Beyond Default D&D: Worldbuilding Made Better

The release of 5th Edition has both enabled and benefited from a revival in Dungeons & Dragons across the world. On the whole, I think, 5th Edition is a good system, possibly the best D&D system released yet. Certainly it has the smoothest gameplay and is the most accessible and easiest to use. (Disclaimer: I have never played 4th Edition and do not know it well, nor Pathfinder, so those may be competitors for all I know.) Besides the mechanics, my main concern is really with worldbuilding. While roleplaying itself is fun, for me the juice, the real vigour is in the worldbuilding that provides the context for the roleplaying, and this goes especially for D&D given its high fantasy setting. Few things are more reliant on doing well-established tropes well as high fantasy is: after all, being tropey is precisely the point of that genre, and D&D has always recognized this (as does Shadowrun, for that matter).

Given that fact, there are certainly things to be satisfied about from that point of view in 5th Edition. Although it is not new for this edition, getting rid of the bizarre ‘race’ based restrictions on class is a clear step forward in general: no longer can gnomes, for some unaccountable reason, only cast arcane spells as illusionists, as was the case in 2nd Ed. They have also decided to abandon negative racial modifiers, leaving in place the racial bonus system but removing the malus, which strikes perhaps the best balance between the demands of the trope (why else bother with the idea of separate ‘racial types’?) and the understandable desire to not associate the term with negative attributes. One can wonder whether using the term race in this context at all is still appropriate and helpful. ‘Subspecies’ might sound too clinical or biological, but something like ‘physical nature’ or simply ‘character type’ would do just fine, especially given how vague terms like ‘class’ and ‘archetype’ already are anyway. But that is not what I want to talk about here. I have a few enduring frustrations with the worldbuilding assumptions of what I call default D&D, and I want to rant about those here instead. Continue reading “Beyond Default D&D: Worldbuilding Made Better”

The Lord of the Rings: An Unreliable Narrative. Part I


Everyone who enjoys fantasy stories thinks they know the world and narrative structure depicted in The Lord of the Rings (LotR) by J.R.R. Tolkien. The real fans and obsessives are intimately familiar with Middle Earth, not just in the details depicted in LotR, but also in the arguably equally canonical work The Silmarillion (S), never mind of course The Hobbit (H). However, even if one takes the world as presented by the author for granted on its own terms, it is by no means certain that this is the case. What I want to propose is that one can read the world of Middle Earth in a different way, using the materials presented to us by Tolkien in the canonical works mentioned above, but in a way that he did not himself consider. That is to say, a number of central theses can be applied to the world with some critical plausibility that would change the whole perspective on the nature of Middle Earth. These are that the central narrative of LotR is an unreliable narration; that this narration is made unreliable by the combination of ignorance and bias on the part of its central narrators, which can be established plausibly from the text itself; that in recognizing and correcting for this according to philological and anthropological procedure, one can derive a different perspective on Middle Earth, its central figures and motivations as presented in LotR and the other works; that this affects not just the view of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the main narratives from Middle Earth, but also the status of the different higher and lower order narratives themselves; and that finally, this can be done by using the criteria of canonicity presented by the world as depicted in the narratives themselves. Continue reading “The Lord of the Rings: An Unreliable Narrative. Part I”

Book Review: Saladin Ahmed, “Throne of the Crescent Moon”

Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is both something new and something very familiar in the genre of fantasy. Inspired as much by the fairytales of medieval Arabia and Persia as by the plot structures of high fantasy, the result is an engaging mixture. Featuring swashbuckling dervishes, powerful alchemists, and a ponderous ghoul hunter looking for retirement as the main protagonist, the book is as fast-paced and full of action as one might demand, and kept me up all night to finish it despite the present ravages of a bad cold virus. To be sure, Ahmed is unembarrassed about the use of classic fantasy tropes, albeit restructured into a loose allegory of the medieval Arab world – but what the book perhaps lacks in depth it more than makes up for in charm. The variegated characters are lively and engaging, although somewhat one-dimensional, and the writing achieves a surprising degree of emotional seriousness for what is a fairly unpretentious fantasy novel. This is aided by the emphasis on the religious dimension of life in the world of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, something traditionally underplayed in action-oriented fantasy. (The religion, of course, is an immediately recognizable adaptation of Islam.) Continue reading “Book Review: Saladin Ahmed, “Throne of the Crescent Moon””