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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Monsters Vs. Mobs

In my experience, mobs have always presented the bigger threat to PCs than big-bad monsters. There are a number of reasons for this, some mechanical, some psychological. Why does this seem to be the case?

First of all, adventurers are usually prepared for a monster. They have often heard of the monster they will soon fight and have taken precautions based on the information they have gathered. Indeed, the reason they might be in a specific location is for the sole purpose of finding and dispatching said monster.

When fighting the monster, there’s often an economy of force which the adventurers are able to match 1/1 or better, whether it’s in terms of damage, overall hit points, or most significantly, perhaps, number of attacks.

One large monster will typically get to make 1 attack for every 3-6 attacks it receives; even if it is doing more damage and hitting more often, PC tactics can often compensate for hits and spread damage in an effective manner to minimize irrecoverable losses.

Mobs are different story. Even if the players are prepared for a big fight, they may not be prepared for handful of mooks that are waiting at the mouth of the dungeon to take the treasure the heroes just recovered.

The PCs’ economy of force may be matched or reduced. Mobs will often be attacking at a 1/1 ratio or better; the man-to-man fighting will also prevent use of certain tactics which the PCs might more effectively use against stronger foes who are fewer in number.

Oftentimes, the most devastating party losses come at the hands of a mob AFTER defeating a large monster. Why? Players assume an air of invulnerability after successfully dispatching single dreadful foe, but are brought low in an evenly matched fight when forced to fight one-on-one with few or no assists from fellows.

Does this jibe with the ‘heroic’ notion so woven into D&D?

I think it does.

Many iconic heroic battles throughout history and literature consist of 1-v-1 fights or one or a few heroically holding off a much larger force until they are wiped out.

On one hand you have Beowulf & Grendel or David & Goliath, while on the other, you have Benkei at the bridge or the Spartans at Thermopylae. One advantage of a game like D&D is that the game isn’t over for the player when the guy or guys left to cover the others’ retreat finally succumbs to the tides of battle. They can just roll up a new character. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re building a fictional character franchise – Conan can’t be killed by mooks (though he and many other pulp characters have come close to being brought down by them many times). But I don’t think that characters dying to mobs is necessarily antithetical to pulp-style heroics, since those heroics draw heavily on earlier literary heroic traditions, ones where heroes DO die.

And when a character makes a heroic last stand,  that character is gonna be remembered.

Now, there ARE mechanics that do give PCs an advantage over mooks in ways that reflect those scenes of one character killing dozens. Fighters get extra attacks against single hit-die opponents. 1HD monsters and most human opponents should fall into this category. Mid-level fighters have a decent chance of cutting through several such opponents each round! Can they get overwhelmed? Absolutely! Lots of mobs are going to be tougher than 1 HD, but then that’s not like a hero being overwhelmed by mooks, is it? That’s more being overwhelmed by not one but several monsters.

Sometimes, heroes just need to run away. Plenty of pulp S&S stories start with the hero running from a fight that they know they can’t win, usually involving a large number of mooks who are after them. The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.

Some Thoughts on Conan + Margaret Brundage

Though I read and talked about Kull some time back, I have only recently started reading Conan. Beginning at both ends, I’ve been reading the Del Ray collection “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” in bits on my lunch breaks and have just finished the 1977 edition of Red Nails over the last couple days at home.

Though I’m enjoying the hack & slashery of the late Conan (I haven’t made it far enough into the early stories to form an opinion), I have to say that it does not quite reach the momentous depths of Kull. Of the stories collected in Red Nails, Beyond the Black River comes the closest to those gloomy and brooding tales of the Atlantean King, with its sense of impending doom that hangs over the fragility of civilization’s facade.

Thulsa Doom

Okay, so maybe Delcartes’ Cat wasn’t a high point for Kull, Thulsa Doom or Howard.

However things that were absent from Kull (namely the copious amounts of naked shrieking women and girl-on-girl whipping) did leave the impression that they were tacked on in an attempt to make sales and land a Margaret Brundage cover*, and, in isolation, could explain why Lovecraft scholar ST Joshi would write Howard off as a hack and why his statements would be so perplexing to someone who had read Kull but not Conan. Brundage had real influence on the magazine’s content, and writers would more or less cater to her fetishes in hopes that Wright would throw one of their story’s scenes her way for a cover.

Brundage herself is experiencing a bit of a resurgence; she received a posthumous award at last year’s Worldcon and is up for another this year, I believe. As female icons of the early sci-fi era are being rediscovered and celebrated, Brundage gets to enjoy some of the deserved accolades for her contribution to the field, but she also presents a bit of an uncomfortable truth that iconic women aren’t always going to be what people who are looking for iconic women want to see.

While some women in SFF have faced erasure, Brundage apparently faced pillory. In the Foreword and Afterword of the 1977 hardback of Red Nails (published only a year after Brundage’s death), Karl Edward Wagner took the opportunity to excoriate Brundage for terrible art no less than four times**.

Today’s controversial figures like Bayonetta or Lara Croft pale in comparison to those depicted by Brundage, who herself was clearly fascinated (perhaps enamored) with BDSM. As people rediscover her and her artwork, they are bound (pun intended) to be polarized by her subject matter.  Regardless of how you feel about her and her artwork, her influence on the fiction of the 1930s is undeniable.

*There was additional intent for Howard, however, as he’d said once wanted to explore the themes of how institutionalized deviant sexuality was symptomatic of cultural decadence.  Worth noting that by Howard’s comments on sexuality, law and civilization, we’re probably about where Xuchotil was right before their wizards all died off.

**:I’ll admit, I misremembered this; while he mentions Brundage several times, he does not out and out say that she herself is bad, but does reference a few of her works negatively:

“It is late spring of 1935. Despite the wretched Margaret Brundage cover, you have just plunked down a quarter for the May issue of Weird Tales.”

“Wright seems to have been experimenting: the issue featured “a weird Craig Kennedy murder mystery” by Arthur B. Reeve, set off by a non-erotic Margaret Brundage cover that was possibly her worst ever.”

and he does go on to praise the cover for “Shadows in Zamboula” as “one of Margaret Brundage’s best pastels”.

 

Kull the Quandarer

In the long shadow of Conan hides an almost forgotten literary character who may be one of the great lost tragic figures of 20th century fiction: King Kull.  Most of those who have heard of Kull know him only through the deservedly panned Kevin Sorbo flick “Kull the Conqueror”, which is a shame, given a fandom that looks to Elric as its dark and brooding modern hero.  While Elric is moody broody glam-star for a post-acid age, King Kull of Atlantis is a timeless hero of almost Shakespearean mold.

Kull is an Atlantean who fled his home, served as a galley-slave, a mercenary and a general before seizing the throne of Valusia from its tyrannical hereditary king.  Though Kull was an adventurer, the focus of the tales of Kull surround his later years as King of Valusia, the mightiest of the human empires, whose descent into decadence he cannot but fail to stop.

At the heart of Kull lies a question of legitimacy.  His rulership was achieved not by traditional means; he is an outsider and is intently aware of it, learning that the skills one needs to seize a throne and the skills one needs to hold it are very different.  Kull is an Othello with no one Iago to undo him, but countless faceless Iagos who would see him fall because of his foreign birth.  Thulsa Doom?  Hardly!  Kull could best even a sorcerer with his martial prowess, but he is constantly aware of how his sword arm fails him when it comes to dealing with intrigues and matters of state.

The phrase “By this Axe, I Rule!” either evokes again the cheesy Kevin Sorbo movie, Val Hallan from Justice Friends, or some other heavy metal silliness.  In context of the Kull stories, it springs from his frustrations as King of Valusia: as King, he feels trapped – enslaved even – by the ancient laws and customs of the land he rules.  He cannot do what he feels is right and just and moral in his heart – allow a marriage of love to take place – because law and tradition prevents him.  He shouts this line, grievously wounded, as he symbolically rends a tablet of the law so that the young couple (a noble and a slave) who saved his life from a conspiracy could marry.  It is implied in this and other stories that there may be repercussions of this to come, but what these are we can only guess based on the fall of the Valusian empire sometime after Kull’s reign.

Kull is constantly trapped by his station as a usurper king, which feeds into his paranoia.  It’s not just the hidden serpent men who plot against him, but his own people.  His only true friend and most loyal ally is Brule, the Pict, who is also an outsider, thus his state of isolation is further reinforced.  His status as usurper king is always up against blind dynastic loyalty.  He is the outsider, thus he is bad in the eyes even of those whose lives are better for his rule.

“I know what the people think, and with what aversion and anger the powerful old Valusian families must look on the state of affairs.  But what would you have?  The empire was worse under Borna, a native Valusian and a direct heir of the old dynasty, than it has been under me.  This is the price a nation must pay for decaying: the strong young people must come in and take possession, one way or another.  I have at least rebuilt the armies, organized the mercenaries and restored Valusia to a measure of her former international greatness.  Sure it is better to have one barbarian on the throne holding the crumbling bands together, than to have a hundred thousand riding red-handed through the city streets.  Which is what would have happened by now, had it been left to King Borna.  The kingdom was splitting under his feet, invasions threatening all sides, the heathen Grondarians were ready to launch a raid of appalling magnitude-

“Well I killed Borna with my bare hands that wild night when I rode at the head of the rebels.  That bit of ruthlessness won me some enemies, but within six months, I had put down anarchy and all counter-rebellions, had welded the nation back into one piece, had broken the Grondarians.  Now Valusia dozes in peace and quiet, and between naps plots my overthrow.  There has been no famine since my reign, the storehouses are bulging with grain, the trading ships ride heavy with cargo, the merchants’ purses are full, the people are fat-bellied but still they murmur and curse and spit on my shadow.  What do they want?” (pp 168-169)

Brule reminds Kull that he didn’t become king for the sake of others but for his own ambition.  But what of it?  He has the throne, because that was his desire and ambition, but now he must hold it, and kingship gives him so little pleasure.  Kull may desire some sort of legacy, something beyond himself, but he finds that kingship alone does not reward him this sense of self-actualization he desires, and his fears of insurgency claw at him constantly.  Again, Thulsa Doom, though memorable due to his appearance in the Conan movie, is not Kull’s most dangerous foe, but Ridondo and his fellow poets, and Kull knows this: their songs will outlive him and his reign.  “A great poet is greater than any king.  He hates me; yet I would have his friendship.  His songs are mightier than my scepter, for time and again he has near torn the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me.  I will die and be forgotten; his songs will live forever.”(p145)  Indeed, after Ridondo and his cabal are rooted out and killed by a reluctant Kull, a character in a later story is idly singing one of Ridondo’s poems to himself.

One of the many tragedies of Kull is that he never finds love of his own, though it is intensely clear how important love and marriage are to him.  Some of the thematic repetition may be due in part to the nature of a story told and retold in reworkings, as much of Kull went unsold and unpublished during Howard’s life, but the themes are unquestionably there.  Marriage becomes a symbol and mirror of legitimacy.  Kull’s chief councilor warns that marriage and blood could lead to challenges to his own legitimacy as king.  The first appearance of Thulsa Doom in Delcardes’ Cat relates to an attempt for a woman to marry outside of her station with the help of the King.  In this case, near tragedy would have been avoided had the woman simply been allowed to marry whom she loved.  Swords of the Purple Kingdom is an effective rewrite of By This Axe, I Rule!, so twice we have stories in which law or custom would prevent matrimony, but the couple saves Kull from traitors so they are rewarded with marriage.  Even in his youth, Kull’s legitimacy is questioned in a tale relating to marriage.  He had been adopted by an Atlantean tribe not his own; his ideas and beliefs of right, wrong, and, you guessed it, marriage put him at odds with his people.  When a girl will be killed because she chose to marry outside the tribe, Kull grants her a quick death rather than allow her to be burned alive, and he is forced to flee, sending him on his journey toward the Valusian throne.  Kull is constantly torn between wishing to reward love and the restraints of custom which grant him legitimacy as ruler in the eyes of those around him.  He is peerless, however; no other Valusians come close to the nobility and honor of Kull, and while this sets him above, it also sets him apart.  He is a part of “the natural aristocracy of true manhood”, but it is a lonely place with few equals.

Kull is an honorable man who wants to be a wise and good king but learns just how difficult it can be to be all of those things.  Stories of his reign embody the whole “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” in ways unlike nearly any other figure in popular culture.  We never learn what ultimately becomes of Kull, though it is as undoubtedly as sad and tragic as Howard’s own end.  If Kull grew old and had heirs, he would have died a King Lear, though we do not know if he was even that blessed.

“Strange savages roam the elder lands and new lands flung strangely from the deeps, defiling the elder shrines.  Valusia is vanished and all the nations of today; they of tomorrow are strangers.  They know us not.” Kull, p208.

The original paperback illus is about the only one that reflects that Kull and Brule are pretty explicitly non-white characters, another aspect that reinforces the modernist themes of isolation.

The original paperback illus is about the only one that reflects that Kull and Brule are pretty explicitly non-white characters, another aspect that reinforces the modernist themes of isolation of an outsider – a barbarian – ruling the ‘civilized’ land of Valusia.  If that scary guy front & center isn’t Brule, it is almost certainly one of Brule’s Pictish lieutenants.  

Robert & the Reptoids (or The Conspiracy of Kull)

For years now, we’ve heard about the Reptoid Conspiracy, the crux of which is that key figures in the places of power within human society have either been replaced by or have always been extra-terrestrial reptilians in the guise of humans who almost certainly do not have our best interests at heart.

Most people think of the Reptoids as a relatively recent tin-foil hat conspiracy associated with David Icke, but the modern origins of this 20th century myth go back at least a bit further than most realize to Robert E Howard’s first Kull story, The Shadow Kingdom.

Not only are we introduced for the first time to Howard’s proto-Conan Kull and his Pictish blade-bro Brule, but we are plunged into a world of mystery, conspiracy and paranoia. There is a plot against Kull’s life by the shape-shifting Serpent men who have secretly been ruling Valusia for thousands of years. Kull can trust no one, as his closest advisers and councilmen have either been replaced by these ancient monsters from the stars or were never human to begin with.

The eye-opening revelation about the reptoid impostors who have been ruling by means of murder and deceit becomes the driving motivation behind Kull. Brule explains that “…the true men [in politics/statecraft] know that among them glide the spies of the serpent, and the men who are the Serpent’s allies – such as Kaanuub, baron of Blaal – yet no man dares seek unmask a suspect lest vengeance befall him. No man trusts his fellow and the true statesmen dare not speak to each other what is in the minds of all.” The only way to stop the snakemen would be expose one before a great number of people, because only then would people believe of the danger in their midst. But one had to be certain that one’s foe was indeed a snakeman. And even then, what if you were the only one who was not a snakeman?

1024px-Hugh_Rankin_-_The_Shadow_Kingdom

This conundrum threatens to send Kull spiraling into existential madness, “for all men wore masks, and many a different mask with each different man or woman; and Kull wondered if a serpent did not lurk under every mask.”

Eventually Kull is able to succeed in exposing this global reptilian conspiracy against mankind, though it almost costs him his life, by escaping an ambush just in time to make it to the council hall to strike down his own double. This experience and the paranoia it made him feel is what prompts Kull’s crusade against the pre-human races and informs his every action.  While it leads to the various missteps he makes, it is also what pushes him to fight for the good of all mankind.

We see similar themes of distrust come into play in the later story Black Abyss.  There, notable artists, poets and nobles of a town Kull is visiting are secretly worshipers of an evil immortal slug-worm.  What disturbs Kull most is that these are people he had talked with, dined with, and enjoyed the company of who turned out to be wild and murderous zealots.  And yes, it ends with Kull killing a lot of chubby naked people in the middle of a human sacrifice rite.  But it doesn’t quite grip the imagination in the way that wondering if your closest adviser had ALWAYS been a reptoid does.  So it is that which has lingered on in the public subconscious of the conspiracy minded and the perfectly rational alike.

Whether or not Serpent men, reptoids or whatever you wish to call them are metaphors for the treacherous and duplicitous nature of men in positions of power or if they are indeed literal space reptiles, you can be sure and tell your friends that reptoids have a much cooler origin than some boggle-eyed Green Party New Ager.

This post brought to you by Kent Cigarettes:

“C’mon. One snarky tweet from James Desborough does not mean you ‘Broke the Internet’.”

Conan and the Lamentations of the Women Working on His RPG

It’s a storm in a teacup to be sure, but when Monica Valentinelli put out a call specifically looking for female freelance writers to work on a Conan RPG, it was all but inevitable that someone would ask “why only females?”

The answer was because so far only men had applied.

Now, I could say that this smacks of tokenism, but why not give Monica the benefit of the doubt? It might be an interesting perspective to have a really good woman author writing a Conan story. I mean, the biggest problem I’m going to have reading sci-fi adventure pulps is that I’m going to be judging the manliness of all the protagonists against the ones that Leigh Brackett writes. As I mentioned before, I found myself saying of Gardner F Fox’s heroic male lead “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if he smoked cigarettes and called the alien queen ‘baby’?”

Well, here’s the thing about putting out a call for Conan: he’s a character that resonates a lot with a male audience, so a LOT of folks who would want to work on a Conan project are PROBABLY going to be male.   Just like if you put out a call for writers on something that appeals primarily (not exclusively, I am NOT saying exclusively!) to women, you’d probably have to put some effort into it if you were looking for a male contributor who would have the same level of interest, dedication and knowledge necessary.  That’s not to say that there might not be a woman who could do just as good, if not better, a job at writing about the manliest dude this side of Fist of the North Star.

It could’ve been that they were looking for another Norton or Brackett among the many fans who are applying.  But I’m starting to think that might not be what’s happening here.

Update: Jeffrey Shanks says it is.  The easiest thing to do would’ve been to just come out and say in the first place “yeah, well, we want a female perspective on the character/setting/game”, but hindsight is 20/20.

Addendum: I’m still not seeing anywhere anyone accusing her of breaking the law, at least not on Twitter.

Addendum 2: Well, nevermind Addendum 1.

Addendum 3: I had to look up this guy to realize he wasn’t trolling.

When I come back on Monday, I’ll be talking about Kull and why RE Howard may have inspired the Reptoid conspiracy.