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I'm running a game that's best described as "medieval fantasy," in the sense that we're actually trying to have the lives of people in the setting strongly resemble the historical Middle Ages. There aren't any dungeons in the classical sense; flying wizards shooting fireballs haven't replaced armies; villages don't get raided by goblins all the time; murderhobos are just called brigands. Magic is a real force but plays a social role closer to historical beliefs about alchemy, sorcery, and miracles.

It is, however, still a fantastical setting, in the spirit of folk tales and 1001 Nights. The big key fantastical things are sorta tucked away, far from the heroes' everyday lives: cursed cities, mythical creatures, lost treasure representing salvation and transgression. I want to play up that sense of the distant magical unknown, at once a part of and disconnected from the world they inhabit.

Once I'm in the pseudo-historical mindset, though, I find it difficult to bring in the magical elements. The fantastical stuff is important; I don't want to shoehorn it in. But I'm not sure how to build towards it naturally. As the protagonists set out on their adventures, how do I transition narratively from the pseudo-real setting to a more magical-mystical one?

(With the implication that, yes, they will return back to their everyday lives at the end of their journey, but forever changed by their experiences and perhaps bearing strange gifts.)

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Good background, but I'm unclear on the question at the heart: "how do I transition from that pseudo-real mindset to a more magical-mystical one?". Who is doing the transition? You as GM? The players? The characters? The geography? Society? Something else? And what are you trying to accomplish—contrast of those disparate mindsets? Synthesis? Some elaboration on what this "transition" is meant to accomplish and the problem you're having in doing that would be useful. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 26 '12 at 20:17
Thanks! That edit made it much clearer! (And now I will refrain from recommending Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a narrative model.) –  SevenSidedDie Jul 26 '12 at 20:39
This really depends on the kind of story you want. Do they fall asleep and wake up somewhere magical? Walk through a wardrobe and become heroes? Discover a mythical item? Pull the sword from the stone? –  okeefe Jul 26 '12 at 20:44
@okeefe They are like treasure-hunters during the Crusades. –  Alex P Jul 26 '12 at 20:49
when in doubt, give birth to a murderous shadow monster. –  Michael Edenfield Jul 27 '12 at 1:36

7 Answers 7

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You can go two ways with this, depending on how "leaky" you want the mystical elements to be. Is it sunshine, pink bunnies, and technicolour in the Fairy Woods even before you meet a fairy, or is the world mundane with the fantastical elements playing more of a "This can't be real, I don't believe my eyes" kind of role in decisively mundane surroundings?

Fantastic things in mundane places

Simply put, don't try to transition. State the facts of the fantastic elements as your PCs perceive them, and nothing more.

State the fantastic as it happens. The way the facts violate the expectations of the rest of the established setting will do your work for you. Describe it in the same terms, themes, and "colour" that you do ordinary life in the setting, which will ground it in reality. Its unreal elements, narrated matter-of-factly, will actually sound more fantastical for the contrast.

The sweat and grime of the trail is getting to you around noon, when you stop to drink at a stream off the road. Refreshed, you notice a dark cave mouth on the far bank. Noxious fumes drift from it, and you become aware of an uncanny stillness which no birdsong disturbs. Then, an unearthly rumbling sigh issues from the crack in the earth.

(the PCs investigate and disturb something)

An enormous, stinking lizard drags itself from the depths. Smoke billows from its nostrils and its eyes are orbs of flame where a beast should have whites and pupils. It pulls the rest of its carcass free of the cave, revealing tattered wings like those of a bat and a wickedly barbed tail …

Describing the fantastic in mundane terms maintains the possibility of plausible deniability, and plausible deniability of the fantastic can keep your players grounded in the mundane. "Was that a dragon we fought? Well, we'll definitely brag that it was a dragon, but maybe that was just a really big lizard… It was a weird foreign country like [country only two borders away] after all, who knows what kind of barbaric beasts they normally have…"

Of the two options this is really my preference for maintaining my own grounding in the mundane. It just seems to work better, possibly because it forces me to recontextualise the fantastic occurrences in mundane terms, keeping my own "camera perspective" firmly on the mundane side of reality.

Fantastic lands border the mundane ones

If you want a world (or parts of the world) to have entire regions that are not mundane, you need some tricks to indicate when the characters are transitioning between their familiar, reliable world to the lands that are "not in Kansas anymore". Much like a movie/TV character's musical theme can subtly telegraph when they're having a spotlight scene, you want some tools that signal that the surroundings are changing.

You can do this by straight-up telling them, when the altered nature of the places is perceptible. Just extend the matter-of-fact statements about weirdness to the environment. Where there are (e.g.) uncanny, eerie places that the characters would "sense", just say so:

This place is eerie and uncanny. It feels wrong in your bones.

or for (e.g.) a nice-fantastical locale:

There is a lightness to the air that seeps into your skin, and everything feels brighter.

You want your players to know that the place is unusual, so tell them (via addressing their characters) that it is so, in plain language.

For a more subtle signal, you can use certain kinds of language to distinguish the mundane realms and the fantastic realms. A fairy wood might be "fresh", "bright", and devoid of the language that describes the grime of the mundane realms. You can narrate more slowly, in a more relaxed manner, giving it a bit of a dreamlike quality.

You can use different metaphors. A fantastic realm might get narrative descriptions that frame everything in terms of clean edges and elements in motion:

The flaming leaves of the autumn forest burn bright as the sun sets behind the knife edge of the mountains. The stars come out like hard diamonds, and the bright silver of the moon pours over the forest.

A different fantastic realm might get metaphors about swords, blood, and smoke. Another might be bones and death. Whatever metaphors you like, you can divide them up and say "these are for the mundane places, and these are for the fantastic places", and players will pick up on the distinct feel of different places, even if they can't put their finger on why.

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+1 for this: "Describing the fantastic in mundane terms maintains the possibility of plausible deniability, and plausible deniability of the fantastic can keep your players grounded in the mundane." –  Erik Schmidt Jul 27 '12 at 21:32

The Medieval Mindset

The medieval life may not have been "nasty, brutish and short"... but it was "ignorant, superstitious, violent, and pretty routine." Everyone worked in the fields in the spring and fall, and part time in the summer.

Creating the Medieval Mindset in Play

The best way, in my experience, to have the medieval feel is to have magic be common, subtle, and VERY mundane...

You don't see fireballs. You see allergy curses and cures, house blessings and field blessings. And to make those make sense, your best bet is to give these blessings a very mundane, mechanical effect. Not a big one - 5% is as big as can be considered.

A house blessing simply means evil spirits (and undead) can't cross the threshold for a year. A field blessing is a couple percent more yield. A weapon blessing is one rules-indicated break that doesn't happen.

These little niggles get the players doing the various things medieval people did... because, whether or not they had real effect in the real world, the people thought they did, and to get the mindset right, the magic needs to appear to work.

No magic should have any directly visible effect. All effects should be obvious to players, but also very minimalist in appearance. Only a priest or wizard should have any chance to detect magic... and then, it should be by subtle feel, not obvious glow.

This is the approach that was used for 4th edition Pendragon... and it really worked quite well.

Powerful magics in such a setting take months of preparation, or have severe after effects, or both - by choosing one or the other, or by allowing a sliding scale, or by requiring both.

Even a great battle magic just adds a single "Convert a miss by 1 to a hit"... but for every man on the field of that unit/side.

Also, to get the paranoia about unbelievers, have the effectiveness require a certain number of faithful - but one blasphemer counts as 6 against... and a faithless non-believer as 3 against. Set your ratios to your taste, but make certain that at least blasphemers are more than 1 against.

Such a use of common but trivial magics provides a real medieval experience, even tho' most might believe there was no magic in the medieval eras. After all, the people then did believe, and it shaped their whole worldview and culture.

Transitioning to More Fantastic

If you've done the job right, all you have to do is up the benefits, and perhaps add some flash.

As you ramp up the magic to stuff that's visible, you should also, having established in players minds that magic is weak but ever-present, give the occasional dead zone, and flashy zone. This will reinforce that in the far reaches, magic is much more potent and capricious.

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Great Answer. "superstitious" is the operative word, I believe. Superstition is based in ignorance, a fear of the unknown. Magic happens in the unknown and unfamiliar. Many fairy-tales work like this. –  Deathbreath Jul 27 '12 at 15:24
I would write up a bunch of such superstitions and rituals, give it to the players, and then not tell them the mechanical effects. Some would have benefits and others wouldn't. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 27 '12 at 21:44

If you have a good baseline established of what is "the norm" your best bet for introducing fantasy elements smoothly is to introduce their effects (which are obviously not "the norm") before what is causing them. Rather than effect A happening and someone immediately being able to say "oh, that's from mystical thing B", let them know what they perceive and let them put together clues of what is going on without immediate explanation.

Perhaps someone got between two areas faster than should be possible, maybe there have been sightings of a... something in town after dark, or some crazy could be spouting ramblings of a strange city that wasn't there when people went to check. The best part about things like these is that they hint at what could be happening without breaking the medieval fantasy setting. You could even start to drop hints/effects of a mystic element that's not too odd well before the players ever come close to encountering said element, giving an "Oh! That's what that was!" down the line.

Ideally there should be some buffer between the thing and how the players notice it such that it could be someone's imagination or embellishment (thus explaining why the knowledge isn't widespread/well known) but if someone (say, the PCs) really starts to dig, who knows? This also adds some interesting conflict should the players experience some of these fantastic elements but have no proof of their encounter.

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How you introduce the mystical into your mundane setting depends on how much the common man is aware of and believes in those mystical elements. Given that magic is, in fact, real in your setting, you basically have two options for how to play it.

Old Dead Magic, or "Those Silly Warlocks"

While my comment about the shadow monster was partly in jest, you're correct that A Song of Ice and Fire is a world very similar to the one you are trying to set up, and would be a good source of inspiration. I'll use Westeros as an example here, but of course you should fit the details to your campaign however makes sense.

In this scenario, the common populace knows that magic existed in some vague, undefined way, but no one alive believes that they will ever see it. In ASoIaF this is because magic effectively died out with the dragons, and those left who try to practice it are looked upon much like street magicians in the real world -- as charlatans or sleight-of-hand masters.

Introducing magic into a world like this first requires you to determine why it is no longer commonplace to begin with. Note that you don't necessarily have to tell your players that information, but you should make sure your world behaves consistent with it at all times. Perhaps a handful of people know this information but the general population may not (or may have it wrong). Maybe its returning to the world at large, maybe there's something specific about your player's characters, but for some reason, magic just becomes more likely to occur around them. This has an added benefit of setting them apart from the rest of the population, and providing a number of potential story hooks to build from.

Once you've determined why magic is returning, you can start to reveal this to the PCs. One way to do this is to have NPCs that attempt to practice the old magics and routinely fail -- alchemists, priests, warlocks, etc. Then, for whatever reason, some of these practitioners suddenly become successful, perhaps whenever the PCs are in the area. Alternatively, you could introduce "mythical" creatures, only to later have those creatures appear in truth. This can be tricky to get across to PCs without a lot of exposition, but subtle details like naming Inns after monsters, working their names into common speech (especially curses), naming weapons things like WightBlinder, etc. can give your PCs a flavor of the kind of creatures that your world's commoners tell stories about, only to run into them in the forest sometime later.

How fast this escalates and how often it happens to them depends on the campaign; perhaps their goal is to prevent magic from returning by stopping whatever is causing it, in which case they may encounter more and more magical events as they close in or their goal. Or perhaps its simply a cyclical occurrence (positions of the sun/stars/etc) and is simply one more obstacle the PCs have to deal with during their journey.

Key elements to making this kind of approach work:

  • The average person should remain skeptical -- if the PCs start taking about wizards or magic wands, they should receive an appropriately incredulous response.
  • Occurrences of magic should be somewhat ambiguous at first; don't start out by having an arch-mage appear out of thin air, summon a dragon, and raze the town. Start out with people disappearing from locked rooms and work up to the dragon.
  • Stay consistent! If your players are paying close enough attention, they ought to be able to work out why these things are happening all of the sudden; if nothing else this will prevent the sudden appearance of magic from throwing them mentally out of the setting.

Far Off Magic

In this setup, magic is not dead so much as it is confined to certain areas; perhaps there's a particular geographic location that has remnants of magic while the rest of the world has lost it. (Think of settings like the Westlands in The Sword of Truth series). Even in ASoIaF, certain parts of the world are more magically-aware than others.

In this case, people who live near the magical areas are likely aware of and believe in its existence, while your PCs may be from a part of the world where magic is just legend. Over the course of their adventure, they may be forced to travel to a place where it is more prevalent. Or, perhaps whatever is confining the magic is breaking down.

Whatever the case, your PCs should find that magic is something new an unexpected to them, but not necessarily to the people around them. The transition here can occur long before your PCs see any magic of their own; perhaps the conversations they have with locals changes in tone from the big cities, where strange events are blamed on rats and thieves and too much to drunk, to a remote villages where those same events are blamed on vampires and witches and demons.

Depending on how long your PCs spend in your world before you introduce magic, you may need to have them be accompanied by someone to act as the skeptic, right up until they run into something magical face to face.

Key elements to making this work:

  • Try to think like a local; figure out what kind of magical events are common place in which parts of the world, and adapt the local population's behaviors to match.
  • The PCs skepticism in the face of true magic should be met with the same disdain by locals as the PCs would greet someone from their home town talking about magic.
  • The PCs should probably hear about magical events before they see one for themselves, but once they do, it should be fairly unambiguous. Remember, for those people living in the right parts of the world, there is nothing unusual or secret about magic, so there wouldn't be any reason to hide it.
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The Ars Magica setting is exactly this sort of environment. The sourcebooks--all the ones that I have read, anyway--have a section on how to handle magic in historical Europe, and I daresay you'll come up with a fair few ideas by looking elsewhere in the books and source material as well.

That said, the most recent book I have seems to cover the topic less well than I remember. The description of the setting provides one obvious clue as to how to transition (p.212, Ars Magica 4th ed.):

The premise of the medieval paradigm is that the world is the way the medieval folk perceived it; their fears, dreams, beliefs and legends are manifest. This means the stories and myths of that time are true within the game setting. Demons tempt the weak-hearted. Magi cast potent spells. Kings derive their right to rule from God.

This is why the Ars Magica setting works so well: there isn't really any sharp transition because most everyone thinks there is magic and faeries and so on out there anyway, so when you actually stumble across one, it's not really so jarring.

In addition, there are realms, or areas where one of the four primary sources of power (magic, divine, faerie, and infernal) hold sway. These are perceptually subtly distinct from the surrounding areas. For example (p. 240):

Magical areas are intense. Colors are more striking, sounds more piercing, the day brighter, the night deeper. Mundane people who live in magical areas tend to get "weird", their bodies and personalities warping. Insidiously, the magic penetrates their very core and permanently transforms them.

This provides another mode of graceful transition; there are places where things just seem weird, and when more weirdness follows again it's a smooth transition.

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I'd like at least some examples of the most relevant ideas. Otherwise it's kinda like... "Buy this book! There's a chance it might be relevant to what you're looking for!" –  Alex P Jul 30 '12 at 2:22
@Alex P--Took some examples from a sourcebook I own; I had thought you'd not buy the book but glance through it next time you were in a gaming store. Though I guess these days maybe such things are in short supply. –  Ichoran Jul 30 '12 at 14:56
Thanks. That's much more helpful! –  Alex P Jul 30 '12 at 15:40
It's worth noting that 1st-3rd editions had 5 types of auras, not 4... Magical, Faerie, Divine, Infernal, and Reason. With the first four, there is the aura that everyone experiences daily, and then the hidden "Regio" within - an alternate plane with stonger affinity. Reason has no regio, and is "Anti-Supernatural" - magic is harder in an aura of reason, prayer less efficacious, Demons less scary, and Faeries seem less fae in an Aura of Reason. At power 10, Faeries either seem completely normal people or die; demons and angels can't enter, and magic is nigh impossible... –  aramis Feb 28 at 10:42

I recommend looking up the old PC game Darklands, where all this is very beautifully achieved. The game is set in the real 15th century Europe, but the setting is what the common people of that time believed their world really is (based on folk tales and legends). This means, there are no wizards riding dragons and shooting fireballs, but there is working alchemy and saints can grant wonders, witches can make curses , and the deepest forests might contain unseen horrors.

The fact that all the "unreal" things in this setting are based on medieval European legends and folk tales instead of the clicheed "drunken dwarves with big beards and axes, and pointy-eared elven archers" makes it having a very realistic feeling.

The main features of the setting, which might be of interest to you:

  • If you are in the cities, or on the well traveled routes between them, you will mostly find a historical, medieval European setting, just as it was in real life. For example, monks are not mysterious kung-fu monks, they just sit all day in their monastery praying and copying manuscripts.
  • However, if you get far away from the big cities and the main roads, and go (many days) into deep forests and marshlands, you will encounter stranger and stranger beings, taken from central-European legends (witches, tatzelwurms, schrats, holzfraus, the wild hunt, etc. and maybe, just maybe a dragon).
  • There are two types of quasi-supernatural effects the players can use, and they are present in the cities, but they blend in well with a realistic late medieval setting:
    • Alchemy: this means gathering recipes and ingredients, but most of them are based on (slightly enhanced) real results of early experiments with chemistry (a potion releasing a stinky fumes, useful as a distraction, or a potion of naphtha lighted on fire and thrown like an early version of the molotov cocktail), the rest are mostly ability- or equipment-enhancing potions, but no fancy stuff like in the Elder Scrolls or in Faerun.
    • Religion: players can pray to various saints, and they might grant a miracle. However, these miracles are not like DnD spells, they are very similar to the miracles we know from real life and history: for example, someone gets shot at by multiple guys with bows, and none of the arrows hit. Some might think it was a miracle, others might think he was just lucky. Most other prayers temporarily and slightly raise some of your skills (just as today one might think that his success at an exam was a miracle, others think he was just lucky to get exactly the questions he knew). However, God doesn't like it if the player constantly prays for divine intervention, so you can use prayers only rarely (a character with good religious knowledge, and high divine favor might succeed with 2 or 3 prayers on a given day, but will need to wait a couple of days before trying again)
  • While these two (alchemy and religion) have an obvious boost compared to their real world counterparts, they don't alter the society at all. They work in the games universe exactly as many superstitious people in the middle ages thought they work in real life. Fight is still the heavy armored late medieval bashing with swords, maces and shields, but gunpowder starts to slowly make its presence. However, as those early guns are very expensive, rare, and slow to reload, most people still use bows and crossbows.

  • There is no instant healing. Even with miraculous help (potions, prayer), big wounds will need at least a week to heal.

  • There are guilds and banking houses spanning over multiple towns or regions (Remember, these are not city states, but loosely-kept-together component principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, so there were well developed trade and manufacturing networks), so there is a possibility to have interesting quests without too much fighting, or without fighting at all. The computer game did not feature that many missions in this regard, mostly due to technical limitations, but with pen-and-paper the possibilities for diplomacy, spying, etc. are endless. (The skill system supports it very well)

  • There is no leveling up, skills slowly get better as you use them or train them, but that's all. There is no such thing as a farmboy who could barely defeat a rat, gaining enough experience in a few weeks to kill dragons or defeat entire armies bare-handed. Becoming an expert in a field takes many years.

  • Finally, one of the most important differences between this setting, and most other RPG settings: it takes place in a region with stable recent history. You cannot find hordes of monsters, unexplored dungeons, and mystical towers just at a few hours (or few seconds) walk away from the walled towns. This might make sense on the Sword Coast because civilization just recently settled in and did not explore its surroundings well, but 15th century Central Europe is not a lawless and barely explored borderland.

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Can you comment on your second bullet point? Specifically, does the game do anything memorable in how it reveals those "stranger and stranger" things that you would emulate in a pen-and-paper RPG? –  Alex P Jul 30 '12 at 20:56
@AlexP: I don't have the knowledge of how the game generated the encounters. (this is a disadvantage if you base a pen-and-paper on a video game, as you don't know the monster generating algorithms). I only remember that in order to encounter really bizarre things, you would need to deviate from the big roads between big towns, otherwise you would only encounter bandits, pilgrims, merchant caravans, etc. You only encounter witch Sabbaths, demonic manifestations, or strange monsters if you are lost for days in the forests. –  vsz Jul 30 '12 at 21:06
At least that was my experience if I remember it well, and the manual seems to support it –  vsz Jul 30 '12 at 21:07
Abandonware is not a real legal concept. Copyrighted games are still illegal to distribute without a license. Instead of downvoting an otherwise useful answer, I've just removed that bit. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 30 '12 at 22:51

Ok, so super-low fantasy. Undercover fantasy.

First off, you have to make it rare. Actually rare. It's not mystic if you can't swing a cat without hitting a fairy god-mother. Most of your baddies are going to be plain-jane people or animals. And the mystical elements are far removed from society. Literally, they exist out in the wilderness. There are no doppelganger kings or mind-controlling mindflayers. The mystic vizir in the robes who gets messages from spirits has a 50/50 chance of being a charlatan or having one half-used wand of speak-with-dead. He's still "mind controlling" the king, but it's the vanilla sort that gets injected with lies. The witch on the outskirts of town is more likely someone with a couple ranks of herb-ology, but they'll still put her to the stake next Tuesday. And they'll do that because the lumber mill up river heard a rumor from a hunter that someone across the mountain was turned to stone. And it really WILL be by a cockatrice. Because magic is real and to be feared. Because it will kill you.

Once you get your adventurers AWAY FROM SOCIETY, they can start running into magical beasts. Or cults investigating an old ruins of whatnot. Something like a cursed city is a tricky one though. Gypsy alchemists, half-giant hermits, druids that deport people from their grove, secret societies of wizards, all those shenanigians are fair game as long as the masses of population never find out.

And why is all this fantasy stuff tucked away and, you know, mystical? Well because the powers that be (deities and such) wiped all that out a while ago. Every now and then they "influence" people to go clean up whatever they missed. If the players rope up a unicorn and bring it to town, the local cleric will call it an abominations and try to have it burned. "To the stake!". They they push on and bring it to the duke or whatever? Divine intervention. Lighting strikes it down. REALLY BIG NOTE: be explicit and explain that this was divine intervention. Players HATE mysterious all-powerful forces working against their will. For good reason. So explain it to them. Lightning from the sky is exactly the sort of event that let's them know someone up there is enforcing some rules.

Deus ex machina enforcing the mystical nature of your setting? My, my, isn't that a little heavy handed? Well, yes. But to be blunt, if there was a chicken out there who could be chucked over a wall to turn an oncoming army to stone, kings would have put out a bounty and weaponized it LONG AGO. There has to be some deep seated fear of magic, and something out there that justifies that fear. Otherwise your players are the only rational people in the world.

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I think you're missing the point here. It's not at all "undercover fantasy" in the style of modern-day urban fantasy fiction. I want to explore the pre-modern and fairy-tale sensibility of living in a world that's both magical and mundane. There's a soft veil between the mystical and the everyday, not a divine lightning bolt enforcing some kind of cosmic "keep the rubes in the dark" rule. –  Alex P Jul 26 '12 at 22:23
Well alright. I was trying to justify the existence of a veil. Because you KNOW your players are going to do their best to puncture it. Others have had good ideas like keeping it regionally tied, or "coming back into fashion". Have a plan for when they haul a dragon corpse through town, otherwise your "soft veil" will last approximately one session. –  Philip Jul 27 '12 at 15:09
That's kind of the point, though. You bring something back from the Cave of Wonders or Asshai-by-the-Shadow and the world is changed by it. (Also, just carting around a dead dragon isn't likely to do that. It's just a curiosity. So what if people want to see your stuffed cameleopard?) –  Alex P Jul 27 '12 at 16:46
This question isn't about veils, or the maintenance thereof? It's about how to maintain a mundane-world mindset, as the GM, despite a few fantastic exceptions, without sliding down the slippery slope of taking magic for granted. Not by the players—by the GM. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 30 '12 at 3:38
@Philip I want to combine the sense of wonder and narrative symbolism of fantasy with realist medieval fiction. Breaking the world with magic is on the table, but it's not a foregone conclusion. In other words, I'm interested in how to structure the archetypical hero's journey to the forbidden place, but not presupposing that the hero is Prometheus. –  Alex P Jul 30 '12 at 15:45

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