Bear with me as I set some expectations for what we’re going to look at today. The basis for everything I am going to explore is the interaction between sub-genres of fantasy and the scope of a fantasy campaign. To frame this discussion, we’re going to look at some terms as defined in the Big Book of Masters of Dungeons in the purview of Dragons that sometimes associate with Dragons. That said, this shouldn’t only apply to level-based fantasy stories, but it should definitely make sense as an extension of level-based fantasy game assumptions.
When I’m talking about scope, I’m looking at the impact the players have on the setting, and the range of adventures a character is likely to explore. In level-based parlance, this generally maps to the tiers of play model, which goes something like this:
- Local (The Fate of a Village)
- Heroes (The Fate of a Region)
- Legends (The Fate of a Nation or Significant Portion of the World)
- Epics (The Fate of the World)
We’ll circle back on this, but the scope of each of these is going to be a little bit different based on the sub-genre of fantasy. While we’re keeping to the same “tiers” delineated in the World’s Most Well-Known Fantasy Fame and Fortune Acquisition Simulator, in this case I’m looking at the biggest stakes each tier is likely to face, separated a bit from any other assumptions that go with the acquisition of greater abilities. This is also at least somewhat flavored by the thought that player characters are at least semi-heroic. They may not primarily adventure because they want to save the world, but in the course of their personal motivations, it ends up being part of the package.
Stakes involve the actual form that the above scope is dealing with. For example, the fate of a village looks different when the stakes are saving them from an undead infestation, versus saving them from bandits that will slowly drain them of all their resources, but both are local problems that will affect the long-term fate of the village.
Stakes are going to be influenced by the genre. Facing a power-hungry Emperor that is about to consolidate power by besieging the last Queen holding out against their power could effectively be about the fate of the world, because the fate of all the known lands are involved, but that feels different than the fate of the world hanging in the balance because an ancient god that lives at the center of the world is about to awaken.
Once again, we’re going to take our cues on the genre from the game that would be called U & R if you removed the first letter of each word in the title. These are not the definitive, all-encompassing genres that can define fantasy stories, but they are going to be my means of limited exactly how deep into the well I dive. For purposes of this article, were going to look at the following:
- Heroic Fantasy
- Sword and Sorcery
- Epic Fantasy
- Mythic Fantasy
- Dark Fantasy
There are all kinds of definitions you can find for these genres, but what I’m looking at in this case is using these general functional definitions.
- Heroic Fantasy: Even when the scope of the story or campaign is limited, the player characters obviously matter. If a thing is going to get done that has an impact, it will be done by the player characters. In this genre, characters are much more likely to purposefully engage with the circumstance affecting the fate stakes, knowing what is involved.
This can mean the player characters are “chosen ones,” but it just means that, from their perspective, no one else is going to show up in time to make a difference. People that encounter them can tell they are special and that they have agency in the narrative. That doesn’t mean they don’t face challenges or are always right, but it’s clear they are meant for great things, if they seize the moment. And they get fed a lot of moments. While not every character may have pure motivations, at least some will, and it’s at least more obvious when people are trying to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
None of these genres exists entirely within their own neatly defined borders, and Heroic Fantasy may sometimes look like Epic Fantasy, but it’s just as likely that the heroes in a Heroic Fantasy story are facing a series of different villains and hardships that are ultimately unrelated, while Epic fantasy tends to build upon previous threats for a linked, interconnected saga.
- Sword and Sorcery: The player characters are important, but maybe not the only people that can do a thing. The reason they end up affecting the fate of people, places, or things is that their other interests usually overlap with important matters that are going to occur.
Sword and Sorcery characters should always feel important, but they may also be challenged in their notions of how important they are by rivals more often than heroic fantasy characters. They may end up having the opportunity to make the world a better place, but those adventures happen after they have had the chance for general fame and glory. Personal goals, family pride, and vengeance are often going to be part of the story. While there may be eventual consequences, it’s not uncommon for “the ends to justify the means” in Sword and Sorcery stories.
It’s not uncommon for the dangers set loose in a Sword and Sorcery setting to be a consequence of people that are just greedy or short-sighted, rather than having a grand plan to remake the world. Setting loose a powerful being that a lesser villain assumes will be under their control, for example, is a pretty common trope for Sword and Sorcery games.
- Epic Fantasy: The previous genres are defined more from the bottom up, by the heroes and how the world views them, and how they accomplish their goals. Epic fantasy is more top-down . . . there are a series of important things that need to be done, and those events will impose their importance on the campaign continually until they are dealt with.
In many cases, the woes of a campaign world will be related to a greater overall menace. The player characters may only touch on the shadow of these machinations at the local tier, but the reason the local problems are happening is likely somehow related to a major villain or force of destruction that is pushing for a singular event with stakes that haven’t been seen for years/decades/centuries in the campaign world.
This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t important, just that if they don’t devote at least a significant amount of their time to address the growing threat, that threat is going to overshadow any personal desires that the player characters are going to have.
- Mythic Fantasy: Mythic Fantasy is not unlike Epic Fantasy, except everything matters. The player characters are the ones that need to do what needs to be done, not unlike Heroic Fantasy, but in this case, even relatively small decisions will have major ramifications. Mythic fantasy isn’t about saving the status quo from an uncomfortable chaotic development. It’s about the player characters ushering in radical change with their successful actions.
In some ways, Mythic Fantasy is the “character-focused” version of Epic Fantasy. Even if all the events in the character’s lives aren’t directly connected, all of the results of what the characters do will be Very Important. The characters are meant to be world-famous. That doesn’t mean they won’t face challenges, but it means when they defeat those challenges, no one ever forgets what happens, and if they forget anything about those challenges, it’s the failings of the player characters.
This means everything is pushing player characters towards being rulers, saints, and maybe even eventually demigods. The slight nuance between this and Epic Fantasy is that a character in Mythic Fantasy that is chosen to be the agent of a god might reject that god’s patronage, and they are still meant to be just as important. In Epic Fantasy, rejecting the help of the gods might be foolish and disastrous, and in Mythic Fantasy, rejecting the help of a god may just become another side challenge that the character faces on the way to eventually being a legend.
- Dark Fantasy: While some fantasy horror stories are Dark Fantasy, not all Dark Fantasy is a horror story. Dark fantasy isn’t so much about fear or the supernatural. It is about never having a truly happy ending. Dark fantasy is often about having a choice between something bad and something worse. Doing the right thing has consequences and may not feel like a victory.This is going to be tricky to pull off, because player characters should feel like a situation would have been worse if they never intervened, but they should also feel like they were never going to be able to save everyone, or remove all the corruption, or stop the curse before someone suffered under its effects. It’s a balancing act between showing characters how bad the world could get if they didn’t take action, and showing them that the world is always going to be a mixed bag.In some ways, there is a similar “second layer” to all of the character’s actions in Dark Fantasy as there is in Mythic Fantasy, but instead of even minor actions leading to the increasing legend of the characters, even simple resolutions will have some element of sadness associated with that resolution. For example, taking out a vicious group of bandits may be followed up with meeting the bandit’s family that depended on her to bring in revenue from their violent profession.
Matching Stakes and Scope
The reason I wanted to look at the scope and the stakes of different fantasy campaigns is to look at how different genres of fantasy handle those stakes. Now that we’ve looked at and defined some ranges, let’s look at what different stakes will look like when added to a different scope.
On the local scope, we’ll look at a scenario, and see how it’s framed differently between each of the different genres of fantasy we’ve examined. We’re going to go back to our simple example of bandits causing problems for a village.
We’re using a village in this instance, but the lower end of this scale may vary based on the type of fantasy. The village may be some unnamed village in Mythic Fantasy. It may be a pleasant town in Heroic Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery, or it may be a poor, starving place in either Sword and Sorcery or Dark Fantasy.
In addition to villages, the broader scope of the campaign can be a large city, with the opening stages of the campaign being limited to a specific neighborhood of the city.
- Heroic Fantasy: The player characters may hear about the bandits when visiting family in the area. No one else is going to wander through the area before the next time the bandits are likely to raid the village, and the local warriors were wounded in the last scuffle.
- Sword and Sorcery: The player characters find out there is a bounty on the local bandits, and if they act quickly, they may be able to collect the bounty before anyone else collects it. They may end up running into rival adventurers on the way to collecting the bounty.
- Epic Fantasy: Bandits are raiding local villages. Patrols of the local nations have been pulled away due to massing armies elsewhere. The bandits turn out to be marked with a glowing rune and compelled to look for a secret passageway leading to a long-lost temple of evil under the village.
- Mythic Fantasy: The player characters just happen to be traveling through town when the bandits send a messenger challenging them to a fight for the fate of the village. If the player characters run the gauntlet of the bandit’s camp and defeat their supernatural leader, the local village is not only safe, but they build a monument to the heroes’ greatness and have a feast whenever they pass through town.
- Dark Fantasy: The bandits poison the water supply of the village, and demand tribute or else they will not provide the antidote to the poison. When the player characters defeat the bandits, they find out that there is no antidote. Many villagers are likely to die, and they need to find a new home with local, hostile villagers that are likely to treat them badly, or they need to try to forge a hard new life in the wilderness where they may not last the winter.
If we start with a village, when we move to the Heroic scope, we’re moving to a coalition of towns and villages that trade with one another and pass news to one another. It might be a province in a wider kingdom, or it might involve the player characters interacting with people that notice them at the local keep or capital city of a region.
In a more urban-based campaign, the scope of the adventure might move across multiple neighborhoods and start to gain the notice of the broader powers of one of the wards of the neighborhood.
In a Heroic Fantasy, Heroic Scale campaign, the player characters will likely have been noticed for their deeds in and around neighborhoods and villages and have a reputation for resolving trouble. In a Sword and Sorcery campaign, they may not be the only adventurers know for getting results, but they will be among the names that float to the top. It may be a matter of them being the first name on the list, with another name waiting in the wings. In a Dark Fantasy campaign, they may be well known, but not well regarded, and may be the best bad option for an appeal. In a Mythic Fantasy campaign, it may be that some authority wants to see if they are as amazing as the people in a village or neighborhood regard them, by providing them with a challenge.
In this case, let’s look at undead plaguing the countryside, and how the player characters from the previous example handle them.
- Heroic Fantasy: After helping out with the bandits and solving problems in several villages, the largest church in the area, to which most of the smaller churches in the region answer to, sends for the player characters, asking them to deal with a local cursed necropolis that was uncovered by an earthquake. They get well rewarded and are given a letter of recommendation if they ever want to meet the regional rulers for anything of importance if they are successful.
- Sword and Sorcery: The local lord excavated the ancient, cursed necropolis, not believing the curse would be as bad as it was in the legends. The player characters’ aren’t the first group that they hire to clean up their mess, and they find evidence of that if they take the job. If they find any treasure, it is likely what the original lord wanted when they disturbed the tomb, and if they end up defending themselves, the player characters may end up with a patron of a rival lord that pays them for exposing the dangerous activities of their previous employer.
- Epic Fantasy: The passage under the village led to underground catacombs, populated with monsters answering to the master of the amassed armies gathering in the region. One of those monsters is searching for a door that leads to a lost necropolis which has a journal of how to defeat the leader of the armies, and once the player characters have the key, the paladin leading the resistance armies asks them to find that book lost in the necropolis, so they can find a weakness.
- Mythic Fantasy: A regional lord invites the heroes to their court, and mentions that an ancient necropolis provides a threat every decade or so. They would deal with it themself, but they have heard the legendary tales of the heroes’ actions and they wish to see how amazing the PCs are for themself. If they are successful, they are given famous, named magic items, and are given largely symbolic titles, but are nevertheless widely known and heralded in the local halls of power.
- Dark Fantasy: A local cleric attempted to find the spirit of their lost spouse in an ancient, buried necropolis. The undead master of the place asked for a favor from the cleric in exchange for the spouse’s return to life. Years later, the necropolis rises. The key to destroying the master of the necropolis is for the spouse to willingly return to the land of the dead, and after the threat is dealt with, the local authorities demand the cleric be executed for their crimes, but if that happens, the town has no priest. The player characters must either leave the town without spiritual guidance or earn the enmity of the local lord that demands the sentence. Either way, their reputation is widely known at this point.
Following our previous examples, the legendary scope is going to see the player characters see the real, regional powers, and those powers will know who they are, at least by reputation. If you start with a village, then move to a keep or capital, this moves on towards the player characters being known at the national, kingdom-wide court. If you start with a neighborhood in a major city, this means the mayor or city council will know of them, and they will be dealing with matters that affect multiple wards, if not the whole city. People will know their names.
In a Dark Fantasy setting, the PCs may be hated by the regular people, and favored at court, or vice versa, but either way, their fame will be complicated. In a Sword and Sorcery setting, they may get to see themselves displace the old favorites or know that in some way their position is precarious, as they are well-known heroes, but might be rivals of the people in power. In a Heroic Fantasy campaign, powerful people from multiple organizations may share their council and trust their opinions. In a Mythic Fantasy campaign, they may repeat the same process they faced previously, where kings and high priests are trying to test them to see if they live up to their legendary status, while they are firmly loved in their homelands.
This time around, let’s look at a dragon ravaging the countryside, and how the heroes from our previous examples will find the situation waiting for them.
- Heroic Fantasy: The local rulers give the player characters authority to negotiate with the dragon on behalf of the kingdom. They are given a great treasure, and the ability to negotiate a truce to last at least 100 years. If they can’t do this, it’s their job to keep the dragon from being a threat to the countryside.
- Sword and Sorcery: The dragon is a potential threat. When it woke up, it caused a lot of damage. No one saw it after its initial rampage, however, and now different factions want its hoard, as well as, you know, making the countryside safe. There are several dragon-slaying weapons known by the kingdom’s sages and would-be dragon slayers are racing to find them and to be the first to get rid of the dragon. Assuming the dragon doesn’t cut a deal with receptive adventurers first.
- Epic Fantasy: Because the heroes have provided the leader of the armies of light with the book that reveals the weakness of the leader of the armies of darkness, that leader has awakened a dragon, a powerful being that it doesn’t fully control, but which doesn’t share its own weakness, to destroy the forces arrayed against it. The paladin general wants to push towards the enemy leader but needs to know the dragon won’t harm his forces on the road and trusts the PCs to guard their flank.
- Mythic Fantasy: The former royal heir attempted to murder her monarch and was cursed by the gods to become a dragon. The monarch offers to grant the mythic heroes their own portion of the kingdom to rule if they subdue the dragon and force it to apologize for its crimes, committed when it was still a mortal being. The dragon itself lives in a labyrinth created by the gods to test anyone seeking to reach the dragon’s lair, and the dragon can only leave when the monarch commits an act that goes against the will of the gods.
- Dark Fantasy: A dragon is ravaging the countryside. Either the council of nobles or representatives of the people come to the heroes, begging them to destroy the dragon. The dragon blights the land by its very existence. When the PCs finally confront the dragon, the dragon tells them that they are punishing the ruling council. The council claimed the treasures of an island city where they killed everyone to the last person. The dragon contains the souls of all the people of the city, joined with the dragon to get vengeance, and if the dragon is killed, their deal with the dragon condemns all their souls to Hell. The dragon will continue to ravage the countryside, but if they sacrifice the noble council to the dragon, it will return to its sleep for the next 100 years, and the souls of the people will depart for whatever judgment their gods have for them.
This is that scope that you don’t see nearly as often in fantasy games. It can be hard to reliably make something feel like it’s on this scale. You must have world-changing events ready to go, or at least events that will potentially change all the world as it is known by the player characters. That means not just the lands where they have lived, or where they grew up, but all those lands they have heard of, but haven’t quite visited for extended periods.
At this scope, it should be easy for player characters to be invested with official, political power, if they want it, but it may not be what you want for the campaign. In other words, it would make sense for them to be the head of the wizard’s conclave, the ultra-pontiff, a monarch, or guildmaster of guildmasters, but you may want to discuss why your characters would or wouldn’t want that meta-adventuring responsibility outside of play, before accepting or denying those honors.
Characters will be well known, unless they have gone to extremely great pains to hide their deeds from the world. Nobody is going to underestimate them. Heroic Fantasy characters will be trusted agents or allies, Sword and Sorcery characters will see their old rivals grudgingly admitting that their old rivals have outclassed them. There will be literal sagas and epic poems about PCs in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, and there will be pressure for them to do one last crowning achievement to prove they can still top themselves. Epic Fantasy characters will be in a position to face down the ultimate architect of badness in the campaign, and Dark Fantasy characters will probably have mixed blessings of being well known and loved and/or hated by thousands of people.
Ironically, if you have been using a city as your framing device for the campaign, and defining scope based on the city, this may be the point at which those characters finally move out to other, similarly-sized cities, gaining perspective on how other urban areas are the same or different than their own city-sized world. This is also when major political plots by other cities start to undermine the influence and importance of their own city.
Let’s look at a final showdown in these genres, using a demon lord as the ultimate, campaign-ending boss monster.
- Heroic Fantasy: Because the characters are well known, the head of some important regional organization comes to them with all the legwork they have done, finding out that deep under the sea, in a city lost thousands of years ago, a demon lord is stirring. They have some time to figure out how they will narrow down where the lost city is, beyond “in the ocean,” as well as how to survive down there. Their allies will make sure they know that they trust them to handle this and will remind them that they will keep all the things they love safe on land while they explore this undersea ruin and defeat this demon lord.
- Sword and Sorcery: Among all the sketchy powers that balance one another across the continent, one of them decides to take a risk and summon a demon lord. This throws the balance way off, although it doesn’t go apocalyptic right off the bat. The demon lord sends emissaries to the other people in positions of authority, and instead of being sent to fight it, the PCs might be sent as diplomats or representatives. Eventually, they find out that there is a major downside to the negotiations (everyone on the continent with a certain birthmark sacrificed, and hey, you like some of the people with that birthmark!), so it’s clearly in the PCs best interest to unseat the demon lord. Once the demon lord knows no one is going to fall for the negotiations, the demon lord gets to be as evil as they want to be, and even mercenary PCs with a heart of gold end up looking pretty good if they take out this threat to the continent.
- Epic Fantasy: The paladin general of the armies of light has been corrupted by the demon lord at the head of the army of darkness. Before they turned, however, the book with the demon lord’s weakness was smuggled out of camp by a cleric that was once the paladin’s closest confidant. After fighting off the demons chasing the cleric, the PCs find out the final rituals they need to perform to be the anointed champions, able to destroy the demon lord for all eternity if they survive the ritual and face them on the field of battle.
- Mythic Fantasy: After years of being the best of the best, and having the world hear of their amazing deeds, the characters are challenged by a demon lord, who wants to know if they bear the seeds of true greatness. The demon lord has the slumbering form of a god trapped in their domain. The domain is filled with trials derived from the life and portfolio of the god they have trapped. If they can reach the center of the demon lord’s abyssal layer, and defeat the demon in its own domain, the god will be freed, and in gratitude, they get to be official demigods.
- Dark Fantasy: Wars and riots have caused major upheavals. The people are just now trying to piece together a new council that may be able to make the world a better place, but there are deep divisions and mistrust. Eventually, a well-regarded, wise, well-liked candidate to lead the council emerges. Currently, the player characters find out that the candidate’s advisor is secretly a demon lord. The candidate is a good person who wants to do what is right, but they also have a dark secret that the demon lord is going to slowly use to corrupt them. In their youth, they killed a vile person who always had a shining reputation. If they fight the advisor, the advisor will do their best to make sure it is public that they are a demon, and that they wanted the candidate to lead the council. Thus, the demon poisons the best person for the job with their endorsement.
They Lived (?) Happily (?) Ever After?
That’s a whole lot of high-level adventure hypothesizing. What I hope you get from this is that you can have very similar elements that, when playing with the scope and stakes of a campaign, will look very different. This article takes most of these definitions of scale and genre at face value, but very few stories end up drawing purely from one source.
My biggest hope is just to help anyone reading this piece to see that context can greatly change the tropes that you utilize in your campaign. The tropes can be very similar and can be the primary element on which you hang your adventure, but that context is going to create strongly unique circumstances.
What other genres of fantasy exist that we haven’t touched on in this piece? Are there any fantasy scopes that you generally avoid? Do you never start on the local scale, or never expand to the epic scale? We would love to hear about your fantasy campaigns below in the comments . . . no, really, tell us about your campaigns!