log in or register to remove this ad

 

Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

Yora

Hero
I recently reread the collected Conan stories over the course of a few months, and what stuck out to me was the complete lack of any irony. Howard really digs his macho, wily protagonist, he really likes forgotten cities and decadent civilizations and evil snakes and wizards, and he doesn't feel the need to be arch or distanced the way, say, writers as early as Leiber occasionally do and modern writers, particularly of literary fiction, do quite often. Memes often include a series of spoofs of jokes about obscure references, but Conan--nah, he's just a dude in great shape with a sword. (Even Elric was supposed to be the anti-Conan.) He lives, he burns with life, he loves, he slays, and that is enough. I wonder if that's some of the appeal?
Yes, exactly. You get the same with Karl Wagner's Kane. And I even see it in Moorcock's Elric. These stories don't approve of everything the protagonists do, but they are absolutely sincere that these are supposed to be serious stories with meaningful messages. Which is notable when you see vast numbers of mainstream creators constantly trying to cover their backs and making sure nobody can accuse them of actually meaning what their stories might imply. That's the "irony is killing our culture" thing.

I think possible the biggest cause for Sword & Sorcery's reputation as being trashy is all the genuinely trashy S&S shlock that tried to cash in on the Conan movie in the 80s. If I recall correctly, Conan never actually wears the bearskin diaper from the posters in the movie outside of a one minute montage of his years as a gladiator slave. But it still became the iconic look for Sword & Sorcery protagonists ever since.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Offense is special in that regard, in that some people take offense in things that are not intended to give it. But if we demand to sanitize everything to a point where nobody could possibly take offense at it, everything just becomes a hollow shell. Nobody has a "right to not be offended", as a famous philosopher once put it.

This doesn't exclude an artist's possible intention to offend, but I think in the case of S&S, that intention is not necessarily clear.

No.

Offense is not "special" in that regard.

Someone falls over and you laugh. Did they mean to fall over (pratfall) or not? Was The Room an intentional comedy?

How someone reacts, and what is intended, are not always the same. Offense is not special in this aspect. Elevating it denigrates the speaker and the audience.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
Yes, exactly. You get the same with Karl Wagner's Kane. And I even see it in Moorcock's Elric. These stories don't approve of everything the protagonists do, but they are absolutely sincere that these are supposed to be serious stories with meaningful messages. Which is notable when you see vast numbers of mainstream creators constantly trying to cover their backs and making sure nobody can accuse them of actually meaning what their stories might imply. That's the "irony is killing our culture" thing.

I think possible the biggest cause for Sword & Sorcery's reputation as being trashy is all the genuinely trashy S&S shlock that tried to cash in on the Conan movie in the 80s. If I recall correctly, Conan never actually wears the bearskin diaper from the posters in the movie outside of a one minute montage of his years as a gladiator slave. But it still became the iconic look for Sword & Sorcery protagonists ever since.

I don't want to get into the is-itart debate as most people here are fans of genres (TTRPGs at the least and likely some variety of fantasy as well) that are not considered art by, say, the New Yorker or Harvard--you won't see the 1e cover of the PHB at the Met. (I think there's more artistry in a tricked-out lowrider than a Pollock canvas, but that's just me.)

But I do think Sword & Sorcery vis-a-vis, say, Lord of the Rings is considered 'trashy' (and this is my opinion and mine alone) because it was historically enjoyed by the blue-collar consumers of the pulps and, now, is seen as too much of a right-leaning genre. (Ironically Howard, despite his racial views, was actually something of a feminist for his time and most of the sex in his stories was requested by the publishers.) Of course, you can definitely write a game about swordslinging queer people of any ethnic background (Thirsty Sword Lesbians anyone?), but I think that's a big part of it.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But I do think Sword & Sorcery vis-a-vis, say, Lord of the Rings is considered 'trashy' (and this is my opinion and mine alone) because it was historically enjoyed by the blue-collar consumers of the pulps and, now, is seen as too much of a right-leaning genre. (Ironically Howard, despite his racial views, was actually something of a feminist for his time and most of the sex in his stories was requested by the publishers.) Of course, you can definitely write a game about swordslinging queer people of any ethnic background (Thirsty Sword Lesbians anyone?), but I think that's a big part of it.

Ugh. This kills me.

Seriously. I mean, think of the big "classic" names of high fantasy. Tolkien. Alexander. Lewis. All small-c (sometimes large-C) conservative.

As I wrote before, high fantasy tropes are so tired. "Oh look, the dude is really a prince. His magic blood and destiny will save us!" Or the ever-popular, "The world as it was is totally awesome, we need to defend it from ... THE OTHER. Oh noes, those dark and swarthy forces that are totally not an allegory for industrialization are totally going to change our idyllic way of pastoral life."

C'mon. As I wrote before, the main difference between S&S and high fantasy is that S&S doesn't suck. S&S might not always be perfect, but I'm certainly not going to take any gruff about trashiness from a bunch of elf-lovers. :)
 



Blue Orange

Adventurer
Ugh. This kills me.

Seriously. I mean, think of the big "classic" names of high fantasy. Tolkien. Alexander. Lewis. All small-c (sometimes large-C) conservative.

As I wrote before, high fantasy tropes are so tired. "Oh look, the dude is really a prince. His magic blood and destiny will save us!" Or the ever-popular, "The world as it was is totally awesome, we need to defend it from ... THE OTHER. Oh noes, those dark and swarthy forces that are totally not an allegory for industrialization are totally going to change our idyllic way of pastoral life."

C'mon. As I wrote before, the main difference between S&S and high fantasy is that S&S doesn't suck. S&S might not always be perfect, but I'm certainly not going to take any gruff about trashiness from a bunch of elf-lovers. :)

Eh, I'm more for S&S than high fantasy now, but I was introduced to the genre by my mom reading me LOTR as a kid and I appreciate Tolkien's artistry, worldbuilding, and more-or-less-singlehanded invention of a genre.

I never got into Mercedes Lackey-style romantic fantasy, but I was happy when Blue Rose came out because now more people had a game they could enjoy playing.

There are lots of cuisines I don't like because they concentrate a lot on spicy food, but I'd never dream of saying they were bad as a result...
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Eh, I'm more for S&S than high fantasy now, but I was introduced to the genre by my mom reading me LOTR as a kid and I appreciate Tolkien's artistry, worldbuilding, and more-or-less-singlehanded invention of a genre.

I never got into Mercedes Lackey-style romantic fantasy, but I was happy when Blue Rose came out because now more people had a game they could enjoy playing.

There are lots of cuisines I don't like because they concentrate a lot on spicy food, but I'd never dream of saying they were bad as a result...

I think you may have mistaken the gist of my comment.

Tolkien is ... fine. The legion of Tolkien imitators that lacked his erudition, facility with languages, and attention to detail when it came to worldbuilding? Meh.

But the real issue is that people mistake an original publication in a pulp magazine (or a pulp genre) as being "trashy." This is the same mistake that is made over and over again throughout history (see, e.g., Hitchcock). What, do we need a Cahiers du Cinema to anoint Lieber as being a decent writer?

S&S, whether it's REH or Lieber or Moocock or any of a number of other variants ... is certainly (IMO) much more interesting, dynamic, and artistic than the stodgy and moribund tropes of high fantasy. There is a reason that it is called "modern." Perhaps it is not modernist (as in Joyce and Eliot) but the sensibility belongs more to a Chandler or an Ellroy than to some non-existent halcyon days of the divine right of kings as exemplified by the protagonists of high fantasy.

In other words- I do not much appreciate the hypocrisy of those who might call out S&S - a genre marked by the individual struggling against corruption, when they would defend the retrograde and unexamined notions inherent in almost all high fantasy.

Or, as I put it more simply- I prefer S&S to high fantasy because S&S doesn't suck.
 

reelo

Adventurer
No.

Offense is not "special" in that regard.

Someone falls over and you laugh. Did they mean to fall over (pratfall) or not? Was The Room an intentional comedy?

How someone reacts, and what is intended, are not always the same. Offense is not special in this aspect. Elevating it denigrates the speaker and the audience.
I might have put that wrong, I agree.

But I stand by my statement that "making sure nobody can possibly ever be offended by anything" is not a desireable thing. People who want to will go to great lengths in order to find something to be offended about, even the most trivial things.
 

reelo

Adventurer
In other words- I do not much appreciate the hypocrisy of those who might call out S&S - a genre marked by the individual struggling against corruption, when they would defend the retrograde and unexamined notions inherent in almost all high fantasy.

Or, as I put it more simply- I prefer S&S to high fantasy because S&S doesn't suck.

What I like about S&S is that it holds a mirror to modern societies: Civilization inevitably leads to debauchery and degeneration, "savage people" are depicted as much more morally clear-cut: Conan might be a savage barbarian, a pirate, a thief, and a warlord, but he's honest. It's the "civilized" antagonists that are liars, schemers, demonologists, slavers, and morally corrupt.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
IMHO only, but I suspect a lot of us are coming up with excuses for our adolescent (usually but not necessarily male) power fantasy. ;)

Hey, I think there's nothing wrong with saying, "Look, sometimes I like to fantasize about being an amoral cutthroat, and I'm cool with that. I'm not going to knock over a grocery store or run a meth lab any more than some guy who likes gangster movies or Breaking Bad is."
 


Aldarc

Legend
Tolkien is ... fine. The legion of Tolkien imitators that lacked his erudition, facility with languages, and attention to detail when it came to worldbuilding? Meh.
I like Tolkien's elves or at least the Noldor; however, (1) I think that a lot of his imitators failed to see that the elves of the 3rd Age were flawed elves who had been humbled by the repeated failures borne from their hubris. A large part of that admittedly comes from the Silmarillion. And (2) despite Tolkien's massive love for his elves, it's pretty clear that he had a higher opinion about humans in his work. So we mostly get the shallow imitations of Tolkien's elves that exist for the sake of having elves and only rarely do we get more interesting takes like Moorcock's Melniboneans or Eberron's death elves.

But the real issue is that people mistake an original publication in a pulp magazine (or a pulp genre) as being "trashy." This is the same mistake that is made over and over again throughout history (see, e.g., Hitchcock). What, do we need a Cahiers du Cinema to anoint Lieber as being a decent writer?
I agree, but sometimes people don't realize how many fairly famous and now well-regarded novels actually came out of pulp or serialized publications rather than fully-hatched as a complete novel. I would almost compare it with the number of big name Hollywood directors that got their start working on B movies or with Roger Corman.

S&S, whether it's REH or Lieber or Moocock or any of a number of other variants ... is certainly (IMO) much more interesting, dynamic, and artistic than the stodgy and moribund tropes of high fantasy. There is a reason that it is called "modern." Perhaps it is not modernist (as in Joyce and Eliot) but the sensibility belongs more to a Chandler or an Ellroy than to some non-existent halcyon days of the divine right of kings as exemplified by the protagonists of high fantasy.

In other words- I do not much appreciate the hypocrisy of those who might call out S&S - a genre marked by the individual struggling against corruption, when they would defend the retrograde and unexamined notions inherent in almost all high fantasy.

Or, as I put it more simply- I prefer S&S to high fantasy because S&S doesn't suck.
One of the things that I love about S&S - about Weird Tales and the like - is the weirdness of it. These are stories that often lack polish or some grand carefully-crafted world-building. A bunch of S&S authors seemed to throw around a lot of weird stuff into their worlds. It didn't care about this imaginary divide between fantasy vs. science fiction. Here are robots and Cthulhoid monsters side-by-side in this fantasy story with wizards. I loved that weird '80s science fantasy as a kid (e.g., He-Man, Thundarr, Visionaries, Thundercats, Star Wars, Heavy Metal, etc.) and a lot of that was heavily S&S and pulp inspired. I think that's the appeal of S&S vs. the epic fantasy. It's the weird vs. the pristine.
 
Last edited:

Yora

Hero
In many types of fantasy, you can often have villains who are rude and insulting in their prejudices and bigotry, but there's little the heroes can do about it because their noble station and social connections make them untouchable. That's the fun part about Sword & Sorcery. You can just walk up to the prince, cut off his head and throw it at the king, and then jump into the moat after setting the curtains on fire. And nobody will say "You naughty word just destroyed the entire campaign!" No, it's glorious and heroic.
I agree, but sometimes people don't realize how many fairly famous and now well-regarded novels actually came out of pulp or serialized publications rather than fully-hatched as a complete novel. I would almost compare it with the number of big name Hollywood directors that got their start working on B movies or with Roger Corman.
I'm immediately thinking of John Carpenter and (early) Riddley Scott.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
My conception of S&S is dominated by REH's Conan and Kull stories. It's about violently capable individuals making their way in a world with little or no inherent value. It has a modernist or even existential dimension: value is imposed on a situation by the person who takes control of it; and obligations are personal and passionate, not impersonal or duty-imposed traditions.
That sounds very similar to most Westerns.

EDIT: The Conan story Beyond the Black River is very much a Western with a frontier and Picts as stand-ins for Native Americans. I think I remember reading that towards the end of his life Howard was growing tired of sword & sorcery and wanted to transition more to Westerns.

There's also a lot of similarity with the post-apocalyptic. Upthread @Snarf Zagyg described Mad Max Fury Road as S&S. I'd consider all the later Mad Max movies to be essentially Westerns.
 
Last edited:

Doug McCrae

Legend
@Snarf Zagyg's suggestion that D&D "turned" with DL is undercut, to a degree, by the earlier introduction of paladins. I think in S&S-oriented D&D they really have to go. Likewise clerics in the traditional sense. Likewise, I would say, druids and rangers - because these imply the possibility of a type of holistic integration of humanity and nature which I think conflicts with the "existentialist" (if that's not going too far) strand in S&S.
You might find these posts I wrote around a month ago interesting. They're about anti-existentialist passages in the AD&D 1e DMG compared to the existentialism in the early Elric stories. One weakness is that I don't have a very good grasp of what existentialism means, but other than that I think they're pretty good. They agree with your point that Gygaxian D&D is not very S&S-y.

Anti-existentialism in the AD&D 1e DMG
Existentialism in While the Gods Laugh
Existentialism in Stormbringer
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
You might find these posts I wrote around a month ago interesting. They're about anti-existentialist passages in the AD&D 1e DMG compared to the existentialism in the early Elric stories. One weakness is that I don't have a very good grasp of what existentialism means, but other than that I think they're pretty good. They agree with your point that Gygaxian D&D is not very S&S-y.

Anti-existentialism in the AD&D 1e DMG
Existentialism in While the Gods Laugh
Existentialism in Stormbringer

If you're going there, the 1e DMG actually had an ethical foundation for evil alignments that was more or less Social Darwinism--survival of the fittest. I had never seen anyone try to come up with an ethical basis for being evil before--evil characters were just assumed to be selfish. The description of lawful evil in particular ("order as the means by which each group is properly placed in the cosmos, from lowest to highest, strongest first, weakest last") sounds quite fascist, whereas chaotic evil is closer to Max Stirner or the European illegalists ("other individuals and freedoms are unimportant if they cannot be held by the individuals through their own strength and merit").
 
Last edited:

Doug McCrae

Legend
If you're going there, the 1e DMG actually had an ethical foundation for evil alignments that was more or less Social Darwinism--survival of the fittest. I had never seen anyone try to come up with an ethical basis for being evil before--evil characters were just assumed to be selfish. The description of lawful evil in particular ("order as the means by which each group is properly placed in the cosmos, from lowest to highest, strongest first, weakest last") sounds quite fascist.
You're right. In the AD&D 1e DMG, Neutral Evil is Social Darwinism:

This ethos holds that seeking to promote weal for all actually brings woe to the truly deserving. Natural forces which are meant to cull out the weak and stupid are artificially suppressed by so-called good, and the fittest are wrongfully held back, so whatever means are expedient can be used by the powerful to gain and maintain their dominance, without concern for anything.​

I don't think a real life Social Darwinist would consider their views to be evil in the cosmic sense, though they would likely agree that their views are at odds with conventional morality (which they would consider to not be truly moral). By labelling Social Darwinism evil, AD&D says that the Social Darwinist is wrong. There are similarities but I don't think Social Darwinism is quite the same as existentialism, as Social Darwinism puts more emphasis on the good of society, and often seems to be connected with group conflicts.
 

pemerton

Legend
It's not as if people think of European arthouse films as juvenille just because they may contain sex and nudity. The juvenille reputation of Sword & Sorcery is likelier a by-product of the pulp medium and its target audience.
Also a fair bit of the sex and nudity seems to be intended for immediate gratification - eg the "ancient mysteries, and the exotic ways of pleasure" of Xuthal of the Dark! To elaborate, I think the reader (who is expected to be a heterosexual man) is expected to pretty straightforwardly imagine himself as Conan, in a position to enjoy those exotic ways!

I think this also goes to @Blue Orange's remarks about the lack of irony. We could say more generally that REH's Conan isn't a character whose subtleties the reader is expected to engage with. He's a vehicle for the telling of the story, and for self-projection into the story where desired. Patrice Louinet talks a bit about this in relation to REH's own personality in his essay in the first volume of his three-volume collection of REH (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian).
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
Tiddies? Do it!...

Sword & Sorcery refuses to participate in the circus of trying to get accepted by critics and popular with the masses.
I'm struggling to get my head around the idea that gratuitous female nudity isn't popular with the masses. Here in the UK our most popular newspaper, The Sun, featured topless women on page 3 until 2015.
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top