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Gamemastering advice on preparing adventures for Sword & Sorcery campaigns

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Many pulp adventure writers had the good sense to not keep all their eggs in one basket, and wrote serialized and short fiction in many adventure and thriller genres, so there's definitely overlap in the tropes of S&S, westerns, hard-boiled detective yarns, etc.
Yep, and probably in part because of that, a lot of the more…existential western stories have a lot of the same feel as S&S. Stephen King’s Dark Tower most of all. I’d suggest that the gunslinger of that world is a Paladin in a D&D context.
 

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Yora

Hero
This is a very good point, i think, and I'm wondering what a GM could do to a very structured, defined magic system in a ruleset to make it less defined and less safe. Game like D&D and Pathfinder have very detailed, very well-defined magic systems. At the risk of nerfing spellcasters (assuming one wants to allow them at all in a S&S game - and I'm well aware some folks do not), I wonder if things like Wisdom saves when casting or using any magic, using the chaos magic tables more often, and things like that, would be simple ways to make magic feel more raw and dangerous.
Personally, I think that's just the opposite of how I would approach it. Adding more mechanics ends up turning magic even more into a codified minigame.
I think spellcasters should definitely get reduced in their capabilities. In 3rd edition especially, but 5th edition as well, magic is a universal tool for all situations, that does everything better than the mundane way to deal with an obstacle. Magic should not be the way to go to deal with something because its faster and easier.

The primary uses of magic I see in Sword & Sorcery stories are divinations, enchantments, illusions, and necromancy, along with some conjurations and transmutations. What you actually don't see are fireballs and lightning bolts, or shimmering barriers.
Magic is not flashy or sparkling. It's subtle and often outright invisible. It's a mystical force beyond the understanding of ordinary people. Not "pew-pew, I'ma firing my lazors!" Or in the immortal words of Darth Vader "the ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force". (Though Lucas himself seems to have forgotten that during the prequel movies.)

In D&D 5th edition, I think the warlock makes for a very decent S&S sorcerer, though I would also do the class without the eldritch blast. But at that point you probably lose all prople who expect to play D&D 5th edition.
 

ART!

Hero
Personally, I think that's just the opposite of how I would approach it. Adding more mechanics ends up turning magic even more into a codified minigame.
I think spellcasters should definitely get reduced in their capabilities. In 3rd edition especially, but 5th edition as well, magic is a universal tool for all situations, that does everything better than the mundane way to deal with an obstacle. Magic should not be the way to go to deal with something because its faster and easier.

The primary uses of magic I see in Sword & Sorcery stories are divinations, enchantments, illusions, and necromancy, along with some conjurations and transmutations. What you actually don't see are fireballs and lightning bolts, or shimmering barriers.
Magic is not flashy or sparkling. It's subtle and often outright invisible. It's a mystical force beyond the understanding of ordinary people. Not "pew-pew, I'ma firing my lazors!"
That all makes sense. Maybe I'm just wondering if there's a way to attach a couple-few caveats on top of a D&D-ish magic system, rather than go through spell by spell and say "yes, no, yes but with changes" ad nauseum. Limiting available schools of magic might be a good way to do that.

My group is more attached to D&D 5E than I'm prepared to fight against, and I'm cool with that, but I'm looking for ways to tweak it for S&S. I'm not going to place any restrictions on races, but any instance of innate spellcasting will be replaced with something else approriate. The rest can easily be handwaved: "I don't sleep much, I just take little cat-naps", "I have good night vision", etc. I don't want to bore down into every single subclass, either, so I'm looking for the aforementioned caveats.
 

Yora

Hero
I'd guess that be a question for a general S&S discussion, not so much about writing adventures.

Coming back to that topic and continuing my post from yesterday, I think one useful way to describe large sections of Sword & Sorcery is "sensual", in every sense of that word.
While many heroes have their drama-queen moments of self-pitty, when running a game, I think the focus should be on action and excitement. Sword & Sorcery in the style of Howard and Frazetta is sweaty, dusty, grimey, and highly physical. There's of course lots of people getting impaled on swords, but I think there should also be a lot of wrestling in the combat. Wrestling with other humans, large apes, and huge snakes, breaking the necks of crocodiles, tearing limbs of undead, and strangling angry wolves.
Pretty much everyone is hot and they all love to show off their bodies. Heroes are hot, nobles are hot. All evil sorceresses are hot and even many evil sorcerers are total hunks. Even Skeletor is a hunk. There's lots of wine and food, and in fights everyone gets covered in blood.
The arctic all-wether loincloth is silly, but it exists for a reason.
 

ART!

Hero
I'd guess that be a question for a general S&S discussion, not so much about writing adventures.
I don't know - I think discussing ways to tweak systems is pretty integral to GMing adventures. No one wants to get bogged down in specific systems, but we can still discuss fantasy RPGs and ways to approach common aspects of them that on the surface might seem to work against an S&S tone.
 


I would say first sit down with your players and come to an agreement on what S&S is and that, that is what they want to play. Then figure out how gritty, low magic or what and so forth.

From memory (it a long time since I read Howard or Leiber) but there was often only 3 or 4 combat encounters in a story and i would go with the gritty rest variant if using D&D.
As for preparation, I would go with a sandbox structure or have some kind of antagonist in the character backstory.
 

Dioltach

Legend
A couple of thoughts:

  • I'd consider adding extra damage to physical attacks (perhaps 1/level, even 2/level for fighter types?), to reflect the quick and bloody nature of physical combat.
  • Gods should be only vaguely defined, more cult-like than organised religion, and clerical healing should not be widely available.
  • Anything supernatural is almost by definition evil. So no celestial hounds to answer your summoning spells, only demonic ones.
  • I'd strongly discourage wizard and sorcerer PCs. Instead, perhaps give rogues more access to scrolls and other consumable items.
  • Otherwise make magic use addictive. How about this? Casters (including clerics) must need to gain XP from using magic (spells, rituals) or suffer consequences. The higher their level, the more XP they need to gain or the faster they need to gain it. If they don't gain their weekly XP requirement, any XP they gain first goes towards making up that deficit before it goes to the PC's actual XP total.
  • Magic weapons are great, but they should perhaps have something menacing. Definitely no Holy Avengers, but a shortsword that has a murky aura surrounding it is very S&S. Maybe apply the spellcasting addiction rules to powerful items as well.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
The primary uses of magic I see in Sword & Sorcery stories are divinations, enchantments, illusions, and necromancy, along with some conjurations and transmutations. What you actually don't see are fireballs and lightning bolts, or shimmering barriers.
Magic is not flashy or sparkling. It's subtle and often outright invisible. It's a mystical force beyond the understanding of ordinary people.

Are you sure about that?

Conan rushed, sword gleaming, eyes slits of wariness. Tsotha's right hand came back and forward, and the king ducked quickly. Something passed by his helmeted head and exploded behind him, searing the very sands with a flash of hellish fire.
- The Scarlet Citadel, REH

His hand came from under his robe holding something that flamed and burned in the sun, changing the light to a pulsing golden glow in which the flesh of Xaltotun looked like the flesh of a corpse.
Xaltotun cried out as if he had been stabbed.
"The Heart! The Heart of Ahriman!"
"Aye! The one power that is greater than your power!"
Xaltotun seemed to shrivel, to grow old. Suddenly his beard was shot with snow, his locks flecked with gray.
"The Heart!" he mumbled. "You stole it! Dog! Thief!"
"Not I! It has been on a long journey far to the southward. But now it is in my hands, and your black arts cannot stand against it. As it resurrected you, so shall it hurl you back into the night whence it drew you. You shall go down the dark road to Acheron, which is the road of silence and the night. The dark empire, unreborn, shall remain a legend and a black memory. Conan shall reign again. And the Heart of Ahriman shall go back into the cavern below the temple of Mitra, to burn as a symbol of the power of Aquilonia for a thousand years!"

Xaltotun screamed inhumanly and rushed around the altar, dagger lifted; but from somewhere—out of the sky, perhaps, or the great jewel that blazed in the hand of Hadrathus—shot a jetting beam of blinding blue light. Full against the breast of Xaltotun it flashed, and the hills re-echoed the concussion. The wizard of Acheron went down as though struck by a thunderbolt, and before he touched the ground he was fearfully altered. Beside the altar-stone lay no fresh-slain corpse, but a shriveled mummy, a brown, dry, unrecognizable carcass sprawling among moldering swathings.
- The Hour of the Dragon, REH

Yara recoiled, his dark face ashy. The jewel was no longer crystal-clear; its murky depths pulsed and throbbed, and curious smoky waves of changing color passed over its smooth surface. As if drawn hypnotically, Yara bent over the table and gripped the gem in his hands, staring into its shadowed depths, as if it were a magnet to draw the shuddering soul from his body. And as Conan looked, he thought that his eyes must be playing him tricks. For when Yara had risen up from his couch, the priest had seemed gigantically tall; yet now he saw that Yara's head would scarcely come to his shoulder. He blinked, puzzled, and for the first time that night, doubted his own senses. Then with a shock he realized that the priest was shrinking in stature—was growing smaller before his very gaze.

With a detached feeling he watched, as a man might watch a play; immersed in a feeling of overpowering unreality, the Cimmerian was no longer sure of his own identity; he only knew that he was looking upon the external evidence of the unseen play of vast Outer forces, beyond his understanding.

Now Yara was no bigger than a child; now like an infant he sprawled on the table, still grasping the jewel. And now the sorcerer suddenly realized his fate, and he sprang up, releasing the gem. But still he dwindled, and Conan saw a tiny, pygmy figure rushing wildly about the ebony table-top, waving tiny arms and shrieking in a voice that was like the squeak of an insect.

Now he had shrunk until the great jewel towered above him like a hill, and Conan saw him cover his eyes with his hands, as if to shield them from the glare, as he staggered about like a madman. Conan sensed that some unseen magnetic force was pulling Yara to the gem. Thrice he raced wildly about it in a narrowing circle, thrice he strove to turn and run out across the table; then with a scream that echoed faintly in the ears of the watcher, the priest threw up his arms and ran straight toward the blazing globe.

Bending close, Conan saw Yara clamber up the smooth, curving surface, impossibly, like a man climbing a glass mountain. Now the priest stood on the top, still with tossing arms, invoking what grisly names only the gods know. And suddenly he sank into the very heart of the jewel, as a man sinks into a sea, and Conan saw the smoky waves close over his head. Now he saw him in the crimson heart of the jewel, once more crystal-clear, as a man sees a scene far away, tiny with great distance. And into the heart came a green, shining winged figure with the body of a man and the head of an elephant—no longer blind or crippled. Yara threw up his arms and fled as a madman flees, and on his heels came the avenger. Then, like the bursting of a bubble, the great jewel vanished in a rainbow burst of iridescent gleams, and the ebony table-top lay bare and deserted—as bare, Conan somehow knew, as the marble couch in the chamber above, where the body of that strange transcosmic being called Yag-kosha and Yogah had lain.
Tower of the Elephant, REH

Sorcery can do big stuff and look very flashy in S&S.
 

Yora

Hero
Though notice that at least two of those describe magical items, and the third one also sounds more like one.
Sorcery is often incredibly powerful, but you can't generally replace it with a laser gun to get the same effect. That role often gets assumed by alchemical bombs and such.
 


Numidius

Explorer
...and a graphic novel: Elric and the dreaming city

The other side of S&S: Protagonists that conjure dark magic from pacts with obscure patrons risking sanity if not life, magical cursed swords with an ego, a haunting past of long gone empires, lovers and friends sacrificed on the road to vengeance and reappropriation, a gorgeous and baroque setting.

Less enphasis on rules; more on protagonists' choices, the world and its people
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Yora

Hero
Being unable to find anything anywhere on how to actually set up a Sword & Sorcery campaign and all the advice available being "build on what the PCs did in the last game", I decided to attempt to make a starting adventure with the most basic and simple of goals, which is to escape alive from a dangerous situations.

Sword & Sorcery heroes need no origin stories, they simply are what they always have been. So the adventure can simply start with a gang of (1st level) badasses walking into town.
If the objective is to survive, then there has to be some kind of agressive threat that prevents them from staying but also is in their way of leaving. And since the purpose of the adventure is to set up further adventures, there need to be a good number of varied NPCs to interact with. The third goal is to introduce the players to a Sword & Sorcery environment, so sprkinkling the whole thing with a good deal of classic iconic elements is also an objective.

So here's my vague innitial idea: The PCs are traveling down a dusty road in the backcountry because they recently lost most of their gear, the reason for which the players may make up at the start of the game, and one or two of the PCs know a guy in the area who is owing them a big favor. On the road to reach the village they run into some minor trouble they can handle, but find out that there's no dice because there's not much village left.
The last people are getting ready to get the hell out of the place too, but can provide the players with some basic information what had been going on. Some thing or another went down at a nearby ancient castle and since then things have gone to hell.
There's a couple of things I can think of as hooks for the players to do something. If the players are feeling somehow overly generous, they could decide to go with the people and their heavy carts of stuff as they try to make it to the next major town safely away from the trouble. In that case they could be asked trying to get some people from a nearby farm who might also want to come along, or people could go missing during the journey. If they are feeling adventureous, they could head straight for that old castle to find and confront the source of the evil. The friend they were hoping to get new supplies from should be known to have gone missing, and the players might want to go search for him if that's how they made their characters.
Other encounters I can think of is some farmers who have decided to stay amd sit things out and think the PCs are looters, or bandits who have come to loot, or the players might decide to do some looting themselves to replace their lost gear and refill their purses while they are at it. Since only the village and the old castle need to have a fixed position, all other encounters can be put down wherever the players decide to go, though the context of the encounters can completely changed based on what's been happening in the adventure so far. So it's not like I'd be preparing 10 encounters and the players only get to see 3 of them before they make it out of the area.

The big question would be, what's the evil that destroyed the village? Ordinary bandits would be too mundane, as I'd want to start out with a strong supernatural element. But I don't think I want to start off with an undead horde right away either, since I think those work best when used sparingly. Demons are also out for 1st level characters.
I guess some kind of witch or minor sorcerer and a form of curse might work. Any ideas where I could go with this?
 


pemerton

Legend
When I started a S&S-ish BW campaign, I began events in the bazaar in Hardby, where one of the PCs - as per a Belief the player had authored - was looking at the wares of a peddler of trinkets and souvenirs, to see if there was anything there that might be magical or useful for enchanting for the anticipated confrontation with his demon-possessed brother.

In my mind, this resembled the start of Tower of the Elephant where Conan learns about the tower.

The PC purchased an angel feather which turned out to be cursed, and this precipitated a series of events that culminated in infiltration of a wizard's tower and then following a different, bedraggled, murderous wizard - the original owner of the feather - onto a ship leaving town.
 

Dioltach

Legend
Being unable to find anything anywhere on how to actually set up a Sword & Sorcery campaign
I think this might be part of your problem: to me, S&S should be a series of unconnected adventures, not a campaign.

I also think that your ideas of helping/interacting with the locals don't scream S&S. Your PCs should be heading straight to rescue their friend (or loot his gear) from whatever the threat is. Anyway, in most S&S fiction, I think commoners who are on the run would be very leery of accepting help from strangers.

Perhaps, at 1st level, the best idea would be to make the threat seem greater than it actually is: scary enough to chase away the locals, but when actually confronted it goes down pretty quickly. For example a very minor demon has escaped from its prison, and is projecting a dark, ominous cloud over the local ruins to hide its weakness until it can gain more strength. Once the PCs make it past some traps and charmed bodyguards (including their friend), they discover that the demon is quite a piteous being.
 

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