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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Game Day: LeCraft - Influences

Rather than start with the minutiae of this growing imaginative 'world' of mine, for example,  with a description of particular species or of one of the schools of magick or of any other countless small factors... I'll start first of all with the reasons behind my choices of influences as they might seem paradoxical to some and then give you a 'Big Picture' description for the world's setting.

As I've stated on previous occasions, this project was initiated by various conversations with Thomas, whose own fantasy world can be found on his blog 'A Basket of Leaves'. Had he lived, we might have collaborated on something related to his own world, as role-playing games were not a thing he was familiar with (oddly considering how steeped in fantasy worlds he was, but living in very rural localities limits one's D&D opportunities I suppose). Anyway, my creation has now become something distinct from his world, but the ideas, or rather, the ideals are still central to my own project. So, I'm still guided by the thought that a game or a story need not have violent conflict as its main motivation and that the thought of making this 'point scoring' i.e. collection of gold and experience as the primary player motivation is something I find incredibly dull and off-putting for a number of reasons, not least, the casualness of killing (fictional or not). D&D players sometimes (jokingly) refer to their Player Characters (PC's) as 'murder hobos' based on their habit of travelling the game world killing and stealing as they go. Now, I'm not turning into of those people that think people who play violent computer games and watch slasher films are more aggressive and are all potential serial-killing maniacs (see Przybylski), however, it's worth focusing on the story primarily and this is what I want to do with this game and story world of mine.

A. Influences

Ursula K. Le Guin and Howard Phillips Lovecraft in combination might seem incongruous as their own styles are quite distinct (to put it mildly). However, I believe this works (obviously) when one is taken as the 'solution' to the other's problems.

Lovecraft's flaws are numerous and not merely contained in his writing, which is something that unavoidably bleeds into his work. Not to beat around the bush, I'll just up and say that his racism is a fact and not something that can be excused by the "man of his time" claim. We might also say that it's irrelevant to his overall mythos. Perhaps. Would Heidegger have written 'Being and Time' without being a Nazi sympathiser? I think for any student of Heidegger's work that would a difficult claim to dispute, as some of the characteristic themes of German fascism are dominant in Being and Time. Should the work therefore be ignored or destroyed and expunged from the cultural memory as 'bad'? I'd say that it should not, (in either case, Heidegger or Lovecraft) as this is not the central claim of their work, but we should still be aware of its influence (Nazism and xenophobic racism) upon their respective works. I believe it is doubtless that Lovecraft's fears were not limited to fantastical cosmic paranoia, his literary supernatural fears having a very real world basis. Indeed, his work (perhaps) fulfilled a sort of katharsis, writing out all his fears of the everyday world into some huge maddening dread that was embodied in the stories in grotesque monstrosities and the nihilism of a cold disdainful cosmos. There's no doubt, also, that Lovecraft is a masterful (if verbose) writer of horror, of unknowable terrors that have sinister 'plans' for us. Indeed, he has become so well known that his 'style', his mythos, is in danger of being a 'cliche' itself. However, whenever that happens and 'Lovecraft' become short-hand for monster-with-tentacles then the fear has probably left, I doubt Lovecraft thought himself a writer of 'B-movie' style schlock, but many seem to have interpreted his style as this. Perhaps partially because he published mainly in pulp magazines, whose covers have a tendency to emphasize things in slightly more 'obvious' manner than Lovecraft did.

Le Guin writes with such a powerful eloquence about the everyday thoughts and activities of characters that seem fully developed and believable, whether they are also an Archmage or the futuristic humans of Tau Ceti. In a sense she is the polar opposite to Lovecraft's place-holder characters, as he desperately races to impart his fears to you. By any stretch Le Guin is the obvious greater influence because her work is so much more developed and, well, mature. Her knowledge of anthropology, philosophy, and history permeate through all her works and result in fully formed and believable cultures. With lands that seem to be functioning, that have always functioned, that are living history being described to you as you read. Now, if I could write half as well as Le Guin, I'd be doing very well, but it's good to have something to aim for. So, like Le Guin's worlds I want to mine to feel like it has a history, that the society and cultures aren't merely paper-thin analogies for real-world cultures, but feel 'solid' themselves, that they are as if something new is being described to you, not just another fantasy trope being put into a different box. In short, I hope to be describing a world that is not another Eurocentric fantasy, but nor do I mean to belittle other cultures by making a game about 'Samurai in Space' or anything of that nature, but create something that feels utterly alien but is also familiar (in that it features humans as our anchor, a tired but useful trick for the fantasy creator!).

So, how do I intend to reconcile the differing influences of two seemingly unrelated authors? Well, in one sense, I want to use one author to fill in the gaps of another and again it seems like I'm having a go at poor old HP, but in my defense, it's not his characterisation or world-building that I turn to his work for. Therefore, I see (or hope to see) my world as primarily Le Guin inspired in its construction. That is, as I've said, believably alien and real with a lived history. Something, I believe, she learned from academic study of human cultures and their philosophy's. In another way, I see my world as existing with two primary layers, one Le Guin and the other Lovecraft, that is they're operating in different zones. The 'real' world, with it's cities and politics, steaming jungles and dangerous seas, all the various interactions and conflicts between the different species of the world, and the other... the old world, the hidden dark mirror-world, wherein lie forgotten and buried secrets, terrible knowledge and vile mysteries!

I'd suggest that this 'rehabilitation' of Lovecraft isn't anything new or original on my part, indeed, there's a rather large contemporary community of authors that identify as the 'New Weird'. One of whom, China Mieville, I've written about before and I believe his own work could be seen as a reconciliation between Le Guin and Lovecraft. However, I don't intend to create my setting with a 'Steampunk' theme similar to Mieville's in Bas-Lag series of books (currently at three).

B. Themes

What of the setting then? Well, let's try a very concise description and then flesh it out some.

Age of enlightenment, 'Clockpunk'.
Magical academicals.
Sprawling city states.
The Wilderness is dangerous.
Strangers in a strange land.
United against the darkness.
Subverting species.
Not on Earth, or any Earth-substitute.
Buried secrets, terrible knowledge and vile mysteries.
Seeds of division.

Well, so that's just some phrases to hopefully give some ideas. First of then, 'Clockpunk', which sadly isn't my phrase. I thought about a setting later than the standard fantasy 'medieval' but earlier then the Victorian Steampunk of New Weird and being a student of Kant and others, the age of enlightenment (or the 18th century to you) seemed an ideal choice. Immediate problem: for something not Eurocentric in aspiration, this is a very European starting point. Well, yes, but there have been plenty of 'ages of enlightenment' whether you are the Tang dynasty of China, the Islamic Golden Age, or the 4th Dynasty of Ancient Eygpt. The point here is; (1) the technological level, (2) the focus on rationality and culture (cf. Tang dynasty and Islamic Goldan Age), and (3) importantly, the hopeful belief that anything is possible. In 'our' case the result was several revolutions against the yokes of tyranny and the establishment of what would come to be called capitalism (a bigger and better yoke!). Not in my world however, money isn't as important as knowledge, because where magick is concerned knowledge is very definitely power.

Although the main protagonists of my game and my stories are most definitely the Mages and focusing on the political conflicts of the various Mage Schools. This is mainly for the following reasons; (1) they are analogous to academia and that is mostly my lived experience, (2) with this focus the game is therefore less about developing a combat system than developing a mystery to be solved by diplomacy, investigation and creativity, (3) also with this focus the stories are liable to be about exploration, interpretation, and running away (with thanks to Rincewind).

Not that this means we have a Magocracy. Although certainly powerful, the mages also have a propensity to be engaged in projects that take their focus away from the everyday (why, indeed, would a mage want to rule?) and into obscure depths of forbidden subject matters.

The appearance of the 'usual' fantasy species, but hopefully portrayed in an 'unusual' manner. I'll write plenty more about this but although I couldn't think of a fantasy world (or is that weird world?) without the typical elf, dwarf, goblin and orc making an appearance. I also wanted to be very sure not to make them 'just the same' as they normaly are. Here's a brief note, "what is the 'trope' of humanity? Generalists, because we can't describe ourselves 'as if' to another (how could we?) then human becomes the opt-out species/race. And then the alien 'others' get what? Historic earth tropes, or simple generic tropes." Why can't the dwarf be as varied as a human? Certainly the different species will have propensities towards certain behaviours and distinct physiologies, that's a given, but other than that I don't want to limit a non-human species to merely being a 'stand-in' for some other description. In a similar vein, nor do I want the world to be filled with our 'earthly' animals, because then the temptation towards 'knights on horses' becomes too great! Seriously however, I want to make this world not merely a simulacrum of a mixed together Earth history and I feel that introducing totally new or significantly different animals and creatures a sufficiently straightfoward way of making this world seem 'alien'. I'll probably not have multiple moons and two suns however...

Strangers in a strange land, another note. One final theme that needs to be highlighted and this is still something I'm working on, but the idea is that everyone (i.e. all species, well, perhaps not all) has come to this 'world' not by choice. That the known species fought together, a long time ago, to defeat some terrible power. Although the truth to that is lost and although many mages have tried there doesn't seem to be a way to find out. That is to say, time magick is locked, they cannot go forwards or backwards in time. There are records that all the species kept, but well, they're fragmentary to put it mildly. This land is not huge (continent sized?) but has also yet to be fully explored, perhaps due to the very real 'here be monsters' possibility and anyway, who has got the time to go exploring? There are plenty of real dangers at home; the city states are arguing about how the three-year cycle for leadership is governed, people worry about the rise of illegal intuitive magicks, and the dangers of the Wild become an increasing problem. Leave that weird stuff to the Mages.

Any questions?

1 comment:

somethingspontaneous said...

Hello, Le-Boy, I'm loving your world building. Any chance of some automaton action in your Clockpunk universe? I want some beautifully engraved casings for wind up servants or something. And well done for calling out the Lovecraft nonsense. I love how it looks like Ursula is chuckling at his sad evolutionary ancestry anxiety. Oh no look my shadow nightmare anxiety ancestor has all these writhing tentacles and I've only got this one tiny weeny tentacle that pales in comparison... sniff... Aww but never mind, HP, I guess humans are just a bit rubbo. Who knew?