Across the blogosphere, there’s been an ongoing thread; taking tropes and tweaking them or substituting a different ingredient.
Below are four quotes from different blog posts:
While D&D has added a number of new “races” to the game over the decades, it has remained strongly humanoid-centric. Nothing wrong with that, but I have wondered on occasion if fantasy of a more or less standard variety would feel any different if you placed the D&D races with say, the species in Star Frontiers (just one example, but these have the advantage of already having appeared in D&D via adaptations to Spelljammer)? Not as an addition, but as a replacement for the usual elves, dwarves, and halflings.
I want to build on his original suggestion though, and try some worldbuilding that stays relatively close to D&D’s world, populated with Tolkien’s heroes and monsters, just with, you know, different heroes, and different monsters.
Fallen London is a French Vanilla setting par excellence. As I’ve noted before, FL leans heavily on the literature of cities-as-characters in a more-or-less Gothic mode, which is to say a tradition that goes back to Casanova, takes in Dickens, Conan-Doyle, and Stoker along the way, and fetches up around David Mitchell.
Anne and Richard have both written about the idea of French Vanilla and, this week especially, I’ve been feeling that appeal. Essentially the idea is that a setting can work really well if you accept some clichés, do them really well, and include just enough twists on that recipe to keep things interesting.
I think to
Dark Sun 🔍 and
Eberron 🔍, in which the settings reimagine the core non-human
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D 🔍) species: Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. The above articles go further. They dive into thought exercises like:
what if we replace Elves with Vulcans?
I think to a conversation with a friend about the dwarves, halflings, and elves of their world; I won’t go into those details as they are not yet my story to tell. Needless to say, they took a trope and spun it on its head.
I think to Judd’s portrayal of Elves in the The Shoeless Peasant; they are far more alien and terrifying than most versions of Tolkein era elves that I’ve encountered. They somewhat remind me of the elves in Poul Anderson 🔍’s The Broken Sword 🔍.
I think to Warhammer Fantasy Setting 🔍, with it’s rules for corruption, both physical and mental. In that game, Elves don’t suffere physical corruption. So they retain their exceptional beauty. Instead, all corruption that they suffer is mental. In a world where witchhunters track down those with physical corruption, this mechanic invariably leads to a quasi-immunity that kind of harassment and danger. When a human gains corruption, 50% of the time it’s mental and 50% of the time it’s physical.
We can make interesting discoveries about our stories on the border between the well established trope and the variant that steps beyond.
In my short-lived A Grain of Truth in the World of Ardu, I created the Geemit, an ancient species of sentient amoeboid blobs. An homage to the Dralasite 🔍 and a replacement of the fantasy Dwarf trope.
For New Vistas in the Thel Sector, one of the players plays a Kenku. Using Stars without Number: Revised Edition 🔍 guidelines for crafting “alien” species, I framed in the mechanical and cultural aspects of the Kenku. Which I realize I haven’t published those results. I also created the Kvarzflett, a sentient species of psychic stone and lichen.
If you are crafting “alien” species and cultures, look to Kevin Crawford 🔍’s Worlds without Number 🔍 and Stars without Number: Revised Edition for guidance. The framing via cultural lens is a fantastic mechanism to explore a human condition/perspective that becomes the dominant model—dare I say ontology—of the species.
The Kenku and Kvarzflett slot into the mental positions of Halfing, Gnome, and Dwarf. Though in science fiction, I don’t have the same deep seeded assumptive tropes of who all are present.
For myself, I tend to favor human centric campaigns. And I more and more appreciate
race species as class systems, but understand that this itself might impose problems of rigid identiy.