A few weeks ago, I was trying to find some inspiration for a sub-plot involving the Raven Queen in our homebrew world when I came across an interesting video in Matt Colville’s “Running the Game” series.
“Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”
In thar episode, titled “Fiction vs Fantasy,” he references an essay by Stephen R. Donaldson from 1986, “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World: A Few Observations.” Donaldson claims that
fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they were external individuals or events. Crudely stated, this means that in fantasy the characters meet themselves – or parts of themselves, their own needs/problems/exigencies – as actors on the stage of the story, and so the internal struggle to deal with those needs/problems/exigencies is played out as an external struggle in the action of the story.”Donaldson, “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”
In other words, Donaldson holds that in fantasy, the larger world functions as an expression of the characters themselves. At one point later in the essay, for example, he reads Sauron in Lord of the Rings as the personification of the darkness already in Frodo.
He continues working through his definition of fantasy by comparing it to modern fiction:
In realistic fiction, the characters are expressions of their world, whereas in fantasy the world is an expressions of the characters. Even if you argue that realistic fiction is about the characters, and that the world they live in is just one tool to express them, it remains true that the details which make up their world come from a recognized body of reality – tables, chairs, jobs, stresses which we all acknowledge as being external and real, forceful on their own terms. In fantasy, however, the ultimate justification for all the external details arises from the characters themselves. The characters confer reality on their surroundings.Donaldson, “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”
I love that last sentence: “The characters confer reality on their surroundings.”
There are aspects of Donaldson’s article that I would push back against in terms of contemporary fiction now; there have been some really important swings since 1986, but that’s a topic for another time. I highly encourage you to read his essay though!
But back to D&D…
…and the application of Donaldson’s essay to your RPG and/or fantasy or fiction that you’re working on.
In the YouTube video, Matt Colville works through a difference he sees between the show he had been running, and how he DMs in general, and the narrative Matt Mercer was working on in Season One of Critical Role with Vox Machina.
Colville sees Critical Role, and many homebrew campaigns for that matter, as a prime example of fantasy, especially according to Donaldson’s categories. The external conflicts the characters encounter are reflections of some internal part of themselves or their histories.
In his own game, which more closely resembles the world of fiction (speaking super broadly of course), the players at Colville’s table can choose to act on the world. It’s up to them to make their mark, thwart a villain, forge alliances, etc. The storyworld will continue on without them. They’re part of a larger political system.
That’s of course not to say that that isn’t the case in Critical Role! However, Colville emphasizes where the story’s impetus is coming from. Is the world character-driven, or are the characters driven by the larger events of their world?
Of course I also think it would be helpful for you to watch his video and process these divisions for yourself.
In Your Game
These differentiations leave us with some really interesting ideas as players, DMs/GMs, writers—whatever form(s) of creator you are.
- I think it’d be pretty easy to start with asking which category best fits your own game. I doubt it will be fully one or the other, but, in general, does one overarching category better fit your narrative and the type of story you’re wanting to tell?
- Working from Donaldson’s question at the beginning of his essay: why? And not just “why did you pick that,” but digging deeper, why tell the story in that way? What are you hoping it might be allowed to do? What imaginative work or internal and external conflict, is fueling this particular narrative construction?
- Plunging in further, what do you believe about D&D or other RPGs? What do you believe about literature, fiction, storytelling? What kind of stories do you think the world needs more of? What are you wanting to write or say?
- And getting beyond the personal just a bit, or working our way back outwards: The stories you hold on to, return to, where do they fall along this spectrum? What do you value about them?
This press and its blog started out of a core belief in the creative possibilities of RPGs that arose from a similar belief in the power of fiction. Writing for a strictly academic audience felt too limiting, and it was the opposite impulse from what the writers I admire and respect were communicating in their texts that active readers should do.
So here we are. We each have a unique story behind what we create, what we dream of writing, the story we desperately want to emerge from ourselves as pure and whole as possible. It’s always comforting to me to know that other people have navigated these waters before, that much of the territory has already been charted, but there’s still so much more we might add, our own stories to contribute.
I hope this helps you think through your story in a new way and encourages you to pursue sharing it, whether fiction, fantasy, or, more likely, somewhere in between.