With the basic framework for my next Ancient Lands campaign in place and wanting to use the opportunity to give the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons a try, I’ve sat down to think about ways to give the sandbox a proper Sword & Sorcery feel. Here are my general ideas for running a D&D campaign to go adventuring like Conan, Elric, Jirel, and Kane:
I think that the higher level spells of D&D don’t fit with Sword & Sorcery. There are two options to deal with that. Either cap all PCs and NPCs at 10th level and allow no further progress, or if you want to run a longer campaign with even more powerful PCs remove all the spells from 6th to 9th level from the spell lists. Since many spells can be used to greater effect with higher level slots, spellcasters above 10th level still increase their magic power and of course also the amount of spells per day. (You could also put the cap at 8th/4th level or 12th/6th level if you want the cutoff point higher or lower.)
Even though they are not terribly common in most stories, few things scream Sword & Sorcery to me like giant reptiles and giant insects. Probably because they are mostly unheared of in other types of fantasy. Huge bears, tigers, and apes are also great and similarly rare in other fantasy. In addition to giant sized normal animals, 5th edition also has ankhegs, behirs, bullets, carrion crawlers, owlbears, remorhazes, and wyverns which are also all very nice fits.
There are good number of really bestial humanoids in the monster manual like ettercaps, ghouls, gnolls, harpies, hags, minotaurs, yuan-ti, and also grimlocks. I would mostly rely on these for humanoid opponents instead of the usual goblins and orcs which are still very humanlike in both appearance and behavior.
Dens of Debauchery
I think for Sword & Sorcery the taverns need to have a strong character and be given a good amount of detail that goes beyond “table, beds, barkeeper”. Taverns are were a great amount or even majority of social interactions will take place and are the best location to show off the rowdy life of adventurers and scoundrels. Taverns or the halls of kings and warlords should be presented as loud and crowded and stuff should be happening there. NPCs spying on the party or trying to steal from them or attempt assasinations, and of course the occasional bar fight. Taverns should not feel like the game menu screen.
Carousing and Long Rests
I got this great idea from Beleriphon at the Giant in the Playground Forum: The Dungeon Master’s Guide has an optional table for carousing and waking up the next morning with possibly interesting results. In the spirit of Conan, Fafhrd, and Gray Mouser, carousing is the perfect situation for the characters to level up at the end of an adventure. They are back at their current place and are enjoying the spoils of their exploits. I would even go a step further and make it mandatory for characters to go carousing to gain the benefits of a long rest from a night of sleep. Or a late morning and noon of sleep. Even with a bad headache, the heroes are then back to their full strength.
Sword & Sorcery games are exactly the type of campaign for which Inspiration exists. The DMG recommends aiming at giving each character inspiration once per play session but I think that’s severely underusing it and making the whole mechanic superflous. It only grants advantage on a single roll. That’s really not much. You can give characters inspiration much more than that. And in Sword & Sorcery you should!
When a player does something balls to the wall awesome that is daring and reckless but sounds really cool, give the character inspiration to one of the dice rolls involved in that action. Don’t be stingy. In a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to try crazy cool stuff as often as possible.
Weird Dungeon Architecture
Almost all dungeons I’ve seen in fantasy RPGs feel very much like being either castles, abandoned basements, or military bases with natural cave walls. For Sword & Sorcery this is not enough. Sometimes the adventure does lead the party into a normal castle or a well maintained prison, but most of the time, dungeons in Sword & Sorcery are magical and unnatural places that have only passing resemblance to the normal world outside. Even when they are small they are Mythic Underworlds. In my own campaign, which is a very animistic world with lots of spirits, I actually make the entrances to these dungeons portals into the Spiritworld.
There’s probably a huge range of options to do that which someone could write a book about. (Note to self.)
Uncertain Outer Planes
Even though Planescape is great and could be seen as Sword & Sorcery in its own quirky way, I think the standard outer planes of D&D don’t really work with a more mainstream kind of Sword & Sorcery, particularly the good planes. Everything from Pandemonium to Gehenna could work really well, but being able to open a gate and walk among the gods and angels in Elysium and Celestia just doesn’t fit a Sword & Sorcery game.
One approach that I could see working quite well would be to have Heaven and the Hells to be very different in nature and not be analogous and matching opposites of each other. Heaven can be an unknown place unreachable by mortal magic while the hells are open to visitors and demons very willing to answer mortals and listen to their offers of bargains. Or if you want to go down that route, there could be no Heaven, only numerous Hells.
In my campaign the only two other planes are the Spiritworld (Feywild) and the Void (Astral), which can not be visited but is the home of demons.
Few Magic Items
Sword & Sorcery heroes rarely carry more than one or two magical items with them and often don’t have any enchanted weapons or armor at all. If they have something it’s usually protective items that directly counter specific abilities of magical creatures. And alchemy. Lots of alchemy. If you want to give players a good amount of magical help in a Sword & Sorcery campaign, go nuts with potions.