The Rules: Sword & Sorcery

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Lately, several members of the Hex staff have been discovering or re-discovering classic pulp sci-fi and fantasy. I picked up a big ass book of Conan stories a few months ago and have been slowly making my way through it; a few of the others have read or re-read the John Carter of Mars books (which are in also in my reading pile) in the past year; and all of us have been fans of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books for quite some time. Not surprisingly, the subject of Sword & Sorcery fantasy came up at Hexcon South, the staff retreat and flood preparedness workshop held just outside of Nashville during the first weekend of May.

On other occasions, we’d tried to pin down why it’s so hard to run RPGs that have the same “feel” as the old Sword & Sorcery books, and even came up with a few vague theories. We discussed the topic again on Friday night, and by the time my turn to run a game rolled around on Saturday, I was ready to test some of these ideas. I suggested that we replace my scheduled game (The Scientific Adventures of Jesus and Friends) with a Sword & Sorcery game and after some debate the others agreed to give it a try. The game went extremely well, largely due to the fact that everyone was on the same page about what to expect. We recorded the session, and will post the actual play recording as soon as Josh edits out all the tangents and kibitzing.

In Memory of Frank Frazetta (1928-2010)

[Update: you can listen to the game here.]

By the time the game ended, we’d come up with several ground rules for running the type of Sword and Sorcery game that you rarely get with D&D or its clones. Since the world needs another fantasy RPG book about as much as we needed more rain that weekend, we decided that our thoughts on Sword & Sorcery would work best as a Death Cookie article. In order to keep things simple, I’m going to use a slightly expand version of the “The Rules” lists that I used for horror sub-genres in Spooky.

Rule #1: Sword & Sorcery Stories Are Self-Contained
This is primarily a by-product of the way pulp stories were published: the tales of a particular hero might be spread out through any number of magazines, anthologies, and novellas. Therefore, it was important to make sure that each story stood on its own, and that the stories could be read in any order and still make sense. While continuity between stories was not entirely forbidden, references to other stories had to be explainable in a succinct way that would reveal all the necessary information without side-tracking the current tale or spoiling the other story for someone who hadn’t read it yet. Therefore, while recurring charcters, settings and themes did show up in pulp fantasy, and some even changed from time to time, the details of prior experience with these recurring elements rarely comes into play.

GMing Suggestion: Forget all that stuff about campaign story arcs we talk about in QAGS. Elements from previous stories should only be used if all the pertinent information about them can be summed up in a sentence or two.

Rule #2: Sword & Sorcery Heroes Start Out Extremely Competent
In most fantasy games, the heroes start out strong when measured against normal humans, but relatively weak and inexperienced compared to other heroes. Not so in pulp fantasy stories. The heroes start out as larger-than-life, heroic figures and either stay that way or become even more competent. This is again in part due to the not necessarily sequential format in which the stories were published, which made it hard to do the Hero’s Journey thing. Therefore, the protagonists started out as Big Damn Action Heroes with more in common with Rambo than Luke Skywalker.

GMing Suggestion: Characters begin the game with a minimum score of 11 in Every Word and at least one Word should have a Number of 15 or higher.

Rule #3: Sword & Sorcery Heroes Are Multi-Talented
While pulp heroes generally had a core abilities that were most commonly used, the hero’s skill set expanded to match the needs of the story. For example, though he started out as barbarian, Conan at various times also played the role of thief, king, pirate, and probably a few more I haven’t read about yet. While a character’s new abilities were sometimes explained in other stories, they could just as easily be explained with a reference to and adventure or situation that hadn’t been written about (yet).

GMing Suggestion: Words (especially Job) shouldn’t be too specific and the GM should allow any reasonable activity for the profession to be considered an ability of the Job. Additionally, if a player can provide a reasonable explanation of how he knows how to do something not covered by his Words, he may use his full Body, Brain, or Nerve Number rather than a default roll by spending a Yum Yum. Default rolls should only be used if the character is out of Yum Yums or the task is especially complex or impossible to do without training (most magic, for example).

Rule #4: Everybody Knows How To Fight
Sword & Sorcery settings are violent, brutal places. Also, killing things is exciting. Therefore, everybody knows how to use at least one weapon unless they’ve got a Weakness (such as Vow of Pacifism) that expressly forbids them from fighting.

GMing Suggestion: All characters get 2 free skill bonuses to put into weapon skills (either one weapon at +2 or two weapons at +1). Characters with warrior Jobs (Soldiers, Mercenaries, Swordsmen, etc.) may use their full Job Number for all combat rolls. Non-warriors are considered to be familiar with any weapon commonly used by members of their profession (for example, Woodsmen can use axes and Thieves know all about daggers) as well as any weapon they have a Skill for. When attacking with these weapons (or anything in the same general category), the character uses his full Job Number. For unfamiliar weapons, the character’s rolls against an 11 (rather than 1/2 Body).

Rule #5: Sword & Sorcery Heroes Are Not Necessarily Good People
While most Sword & Sorcery characters do have at least some sort of moral code by which they live, most would be considered criminals and murderers by today’s standards, and many are morally ambiguous even according the the less civilized standards of the worlds they live in. Conan may always keep his word, but he also kills and steals without remorse.

GMing Suggestion: In addition to giving characters Yum Yums for noble actions (such as saving the damsel), give them Yum Yums for role-playing actions that we would consider immoral or distasteful (such as buying a slave) in a way that is faithful to the character’s background rather than modern concepts of good and evil.

Rule #6: Real Men Don’t Check For Traps
Sword & Sorcery Heroes are MEN OF ACTION. While this doesn’t mean they’re incapable of planning how to get around known obstacles, it does mean that they don’t skulk around jumping at shadows or waste valuable time planning for every eventuality. Once an adventure is underway, real adventurers keep moving, reacting to (and usually killing) whatever comes their way. They don’t stand around listening at doors trying to figure out what’s behind it, they bash doors down with axes at the ready.

GMing Suggestion: If the PCs are overly cautious, it is the GM’s responsibility to remind them that they are being great big sissies.

Rule #7: World Build As You Go
Pulp authors didn’t have a thousand page trilogy and half a dozen supplemental books in which to explain every facet of the world their characters inhabited. Instead, they had to convey the information that was relevant to the story and rely on sparse but telling details to get across the flavor of background elements that were not pertinent to the story at hand. This economy of storytelling gives readers a single strong impression of the subject instead of a bunch of boring details that they’ll most likely forget anyway. The lack of detail also meant that people and places that were strange and mysterious to the heroes remained strange and mysterious to the readers.

GMing Suggestion:
While (as I discovered pretty quickly in our test game) a list of stock fantasy names and maybe a few ideas could come in handy, don’t try to come up with tons of details about the world that you’re just going to have to look up later. Instead, design elements of the game world as they become relevant to the story. Let the players help in world building by starting the characters out far from home and letting them fill in details about their homelands as they naturally come up during the game. Reward them with Yum Yums for world details that are interesting and not blatantly self-serving.

Rule #8: Don’t Over-Explain Things
Most characters in Sword & Sorcery fiction are members of pre-scientific cultures, which means that you don’t need plausible scientific explanations or even Tim Powers/Alan Moore style “good magical thinking” for everything the characters encounter. Superstition and speculation are perfectly acceptable. If a tower is said to rise from the sea on the night of the harvest moon, you don’t need to explain it with technology or an elaborate backstory about the magician who cursed it. The tower rises from the sea on that night because that’s what it does. Magic is a mysterious force, even to those who know how to use it, and the kinds of ancient magics scattered around most fantasy worlds is completely alien to even modern wizards. On a similar note, monsters are monsters, not members of a race or species, and even if there is more than one, nobody’s ever conducted ecological studies of them. Monsters exist to be be killed, not understood.

GMing Suggestion: Keep your plots simple and only fill in details if they become relevant. Magic should be presented as the harnessing of incomprehensible powers far beyond man’s control, not a sphere of knowledge to be mastered, and the magic system should be as free-form, savage, and probably a bit disturbing. (Note: I failed to do this in our sample game the one time Josh cast a spell. I will not let this happen again). Try to avoid giving monsters (with the possible exception folkloric creatures, like werewolves or the undead) species names. They should either be mythic creatures of legend (possibly even gods) or just unnamed creatures. If you can’t come up with a good monster, it’s hard to go wrong with a big-ass snake, evolved ape-man, or living statue.

Rule #9: Make the Climax EXCITING!
In many role-playing games, the end of the adventure comes when the PCs beat the “boss” monster at the end of the adventure. While such fight scenes can indeed be exciting, pulp stories need to take things to the next level. Sword & Sorcery villains don’t just fight the bad guy, they fight the bad guy on a high precipice during a lightning storm while he’s trying to complete a ritual that will bring an end to life as we know it. The final scene of pulp story should be part epic battle, part daring escape, and part disaster movie.

GMing Suggestion: Include everything you can think of to make the scene as chaotic as possible. Then add something else.

Rule #10: Easy Come, Easy Go
During their adventures, Sword & Sorcery heroes often gain enormous amounts of treasure, but unlike characters in most fantasy games, they rarely hold onto them for long. Because pulp heroes are lusty men who live life to the fullest, many treasures will be pissed away on wine, women and song or lost in games of chance or contests of skill. Even if the heroes don’t spend all their loot on debauchery, there are plenty of unscrupulous, conniving, and opportunistic characters who can separate them from it.

GMing Suggestion:
Give the players a chance at the end of the adventure to explain how they squander away everything they’ve gained. If they fail to do so, come up with a way for somebody to take it from them. To allow them to keep their hard-won loot would be a betrayal of narrative trust.

We hope you find these rules useful in your own Sword & Sorcery games–they certainly worked out pretty well for us. If you notice anything we missed or have additional suggestions on running pulp fantasy games, let us know in the forums.

Appendix: Sword & Sorcery Words
Alchemist, Assassin, Axeman, Barbarian, Bodyguard, Con Artist, Duelist, Gladiator, Grave Robber, Gypsy, Highwayman, Magician’s Apprentice, Mercenary, Merchant, Minstrel, Monk, Mystic, Necromancer, Nobleman, Nomad, Outlaw, Pirate, Priest, Ranger, Sailor, Soldier, Sorcerer, Swashbuckler, Thief, Viking, Witch, Woodsman

Gimmicks: Ain’t Got Time To Bleed, Animal Instincts, Fast Healer, Hard To Kill, Iron Stomach, Ladies’ Man, Magical Training, Mighty Thews, Panther-Like Agility, Seasoned Traveler, Second Sight, Unearthly Mentor. Weird Luck

Weaknesses: Achilles’ Heel, A Fool And His Money Are Soon Parted, Can’t Refuse A Bet, Code of Honor, Dames, Greed, Gullible, Lecherous, Stranger In A Strange Land, Superstitious, Uncivilized, Weird Luck, Wrong Place/Wrong Time

Skills: Alertness, Archery, Belly Dancing, Brawling, Charm, Climbing, Danger Sense, Disguise, Dodge, Drinking, Eavesdropping, Fast Talk, Gambling, Haggling, Healing, Hunting, Literacy, Musician, Myths & Legends, Pickpocket, Religion, Riding, Sailing, Storytelling, Swordsmanship, Stealth, Survival, Tracking

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