Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet, Sword & Sandal, and now… Sword & Sanity

In my lifetime I have read a great number of fantasy stories and books, but I must admit that my favorite genre of fantasy is sword & sorcery. The furious action, high adventure, exotic locations, lurid sexual overtones, dark supernatural elements and grim heroes in these stories have always satisfied me like no other form of literature. I would say this statement is only challenged by my love of the cosmic horror genre, specifically the school inspired by the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, or what "the Old Gent of Providence" would have called, "Yog-Sothothery." There are many writers who have written sword & sorcery fiction, as well as Mythos inspired horror stories, and some have even blended the two. Robert E. Howard, Richard L. Tierney and Brian Lumley are names that readily come to mind of writers who have successfully merged the two genres.

Interestingly enough these genres have also intersected in another area I am most interested in –- roleplaying games. The first roleplaying game (RPG) I ever played was
Dungeons & Dragons, and a few years later I branched off to Call of Cthulhu. I have gone on to play a great many other RPGs over the years, but it seems like I keep coming back to the “big two”. Both games bring such a sense of nostalgia. I imagine I will always have a special place in my heart for both of them.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the sword & sorcery genre, and how it can relate to the Cthulhu Mythos. In essence these two types of fiction are diametrically opposed. The heroes you find in sword & sorcery fiction are individuals that test their mettle against whatever foe steps across their path, and they always live to fight another day. In the stories of H.P. Lovecraft there really are no heroes in the truest sense of the word. In these eldritch tales men are but the buzzing of flies to the creatures they face, and have no chance of surviving these encounters. The world views presented in each type of story could not be more different. The challenge then becomes presenting a story (or in this case a game) that has both elements of sword & sorcery, as well as a good dose of Yog-Sothothery, without compromising either genre.

So what do we call this bastard child of sword & sorcery, and the Cthulhu Mythos? Dark fantasy seems adequate enough, but is too general to fit the bill. Eldritch fantasy seems to fit better, but still seems to general. Subgenres of sword & sorcery are sword & planet, and sword & sandal. Just hearing these genre names instantly alerts the reader as to what kind of story is being told. In keeping with the obvious pattern I propose
sword & sanity.

In future posts I will focus on articles dealing with sword & sorcery gaming and literature blended with the eldritch influence of Cthulhiana and Yog-Sothothery. I hope to share gaming materials, as well as news, reviews and personal views on the subject matter.


Don Lee said...

Just wanted to say intriguing post and your comments on sword & sorcery vs. Lovecraftian horror interesting and accurate. You should post on the subject again! (Would you mind if I mention this post on my sword and sorcery blog,

Shane Mangus said...


Thanks for the comments. This whole blog is pretty much dedicated to the merging of sword & sorcery with Lovecraftian horror. Please take a look around, as I am sure you will find more you may like. Please do post on your blog, and I will make sure to also check out your efforts as well.


Gerall Kahla said...

My vote is posted for the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying rules for several reasons:

1) They're modular and can be fitted to given genres relatively quickly. For example, I could tell my group "We're using Sanity, Strike Ranks, and Heroic Hits instead of Hit Locations." and everyone would be on the same page.

2) Stats for characters already include elements that can be "psychically damaged" instead of tacking-on a foreign subsystem. There are already effects within the magic system(s) for the game that affect morale, confusion, and (in some rare cases) dementia / insanities.

And finally 3) I'm a huge BRP fan. This may not be a shining endorsement of the system's abilities, but it works for me.

As many did, I started off with the unholy fusion of Red Box D&D / AD&D (because, as an acquaintance put it, "No one really knew the difference between them in 1983..."). Then, I was exposed to BRP with some RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. I've been hooked since. Thanks for putting Swords Against the Outer Dark on the interwebs and asking our opinions about this interesting genre choice. I'm a regular reader and very interested in hearing more about how your game unfolds!