On Fantasy – 4

read part 1

read part 2

read part 3

I played Dungeons and Dragons religiously from the age of ten until about thirty. The only reason I stopped was that I moved to Japan to teach English and did not have anyone to play with. And it was not until that time that I finally began trying to write fantasy fiction. I do not think this is a coincidence.

As I stated previously, all my notions of what fantasy is as a genre were created by D&D.

The thing about a fantasy realm, in terms of an author creating one, is that it is indeed limitless. Why, you could write stories in which water flows uphill and the main characters are creatures shaped like sausages that communicate by squirting syrupy white fluid onto clams and other shellfish.

And who would want to read such a thing? Hopefully, no one.

If you think about it in a certain way, much of the entertainment we consume is fantasy. Science fiction is defined within confines of what we understand to be possible in terms of science. Fantasy has no such limits.

Star Wars is a space fantasy. It is such because it makes no effort (and nor should it) to justify the magic that its characters routinely use.

The superhero movie franchises that are so popular these days are also fantasy. They set themselves in a version of our current world, but that doesn’t mean the heroes are not magical. The Harry Potter series did exactly the same thing. Setting a fantasy in our world (at least partially) has the benefit of making it more relatable to a broader audience.

If you think about it, we could take this notion even further. James Bond and the Fast and Furious franchises could qualify as fantasy as well. In a strict sense, there may be no magic in these universes, but the laws of physics and physiology clearly do not apply to their heroes. Not a concussion suffered! And trained marksmen are routinely unable to hit them. Those are superpowers if I’ve ever seen them.

However, I am not interested in writing any such fantasies. What turns my crank lies within the sandbox of the Tolkienesque Dungeons and Dragons universe. But within this sandbox, I think, there is ample freedom to cherry pick elements from our own world to represent and explore. Beyond simply making one’s imagined world relatable to an audience, this can, at its best, hold a mirror up to our own.

I will not, however, lay claim to any such lofty intentions myself. As we know, my interests in the genre have always been firmly rooted in its stylized violence. But we also must not forget that D&D, that game that harnessed my imagination to it, is not something experienced alone.

Here we are again. And because the game of D&D is collaborative, my notions of the kinds of realm I wanted to create were shaped by the friends that I played with. How could they not be?

In our twenties, the games we played were completely difference in terms of content and tone than the ones we played in our adolescence. In our real lives, we were then mostly engaged in getting social science degrees (or in dealing with the consequences of having done so). We were also taking the mechanics of the game seriously. We developed high-power characters and high-power campaigns.

When a character group reaches epic levels (greater than 15th, I would say) by grinding it out from first level, there is no way they are not going to deeply affect the realm in which they adventure. The party priest, who can communicate directly to a god that grants them very real powers, ought to be policing the community in which they live. Criminality and evil deviancy, such as rape or murder, are not tolerated by powerful good characters. This changes the world they live in for the better.

As players, we would pause to debate or argue this with each other. We would explicitly discuss what kind of societies these characters wanted to build. My players established churches and systems of government within my realm. They enforced good and order upon their chaotic world. And they did this by killing all of the forces of evil and chaos that I threw at them.

So what does all this mean in terms of my fantasy writing? It means that the societies and cultures I have chosen to create have been actively playtested. Writers make choices; so too do DMs; and so too do their players. The choices that my players made changed the kinds of choices I made as a DM. And this changed what I have chosen to write about.

Of course, interesting stories require conflict. Utopias, by their nature, do not provide enough of this. The key then is to balance those shining utopian lights with sufficient darkness to challenge, or even gravely threaten, them.

Now, I think we have reached the point in which the old adage for writers of, “show, don’t tell,” ought to be adhered to. So, I think I can safely bring this “On Fantasy” series to a close. I look forward to showing you what I mean.

Of course, in future I will continue to post my thoughts and musings on fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons, and writing, but these shall be more episodic and (perhaps) less personal.

In conclusion, I can only say that I do hope my work can find an audience that can appreciate it as I do. It would be wonderful to be able to continue to play with fantasy as collaboratively as this medium can allow.

To this end, I welcome any thoughts, questions, or feedback from my readers.

Thank you.

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