Level One Wonk: Fantasy

It’s the genre that started it all, and it has set the baseline for what people think of when they hear the term “role-playing game”. It’s a literary genre of astonishing breadth, that still seems to get people thinking about elves and wizards. So why is fantasy role-playing such a different animal than fantasy in general? And what sort of games are hiding in the wings around the 500 pound Gygaxian elephant in the room? Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look around what fantasy role-playing is, how it’s related to fantasy literature, and what that all means when it comes time to sit down and roll dice.

Fantasy literature has existed for essentially all of human history; myths of all stripes from many cultures have incorporated stories of amazing monsters and supernatural powers. One set of (relatively) recent myths have an outsized contribution to how we view fantasy literature in the 21st century: the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In addition to informing our conceptions of fictional knights and kings, the Arthurian legends also have some responsibility for bringing forth elements of ancient Celtic mythology. Heard about the fae courts? Not going to say King Arthur is directly responsible, but Celtic mythology definitely is where many of these ideas come from. There are other elements of medieval myth that are pulled forward, like the story of Saint George and the Dragon, which inform on a broad level how we view the fantastic…and it’s worth noting that the prominence of these myths are correlated with the perceived viewpoint of fantasy as occurring in a medieval time period.

Modern fantasy fiction directly feeds into fantasy role-playing through two primary vectors. First is pulp fantasy, more specifically what’s called “Sword and Sorcery”. Sword and Sorcery, through books written by Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and others, was the fantasy fiction that first captivated gamers like Gary Gygax. The other vector is one so obvious that you have probably already noticed its omission, and that of course is the works of JRR Tolkien. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was probably the most famous fantasy world in the, well, world around the time that Dungeons and Dragons was written, and it seemed like everyone wanted to cash in on association with the property. Gygax was less enthusiastic about Tolkien than others, but in writing a fantasy game there seemed to be an almost need to acknowledge Tolkien.

So as implied, Tolkien and Sword and Sorcery informed Dungeons and Dragons, and then proceeded to inform much of the early corpus of fantasy games that came from the 70s and 80s, games like Runequest (which would spawn Stormbringer, based on the works of Michael Moorcock) and Rolemaster (which would spawn Middle Earth Role-Playing, or MERP). As RPGs evolved, the range of fantasy games got broader…and today, we have a huge range. This isn’t to say all games from that early period were stuck close to these literary forbears…Empire of the Petal Throne took place in the very much not-Tolkien world of Tekumel, and first came out in 1975. But since 1975, the number of options and versions of fantasy available to gamers has exploded. While D&D represents a very specific approach to fantasy, there are a number of ways to play games in the genre.

So what makes a game (or book, or film) fantasy? I think that there’s a fairly simple definition. Fantasy takes place in a world of the supernatural, where magic or some magical analogue exists. For the purposes of the story, this magic or other mythic force must be accessible to the characters…whether this is because magic is common or because magic is rare but the character is special is ultimately up to the story. A fantasy story doesn’t require a setting of the past with no technology, nor does it require a number of fantasy races like elves or dwarves. Therefore, as much as Harry Potter and the Dresden Files are fantasy, so is Star Wars or Constantine. Neither high technology nor religious backstory exclude a work from the fantasy category so long as the characters are empowered by the supernatural world in which they live. How that manifests in role-playing games varies, but generally falls into a few different buckets.

Dungeon Fantasy

This is the genre pioneered by Dungeons and Dragons. There are vast underground complexes filled with monsters, traps, and treasure, and you must delve deeper and deeper in search of riches. While D&D was inspired by Sword and Sorcery stories that involved escaping from underground prisons and pilfering tombs, there really isn’t a direct literary analogue to Dungeon Fantasy, other than maybe tie-in novels to D&D worlds like the Forgotten Realms. Other games have set their sights on the dungeon-crawling gameplay loop: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a standalone box set which sets up the GURPS system for dungeon-crawling, and Torchbearer is a derivative of Burning Wheel which is designed around creating the tension and danger of a dungeon crawl with a very different set of mechanics. It also is important to mention that the entire breadth of OSR products are aimed at recreating and enhancing the experience of old-school D&D, and this usually means a variety of dastardly dungeons as well as detailed hexcrawls for wilderness exploration.

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy does typically take place in a city, but the title has been taken to mean a typically modern setting with some form of magic. Urban Fantasy is often adjacent to horror because of themes of the supernatural being unknown or hidden, but in urban fantasy role-playing the characters are typically empowered to use the magic or be the monsters. While also strongly horror in theme, most World of Darkness games end up sitting in the urban fantasy space; playing the vampire or the werewolf is often the antithesis of horror-style disempowerment, even when you take the otherworldly compulsions associated with those monsters into effect. More “straight” urban fantasy is represented by the Dresden Files RPG, itself based on the Dresden Files novels which follow wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden around on his supernatural adventures.

Dark Fantasy

Dark Fantasy is fantasy that sits adjacent to horror, and there are a few key elements which make a given game more dark fantasy than merely “low fantasy” or straight-up horror. In dark fantasy, there are typically supernatural and magical forces which characters may have access to, but these power may come at a cost. In straight horror, such power would be beyond the character’s comprehension or maybe completely out of their reach, but dark fantasy does not aim to be disempowering at the same level. Similarly, dark fantasy is not low fantasy where magic is rare, rather magic is accessible and may even be indispensable, but it comes with severe costs. Twisted mutants like Witchers, compacts with otherworldly beings, and unavoidable magical corruption are all hallmarks of dark fantasy. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay carried the banner for dark fantasy role-playing for some time, and Cubicle 7 is currently developing a Fourth Edition. Along the same family tree, Zweihander is a retroclone of WFRP 2nd edition which has received much well-deserved critical acclaim. OSR dips its pen in this well too, with Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Shadow of the Demon Lord fitting in this genre nicely.

High Fantasy

High Fantasy can mean a lot of things, but in a role-playing context ‘high’ generally refers to the amount of power you’re giving your characters! High Fantasy settings are those soaked with magic, and characters in those settings are often capable of doing superheroic feats, like picking up mountains or drop-kicking the sun. Games which deal with high fantasy are often designed around the questions of what happens to those with such incredible power. In some cases, like White Wolf’s Scion, godlike power is just that, and the game can go off the rails. In others, like Exalted (also originally from White Wolf), there is an entire hierarchy of powerful beings, a hierarchy which player characters are in the middle or near the bottom of. Other games based on high fantasy settings and conceits include Kevin Crawford’s Godbound, and Erick Wujcik’s Amber Diceless Roleplaying, based on the novels by Roger Zelazny.

Science Fantasy

As I said earlier, Star Wars is a fantasy work! No amount of spacecraft will change the fact that lifting things with your mind, telepathic projection, and swords made of lasers are hallmarks of fantasy, not science fiction. This is also where many genre mashups fall, like Steampunk. While the debate about what’s technically science fiction can rage on (somewhere other than here), any setting which incorporates fantastic elements into an otherwise “grounded” setting can easily be considered science fantasy. This includes The Force in Star Wars, but also the return of magic in Shadowrun. There are other hybridizations out there that fall into this category as well: Warhammer 40,000 takes the Warhammer fantasy setting and puts it out into space, while doubling down further on magical corruption and demonic entities.

In running fantasy, remember one key thing: all those supernatural abilities? That’s what makes the setting interesting! It’s a cardinal sin against fantasy games to think that “gritty” or “realistic” means that player characters either can’t or almost can’t get access to magic. The magic is the point! Now, if you want to lug out your copy of Zweihander and make magic dangerous, that’s one thing- but restricting access to magic in the first place should make you ask what your motivation is.

A word that comes up when describing all RPGs, but fantasy RPGs especially, is escapism. A fantasy world should feel different than ours, even if it purportedly is our world! Figuring out how your players want their escape will help you run a great game…do you have players who want to imagine they’re negotiating with frost giants on the bitter end of some new world, or are they more the type who want to think about whether they would have gotten their Hogwarts letters? Both of those represent truly fantastic realms, with different degrees of grounding. And even if you, like me, find that you tire easily of the tropes involving elves and orcs and dragons, remember that for many people that’s exactly what they’re looking for. More important than originality is a world your players will identify with. You might not be a Tolkien fan, but if your players find Middle Earth compelling, you should be asking why.

Fantasy is where tabletop role-playing started, and if D&D 5th edition is any indication the roots are strong. Whether you want to delve a dungeon, wield a lightsaber, or maybe throw a demon into the sun, there already exist games for basically any subgenre of fantasy you can imagine. With this level of choice, you can stay as close to home or go as far afield as you want; all you need are some dice, some paper, and a little magic.

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