The answer is surprising. It's because our minds develop in response to our environments.
A little background. I.Q. test scores have been rising for decades. In lieu of deciding that our ancestors were retarded, it's "the side effect of the cultural transition from pre-scientific to post-scientific operational thinking. Over the last century the basic principles of science slowly filtered into the public consciousness, transforming the world we lived in." The Genius in All of Us, By David Shenk
Noisms pointed out a quote talking about how commercial fantasy authors attempting to literalise actual fantastical concepts removes their weight and value.
Once Orcs are not about the ancient threat of Neanderthal dominance,
Once Vampires are not about the nightmare of rape and the violation of our sanctity,
Once the immortal Lich is not about horror of structures of law and tradition which were invented by men who were dead long before we were born,
Once Werewolves are no longer about the terror of our inner animalistic impulses overwhelming us,
Once Zombies are not about our innate and unending fear of the implacable advance of gluttonous death,
then they are just housecats that we can kill from behind the safety of our +2 blade that adds two to our to hit roll, allowing us to strike at the monster if we roll an 8 or higher.
When second edition began, when third edition began, when the rationalization of Dungeons & Dragons began; this overriding desire to explain everything and have everything make sense was about destroying this very wonder and magic.
Is it really necessary that you explain and rationalize everything interesting away?
Is it too hard to comprehend something that exists that doesn't make logical sense, but makes visceral sense?
Once you kill the threshold between the known world and the dungeon, is it any wonder that dungeons fell out of vogue?
Nearly everyone I'm gaming with is the person who was always made to be the Dungeon Master - I am often the Dungeon Master in a group of 'always the Dungeon Master'. This makes it extra hard, because they know the rulebooks front to back and some of them have been serving up these various tropes for over two decades or more. So, I'm a rational person on top of that so how do you restore that sense of wonder? How do you run a light, tough, or dark fantastic game? Here are some of the things I do to instill the sense of wonder in things. (I suggest my players avoid reading the following)
Recreate monsters - especially the humanoids. Keep them physically and statistically the same, but recreate their culture. Some of the following are cobbled together from a subconscious memory of the blog-o-sphere.
Cannites: Dog headed humanoids who are extremely religious nomads who eat and worship the dead. They are consumed by a never ending hunger that drives all their actions. Loud and brash in character they will gladly talk with men, because all men become corpses soon enough (gnolls)
Meeks: Tiny, three foot tall creatures, that are mechanically inclined. They have large eyes and heads and their whole language consists of one word 'meep'. They naturally congregate near other humanoids and gladly do their bidding. They are often found with ladders, knives, hammers and other tools, going about their own inscrutable purposes.(Kobolds)
Gigas: Some people are born with brains that produce extremes of human emotions. These energies collect and are released lashing out into natural forms. Hills, Mists, Storms, Mountains, and more fused with these energies come alive with emotion and thrash about destroying all that is around them. (Giants)
Watol: Evil seeps into the land, and the very forms of the earth and trees animate into heinous minor demons. Each different and twisted and sick they murder all who they come across. When killed they disintegrate into a pile of dirt and twigs and leaves, the material from which they came. (Goblins)
A non-standard list of dimensions
Recreate the powers of undead or dragons. Do not let the players know what to expect.
Have overland encounters be with men, or animals. Make them cross a threshold (a clear in game threshold "Are you sure you wish to travel down the secluded mountain pass") before having them fight the fantastical.
I run many monsters as 'animals', Stirges, and such. This I think as fine, as long as they only occur where one might find animals. They are always part of the known world, and not the unknown
Simple things, that I view as obvious, may not be to other people. Don't announce what the players are fighting, don't explain what's happening when a monster attacks - just what they see. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Topher - the quintessential Hackmaster GM was this. Mark down the damage they are doing with their non-magical weapons as if that Gargoyle is actually taking it.
Write your damn descriptions out ahead of time or know it well enough to be able to describe exactly what they are looking at. Zak's suggestion(s) of pictures is quite helpful.
Don't give out in game stats - especially for fantastic creatures. Ask them to roll, and tell them if they hit.
Someone will surely point out, doesn't this affect player agency? Surely, but since we're attempting to create a sense of wonder, you must realize that it relies on information that not only isn't known, but can't be knowable. So the agency is in crossing that threshold.
There's a lot of advice on this subject at Ars Ludi, (Bad trap) and the Alexandrian (Putting the Magic in Magic Items)
If you have additional comments, please add them below - I have things I struggle with myself.
- How to make a weapon seem mystical when I can't remember to track the bonus each weapon provides? So, in the interests of fairness, I go ahead and give the bonus to the players.
- How to reconcile the fact that in a five hour game, we have four to six combat encounters, that take about two hours of time - how to 'not reuse' monsters over and over, when in a year, I'll have to have 200 combats.
- Remembering to engage the wonder of the players, and not getting bogged down in the minutia of being a DM