Monday, December 29, 2008

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: The Maker of Universes

First published in 1965, Philip José Farmer's The Maker of Universes is the start of an entire series of pulp fantasy books generally called "the World of Tiers." These stories are very much in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels and other similar stories, in which a man from 20th century Earth is transported by mystical means to another world in which he finds himself uniquely strong, intelligent, and irresistible to the exotic women of his newfound home.

It's classic wish-fulfillment fantasy, but there's no denying that Farmer has a real knack for it. The Maker of Universes describes the adventures of Robert Wolff, an aged World War II veteran and linguist, leading a dull and unsatisfying life, who discovers a doorway to the World of Tiers -- a series of artificially constructed worlds stacked on top of each other, at the topmost level of which dwells its Lord, who rules it (and may have created it). Upon arriving in the World of Tiers, Wolff regains his youth and vigor and sets off to overthrow the Lord and end his tyranny. Along the way, he has many unusual adventures and meets a cast of memorably quirky characters, some of whom return in later novels of the series.

I don't recall any specific elements from this book that turned up in Dungeons & Dragons, but the general tenor of the novel certainly matches the pulp fantasy tone that I contend is at the heart of the game. In addition, it's another example of a story involving a fantasy world connected to our own, a common theme among the books Gary Gygax cited as important influences on him and the game. The more I think about it, the more intrigued I become about what this means for interpreting D&D and the Gygaxian conception of it. I'll probably return to this theme in a future post. For now, though, I can't shake the feeling that there's more going on here than meets the eye.

19 comments:

  1. The World of Tiers novels are great, and I was first really pushed to read them from Greenwood's "Theory & Use of Gates" from TD#37. That really spurred my interest in Farmer (and also pushed me to read C. J. Cherryh's Morgaine novels, too, within the past year or two).

    TFoster made a comment somewhere awhile ago that he would like to see some adventures published in the Farmer/Moorcock vein in addition to the more-common fare inspired by Leiber/Howard/et al. I took that to mean a strong focus on gates (and gate traps, of course!---can't have Farmer without those!), and on more-common planar travel in general. That comment is foundational to how I approached detailing several additional levels to S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, although beyond detailing a bunch of gate-related spells, I haven't really figured out a way to implement a gate-heavy adventure without the PCs already having access to many of these kinds of tools, without which I think the PCs are over-matched from the outset. I've thought thus far that this would require making the magics available early in the campaign, and using them (and gates/planar travel in general) to help set to tone for the game from the onset. Haven't done it yet, though.

    Anyone have thoughts on how to design Farmer-inspired adventures?

    Allan.

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  2. Anyone have thoughts on how to design Farmer-inspired adventures?

    I think the use of demiplanes and similar "pocket realms" in the Lake Geneva campaign offers a good example of how to do something in the spirit of Farmer without having to abandon a campaign setting entirely. In general, as D&D has evolved, there seems to be less space for alternate prime material planes and more emphasis on the Outer Planes as the main source of "dimensional" travel and adventure. That seems a big mistake to me and certainly a departure from the early days of the hobby.

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  3. It is pretty striking how many published AD&D adventures employed pocket dimensions, demiplanes, and alternate primes at least as sidelines: EX1, EX2, and WG6, of course, and Q1 sketches a half dozen alternate PMPs as side trek possibilities, T1-4 has the nodes, the Maze of Zayene series, etc.

    I've occasionally been tempted to expand on the bit in WG5 (Maure Castle) with the multiple keys (were they part of a floor inlay, going from memory here?) which had to be recovered to unlock other areas, some of which would presumably be demiplanes or at least self-contained realms of some sort. It always struck me that this would be a good way to build a "megadungeon" type campaign without actually having to keep the dungeon confined to a single geographical location. i.e., there's always the connecting thread of the quest for the pieces of the puzzle to Maure, no matter how far afield the party strays--a consistent centerpiece if you will.

    For example, the campaign might take the party to the Yatil mountains to find the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, but the impetus for being there is to ferret out the piece of the Maure puzzle a sage has revealed to them might be hidden in Iggwilv's hoard. Some of these jaunts could be red herring's, of course.

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  4. James: I definitely love the idea of the demiplanar "levels" but wanted to go a little more Farmerian with the gates themselves, so that they're an integral part of the adventuring environ, rather than just doorways to adventures. My concern is that doing gates "right" from a Farmer POV might push the game too far beyond standard D&D and more into a Lords of Creation (or perhaps Rifts??) direction.

    Thalmen Dahr: I took a similar stance with S4, in that that various demi-planes/gate destinations there could form an extended but non-contiguous dungeon environment---one with levels not physically connected, just connected via gates.

    Allan.

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  5. You know, the more you write about this stuff the more obvious it becomes that D&D's evolution as a game has almost exactly paralleled the evolution of fantasy as a genre. I'm even pretty sure that the timing is the same--fantasy started down the road of becoming a series of inferior Tolkein knock-offs following the publication and massive popular success of The Sword of Shannara in 1977. It and the Covenant books are really what made epic fantasy the dominant subgenre of fantasy, and a lot of D&D's later development certainly looks like an attempt to make it an epic, rather than pulp, fantasy game.

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  6. My concern is that doing gates "right" from a Farmer POV might push the game too far beyond standard D&D and more into a Lords of Creation (or perhaps Rifts??) direction.

    I think the Lords of Creation connection is an apt one. That game was probably the closest to a Farmer RPG I've yet seen.

    As to the rest, I don't think it'd be possible to do Farmer "straight" in the context of D&D, but you could import a fair bit of his books' ethos and tenor. Like a lot of things that influenced D&D, they don't "fit" quite right with the rest of the game, so they'd need to be modified in various ways.

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  7. a lot of D&D's later development certainly looks like an attempt to make it an epic, rather than pulp, fantasy game.

    There's no question about that. Post-D&D fantasy is a weird thing, because it simultaneously influenced and was influenced by the game, creating a nasty feedback loop that has, from my perspective, blandified an entire genre that used to be quite diverse and risk-taking. Now, it's mostly variations on the same theme, with "Look, this setting doesn't have elves!" as the height of ingenuity.

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  8. You know, for a moment there I wasn't sure if you were talking about D&D or fantasy novels. Then I realized that it's really not an "or" question.

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  9. You know, for a moment there I wasn't sure if you were talking about D&D or fantasy novels. Then I realized that it's really not an "or" question.

    Precisely. I'm honestly amazed that 4e didn't take a more explicitly retro approach both to the game rules and to its setting design (such as it is). It seems to me that, in this day and age, doing something that genuinely recalls the halcyon days of 1974 -- there's a phrase you don't hear every day -- you'd actually be doing something actually innovative.

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  10. I'm honestly amazed that 4e didn't take a more explicitly retro approach both to the game rules and to its setting design (such as it is).

    Why? I think the direction 4e was going to take was pretty much clear from the 3.5 era. I mean, I think they went quite a bit further in that direction than I was anticipating but I actually expected something more like Star Wars Saga Edition. But there's nothing from the years leading into 4e that suggested they would go retro.

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  11. You're correct that 4e's ultimate design was easily predictable from the direction of late v.3.5. My point was that I felt, from a marketing and business standpoint, that WotC -- and the game -- might have been better served by a more truly retro model.

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  12. Like A. Merritt, Farmer's influence on Gygax (and thus D&D) is more in style and attitude than specific tangible elements (which is where the Tolkienistas always get mixed up, because JRR's influence is exactly the opposite -- tons of tangible elements, very little attitude and style). Farmer's books are very fast-moving and action-heavy, just like Gary's preferred mode of D&D play -- instinct and decisiveness rule; if you pause to think about whatthe best course of action is you're already dead. Also the huge scope and ever-changing setting -- bouncing between a half-dozen or more worlds/planes in rapid succession.

    The "puppetmaster" quality of the Lords (seen more in the later volumes of the series) is another thing that reminds me of Gary's depiction of Zagig/Zagyg -- devising insanely complex and dangerous traps as much for his own amusement and pleasure as for any practical purpose.

    Gary's novel Come Endless Darkness (the second-to-last Gord book) and Lejendary Adventure module Hall of Many Panes are his most directly and obviously Farmerian works, but the preponderance of planes and demi-planes (including a sojourn in Barsoom, just like in A Private Cosmos) was present to one degree or another throughout his work.

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  13. Gary actually mentions this work by name in an edit he did to one of my Sidebars in Cosmos Builder (the last published GFW book). While the book is mostly Richard's work, Gary did contribute extensively to Chapters 1 and 9, particularly the stuff about Pocket Dimensions.


    ---JRT

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  14. (which is where the Tolkienistas always get mixed up, because JRR's influence is exactly the opposite -- tons of tangible elements, very little attitude and style)

    Unsurprisingly, I agree. One of the reasons I accept Gygax's claim that the Tolkien borrowings were done for superficial marketing reasons is because they quite obviously are superficial. In terms of the game's ethos, there's almost nothing of Tolkien there. I don't think Gary was lying when he said he found The Lord of the Rings boring.

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  15. Good to know, John: I have a Cosmos Builder en route from TLG.

    Allan.

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  16. another example of a story involving a fantasy world connected to our own

    This was the first thing I found unforgivable about the D&D cartoon, BTW - I always played D&D as pure escape: I wanted the coherent world that was separate from our world, and putting a bunch of American kids in the middle of the action was the opposite of what I then thought D&D was about - your blog is a voyage of discovery for me into territory I'd previously thought I knew.

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  17. It's inexplicable (and unforgivable, at least to me) that D&D never (at least in any of its baseline versions -- there may have been some adventure-sepcific rules out there somewhere) included rules for playing transported modern-day characters.

    It features in a ton of the source material, and (as noted) the D&D cartoon, and is such an obvious entry point for newbie players who aren't steeped in the genre (and who, frankly, may not quite grok the whole "fictional persona" thing), but was never supported in the game. This became even more inexplicable with Dangerous Journeys, which is even more multiverse-oriented than D&D, and specifically mentioned the possibility of travel between AErth and Earth, and that Heroic Personae in the game might be such travelers, but still didn't provide any actual support for it -- the rules told how to generate natives of AErth and natives of Phaeree, but not visitors from other planes. Weird.

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  18. In addition, it's another example of a story involving a fantasy world connected to our own, a common theme among the books Gary Gygax cited as important influences on him and the game. The more I think about it, the more intrigued I become about what this means for interpreting D&D and the Gygaxian conception of it.

    As I've started to conceive of my next game it's becoming very tempting to have people create 21st century characters and transport them to the campaign world.

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  19. As I've started to conceive of my next game it's becoming very tempting to have people create 21st century characters and transport them to the campaign world.

    I think that's an awesome start for a new campaign. I'm planning on writing up some rules for how to do this myself, but it's always nice to see others are keen on the idea as well.

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