Friday, March 29, 2013
On Ice Cream Cones and Monsters
There's a lot of discussion of "vanilla" in the old school gaming scene, and I've been touching on it with the whole series reinterpreting monsters. My basic philosophy is illustrated by the ice cream cone: I like vanilla, it's a good flavor. But I really like it when it's mixed with chocolate. It's the mix that makes it really work, the subtler vanilla and the more forward chocolate.
In this metaphor, obviously chocolate is "original" and "gonzo" elements while vanilla is "vanilla" fantasy a la Tolkien and the Monster Manual - and that's how I like them. An encounter with something ripped out of Tekumel is more interesting to me in a dungeon where the characters have previously fought kobolds and giant rats, to use an example I've had in a game before. The vanilla elements make it so that the gonzo parts of the game actually become interesting and set-off; if everything is weird and wonderful the world just becomes one-note.
The right balance is different for each referee and each group. But I think finding the right mix is crucial. Anomalous Subsurface Environment is an excellent work of imagination, but it goes so far in the science-fantasy direction that, for me, it loses the appeal. I want a dash of science fantasy, a ray gun or two, rather than a setting full of ray guns and more scientific stuff. This is in part because I like my fantasy world to be superstitious to the core rather than purely rational; Demon-Haunted Lands will treat how to do that.
The kind of tool I'm trying to provide, particularly in the monsters section, of that supplement is to say that it's okay to use classics, but it's also fun to play up new twists on old things, and to run with entirely new creatures. One chapter will be dedicated to the dungeon and talking about how to make the dungeon weird, expanding on Philotomy's "Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" concept, and one of the central concepts is that lower / more remote = weirder. Another idea I'm using is that the underworld takes over, insidiously, underground realms, so for instance all the weird customs and folk religions of miners are focused on stopping this process from happening. You're already underground in a mine, the last thing you need is kobolds spontaneously generating and trying to make it into a dungeon.
I'm going to try and get Dungeon Crawl #2 live in the next few days and buckle down on writing this supplement. Starting next week I may go into an idea or two that I'm working on for Demon-Haunted Lands. Also, I'd appreciate thoughts on how I should approach publication - through an existing OSR publisher or on my own?