Sword & Sorcery vs. Comic Books

First and Foremost, no matter what, our current Eldermont campaign will continue through 20th level without major rule changes or interruptions.  Read that again, before moving on to the rest of this post.  I have plans for the Eldermont game that will carry us through our goal, and they are pretty insane...and I think you'll enjoy them a lot.  And now, on to what I wanted to talk about.  We've talked about this somewhat before, but it has been on my mind more lately.

I grew up on Sword & Sorcery.  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.  Elric.  Conan.  etc.  My fantasy influences are dark and gritty.  Magic is rare and special, and something to be feared.  Magic items are ancient objects of suspect origin, that bring as many problems as they grant benefits.  My fantasy background is more Nehwon than Middle Earth, and I always enjoyed the darker, more realistic books to high fantasy.  This followed through to my preferences in RPG's.  Original D&D, AD&D, and even AD&D 2nd Edition were definitely influenced by Sword and Sorcery.  I know there's a healthy dose of Middle Earth there as well, but in tone and scope, it was very much S&S.

It felt like 3rd Edition really powered things up, especially on the spell-caster side of things.  And with 4th Edition, there was a move to something more like video games than table-top games.  With 5th Edition, there are a lot of elements that feel and sounds like early versions of D&D, but there's a lot of that 3rd Edition power-gaming in there as well.  And things have moved in a more fantastic direction, and away from the grit and grime of S&S.  I many ways, characters feel more and more like superheroes at higher levels.  It right there in the game, with Tiers of play.  Levels 1-4, trying to survive.  Levels 5-8, dealing with local threats.  Levels 9-12, dealing with regional threats.  Levels 13-16, dealing with world-wide threats.  Levels 17-20, dealing with threats to Universal existence, basically.  13th level and above, the characters are super-heroes by definition.

I've done my best to bring across a S&S feel to the game, and I'll take whatever blame I deserve for not achieving it.  I have not been perfect in this regard.  But, it is hard to set a tone that works contrary to where the rules are taking you. 

I googled this tonal problem, that I am personally having with 5e, and found there are others like me.  They prefer the lower level gaming.  They quit campaigns when they reach 8th level or so, because they aren't to their tastes beyond that.  This topic is discussed, and I gathered some answers others have suggested.  I gathered these for future games I might run, and not for our current game.

1.  "It is not a problem.  D&D 5e is very well balanced.  Get over it."  For the record, this really is not an answer to the problem.  But, a fair amount of people out there don't like it if you feel differently about a game than they do.  LOL.

2.  "D&D 5e can't be tamed.  It is high fantasy.  If you want something grim and gritty, go play another game."  This one is tempting.  There are some pretty good, fully realized, grim and gritty games out there.  But, I like the core dice-mechanic of D&D, and I like all the character options it gives (well, most of them) to the characters.  Plus, it doesn't sound fun, getting everyone to learn a brand new game.  This seems disruptive.

3.  "Home-rule the spells and abilities out of the game that cause the problems."  This answer ignores that the D&D rules now span half a dozen hardback rulebooks, and cleaning up the game to that degree would be a monumental task.  Believe me.  I've tinkered with it, and this is a soul-crushingly difficult project.

4.  "Limit Level advancement, having character top out at a lower level than 20th."  This is based on the old "E6" alternative rules for D&D 3rd Edition.  At first it sounds crazy.  But, when you think about it, the choice of 20th level is arbitrary.  There is nothing magical about 20th level, except the game-designers chose that as where level advancement stops.  So, what if characters stopped advancing at 6th level?  8th level?  Maybe 10th level?  What if this new level-cap represented a point of mortal human limitation, in the say way 20th level does so now?

The advantage to #4, is we get to keep a rule system we are familiar with.  We get all of the great character creation and character diversification options that 5e has built into it.  And with very little rule-tinkering, this scales that game back to something short of being super-heroes.  There's a lot more detail to this sort of answer, involving being able to continue to develop your character in other ways once you reach the limit.  Or perhaps rather than a hard limit, level advancement just gets very very slow after the level limit.  There's a hundred things to consider, before one would try this.

But, this is a discussion.  Please share your thoughts.  Please let me know what you think, and any suggestions you might have.



    • Mark Stinson

      Well, that's 2 votes (Jay and Mark) for don't tinker with 5e, but instead use a different game system for low fantasy (sword & sorcery).  And so perhaps we'll experiment a little.  Try out a Zweihander game (maybe a three-game storyline) in 2021 and see how it plays.  If that doesn't feel right, we can try another game, or a throttled down 5e.  But, we'll try Zweihander first.  Does that sound alright? 

      • Marcus Auerilius

        I like 5e, especially with the modifications we've made, but still agree with #2 for the most part. I haven't played all the iterations of DnD, so can't comment too much on their differences or which ones were better.  I think I played a little 3.5 but Mark's campaign in Saint Louis was the last serious DnD campaign I've been in before this one. I've been a huge Warhammer FRP fan since I discovered it and think it portrays a dark/low magic fantasy setting very well. From what I read, that Role Playing System Mark Stinson bought a few months ago, looks very similar to Warhammer. I would think either of those two systems would be better for the low fantasy setting. With a serious amount of rule changing, class restrictions/prohibitions and race restrictions, DnD could be "low-magicked" (not sure if that's really a word, but wth), but I don't think that would be any easier than learning a new game...maybe about the same. I guess that's a long way of saying I'd be up for trying another system if you want...not worried about learning new rules, I had to do that for 5e, and am still learning them.


        ...I equivocate comic book with high magic and sword and sorcery with low magic, in case the terminology I used is confusing. 

        • Jay

          I personally like 5e but I am open to playing just about anything.  I think that #2 is the answer to your question.  At the very least, if you change 5e than any player may just look at what crazy spells they could have and feel like they are missing out.  But a system that is built for s&s  supports buy in from the beginning