Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Scale of Grimdark to Cute Fantasy Correlated With Creators' Behavior


Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

As the graph clearly shows, at least in popular traditional fantasy: soft creators are bad, brutal ones are good. Possible theories:

A) Random Noise: There's no trend and this is just sampling error or something. Counterexamples welcome.

B) Jamie Lee Curtis Thesis (Grim Art Causes Empathy): Plausibly imagining terrible things makes you take moral choices more seriously.

C) Jean-Paul Sartre Thesis (Empathy Causes Grim Art): A person who takes moral choices seriously knows fantasy from reality and uses art as a place to safely explore dark feelings.

D) Art-as-Religion Thesis (Comfort Fantasy Amputates Empathy): An imagined world without terror or grey issues stimulates in the audience an expectation that problems should be able to be solved without reference to other peoples' needs or safety.

E) "I'm Baby" Thesis (Lack of Empathy Creates A Desire For Comfort Fantasy): A belief that the world is too horrible to handle so its ok to be self-absorbed also leads them to seek escape in worlds lacking in complex problems or difficult choices.

F) Self-Defeating Insular Fandom Nightmare Thesis: Note that creators on the cute end of the graph tend to be "from the internet". Grim fantasy has been increasingly ascendant in popular culture since the '60s and so many people who became successful in traditional ways ply its byways while safe fantasy as respectable pursuit is a result of the internet's refocusing on the aesthetics of underserved marginal communities (women and lgbt people looking for escape from a patriarchal world) but in addition to being more female/queer these creators are also more internetty and so reliant on internet communities--and internet fan communities are toxic and make people evil.

G) Inherent Profitability and Horizontal Competition Thesis: Either because they are inherently more dramatic thus appealing thus profitable or because that's the current public taste and thus profitable, grimdark creators make more money and don't exist under as much competitive pressure as creators doing comfort art. The comfort art creators are fighting over limited space and so do terrible things. 

I have no idea which of these, if any, is accurate.





Kyle T said...

Beast: The Primordial seems like a strong counterexample given its grimdark concept and being helmed by a sexual predator.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle T

No bc that's not fantasy, it's modern horror.

If we expand the circle to include horror then we have a whole separate dynamic because horror is -by definition- not for people who just want comfort. Fantasy always imagines -the entire world is different and has magic- it requires worldbuilding and making decisions not just about what the conflict is but what the "normal" in that world is.

Theres darkness in Harry Potter's plot but the "status quo" is good and happy and comfortable. There's no happy status quo in Warhammer.


In horror, the status quo is usually ok or at least some default realism. The horror is an interruption.

The psychodynamics of that scene are overlapping but different and would probably center more on the axis not of comfort vs grimdark but nihilistic-gore-slasher-transgression vs romance-supernatural.


As for accusations:

I don't know if Matt McFarland was ever convicted but I do know he was an RPGnet mod, which means he was complicit in harassment. There is no doubt that RPGnet handled the situation wrong.

Olivia Hill also worked on Beast and she is a well-known harasser who got caught lying about threats to her family and was thrown off RPGnet and was accused of sexual harassment by Shoe Skogen. So: Beast was definitely a shitshow.

Kyle T said...

If so, then Kingdom Death should be removed from the chart, as it explicitly bills itself as horror both in advertising and content.

I seem to recall that McFarland was a registered sex offender but can find no corroborating evidence offhand, and will retract that unless and until I find something more concrete.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle T

Incorrect because regardless of what the ad copy says it is obviously horror and fantasy:

It's set in a sword-y pre-tech civilization, western even, it has magic, people use lanterns, there's even a jester character.

If you got swords and magic--you're in fantasy. Period.

Grimdark by definition implies horror elements.


There's overlap, of course, but we're comparing two different sets of people:

The graph represents sets of people in and adajacent to the RPG scene who have historically argued about mainstream fantasy and what should and shouldn't be in it.


If you talk about Beast, you're talking about people who have already all agreed on one point: you have to accept horror to even be in the conversation, so its a separate conversation.

Kyle T said...

I have qualms but will accept these definitions for the sake of the larger claim.

Ash Kreider's The Watch is higher on the chart, probably near the Game of Thrones end of Pop Fantasy with its battle against magic toxic masculinity. It is very definitely fantasy and is designed by Ash Kreider.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle T

If it's a Kreider game then I'd assume (unless she's even -more- of a hypocrite than usual) it explicitly excludes rape and I am 100% sure the visual aesthetics are totally devoid of anything interesting or detailed let alone grotesque.

So it's definitely not near Game of Thrones.

Though you -do- raise an interesting point:

There's a category of RPG fantasy where there is presumed to be an (underdescribed and so not aesthetically important) Ideologically Bad Enemy and the game explicitly makes the decision for you--before you even start--that you will be fighting it and there is no moral grey.

This includes The Watch and Farewell to Fear.

I would say that while the enemy is unequivocaly described as Bad Guys, the fact that:

1) their badness can't be described or depicted (so as not to make them secretly interesting to the reader), and

2) there's a definite comfort factor in the fact that you know before going in that its a power fantasy about defeating them and being thoughtlessly on the right side to begin with

...makes it a kind of game that doesn't quite fit on the chart but is definitely aligned ideologically with comfort-gaming with the guarantee that nothing squicky will ever be put in front of you in these texts.

Kyle T said...

Aesthetically I'd say it's closer to blander pieces of TSR D&D with its fairly no-nonsense depictions of fantasy in artwork. Thematically there's an emphasis on the horrors of war against the magic bad thing, and how there will be great personal and social sacrifices necessary to defeat it.

On the other hand, it's akin to the game Fellowship in that the players are assured that these sacrifices will be worth it and the world will be better in the end, and won't be left wondering if all was for naught. It's grim in the details but comforting in the larger picture, so you're on to something there.

Where does Veins fit into this?

Zak Sabbath said...


Veins didn’t go on the graph because it’s not a complete game in itself it’s not a whole fantasy setting really so it’s hard to call it a take on “ what fantasy should be like” rather than essentially a module but;

Scraps vague illustrations plus the lack of anything very human or containing the human atrocity of personal horror give Veins a kind of bodiless ominousness.

its darker than wotc dnd and scrap and Patrick’s behavior was as bad or worse than the folks over there. it complicates the curve for sure

Sak Zmith said...

Very interesting topic. I had noticed also that grim games from people with similiar personalities as those we are suggesting "soft" games have, often lack a certain bite. It feels as if those are unwilling to go the last bit of dedicating themselves to grimdark fantasy.

Zak Sabbath said...


Do you have examples or have you forgotten them all, with only this "noticing" remaining?

Sak Zmith said...

Best Left Buried comes to mind first. I read another weird one based on Cthulhu Dark but forgot the name unfortunately.

HasBeenBro said...

The creators of Game of Thrones almost killed a baby on set.
A *lot* of these entries look like special pleading to get the graph to fit a desired result.
So, yeah, I'm going with option #1 - random noise.

Zak Sabbath said...


1) special pleading is when you claim somethings an exception to a general rule:
Say where those are now, using quotes.

2) I never heard the baby story: tell it. I assume it was not on purpose though it may have been negligent and if it was negligent that might speak to moral turpitude

HasBeenBro said...

1)Okay, fair enough, perhaps 'special pleading' isn't the correct word for what I'm talking about. I'm just saying that the conclusions stated on the chart - both regarding the 'cute vs dark' of the world, and the 'moral bad-ness' of the creators, feels like things were often phrased in a way to make the data fit the theorum.
Let's go through these.
-Harry Potter) Yes, Rowling's a known TERF. But given that the setting involves things like house elves happy to be enslaved, and a racist attitude towards blood purity that is ingrained to the setting, and not in any way resolved by the end of the series, patly declaring that the setting's status quo is cute and light and happy feels somewhat disengenuous.
-Blue Rose) Honestly a goddamn mess of a world, that insists that everything is black and white two or three breaths before insisting that everything is made of shades of gray. Everything is happy, except in the lands of the Straw-Men, where everything is terrible.
-Tolkien) A dark world in which people are constantly under threat by mythical creatures, where the rulership of realms is either subverted by agents of manifested evil, or perverted by years of hoping for the return of rulers that never show up. Even the happy ending that sees things becoming better is also explicitly the death of wonder and magic in the world. But sure, the Shire is nice, so it's on the 'cute' side of the scale.
-Tolkien vs. Jackson) So, his letters at one specific point in his life point him out as sexist, despite giving the world the first warrior woman anyone cared about (sorry, Diana), and that gets him a 2 out of 10? But Jackson's version of King Kong manages to portray the islanders in a more racist way than the original, and that gets him a 9 out of 10? Okay, maybe this isn't 'special pleading', but the level of 'individual perspective' on display here makes the already-shaky methodology seem even more janky.

HasBeenBro said...

(cont; comment was apparently too long, sorry)
-WotC DnD, TSR DnD, Dungeon World) These are engines much more than systems. I'm going to need far more explanation as to why each of these three examples ended up where they did on the Darkness scale, ESPECIALLY in the case of Dungeon World, where the sleezy developer in question didn't even bother with that much in the way of setting assumptions. (Also, it seems a bit odd, seeing that the list sometimes involves individual creators, and other times involves corporate policies, so that everyone who worked on DnD between 1974 and 1996 is apparently a Christian fundamentalist.)
-Game of Thrones) As good a place as any to talk about your point 2. I've now tried four times to post a link to an article talking about it, but the comment board keeps saying the html is too long, and I don't have any fluency in website that can shorten links. I'm sorry to do this to you, because I'd vastly prefer to just link an article, but trust me when I say that Googling 'Game of Thrones baby on ice block' links to several articles that sum it up. It was said at a convention panel, by the show-runners themselves, so there are other articles and records of it. Long story short - in order to film a scene of an exposed baby being corrupted by walkers, they just put the naked child on a block of actual ice, because otherwise it just wouldn't look right.
-Kingdom Death) Okay, if any part of this chart is 'special pleading', it would be this. Horror, you insist, is different from fantasy, and therefore works of horror shouldn't count. BUT this horror-fantasy game that leans very, very heavily on the horror totally counts as fantasy. This feels like a flagrant exception to the rule. (Seriously, if Kingdom Death counts as fantasy, there are several works of Lovecraft that also count, and given Lovecraft's fairly garbage thoughts on his fellow humanity, that screws up the scale a bit.)
For a couple of these, perhaps there's an argument that the creator didn't notice the darker implications of the world they were building, but that seems like yet another thing to throw off the data.
Like, yes, the people who participated in the smear campaign deserve to be called out as liars, and deserve to have shade thrown at them, but what is the point of dragging all these other people?

Kyle T said...

Does Bluebeard's Bride count as fantasy horror in this context? If so, then Magpie Games might skew the graph as well.

(I realize I'm throwing out examples rather haphazardly but the various game controversies I recall are only coming back to memory in fits and starts)

Zak Sabbath said...


A) Placement: As most Disney cartoons prove (Goofy "enslaves" Pluto) -details of the world- do not always change -tone- . And Cute to Grimdark is about tone. and in this case, tone relative to the other works.

The majority of you say about the Cute to Grimdark placements all fits there. You wouldn't move Harry Potter over next to Warhammer despite all the torture in it. The status quo (full of intrigue though it is) in Harry is a world where the day-to-day is wonderful comfy food and squashy arm chairs and that's what you spend most of the book reading about. Same with Tolkien: yes, he is a good writer and can write evil--but I'd say its less dark than all the others on the far end of its scale.

b) WotC DnD, TSR DnD, Dungeon World as settings. The material they put out that does describe setting. Dungeon World's creators explicity left out material they thought would be triggering, sexualized armor and explicityl said they wanted "pop fantasy". TSR and WOTC have put out, collectively OVER 500 books worth of fictional world content--perhaps more fantasy fiction than any other entity on earth, so I think we can say they've. collectively established a tone.

You wouldn't, I presume, say Warhammer is -less dark- than D&D collectively.

c) That said, if you'd like to argue the placement of D&D vs Tolkien, I can see it both ways. I put D&D where it was because the protagonists don't have to be trying ot save the world and can just be Vanican, Leiberian or Ashton-Smithian cynics out for gold. I'm perfectly happy to say happy people might see it the other way around.

d) Tolkien vs Jackson: I didn't watch King Kong, so I do appreciate your evidence. I think Tolkien explicitly saying sexist things (real world) is always going to be More Problematic than any representation in fiction. If Jackson's trope was really racist there then it would align -MORE- closely with my theory: he would be lower on the behavior scale but still higher than someone whose views were explicitly and openly sexist.

e) Game of Thrones anecdote: The only thing that matters is whether they knew this was dangerous and, once warned, did it anyway or tried to. Can you find those details?

f) Kingdom Death: it has swords and sorcery and is in a pre-technological world and the characters use them. That makes it fantasy to me. In fact: BOTH the horrible monster villains and the hero miniatures are perfectly at home in a standard fantasy RPG with zero modification. There may be a stray Lovecraft story like that but so far as I know they are all set in post-steam worlds and the pistol is preferred to the sword. If you want to argue about the definition of mainstream fantasy I will happily do that (it is blurry and can be argued, especially when theres pirates) but that's the definition I used. Kingdom Death has ALL the standard fantasy tropes.

g) What is the point of dragging all these other people? To discuss the topic of the post: the relationship between creator behavior and the character of the fiction using the most well-known (to this audience) examples. Also: They all came pre-dragged. I didn't invent this stuff.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle T

I have looked at Bluebeard's Bride. Obviously Whitney Beltran's behavior was abominable. Assessing it as fantasy:

As it's based on the traditional story, it has swords, certainly, and a western pre-industrial setting. And there is something magical (iirc) about Bluebeard's palace.

What makes it much less fantasy than Kingdom Death is that (again, iirc) unlike Kingdom Death the player doesn't use the swords or magic much. It is centered on internal struggle (you play parts of the main character). Now maybe I'm wrong and didn't read carefully, and stabbing Bluebeard with a sword or turning his magic against him is a major thing that the game can center. Let me know if I am.

Assessing it as dark:

While it's certainly horror, the game has The Watch/ Farewell to Fear thing where the whole thing takes on a certain number of "sanitization points" by the clear assumption that players are the victim of the bad thing clearly identified as bad and clearly assumed to play a game about resisting it.

Again, it's possible part of the fun is likely succumbing to BLuebeards evil and taking a jouissance in being wicked so if I am, correct me.

HasBeenBro said...

Game of Thrones: I'm entirely willing to believe that the incident is the result of the show-runners being incredibly stupid. But then, we've already established that we can judge a corporation by everyone involved (TSR and WotC). So, at that point, even if the show-runners get a pass because they're fucking morons, rather than actively malicious, do the executives who hired them bear the onus for being willing to hire fucking morons?
The Kingdom Death vs Lovecraft Point: Alright, if tech level is one of our defining issues, then what happens when we talk about Robert E. Howard? Where do you put 'not as racist as a really racist guy, but still willing to use racist/sexist tropes' on the chart? Or, hell, perhaps even moreso to the point, what about John Norman?
'The Point': I will, at this point, state more plainly what I unfortunately didn't state plainly before - I think that your premise is flawed. I think that you are taking very complex ideas ('what is this setting actually like?' 'Is this person good/bad?') and smoothing and simplifying them out to fit the pattern you wanted. I'm not saying that you're arguing in bad faith, but I do get the feeling that your data set started out with all of those points linked to those willing to support a smear campaign, and then was biased towards finding support for the emergent premise. At the end of the day, this is random noise.

Zak Sabbath said...


a) Game of Thrones (baby): I don't have a dog in the fight, I just want to understand what your understanding of the incident is.

b) Game of Thrones (authorship): I follow basically Twitter in saying the creators (responsible for the tone) are Benihoff and Weiss and George RR Martin. This is obviously a simplification but some approximation is necessary to get it on the chart and I feel it's so big and influential it needs to be on the chart.

c) I totally forgot Robert E Howard! I don't know anything about his life other than that he wrote about boxing. In terms of "darkness" I'd say he's somewhere over on the Grimdark side but not quite Kingdom Death.

d) I don't know anything about John Norman and didn't feel like he was popular enough to -have- to be in the graph. Tho RE Howard was an oversight.

e) What pattern did I want? You seem to assume I wanted the pattern I got which I didn't, you are assuming (which is a bad thing to do--never assume a negative, always ask first) I just plotted it and then examined after the fact.

What I actually expected (not that you bothered to ask) was that everyone would be bad except some seemingly random exceptions. I was surprised to see otherwise.

And since I allowed (in the first option!) that it very well could be random noise I can't be accused of not being careful.

f) Complexity: I think there is no question, overall, that Ryuutama and Harry Potter represent -to their own fans- a very different thing than Warhammer and Kingdom Death. They explicitly say they want a different thing and that is why they are attracted to them. I think while we can argue on points, it's not dishonest to notice this, to notice fans themselves talking about this and to notice fans themselves putting meanings on their own preferences "I want an optimisitic world etc etc"

I also think "Is this person good/bad?" is not terribly complex when start from the POV of transgression existing and recorded or not.

The people in question either:

- do or don't have public track records of breaking the law in order to hurt innocent people and

-do or don't have a public track record of being dishonest in order to hurt innocent people and

-either do or don't have public record of explicit belief in a standard progressive list of human rights causes.

I am not weighing the soul of JRR Tolkien in terms of good vs bad acts, I am noting that he explicitly said he believed shit everyone who shares my values agrees is way over the line (pg 1-2):


We can't judge whether the world is better or worse because of JRR Tolkien existing (my instinct is: better) but we can, once we agree on some values, very easily list some things he did that we can agree were shitty.

Verad Bellveil said...

On my reading I found Bluebeard's palace to be very fantastic given the nature of its rooms and their tendency to reflect the state of the brides. While the players take the role of the Bride's internal states, these are framed in a class-based manner similar to D&D, most explicitly with the Witch internal state and its ability to use sympathetic magic.

As written, proactive action against Bluebeard won't happen - your options by the end, in the manner of most proscriptive Apocalypse games, are to not look through the door and be a loyal Bride or look through the door and then choose several other options, most of which will involve the Bride failing to stop Bluebeard and suffering for it.

It's not a game where the end goal is comfort, but I do think it's a game where one of the end goals is reaffirmation.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Verad Bellveil

with a bcc to @KyleT

Thank you and...

"It's not a game where the end goal is comfort, but I do think it's a game where one of the end goals is reaffirmation."

I think the whole subject of the "affirmation-based edgy storygame" is actually an interesting subject in itself which doesn't so much fuck with the graph as point to how there are two different discourses around "edginess" and the graph ignores one of them.


One discourse is a sort of Something-Awful-y- pro-wholesomeness take whose core articles of faith are:

-4e Good, other editions bad
-4e progressive, other stuff bad
-4e=least edgy, least pulpy, most accessible
-4e is allied to Dungeon World and Ryuutama and Fate and Avatar: the Last Airbender
-Power fantasy=good, affirmation=good
(-All of this is coded as feminist or lgbt-friendly bc lightness is)
-Therefore Game of Thrones is bad

This is a discourse about what mainstrean intro-to-the-genre-and-RPGs-fantasy should be like. My graph touches on this.

A second discourse is a more StoryGamey one, which is less about what intro-to-the-genre fantasy should be like and more about what's possible in RPGs. It's one that my graph doesn't really touch on:

-StoryGames good, mainstream games bad
-Edgy content is ok, if it REALLY deals with the subject but not if its just there
-"REALLY" is undefined
-Edgy content by non-StoryGame creators is suspicious and hard to justify, especially in the mainstream, bc its not by people we identify as our friends
(-All of this is coded as feminist or lgbt-friendly bc dealing with trauma is)
-Therefore Game of Thrones is bad.

These two discourses have different points but the personnel overlap and see each other as allies in fights against WOTC ignoring them.

So we get paradoxes like the author of a game about rape saying that writing edgy content is a red flag that you might be an abuser:


Point being that your comment and Kyle T's point to a separate overlapping topic that is worth examination in its own right but which I don't think directly affects the "what should mainstream fantasy look like" thing.

Simon Tsevelev said...

Hard for me to discuss it, because I view both the creators and the creations from different positions. Not sure if it's correct to take one example of the writer's work and place it somewhere while ignoring the others. Tolkien wrote Farmer Giles and Silmarillion, first is as cute as they get, second is all about "things are getting worse and worse and worse oh, that's a lovely moment, but sorry, it's going to get even worse because everyone was doomed from the moment he swore to get the jewels back". Maybe should take the cutest and the most grim from an author? I dunno.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Семен Цевелев

That's a good point.

Adamantyr said...

Regarding Robert E. Howard, a very good source about him is "Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy" by L. Sprague de Camp.

The short of it is that if Howard was a racist, he was for a man of his particular era and location a comparatively mild one. In his correspondence with Lovecraft he disagreed with him on several points. At the same time though, he readily acknowledged he lived in a Sundown town without any shame.