June 9, 2015

S&S Worldbuilding: Staying Away from Species

There’s a thin and easily crossable line between what I feel is true swords and sorcery, and what starts shading into high fantasy. This is specially true with the creatures one decides to place in an S&S setting.

As I’ve started writing a new S&S story – perhaps the start of a new series – I find that I’ve painted myself into an even tighter corner by choosing a historically based setting. It’s an interesting challenging, getting a good S&S feel out of that corner, so I gave myself some guidelines for it. The main one, as my post’s title suggests, is to stay away from making species out of my monsters.


Well, consider the standard D&D foes: every kind of foe is typically a species. Orcs. Goblins. The different kinds of dragons and giants. Beholders. Etc. etc. etc.

Now I personally hold that the more an S&S story or game feels like a typical D&D adventure, the farther it is from what I consider as the core flavor of swords and sorcery, which is a grittier, lower-key form of fantasy.

Moreover, establishing a monster’s identity explicitly as an existing species takes away a vital chunk of its mystique. It becomes an accepted part of your world. But part of the appeal of the best sword and sorcery monsters is the feeling that they shouldn’t be there.

Consider some of Robert E. Howard’s best monsters. In The Devil in Iron, the monster is an iron eidolon animated by a formless creature from beyond the abyss. It is one of a kind, and by existing it breaks all the known rules of nature to the minds of those who encounter it. In Worms of the Earth, the baddies are a lost race of humans who have mutated into something monstrous. In Beyond the Black River, Conan is horrified to face a saber-toothed tiger, because he knows the species is extinct.

So to sum up, I can use the following filters in creating my monsters:

  • Solitary unique beings from somewhere else
  • Mutated versions of known creatures
  • Artificially augmented versions of known creatures, e.g. apes trained to use weapons
  • Creatures that should’ve been extinct, e.g. dinosaurs or early hominids
  • Creatures that shouldn’t be alive, i.e. undead
  • It could exist in the world, but is unknown and unknowable by normal means, e.g. a deep-sea monster, or a lost-world inhabitant

A word about the undead, though. Since D&D/high fantasy has coopted the trope, how can a sword and sorcery undead be differentiated? I think I can play more with the sheer unnaturalness of the state of un-life.

It should be a temporary thing, held in unnatural tension vs. the natural tendency to die and rot away, by unnatural forces. It should have impact on the world of the living as a palpable taint; quite simply, you can’t have ghouls and zombies in green forest glades, but they can exist in areas of devastation or desolation.


  1. I think you can have some creatures as species in a S&S setting. But I am very much in agreement that there should be a very strong distinction between fictional animals and true monsters. For my setting I've made camel-like reptiles that are kept in large numbers as pack animals in many places. While they are fictional, to the people within that world they are just animals like cows or pigs. A tree that grabs people with vines to snatch them high up into the air to strangle them is not just a plant, though. That's a supernatural monster.
    The key, I think, lies in how you describe them. If it's an animal, describe them in mundane terms and don't make a big deal out of their presence. If it's an unnatural monster, then describe it in a way that is horrific and defying explanation. But the contrast should be strong. Not a gradual continuum between the two.

  2. I think you are spot on, Dariel!

  3. As stated above, I think undead need to be in two contrasting categories. The mindless animations are just the common result of dark sorcery. Real undead are intelligent, evil foes that spread terror and poison things with unholy power. Note the difference between the Mummy from cinema and zombies from video games.

  4. Yup! I totally agree with that division. I'd even split the labels into Undead, which are temporarily raised mindless shamblers, and the Undying, which are those who've found immortality by embracing undeath.

  5. I like your list. I think it would apply equally well if not even more so to a swashbuckling historical campaign with little no know magic.


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