As computer games and movies have advanced in the last few decades, so has the public’s appetite for high fantasy.
Just look at any of the great fantasy properties of the last fifteen years. Gritty low fantasies full of desperate men and women fighting puppy-sized rats where magic is small and pointless have been phased out, only to be replaced by heroes casually tossing brilliant streams of magic and fighting mountain-sized monsters. Content creators now have the computer processing speed to depict epic battles between demigods like in the recent remake of Clash of the Titans, wild magic that shatters cities like in the Harry Potter films, and fantastic vistas like the ones we find in Avatar.
We’ve even seen good models for low-level characters in high-fantasy worlds. Lord of the Rings is as basic a fetch quest as they come, but in the background there are titanic events underway and the fate of the world is at risk.
Once you’ve seen how epic things have gotten in films and computer games, you start to wonder why Dungeons and Dragons has tried to reflect the sensibilities of gamers from the 1970s and 1980s who had to be satisfied with source material that could only do low fantasy.
The fourth edition of DnD modeled the older versions of DnD and ended up anemic, a low fantasy game for an audience that was being fed high fantasy everywhere we looked. The source material that was inspiring us in books and movies had heroes fighting epic battles amidst huge FX budgets, but in 4e DnD you couldn’t even be sure that you could break open a door.
It’s not hard to understand how it happened. Game designers realized that even single elements of high fantasy radically affected the kinds of stories you could tell. For example, adventure design elements like dungeons are nonfunctional when teleportation is common and you can just bypass the “adventure” bits of the adventure, so someone in the chain of command decided that all of the naughty high fantasy elements had to be locked down. They were made expensive, useless, or just weren’t available.
That was a radical departure from the various versions of 3e DnD. We had high fantasy from the beginning, even if it wasn’t particularly balanced. We had illusions that were only limited by your imagination, charms to control enemies for battle and affecting the story, summoning of various flavors, and a host of other elements available mostly at character creation.
That was fun even when it wasn’t balanced. Sure, the warrior-types got left in the cold and ended up poking things with bits of rusty metal while the spellcasters bent space and time at will, but at least DMs could spot-fix the problem by tossing sword-shaped artifacts at them.
My hope for the fifth edition of DnD is that the designers try to give us high fantasy, even if it takes more work to implement. Solutions to the problems of basic high-fantasy elements are out there, but you have to be willing risk using them if you want the benefits.
For example, let’s address teleportation. Combat teleportation is fine, but the real problems come from players skipping encounters, as well as the tactic that became known on the forums as “Scry and Die” and involved teleporting straight to the Big Bad Evil Guy and ganking him while he was in the bathroom.
Surprisingly, these problems can be fixed by looking at sci-fi. Star Trek has been around for generations and been telling stories with teleportation just fine, and they did it with a few simple rules: you can only teleport to a place that’s not too deep underground, not in a strong energy field of any kind, and if you had the exact coordinates.
Four series and a ton of movies were made using these rules, and they seemed to work just fine, so we just need to convert them to DnD if we want our teleportation and our dungeons.
Dungeons are deep underground and so need to be explored the old-fashioned and exciting way, encounters can’t be skipped because players don’t know the exact coordinates of treasure rooms, clues, enemies and the like, and DMs faced with a potentially ruined adventure can just counter specific uses of teleportation by writing in a strong magical field in the spot the players want to go.
Heck, the same set of rules solves most of the problems with scrying as well.
So now that we know that we can make solutions for high fantasy elements, I hope fans of DnD can impress upon the designers that they want them with a clear conscience. We can have our high fantasy and our game balance too, but we just need to think about the issues a little more.
If you are a fan of high fantasy, feel free to pick up my Kindle novel, The Dead City Gambit, from Amazon.com.