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Discussing Sword & Sorcery and RPGs

Dioltach

Legend
Some of the positives of S&S, in my experience, are:

Its short form: ideally, each adventure should be one session. This keeps the goals clear, and allows you to try a variety of scenarios, monsters and challenges without bogging down in a protracted campaign that could easily become stale or confusing, and that demand more effort from the DM and more attention from the players.

Its lack of moral philosophising: anyone who stands in the PCs' way is fair game - and is probably evil anyway. Along with clear goals, this means that the road towards achieving those goals is also uncomplicated.

Its cinematic quality: the villains are over-the-top, and accordingly the PCs are meant to be action heroes. The DM should encourage them to act swiftly and do cool stuff. Attacking first in combat should mean killing one or two mooks there and then. Sneaking around should take the PCs past secret meetings, strange sacrifices or at the very least startling a damsel (M/F) who could scream and give them away.
 

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One of the biggest positives, at least for me, is it is probably the most gameable genre for me next to gangster genres or horror. I find anytime I read classic Conan or anything in that vein, but Conan in particular, I get adventure ideas very quickly. And the way that it inspires me isn't "I want to repeat what's on the page" or "I want to base an adventure on this" it is more like it jumps starts my thinking and the kernels in the story become fodder for making something larger that works in a fantasy RPG.

Also another positive is a lot of sword and sorcery isn't just in movies, it is in music too. There is a lot of S&S inspired heavy metal. Often I have the same kind of experience listening to something like a Dio song as I do reading Howard (though Dio isn't just S&S
 

Dioltach

Legend
In short, no S&S probably can't be saved. Much better you move on and leave the wreck for us poor people that doesn't know better than to like objectively distasteful material...!
S&S is experiencing a resurgence. Maybe not on a large scale, but there are quite a few authors out there writing modern S&S. Try some anthologies such as Swords & Dark Magic (mentioned above), The Book of Swords and The Book of Magic (both edited by Gardner Dozois), and Rogues (edited by Dozois and GRRM) some of the stories in Shawn Speakman's Unfettered and Unbound anthologies. For longer works, there are the Witcher novels, novellas and graphic novels, Douglas Hulick's Tales of the Kin, and even The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
 
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Aldarc

Legend
Thanks, but remember, my underlying impetus is to force us to confront the possibility it isn't S&S we really like.

Another way of saying this is that it can be easy to just crap all over what we don't like about S&S. But what is the alternative?

I have a hunch a lot of S&S' detractors can't define a genre that remains unmistakably S&S if they remove everything they profess to dislike.

But if they can't, isn't it better they realize it isn't S&S they like, and so go play in another genre?

Or at the very least admit to themselves they're not really into it for the constructive criticism. They just want to stop others from playing in a way they perceive as badwrongfun.

What I get frustrated by are people that simultaneously can't define the genre, can't explain what's left after everything bad has been cleaned out, yet give themselves permission to criticize what others like...

In short, no S&S probably can't be saved. Much better you move on and leave the wreck for us poor people that doesn't know better than to like objectively distasteful material...!

Saying I'm a S&S fan except... [insert pretty much everything that makes S&S recognizable and distinct here]... as if that's an useful take is what I see repeated over and over, and it is exhausting.

I offer a different take. Actually confessing S&S ---as it exists in the zeitgeist, not some theoretical ideal version--- has its allure seems to be an almost unique take around here... But how else did y'all become a fan of the genre!?!
I think that your pontification here is misplaced as it seems to fall into the fallacious trap of equating "criticsm" with "dislike" and "critical fans" with "detractors" and/or "haters."
 

Yora

Legend
S&S is experiencing a resurgence. Maybe not on a large scale, but there are quite a few authors out there writing modern S&S. Try some anthologies such as Swords & Dark Magic (mentioned above), The Book of Swords and The Book of Magic (both edited by Gardner Dozois), and Rogues (edited by Dozois and GRRM) some of the stories in Shawn Speakman's Unfettered and Unbound anthologies. For longer works, there are the Witcher novels, novellas and graphic novels, Douglas Hulick's Tales of the Kin, and even The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.
I'd also argue that Conan is having a pretty decent boom again, lately. Got another rules system released recently, and a survival online-game that seems to be quite well regarded.
 

ART!

Hero
I'd also argue that Conan is having a pretty decent boom again, lately. Got another rules system released recently, and a survival online-game that seems to be quite well regarded.
And he's part of the Marvel Comics universe again, including being part of Savage Avengers.
 

Yora

Legend
Sword & Sorcery is fun because it's sincere. It's a style of adventure fiction that is done with apologizing for anything and defending itself against detractors. When people create works as Sword & Sorcery, they don't care if it may be seen as dorky, juvenile, unrefined, or sloppy. Even at it's dumbest and cheapest, I never got an impression that the creators don't believe that this is really the coolest and funniest naughty word.
The appeal of Sword & Sorcery is in having fun with stuff you're not supposed to, because it is considered improper.

You want beefcakes strangling giant gorillas with their bare hands? Do it!
Evil sorcerers with huge pointy collars on their capes and goatees? Do it!
Tiddies? Do it!
Fighting dragons on the spire of a burning castle during a thunderstorm? Do it!

Sword & Sorcery refuses to participate in the circus of trying to get accepted by critics and popular with the masses. If only a small group of people enjoy this stuff, then so be it. Make awesome fun stuff for those people, instead of making something for the masses that you no longer enjoy yourself.
Like punk and aspects of queer culture, Sword & Sorcery is crass and vulgar, because it's done with pleasing others and celebrating what it considers fun.

One of the most striking things about Sword & Sorcery to me is that it's radically egalitarian. The societies in which the characters live tend to be particularly cruel and oppressive compared to other fantasy worlds, but that's for providing a backdrop that highlights their acts of defiance to comply. A Sword & Sorcery hero can be anyone and anything, come from any background, and be of any appearance. Because just by virtue of being a protagonist in this kind of stories in this kind of worlds, their very existence is considered offensive to society.
Maybe they could change to fit in, but because they have power, they don't have to. And they chose to let the unfair world come at them rather than submit to it. Haters gonna hate. And if they don't get out of the hero's face, someone's gonna get slapped stabbed!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think that your pontification here is misplaced as it seems to fall into the fallacious trap of equating "criticsm" with "dislike" and "critical fans" with "detractors" and/or "haters."

To make an analogy:

A person likes cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is often defined in relation to HP Lovecraft.

One thing about HP Lovecraft is that not only was he racist, but that is pretty evident in some of his writings (Horror at Red Hook).

That said, the racism (and the transgressions of the racism) isn't what defines cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian horror. It's possible to discuss and enjoy something not because of the ways it has aged poorly, but in spite of the ways in which it has aged poorly.

I know CapnZapp didn't mean it in that way, which is why I was prodding him a little. The distilled awesomeness of the best S&S stories remain, despite aspects not being fully modern; something we should expect from stories written some time ago.
 

pemerton

Legend
I offer a different take. Actually confessing S&S ---as it exists in the zeitgeist, not some theoretical ideal version--- has its allure seems to be an almost unique take around here... But how else did y'all become a fan of the genre!?!
I don't think sex is essential to S&S. Again using REH as my reference point, it's there in some of the stories, but not others.

Tower of the Elephant, The God in the Bowl, The Phoenix on the Sword The Scarlet Citadel - classic stories in which sex doesn't really figure.

The People of the Black Circle - a classic story in which sex does figure.

Queen of the Black Coast - a classic story, sex drives it, but I have some trouble getting past the racism.

Xuthal of the Dark - a bit more by-the-numbers and sex is fairly central.

Vale of Lost Women - a pretty terrible story and as well as gratuitous sex there's gratuitous racism also.

When it comes to S&S RPGing, I think there's plenty to pick up on and emulate and be inspired by in that first bundle of stories without being obliged to include the "the ancient mysteries, and the exotic ways of pleasure" found in Xuthal of the Dark!

Conversely, for the incorporation of sex and sexuality into S&S RPGing, I would suggest VIncent Baker's In A Wicked Age as one way to do it, because it mediates the introduction of the material via an external process (ie drawing playing cards to read the game's "oracles" (ie lists of plot elements) that then suggest protagonists, antagonists and relationships) rather than just inviting the participants to spontaneously give voice to the more lurid end of their sexual imagination!
 

Yora

Legend
How come it's always only Sword & Sorcery that is asked to justify itself?

I never see any such objections against Grimdark. Grimdark is always allowed to pass with "It's not really my kind of fantasy". Even Game of Thrones is worse than all Sword & Sorcery I've ever seen, and that one's everyone's darling. (Until they lost the plot in the last third.)
 

reelo

Adventurer
Put another way, if you start with the premise that S&S is only about unpuritan roleplaying (your words), it might seem that you're alienating a potentially large playing base.

Offense is taken, not given!
Death Metal music isn't "for everyone" either, but the people from that scene are some of the most fun, caring, and loving people I've met in my life.
 

Aldarc

Legend
How come it's always only Sword & Sorcery that is asked to justify itself?

I never see any such objections against Grimdark. Grimdark is always allowed to pass with "It's not really my kind of fantasy". Even Game of Thrones is worse than all Sword & Sorcery I've ever seen, and that one's everyone's darling. (Until they lost the plot in the last third.)
Is it? I'm not sure if that's the case. In many regards, S&S adventure fantasy forms the norm or backbone of our hobby, even if D&D has increasingly emphasized more heroic high fantasy.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Offense is taken, not given!

I've heard people say that recently (is that a thing?), and I think it's really stupid. No offense. :)

That's like saying comedy is taken, not given. Or compliments are taken, not given. Why bother saying anything at all if it's all meaningless, only depending on what the listener hears?

Really, though, it removes agency and intentionality from the speaker/artist. There are times when I want to offend. The ability to provoke, offend, and shock lies at core of artistic speech.

Death Metal music isn't "for everyone" either, but the people from that scene are some of the most fun, caring, and loving people I've met in my life.

Certainly true! But "death metal" is a sub-genre of "metal" and in turn has spawned numerous sub-genres. Moreover, it is not necessary that every single death metal band be, for example, Cannibal Corpse. Or, for that matter, burn down churches.

Which moves back to the point of the thread- going to my Lovecraft analogy, I really enjoy cosmic horror, and I grew up reading Lovecraft. But the point of Lovecraft, the defining characteristic of the cosmic horror genre, isn't the racism!

When I think of S&S, I don't think of it as being transgressive. Then again, I have a high bar for what constitutes transgressive- Conan and Fafhrd are not exactly Mapplethorpe in the '80s, or Burroughs in the '50s- instead, they reified the traditional societal roles of the time. Ahem.

Instead, I view them as being modern- as acting very much in a way that is contrary to the 'small-c' conservative Tolkien-esque (Alexender, Lewis) "high fantasy" that was so .... boring.

I love S&S because, unlike high fantasy, it doesn't suck.
 


pemerton

Legend
When I think of S&S, I don't think of it as being transgressive. Then again, I have a high bar for what constitutes transgressive- Conan and Fafhrd are not exactly Mapplethorpe in the '80s, or Burroughs in the '50s- instead, they reified the traditional societal roles of the time. Ahem.
I tried to address this is in my post not far upthread, but no one seemed to pick up on it. Isn't transgressive being used to mean contains sex and nudity? That's the most obvious way I can make sense of the comparison to European arthouse films.

Which also explains the worry that it might be seen as juvenile, I think!
 

Blue Orange

Adventurer
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?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I tried to address this is in my post not far upthread, but no one seemed to pick up on it. Isn't transgressive being used to mean contains sex and nudity? That's the most obvious way I can make sense of the comparison to European arthouse films.

Which also explains the worry that it might be seen as juvenile, I think!

I think that it also explains the references to cheesecake and beefcake, which isn't ... you know, the actual genre text for all aspects of the genre.

Again, dancing around the issue, but yes.

Personally, I think sex and nudity in S&S is fine, but is also not a defining element to the genre.
 

Dioltach

Legend
I think part of the reason for the cheesecake and beefcake is that the societies commonly associated with S&S are decadent, and frequently bring to mind the orgies of the late Roman Empire, or popular conceptions/misconceptions of palaces and harems in the Tales of the Arabian Nights.

More modern S&S doesn't shy away from cheesy nudity, but definitely doesn't require it.

(It's also worth noting that Conan himself dressed appropriately for most occasions: chainmail instead of a loincloth, for example. Jirrel of Joiry, as I recall, also dressed sensibly and wore armour.)
 

reelo

Adventurer
I've heard people say that recently (is that a thing?), and I think it's really stupid. No offense. :)

That's like saying comedy is taken, not given. Or compliments are taken, not given. Why bother saying anything at all if it's all meaningless, only depending on what the listener hears?

Really, though, it removes agency and intentionality from the speaker/artist. There are times when I want to offend. The ability to provoke, offend, and shock lies at core of artistic speech.

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.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I tried to address this is in my post not far upthread, but no one seemed to pick up on it. Isn't transgressive being used to mean contains sex and nudity? That's the most obvious way I can make sense of the comparison to European arthouse films.

Which also explains the worry that it might be seen as juvenile, I think!
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.

I think that it also explains the references to cheesecake and beefcake, which isn't ... you know, the actual genre text for all aspects of the genre.

Again, dancing around the issue, but yes.

Personally, I think sex and nudity in S&S is fine, but is also not a defining element to the genre.
I think it's more characteristic of pulp magazines like Weird Tales, but these magazines were not publishing S&S stories exclusively or even mostly.

As you say, sex and nudity in S&S is fine; however, I would add that I would like to see it expanded beyond the straight white male gaze. Diversify these elements in S&S. Make it racially, sexually, and gender diverse!
 

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