Edgar Rice Burroughs laid down the tropes for sword & planet fiction, which in turn were inherited from the Lost World genre. Frightful savagery, "oriental" tyrants, superstitious cults and the rotting splendor of fallen cultures are integral aspects of colonial adventure, but Brackett turns these on her head by casting the main character as a "civilized savage" who arrives on Skaith as a prophet of doom, representing the coming changes that will wreak havoc on their way of life. In doing so, he acts as the catalyst for those changes, despite his reservations over being thrust into a messianic role.
This criticism of colonial adventure is not the only modern concern that Brackett brings to her work. The Galactic Union is a sort of ineffectual bureaucracy that, due to a blend of progressive moral relativism and political expediency, is willing to allow their own agent to die rather than raise a ruckus with the rulers of Skaith. One can certainly see here a mirror of Howard's cyclical histories of savagery/decadence/degeneration, with the Union cast in the role of Rome before the fall, but also a satire of the United Nations' non-interventionist policies.
Yet, despite such modern concessions, these reinforce the Western ideal of the rugged individualist, who is not hoodwinked by the veneer of civilization but rather determines life on his own terms. This is a key to understanding hardboiled sword & sorcery, which not only reflects the actions of the players, but of the people they interact with. I discussed this a bit previously in my essay on "The Snow Women", but it bears examining with a bit more depth.
From the deeply cynical view of the hardboiled genre, along with revisionist Westerns, social structures and normative beliefs exist as a method of exploitation, through which the few may control the many, and the weak can subvert the strong. Piety, ideology and similar platitudes exist only to justify bad action and as a consolation to those who are getting the short end of the stick. Howard clearly displays such sentiments in his early Conan stories The God in the Bowl and Queen of the Black Coast, where the conflict between the forces of civilization and our Cimmerian protagonist lampoon modern sentiments. Conan, who only understands the plain truth of power, will not be swayed by noble sentiments to bow to any man.
One is hard-pressed not to extricate a political subtext to all of this. Perhaps the most honest interpretation would be an American Libertarian view, where the sword and sorcery hero is akin to the protagonist of an Ayn Rand novel, the only decent and forthright man in a contemptible society. Depending on your proclivities, however, you could also move sharply in the opposite direction, as the Italians did with Zapata Westerns such as Duck, You Sucker! These films emphasize the abuses of a corrupt elite and, while they do not deify the lower classes, one's sympathy certainly lies with the "common man".
How can we bring such sentiments to the table? This can be best handled in the portrayal of NPCs, casting the majority into a series of broad categories:
Barbarians: Those not of civilization at all, barbarians are those that hail from nomadic or tribal cultures. They are generally forced into undesirable or underdeveloped regions where civilization has not been able to take hold, and are shaped by the rugged landscapes they inhabit. Although "savage", they are generally understood to be exceedingly honest and straight-forward, caring little for the niceties of "decent folk", and generally hold city-dwellers in contempt. Like the protagonist in Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, the simplicity of their lifestyle gives them a nobility which is to be admired. At the same time, the tension between these people and agrarian communities often flares into violence, and there are no guarantees that visitors will be treated kindly. Moreover, their frankness means that they're willing to employ sometimes brutal methods to get what they want, and many casually engage in violence and thievery.
Just keep each of these distinctions in mind when designing NPCs, and you're game will quickly move into a more hardboiled direction. Although it's good to mix up player expectations now and again, these stereotypes are even more useful when dealing with faceless characters plucked from a crowd.
Next: In our final article on The Ginger Star, we discuss social satire in game design and present a couple new monsters from the book.