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


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.




3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

The Overworld and the Undertale


As I make my way through the Dying Earth stories, Jack Vance remains one of my newly discovered favorite authors. And yet, I didn’t enjoy Eyes of the Overworld overmuch, and I find Cugel’s Saga thus far to be the same. Still, there are multiple layers to this.

First off, why am I not a big fan of Vance’s Cugel stories? Jesse (in a separate conversation) puts it nicely:

Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by “gifting” a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath.

Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.

Now admittedly there is some good fun in some of this. It’s satisfying to see Cugel outsmart even bigger heels than himself. But it does get tiresome to follow the adventures of a d-bag. He often gets some form of comeuppance, but I’d be happy to see him finally bite the dust. Vance’s first Dying Earth book contained several interesting and heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters. I’d have preferred to read more about them. Cugel is all well and good for a few tales, but two novels all about him just feels excessive.

Why do I keep trudging through, then? Well, why did I make myself read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series? Maybe I’m an idiot.

Actually, there’s still a lot to appreciate in the Cugel books, even without really liking the protagonist. Vance’s writing style and technique remain masterful throughout, and I love reading through his descriptions and dialogues. I haven’t learned so many new words in ages! Furthermore, the Dying Earth itself remains a fascinating setting, full of wondrous and memorable characters, artifacts, and situations.

For any DMs out there, these books are just overflowing with ideas ripe for the plucking. How about Magnatz, for example? A small town sits beside a mountain range and a lake. Long ago, a wizard cast an enchantment to protect the town from the terrible giant Magnatz : so long as a Watchman is posted to look out for the return of monster, the town will be safe. The townspeople don’t realize, but Magnatz is actually asleep at the bottom of the lake. You can probably guess what happens after Cugel (thinking he is being Clever) accepts the role of Watchman.


This is just one interesting situation of many. And so I’ll keep reading. But I’m looking forward to being done with Cugel.

In other news, I was able to breeze through Undertale pretty quickly the past ~week. In case you aren’t familiar with this one:

The creator is a big Earthbound fan, and it shows. The music, graphics, and tone of the game are largely reminiscent of the SNES SMAAAASH-hit. It may not look it, but Undertale is able to adeptly hit alternatingly silly, serious, and creepy notes and that really makes nailing it down a challenge. On the surface I suppose I’d call it an RPG, but many of the traditional RPG elements are stripped away or turned on their heads. I don’t want to give away too much here, as I think the discovery involved in this one is a big part of the fun, but I got through it without gaining any EXP or LVLs. Also there are a lot of dogs, if you’re into that.


The bottom line is that Steam and the opening up of the indie game market has been a tremendous boon for gamers. If you’ve got any interest, I highly recommend Undertale.




The Overworld and the Undertale

Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.


Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.


What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

Image Source


After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.


The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.




Into the Dying Earth

De Camp’s Tritonian Ringer



Last month, HP (over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday) and I agreed to read the same book for Vintage Scifi Month and do our respective write-up things. Well I’ve finished, and I think once again my feelings diverge somewhat from HP’s. It’s ok, though; he’s an attorney, so I’m sure he’s used to friendly disagreement.

So before delving into my impressions, I recommend you go check out HP’s review, which was first published over at Castalia House.

I also invite you to read what Fletcher Vrendenburgh had to say at Black Gate. I think his feelings skew closer to my own, though I probably fall somewhere between him and HP.

If you’re aching for more and can still stomach reading my thoughts afterwards, there’s a great review at Grognardia from a few years ago, too.

Let’s try doing things a little differently this time — I’ll lead with an overall rating and then dig into the spoilery detailed thoughts. Here we go:

3/5 – recommended with some qualifiers

So calling the Tritonian Ring a “ringer” isn’t really fair, I suppose. I don’t think it’s a bad book, and it certainly falls in the SFF category. It’s popularly considered to be a “sword and sorcery” entry, though I’m not quite sure that’s accurate. It’s kind of heroic fantasy, but without the heroic element. If a book could be categorized as “sword and sandal,” Tritonian Ring would fit into that box.

De Camp is a somewhat controversial literary figure for his treatment of Robert E Howard’s Conan property. For my part, I have thus far limited myself to reading only original, name-band REH Conan stories (accept no substitutes), so I can only repeat what others have alleged: namely that while de Camp loved the Conan stories, he also found them lacking and disagreed with the underpinnings of REH’s storytelling.

In the Tritonian Ring, we get de Camp’s version of what a Bronze Age fantasy yarn should be. If you’re looking for a wondrous, weird, action-oriented tale in the vein of the Hyborian Age, well…there’s some of that. But this doesn’t quite hit the mark.


*Beware: There Be Spoilers Here*


Let’s start with my two major complains about the Tritonian Ring, which aren’t unique ones:

1. De Camp was a scholar and and a pedant. This isn’t an entirely bad thing (I’ll come back to this), but it makes for some tedious and confusing world building at times.

2. Despite his association with Fantasy, de Camp was a materialist. As a result, he seemed unable to restrain himself in poking fun of his own fantasy world. We’re left with a setting and characters that are alternatingly brutal and silly.

Unfortunately these issues became apparent immediately. Actually I wasn’t at first sure whether de Camp was making fun of the genre or was just info-dumping (like an academician, not a skilled fiction writer).

On the first two pages, the following are introduced or namedropped:

Drax, the Tritonian war god

Entigta, the Goronian sea god


King Zoser

The continent of Poseidonis

The kingdom of Lorsk

King Ximenon

Okma, the Poseidonian god of wisdom

Pusad, an alternate name for Poseidonis

King Zhabutir of Lorsk

Prince Kuros of Lorsk

Prince Vakar of Lorsk

The Coranians

Tandyla, another god of Poseidonis

Lyr, another god of Poseidonis

The city Sederado

The nation of Ogugia

The Hesperides

Queen Porfia

Minister Garal

A man named Vancho

Now I’m just a simple man of humble intellect, but I’m a relatively experienced reader. And my head was spinning after reading of all these people and places. Where the hell was the narration going? Which of these names were important? Was I supposed to remember them all for later?

This wasn’t just an early bump in the road, but a recurring trend. Take a look at this page below:

After a while, I started to ignore the names of people and places and languages unless I noticed them repeating (and then I sometimes forgot their initial context). I understand that de Camp was trying to build a full, cogent world here, but it often wasn’t very skillfully executed. A good writer shows us his world through his characters; he doesn’t read us maps and almanac entries. Or if he must, he spaces it out and lets his readers absorb.

Now so far as the story goes, we’ve essentially got a “McGuffin quest”, as HP puts it. A gamer might be more familiar with the term “fetch quest.” Vakar, our royal protagonist, must set out to identify and obtain a mysterious magical item feared by the gods in order to save his nation. Well and good.

De Camp’s Bronze Age setting is interesting when we are shown and not exposited at. Technology and civilization are primitive. Military tactics are all but undeveloped, the chariot seems to be the height of transportation, and iron for all purposes undiscovered. A note on that last part — I never put together that the “star metal” was in fact iron, and so iron is the death of magic and old gods. I’m a little disappointed that I missed this interesting and layered element of the story, but glad to have come across the observation in the Grognardia review linked above.

This is de Camp at his best – the creation and populating of a historically plausible (except for the magic) world in an underutilized prehistoric setting. His scholarly, pedantic nature serves him well in this regard.

Unfortunately, I think de Camp’s strength (in his book anyway) is that world creation, and not the technical execution of his story, nor the development of his characters.

It’s been pointed out, but Vakar is not a particularly heroic hero. He owns a slave, who he beats and berates. Though of course he’s built like a truck (as all of his people are), he’s more of a lover and a scholar than a fighter, and he comes out of his many scrapes mostly through luck. And he doesn’t shrink from dishonorable deeds like sneak-skewering a kid to steal a village’s horses and make his getaway. He does possess some likability, though. He’s no coward. Although he is a spoiled rich kid, over the course of the story he learns to do with less, and he develops empathy for his servant.

Fual, Vakar’s slave, has some moments, but was largely unimportant. Too often his main two roles were – carry around Vakar’s stuff, and give voice to stuff that de Camp wanted to say. I mean this humble servant was supposed to be a simple thief when he was free. Yet he knows some things about poetry (why the hell does he know what “triolets” and “rhythmic alliterative verse” are?) and he seems to know a lot about sailing just from having looked at boats in port before.

De Camp wasn’t a bad writer, but he lacked the flourish and style of the Grandmasters. Robert E Howard’s prose was usually impeccable, and his poetry was effective, too. The likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson (I know I’m jumping around a bit) knew not only how to craft together beautiful sequences of words but how to economize. I simply didn’t get that from de Camp.

I also found the unevenness of his story somewhat jarring. There were scenes later in the book that struck me as well-done. The death of Fual was sudden, morbid, and final. Likewise I found the sacrifice of Abeggu to be poignant and indicative of what the Tritonian Ring could have been. I wanted more of this – brave, heroic sacrifice; selfless deeds; fights against injustice. De Camp had painted a dark world with petty gods and evil men (in one town an innkeeper tries to pimp out his daughter to Vakar). All it needed was a proper champion! But alas, we only received glimmers of this much-needed hero.

And interspersed, we got all kinds of lighthearted half-silliness. The plot point with the Amazons was superfluous; a war over the fact that a nation’s men wanted its women to stay in the kitchen and the wives were willing to fight and slay over their womyn’s rights! And the climactic barge scene where Vakar flees the women’s boat, kills the king, and then escapes to the men’s boat and tells them that they were betrayed. This was another of those scenes that I just couldn’t process in my head. Why was the men’s ship so far away that they couldn’t see what had happened? Why couldn’t the women yell to the men that Vakar had killed their king and escaped? Why did the strong, brave warrior women run around the boat screaming and waving their arms like cartoon characters?

I will give de Camp points for being unafraid to be irreverent. I’ll reserve judgement on whether or not it helped the story, but we’ve got plenty of nudity and some good old rape and rape-related japes. By today’s standards, this kind of thing could be highly problematic.


The Tritonian Ring was an interesting and educational look at some older fantasy writing, and for all its faults it wasn’t unentertaining. So far as satisfying, action-oriented, heroic fantasy, this introduction to de Camp’s Pusadian series doesn’t hold a candle to anything of Robert E Howard’s that I’ve read so far. Still, I’m interested in reading Lest Darkness Fall, which is probably de Camp’s most famous work. For the foreseeable future at least, though, I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to read any more of his fantasy stuff.




De Camp’s Tritonian Ringer

Some thoughts for the King: King David’s Spaceship

Last summer over at the Castalia House blog, Jeffro posted about A Spaceship for the King as a largely unrecognized inspiration for the Traveller pen and paper game. My interest was piqued by his exposition, and I later recognized author Jerry Pournelle as the same gent who co-wrote the Mote in God’s Eye – another great scifi novel I read some years back. As a matter of fact, the two books happen to belong to a larger series penned by Pournelle in occasional collaboration with fellow scientifictioneer Larry Niven.

Late last year I picked up a copy of King David’s Spaceship – an expanded version of A Spaceship for the King (which was originally a three part serial). You know, this one turned out to be a great example of why you sometimes have to force yourself through an opening chapter or two. I was initially a little turned off by what I was reading – a typical fantasy tavern scene, complete with giggling and squealing serving wenches being pinched as they served “countless” drinks to soldiers and other handsy patrons. To be fair to Pournelle, when he wrote this thing originally, it probably wasn’t such an overused trope.

Once past that somewhat clumsy opening, though, I had very little to complain about. To the contrary, I found King David’s Spaceship a most enjoyable read, with a lot to unpack. A few further thoughts, then, from my notes (*Spoilers to follow*):


1. Pournelle did a skillful job of crafting conflict without any real villains, perhaps aside from the Moorish barbarian horde, who were arguably relatively unimportant characters to the story. The Imperials and more specifically the Navy are painted as the chief antagonists throughout most of the book. But when we get a glimpse of matters from their perspective, what do we see? Bean counters and bureaucrats; a professor; a young sailor; a petty, stick-up-his-ass middling officer. These are flawed, but not evil men. Many of them are well-intentioned.

Physically, to MacKinnie and his band, Dougal and his fellow Samualans ultimately pose as much of a threat if not more.

2. This is a story of a determined group of primitives (“colonials” they are derisively called by one Imperial) triumphing, in a way, against an overwhelmingly technologically superior foe. In spirit, I found it somewhat reminiscent of Anderson’s the High Crusade.

“Superiority” is a slippery thing. Where the Empire is strong, rich, and advanced, it is also slow. The Imperials are constrained by their highly ordered bureaucracy, laws, and political intricacies. And because their Navy is staffed by men who are the product of such a society, they are prone to complacency and routine. They are vigilant of enforcing their rules, but often lack the vision to anticipate such as the “colonials” are able to pull off.

3. As Jeffro noted in his piece, the Catholic Church (referred to as “New Rome”) is featured prominently and without the malicious undertones or even explicit hostility that increasingly pervades much of modern SFF. Clerics in this story are practical yet seemingly sincere in their faith and benevolence.

4. I found the characters to be serviceable, but nothing to write home about. Our main man is a competent soldier and commander. We’re told that he attracts followings and engenders supreme loyalty in his men, though we’re not really shown very much of this charisma. His best buddy and manservant is a competent lieutenant and superb fighter. The protagonist’s eventual girlfriend is a competent…logistician? She’s certainly written to be a “strong” woman — brave, willful, not stunningly beautiful but attractive. The scientist and the scholar in the group are also competent, with a little bit of flavor text to tell us that one is portly and one is somewhat of a priss. The native captain and mercenaries that the protagonists recruit on Makassar are also competent. Haven’s spymaster is competent, as is the King and his minister and the head of the University.

That’s what we get – competent characters, some of whom are well fleshed out and some who are less so. And that’s fine. But come the end of the story, I didn’t really feel attached to any of them. They played their roles in the plot, and I suppose that was enough.

5. When it comes to the “realisticness” of what constitutes hard science fiction or military science fiction, I’m no authority. But still, this felt like a good example of both. A lot of science was discussed and implemented by the characters. Some of the most interesting parts of the story, for me, were the military tactics employed by MacKinnie to liberate the Temple from the barbarians.

6. There were a few scenes that felt a little sloppily executed. In particular, this scene kind of bothered me:

Now I readily admit, this is a such a minor story point…it winds up not even really being important to any of the proceeding events. Still – this assassin has time to rush through a crowd, lop off a pikeman’s arm, presumably slay several others, take a javelin to the chest and pull it out while still attacking…let’s for a moment set aside the improbability of one man with a knife being able to get so far through a crowd of armed soldiers. Hal , the competent lieutenant and superb fighter, has no time to draw his sword during all that? Come on. Even if the assassin was able to accomplish all that in a few seconds – how long does it take to draw a blade, especially for a seasoned soldier?

Still, it can be overlooked in light of the rest of the book. Since getting into Vance and Anderson and the like, I’ve become a fan of this implementation of science fiction – high tech mixed with low tech; swords and spaceships. It’s a lot of fun.

If I were rating King David’s Spaceship, I’d probably give it 4/5. Good stuff.



Some thoughts for the King: King David’s Spaceship

The state of the blog: 2016 and beyond

A few days late, but here’s my obligatory summation of the past year at PC Bushi.

The numbers:

We picked up a lot of momentum this year, as we gained a bit of direction and became more engaged on social media and within the nerdy blogosphere.

For 2016, we reached 7,540 views, 3,845 visitors, and 139 posts. Not huge numbers, but an enormous amount of growth.

Interestingly, our top 3 posts were one about artist Pogo, Kaiju’s opus “The Quest of Mecha-Harambe”, and a random crap I took on Eternal Sonata.

Posts on Undine, the Dragon and the George, and badass womenly women in SFF were a little bit further down the list, but still drew a respectable amount of eyeballs.

Direction and developments:

For my part, 2016 brought a major epiphany. I’ve mentioned before how the discovery and exploration of the Cirsova and Jeffro blogs turned me on to Appendix N, and beyond that catalyzed a general awakening to the body of quality scifi/fantasy that have become obscured over time. Since then I’ve generated a Grand List of such works. My foot was already in the door thanks to my familiarity with Tolkien and Herbert and Asimov and the like, but by the saints, I had no idea how much greatness I was missing. I also owe Kaiju for getting me into Conan.

I’ve gotten through some of the foundational stuff this year, which I’ll briefly talk about a little further on. There’s a lot more to get to, which I suspect will provide much blogging material.

Kaiju has been working on a writing project of his, which I’m told is progressing. Otherwise he pops in sporadically to muse about the end times and such.

The other big item is that we picked up another contributor recently – Gitabushi, who’s been tearing it up with guitar porn and posts about things like politics, philosophy, and his military experience.


This year I’ve gotten to the following:

Poul Anderson – The High Crusade was an amazing execution of knights versus aliens, and managed to toe the line between humorous and silly without slipping into the latter field. I also read Three Hearts and Three Lions, which probably has had a greater impact on gaming. Three Hearts contains the seeds of many iconic fantasy RPG elements of today – the paladin and his steed, dwarves with Scottish accents, trolls weak to fire. This year I’ll get to his other seminal work, the Broken Sword.

Leigh Brackett – just one of her short stories; not enough to form an opinion yet. In 2017 I’ll be digging deeper.

Edgar Rice Burroughs – the first three Mars stories. Man, these rocked, especially the first two. I’d like to work on Tarzan and one or two of his other properties this year.

Gordon R Dickson – A reread of the Dragon and the George, and it was still an awesome book. Mission to Universe was mediocre, but had some cool ideas.

Robert E Howard – I continued to read through the Conan stories and also got some Kull and Solomon Kane in. I just can’t say enough how great Howard’s characters are and how masterfully he shaped them.

Fritz Leiber – I keep hearing how fun and iconic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are; I should have started with them, and this year I’ll be checking out their tales. Gather, Darkness! turned out to be a disappointment.

Madeleine L’Engle – I reread the first two Wrinkle in Time books for the first time since I was a kid. Some creepy, awe-inspiring notes and an underutilized flavor of the scifi-fantasy blend. This series reminds me of Lewis’ Space Trilogy.

Michael Moorcock – Elric of Melnibone – I’m not quite sure what to say here. I’m glad to have become acquainted with the character and with Moorcock’s Eternal Champion universe. Elric himself is kind of insufferable. But he provides a valuable insight into the genesis of characters like Salvatore’s Drizzt, and perhaps influences upon the likes of Geralt of Rivia. In 2017 I’d like to check out the Hawkmoon books.

Offutt – My Lord Barbarian turned out to be a rather lackluster affair, with a great setup, interesting world, and serviceable characters. The story itself felt rushed and underdeveloped.

Pournelle – I’m just finishing up King David’s Spaceship as of this posting, so my opinion on it may not be 100% fully formed yet. That said, I was a little hard on the book early on, as it hit upon some irksome, all-too-common fantasy tropes. It’s really sucked me in, though, and unless it ends in a terrifically unsatisfying manner, I’ll be giving it high marks. What I’d expect from the co-author of the Mote in God’s Eye.

Fred Saberhagen – If Berserker is the least of the series, I’m really looking forward to delving into his works. I’d heard this first installment was nothing to write home over, and it’s always pleasant to have  your expectations are surpassed. The tales of humanity pitted  against the titular world-killing sentient machines were highly enjoyable.

Jack Vance – One of my favorite discoveries, most definitely. The Grey Prince started off a bit dryly, but was such a great tale of the failure of an extreme focus on “social justice” and the dangers of growing soft and naive. Star King left me drooling for more Vance. This year I’m hoping to get to a lot more of his stuff, starting with the Dying Earth stories. Also Vance was a supreme troll, which is awesome.

Roger Zelazny – Despite devouring the first five Amber books, I’m still not quite sure what to make of Zelazny. The Amber stories as a whole were among my favorites of the year, though as individual books I’m not sure they hold up quite as well. At his best, Zelazny weaves together intrigue, magic, and action, along with engrossing character interactions, in a way that leaves you wanting more. At worst, his writing gets trippy and disjointed. Maybe this year I’ll check out Lord of Light and see how it compares to Amber.

Various authors – I also read some viking sagas, some Dunsany, and other assorted short stories from classic scifi/fantasy authors. Lots of neat stuff. One of my favorite short stories was The Man Who Lived Backwards, by Charles F. Hall. Some really great ideas and imagery there. I also read Frankenstein, but there’s some debate as to whether that counts as scifi!

I’ve got a lot lined up for this year. Aside from what I noted above, I want to get to more Dunsany, some Clark Ashton Smith, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Niven, Piper, de Camp, Doc Smith, Eddison, Pratt, Norton, and a few others.


I’m working in an industry that I (mostly) like, and last year I locked down my woman. I suspect there’ll be kids in the picture sometime this year or next. Often things fail to work out how or when we want them, but we’re not privy to the Plan. God is good. May He bless us with a happy and successful 2017.




The state of the blog: 2016 and beyond

Mobs vs Monsters: Death of a PC Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote a little about player character death in pen and paper gaming, and how it impedes one from becoming the pulp hero master of all. If you are dead, you cannot be Conan.

Branching off a little, Alex of Cirsova and I exchanged a few thoughts on the nature of hero deaths and the primary mortal threats to iconic barbarians and the like.

Alex went on to expand upon his point here.

I agree with him on the danger of groups of enemies. Play enough games (of various types) and you’ll learn that mobs of low-powered foes can pose plenty threat.

What about for the characters in the kinds of stories we often model our own gaming characters after? Well, we find a mix. In the Cirsova post, there is talk of “economy of force.” That is to say, when there’s one big monster, it is usually fighting against multiple adventurers who get more attacks than it does, or do more damage or can take more punishment in aggregate. Thus it’s pretty much outgunned, even if it’s super strong.

Two things about this. First, in the kinds of stories we often read of heroes facing off against terrible horrors and fell beasts, the numbers are usually more even. Or at least they are more likely to be than in a game of D&D. Conan picks up occasional companions, it’s true, and he is a leader of men. But he also operates and fights alone quite often. Thus his eldritch encounters are usually pretty close to 1:1.

Second, I’d argue that game mechanics are limiting. A party of heroes facing off against a giant may have a pretty decent shot in a gaming context, but in a written setting…well, of course that in large part depends on the author. But a “written” giant is unbound by combat rules. D&D and other systems may do a decent job approximating battle mechanics with armor class and hit points and attacks of opportunity, but how likely is a DM-enthralled giant to just step on a PC or PCs and insta-smoosh them (though I’m sure this does happen)? And what are the odds that a party (if there are multiple adventurers) is capable of retaliating in kind?

Of course I haven’t read every fantasy book, nor am I an expert of man on monster combat. But it just seems to me that in such stories, even when in groups, heroes are often forced to rely on more than economy of force and the fairness of turn-based combat. They often need clever plans, strong magic, or favorable circumstances. It’s not to say that they can’t win otherwise, but usually the odds are stacked against the good guys in such cases.

(Warning: some spoilers ahead for Lord of the Rings, The Gods of Mars, various Conan stories, and Three Hearts and Three Lions)


Then again, in some settings, heroes have the advantage. In Dickson’s Dragon and the George, for instance, dragon vs knight is an uneven fight…in favor of the human! Fully armored men, with lance and steed, pose grave risk to dragons, as the protagonist quite painfully learns.

Looking at mobs, Alex is clearly correct. Our own Conan is frequently forced to run when outnumbered and able. In the Lord of the Rings, the party flees from orcs and trolls in Moria, and the mighty Boromir is taken down by an overwhelming pack of Saruman’s orcs. Early in the Gods of Mars, John Carter and his companion Tars Tarkas barely escape from a horde of plant men and great white apes.

So as Alex says, “The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.” Yes, very true.

Where I do want to diverge a bit is in the estimation of mobs as more of a threat than monsters. To be fair, I don’t think Alex is making this as a blanket claim. His post seems more limited to a gaming context. It’s unfortunate that so many games, through their mechanics, make this distinction important, though.


In the Conan stories, the barbarian runs from unwinnable battles presented by both man and monster. The very last paragraph from “The God in the Bowl”:

At last the movements ceased and Conan looked gingerly behind the screen. Then the full horror of it all rushed over the Cimmerian, and he fled, nor did he slacken his headlong flight until the spires of Numalia faded into the dawn behind him. The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now sleep in their nighted caverns far below the black pyramids. Behind that gilded screen there had been no human body—only the shimmering, headless coils of a gigantic serpent.

In “The Slithering Shadow” Conan runs from a mob of soldiers, trying to find his woman. He ends up encountering a terrible beast from which there is no escape. He barely survives:

A footstep roused her out of her apathy of horror, to see Conan emerging from the darkness. At the sight she found her voice in a shriek which echoed down the vaulted tunnel. The manhandling the Cimmerian had received was appalling to behold. At every step he dripped blood. His face was skinned and bruised as if he had been beaten with a bludgeon. His lips were pulped, and blood oozed down his face from a wound in his scalp. There were deep gashes in his thighs, calves and forearms, and great bruises showed on his limbs and body from impacts against the stone floor. But his shoulders, back and upper-breast muscles had suffered most. The flesh was bruised, swollen and lacerated, the skin hanging in loose strips, as if he had been lashed with wire whips.

Once again in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey fights the terrible Durin’s Bane. While the wizard is able to slay the powerful Balrog, he gets as good as he gives.


In Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, the party’s battle against the troll is a costly one. One of the party members is killed, and my memory is a bit fuzzy but I think the protagonist’s memorable steed, Papillon, may also be lost.

In our favorite stories, there are many dangers, both magical and mundane. A hero can be slain by a large group of foes or by one large foe. Discretion is indeed often the better part of valor, and living to fight another day is usually the best option. Once they’re dead, they don’t get another chance (unless Gandalf).

In game terms, the calculus may differ. When the most important thing is the survival of the party, you may not care about losing a member or two so long as you win the battle. If the dragon fries your fighter, you can just roll up a new one.

Returning to what I was talking about last time, though, I think many (most?) players come into a campaign with personal goals. Sure, sometimes they just want to be part of a cool story. Sometimes they want to amass a huge fortune or delve deeper into the dungeon than anyone before them. Sometimes a player wants to create a memorable hero – the most powerful wizard of the century, or the Conan or Solomon Kane clone (minus being a Puritan, probably), or the next Robin Hood. For those guys, losing their character to the lich king (even if the party wins) may be just as devastating as a TPK at the hands of a mob of bandits.

That’s not to say that a DM or a gaming system has to or even necessarily should consider the hurt feelings of such players. It’s just to say that on an individual basis, a monster may be just as threatening as a mob.





Mobs vs Monsters: Death of a PC Part 2