You know the bit in The Night of the Hunter where Robert Mitchum’s sinister itinerant preacher tells the “the story of right hand, left hand” using his hands tattooed with LOVE and HATE to illustrate man’s eternal struggle between the impulse of good and evil, love or hate winning the wrestling match between the two hands? If you don’t you should probably go watch The Night of the Hunter instead of spending your time reading my ramblings.
When it comes to D&D, I’ve got that going on, except my knuckles are labeled PLAIN and GONZO. On the one hand, I’m intensely attracted to fantasy settings with weird SF elements layered in or behind the pseudo-medieval trappings, as in the original little brown books D&D where Robots, Golems, and Androids were listed right along with Titans, Cyclopes, and the iconic Gelatinous Cube. For that matter, one of the first official dungeons for D&D, The Temple of the Frog, had a completely SF back-story of the original temple of a cult of crazy killer-frog breeders being taken over by extra-dimensional traveler with a battle suit, a mobile medical kit and “interstellar radio” who was part of a failed expedition sent to protect this world from other extradimensional incursions! It was released in 1975 as part of Blackmoor, the second supplement to D&D, five years before the famous Expedition to the Barrier Peaks module in which the adventurers explore a crashed space-ship. You could say that Science Fantasy is baked into D&D from the outset. Or perhaps you could say that D&D dates back to a time when the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy were not so clearly separated as they are now.
On the other hand, I also really dig the idea of running D&D in a completely folkloric setting, inspired by The Hobbit, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Prydain Chronicles, the Book of Weird, and the like. Not an authentic medieval world (though that would be interesting and most players would find it genuinely weird), but more like a world as medieval folks imagined it to be, where superstitions are mostly true and “Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting. For fear of little men.”1
Whenever I am running or creating adventures and locales for one kind of setting, I find myself overflowing with ideas for the other kind. If I’m running a Plain campaign where the players are slowly exploring the first few leagues around their home base and gradually working their way further into the ancient forest where the Elves dwell, I’ll have this urge to put in a portal to Barsoom. If I’m running a Gonzo, anything goes, Sci-Fantasy campaign based on a psychedelic version of Oz (hello, Ultra-Violet Grasslands) I’ll find myself missing the intimacy and small-scale where if the party finds a footprint of something twice as big as a man they regard it as unusual and possibly worrisome, and speculate what it might be. There’s an often unappreciated advantage of a world where the players can assume that they can know or learn enough about the world that they can make educated guesses: a footprint like that could be an ogre, or possibly a troll. Are we prepared to face one of those? In a wilder setting there’s no point speculating because it could be anything at all, and there’s a good chance that it’s unique anyway2.
I will say that Gonzo is easier to run, or at least as my campaigns go on they tend to get more Gonzo from where ever they started. It’s easy to slip in Gonzo elements, it’s much harder to dial them back or remove them. How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree?
I don’t have any solution to this dilemma. I’m like the Rum Tum Tugger, the cat that’s always on the wrong side of every door. The real solution, I guess, would be to play enough D&D that I could scratch both itches.
1 – The Fairies, by William Allingham
2 – And no, before you ask, the player saying “Can I roll a Nature or Arcana check to see if I recognize the kind of footprint?” is not, to me, the same thing at all.