Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Hither Came Conan to Role Playing Games Part 1 (OD&D)

Fantasy Background Retrieved from WallpaperPlay and Cartoony Conan Image by Todd Pickens
The fiction of Robert E. Howard (who was born on this day in 1906), and the stories of Conan in particular, were among the stories that inspired the creation of the earliest editions Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. The game has developed along lines that moved it away from its early Sword & Sorcery roots through various phases and back again as the game has become its own genre of Fantasy fiction.

The early Greyhawk campaign was very much a fusion of Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Poul Anderson. Blackmoor added more Vance a more than a dash of Burroughs and Science Fantasy. D&D's "The Known World" spiced things up by adding direct references to Clark Ashton Smith to the mix. While the official worlds reflected the entirety of Fantasy fiction, the game as played was very Tolkienesque. The inclusion of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits (later called Halflings), inspired a many gaming groups to have campaigns that mirrored the exploration of Moria. With the purchase of The Forgotten Realms and the development and publication of The Dragonlance modules, TSR began producing settings that were more Tolkienesque in execution.

But D&D never left its Sword & Sorcery roots entirely. The publication of the Dark Sun setting, a mashup of Howard, Vance, and Burroughs is one of the best demonstrations of this argument, though the wildly imaginative Planescape, the space hamster infused Spelljammer, and the dark Fairy Tale inspired Birthright settings are also of note. D&D as Fantasy is a genre that is wilder and more patchwork than those who want to argue that D&D is "Tolkien based" fantasy adventure.

Tolkien's influence is undeniable, but his world isn't filled with Dragonborn, Changelings, Living Constructs built for war who are now sentient beings, and races specifically bred to host Entities from the Realm of Dreams. Those are all races common in modern D&D sessions. The game was designed with Sword and Sorcery sensibilities, where Humans were meant to be the most common species played, but it has become something more. It is its own thing, and yet in that gonzo amalgamation of a vast array of Fantasy fiction, the game has in some ways retained a closer connection to its early Sword and Sorcery roots than to being an "Elf Game." The Sword & Sorcery fiction that inspired D&D was freeform. It was in many ways genre-free, in the sense that anything was possible. Before there was an Appendix N (the list of inspirational fiction in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide), there was this introduction to the "Little Brown Books":

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those
who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping
through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do
not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS &
DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find
that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite
you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really
A quick look through that list sees fiction that includes airships that fly by the power of the 8th Ray to propel themselves through the sky at high speeds, adventures where people are transported to the fantastic world of Spencer's Faerie Queene by thinking of mathematical equations, dark and polluted urban settings where the smog is as much a character as the protagonists, and tales where men of strong arms and strong wills flee in terror when they encounter frog headed demons. What you won't find in any of these stories are Elves, Dwarves, or Hobbits.

Though Appendix N has been used by many as the main argument for the primacy of Sword & Sorcery fiction, I would argue that one need look no further than the official game material produced by TSR. They included statistics for Conan and Elric in the Original Dungeons & Dragons Supplment IV (Gods, Demigods, & Heroes) and published a game based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom.

Of these influences, Robert E Howard's creation has served as the inspiration for or been directly adapted by more game companies than any other. TSR adapted Conan for OD&D and AD&D and created a role playing game devoted to the character. Steve Jackson Games produced GURPS Conan. Mongoose Publishing produced a Conan series of books for 3rd Edition D&D. Modiphius is currently publishing a Conan game using their in house 2d20 game system. Beyond these licensed adaptations (though the OD&D adaptation was likely not licensed), games like Barbarians of Lemuria, Sorcerer (with its Sword & Sorcerer supplement), Carrion Lands, and Shadow of the Demon Lord all owe debts to this man of great mirth and great melancholy. Sword & Sorcery is THE major influence of fantasy role playing games and Conan IS the apotheosis of Sword & Sorcery.

So how well have role playing games inspired by Conan's adventures emulated him, both stylistically and mechanically? That is the central question of this series of blog posts and the answer is "depends." This blog post will focus on the version of Conan presented in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, & Heroes and later entries will examine formal and non-formal adaptations. The Wizards of the Coast reprint of the book lacks his entry, but I've transferred the information from that entry onto a character sheet below.

Mechanics from TSR's Gods, Demigods, & Heroes. Illustration by Gil Kane.
This brief entry tells us a few things about the design of Dungeons & Dragons and how good, or not good, they were at emulating a specific character from fiction. Keep in mind that the statistics were produced after the publication of the Greyhawk supplement and thus reflect the full adoption of the "alternate combat system" as the official D&D combat system and the formal publication of the Thief class. The Thief class was created by Gary Switzer of Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, CA and was incorporated into the D&D game via a rules addition and eventual publication in the Greyhawk supplement.

The first thing that we see is that Conan is classified as a Fighter with Thief abilities, the descriptions in the actual supplement are "Fighter Ability: 15th Level" and "This Fighter of the 15th level also has the abilities of a 9th level Thief." In the "post-Greyhawk" supplement rules, the designers had to break the rules as written to emulate what they thought Conan should look like mechanically. In OD&D only demihumans like Elves and Dwarves are expressly described as being capable of having multiple classes.

In some ways, this is an argument against the development of a Thief class at all and an argument for some way of arbitrating things like hiding or climbing walls other than dialog and DM fiat. The Thief class was designed to emulate characters like The Grey Mouser, but the Fighting Man class from the D&D rulebooks could do equally well with only a few additions to the basic rules set. I'm not opposed to having a Thief class, and thing the class has evolved in interesting ways over the years, but I do think that the game would have been perfectly fine had it stayed with Fighters, Magic Users, and Clerics as the only actual classes. Given that the Mouser and Fafhrd were both fantastic swordsmen, but also "thieves," having a Thief class that doesn't fight particularly well seems an odd way to go. This is especially true given how bad Thieves are at thieving. Don't even get me started on what effect it has on realism that thieves have the ability to climb walls, hide in shadows, and move silently when no one else does. 

Had there been no Thief class in the Greyhawk supplement, Conan would likely have been described only as a Fighter. As it is, the authors demonstrated that the emulation of fictional heroes required modifying the rules as written, even for a character as simple to emulate as Conan.

For all the talk of violating the rules as written, you might think that I think the authors have done something terrible. Quite the contrary. I think that by demonstrating that even a character as basic in archetype as Conan requires house ruling, the authors of Gods, Demigods, & Heroes are telling DMs to open up their game play and to not be restricted by the rules as written. As Timothy Kask writes in the introduction to the book, "As we've said time and time again, the 'rules' were never meant to be more than guidelines; not even true 'rules.'" OD&D rules were meant to facilitate play and not restrict it. The arguments for "RAW" play don't get heavily promoted by TSR until the publication of AD&D, and even then are for the purpose of tournament play and not house play.  

Gods, Demigods, & Heroes is an odd and wonderful book. One the one hand it seeks to show DMs how they can modify the rules to create the types of games that best fit their gaming group. On the other hand, it was written as a "last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters." It was meant to show players that even the "most powerful" weren't of ridiculously high levels and that campaigns could be fun at lower level play. And yet, it became for many a menagerie of monsters to be slain by player characters; having the opposite effect it intended.

All of that aside, in a book filled with mythologies the authors only included two that were not "real world" pantheons. They chose to give statistics for the worlds of Conan and of Elric, two sides of the same coin. Two of the best characters in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In doing so, the demonstrated how central Conan and Sword & Sorcery are to the creation of D&D.

Conan would appear in TSR products again a decade later with statistics in two different game systems, but that's a discussion for the next blog post.

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