Designer Diary: Epic Fantasy, Genre Fidelity, and TTRPGs

As I start to reframe this blog – to refresh it and update it more frequently – I wanted to spend some time here talking about my Tabletop Role-Playing Game (commonly abbreviated as “TTRPG”) design efforts, because it’s one of my two major writing efforts. That means I’ll be, in good time, discussing various aspects of the game’s design, my intent for the design, debating different mechanical approaches to achieving my overarching goals, and so on. So welcome to the first entry in my Designer Diary.

Now before I can get into the nitty gritty of game mechanics and how I imagine the game working I’ve got to spend a minute talking about my goals for the game: what I envision the end-product looking like at a high level.

And for me, for this game, that means talking about genre.

Genre isn’t a new topic of discussion here. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since I set out on the path of trying to become a writer. But why is genre so important to my game design?

Because, in my view, genre is an irreducible aspect of the play experience in TTRPGs. Mechanics can either support or undermine the genre of the game, and I firmly believe that if you are aiming for a certain experience in play, you have to be cognizant of the genre tropes you are seeking to emulate in play. You have to think about how those tropes can best be represented in play, and how to build up or subvert those tropes, and why you might want to. Which means understanding the genre you’re working in.

But there’s another reason genre is so important to me. There’s one genre in particular that is nearest and dearest to my heart. One genre that speaks to me like no other. One genre that, in my view, has some of the most powerful potential to tell stories that examine and build up the human condition.

Epic Fantasy.

But there’s a problem that I see. There are literally thousands of TTRPGs on the market – everything from the behemoth that is Dungeons & Dragons to free, single-page RPGs and the thousands of games in between. Just peruse the offerings at if you want to take a gander at the plethora of offerings. What chance do I have in crafting a game that stands out?

No chance, honestly. But that’s not the point of design. For me, the design process itself is rewarding – and it would be even if I ended up with a game that was too similar to any other game on the market. I want to create a game that matches my vision of what a Role-Playing game can be. And that means zeroing in on that genre: Epic Fantasy.

And yet, of these thousands of games I know to exist, few if any manage to capture the essence and tropes of Epic Fantasy in a thoroughly satisfactory way. Granted, I can’t possibly know about every game on the market – thousands is too many for any one soul to meaningfully comb through. Even so, among the many high-profile games with which I am familiar, I find that quintessential Epic Fantasy experience ever elusive. There are games that I believe, if I got a chance to play them, would come very close. (I’d truly love to try out games such as FATE, which may have the flexibility to do Epic Fantasy as well as it does any other genre, Fellowship, which is definitely billed as Tolkienian Epic Fantasy, and Ironsworn, which isn’t Epic Fantasy per se but looks like it has a lot to offer that mirrors the experience I’d want to see in an Epic Fantasy game.) But none (that I know) that have quite everything I want to see in a game. None that match my vision for what an Epic Fantasy game could be, arguably should be. I perceive this gap between the gameplay experience of even those games that I know are aiming firmly at an Epic Fantasy experience, and the ideal Epic Fantasy experience.

I call this gap between what Epic Fantasy embodies in the ideal sense, and the actual play outcomes “Genre Fidelity“. Inasmuch as some games are ostensibly trying to go for the Epic Fantasy experience, or at least market themselves as such – let’s pick on Dungeons & Dragons for a moment shall we? – and the play experience falls short of the ideal, there’s a very low degree of genre fidelity.

Using our example of Dungeons & Dragons, it largely markets itself as the quintessential Epic Fantasy game. (Yes, arguably, they are positioned more as a Swords & Sorcery game, which is a different genre entirely, but in my opinion it’s not really marketed that way.) But when you dive into the mechanics and the kind of play the game supports? It’s a fantasy combat simulator game. Does combat happen in Epic Fantasy? Well, sure, of course it does. But Epic Fantasy isn’t exclusively or even mostly about fighting. It’s about so much more. And none of that “more” is supported by the mechanics of D&D. If, while playing D&D, you happen to get a high-fidelity Epic Fantasy play experience, that’s mostly in spite of the game’s mechanics, and not because of them.

But if Epic Fantasy is so important to me, and the play experience I want to engender so entangled with the genre, what does that mean for me, as a designer?

First and foremost, it means defining what it means to be Epic Fantasy. Which, even for a genre as “prescriptive” as Epic Fantasy, is a tall order.

Next time I’m going to tackle that very question.