As I mentioned the other day, I’ve never been much into sword and sorcery fantasy, and it’s largely unknown to the friends I game with. I decided to start reading some Conan to at least get a feel for what the stuff is like. “The Phoenix on the Sword,” one of R.E. Howard’s first Conan stories, is a great tale of the barbarian as a king, which relentlessly looks out to a far bigger and older world.
The anthology “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian,” which strives to put together Howard’s original stories in an unmodified form in order of publication. It has a lengthy forward which makes clear something that’s fairly obvious from The Phoenix on the Sword, namely that Howard saw a certain value and freedom in barbarism, and in his stories expressed a distrust of civilization. It occurs to me that in the matter of “barbarism vs. civilization,” Japan’s version of Western fantasy falls squarely on the side of civilization. In Slayers, for example, civilization is pretty unambiguously positive, and the antagonists are mostly savage monsters and ancient demons. In Final Fantasy there has been the occasional evil empire, but savagery isn’t really the solution; a character like Gau (from FF6) is an oddity whose feral upbringing is an adorable character quirk and the basis of an unusual and difficult-to-use ability.
This is especially true when it comes to the way the differing styles of fantasy present magic. In the Conan stories magic is the province of evil sorcerers meddling with forbidden forces that threaten to make them spiral into madness. A magician on or near the throne is a travesty to be undone by a barbarian’s fierce blade. In the Japanese version magic is typically a tool, a kind of neutral technology. That’s why in J-RPGs and anime a school of magic is a viable concept. In the Hyborian Age a school of sorcery would probably be a den of madmen doomed to breed unconscionable evils.
I don’t know if I am in fact onto something here, but it does seem like the old sword and sorcery fantasy, especially that of R.E. Howard (who would’ve happily written historical fiction if he could’ve gotten paid enough for it) harkens back to ancient history, while the Japanese version has a distinctly modern sensibility. Of course, the history of D&D has been a transition from sword and sorcery to modernist fantasy. The Tolkien influence already muddled the sword and sorcery style that Gygax seems to have preferred, and in terms of genre influences D&D became more and more about itself. I think D&D has largely sidestepped the kinds of issues brought up by the notion of barbarism vs. civilization, and any themes inherent in the game as written are more from the way the rules, derived from wargames in a rather haphazard fashion, happened to play out. I haven’t made much of an effort to experience the breadth of what’s out there, but In a Wicked Age really seems to capture the essence of sword and sorcery, in a way that D&D scarcely even aspires to, much less achieves. (Though Dark Sun probably comes a lot closer than any other part of D&D.)
Although I can definitely appreciate the mythic grandeur of Conan and his ilk, I think on the whole my tastes fall more on the side of modernistic fantasy. I like the fantastic things that are possible in the fantasy genre, but I think I find modern sensibilities more capable of involving themes that I can readily relate to. That’s another reason why I’m looking forward to bringing Slime Quest to fruition.
4 thoughts on “Kinds of Fantasy”
Generally, I’d say it’s fair to say Howard *sympathised* with barbarism over civilization, but he had no illusions over the reality of barbarian life. He and his epistolary friend H.P.Lovecraft had some great debates over the nature and benefits of civilization. I think the “historical fiction” analogue is quite correct for S&S.
Magic isn’t necessarily evil in the Hyborian Age: there are a number of good sorcerers and witches. Case in point, Epemitreus the sage from “Phoenix” is a pretty swell chap, all things considered: then you have helpful folk like Hadrathus and Zelata in The Hour of the Dragon. However, just because there’s good magic doesn’t mean it’s readily accessible. In the Hyborian Age, magic is dangerous, volatile and not something the average population even seems to be aware of outside of the usual tall tales and rumours.
Still, Sword-and-Sorcery isn’t for everyone. I’m really glad you tried out Howard: even if it isn’t your thing, it’s good you made the effort. I really don’t have that much taste for Japanese RPG styles, but I at least tried out the likes of Final Fantasy (VII’s the only one) and the Zelda games before I thought “eh, it’s good, but isn’t my kinda thing”.
I prefer the visual style of Japanese RPGs, as well as the inherent gaming themes that seem to emerge from Japanese media (I spend a few minutes at the end of each episode of Bleach trying to figure out if I could make a Pokemon-esque CCG based on their various power levels).
I like modernist fantasy, because I feel it allows us to explore our daily issues in a near sub-conscious manner, while enjoying a lot of modern conveniences that magic and modern thinking can provide.
In my settings I normally deal a lot of information warfare and how religion interacts with culture. I see it in almost everything I write, and it makes sense, because those are things I care and think about.
I like the idea of a Barbarian or an “uncivilized” culture that personifies freedom, but I don’t think there is much in the way of historical examples that I am happy with. Nomadic tribes aren’t romantic, their lives were hard! So we fall to pirates, who are essentially barbarians who have brushed up against civilization enough to know how to piss people off, which makes their freedom all the more fun!
Also, I am sure there are plenty of cultural reasons that Japanese franchises tend to have order versus chaos dynamics.
Brief thought on the idea of S&S vs. JRPG.
From the Conan I’ve read I feel it’s betters suited for solo adventures where one man battles against the world on his personal journey. He meets friends for brief stops on the way and maybe has a sort of assistant eventually, but is really about a personal journey.
S&S stories that have a little more in the way of stable civilization could work with group play though.
JRPGs tend to lend more to the idea of a group adventure. Maybe one or two people more important than the rest, but still more troop based.
I think some of it informed by the medium. The Conan stories were mostly short stories published in magazines, so there really wasn’t room to develop a group of characters even if the author wanted to. Tabletop RPGs had the notion of a party basically from the need to accommodate multiple players, and in video games I expect it was more that it benefited gameplay in various ways.
Regardless, that is a good point, and it’s part of why I think In a Wicked Age–which does away with the assumption that each PC is going to be one of the “heroes”–is such an excellent game for doing the genre.