Putting fantastic back into Fantasy

Illustration by William Heath Robinson - ca. 1902 Yesterday I played in another session of Chris McDowall’s “Into the Odd” over Google+ Hangout. As always we had a blast and it also inspired me to write about putting back the fantastic into fantasy.

One problem that fantasy roleplaying games often have is that they are often very clichéd and cover all the common tropes you would expect. Of course there’s magic, fantastical places and all kind of weird creatures, but after a while you know what to expect and a horde of walking dead is not really frightening anymore. It’s just another obstacle on the way to the big bad guy at the end of the dungeon.

Chris’ game is different. The majority of his world is pretty mundane. There are no elves, no dwarves, not one of the common fantasy monsters like kobolds, orc, dragons, you name it. Magic is something noone really understands and you need ancient artifacts called Arcana to use it. And if you get into a fight things get messy pretty quick.

Instead of common fantasy tropes he regularly confronts his players with weird creatures and places not out of this world. In our first adventure we travelled into the “Iron Coral”, a strange set of tunnels and rooms that was inhabited by various strange creatures and that suddenly emerged from under the sea. With each new room we explored and which each creature we encountered we faced something we never had seen before. Every encounter was truly unique and we couldn’t make use of our prior knowledge of fantasy tropes to deal with them.

That’s part of what makes his game so great. You really feel like explorers into a strange and foreign place. You never know what to expect, every encounter is a unique challenge and the high lethality of combat forces you to think first and not just rely on your weapons and armor. The atmosphere Chris is managing to achieve in his games is – sorry when I have to use this word again – unique. Compared to that most fantasy worlds feel like cookie-cutter settings. I actually thought about giving you a few more examples of what we’ve encountered during our recent games, but I don’t want to spoil too much.

So what can we do to get back some of “magic” most of the common fantasy settings have lost over the years?

  • Make magic more “magical” by making it uncommon, unpredictable, dangerous. Avoid bland magic items like D&D’s longsword +1.
  • Try to avoid using the same creatures over and over again, create new variants with unexpected behaviors and abilities
  • If it’s possible don’t let the players play non-human characters and portray non-humans as truly alien – if not by their looks by their thoughts and motivations. An elf should not just be a human with pointy ears.
  • Use elements from the horror and SF genre to bring new ideas into your fantasy game.

At this point you’re probably already thinking about what you would do to put fantastic back into your fantasy games. Or you may be among those players who actually like your fantasy setting as it is, which is of course equally fine.

I can’t wait for Chris’ game “Into the Odd” to be released. He mentioned he might use the “Iron Coral” as an example location in the rulebook and I would love to run that particular adventure for my group of players.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

8 thoughts on “Putting fantastic back into Fantasy”

  1. This can be done with any game with just an open imagination. But I think cliche are still a great way to go. So what is players know that a zombies die from decapitation but who says that’s how they should die in your games. Reworking is all a part of the fun. Your GM is very creative.. Good stuff though

    1. I fully agree. What I am talking about is mostly a question of setting not rules, so you use it with pretty much every game. I am using “Into the Odd” just as an example of an upcoming game that does this particularly well (because it was designed for that purpose).

      Currently I am looking into several Sword & Sorcery games I own and think about how to introduce some of these ideas into a setting for them. I actually might use Shadow, Sword & Spell for that purpose.

  2. there is good article on polish rpg site about POP fantasy http://ninetongues.polter.pl/Pop-fantasy-b12234 with perfect example what Classic fantasy is: http://postimage.org/image/8n7rrg84/

    just look at the list:
    Lord of the Rings
    Black Company

    and tell me in how many of them there are all three: elves, dwarfs and dragons? What a suprise: only LotR. And even there magic was unpredictible and very rare. More: other races were rare, people havent seen hobbits, hobbits havent seen other races and so on. They only heard of something, someone, someplace but in real it could be all wrong.

    I miss those times when I played Classic fantasy, it had a lot more sens, it was focused on the story, not on getting bigger, stronger and better… witch remind me Pop fantasy adventures: more enemies, more fun. In Pop fantasy everyone knew everything about enemy we just facing, magic we just experienceing. No suprises, just a path (usually bloody) for glory.

    But hey, maybe Classic fantasy was all better because I was younger then 🙂

  3. I’ve always been a big fan of this approach, and I try to avoid expressly naming anything that could break the sense of wonder that players have when exploring a setting.

    Avoiding stereotypes is always a great way to keep people on their toes, and helps with the players feel a true sense of achievement in fighting something they have no clue about.

  4. On the subject of “making magic more magical”, there are some stumbling blocks. Players often get frustrated when their magic is unpredictable and incomprehensible. For fairly obvious reasons, they want their big tool to be fairly consistent.

    If you are looking to use common D&D monsters in new and interesting ways, I have to recommend Monsters and Manuals. This is a PDF of probably one of the best threads to ever come out of RPG.net. Noisms went through the 2e Monstrous Manual and posted each of the creatures. Most of them are pretty iconic. But both Noisms and the commenters add a lot of nifty twists to each. Just consider: Armored owlbear shock troops.

    Personally, I will strongly disagree with only allowing your players to play humans. I want to play a fantasy RPG because I want to be non-human, for the most part. However, I will advocate changing up the races quite a bit. Dwarves, elves, etc. are mostly just humans with cosmetic changes and exaggerated traits. If you make the other races more exotic, such as centaurs, warforged, kobolds, or even actual dragons, it becomes much easier to play up their inhumanity.

  5. Glad you’ve continued to enjoy the game, Mike! You’ll be the first to know when it’s ready to be made into something presentable. As others have mentioned, these are good tips for a GM of any system that wants to put a different atmosphere into their game. I can certainly see ways to apply them in any edition of D&D that I’m familiar with.


  6. I have found changing the rule system but keeping a world you know and love makes for an interesting experience. I am using the forgotten realms but with Rolemaster Classic. The first encounter with kobolds had the party charging in with abandon only to be nearly taken apart.

    What was interesting with the encounter was that having not played D&D of any version since the 1980s not one of the players recognised kobolds initially from their descriptions. It was only the fact that they had been warned that the road was being raided by bands of kobolds that identified the creatures once they were seen in plain sight. Back in the 80s we had become so used to “6 kobolds attack, 6 kobolds die” that we stopped describing the creatures. Three decades on with just the description and no name none of the players recognised them.

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