Sword and sorcery monsters represent an encounter with the uncanny. Conan doesn’t typically fight through hordes of monsters the way he does hordes of men, nor do Clark Ashton Smith’s various heroes. Even where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser confront monsters with steel, they only once or twice battle them in a horde. Elric is the exception, but even then only occasionally.
Even more recent sword and sorcery heroes, like Hercules or Xena, rarely battle more than one true monster at a time — and they live in an age of monsters.
The sword and sorcery monster is, typically, an individual horror, capable of menacing all of the characters in a story — and slaying more than a few. In the few cases where monsters appear in groups, the hero’s solution is almost always to run, while villainous or simply less wary men are slaughtered.
As an encounter with the uncanny, the monster is often the backbone of the story itself, or a recurring plot device on the way to the climax.
What does that mean for gaming? Well, the typical monster is a hazard to an entire group of characters. In recent Dungeons & Dragons terms, most monsters are not only solos, they’re effectively adventures in and of themselves… even if the object of the adventure isn’t to slay the monster. (And in early sword and sorcery, it rarely is. Beowulf and Hercules are monster-slayers in a way Conan is not.)
Consider the following hypothetical D&D framework:
- Enter dungeon
- Fight orcs
- Slay dragon
- Get treasure
As opposed to the following more Conanesque one:
- Enter exotic location
- Fight fellow looters (some of whom are killed by the demon)
- Get treasure
- Escape demon (maybe slay it)
These are, obviously, oversimplifications, but they suggest a few things.
- The monster is not necessarily there to be slain. (Though, to be sure, it probably can be. Monsters are generally as mortal as anything else.)
- Most of the lesser bad guys are not minions or cultists of the monster, but rivals of the PCs.
- The monster’s lair is as dangerous to the lesser bad guys as it is to the PCs.
- The monster should be capable of challenging many enemies at once. Claw/claw/bite?
Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to abandon genre fidelity in favor of good gaming. But I also think that a little rethinking of formulae and set pieces, and some mechanics to supplement them, are appropriate in monster design.
As is often the case with sword and sorcery gaming, horror provides a better model than fantasy adventure. The classic sword and sorcery tale has a lot in common with the “monster of the week” format, except that the monster itself usually isn’t the objective.
The monster is instead a series of hazards and encounters that may, later in the game, blossom into a confrontation.
6 thoughts on “Sword and sorcery monsters in gaming”
Vincent’s beta of Storming the Wizard’s Tower *sorta* works this way with monsters. The emphasis is on creating a big monster with a couple of lesser challenges per adventure (terrain-as-monster is a pretty cool wrinkle), and while there’s a horde option it’s not an emphasis. BUT, STWT beta pretty much is about straight up defeating the Big Bad rather than escaping it, and its ethic isn’t the swords&sorcery sort where you end up fighting human rivals in the way Conan does.
Great article! That’s pretty much how I would want to run monsters in a Lankhmar game. It seems to me that there is a shared mentality among players, probably cultivated from your typical RPGs, that once you encounter a monster the only option is to fight and defeat it. The trick would be getting across to players that there are different options. Circumventing or tricking the monster to get the treasure then escaping can still make for great gaming and is certainly more in tune to gaming’s literary sources.
“It seems to me that there is a shared mentality among players, probably cultivated from your typical RPGs, that once you encounter a monster the only option is to fight and defeat it. The trick would be getting across to players that there are different options.”
Yeah, I think that’s true. Your typical roleplaying game takes a Beowulf attitude towards monsters. They are inimical to humanity and must be destroyed for bragging rights.
The most direct monster-slaying in Fafhrd and the Mouser’s adventures takes place off-page in “Thieves’ House.” We hear how there’s a monster and only Fafhrd can slay it… and then Leiber skips to the good bit, after the monster’s been killed and the twain’s loot stolen.
Sure enough! And then at the end of the story the Dead Master Thieves show up. In D&D terms, super-powerful undead you don’t want to mess with. I’m pretty sure your average D&D party would have insisted on fighting the DMTs instead of escaping while the DMTs slew the guild thieves.
Would this have been a bad thing? I don’t know. I imagine it could have been a fun role-playing adventure either way–except that there would be a good chance of the PCs dying at the hands of the DMTs!
This is nice. Real nice.
I’m always in favor of methods for putting the emotional oomph back into ANY trope of gaming, and monster-slaying is tops on that list. And delving into Hyborean or Nehwonian sources is rich ground for that. My own take on genre fidelity is, it’s not so much that we cleave to Genre for the sake of it, aping a form as a substitute for living, breathing creativity or whatever–but that often the genre material is doing something REALLY RIGHT, and we look to it to tell us HOW we might make a story with life, ourselves.
Thank you for this article. I am planning a Sword and Sorcery game and this little reminder of the proper framework is quite helpful.