Fantastic: Assumption or exception?

3 July, 2010 at 9:16 pm (definition, game design, roleplaying, rpg theory) (, , , )

In most roleplaying settings there is something I call here fantastic: Something the players are not familiar with.


Lovecraft mythos, sword and sorcery, horror in general, LotFP’s products (this post of mister Raggi inspired my post), stories where characters discover that they (and nearly only they) have some strange powers, Stalker and Praedor.

Most of the setting is normal, non-fantastic, and typically draws heavily from the real world (present state, history, or low-key scifi). There fantastic is something that breaks the normal setting – it works with completely different principles, if any.


Glorantha, Zelazy’s Amber, Nobilis, Carcosa, Tékumel.

These settings are fundamentally different from our reality. They work by different principles, and what is exotic and fantastic to us might be common and usual for residents of these worlds, and vice versa.

Why bother?

A setting where the fantastic is assumed can be explored to find out how it works, and supposing the setting has sufficiently interesting premises, this can be good play. A roleplaying game is a good medium for such an exploration because it allows many people to contribute and further allows several issues to be explored.

Settings with fantastic principles can also make certain dramatic issues very explicit and easy to treat via gaming. Sibling rivalry and broken families are good subjects behind any game set in Zelazny’s Amber where the amberites are played, as almost everything that happens can be traced back to some family member (at least by the first five books). This is also the justification for fantasy and science fiction as vessels of serious literature.

Settings where the fantastic is something exceptional are usually easy to understand (of equal difficulty to relevant setting minus the fantastic, assuming the fantastic is not the player characters, in which case there is more complexity). Unnatural makes sense as a concept. The fantastic creates interesting situations (in both senses mentioned above).

For short I would recommend a setting that is not entirely fantastic, simply to make learning it not a problem. A setting common to everyone would of course work, too.

The third way

There are also so-called fantasy settings where the assumptions are like those of the real world and yet where there is little uncanny even to the residents of the setting. This is the vanilla fantasy setting, which to me has no value – fantasy without the fantastic has no reason, no justification, and provides no interest. I’d love to hear from anyone who disagrees, since I almost certainly am missing something.



  1. Josh W said,

    As far as I can see what you call “vanilla fantasy” is more about liking medievalness. For various reasons people like to go back to a low tech world where everyone speaks in an unnatural and stilted way. It’s not a real past, so it’s called fantasy.

    Some people might like survivalism, or more “natural” forms of living, they might like to be a Lord and have people treat them with respect, they might like muckyness and brutality.

    A few reasons of many.

    But I also like fantastic for it’s own value, it can have the ability to highlight areas of the world you usually ignore, to expand your imagination, to make you think about things you already know from a new angle, to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, take everyone to the same level in terms of knowledge, and just generally make the world seem a bit more uncertain and exciting, even after you finish playing.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Greetings, Josh.

      I agree with you on the role of fantastic.

      For the case of vanilla fantasy, people are naturally free to enjoy the flavour of escapism that suits them, but for whatever reason it manages to annoy me. Maybe I think that some people consider the vanilla fantasy to have some relation to real past, which I think it really does not.

  2. Gastogh said,

    “– fantasy without the fantastic has no reason, no justification, and provides no interest. I’d love to hear from anyone who disagrees, since I almost certainly am missing something.”

    Well, there’s at least one, fairly obvious theory, which George R.R. Martin calls “the furniture rule.” You can google it (and maybe should), but I can bottom-line its message (and relevance for the matter at hand here) thus:
    Settings or genres such as ‘fantasy’, ‘sci-fi’ or ‘western’ or ‘horror’ *do not necessarily exist to address one’s need to go all the way to outer space to tell a story.* Rather, they’re simply furniture; articles of the world *surrounding* the story, whose simple function is to give the world a look we like.

    The goal of the original quote (which is from Dreamsongs, book 2) wasn’t to provide a trumped-up justification for the seemingly pointless choice of some setting (such as ‘fantasy’ without the fantastical), but rather to stress the point that all good stories are, ultimately, about the people involved.
    He followed (or preceded) that by observing how far he actually got into the “ASoIaF” series (which is generally understood to be ‘fantasy’) without actually including anything fantastical or magical; dragons are extinct, magic is nowhere to be seen, so on. He said that by rights the first books should’ve been categorized as historical fiction, not fantasy.

    How any of that would factor into RPGs I’ll leave for those more versed in things RPG, but one fairly clear consequence would be that a game (or group) that directly acknowledges the furniture rule would presumably tend towards character-centric play, as opposed to play defined by its setting. Maybe that’s not something that should always serve as the guiding star in, say, games of exploration/adventure, but I would argue there’s some wisdom in not dismissing “X-for-the-sake-of-X” quite so out of hand.

    • Tommi Brander said,

      Hi Gastogh.

      The song of ice and fire has the fantastic parts quite clearly fantastic – the things behind the wall, the dragons, and the other eldritch elements. The denizens of the fictional world do not treat as just another ordinary part of the world, from what I remember.

      Stories are about people: Yes (at least most of the time – the universal quantifier is dangerous to use, as there is almost certainly an exception somewhere). I simply don’t see adding pointy ears to people as a great tool for focusing on people Genuinely different world naturally emphasises different things, but turning all flashlights into light spells and all grenades into fireballs? Hardly.

      As for genres: I have this persistent misconception of thinking fantasy is fundamentally about the choices and life of someone, while science fiction is about the society (though often told from the point of view of a character, who might of might not be interesting as a character). Star Wars is fantasy.

      • Gastogh said,

        As to ‘ASoIaF’, you have to consider how utterly beyond any fantastical element much of the story takes place; it seems to me to be a rather large stretch to claim that dragons that have been dead to the world for a hundred years (?) have much bearing on the story. Might as well call our world fantastical on the basis of dragons appearing in our mythologies, as mythical creatures is how most of the world regards them in ‘ASoIaF’.
        Of course, as of this moment the whole series is still somewhat impossible to treat as a single entity. I swear Martin is going to die of old age before he ties the plotlines together, never mind actually finishing the damn series. :b

        Concerning the addition of pointy ears:
        There is, of course, an unlimited number of ways to tell a story badly. One of my own pet peeves is fantasy and scifi where different species can’t muster as many differences between them as any two average modern human cultures. Properly done, on the other hand, even something as simple as adding pointy ears can be used as a functional plot device, much like skin color IRL; something that marks you as one apart.
        Do pointy ears hold any potential not already present in skin color, then? Perhaps not. But as ever, what one gets out of a piece of work is very much a matter of how much one is willing to read into it (if oftentimes limited by how seriously the author has deigned to treat the issue and how much thought they’ve bothered to put into it). A story revolving around something such as, say, the sociological concept of ‘passing’ could be argued to benefit from a perspective that is removed from our own field of experience, however minutely; hence, ear sharpness issues instead of skin color issues.
        I suppose what it comes down to is whether or not we want to make a judgement call on the value of what the story uses for the fuel that keeps it going. I see little point in differentiating between skin color and ear shape, and I certainly see no gain in treating one as a better sort of fuel than the other.
        …And, having written that, I suppose that’s not a counter-argument of any sort so much as a gloss to elaborate my stance on what is ultimately a matter of opinion. But hey, there it is.

        I would cite ‘Ghost in the Shell’, or what little I’ve seen of it, anyway (one movie) as a functioning non-fantastical setting. Yeah, it’s scifi, it’s in the future, there’s cyborgs, but the degree in which we find that stuff doesn’t register as very fantastical to me; realism is at the heart of the whole thing. It’s certainly not a fundamentally differently functioning universe such as Amber.
        Perhaps the single most important theme in the movie was the nature of humanity: if or how the existence of AI’s and the cybernetic alteration of people affects the concept of humanity (or ‘soul’, as they often refer to it). And of course, things like that aren’t so far removed from our current world, never mind what both of us will actually live to see.
        With ‘GitS’, the whole thing *hinges* on the difference being gradual or vanishingly small; the whole point is in the subtlety: not coming out and hitting the audience in the face with an obviously fantastical element.
        That is to say: the setting has value in spite of its not being built upon “Something the players are not familiar with.”

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