Standard Fantasy Setting
The "distinguishing" features of the standard fantasy setting include:
- Elf/ves, Dwarf/ves, Humans, Orcs or their trademarkable equivalents. Halflings and other races are optional, depending on the decade it was made.
- Dragons, usually intelligent.
- Undead, usually evil.
- Medieval Stasis, with heavily schizophrenic technology levels the further from the center of the map you get.
- Enough magic that Wizard is a viable career path.
- Some kind of Evil Overlord, although he does not have to feature in the story or campaign.
- Fantasy versions of real world cultures. Typical are Arabia, The Middle Kingdom, and some variant on Native Americans.
- Either a "Dung Ages" or "Excessively Romanticized" approach to what the world looks like, sometimes both depending on its level of humor/seriousness.
- Gods, generally active enough that there is no doubt of their existence.
Common variations of the Standard Fantasy Setting include:
- Gothic: Adds angels and demons, black-white ethical framework, and Gothic architecture
- Swords & Sandals: Very Bronze Age-esque.
- IN SPAAAACE: Science Fantasy, but we're in space.
This has become more rare in literature; the likes of Dennis L. McKiernan and Terry Brooks have mined it to exhaustion, while others like Terry Pratchett and G.R.R. Martin have satirized, parodied, or deconstructed what was left. Fantasy Heartbreakers have similarly exhausted the tabletop RPG side. Isekai still has plenty of 'em, but most Isekai are garbage.
Medieval European Fantasy
Distinct enough from the Standard Fantasy Setting to get its own name (and tropes page), the Medieval European Fantasy setting is, well, a setting that tries to base itself around some kind of fascimile of Medieval Europe. What distinguishes this from the Standard Fantasy Setting? Generally, that's... tricky. Expert more overt references to European culture, geography, politics, history, and so forth. This may even go so far as to bring in more elements of Arthurian legend and/or European fairytales.
There are two and a half common ways of describing the MEF to SFS relationship:
- One possible way to differentiate is to ask "is this closer to J.R.R. Tolkein or George R.R. Martin?" That is, MEF is usually more closely associated with "low powered", "more or less historically accurate", or "grimdark" fantasy, rather than Standard Fantasy Setting's "high powered", "closer to Mythology than anything realistic", or "Noblebright" fantasy.
- Another is to ask "are there cultures besides Medieval European, are they examined in any detail, and is a large amount of the story set in this non-ME culture?" If the answer to both is "Yes", you may have exited the MEF zone, and entered more of the SFS area. (Or put another way: The Daenerys parts of A Song of Ice and Fire are not MEF, if counted separately; ASoIaF as a whole counts as MEF, since that's such a small part of the story.)
- The "half" way is to just contrast MEF to the Japanese Standard Fantasy Setting.
Notable examples of this aesthetic include:
- Certain iterations of Bretonnia in Warhammer Fantasy (The rest of the world is a little too culturally advanced to fit the "Medieval" part of the name)
- A Song of Ice And Fire
- Dungeons and Dragons can be played as MEF, but it was and is more a melting pot of influences and a toolkit than anything with an actual coherent aesthetic, and most generic fantasy follows in D&D's footsteps.
Standard Japanese Fantasy Setting
Whilst the Japanese love the Standard Fantasy Setting enough that you'll see it in plenty of fantasy anime, manga and video games, they've also put their own spin on it often enough that it's become a recognized aesthetic in its own right, which in turn has become a major thing in fantasy anime, manga and video games. In fact, there's very few official tabletop games set in this kind of setting, outside of Japan's own Dungeons & Dragons knock-off, Sword World RPG.
Defining attributes of the Standard Japanese Fantasy Setting?
Races: In a SJFS, races are typically divided into the major categories of Humanoid, Sei ("Pure" or "Sacred"), Ma ("Magic" or "Demon"), Shin ("God" or "Divine"), Demihuman and Monster.
- Humanoid races are typically made up of Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Beastfolk and Giants. If there's a precursor race, it's typically related to one or more or the aforementioned.
- Humans tend to be in charge, and may treat other races like crap, especially if there's a corrupt empire and/or church running humanity.
- Dwarves are very close allies with humans, and their womenfolk tend to be more prominent (often ending up as lolis or shortstacks).
- Elves often are in hiding, usually due to having warred with humanity. Half-elves tend to replace purebloods as "the elves who actually interact with humans". Dark elves are usually not evil, and tend to be quite sexual, often with blonde or white hair contrasting human-like dark skin.
- Beastfolk vary from full-on anthros to monstergirls style "human with animal bits". Often men look like anthros and women like monstergirls. Tend to be physically orientated, and often treated like crap. Some beastfolk, especially human-blooded halfbreeds, may look human or monstergirl style, but can "freak out" and transform into a more monstrous state whilst also going berserk, ala a therianthrope.
- Sei races are typically a mixture of fey, elementals, and magical beasts (from "ordinary" talking animals to magical creatures like unicorns).
- Ma races are usually dangerous and chaotic, but not universally evil (we'll get to that). Generally divided between Majuu ("Demon-Beasts"; animal type monsters or beastfolk) and Mazoku ("Demon-Tribe", humanoid and often taking visual cues from Western fiends), with a Maou ("Demon-Lord") ruling over them all.
- Shin races, often called "Shinzoku", are typically either celestials, dragons, or both. They are usually ruled over one or more Gods of Good.
- Demihumans are generally more monstrous humanoids that are begrudgingly accepted alongside humanity, but not liked very much. This may be just an alternative name for "Monster". Lizardfolk and Harpies tend to be demihumans.
- Monsters are any creature that exists to be killed. Common monsters are slimes, orcs, kobolds, ogres and goblins. Orcs and kobolds, infamously, tend to resemble pig-folk and dog-folk, due to their roots in old-school D&D art.
- The Gish archetype tends to be very pronounced, to the point where fighters who don't know at least a few spells are rare.
- Master Swordsman types, who frequently get slapped with the samurai moniker, are usually the exception to the above, relying on striking with incredible speed and force whilst not being very good at taking damage.
- Paladins, in comparison, tend to be the tanks. Due to the Japanese cosmology revolving around Light/Dark rather than Good/Evil, the whole "testing or morals" things is rare.
- Ninjas typically fill the role of "thief" or "assassin", but are usually characterized as loyal and/or self-sacrificing, unlike western Rogues.
- The traditional D&D Monk is often portrayed by women or cute little kids, for the comedic juxtaposition.
- Barbarians are usually called Berserkers, and often portrayed as somehow cursed.
- With the proclivity towards magitek, expect gunners and/or artificers backed by constructs.
- Spellcasters are typically divided between Black Mages (focused on elemental or destructive magic), White Mages (focused on healing and holy magic), and Summoners.
Other notable aspects of the SJFS:
- Good and Evil in the Western sense are replaced with a focus on Light and Dark.
- Individuality is central to Goodness, which keeps powers of Good firmly in the Neutral Good and Chaotic Good alignments; the great flaw of Good is a tendency to devolve into tyranny.
- Darkness isn't evil; the Ma races aren't necessarily universally evil.
- Light isn't good; Shin and Sei races (especially Sei) can be just as dangerous or corruptible as the Ma races.
- Catholic trappings are popular for religious aspects, but the more overtly "Christian" a church is, the more likely it tends to be corrupt or outright evil (a combo of the "Lawfulness can devolve into Tyranny" cliche and Japan's lingering cultural opposition towards Christianity). References to other real-life religions beside Buddhism are, for better or worse, almost non-existent.
- Magitek is often common, and may even see fantasy Mecha.
- Ki manipulation is often a major part of the magical system, if not the default explanation for it.
- The world often has a tangible font of life energy that must be protected from abuse.
- Mana often takes solid form by crystallizing.
SJFS "light novels" have their own particular set of tropes more common to them than other media:
- Adventuring guilds are a thing.
- Dungeon crawling is often emphasized to the point that dungeons are a kind of magical-yet-natural phenomena, and/or plunging into dungeons may serve as the foundation of entire economies.
- Slavery is often present, and usually magically enforced by enchanted collars or tattoos.