“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 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.
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|