You guys ever see the 1981 John Boorman film Excalibur? It’s the one with “O Fortuna,” and it’s notable here because of the cheesy flower bloom effect at 0:17. In Arthurian legend, there’s this theme of the land mirroring the king. In the despair of the Grail Quest, Camelot falls into disrepair. A gloom pervades the land, the shining armor clouds over, and all the unpleasant imagery of Browning’s bog comes into play. That changes in a big way when things are going well for Arthur. Just check out the sweet lighting effects in Boorman’s wedding scene. You could put an eye out with all that gleaming plate mail!

What does any of this have to do with GMing? Well, there are a couple of ways you can use Ye Olde Times in your campaign. If you want to join The Dung Ages crowd, you get to show a world filled with pestilence, poverty, and tyranny. You get to play up the past-as-dystopia angle, making your campaign world a grim and gritty place where one untended wound is enough to kill (unless of course your alchemist can invent a magic potion).  On the other hand, a Ye Goode Olde Days approach allows for high romance. There you get noble sovereigns, contented peasantry, and a sense of ineffable longing for some lost golden age of the past.

In either case, I think it’s important to remember that neither approach is somehow more “realistic.” Different eras and different locations might skew more Dung Ages or Good Olde Days. The Romans bathed. Renaissance England not so much. And if you’re running a fantasy game with a fictional history, you’re free to set the tone in either direction.

For my money though, Boorman’s play between these tropes is useful because of its fluidity. You aren’t bound to stick to one style. In that sense, GMing is less about historical accuracy than serving your narrative. Like any good tactician, a GM uses the landscape to their advantage: heroic cavalry crest a hill bathed in morning sunlight while the forces of evil gather beneath looming clouds. The Dragon’s Lair is choked with weeds and thorns. The mad king rages while the storm cracks all around. These moments work so well because the fantasy genre is all about externalizing internal conflict. Once you realize that, the setting becomes a paintbrush, and you get to fill in the details with all the happy little trees (or not-so-happy little trees) you can imagine.

So for today’s discussion, what do you say we talk about our own “landscape paintings?” When you’re running a game, do you try to skew to the High or Low Fantasy aesthetic? Do you try and combine them? And if so, is it at the service of realism or storytelling? Tell us exactly how unwashed and malodorous your campaign world is down in the comments!


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