Friday, June 24, 2011

Sword & Planet: An Overview...

Good Morning, All:

I'd like to spend some time talking about Planetary Romance or Sword & Planet gaming, as it is a favorite genre of mine. (Indeed, I once wrote a 72,000 word novel in this genre, but alas, I never went back to edit and publish it.) To begin our discussions here, I thought it best to start by defining the genre and identifying some common characteristics that would have to be addressed in a setting designed for this genre.

"Planetary Romance is a type of science fiction or science fantasy story in which the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. Some Planetary Romances take place against the background of a future culture where travel between worlds by spaceship is commonplace; others, particularly the earliest examples of the genre, do not, and invoke flying carpets, astral projection, or other methods of getting between planets. In either case, it is the planetside adventures which are the focus of the story, not the mode of travel." - From the Planetary Romance entry in Wikipedia.

The following are classic tropes or characteristics of the Planetary Romance genre. Within these trappings, however, adventures are typically of those formats already familiar to most gamers' experience: urban, wilderness, dungeons, ruins, political intrigue, mystery, etc.

  • Space Princesses. Although Planetary Romance is based on the concept of Chivalric Romance, a vast majority of novels in the genre revolve around saving a space princess, the most beautiful woman on two worlds, from whatever dire straights in which she has managed to find herself trapped. She is often gorgeous, alluring, independent, intelligent and, all in all, the ideal woman, except that she keeps getting into trouble and requires saving. Most PCs have trouble with exploring romance within a roleplaying environment, but if this element can be captured in a game, it is well worth it.
  • Pulp Action. Growing out of the adventure novels and pulp romances of the turn of the 20th century, Planetary Romance are filled with pulp action, such as swashbuckling adventure, imprisonment, forced gladiatorial combat, daring escapes, monster-killings, and duels with villains.
  • Exotic Locales. Most often filled with untamed wilderness, Planetary Romance features exotic locations on another world.
  • Alien Interactions. The cultures of the planet are often varied, and much of the literature explores cultural clashes between two distinct groups, or between the hero and a specific culture.
  • Hostile Savages. A significant amount of the planet's common population are typically hostile savages living a tribal or nomadic existence, making the wilderness between "civilized lands" very dangerous for the average man. Despite this, the women are often highly attractive, and the men are fiercesome warriors.
  • Decadent Monarchies. Pockets of civilization, often decaying, exist as isolated city-states ruled by despotic monarchs.
  • Mysticism & Mentalism. The pulp concept of magic, centering around mysticism and mentalism, often makes an appearance in Planetary Romance. While telepathy, divination, enchantment and even illusions make their appearance in some Sword & Planet series, you will rarely (if ever) see examples of evocation, transmutation, necromancy and conjuration magic. (Necromancy and conjuration, in particular, tend to pull you into a Sword & Sorcery mode, which can happen in some PR series, but isn't a strong representation of the genre as a whole.)
  • Lost Technology. In some examples of the genre, the remnants of some lost technology from a prior civilization still remains in use among the decadent pockets of civilization. These range from "radium pistols" and "crystal ray guns" to flying ships and anachronistic power supplies.
  • Medieval Weaponry. Despite the possible presence of firearms or other high-tech weapons, most disputes among common men are settled by swords and occasionally other medieval weaponry. This is the tie-in that allows most fantasy players to more quickly adjust to a Planetary Romance setting, because it is in many ways similar to a Low Fantasy setting.
  • Alien Interactions. The cultures of the planet are often varied, and much of the literature explores cultural clashes between two distinct groups, or between the hero and a specific culture.
  • Action Heroes. While the main characters do not have to be heroes per se (and in some cases were criminals or anti-heroes intentionally), they do undertake heroic actions. When given a choice between acting in haste or acting with deliberation, success often goes to the one that acts quickly and decisively.
  • Compentent Characters. Heroes are just plain better than the average Joe on the street, as are the major villains they face. The main villains are generally competent, and thus a challenge. Their minions, though, are often pretty easy to take down one-on-one.
  • Individual Focus. Planetary Romance settings tend to focus on the trials and tribulations of individuals instead of those of the world. Villains don't want to destroy or take over the world; instead, they want much more personal and localized goals.
  • Weird Monsters. Most of the monsters encountered in a Planetary Romance setting are unusual, having multiple pairs of limbs, large death-dealing natural weapons, and similar characteristics. They are almost always larger, meaner and stranger than anything commonly seen on Earth, but without the magical powers associated with many creatures of mythology.
  • Dinosaurs Live. Despite the unusual nature of the wildlife on the planet, creatures recognizable as dinosaurs exist and terrorize the countryside. Some are even likely to be domesticated and used as livestock or mounts.
  • Arena Combat. Gladiatorial games and arena combat often have a place in most Planetary Romance settings. Even major duels and challenges against leaders take on this kind of atmosphere.
  • Chess Variants. Almost every major Planetary Romance series introduces some local variant of Chess, a tactical simulation similar to but often more complex than the game we know here on Earth. At least once over the course of the series, the hero plays in a living version of this game, fighting opponents to the death.
  • Knocked Unconscious. Characters in this genre are rarely slain when fighting multiple humanoids. Often, they are simple beaten down and knocked unconscious rather than slaughtered out right, only to find themselves later in another situation from which they have to extricate themselves.

I found the following quote to be particularly descriptive of the initial stories set in such a campaign, and give us a good blueprint for the first few adventures to take place in such a setting:

"Burroughs established a set of conventions that were followed fairly closely by most other entries in the Sword and Planet genre. The typical first book in a sword and planet series uses some or all of the following plot points:

A tough but chivalrous male protagonist, from Earth of a period not too distant from our own, finds himself transported to a distant world. The transportation may be via astral projection, teleportation, time travel, or any similar form of scientific magic, but should not imply that travel between worlds is either easy or common. The Earthman thus finds himself the sole representative of his own race on an alien planet. This planet is at a pre-modern, even barbaric stage of civilization, but may here and there have remarkable technologies that hint at a more advanced past. There is no obligation for the physical properties or biology of the alien planet to follow any scientific understanding of the potential conditions of habitable worlds; in general, the conditions will be earth-like, but with variations such as a different-colored sun or different numbers of moons. A lower gravity may be invoked to explain such things as large flying animals or people, or the superhuman strength of the hero, but will otherwise be ignored. (A Princess of Mars, however, when it was first written did loosely follow the most optimistic theories about Mars - e.g., those of Percival Lowell who imagined a dying, dried-up Mars watered by a network of artificial canals.)

Not long after discovering his predicament, the Earthman finds himself caught in a struggle between two or more factions, nations, or species. He sides, of course, with the nation with the prettiest woman, who will sometimes turn out to be a princess. Before he can set about seriously courting her, however, she is kidnapped by a fiendish villain or villains. The Earthman, taking up his sword (the local weapon of choice, which he has a talent with), sets out on a quest to recover the woman and wallop the kidnappers. On the way, he crosses wild and inhospitable terrain, confronts savage animals and monsters, discovers lost civilizations ruled by cruel tyrants or wicked priests, and will repeatedly engage in swashbuckling sword-fights, be imprisoned, daringly escape and rescue other prisoners, and kill any men or beasts who stand in his way. At the end of the story he will defeat the villain and free the captive princess, only to find another crisis emerging that will require all his wit and muscle, but will not be resolved until the next thrilling novel in the adventures of...!."

My original Sword & Planet campaign was based in the World of Samardan, after which my personal publishing imprint is named. I imagine I'll use that world as the basis for the sandbox setting I'll develop as we discuss this genre in more exhausting detail. By the time I reach the end of this discussion, I hope to have some basic core rules for a gaming system established, as well as a region on Samardan for people to game in. We'll see how things go. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them.

With Regards,


Jeff Rients said...

Your lists omits the Space Princesses!

Flynn said...

Yes, indeed, it does. I have corrected this glaring oversight on my part, and even put them at the top of the list. :)