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D&D 5E Existentialist Sword and Sorcery

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
WARNING: This post contains unblurred spoilers for the Elric novel Stormbringer

And then it leapt from the Earth and went spearing upwards, its wild voice laughing mockery at the Cosmic Balance, filling the universe with its unholy joy. (DLP)​

At the very end, the Cosmic Balance, which is the closest equivalent to an all-powerful benign God in Moorcock’s multiverse, has been partially thwarted. A powerful force of Chaos and evil is loose upon our Earth. So it seems that the views that Elric expresses in Dead God’s Homecoming – that life is "chaotic, chance-dominated, unpredictable" and that "there is no justice" – have been proved to some extent correct.

I want to say I had the feeling when reading it that it wasn't staying on that world, but rather going off to new worlds to disrupt and see what it could do there. This takes even that small victory.
 

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pemerton

Legend
I'm a little late to this thread - @Doug McCrae drew it to my attention

I don't think these particular ideas work as a dnd setting, as they clash with the necessary meta-gaming stuff required to work together as a team of strangers. Also, player meta-knowledge about characters sort of ruins it, too.
I think strong party play pushes against existentialism, or character-driven theme more generally, in RPGing. But it is possible to have multiple players without party play. And there are some themes that can work even with party play.

I don't quite see how player "meta-knowledge" is meant to be a problem. We can read existentialist literature and have meta-knowledge about the protagonists; why is this a problem in RPGing?

Now all that said, I'm not sure that D&D is the best system for this. I'd look for something that brings personal convictions and relationship more to the fore. Of S&S-ish/FRPG games the two I think of are In A Wicked Age and Burning Wheel.

I've always loved the IDEA of adding in existentialism to D&D, but I've always had trouble actually implementing it.

Because D&D characters gain new levels and abilities that continue to define, rather than redefine, who they are, change seems to be more about scaling than, well, change!

I wonder if there is something that could be added to, say, leveling up, or downtime activities that would introduce some systems to help players put their characters through existential changes?
I would be inclined to pursue this via the fiction rather than via the PC build rules. It can be as simple as a NPC drawing the PCs' attention to the carnage they leave behind them. Or framing situations that demand a choice from the player - eg in my 4e game, at Epic tier after the PCs had killed Torog, one of them had the choice to take on the mantle of god of pain and punishment. He did so. In mechanical terms this wasn't an out-of-line power up (it fitted into the treasure parcel system); in existential terms it obliged the player to confront something he'd been dancing around in relation to his character, namely, what does he really think about the enforcement of norms and the pursuit of social order?

I don't buy settings for mood, I buy them for mechanics.
Interesting. I don't buy many settings but when I do - eg 4e Dark Sun - it's more the mood/genre that I'm interested in.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
I agree that D&D has this tension (or, to speak less politely about it, this incoherence). I personally like how 4e D&D handled it - the core setting embraces the questing knights and basically drops the S&S elements; Dark Sun drops the questing knights and runs with S&S instead.

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.


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.
I wanted to reply to this in the same post as what I've said above, to make it clear that I'm not dissenting from your bigger picture.

But clearly Aragorn has to more than find it within himself to take that responsibility. That's probably truer of Frodo, though even there it understates things. But Aragorn had to go on his many years of errantry, prove himself as a warrior and ranger, and really become the greatest living exemplar of either. While the AD&D 10th level ranger ability is in many ways silly - a shallow trope shorn of all its thematic weight - it does get something right: "1st level" Aragorn could not have wrested the Orthanc-stone to his will no matter the rightness of his claim.

And turning to Conan, he does get supernatural help from "cosmic forces" - in The Phoenix on the Sword, and again The Hour of the Dragon.

I don't think these elements of convergence break down the contrast between Tolkien-esque "high" or romantic/reactionary fantasy, and REH-esque S&S/"modernist" fantasy. But they suggest the contrast is quite nuanced. It's about the through-line of history: Middle Earth has one; S&S doesn't. That's also what makes it "existentialist" at least in a loose sense.
 

pemerton

Legend
I never really understood this concept and I am religious. But even if there is no grand plan then who cares. Get up, kiss your wife, come home and play with the kids, watch the game, enjoy the company of your friends, help young people get a good start in life so they can get good jobs and be good neighbors. Even if I wasn’t religious I would want my family and neighbors happy and doing well. So I never really grasped this existentialism and nihilism.
The standard answer is that what you describe is bad faith ie treating a life-path that is not required as if it were, without really grappling with what would make one's life the best it can be.

There is a strong aesthetic element to existentialism, particularly if one looks at Nietzsche or even some strands in Sartre: given that nothing is fixed or fore-ordained, the onus falls on each individual to exemplify - through deliberate choice and then striving towards it - a conception of what is worthwhile. I didn't do it because I had to take in the garbage is taken to be a type of cop-out.

This is what makes Conan a candidate Nietzschean hero; and what makes Elric tragic (because of the doom that results from his striving).
 

pemerton

Legend
Conan was Good. Neutral Good, specifically.
Here is Conan's account of his reason for needing to leave Argos in a hurry, at the start of Queen of the Black Coast:

"By Crom, though I've spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.​
"Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.​
"But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable's stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign ports."​

I don't think that's easy to reconcile with D&D's understanding of Neutral Good. It doesn't get any easier if we consider Conan's reply to the ship master's question "Can you pay for your passage?":

"I pay my way with steel!" roared the man in armor, brandishing the great sword that glittered bluely in the sun. "By Crom, man, if you don't get under way, I'll drench this galley in the blood of its crew!"​

None of which is a reason to label Conan something else - perhaps Chaotic Neutral if we're determined to avoid Evil (although, as you posted upthread, alignment can change). It's a reason not to use alignment in S&S RPGing.
 

pemerton

Legend
In the 1e AD&D DMG Gary Gygax offers a solution to the existentialist problems of lack of meaning and purpose:

The game is not merely a meaningless dungeon and an urban base around which is plopped the dreaded wilderness. Each of you must design a world (DMG pg 21)​
There must be some purpose to it all. There must be some backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples. This need not be evident at first, but as play continues, hints should be given to players, and their characters should become involved in the interaction and struggle between these vaster entities. Thus, characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in expertise, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted. When this occurs, players then have a dual purpose to their play, for not only will their player characters and henchmen gain levels of experience, but their actions have meaning above and beyond that of personal aggrandizement. (DMG pg 112)​

According to Gygax, the PCs' existence becomes more meaningful when they are part of a wider world, a world greater than the bare minimum required to play D&D. This greater meaning is realised by becoming a soldier of increasing significance in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and knowing that one is part of that struggle. Existentialism finds meaning exclusively within individuals, whereas Gygax also finds it in the realm of the gods.
I wanted to riff on this a bit.

I think you're right to draw the contrast with Elric:

What was considered sufficient meaning by Gary Gygax in the AD&D 1e DMG – gaining knowledge of a cosmic struggle and fighting in that conflict as a willing soldier – is considered insufficient by Elric.
To me, the key departure from "existentialist" - but not only existentialist - premises in Gygax's paragraph is the assumption that "vaster entities" and their "interaction and struggle" are a source of meaning. This has been widely doubted since well before Sartre set pen to paper! It goes back at least to Plato's Euthyphro.

What distinguishes existentialism is not just atheism, and not just the rejection of Plato, but the rejection of self-revelatory value. There are (today, at least) many atheist Kantians and atheist Aristotelians, but while they're not Platonists they're mostly not existentialists because they think that value can be identified via reason: eg in the first case, by the exercise of reason, and particular an application of reason to circumstances of metaphysically free beings (ie humans, as conceived of by Kantians); in the second case, by the study of function and purpose as revealed by how things (including humans) work.

Existentialists accept the proposition that humans are free - radically free - but deny that reason yields value. I personally think Nietzsche gives the best argument for this conclusion, by showing how reason, and understandings of function, are themselves products of historical and cultural development, and hence contingent and so not apt to serve as a basis for self-revealing value. From this philosophical point of view, I think one main purpose of existentialist literature and film is to reveal the contingency of circumstance and duty. This is why we get the recurrent attacks upon conventionality, and upon the ways the conventional represent those conventions, to themselves and to others, as being genuinely valuable.

I think S&S's rejection of conventionality is consistent with those existentialist attacks upon it. I think some of the shock of this is harder to feel today, because of the general post-WWII and even moreso post-1968 abandonment of many "bourgeois" conventions. In Gygax's D&D terms, this sort of self-aggrandising hedonism (as it might seem, for instance, to a typical 19th century moralist) is best represented by CN.

And this is where we see, I think, the clearest rejection of existentialism by Gygax, in two ways:

This view of the cosmos holds that absolute freedom is necessary. Whether the individual exercising such freedom chooses to do good or evil is of no concern. After all, life itself is law and order, so death is a desirable end. Therefore, life can only be justified as a tool by which order is combatted, and in the end it too will pass into entropy.​

First, we have an existentialist outlook contrasted with good, which Gygax defines in a mixture of Kantian (ie rights, truth) and Aristotelean (ie welfare, beauty) terms. (There is no departure from the Euthyphro here. But there is an affirmation of self-revelatory value.)

Second, and I think even more tellingly, existentialism is identified with a desire for death. This is a hostile characterisation of the notion of radical freedom, I think. While Conan deals death, the overall tenor of REH's stories is life-affirming, I think. Conan has gigantic melancholy but also gigantic mirth, and loves life.

So overall we seem to have (yet another) case of D&D borrowing tropes but not really the deeper themes or ethos of the literature that inspires it.
 


Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Here is Conan's account of his reason for needing to leave Argos in a hurry, at the start of Queen of the Black Coast:

"By Crom, though I've spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.​
"Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.​
"But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable's stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign ports."​

I don't think that's easy to reconcile with D&D's understanding of Neutral Good. It doesn't get any easier if we consider Conan's reply to the ship master's question "Can you pay for your passage?":

"I pay my way with steel!" roared the man in armor, brandishing the great sword that glittered bluely in the sun. "By Crom, man, if you don't get under way, I'll drench this galley in the blood of its crew!"​

None of which is a reason to label Conan something else - perhaps Chaotic Neutral if we're determined to avoid Evil (although, as you posted upthread, alignment can change). It's a reason not to use alignment in S&S RPGing.
Three notes:

1) Conan is still a Barbarian who neither understands nor cares for the laws of cities. Much less something as meagre as "Contempt of Court". Threatening to lock him up "'until he rots" or commits an evil act (betraying his friend) is a threat. Add in rage as a class feature and a drastic misunderstanding of how legal threats work and you're in for a bad time.

2) Conan was fleeing violence in the dockside scene. Specifically he was trying to escape the guards from the courthouse who wanted him dead for refusing to betray his friend and killing the judge. He knew he could use his Pirate Background Trait to get the Captain to let him ride on the ship for free with a little threatening.

3) While alignment itself can change, it's also not a single-instance function. A person who is good can take evil actions on occasion for various reasons and still be "Good" so long as the majority of what they do is, or results in depending on your moral philosophy, good.

And while Conan and Sword and Sorcery in general are Existentialist, D&D Alignment is a mish-mash of different moral philosophies. From Kantian virtue ethics to consequentialism and more. 'Cause, y'know, it -attempts- to define people within a moral framework while Existentialism doesn't really bother. So determining his morality within that sort of system is going to either involve showing each moral step pace by pace or applying an overall alignment based on the full context of his career. I went for the second one.

For all his violence and threats, Howard still wanted a hero. So Conan followed Howard's morality without it's trappings and with Howard's personal power fantasies toward using violence, threats, or deceit against the societies and cultures that he railed against. Things Howard couldn't do in reality, like split a judge's head open for terrible and unjust laws like Contempt of Court. We can see the author's propensity for "Solving Problems" with overwhelming violence outside the bounds of law in his previously aforementioned letters. Conan, unbound by reality, could do what Howard could not.

I should note that we can infer Howard thought the law was terrible and unjust, I'm not claiming that it is or isn't.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
B4 The Lost City is based off in part on the short story Red Nails. It has all the tropes of existentialist sword & sorcery.
 



1) Conan is still a Barbarian who neither understands nor cares for the laws of cities. Much less something as meagre as "Contempt of Court". Threatening to lock him up "'until he rots" or commits an evil act (betraying his friend) is a threat. Add in rage as a class feature and a drastic misunderstanding of how legal threats work and you're in for a bad time.
Just a quick quibble on a good post- Rage didn't become a Barbarian class feature until after the class expanded into not just a Conan clone. Conan is not a berserker.
 


pemerton

Legend
This thread, including my post 126, has been treating existentialism as atheistic. But that isn't necessarily the case.

Kierkegaard is generally interpreted as an existentialist. One of his basic concerns is that most people inherit their faith/religion from their community - and so will normally be Christians if Danish (as he was), Muslim if Afghani, etc. Hence their conviction is in a certain sense not genuine but a product of convention. He saw the existential "leap" as required not because of the valuelessness of the universe as such, but because of the gap between conventional religious conviction and genuine faith.

And there are other forms of Christian existentialism - eg one of my favourite authors is Graham Greene, and I see his work (especially in novels like The End of the Affair) as Catholic existentialism. Part of his concern is how we come to engage with God - which (consistent with existentialism more generally) he treats as a problem of being and of relationships between beings (especially being for others) rather than just as a problem of knowledge.

The protagonist is trying to work out why his lover has left him. It turns out that, when she thought he was dying, she prayed that he would live, and promised God that she would give up anything, even him, if he were to survive. Which he did. The protagonist begins the story as an atheist but over its course encounters representations of God as he engages with various aspects of his (former) lover's life. And at the end he realises that he hates God for taking her from him. And hating God, is in a theistic relationship with Him and hence no longer an atheist.

In the context of FRPGing - not necessarily S&S - I think it should be possible to put these matters of faith or conviction front-and-centre. Burning Wheel has some aspects of the way it handles the Faith emotional attribute that do this. Thinking about it, it could also be something to explore in Dark Sun (given the premise of the abandonment by the gods rather than that they never existed). The challenge in D&D would be to handle this as more than just GM fiat, because GM fiat doesn't have the right element of coming to recognise oneself (ie the PC as played by the player) as a being in relation to the divinity.
 

This thread, including my post 126, has been treating existentialism as atheistic. But that isn't necessarily the case.

Kierkegaard is generally interpreted as an existentialist. One of his basic concerns is that most people inherit their faith/religion from their community - and so will normally be Christians if Danish (as he was), Muslim if Afghani, etc. Hence their conviction is in a certain sense not genuine but a product of convention. He saw the existential "leap" as required not because of the valuelessness of the universe as such, but because of the gap between conventional religious conviction and genuine faith.

And there are other forms of Christian existentialism - eg one of my favourite authors is Graham Greene, and I see his work (especially in novels like The End of the Affair) as Catholic existentialism. Part of his concern is how we come to engage with God - which (consistent with existentialism more generally) he treats as a problem of being and of relationships between beings (especially being for others) rather than just as a problem of knowledge.

The protagonist is trying to work out why his lover has left him. It turns out that, when she thought he was dying, she prayed that he would live, and promised God that she would give up anything, even him, if he were to survive. Which he did. The protagonist begins the story as an atheist but over its course encounters representations of God as he engages with various aspects of his (former) lover's life. And at the end he realises that he hates God for taking her from him. And hating God, is in a theistic relationship with Him and hence no longer an atheist.

In the context of FRPGing - not necessarily S&S - I think it should be possible to put these matters of faith or conviction front-and-centre. Burning Wheel has some aspects of the way it handles the Faith emotional attribute that do this. Thinking about it, it could also be something to explore in Dark Sun (given the premise of the abandonment by the gods rather than that they never existed). The challenge in D&D would be to handle this as more than just GM fiat, because GM fiat doesn't have the right element of coming to recognise oneself (ie the PC as played by the player) as a being in relation to the divinity.
wait someone else can see that hate and love are types of caring or having an opinion of something?
 


grimslade

Doddering Old Git
Alright, now do Humean Scepticism in classical French/ Italian fairy tales!
Existentialism as a story hook for either individual characters or for the party as a whole is fantastic. Of course, you need player buy-in, but it is a great way to show players that character choices and actions do change their character.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Alright, now do Humean Scepticism in classical French/ Italian fairy tales!
Existentialism as a story hook for either individual characters or for the party as a whole is fantastic. Of course, you need player buy-in, but it is a great way to show players that character choices and actions do change their character.
Lemme just crack my knuckles and...

Nah. Don't know enough about David Hume and his philosophy. Except that he could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

I'm just a huge nerd with a passing understanding of Existentialism and a current hyperfixation on the Swords and Sorcery which informed it!
 

One of the elements in Sword and Sorcery, especially via Conan, is the idea of cyclic and frequently catastrophic history.

In the Conan stories this is filled with all kinds of assumptions from 19th century race "science" but it doesn't really need to be. However, any progress in Conan's world is purely ephemeral. Even Conan himself is basically powerless to affect history in any lasting way. The historical actors in the Hyborian age essays are entirely racial groups, not individuals. While that it obviously objectionable, it could easily be replaced with historical forces (although not progress - at least not of a lasting kind), the decline and fall of nations and civilisations in ultimately bigger than individuals. Conan may become king of Aquilonia, but Aquilonia will ultimately be not even a memory.

This is part of the existentialist theme. There's no great man theory of history here. Ultimately nothing a hero does will be remembered in the long run. They can't look to history for meaning any more then they can look to the metaphysical.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
One of the elements in Sword and Sorcery, especially via Conan, is the idea of cyclic and frequently catastrophic history.

In the Conan stories this is filled with all kinds of assumptions from 19th century race "science" but it doesn't really need to be. However, any progress in Conan's world is purely ephemeral. Even Conan himself is basically powerless to affect history in any lasting way. The historical actors in the Hyborian age essays are entirely racial groups, not individuals. While that it obviously objectionable, it could easily be replaced with historical forces (although not progress - at least not of a lasting kind), the decline and fall of nations and civilisations in ultimately bigger than individuals. Conan may become king of Aquilonia, but Aquilonia will ultimately be not even a memory.

This is part of the existentialist theme. There's no great man theory of history here. Ultimately nothing a hero does will be remembered in the long run. They can't look to history for meaning any more then they can look to the metaphysical.
VERY Accurate.

And it's all based in Howard's childhood in Boom n' Bust Texas. Town springs up when someone strikes oil, everyone starts making and spending big piles of cash, in comes drugs and prostitution and booze, and as soon as the well runs dry the town collapses in on itself. Empty houses, empty buildings, rotting in the wasteland of what was.

But.

While Conan's actions would be lost to history, like the entire actions of Aquilonia over it's existence, or Cimmeria, or Stygia, as each one rises and then falls to literal degeneration. (It was canonical that the different Races of Men would evolve from apes and yeti and such, build huge sprawling kingdoms, succumb to decadence, get largely wiped out, and again become ape-like things until they evolved, again!) Conan's actions -were- meaningful in the long run.

Because while they would be forgotten, he still defeated Gods, like Zath. Gods whose influence spans beyond the years of men or their cultures. Had Zath not been killed it might still plague us to this day... Like Lovecraft's gods still do, many of which existed in Conan's era.

Because even the existentialism of Conan winds up bowing to Sprague's desire to lionize a Hero.

You can read about the de-evolution and re-evolution in Howard's Essay: The Hyborian Age here:
 

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