Are you sick of the ordinary world? Want to escape to a place of wonder and danger – but only temporarily? Do you suspect you may be the Chosen One? Then climb into this unusually roomy wardrobe as we unearth the secrets of PORTAL FANTASY!
This popular fantasy subgenre is a great fit if you’re writing or worldbuilding for middle grade and young adult audiences. But more modern stories have given it a grown up spin! So let’s discover what portal fantasy is, common tropes, examples of the genre in fiction and tabletop RPGs, and things to watch out for as a worldbuilder.
What is Portal Fantasy?
Portal fantasy is relatively easy to define – it’s right there in the name! This fantasy worldbuilding subgenre features characters (most often kids) who travel from their own reality. They visit another world via a “portal” of some kind. Usually, the new world is an entirely different reality. In some cases, the characters travel to a different time period within their own world.
The portal can be a physical doorway, or it can be the transition from world-to-world itself. The characters in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream stumble into faerie without crossing any visible, tangible boundary. Another example is The Wizard of Oz, where in the book the portal was a tornado. In the film it was a head injury (depending on your interpretation). A generous view of portal fantasy would include any “It was all a dream.. Or was it?” stories.
Portal fantasy has a lot of common ground with urban fantasy. Both combine elements of the real world with a fantasy realm. But in urban fantasy, the supernatural world is usually merely hidden or disguised; in portal fantasy, it’s an entirely different reality.
Common Tropes in Portal Fantasy
So aside from the mystical doorway to another reality, how do you recognize a portal fantasy? What are readers of this genre expecting from your story or game? As always, it’s important to understand the standard conventions and cliches – even if it’s to subvert them. Here are several elements common to portal fantasies:
The Real World Stinks
Whether it’s the Blitz or an aggressive neighbor who wants to kill your dog, portal fantasy protagonists are highly motivated to ditch present reality.
Unlike most fantasy subgenres, there’s greater gender parity in portal fantasy. Alice, Dorothy, and half of the Pevensies were girls. Even when the hero is assigned male, these stories typically follow the Heroine’s Journey arc.
Portal fantasy is overwhelmingly young adult or children’s literature, with protagonists in their teens or younger. They are also more likely to be a bildungsroman, or coming of age story. This is subverted fantastically in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
All the Allegories
Problems in the portal world are often mirror images of real world conflicts the heroines are escaping. Adventures in the portal world are a “practice run” at dealing with real world analogues.
Popular Portal Fantasy Novels
As always, reading widely in a genre is the best way to understand it. Fortunately, a reading list of portal fantasy novels or series contains many aimed at children – so they’ll be fast reads!
- The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum: Dorothy’s journey through the magical land of Oz, encountering friends and foes in her quest to return home.
- Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll: A whimsical and surreal adventure as Alice explores the fantastical world filled with eccentric characters and peculiar events.
- The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis: Transports readers to Narnia, where epic adventures unfold and characters discover the power of courage and imagination.
- Stardust, Neil Gaiman: A fairy tale that weaves a magical narrative through Faerie and the quaint English town of Wall, blending romance, adventure, and otherworldly charm.
- Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones: A young woman named Sophie becomes entangled in a magical adventure after a chance encounter with the wizard Howl.
- The Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire: A mysterious boarding school for children who have returned from fantastical worlds, navigating their struggles to fit into mundane reality.
- Summer in Orcus, Ursula Vernon: A young girl named Summer embarks on a magical journey to Orcus, encountering fantastical creatures and discovering her own strength and resilience.
- Shades of Magic trilogy, V.E. Schwab: The adventures of Kell, a magician with the rare ability to travel between parallel Londons, as he navigates political intrigue, danger, and magic.
- The Magicians series, Lev Grossman: Contemporary fantasy trilogy that explores the dark and complex world a magical university, and Fillory, a mysterious land filled with dangers.
- Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor: Sunny, a young girl with magical abilities, discovers her destiny within the mystical world of the Leopard People.
Portal Fantasy in ttRPGs
Portal fantasy is less common in tabletop RPGs than epic fantasy. In some ways, it’s even more challenging to find a system. There are very few specifically written for it.
In another sense, it’s incredibly easy. Just choose a system designed for the type of fantasy the portal world inhabits, and just treat the “real” world as an introductory chapter or session. (Like the original Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, where kids entered the portal of a haunted house ride).
As with urban fantasy, this subgenre works best with “theater of the mind” and rules-light systems.
- The Strange: A tabletop RPG that allows players to explore diverse alternate realities and unravel the mysteries of a multiverse.
- The Feywild: A setting in Dungeons & Dragons, this magical plane is filled with whimsical and unpredictable landscapes, creatures, and enchantments.
- Crowsmantle: A Powered-by-the-Apocalypse came that borrows elements from portal fantasy, combining elements of horror and urban fantasy.
- Nest: A setting for FATE where players are adults who must leave their ordinary lives and return to the fantastical realm they saved as children.
Honorable Mentions & Edge Cases:
- GameLit/LitRPG/Isekai: I wasn’t sure whether to put this under novels or roleplaying games, because this sub-sub-genre is kind of neither… or both. A mashup of tabletop gaming and fiction where characters find themselves in a game-like world, often with RPG mechanics. These works blur the lines between interactive fiction and solo RPGs – but they’re unquestionably portal fantasy.
- Die: This wildly popular comic from Kieron Gillen is about a familiar-looking tabletop roleplaying game gone very wrong… which is now a tabletop roleplaying game. It’s a very chicken-versus-egg proposition, but again – very clearly a portal fantasy premise, either way.
When The World Sucks, Make a New One!
As this adventure comes to a close and we return to the ordinary world, remember that building a unique portal fantasy world is a creative way to ground your tabletop RPG campaign or story in realistic emotion and stakes. Whether you’re a seasoned GM or a newbie storyteller, this beloved fantasy genre is a wonderful sandbox for your imagination.
If you want a place to organize and showcase your creations, consider World Anvil. We’ve got a big, friendly community where you can share your worlds and get inspired by others. Sign up now and be part of a global hub for fantastic realms. Start your worldbuilding journey today!