Monday, June 28, 2010

Star Wars setting stuff

A little over four years ago, I was revisiting the idea of Star Wars and roleplaying (I had probably just gone through an episode of playing Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), but I don't remember that clearly.) One of the things that impressed me about KOTOR was that it managed to feel almost exactly like the Star Wars that we all know and love, yet was removed from it in the timeline by close to 4,000 years, and obviously very few of the details were the same; just the feel, the tone, and the broad strokes.

Rather than backwards, I'd like to go forwards in time, by a significant amount. I had said at that point 500 years, but I'd rather go even further; 1,000 years. Just to give me plenty of time to wipe away any E.U. stuff that I don't want, yet far enough that I don't have to explain it.

Anyway, here's a few of my ideas as they appeared back then. Keep in mind that this setting's conception was started just prior to the release of the Legacy comic book line; as that came out, I incorporated some of its better ideas into my setting too. After all, they were (in many respects) doing the same thing I was anyway.

1) Star Wars Legacy (the Dark Horse comic book series) has done a lot of what I wanted to do very well, so there's no reason not to borrow liberally from them, even though my timeline is sufficiently advanced from theirs that strictly speaking, I don't have to. I especially like the idea of the Fel Dynasty as an Empire Mk. II, less evil and possibly even good, albeit autocratic. The Imperial Knights are a nifty idea too.

2) Legacy did exactly what I wanted to do with the Sith Order; abolished the Rule of Two since retrospectively it proved to be disastrous when Darth Vader killed the Emperor and didn't ascend to the position of Sith Master himself and take a new apprentice.
Here's a handful of my Force using groups of note:

1) Imperial Knights: a militaristic organization that reports directly to the heir of the Empire. As in the Legacy comic books, the Empire is not necessarily evil, although chances are that few of us would enjoy living there. Jedi are mistrusted and rare in Imperial space.

2) Orthodox Jedi (Gray Marshals): a group of Jedi knights that is obsessed with reconstructing the order as it existed prior to the Jedi purges, and under the same tenets. Much of the data about how things were organized was lost, so this group also crusades throughout the galaxy for any information on how the Jedi were organized and operated during this time. They adamantly (and in fact, often violently) refuse to accept any criticism that the Jedi's organization and operation may indeed have facilitied Anakin's fall and therefore its own destruction. They see their mandate as imposing peace and order upon the galaxy as much as possible. As with the original Jedi order, often their methods are somewhat questionable ("aggressive negotiations?") and they don't always leave a happy taste in the mouth of those with whom they've dealt.

3) Skywalker Jedi : Luke did not start the Jedi order up to be like the Order his father joined. Luke was not dispassionate, he was compassionate, and his order was much more egalitarian, more open-ended in terms of who it accepted as recruits (it had no choice in the early days of recruiting) and refused to accept the dispassionate and exclusive attitudes that Jedi such as Yoda and Obiwan tried to convince Luke to follow, even as late as Return of the Jedi. Luke himself believed those principles were failed and did not inculcate them in his students. Skywalker's Jedi, as they are informally known, and the Gray Marshals have a rather tense relationship; both believing they are more deserving of the title of Jedi, while the other should consider itself some other tradition entirely. This order is the one most closely associated with the Galactic Alliance/New Republic.

4) The Cyborg Order: a group that saw General Grevious and Anakin Skywalker (he who brought balance to the Force, after all) as the ultimate prototype. Eschewing mortal flesh as a weakness, they replace their body parts with cyborg implants and surround themselves with droids. Although many cyborg designs are in vogue, a very popular one closely resembles General Grevious himself, with four arms (to better wield more lightsabers in battle). The detail of Darth Vader's own cybernetic body is lost to time, so many of the Cyborg Order have tried to reconstruct it from the little that is known about it, but interpretations of what Vader looked like vary wildly from individual to individual.

5) And, of course, the Sith. Reborn from the ashes of Darth Sidious and Darth Vader's ignominous defeat, the Rule of Two was quickly abandoned. Likely, the first of the new Sith Order was founded by up and coming pupils of Sidious or Dooku, or perhaps by early students of Luke's or subsequent Jedi Masters who found their way to Yavin, Korriban, or other worlds were Sith influence was still strong. Be that as it may, this organization closely matches that of the Legacy comic books (curse them for developing the Sith in almost exactly the same way I was thinking!) including a doctrine similar to the Rule of One and a fondness for red and black ritualistic tattooing and scarring a la Darth Maul.

In the very first Star Wars movie, the Force using traditions were significant, but not the only thing going on, obviously. From there on out it became more and more overtly about the Jedi and the Sith and has been ever since. Every once in a while, I wonder what it would have been like if it had remained a two-fisted, pulpish swashbuckling romance instead of taking on all these mystical undertones, but not for now (I've bought into the whole Jedi/Sith thing; I think it's great.)

But anyway, the Force users don't literally make the Galaxy go 'round, they're just one aspect of it. Here's some other organizations of importance.

1) The Empire: structured not unlike Palpatine's empire in administrative detail, at least, with similar ranks (Moffs, Grand Moffs, etc.) although lacking a Sith Lord at the head, of course. In recent decades, the Empire has been resurgent; from a low point of ruling just a few systems, it has swelled to encompass much of the Galaxy.

2) The Galactic Alliance: what's left of Leia's New Republic, as the Empire has waxed, the Alliance has waned. While still powerful, and controlling much of the Core systems (and still based in Coruscant) its a shadow of its former strength and size.

3) The Mandalorian Arm: The Mandalorians were a race who's culture and identity were in decline and in danger of disappearing completely before the Clone Wars. Individuals like Jango Fett were exceptional: nationalists who purposefully kept alive old traditions. Following the defeat of Palpatine and the second Death Star, many cloned stormtroopers had confusing or conflicting loyalties, as they were programmed to be loyal expressly to Palpatine and not to his government. Many of them, now deprived of their identity as Imperial stormtroopers searched for their identity by rejoining the Mandalorians, since their programming and training retained many Mandalorianisms learned from their prototype Jango. Flush with this new blood of combat experienced and highly motivated and actually rather traditionalist Mandalorian soldiers, the remaining Mandalorians underwent a nationalistic revival in the decades following the Galactic Civil War. Now, nearly a thousand years later, they still are a powerful, autonomous force in the galaxy. They don't command a lot of territory, but their armadas and troops are feared and respected throughout the galaxy. They serve in the armies of both the Alliance and the Republic at times, in a situation not unlike the Varangian Guard of the Byzantines, but only as mercenaries. Their true loyalty is to their own nation. Although no longer sporting the white uniforms of the stormtroopers, those uniforms were originally based on Mandalorian prototypes, and Mandalorian battle armor is now seen in nearly every major metropolitan area throughout the galaxy.

4) The Hutt clans have managed to hold on to much of the Outer Rim still, and maintain a presence not unlike that they had during the movies. Powerful enough to play differing factions against each other, but not powerful enough to move against any of them, they retain a seemingly endless dynasty over their region. Oddly enough, the one place that they have not managed to retain a hold is Tatooine itself. Since the Civil War 1,000 years ago, Tatooine has been swamped by pilgrims and crusaders bent on liberating the "holy ground" where both Anakin and Luke spent their childhood.

5) The Sith Empire: since the disaster of the Rule of Two, the Sith have adopted differing strategies; strategies that in the past led to some of their greatest successes. One of these strategies is openly ruling an aggressive theocracy, where reverence of past heroes and traditions is encouraged, and past Sith Lords are literally worshipped as gods. Although hemmed in by Jedi (of various fracteous orders, including more than those described here) and Imperial Knights, which keep their powerful force users from swamping the galaxy in a deluge of blood, the Sith Empire is still larger and stronger than the Alliance today, and its true rival is the Fel Empire. Non-Force using Sith citizens undergo a draft and almost all able-bodied citizens are required to undergo military service. They, in accordance with ancient tradition, are outfitted in faceless body armor, and the sight of Sith soldiers brings fear across the Galaxy. The Fel Empire is attempting a relatively non-aggressive "cold war" approach to dealing with the Sith, since it doesn't relish the thought of open warfare, where the outcome is certainly in doubt. With a little luck, the Sith have the strength to overthrow the Empire, and from there complete total domination of the entire galaxy. The Alliance, believe it or not, has tried to remain neutral, and even play the Sith against the Felians.

6) Certain large sectors of the galaxy are not ruled by governments, but by corporations. As with the Separatists during the Clone Wars, for defense the Corporate Sectors tend to rely on droid troops. Few Corporate workers are willing to put their life on the line for the Corporations. They are (somewhat uneasily) allied with the Cyborg Order, and provide many of the droids and cyborg enhancements that that group desires in return for protection from the more rapacious or expansionist Force using threats such as the Sith or the Fel Empires, but the Cyborg Order does not answer to the Corporations, nor consider itself under their sovereignty by any means.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Star Wars regrets

Why did we have to get the prequel trilogy from George Lucas, when other people with licenses to play in his sandbox can come up with stuff like this? Lucas' insistance on control has blinded him to his flaws, and deprived us of what could have been some of the best movies ever made.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Setting: another POV

As I've re-read my last post, it occurs to me that while it's a benefit to encourage some level of richness to a setting, it's also potentially a trap for the unwary. Let me explain.

The example I gave in the last post is how a language extremely closely related to Ma'anyan and other eastern Bornean languages ended up on Madagascar, and in fact the native language of the whole of Madagascar and Mayotte, where it outnumbers all of the rest of the speakers of the entire east Barito language branch put together. The entire Austronesian diaspora, and particularly that of the group that moved to Madagascar is a somewhat mysterious process; the how and why of it is unknown, and all kinds of interesting stories regarding the move could be told, albeit speculatively.

While these kinds of mysteries are part and parcel of the real world, and therefore encourage richness and verisimilitude in a fantasy world, they are also potential distractions from the efforts of a gamer or a writer, unless catering to a real fan of simulationism or exploration. I think most fantasy fans have at least some element of that; they like their settings to feel "real." Even as they understand that of course they are not, they are likely to demand sufficient detail to maintain an illusion of reality to aid in suspension of disbelief. Also, I think that most fantasy fans like exploring settings, and seeing what the gamemaster or writer has come up. Tolkien's richness to his Middle-earth setting is frequently cited as one of the main draws of the setting and story both.

But, more is not necessarily better, and even Tolkien knew enough to put most of his detail in other sources, out of the way of the main story. The fact that most fantasy fans are at least somewhat fans of exploration doesn't mean that they want to experience vicarious travelogues or ethnologues of fiction places and peoples. I've seen several games (and novels!) fall victim to this trap, and the end result is that the characters and the stories that surround them suffer as a result.

Be very careful of integrating details into your campaign setting. For the most part, if there's a mystery or secret, the point of it is so that the characters can discover the solution to it. Occasional red herrings can be fun, but a world full of mysteries and secrets that never get solved might be realistic... but ultimately probably isn't very fun to explore after a while.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Historical mysteries

I like historical mysteries, e.g., something that we know has to have happened in some way, but about which we know very little, or even nothing. As I've been poking around to find some unrelated stuff out, I started getting distracted by the origin of the Malagasy language. Malagasy is the native language of Madagascar, and surprisingly, it isn't really related to any African languages at all except in regards to very late borrowings from Swahili. I've always been a fan of linguistics, and as I was checking out some stuff on the Austronesian language family, I was reminded that Malagasy is an Austronesian language. The Austronesian languages are believed to have all started on Formosa (Taiwan) long before there was any Han Chinese influence there, and spread largely south and east from there; Austronesian languages are the native languages of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. And then, in a geographical suprise, also Madagascar. And I think that's how I stumbled onto being reminded of this; four of the top ten islands (in size) are islands with these languages; three of them being part of Indonesia, and then Madgascar (four others are up in the Arctic; either Greenland or the neighboring islands of northern Canada.)

In fact, the Malagasy language can more specifically be related to Barito languages, which otherwise are found on the southeast of the island of Borneo. How some river-tribe guys from the opposite side of Borneo could end up settling Madagascar, contributing to its ethnic mix and specifically imposing their language on the entire island, even when other groups of people eventually made their way there too, is a historical or linguistic mystery. Which means that I therefore find it fascinating.

I think little things like this being part of fantasy campaign settings is something that most people don't think about. Why aren't there weird little historical mysteries that exist... just to be interesting?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Setting size

I was watching some travel videos on east Africa and Madagascar, and the narrator made an off-hand comment that Madgascar was the fourth largest island in the world, but had as much variety as a continent. That sparked a bizarre run of curiosity on my part, where I went and looked up the islands of the world, sorted by size. Let me give you the top 10.

  1. Greenland

  2. New Guinea

  3. Borneo

  4. Madagascar

  5. Baffin Island

  6. Sumatra

  7. Honshū

  8. Victoria Island

  9. Great Britain

  10. Ellesmere Island

Fascinating, huh? Not really? Well, here's what struck me about that list. Rounding a bit, Great Britain is about 80,000 square miles in size. Greenland is over ten times that size, over 800,000 square miles. Antarctica, a full continent, is almost exactly size times that of Greenland, about 5 million square miles.

And yet... Great Britain would make a much richer campaign setting than Greenland, or even Antarctica. There's lots of stuff going on Great Britain, no matter the time frame you set it in, whereas pretty much no matter when you set a campaign in Greenland or Antarctica, your options for interesting things to do are very limited. You've got miles and miles and miles of really boring ice sheet. There's little to do, there's hardly even any animals to interact with, much less people... Great Britain is just a much richer campaign setting in every sense.

And there's a lesson in that for campaign setting design. I think a lot of folks who run games feel intimidated by designing a campaign setting. In fact, I know that that's true, because I've seen them express exactly that feeling, in messageboard posts and elsewhere. I think, in many ways, this is because they're used to seeing settings like Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, or Eberron, which are entire continents-worth of geography (at least). But honestly, to run a game, you don't need anywhere near that much material. Great Britain; even a small portion of Great Britain, is more than enough material to run a great game. Why do you need to worry about what's going on in Central Asia, North Africa, or Central America if you're running a game in Great Britain? Of course you don't. The example of Great Britain being a much more interesting setting than Greenland, despite being only 10% of the size, should be an inspirational example for those who feel intimidated by setting design. In all likelihood, you don't have to design nearly as much as you think you do.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Special podcast bulletin

Tonight I'm going to be recording a "special" podcast with Scott about setting design. The reason I invited him specifically is because we once both designed a setting at about the same time around the exact same concept. We'll be talking in more general terms about setting design, but it's also my hope that some interesting compare and contrast about where our settings actually ended up will come out too.

Setting design is actually a topic very near and dear to my heart, because its one of the things that I love most about running games. I'd love to get another "special" podcast with Corey about the topic sometime, so he can talk about Barsoom and the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND setting.

Anyway, I doubt I'll have time to edit it and stuff, so I don't know for sure when it'll go live, but we're recording it tonight. I'm excited already. Podcasting has been fun!

Here's the rough outline/agenda I threw together and sent to Scott just so we can have a little bit of organization and make sure we don't devolve into "let me tell you about my setting!" which would probably entertain the two of us well enough, but which would probably be really boring for most of the folks at home.
For discussion purposes, I'm going to talk about the setting design process in terms that I'm borrowing from the Wizards of the Coast setting search guidelines. I don't actually design settings in any way that's this organized, but it's a nice framework for discussion, at least, and I can put what I do do into these terms by comparing how much work and material I've generated.

1) One pager on the setting: a simple quick and dirty summary of what makes this setting different from every other setting. (nickname: 1-pager) This one pager includes:
a. A quick summary that's only two or three sentences long that differentiates the setting from every other setting, and tells in almost bumper sticker level synopsis what it's all about. (nickname: bumper sticker)
2) A ten page expansion of the 1-pager. Gives more detail, but is still light on detail. (nickname: 10-pager.)
3) 100 page expansion of the 10-pager. Although not written in the same format, this is the "setting bible" and contains as much detail as the published campaign setting will. (nickname: setting bible)
4) Beyond the setting search guidelines, published settings get more detailed sourcebooks too after they go into print that further expand on the setting bible. This would include stuff like Races of…, Magic of… and regional sourcebooks, city sourcebooks, etc. Lots of detail, but narrow focus. (nickname: splats)

I gave all those items nicknames so we can refer to them quickly in discussion without having clunky descriptions of what we're talking about all the time.

Here's some stuff I think would be interesting to talk about. Let me know if you think of anything else.

1) Set out the labels above so we can talk about them for the rest of the podcast without having to reexplain all the time.
2) Design your own vs. borrow a setting (advantages or disadvantages, time and effort involved with each, etc.) That leads naturally to:
3) How much do you really need to design in order to run a game? Can to get started with just a bumper sticker? With just a 1-pager or 10-pager? Do you really need to have the equivalent of a setting bible in order to run a game, etc. How much did we have developed really when our two settings diverged (I'd say a bit more than a bumper sticker, but less than a 1-pager. How much did you have when you started actually running the game? Looking back after the fact, how much would you say you actually have now that you're done? Etc.
4) How important is a strong bumper sticker? How important is it that a campaign have a strong "hook?" Vanilla vs. strongly flavored campaign settings – benefits of each.
5) How important is it to keep some kind of play goals in mind as you develop a setting? Is it even important at all? E.g., you designed Mist World to be an iconic 4e setting, to give the players their first shot at using 4e, and therefore wanted to keep PHB stuff front and center. I almost wanted to create the "anti-D&D… but with D&D rules" by leaving out really iconic D&D elements like elves, dwarves, wizards, clerics, etc. How much did decisions like that impact the setting design process?
6) How much did the act of actually playing the game impact the setting as it evolved in play? By that I mean, did what you think of the setting change because of the players and what they did, or due to anything else that happened in-game?
7) How portable do you think this setting is? Could you use it with Savage Worlds, for instance, or some other ruleset, or would that be too much work? i.e., did the rules and mechanics have a significant impact on the setting design, or was it a flavor-first style of design?
8) I dunno; anything else?

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Hobocaust, Episode #1

First episode of the podcast is now available!

Hosted by me, and co-hosted this time around by Matt and Christy, and the discussion topic for this episode is "Play by post gaming."

I'm thinking up a lot of topics for future podcast episodes, but if there's anything you'd like us to talk about, let me know.

At least for the time being, I'm going to try and keep this going once a week, even if nobody else is available and I have to talk to myself. But, with four potential co-hosts, and the possibility of getting guest co-hosts when necessary, I probably won't have that happen much.

I've set up a separate blog for the podcast links, and added to my blogroll, but I'll also post an update here when new episodes are available.

Friday, June 04, 2010


I just finished Paul S. Kemp's Shadowbred last night, which is the first of the Twilight War trilogy, a set of relatively slim books (less than 350 pages each) set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons. As anyone who's read my blog for a little while knows, I've got at least some skepticism about reading shared world tie-in fiction, but I'm willing to engage my temerity and give it a go and hope for the best. And according to reports, Paul. S. Kemp was one of the better such writers, so I had reasonably high hopes for this series starting out.

A few minor biases I should probably make clear up front; I don't really like the Forgotten Realms. To me, it's managed to cultivate an image as a squeaky clean, high powered, high fantasy love-a-thon, when my tastes definately range more towards the sword & sorcery and the dark fantasy. I also strongly dislike seeing the "game" behind fiction based on a game. I like to forget that the setting exists for a game and read the book like it's any other fiction. I don't think Kemp did a good job with addressing that issue; I was frequently brought back down by the transparent description of game mechanics that popped up throughout the book.

Despite that, Kemp manages to write an engaging story, and it doesn't feel like the Forgotten Realms I feared it would be. Sure, his characters are extremely high powered. This is the story of gods walking amongst men. Dark gods of thievery, assassination, and whatnot. In fact, in gross simplistic terms, I thought the concept behind the Twilight War and that of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series were very similar. Shady assassin-gods jockeying for power. Cut-throat politics on which hang the destiny of nations and empires. In short, the book had lots of the exact same things that I love; it really explored the potential of the fantasy novel by giving us interesting fantasy, yet realistic and exciting personal drama. And, he did it with interesting and likeable characters. Sure, sure, Erevis Cale, the protagonist of most of the story, was a bit of a stubborn emo kid at times, but he even made that seem OK.

Now, keep in mind, I've only read one of three books here so far (and only two of ten in Erikson's series) so maybe even the overly simplistic comparison I'm making isn't really justified, but at this point in each series, I noticed a lot of superficial similarities, and commonalities in theme. I can recommend Paul S. Kemp's novel; in fact, I recommond it more than Erikson's, which is sadly very difficult to read. And not because it's too dense and deep (I have, after all, enjoyed some Dostoyevsky in the past--although enjoyed is probably way too strong a word to describe my experience with his work); it's difficult to read because it's poorly structured and poorly written. Kemp is a relatively good writer; he keeps up a fast pace, his descriptions are clear and articulate, and his novel structure is one of which I approve that's borrowed from the thriller genre, where opposing personalities each get their point of view time in the spotlight. While this cuts down on reader surprise, it works remarkably well to contribute to reader tension, as the reader knows things that the characters do not, and that knowledge leads to heightened suspense because the readers know that the characters are blundering heedlessly into trouble. While I don't think this book pioneered this type of structure by any means, I tend to relate this type of structure to Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal which went back and forth between the Jackal--an assassin trying to take out a hit on the President of France--and the law enforcement officers who are struggling to catch him before he does. Kemp's books went back and forth between, mostly, Elyris, a spy and confidante of one of the foremost politicians in Sembia, Rivalen, a shadowy devotee of the goddess Shar, who wants to conquer Sembia in a political coup, Magadon, the tiefling "mind mage" who is imprisoned by Rivalen, and Erevis Cale, a similar figure to Rivalen, except more of a good guy, and a devotee of Mask instead of Shar. Although their areas of influence seem to be very similar.

Despite this recommendations, I always have to nitpick, and unfortunately, the fact that the game mechanics showed through numerous times throughout the narrative is not the only complaint I have about Shadowbred (although it is the worst.) Kemp is also not a great dialogue writer. Sometimes his dialogue works; sometimes it sounds like over-earnest Rennaissance Festival devotees or D&D players trying to speak in character in a mode that's completely foreign to them. It's a minor nitpick, but the dialogue could use some more polish.

The other major complaint I have about the book is that it clearly expects readers to be familiar with 1) the setting, and 2) a prior trilogy about Erevis Cale. Lots and lots and lots (and lots) of references are dropped without context, and it's clear that we're meant to get more out of them than I actually did. For most readers, that may well be a good assumption, and the fact that he trimmed the book down a bit by not explaining what those references were supposed to mean would be a good thing to them.

But I expect an independent series to stand alone, and while the cliffhanger ending doesn't bother me much, the constant references to stuff I'm not familiar with kinda did.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


I just bought the soundtrack to Prince of Persia from Amazon's mp3 download store. This slates nicely with some other soundtracks that I have, that I'll group together as a "vaguely Middle-eastern" in sound, including the Indiana Jones soundtracks, the Mummy soundtracks and Stargate. Granted; the last Mummy soundtrack had a more Chinese rather than Egyptian sound to it, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Temple of Doom also lack the characteristic "Middle Eastern-ness" of the others, but I still think that together, they form an iconic collection of action/adventure scores that can play nicely in the background for most of my games, where I'd want a slightly exotic (but not too much) flair.

I've already grouped some other soundtracks as part of a "Sword & Sorcery" grouping, but the soundtracks for Troy, Gladiator and even the newer Clash of the Titans and 300 would probably fit well in this group too.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Arches, and other natural features

We here in America are justifiably proud of a lot of the scenic opportunities we have in the west. In particular, right now I'm thinking of places like Arches or Canyonlands National Parks, which are singular in their presentation of a weirdly beautiful landscape.

Well, or are they? Actually, there is one more place in the world renowned for its arches and weirdly fluted rock formations. That is Tassilli N'Ajjer National Park in Algeria.

Check ouf a few examples of what they offer, sprinkled throughout this post. As a fan of fantasy, I'm always on the lookout for unearthly or spectacular scenery with which to populate my fantasy worlds, but it is frequently driven home to me we really don't need to go to another world to get spectacular and unearthly scenery. (For yet another example, Talampaya National Park and neighboring Ischigualasto Provincial Park in Argentina offer yet another stunning example of similar scenery.) There is plenty of inspiration for fantasy worlds right here yet in our own world; plenty of unusual scenery, or interesting formations, or otherwise just bizarre and fantastic locations in which to set our fantasy stories of fiction or roleplaying games, either one.

Also: although scenery and setting is an interesting window dressing, it's important not to let setting get in the way of what's really interesting about fantasy. While there may be some small element of "travelogue" in the genre; the ability to explore a fantastic and fictional landscape, that's only a small element of good fantasy. Fantasy that loses sight of that and focuses too much on setting is fantasy that is much weaker as a result. That some elements of fantastic landscapes, either from the real world or from your imagination (although I still daresay that our imagination can rarely top reality in most cases---reality is really strange and wonderful enough on its own) but don't ever let that become the focus of our game. People don't play roleplaying games for the ethnologue or the travelogue. A little bit of that can go a long way.