Book 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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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.

A great example of this would be the Mass Effect series. In my oppinion, Mass Effect 2 is the greatest video game ever made. It actually beats everything else that is out there. But when I finished the game for the first time and the credits were playing, my first thought was “Wow, what a great ending. But what room is there really to continue from here?” While each game may have its own three act structure, the series as a whole is three acts as well. The first game introduces the great threat, and while it is contained for now at the end, we still know that this was just a first taste of the real trouble to come. In the second game, it is where the protagonists make progress toward solving the story problem, coming up with a goal and plans to address it, then gathering resources to achieve their goal: knowledge, skills, allies, and equipment. The stakes rise in the second act.” This was quoted directly from the Run a Game article (which again, does a really good job at examining the subject). But as soon as the credits ran, I know immediately what the next game would be like. Because there could only be one way the third game could be like. Things start to get much, much worse and it’s looking really bad for the heroes, but all hope rests on a newly introduced superweapon that may have the power to destroy the enemy, but will only be able to be deployed right at the brink of total annihilation when everything comes down to a massive final battle.

And that’s exactly what happened. Because it could not have happened in any other way. The conventions of the three act structure and the action hero genre demand it. Mass Effect 3 is now famous for being one of the most despised endings of any video game series with a backlash rivaled by few, if any, other things in the business. But as many problems as I have with the game, and there are a lot, I do give the writers a lot of credit for their attempt to break out of the overused cliches and do something different at the very end. They completely blew it in the execution, but I have great respect for them for at least trying.

I say, when it comes to the pacing for a campaign, stay well away from the standard three act structure. It’s just too predictable. In a minor spoiler for Mass Effect 3, there is a moment at the very end when the hero presses the button on the Phlebotinum Device and collapses from her injuries (female Shepard is the only true Shepard), having come all this way to do what nobody else could have done, overcoming countless obstacles that defy what should be possible. And nothing happens. You even get a radio call from your allies, asking frantically if you have already activated it. Now in the game, there comes one more thing the hero needs to do to save the galaxy, but imagine if it didn’t. Imagine everyone put everything on one card… and it’s a dud. What happens then? Is it all over? Well the battle might have been lost, but turns out it wasn’t so final at all. What now? Do we have a Plan B? We really need to come up with a Plan B now! And that’s when things are getting really interesting and exciting! The players are in a situation they don’t know, in which there is no default way to continue on. And that means that at this points, the players have actually more freedom to take control of the game than they did at any other point of the campaign. But you don’t have to wait until the very end to do this, you can start with it from the very beginning. Have NPCs switch sides, have people change their mind about important things, let people make mistakes, and let good plans end in failure. Don’t have the players simply going through the motions and performing their role. It may be called roleplaying game, but it’s not about performing a role in a script, but take free control over a character. In recent years I’ve come to love Japanese and Chinese movies because they are telling stories I have not heard before. Things are happening that I didn’t anticpiate and not just because it’s an obligatory sudden twist that was unforseeable. There probably will be a cool fight scene in the end, but usually I don’t know who will win and who will get the girl. Maybe the girl wins?!

So yeah… Three act story arcs are bad, mkay…?

Arbitrary Fantasy

As someone who’s been mostly interested in a certain kind of fantasy fiction, I’ve been having some struggle with the distinction between Sword & Sorcery for quite some time. These pasts days, I’ve had some good discussions with other people about it, but instead of getting some clarity, things got only more confusing.

When I categorize fantasy fiction for myself, the main categories I am thinking in are High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, and Heroic Fantasy. Simple categories that seem perfectly clear to me. But as it turns out on a closer inspection, not to everyone else.

Low Fantasy seems to be by far the biggest problem child. Part of it is because what it really means is “Not-High Fantasy”. Assuming Lord of the Rings is the archetype of High Fantasy, Low Fantasy could be two different things: By far the most common use of the term describes a setting that is an alternative present day Earth (though “present” in this case means at the time of writing), while High Fantasy is a completely different reality that at the most may be set in the “Mythic Past” of our world. However, there is also another use of the term, that seems to have become common enough to cause some serious problems. Alternatively, Low Fantasy could mean a work of fantasy fiction that less glamorous, more gritty, and with a lower prevalance of magic. Which can overlap with the other definition, but also be two completely different things. This second use of the term seems to have become so common that the term Low Fantasy has become pretty much useless. (Though I have doubt if it ever really was that good to begin with.)

But now I did some research on the term of Heroic Fantasy these last days, and I ran into another problem. My idea of the term Epic Fantasy, has always been a type of works that revolve around large scale events, like the end of the world or a global invasion of demons, and tell the story from the perspective of the key figures in these events. In contrast, Heroic Fantasy is all about specific characters and their personal stories. They might rise to positions of power and take important roles in larger conflicts, but the story is still about their personal experiences and not so much about how the details of the conflict or how it might turn out in the end. Again, this is a perfectly serviceable and easy to grasp distinction. But then, I ran into a couple of comments in a number of different places, that stated Lord of the Rings to be a prime example of Heroic Fantasy. And that seemed very odd to me. After all, it has all the important traits of Epic Fantasy, which makes it the oposite of Heroic Fantasy. At first I thought someone just got it wrong, but soon I found more and more cases of it, which use the term Heroic Fantasy as something else than the opposite of Epic Fantasy.

There’s also the term Dark Fantasy, that has been thrown around in recent years, which I think is even more pointless. And now I really think that this whole categorization scheme has lost any usefulness it may once have had. Categories are not bad and they are very helpful and important ways to talk about certain styles and group similar work together. But categories only work if everyone uses at least roughly the same definitions, which in the case of fantasy genres, seem to be entirely arbitrary. So I think that at least for myself, I won’t be using these terms anymore. When talking about these sub-genres, instead of throwing around a fancy sounding term, I’ll have to go back to using a whole sentence to tell people what kind of fantasy fiction I am talking about.

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