Setting Aesthetics

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Worldbuilding can be hard. If you're creating a story that isn't already set on Earth at some point in history, you'll have to come up with a lot of different things on your own. And not just the names of places and what transpired, or what kind of culture each different people has, but also the more subtle parts of a setting that include tone and visual aesthetics.

That's why a lot of fictional worlds tend to cleave to a particular setting aesthetic, an amalgamation of different ideas that can loosely be thought of as setting genres. These are not hard and fast rules, as some different aesthetics may blend into one another, but they tend to stick primarily to one type of aesthetic. These terms can be applied across literature, movies, games, etc.

Fantasy[edit]

  • High Fantasy - The default type of setting for most fantasy settings. Magic is commonplace, as is anything we normally associate with fairy tales and mythology. High Fantasy tends to be a bit more upbeat, as many civilizations tend to exist quite comfortably (apart from the odd dragon or zombie attack). Big focus on cosmological conflicts, namely Good vs. Evil.

Examples: Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons

  • Low Fantasy - The dark and gritty counterpart to High Fantasy. Not necessarily Grimdark, although life does tend to be harsher. The biggest exemplar of Low Fantasy is Conan the Barbarian; magic is uncommon but very powerful, political strife is more commonplace, and violence is the norm.

Examples: Conan the Barbarian, Game of Thrones

  • Heroic Fantasy - Intermediary point between High & Low Fantasy; High Fantasy backdrops and upbeat take on the world, but Low Fantasy-esque focus on Your Dudes. Grittier and more grimdark examples do exist - Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Roleplay are technically Heroic Fantasy.

Examples: Dungeons & Dragons, Exalted

Examples: Eberron, Planescape, Iron Kingdoms

Examples: Masque of the Red Death, Castle Falkenstein, Unhallowed Metropolis

  • Dark Fantasy - Grimdark or Horror take on your standard fantasy world.

Examples: Warhammer Fantasy

  • Modern Fantasy - An alternate take on Urban Fantasy, where you have a fantasy world that's developed magic and/or technology until it's reached a semblance of the modern world. Or at least a historical/futuristic analogue to our world.

Examples: Arcanum (fantasy analogue to Victorian England), Shadowrun (fantasy world gone cyberpunk)

  • Weird Western - Either a Western version of Urban Fantasy, or a fantasy world that has Western themes.

Examples: Deadlands, Horizons: Spellslinger

Sci-Fi[edit]

  • Cyberpunk - The original of the "punk" genres. If you've ever seen The Matrix, that's pretty much Cyberpunk in a nutshell, although Blade Runner is probably a more classic example. Dystopian urban environments and highly advanced technology is commonplace, as are dark, brooding heroes wearing black trench coats.

Examples: The Matrix, Cyberpunk 2020, Blade Runner, Shadowrun

  • Steampunk - One of the first derivatives of Cyberpunk, at least in name only. In actuality, the aesthetic draws quite a bit from the works of Jules Verne, which takes place in Victorian times and features more advanced versions of the steam-powered technology of the day.

Examples: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Warmachine

  • Dieselpunk - A darker and grittier version of Steampunk set between the World Wars. Tyranny and warfare is commonplace, as are machines capable of deadly efficiency.

Examples: Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Bioshock

  • Atompunk - The name applied to anything inspired by the science fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s. Space exploration is the norm, and technology is mostly based on what was slowly beginning to emerge at the time that we would now take for granted (such as video chat, portable phones, robots capable of walking) or else has proven to be wildly impractical if not impossible (Jetpacks, flying cars, ray guns, robots capable of independent thought).

Examples: Buck Rogers, Fallout

  • Clockpunk - Steampunk's older brother, borrowing its aesthetics from the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Examples: Deadlands, Dragonmech, Mechanus, Mage: The Ascension, Unknown Armies

  • Space Opera - The grand-daddy of Sci-Fi, Space Opera features a multitude of worlds, races and technology that play loose and fast with the science part for the sake of a wide, bright adventure in SPAAAAACE! Space Operas are filled with larger-than-life characters, space-nations loosely based on different earth societies and great, galaxy-saving adventures, though it can easily be zoomed in to a planet- or even a party-focused story if needed.

Examples: Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40000, Mass Effect, Twilight Imperium, Cosmic Encounter

Other[edit]

Examples: Dragonmech, Dragonstar, Spelljammer, Numenera, RIFTS, Shadowrun, Warhammer 40,000, Starfinder

  • Lovecraftian: A type of horror setting that is either directly based on or inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, especially the Cthulhu Mythos. The main concepts revolve around monsters and deities whose mere existence is so horrible that knowledge or direct perception of them drives people insane, and feature copious amounts of existential dread.

Example: Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green

Example: The Dark Tower, Deadlands

  • Star Western - Western elements in a science fiction or Space Opera setting.

Examples: Star Trek

  • Magitek - Magic has either replaced technology or been assimilated into it.

Examples: Eberron, Deadlands, Rifts, Iron Kingdoms, Exalted, Hollow World

  • Urban Fantasy - Our world, but with magic and/or science fiction added to it. Considered by many the "easiest" sort of setting to get into by casuals & normies. Can be further seasoned with many other aesthetics.

Examples: D20 Modern, Mutants & Masterminds, World of Darkness, Dark Matter

  • Weird Wars - Urban Fantasy meets war stories, when one of our world's wars gets magical and/or super-science added to it.

Examples: Pinnacle Games' lines of the same name, Wolfenstein, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS

  • Isekai - Your dudes come from the real world, but have been sent to a fantasy (or, more rarely, sci-fi) land.