Understanding the answer to the question — what makes good fantasy — is the key to unlocking the potential of the fantasy genre. If you’re a GM, a writer, a designer, or a consumer of fantasy products then it’s a question worth figuring out.
What Makes Good Fantasy?
Or, better yet, what fantasy works inspire you? I’m sure your answer’s going to be way different from mine. There’s a glut of fantasy content out there — movies, books, games, RPGs — and not all of it resonates with everyone. Even the cream of the crop isn’t going to fire everyone up. The World of Warcraft is plenty of fun, but it isn’t inspiring me or fueling my storytelling. On the other hand, whenever I dive deeper into the world of Warhammer, including the newer Age of Sigmar, I come up wanting to create more fantasy. The Lord of the Rings and The Children of Húrin did the same for me, as did A Song of Ice and Fire. Not every book by Tolkien or Martin stirs my soul though. I still think The Silmarillion is possibly the most boring history book ever written.
What Awakens Your Soul?
All the works I’ve listed are masterworks, crafted by some of the world’s most skilled storytellers. They figured out how to capture our attention and take us on a journey.
For me, the gritty darkness of the Warhammer world and the Mortal Realms is real and alive. Tolkien’s world exists just as vividly in the text as in the recent movies, and Martin’s characters live and breathe from the pages. This believability draws us in, and once we’re hooked, the real magic can happen. Literally.
I’ve read bucket loads of R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels, but they never turned me on. I think it’s largely because of a superficiality in the books that remind you that you’re reading a fantasy novel. The books are hugely popular, sure, but not groundbreakingly good.
Crafting something believable and then adding the magic gives us a relatable anchor that draws the audience in. When the paladin gets lost in a bustling city market we can sympathize, then enjoy the wonder when she meets a vendor selling a magical phoenix.
The Trouble with RPGs
RPG monster manuals, bestiaries, race guides, magic item lists, and spell books are full of fantastic goodies by design. It’s tempting to dish up great big helpings from these resources, but we’ve got to keep the human element front and center if our players are going to buy what we’re selling.
Even a goblin campaign needs relatable elements: check out We Be Goblins and We Be Goblins Too from Paizo and you’ll see some interesting tricks used to pull human players into feeling for the monsters they play. Partly this is done by keeping humans out of the goblin’s path, because we don’t want a part in the death of innocents.
Lure and Switch
The realism makes the fantasy work. We spend quite a bit of time with Bilbo and Frodo at the start of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies because they’re so relatable. Dragons, magic, elves, and demons all work against that backdrop of humanity, and it’s the GM/writer/designer/storyteller’s job to weave this humanity into everything we’re selling. That’s the key to good fantasy.
Till next time, play good games!
Rising Phoenix Games