Genre Talk: Middle? Fantasy

I’m never not thinking about fantasy. A lot of times, in games, I’m craving that epic, high fantasy setting with fictional settings and inexplicably important magic. But I also love the pulpy, down-to-earth feel of sword and sorcery or low fantasy! I want to see antiheroes skulking around trying to get out of debts and flipping off the dragon who tries to lead them out of temptation!
So I propose middle fantasy. With some light research, I tried to bash the two ends of the spectrum together to put sword-and-sorcery characters in an epic setting — now, in my reading, I came upon a quote from GURPS that the text uses as part of its explanation of low fantasy, which is markedly different from the literary interpretation of low fantasy. I think this idea has existed in RPG spaces for awhile (it’s what I consider low fantasy), but I wanted to really stretch it out and name the parts. So here is an outline that covers the basics of the setting and characters, the important distinctions, and then I reframed it all for a CATS explanation that would hopefully help make this system agnostic:

Outline

  • Epic nature of
    • Setting
      • Alternative, fictional (“secondary”) world — real (“primary”) world does not exist/is irrelevant
        • Imaginary, post-classical world
          • Post-classical = 5th to 15th century
            • Growth of civilization
              • “Smoky taverns and smelly back alleys”
            • Spread of universal religions
            • Trade and communication
            • Climate
        • Magic works (modern science and technology have not yet been discovered)
    • Themes
      • Good versus evil
      • “Atavistic supernatural thrills of the weird, occult, or ghost story”
      • Draws inspiration from mythology and classical epics
        • Homer’s Odyssey
        • Norse sagas
        • Arthurian legend
        • Journey to the West
        • Arabian Nights
  • The characters being more realistic and less mythic in scope
    • Heroes find peace after adventure deathly dull
    • Focused on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters; stakes are personal
      • Protagonists morally compromised
    • “What is it like to live in a world of monsters, magic, and demigods?”

CATS
Concept — Sword-and-sorcery characters in an epic setting, being swept up in whatever pursuits call to them. Seeing “normal” people caught up in something big or the antiheroes walking away from it.

Aim — Build a middle fantasy setting using the perspective of an inconsequential glory, fame or riches seeker in a world that doesn’t care about them. Portray the fantastic, domestic and moments in between. Seek the answer to “what is it like to live in a world of monsters, magic and demigods?”

Theme/Tone — We are melding high and low fantasy (or sword and sorcery and epic fantasy) into a storytelling mode that allows for the truly fantastic, but more involved in the personal endeavors of the individuals. The absolutism of good versus evil is backgrounded to the gray in-between of disempowered people forging their own paths.

Subject Matter — We are more interested in the personal problems of the player characters and why they are adventuring than any sort of metaplot that the world tries to catch them up in. We may even be more interested to see how the live precisely after the world has burned because they didn’t save it!

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I always want the visceral power of Howard, the weirdness of Clark Ashton Smith, and the poetic neomythical sensibility of Tolkien, but without all internalized racism. I’ve tried to come up with those worlds myself, but I can’t seem to find the sweet spot that I really want.

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not sure about ‘Post-classical = 5th to 15th century’

  • ancient greeks had theatres, eating utensils, philosophy, exploration, so i’m not sure what you mean by post classical and why?
  • also 5th to 15th century, europe i presume? but if you mean china or mayan well that’s a new ball game

by low / high fantasy, are you talking about the level of stakes in the story, the amount of magic the protagonists have access to, or how fantastic the creatures/setting are compared to regular earth? people can focus on personal stories even if they have different combinations of the above.

Pretty sure some of terry pratchetts and raymond e feist’s work is middle fantasy? in both cases there are other races and magic and monsters, but most characters are human and low wealth.

re Journey to the West - same as star trek voyager, in that any personal stories have to centre around those on the journey, because everyone else is an npc only there short term, the protagonists have little ties to the areas they travel through, not saying it can’t be done, just its a different story to most.

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High fantasy, as the sub-genre emerged, came out of Western European romance, which was concerned with the medieval era and so most high fantasy, especially from western authors, uses the medieval era as a template for their worlds (Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, …). In academia, “medieval era” is used expressly for the 5th to 15th century in Western Europe. In contrast, for world history, the term “post-classical” is used (before the 5th century being the classical period and after the 15th century being the modern period). In world history, those four bullet points I included are considered the major trends of the 10 centuries, across the world — including China or South America, for example.
There’s definitely nothing wrong with using a classical period as a reference point, but I am interested in high fantasy and the medieval or post-classical template.

The blend of low and high fantasy (or sword and sorcery and epic/heroic fantasy) I’m looking for is the above outline — the setting and themes are high/epic/heroic fantasy and the characterization of the “heroes” are low fantasy/sword and sorcery.
I think the questions of access and stakes are all relevant and middle fantasy should be able to accommodate a range! Do antiheroes want access to magic? Is the “evil sorcerer” maybe just a better boss than the paladin? idk, I’d love to see complications of both genre conventions! Middle fantasy, I argue, should be able to do that.

I’m not trying to refute that these sorts of stories can’t happen in explicit genre modes! Further, none of the example texts for the themes should be pitch perfect templates for this “middle fantasy” — The Odyssey should be comparably unfit if Journey to the West is and Arthurian legends are definitely not sword and sorcery.

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Curious-- where would you put the high strangeness of Tanith Lee’s Tales of the Flat Earth?

I don’t know, I’m not familiar with the series. From skimming through Wikipedia’s entries, though, it doesn’t seem to sit in the sword and sorcery or epic fantasy subgenres at all.

I’m no literary critic or expert, though, of course!

This sounds very much to me like mid to high level AD&D. Dragons, demons, powerful wizards and talking magic swords of “high fantasy” with character motivations that remain personal and largely venal. Given that story is largely (at least in my preferred play style) the product of player choice based on setting interaction some of this (player motives and morality say) are perhaps beyond the control of setting design?

The setting really seems very much like the high fantasy picaresque that AD&D 1e tends to turn into.

Perhaps an underexplored element here, one that helps me place setting, is not the distinction between high and low fantasy but between positivist and weird fantasy.

In a positivist fantasy the setting and it’s fantastical elements obey quasi-scientific rules. Magic is replicable, teachable as a science and used for industrial and/or commonplace uses: light spells as street lamps, clerical healing as medical treatment, or machines powered by magical engines/elementals. Monsters are subject to taxonomy and speciation. For example - a dragon is always a scaly winged beast, though it may have subspecies.

In weird fantasy the fantastical elements are anti-rational. Magic a chaotic or esoteric force, barely manageable by strange and likely insane or corrupted persons. It is at most an art, but not tamed and subject to ordered inquiry or explpitation. Likewise fantastic beasts are largely unique - a dragon for example might be anything from an alligator that talks to a winged demigod with the head of a bull.

For me positivist or weird spectrum does a lot me setting work then high or low fantasy (which seems largely about protagonist morality).

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