use the scientific method and experimentation to take undue advantage of a situation, that's the time for them to encounter the fantastic reality they are exploring. 

This doesn't mean, of course, that if they show interest you should shut them down. It just means that when they start trying to make black hole artillery to conquer the world because they can manufacture bags of holding and portable holes that it's totally possible to address this with applied, logical, and natural consequences. Why hasn't anyone done it before? Because the gods kidnap you. Because manufacturing astral equipment changes your 'smell' making you attractive to astral creatures, because the land itself begins to decay, or is sentient and takes revenge, because if the objects are in motion they repel each other. 

Because fantasy. 

The Balance

The suggestions above aren't about stymieing the players. If they show enthusiasm about an idea, that's the time to put in the thought about the way a fantastic thing works and ways that it can be non-disruptive to the game. But after years of play, I have very rarely found fantastic elements to be disruptive. This type of engagement is wonderful and can produce very interesting games. If they want to find out how something works to take advantage of it, they just told you what quest they want to do! You couldn't ask for a better opportunity.

It isn't our world and things don't work the same. Very few people today understand exactly how capacitance screens work and certainly not how to repair them -- in a fantasy world influenced by magic and with no global communication system, everything is rumor, darkness, and practically unknowable. Your characters are specialists of a different sort. Specialists in survival, seeking the easy route to money, not the long arduous one of research in a lab. 

10 comments:

  1. Any chance on seeing a post talking about some of the crazy stuff you've come up with or seen the players build in your campaigns?

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  2. Excellent notions Sir! It was when I realised those truths Glorantha begun to work for me, and whats works for the GM usually works for the players also as they gets infected by the inspiration (usually).
    The famous "Suspension of disbelive" can of course be fragile sometimes but if you break in the players slowly and they have a open mind and it really is the game they want to play, it can be glorious!
    Nitpicky breaking of the suspension usually has the source in a separation of the game and what game they want to play and then it needs to be adressed, but not by making the game world less fantastic!

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  3. The arrowhead of total destruction does not seem like such a terrible thing to me, though the engineering diagram is a bit obnoxious. The problem, if there is one, is the predictability of the market price and crafting rules in 3E, which I don't think are present in earlier versions of the game. I do think making certain fantastic things reliably purchasable or within the purview of crafting rules does make them more mundane (and perhaps short circuit some kinds of challenge; that is, being "unbalanced" or overpowered). I would also say, don't write such explicit things into the rules if you don't want players to take advantage of them. There is no real reason why putting a bag of holding into a portable hole or a portable hole into a bag of holding should do anything particularly special.

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  4. And regarding the larger point of the post, yes! There is no reason why even the referee needs to know how a waterfall falling up really works. Referee, to the player: It's a waterfall, it falls up. Tell me what you do, and I will tell you what happens. If you're unclear about potential outcomes or risks, ask questions first.

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  5. As DMs we are certainly all, to one degree or another, guilty of making things overly complex at times. I definitely know I have a particular phobia of doing this with high adventure fantastic stuff. That shouldn't be the case though, as Courtney points out.

    In the spirit of old-school simplicity, I offer up a random "Howzit Work?" table for high adventure giggles:

    Howzit Work? Roll 1d3. 1--it works like it looks like it works. 2--it works some other way. 3--it works by making you save or die. Done!

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  6. A fear that I've struggled with is related to fear of complexity. But not complexity of rules but the ramifications of how a certain feature would affect a setting. Two classic examples for high fantasy.

    One, with magic being common place how would that affect society? One possible thing would be better living conditions with magic healing and magic to assist labor.

    Two, with flying dragons, tunneling xorns, and wizards slinging fireballs the common image of medieval security, the castle, becomes ineffective.

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    1. These concerns depend entirely on how common dragons, spells, and xorn are in your world, which is a determination the DM can make. In all of the settings I run, they are rare enough that they don't affect the day-to-day operations of most people. (Especially xorn: I've never used one, or played a game where one showed up. But that gives me ideas for upcoming adventures... )

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    2. We're talking about making them more commonplace, of course. (Duh.) But I could imagine how the presence of dragons, say, might not change the appearance of castles. It would just mean they'd tend to be located near aeries. Magic might be more common, but then you'd have magic defenses against magic attacks, and mundane defenses for everyday attacks. And it still might not be accessible to the common folk.

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  7. Speaking of normalizing the fantastic:
    http://www.dailydot.com/geek/how-big-are-game-of-thrones-dragons/

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  8. I've had a different problem with this subject. Consistent exposure to fantastical elements causes the PCs and the players to desensitize themselves to new experiences. I've also had a problem with one of my players who created a fairly grounded character from a small town. Whenever I put his character in a fantastical siutation, the player isn't sure what to make his character do. Any fantastical adventure puts him completely out of his element.

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