Wednesday 22 June 2016

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 4: So what does this look like in practise?

"Flower" of the North:

Finally: the last post of the series. Having explained what I think 'romantic fantasy' is and could be, why you might want it in an RPG, and how you might incorporate it into your D&D games in practical terms, I'll now try to explain in what sense the setting I've been developing for 'Against the Wicked City' might be considered an example of romantic fantasy, as well as what a more 'traditional' D&D adventure might look like if it was translated into a more self-consciously 'romantic' style.

An anonymous comment on the previous post asked whether what I was calling 'romantic fantasy' was basically the same thing as what Armchair Gamer, in an thread from back in 2012, called 'Paladins and Princesses' D&D. In that thread, this style of D&D is described as being 'romantic', but also as being 'a "clean" fantasy, with shining castles and good kings, friendly innkeepers and helpful travellers'. ATWC has none of those things; instead, it's a setting full of smoke-blackened towers, awful tyrants, miserable refugees, and fearful, suspicious caravanserai-keepers who may or may not be planning to sell you out to the secret police. All of these are trappings that we've come to associate with 'grimdark' fantasy-horror settings, in which life is cheap and horrible and usually meaningless. So why do I call it 'romantic fantasy', instead?

Well, odd though it may seem at first glance, ATWC as-written is actually all about love.

Let me put it like this: the Wicked City represents a failure state. It is meant to communicate an idea of what can happen when, under conditions of extreme social stress, the failure of human beings to love one another reaches epidemic proportions. So at the heart of the whole system you have the Wicked King, who embodies inhumanity; then beneath him you have the Secret Police, who worship that inhumanity; then the Ministries and the Cobweb, who serve it; then the people of the city, who endure it; and finally, right on the edges, you have people like the Red Brotherhood and the Rubble Tribes, who resist it. The symptom of this inhumanity, this failure to love, is dehumanisation: that's why the Secret Police, the Cobweb aristocracy, and the Skull Wearers all wear masks, why the Secret Police have given up their names for codenames, why the Men Without Faces are literally faceless, why the Steel Aspirants hunger to replace their bodies with clockwork, why the bodies of the Maimed have been warped by their afflictions, why the Wicked King may actually be completely bodiless, and so on. So to be against the Wicked City is to be against all that, against this miserable grinding system of oppression which keeps turning people into literal and figurative monsters. In a more traditional fantasy game the assumption would be that the way to fight this would be to make a long list of all the bad people, and then kill them: massacre the King's Men, massacre the Cobweb families, massacre the Ministers, massacre the Secret Police, and so on. You can totally play it like that if you want to. But in writing it, I've also tried to keep open the possibility of approaching these as social problems, requiring social solutions.

He's not really such a bad guy, once you get to know him...

It would have been easy for me to write the Rubble Tribes as frothing, murderous savages. It would have been easy for me to write the process of Maiming as involving irreversible spiritual corruption. It would have been easy for me to write the Skull Wearer rite as permanently transforming its victim into a monster. It would have been easy for me to write the King's Men as brutal, sadistic enforcers, and the Cobweb Families as irredeemable pits of ancestral evil. In fact, in every case, this would have been the traditional D&D approach, because by writing them in those ways I would have turned them into guilt-free targets for slaughter by the PCs. But, instead, I wrote Maiming and Skull-Wearering as curable conditions, the King's Men as a cowardly rabble, the Rubble Tribes as weird and suspicious but basically pretty decent, the Cobweb Families as damaged products of a dysfunctional social environment, and so on. A Murder Harlot is just a Jewelled Fan Dancer who's lost faith in everything except sex and violence. Every serpent-folk drug peddler could just as easily be a healer, instead. Maybe even the Men Without Faces could be saved if you could somehow give them their faces and identities back. (It's probably too late for the Hounds, though.) Maybe the only reason the Man With Stones For Eyes is so horrible is because of the way the world looks to him through those frozen rocks in his eye-sockets, and if he could get his real eyes back he might finally understand the horror he's become and stop being so vile to everyone. (Then again, though, maybe not.) And, yes, sure, you can just kill them all if you want to, and maybe that's sometimes even going to be the right and moral thing to do: it's certainly hard to argue that the world wouldn't be a better place without the Men Without Faces in it. But the other options are always there as well.

This extends out to the rest of the setting, too. It's why I wrote the Pig-Men and the Shurale as dangerous, but also stupid and easy to trick: I want them to be the kind of monsters that can be outwitted by cunning children, rather than the kind that can only be dealt with via overwhelming military force. It's why skull chieftains can be disposed of non-violently by reminding them that they're dead. It's why most of the encounters on the random encounter tables involve weird social interactions with the possible threat of violence, rather than just 'this thing turns up and attacks!' I've tried to write all this stuff in ways that will make it useful in traditional D&D games as well, and I do want to emphasise that I don't think anyone is 'doing it wrong' if they borrow something I've written for use in a standard kill-'em-all dungeon bash; that would be pure hypocrisy on my part, given the number of such games I've enjoyed playing and running in the past. But the setting-as-written should also support games in which every step towards the Wicked King's throne room is marked by friendships forged and souls redeemed from despair and evil, rather than just hacked-up corpses and trails of blood.

As all this is still probably a bit abstract, I'll try to finish up with an example: notes towards a romantic fantasy rewrite of what may very well be the most famous and influential D&D adventure ever written, B2 The Keep On the Borderlands. I assume everyone knows the set-up: there's a keep on a wild borderland region, a bunch of different clans of feuding monsters live in the 'caves of chaos' nearby, concealed within the caves is the Chapel of Evil Chaos, and the priest in the keep pretends to be helpful but is actually an agent of Evil Chaos hoping to lure people into the caves and then murder them when they're at their most vulnerable. While there are some opportunities for roleplay and negotiation, the adventure as a whole clearly assumes that most encounters will be resolved through violence, with most of the monsters attacking on sight. So how could we turn something like this into a romantic fantasy scenario?
  • The Keep: The keep is a stronghold of civilisation, for better and for worse. Its people have mostly managed to maintain  a policy of uneasy coexistence with the creatures in the Caves of Chaos, but recently there's been an outbreak of attacks, thefts, raids, disappearances, and kidnappings, and the inhabitants - goaded on by the fake priest - are increasingly demanding that the castellan's soldiers be sent out to slaughter these degenerate savages once and for all. Uneasy at these demands, and suspecting that something else may be going on, the castellan asks the PCs (as a notionally-neutral third party) to investigate. 
  • The Shrine of Evil Chaos: In the original, anyone who touches the relics in the Shrine of Evil Chaos must save or 'become a servant of chaos and evil', compelled to guard the chapel forever. So that's our first change: to make explicit that the adepts, priest, and torturer at the shrine aren't really villains, just unfortunates who have fallen under the spell of the relics. (They were, of course, led to the chapel by the fake priest in the keep.) If the relics could be destroyed, they would return to normal, and be horrified by the things that they have done while under the spell. They all have families at the Keep, who are worried sick about them, and desperate to see their loved ones returned.
  • The Fake Priest: The fake priest at the keep, and his two acolytes, clearly aren't under the spell, as they're able to leave the shrine at will. So they're the real villains, individuals who have voluntarily devoted themselves to Evil Chaos. They can be kept as 'pure' bad guys; PCs hate being betrayed by people they thought were their allies, so it's probably best that they don't need to feel any guilt whatsoever about hacking them down after their inevitable change of sides. The Priest probably started worshipping Evil Chaos because of some horrible trauma in his backstory, but at this stage he's probably too far gone to be redeemed. 
  • The Goblins: In the original, the hobgoblins have a secret door into the goblin storage chamber, which they use to steal all the best stuff that the goblins loot from the surrounding area. As written, this is basically just an excuse for a surprise encounter; the PCs are hanging around in the storage chamber, checking if anything in it is worth stealing, when - surprise! - the wall opens up and a bunch of hobgoblins walk in. But this can easily be upgraded to the primary motivation for the goblin tribe: all the food they had laid up for the winter has just vanished from their storeroom, and now they're raiding the surrounding area because they know that without extra food supplies they're all going to starve. Emphasise how scrawny and desperate the goblins seem; have people at the keep mention that the goblins have never raided like this before; let the PCs discover that the only things the goblins ever seem to be interested in stealing is food. The PCs should quickly work out what the real motivation behind the goblin raids is, and be able to defuse the situation either by taking their food back from the hobgoblins, or by securing them some other food supply elsewhere.
  • The Ogre: The original specifically highlights this as an encounter which can be avoided non-violently; the ogre only fights for the goblins because they pay him, and will stop fighting if the PCs make him a better offer. So let's make him a rather dim, almost amiable figure: greedy, amoral, easily bribed, willing to break heads in exchange for a good meal, but bearing no real malice towards anyone. Provided he gets good food and regular pay, he'd be just as happy working for the keep as for the goblins, and could potentially be a real asset to its defenders.
  • The Orcs: In the original, there are two rival tribes of orcs who are being manipulated into working together by their leaders, who are holding secret meetings in a concealed room. So let's play on that: the orcs aren't normally aggressive, but they've been manipulated into taking aggressive action by their leaders, who have engineered a situation in which each tribe believes that only a constant policy of aggressive action can stop the other tribe from thinking they're weak and attempting to exterminate them. The leaders, in turn, are being manipulated by the Priest of Evil Chaos, who has fed them lies that it is only their shows of aggression which are keeping the men of the keep from marching out and killing the lot of them. (In fact, the reverse is true; the men of the keep had previously been willing to put up with them, but now their tolerance is waning fast.) If the tribes realise that they've been tricked, they'll turn on their leaders. If the leaders realise that they've been tricked, they'll turn on the priest. (Also, one of the orc leaders should be female, and the two of them should have a whole forbidden romance going on.)
  • The Kobolds: They're just kobolds, man. They want to be left alone. They're very suspicious of outsiders due to prior bad experiences - everyone thinks they can push the little guys around - but could potentially be enlisted as allies if persuaded of the threat posed by the Shrine of Evil Chaos.
  • The Hobgoblins: In the original, the hobgoblin chief is described as being accompanied by 'four large female hobgoblins, each equal to a male', presumably his wives. They've also imprisoned a merchant and his wife. So let's work with this: the hobgoblin chief is a figurehead, real power within the tribe resting with his four large and warlike wives. The chief is desperate for domestic harmony, and will do whatever his wives tell him to, but they're currently deadlocked; two are staunch hobgoblin supremacist traditionalists who argue for an aggressive policy (stealing more from the goblins, eating the prisoners, war with the keep), while the other two are realists who argue for a more conciliatory tone (ransoming the prisoners, leaving the goblins alone for now, maintaining peace with the keep). One of the latter pair has even struck up a kind of friendship with the imprisoned merchant's wife, and is trying to work out a way of getting her out alive. PCs who see to it that the less aggressive faction win out can ensure the safe return of their prisoners (for a suitable ransom), and maybe even forge some kind of peace treaty between the hobgoblins and the keep in order to avoid further violence. 
  • The Bugbears: In the original, these are a weird bunch; they pretend to be friendly, offer meat kebabs to the PCs, and then stab them with the skewers. They also have loads of slaves, including a mad hero and a rebel bugbear. But why on earth would anyone fall for their trick, unless they had prior reason to believe the bugbears would be friendly and helpful? So let's rewrite this slightly: until recently, their cave really was a safe haven for travellers, and the bugbears offered food and shelter to creatures of all races in exchange for a fair payment. Then their current chief staged a coup and enslaved all their 'guests', as well as the previous chief (the 'rebel' bugbear in the slave pen); since then, everyone who's come seeking shelter has also been enslaved. The bugbears are very divided on the merits of their sudden career change from innkeepers to slavers, but their new chief has the backing of both the minotaur and the priests of Evil Chaos, both of whom they fear terribly. If he was deprived of this support, then some of the bugbears could probably be persuaded to side with their old chief again, especially if he was backed by a slave revolt.
  • The Minotaur: He just likes eating people. The new bugbear chief has promised him lots of slaves to eat in exchange for his support.
  • The Gnolls: These guys are a pretty boring bunch in the original, but their chief does fight alongside his two sons and four wives, which suggests that at least he's a family man. There's also secret tunnel which no-one knows about, connecting his room to the Shrine of Evil Chaos. So I'm gonna go for a minor rewrite and say that the fake priest does know about it, and has been using it to manipulate the gnoll chief into more and more aggressive acts via illusions, ventriloquism, 'messages from the gods', and so on. The gnoll chief has always been a bloodthirsty sort, so he didn't need much prompting; but he does genuinely love his family, and if he sees that his actions are placing his wives or sons in danger, he can be made to reconsider his recent choices, especially if confronted with evidence that all the 'omens' he's been seeing recently might have a less-than-divine origin. 
  • The Mad Hermit: The original says that 'The DM may choose to have the Mad Hermit approach the group on friendly terms, claiming to be a holy man seeking goodness in nature - perhaps he actually believes that at times' - but then insists that he attacks as soon as he gets a chance. Let's flip that: he really was a holy man seeking goodness in nature, but when he confronted the fake priest about his frequent visits to the Shrine of Evil Chaos, the priest stabbed him with a poisoned dagger. The hermit's pet lion saved his life, but the poison has destroyed his mind, so now he just wanders about babbling. The lion is very protective, and attacks anyone who looks like they might harm him. If his mind is restored, he can reveal much about the priest's actions to date.
So, there you have it: the Caves of Chaos rewritten as a talk-'em-up, in which the whole looming tragedy of conflict between the humanoids and the keep is basically the work of one scheming bastard who has been playing on the worst tendencies of all those around him in order to generate (evil) chaos, and whose whole tapestry of manipulation and deceit can be unpicked one link at a time. For the full romantic fantasy effect you'd want to rewrite the keep as well, filling it with potential PC love interests (including non-heterosexual love interests) and people with really amazing hair, but I figure this post is already long enough!

So. Romantic fantasy. It's a thing. Your group might like it, at least in moderation. I'd never claim that it's inherently 'better' than any other kind of play; but if you fancy a bit of a change from your PCs just stabbing everyone, you might try giving it a whirl...


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  2. Hi, I've recently discovered your blog and have been really enjoying it. I like the way people and creatures in ATWC reflect your Romantic standpoint. It leaves your PCs with the option of acting like insurgents -- trying to win "hearts and minds". Liked your tweaks to B2 also; they make for a very different setting.

    1. Glad you like it! Yeah, 'hearts and minds' pretty much sums it up...

  3. This is the first thing that mas made me interested in running B2.

    1. And all it took was a location-by-location rewrite of the whole module!

    2. Isn't it more of an add-on though? The original module text encourages having the factions interact, and this is just more of that. Character motivations change, and more plot and background is added.

  4. Thanks for pointing out that this kind of campaign can exist in a grim world. In fact, I'd argue that the conflicts in a game like this are far more rich in a darker milieu.

    Now all we need is a (quasi) regular feature "Romanticizing" (Manola-ing?) various existing modules.

  5. If your PCs are able to talk around all of the various factions they encounter, I think you'd get some slightly odd pacing, with the game liable to end with a whimper rather than a bang.

    A variation that appeals to me would be some factions with mutual incompatible conditions to talk around, slightly more unambiguously horrible adversaries, and possibly a time limit as well or the evil priest actively working against them, so that you can build to a final confrontation between the PCs and those of the locals they've managed to ally with/redeem/bribe, and those who have ended up loyal to the bad guy; as you look along the battle lines both every success and every failure up to that point becoming apparent.

    That said, in some ways "it all ends with a fight" is probably fairly antithetical to what you're trying to do? But I think that a climactic final seen of some form is a cliche for a reason, and it's probably much harder to do that without action, and somewhat harder to do it without violence.

    1. Well, you talked your way around pretty much everyone in the Orra game, and that worked OK, didn't it?

      I think there are three slightly different ways you can go with a set-up like this. There's hippie version, where love really does conquer all and almost everyone's problems can be resolved without violence if only you can get them to really communicate with each other. There's the Hollywood version, where the job of the heroes is to form a rag-tag alliance of former rivals capable of taking on the unambiguously evil bad guys, with whom a diplomatic solution is never even going to be an option. And there's the OD&D picaresque version, where you have a bunch of factions with mutually incompatible goals who are all pretty much as good (or as bad) as each other, and the protagonists just pick one pretty much at random (or based on who's offering the biggest reward). They lend themselves to very different narrative structures.

      (Of course, if you're a hardcore sandbox type, then the very idea of a 'climactic final scene' is going to be anathema: whatever happens, happens...)

  6. Awesome
    Have you ever looked at pendragon rpg

    When i last ran the caves a player was a bugbear raised by halflings and came across the secret door to bugbear chief and wife - only to recognize them as his long lost parents. So he killed dad and took over with mom and the rebel bugbears help

    1. Yeah, I played Pendragon a bit as a teenager, but I wasn't really up to the job of doing it properly and the games were a bit rubbish as a result. I still like the *idea* of it, and I might be able to do a better job of it today, but it's a hard sell for players.

      'Bugbear raised by halflings' is a brilliant character concept. (I bet he had trouble squeezing into the hobbit-hole!) Glad to hear things worked out well for him, if not for his dad. Hopefully, under his enlightened leadership, the bugbears will stop doing that whole super-weird 'stab people with kebab skewers' thing!

  7. I've been enjoying your series on romantic fantasy (also the wrestling and gonnes essays), which has helped me get a handle on just what was missing from the last D&D game I played in - room for the development of constructive relationships with "monster" factions.

    Your thoughts on interpersonal relationships and unarmed combat as a safer venue for interpersonal violence have helped me as I feel my way through support materials for my postapocalyptic mythic Texas setting for ACKS, whose economy and domain experience rules add a fourth leg of supporting rules to reaction, morale, and henchmen/followers.

    I'm shooting for that third, picaresque option for social play, with only one irredeemable monster/NPC faction and an only somewhat corrupt society composed of independent factions with their own goals, some of which may compete with one another's interests, but all of whom have to live together in town relatively peaceably. To that end, I've found this and several of your tables that speak to motivation and "wandering social challenges" inspiring and hope to appropriate the odd bit here and there, though "American tall tales meet D&D in Gamma World" isn't an obviously great fit for "heavy symbolism on the Baroque Silk Road". Fortunately, people are people, and for the most part, monsters are people, too.

    1. Glad you've found them useful! "American tall tales meet D&D in Gamma World" might *look* different to "heavy symbolism on the Baroque Silk Road", but it's still all about wandering adventurer types roaming across a vast landscape full of weird and dangerous stuff, right? So most of the basic issues involved can probably map across relatively intact...

      Good luck with the game, in any case!

    2. Blogger hates it when I try to comment directly, so I must reply.

      This is very good, and I think a critical explanation of the earlier posts in the series. I'd been muttering about the bullshit of redeeming bloodthirsty vampire tyrants with a woman's love. I have a much clearer idea of what you've been driving at now.

      The works of Barbara Hambly, as an aside, are a criminally under-remembered example of this. Dragonsbane is even a perfect example of the distinction in the two styles.

      Also, you have made the important point clear that some people cannot or should not be redeemed. Once you've killed dozens or hundreds of innocents for your own benefit, the time for redemption and reintegration into society has passed. Oddly, that's about the only time I AM on board with Gygax's "kill them before they backslide" view.

  8. I was just reading these posts again in preparation for a new campaign, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on henchmen. Yes? No? Why? How?
    Having loyal companions sounds nice, but increasing the party size further with secondary PCs also seems like a burden rather than a boon.

    If you have some thoughts on this I think it would make a great topic for a new post.