Gamemastering advice on preparing adventures for Sword & Sorcery campaigns

Yora

Legend
With the previous attempt of starting a thread that doesn't immediately turn into a discussion about what Sword & Sorcery actually is and the history of how the term came to be failing as spectacularly as all Sword & Sorcery RPG threads always do, here's me taking another try at actually having a discussion about gamemastering advice on preparing adventures for Sword & Sorcery campaigns.
If you think there is anything unclear about what Sword & Sorcery actually is, I direct you over here.

Since you can discuss that over there, I want again try to make it clear that tangents on whether something is strictly Sword & Sorcery are strengstens verboten in this thread. I did let it slide too much last time, and I don't know how many times the mods here will let me get away with starting new threads. Just please, please, please, pwease, don't do it. Do it over here.

There's only two definitions we need here:
The Fritz Leiber Definition: When Michael Moorcock asked Fritz Leiber "How should we name our stories that are in the spirit of Robert Howard so people stop putting us in the same bag as Tolkien?", Leiber said "We should call it Sword & Sorcery." Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock: Sword and Sorcery. John Tolkien: Not Sword & Sorcery.
The Elephant Definition: "It's really difficult to describe, but I know it when I see it."

I don't expect this to work, but hope always dies last.

What do you think are good ways for gamemasters to write adventures and run them in a way to create a feel of Sword & Sorcery stories?
Here's the pieces I found relevant to this topic on the other thread.

One trope I like from Sword and Sorcery is "society is decadent and corrupting", and I would probably use this to influence the quests and quest givers when designing a campaign.

For example, rather than have a starting town the party save from a looming threat. I would probably make the starting town a pretty horrible place, perhaps with a subjugated peoples, and I make the quest givers horrible people to boot.

I would have the quest giver send them on morally dubious quests before they later betray the party at some point, perhaps by sending them into a fighting pit full of reptilian monstrosities instead of paying them their fee. Once the party have battled their way out of the fighting pit, they can fight that early quest giver and unwittingly emancipate the peoples of the town (hopefully making them anti-heroes in the process).

I think one subtle element is that the setting is just that: it's scenery, a backdrop. The protagonists don't have much emotional attachment to the world around them, and they're definitely not there to change it. They interact with their immediate surroundings, they're not concerned with the past or the future or anything that's happening further away than the reach of their axe.

It's just that very interesting things tend to happen within that reach.

As a GM I would prepare an open world style and give the party multiple avenues they can solve a situation. I would expect them to both return the mcguffin to its rightful owner as well as keep it for themselves. Characters often get ripped off by dubious allies, I would give them the opportunity for bloody revenge. They should be able to hand out justice as they see fit even if it means assasinating a local king they disagree with.

In Sword & Sorcery, you don't generally have a happy peaceful starting situation that is being disrupted by an outside force and an expectation that the protagonists will set things right by returning them back to the status quo.
Though I'd be very careful to use betrayal sparingly and for times where it will have strong impact. If the first two people the PCs work for both betray them, you send the players the message to never take on any jobs. I think that can cause a lot of problems further down the road.
But I think it can be pretty neat to have NPCs try to cheat the PCs out of money rather than stabbing them in the back. For example, a merchants appearing unhappy when the party shows up to claim their reward because he didn't expect to actually have to pay the money he promised.

For me part of it is about telling the story of characters making their way through a dangerous world. Even if they're not particularly goal oriented themselves, the nature of the environment means that 'adventure' will eventually come their way.

My advice, based a little bit on personal experience, would be to drop the GM creates an adventure and instead to focus on the PCs have their own stakes in whatever is going on. I would look for a system that gives the PCs fairly clear needs (eg a wealth/resources rating that is under constant pressure) and gives the players fairly straightforward ways to get involved and make things happen.

1. Danger. Look, it's not like Conan or Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser or Elric were getting killed off in every short story (let me introduce you to Conan II!). But early D&D was certainly dangerous- whether in terms of traps, death, TPKs, or any number of other factors. While this mapping to the literary genre is inexact, there was a real feeling of danger to the characters, because the world was dangerous, and the characters could (and would) die.

2. Good doesn't necessarily triumph. This is not Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander; the heroes are not destined to do great things, and good does not win out. Sometimes evil triumphs. In the long run, maybe it's inevitable.

3. Complex and gritty. Look, it's a fantasy world, but it's a fantasy world that's out to get you. Civilization exists in patches, and where it does exist, it's not always a great thing; great power corrupts, and great kingdoms (or, in the case of Greyhawk, the Great Kingdom) are likely to be corrupt and fallen. A thieves' guild is likely to be the real power, if not the Mayor.

4. Low magic. This is a rather ... we'll say arguable topic, as people love to discuss what defines low magic. But in early D&D, there were no cantrips, and magic users were notoriously underpowered for many levels; you could and would have multiple combats go by without any spellcasting. Because spellcasting took a while, and due to initiative, the ability of martial characters in your party to "disrupt" evil spellcasters was always present, giving some verisimilitude to the S&S trope of the swordsman who has to close in with the sorcerer.

5. Ye olde inne. Look, it's a hoary trope now, but the concept of a group of mercenaries looking to be hired for a job ... that's as S&S as you get. There are no grand adventure paths- just jobs to be done, tombs to be raided, and, um, modules to do. ;) In other words, the standard S&S trope of the mercenary was reflected in the episodic nature of the game- in early D&D, this is reflected by the presence of shorter, standalone modules that can be integrated into the campaign.

6. Characters are selfish. I don't want to put too much of an emphasis on this- the PCs will have other interests and other goals, but when we discuss S&S, the characters aren't saving the kingdom because it's the right thing to do- they do it because they are paid (and, often, double-crossed). In early D&D, this is reflected by the emphasis on money as XP.

I think Sword & Sorcery benefits particularly well from not having an expectation of what happens next. The GM writing a custom adventure based on what the players say they want and what happened in the last game certainly is a considerable degree of freedom, but I think the more roguish and swashbuckling you get, the more desirable it becomes for the players to be able to completely throw everything they planned out of the window in the heat of the moment and do something drastically different.
They players may have said at the end of the last game that they will accept the offer of the thieves' guild and work together against a common foe, but there should be room for the players deciding they actually want to betray the thieves and expose the entire plan to a rival faction. I think this should be possible, and the players understand that they have this option without making many hours of preparation completely pointless. And of course, in such situations, the GM should prepare material accordingly.

I'd have to read the whole thing again to be sure, but I think that's exactly what the whole don't prep plots is about.

I think another factor to keep in mind for a Sword & Sorcery type world/campaign is how commoners view magic. I feel I hammer on this point a lot, but common people would be terrified of magic and anyone who can use it, especially if most magicians they saw were doing evil or harmful things (cultists, the corrupt king's mind readers, turning folks into newts, etc.). Now, some people argue that levying a massive social penalty onto magic-using PCs is unfair, but I think it's something that you can cover in your Session 0 if not before.

Nobody trusts a magic user, and even clerics aren't going to be immune to that; sure, your magic brought Urgevd the Cobbler back to his feet and even restored his mangled arm - but what ELSE did it do? And will that evil spread? And how do we know you aren't just controlling all of our minds as we speak?!

Monster Island, an excellent campaign supplement for RuneQuest6/Mythras (and most BRP games) has some suggestions in its Campaign chapter. The chapter discusses these at length but these are the headlines:

First, this campaign supplement happens to be a sandbox which has its own definitions, but one that also fits a picaresque hero which aligns quite well with sword & sorcery.
So, a sandbox -

Not Everything is Meant to be Killed.
No good & evil amongst competing groups. NPCs can be met and interacted with as the players choose, likely with consequences later on. Your system should be tough and dangerous for the PCs (in this it's RQ6/Mythras). Prudence is the best protection.

There is no Game Balance.
The wilderness is filled with danger, this should be a prompt for inventiveness on the part of the players. Death and maiming is possible and even likely. Roll up several characters.

Every Action has a Consequence.
The sandbox region and inhabitants are dynamic, nothing remains static. Not all consequences are bad though, alliances may be formed.

Options and Objectives.
Overarching campaign plots are not necessary although the threads can be there to be picked up by players & PCs.

~Genre aspects of Sword & Sorcery~
The sandbox provides the framework within which a S&S game can be played:

- Living for the Day
Adventures are at a personal level. Quests are pragmatic not epic.

- No Black & White Morality
Flawed heroes, who do not reflect modern sensibilities.

- Healing is Hard
Magical healing is rare in S&S. This makes repetitive combat very dangerous.

- The Corrupting Power of Magic
Magic can be huge and sorcerers sacrifice personal morality. Magic is terrifying and deadly.

- Horror of the Unknown
The places and creatures encountered are strange, mysterious and alien (sometimes literally).

- Anthropocentric and Xenophobic
The protagonists are human, and most of the foes are too. When non-humans are met, they are almost always adversaries.
 

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TimWest

Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery: Sundaland
Something that might be useful for a GM is to allow for and leverage the weirdness that comes from content that is randomly generated with tables and other tools. You save yourself a lot of time and at the same time you create the sense that this world is slightly strange, unknowable or alien without having to go full gonzo (laser-guns and giant robot unicorns).

It seems to me that in many fantasy settings a great deal of effort is put into internal consistency and coherency. Think of all those guides on creating your own campaign setting. The result is not leaving any empty spots on a map, knowing the names and characteristic of all 361 deities and being able to explain, at least on a high level, the economy of every capital city on the continent.

But in a S&S setting you can get away with, and benefit from describing a city as situated in the middle of a desert, without it being quite clear how it's sustaining itself. It's been there for "untold centuries" and they worship "a multitude of strange gods whose original names have all been forgotten". Sure if a characters goes around asking for more details they might get some more information. But thinking up every single detail is a waste of time and will directly undermine the feeling you are trying to create.

As I said earlier you can lean into this by creating content with tools like random tables. You'll sometimes get results that don't quite seem to mesh together, but that's ok. That's what creates the slightly weird vibe. Resist the temptation to have an in depth rationale for everything.

This is especially the case for magic IMO, the more you describe and define magic the less magical it becomes and more like a technology.
 

Yora

Legend
Something that everyone participating in that discussion seems to agree on (or at least nobody contradicts), is that with Sword & Sorcery protagonists, you never know what they will do. Some are capable of great heroics, while others act entirely out of selfishness and spite. Or you have them doing both, one shortly after the other. The only rules they have to follow is their own sense of right and wrong, which they don't have to explain to anyone. Not even the GM.

I feel that instead of trying to rein in such tendencies, to create the feel of Sword & Sorcery, GMs should actually encourage them. But this also means that as GM, you can't really plan for what the players are likely to do in any scene they encounter. You might have some guesses what they might do in certain situations once you've become familiar with how they play their characters, but it's always possible that they decide on doing something completely different in the heat of the moment and decide to chop the head off the noble they helped plotting to overthrow his lord for the last three months.

To make such a campaign work, the only practical way to prepare anything is to not have any story prepared that you want the players to act out. Instead of preparing stories, you have to prepare situations (consisting of actors, conflicts, and locations) and unleash the players on them to do with as they please.
Sword & Sorcery PCs should be loose canons, and the players encouraged to do whatever they think is cool in the moment. If it causes difficult consequences down the road, those are bridges they can burn when they get there.

I think a major aspect of this is that "failure is always an option". What Sword & Sorcery adventures need is a conclusion, not a victory. If an adventure ends with the PCs riding into the darkness of the night while the whole city goes down in flame, that's a successful conclusion. I think whatever systems of incentives is used for rewarding players to finishing an adventure, the condition should be on having a conclusion, not a victory. Even if they failed all their goals and suffered defeat, if they fought bravely, they should still get their earnings. It's not the style of Sword & Sorcery to to dwell on spilled milk under the bridge.
 

TimWest

Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery: Sundaland
You'd have to be clear about the incentive and reward structure that's in place for the game. I'm assuming that most RPG players expect a steady progress for their characters whether it's wealth, skills or reputation. They have to be ok with 'success' being that they walk away with their lives.

If the adventures are episodic and disconnected they might have to be ok with no change in their characters ability. The characters are pretty much the same from adventure to adventure.

If the adventures follow each other linearly in time they might have to be satisfied with just improving their skills through use. You escape into the night with just the clothes on your back failing to steal the jewel... but you did improve your 'Sneaking in the dark' skill.

I'm perfectly fine with either of those options but I understand many players enjoy the incentives of collecting cool gear, improving their skills and gathering fame and wealth.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Persuant somewhat to the above, the stories and plots also tend to be personal and local. A S&S hero might not really care about how evil the local baron is until said Baron has the hero's friend killed or kidnapped. So motivations remain the stuff of low-level adventures, ironically enough, though that doesn't mean the adventures actually need to stay low-level.

After all, Jirel of Joiry traveled to different planes, and Conan faced off against villains who cast what could easily be refluffed fireballs. Jack Vance's stories abound with weird and tough opponents. But the protagonists in the stories are rarely altruistic, and in fact many of the adventures happen when the characters are actually
 

TimWest

Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery: Sundaland
For those that have watched the Mandalorian. Do you think it has a somewhat S&S feel to it?

The main character is just trying to get by in the universe and it's episodic in nature. The grogu story line obviously takes on more importance as the show goes on, but set that aside for the moment.

The episodes match possible adventure scenarios. For example:

1. Bounty hunting jobs.
2. Fetch quests.
3. Helping regular people in exchange for something he wants.
4. People he's crossed in the past coming back for revenge.
5. Escapes.
6. Break ins.

Contrast it with the old 80s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon which is also episodic in nature but feels different. The characters have a consistent motivation to get home. Their patron (the Dungeon Master) is giving them quests, they go out of their way to do good deeds for people.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
TL;DR. Pop a PBR tall boy and drop the needle on a Molly Hatchet record. The rest writes itself.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
For those that have watched the Mandalorian. Do you think it has a somewhat S&S feel to it?

The main character is just trying to get by in the universe and it's episodic in nature. The grogu story line obviously takes on more importance as the show goes on, but set that aside for the moment.

The episodes match possible adventure scenarios. For example:

1. Bounty hunting jobs.
2. Fetch quests.
3. Helping regular people in exchange for something he wants.
4. People he's crossed in the past coming back for revenge.
5. Escapes.
6. Break ins.

Contrast it with the old 80s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon which is also episodic in nature but feels different. The characters have a consistent motivation to get home. Their patron (the Dungeon Master) is giving them quests, they go out of their way to do good deeds for people.
I'd say any fantastical western can have elements that are useful to learn from for S&S.
 

Hand of Evil

Hero
Epic
BOUNCE - Sword & Sorcery games have a flow and pace to them that I like to call bounce. It is quick action and flashy settings. You have to think about your descriptive adjectives to reflect this. Take the time to look up words you can use to add character to a location or make a NPC standout to the players.

SPECIAL LOCATIONS - These are places the players keep coming back to. Spend time on the atmosphere of these places, so the players feel they are invested in them. Keep a record of what happens and remember, For every action there is a re-action.
 

Yora

Legend
It seems to me that in many fantasy settings a great deal of effort is put into internal consistency and coherency. Think of all those guides on creating your own campaign setting. The result is not leaving any empty spots on a map, knowing the names and characteristic of all 361 deities and being able to explain, at least on a high level, the economy of every capital city on the continent.

But in a S&S setting you can get away with, and benefit from describing a city as situated in the middle of a desert, without it being quite clear how it's sustaining itself. It's been there for "untold centuries" and they worship "a multitude of strange gods whose original names have all been forgotten". Sure if a characters goes around asking for more details they might get some more information. But thinking up every single detail is a waste of time and will directly undermine the feeling you are trying to create.
That's a really good thought. Not only do Sword & Sorcery settings tend to be more blank spaces than known places, it's also generally near impossible to find any clear patterns.
If you had a campaign in Middle-Earth, you'd expect every small ruin you come across to be known to sages and be part of a greater story. In Middle-Earth, you could say the primary role of ruins is to serve as memorials. Consulting the most learned character in the party on what he knows about the history of the place every time you reach one would be completely appropriate for that specific setting and it's tone.
In Sword & Sorcery, usually nobody knows, or even expects anyone to know. Local gossip about a nearby ruin is much more useful than asking a sage about its historical origin. it just is. It's origins being lost to time is a big part of the tone that much of Sword & Sorcery has.

This does not only apply to places. Supernatural stuff also seems to be usually outside of clear categories that are understood by mortals. In a game system like later editions of Dungeons & Dragons, you have clear distinctions between a demon and and elemental. Or a demon and an aberration. I think Sword & Sorcery almost never makes such distinctions. They are all supernatural monsters that come from strange places unknown to mortals.
And with that in mind, I think a vaguely defined "Underworld" is the most you get in the way of other worlds or dimensions. Demons might come from a completely separate realm, but it's not a place that characters could visit. Instead, you more commonly have large unnatural areas or regions that are part of the same continuous landscape as the homelands of mortals. You reach those places not though magic portals, but why walking beyond the edges of the known world.
 

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