Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Your Turn: Low Magic, High Fantasy, or Swords & Sorcery?


Moving on from the discussions about heroism and D&D, rules sets, and taste in art.  One element I see lurking behind the discussion is the style of play and the type of setting you run, since that sets the tone.  Besides, it was time for a new poll!

Here's my attempt at characterizing the settings types.  Drop a vote on the poll about which setting style you prefer.

The High Fantasy Setting
Most folks understand high fantasy - big, sweeping storylines that tell an epic story of good vs evil.  Morality tends to be black and white and is supported by a supernatural cosmology.  The bad guys are easy to identify because they look evil and use lots of humanoids and other disposable servants that can be killed in great numbers.

Magic is not rare.  Demihumans like elves and dwarves (and even more fantastic races) are common, and the power curve extends from the human to the superhuman.  Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and standard D&D stuff is all high fantasy - you've got the Elminsters and Manshoons, the Iuzs and Mordenkainens all running around.

The Low Magic Setting
A low magic setting usually mirrors a fantasy version of a historical period on earth.  The morality involves lots of shades of grey.  Magic is limited - troublesome, world-changing spells like Raise Dead or Continual Light are cut.  Wizards and spell casters are mistrusted, if present.  The world is human centric - characters fight other humans, and demihumans exist on the fringe of society, if at all.  I consider the various AD&D 2E historical books as examples of this type.

Sword & Sorcery
If low fantasy and high fantasy are the extremes, Sword & Sorcery splits the middle.  It takes the moral grey areas and rare magic of the first type of setting, and pairs it up with a more fantastic world that doesn't emulate any real world history.  Sword & Sorcery doesn't care about a global struggle of good vs evil or big storylines; the stories are episodic and involve action, adventure, picaresque rogues, and a bit of swashbuckling.  Most D&D games seem to follow a Swords & Sorcery narrative structure (episodic stories) but use higher magic than the source literature because the game itself is high magic.  Despite the name, I think of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy as the best S&S setting, and Dark Sun was S&S as well.