Friday, September 18, 2009

Planetary Romance vs. Pulp Grit

The planetary romances, as typified by Burroughs' Barsoom novels and as copied by such later revisions of the genre as Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon strips, Gardner Fox's Adam Strange , or even the T.V. series Farscape play off a number of themes of strangers in a strange land who, usually because they are clever (white) Earth men, bring the benefits of their civilized minds and manners to a barbaric world. In addition to this, we see the development of damsels in distress, martial might, and heroic honor as central to this. Particularly in Burroughs and Raymond, the hero finds allies who are noble savages in a world of danger.

I don't see Athanor headed in that direction at all. Athanor is, in my head, more informed by the pulp tradition of sword and sorcery. My bias is to the idea that the player characters will be rogues and ne'er-do-wells caught up in intrigues and trouble, some of which may be of their own making. I personally prefer games wthere the PCs more resemble Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Cugel the Clever than Aragorn or Galahad. This isn't a jaded distaste for the heroic or epic in fantasy tradition, but a love of the picaresque tradition and of the worm's eye view of pulp -- whether it be fantasy, weird fiction, or even detective or crime novels of the pulp period or their descendants.

By pulp, I don't mean two-fisted Indiana Jones action. Pulp isn't a genre, but a medium. Pulp novels, the cheap novels and magazines of the mid-twentieth-century in the United States, included a lot of mass-marketed fiction often genre fiction churned out by small presses who made their profits on thin margins by using cheap paper stock and binding, garish or provocative covers, and by marketing some racy or lurid content. While I doubt that I'll move into the real of authors like Jim Thompson's gritty crime novels (not that I couldn't imagine a Jim Thompson based game), I think everything from two-fisted tough guy and crime novels to Howard's style of fantasy, to the weirdness of Clark Ashton Smith are all fair game. Which is more a matter of my state of mind.

Once you get past the pretention of that thinking, the question remains about what that means at the table top? I like the idea of a rag-tag bunch of misfits causing trouble and running across Athanor getting in and out of scrapes. While I will throw some larger plots and terrible monsters out there, and have secrets to uncover, I don't see the PCs saving the world, defeating the Dark Lord, and making nice-nice across the planet. They may find their own princesses to fall in love with and rescue (though I suspect they will end up either not such the princesses, or less in need of rescue than the heroes think), monsters to slay, and intrigues to get involved in, but the goal of the game is not to play out the Next Great Epic Trilogy. Rather, I want it to feel like the next adventure story magazine is publishing another crazy Athanor story, and we don't know how things might turn out or what weirdness will come up in the process.

While Barsoom, Pellucidar, and their ilk may be one of my major inspirations, I'm not really out to emulate them. Instead, I want them to be springboards for my imagination, and for the players', too.