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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fairy Tale Culture

Something in the Zak S. post about D&D as a creative outlet made me reflect briefly on the perennial question "Why is there so much medieval European fantasy and not enough other cultural influences?" The quick answer is that it's not all strictly "medieval" or even "European". It's fairy tale medieval. It's a culture we've all been exposed to in Western Society, and isn't even strictly all European, since several fairy tales from Middle Eastern and Indian sources have been included in "European" fairy tale compilations for, oh, a hundred years? So it's stuff everyone can relate to, even if they each prefer something else.

Every GM, even those who hated improvising, is going to have to improvise at some point, or explain something they've prepped. Fairy tale culture is so common and so simple, it's easy to toss out there and just move on with the game.

Society is divided into royals, nobles, and commoners. Tech is pre-industrial. Wizards, witches and fairies can cast spells. All the standard monsters in fairy tales exist. That's am easy-to-grasp background. Anything else requires specific knowledge and negotiation with the players.


  1. Good point. While I think that always be a bit of negotiation to be done--and "fairy tale" will probably always be the norm, but maybe the rise of Steampunk is making Victorian fantasy more common.

  2. An excellent reflection. I hadn't thought of it like that, but it makes an awful lot of sense.

  3. @Trey: "Victorian" and even "steampunk" are still pretty much specialties, but there is a pseudo-Victorian equivalent to fairy tale culture, the the sort of generic Victorianism people would grok if you said "it's like Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper and Dracula." Which, I would argue, is why steampunk as a genre is becoming successful: people have enough background, even if they aren't buffs, to "get it".

    It's similar to "Wild West". People get "cowboys and indians, forty-niners, saloons, and sheriffs." They may not have even a reasonably detailed knowledge of the history involved, and only a rudimentary feel for the tech of the era, but that can be left for the extreme enthusiasts.

  4. While the physical settings of and human cultures in standard "Fairy Tale" RPG worlds are almost always the sort of Medievalish Europeanesque milieux typical of European and American tellings of fairy tales, the monsters almost always range at least from those of ancient myths to those of medieval legends. So, while "Fairy Tale" probably is the best concise description for such worlds, perhaps it should be understood to be short for "Mythic Legendary Fairy Tale".

    Another reason for the success of steampunk might be that it can be played in either a pseudo-Victorian or a Wild West style depending on where in the world the action happens.

  5. @Ed Dove: re: Mythic Legendary Fairy Tale
    Pretty much agree, except that I'd like to emphasize again that the literary genre of Fairy Tales is pretty well-known for including Middle Eastern and Far Eastern stories, adapted to basically fit the culture summarized in the last paragraph of my post. These adaptions skip cultural details for Japan, China, India, and the Arabian peninsula, much as they skip details about how the European feudal and manorial system worked, but they broaden the range of monsters and magic.

    What doesn't typically show up is magic and monsters from African (other than North Africa) or Native American cultures. This seems to match a lot of early D&D materials: medieval details are skipped, but culture is more or less medieval Europe with monsters from far outside European sources.

  6. I agree with your analysis & assessment completely. (I suppose I should've said that before. Sorry about that.)

    All I meant to point out was that, while I agree that "Fairy Tale" probably is the best concise description of the cultural & physical milieux of most 'medieval' fantasy RPGs, it doesn't imply many of the creatures usually included in such games. Because they almost always use creatures from a wide range of sources beyond just fairy tales, "Mythic Legendary Fairy Tale" might be a better full description of their entire milieux. That's all I meant to say.

    I think the reason why very little from sub-Sahara African, Native American, Australian Aboriginal and Pacific Islander cultures has gotten into RPGs yet is because very few of their myths & legends have been stripped of their cultural contexts and retold as fairy tales for us yet. So, to use them, we'd either have to strip & retell them ourselves, learn enough about their cultural contexts to use them correctly, or use superficial versions of them that are likely to come across as at least insulting, and maybe even racist. So it's a little daunting.

    But I know of a d20 setting based on African myth & legend, if you're interested. It's...

    "Nyambe: African Adventures