Sunday, January 4, 2015

On Thud and Blunder: Verisimilitude in our hobby

Poul Anderson was a widely known, celebrated and respected science fiction author.  He is less know for his work in what he called 'heroic fantasy'.  If two of those 'hf' novels (as Poul Anderson himself refers to the genre) were all he had ever done, he would still be a notable author.  I refer to 'The Broken Sword' and my personal favorite, 'Three Hearts and Three Lions'.  I have blogged about the latter here and here.  Poul Anderson also appears in Gary Gygax's famous Appendix N at the back of the DM Guide.

That is nice Barad, but what does this have to do with verisimilitude?  Read on, I am just setting the stage.

Somewhere around 1978 the esteemed Poul Anderson wrote an essay published in a swords and sorcery anthology edited by Andrew Offut: Swords Against Darkness III.  In that essay Poul Anderson goes on to chide and give advice to 'hf' writers about their lack of realism or verisimilitude, and how with improving these elements would provide more engaging stories, and be better for the industry.  That industry being heroic fantasy.

Since our hobby is so closely tied to heroic fantasy, our DMs good also use the advice to good use.  The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America thinks this advice is well met and keeps a copy of the essay here.  If you have never read it, do so.  If you want I will wait for you to come back.

Yes, it is a bit long by Internet attention standards these days - but save it as a favorite and refer back to it frequently.

  • Have long running wars in your world?  Think about who will grow or harvest the crops if you take the peasants away.  How reliable are those mercenaries and how will you pay them?  Swarms of evil humanoids attacking your towns, well their leaders know they have to win quickly in order to pay and feed the marauders else matters will disintegrate or implode.
  • When you describe those cities, is it filthy and dangerous?  If not, why and how does that change how the city dwellers live or behave.  If their city is that clean and safe would it not be overrun with immigrants trying to get in?
  • Travel is unreliable, and news is late in arriving.  Horses are expensive and destructible.  Roads are expensive to build, maintain and to police.  Where does that money come from?  Sailing was not necessarily better, safer or faster.
  • As a DM or player do you know anything about the martial arts?  (I know some of our fellow hobbyists are quite well versed in them)  We do not need to be experts in this matter but a little better understanding would go a long way to a better game
It goes on and on.  You do not have to adopt everything, but adopting some additional verisimilitude gives good color and consistency.  Additionally, when our heroes do something truly heroic, it makes a more stark comparison to the world around them.


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