Saturday, August 15, 2009

Living Fantasy Review

Gary Gygax's Living Fantasy is important for being one of the last books he ever wrote – not just edited, like most of the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds series. Here, then, are his final thoughts on, in a fantasy world where the D&D game mechanics are reality, how much would be different and how much the same as our world.

Gygax was clear about his biases and the limitations of having barely over 150 pages to work with. He clearly cannot describe a whole world in this span of pages and, indeed, he confesses in his introduction to only being interested in re-imagining England in its late Renaissance/early Tudor period. Gygax's interest in developing a fairly close parallel England date back at least as far as his last game system, a more narrow focus than the broader historical simulation dating back as far as Chainmail. Other things have stuck with Gygax since the early '70s, such as his belief that gunpowder weapons are antithetical to the swords & sorcery genre.

Other ideas introduced here seem newer to me, such as including “hi-tech” items like coaches and mechanical watches. To some extent, this is just pushing the clock forward from the early days of D&D. Except for anachronisms like backpacks, most of the D&D equipment lists reflected what was available in 16th century Europe. Here, Gygax not only looked ahead to the 17th century, but the really new idea is that magic would not hold back technological development, as we have commonly envisioned it would in a magical world, but would push it forward to keep up.

Almost immediately, the impact of non-humans living among humans was written off as irrelevant. Gygax imagined, probably for the convenience of it, that human civilization would be so attractive to any nearby dwarves or elves that they would become completely assimilated. Gygax had admitted to his “humanocentric” approach to fantasy world-building as far back as the 1978 Players Handbook, but here this approach seems particularly arrogant.

The book is broken into two sections, “the physical landscape” and “the cultural landscape.”

The “physical landscape” section begins, reminiscent of the 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide, with lists of landscape “dressing” (to borrow a term from the older work). We are treated to random encounter tables, as we have been since the very first D&D booklets. But here the purpose has changed dramatically. The encounter tables are no longer filled with random monsters, but contain information about farmers and the size of their wagons. There is descriptive text about castles, but no information anymore for high-level characters wanting to build their own. The game has shifted from characters mastering their environment to simply interacting with it. Nowhere is this paradigm shift more obvious than the list of “magical products and services.” The focus on magic has flying carpets to “dirt-eliminating carpets”. From fireballs snuffing out groups of opponents in a blaze of fire to “self-heating water kettles.”

This change in focus is meant as an observation rather than a complaint; the descriptions are evocative and thorough, giving much food for thought for the DM looking to run a campaign with a focus away from combat. But the descriptive nature of non-combat campaigning does not lend itself as well to game mechanics as combat does and, if the book has a main weakness, it is where d20 mechanics are shoe-horned onto the descriptive text. The “Practical spells for the d20 system” section, for example, supposedly has 16 new spells in it, but most of them are really just new ways to interpret preexisting spells – Floating Object is a (why did it take 26 years to think of this?) more generic version of Tenser's Floating Disc, Ventilation is a variant of Gust of Wind, Transparent Object is a more generic version of Glasteel. Some of the spells, like Accurate Tally and Pleasant Weather Zone, already had their niches filled by the Tome of Magic 12 years earlier. Conjure Spice is perhaps the only spell with a previously unfilled (though probably not in great demand) niche of filling the “void” between Purify Food & Water and Create Food.

“The Cultural Landscape”, or “Book Two”, is perhaps most typically Gygaxian when it is assigning number values. One can only wonder if statements like how the upper upper class is composed of “about 0.002% of the total population” is based on meticulous research or that same wonderfully quirky arbitrariness that determined that a longsword does 1d8 damage instead of 1d6 or 1d10.

The “Fantasy Society” section is a poorly named one, as there is little fantasy content here. While it reads much like a history textbook, interesting thoughts for a DM to ponder are sprinkled all throughout the text on social classes. Which social classes should have access magically warm water and indoor plumbing? Who should have access to coffee and chocolate (we are expected to accept without a double take that these are fantasy world-appropriate items)? How many acres on a manor holding should be crop land and how many woodland? How large a household staff should an upper middle class person have, and which occupations would be in this class? How is one promoted upwards from class to class?

The “Civilized Communities” section, again, is full of tidbits for the DM to ponder – the officers on a manor, the options for roofing material in a town, and the typical diet of people who live in particular types of dwellings. More importantly, this section includes practical advice for DMing players passing through said communities or building permanent residences in them. It may help to know how many people would live in a hamlet, for example, but what is really going to help the DM is the (more than a) page on information media, entertainment, drinking and smoking options (to the list of questionable presences like coffee and chocolate, add tobacco – why doesn't gunpowder exist again?), and visitor accommodations a hamlet would typically offer. Personally, I struggled to find a good guide for land and building costs in my last AD&D campaign – here, I get that very table, succinctly, on less than half a page.

The Cleric character class began its existence back in '74 as a thinly veiled Catholic -- as evidenced by the wooden cross on the equipment list and the hierarchical level titles. In '85, Gygax co-wrote The Temple of Elemental Evil, using the floorplan of a cathedral. By 2003, Gygax here said “[t]he fantasy world can't have cathedrals and churches. Those are Christian appellations.” Again, I have personally struggled in the past with this same issue – trying to education Greyhawk gamers about how we erroneously place monotheistic values on a supposedly pantheistic setting. Later in the text, Gygax spent 13 pages on the role of the clergy and began it with his most personal essay in the book, detailing how his views on this evolved over the decades. Curiously, the material on the clergy still seems to fall into the same old patterns – shrines dedicated to single deities and a Catholic Church-like hierarchy. And while he might have been ready to discard cathedrals and churches, he included a detailed floor plan for an abbey.

The last section of the book is “A Day in the Life...”, which details the daily schedules of citizens of varying social standing. In 11 pages, this section neatly summarizes what would have been chapters in one of Greenwood Press' “Daily Life” books. This, in essence, is the nature of the entirety of Living Fantasy – the distillation of all of Gygax's reading he had done since AD&D while preparing his later fantasy games, particularly Lejendary Adventures. It is both an answer to and a continuation of his earlier works, particularly the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. It is at times odiously detailed (plumbing materials by social class?), historically astute (distinguishing between medieval and renaissance models of military command), personal (his essay on divesting clerics of the trappings of modern religion, but also an earlier essay on the “error of 'peace-knot' use” in other game products), and whimsical (frog legs and crème Brule on his menu list?). It is also fascinating as both a reference work for DMs to skim for ideas and as a window into the mind of the Father of Roleplaying Games in his final years.

Lastly, for a better organized essay on how Living Fantasy fits into Gygaxian publishing history, see