Monday, October 19, 2015

"Dark Medieval" Fantasy in the Borderland Provinces

The entire Lost Lands campaign is usually described as “Dark Medieval," and this is a bit about what that means. To me, at least. If you're a fan of what I'm talking about in this post, you should definitely go and check out the Kickstarter, which is running now (until Nov 15, 2015).
What do people mean when they talk about “Dark Medieval” as a way of describing the Borderland Provinces, or the Lost Lands, or Necromancer Games books? At a surface glance, the world looks fairly traditional: there are elves, there are halflings, there are wizards … what’s the big deal? How is that “dark?”

Basically, Frog God Games offers a “film noir” version of escapist fantasy, in contrast to Tolkien’s epic and folkloric approach to the same genre. Our adventures tend to have lots of horrific elements underlying the apparent reality, which is why you’ll often see us saying, “All is not as it seems” when we’re talking about the Lands. Where the Forgotten Realms have a strong tendency toward high fantasy and heroism, our world is a bit … well … ickier.

One of the strong themes of the campaign is that beneath the civilized veneer of things, there is actually a seething mass of rot, evil, heresy, and supernatural threat. Again, “all is not as it seems.” The Borderland Provinces campaign book, as a supplement, has more focus on the actual veneer than an adventure book. What does the “normal” world look like when I’m not in one of these dungeons? So there is a lot of material about culture, history, trade, and government that would be a bit boring if it weren’t for the fact that it’s written in a way to best drive the game master’s creativity about what kinds of adventures arise from that context. And of course, it also reveals a lot of information about what’s beneath that veneer, a peek into the aforementioned seething mass of rot, evil, heresy, and supernatural threat.

The Adventures in the Borderland Provinces book, of course, is all about the dark underbelly and nothing about the veneer. I'll have more to say about that book later.

If you’re interested in the sort of fiction driving this “dark medieval” world of ours, we can point to a few influential sources for those who are curious.

The first of these is undoubtedly Clark Ashton Smith. Smith's stories are broken up into five “worlds:” Averoigne, Hyperborea, Mars, Poseidonis, and Zothique. In particular, our adventures are comparable to the stories from the Averoigne cycle. Many of these stories are available online, in particular at the Eldritchdark site, which unfortunately uses white text on a dark background, making it a bit hard to read. However, as an introduction to Averoigne, you may want to take a look at one of the archetypal Averoigne stories, the “Colossus of Ylourgne.”

Another “film noir” fantasy author is Jack Vance. In particular, the Lyonesse books and the Dying Earth books are good examples of noir fantasy. The Lyonesse books are a strong influence on Matt’s Borderlands. Vance takes what appears to be a fairly light-hearted fairy tale world, but spins an extraordinarily dark view of its inhabitants. For Vance, the underlying horror isn’t the supernatural underpinning of the cosmic world, as it is for Clark Ashton Smith. For Vance, the underlying horror of a world is the people who inhabit it. If you haven’t read the Lyonesse books, be warned that many people find the entire first half of the first book to be tedious. After that, the pace picks up to an almost breakneck level, though. The books are Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc.
For starters, to learn more, check out the Wikipedia entry for the Lyonesse Trilogy

There are some great examples of noir fantasy from a later period, and one of the greatest is Glen Cook’s Black Company series of novels. All of these are excellent, although there are rather a lot of them. The first three are generally called The Books of the North: The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose. Cook’s fantasy world is very bleak and quite terrifying, seen from the perspective of some people who are seriously out of their league and watching their options dwindle away rapidly.


  1. I am interested in the thought processes that lead to associating either Smith or Vance with ideas like "film noir" or "dark mediaeval". They look like the complete antithesis of the modern "dark and gritty" trend to me.

    Vance and Smith may have a cynical view of human nature (which Vance views with some amusement, while Smith is closer to a straight misanthrope), but their stories are colourful, darkly comic, and often present human tragedy with a detachment and dry wit which reduces horror into absurdity. There are exceptions, mainly in Lyonesse and the Zothique cycle, and Vance in particular depicts violence against innocents as clearly abhorrent, but on the whole, they seem to represent a rather different approach to fantasy than Glen Cook or GRRM (who *are* dark and gritty to the max).

    Film noir is also hard to pin on them, since it is a movement fundamentally rooted in realism, which Vance and Smith consistently reject in their works. Smith is a world-weary exoticist and Vance writes modern comedies of manners in colourful settings. A far cry from noir and the authors it actually influenced. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, for example, are noir, and Leigh Brackett wrote noir characters in her fantasy/planetary romance stories (but then she was one of the movement's great figures through her hardboiled stories and screenplays). But Vance and Smith, I would contest this.

  2. I wonder if the "dark" mood of Borderland Provinces involves that it will be submerged into cosmic horror ala Cthulhu mythos, including the "reality as madness" theme, maltheism, or even nihilism like the Pillars of Eternity videogame does —no actual divinities, just faked ones, constructed a bit like powerful sci-fi artificial intelligences.

  3. Something neat regarding white text on black background is that for most people it actually is supposed to be MORE easy to read. Heuristics say the eye is attracted to brightness, white in this case. When you read black text you are fighting your eye to focus on the words while there is brightness all around. With white text on black, your eyes are naturally drawn to the text.

    May not work for everyone though.