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In Genre

Swords and Sorcery

by RJ Grady
Apr 24,2003

 

IN GENRE: Swords and Sorcery

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

In this installment, we discuss the genre of Swords and Sorcery role-playing. Swords and sorcery has its origins in historical romance, pulp adventure, and "weird tales." Almost from the beginning, comic books and dime novels delved into historical adventures involving swords, honor, and loose historical accuracy. Pulp adventure stories dispensed with realism entirely, and introduced lost worlds, primitive magic, and even alien worlds. The "weird tales" that appeared in the same magazines wallowed in gore, sex, and the supernatural. Robert E. Howard helped shape the genre with his adventure stores, including those of Kull the Conqueror and Red Sonja, but especially Conan the Cimmerean, warrior of the Hyperborean age. The Conan stories were grim tales of strength, savagery, civilized decadence, and the supreme competence of the protagonist. Wizards were always dangerous and usually insane, almost inhuman. Although powerful, they fell as easily as bandits and priest-kings to Conan's blade. Other notable writers include Fritz Lieber, who penned the Lankhmar books featuring Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and L. Sprague de Camp, who penned some Conan stories. Another important development was the "Dungeons & Dragons" game by Gygax and Arneson, published in 1973. It combined elements of Tolkien's Middle Earth with a the Swords and Sorcery of Vance, Anderson, Lieber and Moorcock.

Features of the genre are that there is often, like in most adventure fiction, one or two central characters who are extremely competent. But in Swords and Sorcery, it is especially true that their competence is what makes them the protagonists. Heroes in Swords and Sorcery are often flawed and sometimes amoral. Most could be described as at least opportunistic, although they typically exhibit a strong code of conduct, at least toward their friends and to unfortunates. For instance, Conan protected women and occasionally freed slaves, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would never steal a penny from a poor widow. Typically, strength, courage, and skill will triumph over anything, including terrifying sorcery. In fact, mad sorcerers, despite their powers, typically die very quickly unless they are the heroes of the story or sympathetic supporting characters. Because of its relation to "weird stories," magic in swords and sorcery is typically world-bending, occult, dangerous, and mechanistic. Magicians tend to be capable of very specific feats, except for arch-magicians and demons, who can accomplish nearly anything with a snap of their fingers. Swords and sorcery is a Modern High Fantasy genre. It is just as commonly set in an Ancient setting as a Medieval one, although anachronisms abound. Morality tends to be in shades of gray, although the heroes of the story typically embody a sympathetic philosophy. Swords and sorcery is a high action genre, with broadly painted characters. Coincidences, luck, poetic justice, and the caprice of Fate abound. The universe often appears hostile because of the grim setting, but despite heart-rending trials, the heroes usually do live to see another day. Heroes are typically warriors or thieves, or both at the same time, but are sometimes half-trained magicians, exiled nobility, or clergy, as well as warriors or thieves or both at the same time. The genre is male-oriented, but female heroes also exist, and gender is no obstacle since every swords and sorcery character has to beat up or out-smart practically everyone anyway, including their allies.

Related genres include historical romances, swashbuckling romances, Arthurian romance, weird tales of the occult, and pulp adventure stories.


A Sprawling Milieu

The Swords & Sorcery world does not require a tremendous amount of creativity. Typically, it is an adaptation of the Ancient World of the Greeks, Ethiopeans, and Gauls, or the Dark Ages of Northern Europe, given "fantasy names" and re-arranged to suit the aesthetic tastes of its creator. Simply select either a Bronze Age or early Dark Age feel. Secondarily, decide what kinds of protagonists you would like. Warriors and rogues are always good choices; whether magic is allowed depends on whether you prefer the muscle-bound stories of Howard or the spell-tinged adventures of Lieber and L. Sprague de Camp.

The broader world will require a lot of detail. On the one hand, few adventures take place in a deeply imagined world; this stuff is not Tolkien. On the other hand, characters and stories are very unpredictable. Characters need places to go and people to meet. The process of world design probably entails naming at least a dozen cities, inventing a few colorful cultures, and writing up lots, and lots, of NPC's. A proper Swords and Sorcery world requires evil magicians, bandits, kings, corrupt priests, and topless female captives (princesses and priestesses always end up captive and topless on the cover of swords and sorcery books and comics). You also need several formidable beasts with hide nearly proof against steel. Some settings also include mad gods and incomprehensible demons. Most worlds have little in the way of divine influence. Religions are either ineffectual superstitions, or malevolent cults of knife-wielding high priests and vile gods.

Characters in Swords and Sorcery should be extremely capable. A small group would best emulate the genre, with just two or three hardened rogues as protagonists. For larger groups, either some characters need to be hardened rogues and the others sidekicks, players can take turns playing supporting characters, or you can dispense with some authenticity and have the player characters be a group of hardened rogues of somewhat diverse talents. Almost all characters can be described as fighters, rogues, or bare-chested mystics (male or female), or some combination thereof, although more talkative chronicles might feature cunning nobles (such as the princess in Howard's "People of the Black Circle").

Telling the Story

Generally, the stories fall into a few basic types. First is the story where the heroes come upon a very chaotic or very rigid political situation, typically involving corrupt advisors. Sometimes the heroes are enslaved or captured. At the end, the heroes kill all the cowardly schemers and either take all the gold and ride off in the sunset, or become the rulers. In the second story, the heroes are already the conquerors of a kingdom and must face evil schemers, mad magicians, or hordes of zealous warriors. At the end of the adventure, the heroes either win and bask in their glory, or escape through the back door with their lives, grimly chuckling at the fickleness of fate. In the third kind of story, the characters are involved in something routine, typically a theft, caravan, or battle, and get over their heads in some evil scheme or in a dispute over some kind of treasure. Female captives are generally involved. At the end of the story, the heroes either kill everyone, kill almost everyone and laugh about the misunderstanding before becoming friendly rivals, or escape through the back door with their lives, cursing the fickleness of fate.

The advantages of Swords and Sorcery as a gaming genre are many. First, although the players characters are bold and heroic, they are allowed to be amoral and ruthless at times. In short, characters can behave in almost any fashion without breaking genre. Second, all of the PC's have useful survival skills, whether rippling muscles, deft swordsmanship, or a combination of eloquence and physical beauty. Third, if someone dies, it's not a big deal, since people die in these stories all the time. Fourth, you don't have to worry about Sauron winning, since there is no Sauron; at most, you might have to worry about the evil Vizier gaining undue influence and ruling as a vile sorcerer-king for a few centuries before being consumed by madness. The campaign world assumes constant political turmoil and lots of people dying, and the bad guys do win from time to time.

There are some special challenges. First, in the stories, the heroes are typically the very best at what they do, which is usually a lot of things. It can be challenging to assemble a group where everyone has a unique talent to contribute. Once you have the strong fighter, the fast fighter, the spell-casting fighter, and the master-of-an-exotic-and-deadly-art fighter, you've covered nearly the full-range of protagonists. Players may be resistant to playing topless captive princesses, although captives and sidekicks do open up a lot of PC possibilities. One approach is to treat it as a sword of greatsword-wielding varation on "Three Musketeers," where the characters are distinguished by personality rather than talent. A second problem is lethality. Secondary characters die regularly and sometimes gratuitously, while main characters can keep the series going longer than the lifespan of the author in some cases. Even heroes should die if they do something foolish. However, in most circumstances, the heroes should easily triumph over any number of nameless guards, and with some effort should be able to defeat any monster when tossed unarmed into the gladiatorial pit or any wizard if they can get a running start. A conservative level of dramatic editing (Force points, Drama points, or good old-fashioned dice judging) can achieve this effect, but generally, the key is to simply make the characters very competent. Even trembling female (topless) captives can kill a guard or two with a stolen dagger using techniques taught to them by their bodyguard as a young girl, and tiger-limbed barbarians can kill a dozen men using nothing but their own shattered chains. Another thing to consider is the role of magic. In general, powerful spells take a long time to cast, and usually involve lots of candles. However, powerful magicians can kill with a look and a wave of some evil artifact. Either the GM must contrive to give the heroes an appropriate defense against the magician's most powerful spell (and the genre thrives on contrivance), or the heroes should be allowed to spring on the evil wizard before he can complete his unholy incantation.

Game-ography

Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast)
The grand-daddy of all RPGs not only distilled the genre but helped shape it. For a classic Swords and Sorcery feel, Clerics should be rare and PC Wizards multi-classed, and the majority of characters human, but there is no reason to feel constrained if you like one of the published settings. The somewhat amoral nature of crypt-robbing and bounty-hunting makes D&D and Swords and Sorcery a perfect fit. To buy in, you will need the three core books (Player's Guide, DM's Guide, and Monster Manual), some funny dice, and perhaps some paper or metal miniatures. The Dark Sun setting, for the second edition, would be an excellent Swords and Sorcery setting. There are also third party settings, such as Kingdom of Kalamar.

Hero System (Hero Games/DOJ)
The Hero System is great for thievery, action-adventure, and powerful protagonists. To buy in, you will need the 5th edition rulebook (known as Fred). Any 4th and 5th edition supplements (the editions are very similar) may be of use, but particularly the Hero System Bestiary, Fantasy Hero, and the Ultimate Martial Artist. Hero System's flexible Powers system allows you to customize the magic system to your liking. It also offers customizable lethality, and the ability to construct abilities like Desperate Surge of Strength, or Climb Like a Savage.

GURPS (Steve Jackson Games)
GURPS originated as a set of rules for hand-to-hand and expanded into a universal toolkit. GURPS is at its best in this genre, offering detailed character generation, technology levels, and dozens of ancient weapons and skills. To buy in, you'll need the GURPS third edition rulebook. Helpful sourcebooks would be Compendium I, Conan, Horseclans, Yrth, Planet of Adventure, Low-Tech, Magic, Religion, Vikings, and the various template books, any of which could be valuable even if you don't use GURPS.

Warhammer Fantasy Role-play (Games Workshop)
WFRP offers Racketeer, Inquisitor, Duellist and Grave Robber as available classes. Bitingly satirical, violent, and dark.

Palladium Fantasy (Palladium)
While based on the clunky Palladium rules system, it fares pretty well at this power level. A rich background provided, including wolfen, barbarians, jungle savages, and ancient mad gods. There are some reasons to prefer the original edition to the second; look at both before buying.

Rolemaster (ICE)
Chart-heavy fantasy game offers a wide variety of playable types. Fairly lethal. Offers little in the way of a house setting.

Talislanta (Shooting Iron)
A lush, bizarre world of adventure, somewhere between Barsoom and Lyonesse. Playable characters include Cymrilian Warrior-Mages, Zandir Duellists, Sarista Rogues, and four-armed Ahazu Jungle Warriors. Currently in its 4th edition.

The Arcanum/Atlantis (Bard Games)
By the same author as Talislanta. Essentially a Hyperborian setting with shades of Jack Vance's Dying Earth and a touch of Norse myth. Out of print. The Compleat series by Bard Games is highly compatible.

The Dying Earth (Pelgrane Press)
The official role-playing game set in the far-future high fantasy of Jack Vane's Dying Earth series. A highly narrative system. A delight to read. Perfect for the misadventures of rogues and semi-scrupulous magicians.

Adventure! (White Wolf)
Simply discard the gaslight-Art Deco setting and you have a great system for comic book and dime novel fantasy.

Bibliography

Howard, Robert E. The Hour of the Dragon.
The only Howard Conan novel. Also look for "People of the Black Circle," featuring the classic story of that name.

Moorcock, Michael. The Knight of Swords.
The first of Moorcock's book about Corum, a member of an elder race who is captured by barbaric humans and loses his hand.

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Goblin Tower The first in the Unbeheaded King series. A king tries to save his head as his mandatory five-year retirement looms closer.

Lieber, Fritz. Swords and Deviltry.
Fafhrd, the barbarian thief skald, and the Grey Mouser, thieving swordsman and dabbler magician, cross paths with ruthless rogues and wizards. A classic series of larcenous mischief and revenge.

Pratchett, Terry. Guards! Guards!
Introducing Captain Vimes and Corporal Carrot of Ankh-Morpork's night watch. Part of Pratchett's absurd and irreverent Discworld series.

Asprin, Robert (ed). Thieves World
A multi-author anthology of skull-duggery, sorcery, and fortune. Many memorable characters. There are many sequels, including some novels.

Watt-Evans, Lawrence. The Misenchanted Sword.
Novel set in Ethshar, concerning the adventures of a soldier who becomes the owner of a magical sword that is, at best, a mixed blessing.

Adams, Robert. The Coming of the Horseclans
The immortal Milo Morai leads his strong, capable Horseclans people against decadent Ehleenee. Sword and axe-wielding violence, sex, and topless female captives in a post-apocalyptic Earth. Later books introduce telepathic cats, and the mad magicians of the series are immortal NASA scientists.

Anthony, Piers. Battle Circle
Another post-apocalyptic adventure. Two men enter the circle, one leaves.

Vance, Jack. Lyonesse
A tale of dynasties, involving lost children, fairy magic, grim warrior people, insane wizards, decadent princes, and numerous captures and reversals.

Cook, Glen. The Black Company
First in the grim series of sorcery, soldiery, power, and survival.

Filmography

"Conan the Barbarian" (1982)
Film about of the barbarian swordsman's barbarian swordsman. There is a sequel, "Conan the Destroyer."

"The Sword and the Sorcerer" (1982)
A prince in exile leads pirates and soldiers against a vile sorcerer-king. Includes compulsory topless female captives.

"The Beastmaster" (1982)
Another oily bodybuilder with big sword film. In this one, the hero can communicate with animals. Creepy witches, cute ferrets, evil professional wrestlers, and that freaky eyeball ring.

"The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958)
Some of Harryhausen's best work. A must-see.

"Masters of the Universe" (1987)
Kiddie flick marginally based on the popular toys and cartoon. Muscular swordsman He-Man and his companions face off against the mad sorcerer-king Skeletor.

"The Warrior and the Sorceress" (1984)
An inept, boring film starring David Carradine with the plot shamelessly stolen from "Yojimbo." On the other hand, it features a topless woman with four breasts. For a film of this nature, that represents something of an artistic triumph.

"Thundarr the Barbarian" (TV)
Classic cartoon pits the bold barbarian and his companions, the sorceress Ariel and the bestial Ookla, against mad wizards and formidable beasts.

The Bits Box

Daggers, broadswords, axes, shackles, pirate ships, corrupt advisors, knife-wielding high priests, temple guardians, feats of desperate strength, mysterious artifacts, burglary, treachery, topless female captives, perverted aristocracy, slaves, roguish heroes who look out for themselves, spending all of your spoils and finding yourself once again penniless, ancient laws that demand a life be taken, facing mighty beasts with nothing but your bare hands, gladiatorial pits, mad magicians, dark and evil gods, pious fools, cities in squalor, barren wildlands, hardened savages, cunning city folk, elaborate human sacrifices, double-crosses, smugglers, wars of conquest and succession, grudging respect, duels, desperate flights under of cover of night, foot-padding into well-guarded fortresses, oaths and exclamations, human vice, living for the day, port-towns where anything might be bought or sold, peddlers of flesh, ironic twists of fate, dungeons, sewer passages, pyramids and ziggurats, black towers, local guides, chance meetings that lead to steadfast allies, chiefs who lead through strength, wizards who barely resemble men any more, men of savage grace who move like panthers, daggers that strike quickly in the dark, cannibalistic fiends, tent cities, weather-worn nomads, teenagers raised by themselves in the back alleys, slavers and kidnappers, arrogant nobles, tyrannical governments, merchants so wealthy they are above the law, hidden complexes full of slaves, leather clothing with little practical value.

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