Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #24:

Genres - Fantasy

by Travis S. Casey
January 4, 2002

Fantasy is quite possibly the broadest of all genres. One could define it broadly as the genre of things that can't exist, couldn't have existed, and/or are considered highly unlikely ever to exist. Defining it in such a way, fantasy overlaps deeply into other genres, especially science fiction and horror. But while a broad definition of fantasy covers a huge area, the typical "fantasy game" fits into a narrow niche. The stereotypical "generic fantasy game" has several characteristics we can point out:

  • Its setting is generally pseudo-medieval European, with the emphasis on the "pseudo". While it has knights, feudalism, and kings, it generally lacks a strong central church. The social structure is generally more like that of the late medieval or early Renaissance period, with strong trade guilds and a thriving middle class.

  • It has magic. More specifically, it has working magic that is common enough that a medium-sized city can have a magician's guild, and that many people have magical items. In spite of this, however, magic isn't a common part of daily life for most people.

    Even more stereotypically, magic is divided into two types — magic that "wizards" use, which has strong offensive and defensive capabilities, but weak or no healing ability; and magic that another group of magicians, often called "priests" or "clerics" use, which has weak offensive abilities, medium to strong defensive abilities, and strong healing abilities.

  • The world has a mixture of humanoid species, called "races" within the setting. There are typically elves, dwarves, halflings, humans, and orcs, and often others as well.

I could carry on with observations, but I think the general shape is coming clear. And this general shape, this definition of "generic fantasy", is what was laid down by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in D&D more than twenty-five years ago. Of course, they weren't originating it — the D&D setup was inspired by Tolkein's Middle Earth, Leiber's Nehwon, Howard's Hyboria, and so on. But Gygax and Arneson were creating a generic fantasy realm — indeed, their original title for D&D was The Fantasy Game.

D&D inspired a great deal of fantasy in turn, especially in the mid-'80s through early '90s, and much of this fantasy used the same "generic fantasy" setup that D&D had created. Better authors put their own stamp on their worlds, of course, but a good deal of fantasy from that time period is obviously D&D with the serial numbers filed off. There's nothing innately wrong with that, but the great number of D&D-clone worlds obscures the richness of the fantasy genre.

Why is fantasy so popular? Particularly, why is D&D-style fantasy so popular? Here's a few thoughts:

  • Fantasy is based in myth and legend, which are where the mythic archetypes of our cultures come from. Fantasy based in European myths and legends, therefore, has an automatic feeling of familiarity to people brought up in European cultures. And further, "stock" fantasy characters are archetypes, which helps give them a larger-than-life feel.

  • Heroes in D&D-style fantasy are adventurers. They're separated from the concerns of day-to-day life, especially in epic fantasy. For people who are looking for an escape from the everyday world, this makes them more attractive. Being adventurers also gives them two other qualities: they're outsiders in the world, which many people feel themselves to be; and they're free to come and go as they please and do what they please, which again appeals to most people.

  • Between Tolkein, D&D, and their scads of imitators, most people who have read or played any fantasy at all are familiar with D&D-style fantasy. A player or reader can jump in already knowing a great deal of background — elves are semi-magical and live in forests, dwarves are rough and tough and live in the mountains, wizards are smart, paladins are good guys, etc. For many people, it's easier to stick to something semi-familiar than to go off into something completely new.

D&D itself is based in two different kinds of fantasy: epic fantasy, epitomized by Tolkein's Lord of the Rings; and the "swords & sorcery" fantasy of the pulps, such as Howard's Conan stories and Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Epic fantasy centers around a quest, which is generally very important, and tends to involve a band of heroes working together instead of a single hero. S&S fantasy has more of a "job" orientation, with the protagonist (not necessarily a "hero"; S&S protagonists are often morally ambivalent) not on a quest, but just going about making a living — often a dishonest one. Instead of a band of heroes, S&S usually has either a single protagonist or a pair.

Because of its setup generally requiring four or more characters to make an effective team, D&D lends itself to the epic mold. This, however, brings in a problem: the epic tone demands something larger-than-life. Doing a single epic quest is easy — but to have epic quests happening on a daily basis robs them of their epic feel. An epic is supposed to be something unusual, not something that happens on a regular basis. When everyone and everything seems to be larger-than-life, the epic quickly becomes mundane. That leads to a demand for more — something new and bigger to top what's been done before. But this quickly turns into a vicious cycle, with each new quest having to be more important, against more powerful villains, and with greater rewards.

Within the context of a single paper RPG campaign, that may not be too bad — when things get to be too much, you can retire this set of characters and move on to something else. But in a multiplayer, continuing game, such an escalation has no real end in sight.

S&S fantasy doesn't have so much of a "how do I top the last one" problem, but it can fall prey to a similar: a constant diet of "making a living in a fantasy world" can become boring. Better than a pure diet of either one is a mixture. And better still is to start bringing in other elements that both epic fantasy and S&S generally ignore or keep on the sidelines — things like politics and trade.

As I said at the start of this column, fantasy is an incredibly broad genre — and so far, we've only really touched on "generic" fantasy. There's a lot to cover here, so we'll be continuing in a fantasy vein for at least the next column, and most likely the next two, talking about other forms of fantasy than epic and swords & sorcery, how fantasy overlaps with other genres, and some recommendations for fantasy books and stories. Come catch part 2 in two weeks!

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