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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Game Day: LeCraft - Humans in Fantasy (Additional)

It occurred to me that in my previous post I could have said something more descriptive about the humans in my setting; what they look like, what they believe, how they vary, what makes them distinctive as  a species, where (or when) they have come from, and many other specifying things. Without giving you, the reader, this information I feel it becomes too easy for us to fall back on the idea that we are dealing with something like a direct transposition of Earth to ‘Fantasy Setting X’ (I’ll keep this as a backup name for my world). 

This is something that I’m keen to avoid, but realise that I’ll have to provide something like a map or guide book for my setting in order to get the ‘feeling’ of the place over. I’ll add a link to a pinterest board of landscapes that evoke my image of the world’s look, and I’ll also add a link to a youtube playlist with some appropriate ‘mood’ music. These will be added to as often as I can manage, so keep checking back.

Before I go into more about humanity in the LeCraft setting, I’d like to list a selection of descriptive paragraphs about humans from several other fantasy RPGs, with a view to showing how we (that is, how humans) are most often portrayed in fantasy settings:

13th Age
As in most recent fantasy games, we like using humans of various ethnicities and styles. Some map to cultures in the game world, while others are part of the magical mixing pot.

Anima - Beyond Fantasy
Race here does not refer to ethnicity, but rather to a true supernatural species with attributes distinct from ours. The world of Anima is predominantly human …

Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition
There is no typical human. An individual can stand from 5 feet to a little over 6 feet tall and weigh from 125 to 250 pounds. Human skin shades range from nearly black to very pale, and hair colors from black to blond (curly, kinky, or straight); males might sport facial hair that is sparse or thick.
Humans are the most adaptable and ambitious people among the common races. They have widely varying tastes, morals, and customs in the many different lands where they have settled.
The material culture and physical characteristics of humans can change wildly from region to region. In the Forgotten Realms, for example, the cl0thing, architecture, cuisine, music, and literature are different…
In the Forgotten Realms, nine human ethnic groups are widely recognized…

Fantasy Craft
You’re a human, standing 5 ft. to 6 ft. tall and weighing between 100 to 250 lbs. Your hair, eyes, skin tone, and other physical features vary as much as your culture, which spreads quickly and borrows heavily from all others. You’re extremely inquisitive, trading ideas like most trade supplies, and adopting customs and terms from friends and foes alike. You’re also wildly ambitious, your culture making in-roads everywhere, sometimes through diplomacy, often through conquest. For all these reasons your appearance, demeanor, society, laws, religion, accumulated knowledge, and even language may be completely different from those of other humans, even your neighbors. Unlike other races, it is this very difference that defines you as a species. As a relatively short-lived breed, you view life as an adventure, an undiscovered country to explore and command. You blaze new trails every day, sampling and savoring every experience as a great treasure, and with every step you shape your own unique destiny. You haven’t the time or the patience for your brother’s means and aims, though sometimes you accept those of your father; you’re his legacy, after all, and how else will he be remembered? You make your own friends and enemies and cherish both as part of what makes you special.

Humans possess exceptional drive and a great capacity to endure and expand, and as such are currently the dominant race in the world. Their empires and nations are vast, sprawling things, and the citizens of these societies carve names for themselves with the strength of their sword arms and the power of their spells. Humanity is best characterized by its tumultuousness and diversity, and human cultures run the gamut from savage but honorable tribes to decadent, devil-worshiping noble families in the most cosmopolitan cities. Human curiosity and ambition often triumph over their predilection for a sedentary lifestyle, and many leave their homes to explore the innumerable forgotten corners of the world or lead mighty armies to conquer their neighbors, simply because they can. Physical Description: The physical characteristics of humans are as varied as the world’s climes. From the dark-skinned tribesmen of the southern continents to the pale and barbaric raiders of the northern lands, humans possess a wide variety of skin colors, body types, and facial features. Generally speaking, humans’ skin color assumes a darker hue the closer to the equator they live.

Savage Worlds
Humans in most settings should get the usual benefit — one free Edge of their choice. This option reflects their versatility and adaptability compared to other races. If you like more variety, you might also give humans abilities based on culture rather than race.

This is the default background for True20 heroes in a game using backgrounds. Human heroes may have cultural backgrounds in addition to their racial background to provide additional depth and options for the players.


The paragraphs above all the give the typical descriptions of humans in contemporary fantasy games. Firstly, note that most make an effort to capture the ‘diversity’ of humanity. This is, of course, handled in different ways in some games. For example, although D&D goes to great, expansive and unnecessary lengths to describe all the differing ways in which people can physically appear (something we’re hopefully well aware of already, but it also highlights, I suppose, that all these ethnic differences are also carried over to the D&D Forgotten Realms setting. So, no “we’re all white Vikings” settings for you, unless you do that anyway…). However, in the longer print version of the human description in D&D they also describe the numerous different Forgotten Realms ‘ethnicities’ of humans, which can be easily mapped to ethnicities of our own world without much difficulty. Quite what the point of all these descriptions is when it is hand-waved into “just play humans as the ethnicity you’re most comfortable with, i.e. your own” is beyond me. There’s a great deal of descriptive ‘fluff’ (especially from D&D) with it all amounting to pretty much what the 13th Age description says, “[s]ome map to cultures in the game world, while others are part of the magical mixing pot.” Needless to say then, I have purposely set out with the idea of humanity being of the second category, that is, of an entirely different ‘ethnicity’ than anything we might see on earth and that the whole species thinks of itself as one (albeit residing in different city-states).

Second, I think the descriptions also give a strong indication why it is that other fantasy ‘races’ all end up being rather one-note, because the idea of a diverse, versatile, and adaptive species is pretty given as the human’s shtick. This is due to the fact that it’s actually quite hard to sum up an entire species in terms of these sorts of characteristics. If we were to think about any of the descriptions given about the usual fantasy races, these could also be applied to a general appraisal of humanity. The industry and stubbornness of dwarves, the wisdom and detachment of elves, the connection to nature and warmth of hobbits, the conniving cowardly nature of goblins, the ferocious warlike animalism of orcs, and so forth. All of these can apply to an aspect of humanity, but rather than allow diversity in these other fantasy species we’re left instead with simplistic archetypes, which is understandable in terms of basic gameplay, but at the level of role-playing it seems rather dull. (At the level of story-telling it’s almost monstrous…)

So, rather than limit what a particular species can be, I intend to provide the psychological perspectives and stereotypes of each of the fantasy species on LeCraft, both from the internal angle of the species and as they are seen by others. I also think that rather than the fantasy concept of the different ‘races’ being basically humanoid but with specific racial characters, I will employ what could be thought of as the science-fiction approach, where differences in species are regarded as a result of a specific outcome of an imagined evolutionary process of a physiologically different species from humans. Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels are a good example of this.

i.e. Not this

Now, I’m trying to envisage a world wherein humans have lived alongside varied alien species for some time and they have all (as species if not as individuals or groups) made a commitment to work with each other, rather than develop separately, because as this is an alien world for the majority and it is a hostile world at that, the reason need not be much more than basic survival. Further to that, working together to learn what magick is, how they can escape from this place (if, indeed, that is possible), and what purpose they are there for. Remember that, as I’ve previously said, time manipulation magick is somehow blocked and further to this that each species historic records are not fully know to them (the R’thexe seem to have some deep understanding of this but they are too confusingly obtuse to properly explain their knowledge).

What then “are humans like” on LeCraft?
  1. Mixed ‘ethnically’ speaking. Some diversity in appearance, but have lost the culture for analysing this minor cosmetic information. To us they would look like a people that have been thoroughly mixed to the point of appearing like being from pretty much everywhere.
  2. Physically what divides humanity from other species is the sexual dimorphism that is more pronounced than other species (some of which have more, or less, sexes than humans do).
  3. The most pronounced psychological attribute of humanity is seen by other species as being their need for society, for building and maintaining groups. Perhaps ironically, humans are seen as the most diplomatic of the species. Although this is partially for historic reasons.
  4. The main flaw of humanity, which can also be a strength, is their tendency towards self-deception, cognitive blindness, or ‘group-think’. The ability to believe something without evidence or even in the face of contradictory facts.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Words on Wednesday: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The belief in the power of belief

Disclaimer. Many people find critical analysis too close to flat out contempt. That is, they see any critical attempt as a destructively negative activity. This is only occasionally correct of me and not at all my motivation for writing this piece about Gaiman’s work today. Indeed, in my description of flaws in this novel, I am not suggesting possible corrections for the author (as an academic’s critique of another’s argumentation might include) but merely emphasising a difference in opinion. I think that ‘American Gods’ is an excellent novel, but as it’s made by a human, it’s never going to be perfect. This is a good thing. That it has made me, and others, think about; certain themes, the author’s usage of particular phrasing, or metaphor, the ideas, and the author’s (possible) social commentary, is the benefit of a worthwhile literary creation. That is, I have enjoyed the story but that is not all that it has done for me. It is, therefore, not “just entertainment.” Although if someone wishes to enjoy a work, any work, at this surface level only then that is entirely their choice.

The version of the novel I read was the “author’s preferred text,” which includes the edited inclusion of various story elements that were previously cut for brevity’s sake from the original text. How much of a difference this makes, I can’t really say, but perhaps in the future I’ll read the original shorter text (this version was around 630 pages).

Although I’ll do my best to avoid describing the plot specifically, there are several ideas that are especially central to the story that I’d like to discuss. I’ll keep these separated in a second section, which if you intend to read the novel or watch the forthcoming television series without knowing about them I’d suggest avoiding. However, I’d guessed at all of the main elements of the story, thanks to the blurb and my own personal reading history by page 25. So, I’d suggest it might not be that big of a deal as I still found it rewarding and surprising, but some people are quite antsy about spoilers…

1. As general a discussion as I can manage without describing the story itself…

What makes ‘American Gods’ good is not just the characters, not the plot, not the allusions to particular mythologies or real people and places (although all of these have to be good both individually and collectively to make the darn thing readable in the first place, but technical competence isn’t the mark of a really good writer), but that it is an attempt to bring all of this together to describe something conceptually intriguing. Something that warrants further thought.

An Englishman wrote an American novel. This is not an objective truth but a personal fact. Gaiman’s America is his America, perhaps it speaks truly to some and rings false to others. 

Like every good fantasy novel ‘American Gods’ is an attempt to create a new mythology, as Tolkien once said of his ‘Lord of the Rings’. Albeit that this a myth based on our pop cultural memory of gods, myths and an idea of a land we think we know. Why ‘American Gods’ works so well, is because it’s not claiming to fix a description of America, rather it is a mythic US of A that exists in imagination, thoughts, and dreams rather than the measurable ground or fact-checkable historic events. Your country, like your myths, like you yourself, is this amalgam fantasy. It is yours and yours alone, you can share parts with others, with your ‘countrymen and women’ (assuming they agree) but its basis will always be your heart.

"The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason." - Pascal.

Every work of creativity involves giving away something of the creator themselves. The clever ones hide this deep within elements of the work and never tell the truth about what it really meant to them. I’ll just say now that I don’t presume to read Gaiman’s mind or what it meant for him, but what I can say is that he really seems to like Norse mythology; the humour of it, the darkness, the pragmatism.

American Gods is an easy and enjoyable read. It is not challenging or dark, and yet it still has some conceptual depth. Especially worthwhile for a reader with an interest in mythology. Some aspects work better than others (in my opinion) but at 600+ pages this is to be expected, at the very least nothing is left unexplored. It’s important to point out the difference between unexplored and unexplained here, because one style would didactically tell you “what I meant here was” and the other gives you a hint and makes you think about what that might mean. Obviously, I think the second is the more interesting and Gaiman also trusts his readers to care enough to explore into things themselves, if they want to.

2. For those that have already read or are otherwise not concerned about spoilers or are sufficiently interested in further depth…

The central character ‘Shadow’ is both described in enough detail and abstractly enough that we are able to mould this hero into the reader’s own perspective. I think it would be dangerous to make such a prominently central character in such a large book too ‘fixed’. This is because the danger would be, what if the reader doesn’t like them or worse still, finds them boring? Shadow, thankfully, is therefore both mysterious and sympathetic enough to elicit our attention throughout the majority of the novel. Well, until the end, but by that point it hardly matters that our stoically dumb wise-man has become the all-aware superman hero. Mainly because we’re told he’ll soon forget it all anyway.

There are a vast array of secondary characters who are, for the most part, intriguing. Even their archetypal characterisation, which would otherwise make them seem flat, actually works given the context of the novel. They are mythic characters after all, although this creates a problem of who is a god and who is a normal person, as the method of description remains the same throughout. Perhaps this is the point, although I doubt the author meant it particularly. It becomes all the more confusing when a character (albeit a dream character, but this distinction in reality hardly matters for the novel) who we’d though might be an ancient god or belief, describes themselves simply as “the land.” Well, sure, that’s a belief people have. Is every belief manifest? Or just the ones with sufficient ‘weight’ behind them. That is, beliefs with some form of personal sacrifice, although this concept could be argued over too. At any rate, the problem becomes, at what point does this anthropomorphising of beliefs stop? The answer, perhaps cynically, is “whenever it is appropriate for the story,” because, yes, sadly it is just that, a story. Had we started to think that is was a technical manual? A guide book for existence? Probably this suggests that your/my imagination is over-active and that you should really stay away from cults.

Anyway, something that struck me as strangely absent was the lack of, shall we say, the more ‘famous’ religions. Perhaps the point was that monotheistic beliefs aren’t represented is this manner (in this world), because although Hinduism (not a ‘forgotten’ belief system with 750 million followers who are arguably pantheistic or monistic, depending where they/you stand) gets a tenuous mention with Kali making an appearance, but there is no mention of Jesus Christ or any of the saints or prophets of other religions (probably this is a sensible idea as this portrayal would annoy/anger/upset/outrage someone for sure). However, I’ve noticed that there is a Jesus Christ character is the television adaptation. Quite why and what role they will play is unknown (to me).

Also, as most people seem to believe in some form of externalised ‘evil’ in the world, represented as the devil, or in any other myriad of ways, it seems odd that this figure is not given the same anthropomorphic treatment. Possibly because this would make them the central antagonist and drive a rather different story than Gaiman had in mind.

I’ve read an interview with Gaiman that seems to suggest that the murder mystery ‘side quest’ story, was the originating idea for the novel that was then superseded by the ‘War of the Gods’ main story. It certainly reads like an add-on, indeed, it’s probably the bit that was edited out of the original. Still, it still fits with the rest of the world Americana mythology that he’s building and is reasonably interesting, just not that important really. It is also ‘solved’ or tied up in a particularly unremarkable fashion.

To conclude, I would certainly recommend ‘American Gods’ in the full “author’s preferred version” to any reader of contemporary fantasy and definitely to those with even a passing interest in mythology. Although there is some depth to the work that makes it more than merely passing entertainment it isn’t too conceptually dense, but it does reward a little extra thought. It’s certainly not a horror story or a science fiction, which are both awards that the novel won, probably due to an excellent literary agent...