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Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

Yora

Legend
(The attempt to have a discussion about practical gamemaster advice for adventures and not debate the definition of Sword & Sorcery for the umpteenth time again failed as immediately and thoroughly as all Sword & Sorcery threads always do. Another attempt is being made here. This thread is now about debating the definition of Sword & Sorcery.)

Sword & Sorcery is a somewhat old fashioned style of heroic fantasy that is primarily really just a somewhat more specific style of aesthetics and tone. While there's been a good number of RPGs in recent decades that bill themselves as Sword & Sorcery games, most are rally just regular D&D without elves, dwarves, and clerics.

If you look around the internet, you can find a number of discussions that popped up over the years on what you need for a Sword & Sorcery campaign, and it's generally always the same list of established conventions, that oddly enough doesn't actually match with many of the classic stories that are considered foundational to the style. "Humans only, no spellcasters, no alignment, but the PCs should also all be pretty evil". Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

But let us say you have established your setting and think it feels sufficiently swordly and sorcerous. And you have your dusty starting town on the edge of the monster infested wilderness and your party of badass PCs. What happens now?

What kind of stories do we actually tell in a Sword & Sorcery campaign? We have a couple of classic elements that feel very much at home in the Sword & Sorcery style. Evil wizards, brutal warlords, ruined cities, piles of gold and jewels, demons, undead, giant spiders, giant snakes, giant apes, and frogs. But none of this is exactly unusual in any other styles of fantasy either. (Except the frogs.)

Sword & Sorcery has three main characteristic traits, which are protagonist who exist outside the normal structure of society and its rules, act on their own initiative and their own personal reasons, and who deal with any obstacles by taking decisive action. It's not the only definition of Sword & Sorcery, but I think few people would deny these traits to be typical elements of the style.
From what, we can postulate three things to keep in mind when running adventures that aim to evoke a feeling of Sword & Sorcery: 1) The PCs should not be bound to do anything by duty or obligation, 2) the PCs need to have their own stakes in whatever is going on, and 3) the GM should keep pressure on the players to do something and not give them any more than only a reasonable amount of time to discuss their next steps.

The first two are where I see some challenges pop up. When the PCs should have their own stakes in what is going on, but they also should be free agents and wildcards, how do you set up the hook to get them involved in the first place?
 
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univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
An element I think of in Sword & Sorcery is actually Sword vs Sorcery. In classic stories magic is often inherently evil. Another thing I think of is cults that venerate some enormous fauna. Sword & Sorcery might also lean heavily on the anti-hero as well and might be what made Conan unique.
 


aco175

Legend
Sword and Sorcery (S&S) seems to have more a B-movie feel to it than a fantasy feel. Back in the 80s when a lot of these came about I feel that they had a limited budget or based it off something established like Conan or a quasi historical Earth to keep it simple. Most seem to have limited PC development and alignment variables that gave them more bravado.

Classic movies like Conan and a few others like Sword and the Sorcerer, Beastmaster, Excalibur, and Dragonslayer all seem to follow similar paths. You can even add a few space movies into the mix. I think they are a great, easy campaign for lots of fun.

I would have no problem adding elves and dwarves into the mix. I think it would allow for more simple storylines like an elf overlord that rulled for the last 1,000 years or a dwarf overlord that protects his mines and his Arkenstone.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
What kind of stories do we actually tell in a Sword & Sorcery campaign? We have a couple of classic elements that feel very much at home in the Sword & Sorcery style. Evil wizards, brutal warlords, ruined cities, piles of gold and jewels, demons, undead, giant spiders, giant snakes, giant apes, and frogs. But none of this is exactly unusual in any other styles of fantasy either. (Except the frogs.)

Sword & Sorcery has three main characteristic traits, which are protagonist who exist outside the normal structure of society and its rules, act on their own initiative and their own personal reasons, and who deal with any obstacles by taking decisive action. It's not the only definition of Sword & Sorcery, but I think few people would deny these traits to be typical elements of the style.

So ... I'm not sure you're going to get full agreement on these points. Classic (OD&D, early AD&D and B/X) D&D, for example is often considered more S&S, yet has elves, dwarves, and other "Tokien-esque" high fantasy flourishes.

It helps to start with the classic canon of S&S in terms of literature; as is well-know, this was a term coined by the giant of the field (and a foremost influence on D&D), Fritz Leiber in response to Michael Moorcock.

Here's what he said:
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!

Borrowing from the wikpedia page, I think the following is helpful (my emphasis is added):
Although many have debated the finer points, the consensus characterizes it with a bias toward fast-paced, action-rich tales set in a quasi-mythical or fantastical framework. Unlike high fantasy, the stakes in sword and sorcery tend to be personal, the danger confined to the moment of telling. Settings are typically exotic, and protagonists often morally compromised.


I think a few things can be immediately recognized when discussing S&S; first, like many genres in all art forms, it can be easy to define by certain specific examples (Conan? Yes. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? Yes), and it can be easy to define by specific counter-examples (Tolkien? No, that's high fantasy!), but because the borders are so nebulous, it is very difficult when it comes to "edge cases" or works that cross boundaries. Is the Amber series sword and sorcery (morally compromised characters, but both personal and immense stakes)?Moorcock is often cited as S&S (correctly I think), but it's hardly "regular guys fightin' against the magic". And so on.

Now, when you're moving from one medium (literature) to another medium (TTRPGs) and still employing the same label, it can be more difficult. As a general rule, I think "S&S" in D&D tends to refer to:
1. No "world-shaking events." In other words, the characters aren't saving the Forgotten Realms, or the multiverse. They are adventurers, making some coin, and maybe carving out a small part of the world for themselves.

2. Moral ambiguity. No, not an excuse of murder-hoboing. More that the "good guys" aren't necessarily good, and your characters are navigating a difficult world and making tough choices (in original D&D, you are, after all, tomb robbers). One way this was expressed, however stupidly, was the idea of "muscular neutrality" in early D&D.

Those are the two most salient marks I would look for. In essence, if you are an adventure path in general, and certainly an AP to "do good and save the world" then you're aren't doing S&S.
 

Puddles

Adventurer
One trope I like from Sword and Sorcery is "society is decadent and corrupting", and I would probably use this to influence the quests and quest givers when designing a campaign.

For example, rather than have a starting town the party save from a looming threat. I would probably make the starting town a pretty horrible place, perhaps with a subjugated peoples, and I make the quest givers horrible people to boot.

I would have the quest giver send them on morally dubious quests before they later betray the party at some point, perhaps by sending them into a fighting pit full of reptilian monstrosities instead of paying them their fee. Once the party have battled their way out of the fighting pit, they can fight that early quest giver and unwittingly emancipate the peoples of the town (hopefully making them anti-heroes in the process).
 

MGibster

Legend
While the last part can certainly be debated, what does this mean for a GM preparing an adventure?
I think it means that you can expect PCs to engage in behaviors that are usually not acceptable in most campaigns. I'll stick with Conan since he's the poster child for sword & sorcery adventure so far as I'm concerned. In various stories, Conan has been both pirate and bandit and in other games he'd be the villain the PCs were hired to guard the merchants against. That doesn't mean Conan is bad all the time. In one story he has to choose between saving the life of a woman or losing the fortune he worked so hard to attain and he chooses the former without complaint.

No "world-shaking events." In other words, the characters aren't saving the Forgotten Realms, or the multiverse. They are adventurers, making some coin, and maybe carving out a small part of the world for themselves.
I've got a campaign idea kicking around in my head for a Conan campaign and this is a rule I'm following. The premise is that the PCs, or their loved ones, have been wronged by a powerful sorceress and are seeking her throughout Hyborea to exact their vengeance. There's no world shaking event here and defeating this sorceress won't save the world.
 

Aldarc

Legend
An element I think of in Sword & Sorcery is actually Sword vs Sorcery. In classic stories magic is often inherently evil. Another thing I think of is cults that venerate some enormous fauna. Sword & Sorcery might also lean heavily on the anti-hero as well and might be what made Conan unique.
Not sure. I think that we tend to equate Sword & Sorcery with predominately Conan while forgetting that the term Sword & Sorcery came from a conversation between Moorcock and Lieber to describe their stories. Although Elric and Corum certainly had swords and axes, neither were hardly Sword vs. Sorcery.

Edit: I came to say what @Snarf Zagyg did.
 

Dioltach

Legend
I think one subtle element is that the setting is just that: it's scenery, a backdrop. The protagonists don't have much emotional attachment to the world around them, and they're definitely not there to change it. They interact with their immediate surroundings, they're not concerned with the past or the future or anything that's happening further away than the reach of their axe.

It's just that very interesting things tend to happen within that reach.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
Not sure. I think that we tend to equate Sword & Sorcery with predominately Conan while forgetting that the term Sword & Sorcery came from a conversation between Moorcock and Lieber to describe their stories. Although Elric and Corum certainly had swords and axes, neither were hardly Sword vs. Sorcery.

Edit: I came to say what @Snarf Zagyg did.
I agree, Conan is just an easy thing to point to and does not always typify the genre for everyone. Conan is what comes to mind for me but not the original books, though I have read them, but actually my mind goes to 70s DC Conan comics which usually leaned toward more monster of the week fare.
While the last part can certainly be debated, what does this mean for a GM preparing an adventure?
As a GM I would prepare an open world style and give the party multiple avenues they can solve a situation. I would expect them to both return the mcguffin to its rightful owner as well as keep it for themselves. Characters often get ripped off by dubious allies, I would give them the opportunity for bloody revenge. They should be able to hand out justice as they see fit even if it means assasinating a local king they disagree with.
 

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