Surely we can do better

Today I started playing Hollow Knight, knowing absolutely nothing about the game other than having seen a few screenshots and being able to recognize the character. And not even two minutes later, before anything had actually happened, I was thinking about Scorn and Elden Ring and saying to myself “why is D&D fantasy so lame?!”

Of course, the three games I mentioned are videogames with a very strong audiovisual component that RPGs just don’t have, so they are not really a good comparison. But why is it still always the same Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms stuff we see being rehashed by all the adventures and retroclones? Even with D&D having abandoned the medieval aesthetic for dungeon punk, the world and the stories have actually become more flavorless by replacing the medieval cliches with a modern social model. When I see oldschool adventures getting praise, it’s typically for being competently done, not for being imaginative.

Of course, settings and campaigns with low weirdness have their place and great appeal. And half a century ago, the now classic dungeons would probably have been fresh, strange, and exciting to the players who had never seen anythibg quite like that in fiction at such a scope. And of course this is now me after having had my fill on that stuff for some 25 years.

But still, where has the spirit gone for being imaginative and creative with new ideas in D&D and other generic fantasy RPGs? Where is the sense of the fantastical? 30 years ago, even the people making D&D dared to go wild and strange with Dark Sun and Planescape. And plenty of people still love this stuff.

I think when we create adventures or settings for campaigns, we really can strive for more than Ye Olde England with adventuring guilds again. We should be fanning the flames of imagination, not worship the ashes.

4 thoughts on “Surely we can do better”

  1. I don’t know anything about the three video games that you mentioned, but I think that the weird elements of a campaign stand out more against a background which is more ordinary. I’d prefer something like Greyhawk (NOT the Forgotten Realms) as that background. If everything is weird it all blends together. YMMV.

  2. I don’t think we can. It is axiomatic to fantasy that it taps into a shared mythic and nostalgic heritage. The very clich├ęs you wish to improve upon are to a large extent also the very fabric by which fantasy evokes its atmospheric qualities.

    It’s the same reason that Forgotten Realms can still sink its hooks into you and make you blog about it 35 years after its release. Innovation is far from a necessary feature of good fantasy.

    I am all for some innovative fantasy, Planescape is a good example. I like it. But not in a way that makes me look down my nose at bog-standard fantasy. From that, I simply require proper craft, atmosphere and sense of wonder and adventure.

    1. Yeah, full no from me.

      The official D&D brand probably can’t because the owners and managers have no interest in any such things. But people making their own cool stuff as a creative expression absolutely can. And do!
      It’s just quite rare, but Veins of the Earth immediately cones to mind.

  3. I’ve never been a big fan of Critical Role. Not really sure why. I just haven’t been able to get into it. But Dimension 20 is insanely enjoyable to me. Knowing that Matt Mercer is going to be DMing a prequel to Brennan Lee Mulligan’s A Crown of Candy, though, has finally pushed me to watch it. It’s one of the few series I’ve never managed to get into.

    Fantasy High is too urban for my particular tastes. Unsleeping City was brilliant, but I struggle to watch the second season because it’s on zoom. After finally watching A Crown of Candy, though, it’s absolutely one of my favourite settings I’ve ever seen. It’s not overly complex, but it’s absolutely packed full of lore. Everything feeds the central narrative, which then feeds everything else.

    What you say about D&D being boring is true. But more than that, I want to see a setting where everything feeds a central narrative and the central narrative feeds everything else. It’s far more impressive and creates a far more intuitive setting.

    I’m watching with the same level of tension as the best episodes of Game of Thrones that we ever got, but these characters are literally chocolate and cake and vegetables and bread. Is it a bit silly? Yes. But it’s COMPELLING like nothing else I’ve ever watched.

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