The fantasy genre is a hugely broad one, taking in many different themes and sprawling across time and space from cod-medieval mediocrity to modern worlds with fantasy elements lurking in the background and even taking in alternate histories, traditionally more the province of science fiction. The fantasy milieu is usually the one that gamers start with, growing familiar rather quickly with gaming’s take on elves, dwarves and the like, so much so that these things are a cliché and a shorthand for gaming as a whole.
High or epic fantasy takes place within a world removed from our own where the rules are different, where magic is powerful and widespread, where fantastical monsters, creatures and races roam the land and it is a genre in which the stories are generally epic, sweeping and wide ranging and deal with grandiose and world-shaping plots of good against evil.
The classic example of the High Fantasy Epic is The Lord of the Rings.
High Fantasy is what a lot of RPGs aspire to be and there’s a lot in High Fantasy that lends itself to gaming well. The – relative – black and white of good and evil makes plotting easier and the physical and spiritual presence of evil makes for simpler way to introduce villains and to excuse their motivations. Fate and destiny can also be used to more explicitly manipulate characters in a way that might be inexcusable in other subgenres. High Fantasy is also very much suited to mid and long scale campaigns divided into significant sections or ‘chapters’ and where you have definite conditions of victory and an end to the plot.
On the downside expectations are high and the relatively slow rate of character advancement in many fantasy games can be frustrating when it comes to getting to the grand action. It’s also hard, given many fantasy RPG systems, to have truly mixed party levels of competence. Frodo and Aragorn in the same party can be hard to pull off well in many systems, especially those with mechanically heavy, encounter-oriented, carefully balanced systems. The nature of High Fantasy games doesn’t particularly lend itself to unending games, where you go on playing until things peter out, unless you play it generationally with new heroes rising in the same world time after time to face down the same evil, reincarnated or resurgent in each generation.
Running a successful High Fantasy game is a matter of managing to make every character shine in their own way – something that doesn’t happen so much in the genre fiction. Not everyone can be destined to be the High King but each character will need their moment to shine and their own great destiny, something tailored to the player and what they find inspiring and perfect for their character. The other big trick is to incorporate all the high-powered fantasy elements without slipping over into the land of cheese and pastiche. The secret of accomplishing that is to treat these elements with gravitas and seriousness and to ensure that they’re consistently treated within their own internal logic, even if you – as the Games Master – are the only one who knows or understands the rules you’ve made for yourself.