Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thoughts about Swords and Sorcery

I've never been a huge fan of Conan. It isn't so much the idea of the setting, but Howard's writing style. I'm not a fan of the florid prose of that age. I'm not a big Lovecraft fan for much the same reason.

That said, I do like a lot of the implicit ideas in the Hyborean/Cthulhu mythos. The idea of ancient things from an incomprehensible beyond... the idea that learning about such things can lead you down a spiral of power and madness. That's good stuff. Also good is the idea that most monsters are human in origin.

Things I'm not as much a fan of that are typically included in such settings include social darwinism and rampant misogyny. Also, while I love the idea of madness and things from beyond reality being a source of magic, I have issues with them being the only such sources. There should be mysteries of the light as well as the dark... and it should sometimes be hard to discern between the two.

I think it would be awesome if there was a RPG setting that strongly supported playing a character who began by studying natural magic, but could be seduced to madness. This might include things such as herbalism, but it would also include the magical/natural laws that govern the powers of the unicorn and dragon. A natural mage could gain considerable power by harnessing these forces. Still, by studying them, he'd find inconsistencies... ways that the natural laws governing magic can be broken. Cheated. Exploiting these could expand his power. Doing so a small amount may not be harmful. Learning more, though, whether through texts of those who have studied such things extensively or through entreating entities that break such laws regularly, would be increasingly more dangerous to ones sanity.

I don't remember anything that really splits the difference in this way between your typical fantasy RPG and S&S-style power=madness. If you know of something, please let me know.

10 comments:

Zzarchov said...

The "light and dark" Cthulu mythos is Derelith, and kind of misses the point of lovecraft.

Cthulu (as one example) isn't evil, or good, he's just there.

He's above human comprehension, in the same way an ant might try to categorize the human who's backyard he's in as evil or good. In reality he'll never know.

The human dropping bits of food, or stepping on ants, or even spraying the anthill dead, is no indication of morality of the man.

and thats the horror..you are but ants.

still not everyones still, but characterizing the cthulu mythos as dark infantalises the horror they pose. The horror of acknowleding your own utter insignifigance.

szilard said...

I didn't mean light and dark to mean good and evil in this context. I meant, rather:

Light: Known, Understandable, Natural

Dark: Unknown, Incomprehensible, Unnatural

Jasca said...

How they could be "mysteries" of Light if Light is, as you say, "Known, Understandable, Natural"? This implies, that "Light Magic" would be more of a science - somewhat like D&D magic - with it's known formulas, when "Dark Magic" is... well, mysterious and playing with things man shouldn't be playing...

Jer said...

Still, by studying them, he'd find inconsistencies... ways that the natural laws governing magic can be broken. Cheated. Exploiting these could expand his power. Doing so a small amount may not be harmful. Learning more, though, whether through texts of those who have studied such things extensively or through entreating entities that break such laws regularly, would be increasingly more dangerous to ones sanity.

I think you've just described a Jedi.

From the fantasy side, I'm not sure of systems that "strongly support" such a concept, though you could easily tweak magic in BRP/Runequest to do this. Figure out which spells you want to be "scientific" and follow the "natural laws of magic" and which spells are outside the bounds and cause men to suffer madness. "Scientific" spells follow the normal spell casting rules, "cheating" spells cause potential SAN loss. If you want to pull initiates into "cheating" slowly, some of the less powerful cheating spells might cause 1d4-3 or 1d6-5 SAN loss (floored at 0, of course) so that losing SAN is a very rare event in exchange for a moderate level of "impossibility".

You could pretty much do the same thing to any system that you want to add a SAN mechanic to. In 3e you could graft the d20 Call of Cthulhu SAN mechanic on and split the spell lists using the spells in the d20 CoC rulebook as a guide. I'm not sure how I'd do it in 4e, except that I'd probably restrict it to rituals and leave "powers" out of it.

Badelaire said...

A couple of games that come to mind...

1. Ars Magica. I've never played it, but it's a highly magic-centered game with a magic system that can really let the GM and PCs explore the nature of magic in their world.

2. Mage: the Ascension. Another great game for exploring what magic means in the world and the paths that can be taken to get there.

3. Palladium Fantasy and/or Chivalry & Sorcery. Both of these games have very "fiddly" magic systems that are intricate and complex enough that you can easily pick them apart into "dark" areas and "light" areas of knowledge.

I think ultimately it's not so much a matter of what system you use, but how you approach magic. In a classic Swords & Sorcery setting, magic shouldn't be either good or bad, but it should be tempting enough that it is very easy to go down the "bad path", and there will be a number of both "light and dark" secrets for the finding.

Even with D&D, if you took both wizardly and clerical magic, mashed them together, broke the spells down between "light" and "dark" magic, and then created a single "Sorcerer" class that had access to them all, you'd be able to emulate this without tooooo much effort.

Oh, and cool blog, by the way. I've added it to my blogroll!

biff-dyskolos said...

Clinton Nixon has a supplement called Urge for the Sorceror rpg. Urge and Sorcerer are all about power with a dark side and a price that must be paid.

You should also check out Fading Suns and A Dirty World. They both use "Paired Scores", when one score goes up the other goes down. Occult/Sanity, Power/Humanity, ... the possibilities are endless.

Stuart said...

Bill: I'm familiar with both Sorcerer and Fading Suns.

In Sorcerer terms, my idea here would be:
Assume there is some Power that can be gained without Price. The more of this power you gain, however, the more you are aware of the additional power you can gain... for a small price. Both this additional power and that small price gradually increase at different rates until the price is potentially greater than the power. Where do you stop?

Fading Suns:

I like the paired scores more than I like CoC's SAN loss. Still, relationship here is linear. I'd like something fuzzier... maybe with a deceptively shallow slope at first...

Yes, it's doable. I think your comments helped me articulate what I was struggling with. Thanks.

biff-dyskolos said...

@Stuart

I'd like something fuzzier...

A Dirty World may have some of the fuzziness you are looking for. There used to be a preview on their site but I think it's gone now. Take a look at the character sheet download. The paired scores only partially overlap. It's not a simple A = X -B formula. At first both scores can go up independently but when you get to the part where the overlap in the middle, an increase in one forces the other down.

I wish I could find the preview they had. My memory is fuzzy on the details now.

biff-dyskolos said...

@Stuart

The A Dirty World preview is on LuLu!

Stuart said...

Thanks. Just checked it out... looks interesting. I've played a bit with ORE (Godlike). It is a nifty system.