Monday, October 26, 2020

In Praise of Vanilla

In normal years, Gamehole Con takes place every year in late October/early November in Madison, Wisconsin. At the urging of my friend, Victor Raymond, I first attended the convention in 2017 and greatly enjoyed myself – so much so, in fact, that made a decision to come back every year, if I were able. One of the pleasures of the con is being able to sample all of Wisconsin's glorious dairy delicacies, such as Hook's Cheese and the Chocolate Shoppe's ice cream. One day, a friend was enjoying some of the latter and he commented on how good it was, adding, "People say vanilla ice cream is bland but that's only because they've never had good vanilla."

I thought about this comment the other day after I'd finished refereeing the most recent session of my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. Tékumel has a reputation – largely undeserved in my opinion – of being impenetrable and, therefore, unusable as a fantasy setting by anyone unwilling to devote untold hours to delving into its minutiae. However, I can't deny that it's an acquired taste, which is to say, something that won't be to everyone's liking. If you're not comfortable with a setting that eschews most of the staples of Western medieval fantasy, Tékumel definitely isn't for you (and that's OK).

Yet, for all the flak that Tékumel often catches for being too "weird," there are settings, like the Forgotten Realms, that are criticized from the other side, namely for being too boring. Settings of this sort are often derided as "vanilla fantasy" or some variation thereof. My difficulty in taking such criticisms seriously is that "vanilla fantasy" is a very elastic concept that changes with the user. Some notions of it are narrow and specific, singling out certain elements, such as Tolkien-derived races or fireball-flinging mages, as hallmarks of vanilla. Other notions, meanwhile, are so expansive as to include nearly everything found in Dungeons & Dragons. (In this case, I rather suspect that's the point; some of the most vociferous critics of vanilla fantasy I've ever known were quite down on D&D.)

Speaking only for myself, vanilla fantasy is fantasy that is easily, even intuitively understood by almost anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre. It's built upon well known and widely shared assumptions, such as the existence of multiple intelligent species who go off on adventures that involve fighting nasty creatures and perhaps even a Dark Lord™. In short, it's the popular conception of the plot of The Lord of the Rings filtered through decades of knock-off novels, movies, and video games. 

I realize this description of vanilla fantasy probably makes it sound awful to many people, but that's not my intention at all. There is great value in something that's immediately understood and requires very little explanation. Truly, that's not nothing. Let's go back to Tékumel. Because there are almost no direct connections to popular fantasy concepts, almost every aspect needs to be explained to newcomers. It's not impossible to do, but it takes time and care. How many people not already versed in the setting know what a Pé Chói or a Shén is? Conversely, how many people know what an elf or a dwarf is? I don't think anyone would disagree that vastly more people know what the latter are and that basic level of understanding makes introducing a neophyte to, say, the World of Greyhawk easier than doing the same for Glorantha, another famously idiosyncratic (and non-vanilla) fantasy setting.

Because their assumptions are readily understood even by newcomers, vanilla settings can often introduce imaginative and distinctive twists on those same assumptions. For example, because everyone more or less knows what an orc is, Hârn can offer up its weird, insect-like version of the same (the Gargun). In a similar vein, the titular Forbidden Lands presents equally unexpected takes on halflings that play with expectations, something that could only be done if there's already a widely accepted baseline understanding. That's one of the real strengths of so-called vanilla fantasy: it's the standard from which all deviations can be measured, even deviations within itself.

Finally, there is such a thing as weirdness fatigue. Settings like Glorantha or Talislanta or, yes, Tékumel can overwhelm one's imagination with so many deviations, changes, and replacements of standard fantasy elements that it can be exhausting. A key to immersion in a fantasy setting is being able to imagine what it would be like to be there oneself. If too many of the setting's elements are utterly unlike our own experience, it can be genuinely hard to enter fully into the setting and enjoy it. Even if immersion isn't one's goal, simply having to ask something like "The Hlutrgú are the amphibian guys, right? Or is that the Ahoggyá?" is a rarer occurrence when one is playing on Oerth. 

None of this is meant as a criticism of exotic, quirky fantasy settings, which I adore. Even more emphatically this post is not intended to praise genuinely banal and unimaginative settings. My purpose is rather to make it clear that vanilla need not be synonymous with boring or hackneyed. Ingenious and engaging vanilla settings abound and the hobby would be poorer without them. Good vanilla can be every bit as tasty as the most rarefied flavors. In our zeal to laud the outré, we would be wise to remember that.


  1. Well put, James. I really enjoy your expansive sense of play and enjoyment that comes through your work and words. Thank you!

  2. Christian Mehrstam, the author of Whitehack, makes a similar argument about "hacking your notion of normal":

    "Running a game of Whitehack means relying, to a degree, on your knowledge of the fantasy megatext and making your own decisions for things that aren't in the rules. [...] Nobody ever comes 'clean' to a game or a genre. Whitehack is embedded in the abundance of fantasy and RPG tropes in the collective consciousness of our time. So are you."

    "The expression 'normal fantasy' may sound contradictory, but it really isn't. Like many other popular genres, mainstream fantasy relies on things being familiar. Any player has a number of components -- like dwarves having beards and living below ground -- that she feels need to be in the world, or she is not getting what she came for. If you want to hack _your_ group's notion of what is normal, concentrate on a select few important aspects of the setting and leave the rest!"

    1. That's interesting, both because I have never read Whitehack but also because, in a different context, Christian Mehrstam came up earlier today.

    2. It's certainly worth a read if you get the chance. A concise restatement (with some divergent design choices) of d&d that's a pleasure to run as a referee.

    3. I've been intrigued by it for a long time, I must admit. I've held off on picking it up simply because I already have so many games and I have a quasi-vow not to buy new ones I don't think I'll get the chance to play.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree, and that's why Greyhawk and Birthright are my favorite D&D settings.

  4. I have always thought “Mystara” the best ‘vanilla-but-not-the-same’ world