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D&D 5E Existentialist Sword and Sorcery


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Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
Obvious how? Because I don't see it.
There's no coalition. No cooperation. It's all racially homogenous groups of people accomplishing good or evil and pretty much always darker homogenous groups doing evil.

In Conan, the White People of the West from various kingdoms do big successful things (that ultimately fall into the sands of time) which almost invariably go against the wicked sorceries of Stygia or Turan's brutish forces or whatever minority ethnic group Howard and his cadre wanted to portray as the most recent villain.

Individual Turani or Stygians can be heroic (Generally by fighting against their own people or divorcing themselves from their cultural heritage) but by and large they're the Baddies in Howard's stories 'cause dude was racist.
 

Yora

Legend
Yeah, kind of. But the history is glossed over in such broad strokes that the differentiation becomes expected.
We still talk about "The Romans", "The Mongols" and "The Muslims" as conquering vast territories and those all had vast internal things going on among dozens of groups that are whole epics in their own.
I can't really fault Howard there.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
This is why you should fault Howard there, @Yora,

"The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth."

Because yup... dude was racist AF and it is reflected in his works where primarily white people do good and primarily black people do bad.
 

Almost certainly less so than Lovecraft; Howard at least believed in the individual. But yeah, he was following a race-oriented colonialist view of history and writing in that mode. It gets gross in places.
 

Yora

Legend
This is why you should fault Howard there, @Yora,

"The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth."

Because yup... dude was racist AF and it is reflected in his works where primarily white people do good and primarily black people do bad.
That seems weird, because I'm pretty certain he firmly believed that the White Man would be the next one to get swept under the rug of history, to be replaced by whoever comes next.
And that the Anglo-German-French had become masters of the world during the 19th and 20th century is hard to dispute.
 

grimslade

Doddering Old Git
Let's leave the racism discussion behind and stick to embracing the void.
Sword and Sorcery has a very thick vein of actions being forgotten by history but being huge to the present. Heroes, well protagonists, of S&S stories are masters of their own destiny. They move through the world and the world responds. Conan admits to breaking and entering to steal an artifact for a noble in "The God in the Bowl", but refuses to accept guilt for the murder of Publico. He has control over the situation even though he is technically in guard custody, only his actions and reactions matter. He kills his nobleman employer for lying in front of the Guards, Maims several guards who attempt to seize him, and solves the mystery of the original murder. To top it off he kills an ancient naga-like creature and escapes. The NPCs all dither and argue and can not make headway one way or another.
You see this in every other bit of S&S fiction. The John Carter's, the Tarzan's, the Sinbad the Sailor's seize the opportunity and their action dictates the results. Those results are typically short term goals and are wiped away by the march of time, but the NPCs don't even forge their own present. Even when the protagonist has a set back it is always a partial victory, the hero is captured but managed to save a vital clue or save an innocent. Conan seizes the throne in Aquilonia, he isn't handed it because 'who has a better story than Bran the Broken?'
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
That seems weird, because I'm pretty certain he firmly believed that the White Man would be the next one to get swept under the rug of history, to be replaced by whoever comes next.
And that the Anglo-German-French had become masters of the world during the 19th and 20th century is hard to dispute.
Wings in the Night by Robert E. Howard, 1932.
@grimslade
You can say the same thing for literally every form of Media, though. Only the heroes/protagonists -actually- get anything done while everyone else faffs around and dies, usually while trying to impede the heroes for some ridiculous reason to make them seem even more comically inept.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
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.
The title makes me think of Nausea the RPG: "Hell is other people." The Sheltering Sky is one of my favorite books/movies also:

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
-Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
 

pemerton

Legend
The Wikipeida entry on "eternal recurrence" includes a brief discussion of Nietzsche's views: Eternal return - Wikipedia

Relating this to existentialism, I think that a literal presentation (say as per REH's) of eternal recurrence or of the passing of all things with time serves as a metaphor for the lack of inherent or self-revelatory value in things.

A nice treatment in fantasy fiction, in my view, is the amazing film Ashes of Time.
 

Remathilis

Legend
Remember...
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