While many take ‘Low Fantasy’ to mean a grim and gritty, sword and sorcery or ‘weird fantasy’, typically a setting without a huge amount of magic in it, this isn’t necessarily so. Rather, low fantasy takes place within a recognisable, plausible and internally consistent world that is either our world – with a few differences – or a fantasy world that is recognisable to us from our history and what we know of our politics, wars and societies from the past.
A classic example of a Low Fantasy world would be The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, a young adult fantasy series in which supernatural elements, hidden from the ‘real world’ begin to intrude and make themselves felt.
Low Fantasy can be found a great deal in role-playing games, perhaps influenced by White Wolf’s success in the 90s with Vampire and their other ‘hidden supernatural’ games. Almost any conspiracy or ‘you are the monster’ game can be said – from a certain point of view – to be a low fantasy game. More classical examples of low fantasy worlds in RPGs might include Harn or the more historical version of RuneQuest that was put out by Games Workshop in the 80s.
Low Fantasy doesn’t tend to survive encounters with players particularly well unless their access to the fantastical elements is also limited. If the players get the toys then, generally, without a Deus Ex Machina the fantastical cat is out of the metaphorical bag before you can say ‘fireball’. Players have a disturbing and annoying tendency to blow things up, flash their magic where they shouldn’t and to defy witch hunters, enforcers of secrets and other forces that are supposed to keep the fantastical under wraps, controlled or punished as heresy.
Because of this, low fantasy tends to work better, unless the whole game hinges otherwise, upon low access to the fantastical on the part of the players. Rather the fantastical is something they encounter, get caught up in, get threatened by and take on by force of arms and luck. Leaving out the fantastical altogether leaves you free to indulge in ‘what ifs’ and to craft new societies, tribes and so forth mixing up elements from history and the imagination freely. You often don’t even need magic at all if the world is interesting enough.