Thursday, June 28, 2012

Elements of Sword & Sorcery

Want to write S&S adventure for fun and/or profit? After about 30 years of reading the exploits of Conan, Elric, Kane, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Brak, Gath, and countless others, I have come up with a framework of what the genre means to me. Maybe it will help.

·         The genre can just as easily be called Sword vs. Sorcery. A warrior pits himself against wizard-tyrants and blasphemous supernatural monsters. Man vs. Magic - even when the hero is also wielding magic; such as Elric or Kane. Magic is difficult, alien, unreliable, and treacherous - exemplified by Elric's Stormbringer, Kane's Bloodstone, or Gath's Horned Helmet. Sorcerers, priests, and witches tend to be the enemy, rather than trusted allies. The hero learns to depend upon his own strong arm and a sharp blade.

·         Monsters are the exception, not the norm. The hero pits his arm and his wits against soldiers, guards, slavers, bounty hunters, brigands, cultists, assassins, and gladiators time and time again. He clashes with prehistoric beasts from the dawn of time as well as modern predators of every stripe. When there is a conflict with a true monster or demon of the outer darks, it is a pivotal scene where our hero must draw upon desperate resources and sometimes even recruit allies. Otherwise, our hero can deal with any mortal foe just fine on his own.

·         Technology is uneven at best. While the world tends to languish in a barbaric Iron Age, there is often lost and/or alien technology to be found - if not always understood or mastered.

·         This leads to the consideration of other worlds or planes of existence. If there is a demon to be conjured or a nameless horror to threaten the mortal realm, they will come from Outside or Beyond. They must be alien monsters that conform to no natural laws. This allows the writer to go crazy with description and weird detail.

·         The hero's world is usually just like Earth - only different in some mythic or folklore-ish fashion. Most cultures of the ancient or medieval world will be represented - without all the pesky historical accuracy. It is, after all, a "time of legend."

·         Hero is a term to be used loosely. The protagonist of the tale is, more often than not, a thug and an opportunist. He may claim some code or sense of honor, but this only elevates him a fraction above the scum he fights. In a world where life is brutal and short, these adventurers usually can't be identified at a glance from their opposition.

·         Women are generally prizes or femme fatales. They are intended as a goal or as a devious threat - but swathed in gauzy layers of sex. It is rare for a woman to be treated as anything resembling an equal and those characters tend to be the most memorable.

·         Novel-length stories are rare and these adventures were written for publication in pulp magazines. They were short stories and novellas focusing on action and titillation.


  1. This is a test.

  2. Your test worked!

    I think my exposure to Robert E Howard at a young age colored my preference of fantasy for life, leading to me preferring a low-magic world for RPGs instead of a high-magic world. I think that's why I didn't like Eberron. Eberron has the magic level turned up to 11. My own campaign world started out like many others, in that it was the place that I set stories in as a young writer, before beginning the gaming hobby, and magic is, while not mythological, at least really rare. When running a commercial setting like Forgotten Realms, I turn the magic way down.

  3. Funny - I was working on a "Steampunk fantasy setting" when Eberron won the WotC setting contest. At the time, Steampunk was barely flowering and I was in the mood for D&D of another flavor. I kind of scrapped the project when Eberron hit the shelves.

    My own campaign setting has been developing and evolving since around 1980. Though there were some obvious influences from my favorite novels, I like to think it is mostly an original creation. Magic is prevalent in my campaign world - but possibly not as one would expect.

    I think I am rather well known as a gamer that is not impressed with the Forgotten Realms. Definitely not my cup of Mountain Dew. I don't go for trite and hodgepodge settings where the creator dumps every fantasy trope and real-world civilization into a blender and hits Puree.

    My own view of fantasy was probably colored most vividly by The Hobbit, the Elric and Eternal Champion stories, Leiber's Nehwon, the character and setting of Kane, and the Dread Empire and Black Company series by Glen Cook.