Monday, September 24, 2012

The Fall

Being outdoors in a natural environment turns my thoughts to fantasy, doubly so when it's the Fall. The kind of fantasy I tend to enjoy -- and play -- has an "autumnal" character to it. How could it not? The ubiquity of ancient ruins filled with forgotten treasures in Dungeons & Dragons suggests a setting on the wane, or at least one that has seen better days. It's post-Golden Age, sometime after the oceans have drunk Atlantis and the gleaming cities. There may be a new civilization on the rise, but it's a tawdry one squatting in the ashes of the glory that was Rome.

I suppose this is why some have claimed that fantasy is a fundamentally conservative genre -- conservative in the non-political sense of viewing the world as "fallen" in one or more ways. That's admittedly a viewpoint for which I have a lot of personal sympathy, so maybe it's all too easy to accept it uncritically. Still, as I say, D&D has all these dungeons lying about, so it's hardly a stretch to think of the kind of fantasy it presents -- and thus with which most gamers are familiar -- is colored in shades of red, orange, and brown.

Mind you, it's not just D&D that presents fantasy in this fashion. Three seminal influences on the game and its players do so as well. Robert E. Howard's "undreamed of" Hyborian Age is explicitly a time after a great cataclysm. The Third Age of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, though a time of great ferment, sees the waning of the elves and a general decline in the strength of Men. In the 21st Aeon of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, the Sun is, literally, dying and, along with it, much of man's accumulated knowledge. I could probably name many other examples, but my point (to the extent I even have one) isn't to "prove" that fantasy must view the present with some pessimism compared to the past, only that it's a very common and influential theme.

It's worth noting, too, that quite a few gaming settings are post-cataclysmic. Greyhawk's Oerth, Dragonlance's Krynn, and Dark Sun's Athas all clearly are, as is Empire of the Petal Throne's Tékumel. As eventually developed later, The Known World had an apocalypse in its past, as even the Forgotten Realms is filled with the rising and falling of civilizations as the result of periodic cataclysms (though few of these seem to have had any lasting effecst on the setting).

I'm not really going anywhere with this post; I'm simply thinking out loud. The weather has been quite chilly lately and the leaves of the maple tree on my front yard are starting to change color and fall and I've found myself musing about fantasy even more than usual.

15 comments:

  1. Don't forget the sounds of Autumn too among the ruins... the sorrowful wind, overcast skies, cool brisk air.. all lends itself to epochs on the wane.

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  2. And those miserable piles of bones that gather together to walk at night when the villagers bolt their doors and windows and even the owls seem afraid to leave their barn roosts to hunt.

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  3. I wonder just a bit if this quality of Fantasy isn't its root to history. After all, we stand on the ruins of Rome, and even in the modern cities of the "New World" stand on lost and forgotten temples. A long, long time ago, I played one session with strangers in a setting that had no preceding history: it was (if you will - I can't remember details) the Golden Age at the Dawn of Man.

    I couldn't follow it one bit. It was too alien to my experience!

    Great Autumnal post, James: a musing that surely resonates far more than you can know.

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  4. Viriconium is another great example of this, with its Afternoon and Evening cultures.


    I feel much the same as you regarding my preferred tenor of fantasy; fall is certainly my season.


    I would also suggest that this is similar to the Japanese concept of mono no aware, sometimes translated as the wistfulness of things. It is an appreciation of transience.

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  5. How would I have turned to D&D if it wasn't for grey, rainy, Pacific Northwest Fall days and me daydreaming about some lonely ruin under the same skies, soaked with the same rain? What horror would have the courage to risk itself under the sun, veiled behind dark clouds?

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  6. I have spent more than three decades enjoying the transition to autumn: watching the leaves turn golden, fog forming across harvested fields, canning fruits from the garden, looking forward to cooling rains, and anticipating fires being lit in the fireplace--and suddenly feeling compelled to call friends and family at this time of year, more than any other, to play D&D. Or read a tale of epic fantasy, or revisit old movies like Excalibur and Dragonslayer (set in Fall/Winter time frames for some reason).


    There is definitely something about Autumn that turns thoughts to older, simpler, idyllic, or fantastic places. As Daniel said, there is something about it that resonates.

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  7. Don't forget BattleTech, either.

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  8. I recall there being an actual practical explanation for this in the revised 2nd ed DMG: you have to have a reason why there's all this great treasure lying around in ruins for the PCs to find. Take our modern world, a civilization at its apex as far as technical progress goes; nukes are heavily guarded, knowledge is neatly organized in libraries, and supplies are for sale in large stores. Not much room for ruffians with swords and black magic to go roaming around in. But go post-apocalyptic, and now you've got high-tech guns and old books as treasures, and mutated monsters guarding them.


    Summer's nice to live in, but not so much to adventure in. The best stories to be in aren't the best ones to hear about, as a great fantasy writer said.

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  9. The quintessential image of this for me is Dave Trampier’s pseudodragon in the first edition AD&D monster manual.

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  10. Seasonal definitions can be quite useful.

    I quite like the seasonal descriptions of covenants in Ars Magica for example. A spring covenant is just being started, full of enthusiasm and potential growth. A summer covenant is at it's height. An autumn covenant has started to turn inward. And a winter covenant is more concerned with what is happening within it than without and is at it's end. But as far as magical power is concerned, the winter covenants are the most powerful, but also the ones most likely to "bud" new spring covenants.

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  11. What a pleasant post. I thought I was always the one who got an itch to watch fantasy films or read some form of myth/fantasy around this time of year. I imagined it was because of when we covered certain things (like studying Beowulf) in school. Those genres always seemed to be at the beginning. But I guess there are other reasons. I'm not even much of a fantasy fan, but I admit, in the fall I find myself dusting off LoTR or watching Excalibur.

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  12. Whenever I think of Fall and D&D, my mind turns to this bit of cover art...
    http://www.deigames.com/ref21st.html

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  13. With Dave G. Maybe more posts along these lines?

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  14. Autumn is, by far, my favorite time of the year, and it's not just fantasy related. It's when politics heat up, when football and basketball arrive, when all the hard toil of the year finally pays off. It's the time of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, time to have fun and enjoy one another's company, to sip hot tea and munch on treats by a warm fire.


    I become nostalgic in the autumn thinking about Bilbo or Frodo's hasty flight out of the Shire, I think of gaming and friends from my youth when Final Fantasy 6 was released on Halloween on the SNES and we spent the entire evening playing it instead of trick-or-treating. I think of my youth playing games like Warhammer, HeroQuest and other fantasy board games in the fall. It's the smell of cookies baking, the sight of jack-o-lanterns glowing, the sound of tinkling bells on the Christmas Tree. It's the feeling of warmth and safety.


    I love you Autumn! I wish we had you all year long!

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  15. "Fantasy as such always causes melancholy." -- Kierkegaard


    Imagining a lost pseudo-medieval or pseudo-ancient milieu (whether set in the past or the distant future) is part of the genre's roots in romanticism.

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