Posts Tagged ‘Robert E. Howard’

Unlovely, Dark, and Deep

The Sugar HouseFirst, The Sugar House is now available on Nook, or the various Nook reader applications. You can find it here or on Amazon here.

Second, I talked a little bit in my last post about my goals as a writer for the setting of The Sugar House, but I didn’t really talk about what it is or my inspirations.

The Sugar House takes place in the ancient and dark forests from European fairy tales. The woods cover virtually all of Europe, and it’s possible to travel from Russia to France without ever really leaving them. I’m not sure that the forest is malignant, but it’s dangerous, and human settlements are constantly in danger of being retaken.

Towns are mostly very small. I took a lot of inspiration from Tanith Lee’s Kill the Dead, in which none of the explored settlements are very large. I love giant fantasy cities, but there aren’t many of them here, and Sasha would generally find them appalling. So there are a lot of little collections of huts and farms, with log-paved roads and skinny livestock.

Magic is rough, ready, and bloody. A lot Sasha’s magic is based on knowing the secret ways of the world… like that a certain spirit is repelled by rotting meat. And that spirit isn’t some phantasmal inhabitant of the otherworld. It’s likely to be a physical being, in the way that the creatures of folklore tend to be. The way that Sasha’s magic is essentially cheating, and its dark overtones, are inspired a lot by Hellblazer.

And then there are witches. Ancient, eerie, possibly pre-human, they exist beyond the boundaries of humanity. Sometimes they give mortals what they desire. Sometimes they give their blessings to infants. And sometimes, very rarely, a witch will have a child with a human. Sasha’s father was the son of Baba Yaga, and Sasha’s heritage weighs heavily in her story.

The chief inspiration for my witches was Baba Yaga herself. She’s characterized as a witch, but there’s never any indication that she learned to be one, that she has a secret origin. She both helps and harms the protagonists of Russian fairy tale. I decided to play with that a little… why is it always the lost child who seeks help in the otherworld? Why not the big, bad wolf?

Sasha’s world is, in general, not a place of categorizable phenomena. There’s a lot of Howard in that, Solomon Kane[1.”The Skull in the Stars” was a particular inspiration.] as much as Conan. The supernatural tends to be unique and local. When you journey through the forest, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

And then there’s Sasha’s character herself. But that’s probably another post.

 

The Sugar House

The Sugar HouseJust the other week, my first non-WW/Onyx short story was published, in Worlds Without Master #4. This week, I’m releasing four more.

The Sugar House is a collection of four short stories, each an episode in the adventures of Sasha Witchblood. Everybody calls Baba Yaga “grandmother,” but for Sasha, it’s the literal truth. She wanders a Europe being consumed by the forest, encountering wolves, thieves, and monstrous princesses. The overall idea is Robert E. Howard meets the Brothers Grimm.

This is a book near and dear to my heart. I’ve been writing Sasha’s adventures for a few years, and she’s probably the most interesting character I’ve created. She’s very different from my Vampire protagonists, and the world she inhabits is stranger and more lurid.

Sasha’s the product of me moving to Atlanta and rereading pulp fantasy and comic books. She’s also the product of me looking for heroines who aren’t either fetishized or aspirational. I want to write a heroic woman who just is, the way Conan just is. I want somebody shadowed with dark luck, like John Constantine. And I think I’ve found her.

For the setting, I wanted a deep and moody territory that didn’t rely on a lot of expository worldbuilding. I did a lot of working out setting elements and their relationships, but I’ve tried to keep that under the hood. I wanted the setting to primarily illuminate the character, the way the Hyborian Age brings out the most interesting traits in Conan or the Young Kingdoms reveal Elric’s nature. Sasha’s Europe is a place that I feel comfortable exploring, and which I want to leave open to exploration.

There’s a lot more that I could say about The Sugar House. I have a huge quantity of notes, and I’ve already written most of the sequel. But for now, I hope you’ll read it yourself.

The laughter of heroes

Cavaliers of Mars is about the contrast between the sadness of a dying world and the frantic vitality of its last renaissance. So there’s a sense of melancholy to it, as well as a reckless energy and a sense of laughter at the morbid and absurd.

That laughter is a trait of the better sort of heroes. Fritz Leiber wrote of Fafhrd and the Mouser:

There is something in the inmost core of you… [s]omething that lets you laugh in a way that only the Elder Gods ever laughed. Something that makes you see a kind of jest in horror and disillusionment and death.

Howard described Conan as:

…black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.

More famously, Raphael Sabatini wrote:

He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.

 

I have a suspicion Leiber was referencing Sabatini. In part, it’s the friction between romance and cynicism.

But I wonder if that laughter is something that could go into the mechanics. The jovial at the morbid, the gigantic mirths that follow the gigantic melancholies. The echoing laughter of the Elder Gods.

What would you call that trait?

My God, it’s full of stories

More good news. The contract has now been signed for The Sugar House and Other Stories, a collection of my short stories about Sasha Witchblood. Everyone calls Baba Yaga “grandmother,” but for Sasha, that’s actually the case. She travels through European forests that never were, raising hell in one dark fairy tale and then another.1 The stories are heavily inspired by German and Russian folklore, with more than a little Robert E. Howard and Roy Thomas in the mix.

I’ll hype the collection a bit more in the future. Today, I just wanted to share the news that it’s been contracted and that the story is with the editor. The publisher will be Flames Rising Press.

Flames Rising also recently published Slices of Fate, a collection of fiction by my good friend Eddy Webb. I haven’t read the entire collection yet, but the pieces I have read are gems. Keep an eye out for more of Eddy’s work in the Far West anthology, coming next year from Adamant.

  1. Is there really any point in saying “dark” fairy tale? Does anyone write any other kind these days?

Slim White Arms: Female Archetypes in Early Sword and Sorcery

Original Weird Tales cover for Red Nails

A Witch menaces a Heroine on the original cover for Howard's "Red Nails."

In the early era of sword and sorcery — that is, the era when Conan was being published but long before he became an icon — female sexual agency is rare, and female plot agency is rarer. Studying C.L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and the early stories of Fritz Leiber, I see five major archetypes for female characters.

Most of the analysis I see of sword and sorcery fiction, especially with regards to female characters, assumes a defensive posture. “I like this so I’m going to say why it’s okay.” By contrast, I’ll admit to being entirely uncomfortable with the portrayal of women in early sword tales.

I’m not going to conceal my biases, but I think I’ve said what I need to already. I also don’t have a particular thesis this time around; I’m simply assessing what’s there.

The strongest focus here is on Howard’s Conan stories, with the others used to illuminate what I find there. Were I, for instance, to analyze Leiber’s career, or even just those of his two famous rogues, this list would look very different. (Also note that the Leiber story treated here, “Adept’s Gambit,” was written within a decade after the other works, but not published until 1949.)

Property

The most common role for women is as property. Often, this involves the woman being treated as property cruelly by one man, and then crudely but well by the hero. (“Iron Shadows on the Moon,” “The People of the Black Circle”). In this capacity, the woman has little agency; she is, by default, the sexual partner of whatever man currently possesses her. One of the best examples is “The Servants of Bit-Yakim,” in which Muriela changes hands with little ado, and is later valued directly against a cache of jewels.

Jirel fights to avoid becoming property in “Black God’s Kiss.”

Most of Clark Ashton Smith’s female characters fall within the property archetype, although a few surprise the male characters by displaying agency of one kind or another.

As property, a woman may possess sexual allure, but rarely posseses sexual agency. She’s also more a plot device than a character with plot agency.

Mystery

The mysterious woman is essentially a transitional archetype. A woman begins as a mysterious character, during which time she’s sexually off-limits (although possibly quite alluring). So it is when Yasmela first appears in “Black Colossus,” and with Ahura in “Adept’s Gambit.” Muriela occupies this role for about five minutes in “The Servants of Bit-Yakim.” One of my personal favorite mysterious women is Clark Ashton Smith’s eponymous “Morthylla.”

The mysterious woman is a well-established trope in other genres, but only occasionally seems to appear in sword and sorcery. She’s most frequently found in Leiber, who was fond of the idea of women as alien to men. (See also “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” and “Conjure Wife.”) Leiber’s alien woman is arguably an archetype all her own, but going down that road involves abandoning the discussion of sword and sorcery as a whole.

Authority

The Conan stories, as well as Jirel’s saga, have a number of examples of women who wield authority, and wield it effectively. Few of them, however, really want to.

There’s the Devi Yasmina, for instance, the most capable female leader in Conan’s saga. “The People of the Black Circle” presents her as a clever diplomat and brave as any of the male supporting cast in the face of uncanny horror. She’s also at least a passable military commander, rallying her troops to the aid of Conan the chieftain. But she has no true desire to rule; rather, it’s an unpleasant task forced upon her by the assassination of her brother. Yasmina is largely an object rather than an agent in the plot — woman as property — but has a fair amount of sexual agency. She essentially negotiates with Conan whether or not they will have an affair, and on whose terms.

Yasmela of “Black Colossus” is another capable female leader, but again, she leads only because she lacks a brother. (Hers being tucked away in a dungeon.) Yasmela has plenty of plot agency early in the story, and sexual agency at its end. She’s probably the only female character in Conan’s history to persuade him to have sex in direct contradiction to his initial inclination.

In “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Taramis rules without any missing male authority. She’s also presented as a just and beloved ruler, whom a number of men not interested in her sexually willingly follow. She’s perhaps the standout female authority of the Conan stories. Of course, the contrast between her and her sister, Salome, is perhaps the only outright “madonna/whore” juxtaposition in Howard’s work.

Belit, the “Queen of the Black Coast,” is a strong authority figure. Strong enough, in fact, that Conan is content to follow her leadership and play the role of consort. Ultimately, however, she’s also an overreaching authority figure, a Pandora or Ahab who leads her men to death. Notably, Belit seems to have been forced into her role of authority because her male relatives were deprived of theirs.

And then there’s Jirel of Joiry, her own little special case. She’s the military commander of Joiry, and her men are extremely loyal. Little attention, however, is given to the nature of her rulership or how she got there. She simply is, and is unquestioned.

Most of these characters possess some sexual agency of their own, often with the ability to choose and even compel lovers. Their plot agency is also strong. Many of them set significant events into motion for their own reasons.

Witch

The witch is primarily an antagonistic figure, with some crossover with the mysterious woman. Examples include Salome (“A Witch Shall be Born”), Akivasha (The Hour of the Dragon), Ahura when possessed (“Adept’s Gambit”) and the parallel figures of Thalis (“The Slithering Shadow”) and Tascela (“Red Nails”). These characters possess some measure of power over the hero’s survival, and are usually depicted with sexual freedom. Their plot agency is variable but tends to be significant.

The mightiest of these is Jirel’s foe Jarisme (“Jirel Meets Magic”), queen of her own otherworld. Jarisme presents one magic obstacle after another for Jirel to overcome. She’s the perfect impediment to meet Jirel’s plot-driving fierceness. Indeed, her only role in Jirel’s life is as an obstacle. Jirel battles and kills Jarisme while seeking to murder another wizard entirely.

There’s a ton to be written on this topic, but I’m not inclined to at the moment. I’ll note that later creators refine this archetype into the mighty Sorceress, from which figures like Zorayas (Night’s Master) spring. It’s also worth noting that I’ve seen the witch called the “temptress,” but it’s a misleading label. In the works I’m discussing, there’s little to no temptation of the hero, however much a character like Thalis might wish it.

There’s also the literal witch Zeiata (The Hour of the Dragon), who’s notable for being one of the few old women present in the Conan saga.

Heroine

Jirel is the only starring heroine I’ve read from the original Weird Tales era. She possesses most of Conan’s personality traits, save for his ambition. She has some sexual agency, in the sense that she actively denies men who want to compel her to be their lover. She also has a lot of plot agency. Her fierce determination drives her stories more than anything.

Jirel, however, must repeatedly fight to avoid being property, sexually or otherwise. Most of the Jirel stories feature a sequence which revolves around her imprisonment by either force or sorcery. She achieves freedom through her own fierce nature, usually when her considerable physical prowess has been neutralized. Fighting to achieve freedom is the most consistent theme in Jirel’s stories, and usually is what propels the narrative forward. In that sense, she’s made of plot agency.

Belit qualifies, however narrowly, for the heroine archetype. We’re told she’s a fierce warrior; we just don’t see most of it. Her plot agency as a heroine is somewhat less than her agency as an authority figure, but the two are appropriately difficult to untangle.

Valeria of “Red Nails” is an excellent heroine, supporting character though she is. She has the freedom to choose lovers and deals harshly with those who try to take it away from her. Her plot agency is pretty strong; she takes almost as active a role as a fighter and explorer as Conan does, and her backstory implies that she’s accomplished much more.

The ability of these heroines to make their own sexual decisions puts them in interesting contrast to their descendants. The most notable of those, of course, is Roy Thomas’s Red Sonja. Sonja’s made of headstrong plot agency and sword-borne death, much like Jirel. However, her sexual freedom is a foregone conclusion. She’s under magical obligation never to have sex, so there’s never any question what she’ll do with an interested male character.

Conclusions and Questions

Cover for Raven: Swordsmistress of Chaos

Raven, one of Valeria's more dubious granddaughters

The archetypes above are both icons of the classics, and reasons for us to stand back and call bullshit. Perhaps even more so than the pervasive racism of the era, the female archetypes are defining elements of the genre… and for that, simultaneously classic and nauseating.

As a writer and a gamer, that’s hard to come to terms with. Can new work be recognizably a part of the genre without adopting its less pleasant icons?

Today, Valeria-begotten Sonja1 herself has descendants and reimaginings, as have most of the characters mentioned above. In today’s fantasy, which of these archetypes still hold sway? How have they changed with the passing of years, and what new ones have arisen?


  1. Yes, I’m aware of Red Sonya. However, the Thomas character has more in common with Valeria or Belit.

The Encounter with the Uncanny

Hyperborea, by Clark Ashton Smith

Hyperborea, by Clark Ashton Smith

The encounter with the uncanny is a foundational, though not ubiquitous, convention of sword and sorcery fiction. In it, the protagonist witnesses something which should not be possible according to the reader‘s worldview.

The classic encounter is with an unnatural creature. This is typical of Howard stories, for example, in which the hero exists in a loosely historical world1, but encounters monsters from outside the historical milieu. The hero has a series of puzzling hints of the supernatural, and then witnesses it directly.

Travels into the otherworld, as presented by Clark Ashton Smith or C.L. Moore, are not necessarily encounters with the uncanny, although the encounter may occur in the otherworld.

Whether or not the encounter is strange to the protagonists is irrelevant. In Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, for example, the characters often deal wryly with the strange.2 Conan is rarely impressed with the demons he dispatches.3  What matters is that the encounter is weird to the reader.

The reaction of the characters is secondary, but not totally irrelevant. Much like horror protagonists of the same period, heroes are often given to whimsical or phantasmagoric speculation when faced with the unnatural. Heroes, on the razor edge of wonder and fear, see the same half-formed and eerie ideas that we see when we look down the stairs into a darkened cellar. Critically, a hero’s speculation is usually half-right at best.4

Sword and sorcery5 diverges sharply here from high fantasy. High fantasy heroes typically have strongly formed ideas of what they do and do not know. That is, a hero might shiver at the unknown, dark shapes passing on the road ahead, but he will not speculate that they resemble a caravan of dead souls, walking eternally in search of their final rest. Not unless he has good reason to believe such a thing is possible.

The divide between the hero’s perspective and the reader’s perspective is critical, because it meaningfully separates the presentation of the encounter in sword and sorcery fiction from its cousin in horror fiction. In horror, the protagonist is typically more surprised and dismayed by the uncanny than the reader.

A common aspect of the encounter is the tease — hints at the supernatural set piece dropped throughout the story. These moments are where the reader speculates as to what lurks ahead, and perhaps pulls back a little, while the hero pushes forward towards his goal, with perhaps a thought spared for morbid and melancholy speculations.

The encounter with the uncanny is not necessarily the story’s final or climactic moment. The encounter is part of sword and sorcery’s shared heritage with horror, but one of the lines dividing early sword and sorcery from horror of the same era is that the plot doesn’t necessarily hinge on the revelation of or confrontation with the supernatural. Often, the revelation of the supernatural will drive the final conflict between the hero and human antagonists.

While a story may contain a number of supernatural elements, there’s usually only a single full on encounter. As I’ve noted before, a sword and sorcery monster is the hook and the line upon which the plot is reeled in. No surprise — not only does a single strong uncanny element hit harder than a profusion of the weird, but a good monster or horror was often the commercial selling point of a story. In a pulp magazine, a naked girl might get you the cover, but a half-described horror would be your slug in the table of contents.

(I will, in the near future, follow this with an article adapting the subject to gaming. For this article, however, I wanted a hard focus on literature.)

  1. Whether the almost-history of Solomon Kane or the historical pastiche of Conan.
  2. See, for example, Leiber’s Adept’s Gambit, or “Claws from the Night.” Contrast, however, with “The Bleak Shore.”
  3. He barely blinks at an ancient sorcerer king in “Black Colossus,” and wonders more at apes and pirates than living monuments in “Iron Shadows in the Moon.”
  4. Consider the Mouser’s endless guesses in Adept’s Gambit or The Swords of Lankhmar, or the more somber speculation he shares with Fafhrd on meeting Ningauble in The Circle Curse.
  5. …and the weird tale as a whole

Where to start with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Beginning in 1970, Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were collected in the Swords series. The stories were ordered and combined with new material to tell the story of the heroes’ lives, from callow youths to middle-aged men.

For Leiber devotees, this is great. The stories were ordered and revised by the original author, avoiding the ungraceful and sometimes bizarre indignities inflicted on Conan when his adventures were put into biographical order.

I’ve seen it stymie new readers, though. The core appeal of Fafhrd and the Mouser is two swordsmen back-to-back against magic and death. Their early years aren’t as exciting if you don’t know who they become.

With that in mind, here are my recommendations for the first stories to read in the Swords books:

Part One: Swords and Hearts

Fafhrd and the Mouser’s meeting, their loves and losses, and their uneasy life in the City of the Black Toga.

Swords Against Deviltry
Also reprinted in White Wolf’s Ill-Met in Lankhmar and Nelson Doubleday’s The Three of Swords.

  • “Ill-Met in Lankhmar”: In which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser meet for the first second time.

Swords Against Death
Also reprinted in White Wolf’s Ill-Met in Lankhmar and Nelson Doubleday’s The Three of Swords.

  • The Circle Curse”: Of promises and grief.
  • “Thieves’ House”: In which the twain once again confront Lankhmar’s Thieves’ Guild and learn the dangers of buried secrets.
  • “The Price of Pain-Ease”: In which the heroes’ relationship with Lankhmar is finally resolved.

Part Two: Swords and Comrades

Swords in the Mist

Also reprinted in White Wolf’s Lean Times in Lankhmar and Nelson Doubleday’s The Three of Swords.

  • “Lean Times in Lankhmar”: In which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s friendship is tested.
  • “The Wrong Branch”/Adept’s Gambit: The twain discover that their partnership transcends worlds and histories, and the nature of heroism is revealed.

Swords Against Wizardry

Also reprinted in White Wolf’s Lean Times in Lankhmar omnibus.

  • “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”: Short and kinky, much like the Mouser.
  • The Lords of Quarmall: In which the twain adventure side by side without knowing it.

Further Reading

The stories suggested above should be about the length of one ordinary book.

If you enjoy those, any of the rest of the series is worthwhile. However:

Swords of Lankhmar, (also collected in Return to Lankhmar) is a proper, full-length novel, a hilarious swashbuckler with great characters and fantastic locations. If you’d rather start with a novel, this is the one… but it also separates the heroes for much of the book, so it’s not a perfect introduction. I’d read it either just after the stories above, or just before.

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

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.

Adventuring

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.

Anniversary of the Sack of Rome

Only in my imagination...

Relevant to my last few entries, today is the anniversary of the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths.

The Visigoths departed after their sack. Perhaps Conan would have been happier if he’d done the same thing.

When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.

– Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword”

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.

First:

  • 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.