DMing 101 – High Fantasy
So begins the series, DMing 101 – Genres. You may recall a few weeks back I presented you with a quick summary of how to create a very real “Horror” feel in game, and for the next few weeks (until the series goes on hiatus for a little while in January) I’ll be giving the same advice on how to build other genre-styles, building from the very emotions that you should strive for.
Let’s get the genre series kicked off with a classic!
Genre – High Fantasy
Most role-play systems follow their earliest generations and stick to some form of fantasy. High fantasy is most commonly based loosely on medieval europe. populated by a wide number of humanoid(-ish) races; other cultures are mixed in or fabricated, and most high fantasy also includes some form of magic.
However, there are elements that are far more universal that may go unnoticed, things that better capture the spirit of the genre. Here are a few ways you can put together a truly awesome and thrilling fantastical world.
Above all things, high fantasy is epic! Here’s how to build the sense of scale that high-fantasy demands:
- Scale: Vast empires wage war across continents; dragons dominate the skies, amassing glorious hordes; a tiny trinket in the hands of a aged widow could bring titans to their knees. When you describe aspects of your world you should consider their importance, not merely in terms of size, but importance, and that the actions of your heroes will have major ripples that will likely change the world.
- Wonder: Whether you include magic or not, fantasy presupposes a sense of the mysterious, the unnatural, and spectacles that suspense of belief. They may require an alternative power source (essentially “Non-magic” magic, which I will address another time) but they must defy science in such a way that it forces the players to shed reality, and step into your world.
- Good vs. Evil: It’s something of a cliché, we all know that, but high fantasy tends to play to this dichotomy more than any other genre. Dark fantasy plays more with ambiguous villains and throws moral questions into every choice, but high fantasy deals more in clear cut light and dark. Feel free to mix things up a little, but you might risk breaking the genre.
Other elements help to build the personality of the world but these are the basics of the genre. Interestingly, dark-fantasy tends to deal in opposites, but we’ll come to that later. High fantasy is bright colours, soaring majesty and dynamic pace, but that’s not to say it’s without perils. Ancient and mysterious evils, cunning masterminds, and cruel tyrants have made their mark on the world. Your heroes will need more than bravado and skill to save the world.
There’s always an evil empire, ancient terror, or forgotten legend, in fact most of your options will stem from your world’s rich history. High fantasy worlds are realms of myth and lore, and so long as you keep that history consistent it can really help your world come alive, and more importantly, stay that way through many campaigns.
Consider what wars have been fought, and the empires or kingdoms that fought them. Does the defeated nation still have supporters in the dark corners of the world? What powerful weapons still lie unclaimed for any new villainous group to gather? Suppose monsters are rising from the depths of the world, and from out of the legends inscribed in ancient places, where have they been for the intervening centuries?
Write your history first. Establish what factions and power-players are involved early. If you’re using a pre-existing world then try to keep things simple, don’t try to include everything at once, and don’t be afraid to create new aspects for yourself to create interesting and original storylines, challenges and villains.
There are many potential quest options, but with high fantasy the classics are often best.
Save the People: An ancient artifact holds the key to breaking an ancient curse. A prophesy foretells an end to all things, but it need not happen as dictated. Two armies face each other across a battlefield, neither realizing that no one will win if they break the standoff. The people need a champion, who will step forward? What can your heroes do against impossible odds?
Watch – Jack the Giant Slayer
Play – Dragon Age: Origins
Slay the Monster: The sky darkens as its’ wings fill the sky. It uses its’ immense power to subjugate the people. Armies have stood before it, none have returned. The monster is ancient and seemingly indestructible, so what weapon could destroy such an engine of destruction? And who could possibly wield such a weapon?
Watch – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Play – Skyrim
Find what was Lost: The King was replaced with a doppelganger, apparently some time ago, the last thing the doppelganger said was that the King still lives. A civilization depends on an ancient engine which ceased functioning when a thief stole a single component. A newly discovered text suggests the ancient sword may not be pure myth? With a vast world to explore, how will the heroes ever find such a small thing?
Watch – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Play – Legend of Zelda
Next week, Dark Fantasy. When the series returns after hiatus next year I’ll be asking you what genres you run, and I’ll write one for each! I have a list prepared, but it is woefully incomplete.
In the mean time, if you enjoy this series, and have played a few games yourself, head over to my own site Quotes from the Tabletop for all the funnies quotes and stories from your gaming tables. Feel free to share your own on the submissions page too.