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In Genre

Epic Fantasy

by RJ Grady
Mar 31,2003


IN GENRE: Epic Fantasy

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

In this column, we treat the genre of modern Epic High Fantasy. The term "epic" comes to us, as so many do, from the Greeks. The original Epic was a poetic form that treated the lives of legendary Greek heroes. As an adjective, epic describes things of a grand scale, such as heroes, terrible monsters, and the miracles of the Gods. High Fantasy is a sub-set of modern fantasy that concerns an invented world, a world of magic. An alternate or secret history of Earth that includes magic counts under this definition. Modern Epic High Fantasy is a genre of literature concerned with heroic characters adventuring in a world of magic. Typically, epic fantasy focuses on a quest or a battle against a great supernatural evil. The stories are larger than life, filled with the enchantment and exalted human virtues of myth. An epic fantasy typically has a beginning, middle, and end, and are often published as trilogies or series.

In its current form, epic fantasy came into being with the publication of "The Lord of the Rings" in 1955 and 1956. Tolkien's passion was the myths that would become "The Silmarillion," a work of limited commercial appeal. He wrote "The Lord of the Rings" as a sort of sequel to his highly successful "The Hobbit." But "The Lord of the Rings" was no child's fairy tale; it was a heroic adventure set in an imagined world of magic, complete with its own peoples, languages, history, and magic. Tolkien, a scholar, drew heavily from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, particularly Norse tales of the Alfar. The broken sword, the cursed gold ring, and the lost High King all have their ancestors in medieval myth. Tolkien, a Christian, conceived the story as a struggle between good and evil. The story was intended to be the story of what happened in an imaginary land, not a theological treatment, as he had no appetite for allegory.

Relatives of epic fantasy include Arthurian Romance (the rise and fall of Camelot), historical romances (like the movie "Spartacus" or the stories of Robin Hood), mythological fantasy (Norse, Greek, and Hindu myth all commonly appear in modern stories), and apocalyptic horror (like Stephen King's "The Stand").

Building an Epic Game

Epic fantasy offers great freedom for the world-builder. Epic worlds are full of things grand and ancient, magical and mysterious, bright and joyful, dark and woeful. Often, an epic campaign can begin with a published game world. But it cannot end there. The player characters are a vital part of an epic world. Whether humble folk thrust into destiny or inheritors of a great legacy, the characters in an epic are all destined to play their parts.

Most epics, following Tolkien's example, take place in a sort of pseudo-Europe, although this need not be the case. The time is a mythic age, often long ago or with that appearance. The gods are often young, their divine acts a matter of dim history, not religion. Rather than the Dark Ages, an epic fantasy could take place in Hellenic Greece, an alternate Renaissance, or even the far future (as some of the Final Fantasy computer games do).

Magic in epic fantasy is capable of nearly anything, depending on the needs of the storyteller. In fact, in Tolkien its power and utility seem to relate directly to dramatic importance. However, in designing an epic game, it is important to decide ahead of time what role magic will play. Characters in epic fantasy rarely slay dragons with spells, but more often do with magic swords.

Morality in the Epic runs to the black and white. It is okay for supporting characters and lieutenants to complex and human, but all the heroes are clearly good and all the adversaries clearly evil. The heroes tend to be extremely ethical, often risking death or disaster rather than betray the principles, morals, causes, or codes of living that motivate them. Conversely, evil in epic fantasy draws its fury from a combination of selfishness and hatred. Heroes may have flaws, and often do, but ultimately place their allegiance in Good, whatever that means in the context of the setting. Villains and foes may have sympathetic traits, but ultimately serve clearly evil purposes, not morally complex ones. In chivalric tales, heroes will be chivalrous and villains treacherous. In spiritual tales, heroes will be honest, merciful, and empathic, and villains will be deceitful, ambitious, and twisted.

Characters in epic fantasy tend to the archetypal. In the classic tale, the story centers around a young hero, inexperienced but full of courage. In an epic fantasy game, one PC may take this role, or it can be shared. Other common character types include nobles in exile, wizards, magical companions, grizzled warriors, and shady hangers-on (who learn to embrace Good by the hero's example). Power level is less important than the sense that each character has a role. Epic parties often include characters of widely varying competence, but before the tale ends, each will have contributed in their own way to victory over evil.

Crossovers are nearly limitless. Almost any high fantasy setting can be turned into an epic by introducing a Great Evil or a Great Quest. High fantasy need not be restricted to Middle Earth; high fantasy can take place amid muskets and cannon, stone-tipped arrows, or soulless skyscrapers. The essential ingredients are magic and exalted deeds.

Plotting an Epic Game

Epic fantasy is a very difficult genre to tackle, for a simple reason. In epic fantasy, good will triumph over evil, often by the slimmest margin. In gaming, good dice rolls and superior firepower triumph over evil... or good. While the premise of an epic game is easy to frame, re-creating the story can be difficult.

Highly lethal combat systems are right out. They would make it impossible for characters to survive from one end to the other of these long, dangerous tales. Either the game needs to include some kind of player storytelling (Dramatic Editing, Force Points, or event cards), or the game needs some way to stack the deck in favor of the PC's, so that the characters are truly in danger only at the climax of each act (D&D's levels are a simple example).

The best campaigns offer several ways for the heroes to win, although this is rarely apparent at first. In contrast to epic stories, where success hinges on wisdom and threadbare luck, epic games should be forgiving of player mistakes. Unless you want to run one depressing anti-epic after another wherein bold but naive heroes are repeatedly battered down and destroyed. In general, unless the situation calls for a committed melee, enemies should always strive to capture or corrupt before choosing to kill. Even if the enemies intend to kill them later, PC's should first be allowed a chance to escape from questioning, or perhaps wont be recognized until too late. Its okay, of course, for faceless minions and brave but doomed defenders of Good to perish by the dozens, but PC's and important NPC's should rarely face death. Paradoxically, because fighting evil is dangerous, the game must offer a measure of safety. Only heroism is dangerous; a mere blade is just a threat.


Dungeons & Dragons (WotC)
Love it or hate it, D&D's Third Edition enjoys an unmatched level of creator and fan support. Based on the original Dungeons & Dragons by Gygax and Arneson, the D&D game world combines elements of epic fantasy, swords & sorcery, and various high fantasy influences. Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos are all tangible parts of the magical world. There are many D&D settings; some, like Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, lend themselves well to epic fantasy style gaming. To buy in, you'll need the three Core Rulebooks (Player's Guide, Dungeonmaster's Guide, and Monster Manual). You'll also need some funny dice, and I recommend some miniature metal or cardboard figures. You might want to look at some of their published settings, or perhaps a third party game setting such as Kalamar.

Hero System Fifth Edition (DOJ/Hero Games)
One of Champion's earliest offspring was Fantasy Hero, a generic fantasy toolkit. Hero System 5th Edition's robust Power rules allow almost any type of magic to be represented. Another advantage is that almost any conceivable character, human or monster, can be built. There are, as always, ravening hordes of Hero System fans willing to offer suggestions and pre-build powers. The 5th edition's fantasy book is not yet out, but I can still recommend "Fantasy Hero" for the 4th edition rules (which are nearly interchangeable). Hero System boasts an excellent martial arts system and customizable lethality. To buy in, you'll need the 5th edition rulebook ("Fred"). 4th edition "Fantasy Hero" and other 4th and 5th edition products such as "The Ultimate Martial Artist" and the "The Hero Bestiary" are also good buys.

GURPS (Steve Jackson Games)
GURPS began as a set of hand-to-hand rules and grew from there. Using one of several published magic systems, or one of your own devising, GURPS allows you complete freedom to design your world and its peoples. It also offers rules for various technology levels, and numerous historical sourcebooks from which to appropriate customs and customs. Cinematic combat rules and high point totals help GURPS transcend its wargaming roots and serving as a foundation for a heroic game. To buy in, you'll need the GURPS 3rd edition rules and GURPS Compendium I. GURPS Camelot, Middle Ages, Magic, and Low-Tech are some of the available sourcebooks.

Big Eyes, Small Mouth (Guardians of Order)
The rules-lite, "do anything" RPG is highly suitable for epic fantasy, particularly after the anime fashion. Its magic is customizable, and Dynamic Sorcery can cover the unpredictable talents of characters like Gandalf. Its lack of wargaming elements makes it ideal for a highly narrative style. To buy in, you need just the 2nd edition rulebook (revised). Other helpful books include the "Fantasy Bestiary" and any other Tri-Stat products .

Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade (White Wolf)
The Renaissance game of magic, faith, and science. Characters can change the course of history, slay diabolists, and fly to the moon, in between missions of diplomacy and personal reflection. Uses the Storyteller System. This setting is far more optimistic than the grim Dark Ages or the ennui-filled Gothic-Punk books, and offers bountiful choices for arch-villains. To buy in, you'll need the main rulebook. Helpful aids include "The Sorcerer's Crusade Companion," a GM screen, any other White Wolf games, and any Ars Magica products (not for rules, obviously, but for ideas).

Torg (West End Games)
Torg's weird multi-genre, cross-cosm mix included a high fantasy cosm, the somewhat Norse "Aysle." A flat world, elves, dragons, magical towers, and Secular Dwarvenists in a realm of Honor and Corruption, where the evil Uthorian has only recently been sundered from the body of the beloved Queen Pella Ardinay and seeks to regain his diabolic Obsidian Crown. To buy in, you'll need "Torg: Roleplaying the Possiblity Wars" and the "Aysle" sourcebook. "Pixaud's Practical Grimoire," "The Cleric Sourcebook," and various modules might all be useful. Out of print, but usually available from WEG's warehouses online.

Star Wars (WEG)
Long out of print, the D6 system presented herein is suitable not only for the Star Wars setting itself, but for any game looking for a similar action-packed style. To buy in, you'll want a copy of the 2nd edition revised rules. Not to be confused with the Wizards of the Coast d20 RPG.

The Lord of the Rings Role-playing Game (Decipher)
Licensed product provides good treatment of Middle Earth.

Exalted (White Wolf)
The Exalted battle for mastery of a magical world. Heavily inspired by anime, manga, and ancient myth.


Tolkien, JRR. The Lord of the Rings
The archetypal story of good, evil, unlikely heroes, and myth. Tolkien also wrote many other stories and his unmatched personal mythology, The Silmarillion.

Eddings, David. The Belgariad
Light-hearted story of good, evil, great houses, and a magical legacy.

Brooks, Terry. Sword of Shannara
This LOTR imitator kicks off the long-lived series. Good, evil, birthright, duty .

Hickman, Tracy and Weis, Margaret. The Dragonlance Chronicles
This classic trilogy treats good, evil, loyalty, hope, and dragons. The world of Krynn rejuvenated Dungeons & Dragons and the epic fantasy genre.

Donaldson, Stephen R. Lord Fouls Bane
The first book in the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. A unique tale of good, evil, belief, and redemption. Features an anti-heroic protagonist.

Moorcock, Michael. Elric of Melnibone
A twisted tale of an emperor who becomes vagabond, and the search for good and evil in a war torn between Law and Chaos, men and gods.

McKinley, Robin. The Hero and the Crown
The prequel to the modern fantasy The Blue Sword, about a princess who woos a prince, slays dragons, and tries to find her place in male-dominated aristocracy. A modern fairy tale as well as a coming-of-age story and an enchanting adventure.

Alexander, Lloyd. The Prydain Chronicles
This chronicle begins with The Book of Three, in which a humble pig-keeper with an oracular pig sets out an amazing adventure that will eventually pit him and his companions against the evil Horned King. Aimed at young readers, but entertaining and essential.

Moon, Elizabeth. The Deed of Paksenarrion
Trilogy beginning with Sheepfarmer's Daughter tells of a young woman who becomes a paladin. Good, evil, mercy, and the burden of divine command.

Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword
A grim tale of Scandinavian myth. Anderson's first fantasy book. Three Hearts and Three Lions and The King of Ys are also superb.

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards
A world-hopping story, beginning in Manhattan, of a young girl and boy who defy the Lone Power, the author of death. Begins with So You Want to be a Wizard? Geared at younger readers, but astounding.

King, Stephen. The Stand
Apocalyptic horror set in the United States about a plague, a force of evil that walks like a man, and an unlikely group of heroes called by God through a seer named Mother Abigail. The more recent version is the uncut one.

Herbert, Dune. Dune
Far future epic substitutes super-technology, mysticism, and psychic powers for magic. Dune fuses space opera, Messianic allegory, and grim futurism in this tale of prophecy and kings.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King
An amalgam of Mallory, Tennyson, and White's own imaginings, often humorously anachronistic and occasionally melancholy. An accessible introduction to Arthurian romance.

Heinrich, D.J. The Penhaligon Trilogy
This series begins The Tainted Sword. An aged knight and his young, and female squire, must face a mysterious, magical invader and defeat an ancient evil, the dragon Verdilith.

Hamilton, Edith. Edith Hamilton's Mythology
An introduction to Greek, Roman, and (to a lesser extent) Egyptian and Norse myth.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
A book about myth, especially heroic myth. Campbell is a student of Carl Jung, who was a student of Freud. A psychoanalytic look at stories and myth, focusing on the recurrence of universal themes and plots.

Lacombe, P. Arms and Armour in Antiquity and the Middle Ages
Boutell translates from the French. Lacombe had access to some museum pieces unavailable to modern historians, making this book especially valuable. An interesting and accessible book about historical weaponry.


"Star Wars"
A space operatic epic of good, evil, courage, love, and sacrifice. Begins with "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" (1977).

"Legend" (1985)
Amazing story about a princess, a boy who lives in the forest, elves, goblins, Darkness, and especially, unicorns. Features Tim Curry as an amazing demon. The Ultimate Edition offers both the US theatrical score (by Tangerine Dream) and the Goldsmith classical score preferred by Ridley Scott.

"The Lord of the Rings"
Peter Jackson's stunning film version of the Tolkien trilogy. Begins with "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" (2001).

"Willow" (1988)
Ron Howard directs this Lucas story about a Hobbit-like Nelwyn who dreams of becoming a great sorcerer. He rescues an infant princess and fights the evil Bavmorda along with his friends.

"Record of Lodoss War" (1990)
D&D-inspired anime epic featuring knights, elves, dragons, and a whole cast of evil bad guys competing to rule the world.

"The Neverending Story" (1984)
A lonely boy reads a book that places him inside a story of good, evil, and dreams of hope. In the story, a young warrior seeks the Empress for the means to save Fantasia from the Nothing.

"Clash of the Titans" (1981)
Weird and wonderful telling of the Greek story of Perseus. Features Harryhausen's amazing stop-motion wizardry.

"Wizards" (1977)
Distopian epic of good versus evil and magic versus technology in a nuclear wasteland. The lecherous but brave wizard Avatar leads his companions on a mission to stop Black Wolf and his mechanized armies of goblins and wasteland mutants. An unconventionally animated, unconventionally told satire that combines slapstick and fairy-tale, cynicism and emotional immediacy. Ralph Bakshi's work is not for everyone; he is most famous for the film version of "Fritz the Cat," the first X-rated cartoon.

The Bits Box

Swords of kings, wizard staves, little people, dragons, unplanned detours, vast caverns, bad guys in armor, magical rings, princes and princesses, friendly or unfriendly barbarians, evil empires, seers and oracles, elves, goblins, giants, trolls, magical places, forests, keeps, castles, ancient battlegrounds, unlikely heroes, squires, knights, wizard's apprentices, master smiths, enchanters, bards, rogue-ish sidekicks, queen of the woods, mysterious travelers, royalty in exile, curses, disfigured villains, tombs, books, the fate of the kingdom, the fate of the world, light and darkness, ancient runes, sleeping or dead gods, people who are more than they seem, mentors who die, desperate flights from dangerous circumstances, impregnable fortresses, "It's more dangerous, but it will save us time," orphans, young wards, magical ancestry, the temptation to do evil, restoring what is un-made, peerless riders, incurious villagers, sloppy disguises, betrayal, trusting the heart, small creatures with great hearts, things that are big, things that are ancient, things that are sacred, things that are evil, things that were once men but are now reflections of evil and shadow, a perfect Creation marred by a primeval act of wickedness, enduring retainers, stubborn teenagers, hardened warriors, unexpected succor, prophecies, armies of monsters, evil is its own undoing, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," the heroes being left penniless and in rags (yet again), being captured, bribery, and villains of vast skill and power who nonetheless fall to courage and good will.

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