DMing 101 – Dark Fantasy

So continues the genre’s series, where I go in-depth on how different genres can effect the style of your games, not just the content, but the very emotions that they evoke session to session. While I sit and twiddle my thumbs waiting for the delayed Dungeon Master’s Guide, here’s 


Genres – Dark Fantasy

Tolkien’s original epics set the standards for high fantasy, but many authors have taken it’s concepts and style and plunged them into far darker places, blending together other genres to make worlds of forbidding wonder. Flawed heroes, twisting plots, and inhospitable backdrops work to build intense storylines that can give a good DM a lot of opportunities.


Dark fantasy works quite differently to its’ counterpart, in fact it is almost completely opposed:

  • Personal: Though the world may have some pretty broad scale plots taking place, your heroes should feel every moment from their own perspective. Impress upon them the personal effects that the events of the world impose on them by encouraging them to consider their bonds: family, friends, even religious or political groups should feel the brunt of whatever antagonist or disaster they’re fighting against.
  • Mundane wonders: Whatever makes the realms of high fantasy incredible and spectacular should be bland and every-day. Consider the racism between humans, elves and dwarves from Dragon-Age, or the crystal tipped arrows from Thief that generate splashes of water, sparks, or rampant moss growth. They’re just part and parcel of day-to-day life, and there are greater things going on.
  • Moral greys: Everyone – from your protagonists to their nemeses – should have positive and negative traits. Every major action your players take should have advantages and drawbacks. Perhaps the tyrant king’s reign was holding back a barbarous horde. Maybe the wizards paying you to put a stop to the rampaging mutants are the ones creating them, so why hire someone to kill them?

There are so many ways you can give dark fantasy settings a unique personality, just draw from your favourite genres and sources, and take a turn for the sinister. Draw your inspirations from real life too, consider the social and political landscapes that build our own world. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but countries on earth are going through some pretty messed up stuff right now. Read the news people!

Slap some elves in the Sudan, why not?


Here is where things get a little interesting…


An antagonist in your world should be someone else’s good guy. They are people, they may have a family that they are working to help such as Victor Fries (Batman), or they may feel that they are genuinely working for some greater good, and perhaps they are, but in a way that will prove devastating.

How does this change the opinion of the people toward the players? The adventuring group could rapidly find themselves enemies of the public, villainized and demonized by those they sought to bring down. Remember that you should encourage your players to create flawed characters, and this is a chance to turn those flaws back on them.

Outside of antagonists, dark fantasy lends itself brilliantly to apocalyptic situations. The backdrop of a dying world adds a survivalist edge to your group. Are they out to save the world, or out to save themselves?


You can pull quests out of any genres with a darker edge to them: horror, noir, or crime for example, and many of the upcoming genres I cover will help create brilliantly unique dark fantasy stories. Here are but a few suggestions of where to begin.

The King Must Die: While merchant houses flourish, the people wither under their biased laws. The Child-Empress is not ready for the throne, but the Regent will seize her power if not stopped. A desperate band of outlaws are promised redemption, at the cost of one terrible act. Does the group have the grit to take the next step to assassins? And what happens next…
Watch – Game of Thrones
Play – Zeno Clash

Dark Deals: A player signed a contract that he suddenly needs to get out of. After several adventures, the group are coming to suspect their patron, and doubt their own actions. A young child raises a monster to slaughter the people who murdered her parents, the only way to stop the monster is to kill the girl. Putting players in dilemmas and tight corners is a great way to encourage your group into some hard decision making.
Watch – Season of The Witch (not as bad as the reviews make it look)
Play – Dishonored

Be the Hero: The people need saviours, but the only ones willing to step forward are doing so to dodge the executioners block. A bumbling klutz is the only one foolish enough to do the right thing, and can’t even get that right. Fate hangs in the balance, but if you die, what becomes of the family you leave behind? Sometimes the hardest challenge you can offer your players is the choice of whether or not to fight.
Watch – Solomon Kane
Play – Grim Dawn


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Next week, how to make a christmas game!

6 thoughts on “DMing 101 – Dark Fantasy”

  1. Very nice. Sage advice. Like you said, I use Dragon Age a lot when I think of fantasy race issues. And Morrowind. As for getting really dark a gritty, ever check out the Book of Vile Darkness for 3rd edition D&D?


    1. Thank you, that’s always appreciated!
      And yes, I know the Book of Vile Darkness rather well. There was a hell of a lot of stuff I didn’t mention in this article (and all the other DMing 101s) that’ll go into the book, like Dark Crystal and things like that


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