Sci-Fi and Fantasy Genres according to Brandon Sanderson

I came about a series of videos of a class Brandon Sanderson had been teaching two years ago on youtube. In which he has a great way of summing up the common genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • Epic Fantasy: World’s at stake.
  • Heroic Fantasy: Dudes with swords.
  • Urban Fantasy: Chicks in leather kill demons.
  • Military Sci-Fi: Space Marines! YEAAAH!!!
  • Space Opera: Adventure in SPACE.
  • Hard SF: Written by people with PhDs.

Review: Sword & Mythos

Sword & Mythos is anthology of stories released this year by Innsmouth Free Press. The ebook version had cost me only about 4€, which I consider fairly cheap. The introduction describes the concept behind the collection as “Lovecraft meets Howard and Moore” and there is an additional essay in the end of the book that shines some light on the relationship between Lovecraft and Howard and how they put occasional nods to each others works in their stories. The Primeval Thule RPG setting which I bought just a few weeks ago is based on the same premise of the works of these two great writers being set in the same world and the result works brilliantly. I am big fan of the short story format, especially in its pulp era incarnation (so much easier to digest with ADD than huge multi-volume novels that take you weeks to finish), with both Howard and Lovecraft being among my favorite writers. As a huge fan of Sword & Sorcery, the idea of S&S with lovecraftian horrors had me very excited. The Scarlet Citadel and Iron Shadows in the Moon are probably my two favorite fantasy stories.

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So just the title of this collection had me excited and the cover looks really exciting and promising. Unfortunately, this cover lies. The Chinese warrior woman does not appear in any of the stories. Neither does the monster. Nor Sword nor Mythos to tell the truth. If I simply had picked up the wrong book and misunderstood what I was buying, I might see things more lenient. But this book makes it very clear both in the introduction and the essays, that this is meant to be a collection of stories that blend the Sword & Sorcery of Howard with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft. And it completely and utterly fails at that!

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Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 4)

Dark Times at the Midnight Market by Robert Silverberg: This story is about the tiny Vroor magician Ghambivole Zwoll, a creature with a beak and tentacles, and his business partner Shostik-Willeron, a two-headed Su-Suheris, whose magic shop has fallen on hard times as the world has become so overcrowded by magic that there is simply no more profit in it. An opportunity arises when a nobleman comes to their shop to buy a love potion, which ends up getting them into deep trouble. Robert Silverberg can write, that much I have to give him, and he might do quite well in writing for his familiar genres. But this story does have absolutely nothing to do with Sword & Sorcery. That this one was even submitted as a contribution to this book already indicates a failure on the side of the publisher, who apparently wasn’t even able to set any clear submission guidelines.

The Undefiled by Greg Keyes: I was really hoping the stories would get better the longer I keep reading, but instead it is only getting worse. By absolutely any standard I can apply, this story is just shit! The protagonist is called Fool Wolf, and always in this full form, never shortened to either Fool or Wolf. Apparently he is possessed by his girlfriend, who he raped to death in a berserker rage or something. There is no context at all, not even the slightest indication that locations are shifting, and there, and nothing makes any sense. Later on it is revealed that one of the groups extends its life by raping little children, and then somehow they are dead and the story stops. This is shit! Please don’t write anything again.

Since I have given up hope on this book, I am going to wrap up this review by quickly summarising what the remaining stories are about:

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Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 3)

A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix: This short story is about a knight who is in hospital with a broken foot who is looking for a presen for his bodyguard golems birthday. There is not a single good thing to say about it.

Red Pearls by Michael Moorcock: Finally! Finally we are getting someone who really knows what he is doing and who actually understands the genre of this book! The story is about Moorcocks famous character Elric, of whom I actually only know that he is some kind of superhuman with a really powerful sword. Elric is traveling with his companions to the underside of his world for reasons only he really knows and, what appears to be his typical fashion, doesn’t share with anyone else. As they reach the port at the end of the sea voyage, Elric is already awaited by a woman who shares his highly unusual physical appearance. Elric has come for a magic sword, but in exchange he has to find a pair of red pearls.

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Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 2)

The Singing Spear by James Enge: One of the shortest stories in the book. It’s about a man calles Morlock Ambrosius. Really? Oh, well… Morlock is a maker of things and since he invented a still that could destill wine and gave it to a tavern owner, he is getting free alcohol and is permanently drunk. His hazy life gets disrupted when news come to him that someone recovered the Singing Spear, a magic spear he created a long time ago, which unfortunately is cursed. Now a madman is roaming the cuntry slaughtering everyone and everything he comes across, but Morlock doesn’t care. Not his problem. Until the tavernkeeper joins the refugees who are fleeing the country, which means no more free booze for Morlock! So he got to do something.

This is another really bad story. It’s short, nothing happens, and it overall feels like a draft written in two hours and phoned in. You don’t submit such a thing for publication. The common complaints apply here as well: The actual story really begins only in the last third and the author wasted not a single sentence on describing anything.

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Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 1)

Swords-and-Dark-MagicSwords and Dark Magic – The news Sword and Sorcery is an anthology released in 2010, consisting of 17 stories in the style of classic Sword & Sorcery. It got pretty decent reviews and ratings, and with most of the big names of the genre being quite old already (Conan even made it into public domain almost a decade ago), I was quite intrigued to see what current authors have to offer as their personal take on it. I have to say that my personal knowledge of contemporary fantasy writers is very superficial, but even I have certainly heard of such names as Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock, and Joe Abercrombie. Since each story is by a different writer and was created independent of the others, the only sensible way to review them in detail is to do them each separately. I will keep it mostly spoiler free, but still point out specific things that I consider worth special mentioning.

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Fritz Leiber: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

As a big fan of Robert Howards Conan and fantasy works with the common themes and features of Sword & Sorcery, I still never got around to read anything by Fritz Leiber. He was the man who introduced the term Sword & Sorcery for the already existing type of fantasy literature, that with the massive impact of Tolkiens Lord of the Rings needed to identify itself as its own distinctive niche. (In hindsight, Leibers attempt to define a fantasy subgenre might have been the only one that was actually successful.) He introduced the term of Sword & Sorcery referring to the type of his own stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but also considered Robert Howards Conan and Kull as prime examples of the genre he wanted to define.

So there really was no way I could push this out any further in my own explorations of the genre, and finally got around to get myself the (chronologically) first two collections of the series about these two famous heroes. Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death. It turned out to be a highly sobering experience.

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Primeval Thule Campaign Setting: Having a William Gibson moment

Damn you, Richard Baker! Did you steal my notes?

While browsing around on my continuous search for inspirational material for my Ancient Lands setting, I stumbled on Primeval Thule, a new RPG setting by Richard Baker, David Noonan, and Stephen Schubert that had a Kickstarter last year, but never really got a second glance from me. The final version was completed and released just last month, and with the 272 pages pdf being only 15€, I decided to make the gamble and give it a try without any helpful reviews of it being around it. And it looks good. Really good. You might even say too good!

Just after the first two pages I was starting to get a William Gibson moment. The story goes that Gibson was just in the process of finishing up the last touches on his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer, went he went to the theater and watched an obscure sci-fi movie called Blade Runner. And realized with a shock that he was seeing almost exactly the same thing as his own original and entirely new vision. Primeval Thule looks a lot like the outline for my own Ancient Lands setting on which I have been working for the last four years. A large, mostly unexplored continent of wild forests, where humans have arrived just 300 years ago, finding a world inhabited by the remains of the kingdoms of elves, snakemen, rakshasa, and cyclops, with much older and stranger beings slumbering underground and the weapons and armor technology being primarily bronze. Replace “cyclops” with “mountain giant” and make the elven kingdoms still powerful, and the description matches perfectly with the Ancient Lands as well.

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Psions, sorcerers, and redundancy in D&D 3rd Edition

I’ve just been thinking about psionics in AD&D and in particular how you could run a Dark Sun campaign without having to bother with the psionic rules and instead use something like 3rd edition sorcerers with limited spell lists.

And I think I know see why psionics always seemed redundant, as someone starting with 3rd edition. In AD&D, magic is something that is always learned. All you need is to meet the ability score requirements and you can learn arcane and divine magic. There was no such thing as being born with magic power or having a special natural talent that opens the path for magic training to you.

And that was the point of psionics. Psionics is a type of magic that can not be taught, but is something you are born with. A psion was simply a person who spend all his training on improving and expanding the powers he was born with, at the cost of forgoing the training of any other skills other character classes get.

And that’s exactly the same thing that sorcerers do. 3rd edition said that characters do have the option of being born with magic powers. But instead of bothering with an alternative list of abilities and mechanics, sorcerers simply use the same spells that wizards do.
But when they later added psionics to the game, that created a redundancy. Sorcerers and psions have the same fluff. They fill the same role only with different mechanics.

And that’s why you sometimes see people making such a big deal about psionics being not magic and being completely different because the power comes from within. In 3rd edition, that’s the same thing as sorcerers, but in AD&D, it was indeed a big difference. Magic was always something you learned about altering the world around you, never something you had naturally within you.

It also explains why the 3rd edition Monster Manual has creatures with psionics, which work 100% like spell-like abilities. In AD&D, aboleths and yuan-ti were getting their powers from the list of psion powers, not from the spell-lists of wizards and clerics.Apparently some writer wanted to keep calling it psionics, even though they were now spell-like abilities in everything but name.

So now I think that when you use psionics in a 3rd edition or Pathfinder game, that campaign should not include sorcerers. Other classes like bards or beguilers can stay, their spells seem to have always been considered learned instead of inborn (except for dragon disciples, but those are their own can of worms.)

3 Acts and no End in sight

Yesterday I saw an article about the pacing in RPGs and 3-act story-arcs at Run a Game, which made me think of something that has been on my mind several times before. I actually think it’s a really good explaination of the subject and I don’t mean to criticize the authors views, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed, or at least problematic with the whole premise of the subject.

The first sentence of the main article goes “Most western stories are structured around three acts”. And that’s the whole problem with it.

Three act story structure may be a classic and considered tried and true, and I think when it comes to theatre plays and movies, it’s still a valid approach. There are only two or maybe three hours to tell the whole story and that really isn’t that much time to have an elaborate beginning and end, as well as a good deal of additional action between them in the middle. But when we’re dealing with both literature, roleplaying games, and also video games, this is usually not a restriction the writer has to work with. And there is a serious downside to this approach. Because three act structure is comon in most western stories, things tend to become fairly formulaic. Not only do we have a pretty good idea what will happen, but also when it will happen. Things are getting too predictable. The first act twist and second act twist are not twists, and the third act revelation is not a revalation. Because we already know that they are coming, often long in advance.

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