July 6th, 2010
|01:31 pm - RPGs & YA Novels - Musings about the Problem of Familiarity|
I have long lamented the fact that SF RPGs are significantly less popular than RPGs set in fantasy worlds or in some version of the modern day (typically with the addition of magic or super powers). The only big exceptions have been licensed games, specifically Star Trek, and (especially) Star Wars. While not the only answer, it seems clear to me that a lack of familiarity is much of the problem. Most fantasy RPGs have relatively similar settings, and while details can differ, especially in elements like magic, the basic social and political structure is fairly similar – pre-industrial settings where magic makes little impact upon daily life (at least for the majority of the population), and the politics consists of royalty and nobles. The range of settings has been opening up with the growing popularity of steampunk ( which I discuss here ), but it's still a setting that's quite familiar to people from sources ranging from public school to movies. I've mentioned before that I think much of the reason is due to how familiar people are with various settings, and thus how much work they need to do to imagine characters and adventures in that setting.
I see a similar issue with young adult fiction. Much of the best fantasy that I've read in the last decade has been YA fantasy (an excellent example being Garth Nix's Old Kingdom (aka Abhorsen) series. Easily as good as any fantasy written for adults. However, I have yet to find any modern YA SF novels that I've actually enjoyed, and much of the reason is that YA SF is less common that YA fantasy and almost all of it that I've run across is set in the near future, where the world is very similar to our own. The fact the I prefer far-future SF means that there's little YA SF that appeals to me. I realized a couple of days ago, that part of the reason for this lack was the same reason for the identical situation in gaming - familiarity. One of the only real differences between a 14 year old reader of SF&F who has been reading it since they were 9 or 10 and someone 30 who started reading SF&F at the same age is that the older reader has read a far larger number of stories and thus is familiar with many more of the ideas and sorts of settings. For example, understanding a setting like Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space Universe is a faster and easier process if you've also read other modern space opera novels written by authors like Ken MacLeod or Charles Stross.
In any case, while this bodes ill for me finding YA SF that I enjoy, it did give me some ideas for interesting (to me at least) settings that might work for both novels and RPGS – fantasy worlds that function like the modern day. Some of this already exists – in many ways, Steven Brust's Dragaeran Empire functions much like the 20th century first world (at least in cities), but with magic instead of technology. Even more obviously, we have in RPGs the Eberron D&D setting, which approximates post WWI world in many ways, and Dreams of the First Age for Exalted was pretty much constructed as a near future society powered by magic with gods/super-beings in charge. Once you avoid silliness like vehicles that look and function exactly like cars, but which are powered by magic, I think there's a lot of room for interesting fantasy settings modeled on 20th and 21st century settings (both real and imagined), where magic and similar oddities take the place of modern technology. Here, the question of familiarity is solved – most characters live in large cities with lights, running water, and adequate sanitation – there are police, apartment buildings, sidewalk cafes, and gambling dens.
Current Mood: geeky
Many good points here, which also has me thinking about how my own fantasy game-world has grown less "generic fantasy trope" and more steampunkish on the one hand and simply more "not-Eurocentric" on the other. I have certainly been tweaking things to have a quasi-modern feel without resorting to "cars run by magic" - but damn, get yourself a sky chariot ASAP if you can afford one!
Similarly, I continue to struggle with my SciFi campaign - which started as unholy amalgamation of Traveller and Cyberpunk2020 and a good dose of WH40K and Star Wars in the mix. It has simplified and streamlined over the years, and I've tried to re-boot it a couple of times but it has never really gelled. Mostly because it loses exactly what you are talking about - familiarity!
But part of the issue of SciFi rather than fantasy is just how much that genre has shifted focus since the mid-80's. Just looking at something like CP2020 and the setting (rather than engine/mechanics) and trying to talk to my 20-something players about the dystopian worldview of that era as opposed to the dystopian worldview of this era...
All that said, I just gave my 13-year old son his own copy of the Faded Sun trilogy and he spent all moring eating it up - so there's hope for the younger generation!
I think familiarity is a big part of the fantasy/SF divide, when it comes to RPGs in particular, though I think they all have to sorta balance familiarity with novelty; no one seems to want to play an RPG that's so familiar it seems just like their daily life. A familiar beginning, plus just enough novelty to make it exciting; that seems like a pretty good recipe for addictive escapism.
That brings up what I suppose might be sort of the flip side of the whole modern-feel fantasy world thing: urban/contemporary fantasy. And that's another one of the big gateways into genre fiction it seems; most of the new 'paranormal romance' that seems to be so popular uses that recipe too, and of course similar things have been quite successful in RPGs as well.
Yeah, one of the most enjoyable games we played was a WoD mashup we called the "World of Shadows" - less paranormal romance (probably more porn actually) and more "modern occult thriller."
But it was capturing exactly what you are talking about - and we've gone back to that setting 3-4 times now with a fair amount of success.