Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Tone of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy

Since the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy line began, there have been complaints about the tone of the writing. Many readers seem to feel that the humorous, often silly, style either misrepresents or discourages what they feel the line is capable of. 


This post by kmunoz over on the GURPS forum is good recent example:
"I sense there is a critique of the underlying assumptions about hack-and-slash gaming that goes beyond the tongue-in-cheek elements you find elsewhere. Whether that's intentional or not is beyond my ability to determine. Perhaps as Kromm [GURPS Line Editor and Dungeon Fantasy author, Sean Punch] suggested it's a requirement of the context in which the series is being written. And intent does matter; I am not a post-modernist by any stretch. Regardless, I cannot imagine paragraphs 2 and 4 of DF1 showing up anywhere else (or, really, showing up in the DF supplements by other writers). I see what its purpose is. I'm on board with said purpose. But I feel that it overshoots the mark. (And that's where my observations become critique themselves.)"
Striking the desired tone in writing is probably one of the most ephemeral elements of the process and definitely one of the most subjective. I personally have enjoyed the tone of the Dungeon Fantasy line immensely and I don't think that I would have run the same kind of game that I did without it. I certainly was influenced by this tone in my own writing for the series! However kmonoz's complaint is a common one, and it's clear that this tone doesn't work for everyone.

The Paragraphs in Question

The first and fourth paragraphs of the introduction to GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers on page three are:
"Fantasy is an engaging genre, bursting with wonder and mystery. It offers worlds full of fascinating lands, dotted with great cities and populated by exotic cultures. All of this has a powerful resonance with any gamer familiar with myth, fairytales, and the fantasy epics of literature and film. For that, get GURPS Fantasy."
"Be warned that Dungeon Fantasy: Adventurers shamelessly cuts corners and makes assumptions. It’s a guide to making two-dimensional “heroes” from a non-culture, and pillages history and fantasy novels at random for powerful equipment and mythology. Use it in a serious fantasy campaign at your peril."
GURPS has a reputation for being grounded in realism and verisimilitude, and I think the intent here was to manage expectations here, and let the reader know that this GURPS book is different and will be more concerned with genre conventions and rules by fiat.

Let's Not Go To Camelot

There's definitely a disconnect between what some of us consider "silly" and what others do, and there may be some disconnect too about what the necessary elements of the genre that GURPS Dungeon Fantasy seeks to emulate.

For me, I think that the genre needs to have larger-than-life heroes who routinely go into maze-like complexes full of monsters and traps, and return with magical and material riches; then, rather than retiring into a life of luxury they proceed to do it again and again. Typically they then spend most or all of their treasures on preparing for the next expedition. This is, I feel, inherently silly on several levels, much of which has been perennially discussed about the genre since it was born in the late 70s. That doesn't matter, because it is still fun!

You could certainly do a deconstructionist take on the genre, with some serious commentary on the sustainability of the economics of delving, the moral hypocrisy of raiding "monsters'" homes, and the psychology of the kind of person who would do this and then continue to do this long after they've amassed more than enough fortune to found a dynasty. Such a deconstruction might even be fun (I gather that Doomed Slayers is something like this), but it wouldn't be the same kind of fun.

It is of course possible to have a non-deconstructionist take on the dungeon-delving genre, without having the same kind of self-aware tone that Dungeon Fantasy has; Dungeons and Dragons only had this kind of tone in the earliest editions and both the current edition and Pathfinder emphasize sword-and-sorcery high action and adventure. These games however, are not GURPS; there's not the same expectation of verisimilitude, and these games are already strongly identified with dungeon-delving games; D&D so much so that Wizards of the Coast struggles with keeping it from being genericized as popular name for the genre as a whole. It is actually quite difficult to run these games far outside of this mode, even if the D&D lineage has moved toward a slightly more generic approach. GURPS is perfectly capable of high action fantasy adventure in a sword-and-sorcery genre and can do this out-of-the-box with even just the Basic Set; it isn't, however, nearly as good at hack-and-slash out-of-the-box.

As systems of modeling stories, role-playing games encourage a systemic way of thinking in players and these systems come with their inherent biases. I think that if Sean Punch had taken a more serious approach to the genre we wouldn't have had anything that really is the same genre, because GURPS thinking would have demanded a deconstruction. The alternative was to reconstruct the genre with the GURPS toolkit, and that required a self-aware approach.

Why So Serious?

As a gamemaster, and certainly as a writer, I personally needed this tone shift. I don't think I could have run the Dungeon Fantasy game that I did without it. That game was fun, it was also epic, dramatic, and yes, occasionally a bit silly.

I feel that I'm often too serious, especially in gaming. I am continually frustrated with the hobby, because I'm always working on improving as a GM and I can't stand most other people's games. I seriously can't handle players who like to do wacky things in games in a disruptive heedless-of-the-consequences fashion (so-called "loonies" or "fishmalks"). I often miss jokes because I take things literally. Nothing goes over my head, because I'm too fast.

I started my Dungeon Fantasy game as a pickup game for when the full group for my other GURPS game was unavailable. That game, Desolation Road, was a new weird/pulp fantasy game, aimed at loads of world-building, artsy-themes, and complex character development. For the pick-up game, I wanted to challenge myself, both by running something much more beer-and-pretzels than my comfort zone and also by making it a highly sandbox player-driven game where I would improvise most of it.

The tone was a huge aid for me in this; it told me that I could relax; that I didn't need to know anything about the game world beyond the first town and a nearby dungeon; that I didn't need to worry about why or how anything is; that things could just be by fiat. I have a player that always wants to name his character some dumb pun and usually I put my foot down but this time "Holden Mi'Hari Balzac" was okay.

That game wasn't a farce, and it wasn't a parody. It had moments of drama, of tension, and of emotional resonance. On the other hand it also didn't have any kind of real verisimilitude, and the setting was nearly entirely set dressing, with nothing of my usual rigor in design. But that was good.
I see that your party has no wizard.

Emily Smirle once said that Dungeon Fantasy is silly the way that heavy metal album covers are silly. I think this is a really good observation, and coincides with me rediscovering metal as an adult. As a teenager I couldn't get into the music a lot of my friends listened to, but at some point in my late thirties it finally clicked for me; which happened as I also learned to be a little less uptight and love the dungeons.

Only What You Take With You 

So what does make games in the dungeon delving mode fun and would having a rigorous setting based on deconstruction of the genre detract from that? For me the fun comes, I think, from the combination of three factors: exploration, unknown dangers, and limited resources. This cocktail taps into some pretty primal parts of the human psyche and the conventions of the dungeon delve feed into a deep seated risk-reward-pleasure circuit.

We are drawn to dark underground places, we feel instinctively that there may be rewards in doing so (shelter and food), but also that those places have predators and hazards. Our development as tool-users enabled us to to more safely explore these places, but we needed to bring fire with us (and losing that flame could mean death); even today caves remain challenging places to explore in real life! I don't think it is a coincidence that resource management is the one area that the dungeon-delving game goes into a high focus on detail and even a bit of verisimilitude.

Realistically though, large ruined underground complexes and natural caverns aren't usually full of treasures and monsters. In real life, tombs get looted usually within a generation of the burial, and we've driven most of our predators into extinction and convinced most of the surviving species that we aren't worth the risk. Furthermore, tomb-robbing, violent raiding, and species eradication all are generally considered to be ethically wrong (and the first two have been illegal since the earliest civilizations, whereas the last has become illegal in the last two centuries).

I think what GURPS Dungeon Fantasy delivers as a self-aware reconstruction of hack-and-slash gaming, that a sophisticated deconstruction couldn't is the pure unashamed joy of this, deliverable as a constant and uninterrupted stream of new rooms to explore, new foes to defeat, and new loot to haul. Stopping to analyze this, to contextualize it, to make it conform to logic, or to give it a role in service to a deeper and more sophisticated theme would just be a jarring break; it would, I feel, be a disappointing buzzkill.

Monster The GM Made Up Himself

I can't, of course, speak for Sean Punch or anybody else other than myself. I don't feel, however that the stuff that I've written for Dungeon Fantasy would have been possible if I had been required to take a serious tone or to use more typical-for-GURPS rigor when writing it.
 

Clerics of Order and Chaos

"Clerics of Order and Chaos", came directly from the desire of one of my players to play a Holy Warrior of Order (I had previously introduced dual primal dragon deities of balance in my campaign, that unlike than the polar opposites of Moorcock were an allied pantheon of order god and chaos goddess). The kind of domain specific polytheism that exists in the dungeon-delving genre is of course very little like real polytheism and draws quite a bit of its tropes directly from European Christianity besides. Having it hold up to serious speculative anthropological rigor would produce something totally different than what's represented in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 7: Clerics (something like Glen Cook's Instrumentalities of the Night perhaps).

In this article I discuss several variations on cults of order or chaos, everything from oppressive dystopian theocracy to naked cultists singing paeans to Azathoth in wild glades (but all of them in very trope-laden sketches), defined only by a shared list of powers and spells. It would be impossible to describe a generic religion in terms that would make it easy to slot into a campaign setting if the setting was expected to have any rigor; religious organizations are of course highly diverse, complex entities and are one of the most significant elements of any culture.
 

More Psionic Threats

The mentalist in my game triggered so many psionic threat rolls (I heard you liked encounters so I put encounters in your encounters) that I started to roll the same things on the table several times, and I felt like it was time to expand the table. The original table (which I really hope does see print someday) was all kinds of silly with annoying time travelers, Elder Thing vendors, and Scanners-esque exploding heads (complete with Strong Bad reference). This, of course shows up in the monsters that that table would have generated, half of which come directly from encounters that occurred in my game.

I couldn't have conceived of something as gonzo as a ghost that thinks it's helping you as it summons more and more things that try to kill you, a disease called brainworm fever or the tentacles of some vast Great Old One blindly manifesting out of the floors and walls, without being able to feed Lovecraftian cosmic horror through the lens of the Dungeon Fantasy mentalist.

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