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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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 DriveThruRPG.com 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.

The Evil (And the Good) Among Them: Exoticism, The Other, Epic Fantasy, Elves and Orcs

Continuing on my current running theme of examining the tropes of Epic Fantasy, a few weeks ago I happened into a discussion that spanned multiple blogs that caught my interest.  And as these things often do, they settled into my mind where they collided with things I was already thinking about.

The topic at hand is apparently perennially challenging to Fantasy writers, especially as our genre grows and matures and opens up to wider audiences.  (Let’s hope it’s opening to wider audiences, anyway.)  And that subject is the question of “writing the Other”.  The “Other” with a Capital-O.  I’ve come to understand the word as something of a catch-all phrase for people who are “different”, in the sense that they have a different race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic background, age, or whatever.  I put “different” in quotes, though, because of course there are all kinds of assumptions implied in the use of the word “different” and “other”: namely, the assumption of a default race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, et cetera.  That basic, unquestioned assumption being part of the problem and, in many ways, being anathematic to one of the core principles of Speculation Fiction, that being the exploration of worlds that are, well, different.

Now, I will caveat my further thoughts by pointing out the obvious: I am far from the first to think about these issues, and I will be far from the best.  In the great hierarchy of people who know what the crap they’re talking about on this issue, I rank somewhere near the very bottom.  At least one author whose thoughts I follow fairly closely, Jim C. Hines points to author Nisi Shawl as a powerful and authoritative voice on the subject.  (That link goes to an article Nisi wrote on the specific subject of “Cultural Appropriation”, which is one of many related topics under the general heading of “Writing the Other”.  But Nisi Shawl along with author Cynthia Ward co-developed a panel on “Writing the Other” as well as co-authored a companion workbook.  I have neither attended the workshop nor purchased their guidebook.)  Meanwhile, here’s a recent interesting post on the topic by an author whose background is somewhat more similar to my own (Ken Scholes).  And fellow writer-blogger T. S. Bazelli addressed this and related topics here.

So yeah, caveats and all, what got me thinking most recently on this subject was a post on Tiyana Marie White’s blog on “Portraying Cultures & Peoples in Speculative Fiction“. Continue reading

Epic Fantasy: Archetypes & Window Dressing

A couple months ago I posted a short essay in which I began examining the ideas and archetypes that are particular to the Epic Fantasy genre.  This is important to me, because while Epic Fantasy is my first and primary literary love, I don’t want to write in it simply out of habit: I want to make the choice of writing Epic Fantasy an informed and intentional choice.

In the essay, titled “Post-Tolkien Fantasy“, I questioned the decision by many latter-day “Post-Tolkienists” to eschew the common tropes, archetypes, and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque-flavored Epic Fantasy, and I questioned my own relationship with those same tropes and archetypes.

My purpose was to point out that neither Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy nor Post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy is inherently a superior mode, and that both have potentially valuable aspects as well as potential pitfalls and challenges.

I’d been thinking about the subject, in general, because my current WIP is an Epic Fantasy of the predominantly Post-Tolkien variety: inasmuch as it lacks things like a pseudo-medieval setting, magic swords, dark lords, hidden heirs, and other such archetypes and tropes.  But it was my contention that my WIP is still, despite these things, an Epic Fantasy.

In writing that essay, I referred to some of the common tropes and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy as “window dressing”.  My contention was that some tropes and trappings add to the aesthetic “flavor” of a given literary work, but don’t fundamentally interact with the core foundational archetypes that constitute the being of Epic Fantasy.  In other words: elves, dwarves, and dragons, knights, kings, and castles – these aren’t foundationally important elements of Epic Fantasy.  Their presence or absence doesn’t make or break an Epic Fantasy.

In referring to these things as “window dressing”, I entered into an exchange of ideas with a pleasantly articulate fellow named Jeff (Confidentially: I found your last name from your LinkedIn profile… but since “Jeff” looks a little like an alias I figured I’d respect that and refer to you just as Jeff) who responded to my article with his essay “My Plea for Philological Fantasy“.  Jeff approaches the topic from an angle decidedly more in favor of Tolkienesque Fantasy – a choice that I can’t disagree with.  At the same time, it’s clear that he doesn’t advocate for this choice based solely on an appreciation for the aesthetics of a Tolkien-like fantasy.  Continue reading

Post-Tolkien Fantasy

Like a lot of fans of Fantasy literature, and especially of the Epic Fantasy subgenre, I grew up on what today you might call “Tolkienesque” fantasy.  You likely know what I mean: Dragons and Elves and Fairies and Wizards and Magic Swords and Hidden Heirs and Noble Destinies.  I could take a year off your life just by linking to the relevant “TV Tropes” pages.  (Don’t worry, I won’t do that do you.  I love you too much.  You can get lost all by yourself if that’s your inclination. Oh ye gods, I almost got lost myself just by linking the home page!)

One of the first fantasy novels I ever read was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first in his “Prydain Chronicles”.  It wasn’t much longer before I’d read Tolkien and Dragonlance and a slew of other Tolkienian fantasy works.  Although Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t feature all of the major tropes and archetypes we now associate with fantasy of this type, his work was nonetheless so seminal in the foundations of this genre that we now consider him to be arch-progenitor of the form and genre, even if some of these tropes actually predate him.

And yet, it’s all the fashion and rage, these days, to dismiss Tolkienesque-style Epic Fantasy, to bemoan the woeful and backward state of the genre, and to denounce as tired, and trite and boring all of these old tropes.  Most of the big names in modern Fantasy Literature make a big deal about how about how they’re not writing Tolkienesque Fantasy.  When Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings came out he wrote an essay called “Postmodernism in Fantasy” (and got a lot of attention in the blogosphere grumbling that he’d misused the term “postmodernism”), he was essentially making this point.  Perhaps what Brandon was really talking about wasn’t Postmodern Fantasy.  Perhaps what he was really talking about was, to coin a phrase, Post-Tolkien Fantasy.

To hear the Post-Tolkienists talk, the world of fantasy has heretofore been nothing but a sad and endless stream of cheap Tolkien knock-offs and drudgery.  But at last, they promise, there will be an end to this otherwise endless tide of backward fantasy literature.  At last, they will create something new, something that challenges the old, familiar tropes.  At last, we will shed the shackles of Tolkienism!

Me… I don’t think that way. Continue reading

The Stand-Alone versus The Sequel

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately, as I’ve gotten deeper into writing the first draft of “Book of M”.  It’s especially come to the fore the more I think about the background material that I’ve developed – and continue to develop – for this project.

I’d always conceived of “Book of M” as a “Stand-alone”.  It has a self-contained plot with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  I didn’t always know exactly where the story was going or how it was going to end, but I had a general vision for it.  And now that I’ve got the thing outlined, I’m confident the story can be told in 250,000 words or less – even if I do go over my target length of 125,000 words, it will still be within the bounds of a typically-successful epic fantasy novel.  From my outline, I don’t really see a satisfying way of splitting the book into a longer story.  My plan for the novel does not make for the springboard to a traditional fantasy trilogy.

And yet, I’ve now committed nearly 50,000 words just to the backstory: the background details, the history, the worldbuilding.  That’s a significant investment in detail for a one-and-done story.  And naturally I’ve wondered: Should I make this the beginning of a series

Well, I don’t know the answer to that, yet. Continue reading

The Tragedy of Multi-Volume Epics

Read an interesting article this week on “the perils and pleasures of long-running fantasy series” by Zack Handlen.  The article seems to conclude, ultimately, that all very long, multi-volume epics are by design doomed to disappoint – and yet we love them anyway.  It’s a difficult conclusion to reach.

Zack Handlen appears believes this happens because readers become attached to the characters in these stories – a true enough proposition.  I know I’ve become strongly attached to characters in long-running series.  The readers, Zack argues, are involved in an intimate “relationship” with the series that is ultimately “one sided”.  With each successive volume, the epic fantasy author raises the stakes – and reader expectations – for the final volume, making his job increasingly difficult.  Part of the problem, the article suggests, is that the once a book is published, it’s “set in stone”.  The author can’t go back and tweak it, revise it, and refashion it.  As the story changes in the telling, the details at the beginning of the series may no longer mesh with the reality that comes at the end.  The series accumulates so many threads, some are left loose and other resolved unsatisfactorily for at least some readers.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the general thesis that all long-running epic fantasies necessarily lead to disappointment.  Continue reading