Imagine that a posse of armed fighters, with few connections to society, travel around a sparsely-settled wilderness. They ride into town as vigilantes, have a drink at the tavern, and dispatch some wrong-doers. They are generally men of violence, and take on missions for reward and fame. They battle barbarian monsters outside of town, and care most of all for their own skill and freedom. We could be at the O.K. corral, or any knock-off of the Shire, couldn’t we? Just swap the revolvers for swords.
We can say that superficially, the stock fantasy world is defined by non-industrial technology and social systems; usually borrowing vaguely from the medieval period. Monsters and magic can’t be left out either, with allusions to fairy tales as well as Greek myth. And overall, there is something about fantasy that is very European, with allusions to an idyllic rural past. But I would say that such fantasy is actually much closer to America — and specifically to the genre of the Western.
There are obviously a few unsavory aspects to this connection, with native American peoples being played by Orcs, most of all. Fantasy has always been very concerned with race, the near-human Other, and ideals of purity. It is not unique in that, but does distill archetypes down into quite literal bogeymen. I don’t think anyone can completely ignore this today; but you can, perhaps, play in the fantasy genre with more care than some who came before — see Robin Law’s tabletop RPG about humanized orcs, for instance.
I want to call attention back to something else from the Western as being crucial to the fantasy genre: vigilantism. It’s cliche to say fantasy is escapism, but here I think it’s true; specifically, escape from modern strictures of law, and from ordinary powerlessness. Because the dream of the vigilante is alive all around us: to just get out a gun and shoot the bad guys, never-mind due process. In fantasy, this is how the protagonists usually get to act. No one pushes them around; and if someone tries, he gets a sweet comeuppance. The pretty girl will get rescued too, the villagers saved from evil. These are among the chief satisfactions of workaday fantasy.
Now let’s address “magic.” I view this as another form of window-dressing, since it usually means personal effectiveness by another means; or personal challenge by another means: can the mage throw a big enough fireball to destroy the golem? In a modern genre, it would simply some high-tech tools, or professional training. But this pseudo-magic does get at something else. Magic in this form is a way of elevating the power of individuals, to do things it would normally take a whole village. Just like with vigilantism, fantasy here imagines the individual as paramount, and where true power lies: it is through individual action that things get done, because social institutions don’t exist or are helpless — to prevent orc raids, bandits, or the end of the world. It’s up to the protagonists to step in. And it’s their judgment that counts.
Where Does This Get Us?
Where does all this get us? To play around with a genre, like anything, you should understand it first. You may wish to save some aspects of this stock fantasy, quietly scuttle a few under the rug, and blow some up spectacularly. But you had better know what’s left, and what was there to begin with.
Basically then, we have the physical setting of fantasy receding; it is more of an afterthought. Instead, we have certain attitudes of story that are fulfilled or realized by the main characters: personal liberty and power, justice achieved through vigilantism, exploration of wilderness on the fringes of a half-formed society, and dangerous half-humans who threaten the idea of civilization. You could change a lot about fantasy while keeping these things, and still get something familiar — at least that’s what I contend.
A lot of this amounts to a spaghetti Western in medieval clothing. And that means you can start there for inspiration. If you want to ask yourself, What kind of world do I need to support traditional fantasy stories? You should actually ask yourself what you need to support a Western. And if you want to ask what kinds of stories you can tell, think about what Westerns have already done — or storytellers directly inspired by Westerns have done, like Kurosawa. Here’s one untapped idea: stage-coach robberies. Why don’t fantasy games have more of them? You just need some magical boats or somesuch and it would fit perfectly.
Of course, you don’t need to play in the “traditional stock fantasy” genre at all. You can be sick to death of it, and want to do something medieval or historical that is part of a completely different genre, or really no genre at all. Look at Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels, for instance: historical, magical, and pre-industrial; but really nothing like the fantasy I’ve described here; too good, maybe, to be described as genre fiction. But there’s a place for genre fiction too, and that includes fantasy we all know, with orcs and revolvers and all.