Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Original unoriginality

Thinking more of what I wrote yesterday about the unmarketability of my ideas, I considered the ways in which Lusternia is, and isn't, original.

By and large, all the familiar concepts from fantasy (and especially fantasy roleplaying games) are present, and in their familiar configurations. You have the same conflicts, the same imagery, the same types of characters, the same symbols, and the same concepts. Almost all the skills are cribbed from some aspect of fantasy or pseudoscience: the Runes skill draws heavily from Scandinavian runes, the Highmagic skill from Qabala, the Astrology skill from Ptolemy's vision of astrology, and so on. Cosmology elements are swiped from Tolkein, Lovecraft, Hinduism, and CNN.

And all these elements, swiped shamelessly from so many sources, end up arranged in familiar patterns. The forestal Great Spirits are aligned with meanings similar to that in Celtic myth, despite their juxtaposition against and association with elements from Hindu and Native American myths, so that everything ends up comfortable. Necromancy ends up associated with the forces of evil, even though its origins are not associated with evil. Angels and demons have just the same characteristics one expects despite the absence of Judeo-Christian origins.

(There's one notable exception. The four elements are present and have an important role, each of the cities associated with them and their mages tied to them, but they don't have the usual meanings. Air and fire do, actually: the city of air is full of people very logical and thoughtful, while the city of fire is wild and unconstrainted. But water has no associations with emotions or change, instead being tied to the stars and the Light, and associated with a very scholarly race. And earth has no overtones of healing, nature, or even resilience; it is, for historical reasons, the element of the Taint, the incarnation of what passes for Evil in Lusternia.)

What's really original about Lusternia is thus not the elements in it, nor their arrangement. Instead, it's a very original cosmology and story whose entire purpose seems to be to explain the presence and arrangement of all of the familiar elements. That is a brilliant solution and I give kudos to Estarra, the creator, for it. It means that Lusternia is steeped in familiar, comfortable, compelling elements, and you can make a character that's just like your favorite character from a book, from an AD&D game, or from your own personal beliefs, if you happen to run that way.

But the reasons why all those things exist, and why they are aligned as they are, are new and unique to Lusternia. And more importantly, and a bigger contrast to other games, there is a reason for it. (At least most of it. A few things just happen to be that way.) Which not only justifies all those familiar things, it adds new dimensions, gives you new perspectives on them. It tricks you into exploring some original stuff, by luring you in with the familiarity and then letting you consider the ramifications of the original explanations and origins for those familiar elements.

I've done the same thing to some extent many times. For instance, the starting concept for one of my roleplaying campaigns, ...And Hope To Die, derived from a few familiar elements I wanted new explanations for. (The first, the inspiration for the whole campaign: why do fantasy worlds tend to have all the animals and plants we have, plus a few extras? Why not have the mystical properties derive from the same animals and plants?) But even that campaign, which "coincidentally" ended up being a fairly conventional medeival fantasy world (albeit one with dangerous aardvarks instead of dragons), had a whole series of explanations (starting with a rogue mage in Ireland getting his hands on a book of Chinese magic during the time of the Black Plague) that led to lots of interesting and unexpected consequences overlaying the familiar castles, mages, warriors, and politics.

But even then, I tend to turn the knob a lot farther from "familiar" than Lusternia does. I include enough familiar elements to provide a hook, but more than that, to make the unfamiliar parts more striking. Dwarves as egg-layers with an insect-like hive mind? It makes perfect sense, and explains many of the things about how dwarves are traditionally depicted, but it also tends to make people reel. My worlds, when they aren't intentionally hewing close to a genre to milk every bit out of its tropes, tend to do that. Which is one of the reasons I would probably be able to make a popular MUD only because I set out to do so, not because of inspiration.

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