This post is not about roleplaying or interactive fiction, but about fantasy literature. I suspect that there will be more posts like that in the future, so my apologies if you do not care for the subject. The [Fantasy]-tag will help you recognise and avoid them.
I am currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in which she discusses writing styles appropriate to fantasy. But more interesting than her comments on style (which, though true, are not especially insightful) is the framework of her discussion; the insight in fantasy that allows her to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate styles.
Her metaphor is that of a big national park, which people should go to in order to experience something they normally do not (wilderness, nature), but which some people do go to "in a trailer with a motorbike on the back and a motorboat on top and a butane stove, five aluminium folding chairs, and a transistor radio on the inside. They arrive in a totally encapsulated reality." Some writers of fantasy, Le Guin goes on to argue, do the same: they toss in some faeries or dragons or magicians, but they never take their readers away to Elfland, never make them feel the essential strangeness and difference of that place. "[T]he point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different."
Today, you might want to substitute 'Hogwarts' for 'Poughkeepsie', as John Pennington does in his - basically right if not always convincing - From Elfland to Hogwarts, or the Aesthetic Trouble with Harry Potter.
It seems to me that Le Guin is right: fantasy, as a kind of literature, must be distancing, must always be about something Else. Having flying brooms is not enough, not if you use them to play a kind of football. Such literature may be whimsical, but is not fantastic - and it has a much greater danger of being pure escapism. (As Harry Potter, from what I've read of it, undoubtedly is. Why it is so widely praised is beyond me.)
What I want to suggest is that Robert Jordan, writer of that interminable sequence The Wheel of Time, has fallen prey to the same thing in his later books. Jordan is of course merely a token representing many of his colleagues. I do not suggest that this is the main flaw of Jordan's books; their lack of pace, bad style and bad characterisation also come to mind - but it is perhaps the most interesting. It may explain why so many people I have spoken to have become disenchanted with the series as it ran on: the series itself became disenchanted, in a very literal way.
One of the first scenes of Jordan's first book, The Eye of the World, features Rand al'Thor, the protagonist, as his father's farm is being attacked by a group of monstrous creatures intent on killing him. This does not win Jorden a prize for originality, of course, but it does make his book proper fantasy. The world we are transported to is dangerous; these dangers are real and present; and people accept them as dangers they simply have to face, and have to cope with.
This primacy of danger is a typical trope of fantastic literature. It is alien to our common conception of the world we live in: if our house were to be attacked by anyone, we would expect the police to come to our aid, or at least attempt to punish the attackers afterwards. In our common conception of our world, danger has no primacy, but must submit to law and order, to rights, to insurances.
We all know (though we are not often aware of it) that danger will not really submit to our all-too-human systems of protection. This is the truth that is expressed by Jordan's scene; and fantasy is its proper form of expression, because it allows the writer to immediately dispense with a whole complex of real institutions that stand between us and the perception of this truth.
Suppose that Jordan had followed up the scene with others in which the royal "Red Mages" had come to investigate the killing; had gone on a quest to kill the monstrous beings and imprison the elf that led them; and had sentenced the elf to pay for all the reconstruction work in the village he had his minions attack - than, no matter the monsters and the mages and the elf, we would not have had a fantasy. We would have had a basically realistic novel dressed up in whimsical (if somewhat overused) invention. The fantastic would have detracted from, instead of added to, the message.
In the later books of the Wheel of Time cycle, Rand al'Thor has become the king of many lands and peoples. Most of the books are now concerned with his attempts to keep all these people together; to overcome their natural prejudices and fears; and with the many, many power struggles among the various groups. Jordan calls it 'The Game of Houses'.
All of this could have happened in Poughkeepsie as well as in Elfland.
But even that is not really true; it really could not have happened in Elfland. It is too comfortable, too well-known - we see it around us every day. It is just politics. As Jordan changes his focus towards political power games, the fantasy loses its aspect of being a fantasy. As the magic becomes a political tool and concern, it ceases to be magic. We find ourselves in Poughkeepsie, sitting on an aluminium folding chair and wondering why we went through the trouble of imagining such a vast, diverse and in the end curiously bland alternative reality.
(This, I suppose, is where George R. R. Martin comes onto the stage and says, with a sly smile: "Well, but if one is a realist in disguise, one should have the courage to be a realist in disguise!" And goes on to write a political 'fantasy' called A Song of Ice and Fire which invokes the illustrations not of Royo, but of Goya.)