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Subgenre Bingo – Epic Fantasy

Welcome back to my series of bingo/identification cards for random amusement and ease of subgenre identification. All previous disclaimers about this not being a definitive list, and that opinions may vary on other minutiae, are in effect. You know, the really boring stuff that I mentioned previously but have to say again in case someone is just tuning in.

Astute readers might notice some parallels and repeats from the sword and sorcery subgenre bingo. That is somewhat deliberate as both subgenres are generally regarded as “classical” or “traditional” fantasy and among the many hallmarks of traditional fantasy are magic and preindustrial age societies. Don’t worry, the younger subgenres won’t be forgotten.

Anyway, to use this as an identification guide, keep track of your “yes” answers as you apply them to the suspected epic fantasy.

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General Character Checks

1. Is the cast of main characters pretty large (7-15 or more)?

2. Is there a band of badasses screwing everything up?

3. Does the story action get passed around from group of characters to far flung group of characters?

In really simple terms, among the biggest differences between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery is scale. Hence “epic” in the nomenclature. The phrase “a cast of thousands” would not be out of place in your average epic fantasy novel. In some cases, this will result in the pages of the story bleeding names in a manner not unlike the news media spewing forth the latest celebrity meltdown. If those focal characters are a bunch of badasses to begin with, well, then some page time has been saved. Now we don’t need to see them develop into badasses. Of course only designated badasses are qualified to be the mouth pieces of a story, angry peasants with pitchforks and torches need not apply.

For at least some of the time, these characters will be separated by great distances or different time frames and thus bouncing between them allows one to see the big picture. In epic fantasy, it’s the big picture that matters the most.

Specific Character Checks

4. Are multiple instances of ‘the journey of the hero’ taking place?

5. Is there a temptation to change sides involved?

6. Is the focus of the narrative on events rather than people?

7. Are special weapons doled out?

As mentioned before, the big difference between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery is one of scale. If sword and sorcery was a one scoop sundae of varying flavors, the epic fantasy is a three scoop (or more) banana split with all the trimmings. Thus the main focus tends not to be on the special individual scoops so much as gazing in awe at the whole gooey mess of it all.

Those special heirloom weapons that can only be carried by a virgin who has booted a bandersnatch in the light of an aurora borealis on a leap year? Well, some scoops get cherries on top. Every mega sundae needs a few of those.


8. Is everything in Medieval stasis?

9. Are we stuck in some alternate version of Europe?

10. Is there some sort of magic or supernatural element involved?

11. Are the political factions more important than the people in them?

12. Is there a great deal of attention focused on feats of arms rather than dueling economies or opening trade relations up?

13. Does the situation in any way remind you of the Huns or the Mongols invading Europe?

As we all should realize by now, the fantasy world consists of Europe with an Asian peninsula and a few tiny atolls for every other culture with supernatural critters in their mythologies. Those island chains should really attempt to take over the continent. That would make an awesome story, wouldn’t you say?

Maybe there’s some political intrigue in Europe via some politicians lacking in personality traits. They have to be representatives of the culture after all, because no one knows what Europe was like in the Middle Ages. It isn’t as if this gets taught in schools or anything.

Of course, we’d have to have a cast of thousands and a great big battle scene. It’s in the contract: Section 5, Article 4.76 The story creator, by this stipulation, shall write and include at least one large scale battle with a minimum of four thousand participants. Should there be only one large scale battle in the final copy of the story, it is required that those on the side on truth and justice shall emerge the victors.

Since everything is set up for maximum zoom out, focusing on individuals would be rather akin to focusing on individual bugs if you were an anteater. Tis a very clear waste of page space to do so, especially considering the big concepts likely to be contained therein.

This is actually one of the major parts of an epic fantasy that really enraptures audiences. If the you can’t really get into the characters and all these broad concepts are being carried out by representative players, the one thing anyone can appreciate is the construction and design of the playground. I call dibs on the swing!


14. Is there an evil force trying to “taek over teh wurld” even though this would likely drive all their property values down?

15. Is there a reason they want to?

16. Do the opposing forces hail from Mt. Doom or someplace like it?

17. Do the opposing forces have an army of darkness and doom?

As before, villains and invading hordes ought to have some practical reasons for why they want to stomp all over their neighbors. Curiously enough, the default is that they are “OMG SO EVOL!!!1!!!” even though one has only to take a look at the land surrounding Mount Doom and think that there’s not a lot of food to be grown there and unrestricted cannibalism will result in extinction pretty quickly. Not that the more usual reasons for going to war (like taking over arable land so one can eat food that doesn’t look like Cousin Urggy or securing access to clean water because you’ve gotten tired of drinking urine) have any merit whatsoever. Evil doesn’t become evil, it just is evil.

Other stuff that manages to spread out between other categories
(I’m too lazy to sort it properly)

18. Is the threat of an apocalypse involved somehow?

First of all, the end of the world is overrated. Generally speaking, using an apocalypse as a plot device requires a lot of hubris on the part of the characters to fix it and it reassures the unwashed masses that you can prevent earthquakes with sheep’s bladders or something equally silly. Sorry, but no. Nature will kick mankind’s pompous ass every time if Nature feels like it.

Fortunately, Nature usually doesn’t feel like it and prefers to focus on the four F’s of life on this planet (fight, flight, food and mating in case you were wondering. Sorry, had to crack a groaner of a biology joke). Mankind is perfectly capable of enacting its own destruction without any outside help. Much of the time natural disasters get explained away as the machinations of the bad guys or the gods or some other agency than the forces of meteorology or geology.

19. Are the demarcations between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” pretty clear? (i.e. by race, species, etc.)

Why such an adherence to an “us versus not us” mentality? Because grey areas mean you have to examine something a little closer. That and it’s very easy to make something into the dreaded Other, whose motivations and goals are completely obscured by their Other-ness. The Other needs no goals or motivations or personhood. They just need to be different.

20. Are the races divided according to political affiliation?

All the kaleidoscopic variety contained within all the major cultures of the world…And they get boiled and reduced down to their blandest and most trite elements. SIGH. Would it hurt to add some spice to this? Or does having an awesome delicately layered mix like a really good mole sauce or curry take away from the dish as a whole? And let us ignore the fact that both of those delicious dishes have regional variations that can be completely different from each other and yet still be wonderfully complex in their details.

21. Is there divine intervention at some point in the tale?

It seems like every single epic fantasy I have ever picked up has manged to squeeze this one in (although some do it in a more obvious fashion than others). All the things people do aren’t their own ideas of dubious merit but the machinations of the gods! Free will? Nah, that’s a bad idea if ever there was one. Besides, then we can pass the blame around like everyone’s favorite rhinovirus if we bring the divine into it.

– – –

So those of you who read the last installment of subgenre bingo will know what this section is, but for those of you new to the game, count the number of times you had to answer “yes” regarding your suspected epic fantasy story and check your totals below to see how typical a specimen of the subgenre you have.

1-5 “Yes” Answers: Probably not a part of this subgenre. You may want to use a different bingo card.

6-10 “Yes” Answers: Contains elements of the subgenre. Might be classified as a part of the subgenre by some, but it’s more likely a rather thorough mix of two or more different subgenres.

11-16 “Yes” Answers: Will generally be considered part of this subgenre although it deviates in some ways.

17-21 “Yes” Answers: Congratulations! You got subgenre bingo!

Title image by Hamsterfly.



  1. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Another fun article. Loved this bit: “Curiously enough, the default is that they are ‘OMG SO EVOL!!!1!!!’ even though one has only to take a look at the land surrounding Mount Doom and think that there’s not a lot of food to be grown there and unrestricted cannibalism will result in extinction pretty quickly.”

  2. Great stuff! Love the definition of evil… 🙂

  3. BINGO!! Is there a prize?
    Great article. Wonderful list of prerequisites, descriptions and humor.

  4. […] of story whose tropes were recently laid out in a recent post on this same site by Liz Fellshot [Liz's Article Here]. The term “epic” connotes a little more than that. It suggests more even than the term “high […]

  5. […] of story whose tropes were recently laid out in a recent post on this same site by Liz Fellshot [Liz's Article Here]. The term “epic” connotes a little more than that. It suggests more even than the term “high […]

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