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Author Topic: Low fantasy and Sword & Sorcery  (Read 2893 times)
Mister Andersen
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« on: November 01, 2007, 11:11:42 AM »

http://hyboria.xoth.net/gods/good_gods.htm
« Last Edit: November 05, 2007, 06:01:41 AM by Mister Andersen » Logged

Valentina
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« Reply #1 on: November 01, 2007, 04:19:53 PM »

Interesting essay, and I see clearer elements of ol'REH in Gameworkshop's Warhammer universe.
"That life is chaotic, unjust and apparently blind and without reason or direction, anyone can see..." is of course a pure statement from which the nature of Chaos could readily be derived.
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Mister Andersen
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« Reply #2 on: November 05, 2007, 06:03:22 AM »

More from the discussion on the genre:

Quote from: Ruv Draba
I'm trying my hand at a sword-and-sorcery style story at the moment. This is partly in disgust at the unending torrent of turgid, meandering and largely pointless epic fantasies choking the shelves (let me not start on the dragons, unicorns, elves etc again...), and partly because I've secretly always loved a taut sword-and-sorcery tale, and haven't seen a really smart and innovative one since Zelazny
died.

Despite jokes about musclebound barbarians and phallic symbolism, a  good S&S tale is darn hard to do. It needs a lot of action, but a diet of unremitting, unmotivated violence that's purely reactive with no stakes other than survival (and you *know* that the protag will survive anyway) is deadly, deadly dull.

There's also nothing about a S&S tale that requires any swords, or even a barbaric/ancient setting.

I'm toying with a few things in this tale. In particular, action scenes that:

1) are not just violence, but also seductions, coercions and debates (hopefully, sometimes more than one of these at the same time); and/or

2) either advance the plot, flesh out the background or change/reveal the character somehow - i.e. action scenes that require costly choices, unexpected consequences, or reveal insight about the world, or close off a future opportunity

Point 1) appears in lots of other kinds of stories, and seems to adapt readily to sword and sorcery tales - as long as you get the mood right. The key thing is to use the dialogue to reveal character rather than spray lots of background and plot the way you might in a mystery story, say. If you do the latter, the pace slows down too much.

Point 2) makes for a really interesting approach to fight scenes, but is awfully tricky and I'm still trying to get the hang of it. I suspect that a good approach is to map the key tensions and insights *before* you write the action - then write the action around it.

Another thing I've discovered about S&S tales is that choice of images is critical, but relationships absolutely define the mood; setting simply reinforces it.

Moreover, you can't write S&S from regular fantasy tropes. You have to innovate a whole lot more than in epic fantasies, or else the story just collapses into a single, long cliche.

And this is a problem because the more you innovate the background, the more cunning you have to get about how to reveal the detail. Sword and Sorcery doesn't let you meander through the world like a gastronome at a buffet. If you want to display part of the world or a nuance of plot, it had better occur in or around an action scene.

Anyway, I'm finding it very challenging and a lot of fun when I'm not tearing my hair out. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's tried Sword and Sorcery, and what they discovered - or from anyone who wants to try S&S, but either a) isn't sure what it is or b) doesn't know how to do it or c) is scared that it will look silly if they do. Cheesy
« Last Edit: November 05, 2007, 06:04:56 AM by Mister Andersen » Logged

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« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2007, 06:07:42 AM »

Quote from: Ruv Draba
Quote
What is your definition of S&S if  - I quote - "There's also
nothing about a S&S tale that requires any swords, or even a barbaric/ancient setting."

Well, as with all genre-related stuff "definition" is perhaps too strong a term. I think we're looking for characteristics instead, and I think they're about both style and subject.  Howard Jones, who edits Black Gate, sees key S&S style as:

  • Rapid pacing
  • Sombre, headlong drive
  • Use of dialogue to reveal character rather than introduce plot points or work background
  • Atmosphere and sense of wonder
A key success factor in a S&S story is its originality - avoiding the use of templates. S&S contains archetypes, but that shouldn't mean stereotypes and cliches.

On the subject side, Swordandsorcery.org describes S&S subjects as being covered by environment, protagonists and obstacles:

Environment: "Sword-and-sorcery fiction takes place in lands different from our own, where technology is relatively primitive, allowing the protagonists to overcome their martial obstacles face-to-face. Magic works, but seldom at the behest of the heroes."

Protagonists: "The heroes live by their cunning or brawn, frequently both. They are usually strangers or outcasts, rebels imposing their own justice on the wilds or the strange and decadent civilizations which they encounter."

Obstacles: "Sword-and-sorcery's protagonists must best fantastic dangers, monstrous horrors, and dark sorcery to earn riches, astonishing treasure, the love of dazzling members of the opposite sex, or the right to live another day."

This subject-list suggests that it's all swords and barbaric lands, but I think it's more subtle than that. You can write a S&S tale about a soldier trapped behind enemy lines, with no ammunition, falling on an experimental research facility. There doesn't have to
be a sword - it could simply be a plumber's wrench as in the computer game 'Half Life'. There doesn't have to be magic - it could simply be alien technology. And there doesn't have to be low technology - it simply has to be *inconvenient* technology.

Likewise, while it's important that the world is indifferent, hostile and/or corrupt I don't think it has to be vastly different from our own. It simply has to throw up challenge after challenge - and that's merely a matter of situation. I think that a female NY journalist fallen among Kyrgyzstani cultists could make an equally fine S&S story. Cheesy
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Mister Andersen
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« Reply #4 on: November 05, 2007, 06:10:06 AM »

Quote from: Ruv Draba
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Why are you writing it? You said you were tired of the epic trope [8<] but said nothing you LIKE about S&S. So I'm curious. What do you LIKE about the genre? What is there to recommend it?

There's actually quite a lot to like: taut storylines, great mood, high pace, murky morality, fun psychological issues, rich imagery and a strong sense of wonder in the world. Oh and *brevity - let us not forget brevity!

S&S stories have plenty of scope for antiheroes and byronic heroes - both of which have strong appeal to modern readers, and both of which are hard to do as a main character in an epic fantasy. The trope of the lone figure or small group in a hostile, indifferent and corrupt world is every bit as relevant today as when S&S started, and perhaps more so.

I think that the S&S subgenre needs to move on though, just as the crime and the romance genres have. We're not as excited by condom-full-of-walnuts physiques, and we're uninterested by characters that fail to change and grow. Swords don't impress us so much these days; social skills do. We also don't believe in a world where characters are in masterful control of their relationships. And finally, while I think that aggression still excites us, unending violence doesn't. I think we're far more interested in nonviolent forms of aggression; fewer fights; more seductions and coercions, more suspense.

One thing I don't believe we're over though, is archetypes. S&S has always been heavy on archetype use, and so was early epic fantasy. Modern fantasy epics have steered away from archetypes though, and I think this has come at the cost of brevity and impact. I don't believe that S&S stories can do the same - they're a leaner vehicle and I
don't think they can support meandering. A key challenge then, is to find modern views on archetypes that are not century-old cliches - but I'd say that's a key challenge for the high fantasy epics too.
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« Reply #5 on: November 05, 2007, 11:50:59 AM »

Quote from: Cathy Freeze
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You can write a S&S tale about a soldier trapped behind enemy lines, with no ammunition, falling on an experimental research facility. There doesn't have to be a sword - it could simply be a plumber's wrench as in the computer game 'Half Life'. There doesn't have to be magic - it could simply be alien technology.

i think sword and socery called this 'Sword and Planet.' their definition seemed to me to fit some post-apocolyptic stuff.  "scarce technological leftovers from a remote, absent, dead, or dying race of advanced beings—so advanced that their technology might as well be magic."  and telepathy instead of magic fits that, too.  i'd never heard the term 'sword and planet' before.  weird.

« Last Edit: November 05, 2007, 01:47:25 PM by Mister Andersen » Logged

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« Reply #6 on: November 05, 2007, 12:31:32 PM »

Nice find. I have been doing much of this same research myself (along with plenty of slavering over Frazetta art and Howard's works) in the course of crafting Epoch, the S&S setting for FantasyCraft . S&S IS tough to capture, but Spycraft plus far too many years playing with moral ambiguity in 10kB is going to set it on the right course. Smiley
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Mister Andersen
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« Reply #7 on: November 05, 2007, 01:45:59 PM »

Yes, it struck me as something useful to both people looking to write and play the low end of the spectrum.

The idea of combining Fantasycraft with Farthest Star for some S&P goodness is inducing all sorts of squee.
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Mister Andersen
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« Reply #8 on: November 05, 2007, 01:47:37 PM »

Quote from: Ruv Draba
Quote
i think sword and socery called this 'Sword and Planet.'

Cat, you're right! It's an obscure term, but reliably covered by Wikipedia. It's not just post-apocalyptic though. Anywhere a white, socially conservative man is out conquering interplanetary barbarism and boinking the local talent, with nothing but a sword and a loin-cloth (respectively - it's important to remember which is for which), there you have Sword and Planet. John Carter, Fueher of Mars would of course be the exemplar of this genre.
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