Editor’s note: Sasha is responsible for Axe Initiative Games, a new company which will shortly be publishing 4th Edition adventures through Goodman Games Ltd.
In the campaigns theme section of the Dungeon Masters Guide there is a paragraph on swords and sorcery. It’s brief and to the point but enough of a hook to start feeding a DM’s campaign ideas with hulking figures and silent death. However it fills in none of the crunch and this article explores what changes might be made to the core rules to turn the modern flavour of the game into something more archaic, grim and dark. As with all roleplaying games, everything is mutable, choose only the things from this article that you like.
The worlds of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Conan are without doubt low fantasy. They don’t seethe with a hundred humanoid races, fairy folk do not engage with humanity on a whim and works of great magic are rarely seen.
The connections from the mortal world to others are more limited than in core D&D. The Feywild is inaccessible directly and the lords there fear entrapment upon it so deign not to notice it. The ways to the Astral Sea are hidden and hard to penetrate, requiring great energy for even the gods to puncture through. Only the Shadowfell and Elemental Chaos are as accessible, meaning undead, elementals and demons, while rare, are still to be found in the darker places of the world. The Far Realm is just as distant and menacing as in the core setting, but the reduction in magical beasts means that aberrations should become the rarely used beasts on legend.
Fewer gods seem inclined to pay attention to the world of swords and sorcery. Avandra, Ioun, Kord, Melora and the Raven Queen have minor temples in the largest cities. Bane, Torog and Zehir also command some measure of influence, with one featuring more heavily. Demonic princes however are more powerful here than elsewhere, especially Graz’zt who is worshipped in many guises, even seemingly benevolent ones, such as the flower cults.
The wilderness in swords and sorcery settings are barren and dangerous, with only hovels and tyrannic keeps punctuating the endless plains and choked forests, not unlike the points of light theme of the core setting. However the shining beacons in this world are decadent city states, ruled by self crowned usurpers, secret councils of merchant princes, despotic theocrats or worse. It is in these places that adventure comes swift and deadly. It is entirely possible to run a campaign wholly set within the confines of the city, at least until mid way through the paragon levels. The place should be huge, allowing a DM to map out sections at a time rather than in one lengthy process. Sanctuary from the Thieves World books is a great example of a swords and sorcery city state. Monte Cook’s fabulous Ptolus, while high fantasy could easily be mined for interesting sections and its mapped streets make perfect urban hunting grounds.
The classic hero of a sword and sorcery tale is always human and, given the flexibility of the rules around human characters, this works perfectly well in D&D. ‘Hard Boiled Ideas : Cultures’ from One Bad Egg has some really interesting ideas on how to vary and give depth to races in 4th edition and it’s techniques are very applicable to a human only swords and sorcery game.
Character classes are also limited in the swords and sorcery genre. Noble knights, wise grey wizards and holy clerics are found more in fantasy romance and have no place in decadent, rat infested city states or steaming jungles.
This equates to no clerics, paladins and wizards at all, at least as playable character roles. Immediately a shrewd eye will see the hole left in the line up, the healers are missing. However because players now have access to healing surges that can be used between encounters, the traditional role of the cleric isn’t so heavily healing based. This loss of instant health though actually adds to the feel of danger and grit we want for a swords and sorcery campaign. Optionally players who wish to play the devout might be offered Cleric multiclass feats as a way of bringing in a little divine magic into the game.
Fighters are the main stay of sword and sorcery and the classic D&D fighter fits the requirements perfectly, putting the swords into the swords and sorcery. Fighters are tough, being able to sustain massive injuries and still lay low foes with great swings from their heavy weapons. The great weapons fighter and guardian fighter templates represent death dealers and stoic bodyguards. The paragon paths presented in the Players Handbook are also suited for play. The iron vanguard might be the captain of the watch, who secretly stalks the streets at night, slaying the half-breed thieves of Zehir. Kensei masters are from the arid south who seek the ultimate chaos of the city as their final test. Pit fighters are born and bred swords and sorcery archetypes, fighting for freedom or glory. Swordmasters train constantly to maintain their standing in a society of killers.
Who knows what secrets bring the rangers to the city? Perhaps their villages have been broken upon the wheels of conquest and they seek refuge and employment. Maybe revenge is in their hearts against some corrupting merchant. Whatever the reason, they quickly become embroiled in the city, their skills as undetected assassins and nimble spies being recognised by the ruling princes. Both archer and two-bladed builds work without modification. The paragon paths for rangers need a little work, however. Battlefield archers might be court archers, who win tournaments for their lord as well as slaying a rival through a forgotten window. Beast stalkers hunt the most dangerous foe, other men – your chosen prey are humans. Pathfinders might walk the maze of sewers beneath the streets, knowing every twist and turn. As the city and its world have no connection to the Feywild, there are no stormwardens. A determined player though might assign the city itself as the object that the tanger guards.
Fictionally, the rogue is the perfect companion to the fighter. Their pin point attacks and skill with traps mean there is very little to two together cannot over come. Brawny and trickster rogues are found in all corners of the city and in all levels of society, as the bar room footpad or spoiled rich thug, the street urchin pick pocket or the cocky black marketeer. Their paragon paths also read like a who’s who of swords and sorcery fantasy. Renowned cat burglars stalk the roof tops, leaving only dead guards and calling card. The daggermaster is the favourite tool of the guild master. Master infiltrators stalk the halls of merchant princes and shadow assassins are employed by all, for profit, for lust and for revenge.
Warlocks are a controversial addition to the list, if wizards break the feel of the genre they why don’t warlocks? Swords and sorcery literature is filled with wicked astrologers, crazy shaman and conjurers of demons. They all share the theme of binding and of pacts and it’s this that brings out the skills of Warlock and suggests the players might take these roles, invoking the sorcery in swords and sorcery. In swords and sorcery magic corrupts, so warlocks may never be good or lawful good aligned. The no-fey rule means the fey pact can’t be taken and no Fey-related powers are accessible. Traditionally, magic wielders are more sly and divisive than aggressive so deceptive warlocks are more common than those of the scourge build. Doomsayers and life-stealers make for perfect swords and sorcery style paragon paths, but again feytouched paths are not available. Rituals often suit the style of magic presented in swords and sorcery fiction better than wizard powers, so optionally warlocks gain the Ritual Caster feat as a bonus.
Warlords are also an easy fit into swords and sorcery. Mercenary bands, led by warlords are found where every strength and violence is needed. Sergeants of the watch, slaver chiefs and visiting tribal headmen all can be represent by inspiring or tactical warlords. Only the knight commander paragon path doesn’t work as written, but only because we imagine a clean shaven knight in shining armour, rather than a feared shock troop commander, blood soaked and grisly.
The Martial Power supplement includes lots of great material for swords & sorcery characters and it’s relatively easy to see where things don’t work. Non-human and knightly style paragon paths obviously don’t fit
With the reduction in wizards and magic, magic items, especially low level ones are rare in an swords and sorcery setting. DM’s should strongly consider only giving out a few quirky, rare items of power because of this. Dark pacts may have been forged in the creation of such items and so they may prove unreliable or demand evil acts of their bearers. However, to maintain so balance and give players rewards, non-magic but exquisitely made mundane items can be introduced into the game. A +3 broadsword might get its bonus from being made of Gimmerian steel rather than enchantment.
Humans are likely to be the mainstay of the foes the characters encounter, however, there is no reason why the names of humanoid monster found in the Monster Manual can’t be filed off and replaced with human cultures. Thus orcs become Red Desert Tribesmen, hobgoblins become Dog soldiers of Eastern Thall, etc. Natural beasts have the same role in swords and sorcery as they do in the core setting, however the more exotic should be used sparingly. Magical beasts should be considered named individuals and the work of a diabolic flesh-sorcerer, rather than as species in their own right. Undead, demons and to a lesser degree elementals all feature in the schemes of the wicked cults that lie beneath the surface of society and are useful when the players crave something unusual to fight. Aberrations are also individuals summoned by foul magic and when used as a centre piece add a further layer of terror to an encounter. Immortals should be so rare as be unheard of or once-in-a-campaign creatures.
Often something more sinister than human greed lies at the heart of the darkest stories in swords and sorcery and so the DM might consider having a single non-human foe race, hiding behind scenes and playing puppet master. Yuan-Ti, Mindflayers or Kuo-Toa all fit this role and all of whom are high enough level to never be encountered early on, working only through pawns.
Perhaps Zehir is working through Yuan-Ti, seeking to enslave or transform the city dwellers. Maybe Torog has championed a splinter group of Kuo-Tuo who aim to destroy the city state from within. If Lovecraftian themes appeal then is Mak Thuum Ngatha and the mindflayer cult of the Nine Tongued Worm working to breach seal of reality from within the very city walls?
Are a cabal of ancient liches really guiding the rulers of the city? Does the Raven Queen wish to slide the whole metropolis into the Shadowfell or is she working against others who plan such a thing?
More mundane but no less interesting campaign arcs can involve recent invaders and their ultimate goals. The madness of the governor-prince may led to barbaric laws being introduced, much to benefit of the slavers. What is behind the loss of so many street children’s forefingers and why do they give them up so willingly?
Later adventures might take the characters out and to the ruins found in the jungles or deserts of the world, haunted by mummified emperors and covered in deadly traps, these sites are more dungeon-like than cities. Perhaps the players are caught and sacrificed in front of a snake headed idol, only to wake in the Shadowfell and offered a way home again by some power requiring their skill at arms? Have demons kidnapped the queen and lover of one the party, holding her captive in a abysmal swamp, while a deal is made with Graz’zt for her soul?
Tone down the exotic, high magic and turn up the human and horror elements in your campaign to make it feel more like a swords and sorcery game. Resist adding strange creatures to every location. Create human arch enemies who are subtle and clever yet as malevolent as the any drow. Don’t be afraid to use minions, given the players are unlikely to have a healing powers so readily to hand and make magic always feel unique and tainted. If you are planning a short campaign that needs not reach the dizzy heights of epic level play, consider the swords and sorcery theme as template.