Saturday, April 6, 2013

F is for Fantasy

A few nights ago the real Irene and I are having a walk around our neighborhood with the kids, and we're talking RPG's (this to counterbalance her tendency to talk a lot about roller derby).  One of the things that we got off onto was the preponderance of fantasy RPG's out there on the market.  Irene's theory was that this was because Dungeons & Dragons was really the first successful RPG, and essentially its genetic core has been dominant in all the offspring that came later.  While I think there's something to that argument, I respectfully disagreed.  First, there were science fiction and other genres represented in RPG's not long after D&D came out, but none of them really succeeded, despite the massive popular culture support that should have been there.  D&D may have had The Lord of the Rings on its side, but Traveller should have had Star Wars and Star Trek.

I think that Fantasy, as a genre, has had several inherent advantages over other genres that have generally lent themselves to being the predominant format of RPG's.  Here's my argument:

  1. It's accessible.  Aside from the whole LotR thing, the notion of knights and wizards is pretty embedded into Western culture.  You say dragon, people get what a dragon is.  You say Andorian, and you'll get a blank stare.
  2. No specific licensing.  I'm of the belief that licensed RPG's are a mixed blessing.  Sure, you appeal to the fan base and have a ready, pre-made introduction to the world, but you're usually hindered by both trying to reproduce the "feel" of a movie or a book in a gaming context, and that is not easy to do.  Not to mention that you'll have to figure out how the PC's are relevant in the over-arching plot and not spear-carriers for the licensed story (I'm looking at you, Star Wars).  Yes, there are licensed LotR games out there, and historically they haven't done well.  I just think that a generic fantasy setting is more accessible than a generic sci-fi one, mostly for the reasons in the first argument.
  3. Technology is a pain in the butt.  This is complex issue, but let me see if I can break it down.  The old slogan about the gun being the great equalizer is generally true, and the issue facing a lot of modern- to futuristic-games is that you someone have to maintain a semblance of that realism--the notion that anyone could be shot once and killed--with the scaling effect generally in place in RPG's.  By that I mean that you want big, bad guns who require more effort and present a greater danger as part of  your story, but a big gun can generally negate that greater threat.  In fantasy games, where opponents tend to be often non-human and weapons tend to be more of the "it'll take you eighteen cuts before you kill the guy" it is easier to structure games where the BBEG at the end really will take a while to take down.
  4. Then there's the transportation issue.  On fantasy, you're largely on foot--you're or some animal's.  Having a rough idea of how far the PC's can travel give the GM is a little bit of not just control but necessary foresight.  Barring some pretty high-powered spells (that you would know your PC's have) you can say to yourself, "okay, they could go to that ruin, that temple, or that den.  That's what I need to stat out."  Contrast that with say, an RPG based on my life, WQRobb, regular human being.  You think I'm just going to kick around my home town all day writing on my blog.  Forget that, I'm scraping together all my savings, buying a plane ticket, and flying to Aruba.  Highly unlikely?  Absolutely.  But possible.  And players are always doing things you don't expect.  Restricting travel by dint of genre helps rein that in, even in a small way.
  5. Classes.  Call them "Occupations," call them "Archtypes," call them whatever you will, but most fantasy RPG's have fairly delineated character concepts, each of which perform a fairly vital role on the team.  Everybody's got a job, and there's not a whole lot of overlap between them, even if you're running 4+ players.  Modern and futuristic games tend to be skill based, less delineated, and prone to overlap.  It is my general impression that most sci-fi games who try to avoid this problem end up doing so by introducing elements that are often associated with fantasy--psychic powers, weird alien stuff, etc.  And highly-delineated character concepts aren't necessary given the right group of players, but they do help in making every player feel valuable, which means they are having a better time at the game.

Well, that's more than enough for now.  Let me know what you think, even if it is that I'm totally off-base here.  


  1. I think you've captured the main reasons well, but I would add one more...

    Video games. Visually speaking, sci-fi is much better suited to video gaming than fantasy. Ships, lasers, space, etc. With the exception of a very few fantastical elements like some powerful spells and dragons, fantasy typically doesn't have the visual aspect to match.

    Even a fabulously successful Fantasy video game like Skyrim gets visually repetitive and boring after a while, while in Sci-Fi, even the color of the sky can change between missions.

    I RPG and video game both sci-fi and fantasy, but in my experience I notice that the RPGs I tend to stick with long term are fantasy, and the video games sci-fi. Not a conscious choice really, just seems to work out that way.

    1. Good point. An arrow whizzing through the sky doesn't have the same visual pizzazz as a laser beam, but isn't all that different when described by voice.