16 February 2024

My RPG Foci: Fantasy and Eldritch Horror

Recently someone over at the RPG Pub asked what genres people preferred in their gaming. Reflecting on this question, I realized that over the past twenty-five years or so, almost all of my role-playing activity has been focused in two genres: fantasy and horror. 


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of my gaming has involved various flavours of fantasy, especially the following sub-genres.

High Fantasy

By “high fantasy” I mean the kind of fantasy that you find in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the like. High fantasy worlds have a clear distinction between “good” and “evil” – even if there are morally ambiguous characters and difficult situations between the two extremes. 

I’ve mentioned before here that I was an avid player of Middle-earth Roleplaying back during the 1980s. Indeed, I probably played as much MERP as I did AD&D during my high-school days (it eventually became my group’s “main game”). And when I first started playing RPGs semi-regularly again, around 1999, I naturally started with MERP (before, unfortunately, moving to the Rolemaster Standard System, which despite its obvious mechanical relation to MERP [MERP was derived from an earlier version of Rolemaster], was not nearly as smooth or fun to use in practice).

A lot of the games that I’ve run over the years have been in this subgenre, including past and present Middle-earth games. My current “Court of Urdor” also falls within this category. 

The brilliant Against the Darkmaster FRPG – which is heavily inspired by MERP – is designed for precisely this kind of fantasy campaign. Indeed, it builds the “Darkmaster” conceit into some of its core mechanics. As the name indicates, the struggle against the Darkmaster is assumed to be a central feature of any campaign, even if only in the background. 

Swords and Sorcery 

Another familiar sub-genre. Robert E Howard’s Hyborea and Atlantis, Michael Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms (and “multiverse” more generally), Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Karl Edward Wagner’s “Kane,” and the like, are all exemplars of this sub-genre. I would include Jack Vance’s Dying Earth corpus, and many of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories (especially those set in Zothique, Averoigne, and Hyperborea), as members of this family as well.

After rereading REH’s Conan stories – and reading for the first time his Kull and Bran Mac Morn tales – fifteen years ago (when they were republished in nice volumes by Ballantine), I came up with a number of house rules for Swords & Wizardy in order to run some “swords and sorcery” flavoured games. Those house rules are still available here – and seem to attract regular visits to this day. Many of them were later integrated into D101 Games’ Crypts & Things role-playing game, which I highly recommend. 

In addition to running my modified version of S&W (and later C&T), I also was a player in a wonderful campaign set in the Young Kingdoms (of Moorcock’s Elric tales), using the Mongoose Runequest II system (the grandfather of the excellent Mythras RPG). 

Dungeons & Dragons

Blend the above two sub-genres together – and add some quirky monsters (e.g., beholders, mind flayers), novel twists on old ideas (e.g., drow elves, planar cosmology), and some innovations (e.g., dungeon-delving, wandering monsters) – for the singular “Dungeons and Dragons” sub-genre. I regard “D&D fantasy” as its own thing, even though it obviously draws heavily on a wide range of sources (not just fantasy). 

However, my experience running and playing post-TSR D&D has not been that great. I ran two 3rd edition games – one 3.0e and one 3.5e – just over two decades ago. The system was new and shiny, and seemed to “fix” all the purported “problems” with the earlier versions of the game. Both campaigns lasted about a year but became quite tedious to run once the characters reached 3rd or 4th level. I came to find that being a DM for 3rd edition D&D was simply a chore. After the second campaign, I vowed to never run the game again. I subsequently ran a few sessions of Castles & Crusades, AD&D, and played a bit of the Warhammer RPG (2nd edition). All of those games I enjoyed far more than 3rd edition D&D (although I probably would only bother with AD&D again today).

I skipped 4th edition D&D altogether. After reading halfway through the Player’s Handbook in fall 2008, I realized that it was just not for me. 

Years later, I ran a few one-shots of 5th edition. At first, I thought rather highly of it – at the very least, it seemed to be a vast improvement over 3rd edition. I quite liked some of the books that were published for it (namely, Tales from the Yawning Portal, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, and Goodman Games’ updated versions of classic TSR modules – not coincidentally, books that all contained a lot of “Gygaxian" Greyhawk material). 

More recently, I ran a campaign set in the World of Greyhawk, much of which took place in the legendary area around the village of Hommlet. It was great fun! But it was fun despite the system (at least for me as the Dungeon Master). The ubiquitous, often “free” magic, and almost absurd “superhero” quality of the characters, came to grate on my nerves. I’ve explained some of my problems with 5th edition D&D before (see here and here) so I won’t say any more about that here.  

After these experiences, I conclude that I definitely prefer “old school” D&D within this genre – specifically, the more challenging and flavourful 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons (and related “clone” systems, like OSRIC and S&W). I like magic to be at least somewhat rare and at least somewhat costly to use. (Endless cantrips and ritual spells? No thanks!) It’s clear to me that the post-TSR versions of the game just are not my thing. I certainly have no interest in the recent offerings from the Wizards of the Coast.

There is one honourable exception regarding 5th edition D&D: the Middle-earth adaptations of the 5e system, as presented in Adventures in Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings RPG. I thoroughly enjoyed the AiME campaign that I ran a number of years ago. But those games don’t feel like “D&D” at all – the magic system is entirely different, the classes are entirely different, etcetera. They also import a number of mechanics from The One Ring RPG. And of course, those games belong to the “high fantasy” genre discussed earlier.

Historical Fantasy

As a player, the bulk of my gaming over the past decade has been in historical fantasy settings. I suppose that this is unsurprising, given that I’ve played a lot of Mythras (and its predecessors, RuneQuest 6 and MRQII) during this time.  So, I’ve played in long-running Mythic Britain and Mythic Babylon campaigns, as well as some one-shot sessions in other settings. 

Both Mythic Britain and Mythic Babylon are excellent and highly recommended!


After fantasy, I’ve mainly run and played in “Horror” games. But in this category, it’s been exclusively “Lovecraftian” horror, that is, “Cthulhu Mythos” stuff. 

I’ve run a couple of short Call of Cthulhu campaigns set during the “classic” period, in Toronto and Massachusetts, as well as a number of one-shots. I have material for other eras (e.g., Rome, medieval, and modern, including “The Laundry”) but have never run a campaign or even a one-shot outside of the default 1920s-30s period.  

As a player, I recently took part in a long-running Mythras campaign, using the classic Beyond the Mountains of Madness sourcebook. (Our last session was today. My character survived – and was even more-or-less sane!) I’ve also taken part in one-shots of Trail of Cthulhu, Delta Green, and other related games over the years. 

Other genres?
I took part in a few Mythras sessions years ago set in the Luther Arkwright universe. I’m not sure how to categorize that setting (“science fantasy”?). They were fine but not the kind of thing I’d likely run myself. I also have played a few other one-shots here and there, but nothing really worthy of mention.

I haven't been remotely interested in playing in a “superheroes” game in recent decades (unless you count 5th edition D&D – I joke). It’s a genre that simply doesn't appeal to me. I’d be open to a “modern” game (say, espionage) but I have no idea how to run one myself. Likewise for science-fiction.

Back in high-school, my group tried all kinds of different games – including superheroes (Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Superheroes), historical (Gangbusters, Bushido), and especially science fiction (Traveller, Star Frontiers, and even Space Opera – or at least I bought and tried to read Space Opera). We had a lot of time and energy back then!

Wrapping up...

These days, now that I’m an old man, I generally try to stick to what I know I like. So, I guess I’m a pretty limited gamer: I play and run almost exclusively fantasy and horror games. Maybe I’ll broaden my horizons when I retire. 

Looking back, I regret all the time I spent trying to get myself to like 3rd and 5th edition D&D. I should’ve just spent that time playing MERP or Stormbringer or Crypts and Things or whatever. At least I’ve learned my lesson: life is too short to try to force myself to like a game when there are other games available that I much prefer. So these days I’m happy to focus on Mythras and Against the Darkmaster – although, of course, I still pick up the occasional new system that catches my eye. 

Art credits (from top to bottom): Angus McBride, Andrea Piparo, Michael Whelan, Dave Trampier, David Benzal, Erol Otus, Angus McBride (again).


  1. Think I'd be more inclined to call your "historical fantasy" mythic fantasy instead, which not only covers the stuff you mentioned but also Gloranthan RQ, and Osprey's Jackals. Arguably Lyonesse too, although that's more of a stretch. They all draw on elements of real world history to varying degrees for their settings, but the mythic aspect of those settings is what makes them fantasy.

    Our tastes in RP subjects differ a lot, but at the very least I'm in agreement that Mythras is an excellent system all around.

    1. If could only use one system for the rest of my life, I'd probably pick Mythras.

  2. Since you're a fan of Tolkienish high-fantasy, and the d100 family of games, have you checked out Age of Shadow, which is based on OpenQuest?

    1. Yes! I've had AoS for over a decade now. I also have its Campaign Companion. I think very highly of it -- I think I prefer it over standard OQ -- but I've never used it in play. Perhaps I should see if there's been anything new produced for it over the past eight years or so...


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).