Monday, July 22, 2013

High and Low Fantasy: Can we have it both ways?

OK, half formed idea to follow, but I think it has potential.

Imagine a D&D campaign starting up.  Sandbox style, possibly with a tent-pole adventuring location (mega-dungeon) near the starting home base.

The sandbox is full of low fantasy swords & sorcery style locations/NPCs/adventure hooks.  Duplicitous thieves' guilds.  Ruins full of loot, guarded by unsavory things from a past age.  What passes for civilization in these parts are wretched hives of scum and villainy.

But there are rumors, legends, travelers' tales about what lies just beyond the edge of the map (or far beyond it).  Lands of evil magical overlords, legendary dragons and their hoards of gold, kingdoms of light and darkness engaged in eternal warfare.

The important point is that this setting is a sandbox.  Players would be free to stay in the starting location their entire careers, looting ruins for treasure, then carousing away the winnings on harlots and black lotus powder, then skipping town just before the enforcers from the guild come to collect on the debt to try their luck in another expedition to kill things and take their stuff.

OR, they could listen to the rumors of the far off lands, the great evils that need fighting, the legendary monsters that could be slain if only the right legendary weapons were to be located, and set off on a Campbellian hero-journey.

Would there be an audience for a product like this?  A setting book that gives a DM the tools to run a Lankhmar/Conan-esque S&S game and also an Tolkien/Eddings/Jordan-esque epic high fantasy game, in the same game world?  Without being 400 pages long?

I think the beauty of the idea is that a set-up like this would allow for occasional crossovers.  The epic questers might take a break and do a bit of dungeon delving.  Or the cutthroat treasure hunters might decide to go after one of those magic weapons to make dungeon delving easier.

So, any settings like this?  The Known World/Mystara was sorta like that after the fact, or it was at least in the way we played it back in the day.  It was set up to be a place modules could easily be slotted into, but eventually (thanks to the epic scope of the Companion/Masters/Immortals sets) became the home of far-flung epic adventures.

More importantly, would people find such a product useful for their games?


  1. I'm going to weigh in with my two pennies and say that OSR doesn't lend itself to "high" fantasy. I mean, sure, you could pull it off, definitely. Any system, heck, even 4th edition, could be utilized with the right players and right GM. But system matters, and the OSR system, in my opinion, really is strong in that low fantasy, sword-and-sorcery type of game.

    The simple fact is, as I see it, that OS games are strongest in the dungeon-crawl (and perhaps hex-crawl) exploration settings. I have to admit, dungeon-crawling in 3rd edition isn't as exciting as it is with the OS games. The OSR demands a certain type of role-playing--low cunning, sneakiness, plotting, planning, running away, ambushing, using 10-foot poles, and ASKING QUESTIONS AD INFINITUM. You MUST be on your toes. The dungeon itself is a character and it is actively trying to kill you.

    My personal opinion regarding many tabletop RPGs is to play them to their strengths. Sure you can do high fantasy with OS D&D. But do you really, REALLY want to? I think 3.5 and Pathfinder, Exalted, and Palladium Fantasy can do variations of high fantasy better (with emphasis on specific aspects of high fantasy). OS D&D belongs in the explore-and-crawl mindset because that is where it is at its strongest.

    As an aside, 2nd edition D&D is, in my opinion, too convoluted and two in-between low and high for my taste. Setting-wise, the 2nd edition era can't be beat--the plethora of setting books full of material, cultures, societies, cities, nations, etc. are just excellent.

    Anyway, that's just my opinion. I'm not going to fault anyone for doing a dungeon crawl using Hunter: the Reckoning or running a high fantasy, save the Kingdom of Paladins & kill the Dark Lord game out of Legends & Labyrinths.

  2. I think it would be interesting and doable - with some rules-noodling. Your post makes me curious enough to try and figure out how to make it work.

  3. Sounds like the way we always played from '77 on. From OD&D to AD&D to all others.

    Doable and enjoyable.

  4. Dave - While I agree that old school D&D does S&S quite naturally and that's where it's strongest, at higher levels it easily lends itself to more epic style play. The problem is that low level PCs have trouble fitting in without higher level characters around. Now, in a setting where new players (or replacement characters) come in at low level, suddenly 1st level Frodo or Luke Skywalker or Belgarion or Rand al'Thor has a chance to survive long enough to fulfill an epic destiny. The only caveat is that no one knows who the "destined" one is until after the fact. If the Gandalfs, Obi-Wans, Belgaraths and Moiraines are NPCs, problems arise.

    Justin - if you'd like to collaborate on this, I'm willing. I bet we can get Jeremy and Dean in on it as well.

    Mike - We played that way as well, after a while. When I got the Mentzer Basic Set back in '84, it was just picaresque dungeons with the only thing holding a story together the returning characters. By maybe '88, when we had characters in the upper Expert Set range of levels, things started getting more epic, mixed with "dungeon of the week" adventures. By around '90 when I got the Masters Set, we were more or less full-blown epic style gamers, with characters ranging from upper Expert through the Companion levels, with one or two eventually making it up to Masters Set levels by the time the campaign ended.

    It's the way we played, but not the way any published campaign setting I've come across has been presented.

  5. Dennis,

    I don't disagree. You can pull it off and the starting characters can definitely give a high-level game a more epic fantasy feel. Each system, at its heart, is just that--a system, an engine, a vehicle for task or conflict resolution. Each system can therefore be utilized for any kind of game you want to run.

    I just feel that different systems that have specific strengths that, if played to, really enhance the game experience.

  6. And that's sort of the problem, although I don't think it's that big of a problem, really. I don't know of any game system that can pull off S&S and High Fantasy equally well.

    So for this sort of setup, the best option is to choose a system that does one of the two extremely well, and in which it isn't too hard to pull off the other.

    I've never played Pendragon, but from what I've read of it, I doubt it would do well as a system for a Hyborian campaign (I could well be wrong...). So I don't think a game like that would be a good fit for what I'm thinking of.

    OS D&D, however, does S&S very well, and can be used for High Fantasy without too many hicups. So for what I'm considering, I think it would be a good fit. YMMV.

  7. Pendragon is a cleverly designed Arthurian variation on Runequest, of which there is an other well-known variation that does S&S very well: Stormbringer.

    Pre-3E D&D rules are mostly concerned with dungeon delving and "hexploration", and the actions protagonists take to overcome the obstacles provided by the environment and its evil denizens (just like S&S literature).

    High fantasy, on the other hand, concentrates on the fight between good and evil, the fantastic locations, creatures, and sorcery being only plot devices and not essential elements in the story.

    High level D&D characters can fight powerful monsters with powerful weapons and spells - but it won't make the conflicts they are involved in fit for high fantasy.

  8. Nevertheless, I am curious how you envisioned such a product: more like a setting book with full of gameable content or a toolbox for DMs crafting their own dual-themed worlds?

  9. I was thinking the first, a setting book with gamable content suitable to both S&S style freebooting picaresque games, and more epic HF type stuff in one product.