Friday, October 14, 2016

Swords & Sorcery

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

Crypts & Things is -by its own description- "A Swords and Sorcery Roleplaying Game," not "A Fantasy Roleplaying Game." It's a worthwhile distinction to make, in my oh-so-humble opinion and one that many tend to gloss over when looking at different settings or systems. Even experienced gamers often tend to treat the two as roughly synonymous. Granted, they have more in common than not; but the differences are well worth noting when choosing what you're going to play.

So what is the distinction? It's probably futile to try and arrive at a universally accepted definition, but for simplicity, let's turn to Wikipedia for a working one:
Sword and sorcery (S&S) is a subgenre of fantasy generally characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy.
So here are my noteworthy takeaways from the above :

  1. exciting and violent conflicts - S&S is a genre of action. In gaming terms, this means that fortune favors the bold. Further, fights get bloody. Descriptions should be vivid and graphic: gore-spattered blades, dripping ichor, blazing eyes, and mighty thews. You get the idea. Characters in S&S get into the thick of things and get their hands dirty.
  2. elements of romance - While love interests are not always present in S&S stories or games, characters within the genre tend to passionate. This includes things like loyalty, vengeance, greed, lust, and yes, love. Whereas some types of fantasy tend to ignore or denigrate the baser motives, S&S is more likely to embrace it as at least honest.
  3. an element of magic and the supernatural - At first, this sounds redundant. "magic and the supernatural"? What's the difference? Well, in gaming terms, magic tends to refer to powers (spells and the like) whereas the supernatural is more about that which cannot be explained by the normal rules of the world the characters live in. Further, the supernatural implies something alien and bizarre. There are things in a S&S world (sometimes magic is one of them) that are weird and unsettling, as opposed to a magical fantasy world where elves and dwarfs are seen regularly and people ride flying carpets. It's not that magic can't be powerful in a S&S world -sometimes its moreso- but its unfamiliar and alien to most people.
  4. personal battles rather than world-endangering matters - In JRRT's "Lord of the Rings," Frodo and his pals save the world from the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) in an epic quest and multiple battles between the armies of good and evil. In Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan, the focus tends to be more intimate. Sure the things S&S characters face are terrifying, and maybe there are earthshaking events, but motives and scope tend to more about the people in the story than "saving the world." There also can be an element of moral ambiguity in such stories. While characters like Conan may have a personal code of honor, they are quite often thieves and killers, not noble knights or kindly wizards.
Let's take a look at a classic S&S adventure story as an example. Howard's classic Conan adventure "The Pool of the Black One,"

In the story, Conan slays a treacherous pirate captain in a duel (personal battles); fights off strange strange ebony humanoids (exciting and violent conflicts) that use weird rituals to shrink their victims into doll-like trophies (magic and the supernatural); rescues the captured crew- becoming their new captain; and gets the girl (romance). He then sails off to plunder like a pirate captain should.

Even though the character Conan becomes a king in the stories, the focus on the plots is personal. He is the focus, not Aquilonia or the other nations of Hyborea.

There is nothing wrong with more heroic/epic fantasy. Stopping evil and saving the world are great story fodder, but when looking at running or playing a game like Crypts & Things, it can be helpful to see how its focus is different from more traditional fantasy games in order to get the most out of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment