I may not do full Short Reviews of the Leiber stories, and if I do, I’ll get to them after I finish off the M of F&SF stuff. But I needed to get my thoughts on this down right away!
Fritz Leiber is one of those writers who once you’ve read him you have to ask yourself “Why they hell haven’t I read this earlier?” So, if you haven’t already read some Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, go out and read it now!
Over the holiday weekend, among various other things, I read the first three stories in Swords Against Death. Chronologically, Swords Against Death is the second book of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, though with the exception of a few newer stories Swords Against Death collects the earliest Lankhmar tales.
I can’t think of any stories which better embody the sort of adventures that games like Dungeons & Dragons try to capture and recreate. In fact, I think it’s probably a problem that there are DMs out there who have read stuff like Lord of the Rings or (worse) the Dragonlance books and try to create an adventure based in a fantasy world grounded in that type of fiction. Lots of high cultural woes, thousands of years of history, countless major players in the epic scheme of your would-be fantasy tale that the folks around your table don’t have the same investment in that the DM does… No, the adventures people enjoy are distillations of stories like “Two Sought Adventure” and “Thieves House”.
The Circle Curse – This is one of the “later” stories, which was added to original Two Sought Adventure collection to expand it and set the chronological table, so to speak. While it does not fully recap the events of Ill Met in Lankhmar, it shows the aftermath, with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser leaving the wicked city to try to forget their loss, criss-crossing the earth having adventures to try to leave their manpain behind, but ultimately realize that they have suffered everywhere, there is no better place to put their ghosts to rest than the city that spawned them.
It is difficult to convey the style and feeling of the Circle Curse; epic is a word that has been so distilled by ironic usage that it no longer captures the intent for which I would use it, but there is no better word to describe this story. The Circle Curse feels as though one could be reading a late 19th century translation of some recently discovered tale from middle-eastern antiquity; some until-now unknown Gilgamesh and Enkidu seeking to escape the isolation and alienation that is the doom of all heroes and great men has been lovingly related to us by a diligent scribe who wishes to bring this ancient story to the modern reader.
The Jewels in the Forest/Two Sought Adventure – This is, to my knowledge, one of the earliest Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, and it is D&D 101; anyone who wants to construct and run an adventure needs to read this. It hits all of the beats and illustrates perfectly the structure of a quick dungeon run.
Adventure Hook – The story starts in media res with the first outdoor encounter, but when we get a minute, we learn that the adventure hook came in the form of a bit of manuscript detailing the location and contents of a mad wizarchitect’s treasure. Getting some backstory on the place and the location required some footwork which is briefly described.
Overland Encounter – The dynamic duo are pursued by bandits/ruffians/someone, who could be after them for any number of reasons, not the least of which being the treasure hunt they’re on that started with a manuscript stolen from a nobleman (see Adventure Hook).
Arrival Near Dungeon – Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stay the night with a nearby farmer and his family. After scouting the area around the dungeon, they entertain with their Bard and Thief skills respectively and get a bit of local lore. The farmer’s daughter speaks of magic and a great stone monster and begs them not to go into the dungeon.
Encounter Outside the Dungeon – The noble’s henchmen are waiting in ambush and want the treasure themselves. The parties fight it out, but Fafhrd’s strength and Mouser’s cunning make up the difference and they’re able to run off the noble’s superior numbers.
Encounter Inside the Dungeon – The noble has fled into the dungeon and been driven mad by what’s he’s seen there. F&M have to kill him, or more accurately, the noble commits suicide by Grey Mouser.
Encounter with NPC Party – Well, not exactly a party, but F&M run into a guy who claims to be a cleric of good who is going to destroy the evil of the place that was created by his ancestor. The cleric fails his saving throw and gets squished by a falling rock trap.
Treasure and Boss Fight – Not deterred by a dungeon full of crushed corpses, including the cleric they just met, F&M set about opening the secret cache filled with treasure. Mouser fails his saving throw against gross smells, and has to run outside and puke while Fafhrd finishes up with the treasure. Unfortunately, the Wizarchitect’s dungeon is actually a giant stone golem and the gemstones are its brains. F&M both manage to escape with their lives if not the treasure.
You could ‘run’ this for a group using a single stat bloc. Here: AC6, HD1+1, HP7, MV 30′, AT 1 1d6, ML 8, SV F1, AL N.
Thieves House – In a double cross gone wrong, the Thieves Guild enlisted F&M to help liberate the bones of an ancient master thief from a temple’s catacomb, but when the current guild master is found murdered and relic stolen by the guild master’s mistress, F&M are once again in the crosshairs of Lankhmar’s thieves. While trying to make their escape, F&M get separated; while Mouser ends up in the tavern, waiting for his partner, Fafhrd has accidentally stumbled into a forgotten crypt of Thief Masters Past, and the ancient masters want one thing: their brother’s skull returned safely to them. Needless to say, a bloodbath ensues, F&M narrowly escape and a big chunk of the thieves guild gets torn apart by undead when the skull gets smashed.
Thieves House captures that feeling that no matter how much planning goes into something, no matter how well things are going, there’s always going to be that one thing, that one place, where either you mess up or something beyond your control happens and everything just goes to hell, and the best you can do is save your skin. Also, it reminds you that undead should be scary. Really scary. One of the problems in D&D, I think, is that the undead make for really good low-level cannon-fodder, which is a terrible missuse. Cleric’s turning ability throws a wrench into a well-setup sword & sorcery set-piece, because they’ll just be all “LOL, NOPE!” and bam, half a dozen hit dice of undead are either cowering in the corner or burnt to ash. Thieves House really reminds me of just how scary being alone in a dark room and suddenly having skeletons start talking to you and making fairly arduous demands of you can be. Anything that has Fafhrd the Barbarian of the North scared should have any normal person terrified out of their minds.
Anyway, you should check out what Jeffro has to say about Ill Met in Lankhmar.