Sword & Sorcery: It’s more than “No Elves”

Let’s face it. The “World’s Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game” was more influenced by Tolkien than Robert E. Howard. So, the first step many folks take when trying to do a Sword & Sorcery game is just “D&D with just humans.” For me, Sword & Sorcery is about attitude and atmosphere.

It needs to be sex, drugs and rock & rock. It’s heavy metal and punk rock all rolled up into one big crazy world. It’s twisted magic and monsters. It’s lost temples, forgotten gods and scoring that one big pile of loot before you die. Sword & Sorcery stories are about mean streets, wastelands and corruption. In a way, S&S has a lot in common with cyberpunk. I’ll let that one inspire you for a moment.

But here’s some elements that are bouncing around in my little head for some house rules for Crypts & Things. Yep, there’s going to be follow up posts as soon some more of these ideas start come together.
Humans Only. Sticking with that but doesn’t mean that it has to be bland. Humans from different cultures and lands will have slightly different skills. So just because everyone is human doesn’t mean that they are all the same.
Classes. The heroes of S&S stories have checkered pasts and a wide variety of skills. Classes can have their niche but characters need to flexible to survive. The two little keys here are no weapon and armor proficiencies and let the characters try anything. Plus throw on a level cap. I’m considering doing something along the lines of E6 for Crypts and Things. Just make an additional chart similar to the background chart. When a character “levels up” past sixth level, they roll and gain a new bonus.

Magic is dangerous and corrupting. The first thing, Vanceian magic is right out the window. Magic isn’t flash and bang. It’s creepy. It’s about how big a price someone is willing to pay for power. This is a major tweak and well worth it’s own post.
Monsters should be unique, twisted and frightening. It’s not a horror game (although there elements there) but players shouldn’t be yawning and saying, “It’s another shambling mound.”

Combat is freaking dangerous. Hit points are cool and easy but with Hit Dice, the numbers can just end up too big to keep things gritty and dangerous. So here’s my little idea. Hit Points equal Constitution+ (1/2 Strength). That’s it. It doesn’t matter how many levels a character has. Getting a sword in the gut in a back alley brawl could it end it just as quickly as facing an other worldly horror. Now is the time I bore you with some math. Let’s say we’ve got a character with average stats of 11. That means 16 HP. At low levels, that’s a good chunk of HP but once you get around 4-6 not so much.  Also, there really shouldn’t be “heavy armor”.   I don’t see S&S characters running around in clunky plate mail.  Probably, chainmail at the best. And I know somebody is going to make a chainmail bikini comment.  Correct, it really isn’t armor. Neither is a fur lion cloth.

I usually don’t load a post with so much artwork but like I said at the beginning it’s about atmosphere and attitude. And a picture is worth a thousand sword cuts.

7 thoughts on “Sword & Sorcery: It’s more than “No Elves””

  1. You’re right. Every time I see a new RPG coming down the pike that says it will be S&S I get interested, then it invariably is revealed to be more generic fantasy, missing most of the point of S&S. I do think part of the problem achieving a S&S game is that most players don’t really want one, they only think they do. S&S is not “safe” in the way D&D players seem to enjoy their gaming, and would play differently than D&D. There’s often a strong a horror element, as well as a certain un-PC-ness overall, often times. It would also have to include a sexual element that I don’t think people are willing to admit or permit in their games (some would, and do, use these things, obviously… most don’t). It’s all wrapped up in S&S though, you can’t just take out parts and claim it is still the same thing.


  2. Very true. It can be handled well people just need to think about it. And this is true for other genres as well, when the GM says it’s a dark and gritty campaign, it doesn’t mean the characters get to be evil.


  3. Could agree with you more (I don’t know that Sword & Sorcery needs to have any darker a tone than it’s creator gave it in Kull or Bran Mak Morn), but you’re basically on point. I bought the entire Flashing Swords book series and wow what a let down. The editor’s main defining element to make something Sword & Sorcery was that all the places have “funny names.” It almost made me wonder if any of the authors had ever read any Robert E. Howard. They all professed to love S&S but submitted a bunch of bad fantasy.


  4. My personal preference is also to set a limit on technology in the setting. Usually no higher than Dark Ages Europe, although I personally like to keep it between a Bronze Age and Classical Antiquity level. With the exception of the occasional Magic-Tech under certain circumstances, perhaps Sky-Ships or Atlantean technology.

    I know in Conan the tech level is all over the place and Lankhmar sounds like it’s Medieval? (I’ve never read those books). But for some reason Medieval tropes clash with my conception of S&S. This includes things like Dragons and fantasy races.

    I am including other human species in my setting (Ice-Age Sundaland), Denisovans and maybe Floriensis (very, very rare) but I haven’t decided yet how they will be different from Homo Sapiens in terms of attributes and culture.


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