Look at my Works, you Mighty, …

When I wrote my first post outlining the purpose and goal of my latest worldbuilding efforts, I got a lot of replies, including this interesting link from Oliver Simon to a great academic article about the role of the environment in Conan: Exiles. .It gave me a couple of great ideas for Planet Kaendor and I made some notes for a new post, and then completely forgot about it for the next six years while writing other posts I had already planned. Of my three notes, I only remembered the meaning of the first one, and I had to reread both the entire article and my post that led to ot being recommended to me to figure out the second. And I still have no clue what idea the third note was supposed to be about. Don’t be me! Take better notes when you get great ideas for your own work.

The article takes a look at the open world survival game Conan: Exiles as a horrifying analogy of the cruel exploitation within human economic activity. While many of these survival games have the killing of other player characters and the looting of their equipment and resources as a key gameplay element, this game uses the well established and accepted norms of the Hyborian Age to take it to a much more grotesque level. Not only can you loot the possessions of your slain foes, you can also butcher their dismembered corpses for meat and crafting materials. Nonplayer characters can be taken alive and made slaves, that are a hugely important resource for expanding your own base. And some magical powers require human sacrifice to attain. Other people are reduced to “human resources” in the most literal sense. They are commodified as tools to be exploited for your own quest for wealth and power.

Being basically a sociological paper, it’s not an easy read, and the first part is crammed full of attributed quotations of other writers that don’t really add to the topic and mostly seem to be there to pad out the references list at the end to boost academic credibility. But after that it goes into how the environment with its ruined buildings, abandoned weapons and tools, and human remains also tells a story of how economic exploitation build the fallen civilizations as well.

I didn’t expect Marx and Derrida to contribute to my worldbuilding, but I guess stranger things have happened. One passage in particular really got me thinking about how I can give the ruins that fill the environment of Kaendor a more meaningful presence in the actual game instead of being irrelevant pieces of lore in some file.

Faithful to Howard’s original Conan stories, the landscape is one which Derrida would have recognised as being distinctly hauntological; it is a world scarred by its past. This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent, generating effects which exert great power over the player’s experience of and interaction with their surroundings.

Agency without an agent. Now that’s an expression that really appeals to me. In this case, we have to treat agency as different from the concept of player agency in roleplaying games, which is the ability of players to make choices about the actions of their characters that meaningfully affect the outcome of the developing story of the game. Without an agent, there are no choices that are being made or actions that are being taken. Instead we have the idea here of choices that were made and actions that were taken long ago by the long dead builders of the ruins that led to the creation of the current environment. The choices were made many centuries ago, but their consequences still affect and constrain the options that are open to the player characters in the present. The idea is that the ruins are not simply featureless and inert stones that litter the surroundings, but active entities that challenge and threaten the intruding explorers.

(At this point I want to apologise for falling into academia speech and getting abstractly philosophical. Four years in cultural studies do this to you. It comes automatically and leaves it marks on you forever.)

As a simple example, take an ordinary arrow trap that shots an arrow when someone steps on a certain part of the floor. To quote the endlessly poetically and quotable Darkest Dungeon:

Curious is the trap-maker’s art… his efficacy unwitnessed by his own eyes.

A trap is not simply a feature of the environment, even though many games treat them like that. An actual trap is not simply just there. It is there because someone made a choice and took action to put it there. With an intent to kill. The builder of the trap does not know who will fall victim to it, and the people it injures will most likely have no idea who caused them harm. In a ruined dungeon, the builder will have died centuries before the victims were born. But still, one person exercised agency to cause serious harm to another person. The agent is long gone, but the effects of the agency are present in the present.

It is not just traps. Every artificial obstacle that characters encounter is there because someone put it there with intent. Every constructed tool or weapon they find is in its place because someone made it for a purpose and put it in its present location as a consequence of choices and actions. And this even carries over to much larger scales. Planet Kaendor is conceptualized as a world in which the natural environment is outside of the control of mortals. Whatever they do in their attempts to shape the world that surronds them will quickly be negated once the wilderness returns. But things look very different when it comes to the marks left behind by unnatural sorcery. A charred wasteland of ash haunted by ghouls attacking cateless travelers surrounding a ruined city does not exist randomly. Its existence is the consequence of choices mafe by a sorcerer long ago. A consequence that directly affects the characters in the present. And the natural world in Kaendor is often directly controlled by spirits, who can exercise their own agency as well. Though being essentialy immortal, this does not fall under the agency without agent. They are merely agents with an invisible presence, but I think the overall effect is quite similar.

The key idea that is presented here (indirectly) to worldbuilders is to create environments for adventures that are not simply passive and interchangeable backdrops that maybe have a couple of unusual but random backgrounds in them. Instead, they should give indications that obstacles and useful finds are the result of someone’s deliberate exercising of agency. Bad things don’t exist in the present at random. They exist because someone in the past wanted it or did a careless mistake. There was a purpose behind it and it was someone’s fault. And that someone’s presence should still be felt as a malevolent force seeking the destruction of any intruders, or a shade lingering among the ruins of its crumbled dreams. Of course this might not be a universal requirement for all fantasy environments. But I had written about looking for ways to give ruins and magical places are more active role in my world, and this article provided great insights on how I could be moving closer to that goal.

All the mentions of cannibalism also got me some interesting idea for ghouls, which have been a favorite of mine since I encountered a new take on them in Dragon Age, and have held a very important position in my deliberations about the nature of the supernatural in Kaendor basically from the start. But those deserve an entire post of their own.

Now where did I put my dice…?

Finally main season at work has come to a close. Instead of 44 hours per week I am now down to a much more cozy 35 hours, and also almost no weekend duty anymore. That provides me with a lot more free time.

And immediately I start thinking about starting a new online campaign. The biggest question is what type of campaign I want to make it. Some kind of Conan-style adventures in a Morrowind-style setting using material from my previous games, or do the Knights of the Old Republic game I had wondered about for a long time now.

Now that I think of it, the question can probably be boiled down to “Do I want lightsabers or not.” The rest would actually be mostly the same.

Considering all the options, I am currently favoring Barbarians of Lemuria as the game of choice. It doesn’t have all the numbers and restraints of D&D type fantasy games, but it also is mechanically really simple and easy to understand, which makes it very well suited for online play.

C6?

While it’s really well made, I’ve always been thinking that making a Conan RPG based on the d20 system was a really odd and unfitting choice. The extremely steep power gradient between 1st and 20th level just doesn’t seem right. But running the Conan game in an E6 variant? Now that seems like a really interesting thought.

The Face of Pictdom?

How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?

Robert_E_Howard_suitWhat is it with this picture of Robert Howard? It’s probably the most well known picture of him that gets used the most. Far be it from me to claim to really know a man who lived on the other side of the world and has been dead for 80 years, but I always feel that this isn’t really him. This is Robert Howard trying to pretend to be someone who he is not. As far as I know, this is the only picture of him with a tie and a hat (at least this hat). And it doesn’t match the way he described himself in his writings and correspondence at all. Maybe his agent demanded this picture for promotional material or it was him dressing up in costume (there’s a couple of pictures of him posing and showing off his collection of anachronistic stuff). This probably is purely subjective, but that look on his face never seems to me like a man looking cool. It looks like a man trying to look while feeling very akward. This just doesn’t seem to be him.

Especially when compared to other existing pictures of him.

rhowardREH_Fence_Photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This seems to be the real Robert Howard, how he actually was and how he wanted to be seen. He clearly had his problems and who knows what had been going on inside his head. But I think that picture with him in a suit really is doing the man a disservice. It doesn’t seem at all like the way he should be remembered.

Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Synopsis: What a shitty movie.

I’ve watched this movie about a year or so ago, but my memory was a bit hazy so I watched it a second time before doing a review of it. Why did I even bother?

Conan the Barbarian 2011
Conan the Barbarian 2011

The movie is called Conan the Barbarian, which is exactly the same name as the famous and highly regarded movie Conan the Barbarian. It’s neither a remake nor a reboot, nor anything like that, so why us the name of an already existing movie? There is an infinite number of possible titles, and so many options to name it that make it clear that it’s Conan. And now we always have to call it Conan the Barbarian 2011. Conan the Barbarian is not even the name of the series of stories, comics, and other stuff. Conan the Barbarian is just the name of a single movie. The Ahnold movie. This is a cheap attempt to cash in on someone elses good work. Despite not being a remake of Conan the Barbarian, and I think the director explicitly said it’s not a remake but a completely separate movie, Conan the Barbarian 2011 recycles the stupid subplot of Conan searching for the warlord who destroyed his village and killed his father. Which is a completely original invention of Conan the Barbarian and doesn’t exist anywhere else in the story of the character. Totally not a remake. Because they said so. Even Conan the Barbarian could barely be considered an adaptation of the Conan stories. Conan the Barbarian 2011 does a bit more name dropping so you know that it takes place in the Hyborian Age, but feels even less connected to the source material. Conan the Barbarian may not really have had much to do with the original stories, but I think it did a great job at visualizing the setting and bringing it to life. This movie doesn’t.

The movie is way too dark most of the time, so you can’t see anything. The music is also way too loud and the voices way too low, so you can’t hear anything either. Not that there would be anything to hear either. The plot is pretty much nonexistent. Any 20 minutes episode of Conan the Adventurer had more plot than this. And this is no joke. I actually mean that literally. While the indoor shots are always too dark, the outdoor shots of cities and fortresses all look terribly fake. They look like out of 300 or a Diablo III cutscene. Pretty, but completely inappropriate.

Continue reading “Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)”

Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 1)

The Sword & Sorcery Anthology
The Sword & Sorcery Anthology

Now this title is a boast as big as it can possibly get. Swords & Dark Magic called itself the new Sword & Sorcery and fell disappointingly flat in that regard. “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology” can only be read in two possible ways: Either “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery”, which obviously it isn’t, or “The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Anthology”. I am more than willing to judge a book by its content, but when the publisher puts such a claim into the very title of the book, I will judge it by that measure as well.

Since getting through this book is taking a lot longer than I thought, I’ll split this review into two parts, covering half of the stories each. (The second half may take another week or two, though.)

Continue reading “Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 1)”

Keeping it brief: Word Counts in Sword & Sorcery

I frequently see people complaining that they can’t get their novels to proper length and that their ideas don’t provide enough material for 200,000 words. Then why try to make them into novels in the first place? It’s not the only option fantasy writers have to chose their format. In the Sword & Sorcery genre, stories tend to be much shorter, instead you simply get more of them.

As references, here are the works of some of the great Sword & Sorcery writers and their lengths.

Conan by Robert Howard:

  • The Phoenix on the Sword: 8,823
  • The Scarlet Citadel: 15,446
  • The Tower of the Elephant: 9,726
  • Black Colossus: 14,346
  • The Slithering Shadow: 12,897
  • The Pool of the Black One: 11,252
  • Rogues in the House: 9,676
  • The Frost Giant’s Daughter: 3,284
  • Iron Shadows in the Moon: 12,123
  • Queen of the Black Coast: 11,334
  • The Devil in Iron: 12,292
  • The People of the Black Circle: 30,890
  • A Witch Shall be Born: 16,337
  • Jewels of Gwahlur: 17,167
  • Beyond the Black River: 21,799
  • Shadows in Zamboula: 12,146
  • The Hour of the Dragon: 72,375
  • Red Nails: 30,946

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber:

  • The Jewels in the Forest: 14,215
  • The Bleak Shore: 4,272
  • The Howling Tower: 5,855
  • The Sunken Land: 6,900
  • Thieves’ House: 12,235
  • Adept’s Gambit: 31,901
  • Claws from the Night: 9,410
  • The Seven Black Priests: 9,523
  • Lean Times in Lankhmar: 15,400
  • When the Sea-King’s away: 9,806
  • The Cloud of Hate: 4,929
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre: 9,653
  • Their Mistress, the Sea: 1,316
  • The Wrong Beach: 2,267
  • The Circle Curse: 3,596
  • The Price of Pain-Ease: 4,650

Continue reading “Keeping it brief: Word Counts in Sword & Sorcery”

Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2

Starved Ones are basically zombies or ghouls who are constantly decaying at a relative rapid rate, losing 10% of their hit points every day. They regain their full strength and can regenerate decayed or lost body parts by eating the matching parts and organs of a dead creature. However, the newly regrowing organ will have the appearance of the organ that was consumed, not the form of the originally lost parts.
There’s some potential here, but I think how scary they will actually be depends a lot on the GMs imagination for what kinds of corpses the starved ones are feeding.

Tentacle Spawn are rather weak demons but tend to appear in large numbers. They are not actually individual creatures but rather just the ends of tentacles of much more massive and horrible beings from beyond this world, which often come grasping through portals much to small to allow the passage of the abominations entire body. I think they are making a great addition to encounters with evil sorcerers and the like and are more part of a dangerous environment than actual enemies themselves. Still, treating them as individual creatures would probably make a good job to make them appear as real threats.
The Black Spawn of Jullah (see part 1) serve as conduits to the realms of otherworldly horrors and can let tentacle spawn burst from their bodies.

Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2”

Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1

I love monster books. To me they are clearly the greatest thing about RPGs. Most of the books I have are monster books, many even for games I don’t play. But when I flip through them, I often just look at the illustration and read the first few lines of text before I get bored with a creature that seems completely uninspired and overdone, and continue to the next one. But occasionally, there are creatures that are actually quite interesting and unique if you really give them a chance. And sometimes their greatness is immediately visible from the first second.

Over the next weeks, I want to return to many of the old monster books that I’ve pretty much forgotten about, and maybe occasionally pick up some new ones, to go hunting for rare and exotic creatures that you rarely get to see.

Conan - Bestiary of the Hyborian Age
Conan – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age

Today, I am starting with Conan d20 – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age by Mongoose Publishing, 2008.

The Black Fiend is the first creature in the book which actually is somewhat interesting. A black fiend is a roughly human-shaped demon that can pass for a human at a distance and in the dark, but has horns, claws, fangs, and pointed ears, that clearly mark it as a monster. They prefer to stay in darkness and often wear dark cloaks and hoods to hide their demonic nature from casual observers. They are not particularly powerful, but very stealthy, which makes them good assassins, and also have a great talent for sorcery, and many are spellcasters who can be summoned to learn rare and exotic spells from them. I think it’s the combination of being both an assassin and spellcasters, that makes the black fiend a bit more than just another demonic looking man.

On the first look, the Black Spawn of Jullah are just another type of large demon that look like large black apes with fur that seems to be permanently soaked in blood. As servants of the ape god, they can produce a roar that will summon large numbers of actual apes from the surrounding jungles to attack their enemies. An even weirder trait is their ability to use their own bodies as a kind of portal to hell, allowing tentacles and tendrils of some hellish abominations to burst through their bloody fur and grasp and bash at their enemies.
The black spawn looks like a generic evil ape, but I think figting one of these will actually get quite frightening to players when they suddenly find themselves swarmed by large apes from all directions and the tentacles burst from the beasts bodie. I think I want to use these ones in my campaign.

A Bodiless Slimer is a demon made of almost insubstential slime that is also entirely invisible. They are very hard to detect and to injure and can also use a breath of flames in addition to their normal attack of grappling and choking their victims. Before a fight, they use a kind of subconscious telepathy to demoralize their enemies. These could make for interesting encouters, but the creature itself is rather bland. Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1”