[Tales of Entropy] Intentionally breaking genre

I've been showcasing some of my Tales of Entropy scenarios now that there's some in English, too. Entropy is this dramatic blood opera story game that combines pre-written scenario seeds with player-created social maps. It's a clean and simple design in many respects, and thus a good platform for discussing various creative issues. Here are the last two threads about this, for reference:

Farcical Roleplaying
Movie Adaptation

The scenario I wish to discuss today is called Lords of Midnight. It's the longest Entropy scenario to date, which sort of reflects my own passion for the subject matter, but also the fact that the aesthetic impact of the scenario rather requires establishing a lot of detail. Scenarios in Entropy have a hard length limit, as you're supposed to read the scenario aloud at the beginning of play; you probably shouldn't go any longer than this, frankly.

It's also the first and only scenario I've written directly and only in English so far. If you're familiar with the high fantasy genre, you might realize that it revolves around poetic expression a lot; I simply didn't feel like translating all the proper nouns back and forth.

imageimageLords of Midnight is a classic computer strategy game, so this is another one of these "movie adaptation" scenarios that we've been discussing lately. It is also a high fantasy work famously derivative of The Lord of the Rings, although I would recommend not letting that turn you off - I, at least, find the earnest thematic and poetic similarity heartening more than cloying. It is simply useful for me to have a well-written (if at times just a bit cheesy) ersatz LotR epic on hand for those times when the original would be too familiar and well-trodden.

(Speaking of, if you actually know about Lords of Midnight without me having to tell you, please raise your hand. I sort of expected it when the Finnish guys all thought that I'd invented this stuff myself, but then again I simply cannot believe that I would be the only roleplayer alive who remembers this game. It's not that obscure, even if it is old.)

By the way, I recommend checking out my other recent thread about a classic high fantasy work that I adapted into a rpg form, The Chronicles of Prydain in 4th edition D&D. There are some very interesting, very non-accidental parallels between all these high fantasy game adaptations, whether we're speaking of the original gangster or these other luminaries of the genre.

Anyway, my talking points on Lords of Midnight:
* We discussed adapting Lord of the Rings earlier. Well, this isn't quite LotR, but it's so close you could do a search-and-replace on the proper nouns and end up with an entirely legible Tolkien fan fiction.
* The council scene is one of the high points of high fantasy, clearly: in Tolkien we have the Council of Elrond, here in Midnight we have the Council of the Wise, and even in my Prydain campaign I actually had to invent a new council scene to have a solid starting point for the campaign. (Not that there aren't canonical councils in the novels there, too.)
* Adapting Lords of Midnight into Tales of Entropy is an idea that drips dramatic irony: we know indisputably that the abrupt, rude blood opera game will do horrible, horrible things to the romantic epic that the story tries to be.

That last point is what I want to particularly highlight: I think that a narrativist story game like Tales of Entropy benefits much more of creative challenges than it does with creative conformism. Certain types of discord, the right sorts of cracks in the fundament, can be valuable. Asking players to preserve the true spirit of Midnight or Middle-Earth through a game that would be just right for expressing Game of Thrones is a worthwhile creative challenge that requires you to sort your thematic priorities and create something entirely new out of old lego blocks. Instead of having the game support you in being noble, spiritual and brave, you have the game asking all the cynical, postmodern questions, and it's up to you to answer them in a way that preserves that high fantasy spirit.

This creative power is actually at the core of playing responsibility-mandating story games (whether GMed or GMless) like this at all: the only one who has the power to make the elves noble and the dark lord fearsome is you. You can't just sleep-walk through the game. This is less obvious when the rules and the genre match up cleanly, but it's there all the same. A high contrast between the assumed genre of the game and the subject material just brings the personal creative responsibility to high relief, as you have to fight harder to be able to preserve anything.

(If my point seems elusive, it might be more concrete if I express its complement as well: a game like Call of Cthulhu or Middle-Earth Roleplaying Game does nothing for your self-expressive faculties, because every shred of attention and empowerment those games offer you is for doing justice to the original material. A game that concords with its literary genre in that way never demands you to say it in your own words and affirm what the setting means; it merely wants you to passively accept the game's interpretation.)

Comments

  • Also, for those who read the scenario, a few feedback questions:

    1) Are you familiar with Lords of Midnight from before?
    2) Do you find the interpretation here compelling?
    3) Given the scenario, and the Entropy requirement of creating your character as a nemesis of another, who would you create as your player character?

    I realize that Doomdark, the Witch-King of Midnight, is sort of obvious as an answer to the third question. Given that, perhaps the question should be: if another player has already picked Doomdark, who's your pick for the third character in the story, and does he stand in opposition to Luxor or Doomdark...
  • On "The one who has the power to make the elves noble (...)" : creative challenge posits competent players. Reciprocally : ME RPG posits you'll never reach "Tolkien's level" (whatever that level would measure).
    1) no
    2) not particularly : too verbal for me, too crypto-Tolkienite. And "eldritch"... really ?
    3) A king of men hesitating to go to war.
    Given Doom dark as #2, Starlight, a magical gem with psychic extra dimensional powers in the hands of a Fairy queen.
  • On "The one who has the power to make the elves noble (...)" : creative challenge posits competent players. Reciprocally : ME RPG posits you'll never reach "Tolkien's level" (whatever that level would measure).
    I definitely agree on that. It is one of the most important creative identity distinctions in roleplaying, whether it is a "one smart guy entertains a room full of dumpfkopfs" thing or a "room full of creative guys" thing. You get entirely different games depending on which one you're pursuing.

    Nice character pitches - those are legit ideas, thanks.
  • Eero,

    I very much like the idea of intentionally breaking genre. However, this scenario is the least appealing to me, of the ones I've seen. A big part of that may be because of the limited scope and strength of the Heroic Fantasy Narrative, and a bigger part may be my total unfamiliarity with Lords of Midnight.

    1) No.
    2) As someone unfamiliar with the game, it reads like a ripoff of Tolkien, without most of the things I liked in Tolkien - an amateur attempt at imitation, borderline tasteless.
    3) I'm not entirely sure, but my angle would be to immediately work against the assumptions of the genre. There should be, perhaps, a rival for the leadership of the Good Guys - someone who doesn't recognize the authority of the people who created the Plan, but has an entirely different take on things.

    I feel that this scenario has too much in it, tying is into so many background histories, secondary characters and themes that it feels a little stifling. Trying to add a character to it *without simply reinforcing the implied narrative* feels forced.

    Instead of a new character expanding or extending the situation, it feels like I need to either take on one of the existing characters (which means awkwardly subverting all the stuff we already know about them) or shoehorn in a new one, which threatens to get overwhelming.

    Having said all that, I'd probably go with Morkin as my PC, but create some source of conflict between him and another. Maybe he feels betrayed or abused, or has some bad blood with Rothron or Corleth? Or perhaps he secretly hates Luxor, and wishes to take over by becoming the most important person in this scheme? (Heck, maybe he paid off or ensorcelled Rothron and/or Corleth to lie about his special magical status, in order to make himself seem important...)

    None of those feel particularly good to me, or terribly inspiring. I'm struggling with this one; it's not hooking me.

    Some kind of intrigue among the "Good Guys" seems necessary here, but adding it in feels a little forced.
  • To add to that:

    For my tastes, rather than seeing a detailed recapitulation of the plot in the game (which is what this seems like to me), I'd rather a scenario like this LED with a clever genre-breaking idea, to get the ball rolling, so that the players could then react to it in interesting ways.

    For example, if our scenario was the Council of Elrond, I might lead with, "In the morning, as you all gather, Elrond reveals that the Ring before us all... is a forgery. Is he telling the truth? Has he taken the real one for himself? Or has someone else among those gathered swapped it during the night? Was the whole thing a hoax to begin with, orchestrated by Gandalf? Is anyone, suspiciously, missing from the gathering? Is an emissary of the Dark Lord approaching, and could they be fooled into thinking that it IS the One Ring?"

    Not a great example, but hopefully illustrative of what would excite me more than a great deal of background information about the setting of the game itself.

    I can imagine someone familiar with the game might react entirely differently, of course.
  • (Alternately - just to brainstorm - it might be good to start this scenario far earlier: here's a fellow with a bloodline which could make him King, here's someone who's had their memory erased, here's a magical ring, and here's someone who knows about destinies and such: now what happens when they meet up? Take these as building blocks and let the players assemble them. Leave the whole, "Ok, here's my plan for defeating the Bad Guy!" up to play, in other words, instead of leading with it. "Let's get the guy who's able to carry the Ring to go into the Bad Place", in this model, is the possible outcome of our scenario, not its starting point.)
  • Familiarity (nostalgia?) with the original IP might play a part, but I have an alternate theory, too: it's that people don't generally like this genre (neo-chivalric high fantasy) very much. Tolkien sort of gets a pass for being so culturally important and a common touchstone, but he's getting kinda dusty for current tastes, isn't he, when you think about actually grabbing a book and reading it? I generally see people liking the various concepts like elves and ringwraiths and so on much more than the relatively impersonal, epic-smacking treatment. (Epic not in the sense of a generally positive adjective, but rather as an ancient literary genre - that sort of "epic" modern audiences tend to often find pretty boring.)

    I have no problem with people not liking Lords of Midnight, you understand - I enjoy it myself for how earnest and uncomplicated it is in its genre (plus for it being a clever strategy game), but accounting for taste is a complex and rarely useful task. If the simple and clear poetics (eternal winter, a slight tinge of science fiction, justifications for a wargame set-up, a fantasy map with lots of exotic-sounding names, all the little ways it differs from LotR, etc.) don't entertain, then there's not really much more there to work with.

    Thinking about the creative interest that I see in Lords of Midnight for myself, I think it's specifically that it's something that defines a scope similar to Lord of the Rings without really setting much in stone within that scope. It's an opportunity to work with a more vague and less revered lego set. What's the deal with the Forest of Kor? Your task is to paint that picture yourself starting from a limited yet well-defined set of aesthetic precepts (it's basically all in that scenario text, there is nothing else to start with). Could there be dinosaurs there? How would they deal with the eternal winter? But maybe it's not winter in the Forest of Kor for some reason? I don't know, but I'm interested in seeing what kinds of fantasy poetics the other players might pick, working with something so much less defined than the Middle-Earth would be.

    But be that as it may, I am 100% in accord with the idea that it's tricky to work this type of material in a blood opera game. The literary structure of a high fantasy epic is very different by nature to the superhero logic that games like Entropy work under. That's part of the charm for me, though, as I've described. Doing a high fantasy game with high fantasy rules with an intent of being purely high fantasy (as opposed to being something unexpected) comes periously close to something that I could do in my sleep, so giving the Deadwood treatment to the entire affair seems like a fun thing to do.
  • As a data point, I'd heard about Lords of Midnight, and perhaps once even tried to play it - for like 5 minutes, through some emulator of sorts - but couldn't really figure out how to before losing interest. My memories are hazy, though. There's something about it I find aesthetically attractive, to a degree, so that I don't entirely rule out giving it a second chance. Also, didn't a (much later) sequel exist too? I have extremely vague memories of it being visually appealing, but perhaps all I've seen are screenshots in magazines.
  • Eero,

    I hear you on the appeal of doing "generic epic fantasy" (in whatever particular flavour) and then intentionally breaking genre. I find that a really interesting premise!

    I'm just commenting on the particular presentation and the details of this scenario, specifically. It doesn't work for me. However, that could well have to do with my lack of familiarity with the source material. (For instance, I thought the "Fellowship of the Bling" was a hoot, because I'm a big Tolkien fan! That hardly makes any more sense, now does it? :) )
  • Also, didn't a (much later) sequel exist too? I have extremely vague memories of it being visually appealing, but perhaps all I've seen are screenshots in magazines.
    The game has an immediate sequel called Doomdark's Revenge, which is basically technologically same as the first game. (Despite the name it does not feature Doomdark the Witch-King, but rather his daughter who's bent on revenge.)

    The third game in the series is probably what you're thinking of - the name's Lords of Midnight: The Citadel, I think, and it came out almost ten years after the first two. Unlike the first games, which were created by Mike Singleton alone, Citadel was a more intensely graphical PC game of the early '90s era. I've never played it myself, but I hear that it's as one might expect - more creatively vague and generic than its predecessors.

    Nowadays the game is also available as a cheap remake for modern computers and smart phones. The remake is graphically basically the same as the original game, but it's got modern user interface and just a bit more in-game interface, which I judge would make it just about possible to play for a modern player. I recommend giving it a try - despite its simplicity the game does some unique things compared to more modern games.
  • Here's an idea I got from this discussion and especially from our IRC conversation:

    For a "large" IP like Lord of the Rings or even Lords of Midnight, a scenario written straight to the original IP will entertain greatly those who are familiar with the original IP and really like it. On the other hand, for those that it doesn't, the effect could be the exact opposite.

    My reasoning behind this is that epic scale IPs can't really be squeezed into the Entropy scenario format without losing too much of the original content. It is like trying to write a novel but having only a short story to work with.

    This brings up another point. Texts that really relate to short stories, moods and elements that really can be captured using only few words could work much better when we talk about capturing the interest of the majority of the readers.


    1) No
    2) I find it interesting as a prose but very difficult as a starting point for players if I would play this scenario. As Paul said, it has lots of background information given, almost too much to really memorize and keep when plotting new scenes and events.
    3) I would pick the Moon Ring as my character. Perhaps it has a hidden agenda lurking somewhere.
  • Interesting to hear Petteri's take on this!

    I'll keep thinking about it. My current feeling is that the infodump seems a little heavy-handed without the context presented (presumably) by the original story.

    Something about the way it is presented seems to leave very little room for invention, to me. Playing any one of those NPCs feels like I would have to subvert the NPC's role to make a viable character, and that feels rather forced. But adding a new character seems like adding irrelevant side-items to the story being presented. It feels very constrictive to me, instead of inspiring.
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