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D&D 5E Existentialist Sword and Sorcery

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Disclaimer: Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror were both written by Robert E. Howard. A notorious racist and misogynist who was so awful that other white people in Texas in the South in the 1920s were like "Man, this guy is racist!". His villains were often members of minorities, his women were mostly victims or trophies if they weren't using their sex-magic to bewitch men, and his descriptions often went into ludicrous inanity to dehumanize the various peoples of his "Prehistoric Earth" setting. I know that his particular perspective on these topics is certainly not something to be emulated in a Swords and Sorcery setting, but the actual topic of this thread is about the invention of Existentialism and Existential questions in his work, and his joint work with another noted terrible person H.P. Lovecraft. Let's try to focus on the Existentialism.

Sword and Sorcery are based in Existentialism
Kull the Conqueror sits upon the Topaz Throne of Valusia and thinks back to the boy upon the island of Atlantis. Running carefree through the meadows, wading in the shallows, hunting along the edge of forests. And he wonders if that boy named Kull is the same person as Kull the Conqueror, who now sits on the throne, fighting off Serpentine invaders, the ancient Valusians and "Rightful" rulers of his new land.

In his first story about about Kull, Robert E. Howard puts him on the throne of Valusia. And in that story he is swiftly confronted by himself. But not -himself-. The Serpent-folk, followers of the god Set who is also Yig, try to kill him in his bedchambers on his first night after killing the Mad King of Valusia. He was warned of the attempt by a Pictish wizard and aided in fighting the assassin by Brule the Slayer.

The two then went to go tell people that someone had tried to kill Kull and found Kull standing in the Throne Room, telling his advisors about his plans for Valusia. The two Kulls lock eyes and for a moment Kull the Conqueror questions whether -he- is the Imposter, or the True Kull.

Similarly, sitting upon the Jeweled Throne of Aquilonia in another age, King Conan looks back on his life as a Barbarian, a Pirate, a Thief, and an Adventurer, and asks himself which is the "True" Conan, and whether he, himself, has any right to the name.

These stories were written in the 1920s and 30s. Over a decade before Gabe Marcel would coin the term Existentialism, and even longer before Sartre would reject and then -embrace- the idea of Existentialist thought and make it a passionate field of philosophical exploration.


Don't get me wrong. I recognize that Marcel Proust's Swann's Way begins with the concept of awakening to the self and having to orient oneself in the moment separate from the dreamstate in order to recognize reality for what it is, hinting at the birth of Existentialist thought in modernist philosophy... But he never asks himself whether he is truly the man that he is, or if he's really the man that he was.

And while the "Man dreams of a Butterfly, Butterfly dreams of Man" thing is interesting and certainly touches on core conceits of Existentialism, Pulp Comics, of all things, really codified it's core concepts.

Man is a Small Thing in the Cosmic Scale
Another core concept of Existentialism is that man's existence is both finite and irrelevant. We are but fleeting thoughts and shapes, shadows and forms, which are tantamount to cosmic dust in a randomized configuration blowing through reality, thunder and fury signifying nothing.

Sword and Sorcery enacts this concept in Pulp Adventure through two methods.

1) The Creation of "That which is beyond man's knowing."
C'thulhu, Yog Sothoth, Hastur, and so many more Eldritch Entities who man should not know of. When you hold knowledge of them, when you can -see- them, so, too, can they see you. Magic and madness lie in their clutches, but also death, and the Destruction and Desecration of all life and all existence. Because to these entities we are nothing. All our sciences, or faiths, our ideas, our forms, are nothing but dreamstuff to them. As easily snuffed out as blinked at. Both because they are so objectively far beyond us in capability, but also aged beyond concept of time, and our entire lives are so brief as to be unworthy of mention.

2) The inevitable collapse of Society into Decadence and Degeneracy.
Every great civilization Robert E. Howard writes about begins as barbarians living the "True Life" who rise up against their oppressors and destroy them, only to slowly succumb to the infectious rot of decadence, debauchery, and cruelty that life in civilized lands invariably breeds. And so become corrupted, and cruel, and degenerate, and are struck down by the next tribe of rising Barbarians who conquer the weak, fat, selfish civilized people in an endless cycle of each to each losing their identity, their self, to the churning machine of progress.

The former concept plays to ancient human ideas about Deities and Spirits being beyond true understanding, but also leans heavily into Lovecraft's obsession with his own irrelevance. An Atheist and a Cosmicist, he believed wholeheartedly in man's ultimate irrelevance to the indifferent cosmos. A Massive Machine of unknowable uncountable moving parts from which we are formed and which we have never left, and which we will be consumed by, again. His heroic figures learn the terrible truths of the universe, that it is horribly indifferent to our existence, and find horror and madness in that. In -conceiving- the thought that all life is nothing and holds no meaning.

The latter has to do with Howard's youth in Boom and Bust rural Texas in the late 1800s early 1900s. Where a town would spring up, practically overnight, when oil was struck, populated largely by working men and a community to support their efforts which invariably included debauched company, drug dealers, and all manner of sick entertainment for the workers... Until the well ran dry, and the town was just as quickly abandoned. Houses, Barns, Offices left empty as everyone moved on to the next well.

So how do we make our Sword and Sorcery games feel "Authentic" while holding modern ideals?
Simple. Play into Existentialism. Give up the scantily clad victims and the swarthy bad guys that play into sexist and racist tropes.

Play into the idea of the self being lost as the new self is found. Play into the sudden rise to power and the slow progress into degeneracy. Play into Eldritch Horrors and Intrigues centered around the machinations of ancient powers that cannot be truly -stopped-, only deferred until a new king sits upon the Topaz Throne.

Slowly introduce new information with the explicit intent to change your player's characters from who they -were- into who they -will be-.

You've got an elf at your table who has been fighting against the corrupt regime all her life? She's not going to fall into it so easily. No. You've got to slowly work that change in her. Give her the power, the position, and then give her -reasons- for the injustice she has perceived. Give her excuses and reasons to make "Difficult Choices" that must be made. Put her into slowly more compromising situations where her moral identity is tested. And when she makes a difficult choice, for good or for ill, give her all the rewards and consequences for making that choice. Give her the support and anger of those she's helped and harmed. Let -her- decide whether the choice was worth it.

And then have a younger, still idealistic, version of herself get captured by the palace guard as a potential assassin. And have them spit her whole former moral identity right in her face, so that she knows what compromises have occurred. What stumbling steps she has taken... And may seek to correct them, going forward. Or abdicate the throne, entirely, to give up this new self that she has created.

Got a Wizard at your table? Tempt him with magic. Give him access to a secret form of magic taught only by a handful of people around the world. Make it separate from his usual spells per day. Something special that he calls on which exhausts him to use but causes wonderful and powerful effects, so that he knows it has a cost but that it's a cost -he- can pay, and no one else...

And don't increase that cost, except by increased power. He wants higher level secondary spellcasting? More exhaustion for higher level effects. Or hit dice for spell-power. Let him feel like he's "Buying" that power with himself. Introduce him to new mechanics that are morally questionable... but give him a way to justify the cost. Maybe he and the Elf-Queen can work out a deal where he's able to use some of her Hit Dice to fuel these abilities. It's okay to use someone else's hit dice as long as you've got a good reason to do so and they're willing to give you their power.

And then. In a terrible battle. Let him take the hit dice of his enemies. A new source of power. And a way to defeat those who oppose him and his party. And the revelation of his actions can come swiftly thereafter when people write stories about how he steals the very life of those who oppose him to empower himself.

Or. If your players wouldn't be comfortable with those sort of explorations of identity: Introduce the unassailable, indifferent, utterly implacable outsiders. I'm not talking about the Inevitables (Though they're super useful as a part of this) or planeswalking. I'm talking about beings of insane power right here, in the world. A sleeping titan beneath the Capital of their homeland. Bound by seven chains, five of which are broken. If the remaining two fall, the Titan will rise and destroy everything, and the chains cannot be repaired. Pit your players against the endless machinations of ancient beings who have broken five of the chains and seek to rend the sixth. And each time one of the chains was broken through history there were terrible earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, each more terrible than the last as the sleeping titan shifts and the great chain crashes to the floor of the ancient vault... Even if they only manage to break one chain it could mean the end of all the heroes know and love.

Introduce Madmen who can tell you how the world will end, and give you cryptic hints of the truth. Bring in monsters from previous editions of the game, or create new ones, who -ignore- the player characters except if they happen to be in the creature's path or strike it. Who ignore -everything- except that which is in their path, consuming without apparent rhyme or reason. Introduce powerful, deadly, dangerous foes who have inscrutable motives and tactics. Who actively break the rules of combat but not in ways that are always advantageous to them. Have a "Murder" Mystery in which a group of Cultists are performing a ritual when the heroes arrive and commit synchronized suicide... And the players have to try and find out what they've done, and why they killed themselves, and what it means going forward. Isn't half the fun of a murder novel figuring out the motive, after all?

Make the environment itself deadly, but in a passive and utterly disrespectful manner. It doesn't care if you live or die, it is utterly indifferent to your existence. Whether you pass through it, or succumb to it, the wasteland remains. Be, yourself, as passive and calm and uncaring as you can manage when you describe the environment. It isn't -aggressive-, it's just -there-.


And that's a big part of why I like Dark Sun. It is all of these things if you choose to play it in that manner. Tempting power, corrupting civilization, Sorcerer-Kings and unknown horrors hiding in the ruins of what once was... and may yet be. Makes for a really great Swords and Sorcery setting, if a bit high on the magical scale.
 

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Yora

Hero
Disclaimer: Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror were both written by Robert E. Howard. A notorious racist and misogynist who was so awful that other white people in Texas in the South in the 1920s were like "Man, this guy is racist!". His villains were often members of minorities, his women were mostly victims or trophies if they weren't using their sex-magic to bewitch men, and his descriptions often went into ludicrous inanity to dehumanize the various peoples of his "Prehistoric Earth" setting.
[citation needed]

When I've been looking into the guy myself when I first started getting into this kind of fiction, and Howard stuck me as someone who was surprisingly progressive and egalitarian.
Conan stories have female and black villains, because he sees them just as capable as white men and judged by the same standards. Everyone are allowed their opinions, but claims like this go into defamation without any evidence to back it.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
By coincidence I was looking at the notes I took on Howard's Kull story The Shadow Kingdom just a couple of hours ago. I'd come to the same conclusion as you. I wrote "King Kull is 80% Conan, 20% Philip K Dick character. He has strange moments of existential doubt and identity confusion." One of the quotations from the story I'd noted was: '"This is insanity!" he whispered. "Am I Kull? Do I stand here or is that Kull yonder in very truth, and am I but a shadow, a figment of thought?"'
 

Or stick tongue firmly in cheek and embrace the camp. Scantily clad bad guys and swarthy victims can be fun!
I mean, that's kind of been done to death, mostly in the late '90s and early '00s, when there was a lot of "what if we just flip it around?" attempts to reclaim stuff which was kind of messed-up (and I feel like there elements of it going back into the 1960s even). It's not really as effective any more and tends to read a bit farcical.
[citation needed]

When I've been looking into the guy myself when I first started getting into this kind of fiction, and Howard stuck me as someone who was surprisingly progressive and egalitarian.
Don't say citation needed if you're not going to even going to try and Google it, mate, that's really rude and disrespectful. Obviously a huge amount of work was put into this post. Calling that "defamation" is honestly so disrespectful and lazy that I think you should be ashamed of what you've said.


In short, you can absolutely legitimately support what @Steampunkette is saying, and I'd say, based on the best information we have, that's a pretty accurate description of Howard in "the early days", and of a significant amount of his work. Your impression probably derives from two things. First off, next to HP Lovecraft, who was a racist to the point he was portraying Scotsmen as subhuman near-monsters for their failure to be WASPs, he wasn't nearly as extreme, and he even advised Lovecraft to maybe turn it down a notch at least once (though it wasn't in very strong terms). Second off, later on in life, after he'd written most of the work we're familiar with, he began to chill out and stop being that way, as the Wikipedia article (which is a hell of an article) notes.

I think trying to dispute that he was racist/sexist at all is kind of laughable and a distraction from an interesting thread. That he was only averagely racist and less sexist for a white American male of his era might be fair, but that's a low bar. Later on he was probably more progressive than much of his age cohort, but that is later on.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
[citation needed]

When I've been looking into the guy myself when I first started getting into this kind of fiction, and Howard stuck me as someone who was surprisingly progressive and egalitarian.
Conan stories have female and black villains, because he sees them just as capable as white men and judged by the same standards. Everyone are allowed their opinions, but claims like this go into defamation without any evidence to back it.
insert "Not Sure if Serious" face

An excerpt from one of Howard's personal letters on the topic of a Hawaiian who had been accused of sexual assault:
"I know what would have happened to them in Texas. I don’t know whether an (Racist term for a person of Southeast Asian Descent) smells any different than a (Racist term for African American) when he’s roasting, but I’m willing to bet the aroma of scorching hide would have the same chastening effect on his surviving tribesman.”

An excerpt from a discussion with Novalyne Price: "I guess you know if a (Racist term for African American) is found on the streets after dark in Coleman, Santa Anna, and several other towns around here, they run him out of town. Chances are they might tar and feather him.” When Novalyne reacted negatively, Howard returned, “Let me tell you something, girl, that you don’t seem to know. Those people come from a different line. They have different blood - ” SHE WAS HIS GIRLFRIEND. Born in Texas in the early 1900s she responded to his racism negatively. A Contemporary Old Timey Southerner who dated him called him out on his racism and he berated her for it.

An excerpt from the Black Canaan short story: “[Saul Stark is] a great big black devil that talks better English than I like to hear a (Racist term for African American) talk.”

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is as far as I'm willing to entertain discussion about Howard and Lovecraft's bigotry in this thread on Existentialism in Sword and Sorcery. It was a footnote in order to acknowledge the terrible aspects of the character of the writers while engaging in some serious "Death of the Author" in carrying that which might actually have some value forward out of their work.
 
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Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
By coincidence I was looking at the notes I took on Howard's Kull story The Shadow Kingdom just a couple of hours ago. I'd come to the same conclusion as you. I wrote "King Kull is 80% Conan, 20% Philip K Dick character. He has strange moments of existential doubt and identity confusion." One of the quotations from the story I'd noted was: '"This is insanity!" he whispered. "Am I Kull? Do I stand here or is that Kull yonder in very truth, and am I but a shadow, a figment of thought?"'
It's a really cool literary thing that I've always loved about Howard and Lovecraft's work. One of it's most redeeming traits, alongside the incredibly vivid descriptions both of them used to great effect.

I know a lot of what people think about as Pulp is disregarded as overwrought, but the descriptions of sensations, scents, and textures they often went into really helped to create a more visceral "World" for me.
 

I mean, that's kind of been done to death, mostly in the late '90s and early '00s, when there was a lot of "what if we just flip it around?" attempts to reclaim stuff which was kind of messed-up (and I feel like there elements of it going back into the 1960s even). It's not really as effective any more and tends to read a bit farcical.
Perhaps. I still think sometimes the best way to deal with cringe is to humiliate it to death, and then it naturally fades away.

I love Sword & Sorcery, and absolutely think it can be done well without some of the more stereotypical tropes, let alone the cringier ones. A little lampshading of them along the way is fine with me.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
That would be a lot easier if Sarcasm translated particularly well into Text.

It does not.

It would also be a lot easier if the most horrifically absurd bigotry you can imagine didn't exist in our world.

It unfortunately does.

For something to be camp it's got to go to a ridiculous, affected, artificial point where it becomes comical.

But that doesn't actually work with hatred. 'Cause people actively Hate.

Back on topic, please.
 

This sounds like a teenage for the "emo" phase. In some times of the past there was a great hope for a better future, but later that hope was lost when people noticed better technologic and scientific progress weren't enough, and falling into a disaster or the horror of a new war was too easy.

But in the TTRPGs the players choose the level of light or darkness in their games, in their stories, and usually the things start very bad, but step to step there are some little changes toward a better tomorrow.

Other authors show in the works a hope for a better future, but also sadness by the sacrifice for the fight.
 

theCourier

Explorer
I feel like Jack Vance's Dying Earth comes into play here as well. The setting and the way people act in the stories gives this tone of fatalism and madness in a world that won't be around for too much longer.

"They were gay, these people of waning Earth, feverishly merry, for infinite night was close at hand, when the red sun should finally flicker and go black."

Scientist-wizards searching for the means to create life, adventurers stumbling onto the remains of ruined civilizations, all cool things to incorporate in a setting I think.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
I feel like Jack Vance's Dying Earth comes into play here as well. The setting and the way people act in the stories gives this tone of fatalism and madness in a world that won't be around for too much longer.

"They were gay, these people of waning Earth, feverishly merry, for infinite night was close at hand, when the red sun should finally flicker and go black."

Scientist-wizards searching for the means to create life, adventurers stumbling onto the remains of ruined civilizations, all cool things to incorporate in a setting I think.
As well it should!

Jack Vance was directly inspired by some of the same authors that inspired Howard and Lovecraft, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Borroughs. What I would consider "High Steampunk" in the narrative, rather than aesthetic, sense at least.

But he was also inspired by the Pulp Fiction of Weird Tales, which is where both Lovecraft and Howard's work was published before later being brought into collections.

His novel Dragon Masters is -very- John Carter, wherein the technologically limited humans of a distant world fight of alien invasion from much more advanced peoples and ultimately save their world. Well. Most of it, at least! The main character even contemplates traveling to Earth (After capturing the alien spaceship) to see if it really exists, but tosses aside the tiny globe into a pile of rocks and chooses, instead, to remain the leader of his people.

He makes the active decision not to become a new person in a pretty cool twist on expectations in that one!
 






Blue Orange

Adventurer
One of the things I think it was the revised 2e DMG pointed out is that ruined civilizations explain why all there's this treasure lying around in ruins for the PCs to get. A loose nuke escaping from the collapse of the Soviet Union is a little more believable than one from the USA in that era. Similarly, you'd expect a staff of wizardry in a society that hadn't fallen to be under heavy guard, probably owned by the chief wizard or the magical academy or something.

As for the existentialist angle...I hadn't heard that before. I keep imagining Garcin, Estelle, and Inez rolling Charisma checks to annoy each other. "Baator is...other people!" Seems like you could do this in any setting, though. The Realms can't be much fun for the average peasant, what with weird cataclysms happening every time there's a new edition. Civilization's fallen in Dragonlance a few times.

Heck, you could even have the characters find out that their entire existence is determined by a bunch of beings playing a game, and that all their vicissitudes are nothing more than a bunch of dice rolls. That would seem pretty existentialist to me.
 
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Yora

Hero
Existentialism isn't all doom and gloom. It's really about finding a way out of Nihilism and bringing joy back into a meaningless world.

"I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."
-- Queen of the Black Coast
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Existentialism isn't all doom and gloom. It's really about finding a way out of Nihilism and bringing joy back into a meaningless world.
You are very right!

How we handle our existentialist crises is what makes our life go in whatever direction it winds up going after those points. Whether we collapse into a sense of abject despair knowing that all of our decisions are ultimately meaningless in a form of paralytic nihilism, or we turn our lives in a different direction, often inwardly to recognize the inherent worth of ourselves against the backdrop of our lives as a structure for personal meaning.

Others flock to religion, seeking an external source of positivity and meaning to the chaos of life and death. And in a fantasy world they can be be assured that that religion is accurate!

And in the case of the Queen of the Black Coast, as you just referenced, hedonism is a marvelous escape from existential crisis! People fling themselves into their lives, into foods when they wish, sex with whom they care for, and no further consideration given toward anything. Which when done on a societal level... hits Robert E Howard's existential corruption through civilization!

When you turn from the person that you were into the person that you will be and lose some important aspect of the true self in the rampant decay into decadence. Because even Conan, with the jeweled crown of Aquilonia weighing heavy upon a troubled brow, is not immune to losing himself and all that he was.
 

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