Wednesday, 15 September 2010

How can Fantasy Land work?

My usual group of gaming buddies and I have recently had a few email conversations about gaming and the ways of fantasy worlds in general. This article is a clubbing together of thoughts and ideas from each of us (some points I do not necessarily agree with) which may, or may not, make for interesting reading...

The fantasy world that gamers have come to expect is often one where humans, goblins, elves and dwarfs all live as distinct peoples, in competition with each other, within the same ecosystem. To many this is absurd. Perhaps stung by the realization that their dungeons were ecologically unsustainable, full of creatures whose only source of sustenance was an unsteady stream of adventurers, they search for what they consider is scientific “realism”. They argue that these races, as we understand them, would have engaged in wars of annihilation and whilst it is possible that such wars, would not be entirely successful, they would at least result in the races pushing each-other out into different lands, separated by geographic boundaries, from which they would continue to launch their hate-filled, genocidal wars against each other in bids to gain world domination. Eventually one would triumph and the others would be wiped out or at best be kept in slavery by the master race. Whilst this is a valid fantasy setting, it isn’t necessarily the model we are apparently seeking.

First of all, we must remember that, unlike in the real world, where our assumptions and ideologies must face the test of reality, we can choose what we want to believe can happen. A scientific approach is not required, as we are, after all, dealing in fantasy. We could decide to conclude that the world requires the balance between the races to be maintained, that there are guiding hands, supernatural or otherwise, behind it or indeed that the balance exists, like magic itself, because it does. These conclusions are entirely valid. We only need to continue the discussion if you find yourself unconvinced by them.

We can still however choose to accept the unlikely as the actual. Life itself is unlikely, but it is. Our fantasy world need only be one where the unlikely has occurred. We therefore, only need to demonstrate that our setting is not impossible.

None-the-less, it appears necessary to question the assumption that the domination model is indeed inevitable. At first glance Darwinism would appear to suggest that it is. This is however putting an interpretation on ecology that resembles the adoption of an ideology rather than a balanced, scientific approach.

Belief in the inevitability of the domination model may be particularly common amongst gamers who have been brought up on board games where world domination was not only accepted as possible, but was the purpose of the game; Risk being the classic example. Risk is, however, simple in concept and ignores the friction within an empire, assuming absolute loyalty of everyone within it to their absolute rulers and that world domination is their entire reason for existence.

Even the harshest empires rarely ruled directly. Empires more commonly ruled over client states within their imperial boundaries. Being dominant did not necessitate the annihilation of all that they conquered. Wars in ancient times occasionally appeared to have resulted in the destruction of races or at least the extinction of their culture. This may have been overstated in contemporary texts, after all, until recently, it was believed, based on such texts and a willingness to accept the plausibility of racial purity, that the Anglo-Saxons completely drove the Welsh out of England.

The history of empires has not however been one of conquering land purely in the pursuit of winning an undeclared competition. The overriding aim has always been, even when religious and political ideologies have factored significantly, to enrich the elite of that empire. Empires have been built to control trade, not to end it by annihilating the people in the next land. In some cases, the land has been considered to be of more value than the trade that could be conducted with its people. This may however be more of a product of the industrial rather than the medieval age.

Looking to the natural world, it would appear that only the best suited to an environment will survive and that those less suited will die out. This however is not strictly true. Most ecosystems are not so simple as to only support one species at every point in the food chain. Small differences between broadly similar species, such as in feeding patterns or specialisms, result in them inhabiting the same ecosystem without being in direct competition. As Darwin observed, the Galapagos Islands were awash with birds that while broadly similar, were different species. They did not force each other into extinction.

What would appear hard to maintain however, is four very similar, aggressive, hate-filled, genocidal races, intent on destroying each other, occupying the same ecosystem. We may consider that human beings are not naturally those beings in our real world and there is, as a result, no need to explain why the different races can’t coexist. If not, we should perhaps consider deciding that the races in our world are not all these hateful beings and consider what they should be to enable us to maintain our model world, giving them other, overriding traits, without making them something entirely alien.

First of all, they inhabit different niches within the ecosystem. Humans are agricultural, inhabiting the low-lying, well-watered river valleys. Elves live in the forests, in harmony with the flora and fauna. Dwarfs live in the mountains, where they dig mines. Goblins live in underground tunnels. Whilst there are clearly areas of potential friction, they are not however all always in direct competition.

Living in the age we do, unless we check ourselves, we automatically assume that the human population will expand, requiring the clearing of forests for agricultural land to support this growing population. For our world to work, it would help if we addressed this point. For the human population not to grow, the birth rate must not be higher than the death rate.
We could address this by having a high death rate. Plague, famine, war and pestilence may always be riding through our land. The elves and dwarfs would look on, shaking their heads, avoiding contact with humans at almost any cost.

We may be striving for a more pleasant fantasy world. In this case perhaps we should consider that our humans are not exactly like the humans of the real world. Like the elves and dwarfs, the birth rate may not be so high. Perhaps it is a lot more difficult to fall pregnant. This would allow a lot more of the modern sex that seems to go on in most fantasy worlds, particularly by sword wielding warrior-women who rarely seem to take time out of adventuring for maternity leave and raising families. Perhaps they are also generally a lot meeker, more fearful, less outgoing and less innovative than us, more likely to be content with their lot. This would also explain why technology is not running forwards in leaps and bounds and why the average person isn’t inclined to leave the safety of their home to grab the gold that is going begging in them there tunnels. Adventurers are then, a rare breed. They do not need to be superhuman or rare by today’s standards, only unusual by the standards of our fantasy world. They can therefore be more like us, the players, which can’t be a bad thing.

The average humans of our fantasy world therefore have no need to expand into the forests and mountains. Some will venture into them, mostly adventurers, in search of gold and glory, but these, as we have established, are a rare breed. Warlords will be disinclined to mount expeditions into these areas where human armies are at a disadvantage. With a low birth rate, lords would want to avoid such difficult wars, preferring, if at all, to fight other humans.
The elves and dwarfs are inward looking. Elves believe the affairs of other races are unworthy of their attention. Dwarfs are avaricious, mine and own gems for their own sake. Both are content to be left alone to their own affairs and petty, internecine rivalries.

Inevitably, there will be some crossover of niches. Here border clashes will arise, sometimes, although rarely, leading to bigger wars. For our (adventurous) purposes that is a good thing.
Goblins are somewhat different, and it is the differences that make them hated above all other races by all other races. They are nocturnal cave dwellers. They are as happy in caves in the mountains as in caves in the forest or in the broad river valleys. They are greedy, their tool making is crude and they breed like rabbits. Unlike the other races, the lives of their own kind are understandably cheap. They regularly over-populate and risking starvation and disease (which they are particularly prone to), they spill out of their burrows in search of meat and glory, for what other meaning can there be to their short lives? Indeed, even if their raids fail, at least their population pressure is eased. It is then that the humans, elves and dwarfs are forced to address their presence. Being insular, these races are not inclined to cooperate with each other, only look after their own affairs. When the threat is over, they are also not particularly inclined to follow the goblins to their burrows to root them out, after all, delvers risk ambush in unfamiliar tunnels. The passageways are tight, often too tight for anyone, even dwarfs. There again, why should a dwarf follow the goblins? While he is doing that, his rival may be digging valuable gems out of the mountain.

I believe that, with these arguments, it has been demonstrated that, with a little consideration, we are able to justify a fantasy world that we seek to use in our games. Most importantly we need to question our own conclusions as to what is inevitable where those conclusions would force us to create a world that is not to our liking. We have to think flexibly and also consider what conditions would make the world we seek possible. We do not have to deal in likelihoods, only possibilities. It is fantasy after all, so push your imagination. Do not be restricted by the here and now.

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