Why D&D has nothing to do with the original sword & sorcery stories

Old school D&D: “I’m modeled after the old science fiction stories, where life is short and unforgiving. Your character probably dies very early on. What would you expect, with those ridiculously low hit points?”

Old science fiction stories (Vance, Leiber, ERB, de Camp, Carter, etc): “Our protagonists are heroes, that’s why we’re still (or, again) so popular with many readers. Life is short and unforgiving – but not for our heroes; to them, it’s dangerous, but they usually live to tell the tale.”
Notice anything? Old D&D was definitely not “modeled after” these stories. Anybody seriously claiming D&D is sword&sorcery in the tradition of Leiber, Vance, and their companions is wrong. The low survival rate of early D&D is a remnant of wargaming and has nothing to do whatsoever with the literary sources.
Even the term “Vancian magic” in the context of D&D is completely incorrect. Reading the literary source material, you’ll soon find that Mazirian, one of Vance’s heroes and a very powerful sorcerer, for instance tells the reader that he can hold four of the best/most powerful spells at any one time in his memory, or five minor ones – at best.
There are only 100 known spells on earth. One hundred. And every mage is a potential target because he might possess a spell that others don’t. I think cozy evenings in the armchair, while smoking a pipe, are definitely not on the list of those guys.
In my proto-D&D games, I’ll change all of this to make it real Vancian. What do y’all think?

3 thoughts on “Why D&D has nothing to do with the original sword & sorcery stories

  1. 1. Drawing inspiration from does not mean completely emulating (re: Vancian magic). 2. The body counts in Clark Ashton Smith stories (even for the protagonists) are pretty high, as are the counts in non-Conan Howard stories.3. Hell yeah changing the game to be what you want it to be!


  2. Yes, but also no. The differences you identify come from the gap between what makes for good fiction (narrative-based rules, single protagonist with the occasional sidekick, author-dictated plot development and pacing) and what makes for a good game (win and loss conditions, solid game procedures, a collection of characters, co-creation in open-ended scenarios).From a narrative standpoint, the 1st level PC who dies to a bad saving throw is not the hero of the story – he is an extra! Conan, if there is a Conan in a particular campaign, will be revealed around level 3-4, when he emerges victorious and a lot of less memorable barbarians have already fallen by the wayside. Ultimately, those PCs' death also serves a good purpose by establishing the stakes: there is real danger out in the world, and the careless and unlucky (mostly in combination) will experience real consequences when they court that danger. That is what establishes the link between D&D and sword&sorcery, even if they go about it differently due to the different needs of games and fiction.But D&D also mitigates these consequences a bit: increasing Hit Points, better saving throws (and saving throws in general – see, this guy is so good he has not even succumbed to Stygian black lotus!) and increasing access to magic make the \”real\” protagonists less and less vulnerable to random chance. Of course, if their rash decisions put them in harm's way – let them roll those saving throws, and calculate those hit points.In the end, blind genre emulation always tends to lack a certain something which D&D, even in its simpler forms, tends to capture well.


  3. You ought to pick up Wonders & Wickedness, and its supplement Marvels & Malisons, if you want excellent vancian magic inspired by Men & Magic.I would also argue that OD&D is perfectly tuned to run Sword & Sorceries Heroes – just play at Hero level (4th)! Low level play was meant to emulate Normal Men, that is, those who have yet to become heroes. I'm pretty sure Conan was level 1 at some point, but the tales told about him only start when he's around 4-6th level. That's also why we say that a character's background is his first three levels of experience – his \”story\” only begins afterward.


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