Friday, November 23, 2012

Fantastic Horror, Benghazi, The Nutcracker


I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving! We had a fine turkey dinner, and I also managed to watch a great football game and put up the toughest part of the Christmas lights. We still have more decorating to do, but man, I hate screwing with the lights and I’m always glad to get the tough part behind me.
For this week: The genre of fantastic horror, some thoughts about Benghazi, and the piece of music I’d use to convince aliens not to destroy the Earth.

Gaming: I’m in the habit of occasionally grabbing a random book off my bookshelf and rereading it when I’m between new books. Over the last couple of days, that random story happened to be H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which I think is one of the three or four best of his stories (The Whisperer in Darkness, the Haunter of the Dark, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth also rate in that top group, IMO). Anyway, The Dunwich Horror reminded me of a really under-explored genre of fantasy that would make an awesome campaign setting someday: A world of fantastic horror.
“Fantastic horror” is a term I coined (for my own use, anyway) to describe a rather narrow and obscure branch of pulp SF/fantasy/horror stories that pit humankind in a fantasy setting against prehuman horrors and things from beyond. It’s not Ravenloft; Ravenloft is gothic horror, and the fantasy elements of D&D frankly get in the way. It’s not Vampire: The Dark Ages—you’re not a monster, you fight monsters. Fantastic horror begins in sword-and-sandals pulp fantasy, but combines it with a world where the worst monsters are profoundly inhuman. Or, to put it another way, it’s a world where Conan can fight Mythos-type monsters.

Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories have one foot in this genre—The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The White Ship, or Celephais all hint at a whole fantasy world where warriors, rogues, and wizards might roam around and do heroic things. But Lovecraft’s dream stories are strangely passive tales that sort of happen to the hero, and don’t show us the sort of heroes we might want to emulate with player characters. Many of Robert E. Howard’s stories are better examples: for example, The Devil in Iron, The Valley of the Worm, or The Worms of the Earth. When one of Robert E. Howard’s heroes runs across things like Tsathoggua or shoggoths, he leaps at it with a sword and tries to kill it. The Lost World tropes from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus, Tarzan, or Pellucidar stories are also a good fit—we’re talking about a world where man is a young and barbaric species, and those tales suit this theme perfectly. However, the real master of fantastic horror was Clark Ashton Smith. Smith’s Hyperborea, Atlantis, and Xiccarph stories really epitomize the sub-genre I’m trying to describe. Stories such as The Seven Geases, The Maze of Maal Dweb, or The Death of Malygris feature many familiar D&D tropes, but mix them up with horrifying magic and Terrible Things Older than Man.
The measure of a great campaign setting is whether you knew what it was before you saw it. That’s why Ravenloft and Dark Sun are so highly regarded: D&D fans knew gothic horror and sword-and-sandal adventure before those settings codified those genres for D&D. That’s why a great steampunk setting would work for D&D, too—you know steampunk when you see it. (Eberron just missed being that setting, which is a shame.)  Anyway, I think fantastic horror might be in that same boat. Someday I want to write that D&D setting.

If you want to run fantastic horror using off-the-shelf components, I think a lot of the resources are already on hand. The Dark Sun Campaign Setting offers a great toolkit for sword-and-sandal adventuring—you can go a long way toward modeling Howard’s Hyboria or Smith’s Hyperborea with the character options and social sensibilities of Dark Sun. Set Dark Sun in the steaming jungles, volcanoes, and glaciers of the polar continent, and serve it up with a generous dollop of dinosaurs and monsters out of D20 Call of Cthulhu, and you’ve got something pretty interesting, or so I would think.

Politics/Current Events: The Benghazi story. There seem to be a lot people in the government-media complex trying to convince us that it doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t be paying attention to it, but I think we deserve better answers than the ones we’re getting. First, who decided to *not* provide the Benghazi consulate with extra protection when it was requested months before the attack in September? Second, who decided to *not* assist our personnel during the attack when help was requested? Third, who made the decision to call the attack a demonstration by people angry about a video and convince us that this was all about defaming Muhammad?
I don’t necessarily blame President Obama or Valerie Jarret or Susan Rice for any of these things. Rice in particular may have been handed a doctored script to read from, although I certainly wonder why she wouldn’t have questioned the story (and I think that I wouldn’t want a Secretary of State who could accept such nonsense as truth and present it to the American people). But I sure as hell want some answers to the obvious questions.

Now, here’s the thing: Sometimes the bad guys have a good day. I don’t regard Pearl Harbor, the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, or 9/11 as shocking indictments of government competence. Yes, they were preventable, but when it comes down to it, clever and determined people came up with a plan to do something that hadn’t been done before. All that the administration had to do was say, “Yeah, we were attacked; bad guys did bad things, and we didn’t see it coming.” The story would be over with. But from where I’m sitting, it looks like someone in Washington put the “optics” of a tight presidential race above telling the American public the truth about what’s going on in Libya. If political considerations led someone to deny security to the Benghazi consulate, stand down a rescue mission, and then pretend an anti-Muhammad video was the cause of the whole thing, well, I want to know who that someone is, and I want them to be held accountable.
Once upon a time, it was said that politics stopped at the water’s edge. I guess those days are long over.

The Finer Things: I picked up tickets to take the family to the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker this year. PNWB’s show features costumes and sets designed by Maurice Sendak, the creator of Where the Wild Things Are. I’ve wanted to go see the show for years, and I’m already stoked about seeing it. While I’m looking forward to the spectacle of the dancers, it’s the prospect of hearing Tchaikovsky’s masterful score performed live in its entirety that I’m really anticipating. I’m a big fan of the Russian composers, and The Nutcracker is simply perfect. I sometimes think that if an alien race was threatening to destroy the Earth unless we demonstrated one reason why humanity should be spared, I might choose The Nutcracker to save our necks.
I’m also quite fond of Prokofiev and Borodin, especially the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor. I might like it even better than The Nutcracker, although it's not anywhere near as well known. Check it out sometime if you’re a classical music fan.



  1. Hi Rich. I would like to ask you why you think Eberron was a missed opportunity. I find it as my favorite CS alongside Birthright, and feel that perhaps its designers intentionally decided to not make it steampunk but follow several inspirations and make it something unique. Any insights on the setting from when you worked in WoTC? Thanks!

  2. Hi, Nicolas -- I think Eberron was a missed opportunity because 7-8 years ago steampunk was beginning to surge in popularity. Ten years ago, I'd walk around GenCon and see scores and scores of interesting fantasy costumes in the convention-going crowd. Five years ago, all of the sudden, half of those costumes were steampunk costumes instead. I saw the same thing in the costume pieces sold by vendors at the show. Eberron was well-timed to be the D&D steampunk setting; a stronger focus on the steampunk features of the setting might have paid off in a big way. That doesn't necessarily mean that Eberron would have been *better* as a steampunk setting, but I sure think it could have been more commercially successful. Moving on to issues of personal tastes, I feel that Eberron suffers a bit from the "kitchen-sink" phenomenon that afflicts RPG settings. In my experience, so much is invested in the effort to create and sell a new world, it's very tempting to try to find something for *everybody* to like and put it in that setting. It would have been a more focused and, well, marketable idea if the key beats were more strongly featured and not diluted by competing ideas. My suggestion is that steampunk D&D could have been that key beat, and would have worked quite well--imagine if all the attention paid to dragonmarks (for instance) had been devoted to steampunk mechanics and themes. But if a steampunk D&D setting wasn't what you were looking for, well, you would naturally hold a different opinion.