Last night, the conversation took a startlingly familiar turn. I opined, as I often have over the decades, that "The best fantasy is written by people who do research, who don't just shrug and say, 'well, it's a fantasy, I can just make stuff up.' Too much fantasy these days is written by peole who think that reading Tolkien counts as 'research'."
The response: "Why does fantasy have to be based on research into what happened? Isn't true fantasy stuff that is Completely Made Up From Scratch? The only difference between basing your game on research of ancient myths and Tolkien is that their books are older."
(I haven't attributed the source because a) I don't want the person in question to feel like I'm "picking on them" in a public forum, and b) the sentiment is so often expressed.)
The obvious comparison is SF, of course. I've read a lot of science fiction, and it's not hard to tell the difference between the stuff written by people who know something about science and are willing to do some research on a topic before writing a novel around it, and the people who just read a lot of Star Trek and Star Wars novels and copied what they did.
However, a better comparison is comic book art.
I've read a lot of superhero comics. The medium has a lot of stylization, a lot of visual shorthand.
The most adept comic book artists have a deep-seated understanding of human anatomy. Their stylizations are based on that knowledge. Jack Kirby was famous for his impossible, dramatic poses -- but the man knew how the human body worked, and how to exaggerate it for effect.
When a comic book artist learned exclusively from reading comics, it shows. He applies the stylizations and conventions without really understanding the underlying structures. He uses the shorthand without grasping what it stands for. His exaggerations become more exaggerated, until his figures are so defomred and distorted that they bear only a painful resemblance to the human form. On the surface, the art may look slick and cool and cutting-edge, but on closer examination, it just doesn't hold together.
There's also... well, as an environmental scientist, I think of it as a "bottleneck effect". When you rely on second- and third- and fourth-hand sources for inspiration, you lose nuances and concepts and ideas with every successive iteration. Writers and gamers often proclaim that doing research just trammels on their Unfettered Creativity -- but so much of their output just winds up looking the same.
You want "Unfettered Creativity"? Our ancestors spent generations coming up with all manner of, well, wacked-out shit. I guarantee you that twenty minutes in the library skimming the Motif-Index of Folk Literature* will give you more useful, inventive, exotic ideas than reading the complete works of Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore, and Margaret Weis put together.
It will certainly get your farther than reading the Dungeon Master's Guide or the Eberron sourcebook.
I should also say, by all of this, I am not advocating that All Fantasy Must Look Like Old Fairy Tales. To the contrary, I'm protesting the sameness of the bulk of the genre. Doing research, immersing yourself in folklore and history, serves two purposes: not only will it give you a richer, deeper reserve of concepts from which to draw -- it also will help you break away from the endless litany of cliches and do something genuinely different and innovative.
*True Confession Time: I discovered the MIFL through a "Recommended Reading" article in Dragon Magazine, c. 1978-80.