Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

Yora

Legend
There has been a sort of "Sword & Sorcery Revival Movement" for a couple of years now, but mostly among fans with little getting actually published in that regard.

How is Sword & Sorcery less fitting for our current world?
 

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Dioltach

Legend
Right now I'm reading an anthology called Swords & Dark Magic, eds Jonathan Strakhan & Lou Anders (dedicated to Howard, Leiber and Moorcock), with stories by Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, Gene Wolfe, James Enge, C.J. Cherryh, K.J. Parker, Garth Nix, Michael Moorcock, Tim Lebbon, Robert Silverberg, Greg Keyes, Michael Shea, Scott Lynch, Tanith Lee, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Bill Willingham and Joe Abercrombie.

Although some of the stories stretch up the definition of S&S, and some are better than others, it's well worth a read to get an idea of where S&S is at right now.
 



MGibster

Legend
Poking around a little, and while looking for newly published S&S stuff, I saw that Amazon classifies both the Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time books as S&S?
I think genres exist in part to make it easier for publishers to market their books. I can find Stephen King's Dark Tower series in the horror section of most bookstores but isn't it a fantasy? If The Tommy Knockers or The Running Man had been written by someone other than King/Bachman the odds are good you'd find them in the science fiction section today. I don't mean to suggest that genre classifications are useless. And there's always going to be some edge cases that are difficult to classify. But we should take them with a grain of salt at times.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
To me, the defining aspect of Sword & Sorcery stories is their personal nature - the stories are small and local. I argue that I've never run anything BUT Sword & Sorcery adventures ever since I started playing D&D back in '95 or so.

Early in 5e, Sasquatch Game Studio produced the Primeval Thule Campaign Setting, which is most excellent and helps answer many of the "how to" questions about Sword & Sorcery games, especially from a 5e perspective.

 

Yora

Legend
While I really do appreciate everyone's participation in this topic, I hope that we can keep the discussion on how to create and run fantasy RPG adventures that evoke the feel of Sword & Sorcery.
There have been many discussions about running Sword & Sorcery campaigns over the years, and they always devolved into the same discussion on how to define Sword & Sorcery. Which always comes down to exactly the same points everyone has always been making for the last decades. If anyone has new revelations to share about that, it's a discussion for a different topic. I think for the purpose of this thread, an elephant definition is sufficient: "It's really hard to describe, but I know it when I see it."

Or the specific definition of the man who introduced the term: "Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock, yes. Tolkien, no."
For me part of it is about telling the story of characters making their way through a dangerous world. Even if they're not particularly goal oriented themselves, the nature of the environment means that 'adventure' will eventually come their way.
While this is true, the challenge for the GM is how to make that eventually be in next week when the players return to play. Sword & Sorcery is generally not concerned with longer ongoing stories and happy to skip straight ahead to the moment that something interesting happens. Ideally, you get into the action within 5 minutes of play. But with the PCs being the masters of their own fates, and proactive initative by the players being desired, I think this is a point where the media of roleplaying and writing lead to different demands. The circumstances under which the PCs end up in an adventure can be skipped in a story, but are important parts of play.

Similarly, someting I have planned for my next campaign, is to strictly track the time of the campaign and the money of the PCs. These are things that are irrelevant in stories and are therefore ignored, and those Sword & Sorcery games that have something to say about this usually go "eh, say some time has passed and everyone is broke at the start of a new adventure". But I think the PCs handling their money and other resources might actually be useful to make part of the game. A story writer can just say the the hero lost and wasted anything and accepts a job because he needs money. But I think this might take too much agency from the players. It they are broke and have to make money quickly, it should be the consequence of something the players did, not something that is arbitrarily forced upon them. Because then theh can also play their characters in a way that makes them plan ahead for when their money runs out and go searching for well paying work themselves before they get broke. This avoids the situation where players have to take the one job the GM offers them now because at this point they have no more option to keep looking.
It also increases the value of treasure. If players expect that all their money will be taken away from them soon, then there is little incentive to go looking for gold, and take extra risks for extra gold.
Though instead of tracking the buying of a roasted chicken or mugnof beer, I would very much recommend just doing a weekly or monthly upkeep, based on the standard of living of the PCs. I think finding that they can't afford the luxuries they enjoyed after their last three hauls for much longer might be a big motivator. Not every PCs has to be like Conan and be happy with a bed of moss and a cloak for a blanket.
(Tracking time is important to determine how fast money runs out.)
Though of course, all of this goes very much against the conventional wisdom for Sword & Sorcery campaigns, so I am really curious about any strong counter-arguments anyone might have.
 

MGibster

Legend
While this is true, the challenge for the GM is how to make that eventually be in next week when the players return to play. Sword & Sorcery is generally not concerned with longer ongoing stories and happy to skip straight ahead to the moment that something interesting happens.
For my hypothetical Conan campaign, I told the players not too get to attached to their wealth or items. In one session a PC might be the general of a large army in Corinthia and in the next might be near penniless on the back of a dying horse (with no name) trekking across the desert in Shem.

I described my campaign idea by comparing it to the old 60s western television show Rawhide. In Rawhide, our cowboys were driving cattle to a location to be sold in Sedalia (season 1). But along the way they often had adventures which had than a tenuous relationship to their main goal of getting to Sedalia. So while the PCs all want to find this sorceress, they've got to eat in the meanwhile and search for clues as to her location. It turns out that finding a centuries old shapeshifting sorcerer is no easy task.

The nice thing about this episodic format is that you can pretty much do whatever type of adventure you want. You could even have recurring characters appear from time to time, perhaps a merchant who sometimes helps and sometimes complicates the PC's lives?

But I think the PCs handling their money and other resources might actually be useful to make part of the game. A story writer can just say the the hero lost and wasted anything and accepts a job because he needs money. But I think this might take too much agency from the players. It they are broke and have to make money quickly, it should be the consequence of something the players did, not something that is arbitrarily forced upon them.

I think the best thing to do is to talk to them about expectations. Like I said earlier, when I talked to my players I explained how wealth would work. Don't get attached to it because wealth accumulation as they've experienced in D&D isn't really a thing here. But in Modiphius' Conan, the PCs carouse which includes all the activities they engage in between adventures. This would include things like partying like it's 1999, upkeep on their equipment, meeting a patron, gambling, finding rumors, engaging in a trade, healing, cultivate their reputation (party like its 1999 but with other people), etc., etc. This can bleed some of the gold from their coffers and gives them a choice of what to do next. There's even some special events that might occur that can come into play during the next adventure.

Though instead of tracking the buying of a roasted chicken or mugnof beer, I would very much recommend just doing a weekly or monthly upkeep, based on the standard of living of the PCs. I think finding that they can't afford the luxuries they enjoyed after their last three hauls for much longer might be a big motivator. Not every PCs has to be like Conan and be happy with a bed of moss and a cloak for a blanket.
When Conan had the coin he lived high on the hog. When he was destitute he didn't complain, he just rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

(Tracking time is important to determine how fast money runs out.)
Though of course, all of this goes very much against the conventional wisdom for Sword & Sorcery campaigns, so I am really curious about any strong counter-arguments anyone might have.
I don't want to track time too closely because that sounds boring.
 

pemerton

Legend
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 baass 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?
While I really do appreciate everyone's participation in this topic, I hope that we can keep the discussion on how to create and run fantasy RPG adventures that evoke the feel of Sword & Sorcery.
My advice, based a little bit on personal experience, would be to drop the GM creates an adventure and instead to focus on the PCs have their own stakes in whatever is going on. I would look for a system that gives the PCs fairly clear needs (eg a wealth/resources rating that is under constant pressure) and gives the players fairly straightforward ways to get involved and make things happen.

I've used Burning Wheel for RPGing with a bit of a S&S feel. I've also used AD&D, but I think it's a bit less well-suited, because it doesn't give the players quite so many levers. But in both cases my approach was to focus on situation, and then following the players' lead.

Sword & Sorcery is generally not concerned with longer ongoing stories and happy to skip straight ahead to the moment that something interesting happens. Ideally, you get into the action within 5 minutes of play. But with the PCs being the masters of their own fates, and proactive initative by the players being desired, I think this is a point where the media of roleplaying and writing lead to different demands. The circumstances under which the PCs end up in an adventure can be skipped in a story, but are important parts of play.

Similarly, someting I have planned for my next campaign, is to strictly track the time of the campaign and the money of the PCs. These are things that are irrelevant in stories and are therefore ignored, and those Sword & Sorcery games that have something to say about this usually go "eh, say some time has passed and everyone is broke at the start of a new adventure". But I think the PCs handling their money and other resources might actually be useful to make part of the game. A story writer can just say the the hero lost and wasted anything and accepts a job because he needs money. But I think this might take too much agency from the players. It they are broke and have to make money quickly, it should be the consequence of something the players did, not something that is arbitrarily forced upon them. Because then they can also play their characters in a way that makes them plan ahead for when their money runs out and go searching for well paying work themselves before they get broke. This avoids the situation where players have to take the one job the GM offers them now because at this point they have no more option to keep looking.
My own view, and experience, is that the things you are proposing here - spending time at the table on the circumstances leading to adventure, on keeping track of the passage of time, and on keeping detailed track of money - are apt to produce play that does not feel very S&S-ish.

Taking away the PCs money is not "taking agency from the players" unless we accept, as a premise, that what is important to play is managing the PCs' money. But why would we accept that premise in a S&S game? To drive the game you need the PCs (and thereby the players) to have the rights sorts of needs, and the need for money is a straightforward one. Social dynamics are also important in at least some S&S (ie REH Conan, which is the S&S I personally know best).

The way to avoid the situation where the players have to take the one job the GM offers them is not to bring it about that the PCs don't need cash (or don't need to escape this city right here, right now) but to allow the players to exercise genuine agency over how they respond to the situation that sets their PCs into motion. If the players need to leave town, they get to declare a check to board a departing vessel at the docks (a la Queen of the Black Coast) or to declare a check to sneak out hidden under their cloaks (I think something like this happens in The Hour of the Dragon, doesn't it?) or to establish a meeting with a friendly magician who will conjure a flying steed for them (The Scarlet Citadel). This is why I think a system like BW is strong for S&S, but you could try and adapt D&D in this sort of direction - use Streetwise checks, or the Contacts mechanic from Yakuza in the original OA; use Knowledge checks; etc.

I think what will shut down a S&S feel is a sense that the players have to find out what the GM has in mind for their PCs to do. This gives the game a detective-story feel, not a S&S one.
 

Yora

Legend
I really like the approach of looking at things from the perspective of the PCs' needs. If they have needs, you can both threaten them and tempt them, without sending them down any specific past.
But I think this is probably where Sword & Sorcery becomes a difficult style for RPGs. Generally speaking, protagonists in Sword & Sorcery are portrayed to not really have any needs. No superiors to please, no homes to protect. And if money becomes meaningless because it will simply evaporate once you get it, there's not even a real need for that.
What do the characters need?
 

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