'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

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Monday, February 3, 2020

High Fantasy? Sword & Sorcery? What is what?

This was going to be a review of Forbidden Lands. I had picked up the quickstart rules and was impressed. The quickstart was full of excellent old school RPG art and they didn't skimp on the rules. The system itself was familiar to me due to the ALIEN RPG, and it is a system I liked. In the end, this is not a review. After a conversation about Forbidden Lands, I decided I wanted to write a little bit about what Sword & Sorcery is to me.

I think the easiest way to see how I see Sword & Sorcery is to hold it up against High Fantasy, what things do I think makes one vs the other? There are, of course, other articles on the Internet about this topic, Wikipedia itself has sections describing what these genres represent. However, I wanted to illustrate my own ideas on these as well as build a small rubric to place against a setting to see where it falls.

Sword & Sorcery

Let's start with the elements I think are necessary for Sword & Sorcery.
  • Swords
  • Sorcery*
  • Smaller scale
  • Heroic deeds
  • Stories of a smaller scope.
  • Generally human-centric.
I placed a star next to Sorcery as I feel it needs a caveat. Sorcery is necessary, but generally, it is not overly flashy and it is not commonplace. Having a wizard that can cast fireball in every town in a story isn't something I think we should generally see in Sword & Sorcery.

High Fantasy

In contrast, we have high Fantasy which for me means:
  • Swords
  • Magic
  • Heros
  • Stories of a larger scope.
  • Races (Elves. Dwarves etc).
For me, in a high fantasy setting, we have much more magic and it is often flashier, we have heroes trying to save something bigger than themselves.

Now with this being laid out we certainly have stories that have elements of both of these, but I think some of the elements are more important than the others. I would probably place them in the following order.
  1. Story Scope
  2. Heroes vs Non-Heroes
  3. Heroic Deeds
  4. Access to Magic
  5. Races
And despite ranking them in importance I suspect we can still find stories that blur the line between the two. Small scale stories taking place in human-centric worlds with heroes and flashy magic.

Now that we have outlined some of the ideas I expect to see in each archetypal story of a genre lets place them against Conan and Lord of The Rings and see how they fair.

Conan

Taking this and placing it against Robert E Howard's Conan
  • Story Scope: Small. Conan trying to get to the end of the adventure alive, hopefully with some money and some company.
  • Heros vs Non-Heroes: Conan is the protagonist and generally has a strong moral compass and is doing the right thing because of it, but he doesn't have a higher calling that he is aware of.
  • Heroic Deeds: Conan is rife with them. Everything from climbing cliffs with bare hands, being pulled from a cross, fending off attacks by superior numbers and single-handedly killing two frost giants.
  • Magic: Exists. Rare. Dangerous.
  • Races: Humans.
Unsurprisingly a Conan story checks ALL of my personal S&S boxes. Howard is credited as the Father of Sword and Sorcery for a reason.

Lord of the Rings

Now let's take a look at Lord of the Rings.
  • Story Scope: HUGE.
  • Heros vs Non-Heros: Certainly some of the characters aren't willing heroes, but they have all responded to a higher calling and their end goal isn't about making them rich, and it is not about what is in it for them.
  • Heroic Deeds:I won't tell you there are no heroic deeds in LOTR, but at the same time I don't think we are seeing them in spades from the main characters.
  • Magic: Exists. Fairly-Rare. Dangerous.
  • Races: Standard fantasy races.
Although the magic isn't as flashy as I think of high fantasy, it is clear that The Lord of the Rings falls into this category in my mind. It is often looked to as the prototypical High Fantasy story.

Conclusion

Although both of these genres are different and you may like one more than the other, this doesn't mean one is better than the other, or that fans of one are superior. They are different sides of the same coin.

Going forward I hope to use this as a method to look at various RPGs and their settings to see where they land on the spectrum between SWORD AND SORCERY and HIGH FANTASY!

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