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Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

@Dioltach didn't say that Conan doesn't change the world. He says that Conan doesn't go and try changing the world.
He didn't? He set out with a drive to avenge his parents and to become a king... For a Cimmerian to become king of Aquilonia is a HUGE change. Any of the "civilized" kingdoms having a Cimmerian on the throne is a big change to the politics.
Conan also being a softie, he is constantly deciding to help people beyond what he's paid for.
Conan, despite being the vision of S&S for the masses who are not bibliophiles, is really an edge case. He has a destiny.

Then again, Conan wasn't afraid to use a wizard when he needed one, either. He just tried to not need one...

In no small irony, Conan is often the most civil character in the story... and he's the barbarian.

For me, the key tropes of S&S are:
  • Magic is slow but potentially powerful; the longer the ritual and the more narrow the ritual window, the more powerful.
  • Skill at arms trumps magic in the short term; skill at magic trumps war in the long term.
  • Many magics are gained from demonic pacts, rather than innate abilities or personal learned skill.
  • No matter how good the haul, you'll be broke before the next job.
  • Skill at arms is a dangerous profession...
  • Most are mildly xenophobic, a large minority are majorly xenophobic.
  • Protagonists often have friends in other cultures and odd places.
 

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Argyle King

Legend
For Conan in particular, there are also elements of Howard trying to explore what it means to be "civilized."

Despite Conan being viewed as a savage and a barbarian, there are times when he is arguably far more virtuous than people who claim to be morally superior and civilized. I mean, yeah, Conan is hacking people to bits, drinking, and womanizing, but his approach to life is arguably more straightforward and honest than scheming politicians, poisoners, and so on.

I'm not sure if that's a personal battle (which tends to be something that a lot of S&S contains) or if it's more of a personal view of Howard's coming through in his work.



Is anyone else familiar with Thundarr the Barbarian?
 

Aldarc

Legend
He didn't? He set out with a drive to avenge his parents and to become a king... For a Cimmerian to become king of Aquilonia is a HUGE change. Any of the "civilized" kingdoms having a Cimmerian on the throne is a big change to the politics.
I strongly suspect that you are misunderstanding and quibbling about what was likely meant by setting out to make change.
 


Yora

Legend
For Conan in particular, there are also elements of Howard trying to explore what it means to be "civilized."

Despite Conan being viewed as a savage and a barbarian, there are times when he is arguably far more virtuous than people who claim to be morally superior and civilized. I mean, yeah, Conan is hacking people to bits, drinking, and womanizing, but his approach to life is arguably more straightforward and honest than scheming politicians, poisoners, and so on.

I'm not sure if that's a personal battle (which tends to be something that a lot of S&S contains) or if it's more of a personal view of Howard's coming through in his work.
I believe an important bit that often gets unnoticed, is that Howard sees both types of societies as deeply flawed and full of problems. He was a huge history nerd, and if I am not mixing up my sources, saw the fall of the ancient civilzations as great tragedies. He loves great civilizations, or at least the idea of them, but unlike many of his contemporaries was under no illusions that this time it is different and Western Civilization has won the struggle forever. Would have been fascinating what he would have thought of the nuclear arms race.
He describes barbarism as the natural state of human society, to which civilizations are temporary aberrations. But that doesn't make barbarism better, or even desirable.
Now I could be absolutely wrong and completely mix up different people, but I think Howard even said somewhere that he probably wouldn't be doing well in a barbaric society. Conan is not a role model, but a fanciful fantasy.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
Phllip Emery writes about the motifs of sword & sorcery, instead of plot elements. This is a better and more useful way of thinking about the genre.
  1. Sword-&-sorcery is intense. All else is subjugated to this effect
  2. Sword-&-sorcery is potentially amoral
  3. Sword-&-sorcery is the combination of violence and the numinous: a double-helix of violences which entwine around intensity
  4. Sword-&-sorcery eschews explicit development of milieu or character or concept
  5. Sword-&-sorcery is generally naturally a short story form
  6. Sword-&-sorcery contains an element of deathwish in its sensibility
  7. Sword-&-sorcery has a Chthonic sensibility
  8. Sword-&-sorcery has a potential element of tragedy in its sensibility
  9. Sword-&-sorcery combines explicit and implicit horror
  10. The Sword-&-sorcery protagonist is a loner – a figure apart or other
  11. Sword-&-sorcery addresses the irrational through the very fact of its connection with the numinous effect
  12. Sword-&-sorcery is about power
  13. Sword-&-sorcery is highly ‘visual’ (either through the presence or the absence of the visual).
This list is taken from an interview with Emery on Black Gate magazine:
 

pemerton

Legend
Can't we get a long way by saying that, in S&S the protagonists leads rather than being led. So if things go wrong, it's on them - they're not victims of fate or "larger forces". And if things go right, it's because of the choices they made.

That's not perfect - there's still the role of the phoenix on the sword in The Phoenix on the Sword - but it's a start to trying to identify the contrast with LotR or even Earthsea.

In the context of RPGing I'm always an advocate of player-driven rather than GM-driven play, but I think S&S even moreso demands this sort of approach.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Phllip Emery writes about the motifs of sword & sorcery, instead of plot elements. This is a better and more useful way of thinking about the genre.
  1. Sword-&-sorcery is intense. All else is subjugated to this effect
  2. Sword-&-sorcery is potentially amoral
  3. Sword-&-sorcery is the combination of violence and the numinous: a double-helix of violences which entwine around intensity
  4. Sword-&-sorcery eschews explicit development of milieu or character or concept
  5. Sword-&-sorcery is generally naturally a short story form
  6. Sword-&-sorcery contains an element of deathwish in its sensibility
  7. Sword-&-sorcery has a Chthonic sensibility
  8. Sword-&-sorcery has a potential element of tragedy in its sensibility
  9. Sword-&-sorcery combines explicit and implicit horror
  10. The Sword-&-sorcery protagonist is a loner – a figure apart or other
  11. Sword-&-sorcery addresses the irrational through the very fact of its connection with the numinous effect
  12. Sword-&-sorcery is about power
  13. Sword-&-sorcery is highly ‘visual’ (either through the presence or the absence of the visual).
This list is taken from an interview with Emery on Black Gate magazine:
Good post!
 

CapnZapp

Legend
This line thou

"Sword-&-sorcery is the combination of violence and the numinous: a double-helix of violences which entwine around intensity"

👀

"Luckily", he goes on to explain:

the double-helix mentioned refers to characterizing REH’s way of depicting violence into physical violence or kinetic violence, emotional or potential violence (the berserker rage his protagonists tend to experience conflates the kinetic and the emotional), and stylistic violence, in respect of Howard simply the power of his prose or poetry. The second strand of the helix refers to the ideas of the theologian Rudolph Otto, who broke the effect of the numinous into three components, which he collectively names the ‘mysterium tremendum’, these being ‘overpoweringness’, ‘energy’ or ‘urgency’, and ‘awefulness’ or ‘unapproachability’.
 
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Aldarc

Legend
Phllip Emery writes about the motifs of sword & sorcery, instead of plot elements. This is a better and more useful way of thinking about the genre.
  1. Sword-&-sorcery is intense. All else is subjugated to this effect
  2. Sword-&-sorcery is potentially amoral
  3. Sword-&-sorcery is the combination of violence and the numinous: a double-helix of violences which entwine around intensity
  4. Sword-&-sorcery eschews explicit development of milieu or character or concept
  5. Sword-&-sorcery is generally naturally a short story form
  6. Sword-&-sorcery contains an element of deathwish in its sensibility
  7. Sword-&-sorcery has a Chthonic sensibility
  8. Sword-&-sorcery has a potential element of tragedy in its sensibility
  9. Sword-&-sorcery combines explicit and implicit horror
  10. The Sword-&-sorcery protagonist is a loner – a figure apart or other
  11. Sword-&-sorcery addresses the irrational through the very fact of its connection with the numinous effect
  12. Sword-&-sorcery is about power
  13. Sword-&-sorcery is highly ‘visual’ (either through the presence or the absence of the visual).
This list is taken from an interview with Emery on Black Gate magazine:
I would wager that #10 is one of the biggest hurdles of trope play for a largely group-oriented hobby.
 




Yora

Legend
I don't think he ever was really alone in any adventure. I can't recall very story on the top of my head right now, but I can't imagine Howard's style without Conan having anyone to talk and explain himself to.
(Now that I think of it, it's an interesting method to let your protagonist do a majority of the exposition.)
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
PCs don't have to be loners, they just need to be outsiders. No emotional ties to the adventure's setting, and a sense of the strange and alien.

The "loner" motif seems like it would be a problem, but @Dioltach suggestion that it is the "outsider" quality of the protagonists that applies to a group as much as a loner.

The Conan movies effectively have a party. The stories he has companions at times.
Companions who almost always die or leave, or we simply never see again. In the Arnie films, one companion dies, one betrays, not a great record. Elric is even worse for this, whose companions are as doomed as a Spinal Tap drummer.
 

BoxCrayonTales

Adventurer
Did you mention Planetary Romance and Sword & Planet genres yet? Those are two genres that it is hard to distinguish from one another, and they're basically the scifi equivalent of Sword & Sorcery.
 



CapnZapp

Legend
A valuable aspect of D&D-style roleplaying is building up your character. (Mechanically that is, as opposed to roleplaying an naughty word getting better at interacting with humans)

So for me one challenge with the S&S style, many of whose components I love, is how to retain this without compromising the S&S-iness (sassiness?) too much.

Bringing this up because of the group vs lone hero discussion. Yes, S&S is definitely one of the lone hero genres. But no, that needs to be shucked out the window immediately assuming you're playing with more than one character. (For a oneoff I guess having one player play the main character and everybody else play an expendable supporting character, but now I'm talking a regular rpg campaign)

I'm thinking along the lines of...

...instead of making players deck out their characters in magical trinkets and other loot, you need a system whereby a character can "absorb" the loot and convert it into intrinsic character abilities. Remember, the reason the D&D game allows +1 swords is because it is fun to be given the power to customize your character build yourself, as opposed to just picking between the choices the class designer allows you.

...instead of investing in traditional D&D-style fantasy downtime activities such as building your wizard tower or donating to the local orphanage, you want to give your players direct and clear motivations to act mercenary and greedy like "real" S&S heroes. In real life an endless supply of wine, women and song would be plenty motivation for many, but in a game that just doesn't cut it.

You probably could do well introducing a Reputation score to whatever game you're using, so players have something to spend that gold on that gives tangible in-game benefits - opening doors as it were, making NPCs react with ever-greater respect and fear, and so on.

Of course you might argue that for D&D "level" is an excellent measure of your awesomeness and overall success as a hero. From this point of view, that would just mean you have added a gold for xp scheme, even if limited to "gold for social xp".

Which brings me back to my point: D&D has for a long time (all the way back to 2000) offered the PERFECT motivator for the mercenary behavior we love in our S&S heroes: being able to purchase magic items.

But S&S heroes don't keep material wealth. They lose gold and items just as fast as they gain them, whether it's magical swords or entire kingdoms.

D&D more or less assumes that once you have acquired a magical item, it will never go away, unless you voluntarily get rid of it, perhaps upgrading it for something better. But this doesn't fly in S&S.

For me the solution would be a way to internalize the otherwise external benefits. Instead of you looting a +1 sword, your adventures have made you master new sword-fighting techniques, giving you +1 with the regular rusty sword you're using.

Skill, not loot. Loot can be taken away. Skill and experience can't. It just grows and grows.

Which is exactly the train you need and want in an ongoing campaign where you use a D&D-like game for your S&S adventures.

---

This would probably never work if the magic items we are aiming to replace were the standard D&D catalog of items. But in S&S it is not. Being suddenly able to shoot Fireballs might sound strange and wonky, except you don't loot Necklaces of Fireball in S&S.

Purchasing +1 swords on the other hand, and interpreting that as you learning to kill better with your sword, is.

So my idea would be that your S&S hero could spend (say) 1,000 gold to improve his melee fighting skill by +1

This assumes that in your preferred taste of D&D (or Pathfinder etc), 1,000 gp is what a +1 sword or axe costs. You probably don't want to force the player to specify a specific group of weapons (far too many D&D games feature players that drop magic weapons like hot turds simply because they have specialized in axes and this is a magical hammer; even with the hammer's magic, it's still better for them to use axes) even though this would represent a straight upgrade.

You would rely on your players' ability to distinguish between items that fit S&S tropes and items that aren't suitable for the genre. (Hint: don't play with someone who insists that it "makes sense" for his character to learn the equivalence to Boots of Flying...)

For many play groups magic items is pretty much the ONLY motivation for caring about gold at all once past the first level or two (where you are still so poor that you might need money for basic needs like a horse or food or a suit of armor).

In a game of S&S, where players find that money runs between their fingers like sand, it would be nigh impossible to ask them to risk their lives for gold like true S&S heroes. Unless your roleplay with real wine, women and song, the celebratory night of revelry is a one-minute summary before the adventures move on, and that just doesn't cut it.

And why would you? D&D has this great framework of character customization that is HIGHLY motivating players to venture forth, so why would you not want to use it? Both in general, but here specifically when you actively encourage mercenary behavior?!
 

Yora

Legend
You probably could do well introducing a Reputation score to whatever game you're using, so players have something to spend that gold on that gives tangible in-game benefits - opening doors as it were, making NPCs react with ever-greater respect and fear, and so on.
Worlds Without Number has an interesting mechanic for this. And I believe it's completely independent of all other mechanics, so it could easily be dropped into any other games.

I am one of those people who, in their later years of their 30s, found that there's actually something to the idea that OD&D makes for a great Sword & Sorcery game. Precisely because there are so few rules and characters barely have any abilities.
Anything that doesn't have a specific mechanic restricted to special classes or character upgrades becomes something that everyone can do. A fighter who only gets hit points, saving throws, and attack bonus and nothing else actually becomes very flexible and versatile. It makes freeform playing the default mode, with mechanics for PC actions being restricted to a few special cases, like making attacks and casting spells.
 

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