Building Stories, Telling Games #25:
Exploring Genres: Fantasy, part 2
by Travis S. Casey
January 18, 2002
Last time, I started talking about the genre of fantasy, with specific attention to the subgenres of epic fantasy and swords & sorcery, and the "generic fantasy" popularized by D&D.
These subgenres are each fairly narrow there's a lot of story potential in them, to be sure, but they're also fairly tightly restricted. But there are many other subgenres of fantasy, which expand the possibilities of the overall genre greatly. To make it easier for me to list things, I've broken them up into sets. Note that this listing isn't meant to be exhaustive, just to present several other subgenres of fantasy.
I've thrown these two together because a particular setting is often
strongly associated with a time.
- Historical fantasy is fantasy in a setting that's very close
to a historical one. It's closely related to the genre of historical
fiction; the main difference is that historical fantasy adds magic and
other fantasy elements to the setting. This is generally done by
making the setting be like the way people back then believed it
was, rather than the way historians think it really was. Judith Tarr's
Ars Magica (a novel, not the RPG of the same name) is an example.
A subgenre of historical fantasy is "secret history" fantasy in it, fantasy elements exist, but were/are kept secret. This easily shades into conspiracy fiction. An example is Robert Anton Wilson's Historical Illuminatus series.
Historical fantasy can also be categorized by the time and place in which it's set medieval Europe, renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, Imperial Rome, etc.
- Pseudo-historical fantasy is set in a fictional time and place
which resembles a real historical time or place. Accuracy generally isn't
a main concern, so pseudo-historical settings often incorporate elements
from multiple time periods. The "generic" fantasy setting is
pseudo-historical, being based on medieval Europe.
- Modern fantasy is, of course, set in the modern world. This is also often referred to as "urban fantasy", but I prefer the term "modern" because such stories can be set in the countryside. The existence of magic is generally a secret or little-known for genres where magic is widely known, see "Modern Magic" below. An example is Peter S. Beagle's The Folk of the Air.
- Mythological fantasy is set in the world of a particular set
of myths or legends. L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt's Harold Shea
stories generally fit into this category, especially "The Roaring Trumpet"
(Norse myth), "The Green Magician" (Celtic Myth), and "The Wall of
Serpents" (Finnish myth).
- Arthurian fantasy could be considered a subset of mythological
fantasy, but I've separated it because there's so much of it, and because
it overlaps into historical fantasy. T. H. White's The Once and Future
King is solidly mythological, Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of
Avalon mixes Celtic myth and historical fantasy, and Mary Stewart's
Arthurian book verge on historical fantasy.
It should be noted that this is a different axis of classification;
this set isn't exclusive of the previous, but can be combined with it.
Thus, you could have dark historical fantasy, epic modern fantasy, etc.
- Fairy tales are typically light in tone in the modern versions, although the older versions can be quite dark. Fairy tales generally have children as major characters (often older children, but still living at home with their parents). Magic is generally of a plot-device sort, with no attempt at consistency. The story usually has a "happy ending." Most people will already know several examples Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, and so on.
- Dark fantasy is, well, dark. It's often a mix of horror and fantasy horror in a fantasy setting, if you will. In a modern setting, the main thing that distinguishes it from traditional horror is that the protagonists as well as the antagonists have access to magic. (In fact, some apply the term to any horror that has fantasy elements, even something like Stoker's Dracula.) As in horror, endings often aren't "happy".
Barbara Hambly's Darwath series (The Time of the Dark etc.) and
Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy (Assassin's Apprentice, Royal
Assassin, Assassin's Quest) are examples.
- Heroic fantasy is sometimes used as a synonym for Swords & Sorcery, but I'd consider it to be one part of a mix that makes up S&S. Like S&S, it deals with the exploits of a single hero, or sometimes a pair of heroes. This character is a "hero" in the sense of being somewhat larger-than-life they may or may not be a "good-guy" type. The focus on the hero(es) and exploits are the key here.
- Epic fantasy. I talked about epic fantasy the first time or, rather, what could be called "generic epic fantasy". Being epic is also a matter of tone and theme, however, so I've included it here.
The borderline between science fiction and fantasy can get quite hazy in
places. These are examples that are more on the fantasy side; in later
columns, we'll be getting to examples that are more on the SF side, and
ones that are firmly in no-man's-land.
- "Modern Magic" is a modern fantasy setting where working
fantasy-style magic exists, and is not a secret thing. It may be a sort of
alternate history, where magic was discovered at some time in the past, or
may involve magic being discovered right now. It can also be set in the
near future. This falls under the SF subgenre of the "what-if" story,
with "what if magic really worked like it does in stories?" being the
premise. Magic often replaces technology, or is treated in a fashion
much like technology in such stories. The classic example is Heinlein's
Magic, Incorporated. The ShadowRun RPG is a near-future example.
- Magical apocalypse has a world where magic has come back, and the effects have not been entirely pleasant often in such stories, high technology has ceased to work with the coming of magic. Steven Boyett's Ariel and Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East
Remember, this is only a sampling, not an exhaustive list if you'd like to talk about other subgenres of fantasy, feel free to chime in on the forums!
As I mentioned above, the "time/setting" and "theme/tone" are two different
axes. The "SF/Fantasy mixes" listed could also be mixed freely with the
different tones. You can generate smaller subgenres (sub-subgenres?) through
the intersection of these. Also, themes and tone can be mixed.
For example, let's take Swords & Sorcery. Following the definition I gave
last time, we can see that it has elements of heroic fantasy (indeed, as
I mentioned, they're sometimes considered synonyms). It usually has a
pseudo-historical setting, and usually has elements of dark fantasy mixed
Well, that's about all the space I have for this time next time, I'll get into thoughts on why non-generic fantasy doesn't seem to work as well in games as the generic sort and ideas on ways to help it work. Look for it in 14!
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