Baroque Fantasy?

My view of creativity is very much in agreement with the thought that great ideas come from filling a mind with lots of fascinating concepts and evocative images and letting them ferment until one day something new comes growing out of the compost heap. A considerable amount of my creative “work” consists of looking for more ideas to add to my heap by reading lots of stuff remotely related to what I am working on (professionals call it “researching”) and pondering of what use they could be to me. It’s totally not slacking!

Morrowind

One thought that has occupied my recently is that many of the fantasy worlds I find highly inspiring for the Ancient Lands seem to share some common features or at least aesthetic. The two biggest influences are Morrowind and Planescape, and I know that the former was directly inspired by Glorantha. And I was actually surprised that Glorantha came into existance completely independently from Tekumel. I had assumed that there’s a direct link between the two, but both appeared in the world of fantasy games in 1974/1975, the very dawning days of RPGs. I’ve been wondering if there’s a name for the style shared by these worlds but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

Planescape

Looking further into it I also remembered additional settings that seem to share at least some similarity. There’s the Young Kingdoms from Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, Dark Sun, and what I’ve seen also the RPGs Talislanta and Exalted. But it might all have started with Clark Ashton Smith’s proto-Sword & Sorcery tales set in Hyperborea and Zothique (though I admit only having read the former).

Glorantha

One term I’ve often seen to describe both Smith’s stories and Barker’s Tekumel is baroque. Which is described as an “artistic style which used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theater, and music” or “characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance”. Yeah, that seems to about fit.

Tekumel

What all these settings have in common is that they are clearly not an imagined ancient history of Earth, but set in worlds that are only distantly “earthlike” in having mountains, forests, and seas and populated by cultures and creatures that have no obvious earthly counterparts. (Glorantha and the non-Morrowind parts of The Elder Scrolls aren’t sticking too close to that.) It’s something you can also find in Star Wars that adds spaceships and lasers to the mix but otherwise plays it perfectly straight. This is what sets them apart from the Tolkienian mainstream but also Howard’s Hyborian Age, which tend to be close to alternate histories with magic set on Earths with the coasts and rivers redrawn.

Dark Sun

So: Baroque Fantasy?

It’s not a term that has really been used so far, but I think it is definitly a thing that exist and has regularly shown its face through the last 40 years, often to very high praise. (I’ve found it used once, for exactly the same idea.) When you say baroque it comes with the connotation of “elaborate” and “complex”, and often also “confusing”. But I don’t think that it’s really necessary to have worlds with giant piles of information to evoke this aesthetic. Glorantha and The Elder Scrolls are massive beasts of settings, I’ve heard Tekumel is not very accessible either, and fully grasping Planescape means a lot of reading. (Though if you can get your hands on the box sets, the later is not too difficult to understand.) Hyperborea, Elric, and Dark Sun are all kind of borderline or fringe examples, but they all make do with very little exposition. And as a player, both Morrowind and Planescape can be a total blast even when you explore them without having any clue what you’re getting into.

Elric

The key elements of the baroque that makes this term applicable to this style of fantasy are extravagant, flamboyant, and grotesque. And I think that few people would content these qualities in the worlds I named. There is a certain downside in that baroque also is the name for a time period in European history with a distinctive architecture, music, and fashion, which don’t have anything to do with these works of 20th century fantasy. But it’s certainly a term that would be quite fitting.

Thinking about NPC levels in an Old World campaign

So here I am again, writing about RPGs. Even though I am creating the Old World as a fiction setting, I can’t shake the constant thought that it also would make for a really great campaign setting. And once more I am finding myself getting back to B/X, specifically LotFP. Yes, I know: Oh, the irony! Aside from the magic system (for which I have a complete replacement almost ready) I just really love the game in all its simplicity. Combat, character advancement, and monsters are just exactly the way I really want it.

With my experiences in fiction worldbuilding, my look on preparing a campaign setting for an RPG also changed a lot. In the past I used to attempt to emulate the structure of settings like Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Golarion, and for a long while really didn’t know what to make of things like Red Tide, Yoon-Suin, or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. But having learned a lot about Sword & Sorcery worldbuilding in fiction, this very much changed and I am seeing what’s the deal with the later and how it fits my own purposes. Often less is more, and in this case it is much more less that is so much more. I am no longer interested in precise maps, borders, or population numbers for cities and countries. Making up new villages and dungeons as I go will be good enough.

But even when you have a setting that is defined by culture and environments and not by specific places and organizations, to have a campaign in which the players have real agency is that you know who the movers and shakers in the campaign area will be. And one topic that none of the many guides and introductions for running unscripted campaigns ever touch upon is the creation of NPCs. What class level should the major NPCs in the campaign have?

kingconan

Now one very easy solution would be to not set a level for NPCs until the players run into them for a fight. But that causes a pretty major problem. The decision of the players to fight an NPC or not is based on whether they think they can win such a fight or not. Chosing to start a private war with a powerful local leader is as big a choice as players are going to make, and it can only be an informed and meaningful decision if the strength of the NPC is fixed before the decision is made. If you create stats for an NPC only once you know that the players are looking for a fight, their choice will have been meaningless. When you decide to make the NPC beatable or unbeatable for the party at its current strength, the players are completely without power to influence the survival and victory of their characters. Over the years there has been a lot of talking over what makes the differences between the videogames Morrowind and Oblivion (and now Skyrim as well), and one thing that really changed how the games play is the adjustment of enemies to the level of the player, or the lack of it. In Oblivion and Skyrim it has become irrelevant what places you chose to visit and what quests to try, because the difficulty will always be the same. When you discover an area that seems too dangerous for your character, you might choose to leave and go somewhere safer for now. When you then return a long time later, after lots of great adventures and getting many powerful new weapons, and it’s still just as hard as it was the last time, then it really feels like you didn’t make any progress at all and didn’t become more powerful in any way either. What’s the point of reaching higher levels and gaining better weapons and armor if it doesn’t make any difference? In Morrowind monsters and NPCs are always the same strength, regardless of how powerful your character is. While this does mean that you will occasionally have to admit defeat and retreat, it really makes a huge difference to the sense of accomplishment and progress, that is an important part of unscripted videogames and RPG campaigns alike. Losing is good, because it tells you that any victory you gain has been earned.

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Stumbling around in Morrowind

I first played Morrowind right back when it was first released in 2002. But I didn’t get very far as I was just too confused about what I was expected to do and how to figure out how the many aspects of the game work. A few years later I gave it another try but after 20 hours or so I gave up on it once more. Many, many years later I played Skyrim (though that was more than a year after it’s release), and being a much more polished game I had a much easier time getting into it. But again, I soon got bored with it after 30 to 40 hours once I realized that doing all those sidequests is ultimately pointless. All the enemies are scaled to your level and the game is pretty easy to begin with, and nothing stops you from just doing the mainquests all in a row. And possibly be done with them in 20 hours. All the other stuff you do has some interesting sounding dialoges at the start, but then you always go into either a cave or a tomb and kill everyone you find there to get the item at the end and return it to the person who send you to get it. But for what? That person never again has any interactions with you after that and it’s not like you established any relationships or made any progress towards something. You improve your skills and gain treasures, which you can use to make better equipment and learn more spells. But for what? You are already strong enough to deal with everything. You don’t get any stronger because the enemies will always be adjusted to remain just as difficult. And unfortunately, the two main storylines both suck.

But from what I’ve heard, Morrowind is quite different from Skyrim in these respects. The main storyline is much more interesting and the culture of the land original and not just standard generic vikings. And there’s a point to going on other adventures because you have to become powerful enough to be able to survive in the areas where the main storyline takes you to. So with new hope I installed Morrowind again yesterday and jumped straight into it after roughly 10 years.

And at first I enjoyed it very much. But after 5 hours or so, the initial excitement about the weird landscape and intriguing culture started to fade. And I think it was about 10 hours into the game when I made it to the big capital city of Vivec when all motivation to continue left me. And shortly after I’ve quite playing, I realized that this was pretty much the same part of the game where I stopped the last time, 10 years ago. Because in Vivec, the huge flaw of the game becomes terribly obvious. The game is totally dead. It’s lifeless and lacks any soul.

If you’re familiar, that might sound very surprising and completely unjustified. The world of Morrowind is one of the most amazing and creative fantasy settings ever made. Which is true. But the way this amazing world is presented in the game is just mind crushingly dull. It’s so boring. Almost the entire game conists of nothing but deserted paths through the landscape and empty hallways that always look exactly the same. And unless you’re in a tavern or guild house, there just isn’t anyone around. Technical limitations are something that usually is not to be blamed on the designers. Back in the day, Morrowind actually looked very impressive to me. But aside from the giant mushroom trees, the world is really extremely monotonous. The only kind of decorations you find in the towns are wooden boxes. No plants, no animals, nothing. I had to think back to Baldur’s Gate, which was released four years earlier, and while the towns in that game where technically extremely simple, they just felt so much more alive. The colors not as washed out and much more detail on the 2D buildings and flat landscape. And most importantly, it had ambient sound. You hear people yelling in the distance, noises from people working, and lots of animals. Morrowind doesn’t have any ambient noise at all, and that’s perhaps one of the things that really kills the game. Skyrim does and it makes a huge world of difference.

I’ve always loved the world of Morrowind and from what I’ve read it has a very good story. But possibly the worst thing you could ever say about a game is that it is vastly more entertaining to read about it than to actually play the thing yourself. But with Morrowind, this is exactly what is the case. I love the world, but the game is just bad.

Creating a world inspired by Morrowind

Morrowind is one of the truly amazing RPGs among videogames. Over the last 20 years there probably have been hundreds of fantasy videogames, but Morrowind has always been in a category of its own. Even when you look at fantasy works in other mediums, it’s still something very unusual and quite unique. Most recently Skyrim has had a huge impact as the last game of the Elder Scrolls series, but as pretty as the world of that game is, it’s still mostly pretty ordinary European-style medieval fantasy, with Vikings driving out the Roman Empire from their land and some dragons and elves for good measure. Nothing we havn’t seen a thousand times before. But Morrowind, even being set on the same planet and right next door, is a place very much unlike anything else in fantasy. The most similar setting I can think of would be the AD&D world Dark Sun, and you might also consider the venerable common ancestor of all heroic fantasy and space opera Barsoom from A Princess of Mars.

Very obviously on first glance is that Morrowind and these other settings have very unique landscapes and wildlives, as I had mentioned two weeks back. The plants look different and there are many common animals that are not seen as monsters but are completely unlike any animal we have on earth. (Or at least in Europe and North America.) And even more, there is also a noticable absence of almost any animals we are familiar with. But that is only on the very surface and only affects how the world looks. While the visuals in Morrowind look great, it is not all there is to it and this element is mostly irrelevant for stories or campaign settings. Strange looking animals and plants don’t make a difference by themselves in regards to how the world and the people in it tick.

morrowind-2013-02-02-12-33-23-55I’ve been discussing this topic with other people over the last weeks and it resulted in quite a number of very great thoughts, realizations, and discoveries about what you can do to create a world that feels similar to Morrowind without being a direct copy of it. And even if that’s not your intention, any single one of these should be useful as a starting point to making your work more unique and different from the standard medieval European fantasy.

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Who kicked the dogs out?

Someone in a forum asked for fantasy novels set in a world with a style similar to the old videogame Morrowind (so far we’re mostly drawing blanks) and that got me thinking some more about that particular setting again. Back when I was 18 I thought it was a bit daring in how different it is from “proper fantasy” and it was ultimately the gameplay of the series that never got me really deeply invested in the game. But the setting and particularly it’s aesthetics stuck with me ever since and these days I hold it in very high esteem precisely because it’s so different.

While the stuff I had been working with before I nailed down the original concept for the Ancient Lands was pretty generic standard fantasy stuff and I am not ditching everything of that just because it’s generic, I very quickly got excited about the idea of also drawing inspirations from some very nonstandard works to create a somewhat unique style for my own world. Among Morrowind and Star Wars, there’s also the two classic and very quirky Dungeons & Dragons settings Dark Sun and Planescape, the continent Kalimdor from Warcraft III and Xen’drik from Eberron, and at least visually I am very taken with the John Carter movie. And thinking about what makes Morrowind so unique and interesting that could be found in unrelated fantasy novels also got me to start looking for what things these settings have in common that I might incorporate directly into my own setting.

And one very destinctive thing thing is that not only the environments look somewhat otherworldly, the wildlife is also completely different from what we have in Europe and North America. There are no dogs and wolves. Also no bears and no wild pigs. And people don’t keep horses, cows, and sheep. I already created a good number of animal-like creatures, mostly based on reptiles and insects, many of which can serve quite similar roles. So how about kicking out the dogs? And the wolves and the horses, and the sheep? Horses would be the biggest immediate change as far as players are concerned, but being all forests, mountains, and islands they didn’t really have much of a prominent presence in the setting to begin with. Usually “nonstandard fantasy” means not having elves and dwarves and giving people guns. (Yes, not only is there such a thing as “standard fantasy”, there’s also “standard nonstandard fantasy”.) But going the opposite direction and taking even more real world elements out of the setting and replacing them with more made up things might actually be a really interesting direction to explore. It worked for Dark Sun and Planescape, and those are probably the two best settings ever done for RPGs.