I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, April 14, 2023

Comfort, Color, Contrast: three types of fantasy (vanilla, weird, grounded)

I've been running an old-school sandbox and using modules from multiple games, including DCC, LotFP, BFRPG, and others. I realized the modules I've been reading illustrate three different approaches to fantasy adventures that I think are worth discussing.

But notice these are generalizations: there are no "perfectly vanilla" adventures, etc. Almost every adventure will contain something familiar AND something new AND something sensible AND something weird.

Adventures for all tastes.

Vanilla adventures

These are the most common. Here are some characteristics:

- They are predictable in terms of monsters, traps and treasure. You'll face skeletons and goblins (or worse, orcs), find a few swords +1 and a reasonable amount of gold and gems. Maybe there are elves and dwarves to help you. Hopefully, the challenges are also balanced to your current level. You'll know most of your enemies upon seeing them, etc.
- Because of that, they are familiar: if you have been playing D&D for a long time, you'll feel right at home. They contain the usual tropes.
- They are often convenient: you'll find a cleric and a mage in every city, shopkeepers have enough gold to buy the stuff you've found, etc.
- They are often, but not always, disjointed - the skeletons and goblins are standing in adjacent rooms with no clear explanation. Maybe there is a tribe of kobolds nearby, some giant bats, and a trap that was set by someone time forgot. There might be no clear reason why the dungeons were built or why they are full of corridors and doors with no rhyme or reason.

The key word here is comfort. You're used to this stuff and you can play with little effort. BFRPG adventures like Morganstfort and Chaotic Caves are good examples, but so are many classic D&D adventures (including the ones that inspired these BFRPG modules, such as Keep on the Borderlands and Caves of Chaos). These are also common D&D 5e (e.g. Lost Mines...; also, here is one example of a 3pp) and every other edition of D&D.

The danger here is boredom. If there is nothing new except successive rooms of goblins, skeletons and giant animals, every adventure starts looking the same.

Weird adventures

Weird adventures are related to weird fantasy. They are:

- Unpredictable in terms of monsters, traps and treasure. You might find creatures you had never seen elsewhere, even if they fit some previous frame (e.g., the Law versus Chaos dichotomy). Even the environments may be entirely new. There might be technology, aliens and time travel involved. Mutations are common. You don't necessarily know what to do when you face a given creature or challenge, and running might be the best option.
- In this sense, the things you'll encounter will also be unfamiliar.
- They might be as disjointed and as convenient as vanilla fantasy. However, weirdness can become very inconvenient for the GM, if running a long campaign. Introducing time-travel and alien weaponry will have bigger effects on your setting than your "sword +1" from vanilla modules.

The key word here is color. There is shiny new stuff in every corner. Most DCC modules I've run are like that (here is one example). Some LotFP modules are all-out weird (think Carcosa - even the characters have unusual colors!). A classic example from D&D might be Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

The danger here is randomness. Things stop making sense, knowledge becomes obsolete (why learn about trolls if every monster is different), etc. If everything is fantastical, then nothing surprises you anymore. 

Grounded adventures

For the lack of a better name, I call them grounded as they are "grounded in reality". These adventures are:

- Extremely familiar (at the start) as they are not based in fantasy (not even popular fantasy), but historical (or pseudo-historical) reality. Instead of dwarves and elves, you have knights, lords and peasants - mostly peasants.
Unpredictable in terms of monsters, traps and treasure - not only because these can be different, but also because they might be absent. Maybe some of the monsters are just humans in disguise, or there is a single monster in the whole adventure. The treasure may be ordinary (painting, books, etc.) instead of magical.
- They are coherent: there is usually an explanation for the monsters, traps and treasure you'll find.
- They create more inconveniences for PCs as clerics and mages might be harder to find, adventurers are not necessarily well-respected, and the authorities exist and might react to law-breakers accordingly.

Now, you could describe your GURPS, Hârn or maybe even Game of Thrones campaign as "realistic", "historical", "sensible", etc. And, even in vanilla modules, you will have ordinary keeps, castles, soldiers, etc.

But I'm also using LotFP modules, which start on an ordinary setting and then throw the PCs into a well of weirdness. The key word here is contrast: in the middle of an ordinary village, there is a giant blob monster (example). Or: the Swedish army is coming to Karlstadt... and the city has been already been invaded by strange creatures you've never seen anywhere (Better Than Any Man).

This way, you make the fantastic more special by internal contrast. Conversely, in "weird" adventures, everything is fantastical, and the fun comes from contrasting it with more familiar modules.

A strange example from 5e might be Curse of Strahd. The scarceness of fantastic creatures (goblins, dragons, aberrations, etc.) and the repetitive nature of the foes (mostly undead, witches and werewolves) enhance the weirdness of Strahd and the castle, making it more than a mere vampire in a random dungeon room - which, BTW, is why the whole thing was created in the first place.

The danger here is monotony. Are we even playing fantasy games if there is nothing fantastical about it? Do we play these games to fight monsters or to battle starving peasants? 

I've run games of "cops and robbers" before, but I find games with fantastical features much more fun (which might be one of the reasons so many people play D&D and even most GURPS books involve large amounts of fantasy). These features are not necessarily dragons and spells: you could have weird technology, time travel, zombies, deities, super-powers, etc.

Which one is better?

I realize that by merely reading this post you might think I prefer weird/grounded adventures to the more "vanilla" stuff. I do think vanilla, by itself, becomes a bit boring for me as a GM after a while - although I've seen PCs have fun with it, as it is comfortable. So yes, I'm a bit tired of the same old clichés - but I do not think vanilla is bad "per se" (and I still use vanilla adventures). 

I think it is one flavor that you can mix with others for great results. Maybe you give it a coherent take (see GURPS Banestorm) or use the vanilla as a basis to throw an unexpected contrast at your players (e.g., inserting a spaceship in the middle of an otherwise vanilla campaign). Or vary a little so things do not get stale. As noticed above, I'm using many different kinds of adventures in my sandbox, and I think this keeps things fresh. I already used more vanilla BFRPG stuff, but also LotFP and DCC, and they interact in interesting ways.

Familiarity, coherence, novelty, sensibility, etc., are qualities that can be inserted into any adventure.

My own adventure tries to use a bit of each ingredient: you have the (more or less) familiar demons and imps, but no goblins, orcs or skeletons. The hive-inspired shape of the dungeon has a reason, but it probably looks different than most dungeons. There are peasants and clerics, but also mutants and insect-people - and they all have a reason, or at least a justification, to be where they are.

But mixing it all is only one possible solution. Many of the adventures mentioned above lean heavily on one of these aspects, and do great things with it. And these are not, of course, measures of quality. There are many things I look in a module: organization, novelty, usefulness, coherence, etc. 

"Weird", "vanilla" and "realistic" are just flavors - everyone has their tastes, but you can have superb ice cream with all kinds of ingredients.

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