Question 3: You’re building a fantasy setting for the RPG of your choice. Which ingredients to you put in? Which…

Question 3: You’re building a fantasy setting for the RPG of your choice. Which ingredients to you put in? Which “standard fantasy” elements would you choose to leave out?

Oh man so many assumptions built into this question. Can we talk about that for a minute? And this is absolutely, positively not a criticism of Paul Mitchener as a person or a gamer or anything at all. But it’s super interesting to me anyway.

You’re building a fantasy setting, well, that really only happens if you’re working with a toolbox game, yeah? Like, D&D or Dungeon World or GURPS or Burning Wheel. So that kind of leaves a lot of choices out. Anything with an established setting gets left out. No 13th Age or The One Ring or Exalted.

…for the RPG of your choice. As a practical matter I’d probably only be setting up a fantasy setting in Dungeon World or Burning Wheel. Just me! Can’t imagine ramping up on D&D or GURPS or Champions just to have a fantasy-tuned toolkit.

What ingredients do you put in? Well! That really depends on the players if I’m the one doing the setting up, particularly if we’re talking DW or BW. What I know for sure is that if it’s Dungeon World, the easy answer is to rely on trope-y stuff that’s already in the rulebook. And if it’s Burning Wheel, I need to make sure there’s some built in tensions between the ingredients. But in both cases, my approach personally? Is pretty reactive.

Which “standard fantasy” elements… Oh my stars! Insert the evergreen “why is it there are standard fantasy elements but nobody can agree on what the fuck is even science fiction?” discussion here. I could write until the end of my days about my problems with fantasy and nostalgia.

…would you choose to leave out? Okay, so if I were pre-emptively X-carding fantasy tropes during our collaborative world-building, “evil races” will not appear in my game. Not ever. No. Alien, sure, otherworldy, you bet, culturally aggressive toward everyone and everything, why not? But fuck evil races right in the ear.

Not sure I’d outright ban anything else; nothing else is that offensive to my fantasy sensibilities. Like, I greatly prefer meaty, history-based politics in my fantasy. Some vague King/Queen character without all the attendant baggage of feudalism is super-boring, so it’s not so much leaving it out as ensuring I shove it in.

Probably this is among the more straightforward questions in the #12RPG series, but mostly it highlights just how far away from this stuff I’ve gotten. Ye gawds I cannot imagine what would possess me to build a fantasy setting, from scratch, on the scaffolding of a generic fantasy engine.

Now building a very specific and iconoclastic fantasy game for a very specific and iconoclastic fantasy setting of my design? Yes please. I’m doing that right now.

0 thoughts on “Question 3: You’re building a fantasy setting for the RPG of your choice. Which ingredients to you put in? Which…”

  1. Adam D so like a fine-tuned Exalted setting or something? Isn’t that just… Exalted?

    I’m not sure how you build a fantasy world for a game that already has a fantasy world.

  2. No, no, like building the setting from scratch, while drawing on whatever referents for “fantasy” that you want, and then building a system from scratch to match that setting.

    So if you wanted something like Exalted, you might take

    Epic heroism
    Martial arts
    Godly powers
    Elemental magic
    Land spirits

    Good vs. evil

    As your answer to this question, and then if the system needs to be build around that list of parameters, then so be it.

  3. Brand Robins this question also has a lot of ummm … commercial implications, yeah? “What standard fantasy elements” is a place to start when your primary considerations are maybe more aesthetic than thematic. Although that’s just an invitation to start a fight about “standard fantasy themes.”

  4. Well, “the system of your choice” could very well be one you design to fit the world, and I do quite strongly believe in system and setting and style of play all fitting together (though I’m seldom a big “design a system from scratch” sort of designer, with a couple of exceptions I’m quite pleased with).

    The question’s also a reaction to a lot of fantasy worlds built thoroughly from D&Dish assumptions without questioning them. Indeed, that’s the overwhelming majority I see in RPGland and I find that quite depressing.

    For example, I lost interest in Fria Ligan’s last fantasy Kickstarter when they started talking about elves and dwarves, but the depressing thing to me was the number of backers wanting that. Or the first PbtA fantasy game being the PbtA take on D&D. I want worlds outside D&D assumptions; preferably the majority of them.

  5. That question betrays so much anglocentricness it’s hard to relate. My standard fantasy is Homer, Virgil, Dante, Pulci, Calvino, Borges. The only writer from the Anglo-Saxon world fitting my standard fantasy is Lord Dunsany, and that is considered “weird fantasy” to most anglos role players.

  6. All that said, I don’t know how much of that assumption is buried in the question, and how much of it is buried in the culture surrounding the question.

    It’s an interesting place, the space between genre, stereotype, shared cultural space, and atomized individualism.

    Personally, I blame late-stage capitalism.

  7. Yes. Though maybe we should call it “current ultra-virulent stage capitalism” because “late” indicates that capitalism is inexorably going to die.

    Which, alas, may not be true.

    But in this case I was specifically thinking about the current age of demographic-targeted marketing and product specialization, which is neither actually individual nor local, but is also not the same mass market standardization as capitalism through the 20th century.

    We’re in a place where our narrow-band demographic preferences are used as marketed and marketable identities, and both we — and those marketing them to us — sometimes confuse those with actual individuality.

    As a result, we get a situation where many of us know the concept of “standard fantasy” but in some combination don’t know quite what it is, identify with it, or reject identifying with it as a passive-aggressive form of still using it as an identity flag in one hand, while actually making counter-political statements on the other.

    And while ambivalence has certainly often marked the position of the consumer under capitalism, the ironic re-positioning of the self in terms of micro-market branding is pretty unique to our couple of decades.

    … i could go on, but we’re talking about elves and dragons and invisible cities and aztec catholic cannibal lovers, so i won’t.

  8. Brand Robins what bothers me as normal fantasy is that what is normal and acceptable is defined by an hegemon.

    In this case like in many others what’s normal is what’s normal in America. Because I understand most of you are. So you share a culture that is shaped by the cultural artifacts available to you. So you do have a normal fantasy. I consumed Homer, Calvino, Ariosto and Boiardo in school because it was mandatory. They are also hella dope. So that’s for me “normal” fantasy.

    The issue is that America is also hegemonic. So your normal becomes everybody’s normal. Some are for good reason: by sheer volume 1% of everything is awesome, and 1% of normal America fantasy is awesome, and gets translated. But 1% of Italian also gets translated. But less, because it’s less. And because by being less there’s also less economic incentives in doing it.

    Also there are worse reasons in which hegemons push their culture, but let’s keep to somewhat unblamable ones for now.

    At any rates, my cultural normal is now deviant. Because of cultural hegemony.

    (Related: Americans complaining that Japan uses swastikas on map to indicate Buddhist temples because “Nazis ruined swastikas for everybody”. Including the one on the flag of my region, Lombardy)

  9. Paolo Greco I’m actually more down with that than you might think.

    Also, in another note, it’s funny because my brain rebels against Calvino or Borges, much less Homer, being labeled as fantasy. Much as I totally acknowledge that they can be! It’s part of the problem with the hegemon not only being America, but being many faced, many direction-ed, and monstrous in all forms.

    But you know what they say, hegemons, gotta catch em all.

  10. Brand Robins​ ah I get that

    Sorry I get frustrated and argumentative, i was not railing about anyone in particular and certainly did not mean to give you that impression.

  11. I wonder: why does your brain rebel? Calvino’s ancestor trilogy is “weird”, as is most of the Borges I read. Cloven Viscounts and infinite libraries are prime stuff for fantasy and fantasy RPGs.

  12. Oh, it’s because of lingering damage from my education in American university and the associated literary/publishing industries.

    “Fantasy” in that setting, when I was there = crap. Calvino, Borges, etc. = “Literature.” And Homer = Classics, which is a thing with it’s whole own department.

    Of course they’re all fantasy, in some way. And much fantasy is literature, and etc. But I spent a lot of time being trained by people who got a lot of money and a lot of power by making sure one thing got status and respect, and the other didn’t.

    And it’s ironic, that I still reflexively react that way, because the last D&D character I made for an actual D&D game was based on the wife from Under the Jaguar Sun. And I used to run Planescape through the lens of Invisible Cities.

  13. Also: publishing treats “fantasy” as a garbage genre that serious authors are terrified of being associated with. Like “Gentlemen of the Road,” which is totally fantasy, but Chabon turns himself into pretzels apologizing and explaining it.

    It’s so weird.

  14. Oh, that. Damn I hate it. By the way, Ariosto was facing the same “these tall tales are not proper literature” criticism even at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

    This split between high and low culture is another sore point.

  15. Well, it’s where fantasy gaming standards originated, no? Setting aside the meta-argument that fantasy gaming is its own genre, which we probably should not be setting aside.

    I think even Paul Mitchener​​ was critiquing the uncritical dominance of D&D tropes in his question. I mean you could probably rewrite the question as, “when you run D&D, what gets left out and what gets kept? What’s your personal recipe?”

    (This is a reply to Mark Delsing​ ‘s reality check a couple posts back.)

  16. Also, interesting to talk about while still telling Mark Delsing “Damnit Mark”…

    We often look at where D&D came from, in terms of fantasy novels, movies, etc. But, I also think D&D has had an effect the opposite way.

    A lot of computer games, obviously, are fantasy by way of D&D’s particular brand of fantasy. But a lot of … uh… “standard fantasy” novels (sorry everyone, the term works here, I think) have tropes that really got set and reinforced by D&D all over them. And from there, through other novels.

    Even movie wise, I think you can see a lot of things that really hit their stride — if not being born outright — in D&D coming up in big fantasy movies. A lot of the Hobbit movies, for example, felt more D&D than Tolkien.

    The only other game I can see having anything like this effect is Vampire on Urban Horror, and even that’s a pretty tangential and arguable point. But for D&D… I’d say that while it’s a genre of it’s own, and one that came out of, but now is independent of, fantasy literature… it’s also one that has gone on to influence that genre as well.

  17. I guess my point is just that “standard fantasy”, as Paul M. himself mentioned upthread, is the shorthand for the D&D-based template that has been adopted by OMFG so many tabletop and video games. And, yeah, it’s origins are American, but it’s a thing across games from many countries.

    (And, yes, it’s made its way into fantasy fiction as well, to the point where there is pre-D&D fiction and post-D&D fiction.)

    Which is all to say, I don’t find the question itself anglo-centric, even if the source material — Gygax’s oft-ripped-off template — absolutely is.

    I mean, am I being anglo-centric if I base a campaign off of Record of Lodoss War, which is a Japanese anime based on an American RPG experience? (Sorry to cross the streams here.)

  18. Record of Lodoss War is, actually, the subject of several essays about American cultural hegemony. Some arguing that it demonstrates it, some that it subverts it, most that it’s a complicated story of how cultures intertwine.

    Of course, the reaction among American fans to Lodoss is also interesting — considering how early it got picked up and what a wide fan base it got here, as opposed to other fantasy Anime back in the day.

    So whatever it was to the Japanese audience (complicated, I’m sure), the fact that it came from Japanese/American exchanges and then came back to America to be used over and over again as proof of the universality of American tropes is… well. Kinda hegemonic.

  19. I mean, it also speaks to the idea of D&D being it’s own genre. And that every cutely-misogynistic geek culture will adore hot evil dark elf girls.

    Also, if Andy is around, he can probably add a couple layers of complication about the publication history of Lodoss and how long and deep it went in Japanese RPG circles, well outside any direct American influence.

  20. Rewrite: “What does the fantasy game you want to run do differently to D&D? What do you think of the dominance of D&D fantasy elements in what sometimes feels like every bloody fantasy RPG setting under the sun?”

    Only I didn’t want to come out and say that!

  21. Also, I’m not sold on early D&D being “standard fantasy”, because of stuff like gygaxian naturalism and, uhm, Greyhawk being so stupidly complicated (for reasons I do not have will to explain).

    Late d&d iterations and standard fantasy became progressively closer, to the point where there’s an expected canon. I also blame Tolkien, but not JRRT, just the fact that he’s often seen as the only “literally non-garbage” fantasy worth reading.

  22. Brand Robins even stuff like overland travel through dangerous lands being really important? Or magic wands? Or bandits?

    Not all of it is garbage or overused.

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