Book ’em Danaan

I reread The Bull and the Spear and The Oak and the Ram recently.  First two books in Moorcock’s second Corum trilogy.

I don’t know if I’ll reread The Sword and the Stallion, as it’s kind of downy.

Anyway, interesting thing about reading fantasy fiction these days is that it’s the reverse problem of playing fantasy RPGs.  For-ever, I have thought about capturing the stuff of fiction in RPG play, being put off (much of the time) when a game was gamey in some way that conflicted with the fiction experience, like the dependence upon armor and nameless magic items or whether you provoke an AOO.

But, a game is a game.  It needs to be able to do things that fiction doesn’t, like have balanced party members (most aren’t into sidekickdom) have unpredictable results.  No, rehashing this isn’t the point.

The point is that I’m now reading fiction with how it simulates gaming, rather than the other way around.  Sure, I see a lot of Moorcock’s repetitiveness in his writing after having to slog through some of his more recent books/stories that can’t seem to get off certain ideas/dialogue.  But, other things have come to mind rereading these two books.

Magic.  As much as the loose explanation is that magic is extraplanar or a function of belief or a corruption of natural philosophies, it’s still magic in these books.  And, it’s loosely explained.  The most consistent element is that things from other planes of existence which are ordinary for that plane are magic in this plane.  Okay, that isn’t a bad concept.  But, is it a bad concept for gaming?

It seems kind of limiting thematically.  “Oh, yes, you can find a magic weapon … that was an ordinary weapon from another plane of existence.  Put on this magic cloak … that phases you somewhat out of reality because it’s … displacing you visually into another reality.”  Certainly, for one shots or the like, I wouldn’t care.  It just seems like it kind of cheapens the magic (maybe Moorcock’s intent since he’s big on the idea that we would do better without gods or other supernatural stuff).

Yes, Calatin does his own stuff and whatnot.  Anyway, moving on to another aspect of magic in the series.

It’s often superspecialized.  See, this is why D&D isn’t high fantasy.  In high fantasy, which I’d say most of the Eternal Champion is (with some sorcery and swords), you don’t get what you want, you get what you need, and it’s arbitrariness is often arbitrary except for how it’s what you need to deal with a particular challenge.

Sure, Elric knows a bunch of incantations to summon gods and monsters to fight for him.  But, does he ever use the same invocation again?  I think he tried it once.  Sure, a lot of pacts can be seen as one time deals, which is a good reason to hold back on using them, which always sounds good in theory for gaming but actually sucks consistently in gaming.  But, when you have like 50 of these, why choose one instead of two?

High fantasy is replete with only ever doing something once.  You know an amazing spell, you use it once.  You have some odd weapon, you use it once (odd being not your two-handed, moaning demon/god sword in this case).  The definition of macguffin isn’t what I thought it was, but you have some utility magic item and it gets used and it’s gone.

It’s part of the drama.  If you could reliably ride a fire horse and see all of creation, then that’s kind of less dramatic.

Not just superspecialized but also world changing.  Yet another reason why D&D doesn’t rate as high fantasy.  Sure, you might be more powerful than a character in high fantasy with way more magic as a D&D character, but your ability to impact the “world” is rather minimal, IME.  In high fantasy, whether the “world” is your backyard or the multiverse, you impact it.  (Yes, I’ve said the same before.)  The Bull in The Bull and the Spear would be interesting to have as a climax to a gaming session.  But, where many players feel like PCs should be the ones who do stuff, the line of losing agency could be crossed.  It’s a matter of expectations.

Setting high fantasy expectations is something that concerns me.  Because, as a PC, you don’t always do the thing.  You may only make it occur that the thing happens.  This is, again, maybe why convention one-shots have often worked better for me.  In a convention game, where you didn’t create your PC and where you may not understand the subtleties of diagonal 5′ steps and where you aren’t getting more Eeps for frontlining the big bad, expectations of simply putting events into motion and having the cut scene play out are higher.  And, maybe, this is why some people hate these sort of games – they feel too much like fulfilling a script for people who are more into doing their own thing in a world.

Obviously, there are huge problems with any Eternal Champion stuff for campaign play because I somehow doubt every PC is going to be the most special of them all.  “I’m not going to touch your cool toy, demigod dude.  Why?  Because you are a demigod and I isn’t.”  Yeah, that doesn’t seem to be any RPG experience I’ve ever had.  I’m more used to “I should totally have that magic boomerang to go with my three magic swords and my magic cap and my magic socks and my wand, staff, and rod.  Do you want it?  No?  Great.  I’ll solo demonicus rex and you hang back and cast cure wound boxes on me.”

Which gets into how sparse magic items are.  I’m all for eschewing the D&D magic item paradigm.  But, I can also see the problem of one person having Godwrecker and someone else having a finely made left gauntlet.  On the other gauntlet, it’s less high fantasy when you lack the Godwrecker Collection – Divinity Decimator, Holy Hijacker, Awe Shucks, etc. – to set apart from the ordinary.

That books are scripted doesn’t seem to me as big of a problem.  Linear adventuring is fine when what you do is interesting.  The problem point with how it’s scripted is villains.  The villain who keeps escaping just annoys players for some reason.  The invincible enemies who are vinced in some specific way rather than with a series of Delayed Blast Fireballs just annoys players for some reason.

Some even have problems with coincidences, seeing them as arbitrary rather than the core of making storytelling more relevant.

But, let’s get back to villains.  I’m much more questioning when it comes to villains who suddenly break off attacking or who leave a hero for dead when there’s not a good reason.  Even more problematic, because there could be secret reasons for villains letting heroes survive, is when heroes get suddenly rescued by “NPCs”.  If you want to offend players, having NPCs prove more capable is a proven way to do it.

With rewrites, a game could be made out of recovering The Spear.  A game could be made out of getting the high king and curing him.  It wouldn’t be much like the books, though.  For instance, which PC will carry The Spear?  How many infiltration devices do you hand out?  How do you script revealing new lore to the players so that it doesn’t seem videogamey?  Who gets to remember the one way to fix everything?

So …

Many of the problems with syncing up fiction and gaming are obvious:  one versus many; scripted results; specialness; tactical stupidity of fiction characters and/or lack of ability reliability; heroic versus mercenary.  These particular books show some of the additional problems.  Where is the fairness with having few magic items?  How does everyone be special without someone being clearly more special?  How can you have cut scene events without taking away agency?

Here’s a thought.

Fantasy RPGing is the worst RPGing in my experience.  True?  I’d say both Conan and Princess Police worked well, overall, and very well in particular sessions.  Those were both fantasy, though L5R a lot of the time doesn’t feel particularly fantastic.  Now, when I say FRPG, I’m not including such things as Feng Shui or a host of modern supernatural.  Going more for the preindustrial genres.

The interesting thing about Conan was that we weren’t murderhobos.  I’m not sure why we weren’t.  Oh, sure, in the beginning, it looked like it could go that way, but, then, we ran away from Picts and were more pulpy in treasure hunting than what I find in D&D or RuneQuest, the latter two being all about treasure-accounting.  Curious.

I know I rerehash on how high fantasy is its own thing.  But, even medium fantasy, like portions of the Deryni books or portions of Wheel of Time or portions of the Spellsinger series, swords and sorcery, and possibly other genres of fantasy fiction have core elements that my gaming usually lacks.  I’m not entirely sure why.  It very much comes across to me that people who run/play FRPGs haven’t read much fantasy, which doesn’t seem plausible.  Maybe I just missed a lot of series that other people think of as typical fantasy – I certainly have no desire to read A Song of Fire and Ice based on how it sounds more like political drama than fantasy based on what I’ve heard.

Yet, Hobbit/LotR.  So, maybe it’s less not experiencing similar tales to what I’ve read and more segregating the game experience from the book experience, which I don’t easily do … partially because I don’t know why I would even want to keep them separate.


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