The Horizons of Imagination

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Before you turn away from the horribly pretentious title of this article, let me assure out that it's actually pretty relevant. Today's topic is the width and depth of theme in fantasy games, and what better playground for the imagination than fantasy? Science-fiction is, ultimately, constrained by the bounds of physical plausibility although some writers like Iain M. Banks have pushed that concept to its limit. Horror is constrained by the ultimate need to scare or disturb the reader. No other genre of fiction ought to be able to match the near-limitless possibilities conjured up by the word "fantasy". And yet it's possibly the most staid, hackneyed and derivative of all the Ameritrash concepts. Why?

When you delve into the history of the genre, the answer becomes obvious. It's roots go back a long, long way, back of course to ancient myth. But one would have thought that the mythological traditions of all the cultures in the entire globe would provide more than enough material to keep this particular furrow fertile. The trouble was started by one unfortunate Oxford Professor, who decided he wanted to re-work what scraps of Anglo-Saxon legend remained into a new, over-arching myth cycle that the English could use to replace those lost to successive invasions. He did such a good job that ancient myth ceased to be the province of crusty academics and become, as he intended, the property of everyone. But because he'd based his cycle on Anglo-Saxon myth suddenly, that was the only tradition anyone was interested it.

The old Professor was of course J.R.R. Tolkien. And I don't believe for a second that he intended to extinguish interest in other sources of myth and legend but, unfortunately, that's what happened. He spawned imitators, who copied his setting, his style, until a fantasy epic couldn't be considered such if it didn't feature an epic quest, a wizard, and a man with a very big sword. 

There have been occasional exceptions of course. The Thomas Covenant books, some of the less pulp material to have been penned my Moorcock, the Dying Earth series and the Amber novels to name but a few. But in spite of some critical acclaim, none of these have entered the "fantasy mainstream" (if one can use such a term) and been embraced by the fanbase in the same way as countless clever, intellectual and highly imaginative sci-fi and horror yarns have been.  Fantasy fans for the most part, it seems are inherently conservative. And perhaps, given that one of the appeals of the genre is the idea that we have moved on from some golden age of the past (especially true of high fantasy), that should not be so surprising. But those of us who enjoy board games tend, on the whole, to be a more critical and cerebral lot. So where are we to go to seek for variation and invention in our fantasy? Where, perhaps more importantly, can we seek it in its guise as a theme for board games?

I was inspired to write this piece by an interesting article about fantasy fiction in a newspaper. It too lamented the paucity of imagination and development in the genre but unfortuantely for us the solutions it offers are not only lamentably thin and straw-clutching in nature, but very specifically literary (involving translations, for example). I'm sure we can come up with something rather more hopeful for board games but alas the fact of the matter is that fantasy gaming seems to have become trapped in an even smaller cul-de-sac than literature: it all seems to be about fantasy quest games and RPG clones. Fantasy wargames exist, but are very few in number and that seems to be about it. But is it possible this is actually an advantage? Could it be that the extreme narrowness of fantasy representation in board games offers hope, in the sense that it leaves vast swathes of territory unexplored?

Personally, I think it does. As an example I can offer you a game currently gathering a lot of buzz and which functions to kill two birds with one stone. That game is Tales of the Arabian Nights. Whatever you think about it, there's no denying that it approaches the fantasy genre from not one but two different angles. Mechanically it is, if not unique, then pretty unusual. Thematically it draws on a mythic tradition which is demonstrably non-western.  So it seems unarguable that its very existence demonstrates that there's an awful lot of unexplored space around the fantasy genre, but it also demonstrates many of the pitfalls that come from thinking outside the box. Gamers don't know what to make of it. The mechanics are simple but unfamiliar and many seem to conclude - rightly or wrongly (I haven't played the game) - that there's no strategy.  This is compounded by the unfamiliar source material since decision trees that make sense in a western mythic context fall apart when exported to the near east. It seems questionable that were it not for the exalted reputation of the original game, the hard work put in by Zev and the attractive graphic overhaul, the game would have succeeded: it might have been rejected as just too odd.

This isn't of course to say that this isn't a valid route to take - merely that games in this vein have to tread a careful line between innovation and appeal. But it does raise an interesting point. A fantasy author has a luxury of space that our poor game designer doesn't have: space to detail and explain the fantasy world in which his stories are set. And while a game can certainly include a narrative and a large body of text it simply can't match the scale of these in a novel. Indeed, to call on an example from TotAN again it's a game which has vastly more text than almost any other, and most gamers do have a passing familiarity with its source material yet it seems that some gamers are being put off by its quasi-alien nature. If it has been a struggle for ToTAN, what hope is there for other games?

Well, quite a lot I think. If we accept for the moment the idea that the only realistic place to go if you want an innovative setting for a fantasy game is non Anglo-Saxon myth then there are still two routes to take that avoid the pitfalls of a game based on the Thousand and One Nights. Firstly, if you're passingly familiar with the myth cycles of cultures closely related to the Anglo-Saxon model such as those of Scandinavia and Ireland you'll be aware that there's already enough difference to make them seem fresh without them being entirely daunting. In these tales the protagonists often die, horribly. Motivation is usually more about things like revenge and bragging rights than it is about virtue or wealth-seeking. Treasure takes obscure forms such as magical bulls or bottomless porridge pots than gold or magic swords.  Gods regularly interfere with the lives of mortals and tremendous importance is given to how places came to be created and named. Second I would argue that thanks to the focus of our television documentaries and textbooks most of us in the west are actually far more familiar with the myths of a range of semi-extinct cultures than we are with the near east. Personally, never having read the Thousand and One Nights, I suspect I'd do a better job understanding the legendariums of Greece, Rome, Native America (both north and south), ancient Egypt, feudal Japan and even Aboriginal Australia. Yet fantasy games based on these traditions are almost non-existent.

There's also another path to take that goes hand-in-hand with switching our fantasy focus to a different culture, and that's to look at a range of more interesting and unusual mechanics. It has to be said that some recent traditional fantasy games have been pretty inventive in this regard: it'd be churlish not to acknowledge something like the damage-as-hand-management approach of Middle-Earth Quest as being clever and new. But the focus of the game is still on quests and combat and treasure. I'm all for thinking further outside the box and yet again, ToTAN offers a pointer, this time through a variant: the Storytelling game. In this version of play the focus is entirely on inventing stories: you read your paragraph and then have a set time to embellish it into as convincing a narrative as possible. This isn't just fiddling around with mechanical possibilities but changing the very focus of what a game is about. Imagine, for example, a game based on the Australian Dreamtime where the player make their way across the board, singing the creation of the land as they go and in which the goal is to make a physically and culturally stable Australia, rich in myth and legend? OK, so it might be awful but it'd certainly be new.

Don't get me wrong. Our current obsession with Tolkien-esque fantasy settings has yielded and continues to yield a number of very fine games. I just find it slightly frustrating that a genre which ought to be producing the wildest flights of imagination is actually one which has become very heavily reliant on tradition and conservation to succeed. As delightful as the myth-cycles of foreign cultures are I also think it's something of a shame that realistically designers are going to have nothing better to draw on for the time being if they're striving to create something which is inventive both imaginatively and mechanically. But that paucity of source material is the fault of fantasy authors rather than game designers. If they best we can boast right now is a seemingly endless book series which does nothing more unusual than export the political bonkbuster plot to a standard Anglo-Saxon mythic setting then fantasy writing can't be in a good state. Unless, of course, you know about some undiscovered gems you'd like to share.

There Will Be Games
Matt Thrower
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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