Tuesday, May 27, 2014

D&D Sources Reading Project: Conan the Cimmerian

I gave myself a little reading project awhile back. Gamemastering fantasy RPGs was getting stale for me. Now, don't get me wrong, poking fun at the relevant troupes is always fun: "Of course the treasure is in a dungeon inhabited by monsters with nothing better to do than wait for your characters to show up and murder them! What other use is there for piles of coins and magic items?" Updating old classics for new players and game systems is a delight: "No, there is no connection between that 1980s-era AD&D module sitting on my desk and the next game session." And setting miniatures like this guy on the table and seeing my players' reactions still brings me joy. But the process of running a fantasy campaign was feeling empty. It lacked heart.

The solution? Seek inspiration. In this case, reading through some of the works that influenced early Dungeons & Dragons. Please understand that I'm not reading every single book and story of every author cited by Gary Gygax in Annex N of the Dungeon Masters Guide. What I am doing is sampling enough of each source to get a feel for it and moving on. For example, I might read a book or three of a given series, but not the entire run. I can always come back to it later. Also, I am not reading Lord of the Rings again. At least, not this year.

It has been an illuminating experience so far. The links between Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and early Dungeons & Dragons became more obvious as I was reading through them. There is a certain feel that Gygax was trying to invoke, but I only had a vague sense of what it was from reading the Dungeon Masters Guide and his notes in early modules. Now I feel closer to understanding what he was going for.


Robert E. Howard wrote the original Conan stories between 1932 and 1936. These are products of their time. Positive race relations, cultural sensitivity, and enlightened perspectives on gender equality are NOT things to be found in these stories. Robert E. Howard was a prejudiced man writing for prejudiced editors.

Some might not agree with this disclaimer. I feel that it is an important point to acknowledge.

The Feel of the Stories

I enjoy modern fantasy literature, but it has flaws. Some of it places so much emphasis on world building that the people and what they do in those worlds gets lost in the setting descriptions. On the other hand, strong stories with characters worth paying attention to tend toward a dark and cynical tone. Reading the Conan stories was a breath of fresh air. They are straightforward adventures with Conan solving the situation at hand by cheerfully murdering everyone that gets in his way. There is irony in these stories, but it is not heavy handed. In fact, there is very little to drag down these stories. They have a raw energy that sweeps the reader through them.

Conan's image

The standard visual representation of Conan shows him wearing nothing but a loincloth and boots while he pays scarce attention the nearly- or completely-naked young woman clinging to him for dear life. Now, this is not completely wrong. There are occasions in the stories where Conan ends up looking like this, but never by choice. As a mercenary, he equipped himself with the best armor he could afford. He had no issues with wearing comfortable silk shirts and pants as a pirate or outlands bandit. As a king, he donned plate armor appropriate to his status. Only in desperate circumstances did Conan appear as his is commonly depicted.

In terms of personality, the Conan of these stories is more intelligent and articulate than his portrayals in other media suggest. He speaks and reads several languages, out thinks far more educated opponents, quickly establishes dominance in hostile groups before taking them over, puzzles out an ancient text without assistance, and routinely reasons his way out of situations. These are not the actions of a fool blindly charging into deadly encounters and getting by with nothing but brute strength (although he has plenty of that to call on). Likewise, Conan's speech is direct and to the point, but he is no moron grunting out monosyllabic responses.

Oh, and the nearly- or completely-naked young women? Robert E. Howard was writing for publications that expected female characters to have some kind of allergy to clothing. Most of the women in the Conan stories matched Robert E. Howard's own views on sexual attractiveness. Some had active roles, but many served only as romantic interests and damsels in distress. Most were also unwilling to resist Conan's charms and ended up clinging to Conan's muscular frame at some point. To Conan's credit, he does make an effort to find some clothes for his lady friends... eventually.

Conan as Adventurer

Conan had a long and varied career, starting off alone as an untutored barbarian from the north and ending up as a respected king ruling with the loyalty of his people. Along the way, he was a soldier of fortune, a pirate captain, a mercenary officer, a bandit leader, and was not above the odd bit of thievery or occasional con job. Even the notion of exploring ancient ruins for treasure was not foreign to him. It's easy to see how he could have inspired any number of characters and adventures for early roleplayers.

He even embodies the mercenary approach taken by some player characters to this day. Conan is not the selfless hero of an epic fantasy. Hand him a ring with instructions to toss it into a volcano and he is going to want to know why and how much he is going to be paid for it. He expects to profit from his efforts, either through a generous reward or helping himself to whatever he comes across. This is echoed by the notion that adventurers get to keep whatever is found in a dungeon without question or taxation.

Still, Conan is not an anti-hero consumed by self-interest. He does help others even when he has nothing in particular to gain. Of course, he is more likely to render aid if the person needing his help is an attractive young woman with "a supple waist" and a fair complexion.

Conan's motivation to help others grows as he assumes roles that give him responsibilities over others. As a pirate or mercenary captain, he watches over his men as long as they remain loyal. As a king, he looks after his subjects even after he is disposed. There are similarities here with the progression of an early AD&D fighter as he gains followers and duties to those followers.

Conan and the Barbarian Class

Curiously, the Barbarian class that first appeared in AD&D's Unearthed Arcana was modeled on Conan, but he is not a good fit for it. The stories do not depict a raging, bare-chested berserker harboring serious issues with anyone using magic. As mentioned above, he prefers to wear armor in combat and keeps a cool enough head to think tactically. Conan is prone to losing his temper, but something really needs to press his buttons for him to completely lose control. And while he is suspicious of magic, he is willing to ally with those who use magic without making an issue of it. If anything, the Barbarian class is a parody of Conan.

Conan and the Mechanics of Gaming

Conan's fondness for the good life has been modeled as a way to relieve player characters of their excess wealth. He often starts a story flat broke after parting with his coins a little too freely. This neatly sets him up for the next adventure as a new opportunity to score some cash falls into his lap. This is a good motivator for player characters who are fond of hearty food, strong drink, and women of negotiable virtue.

His varied career is difficult to model with a skill system. Spending points or slots on a list of specific skills is a poor way to reflect the wealth of previous experiences that Conan regularly draws on in the stories. He knows how to run a ship and an army. He picked up a diverse range of languages during his travels. He is knowledgeable about histories of the lands he travels through to the point of identifying the pelts of extinct animals. Something like 13th Age's background system is better suited to reflect the knowledge of someone like Conan.

Final Thoughts

Overall, reading through one of the influences behind Dungeons & Dragons has rekindled my interest in gamemastering fantasy. I have some fresh ideas that I am looking forward to developing. Even if it did not inspire me as much as it does, it would have still be worthwhile to see how this particular source influenced the hobby.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this and agree with you pretty much across the board. I often wonder why it is so hard to make a decent Conan movie given the great self-contained stories that Howard pumped out. The writers/producers try to recreate the wheel every time.