As I was reading a review of “Lean Times in Lankhmar” on Howard Andrew Jones' blog, I came across a comment from another author, Robert Zoltan, about how Leiber understood the meaning of myth and also about the lack of mystery in modern fantasy.
First, his point about myths. Zoltan suggests that we should, “notice how the term myth has been changed to mean 'a lie.' But a myth is actually closer to the opposite. A myth is a metaphor that points to something other than itself, and that other thing is usually some primal truth about reality and the human condition in relationship to that reality.”1) His observation is spot-on. Think of it in the context of the show, Mythbusters, or the term urban myths. These are untruths. Yes, it is healthy to understand and avoid untruths perpetuated in our daily lives, but with storytelling, it is different. Story myths are not a negation of truth, instead, they are interpreted truths, in veiled layers. This leads to his next point.
There is a lack of mystery in modern fantasy, or in other words, contemporary storytelling is too literal. Zoltan goes on to say, “In most modern fantasy stories (and art), everything is explained. Everything is a fact. Magic systems are explained. Monsters are explained and described in the minutest detail. The lack of mystery goes even beyond the content of the stories to the writing itself, which often reads like a Hollywood action film, not literature.” This applies to RPGs as well.
Mystery is a vital aspect of storytelling, whether it is a written story or an RPG campaign. Where do you think that sense of wonder comes from? Where do you think the tension, fear, and dread build up from? It is the Terra Incognita or what lies at the rim of the known; it endures in the shadows or lies in the interstices of space; it is the dark matter. I cannot explain why it thrills us, but it thrills us, and if you want that thrill to touch your players, you will put it to use.
Mystery has been a common thread in my posts here. In my advice on using magic in Nehwon campaigns, I have talked about it in articles such as “Keeping Magic, Magical” and “Explicit vs. Implicit Spell Effects.” It is why I love the art of Jeffrey Catherine Jones. Zoltan points out how contemporary authors explain their magic and monsters. These two are on the top of my list to not disclose to players in an RPG campaign. If you want to instill that thrill in your players, keep your magic and monsters mysterious. Hold on as long as you can to that Terra Incognita.