Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My Life in Fandom: The Forgotten Realms and the Wider Culture

That's the killshot in a thread regarding this post at the Cirvosa blog today.

The Forgotten Realms is the current dominant brand in tabletop fantasy gaming, and it's been a part of the Dungeons & Dragons property since the late 1980s. (That's right, it's been around long enough to run for the U.S. Senate.) In addition to becoming the basic bitch Vanilla Fantasy setting for tabletop RPGs, it's gone on to greatly influence fantasy RPGs in videogames and became a significant influence in fantasy genre fiction. In all cases, the pull of this influence has not been to the benefit of any of these categories and often becomes a serious cancer to it.

But, it is NOT the fault of the Realms themselves. It is NOT the fault of TSR or Wizards of the Coast. It certain is NOT the fault of Ed Greenwood (the creator, whose specific home games are VERY different from what's published). No, the reason the Realms are what they are is--once again--the fault of the fandom. And, once again, for the same reasons I laid out yesterday using Star Wars as an example.

Be it the original boxed set for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the amazing works put out for the 3rd edition, or even the videogames using the Realms as a licensed property, there is no deficit of detail and richness there for the taking. Thay's mageocracy is a wonderful tribute to Howard's Stygia. Cormyr is a delightful fusion of French and English history, with Vangerdehast doing a wizardly Walsingham impression. You can find a fantasy Venice well before Scott Lynch ever wrote his first novel, and so on- and these allusions, following Howard's method for his Hyboria, are deliberate due to the Realms being on an alternate Earth.

And the fans did not give two shits about ANY of it. The cultural and historical sub-literacy and illiteracy is NOT new, nor even recent. That shit is as old as when the first cohort of high school and junior high kids, who had sweet fuck-all for any wargaming experience, showed up to play that D&D game that the college kids were so hyped about. The players didn't care. The DMs didn't care. Why? Because none of that information ever crossed into the stuff they cared about: the core of the game, killing monsters and getting loot.

(We see this now with prominent streamers for Diablo 3 or World of Warcraft who don't know--and don't care to know--a damned thing about the lore. They care only about the gameplay, and dismiss the rest as irrelevant fluff.)

They have this attitude for a handful of reasons, none of which are the creators' or publishers' faults.

  • The influences are not brick-to-the-face obvious, so they're missed.
  • The DMs don't see any reason to make the players deal with them because they're not hard-coded into the rules, so they don't.
  • The players don't have to deal with them, so they dismiss it as irrelevant.
  • The exceptions who try get shat upon; players get booted for wasting time, and DMs get abandoned by players similarly.
  • The obsession over what's cool and powerful--the same that keeps Darth Vader popular, despite the known consequences--drives things like Elf worship, consequence-free magic, a complete disregard of religion and culture, and other things that are so long known as issues that there's a long-running parody of them going on.

Since the first days of D&D, coinciding with the 1980 mark where the SocJus Death Cult seized control over traditional SF/F, we've had gamers take up the pen and become authors. "Pink Slime", "Vanilla Fantasy", etc. all come out of this development and it got institutionalized when TSR opened its book division and began publishing Realms novels. Now it wasn't just the strange artifacts of those early gamers-turned-authors, but increasingly the dragon ate its own tail as more and more readers only read the branded stuff and eschewed the source material. That's the point when trends already in progress accelerated and achieved the form we criticize today as being derivative to the point of being boring and useless.

It's already sufficiently bad that any well-done derivation from this norm is sufficient to break an author out and set him up for big success, even in the deteriorating world of traditional SF/F publishing. Elves, elves, and more elves- especially in the works that are more romance than SF/F despite being labeled the latter. Vampires, werewolves, and similar archetypes are similarly debased and degraded into such Mysterious Sexy Alpha Male uses for such ends- taken out of context for use by people who don't care, or want to, about the cultural context they come from (and belong to).

They write these stories of elves being cool while killing orcs because that's all they got from their gaming experiences, and that sort of thinking comes to filter out everything similar that they enjoy. It's about doing cool things and wielding cool powers, and nothing at all of substance or consequence other than gaining or losing power- even the simple Spider-Man lesson of "With great power comes great responsibility." gets ignored because they have the power to do so effectively; at extremes, it's even the avoidance of challenge until it can be overcome with brute force. There's some serious rabbit-thinking going on here.

The people administering the Realms as a property are similarly rabbit-like in their psychology, and have been since TSR bought the thing from Greenwood, so it's no surprise to me that they can't properly address this known issue with their brand identity. The people running the RPG side of Wizards of the Coast are rabbits, so they can't hack the issue either. No, this has to be done by we in the fandom, and Cirvosa's call to just improve your skills at filing off the fucking serial numbers is a Big Deal. That has to go further, and that means making culture matter directly; subtly is lost here, routinely. Not just in the games and stories we create, but also in revealing--and celebrating--the influences we take in when making our creations and enjoying them.(Again, I cannot overstate the value of the entire Appendix N blog and book in making this happen.)

Real people do NOT act outside of a cultural context. Neither do believable fictional ones. Make culture matter again, and you will make fandom great again.

1 comment:

  1. That shit is as old as when the first cohort of high school and junior high kids, who had sweet fuck-all for any wargaming experience, showed up to play that D&D game that the college kids were so hyped about.

    The funny thing is that wasn't the only result of these kids.

    I technically wasn't even in JHS when I bought Holmes basic and Gamma World. I had some wargaming experience but not minis.

    However, now 40 years later (it will be 40 years the last week of this year) I often joke, "Everything I know I learned to play D&D". I would track down the SCA, read old history books, learn what actual armor and swords looked like, read Thomas B. Costain's multi-volume history of the Plantagenets (which my mom had), read weird books like Hero with a Thousand Faces, and so on due to wanting to play D&D right and following every esoteric link in The Dragon, The Space Gamer, S&T, and Ares (didn't see much Sorcerer's Apprentice despite being a T&T fan).

    That is the sad thing. For some D&D was a reason to quit being ignorant but that thread seems to have been the minority.