There are many kinds of fantasy games, movies and books and getting into conversations about why some work and some don’t got me to thinking about how we express the kinds of science fiction we like. In science fiction you have two kinds. Hard and space opera. hard sci fi is grounded in reality. 2001 A Space Opera is an example of Hard sci fi it tries to take reality into account. Star Wars is space opera, it throws physics out the window to have laser swords and the force. This is not a bad thing. Both are perfectly fine. But you don’t want to mix them up. in an universe where everyone is in cumbersome space suits and taking days to just reach the moon you don’t want to have characters whipping out light sabers. The same goes with fantasy sub-genres. And i think there definitely are fantasy sub-genres.
In a fantasy world in which you have talking tea cups the black death wouldn’t suddenly make an appearance. Conversely you wouldn’t have a European city, in the middle of the worse plague suddenly find a dancing troupe of chinaware dancing down the street.
I tend to break fantasy down into two sub-genres. Hard fantasy and High fantasy. Hard fantasy is grounded in reality. High fantasy is grounded in spectacle. But all fantasy is based on the Fantastic it’s just in how it’s presented that divides it into the various sub-genres.
Hard Fantasy I see as being grittier and tending to stick to reality as much as possible. Once dead characters tend to stay dead. It will still have dragons and Fairies but they will be defined and limited by what reality will allow. So dragons must have wings big enough to carry them. The fire they breath is some chemical that is mixed and combusts on contact with air in their mouth. Fairies may not fly but have the ability to warp your perception of them for a limited time. Magic usually has heavy limitations, heavy costs or is very limited. The Hard Fantasy world have very hard rules about what can and can’t happen.
Good examples of Hard Fantasy are Dragonslayer, Lady Hawk, Excalibur, Game of thrones, with Gladiator also falling into this sub-genre although it has no magic
High Fantasy tends to give reality a tip of the hat as it goes galloping past. It is all about the spectacle and the majesty of the fantastic. Magic can be found in shops and/or magical beings abound without much thought given to their presence. Even if everyone in a high fantasy world doesn’t use magic they all understand it and might even desire it. You still have characters die but they may come back. Armor and even weapons may even take on unrealistic proportions. monsters may also be unrealistic with dragons having subby wings or no wings at all and still fly.
Some examples include: Neverending story, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Robin Hood, Wizard of Oz, Alice in wonderland, Willow, JRpgs, World of Warcraft, with 300 and Spartacus also falling into this sub-genre because although they have no magic it is all about spectacle and superheroic characters.
Which leads us to Roleplaying games. Pathfinder and other D&D derived games cover the gamut. At low levels it is very hard fantasy and tend toward high fantasy at higher levels.
Characters at lower levels, usually before level 4, live in a very hard fantasy environment. They easily die and many do. Attributes are within normal ranges. Actions require thought and the consequence of a wrong decision is that characters could die. Spells are also quite rare and even limited when they are used.
It is not until higher levels that the game tends to take on a high fantasy level of magic and character power. It is also at highest levels that the characters reach the extreme edge of high fantasy where the game tends to break down. When any action can be taken without consequence, where wands and other items are so common as to give every character an arsenal equal to any kingdom in the world, where the character lives in a palace made of golden stolen from half the world (only because the player got bored and stopped there) that things really slow down.
Without a sense of urgency or threat there is no real sense of adventure. All the excitement dies. I’m sure all of us are aware of this issue and the best way to avoid it is to find a sweet spot in which to run your games where you are happy with the power of the characters and run the games leading up to that point. Personally that is around 4-5th level where weapons don’t instantly kill characters but will given time. characters tend to get their feats, attribute increases and new spells at these levels. it is also where experience slows down. (players reach their peak and will require a huge amount of XP to break through to the next level) But then again I love hard fantasy. if you are partial to high fantasy then maybe level 8-9 level is more your style. magic is powerful. battles can take a while without becoming over long and stale.
Pick the kind of game you and your player like and tailor it to fit. It will make the adventures and enemies that get everyone excited.