We’ve all seen it. You open a book about some fascinating fantasy world. It’s all very interesting, the characters seem decent. You have a feeling in your gut, however, from little hints such as battalions of uniformly plate-armored troops marching beneath ragged black banners down a highway near the protagonist’s village, that there’s about to be some sort of apocalypse. You pray that this isn’t a recurring thing. Naturally, your prayers are in vain.
There’s something about fantasy worlds that seems to mandate they always be under constant world-ending threat from sinister inhuman forces. I would like to extend some props to Andrzej Sapkowski and his Witcher franchise for making the threat of his series more of the world-conquering variety, and also very definitively human. Without speaking about the books, the PC game sequels/adaptations make them seem quite suspiciously, er, Holy Roman. (Shilard Fitz-Österlen? That’s the most Austrian name I’ve heard in my life!) So, at least Witcherland (I, er, forget the actual name of the place) has one pro-human global threat on tap. As for the rest, though, how many endlessly ancient threats can one world possibly have locked away? I mean, heck, just look at Abeir-Toril, the most stereotypical of all DnD realms. The Forgotten Realms, forgotten? Ha, I wish. Forgettable? You bet your buttocks they are! Hey-o! Look, I’m just kidding, don’t attack me. I don’t play by dice, so the fight will get horribly awkward when I just hit you instead of waiting for my attack roll to come up.
Not that I don’t like a number of the PC games set there, and I’m sure the tabletop stuff is great, though when you and your friends provide all the content, it’s hard for the experience to be objectionable to you, now isn’t it? But even if you only count some of the more popular PC games, they’ll have you doing things like: destroying Morag of the Old Ones (no relation to Cthulu) when she reawakens and tries to take over the world, killing the god Bhaal (epithet: Lord of Murder. Shouldn’t killing him make the entire universe implode?) after he kills his sister Mystra, goddess of magic, defeating the essence of Darkness itself in Neverwinter Nights 2 and then, in its expansion, launching an attack on the ENTIRETY OF THE AFTERLIFE.
As much as we Western artists sometimes like to rag on Anime for being ridiculous and overdone, our own outliers aren’t any better, and I’d like to thank Anime and Manga for actually being able to show how crazy fighting a god is. Besides, there are plenty of Anime that take a ridiculous premise and do some interesting things with it; I’m having a hard time thinking of a fantasy world that simultaneously taps into and dismantles all of these old tropes. By the way, how many times are we going to recycle the name ‘Baal’ in various forms? Give the Sumerians a damn break and stop plagiarizing their stuff. Also, Dagon, another ancient Middle-Eastern deity. Elder Scrolls, I see you taking that name, don’t think otherwise. If all we’re going to do is mash letters together anyway, can we please shake up the selection a bit? Inserting an ‘H’ into things at random is not a valid alternation. Come to to think of it, since all fantasy worlds general have their own systems of writing (at least in theory), why is it that names are almost never spelled how they’re pronounced? The spelling is arbitrary anyway, they’re not written in English, so what’s it matter?
Back to the original topic, it’s ridiculous how many world-ending confrontations there are in Fantasy. Let me prove to you that it’s out of control: when I mention a fantasy apocalypse, does the idea of a force that can destroy the entire world strike any chords with you? No. No it doesn’t, because that’s effectively every threat in DnD past a certain point. There’s no middle ground, no dude who just makes things kind of crap for a while and then dies of old age (a common occurrence in human history, I assure you). It’s always completely black and white; you have the head honcho of this particular evil cycle, and then everyone who’s not that guy. There’s your contrast. Quoth the authors: “Shades of grey? Ha, that was a terrible novel! Why would I include references to that! Oh, wait, you meant subtlety? Sirrah, this is a whimsical account full of creativity and fun, I have no time for doing something different from all the other fantasy authors.”
I understand the impulse. We all want the heroic quest, the epic journey with an epic goal and epic levels of unfettered epicness. We want the farmboy who becomes a king and the princess who, er… serves as a rather horrifying parallel to the historical objectification of women in a world with tons of strong female characters. So, maybe not that second part. We want dungeons and dragons and wizards, witches, warlocks and mages (fun fact: in DnD, these are all separate types of magic user, covered under the overarching header of ‘magician’), we want Elves and Dwarves and Orcs and Goblins. Problem is, we already have those. Many, many other authors already have them in far too many other books, and some of them have gotten very good at said reiterative species. Leaving aside that our plagiarism shouldn’t be this obvious, what are the odds of this many fantasy species evolving the exact same way in every universe? Hell, look how much press George R.R. Martin got for being a skillful writer who chose to make up a world with its own rule set! I still need to start reading Game of Thrones, but I get the impression it’s less a matter of the world being destroyed and more one of sudden, violent outbursts of calculated, heavily premeditated douchebaggery. So, very similar to that history thing I already mentioned, but perhaps a bit more so.
Side note, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, does Martin wish he’d been a ruthless nobleman in the 15th Century? Regardless, please do yourself and me a favor: if you find yourself trapped into writing a fantasy novel and creating a new world, one freed from this ridiculous mandate for non-stop apocalypses, please refrain from including it. Be the exception to the rule and at least try to give meaning to the place before you try to throw it into the cosmic paper-shredder. Show me your world. Make up some new creatures, make the Elves into soulless industrialists and the Dwarves into staunch defenders of nature (if you live forever, you have plenty of time to get around to fixing the planet; meanwhile, if you live underground, you have a vested interest in mitigating the amount of fumes around you.) Do something more clever than that, preferably- maybe take the angle that you can’t reduce an entire species to a single viewpoint, no matter how similar they may look? Throw out some patterns, then vary those patterns. Have intellectual Orcs who still enjoy a brawl, have a Dwarf who can build the best tables imaginable but can’t smith worth a damn, dig up an Elf or two that aren’t perfect but aren’t terrible either. More people, fewer stereotypes.
And by all the powers that you suddenly drafted up to be deities in your new world (what does that make you, anyway? Some sort of meta-deity?), if there’s a Dark Lord planning to take over the world, he better be a fully-developed character with some plan as to what he’s going to do after he takes over the world. Getting yourself killed by an alliance of everybody you’ve screwed over isn’t something you should risk for reasons like “because I’m evil” or even “I hate pretty people.”
Though I’d be willing to hear arguments for the latter point.