Thursday, February 20, 2020

My Secret and Possibly Quixotic Yearning for Vanilla

Since I've entered the blogosphere (over 10 years ago now), I've imagined all sorts of variants of D&D-type fantasy from Weird Adventures to the cyberpunk planes City of Gyre, I've often even eschewed weird in the classic "Weird" sense. My takes were hardly even the most out there among the DIY crowd in which I have often found myself.

But there are times when I think back with nostalgia to a sort of game I never really played. Or games, I should say, it's not always the same. Sometimes it's nostalgia for fantasy before D&D was a thing, something like a mix of Byfield's The Book of the Weird, Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, and the film versions of The Last Unicorn and The Hobbit. Other times, I think it should be a bit grottier, like the World of Titan, and the illustrations in the Fighting Fantasy books, and more adventure-y like select illustrations from the Moldavy-Cook editions and the earliest AD&D books. The rarest, least frequent itch is for something like the illustrations of the "High D&D" era defined by the likes of Elmore and Caldwell.

All very vanilla, I know. Our elves aren't different, they're just elves. Feudal Kingdoms, bearded wizards in towers. All the tropes!

I don't really know what the yearnings about. Some of these things were the inspirations of my pre-D&D days, so maybe its sort of the world that had moved on before I was old enough to take part in it. Others, well, they were maybe what was in the gamebooks I was playing with, but I was ignoring it in favor of the stuff I was reading--comics books, Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Conan yarns.

Of course, its all relative. I'm sure some people think my Land of Azurth game is pretty vanilla,  but to me is too knowing to be that. Maybe that's why I never pull the trigger on a game inspired by one of these things. Still, it's something I think about.


bombasticus said...

>Some of these things were the inspirations of my pre-D&D days, so maybe it's sort of the world that had moved on before I was old enough to take part in it.

I think this might be a golden thread here. One thing about "fantasy" is that it tends to take place among the trappings of the past, in a world that for whatever reason got stuck or has yet to catch up with the rest of life. Well worth chasing!

Some mechanism drove all that Elmore and Caldwell in the fabled realm before D&D could recognize itself in the mirror and became a thing. I look for it too. I love the Down In The Dungeon picture here.

JB said...

I've been gaming with my family the last couple weeks (about 5 sessions), all of whom are pretty much completely new to the D&D thang (my son is 9, my daughter on the edge of 6, and my wife of almost 20 years is a lifelong "non-gamer"). I am running them through a pretty darn vanilla dungeon (the Tower of Zenopus) and much as I'd like to spice it up for them, all the tropes are fresh to them: giant rats and huge spiders, goblins and orcs, chests of coins. They have absolutely zero preconceptions of fantasy.

It's strange and a bit unsatisfying for me, but at least I'm gaming and I'm gradually introducing things to bits and pieces, so as not to overwhelm them. My plan is to ramp up (if I can rein in my impatience) to a bit more weird. Unfortunately, all my "darker impulses" are off the table for this "family friendly" campaign.

We'll see where it all leads, but for right now I am DEEP in the vanilla.

S. P. said...

I dig "vanilla" fantasy as a blank canvas.

You can always go from castles and elves and orcs to the Weird, but if you fully commit to the Weird at the beginning, it's harder to go back to the more classic fantasy tropes if you get bored or burned-out.

Sure, you can wander through the wilds of Middle-Earth and accidentally stumble upon Castle Gormenghast, but starting in Castle Gormenghast and learning there's a whole Middle-Earth out there is significantly more jarring (and requires a defter hand as GM).

Rob Barrett said...

This is precisely my feeling: I never really got to play a long-term vanilla D&D campaign with all the tropes, and now I'm desperate to do so.

JDsivraj said...

I've caught myself wondering when the last time I played a campaign where there were jousting knights.

Trey said...

@S.P. - Good point!
@Rob - Yeah, it's always been the one that got away.
@JD - I know, right?

Adam Gonnerman said...

Ever tried Basic Fantasy? I've homebrewed a world for it and am getting ready to run my first campaign.

Trey said...

I have not! Do you think it provides something that facilitates this sort of game more than other forms of D&D?

Trey said...

@JB - Slowly mixing in the nonvanilla flavoring. I like it!

Chris said...

Skill with the tropes is an asset for layering the game table.

Anne said...

My last few in-person games, I've had requests to make things more simple and classic, so I think the appetite for vanilla fantasy is there.

One idea I took from looking at roguelike games was the idea of trying to make a cohesive theme within a setting. There are a lot of vanilla tropes, and no need to use all of them every time, so two vanilla games that both had enough thematic consistency might still feel different from each other.

Thinking about what might be "au currant" in vanilla fantasy, I notice that YA has semi moved on from dystopias and is embracing royalty. At lot of it seems REALLY dark, frankly. But Katherine Addison's "The Goblin Emperor" and MT Anderson's "The Assassination of Bragwain Spurge" both seem like possible touchpoints for fairy royal fantasy.

Trey said...

Good points, Anne. Vanilla is broad enough to permit a number of different styles and what constitutes vanilla does indeed change over time. In many ways, some stuff I was excluding here (like Sword & Sorcery or Planetary Romance) is vanilla in 2020, it just never got quite as mainstream as some epic fantasy tropes or fairytale stuff.

Peter said...

Nice post. I know exactly how you feel. I have been DM'ing a game set in a post-science fantasy desert punk setting for close on ten years now and I long for a campaign set in simple Greyhawk or Krynn.

Tanner Maze said...

Long time listener, first time caller;

It's funny how you crave old school, pure, vanilla fantasy, I have been feeling the same way these past few years, ever since a viewing of Legend and a dive back into 80's Fantasy Films, followed by a dive into The Circle of Light (which is amusing as there are canons and rifles in that one) and some of Alan Garner's early work.

You get so used to Warforged and Guymelefs (and make no mistake, I like Dungeon Punk a lot), and so tuckered out by Dragon Age and Game Of Thrones overstaying their welcome you just miss the days when a valiant knight was just that, and not a psycho fooling around with three of his family members. A detox is sometimes necessary.

I've actually been researching and tossing around ideas for my own Retro Clone based on that Book Of The Weird/Prydain/Rankin Bass Fantasy sort of milieu, albeit in the style of Vanillaware games or in sort of a tonal and thematic reverse of say, Warhammer.

I'll be testing it like a mad scientist on my game's group in fall, so wish me luck, fellas and fillys.