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Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

pemerton

Legend
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
Thanks, I'll have a read. I don't know Elric super-well but do have a reasonable grasp of existentialism, and so between the two of us we probably have the right skill-set!

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.
I think there are similarities to Westerns, but also contrasts.

I agree that Beyond the Black River is a Western. It's probably also my least-favourite REH Conan story (which I know puts me at odds with the critics). But compare Beyond the Black River to The Tower of the Elephant or the opening sequence of Queen of the Black Coast - instead of Conan as a critic of "civilisation", he is a champion of it, helping the colonists spread it. The thematic orientation is completely reversed.

If REH wanted to write a story in defence of colonialism, it would have made more sense to have the "vibrant, energetic" colonists taking over Stygia or some "ancient" and "decadent" land. (That said, from memory the Beyond the Black River Picts do use snakes in their magic, like Stygians. But they are not a "decadent" peoples.)
 

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pemerton

Legend
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.
I didn't know The Sun had reversed its publication policy in that respect.

And I agree. This is why I'm having to work to make sense of these references to "transgressive" and "offence" - because it seems as if we're trying to equate lad's mags to the avant garde.
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
I didn't know The Sun had reversed its publication policy in that respect.

And I agree. This is why I'm having to work to make sense of these references to "transgressive" and "offence" - because it seems as if we're trying to equate lad's mags to the avant garde.

It was transgressive in 1935. 1985 in some parts of this country.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
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.
I think you are aware it is utterly unthinkable in the current predominantly American media culture. The RPGs we discuss on this and other major forums are so thoroughly sanitized it's as if Disney was the state religion...
 


CapnZapp

Legend
Of course it's popular. But you're not supposed to. It immediately disqualifies a work from most segments of mainstream media and public appreciation.
If you mean appreciation in public (as in the media discourse), that is so.

It's just that your phrase can be read as arguing the public doesn't appreciate nudity, which is the exact opposite of the point made earlier.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I think you are aware it is utterly unthinkable in the current predominantly American media culture. The RPGs we discuss on this and other major forums are so thoroughly sanitized it's as if Disney was the state religion...
It's almost as if it's a corporate product created for the widest market of consumers possible.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
It's almost as if it's a corporate product created for the widest market of consumers possible.
It's almost as if you are okay with every rpg product being targeted towards the widest market even at the cost of becoming the blandest.

But no, your explanation does not hold water. Just because corporate interests are involved does not explain the extreme alignment of our hobby's products.

Pick literally any other market and it is trivial to pick out products that don't care someone just might get offended.

Ttrpgs are in an extremely eager-to-please phase where sanding down rough edges is paramount.

That makes me a bit sad, especially if we return the discussion to this particular genre.

If I only get to pick a single genre of fantasy roleplaying that stands to benefit from some deliciously politically incorrect b-movie goodness, it is Sword & Sorcery!

Do I think Hasbro is the company that will publish such a product?

No.

But you're saying Hasbro and it's corporate ilk is why no such products can't even be contemplated and why some posters react as if I punched them in the face. You're giving them far too much credit.
 

Aldarc

Legend
It's almost as if you are okay with every rpg product being targeted towards the widest market even at the cost of becoming the blandest.

But no, your explanation does not hold water. Just because corporate interests are involved does not explain the extreme alignment of our hobby's products.

Pick literally any other market and it is trivial to pick out products that don't care someone just might get offended.

Ttrpgs are in an extremely eager-to-please phase where sanding down rough edges is paramount.

That makes me a bit sad, especially if we return the discussion to this particular genre.

If I only get to pick a single genre of fantasy roleplaying that stands to benefit from some deliciously politically incorrect b-movie goodness, it is Sword & Sorcery!

Do I think Hasbro is the company that will publish such a product?

No.

But you're saying Hasbro and it's corporate ilk is why no such products can't even be contemplated and why some posters react as if I punched them in the face. You're giving them far too much credit.
You have a terrible habit of confusing explanations with personal opinion or preferences. Cut it out.
 

I've always felt that sword & sorcery is less "pretty" than typical fantasy.

Reading through Howard's Conan, he describes how things smell/feel/etc, and it's more "real" than idealized in how things are described.

It's not fantasy at all, but an example would be comparing the typical Star Trek ship to the typical Star Wars ship. Trek is usually clean, orderly, and pristine; the Millennium Falcon feels lived in.

Likewise, in Lord of the Rings, the orcs/villains are the people who are dirty, covered in grime, and so-forth. In a sword & sorcery story, that description might describe the heroes.

I think it might be argued that sword & sorcery also has an element of horror to it sometimes. There's a darker underlying tone, similar to some Arthurian tales or darker fairy tales -but where those stories embrace the fantastical, sword & sorcery embraces the struggle of the protagonists against those darker elements.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It's almost as if you are okay with ...

Mod Note:
It is almost as if you want to see red text for making the discussion personal. Address the position, not the person, please.


...stands to benefit from some deliciously politically incorrect ...

Do you realize that dismissing things as "politically correct" is against our inclusivity policy? If not, you are now reminded.

This reads like, "...genre that stands to benefit from treating people badly for being who they are...." If treating people badly benefits the genre... maybe you want to think really deeply about how good a thing that really is, or isn't.
 
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pemerton

Legend
It's almost as if you are okay with every rpg product being targeted towards the widest market even at the cost of becoming the blandest.

<snip>

Pick literally any other market and it is trivial to pick out products that don't care someone just might get offended.

<snip>

But you're saying Hasbro and it's corporate ilk is why no such products can't even be contemplated and why some posters react as if I punched them in the face.
I'll leave the face-punching to one side.

But your comments about every RPG product are just wrong.

Have you looked at Burning Wheel? Have you looked at In A Wicked Age? Here are the Diamonds entries (Ace to King) for the Blood & Sex Oracle:
  • A mysterious star-lit revel on a high bare hilltop, with a single man in attendance.
  • A woman suddenly bereft of love and family, daughter to a long heritage of sorceresses and poisoners.
  • A raving prophet, advocating self-mortification and deprivation of the appetites.
  • A practitioner of law, with her several secretaries.
  • A chattel slave who has broken both his bonds and his master’s skull.
  • A practitioner of luck-magics traveling ahead of a ferocious storm.
  • The much-contested wedding of the province’s great beauty.
  • Some great wizard’s magical messenger, brass-skinned.
  • The secluded home of an exiled court-wizard, dense with unseen population.
  • A note written in an elegant hand, sweetly perfumed, and the child messenger bearing it.
  • A band of demons, laughing and malicious, authors of debauched sensuality and corrupt appetites.
  • A happy girl, promised in marriage to a gentleman, naive to the danger he represents.
  • A company of desert horsemen, hiding a woman amongst them.

I don't think that's bland.
 

Yora

Hero
One thing that never sits right with me is the extreme conservativism and purism of many very vocal Sword & Sorcery. If it's up to them, all Sword & Sorcery can only be The Tower of the Elephant and Red Nails, and nothing else.
The points that it must be "humans only" and "no spellcasting" under any circumstances does nobody any service. If you want that for your campaign or your story, that's fine, but claiming that it's a non-negotiable universal truth is nonsensical.

What certainly is the case is that you don't see cutesy hobbits, grumpy dwarves, or frolicking elves. And no spunky catgirls or comedic goblins. Not because they are dwarves elves, or goblins, but because the tone doesn't fit. And I think adding some really outlandish characters can actually be a big boon. Stuff like ogres, insect-men, or lizardmen. Or have stuff like knights riding on pterodactyls and long-legged giant beetles. We see that kind of stuff in more Dying Earth type settings all the time, and that genre is really just Sword & Sorcery with robots and the occasional laser gun.

Playing in the Hyborian Age or a Hyborian Age knockoff is one option. It's not a mandatory requirement.
 

Aldarc

Legend
One thing that never sits right with me is the extreme conservativism and purism of many very vocal Sword & Sorcery. If it's up to them, all Sword & Sorcery can only be The Tower of the Elephant and Red Nails, and nothing else.
The points that it must be "humans only" and "no spellcasting" under any circumstances does nobody any service. If you want that for your campaign or your story, that's fine, but claiming that it's a non-negotiable universal truth is nonsensical.

What certainly is the case is that you don't see cutesy hobbits, grumpy dwarves, or frolicking elves. And no spunky catgirls or comedic goblins. Not because they are dwarves elves, or goblins, but because the tone doesn't fit. And I think adding some really outlandish characters can actually be a big boon. Stuff like ogres, insect-men, or lizardmen. Or have stuff like knights riding on pterodactyls and long-legged giant beetles. We see that kind of stuff in more Dying Earth type settings all the time, and that genre is really just Sword & Sorcery with robots and the occasional laser gun.

Playing in the Hyborian Age or a Hyborian Age knockoff is one option. It's not a mandatory requirement.
It's not as if elves are not unheard of in Sword & Sorcery either. It's not exactly a secret that Moorcock's Eldren - from whom the Melniboneans (e.g., Elric) and Vadagh (e.g., Corum) were descended - were basically elves with the serial numbers filed off.
 

One thing that never sits right with me is the extreme conservativism and purism of many very vocal Sword & Sorcery. If it's up to them, all Sword & Sorcery can only be The Tower of the Elephant and Red Nails, and nothing else.
The points that it must be "humans only" and "no spellcasting" under any circumstances does nobody any service. If you want that for your campaign or your story, that's fine, but claiming that it's a non-negotiable universal truth is nonsensical.

What certainly is the case is that you don't see cutesy hobbits, grumpy dwarves, or frolicking elves. And no spunky catgirls or comedic goblins. Not because they are dwarves elves, or goblins, but because the tone doesn't fit. And I think adding some really outlandish characters can actually be a big boon. Stuff like ogres, insect-men, or lizardmen. Or have stuff like knights riding on pterodactyls and long-legged giant beetles. We see that kind of stuff in more Dying Earth type settings all the time, and that genre is really just Sword & Sorcery with robots and the occasional laser gun.

Playing in the Hyborian Age or a Hyborian Age knockoff is one option. It's not a mandatory requirement.

I mostly agree with this.

I know it was a cartoon, but I feel that Thunder the Barbarian is also sword & sorcery (or at least as much as it can be for a children's cartoon); it includes things such as light-saber-knockoffs, various races, and elements of post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

Sword & Sorcery is definitely a tone. I think that's why it can be so hard to define sometimes. It's one of those things that is difficult to define, but is easy to feel/not-feel.

I think there can be spell casting, but I also think there are styles of magic and amounts of magic which can make achieving the S&S (sword & sorcery) feel difficult. For example, I've heard people describe D&D as sword & sorcery; I'm not saying those people are wrong, but my view is that how contemporary D&D approaches magic (and hit points and a few other things) works at cross-purposes to trying to build the tone of S&S.

In my own mind, I think Dark Sun had touches of S&S.

Oddly, even though it's generally viewed as a romantic fantasy, I think there are times when Dragonlance dips its toe into S&S territory -with some of Raistlin & Caramon's backstory and some of how elements of combat and the war are described.

I'll be surprised if some of those darker tones are still present in newer versions of those settings (or still present in a way which captures the same feel). I say that because my own perception is that it's a bit of a fashion-faux-pas to even imply some of those darker elements in contemporary WoTC products.
 



pemerton

Legend
Probably true

I didn't get introduced to the setting until later versions of it -when some of the elements I'd recognize as Sword & Sorcery had already started to change for a different vision.
I have a 2nd ed version (the original, I think) that I've skimmed and the 4e version that I've read and have played a bit.
 

But he doesn't then go and try to change the world. Even though he disagrees with how things are done, he himself isn't affected by it: he can fight his way out of trouble. He doesn't worry about the common people who don't have his strength and who have to suffer the consequences of a corrupt system.
In the REH stories, yes, Conan does change the world; he fails to change it for the better, despite being a sucker for a hard luck case...
I agree that there are antithetical elements to S&S present before Dragonlance. However, I would say that in terms of overall trends, that Dragonlance (and possibly Ravenloft*) turned D&D with greater force towards heroic fantasy. I also don't think it's exactly a coincidence that OSR points to Dragonlance as "the beginning of the end" for Old School play in their revisionist historiographical narrative.
Old School Play as exemplified by the OSR is something I never even heard about until the mid-1990s, despite playing since 1981. DragonLance as a game did do one thing: give a mechanism to track the good/evil axis of the character by their deeds... but no one I know was using DLA until the 90's.
The most important thing to remember about the actual "old school era" is that there was no unifying internet communications... different groups played in different ways, many without recourse even to the articles in Dragon.
This is pretty much just a huge aside, but this triggers me.

The notion "combat is scarily dangerous" just doesn't work in any genre where you're meant to fight a lot.
Works fine in a variety of games...
  • Rolemaster is quite deadly... but it doesn't prevent people from running classic dungeon fantasy with it... and despite the 20 to 60 minutes, my downstairs neighbor in 1992-1994 was running a game that killed two to three PCs per session, without resurrection magic. My rolemaster books got a bunch of use from them...
  • Prime Directive 1E: combat is particularly dangerous, but players know that Character gen only takes 10-15 minutes for any but the Analysis Paralysis crowd. On the other hand, explaining the initiative systemm is quite the hassle
  • Any of the games set in WW II, Viet Nam, or Korea as infantry or armor troops.
  • Many espionage games have deadly combat - the trick is to be the first to kill the opponent.
Deadliness isn't a dealbreaker for many. For some it's even a draw.
I've done a little S&S type play. When I ran it, it was deadly.
I don't know either, because B/X and 1e derived games of the OSR movement seem mostly geared towards S&S fantasy.
I never got an S&S vibe from BX. I got a medieval super-heroes vibe. Even in 1981. Especially given Tolkien's Orcs were a real and present danger. and D&D/AD&D Orcs were only a minor threat.
But I'm talking about games where every single swing is played out.
There really aren't many of those.
Car Wars, CORPS, GURPS,,,
If the combat turn's longer than 3 sec, it's not doing one roll per swing. I've seen many SCA knights able to get more than one swing per second. I've seen the same from HEMA guys. And from boffer larps. And stage actors. Olympic fencers are even faster,. due to the low weapon weight.

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.
the US is much more uptight about nudity and sex than the UK, as a generality. The UK is generally more uptight about violence and gore than the US. Different cultures. Different things found offensive by the majority.

Really, two fairly different cultures divided by distance and revolution... and 230 years.
 

Aldarc

Legend
In the REH stories, yes, Conan does change the world; he fails to change it for the better, despite being a sucker for a hard luck case...
@Dioltach didn't say that Conan doesn't change the world. He says that Conan doesn't go and try changing the world.

Old School Play as exemplified by the OSR is something I never even heard about until the mid-1990s, despite playing since 1981. DragonLance as a game did do one thing: give a mechanism to track the good/evil axis of the character by their deeds... but no one I know was using DLA until the 90's.
The most important thing to remember about the actual "old school era" is that there was no unifying internet communications... different groups played in different ways, many without recourse even to the articles in Dragon.
I would like to highlight a point that I made an effort to include in what you quoted:
I agree that there are antithetical elements to S&S present before Dragonlance. However, I would say that in terms of overall trends, that Dragonlance (and possibly Ravenloft*) turned D&D with greater force towards heroic fantasy. I also don't think it's exactly a coincidence that OSR points to Dragonlance as "the beginning of the end" for Old School play in their revisionist historiographical narrative.
Obviously, the OSR community's retrospective vision of the hobby's past is not universally true. However, it did undeniably resonate with an audience, who may or may not have even been playing during such time. One article within the past year even noted the way in which OSR actually diverges in play from "Gygaxian" or other older forms of play.

I never got an S&S vibe from BX. I got a medieval super-heroes vibe. Even in 1981. Especially given Tolkien's Orcs were a real and present danger. and D&D/AD&D Orcs were only a minor threat.
However, I'm talking of games derived from B/X in the OSR movement rather than B/X itself.
 

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