Doing Fantasy properly

This means as unlike D&D as I can manage.

Playing Baldur's Gate II (computer game) and Pakh Pakh (Brian, Pix and Andy's tabletop game), as well as reading the new Harry Potter, has given me the urge to run Fantasy. I'm not at the touting for players point at the moment, but there are already a few points that I'm clear on.

This isn't hack'n'slash

I think the main one is this: that much in the way of computer or tabletop fantasy roleplaying is amazingly unlike the fantasy literature. Part of this is down to party numbers - it's rare that you'll read a fantasy novel with more than 3 main good guys. Part of it is down to early D&D. Maybe it's just the style of fantasy that I read, but I have never read a book which involved a dungeon crawl.

SF is sometimes abbreviated Speculative Fiction so to encompass historical fantasy, science fiction and Lord of the Rings style fantasy, because all of these types of literature share a common aspect. Fantasy, to me, is What If fiction - what happens if we take a pre-modern civilisation (if you take a modern or futuristic civilisation, i.e. one with bleepy shiny things, it's science fiction), and add something weird? These additions are mostly non-human races (Tolkien), ancient magical creatures and prophecies (Terry Goodkind), powerful but costly magics passed down through noble bloodlines (Robin Hobb), or excuses to make things even more epic and bitter (George R R Martin - why kill off the hero's entire family and then restrain from resurrecting one of them as a walking corpse?).

In the Earthsea books, Ursula Le Guin conjures up a completely different world by dint of only two changes: 1) both petty and high magic; and 2) land mass size. You've got a completely different geopolitical dynamic when the biggest land mass is only a few hundred miles long, and all the rest of the land is split across hundreds of small islands.

I did something like this in In Nomine, when I had the players (angels) travel to an alternate world where Adam and Eve never ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and, therefore, a) the Fall never happened, and b) humans did not know good and evil. It took me ages to work out all the ramifications of that single change, but once I was ready, and sprung it on the players, the effects were spectacular. This, I would say, was Fantasy in all but name.

Note: most of these changes do not require every single character to have to know how to use a weapon, or expect to use it regularly.

So how do we run it, then?

So how does Fantasy work? Well, first of all, for all that I've said that you should have it be as like the literature as you can - and I think this means narrating cut scenes in the past tense, for instance - you can't use standard Fantasy plots. Lone hero meets up with Other Person, has all sorts of thrills and near-death experiences, and ends up saving the world, doesn't work when you've got 4 or 5 players who all want the limelight. You can maybe pull the "You are all mentioned in this ancient prophecy" schtick, if you don't want to sound too much like David Eddings (he liked "Pawn of Prophecy" so much he re-wrote it 9 more times). Or, and this would be my preference, you can have something affect a whole bunch of people - a village or a convent, say - and have the PCs play members of that group who are somehow involved. I'd be inclined to use troupe play at this point, if I knew how to do it (I'm going to experiment with that in Feng Shui). Ars Magica is probably the best example of this.

Secondly, almost all Fantasy plots involve discovering elements of the world that were previously unknown; even things that are commonplace and well-known to most people tend to be presented to us as new and exciting, by way of characters who aren't aware of them because a) they didn't grow up amongst wizards (Harry Potter), b) they're too young (Earthsea) or c) they're secret or long-forgotten (Terry Goodkind). (People in Terry Pratchett's Discworld don't bat an eyelid at all sorts of outrageous stuff; in this case, the ingénue is us, the reader.) If magic is well-known and understood, then the plot will involve some new form of magic emerging, and posing a threat to the status quo. D&D completely fails to represent this: all magic is static and known, the only form of ambition is to climb to the top of the pile by emulating the prowess of your peers, and there is little in the way of research or progress in the ways of magic. Nothing changes because that would upset game balance.

I think that if you're going to run Fantasy, you've chosen a world, a (probably magical) difference from our world (not just that it's 14th to 17th century technology), and you want to see what happens. And you probably have some idea of what the implications of that change would be, which is why you want to explore them with your players. So I think that a Fantasy campaign has to be fundamentally plotted; you have to have some idea of what the main issues are going to be, whether they're good vs evil, determination vs choice, overcoming fate, race or temperament, or whatever.

Fantasy as I'd run it

I'd like the world to be mostly based around city states, because that seems like a reasonable level of technology / political development, and it allows for a wide variety of political and cultural structures within easy travelling distance - which, of course, means cultural cross-pollinisation and easy plot devices involving strangers from foreign cities. I'm interested in having a wide variety of intelligent races, mostly because that means I can have NPCs who are truly alien - I'm looking forward to working out all the details of the bird people, who, as befits birds, are migratory.

More generally, as a GM, I would do the following.

1: Emphasise that this is a book. That means that when I have cut scenes, I'll dim off the music (this is no longer the reader immersed in the scene, this is a description of something elsewhere), and I'll narrate in the past tense.

2: Everything has a price. Every action has a consequence. For whichever reason, the PCs are special; after all, the book is about them. This means that their decisions affect the world - which means that they should be concerned, and not just blithely assume that everything will be OK. I think the best in-character roleplaying happens when players develop consistent world-views for their characters, and confront them, and I want to make sure inter-party arguments happen. While, of course preventing inter-party strife...

3: Gaining extra powers isn't something that happens automatically, like a performance review. Nor is getting better. In a narrative-driven universe, there's always a moment where something clicks, and suddenly the protagonist is able to execute that tricky move, unleash a power that had stubornly been resisting them, etc. And it never happens during downtime; it happens at a crucial moment. So I'll ask my players what sort of thing they want next, I'll make them spend points on doing the preparations if necesary, and I'll bear that in mind when I'm planning important scenes. Then. at the moment when that new / better power would be really useful, if the player spends the appropriate points, It Works. Cue celebration. Much better, I think, than the standard "Well, since we slew that Basilisk the other day, I've been really thinking about magic, and I've worked out how to shoot balls of fire out of my fingertips" attitude that downtime XP expenditure normally produces.

Comments are especially welcome.