Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

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Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Ares » Sun Apr 01, 2018 5:46 pm

So I'm going through my old posts on RPG.net, and it's interesting to see what I wrote a year or more ago and if it still holds true today. One thing I came across was basically an admittedly long-winded ramble on what I think separates typical Swords and Sorcery settings from traditional Fantasy settings, and I thought I'd share it with those of you masochistic enough to go through it all.

For me, when I think of Swords and Sorcery, I think the following:


An Air of Mystery : I think that, to me, this is the key difference between "Fantasy" and "Swords and Sorcery". Generally in a Fantasy setting, the world is mapped out, we've got the various kingdoms who generally control their territory fairly well, there are often wars between nations but there's a sense of stability. Folks know where Kingdom A is, what areas to avoid, and generally what to expect if they head to Mt. Doom. Even in a Fantasy setting exploring unknown territories, there's a sense that the larger world obeys a structure and you're just heading out into one of the smaller unknown pockets.

In Swords and Sorcery, it's the civilized areas that are the small pockets. It's the kingdoms of stability that are in the minority. The world is open and vast, full of mystery strangeness, and even traveling from two known points is fraught with danger. Make a trip you've done a dozen times, and you could be attacked by bandits or blown off course by a storm and wind up in some forgotten ruins that lead to something mysterious/terrible. And there are a ton of lost ruins, hidden places, dark temples and other things strange and wonderful. Empires rise and empires fall, and borders constantly shift. Gods die and are swept away by time, while lone wanders can become king of the mightiest nation in the world. The only thing certain in Swords and Sorcery is the uncertainty.


Black and White with Shades of Grey : People have said that there are no "black and white" characters in Sword and Sorcery. I disagree. There are definitely "black" characters, pure evil beings who want to rule the world, grow powerful off of the suffering of innocents. And there are genuinely good people out there who want to help others, orders dedicated to the containment or banishment of evil. Meanwhile ordinary people are just that: normal folks who want to make a living as best they can and try to survive as best they can. Some of them will help out those in need. Some of them will take advantage of them if they feel they can get away with it. And often enough, really rotten people will find a way to exploit people beneath them for their own gain.

Most Swords and Sorcery heroes are morally grey types who are motivated out of self-interest, but often have a bit of a noble streak in them. And it isn't impossible to have someone who is a genuinely good and noble individual in such stories. The one thing there isn't any of in Swords and Sorcery is naivety. Even the most virtuous individual is not going to be blind to the evils of the world, the deceitfulness of people, and live by a model of "trust but verify".

There is room for people to be good, evil and every shade of grey, but not naive. Naive people do not survive these settings.


Everyone is Clever, and Everyone is Defined by their Abilities : Most Sword and Sorcery characters are clever. With all of the backstabbers and mysterious unknown places out there, the characters have to be clever to survive. But after said cleverness, most characters tend to be defined by one or two key attributes. While I know this isn't about Conan, he's a good example of this in that Conan is, well, a barbarian. He's savage, and it's his uncivilized power, speed and cunning that often lets him win the day. Now, he has his own code of ethics and such, but he is defined largely by his barbarian nature. Most other characters should fit that way. If a character is defined by their skill, their courage, their swordsmanship, their wisdom, their speed, their way with words, then that is a defining trait for how they will solve 90% of their problems, and inform a lot about them.

This above all should be a setting where people are "Darion the Wise", "Brianna the Strong", "Erkal the Swift" and so forth.


A bit of Swashbuckling : In a Sword and Sorcery game, you need to be clever, you can't be naive, but you also need to be DARING. As scary, mysterious and cruel the place can be, with all of its monsters, backstabbers and general lack of healing magic, and as invaluable as a good plan will be to your ultimate success . . . sometimes you just need to go for it. Sometimes you just need to swing over onto that oncoming pirate ship and start kicking ass until the pirates start begging for mercy. Sometimes you just need to ride a giant bat down onto the parapet of your foe's castle, challenge him to a swordfight and then throw his dismembered corpse into the city below to remind everyone that you are the God Damned Hero. Success will often come from a clever scheme, but it will just as often come from bold action.


Less Readily Available Magic: It'd be hard to call a Sword and Sorcery place a "low magic" setting, since magic is often all over the place. Wizards wield it. Dark monsters are often made of the stuff. But there's usually a kind of Lovecraftian nature to magic. The magic available to heroes is likely to be more of the type to involve rituals, circles, and take time. Or if done quickly, be very taxing for the user. The more powerful someone becomes as a wizard, the less human their outlook becomes. Not necessarily evil, but they tended to be less human in outlook. One of only "good" wizards Conan encountered was Pelias, who had managed to gain both sorcerous power while remaining fairly human in outlook, partially due to his love of simple vices like drink, comfort and women. Most wizards tended to become obsessed with power, schemes of revenge, and larger, cosmic pictures that let them view normal people as insects.

There also seemed to be a couple of flavors of wizard as well. There were those whose powers were largely internal, and those who invested their power in objects, like rings or crystal spheres. Investing your power in an object seemed like a shortcut to great power, with the risk being that if the item is taken from you or destroyed, your power is lost forever. While internalizing your power took longer, but made you mightier in the long run. Not surpring, most of the evil types tended to invest their power in objects. All the better for the heroes to destroy and get a win.

As such, most heroic wizards will tend to be less powerful, but also more secure in their humanity. They will generally lack the immediate power of the more advanced wizards, but they will likely be able to fend off such magical forces effectively, which would make them invaluable for that alone. So it might take a little longer to work magic, or cost a bit more to make it happen more quickly, but you'll be damned happy to have them.

There's also a general lack of healing magic, though it isn't impossible to find such things. But generally, you can't rely on a Cleric to easily patch you up after a battle. Wounds are going to have an impact.

By a similar token, most magic items are rare, potent things. You'll rarely find two people fighting who each have a magic sword. Most magic items will be a bit stranger an nature, artifacts and such, though the occasional magical weapon or belt or amulet will exist. It's just that it'll be less like finding "Random Magical Sword +2" and more like "You found Excalibur".


A Sense of Horror, but with Heroism: Swords and Sorcery, to me, tends to be a bit 'scarier'. This is generally a combination of the more mysterious nature of the lands and territories of the world and the lack of available magic for the heroes while a seemingly overabundance of magic to the various monsters, demons, creatures and evil wizards. Things that would be almost mundane threats in a D&D game become horrifying when you don't have that Vorpal Sword, reliable access to Chain Lightning or to Mass Cure Light Wounds. A spider the size of a dog or snake the size of a horse becomes a legit threat. And then there's the dark gods that you can wake up if you aren't careful.

Basically, Sword and Sorcery needs to be a little bit scarier than your typical D&D game. But it needs to be horror with a sense of heroism. A giant snake rising from the swamp might scare the piss out of everyone and be a legit danger to the entire party, but even application of grit, guile and glimmering steel will put it down. That sorcerer king might have power beyond your ken, but if you can just manage to get that crown off of him that helps him control his power, you might have a chance. And that dark god might be awake now, but there's some bit of cosmic checks and balances that can either put it back to sleep or kill it.

You're just a mortal being in a terrifying world, but you can win if you play your cards right.


A Less Organized Pantheon: The gods in these settings tend to follow less of a standard Pantheon and be more like individual patron gods of certain cities, kingdoms, cults, etc. There are dead gods. There are dark gods straight out of Lovecraft. And despite what some have said, there are genuinely good gods. Even Conan had Mitra, a benevolent deity. But you can generally tell a god's "goodness" by their level of involvement. The better ones will, on occasion, give out advice to worshipers, along with the odd bit of luck/fortune when a champion needs it, or send a priest to advise or help a hero. Gods who are more active than that, bestowing power on their followers or manifesting physically, tend to be the very petty, evil gods looking to corrupt, control and torment humans, all for their own empowerment and amusement. But fortunately, when they manifest to do that kind of thing, they usually make themselves vulnerable to a good battle axe between the eyes.


Post Apocalyptic Fantasy: Swords and Sorcery has more in common with a lot of Post Apocalyptic settings and tropes, and one could easily serve as good idea mines for the other. In some cases, a Swords and Sorcery world is the direct result of contemporary-style setting going through an apocalypse and resulting in a weird world with remote settings, hidden mysteries and the like.

Even without making a S&S setting a literal post-apocalyptic world, the two genres share a lot in common. Roving bands of marauders, villages, cities and kingdoms separated by vast, treacherous expanses, long lost civilizations with strange horrors, people driven to madness and degeneration, lonely beings with access to great power, warlords seeking to spread their control, etc.

Thundarr the Barbarian is one of the straightest examples of a Sword and Sorcery world set in the future of our own world after a cataclysm reduces it to ash. If you want some true kitchen sink Sword and Sorcery/Post Apocalyptic fun, check it out.

Likewise, manga fans could easily use Fist of the North Star as a source material for lots of Swords and Sorcery shenanigans. Kenshiro is a very Conan-esque wandering hero, albeit much more altruistic than the Cimmerian. While it replaces standard sword-fighting with over-the-top martial arts, there's no reason a S&S setting couldn't include such elements, or have them replaces with cinematic weapons combat.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Ares » Sun Apr 01, 2018 5:47 pm

Not Medieval Fantasy: Speaking of including martial arts, one thing I often get into debates with on folks on here is the presence of what I call "cinematic/esoteric martial arts" in a traditional Fantasy setting. The kind of martial arts you see in a lot of high action Kung Fu films that allow for martial artists to perform incredible feats and hold their own with folks wielding magical weapons and arcane spells. A lot of folks feel there is no place for such things in a "traditional Fantasy setting", which I disagree with strongly.

Swords and Sorcery can sidestep the issue altogether. Howard created the Hyborian era specifically so he could include all of the various elements of history that he liked, file off the serial numbers, and give them a more fantastic re-branding, letting him play with whatever toys he wanted. He could have Conan fight alongside Vikings, battle it out with Pirates, be made captain of armored Knights, etc.

While a lot of Fantasy will often include analogies of historical cultures (D&D's Mystara and Pathfinder both do so), there is a tendency towards "European Fantasy" thanks to Tolkien's influence when it comes to "traditional Fantasy", which often leads to the issues I mentioned above with martial arts and non-traditional European elements. Swords and Sorcery has never really made any pretense about being a Medieval European Fantasy, and thus by its nature is a hodgepodge of whatever it type of cultural mishmash you want. If you want to combine elements of Viking, Maori and Chinese culture to create this group of epic sailing marauders who pillage people using kung fu, feel free. If you want a Roman-style Emperor to have a loyal group of ninja that serve him, feel free.


Non-Tolkien Races: Speaking of alien, while S&S is usually a Humans Only game (owing to the conceit that a good chunk of S&S settings take place in some pre-history of our world), non-human characters shouldn't be out of the question. However, generally speaking, they shouldn't resemble Tolkien-style races, which are largely humans of varying sizes and ear points. S&S non-humans should resemble something more out of the Monster Manual and be impossible to mistake for human without a heavy disguise. The Green Martians from John Carter of Mars would be an idea, as would Ookla from Thundarr. Non-human options should be more like half-man/half-animal hybrids, or even things where the character race is basically a Mind Flayer.

This helps keep the mysterious nature of the setting, and makes it clear that these are not just humans with a few visual differences. These are beings who are biologically different, with their own customs, needs, and desires. They could perhaps be very human in personality in wants, or they could simply be putting on a good show to work with individuals that further their goals. You'll just have to wait and see.


A Divided Humanity: While the inclusion of non-human races can be a plus to S&S settings, they aren't necessary when it comes to having other cultures be "alien". Simply put, in most Swords and Sorcery settings, humanity is very divided. Loyalty is often to ones city state or kingdom, there is often overt racism against people of other nations, and being a stranger in a strange land can easily get you killed. There is often far less of the kind of Fantasy trope where humanity as a whole is willing to unite with some effort to take on some big evil force. Here, each kingdom will largely stand on its own save for whatever allies they can come to terms with. Allies that can swiftly become enemies as the crowns shift, or due to the machinations of evil beings.

Even if there is a single, powerful human kingdom that holds an entire nation of similar kingdoms and nations under its thrall, there is often going to be scheming amongst the "allies", and it can easily fracture under the right pressure. Unless someone John Carters the various realms into unity, the kingdoms of the world are divided, and their people are very suspicious of each other.


Planetary Romance isn't Bad Either: Another "similar place to grab ideas from" is the Planetary Romance genre. Indeed, some Planetary Romance is basically Swords and Science in Space. John Carter of Mars could easily work as a Sword and Sorcery setting if you swapped out the high-technology for magic. Going to sources like this can help inspire you to create truly unique and alien cultures. As stated in my other thread, an air of mystery and the unknown is a big part of Swords and Sorcery, and cultures that feel "alien" and strange can really help influence this.


As Epic as You Want to Be: While there is often a level of mystery and fear with Sword and Sorcery, and the risks are greater due to the lack of easy healing and offensive magic (though both can exist), Sword and Sorcery is a place of action and adventure. I called it swashbuckling earlier, and it can easily become testosterone poisoning if left run amok. This is a setting where heroes can and do go throw down some circle of black wizards who are older than most kingdoms, battle powerful savage warloards atop their black tower, face down giant monsters in the hearts of their lairs, and plunder the treasures of ancient gods.

The world is often scary, dangerous and you need to be clever to survive, but the setting is also EPIC. If there is a hole in a wall that enemies might come pouring through, the righteous knight should be able to plant himself in the path of said enemies and hold the line, shield and sword swinging. If there is a giant, four armed gorilla from legend threatening innocent villagers, a martial artist should be apt to leap in and engage it, eventually snapping its neck with a secret kick technique. If his allies are being overrun, a beast master should feel no hesitation to tame a local group of dinosaurs and ride one of them into battle to save his buddies. And if some demon seeks to possess the lover of some wizard or shaman, said mystic is completely justified in attempting to rip said demon out of his beloved and metaphysically (and literally) punching said demon in the soul.

This is a setting that rewards cojones as much as it rewards cleverness.


Faith: Faith is something that can and does exist in Swords and Sorcery. After all, there are often multiple gods in the setting, though very few pantheons. Most gods are loners, or have only a small family about them. Some dwell in space, other in the mountans and hills, some in the darker places of the world. The more benevolent ones will likely inspire their priests with advice, dreams and otherwise guide them, but it is usually only the most evil gods who will act through their followers. A god who channels their might through a high priest is likely some very evil monster who wants to do terrible things to the world, and their priest is little more than a meat puppet to see it happen.

However, while most heroes are unlikely to gain power directly from a god (outside of dreams and some guidance), that isn't to say that Faith doesn't have any power. It's just that, rather than the Faith allowing the hero to channel the power of a god, that person's Faith becomes a power in and of themselves. They don't draw on any literally divine power, save perhaps the power of their own spirit. Their will, faith and belief basically mold their soul into a literal thing that, depending on the setting, might have a power all its own. But the power comes from within the hero, not the gods.

At the end of the day, the Sword and Sorcery hero needs to rely on themselves. It's not the gods acting through them, it isn't fate or destiny, it's the hero shaping the world with their own hands and abilities, hard earned and completely their own.


On Magic Again: As I said last time, magic isn't exactly "lacking" in Swords and Sorcery settings, especially given the title. But generally speaking, it's less "open" than in Fantasy settings. In a Fantasy setting, it wouldn't be odd to see a minor Wizard or Sorcerer on a street corner entertaining people for money via some flashy illusions. In a Fantasy setting, even if people don't know what magic really is, it is a known quantity, they have a rough idea of what it looks like, and it's only scary when the practitioner wants it to be.

In Swords and Sorcery, magic is almost always viewed as something mysterious, and often scary. While good sorcerers do exist, even those who like and trust them are going to feel at least a little discomfort when they use their magic. Sorcerers might serve as advisors to kings, work with mercenary groups, or be roving wanderers, they might be liked and respected, but it will almost always come with a tinge of fear. This isn't helped by all of the other sorcerer's out there who are completely batshit insane or totally evil, making a lot of people view any use of magic with fear and dread.

As previously stated, the more powerful a Sorcerer becomes, the more disconnected they tend to be from humanity, unless that person is an incredibly moral individual or has some sort of connection to humanity to keep them grounded. Sometimes this is another person, sometimes its an object, and sometimes it's something as simple as a human vice. However, in many cases, the more powerful they become, the less human their thought processes are, and after a while, a lot of Sorcerers are basically baby Lovecraftian Old Ones in the making.

Sorcery itself usually follows some interesting rules, as it needs to be mysterious but consistent. Generally speaking, the more directly physical effect a spell might have on the world, the more is required of the user in terms of power, tools or preparation. A Sorcerer who wishes to mesmerize someone might need nothing but his force of will and eye contact to make the other person compliant with his words. Subtle magic in this manner is often the least taxing for a spellcaster, and likely the kind to be employed most frequently.

However, if the Sorcerer wishes more overt the effects in their immediate area, it will usually require some combination of effort and some type of tool. A Sorcerer might be able to simple shoot a bolt of flame from their hands to destroy someone, but such things are usually the providence of the more powerful wizards. Instead, they're more likely to pull a previously prepared paper talisman and ignite the paper with their magic, releasing a deadly blast of heat and light. Or pull a pinch of powder from a sack and blow it into the air, creating an illusion. There is almost always some type of physical component to their magic, something they had to prepare in advance but which only their magic can activate. In many ways, they're more like Batman with a lot of magical "gadgets" they can use to defend themselves and influence the world.

The greater the distance between themselves and their target, or the more powerful the effect they wish to cast, usually the more rules that need to go into such thing. Even the mightiest of Sorcerers is unlikely to simply kill the king of a far off kingdom with their mind. They would likely require some of the man's hair to act as a conduit, a large ritual circle, and waiting for the proper time of the month when the stars are in a shape that makes the victim more recipient to their power. There should be a sort of cosmic scope to the magic, the idea that there are cosmic rules that need to be placated and obeyed for more powerful effects.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by L-Space » Tue Apr 03, 2018 11:32 pm

Very nice summation for Sword and Sorcery genre. I really wish we'd see more of this genre nowadays, but it never seemed to strike it as big as high or medieval fantasy has for people.

Just to add something to the Sorcery side of things. I feel like it can best be summed up that all magic costs the caster something, usually Time, Vitality, Humanity, or some combination of these three. Most Dark Sorcerer's see humanity as being a weakness, so readily throw it away for great power and abilities, but even then their spells take some time and effort, just not as much.
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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by MacynSnow » Wed Apr 04, 2018 1:08 am

You also have to remember that alot of our Sword&Sorcery concepts/imagry come from Robert E.Howard's great books Conan,Red Sonja &Kull....

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Chris Brady » Thu Apr 05, 2018 2:31 am

I prefer the Hero Systems Fantasy Hero book explanation, it's been more or less spot on for the past 20 years.

Heroes are capable because they are strong and adventurous in some fashion, of will or of physical capacity, but they're not common folks, they seek out the danger, they want to know what's over that hill.

The stories are also personal, rarely of a world threat nature, the S&S hero wants loot to retire for a while, until they get bored.

Magic is alien and corrupting, not EVIL, but it's not for the sane (read: normal) man/woman. Hence the fear and mystery surrounding it. Items tend to be unique and dangerous, or short term and powerful.

Religion is a matter of Faith, not a matter of Fact. Gods don't grant powers, although magic using priests might claim it does. However, everyone believes in the Gods of their region.

Anything else is negotiable.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Ares » Thu Apr 05, 2018 3:06 am

MacynSnow wrote:
Wed Apr 04, 2018 1:08 am
You also have to remember that alot of our Sword&Sorcery concepts/imagry come from Robert E.Howard's great books Conan,Red Sonja &Kull....
Well sure, given Howard pretty much invented the genre.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Jabroniville » Thu Apr 05, 2018 5:53 am

Good Christ, man! Don't you know there's a limit to the amount of reading people will do of one person gushing about something?. For SHAME, man!

Not bad stuff. Do you have anything on the Fantasy genre itself, or just how "Sword & Sorcery" compares to it?

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Ares » Thu Apr 05, 2018 4:00 pm

Jabroniville wrote:
Thu Apr 05, 2018 5:53 am
Good Christ, man! Don't you know there's a limit to the amount of reading people will do of one person gushing about something?. For SHAME, man!

Not bad stuff. Do you have anything on the Fantasy genre itself, or just how "Sword & Sorcery" compares to it?
This was inspired by a thread over in RPG.net that asked "What Sword and Sorcery means to you?", and I went into typical Ares Ramble Mode.

I could probably come up with something similar for Fantasy, but it'd be a little harder since the Fantasy genre is so broad, while S&S is basically a sub-genre of Fantasy. The kind of selfless heroism that's necessary to overcome evil in a lot of traditional fantasy will get you killed in Game of Thrones. I also tend to think of Mythological settings and Wuxia as sub-genres of Fantasy as well, so there's a lot of variety. I'd probably have to see if I could come up with some universal fantasy notions, and then focus on each little sub-genre.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Chris Brady » Thu Apr 05, 2018 9:26 pm

I'm not sure I understand. Fantasy is an umbrella term covering all sorts of genres, including Sword and Sorcery.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Ares » Thu Apr 05, 2018 11:08 pm

Depending on the fan, "fantasy" basically considered a single large genre the same way "science fiction" and "superheroes" are, with plenty of sub-genres to narrow down the focus ("high fantasy", "dark fantasy", "hard sci-fi", "cyberpunk", etc.).

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Chris Brady » Fri Apr 06, 2018 5:54 am

I'm one of those people, Ares.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Ares » Fri Apr 06, 2018 3:37 pm

Then I'm not sure I understand what you were uncertain about.

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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by L-Space » Fri Apr 06, 2018 7:34 pm

Since we're talking about Sword & Sorcery here, does anyone have any suggestions for a good Sword and Sorcery rpg? I know there's several settings out there that fit the genre, but a lot of times the same can't be said for the system itself.
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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Davies » Sat Apr 07, 2018 6:50 am


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Re: Swords and Sorcery: Defining the genre

Post by Chris Brady » Sat Apr 07, 2018 8:29 am

For those who have small groups, I can recommend Scarlet Heroes by Sine Nomine. I like the way it does combat.

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