Thursday, November 28, 2019

Of White Dwarf magazine and ruminations on genre fiction

By the Sacred Jockstrap of Robert E. Howard!

Since writing Flame and Crimson I seem to have become hyper-aware of the term “sword-and-sorcery.” It’s everywhere man, sometimes in places where I would not expect it.

Recently I’ve felt a role-playing itch resurface and have been having some fun unboxing a bunch of my old games, supplements, and magazines, enjoying the ensuing waves of nostalgia and wonder. Thumbing through them I’m struck by how often the term “sword-and-sorcery” appears, or makes its presence felt.

For example, a glance at White Dwarf--the UK-based monthly role playing magazine that still holds a very special place in my heart, even though it has morphed into a miniatures magazine—uses the term in the very first Ian Livingstone editorial in issue no. 1 (June/July 1977):

D&D was the first (and still is the best) commercially produced game based on a Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery theme. This together with the ingenious concept of ‘role-playing,’ opened up new horizons in games playing.

So here we have the editor not only mentioning sword-and-sorcery fiction, but distinguishing it as something separate from “fantasy.”

In the same issue, an ad on p. 8 for The British Fantasy Society again references S&S, even distinguishing it from Heroic Fantasy:

If you are interested in any form of Fantasy in Literature, Films, Art, etc. (which includes such as Heroic Fantasy, Supernatural Horror, Swords & Sorcery, etc.) then the B.F.S. is for you.

Later issues of White Dwarf introduced readers to Thrud the Barbarian. The loinclothed barbarian stereotype born in the pages of sword-and-sorcery (Brak, Thongor, Kothar and their ilk) was by then quite pervasive, and strip author Carl Critchlow had fun with a character that was literally all muscle and no brain—a tiny head upon a massive, muscular body. Issue #50 (February 1984) has Thrud invoking “the sacred jockstrap of Robert E. Howard” before hacking his way through a horde of castle defenders, whom he (mistakenly) believes are holding a princess captive in the tower. In the next issue Thrud inadvertently dooms an entire city after ripping off its main gates, which are barring his way to the local watering hole. A besieging horde seizes the advantage and rushes in to sack the city as Thrud accepts a tankard of ale from the incredulous bartender.

So yeah, sword-and-sorcery’s stamp was all over the game magazine.

But White Dwarf catered to players of a wide range of role playing games, from the 800-pound gorilla Dungeons and Dragons, to Traveler, Car Wars, and Call of Cthulhu. Even by the late 70s/early 1980s many alternate fantasy role playing games had begun to spring up—Runequest, Warhammer, Chivalry & Sorcery, Tunnels & Trolls—with different mechanics that allowed for different styles of fantasy role play. D&D operated with a relatively high level of abstraction, with characters absorbing hit point damage from large pools, whereas games like Runequest allowed you to parry, your armor to absorb damage, and limbs to be severed. D&D only allowed certain classes like magic-users and clerics to cast spells; in Runequest anyone could use it.

Fantasy fiction works the same way, with varying levels of realism and grit, character motivation, and ubiquity of magic. Which is why we have our sword-and-sorcery, our high fantasy, and our Grimdark. Each has a different set of conventions, and as a result offer different experiences for the reader. And if you’re like me, you like chatting about them, discussing them, sometimes getting pedantic over them.

Readers of White Dwarf did too, discoursing in the letters page about issues like role-playing philosophy, rules interpretations, and “Monty Haul” hack-and-slash play styles vs. immersive role-playing. There was an ever-present tension between dice-rollers and storytellers, with the former nitpicking stat blocks for accuracy, the latter placing an emphasis on fun and creativity.

For example this letter in issue No. 54:

Dear WD,

Having been playing D&D for six years, I am now beginning to see it follow the same downward course as the rest of society. Just as religion prefers blind faith to individual free thought, and as our educational system fills us with knowledge, whilst it seeks to rob us of the intelligence to use it, so D&D is becoming a game of rules and not individuality.

Like a unicorn which once ran free in the woodlands, so our minds, free of restriction, once interpreted and fleshed out the outlines of the basic rulebook. But now this unicorn, once almost immune to magic, has been caught and bridled by the ‘Game Wizards’. Now it is burdened down by rules, magazines, supplements, new monsters, new magical items, new dungeons, even new Gods. It struggles in vain against the ever growing constraints of its masters, who no longer enjoy its fast free movement, but instead take interest only in how much it will carry, and the sale value of its horn.

As a gaming magazine, you have the opportunity to get off this crippled creature’s back, to encourage thoughtfulness and initiative among your readers, and to publish articles containing suggestions about broadening the game, not narrowing the already stifling confines for creativity.

Yours pessimistically,
Robert Bradshaw, Oxon

I wonder sometimes if we obsess too much over genre definitions in our fantasy (hello, self). I like to think of genres as an early edition of Dungeons and Dragons or Runequest, before they got weighed down by supplements and fourth editions and waves of errata. Here are the outlines, here are some rules with some definitions. Understand that they will require on-the-fly interpretations and adjudication and yes, the occasional hand-waving.

Here is an example of play. Now get to it.

It’s a fine balance, isn’t it?

I think White Dwarf especially in its early run got that balance right. And it was always in the spirit of fun mixed with earnestness. Even as the battles raged, White Dwarf editors and readers never lost their spirit of British-ness—cantankerous editors and sarcastic readers dueling over serious issues of science fiction and fantasy with a fine sardonic humor.

I think we need a little more of that these days.


Matthew said...

I can’t comment on gameing but fantasy as a genre is wider than realism. Robert e. Howard and Fritz Leiber are obviously sword and sorcery and the Lord of the Rings is obviously not, though I have heard it refer to as such. How would one classify the Gormenghast novels? It has no magic or elves but certainly not realistic.

tf_shodiq007 said...
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Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comment Matthew. I would consider the Gormenghast novels as pre-genre, written as they were (at least the first two) prior to The Lord of the Rings and the publication of the Lancer Conans. Certainly there is much diversity in the genre!