About a year ago I discovered a new appreciation for Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and when I started my new campaign this winter, I new that I wanted to take it into this direction. I did start with a fairly simple and straightforward idea, but soon I got all kinds of cool additional ideas where the adventure could lead to in the long run, how it could be part of a much bigger picture, and how some elements are actually connected to things the characters had been dealing with much earlier in very unexpected ways. It’s a really cool concept for what could be an incredible story. For a novel trilogy or a four season TV show. But for a pen and paper campaign it now seem very poorly suited.
Sword & Sorcery differs from the classic Epic Fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time not only in the setting and themes, but also, and possibly even more importantly, in its structure and pacing. Lord of the Rings spends chapters only on establishing two of the main characters and we only learn about the actual purpose of the whole story halfway through the first book. It works, but I still don’t know anything about how Conan came to wander Hyboria or how Geralt of Rivia got his special powers. Might actually be told somewhere, but it’s entirely irrelevant to any individual story. Sword & Sorcery not only tends to be episodic, it also starts at the point where the actual story begins. And so should S&S inspired rpg adventures!
Many of the people who write the most about RPGs tell about their gaming groups that have been playing every week for the last 20 years. But that’s far from how long most campaigns go. I’ve played with only two groups that played for 10 sessions or more, and quite often it’s considerably less han that. Right now I have a new group that plays about once per month and might last for two years, three at the most. While slow buildup, during which characters get established and relationships with NPCs formed, sound good on paper, there usually is no time to waste on such trivialities! And it usually isn’t even neccessary. Take for example Star Wars, which I bekieve has one of the best establishing scenes in movie history. The opening crawl has become a cliche, but it’s really just what a GM does when telling the players where the campaign takes place and what it is about. It’s just a few short sentences and then it’s stright into the action. A brilliant example of Show, don’t Tell. The first thing you see is a tiny ship on the run from the biggest ass battleship you’ve ever seen which shots the shit out of it and then the evil soldiers explode the door and start slaughtering everyone, dressed in skeleton armor like a horde of undead! People often say Lucas was a master of using cultural archetypes that we are all familiar with even if we are not aware of them. And because of that the movie does not need to spend any time on establishing Leia, the Rebellion, or the backstory of Vader. Just in a minute we know everything we need to know. Unless you specifically wan’t to go for the whole Heros Journey story, you don’t need to bother with slow buildup and estasblishing NPCs. Most players will have enough previous experience with the genre to be able to jump right into the deep end.
While I did have a great grand vision for my current campaign, what use is there for having things build up slowly in the background if the player learn about it only month or years later? It may be very entertaining for me to silently think to myself “Little do they know that the old wanderer will tell his friend about todays event in a few month, which will put the sorcerer on the trail of the artifact of doom, the players did not know thry are carrying”. But it’s very likely the players will never learn where the sorcerer got his original info and even if they do they might not even remember the old wanderer. This is a method that can be great in literature and TV, but in an RPG campaign it’s a total waste of time.
My current campaign is not a total loss, though. While I did get the PCs to the artifact already, I’ve decited to skip what would have been two years of padding in which it would gather dust on some shelf, until a strange sage shows up to tell them it holds the key to the crisis that is gripping th land. (Which hasn’t even reached the point where first bad omens are starting to appear.) There is no time for omens! Instead the sage will show up at the start of the next adventure and tell them about the ruins where they can find an oracle that will tell them what to do with the artifact. Even if they are only 2nd level and not 6th as I had planned. Because that’s where the action is really going to take off. No time to waste! Don your armor, grab your weapon, and jump into the exciting part of thr story.