non-conventional fantasy



NearbyGamers General
inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-21 23:19:32


I have started a tag page to list fantasy games that break out of the 'default fantasy' mould, eg. that aren't pseudo-mediaeval in their society and technology, that don't feature people of European race confronting monsters from European folklore in a temperate continental setting, getting around on horses and staying in inns.

If anyone knows of such a game and would like to list it on the the non-conventional fantasy tag page and insert a link to that page on the game's tag page, I think that that would be very useful to everyone.


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world+mechanic = game
2007-03-21 23:32:31

Green Ronin...look at Green Ronin. They have a lot of D20-based settings that pull you out of the common European medieval fantasy setting. I know they made one for Troy and another one called Testament (which is Biblical-setting roleplaying...don't worry, it's from the action packed Old Testament, not the touchy-feely New Testament). I'm sure they have other ones that meet your criteria as well.

To be honest, it wouldn't take much to create a non-traditional game world that meets your criteria. Just yank a few Joseph Campbell books off the shelf, figure out the most important features of the genre (monsters, heroes, etc.), and yank everything you need from a mythology book from any other culture.

It's not like you have to do anything to D20 to make it usable, so just run it cold in traditional D20. You can probably steal a few monsters or freehand one or two. After that, it's all on you to know the biome the game takes place in (which most people don't even bother with when you're talking traditional game worlds). All that means is a trip to an education store to buy some grade school books about ecosystems, and you're ready to rock.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-22 00:10:06

To be honest, it wouldn't take much to create a non-traditional game world that meets your criteria.

It doesn't. Though of course the more you put in, the better results you get. For example, I have been tinkering with my non-conventional fantasy homebrew setting Gehennumsince 1989, and have put almost no work into game mechanics, because I use general-purpose RPGs rules such as ForeSight/HindSight, GURPS, and HERO System. That allows me to focus may creative efforts on designing world, not game mechanics.

You may have noticed that the tag page I created was for non-conventional fantasy settings, not non-conventional fantasy games.

I'm glad to hear that there are ones out there beyond the few I know. I'd like to get people who are familiar enough with them to be confident to add them to the list on the tag page and link their tag pages back to "non-conventional fantasy settings".

The goal of this site is, after all, to help people with similar gaming tastes to find one another. I think that a common language of categorical tags for these tastes, with exhaustive links to examples, is essential to make that work. Especially since there are so many games around that very few people can know them all by name.


inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-22 00:11:08


We really need to be able to edit our posts when we foul up HTML mark-up.


world+mechanic = game
2007-03-22 11:29:03

Well, I think "non-conventional fantasy settings" is going to be a little bit nebulous. If you buy into all that Hero With 1,000 Faces stuff, it's the features of fantasy that make it conventional, and the setting is irrelevant (and the more you look at different cultures' myths, the more convincing this sounds).

In other words, you can look at humans in any corner of the globe at any level of technology, and they'll still produce the same rough mythological concepts. And this could easily be the result of convergent thought rather than cultural diffusion.

Not that I'm helping much by narrowing it to non-conventional fantasy systems, but I think it does help a little. After all, there's such a glut of traditional fantasy systems (which are almost universally set in temperate pseudo-European settings).

In any case, the features of what we take for granted as "fantasy" (the questing hero, the monster, dragons, vampires, etc.) are so universal that to posit a concept like "non-conventional fantasy settings" kind of begs the question of what non-conventional fantasy could even be.

If all we're concerned about is that we not be sitting around in pseudo-Europe in a temperate forest, that's a totally different problem. If we want to fix that, all we have to do is figure out what the universal characteristics of fantasy are and locate their analogs in a different biome/culture (i.e., turn our pseudo-Europe into pseudo-Africa, pseudo-China, etc.).

world+mechanic = game
2007-03-22 11:34:32

And the Green Ronin line I was talking about is called Mythic Vistas. They have Rome, Egypt, Testament, and a little bit more on top of that. I haven't seen a good African setting, but if I was a betting man, I'd say look for one in GURPS.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-22 14:57:07

cpalmer wrote: In any case, the features of what we take for granted as "fantasy" (the questing hero, the monster, dragons, vampires, etc.) are so universal that to posit a concept like "non-conventional fantasy settings" kind of begs the question of what non-conventional fantasy could even be.

I agree with that. Fantasy is a set of genre conventions, and if you break them all, you just aren't in the genre. Truly non-conventional 'fantasy' would probably be a very fresh and exciting, but it wouldn't be fantasy as such. But I'm not looking for games with settings that do non-conventional fantasy in that radical sense. I'm looking for games that do fantasy with non-conventional settings.

Why? Well, as you say there is a glut of conventional pseudo-European/pseudo Tolkien derivative settings around, and I'm not inclined to pick up another one. But I wouldn't mind looking at a few fresh and creative designs, in case I find the next Earthsea or the next Bushido.

Besides that, there is this: conventional fantasy brings with it a huge train of default assumptions, and it is very difficult to disengage them one by one. Everybody knows that a fantasy king is an absolute ruler with untrammelled legislative, executive, and judicial power, that his government subsists on taxes, and that he will be succeeded, as a matter of law, by his eldest son. They know these things even though none of them was in fact true of mediaeval European kings. Conventional fantasy has filled people's minds with preconceived notions about kings and lords and knights and disarmed peasants an jesters with bells on their hats. And as soon as people see the picture on the cover they fill the entire setting with a thick custard of clichés. And once that has happened it makes it very hard to get them to believe that details are different in this setting, or to remember them, or not to feel and irritating frisson of cognitive dissonance each time their characters deal with the fact that the king expects his successor to be elected by the Curia, and is scheming to improve his son's chances. Or whatever.

In 1989 I decided to try short-circuiting the default fantasy assumptions by establishing a few very conspicuous signposts that would never let the players think for a moment that they were in Fantasyland. I designed a setting for my campaign in a tropical archipelago on a world where there are no plains, and therefore no horses. I made the prevailing racial type like Malays. I replaced elves and dwarves with merfolk and flyers. I put in Greek costume, luxurious public baths, a diet based on rice. Placed military supremacy in the hands of bourgeois infantry. The players actually found out what powers a wanax and an episkopos had in teh setting, instead of assuming that they knew what a count and a sherriff are. And they didn't get the feeling that I was doing something that felt wrong for undefinable reasons when the main political factions turned out to be contending of the issue of whether the position of hegemon ought to be hereditary or elective.

It worked very well, and I am still using the setting.


world+mechanic = game
2007-03-24 01:04:33

Well, you've got a good idea going, but if you really want a handle on your game world, you have to start at the beginning and work out your entire history. I'm trying to get a single good game world going called Dominus, and I started it with unicellular life and went forward from there.

I don't mean to say that I sat there with two d4s and rolled to see which undulating blob had more organelles and won...I made a lot of assumptions. However, by understanding the world that was physically evolving, I had a better understanding of how intelligent creatures might have to view themselves and that world (which is the base on which you build a game world anyway.

I moved my first civilization up through the bronze age, which gave me enough time to flesh out the details of a magic system and a few coherent mythologies. Then I wiped almost everything out with a magically induced ice age. Presto, I have extremely ancient ruins for my game world...not to mention all the lithic-era relics laying around (what happens when your players find cave paintings or stone tools?...Orcs, right? Well, maybe not...let them try to reason it out).

I left the world on autopilot for a few million years, and then slowly thawed it. Then I used the stage I'd already set to make the game world I had wanted from the beginning. Every time I created a race, or even a culture, I gave them the assumption that their world-creation myth was correct, and that they were the center of the world. Then I thought about what kind of materials they had around, thought about what kind of foreign ideas and technology they were exposed to, and used it to build their culture over time. That really taught me the importance of putting your own language in a game world...that's one thing Tolkien got right. If you're not creating your own language, you're stuck using stale concepts in your game world. Give this a try and you'll be surprised with the results.

world+mechanic = game
2007-03-24 01:12:48

Actually, you can probably step outside the box with an extremely realistic pseudo-European fantasy world. That would be depressing. What's the economic impact of a dragon? And you're tossing that on top of all the rest of your hardships.

There was a game called Darklands that captured it well...the fantasy along with the history. I played that game a lot, and I had a fairly even mix of: killed by bandits, died in sword fight, beaten to death by Satanists, and eviscerated by actual demons. It basically takes medieval Germany and makes it every bit as frightening as your average German peasant thought it was.

If I were you, I'd try downloading Darklands and playing a few games to get the feel of things...then rip it for a game world with your mechanic of choice.

And word to the wise if you're using D20. Use the expert NPC class for peasants, not the peasant NPC class. If you look around online, you can probably find a list of all the different jobs peasants did in the different seasons (ah, life before the labor movement gave us the weekend). I would build your peasants around subsistence and products...something to live on and something to sell. You can definitely link these (craft(bone), profession(butcher), profession(tanner), craft (leather), and animal empathy, etc.).

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-24 04:41:05

cpalmer wrote: Well, I think "non-conventional fantasy settings" is going to be a little bit nebulous.

Diverse, certainly. But given the state of the genre and industry, probably not bewilderingly large.

- Cynical Brett

RPGs since 1977
2007-03-25 01:17:32

There are several GURPS sourcebooks that support what you're after. GURPS China, GURPS Japan, and GURPS Aztecs are just a couple starts; all contain culturally infused magic (of either religious or secular nature), none center around the pan-European mythos, and all use a current, very well-distributed gaming system that doesn't require all sorts of bizarre-shaped dice. For that matter, the old GURPS Fantasy II: The Madlands was very much non-traditional by your definition; the people were vaguely similar to Native Americans (culturally and technologically -- especially similar to the tribes of what's now the eastern United States and Canada, such as Algonquins, Cree, Pawnee, etc.), and their mythos was very far removed from any I recall reading about.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-25 07:17:42

ImageMaker wrote: There are several GURPS sourcebooks that support what you're after.

There are. But I don't think there is a lot of point in linking them from the 'non-conventional fantasy settings' tag page unless someone has already created tags for them.


world+mechanic = game
2007-03-26 00:22:04

You know, if you really want non-traditional, I've got one for you. Run a one-player adventure, make them a standalone monster with no memory (either amnesia or just a lack of any prior memory), then drop them in the wilderness somewhat near a society that hasn't progressed beyond mythic thought (think ancient Greeks before Thales).

Run a really chaotic or dangerous first session, then make them write their character's beliefs about everything they encountered. Be a real nazi about their using complex concepts, i.e. don't let them assume any concepts (if they say "demon", make them explain what they mean...if they describe a red horned thing, and their character has never seen anything like that, call them on it).

I ran a one-player game like this with a minotaur was awesome. By the end of the second session, she had as complex a cosmology as any culture I've ever studied, it was constantly shifting and improving, and she had developed ideas of both anthropomorphic (or rather minotaur-opomorphic) and cosmic-force based gods. What's more, she'd developed a worldview based on the duality of those forces' ideologies, and placed meaning on all her own actions within the context of that struggle.

I don't know if this is how my player would have described her actions, but this is what she did. Also, you can't tell your player what they can let them roll stats (and apply modifiers, templates, etc. to what they assign), but you should really break them out of their preconceived notions. When my player couldn't climb a tree, she asked what her feet looked like, and I just said "they look normal". It wasn't until later that she figured out she had hooves.

Anyway, give that one a spin. I didn't even get to bring my campaign to the point where she would have arrived at the nearest settlement...too much work. However, I was planning on having all kinds of fun with language and finding out how her worldview would mesh with the humans' view (I was looking at either them worshipping her for her singularity or power, or her worshipping them for their ability to build). I didn't know if she would convert, or they would convert, or if the two worldviews would somehow combine. Dang, maybe I should try to keep running that one.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-08-12 13:59:32

I'm sorry, I haven't made myself clear. I'm not asking for advice about how to design a non-conventional fantasy setting. I'm asking everyone to help tag and list the ones that exist (on the 'non-conventional fantasy settings' tag page).


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