Posts Tagged ‘Michael Moorcock’

Sword and sorcery monsters in gaming

Sword and sorcery monsters represent an encounter with the uncanny. Conan doesn’t typically fight through hordes of monsters the way he does hordes of men, nor do Clark Ashton Smith’s various heroes. Even where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser confront monsters with steel, they only once or twice battle them in a horde. Elric is the exception, but even then only occasionally.

Even more recent sword and sorcery heroes, like Hercules or Xena, rarely battle more than one true monster at a time — and they live in an age of monsters.

The sword and sorcery monster is, typically an individual horror, capable of menacing all of the characters in a story — and slaying more than a few. In the few cases where monsters appear in groups, the hero’s solution is almost always to run, while villainous or simply less wary men are slaughtered.

As an encounter with the uncanny, the monster is often the backbone of the story itself, or a recurring plot device on the way to the climax.

What does that mean for gaming? Well, the typical monster is a hazard to an entire group of characters. In recent Dungeons & Dragons terms, most monsters are not only solos, they’re effectively adventures in and of themselves… even if the object of the adventure isn’t to slay the monster. (And in early sword and sorcery, it rarely is. Beowulf and Hercules are monster-slayers in a way Conan is not.)

Consider the following hypothetical D&D framework:

  • Enter dungeon
  • Fight orcs
  • Slay dragon
  • Get treasure

As opposed to the following more Conanesque one:

  • Enter exotic location
  • Fight fellow looters (some of whom are killed by the demon)
  • Get treasure
  • Escape demon (maybe slay it)

These are, obviously, oversimplifications, but they suggest a few things.


  • The monster is not necessarily there to be slain. (Though, to be sure, it probably can be. Monsters are generally as mortal as anything else.)
  • Most of the lesser bad guys are not minions or cultists of the monster, but rivals of the PCs.
  • The monster’s lair is as dangerous to the lesser bad guys as it is to the PCs.
  • The monster should be capable of challenging many enemies at once. Claw/claw/bite?

Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to abandon genre fidelity in favor of good gaming. But I also think that a little rethinking of formulae and set pieces, and some mechanics to supplement them, are appropriate in monster design.

As is often the case with sword and sorcery gaming, horror provides a better model than fantasy adventure. The classic sword and sorcery tale has a lot in common with the “monster of the week” format, except that the monster itself usually isn’t the objective.

The monster is instead a series of hazards and encounters that may, later in the game, blossom into a confrontation.

What does a wizard look like?

When Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition came out, there was a great deal of argument over its “dungeonpunk” aesthetic and, particularly, the way wizards didn’t look like they were “supposed” to. The pointy-hatted old men familiar from Dragon magazine covers or Will McLean cartoons had been replaced by a confusingly-dressed elf lady and a bare-chested man in leather, buckles, and an underbust corset.1

All well and good, I suppose, but what do wizards really look like? The Gandalf by way of Merlin types we’d gotten used to didn’t seem quite right to my imagination, though they’ve graced some excellent vans in their time. What do the sources have to say about them?

Well, Fritz Leiber is always definitive, so let’s lead off with a few of his lesser wizards. The Gray Mouser begins:

“Hey, I think our creditors and other haters have hired a third S besides swords and staves against us.”


The small man drew a coil of thin yellow wire from his pouch. He said,

“Well, if those two graybeards in the second story windows aren’t wizards, they shouldn’t scowl so ferociously. Besides, I can make out astrological symbols on the one’s robe and the glint on the other’s wand.2

A robe is not an uncommon piece of costume in Lankhmar, though the better-but-not-best class of people prefer the black toga. The astrological symbols, though, are a distinctly occult touch. More telling, however, are the ferocious scowls, as the Mouser flippantly points out. Presumably, one quick to anger is also quick to grump.

Well, that’s Leiber, but where would we be without that other chronicler of scoundrel heroes, Jack Vance? What of that mighty magician Pandelume, of Embelyon, the Land Who None Knows Where?

“Halt, Turjan,” spoke the voice. “None may gaze upon Pandelume. It is the law.”3

…oh. Well, then. I suppose Iucounu the Laughing Magician will have to do.

Fianosther pointed across the way to a man wearing garments of black. This man was small, yellow of skin, bald as a stone. His eyes resembled knots in a plank; his mouth was wide and curved in a grin of chronic mirth.4

These, however, are all wizards of a lesser sort. Surely, those who fling death-spells at Leiber’s twain are only just this side of charlatans like Cugel the Clever or the Mouser himself. And Iucounu seems somewhat over-reliant on and under-cautious of the charms he keeps in his mansion.

Perhaps for a wizard of a wiser sort, we might look to Lloyd Alexander’s Dallben:

Dallben, master of Caer Dallben, was three hundred and seventy-nine years old. His beard covered so much of his face that he seemed always to be staring over a gray cloud. On the little farm, while Taran and Coll saw to the plowing, sowing, weeding, reaping, and all the other tasks of husbandry, Dallben undertook the meditating, an occupation so exhausting he could only accomplish it by laying down and closing his eyes.5

Ah, a graybeard again. That seems to be a developing theme. And meditation! While Alexander may have treated the subject lightly, we Dungeons & Dragons players know all too well how critical it is! Let the fighters mock the wizard’s fifteen minute workday. Little do they know how mighty are his mental preparations.

Dallben is that rare sort, a humble wizard. Generally, they’re anything but. Consider Pelias, encountered by Conan beneath the archetypal dungeon of the Scarlet Citadel:

Conan stared, spellbound; then a sound brought him round, sword lifted. The freed man was on his feet, surveying him. Conan gaped in wonder. No longer were the eyes in the worn face expressionless. Dark and meditative, they were alive with intelligence, and the expression of imbecility had dropped from the face like a mask. The head was narrow and well-formed, with a high splendid forehead. The whole build of the man was aristocratic, evident no less in his tall slender frame than in his small trim feet and hands.

This man is intelligent, aware, and physically small while projecting no air of weakness. 6 Yet, he is still a man, and the greatest of wizards are more than that. What of Gandalf the Grey?

All that the unsuspecting Bilbo saw that morning was an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.7

Gandalf was quite scrupulous in his man-seeming, to the point that his human admirers in innumerable D&D illustrations seem to have considered a fit example of dress, even if they tend to leave off practical concerns like the scarf and boots.

But what of those wizards, no longer human and perhaps pre-human,8 who sponsored Leiber’s heroes? We must not forget them, lest we incite their anger, or that of their favored heroes.

Blue lightning glared, revealing with great clarity a hooded figure crouched inside the low doorway. Each fold and twist of the figure’s draperies stood out as precisely as in an iron engraving closely viewed.

But the lightning showed nothing whatsoever inside the hood, only inky blackness.9

Sheelba of the Eyeless Face needs no other, inevitably lesser, introduction.

Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, however, would insist upon it. The great gossiper of the gods dwells in his caves of endless, twisting passages10, and Leiber was perhaps too modest in giving this description:

A little later, having wasted no time in reconnoitering, they stood before the Great Gate, whose iron-studded upper reaches disdained the illumination of the tiny fire. It was not the gate, however, that interested them, but its keeper, a monstrously paunched creature sitting on the floor beside a vast heap of pot-sherds, and whose only movement was a rubbing of what seemed to be his hands. He kept them under the shabby but voluminous cloak which also completely hooded his head. A third of the way down the cloak, two large bats clung. Fafhrd cleared his throat. The movement ceased under the cloak.

Then out of the top of it sinuously writhed something that seemed to be a serpent, only in place of a head it bore an opalescent jewel with a dark central speck. Nevertheless, one might finally have judged it to be a serpent, were it not that it also resembled a thick-stalked exotic bloom. It restlessly turned this way and that until it pointed at the two strangers. Then it went rigid, and the bulbous extremity seemed to glow more brightly. There came a low purring, and five similar stalks twisted rapidly from under the hood and aligned themselves with their companion. Then the six black pupils dilated. 11

A portentious sight, to be sure, even if one can’t help thinking, as do the twain, that there’s more than a little Oz to this wizard. But I’m not sure I’d like to find out what’s behind the curtain.

These are the images conjured to mind when I think of wizards. I acknowledge some gaps, here: I haven’t treated the truly evil wizards, nor did I have a description of Elric at hand. Nonetheless, these are my wizards.

Who and what are yours?


  1. Who was probably pretty confusing in his own way. Me, I just wanted the pants.
  2. Fritz Leiber, The Swords of Lankhmar
  3. Jack Vance, “Turjan of Miir,” The Dying Earth
  4. Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld
  5. Lloyd Alexander, The Book of Three
  6. I’ve always envisioned him as looking something like a carving of a Babylonian king, but there’s no textual source for that. Perhaps it’s an adolescent confusion with the villain of “Black Colossus.”
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
  8. I am aware that Robin Wayne Bailey, who’s written the only Fafhrd and Mouser book after Leiber, laid out the origins and nature of Sheelba and Ningauble with slightly more specificity. I am, however, less than pleased with that and the rest of his interpretation of sorcery in Leiber’s universe. Personal preference.
  9. Fritz Leiber, “The Circle Curse,” Swords Against Death
  10. All alike, to the uninitiated.
  11. Fritz Leiber, Adept’s Gambit, Swords in the Mist

Class Construction in early Tunnels & Trolls

The early editions of Tunnels & Trolls are a good example of two class design schema:

  • Classes to fill holes
  • Classes on a spectrum

The two base classes are warrior and wizard. The warrior is a straightforward arms and armor type, noted in the game’s fifth-and-a-half edition as being based on Conan. Wizards have a mix of dungeon utility spells and combat spells.

T&T‘s mechanics are somewhat more regular than D&D‘s. “Take that you fiend!,” the equivalent of “Magic Missile,” simply allows the character to wield his intelligence as a weapon.

The spectrum element comes in when rogues are added to the basic mix. Like D&D‘s thieves, they appear to have been modeled on the Gray Mouser, but they are essentially fighters with who dabble in magic. They represent an in-between space between the warrior and wizard class, illustrating the spectrum principle.

Initially, rogues were required to choose to become either warriors or wizards as they leveled up… a choice the Mouser himself made at a young age. In practice, apparently, players tried to avoid making this choice, and thus T&T introduced a mirror-class: the warrior-wizard.

The warrior-wizard is interesting not only in that it completes the spectrum of character classes, but in that it requires the rolling of unusually high attributes at character creation. The combination of fighting, spellcasting, and attribute requirements is suggestive of D&D‘s paladin (though I doubt there’s a direct line of inspiration). As of T&T 5.5e, then, the classes form a sort of circle.

Unlike most fantasy games which followed, Tunnels & Trolls embraced Dungeons & Dragons‘ milieu of dungeon delving wholeheartedly, but casually rejected many of D&D‘s other additions to the fantasy genre, such as the thief-specialist and the fighting cleric. In other words, it absorbed D&D‘s gameplay innovations while ignoring its class design.

It’s particularly tantalizing to imagine a version of D&D with the more elegant class structure of T&T. Indeed, while the thief has only occasionally been imagined as a subclass of the fighter, reimagining the cleric as a variant wizard has a long heritage. The “White Mage” is a fixture of franchise like Final Fantasy, and is echoed in TSR’s mid-90s Lankhmar boxed set.

It’s almost criminal to go this far down into an article about Tunnels & Trolls without mentioning that the game’s far more lighthearted than D&D grew up to be. The spell names are, largely, cheap jokes. The tone of Liz Danforth’s 5.5e is tongue-in-cheek, and rather charming.

I was raised on two kinds of fantasy gaming. The first were the Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games, which were full of puns and jokes. Although the humor was  of a slightly different breed, they fit well with my readings of Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, as well as Robert Aspirin, J. R. R. Tolkien1, and, dare I say it, Piers Anthony.

The second were the Dungeons & Dragons variants and The Lord of the Rings, plus the Elric books. Though all three have more humor than they’re generally given credit for, they are by comparison dreadfully serious. I think Aaron Allston makes it through the Rules Cyclopedia without so much as an ironic aside. The third edition of Dungeons & Dragons admonishes (though not absolutely) against the use of cheap gags in your characters or campaign.

At this stage of my life, I appreciate the humorous side of fantasy gaming more. I’m compelled by Conan’s rarely-detailed “gigantic mirths,” and the heroic laughter of Fafhrd and the Mouser in “Adept’s Gambit.”2 I’m attracted by the absurdity of creations like the rust monster and the beholder. That makes a review of Tunnels & Trolls rather a welcome evening chore.

  1. Yes, I mean The Hobbit.
  2. Which, it turns out, is of rather cosmic significance.

The First Estate

“Vatican II led to many changes in the Catholic Church, notable ones being the use of mother-tongues – instead of Latin – for parts of the mass, the empowerment of the laity, and allowing priests to use bladed weapons in combat.”

Critical Miss #8

I suppose I’d know who the cleric was, if I’d started with her. I understand girls you can’t save, no matter what god they work for.

Aleena, D&D Red Box

You couldn't save her. Just like all the others, a million little boys who couldn't. Forgive yourself.

As it happens, though, I didn’t. I started here.

Ultima 3: Exodus Character Creation

Ultima 3: Exodus Character Creation

Actually, let’s zoom in a bit…

Ultima 3: Exodus Cleric

Ultima 3: Exodus Cleric

There. See. Now, what I knew in… 1988… sounds right… was that a cleric was another word for priest, and a priest was someone who worked for God.

Just one problem. Fantasy didn’t have God. Oh, sure, there was a cross on Link’s shield, but there’d been one on He-Man’s armor, too, hadn’t there? Just a device, a heraldic symbol.

Now, in 1989, someone conveniently introduced me to the pagan gods1, and they found their way right into my world of magic and elves2. My carefully envisioned narrative-driven side-scroller had elves and Greek gods.

But those gods didn’t have priests, did they? I mean, you read the Bible, there are priests all over the place, and usually mucking things up. Got Jesus hanged, I’d been told, and that’s why we couldn’t let the Church have undue influence on the state.3 But the Greek myths, nooo… people prayed, maybe there were some burnt offerings, but pagan gods didn’t need priests. They did things themselves.4

Yet, Ultima had priests. Briefly. I was very glad when the next Ultima came around and got that fixed. Shrines, virtues, no gods. Very sensible, and I could continue being a bold maverick having Zeus meet the elves. I’d played Hero’s Quest by now, too, and read Lloyd Alexander, and while there were certainly hints of greater supernatural forces5, there was hardly a celestial hierarchy.

Even King Arthur, well, God occasionally popped up in his life, but no priests. I’m not sure what they were all doing at the time, but he had a proper wizard to cast his spells for him, just like Pharoah had had.6 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had gods, and Lankhmar had a whole street devoted to them, but both the priests and the gods were more than a little silly.

The holes filled, gradually — I was a weird kid, but hardly a dumb one, but my fantasy worlds never really had need of magic priests, even as they developed pantheons of their own. Even reading Moorcock and Lewis, the gods all took care of their own business.

The idea that a whole class of adventurer might need to be priestly never really occurred to me until I got my hands on the Rules Cyclopedia. Even since then, I’ve never been sure why clerics weren’t just a sort of mage, and seeing fantasy through the eyes of D&D hasn’t really helped that at all. In gaming, I came to understand, clerics were somewhere between fighters and wizards… but so were elves, and for that matter, there were paladins. And some paladins had gods, too.7

But in the better sort of fantasy video games, there never were priests. The Ultimas were neatly atheistic, and when they got around to coping with gods, in Pagan, it was in a very Star Trek way. Gods, fantasy said to me, better off without ‘em, and their priests are all liars and idiots and just occasionally Theleb Kaarna.

D&D Arcade Cleric

Badasses, like this guy.

Yet, for some reason, there was always someone who wanted to play one in my games. Sometimes, they weren’t very serious — I’d heard of Bob, the God of Donkeys out there in another campaign. But all too often, they were devout worshipers of gods who never seemed good for anything except a daily spell allotment. Sometimes they were badasses.

D&D Arcade Thief

And he hung out with this hottie. Just saying.

And there seemed to be roleplaying games that shared my indifference. Tunnels & Trolls had no clerics, and Stormbringer certainly didn’t go out of its way to suggest the idea.8

The first time I ever encountered a proper cleric adventurer was in college, as it turned out. Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish officer who got lost in Florida, made his way to Mexico casting out demons and disease in the name of God, gaining and losing fellow soldiers and native adventurers along the way. And around that point, through that lens, the cleric started making sense to me.

The cleric? He’s Moses. He’s Samuel9. He’s Martin de Porres. She’s Joan of Arc.

And don’t worry. Someday Aleena will come back.10


  1. The Greek ones, and boy did that set me up for some issues on down the line.
  2. Where’d the elves come from? Not sure. I’d only read The Hobbit at that point, so elves should have been assholes. I think I picked up from a friend that link and Zelda were elves on account of the ears, so elves were cool.
  3. Got that from my grandparents. Very good Catholics and fearlessly determined liberals. Did I mention my upbringing was weird.
  4. Well, apart from that Trojan War mess.
  5. Who was Baba Yaga? And Arawn, he was certainly a suspicious character.
  6. There’s that Bible again. Colored my whole view of the genre.
  7. Or, in dear old Paksenarrion’s case, a saint.
  8. Notably, it suggested priests got their magic powers by sorcery, same as everyone else.
  9. David was a rogue. Don’t let the instrument fool you, he was just playing at multi-classing while waiting for the next big score.
  10. Just don’t be surprised if she has two kids and is married to some 3rd level IT Expert AND DOESN’T LISTEN TO ANY MUSIC THAT’S COOL.

Little Hearts Like the One in Me

“Hello, my name is Jimmy Pop and I’m a dumb white guy,
I’m not old or new but middle school, fifth grade like junior high.”

– The Bloodhound Gang, “Fire Water Burn”

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Jeff and I

1984. My uncle leaves a party. I ask my Mom where he went.

“To play Dungeons & Dragons,” she says. I ask her what that is.

“A game like Conan,” she tells me, barely, I think, understanding herself. “Your uncle’s the Dungeon Master. He decides what monsters the heroes fight.”

1985. On a trip to Barbarian Books and Comics, my father buys me a set of polyhedral dice, cast in translucent red plastic. To me, they look like magic gems.

1989. My friend Jeff and I are rapt in front of the secondhand EGA monitor. We are being asked to make the most important choice of our lives.

Hero's Quest character class selection, 1989

Jeff's upstairs room, 1989

We pick thief, and give him a little bit of magic. Just like that guy in the books I found in the back of Barbarian.

1994. Wheaton Plaza, the food court, half mall and half strip. We’re deep in the midst of planning our great fantasy novel, about a city at the center of time. We start to talk about how to make a roleplaying game out of Dune, and Jeff passes something amazing across the table to me.

D&D Rules Cyclopedia

D&D Rules Cyclopedia

I’ve seen it before, of course. Ads in the back of comic books. Maybe when I helped my uncle move, and he gave me his Uncanny X-Men comics. I open it, and there’s a girl, there, dark hair and a bandanna. The heading says “thief.”

Rules Cyclopedia Thief

Rules Cyclopedia Thief

1994. Barbarian Books has moved into an abandoned Photon Battlefield.1 The D&D books are in the back, now. But there’s something else. Different. Softcover, green marble, with a single red rose.

Vampire: The Masquerade

My Future

I open it, and fumble around. There are a lot of dark-haired girls. And then I’m reading, flipping, and there’s a kind of vampire for every book I’ve read. For Interview with Vampire. For The Dracula Tape. For Doctor Strange.

I spend the entire night trying to recreate the art in my precious hardcover sketchbook.

And when I sleep, I see the city. No longer Lankhmar of the shattered temples nor Imryrr in its opium dreams. I see wet asphalt and grainy reflections and the stain of blood.

Jeff doesn’t even recall that book the next day.

2000. Elkton Hall, the University of Maryland. In the underground garden of a mafia boss, Marek the thief-mage triggers a trapped door. The ornate pipework fountain behind him bellows steam and rises, revealing itself to be the apparatus on the back of a gigantic robot.

“You bastard,” Marek says, or maybe Jeff does. He and Mike put down tiny d6s to show where they’re standing on the map. I put down the red d20 my father gave me so many years ago.

“That’s where he is,” I smile.

2005. My apartment, after she left. After I made her leave. It’s dark, and we can hear the Georgia Avenue traffic. Jeff and Angela and I are crouched around a red-foil book, exploring rain-slick streets not so different from the one outside. Tori Amos is on the stereo.

Vampire: The Requiem

My Present

“Who was she?” Angela says, as Frankie the waitress, hungry young vampire and terrifying lost girl.

Her only friend, London, smokes his cigarette. Jeff shows us he’s doing that by sucking on the end of a Pepperidge Farm Pirouette.

“She played bass,” London says. Frankie’s eyes don’t leave London’s. Angela’s don’t leave Jeff’s. He coughs. “She had dark hair.”

2007. DC, anywhere. Pick a spot and I’m there, saying goodbye to someone, something. Those books, green marble and red foil and always with the roses, they’re leading me away. I kiss Jeff. I kiss Angela. I stare at Hope a long moment and I don’t kiss her. I pack two dark-haired cats in the back of a rented SUV and I drive away from everything I knew and towards everything I’ve been imagining.

Leaving DC

Leaving DC

2008. I don’t measure time in years anymore. I measured it in word counts, and now books.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

My uncle and my father

My uncle’s just died. I’m stuck in an Atlanta suburb but I spend a lot of time on the phone. My Mom reminisces about how he and my Dad used to play in the woods, calling each other Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

2010. Books have given way to stories, features, something called “sprints.” Every day I walk through a dusty warehouse past the original proof for that old green book cover.

I go home, I mess with the necessities of life, and then with my partners. And we sit down side by side to work.

I’m writing my own little book about fantasy roleplaying, and the concept art’s coming in. Fighter, magic-user, combat scene… I leaf through it.

There’s a woman with a bandanna over one eye, dark hair flowing behind her shoulders. She’s got a reckless grin on her face and a knife with three eyeballs skewered on it.

I crop, it, clean it, and I do the only next thing. I send it to Jeff.


  1. A Lazer Tag arena by any other name.

Elric of Melnibone

Two different, and appropriately weird, images of Elric for the novel Stormbringer.

I love the unreal look of the first one… it puts me in mind of artists like Erol Otus and Peter Mullen. Paperback covers sometimes used to have very abstract, eerie looks to them. I’d love to do a project with a similar cover sometime.

(Image Removed)

Stormbringer cover by P. Craig Russell

Stormbringer cover by P. Craig Russell