“Not Another Elf!”: RPGs Stuck In the Fantasy Genre

Posted: March 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Drizzt Dourden, probably the most famous character in the Forgotten Realms. An elf.

“Oh no, not another f***ing elf!” –Oxford English professor Hugo Dyson, interrupting J.R.R. Tolkien during an early reading of Lord of the Rings

In a little less than a week, Dragon Age 2 will release. I played the demo and enjoyed the gameplay – but as was my reaction to the original game, I couldn’t help but feel, “Well, here we go with another fantasy game.” Depending on how long you’ve been playing games, you have probably seen at least a few fantasy-themed games, to start: the Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Final Fantasy (try as it might, it remains squarely in the fantasy realm), Dragon Quest, World of Warcraft and Fable as far back as Ultima, Wizardry and Might and Magic. They all share the same Tolkienesque fantasy underpinnings.

An elf.

Now this is not too surprising, as the videogame RPG is directly descended from tabletop RPGs, the first, most famous and most popular of which is Dungeons & Dragons, which is typically played in a fantasy setting with many elements derived from J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and Jack Vance. Indeed the first computer RPGs were created when DnD players like Richard Garriott translated their tabletop adventures to computers in the early ’80s.

An elf.

However, Dungeons & Dragons is far from the only tabletop RPG. The format has been seen in numerous games – the space opera Traveller, the Lovecraftian horror Call of Cthulhu, the dystopian comedy Paranoia, and the western themed Aces & Eights, as well as licensed games like Star Wars and Ghostbusters. There are also generic systems such as GURPS which allow you to attach whatever setting you wish to a universal ruleset. Even within DnD there are divergences from the Tolkienesque fantasy of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms – the gothic horror world of Ravenloft, the space fantasy of Spelljammer, the post-apocalyptic Dark Sun, and the cosmic crossroads of Planescape.

An elf.

So my chief question is, why, with the notable exceptions of Fallout and Mass Effect, do we so rarely see a role-playing game that doesn’t take a page from Dungeons & Dragons as far as settings go? Well, you could point to two of BioWare’s mold-breakers, Knights of The Old Republic and Jade Empire, or MMORPGs like Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes (or recently DC Universe). However, in the case of the MMOs they still couldn’t stand up to fantasy-based games like Everquest or World of Warcraft. This leads me to ask the question: why do we seldom see roleplaying games that go outside the fantasy box?

It’s not for lack of source material, as there are certainly plenty of possibilities out there (and I for the life of me don’t know why no one has done a Mass Effect-styled take on Star Trek TNG), and as tabletop RPGs go there are rulebooks, sourcebooks and campaigns for pretty much any kind of fiction you can imagine. But as military shooters have become the norm, and zombies are popping up everywhere,  so have fantasy-based RPGs become the go-to. I suppose it probably has something to do with the financial risk involved in creating a new game (and today, new game usually means “new franchise” as well).

An elf (albeit not from an RPG).

My general groaning when I first booted up Dragon Age stemmed from the fact that, in spite of this being a “new” fantasy universe, BioWare was still rehashing the same old elves, dwarves, ogres and demons (hence the quote at Tolkien’s expense). Sure it’s bloodier and has 3D graphics, but replace the Qunari with Drow and you’ve pretty much got the Forgotten Realms setting of Baldur’s Gate. While I consider BioShock to be an inferior rehash of System Shock 2, Irrational at least had the balls to create a very original and inventive setting. I don’t see why role-playing games can’t do the same.

An elf. Needs his own game now.
  1. Hear hear.

    In Dragon Age, I always thought the portrayal of elves as downtrodden slaves and the dwarves as part of a casted society was a cop-out; it didn’t help that much of the NPC dialogue (excluding party characters) was pretty shoddy. I was never convinced. It was almost as if they thought: “Well, okay, we have traditional fantasy races but… Hey! Look! The elves don’t live in marble towers anymore!”

    I’d rather not have the facade at all and keep my elves pompous and rich, and my dwarves drunk. Better entirely to have them excluded entirely.

    An RPG in the present day would be a welcome change.

  2. Cassie says:

    While I entirely agree about the overuse of fantasy setting, I also see that there’s risk in placing that genre in the present day.

    For example, I usually go with elf, but it’s because they’re a safe way to go. What about if I’ve chosen a dwarf and I end up wanting (and I usually do) to sneak somewhere? Dwarves are notoriously clunky and loud, hell, in most RPGs you’re automatically louder when you wear dwarven armour Dwarf or not, so why would I go with a Dwarf when your best option in every situation is to run in there and plant an axe in a skull? Granted, it’s a fine option…one I take advantage of very often…but what about if I just want to pickpocket him and move on? Dwarves just aren’t good for that.

    Now on to my point: What sort of race/class system could you devise for the present day that would immediately convey these attributes? Dwarves, lumbering tanks who can clear a room. Elves, mystic creatures who can clean a room, but are also masters of the magical realm. Humans, jacks of all trades but masters of none as a group. What is a rogue these days? What is a warrior? Druid? Mage?

    I’m not saying it can’t be done. It absolutely can and should be done. I’m just saying that there are very few companies willing to risk it when you have the nice, safe fantasy setting on the shelf just waiting to make some money for you.

    On the day this present-day RPG comes out I’ll be waiting in line for it.

    • Chad M. says:

      There doesn’t necessarily need to be a race/class system. If I can use Chaosium’s pen and paper Call of Cthulhu as an example, all of the player characters are ordinary humans (the default setting is the 1920s). You have your skills based on your occupation- for example a policeman might have investigation and shooting skills, while a scientist would have research, psychology and medical skills. Classes/races are just one form of character building.

      It really isn’t all that different from Fallout, which also operates on a skill-based, class-free system. Deus Ex’s upgrade system (with skills and augments) also worked counter to a traditional class-based system, allowing you to tailor the game to your own playing style.

      • Cassie says:

        That’s still a class system to be worked out, or else you’re just looking at a Fallout-inspired..or even an Oblivion-inspired (for a Fantasy example of the format we’re talking about) rpg.

        Absolutely doable, but still a risk.

  3. Chad M. says:

    And don’t get me wrong everyone, I love a good medieval fantasy setting. But I want new worlds to explore…

    • Armand K. says:

      Admit it Chad, you obviously hate all RPGs.

      • Chad M. says:

        Yes, Armand, I hate RPGs. 😀

        Actually, RPGs are probably the genre I consistently like the most. It’s no small feat to put an RPG together, and most of the ones I’ve played are really good. But even fantasy settings don’t have to draw entirely from the Tolkien millieu…
        I was just thinking that London Below, from Neil Gaimain’s Neverwhere, could be a compelling setting for an RPG.

    • Eric says:

      So long as people keep purchasing these games, they’re going to keep pumping out the same thing over and over. It’s the same deal with games like Halo, Call of Duty, heck, even Mario and Sonic are guilty of these transgressions. If I want the same game over and over with a fresh coat of paint, I’ll look for a Zelda game, where they don’t take a ton of liberties with the IP and things rarely change. Creativity is, sadly, in short supply these days.

  4. Nooferdog says:

    Great article, and the discussion in the comments was as good as the article itself. I am now all the more inspired to make a modern RPG. Once I get it together to make a game at all.

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