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.


  1. I would agree mostly with your characterizations--at least if we view those as generalities. I would dissent, though, and say most D&D games don't follow a S&S narrative structure. I think they follow more of a episodic TV structure--characters have a home base, go forth and do this weeks thing, then come home. There are a lot of episodic things besides S&S.

    In general, I would say S&S comes from the union of historic adventure action (the likes of Harold Lamb and Talbot Mundy) and the weird tale.

    I do think you have some gritty/ shades of gray epic fantasy these days, too--the Malazan series and Bakker's Prince of Nothing series being prime examples.

  2. I use to be in the High Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery pen, but nowadays I'm more inclined towards the low magic setting; if only because I haven't quite managed to play such a game as yet.

  3. Game play at the table might resemble episodic TV more than S&S literature, but I tend to think players and DMs use the literature as inspiration for modeling personalities and adventures.

    I know it's my preference to end and start sessions at a safe base, following the TV episodic model.

  4. I do think that you can split the setting's power level from the heroic/epicness of the events in the game. You can have campaign in a high fantasy/magic setting like Faerun, but the PCs spend most of their time just dealing mundane stuff. Likewise, characters in a low magic setting might be saving the world.

    I ramble about this a bit here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=123l9iL8NvY
    [/shameless plug]

  5. Oh, and re: poll, I prefer S&S :-)

  6. I naturally gravitate toward low magic with one or two of the world-changers left in to give the setting that obvious feel of 'fantasy', but then get tugged into S&S territory by the desires of players or the rule-of-cool factor in a setting.

  7. I'm an S&S man through and through.

  8. I'd prefer something like this:

    The morality involves lots of shades of grey. 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.

    As for the type of storyline, that's up to the players. If they want to breed horses, then that's fine, or I'll at least tell them about them the closest local equivalent if horses don't exist. If they want to save the world, then that's fine, I'll put it in danger from something.

    Capcha: Rocked. Well, that's a good omen, I hope. (It could mean I end up getting stoned to death. :D)

  9. I suppose I'd pick S&S, but honestly I'd pick a fourth path and say Dark Fantasy. The fantasy I like tends to be grim and gritty, but that doesn't necessarily mean little to no magic. Think Warhammer Fantasy I guess.

    So if we're defining S&S as the middle ground it fits, though honestly High is probably more accurate only with less of a sweeping plot.

  10. Yep, to make a poll useful you need to expect some generalities. I put Dark Sun as S&S (even though it was a 2E setting) as it was fairly 'dark fantasy' as well.

    I expected a majority of Swords & Sorcery, a lot of low fantasy/low magic, and not too much high fantasy (amongst us bloggers) but so far S&S is killing it.