Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Some purists do not like to introduce any character types or monsters into their game world unless they have a medieval or "Tolkienian" flavor or base. This really limits their play possibilities as far as I am concerned, for what better world to accept aliens than ones that already have a myriad of other strange and weird creatures as residents? Sure, it would be hard for a town like Peoria or Indianapolis to accept strange alien creatures, but would it be so hard for people that probably have elves, dwarves, hobbits, and the like living down the street from them? I think not, for what is stranger, the alien with the blaster or the multi-tonned dragon that breathes fire? Think about it, and I think you'll find that logic supports the use of aliens in fantasy games, and that playability supports their inclusion as well. They are fun, challenging, and very novel as characters and as monsters. I can still visualize the pair of Vegan space travelers trying to figure out how a wand of fireballs worked after they had traded their stunner for it. They ran every test imaginable, and their computer kept telling them: "This item does not compute!" Still, it worked when that funny looking guy with the purple robes sold it to them ...

You get the point, I think, but let me just say one final thing on the subject and we'll go on to other things: The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content, and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever. So don't limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don't fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don't just say, "NO!", whittle on them a bit until they do fit.

--David Hargrave, Welcome to Skull Tower (1978)


  1. While I'm a big fan of genre-bending, I've got to admit that actual "aliens" are outside my comfort zone. They *generally* make a nonsense of a fantasy cosmology.

    If these aliens are out there with blasters, why aren't the demons, for whom physical space is no object and who are presumably everywhere, all carrying blasters? Why haven't these guys worked out how to do magic?

    To put it another way, I think there's an important difference between genre *bending* (magic and rayguns in the same setting) and genre *clashing* (a character with rayguns and no magic showing up in a setting with magic and no rayguns). I can accept the first but not the second.

  2. In case it matters -- not that it should -- I posted the quote not because I necessarily agree with it (or disagree with it), but because I think it's interesting and a good example of the way that gaming has changed over the years. There's a much heavier emphasis on verisimilitude and plausibility than there once was, for example.

    But, as I said, I post the quote more as a touchstone for discussion than as something I unequivocally endorse (or reject).

  3. I both agree and diagree with Hargrave. I think there is plenty of room within fantasy roleplaying to mix genres (even to the point of clashing) for the sake of un, but I do not think it fits every aesthetic.

    If I were running a lengthy campaign set in Hyboria, Middle Earth or some approximation thereof, I would not seek to introduce ray guns and aliens into it. For shorter campaigns and one off adventures with a less 'serious' bent, I would be quite happy to do so (frankly, I like Spelljammer, just not as an absolute given).

  4. I pretty much agree with Matthew. If the purpose of your game is to build adventures set in a very specific type of setting genre/historical-cultural analogue/tone/whatever, then yes, you need to put boundaries on it, because otherwise you've got gnome ninjas and cyborg cat girls and other such troubles.

    BUT, if you're setting out from the get-go with a throw-it-all-in sort of attitude, then yeah, go for it. Either you have boundaries and you've clearly defined them from the outset, or you don't, in which case, as he says "whittle it down until it fits" and enjoy the fun.

    Some people like single malts, some like blends, but there's plenty of good examples of both out there - the key is to find the flavor you like and enjoy.

  5. James, you are definitely right about the change in gaming, that adhering to a particular setting or sub-genre is much more important these days. I think there's a lot of room for looking back and loosening up.


  6. I think though, that Hargrave is encouraging gamers to be aware of their preconceptions of what fantasy gaming should be, and not to feel limited by others' notions of what is correct or true to the fantasy milieu. That is, a fantasy setting is already arbitrary and by its nature otherworldly, and it's entirely up to individual world-builders and not history or literature or gaming conventions to set the limits. By all means set boundaries on the game, but make sure they are boundaries you have chosen and not merely settled for.

    @ Badelaire: "gnome ninjas and cyborg cat girls and other such troubles."

    Cyborg cat girls, rawrrr. See, now this is the kind of trouble I can get behind ;D

  7. @ Frank:

    I think the importance stems from the compulsive need for all-inclusive setting documentation in settings both published and private, purposely RPG-based and media tie-in. Once you've gone down the road of figuring out just what crops are harvested where went and what exactly flora and fauna are associated with which geographical locations, you're now saying "no" to things by default, instead of saying "yes" to things. Older methods of setting design were permissive by nature - if you didn't say it didn't exist, it could be out there. Nowadays, I think this obsession over having everything documented has led to a philosophy of setting design that is non-permissive by nature - if you didn't say it existed, than it can't be out there.

    @ Max:

    Creepy, juuust creeeepy...

  8. @ Max

    That is, a fantasy setting is already arbitrary and by its nature otherworldly

    I agree with precisely half of this sentence.

    A fantasy setting is by its nature otherworldly, but I don't think it's a good idea to be arbitrary unless you're deliberately straying into the realms of parody. The thing that struck me about the original quote was that, although it might have been *trying* to encourage people to look beyond their assumptions about what "fits" in fantasy, it was actually making those very same assumptions itself. The "space travelers" in the example given have explicitly "modern" or "science fiction" schticks (they're Vegan, they carry stun rays, they have a computer that they get to scan things) while the world they land in has explicitly "fantasy" schticks (a wand of fireballs).

  9. There's also the issue of people making assumptions about the source material. Take, for instance, the assumption that aliens have no place in Conan's world, or Nehwon. However, Robert Howard was part of the same literary circles as Lovecraft, and Lovecraft's "Nameless Old Ones" make an appearance in "The Phoenix and the Sword" while the dauntless Cimmerian faces a "trans-cosmic being" in "The Tower of the Elephant". King Kull becomes the nemesis of ancient snake people described as "grisly beings of the Elder Universe" in "The Shadow Kingdom". Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser meet a dimension-hopping, monster-hunting modern German in Leiber's "The Swords of Lankhmar", while their decidedly alien sorcerous patrons, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, occasionally employ devices that could be modern or future technology. The line between technology and sorcery is often blurred in Moorcock's stories of Elric and Corum. Karl Wagner's Kane resurrects the ancient, blatantly sci-fi technology of spacefaring amphibians in "Bloodstone".

    In short, while I'd never drop Martians into Tolkien's Middle Earth, there is absolutely no disconnect between Howard's "The Tower of the Elephant" and Gygax's "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks". In fact, if Gygax stumbled at all in his sci-fi-crashed-into-Greyhawk adventure, his aliens are not quite alien enough!

    - Brian

  10. In short, while I'd never drop Martians into Tolkien's Middle Earth, there is absolutely no disconnect between Howard's "The Tower of the Elephant" and Gygax's "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks".

    I actually had that story in mind when I decided to line up Hyboria with Middle Earth. Though the being Conan encounters is from another world, I didn't get any 'hi tech' feeling from it, in fact quite the opposite, it seemed as though the being travelled through space in a much more magical way.

    My feeling is that little of the 'magic' of Hyboria is technology based. That said, I wouldn't like to second guess Howard's intentions.

  11. My feeling is that little of the 'magic' of Hyboria is technology based. That said, I wouldn't like to second guess Howard's intentions.

    Well, we do know that he was one of those playing with some of Lovecraft's stuff. I guess it really comes down to how hard a line you draw. I don't see the shoggoths as being any more "low tech" than blasters and warpdrives. Once you open the door to aliens from other planets, whether they arrive by flying saucer or summoning circle, all sorts of madness becomes acceptable, to my mind. That said, aliens in Howard and Lovecraft are truly alien. They might possess terrible weapons but those weapons are likely to not resemble anything we'd think of as a gun. I think Moorcock handles this best, with his odd thaumaturgical engines and super-science which blurs the lines between engineering and the supernatural.

    Tolkien, however, doesn't leave us much room to maneuver. The stars that shine down on Middle Earth really are nothing more than lamps to light the ways of the elves. To put planets around those lamps and populate them with Flying Polyps is, I think, to do violence to the spirit of the text.

    - Brian

  12. Oh sure, Howard is messing around with Lovecraft, but the technology evident in Hyboria is of quite a different character than conventional sci fi. A good example would be the city in The Slithering Shadow. Certainly, Howard blurs the line between technology and magic, but he never removes the ambivalent mystique, and in my opinion Barrier Peaks does.

    If a flying saucer were to turn up in Hyboria, and clearly be recognisable as such, I would probably call foul.

  13. Matthew,

    Not a UFO in Hyboria, but I can only imagine what you'll think of Conan in pimp threads...;)

  14. Ha, ha. Truly, a classic of our time. Brings a new significance to Schwarzenegger's stint as Hercules in New York.

  15. You know, I just re-read that vey passage (along with quite a few other nuggests of wisdom from Hargrave) about three weeks back.

    Sometimes Dave really struck a chord in my current sensibilities, while other times I wondered if he was one of the unlucky guys who dropped some of the brown acid tabs at Woodstock.

    I think Max is right in that the message here is to not restrict 'fantasy' to someone else's vision of what it means.

    I FULLY agree that if one WANTS to get the feel of a Howard or Tolkien setting, then this issue is a no-brainer. The passage is basically saying you don't HAVE to limit yourself to the vision set forth by these authors.

    I think you have to take everything in Arduin in the context of the time in which it was written.

    That said, I'm all for aliens, mutants, and six-shooters in any D&D campaign as long as the players are as well.

    And none of it will ever replace a strong arm holding a sharp blade.