Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is Dungeons and Dragons A Swords And Sorcery RPG?

Considering that my introduction to swords and sorcery literature came long after discovering Dungeons and Dragons, I can perhaps be excused for failing to note the overt references to swords and sorcery in the D&D rulebooks of the day.

My earliest experiences with Dungeons and Dragons were in the campaigns run by friends of my older brother. Those campaigns were heavily informed by Mormon mythology: my character's name was Archeantus, and the other players had similar Book of Mormon names. I seem to recall us creeping through a cavern in one session, looking for the lair of the Gadianton Robbers.

Thus, my earliest D&D experiences were quite unlike those of you who were emulating the fantasy fiction of Howard, Lieber, Vance, Burroughs, Lovecraft and their ilk.

The earliest reference to swords and sorcery role-playing that I can find in D&D appears in the 1975 Greyhawk Supplement to the Original Dungeons and Dragons game. In that rulebook, Gary Gygax writes:

"If you enjoy fantasy you will never be sorry you were introduced to the swords and sorcery of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS games." - Greyhawk, pg. 3

And in the preface to the 1979 AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax makes the following remark:

No two (Advanced D&D) campaigns will ever by the same, but all will have the common ground necessary to maintaining the whole as a viable entity about which you and your players can communicate with the many thousands of others who also find sword and sorcery role playing gaming an amusing and enjoyable pastime." - DMG, pg. 8

It may simply be a function of my ignorance of the meaning of the term swords and sorcery, but I don't consider either Original or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons to be a swords and sorcery roleplaying game. Generic fantasy, perhaps. But not swords and sorcery.

There are many reasons I hold that view. Here are two.

First, the inclusion of Magic Users as a playable class seems antithetical to a swords and sorcery game: few S&S stories feature a spell-caster as protagonist, and where they do, they usually pay a steep price for dabbling in the dark arts. Most spell-casters in S&S literature are at best distrusted, at worst, they are the dread antagonists of the story.

Second, few if any S&S tales include demi-humans such as elves or dwarves as protagonists. Where they do appear, they are malicious spirits or fearsome creatures of the earth.

There are more than a few old-school bloggers playing swords and sorcery campaigns, but most have house-ruled D&D to more fully emulate the genre, or are using a different ruleset to capture the feel of swords and sorcery adventures.


P_Armstrong said...

I agree that D&D is not sword & sorcery. It is D&D... a wonderful mash-up of numerous fantasy sources. It is a genre unto itself.

Clovis Cithog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clovis Cithog said...

Good insight
Swords & Sorcery
protagonists seem to be fighters and thieves.

As you correctly pointed out,
(with the exception of Tolkien)
seldom does one find a mixed racial party figure in a swords and sorcery novel.

JB said...

(all apologies to J. Raggi and his recent related post)

I think there is definitely a certain unique "style" (for lack of a better term) to "sword & sorcery." Gandalf is not a sorcerer...and neither would I categorize Merlin (I wouldn't even call him a "wizard" but that's a different story...).

And I don't consider D&D "sword & sorcery."

There are different types of fantasy, and it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to find a single generic system that would allow play in every type. I don't think D&D does...I think it's its own "thang."

However, if you don't think spell-casters can be protagonists in S&S stories, you're reading the wrong ones. Elric, least one or two more prominent ones I can't remember off the top of my head. : )

R. Lawrence Blake said...

Swords and sorcery in my game? Never! It's more like Hammers and Hunchbacks (my campaign is filled with deformed cave-mining dwarves).

However, if there were guys swinging swords and sorcerers abound within my game, I guess I would say it is a swords and sorcery game.

If not, then Matt Finch needs to change the name of his clone. ;)

Anonymous said...

"Those campaigns were heavily informed by Mormon mythology: my character's name was Archeantus, and the other players had similar Book of Mormon names. I seem to recall us creeping through a cavern in one session, looking for the lair of the Gadianton Robbers."

Awesome! I've lately been thinking that the lands of the Book of Mormon would make a great D&D campaign setting.

Akrasia said...

I agree with JB that there is nothing intrinsic to the 'S&S' genre that rules out spellcasting protagonists. The Gray Mouser cast few spells in his day, and both he and Fafhrd had sorcerer 'patrons'. Even Conan had the occasional sorcerous ally (Pelias comes immediately to mind).

With respect to D&D, it can be a S&S game if you run it like one. It's such a mash-up of different influences, whether it's 'high fantasy' or 'grim and gritty fantasy' (or Vancian 'dark whimsy' fantasy) depends on how the DM runs it.

Daddy Grognard said...

@Geoffrey "I've lately been thinking that the lands of the Book of Mormon would make a great D&D campaign setting"

Does that mean that all the characters have to wear the special underwear?

Trey said...

@Daddy G. - Yes, +2.

Let me add an "I'll agree." D&D isn't S&S, though S&S was part of its original unwholly stew, a part that became even less discernable as "D&D as genre" became solidified.

Pekka said...

I heartily disagree with the notion that spellcasters are or should be the enemy. The power may corrupt but even Conan and Solomon Kane stories have friendly MUs. (Elak and CAS's stories too etc.)

I like the Book of Mormon idea. I'm not really familiar with it but doesn't the Mormon mythology include interstellar stuff too, like their gods living in another planet and the acolytes get their own planet after death? You could turn your sword and sorcery to sword and planet in higher levels.

Anonymous said...

Well your quotes are fron 1975 & 1979; had the genres of Fantasy fiction been codified back then?
Was S&S defined by the characteristics we now use?
Or was it a fairly interchangeable term?

I don't remember myself.

Back then wouldn't fiction have been categorized:
Fiction, Romance novels, Mystery, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Westerns. Basically the way books are shelved in libraries even today.

I think your reading to much into something someone wrote 30+ years ago. I doubt zombie Gygax would write those passages the same way today.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

To answer your questions, I crib from Wikipedia:

"The term was first coined in 1961 when the British author Michael Moorcock published a letter in the fanzine Amra, demanding a name for the sort of fantasy-adventure story written by Robert E. Howard.


In addition, many early sword and sorcery writers, such as Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, were heavily influenced by the Middle Eastern tales of the Arabian Nights, whose stories of magical monsters and evil sorcerers were a major influence on the genre-to-be.

It can also be noted that in its frequent depictions of smoky taverns and smelly back alleys, sword and sorcery draws upon the picaresque genre; for example, Fritz Leiber's city of Lankhmar bears considerable similarity to 16th Century Seville as depicted in Cervantes' tale Rinconete y Cortadillo.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

As I came to swords and sorcery literature rather late, I will defer to those of you who know the genre better than me!

JB and Akrasia: I have not ready any Michael Moorcock yet, so I look forward to reading his Elric tales and having my perspective properly nuanced.


A Paladin In Citadel said...

Re: Mormon Mythology. I do remember having a great deal of fun adventuring in that milieu, it felt very egyptian. I don't ever remember our characters wearing special underwear or travelling to other planets. Perhaps I hadn't been initiated into the inner circle?

Anonymous said...

But isn't D&D its own genre at this point?

A Paladin In Citadel said...

That's the position some are advancing. I'm not sure I understand the argument, does it refer to the rules system, the game category, or the default setting?

Anonymous said...

More encompassing and perhaps more vaguely, but no less relevant to me, it refers to the entire game. The position recognizes D&D as having simply transcended whatever the inspirational fiction might have been. Put another way, D&D is bigger than anything that inspired it, even today, save possibly Tolkien or Lovecraft (cue debate on influence of Tolkien on game in 3...2...1).

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Here's my take on that, and I refer of course to OD&D/AD&D:

Game Category: Role-Playing Game

Default Setting (Oerth): Alternate Earth

Game System: Generic Fantasy

Obviously, YMMV!


steelcaress said...

D&D has historically done one thing well: and that's D&D. Regardless of whatever form it is in, of what edition it is, it does one genre well: D&D. It's not really generic, for it doesn't do Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft, Jordan, Offut, or many other authors any justice. BRP is tons better for that. Swords & Sorcery was never what I'd use to describe D&D.

Hareton said...

Also sword and sorcery is not set in mythical world, like Odyssey, but tries to be realistic. Monsters are usually big animals.