Generic Fantasy is Great for RPGs

Why is it always the same old elves, and hobbits, and +1 swords? Can't people come up with anything different?

...I hear this every so often, and I wonder if any of these people actually pick up the myriad gonzo-RPGs with novel races (or at least 'novelty races'). Of course, many have the extra barrier of 40 pages of history of random races - bird-people, lizard-knights, and other first attempts at casting the illusion of a full culture, fit for a gaming world.

I don't want to mock the sincere attempts at creativity, but culture-creation takes time to gestate. You won't find it much in any work which doesn't have some years of work from someone who studied the field they're fantasizing about for decades.

In 'the generic fantasy world', the game has more toys. Instead of just pushing wooden horses around a table, people can throw fireballs, or raise the dead, or put someone's soul in a glass bottle in order to use their reflection to open the magical door they created.

Now the price for all these toys is lore. Getting about ancient Greece demands more fore-knowledge than most people care to read before a Thursday-night game of puzzle-solving and beard-jokes. Do we go in a chariot? Can we ride horses? Can we get food from inns along the way? We have twelve dancing boys each, you say? Okay. What's their Encumbrance rating?

These toys are expensive, but hope is here: the generic fantasy land. It has its own cultures - elves, dwarves, men, et c. It has new races, which are the same as the cultures (nothing more to learn). And if the world wants to introduce you to cultural distinctions, the GM will tell you though some plot hook about why the Sylvan elves hate the Duergar dwarves.

The world yields scary creatures, and mysterious lost cities, but never so mysterious that someone will monologue at you. If you want a real mystery, there's always Maths, but RPGs don't exist to provide deep Maths, or unknowable horrors. They exist to give us eight-sided dice - just like regular dice, but with EIGHT sides!

Of course, riding griffins isn't the only plausible adventure. Mouse Guard earned a lot of love without any clerics and wizards, but it worked because it has an essentially familiar setting. "Mice, who are soldiers" - we know the bad-guy already, and we know some of the goals, before opening the book.

Now on the flip-side, we have Sci-Fi. It's less popular than fantasy, and perhaps part of that comes from the lack of assumed-setting.

What does 'standard sci-fi' look like? Laser guns? They're used in Star Trek, but less so with modern Sci-Fi, and Dune seemed determined to write regular guns out of the picture. Who are the aliens? Are there aliens? The only thing I now about generic-Sc-Fi-land is that it has a space-ship, with a captain.

I want to go back to the weird which was familiar. I don't know all the rules, but I know most of the patterns.