Sword & Sanity

Over on Shane Mangus's blog, Swords Against the Outer Dark, he coins the term SWORD & SANITY, which refers to the merger of Sword & Sorcery and the Yog-Sothothery of the Lovecraftian-style Weird Tale.  Strictly speaking, that probably isn't necessary, because although it's sometimes kind of forgotten in this post-Tolkien world of fantasy, Sword & Sorcery already naturally had a lot of Yog-Sothothery in it.  Lovecraft himself wrote some sword & sorcery with Yog-Sothothery (The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath) and much of the folks foundational to Sword & Sorcery wrote in such a way that arguably, their stories were part of the Cthulhu Mythos from the get-go--specifically Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and others) and Clark Ashton Smith (who wrote the Averoigne, Zothique, Hyperborean, and other Sword & Sorcery cycles). 

The other foundational pillars of Sword & Sorcery as we know it, Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber were less overtly engaging in Yog-Sothothery as they wrote, but echoes of similar themes and tone infuse their work too.

Nonetheless, I think Mr. Mangus has done us a favor because, well, that is often forgotten, and Sword & Sorcery is as much characterized today by the Conan movie from the 80s, the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, and TV shows that have entered the popular consciousness like Hercules or Xena as it is the actual original works of REH, CAS, FL or MM.  When I attempt to describe my setting (in gaming terms, at least) as "D&D rules meets Call of Cthulhu play paradigm", that often sounds like something quite different and exotic compared to what most gamers (of either title) are used to.  And granted, that's an admittedly crude comparison anyway about what DARK•HERITAGE really is.

So, I'll gladly join the bandwagon and call my work here--as often as I am working, that is--part of the Sword & Sanity movement.  I'll take on the label, loud and proud.

To me, however, the label means more than simply using mi-go in a D&D game, or having priests of Hastur or Cthulhu be your villains.  It means a rather fundamental shift in the approach to the game.  It means a full-blown fantasy setting, but it also means a game that plays much more like Call of Cthulhu than like Dungeons & Dragons.  It means villains that the characters can't beat in a straight-up fight.  It means horrors that they aren't prepared to handle.  It means characters who aren't your stereotypical heroes, and "adventures" that aren't about your typical honor, glory and profit.  It's a world where monsters aren't common and mundane, threatening friendly villagers so local heroes can go out and defeat them; it's a world where monsters are insidious and terrifying.  It's a game where the elements of horror are at least as common as the elements of fantasy.  Maybe even moreso.

As such, I think it's a kind of unfamiliar gaming mode.  Fantasy that plays like horror?  Whoever heard of such a thing?  (Well, arguably the Warhammer World setting is pretty much that paradigm already. So there's at least one well-established and long-lived version of exactly that paradigm out there already. But that's often somewhat tongue in cheek, depending on which author in the Warhammer setting you're reading.) Well, hopefully it's something that sounds at least a little bit appealing to you, hence you're stopping by here at my little corner of the Internet.  Certainly it does to me, and I'm excited to be able to venture into the mostly uncharted territory of using dark fantasy horror as a viable genre for gamers.

Sword & Sanity.  Love it.

An additional thought about blending sword & sorcery with Yog-Sothothery.  The Cthulhu Mythos as we know it is almost irrevocably "tainted" by many who followed and did not exactly share Lovecraft's (or his immediate circle and sources) view of Yog-Sothothery.  August Derleth made all kinds of changes, and attempted to systematize the Mythos.  Lovecraft never attempted any such thing and would most likely have rejected such a notion as inimical to his preferred way of using the Mythos anyway.  The Call of Cthulhu game, and the Cthulhu Mythos section of the old Deities & Demigods book followed this Derlethian pattern, and naturally (given the fact that they were game elements) went a great deal further in terms of categorization, systematization, detail and removal of the "mystique" of the mythos--in an attempt to turn the Mythos into game stats that could be interacted with by characters in combat.

In my interpretation of Yog-Sothothery, the Mythos is not nearly so easy to understand, comprehend, or categorize.  I outright reject many of the Derlethian innovations, and am purposefully going back to an early Lovecraftian interpretation and then using Yog-Sothothery in the same way.  What does this mean exactly?  Mostly it means that the "famous" elements of the mythos are oblique references, not in your face threats.  It's really kind of inconceivable that DARK•HERITAGE characters would fight against Cthulhu, or Azathoth, or the King in Yellow, or whatever, and wildly unlikely that they'd ever visit Carcosa or R'lyeh, or even Leng.  Those kinds of names are meant to be lurking dread, not dramatic action scenes.  Nobody even knows for sure the nature of most of those places and beings, and knowledge given about them may contradict knowledge available elsewhere.

Now, "smaller" threats may indeed be faced directly.  A combat encounter against a night-gaunt, or gug, or byakhee or even a shoggoth--that I can maybe see.  And for that, I need stats, certainly.  But by and large, the Yog-Sothothery elements are always meant to be kept vague.  The categorization and systematization of them is contrary to Lovecraft's design, and contrary to their most effective use, in my opinion.

As an aside, I also like the label DUNGEONS & DAGON.  But it's maybe just a bit too "cute" to be workable.

UPDATE: (1-11-15): I should note that over time, my conception of the setting has migrated somewhat.  Rather than being overtly a horror setting in fantasy drag, it's now more a swashbuckling noir setting, with some horror setting conventions, memes and tropes that feature prominently.  This has been a long time coming, and frankly the setting has always had a fair bit of swashbuckling derring-do at its heart anyway.  This isn't meant to be seen as a change in direction, rather as a very subtle and nuanced change in focus only.

UPSATE: (9-5-16): And here's the rules for my "D&D" game; i.e., my very own customized ruleset that caters to my preferred "sword & sanity" playstyle.  They're a heavily house-ruled and annotated version of the m20 rules, but with a lot of customization towards my own playstyle, and with appendices that make them feel just a bit like the B/X rules if the magic had been Lovecraftian instead of Vancian and the setting assumptions were as much Dracula and The Wolfman and Arkham Country as they were Lord of the Rings and the Hyborian Age.

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