Articles Analysis The Horizons of Imagination

The Horizons of Imagination Hot

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.

Powered by JReviews
Comments (27)
  • avatarDogmatix

    Tolkien may have defined the world, but I think that D&D ultimately built the "peace walls" around the perimeter of it. I always thought D&D did a nice job of embracing the mythic/heroic traditions of a lot of different cultures, but the price for that was seeming to cement "fantasy = role playing" into the minds of so many. It's a ghetto that really seems inescapable. Where "storytelling boardgames" fit into that is an intriguing question though. To me, games like ToTAN are RPGs for the uninspired [which is too strong a word but nothing seems to come mind that doesn't sound negative/normative].

    It's been years since I read Masks of God (and I'm not going to quote chapter and verse from some Wiki page to pretend like I've just finished my 3rd read-through), but if you read (and buy into) Joseph Campbell's books on comparative religion/mythology, it's not hard to see where Tolkein's material fits into the mythic tradition. My take-away from that stuff is that, ultimately, it's the window dressing that differs from culture to culture, while the rootstock is essentially interchangable--Gilgamesh=Beowulf=Odysseus=the Apache's Journeying Warrior [whose name I can't recall or spell even if I could]=Conan/Aragorn/whomever.

    I thought Age of Gods was an interesting attempt at playing the "Meddling Gods" archetype, but ultimately fell far short; Chaos in the Old World seems like a much better attempt at the same goal (but I haven't played it yet...and would REALLY like to at EuroQuest this November if anyone here is attending).

    Interesting article. Wish I could put together some more coherent thoughts on the topic right now...

  • avatarStephen Avery

    Man you are so right. Every fantasy game falls into the same fantasy mold. The mold has wizards and elves, swords and sorcery. Part of it though is that it has become so familiar that you don't have to define it. "Of course elves are stealthy and have bows- they're elves!"That flavor of fantasy is so prevelant that it has become synonomous with the genre. Thats both good and bad. Its good because it allows faster immersion into the game but bad because it causes stagnation of the genre.

    Personally I'd like to see more games break away from it. Though if I think publishers would be averse to taking the extra risk.


  • avatarJason Lutes

    Awesome article, Matt. I couldn't agree more with your thesis.

    Where "storytelling boardgames" fit into that is an intriguing question though. To me, games like ToTAN are RPGs for the uninspired

    Give me a break. how about "RPGs for those who only have a few hours of spare time a week." I love narrative boardgames because you can open the box, set up, play out the story in a couple of hours, and put it all away until next time. True RPGs require an investment of time and attention that a lot of us simply don't possess any more.

  • avatarHatchling

    I don't read much fiction, but I should.

    I'm reading a warhammer novel right now (Blackhearts Omnibus).The last time I read something like this was in the early 80's (Dragonlance, Sword of Shannara). The book is okay, but the characters are a bit flat. I'm realizing that for me to get excited about a novel something needs to happen that gives the characters compelling personalities.

    Mulling this over reminded me of the exception to the rule in the fantasy genre: Don Quixote. That is one of my favourite books because the fantasy world is held in tension with a gritty real world, and that tension between fantasy and reality can be heart-wrenching, funny, touching, profound and action-packed all at the same time, which provides psychological depth and memories that have stuck with me. The are probably tons of examples of this kind of thing in film, like Pan's Labyrinth. If I had more culture in me I'd supply more examples. And if I had even more culture than that I'd muse about whether it's easier to find psychological depth in horror and sci fi writing than it is in fantasy writing. (oh no! I think I have as much culture as a typical fantasy character!)

    Anyway, my point is that I wonder if meh quality fantasy has less to do with the kind of source material the authors draw from and more to do a failure to do something interesting with that material that provides readers with a look into interesting personalities and situations.

    As for boardgames, I think there have been some excellent articles on this site about how games play bigger than their ruleset and allow the personalities at the table to become part of the game. Maybe if there were more fantasy novels with depth out there -- novels that read deeper than their script, you might say -- they would hook game designers and give them an appetite for recreating that kind of risky tension in a game.

  • avatarDogmatix

    @ Lutes: I'd give you a break if I hadn't already said "[uninspired] is too strong a word but nothing seems to come mind that doesn't sound negative/normative." So sue me for being short on vocabulary this AM. ;)

    That said, with all the pre-packaged adventures out there, I really don't buy the complaint that RPGs require any more significant a time commitment in a given week than a long boardgame. If "instant payoff/full-story unfolding" is the goal, there are plenty of ways to contain/constrain RPGs using short self-contained scenarios. I don't see time as the drawback as much as the requirement for a somewhat dedicated group who digs the environment/system of choice. The obvious highlight of narrative boardgames is that they allow one to change (completely) the theme every week, which is something you just can't do with RPGs unless your crowd is simply nuts about the genre and has a ton of different rulesets under their belt.

    It would be nice to see more storytelling boardgames like TotAN (where all the story elements are basically created and sewn together by your choices), but with the amount of labor required to make them sensible, I just don't see them becoming the Next Big Thing. [I gather Zev did a lot of work to restructure the paragraph book in TotAN; I haven't played the Z-man edition yet, but the WEG version certainly had a fair number of bits where the choice you made led to an event that made little narrative sense. The game was still good fun, but it didn't help on the immersion front.]

    Regarding Matt's idea for storytelling games described in the penultimate paragraph, I think I used to own a "themeless" version of what this. I'd appreciate it if you would take a look at StoryTellers ( and let me know if this is the sort of thing you're talking about. It seems to me that StoryTellers could easily be the "base game" around which someone with a rudimentary knowledge of a mythos or a deep interest in a given fantasy series. We had to dump this game because it required a certain level of creativity and fluid delivery (or at least a lack of fear of public presentation, no matter how small the group) on the players' part that was missing in many of our friends. To be honest, this sort of game requires an "every man is his own DM" approach that only flies if you have a lot of creative people in the room. Telling a good story versus having the story told to you (a la TotAN) is just a hell of a lot harder to some people than it might seem to be on paper...

  • avatarDogmatix

    Correct above to read" ^"It seems to me that StoryTellers could easily be the "base game" around which someone with a rudimentary knowledge of a mythos or a deep interest in a given fantasy series ^could create connected "starter storylines". The potential for expansion is, as a result, essentially limitless."

  • avatarshryke

    Whenever I read stuff like this, I get the distinct impression you people haven't even looked for a decent fantasy novel in 25 years.

  • avatarDogmatix

    @shryke: I'd certainly be happy to see some recommendations for decent new beyond China Mieville. It can be hard to get past the miles upon miles of titles by Eddings, Jordan, Pratchett, Martin, and Brooks (not to mention the roughly 9,000 "dragonlance" novels) that clutter the shelves 'round here.

  • avatarDogmatix

    ^...decent new "authors" *sigh*

  • avatarshryke

    I should come to your house and shoot you in the gut for mentioning Martin or Prachett in the same sentence as Eddings or Brooks.

  • avatarAncient_of_MuMu
    I should come to your house and shoot you in the gut for mentioning Martin or Prachett in the same sentence as Eddings or Brooks.

    I am intrigued which two you think are good, as I also think all 4 are pretty ordinary.

  • avatarshryke

    Then you have no taste and nothing can be done for you.

  • avatarDogmatix

    Since I was introduced to Pratchett's first Discworld novel and Martin's Nightflyers collection around 1986, I'd hardly consider either to be a "new" author. Since you accuse "all" of us of having not searched out a "decent" fantasy novel in 25 years, I was kind of hoping you'd offer up someone first published within the last 5 to 10 years or so rather than trotting out the same old "Hugo/Nebula Winner Emeritus" list.

  • avatarAncient_of_MuMu

    The one fantastic fantasy novel written in the last 5-10 years which hasn't been mentioned here is "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell". Now that would be intriguing to find a way to see it adapted into a game, and it would definitely be something rather different.

  • avatarHatchling
    I get the distinct impression you people haven't even looked for a decent fantasy novel in 25 years.

    That's certainly the case with me. And I second Mumu's request that you share your recommendations for decent fantasy novels if you now of any.

  • avatarMattDP

    I haven't read a decent fantasy novel in a long time, no, because there are very, very few of them. All the authors you mention are very ordinary - especially David Eddings who basically wrote one book and then re-wrote it slightly differently for each publication for the rest of his career. If those are the best you can come up with, forgive me for not taking any further recommendations very seriously. As far as I'm concenred the stuff I think is worth reading was mentioned - in passing - in the article..

    Dogmatix - I'm a bit busy today, but I'll take a look at that game tomorrow and let you know what I think.

  • avatarColumbob

    Some recent fantasy novels worth checking out:

    The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson
    City of Saints and Madmen, and Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff Vandermeer
    The Prince of Nothing trilogy, by R. Scott Bakker
    Perdido Street Station and The Scar, by China Miéville
    His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman
    The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

  • avatarJason Lutes
    @ Lutes: I'd give you a break if I hadn't already said "[uninspired] is too strong a word but nothing seems to come mind that doesn't sound negative/normative." So sue me for being short on vocabulary this AM

    Papers filed. I hope you have a good lawyer.

    That said, with all the pre-packaged adventures out there, I really don't buy the complaint that RPGs require any more significant a time commitment in a given week than a long boardgame. If "instant payoff/full-story unfolding" is the goal, there are plenty of ways to contain/constrain RPGs using short self-contained scenarios. I don't see time as the drawback as much as the requirement for a somewhat dedicated group who digs the environment/system of choice.

    Well, that would be more expensive for one thing, and as you say, it requires a more dedicated group. Not to mention someone willing to invest more time and energy than everyone else to GM the thing. There's also the question of accessability; it's a heck of a lot easier to engage people with no RPG experience in a narrative boardgame like TotAN or Runebound than in a full-on RPG.

    It just always bugs me when people say, in effect, "why don't you just and RPG instead?" These kinds of boardgames exist for a reason, and those of us who enjoy them enjoy them for reasons specific to them, not due to ignorance on the RPG front. On the contrary, I've played enough RPGs to know what I want out of my gaming. Last year I ran my students through both Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and Masks of Nyarlathotep, so I know of which I speak.

  • avatarmads b.

    I really digged the farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. She later made two other trilogies in the same universe (and with some of the same characters) which are also quite good. Her lates trilogy - Soldier's son, I think it's called - starts out really interesting in a kind of wild west fantasy setting, but is ultimately a bad story for reasons I'll be happy to elaborate on if asked to.

  • avatarAlmalik

    I'd second the recommendation of R. Scott Bakker's prince of Nothing Trilogy if people are looking for good well written fantasy.

    The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series by Keyes is also pretty good, but more standard fantasy.

    Obviously Pratchett and Martin are the two good authors out of the four (and they are quite good), as Eddings and Brooks are dogshit.

  • avatargrey_tinman

    I would recommend Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series for those who've read other epic fantasy and got bored with it. His books are very complex and engaging. Not for the light reader, but worth the effort.

    I would also recommend KJ Parker's Engineer trilogy, Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil and The Escapement for those of you who may be sick of wizards and magic. Her fantasy books are more historical than magical and are fairly dark.

    If you'd like to read something that is action-packed and bloody, I'd recommend Joe Abercrombies The First Law trilogy.

  • avatarDogmatix

    Thanks for the recommendations folks. As I mentioned before, the only "new" author that's cropped up in my life recently has been Mieville (and Perdido Street Station is just great), so I appreciate the lists of new crap to buy at Amazon. Now if Mad Dog would go ahead and add those to the list of things that we can buy through a F:AT link (so they get advert kickbacks), it would be even better.

    @Lutes: Agreed. I wasn't originally trying to say "why don't you just RPG instead" (though it kind of morphed into that) as much as "D&D and its ilk created the view that storytelling-type games are solely the domain of RPGs, thus creating an impediment to their broader acceptance." Oh, and you'll be receiving a response from our lawdogs on retainer at Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe shortly.

  • avatarlollocaust

    The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch is fun, but it won't change your life or anything. Ditto The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Both of them have quite original settings too, especially the former.

    I'm seconding Jeff Vandermeer as excellent. I kind of see him as what China Mieville wishes he could be.

    Gregory Keyes wrote a couple of books a while ago, I think the first is called Waterborn, that I really like, and have very little in common with other fantasy except a magic sword and even that has a twist.

  • avatarshryke

    A Song of Ice and Fire - George R R Martin
    The Prince of Nothing - R. Scott Bakker
    The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch
    The First Law - Joe Abercrombie
    The Long Price Quartet - Daniel Abraham
    Mistborn - Brandon Sanderson
    Malazan Book of the Fallen - Steven Erikson
    The Iron Dragon's Daughter/The Dragons of Babel - Michael Swanwick
    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
    The Farseer Trilogy - Robin Hobb
    The Wizard Knight - Gene Wolfe
    The Sword of Shadows - J.V. Jones
    The Dresdan Files - Jim Butcher
    The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone - Greg Keyes
    The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss
    The Steel Remains - Richard K. Morgan
    The Scar - China Mieville

    Just a random list mostly thrown together from looking at my bookshelf. It trends a little epic fantasy, but I tried to spice it up with some different options too. I also tried to stay with stuff published after about 1990.

    Some are really good, some are just good but not great but I avoided anything truly terrible the whole way through.

    Look, Fantasy is like every genre. It obeys Sturgeon’s Law. "90% of everything is crud". Most of what you see on ANY shelf is crap. The key is to dig up the gems.

    If you think Fantasy doesn't have any, you aren't really looking.

  • avatarNot Sure

    Yeah, Dogmatix, if you thought Perdido Street Station was good, The Scar is even better. The third one takes a big dip in my opinion.

    I'll second Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell with a big fat caveat: If you hate footnotes and general academia, you'll hate this book. This book has glorious ridiculously detailed footnotes referencing books that don't exist (except within itself). That turned off some of my friends, but I ate it up. It just adds to the whole depth of world there.

    For the most part I stay the hell away from "fantasy" as a genre, but I'll vouch for those books.

    I haven't read Richard K Morgan's fantasy novel, but I'm a big fan of his SF.

    Also you can get F:AT to sell you any damn thing you want through Amazon by putting it on your wishlist and shopping through the F:AT store.

  • avatarDogmatix

    Not Sure: Thanks for the tidbit about amazon.
    Shryke: Thanks for the further list.

  • avatarKingdaddy

    Are we confusing two issues? Sure, there are fantasy writers that aren't carbon copies of Tolkien. Some of them are definitely worth reading (Moorcock, Cook, Butcher, etc.). Others are boring, or aspire too hard to be literary, or both. Some of the fantasy short story collections I've read recently were chock full of that kind of dreck.

    And then there are games, which may or may not be based on Tolkien-esque backgrounds. Sometimes, they're really cool, and they work (Empire of the Petal Throne, Jorune, etc.). Some just seem weird, in part because there's not enough information about the background to make it comprehensible, or even interesting. Blue Moon comes to mind.

    The Warhammer background seems to straddle the line. Sure, there are dwarves and elves, but there are Cthulhu-esque elements (Chaos), gunpowder technology, and other elements that don't quite fit the Tolkien/Gygax mold.

    Still, you're right, what about the other mythologies? Some of them are pretty familiar (Norse, Greek, Egypt), and others aren't too hard to learn. They definitely worked in the Age of Mythology computer game, so why don't they make more of an appearance in boardgames? I dunno. Lack of imagination, maybe.

Only registered users can write comments!
Text Size