Sword & Sorcery

Creating a sword & sorcery genre atmosphere (or the atmosphere of closely related genres, such as sword & planet) is very popular in the OSR. This seems to be a common cure for the epic fantasy and adventure path malady which has overtaken much of the mainstream hobby. Just for a small sampling, here are few words from Grognardia on topic, and here is a fascinating discussion of alignment in the Conan stories from Blood of Prokopius.

When I was more enthusiastic about fantasy literature, mostly during middle and high school, I read some of the S&S classics, though mostly the ones that overlapped with dark fantasy such as Moorcock’s Elric novels. I avoided Conan, because the way he was portrayed in pop culture just seemed silly to me (macho barbarian hero fighting evil wizards and rescuing scantily-clad ladies in distress). I just finished the first of the 3 Del Rey compilation volumes (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian); the original stories are a much more nuanced treatment of the conflict between civilization and barbarism than I assumed, though there is still some silliness of the aforementioned variety. I was also pleasantly surprised by the almost Lovecraftian treatment of many monsters, and the depiction of sorcery as inherently corrupt (in fact, I think this conception of magic is one of the major dividing lines between S&S fiction and the clearly described, almost scientific, “magic systems” of later fantasy, such as “channeling” in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time).

As a young gamer, I did have some contact with the other primary source of the S&S genre, the Lankhmar stories of Fritz Lieber. I owned one of the AD&D Lankhmar supplements, and I think I read some comic books with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but I didn’t read any of the original stories until a few months ago. I also just recently discovered and read the work of Clark Ashton Smith (despite the fact that I grew up near Auburn, California, where he lived, and despite the fact that necromancy has always been one of my favorite sorcerous archetypes). And I still haven’t read anything by Jack Vance, though Tales of the Dying Earth is waiting for me patiently on my bookshelf.

My point is that I did not really grow up with this genre, so I don’t feel much nostalgic pull toward it. However, I am sympathetic to its style, particularly for RPGs. The morality and goals of S&S protagonists seem to much more closely reflect the actual action of a traditional D&D game (tomb robbing, fortune hunting, mercenary work) than does just about any other genre of fiction. Really, D&D should have been called Get Rich or Die Trying.

I was just thinking about this again after reading this post from someone who is creating a retro-clone of 2E, and trying to infuse it with a S&S vibe. I don’t agree with all the elements from his list, but a few are spot-on, and exactly what I would love to communicate with my games: arcane magic is corrupt (following LotFP, in my setting “detect evil” and “detect magic” are the same thing), monsters are horrifying, ancient lost technology, monsters as gods.

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