Sunday, April 26, 2020

Misconceptions About Sword & Sorcery Relevant to Gaming

I had in mind maybe to write a post about the elements of the fantasy subgenre Sword & Sorcery that might be useful to think about it trying to capture that feel in gaming, but after noticing there are a number of blog/forum posts on that topic, I thought the most original thing I could do in point out where I believe they go wrong, or at least overstate things. This contains slight spoilers for a bunch of stories 30 or more years old.

Magic is Inherently Corrupting. I think this belief comes from the fact that most sorcerers/wizards that show up in Sword & Sorcery are evil, but the textual evidence evidence that magical power is more corrupting than regular old power is slim. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon features good magic-users in the form of priests of Asura (maybe they are clerics?) and a witch. Gray Mouser's original mentor Glavas Rho in "The Unholy Grail" is a "good" wizard. Pelias in "The Scarlet Citadel" and Fafhrd's and Gray Mouser's mentors Sheelba and Ningauble are at least helpful and not obviously evil.

Heroes Are Amoral. While many a Sword & Sorcery hero engages in the sort of larceny and possibly murder that D&D characters are known for and some would be aptly termed anti-heroes (Karl Edward Wagner's Kane might at times be a villain protagonist), most aren't sociopaths--or at least they are less so than a lot of D&D characters. In "Two Suns Setting," Kane not only doesn't double cross Dwassllir, but he doesn't even take the treasure when it wouldn't have mattered. He even tries to save one of his subordinates who's in anaphylactic shock in Bloodstone. Conan saves more than one damsel in distress and seems to care for the people of Aquilonia when he's its king.

The Stakes Are Small. In general, S&S isn't about the epic, but this is not always the case. The Hour of the Dragon is about the fate of kingdoms, and suggests the entire world may be imperiled if Xaltotun succeeds in resurrecting Acheron. Kane is often out to conquer the world. Imaro's saga has some epic tendencies.

The Gods Are Uncaring or Evil. Most gods showing up in person in Sword & Sorcery tend to, well, monsters--but certainly not all. In the Conan stories neither Mitra or Asura are certainly not evil, and Mitra even makes an appearance in "Black Colossus." The gods in a number of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories seem over-involved, if anything.


Brutorz Bill said...

Some solid points!

James Mishler said...

Indeed, I've noticed that a lot of the "amorality" in S&S creeped in through more modern pastiches and interpretations. For example, a lot of the latter-day Conan stories point him as more amoral or even immoral, notably Robert Jordan's books, which make him a rapist. Conan had a "rude chivalry," and while he never had any problems with looting, or even murder, he was never a rapist.

Other, more modern grim and gritty (grimdark?) style S&S paints the S&S world as an amoral one, but that certainly was not the case with the older S&S.

Your points vis a vis sorcery and the epic nature of S&S are also quite valid.

Lord Kilgore said...

I think what often happens is that when people point out the differences between high fantasy and S&S, they focus so much on those differences that they build them into what they think are "pillars of S&S." Magic is less common, often mistrusted, and many times darker in S&S, so, therefore MAGIC IN SWORDS & SORCERY IS ALWAYS CORRUPTING AND EVIL. It's taking a valid point about differences and inflating it into a prime factor.

I see this with oldschool gaming advice, where "oldschool doesn't use rolls for every single action like perception checks or riding a horse" gets somehow turned into "you don't roll the dice very much in oldschool games...if you're rolling dice you're probably doing something wrong."

People tend to pick a side and then defend it to the death.

TimWest said...

Those are some good counter examples to what most people consider to be S&S. I think these definitions are always going to differ from person to person but there's no reason why they should be fixed.

northtroll said...

Sorcery may or may not be corrupting. Intent in purpose seems to be the tipping point. A wise practitioner of Sorcery seems to stay away from the more malignant spells, or spells that bend others to the sorcerer's will. Those casters who do practice these forms of magic seem to fit into the framework of amorality.

Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

Your points are valid, but I think a lot of the basis comes from the inherit prejudices of the original writers, as well as the limitations of the medium.

Short stories need to get their plot across quickly; "magic is evil" is an easy way to identify the good guys from the bad guys. The motivations are easy to understand so they are quick to communicate. Magic is power that doesn't have to be described in detail. Power corrupts.

Good guys are boring, most of the time. No one wants to read about them. No one wants to write about them. The good guys actions are predictable; the amoral characters are unpredictable and much more entertaining.

You also have to consider the time the stories were written... The cultural prejudices that were considered acceptable. The religious limitations that the writers had to be careful about.

Anne said...

I'll just chime in to say that I think Lord Kilgore makes an interesting point and appears to be describing a process by which a genre could become more and more stylized over time.

If characteristics that originally slightly distinguish the work from another genre get played up as THE defining characteristics and get more and more exaggerated, the more the new genre becomes stylized (or risks becoming a parody of itself).

HDA said...

The "heroes are amoral" point is a good one. Howard was a well-read guy regarding ancient cultures, and had a handle on their viewpoints in a way many modern readers don't. Too many rush to jusge his characters by 21st-century standards, while they operate by moral codes that make perfect sense to them. Conan is a great example but there are others throughout s&s.

Lee Lawrence said...

Interesting points. Sheelba and Ningauble might not be evil, but I remember them as weird in a fucked up way (not read that much of Lieber though) which to me is just as good an example of corruption as being evil. I think DCC RPG covers that quite well, you might end up with horns, tentacles, and a thousand spider eyes, but it doesn't necessarily make you evil.

As to the amorality, I think that's all coming from Vance's Cugel, who is quite frankly a dick. Although, I would guess most of the amorality of D&D Murderhobos has always been more about feral teenage boys in "wingamemode" and "lolcuthisfeetoffmode" than any literary influence. :D

Trey said...

@Jason - I don't see how the prejudices of the original writers are to blame, when the counter-examples I give are from the original writers.

@Lee - Yeah, I wouldn't see that Sheelba and Ningauble are good, but I think they are alien not corrupted in a DCC way. I'm not sure whether I think Cugel stands in the Sword & Sorcery genre or not. Certainly there are some similarities, but Cugel is in no way a "heroic" character (and I don't mean a good guy, but rather he is not possessed of better than average capabilities), and his stories are very action-oriented.

Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

I wasn't intended to disagree with your observations, more I was saying that some of the omissions in the original writing could be do to such perceptions.

I don't want to sound like a social warrior here, but I can't help but cringe when I read some pulp stories. This is not a judgement against the original writers character; it was a different time.

With that in mind I can see why they would be extremely careful about gods physically appearing within their stories. To avoid offending a segment of their particular audience as well as to avoid getting the wrong sort of attention.

It's one thing for the main character to believe in a fictional god. If the god appears in the story, then suddenly its a character. Which both diminishes the importance of the god as well as changes the story composition; no longer can the reader just think the hero is misguided in his beliefs.

A.F.W Junior said...

Good points.
I see people embracing this misconseptions to validate their own beliefs (or non beliefs).