Back when I finished the Inixon campaign half a year ago, I wrote that I am done with Dungeons & Dragons and that it just isn’t what I am looking for in a game. I neither like the baggage of assumptions about the world that players bring to a new campaign (to no fault of their own), nor the encounter and XP treadmill. But even back then, I did leave myself a door open that I wouldn’t rule out running a game using some variant or another of the Basic/Expert edition. The mechanical problems are mostly something specific to the d20 system that no tweaks and overhauls ever manged (or even tried) to solve, and the worldbuilding baggage comes from the AD&D tradition. When I actually read B/X for the first time six years ago, the thing that stuck out to me the most was how different it all felt from all the D&D I had known.
When I was taking a break from the whole Bronze Age and Sword & Sorcery fantasy for a while, I always knew that I would be coming back to it. Do something that feels more like Conan and Elric than my last campaign, with stronger influences from Morrowind and Barsoom. My plan was to either go with Barbarians of Lemuria or some kind of PtbA hack. But here I am, and that thing is starting at me again.
My view of creativity is very much in agreement with the thought that great ideas come from filling a mind with lots of fascinating concepts and evocative images and letting them ferment until one day something new comes growing out of the compost heap. A considerable amount of my creative “work” consists of looking for more ideas to add to my heap by reading lots of stuff remotely related to what I am working on (professionals call it “researching”) and pondering of what use they could be to me. It’s totally not slacking!
One thought that has occupied my recently is that many of the fantasy worlds I find highly inspiring for the Ancient Lands seem to share some common features or at least aesthetic. The two biggest influences are Morrowind and Planescape, and I know that the former was directly inspired by Glorantha. And I was actually surprised that Glorantha came into existance completely independently from Tekumel. I had assumed that there’s a direct link between the two, but both appeared in the world of fantasy games in 1974/1975, the very dawning days of RPGs. I’ve been wondering if there’s a name for the style shared by these worlds but it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Looking further into it I also remembered additional settings that seem to share at least some similarity. There’s the Young Kingdoms from Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, Dark Sun, and what I’ve seen also the RPGs Talislanta and Exalted. But it might all have started with Clark Ashton Smith’s proto-Sword & Sorcery tales set in Hyperborea and Zothique (though I admit only having read the former).
One term I’ve often seen to describe both Smith’s stories and Barker’s Tekumel is baroque. Which is described as an “artistic style which used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theater, and music” or “characterized by grotesqueness, extravagance, complexity, or flamboyance”. Yeah, that seems to about fit.
What all these settings have in common is that they are clearly not an imagined ancient history of Earth, but set in worlds that are only distantly “earthlike” in having mountains, forests, and seas and populated by cultures and creatures that have no obvious earthly counterparts. (Glorantha and the non-Morrowind parts of The Elder Scrolls aren’t sticking too close to that.) It’s something you can also find in Star Wars that adds spaceships and lasers to the mix but otherwise plays it perfectly straight. This is what sets them apart from the Tolkienian mainstream but also Howard’s Hyborian Age, which tend to be close to alternate histories with magic set on Earths with the coasts and rivers redrawn.
So: Baroque Fantasy?
It’s not a term that has really been used so far, but I think it is definitly a thing that exist and has regularly shown its face through the last 40 years, often to very high praise. (I’ve found it used once, for exactly the same idea.) When you say baroque it comes with the connotation of “elaborate” and “complex”, and often also “confusing”. But I don’t think that it’s really necessary to have worlds with giant piles of information to evoke this aesthetic. Glorantha and The Elder Scrolls are massive beasts of settings, I’ve heard Tekumel is not very accessible either, and fully grasping Planescape means a lot of reading. (Though if you can get your hands on the box sets, the later is not too difficult to understand.) Hyperborea, Elric, and Dark Sun are all kind of borderline or fringe examples, but they all make do with very little exposition. And as a player, both Morrowind and Planescape can be a total blast even when you explore them without having any clue what you’re getting into.
The key elements of the baroque that makes this term applicable to this style of fantasy are extravagant, flamboyant, and grotesque. And I think that few people would content these qualities in the worlds I named. There is a certain downside in that baroque also is the name for a time period in European history with a distinctive architecture, music, and fashion, which don’t have anything to do with these works of 20th century fantasy. But it’s certainly a term that would be quite fitting.
When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.
However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way conflict with with those essential elements and themes.
Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
Bound by Flame (videogame)
Dark Sun (rpg setting)
Dragon Age II
The first three Drizzt novels.
Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
Rune Soldier (anime)
I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.
Now this title is a boast as big as it can possibly get. Swords & Dark Magic called itself the new Sword & Sorcery and fell disappointingly flat in that regard. “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology” can only be read in two possible ways: Either “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery”, which obviously it isn’t, or “The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Anthology”. I am more than willing to judge a book by its content, but when the publisher puts such a claim into the very title of the book, I will judge it by that measure as well.
Since getting through this book is taking a lot longer than I thought, I’ll split this review into two parts, covering half of the stories each. (The second half may take another week or two, though.)
I frequently see people complaining that they can’t get their novels to proper length and that their ideas don’t provide enough material for 200,000 words. Then why try to make them into novels in the first place? It’s not the only option fantasy writers have to chose their format. In the Sword & Sorcery genre, stories tend to be much shorter, instead you simply get more of them.
As references, here are the works of some of the great Sword & Sorcery writers and their lengths.
A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix: This short story is about a knight who is in hospital with a broken foot who is looking for a presen for his bodyguard golems birthday. There is not a single good thing to say about it.
Red Pearls by Michael Moorcock: Finally! Finally we are getting someone who really knows what he is doing and who actually understands the genre of this book! The story is about Moorcocks famous character Elric, of whom I actually only know that he is some kind of superhuman with a really powerful sword. Elric is traveling with his companions to the underside of his world for reasons only he really knows and, what appears to be his typical fashion, doesn’t share with anyone else. As they reach the port at the end of the sea voyage, Elric is already awaited by a woman who shares his highly unusual physical appearance. Elric has come for a magic sword, but in exchange he has to find a pair of red pearls.
It’s really obvious that Moorcock has writing stories like this for a long time and both understands what is expected and what he has doing. Pacing is good and he’s making the effort of actually describing things and not leaving the characters and the reader in a blank vacuum. This is the first story since the very first in the book that has actual action scenes and even incorporates sorcery at the same time. Which I had expected from all the previous seven stories as well! The presentation of this story is very well done. Unfortunately, the actual plot isn’t that interesting either.
The Deification of Dal Bamore by Tim Lebbon: This story is about a priestess of an all-powerful church who is transporting a rebell leader to his public execution when the procession is attacked by his supporters. While the style of the story is really quite effective at creating tension and a rich atmosphere, the author made the unusual descision to write everything in present tense, which feels particularly strange as half the story is told in flashbacks, which just feels like a very odd combination. A major element of the story is that the priestess believes the prisoner must be kept alive until his execution under any circumstances, but only until the very end do we get kind of an explaination why that would be important. Her soldiers don’t understand either and I think it’s not a great device to keep important details secret from the reader even though the entire story is narrated from inside the priestesses thoughts, who seems to be the only person who knows what’s actually going on. Despite its shortcomings, I think this is still actually one of the most exciting stories in the book and even though it barely checks any of the boxes of the genre, it seem still like a worthy contribution to this collection. (And far more so than mosy of the other ones.)