This is the homepage for the Byssinia campaign. Dig it, y’all.
Most everything is on the Wiki page. I have, however, decided to post this cool essay I wrote about the sword-and-sorcery style directly to the main page. These are my “style guidelines” for this campaign.
SWORD AND SORCERY
The Byssinian Chronicles campaign is set within the Sword & Sorcery genre (a genre which, according to some scholars, was invented by Robert E. Howard). Although this genre certainly has its own set of clichés, it differs from high fantasy in that there is no delicate balance between good and evil, with fair and noble elves valiantly fighting against stupid, evil orcs. Rather, it is a grim world of cruel kings, barbarous fighters, beautiful women, and ambitious sorcerers and foul demons lurking in the shadows. Individuals within this world are defined by their motivation, culture and personal ambitions and ethics.
WHAT MAKES IT SWORD AND SORCERY?
Like any other genre, fantasy can be endlessly subdivided into countless subcategories ad nauseam. Sword-and-sorcery tales share certain common elements, but like any other system of classification, there are certain exceptions and arbitrary statements. I’ve divided this essay into convenient headers so you can check out each element individually, similar to the “core conceits” of the 4E product line.
The world has a brutal, primal feel to it. Battles are furious and gory, not quick and elegant. Fighting a tribe of hostile barbarians should involve the tang of steel and blood in the air, the biting pain of the wounds, tacky blood on the swords- not elegant flourishes, fancy moves, or anything out of a video game or Hong Kong wire movie. The images should be clear and stark. People scream as they get maimed and dismembered in battles, not hit once (with no obvious wounds) and then fall, immediately dead, to the ground. Imagine that there’s a soundtrack playing Jim Horner or Basil Poledouris in the background, not John Williams or Howard Shore. While there’s room for the occasional funny or philosophical moment, the overall tone should be grim, gritty, and survival-oriented. Think an R-rating in terms of violence and content, don’t go “ PG-13” unless you have younger gamers.
The major pockets of civilization are wicked and decadent. Although individual people may be virtuous or noble, the major cities are dens of inequity to rival the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. Slaves are openly bought and sold, dark entities worshipped, harlots and drug-peddlers are found on nearly every street, casual violence and lusts indulged. Although the world has known good and virtuous cultures throughout history, they are held as naïve and unrealistic. Neither the honor of the dragonborn nor the valor of the humans kept Arkhosia or Nerath from collapsing. The wickedness of the “civilized” world is one of the major reasons that characters tend to follow their own moral compass. They can be brave and true, and as long as they can hold their own in battle, they can find a place in a world that equates ruthlessness with intelligence and brutality with bravery.
Sword-and-sorcery is a genre of extremes. Characters may live like kings, at least until their coin runs out, and find themselves as beggars huddled on the streets the next night. Lavish displays of wealth can be found within sight of soul-crushing poverty. Summer days are abysmal and stifling, winter nights are numbing and breathtaking. Food is either rotting table-scraps or extravagant feasts fit for a king. Wine either burns like fire or swells the palate with indescribable flavors. Don’t use moderation when an extreme will do! One of the major ways this is reinforced is through social extremes. Temple priests might commonly use young girls as footstools, the poor drink vinegary wine while the rich indulge in rare vintages, slaves are bought and sold like livestock on the block. You can gloss over such things if your players really don’t enjoy them, but it certainly sets the tone of the world as a brutal place where savagery lies just beneath the veneer of civilization.
LAW OF TOOTH AND CLAW
Like other people in a sword-and-sorcery world, most rulers and noblemen are self-motivated. It’s not necessarily that they don’t care about their subjects or charges; they just need to be convinced of their best interests to do anything about their plights. A duke might indeed send adventurers to slay gnolls ravaging the outlying farms, but not necessarily because he cares about the pain and suffering of the villagers. He wants the gnolls exterminated because dead or maimed villagers can’t harvest crops and thus can’t pay their taxes—simple as that. Characters will often have to take the law into their own hands. If someone has wronged them, it’s up to them to deal with it unless they are very, very valuable to someone else. Personal vengeance is common and expected in such a brutal and unforgiving world. That being said, the peacekeeping forces of the major cities and settlements (the watch, the town guard, et cetera) are concerned with keeping the peace, not punishing crimes. If the characters get into a scuffle at the local watering hole, the watch isn’t going to ask who started it because they just don’t care: they want the fighting stopped, and will crack skulls until it stops.
MAGIC IS UNNATURAL
Wizards and warlocks elicit apprehension and fear. They command the very forces of the cosmos—and the cosmos obeys. Arcane characters are at least slightly unhinged, seeking ancient lore and whispering to corrupt spirits beyond the ken of the natural world. Arcane characters typically function as villains, involving the characters in their power-mad or insane schemes to realize some inscrutable goal. Player character wizards or warlocks are typically given a wide berth and kept at arm’s length, perhaps even by their own allies. Even clerics are looked at with some degree of trepidation. Given that many clerics are interested in political or social power, it’s not surprising that many inhabitants of the world are cynical about organized religion. But people aren’t foolish about clerics, realizing that the ability to heal and perform ritual magic makes them powerful allies. So what if the priesthood wants a portion of the treasure for their exploits? Clerics aren’t expected to be selfless and foolish.
Sword-and-sorcery characters are not shining paragons of virtue. Like the deities of the ancient Greek pantheon, they are boastful, proud, boisterous, wrathful, and violent. Those who don’t fit this mold are sly, calculating, and manipulative. These character traits aren’t considered flaws—in a dark a brutal world, they are often the best way to survive. Even those who are considered virtuous or “good” have some shortcoming that brings them closer to the realm of the realistic. Characters tend to enjoy the “good things in life,” when they can afford them. A small fortune may be spent in a single evening on gambling, wine, dancing girls, and song. These are people who aren’t perfect, but they have learned to deal with their attitudes and shortcomings and still manage to enjoy life.
The characters take significant risks, the least of which could be death. But the stakes of their quests and adventures are usually personal and “limited” in scope, at least compared to those of high fantasy. There aren’t any quests to save the world from the Single Ultimate Evil, although they may certainly fight this evil as they come into conflict over it. As an example, let’s consider a classic high fantasy tale. If the One Ring had passed into Conan’s hands, he would keep it for himself and slay all challengers, including Sauron. Unlike high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery gives the characters a concrete, mortal (i.e., they can kill it) enemy to fight. There are no abstractions or gray areas here.
The characters are largely self-interested, adventuring for their own personal ambitions. While they may have admirable qualities and exceptional abilities, they rarely function well as subordinates. You won’t find a powerful, “good guy” umbrella organization like the Silent Ones of Keoland in Greyhawk, or the Harpers of the Forgotten Realms in a sword-and-sorcery tale. Likewise, there is no high and mighty good guy like Elminster or Mordenkainen to dispense quests. The characters adventure because it serves their own ambitions (or at least pleases them to do so), never just because “it’s the right thing to do” or because someone asked them nicely. Even in a situation where characters are directly asked to help someone else (such as a princess in distress), they make it clear that they are helping others because it’s within their own best interest to do so. This isn’t to say that there is no room for a genuinely altruistic person in the world to dispense aid freely as they see fit. But it’d be extremely suspicious to the people here—who would be constantly trying to figure out what angle the “good” person is trying to work.
Most role-playing games deal with explicit violence as a matter of course. In sword-and-sorcery tales, sex is also an accepted and important part of life, and should remain so (despite the fact that most games gloss over this element). There’s no need to get explicit at the table, especially with the sordid details of what your character does outside the immediate context of the adventure. But to people in this world, it’s very clear why female slaves are sold, and heroes who return to town after a successful campaign will have no trouble finding “companionship” for as long as their coin lasts. While this isn’t to say that everyone is a promiscuous pervert, there’s certainly a developed market to cater to the baser instincts. Streetwalkers are common, monogamy or chastity are not considered virtues by society at large, and temple priestesses offer themselves ritually to other priests (especially in unaligned or evil faiths).
SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
Sword-and-sorcery is not Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, Xena: Warrior Princess, Final Fantasy, or EverQuest. It’s Conan: the Barbarian, Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans, Excalibur, and a tiny bit Diablo. For literature, try Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.