Designer Diary: Epic Fantasy, Genre Fidelity, and TTRPGs

As I start to reframe this blog – to refresh it and update it more frequently – I wanted to spend some time here talking about my Tabletop Role-Playing Game (commonly abbreviated as “TTRPG”) design efforts, because it’s one of my two major writing efforts. That means I’ll be, in good time, discussing various aspects of the game’s design, my intent for the design, debating different mechanical approaches to achieving my overarching goals, and so on. So welcome to the first entry in my Designer Diary.

Now before I can get into the nitty gritty of game mechanics and how I imagine the game working I’ve got to spend a minute talking about my goals for the game: what I envision the end-product looking like at a high level.

And for me, for this game, that means talking about genre.

Genre isn’t a new topic of discussion here. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since I set out on the path of trying to become a writer. But why is genre so important to my game design?

Because, in my view, genre is an irreducible aspect of the play experience in TTRPGs. Mechanics can either support or undermine the genre of the game, and I firmly believe that if you are aiming for a certain experience in play, you have to be cognizant of the genre tropes you are seeking to emulate in play. You have to think about how those tropes can best be represented in play, and how to build up or subvert those tropes, and why you might want to. Which means understanding the genre you’re working in.

But there’s another reason genre is so important to me. There’s one genre in particular that is nearest and dearest to my heart. One genre that speaks to me like no other. One genre that, in my view, has some of the most powerful potential to tell stories that examine and build up the human condition.

Epic Fantasy.

But there’s a problem that I see. There are literally thousands of TTRPGs on the market – everything from the behemoth that is Dungeons & Dragons to free, single-page RPGs and the thousands of games in between. Just peruse the offerings at DriveThruRPG.com if you want to take a gander at the plethora of offerings. What chance do I have in crafting a game that stands out?

No chance, honestly. But that’s not the point of design. For me, the design process itself is rewarding – and it would be even if I ended up with a game that was too similar to any other game on the market. I want to create a game that matches my vision of what a Role-Playing game can be. And that means zeroing in on that genre: Epic Fantasy.

And yet, of these thousands of games I know to exist, few if any manage to capture the essence and tropes of Epic Fantasy in a thoroughly satisfactory way. Granted, I can’t possibly know about every game on the market – thousands is too many for any one soul to meaningfully comb through. Even so, among the many high-profile games with which I am familiar, I find that quintessential Epic Fantasy experience ever elusive. There are games that I believe, if I got a chance to play them, would come very close. (I’d truly love to try out games such as FATE, which may have the flexibility to do Epic Fantasy as well as it does any other genre, Fellowship, which is definitely billed as Tolkienian Epic Fantasy, and Ironsworn, which isn’t Epic Fantasy per se but looks like it has a lot to offer that mirrors the experience I’d want to see in an Epic Fantasy game.) But none (that I know) that have quite everything I want to see in a game. None that match my vision for what an Epic Fantasy game could be, arguably should be. I perceive this gap between the gameplay experience of even those games that I know are aiming firmly at an Epic Fantasy experience, and the ideal Epic Fantasy experience.

I call this gap between what Epic Fantasy embodies in the ideal sense, and the actual play outcomes “Genre Fidelity“. Inasmuch as some games are ostensibly trying to go for the Epic Fantasy experience, or at least market themselves as such – let’s pick on Dungeons & Dragons for a moment shall we? – and the play experience falls short of the ideal, there’s a very low degree of genre fidelity.

Using our example of Dungeons & Dragons, it largely markets itself as the quintessential Epic Fantasy game. (Yes, arguably, they are positioned more as a Swords & Sorcery game, which is a different genre entirely, but in my opinion it’s not really marketed that way.) But when you dive into the mechanics and the kind of play the game supports? It’s a fantasy combat simulator game. Does combat happen in Epic Fantasy? Well, sure, of course it does. But Epic Fantasy isn’t exclusively or even mostly about fighting. It’s about so much more. And none of that “more” is supported by the mechanics of D&D. If, while playing D&D, you happen to get a high-fidelity Epic Fantasy play experience, that’s mostly in spite of the game’s mechanics, and not because of them.

But if Epic Fantasy is so important to me, and the play experience I want to engender so entangled with the genre, what does that mean for me, as a designer?

First and foremost, it means defining what it means to be Epic Fantasy. Which, even for a genre as “prescriptive” as Epic Fantasy, is a tall order.

Next time I’m going to tackle that very question.

The Evil (And the Good) Among Them: Exoticism, The Other, Epic Fantasy, Elves and Orcs

Continuing on my current running theme of examining the tropes of Epic Fantasy, a few weeks ago I happened into a discussion that spanned multiple blogs that caught my interest.  And as these things often do, they settled into my mind where they collided with things I was already thinking about.

The topic at hand is apparently perennially challenging to Fantasy writers, especially as our genre grows and matures and opens up to wider audiences.  (Let’s hope it’s opening to wider audiences, anyway.)  And that subject is the question of “writing the Other”.  The “Other” with a Capital-O.  I’ve come to understand the word as something of a catch-all phrase for people who are “different”, in the sense that they have a different race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic background, age, or whatever.  I put “different” in quotes, though, because of course there are all kinds of assumptions implied in the use of the word “different” and “other”: namely, the assumption of a default race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, et cetera.  That basic, unquestioned assumption being part of the problem and, in many ways, being anathematic to one of the core principles of Speculation Fiction, that being the exploration of worlds that are, well, different.

Now, I will caveat my further thoughts by pointing out the obvious: I am far from the first to think about these issues, and I will be far from the best.  In the great hierarchy of people who know what the crap they’re talking about on this issue, I rank somewhere near the very bottom.  At least one author whose thoughts I follow fairly closely, Jim C. Hines points to author Nisi Shawl as a powerful and authoritative voice on the subject.  (That link goes to an article Nisi wrote on the specific subject of “Cultural Appropriation”, which is one of many related topics under the general heading of “Writing the Other”.  But Nisi Shawl along with author Cynthia Ward co-developed a panel on “Writing the Other” as well as co-authored a companion workbook.  I have neither attended the workshop nor purchased their guidebook.)  Meanwhile, here’s a recent interesting post on the topic by an author whose background is somewhat more similar to my own (Ken Scholes).  And fellow writer-blogger T. S. Bazelli addressed this and related topics here.

So yeah, caveats and all, what got me thinking most recently on this subject was a post on Tiyana Marie White’s blog on “Portraying Cultures & Peoples in Speculative Fiction“. Continue reading

Epic Fantasy: Archetypes & Window Dressing

A couple months ago I posted a short essay in which I began examining the ideas and archetypes that are particular to the Epic Fantasy genre.  This is important to me, because while Epic Fantasy is my first and primary literary love, I don’t want to write in it simply out of habit: I want to make the choice of writing Epic Fantasy an informed and intentional choice.

In the essay, titled “Post-Tolkien Fantasy“, I questioned the decision by many latter-day “Post-Tolkienists” to eschew the common tropes, archetypes, and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque-flavored Epic Fantasy, and I questioned my own relationship with those same tropes and archetypes.

My purpose was to point out that neither Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy nor Post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy is inherently a superior mode, and that both have potentially valuable aspects as well as potential pitfalls and challenges.

I’d been thinking about the subject, in general, because my current WIP is an Epic Fantasy of the predominantly Post-Tolkien variety: inasmuch as it lacks things like a pseudo-medieval setting, magic swords, dark lords, hidden heirs, and other such archetypes and tropes.  But it was my contention that my WIP is still, despite these things, an Epic Fantasy.

In writing that essay, I referred to some of the common tropes and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy as “window dressing”.  My contention was that some tropes and trappings add to the aesthetic “flavor” of a given literary work, but don’t fundamentally interact with the core foundational archetypes that constitute the being of Epic Fantasy.  In other words: elves, dwarves, and dragons, knights, kings, and castles – these aren’t foundationally important elements of Epic Fantasy.  Their presence or absence doesn’t make or break an Epic Fantasy.

In referring to these things as “window dressing”, I entered into an exchange of ideas with a pleasantly articulate fellow named Jeff (Confidentially: I found your last name from your LinkedIn profile… but since “Jeff” looks a little like an alias I figured I’d respect that and refer to you just as Jeff) who responded to my article with his essay “My Plea for Philological Fantasy“.  Jeff approaches the topic from an angle decidedly more in favor of Tolkienesque Fantasy – a choice that I can’t disagree with.  At the same time, it’s clear that he doesn’t advocate for this choice based solely on an appreciation for the aesthetics of a Tolkien-like fantasy.  Continue reading

Post-Tolkien Fantasy

Like a lot of fans of Fantasy literature, and especially of the Epic Fantasy subgenre, I grew up on what today you might call “Tolkienesque” fantasy.  You likely know what I mean: Dragons and Elves and Fairies and Wizards and Magic Swords and Hidden Heirs and Noble Destinies.  I could take a year off your life just by linking to the relevant “TV Tropes” pages.  (Don’t worry, I won’t do that do you.  I love you too much.  You can get lost all by yourself if that’s your inclination. Oh ye gods, I almost got lost myself just by linking the home page!)

One of the first fantasy novels I ever read was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first in his “Prydain Chronicles”.  It wasn’t much longer before I’d read Tolkien and Dragonlance and a slew of other Tolkienian fantasy works.  Although Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t feature all of the major tropes and archetypes we now associate with fantasy of this type, his work was nonetheless so seminal in the foundations of this genre that we now consider him to be arch-progenitor of the form and genre, even if some of these tropes actually predate him.

And yet, it’s all the fashion and rage, these days, to dismiss Tolkienesque-style Epic Fantasy, to bemoan the woeful and backward state of the genre, and to denounce as tired, and trite and boring all of these old tropes.  Most of the big names in modern Fantasy Literature make a big deal about how about how they’re not writing Tolkienesque Fantasy.  When Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings came out he wrote an essay called “Postmodernism in Fantasy” (and got a lot of attention in the blogosphere grumbling that he’d misused the term “postmodernism”), he was essentially making this point.  Perhaps what Brandon was really talking about wasn’t Postmodern Fantasy.  Perhaps what he was really talking about was, to coin a phrase, Post-Tolkien Fantasy.

To hear the Post-Tolkienists talk, the world of fantasy has heretofore been nothing but a sad and endless stream of cheap Tolkien knock-offs and drudgery.  But at last, they promise, there will be an end to this otherwise endless tide of backward fantasy literature.  At last, they will create something new, something that challenges the old, familiar tropes.  At last, we will shed the shackles of Tolkienism!

Me… I don’t think that way. Continue reading

The Stand-Alone versus The Sequel

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately, as I’ve gotten deeper into writing the first draft of “Book of M”.  It’s especially come to the fore the more I think about the background material that I’ve developed – and continue to develop – for this project.

I’d always conceived of “Book of M” as a “Stand-alone”.  It has a self-contained plot with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  I didn’t always know exactly where the story was going or how it was going to end, but I had a general vision for it.  And now that I’ve got the thing outlined, I’m confident the story can be told in 250,000 words or less – even if I do go over my target length of 125,000 words, it will still be within the bounds of a typically-successful epic fantasy novel.  From my outline, I don’t really see a satisfying way of splitting the book into a longer story.  My plan for the novel does not make for the springboard to a traditional fantasy trilogy.

And yet, I’ve now committed nearly 50,000 words just to the backstory: the background details, the history, the worldbuilding.  That’s a significant investment in detail for a one-and-done story.  And naturally I’ve wondered: Should I make this the beginning of a series

Well, I don’t know the answer to that, yet. Continue reading

The Tragedy of Multi-Volume Epics

Read an interesting article this week on “the perils and pleasures of long-running fantasy series” by Zack Handlen.  The article seems to conclude, ultimately, that all very long, multi-volume epics are by design doomed to disappoint – and yet we love them anyway.  It’s a difficult conclusion to reach.

Zack Handlen appears believes this happens because readers become attached to the characters in these stories – a true enough proposition.  I know I’ve become strongly attached to characters in long-running series.  The readers, Zack argues, are involved in an intimate “relationship” with the series that is ultimately “one sided”.  With each successive volume, the epic fantasy author raises the stakes – and reader expectations – for the final volume, making his job increasingly difficult.  Part of the problem, the article suggests, is that the once a book is published, it’s “set in stone”.  The author can’t go back and tweak it, revise it, and refashion it.  As the story changes in the telling, the details at the beginning of the series may no longer mesh with the reality that comes at the end.  The series accumulates so many threads, some are left loose and other resolved unsatisfactorily for at least some readers.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the general thesis that all long-running epic fantasies necessarily lead to disappointment.  Continue reading

Books of a Certain Length

Author’s Note: This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  Thinking about yesterday’s post about the rise of YA fiction as a force majeure in the SF&F publishing world, it wasn’t far for me to start thinking about book length.  Also, to be entirely honest, Dear Wife suggested both topics.  I’ll also note: this is a very meaty (i.e. wordy) and at times contentious topic.  For that reason, I am going to do something I rarely ever do on my blog: I’m implementing sectional subtitles.  Why?  Because this turned out to be a real, long, in-depth, even semi-scholarly article on the topic of wordcount length, with quite a bit of data and market analysis.  Your conclusions will be your own, but I’ve tried to synthesize a lot of information for this article.  I considered splitting the article into several posts, as I often do when a single post grows this long, but I felt that it would weaken the analysis to have the disparate elements separated onto different pages.  So, instead: one long post with sectional subtitles.  Finally, you’ll find I prefer the compound word “wordcount” as opposed to splitting the word into two: “word count”, which is the more common usage.  The reason for this is that when I refer to “wordcount” I’m referring to a single, distinct idea: that is, the total number of words in a manuscript.  Splitting the word into two diffuses this unified notion. 

~

Books of a Certain Length

If you look around on the internet, it won’t be hard to come up with some solid advice for how long your book should be – depending on which genre and market you are writing for.  I encountered advice on the issue in this post on the Magical Words blog – where you’ll find me entering the fray in the comments.  There’s also this post on The Swivet.  I won’t quote all the genre length guidelines these two posts suggest (which are mostly in accord).  But if you’re either a fan of meaty Epic Fantasies or books like the Harry Potter series, and write in anything approaching a similar vein and genre, you might find some of these guidelines a trifle… strange.  Epic Fantasy is given a high-end wordcount length suggestion of around 120,000 words.  For YA it is suggested you stay under 80,000 words with some flexibility up to 100,000 in special circumstances.

For those of you unfamiliar with relative wordcount lengths, you may consider that and say to yourself: “Okay, so, what’s the big deal?”

The Challenge of a Verbose Writer

Let me first start by offering this full disclosure: my writing style tends toward the robustly wordful.  For example, I’ve participated in several “Flash Fiction” challenges during the history of this blog (with most results posted  here) with the goal of turning out a super-short story under 1,000 words in length.  I rarely reached that goal.  My first attempt at a novel, “Project SOA”, had reached the two-thirds complete mark at approximately 140,000 words before I abandoned that version of the story.  I’m planning on my current novel project, “The Book of M”, to be about 125,000 words… but I fully expect it to be closer to 175,000 (based on my experience of planned length versus actual final length for other, shorter works).

Of course, I’m no professional, as yet. Continue reading