Inspired by this interesting article about differences of epic fantasy and sword and sorcery I will try to put my own interpretation adding a third element high fantasy. being both a military history enthusiast and a role-playing games lover I will use two different equivalents to show the differences.
There are three levels of military engagements. Strategic, operational and tactical (more can be found here). Strategic level is of great scope involving the whole country’s forces and employing diplomacy alongside military power to succeed in the goals it sets. That Epic Fantasy, grant scenario with huge opposing forces that clash into a colossal engagement that will result in cataclysmic changes in whole regions, changing history. That’s lord of the rings and most of the eternal champion stories (Hawkmoon and Corum mainly).
The second level is operational. Managing large forces in a big theater of war but not the entire war effort. Imagine Russian and Pacific fronts in the second world war. That’s high fantasy. A group of heroes that will perform a great deed that it’s consequences will be big but not enormous. Most of the Game of Thrones sub-stories are in this category and even the Dragonlance Chronicles (although the War of the Twins falls into epic fantasy) most of the times it is difficult to define as the differences are not so distinguished.
Finally, the third level is tactical, managing the actual warfare in unit or subunit level. That’s sword and sorcery. Most of Conan’s stories as well as Fritz Lieber’s Gray Mouser and Fahrd stories. The protagonist(s) try to achieve something for himself with no or few consequences in his environment.
If we take the equivalent in rpg, epic fantasy is a campaign for high high-levels (that can either start high level or the campaign will begin with first level pcs and send them to 20+. But it is not the leveling only but the scope. The heroes will end in trying to perform a great deed retract a powerful artifact and in general perform an astonishing achievement.
High fantasy is a smaller campaign (1-10 or similar) that although the heroes will do much in its course none of it will be groundbreaking or so astonishing to change the world or history.
Finally, sword and sorcery is a two-three session adventure (for any level of characters), that have no other reason but to be entertaining and fun adding nothing to the world (most introductory adventures and some high-level anniversary adventures fall into this category).
- In my mind when I say rpg comes to TSR and the equivalent examples are from modules of that great (and now gone) company. Other rpg systems like Ars Magica, Warhammer Fantasy, MERP etc tend to have a more epic fantasy approach and thus their official adventures tend to be more grant in their scope, but nonetheless, you get what I was trying to say!