Sword & Sorcery
Sword & Sorcery is one of the oldest Setting Aesthetics to exist in all of fantasy. Emerging from the era of pulp fiction novels in the 1920s or so, Sword & Sorcery evolved from the "Weird Fiction" genre - a mishmash of fantasy, horror and science fiction popularized in pulp fiction by magazines like "Weird Tales" and championed by authors such as H.P. Lovecraft - as a result of the efforts of Robert E. Howard, who created the first recognizable S&S stories when he wrote about Solomon Kane and Kull of Atlantis; his subsequent development of Hyperborea became the groundwork for Sword & Sorcery as a whole, although it wouldn't be named as such until the 1960s.
As one of the oldest fantasy genres, Sword & Sorcery has a far-reaching impact on fantasy gaming. Many of the authors Gygax denotes as inspiring the creation of Dungeons & Dragons were writers of Sword & Sorcery, whilst Greyhawk itself has a strong Sword & Sorcery motif to it.
What is it?
Sword & Sorcery is a hard genre to define for many; it overlaps heavily with, if is not the same as, Heroic Fantasy - focusing intimately on a singular protagonist or a small group of protagonists, and concerning itself with personal issues, rather than the grand, sweeping, world-shaking threats of High Fantasy. Sword & Sorcery is larger-than life and action-focused, and usually characterized by the antiheroic nature of its protagonists - they are almost always motivated by matters of self-interest. Many S&S protagonists are aimless wanderers of life, drifting from battle to battle driven by little more than whim and chance.
Some (Wikipedia) have defined Sword & Sorcery as a mixture of fantasy, horror and mythology with historical romance, action and swordplay; the most famous of the S&S worlds ever published, Hyperborea and Zothique, are a lost primeval Earth and a far-flung future Earth respectively.
Likewise, some argue that a "true" S&S setting is distinctly low magic; the iconic vision of a Sword & Sorcery protagonist is a driven, grim, hard-bitten warrior who stands against fiends, aberrations, dinosaurs and evil mages armed with nothing more than grit and a trusty sword. Others argue that this isn't so; Zothique featured magic or even spell-wielding protagonists fairly extensively. Fritz Leiber's protagonist "The Gray Mouser" had originally trained as a wizard before becoming a sell-sword. And Elric was a demonblade-wielding warlock from a highly magical world.
Sword & Sorcery tends to shamelessly incorporate pulp-era science fiction into its ostensibly fantastical world; Frazetta Man was born in this kind of setting, tentacled monsters out of the Cthulhu Mythos make frequent appearances (although rarely to the bleak outcomes Lovecraft envisioned), and dinosaurs often stand in for dragons.
80s S&S vs. Classic S&S
During the 70s and 80s, and to an extent even the 90s, /co/ media generated a number of series that resemble Sword & Sorcery in many ways, but diverted from them in very clear ways. As noted above, S&S is often thought of as a Low Fantasy subgenre, with only human protagonists and magic being restricted to long-winded, esoteric rituals mostly aimed around summoning beings from other planets and dimensions, assuming it even works at all as opposed to being largely smoke, mirrors, psychology and trickery. But these shows and series presented a new kind of S&S; one that mixed in elements of High Fantasy without fundamentally losing their S&S feel - wizards were introduced with strong magical powers, even protagonists might use magic, and non-human protagonists were also featured.
There are arguments that "80s Sword & Sorcery" isn't actually S&S at all, but its own new genre, but nobody has yet come up with a satisfactory name for them.
Examples of 80s S&S include:
- Masters of the Universe
- Galtar and the Golden Lance
- Thundarr the Barbarian
- Conan the Adventurer (a rare 90s example)
Sadly, Sword & Sorcery has long fallen out of fashion. Partly it's to do with changing cultural mores; the mystical orientals and savage black-skinned cannibals that so frequently appeared in Sword & Sorcery tales of old are now a huge no-no. Mind you, this was actually happening even back in S&S's heyday; the genre never really was able to shake off the shame of being associated with the Gor novels, a sprawling literary work that took what could have been a pretty interesting Sword & Sorcery meets Space Opera setting and quickly ran it into the ground because the author was more concerned with sharing his Maledom S&M wankfuel/political manifesto hybrid with the world.
More importantly, Sword & Sorcery became synonymous in the 70s and 80s with cheap, cheesily written, low-grade, derivative fantasy; if it was advertised as "Sword & Sorcery", usually it'd be a schlockfest. Although fans strive to revive it, Sword & Sorcery has become heavily stigmatized, especially amongst the arrogant and pretentious lot that are fantasy literature critics.
Sword & Planet
A sub-genre of Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet is essentially what happens if you blend Science Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery together, it has also sometimes called Planetary Romance. The basic principles of S&S or Heroic Fantasy remain intact, but the setting is on an alien world, usually revolving around a human protagonist mysteriously transported to this strange place. The emphasis is on the fantastical; the alien races may not resemble the standard demihumans, but fantasy trappings such as the use of swords to fight or Fantasy Armor for decoration remain prominent. Any alien technology is strictly to make the world feel more otherworldly or serve the needs of the plot.
- Dungeons & Dragons was originally built around this aesthetic, and it's strongest in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and retro-clones based on it.
- Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is an AD&D 1e Retroclone that aims at replicating this aesthetic.
- Conan the Barbarian has had multiple tabletop games based on his world of Hyperborea, including one using AD&D rules and one using D&D 3e rules.
- Greyhawk is effectively a Sword & Sorcery setting with a Medieval Europe backdrop, instead of the more iconic Iron Age backdrop.
- Wilderlands of High Fantasy is a venerable 3rd party campaign setting for Original Dungeons & Dragons, a contemporary of Greyhawk, except with more Iron Age and dinosaurs and hawkmen.
- Dark Sun is a Sword & Sorcery setting with traces of Sword & Planet, drawing equal parts inspiration from Conan and from John Carter.
- Primeval Thule is a 3rd party campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition which takes place on Hyperborea between the ages of Kull and Conan. Despite that, it includes some more iconic D&Disms like the presence of demihumans and spellcasting classes.
- Vast Kaviya is another 3rd party campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition deliberately constructed with this aesthetic.