Last week, I linked to a From the Sorcerer’s Skull post about Trey’s ideal vanilla fantasy setting and said I’d probably do a follow-up post on what my own vanilla fantasy setting would be. What would I emulate? What are my influences?
I sort of already have a vanilla fantasy setting, which I talk about here every once in a while. I named my blog after it.
There are a couple of “out there” elements: long ago, there was a cataclysm caused by giant worms, and the farther you get from civilization, the weirder things get. But part of the design behind placing the weirdness far in the past or far from home base is to keep the core setting vanilla.
The world, or at least the known world, is almost entirely human. It’s really not a typical D&D world with numerous fantasy races. History is made by and about humans, with elves, dwarves, and orcs more as footnotes and odd exceptions; they exist, but only in very low numbers, and most people haven’t seen one. Other fantastic sentient creatures being even rarer, usually the result of curses or magical mishaps than an actual species and culture. Beastmen live in the forest, but most of these are bewitched or reincarnated humans, with the rest being ordinary animals transformed by magic. Goblins are numerous, but sub-sentient, and created rather than born.
My influences are European fairy tales and Arthurian romance, at least as far as setting goes. Small, numerous kingdoms squabbling over territory or petty grievances. The main characters are not knights or princes, normally, but just ordinary people. So the motivations of PCs are more personal, rather than lofty ideals about justice or service to the king or searching for one’s true love.
There’s a little bit of Conan, much more Solomon Kane, Dilvish the Damned, Lovecraft’s Dreamlands (without the dream explanation,) and Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne, Commorion and Zothique stories. And maybe a little Groo the Wanderer, too. Hell, maybe a lot of Groo the Wanderer. As far as film or TV goes, I think the Merlin TV series is just about the only one that really captures what I want in a vanilla setting, although the movie Hawk the Slayer is close, too.
Hawk the Slayer’s main flaw is that it has a huge battle of Good and Evil driving the plot. That’s not what I’m looking for in my ideal vanilla setting. It’s all small battles, with Good being a rare virtue and Evil being numerous but petty, not united in some grand scheme.
You’ll note there’s no Tolkien. The Shire is too precious a setting for me. I want something a little grungier, but not too grungy, not a Thieves World or a Game of Thrones. Characters are a little self-interested, but it’s not a medieval version of a libertarian’s wet dream, a pre-industrial Mad Max setting.
It’s just folks with minor greed or other vices trying to get by in a world touched by a little magic.