Revisiting the DMG in 2020 – Flavours of Fantasy

As a sort of follow up to my post reviewing 5e after half a decade in print, this is a series that takes a look at parts of the DMG in 2020.

I cracked open my physical copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide recently.
It doesn’t see a lot of use – I’d been running and playing 5e years before I picked up the book, and had a digital copy if I ever needed it (but rarely did – hooray for 20+ years of experience).
A lot of what’s in there is actually pretty fresh to me. I think I read through a good chunk of the first half of the book when I got my digital copy but I haven’t given it much thought since I picked up a physical one.

The first part of the DMG gives a good chunk of advice for DMs to build their world, their play-style, mould it to different player preferences, and so on.
I’m going to critique it a bit and add some stuff in, based on where the game is after several years being out in the world.

Since I’m a big fan of different kinds of games for different folks, I’m starting the series with Flavours of Fantasy – that’s page 38 for those following along at home.
Before I get into it, I just want to say that I think this section should have appeared earlier in the chapter, instead of right at the end – the flavour of the game potentially influences the setting, the gods, the factions, the magic – so I’d have put it closer to page 10.

The flavours listed are Heroic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Epic Fantasy, Mythic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Intrigue, Mystery, Swashbuckling, War and Wuxia, followed by a section on mixing them together.

Heroic Fantasy is what Wizards of the Coast calls ‘baseline’ D&D, and gives the example of the Forgotten Realms. I’d say I agreed with them, but there’s a lot to unpack there. Consider that many people might sit at a table and have a different style of play just for their own characters (between Conan-esque barbarians and swashbuckling rogues), or that different parts of a setting might use different flavours – certainly true of the Forgotten Realms, where a game in the Dalelands might be very much Heroic Fantasy, but travel to Amn, Calimshan or Icewind Dale and it’s a very different kind of game.
Think of all the grognards still playing 5e who might have cut their teeth on Lankhmar or Greyhawk, where the heroic characters fill more of an anti-hero mould.
Basically, it’s hard to really call something ‘baseline’ D&D, other than perhaps the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

That dovetails into Sword and Sorcery, which I would argue fits a Greyhawk game pretty well. “Spend ill-gotten gains on wine in cheap taverns… Dark, gritty world… Protagonists motivated more by greed and self-interest than altruistic virtue” sounds very Greyhawk to me. The mention of pulp elements would also lead me to think of Eberron, certainly for some games with more of an anti-hero bent to them.
It seems odd to me that the designers chose to compare this flavour only with the Dark Sun setting, and especially strange as we haven’t seen any development for Dark Sun but have had printed material for Eberron.

Epic Fantasy is the classic good versus evil struggle, with Dragonlance used as the example setting. That’s pretty sensible, that setting was very much a dichotomy and heroes being real heroes.
There’s also a suggestion that romantic fantasy elements would fall into this flavour, but perhaps they could have called that its own flavour?

The next flavour of Mythic Fantasy I think could have been folded in to the above Epic Fantasy.
The dictionary definition of epic is ‘a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation‘, and the first part of the description for Mythic Fantasy is more or less stories from Ancient Greece – “While an angry god tries time and again to destroy him, a clever rogue makes the long journey home from war” is an approximation of Odysseus, “Braving the terrifying guardians of the underworld, a noble warrior ventures into the darkness to retrieve the soul of her lost love” is an approximation of Orpheus.
Now that the Mythic Odysseys of Theros book is available, this section is a lot more fleshed out with possibilities. I’d also recommend the Arcana Games setting Arkadia, which showed WotC how to do it.
It would be nice to see some more myth-influenced settings or adventures from different traditions showing up though.

The obvious default setting for Dark Fantasy is Ravenloft, with the brooding vampires and mysterious mists and terrible curses plaguing the land. The idea that all horror settings are Dark Fantasy, or that all Dark Fantasy is horror, isn’t great though.
There are plenty of aspects of this flavour that make their way into the ‘baseline’ Forgotten Realms, for example – the Underdark is filled with slavers and monsters that want to eat your brain and the new Icewind Dale adventure has been described by its designers as taking cues from John Carpenter’s The Thing (there’s also the same brain eating monsters, spoiler alert).
Large parts of Kobold Press’ Midgard would be considered Dark Fantasy in nature, but not horror – Baba Yaga is a terrifying but known entity, there are Cthulhu monsters wandering parts of the world, and many races are touched by dark powers, but we could still be running around an ancient forest with hedgehogfolk and be a lot more focused on the dark aspects of faeries.
At least the description on horror makes it clear players should be on board and discussions need to be had before playing – well done 2014 WotC, that was unexplected!

Next up is Intrigue, which for D&D means “espionage, sabotage, and similar cloak-and-dagger activities”. That sounds like the perfect Eberron example, with all the politicking between the Dragonmarked Houses in Sharn and… oh, a series of Forgotten Realms novels? No mention of Eberron, one of the most successful campaign settings, anywhere in the Flavours section?
Was there a licensing issue in 2014 I wasn’t aware of?

The Mystery flavour would fit in with Eberron as well – the pulpy, post-war elements of the setting would go great for a murder mystery (such as the Adventurer’s League adventure I made a note of in this post about low-level Planescape).
The examples for this one are a handful of Forgotten Realms novels and one for Dragonlance. At least they’re branching out.
My advice would be to check out the Tales from the Infinite Staircase adventure from Planescape. It’s old, yes, but the entire premise is to follow a series of clues across different Planes of existence to solve a mysterious affliction causing trouble everywhere, plus it’s an actual roleplaying product and not a novel.

Swashbuckling gives us another example from a novel , but at least we’re firmly in the realm of pirates, musketeers and so forth. This pattern is just bad – give me usable RPG product examples please! This was the perfect time to mention Spelljammer!
Does this have much crossover with Intrigue? Yes, probably. The description even explains it’s a slightly less talky version of it – probably didn’t need it’s own flavour then.
New examples would be WotC’s Ghosts of Saltmarsh, or Tribality Publishing’s Seas of Vodari.

The War flavour turns the adventuring party into a group of mercenaries or a unit of soldiers or scouts working under the command of another. They can focus on holding locations or cutting supply lines, or anything really tat’s a good, solid objective.
We’ve once again got example texts from novels – the War of the Lance for Dragonlance and the War of the Spider Queen. Thing is, we could have thrown Eberron in here again, or even mentioned the Blood War, the ongoing conflict between demons and devils that is a focus of the Descent into Avernus adventure now published.

Finally in the list of flavours appearing in the DMG, we have Wuxia.
And it’s here we have to take a real moment to critique the hell out of it!

Other people have done a lot more work than I could ever hope to do on the problems inherent with this small collection of paragraphs.
Essentially, we’re told that Wuxia is a placeholder for the kind of Asian-themed story we see in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, what we might be inclined to call wire-fu in some circumstances.
And then they spoil it by talking about samurai, swami, and listing Chinese and Japanese names for different weapons from the Player’s Handbook, and we’re in to problematic Oriental Adventures territory.
Yes, I can also look at the wuxia entry on Wikipedia and see it’s related to an old Japanese style of fiction called bukyo. That doesn’t make them the same.
I can also keep reading and see that the whole that WotC is naming Wuxia could be described as Xianxia, or Xuanhuan, or something else depending on the elements in play.

OK, rant over for now. Now, we get to the idea of mixing various settings together under the heading ‘Crossing the streams’. Which DMG writer has never seen Ghostbusters?

We’re given a quick rundown of characters that don’t fit their setting, or that travel the multiverse so frequently that they bring strange things back with them. A wizard wearing a cowboy hat and revolvers in Greyhawk, a crashed spaceship in the mountains of Oerth, and using magic missiles and laser lasters whilst travelling ships between the stars (but again, no mention of Spelljammer by name).
This could have been so much better if they’d inserted more names of authors than Lewis Carroll. Edgar Rice Burroughs is famous for a mix of fantasy and science fiction, we have plenty of D&D lore to dig through, and even the settings I’ve already named could easily be inserted into all kinds of flavours.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry for fantasy, there’s plenty of different flavours that apparently didn’t make the cut. Let’s take a look at some ideas they skipped by holding too closely to the Flavours of Fantasy title:

Science Fantasy and Sword and Planet – oh my god guys, how did you skip these ideas? There’s a guide to Sword and Planet on DMsGuild now, which is useful, and Legendary Games have a whole adventure path up there too. The SW5E project bringing a 5e rules set to Star Wars fits this pretty squarely, as do Dark Matter and Blades and Blasters.

Science Fiction – Well, there’s plenty to choose from in 2020, even ignoring Paizo’s Starfinder and other Pathfinder products, we have Spaceships and Starwyrms and Hyperlanes – all very different, all very scifi.
My setting Ginnungagap fits in between Science Fiction and Science Fantasy due to some harder SciFi elements.

Modern – with d20 Modern to draw from, and rules for firearms appearing later in the DMG, I don’t know how the Urban Arcana setting can’t get a name drop.

Pulp – as above with the modern stuff, but there’s an easy to find filter on DMsGuild that caters to Pulp adventures. Unsurprisingly, it’s all Eberron. My Out West setting fits somewhere between Pulp and Modern, as do most Weird West and Weird War settings.

Steampunk/Arcanopunk – yup, Eberron has this covered in spades.
Add in any kind of ‘punk’ aesthetic and my Frostpunk setting can fit in here.
Take out some of the more fantastical stuff and you could play a Gaslamp-style game in a similar vein to Modern and Pulp above.

Post-Apocalyptic – This is where I might put Dark Sun, and you could mention Jack Vance’s Dying Earth if you have to fall back on novels for your examples… We could also throw in Gamma World here. My setting Cambria fits in here.

Low Fantasy and Hard Fantasy also appear on the Wikipedia list and would be easily adaptable to D&D, but they’re potentially covered in another section of the book, and realistically could be done more around play style than flavour of the setting.
I will keep plugging away at how to convert Iron Heroes to 5e though.

I’ll keep looking at different parts of the DMG and to see if anything else needs calling out or adding to.

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