Types of Tabletop RPG Genres

Tabletop role-playing games come in a variety of settings to help facilitate the game theme you are looking for. While I will describe a few of the main settings, they can be broken down into various genres which may help to refine your search on thematic inspiration to draw from. Each category can be manipulated with darker themes, comedic interpretations, and you can even limit certain aspects of them to help facilitate the ideas that you want to promote. Below we will quickly look over the basic settings that can serve as a good starting point to design campaigns from.

High Fantasy 

High magic settings are generally the rule of RPGs. It’s the place where mythological creatures and folklore come true. While it may involve similar physics of the real world, it is most certainly an alternate reality of fantastical heroes and heroines. Most fantasy concepts are set in a High Fantasy setting where magic easily explains the mysteries of the world and makes the imagination spring to life. Magic is commonplace and even a common citizen is aware of its uses and existence. Some famous High Fantasy settings include:

  • Lord of The Rings
  • Dragonlance
  • And Forgotten Realms

Low Fantasy 

Low magic settings are generally set in some form of a historically accurate location that we know exists or existed. Magic is seen as a big deal and not something to be trifled with. It would be uncommon to directly know a wizard, and if you did, you would know to fear them. While the players are likely going to be playing some form of character that uses magic, most NPCs in the realm would be fascinated or more likely scared of the witches and warlocks who weird the power of spells. While Magic is prominent in High Fantasy, it's generally rare in Low Fantasy settings. Magic is likely to be dangerous, corruptive or difficult to control, and magic-users are to be distrusted at best. Some famous Low Fantasy works and settings include:

  • King Arthur
  • Harry Potter
  • And Conan The Barbarian

Steam Punk

Steam Punk incorporates retro futuristic technology inspired by Victorian era industrial steam-powered machinery. The major difference is that you replace the steam power with magic oriented technology. One of the main differences in Steam Punk is that it can often have a large variety of technologies making it lean more toward either high fantasy making it a hybrid. Some famous Steam Punk works and settings include: 

  • Eberron
  • Several Final Fantasy Games
  • And the movie Mortal Engines

Science Fiction (Sci-Fi)

Science Fiction largely deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts. Look no further than the classic Star Wars. Sci-Fi often uses advanced technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life. Some famous Sci-Fi works and settings include:

  • Star Wars
  • Shadowrun
  • Star Trek

Genre Combinations

When you combine together various genres you can get some interesting things. Place an orc and elves into something and it is clearly fantasy. Give them lots of magic and monsters to fight and its classic high fantasy. Add an airship as their main vehicle and you have Science Fantasy (not science fiction because airships aren’t futuristic technology). Power that spaceship by steam or magic and you have a Steampunk twist. Overlay a comedic or dark feel and you have… well you get the point, it gets complicated and not really useful to categorize the genre at this point. A great example of the combination of orcs/elves, swords,magic and spaceships is Spelljammer. Some D20 systems can also facilitate this combination of genres as well as cyberpunk and other systems. When developing your campaign, consider some of these different aspects and how they affect the story you want to tell.

Why Does The Setting Matter?

The setting is the most critical decision you will make because it is the starting point of what RPG system you will use and how to manicure all the elements of design. It also matters because this will likely be your first word(s) when coming up with a campaign concept. The reason the setting is so important is because before you pitch a concept to your players, you will load up your proposal by stating one of these genres as the basis of your setting. Whether you like it or not, it will set the stage for what your campaign will initially be seen as. This is actually a good thing, because it narrows the imagination to the scope of the world and primes it for more input. Of course, when you’re building a new homebrew world, you may feel that your campaign is anything but the standard. To effectively differentiate your world from others, you will need to maintain your theme through culture(s), NPCs, exotic locales, and more.

Creating our own Homebrew World

Now it’s time to follow along and create your own ideas. For the purposes of this article series, you should follow along as I begin the journey. I'm going to start with a low magic setting like King Arthur because I love the idea of elite wizards running the world in the background and significantly influencing elites and royalty. The Sword and Sorcery style should be fun to show how powerful the players are among the general public with a dash of magic and mythology. I want common people to be aware of the existence of wizards, witches, and warlocks, but I also want them to be feared like a new technology that is overtaking the world in an emerging magic realm. Because I love fantasy concepts, there will certainly be weird races that exist in my world as I believe it's more interesting for my players to get wild with player character choices. While I do want epic monsters, the setting will call for mostly fierce cultural politics for the players to navigate and discovering mythological creatures should be scary side quest or capstone to an questing series. Of course, since this is going to be a D&D 5e campaign, I do want the possibility of high fantasy monsters to eventually get involved once players exit the ‘real’ or ‘mundane’ world scenarios.

So this is a sufficient starting point. As you can see, we’re already deciding some ideas that fit into other categories beyond deciding the genre and that is okay, but we are not getting carried away yet. Making a brainstorm bubble can help get the creative ideas moving because we can easily cross out ideas we later don't like. By identifying what I like and what types of ideas I want, we’re beginning to form the skeleton of the setting as a whole. As in all writing, presentations, or projects, starting with an outline at this point is important to inform the rest of our decisions so that we can flesh out the bones later.

So, what will you decide? Follow along with this series and take the journey in designing your homebrew campaign setting.

Key Takeaways

  • The setting is the most critical decision you will make because it informs your design elements and even your campaign concept
  • Settings can be separated into High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Steam Punk, and Sci-Fi with varying ranges in between
  • Combining genres can be effective to achieve the optimal idea for your campaign
  • Start with a brainstorm bubble to place in ideas to allow for easier organization later in the process


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