Chris keeps posting stuff about specific places being the inspiration for stories, gaming, etc. I wish he'd stop because it really makes me want to play a lot more rpgs; I'm getting frustrated. To the point that I started to contemplate becoming a psychology professor and starting a course where the main project is creation of an extensive D&D campaign I get to play in. I figure with 20-25 students, there would be four good groups which means four games a week. Perhaps Dr. Barker has it all figured out. Can anyone find justification for a philosophy professor to play D&D? I can't come up with anything, but I'm working on it.
The whole point of this post was to specifically talk about a place I envision each and every time I want to play a fantasy rpg. The problem is, I have no idea where it came from. It's not a real place (I'm pretty sure of that); I think it was inspired by some artwork I saw when I was in grade school. But, again, I can't be sure as I've looked through every Dragon magazine, every D&D module and rulebook, every single collection of fantasy art I could find and haven't seen it again. The image is so vivid I maintain I saw it somewhere, but who knows...years of alcohol abuse could have fooled my brain.
That said, my ideal campaign world for fantasy rpgs, and D&D specifically, is always sort of gloomy. Even though spring eventually comes, for whatever reason the PCs never see it. Overcast skies, cold but not freezing. The sun never shines through the clouds. At night, no one goes outside. There is one town, dimly lit at all times, maybe ten buildings with the proverbial inn at the middle. Adventurers need only look beyond the line of trees in the distance to see an ominous landscape. It starts with a dead forest, a barrier to broken terrain that glows softly in the dark. Closer examination reveals ruins; a maze uncovered after destruction of a massive keep, possibly obliterated by dragon fire. Goblins hide within the shadows, spying on those who would enter their realm. For whatever reason, they never venture beyond the dead forest which serves as a barrier between civilization and a time forgotten. Exploring the ruins can result in great fortune but imminent death awaits. The villagers eke out a minimal existence in their town, but bold parties travel forth, never to be heard from again. There is a road that leads to the next town, but no one ever uses it. The adventurers themselves might have come that way to reach the town but their knowledge of the lands beyond is lost; the current environs cloud all memory, only fortune and fame on their minds.
Essentially, my ideal environment is nothing more than a dungeon and a town; everything else is irrelevant. To me, at least, this seems to be the essence of Old School rpgs. A massive board without fixed squares, but still confined to a specific space the pieces cannot leave. Is there any real need for a whole world in which to put this board? What justification is necessary beyond "the place exists to facilitate adventuring"? Sandbox gaming now assumes the PCs can go wherever they want, the DM responsible for a world for them to explore at their whim. Sandbox gaming when I was younger was just what I described: you have this dungeon and that's it. Clean it out and go to town to sell your crap.
I'm not saying the simpler way of creating a game world is better, but it's certainly not worse. When I first started playing D&D, we created a new campaign nearly every couple weeks. Someone else would have a dungeon they wanted to run, we'd make new characters and attempt to tackle it. After either TPK or success, another kid would be the DM with his own dungeon. After dismissing this style of play as "unrealistic" over the course of several years, I've finally come to terms with the fact that it's not. It's no more unrealistic than creating a fantasy world out of whole cloth, complete with detailed rules for flora, fauna, how magic works, scientific theory, whatever. It's a game, nothing else, and as long as the DM arbitrates the game in a fair manner there's no need to "justify" anything.
In all honesty, I think a game like Magic Realm is a better rpg than anything I've seen in ten years. I'm sort of getting annoyed with the idea that roleplaying means funny voices and playing "in-character". Certainly it can mean that, but that's not the only valid interpretation. The older I get the more I long for the days in the cafeteria, traipsing through yet another killer dungeon in an attempt to beat my friend's new best attempt to kill us all.