Sword & Sorcery Heroic Roleplaying – Part 1 of 3

For the second day in a row, I am overjoyed to welcome yet another robust, creative mind as contributor for Exploring Infinity: Dain Lybarger (@DainXB) has earned my respect and high regard for his imagination, writing, fascinating areas of expertise beyond my usual arenas, generosity, commitment, and being an all around great guy.

Dain authored three recently released John Carter-style Savage Mars adventures (Face of Mars, Blood Legacy of Mars (image at right), and Sell-Swords of Mars). In addition, he has been an invaluable part of developing MWP’s upcoming Dragon Brigade RPG, and I hope you will benefit from his creativity as much as I have.

This series of posts will outline how to adapt the Heroic Roleplaying rules to capture the tone of Dain’s sword and planet adventures as well as many classic sword and sorcery stories. Let’s make him feel welcome!

~ Adam

Sword & Sorcery Heroic Roleplaying – Part 1 of 3

Follow the links for Part Two, Part Three (and Part Four).

I have a deep and abiding love of both the Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet genres. Both genres originated back in the days of the pulp magazines, when adventure fiction for its own sake was a fresh idea. The successors of early pulp heroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage are modern comic book heroes, so what better tool to emulate the astounding action and vivid intensity of those other pulps, featuring swordsmen and sorcerers, than the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game?

Adjusting Character Creation

In order to emulate the lower-powered (usually) but still fantastic worlds of Sword & Sorcery, we will need to hack character creation a little. Heroic Roleplaying uses Affiliation dice to represent how a hero goes about his tasks, either alone or with others. But Sword & Sorcery heroes are most frequently found alone, or at most in pairs. We’ll need another way to represent the how of an action.

Replace Affiliation with Means

There are three Means – ways for a hero to achieve his goals. Like Affiliations, only one Means die can be a part of a given roll, whichever is most appropriate to the action at hand.

Steel – whether it’s the steel in your fist or the steel in your nerves, if you are using violence or the threat of violence to get what you want, roll Steel.

Guile – if you misrepresent your intentions, yourself, or something else to get what you want, roll Guile.

Lore – if knowledge, secret or open, sacred or profane, is the means to your own personal ends, roll Lore.

Each Means starts at a d6. Step up any of your Means dice a total of three times. (This gives starting possibilities of d6, d8, d10; d8, d8, d8; or d6, d6, d12, in any order.)


Characters have Distinctions as normal. Even more than in the standard game, Distinctions for Sword and Sorcery should be atmospheric, describing the characters relationship with his world.

Modified Dice Scaling


Most Sword & Sorcery heroes are not truly superhuman, and often fight with only their weapons and their wits, not with special powers. To account for this, we need to adjust the default scale of the dice:

d6 – ‘typical human’ levels of capability.

d8 – ability at or near the maximum capability of a human being.

d10 – a supernatural level of performance. (For explicitly supernatural effects, even a d6 is startlingly impressive – representing the ability to do something that no ‘typical human’ can do at all.)

d12 – truly unearthly levels of performance; the provenance of Gods, demons, and creatures from Beyond Mortal Ken.

Weapons, armor, and other objects with a die rating

d6 – baseline for daggers, short swords, arrows, leather or chainmail armor, serviceable lockpicks, etc.

d8 – heavier or sharper blades, axes or other massive weapons, flaming arrows, metal plate armor, and other highly effective tools or devices.

d10 – magical or ensorcelled items, the supernatural, or arcane technology.

d12 – legendary artifacts; items that have either been touched by Gods or demons, or which are so sophisticated in their operation that they are treated with awe and reverence—if not outright fear.

Power Sets

The two most common Power Sets in our Sword & Sorcery hack will be based around (obviously) swords or other weapons, and Sorcery or other forms of magic. You may also construct Power Sets based on the dice scales above to represent exotic equipment, esoteric training, or skills specific to an individual and not shared generally across all followers of a particular career.

For example:  Practically anyone can fight with a sword, but the Grey Mouser’s skill at counterattacking and disarming an opponent is the stuff of legend. His companion Fafhrd’s occasional berserk fury is something not shared by every barbarian in Nehwon.


Weapons, armor, and other personal items can easily be grouped into a Power Set with the limit Gear, and SFX appropriate to their uses. Your choice of SFX can really help differentiate and make unique otherwise ‘mundane’ Power Sets.

GM Character Creation

Power Sets for signature villains and monstrous creatures are easier to create, since bad guys in tales of this type commonly have supernatural abilities far outside the grasp of the heroes. Giant serpents? Villains who transform into giant serpents? Hordes of near-human marauders? Writhing masses of shadow tentacles? Teleporting, telepathic priests of a mysterious goddess? Any power trait from the Heroic Roleplaying rules is fair game for the GM’s use in creating such opposition.

Stay tuned for part two, where we look at Careers and Milestones for our Sword & Sorcery heroes!

Finally, in part three we’ll provide examples using key characters of the genre: Conan the Cimmerian, Elric of Melniboné, and John Carter of Mars.

Part four now provides sample threats, villains, monsters, and even active adventure locations for your Sword & Sorcery adventures.

About DainXB

Casino Surveillance Professional, Freelance writer, RPG & Computer Gamer, Science Fiction & Fantasy Fan, Part-titanium cyborg.
This entry was posted in CortexPlus, Gaming, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Mechanics, Sword & Sorcery Heroic Roleplaying and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Sword & Sorcery Heroic Roleplaying – Part 1 of 3

  1. craggle says:

    Great article Dain, really looking forward to the next parts. Exploring Infinity really looks to be becoming infinitely awesome with these new contributors! 🙂

  2. Extremely well done. Keep ’em coming!

  3. Pingback: Sword & Sorcery Heroic Roleplaying – Adventures: “Rogues in the House” | Exploring Infinity

  4. Jordan says:

    Great posts. I really like them. I’m using a lot of you stuff to make my own fantasy hack.

    There is just one thing. I’ve been thinking myself a lot about changing Affiliiations for something else, I read some great ideas about it (yours included), like physical/mental/social, combat/exploration/social and something along roles in D&D 4E, but I’m never quite satisfied. It’s always well thought and well woven into the genre, but something feels not right.

    I think I know why now :

    Most of the time, the Affiliation you roll is not dependent on the action you make, but on the context you are in. For a same action, you could roll any Affiliation, depending on the context. All the alternatives I thought about (and read about) are mostly dependent on the action, not the context. You want to attack with a sword (or whatever makes your heart sing)? Depending on the context, you could roll a Solo, Buddy or Team Affiliation. You would pretty much always roll Steel, though.

    It is not per se a bad thing, but it kind of remove the interesting bit about Affiliations : remove this, and it becomes something much more similar to a (super general) specialty (where any action would fall under one or the other have); it loses its distinctive feel. It’s ditinctive mechanical feel, even : the Watcher have some way to modify the context to “force” players to use one or the other Affiliation (with awesomeness : “EARTHQUAKE!”), but he does not have a way to do the same with the alternatives. “Forcing” a player to use Lore is basically making the situation completely different, not merely changing the context. For this reason, every time I read an alternative, I end up decieing it would be better to make a specialty, a power set or a power trait out of it instead.

    So, with all that, I think I nailed why I can’t get no satisfaction; but I try and I try and I try and I try… I still can’t find a way to think of a right alternative. So I basically decided to remove it altogether in my hack… But that does not quite satisfy me either. 😉

    • Adam says:

      Excellent points Jordan, and I’d like to hear Dain’s response to them in regard to this hack in particular.

      There is a distinct difference, as you note, in a choice among options that a player chooses and one that is chosen for them, either by the GM or by the situation (which is an indirect neutral agent halfway between players and GM. I find myself tending to prefer the latter, maybe because as a GM I don’t like being completely responsible for what die someone rolls. For Dave’s 4e fantasy hack I was musing yesterday about using context in a spatial sense rather than social sense, Urban Wild, Underground, Bizarre. Just now that makes me think about perhaps something like Mild, Wild, Extreme. This still misses the flexibility a GM can invoke with Solo/Buddy/Team like splitting up a group or bringing them together.

      Overall, I think Solo/Buddy/Team is great in a lot of ways, but yes, it definitely flavors the experience.

      Still there are many ways to place the die choice halfway between player and GM. Day/Twilight/Dusk (or Dawn/Day/Dusk/Night) could be fascinating for games where urgency, timing, light, and alertness factor highly, such as with vampires, zombies, and the show 24.

  5. Jordan says:

    Yeah, I’d like to hear from Dain, too.

    I think you’re onto something by pointing to different kind of contexts we could use to make an Alternative. I think that your examples are not flexible enough, though (no offense intended) : you can litterally change Affiliation each turn if you want (as a Player or a Watcher), but changing terrain or time of day, not so much. It could make a great additional mechanic (thinking something akin to seasons in Mouse Guard for time of day), but I’m not sure it’s quite what I’m looking for (Still no offense intended. By the way, english is not my first language, and I perfected it watching 24, so I am not always sure if I sound harsh when I don’t intend to… 🙂 )

    Maybe we could go with something like full offence/full defense/balanced (with different, names, but you get the idea) and hack a little deeper, saying that when you use one of these dices, you can do X, but can’t do Y, along the lines of “you can inflict (more?) stress, but can’t counterattack”; “you can’t inflict stress (or just less stress?), but can freely counterattack (inflicting no or less stress?)” That would be useful whatever the action you choose. I would make sure that the balanced is not just neutral (“normal” is no fun); maybe something like “better complication/assets, lesser reaction rolls”? (I don’t quite like it.)

    Just shooting ideas here, trying to think outside the box, but I think that It would be coherent with the genre, flexible enough (any actions could be using any type of dice), and could be changed on a turn-by-turn basis. I don’t think the Watcher could force the use of a specific dice as easily as Affiliations, though.

    • Adam says:

      I agree that those aren’t so flexible. No offense taken. I really appreciate collaborative exploration for expansion of ideas.

      I’d considered an Aggressive/Cautious spread, but it still remains something players could use however they wish each roll independent of larger situation. And I am leaning away from additional mechanical effect based on which you choose other than the die you get and narrative effect. SFX covers most of the offensive/defensive variation your last idea was going for. Solo/Buddy/Team is simple (gives a die), but also rich in what it does to the story dynamics: what it rewards and compels.

      That said, Combat/Exploration/Social could be more contextual in a couple ways:
      1) if the GM determines which of the three is in play for all involved in a situation. That’s problematic however, and I can think of plenty of easy counterexamples.

      2) The acting player sets the approach (C/E/or S) based on their choice of action, and the reactor must respond to that approach in kind for the reaction roll. That’s also problematic for possibly not reflecting real story. If the Bard tries calming down the berserker orc who wants to take his head off, it’s a bit weird for the orc to roll Social in reaction.

      Then again maybe it’s not so weird. His reaction entails him trying to rebuff the bard’s repartee, and likely getting angry and trying to just hew the bard in two, which could mean the orc rolls his low Social die, loses, takes emo stress and then on his turn he acts with combat, to which the bard must now react in kind. Active player sets the music, both must dance, but the music can change each roll. That would definitely flavor the play-flow and gut-feeling of the game. Whether it’s for good or ill I’d be curious to see.

  6. One alternative to look at is to replace the ‘with whom’ Affiliations die with a ‘why’ die. This is similar to the way Vincent Baker’s game In A Wicked Age works. IaWA characters have six ‘Forms’ — Covertly, Directly, For Myself, For Others, With Love, and With Violence. For any action, a player chooses two of these Forms, based on their character’s motivation to act. A Cortex Plus hack could import this with no changes at all, or the possible Motivations could be distilled down somewhat, so that single dice are chosen.

    This still lacks the side effect of Affiliations that allows the GM to meddle with what Affiliations are available to a character at a given moment. That is a difficult thing to replicate, since it requires a high degree of situational fluidity.

    We could also turn ‘why’ on its head — not your inner Motivation, but the reward you seek for the action. Honor/Glory/Riches: Honor is adherence to a personal code. Glory is accolades from others. Riches is material gain. This one can be meddled with, a bit. If no one is watching you can’t roll Glory. If there are no material gains to be had, you can’t roll Riches. If the act doesn’t match up with your personal code, you can’t roll Honor.

  7. Jordan says:

    Dain, Adam, all good ideas. I’m still not sold, but I don’t have any better ones. Maybe I’m overthinking this. If anyone tries some of them, I’d be interested to hear about it.

    You’re probably right about the fact that we should aim for the simple mechanic (add a dice) modifying (and in part limited by) the narrative context, Adam. I’m not discarding the idea, though. 🙂

    • Adam says:

      Oh definitely. Never discard an idea. Something I’ve considered with the choice carrying a sub-mechanic is something like PDQ# uses for offense/defense in duels.

      Most simple rolls in PDQ# use 2d6, but in Duels, each side divides 3d6 between offense and defense. One could choose 3d6 offense, 0d6 defense or 2d6O and 1d6D, for instance. Essentially it’s the choice of how much to dish out vs how much to prevent coming back at you. Both roll twice, my Off vs your Def, then your Off vs my Def. In the fiction, both actions are simultaneous (IIRC).

      In MHR something similar might be feasible, though it’d possibly double the rolling for each interchange (depending on implementation) and definitely change turn pacing. Still, for each action, players could assign either d10/d4, d8/d6, d6/d8, or d4/d10 to Off/Def respectively. In order to not double rolls, just roll action vs reaction once as normal for MHR (adding your chosen Offence die to the pool), but then the reacting side always applies their effect die for free (no PP required). Finally, if either side’s Effect Die is equal to or smaller than the opponent’s Def die choice, it steps back (either by -1, or by the difference between effect and Defense).

      Hmm. This calls for a musing post of it’s own. Jordan, mind if I quote some of your good insights from these comments?

      • Jordan says:

        Adam, if you quote me, I’ll take a cut of what you gain from blogging. Wich is probably just fun and satisfaction, so go ahead.

        And just in case you do make money out of it, I was just kidding. Go ahead, I’m honored! 🙂

        About this idea, I think it could be implemented without so much complexification of the rolls. Something along +offence = +2 result, step down effect die on reaction roll, full offence = +4 result, d4 effect on reactions, +defense = +2 result on reaction rolls, step down all action dice, full defense +4 result on reaction roll (no counter-attack possible?), d4 effect dice on actions. Or something like that.

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