My approach to running Sword & Sorcery campaigns

Someone was asking me about advice for running a Sword & Sorcery themed campaign in an RPG. Since that’s a pretty open question regarding a rather wide topic, I thought this might be a good subject for a full length post.

I think the first thing here would be to establish what I specifically mean when I am talking about Sword & Sorcery. Unlike most names for fantasy sub-genres, Sword & Sorcery has an actual and pretty specific meaning. Not everyone is using it the same way, but in this case we know exactly who created the term and what his intention was by doing so, so we can actually say that some people are just using is wrong. In 1961, Michael Moorcock wrote in a letter printed in a magazine that it would be a good idea to somehow distinguish the kind of fantasy he and others were writing from works like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. They are all “fantasy” but drastically different in many, and perhaps even most details. In reply to that, Fritz Leiber wrote that he thought a great name for the subgenre would be “Sword & Sorcery”. And later he somewhat elaborated by saying “The best pulp Sword and Sorcery writer was Robert E. Howard”. So the actual definition of Sword & Sorcery could be said to be “Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock and specifically not Tolkien”.

But that doesn’t actually tell us what makes Sword & Sorcery what it is, which is necessary when you want to capture the spirit of Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock either in writing or running a roleplaying game. Now I admit that there is some validity to statements like “Those are just lables, don’t blindy follow old conventions, be creative and don’t immitate”. But in reality you often see works that are cool and you’re able to tell that there are other cool works that are similar, but you can’t put your finger on it what it actually is that makes them both similar and cool. Saying that you want to “create Sword & Sorcery” is not creative bankrupcy or being a sellout. When you want to play Heavy Metal or Blues, there is a good deal of established conventions that make the genres what they are. You don’t have to follow every single one of those conventions, but you have to follow most of them or the result will be something completely different. Same thing with fiction. A really great attempt at a definition of Sword & Sorcery heroes does not come from me, but is actually from Joseph McCullough, and I think he really quite nails it. A Sword & Sorcery hero is someone who is a.) using decisive action to b.) to pursue self-motiavted goals while c.) standing outside the normal rules and conventions of society. And pretty much everything else about the genre follows from that.

What does that mean in practice for running a Sword & Sorcery themed roleplaying game? The first item, decisive action, is something most players won’t have any problem with. The characters in RPGs are almost never quite observers who stay in the background and out of trouble and waiting for a good opportunity to manipulate things. They do stuff! They are quick to draw their weapons and cut down whoever gets in their way. For many types of RPG campaigns it can be quite a challenge to get the players to be less confrontational and subtle and rely more on conversation, investigation, and common sense. Being smart and using trickery is right in line with many of the better written heroes of the genre, but perhaps one of the most important elements of the genre is that there is always shit happening! In recent years I’ve seen increased mention in forum discussions about “downtime”, the idea of the characters having a more orderly life between adventures when they pursue ordinary jobs and can go to work on new and better equipment for their next adventures or to make new social contacts, or to get more training for their abilities. Generally speaking, Sword & Sorcery doesn’t do that. It does not have to be nonstop action all the time, and in the stories of Kane and Geralt of Rivia there is often surprisingly little. But you’re always working on making story progress. There always should be a sense of something bad being about to happen soon. I think this convention originally started because of the medium in which the genre originated. Howard was writing for pulp magazines, which meant his stories had to be relatively short to fit into the magazine, and self-contained, since not every reader would be reading every single issue. But the necessity became a virtue when writers discovered ways to make this limitation work for them instead of against them. I think it was Ron Edwards in Sorcerer & Sword who nailed it down to “Story Now!” As a GM it’s tempting to try to be clever and start with a slow buildup that leads to a big reveal farther down the road which will kick of the real main story of the campaign. Phil Vecchione probably said it best: “Don’t be clever”. It rarely works and for a Sword & Sorcery game it’s just poison. Don’t do slow buildups or suddenly turn the campaign in a completely different direction. If you want to, you don’t even have to start an adventure in a town where the players are getting a plot hook from an NPC that lures them to the location where the main part of the adventure will happen. I think in Sword & Sorcery it’s entirely acceptible to start a new adventure by telling the players that they are traveling on a road through the forest and suddenly see an abandoned castle ahead. You could have started the adventure by having an NPC approach the party and hiring them to deliver a letter to another town on the other side of the forest. And unless your group is absolutely terrible, you can be 100% sure that the players will take the job and take the road through the forest. So why go through this whole pointless ritual of pretending to take a job out of their own free will? In Sword & Sorcery you can skip that and just put the party right to the spot where things start to get interesting. As I see it, a Sword & Sorcery campaign should not be thought of as a single continous story like many Epic Fantasy novel series, but instead more like individual episodes of a TV show. I mean, like a serial TV show from back in the 90s and 80s. Not something like Breaking Bad or True Detective, which are more like TV novels. Think of Star Trek, that kind of stuff. With that approach, you are not actually violating player agency when you tell them “You have come to this castle in the woods…” In a “traditional” linear campaign, I would be quite annoyed if the GM were to do that to our characters. That would be most blatant railroading and quite unacceptable. But in a serial campaign I think there really isn’t anything wrong with that. Every players own character has a personal and private life, but it happens between adventures and game sessions. What happens there is not really important for the campaign and the GM does not need to tell the players how their characters ended up being in this place where the adventure starts. The players can decide that for themselves or leave it completely open. All that matters is that at some point after the previous adventure the party ended up traveling on this road or arriving at this village.

Alright. The Sword & Sorcery hero. The second part of the definition of a Sword & Sorcery hero above is that the character is acting self-motivated. Or if you want, selfish. What this means is that the characters are not acting out of an obligation to others or out of a sense of duty. They act and get involved in things because there is something in it for themselves. Their motivation is personal. The easiest and most universal motivation is gold. If someone is paying you a shitload of gold to do something, that can be reason enough for many Sword & Sorcery player characters. What the employer gets out of it doesn’t matter. You get your gold. That matters. The other universal motivation is staying alive. Every player can get behind that and it does not require any explanation. But it’s also the lowest common denominator and while staying in an abandoned village for a night and realizing everyone has been turned into ghouls and comes out of hiding after sunset can be a great adventure one or two times, you quickly run into the risk of it getting really stale. “Go on this adventure or you will be executed” is even worse. Selfish motivations can be a lot more complex than that and you should try to get that as often as possible. If someone is in need of help from a badass hero, that appeal should be a personal one. Simply saying “Villagers are disappearing. Do something!” isn’t going to work. You have to have a specific person approach the player and make an individual and personal plea. If the players are accepting the request, they are not doing it out of an abstract sense of heroisosm or charity, but because they have a personal relationship with the person who needs their help. Could be an existing friend or relative of some of the PCs, or a new NPC you’re just introducing for the first time, but I think it’s quite important as a GM to actually play this out to some length. Can be tough work, but abstract is probably not going to work well here. You need to have some NPCs on their knees pulling at the jacket of a PC and pleading for help to save their kidnapped granddaughter. You can just describe the scene just as well, but as the GM you need to appeal to the players emotionally. The shortcut of “Some girl has gone missing and her relatives asked that you save her” isn’t going to do it. The heroes don’t have to be selfish bastards and when you look at the literature many of the well known heroes are good people at heart. Often they do good things for no reward. But it’s not out of a sense of heroism, a believe that it’s a requirement of their social station, or a religious obligation. When Sword & Sorcery heroes act apparently selfless, it’s still at some level selfish. Conan and Geralt frequently interfere with things. Not because there’s some kind of duty to do so, but because the sight of the injustice personally offends them. Forget about laws, forget about justice, forget about mercy. Sometimes heroes simply get really pissed at a villain for the things the do to others. In Sword & Sorcery, heroes need no justification. Doing something because it felt right to them is entirely sufficient for them. Motivation is a difficult thing for GMs to control because that’s really the ultimate expression of player agency. You just can not tell the players what their characters have to think and feel, even in the most linear and over-skripted campaign. Instead I like to do the following: I’ve long ago stopped asking players for a backstory. Backstories are usually boring and generally matter very little, especially in a Sword & Sorcery campaign. Instead I have the players make a very short list of a few things that motivate their character. What people does the character admire? What people does the character despise? What things make the character angry and what things is the character afraid of? Does the character have something that he hopes to one day accomplish and is there something in the characters past that he considers a terrible failure or mistake? Creating these is a lot easier for the players than coming up with a full backstory and also much faster. And it’s actually a lot more useful for the GM as well. If all the players want to play orphans from a foreign land who taught all their skills to themselves that’s fine. But if they don’t start with any people they know or care for, you need to make some effort to create some. Even if the party travels around a lot, try to make NPCs that regularly appear in the campaign. Could be both allies and enemies. Both can work very well to create adventures that have a personal motivation for the players.

The third defining element of a Sword & Sorcery hero is that they always exist outside the normal social order and free of most conventions and restrictions. Kull, Conan, Elric, and Jiriel were all rulers of their own realms, but at the same time they were completely different from the rest of the aristocracy and the ruling class. All the rules and traditions that applied to these people below them had little to no meaning for them. One of the very first stories that created the genre as we now know it was Robert Howards first Kull story with the very signficant title “By this Axe I rule”. Kull is the king of Atlantis, but he doesn’t give a damn about ancient traditions and laws. When he doesn’t like a law written down on ancient stone tablets, he simply picks up his axe and smashes them. Not only is this a good example of “using decisive action”, it also shows that he doesn’t work with the system or submits to it. And you will find that really everywhere. Elric is the last Emperor of Melnibone, and he is completely different from all the other Melniboneans. Geralt is a mutant with special monster slaying powers. Kane is an immortal cursed to walk the Earth forever and see everything he builds crumble around him. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are thieves. Conan is a barbarian from Cimmeria, who never returns to Cimmeria or talks about it. Sword & Sorcery heroes usually live in societies that are very restrictive and bound by strong traditions and laws, but they don’t have any place in the structure of the society themselves. They are always outsiders, but they also have a great degree of freedom to do what other can not. For people well integrated into the society, many doors are open that to an outsider are closed. But also everything they do will have long term consequences both for them and their allies and relatives. The heroes are free from that. When they upset powerful people, everything bad that comes from it will only hit themselves. They do not have to restrain themselves out of a concern for the safety of others. If they fuck up, it is only their own personal reuptation that suffers, but nobody else will be harmed by the fallout of their actions. Yet at the same time, having no connection to the established factions of the locale also opens many doors to them. They owe no allegiance to anyone and when someone powerful is seen talking to them it won’t result in any political complications. They don’t upset the balance of power between the most influential people of the city or region. It’s the lack of lasting consequences that really defines Sword & Sorcery heroes and that gives them a great deal of their unique power. And that’s probably one of the most important things that makes Sword & Sorcery stand apart from the rest of Heroic Fantasy. If the heroes are well integrated into society and and bound by obligations and responsibilites, it has a very significant impact on the overall feel of the story or campaign.

Here I must admit that my own Ancient Lands setting does not exactly follow this last defining element of Sword & Sorcery, at least not to the letter. In the Ancient Lands, the default assumption for player characters is that they are not wandering mercenaries, but warriors of a specific clan. And that comes with a huge amount of obligations and responsibilities. The player can not just stab someone dead because they didn’t like him, as this could start a brutal war or blood feud between clans or rival families. And if they misbehave as guests at other clans or are confrontational towards visitors, it will reflect negatively on their whole clan, ruin its reputation, and might cost them allies or even make new enemies. But the characters are not just ordinary warriors, but special warriors. They are scouts. Their duty is not guarding the village gate or the hall of the chief, but to travel far and wide to learn knowledge of the wider world, gain informations about potential threats and explore the wilderness and hunt for pieces of ancient magic and lore. In an adventure set in the lands of their clan, the players need to take care when handling delicate relationships between local clans. But once they left behind the fammilar territory they are once again outsiders with no connections to any of the local groups. And because they are traveling so much they are also outsiders at home. They are often gone for long stretches of time and not participating in any of the local affairs at home and when they return they come back with strange new habits and customs. When it comes to purely clan-internal things, they are once again unique, as they are not integrated into the social net as everyone else is. They might find that their family is having trouble with a more powerful family or a warrior who has the favor of the chief, but with the PC gone on adventure none of them is able to stand up to them. Yes, there might be consequences for the family once the heroes leave again, but personal grudges are not so bad when you’re regularly away from home. And as I said in the very beginning, you only need to conform to most of the conventions of the genre to evoke its overall feel and themes. You don’t need to slavishly follow all of them, and adding a few twists here and there is what’s actually going to make your world unique.

Aside from these three defining elements of Sword & Sorcery heroes, there is also a fourth element which I consider to be extremely important. The Sorcery. I wrote two pretty angry reviews about two recent Sword & Sorcery anthologies last year and the main complaint I had with both was a serious lack of any supernatural elements. It’s not just Pulp Swordsmen. It’s Sword & Sorcery! The sorcery part is just as important. In regard to this specific genre, not all magic is automatically sorcery. In fact, a lot of magic seen in roleplaying games is not. Dungeons & Dragons and The Elder Scrolls are good examples of fantasy that is absolutely choking with magic, but not sorcrous at all. Sorcery is not normal and always dangerous. Magic in a Sword & Sorcery story may be natural, but it is never ordinary. You will almost never see a magic sword or magic armor in a Sword & Sorcery story. Stormbringer is a notable example, but it’s not a longsword +2. It’s an evil demonic artifact, a major antagonist in its own right. You don’t have magic streetlights or wizards who are pouring a glas of win by making a bottle float. It’s never mundane and never used lightly. Generally I would advice to not give a backup support sorcerer to groups of bandits or a patrol of orcs. Sorcerers are extraordinary and so is fighting them. They don’t need to be powerful, but they should generally be one of the greatest threats in their group. Not necessarily the leader of the group, but then probably at least the second in command. A sorcerer is not support. A sorcerer is the big gun with all the other grunts being there to protect him.

Under the category of sorcery you don’t have just the casting of spells, but also monsters. And I find it very useful and perhaps even critical to make a clear distinction between types of monsters. In Sword & Sorcery, I think there is a real difference between fictional animals and supernatural monsters. In many roleplaying games, especially Dungeons & Dragon, there is no such distinction and the spectrum is entirely fluid. An owlbear is clearly a fictional animal, as it has no supernatural powers. A griffon probably as well, though it has far more intelligence than any natural animal. What about a wyvern? Or a manticore? When writing Sword & Sorcery or running a campaign in the genre, making a clear distinction is important. To accomplish that, I think the best method is to chose your language carefully when describing these creatures. When there is something like a triceratops grazing on the plains, describe it using mundane terms just as you would describe a bison or or a hippo. Don’t make a big deal out of it and give no indication that the characters should be amazed. It’s a big scally cow. So what? But say you have a manticore or a gargoyle, then make it completely clear that this is something completel else. This is something the heroes have never seen and only heard of and which some people doubt actually exists. In an RPG it’s important to never tell the players what their characters are thinking. But it’s entirely fair game to tell the players what their characters know. Don’t tell them “It’s clearly a manticore, even though you thought it was a myth.” Say “It appears to be a manticore, even though many people believe them to be a myth.” Same content, no violation of player agency. Encounters with supernatural creatures should never be mundane or routine. If the heroes encounter one, it should be a big event. It’s a moment that is extraordinary. A herd of triceratopses in the distance is a nice little detail to create atmosphere, but don’t have some mermaids jumping beyond the rocks. Make it clear what is normal and what is not. As much as I love Dark Sun, this is something where I feel it’s seriously lacking. There really isn’t any line between animals and monsters.

A last point which I think is very crucial, is that Sword & Sorcery is ultimately  the fantasy subgenre of pulp. And the defining trait of pulp is that it’s always larger than life. Perhaps the best description coms from Robert Howard (who else?) in the opening of the first Conan story, which though not the first, was probably the story which launched the genre to become what it is now:

“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 sandaled feet.”

This is the ultimate definition of Sword & Sorcery! Go big or go home! Time to nut up or shut up. It needs to be a bit over the top and it also shouldn’t take itself too seriously. Look out to avoid drifting of into Grimdark where the darkness and violence becomes a caricature of itself, but I think it’s also a good idea to not end up with a parody of the genre like Conan the Destroyer. I admit that Kane can often be quite bleak, but even he can be full of emotion and roaring fury once he gets sufficiently pissed of. And then he’s awesome. Sword & Sorcery can be deep at times, but at its heart pulp is essentially light hearted entertainment. It’s about badassery and I think it should be fun. Not just a rewarding activity, but genuinly fun. Exciting and thrilling. So I’ll close this pretty long article with a quote from Zombieland:

“When Tallahassee goes hulk on a zombie he sets the standard for not to be fucked with. No fear, nothing to lose. What can I say, it’s like… It’s like art.”

9 thoughts on “My approach to running Sword & Sorcery campaigns”

  1. I think you nailed down Swords and Sorcery very well. The only game I’ve played that comes close so far is Barbarians of Lemuria, but it is too “light”. Sounds like it will be a fun campaign.

    1. If you want something like BoL but a bit less light, I recommend Fantasy Age, which was released last week. The Basic Rulebook is a bit basic indeed and the game could use some more specializations, spells, and monsters, but I think the system I really quite excelent. To me BoL too light and Atlantis: The Second Age too heavy, but Fantasy Age is right where I want it, just a nudge above B/X D&D, but a lot more polished and refined.

    2. Barbarians of Lemuria is bad at several points, despite its S&S pretensions it’s based on Lin Carter’s Thongor novels. Carter was a hack who had stupid moralizing ideas that have no place in S&S/Dark Fantasy. Heroes don’t use spells? Bullshit. Most S&S characters ARE wizards. Heroes don’t wear armor? Bullshit. Elric, Conan and Kane are almost always armored, and sometimes in full plate.
      BoL is simply too morally conventional and distant from real S&S or Dark Fantasy material to represent the actual S&S stories, which do not have Lin Carter’s maudlin sentimentality and Frank Frazetta assumptions about how people dress. Both in tone and in rules, it’s just NOT S&S, any more than Thongor was.

      1. Hmmm. You are off the mark both in your assessment and your tone. BoL does all of the things you claim it doesn’t in the RAW. It also captures the tone of S&S in general very well. Most reviews agree that it does this very well whether the writer likes the system or its weight or not.

  2. Great advice here. And I was glad to see you mention Jirel of Joiry. I’m reading her stories now. Have you read any Imaro? Another great example of what you discuss here. But outside of the usual “Western Europe without the serial numbers” framework.

  3. I fully agree with RP Ger. I have spent the last weeks roaming the web for RPGs and “Barbarians of Lemuria”, despite its lightness, was the best to capture the Sword & Sorcery spirit in a few pages. For the Hyborian World, Mongoose’s “Conan” has everything (including some pretty good suppléments) except those few pages adding some “soul”.

  4. I’ve read this post several times over the last year or so and enjoy it every time. I think you nail S&S, at least how I view it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *