Thursday, February 11, 2010

Yag-Kosha and Dwimmermount

"I am very old, oh man of the waste countries; long and long ago I came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringes of this universe ... We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria, and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and the shining cities of civilization ... All this we saw ..."
After reading the recounting of the last session of my Dwimmermount campaign, a perspicacious reader wondered if the wounded space traveler Xaranes, worshiped as the Iron God while he convalesced in an otherworldly pocket dimension, was inspired by Robert E. Howard's character of Yag-Kosha from the 1933 story "The Tower of the Elephant." I am not ashamed to admit that the answer is a resounding yes.

"The Tower of the Elephant" is one of my favorite Conan tales, precisely because it defies so many expectations about both the character of Conan and the Hyborian Age. Before Terry Brooks proved that aping Tolkien was the secret to mainstream success, fantasy literature had no compunction about freely adding "science fiction" concepts to "fantasy" stories. Indeed, such a distinction didn't even exist, as evidenced by the fact that, for example, Fritz Leiber's "Ill Met in Lankhmar" won both the 1970 Nebula Award for best novella and the 1971 Hugo Award for the same, competing against other stories that would today be considered "science fiction" without qualification. This sort of elision between what are now considered two distinct genres is something that was very much in evidence in the early days of the hobby, if you consider Dave Arneson's Blackmoor, Dave Hargrave's Arduin, Barker's Tékumel, and Bledsaw and Owen's Wilderlands, among many others.

It was to these settings that I looked for inspiration when I started thinking about Dwimmermount. I wanted a setting where a space traveler mistakenly worshiped as a god would seem perfectly natural and so that's what I created. From the beginning, I made "extraterrestrial" contact a fact, with the Red Elves -- the Eld -- being ancient conquerors from another world. With that established, it's no great leap to then imagine other alien beings traversing the ether in like fashion. I was reminded too of Smith's Zothique, which he described in February 1931 as being
more subject to incursions of "outsideness" than any former terrene realm; and more liable to the visitations of beings from galaxies not yet visible; also, to shifting admixtures and interchanges with other dimensions or planes of entity.
Smith's description could easily be used for Dwimmermount as I conceive it and as the setting is slowly beginning to reveal itself to the players. As I've noted before, Dungeons & Dragons is primarily a game of exploration, which is why it's essential that there always be new places to explore. I wanted to be sure I never ran out of unique realms to visit and so I unhesitatingly penciled in a vast campaign universe, of which Dwimmermount itself is a focal point and lightning rod, for reasons the characters have only just now begun to uncover.

So don't be surprised if future Dwimmermount sessions see the characters journeying to other worlds, interacting with alien beings, or plumbing the hidden depths of the wider universe. This is exactly what I'd always intended to do with the game and it's perfectly in keeping with its -- and D&D's -- inspirations.

22 comments:

  1. A mild quibble: Terry Brooks' original Shannara novels are pretty blatantly set in a world reshaped in the distant past by an atomic war. (I understand that the more recent books have changed this about, but it's certainly true as far as the original Sword of Shannara and its immediate sequels were concerned.)

    You can blame Brooks for a lot. A hell of a lot. But you can't blame him for purging the SF from fantasy. :)

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  2. Arthur,

    I did not remember that detail, as it's been years since I attempted to read any Shannara books. Thanks for pointing that out. I suspect that it's a detail many others have forgotten as well.

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  3. nice quotation of Howard in your campaign. I recently injected some Barker, in a gnostic sort of way (as my newbies players don't know EPT), with an appearance of a lightly modified Forbidden One in my wilderlands campaign. As yet it's just a weird encounter, but who knows where that will lead ...

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  4. The atomic bomb past was one of the few things I remember about Sword of Shannara. I think I also remember them fighting some kind of robot spider left over from the ancient war. Been over 20 years since I read it.

    At least with introducing your players to sci fi stuff in the game, your prepping them for the eventual trip to the Barriar Peaks down the mountain range a bit. Maybe on a clear day you can see them from Dwimmermount?

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  5. Clark's early description of Zothique (and if I remember right this was taken from a letter to H. P. Lovecraft) is interesting in that it more closely resembles his Hyperborea than the setting established in the Zothique tales.

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  6. This sort of elision between what are now considered two distinct genres is something that was very much in evidence in the early days of the hobby,...

    Another example of this is the Old World setting from GW's Warhammer games. Early versions of both WFRP and WFB had von Daniken-esque aliens (the Old Slann) shaping the world and its species, and fighting wars with extra-dimensional beings (the gods and demons of the setting); leftover servitors of the aliens with high-tech weapons (Amazons with lasers); and degenerate descendants of the aliens (the Slann Empire).

    By WFB 3 and WFRP 2, they were largely abandoning this in favor of more straight fantasy. It's a shame, because the science-fantasy feel is one of the setting's great attractions for me.

    These have been a really interesting series of posts on the "behind the scenes" of Dwimmermount. I'm looking forward to learning more.

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  7. What does it mean to be mistakenly worshiped as a god? You've defined the qualities of 'true gods'?

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  8. What does it mean to be mistakenly worshiped as a god? You've defined the qualities of 'true gods'?

    Well, Xaranes denied being a god, calling himself a man. That seems a pretty good indication that worshiping him is in error.

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  9. Anthony, more than that, originally the world of Warhammer Fantasy was part of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, albeit hidden away from the rest of the galaxy by warp storms.

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  10. Yep. They had a whole deep science-fantasy background for it that was largely abandoned.

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  11. Why?

    Why do you think it has split?

    Did the rise in real world technology, going to moon, computers, etc. rip sci-fi from it's "fantasy" (which in theory is fake/will never happen) roots and place it into speculative fiction (which in theory can/will happen one day)?

    Did the rise in popularity of sci-fi itself as a genre (which I'm not even sure is accurate description of last 40 years) cause it to break off and break from generic "fantasy" labeling?

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  12. @Norman,

    I think there has been a general broadening of distinctions between genres, not just in 'genre' fiction. Reading a lot of early American and Victorian (and even pre-Victorian) lit reveals a lot of blurred boundaries between horror, romance, and fantasy.

    I don't know why it happened, but I would assume that this is actually just a furtherance of a process in the works since the first novels were being written in the late 1700s.

    Looking at Lovecraft's work we can see elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction mixed without apology or excuse, and it comes off as effortless and natural--even necessary.

    I think that it is POSSIBLE that the genre distinctions MAY be because authors are loathe to be seen as too derivative of Lovecraft or Howard or Vance (and what the heck is HE? Sci fi? Fantasy? I think the best answer is simply 'yes,' and leave it at that--and Vance's works are a HUGE influence on DnD--a reader moving from Vance to DnD without knowing anything about the history of the game probably wouldn't be surprised to see some science fiction elements).

    Thanks for another great blog, James!

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  13. James, I meant if in your campaign setting worshiping certain things or ideas grants spells or other powers thus making those 'true gods'? If not, does not the act of worshiping the tree, rock, artifact or entity make it a god?

    I'm not trying to be difficult, just curious. In my own campaign there are religions, but no gods (whatever it means when there's powerful fantasy creatures) and the act of worship, dedication etc may give the believer divine spells (or warlock powers or sorcerous ability). True clerics are rare, less powerful adepts and spell-less priests are the ruling class of cults.

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  14. @Norman: in short, I don't know. But I can't think of any necessary reason that has anything to do with the content of the stories, so I'm tempted to look to the publishing business. I suspect that publishers identified a set of Wells and Verne fans (or other authors, earlier or later) and decided to market a category at them, which they saw was separate from the category of Tolkien fans. And for those people who couldn't be fitted into the sub-Wells or sub-Tolkien camps, they invented "science fantasy."

    The chief thing that I think got lost with the distinction is the prophetic or didactic element in fantastical stories, which seems to have been considered necessary for justifying flights of fantasy by Swift, Poe, Bunyan, Bulwer-Lytton, Wells et al. Once a genre of science fiction had been set down it became possible to view, say, Rendezvous With Rama as simple speculation, rather than assuming it was some kind of cloaked social commentary.

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  15. James, I meant if in your campaign setting worshiping certain things or ideas grants spells or other powers thus making those 'true gods'? If not, does not the act of worshiping the tree, rock, artifact or entity make it a god?

    The question of what makes a "true" god in my campaign is an open one. Turms Termax, for example, is commonly called a "god," albeit an ascended mortal, but he has no clerics. Likewise, those gods who do have clerics and grant spells are never encountered and speak to their followers only through dreams and vague oracles. This leads some to doubt their existence.

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  16. But I can't think of any necessary reason that has anything to do with the content of the stories, so I'm tempted to look to the publishing business.

    I believe this is the truth of it. I recall an article I read somewhere that discussed this very issue, but I cannot recall where. In any case, its point was that the distinction between "science fiction" and "fantasy" was driven in large part by business/marketing considerations and little else.

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  17. > distinction between "science fiction" and "fantasy" was driven in large part by business/marketing considerations and little else.

    That sucks. I don't like to begrudge people their passion/livelyhood but it's things like the above that make me distraught over the commercialization of the "OSR".

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  18. it's things like the above that make me distraught over the commercialization of the "OSR".

    I think you lost me. Care to elaborate?

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  19. > Care to elaborate?

    Commercial, for-profit interests ultimately diverge from gamer/hobbyist interests. We want to play a game, they want to get our money. Business also make mistakes which hurt them and their customers "destroying" product lines and occasionally whole companies.

    I don't have time to "prove" or cite examples of above (I would hope it's obvious) but look to TSR's history for many examples.


    The OSR (whatever you want to call it) is now similar to early 70's industry. Cool, friends doing what they like, big mix of hobbyists and indie/self/bootstrap publishers.

    With continued growth, commercialization, and ability to make money that will change. Friends will fight over ownership, money, ego. People will sell-out to/for "big" publishing contracts with major players. Companies will start protecting their income asserting "property" rights and squashing hobbyists with lawyers.

    It will suck and I really don't want to go through that(again) then have to wait another 20 years for the new OSR to bring it back to the hobbyists, to the people.


    But, I don't like to begrudge (the authors, self-publishers, etc.) their dreams and in some cases jobs/livelyhoods.

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  20. Fortunately, there is so little money to be made in old school games that I don't think there's much incentive to "sell out" -- no one's buying!

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  21. Yeah, that's the other alternative. It just peters out before it reaches commercial mass. But, I'm optimistic ;) There wasn't any money to be made in Fantasy Supplement for war games either.

    Personally, I believe some have already have. Sold out that is. Not interested in naming anyone. It's their choice and possibly a good one.

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  22. Personally, I believe some have already have. Sold out that is. Not interested in naming anyone. It's their choice and possibly a good one.

    Fortunately, no single person's actions can destroy the hobbyist approach that others prefer. The gaming ecosystem is a lot different now that it was back when TSR was the only available outlet for D&D.

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