Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber

In the final story of Swords and Deviltry, we begin to see why Leiber had such a strong influence on D&D. Indeed, the second act, where our heroes drunkenly hatch a shockingly stupid plan and get neck-deep in trouble as a result, should sound familiar to any RPG player. We are all too delighted to see them narrowly escape, or at least it seems until the story reveals its tragic ending.

While the madcap drunken adventure of fools barely skating by a likely doom is the heart of many a D&D session, what impressed me the most was the first act of the story, where Fafhrd and Gray Mouser meet, get drunk, and introduce their respective girlfriends. Many details here, from the rickety staircase to the clipped dialogue, reminded me greatly of John Fante's Bandini novels (as well as his imitator, Charles Bukowski), depicting hard-edged blue-collar folks living as best they can.

Hardboiled tales depict an America that no longer exists, when the federal and corporate bureaucratic machinery did not entirely define human life, but instead was divided into hundreds or thousands of tiny fiefdoms. It is best defined, in my mind, in the story of New York. Corrupt in the extreme, but also perhaps more honest in its seediness, one can see glimpses of this in the histories of Tammany Hall, the Lower East Side from "Hell's Kitchen" to the punk clubs and art galleries of the early '80s until it was colonized into "East Village", and even the history of the pulps themselves.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" was a forceful reminder that Leiber lived in such a world, growing up in Chicago in the 1910s and 1920s, the heyday of the Chicago Outfit. Although I have no way to prove it, I suspect these experiences informed Lankhmar, and should inform our understanding of pulp fantasy of the hardboiled type.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"The Unholy Grail" by Fritz Leiber

We now come to our second tale of Leiber's Lankhmar series, and I must say that this one came as a bit of a surprise. As I mentioned in my analysis of "The Snow Women", there is a distinctly hardboiled quality to the introduction of Fafhrd, and a central theme of that genre is cynicism and moral ambiguity. In "The Unholy Grail", Leiber departs from this thesis dramatically, positing that there are moral absolutes, but our heroes (in this case the Gray Mouser and his lady, Ivrian) stand somewhere in-between.

This is established through the Gray Mouser's mentor, Glavas Rho, an Obi-Wan-like figure who is cut down in the beginning of our tale, a "White Wizard" who predicts the Mouser will be seduced by the powers of the dark side... err, the "left-handed path". The parallels between this story and the arc of Star Wars continue, with our hero torn between his attempt to maintain the hippy ideals of Rho and his desire for vengeance, whose sorcerous vehicle has some distinctly Lovecraftian implications, with descriptions like "creeping down from the black places between the stars."

Considering my attraction to the hardboiled style of play, I was not particularly pleased by this cosmological implication, although it was a fine enough tale. Adventure stories of the sort that I'm attracted to maintain a precarious balance between immoral, freewheeling ne'er-do-wells and tragic, fallen heroes. Howard's Conan strikes the right balance, as does John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King. Implying that there is an absolute right and wrong will, I suspect, create all the problems of the alignment system - a subtle coercion through guilt, enforced by a game system and a very universe that frowns on our PCs.

My initial impression was to reject this outright, at least as far as incorporating these elements into my own game. Like Gary Gygax, I reserve the right to pick and choose those elements of pulp fantasy that suit my own tastes. That does not mean "The Unholy Grail" had no lessons from which to draw, however. Glavas Rho and Ivrian, being kind and gentle souls, are exploited for their decency and sensitivity. The world, as depicted, is a hard, brutish place, and those who display sentimentality open themselves for abuse. This is perfectly in keeping with the "hardboiled" D&D that I've been striving for, and the harsh dictator Duke Janarrl, the villain of the piece, is pitch-perfect. Janarrl is all too human, motivated by the cruelties inflicted on him to perpetuate suffering on those around him. Like the Tharks in A Princess of Mars, or nearly every characters in the Song of Ice and Fire series, villains are thus because evil acts have been inflicted upon them, and their attempts to protect themselves create villains in turn.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"The Snow Women" by Fritz Leiber

Although this blog is, by and large, dedicated to the development of Rogues & Reavers, I will at times diverge from that topic to discuss D&D more broadly. One of the topics I will be exploring is the literary roots of D&D, and how those roots shape my understanding of the game.

As I mentioned previously, I am not as well read in the history of D&D's origins as I would like to be. I'm working to correct this oversight in my education, and it has been an instructive process. Most recently, I read the tale "The Snow Women" by Fritz Leiber, which I'll be talking about today.

Best known as the origin of the Thief class in D&D (along with Cugel the Cleaver), I expected Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories to be purely stories of blackhearts robbing, whoring, and getting up to their necks in trouble. Although "The Snow Women" has double-dealing a-plenty, what surprised me was the tragic melancholy which pervades the tale. It was, at its heart, a noir thriller. Our protagonist (one would hesitate to call him hero) may be a bastard, but in comparison to most of his fellows Fafhrd is heroic, insomuch that he is conflicted about his foul deeds.

Adventure stories, as far as I can tell, are divided into two distinct styles: the classic western, in which our heroes are ultimately moral, despite any failings they may have, or hardboiled fiction, where such distinctions do not exist. If there is a redeeming feature to the protagonists, it is that they (sometimes) agonize over the moral compromises they are regularly forced to make. As Fafhrd puts it, "Oh, is there anyone in the wide world that has aught but ice water in his or her veins?" Hesitating to do whatever it takes to survive is a luxury few can afford in a cynical world, and often this leads to the defeat of our heroes.

Although this uncertainty does not haunt the earliest Swords & Sorcery stories, such as A Princess of Mars, it quickly pervades the genre. In his very first appearance, Conan laments, "In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless." Likewise, Elric of Stormbringer fame, Corwin of the Chronicles of Amber, and Erick John Stark of Brackett's Skaith tales all walk a fine line between what is right and what is convenient, often settling on the latter.

Experience with games like D&D and Vampire: the Masquerade has shown me that dictating moral behavior on the part of the players is a fool's game, so while I find this aspect of the story interesting I don't believe building mechanics that force emulation of this sort is wise. Instead, I think principles of scenario design should be set forth:

1. The world is a hard, unforgiving place: Heroes are a rarity, and often suffer for it. Everyone is looking out for themselves, and any sign of weakness will be exploited. Churches hoodwink, governments exploit, family manipulate, and commoners steal at every opportunity. Trust placed in your fellow human beings will, for the most part, be reciprocated with a knife in the back.

2. Only those close to you deserve any consideration, and often this is misplaced: Players generally will attach themselves to NPCs that show them kindness, but in a hardboiled game, this is something that they will generally regret. Those who seem to have the player's best interests in mind often are playing a game, with the PCs as pawns.

3. There are decent people out there, but it is impossible to discern sinner from saint: Whether it be Vellix, who was the only person who had Fafhrd's best interests at heart, or Evelyn in Chinatown, the demands of a cynical world forces even the most kind-hearted souls to become suspicious and to hedge their bets. Those NPCs that seem to have reservations about helping the heroes are often the ones who don't have any evil aspirations towards the protagonist, or may even wish for them to succeed. It is therefore exceedingly difficult to know who is friend and who is foe.

These underlying assumptions of the hardboiled thriller are interesting, and certainly a far cry from the "standard" D&D setting of the last twenty years, which share more in common with medieval romances and westerns. This may be due to the nature of the hobby shifting from a series of problem-solving exercises into a vehicle for wish-fulfillment, the evolving tropes from sword & sorcery to fantasy, or just because noir is depressing.

Speaking of westerns, it is interesting to note that the genre evolved into a noir-ish style as time progressed, thanks in large part to the influence of Kurosawa's samurai films, which were (in turn) influenced by Chandler and other hardboiled writers. Classic examples are Leone's Dollars trilogy, Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, and Pale Rider. I suspect this is the "sweet spot" where D&D works best - the protagonists vary between wretchedly self-interested and morally decent, at times robbing tombs and at others saving villages. Presenting opportunities for both should be the goal of any campaign.
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