But What Type of Fantasy?

Started by Myrleena, January 28, 2011, 09:05:22 PM

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But What Type of Fantasy?

Yet another blog, and this one due to some...interesting misconceptions of what different types of Fantasy mean. We've all heard of High Fantasy (I hope!) but what does it mean? Well, I'm going to try to answer the question.  And if I don't manage it...lets just say that if you know me in real life, sue me.

First off, there are a number of common threads that tie fantasy together. Each of these threads are essentially universal between fantasy settings, though genre blending can quickly change them. I'll add I'm taking some of the information I'm using comes from Fantasy Hero from Hero Games. If you want a truly in-depth review of the subject, I highly recommend taking a look at it.

1) Magic Almost all fantasy settings involve magic to one degree or another. Magic ranges from minor to world-shaking in potency, and with magic come fantastical beings like magic.  Only the lowest of the low fantasy settings do not include magic at all.

2) Alternate Worlds Again, almost universal to Fantasy is that it isn't set upon our own world. Instead the characters are on another world, often superficially similar to our own. This isn't always the case, of course, but it is a very common thing to apply to a Fantasy Setting.

3) Low Technology Almost all Fantasy settings are set with semi-medieval technology. Of course, some settings diverge from this, having modern or even futuristic technology. On the other side, there are settings where magic has entirely replaced technology, which can lead to interesting changes to the world to say the least.

These three threads are what commonly define a Fantasy setting. You can mix and match such things, of course, but when you hear Fantasy, this is what is most commonly meant.  However, there are a large number of sub-genres inside of Fantasy, each with their own complex meanings.

1) Crossworlds Fantasy In Crossworlds Fantasy, the heroes of the piece find themselves transported from one world to another, most commonly from our world to a fantasy world where they find they can become heroes in some great conflict. These worlds are often strangely similar to the original world (except when they're startlingly different) and cause confusion. A good example of this is the Chronicles of Narnia. However, Crossworlds Fantasy is something of a sub-sub-genre. A story can be told using other sub-genres in addition to this one, which makes seeing it on its own unusual.

2) Epic Fantasy Most famously represented by Lord of the Rings, Epic Fantasy features grand and romantic stories of the struggles of the heroes against the vast and often overwhelming forces of the enemy. This setting is built to focus around the heroes, for they are the only ones who matter, and everything else awaits them to finish their grand Quest and defeat the great evil. This is the focus of Epic Fantasy most of the time, the concept of a quest that the hero must achieve and the great journey it involves. Much like Crossworlds Fantasy, Epic Fantasy is often told in High, Low, or Swords & Sorcery Fantasy styles, and is rarely seen on its own.

3) High Fantasy In High Fantasy magic is powerful or common, capable of wonders that can shake the world. While in Low Fantasy spells and magic-users are rare, in High Fantasy it might often seem that you can't throw a stone without hitting a mage of some ability. In the most exceptional of situations, magic can be used to completely replace technology in High Fantasy. In High Fantasy a powerful spellcaster may even be able to bargain with a god on equal terms.

4) Low Fantasy The opposite of High Fantasy, Low Fantasy settings contain little magic, or even none at all. If it does exist it tends to be hard or dangerous to cast and have little effect. There is little to say about such a setting, but it is often blended with a Historical Fantasy game.

5) Swords & Sorcery Also known as Heroic Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery tends to focus on warriors and roguish characters for the most part. There are magic users, but they tend to be rare. These works tend to focus on characters like Conan, where the sword-wielding hero relies on his wits and physical abilities to slay the monster, save the fair maiden, and save the day.  When magic users show up, they primarily tend to be villains whom the hero must defeat and their magic is slow and difficult. More often than not, if a spellcaster starts casting a spell the sword-wielding hero will cut him in half before he can finish a single incantation.

6) Urban Fantasy Last is the popular Urban Fantasy. Blending magic with modern day or futuristic themes, Urban Fantasy often involves a 'hidden history' where the monsters or magic users have hidden their existence from the world. Magic is generally subtle or doesn't get along with technology, and beasts silently prowl the night. Some of the more recent examples of this style of Fantasy are The Hollows by Kim Harrison, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, and a host of works by authors such as Wen Spencer, Laurell K. Hamilton and others.

So there you have it.  My own personal set of definitions of different flavors of Fantasy, as well as a good sample from one of my favorite sourcebooks on the subject.


While the Low Tech and Alternate Worlds were "almost all" a few decades ago, neither is so pervasive anymore (ex. Urban Fantasy which has pretty much dominated the market for the last 15 years -- Octavia Butler, Hamilton, Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Butcher, Harrison, Charlaine Harris, Tanya Huff, Eoin Colfer, Rick Riordan, Jonathan Stroud, Charles de Lint, Robert Asprin [Dragon books], even China Mieville although he's more steampunk fantasy).

A couple examples to add:

4) Low Fantasy -- The Videssos Cycle by Harry Turtledove, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, the Thieves' World series edited by Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey

5) Sword & Sorcery -- The Lankhmar series by Fritz Leiber (one of the classic examples) and the Eternal Champion series by Michael Moorcock (notably the Elric books), although in both cases the main characters are both swordsmen and magicians (the Grey Mouser's a minor mage, Elric's a fairly powerful one though his power relies on dodgy spirits who may choose to ignore him).

And another sub-genre:

7) Comic Fantasy where the fantastic elements are used for humorous effect.  Often paired with one or more other types.  Exemplified by Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin (MYTH books), Esther Friesner.
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I'm not necessarily that fond of Low Fantasy, so I'm not too familiar with such.  However, the reason I don't add in things like Comic Fantasy is because Comedy is a full genre of its own, and I don't really consider mixing two full genres to be a sub-genre.  Just a bit of explanation in my part.


I'm new to online RP, so I'm learning still. What is steampunk fantasy?
Thanx!  8-)


Steampunk fantasy...that depends, really.  The most common view that I have personally seen is as follows.  But so you're aware, this is just what I've seen.  There very likely are better explanations for it, but...*shrugs*

Steampunk is often set in a Victorian Era atmosphere, where clockwork and steam engines pervade.  Most items are ornate and often look overcomplicated, but there are pistols, clockwork automatons, zeppelins and more.  The best example I've seen of steampunk (IMO, of course) is in the online comic Girl Genius.  It has a number of fantastic elements to it, but it can give you a pretty good idea of how far steampunk can go.  Others prefer to keep it much more believable, however.

Steampunk Fantasy, on the other hand, would likely simply be taking steampunk and classic fantasy and melding them into one.  Elves, dwarves, magic...it isn't that hard to slot them in, once you have the feel of a steampunk world worked out.

Anyway, hope that helps. ^_^


A total noob here, but, where would Grimdark Fantasy fall into? Or am I that much of an idiot to have missed it?
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Like most styles of fantasy, Grimdark is mostly dependent on the setting.  You can have Grimdark in any of the settings I've mentioned above, but, in most cases it's Low Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery.  However, it's almost entirely focused on the theme of the world.  If there are hundreds of monsters or things that go bump in the night, and very few people who hunt them...that's sort of grimdark to me, at least.  I can see it in High or Low fantasy.  It all depends, at least in my opinion.