>Genre Spotlight: Heroic Fantasy, Classic Fantasy, and High Fantasy


A world of magic and swordplay, a world of elves and dwarves, of demons and angels, of dragons and gods, and yes, of men. A world where men are real men, women are real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri don’t exist, because this is a fantasy world, not a science fiction world. Get used to it! 

Heroic Fantasy is the primary genre for the world of D&D – though I’m certain there will be plenty who disagree with me. Heroic Fantasy has a number of subgenres, including Dungeon Punk (and elements of the latter are gradually bleeding into the others), but the flavors I’ll be discussing here are Classic Fantasy and High Fantasy. There are actually two types of High Fantasy (two ways the term can be used), with a few odd overlaps between them, and this results in a very odd kind of three sided scale between the elements involved.
At least, that’s my theory.
Heroic Fantasy vs. High Fantasy is a matter of scale. Heroic Fantasy is, at its heart, about Wizards, Fighters, Rogues and Clerics (or any number of variations on the theme), banded together and fighting evil, slaying monsters, uncovering treasures, and occasionally stopping to spend time in a tavern and get into fights. High Fantasy is what happens when they get their focus changed to looking at the problems of the world, rather than the problems of themselves. The hero of a high fantasy story is more likely to be someone like Aragorn than Conan the Barbarian; Lord of the Rings is High (or “Epic”) Fantasy by this definition, while something like Conan (as originally envisioned by Robert Howard) is Heroic Fantasy. D&D spends most of its time as Heroic Fantasy, and branches toward High Fantasy somewhere in the higher levels of power.
Classic Fantasy vs. High Fantasy is a separate issue; world flavor. In this set of terms, LoTR is more classic with some high elements, Conan is classic, and you can tell that D&D 4th Edition is High Fantasy from the moment you open the core book and see that Dragonborn and Tieflings are on the core list of playable races. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (I say this as someone who thinks that strange, exotic races are kind of cool, even if there are getting to be quite a lot of them…)
Classic Fantasy tends to be …
  • A world where humans are in the majority, with mostly elves, dwarves, and halflings (“hobbits,” for those who speak Tolkien) making up a smaller minority. Except in the worlds where there isn’t anything that isn’t a human.
  • Orcs are always evil.
  • Demons are always evil.
  • You can make statements like “always” about any race that isn’t an elf, dwarf, human or halfling, and be absolutely correct. Mostly. 
  • Heroes fight mostly humans, or things like goblins and orcs. Real monsters are rarer and much more frightening. Goblins are annoying. Orcs are disturbingly savage.
  • Magic is rare and powerful; “magic items” are the subject of legends, and most heroes can go their whole lives without seeing one. Those who do often wind up on a quest to destroy it, ala The One Ring. Magic often does very little to affect the lives of the average citizen. 
  • There’s pretty much only one world, and maybe a heavenly realm and a hellish one that our heroes aren’t likely to visit. Unless they die. 
  • Victory will probably be achieved by stabbing something using a pointy object, or otherwise using force.
  • Death is usually the end of the story. 
Kind of like this, actually.

High Fantasy tends to be … 

  • A world where humans are still in the majority, along with elves, dwarves and halflings, but where meeting members of other races is far more common, and you might find people who are descended from dragons, have tails or horns or wings, and so on, but who still basically qualify as ‘humanoid’; basically it’s like Star Trek, only on one planet instead of billions. Also, anything with the same number of limbs as you is probably genetically compatible, and meeting half-whatevers isn’t unlikely. Go figure. 
  • Conflicted orcs, half orcs, drow, or any number of other races, might be found bearing angst about the actions of their families and wanting to make up for them in some way. 
  • You can’t really say that orcs are “always” anything, because sooner or later you’ll meet one who proves you wrong. Much like the real world, actually. You can, however, say, “the majority of orcs are ___ ” and be right. 
  • Demons are probably still always evil, but you might STILL meet one who proves you wrong. 
  • The sheer number of monsters our heroes encounter is sometimes enough to make one wonder what exactly the world did before they showed up. And how it survived that long. 
  • Magic is pretty common and powerful; magic items are more likely to be found in your lifetime, and our heroes might have several. Each. Absurdly powerful evil items are still possible, and quests to destroy them might happen, too.
  • This might be the only world. There might also be an absurd number of other worlds out there, and they can either be found through dimensional travel or, heaven help us, the far less likely space travel. It all depends, really. 
  • The heroes might actually visit hell, heaven, or any number of other places in pursuit of their greater goals. And they’ll probably come back alive. 
  • Real victory will only be achieved through exploiting magical weaknesses, powerful rituals, destruction of an evil artifact, or, heaven forbid … politics.
  • Death is an annoyance.
Needless to say, this is a very broad comparison, and it’s not exactly complete (especially since my breakdown above doesn’t include the aforementioned Dungeon Punk, which is starting to gain a lot of ground.) I also have to say for the sake of clarity, despite my sarcasm in places, I actually don’t have a preference between these two ends of the spectrum (High vs. Classic). As long as the wizard doesn’t have to say, “crap, I’m out of spells for today, give me your crossbow,” I’m pretty happy. My ideal would most likely be somewhere between the two; I have found that the most correct choice usually lies somewhere in between the most extreme positions on the subject.

As for the question of High or Heroic, I’m comfortable with either, so long as saving the world does not become a trivial occurrence as it often is in comics (Alien invasion? Huh. Must be Tuesday.) Also, some of the above blurs the two definitions of High Fantasy together, which may only serve to confuse the issue. 

A point I have to make: genre is not tied to game system. Most game systems can be adapted to accommodate most genre choices. Just demands a little cleverness here and there. 
Next: Urban Fantasy. 

Images copyright Wizards of the Coast. Please don’t sue me, or I will have no money to purchase your products. Thank you.

One response to “>Genre Spotlight: Heroic Fantasy, Classic Fantasy, and High Fantasy

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