DMing 101 – High Fantasy

So begins the series, DMing 101 – Genres. You may recall a few weeks back I presented you with a quick summary of how to create a very real “Horror” feel in game, and for the next few weeks (until the series goes on hiatus for a little while in January) I’ll be giving the same advice on how to build other genre-styles, building from the very emotions that you should strive for.

Let’s get the genre series kicked off with a classic!


Genre – High Fantasy

Most role-play systems follow their earliest generations and stick to some form of fantasy. High fantasy is most commonly based loosely on medieval europe. populated by a wide number of humanoid(-ish) races; other cultures are mixed in or fabricated, and most high fantasy also includes some form of magic.

However, there are elements that are far more universal that may go unnoticed, things that better capture the spirit of the genre. Here are a few ways you can put together a truly awesome and thrilling fantastical world.


Above all things, high fantasy is epic! Here’s how to build the sense of scale that high-fantasy demands:

  • Scale: Vast empires wage war across continents; dragons dominate the skies, amassing glorious hordes; a tiny trinket in the hands of a aged widow could bring titans to their knees. When you describe aspects of your world you should consider their importance, not merely in terms of size, but importance, and that the actions of your heroes will have major ripples that will likely change the world.
  • Wonder: Whether you include magic or not, fantasy presupposes a sense of the mysterious, the unnatural, and spectacles that suspense of belief. They may require an alternative power source (essentially “Non-magic” magic, which I will address another time) but they must defy science in such a way that it forces the players to shed reality, and step into your world.


  • Good vs. Evil: It’s something of a cliché, we all know that, but high fantasy tends to play to this dichotomy more than any other genre. Dark fantasy plays more with ambiguous villains and throws moral questions into every choice, but high fantasy deals more in clear cut light and dark. Feel free to mix things up a little, but you might risk breaking the genre.

Other elements help to build the personality of the world but these are the basics of the genre. Interestingly, dark-fantasy tends to deal in opposites, but we’ll come to that later. High fantasy is bright colours, soaring majesty and dynamic pace, but that’s not to say it’s without perils. Ancient and mysterious evils, cunning masterminds, and cruel tyrants have made their mark on the world. Your heroes will need more than bravado and skill to save the world.


There’s always an evil empire, ancient terror, or forgotten legend, in fact most of your options will stem from your world’s rich history. High fantasy worlds are realms of myth and lore, and so long as you keep that history consistent it can really help your world come alive, and more importantly, stay that way through many campaigns.

Consider what wars have been fought, and the empires or kingdoms that fought them. Does the defeated nation still have supporters in the dark corners of the world? What powerful weapons still lie unclaimed for any new villainous group to gather? Suppose monsters are rising from the depths of the world, and from out of the legends inscribed in ancient places, where have they been for the intervening centuries?

Write your history first. Establish what factions and power-players are involved early. If you’re using a pre-existing world then try to keep things simple, don’t try to include everything at once, and don’t be afraid to create new aspects for yourself to create interesting and original storylines, challenges and villains.


There are many potential quest options, but with high fantasy the classics are often best.

Save the People: An ancient artifact holds the key to breaking an ancient curse. A prophesy foretells an end to all things, but it need not happen as dictated. Two armies face each other across a battlefield, neither realizing that no one will win if they break the standoff. The people need a champion, who will step forward? What can your heroes do against impossible odds?
Watch – Jack the Giant Slayer
Play – Dragon Age: Origins

Slay the Monster: The sky darkens as its’ wings fill the sky. It uses its’ immense power to subjugate the people. Armies have stood before it, none have returned. The monster is ancient and seemingly indestructible, so what weapon could destroy such an engine of destruction? And who could possibly wield such a weapon?
Watch – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Play – Skyrim

Find what was Lost: The King was replaced with a doppelganger, apparently some time ago, the last thing the doppelganger said was that the King still lives. A civilization depends on an ancient engine which ceased functioning when a thief stole a single component. A newly discovered text suggests the ancient sword may not be pure myth? With a vast world to explore, how will the heroes ever find such a small thing?
Watch – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Play – Legend of Zelda

Next week, Dark Fantasy. When the series returns after hiatus next year I’ll be asking you what genres you run, and I’ll write one for each! I have a list prepared, but it is woefully incomplete.

In the mean time, if you enjoy this series, and have played a few games yourself, head over to my own site Quotes from the Tabletop for all the funnies quotes and stories from your gaming tables. Feel free to share your own on the submissions page too.

12 thoughts on “DMing 101 – High Fantasy”

  1. I love high fantasy, it’s my thing along with Science-Fiction and Science-Fantasy (which I consider the holy grail of genres haha).

    I love sending my players on seemingly innocuous tasks with wide repercussions, or have them do something simple and be at the heart of a major development “by accident,” becoming involved in it as they struggle for survival and then pile on the wonder, the mystery, the intrigue and the horror (because a bit of fear is always fantastic)


    1. I think that’s a great way to help the players feel immersed. I really liked the movie “Jupiter Ascending,” but I don’t really care for my characters turning out to be secret princes or the only wizard in the world. Do you think drawing people in the way you do lets the players feel like their characters happened to become important in the way people might instead of just being special?


      1. I hope so. I like to make my players earn it. For example, with armours and weapons I don’t shower them with magical items. I make them hard to get, so when they do get one it feels special, like a true treasure they found, like Aladdin finding the lamp in the Cave of Wonders. Because they know it’s not like everyone has these things.

        I once sent players of mine against a Fighter villain I created and they complained about him because he was too powerful and they claimed I had pumped him up using items.

        This was after they defeated him, barely, so I turned the sheet over to them so they could see all his gear was mundane, he was just very well built, a very good combination of skills and special abilities, plus just using the rules against them.

        They never complained again and it reinforced that feeling of wonder when they found their first few magical items, because it was “wow, not even that villain had them!” So it worked in my favour

        In terms of events, being at the wrong place at the wrong time is always good, because I don’t save my players from their fate, I don’t step in and Deus Ex Machina them away. If they make it out and end up in the middle of the plot it’s because they got themselves out, and that helps them get immersed and feel as if they’ve earned everything they have.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree with a lot of Kev’s points here. I’m not really a high fantasy person per se, I prefer grittier fantasy-noir where the players can never be sure of anything or anyone. It makes them deeply concerned when they actually earn something because they always fear the worst about their reward.

        I’m in the process of making a level 0 game of D&D 5th ed wherein the players earn, not only their rewards and items, but even the first level of whatever class they end up choosing. Starting them out that vulnerable -should- make them feel like everything they gain is harder earned and therefore of greater value

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      3. I’ve run a few games like that. I personally enjoy games about struggle. Do you mind if I share with you a couple of the pitfalls I’ve run into running that sort of game?


      4. I’d love to, any and all advice is welcome. I’ve said it repeatedly throughout this blog, it’s about finding a personal style, but you can only do that by learning from others. I don’t presume to know everything about the craft and this is an experiment for me.
        There’s a “Contact Us” section under the About tab at the top. If we start there I’d love to get some notes from you.


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