Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

It’s been a while since I’ve gushed here about pulp. Hopefully I’ll have something for ya’ll soon – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core is making its way through the pipes.

In the meantime, I don’t want to lose track of what I’ve been up to. You know, for posterity.

Fritz Leiber is one of the older sword and sorcery guys who gets a lot of positive buzz from some of the old hands. I guess that makes sense – he certainly had a visible impact on the development of Dungeons and Dragons. Appendix N don’t lie! Still, I wasn’t impressed with my first reading of his stuff. Gather, Darkness! had some cool ideas, plus an exclamation point in its title! But it was just too bogged down with ideology that got in the way of telling a good story or building interesting characters. I guess I should have started with some Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, right? His signature adventuring duo! Well…

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I nibbled on Swords & Deviltry for a while. Many train rides: reading a few pages, falling asleep for the remainder of the trip, and repeating. And then I finally finished it.

First off, let me plug another review of the same collection. Dan over at QuQu Media got his up before me, and it’s a bit kinder. Go check it out!

As for my own thoughts…

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I’ll try not to rant for too long. I actually largely agree with Dan, only I take a somewhat dimmer view. The pacing was poor, yes. I would say both Fafhrd and Mouser’s individual stories were only all right. The latter was a bit more engaging for me, as well, but I found Ivrian irksome and weak (perhaps that was the point). And when she finally gets interesting…the story ends. Then in the last tale, she mostly reverts back to the annoying weakling.

The last story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” is the best of the three. I’d still only call it “not bad.” Leiber was a strong writer, and he wielded words well! I did admire that strength while reading, despite being somewhat unimpressed with the story itself.

I’ll say this – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are synergistic. They’re much more fun to read about when they’re together. They’re like the Friends of sword and sorcery (how’s that for a generational reference?). Their fight scenes are fun, and they have some chuckle-worthy banter.

Unfortunately, this tale reads like the prequel that it is. The two become best friends pretty much immediately. Because, you know. They’re supposed to be best friends.

*SPOILER ALERT*…..

 

Also, both of the womenfolk are dead weight. You know the two protagonists most likely aren’t going to willingly leave their lady loves (which is all right because frankly one is naggy and half-crazy and the other is feckless). So you know Leiber’s gotta get them out of the picture somehow. He goes give them a pretty memorable death – I give him credit for that. Don’t see too many people strangled by magic smoke and then eaten by rats.

 

 

*END SPOILER*

“Ill Met” is fun enough. There are elements that some may find overdone or silly (there’s just something about a hero drinking like 10 jugs of booze and still being functional enough to fight that always bothers me), but overall it’s enjoyable. By today’s standards, it’s worth a read. But for me now, compared to the other stuff I’ve been reading (Vance, Burroughs, Howard, CAS, Zelazny)…meh.

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Alex of Cirsova has been telling people that they should start with Swords Against Death, which was written earlier than the chronologically preceding Swords & Deviltry. This is probably sound advice. Seeing as I already own it, I’ll give it a shot sometime and see if I can join my pulp fan friends in Leiber Land, or if maybe he just doesn’t do it for me.

Bonus thought: the sorcerer’s familiar in “Ill Met” bears a strong resemblance to those in Gather, Darkness! Perhaps not surprising, but interesting to note.

-Bushi

bushi

Swords and Stuff, a second crack at Leiber: Strike Two!

“No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

  • by gitabushi

Spoiler: Okay, that was too strong, and I withdraw the charge.  Sort of.

Don’t you love it when a writer starts off the story in the middle of the action, so you are immediately caught up in laser blasts and flying hand-axes?

So here’s the background.

There is a Pulp Resurgence going on.  As a hopeful writer who is hopefully on the verge of being able to complete my first novel, I noticed the trend and thought it might be something worth paying attention to. As in, maybe I might want to write a pulp story.

So I tried to re-read some pulp SFF I liked when I was in my teens.  And didn’t like it anymore.

The stereotype of pulp is that it is simplistic, juvenile, and immature.  Its fans disagree. And they have a point: the writings of Dashiell Hammett are considered by some to be literature worth studying.

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Dashiell Hammett

I personally enjoy reading Louis L’Amour, and while he is definitely a pulp Western writer, he has some interesting characters, occasional fascinating character growth, and some fairly intricate plotting at times.

the-sackett-brand_LRG
…and boy, did L’Amour milk this brand!

But when it comes to SFF, I have to agree with the stereotype: it is immature writing that has been so surpassed by the state of the art that it doesn’t seem worth reading anymore.

So, of course, I had to say this on twitter, because that’s the Proper Location for Virtue Signalling.

Full disclosure: Twitter has changed me. It has helped me to mature and not be bothered by responses and attitudes that would have infuriated me not long ago.  On the other hand, I’ve gotten to enjoy mild trolling, so I’m not always as careful with precise critiques as I would have been in the past.

And PC Bushi and I have a long-running mild disagreement…we both love SFF, but our tastes seem to be diametrically opposed. What he loves, I dislike.  The only thing I love that I know he’s read is the Chronicles of Amber, but that’s enough to know that the reverse isn’t necessarily true. More data is needed.

Anyway, some people had been ripping on some authors PC Bushi liked, and we had a twitter conversation about it, as PC Bushi details here.

That led to me getting called out by a commenter here:

I am sorry but it just reads like nathan hasn’t read anything and is just using other people’s talking points. Couldn’t you describe Brust’s Taltos series as a guy just wandering around killing black elves?

(He later corrects himself note “black elves” is Cherryh’s construction, not Brust’s, but the Dragaereans are called elves, so his point is not undermined by the mistake)

Here is my response, in full:

Okay, I spent a little time thinking about plot, so your challenge actually did some good.

Maybe “no plot” is the wrong way to put it.
What is plot?
According to wikipedia, Plot is: the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.

So from that point of view, yes, everything REH and ERB wrote have plots.

But I still don’t think they are very good ones.

Let’s take the first story in “The Coming of Conan”. (I have read most of the original REH Conan novels, but 30 years ago, so we’ll just look at this short story).

What is the plot? A man wants to be king, so plots against the king, who is Conan. He arranges for an assassination squad. Conan has a dream where a God gives him a magic weapon. Conan defeats the assassination squad, except the last one is read to kill him before a demon appears, then Conan kills it with the magic weapon.

So, yeah, there’s a plot, but it’s not a very good one.

Why do we care about Conan? Is he a good king? We don’t know.
Where is the conflict?
Does anything bad happen if Conan is replaced as king? Sure, he’d be killed, but we know nothing about the country, or the people. Why should we care?
Does he do anything difficult to stop the assassination? No, a demon appears.
Does he do anything difficult or special to stop the demon? No, a god gave him a magic sword.

There was *one* bit of interesting development: Conan is nearly killed because he was shocked at the minstrel’s betrayal, and human emotion keeps him from striking the minstrel down immediately.

If anything, the most interesting person, the person who chooses and changes the most, is Thoth-Amon. He had power, lost it when a thief took his ring. He had to flee or be killed from the enemies he made when he had power. In disguise, he’s nearly killed by bandits, but his life is spared when he pledges to serve as a slave. Then his ring comes within his reach again…how does he react to the loss of power vs restoration of his power? That could be a fascinating glimpse into human nature. But he’s the bad guy, so we can’t care about him.

Now compare to Brust’s Jhereg (spoilers!):

Jhereg
An assassin is seduced by greed and ego to take a difficult job. He finds out the job isn’t as straightforward as he thought. If he doesn’t do the job, he’ll be killed. Then he finds out there’s a reason to hurry. If he doesn’t hurry, he’ll be killed. But if he hurries, he might be unprepared, and killed by the target. Then he discovers the target wants to die, but only a certain way. He finds out that if he does his job, his friend will be dishonored. Now, you may not care about the friend and his prized honor, but you can understand and sympathize with the assassin not wanting to force his friend to lose something important to him. Then we find out that the target is trying to destroy 3 of the 17 Houses of the Draegaera. Which the assassin would LOVE to have happen. Now isn’t that some some intriguing, major conflict to be resolved? The assassin has multiple reasons to want to stop the target’s plot, but also has multiple reasons to want the target’s plot to succeed. So he develops a plan, the one thing that could resolve all these conflicts safely. Then the plan goes wrong.

There is escalation of stakes throughout, which makes it a good plot.

Brust lets us get to know the characters, gives us some reason to care about the characters and what they want, makes even the target somewhat sympathetic, and then lets the struggles play out.

Now, to be fair, we’ve compared a short story to a novel. A novel will naturally be more complex, having more length.

So let’s bring in ERB’s The Land That Time Forgot.

The_Land_That_Time_Forgot

What’s the plot? A man is going to war. His boat is sank, he captures the submarine that did it. No way to run a submarine, unless you just happen to have experience piloting one…He just happens to make submarines for a living! He tries to get home, but gets lost. There is some conflict because there is a hidden traitor. He finds an unknown continent. No way to get in, unless you have a submarine. He just happens to have one! He gets inside, and there are dinosaurs inside. They are dangerous, and randomly grab someone. It just happens to not be the hero! Now they have food and water, but no fuel for the sub. Hey, they just happen to find oil! They still haven’t resolved the issue with the Germans, oh, hey, the Germans run off with the sub!

Oh, I forgot, there’s a girl. He loves her because she is beautiful. How do we know she’s beautiful? The author told us. She loves the hero, he loves her. He doesn’t trust her for a while. Oh, wait, he was wrong. She forgives him.

To be sure, there are some minor conflicts: the hidden traitor, the problem about the trust between the girl and the hero, how to deal with hostile prisoners.

But at no point is there much doubt about the outcome of any conflict. The hero is the leader because of course he is. He can command the sub because of course he can. When he needs to kill a dinosaur, of course he can. He can overcome the German commander one on one because of course he can.

Back to wikipedia:
A plot device is a means of advancing the plot in a story. It is often used to motivate characters, create urgency, or resolve a difficulty. This can be contrasted with moving a story forward with dramatic technique; that is, by making things happen because characters take action for well-developed reasons. An example of a plot device would be when the cavalry shows up at the last moment and saves the day in a battle. In contrast, an adversarial character who has been struggling with himself and saves the day due to a change of heart would be considered dramatic technique.

If I had to characterize The Land that Time Forgot, it would be that it is just a series of plot devices, rather than a plot. Or to the extent that it has a plot, it isn’t very good.

And it doesn’t get any better in the sequel, The People That Time Forgot. I set the book down when I got busy, and had zero desire to pick it back up again.

In its favor, there is a great What If aspect to the trilogy: What if there were a lost continent that had dinosaurs and primitive humans? Then what if the inhabitants recapitulated evolution as a personal development process?
Okay, the 2nd is way out there, and I don’t really see the reason for it, but at least there is a What If to explore.
These are milieu books: set up a world, then let the character explore the world, letting us see it through his eyes. The interest is in seeing how this world compares to ours, how the changes in the world cause changes in the humans, or in human society.

Except it really doesn’t. ERB gives us a series of snapshots, but the world never really becomes 3D.

Compare to Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, where the question is “What if a bunch of young adults were stranded on a strange planet and had to create their own civilization?” Definitely a milieu story, but not *just* a milieu story. There is character growth and exploration of human nature and the nature of civilization.
Or compare to Larry Niven’s milieu stories, Destiny’s Road (what if people lived on a planet that lacked any natural source of a vital mineral?), the Smoke Ring duology (what if a society evolved in a weightless environment?). He tells a story with a plot, character that have goals and issues we care about, while *still* exploring a strange world. One of the interesting things about Niven is he wrote several novels about societies based on an Elite enslaving the Common People via monopoly over a scarce vital resource. He explores that theme over and over, in the two stories above, plus The Gift From Earth (human organs), World Out of Time (immortality), and probably more I can’t think of yet.

the-smoke-ring
Woah. Doesn’t this look like a world you want to see a writer explain, describe, and explore?  Hard SF for the win, baby.

Both you and I cited Cherryh.

To be fair, Cherryh has some books without any real plot. Her Fortress series is just a self-licking ice cream cone. As is the Rusalka series. Both do provide some insight into human nature, the nature of fear and love, and how those are exploited…but after finishing each of those, I felt like I do reading ERB and REH: why did I just read that? What was the *point* of the story? In REH and ERB, it’s because I don’t care much about the outcome because there wasn’t much escalation of stakes, too many plot devices, and the characters don’t earn my care. In those two Cherryh series, it’s because after all those words describing so much action, nothing really changes in the world. I guess you could say that in Rusalka there was finally a restoration of normality, but I just didn’t care that much.

In contrast, Cyteen drags you into the lives of a brilliant-but-evil woman who is cloned, and how her clone reacts to the attempts to recreate the evil woman’s brilliant skills by pushing her personality towards evil, in connection with interactions with the young, sympathetic man the evil old woman deliberately abused…this is conflict, in that the man wants nothing to do with the clone because of his memories of the old women, but the clone is fascinated by the young man and has the power to force his proximity. Lots of personal conflict, tough decisions, changing character, people under pressure, sacrificial decisions, etc. A fascinating exploration how conflict, struggle, and pain are the challenges that stimulate growth, and the ethics of using those tools deliberately to try to bring about that growth in others.

Let’s make this even more complex, and bring in ERB’s John Carter. It’s been a while since I’ve read any. I enjoyed them okay when I was 15. I tried re-reading Princess of Mars 5 years ago, and got bored before I finished.

I won’t run through all the things I consider plot inadequacies, but I’ll hit a few points:
– Yes, there’s loyalty, in that Carter saves Tarkas’ life, and Tarkas returns the favor…but to me, that pales in comparison to Vlad Taltos’ considering it better to let himself be killed rather than force his friend to go back on his promise that guests are safe. Of course, Vlad figures out how to resolve that conflict, but Vlad’s loyalty is more poignant to me than the “You save my life, so I save yours” exchange.
– Yes, there’s romance, but just like in the Land that Time Forgot, we are told that Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful woman ever, so John Carter loves her and is blessed to earn her love. Yay. I don’t find it convincing or compelling.

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…for all we know, Dejah Thoris could look exactly like this.

There are some things in the Barsoom series favor:
– It is based somewhat on the science available at the time (canals!)
– If you want a hero with superhuman strength, it makes sense that it would be an alien that grew up on another planet with 3x the gravity. This is good What If science fiction.

But consider this: how much more poignant, how much more depth, how much more interesting would the whole Barsoom cycle be if John Carter had been torn away from a wife and child, or (worse!) a young, pregnant wife on Earth?

That would make his attraction to Thoris a conflict. That would make his return to earth after asphyxiation a mixed blessing. That would add emotion to his every success on Mars: it all came at the expense of an innocent woman and child back on Earth…and yet, it wasn’t of his own choosing, he is powerless to go back (so why shouldn’t he make their loss mean something good for Barsoom?)…and since his complete disappearance means she is also moving on with her life back on Earth…?

That one change would deeply alter the Barsoom series, making it a truly sublime exploration of the nature of love, and purpose, and dealing with loss.

 

“No Real Plot” in ERB/REH Books

Bushi, Gita, and friends on genre, the pulps, and taste

So many ideas backing up in the pipeline, but things are super busy at work and home right now. Leisure time is at a premium, and if I don’t leise, I run out of material. So.

At any rate, Gita (Nathan Alexander on Twitter) and I, and some others, had a nice exchange earlier that I wanted to share here. I beg your pardon in regards to formatting; tweet threads aren’t always the easiest things to embed, and we’ve got multiple strands branching off. Some comments may have been lost to the ether here, and some may appear more than once. Also it’s going to look like on long block of tweets. Fun.

The start of the chain:

tweet1tweet2tweet3tweet4tweet5tweet6tweet7tweet8tweet9Tweet91tweet92tweet93tweet94tweet95tweet96tweet97tweet98

-Bushi

bushi

Bushi, Gita, and friends on genre, the pulps, and taste

The Emperor of Sand is Here

A new Mastodon album came out today. It is about sand, and emperors, and emperors of sand. It is also excellent. Apparently if you pre-ordered the vinyl version you also got a free coloring book. Hopefully they make it available to those of us without vinyl proclivities.

 

I have been sparse on this blog lately because everyone in my family decided to take turns getting sick over the last few weeks. PC Bushi got married, and there were many monsters to slay in…urr… Monster Hunter. I am tired. Orren and Berek will return soon. I just haven’t had the energy to devote the time needed to finish their current quest. They will face the beast soon.

-Kaiju

 

The Emperor of Sand is Here

Santa Claus is Coming…To Town…

  • short fiction by Gitabushi

Santa Claus died on December 25th in the early hours of the morning.  His death caused the Depression.  I know it sounds crazy, but I was there.

Of course, if you’re reading this, it means I’m dead.  I’ve set it up with my friend down at the Herald to fly up here and look for this if no one hears from me within a week.  I hope it works, because somebody needs to know.

For so many years I just thought it was a nightmare, maybe just some child’s method of explaining events that are beyond a child’s scope of understanding.  Everyone I told either laughed or got angry, so I learned to keep it to myself.  But too many bodies have been turning up lately.  It’s bad enough that it’s on the same night every year, but the fact that it’s all over the world is even more telling.  Of course, that same fact made it hard to see the trend, but now that I know, it was easy to track down.

If I just come out and say it, you won’t believe me, and you’ll perceive this writing as a spoof, or maybe a cruel-minded hoax.  But it’s vital that you believe, so I’ll give you the facts first.

You’ve been told in your history classes that the Great Depression started on November 10, 1929.  Wrong.  Yes, there was a market decline that started on that day.  But the despair, panic, and global economic devastation didn’t actually begin until December 25th, the day the world woke up and found that, for the first time ever, Santa didn’t bring anything.

Imagine the results of that discovery.  Try, if you will, to imagine a world in which Santa did bring presents every Christmas for generations, then suddenly stopped without warning.  It can be hard for children to learn that there is no Santa Claus, so imagine how hard it was on the adults.  Picture their pain at the sight of heart-broken children, distraught without presents to open on Christmas morn.

Think of it:  a betrayal greater than Nixon’s, a shock more jolting than Kennedy’s death.  It’s no wonder that nearly every adult lost faith in the world, so that a minor market dip escalated into a major financial catastrophe; that so many people committed suicide rather than face their disappointment; that so many suicides concealed the small slaughter; that no adult from that era will admit Santa ever existed, and even started buying presents themselves to perpetuate the Santa Claus “myth;”  that children from that time remember the mood of despair more vividly than they recall a lack of Christmas presents, but their first clue was a barren Christmas tree.

Have I convinced you yet that Santa didn’t come that 1929 Christmas Eve?  Because he actually did make it to some places that night, before he was…No, I think I’ll explain it another way.
I was three months shy of my fourth birthday, and was eagerly anticipating Santa’s visit.  I lay in bed, awake.  Gentle flakes had fallen earlier that evening, and the moon shone down on the fresh white snow so brightly that I didn’t need a candle as I slipped out of bed and down the stairs. No child could resist mysterious sounds on Christmas Eve.  It had to be Santa Claus, it had to be!

No!  It was a regular man, face pale in the moonlight, a dark cloak wrapped around him as if to ward off the winter chill.  He seemed weak, perhaps starving.  I remember that I almost spoke aloud, to offer him something to eat.  But some sense stopped me, and I really believe that saved my life.

At that moment a sound came from the roof, and the man froze.  I mean, he was already completely motionless, but there was a change, as if every sense sharpened.  He suddenly looked like my cat when it sees a bird fluttering with a broken wing.  Like a predator when it senses his prey.  Then he disappeared.

Yes, disappeared.  One second he was there, the next he had vanished from view, like the shadows had swallowed him in one silent gulp.

A large sack landed in our fireplace, accompanied by a small avalanche of snow, and then a large man was squeezing out of the hearth place.  He was huge, but moved quite rapidly for his bulk.  His motions were without haste, but within seconds the stockings were full and the presents were underneath the tree.  Santa paused to take a bite of the cookie I had left the night before, and then–

It’s hard to describe what happened next.  I guess Santa has to be able to move quickly, if he can travel to every house in the world in a single night.  That speed was all that kept him alive for those few minutes, but in the end, the pale man was faster.  As I’ve since learned in my research, beings such as this man can move inhumanly fast.  They wrestled desperately, but in complete silence.  It was obvious that it was to the death.  The last image I had was of Santa’s booted feet kicking in mid-air, then going limp.

I must have fainted, because the next thing I remember is my mother shaking me awake, scolding me for trying to stay awake and catch Santa.  I thought it was just a nightmare until I found out that  many of  my friends did not get visited by Santa that year.  But no one believed me when I told my dream, even when I pointed out the cookie crumbs ground into the carpet.  And as I grew older, I realized that no one ever discovered a body, dressed in a red suit or not, so it must have been a bad dream.

But now I have finally realized to the truth:  Santa was killed by, and has become, a vampire.
I know that despite my careful building of my case, you don’t believe me.  You can’t, because it’s too strange, too far outside your known world.  So I challenge you to test it.  Investigate the three or four mysterious disappearances every Christmas.  Read accounts of the unusually high rate of suicides at Christmas during the Depression, and consider how a “fall” from a great height can help to conceal puncture marks and a general shortage of blood in a body.

Consider, if you will, how a vampire out-performs the average mortal, and then calculate the effect of augmentation on a man who already does not age, already can fly around the world, can already move incredibly fast and dexterously, already only comes out at night.  And thank whatever God you worship that Santa comes out only once a year.  Be grateful that he retains enough scraps of his generosity and compassion that he limits himself to just enough blood to sustain himself for another year, or he could depopulate the Earth in a twinkling.

And so, since I now know the truth, it falls to me to eliminate this monstrosity.  I may be over 70, but I have gotten myself in great shape.  Good enough to be taken seriously in my attempt to be the oldest person to make a solo visit to the North Pole.  And if I can find him in daylight, maybe I’ll have a chance.  If not, I hope they find my camp, and this laptop computer, and this account.  And I hope someone believes, before it’s too late.

Remember, he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.
And he’s HUNGRY.

Glenn Carpentier
December 21, 1995

Santa Claus is Coming…To Town…

Hunters and Horrors

Things are frantic right now – just finished with wedding festivities and the in-laws have returned home. I’m gearing up for some long work days, as we’re moving to a new office and there’s lots of IT work to be done in preparation.

Still, nerd’s gonna nerd.

Kaiju, the Great Troll Lord, has done it again. The dude who once got me into World of Warcraft (“Merry Christmas – here’s a free month of crack”) has dragged me kicking and half-heartedly protesting into Monster Hunter Generations.

 

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This is my first foray into the series, though when I lived in Japan I saw kids hunting beasts all over the damn place. That land of trains and banker box apartments lends itself to local handheld play. Also there are terrible, giant monstrosities, so naturally kids would want to hunt them.

japenese-giant-hornets

The single player action is solid, though the gathering quests are kind of bland. As you might imagine, multiplayer is where the game really shines. I haven’t joined any public games yet, but I’ve killed a giant armored toad among other things with a buddy. I also joined in killing a dragon. By “joined in” I mean I stood a screen away so as not to get one-shotted. Coordinating attacks, laying traps, chucking bombs of various kinds – it’s all good stuff.

The crafting is ok. I find that there’s a lot of junk armor. I mean, it’s cool that pig-cows can be skinned, but who needs crappy pig-cow armor when the discerning hunter gets access to lizard-raptor parts almost immediately?

Most of the weapons are large and ponderous or else weird. Of course I went with one that’s both. The gunlance, aerial style, baby. So like FF VIII, I guess, but with a giant lance and shield instead of a gunblade? Trust me, I am a cool dude.

What free time I can scrounge has mostly been going to Darkest Dungeon, though.

19darkestdungeon

Ok, now I had seen the glowing reviews in passing. But I wasn’t prepared for how good this one is. I honestly just thought I’d try it for an hour or so and check off a box.

What we’ve got here is a dark, tactical, turn-based, rogue-like dungeon crawler. Artistically, it reminds me of a comic book. I’m not really a big comics guy, so I’ll say a Dark Horse comic. Dark Horse is a brand, right?

Stylistically and tonally, it’s got that weird tales feel. Lovecraftian, for sure. I mean, heroes build up stress, which if unmanaged can progress into various manias and general madness. The manor (the main setting of the game, divided up into various areas) is populated with all kinds of eldritch horrors, beasts, and nasty humans. It’s got as many cultists as you’d expect in an HPL or Clark Ashton Smith tale.

The battles make me think of the third member of the Weird Trinity. It’s tactical, for sure. Positioning and party composition matter big time. But the way it plays out is Howardian. It’s visceral and action-packed. You can feel the swishes and whomps and splatters. The suspense mounts and plays out both in combat (things can go downhill fast; they can also turn around quickly on a few (un)lucky hits) and out of it as you explore the dungeon, hoping you’ve brought enough torches and food.

I’m really enjoying it a lot. So far my most satisfying moment was defeating the Collector – this low-encounter-rate spectral mini-boss who collects the heads of dead heroes and then summons them to kick your ass.

 

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I’ll be at these two games for a while.

-Bushi

bushi

Hunters and Horrors

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

bushi

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas