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Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

Yora

Hero
(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

Explorer
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.
 

MGibster

Legend
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.
I used to love those Conan comics when I was a kid and I started reading them again last year for adventure inspiration. You could do much worse than those comics for S&S adventure ideas. I started reading a few of the original stories back in 2019, and it kind of surprised me much Conan was behaving like an old school AD&D character by looking for secret compartments and hidden passages while looking for treasure.
 

Yora

Hero
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.
Does this reply to the paragraph you quoted?

Would you say that characters who are 1) bound by social obligations and vows of allegiance, 2) solve other people's problems as a disinterested party, and 3) overcome their challenges by thorough research and cunning diplomacy make for good protagonists in a Sword & Sorcery story?
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).
I am generally in agreement with that. In Sword & Sorcery, you don't generally have a happy peaceful starting situation that is being disrupted by an outside force and an expectation that the protagonists will set things right by returning them back to the status quo.
Though I'd be very careful to use betrayal sparingly and for times where it will have strong impact. If the first two people the PCs work for both betray them, you send the players the message to never take on any jobs. I think that can cause a lot of problems further down the road.
But I think it can be pretty neat to have NPCs try to cheat the PCs out of money rather than stabbing them in the back. For example, a merchants appearing unhappy when the party shows up to claim their reward because he didn't expect to actually have to pay the money he promised.
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.
I'd been toying with just such an idea myself last months. A party united by a common oath to find and slay that evil wizard who wronged them should work pretty well.
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.
There's a couple of neat Sword & Sorcery stories that happen pretty much entirely as disruptions while the protagonists are traveling between A and B.
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.
I think it's a vastly superior way of running adventures in general, but for Sword & Sorcery it's absolutely mandatory to not have a script that demands that the PCs are going through specific scenes. Distrust and backstabbing is a big part of the game, as is sudden and unplanned violence. There's also both the thing of cutting your losses, and taking stupid risks just because you're really pissed at one guy in particular.
Even more than in other styles of fantasy, the journey is the destination. It needs to be a fun and exciting ride, and if at the end the heroes stand with nothing to show for their troubles, that's perfectly fine.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Does this reply to the paragraph you quoted?

Would you say that characters who are 1) bound by social obligations and vows of allegiance, 2) solve other people's problems as a disinterested party, and 3) overcome their challenges by thorough research and cunning diplomacy make for good protagonists in a Sword & Sorcery story?

Sometimes. I don't think that characters are necessarily bound by social obligations or vows of allegiance for S&S. Sometimes it's the complete lack of those bonds.

I also don't think that the necessarily overcome their problems through research or cunning diplomacy. Sometimes it's just a sword.

Finally, a character can be very involved as an interested party; revenge is not an uncommon motivator. Nevertheless, the disinterested mercenary is also a common trope.

Yet you could have a good protagonist in a S&S setting that matches those three criteria, but also have one that has none of those.
 

Yora

Hero
My point is that in Sword & Sorcery fiction, you usually see protagonist who can do what other can do, because they can afford to not give a naughty word what other powerful people think about it. Influential aristocrats, officers, and merchants often have their hands tied because their power lies within their status and reputation and the people who are on their good sides. Even when they know what's right and really want to do something, doing so would cost them dearly.
Barbarians, thieves, and dethroned archmage-emperors have no such issues. They have nothing to lose but their lives, and they are very capable of guarding that. If they piss of the wrong people, they can skip town. If they step outside of social boundaries, there is no status they can lose.

While it does not apply to all fantasy, Sword & Sorcery is inherently action adventures. You don't see the protagonists besting their opponents and winning conflicts in offices or meeting rooms. (Unless it's to behead the king on his own throne.) The heroes always go where the action is and will do what has to be done with their own hands. It may be by full out open assault or by stealth and cunning trickery, but they are always in the thick of it.

Which is why I am puzzled that any of this could be questioned or controversial.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
{snip}

Which is why I am puzzled that any of this could be questioned or controversial.

Well, if you're puzzled as to why your assertions would be questioned, on the internet, on a forum of geeks known for arguing discussing anything, including the smallest things ... well, I can't help you there!

If you are wondering why an attempt to define a specific genre would be controversial, it is for the same reason that all attempts are- and as I already outlined.

S&S came up due to an exchange between Lieber (who is S&S) and Moorcock (who is S&S) discussing Howard (who is S&S). However, despite similarities, even those three quintessential examples (Conan, Gray Mouser & Fafhrd, Elric) are very, very different. Which is why we have a term that is defined both by a grouping of certain works, and by excluding others (the contemporaneous high fantasy, like Tolkien, or the Chronicles of Prydain).

More specifically, S&S arose out of a particular time (roughly from Howard through the 70s) and a conception of certain types of pulp literature and archetypes on fantasy fiction; it is very difficult to disentangle what aspects of all those stories are absolutely necessary for S&S, in the same way that (for example) we can discuss aspects of film noir with canonical examples (femme fatale, visual cues such as lack of balance in composition and unconventional lighting, private detective, etc.), and yet never come to a conclusion as to what exact elements constitute the genre in film ... let alone if we attempted to translate it ("I'm doing a film noir in D&D!").
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I used to love those Conan comics when I was a kid and I started reading them again last year for adventure inspiration. You could do much worse than those comics for S&S adventure ideas. I started reading a few of the original stories back in 2019, and it kind of surprised me much Conan was behaving like an old school AD&D character by looking for secret compartments and hidden passages while looking for treasure.
You can't help but me impressed by the Buscema art. And silly me it was Marvel not DC. DC was doing D&D comics a little later. In particular Issue #41 of the original Marvel run of Conan is very good. Something happened in that issue that truly rattled Conan and came up again and again throughout that run.
 

ART!

Hero
The heroes always go where the action is and will do what has to be done with their own hands. It may be by full out open assault or by stealth and cunning trickery, but they are always in the thick of it.
Until things go pear-shaped, at which point they look to their best interests and bug out. Loyalty to some great cause - or even to one's faithful crew of pirates - only goes so far when your neck is on the line.
 

Yora

Hero
Totally, but that's them deciding that their part in the adventure is over. They are not going to delegate the fighting to someone else or ask for a ceasefire to set up a meeting at the negotiating table.
Well, if you're puzzled as to why your assertions would be questioned, on the internet, on a forum of geeks known for arguing discussing anything, including the smallest things ... well, I can't help you there!

If you are wondering why an attempt to define a specific genre would be controversial, it is for the same reason that all attempts are- and as I already outlined.
But you don't seem to refute my claim either.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But you don't seem to refute my claim either.

Can't help you there!

Look, my last piece of advice on this thread:

1. If you want people to argue with you, have fun! There's plenty of people here for that. :)

2. If you read what I wrote, and that's your response- you're looking for an argument, not a discussion. I'm not the best person for that.
 

I am more interested to know if there is stuff that is more fitting to our current world and does not include the "issues" that classic S&S stories have. Are people even writing and publishing new S&S stories?
 

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