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Sword and Sorcery Adventures - Preview of SS&SS 2e

Let's get back with the previews of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells second edition, shall we? It's been a few months, but I am back with something I wrote about Sword and Sorcery genre and how to explore this in the game.

Sword and Sorcery Adventures

This is a sword and sorcery RPG, inspired by pulp literature and comics. Although this falls into the fantasy games category, there are a few key differences that might be worth mentioning between generic or high fantasy and sword and sorcery. This section will briefly outline some of the core themes of sword and sorcery stories and how to apply them to the game.

Ancient Worlds

The settings of sword and sorcery adventures are usually very old, with dozens of ancient civilizations, hundreds of ruins and many mysteries lost to history. Cities are built above the ruins of previous cities. Crumbling monuments can be found in the wilderness, signaling that there was once something in that location. Broken statues can be found in the abandoned buildings and plazas of the City-States, depicting forgotten heroes and unknown kings. Show how old the world is by spreading ruins all over the landscape, presenting relics inscribed with languages almost no one can decipher anymore, putting strange statues of lost kingdoms in the characters’ path, and anything else that might convey how old the world is and how many other civilizations have already passed through it.

Different Cultures

There is no unifying culture, civilization or ethnic group amongst humanity. These many different people have to either live side by side as best as they can, competing for resources, power and space, or fiercely battle each other over their differences and prejudices. The few great City-States of the world are centers of commerce, culture, trade and crime, where almost all of these groups mingle, cooperate and, sometimes, face each other. Some of these men and women are decadent city dwellers, others are savages from wild places; some are from almost alien cultures from far away, while others live side by side with few but very distinct differences. There might even be secret people living under the surface of the earth, or in isolated mountain ranges and on ocean isles. Diversity and rivalry is the norm. Explore different cultures, customs, traditions, and personalities in the game. In the great City-States, people can be from anywhere. Seek inspiration in real world cultures, religions, and organizations. If that fails you, look into the many different and creative authors from sword and sorcery tales and even other genres.

Civilization Versus Barbarism

This theme is common in sword and sorcery stories, where in the wild men and women are courageous, strong, fierce and uncorrupted, while people in the civilized places are corrupt, weak and decadent. That might not always be the norm, as there are good people and bad people anywhere and it might be fun to subvert players’ expectations too. To portray this theme in your game, describe how filthy the cities are, how the dead are just piled on the side of the alleys, how the nobles spend most of their time intoxicated and asleep in deep drug-induced dreams. At the same time, describe savage tribes with strong leaders, ancient traditions, rich culture and strong character. They might not always have the best intentions toward other people, but they are usually less passive and decadent.

Post-Apocalyptic Worlds

Normally, in the settings of sword and sorcery tales, humanity has reached its most advanced and rich state in the past, but something happened to throw them back to a more primitive and less advanced stage. This usually means a mysterious (or not) cataclysmic event changed the world and now humanity is just a shadow of its former glory. Sometimes, these cataclysms have occurred a number of times already, and the past hides advanced civilizations and even alien races that inhabited the world in past ages. Highlighting this theme in the game involves placing more advanced technology and architecture in ruins and monuments of the past. Inside the ruined cities, the PCs might find working inventions, great aqueduct, beautiful paintings, and objects of art almost impossible to reproduce in the current age.

Small Scale Stories

Different from more well-known fantasy stories, sword and sorcery adventures usually have a smaller scale and focuses on the interests of a few people or a city at most. Characters are moved by their own ambitions and desires instead of any heroic aspirations or duty to goodness. Characters seek gold, glory, power, and other personal ambitions such as love, vengeance, or the truth about some mystery in their past. When preparing adventures and hooks for the PCs, try to learn what the PCs want and create hooks and situations that will entice them to action. Make things personal. If a cult is performing sacrifices, make them try to sacrifice someone the characters care about. If they hear rumors of a tomb under the ravine that just opened with last week’s earthquake, let them hear that the artifact they were seeking is in there, or that there is a map with directions to something they want inside. Put their enemies in front of them, and make them want revenge!

Sorcery is Evil

In worlds of sword and sorcery, the practice of the arcane arts is strongly associated with evil and chaos, and sorcerers are usually villains and antagonic to the interests of the protagonists. In fact, sorcery in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is a corrupting force. It can give those that wield it a lot of power, but it will slowly and surely damn their minds and souls. Magic is rare and feared amongst most of humanity’s cultures. In the game, avoid making magic something common. Don’t make magic potions, weapons and objects easily available or for sale. Magic and sorcery should remains mysterious, rare and dangerous. Players should always consider the risk and reward equation when dealing with spells and artifacts.

Strange Things from Other Worlds

Although the worlds of this genre of fiction are usually from a medieval era, some of its contents are clearly not. The stories that debuted in this genre were written in a time when there wasn’t really a distinction between fantasy, science fiction and horror, so in the same tale you could find barbarians, wizards, flying machines, and terror from another dimension capable of shredding a person’s sanity. Don’t be afraid to do this too. Even though the world is strongly within a medieval level of culture and technology, civilizations from the past could have achieved a level of advancement equivalent to super-science fiction, not to mention the possibility of alien beings who have come to this world and left their artifacts behind. Deep within the earth, terrors from past ages and sinister dimensions lay waiting for the time they can take over this reality. Use horror and science fiction in your fantasy.

The Uncaring Beings from Beyond

Gods are not always benevolent and are rarely active in worlds of sword and sorcery. It’s not wrong to say they are as active and present as in our own world and reality. Priests, clerics and other eclesiastic people are quite common in a world plagued by superstition and the fear of unknown, but true faith and individuals capable of wielding powers bestowed by real gods are rare, very rare. You can create many churches and religions in your campaign, but they should remain a place of superstition, fearmongering and even intrigue, as religious leaders usually desire power and influence over the blessings they claim to seek. Some of them may even be capable of supernatural deeds, but that’s because they dabble in the forbidden art of sorcery.

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