Friday, 10 March 2017
Fantastical Tone: The Hobbit or The Call of Cthulhu?
Not wishing to turn into Derrida all of a sudden, but you see binaries everywhere. Up and down, left and right, big and small, black and white, inside and out, tragic and comic... One of the first things every child learning an instrument discovers is that there are major and minor keys, with major being happy and minor being sad.
Tone matters. There are all kinds of fantasy books, of course, all kinds of settings. But if you were interested in that sort of thing, I think you could divide them between two tonal ancestors in the form of Tolkien and Lovecraft, or, more specifically The Hobbit and "Call of Cthulhu". Modern fantasy divides along those lines.
The Hobbit is an optimistic book. And I don't just mean it has a happy ending. It has an optimistic disposition. It's important to take it in isolation from The Lord of the Rings, here: The Hobbit in its original form was not a book about saving the world. It is a book about an adventure. It's a book about fun. Breaking out of your shell and getting out there and seeing what's going on in exotic places you've never heard of. There is peril and sadness and death, but that's not going to detract from the underlying philosophy: the world is a good place once you get out of the front door. The Hobbit is composed in a major key.
"Call of Cthulhu" is a pessimistic story. It reveals a universe which is indifferent to us, and which is mainly best hidden; adventure in that world leads at best to insanity, and all it's really going to do for you is lift the veil on the fact that life is meaningless and there are lots of hideous unfathomable menaces out there. The universe is a bad, bad place. It's composed in a minor key.
Most if not all OSR settings draw on the "Call of Cthulhu" well much more than that of The Hobbit. Which is odd, when you think about it, because at the end of the day OSR gaming is all about adventure - hexcrawls and dungeon-delving and all that. Yet it is there, and it gives OSR games, I think, a distinctively arch and ironic character: the PCs may be adventuring, but they are basically either doing it for self-centered reasons (get gold and XP) or because they are half- or fully mad. Nobody sensible or normal would want to go adventuring in your average OSR setting because of all the potentially terrible things that could happen to you - the "adventure" is a test for the wits of the player framed by a general sense of wry humour and interest in what is happening as a disinterested observer.
There is nothing wrong with this at all - my games are like that most of the time - but I think something that we (I'll include myself in this despite not really liking the "OSR" label) do pretty badly is a major-key, The Hobbit approach to world building and adventure: discovering amazing things, going to weird places, doing great things, for the sake of it. Not so much going into the megadungeon to try to gather wealth and see what fucked up situations the PCs get into, but going in search of the Elixir of Youth (or whatever) because it's a great excuse to see the world which the DM (or the random tables, or the boxed set) has created.