The Ogmios Genre Guide
Part I - Flavors of Fantasy
Image by Cynthia Ann Brock
fantasy \fant-e-se, -ze\ n. pl -sies
d : imaginative fiction featuring esp. strange settings and grotesque characters - called also fantasy fiction
(Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary)
This subgenre of fantasy works on a grand scale. A titanic evil threatens to envelope the world in a never-ending darkness. A small band of unlikely heroes are drawn together from various backgrounds, and set out on a quest to find the one key for victory. At the end, usually not without personal sacrifice of some sort, good emerges victorious, and all is well again.
A Detailed World Background
And a vast history. Many strange facts can easily be explained in light of the world's history. Usually, those who posses this knowledge are extremely powerful beings - wizards, godlings, and the likes.
Really High Stakes
The plot of usually involves the struggle between good and evil, and the trophy is the destiny of the world.
Larger than Life Characters
And drawn in bright colors too. Good is good, evil is evil. There are no shades of gray in the middle
A Few Individuals Show Ambiguous Loyalties
If they're pretending to be heroes, they betray them (because they are blackmailed or threatened to do so more often than not), and are usually later slain by the hero they wronged. If they are evil, they are the henchmen of the main villain who betray him and either become heroes or die valiantly in a moment of redemption.
An Aged Wizards vs. An Army - No Contest
The wizard will surely win. Wizards in high fantasy are ancient beings that command powers beyond imagination. They move mountains and summon demons. They command the earth and the sky. If they can think about it, they can make it happen.
The Forces of the World are Ancient
The main forces that govern the plot are ancient forces, way beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. These are gods, deities, immortals and wizards. The one exception to this rule is the hero, who although is young and naive, but somehow commands great powers. Often these ancient powers are caught in a standoff, and the hero is the catalyst who makes the plot go.
Subtly beneficent. Even though the heroes must undergo immense hardship, and even though the forces of evil seem overwhelming, there is always a way good can prevail, somehow. But it is up to the determined hero to find and retrieve this key of victory.
Most Greek and Roman mythology. Extensive parts of the Bible, especially Exodus. Anything by J. R. R. Tolkein. The Earthesea
series by Ursula K. LeGuin. T. H. White's The Once and Future King
, and most other Arthurian legends. Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covnant
books. David Eddings' Belgriad
. Some of Michael Moorcock's writings. Works by Lloyd Alexander, Poul Anderson, Jane Gaskel, P. C. Hodgel, Patricia McKillip, Thomas Burnett Swann and many others. Most books based on TSR (nowadays Wizards of the Coast) gaming worlds such as Dragonlance
™ and Forgotten Realms
™. Movies like Willow
and Flight of Dragons
SWORDS AND SORCERY
Barbarians swing their swords in a colorful landscape, with many kingdoms and minor evils lurking in dark corners. Pausing only to swing their swords through a few legions of attackers, they rescue fair maidens and destroy nasty magicians. There is a tone of action and a romantic struggle against the small scale bad-guy. At the end, the heroes, swinging their swords, ride untouched into the sunset.
Only the Strong Survive
If you can't fight, you're dead. It's as simple as that.
A Guy With a Sword vs. A Guy With a Spell - Good Fight, But the Sword Wins
A magic wielder may seem more powerful, more sophisticated, but in the end, when it boils down to mano-a-mano, he will loose. Usually, magic takes time to do, and the classic outcome is while the magician starts to cast an enchantment, the barbarian dashes across the room and cleaves him in half with his broadsword. However, this isn't always true, and may vary greatly, especially if the hero is a magic user himself.
Barbarism is the Natural State of Mankind
That is, any attempt at civilization produces people who are weak, soft, cry-babies who will probably be wiped out in the next barbarian invasion.
Straight down the middle neutral, usually. Heroes survive if they're though, and not otherwise. Fortunately, they always are. In Swords and Sorcery, that's what makes them heroes.
Robert E. Howard's stories of Conan
and others. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd of the Grey Mouser
stories. Some of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion
series. Movies like Dragonslayer
and (surprise, surprise) - The Sword and the Sorcerer
. TV series like Hercules - The Legendary Tales
and Xena - Warrior Princess
Strenuous adventures with real men fighting for the the good of the country, the love of a good woman, and in defense of the oppressed everywhere. The heroes are capable, loyal, brave and group-spirited.
Lighthearted, Often Patriotic
Many of the prominent works in this field are political or chauvinistic in their original presentation. Many times, the heroes are simply people who hold a political or social opinion the differs greatly from that of the countries rulers. The will to take up arms and fight for it is what makes them heroes.
The only real way to cross a room is by the chandelier, and defending a lady's honor is the highest virtue.
This genre was established in the heyday of the Enlightenment, and usually frowns upon the supernatural. However, religious belief (usually Christian) seems to be acceptable.
Dangerous, but ultimately benevolent. The cause of good is in real danger, but brave heroes who's hearts are in the right place can stop the onslaught of evil.
Shakespeare's Henry V
and Romeo and Juliet
. Anything by Alexander Dumas, especially The Three Musketeers
. Tales of heroes like Robin Hood
, and The Count of Monte Cristo
especially in their cinematic adaptations.
This subgenre contrasts magic and mythical being with our "real", recognizable world. The hero or heroes usually somehow stumble over an event that reveals to them how there is more to the world than what they thought. They usually continue to get knee-deep into magical events and conflicts and end up saving the day somehow.
Magic is a Secret
Supernatural forces exist in the mundane world, but remain desecrate. Only the hero and a select few are aware of them and their workings.
People (other than the hero) Don't Believe in Magic
This is a corollary to the first convention. Not only are the heroes alone in their involvement in the workings of supernatural beings, they are also alone in the belief that they even exist.
The World Works More Strangely Than You Thought It Did
Magic is an essential force of the world. In fact, it can explain a low of supposedly "known" facts about the world in a completely different way from the conventional one. Through this knowledge the heroes gain greater understanding of not only the world that surrounds them, but of themselves too.
Variable attitude, although seldom blatantly hostile.
Works by James Blaylock, Emma Bull, John Crowly, Peter Dickson, Lord Dunsany, Jack Finney, Alan Graner, Rudyard Kippling, Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton, Tim Powers, Thorne Smith, James Thurber, Charles Williams and many others. Books like Neil Geiman's Neverwhere
. Movies like Topper
, It's a Wonderful Life
, Heaven Can Wait
, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
and The Bishop's Wife
This subgenre is closely related to the Mundane Fantasy subgenre, but is still a subgenre on its out right. Instead of the mundane world turning out to be magical, there exists another world (or worlds) that are much less mundane than our own. The hero or heroes somehow find their way there and become involved in the struggle between good and evil rampaging on that world. Somehow, they turn out to be the key of good's victory.
The Passages Between the Worlds are Secret
Only a select few can travel between the worlds, and only on certain circumstances. In any event, this passage is usually costly and sometimes even dangerous.
Knowledge from One World Isn't Available in Another
The heroes usually cross from a modern world to a mythical medieval one. They display skills that may seem trivial to them, but that may ultimately win the day for their side, such as first aid, modern tactics, basic chemistry, etc.
Heroes are Social Outcasts in Their World
The heroes never really seem to fit in in their homeworld, but become great champions in another world. The heroes are often portrayed as geeks or nerds.
Success in One World Lead to Success in Another
The hero often returns to his homeworld after the adventure in the other world. At the end of his quest, the hero usually matures greatly, and learns new things about the world and about himself. He often uses this knowledge to turn his life around back in his homeworld.
The mundane universe seems to be a bit hostile, and the hero seems to fail at whatever he tries, but the other, magical world, is somewhat benevolent to him, and he succeeded quite well in it.
series by C. K. Lewis. Ursula K. LeGuin's The Begging Place
. J. K. Rolling's Harry Potter
series. Steven King's Dark Tower
series, but just barely. Movies like The Flight of Dragons
. A host of movies and movie adaptations too numerous to list here.
This subgenre focuses on historical figures and events, and portrays them in all their fantastic glory, most of which probably never existed. King Arthur really wielded Excalibur, Jean d'Arc really saw God, etc.
Lots of Historical Details
These kind of works are usually rich with lots of historical detail, making the story seem as accurate as possible, beside the small fact it never actually happened.
Heroes are Larger than Life...
Remember - this genre deals with legendary heroes such as King Arthur and Robin Hood. They are usually portrayed as almost divine figures, incapable of error.
Or Painfully Mundane
A different twist on this convention is to portray such legendary heroes as almost average human beings, plagued with all the defects and imperfectness of a regular man.
Either highly optimistic where everything falls into place in the end, or overly hostile, depending on the author's view of that historical period.
Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon
series. Movies like Excalibur
and Robin Hood - The Prince of Thieves
. Most cinematic representations of Jean d'Arc.
DARK FANTASY (HORROR)
Almost all dark fantasies take place in our world or in it's recognizable historical one. Likeable, ordinary, people who always have deep emotional commitments or loved ones confront supernatural powers that threaten those commitments or loved ones. Whatever the character cherished most is destroyed, corrupted, or lost to the darkness.
Thing Lurk in the Dark that Can Destroy Us
Sometime these are physical beings such as vampires, werewolves or ancient monsters, and sometimes these are merely insane thoughts that drive us to lunacy. In any case, they are repulsive and must never be allowed into the light.
Anyone Can Die at Anytime
In this subgenre, unlike any others, the fact the a character is a hero, an important supporting character or the romantic interest of one of the above will not save it from an untimely death. In fact, this is convention is usually used just when everyone starts to think the danger is over as a plot device.
If People Truly Understand Reality, They May Go Crazy
Our lives are a blissful ignorance. We think we are safe in our illusions of normality and comfort, but we are not. A single supernatural event may burst our bubble, and we will see the horrible reality as it really is.
Magic (and other knowledge essential for battling the darkness) Has the Same Effect
Whatever you do - you loose. If you stand back and do nothing, you will inevitably see everything you cherish being destroyed. In order to battle the dark forces, you must gain knowledge about it, and delve into it yourself, often risking your own sanity.
Actually hostile. The heroes' best plans go astray producing horrible effects. Humanity's place in the universe remains tenuous, and many enemy forces would just like to see it go away.
The roots of this genre can be traced back to the Greek and Renaissance tragedy, including Sophocles' Oedipus Rex
and William Shakespeare's Hamlet
and King Lear
. In the nineteenth century writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, William Hope Hodgson, A. Merit and Bram Stoker dominated the field. In the pulp era writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert W. Chambers, August Derleth, and early Robert Bloch took over. More recent examples include writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Harlan Elison, Charles L. Grant, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell and many others. There are movie adaptations to the works of most of the above, but we can also add to the list movies like The Exorcist
HACK AND SLASH FANTASY
Many basic stories center around dungeons filled with wondering monsters and mountains of treasure, with occasional trips to the nearest (usually the only) town to sell loot any buy (often magical) weapons and armor. Most adventures are characterized by tremendous amounts of combat, trap-avoiding, lock-picking, door-listening, mapping and looting of fallen foes, with little or no background story.
Death, Death, Death
In most of these games, characters gain power by killing creatures and acclimating treasure, so they usually do a lot of both.
Sloping Passages and Secret Doors
Dungeons are often elaborately designed and go on and on for tremendous distances with no apparent reason. No one knows who built the dungeon, or what it's original purpose was. And usually - no one really cares.
Magic is Absolutely Reliable
Wizards know exactly what they can and cannot do. Just like an archer knows he can bring a goblin down with one shot at twenty paces, but stands no chance at hitting him form a mile away, a wizard knows that his fireball will vanquish almost any orc or troll, might won't be powerful enough against a giant.
Characters are Two-Dimensional Cutouts
Most PCs and almost all the NPCs are defined solely by their race, profession and their function with a party of adventurers. They usually have no obvious backgrounds, goals or motivations besides the will to accumulate gold pieces.
Usually neutral, although it is sometimes tilted in favor of the heroes. In general, scenarios tend to be more like wargames than roleplaying games, and the GM is often viewed as the enemy.
Early Dungeons and Dragons
™ games, and many old (and not so old) computer games like Legend of the Red Dragon
), Dungeon Hack
, Dungeon Master
Whimsical, pun-filled adventures playing on the conventions of other subgenres. The heroes, although likeable, may well be inept or stumble footed, to increase the irony.
Anything for a Laugh
No situation is too contrived if it leads to a nice pun, usually involving anachronism and private jokes of those who know the genre well.
Magicians Can Be Absent-Minded or Loony
Their apprentices usually keep them more-or-less on track, but they still can't make their spells work properly. The magician's power-level is almost always plot (or joke) driven and will usually be ridiculously high or ridiculously low.
Monsters are Anthropatic
That means, they behave in recognizable human ways and act upon human motives. Accordingly, humans are sometimes described as being the "real" monsters.
Quite strongly benevolent, or else amusingly capricious. If the cause of good were in any real danger, it wouldn't be gunny, would it?
Works by Terry Prachet, Piers Anthony, Robert Lynn Asprin and a host of minor imitators. Comic relieves in works of other fantasy subgenre's like Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman's Fizban in The Dragonlace Chronicles
or Zifnab in The Deathgate Cycle
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