Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is Science-Fantasy "Laser Sharking"?

I've been thinking about this for a few weeks, and finally decided to take yet another work break to clear my head and put my thoughts down. 

A few months ago, I started up a short-term 1st Edition AD&D/OSRIC campaign using the classic module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. As most of you probably know... hm.  Wait a sec. 

SPOILER ALERT!  If you have never read or played this module, but intend to do so sometime in the future, you're going to want to stop reading now, because this will spoil some of the "surprises" in the module. You've been warned.

So, as you know, the main premise of the module is that a section of a rogue spaceship ends up crash-landing in the World of Greyhawk, where it's buried inside a mountain, and various mutated flora and fauna somehow get out and terrorize the countryside.  The adventurers are called in by the Grand Duke of Bissel to investigate the "strange goings-on."  Now, all of this is played rather seriously, at least as serious as you can get in an RPG about dwarves and elves and magic.  But, the thing is, unless the DM has been stupid and not covered up the picture on the front of the module, then not only do the characters not know that they're going to investigate a crashed spaceship, but the players also don't know.  It's revealed only through vague descriptions about metallic "workings", doors that magically seem to open and close by themselves, invisible lighting sources and intermittently turn on and off (magic!) and things like that.

In my group of five players, only two of them knew the premise of the module.  Two others would have known had I told them what the name of the module was, because they have some decent old-school cred, but I was very careful never to mentioned the name of the module, and I changed the name of the hills from "the Barrier Peaks" to something else so they wouldn't catch on. 

One of the players who knew all along what the module was about was really not happy about the whole thing.  He gave me a lot of good-natured ribbing about forcing him to play "a 1st edition elf" who was of course a classic Fighter/Magic-User (I created everyone's characters for them) and also playing in a fantasy game that now included space ships and ray guns. 

"I don't like chocolate in my peanut butter." 

This refrain was drilled into my head over the past few months as we worked our way through the module.  My friend really did not like the idea of having a fantasy world "tainted" by science fiction trappings, and it was more than a mere annoyance.  He played the game and enjoyed himself, but that part always bothered him.  I think if it had become the basis of a long-term campaign and I had built my world around the assumptions that aliens could potentially visit the world and leave technology there to be found, he most likely would've said "Thanks, but no thanks." 

He's much more of a "fantasy-purist."  He prefers Tolkien, Cook, Martin, and writers of that ilk.  And I like those, too, so there's no complaint there.  But, he hasn't read some of the old pulp classics like books in the "Sword & Planet" genre, for example, where magic and technology exist side-by-side. 

A few weeks ago at his house for dinner and game day with some friends, the discussion came up and my friend Cal asked him friend Tom, "Isn't science fantasy lame?"

Tom replied, "Yep, because it's always laser-sharking." 

Both Cal and Tom are two of the smartest people I know, but I have trouble seeing this point-of-view, because growing up, I never really cared much about mixing magic/fantasy and technology/science-fiction, one way or the other.  It was pretty much all the same to me - exciting adventure stories (or movies) that transport you to another world.  I always preferred Star Wars to Star Trek because the world of Star Wars was so much more interesting to me - the whole idea of a mystical force existing side-by-side with blasters and laser swords was awesome.  A soldier from Earth's past gets magically transported to Mars where he ends up having great strength and rescuing a beautiful red-skinned princess from her four-armed alien captors?  Cool!  Two thousands years in the future, a barbarian teams up with a princess and a total Wookiee rip-off in a land of savagery, super-science, and sorcery?  Sign up me!  Huge "ether-ships", lizard-man tribes, and interplanetary exploration in the Victorian era?  Hell yeah!

All of those things actually appeal to me quite a bit, and I was intrigued by all of them growing up.  I totally ate up the Thundarr cartoon because it reminded me of Gamma World, but also because I thought it was awesome that somehow in the aftermath of the apocalypse, some people developed the powers of sorcery, almost like some kind of latent psionics or something. 

So I continued my discussion with my friend, and he mentioned that having futuristic settings with magic don't actually bother him all that much.  He's a big fan of the original Star Wars (Fanboy alert: please don't get started with the whole, "But it says that it takes place 'A long, long time ago...'"  Move along...), which is arguably the best-known science-fantasy epic ever.  He had never heard of Thundarr but we explained it to him at one of our game nights and he at least didn't walk off immediately. 

His big problem is having a "traditional" fantasy world invaded by science-fiction trappings.  He's cool with things like the Iron Kingdoms and stuff that mix fantasy and gunpowder.  But he doesn't want "Tolkien with blasters."  And, sure.  I don't need to see any fan-fic that puts aliens and laser guns in Tolkien's world.  But, short of that... I'm good.  I can totally see a place for science-fiction elements in Greyhawk, and certainly there were some in Blackmoor. 

So, I said to Cal, "What about Warhammer 40K?  That's a futuristic setting.  So, you're cool with that, right?"

"Dude... no.  Just... No.  'Space Orks' with laser guns and stuff?  That's just stupid."

Oh, well.  To each his own. 

What about you?  Where do you come down on the whole "science fantasy" discussion?


  1. I happen to like it myself--I think your friend's confusing two different things though.

    I think Westeros or Middle-Earth would indeed feel weird with science fictional elements, in the same way that Mad Men would be spoiled by Don Draper developing psychic powers.

    But Greyhawk ain't Tolkien. His problem is he's not acquainted with fantasy that accomodates these elements so he's trying to force fantasy gaming into a narrower box than need be.

    It's not chocolate in peanut butter, its dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate, and he's never tasted milk chocolate.

  2. Trey puts it very well.

    I once had a discussion with a fellow gamer who told me that the fantasy novels of China Miéville were not fantasy, because they didn't contain dwarves, elves and dragons.

    I don't understand this position in the slightest.

    There are people out there who have a very strict definition of what fantasy is, and I'm not saying that's wrong, but to me, the very word "fantasy" implies a more open and encompassing approach.

  3. By that point, the fantasy of Lord Dunsany is not fantasy -- and yet I definitely know it is. Conan doesn't contain dragons, dwarves or elves, and yet it is undeniably fantasy.

    To place a blanket definition on what is and what is not fantasy is kind of silly, since there's a wide variety of sci-fi/fantasy out there. While I don't care too much for "urban fantasy," as they call it, it's still fantasy. That's why there are subdivisions. My personal preferences run to heroic fantasy or swords & sorcery (Conan, Song of Ice and Fire, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, etc), I can still groove out to (classic) Star Wars, Gamma World and Thundarr the Barbarian. One of my favorite science fantasies is a comic called Dreadstar, a weird mix of the mystical and the sci-fi together.

    Of course, lasersharking can make tons of money -- look at Power Rangers. The sources of that mashup aren't even from the same country!

  4. Great post as always! Before today I wasn't familiar with the S3 adventure, thanks!

    Also, you and Dyson have inspired me, so I cited your blog on my recent post:

  5. @Trey - well said. I think you captured it well - certain types of fantasy would be lame by adding science fiction elements (Tolkien, et al). But, there's room for a science-fantasy mash-up that is not simply "laser-sharking."

    @Kelvin - agreed. To me the term "fantasy" is expansive and inclusive. To use another music analogy (I've been using those all day today when commenting on peoples' posts), it's like saying that Miles Davis is lame because he doesn't conform to the strict definition of the Dixieland Style. They are both "Jazz" in the broadest sense.

    @Steelcaress - thanks for the heads-up on Dreadstar. I'll have to check that out!

    @Dylan - thanks! Can't believe you weren't familiar with S3. It's a classic! Hope I didn't spoil it for you. I checked out your xenomorphs - very cool idea!


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