Friday, April 22, 2011

What is Vanilla Fantasy?

Aside from finding out that Orcs have no genitals, last session my player also had a very brief discussion on the definition of vanilla fantasy.  One of them used it in a fairly derogatory fashion to describe a campaign setting that will not be named.  One of my other players was quite confused by this as he had never heard the term.

Then I discovered something.  Though I know what vanilla fantasy is it's rather like pornography: I know it when I see it.  I was completely unable to give a definition for "vanilla fantasy."  So I ask you, what makes something vanilla fantasy?  Is it necessarily a bad thing?  Does it need to be self serious?  Can it have rayguns in it?  Does Tolkien count?

When someone says vanilla fantasy to me, I immediately think of Might & Magic.  Of course that's a rather screwed up view of vanilla fantasy, since M&M is secretly a sci fi setting, but it's what I think of none the less.


  1. "Imagine a flower: A climbing orchid, to be exact; the one of some twenty thousand varieties that produces something edible. Now imagine that its blooms must be pollinated either by hand or a small variety of Mexican bee, and that each bloom only opens for one day a year. Now imagine the fruit of this orchid, a pod, being picked and cured, sitting in the sun all day, sweating under blankets all night for months until, shrunken and shriveled, it develops a heady, exotic perfume and flavor. Now imagine that this fruit’s name is synonymous with dull, boring, and ordinary. How vanilla got this bad rap I for one will never know." - Alton Brown on "Vanilla"

  2. How about "High Fructose Corn Fantasy?"

  3. I'm willing to stick with vanilla. A lot of people miss the point, but some of us enjoy the myriad subtle flavors it encompasses. I'm speaking both literally and metaphorically here. A good vanilla ice cream with no topping can be wonderful.

    I think three things put -players- off vanilla fantasy: similarity of PC choices (i.e. the 7 types that made it into Basic D&D, plus a smattering of others, like paladins, druids & assassins), Western renfairish faux medieval setting and expectations as to how the PCs should be spending their time (grand epic quests and/or smelly dungeon diving).

  4. I'm another vanilla fan. Nothing wrong with other flavours, though.

  5. I'm seeing a lot of "it isn't bad" but not a lot of definitions.

    expectations as to how the PCs should be spending their time (grand epic quests and/or smelly dungeon diving).

    I think this was the key to his derision (the epic quest part, I'm pretty sure he's a fan of smell dungeon delving). Though I will point out that my crazy-orcs made him say that my setting wasn't vanilla, so I'm not so sure how what he's basing his definition on.

  6. I think vanilla fantasy is good when you and your players need something new and fresh. It gives the GM the flexability to run his world as he see's it. It also gives the players the opportunity's to create a "new" path for the character.

    Just my two cents,keep up the good work!

  7. See "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland" by Diana Wynne Jones.

    It's a guidebook to adventures (aka 'tours') in the generic medieval-stasis fantasy setting. The book outlines exactly who and what you will encounter (from Anglo-Saxon Cossacks to Vestigial Imperialists and the mysterious Other Continentalists), the significance of clothing colour, merchants and their bales, the five types of queen, the six things that glow significantly, and the rigidly codified steps of the Dark Lord's evil master plan.

    It is a must-read for any worldbuilder or would-be dethroner of JRRT.

  8. Anything that hews close to traditional fantasy or rpg tropes.

    I don't think you can really define vanilla fantasy to the level of detail that you might like, if only because of the breadth of fantasy tropes from which to mine.

  9. Hey! Nilla wafers are the second best mass-produced cookie there is!

    Since you're wondering, here.

    Course nothing beats homemade...

  10. I always thought vanilla fantasy meant euro-centric settings

  11. I'll second the Tough Guide recommendation. It's pretty brilliant, and makes it (even more) impossible to read Eddings, Jordan, Brooks, or Goodkind with a straight face.

    I think of vanilla fantasy as fantasy that unconsciously adopts all the tropes of post-Tolkien quest bilge, often without realizing that there's any other way for fantasy to be presented, and often with some minor twist which the author clearly thinks makes the whole subversive or innovative. Sort of the setting equivalent of the Fantasy Heartbreaker.

    Defined this way, I think, say, the Forgotten Realms and Kalamar qualify, but the World of Greyhawk (often pilloried or dismissed as "vanilla") does not - I think it's just too baroque and, in some instances, genuinely weird. (Please don't ask me to articulately defend this opinion.)

  12. Defined this way, I think, say, the Forgotten Realms and Kalamar qualify, but the World of Greyhawk (often pilloried or dismissed as "vanilla") does not - I think it's just too baroque and, in some instances, genuinely weird. (Please don't ask me to articulately defend this opinion.)

    Please don't ask me to articulately defend my complete agreement.

  13. If Greyhawk seems non-vanilla it's because of all the other genre elements stirred in - sci-fi (Barrier Peaks), pulp adventure, genre bending (Castle Greyhawk), Greyhawk-City-as-Chicago ...

    I see vanilla fantasy (I call it Medieval Fantasy, in all its incarnations from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Tolkien) as potentially flavorful, but tasteless and bland when made with synthetic ingredients. At its worst (Jordan) you get the feeling that if his heroes lived in our world they would be buying spiky replica swords at the mall and wearing three-wolf shirts.

  14. Vanilla fantasy shoulf have liberal lashings of Tolkien but little if any rayguns.
    The exotic once revealed becomes mundane. In vanilla fantasy many a town has elf serving maids, a countryside dotted with Dwarven prospectors, the emperors guard ride on dragon back and everyone seems to usually leave the halfling alone in their shires.

    Vanilla fantasy is displaced in time, or never seems to change all that much. Knights, Ancient Gauls, pyramid building egyptians, vikings, really late Romans and barbarians clad in fur bannana hammocks all rub shoulders.

    The world is either in a perpetual dung-age and the common man doesn't seem to care or the gardens are always green and larders are filled to the brim even in late winter.

    Religion while present has little impact on things and hardly goes noticed unless the dark lord is tied to a given faith or minion of an evil god, and then it still doesn't matter overly much. Vanilla Fantasy people are amazingly tolerant of unusual and alien faiths. Churches are there to dispense healing and blessings along with the occasional "tsk tsk".

    Magic is awesome and grand, it provides great power and is mostly ignored even if seemingly ever-present.

    Vanilla fantasy is supposed to be familiar and comfortable.

  15. I see vanilla fantasy as based in the core books - lots of stock monsters, treasures and classes. I run vanilla fantasy a lot. I am currently running two different campaigns in Judges Guild "Verbosh" setting. I like vanilla fantasy as it is easier in the DM, and the players have a nice base comfort. Then you start to deviate in minor ways and the weird seems weirder and more effective. It's like the blues - 12 bars in the standard 3-chord pattern - but it is how you deviate and come back that makes it effective.

    So to me, vanilla fantasy should not be a derogative term.

  16. Verbosh is pretty brilliant, in large part because it's a knowing piss-take of bog-standard fantasy. It does *not* take itself seriously, and one of the most fun campaigns I ever ran prominently featured Verbosh and its environs. In fact, I can't think of a better published setting for use with Tunnels & Trolls.

    (I'm the last person on Earth who'd have anything against "traditional" fantasy, insofar as there is such a thing. I just loathe the garbage cluttering bookstore shelves and bestseller lists.)

  17. In the context of role-playing I think 'vanilla fantasy' tends to be used as a milder form of 'fantasy heartbreaker': meaning that the thing being described is like D&D, not because the author chose to make it like D&D, but because they either didn't think about it or don't have a wide enough knowledge of fantasy or role-playing.

  18. I think the definitions been covered pretty well here and post-Tolkien pretty much sums up the genre. I agree that Forgotten Realms and Dragon Lance would be the epitome of vanilla fantasy while ray-guns, Lovecraft influences or gender neutral orcs hint at a more chocolate or tutti fruity blend of Fantasia.

  19. A little late, but

    Imagine you go to the ice cream store and they sell 10,000 different flavors, including avocado and tamarindo with chili, but you always buy vanilla ice cream not because you don't like other, but because you have never tasted them and simply ignore them because you like vanilla ice cream.

    "Vanilla" means "conventional". Vanilla fantasy is just conventional, average, uninspired fantasy with elves and +1 swords and red dragons. D&D cannot be vanilla because it invented the trope. But D&D 3, 4 and 5, Pathfinder and many an OSR RPG, are vanilla because they don't bring anything new to the setting.

    OD&D was satanic in its time. Chritian priests were afraid of it, and so were mid-class whiteys. But today, D&D appears on mid-class tv series and christians know there is nothing evil or subversive about D&D. D&D has become vanilla, meaning it has become tamed and accepted and conventional and even my aunt understands a joke about failing a dice roll when I burn the food or break a glass.

    There is nothing wrong about vanilla fantasy, but there is nothing wrong about picking your own nose either.