Jump into the deep end! – Starting Sword & Sorcery adventures

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!

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Arbitrary Fantasy

As someone who’s been mostly interested in a certain kind of fantasy fiction, I’ve been having some struggle with the distinction between Sword & Sorcery for quite some time. These pasts days, I’ve had some good discussions with other people about it, but instead of getting some clarity, things got only more confusing.

When I categorize fantasy fiction for myself, the main categories I am thinking in are High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, and Heroic Fantasy. Simple categories that seem perfectly clear to me. But as it turns out on a closer inspection, not to everyone else.

Low Fantasy seems to be by far the biggest problem child. Part of it is because what it really means is “Not-High Fantasy”. Assuming Lord of the Rings is the archetype of High Fantasy, Low Fantasy could be two different things: By far the most common use of the term describes a setting that is an alternative present day Earth (though “present” in this case means at the time of writing), while High Fantasy is a completely different reality that at the most may be set in the “Mythic Past” of our world. However, there is also another use of the term, that seems to have become common enough to cause some serious problems. Alternatively, Low Fantasy could mean a work of fantasy fiction that less glamorous, more gritty, and with a lower prevalance of magic. Which can overlap with the other definition, but also be two completely different things. This second use of the term seems to have become so common that the term Low Fantasy has become pretty much useless. (Though I have doubt if it ever really was that good to begin with.)

But now I did some research on the term of Heroic Fantasy these last days, and I ran into another problem. My idea of the term Epic Fantasy, has always been a type of works that revolve around large scale events, like the end of the world or a global invasion of demons, and tell the story from the perspective of the key figures in these events. In contrast, Heroic Fantasy is all about specific characters and their personal stories. They might rise to positions of power and take important roles in larger conflicts, but the story is still about their personal experiences and not so much about how the details of the conflict or how it might turn out in the end. Again, this is a perfectly serviceable and easy to grasp distinction. But then, I ran into a couple of comments in a number of different places, that stated Lord of the Rings to be a prime example of Heroic Fantasy. And that seemed very odd to me. After all, it has all the important traits of Epic Fantasy, which makes it the oposite of Heroic Fantasy. At first I thought someone just got it wrong, but soon I found more and more cases of it, which use the term Heroic Fantasy as something else than the opposite of Epic Fantasy.

There’s also the term Dark Fantasy, that has been thrown around in recent years, which I think is even more pointless. And now I really think that this whole categorization scheme has lost any usefulness it may once have had. Categories are not bad and they are very helpful and important ways to talk about certain styles and group similar work together. But categories only work if everyone uses at least roughly the same definitions, which in the case of fantasy genres, seem to be entirely arbitrary. So I think that at least for myself, I won’t be using these terms anymore. When talking about these sub-genres, instead of throwing around a fancy sounding term, I’ll have to go back to using a whole sentence to tell people what kind of fantasy fiction I am talking about.

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Good artists borrow, great artists steal – Laying the foundations for the Ancient Lands

When I started working on the Ancient Lands, I wanted of course to create a world that contains many of the things I already love in other settings, but would wish to be more explored or developed a bit differently. Not all the things I love, because that doesn’t really lead to consistend and belivable world, but rather to a mess of randomly thrown together pieces. But still a selection of a good amount of things from my favorite settings that I have come to love a lot. Here, I want to provide an overview of the major geographic areas of the Ancient Lands and the works that inspired them. These don’t cover the whole world, or even the whole continent, but are the selection I made for those regions I want to develop in detail, while leaving the rest simply untouched. There’s something there, of course, but I don’t know what it would be either.

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Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2

Starved Ones are basically zombies or ghouls who are constantly decaying at a relative rapid rate, losing 10% of their hit points every day. They regain their full strength and can regenerate decayed or lost body parts by eating the matching parts and organs of a dead creature. However, the newly regrowing organ will have the appearance of the organ that was consumed, not the form of the originally lost parts.
There’s some potential here, but I think how scary they will actually be depends a lot on the GMs imagination for what kinds of corpses the starved ones are feeding.

Tentacle Spawn are rather weak demons but tend to appear in large numbers. They are not actually individual creatures but rather just the ends of tentacles of much more massive and horrible beings from beyond this world, which often come grasping through portals much to small to allow the passage of the abominations entire body. I think they are making a great addition to encounters with evil sorcerers and the like and are more part of a dangerous environment than actual enemies themselves. Still, treating them as individual creatures would probably make a good job to make them appear as real threats.
The Black Spawn of Jullah (see part 1) serve as conduits to the realms of otherworldly horrors and can let tentacle spawn burst from their bodies.

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Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1

I love monster books. To me they are clearly the greatest thing about RPGs. Most of the books I have are monster books, many even for games I don’t play. But when I flip through them, I often just look at the illustration and read the first few lines of text before I get bored with a creature that seems completely uninspired and overdone, and continue to the next one. But occasionally, there are creatures that are actually quite interesting and unique if you really give them a chance. And sometimes their greatness is immediately visible from the first second.

Over the next weeks, I want to return to many of the old monster books that I’ve pretty much forgotten about, and maybe occasionally pick up some new ones, to go hunting for rare and exotic creatures that you rarely get to see.

Conan - Bestiary of the Hyborian Age
Conan – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age

Today, I am starting with Conan d20 – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age by Mongoose Publishing, 2008.

The Black Fiend is the first creature in the book which actually is somewhat interesting. A black fiend is a roughly human-shaped demon that can pass for a human at a distance and in the dark, but has horns, claws, fangs, and pointed ears, that clearly mark it as a monster. They prefer to stay in darkness and often wear dark cloaks and hoods to hide their demonic nature from casual observers. They are not particularly powerful, but very stealthy, which makes them good assassins, and also have a great talent for sorcery, and many are spellcasters who can be summoned to learn rare and exotic spells from them. I think it’s the combination of being both an assassin and spellcasters, that makes the black fiend a bit more than just another demonic looking man.

On the first look, the Black Spawn of Jullah are just another type of large demon that look like large black apes with fur that seems to be permanently soaked in blood. As servants of the ape god, they can produce a roar that will summon large numbers of actual apes from the surrounding jungles to attack their enemies. An even weirder trait is their ability to use their own bodies as a kind of portal to hell, allowing tentacles and tendrils of some hellish abominations to burst through their bloody fur and grasp and bash at their enemies.
The black spawn looks like a generic evil ape, but I think figting one of these will actually get quite frightening to players when they suddenly find themselves swarmed by large apes from all directions and the tentacles burst from the beasts bodie. I think I want to use these ones in my campaign.

A Bodiless Slimer is a demon made of almost insubstential slime that is also entirely invisible. They are very hard to detect and to injure and can also use a breath of flames in addition to their normal attack of grappling and choking their victims. Before a fight, they use a kind of subconscious telepathy to demoralize their enemies. These could make for interesting encouters, but the creature itself is rather bland. Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1”

What are the Ancient Lands?

One of the reasons to start Spriggan’s Den was to have a place to post updates on my work on the Ancient Lands, and I also plan to use it as a label to publish my RPG related material in the forseeable future. So I guess a short introduction would be in place.

Ancient Lands is a campaign setting that goes back to 2005 when I was working on the setting for a larger online project that never really got off the ground, but from which I learned a lot of things about the creation of campaign settings and my personal preferences. Work on the Ancient Lands began in earnest in early 2011 when I was dabbling in creating a revised version of the generic character classes variant rules of D&D 3rd Ed. for E6 and I really started to like the idea of a low-level setting as in the worlds of Conan or The Witcher. While I eventually abandoned the plan of using the E6 variant in favor of simply establishing a sort-of level-cap at 10th level (on which I might elaborate on in a separate post), and switched to Pathfinder over D&D, the basic premise remained the same and has seen significant development over the last two years.

One of the primary reasons to consider creating a setting myself was my dissatisfaction with the fact that most “high fantasy” or “generic” fantasy setting portray a world in which dragons, giants, elves, and dwarves do exist, but they are all way past their prime and fading into obscurity in the face of a rapidly spreading humanity. Now, in the Lord of the Rings this is an important plot element; the whole story is about the end of an era and the transition from myth to history. But there really is no reason to make this the standard for all fantasy settings. Also, settings like Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or Eberron portray worlds that are actually emulating the Renaissance and early modernity, while I personally much favor the early Middle Ages and Iron Age. When reading sourcebooks on other campaign settings, there is almost always lots of references to the old kingdoms of elves and dwarves and their wars against dragons, giants, and massive hordes of orcs. These sections always intrigued me much more than the current age of these settings and so the basic idea of the Ancient Lands was born: A wild and barely explored world of the Bronze or early Iron Age, where humans are simply one of several races of “barbarians” and ancient nature spirits still possess great power of the lands and their creatures.

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