There was a discussion on Dragonsfoot about how to bring a feeling of Sword & Sorcery to oldschool D&D. Like most of these discussion, the focus was on deciding which races and classes should be available for player characters, how to handle healing and magic items, and things like that. But I think that’s starting the whole topic at too late a point. Before you can make choices on how to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery through game rules, you first need to establish for yourself what kind of atmosphere and emotions you want to evoke in the first place.
I think at the most fundamental level, long before going into any specific elements, they key aspect that makes Sword & Sorcery a thing is that it is not a rational form of fantasy, but an emotional. The plots in Sword & Sorcery are almost always very simple and basic. I can’t really think of any story that has intricate plans, unexpected turns, and surprising reveals about hidden motives or betrayals. It’s not a genre of conspiracy plots and whodunits. Hero’s can be very clever, but their plans are remarkable in their simplicity rather than their complexity. Their strengths lie in improvisation combined with determination, and generally work only because of their outstanding martial skills. Plans help to shift the odds in their favor, but at the end it has to come down to a contest of force against force.
Sword & Sorcery can have considerable depth, but it’s not a cerebral experience. It is very much emotional. When we see philosophy make an appearance, it’s overwhelmingly existentialist. A philosophy that deals with giving meaning to a life after realizing that logic is hollow and empty and reason can not give you any joy. And that being said, Sword & Sorcery is fun! It doesn’t have to be humorous. It’s often grim and full of pain, but I think it’s almost always meant to be thrilling and exhilarating. Elric and Kane can be very brooding and morose, but that’s not why we like them. We like them because they inevitable will be overtaken by fury and then kick everyone’s ass, and it will be glorious.
But as a whole, I wouldn’t say Sword & Sorcery is dark. It’s no darker than The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s not really a distinguishing feature. People also often say that it is more grounded and down to earth, and I can’t really see where that idea is coming from? I think most important of all, Sword & Sorcery is always larger than life. It doesn’t dial up things to the maximum of what would still be sensible, but possibly always goes a little bit beyond. At least I can’t think of anything that I would unambiguously call Sword & Sorcery that is reserved and has both feet firmly on the ground. What Sword & Sorcery certainly is is somewhat grimy and gritty. It is never noble or idealistic, and goes to great lengths to be the opposite of pastoral and quaint. It can be majestic, but never pristine. There is always some degree of both savagery and decadence, and going back the point about being focused on the emotional aspects of fantasy, it is “sensual” in the wider sense of the term. It is bold and has little sense of shame. At times this can shift into sleaze, but I think even then, good Sword & Sorcery is always sincere. I can’t think of any work of Sword & Sorcery that is somewhat ironic or tongue in cheek, and doesn’t take itself serious. Sometimes it does get silly, but even at those times, you always get the impression that the creators think this is awesome and the greatest <expletive deleted> ever. In many later works, which is were you find much of the cheesier examples, there is a clear sense of self-awareness of how silly some of the elements are. But we’re supposed to lough with them, not at them. Even at its dumbest, Sword & Sorcery has no doubt that it’s still cool and awesome. Sword & Sorcery never apologizes for anything. Some of it might be silly or immature, but there is a sense of full acceptance that the creators love what they love. They don’t couch things with irony to defend and shield themselves against accusations of having bad taste.
Now what does all of this mean for GMs running a campaign?
Be bold. Make it larger than life. Don’t be afraid of cliches. Go for pathos and portray the NPCs with passion.
Challenge the players’ courage rather than their analytical skills. When in doubt, err in the players’ favor. If an idea sounds somewhat implausible but cool, be lenient with odds to succeed. Encourage the player to stumble forward and make mistakes they will have to live with, rather than shutting down their ideas and tell them to go back thinking of something else until they come up with something that satisfies you.
Going into fantastical and dangerous places is super fun. But to evoke the spirit of Sword & Sorcery, I think dungeons should be relatively small and light on puzzles. Have fewer encounters, but make them more unique, elaborate, and filled with excitement. In the fiction, you often come across great ruined cities, but the heroes still only have two or three encounters in a small handful of distinct areas. Going slowly and meticulously through a huge area, drawing precise maps and cataloging your findings does not really evoke the emotions that are central to Sword & Sorcery. Sword & Sorcery stories tend to be short because they are incredibly dense. Lots of things are happening, and most of these things are remarkable. There is little place for the mundane and routine.
“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
– Robert Howard, Queen of the Black Coast