Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser - Close Out Extravaganza

Typically, we close out the month with recommendations for further reading.  That's easier than usual this month, what with the rest of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser available from Amazon. 

But now that you've seen the iconic duo in action, don't be surprised if you start to see them more and more in works not written by Fritz Lieber.  Earlier in the month, we mentioned that Discworld's Cohen the Barbarian often found himself paired with Rincewind. 

Just this month, while preparing for an upcoming miniature wargame, I encountered them in a very unlikely place.  Osprey Publishing released a Three Musketeers themed set of rules called, En Garde!  The back pages of that historical ruleset include a brief supplement of rules suitable for fantasy games.  Craig Woodfield, the author, knows where to find the good stuff, as evidenced by the inclusion of a stat line for a "Witch-hunter" that cannot be mistake for anything but Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane.  But he also had the good taste to include stat lines for "The Barbarian" and "The Thief". 


Thanks for reading along this month, we'll see you next time when we will be discussing Misha Burnett's excellent Catskinner's Book.  (Spoiler alert: it's not a how-to book.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Price of Pain-ease

Dusk deepened. After a much longer bit, the Mouser said in a low, broken voice, “O Sheelba, great magician, grant me a boon or else I shall go mad. Give me back my beloved Ivrian, give me her entire, or else rid me of her altogether, as if she had never been. Do either of those and I will pay any price you set.”  
In a grating voice like the clank of small boulders moved by a sullen surf, Sheelba said from his doorway, “Will you faithfully serve me as long as you live? Do my every lawful command? On my part, I promise not to call on you more than once a year, or at most twice, nor demand more than three moons out of thirteen of your time. You must swear to me by Fafhrd’s bones and your own that, one, you will use any stratagem, no matter how shameful and degrading, to get me the Mask of Death from the Shadowland, and that, two, you will slay any being who seeks to thwart you, whether it be your unknown mother or the Great God himself.”
I've been dragging my feet on this story for a while. Like "The Circle Curse," this is more connective tissue than a story, filling in continuity gaps required to explain the events of the next story. In this case, it explains the relationship between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the wizards Ninguable and Sheelba. It also finally frees Fafhrd and the Mouser from their mourning over their murdered first loves. There's more story to "The Price of Pain-ease" than "The Circle Curse," as Fafhrd and the Mouser are haunted by the actual ghosts of their lost loves. In an attempt to free them, the adventurers make deals with Ninguable and Sheelba; they would retrieve the Mask of Death from the Shadowlands in exchange for their girls' lives. But, as usual for their adventures, Fafhrd and the Mouser get the thorns, and not the roses.
"Thereafter Sheelba and Ningauble, showing no gratitude whatever, or remorse for their childish revenges, insisted on exacting from the Mouser and Fafhrd the utmost service established by the bargain they had set with the two heroes."
***

There is an interesting point of contrasts to Excalibur, Anduril, and all the other named weapons in fantasy:
"For a fourth, they habitually stole all their possessions, even their swords and daggers, which they always named Graywand and Heartseeker and Scalpel and Cat’s Claw, no matter how often they lost them and pilfered replacements."
Rather than carrying special named swords, any sword and dagger wielded by Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser becomes Graywand and Heartseeker or Scalpel and Cat’s Claw. It is a rare take on the idea of named weapons that might be unique to Leiber's works. Where other heroes might mourn the loss of their named weapon, Fafhrd and the Mouser will just steal another Graywand or Scalpel.

***

Edit: Apparently there was a mistake in the version of the ebook I was reading that listed the "Price of Pain-ease" as the "Prince of Pain-ease." I have updated the article to match the proper title.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Bazaar of the Bizarre

In Bazaar of the Bizarre Fritz Lieber demonstrates that message-fiction can be fun…provided it’s presented as fiction-message.  That order is important.  Lieber might be a dirty red socialist, but he is a solid enough author that even his blatantly anti-capitalist screeds are entertaining reads. 

The Devourers are “the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes,” Sheelba warns.  “They sell trash and take good money,” he continues.  Worse, “they want all their customers reduced to a state of slavish and submissive suggestibility, so that they are fit for nothing whatever but to gawk at and buy the trash the Devourers offer for sale.”  One can imagine Lieber sitting down at a table near the entrance of a Wal-Mart, watching the parade of humanity march past, shaking his head as his fingers merely describe what he sees.  With subtext elevated to super-text like this, its easy to see why Moorcock counts this among his favorite Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories.
It’s blatant to the point of parody, but it works.  The menace in this story is capitalism.  And yet, it’s delivered with enough panache that even a crusty old John Bircher like myself can chuckle, set aside all reason and logic, and accept the premise of the story for the purposes of the story.  It is a fantasy after all, and the men(?) pronouncing this judgement – Ningauble and Sheelba – are hardly the most reliable (or even sane) characters in Nehwon.

It helps that Fafhrd’s responses to this warning amount to a very dry and sarcastic, “Monstrous!”  At least, this reader took them as sarcastic, and perhaps his responses are enigmatic by design.  Perhaps this story serves as a Rorshach test of sorts – you can see whatever message in it your heart chooses.
Either way, this time it is the Grey Mouser’s turn to get into trouble, and Fafhrd’s turn to wade into the horrors of the house of low cost consumer goods to pull the Mouse’s bacon from the fire.

But wait!  Did the Mouser get himself into trouble?  Recall that he was sent, as was Fafhrd, but without the warning to wait until a specific time.  The Creepy Eyed duo set that up, didn’t they?  They knew Fafhrd was too practical to get sucked in to such a silly adventure, and that the Grey Mouser was too curious not to.  They used Grey as bait to get Fafhrd into the shop.
They may be crazy, but they certainly are clever.

In keeping with my vow to finish off the month of February without referencing Dungeons and Dragons, I’m instead going to point to GURPS.  Specifically, the best Actual Play blog around, Peter dell’Orto’s excellent Dungeon Fantastic.  Skyrockets went off in my back brain when Ningauble asked the parenthetical question, “Is that coincidentally a city, do think, Fafhrd? Cashamash?”  That name rang a distant bell in my memory, and it took me some time to recall that the base city for his GURPs campaign contains a here-today-gone-today wizard for hire named Black Jans who is from…Cashamash:
Of course, it might also say that the wizards of Cashamash aren't worried about peasant rebellions or hostile townsmen rioting so much as being able to get into any perhaps out of their towers quickly. Cashamash is a weird place.
Ningauble was right, and his legendary knowledge of the universe demonstrates that he knows about Stericksburg and Felltower. Of course, this observation is no gotchya! It’s actually a solid attaboy! You’re supposed to put this sort of thing in your RPGs.  It’s literally as old as RPGs themselves.  Fellow fans of Pete’s blog should laugh and rejoice that Dryst and Vryce share a multi-verse with Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Four more stories

THE BLEAK SHORE

A short story that, nonetheless, conveys a lot in its meager ten pages. The adage about how what matters is the travel but not the destination applies here, at least from the point of view of the reader. 

Under a powerful geas, the two rogues set off to the distant and mysterious Bleak Shore across the vast ocean. Most of the story -and its better parts- is narrated by the only surviving Mingol sailor that managed to return from the deadly trip. And the fact that he only knows about the initial trip but not what Fafhrd and the Mouser did when they got there only makes it better.

The narrator shift highlights and magnifies the sense of unreality and madness as he explains the foolish, inhuman,  and almost suicidal behavior of their (as he suspects) charmed masters. The distance between his knowledge as a uniformed participant and what we actually know or suspect amplifies the dread and eeriness that could have been lost with a more detached or omniscient narrator. Like the scraps and fragments of a diary narrating the unexplained horrors of a failed expedition, sometimes not knowing creates a stronger effect than knowing.


THE HOWLING TOWER

Another story with a ghostly theme, this one gave me a strong Edgar Allan Poe feeling, probably for the whole familicide and "vengeance from beyond the grave" themes. I enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary. I won't say more since I think it's better just to read this one.

THE SUNKEN LAND

A story with a clear Lovecraftian vibe. This is also one of the best stories in this collection, and since they are all self-sufficient (although it is implied they are all connected and arranged in chronological order,) you can jump straight to this one if you want.

Many stories that try to convey the Lovecraftian sense of horror fail for the simple reason that they go too far into the neurotic/psychological horror territory, going overboard by telling how shaken the protagonists are by the incomprehensible events they are witnessing, but we have little reason to believe it or care about things that are TOO incomprehensible. This is not the case here since the whole story depends on an -in isolation- plausible list of coincidences, which we later realize were the design of vast and malevolent intelligence. 

It is also clear that there is little that Fafhrd could have done to stop the chain of events, and his actions don't depend on any charm or supernatural influence either. He is just a human pawn who survives thanks to a fleeting gut feeling which tells him to run, to get out of the sunken city of Simorgya (akin to R'lyeh.)

When reading the final scene, it occurred to me that the cloak-like creatures that are mentioned are somewhat similar to the D&D monster the Cloaker. Reading about it, Wikipedia mentions that a variant of the cloaker appeared in the Lankhmar – City of Adventure booklet (1985) for D&D. And the name of the beast? Sea cloaker.

And if you search that term, you will find this article that explains the ecology of the cloaker and its background, and here's what it has to say about the subspecies of the sea cloaker:

"An aquatic aberration native to, and mainly inhabiting, the sunken city of Simorgya, which means minimal study has been done, but the numerous similarities between them and cloakers has led many ecologists to speculate on a relationship. "

There you go. I'm getting better at sniffing obscure D&D references.


THE SEVEN BLACK PRIESTS

"I think they're unreasonably angry," Fafhrd asserted, scrambling to his feet.
"Priests always are," the Mouser said philosophically,

I like to imagine Leiber watching the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and thinking to himself, Yeah, this is nice and all, but wouldn't it be better if the dwarfs were meaner, crazy, black, and worshiped a mind-controlling volcano god? Also, you know what? Screw Snow White and everything else, just keep the mad midgets.

[Obviously, this is a completely made-up and apocryphal explanation, but I encourage you to cite it anyway as if it were true.]

This must be one of the best sword & sorcery stories I have read (to be fair, I haven't read as many as others.) It has that bigger-than-life threat hanging over the protagonists, but the story in itself is quite lighthearted, focusing on the action and exploration, the fights (including one while skating on ice,) the comedic traps the priests set up, and the excellent banter between the two rogues. Nothing out-of-this-world, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.

You can also read Jon and Nathan's more useful analyses.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Bleak Shore

"Now I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear. Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall bid him, and there meet his doom. Has death ever called to you in such a fashion?” 
Fafhrd might have laughed, but did not. The Mouser had a witty rejoinder on the tip of his tongue, but instead he heard himself saying: “In what words might death call?” 
“That would depend,” said the small man. “He might look at two such as you and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore. And when he said it three times you would have to go.”

"The Bleak Shore." With a third mention of this strange land, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser leave Lankhmar on a red-sailed sloop, braving wave and storm to arrive at the cursed land. As the months grow long, the city believes the two men to be dead, but the last of Fafhrd's Mingol crew turns up in the city, spreading tales of their journey.

At the far end of the Bleak Shore's bonefield, a voice greets Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. "For warriors, a warrior's doom." Then armored beasts rise from the sands...

*****

One of the shortest stories in Swords Against Death, "The Bleak Shore" is one of the most memorable, hooking me instantly with Death's call to action. While the plot is a stripped down version of what we've seen before, where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are hypnotized into some strange adventure and escape due to the Mouser's keen eye, the mood utterly captivates. Starting with Death's eerie introduction and summons, to the slave sailor's spooky sea tale, and, finally, the battle on the beach, each scene builds up the dread that  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser might not return. While the Mingol sailor's sea story might violate the well-worn adage, "show, don't tell," the extra distance it places between the readers and Fafhrd and the Mouser only heightens the aloofness inflicted by whatever spell compels them. Not only that, but the contrast between the safe passage through the storms on the way to the Bleak Shore compared to the crew deaths as the sailors tried escape reinforces that someone wanted Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to arrive. It is good to know the rules of storytelling, but it is better to when to break them for effect.

After five stories full of mesmerized characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser need to do something about their willpower saves...

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Seven Black Priests

If you’ve ever wondered who would win in a fight between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, this story answers your question.

Presumably, this tale takes place after the pair escaped death on the sunken island of Simorgia.  Their ship having washed ashore somewhere in the White Wastes, the two set out on foot.  Presumably heading south, they are forced to fight their way through a gauntlet of seven black priests.  As usual, they invite much of the following trouble by happening upon a sacred object in the shape of a large clear gemstone.  The gemstone, the eye of a god, is naturally cursed, and the longer Faf and Grey hang onto the thing, the more it affects them, until finally the Mouser is forced to fight Fafhrd in order to save him from the mystic clutches of the artifact.  The fight is largely a draw, and only ends when the Grey Mouser defeats the powerful monster by using that tried and true old method of poking out its eye.  Thus freed from the spell, Fafhrd laughs off the event and the two resume their long trek towards Lankhmar.
This is a clear post-pulp story.  It does feature the fast action and light atmosphere of pulp-era fantasy –the prolonged fight set on a tilted sea of frozen green ice would fit right at home in the pulps (or a Michael Bay movie) – but the two protagonists lack the sense of heroism and virtue that most pulp heroes possess.  They are but two wandering adventurers plundering temples, fighting priests, and walking away relatively unscathed but no richer for their troubles.  They do murder a fetal-god intent on wiping out humanity, but that arises not out of a desire to protect humanity, but out of a desire to protect their own skins.  By stealing the eye of the god, they also fall into the god’s trap, and in this manner the impending birth of the fetal-god is at least partially their own fault.
This is not necessarily a complaint. This is merely an observation. 
After all, not every story needs a moral element, and sometimes it’s fun to read a story about two wandering adventurers. Most of the action oriented TV shows of the 1980s used this narrative framing device to good effect, after all.  Provided the bad guys get their comeuppance in the end, and in Swords Against Death, that comeuppance has occurred like clockwork, then the reader can at least be assured that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s love of adventure has a happy ending for Nehwon, even if it does not for the dynamic duo themselves.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Claws from the Night

Valuables disappeared in broad daylight, even from chambers locked and carefully guarded, or from sheer walled roof-gardens. A lady secure in her home chanced to lay a bracelet on an inaccessible windowledge; it vanished while she chatted with a friend. A lord’s daughter, walking in a private garden, felt someone reach down from a thickly-leafed tree and snatch a diamond pin from her hair; the tree was immediately climbed by nimble servitors, but nothing was found. 
Then a hysterical maid ran to her mistress with the information that she had just seen a large bird, black in color, making off through a window with an emerald ring clutched securely in its talons.  
This story at first met with angry disbelief. It was concluded that the girl herself must have stolen the ring. She was whipped almost to death amid general approval. 
The next day a large black bird swooped down on the niece of the Overlord and ripped a jewel from her ear.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser use the terror from a rash of black bird thieves to cover their own heist. To gain the jewel a merchant has bought to appease his shrew of a wife, Atya, the adventurers have brought their own preparations: a fishing rod, to snare the jewel, and an eagle, in case the birds strike first. But when the black birds prove to be the quicker thieves, Fafhrd and the Mouser follow the flock to the hidden temple of Winged Tyaa and her angry priestess.


"Claws from the Night" is another standard Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, plotted to the same structure as the previous tales but lighter in tone than even "Seven Black Priests." Yet it's still a fun little rollick, as Fafhrd and the Mouser try to use the chaos of the bird thieves for their own ends before getting swept up in a serious mystery. Like a soloist in jazz, Leiber uses the established pattern as a guide to creativity, and not as an instruction set, with no two stories told in the exact same way.

I've noticed a pattern as of late. When a dynamic duo goes on an adventure, be it Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser; Doc Savage and the Shadow; or Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame, the problem-solving responsibilities tend to be split in a regular pattern. If you want something to stop, send the Fafhrd analogue. If you want to find out why something is happening, send the thieving wizard. And whenever the Fafhrd of the team gets bogged down, the Mouser clears the jam with a shout, a spell, a sword, or gunfire. I will need to think on this a bit more to properly formulate it.

*****

For a different take on the story elements presented in "Claws from the Night", check out Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. Clad in Chinese clothes, it recounts the adventures of Number Ten Ox and the sage Master Li as they try to save the children of their village from poison by stealing a treasure from the local lord. Nobler analogues of Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, bird deities, and treasure-mad shrewish wives can be found in its pages.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thieve's House and the picaresque archetype.

Thieve's House is a story that happens after what most people would consider a more proper venture for a sword & sorcery adventure. We are told about how the Gray Mouser managed to pick an apparently unpickable triple lock, and we are also told of how Fafhrd killed the dreadful monster that guarded a treasure. But we are told of all that after the fact, and in a passing manner, with not a single description or narration. 

Thieve's House, as the title says, is not about the dungeon raid but about the following problems concerning loot allocation and why you should be suspicious of sneaky NPCs that offer you information about treasures only you can recover (Protip: he plans to double-cross you.)

As with Jewels in the Forest, our duo's motivation is simple and straightforward: money. Some may prefer more noble and epic goals, but "the rent is due" (or the bar tab, probably) is a good motivation as any. I think I'm growing on these more mundane objectives as they make the characters more down-to-earth and relatable. Besides, I'd be lying if I said there is no nobility or courage in this story. 

Some readers may have missed it because Leiber doesn't explicitly state it and there are no grandiloquent proclamations of loyalty, friendship, and goodness, or inner struggle either, but here the Gray Mouser behaves in a really selfless manner, made more pronounced by the fact that Leiber doesn't bring our attention to it and it develops in a natural and almost reflex manner, as true emotions always do.

Not only does the rogue go back to a thieve's den to rescue his friend, Fafhrd, he does it after he managed to get his hands on the treasure, the skull Ohmphal. He could have fled with the treasure, but he did not. Sure, we know he would never have done that, after all, they are called Fafhrd AND the Gray Mouser for a reason, but still, it is a notable behavior, especially when it comes from characters like these.

In my previous post, I mentioned a few connections between that Jewels in the Forest and D&D. There are also a few here, but probably more of tone and style. Although Fritz Leiber was not the first to create the concept of a Thieve's Guild (I'll go back to that point later,) he probably was one of the firsts to create a Thieve's Guild as we understand them, in a Fantasy context. In fact, it's hard to read this story and not recognize many other thieve's guilds from scores of games and novels. 

It may be just a coincidence, but as I was reading this story, my mind kept telling me "I'm sure I have played this one before." Yes, played. A Thieve's Guild, with labyrinthic sublevels and, finally, a dark, forgotten, and ruined underground where the undead roam and dark gods are worshiped? Uhh...

Baldur's Gate (1) Thieve's Guild, (2) Thieve's Maze (3) Undercity


In any event, there was a sentence that made me think of a curious and old rule (I don't know how many people use or used it) which has mostly disappeared from later editions and RPGs. When most people think about traps they think about a yes/no event. Perhaps this is an influence from video games (as in Baldur's Gate) where most traps occupy the whole width of a corridor and the only option to avoid them is to disarm them (no 10-foot pole allowed!) Whatever the reason, this what not always the case:

"Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them. Pits will open in the same manner."

             OD&D, Book III: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, page 9.

Sure, that was when the thief class didn't exist, but the same rule still appeared years later:

"If any character does something which could trigger a trap (such as walking over a certain point), the trap will be sprung on a roll of 1-2 (on 1d6)."

                                                                  D&D Basic Set (1981,) page 22.

So, yeah, you could miss a trap just by sheer luck, just like Fafhrd:

"Had he originally entered this blind alley by way of the corridor, missing the deadly stone by pure luck?"

There's also the whole jargon used to describe and talk about the thieves, which is pure D&D. As I mentioned in my previous post, classes had Titles assigned to levels, and for thieves, they went from Apprentice to Master Thief. And in this story, the low thief novices are described as apprentices, and the title of the leader of the guild is, yes, a master thief. Also, one of the thieves, Fissif, is described as a "cut-purse of the first rank," and cut-purse was the Title for a level 5 thief. And then there's Leiber affection for the word "pilfer," which is the root word for another Title (Pilferer.) 

However, here I should mention that it was not Leiber who invented those labels. Gygax et al. may or may not have gotten the inspiration from him, but he was not the original creator of these conventions and titles. That honor should go to the XVI-XVII Spanish writers who created the genre of picaresque novels and, through them,  their followers and imitators in the English-speaking world, which adapted it to their own criminal underworld. But even these writers were merely drawing inspiration from the reality they saw around them, which -oddly enough- would make the Thief the most historically "accurate" class of them all.

Puzzling as it may seem to modern readers, the idea of a "guild" of thieves (without a maze or underground lair, though,) with a hierarchy and titles which went from apprentice to master, was nothing more than applying medieval guild's customs to the organizations of the criminal underworld. As with any other guild, you started as an Apprentice, and you finally became a Master. But unlike a Master Smith or Cobbler or whatever, you are now a Master Thief. Which sounds cooler, to be fair.

That medieval version of the Mafia was what those Spanish novels described with a style that, although they are centuries-old books, seems curiously modern for their naturalism. Con-artists, beggars, thief apprentices, and all sorts of rogues and scoundrels that survived thanks to their wits were the protagonists of those stories which tried to portray the dark side of cosmopolite and newly-rich cities like Seville, with all their contradictions, hypocrisies, moral degeneration, and peculiarities.

It is notable that while most fantasy archetypes are, well, exactly that, almost eternal archetypes like the Warrior or the Mage and various variations of those themes, the Rogue/Thief is unique in itself, the one with a more concrete sociological context and raison d'ĂȘtre

I'm not talking about his quasi-magical skills as defined in D&D, like hiding in shadows, as those would be added later to give him an almost mystical halo, as with Thief's protagonist, Garrett (a clearly D&D-inspired video game, by the way,) but its social and historical justification as a class. I mean, why (and how) would anyone specialize in picking locks, climbing buildings, or disarming traps? While, generally speaking, the idea of "adventurers" work better in an almost post-apocalyptical landscape, and the only thing a warrior needs is the will to fight and a weapon, the rogue is an urban creature that profits, in fact, requires, advanced civilizations and that sudden wealth that begets vice, misery, and organized crime. 

Even Lankhmar is a cosmopolitan port, like all the great cities and organizations that have inspired the Thief archetype, from Seville to Shangai, from our European criminal guilds to the more exotic and mysterious master criminals of the East which years later would become many of our Super Villains (e.g. Dr. Fu-Manchu.) 

As a source for villains or anti-heroes, the dark underbelly of our civilizations has created some our most memorable cultural icons. And to the question "Where can one find adventure?" the Thief is the urban answer to a genre used to the wilderness.









A Different Sort of Shaggy Dog Story

I
f you really want to know whether or not a man has got some serious writing chops, take a look at how he writes long, slow, boring chase scenes.  For my money, no one does it better than Louis L’Amour, whose cowboys often found themselves haring off all over the west chasing after bandits, kidnapped ladies, or missing doggies.  Lieber pulls out all the stops in this story, when the Grey Mouser wakes up alone and sets out to track Fafhrd.  The description of one man running through a grassland for more than a day and half might make for a read as dull as actually running for that long, but Leiber changes up the terrain, pauses for the Grey Mouser to ponder Fafhrd’s predicament and whereabouts, and get the lay of the land.  All the while, the titular howling grows and grows.  The reader and the Grey Mouser both know exactly where Fafhrd is, but instead of skipping the long tracking scene in a sentence or two, Leiber makes good use of the hours long run to ratchet up the tension.

Leiber also manages to make the dreaded expository dump more tense than it has any right to be.  The old man’s story describing the source of the howling is so well performed that one wonder if that old man might not have made for a successful fantasy writer had he only been born in 20th century earth instead of Nehwon. 

In fact, if there’s anything disappointing about this tale, it would be the standard ghost story ending where the source of the howling was simply hungering for vengeance.  Leiber keeps that storybook ending brief, and the remainder of The Howling Tower is so well done that Leiber can be forgiven for not deviating from the standard stories on that score.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Next Puppy: Catskinner's Book

Misha Burnette is one of those writers who first came to my attention in the pages of Cirsova Magazine, with his eldritch earth story.  The strength of that story led me to his blog, and I've been a regular reader ever since.  His post on the Five Pillars of Pulp (Action, Impact, Moral Peril, Mystery, and Romance, for those of you following along at home) has been the subject of much well deserved praise.  He is definitely an author who deserves more support than he has gotten to date.

His writing advice and analysis is outstanding, and his short work memorable, and so he has been on my "to read" list for quite some time.  It's time to move one of his books over into the "have read" column.  The fact that several men whose judgment I trust enjoyed his books gives me the confidence to select Catskinner's Book as the March Puppy of the Month selection.

A warning, this book is one of the darker books ever selected for reading.  My understanding is that it is a moody and solemn story that harkens back more to the New Wave sf/f than to my typically preferred pulpy style.  That's not a contradiction or compromise.  The Pulp Revolution has no purity test.  It has no interest in retconning previous styles out of existence, and can readily admit that every style of fiction has its classics that can be enjoyed by anyone.

Let's see if Catskinner's Book is one of those together this March.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Seven Black Priests

The Mouser did not find his watch a pleasant one. In place of his former trust in this rocky nook, he now scented danger in every direction and peered as often at the steamy pit as at the black entrance beyond the glowing coals, entertaining himself with vivid visions of a cooked priest somehow writhing his way up. Meanwhile the more logical part of his mind dwelled on an unpleasantly consistent theory that the hot inner layer of Nehwon was indeed jealous of man and that the green hill was one of those spots where inner Nehwon was seeking to escape its rocky jacket and form itself into all-conquering man-shaped giants of living stone. The black Kleshite priests would be Nehwon-worshippers eager for the destruction of all other men. And the diamond eye, far from being a bit of valuable and harmless loot, was somehow alive and seeking to enchant Fafhrd with its glittering gaze, and lead him to an obscure doom.
Shortly after the skatefish of sunken Simorgya supped on Lavas Laerk and his Northmen crew, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser trek through the snowy wastes even further north than the Cold Waste. They encounter a tropical priest who tries to kill them. After dispatching the speed bump, they find a green oasis in the snowy desert, six more black priests, and a diamond eye in a cliff face that ensorcels Fafhrd...


The seven priests ambush one at a time, and although they used jungle weapons such as blowgun darts, I never thought of their furs and hats as something as primitive as Fafhrd's barbarian kin, but something more...Cossack in nature.

With the exception of "The Circle Curse", the stories prior to "The Seven Black Priests" all originally appear in John Campbell's Unknown, at the end of the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction. "The Seven Black Priests," however, was written at the end of the Campbelline Era, appearing in Other Worlds Science Stories. The change in storytelling in the ten year gap between Unknown and Other Worlds shows the signs of Campbell's influence. "The Seven Black Priests" is less moody, more humorous, and less personal than the Weird Tales-inspired stories in this volume. The seven black priests meet their fate, one by one, in almost a slapstick manner, never posing a greater threat than a speed bump to Fafhrd and the Mouser. Truly, the priests were just doing their jobs protecting the world from the diamond eye. As such, there was no personal malice towards Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, as there was with Lavas Laerk and Lord Rannarsh. As the Campbelline influence gave way, some of this will return in future stories. Perhaps this might be due to Leiber's later friendship with Michael Moorcock.

The core formula, however, remains unchanged. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are out on a different adventure when they get swept up into something grander. In this case, a chance encounter as they trek across the frozen wastes entangles them with a shrine protecting the bones and magma blood of the earth. Whether it is "just" a titanic earth elemental or the world itself is unclear. Not that it matters, as whatever power that warms the green oasis is powerful enough to charm Fafhrd (again). The Mouser saves Fafhrd from the enchantment and the monster causing it, and the two adventurers walk away with less than what they had before their adventure. They contemplate a brief moment of sobriety, and then it's off to the next adrenaline rush. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and Fafhrd and the Mouser still delivers fun.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Brief History of Faf and the Mouse

Their first appearance
in print
Normally, we just read these books and post our thoughts on them, but the history of the fantasy dynamic duo turns out to be interesting enough for a post in its own right.  For example, did you know that Fritz Leiber didn't create the two?  Strange, but true. 

If Infogalactic is to be believed, and I see no reason not to, they and the city of Lankhmar were named in 1934 by Leiber's friend, Harry Otto Fischer (a fellow author who actually wrote a Grey Mouser story published in The Dragon, Issue #18 and there goes my resolution not to mention D&D while discussing this book).  Leiber would have been 24 at the time.  The last story in the series, The Mouser Goes Below, was published in 1988.  That means Leiber spent fifty-two years writing about these two characters.  That's a lot of mileage to get out of fantasy's original buddy-cop pairing.

A couple of other bits ripped from Infogalactic for your enjoyment:
  • Bazarre of the Bizarre, chapter 10 of the collection we're reading from, is one of Leiber's three favorite stories
  • A sex scene from The Swords of Lankhmar, cut by editor Don Wollheim ("Good Heaven, Fritz, we're a family publisher...") was published in Fantasy Newsletter #49 (July 1982).
  • The characters were loosely modeled upon Leiber himself and his friend Harry Otto Fischer.
For those of you who game in 15mm, you can find a spitting image pair of miniatures in Splintered Light's Adventurers Pack #3.  They even painted them appropriately for their catalog:

Friday, February 10, 2017

Jewels in the Forest & Ancient Sagas of Heroes and D&D

THE CIRCLE CURSE

If this is your first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Circle Curse works as an excellent introduction to the two adventurers (and two wizards that will return in later stories.) It sets the main theme and a bit of the mood that will guide the rest of the stories, sketching the reasons for their sudden departure from the city of Lankhmar. There is probably no more classical motive for a wandering hero than a broken heart, and in this case, this driving passion also humanizes the characters and gives them a more complex personality, something important once they start their less unsavory exploits.

This story negates the traditional direction taken for granted in most fantasy, where the narrative begins in a small physical location, almost a prison for the main protagonist who yearns to discover what lies beyond the literal or metaphorical walls of his homeland. On the other hand, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser aren't really yearning for adventures as much as they are fleeing from their own demons. But that world beyond Lankhmar and their travels, something that could have been the story for a whole book, are barely described in a few short but evocative paragraphs. The journey doesn't bring them the peace they need, and since they have traveled all around the world and the pain has not yet subsided, the solution seems inevitable: they must return to the hated city of Lankhmar. And this is where the real story begins.

"And in any case Lankhmar seemed no worse than any other place in Nehwon and more interesting than most. So they stayed there for a space, making it once more the headquarters of their adventurers."

THE JEWELS IN THE FOREST

Although the events of the previous story are not mentioned, it is implied this story happened after those, after the two adventurers had settled once again in Lankhmar.

Having pilfered from a Lord an old and cryptic letter that hints at a gigantic and apparently unprotected treasure in a tower hidden deep inside the forest, the two protagonists set off on their next adventure. It's hard to find a more D&D motivation than "huge cache of jewels in an abandoned tower, probably protected by an unknown menace," so it's easy to see why the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were always at the top of all the list of things that inspired D&D.

I'm sure the other contributors will write better analyses of this story (actually, they already have,) so I'll focus on a D&D-related piece of trivia hidden in this short story. Now, I don't know where I first heard about this, I guess it was some Old-School Revival blog years ago, but I haven't managed to find the original source. Still, I'm pretty sure I'm not making this up or, at least, I'm not the only one who has made this up.

There's a scene in this story where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are fighting some noble's henchmen (the same one from whom the Gray Mouser had stolen the letter,) and this happens:

"Fafhrd, his back to a great oak, had his broadsword out and was holding off two of Rannarsh's henchmen, who were attacking with their short weapons. It was a tight spot and the Northerner realized it. He knew that ancient sagas told of heroes who could best four or more men at swordplay. He also knew that such sagas were lies, providing the hero's opponents were reasonably competent. 
And Rannarsh's men were veterans."

Used to other fantasy stories, where the hero slashes through hordes of enemies as if the were hay, this is an interesting shift in tone and style. But I want to focus on a specific sentence, the one about the ancient sagas and the four or more men. Because I think that sentence is the source of a D&D element: the name levels.

If any non-grognard is reading this, name levels (or "Titles") was a curiosity from the days of OD&D and Basic D&D. The official title of your class wasn't really "Magic-user, level 5" or something equally bureaucratic and bland, but Enchanter, which was the Title for 5th level magic-users. For example, this is the table for the Thief class, as found in p6 of the Expert Rulebook (1980.) 



Now, I'm sure most people just said "my character is a level X-whatever, " but the Titles were kinda cool, and going from Apprentice to Master Thief probably felt great. Also, people like Titles.

Having explained that, we'll still have to go back even further, to the most distant origin of the RPGs, the Fantasy Supplement that appeared in Chainmail, the miniature wargame that Gygax and Jeff Perren designed. That supplement included many fantastic creatures we now take for granted, and also a lot of spells that would later appear in D&D, like Slow, Haste, Confusion, Fireball, etc. Being a wargame, there were no Player Characters, but there were special units, like Wizards and Heroes (and Superheroes)

HEROES (and Anti-heroes): included in this class are certain well-known knights, leaders of army contingents, and similar men. They have the fighting ability of four figures, the class being dependent on the arms and equipment of the Hero types themselves, who can range from Ligh Foot to Heavy Horse. 

SUPER HEROES: Few and far between, these fellows are one-man armies! (Particularly when armed with magical weaponry.) They act as Hero-types in all cases, except they are about twice as powerful.

Some of you may have already realized what I'm trying to say, but if not, here's the table for the Fighter class as it appeared in the same Expert Rulebook, D&D 1st edition:


And that part about "they fight like four figures" was transferred directly to the old OD&D, since "fighting like a Hero" literally meant "fighting like four Men and having the Hits of four Men."




You can see that the title for level 4 and 8 are Hero and Super Hero, which are a reference to those Chainmail rules: Heroes have "the fighting ability of four figures, " and Super Heroes are "twice as powerful."

Now, reread that part I quoted from The Jewels in the Forest. This sentence to be specific:

"He knew that ancient sagas told of heroes who could best four or more men at swordplay."

"Hero" and "four (or more) men"? Well, isn't that a coincidence? Also, another coincidence, the title for a level 1 fighter is Veteran, as in "And Rannarsh's men were veterans." Translated into D&D-speak: 

"He knew ancient rules that told of level 4 Fighters who could best four or more men at swordplay. He also knew that was horseshit, providing the opponents were reasonably competent and not level 0 mooks. And Rannarsh's men were level 1 Fighters."

Now, I'm not saying this short paragraph was the source of the whole idea of class levels but... it's a fascinating possibility. In any event, it seems clear that at least it did inspire the Titles and power-level (first via Chainmail) of Hero and Superhero.

Also, if anyone ever tells you that "heroic" adventure starts at level 12 or somesuch, or that level 4 characters are "low level," remind them that level 8 was already considered Superhero back then, before the Great Level Inflation.

The Sunken Land

“Sh! Do you care so little for life? Remember, you are Lavas Laerk’s henchman. But I will tell you what you would know.” He sat down on the wet bench beside Fafhrd, looking like a bundle of black rags someone had dropped there. “Lavas Laerk has sworn to raid far Simorgya, and he has put a vow of silence upon himself and his men until they sight the coast. Sh! Sh! I know they say Simorgya is under the waves, or that there never was such a place. But Lavas Laerk swore a great oath before his mother, whom he hates worse than he hates his friends, and he killed a man who thought to question his decision. So it’s Simorgya we seek, if only to steal pearls from the oysters and ravish the fishes.
"The Sunken Land" starts with Fafhrd's joyous shout as he rips a strange ring from the belly of a fish as he cleans it. The discovery lays heavily on the Gray Mouser's mind. Our adventurers are on the sea once again, and the effect of ring and wave has charmed Fafhrd. The ring brings first a storm and then Lavas Laerk's ship, gone a-viking to loot the sunken land of Simorgya. Now impressed into Lavas Laerk's crew, the barbarian chief recognizes Fafhrd's ring. As the lookout cries "Land, ho!", Lavas Laerk declared Fafhrd to be a Simorgyan spy...


This is Fafhrd's tale, as he spends much of it isolated from the Gray Mouser, whether through physical separation or charm-induced navel gazing. The easy banter between the two is not present, filled instead by the barbarian's growing gloom.  The Gray Mouser is not absent, however, as his off-screen adventures save Fafhrd's life, making the pair the sole survivors of what would have otherwise been a total party kill.

Of particular interest is just how much of the story in general takes place off screen. Starting with Fafhrd's discovery of his ring, any part of the story that was not Lavas Laerk's mad rush on the phosphorescent sunken city was relegated to dialogue. The effect is an exercise in indirect horror, for while the gloom is set up by the storm and the trudge through the city's phosphorescent skate murals, it is Lavas Laerk's rash vow and the Hitchcockian discovery of his fate that adds the chills to this  story.  As Sophocles said, those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud. And Fafhrd eventually recognizes that everything since the discovery of his ring had been "intended by something or someone." And by leaving the terror of that discovery to the theater of the mind, Leiber creates an impact far more chilling than explicitly showing each blow.

It is not hard as all to see the significant debt Pratchett's Discworld owes to Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In addition to Lankhmar and the Thieves' Guild, Pratchett also borrowed the sunken city, putting a humorous spin on it in line with the changes that John Campbell wanted to make to fantasy with his Unknown magazine. But Simorgya stands vivid in the imagination where Leshp does not because humor defuses tension, robbing Leshp of the dark glamour of its forebear, Simorgya.

The cloaks of Simorgya...

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thieves' House - A Fantasy Heist

Okay, team.  We're going to get through this story without making a single D&D reference.  It's not going to be easy, but if we all pull together, and give it everything we got, we can do this!  Deep breath.  Deeeeep breath.

I
The things you find on a Google Image
Search never cease to amaze...
n the past
, I've criticized authors for starting stories post media res.  In Thieves' House, Leiber almost does just that, but not quite.  He sets up the location of a well-guarded treasure, locked in an un-crackable vault and guarded by an un-killable beast.  Then Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser crack the vault, slay the beast, and get betrayed, and it all happens off camera!

The nerve of some authors.

Leiber gets away with it by front loading the tale with a scene of the masterminds behind this plot explaining that this isn't going to be the story of our heroes obtaining the treasure, but trying to keep it.  Knowing that the thief Fissif fully intends to double cross Faf and Grey gives the reader fair warning that the action won't involve picked locks and fantastic beasts, but double-crosses, triple-crosses, and all sorts of paranoia inducing fun.

The opening scroll explaining that the skull of Omphal is cursed also clues the reader into the cluelessness of the men who run the Thieves' Guild.  We semi-omnipotent readers know full well that ignoring the warning of the skull's accursed nature is bound to bite somebody before the tale runs its course.

If there's one potential flaw in this story, it's the seeming coincidence of a dazed and concussed Fafhrd just so happening to blunder into a forgotten secret passage that just so happens to contain the lost gods of the Thieves' Guild just at the moment said gods are about to reclaim the lost skull of Omphal.  On further consideration, that sort of coincidence is no coincidence at all.  Rather, it is the direct result of actions taken by the gods of the thieves who lured Fafhrd into their tomb specifically to use him as an instrument of their vengeance.

Once again, Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser knowingly walk into danger for the sheer thrill of adventure.  That may be a character flaw on the part of the two, but it's a necessary one if there is to be a story here, and if the two don't act contrary to their nature.  We know that Faf and Grey are clever - you can see this in their schemes and ploys, and the way they can predict what their foes are likely to do at any given moment.  Clearly, for Leiber to present them as consistently clever, he has to show that they know the Theives' Guild is a trap, and yet send them into its jaws anyway.  If they were truly smart, they'd have just walked away from the bright door in the dark alley and left the Skull of Omphal to fend for itself.  Leiber solves that conundrum by making them smart enough to recognize the danger, but by giving them a hunger for danger and adventure far stronger than their hunger for safety and security.

They might not be perfect heroes.  They might not be heroes at all.  But at least they are consistently written ,and that is a rarity not often seen in today's fiction.

We did it!  High fives all around!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Circle Curse

As unmoved by this prodigy as by the thunder-stroke, Fafhrd bellowed above the storm toward the doorway, his voice sounding tiny to himself in his thunder-smitten ears, “Hear me, witch, wizard, nightgaunt, whatever you are! I shall never in my life enter again the foul city which has stolen from me my dearest and only love, the incomparable and irreplaceable Vlana, for whom I shall forever grieve and for whose unspeakable death I shall forever feel guilt. The Thieves’ Guild slew her for her freelance thieving— and we slew the slayers, though it profited us nothing at all.” 
“Likewise I shall never lift foot toward Lankhmar again,” the Gray Mouser took up from beside him in a voice like an angry trumpet, “the loathy metropolis which horribly bereft me of my beloved Ivrian, even as Fafhrd was bereft and for similar reason, and left me loaded with an equal weight of sorrow and shame, which I shall bear forever, even past my perishing.”
Want to make wizards laugh? Tell them your plans.

In this case, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are leaving Lankhmar on a green pilgrimage - self-imposed exile, never to return. Their loves from Swords and Deviltry lay buried, along with most of the Theives' Guild that killed them. As they leave the city's gate, a walking hut follows them, taunting the adventurers that they must return to Lankhmar. After years of adventures, and another encounter with a different meddling wizard, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have seen and done it all. Bored out of their minds, they return to Lankhmar.

"The Circle Curse" serves as a bridge between "Ill Met in Lankhmar" in Swords and Deviltry and "The Jewels in the Forest." At the end of "Ill Met in Lankhmar," the youths Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser slaughter the Thieves' Guild in revenge for their murdered loves. After the deed is done, they flee the city. "The Circle Curse" picks up as soon as they leave the gates, tying up loose ends. The catalog of adventures and lands serves to explain the air of easy expertise the adventurers show in "The Jewels in the Forest." And the pair's boredom explains why they're back in Lankhmar. Time might not heal all wounds, but it can dull them.

I wouldn't go so far to say that "The Circle Curse" could be skipped; it does fill a continuity gap. But it is another example of the dreaded travelogue in fantasy, a tour through the author's worldbuilding. Fortunately, Leiber works through it in mere pages, where today's authors might require books. Think of it as the boys' boot camp, where youths become men. Like an appetizer, the story's true purpose is to prepare the palate for the course to come.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Jewels in the Forest - The First Variation on a Theme

Circle of Death is a fine chapter, and one necessary to kick off a collection of stories like Swords Against Death, but I’m going to skip it.  It strikes me as a prologue dedicated more to setting the stage for the stories that follow than as a story in its own right.  Lieber’s writing grabs you, and the introductions of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes are impressive, but little more than foreshadowing events spaced far enough out in Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s lives for them not to make the connection, but close enough for the reader to do.  Whatever else happens, we know that the fantasy odd-couple are destined to play a role as pawns in the games of those two oracular sorcerers.  This chapter of their lives is no less adventurous than the stories that follow, but a grim and bleak pall must hang over the stories of the adventures of the two as they flee from the city that caused their grief, and would make for a very different sort of tale than those that follow.

Once the two get over their grief, they can get back to the rolling adventures and fantasy buddy-cop style banter that is their trademark.  Speaking of which, Jewels of the Forest…

It’s a Dungeon Crawl

Complete with adventurer’s kit.

“The Mouser carried a mallet and a stout iron pry-bar, in case they had to attack masonry, and made certain that candles, flint, wedges, chisels, and other small tools were in his pouch. Fafhrd borrowed a pick from the peasant’s implements and tucked a coil of thin, strong roper in his belt.  He also took his bow and quiver of arrows.”
Something tells me the thesis of this analysis will wind up as a recurring thread this month.  Jewels in the Forest might be the single most accurate dungeon crawl I’ve read, and I’ve read the novelizations of both Keep on the Borderlands and The Temple of Elemental Evil, and those were novelizations of literal dungeon crawls.  Here, Fritz puts on a clinic for aspiring DMs looking to run dungeon crawls that are a little more thematic than, “In a hole in the ground lived a bunch of orcs.”
By hook or by crook Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser come into possession of a treasure map which they follow to a long abandoned tower.  After a night of role-play with the local peasantry and suitable foreshadowing on their part, the two set out for the nearby buried treasure. 

In this story Fritz answers one question that has plagued D&D groups ever since they stopped reading the game's source material:  Why is there a deadly dungeon right smack in the middle of civilization? It turns out that travel off of well-trod paths is hard.  If you’ve never tried to push a mile through the unspoiled wilderness, you probably don’t realize just how hard it is.  Bear in mind, we’re not talking about walking through the local woods at your state park, these are untouched woods filled with vegetation of all sorts and sizes, all growing in and around and on top of each other.  Pressing through that sort of forest is like climbing a flight of stairs with a heavy load on your back.  Even short hikes are long and tiring. 

Granted, we know that paths lead to the dungeon, because the little girl in the story admits to playing there often.  The point isn’t that you can get to the tower easily, just that it’s not the sort of thing hordes of people would randomly chance across.  Buried inside a ring of old growth forest a few miles across, it might as well be on an island a hundred miles off shore.  Sure, you could get there from here, but why would you?  It’s just an old, abandoned tower that gives you the creeps, and you’ve only got two weeks to get the crops in or your whole family starves to death this winter.
Once Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser get to the tower, it turns out that they obtained their map more by crook than by hook.  A second NPS party has beaten them to the punch!  Before they can enter, they have to fight an enemy of a more mundane sort, and one that has just as much claim to the treasure as they do.  Lieber’s description of Rannarsh as a “cruelly handsome man” serves as a classic example of concise description.  You know everything you need to know about him from those three words.  It’s also a classic case of know when to break the rules.  For most writers, “Show, don’t tell,” is an iron clad rule, but Fritz breaks it with wild abandon.  He doesn’t need to belabor the point by showing Rannarsh acting vain, he has already told us this in those three little words.
Before the fight, and during the foray inside the Tower of Urgaan of Ungarngi, we learn of why no one has stolen the treasure away yet.  The whole tower is a trap designed to spread misery long after the death of its maker.  It’s an elaborate trap, a living tower with a brain of black quicksilver and priceless jewels that shine with the light of unseen stars, and one that has claimed the lives of many an adventurer over the years, both in this tale and those created around kitchen and dining room tables since Gygax blessed us with his creation.
Fritz Leiber himself.
Give that guy black hair and a flatter nose, and
this is exactly how I pictured Arvlan in my head.
Fritz also shows DMs a weird trick that is almost criminally underused at the gaming table* – using the cleric as a trap finder.  I kid; don’t let the healer blunder into trapped rooms, kids!  You need that heal bot healthy in case the thief gets squarshed by a tower shaped earth elemental.  The real purpose of a wandering NPC like Arvlan is two-fold.  On the one hand, Arvlan comes across as a seriously hard dude.  Firm, resolute, commanding, and knowledgeable about the Tower.  Then he gets pasted off screen, thus building tension in the protagonists.  “If that guy is toast, what chance do we have,” is exactly the sort of thing you want your protagonists thinking as they head into the final showdown, be they players at the table, or characters in your own story.  The second aspect to Arvlan’s appearance is that his death provides an important clue as to the threat facing Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.  If you don’t want the price of obtaining that clue to be the life of a protagonist, just throw a quick extra into the mix and let him die horribly.
As if this story doesn’t already offer enough grist for the gaming mill, Fritz continues the clinic by demonstrating how you can tantalize players with a phenomenal treasure that they can glimpse, but never possess.  The only way to stop the death-trap into which they have willingly set foot is to destroy the priceless treasure! Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser end the story sadder but wiser, and content with the knowledge that they’ve rid the world of a great and aged evil.  At the gaming table, you’ll probably need to throw the players a few bones in the form of a dead brain-gem or two for their trouble, because experience doesn’t pay the drinking and whoring bills.
This subject recently came up in more ephemeral on-line discussions, but it’s worth recording for posterity here.  Those who plan on running RPGs for their friends could buy a dozen pre-packaged adventures and still have a dozen hanging questions about each of them.  For half the cost and twice the fun, they could also buy this one book and read the dozen adventures it contains and steal ideas freely from it.  The end result would be more thorough, more believable, more immersive, and far more personal.  This book was one of the RPG supplements that Gygax used to plan his adventures, and if it was good enough for Gygax, it ought to be good enough for you.
 
* On further consideration, this is a trick as old as Call of Cthulhu. Judges in that game throw doomed NPCs around like Star Trek writers.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Jewels in the Forest

“Let kings stack their treasure houses ceiling-high, and merchants burst their vaults with hoarded coin, and fools envy them. I have a treasure that outvalues theirs. A diamond as big as a man’s skull. Twelve rubies each as big as the skull of a cat. Seventeen emeralds each as big as the skull of a mole. And certain rods of crystal and bars of orichalcum. Let Overlords swagger jewel-bedecked and queens load themselves with gems, and fools adore them. I have a treasure that will outlast theirs. A treasure house have I builded for it in the far southern forest, where the two hills hump double, like sleeping camels, a day’s ride beyond the village of Soreev.  
“A great treasure house with a high tower, fit for a king’s dwelling— yet no king may dwell there. Immediately below the keystone of the chief dome my treasure lies hid, eternal as the glittering stars. It will outlast me and my name, I, Urgaan of Angarngi. It is my hold on the future. Let fools seek it. They shall win it not. For although my treasure house be empty as air, no deadly creature in rocky lair, no sentinel outside anywhere, no pitfall, poison, trap, or snare, above and below the whole place bare, of demon or devil not a hair, no serpent lethal-fanged yet fair, no skull with mortal eye a-glare, yet have I left a guardian there. Let the wise read this riddle and forbear.”'
-Fritz Leiber, "The Jewels in the Forest"
So is anyone else hearing the rattle of dice and the call to adventure? I don't mean that in the pejorative sense of today; despite Lankhmar's wargame origins, I never have the inkling that Leiber is merely turning gaming sessions into stories. Rather, even in Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's various moods and frenzies, their enthusiasm for adventure is infectious. It isn't just greed that compels them to search for Urgaan's treasure, as they realize that, nine times out of ten, the treasure won't be at the end of the map. People boast, and someone else might have beaten them to the goal in the centuries prior. but Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser search any way. It'll be fun. Who knows what sights they'll see? And, yes, a diamond as big as a man's skull will buy wine, wenches, and song in Lankhmar. These boys aren't plaster saints.

I will pass on the summary this time.  Leiber meters out information slowly.  We meet his adventurers caught in an ambush well before the Gray Mouser reads Urgaan's challenge. Then we discover the identity of the ambushers, and that, thanks to the Gray Mouser's quick fingers, the ambushers do have a legitimate quarrel with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Rather than front loading the action with these details, Leiber lets the Gray Mouser ponder each - after the ambush is routed, of course. It serves to establish the adventurers' priorities as adrenaline junkies and curiosity seekers, and it would be a shame to mar such a slow burn with the compactness required in a summary. Besides, this is a pulp treasure hunt. We know that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser will find the treasure, but not yet what twists await their discovery.

Seven foot tall Fafhrd is a barbarian from the snowy North, a fighter and a skald with a curiosity toward civilization, even if he sees the downside as well. He is an idealist, but with a strong tendency towards practicality that keeps him alive. The Gray Mouser is a wizard's apprentice-turned thief, dexterous enough to be a fencer or a stage magician.  He is more cynical than Fahrd, but has a sentimental streak. Both are experienced professionals, knowing when to run or fight, and when discretion is the better part of valor. This experience keeps them alive after a second set of ambushes. However, practicality and sentiment allow them to escape the murderous traps at the end of "The Jewels in the Forest".




Back when my first introduction to D&D was the Baldur's Gate video games, I wondered why the mages used slings. Thank the Gray Mouser for that, as he uses his sling to great effect in the fights here.  Also, Discworld owes much to Lankhmar - Ankh-Morpork, the Thieves' Guild, and the recurring odd pairing of Cohen the Barbarian and Rincewind the Wizzard .

And for today's bit of awesome, here's James Earl Jones reading the first part of "Jewels of the Forest." Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe...


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Welcome to Nehwon

This month, we turn to the world of Nehwon, to the city of Lankhmar, and the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The second volume of their tales, Swords Against Death, collects ten short stories of the barbarian and wizard-thief, including the first five from John Campbell's Unknown magazine. (Fear not, while John Campbell did try to foster a fantasy revolution to match the one he created in science fiction, he felt that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fit the tone of the venerable Weird Tales better than Unknown).

The tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been called  archetypal adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, and it is no surprise that they are featured in the legendary Appendix N, a listing of fantasies that inspired the game. They also share a similar origin to Dungeons & Dragons, as both Lankhmar and Dungeons & Dragons evolved from wargames.  Fritz Leiber had created the world and the game with the help of his friend Harry Fischer in 1937. A revised version of this game would be published 40 years later by TSR, following in the wake of the original publication of D&D. Gamemakers have returned to the setting regularly since then.

While I recommend leaping into the world of Lankhmar with the pulp introduction to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, "The Jewels of the Forest", those who wish to read the origin stories of Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and their partnership should read Swords and Deviltry. Check out JimFear138's review of that audiobook posted below.  (For those who would rather read the transcript, here's a link to his blog post.)