Tuesday, May 19, 2020

What Makes Generic Fantasy Generic?

If you have never experienced it before, what is generic for others can be fun for you. Your first of anything can be a thrill. When you arrive, moreover, with the knowledge that seemingly everybody else has tried this special thing before you, you want the generic--for social reasons. You do not want to feel left out of a shared experience.

This may apply to just about any experience, but here I'm talking about fantasy role-playing games. For a gamer of a certain age, like me, generic is just no longer much fun, unless I'm introducing a new player and I can vicariously experience the generic as fresh. Even then, I'm soon ready to switch gears into something fresh and new for me.

So what has made fantasy role-playing generic, so awfully generic? Here are some thoughts about that.

1. Fantasy game worlds were intended as generic from the outset to make them accessible.

The more generic your game world is, the less explaining you have to do and the more easily you can collaborate in a shared fantasy without discussion. Everybody can make assumptions about the setting. This lightens the burden on the Referee. (This is also why "modern" settings follow right behind the generic eurofantasy in popularity.)

What was generic in 1974 depended on what prospective players had been reading. The hobby blossomed when wargames + role-playing reached the sci-fi/fantasy audience. So what were the latter reading?

The first fantasy role-playing games mention explicitly the same fictional references: Tolkien, Leiber, and Howard. Somewhere between the historically rich and naturally beautiful Middle Earth, the swords and sorcery and carousing of Nehwon, and the savagery and mighty thews of the Hyborian age, there are infinite generic worlds of dungeons and dragons with slight variations between them. Yes, other authors of fantasy fiction provide ingredients, too--there were Moorcock and Le Guin and countless others. For whatever reason, though, Howard and Leiber and Tolkien seem to have been understood to be the most widespread.

Standard points of reference create generic categories. The more such standard references exist, and the more commonly they are held, the easier it is to share one's imagination on that basis.

We know what happened when game designers created truly original worlds of great detail, without common points of reference. M.A.R. Barker's setting for his game Empire of the Petal Throne was a unique, alien world, the product of one man's extraordinary learning and anthropological imagination. EPT appeared in an expensive set in the summer of 1975, the third role-playing game ever released. Dave Arneson, a friend of Barker's, reflected on it in June of 1987:

In the first days of role-playing games, Petal Throne was regarded as being too esoteric and complicated. I mean it literally has its own written and spoken languages developed by a certified linguist! It has detailed religions unlike the shapeless and colorless ones found in other games. I mean, who would want such stuff?

Of course, Tolkien's world had its own languages, too, but they were simple and based on common European phonologies and familiar script typologies. Barker's world is purposefully alien with inspiration from American and Asian languages and cultures unfamiliar to most gamers. The names of the things in this world include sounds found in few European languages, if any.

Tellingly, Arneson acknowledges that the cultures of typical fantasy worlds are shapeless and colorless, but the alternative, he says, in effect, was off-putting.

That's because blandness and lack of distinction may be desirable when sharing fantasy is the goal. Alien game settings can turn fantasy games into classrooms, requiring lectures by the GM on the background or long readings for players who have to catch up on the history, cultures, onomastics, and factions of the setting.

But oh, how the generic can grate on a player after a while!

One answer to the problem has come in the form of variation after variation of game worlds published in different formats, gradually stretching the tastes and familiarity of gamers in different directions, each iteration blending one more sub-subgenre into an existing setting concept. Somewhere a young designer is excited about writing up his new game with a setting that is "like Shadowrun, only steampunk with an anime twist, in a Weird West in which the Civil War never happened, but also post-apocalyptic and with mechas, and the Japanese colonized the West Coast so there are samurai cowboys and witch-geishas and ninja-desperadoes." Howard and Leiber (not Tolkien) are disappearing as points of reference, gradually to be replaced by more recent fiction, or rather by video games and manga. Yet even this fine-tuned genre-blending of niche-interest settings only bring the generic features of Standard Fantasy into relief, so that they remain entrenched now more than ever.

The point is that the Fantasy of fantasy role-playing was generic from the beginning. It was also a European fantasy.

2. Medieval Eurofantasy

The education of the first game designers was generally not high. Sometimes it shows. These were well-read men, when it came to light fiction, but not researchers. They throw together fantasy tropes from sci-fi and adventure fiction with doses of basic mythology textbooks, comic books, and the odd biblical reference. They knew Arthurian legend and the standard Bulfinch's Mythology, probably in the edition introduced by Robert Graves in 1969, which had sections on ancient Greek and Roman myths, chapters on "Eastern Mythology," "Northern mythology," a chapter on "Monsters" (phoenix, basilisk, unicorn, salamander), a chapter on Druids, a chapter on Beowulf, and more.

This was stuff any kid in the early '70s might have read and, more importantly, expected other fantasy buffs to have skimmed, creating common points of reference from history.

Even more than now, the designers of games in the '70s knew history through the Western Civilization narrative, which they had learned in school. "Medieval" was a stage between "Ancient" and "Renaissance" that carried connotations: swords and armor and horsemen and castles. These are common mental reference points for an effortlessly shared, premodern, romantic fantasy.

Americans like the first role-players considered Medieval European history as the distant background of their own civilization. It's what they learned. Today's curricula present America's background more globally, reflecting gradual changes in the population. In any case, the audience of the first RPGs had an imaginary Medieval Period (to be distinguished from the historical period we call by that name) in common between them. The shared character of the imagined Middle Ages made it generic.

This point comes across more forcefully when we notice that the best-educated game designers of the '70s--those with university diplomas--were also the ones whose fantasy settings had non-eurofantasy flavors. They were therefore less generic, and so were more acquired tastes. Hence they were less popular.

I just mentioned M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel. Barker was had a BA in Anthropology and a PhD in Linguistics, and he did field research on and taught several languages of North America and Asia.

The Calfornian Bay-area gamers who developed Chaosium's RuneQuest (1978), hippies of the SCA, wanted to break away from the eurofantasy, too, and they likewise applied a slightly higher degree of education to their efforts. The first edition of that game was designed for a specific setting, Glorontha (later Glorantha), which was already the world of several Chaosium fantasy boardgames. The first edition of RuneQuest (p. 8) states that Glorontha was a Bronze Age setting (unlike Medieval settings). Also,

Glorontha is an Ancient Period and early Dark Ages world. It has more to do with Mesopotamia, Ancient China, Hyboria, and Lankhmar than it does with Medieval Europe, Le Mort' d'Arthur, or the Carolingian Cycle. Its heroes are Conans, Grey Mousers, and Rustums, not Lancelots, Percivals, and Rolands.

The Glorontha setting and the accompanying game was a product of young gamers who went to college. Steve Perrin got his degree in English literature. Greg Stafford went to Beloit, though he dropped out to design games, finishing a degree decades later. RuneQuest patently contains strong influences from courses in Religious Studies and Comparative Literature in the early '70s. They read their Joseph Campbell, too.

What would gaming be like today if Gygax and Arneson had pursued a university education? Would they have funneled other sources into Blackmoor and Greyhawk? What would "generic" be like today? Would it have failed to catch on for being too particular, like Tékumel, or would it have soared higher, like Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, but in different, perhaps more familiar, directions?

3. Tolkien's influence

I touched on Tolkien above, but his role cannot be overstated. The first fantasy role-playing game (though it was not called that) indicated that there were three character classes: Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. D&D's first book specifies that "Fighting men includes the characters of elves and dwarves and even hobbits."

Nobody in 1974, or today, can read the list "elves, dwarves, and even hobbits," and not think of Tolkien's world. D&D character creation and Middle Earth were intertwined from the first.

The role of Tolkien's imaginary world in everybody else's eurofantasies is so well-known that it hardly needs discussion.

Ken St. Andre assumes Middle Earth as the most efficacious point of reference to introduce his beginner audience. He begins Tunnels & Trolls (1975) by saying,

It is important to explain the basic concept of the game as briefly as possible. Here it is. In an alternate world where fantasy is alive and magic works (a world somewhat but not exactly similar to Tolkien's Middle Earth) there exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (Call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap.

(This looks today like an OSR manifesto.)

Tolkien is cited here for the sake of brevity. By 1975, Tolkien's fantasy already had become the bedrock of generic fantasy. You could just say, "It's like Middle Earth," and your audience had enough to go on that they could jump right in. Decades later, and six Middle Earth big-budget films later, that is still the case.

It's long been observed among scholars that Tolkien was instrumental in creating standard ways for how people today commonly imagine the Middle Ages. This applies here, too. Tolkien was the single most important creator of the Medieval Eurofantasy that all fantasy gamers now share by default. Either your world is that generic world--a Medieval Eurofantasy--or it is a reaction to it. There is no escape.

4. D&D's influence: recycle and repeat

A half-century of fantasy role-playing games have rendered banal what was once exciting.

D&D made the mold. The success of D&D in its marketing created a shared fantasy from all the ingredients just mentioned. It became possible for gamers to feast on D&D's generic fantasy concoction without paying attention to those ingredients any more. D&D by itself taught gamers a blended, generic fantasy particular to itself that has displaced other kinds of fantasy.

Generic fantasy became identical to D&D fantasy over nearly fifty years. How D&D survived is another story, one I'm not qualified to tell. But survive it did. Its brand has remained strong. When players in 2020 start role-playing games, chances are they start with D&D. They pick from humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, some half-things, and maybe a few others.

The system features of D&D therefore play a large role in determining Generic Fantasy. That means that, in Generic Fantasy, characters have a Race and a Class. These are essential characteristics. In Generic Fantasy, characters are distinguished by Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, and Charisma. Each character of note has one of those flavors accented. Characters are also supposed to be complementary to each other in Generic Fantasy. A hero alone cannot suffice. The characteristics that they lack must be supplied by the others. It is against the spirit of Generic Fantasy that one character would cover several of the stock types. Multiclassing is a matter of debate and caution.

For at least forty-six years, players have been encountering kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, ogres, trolls, skeletons, ghouls, wights, wraiths, medusas, minotaurs, dwarves, and elves, as well as black puddings, gray oozes, and more early D&D monsters. At a certain (early) point, these became hackneyed. They lost their charm and their surprise. They became mere tokens of resistance between characters and level-ups. It became work to give them new life.

Elven Boots make you silent. Swords have a +N modifier. Magic bags are bags of holding. Wands and staves have charges. "Vorpal" means that it dismembers. Once upon a time, these were fresh and exciting. Now, potions of healing are everywhere, like cans of soda.

Video games and film have recycled D&D commonplaces back at us, reinforcing their normality. Hit points, armor class. Fireballs, healing spells. A game without them looks weird.

D&D game mechanics imply specific kinds of worlds. Those worlds are generic by this fact.

I assume that Generic Fantasy remains alive because new players experience them as fresh, for a moment. After that moment, they participate in the generic fantasy into which they have now invested, common to their friends and their friends' friends. New players do not want to miss out on the true D&D experience. Who has never slain an orc?


These are some of the factors that have made Generic Fantasy generic.

If you are tired of it, like me, you have been trying to think of ways around Generic Fantasy. I'll be writing about some of those ways another time, but the short answer is that we are probably stuck with Generic Fantasy for the foreseeable future.

If you can find new common references widely shared among your audience, and a new system designed to do different things, you may be able to change the channel of your shared imagination. But the very character of Generic Fantasy is that everybody knows it. It's a big tent. Anything else is less generic and therefore a weaker medium. I suppose this is where many "indie games" have gone, serving niche audiences.

Are we destined to fantasize in the lowest common denominator of shared references?


  1. I have often lamented the Dungeons&Dragons-ification of fantasy.

    I have noticed a marked difference in euro-fantasy settings written by europeans vs. the american ones. They are superficially quite similar, but where Americans have the middle ages as distant cultural history, it's a lot closer for europeans. As a kid living in upstate NY, I studied the middle ages for less than a week in school (our social studies book rushed through the dark & middle ages to get to the age of exploration so we could do Columbus). In Europe it's still present, especially the later medieval and renaissance stuff but even earlier things. My wife didn't just learn about the Normans in school, she went to a school in a building some Normans had actually built.

    The difference seems to come across in the RPG settings. When I first got my hands on a copy of Das schwarze Auge, it really struck me how the description of the setting said that "the most important empires on the contenent are at a stage of developent that resembles the earthly late middle ages or the early renaissance, but there are ample differences to the european model" because of both fantasy elements and the nearness of other cultures. Book printing and optics are called out expressly as features of the setting, whereas it is pointed out that firearms are notable lacking (and that armour is thus enjoying an advantage over weaponry).

    1. I know what you are saying.

      The difference is evident between B/X D&D modules written in the US and the UK. (I'm American, but I have always preferred the modules distributed here from the UK).

      I'll write more later about the Eurofantasy. Americans and Europeans necessarily relate to it differently.

    2. A week? Here, our entire 10th grade History is about the medieval period!

    3. Ynas, the United States had no medieval period.

      Of course, this is an abysmal excuse for not teaching about the Middle Ages. (I teach this kind of thing myself in my job, so I do not need to be convinced that it is important.)

      I imagine that in Hungary, teaching the medieval period is felt by education planners to be a civic necessity for building a sense of a shared past and nationhood.

      In the USA, the Middle Ages is merely an interesting background for learning about the Magna Carta and then the age of European exploration leading Europeans to the Americas. These are elements of history used for building a sense of nationhood here.

    4. Sure, it's understandable.

      We spend an entire year on ancient history, but it's chiefly Greek and Roman history, because of the shared European culture - we barely learn anything about Chinese or American history (aside from points where they intersect with European history, of course).

  2. I'd say that the bedrock of "generic fantasy" is the Romantics' vision of the Middle Ages - as channelled through Gothic and historical romances, and then through Tennyson, William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, etc. That gives us knights, castles and wizards - along with other supernatural and monstrous elements - and establishes a sort of timeless pseudo-medieval setting. It's the Western equivalent to China's jianghu (the pseudo-historical setting of the wuxia genre).

    That, rather than Middle Earth, is the dominant strand of "eurofantasy" informing D&D, I reckon, which is why its knights resemble those of King Arthur more than the Goths/Rohirrim. And I'd say that interpretations of Tolkien's work (illustrations, films, etc.) are dominated by the older "eurofantasy" rather than what he actually wrote - which is why we see so many depictions of Tolkien's characters in armour that evokes far later periods than the Bayeux tapestry.

    Gygax and Arneson mash that older generic fantasy up with all sorts of pulp fiction, which gives us D&D in all its gonzo glory: wizards! knights! slimes! robots! And of course there's a layer of Tolkien on top. But not a very deep layer, I think: even D&D's orcs are more like sword-and-sorcery henchthings than Tolkien's clever, cruel soldiers.

    But then, as D&D becomes a commercial success, that spiky mish-mash becomes a bland puree. And with your Tieflings and Dragonborn and what have you, the current versions of the game seem imply a kind of Mos Eisley without the sense of wonder - because you know precisely what every one of those strange beings is.

    I agree with what you say on the influence cycle. But I think you might be undervaluing the impact that classic D&Disms can have on players who haven't encountered them before. My kids have been playing RPGs in earnest for at least three or four years (and played fantasy skirmish games before that). But until a few weeks ago, they'd never come across a level-draining wight (nor had I, though I knew of them). And it caused genuine terror along with a PC death. So I'd say that these things work - and work well because of their game mechanics as much as anything else.

    And in a *game*, that can be just as much fun as something with an enthralling in-universe tale. I mean, Glorantha's trolls, broo and dragonewts are brilliantly thought-out monsters. I'd much rather *read* about them than a D&D wight. But I'm pretty sure that the wight will get my players quaking more for the foreseeable future.

    I think Arneson was right on Tekumel. I'd love to run EPT. But it recalls the main problem I had running Runequest as a kid: the problem of other players *not quite getting it*. That’s something you don’t have with mashed-up generic fantasy, however lamentable it is as a literary genre. Non-generic settings are superior, but they’re a lot more work!

    1. JC, I fully agree! I skimped on discussion of the nineteenth-century romantic idea of the Middle Ages in referring to "effortlessly shared, premodern, romantic fantasy." There are plenty of books on the invention of the Middle Ages (such as Cantor's now-dated The Invention of the Middle Ages).

      I do think that the Romantics' Middle Ages is no longer quite directly relevant to gamers, as it has been mediated by the likes of Tolkien and other generic fantasy. D&D may be the main point of diffusion now for ideas of the "medieval."

      You make a good point about Tolkien's work having been mediated in turn, by artists, as eurofantasy, whereas perhaps Tolkien imagined it somewhat differently.

      I like your comparison of 5e with Mos Eisley depleted of wonder, as well. As you can tell, we are quite in agreement there.

      I'm sure that classic D&Disms are somewhat effective for newcomers. (That was the point of departure for what I wrote: "If you have never experienced it before, what is generic for others can be fun for you. Your first of anything can be a thrill.") In fact, if it were not for my own kids, I'd not be thinking about D&D much at all! The only reason I'm playing it is that my kids never met a wraith, much less an orc, before. I get a vicarious kick out of seeing their interaction with the first instances of things. Then again, my boy has nearly memorized the Monster Manual after a month of study, so I can hardly surprise him from that angle. But for now, he's enjoying being able to guess (accurately) anything he might meet for the first time.

      My son is running a 5e game for some of his friends. They were attacked by some Shadows, but none of the players knows much about D&D. They didn't know what the Shadows were, and it sounds, from his report, that the effect was magical. The kids playing came up with their own name for them. That's how I would like it to be: fresh.

      You sum up well what I was harping about: non-generic settings are a lot more work. My question is about how generic got that way. I can't solve that entirely, but surely it comes down to shared references. I expect that the generic would change along with the changing shared references, except that D&D itself is now the main shared reference. This is the influence cycle to which you also refer.

      Thank you for chiming in! If I had anybody with whom to talk about these things, I wouldn't be writing it.

    2. There's still a few hold-outs for portraying the romantics' middle ages. Chivalry & Sorcery and Pendragon come to mind, though neither is terribly widespread. Dragon Warriors had some leanings in that direction too. These are all pretty old, though.

      Romance of the Perilous Land is the only new RPG that I can think of, but romantic sensibilities positively suffuse the work.

  3. I have a correction to the text above. Dave Arneson did earn a university degree.