what do you call this kind of fantasy?

edited January 2010 in Story Games
I can't figure out how to explain this certain kind of fantasy. There's gotta be a name for it somewhere; it seems highly unlikely to me that I've come up with a new branch when there's all those fantasy authors out there churning out trilogy after trilogy.

(edited to add sources where I took examples from fiction)

It's the kind of fantasy where Barabbas is centuries old, kept alive purely by guilt;
where the Black Circle is Corwin of Amber's sin against something he loved, and that's the whole explanation (not some big complicated thing about a Black Road through all shadows and whatnot) [The Guns of Avalon from Zelazny's Amber series];
where Victor Frankenstein resurrects his slain wife at his monster's bidding, and she, enraged and grieved over what has befallen her, sets fire to the house and runs screaming down the hall, the rooms exploding as she passes, because of her rage and grief [Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (film)];
where Walter O'Dim plants a demon in a preacher woman's womb, and Roland of Gilead exorcises it with his gun in a manner that doesn't bear explicit description [The Gunslinger by Stephen King];
where Roland of Gilead's guns deal more injury and damage than other guns of the same load and caliber, because of the tradition and heredity they represent -- not because the barrels are made out of steel from Excalibur [most of Stephen King's Dark Tower series].

I can try to think of more examples. But, in the mean time, does anyone know what we're looking at here? It's not high fantasy, sword & sorcery, or super heroes, and those are the only fantasy genres I'm knowledgeable about. So what can I call this to explain it to other people?


  • I'd call it Romantic fantasy.
  • ...or is it magic realism?
  • Wilmer's suggestion sounds pretty good to me. I see some whiffs of myth and fairytales as well, but romantic fantasy seems much closer. Then again, people may think you're talking about romance novels set in fantasy worlds, so that may not work for your ability to explain it to other people.

    It can also pop up in sci-fi: see the Coldfire trilogy (starting with Black Sun Rising), where people's beliefs, emotions and dreams shape the real world on a strange planet colonized by humans.
  • That sounds to me like Gothic Fantasy, or even Gothic Horror. Or just plain Gothic. To quality that, I'll explain that the definition of Gothic Horror which I prefer is this: when the emotions and interactions of the main characters are more important to the plot than scaring the crap out of people and defeating evil. So here we see a fantasy game where what people think and believe is more important than what they are and what they do.

    In other words, it's not about who killed who, it's about why. Would you say that's accurate?

    Romanticism would certainly be another way of putting it, as Krippler said, but I tend to veer away from the use of the word 'Romantic' because it can give the often-false impression that it's all about lovey-dovey stuff.

  • edited January 2010
    It's like the Fisher King trope generalized and made into a cosmological constant.

    So maybe...F*King Horror Fantasy
  • Posted By: Bill_White...or is it magic realism?
    Yeah; read one hundred years of solitude for this.
  • To elaborate: what you're describing sounds like you want fantasy where the material causality of the real world is replaced at least in some instances with an emotional causality where things happen because of how characters feel. That could be a kind of magic realism, defined broadly as a literary genre characterized by the intrusion of the illogical. There is probably a more precise but also more easily contested term for what you want. Look at the "see also" links on the Wikipedia page: "neosurrealism" and "metarealism" (or "metaphorical realism") are particularly evocative, as is "romantic conceptualism."
  • Christian,
    I see it as very much a thing of fairytales and myth, but really a specific kind of such things. Obviously, emotional resonance doesn't come up much in Grimm's Fairy Tales, but when I think about what Marshall is describing, phrases like "but his love for her was so great that all the rocks and trees wept along with him, and, rubbing tears from its eyes, the River God led him to where the princess had fallen".
    Or, you know, My Neighbor Totoro - some magical realism, LOTS of emotional resonance, and deliberately left unexplained are to the precise whys and wherefores (a: "how come not every boy who's that sad gets the River God's help?" b: "not every boy is in love with a princess; duhhh!")

    I agree that Marshall's examples are pretty solidly Gothic or Gothic Fantasy, but the causality suggested still has a myth-kinda-sorta quality to it, yeah?
  • Magic Realism is close, but its name implies that the emotion-turned-real intrudes into a realistic environment, not into one that's already fantasy. Although in some Magic-Realist fiction enough fantasy gets generated that the distinction might not be a solid one (see Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale" for example, perhaps the finest novel ever written by a right-wing scumbag pundit.)
  • It's Gothic.
  • I'd third Gothic.
  • Gothic fiction is quite rigidly defined, evoking certain stylistic atmospheres, situations and character-types that, for the most part, fall outside of the examples you've given. In light of this, Allegorical Fantasy would be my definition; for while the Gothic contains the allegorical, not all instances of allegory are Gothic.

    Let me just break down the most Gothic example to demonstrate the difference:
    Victor Frankenstein resurrects his slain wife at his monster's bidding, and she, enraged and grieved over what has befallen her, sets fire to the house and runs screaming down the hall, the rooms exploding as she passes, because of her rage and grief

    The underlined is Gothic. The bold is Allegorical Fantasy. If you were just writing 'Frankenstein 2: Bride of Frankenstein' then the former section would be fine, the fact you now have added a causal magical/surreal allegorical element (fire and explosions literally because of rage and grief, not implying them coincidentally) moves the example away from the Gothic.

    Sorry If I sound preachy; there's an English teacher in me just waiting to burst out.
  • edited January 2010
    I don't know what its name is, but it sure is a kind of fantasy I like to play. ^^
  • The literature described falls into the genre of Gothic romance. Different shades to be sure, but that is what it is.
  • edited January 2010
    Magothical Romallegory

    Romagical Allegothic Fantessionism


    Wait, wouldn't phantasmagoria be about right?
  • Bill, that sounds like making magical realism pretty broad to me.

    Didn't we used to call this kind of stuff just "fantasy"?
  • To be completely flip, yet also basically serious... that's myth. Myth is the attribution of events - not necessarily fantastic - to personal causes. A thing happens because of the action of some person - be it a god-person, a spirit-person, or a people-person. The particular literary descendants of the style are probably to be found more in Gothic literature than in oh-my-no-this-isn't-fantasy-because-its-very-serious Magical Realism, just because Gothic takes itself seriously in a way that most magical realist lit doesn't - the magician is showing his tricks to the audience with a wink and a nod, look how clever we the author-and-reader conspiracy are because we know that this isn't really an angel or a magic tree, it's a Metaphor. Meanwhile the Gothic is insisting that even though this scary gentleman with the sharp teeth is quite clearly a big honking Metaphor, it's really, really a scary monster.
  • edited January 2010
    I don't think it's magical realism -- aren't the magical events in MR something rare and unique? Whereas I'm thinking of a world (or at least focusing on parts of a world) where this sort of thing happens quite a bit.

    "Gothic" and "Romantic" both feel right to me, based on what I know of the terms' origin and etymology. I'm pretty sure that either one of them could be right, depending on specific scenarios of this sort of fantasy (isolated locale and general decadence? Gothic. Otherwise, Romantic). Unfortunately both of those terms are deracinated in modern pop culture -- kids these days see "Romance" and think "Harlequin," see "Gothic" and think "makeup."

    This makes me very very sad.

    I do, however, love reading these replies. This is all great food for thought, and will certainly be a help as I design the system I'm working on.
  • Posted By: Destriarch
    In other words, it's not about who killed who, it's about why. Would you say that's accurate?
    And then it's about what's born from that murder, and what it goes on to cause.
  • edited January 2010

    Yes, this is Gothic and Romantic Fantasy as those terms were originally used. This is the mode I play Sorcerer & Sword in. Because I know of very little actual source material that conforms to it exactly so I simply refer to it as Literary Gothic meets Swords & Sorcery. I can post my "One Sheet" for it, if you're interested.

  • Posted By: Marshall BurnsAnd then it's about what's born from that murder, and what it goes on to cause.
    Now I agree with the Gothic appellation.
  • edited January 2010
    Post your one sheet!
    Posted By: Burr
    Wait, wouldn't phantasmagoria be about right?
    That gets more and more attractive the more I think about it.
    People, help me out: what are some connotations and baggage attached to the term phantasmagoria?
  • edited January 2010
    Posted By: Marshall Burns Unfortunately both of those terms are deracinated in modern pop culture -- kids these days see "Romance" and think "Harlequin," see "Gothic" and think "makeup."

    This makes me very very sad.

    I do, however, love reading these replies. This is all great food for thought, and will certainly be a help as I design the system I'm working on.
    Ya, I cry myself to sleep sometimes because of it.
  • edited January 2010
    Here's my Sorcerer set up in full. It's a tad longer than a "One Sheet" but it gives all the details I feed to players when we start a game.


    This setting is all about Love. Not only romantic love but love for family, love for country, faith, even life itself. A character gains Humanity when he takes actions that strengthens the bonds with the things he loves in his life or bonds of love between others. A meaningful gift to a lover, an observance of a family tradition, the blessing of a child into your faith, all bring Humanity gain. But love can corrupt.

    A character loses Humanity when he takes actions that damage the bonds of love between himself or others. Coveting a lover who does not love you in return, using family tradition as a weapon of control and dogmatically following faithful tenants without practical effect, all lead to Humanity loss.

    At zero Humanity a character is no longer capable of real love. That might mean complete isolation or a total conversion of functional love into an all consuming obsession.

    The Setting

    The setting is mostly dense forest as far as the eye can see veined with many streams and rivers. There is the odd mountain here and there and a swamp or two. To the west the forest ends at a bleak coast of turbulent seas and rocky islands not far off the shore. The night is longer than the day and the winters and falls longer than the summer and springs but the daylight is warmer and the smells of spring sweeter than we would understand them.

    Culturally there are very few cities located far, far apart with no concept of a central government. The highest ranking noble you are likely to find is a Baron or Marquis who controls the immediate lands. The rare cities are dense and decadent as well as more "modern" with a late 18th Century feel. As you go further out things become more primitive and more medieval in flavor. Travel is dangerous as the woods are peppered with bandits.

    Religiously almost everyone is in the cities is a member of The Church (or at least pretends to be). The Church has Abbies dotting the forest lands everywhere spreading its faith. However, many in the wilderness areas still believe in the older woodland gods and beings.


    Sorcerers are people with a stake in the health of the world around them. They have and value whatever binds them to those around them. That might be the company of a lover, ties to a strong family, a respect for the wilderness, their personal faith or any other worldly tie. Where they stand morally relative to these ties is wide open from paragon of virtue to the utterly corrupt. But these ties exist and drive them.

    Outlaw born - You grew up among outsiders such as bandits or gypsies and your physical senses and presence are honed to their sensibilities.
    Trained soldier - Good with all weapons, used to the travails and conduct of war and soldiery. Note that unarmed combat skills are very basic, limited to punching and rough-and-tumble grappling.
    Big and vigorous - Speaks for itself: you're a big person.
    Just healthy - This is for characters who are not physically special in any way.
    Arcane Regimen - This is what classical sorcerers do to stay in shape: funny breathing, stretching, calisthenics, controlled diet, and so on.
    Unnatural means - Bathe in virgin lamb blood, run around naked in the moonlight, recite poetry in the shadow of the Frog God... this sort of thing seems to work for some people.

    Brush with the Unknown - In the course of an otherwise normal life, the character has encountered true, all-encompassing insight. Ever since, nothing has really been satisfying. You must define the experience and the character's reaction to it ever since.
    Aristocrat - This is not a social status as much as a state of mind. The character is "the cat who walks by himself," and all places are alike to him.
    Zest for life - Wahoo! If it's fun or feels good, you go for it. If it doesn't, it's in your way.
    Angry - The character is pissed off and thoroughly ready to express this state of mind to all and sundry.
    Vow - The classic motivator. Vengeance, regaining property or status, whatever - you want it and you're going to get it.
    Lover - The character derives great inner strength from the love of another, whether a specific person or anyone who's interested today.
    Church faith - You are believer in the teaching of The Church.

    Changeling - You were raised by demons and know their ways well. Now you live in the "normal" world; perhaps you are a bit unsure of yourself there.
    Half-breed - One of your parents is a demon or undead. You are by no means a normal human being.
    Pagan - You know where the really wild things are.
    Bloodline (Apprentice/Adept) - Sorcerous knowledge passes through a line of direct decedents in your family. The seventh son of a seventh son or the first daughter of a first daughter.
    Heritage - Similar to blood line, but less linear. Various members of your family practice sorcery.
    Secret Order - You are a member of some back-room cabal.
    Church heresy - You know what's in all those books they keep locked in the secret rooms of the monasteries.
    Naive - These characters don't consider themselves sorcerers, but the demons do.


    Demons are a sorcerers passions given physical form. The perfect lover in the form a succubus. A family heirloom such as a bloodstone necklace or watchful portrait of the patriarch. The ever present spirit of the forest or river. A biblical plague to wash away the sins of man. The eye of the lich-king to carry his sight always. The soul of your dead teacher housed in the body of another.

    Demon Desires
    Sensual Gratification
    To Worship
    To Be Worshiped


    Rituals which summon and bind demons are based on acts of passion, devotion and obsession. Imagine a man bathing his sword in his dead brother's blood as he calls a demon into the sword to guide his hand to his brother's killer. Rituals which punish and banish demons are based on compassion, empathy and love. Imagine a man renewing the wedding vows of a husband and wife to destroy the cursed gargoyle that has brought ruin and death to the family for generations. These continue to be examples to get the flavor of the setting across.

    A Sample Character.

    Sorcerer: Myra Van Holten

    Appearance: Round face framed by shoulder length black hair with wide green eyes, petite nose and mouth. Lithe build draped in a black cloak. She carries a dagger with her family's crest on the hilt.

    Telltale: Three frozen tear drops embedded in her left cheek.

    Price: Unlucky in Love + The Chill

    Stamina: 3 Just Healthy
    Will: 5 Angry + Lover
    Lore: 3 Bloodline Apprentice
    Past: 5 Baron's Daughter

    Humanity: 4 (Capped At Five)

    Myra Van Holten was in love with and engaged to be married to Kurt Loengrad. In the process of saying their vows the wedding was attacked by a group of drunken bandits. In the chaos both Kurt and Myra's mother, Isabella Van Holten, were killed.

    Grief stricken, Myra called on her sorcerous heritage and tried to bring her dead lover back to life. She used his cloak as a focus for the ritual. The ritual failed but since then that cloak has appeared to have a life of its own. In honor of his memory, she calls it Kurt. It has kept her warm and safe on many cold winter nights.

    A few days before the anniversary of the disastrous wedding Myra's father, Augustus Van Holten, has informed Myra that her time of mourning must come to and end and she must marry. He has chosen her new husband.

    Demon: Kurt

    Type: Object
    Sub-Type: True Demon
    Appearance: Deep, solid, void-like black cloak.
    Telltale: Although made of wool, Kurt feels fleshy to the touch.
    Binding Strength: +1 Myra’s Favor

    Stamina: 4
    Will: 7
    Lore: 6
    Power: 7

    Desire: Love
    Need: To be snuggled

    Powers: Cloak (Confers), Vitality (Confers), Armor (Confers), Hold, Special Non-Lethal (Smothering) Damage, Link
  • Posted By: Marshall BurnsPeople, help me out: what are some connotations and baggage attached to the termphantasmagoria?
    I think of Italian horror movies.

    So... I guess it works, actually.
  • There were a couple of neat adventure games by that name.
  • Jesse,
    That's some pretty cool stuff. I really like seeing things like that, because it's fun and super-helpful (from a design standpoint) to look at it and say, "Yes! I agree totally!" and "...Nah, I don't think so," and occasionally "The fuck?" (there weren't any of those this time). Because now I get to think about those reactions, and work the reasons out in my head. So thanks!
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