This (very short) post is my attempt to explain what fantasy I like the most: Grounded Fantasy.
Grounded Fantasy is fantasy that has one foot firmly planted on solid ground, and one firmly planted in fantasy.
There is magic, but it’s not over-powered. There is the fantastic, but it meshes with harsh reality.
But what do I mean by “grounded”?
I will define grounded fantasy with an example I often bring up when talking about this topic: The wizard’s tower.
In grounded fantasy there is a wizard tower, complete with magical traps and secret passages, and (most probably) a powerful wizard.
But it was also probably built by someone else. A dwarven engineer perhaps.
Who would probably still be alive, unless the wizard saw to it that he had a little accident.
And there would have been scores of builders as well.
All of these people would have knowledge of parts of the tower.
The engineer probably wouldn’t know about all the magical traps set by the wizard, but he would probably know about the secret doorway to the narrow stairs that lead directly to the fourth floor where the wizard keeps his lab.
And this could be useful information that could be used by the PCs.
If they could track down the dwarven engineer, they could get the information out of him (one way or the other).
There is also a mine/quarry some place where the stone came from. This could again be information that could be useful to any investigative PCs.
As a contrasting view, “ungrounded”, or high fantasy, would either not bother to explain how it came to be, or handwave it as nothing more than magic.
This would lead to a lot of dead ends for investigating PCs and could also lead to fustration for the players involved.
As a player, I like to be able to know the why of things. How did this come to be here? Who built it? Why did they build it here? What does the current occupant do there?
Investigations by PCs is an important aspect of grounded fantasy roleplaying games, but I would also argue it’s important for all roleplaying games.
It allows players to feel in control and gives them something to do with all those skills they have.
It also allows the characters to know and understand their world better and to know if they are walking into something much bigger than they can handle.
It’s also a way a GM can hand out clues.
Grounded fantasy allows the GM to place details into their world and have them explained in a natural way, rather than just bland exposition.
There is a definitely cross-over with grounded fantasy and low-fantasy and low-magic campaign worlds.
I like to imagine this more as a Venn Diagram, with low-fantasy, low magic, and grounded fantasy all overlapping into a perfect storm.
Over to You
What sort of fantasy do you like?
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8 Replies to “Grounded Fantasy”
I feel very much the same way. Things have to make sense. There must be an explanation for most things.
Thanks. Glad there is someone else like me. 🙂
I’m not sure how you feel this idea of grounded vs. ungrounded fantasy fits with our discussion of the mythic underworld, but I feel that the mythic underworld is an idea that fits better with Sword & Sorcery type settings. It gives a supernatural, and frankly evil, explanation for the reality-breaking puzzles in dungeon exploration (e.g., doors being stuck for PCs but not monsters or unexplainable gusts of wind with no known source). It also grounds (pun intended) the effects of chaos, which is a malevolent force itself in the world twisting and corrupting even the inanimate ground on which foul rites are performed. (I’m a fan of the older law-neutrality-chaos alignment system and prefer to think of it as cosmic alignment rather than personality dimensions).
I am not sure the mythic underground does fit with grounded fantasy. In grounded fantasy there is a reason for everything and quite possibly a mundane reason.
The Mythic Underworld concept, as I understand it, seems to me to be more of a high fantasy concept. A big bad entity.
Grounded fantasy to me means explainable phenomena – a dungeon ecology over some mystical energy controlling the dungeon.
To me this post is stating that grounded fantasy could be magic-heavy as well (as an example). The point is that grounded fantasy is rationalised in a sensible (and familiar) way.
Also that the environment of the setting, not just the narrative story arc, is available to the players as a way to experience the game.
Hmm, is this why you don’t like pre-gen adventures? Because they’re not “grounded” for you?
Very thought provoking.
It can be, but I think the higher the magic, the less grounded it becomes. Or, at least, the harder it becomes to ground.
Pre-gen adventures are okay, but I do find them problematic in the way laid out in that article, but I don’t see them as having a specific grounding problem. I prefer to just make up my own adventures based on backgound and other information about an area.
Hope that makes sense. And I am glad my blog are thought provoking for you – that’s the best I can ask for. 🙂
It is an interesting debate, however it is my belief that anything can be grounded if one commits to the grounding. It is much harder, yes, but not at all undoable. Even high and spectacular magic can become grounded through science and description that grounds it. To do this takes a lot of commitment to reading and researching, which I do for all my grounded fantasy novels. Detail and history bring things to life and if it is well done, can even blur the lines of reality people cling to. My books are a perfect example of this: The Insignificance Paradigm and Dusk Rising.
Cheers. Nice to get an authors take. It probably is possible but not something I would want too try. I think science would need to come into it and I like keeping my science and fantasy separate.