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TOPIC: Defin­ing Sword & Sorcery

Defin­ing Sword & Sor­cery 6 years 10 months ago #847

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In the Blade rule­book, in the chap­ter about S&S adven­tur­ing, we have endeav­oured to pro­vide, if not a def­i­n­i­tion, then at least a descrip­tion what ele­ments con­sti­tute tales of S&S. This def­i­n­i­tion is not easy to make, espe­cially in regards to the divid­ing line to “Heroic Fan­tasy”. This dif­fi­culty is only com­pounded by some writ­ers, like Michael Moor­cock and Lyon Sprague deCamp, actu­ally pre­fer­ring the term Heroic Fan­tasy to S&S.

While we believe that we have man­aged to decently char­ac­ter­ize the genre of S&S, there are of course other attempts at that. A note­wor­thy one I’d like to point you to was pub­lished on the home­page of Black Gate Mag­a­zine, edited by by S&S author and edi­tor Howard Andrew Jones. While our own short essay con­cen­trates on describ­ing the ele­ments of S&S, this one focuses on dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing S&S from Heroic Fan­tasy. Even if S&S doesn’t hap­pen to be your thing, I rec­om­mend you still read it care­fully if you have any the­o­ret­i­cal inter­est in fan­tasy lit­er­a­ture.

I’d like to sin­gle out the least aca­d­e­m­i­cal dif­fer­ence pointed out by the essay for men­tion here, as it con­trasts S&S and Heroic Fan­tasy by con­trast­ing the dif­fer­ence between two well-​known and rep­re­sen­ta­tive pro­tag­o­nists’, Tolkien’s Faramir and Howard’s Conan, out­looks on vio­lence:

Faramir wrote:
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharp­ness, nor the arrow for its swift­ness, nor the war­rior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.

Conan wrote:
Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and the sting of wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, and the mad exul­ta­tion of bat­tle when the blue blades flame crim­son, and I am content.

I believe that con­trast­ing those two quotes is quite effec­tive at estab­lish­ing the dif­fer­ence between Heroic Fantasy’s reluc­tant hero who is a part of soci­ety and heroic for this society’s sake, and S&S’ soldier-​of-​fortune hero who embraces the out­sider lifestyle of adven­tur­ing and thus is largely apart from soci­ety.

The esay goes into much greater depth and throws into relief many other dis­tinc­tions between Heroic Fan­tasy and S&S, but I’d like to sin­gle out a few sen­tences descrip­i­tive of pro­tag­o­nists of S&S, as they also point out what kind of PCs Blade was writ­ten to facil­i­tate and thus are of value for prospec­tive play­ers of the game:

Sword and sor­cery tells the tales of men who are free from all con­straint. Their stature and skill mean they are free from the tyranny of other men. Their birth and rais­ing free them from the morals and mores of soci­ety, and the lack of higher pow­ers unbinds them from any con­cept of fate. Thus the heroes of sword and sor­cery become the true rep­re­sen­ta­tives of free-​will, and through their sto­ries, read­ers are able to imag­ine the capa­bil­i­ties and the tri­umphs of men who are com­pletely free to chart their own destiny.
Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-​colored sun
Of secret worlds incred­i­ble, and take
Their trail­ing skies for vest­ment when I soar.

Clark Ash­ton Smith, The Hashish Eater or The Apoc­a­lypse of Evil
Last Edit: 6 years 10 months ago by Michael.
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Defin­ing Sword & Sor­cery 6 years 10 months ago #849

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In read­ing this I was struck by the idea of set­ting a Blade cam­paign in post-​Carolingian France at the dawn of the Pax Dei move­ment. The idea of the church seek­ing to curb the vio­lent actions of the divided feu­dal nobil­ity through non-​violent means, and being resisted by the PCs not out of some laud­able spir­i­tual argu­ment but rather because they see the Church as over-​stepping their per­og­a­tive — it just seems a hand-​in-​glove fit for a real-​Earth S&S cam­paign where the tropes of S&S are to the fore — a sort of primer for the play­ers on what makes a game S&S and not his­tor­i­cal fic­tion.

That aside, I enjoyed the under­ly­ing arti­cle. So many peo­ple use the term S&S for any story where a char­ac­ter holds a sword and the set­ting isn’t his­tor­i­cal. As if “S&S” is a lit­eral term , mean­ing any story with swords and/​or sor­cery in it. I have been asked the ques­tion, “What dif­fer­en­ti­ates Blade from any other FRPG?”, and from the way the ques­tion is phrased you can tell that the asker doesn’t believe there can be an “S&S RPG” that doesn’t look like every other FRPG. The con­ver­sa­tions I’ve par­tic­i­pated in over the last month have really been quite inter­est­ing — it is clear that most gamer’s views of fan­tasy don’t come from read­ing but from watch­ing; and as such their expo­sure to fan­tasy as a genre is really quite lim­ited.

The other side of the coin is that those who do read sel­dom analyse what they’ve read in the lit­er­ary sense. Books are con­sumed in the same way as donuts. They sat­isfy a crav­ing briefly, but the next one beck­ons swift on the heels of the last.

Any­way, that arti­cle is well worth a read!

Regards,
Ian P.
Fama nihil est celerius
– Noth­ing is swifter than rumour…
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Defin­ing Sword & Sor­cery 6 years 10 months ago #853

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IanP. wrote:
In read­ing this I was struck by the idea of set­ting a Blade cam­paign in post-​Carolingian France at the dawn of the Pax Dei movement.
Very apt choice! At that time, the ideals of Chris­tian­ity were not yet mar­ried to the idea of the aris­to­cratic war­rior at all, remov­ing any influ­ence of divinely ordained moral­ity on the fight­ing men, and the age was actu­ally one as wild, bru­tal, and harsh as pop­u­lar belief seems to be for all the mid­dle ages, and as the high and late mid­dle ages really weren’t at all. I myself have set suc­cess­ful games dur­ing the early mid­dle ages, though still ear­lier than in your idea – the Merovin­gian age.

IanP. wrote:
So many peo­ple use the term S&S for any story where a char­ac­ter holds a sword and the set­ting isn’t his­tor­i­cal. As if “S&S” is a lit­eral term , mean­ing any story with swords and/​or sor­cery in it.
I think it is a pity that quite a few perusers of fan­tasy fic­tion have such an incom­plete grasp of its true scope – which all the more galling as one would expect read­ers of fan­tasy to have more than just a nar­row imag­i­na­tion. I blame sev­eral rea­sons – mainly the influ­ence of role­play­ing tropes that don’t really work well away from the gam­ing table, the ero­sion of people’s under­stand­ing for nar­ra­tive struc­ture because of television’s nev­erend­ing series, and publisher’s wishes for sequels and long cycles stamped from a proven mold as a tried-​and-​true for­mula to make money.

Sadly, the coun­ter­move­ment to this fan­tasy tripe seems to be to make fan­tasy sto­ries appear more mature and high-​browed by cut­ting down on the fan­tasy ele­ments and by hold­ing up the progress of the action by long descrip­tive pas­sages. While the lat­ter tech­nique doesn’t much lend itself to emu­la­tion by role­play­ing, it still def­i­nitely has lit­er­ary merit. I just don’t see how a fan­tasy story should become more mature, more lit­er­ary, or more intel­li­gent by cut­ting down on the fan­tasy ele­ments. You might as well try to improve a sci­ence fic­tion story by cut­ting down on the futur­ism. :blink:

IanP. wrote:
The other side of the coin is that those who do read sel­dom analyse what they’ve read in the lit­er­ary sense.
Well, lit­er­ary the­ory hap­pens to be a bit of a strange pet peeve of mine, but you can’t expect that from every­body. Still, it is prob­a­bly not too much to expect of peo­ple to ask them­selves why they liked or dis­liked a story and what they liked or dis­liked about it. Not only does such an extremely basic analy­sis aid one in con­sciously avoid­ing or pick­ing other books for read­ing, it also is the very basis of talk­ing about one’s read­ing in any mean­ing­ful sense, past and beyond sim­ply say­ing that the book was cool and one liked or disleked this or that scene, char­ac­ter, or turn of events.

For the role­player, there is an addi­tional ben­e­fit in engag­ing in a bit of lit­er­ary the­ory. Artists don’t set up their sto­ries and char­ac­ters in a cer­tain way for no rea­son, but because that’s just the right setup for what they want to achieve. It’s not for no rea­son that the pro­tag­o­nist of S&S usu­ally is a highly capa­ble out­sider free from con­straints of a moral­ity that has a well­spring out­side of him­self – he is set up that way because that’s what most sup­ports a tale about man as mas­ter of his own fate. But an artist, being an artist, sets up the ele­ments of his tale with­out much the­o­ret­i­cal think­ing. If we, who on the aver­age are no artists, want to emu­late a cer­tain kind of story and model our role­play­ing expe­ri­ences after it, we need to know the for­mula used only half con­sciously by the writer in con­coct­ing the story. In short, we need some basic lit­er­ary analy­sis.

IanP. wrote:
I have been asked the ques­tion, “What dif­fer­en­ti­ates Blade from any other FRPG?”, and from the way the ques­tion is phrased you can tell that the asker doesn’t believe there can be an “S&S RPG” that doesn’t look like every other FRPG.
I have expe­ri­enced this, too, and it is really hard to reply to in a short and con­cise way if the asker doesn’t know what S&S is about. With­out such knowl­edge, I find myself forced to either use vague gen­er­al­i­sa­tions which really say noth­ing at all, or to end­lessly ram­ble about the mechan­ics in great detail.
Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-​colored sun
Of secret worlds incred­i­ble, and take
Their trail­ing skies for vest­ment when I soar.

Clark Ash­ton Smith, The Hashish Eater or The Apoc­a­lypse of Evil
Last Edit: 6 years 10 months ago by Michael.
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Defin­ing Sword & Sor­cery 6 years 9 months ago #918

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Con­tin­u­ing this thread I would like to point out another arti­cle on what con­sti­tutes Sword & Sor­cery, by the writer Howard Andrew Jones, one of the more inter­est­ing voices in the genre active today (and also the edi­tor of the mag­a­zine where the arti­cle linked above was pub­lished).

Howard Andrew Jones’ arti­cle is less the­o­ret­i­cal than the one above, less about ana­lyz­ing the divid­ing lines between Sword & Sor­cery and other gen­res of fan­tasy and more about describ­ing Sword & Sor­cery fic­tion. As such it might actu­ally be more use­ful for the ref­eree look­ing to set up a game of Blade.

Some­thing strik­ing me per­soan­lly as par­tic­u­larly insight­ful is Jones liken­ing Sword & Sor­cery fici­ton to crime sto­ries of the “noir” genre:

Howard Andrew Jones wrote:
Sword-​and-​sorcery dis­tances itself fur­ther from high or epic fan­tasy by adopt­ing a gritty, real­is­tic tone that cre­ates an intense, often grim, sense of real­ism seem­ingly at odds with a fan­tasy set­ting. This vein of hard­boiled real­ism casts the genre’s fan­tas­tic ele­ments in an entirely new light, while ren­der­ing char­ac­ters and con­flict in a much more imme­di­ate fash­ion. Sword-​and-​sorcery at times veers into dark, fatal­is­tic ter­ri­tory rem­i­nis­cent of the grim­mer exam­ples of noir-​crime fiction.

I find this thought par­tic­u­larly fruit­ful as Sword & Sor­cery is often seen as “imma­ture” just because it is full of red-​blooded action. Howard Andrew Jones’ obser­va­tion con­cern­ing the nihilis­tic qual­i­ties of Sword & Sor­cery fic­tion spells out clearly that Sword & Sor­cery is actu­ally more mature than many other sub-​genres of fan­tasy. Just like “noir” is often con­sid­ered to be the most mature sub-​genre of crime fici­tion, exactly because of its bleak – and one might say real­is­tic and lucid – out­look on human nature. Sword & Sor­cery, with its absence of both either shin­ing heroes or divinely-​ordained jus­tice and the grit­ti­ness, vio­lence, and bleak­ness of its set­tings, qual­i­ties spring­ing from human nature as the solely respon­si­ble agent, is indeed very much reflec­tive of this mature approach.

And, speak­ing of vio­lence, Howard Andrew Jones’ essay does also have to offer a lit­tle gem about the rela­tion of action and the fast pac­ing inher­ent to Sword & Sor­cery. As it addresses the topic of how fast pac­ing does not equal relent­less action (read: com­bat), it is par­tic­u­larly salient for prospec­tive ref­er­ees of Blade:

Howard Andrew Jones wrote:
Some sword-​and-​sorcery authors seem to believe that swift pac­ing must equal Action. And that Action must equal Vio­lence. Nei­ther of these things are true. All the fight­ing and run­ning and frenzy you cre­ate will grow tire­some unless it is mov­ing the story for­ward. Sure, Action is great unto itself, but it is the unfold­ing of the plot that truly captivates.

In other words: Relent­less action means that the plot unfolds at a fast pace, that much is hap­pen­ing, that things are mov­ing along briskly – not that there has to be an abun­dance of com­bat.

Ref­er­ees of Blade would do well to note this dif­fer­ence. And they also can­not go wrong in read­ing Jones’ arti­cle in its entirety.
Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-​colored sun
Of secret worlds incred­i­ble, and take
Their trail­ing skies for vest­ment when I soar.

Clark Ash­ton Smith, The Hashish Eater or The Apoc­a­lypse of Evil
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Defin­ing Sword & Sor­cery 6 years 9 months ago #925

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I don’t know about the noir anal­ogy, though; the heroes of these works from Spade to Wal­lan­der don’t resem­ble larger than life Conans, they are too often the “lit­tle guy” who can’t do much except win a small vic­tory in a cor­rupt world of crime bosses, bent cops and irre­spon­si­ble play­boys and are never going to do the equiv­a­lent of becom­ing King of Aqulo­nia. The only noir type film I can think of (there are no doubt oth­ers) with any­thing like a sword and sor­cery pro­tag­o­nist is Get Carter
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Defin­ing Sword & Sor­cery 6 years 9 months ago #926

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Cer­tic wrote:
I don’t know about the noir anal­ogy, though; the heroes of these works from Spade to Wal­lan­der don’t resem­ble larger than life Conans, they are too often the “lit­tle guy” who can’t do much except win a small vic­tory in a cor­rupt world of crime bosses, bent cops and irre­spon­si­ble play­boys and are never going to do the equiv­a­lent of becom­ing King of Aqulonia.

I think the author is talk­ing more about the set­ting and the events that take place within it than the char­ac­ters when he talks about the sim­i­lar­i­ties between S&S and noir-​crime. In Agatha Christie nov­els peo­ple are mur­dered and the pro­to­go­nist solves the mur­der. In noir crime, peo­ple are mur­dered bru­tally and the reader is con­fronted with the bru­tal­ity of the event as it is explored in some detail. The bru­tal­ity of the event gives license to the pro­tag­o­nist to be equally bru­tal in pur­suit of the mur­derer. In noir-​crime, the final page isn’t a bunch of sus­pects in a room with the pro­tag­o­nist explain­ing to all the iron-​clad logic of his/​her rea­son­ing — and the guilty party putting their hand-​up, accept­ing their lot. Instead the end is typ­i­cally vio­lent. This grim view of the world and those who live within it is some­thing shared between S&S and noir-​crime — at least, that’s the argu­ment of the author.

Regards,
Ian P.
Fama nihil est celerius
– Noth­ing is swifter than rumour…
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Defin­ing Sword & Sor­cery 6 years 9 months ago #927

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Cer­tic wrote:
I don’t know about the noir anal­ogy, though; the heroes of these works from Spade to Wal­lan­der don’t resem­ble larger than life Conans, they are too often the “lit­tle guy” who can’t do much except win a small vic­tory in a cor­rupt world of crime bosses, bent cops and irre­spon­si­ble play­boys and are never going to do the equiv­a­lent of becom­ing King of Aqulonia.
Ian has already replied most excel­lently, and I think that he is right about Howard Andrew Jones liken­ing the grim out­look of the pro­tag­o­nists of both Noir and Sword & Sor­cery. After all, when he does com­pare the two gen­res, it is not their pro­tag­o­nists’ capa­bil­i­ties he is com­par­ing, but the tales’ “gritty, real­is­tic tone” and their “dark, fatal­is­tic ter­ri­tory”.

With me at least, this strikes a chord. Both Noir and Sword & Sor­cery por­tray the world as a grim, dark, and bru­tal place that is being made so by man’s cal­lous­ness and inhu­man­ity. And while pro­tag­o­nists of Sword & Sor­cery don’t devote much of their time to bat­tling evil, both gen­res’ por­trayal of it is sim­i­lar in that one might over­come a sin­gle evil, but that this won’t really change any­thing, because the world is what it is, and man is who he is. It is exactly as you say in describ­ing the protagonist’s strug­gle in Noir: He might win a small vic­tory in over­com­ing a sin­gle evil, but a new one is going to step in almost imme­di­ately and fill the void, and Evil itself can never be tri­umphed over. There is no Sauron to be defeated, because man is man’s own Sauron and always will be.

This pes­simistic and fatal­is­tic streak is indeed present very plainly in both Noir and Sword & Sorcery.
Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-​colored sun
Of secret worlds incred­i­ble, and take
Their trail­ing skies for vest­ment when I soar.

Clark Ash­ton Smith, The Hashish Eater or The Apoc­a­lypse of Evil
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