Wikipedia defines ‘high fantasy’ as being fantasy set in imaginary worlds, and ‘low fantasy’ as fantasy set in the real world (or ‘a rational and familiar fictional world’) with fantasy elements. I think this definition is misleading. A story isn’t high or low fantasy based on whether it’s set in an imaginary world; low fantasy is an attitude.

If high fantasy is The Lord of the Rings, low fantasy is Conan. High fantasy is ‘shiny’ and over-the-top and often though not always optimistic; low fantasy is about low tech settings where life is short. Larry Elmore is high fantasy; Erol Otus and John Blanche are low fantasy. Monty Python and Terry Gilliam’s Medieval stories are low fantasy, with their emphasis on mud and blood and grass and grime.

If you look at trends in MMOs over the last 12 years, they’re basically a progression to higher and higher fantasy. Ultima Online, the first major commercial MMO back in 1998, had all the visual flair of a bunch of Renaissance Faire people running around in the woods of Michigan (it didn’t even have nonhuman races!), but Everquest, which overtook it in popularity, had more dragons and orcs and stuff, and in World of Warcraft, fantasy is almost indistinguishable from superheroes.

There are still some popular fantasy franchises which are more low-fantasy than high, like the “Song of Ice and Fire” series (an important character being murdered in the privy is definitely low-fantasy). But would anyone play a lengthy RPG or spend days in a virtual world if it put them at a *worse* situation than in real life—grubbing for roots, patching worn clothes, suffering leprosy and fighting off continual hordes of goblins?

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10 comments so far

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  1. My very simple answer: No. I wouldn’t.

  2. I knew a GM who ran a multi-game story where the players were recovering drug addicts. The main goal was to get to the Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the end of the day. It was the most gripping game I have played in.

  3. For sure man! My favorite campaigns are always full of gore and hideous monsters. I want to feel like the whole society is hanging together by a thread. That way we don’t have to feel bad about burning down a town, though we’re just as likely to finish off the nasty lord or slave trader.
    I find that low fantasy is more engaging, while high fantasy campaigns always tend towards meta game thinking, as characters can usually find some magic item or gnome device to accomplish their task. In low fantasy you’re forced to find answers in NPCs and role playing.

  4. Hey Hey! I just looked at the pic on the bio, and the kid in the photo actually has the d20 on a necklace. I thought this was made up, but it looks cool, and now I want one. I already found one on thinkgeek, but where did you get that one?

  5. Yes, that’s mine ^^ My favorite d20 necklace is made of steel that I had handcrafted (long story), but this one is by Paw & Claw Designs. They have an etsy store!

  6. I agree completely! I don’t have a problem with high fantasy games sometimes, but I think people are missing out on a lot if they don’t roleplay looting corpses on a battlefield or climbing out of a bubonic plague mass grave once in awhile.

  7. So, i stumbled upon this post as i was looking up the difference between high and low fantasy to quote for a discussion… and I must say as a past GM myself, and huge fantasy aficionado, I definitely agree with your latter statement in this post. BUT, I would have to disagree with your definition of low fantasy, or at least would offer up a different term for it: Dark Fantasy; because, your version of low fantasy could easily sway into the worlds of low and high fantasy(as I know them, being similar to that of wikipedia). It’s real. It’s visceral, which allows for players to connect easier and helps to hook them into a game. So in summation; I guess all I’m saying is that maybe there should be a low/high fantasy scale and dark/bright scale as well…

  8. @Aru’lime — Hmm, good point. I guess you could have dark low fantasy (Warhammer FRP) and bright low fantasy (Golden Sky Stories, or some other game that has light fantasy elements and a generally low power level).

  9. I like wikipedia’s definition better. I think of low fantasy as Buffy/Angel, Tuck Everlasting, Interview with the Vampire etc. and high fantasy as Lord of the Rings (maybe Harry Potter-isolated magical world within the real world-, and Chronicles of Narnia-separate world reached through a portal in the real world-, as well).

  10. I would never have put LOTR as high fantasy. No magic shops, few magic items, the book was gritty if you actually read it.