Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Flavour of a Fantasy Roleplaying Game

I've played all kinds of fantasy roleplaying games with all kinds of systems in a variety of settings. I've mostly enjoyed them all but I'm a hard man to please as I have a definitive idea in my head regarding how a fantasy world is suppossed to look. Being from England and having been surrounded by medieval imagery all my life I'm of the pseudo-historical slant, the kind of guy who loves to have magic elves sauntering about the place but wants them to dress realistically.

One of the reasons why I love 'Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay' (1st Edition) and the Magnus Opus Press (soon to be Serpent King Games) 'Dragon Warriors' games so much is the atmosphere they exude. Warhammer was gritty, dark, and felt like a heady mix of high fantasy and dirty, European reality, and Dragon Warriors was a fantasy version of the history I grew up with. On the other side of the coin (and just as enjoyable - don't think I'm belittling anything) is the high fantasy stylised worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and it's ilk, with bikini mail and unfeasible weapons and armour.

I'm sure it'd be easy to play a D&D game as gritty and realistic, even play Dragon Warriors as high fantasy, but the artwork and presentation of the books themselves help to tell me what kind of game I'll be playing. In some ways, you could say the artwork colours my view and even expectations of the game I'm going to play.

Take, for example, the artwork of a selection of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition books:

The artwork is stylised, with larger-than-life images, dynamic poses and in-your-face attitude. The setting is presented as high fantasy, indicating that realism doesn't really matter when you're playing in a game of huge heroes, high magic, insane monsters and talking trees. The covers are positively screaming for you to go apeshit and have fun with it. And indeed I have had fun with it - although I've now moved on to an excellent Pathfinder campaign, which does share some of the look and feel with the above, I still feel there's a huge 'in your FACE!' feel to the imagery and design. There's a great sense of disconnection from reality, that you are this larger-than-life hero. I think that's part of the appeal.

Now let's have a look at some covers for the Dragon Warriors game:

The image on the bottom right is the cover for the unprinted 'Player's Book'

I'd say that these covers were bleak, and much more grounded in reality than the D&D covers (of course, I use the word 'reality' loosely - we are talking about fantasy roleplaying games, here) which presents a totally different gaming atmosphere. I look at these and I think of a living, breathing medieval Europe with the trappings of a fantasy world, a world I can in some way relate to as I recognise the look and feel of the artwork. To be honest, that's my kind of game. I want that sense of pseudo-history.

I wonder if this is something to do with the fact that I'm British? I live in the historical Cathedral City of Lichfield and since childhood I've been bombarded with images, stories and lessons about the medieval period. I know what things are supposed to look like, how things worked, how people dressed. To a certain extent I understand the attitudes. This has no doubt influenced the kind of games I like to run and play in, but doesn't diminish my enjoyment of high-fantasy games. Given the choice, though, I'll take gritty pseudo-history games over bombastic high-fantasy games anytime.


  1. I also enjoy gritty pseudo-history more than over-the-top fantasy.

    While I know a great deal about Warhammer's Old World, I know very little of Legend. In your opinion, which of the two settings fits the gritty pseudo-history vibe better?
    Does Dragon Warrior system reflect the level of grit implied in the artwork?

    Awesome entry!

  2. It's definitely Dragon Warriors that fits the pseudo-history vibe. Warhammer has changed over the years and is leaning more towards high fantasy than anything else - although it's depiction of dwarfs will always remain my favourite - whereas Dragon Warriors eschews the traditional tropes of fantasy races and goes for the angle 'what if the Medieval scare stories and folk tales were true?'

    System wise, Warhammer wins as the Dragon Warriors system is so simple that it could cover a lot of different fantasy styles (and, in fact, the core rulebook gives plenty of examples). WFRP is designed to be unpredictable and gritty whereas Dragon Warriors is very light and is more about atmosphere than mechanics. That's probably why I prefer it at the moment.

    Cheers, Tony!

  3. I'm also British, but I've lived in America for 15 years. I don't know if we Brits have more connection to "proper" medieval history than anyone else, but we do tend to get a different flavour in our entertainment, I think principally as a matter of budget and secondly as one of values (we'd rather have an RSC trained actor and cheap props than an aspiring model trying their hand at acting supported by expensive sets). That said I think the 4e covers come out of a new and different cultural matrix that has little to do with Anglo-American distinctions - that's instead part of a dialogue between Japan and America, conducted through the medium of video games, which would never have reached its current fevered form in either country without the influence of the other.

    Back in the 80s I never understood how important the Western was to odnd/1e dnd - it wasn't in my blood or on the bookshelves at WHSmiths.

  4. ...(published too early) ...because I didn't feel the Western elements, a lot of dnd didn't make any sense to me (and a lot of Westerns still don't - you probably had to experience the Cold War as your very own fight against evil to fully grok John Huston)... these days I don't think 4e makes any sense without the contexts of Final Fantasy and the manga and anime that rests on, and it might not make any sense without WoW to play off. And I'm out of the loop again, because I don't play any of that. It's funny, because 10-15 years ago I started to think that a wilfully absurd, Bollywoodized dnd might be both fun and profitable, but I did nothing about it. Looks like Hasbro had the same idea, but looked to slightly different crazy over the top sources.

  5. I agree with the fact that D&D 4th is WotC's response to World of Warcraft - the anime style for one, and the some of the gameplay mechanics for definite. I remember the original red box Basic D&D and the artwork in that was at least a stylised version of medieval Europe, but as editions and tastes moved on they moved away from the faux-history to out-and-out crazies. The design, feel and look of a D&D 4th game is completely removed from any historical imagery. This is something of a turnoff for me as if I can't really imagine it to be practical then it doesn't really work.

    That dosn't mean to say that you can't play it with a historical feel as the feel of the game is in the hands of the group but the artwork, especially if it's as sharp and loud as that, colours your perception of it.