2005-08-30 : Coming-of-age Fantasy for Adults

(It's taken me a week to get back on the horse.)

My favorite set of fantasy fiction tropes - well, my second-favorite - is the "Dark Ages Britain" one, the tribal or clannish Iron-age Celtic/Welsh/Brit one, you know the one I mean? You probably first encountered it where I did, in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books. It's got some great stuff in it: the King of Death and undead armies, ignoble and strange fairy creatures, mortal kings fallen from their past glory, enchantresses flawed and sexy, scary goddess-crone-witches, animals and people tortured out of their natural nobility, rune-sticks and oracular pigs, someone sacrificing the thing he or she loves, someone else showing nobility we never expected, the brown man of the woods, uncanny havens from war and violence you'll never find except by desperate luck. Prydain like I say; the fantastic elements in Susan Cooper's the Dark is Rising and Alan Garner's the Weirdstone of Brisingamen; it underlies the best Arthurian stories, like Gawain and the Green Knight or Gawain and the Loathly Lady; even strip the Germanic stuff and the D&D out of the Lord of the Rings and it's there too.

Formative stuff for me.

So here's one: The Dreamstone by C.J. Cherryh. Maybe not a great book, maybe a fine book, that hardly matters, the point is that it's a grown-up book that hits many of Prydain's notes. I was rereading it a few weeks ago, thinking about this third RPG I'm working on, and a scene in it struck me.

Our hero seizes his rightful holdings - a little hill fortress and surrounding farms - in battle from his cousin. We see the scene from the point of view of the cousin's wife though, and what she does is, she locks herself and her children into her inner room. Her husband's enemies have taken the hall and are putting her husband's men to the sword, and - pay attention - there's a real possibility that they're going to murder her sons and rape and enslave or murder her daughters and herself. It's a grim and fearful thing, she has no hope for mercy and no way to protect herself or her children.

And I'm like, what if, what if...

So, this fantasy RPG I'm working on, right? Not the Ars Magica ripoff, the other one, working title The Dragon Killer, subtitle "coming-of-age fantasy for adults." The first thing you write on your character sheet is "I'm a boy," "I'm a girl," "I'm a man," "I'm a woman," or "I'm a creature." The point of play is "what does it mean to be a woman, what does it mean to be a man?" As players, we look at the stories of the boys, girls, men, women, and creatures we play, and we reflect: who is really a woman, who is really a man? Why? How did they come to be? Thus the subtitle: coming-of-age, for adults. We all care about this stuff, it's serious and real. I struggle with it in my life, in my relationships, raising my sons. I want to share the struggle with the men and women in my life, I want their honesty and reflection. I want the kind of deep access to their hearts that roleplaying can give you.

Rape has to be on the table.

It's not the only thing that does, of course. Love does. But sex and violence, that's what adulthood is made of. Sex is obvious, but violence too: how many stories have we heard that go " I took a baseball bat to him, and he never laid a hand on me or my mother again"? That story is about manhood.

So, yes. Sex, violence, rape. I have to handle it not with delicacy, but with honesty, without coyness or prurience or snickering. I'm inspired by the way Under the Bed handles child abuse, for instance. Or consider the way (if I may) Dogs handles gender. Presented as is, not idealized or romanticized, or demonized either. Problematic and real.

(That's completely unlike how Dogs handles rape, of course. Rape + judgement = violent revenge and capital punishment fantasies. Rightly or wrongly. Including rape in your Dogs town is and will always be a provocation. "I'm a right mean bastard," it says. "Are you? What are you going to do about it?" In Dogs, rape is demonized exactly.)

But rape + adulthood, though. Rape + adulthood = ???

One last thought: I know several people who, in their early roleplaying, had a character raped, and hated it. I know several more people for whom rape figured in their early roleplaying not quite so directly, but it was still ugly. How cool would it be - how useful - to have a game where we can take that shit on directly, now that we're adults?

1. On 2005-08-30, Piers said:


It's interesting how Taran Wanderer, by far the most low-key of all the Prydain series, is actually the pivot point around which the whole set of books turns.  It's the book in which Taran learns what it means to be a man, and comes to terms the fact that he doesn't come from a noble linaeage, and that that is alright.

As for dealing with rape:  Another thing I think that needs inclusion, and which allows us to sort of sidle up to some of the issues, is arranged marriages—particularly ones in which at least one of the spouses is definitely not in love with the other one, but they have to make do.

It's a Dogs issue too, but again, by stepping away from judgement and having to deal with and accomodate the experience in your life.

Also worth reading: John Christopher's Sword of Spirits Trilogy, which is actually a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Arthur story, but told at the end from the point of view of the spurned husband; the man who was once King, who has lost his wife and his country to his best friend, and as the books end is now a grown man—firm in his resolve to take them back.

I read it at about the same age as the other books you mention, and it put its print on me.


2. On 2005-08-30, Vincent said:

I read other John Christopher as a kid - the Tripod books, what were the names of them?

Arranged marriages: yes. Yes.


3. On 2005-08-30, Piers said:

When the Tripods Came/ the White Mountains/ the City of Gold and Lead/ the Pool of Fire

They're his most famous books.  For some reason I never got around to reading the last one.  Not in the library—but that is hardly an excuse.

Again with the growing up—and thus very much the opposite of those children's books where growing up is the thing you never do: esp. CS Lewis.


4. On 2005-08-30, Ben Lehman said:

So this is the one that I'm really excited about.

I'll totally do the bibliography thing in a bit.



5. On 2005-08-30, Matt Snyder said:

Prydain Chronicles! Yes! Formative for me, too.

Oh, and if this is up your alley, go read Gene Wolfe's latest, The Knight. Best fantasy book I've read in a couple years, though I haven't hit the second volume The Wizard yet.

It's about a teen from modern America who finds himself fuddling through memory and exploring a fantasy realm.

Given your post, you MUST read this book. It's very much what you're talking about. Besides, it's really, really good!


6. On 2005-08-30, Neel said:

It's not the only thing that does, of course. Love does. But sex and violence, that's what adulthood is made of. Sex is obvious, but violence too: how many stories have we heard that go " I took a baseball bat to him, and he never laid a hand on me or my mother again"? That story is about manhood.

I think that is exactly a story about adolescence. See, a child is someone who is fundamentally dependent upon others to maintain the moral order, and takes it as a given. A child transitions into adolescence, when they learn that this isn't automatic, that they have to be the people that ensure that the moral order of their community is upheld. You get adulthood when you learn how to deal fairly and honorably with the Other—the people who are outside your interpersonal community. It's emotionally colder, necessarily, because now you're dealing with people you don't have a connection with, and you're stuck with operating based on principle rather than emotional connection.

An interesting point of comparison is the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of the development of moral reasoning. He divides moral reasoning into 6 stages, and tracks how they evolve. Children are typically at stages 1 or 2, and during adolescence and early adulthood people learn to reason at stages 3 and 4, and occasionally some people hit 5 or 6.

Now, the really interesting bit for rpgs is that simply listening to moral judgements doesn't change the level at which people think. Instead, you need to find a situation in which reasoning suggests something different from moral intuition, and you have to figure out how to resolve the contradiction....


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VB go "there is a man in the story..."*
NK go "Who?"*
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SLB go "The problem with Kohlberg..."*

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7. On 2005-08-30, Ben Lehman said:

You must read Song for a Dark Queen and all books by the same author.



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8. On 2005-08-30, Vincent said:

I've read several of Rosemary Sutcliffe's books - her Robin Hood book and her whole King Arthur series, I forget now all their titles. Maybe The Shining Company too.

I'll find Song for a Dark Queen.


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9. On 2005-08-30, Jay Loomis said:

Prydain rules, and was/is a huge influence with me too. However, for coming of age, I was much more deeply affected by Alexander's Westmark Trilogy. Serious exploration of what it means to "do the right thing".

Taran Wanderer is the most coming-of-age-inest of the Prydain Cycle. It is also the one with the least RPG-esque plot. How do you plan to handle scenes/story arcs where the conflict is mostly internal? It seems like a very important part of this type of story, and yet one that is hard to do well in an RPG.


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10. On 2005-08-30, La Ludisto / Josh BishopRoby said:

Okay, so first off, if you're exploring gender, you need to be very clear on the distinction between gender (straight man, straight woman, gay, lesbian, bi, many many more permutations) and sex (male, female, neuter).  I'm sure you're hep on that, but I'm just saying.

Secondly, and this is something that I'd love to see you resolve, is that gender is pretty inextricably linked to its historical context, and applying statements in a period roleplaying game to modern life will have complications involved.

Also, I'd point out that you unfortunately need economics involved.  Not only are gender roles very dependent on economics (half of what a woman was in the time period was determined by mens' need to ensure direct lineage succession), but a good chunk of adulthood is learning and mastering your personal economics—both in terms of cash as well as time and balancing emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual needs.  How you make the economics an entertaining part of the game is another good question.


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11. On 2005-08-30, Ron Edwards said:

I knew there was still an RPG designer in there. Nice to see you again, Vincent.


12. On 2005-08-30, Vincent said:

Economics, historical context vs. modernity, sexualities, internal conflicts ... piece of cake. That's just situation and resolution, leave that stuff to me.


13. On 2005-08-30, Jason Lee said:

Last week my wife said, "I've noticed I tend to think about what kind of men constant war (read: medieval cultures) would breed, but I never really think about what kind of women it would make."

The constant risk, or event, of death to the men in your family.  The fact that if they fail you are the spoils.  Women as property with virginity measuring worth.  Old Testament stuff like having to marry your rapist if you were a virgin.

I think the real trick, mechanically, will be how to break away from the whole revenge/punishment BS into deeper areas.  Like denial, being too afraid of your attacker to contemplate revenge, blaming oneself, etc.  How fear and/or guilt leads to not mentioning an incident.  There is also the other side of the coin that rarely seems to get acknowledged which is that for some people it really isn't very traumatic - no more so than getting beaten up.  I think that's very uncommon in our society (not sure), but different levels of sensitivity may exist in other cultures.

Then how does that all apply to sex workers, cross-ethnic incidents, and other situations where the "damage" to a woman's worth may be more/less accepted.


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JBR go "Love, Sex, Marriage"*
JL go "Yeah, I agree. And the conservative view comes in a cycle: Love -> Marriage -> Sex. We can look at the opposition to"
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14. On 2005-08-30, Brand_Robins said:

Just a couple thoughts, in brief, after talking with my wife about this (I'm fairly sure you're on top of this V, I just want to say them to get them out, natch):

1. Get female advice/input/playtest. It's easy to assume, and hard to apologize.

2. Rape is not just something men do to women.

3. Neither is torture, and it is related, and does have sexual connotations.

4. This game sounds cool.

5. I just got done playing a Feudal Irish one-shot with my mother in law, and the setting brought out some good issues that are related but not identical. (I'm in the slow process of talking about it on Yud's Dice.) It was a fun experience, but still and all, I somehow don't see these as being two great tastes that taste great together. Sometimes just being adults around a table isn't the end all be all of dealing with issues like this.


15. On 2005-08-31, Matt Wilson said:


What about generational relationships? Like parents to children, grandparents to parents, grandparents to children. It's been forever since I read the books you're talking about above, and I can't remember if that plays a part.

But I think it's good stuff if you're exploring the whole 'dealing with X as adults' thing.


16. On 2005-08-31, Meguey said:

Wo/Manhood != Adulthood, as has been said. I feel confident we can all point to 16 year olds who are more mature, farther along on Kohlberg's stages, and are making better choices for themselves than other 40+ year olds. It may be that the exceptions prove the rule, but there are two points I want to raise.

One is the shift in what consitutes adulthood; in some of the times that show up in gaming most often, a girl who had gone through menarche was considered adult and marriagable, even though she was 13. Many Bar and Bat Mitzvah still have "today I am a man /woman" in them, although the person saying that is only in 8th grade and is clearly not an adult in our modern Western culture. Also, you have increasing numbers of people doing well into their 30s what their parents did in their 20s and their grandparents stopped doing by their late teens, in terms of trying on different relationships and careers and living places. "30 is the new 20", and so adulthood gets pushed back, adolescence expanded.

The other point, and perhaps more pertinent to the game idea, is that 'coming-of-age' is not tied necessarily to a certain age. The story mentioned "and he never laid a hand on me or my mother again" could happen with the speaker being 12 or 22, or older.

About generational relationships: a second issue to explore is the shift from parent-child to adults-with-kin-ties. Children are highly emotionally enmeshed with their parents, adults are not or at least are less so. There is a letting go that must happen on both sides in order for the child to become fully an adult. I think I became an adult the moment I realized it wasn't my mother holding on to me and trying to run my life, but my desire to have her in that role and my fears of being on my own in a bigger sense. For more on healthy and unhealthy enmeshment, I very highly reccomend "Toxic Parents" by Susan Forward. Understanding what keeps one an emotional child is another side of the coming-of-age story.


17. On 2005-08-31, Ninja Monkey J said:

I'll tell ya, V., the reason it works so well in UTB is that it's about a fragile character in crisis with nothing but personality to draw on. There is no "child abuse rule" or "rape rule". It works, if I may say, because there's really nothing there but the character and everyone's desire to put that character in terrible situations.

Frankly, I'm consistently amazed by how well it works, given that the difficult color of the game is only implied. People just love to throw their own fears at each other. That's why it's scary, and that's why it's sad: everyone lays out the saddest parts of being a child. And that's something they bring to the game, not something I wrote in. They just always bring it.


18. On 2005-08-31, Tom said:

" I took a baseball bat to him, and he never laid a hand on me or my mother again"? That story is about manhood.

Man...I hope that's not the only story.  In fact, I think it's a pretty horrible story.  I really don't think it's the core story either.

Hmmm...I'm about to go out on a limb here.  I'd say that if there was a core story that was being about womanhood it'd be "...and then she had a child".  I'm not saying that this is all that there is to womanhood, but being able to have children is a pretty fundamental definition of female.  Does it define you?  Well, probably not, but it certainly is a force that shapes and directs you.

I have no idea what the core story is for a guy.  Protecting others?  Well....perhaps.  Self-sacrifice?  Seeing beyond your needs and acting in the interests of others?  Maybe.  Being a father?  Perhaps.  I'm not sure.

Also, I wonder if a lot of this doesn't collapse down into what it means to be a human being.


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MB go "Um, no."*
MB go "A story != THE story"*
JL go "Too specific"*
JBR go "Sex & Gender again"*
VB go "this is all play fodder!"*
TLR go "When the bough breaks..."*
NInJ go "Stop talking about it and play the game!"*

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19. On 2005-08-31, Gordon said:

I've noticed that a lot of really, um, succesful? (in some sort of artistic sense) D&D play by adolescent-folk ends up being about coming-of-age.  Especially the power != maturity issue, which I suppose might be an outgrowth of the "leveling up" system . . . but we're talking about Vincent's game here, so enough of that.  Suffice it to say that I think the fantasy/coming-of-age connection is perfect.

I add to the mix of references to consider Patricia McKillip, most especially the Riddlemaster of Hed boooks, and maybe the Forgotten Beats of Eld (though it's been many, MANY years since I read that one, instead of just many years on Riddlemaster).  The number of times I've had to stop myself from putting a harpist named Deth into my RPG play . . .

I second, just a BIT less enthusiastically than Mr. Snyder, Wolfe's The Knight.  Unquestionably appropriate, and good, but something about it bothered me - enough (barely) that I'm waiting for The Wizard in paperback.

Definitely looking forward to seeing how this one grows,



20. On 2005-08-31, Vincent said:

Hey everybody, Ninja J's comment is extremely on target.

If you're worried and/or excited about my game's "manhood progression mechanics" or "moral maturity stat" or "rape resolution table," you should chill out. The way this kind of game design works is: you design rules that point to the issue, like the finger to the moon, not rules that describe the issue.

Ron posted a great, great post about that once, let's see if I can find it... Ah, here: [Musha Shugyo] Honor mechanics, followup here: Designing a relationship, not a rule?

My rules will provide dynamic starting situations, fit characters of your own design, strong adversity, and a compelling way to resolve one situation into the next. They'll also provide some support for you getting through with your friends, although probably not much more than Meg's "ouch" and "oops." And throughout, they'll convey an attitude of matter-of-factness about some hard problems - but, like, this isn't a game about rape. This is a game where rape is on the table. This is a game that in-game rape won't break.

If only one group out of a hundred takes me up on that, that's fine with me, I'll consider that a total success.

(And if any of you who chilled out at the top are now disappointed, you can chill out again, thanks.)


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21. On 2005-09-02, Lisa Padol said:

Blast, I think I got rid of my copy of Song for a Dark Queen. If it turns up, I'll let folks know. It struck me as okay, but not one I'd reread.

Have you read The Lantern Bearers? Some very interesting gender stuff, and a very interesting relationship between a brother and a sister that is perhaps almost too carefully non-incestuous.

Have you read Patricia McKillip? I'm thinking of Winter Rose and a very odd turn it takes midway through, and of Ombria in Shadow.

I liked The Dreamstone, but found the sequel, The Tree of Swords and Jewels to be too much marking time.

Have you read Parke Godwin's Firelord or Gillain Bradshaw's trilogy about Gwalchmai / Gawain? How about Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel sequence?

Vincent, talk to people who were raped or otherwise abused. Seriously. This is advice that makes me feel really weird to give and would be very hard for me to take, but I think it's sound. I remember a couple of ljs where there was a meme—ghads, it's been a while. I think it was people who survived abuse saying "I am a survivor. I am not a victim. Yes, bad stuff happens, but, you know what? It's okay to admit that you've put that behind you or otherwise come to whatever terms you're going to come to with it, and to get on with your life."

Talk to R. Sean Borgstrom, and read her astonishing series of—of—there's just nothing like it out there.

But yes, a lot of good fiction is about "What does it mean to be what you are?"

I did my dissertation on modern Arthurian fiction, and at the time, THE issue that authors were studying through the lense of the story of Arthur was feminism. What does it mean to be a woman in this ultimate male epic?

Arthur's story looks at outsiders a lot. Arthur starts off as an outsider, a nobody who becomes king. Guinevere is one of the most powerful women in the kingdom, but she is an outsider. Morgan le Fay is an outsider as well. Gillian Bradshaw's trilogy is about outsiders—Gwalchmai before he becomes one of Arthur's warriors, the man who becomes Gwalchmai's servant, and Arthur's childless queen.

Childlessness becomes a serious issue in this setting. Oversimplifying, if you're poor, without kids, you're screwed when you're too old to work. You may still be screwed if you have kids, but you've got a chance that they'll help out. Oh, and be aware that aging parents is a hot button today. I've got a mother with dementia and a father with diabetes and vision problems, and if I am not the norm, I am rapidly becoming the norm. What happens to women too old to bear children or to work? What happens to crippled warriors or farmers?

If you're rich without kids, well, things get interesting. A royal couple without kids? Kings may put Queens aside in more or less pleasant ways. Or, if you prefer, you can have people demand the King be sacrificed for the good of the land. It all depends on whose fault people decide the lack of children is.

Too many children, especially for a royal family, can be a disaster as well.

Oh, and raiding. Grabbing animals and people. Whatever name you'll want to use, we're talking slavery here. And we're talking examining what that means, because it's different in Roman times, in tenth century Iceland, in sixth century Britain, in nineteenth century USA, and in the twentieth century.

Oh, right, read Sea of Trolls by, um, Nancy Farmer, I think. Yep. This was the Year of the Norse, I think. Josh and I read for the Mythopoeic Society, to judge who should get the award in Adult Fiction. Josh reads for the Childrens' Fiction as well. The Farmer book is YA, and quite good.

On the adult list, also Year of the Norse, also quite good, and also thematically appropriate, are The Knight and The Wizard, a duology by Gene Wolfe.

It's more Renaissance in feel, but do read Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings, and, when it comes out, Privilege of the Sword.

And read her Thomas the Rhymer. It's about men, women, and fairies, and set not too much later than your ideal time period. And it's damned good.

Hm, I'd better stop before I make the list of books even longer.



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22. On 2005-09-02, Sven said:

I want to hear more about this stuff, Vincent. (And I am sure I will, but i just want to tell you). To really be able to deal with all adult subjects in role playing is one of the big great challanges. It has been done before, of course, but not often enough. And it's often hard.

Very often when I create a narrative (be it prose or a story for role playing) I get to a point when I put rape in the plot. Most of the times I erase, because I think "Why should I use that easy path to strong emotion. Isn't that tacky?".

You say: "But sex and violence, that's what adulthood is made of." You are right. Don't use it only to make emotional impact, but still, don't hesitate to use it in games, because we all need top think about these things. Or at least we want to.

As it happen I have during this year played rapist, pedofile, women beater and women abuser so many times that I will try to avoid those characters for a while. (Distributed over larp, freeform tabletop and traditional gaming). Most of these characters have been handed to me by other, by coincidences. We haven't dealt with these actions in the game though, it has all been my characters own angst and the drama of confession. Try look someone in the eye and confess rape. A terrifying experience, even when it's all pretend.

Dealing with rape brings the need of talking through what you want to do in the group (but I guess there is never any need of telling that to people with Forge heritage). At the moment I'm writing a freeform game (scenario) were there will be one rape scene. It's a very small part of the scenario, but perhaps the most tricky.


23. On 2005-09-06, Lisa Padol said:

One more recommendation: Finder by Carla Speed McNeil, a magnificent, painful comic. Most of it is available in graphic novel format. The latest one is The Rescuers, which has, among other things, an ongoing dialogue between a young woman enamoured of a native-close-to-the-soil culture and a man trying to clue her in to the reality of it. ("What do you think all that "walking in balance with nature" bullshit really means? It means sometimes people die. The old. The young.") Lots of gender issue stuff as well. And the two volume Sin Eater has got to be one of the most brillian, painful things I've ever read.



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24. On 2005-10-13, anon. said:


25. On 2005-12-11, Judd said:

I've got Garner, Cooper and Alexander's books' call numbers in my pocket and on my break I am going to go get me some winter-holiday reading.

I'm not sure how I missed these in my childhood.

My girlfriend and a buddy of mine got into an involved conversation about Cooper and Alexander last night, inspiring the grab.


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