Thursday, September 12, 2019

Vanilla DM

I have a tearful confession to make. I have all but abandoned my "grand plans" to run a D&D campaign set in the post-Columbian South America. I am, perhaps, being overly sensitive to the historical (and continued) atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous people and resources of the region; however, if anything I'd chalk up my resistance to laziness, seeing as how the sheer effort to create an adventure-worthy setting that neither disrespects nor ignores the actors of history feels like more than I'm willing to tackle.

Here's part of the deal: I'm 45, folks. I might incorporate aspects of Mayan or Incan or Aztec or European culture in my campaign, but I don't want to bother devising and adapting whole new systems that take into account the complex pre-hispanic cultures and crafts...things like advanced technology despite a written language (necessitating swaths of re-modeling for spell-casting), cloth armor and the effects of terrain and climate, manners of advancing in a way that doesn't require treasure-hunting (for the cultures that don't value gold in the same way as Europeans)...or that allow portage with the lack of beasts of burden or development of the wheel (without the need to harness slave labor).

Besides which, the more I delve into AD&D and its rules and systems, the more I find myself wanting to run something closer to the pulp S&S source material. There are fantasy game systems that have done a good job of modeling the pre-Renaissance world (at least in Europe)...Chivalry & Sorcery (1e) springs immediately to mind, though I've owned, and played, others. But while other, brighter minds than mine (like Alexis) have managed to shoehorn elves and dwarves and half-orcs into an historical Earth-based setting, I don't want to do that. I don't want a "real world" setting that has infravision, psionics, clerical spells, or "giant-class" creatures inserted into it. Yes, you can do it without creating a whole "alternate history" for planet Earth...but why would you? I assert that a world with dragons and Drow (let alone mind flayers and aboleths!) would completely and radically change the structure of human history as we know it. You can disagree. But if I can't suspend my own disbelief on the subject, how the heck can I expect to create a game or an experience where my players can?

I don't think I can. Not in a sincere fashion.

Consequently, I find myself wanting to run a game in a setting akin to the ones found in fantasy literature: the same fantasy literature that provided inspiration for the writers of the game. Maybe not Lovecraft or Vance, but certainly Leiber and Moorcock. Some kind of cross between Howard and King Arthur...less Tolkien in scope, more Bradley-type weirdness. With at least a sprinkle of Robert Asprin mixed in.

I know some folks will be a little disappointed by this turn of events. Truth be told, I'm a little disappointed myself, though probably not as much. After all, it's not like I can't (at a future date) drop the PCs through some sort of magical portal that drops them into 16th century South America. Have their sailing ship cross an inter-dimensional curtain and end up broadside of a Spanish galleon, or enter a pyramid in some lost fantasy jungle and end up exiting the Tower of the Sorcerer in Uxmal. Starting with "vanilla fantasy" may be a lot less ambitious, but it's utilitarian, and it provides a lot of possibilities that aren't necessarily present with a setting grounded in real world history and geography.

Plus, it's recognizable. I agree with much of what Anthony Huso writes with regard to using banal fantasy tropes as a starting point. It allows easy entry and buy-in to the players. I am absolutely certain there are plenty of individuals who would LOVE to play in a fantasy Latin America, especially one that is thoughtful, well developed, and semi-authentic/accurate. That being said, there are many, many, many players (including an awful lot of the ones who want to play in the setting) who are absolutely UNinterested in learning the ins and outs of the historical cultures that we'd be playing least prior to play. Most folks (I think) would prefer to have information about the setting unfold in-play over time...the way we're used to learning information about most fantasy settings (in literature and celluloid).

Consider, for example, Tolkien. The Hobbit introduces us to the Shire then the background of the Lonely Mountain dwarves then Elrond and Rivendell then Mirkwood (with rumors of "the Necromancer") - all gradually unfolding background. The Lord of the Rings introduces more history, more geography, more cultures...and not all in the first book (neither Rohan and Gondor, for example, appear till the second book of the trilogy, and Mordor not till the final book). Even then, the events of the prior two ages are only hinted at in any of Tolkien's first four novels, and it's not until the Silmarillion that we even hear the name Illuvatar or the story of Feanor, etc.

Consider, as a different example, the television series Game of Thrones. Even in the first season, we are introduced to very few places and a very small section of Martin's world. We have King's Landing and its politics, the North and its Old Religion, the Wall and the Night Watch, and a bit about the eastern lands (whatever it's called) following the trials and tribulations of the Targaryan girl among the Dothraki plains folk. But huge and important aspects of the setting don't even come into the story until later seasons: the Army of the Dead? the slaver nations? Highgarden? Dorn? The Faceless Men and the Maesters of Old Town and the Three-Eyed Raven? The setting, its geography, history, and cosmology are all revealed over time, as needed.

With a fantasy setting you can do can have only the haziest of outlines, the roughest of sketches, and crystalize things (as necessary) to fit the needs of the campaign as situations arise and adventures happen. The DM is making stuff up, after all. I suppose it's possible to do this with a historical setting, but it requires much more up front work from the DM (unless the DM is already versed in the history and geography of the setting). I suppose I could do this, given the knowledge, notes, and information I've already acquired...I could do it...

But, again, if you (like me) want to incorporate the weirdness of D&D fantasy into your game (aboleths and elves) AND they're not naturally occurring parts of the setting (as they don't in South America), then you need something more open and vanilla-bland to start. At least, I do.

Just so folks know.


  1. vanilla is delicious and it’s easy because everyone knows it.

    Maybe try going in the other direction - remove fantasy elements one by one until you get an interesting mix.

    I have an idea for a Welsh Marches campaign where the players are 12th century Norman knights and there’s only a hint of strangeness on the edges - most of it is skirmishes and politics.

    Just different enough from normal to be novel.

  2. I'm shocked, shocked to find that people are making game worlds out of whole cloth!

  3. I've found that modding vanilla settings over time to my liking is the way to go. You start with a few changes/mods/custom things and gradually and naturally evolve the setting into your own. I think that was the original intent of published vanilla campaign worlds in the first place.

  4. You can always use the Sons of Azca setting in the Hollow World BX set as a starting point. It's basically a Mayan/Incan setting in BX.

  5. I'll send you my unfinished post apocalyptic Robert Chamber Carcosa megadungeon for hacked 0e is you want.

    1. Appreciate the offer Gus, but I’m okay.
      : )