Showing posts with label Fritz Leiber. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fritz Leiber. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Another Lankhmar Update: Don't Forget Savage Worlds LANKHMAR!

Earlier this week, I shared my excitement that Goodman Games had acquired a license to release adventures that take place in Fritz Leiber's classic Lankhmar/Nehwon setting. Toward the end of the post, I mentioned that Pinnacle Entertainment Group's Savage Worlds role playing game was the only other game that I thought had the potential to capture the Sword & Sorcery feel of the setting. When I wrote that, I knew that Pinnacle was planning to release their own Lankhmar related products, but I did not know when that release would occur.

Now I do. The Savage Worlds setting book for Lankhmar: City of Thieves will go on sale April 14th. At that time, purchasers will be able to pick up copies of the PDF and pre-order the print copy of the book.

Pinnacle has also given us a glimpse of what the rules will look like with the "No Honor Among Thieves" rule.

No Honor Among Thieves

Betrayal is a part of life in the City of Thieves. Sometimes a companion double-crosses his mates over a few gold pieces. Other times he might cheat on a friend over the love of a woman. Most of these betrayals are met with a wry smile and a vow to reciprocate at some future date. There is no honor among thieves, after all.

Sometimes the betrayal is more personal. In Lankhmar, whenever a character is betrayed by a close friend or associate (a trusted ally or even another player character—Game Master’s call), he cannot spend a Benny to reroll any opposed defensive action.

If the betrayal is an actual attack (almost assuredly with The Drop) and the victim doesn’t Soak all the wounds and / or remove the Shaken, he must make a Vigor roll versus the damage or go unconsciousness per the Knock Out Blow rules on page 25). He may not spend Bennies on this roll.
This rule is an example of how easily the Savage Worlds rules set, and in particular it's ability to incorporate "Setting Rules," make it a good fit for the Lankhmar setting.

I do have one minor complaint though. The image of Fafhrd in the banner ad above doesn't capture the humor he is often expressed as having in the stories. Fafhrd laughs in the face of danger and is often boisterous in the face of adversity. To be fair, the image looks to take place after a particularly dire moment in the series (no spoiler, but rage would be an appropriate expression), but it is too rare that Fafhrd is show smiling. Thankfully, the Pinnacle website has what must be one of the first illustrations of a happy Fafhrd, made all the more enjoyable because he is too rarely illustrated this way.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Night's Black Agents, Kenneth Hite, Fritz Leiber, and Vampires

I have long been an admirer of Kenneth Hite as game critic, game commentator, and game designer. The reasons I hold him in high esteem are too numerous to be enumerated here one by one, and that would be boring besides, but there is one reason that stands at the summit of my admiration. It is his awe inspiring ability to fuse history, mystery, pulp, and high art into his game design in surprising ways.

Consider the following. I have known for some time that Ken was working on a new role playing game for Pelgrane Press entitled "Night's Black Agents." The game uses Robin D Laws' innovative "Gumshoe" role playing game system as its engine and combines the genres of action-espionage with vampire horror. That alone makes it a winner. Just read the Pelgrane blurb (and this interview):

The Cold War is over. Bush’s War is winding down.

You were a shadowy soldier in those fights, trained to move through the secret world: deniable and deadly.

Then you got out, or you got shut out, or you got burned out. You didn’t come in from the cold. Instead, you found your own entrances into Europe’s clandestine networks of power and crime. You did a few ops, and you asked even fewer questions. Who gave you that job in Prague? Who paid for your silence in that Swiss account? You told yourself it didn’t matter.

It turned out to matter a lot. Because it turned out you were working for vampires.

Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.

Or worse.

It just oozes high concept excitement. Yet, much like Ken's brilliant The Day After Ragnarok, there seems to be something else going on here as well. It is something that I missed at first glance -- Ken is sneaky that way. I didn't notice it until I was reading an interview with Fritz Leiber in Charles Platt's "Dream Makers vol. 2."

There was a brief comment by Leiber that his first book, published by Arkham House, was entitled Night's Dark Agents. Hmmm... Sneaky that Hite fellow. A follow up game to the successful, and remarkable, Trail of Cthulhu (which I believe to be the best Cthulhu game published to date, though Ken humbly differs) is named after a book published by Arkham House. Arkham House Publishing's first publication was a book of Lovecraft's stories, and Leiber wrote letters to Lovecraft receiving kind responses from the father of Cosmic Horror -- responses that kept Leiber writing until it became a paying gig. The Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story "Adept's Gambit" that is in Night's Black Agents is Leiber's first written -- though not first published -- tale of the duo, and it includes some Cthulhu references.

You see how he so subtly built a connection between Lovecraft and his new game through the vehicle of Leiber?

More than that, Hite knows that the title references "The Scottish Play" as well.

You see, Hite is just able to take ideas -- sometimes seemingly incongruous ideas -- and meld them into something new and wonderful.

I cannot wait for the release of Night's Black Agents.

I wonder if the game will include echoes of Leiber's vampire story, "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes." You can watch a "Serlingized" version of that tale below.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What's the Difference Between Sword 'n' Sorcery and Planetary Romance

A couple of weeks ago, Cinerati featured a post discussing some of the peaks and valleys in quality that fans of Planetary Romance have suffered through/enjoyed over the past few years. In response to the post, our good friend -- and sinister barrister -- Tulkinghorn asked, "what is the difference between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery fiction?"

He received a brief response in the comments from a non-Cinerati member fan of Planetary Romance named Venusian that summarized the difference as, "there is no magic in planetary romance, and it's usually 'off planet.'" This definition is useful, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go deep enough to truly differentiate the two sub-genre from each other. It's also only half true. Add to this lack of specificity the particular -- and perculiar -- skepticism of a person like Tulkinghorn and it makes for a perfect topic for a longer post.

So...what is the difference between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery fiction?

To begin, we must start by acknowledging that both of these sub-genre of fiction lie within the scope of Heroic Fantasy -- and sometimes Heroic Science Fiction -- which is itself a sub-genre of Fantasy literature.

[One could use this as an opportunity to advance the argument that in "speculative fiction" it is Fantasy that is the primary genre and all other classifications are sub-genre of Fantasy, but that is a discussion for another post. Let it merely be stated that I dislike the term "speculative fiction" as it seems to a) have an anti-fantasy bias, b) exhibit "embarrassment" with association with Fantasy, c)has a pro-Science Fiction bias (SF is the abbreviation for both), and is guilty of a litany of other sins including the theft of candy apples from small children at county fairs.]

Heroic Fantasy can be simply defined for the purposes of this discussion, it deserves a thorough examination itself, as narratives in which a heroic figure struggles against antagonists within an imagined setting which contains "impossible" or "improbable" elements. These elements can be magic, monsters, imagined science, or gobbledygook. Most of the fiction in modern Fantasy, epic or otherwise, is some form of Heroic Fantasy though some stories contain "mundane" protagonists or "anti-heroes." To be truly Heroic Fantasy, the protagonist must be larger than life; and this is even more true in the sub-genres of Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery.

To really discuss the differences between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery, it is helpful to see how prior science fiction critics have defined the subject.

According to David Pringle (in John Clute and John Grant's Encyclopedia of Fantasy) Planetary Romance stories,

are stories of adventure set almost entirely on the surface of some alien world, with an emphasis on swordplay (or similar), monsters, telepathy or other under-explained "magic," and near-human alien civilizations which often resemble those of Earth's pre-technological past...The hero is usually from Earth, but the means of his or her "translation" to the far planet is often supernatural rather than technological, involving flying carpets, astral projection, angel-power and kindred devices. Spaceships are sometimes mentioned, but the complete lack of interest shown in the mechanics of space travel is one of the principal features distinguishing PR from space opera...; super-scientific spacecraft and other mighty machines are central to space opera, but rarely feature in planetary romance.

The same volume includes a definition of Sword and Sorcery written by John Clute, David Langford, and Roz Kaveney which claims,
In 1961 Michael Moorcock requested a term to describe the fantasy subgenre featuring muscular Heroes in violent conflict with a variety of Villains, chiefly Wizards, Witches, evil Spirits, and other creatures whose powers are -- unlike the hero's -- supernatural in origin. Fritz Leiber suggested "Sword and Sorcery", and this term stuck.

I think these two definitions are extremely useful and one might argue that the Pringle and Clute definitions provide us with sufficient data to provide us with a clear understanding of these two genre, but I am not quite satisfied with Clute's definition of Sword and Sorcery. Certainly, the Pringle definition of Planetary Romance gives us a strong sense of the kind of story one might expect if one were to call it Planetary Romance. It also provides ammunition against Venusian's claim that Planetary Romance doesn't feature magic. This is important because one of the things that makes Planetary Romance so special is that way that it walks the tightrope between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is a wonderful crossover genre.

Some brief examples of the "magic" featured in tales of Planetary Romance include the telepathic language of the Martians of Barsoom, the psychic hounds of Leigh Brackett's Skaith novels, and the "Force" in the Star Wars films. The Star Wars films being a wonderful filmic example of Planetary Romance. Planetary Romance tales feature magic, but it is not a necessary condition for the tale and is often merely a means to an ends. What is fairly universal is the inclusion of fallen empires, dying worlds, and the ruins of once great civilizations.

The obsession with fallen empires, dying worlds, and ruins of once great civilizations is one shared with the Sword and Sorcery genre. The dying planet of Barsoom shares a great deal with Robert E. Howard's presentation of Hyperborea. Though one should note that the empires of Sword and Sorcery are dead empires for the reader, they are usually living (though dying) empires for the characters within the tale. In Planetary Romance, the fallen civilizations are often artifacts from a "more noble" time. In Sword and Sorcery, civilization itself must fall as it corrupts the natural man with its decadence. This is one distinction between the genre, the 19th century moral clarity of Planetary Romance is often in direct opposition to the 20th century pessimism (almost nihilism) of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

But it is more than a pessimistic world view that separates the two genres. Sword and Sorcery tales contain within them elements of the Weird Horror tale. When Michael Moorcock, a master of Sword and Sorcery whose Elric character perfectly embodies the Sword and Sorcery obsessions with cultural decadence and Weird Supernatural Horror, describes Conan's relation to his world (and to prior Heroic Fantasy characters) he writes, "If the form of Howard's stories was borrowed at third and fourth hand from Scott and Fenimore Cooper, the supernatural element from Poe and others, the barbarian hero of the Conan stories owed a great deal to Tarzan and other Burroughs primatives. Given to impulsive violent action, sudden rough affection and bouts of melancholy...Conan mistrusted civilization. He was forever at odds both with the respectable world and the occult world; forever detecting plots to seduce him." [emphasis mine]

In Heroic Fantasy magic can be a tool that is neutral in its use. The "Force" has both a light side and a dark side, the telepathy of Martians isn't in itself corrupting. In Sword and Sorcery tales magic is by its nature a corrupting force. Conan fears and opposes magic, even the anti-Conan Elric eschews its use whenever possible and the use of magic rituals often comes with a great cost.

Notice the use of the word "fear" when describing Conan's reaction to magic and the supernatural. Howard's invincible barbarian is sometimes as deathly afraid as the most frail Lovecraftian protagonist when it comes to things that lurk in the spaces between. Though the supernatural beast, "neither a hound nor a baboon," that attacks him in The Phoenix and the Sword "rouse[s] in the Cimmerian a frenzied fury akin to madness," a creature similar to Tsathaggua leaves him "frozen with nauseated horror." What is this creature that so frightens Conan, the man beyond fear? It is an "amorphous bulk...Its unstable outlines somewhat suggested an octopus, but its malformed tentacles were too short for its size, and its substance was a quaking, jelly-like stuff which made him physically sick to look at... among this loathsome gelid mass reared up a frog-like head." The creature is either Shoggoth or Tsathaggua (the fact that the creature's summoner is named Tsotha hints at the second), but it is certainly beyond the abilities of our champion to defeat this "blasphemy agains the eternal laws of nature." This is the kind of creature one would not expect to find in the Planetary Romance fiction of Brackett or Burroughs, but that is perfectly at home in the "dreams" of Lovecraftian horror. Horrific creatures abound in the Conan fiction, and in Sword and Sorcery generally. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories have the "Gods of Lankhmar," Michael Moorcock's Elric tales feature all kinds of Weird Horror from the gods of chaos to much smaller beings.

Planetary Romance is a hopeful fantasy where heroes strive valiantly and where the hero chooses good over evil -- even at personal expense. Sword and Sorcery is a dark and nihilistic genre with a dark view of human nature where the hero often chooses self-interest over the Good. It is his firm command of this single feature distinguishing Sword and Sorcery from other Heroic Fantasy (that of the incorporation of the Weird Horror tale into Heroic Fantasy) that makes Michael Moorcock's anti-Conan stories about the tragic albino Elric so ingenious. Moorcock simultaneously deconstructs the character of Conan while writing a story that embodies the conventions -- even while it expands them -- of the Sword and Sorcery tale.

The first words readers of Howard's Conan read as a description of the archetypal character are, "Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."

The first words readers read as a description of Michael Moorcock's Elric are, "His name was Elric of Melnibone king of ruins, lord of a scattered race that had once ruled the ancient world. Elric, sorcerer and swordsman, slayer of kin, despoiler of his homeland, white-faced albino, last of his line."

Both quotes are from the first published stories of the respective character, and both stories take place toward the end of the character's life. It is exquisite the way that Moorcock inverts almost every aspect of the Conan character in the creation of his anti-hero. He inverts every aspect save one, both men are prone to gigantic melancholies. One might think due to the fact that Moorcock's Elric tales are a deconstruction of the Conan character, or possibly an adult version of an adolescent character, that Moorcock would use the deconstruction as an opportunity to attack the genre itself. Moorcock doesn't. He uses it as an opportunity to refine the genre and expand it. By removing the aspects of the genre that are adolescent wish fulfillment and focusing on the central concepts of Sword and Sorcery, Moorcock allows us to see the literary merit of the conventions of the genre free from the constraints of whimsy. The young reader, seeing the power of Conan, might miss the criticisms of society and the dark presentation of human nature. The reader of Elric's stories cannot avoid them for their terror and their beauty. In writing fiction that is a negative image of the original, possibly to criticize the original, Moorcock created a lens that allows readers to more greatly appreciate what Robert E. Howard has done with his Conan tales -- something that the Lin Carter and L Sprague deCamp pastiches missed -- the demonstration of how fiery human nature reacts when faced with supernatural horror. Conan often fights against the darkness, but he often flees as well.

John Carter would never flee from the giant white ape of Barsoom. He might feel some twinge of fear before he grapples with the beast and defeats it. When translucent skinned invaders from Jupiter attack, horrifying visage and all, it is John Carter who flies of to their home world to defeat them -- fearless in the face of the unnatural or the evil. Luke, when captured by Vader in Return of the Jedi, doesn't succumb to despair. Instead he sees "the good" in his father and fights to redeem a lost father. In Planetary Romance Evil can be defeated. In Sword and Sorcery some Evil is best left in the pit where you found it.