Optimal strangeness

I remember reading somewhere that good speculative fiction (including horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) takes a widely understood backdrop, whether that is modern day, Tolkien-style fantasy, or something else, and tweaks one, or at most a handful, of key factors, and then works out the consequences of the tweaks. I have forgotten the source, but the idea stuck with me.

Various traditions of vanilla fantasy serve as examples of potentially well-understood backdrops, depending on particular audience. The Tolkien-derivative or swords and sorcery in the Leiber/Howard style are two examples. There is something to the formula of a known baseline modified just enough to add interest without becoming overwhelming. Maybe unworthy of being considered an iron rule, but something.

This seems similar to the figure/ground distinction in Gestalt psychology. If everything is ground, nothing stands out, leading to boredom. If everything is figure, all is confusion and nothing makes sense. Also: to the neophyte, even vanilla fantasy can seem strange enough while the seasoned player may require excessive marginal weirdness to get a successful hit of strange. Of the people that play fantasy games at least partly for the pleasure of exploring an imaginary world, most seem to be between these extremes, wanting a bit more uniqueness than Tolkien sans serial numbers but a bit less than a setting which avoids all pop culture or mythological landmarks.

5 thoughts on “Optimal strangeness

  1. Mark Siford

    A lot of science fiction seems to use this “rule.” Take the Forever War where the soldiers literally fight across centuries of time or The Left Hand of Darkness a world that is almost perpetually in Winter due to its older sun and axis tilt. Some historical settings that are twisted can also provide the same useful backdrop to explore in. I find those settings particular easy for the players to grasp when it comes to technology level or what/who they might expect to find in a town.

  2. alistair

    Agree. And also with Mark’s comments. This post is quite timely for me as I’ve been reviewing my various efforts at providing scenarios and settings for my players over the last couple of years and had come to the conclusion a couple of months ago that things were getting a bit confused and losing focus. So I resolved to see what I could do by finding and writing up the original 6 – 12 things that were the true tweaks to the established settings I was using when I first started.

    And I’ve been thinking of running some simple ‘DnD’ for some friends next year who’ve done a lot of it – so I was going to go with a) simple, e.g. something like LotFP b) use Wonders and Wickedness for the magic c) have no clerics d) have a silver currency standard (which is why I’m going with LotFP). Which will be quite different from what they’re used to.

    I was thinking this might be too simple. But after reading your article – no. They mayn’t like it – thats a different issue.

  3. Benton Molina

    I believe it was Terry Pratchett who theorized the best fantasy (which, by definition, is a balance of strangeness) is achieved by taking the real world (the familiar) and tweaking elements to become unfamiliar (the strange.)

    He also theorized that EFP (Extruded Fantasy Product; what we might call Tolkienist or vanilla fantasy) is boring, namely because it is fully familiar.

    1. Brendan Post author


      That’s a nice, pithy phrase. I went in search of the origin because I was curious to read Pratchett’s discussion, and “extruded fantasy product” appears to have been mentioned by Pratchett in 2007:

      There is a term that readers have been known to apply to fantasy that is sometimes an unquestioning echo of better work gone before, with a static society, conveniently ugly “bad” races, magic that works like electricity, and horses that work like cars. It’s EFP, or Extruded Fantasy Product. It can be recognized by the fact that you can’t tell it apart from all the other EFP.

      Terry Pratchett, “Notes from a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep It Real,” Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, 2007, from A Slip of the Keyboard


      A deleted Live Journal page led me to a post by Joseph Major and William December Starr on rec.arts.sf.written from 1999 as the possible origin of the term:

      In article <380a...@news.iglou.com>,
      jtm...@iglou.com (Joseph Major) said:

      > How about Processed Fantasy Product? Like "processed cheese
      > product" -- it has all the standard bits, but they have been
      > merged into something totally lacking in individuality.

      Extruded Fantasy Product. "Extruded" is one of those words
      that always improves a phrase.

      -- William December Starr


      (I mention this all here to make this easier for search engines in the future.)


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