I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things that draw me to my favorite pieces of media. Whether they are games, books, movies, or otherwise I think I’ve finally been able to pinpoint what makes something become one of my favorites. There’s a common thread in the things that I find myself drawn to the most, and it seems to weave itself in the opposite direction of the trends I see in modern games and media in general. Anyway, I figured I haven’t sat down and blogged in a while so here we go.
I’m going to come right out of the gate here with an earth-shattering statement: in fiction, not everything needs to be explained. Yes this falls right in line with my mantra of “games are for fun” and probably surprises no one, but I truly believe that there’s immeasurable value in pithiness. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a Goldilocks zone for explaining how things work. If there’s not enough explanation it can make things feel generic and trite, but if you go too far it in the opposite direction robs material of its charm.
I know you might be thinking ‘but Jerry, understanding the delicate ecosystems of a kobold warren is riveting!‘ or ‘hey, understanding midi-chlorians is the best part of the Star Wars universe!‘ but spare me your knee-jerk reactions, dear reader, and let me explain myself first! All that I’m getting at is that when you leave just enough information for a reader (or a viewer) to let their imaginations fill in the gaps, that not only are you adding variety, color, and intrigue into your fiction, but you’re also making it more personal for everyone involved. Let me explain with a few examples.
A Magic Sword in an Elf Game
Just last night I was playing Forbidden Lands, an excellent OSR-style fantasy RPG published by Fria Ligan that focuses on the perils of overland travel, harrowing battles, intrigue-stuffed adventure sites, and attempting to survive in a world that’s far from accommodating. Luckily there’s treasure and lots of opportunities for memorable tales along the way to balance out all those hurdles. I’m new to the system so I’m still absorbing a handful of its mechanics but last night we came across a magic item that was so evocative to me I had to stop for a moment and bore my friends by just appreciating it. The description of this magical longsword managed to accomplish sparking more of my imagination in 2 sentences, than many items from other games have done in quadruple that amount.
Why is it called Rustbite? It does additional damage against demons and those tainted by demons, is that because it’s cursed or blessed? It ignores metal armor, but why? Was it forged by some illicit process or with some profane magic? Is it imbued with a spirit that abhors metallic items? When a character fells someone with the sword it drains their empathy, does this mean it saps a bit of their soul away causing them to become more monstrous themselves?
These were just a few of the questions I had but it left my mind trickling in with little ideas about it for the rest of our game session. There’s not much explanation to go by here, but it’s more than enough to send you down a mental rabbit hole wondering about how the blade came to be. Speaking of monstrous though, let’s move on to exhibit B.
Orks Are Fungus
I’ve recently found myself back within the plasticine clutches of Warhammer 40,000 and its expensive-yet-relaxing aspects of painting hobby miniatures and rolling fistfulls of dice. Yes, it’s partly fueled by nostalgia, partly fueled by wanting to share these games with my kids, partly by a global pandemic and not being able to leave my house much, but it’s also fueled by the sheer joy I find from the ridiculousness of the game’s universe.
My wife was once a Space Orks player because she thinks they’re “cute”, she also used to play Trollbloods when we were into Privateer Press’ Hordes for the same reason. She’s also a mega-fan of Ludo from The Labyrinth so I guess you could say she’s got a thing for big, dumb, brutish guys with hardened exteriors and soft / quirky insides. Actually…as I write this I’m experiencing a profound and deeply rooted epiphany about why we’ve been married for so long.
Anyway, what I’m getting at here is after re-examining the orks and what draws me to them is their inherent absurdity. As per official Warhammer 40,000 lore, space orks are actually a symbiotic species of fungus. This makes no fucking sense and it’s marvelous. I don’t need or want any further explanation because whatever questions I have about it just make me smile thinking about them. I like that.
Behind the Curtain
“You don’t show the monster too many times because you’ll get used to him and you never want to get used to him — ever. ~ Ridley Scott on Alien.
I feel like this quote encapsulates so much about what not only the darkened / horror genres mean to me, but it really sums up the reason why our seeking the unknown sometimes greatly exceeds the emotional attachment of things we can anticipate, see, and understand. When you leave things up to the imagination, whether it’s a demon sword, or how orc fungus works, or what the bad guy looks like or how it came into existence you’re leaving a seed to plant in the minds of the people reading/playing/watching what you’ve created.
To me this leaves a much longer lasting impression on people than when you explain the centuries-long history of the sword, how strains of fungus become sentient warmongers with cockney British accents, or the exact chemical composition of the primordial ooze the beast crawled from. When things go that far I begin to lose interest, because then it feels like homework. Then it feels like if I don’t ‘get it right’ that I’ll be doing a disservice to the canon of the thing I like or some other such worrisome pedantic bullshit I honestly don’t have time to harbor in the back of my brain.
On a final note of scary monsters and the unknown, let’s first take a moment to acknowledge that H.P. Lovecraft was a racist fuckboat and his xenophobia is not something to be celebrated. However, his contributions to fiction are unfortunately undeniable in that he realized that manifesting the unknown is perhaps one of our greatest motivators. While not specifically dealing with fear here, lacking details is what makes us ponder, it’s what makes us create, and it’s what drives us into new territory. Which is why leaving some things unsaid, unspoken, and undefined in our bodies of fiction lead to greatness.
SIDEBAR MOVIE NERD TANGENT: One other nearly-unrelated take away from this is that if you're going to hold off on the big shot that shows your bad guy in all of their terror and majesty, make it worth it. Netflix's The Ritual is a prime, modern example of how to do this right. Make sure the CG is impenetrable or don't do it at all. Time will not be kind to those who look back on your purely-CGI bad guy. Lookin' at you Azog the Defiler. When it comes to special effects in general, this may be my 30-something-boomer tendencies talking here, but practical effects sometimes far outdo rendered ones. From the transformation in American Werewolf in London or The Fly, the gore in Tremors, the slime in Alien (and countless other films), and the absolutely bonkers body horror in John Carpenter's The Thing; while all are not extremely convincing they certainly make my skin crawl more than most modern CGI.
Keep me In The Dark, Please?
So yes, after much rumination I now realize that one of main reasons I gravitate toward tabletop RPGs like Shadow of the Demon Lord, Mork Borg, or Forbidden Lands is because I want to be starved for details. I want just enough information to make me understand the motivations of an NPC but I don’t want to know their life story, I want just enough text to describe a spell so that I understand its vibe but I don’t need diagrams or granular explanation of how it interacts with X, Y, or Z. I can gather that “conjure flame” might be able to set things on fire, please don’t waste precious design space explaining that to me explicitly, thanks.
When it comes to other media I really want to be entertained of course, but I also want to be left wondering. I want to form my own theories and conclusions. I don’t understand the obsession with having to know every detail about fictional universes. I simply don’t care about who installed the toilets in the tardis or how the Jedi bloodline works or that there even is one. It’s exhausting, just give me ‘cool space wizards’ and leave it at that. On the contrary, of course I also do realize that when a franchise ascends to the absurd levels of popularity such as Star Wars or the MCU that there needs to be further and further explanations in order to satiate a rabid fanbase.
However, even in these cases I feel like franchises of such magnitude it simply makes more room to tell a wider array of stories, like The Mandalorian. Rather than constantly delving deeper and deeper into every granule of the a few characters’ backstories or how the universe was formed (literally) resulting in all sorts of retcons, inconsistencies, and wasted words we could just be using to expand upon other aspects of these worlds look like. I completely understand that this drive likely stems from wanting to be able to draw parallels into our own lives, and I respect that, it’s just not for me.
I’ll leave off by saying that stand up comedy has been getting me through this pandemic one day at a time and while I was recently revisiting some of my all-time favorite comedians I realized there’s a bit that almost perfectly encapsulates everything I’m talking about here within the span of 4 and a half minutes. It can be boiled down to one a single line:
“I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from, I just love the stuff I love!”
Of course outside of fiction this is all very different of course, but that’s a post for another day. Until then, stay safe, be kind, and game excellently with one another.