Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Real Fantastical

Yarivandel is, apparently, bound to be my muse this week. Here is a comment he wrote on this post, reproduced in its entirety:

"I find your idea of using the elements of real world in a fantasy campaign very interesting. I am personally not convinced it would work for me. One of the charms of playing in a fantasy world is the discovering 'the unknown' also in the geographical and cultural sense. Unfortunately I find it very difficult to get as a player as very few DMs I know bring depth to these aspects of the game. But generally I would opt for visiting a great fantastic city I've never heard of than a fantastic city of Paris. But in truth it's a matter of proper presentation not the city name, so what do I know... I am just curious, what lies in your world on the lands of current Poland? Is it a region inhabited by some demihuman race, a savage wilderness or a human kingdom?"

I don't fault Yarivandel for making a grevious assumption in the comment, because it is an assumption that nearly every person makes who does not come from a background where everything is always seen from an alternative perspective. The assumption is that something that is 'real' - i.e., the Earth - is there not 'fantastical' ... despite the very obvious fact that everything we conceive of as fantastical has been invented by minds living continuously in the real world.

In other worlds, based on what is the reasoning that the real world is anathema to inventiveness?

Every fantasy that we may imagine, being human beings living in this 'real' world must by necessity be a reflection of that world - there is no 'fantastical' that can exist divorced of the framework in which we find ourselves. To imagine that somehow we are separated in some manner in our minds from the reality our minds occupy is to fail to understand the manner in which 'fantastic' is fabricated. It is a failing in creative philosophy.

What, for instance, makes the Paris of my imagination reduced to the Paris that actually exists? Nothing. Was not Paris occupied by the Phantom of the Opera, did not Quasimodo ring the bells of Notre Dame? Are there no vampires in Paris, no gargoyles? Is there no magic? Does the reality of Paris exempt the city from the horror stories that rattle through its streets? Of course not.

The greater question is, is the magical, mystical city of Oz divorced in some manner from the real world? What do we really know about Oz? The soldiers that guard the city seem remarkably mannered like real people. The streets, whatever color they may be, are yet presumed to be streets. Baum is very quick to move the reader through those streets and past its people, who bear all the remarkable likeness to real people, in order to move us to a palace which is, after all, only a palace. Does the world not have palaces? Does the fact that the palaces of Oz are green make them so unique as to render them inconceivable? Of course not.

Whatever you invent, wherever you take your players, you will still have to take them to a place that you can describe with your real world experience, and that your players can comprehend with their real world comprehension. The palace may float, it may have a river of blood and pixies that deluges from a great decanter atop a silver ball, but the principles of 'palace,' 'river' and 'silver' will yet all be 'real.' All that you will have done is to mix up the associations. You will have created combinations that do not exist, but not things that do not exist. Your perception that you have is a delusion.

But it does not matter! Does the fact that we call the destination Oz or Paris diminish the opportunities for adventure? I have a street map of Paris, made for me. I do not have a street map of Oz. Does the fact that I have a street map pre-made reduce the number of adventures I may run in the magical city of my invention, that happens to be upon an invented Seine in an invented Ile de France, in an invented Europe? Do the names, after all, really matter.

I would beg that the reader close their eyes, and imagine, right now, that they are in the city of Oz. Picture the corner of two streets there. Tell me the events that have happened. Do not describe streets that you know to exist in the real world. Do not tell me events that reflect real world events that you know. Tell me about UNIQUE streets and events.

It's impossible. Yet I can tell the unique existence of two streets that connect in Paris, that exist no where else in the world. I can point to them on a map. I can show you a picture of the place and I can describe unique people who visited there. Does the fact that the place is real make it any less interesting? Does the fact that the reader can go there, and poke about the streets, offer any less opportunity for discovery?

Am I, as DM, not able to have the player attacked by a lich reincarnation of Clovis the Great or Boadicea upon their arriving at the corner referenced? Of course not. Nor is the attack any less compelling or dramatic because it happens to take place at a recognizeable location.

Nor is it true that everywhere in the world is known to the players, however brilliant they are. I have a friend, for instance, that lives in Strasbourg, in France, on the Rhine River bordering Germany. Less than 40 miles from him there used to be a little area called the 'Kingdom of Rappolstein.' It's just a tiny little fiefdom, smaller even than the invented Duchy of Grand Fenwick. I would venture my Strasbourg friend hasn't heard of it. I hadn't heard of it, until I began researching individual towns in France, and came across Ribeauville. Once upon a time, it was called Rappoltsweiler. Look, here's an image of one of the family members in miniature made by a Russian manufacturer.

What is this little kingdom like in my world? Who the hell knows? I can do anything with it that I want. My imagination is not limited in the least. The discovery of the kingdom by the party, whatever happens to be there, is not restrained in the least. The field, as they say, is wide open. And when one of my players, who happened to find gawd only knows what beast there, happens to find themselves in the real Strasbourg, they might say, "I think I'd like to take a little side trip forty miles south of there to a little town called Ribeauville." And there they can walk the ground with their children, and say, "We fought the dragon right here, on this hill. Then we carried the gold we got down to the river there, and were about to load it on boats when the King's men attacked us. It was bloody and brutal. We were so weak from fighting the dragon, we could barely stand. The mage died, the elf almost did, and yet we managed to fight our way to that tower over there. The King himself came out and we made a deal. I'll never forget that adventure."

And where did the hill and the river and the tower come from? Reality. Google Earth.

Don't underestimate the power of the real thing.


Maximillian Boii said...

To provide the player's perspective, I'll relay this anecdote: While I was waiting for another player's interaction to play out in the online campaign today, I passed the time by exploring on google earth and wikipedia the location that we're passing through, Sivas Province in Turkey. This is a region I knew next to nothing about, so truly there was no difference if it had been presented as being in some made-up land. However, since it is not the product of some two-bit author at the corporate office, I am free to discover the unique breed of dog that is raised in the area. I'm free to look up picture after picture of the mostly barren landscapes with waterfalls in deep canyons. Now I know just what sort of view my companion's body will look out over when I return it to the earth tomorrow. Now I can ponder how different the landscape may have been in 1651, with wraith's haunting the roads, and who knows what hunting the forests. But I do not know precisely which turn of the road I'm on, and fancy remains unlimited.

Consider also this: We have fantastic literature for its lack of complexity, for it's ability to remove the mitigating factors that are present in every discussion in the real world. We have Orcs so that we do not have to consider their culture when we slaughter them, so that we do not have to create their personality, so that we can talk about something else. I think there's nothing more fantastical than having characters that have emotions and faces, having places with histories.

If you want places you know nothing about, you need look no further than next door. Search for 45° 11.680', -116° 28.036' When you want flights of fancy, simply give up the false idea that you know everything. imagine yourself here.

Vlad Malkav said...

Well, Alexis is right. Living in Strasbourg, and even knowing of the town of Ribeauville, its past as the 'Kingdom of Rappolstein' was totally lost to me. Then again, history is very, very rich.

I do not find that playing in the "real world" lacks any fantastic element. Sure, for some it lacks the "exotic" feel of some fantasy world ... But pray tell, then, what would one find "exotic" if not a time and place never seen before by him, the history and stories of which being legends unto themselves ?
And that's not even considering what the GM/DM can add to the stuff.

We never play in the "real world", always in some sort of fantasy version of it, colored by the mind and desires of the one running the game, and the expectations of the players.
Whatever fantasy we could find lacking, is a lack of fantasy on our part. Because the world as it is is damn well fantastic.

I concur with Maximillian, we have "fantastic litterature" as a toned down reality, an easy playground lacking the depth of the real world, and that's the appeal. It can be good for some games, and some of them are quite interesting...

But give me the real stuff anytime, millenias of cultures and wars, legends and stories, minds forged by the mists of history and the fires of humanity, mapped on the hills and seas, and I'll find more inspiration for play than any other game world can offer...

Yarivandel said...

I am glad that my comments fuel your creativity although it departed in a slightly different direction than my point was going :)

There is a long tradition in literature to see the 'fantastical' blended with the 'real'. That's how fantasy genre came to be after all. Dante, Rabelais, Goethe, Schiller and then Borroughs, Poe, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. They all wrote about the fantastical with no need of referring to a 'Neverland'.
This all came after the WWII with authors like Tolkien, Le Guin, McCaffrey and others.

And I claim it is only a matter of aesthetics. It's like discussing whether red is better than green, without context.
Of course everything that you 'invent' or 'create' is based on something 'earthly'. We can only refer to what we know in describing the 'new and unknown'. What does a zebra look like? Like a horse but with stripes - kind of reference.

Yes, from a certain PoV using 'real names' are somewhat more accurate and productive than using 'fantastical' ones.
But disallowing the latter would be restricting imagination. And that should never happen.

All in all, I totally see the point in seeing the 'fantastical' in the 'real'. It's just not, very personally, something that I would currently want to do.

Yarivandel said...

One thing that came to my mind with regards to the 'Kingdom of Rappolstein'.

There is a book by Norman Davies 'Vanished Kingdoms - a history of half-forgotten Europe'.
It presents a collection of kingdoms that existed throughout history in Europe, but ceased to be - just like Rappolstein. Many fantastical names and concepts there to take a be inspired by. I totally recommend.

Vlad Malkav said...

Interesting comment, Yarivandel ! I guess i didn't realize that the "fantastical outside of the real" was a recent occurence. Never made the connection... I learn :).

"Real world fantasy" and "imaginary world fantasy" may both be good and well, and I never said we should refrain from using one or the other.

However, I think that basing things on the real world offer much more depth than any imaginary world can. Which can me a blessing and a curse, really. Fantasy tend to be simpler, easier to grasp.

And we can combine both ^^, as Alexis mentioned in previous posts : the real world is an almost infinite source of inspiration, and whatever we do, we inspire ourselves from it anyway. "Imaginary fantasy" is mainly a repaint / recombination of existing elements.

Some people can feel constrained by the real world, preferring the vast untold expanses of the imaginary. Others can feel lost there, and like the solid security of reality. You can take the best of both, bringing one in the other.
And more ...

All things told, it's just a question of preferences, tastes, and goals.