Monday, June 18, 2012

Swords & Sorcery versus Dungeons & Dragons

In your mind what makes a setting Swords & Sorceryish versus Dungeons & Dragonish?

For me it brings up dusty windblown cities on the edge of the desert with the ruined piles of the past dotting the landscape. Something like our world's Mesopotamia. Where the characters are mostly fighter and thief types.

12 comments:

JD Sampo said...

For me it's less the setting than the "magic level". Magic should be rare and dangerous in a S&S story, looked upon with suspicion and some dread.

In D&Dish settings magic and miracles are relatively commonplace and regarded as a part of everyday life.

JD Sampo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trey said...

I said this on google+, but I'll essentially repeat it here:

1) Reduced presence of magic and reduction in its combat usefulness.
2) No or at least rare demihumans
3) Fewer monsters and almost no "type" monsters.
4) Exploration not a typical goal. Dungeons are impediments to goals, not the goal themselves.
5) Smaller party groups, in general.

kiltedyaksman said...

To me a better question, or the question restated, would be more about low fantasy or hight fantasy. Or are you going a different direction with it?

porphyre77 said...

Perhaps I got the wrong impression, but for me, a "D&Dish" setting is a "S&Wish" setting where things are taken for granted.
Elves: eldrith fey folk of deadly warriors, or just a bunch of pointy-eared people? Wizards: strage dabblers of the occult, or helpful provider of discount magic rings?

faoladh said...

In S&S, magic has a significant cost. In D&D, it's just a tool. This extends to much else: elves are, if present at all, alien and inscrutable denizens of the hidden world in S&S, just another race of people in D&D; magic swords are the companions of world-conquering heroes in S&S, just about every adventurer worth the name has one in D&D; and so on.

Lee B said...

Forged arms and armor are likewise rare; a superb sword being worth more than a few years toil. S&S warriors should not be polished D&D knights.

Anathemata said...

Two things: Grit and the idea of the 'unnatural'. In D&D, nothing is really 'unnatural', only unexpected (at most). Giant space hamsters, for chrissakes. However, in S&S, pretty much anything that diverges from our world is 'unnatural' and thus inherently weird and horrific. As for grit, in S&S S#!% is HARD. Mud is everywhere, and the thought of covering your whole body in metal is a sci-fi idea. Also, time is meaningful. D&D recaps ages of time like... well, a sourcebook. S&S has time MEAN something. When something is old, that usually indicates that is is very important, probably unnatural in some way. Life is a strong contrast between the vicious and short-lived present and the nigh-undead civilizations that persist past all probability, probably through the help of some kind of horrific magic.

Pukako said...

Sage comments so far...

I'd like to add that S&S has only 'hard' Gonzo elements, while D&D can and does have winged unicorns...

Gwynwas said...

I've always thought of S&S being inspired by vast eons of preliterate or semipreliterate bronze age and iron age eurasia. Think of megalithic cultures, indus valley, bronze age varna, hittites, indoeuropeans conquering ancient cultures, hyperboria, etc etc. Go across to the next valley and you don't know what strange peoples, race or gods await you.

D&D on the other hand I think of as primarily tolkien inspired who in turn was inspired by dark age northern europe in particular. A stock set of races and languages. You may not know for sure what's in the next village, but it will always be the same stock human, elf, gnome, orc, goblin, etc.

johror24 said...

D&D came together by borrowing a great many elements from a great many S&S stories as well as heroic fantasy, the relationship between which is not perfectly clear but is vaguely described as antiheroes vs. heroes. D&D has Leiber cities and Tolkein races and Vance spells and on and on.

Thus D&D feels like a pastiche, showcasing a world that contains literally everything under the sun. S&S, meanwhile, is a blanket term describing a variety of different stories, many of which were written in an era where fantasy was practically considered a branch of science/speculative fiction, and thus all had their own little experiments going on. D&D subsequently normalized these experiments, so D&D feels manageable and accessible while S&S stories tend to feel much more exclusive.

Dieselboy said...

All the rules above have been broken by swords and sorcery writers. Hence one of the above stating that "mud" was essential, and another "wind-swept deserts". Scafloc was elf-blooded, and Elric was a member of an ancient Eldritch (elvish) race. Magic can be powerful (and often is) -- and remember, The Mouser was a dabbler in sorcery, too.

Surprisingly, the only rule that, to this day, remains unbroken (in a genre that is always trying to push boundaries and challenge readers) is a resistance to reducing all important struggles to simplistic "good versus evil". Not even suggesting that the difference between high fantasy and S&S is the letters tendency to portray their protagonists as "antiheroes" cuts it, because Jorel of Jiory wasn't exactly an anti-heroine. No, ultimately the big and ONLY CONSISTENTLY difference between S&S and high fantasy is the latter's tendency to coddle the reader with tales that "prove" that "good always overcomes evil". Indeed, in S&S, it is often difficult to tell what good and evil really even mean (or if they are even significant concepts at all!)

With that, D&D -- at least "old school" D&D (up through the last iterations of 2nd edition AD&D rules) -- is highly adaptable to the needs of roleplayers who prefer gritty S&S over what Michael Moorcock called "epic Pooh" (Letterist-influenced high fantasy, a la Tolkien and C.S. Lewis). In fact, I'm running such a game right now, and plan on publishing the house rules we are using to push the rules further away from high fantasy and into the dark realms of S&S.

On that note, one more thing: S&S doesn't alway have to be "dark" and "horrific", and high fantasy doesn't have to be "light" and "coddling". The Silmarillion was indeed depressingly dark at times, and the tales of Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser are quite often humorous!