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Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

CapnZapp

Legend
I think what people really mean by it is "there should be a theoretical possibility that not everyone always survives if the group picks stupidly dangerous fights".
Victory over everythig not being a given is not actually a standard for all games.
Well, with that definition every game fits, since it's just a matter of defining "stupidly dangerous".

The point is instead that we can put every ttrpg into one out of three categories:

On one hand we have games where combat is intended to be avoidable, and where ending up in combat can kill you (and by the laws of mathematical averages, actually will kill you if you don't avoid enough combats). This isn't quite a theoretical category, but it is by far the smallest and least popular one. I am only vaguely familiar with these games since I don't play them.

On the other hand we have games focused on combat, and combat-as-sport specifically. Whatever you or WotC may say about "equal pillars", the game is really all about combat, and upgrading your character to have fun doing combat. Avoiding combat is mostly just losing out on adventure.

Then we have the middle category, which I could derisively call "people who are bad at math". Games that purport to belong to the first category, but mathematical analysis proves they really belong to the latter. You might not have levels and hit points, but you have enough defensive reactions and action points and what not that in practice you still aren't dying. Personally I don't have time for games that try to hide the real probabilities behind nonsense like dice pools and convoluted multi-step procedures, but that might just be me being baseline proficient in maths.

But let me take a (likely) obscure example: the Swedish-language Samuraj game. As you might guess it's a game set in feudal Japan. What might surprise you is that it uses a pretty standard fantasy game engine (in the simplest terms, it's Basic Role-Playing), which is exceedingly lethal. Attacks hit a specified body part. You maybe have 4 hit points in each of those. But weapons still deal basically the same damage as in D&D - so a sword deals 1D8 damage, for instance. Ouch. If we disregard dodging and armor it's easy to see that this is a combat-as-war game. So it's all down to specific adventure scenarios.

Some work (almost regardless of your "level" you will die to an entire rabble of bandits, but if as soon as you cut the head bandit in half every one else flees, congrats, we have a writer that understands math) and some don't (if you're expected to have your standard half-dozen fights as you infiltrate the evil castle, as if you were having this scenario in yer bog standard D&D game, we have a writer that is completely oblivious to math).

Something like that. Anyway, we're off topic.
 

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Aldarc

Legend
To be sure, just because I have said upthread D&D5 is a surprisingly good basis for S&S (with the implication that many other iterations aren't, simply because they're too fiddly and detail-oriented) doesn't mean I am also saying [insert other game here] is bad at S&S.

I would like to go to the lengths of suggesting the argument D&D5 is possibly better at S&S than actual D&D has at least some merit. (What makes D&D5 too unnuanced and un-crunchy for many players is exactly what makes it a great foundation for S&S)

Cheers
Keeping the bold in mind, Worlds Without Number - which Keven Crawford built on B/X - is probably one of the better D&D-adjacent games for S&S as of late. It's setting is mostly dying earth and weird science fantasy, but it does pretty well with capturing a lot of the S&S feel. I suspect that Rob Schwalb's currently-in-playtest Tales of the Weird Wizard will as well.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I would like to go to the lengths of suggesting the argument D&D5 is possibly better at S&S than actual D&D has at least some merit. (What makes D&D5 too unnuanced and un-crunchy for many players is exactly what makes it a great foundation for S&S)
What is actual D&D in this context?
 



(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?

My approach to this has always been a little old fashioned I think. I just read a conan story and get an adventure idea from it. To me, rather than coming up with a list of things that need to be present, I just immerse myself in that kind of material, and draw on it for adventure and situation ideas.
 


CapnZapp

Legend
S&S combat, in RPGing, isn't necessarily just about degree of dangerousness. It might also be about how it plays out - eg as a player I might want to experience the flashing blades, pantherish dodges and straining thews.
Absolutely.

I would love a game where your swing details make important mechanical sense.

Since this likely slows down combat you can afford to have fewer and smaller combats, to really put the emphasis on how close to death you really are. Maybe not transforming the experience from combat as sport to combat as war, but asking players to REALLY be discerning with the fights they pick.

However I haven't found any such games.

Blades of the Iron Throne (I think it's called) was a total bust, when we realized there was not even a cursory attempt to make a balanced game out of it. Sure you had lots of details determining what happened when weapon A met body part B but there was no notion of offering equal choices. The game was non-existent.

Honestly it came across as an masturbatory aid for a GM that just wants to narrate cool fights with consistency from one fight to the other.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I would love a game where your swing details make important mechanical sense.

Since this likely slows down combat you can afford to have fewer and smaller combats,
to really put the emphasis on how close to death you really are. Maybe not transforming the experience from combat as sport to combat as war, but asking players to REALLY be discerning with the fights they pick.

However I haven't found any such games.
4e D&D:
Cant Speak Nathan Fillion GIF
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Sorry tried it found it unplayable. Either the fight was of manageable size, and then it was trivial to win for the players, or the fight was actually challenging, and it would take all the available time with nothing left for story and roleplaying.

I don't agree with those lazily saying 4E played like a boardgame. But for us the feeling really was of playing a boardgame, since combats needed to take many hours to be tactically interesting and challenging. It matters that 4E really invites you to play it like chess, really planning each move. (Playing it hard and fast never appealed to us given all the little bonuses and modifiers).

In the end it was really fun, except sessions consisted almost exclusively of looking at a board and methodically winning a combat.

It didn't give us the balance between fighting, and talking, and fighting, and role-playing. Sure some fights in 3E or 5E take forever too (particularly at high level). 4E was doomed because EVERY fight had to be just about the only thing you did that session. Otherwise we got the feeling of a party of level 10 characters meeting three goblins. Playing out such a lopsided fight just isn't done, you simply narrate the death/capture/etc of the low-level foes and move on.

In other to have the familiar rhythm all fights would have had to be like that. Fights you don't want to waste time on because the outcome is a given.

So no Captain Reynolds, we gave it a serious try but had to drop it as basically incompatible with our D&D campaigns. Let's just say in hindsight I have never struggled to understand how the edition could fail.
 

Yora

Hero
I think Sword & Sorcery demands a combat system that is faster and with simpler rules, not one that is slower and more meticulous. You want fast action with enemies being quickly swepts aside. The swinging of swords doesn't really add anything to the story, it rather interrupt the story. What you want instead is a system that is highly flexible by being rather abstract, so that you can represent all kinds of cool things players might want to do with a small set of very simple dice rolls. Don't get bogged down with counting squares and optimizing your conditional modifiers. When a player says he wants to throw an enemy over the railing and down a well, there's no time to pull out some book to look up an obscure rule for grabbing and throwing opponents. Push heavy barrels down the stairs, swing on chandeliers, push someone's face into the forge fire. It has to feel like chaotic action, not like a cricket game lasting the whole afternon.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
I think Sword & Sorcery demands a combat system that is faster and with simpler rules, not one that is slower and more meticulous. You want fast action with enemies being quickly swepts aside. The swinging of swords doesn't really add anything to the story, it rather interrupt the story. What you want instead is a system that is highly flexible by being rather abstract, so that you can represent all kinds of cool things players might want to do with a small set of very simple dice rolls. Don't get bogged down with counting squares and optimizing your conditional modifiers. When a player says he wants to throw an enemy over the railing and down a well, there's no time to pull out some book to look up an obscure rule for grabbing and throwing opponents. Push heavy barrels down the stairs, swing on chandeliers, push someone's face into the forge fire. It has to feel like chaotic action, not like a cricket game lasting the whole afternon.
Absolutely.

However, could I suggest a possible conflation between complex games and games focused on individual swings?

I completely agree S&S deserves non complex non cluttery games.

But the allure of Blades was to conclude each duel in just a few swings, since as soon as you connect it's game over. (When hit you don't just go "minus 26 hp", you fall to the ground screaming with your entrails falling out...)

Whatever it's faults it certainly wasn't a game like, say, Pathfinder 2, with loads of modifiers and conditionals.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I think Sword & Sorcery demands a combat system that is faster and with simpler rules, not one that is slower and more meticulous. You want fast action with enemies being quickly swepts aside. The swinging of swords doesn't really add anything to the story, it rather interrupt the story. What you want instead is a system that is highly flexible by being rather abstract, so that you can represent all kinds of cool things players might want to do with a small set of very simple dice rolls. Don't get bogged down with counting squares and optimizing your conditional modifiers. When a player says he wants to throw an enemy over the railing and down a well, there's no time to pull out some book to look up an obscure rule for grabbing and throwing opponents. Push heavy barrels down the stairs, swing on chandeliers, push someone's face into the forge fire. It has to feel like chaotic action, not like a cricket game lasting the whole afternon.
This sounds more in the vein of Fate or Cortex Prime.
 

Yora

Hero
For those looking to play a gang of Lankhmar rogues, I'd absolutely recommend Blades in the Dark.

I'm still surprised that there isn't a "generic" Sword & Sorcery PtbA game. Ot seems like a perfect fit.
 

Aldarc

Legend
For those looking to play a gang of Lankhmar rogues, I'd absolutely recommend Blades in the Dark.

I'm still surprised that there isn't a "generic" Sword & Sorcery PtbA game. Ot seems like a perfect fit.
Freebooters of the Frontier and possibly Vagabonds of Dyfed.
 

pemerton

Legend
For those looking to play a gang of Lankhmar rogues, I'd absolutely recommend Blades in the Dark.

I'm still surprised that there isn't a "generic" Sword & Sorcery PtbA game. Ot seems like a perfect fit.
As well as what @Aldarc mentioned, there's @loverdrive's Swords Under the Sun.

I would love a game where your swing details make important mechanical sense.

Since this likely slows down combat you can afford to have fewer and smaller combats, to really put the emphasis on how close to death you really are. Maybe not transforming the experience from combat as sport to combat as war, but asking players to REALLY be discerning with the fights they pick.

However I haven't found any such games.
Burning Wheel. Depending on the detail that is desired, violence can be resolved as a straightforward check - intent and task - like any other; can be resolved as a single pair of opposed checks (attack and defence pools); or can be resolved via a system of detailed blind declarations, where the choice to attack, parry, feint etc matters quite a bit - there is some resemblance to RuneQuest or to The Riddle of Steel.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
As well as what @Aldarc mentioned, there's @loverdrive's Swords Under the Sun.

Burning Wheel. Depending on the detail that is desired, violence can be resolved as a straightforward check - intent and task - like any other; can be resolved as a single pair of opposed checks (attack and defence pools); or can be resolved via a system of detailed blind declarations, where the choice to attack, parry, feint etc matters quite a bit - there is some resemblance to RuneQuest or to The Riddle of Steel.
RQ does indeed offer you the possibility to declare a stance which is more involved than D&D.

But I'm talking about games where every single swing is played out.

At least that's what I thought Blades would be (not the other Blades), but it turned out there was zero effort to balance the various swings, stabs, lunges, and cautious parries against each other. You could just select a high-performance option from the tables and repeat it. To me such a game needs a clever mechanism to balance a big swing with getting overextended afterwards (and so on and so on) but that was left in the hands of the players.

A good GM could use it but you could not just give it to the players - they'd minmax the bazoo out of it instantly.

There just was no game.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm talking about games where every single swing is played out.

<snip>

To me such a game needs a clever mechanism to balance a big swing with getting overextended afterwards (and so on and so on)
Burning Wheel (with its Fight! subsystem) satisfies these two desiderata. I think that TRoS does too, but it's harder to get a copy of!
 

Yora

Hero
Last night I realized that any system for a Sword & Sorcery campaign needs a good mechanic for wrestling and such. Characters absolutely have to be able to kick people into pits or strangle them to death with their own bare hands.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Burning Wheel. Depending on the detail that is desired, violence can be resolved as a straightforward check - intent and task - like any other; can be resolved as a single pair of opposed checks (attack and defence pools); or can be resolved via a system of detailed blind declarations, where the choice to attack, parry, feint etc matters quite a bit - there is some resemblance to RuneQuest or to The Riddle of Steel.
RQ does indeed offer you the possibility to declare a stance which is more involved than D&D.

But I'm talking about games where every single swing is played out.

At least that's what I thought Blades would be (not the other Blades), but it turned out there was zero effort to balance the various swings, stabs, lunges, and cautious parries against each other. You could just select a high-performance option from the tables and repeat it. To me such a game needs a clever mechanism to balance a big swing with getting overextended afterwards (and so on and so on) but that was left in the hands of the players.

A good GM could use it but you could not just give it to the players - they'd minmax the bazoo out of it instantly.

There just was no game.
Jackals: Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying (Osprey Games), which uses a modified version of OpenQuest, could also likely work. I believe that Dungeon Musings on YouTube has several videos of him running the game.
 

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