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.

Prescriptive and Descriptive Genres

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions on genre, recently.  As I thought about the many genres and subgenres of speculative fiction – and indeed even outside speculative fiction – I realized that what defines one genre from another is not always consistent.  Some genres have more rules than others, or more specific rules, or rules about different things.  To put it in a simple dichotomy, some genres are more descriptive and some are more prescriptive.

What do I mean by that?  A descriptive genre merely describes what a genre or body of literature looks like.  A prescriptive genre is very codified, and if you fail to abide by that code, you can’t really be said to be writing in that genre.  As I thought about the subject deeper, I concluded that the difference lies in a specific subset of rules: those rules governing the form and structure of a genre.

Descriptive genres are less specific about rules governing form or structure.  They are less formulaic by default.  Instead, the rules governing a descriptive genre are rules of elements.  If certain elements are present in a work of literature, it can be said to belong to the associated genre.  If those elements are absent, it may not be a work of that genre.  These elements may be aspects of setting, character, plot, style and technique and so on.  Fantasy, in the general, categorical sense, is a fairly descriptive genre.  Does the story include elements of magic, mysticism, mythology, the supernatural, or the numinous?  If your work includes these elements of non-real, non-mundane, then it is a work of Fantasy.  Mainstream or Literary fiction is similarly fairly descriptive.  Does the novel employe so-called “literary” techniques (and usually, but not always, does it eschew the non-real elements for a mundane and frequently contemporary setting)?  Then it is a literary novel. 

But many genres are more restrictive and confining than that.  Continue reading

The Depths of Genre, the Heights of Audience Expectation

I regularly read the Magical Words blog, whree a group of speculative fiction authors joined together to offer writing advice and stories from the word-mines.  Over time, I’ve become ever-so-slightly more active a commenter on the posts, sharing my own thoughts and experience.

One recent post got me thinking about Genre.  In it, fantasy author Misty Massey begins a series of genre-definition posts similar to what you’d find on fellow writer-blogger T.S. Bazelli’s blog.  The post and ensuing discussion made me think about genre a lot (so much so that I was accused of overthinking the matter; I deny the charge as I don’t generally think it’s possible to overthink anything, and more likely to underthink something; I’m guilty of the latter as often as anybody else, but I’d rather be guilty of the former, which I think is no sin).  So, this is going to be a long post.  I’d split it up, but I think I’d lose something salient to my point in doing so.  My intention is to inspire deeper thinking on this topic – maybe even overthinking.  So put your thinking caps on.

Misty sets off on this whirlwind tour of the many genres and subgenres and subsubgenres of Speculative Fiction by discussing high and epic fantasy.  But before launching into discussion of individual genres, she says this:

When you’ve finished your manuscript and are ready to send it out into the world, one of the most important things to know about it is what genre it belongs to. Once upon a time, if a book had magic in it, it was fantasy. Period. Tolkien was fantasy, Tim Powers was fantasy, Glen Cook was fantasy. That’s no longer true. Genres have split and split and split again, becoming more and more specialized as the audiences demanded. Where once agents said they read fantasy, now they say they only want comic paranormal romance, dark epic or dieselpunk. Which puts the writer into a quandary – how do you know what you’re writing? Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 3: Creating Mythopoeia and Anthropological Artifacts

Last week I waded into long discussion in which I tried to draw a clear line between what constitutes a work of “Mythopoeia” and what is only “Fantasy” – acknowledging along the way that Mythopoetic works can be something other than Fantasy.  My position is perhaps an arguable one, but I’m comfortable delineating Mythopoeia as separate from other forms of Speculative Fiction, and even defining it as separate from the physical “artifacts” that represent it.  Mythopoeia is an idea, something that lives in the hearts and minds of both creators and producers of artistic works.  But it is an idea that we engage by interfacing with those anthropological artifacts: be they written works such as novels, poems, epics, webpages and blog posts, or be they visual works of art, sculptures, paintings, and photographs, or be they motion pictures or music, or be they works in an interactive medium like video games, table-top games, or board games, or be they some sort of new and evolving oral history. There are a variety of mechanisms by which mythopoetic works can be expressed in physical form.  But I’m primarily interested in the written form and those that can benefit from the techniques of the written form. 

By now, you must be wondering… so what?  What does it matter?  Why did I set out to try to define Mythopoeia in the first place?  And, having done so, to what use could this definition be put?

Last time, I mentioned my contention that few writers today are consciously attempting to write something that might be called Mythopoeia.  And part of the reason is that writing Mythopoeia is hard.  It requires thinking at a whole different level, layered on top of the thinking that goes into writing a novel.  I could say the entire essay has been a long way of saying it was partly this realization that forced me to conclude that I wasn’t ready to write “Project SOA #1” yet.  Because as I’ve spent years developing background detail, filling several notebooks with thoughts and ideas on historical and mythological complications, I’ve discovered how truly difficult it is to organize a coherent, complete, and engaging mythology, and how challenging it is to weave that into the primary narrative.  Because as an idea takes hold, if you think about it for a while, you realize the idea has implications – huge implications – that must necessarily change the plot and direction of the novel itself.  This is but one of the challenges I faced with making “Project SOA” work (another being a serious grappling with clichés, tropes, and genre conventions, and better understanding them and when and whether to use them, or if not to use them, how to adjust my plot and characters to compensate).

But the whole point of coming to a better understanding of what is or is not Mythopoeia has been to better equip me with the tools to write novels that rest on the bedrock of a solid mythopoem.  Why would I want to do that?  On one level, because it’s intellectually interesting to me.  I find intrinsic value in the creation of a coherent mythological narrative.  But there’s a baser reasoning, too. 

Consider all the most popular works of fiction in the last hundred years.  I’ve talked before about the “triumph of fantasy and speculative fiction” in the larger popular culture.  But at another level, the best works of fantasy and speculative fiction – those with the most enduring fandoms and the most engaged fans – are often among those with strongest mythopoetic frameworks.  This isn’t universally true (for instance, I mentioned Harry Potter last week, and how I don’t find it to be strongly mythopoetic in nature), nor is the reverse necessarily true either: if you have strong mythopoetic underpinnings to your work you won’t necessarily write a best-seller.  But the more strongly a work is predicated on a complex and coherent mythopoetic framework, the more easily engaged its audience.

If you accept this outcome as desirable (or even better, if you find the idea of writing mythopoeia intellectually interesting and stimulating), then you may wonder: how do I do this? Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 2: Refining a Definition of Mythopoeia Through a Sample Exegesis of the Fantasy Corpus

In the previous post I began a discussion of a topic I’ve long wanted to address here on this blog: the concept of Mythopoeia as a distinct genre within the sphere of Speculative Fiction.  However, I ended the first part of my discussion with what appears to be a fatal contradiction.  I defined Mythpoeia as a work of constructed or artificial mythology, but then acceded that most works of modern Fantasy Fiction (and indeed many works of other subgenres of Speculative Fiction) are predicated on invented mythologies.¹  Still, I contend that there is a line of separation between a true work of Mythopoeia and a work of modern Fantasy Fiction.

Just what, then, is that line of separation?  Consider this: I would assert that Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, in fact, is not a work of Mythopoeia.  It is, rather, an artifact of Tolkien’s Mythopoem.  It is a physical manifestation, in book form, that attests to the existence of the underlying mythopoetic work.  In other words, a novel, or a novel series, is not Mythopoeia.  But a novel – frequently, but not always, a novel of Epic or High Fantasy – is typically the the primary mechanism by which the reading and media-consuming public will discover and interact with the Mythpoetic work. 

It is my contention, therefore, that while many works of modern fantasy and science fiction include mythological motifs and invented backstories and mythologies, few writers and creators are creating Mythopoeia by design.  Most of the imaginary mythologies and backstories exist solely in support of the fantasy novel to which they are attached, with little or no intrinsic value of their own, and with little of interest to explore outside the framework of the novel.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for instance. Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 1: Defining Mythopoeia in the Context of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

I’ve hinted in the past (digging into the deep history of my blog) that I’d eventually get around to elucidating my views on the genre of “Mythopoeia”, and why I consider it distinct and separate from “Epic Fantasy“.

Let me get this out of the way upfront: this is going to be a long post.  (There’s a fair probability that I may have to split it into several posts.)  So you’ve got to be rather interested in the fantasy genre or in mythology for any of what follows to be of interest to you.

As another caveat: if anything I say here comes off as denigrating or derogatory to other genres of fiction, I assure you this is a misreading of the intent of what I write.  I strive here only to draw nuance and distinction, not to make claims of quality.  I have a particular organizational hierarchy in my head, but that hierarchy isn’t meant to be suggestive of quality or value, per se.  Hopefully that will become clear in the course of this essay.

I’d like to start off my discussion by laying out a lexicon of Mythopoeia.  As I mentioned on one of my early posts on the subject, the term “mythopoeia” is likely unfamiliar to a large number of potential visitors to this site.  The word itself, insofar as I can deduce, can largely be attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien with regard to its use referring to a literary genre: it is the title of a lovely poem written by Tolkien that serves as a defense of the genre (or, more broadly, as a defense of the Fantasy fiction genre).  (As an aside, Wikipedia has an interesting analysis of the poem on its page about the poem itself.)

Mythopoeia, as used throughout this essay, is a noun, referring to the genre much the way I might refer to “fantasy”.  Mythopoeic and mythopoetic are synonymous adjectives.  A work of mythopoeia could be described as mythopoetic.  A mythopoem is a noun, and means a work of mythopoeia.  It does not mean a poem (in the rhyme-and-verse sense, at least) that is about mythology, although a poem about mythology might be a mythopoem.  (In other words, “mythopoem” is a higher-order category of work that can include some poems about mythology, but also includes works that are not poems.)  A mythopoet, noun, is the creator of mythopoeia.

All of these, then, are contingent on understanding what mythopoeia is – and to a lesser extent what it is not. Continue reading

A Steampunk Society

So, writer Juanita McConnachie (alias Writer’s Block NZ) sent me an interesting question last week:

I was wondering if I could pick your brains on steampunk… Do you know if a ‘steampunk’ society would have any particular values?

Frankly, I was intrigued by the question.  I’m not really sure I’ve seen something like this addressed anywhere before.  On the contrary, I’ve seen some work out there that has refuted the idea that steampunk can inherrently be tied to any specific values or themes at all.  But, I thought a full and fair answer to that question requires a little bit of thinking about the history and development of the steampunk genre, and an identification of what it is.

First of all, Steampunk has been described by people smarter than I in the subject not as a genre but as an “aesthetic” (see: “Steampunk Scholar“).  I’ve even seen the steampunk aesthetic described as “goth discovers brown“.  The idea behind defining it thus is that you can skin the steampunk look on something from virtually any other genre – fantasy or sci fi and beyond – and describe the result as “steampunk”.  This is a half-truth, though, because you can skin the components of advanced technology and space exploration over anything and call it sci-fi or of magic and pointy-eared humans over anything and call it fantasy.  But the thrust of this argument is that a proper “genre” of fiction touches on certain consistent and discernable thematic elements. Continue reading