It’s been a while since I did rant about sword & sorcery as a genre. That last post Sword & Sorcery: It’s More Than Just No Elves was pretty popular and since I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Barbaric! and other games, I figured it was time for another post. This time I want to talk a little more about characters and focus on the diversity of skills and abilities.
So let me get this part out of the way first. This is opinion. Some folks have a hard time understanding that.
I think the first thing to say is that very few people agree on what exactly Sword & Sorcery is and where the lines are between High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery. Sure there have been more scholarly articles written on the subject and don’t look for that sort of thing here. Instead, you’re getting just my silly opinion as it goes for gaming.
I’m going to jump right in and probably catch hell for this. Is D&D (any edition) Sword & Sorcery? Yes and no. And I think other games can do it better. As I posted before it’s more than just no elves. Sure you can have elves, dwarves, and halflings and still have a game be “Sword & Sorcery”. However, I feel these races still have a heavy Tolkien style connections (which I feel is more Heroic or High Fantasy) that give the players a preconceived notion of the game. And speaking of preconceived notions, when you sit down with D&D style rules, players will expect a D&D style game. And going even further out on a limb, IMHO, over the years D&D has become it’s own sub-genre somewhere between all the aforementioned sub-genres with elements of all of them wrapped and presented in different ways in different worlds. That’s all cool. But I feel characters get caught in a niche.
Sword & Sorcery characters tend to have a broader range of skills than characters normally have when they are tied to a class/level system. So I decided to some digging the ancient archives of D&D and see how some of the iconic characters were handled “officially”. I’m not do full stat blocks but just looking at class and level as a general idea.
Let’s look at the Barbarian to rule them all, Conan. According to the old TSR modules Conan Unchained and Conan Against Darkness, Conan is a 13th Level Fighter and 7th Level Thief. Conan Unchained, also gives us Valeria of the Red Brotherhood as 10th Level Fighter and 9th Level Thief. Pretty epic level characters and in the old days dual classing for humans was a pain. But other characters didn’t fair so well. In TSR’s Red Sonja Unconquered, Sonja is only an 11th fighter. According to Dragon No 57, Belit the Queen of the Black Coast is only a 10th level fighter (but has some special abilities). So in a way Red Sonja and Belit got short changed. And of course, Dragon No 36 has a more detailed write up of Conan at various ages/levels of experience. Compared to some other iconic characters, Howard’s Heroes are weaklings.
Next up let’s look at Deities & Demigods at that’s where things get really odd. Our favorite thieves of Lankhmar are stacked. Fafhrd has the abilities of a 15th Level Ranger/13th Level Thief/5th Level Bard. And Mouser; a 15th Level Thief/11th Level Fighter/3rd Level Magic-User. Also, we have a write up of Elric, a 19th Level Magic-User/15th Level Fighter/10th Level Cleric/10th Level Illusionist/10th Level Assassin/5th Level Druid. Wow.
Yes I know these are epic and iconic heroes. Your starting character isn’t going to be any where near that power level. The thing is your experienced or even “epic” character probably isn’t going to get any where near that power and diversity of abilities. I know why they are so amped up. Remember that guy back in the day? “I killed Elric and took Stormbringer. It’s a great match with Thor’s hammer. I killed him too.” Like I said, what I’m really looking at is diversity of skills and abilities.
It’s tough to do that diversity of skills without some odd dual classing/multiclassing. And that’s why I like RPG’s that are more skilled focused rather than class and level based for Sword & Sorcery. And yes. I did do my own little attempt to do this with Forgotten Tales of Sword & Sorcery but still using the class/level system. But there’s plenty of other games to think about.
The grand daddy of Sword & Sorcery RPG’s is Barbarians of Lemuria. It’s a great game and plenty has been written about it. Up next, there’s Runequest. I personally like the older versions and dare I say the original MagicWorld and I’ve still got that crazy idea in my head. I know haven’t written about Savage Worlds in a long, long time. I think the best for Savage Worlds is Beast & Barbarians followed very closely by Legend of Steel. Of course, there’s also the Savage Worlds Lankhmar. And rounding out my top picks is of course, Barbaric! OK, I did mention Lankhmar so I need to mention the Dungeon Crawl Classics version. I like it and it’s got a lot of good things going for it and it’s a blast to play. But it still has a lot of the feel of a DCC game. (Note: I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I love DCC and a whole lot of other games.) Of course, there’s also GURPS. A personal pet peeve that I’ve developed over the years is that I don’t like games where I need a spread sheet to run or create my character. Keep it simple.
This post is already pretty long and chances are that I’ve ticked off somebody (probably on Facebook). There’s a lot of factors that go into making a game “Sword & Sorcery”. Not every one agrees on what those factors are and which games are and aren’t “Sword & Sorcery”. That’s perfectly OK. And I also know I rambled a lot. So let me finish up with this. Play your game the way you want to.