Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breaking the mold [Rant of sorts]

What's too weird or strange for fantasy RPG? Why do vaguely tolkien-derived fantasy rpg settings dominate fantasy RPG? Is it really just because D&D used Tolkien trappings in it's early days and that became fantasy RPG? Sure some games stray further afield but moody vampires and tentacled horrors from beyond are easily glommed onto and shoved into the quasi-medieval tolkien-pastiche of fantasy RPGs.

Too many fantasy games and the campaigns that evolve from them too gosh-darned familiar. A dwarven fighter from the forgotten realms would fit in 99% of the fantasy campaigns I've ever seen. Seems to me fantasy rpg is a little too parochial.

Take a look at drive-thru rpg titles. There's an awful lot of great stuff there but when you look at it from a step or two back it's an awful lot of the same stuff. It's like there is something restraining broader creativity.

Some folks claim it's all about accessibility. People want to be able to get a handle on the game setting and the rules and jump on in and play. A lot about D&D wasn't all that accessible when it was new, it was unfamiliar country. D&D style elves and dwarves weren't in sync with the popular imagination just yet, but they would be.

One of the earliest fantasy games was Empire of The Petal Throne. It presented an original fantasy universe with D&D like rules. Many folks stayed away over the years because it required too much immersion to play, of course a lot of people would then go on to buy dozens of forgotten realms modules and novels or countless vampire/ghost/werewolf/fairy splat books so that argument is curious. The non-human races were too weird, the cultures too different and baroque...so they were too fantastic (really?).

A few folks out in the blogosphere are pushing boundaries or being un-apologetically omnivorous in their campaign and game design. I feel they are too few and far between however and often not really breaking free of the mold (the kid who sneaks a smoke at catholic school is still a kid at catholic school).

Sword and sorcery as it differs from tolkienesque D&D is getting some attention here and there. Truthfully it isn't straying all that far from the mold but it is embracing some of the roots of fantasy RPG by excluding some popular elements. It's a start, if is a dead-end or a brief esoteric exploration of genre is anyone's guess. In the end of the day sword and sorcery still leaves us with fighting men, thieves and spell casters so it is not too out there.

Some folks lather on the details to richly develop a unique fantasy world but when we get down to the nitty-gritty the party of adventurers are often a band of misfits that would fit in virtually any other fantasy campaign. A blood drinking barbarian warrior of the thorn forests, a dwarven tunnel fighter armed with smoke-powder blunderbus, a jaundiced elfin shadow mage of the rotwood forest, a brownie gadget-master and a fairy healer would fit in almost anywhere in D&D land. The details of the cult of Narth can be cool but unless the cult of Narth profoundly influences the campaign and play it's never really going to matter or change the way the campaign unfolds.

I hate to offend anyone here but an awful lot of RPG fans/players are shockingly imagination impaired. Maybe that's why we seldom stray far from the mold. An example of this lack of imagination among RPG fans is the Rakshasa. In it's original AD&D appearance in the Monster Manual the Rakshasa is a shape changing evil spirits of Indian origin able to use illusion it has a wonderfully done illustration of a tiger headed man in a smoking jacket enjoying some opium; since then the rakshasa have been evil tiger-men in fantasy RPG land because of a well crafted piece of art even if the description indicated nothing of the kind. Iconic, even simle, definitions seem to stick in fanatsy RPG land. What happened to imagination?

I'm not offering solutions here (I may in future posts). Bear in mind my current regular campaign has a party that consists of a human mage, an elf fighter/mu, a thief, a fighter, and a dwarf barbarian who spend a fair bit of time kicking in doors, killing things beyond those doors and looting. Yes, I'm sitting in a glass house and i'll be throwing plenty of stones. Let's break some molds, let's make games and campaigns that are different and fantastic.


  1. D&D is a pastiche - you've got races from Tolkien, magic from Vance, a kick-in-the-door-and-loot style from Conan and Lankhmar stories, so yeah, everything starts to look alike when every pastiche element is included in every setting.

    I'm not quite sure what you're recommending - there's a balance to strike between accessibility (Tolkien clones = commercial success) versus requiring too much immersion (fail). Do players really want to game in a world where people drink out of long straws attached to fanny-pack hip bladders they tote on their belt (because the clever DM wanted to break the mold in his 'innovative' Sword-and-Planet setting) or do they just want to know they can go to the bar, order a beer, and drink out of a mug like the real world?

    Will be interesting seeing what kind of comments you get. (Me - I recommend stripping things out to make it more S&S - first thing that gets cut are the demihumans).

  2. I argue that D&D has never been a very creative endeavor. Look at the Monster Manual - very few original ideas in it. Yet from that mish-mash of mythological and folklore sources, comes fun.

    Everything in D&D is better if the player already has a passing familiarity with it. If everything is brand new, you have no idea how to react to it. And there's the chance that your brand new idea just plain stinks on ice.

    Where I think a lot of campaigns seem "flat" to me is in being too self-referential. D&D has come to define its own brand of fantasy, and campaigns that recycle orcs and gnolls for the umpteenth time seem incredibly stale. Ideally people should borrow ideas from more sources.

    So coming up with more original material - fine if you can pull it off, but not necessary. Borrowing from sources more varied than D&D canon from the past 30 years, that's a worthwhile endeavor.

  3. me- I want to play in the campaign where folks draw elixirs through long straws which dip into their hip flasks. I can go drink out of a mug in a bar any day of the week.

  4. Can I rant about the Rakshasa - it's a creature more like the Western idea of a demon than a spirit. It shapechanges at will - up to the size of a giant. At least it does in Sanskrit epic sagas. Then Gary or whoever watches an episode of Kolchak and it becomes a furry forever.

    I wonder if designers reject the OGL and the SRD and go for the jugular of creativity, setting first then system - will anyone play, or will it get lost, adrift in the interweb sargasso. Because D&D isn't always the best fit for more outre settings.

  5. I think there's an inherent limit or problem with being "original". Even our imagination functions on the familiar, it's not infinite in every direction, but stretches outward from a point (it can stretch very far indeed, but it's still a stretch).

    Example: I once made a world that was orbiting a red dwarf sun, meaning that the planet was tidally locked - half of it was always day, half of it was night. Guess what, we constantly forgot to apply that in play, because our mind are so used to the familiar day-night cycle that it was hard to remember that there was no darkness in some places.

    That said, I'm all for innovation. I've got a basket of very non-Tolkien settings all ready to grow.

  6. @gregor I can go with "original" and outright freakish as long as there is some detectable patterns and reliable consistency somewhere.