Designer Diary: Epic Fantasy & Tabletop RPGs – A Look at the Fundamentals of the Genre

I’ve talked about my strong personal affinity for the Epic Fantasy genre, and why understanding the genre matters when thinking about designing and playing a Tabletop RPG. But all of that begs the question: Just what is Epic Fantasy, anyway?

The easy (and flippant) answer is: “I know it when I see it”. But that’s hardly satisfying.

In fact, as I spent some time thinking about it, there are some features that most if not all examples of Epic Fantasy (with which I am personally familiar) in the body of the literature share in common. What are those common features? And how central are they to the experience of Epic Fantasy?

In my musing on the subject, I came up with over a dozen different genre features. Some of them, I reasoned, are very central to the experience of Epic Fantasy. Some less so. And some are actually red herrings – features that appear common but in fact are not central to the experience at all. This latter category can be confounding, as these features, if present, may lead one to mistake a given work of fiction for a work of Epic Fantasy even when they are not.

Accordingly, I grouped these different features into three buckets, or categories: the Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy, the Auxiliary Elements of Epic Fantasy, and the Common Supporting Tropes.

The Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy

These are the genre features – or “Elements” – that I deemed the most critical and defining features. In my game design notes, I wrote:

These are the irreducible core of the genre without which you lose the very heart of the genre. So essential are these that any single element lacking, in whole or in part, almost certainly excludes a story from the corpus of the genre. But while the Fundamental Elements are necessary to define the genre, they are by themselves insufficient.

Now, how true this is in practice may vary in part by the individual’s own personal preferences. But for me, they make up the heart of what I’m after. They are, in summary:

1. Wonder & Magic

This is the first and most obvious element or feature. It’s core to all of the larger Fantasy genre. It’s what defines Fantasy. Somewhere in a story there is that sense of wonder, that magical, mythical beating heart. Find it, and you’ve found your way into a Fantasy story.

While it’s the most irreducible feature of the genre, it may be that it’s also the easiest to capture. From the perspective of writing a TTRPG: is there some system or mechanic or key setting detail that supports the inclusion of the magical, mystical, wonderful world of the impossible? Congratulations: you have a Fantasy!

So my game needs something magical, wondrous, or supernatural. Since it’s a fantasy game, that’s basically a given. But the field is wide open as to what that looks like. Do the players get to dabble in the magic of the world directly, or is everything done indirectly or through NPC intermediaries? This gets to the heart of what the “magic system” looks like. And see: D&D has a magic system – it’s not exactly my favorite magic system ever, but it works. A lot of other fantasy games have gone before me that also have magic systems. Some well-regarded fantasy RPGs notably lack a defined magic system – magic is an alien and mysterious aspect of the world that is beyond the ken of mere mortals.

What makes figuring out what this trait of the game perhaps the most difficult is that what the magic system looks like really is dependent on the setting of the story. But if the game is meant to be setting-agnostic, focused instead on genre as the backbone of the game, then how can magic be addressed directly? It’s a challenge I’ve yet to figure out, honestly. Instead, as I’ve worked on the game, I’ve focused the vast majority of my attention on creating a solid system underlying everything else – everything mundane and non-magical. And yet, if my goal is to have magic and wonder woven into the fiber of the world (and the game system), shouldn’t figuring this out be one of my first priorities?

So in the near-term, figuring out a systematic approach to “magic” that comfortably encompasses “high-magic” and “low-magic” settings, whether “hard-magic” or “soft-magic”. At this stage, I don’t have an answer for that.

What’s more: there’s a lot more to what makes a fantasy story epic than the presence of magic.

2. Secret Lore & the Ancient Past

Not everything is known or, indeed, even knowable about the world. There is a rich and vibrant history to this world, but some of the most important aspects of that history remain, to this day, a mystery waiting to be discovered, apprehended, and as often the case may be, corrected.

Now, honestly, as an element of a game, it seems to me that maybe this feature trades more on the setting than on the mechanics. But let’s think about that, and unpack that assumption. Are there ways to pull in the secrets of the ancient past in a mechanical way? I honestly don’t know yet. But I suspect there’s something there. Maybe it’s just mechanics for how you go about building a setting from scratch. But I think there’s more to it than that. It’s an aspect of the game that I want to explore further as I dive deeper into designing and developing this game.

3. A Moral Landscape

What do I mean by a “moral landscape”? Simply this: that Epic Fantasy is by its nature heavily invested in interrogating questions of morality, ethics, right and wrong, good and evil. Some may do it in a simplistic, black-and-white approach (indeed, that may be the ur-example of this feature of the genre) but modern Epic Fantasy focuses more especially on the areas of gray, on the uncertainty of right and wrong.

Epic Fantasy heroes almost invariably choose the “right” path – from their own perspective. But that path is fraught with danger, peril, and threats to life and limb. And, sometimes they discover that what they believed to be the right path was, in fact, problematic – forcing them to re-calibrate their moral and ethical assumptions and re-navigate the moral landscape of the world to discover the true right path.

The mechanical options here present myriad possibilities. There’s D&D’s relatively simplistic “alignment” system, sure. But more often games these days take a more subtle and more story-driven approach to morality in the game, many with more impactful rules and systems. My own preference, here, is to use a somewhat freeform “Trait” system to allow players to define their own personal moral alignment, ethical priorities, and beliefs – and then to invoke those traits in a back-and-forth, give-and-take mechanical tug-of-war, using those Traits to provide mechanical advantage when appropriate, but just as often or more, to create story complications and material that directly interrogate and invoke those traits, and to provide key milestones to allow players to revise and update their alignment Traits based on changes to their characters’s worldviews.

4. The Main Characters Exemplify Heroic Ideals

This is straightforward enough. Sure, the Main Characters of any good story should be flawed, imperfect, and relatable. But in an Epic Fantasy they are also, in the heart of their hearts, Heroic. Heroism doesn’t mean the characters are flawless beyond reproach. But they have a strong internal sense of right-and-wrong, a powerful moral compass always pointing to what they perceive to be the good, and they follow that compass with purpose and intent.

I can possibly just roll this into the former element, since the two have significant overlaps – so I don’t have any more mechanical musings to add to what I already discussed above.

5. Grand Scale, Sweeping Scope

What it says on the tin: Epic means Epic. Big, important stuff happens. The characters travel across the world in their quest to save it. Many secondary and tertiary characters’s lives are touched by the Main Characters’s actions, most for the better, some for the worse.

Now, if I’m entirely honest, I’ve actually read a few Epic Fantasy’s that have a much more intimate and close focus. So maybe this isn’t a “Fundamental” trait? But it feels Fundamental. Even in those stories where the Epic Fantasy had a more narrow and intimate focus, there were hints of this grand, sweeping scope lying just beyond the boarders of the village, of big things happening which related directly to what the Main Characters were doing. At the end of the day, even when the Main Characters didn’t go globe-trotting, you just know that the ripples from their actions will have macro-scale consequences.

Once again, my instinct is to see this feature as an aspect of the world-building and the way the Players and GM navigate the core conflicts of their individual stories. But, once again, I have this distinctive, unshakable feeling that there’s something more to this element – something that I can and probably should reflect in my game’s mechanics.

6. An Ensemble Cast

Epic Fantasies are often about one or two main characters – the proverbial “Heroes”, the neophytes to adventure who nonetheless have the biggest destinies to fulfill . But those few more central characters are almost invariably surrounded by a large, ensemble cast of supporting characters fulfilling a variety of key story roles. There’s the Hero’s Mentor, for instance, and the Hero’s Guardian (a more experienced character who protects the neophyte Hero until he or she is strong enough to stand on his or her own), and the Hero’s Foil or Jester – and so on.

There are plenty of roles for a good-sized group of Players to fill. But here’s the key: these characters don’t all play the same way. The Guardian is strong, experienced, worldly. In D&D they’d be high-level character, whereas the neophyte Hero starts at a low level. Using D&D’s paradigm of class and level simply won’t work to capture the range of characters that populate an Epic Fantasy story.

Mechanically, you need a way to combine the stronger, more experienced characters like the Mentors and the Guardians together with the Neophytes and the Jesters and others who are relatively “weaker” in the traditional RPG, combat-oriented sense, and to have them all play a role of roughly equal narrative weight in the game. This is one of the key areas where I think I need to spend time thinking about how to model the sort of ensemble cast that I envision filling an Epic Fantasy story translating to a Role-Playing Game experience.

7. Sacrifice & Loss

Saving the world, or whatever other epic task is laid before the heroes of the story, isn’t an easy job. In fact, to succeed the Main Characters will have to make sacrifices. Some of them will not make it to the very end and THAT’S OKAY. That’s part of what makes it “Epic“. Even when we’re not talking about the sacrifice and loss of characters’ lives, there are other sacrifices that may need to be made. A traditional one is the loss of innocence – it’s a loss that most of us members of humanity can directly relate to. But there may be still other, more tangible sacrifices: Losing an object of value. Losing access to privileges. Loss of freedom.

The point is… someone, somewhere along the way will lose something. And that loss itself will propel the story forward. Loss and sacrifice isn’t capricious. Character death is not random. These things serve a greater purpose.

This is another one that I consider supremely important to implement in a mechanical way. But it’s a nut I haven’t quite cracked yet. The simple version of what I imagine is to have players voluntarily make sacrifices at key story moments – voluntarily give up something of value up to and including voluntarily giving up your character’s life, but to have those sacrifices generate new resources or increased effectiveness in proportion to the sacrifice being made, allowing the good guys to triumph over evil because of and not in spite of the sacrifice that was made. But how do you mechanically codify that in a satisfying way?

8. Drawing the Eyes of Gods or Goddesses, Powerful Wizards, Supernatural Beings, or Mighty Kings and Emperors

You can probably file this under “Grand Scale, Sweeping Scope”. The point of differentiation being: even if the main characters aren’t themselves inherently important and powerful people, the things they do will draw the attention of and engage characters – many of them likely to be NPCs – who do have power, authority, or prestige in the world. Or, sometimes, the Main Characters are those mighty kings, savvy generals, powerful wizards. Or sometimes the characters start out as people of little import but transform through the story into those mighty kings and wizards.

The real point is – one size doesn’t fit all, here. Somehow or other, the powerful will make their presence felt in the story. That may be the Main Characters themselves, or others in the periphery who seek to influence or to enjoy the influence of the Main Characters.

It’s also worth pointing out that this particular trait doesn’t boil down as easily as the others to a simple and pithy headline. That’s because what constitutes the “Mighty” and most influential non-player characters in a given game will vary from game to game, potentially even from session to session. In one world the “Gods & Goddesses” may be a distant memory, mythical beings that are no longer followed and who don’t appear to directly interfere with the affairs of mortals. Kings, Emperors, and Wizards may be the extent of the powerful and influential NPCs the main characters will meet. Or the main characters may find themselves drawn into the affairs of the Lords, Ladies, Kings and Queens of Fairyland or a similar supernatural realm. In another story they really will meet the Gods and/or Goddesses who reign over the world directly, whether to petition them for aid or to directly confront them. Or it might be a mix of any and all of the above, or other related events I’ve not personally conceived of.

As I said above: the real point is, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. And yet, without some interaction with those of power and influence in the world, there’s a bit of a hole where the “Epic” in “Epic Fantasy” hasn’t been entirely filled.

Conclusion

And those are, I believe, the Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy. But I’m just one person. I can barely contain my curiosity. What do you think? What makes an Epic Fantasy for you? What did I get right? What did I miss or forget? And what did I include that just strikes you as wrong or odd?

That was a lot of ground to cover all at once, so I’m leaving the rest – the Auxiliary Elements and the Common Supporting Tropes – until next time, and thus I’ll complete my portrait of the Epic Fantasy genre, and how I envision translating it into a game.

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