A Higher Fantasy
“A very midmost of this dreary theatre rose up a huge and monstrous tree, whose topmost branches were even the horns which they had seen from below the hill’s brow. Leafless was that tree and lacking of twigs, and its bole upheld but some fifty of great limbs, and as they looked on it, they doubted whether it were not made by men’s hands rather than grown up out of the earth. All round about the roots of it was a pool of clear water, that cast back the image of the valley-side and the bright sky of the desert, as though it had been a mirror of burnished steel. The limbs of that tree were all behung with blazoned shields and knight’s helms, and swords, and spears, and axes, and hawberks; and it rose up into the air some hundred feet above the flat of the valley.”
– William Morris
One of the things I’ve noticed, while reading some classic and even recent fantasy novels, is a kind of “higher plateau” point that some of the best works in this genre feature. This leads me to wonder how such a state might be reproduced or approximated in D&D.
What do I mean by such a “higher plateau”? I concede that what I have in mind is difficult to fully explain. It’s a moment in a fantasy novel in which the entire tone and tenor of the book shifts and changes. The action and details become more “exalted” and less grungy. Sometimes, in the best books, this period is sustained. In other instances, it’s merely alluded to or touched on at the end – think of the company sailing off at the very end of LotR. But in either case there is an experience, for the reader, of being lifted up to a higher stage.
The best example I can think of for this kind of higher sustained narrative occurs towards the end of William Morris’s classic The Well At The World’s End. Two of the main characters launch into the final part of their quest and each detail after that moment is different than what has preceded it. The tone of their discoveries and encounters is more noble, more elegiac (in a certain sense), and more mysterious. The landscape and the mood is both strangely symbolic and desolate. The reader knows that, while they were in a “fantasy” land before that point, this is a “fantasy land” within the “fantasy land” – or even outside it. Remarkably, Morris takes his characters out of this place and returns them to where they were. The “higher plateau” is even more memorable because it is juxtaposed and book-ended with a more “normal” environment like this.
Another, recent example of this “fantasy within a fantasy” moment can be found in Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” books. In the first book, the character goes on a protracted kind of quest at the end of the book. Unlike the Morris example, which it in some way resembles, the day-to-day details are skipped. Instead, this solitary adventure is relayed in broad strokes – only the major events and a few details are touched upon. Nevertheless, it is a peak moment in the book and unlike what came before it. The magic gets more magical and there is an intensification of the fantastic that is very noticeable. The second book has much the same element at the very end – I think Grossman really likes to end his books using this device. While neither as sustained, nor as effective, as what Morris was able to do, his work in this regard is still impressive.
Seeking to have this kind of moment happen in a D&D game would be difficult. On the one hand, D&D is – at its best – a realization of “fantasy” worlds. On the other hand, the game becomes more “real’ when the characters must deal with day-to-day life in that world – and all the choices, frustrations, and problems that come with it. How can they be swept away to a higher realm and still be engaged with these features? What keeps the game experience “realistic” might mitigate against the introduction of these “high fantasy” moments. This is a paradox.
One solution may come from play that occurs on different worlds, zones, and planes. Here I am thinking of some of the better known discussion of these options – from AD&D’s 1E – and Arduin’s “Shadowlands” concept, etc. I also saw a write up of the post-death planes for the Wilderlands (by James Mishler) that appeared to be quite intriguing. I do not know, however, if these options would suffice as I have absolutely no experience either playing or DMing away from “the prime material plane.” They do have the advantage of being places that one can put the players into and then take them out again.
The second solution that occurs to me has to deal with the nature of mysterious – and even profound – objects. Part of what makes the passages in both the Morris and the Grossman work so well is the sheer strangeness of what the characters encounter. Why is there a passport clerk on an island stuck in this strange sea? Why are all these lifeless bodies seated in a Roman-style theater around a huge tree in the middle of nowhere? These kinds of unexplainable, bizarre elements can be more easily inserted into a D&D game and might provide the kind of “high weirdness” I am talking about.
The “third man” man problem also arises. Is there a “fantasy within a fantasy within the fantasy”? Why stop there? We approach literary limitations and game limitations. Can a D&D game take you “beyond the worlds we know”? If you go there and map and know it, then it can’t be “unknown” to you any longer, can it? But the people who dream in the far-off dreaming cities still have to dream of something. The ladder is there and we must climb it.
Some versions of Runequest tried to do this explicitly. Through various ritual actions and quests characters could take on the mantle of one of the Gods and act out the foundational myths of Gloranthian cosmology. The results of these quests affected the world, the characters and the characters’ communities. Did this approach work? I think it kinda flopped, but it’s a neat idea. Can games have mechanics that push us in this direction or, at the very least, not get in our way when we want to “go there”; or is the kind of “rising on the planes” you describe inherently a transcending of the nuts and bolts of rpg play?
Runequest was a notoriously “low magic” system. The idea of including this kind of thing in an “end game” mimics the way these moments occur in the novels towards the conclusions of the narratives.
Grossman was very influenced by the allegorical fantasy elements in “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. I think this is how he creates some of his juxtapositions, but I would find it hard to do the same in a game.
Barking up the Runequest family tree is good. The “heroquesting” texture of that system was a favorite of many of the prominent LDS early players while the pagan side evolved into Pendragon, so you’re back at the roots of the mountains that way.
http://adrr.com/hero/five.htm provides a fragment of how they were approaching this mechanically. You know Steve Marsh already as the guy who invented the elemental planes.
One Dragon writer in particular, Douglas Bachmann, was extremely interested in applying Ursula LeGuin’s “From Fairyland to Poughkeepsie” to D&D. His editorial in TD 39 (“The problem of morality in fantasy”) is muddled but reaching for the transcendental encounters you describe — he classifies them as experiences of “Faerie.”
He gets in a little over his head trying to codify this for Chivalry & Sorcery in TD 40 (“Believe it or not, Fantasy [sic] has reality”), although the underlying ideas still have wick. After that, though, he gets quiet.
Should be “Elfland” to Poughkeepsie, apologies.
In the old wilderlands of the city states, I just used the printed encounters — lurid lairs, etc. — as the “profound objects” dropped into the game from “elsewhere.” This turned the map key itself into a type of dream dictionary full of opportunities to transition from the everyday game goings-on (work, gold, hit points) into more initiatory opportunities.
I see this as a staple of good fantasy. LotR goes from the bucolic mundanity of The Shire to the higher magical realms of the Elves, Mirkwood and Mordor. Moorcock’s protagonists start in a medium to low magic world and progress onto the high or even gonzo planes of the Multiverse. Even the boardgame Talisman has higher, more magical planes (i.e. board sections) players must go through to reach the endgame. Someone blogged a few months back about low level adventurers starting in the ‘safe’ low magic areas like Homlett before moving on to higher and higher realms of fantasy and magic like the Underdark or the Planes of Hell. I think Joseph Campbell would class it all as representative of the hero’s journey, including the return to a mundane starting point, with the fantastic changes now internalized, like the hobbit’s growth mentioned at the end of LotR.
Not that those aren’t good points, but I’m talking about a moment that’s different from the progress through these stories. It’s not gradual – it’s really more like a profound shift.