Why Fantasy?

I have noticed a growing trend in the vocals of the louder members of our gaming community. Players getting bored of fantasy settings, which I have noticed my players vocalizing the same thing. This gets me to thinking, aside from the name, why is Dungeons & Dragons a fantasy setting?

Now I am a normal guy; I don’t have access to any cool industry insiders, so, just like the everyman I am, I’m left only with the mystic arts of pure speculation at my disposal. I do know that the game came about from Gary Gygax playing wargames with his friends. I think that it is safe to assume that Castle Sieges and Medieval combat was preferred over fighting for a hill, it could very well be a copyright thing, but, for whatever reason that is true, they put out a simple fantasy war game that morphed into what we know and love today.


I think that WE, the buying public came up with the whole: I want to be the central character in a fantasy novel, thing. Instead of constantly playing chess with mass combat, somebody came up with the idea of having each player control one piece, and a game master controlling the others, just to see what happens; well, it was brilliant! People wanted more, and rules had to be established to keep this game fair and actually functional. But why not keep it modern? Did it just spawn from Chainmail, or is there a different reason? I think that there is.


The first answer is, simply put, escapism. People were sick of war! Everyone alive at that time had been personally affected by Vietnam, or some other government action that was a pointless loss of life. Perhaps armchair generals enjoyed thinking that they could handle things better, or maybe it’s just that we are simply a violent race that gets off on thinking about this stuff; but, whatever the answer, wargames were still popular among the nerds, but only to a specific kind of nerd, a small demographic of nerd. Chainmail took the element of modern war out of the equation, and returned it to armor-clad soldiers, bombs were replaced by arrows; war was civilized again! Not at all like our current wars, where we just get a bloody nametag to bury.

While war was unpopular, what was popular was High Adventure! Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonya comics told stories of incredible people pitted against impossible odds and always claiming victory through daring and intelligence! People devoured the tales of Tolkien, children watched brave Bilbo Baggins take on a humongous dragon, and were inspired to read The Lord of the Rings, even though they were told that it was beyond their reading level.

Fantasy offered us a break from the real world. Conan was a real man; he always got any woman that he wanted. Conan didn’t have to worry about losing his house, keeping his job, supporting a family, or any of that stuff, he could care less about those things! We all secretly want to be tough like Conan. Strider didn’t work some menial job; he was always doing something that was important! Something that mattered! Tales of Honor and of Glory! Two things that was, and still is, lacking in our lives.

That is what Dungeons and Dragons had to offer, you could be a reluctant hero with all of your friends; seeking wealth, battling horrible monsters, saving damsels in distress! Obtaining glory!


Nerds! Today this is an enduring term, but back in the day it was the social equivalent of being a child molester. While children of today can sit and discuss the adventures of Dr. Who, I was beaten up for such ideas on the playground.

Nerds were not accepted, even by other nerds. There was a demographic of very smart, and very socially retarded individuals that became a stereotype for this game. Lisping dreamers that were such losers that they’d rather pretend to be wizards than actually contribute anything worthwhile to proper society! Little did proper society know that it wasn’t just the socially retarded that gathered around a table slinging dice, but a huge audience that took pleasure in creating something meaningful to them.

World Building! This goes right back to J.R.R. Tolkien. While he wasn’t the first to build a fantasy world, he was the best, and he inspired many wannabe writers to do the same, but this was way before the internet came out . . . or at least before it was available to THAT kind of nerd; it was really difficult for anybody to get published, but this didn’t stop the writers. People talked to each other back then, we shared things with our friends. What better way to share things than to use Dungeons & Dragons and make it interactive?

But we’ve got another problem. Why not Science Fiction? Why Fantasy?


I think that I know the answer, and it is a very simple one. Flexibility!

Fantasy is a very mutable thing. You’ve got so many different forms of it; we have fairy tales, high adventure, myths and legends, magic and sorcery . . . the list is practically endless, and this speaks to people. We can pit multiple cultures from different ages and different areas up against each other, even going so far as to create our own civilizations where magic changes everything! It is totally up to us, and that is a lot of freedom.

Through Dungeons & Dragons we can tell science fiction stories without ever having to leave our planet, we can tell horror stories about ancient and powerful spirits haunting creepy castles without having to go to Ravenloft, the possibilities are absolutely endless! But, at the same time, High Fantasy allows us to set the restrictions on what is, and what isn’t at any given time, which lets us set the power levels of Magic & Science as we see fit.


Let’s address Module addiction, because I think that this might be the root of the problem.

We all love the old modules, but why do we have them? Why do they exist?
They started out as teaching points. Guides for new Dungeon Masters to use to create their own adventures, and also as tools to show seasoned DMs how to expand their games in different ways. They still do this; however things are a bit different now. For some strange reason they think that they can move the timeline of our games, which I personally always resented, but that is a different argument for a different day.

I know why it happened. TSR wasn’t a mailing list, they wanted to do this professionally and make money, and you can’t feed your families selling three books and a handful of modules. The creativity that D&D sells doesn’t make money, so they had a problem that could only be solved by marketing new books, and trying to convince you that you needed them, when in reality it was the company that needed them, not you. We can’t fault them for that.

They tell us that these things were marketed for DM’s with no time on their hands, and if you say something enough times then it becomes true. DM’s who don’t know how to spend their time wisely, have no idea how fast and easy it is to set up a gaming session by themselves. They get hung up and I’m not sure if they are even modifying the modules to fit their campaign, or only run Greyhawk adventures in Greyhawk, Planescape adventures in Planescape, or Forgotten Realms in Forgotten Realms. If they are, then no wonder that they are getting frustrated.

I don’t think that we are sick of fantasy, but we are sick of the same thing over and over. D&D requires variety. When an idea is dead, we must kill it. Get rid of always using taverns to start new stories, neuter the same evil mages with different names, cut out tired scenarios and replace them with fresh ideas. Evil can come from any direction. Hurt your players and try to kill them! Make them constantly question what they think that they know about your world.  They are tough, they can take it. Have the devil creep into the most powerful church in a way that everybody knows that there is no going back, burn Waterdeep to the ground; give the Kingdom of Furyondy a plague that turns everyone living in it into undead creature just to watch it spread. Throw a dagger into the eye of balance! If your players are sick of stuff, do something that utterly destroys the status quo. That is what we are supposed to be doing.

Let’s open up them old box sets that nobody seems to want to play anymore, and let’s get our hands dirty!


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