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D&D 5E Existentialist Sword and Sorcery

Sithlord

Adventurer
I read everything Howard wrote that I know exists and I can’t draw those conclusions. Lovecraft yes but Howard no. Maybe there’s some letters or other things he wrote.
 

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Remathilis

Legend
Or embrace the camp with scantily clad good guys and swarthy heroes. :)
I think there might be something to this. You could certainly do S&S without the overt racial and sexist overtones. Conan and Red Sonja were essentially the same amount of clothing in traditional depictions of both, and you could easily modify most of the classic cultures found in S&S to be more egalitarian in depictions of race/skin tone. The only thing stopping it would be 60 years of cover-art conventions.

Not to say that S&S didn't have problems in the past with some of those tropes, but more to say that those tropes can be modified and inverted without giving up thewy barbarians and chainmail bikinis.
 

Yora

Legend
The worst thing I actually noticed myself was how the very few women in the early Elric stories could pretty much be replaced by an expensive vase. The hero and antagonists occasionally talk about them as having high value, but they are not actually characters with any discernible traits or ever do a single thing.
 

Sithlord

Adventurer
The worst thing I actually noticed myself was how the very few women in the early Elric stories could pretty much be replaced by an expensive vase. The hero and antagonists occasionally talk about them as having high value, but they are not actually characters with any discernible traits or ever do a single thing.
Not everyone is a central character in a story. Many men work from home.
 

ph0rk

Friendship is Magic, and Magic is Heresy.
The worst thing I actually noticed myself was how the very few women in the early Elric stories could pretty much be replaced by an expensive vase. The hero and antagonists occasionally talk about them as having high value, but they are not actually characters with any discernible traits or ever do a single thing.
This was true of Asimov's early stories, too. It doesn't mean it is a necessary or defining feature of the genre (whether that genre is science fiction or sword and sorcery).

I'd argue that Song of Ice and Fire has many elements of S&S, and it seems to have avoided that problem entirely, while also displaying a brutally misogynistic culture.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
I read everything Howard wrote that I know exists and I can’t draw those conclusions. Lovecraft yes but Howard no. Maybe there’s some letters or other things he wrote.
I included excerpts from some of his letters and his girlfriend's Biography about it. It's on Page 1 of this thread.

There's a hell of a lot more of it out there.

Also on Page 1 of this thread: I don't want this thread devolving into a pointless argument about the sexism and misogyny of Howard and Lovecraft, or the genre.

So please stop.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
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.
Huh. I came back to this thread to ask, “What is a story with all the tropes of Sword and Sorcery except the pessimism?” And this was what I find! 😂
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Huh. I came back to this thread to ask, “What is a story with all the tropes of Sword and Sorcery except the pessimism?” And this was what I find! 😂
It's like that!

Existentialism can lead to Nihilism. But Nihilism can be freaking -wild-. It's all dependent on which direction you walk from the crisis.


Also. "Crisis" in the sense of an Existential Crisis is less like... an emergency? More like a crisis of Faith. A crossroads. A time to question what is and isn't real, what matters and doesn't. To strip away that which doesn't matter and find your truth... Or become mired in self-doubt.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
It's like that!

Existentialism can lead to Nihilism. But Nihilism can be freaking -wild-. It's all dependent on which direction you walk from the crisis.


Also. "Crisis" in the sense of an Existential Crisis is less like... an emergency? More like a crisis of Faith. A crossroads. A time to question what is and isn't real, what matters and doesn't. To strip away that which doesn't matter and find your truth... Or become mired in self-doubt.
Well now I want a whole album of that….😂
 

Remathilis

Legend
So this is my layman's look at things,

Classical Fantasy (Tolkien et. all) holds the world was in a state of grace and has fallen from that grace, and it is the work of heroes to restore that grace. Whether that was a more enlightened era, a time of closeness with the Creator, or simply Innocence, the world as it is now no longer reflects that more perfect world and it is up to Just and Noble heroes to retore Eden/Camelot/whatever by banishing the darkness that has corrupted it.

S&S assumes the world never was in that state of grace, or if it was, it can never return to it, so there is no Camelot to fight for. At the lighter end, you have people who are attempting to make it through life however they can, at the darker end, you get people doing what they can to eke out a few more moments aginast an almost assured destruction.

So, while CF paints the world in the opposing teams of good and evil, S&S fights for no higher cause than itself. It is possible for people in CF to be selfish or S&S to be noble, but they are the exceptions to the rule. Eventually, the selfish CF character picks a side in the cosmic fight (or fades from relevance) and the noble S&S either dies a hero or lives long enough to become disillusioned (or the villain to complete the phrase).

I think it is in this light that D&D's S&S roots shine through. D&D was originally not all that interested in saving the world or defeating evil. It cared about amassing power (via levels, magic, or gold) and living One More Day. Of course, D&D always had a paradoxical relationship between these two mediums, which embraced Vance's magic and Moorcock's moral system but also Tolkien's races and rangers and Malory's Arthurian Knights as player options. Clearly, even as far back as OD&D there was conflict between the brooding barbarian on his throne and the questing knight searching for holy relics.

So to me, the greater divide is between an optimistic view of the world (one rooted more in Christan views of grace, fall and redemption) and a pessimistic view (where no greater cause than oneself is possible, so people is free to live as good or as wickedly as they wish).
 

Yora

Legend
Not necessarily more pessimistic, but that's why the underlying existentialism shines through the most. There is no grace, there is no salvation.

You see much more bootstrapping than forces of destiny at work. (With entropy being the only destiny.) Elric is a bit of an exception, but then, Elric is always the exception. ;)
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
@Remathilis

Take Tyr, as an example. In Dark Sun you can try to eke out a living for another day, gather a tiny bit more wealth and pleasure for yourself. Or you can work with a Templar-Traitor and use the Heartwood Spear to kill one of the Sorcerer-Kings and free the city from his oppressive reign in order to open up the possibility of Democracy.

You can be the Mad Max character roving from community to community just trying to live your life and wind up saving the people from Immortan Joe or Master Blaster. With no more will to accomplish these tasks than to just have another day alive in a desert wasteland, trading your effort for the supplies you need.

Sword and Sorcery characters can be -Amoral- warriors who do good and evil in equal measure. Or Antiheroes who do terrible things for good causes. Or be outright heroes trying to heal the world, or at least their little corner of it.

It doesn't have to be one or the other. Heck! It wasn't for Conan!

You know -how- he winds up with the Crown of Aquilonia? He -LIBERATES- the nation from the Mad King Numedides and the evil sorcerer Thulandra Thuu! He builds up an army and fights against Aquilonia with the express intent of overthrowing the corrupt, decadent, and wicked king. And when he finds the banners of the Royal Guard on the battlefield he steals away in the night (With a column of men) and attacks the severely undermanned city of Tarantia.

He bursts into the throne room sending Thuu to escape when he realizes he's outnumbered, then winds up choking Numedides to death when the king begs for his life then tries to stab Conan with a poisoned dagger.

But even Conan, the Barbarian, The Cimmerian, the Destroyer, the Amoral Antihero so many people love and adore... Becomes the Liberator and King Conan of Aquilonia. And then gets bored out of his gourd by the tedium and minutiae of running a kingdom. But at least he saved it!
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Mod Note:
Folks,

The OP has been very patient with you all. So, it is time to recognize - exactly how racist/misogynist/etc these folks were is a topic for another thread.

If you really must discuss those things, do it elsewhere - keep this thread to the discussion of the philosophy and theme requested in the OP, please and thank you.
 

Yora

Legend
The most interesting thing about King Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword is that he doesn't lament that the people don't love and respect him. He doesn't care about that, he didn't do it for his glory. What really frustrates him is that they start praising the old king they suffered under as their way to express their unhappiness with his rule.

@Remathilis

Take Tyr, as an example. In Dark Sun you can try to eke out a living for another day, gather a tiny bit more wealth and pleasure for yourself. Or you can work with a Templar-Traitor and use the Heartwood Spear to kill one of the Sorcerer-Kings and free the city from his oppressive reign in order to open up the possibility of Democracy.
That's a great example. The sorcerer kings claim that they are divine and destined to rule, but Kalak getting killed by a slave with a spear is a conclusive practical argument that they are not.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
The most interesting thing about King Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword is that he doesn't lament that the people don't love and respect him. He doesn't care about that, he didn't do it for his glory. What really frustrates him is that they start praising the old king they suffered under as their way to express their unhappiness with his rule.


That's a great example. The sorcerer kings claim that they are divine and destined to rule, but Kalak getting killed by a slave with a spear is a conclusive practical argument that they are not.
I meeeeeeeeeeean...

To be fair...


Not only did Kalak rule for a long time (As he was "destined" to) the Heartwood Spear was a powerful Halfling Artifact which combined the life-force of Nok and the Last Tree -expressly- for the purposes of killing a Sorcerer-King... and it actually -didn't-. Rikus, Sadira, Agis of Asticles, and the High Templar Tithian had to chase Kalak through the Rainbow Pyramid in order to finally put an end to the gravely wounded and extremely weakened Sorcerer-King who was in mid-transformation from Human to Dragon (Which is when the Sorcerer-Kings are at their most vulnerable)

So, y'know... It wasn't -Just- some slave with a spear.
 

Yora

Legend
That must have been from the later sources then, I guess.

I always felt that most additions to the original box were steps in the wrong direction, drifting into Epic Fantasy.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
That must have been from the later sources then, I guess.

I always felt that most additions to the original box were steps in the wrong direction, drifting into Epic Fantasy.
Nnnope... Same month, even.

Troy Dennings' first book of the Prism Pentad, The Verdant Passage, was released in October 1991, right alongside the Box Set for Dark Sun.

And the adventure included in the box "Freedom" recounts a -portion- of the events of that book. Specifically Rikus, Tithian, and the others attacking Kalak as he starts to defile the entire arena to fuel his draconic transformation. Your task is to escape and save as many others as possible. But at the end of it Tithian declares Rikus the new king.

The adventure itself -explicitly- tells the DM to read the Verdant Passage -before- running the encounter at the Arena because of the massive spoilers for the book involved.
 

Composer99

Explorer
So to me, the greater divide is between an optimistic view of the world (one rooted more in Christan views of grace, fall and redemption) and a pessimistic view (where no greater cause than oneself is possible, so people is free to live as good or as wickedly as they wish).

I would reckon that the optimism/pessimism in different grades of fantasy is not necessarily about the moral codes or behaviour of the characters in the setting, but, as you yourself pointed out, about the nature of the setting itself.

In an epic fantasy setting, provided the world/society is fallen or declined from a previous brighter age, there is the prospect of restoration. Perhaps not to the greatest heights of elder times - in Lord of the Rings, Aragorn's restoration of Gondor is clearly still not a restoration to the power of ancient Numenor, for instance - but nevertheless, an increase in peace and prosperity, and a ridding the world of great evil. In such a setting without a previous brighter age, the prospect is not of restoration, but instead progress, both in the material and metaphysical senses. That is the optimism of the setting.

In a sword & sorcery setting, whether or not the world/society is fallen or declined from a previous brighter age, there is no prospect of restoration or progress, except either in small areas, over brief time periods, or both. The world could be dying, à la Vance, or the eldritch horrors could be unfathomable, à la Lovecraft, or societies could exist in a more-or-less permanent cycle of rise and fall, with societies at each stage in the cycle clearly paying some price for whatever benefits they have - whether that's being forced to subsist in a harsh and unforgiving environment or in a state of decadence/corruption. That is the pessimism of the setting.

That difference also informs the cosmic forces at work in the setting. The cosmic forces of epic fantasy include ones that are, however hands-off, unabashedly benevolent. Such forces are feeble, ailing, or simply non-existent in swords & sorcery, and in their place are those that are indifferent or malevolent.
 

Remathilis

Legend
Sword and Sorcery characters can be -Amoral- warriors who do good and evil in equal measure. Or Antiheroes who do terrible things for good causes. Or be outright heroes trying to heal the world, or at least their little corner of it.
Oh for sure, people can still choose to be good, evil, or something in between. A person can fight to make his or her general surroundings a better place, but they do so in an attempt to hold back further entropy rather than restore what once was. I view it more as the cosmic forces of Good and Evil aren't on anyone's side. There is no Gods of Light aiding your quest, no force of Ultimate Darkness that stands in your way. You may kill cultists or sorcerers or even beings of unfathomable power, but in the end your actions don't shift the cosmic scales in any one direction. You aren't restoring the One True King, banishing the Lord of Darkness, or ushering in the New Age. You are staving off catastrophe for you and what you hold dear for a little while longer.

But even Conan, the Barbarian, The Cimmerian, the Destroyer, the Amoral Antihero so many people love and adore... Becomes the Liberator and King Conan of Aquilonia. And then gets bored out of his gourd by the tedium and minutiae of running a kingdom. But at least he saved it!
And this is where the differences imho lie. Compare Conan to Aragorn. Aragorn comes from a noble line of kings, he is just and good, and his rule ushers in a new age of Man, he is all but handed what he needs to rule by the circumstances of the universe, he need only find it within himself to take that responsibility. Conan is given no such lineage, his rule ushers in no golden era, nothing is restored, and at best he holds back the darkness in his realm for a little while before again finding himself a vagabond and adventurer. Even though both begin their tales as wanderers and end them as kings, its very easy to say the Universe is rooting for Aragorn and is at best ambivalent about Conan.
 

Remathilis

Legend
I would reckon that the optimism/pessimism in different grades of fantasy is not necessarily about the moral codes or behaviour of the characters in the setting, but, as you yourself pointed out, about the nature of the setting itself.

In an epic fantasy setting, provided the world/society is fallen or declined from a previous brighter age, there is the prospect of restoration. Perhaps not to the greatest heights of elder times - in Lord of the Rings, Aragorn's restoration of Gondor is clearly still not a restoration to the power of ancient Numenor, for instance - but nevertheless, an increase in peace and prosperity, and a ridding the world of great evil. In such a setting without a previous brighter age, the prospect is not of restoration, but instead progress, both in the material and metaphysical senses. That is the optimism of the setting.

In a sword & sorcery setting, whether or not the world/society is fallen or declined from a previous brighter age, there is no prospect of restoration or progress, except either in small areas, over brief time periods, or both. The world could be dying, à la Vance, or the eldritch horrors could be unfathomable, à la Lovecraft, or societies could exist in a more-or-less permanent cycle of rise and fall, with societies at each stage in the cycle clearly paying some price for whatever benefits they have - whether that's being forced to subsist in a harsh and unforgiving environment or in a state of decadence/corruption. That is the pessimism of the setting.

That difference also informs the cosmic forces at work in the setting. The cosmic forces of epic fantasy include ones that are, however hands-off, unabashedly benevolent. Such forces are feeble, ailing, or simply non-existent in swords & sorcery, and in their place are those that are indifferent or malevolent.
Yes! THIS! This is what I was fumbling to say.
 

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