One of the questions that came up over on Massively recently was “What Do Fantasy MMOs Need?” That is, what, over and above our typical fantasy tropes, are the core set of features or qualities that would make for a better fantasy MMO? It got me thinking, not only about the specific MMO genre, but what draws me to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general, and the answer came back pretty loud and clear: the sharing of ideas and common interest in what could be with others. With fantasy especially, there’s a nostalgia for home and hearth, somehow threatened that seems to lie at the center of The Hobbit and the early fantasy novels – Wizard of Earthsea, The Black Cauldron, The Sword of Shannara (yeah, I know…) that, if treated ham-fistedly, become cliché pretty quickly. And yet, that doesn’t negate the attraction of the feeling. It’s a wish for community combined with a love of the fantastical, and I think that’s what all MMOs are striving for, and never fully succeed in delivering.
So what are some things that could be done? Here’s a few ideas.
My brother Erik gave me a copy of the novel Ready Player One for my birthday back in June, and since it’s his birthday today, thought I would wish him happy birthday and thank him for that trip down memory lane. So much of our early days were spent in these fantasy worlds. I remember picking up copies of the super-sized Fantastic Four and The Hulk at the PX on the army base in Germany, and later moving on to Weird War and Sgt. Rock, Tales of Mystery, and Tales from the Crypt . Erik kept up with everything too, and made the great discovery of The X-Men (I think we were both in love with Jean Grey there for awhile) and The Micronauts when we had moved back to California. We started out, probably with Raggedy Andy and later The Magical Land of Noom books, but later of course on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, along with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and later, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and ultimately Dungeons & Dragons up through a good chunk of the Dragonlance series. We were both hooked in our own ways on these worlds, me more in the tabletop realm, and Erik taking to video games like a fish to water. It seems we were in great company, though, but books like Ready Player One, amazing in its own delving into video game lore, only scratched the surface of all the stuff we were interested in.
One of the givens in an MMORPG is that each player must choose a faction, usually right at character creation. In Warcraft, you are either part of the Horde or the Alliance. Alliance players are always human, dwarf or elves, and Horde players are always orcs, trolls, goblins, and so forth. This, of course, all dates back to Tolkien and a perhaps a dualistic view of the world that was made for a very convincing good guys/bad guys story. Gollum may have been the one character in those stories pulled in both directions, a study of the light and dark, Jekyll and Hyde.
If George R.R. Martin has done one thing for the fantasy genre in Game of Thrones, he has blown apart the trope. The “evil” Lannisters certainly have their more admirable members in Tyrion and Ser Mormont, and the “honorable” Starks certainly have their overly black and white view of the world in Ned, and of course many characters who are somewhere in-between. It’s a much more complicated world, which in many ways is very realistic and satisfying, but perhaps a bit less comforting. It’s good to know who the enemy is.
Occasionally, I will be posting old reviews I did for The Gamer (print only) magazine back in the 1990s, and consolidating them here. You can also find these reviews on rpg.net.
If there’s one thing Chaosium has always understood, it’s that without unique characters, roleplaying tends toward stereotype. Without colorful individuals, a roleplaying game is particularly susceptible to bland cliché. Perhaps it is for that reason that Chaosium turns to literature for inspiration more frequently than other companies. Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu are two fine examples of literature made gamable. Based on Michael Moorcock’s anti-hero, Elric! (a.k.a. the second edition of Stormbringer) is Chaosium’s addition to the growing line of dark fantasy role playing games. The game’s tone is gloomy, of course. But rather than emphasize simply a doomed world, Elric! remains true to Moorcock’s novels by stressing a gorgeous, baroque setting tragic fate and the ultimate despair of its inhabitants.