Showing posts with label Conan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Conan. Show all posts

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.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Episode 161: Geekerati Returns with a New Format and an Interview with Dom Zook of Saving Throw Show

The Geekerati Podcast was founded in 2007 and streamed 160 episodes before going on hiatus in 2014. It was meant to be a brief hiatus as the Geekerati panelists coordinated their busy schedules, but it ended up lasting almost five years. With this episode Geekerati returns with new Bi-Weekly prerecorded episodes with new guests and new segments. We are proud to relaunch with an interview with our friend Dom Zook. Dom is the Executive Producer of Saving Throw Show a Role Playing Game Live Play streaming channel on Twitch. If you're a fan of Critical Role, or any other live play show, you should give Saving Throw Show a look.They are currently running a number of gaames online, but their Savage Worlds show launches its new season during the channel's Fundraising Marathon on June 21st!

This episode also sees the introduction of our first new segment, Something Old/Something New. This segment will be a regular review segment and will be joined by other segments including our Dungeon Master advice segment Dungeons & Dilemmas in the near future. Our current segment reviews the old Conan Roleplaying Game by TSR and Attack of the Necron, the first entry in Warped Galaxies the new YA Warhammer Adventures book series from Games Workshop. 

 If the discussion in Something Old/Something new piqued your interest in the system used by the TSR Conan Roleplaying Game, you will want to take a look at its Open Content successor ZeFRS and download the pdf rulebook.

This episode featured the following sound effects from Plate Mail Games: 1950s Space, Inside the Internet, and Space Battle

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why Conan Endures: an Updated Article from the Archives on Robert E Howard's Birthday.

A decade ago, USA Today printed an article by Mike Snider who wrote about Conan's reemergence as a relevant subject in popular culture (hat tip to SF Signal for the story). In response to this article, I wrote a blog post advancing the argument that there are those of us who comment about popular culture who think that Conan has never been an irrelevant figure in society. How can a character who serves as the inspiration for an entire literary genre become truly irrelevant? Every story about a sword wielding barbarian, no matter how trite or bad, is at some level inspired by Robert E. Howard's creation.

At the time Snider wrote his article there was some exciting news for Conan fans. Snider pointed to five recent developments that signal Conan's relevance:

  1. The PS3/XBOX 360 Video Game
  2. The "Conan The Phenomenon" hardcover by Paul Sammon
  3. The Savage Sword of Conan Trade Paperback Collection by Dark Horse
  4. and
  5. The Conan movie by Millennium Films.

Those were important offerings for the Conan fan. Some where better than others, and I wrote some thoughts about how the phenomenon knows as vast narrative hindered the film.  What is also true is that having a plethora of Conan merchandise in the pipeline wasn't a new occurrence. Snider seemd to be under the misunderstanding that 2007 marked some kind of sudden explosion in Conan related material.

Snider neglected to mention:

  1. Conan: The Ultimate Guide by Roy Thomas which released in September 2006
  2. The new Conan comic book series (first released in 2004) written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Cary Nord by Dark Horse
  3. The Mongoose Publishing Conan Roleplaying Game
  4. not to mention
  5. The Age of Conan series of media tie-in novels published in 2005 and 2006
  6. or
  7. Del Rey's publishing of Howard's Original Conan Stories released in 2003
In the years since Snider's article, we've seen:
    1.  A second role playing game which earned over $500,000 on Kickstarter. 
    2.  The Conan board game which earned over $3 million on Kickstarter.
    3.  Pulposaurus's upcoming pre-painted miniatures war game CROM: Conan Rise of Monsters.
    4.  An upcoming feature length film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
    5.  Son of Zorn, a sit-com inspired by Conan, He-man, and Thundarr the Barbarian.
The Conan explosion is perpetual and it isn't a new thing either, I could have pulled numerous examples from the 90s or the 80s of Conan releases. Conan is always lurking in the pop culture subconscious. We do a disservice to Conan fans, both existent and emerging when we use Arnold Schwarzenegger as the archetypal Conan representation, as Snider appears to do in the article. Some like Arnold as archetype, but I find Conan to be one of the most underestimated characters in American literature (with Natty Bumpo being a close second) and the Governator's portrayal -- while fun -- lacks the depth the character actually has as a literary figure.

When it comes to depictions of unreflective low art, one need look no further than the commonly perceived opinions of Robert Howard's Conan stories. If you ask the average man on the street to describe a Conan narrative, you will likely be given a tale of lust and violence. In the tale Conan will rescue some half-naked maiden from some rampaging beast and the story will end with the woman becoming all naked as she swoons at the hero's feet. In fact, a great deal of Conan pastiche has been based on this very simple formula and even a couple of the original tales fit this mold. The largest problem with such a vision is that it is not all that accurate when looking at Howard's tales of Conan as a whole. There are tales of this sort in the Conan oeuvre, but there are also tales of visionary wonder.

Like most authors, whether they write literature or Literature, Howard's writings reflect his own thoughts, experiences, and education. The writing reflects the aesthetic tastes of the author, or his/her understanding of a prospective audiences literary tastes. What makes something worth reading again and again is when an author satisfies those with "lower" tastes while providing them with some food for thought. Howard is no exception. In fact, I was surprised while I was rereading the first published Conan story, Howard's The Phoenix on the Sword to find that the author seemed to be hinting at a theory of the value of literature and its role in society.

Howard's Hyborean Age is a mythic world filled with magic and wonder, but it is also a world based on the history of the real world. Howard combined multiple eras of history so that societies whose "real world" existence is separated by centuries could co-exist narratively. Conan's own people, the Cimmerians, are based on a very real historical peoples. Both Herodotus, in his Histories, and Plutarch, in his Lives, mention the Cimmerian peoples (called Cimbri in Plutarch). In The Phoenix on the Sword, Howard appears to expect his audience to have at least a little understanding of the historical Cimmerians in his conversation of the role of literature in civilization. Conan, as protagonist, must hold ideas which the reader sympathizes with for the particular narrative of Phoenix to work.

So what kind of people were the Cimmerians? According to Herodotus they were a people who were pillagers and raiders, but not rulers.
For the Cimmerian attack upon Ionia, which was earlier than Croesus, was not a conquest of the cities, but only an inroad for plundering.
Herodotus, Histories, I, 6

What did they look like? According to Plutarch:

Their great height, their black eyes and their name, Cimbri, which the Germans use for brigands, led us merely to suppose that they were one of those races of Germania who lived on the shores of the Western Ocean. Others say that the huge expanse of Celtica stretches from the outer sea and the western regions to the Palus Maeotis and borders on Asian Scythia; that these two neighbouring nations joined forces and left their land... And although each people had a different name, their army was collectively called Celto-Scythian. According to others, some of the Cimmerians, who were the first-to be known to the ancient Greeks... took flight and were driven from their land by the Scythians. Plutarch, Life of Marius, XI

What was their temperament? According to Homer:

Thus she brought us to the deep-Rowing River of Ocean and the frontiers of the world, where the fog-bound Cimmerians live in the City of Perpetual Mist. When the bright Sun climbs the sky and puts the stars to flight, no ray from him can penetrate to them, nor can he see them as he drops from heaven and sinks once more to the earth. For dreadful night has spread her mantle over the heads of that unhappy folk. Homer, Odyssey, XI, 14

It is Homer's description of the Cimmerians that Howard uses in Phoenix to describe the mood of the people and to separate Conan from his kin. When Conan is asked why the Cimmerians are such a brooding people, Conan responds:

“Perhaps it’s the land they live in,” answered the king. “A gloomier land never was – all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys.” – Phoenix on the Sword

The average Cimmerian is a dour and towering barbarian who destroys civilization then returns to his gloomy homeland only to begin the process again later. Howard's typical Cimmerian is similar to that of the classical scholars, and presents a figure most unlikely to advance the literary arts. But this is where Conan differs from his kin. In The Phoenix on the Sword, Conan is an older man who has conquered on of the greatest nations of the Hyborean Age expressly to free them from tyrannical rule. He conquered to rule, and to liberate an oppressed nation. A far cry from the typical barbarian. By separating Conan from his kin, Howard simultaneously increases the audience's sympathy for the barbarian king while enabling the character to advance a theory of the value of literature.

The Phoenix on the Sword is the tale of a plot to assassinate King Conan, a plot organized my a Machiavellian figure named Ascalante who desires to assume the throne. Ascalante is the product of civilization, but he is the antagonist of the story and so Howard uses his opinions of the Arts as a way to separate him from the audience's sympathy. When he describes a poet who has been brought into his conspiracy he describes the poet in pejorative terms. These terms evolve as the narrative moves from unpublished draft to final published form. Ascalante originally expresses his disdain for Rinaldo (the poet) in a long description:
“Rinaldo – a mad poet full of hare-brained visions and out-worn chivalry. A prime favorite with the people because of his songs which tear out their heart-strings. He is our best bid for popularity.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

By the time the story is published the description is changed to the very brief, "“…Rinaldo, the hair-brained minstrel.” [Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword(published)]. In the published form, Howard leaves out the value of Rinaldo's participation in the plot because it is redundant with information presented later in the story. When Ascalante is asked what value Rinaldo has as a conspirator, Ascalante's response is similar in both the published and unpublished text, but his hatred of Rinaldo is made more clear in the draft than in the published text:

“Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land. He idealizes the king whom Conan killed to get the crown, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils of his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they openly sing The Lament for the King in which Rinaldo lauds the sainted villain and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but the people snarl.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“Rinaldo – bah! I despise the man and admire him at the same time. He is your true idealist. Alone of us all he has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a peaceful land. He thinks he sees barbarism triumphing over culture. He already idealizes the king Conan killed, forgetting the rogue’s real nature, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils under which the land groaned during his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they open sing ‘The Lament for the King’ in which Rinaldo lauds the saintly villain, and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but at the same time wonders why the people are turning against him.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

In both descriptions the poet is shown to be a blind idealist. Rinaldo, it appears, cannot look beyond the Cimmerian stereotypes as presented by Plutarch and Herodotus. Howard doesn't require the reader to have those preconceptions, but for the reader who has read Herodotus and Plutarch the stereotype becomes even clearer. Also by editing down the prose the author, either willingly or at editorial command, displays an amount of trust that his audience can reach the proper conclusion that barbarism typically destroys the valuable within civilization. What is interesting is that while Rinaldo is a conspirator, the poet is an antagonist, he is not a villain. He is a blind a foolish idealist, not acting in his own self interest. Ascalante even goes on to describe Rinaldo's motivations:

“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism, rising, as he thinks, to overthrow a tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“Because he is a poet. Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and the future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism and he sees himself as a hero, a stainless knight – which after all he is! – rising to overthrow the tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

Ascalante specifies what kind of idealists poets are. They seek an imagined perfect society, and will always look for it no matter how good the society they are currently in happens to be. But this is Ascalante, the Machiavellian civilized man, and his opinion about what the value of the poet is. For him the poet is an easily manipulable puppet. What about the barbarian turned king, the protagonist, and oft argued proxy for the author? (It should be noted that many argue that Conan often reflects Howard's own views, this is not an original assertion on my part.)

Conan adores the poet, and understands the criticisms. He is aware that the poet's plays are leading many among the people to despise him, but he too is persuaded of the need for justice. When his chief adviser, Prospero, discusses disdain for Rinaldo, Conan comes to the poet's (and poetry in general) defense. The text is near identical in the published and unpublished format.

“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rhymes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter, for he has hear ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I will die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished first submitted draft)

“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rimes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live for ever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

For Conan, the atypical Cimmerian, poems and the arts have more power than weapons or royal authority. Not only that, but it is right and just that this is the case. Conan, the barbarian, is the defender of the value of literature, while Ascalante, the civilized man, sees literature as only a tool used to manipulate the foolish. Conan would seek to discuss the past and future, the ideal ones, with the poet, while Ascalante would merely use Rinaldo to destroy what he opposes. Conan's conflict between desiring a free press and swift justice, and the eventual melee that will result because of his favoring of the press, are made clear in the poetic prologue to the final chapter of the narrative.

What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs – I was a man before I was a king. – The Road of Kings Phoenix on the Sword (published)

Surprisingly, Conan's love of literature and the arts, and his defense of them, is so deeply rooted that he initially refuses to kill Rinaldo when Rinaldo attacks him. He still believes he can reason with the poet, it is only when he is left no other alternative that he kills the poet (the text is identical in both published and unpublished forms).

“He rushed in, hacking madly, but Conan, recognizing him, shattered his sword with a short terrific chop and with a powerful push of his open hand sent him reeling to the floor.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“He straightened to meet the maddened rush of Rinaldo, who charged in wild and wide open, armed only with a dagger. Conan leaped back, lifting his ax.

‘Rinaldo!’ his voice was strident with desperate urgency. ‘Back! I would not slay you ..’

‘Die, tyrant!’ screamed the mad minstrel, hurling himself headlong on the king. Conan delayed the blow he was loth to deliver, until it was too late. Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation.

Rinaldo dropped with his skull shattered and Conan reeled back against the wall, blood spurting from between the fingers which gripped his wound.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

What is interesting in the narrative is that of all the conspirators, there are twenty in all, none are able to injure Conan with the success of the poet. The poet has both damaged Conan's regime and his body and yet Conan was ever reluctant to, though in the end capable of, slay his greatest enemy.

“’See first to the dagger-wound in my side,’ he bade the court physicians. ‘Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus.’

‘We should have hanged him long ago,’ gibbered Publius. ‘No good can come of poets..’” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

What does this tell us of Howard's thoughts regarding the arts? We know that Conan loves them, but we also know how they were used to manipulate the populace and how his own love for them almost cost him his life. Is Howard trying to discuss how Plato's critique of the poets is a good one, while at the same time defending the possible nobility of the poet (as Aristotle does in his Rhetoric)? I think these are questions intentionally posed in the narrative (I know...never guess at intentionality), and make it clear why Conan's first story The Phoenix on the Sword was so compelling to readers when they first read it.

It should be noted that the story was originally submitted as a Kull tale, though I have yet to analyze that draft like I have these two subsequent writings. The Kull version was rejected by Weird Tales and the final (rather than the first) Conan version was the first appearance of what has become a culturally iconic figure.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Conan's Life as Nostalgic Neil Young Song

Neil Young's classic song Old Man is a song I associate with many of my favorite childhood memories. Harvest, the album featuring the song, played on our home's stereo with great frequency and is a part of the soundtrack that plays in the back of my mind from time to time. One might think that a parody of this classic rock ballad that mixes sorrowful nostalgia with John Milius' vision of Conan the Barbarian would come across as silly. It doesn't. Nat Kramer's parody music video "Conan Look at My Life" works because it adheres to the first rule of parody songs, above all things make sure that your song is good.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It was the Best of Conans, It was the Worst of Conans

Do me a favor and give a quick look at the Conan poster below.  It shows Conan battling against some tentacled horror.  Think about it for a few seconds.  Do this because the review and discussion I am going to write below may not be exactly what you are looking for.  I'm not going to write with great ire about the Neo-Nihilism of the film, or how it fails to meet Howard's vision.  Nor am I going to blog about how it perfectly captured the "Panther like grace" of Howard's epic hero with a visually stunning world that for the first time has captured Hyboria.  

If you want to read reviews by other passionate Howard fans, you can find Leo Grin's here, James Maliszewski's here, and John R. Fultz's here.   All three are people who have written critical comments about Pulp, Howard, and/or Role Playing Games that I have found thoughtful.

I want to write about Conan: The Barbarian (2012) from a different perspective, from the perspective of "vast narrative," and how the phenomenon of "vast narrative" doomed this particular theatrical adaptation of Conan to be a troubled film at best.

Keep your thoughts about this image of Conan in your mind as I discuss "vast narrative" below.

What is "vast narrative" and why is important when discussing an adaptation of a character who has his roots in the pages of a much admired Pulp magazine?

In Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin's book Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (published by MIT Press in 2009), they discuss certain types of "vastness" that might appear in combinations for some narratives.  In particular, there are the following types of vastness.

First, is vastness of "narrative extent" which is akin to The Wire taking a single season to cover one investigation, or Patrick Rothfuss taking 600 pages in order for his fantasy hero to go to college and acquire student loans -- thus beginning his journey to greatness.

Second, is vastness of "world and character continuity" where characters "operate withing less cyclic narrative models" and where "often ingenious methods [sustain] open-ended narratives are a major theme of the project."  Think of a narrative that attempts to adapt the stories in order to keep up with the times.  Soap operas have this kind of vastness.

Third, is vastness of "Cross-media Universes."  This is the kind of vastness we will be most discussing regarding Conan and Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin describe this vastness as follows: "Though it is now typical for a blockbuster narrative (e.g., The DaVinci Code or Harry Potter) to sprout multiple instantiations (e.g., novels, films, games, comic books, or narrated tours of real locations), one narrative form is generally still considered "canonical," from which the others are derived.  On the other hand, some narrative 'universes,' such as those of Doctor Who and Star Wars, instead treat contributions from many media as authorized (often elaborately authorized) elements of a vast fictional quilt." (emphasis mine)
Fourth, is "procedural potential" which represents how computational power has allowed interactive narrative techniques to far exceed the paper forms of Choose Your Own Adventure books. The Fabled Lands novels achieve high vastness in this area, as do many interactive video games.
Lastly, there is "multiplayer interaction" where fan culture creates vast narrative universes around many types of media. This includes online fiction, any fan created art, table top rpgs, and MMOs.  -- (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2009, 2)
As I mentioned above, we are most concerned with issues of vastness that arise from "Cross-Media Universes."  Like Star Wars and Doctor Who -- possibly moreso than either -- Howard's Conan exists in a vast Cross Media Universe.  What is Hyboria?  For Leo Grin, James Maliszewski, John R. Fultz, and Me it is Robert E. Howard's world in its purist form  We go back to the "canonical" texts as we find them to be the most rewarding.  They are rich tales that we, or at least I, consider to be among the great works of the American literary tradition.  You can read some of my thoughts on Conan's importance and subtlety here (I quote Plutarch in that essay).

For others though, this might not be the case.  For some the real Hyboria, and the real Conan for that matter, might be the Conan "resurrected" by L. Sprague DeCamp.  De Camp's interpretation and adaptation of the Barbarian are scorned by most modern Howard fans, but the character might have fallen into obscurity if not for his efforts -- and the efforts of Glenn Lord made sure that the harm DeCamp did could be limited.  But many only know the DeCamp literary Conan, or the Robert Jordan (yes that Robert Jordan) Conan.  Many hands have written books about Conan, often featuring Boris Vallejo covers, that many readers have enjoyed -- for all that they are depictions of Conan that lack any of the depth of the character as Howard wrote him.  For these fans, the Thrud and Blunder tales provide enjoyment, and they are what they expect to see in a Conan film.

Still others have fond memories of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's Comic Book adaptation of the character is "canonical."  This audience doesn't come close to covering all the different Comic Book interpretations of the character which are as vast in their interpretation as Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's are different from Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord's and includes dozens more interpretations of the character.

There have been television series featuring Conan, including a children's cartoon, a couple of role playing games, and a number of video games.  Then there are the two Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

That is a very vast array of source material to draw from, each appealing to a different audience.  To which audience should a director or producer appeal?  That may seem like an easy answer, which will certainly be based on ones own biases, but the real answer is "the one that seems to appeal to the broadest audience."  Ideally, this would be one that combines elements from some of the most populous fan groups -- and this seems to be the strategy that the Conan: The Barbarian team undertook.  In an interview with Empire Magazine, Jason Momoa -- the actor playing Conan -- stated, "if people are really stuck on Conan being their own one thing, I think it's time to address it. We wanted to give respect to Robert E Howard, but you can't just focus on his fans. There are eight decades of stories and comics and movies since him, so Conan is different things to different people. You can't please everybody, but you can re-imagine Conan every couple of generations, like Batman or Bond."

Momoa's response is straight out of a description of the dilemma I presented, and presents the thought that one can "re-imagine" a character.  Sadly for Momoa, and for the filmmakers, the recent success of Batman and Bond as marquee titles has been due to a return to emulation of "canonical" material -- even when presenting entirely new stories the "new" interpretations "feel" like the literary companions.

Combining the interpretations of multiple audiences is a tremendous challenge, but it can be done and done well.  In Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign, Greg Stafford manages to interweave disparate Arthurian sources into what may possibly be the greatest role playing game products ever written.  In these texts Stafford uses material covering "Celtic Arthur," "Historical Arthur," "Early Romance Arthur," and "Late Romance Arthur" with great love and tremendous talent. (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2009, 94 -95) 

It is possible to achieve greatness while taking into account a variety of narrative audiences, and while incorporating a vast narrative.  Stafford carefully eliminates things that occurred after a certain point, and stresses certain Arthurian themes that repeat across narratives to create his game.

In translating Conan though, the obstacle isn't as easy to overcome as it was for Stafford in presenting Arthurian tales.  Stafford had the benefit of centuries of academic scholarship to aid him.  The Conan production team had no such allies, though they had some they seem to have underutilized.  Instead, they were faced with what John Clute described in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy as follows.

Given the fact that something like 200 story fragments were found in [Howard's] papers, and that his style was very much heavier on heroic action than on the delineation ofcharacter, it is not perhaps surprising that many of these fragments were recast and "finished" as Conan tales: in some cases, a simple substitution of Conan's name as the avenging hero probably sufficed. As a result, the Conan bibliography is quite extraordinarily jumbled...These assortments of exfoliating texts constitute a genuine assault upon the perception of the reader, and the original figure of Conan tends to become more obscure...

Granting the challenges that the Conan team faced, how did they do and what did they do?

As the title of this blog post suggests, the created the Best of Conan films and the Worst of Conan films.  The story is fractured and confused, as is the character, and the motivations of the character are mixed.  He both is and isn't Howard's Conan and this is a direct result of some of the film's inspirational choices.

They "honored" the filmic audience by taking the revenge motif and slaughtered family from the John Milius film, and by having an overarching story that echoed Conan: The Destroyer's quest to awaken a dead god through the acquisition of an artifact and the sacrifice of a "pure blood" to activate the artifact. Just looking at their filmic influences they chose elements from both what was already the best Conan film, flawed as it was, and the worst.

They honored the comic book audience by including shots and costumes that seemed pulled out of Cary Nord's illustrations.

They honored fans of Howard by providing us with Easter Egg references to stories and by pulling lines of dialogue straight out of the fiction, sadly these lines were some of the worst performed lines in the film.

They also included the Giant Monsters from the God of War inspired Conan video game, and I swear one of the sets looked just like the game -- the temple where Conan fights the "sand warriors."

The Conan team didn't seem to have a coherent vision for the character, or the world.  Some of the shots of Hyboria are spectacular, and Cimmeria looks like Cimmeria should, but others look straight out of the Milius film.  It all points to lack of overarching artistic vision.

It seems clear that the team wanted to make a good film, and you can see the money on the screen as they say.  It seems equally clear to me that they lacked any overarching artistic vision.  Given the patchwork and collaborative exercise that film making is in its nature, this can destroy a production.

Is the film worse than an Uwe Boll film?  No.

Is it Neo Nihilism run rampant?  No.

Is it crap?  No.

Is it good?  No.

I'll still buy it when it comes out on DVD so that I can watch it again, but that's because I think modern Sword & Sorcery film fans are spoiled.  Those who are overly harsh need to go back and watch Deathstalker, Gor, Yar, Ator, Zardoz, She, Deathstalker, Beastmaster 2, or one of a hundred other films from the 80s.

Those were miserable.  Conan the Barbarian was merely flawed.  I think those that are reacting strongly against it are often doing so because thy can see glimpses of just how good the film would have been with a consistent vision.

I think they should have gone back to "canon" only for inspiration, but then again I don't know how much I'd enjoy watching Conan run away from what might be a giant frog -- as he does in "The Scarlet Citadel." (To be fair it's likely Clark Ashton Smith's froglike demon/god Tsathoggua.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Conan -- And With this Preview...I'm Excited

I no longer care that this Conan screenplay isn't pulled from the pages of a Howard story.  Count me as officially jazzed...even with the weird costuming on Ron Perlman.  If only they didn't do the whole "it's in 3D" thing.  Then I'd be ecstatic.

Friday, January 21, 2011

In Memory of Robert E Howard -- Jan 22, 1906 to June 11, 1936

When I saw the first Conan movie (1982) I had never heard of Robert E Howard. Even after that movie inspired me to purchase a couple of Conan paperbacks at the local paperback exchange, the name of Conan's creator was unknown to me as the books I purchased were of the pastiche variety. It wasn't until the Christmas after I had seen the film when my parents bought me the Dungeon Master's Guide and I read Gary Gygax's famous "Appendix N" that I remember encountering the name. I quickly found copies of Conan stories that were written by Howard, though the editions also contained some "co-written" stories, and I could instantly see a difference between the dark prose of Howard and the more juvenile writing of the imitators. There was something more to the Howard stories (as I have written before). They weren't the immature wish fulfillment tales of a lusty and violent young man in a loincloth of some of the imitators. Contrary to the Schwarzenegger portrayal, Howard's Conan was cunning, quick witted, joyful and somber.

It wasn't long before I was hunting down everything I could find written by Howard. Eventually, I stumbled upon my favorite Howard character Solomon Kane. The wrathful puritan's tales combined horror and action in a way that sparked my imagination.

In recent years, I have read a good deal of Howard's fiction as more publishers release collections of his writings. Recently, I have been paging through Del Rey's The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard and came across a story that is wonderfully Poe-esque. In honor of Howard's 105th birthday, here is a sample of "The Touch of Death."

Old Adam Farrel lay dead in the house wherein he had lived alone for the last twenty years. A silent, churlish recluse, in his life he had known no friends, and only two men had watched his passing.

Dr. Stein rose and glanced out the window into the gathering dusk.
"You think you can spend the night here, then?" he asked his companion.
This man, Falred by name, assented.
"Yes, certainly. I guess it's up to me."
"Rather a useless and primitive custom, sitting up with the dead," commented the doctor, preparing to depart, "but I suppose in common decency we will have to bow to precedence. Maybe I can find some one who'll come over here and help you with your vigil."
Falred shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt it. Farrel wasn't liked -- wasn't known by many people. I scarcely knew him myself, but I don't mind sitting up with a corpse."
Dr. Stein was removing his rubber gloves and Falred watched the process with an interest that almost amounted to fascination. A slight, involuntary shudder shook him at the memory of touching these gloves -- slick, cold, clammy things, like the touch of death.

The story proceeds from this opening to a perfectly rewarding Twilight Zone style resolution. The tone has been set.

I often wonder at what tales Howard would have written had he lived beyond the age of 30. Sadly, we can only speculate.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In My Mailbox Today -- The Wildside Press Robert E. Howard Reader

For the past few months I had contemplated purchasing The Robert E Howard Reader from Wildside Press. I have purchased some of their Howard publications in the past, in particular Gates of Empire and have been quite happy with the purchases. Wildside is one of the many excellent smaller SF/F publishers and are the current publisher of Weird Tales, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and Adventure Tales.

What struck me as particularly interesting about the Reader was its ecumenical approach to Howard scholarship. The book features writings about Howard from Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Robert M. Price, and the pariah of many modern Howard fans L. Sprague de Camp. In fact, the book is dedicated to de Camp (I can see James at Grognardia cringing as I write this).

As much as I disagree with de Camp's analysis of Howard's psyche as pure psychobabble, I have always admired his promotion of Howard's work and I was impressed that the Reader included and acknowledged him.

There was only one thing that kept me from ordering the book day one...

It has a horrible cover! It's worse than a Baen books cover, and that's not easy folks. What would your average plane/bus/train passenger think I was reading if they saw it?

I finally overcame my hesitation. After all, if I can admit to being a Hellcats fan how bad can walking around with this book be?

Looking at the contents, I am impressed so far. There is just one thing that keeps grating against my nerves. In the introduction of the book, and on the back cover, it says "A century after Robert E. Howard's death, it is evident that this amazing Texan achieved something unique in the annals of American literature." Conceptually, I agree with the sentence. Factually, I am irked. Robert E. Howard died in 1936 -- 75 years ago. The book was written for publication in 2007 -- you can still buy the author's Lulu version -- so it is intended as a Howard Centennial book. This is great, and I'm sure the writer meant "a century after Robert E. Howard's birth," but the lack of editing/review irks me.

I'll let you know how the book holds up as soon as I can get my mental nitpicker to take a nap.