Swords. Dragons. Wizards. Quests. You know the drill. So how to make it sing?
I admit to uncertainty here. I’m generally the guy running the other game. I’ve never run a “straight” fantasy game since high school, partially because of early exposure to The Lord Of The Rings leaving me intimidated by his level of world-building. I can GM as a passable impression of George Lucas, and if not Joss Whedon at least an acceptable Jane Espenson or Tim Minear, but with Tolkien I feel less like I’d be playing with his toys than getting my grubby fingers on his priceless creations.
Whedon lead to the closest I’ve gotten to straight fantasy in twenty years actually, a bit of a subversion as Season Six of The Watch House had an Arthurian fae sorceress raising a sleeping dragon to wipe out humanity and a quest into the underworld. This kind of thing happening in the here and now, with heroes who know the stories, is different enough to feel fresh.
So look to another tradition? The knockabout pulp action of Leiber maybe, or the portal fantasy of Tolkien’s friend and colleague Lewis.
Do we want characters from our world or the fantasy? It could strengthen the characters, or undermine the world.
How important are the PCs? Everything the Fellowship does matters, and their final actions decide the fate of the world.
Who and what are we fighting? Do we want a Dark Lord? Or some other omnipresent threat, or a lack thereof? “Anything and everything” can make for long games with plenty of variety, but do you feel like you’ve accomplished anything when you know that monster was just visiting from the Random Monster Table?
How high does the Weird Level go? A Song Of Ice And Fire, the most successful straight fantasy in the media since the Rings trilogy, is pretty much the Wars of the Roses with some special guest dragons and zombies. It would be just fantasy enough to allow changes in the timeline and not to scare off players who don’t want a pure historical RPG.
On a related note, how serious are we? There are some Deadly Serious fantasy worlds out there, but for example Middle-Earth has the Hobbits’ laissez-faire response to adventuring and Gimli’s disapproval of Legolas for showing off. Warhammer is pretty much an extended run of snark about Middle-Earth. An utterly po-faced world is likely to attract jokes from players at its expense.
Are the standard fantasy races here? What about gods? A land of the dead? Was there a Golden Age that ancient beings keep getting nostalgic about? Where do magic items come from, are they common or rare? How much of the Bits Box are we using?
Is the campaign episodic, a series of short stories about the same band of adventurers, or is it all one quest taking months or years to tell?
In short, what makes your fantasy world fun?
Okay, enough talk. Example!
An Arthurian game that isn’t Pendragon. More like Bernard Cornwell’s Winter King series, or indeed Robin Of Sherwood. The Weird Level is dialled down but not all the way to zero. Camelot is a “point of light” in a land of barbarity after the fall of Rome, dealing and trading with outlying tribes, trying to bring them into the kingdom peaceably. Plenty of room for totally mundane adventures - arrogant warriors looking to prove themselves, bandits kidnapping heiresses, invading Northmen. But also strange mystical things which are never really defined - a white hart that seems to purposely taunt knights hunting them, whispering voices pursuing murderers, a sword that does amazing things on occasion but shouldn’t be relied upon. Mud and blood and wooden shields, to make the miraculous stand out even more.
And if you want to loosen things up a bit further, have a PC sit on the throne.