Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Science Fantasy

Back when Arneson ran his games, notions of the genres of science fiction and fantasy had not become segmented as they are today. In literature spaceships and aliens would often appear in fantasy tales. This made it easier for Arneson to experiment more with the genre in his Blackmoor games, experimentation which is probably one of the things that made Blackmoor different from many later D&D settings. In his latest blog entry, Robert S Conley identifies Science Fantasy as one of the growing trends of the Old School renaissance.

The best known example of Science Fantasy in Blackmoor is of course the City of the Gods, but already in Supplement II, the Temple of the Frog features aliens, laser weapons and other technology. All of this was apparent in Arneson's early games as well. Empire of the Petal Throne creator Professor MAR Barker had connections with Arneson (whether the professor played in Blackmoor is yet to be confirmed) and may have influenced eachothers creations in many ways, including the science fiction element found in both Blackmoor and Tekumel. According to Greg Svenson, the science fiction element of the game dated back to its earliest days:

"...several of the initial players were playing 20th C types who were transplanted into the Blackmoor world (which according to Wesley and Maker was before my first dungeon adventure), so the Sci Fi link was there from the beginning."

 I wonder if the lack of emphasis on science fantasy in the D20 Blackmoor line might not have been an opportunity missed. It would have clearly defined Blackmoor in a yet to be explored niche. On the other hand, many still feel uncomfortable with combining these two genres.



  1. How does Science Fantasy differ from the Sword & Planet genre?

    As for the integration of science fiction and fantasy elements in D&D, Gygax did the same thing in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

    I have always been conflicted by the introduction of science fiction elements into a game that includes magic. Is the magic just super-science? Do magic and science co-exist, and if so can the space-travelling visitors gain access to magical as well as scientific knowledge?

    It all becomes rather complicated and messy. Of course, you could just play the game, and not worry about the implications.

  2. Good input Paladin!
    My impression is that Science Fantasy is a broader term than Sword & Planet, though S&P is definately among the sources of inspiration for Blackmoor. Based on some of the things Greg has been saying, it does seem like many of the early players believed Blackmoor to be an S&P setting.

    Barrier Peaks: This is another excellent example that the barriers between the genres did not really exist back in those days. I might be mistaken, but my impression is that sci fi elements were more common with Arneson than Gygax.

    The consequences of combining high science and magic is another interesting topic. I think Arneson would have chosen your second option and just played without worrying too much about these things, but personally I also find the questions you raise quite interesting. IIRC Ars Magica had some interesting ideas about how changing world views can affect magic etc. Might be worth looking into.


  3. There was a cool write-up in dragon magazine many a year back "Clockwork monsters and faceless men" by Gygax which covered a period when he played as part of a band of D&D adventures on the starship warden, he'd sent the party there himself while DMing but turned the task of DMing the results to Ward.

    Science Fantasy is a broader genre then Sword and Planet and one an awful lot of popular Sci-fi actually stumbles into.

  4. JDJarvis:
    That sounds familiar. I need to dig out my old Dragon mags. Any idea which issue that was? I assume this was the origins of Metamorphosis Alpha? In any case, yet another example of great masters breaking the genre boundaries.

  5. I'm not really sure DA was more sci-fi than EGG. Barrier peaks, but alos the Barsoom elements in D&D, the inclusion of cross-rules with Gamma World, are EGG's ideas. But sure, in FFC, we can hear about technology devices, robots and the like - coming from another planet raher than being parts of everyday life.

  6. Nico:
    Good point. I was probably a bit quick when drawing comparisons. I still find the frequency of references to sci fi elements in Arnesons work & campaign though. Ofcourse, it is hard to say if this is due to the limited number of sources or whether he would have kept it up if there had been more Blackmoor material.

    What you are saying about technology being forreign rather than parts of everyday life is also noted. There are some implications that technology will some day become more common-use, as extrapolated in later sources (TSR/ZGG), but in the FFC era they were clearly not so much so, with the exception of firearms being listed in the equipment list.

  7. At the Q&A following his "My Amazing Gaming Group" seminar at Gen Con '08, I asked Dave how frequently players encountered the science fiction elements in the Blackmoor campaign. He said not very often; part of the reason the Temple of the Frog and City of the Gods adventures were chosen for publication was that they highlighted an unusual and thus interesting part of the setting.

    I also asked whether the pipe organ that no one remembers how to repair in Temple of the Frog is evidence that Blackmoor is a post-apocalyptic setting, or if it's alien technology. He said "yes", and explained that he couldn't give a more definite answer because his players hadn't managed to figure that out yet!

    Re: the post-apocalyptic and sword & planet branches of science fantasy, I think it's interesting that Appendix N and other roots-of-D&D novels are about equally divided between seemingly fantasy worlds that turn out to be other planets Earthlings might reach by spaceship (Witch World, Gor) and those that turn out to be a future Earth (Empire of the East, Sign of the Labrys). Some of my favorite post-D&D novels continue that trend; Hugh Cook's Chronicle of an Age of Darkness is S&P, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is P-A.
    - Tavis

  8. Tavis:
    Great input! It is really interesting that Dave did not want to reveal (or know?) whether Blackmoor is post-apocalyptic or not!

    Good point about City of the Gods and Temple of the Frog being selected because they hightlighted the unsual parts of the setting. I am sure most of Dave's campaign in many ways was similar to what has since become the standard D&D game. It is certainly interesting to explore these non-traditional aspects of his game, but worth keeping in mind that they were exceptions rather than everyay features.

    Hmmm...you are giving me enough material for an entire new entry now! :)

    (And how come I am unable to follow your blog? grrr... ;) )

  9. "It is really interesting that Dave did not want to reveal (or know?) whether Blackmoor is post-apocalyptic or not!" - Yeah, I found this fascinating too. Initially I thought this might be the kind of "I don't know until I create it" you hear from authors about unexplored corners of their world, but recent discussion on the OD&D board is bringing me around to the idea that keeping secrets was an essential part of Dave's method, and uncovering them an essential part of the game, which is certainly thought-provoking. I should say that in every other way he was delightfully informative and glad to answer questions on all manner of things, plus how cool is it to give a seminar celebrating the achievements of the other members of your gaming group?

    "I am sure most of Dave's campaign in many ways was similar to what has since become the standard D&D game" - Agreed. I was frustrated with the 4E Blackmoor setting because I felt it focused on the fringe cases where Blackmoor elements didn't get incorporated into core D&D (or were added after that incorporation), and left out the awesome ways to play core D&D that you get from FFC like the special interest XP system, army lists, hex-crawls and baronies, etc.

    "how come I am unable to follow your blog?" - I dunno but that's a shame! Are you able to follow other WordPress blogs? I am ignorant of such matters but I think this is the RSS: http://muleabides.wordpress.com/feed/

    - Tavis