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Is is still possible to bring a sense of awe and wonder back to fantasy?


Tinker of Games
Validated User
It could be because the fantasy genre (the typical high fantasy genre, to be clear) is so ubiquitous, or perhaps all aspects of it has been thoroughly explored, but every time I run a fantasy game it's getting harder and harder to feel a sense of wonder for it. What I mean is that feeling when you first read about the Mines of Moria, or Minas Tirith (and then to see it on the screen), or in Earthsea the mood and atmosphere of the mist-filled islands.

Now any fantasy setting feels old and trite. The players are expecting an "ancient empire" that was ruined; if I describe a underground dwarven city, they all nod their heads and say "Ah, like the Mines of Moria". There are some references I don't get, because I don't play War of Warcraft, or DoTA. If I describe "a beast emerge out of the swamp with eight heads" and they will say "Ah, hydra!". If it's a walking tree monster that throw stones at them, then they say "Timmy!" (And I have no idea who the heck Timmy is).

Has fantasy as a genre reached a point of parody and trite references? Is is still possible to have a campaign where the PCs find something wondrous and is like, "Wow that is actually awesome", instead of saying "ooh, it's like XYZ from this ABC reference"?. Because a GM, I put a lot of time sometimes into crafting what I thought to be unique settings, or new monsters -- only to have found out that the players come across it somewhere. They are not assuming I ripped it off, but it just feel really jarring, like all the effort aren't worth it.

Can fantasy still inspire a sense of awe and wonder like how Lord of the Rings and old literary giants could, or do we just have to live with what it is like now?
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Thoroughly mediocre GM.
RPGnet Member
Validated User
Nothing is ever like 'the first time'.

But a lot of fantasy is not very fantastic. As you say, it's been done before.

But there's so much that hasn't been done. Fantasy means anything you can imagine and yet a lot of what I see has been imagined before.

What's gravity like in your setting? The same as Earth? Why limit yourself? Why isn't it heavier, or lighter? You're not even wading too deep into the waters of weirdness here - in the Stormlight Archive series, gravity is lighter than Earth standard and the air is also more oxygen-rich, meaning giant creatures - especially giant insects/crustaceans - are more common.

Only one sun? Come on, the iconic image of Star Wars is a double-sunset. Why not no sun? Why not a weird star-belt like Eberron has (though that has a sun too)?

Why swords? Why not even just various spear-variations as the iconic weapons with nobody really considering the sword worth their while - too heavy and metal-rich when the money could've been spent elsewhere.

It's OK for a setting to be a medieval Europe pastiche (a la Eddings' Elenium series) if faux-Europe is intentional. Just don't expect anyone to be wowed by faux-Europe.


RPGnet Member
Validated User
I wonder how much of this is based on the age and experience of the players.

While reading your post I found myself nodding along until I realized it’s not that fantasy is less fantastic - only that I’ve been exposed to it for over thirty years now. To extend on that, what I’m looking for now is less giant mines and massive tree creatures, but the unique stories you can tell with those elements. How can they be subverted, or used to tell new stories? Their majesty becomes less about their appearance and more about the shared memories and tales that happen in, around, and through these fantastic elements.

In shorter terms, everything is fantastic when you’re six in a way it isn’t when you’re sixty.

As for how to deal with that...that’s a great question.


Mad Scientist
Validated User
It's probably near impossible and deeply impractical to aim to consistently present things that people with significant media exposure can't find parallels to in their mental library.

But just because something doesn't manage to come from totally out of your known context doesn't mean it can't be impressive. It just means you can't expect to buy that status with novelty alone.

Nathaniel Ayer

Registered User
Validated User
Yeah, that's a tough situation. I'm trying to deal with it in my own game. In my situation I was trying to really make goblins and orcs evil. I was trying to imagine their homeland twisted and defiled by some great evil, turning all of its denizens mad with bloodlust. But in the end, despite whatever detail and background I tried to give them, they were still generic fantasy goblins and orcs, completely fungible with the goblins and orcs from any other fantasy setting. I've thought about what I could do differently to make things unique, and it's too late for me to go back to the drawing board now, but I did come up with a few ideas.

I think that if you're going to bring awe and wonder back to fantasy, you have to do a few things different from the standard RPG setting:

  • Make the PCs come from a nonmagical society, perhaps from our own real world, maybe even playing themselves. Force them to roleplay what they would do if they actually found themselves surrounded by magic. (World of Darkness games do this really well. Just don't let your players read the supplements.)
  • Let the players see the fantastical all around them, but don't reveal its secrets all at once, and don't reveal it to everyone. Like in our world, we are surrounded by technology. It's everywhere. But relatively few people actually know how it works.
  • For maximum effect, start over in a new setting in a new game system. Give the players characters that you created. You can let the players tell you what kind of characters they would like to play, but make the characters yourself. Introduce (or unlock) the characters' abilities one at a time throughout the first adventure.
  • Bring in characters, races, animals, and monsters that are not in D&D or Tolkien or any other common setting. You can use the same stat blocks as characters in the MM, but make their descriptions something new and unrecognizable.


Social Justice Dragon
Validated User
My answer is to look back to books and movies that give the same sense. There have been a lot of (from my PoV) very impressive books and a few equally good movies in the past 10-15 years - Martha Wells' Chronicles of the Raksura comes immediately to mind, as does Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky Trilogy, and Graydon Saunders' Commonweal series. Heck, while I wasn't as impressed with the plot, James Cameron's film Avatar was pretty awesome for creating a sense of awe and wonder, and I'd happily play a fantasy game set on Pandora. If you find something that most people in your group find inspires them, then do something like that.

Also, there's a growing amount of steam age fantasy, like Beth Cato's Clockwork Dagger series or Laura Lam's Micah Grey trilogy, and doing steam age fantasy in a fantasy world might give you back some of what you're missing. OTOH, if you want to find new inspiration in standard D&D-like fantasy worlds, I'm not sure what to say, because I don't anymore.

The Ent

No Huorn, boy! No Huorn!
Validated User
Just don't expect anyone to be wowed by faux-Europe.
Depends on the Faux-Europe in question.

«Generic medieval Europe as imagined by Victorians» a la Eddings is pretty much done Yes.

How about...

Pre-Roman Empire Europe. With heroic Celts, Greek cities, Scythians. Not done to death.

Dark Age Europe, (preferably pre-Viking since Vikings are done to death) with fledgling barbarian kingdoms fighting each other & civilized remnants while further invasions (Huns etc) loom on the horizon. Not done to death, but slightly more familar than a), maybe.

Post-rennaissance Europe. Wars of religion, colonization/exploration, etc.

Nathaniel Ayer

Registered User
Validated User
One more thing: Make common tasks something special.

When playing a D&D 4e campaign, I quickly slipped into "OK, I combat-challenge the skeleton. It gets -2 if it's not attacking me." When I DMed later, I tried to make combat challenges something more than just a bland combat tactic. I described the start of an encounter in a tavern where trouble was starting. An angry drunken thug was about to hit a frightened child, and the paladin in the party stood up. His eyes flashed electric blue for a second and he said "Fight me." It was barely above a whisper from across the room. The drunk should not have been able to hear over the din of the tavern but the words, barely audible, echoed through the room and some unseen force stayed the drunk's hand. The drunk looked up, saw the paladin stand, then turned back to the child and clenched his fist. The paladin approached slowly and said again, quietly and with infinite patience, "Fight me," as all the other patrons backed away.


Registered User
Validated User
I think we're past the day where you can evoke awe or wonder simply by putting something awesome or wonderful in front of your audience. We've seen too much. Even something new and original is going to be like something we've seen before. To evoke a powerful response now, you have to engage the audience with your story and characters. Once you have that emotional investment, you can wow them with a meaningful situation or an unexpected vista.

So basically, you can still do it but it's a hell of a lot harder now and there are no shortcuts.

Heavy Arms

Registered User
Validated User
While I have my doubts (despite whatever my fellow players say) about any real insight on this, here's what I do when facing feeling too repetitive with genre stuff (since really, fantasy is hardly alone in this):

Fantasy isn't an original. Fantasy is a remix.

We're not trying to come up with something new, we're trying to come up with a fresh take on something that already exists. This is, after all, what so many creators were doing. Tolkien didn't just imagine Middle Earth out of the blue. He explicitly wanted to craft a version of mythology that was updated to be appeal to contemporary audiences in a way that repeating the same old stories wasn't. George Lucas once described the Jedi and the Force as religion's greatest hits.

Things have gotten repetitive as people have tried to remix the remix without really going back to the original first. That's why things start to feel stale and self-referential. How many ways can you really remix D&D remix of Toklien's remix of different European myths many remixed already by sources like Wagner, and really have something that's not?

I feel like the best fantasy is stuff that goes back to first principles. If a first principle of fantasy is retelling traditional mythology in a new contemporary way, well we don't need to worry about how to make Ents cool enough to avoid Timmy jokes. We need to say, what stories did the Ents come from, and what about those stories would translate into something fantastic now?

If, for example, we want to revisit dragons, lets look at Fafnir. I think it's fair to say that Fafnir is very responsible for the modern cultural association of dragons with greed and gold (even if it predates that, he's iconic thanks to Wagner). But Fafnir was a Dwarf cursed to become a dragon because of his greed. The Icelandic sagas tell a very messy story of essentially a tragic and fatal mistake bringing out the worst in people as good faith attempts to allow for amends are hijacked by the desire to use the event to screw others over. Wagner changes this in various ways, especially the role a magic ring plays in the tale. Tolkien goes farther by cutting out the idea that Smaug is a literal result of a dwarf's greed resulting in a transformation into a dragon, and a larger metaphor of the dangers of unchecked greed. But the iconic image of a dragon sitting on a hoard (esp. with magical items hidden in them) was further distilled. But that image has lost most of it's power because we just assume a dragon has a horde of treasure because that's what dragons do.

So instead of just tossing another gold hording dragon into the mix, we have a lot of options. We can go back to Fafnir and remix that story like Wagner did, but go in a different direction that's interesting? We can pick a different mythological dragon and think about how to distill that into a new idea of what dragons are. What if our dragons are based on Ladon? Rather than having a horde of golden treasures from greed, they're guardians of sacred objects? There's a lot of things you can do with that that are both 'wow' factor fantasy, and not something you see a lot of in mainstream fantasy.
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