This is the first installment of a series of articles I will present that will take a closer look at the sword & sanity genre, and how to implement that concept while designing a game setting from the ground up. Each article will focus on various aspects of roleplaying games, and how they are affected when sword & sorcery meets Cthulhiana and Yog-Sothothery.
The game mechanics discussed can be used for any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but are specifically written for Castles & Crusades. As with most game materials I will present, this article is considered Open Game License (OGL).
Where to begin? Well, with character creation of course…
Heroes in S&S fiction are truly heroic, and this should be reflected in the ability scores they have in your game. This can be accomplished simply by the way you allow Attributes to be generated. Here are some suggestions:
- Random – 5d6 rolled, keeping the best three. Repeat this six times. Assign the results as needed.
- Point Buy – each Attribute starts at 10. You have 24 points to distribute among the six Attributes. Each point spent is a cost of 1:1, until the Attribute reaches 15, at which point anything above 15 becomes more costly, and the payout increases to 2:1. Also, one Attribute can be chosen to drop below 10 for additional points (buy back at a ratio of 1:1).
- Standardized Scores Spread – take the scores 16, 16, 14, 14, 12, 10 and distribute them among the six Attributes. An optional spread that will provide more focus along with a weakness is 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8.
Traditionally, sword & sorcery (S&S) is human-centric in its approach, and there is no reason to deviate from this standard when preparing for a sword & sanity game. The stories told in S&S literature are about humans, and their day-to-day struggles in a fantastic world. Even when the characters are from an ancient race (Atlantian, Hyperborean, etc.), come from another time or planet (Hyboria, Nehwon, etc.), or have strange physical features (pointed ears, exotic eyes, etc.) they are still essentially human nonetheless.
This means no demi-humans will be allowed as playable races. This will be hard for some players to accept. Gone are the clichéd stereotypes that we find predominant in the fantasy genre, especially fantasy gaming. What this does in game terms is it forces the players away from the fantastique and presents a realist approach to the world they will adventure in. This may sound odd since the game takes place in a fantasy world, but that is the point. If we are made to see this world through a human lens then we will come to appreciate the fantastic elements that are presented that much more.
To spice things up a bit you could consider allowing characters that are human, but they have been touched in some way by the Outer Dark. The Deep Ones that H.P. Lovecraft wrote about is an excellent example of what I mean. Many times in his stories a human character will discover his ancestral lineage has been tainted by the intermingling of human and Deep One DNA. The outcome of course is that at some point in the character's life he will start showing signs of his dark ancestry, and begin a physical metamorphosis into his worst nightmares. If you decide to introduce this type of element into your game make sure the players understand it is for flavor and effect only. This is a character background element at its core, and should have no effect on the game mechanics.
To help promote the proper mood and feel in a sword & sanity game, players should always strive to maintain a character's humanity, even when faced with the Outer Dark.
The easiest approach is to limit class choice to Barbarian, Fighter and Rogue. These are the common professions for most heroes in S&S. Having said this, it should be emphasized that no two S&S settings need be the same. Michael Moorcock did not limit himself to the standard S&S tropes when he wrote the Elric saga. There is nothing stopping a game master from allowing all the character classes into the game, if they fit the setting that is being presented.
There are some classes that are definitely out of place in S&S. Paladins and Clerics are the two classes that clash the most with the S&S genre. There are a couple of reasons for this. Morality in S&S tends to be painted in shades of gray. Good and evil are present, but the heroes tend to have a moral ambiguity that is hard to classify as good or evil. Paladins of course are not a “shades of gray” kind of class – all law, all good, all the time is the name of the game. Clerics become problematic as well, because the gods in a S&S setting do not normally hear the prayers of their followers, or if they do they do not seem to care. This makes it tough to justify the class in the setting.
So what classes should you allow in you sword & sanity game? When making this decision, think about your setting, and how the characters will live within that setting. Ask yourself these questions:
- How will the gods interact with the world of men? Do they take an active role in the lives of their followers? If so, then Cleric makes perfect sense. A word of advice, to keep the setting gritty and dangerous it would be a good idea to limit the availability of spells that heal, cure or resurrect. Curbing these spells reestablishes the realist approach that S&S requires.
- What about the overall morality of your setting? Is there a dark looming evil that presides over the world? If yes, then the Paladin can be included as a playable class. My sentiment on the availability of Cleric spells is reflected in the Abilities a Paladin has access to. If the Lay on Hands Ability is not allowable, then perhaps an attack bonus against undead and demons is. Be creative and fair when making adjustments. Also, I would highly suggest reading Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories to get a feel for the tone and approach the Paladin requires in a S&S game.
- How is magic defined in the world? How common is magic, and what does it look like? Take these questions into consideration when looking over the Wizard or Illusionist. My suggestion is to maintain the “cast and forget” (or Vancian as it is popularly referred to) system of magic that Gary Gygax presented when he designed D&D. Also, make the players inventory and keep track of spell components, which will help maintain the flavor of S&S by making magic ritualistic, elusive and truly magical. (I will cover the topic of Magic with more depth in a later article in this series)
- What about the government that rules over the lands in your game? Who is the ruling person or party? Is there political intrigue planned in the storylines you will be presenting? If so, then an Assassin would work nicely in your game. Remember, governmental hierarchy runs all the way from the ruling power down to the common magistrate. Street level politics allow for gritty intrigue that S&S is made for. Gang and guild wars should prevalent in a world where the Assassin is a playable class.
- What will be the main backdrop for your game? Will the characters be plunged in to urban sprawl, or will the exploration of the wilder lands be the focus of the game? If the later is true then a Druid would work well. As with the Cleric it is suggested that healing and cure spells be limited to maintain the proper tone of the setting. Also, do not be afraid to dip into the historic roots of the Druid, and make blood sacrifice a part of their religious practices. S&S is not about being politically correct, so do not be afraid to bring in elements like this to heighten the overall menacing flavor of the game world.
- As written, the Bard, Ranger, Monk and Knight can be incorporated into a S&S setting with little or no adjustment. Each is a variation on the Barbarian, Fighter or Rogue, which are the basic classes found in most S&S fiction.