Deliver Me From Halflings

I’ve always been a bit tired of the “traditional” western fantasy world. Maybe it was done 7th Sea style, like Pathfinder’s Golarion, where different eras of our history become fantasized elements that exist simultaneously. Maybe big, top-heavy, setting-based designs, like the Forgotten Realms’ Faerun, or Middle Earth: places with long-established and detailed histories. The thing defining “fantasy” today are the tropes that defy time, tide, edition, and system: you know, elves, dwarves, orcs, an entire world of Medieval Europe, the whole euro-centric knights and dragons schtick.

My problem is less with the individual pieces and more with games continually using this hodge-podge as a crutch, like it’s the only option for “fantasy” settings, be it film, book, or roleplaying game. (Well, I guess there are other options, but they fall into “Grimdark Fantasy”—Warhammer—or “Urban Supernatural Fantasy”—Vampire, Dresden Files—that also feel a bit overused and done to death.) I don’t mind western fantasy as a whole; I’ve always wanted to run/play an old-school Points of Light campaign, ala AD&D/Judges Guild, probably because I missed out on that and started with Dark Sun and Eberron. But that’s already been done to death; if I wanted to run that, I’d make something out of my assumptions of the setting and the dozens of books made back in the day. We don’t need yet another Faerun, Middle Earth, Greyhawk, or Hyperborea when we already have five each of those.

Anyways. Let me use Legends of Anglerre as an example, because while I like the game, I think someone should pick on it from time to time given some of its minor flaws. It’s FATE-based, so very open and flexible, and made by Cubicle 7, so it’s a giant, glorified toolkit. Unlike their space opera game, Starblazer, Anglerre has a pair of settings contained in the rules. And they’re both painfully traditional. Anglerre is a cross between the sword and sorcery of ’80s barbarian movies with a lot of Moorcock-style elements (Elric, Hawkmoon), and a dab of traditional Tolkien/Forgotten Realms high fantasy. The other, The Hither Kingdoms, is very traditional high fantasy, straight out of Tolkien and Lewis. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both very well done, very interesting settings. But I’m bored with all the elves and goblins; I want something that doesn’t immediately jump to mind when you say fantasy—I want something fantastic.

My problem is that given FATE’s incredible flexibility, I’m not sure seeing them build two very staple settings does much to showcase the versatility of the system. I’d rather have seen a third setting, or—and nothing against the writers—a replacement for The Hither Kingdoms. (On the scale of “FANTASY,” Hither Kingdoms are not that far away from Anglerre. It isn’t run by psionic hairless cat people with crystalline mecha or whatev.) Something totally out there. Maybe it doesn’t have to be weird, bust just has to be unique. I consider Dark Sun and Eberron to be brilliant settings, some of the best for D&D, for new and innovative spins on the post-apocalyptic fantasy genre and high-magitech pulp dungeonpunk respectively.

I’m thinking, something like:

  • For Anglerre in specific, I could see going balls-crazy just to try and utilize FATE all the more. Imagine piloting your John Carter-style dragonfly flier across crystal forests infested with arachnid monsters, to help the god-kings of old fight back the Titan legions of the Adversary, on the banks of the sentient river Scamander? Go weirder. That’s only scratching the surface. Limitless potential in the fantasy genre, and for a system that can handle the far-end extremes, I’m a bit sad it steered so close to what’s gone before.
  • How about… a world of insect-themed humanoids. Give each a power (stunt/aspect) related to their insect progenitors: beetle-kinden are sturdy and work well with mechanical objects, the ant-kinden are great fighters who work with a hive-mind, the mantis-kinden are deadly in single combat, the wasp-kinden can produce a deadly magical “sting,” etc. Also, divide them up between the “apt” (those who can make/use technological devices—beetles, ants) and the “in-apt” (those with a stronger tie to traditional mysticism/magic—everyone else), where the wasp-kinden straddle the line. Add a very lush pseudo-steampunk, pseudo-pulp setting, with the tyrannical wasp-kinden conquering the rest of the world. (This would be the Shadows of the Apt, Empire in Black and Gold setting, which I loved… much more than the prose of the novel, which drove me up a wall.)
  • Why doesn’t anyone use early Frontier Americana as a setting? Like, pre-revolutionary North America, maybe Seven Years’ War era. It’d make a fantastic Points of Light setting: small, simple communities nestled amongst the pines, beating back savage warriors and unspeakable monstrous horrors. What few urban centers are few and far between, and are themselves reliant on other cities to survive—and their parent country is fighting a war with the people who are colonizing far to your north and south. That doesn’t even include dealing with ankhegs burrowing up through your amber fields of grain. I guess part of the problem would be making the “savage” natives in a respectful manner. But just thinking about it makes me want to run it. And elements have drifted in to other games—the Croatan Song sourcebook for old Werewolf; Andoran in Pathfinder… just not a full setting.
  • Speaking of dropping existing history into a fantasy game—or visa versa—what about 1806? Dude makes a compelling case, I have to say; I’m not that into Napoleonic stuff, but I’d learn lots about it just to run it as a fantasy setting.

Or go with non-traditional settings that have already, also, been done several times, but which haven’t been trampled into the ground.

  • Everyone loves a Hollow Earth, right? All it has to have is dinosaurs and morlocks and bam, however else you alter it, it will be a Hollow Earth setting.
  • A planet that’s all one thing, for a metaplot reason. A planet that’s all desert; that’s all snow; that’s all water.
  • Do something else weird with the planet. Maybe it’s tidally locked, so it has a light side and dark side, and a single belt where life can thrive—the incredibly slow rotation leaves dozens of cities abandoned by the ages, just a few miles on either side of the life-belt, so risking the chilling cold—or burning heat—could be the cost of diving these centuries-old ruins.
  • Make the planet’s temperatures spike, forcing everyone to migrate underground. Global Warming meets Ultima Underworld.
  • Make its rotation so slow that a single year takes centuries, wherein the change of seasons sees new life-forms develop (cough Heliconia cough).
  • Make the entire planet one big city—not so much Coruscant as much as Ravnica.
  • Blow the planet up, then make it better; make it occupied by aliens or Mythos monsters from beyond the realms of sleep and sanity.

But please, whatever you do, take me away from the knights and hobbits.

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