The fantastic compels the reader to accept the paranormal, supernatural, or magical as an explanation for events. Sometimes the fantastic offers two possible explanations for an event—normal or paranormal—such as in stories that involve dreams, hypnosis, and illusion. Other times there is no normal explanation offered, or the paranormal is the normal, such as in stories about alternate worlds. This latter case is usually the setting for fantasy roleplaying games. Some subgenres in fantasy RPGs are swords ‘n’ sorcery, heroic fantasy, historical fantasy (based on the real world with the addition of some paranormal event or power), and urban fantasy (based on real cities with the addition of some paranormal event or power).
Themes, Motifs, Settings, and Events
In fantasy, the Hero’s Journey is usually a quest with a specific goal at the end—defeat the enemy or retrieve the [insert object or person here] are the two most common goals. The dangers are usually physical and the common ending is for the heroes to suceed against the opposition.
The heroes can usually call on paranormal tools for this journey, however. Magic is the most common in fantasy RPGs, although mental powers are sometimes also used with or as a replacement for magic.
The setting will differ from Earth. There may be nonhuman sentient races, sentient animals, and places or things that defy the normal laws of physics. In general, although not always, the more Earthlike the world, the “lower” or more mundane the level of fantasy. Thus, urban fantasies tend to be low-fantasy. They take place in some city and have a bit of magic attached, but the characters still have to deal with the problems of everyday life in a city. The less Earthlike the world, the “higher” or more fantastic the level of fantasy. Heroic fantasy is often high fantasy, in which the heroes care little about mundane problems and deal instead with earth-shattering threats. High versus low fantasy also depends on the level of power at play— a game in which magic or mental powers is relatively hard or complex to use or difficult to find and small in effect is usually a low-fantasy game, and vice-versa.
- Fights in a
- circular staircase
- dark forest
- remote wilderness area
- villain’s stronghold (usually the final showdown)
- Search for a
- magical or precious object
- kidnapped person
- prophesied person
- lost place or thing (e.g., ruin, ship)
- solution to a puzzle
- solution to a trap
- Escape from a
- collapsing cave or building
A number of motifs exist in fantasy. Some common trappings are dragons, elves/fairies, swords, magical items, spirits, prophecies, wizards and witches, monstrous beings, castles and towers, dungeons, mazes, and rituals. Some common events are:
Although not every GM will want to cross a genre in a campaign, sometimes an adventure that has another “feel” is a welcome change. Most players will be familiar with the motifs of these other genres and will recognize what’s happening as the GM introduces them. In general, players are happy to have their characters fall in with a particular genre for a while. An entire campaign could be cross-genre, too, if the GM and players are interested in pursuing such.
- Set the game in a dusty, remote plains setting
- Create NPCs who are herders (cowboys), natives (“Indians”), and settlers.
- Replace guns with hand-held bows or knives
- Rely on typically western plot devices, such as a rivalry between two ranches, between settlers and natives, between settlers fighting for land or water rights, between desperadoes
- Create fantastic versions of typical western events, such as a bar standoff between two inimical mages.
- Set the game in a city or court
- Create NPCs who are spies, spymasters, plotters, conspirators, and femmes fatale.
- Replace James-Bond gadgets with fantasty equivalents (magic items, grappling bows, etc.)
- Rely on typically detective/spy devices, such as murder, theft of important documents, rivalry between two countries, etc.
- Create fantastic versions of typical detective/spy events, such as the shootout with bows, the seduction/assassination attempt, breaking into a foreign castle, etc.
- Set the game in a remote town, abandoned ruin, or cemetery
- Create NPCs who are spooky old men and women, serial killers, ritual murderers, black magicians, and monsters.
- Emphasize the use of fire, stakes, silver weapons, or ritual to defeat the enemy.
- Rely on typically horror plot devices, such as creation of a monster while delving into secrets humans were not meant to know and use of supernatural means to murder others.
- Create fantastic versions of typical horror events, such as the investigation through a haunted house or cemetery, the chase through the night, the sense of being stalked, confrontations with skeptical authorities, etc.
- Science Fiction
- Set the game in a secret government installation, strange laboratory, or on another world
- Create NPCs who are government Men in Black, aliens from another dimension or world, killers from the future, mad scientists, etc.
- Emphasize the use of steam- or magic-driven technology, offer magical versions of science fiction weapons (wands for lasers, force-swords for lightsabers)
- Rely on typically science-fiction plot devices, such as government cover-ups, secret experiments, contact with other planets, investigation into other times.
- Create fantastic versions of typical science-fiction events, such as first contact with an alien species, discovery of a twisted government plot, invention of a world-destroying device, and so forth.
- Set the game in a city
- Create one or more NPCs who run around in masks and costumes and give themselves fanciful names (Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel); at least one should be a villain
- Emphasize the use of magic or mental powers to be flamboyant either in attack or defense, use stilted superhero-talk and silly one-liners
- Rely on superheroic plot devices, like attempts to take over the city or world
- Create fantastic versions of superheroic events, like the big fight in the street or in some villain’s hidden warehouse filled with catwalks and vats of bubbling acid.
Metagenres should be used sparingly and, usually, consistently. Players might get confused or annoyed if one game is noir and the next comedic and the next romance and the next tragic. Remember that each metagenre will have a lasting effect on the character and the campaign!
- Emphasize darkness, rain, fog, and pollution (yes, many medieval cities were polluted as a result of soot from fireplaces)
- Create characters such as the corrupt politician, the cop on the take, the femme fatale, the hardboiled but moral investigator
- Emphasize corruption and double-crosses, and use slang-filled, cynical, snappy dialog
- Rely on low-impact plots, like murder, theft, graft, blackmail, and so forth
- Emphasize investigation and confine combat to ambushes and the final confronation
- Emphasize sunlight and settings where there are specific expectations for behavior that can be broken with comic results (high-class party, funeral, wedding)
- Create characters such as the nagging in-law, the doting suitor, the crotchety elder, the puffed-up rich man, etc.
- Emphasize slapstick and/or verbal humor (if you and your players are witty) and incongruous events such as mistaken identities.
- Rely on plots that revolve around one or more of the characters but that won’t have a highly dramatic effect on the character’s life; don’t use plots that could end in tragedy
- Emphasize silliness, stereotypes (or wildly broken stereotypes), and good-humored acceptance of setbacks. Try to end on an upbeat note, with everything falling in place in the end and everybody getting their “just deserts.”
- Emphasize catastrophic events, such as storms, droughts, war; use metaphor like a drought accompanying the struggle to find the rightful ruler of a realm.
- Create characters with both good and bad sides; no matter how good the individual, s/he must have a tragic flaw that will lead to his or her downfall. (Player characters with such personalities are excellent for this metagenre)
- Emphasize a spiritual or moral struggle that accompanies the physical struggle. If possible, have the player characters break some sort of moral law or standard.
- Rely on plots that revolve around events that will force PCs or NPCs to face their tragic flaw and the consequences of their actions, especially if they broke some sort of moral code.
- Emphasize things falling apart or coming undone, the struggle to understand ethics and morals, and unhappy endings in which people die, are imprisoned, go mad, or fail to succeed at some goal. Note that tragedy shouldn’t be used very often in RPGs; it’s seldom fun for the players.
- Emphasize settings in which the two people who are to become romantically involved are close together (note that running romance indicates that a player is willing to have their character involved in a romantic relationship; don’t force this on a player!).
- Create a romantic possibility who is good-hearted and good-natured, proactive, ethical, courageous, treats romantic interests with respect, and doesn’t fold under pressure. Romantic interests might be shy or cynical at first, but should “break through” with the PC’s help.
- Emphasize a struggle that will pitch the characters together in which they will come to see each others’ best sides. Put obstacles in their way but make the obstacles surmountable.
- Rely on plots that throw the two together often but add a rival (or perceived rival) for the NPC romantic interest’s attention, perhaps one particularly galling or annoying to the PC.
- Emphasize positive values, the healing power of love, and the growth that two people can help each other achieve. Note: A good romantic plot does not make one person a victim, but makes both equally strong and equally vulnerable. Adjust the NPC’s power level accordingly.
Originally written September 15, 2000
Image Source: Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1917.