On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class Part 2 – Civilization and Barbarism

The other day, during the discussion about Stark and Barbarians, I noted that Stark does NOT come from the template of European Barbarians, and would be more akin to an African warrior or Indian wild-boy. Cirsova contributor Jon M. Weichsel (whose story “Going Native” will appear in our Summer issue) jumped in, and we drilled down a bit on the nature of “barbarians”, though it’s a digression that took us fairly far from the original topic of Dungeons & Dragons.

 

Gitabushi: I still think y’all are overthinking this. Appendix N is supposed to be inspiration, not source documents. The authors draw upon Euro-American legend to make stories, just like the game does. Europeans were barbarians to the Greco-Romans, but the Norse were barbarians to Euros. Hence, barbarians are norse/scandi berserkers. And Brackett, REH, et al, drew upon the *Euro* legend to make their barbarian characters.

Cirsova: Except that’s not the case for Stark, at all. He’s closer to either Mowgli or a sub-saharan african.

JonWeichsel: Yes. Stark is closer to Mowgli or Tarzan than Conan. He was an orphan raised by savage aliens on Mercury and was then rescued and civilized by a human but still carries some of the savage ways he was brought up with. I wouldn’t call him a barbarian.

Bushi: I think there’s an argument for that. There’s also an argument that Mowgli and Tarzan would be barbarians, too. Comparing Conan and Stark in text, they’re both uncivilized men who can function in society but still hold it in contempt.

JonWeichsel: But Conan is a foreigner who adheres to a Barbarian code despite the pressures of civilization. With Stark/Tarzan/other feral children there is an internal conflict between their wild upbringing and their humanity.

Bushi: I understand the distinction as you are laying it out, but I don’t get how they can’t all fall under the barbarian umbrella.

Cirsova: Well, in part because we need to define what we mean by “Barbarian” mechanically. If we mean “Barbarian” in the 1e mechanical sense, Conan’s a Barbarian, Stark is not. If we mean “Barbarian” in the trope as it was understood during the 70s S&S revival, then yes [Stark is]. Also worth noting, in 1e, there’s no restriction on a Barbarian’s armor, so yes, your Conan-esque barbarian could be wearing full plate.

Bushi: I mean a barbarian can mean a tribesman, sure. But it can also just mean a savage, uncivilized person, no?

JonWeichsel: Stark does combine the feral child and barbarian tropes, but as far as literature goes, I’d say barbarian is a social class while feral child is a condition of being. Like, if you found some guy living in the woods who had been raised by wolves, would you call him a barbarian?

Bushi: I probably wouldn’t reject the classification, but it’s possible that [I] don’t have an accurate conception of “barbarian.” As I suggested, I’ve always just kind of thought “one who is apart from civilization; a savage.” I’m sure it’s a useful distinction, just not one I’ve drawn (though perhaps I should?)  Following that line of thought, it’s maybe barbarian vs wild man.

Cirsova: It’s a one-way window. The Civilized person can observe and perceive the Barbarism of another, but to the Barbarian, he simply sees himself and his way of life, not any barbarity. It’s a false/illusory binary. Because Conan and Stark and Tarzan have come to the other side, they can see their own Barbarism from the perspective of civilization, and they are analytical of their past and/or present condition.

Bushi: So would you class Stark, Conan, Tarzan the same?

Cirsova: We’re getting into philosophical stuff that doesn’t reflect at all on D&D’s mechanics, but they all existed in a condition that the civilized man would call “Barbarity”, they all move to a place where they could observe and reflect that Barbarity from a civilized perspective, and they all took very different things from their self-reflection on what the conditions of Barbarity meant and how they contrast for better and worse with a “Civilized” state. The reason it is a false/illusory binary is that the “Barbarian’s” state may also be one of Civilization and a Civilization’s may appear to another as a state of “Barbarity”. Barbarity is not an absence of civilization but a one-sided perceived drastic imbalance between them. Tarzan and Stark were born into more savage (less civilized) circumstances than Kull or Conan, but even Tarzan’s upbringing among the apes was not anarchic.

Bushi: Ok well. I am going to make the great leap and say that absent other evidence barbarian rage comes from Stark. Because it will help me sleep tonight.

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On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class

I’ve realized that one of the reasons why you don’t see as much gaming content here as you once did is that much of my energy now goes towards having discussions on game and Appendix N theory with Cirsova Contributor PC Bushi (whose story Antares will appear in our Fall issue) instead of blogging.

So, for those of you who mostly just follow the blog, I thought it would be worthwhile bringing the discussion over here to share some of our insights.

Bushi muses that Stark may have been a more likely inspiration for the Barbarian Rage trope than Conan. The most interesting highlights, though, are that I dug up both Tom Moldvay’s stats for Stark (15th level Fighter), which predates the official Barbarian PC class, and the first official writeup for a Barbarian class in AD&D. While the ur-Barbarian PC class does not feature a “Rage” ability, Moldvay’s Stark does, in which he ‘reverts to N’Chaka’ and gets crazy stat bonuses for a short period of time.

Bushi: So not that Conan doesn’t get pissed and kill people/things, but it strikes me that Eric John Stark is a more likely inspiration for the tropey barbarian rage.

HP: If you’re going to use “barbarian” as a distinct class in an RPG, Stark is the better source material in general.

Bushi: An interesting thesis. Tell me more.

HP: I sort of touch on it here.

Bushi: I don’t think any of that is wrong, but it doesn’t exactly make the argument that Stark is more of a barbarian than Conan. At least the literary Conan.

HP: I’m not saying he more of a barbarian, just better grist for a barbarian class.

Cirsova: I mean, I have made the argument in the past that Conan is what you get when you have 16 STR and 18 CON and say “Think I will roll a Thief then Dual-Class over to Fighter at some point so I can wear heavy armor.”

Gitabushi: Y’all might be overthinking this. D&D draws upon European history (or bad history) as much as fiction. And it draws upon fiction that draws upon fanciful variations of European history. That’s why the Cleric and Paladin are based on Catholic priest-warriors rather than Muslim. So rather than the Barbarian class being based on a literary figure, the class is best seen as based on the legendary Scandinavian Berserker that the literary figures are also based on.

Bushi: Sure. I’m just specifically thinking about the “barbarian rage” thing, which I think D&D probably made ubiquitous. I didn’t mean to imply that barbarians came from D&D. Was talking about “barbarian rage” as a game/media trope. Which I’m sure in part comes from historical berserkers, sure.

Cirsova: I somehow have the sneaking suspicion that most folks playing Barbarians wouldn’t know this and at best would picture Fafhrd & book Conan and at worst picture movie Conan.

“I am playing a barbarian. Basically he’s just a dude who is not Greek.”

And the game probably takes more inspiration from fantasy BS barbarians than actual Norse or Celtic warrior cultures. But it would be interesting to work some equivalent of the Ragnarok passion plays. It would make a great funnel.

Youth of the tribe go to collect their gravegoods, meet with the grave-maiden, fight the “werwolves” in the symbolic world’s death battle around winter solstice, then surprise! Something vaguely Fenrir-like shows up and starts killing people for realsies!

Count Donku: I’ve been beating this drum since forever, but Conan is definitely more of a fighter who dipped a few levels of rogue early in his career, which isn’t really optimal as a PC but he makes up for that with insane stat rolls.

Cirsova (aside): Actually, it would be good at early levels, because with the high con bonus and how quickly thieves level up, he’d have Fighter HP and decent thief skills by the time most folks were reaching level 2.

Bushi: I mean it kind of depends what we mean by “barbarian.” Conan is basically a tribesman who’s accumulated all sorts of different martial and leadership experiences, but Howard always stresses his disdain for civilization. In that regard I’m not really sure he’s any less barbarian. His sharp, primal instincts are often called by by Howard. What I’m referring to is more how Stark seems to fly into legitimate berserk rages and Conan doesn’t. Sure, but Stark also goes to cities. Not like he hates civilization so much that he’s become a hermit, either.

Cirsova: Stark also has PTSD from being left alone on hell world as a child having to fend off giant lizards with a stick until a space cop found and adopted him.

Bushi: Yeah, that could be a big contributor. Anyway my main point was that Stark seems to me like a likely genesis of the sterotypical barbarian flying into a fit of blind rage and killing everything. And yes, as [Gitabushi] says, that can go back further to berserkers.

Cirsova: Stark makes more sense if you look at him as more nuanced version of the Angry Black Man trope; he was marginalized himself, and is an outsider even in the world that took him in, so he sympathizes with and is angry for other marginalized peoples. Sometimes that anger boils over.

Gitabushi: I still think y’all are overthinking this. Appendix N is supposed to be inspiration, not source documents. The authors draw upon Euro-American legend to make stories, just like the game does. Europeans were barbarians to the Greco-Romans, but the Norse were barbarians to Euros. Hence, barbarians are norse/scandi berserkers. And Brackett, REH, et al, drew upon the *Euro* legend to make their barbarian characters.

Cirsova: Except that’s not the case for Stark, at all. He’s closer to either Mowgli or a sub-saharan african.

Bushi: Also Conan is basically a proto-Celt, no?

Cirsova: Yeah

Bushi: I’m sure the Norse berserkers were an inspiration for these guys, even if they weren’t the only ingredient.

Cirsova: Also, Tom Moldvay has Stark as a 15th level Chaotic Good Fighter in AD&D. https://annarchive.com/files/Drmg028.pdf

Bushi: Did AD&D have the barbarian class?

Cirsova:  Stark’s stats apparently pre-date the Official inclusion of the Barbarian class. And Moldvay’s stats for Stark include “reverting to N’Chaka” ability, which is basically Rage. Dude, we are “an hour or two’s more research than I have time for” away from a major breakthru in proving you may be right! There is literally now evidence that would support the theory that “Berserker Rage mechanics as it appears as an ability of the Barbarian Class directly descending from some BS Moldvay cooked up to stat Stark.”

Okay, now to burst your bubble. Original AD&D Barbarian class didn’t have Rage. It was originally an outdoorsy, high HP Fighter/Thief/Ranger mix. https://annarchive.com/files/Drmg063.pdf

Bushi: My question is when did they pick up rage, and was there any cited or suggestion inspiration?

Cirsova: Well, I linked the original official class. I don’t know when Rage was introduced. I don’t have time to research it right now, but I’ll try to aggregate some stuff for a post next week.

Also worth seeing how Rage stacks up to N’Chaka Beastmode: +5 to hit +7 to damage +5 AC penalty +8 save vs. empathic spells/charms 2d4 rounds

There’s an interesting digression on the nature of Civilization vs. Barbarism, but I’ll save that for tomorrow!

Spending the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit Jotting Down More Notes on Yesterday’s Tolkien Thing

Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons was not “Tolkien + a few other things”
  2. Dungeons & Dragons was “Lots of things, including some Tolkien”
  3. Elves in the Hobbit are substantially different from Elves in Lord of the Rings and later Tolkien Legendarium; they are not “Tolkienesque” in the way that the term is generally understood.
  4. “Dungeons & Dragons is a Tolkien/Middle Earth adventure game” is a false statement.
  5. Chainmail, however, does include significant elements from the Hobbit; saying that the fantasy portion of Chainmail is Tolkien-the Game, is not entirely ridiculous.
  6. The Hobbit was far more influential on Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons than the Lord of the Rings proper.*
  7. Elves in Chainmail are not explicitly “Tolkien elves”; they bear little resemblance to Lord of the Rings elves, though they do resemble elves from the Hobbit or the Rankin & Bass cartoon.
    1. Do people consider the Rankin and Bass elves “Tolkienesque”?
    2. Chainmail elves are mechanically identical to Fairies and share an entry.
    3. Chainmail elves can turn invisible at will;
  8. Orcs in Chainmail ARE explicitly “Tolkien Orcs”; their tribes are described in terms of “Hand Orcs”, “Mordor Orcs”, etc.
  9. Elves as they appear in D&D are substantially different from Elves as they are depicted in either the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. Though a case can be made that they bear similarities to the wood elves from The Hobbit, they bear a much stronger resemblance to humanoid fey races from Poul Anderson.
  10. PC Races in D&D do owe some to Tolkien, but only Halflings are explicitly Tolkienian
  11. Tolkien did not have a literary monopoly on stout and hardy dwarves who live in the mountains, mine for treasure, or craft fantastic weapons; it does not pass a reasonable-doubt check, but it’s not far-fetched to say they were, if they did not become, Tolkien dwarves.
  12. Shifts in D&D towards more Tolkienian/Tolkienesque/Tolkiengrotesque races and trappings are the result of Tolkien becoming the “Goto” name in fantasy from the late 70s on as Tolkien Clones and Branded Gaming Fiction began to dominate the market and public conscious and therefore the minds of the people playing and later the people developing the game; this was not by design.

Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:

  1. I hypothesize that The Hobbit had little/no impact on the 1st and 2nd waves of 20th Century Fantasy, though I remain open to and will look for evidence to the contrary.
  2. The Lord of the Rings’ influence on fantasy in the 70s and beyond is undeniable; its influence on fantasy prior to the mid-60s highly suspect
  3. Questioning Tolkien’s influence on literature from periods immediately contemporary with him and the intervening years between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or the latter’s eventual paperback release =/= dismissing Tolkien’s work or his subsequent influence or denigrating it ala Michael Moorcock.

Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.

*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.

Stardock and the Challenge of Running a Mountain Climbing Adventure

Stardock1I’ve been reading Fritz Leiber’s Stardock, a Fafhrd & Gray Mouser story that mostly involves climbing up a big-ass mountain, and it’s got me thinking…

A lot of adventure fiction involves far more to it than easily modeled practical puzzles and combat; getting from point A to point B and traversing the obstacles in between makes up a good chunk of it. Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest to model in game.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser don’t have near the trouble fighting bandits, thieves, and evil priests, pilfering ruined castles and temples, or escaping from the clutches of evil wizards as they do spending several days climbing up an almost sheer granite cliff-face, carving out foot and hand-holds with an ax, using grapnels, pikes, and pitons to climb around lips and overhanging boulders, and trying not to starve or die of exposure. Even without the ethereal fire princesses haunting them, mountain goats stampeding at them, invisible manta-ray riders hounding them, furry dragons harrying them, rival adventurers taking the occasional pot-shot at them, the duo have their work cut out for them just getting to the top.

The problem is, if you’re wanting to model an adventure after any of those “man against the elements” type stories, you’ll have your work cut out for you too. Overland travel is often one of the most hand-waved elements of Dungeons & Dragons; it’s hard to make it gameable. Rules exist for getting lost, determining weather and possibly even contracting disease, but getting lost screws up mapping (something DMs are loathe to do to their players, as mapping is challenging enough as it is sometimes), weather is window-dressing, and saving throws to not get sick aren’t much fun (and they’re a passive mechanic).

Outdoor Survival offers some excellent mechanics to mini-game overland travel, and it’s obvious why it would be used as core component of the original D&D system, but it offers little for the sort of adventure that involves a lot of climbing.

Thieves in D&D have some pretty impressive cooked in mechanics for scaling sheer surfaces that may be as much from Fafhrd & Mouser as they are from Jack of Shadows; if a thief can only use their thief skills with thief tools, could those thief tools include climbing instruments? Fafhrd & Mouser have some impressive gadgets they use which, while they don’t make the climb ‘easier’, make the climb at least possible.

So, you want to have an adventure with treasure on top of a mountain that players will have to climb, you want the challenge of climbing the mountain to be a significant part of the adventure, and you don’t want the climb to be just a series of rolls and skill checks.

This will probably take a lot of planning, because to make the climb gameable, you’ll have create unique challenges for the climb, and some of them probably WILL inevitably involve skill or stat checks.

You’ll want to do some research on equipment and specify what the players will have available to them, and possibly give them instruction on how to use it; if they know what it’s for, they’ll have a better shot at solving puzzles with them.

For instances where you DO need to rely on skill checks, have the result lead to a new situation that can be dealt with via problem solving; a gust of wind or a slipped hold might not result in the whole party falling off the mountain right away, but someone might come loose and need to be pulled up by others, or if someone ends up suspended free, they’ll have to figure out how to swing back to the cliff face and get hold.

Because it’s D&D, you’re probably going to want to break up the climbing with encounters; or even throw in some encounters during the climb. Having to fight off some bird or while clinging to a rock-face could create some unique challenges for players. But it’s likely to be lethal. This is the sort of adventure that has TPK written all over it; wrong moves mean death, characters can only carry with them the absolute essentials, and there’s no reward for making it part-way, so be sure that whatever you put on top of that mountain is damn well worth it.

Suggestions:

  • Do some equipment research; come up with some reasonable tools for the players to use plus some stuff that they can come up with their own tricks with.
  • Create several specific challenges and mechanics to adjudicate them, including set-pieces challenges, encounters, and general progress challenges.
  • Create general and specific weather effects: what will gusts of wind do to the climbers? How will snow affect climbing? How will you handle things like fatigue and exposure?
  • Plot out your mountain; the ascent will be a chain of the challenges you create. To make things more interesting, offer multiple paths that branch between tiers, allowing players more agency over their ascent. Perhaps one ascent will appear more straight-forward but passes by the lair of a monster, while another ascent avoids it entirely but requires climbing up an overhanging lip.
  • Be sure to give your players a few things to do and look at on the way up; a monster lair to explore or just a spot to set-up camp and recover (perfect for a spooky night encounter). And remember how I said there was no reward for making it part-way? If the players end up not wanting to throw their characters away, there might be some value at least in hunting beasts living in crevasses in the mountain; it is D&D, after all. Still, the real goal should be the summit.

obelisk Polaris.jpg

A Special Message to the OSR & Gaming Community

Kickstarters have been a staple in the OSR and Game Blogging community since well before I became a member. Crowdfunding has been used as a platform for countless bloggers and game devs to get everything from their latest module & supplements to their complete fantasy heartbreakers off the ground and into people’s hands. Even big name publishers have been using it as a tool to get new projects and new printings funded with quick investment capital.

There is, however, a downside that has been seen all too often in our community. It seems like much of the content at Tenkar’s Tavern over the years I’ve been following him has been a litany of failed and delayed Kickstarters. Sometimes life got in the way, other times dishonest folks took the money and ran. Even great companies with established track-records for success sometimes bite off more than they can chew, resulting in some pretty significant delays. The Skinny DM had an excellent article on the situation with Goodman Game’s DCC 4th printing Kickstarter which, despite my fondness for Goodman Games, I absolutely agree with.

So, why do I think you should back our Kickstarter?

A Proven Track Records – In 2016, Cirsova ran 3 successful Kickstarters – one for our first issue, one for our second issue, and one for our third and fourth issues. In all three cases, backers received their rewards almost immediately* after the money cleared through Kickstarter and Amazon Payments. There may have been one or two individual hiccups or items lost or damaged in the post, but I am confident that anyone you’d ask would say that we resolved all issues as quickly and satisfactorily as possible.

We Are Gamers – Before we started the magazine, Cirsova  was a gaming blog. We came out of the RPG Blog Alliance and the OSR community. Many of our contributors are fellow gamers, and the stories we all love and that shape our content are the same stories that shaped our games. Many of the stories we publish are the kind that could be run as a one-off adventure with nothing more than a couple of stat blocs; in fact, that’s almost an unspoken acceptance criteria!

We Exist to Support Writers – More than anything else, Cirsova exists as a Semi-Pro Market to support writers of exciting fiction. There are people out there still writing stories in the vein of Burroughs, Brackett, and Vance, but they need places to sell and publish their stories. Many of the big-name magazines and publishing houses are simply not interested in the kind of adventure fiction that inspired the games so beloved in the OSR. By supporting Cirsova, you allow us to stay open as a market for these writers and to continue paying in the $75-$100 range for short fiction.

Please consider checking out our Kickstarter. It costs only $1 to get both of our 2017 issues**, if you’re just curious. You have to admit, that’s hard to beat. We also offer softcover and hardcover editions of our magazine.

If you have a gamebook, module or other product coming out, or even if you just want to get word out about your blog, consider supporting us with some advertising space. In 2016, we had over a hundred subscribers and ended up selling over 500 copies of our magazine.

*:Needless to say, they received the winter issue when it came out, rather than in September when the money cleared and we sent the fall issue.

**:PDF and eBook.

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Interview With Jon Del Arroz, Jeffro on Geek Gab, and Cirsova Line Art

Not long after our interview with Chris Lansdown, we also spoke with Jon Del Arroz about Cirsova’s background as an RPG setting and the types of stories Cirsova publishes and is looking for.  You can read it here.

Also over the weekend, Jeffro Johnson, one of our regular columnists and the author of the bestselling Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, was on Geek Gab.

Finally, I took a minute to snap the line-art that Ben Rodriguez sent for our Eldritch Earth cover.

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Should I have put this up on the chopping block? Probably, but I wanted to actually own an original piece of Cirsova artwork, at least for a little while.

Please consider backing us on Kickstarter! Only $1 gets you a digital subscription to our 2017 issues.