Sunday, 1 October 2017

[BLOG] OSR Module O3: Good Vanilla

Tangent regarding [two well-regarded adventure modules]: it really reads well, but it strengthens my desire to GM so called "vanilla" fantasy to unknown heights. Not quite sure why that exactly is.” -- Settembrini

TL;DR:  This post makes the case for taking a new look at vanilla fantasy, and considers how we should go about it. It is, at this point, more a thought experiment than a practical guide.

***

Vanilla
Vanilla fantasy often has a bad reputation, and nothing makes this clearer than the fact that even its fans tend to make apologies for enjoying it. Although its definition is as vague as porn’s “I know it when I see it”, it is easy to find criticism directed at it. Vanilla is commonly derided as boring, “still locked in a post-Tolkienian mode with a fairly standard (and stagnant) array of racial/cultural types and environments”, so predictable “everyone knows the main tropes of the setting before you even tell them of the background”, heavily reliant on “stock fantasy features” and “done to death” (random snippets from a random forum topic discussing the subgenre).

Although much of the damage to vanilla was already done by countless bad novel trilogies in the 1970s and 1980s, TSR deserves special mention for turning bad fantasy into a fine art. They actually accomplished the impossible by taking a literary genre rooted in wonder and human imagination, and turned it into something safe, banal, and aggressively devoid of the otherworldly. It is not the only way of turning fantasy into the mundane (the gritty realism school has much to answer for), but it is a very potent one. Many of us still have an allergic reaction to the poncy bards, gnome illusionists and wise old wizards populating this peculiar corner of hell, and ever since, we have wanted one thing: out.

Also vanilla
Since much of old school gaming as we know it emerged in response to things old-schoolers didn’t like, vanilla fantasy was among the first to be viewed with suspicion. Did vanilla contaminate the more pure and more authentic Appendix N tradition? Were communists nefariously fluoridating the adventure supply? In the discussions that have formed the old school aesthetic as we know it, the rediscovery of sword&sorcery influences, Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism, and pulps on the boundary of science fiction and fantasy felt like finding precious treasures, nefariously locked away for decades. Newfound respect for (and the increased accessibility of) gaming relics like Dark Tower, Arduin, Empire of the Petal Throne and Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and the more out there TSR modules like Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and pre-Drizzt Vault of the Drow pointed towards further explorations of weird fantasy. The resulting old-school supplements have embraced these source materials, and built upon them in many useful and interesting ways. Yoon-Suin, Carcosa, Anomalous Subsurface Environment and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom all come from this reappraisal, but it has also left its mark on smaller thing like the re-emergence of GP for XP as a valid game mechanic, or the interest in petty gods with base motivations and limited power. It has been good for a host of GMs and players, because there was now a generous amount of good new and rediscovered source material to serve as example and inspiration.

***

There are many who have accused old-school gaming of being essentially revisionistic, and while they inevitably miss the point about why people enjoy these games, they are not entirely wrong. Those old-school materials have a whole lot more vanilla in them than some would admit. Nowadays we tend to fixate on the more exotic parts of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but at its heart, it is as much about castles, hobbits, dragons and nazgûls as it is about fallen starships and barbarous gods lording over isolated city states. Greyhawk is half the out there fantastic fantasy of White Plume Mountain and the GDQ series, and half a set of pseudo-mediaeval realms with the texture of The Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands.

Vanilla with extra sugar on the top
Not only was A/D&D deeply rooted in this tradition, it actively moved away from the rest as it shed much of its pulp and sword&sorcery heritage over the early 1980s. This came as much from a new generation of fans brought up on vanilla fantasy and wanting to make sense of a game that contained altogether too much off-colour weirdness for their comfort, as a publisher that was also interested in filing off those rougher edges – the naked woman on the ritual altar? That didn’t happen. (Actually, try putting that on your cover today and watch as your business is set on fire by a bunch of angry people with blue hair, and you become a nonperson on social media. Fun times.) In those years, A/D&D consolidated its self-image by focusing on its more harmless mediaevalisms and clearer good-versus-evil themes, and exchanged Erol Otus for the likes of Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. That is, sword&sorcery and weird fantasy lost, and high fantasy won out. This was no mere TSR ploy, since many of the fans also wanted it that way – they wanted Dragonlance, Elminster and failed attempts at Tolkien, not half-forgotten pulp fiction from the 1920s or a sentient amoeba zapping away a bunch of adventurers with a blaster.

***

Is vanilla fantasy being done in old school gaming? Yes; actually, there is a fairly large quantity of it if you look at RPGNow releases, and there probably isn’t a week without a new goblin cave module coming out that fits the description. But the reason they get little attention is not just because of terrible hipsters who hate mom’s apple pie, the second amendment, and Gary Gygax (as the theory goes at the K&KA), but also because most of them are just plain bad or uninteresting. In addition to structural problems (like the “16 rooms in 24 pages” issue, the most reliable indicator of a disappointing adventure beside lengthy chunks of boxed text), they often work from an exhausted set of standard building blocks which have been overused to the point where they are bleached of their challenge, imagination and wonder. Their set of influences is often limited to two or three modules (but really, mostly just Keep on the Borderlands without the extra effort). Even today, the bad reputation of vanilla is not entirely undeserved.

Damn fine vanilla
Furthermore, people who have a good eye for vanilla fantasy, and may have a thing or two to say about applying its lessons to gaming, have been asleep at the wheel. I have read many complaints about the lack of good, honest adventure modules you could import into Greyhawk or your homemade pseudo-mediaeval fantasy land, but much fewer active offers to step up and remedy the problem by writing and sharing a few actually good adventures along those lines. Complain about the hipsters all you want, but at least they are doing something – I could list numerous memorable old school products from the recent years which had some kind of hyper-exotic premise, but it is much harder to recall what vanilla fantasy has done for me lately (Secrets of the Wyrwoode was a good recent exception). For various reasons, the people who write good stuff tend to avoid vanilla; the people who could write good vanilla don’t; and without the creative tide that would lift all ships, the field is left to stagnate. (There is an enormous library of Pathfinder and 5e products I know very little about, and which may fit the bill, but frankly, nothing so far has made want to take a closer look.)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing inherently wrong with vanilla. Unlike the imitations, dilutions and substitutes, real vanilla has a rich and complex flavour. A bite of vanilla ice cream is a small scoop of heaven, and vanilla goes a long way in a lot of recipes. There is a good reason people grew to like vanilla in the first place. If we realise this, we can make it right. We can make vanilla great again!

***

Damn fine vanilla with wizards in conical hats
To restore vanilla fantasy to its proper place, we have to go back to its origins, the pure ingredients which have established it as interesting and alluring. That’s where all things start, just like it did with the restoration of sword&sorcery to D&D’s heart. We have to know its sources, from the early 20th century writers who had given it form, to Tolkien, and perhaps particularly to those who have successfully reinvented it at a time when it was already undergoing stagnation. Vance’s Lyonesse, an outsider’s take on high fantasy, is an excellent example, with its take on myth and legend, the way it handles good and evil, its range from dynastic struggles to smaller adventures, and its enormous cast of characters from characteristic Vancian oddballs to others drawn from a more romantic sensibility (Lyonesse features a clash of widely different aesthetics, making for a very enjoyable dissonance).

We have to take a new look at the motifs vanilla fantasy builds from to appreciate their beauty and clarity – the landscapes, characters and plots which appeal to the imagination. We have to give them back their meaning, fill them with content. If we do, there is power in the tales of knights who try to do good and represent a heroic ideal even if (and perhaps especially if) it is not easy and not convenient. There is value in preserving bucolic rural lands if they embody a worthy way of living. There is nothing banal or trite about the wonders of natural beauty, or the mystery of a dense woodland landscape dotted by the ruins of a better age brought down by an evil empire. Imbued with their original allure, the faerie can be mysterious and creepy again, and we can similarly appreciate magic in its rightful place – as something whimsical, wondrous, but fundamentally unsafe. Beauty (although often dangerous and corrupted beauty) is one hallmark of this subgenre, just like inhospitable wastelands are the domain of sword&sorcery. The landscape itself often has a certain moral dimension – Tolkien’s points of light such as Beorn’s homestead or Lothlórien have healing power, while places corrupted by Sauron are actively hostile and degrading.

Damn fine vanilla with killer squirrel
We also need to rediscover a moral complexity which is usually missing in the second-rate imitations. Vanilla fantasy deals with relatively clean-cut concepts of good and evil, and this element can be the hardest to pull off without milquetoast moralising, Saturday morning cartoon villainy, or something where “good” just ends up corrupted and creepy. To leave a mark on the game, evil ought to be more than “looks evil” or “belongs to a group which is evil”, and be present on the level of “does evil things”. Vance (again) once gave an excellent definition: “What is an evil man? The man is evil who coerces obedience to his private ends, destroys beauty, produces pain, extinguishes life.” This is fine for a working definition. Likewise, good should not be a convenient label, nor a manifestation of Lawful Stupid, nor even a rubric which is satisfied by adventuring and defeating evil monsters. Good takes an effort – in acts of generosity, going out of the way to do the right thing, and resisting the lure of evil. Moral conundrums have a place in this kind of fantasy; in fact, similar dilemmas give a true meaning to good and evil (although teenage dickhead GMs who try their darnedest to make the virtuous fall through placing them in impossible situations is a fair warning about where not to go with this element).

There is one stumbling block where the task of running a properly heroic campaign is always going to be hard. D&D’s rules and assumed style of play do not make for a very heroic game, since the bold and the foolish tend to die quick, ignoble deaths in dank hellholes instead of going on to great things. This is probably one area where genre logic should take a backseat. Heroic destinies and characters fated to be heroes may not be entirely hopeless ideas, but these features need to be adapted to D&D’s specific style to avoid losing player agency and the thrill of risk. That is, we need to make it all work in a game, the spot where Dragonlance stumbled and never got up again, and where various narrative games pushing for genre emulation end up dissatisfying because the players are cushioned from the consequences of their actions. Ironically, the monomyth, that popular old chestnut trying to explain every epic from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Harry Potter, is precisely the thing we should be cautious about: not only does it tend to degrade the scope of heroic fantasy to one standard plotline, it is full of hidden pitfalls which make it hazardous to good gaming.

***


Of course, it need not all be dramatic to the extremes. A good vanilla fantasy campaign can simply be one which can find a way to present traditional fantasy motifs in a fresh way, where the pseudo-mediaeval background has a proper sense of wonder, and where the game has an interesting moral dimension. That’s what it takes, but it is probably much harder to do nowadays than even a proper “Appendix N” campaign – avoiding the corruption of the bad stuff (and some of it is pretty dire), or the temptation to drown the campaign in cynicism and post-modern irony (omnipresent, but on the wane in The Age of Earnestness). But how do we achieve this, and where do we go from there?

Damn fine vanilla with heroines and crystals and valkyries

31 comments:

  1. My theory of why vanilla goes wrong so often is based on the difference between idealism and romanticism. The idealist knows of death, but is not afraid. He keeps on trucking for all that is beautiful and true. The romanticist knows death and a) worships it or B) creates a stagnant and vacously reactionary utopia. That is why you get a) Vampire or b) Dragonlance.

    Personally, I think vanilla is not too hard to GM. Many monsters are more scary if there is decent Johnny Appleseeds (or true Hobbits for that matter) to defend rather than a City-State of cut-throats and rapists.
    Only recently I was in a 1e game were the DM went too far though: we were not defending Hobbits or decent hard-working people but basically Michigan Suburbanites. Orcs were kidnapping kids from the local swimming lake, which even had wooden picknick tables. As with anything, its about the dosage, and a fine line to walk. One indicator for me that much of the weirdness, gore and misery are bordering the meaningless is the lack of even a hint of quantification, the missing sense of scale: In one campaign setting I can have only so many reality-altering revelations and far-out concepts, before the setting itself becomes pointless. To have the weird and strange stuff, but also to have a believable unsanitized world that still has some wholesome places and people in it is more work than to just splash misery, gore and cynicism all over the place.

    Truly creative people born into a upper middle class rarely can see value in any bucolic idyll. It is in big swathes, a class question.
    Consumers form the upper middle class value their idylls, and the lack of supply creates a tension which has usually been solved by Schlock from semi-creative former consumers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No-one cares what Germans think or have thought for 60 years outside of Germany. For decades you bowed and scraped in shame, and recently you are advocates for infecting europe with Islam, because women and effeminate men are in charge in Germany.

      Europe is dead so long as German scum are at the heart of Europe.

      Delete
    2. ==My theory of why vanilla goes wrong so often is based on the difference between idealism and romanticism. The idealist knows of death, but is not afraid. He keeps on trucking for all that is beautiful and true. The romanticist knows death and a) worships it or B) creates a stagnant and vacously reactionary utopia. That is why you get a) Vampire or b) Dragonlance.

      That is sickeningly stupid. Where were you educated?

      Delete
  2. I think vanilla has its reputation of being trite and uninspired because it mostly is (once you have the absolute basics of fantasy gaming under your belt, with wizards in towers, knights in shining armor and your convenient evil empire just over the border). Doing that again as an adult is like watching your favourite tv shows from your childhood. Instead of the fun, you bring away only a slight confusion and a sad sense of loss. Moreover, if you add other elements to vanilla it won't stay vanilla for long: if there are twisted fairies kidnapping local youth from the green & pleasant meadows and returning them as blank husks or dreamy changelings with otherwordly urges, it will be something akin to surreal & romantic or dark & gritty, but hardly vanilla.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is the question/proposal of the post: is the vanilla style separable from the crud that brought it down in the first place? I think it can be done, although you would also have to do a reset on player expectations. If the players strongly believe it is crap, it will either be crap, or it will be ironic (perhaps enjoyable, but ultimately insincere and fake).

      Delete
  3. My favorite kind of vanilla fantasy:

    http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/mightandmagic/mm6.jpg

    http://www.mobygames.com/images/covers/l/14301-everquest-the-ruins-of-kunark-windows-front-cover.jpg

    What's common in the above two games is neither of them stays vanilla forever. As the players reach high levels their adventures leave behind the familiar vanilla fantasy background in favor of something unusual - Might & Magic VI introduces sci-fi elements, while EverQuest introduces epic kitchen sink gonzo areas, including the outer planes.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Vanilla with a very strong and inspiring atmosphere, plus high magic and lotsa fantastic/fabulous elements? Yes, please:

    http://media.moddb.com/images/mods/1/24/23726/2015-07-08_01.05.15_copy.1.png

    If somebody could present the same overly familiar yet absolutely exciting world at the game table as the one on the screenshot, i'd play it. Play it anytime.

    What makes it really interesting is that there are dragons, liches, vampires, elementals, pegasi, genies, magic wells, portals and such over literally every corner of the map. Yet (or even?), this 'overusage' of fantastic elements are not exhausting, but inciting for the imagination. Much more than scarce monsters and worlds where peasants should react "realistically" and freak out at the sight of a magic missile. These are, mind you, the same worlds where the scarcity of fantastic elements should result in magic retaining its special, sensational feel, yet all it achieves is boredom.

    Well, I guess so. I've never tried to build a campaign based on these ideas. Not since twenty plus years ago, when, as a teenager, Heroes was my main inspirational source for adventures. I've felt the same excitement when I first flipped through Monstrous Manual. (I'm talking about AD&D 2nd ed's with the monsters that felt mythical, not 3E's, with the 'realistic' manticores and the likes.) To me, that Monstrous Manual painted a world roamed, ruled and threatened by lots of exciting, magical creatures. How disappointed I was when I first bought 2nd ed's Forgotten Realms box... ;)

    Then came the idea to DM more 'adult' and 'serious' adventures.

    Heck, I should return to my roots. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The images from The Legend of Kyrandia and the more recent Heroine's Quest are there for a reason. There was a certain kind of very colourful, very fantastic fantasy in early 90s games (and even more so in the demoscene) - with lots and lots of crystals. You could run a game in that kind of world, and it'd make a cool counterpoint to the omnipresent shitfarmer aesthetic. .)

      Delete
  5. I think that finding true aesthetic pleasure in vanilla fantasy can only come from a careful reconsideration of its constituent images. Every image and idea has its own story; it is only when the trappings of vanilla fantasy are shorn of their associations and considered in a vacuum (as TSR D&D has had a tendency to do in its relentless quest to catalog and sterilize the products of imagination for easy packaging and resale) that they lose their enchantment. The subject matter and the format of typical dungeon and wilderness adventures are ripe for infusion with images of beauty if their full significance is understood by the author and adequately conveyed to the reader.

    Some of the best products exampling this in the contemporary scene, in my opinion, are Geoffrey McKinney’s Wilderlands modules and his dungeon “Tomb of the Lilac High Priest.” You were unkind to the latter in your review, but you dwelt primarily on its technical aspects and gave little consideration to its flavor; this lopsided reading naturally produces a poor impression. When I read it I weighed my impressions more in terms of how well I thought Geoffrey met his stated goal of producing “the quintessential AD&D dungeon” and less in terms of layout of gameability. To be sure these are important aspects of a gaming product, but I think they are far less important than whether something is a good repository of striking images.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with your first paragraph, but not the second.

      On the first: this is the reason looking back at the wellsprings of vanilla fantasy can be so rewarding, since the way its images originally appear are in context, and full of meaning. For example, Tolkien's elves and the places where they live have a beauty which is only superficially present in the bowdlerised successors. In Tolkien's work, you also get a sense of his love for the harmony of nature and the built environment as the cornerstone of elven civilisation (with a dark mirror in landscapes devastated by industry and war). This is transformed into a much flatter image in later works. Sometimes, the transformed concepts still work - the D&D idea of hobbits as short thieves and murderers can be interesting on its own, but only in a different kind of fantasy (D&D's implied setting).

      On the second: my review of Lilac High Priest was not meant as unkind, and I gave it a rating befitting a good but flawed product. The reason I wrote more about form was because of my frustration with it - there is an imaginative and sometimes beautiful (but slightly disconnected) module inside the product, but it is brought down by the way it is presented. I also believe that function, structure and utility are very important in game products. Images are the first, but if a module doesn't work at the table, they will be wasted.

      Delete
    2. == I also believe that function, structure and utility are very important in game products

      Why? This is a sickening cliche unless you can prove it. Why is a poem like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or any amount of literary fantasy sources not much more valuable to an AD&D DM than map-labeled crap that is easy for morons to use. Why is efficient mundane shit valued, in your mind, over the evocative and the literary?

      How often do you game? Maybe you game too often. Maybe you should game more in proportion to what you can imagine well and less according to a schedule that requires you to refer to random unknown easily comprehended mundane formulaic D&D, because you have a thousand gamers to handle.

      Delete
    3. I will answer your question if you answer my question. How often do *you* game? I mean, with other people.

      Delete
    4. Kent, this may be because the Iliad or the Belle dame sans merci aren't exactly gaming products and evoke wildly different responses in different people, if any. I had the urge to use poems as inspirations for settings or adventures, but _my_ impressions would be really hard to communicate clearly if I had to put them in the context of a published product. Anyone can use a generic hexcrawl (and no, I don't believe it is the mark of the unwashed proles to use such things).

      Delete
    5. ==How often do *you* game? I mean, with other people.

      I don't at the moment and haven't for three years.

      Delete
    6. That's very patrician.

      My turn: on the average, I game in two campaigns every third weekend, not counting one-shots and a mostly dead local campaign.

      And the response: to those of us who actually game, function, structure and utility have a practical importance. When you put something on the table, some types of presentation work better than others; some work very well, and some don't work at all.

      The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not a game document, it is literature, and judged by completely different criteria (I will just note that some of them, like metre, are judged much more strictly and mercilessly than anything in gaming). It would be a dreadful game document, while almost all game documents would make for crummy literature. There is no comparison; they exist in completely different worlds. Anyone who actually games would get it.

      And it is beside the point, since there is no trade-off either. Geoffrey's module - which was the original subject before this non sequitur - could easily have been made completely accessible without sacrificing its evocative content (not really on par with Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but I'll live with it). All it needed was one honest editorial pass.

      Delete
    7. Coincidentally, the recently published Veins of the Earth is something that could pass for some kind of post-modern fantastic literature (and is being praised as such). It reads very well. Not entirely coincidentally, I am not sure much of it would work in an actual game, something I'd never doubt about the D series.

      Delete
    8. I have yet to make the jump regarding Veins. Fire on the Velvet Horizon has monsters in it, so that's game-able. But my Vision of the UnderOearth for my current campaign is much more HoMM3 + Illithids, Gary-Drow and Tharizdun when things need to get weird & nasty. And for RIFTS, there already is Phase World and so much else, so I currently do not need additional infinities. But Veins could as well be the peak of Patricks production, as it seems the "band is breaking apart" with the recent Greco-Zak-Stuart clash. So I might have to snatch it, he is such a good writer. Its inspiration more than gameable material, I guess.

      Delete
    9. I drink and often would not remember what I said the night before if I hadn't ticked the ticky thing, which reminds me what I said. Sober, I couldn't care less what anyone else does with D&D, with a few sips I become a humanitarian and want to help the community to improve itself.

      With regard to Geoff & Pat, the two best writers we've seen, I think it is disappointing and clear that the best thing they have written is the first thing, and it seems that even the best have only one good work in them.

      Delete
    10. ==It would be a dreadful game document [Rime of the Ancient Mariner]

      Well, with no exceptions I get more from high quality ancient fantasy literature, epic & romance, than anything published specifically for D&D. And I can run games from my head. Admittedly others might run games very frequently, or have multiple groups at the same time, that would not suit me.

      Delete
  6. Just a minor thought. It occurs to me that when we consider "vanilla D&D fantasy", especially in a negative light, we usually think about Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, and via those, the 2nd ed. AD&D / Lorraine Williams years.
    And yet, the same period also brought us Planescape, Spelljammer, Ravenloft / Gothic Horror (arguably, probably the closest to vanilla on this list), Fantasy Dun... I mean Dark Sun, and Buck Rogers.
    So maybe, possibly even within TSR itself, there was already a move, or at least a willingness to move, away from vanilla?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did not touch upon those settings because they are outside the scope of this discussion. But the question is relevant for two reasons:
      1) Although these settings were relevant and widely distributed, we nevertheless continued playing in my standard AD&D homebrew world (although our big 2nd edition campaign ended up having a very Wizardry 7-influenced ending). We just wanted to play regular ol' AD&D, and were very badly served by how TSR treated this product line at the time.
      Takeaway: there will always be an interest in vanilla fantasy, and since it is there, it should be served by good products.
      2) While these non-standard settings were better than standard AD&D (they are at least labours of love with a personal touch while a lot of generic product from the time feels absolutely joyless), they are still pretty lackluster in hindsight. They don't reach their potential.
      Takeaway: Just because it's weird doesn't mean it's good.

      Delete
    2. Sophomoric exotism run rampant in the second half of the nineties, in our 2e games, we were hungry for Vanilla, but the DMs kept serving Desert, Jungle and the North as well as Sigil. Baldur's Gate was the better option (shamefully a computer game was better than the 2e modules and 2e DMs of that era), a game series which maybe informs us more than Kyrandia, because the structure already is an AD&D structure (the grind and endless wandering across screens was annoying, as was the 2e limitations and low level cap). Patrick Stuart had some good observations of the nature of "the Summer Realm of Baldur's Gate" but I cannot find those remarks right now.

      Delete
    3. I'd be interested in reading that defence of Baldur's Gate, because I found it bland and tedious. I have had much better experiences with the Gold Box games, which I played in the same general time period (not flawless, and they kept getting worse over time, but at least they all had fun tactical combat).

      Delete
    4. Here it is touched upon:
      http://falsemachine.blogspot.de/2017/04/the-real-forgotten-realms.html

      Personally, I never finished Baldur's Gate due to boredom of the grind. Icewind Dale otoh I liked gameplay-wise. But the good memories I have of playing BG, are the nice summer West-Coast landscapes with nice music. Not enough for me, but then soooo many people played and loved it. It did many thing right, but my patience with "grindy" elements was even worse back then.

      Delete
  7. May I ask why Dark Sun or Spelljammer "don't reach their potential"? Played both for years and no one felt that lackluster thing as far as I can tell.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They were brought down by two things:

      1) TSR's code of ethics, which put serious limitations on the portrayal of anything out of the comfort zone of a slightly irate suburban mother (read: anything interesting and exciting to an imaginative adolescent), or anything with a complex morality. (Raoul Renier, the famous French-Canadian had already discussed this in his classic sermons - and he made the point that most of the classic fairy tales and fantastic literature would not make through TSR's editing process.) This is perhaps less of a problem in Spelljammer.

      2) While the initial boxed sets were usually to high standards, these product lines quickly hit diminishing returns as further supplements were handed down to TSR's talentless, unmotivated hacks. Not to speak of Dark Sun's revised edition, apparently a total shitshow.

      Of course, as the saying goes, "mods will fix it" and so on and so forth.

      Delete
    2. Funny thing is, we played the official adventure series (Freedom, Road to Urik and so on) with Dark Sun in a "huzzah" mode, perhaps even _more_ heroic than what was implied, in a mindset that definitely flew in the face of everything in Renier's pamphlet on How To Play Dark & Gritty Properly. The modules had their share of scripted events and railroading, but we weren't bothered by that all that much - after the oatmeal fare of standard 2nd ed. AD&D (can you call that vanilla?) simply being in a world with cannibalistic halflings and insane sorcerer-kings was a blast. (And no, you cannot call this "the hunt for teenage angsty cool" either as our approach was anything but that.)

      Delete
  8. Can we say that vanilla fantasy is based on Tolkienistic roots, but without it's deeps and contexts? Or it's a too simple definition?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good question. There is definitely more to it than Tolkien: Vance's Lyonesse and Poul Anderson's books are very different takes on the same mythic/folkloric material, and Tolkien's antecedents are also part of the picture. But in a general sense, maybe.

      Delete
  9. Ravenloft is an unique case: having gothic horrors with the murder, incest, cannibalism, unholy rites and whatnot inherent to the genre cannot be quite mom-friendly by any stretch of the imagination. The setting has a strange dual ambiance, perhaps a "Lovecraftian" tenet about the ultimate evil at the core of reality (the Dark Powers, all too willing to handle you their gifts) and a somewhat preachy stance on the Darklords, wallowing in their doom for eternity to show what happens if you take those gifts. Here at least you have a fighting chance to reduce the damage done to ordinary honest folk and/or to escape to your comforting vanilla home world.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've been wondering if it might be possible to do a Ravenloft-like game by taking Sine Nomine's Silent Legions system ("Call of Cthulhu but D&D"), adapting it to the 19th century and using its sandbox tools to create a pantheon that is tuned less Lovecraftian and more, well, Gothic. Just an idle thought.

      Delete