Users Guide: The Fantasy Genre

The following article is a continuation of the Genres in Gaming series of articles written to help players and GMs determine which games are available within the genres they want to play.  The lists of systems contained throughout or by no means exhaustive.  All game systems are listed within the sub-genre as I understand from the knowledge I have.  If they are improperly categorized, please post a comment further explaining what the sub-genre should be and why.

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Epic Fantasy / High Fantasy

Epic Fantasy, also known as High Fantasy, is probably the most popular Fantasy sub-genre and possibly the most popular of all tabletop role-playing games.  Epic Fantasy is typically found being associated with magic and different powers being associated with the main elements of the plot and setting.  Some settings attempt to explain how these things are possible, while others simply state that they’re an integral part of the world in which the characters live.  The settings are predominantly medieval in their styling with melee and ranged magic being the main focus of combat encounters.  Epic Fantasy settings are defined as being located on a completely fictional world, a fictional place parallel to our own world, or a fictional “hidden” location within our own world.

Player races can range widely from the standard human to something more ethereal in nature.  Creatures and monsters can range from the mundane to the truly mystical, from the lonely wandering bear to the massive ancient dragon.  Epic Fantasy often incorporates new fantastical ideas with each subsequent setting and supplement bringing more color, depth, and imagination to the world.  Characters are often strong in any format; be it actual strength, toughness, magic, support, or leadership, the possibilities are endless.  Numerous settings and systems have been created with a wide variety of differences between them.

The following systems are mainly referred to as Epic Fantasy and may have numerous published settings and supplements.  Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Low Fantasy

Low Fantasy is similar to Epic Fantasy in its mechanics and plots, but the setting is based within the “real” world adding elements of magic and power or a world that is based on the “real” world with the same inclusions but the rules of the world follow those of the “real” world.  While not as widely published as Epic Fantasy, many Low Fantasy settings are found within supplements for other systems.  Examples of this would be setting books for the d20 and/or OGL system.

Low Fantasy systems and settings often use familiar player races and creatures that don’t stray too far from the real world.  There are still standard elements of Fantasy involved, but the often irrational purposes of those elements are brought out in a more rational manner.  Although the rational manner may not always make the most sense.  Low Fantasy settings often contain elements of history, but as opposed to alternate history, these elements may be exaggerated or not follow any historical time-line.  An example of this is a game set within a real historical era, but deviating from what actually happened during that time and in places that may be exaggerated.

The following systems are representative of Low Fantasy and may have numerous published supplements.  Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Dark Fantasy / Gothic Fantasy / Horror Fantasy

Dark Fantasy is often a part of Epic Fantasy with the deviation in what lurks across the setting.  Dark Fantasy brings in the ideals that chaos runs rampant with horrific or super-natural creatures being a common-place within the landscape.  What keeps this from being a subset of Horror is that the characters are still powerful enough to destroy these chaotic beings and the elements of magic are common and not necessarily corrupting.

Dark Fantasy often incorporates horror elements from Gothic Horror fictional publications such as vampires and undead or hell-originating beings such as demons.  Dark Fantasy could also encompass the destruction of a world and its eventual slide to devastation.  While this may not be a traditional method of defining Dark Fantasy, I’m going to include it here to expand on the ideals of Dark Fantasy containing death and decay and not just fear and chaos.  Many Dark Fantasy products are settings written for other established systems while a few Dark Fantasy systems have been created.

The following systems are representative of Dark Fantasy and may have numerous published supplements.  Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Heroic Fantasy

Heroic Fantasy is very similar to Epic Fantasy in its setting, characters, and adversaries.  The difference is in the plot and how it focuses on the overall storyline.  While Epic Fantasy often plays into the story to “save the world”, Heroic Fantasy focuses more on the individual characters and the encounters they have.  Plot themes are often more intricate in nature involving individual people, societies, and the basic conflict of good versus evil.  While this may seem the same as Epic Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy typically defines those who are the heroes (good), and those who are the villains (evil).  This is similar to the Superhero genre but lacking the super-powers.

Epic Fantasy often contains groups who may be antagonists to the heroes, but they are not necessarily defined as evil beings.  They have their own goals and purposes and while they may seem “wrong”, they do not have to define the person as evil.  Heroic Fantasy draws a more defined line between those who are good and those who are evil.  Fictional novels and movies often draw these lines between good and evil to create a more heroic effect.  While many Epic Fantasy settings tend to define good and evil, the plot does not focus on the individual characters but rather some overall plot to “save the world”.  The basics of Heroic Fantasy are character-focused plots and the definition of good and evil characters.  Gamebooks (single-player role-playing games) are often Heroic Fantasy in nature and a few will be included here.

The following systems are representative of Heroic Fantasy and may have numerous published supplements.  Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Pulp Fantasy

Pulp Fantasy is very similar to Heroic Fantasy except that the settings involve more human or human-like characters (such as undead humans).  Often found Fantasy elements may be less apparent or more corrupting and dangerous.  There is also a tendency to use a limited amount of magic as opposed to the multitude of magic types found throughout Epic Fantasy.  Characters may be more realistic and possibly not as powerful as other Fantasy systems and settings.  To keep with their Pulp influences, actions within Pulp Fantasy are often cinematic in nature with plots containing particular adventures.

While there may be a few Pulp Fantasy settings and supplements for various RPG systems, I struggle to find an actual Pulp Fantasy system but Rogue Games has recently released one.

The following systems are representative of Pulp Fantasy and may have numerous published supplements.  Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Mythology / Divine Fantasy

Mythology and Divine Fantasy refer to the heavy influence of Gods and Goddesses and ways of ancient mythological beliefs into a game system. Mythology would be the influence of the Gods and Goddesses into the setting while Divine Fantasy is actually being one of those Gods and Goddesses. This type of sub-genre is inherently Fantasy in nature even though they could have been the actual beliefs of those from Ancient History. To distinguish Mythology from Ancient History, the basics would most likely be the level of influence into the system itself. A straight Mythology setting contains mythological races and heroes while a typical Ancient History setting contains realistic character-types that may believe in the myths of the time. However, these realistic character-types are not the actual mythological characters.

Many of these settings could be referred to as Epic Fantasy or Low Fantasy, but because they derive their influence and core setting features from the Mythology of old or Mythology that is completely fictional, I’m putting them into a separate sub-genre.

The following systems are representative of Mythology or Divine Fantasy and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Retro Fantasy / Old School Fantasy

While Retro Fantasy isn’t technically a sub-genre, it is a movement that is becoming very popular in the Fantasy tabletop role-playing industry.  Retro Fantasy attempts to bring role-playing games that bring players back to the days of the original Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Dungeons & Dragons, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  While these versions of the Dungeons & Dragons system were more-or-less Epic Fantasy, they are often referred to as more simple in nature.  Retro Fantasy goes back to the days of role-playing where there were less player races, character types, and adventures often found the PCs crawling through dungeons and fighting the monsters to gain the treasures.

While it may not be an actual sub-genre, it is a definite style of tabletop role-playing that is becoming more and more popular with each passing day.

The following systems are representative of Retro Fantasy and may have numerous published supplements.  Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Stay tuned for the continuation of the Genres in Gaming series of articles as I delve into the Science Fiction genre.

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5 Comments

  1. Ken Walton says:

    I would have included a “Historical Fantasy” category, in which fantasy elements (magic, fantasy races, fantastical creatures, etc) are brought into a historical setting, either openly or secretly. Ars Magica could be included in that category, as could Victoriana, Castle Falkenstein, Mage: The Sorcerer’s Crusade, RuneQuest Deus Vult, Qin: The Warring States, All for One: Regime Diabolique, and of course, our own Clockwork & Chivalry. I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed!

  2. Aaron T. Huss
    Aaron says:

    Those actually fall under the Historical/Alternate History category which will be discussed at a later time.

  3. Ken Walton says:

    Ah, that explains it! :-)

  4. Michael - Acacia Games says:

    Good article. Given your definitions I might put Legend of the Five Rings into the Heroic Fantasy category – though it could certainly fit into Epic Fantasy as well. Just bought the 4E core book and “monster manual” and am enjoying them immensely. Can’t wait to try it out someday.
    M

  5. Aaron T. Huss
    Aaron says:

    It’s funny that you mention Legend of the Five Rings as it was one of those settings I had a difficult time properly categorizing.

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