Page Type: trope
When the Standard Fantasy Setting spread to Japan, it picked up a few quirks and lost some others along the way. Japanese fantasy writers tend to draw less on Western fantasy Literature, and more on Video Games and Tabletop RPGs (particularly Replays). While still influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, it tends to take more cues from the original writings of Gary Gygax and less from those of later designers, combined with elements of RuneQuest and the Ultima and Wizardry games.
The first Trope Codifier of Japanese Medieval European Fantasy comes from 1986, when the videogame/manga/videogame manga magazine Comptiq began publishing "Replays" - transcripts of a Dungeons & Dragons/RuneQuest/Tunnels & Trolls campaign titled Record of Lodoss War. Lodoss became popular enough to receive paperback compilations and even be edited into a novel series, which would become some of Japan's first domestic High Fantasy literature. Pressure from lawyers at TSR would force Lodoss to switch from D&D to a homebrew system, which would eventually become the basis of Sword World RPG (aka 2d6 System), produced by Group SNE (translators for many Western TTRPGs at the time).
Similar settings can also be found in Chinese and Korean fantasy, albeit with a heavier injection of Wuxia themes.
Common elements include:
- The humanoid races:
- Humans: Humans in major cities tend to discriminate against non-humans and half-breeds, treating them as second-class citizens; the reasons can vary between them being mysterious and unknown and using them as slaves. Dwarves are mostly exempt from this. More actively hostile versions are usually portrayed as a result of (ancient or modern) influence from the government and/or church, and less common in frontier areas.
- Elves: More likely to live in a Hidden Elf Village and/or to have warred with humans in the past. "Elves" living in human cities are more likely to be half-elves. With beastfolk moving in on the Fragile Speedster position, elves tend to have more emphasis on their flashy magical powers. Due to influence from Warhammer they are usually depicted with very large ears that jut horizontally - something which does not carry over to other Pointy Ears races.
- Dark elves are Dark Skinned Blondes rather than having unearthly blue or black skin, and usually function more like an ethnicity than a separate race. While they live separately from other elves (who they may be in conflict with), and sometimes have strange customs or a more villainous fashion sense, they are not usually evil.
- Beastfolk: A collection of races who resemble humans, but with the ears, tails, claws, etc. of an animal; usually called juujin or kemonobito. Sometimes they act as a Barbarian Tribe, and other times they're the result of humans being infused with the spirits of animals (in which case they might be transformed ad hoc, rather than a true-breeding race). Usually Fragile Speedsters, though beastfolk with more muscular builds may be Lightning Bruisers instead. Tend to be bad at magic unless it involves Ki Manipulation or being Closer to Earth. Emphasis will often be placed on their status as Liminal Beings between humans and monsters; in particular, if they have their own nation then it will usually be a neutral one that has to be won over to humanity's side.
- The child of a beastfolk and a human sometimes resembles a werebeast - normally displaying only subtle indications of their inhuman heritage, they will "beast out" and go on wild rampages if exposed to the right trigger. Less commonly, this trait is applied to beastfolk themselves, particularly ones created artificially.
- Dwarves: Close allies of humans, sometimes to the point of having no lands of their own, and tend to dominate the blacksmithing and engineering sectors in human cities. This lack of presence makes them the least likely of the classic fantasy races to show up, but also the easiest to Retcon as having always existed. Likely to have superhuman strength.
- Precursors: An extinct race which left Lost Technology and Magitek scattered around the world, usually a cousin to either humans or elves. Are often "the closest race to the heavens", whether they could hear the voices of the gods, came from outer space or both. Descendants of the precursors can easily turn into Living Mac Guffins for their ability to activate their dormant relics. Connected to the origin of many a Mysterious Waif.
- Non-Human Sidekick: A race with a cute, mascot-like design, which can function as a Fairy Companion or Team Pet. Sometimes the actual Series Mascot. Technically not a member of the humanoid races, but isn't really treated like common monsters either.
- The "Sei" races: "Sei" means pure or sacred. Allies or servants of the gods, though prone to Blue and Orange Morality, and may lash out at humans who disturb their homes (or when exposed to The Corruption or Unholy Ground).
- Seirei: "Rei" means spirit/soul. Omnipresent, usually-invisible beings which often either are or include the Alchemic Elementals. Sometimes includes The Fair Folk. "Seirei users" are a type of spellcaster, for whom they serve as a Background Magic Field; if the setting has multiple kinds of magic they will usually be analogous to the Druid Character Class.
- Nearly Normal Animals: In The Lost Woods and other remote locations, animals grow old and wise and sometimes capable of speech.
- Seijuu/Genjuu: "Sacred beast" or "Phantom beast". A powerful class of seirei which includes distinct species like Unicorns and The Marvelous Deer, as well as animals that Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence. Fonts of nature's purity, sometimes to the point of burning evil beings on contact. Particularly ancient ones will have Fertile Feet while calm, and become a Walking Wasteland when enraged. Often the target of Summon Magic.
- Lords: The lord of the lake, the lord of the forest, and so on. An ancient animal or Wise Tree which serves as the ruler of all seirei in their habitat. Well respected by spellcasters, since the difficulty of commanding seirei is affected greatly by the local lord's health and attitude. If a lord is slain then nature itself goes berserk, usually resulting in the land becoming barren and cursed. May also act as a Barrier Maiden or Cosmic Keystone, holding some evil force at bay.
- The "Ma" races: "Ma" refers to magic or demons, meaning these can be a Witch Species, The Legions of Hell or anything in between. Often the source of Black Magic. While they usually don't get along with humans, in some depictions they're diverse enough that individual tribes may be accepted or even beloved (such as fairies, when they're included).
- Majuu: "Juu" means beast. Once normal animals until they were mutated by intense Mana, Green Rocks or Demonic Possession. Sometimes this happened over the course of many generations, and sometimes animals can spontaneously transform into majuu without warning. In either case, villains may try to create them artificially. May be connected to Beastfolk.
- Mazoku: "Zoku" means race or tribe(s). Often functioning as The Horde or The Man Behind the Man, including all humanoid supernatural creatures that don't fit into other categories (and sometimes non-humanoid ones as well). Aesthetically, they most often take cues from Western demons such as horns and batlike wings. Others simply have a Mark of the Supernatural such as Pointy Ears (smaller than those of elves) or an unusual hair colour. Generally have immense strength and magical power, sometimes to Person of Mass Destruction levels, though not always (particularly if they're protagonists).
- Maou: "Ou" means lord or king. A Monster Lord among Monster Lords who acts as the leader of all mazoku, or all monstrous creatures in general. Usually the progenitor of all monsters, and/or a unique being whose birth is an Eternal Recurrence, though sometimes it's a title which normal mazoku or even humans can ascend to. A maou usually functions as the Anthropomorphic Personification of "ma" itself, appearing when the strength of "ma" creatures reaches critical mass, and sometimes even fills the role for mazoku that gods do for other creatures. A classical maou is an Evil Overlord, Satanic Archetype or Sealed Evil in a Can, whose emergence stirs long-dormant threats to grow in numbers and attack humanity, until a chosen hero rises to defeat them. Nowadays, however, the role is subverted as often as not, turning maou into The Good King or having them just want to be normal; if the appearance of a destined hero is part of their cycle, then they or the hero may seek to Screw Destiny by becoming friends instead of fighting.
- The "Shin" races: "Shin" meaning god or divine. The Physical Gods responsible for maintaining the world and/or protecting it from the mazoku. Usually the source of White Magic. Often bad at defeating evil by themselves, but good at granting mortals holy powers and holy swords with which to do so. Unfortunately, they sometimes go mad with power or become focused on destroying evil regardless of the cost.
- Shinzoku: "Zoku" meaning race(s), usually refers to the rank-and-file humanoid gods. Tend to be conflated with angels or devas, and live in Fluffy Cloud Heaven. In some settings their role is instead filled by dragons.
- Dragons: Occupy something of a grey area between gods and beasts, and very likely have the power to take human form (especially if referred to as ryuuzoku). If multiple species of dragon exist, then they can run the whole spectrum from Dragons Are Divine to "big dumb lizards" within the same setting. Alternately their race may be "the third great power" alongside gods and demons, complete with a dragon king and "dragon energy" that functions unlike any other. Outright demonic dragons are usually either unique beings unrelated to the larger dragon race, or a Satanic Archetype that fell from grace.
- God of Good: The leader or leaders of the shinzoku. Tends to have a similar relationship with the shinzoku to the one maou have with the mazoku, though with less personal power and the caveat that if evil wins, they probably won't be coming back. Usually female. Rarely the actual Creator, who is more likely to be a mythical God of Gods.
- Demihumans: An optional category, which sometimes take the place of Beastfolk or are lumped in with mazoku. Creatures which are roughly humanoid in shape, and have some kind of civilization. Whether they're mortals or monsters is debatable, sometimes even In-Universe.
- Orcs: Generally depicted as piglike, in keeping with early D&D art. Similar to the emergence of maou, the larger an orc population grows the more it will begin producing "advanced" orcs with greater strength or magical powers. Unfortunately, orc populations often grow larger than they have the means to support, which leads to them invading human settlements to seize their resources.
- Kobolds: Doglike humanoids (reflecting their depictions in very early D&D, and later Wizardry) which live underground, emerging from caves to raid human settlements for resources. Surprisingly well-organised and skilled at blacksmithing. Usually human-sized, but some individuals are much larger.
- Lizardmen: One of the least aggressive demihuman types, and the most likely to be accepted in human cities, though they rarely venture from their swamps.
- Goblins: The dumbest and weakest of demihumans, but also the most actively malevolent, prone to attacking for no clear reason. Live in forests or caves, where they're lead by the slightly-smarter hobgoblins (who have no connection with orcs) or work as slaves for a more dangerous villain. Have a nasty tendency to scavenge not just gear, but people, using them as food or breeding fodder.
- Ogres: Often conflated with Oni, either by giving them horns or by making oni the Monster Lord form of ogres.
Other common tropes:
- BFS: Apparently influenced by Warhammer figurines. A popular way for heroes to show off their superhuman status.
- Character Classes: Even if not an RPG-Mechanics Verse, there tend to be a few archetypes which are more common:
- Magic Knight: Similar to RuneQuest and the first version of the Dungeons & Dragons ranger class, it's common for experienced fighters to know a few magic spells which improve their combat ability.
- Master Swordsman: A specialist in wielding swords better than anyone else, often capable of Speed Blitzing enemies by cutting them in half before they can react, or swinging their sword so hard that it can cut from a distance. Often wield the most katana-like swords they can get their hands on, or are outright referred to as "samurai".
- Dark Is Not Evil / Light Is Not Good: Whether a creature is "holy" or "unholy" usually has more to do with its birth than its behaviour. Even a Corrupt Church still wields the power of light, and it can harm even Noble Demons who act more saintly than they do.
- Mana Crystals: Crystals which store or are made of Mana, often a useful resource for wizards or Magitek. In some settings, are found inside monsters as a Gem Heart (in which case it's likely the in-universe definition of what separates a monster from a normal creature) or act as a dungeon core (see below). May come in different elemental affinities.
- Religion Is Magic: "Religious magic" tends to come directly from the raw essence of good and light, with gods acting only as an intermediary who unlock it; some rare individuals are so "in-tune" that they don't even need that, and are simply born knowing how to use it. This means that, while a god could Curse someone who abuses their powers, in most cases they can't simply take those powers away. If a god can bestow some of their own power to a mortal then this will be treated as an extremely serious matter which makes that person Semi-Divine.
- Wutai: A Fantasy Counterpart Culture of Japan or a mashup of East Asian cultures will exist, and usually remain in close enough contact with the Europe analogue that its exports are easily recognized. In an Isekai story this may be Inverted by giving the setting no analogues to anything Japanese, even curved swords or black hair, so that the protagonist can appear more cool and mysterious.
Tropes more common in Light Novels:
- Adventure Guild: An organisation with outposts in major cities, which provides job postings and sometimes accomodations for wandering adventurers. Often uses Schizo Tech like magical membership cards and long-distance communicators, and may have a device which measures the strength of new entrants (the readings from which can look suspiciously like a Class and Level System). Expect members to be divided into ranks based on precious metals (or in more futuristic settings, letters), which determine what missions they can accept.
- Bag of Holding: Items or spells which provide "extradimensional storage" will often exist in some fashion, though they're generally either expensive, difficult or a Unique Protagonist Asset.
- Dungeon Crawling: Dungeons are in some way a natural phenomenon, forming in areas of strong Mana or around the "core" of a Power Crystal or Lost Technology. They are capable of attracting, creating and/or influencing the behaviour of monsters, and can sometimes reshape the area into a maze. Generally the closer to the core of the dungeon, the more powerful monsters will become. A creature who gains control of a dungeon core is referred to as a dungeon master. Can show up even in Urban Fantasy, usually as Pocket Dimensions.
- Dungeon-Based Economy: Because these kinds of dungeons can replenish their resources over time, it's not uncommon for towns to grow around them, sending in adventurers to farm the safer areas at regular intervals. Sometimes characters will attempt to create a "friendly" dungeon that lets people collect its treasures without risk, though it's rare for anyone to have succeeded at this before the story began.
- Magical Slavery: If slavery is practiced, slaves will have a magical collar or tattoo which binds them to their masters in some way. In most cases these bindings are highly regulated and require entering both parties into a Magically Binding Contract (e.g. the collars can only be placed on willing Indentured Servants and prevent running away, but shatter when the agreed term of servitude is up) or even have features designed to protect slaves from cruel masters (e.g. transmitting a message to the authorities if their wearer experiences physical or emotional trauma), though a Black Market of permanent unconditional contracts may also exist. Very popular in Isekai stories, as the protagonist buying or sheltering a slave is an easy way to introduce a character familiar with local customs and give them reasons to stick with the party.
- RPG-Mechanics Verse: As Replays blend player and PC actions, characters being aware of their own stats is somewhat more common. This also leads to a larger percentage of stories being an Affectionate Parody or set in a Fictional Video Game.
- Summon Everyman Hero: The princess of a troubled kingdom summons one or more Ordinary High School Students from Japan, imbuing them with powers in the process, after which she and her father ask them to defeat a Demon King. They need not be the actual protagonists, and in some works the current or past existence of such "summoned heroes" is simply a background detail. Sometimes setting elements that don't seem to fit the culture or time period will be explained as a past hero trying to introduce ideas from home (or a Genre Savvy protagonist will assume this to be the case).
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