Wednesday, April 3, 2019

In Praise of Vanilla Fantasy

In some circles, "vanilla fantasy" gets a bad rap. It gets labeled boring, generic, and lazy. I've even been told that the problem with mainstream D&D is that it's "not weird enough."

Now, I'm a fan of specific, stylized flavors in fantasy rpgs. I've published a Gothic fantasy setting, a New Weird-inspired city setting, and a demonic apocalyptic desert setting. It's probably safe to say that I favor the high concept, bespoke, and special snowflake over the expected fantasy conventions and the well-trod ground of the high fantasy/sword & sorcery nexus. Even so, I want to tell you why vanilla fantasy is actually a good thing to have at the forefront of the hobby.

Vanilla Fantasy is the Lingua Franca of Fantasy RPGs
If you want to explain what D&D is like to someone who has never had the pleasure of playing before, it helps to have some established tropes and recognizable cultural references to fall back on. "It's like Lord of the Rings" goes a lot further than "Well, it's like ancient Tibet but everyone is a crab person and magic comes from stitching patches of demon skin to your body." The latter may be more evocative to the jaded palette, but the former is far more legible to a larger audience.

Vanilla is Translatable
Even if you aren't running a vanilla game, vanilla products still possess utility. Here's why: it's easier to add weird elements to a vanilla product than it is to strip away weirdness that doesn't fit the kind of game you want to play. "Weird" game products are often so heavily slanted toward a certain auteur-like conception of strangeness that they aren't even cross-compatible with other "weird" products. Vanilla products, on the other hand, can be more easily bent toward a variety of purposes and intents because they are made to inhabit the middle-ground.

When Everything is Weird, Nothing Is Weird
Rejecting everything that smacks of vanilla probably makes your game feel fresh and vital...for about three sessions, tops. Once the novelty wears off, all those weird elements will feel as rote and expected as elements derived from traditional fantasy. It's worth keeping in mind how vanilla works in the world of cooking: even when added in small amounts, it is an ingredient that helps bring out the punch of your other flavors. In most settings, the presence of vanilla setting elements makes the truly weird stuff stand out. Vanilla doesn't compete; it enhances the stronger flavors.

Vanilla Might Just Be What People Actually Want
Although you, in your rarefied DIY or indie circles, may deride vanilla fantasy, the larger rpg buying public might not share your views. In fact, sales figures seem to bear out the notion that vanilla sells better than more specialized kinds of fantasy. The reason the Forgotten Realms and Golarion are more popular than your favorite esoteric setting isn't because they have been foisted on rubes--it's because people find those settings comfortable and desirable when they're thinking about how they want to spend their hobby time. Not everyone wants to fight shit golems. Think of it this way: the more people who come into the hobby because they want to make a Drizzt clone means more people who will stick around long enough to delve into the wilder niches. Come for the Krynn, stay for the Krevborna.

They Make Vanilla So That We Don't Have To
I consider it a god-damn service that WotC and Paizo make vanilla fantasy because it means that I don't have to. They've got that arena covered, so I can make my own odder forms of fantasy. Vanilla and weird aren't in binary opposition; they're an aesthetic dialectic. One doesn't exist without the other. And since the other is covered, you have the freedom to go hard at the more idiosyncratic, personal end of the spectrum. But hey, if you want to try your hand at making a vanilla fantasy setting, more power to you. Frankly, going Full Vanilla might be the only truly radical and unexpected move left.

33 comments:

  1. Revolutionary. The part about WOTC/Paizo manufacturing the vanilla that binds all the niche production together is an especially great view . . . they have scale on their side so let them have it. Solo creators and small teams can do well opening up more specialized experiences that not everyone has to like or even understand.

    What I would like if I were making pronouncements is for more things that start from a vanilla foundation and take it in weird and unexpected directions. For example we put on Graeme Revell's "Insect Musicians" tonight and I just saw that it was "inspired by traditional Japanese poetry that reflects upon the sounds of insects and the melancholy of the autumn season," which sounds like awfully generic and even bathetic stuff but then in execution it's this ghastly / delightful percussive disease landscape. But I guess we have Gloranthan esoterica for that anyhow.

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    1. Put it this way: if Umberwell had been the official setting of 5e D&D instead of Forgotten Realms, I would have gotten a nice check and they would be ruing their lost market share.

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    2. A nice check for us humans isn't worth them supporting. I remember how they bought Eberron for $100k and then it fizzled . . . and Eberron is no Umberwell.

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    3. Eberron fizzled? I mean, they've put work into it in every edition since it debuted. And got an MMO out of it!

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    4. It still makes money (good point, the MMO keeps chugging) but it's never going to be more than a sideshow for them. Which is interesting in this context because it's the one that's "a little weird," takes effort to explain, development resources to explain, etc. Eberron is their stark raving gonzo property . . . almost a little too weird for them to bother with but a nice walk on the wild side once in awhile.

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    5. Yeah, it's noticeable that the weirder ones (Dark Sun, Planescape) have yet to be really tapped. And when they do, I'm guessing they'll be more side-trek than main focus.

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    6. Now that you mention it, Dark Sun really looks like an indie auteur franchise hiding inside Hasbro. Except I can't name the auteur or pick the body of work out of a blind lineup because it's still a corporate property worked by employees. The best employees they could get, but still not adding up to Herschell Gordon Lewis or ultimately Fury Road.

      Planescape for me is a bit of a miracle where the vanilla was synthetic beaver hormone but it still against all odds hit an authentic flavor chord with people. (Side note: run setting analysis as Guy Fieri.) Spelljammer, on the other hand, is just the synthetic hormone as far as I can taste or smell, it never even really turned into "vanilla."

      I tried to price real vanilla for this ($38 an ounce) but Penzey is sold out throughout the system, hoping the massive floods in Madagascar keep it available. We'll miss it when it's gone.

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    7. Aos and I were talking about this last night: he maintains that the 80s were a sweet spot for rpg systems; I maintain that the 90s were a sweet spot for rpg settings.

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    8. Get you guys together and the magic happens. I like the notion of overlapping sweet spots, multiple golden ages. Giving it some thought, I suspect what happened is that setting became dominant when demand for product exceeded the capacity of people who could communicate good systems . . . and the market itself rejected a certain kind of complexity as too heavy a learning curve, so crunch just wasn't rewarded as richly.

      The first part is TSR trying to maximize its revenue per fan by spinning out all those worlds running on the same core system. The systems guys could focus on Players Options and Complete Class Handbooks. Talent that could just concoct a compelling restaurant was more plentiful and easier to train. Run all the restaurants out of the house system and make more money.

      Then the setting geniuses over at the Wolf connected to an audience that historically rolls its eyes at slide rule math and system becomes almost an embarrassment. I know that something has gone wrong when a young me is just kind of making up stat blocks and a Steve Perrin isn't doing high profile work at all. Even today system is better swiped than built from the ground up.

      Two milestones: Dragonquest becomes a laughingstock for its wargame style rulebook organization, Amber becomes immortal for being all sourcebook and really no system at all. (Come at me, fans.)

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  2. You make a lot of good points.

    I feel like you could possible go further on a couple of them though.

    For example, perhaps the contemporary version of "vanilla" is the way it currently is BECAUSE it's what most fantasy fans want. "Vanilla" in the past wasn't exactly what it is today, and it will be different again in the future But perhaps the reason this particular collection of tropes is "vanilla" right now is because that's what people want.

    Also for example, perhaps WHATEVER the biggest names in fantasy are making BECOMES "vanilla" simply by virtue of market share. LotR and Game of Thrones tell us what the world's like. Harry Potter and M:tG tell us how magic works. Marvel and DC tell us what heroes look like and how they fight. And D&D and Pathfinder BOTH (a) gather all that up and package it as one game, and (b) get to tell us what "vanilla" RPGs are like, because performatively, their word becomes truth. (This and my earlier suggestion are compatible, but both aren't necessarily true. I could be wrong about one or the other, or both, I guess.)

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    1. Yeah, if you read back far enough in the history of fantasy conventions you find a point where there isn't any "vanilla" yet; you can make out the outlines of the battle for what will become vanilla.

      Vanilla now is probably the accretion of fantasy tropes plus marketing plus some undefined zeitgesit factor that never gets too wild. The thing about vanilla: I suspect it absorbs more than it excludes, especially when some new element gains critical mass.

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    2. All right, can someone tell a geezer how the vanillas of Pathfinder and 5E taste different / hit separate flavor spots?

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    3. Yes. I was brought up a bit short by this sentence:

      "Think of it this way: the more people who come into the hobby because they want to make a Drizzt clone means more people who will stick around long enough to delve into the wilder niches."

      For those of us who lived through the entirety of the 1990s, I can assure you there was a time when Drizzt (or what I understand him to be - some kind of dark elf edgelord, right?) was the height of cutting-edge exoticism. If "vanilla" was Tolkien in 1940, by the 70s it had absorbed quite a bit of Lieber and Moorcock and stranger things. Is Game of Thrones vanilla fantasy or a radical deconstruction of vanilla fantasy? Is The Dark Knight Returns a vanilla superhero comic or a deconstruction of same? How about X-Men circa 1970? Circa 1985?

      Like (I think) you said, "vanilla" absorbs and co-opts its dissenters over time. Even Tolkien was fresh once.

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    4. Heh, trust me, I lived through all the 90s too. Some years I lived through twice even.

      My best estimate is that when Game of Thrones hit mass popularity it seemed like a revolutionary aesthetic sea-change. Publishing certainly took note; all the Tolkien clones were having trouble finding publishers, but if you had an epic gritty fantasy series about politics and betrayal, you could get a book deal.

      Flash-forward to today...I'd argue that vanilla has successfully absorbed the Thrones phenom.

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    5. Picador, I agree that Game of Thrones was originally a deconstruction of the tropes of the vanilla fantasy of its time.

      But like you said, by now, it's been so successful that it IS vanilla, by virtue of its central position. Its heretical critiques have become the received wisdom.

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  3. I have a dividing line between what I consider good vanilla and bad vanilla.

    Good vanilla mirrors reality - people, beliefs, things that are part of our day to day existence. They express something real through the fantastic.

    Bad vanilla mirrors other vanilla fantasy, and only expresses reflections with no roots.

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    1. I would argue that the "bad" version of any kind of setting is most commonly derivative of its influences. For example, any setting that is "weird" because it has second-hand Lovecraftiana isn't really weird to me; we've seen that many, many times. Reflections with no roots, as you say.

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  4. 1. I’m sitting on one- I haven’t looked at it in ages.
    2, I think Star Wars; the Marvel Universe and too a much lesser extent Hyboria also do this.
    You could also make a case for Batman’s gotham.

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    1. Marvel's Universe definitely has that "absorb anything and everything into the mix" style that modern vanilla fantasy (especially D&D) has. MU has recognizable earth locales, but also hidden pulp prehistoric lands, labyrinthine sewers, space empires, Asgard, Mount Olympus, Hell, and the astral plane all in one backdrop.

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  5. And you can get comic book guys and movie guys- and even guys like you who think Spider-Ma’s a tool, to take mytual enjoyment from the whole thing.
    Neat.

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    1. I'll never not laugh at "Mr. Stark, I don't feel so good!" I can't help it.

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  6. Great post and it saves me from having to write something similar!

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    1. I like to make more time in your day!

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    2. You're a considerate guy!

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    3. I keep telling people I'm here to help, but no one believes me!

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    4. I bet it's because you don't write vanilla fantasy :P

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    5. Tbh I'm not sure I would even know where to begin. Interesting vanilla is probably a lot harder than it looks.

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  7. I have had rather similar thoughts in recent years. As an unabashed fan of exotic settings, returning to vanilla is both fun and challenging. It is fun because it is a process of rediscovery (including aspects we had missed once), and challenging because it takes thought and effort to discover what makes these settings and adventures tick.

    I am currently reading Dragon Warriors, a mid-1980s UK game I had never known, and it is a bit like coming home to a place I had never visited before. Odd, but it is an experience. The sample characters at the beginning are knights on an adventure, meeting in a forest tavern and taking a quest from a Christian monk to defeat evil in the woods. The most trite cliché there is... but it does not feel tired because it is genuine, without a hint of second-guessing or ironic distance.

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    1. There is huge value is discovering what makes those settings and adventures work, as you note. It might be the next frontier, really.

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    2. There must be an analogy here with old-school gaming in general: a conscious re-evaluation of a game style from an informed perspective makes it easier to focus on its innate strengths, while avoiding its weaknesses. It will, necessarily, also result in something different than the original. Some things are just better left forgotten. Yes, I am thinking about you, Elminster.

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  8. wait wait wait wait, when are you going to write the setting for "Well, it's like ancient Tibet but everyone is a crab person and magic comes from stitching patches of demon skin to your body."

    I would totally play that!

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