Thursday, October 22, 2009

Overused Fantasy Tropes

We've all seen them if we read much fantasy or many RPGs: the tropes that never seem to change, even when the world or author changes. This gives us ideas like elves always being quasi-immortal forest-dwellers, or dwarves always living in mountains and having Scottish accents. Sometimes, these are OK, but sometimes they just get on my nerves, and if I ever get around to trying to create my own gaming world (or entire game), I'll try to avoid or address these.

For one, tropes are the way they are because they worked, at least at first. Tolkien may be the most famous author for elves living in woods and dwarves in mountains, but things like that really seem to come from farther back, in the myths of the Norse gods. They didn't live on earth (or Midgard), but rather on some other world; the elves lived in Alfheim, and the dark elves in Svartalfheim, and neither had much to do with the big stories of Norse myth. The dwarves lived in Nidavellir, and were really only a part of Norse myth in their crafting ability. They only rarely, if ever, interacted with the humans of Midgard, and mostly only saw the gods. Tolkien brought them all together on Middle-earth (which is essentially what Midgard menat, as it was the middle world of the nine worlds of Norse myth). After that, it seerms everyone felt the need to copy him.

That kind of thing bothers me, because when everybody does it, they stop thinking about what it means. They just assign the woods to the elves and the mountains to the dwarves because everyone knows they live there. This is intellectually lazy; I want to know why the dwarves live in the mountains as opposed to elsewhere. I want to know how they survive when not much worth eating lives underground. Sometimes settings come up with interesting ideas and twists on old tropes, and these are things I enjoy. In the Eberron setting for D&D, dwarves live in mountains, but mountains are really just their strongholds; they live outside and around the mountains, too. And their bif claim to fame? Banking. Underground vaults surrounded by nothing but dwarves are hard to steal from. Elves are different, too - while some do in fact live in forests, mostly they are divided into two cultures: the Valenar, a culture of ancestor-worship, who love to fight and are the world's best skirmishers and light cavalry, and the Arenal, who live on a large, jungle-covered island, and who worship the dead, and who have their undead ancestors as leaders.

So there are a lot of things in fantasy that bother me, and if I ever use them, it'll be with a twist, or completely reworked. What kind of things?

  • Good and evil civilizations living directly adjacent to one another, when one is murderous and expansionist and the other is peaceful and sedate.
  • All the world's best stuff comes only from old, lost civilizations; nothing new is worth having.
  • Racial monocultures. Not every dwarf and elf will be the same; similarly, not every dwarf town and elf village will be the same. the USA is culturally different from Mexico, and we're both human - how come fantasy races are monolithic?
  • If the fantasy setting is medieval, almost all nations will resemble medieval England.
  • Almost all fantasy governments will be benevolent kingdoms. What, no dictatorships or republics? There are other governmental types, you know.
  • Abundance of magic. if there is a lot of magic, it would change the world. Surely some wizard ould think of magical street lighting? If magic is great and powerful, but it doesn't seem to affect the world, then I want to know why.
This and other things are things we shoudl look at when creating new worlds; fantasy author China mieville has somethign to say abotu this in his essay On World Building.

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