Have you got it do you get it / If so how often
Which do you choose / A hard or soft option?
—“West End Girls”, Pet Shop Boys
Recently I have been revisiting some of the fantasy stories that helped forged my vision (and many of the founders of the RPG industry) of what a fantastic world could be. Conan, Elric, Jirel of Joiry, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are the heroes that started me down a path I’ve never truly left for decades.
But one thing I’ve noticed reading them today is how sketchy they seem compared to the kinds of fantasy produced for the more ‘modern’ market. The worlds are much less fleshed out, magic works in undefined and rapidly changeable fashion, and the sudden inclusion of anachronistic elements like historical figures, aliens, or high technology are shrugged off as par for the course. These aspects may seem dated and lazy to some readers, but they really capture the ‘wonder’ of fantasy from my introduction to the genre.
Contrast these stories to the popular series of today, which are often categorized as ‘hard fantasy’ (a tear I assume lifted from sci-fi-fi). Since I could not find an accepted online definition of ‘soft fantasy’ (incidentally, a term that rapidly turns into an NSFW google search), lets start with Wikipedia’s take on on hard fantasy: “ Hard fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature that strives to present stories set in (and often centered on) a rational and knowable world.“
In practice, this gives us the obsessively detailed back-stories and histories of the George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or the highly-codified magic structure of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. When it comes to magic in hard fantasy, Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time, Mistborn, and more) has an interesting take here. While this level of detail can be satisfying, you run the risk knowing too much about a world, like spoiling a magic trick by learning how its done. In a gaming sense, you never want the marvelous to feel mundane or reduce all the world’s miracles into mechanics.
Beyond the Bounds
One way to inject wonder into an otherwise rational fantasy universe is to disrupt the standard power levels. Like when Q would appear on an episode of Star Trek, the normal rules of power and probability were thrown out the window. This doesn’t always mean the players face an adversary of who far outclasses them. It could be a place where magic has explosive side effects or doesn’t work at all, or waking up the size of their miniatures and being forced to navigate a world drastically out of scale.
Even non-mechanical shifts can add wonder and break the hold of a hard fantasy structure. What if they land on a shore where all the natives have two heads, and must debate every action with themselves? Or coming upon a tribe of wise, philosophical kobolds dedicated to preserving the knowledge of age-old dragons. Understanding the rules of a world creates expectations, and breaking the rules can create new ways of reacting and make things seem fresher.
Like any mature market, fantasy stories and games are now broken down into categories and subgenres, and most tend to stick in their own silo. Not so in the older days. Sword and sorcery stories threw everything in the same pot, and rarely concerned themselves with internal consistency. And early D&D took the same approach. As far back as the Blackmoor supplement, the Temple of the Frog featured an alien overlord with access to ray guns and an orbital satellite.
You may not want to have games were cowboys on Triceratops wielding AK-47s chase your players down dungeon corridors , but occasionally breaking context can create interesting situations. Many fantasy universes are built over the wreckage of technological apocalypse, and strange artifacts can spur interesting adventures. Traveling through space or time can give players a memorable change of pace, and do not have to destroy your games. Even Pathfinder (one of the most exhaustive of hard fantasy rule-sets) has a crashed spaceship under a mountain in their official setting.
A GM should not have to be completely orthodox to their setting and its assumptions. If you want to have a society where the ruling powers are intelligent predatory birds, and the sapient bipeds are barely-functional food sources, so be it. Its a fantasy, don’t be afraid of the fantastic.
In gaming, the rules themselves often get in the way of the fantasy. By trying to cover the most important interactions, they by nature create a ‘rational and knowable’ universe. That is why they are there.
But that doesn’t have to be the end of it. Mechanics may explain the ‘how’ of a situation, but not the ‘why’. If a plane-hopping bounty hunter levels a Colt 45 at the player’s wizard, it will still have to roll to hit and do a set amount of damage. Simple description can go a long way in bringing wonder to what is (under the hood) simple game mechanics. In a psychic dream world, a PC’s intelligence might be the aspect to use to determine their ability to move or maneuver, but the players don’t need to know all the details. Or the squid-men overlords of a ruined seaside temple could simply be re-skinned sea elves. Its the story that’s important, not the statistics.
That said, feel free to ignore the rules when they don’t mesh with your vision. Laser beams can have any affect you want them to have. Your trickster god can turn missiles back on its attackers, regardless of whether or not there are rules for that. Players can walk easily through the ruins of sunken Atlantis, even if they can’t breathe water or survive the pressure of a mile of ocean above them.
We create and play fantasy games to go places and do things we could never do in our real lives. And while deep backgrounds and elegant metaphors make a solid basis to connect players to these worlds, they should not stop you from injecting fantastic elements that don’t quite fit inside their walls.
Or, in the words of Dr. Who, one of least internally consistent heroes of our time, “We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”
How do you use ’soft’ fantasy elements too mix up your games? Or do you believe that this kind of gaming is silly or frivolous? Let us know in the comments below.
The problem, I’ve found, is when soft elements are introduced as flavor to an otherwise straight campaign/world. Players, cunning bastards that they are, will take a little bit of nonsense and leverage it.
For instance, in my Pathfinder game I created a “dungeon” that had an encounter with a handful of Axis soldiers and a 50-caliber machine gun in a large room that looked like a ruined street in Berlin, 1945. Of course, the victorious PCs wanted the gun; rather artlessly, I wouldn’t let them.
That little bit of soft flavor ended up making me frustrate the players because I felt an urgent need to close a door I opened. They didn’t see flavor; they saw a new way to smite their enemies.
In retrospect, maybe I should have let the party get their Johnny Rambo on for a while. They still mention that gun, years later.