Monday, December 27, 2010

Investigating the Sword and Sorcery subgenre

I now want to investigate Sword and Sorcery genre. In the interest of full disclosure I want to come right out and say I already know I like Sword and Sorcery more then High Fantasy. I think I even know the reason for this preference. However as I stated before I'd like to have a traditional high fantasy campaign under my belt so hence the investigation. If not high fantasy maybe I can go with a more "gritty" small scale game - in terms of its central stories and go Sword and Sorcery?

 looks like Boon; Breckinridge Elkins 

I had a farther who was heavy into western movies. Daniel Boon to True Grit and across the pond to spaghetti-westerns. Read on to see how this ties in but essentially being brought up on this "mission" type genre has really influenced my fiction and gaming preferences. I have to also add this same man  - my father - was also a massive Trek Original Series fan and also Dr Who. So Sci-fi and westerns sort of blended in my house hold.  

Additionally I'd read the Scarlet Pimpernel by the age of nine and donated a copy to the school library so I was primed to like swashbuckling adventure. I followed that with Dracula and then Alexandre Dumas and Flashman novels and it was not long after that I moved onto fantasy novels. Not long after that... I moved onto RPG's.

One of my all time favorite novels is The True Game by Sheri S Tepper (and I'd read this before I read LotR but after the Hobbit) and this is closely followed by Dune, Lankmar and John Cater of Mars. Also to some extent Star Wars (which is to me a Science Fantasy and not a Science Fiction and hence has more in common with say LotR then the Foundation series to me - I like in general my sci-fi "harder" then is represented by Star wars) certainly had an impact at around the same time and even ET and Hawk the Slayer (yep me too). So I guess science fantasy had its influence on me via these exposures.   

When it comes to a discussion of what the genre is, I agree with this summation of Sword and Sorcery 

and also with Michael Moorcock when he says...

"Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu"

This is a great definition for us as role players - for many of us that definition is immediately accessible.

Id add that Sword and Sorcery is also often limited in it story scope it seems. By that I mean they're about a single character or a small group (~3), usually doing something pretty small scale. Less about heroically saving the world, more about saving themselves or a woman or possibly just about making money or living to see the morrow. You don't "tend" to have earth shattering "battles". Generally you have bar brawls, thievery and duels. You may get the "showdown" and that fight may be a good skirmish but it would not (generalizing again) be a pitched battle.

C.J. Cherryh writes Swords and sorcery is...
  1. ...based somewhere in something remotely like history
  2. ...when there are gods, or sorcery works
  3. ...when there is conflict, often involving no more than survival
  4. ...when the hero/heroine may or may not be on the wrong side of the law, and
  5. ...when there are subgenres:
    1. temples, snakes, and virgins
    2. the idiot emperor and the evil advisor
    3. the lovelorn princess wants a way out of town
    4. retrieve the magic item.
They are generally simple stories set in a usually mythic place involving a clever hero(ine) and a reward/good outcome. 

Reading this made me remember a post over on this part in bold really stuck out...
Civilization must be protected from the Barbarians, and to do that, somebody has to pick up The Gun. However, if you pick up The Gun, you become a Barbarian. 
And then I remembered reading Howard was always inspired by the Western (and boxing stories) and later went on the write some e.g.
Breckinridge Elkins,
Pike Bearfield,
Grizzly Elkins,
and The Sonora Kid,

Now I love the Western genre (see above ..essentially I was weened on it) and I love Wuxia too [humm maybe I need to dig out Qin:Warring States that's a great game - essentially wire fu historical romance rpg with plenty of intrigue and battles if you haven't gotten into it yet go take a look] 
To me the Western is all about the frontier of civilization and this would work well in a Fantasy game too [Take a look a Colonial Gothic, Wich Hunter, and Deadlands as good games in this setting]. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Lets have a look at the sources and some of the rpg lessons its taught me.

Robert E. Howard's Kull, Conan, and Kane stories - Sort of the Conner stone like LotR is in High Fantasy.
  • Now I've read a lot of Conan. I love the world and I love the background elements but I don't really have a favorite Conan novel. I'm not really even that big of a fan of any of them. I'd give most of them two out of five stars. good read but ultimately not that great. Together though and for the little bits in the background well thats another story. His fantasy Earth that was really rings a bell in my mind for that I'm a fan. Possibly my favorite of all the novels is Red Nails. I like Kull and Kane more  

Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books by Fritz Leiber
  • Humor and Horror, I really liked the Grey Mouser. Most did I think. Between him and the Stainless Steel Rat you have the vast number of my early D&D characters. Witt (I hopped), cocky, rogues. However I find the magic to be often too prevalent for my taste. Or I should say the big workings of magic. I really like the city the other character in the piece. Lankmah inspired quite a few games I think and it will inspire me too.   

Elric of Melnibone (Elric)
  • I was probably too young when I read this. The ennui which permeates the Young Kingdoms just really grates on me. Elric is very much Thomas Covenants cuz' I think. I did like the world and read it just for that. It was a touch to loopy for me. I prefer 
The History of the Runestaff,
  • This is a really good romp although I'd probably say its closer to High Fantasy then any other book on this list. The Hero is noble, the plot and story interesting and the villains great to hate.

David Gemmell. and the Druss Stories
  • Read Druss on the recommendation of a non fantasy book reading friend when I was 15-16 yrs old and it was like wow good novel. I cant put my finger on just what makes it great to me. Other then it was really enjoyable and never really let up. Also the feeling that around every corner there was this really well imagined world was intriguing and left me wanting to know more.  So I think this left me with an appreciation for starting small and foreshadowing by using story-hooks. Don't explain everything leave it unexplained because that has a type of magic to it.
Richard Morgan
  • The Steel Remains; Even more the Gemmell this novel got inside my head and would not let go. It reminds me of Lin Cater only better. More on a par with Lord of Light by Zalazny although I think Zelazny even better then Morgan.
I'm also very influenced by Planetary Romance as well and I'll lump it in with the Sword and Sorcery genre discussion too. I'll do this because to me there is very little separating the two. I know there is in reality a large difference. However the tone and feel are really very close even though there is a difference in setting (pseudo Dark Ages vs pseudo Interplanetary Adventure)  

The funny thing is I have more love for the Planetary Romance genre as an imaginary genre then the canon works. I mean I love ERB and the whole Barsoom thing but its just not everything I wanted it to be.  Maybe that was because I read Planet of Adventure series as a collected set before I started on Barsoom? I'm not sure. For that matter I like the Pellucidar and Caspak series more then Barsoom. However I really dig the character of John Carter.[ohh just thought of a planet name for a campaign Kaladar maybe...]

But I also like Lin Cater's world of Lemuria which is essentially Earth after an Armageddon. What I like here and the take away is that for me fantasy world as the result of an aftermath is very appealing and interesting. In these books I find the most interesting character is Lemuria. [honestly these are very strangely written books].

I also loved the 1980's Flash Gordon TV cartoon series and I'd like to bring the fun and excitement of that experience into role playing.

Thrown into this mix Dune and Star Wars and you can see a predilection for science fantasy emerging. So with these influences in mind from the written page and otherwise I'd like to explore some game options. The next post [or two] will be a look at systems and also at the campaign(s). I'd like to create a sandpit type game with some strong story options sitting in wait like spiders in webs. 
Essentially I want to answer the question for myself do I go with;
  • High/Heroic Fantasy campaign
  • Planetary Romance/ Sword and Sorcery
Or stick with what I'm good at and do
  • Sci-Fi
Once I've answered these questions I plan to look at system selection and then I need to start planing the sand pit, themes and stories sitting in the setting.


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