Saturday, October 18, 2014
Your Campaign Setting: Middle-Earth or Narnia?
So which is it?
Yes. It's got to be one or the other.
What do I mean by that?
Middle-Earth is a stand in for a more naturalistic setting. Yes, it's a fantasy world. But given certain assumptions, it makes sense. There's an explanation and a reason for everything. It's consistent.
Narnia indicates more of a fairytale setting. It might have rules, but they are the twisted rules of faery. Or at the extreme, anything goes.
Now, I think in previous posts I've made a few small snarks at what I have called 'naturalism' as understood in the above context. But my purpose here is not to say that one approach is better than the other. If I seem to argue for Narnia it's only because I think it's been unfairly neglected as a viable alternative.
Let's first look at Middle-Earth. In his seminal study Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey convincingly shows that one reason why Lord of the Rings works and works so well is that J.R.R. Tolkien built it up from firm mythological and linguistic foundations. We all know that Tolkien started with the language, then created the history, then, almost as an afterthought, wrote the story. Of course it wouldn't have worked if he had not been an outstanding tale teller. Thank God he turned out to be. But every creature, every place, every name has some basis in Old Norse or Old English, or well, some language or another as long as it was old (and Northern European). Shippey convincingly shows that only a handful of scholars at the time (and sadly, perhaps none in the present) knew as much about these languages as Tolkien did, such that they could have fully appreciated the depth and accuracy of what he accomplished. Yet one of the reasons that his writing resonates with us--even though we almost certainly are not fluent in, say, Medieval Icelandic--is that at some level (perhaps even an unconscious one) we understand that it's all consistent and all true--in the sense of being based on actual, partially internalized myth or dim linguistic memory. Okay, perhaps I'm not putting it quite right. But you get the idea.
Now, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends. But it's no secret that Tolkien found Narnia less than satisfying. There was no deep tonal underpinning to it. It was just a story for children with nothing less and nothing more than the sorts of things that children might like--witches, dragons, talking beavers, even Santa Claus. He found this annoying.
I don't. I like both approaches in the context of fiction, although I agree that from the point of view of sheer artistic value and weight. Tolkien's Middle Earth would have to win out. I agree with Shippey that, given certain assumptions, Tolkien is not merely the fantasy author of the century, but the author of the century. That's a big deal.
But what works from the point of view of an OD&D campaign? I think it's fair to say that many of us have had grandiose visions of being, well, Tolkien. Give me a few uninterrupted months (away from my studies, my job, my usual family responsibilities or whatever), and I will create a consistent world that my players will appreciate and love. I'll put together the natural history, the political history, the languages, the religious anthropology and all the rest, and it will be rich, cool, consistent and, in its way...true (just like Tolkien's).
Now, I think this is laudable. But let me suggest two potential problems with it: 1. None of us has the time or (sorry) the knowledge to really do it justice. We just don't. None of us is Tolkien. But perhaps more importantly, 2. what works for successful fiction does not necessarily work for successful campaign design from the point of view of gaming, or more accurately, fun gaming. Plenty of referees and players have discovered (partly through purchasing Middle-Earth settings such as the 1980's I.C.E effort) that Middle Earth is neat to have as a setting for a story but in the end is often pretty boring to play a fantasy adventure game in.
Quick quiz, which setting--Middle-Earth or Narnia--features more OD&D creatures? The answer is Narnia by about a mile. Here's a partial listing of Narnia creatures that were on the original OD&D lists, most of which did not appear in Middle-Earth: Apes, Giant Bats, Bears, Giant Beavers, Boars, Hobgoblins (though called 'boggles' in Narnia), Centaurs, Dryads, Efreet, Ghouls, Giants, Gnomes, Griffons (spelled 'Gryphon'), Incubi, Djinn, Minotaurs, Mermen, Ogres, Pegasi, Salamanders, Sea Serpents, Spectres, Sprites, Giant Squid, Trolls, Unicorns, Werewolves, Evil Wolves and Wraiths.
OD&D isn't Chainmail set in Middle-Earth, it's Narnia plus dinosaurs and robots.
AD&D and then the successive editions of AD&D and 3.0+ D&D gradually diverged from this. In part this was because the basic D&D setting with its canonical monsters from original diverse mythologies more and more became a naturalistic setting. We forgot that these creatures came from wildly different traditions. The set of them became a myth of its own. Language groups and families were postulated, natural histories of the different races and creatures were invented and so on.
It was a series of brilliant posts by Wayne Rossi's in his blog Semper Initiavus Unum On the OD&D Setting that first jolted me out of seeing things in the naturalistic terms that my teenage exposure to AD&D predisposed me to. I'm not saying this view is necessarily better. But I am saying it's a bit truer to OD&D and certainly worth considering.
For the sense of wonder, magic, romance and, yes, fun.
I tried to do it for my own game.
I'm not claiming you have to include Santa Claus. Then again...