After publishing my first two articles for Warpstone Magazine, I understood more about ‘low fantasy’ vs. ‘high fantasy’. My methods from high school lacked a grounding in reality. Nothing wrong with high flying fantasy if the rules and setting can handle it. But sadly Warhammer Fantasy Role-play shows its weakness. It is too easy to create reality breaking characters who can go toe to toe with greater demons. Instead of adjusting the rules and bending everything out of shape, it was time to take a different path.
Wikipedia defines Low Fantasy as:
A subgenre of fantasy fiction involving “nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.” Low fantasy stories are set either in the real world or a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories which take place in a completely fictional fantasy world setting with its own set of rules and physical laws.
Low fantasy places relatively less emphasis on typical elements associated with fantasy, setting a narrative in real-world environments with elements of the fantastical. Sometimes there are just enough fantastical elements to make ambiguous the boundary between what is real and what is purely psychological or supernatural. The word “low” refers to the level of prominence of traditional fantasy elements within the work, and is not any sort of remark on the work’s quality.
Role-playing games use a different definition of the genre, defining it as closer to realism than to mythic in scope. This can mean that some works, for example Robert E. Howard‘s Conan the Barbarian series, can be high fantasy in literary terms but low fantasy in gaming terms; while with other works, such as the TV series Supernatural, the opposite is true.
Note the difference when it comes to Role-playing games. Low Fantasy RPGs tend to be closer to “realism” than high fantasy games. Yes it is a freaking obvious statement. But does keeping it closer to a believable reality means sucking the joy out of a game?
I personally believe Low Fantasy can work just as well as High Fantasy to tell excellent stories. Which is what table-top RPGs essentially are, collaborative storytelling efforts.
Low Fantasy rules and story background works great for building a gritty, dark setting. If you want to play in a dangerous world where a single sword thrust means possible death it is an excellent choice. Low Fantasy concentrates on the background and setting. Every character can and probably will die. It is creation by subtraction with a greater emphasis on what a character cannot do. But the great thing about these settings is you can still explore concepts and ideas not available to you as a person. Think of it as slipping on shoes of a cop, doctor or lawyer with a side of magic. Historical Fantasy falls into this category. Warhammer Fantasy Role-play has a ton of historical influence. To the point where combined with Tolkien Fantasy and Moorcock’s Chaos Gods, I daresay it makes the world complete.
High Fantasy is great for exploring ideas such as divinity, godhood and nobility. To have powers that allow you transcend the world of mundane humanity is extremely appealing. It is seductive and will continue to bring many people to the table. We all need a break from reality sometimes and this is a great, non addictive way. It is one of the main reasons why I created New Gods of Mankind. I believed gamers need a RPG that allows you to roll dice and manage resources as a god. Dungeons and Dragons is an excellent high fantasy, tactics based role-playing game with emphasis on magic and combat.
Warhammer CAN be high fantasy, but it is best served as a low fantasy rpg. WFRP 1st edition does a great job building this grim world of perilous adventure. To further emphasis the definition of Low Fantasy I will reference another article here.
1. Resembles the real world for the most part, but…
2. Includes supernatural species or magic within the real world.
3. Is one in which knowledge of the supernatural elements is kept secret from ordinary people.
4. Feature interaction between people in the real world and the supernatural elements.
I feel Games Workshop went towards a more “high fantasy” approach in later publications for Warhammer. Non-canon publications like Warpstone kept the true “low fantasy” spirit alive. This divide worked as the miniature war gamers wanted cool figurines. Other WFRP gamers just wanted a world filled with dark plots and subtle hints of chaos magic.
2nd edition WFRP by Green Ronin did a lot to fix some of the problems of WFRP. No longer did you have to worry about “Naked Dwarf Syndrome” But it seems that issue is not the primary problem. Creating more plots and stories along to keep the world alive seemed to be the biggest problem. 3rd Edition from Fantasy flight brought a more tactile army element to the game with unique dice. But again great table-top RPGs need more stories, not more cool effects.
It seems as if the whole game died after material for 2nd edition came out.Yet it seems as it never broke out of its small niche. Green Ronin did an excellent job creating the 2nd edition rules. Warpstone kept producing material until November 2014. But it felt as if the whole community fell back in the dust. 3rd edition further alienated the old guard.
What this old gamer would like to see is a return to WFRP using second edition but keeping the fantasy low like WFRP 1st edition and in Warpstone. We need great stories and people willing to play it. A grim, dark and perilous story with a historical vibe and the threat of sudden doom filling every character’s thoughts and deeds.
If you can find more places where WFRP thrives, please point it out to me.