Sword & sorcery stands out as a fantasy subgenre defined by its rugged heroes, their mastery of the blade, and their thrilling adventures in untamed lands. While romance, magic, and the supernatural often find their way into these tales, the heart of sword & sorcery lies in the personal struggles of its protagonists, rather than the looming threats faced by entire kingdoms or civilizations.
Pulp writer Fritz Lieber coined the term “sword and sorcery” as a play on the existing genres of “cloak and sword” (historical adventure) and “cloak and dagger” (spy fiction). Lieber meant to evoke Robert E. Howard’s fantasy stories, tales that would eventually become synonymous with the sword and sorcery genre. Lieber’s own creations, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, would further solidify the genre’s identity.
Sword and sorcery is a niche within fantasy fiction, and its popularity has risen and fallen several times over the years. Like epic fantasy, it unfolds within a magical secondary world. However, the emphasis on personal conflicts and the intimate scale of the stakes sets it apart.
Examples of Sword & Sorcery
One of the best ways to learn to write in a specific style is to read it. Take a look at this list of sword & sorcery novels or series, which represents the past and present of the genre. Fair warning: the earliest works listed here are very much “of their time,” and may include content modern readers find disturbing.
- Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard
- Elric of Melniboné sequence, Michael Moorcock
- The Blade Itself, Joe Abercromby
- The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
- Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed
- The Copper Promise, Jen Williams
- The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson
- The Witcher, Andrzej Sapkowski
Sword & Sorcery in ttRPGs
Sword & sorcery aligns very closely to the beginnings of the tabletop RPG hobby. So Old School Renaissance, or OSR systems, are often a great fit for running a campaign in this genre!
Because difficult, dangerous combat is a main focus of the subgenre, these systems are often more mechanically dense, or “crunchy.” That’s partly because the heroes tend to be lone wolf warriors operating on the edges of civilization, which means resource management can come into play. In some ways, the number crunching mirrors the painful bone crunching involved in combat!
If you want to play a rules-light campaign, there are systems that work – it’s just a less common combination. Check out these ttRPG systems and settings.
- Savage Worlds – a fast-paced and flexible tabletop role-playing game system known for its cinematic style.
- Dungeon Crawl Classics – offers an old-school aesthetic that embraces unpredictable and often perilous outcomes.
- Barbarians of Lemuria – a rules-light system emphasizing fast-paced and narrative-driven adventures in a world inspired by classic pulp fantasy.
- RuneQuest – a game influenced heavily by Bronze Age cultures, featuring lethal combat and deep customization for heroes.
- Zweihander – a game of gallows humor, social intrigue, investigative mystery, occult magic, supernatural horror, and ancient vendettas meted out with blackpowder, sorcery, and steel.
Designing a Dangerous Fantasy World
Worldbuilding and writing effectively means understanding reader or player expectations. Even – or especially – if you plan to subvert them! So it’s best to know the common elements. Many settings in this fantasy genre include these tropes:
It’s a dark, dangerous world poisoned by corruption. The bad guys are probably in charge, and that femme asking for help – well, she’s probably fatale.
Protagonists are thieves, mercenaries (or both) on the fringes of society. “Lone wolf” morally-gray warriors begrudgingly join a partner with complementary skills.
The stories are usually packed with swashbuckling action, adventure and cliffhangers. Civilization is a trap, and while the wilderness will probably kill you, at least you’ll die free.
Chances are, your characters aren’t in this for justice, truth and apple pie. They expect to be well-paid (either in cold, hard coin or sweet, petty vengeance).
Magic is usually rare, dark, dangerous, and most often wielded by a powerful enemy. It’s not a practical substitute for technology.
Unlike the nearly invulnerable heroes of other subgenres, sword & sorcery heroes take a nasty beating before emerging victorious. They are the Rocky Balboa of fantasy heroes.
Writing Modern Sword & Sorcery
Originating in the pulp and noir fiction of the early mid-twentieth century, this fantasy subgenre retained some of those works’ regressive attitudes until the 1980s. That’s when sword & sorcery had a resurgence in interest, and a creative revival.
Toward the end of the millennium, writers began reimagining what sword & sorcery could be. They often borrowed an elevated prose style from literary fiction, and sometimes included bigger stakes from epic fantasy, while maintaining the mercenary/outsider protagonists and gritty, up-close combat of traditional sword & sorcery.
This evolution has continued, allowing sword and sorcery to expand to include a more diverse range of voices – both in protagonists and authorship.
Conquer this genre… on World Anvil!
Whether you’re a writer seeking to craft your next sword & sorcery novel, or a gamemaster hoping to dive into a brutal, dark fantasy campaign, you can find worlds of inspiration on World Anvil. This no-holds-barred fantasy genre has many fans among our community of 2 million writers, gamemasters and RPG players.
If you’re eager to take your worldbuilding skills to the next level, consider joining World Anvil. Our professionally-designed worldbuilding templates, monthly challenges, and amazing resources can help you conquer the savage challenges of writing sword and sorcery!