Are RPGs Killing Fantasy?

The massive explosion of RPGs, table-top, video and net games over the last fifteen years has changed the landscape for fantasy authors. In ancient times, if you wanted to slip quietly into another world, you had only a handful of potential access points that were widely available in commercial locations: some Moorcocks, the odd reprint of the Weird Tales authors and the ubiquitous Tolkein. Mythologies were being re-interpreted for a new audience, strange horizons were invoked and it was all fresh and exhilarating.

Now we’ve all visited fantasy worlds hundreds or thousands of times by our teens, whether it’s the Dungeons and Dragons of the eighties, the paper-based games that grew out of it, or the World of Warcraft and other MMPORGs of the netscape. This huge industry has turned all the tropes of fantasy into crashing cliches. Elves, dwarves, and dragons are as familiar as your next-door neighbour. We all know how magic works, as clearly as the laws of physics – it’s defined in a thousand rule books. Games Workshop alone has mapped an entire universe of new worlds. And when I say mapped, I mean geographically, culturally, economically, racially, sexually, theologically, scientifically and mythologically. They are defined as clearly as the world you might search for in Wikipaedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This is not fantasy. This is reality, living, breathing and evolving all around.

Nor is this is a criticism of games, far from it. Their remarkable success has turned our shared minority interest into a mainstream taste – or it will have when the next generation comes to maturity. How will our western society be shaped when people rooted in imagination and the fantastic become the majority? But that’s a different blog…

The question now is, what is the point of the fantasy author? Any writer coming into this field in this age faces immediate dangers. The core fantasy elements have been so colonised by the games industry that the writer automatically has to handle accusations of being a hack dabbling in cliches. Yes, a good writer should infuse their work with levels of meaning, subtext and characterisation usually unavailable in games and their fictional tie-ins. But is that enough? Any author utilising the long-standing tropes and landscape of fantasy fiction will now always be hamstrung by suffocating familiarity. The games worlds are so diverse, so cleverly and startlingly imagined (usually by teams of highly inventive people) that authors working in these traditional fields will be seen as ‘more of the same’ by anyone giving their work a cursory glance on the shelves. And what author worth their salt wants that?

Fantasy authors – and all the thousands of would-be fantasy authors out there – need to wake up. They’re being squeezed out of the territory they have occupied for the last hundred years or so. They can no longer count on the fact that they’re the only visionaries in town, or the only explorers charting the fringes of the imagination. They’re being supplanted by a much more dynamic and agressive breed.

I’m not convinced that simply ‘doing it better’ will work. Fantasy authors need to find a new unique selling point. If they want to maintain their reputation as the elite of this field, they need to work their imaginations harder, start defining new territories, go to places that the gamers wouldn’t (yet) dare to go.

Who is up for that challenge?

16 thoughts on “Are RPGs Killing Fantasy?”

  1. I agree writers will have to do more than just rehash Tolkein type ideas. We need fresh approaches.
    One advantage books will never loose is the ability to add more complex plot,character devlopement and detail than you can ever get in a game.
    That to me is the unique selling point of fantasy books.

  2. I see this as fantasy’s big chance to find something byond theumteenth tolkien rehash and do something new. Most of fantasy has been redoing tolkien while next door, SF has constantly been reinventing itself – and now it’s time for fantasy to try and do the same.

  3. Well this seems to be crossing the blogs nicely with Joe Abercrombie, Ariel (the and a few others discussing it at length. (go have a look at their blogs to see what else is being said)

    One of the key issues seems to be what the reader wants, and they theory that if authors become too innovative or push the boundaries too far, that the genre reader won’t like it because they like to stay in their comfort zone.

    It’s hard not to feel a bit offended by this. I feel like this is undervaluing the reader (as in me). I don’t want to read the same stuff re-hashed. I want fresh ideas and stories. I want fantasy that makes me think and laugh and is unpredictable.

    The boundaries need to be pushed, else I for one will feel fantasied out……

  4. I think books will always trump games because there is always space left in the former for readers to bring their own thoughts and feelings.

    The problem is, there is no one reader. Opinions and tastes are extremely complex and diverse. You can lump them into groups, if you really try, though. There is certainly a very large number of conservative readers who like what they like and don’t want anything new – the chips-with-everything group. There is a much smaller avant garde readership who want to be challenged. And there is a broad group of readers who are open to new experiences, if they can stumble across them. Here, it’s the stumbling across which is the problem, when many large chains only carry a narrow range of books.

  5. “One advantage books will never loose is the ability to add more complex plot,character devlopement and detail than you can ever get in a game.
    That to me is the unique selling point of fantasy books.”

    That is certainly the case when viewed against MMORPGs or other electronic media, but falls down when placed against Tabletop Games. Tabletop RPGs and Story Games can easily match any novel for character background and development, and since each player is given authorship over their character it hits the themes and ideas that those participants are looking for.

    However, I think it’s important to note that traditional high fantasy tropes are only a very small portion of the RPG industry, and while Fantasy games like D&D continue to beat Mr. Tolkein’s Dead Horse with regard to races and faux-medieval settings, both games and books that have a unique and well considered perspective on fantasy make their mark. Obviously there is a certain resistance to originality and innovation in printed media – as in any industry where the product is vetted by others, be it movies, music, etc. – which has the potential to keep authors “behind the innovation curve” as it were, but that’s just an unfortunate weakness of the industry. With self-publishing becoming more prevalent and easy to accomplish, I imagine we will see an even greater tide of innovation in written fiction before too long.

  6. Well, I think most publishers just want more of the same. After all, they want to sell books to all those World of Warcraft fans. Look at Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop and their publishing efforts.

    Besides, I don’t think most of fantasy is as Tolkien as most people claim. Someone I met at a library asked me for some good books with elves in them. I was stunned because I could only give them two good titles, despite the cliches. I suggested WotC books but they thought them too commerical. Outside of Terry Brooks and a couple of others, I don’t see that much Tolkien. More Arthurian. A lot of Sir Walter Scott with a bit of magic thrown in.

    And a lot of the fantasy movement these days is based on luring in the romance market with paranormal romance and contemporary fantasy bordering on paranormal romance. The feminine aesthetic is energizing book publishing, the masculine is driving games.

    I do think overdeveloped worlds and detailed, scientific magic systems are a problem. Look at the Harry Potter books. No defined magic or detailed world, except in terms of atmosphere. Magic is relegated to plot, as it should be.

  7. Re: “I see this as fantasy’s big chance to find something byond theumteenth tolkien rehash and do something new.”

    And there you have the problem that we’ve been discussing over on in a nutshell – many fantasy writers have been doing ‘different’ things – writing challenging, interesting, event literary fiction that goes well beyond the traditional quest tropes of the standard fat fantasy – for just as long as science fiction writers have – Moorcock, Bradbury, Harrison, Mieville, Shepard, Lethem, Powers, Swanwick, Gaiman, Gentle, Whitbourn, Cook, Erikson, Holdstock – these are just a few names off the top of my head and there must be dozens more.

    And yet (no offence to Infernal Teddy) here we have a comment assuming that writing well and writing fantasy at the same time is somehow a new phenomenon… exactly why audience education is so important. Without a receptive audience, any brave pioneers leaving the beaten track will run the risk of ending up in the literary wilderness – legends in their own literary lifetime, perhaps, but more than likely unable to sustain a decent income.

  8. In my experience incorporating true myth in novels has tended to get people who aren’t usually readers interested. Playing RPGs can have people predisposed to being intrigued by myth. Maybe because it could seem like a potentially tangible fantasy to the RPG escapist? So in that respect I think Authors like Mark aren’t going to find games to be much of a problem.

    Very good games can be really emotionally evocative for some aswell. I know people who have cried at the end of RPGs!

    As a kid I did find RPGs like Zelda to leave a lot of room for interpretation so books and games were always very similar experiences for me. That might be because I was so young and, for example, I’d imagine at length what the defiled “Hyrule Temple” would look like on the inside once I could get in, just the same as I’d picture a place in LOTR my Dad was reading to me.

    Age is probably quite relevant to this discussion.

  9. Some excellent comments…

    David, your note that fantasy publishing is being driven by the paranormal romance sub-genre is certainly true of the US, but not so much of the UK and the rest of the world (though it is moving that way).

    Certainly, some US publishers have noticed – or perhaps, believe in – a crossover between the fantasy readership and that for romance, believing that both want a certain kind of aspirational, wish-fulfilment experience that is very comforting. And in my experience, a lot of readers are drawn to fantasy for those things.

  10. Ah, it’s nice to know that the UK hasn’t fallen yet.

    Seriously, the paranormal romance thing is a trap. Romance is a larger market. You bring in readers from there by selling things they like. Sales go up. But at the same time, the fiction a lot of traditional fans were reading gets pushed out. What happens to those sales over the course of time? My theory is that it moves ever more toward World of Warcraft as they try to capture another larger audience.

    Maybe I’m just being negative… I’m not against paranormal romance. I think it’s a good thing actually. I’m just seeing so much push for those books while other types of books that I like seem to be diminishing.

  11. No, I agree with you whole-heartedly, David. The push for romance readers is the product of a very, very narrow – and in my opinion, mistaken – view of what fantasy readers want – emotional comfort. Some do want that. But as you point out, a great many want something more, and if publishers focus on that narrow band they will force those readers to go elsewhere.

  12. David makes a very valid point.
    If I wanted to read romance novels I would buy a Mills and Boon
    Seems to me to be a case of the marketing departments having bright ideas.
    Good fantasy can provide so much more than just emotional comfort and any author that trys to push the boundaries should be supported.
    Personally I enjoy fantasy with some true myth, makes me want to look into the background of the story. Pooka’s comments on table top rpgs are interesting I’ve never played any but I can see the greater potential for plot etc . In my original comment I was refering to computer rpgs I’ve stopped playing them now only so much D+D type stuff I can take before I get bored

  13. David’s correct very few fantasy readers care for romance in their novels, however the majority of fantasy works often have romantic involvements present and don’t ruin or push people away from reading them.

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