Thursday 17 June 2010

Fantasy Cliches are both Good and Bad, According to Greg Tito

In Greg Tito's piece, he asserts that mechanical cliches (storytelling devices such as the concept of monster-haunted ruins, gaining experience and classes) are good, while narrative ones are frequently trite and, thus, bad.  For example, he posits that the idea of a spell user being physically frail is a necessary element of the party dynamic that encourages tactical and strategic thinking, whereas the other trappings like the Odin hat and beard are .

It's a good enough article for the first page.  Then on page two...

Aesthetic clichés are less important, but they have certainly infected the fantasy genre from its inception. The blame can partly be laid at the feet of the great authors who shaped fantasy in the 20th century. These authors were so skillful at creating evocative characters that roleplayers today want to emulate those stories around the table. I think that many aesthetic clichés, while useful in some ways, are ripe for change. It can be fun to play the clichéd character, but it is even more fun to throw away these clichés and play something original.
Robert E. Howard's Conan stories forever cemented the idea that barbarians are berserkers who fight with huge two-handed weapons, crushed enemies, saw them driven before them, and heard the lamentation of their women. There's no good reason for all barbarians to act this way, yet D&D created an entire class devoted to, well, playing Conan. By definition, a barbarian means not civilized, primitive. The word is rooted in the ancient Greek culture for roughly meaning "Not Greek." Therefore, any class can be a "barbarian." You don't need to have rage, you just need to be skeptical of the benefits of a rigid society. Playing as a spellcaster or a fighter who rejects the notion that he must be "civilized" would be great fun.

Dammit, Greg, you were doing so well.

First, I'll excuse the gratuitous movie reference, much as I'd like to rant and rave about Howard did not, in fact, cement any such ideas about impractical weaponry, or routing the defeated and listening to Lorenna McKennitt being the bestest thing ever. Save for the very earliest stories, Howard's Conan is not your typical barbarian in the slightest: he's well read in history, literature, palaeontology and culture; highly disciplined in multiple combat forms; an accomplished thief and assassin; an efficient woodsman. In D&D terms, he's taken levels in just about every profession going: thief, fighter, noble, ranger, whatnot.  He's certainly no pure barbarian by any means.

So anyone playing the barbarian as "Conan" is not really playing Howard's Conan at all: they're playing the Big Dumb Barbarian archetype which is most exemplified by the legions of terrible Conan Clones (Clonans?) rather than Howard's original creation. Greg's penultimate sentence - "you don't need to have rage, you just need to be skeptical of the benefits of a rigid society" - practically exemplifies Howard's Conan.

Still, I can understand this if you're not that accustomed to Howard's work (though I think every roleplayer should read at least the Conan stories: certainly Gary Gygax thought so) you might simply go on the fallacious misinterpretation of Howard.  That said, it isn't just Conan who gets the short shaft.

The concept that wizards wear pointy hats, and are usually old men with long noses is just as annoying a cliche. I'm not sure exactly where this is derived, perhaps it's an amalgam of Gandalf, Merlin and the wizard from those Where's Waldo? books. In any case, I prefer wizards who wear clothes just like everyone else, not just robes covered in stars and comets.

Pointy hats I'll give him: I'd say the archetype is very likely to be based on Gandalf, who himself is based on the earthly wandering form of Odin: the hat he wore was not explicitly linked to wizards, but was common travelling headgear. Therefore I understand the vague annoyance at pointy hats being associated with wizardry. 

However, Greg seems to be unaware that there tends to be a very good reason for wizards wearing "robes covered in stars and comets" is an established tradition in mysticism since the dawn of civilization.  Arcane symbols and all that.  True, they needn't only wear such esoterica, but it's well grounded for a reason. Plus, the idea of wizards wearing "clothes just like everyone else" would be fine - if they were like everyone else.  However, in many settings, wizards are simply not like the average rank and file: they're either members of a circle of magicians, or social outcasts, or whatnot.  Why would they wear normal clothes then?

And why are dwarves Scottish? I never understood where that came from.

... You know, I don't know.  It sure isn't The Lord of the Rings, whose dwarves are Semitic.  Perhaps the grumbling grognard can help out here.  This particular one irritates me immensely too: even though I like Scottish Dwarves, I hate it when one particular nationality gets constantly tied to an entire species too frequently.  Warhammer Fantasy had the Chaos Dwarves, who were sort of Assyrian, but they've long gone in subsequent editions.  And don't get me started on John Rhys Davies' Gimli, oh dear...

Still, Greg manages to get his point across:

We need clichés in order for fantasy roleplaying to be fun; leveling and character roles are part of what makes the game work mechanically. Some of aesthetic clichés exist because they are easily recognizable and, therefore, easy to play. The point is that although fantasy literature and roleplaying is rife with aesthetic clichés, there's no reason for your game or character to follow suit. Make your character your own. Make him or her memorable. Just because you are playing the last noble member of an evil race doesn't mean that you must use two scimitars and summon a large black cat to fight alongside you. For example, you could regret your choice to join "the good guys" and constantly rib your companions about what their missing from the dark side. That'd be a hell of a lot more entertaining than playing Drizzt #5.

I just wish he used better examples. Luckily, there are a few going around to set him right.

Um... your "turned round" cliche of Conan is still pretty much Conan. He's rarely been depicted as a frothing berserker and more as a cunning but savage/primitive man wandering through the decadent and corrupt empires of Civilization attempting to earn his own fortune.
 - PedroSteckecilo

I owe you a dram, Pedro!

Actually Conan didn't represent the stereotypes of "Unearthed Arcana" book for the most part. He's gone through many iterations, but the basic point of Conan is that people tend to THINK he's a Barbarian, and think that he's stupid, and while he holds to some of the Spiritual beliefs (Crom) he's actually VERY smart, and VERY well educated as well as having received formal training in combat aside from his native barbarian might. Indeed having read a lot of the old stories one key element of Conan seems to be him routinely running into something he can't just beat down, and then winning anyway because he's very smart (and by this I don't mean just cunning) and turning the tables on his enemy. In simple terms I think he was the quintessential "fighter". The various "picts" that appeared in the stories were Barbarians, and I believe existed in part to make a counterpoint to Conan, and even what the other Cimmerians (when they showed up) actually were. Part of the point being the ignorance of more civilized people like the Aquilonians.
- Therumancer

While I'd take issue with describing Conan as "educated" (which implies formal education) and certainly the "formal training" element, it's mostly sound. The underlying point is that Conan grew over the course of the stories, and even in the earliest stories, was a far cry from the Big Dumb Barbarian.

Also, somebody brings up the silly idea that Tolkien made his dwarves Scottish, along with a bunch of arguments that don't actually prove anything, but Falseprophet has you covered:

"I think dwarves were scottish-like because Tolkien wrote them that way. Tolkien basically set his story in a fancified version of the UK, and Scotland is an important part of that. WHy that meme has continued almost completely unerring to this day, I'm not sure.."

Tolkien did not write his dwarves as Scottish. The dwarven language he invented for them is based on Semitic tongues (so if anything Tolkien's dwarves are more Hebrew than anything else) and the dwarves themselves are based on their portrayal in Norse and Germanic mythology.
I don't know why dwarves are so often portrayed as Scottish in popular culture, but it was almost unheard of before the early 1990s. My theory is that Raymond Feist, the novelist who turned his D&D game into the Midkemia series of books in the early 1980s, made his dwarves Scottish, and Betrayal at Krondor was a well-received computer RPG adaptation of his books which set the bar for the RPGs that followed. The trope persists because D&D-style dwarves match a pile of Scottish stereotypes: a miserly approach to wealth, a strong work ethic, clannishness, an appreciation for strong drink, and a love of a good brawl.

Cool to know a possible origin for Scottish Dwarves (damn you Raymond Feist!) However, I should also note that Tolkien's dwarves themselves are pretty Semitic: the beards, the propensity for craftsmanship, their monolithic rock-cut architecture, as well as some of the more stereotypical elements like big noses and tendency to hoard their treasure.

I normally don't hang about The Escapist forums, especially after I took some idiot to task for saying that Arnold was an ideal Conan because the original creator approved of him.  When I politely but firmly pointed out the fact that Howard was dead for almost 50 years before Conan the Barbarian came on the scene, he reacted by essentially accusing me of being an attention seeking little puppy.  Which is about as meaningless a riposte - indeed, not a riposte at all - as I could imagine.


  1. It's yet another example of how Conan the Barbarian has become Howard's creation in the public's consciousness. This guy had a good point to make--D&D needs archetypes to help gamers slip into character--but it's obvious that he's conflating Milius' creation with Howard.

    As much as I like CtB--and darn it, I probably always will--there's no question that it has done a lot of damage to Howard's original character, and probably Howard himself.

  2. It's a bit odd that the language of Tolkiens dwarves indeed sounds somewhat Semitic, while their names are borrowed from the Edda and thus as Nordic as they come. ;)

  3. I agree, Brian: much as I enjoy CtB for its own merits, it's plain to see how easily people apply the sins of the film onto Howard. Sort of a reverse "Sins of the Father." I came across a paper someone did on the similarities of Beowulf and Conan the Barbarian... which he supplemented with quotes from "Robert E. Howard's" Conan the Adventurer. Gah.

    Gabriele, I believe the reasoning for that is that the Edda names are not the "true" Dwarf names, but part of a language made up for outsiders. The Dwarves' language is highly mysterious, and only a few words - Khazad-dûm, Mazarbul, Gundabad - are known to the world. I'd say that the very Nordic names are basically the Dwarf's "public" names, and that they have a secret "Dwarvish" name that's more in line with the Semitic.

    Indeed, the Dwarvish names of the First Age - Azaghâl, Gamil Zirak, Mîm - are a lot more Semitic sounding, before the Dwarves started to become more secretive and withdrawn.

    That said, Gimli sounds like it could be kinda Semitic. Reminds me of "The House of Arabu's" Gimil-Ishbi, come to think of it.

  4. weren't they Irish...? the cauldron, the rainbow...? or arent they dwarves and they are goblins or something like that?

  5. Francisco, you might be thinking of Leprechauns. They're the little chaps with a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow in recent popular culture, though the original creatures were a bit nastier.

  6. I think this origin happened off the page.

    If I said I assumed that Dwarves were based of the Scotts - that is because SO many a gamer I know that LOVE to play dwarves, are indeed them selves from that heritage (or Irish).

    That is not to say that the beginning of this ripple did not start in a book.

    But I certainly think it is far beyond that now.

    It is sort of Chicken or the Egg.

    But I think there is some assumption that people who game are basically good/capable actors/thinkers/imagineers. And I don't think that idea is founded in ANY kind of reality.

    It takes a LOT to really truly think out side your own point of reference.

    So a scrawny kid - who doesn't have a lot of physical prowess may find it easier to imagine DOING things with the power of his mind/ will (- ie MAGIC) than he could imagine physically beating the hell out of some one. While a stalky kid might find the character to is ASSUMED to be very tough, hardy, and physical - but in possession of other talents more approachable (Hello - Dwarve).

  7. Good point, Erin. A lot of gamers I know basically only play "what they know": they're not interested in any fantasy that doesn't have the Standard Fantasy Races established in D&D.

    I can definitely see there being certain types of players that might be more drawn to certain archetypes: a skinny geek would play as a wizard or elf, while a heftier one would play a barbarian or dwarf.

    This extends to Star Trek: most of the thin chaps who dressed up at the conventions I went to were Vulcans, while the heavier guys went Klingons. I also noticed most of the Klingons had "natural" long hair and beard. I'm unsure if it's the same for fantasy conventions, but most of the "Vulcans" already had suitable hair, and the "Klingons" had their own beards & long hair too. It wouldn't surprise me if this was the same for Elf/Dwarf role-players.

  8. "However, I should also note that Tolkien's dwarves themselves are pretty Semitic: the beards, the propensity for craftsmanship, their monolithic rock-cut architecture"

    Having a beard isn't a strictly Semitic trait - most human males can grow one, and many non-Semites choose to do so - and Semites (specifically Jews) aren't renowned for craftsmanship and rock carvings. Rather, they are renowned for being bankers and merchants - stuff like that.

  9. Well of course beards aren't a purely Semitic trait, but the Semitic cultures - the Assyrians, for example - are particularly noted for long, impressive beards. Indeed, none of those traits are necessarily exclusive to Semitic peoples, but taken together, they are worth considering.

    Not to mention that Tolkien himself said this in his letters:

    I do think of the 'Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.

    The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic.