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.

1 comment:

  1. * 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

    You say this like its a bad thing, writes the CoC GM.