Sword and sorcery RPGs

The famous Appendix N to the original AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide featured several seminal works of the sword and sorcery genre (including the writings of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock), and their influence was felt on the fantasy settings of numerous early RPGs. However, the sword and sorcery spirit is very much absent from the contemporary mainstream games, the worlds of which should be described not even as high fantasy, but more precisely as “kitchen-sink superhero fantasy”. It seems that their foundational works are not literary texts (let alone those harking back to the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s), but rather video games such as World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy.

True sword and sorcery campaign settings are now rather niche products, which can be explained only in part by the genre’s fading out from the broader popular culture. For the newer generations of players, the very idea of having adventures in worlds with no colorful non-human races, little magic available to the characters, and no grand epic good vs. evil conflict may seem a dreary and uninviting prospect.

Fortunately, those who actually prefer picaresque adventures in exotic locales swarming with serpent people and inhuman sorcerers, can rely on a considerable selection of RPG products authored by like-minded enthusiasts. Many of these books are very recent, and it’s not a coincidence that the OSR movement is in large part responsible for this resurgence. Dangerous combat and harsh environments, problem-solving through cunning, a certain moral ambiguity, as well as character-driven narratives are the mainstays of both the OSR style of play and classic sword and sorcery stories.

This list features systems and supplements that are widely recognized as capable of delivering a sword and sorcery experience. Their approaches range from very purist to making allowances for modern sensibilities (such as giving the players access to powerful magic). While the majority of the items included are primarily inspired by the Conan stories, other strands of the genre (including the Elric saga by Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth) are also represented.

The list