Swords Against Systems

Dragonsword of Lankhmar. Image from Demian's Gamebook Webpage.

(This one’s for Ethan, Justin, and Srith.)

Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are the definitive fantasy heroes. I love Conan and Bilbo, but my heart will always belong to two half-mad rogues fighting their way across the roofs of abandoned temples, stumbling their way down Cheap Street, or sailing to the edge of the world with a Mingol crew.

Leiber’s heroes are one of the main reasons I got into Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. My first D&D product was James Ward’s Dragonsword of Lankhmar gamebook set.

One of my best campaigns ever — the Adventures of Hackan and Marek — was a steampunk buddy fantasy directly inspired by the twain. We used the D&D 3rd Edition rules. Or parts of them, anyway.

Yet, no edition of D&D has modeled them particularly well. The builds presented in places like The Dragon and the various Lankhmar campaign settings required hacking the system. You needed some levels of thief, some levels of fighter, a sprinkling of Wizard. In fact, it’s the Mouser who suffered the worst1.

Trying to fit his smattering of magical training into the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons magic system — much less the class system — appears to have vexed many TSR authors over the years. The Mouser used magic from time to time, but it was almost always under Sheelba’s instructions, as in “The Lords of Quarmall.” He accumulated magic books and trinkets in “Adept’s Gambit,” but for the most part couldn’t use them — if, in fact, they did anything at all.

Arguably his most important spell, when he chooses the path of black magic in “The Unholy Grail,” is a spontaneous ritual. And for the rest of his life, he never does it again — perhaps with good reason. Skinning AD&D or my beloved Rules Cyclopedia for got awkward fast.

Once you spliced sheets for Fafhrd and the Mouser together, it was difficult to actually play them. They had to start at advanced levels to capture their knack for survival and allow them those extra classes. High levels plus multiple classes meant they couldn’t level up at the expected rate of D&D heroes.2

3rd Edition fixed some of this. While the rogue class was diluted by thieving abilities becoming skills anyone could take, the twain became relatively easy to model as fighters. The Mouser got along well enough with Use Magic Device, or a level or two of sorcerer.

Still, D&D characters started a bit flimsy for our boys, and there was a new problem: magic items. In the d20 system, balance between heroes and monsters relied on, among other things, those heroes being equipped with enchanted gear.

Which brings us to 4th Edition. The ups and downs of the game have been widely debated, but in my estimation, it’s the first D&D that can build Leiber’s rogues right, and have them play like you’d expect, from first level. So, let’s do it.


Fafhrd by David Petersen
Fafhrd by David Petersen

Fafhrd’s Character Sheet

Brash, red-haired, and secretly in love with civilization. Fafhrd is a fighter, drawing the attention and anger of his foes and then spilling their guts across the floor.

First things first: we’ll be using the Inherent Bonus option, so that both of our heroes gain bonuses as they level without magic weapons or gear. After all, they live by what steel they can steal.

I’m often annoyed by the “raging barbarian” archetype, since it doesn’t fit most of the great barbarians of fantasy literature very well. Even Thongor was fairly clever and cool-headed. When Fafhrd rages, though, as he does in in “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and Swords of Lankhmar, he absolutely cannot be ignored. GIVE ME THE JUG, indeed.

Thus, we choose the battlerager fighter build. Fafhrd’s sturdy, too — Death lends the Mouser some of his strength in “The Mouser Goes Below,” yet he’s still up for a romp with Frix and her airship’s entire crew. Battlerager Vigor, then, is appropriate, leveraging that tough Constitution into temporary hit points when up close to something that needs hitting.3 Battlerager Vigor also favors Fafhrd’s preference for light armor, rather than the heavy stuff used by more knightly PCs.

But wait, it gets better. Battlerager Vigor also gives Fafhrd a +2 damage bonus when using an axe… like that hand-axe he’s been known to throw into a fray. That mitigates 4th Edition‘s bias against fighters using thrown weapons, but it still doesn’t make it an ideal attack, just a good supplement. Perfect.

Leiber’s battles are swift-moving, swashbuckling affairs, and so too the heroes. Thus, we’ll pluck the Combat Agility class feature from Martial Power 2.

We’ll give him a background of Geography – Mountains, getting him the Athletics skill he demonstrates as a climber. He’s been known to talk big to his enemies, so he’ll train Intimidate. As discussed above, his favored abilities will be Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity. Even early in his career, he takes quickly to the streets of Lankhmar, adding the Streetwise skill. And if the Mouser should fall and start making death saves, Fafhrd will be there to back him up and haul him out of trouble — Heal.

Fortunately, we only have to worry about two feats. Improved Vigor makes battlerager powers more effective, and Don’t Count Me Out bumps up most of his saving throws — fairly important in a two-man party.

The power names speak for themselves: Brash Strike, Crushing Surge, Knee Breaker, and my favorite, Bell Ringer.4 Footwork Lure fits the swasbuckling, dirty-tricks fighting style we’re going after.

Equipment’s straightforward: Graywand’s a longsword, Heartseeker’s a dagger, and we add on that light axe to round things out.

The Gray Mouser

The Gray Mouser by David Petersen
The Gray Mouser by David Petersen

The Gray Mouser’s Character Sheet

Quick-witted, slippery, and not-so-secretly in love with himself… as well as any passing dark-haired girl. The Mouser is a rogue in name and class, as adept at slipping into palaces as at taunting and outmaneuvering his foemen.

The Mouser is a trickster rogue, and uses Cunning Sneak tactics, which let him stay hidden even while moving rapidly. His Rogue Weapon Talent makes Cat’s Claw deadlier than a dirk in the hands of a lesser man.

From his days as Mouse, the wizard’s apprentice, and his dark departure from that life in “The Unholy Grail,” the Mouser gains the Arcane Refugee background, and thus, the Arcana skill. That’ll give him good insight into magic and occult circumstances, as he demonstrates in “The Unholy Grail,” “Adept’s Gambit,” arguably Rime Isle and dubiously “Lean Times in Lankhmar.” Arcana will also help with those magical trinkets.

Abilities are simple: Dexterity to be nimble and Charisma for a tricky tongue. Skills are Thievery, Streetwise, Acrobatics, and Bluff — all staples of the Mouser’s adventures. He gets Perception, too — he’s sharp, even if he doesn’t act immediately on prickling suspicions.

Remember how I said Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t do the Mouser’s magic right? Well, 4th Edition has a ritual magic system, and the former apprentice can take the Ritual Caster feat in order to use them, using his Arcana skill. He also takes the Weapon Proficiency (Rapier) feat.

The Mouser’s Deft Strike lets him maneuver even as he lunges with Scalpel. We give him Sly Flourish for a core attack, and Riposte Strike for that fencing feel. Positioning Strike lets him move foes into position, and Trick Strike lets him maneuver an enemy around the battlefield for an entire encounter. Perfect for facing duelist rats in Lankhmar Below.

Now, we just need to add Scalpel (a rapier), Cat’s Claw (a dagger), and a few thieves’ tools.


Skill Challenges provide lots of opportunities for Fafhrd and the Mouser to work non-combat scenes together (as in the duel in “The Lords of Quarmall”). A liberal interpretation even allows them to combine their efforts unknowingly from different locations (Swords of Lankhmar, “The Lords of Quarmall,” “The Frost Monstreme” and more).

At level 1, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are ready to take on the challenges of “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” before traveling the breadth of Nehwon (and gaining some levels) in “The Circle Curse.”

Most of the twain’s foemen also model well in 4th Edition. Anyone interested in seeing me adapt “Ill Met in Lankhmar?” Or another of the twain’s adventures?

  1. As, I’m sure, he would be the first to point out.
  2. It’s become somewhat unpopular to use the term “hero” to describe sword and sorcery or old school D&D protagonists. Goodman Games’ otherwise very cool ad for Dungeon Crawl Classics is one example. But if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser aren’t heroes — and Big Damn ones, as the kids say — then I have no use for the word at all.
  3. Yes, I’d let a player use it to woo.
  4. And isn’t that a nice coincidence — after all, Fafhrd famously rang a bell to wake the dread Gods of Lankhmar in Swords of Lankhmar.

14 thoughts on “Swords Against Systems

  1. Comments on Fafhrd’s build: Even though Combat Agility fits very well with how Leiber describes his battles, it doesn’t do much for poor Fafhrd as you’ve built him, since the number of squares shifted are equal to the character’s Dex Bonus, and Fafhrd’s is 0.

  2. These are great! I pitched an article to Dragon about adapting fictional characters to D&D, and while that was mostly cross-genre “how do I make a character like X fit into D&D”, the same kind of analysis was at play. Makes me want to read the stories more than ever, too.

    Can’t help but offer some comments on the Mouser’s build, though. He isn’t proficient with rapiers, so he’s not going to be hitting many people with Scalpel. Perhaps he should take Weapon Proficiency (Rapier) as his second level 1 feat, and save Backstabber for level 2?

    The one downside with taking Ritual Caster as a non-Wizard is that you don’t get any rituals to go with it, but this seems to fit the Gray Mouser’s spellcasting, hodgepodge and inconstant as it is. Another good choice for someone of his background would be the Learned Spellcaster multiclass feat, which grants training in Arcana, the Ritual Casting feat, and the ability to use wizard implements – but no wizard powers, which again, seems to suit the Mouser very well. You could then take a different extra skill, though if you think he might need to multiclass as something else later, this is obviously a bad idea.

  3. Nicely done.
    Trying to build F&GM in D&D terms was one of things that started pushing me to other systems. What finally sent me over was a desire to create a game world that felt like Nehwon and not D&D.
    Now you’ve achieved the former, is there hope for the latter?

  4. Ah ha ha, awesome!

    I admit that although I love Lankhmar to pieces, I always got a funny look on my face when somebody tried to say that early editions of D&D were about emulating characters in the vein of the Twain. I don’t think someone was reading the books. Because in the stories I read, Fafhrd jumped an icy chasm, on skis, with f’n ROCKETs under his arms, when his beard was still coming in. I reiterate: He ROCKET-SKI-JUMPED a CHASM and then started killing dudes without getting off his skis, all at the stage in one’s career that some would call “1st Level” (and that some would even call “prelude”). There is no way you can convince me that AD&D was ever trying to emulate that.

    This, though… this could work.

  5. @Rose
    I have a bad habit of using Lankhmar and Nehwon interchangeably when referring to the setting. What I meant was that D&D always felt like D&D when running a campaign in this setting and not very much like the setting, Lankhmar or Nehwon. So I’m curious if you feel that 4E will do a better job of allowing the GM to emulate the nuances of the setting?

    @ Ethan S
    Awesome example of how the mechanics fail the characters. It’s like traditional D&D assumes that all characters start out as squires and wizard apprentices whereas realistically someone Fafhrd’s age would already be proficient, if not close to his peak, in the skills expected by his culture, although still lacking the maturity and wisdom a few more seasons bring.

  6. @Srith

    4e handles the twain’s combat styles and physical abilities well. That’s most of what 4e does. There are no roleplaying carrots or extended economic mechanics or what-not. Those are in the hands of the GM and the players.

    The skill system is stripped down, something I prefer these days. (Though I often adjust it slightly for my own campaigns, to run a little closer to the World of Darkness skill list, which I’ve used for Nehwon on a number of occasions.)

    NPCs are relatively easy to model — if you don’t fight them, 4e doesn’t even require you to stat them. And for combat, they work very well. I’m working on an adaptation of “Ill-Met in Lankhmar” to demonstrate.

    I’ve also given some thought to adapting Dragonsword of Lankhmar to a 4e campaign. It’s pretty solid… you just have to tweak the details and put the rest of the sex back in.

    I don’t think the twain really need much in the way of non-combat mechanics: basic mechanisms for single and team skill checks are enough for my GMing style.

    So, if you’re me, 4e’s a great solution. If you want detailed, swashbuckling combat combined with abstract non-combat mechanics, it’s a great solution.

    BTW, Goodman Games has been doing some interesting adventures in a Lankhmar-style setting. They’re largely dungeon crawls (being under the Dungeon Crawl Classics brand), but their worthy tributes to the city of seven thousand score smokes.

  7. Oh, and I realize that this comment is way out of date, and that in posting it I risk turning into the mouthbreather in everyone’s neighborhood comic-book shop who demands that, yes, the Hulk *could* defeat Superman, but I took a closer look at your proposed attributes for the Mouser, compared them to my memories of the way Leiber describes him in the books, and decided that Fafhrd’s buddy’s Intelligence really ought to be higher. With a bit of rearrangement of point-buy allocations (all game-legal), I came up with this:
    Strength 10
    Constitution 12
    Dexterity 18
    Intelligence 13
    Wisdom 9
    Charisma 14
    Not that it matters, RPGs being the ultimate in idiosyncratic, roll-your-own entertainment, but what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Just curious….

    Also, did you ever revise Fafhrd’s stats? His character sheet still lists him as having Combat Agility, an ability he can’t benefit from as much as one might like, given his Dexterity statistic. Again, I’m just curious.

    I love the blog and find your posts insightful, provocative, and funny. Keep up the terrific work!

  8. I realize that this post is several years old, but just in case anyone happens to be reading it:

    If you’d like to run a Nehwon game with genre- and setting-appropriate rules you should really have a look at Barbarians of Lemuria.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *