Fafhrd & Gray Mouser: A Rebooted Franchise?

Something that didn’t quite register until after yesterday’s post: Fafhrd & Gray Mouser underwent a reboot. This is not the sort of reboot that most people think of today with movies, where a property undergoes a remake and, if it’s a success, it becomes ongoing. Think more of like when Futurama got a reboot via a season of direct to video movies after its cancellation.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser was a pulp property whose creator gave it a grim-dark (grimmer-darker?) reboot following the release of the anthology “Two Sought Adventure”.

When people are “reading it in order”, they’re reading prequels first. It’s starting with Phantom Menace.

After other anthologies were released in the late 60s, Two Sought Adventure (1957), which anthologized all but one of the duo’s pulp-era adventures, was rebranded and re-released as “[Volume 2:] Swords Against Death” with additional stories and continuity material, making it something of a “Special Edition Re-release”. Never mind that it was re-released a couple years after what retroactively became volumes 3 through 5.

That’s right, the publication order of Fafhrd & Gray Mouser books is pseudo-II, III, IV, V, with I and II published around the same time, then VI and VII several years later.

The first Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stuff I read was Swords Against Death, which is pretty consistent, though the later stories do stick out like sore thumbs a bit. Yet I heard a lot of gripes from people starting with Swords and Deviltry. So I recommended folks check out the earlier stuff in volume 2 first. But now, reading some of the later stuff myself, I can definitely see where the gripes come from, especially from people who go into it looking for pulpy sword and sorcery adventure.

There were six years between the last pulp-era Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser story and Lean Times in Lankhmar. There had been some lapses earlier (5 between The Sunken Land and Adept’s Gambit and 4 between Adept’s Gambit and Claws from the Night). The first several stories, however, were one after another from 1939 through 1943; and as I’ve noted in my reviews of pulps at Castalia House, a major tonal shift in SFF started taking place in the early 50s. The shift is even more dramatic in the 60s and 70s, the period during which the vast bulk of the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser canon was written.

I’m not saying “Don’t read the later Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories”– not at all. But I am saying I may be closing in WHY those stories feel so different and readers who’ve seen my praise for the pulpy goodness of Swords Against Death feel confused and let down when they jump into the franchise elsewhere.

While the duo have their origins in the pulps, the majority of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories come from the much later New Wave of science fiction and the Sword & Sorcery Renaissance which was in many ways a grotesque of the genre which had birthed those characters.

So, when I’m recommending that people should read Swords Against Death first, “even though it’s the second volume”, think of me like the guy saying “If you want to get into Star Wars, maybe you should watch A New Hope first, even if it is the Special Edition* and the box says Episode IV.”

*:Except really, Bazaar of the Bizarre is a lot better than CGI Jabba the Hutt

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More Fafhrd & Gray Mouser Thoughts

I’m still enjoying the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, but I think the “fix-up” nature of the volumes may be to their detriment.

I’m thinking I’d much rather read these as individual stories, each on their own and by their own merits, rather than shoe-horned into a continuity.

Unlike Howard’s Conan Stories which were hammered and shaped into some sort of continuity by those who anthologized them, Leiber was writing the novelizations and fix-ups with a mind for his continuity and doing his best to arc-weld stories that were sometimes written out of order into a continuous arc. And I think that the stories may suffer by it.

For one thing, it gives the impression of Fritz Leiber as being like the asshole DM who is always angling for a TPK and then, when he doesn’t get it, he has an NPC steal all of the players’ loot without even bothering to roll for it. Honestly, I prefer the “characters frittered away their wealth between stories” approach to “the spoils of the last adventure were promptly stolen” that Leiber uses. In Swords Against Wizardry, a short bridging story is used to explain why they would go on the Quarmall adventure right after their big Stardock score. Well, because they got conned and lost everything. On its own Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar isn’t bad, but it’s annoying because I feel as cheated as Fafhrd and Mouser – the grueling Stardock  adventure suddenly becomes for nothing (aside from a quick lay from a couple of weird invisible ladies).

I don’t really need to know why Fafhrd and Mouser go on their next adventure. Like I said, it’s easy enough to assume that they squander their wealth on drink and dumb largess without having to go into an explanation of how they kept losing their money after each heist.

At least in Quarmall it appears there may finally be some Wizards for our duo the bare their Swords Against (Swords Against Mountains just doesn’t pack the same punch, and I’m sure that even by 1960s standards Swords Against Lesbians might have been deemed less than appropriate).

While there were a couple really good 60s stories in Swords Against Death, I think that the few from the 40s were my favorites. They were great short adventures and each stood nicely on its own. Honestly, the weakest parts (despite the excellent writing) of Swords Against Death (itself a repackaging of the much earlier “Two Sought Adventure”, tweaked for continuity shoe-horning) were the bridging pieces that fit those earliest adventures into the canonical continuity that Leiber had been welding together in the 60s.

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.

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Binary Star No. 1: Destiny Times Three, by Fritz Leiber and Riding the Torch, by Norman Spinrad

Over the weekend I managed to read one of my new acquisitions, Binary Star No.1.
The idea is similar to the older Ace Doubles series, two books in one, but without the cool novelty of having two different covers and people asking you “Why are you reading that book upside down?” The series was short-lived, and I’d guess relatively unsuccessful. I’m sure the boring covers didn’t help.

Volume 1 combines a reprint of an old Fritz Leiber story “Destiny Times Three” with a reprint of the comparatively newer Norman Spinrad novella “Riding the Torch”.

Destiny Times Three suffered from some turgid prose in the early chapters, but the real disappointment is the feeling one has while reading this that the finished work was not able to match the grandiose scope of Leiber’s initial intent, a feeling that is confirmed by Leiber himself in his afterward. Leiber laments that the wartime demand for shorter serializations forced him to scrap all but the bare-bones of the story. Nonetheless, enough of Leiber’s genius and vision can be seen at work to enjoy what we have while mourning what could have been.

Destiny Times Three is the story of a world whose time-line has been shattered by meddlers from earth’s distant past who have discovered and misappropriated a Probability Engine, an advanced relic of an unknown and powerful race of cosmic beings. Acting as benevolent gods, the extra-temporal meddlers have been using the Engine to “split” realities at critical turning points in human history, seeing how things play out, and only allowing the ‘best of all worlds’ to move forward. Only they HAVEN’T destroyed the ‘sub-optimal’ worlds but created parallel worlds, setting up the threat of a mass-migration of consciousness from one world to another. The two scientists who have foreseen the dangers of this mental-migration are up against the skeptics in their utopia, the nihilists and paternalists from dystopia, and hyper evolved cat and dog monsters from the savage world.

The “split” that led to the crisis pertained to use and accessibility of a superpower source that can be viewed as an analog of nuclear power. In World 1, the power was democratized and turned the world into a lazy unprepared world of geniuses and thinkers; in World 2, the power was held contemptuously by the ruling class to only be used for the ‘good of all’ by “the Servants” resulting in a world filled with poor and suffering workers trying to keep their heads down lest they be taken by apparats in the night; in World 3, a war was fought over the power and destroyed civilization completely.

Probably what Leiber best achieves in Destiny Times Three is capturing the horror of benevolent authoritarianism.

…the Servants of the People looked in no way malignant, villainous, or evil.

But looking at them a second time, Thorn began to wonder if there was not something worse. A puritantic grimness that knew no humor. A suffocating consciousness of responsibility, as if all the troubles of the world rested on their shoulders alone. A paternal aloofness, as if everyone else were an irresponsible child. A selflessness swollen to such bounds as to become supreme selfishness. An intolerable sense of personal importance that their beggarly clothes and surroundings only emphasized.

You’d better believe that if these guys weren’t busy organizing a transdimensional invasion they’d be flagging stuff on Onebookshelf. The Servants also reflect the cultists who stole the Probability Engine in the first place; they’ve done all of these things because they see themselves as benevolent god-like beings who are doing what they do with the best interests of humanity at heart. The worst tyrants are those who justify their tyranny as being for the people’s own good.

Spinrad’s story “Riding the Torch” is a very different beast. It’s a “trek” story in which all of humanity is on an endless journey through space in search of a new world because Earth is wrecked. Riding the Torch begins with a Warholian revelry on one of the trek ships to celebrate the premier of the main character’s latest “senso” vid. On the trekships, most of humanity is interconnected cybernetically and wallow in shared experience while a few “voidsuckers” go out on scoutships at the vanguard of the trek to look for habitable worlds. After showing his rather nihilistic piece in which the Flying Dutchmen and the Wandering Jew meet and discuss their crimes and wandering as a metaphor for the predicament humanity has gotten itself in, the director protagonist accepts the challenge to go on one of the voidsucker scout missions and experience the emptiness of space with them. The result is a strange cinematic experience re-enacting the trials of Job a billion fold as God and the Devil torment humanity until having driven them to self-sufficiency, masters of their own destiny, etc.

I found “Riding the Torch a bit more of a challenge to get into.  The opening sequence is a bit of a trip; we’re plunged right into the weird party of psychedelic cyber-drugs, collective experiences, and senso-vids (described in 2nd person narration).  While this was all very beautiful and fascinating, it was one of those cases where the first chapter made more sense re-reading it after having read the second. There is lots of lovely imagery throughout, but much of it verges on navel gazing. Of course, the point is to portray a society that has lost itself in navel gazing to distract from the doom mankind had inflicted upon itself by destroying its one Eden. The message is a bit confused, as Earth’s habitability is almost explicitly miraculous, though the protagonist’s conclusion is to deny god and proudly proclaim that mankind has no need of miracles that it cannot create on its own. Of course, the protagonist’s final film may merely be propaganda to keep the spirits of the trek up while knowing that mankind had lost its home forever. The ending is left open, but the protagonist doesn’t strike me as having moved past his own cynicism but rather justified his own demi-solipsistic worldview.

Perhaps the most worthwhile part of this little volume comes in Spinrad’s afterward of Destiny Times Three. There he offers a defense of soft science fiction, essentially pointing out that by telling the human story and making it a part of our collective mythology, one is able to convey more powerful and timeless messages than if one got lost in the weeds of particular scientific minutiae. Of course he offers this as justification for why Fritz Leiber is so great. It’s hard to disagree.

Civil War & Book Haul

Over the course of two nights, my dad & I managed to set up and play the first two turns of Civil War. My girlfriend could not wrap her head around the notion that we’d spent 3 hours playing Friday night and only finished two turns. Part of the reason for the length of turns in Civil War is the method of determining actions and turn length; turns can go on, while not indefinitely, for a very long time.

Each turn, both sides roll for command points and initiative. On the first roll, each player gets a number of command points for each theater based on their own roll and the priority of theater (which is set secretly by each player the previous turn). The difference between the players’ die rolls is used to determine how many actions each player may take, with the higher rolling player going first with an initiative advantage of one reinforcement point or one general without the cost of an action. Rolling identical initiatives will give both players additional command points, and move the command track marker along, unless the identical initiatives are listed on the command track as ones which will end the turn immediately. This goes on back and forth until both players have spent all of their command points and reinforcements or players make a turn ending initiative roll.

The mechanics of Civil War are designed to reflect the problems both sides had during the conflict. Supply and logistics are an issue for both players, but the south moreso. Historically, no sides were ever able to strike quick and decisive blows, but would rather skirmish, shift about, skirmish some more, and hope to eventually wear their enemy down. In Civil War, you can win several victories against an army, but in a subsequent pulse, reinforcements can negate any damage you’ve done beyond gaining advantageous grounds. Unless you have an exceptional general (a Lee or a Grant), most armies in a theater will only have two attacks in a turn, and there’s probably more productive use of your command points than having the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia go tit-for-tat. But when you’ve won a skirmish, you just feel like you have to press in pursuit for the kill, even knowing mechanically you’re not really getting that much of an edge.

So, in our first two turns, much of the mucking about happened in the Trans-Mississippi region. Stonewall Jackson led a small force to take Springfield and drive the Indians out of Kansas. Most of the operations were a wash, I couldn’t hold anything in Missouri, and Jackson was eventually ran back east, but not before three Union supply depots were burned. I may have made a mistake in not sticking Earl Van Dorn in Arkansas, thinking he’d do less harm banished to New Orleans; despite being an absolutely lousy general, he’s just about the only army level commander that the south can spare for that region early in the game.

Most of the rest of the turn was tit-for-tat along the Maryland/Virginia border while I built up the Army of the Tennessee. Beginning on Turn 3, both sides can make a play for Kentucky, and I want to have an army ready to do so while the Union’s attention has been divided.

I’m trying to get more reading done and less screwing around with antique video games (but Sword of Aragon is just soooo good!), and managed to knock out two of the books on my list from this weekend, a posthumously published Fritz Leiber Lovecraftian Sci-fi Horror, The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich, and a supplemental volume (a chunk of an earlier collection not entirely released in English) of short fiction by Stanislaw Lem, Memoirs of a Space Traveller: the Further Reminisces of Ijon Tichy.

Leiber’s Lovecraftian tale was a treat, and I’ll leave it at that; Lem’s short stories were a mixed bag. I find that I personally enjoy Lem the most when he is writing sci-fi horror tales of the “what hath we gods wrought?!” variety, in which mad scientists have unveiled their monstrosities that require a rethinking of human body, mind and soul. Some of his absurdist (often ad nauseum) stuff is a little too precious for me, and I won’t hold any attacks on straw capitalism he was probably forced to write in the 50s against him. But I prefer the Ijon Tichy as Randolf Carter to the Ijon Tichy as Baron Munchausen.

I really need to start doing my Short Reviews again, especially as I’ve got a lot of fodder for them. It’s just that my own writing and game development has taken up a lot of my time. Over the weekend, I picked up quite a haul to supplement my meager pulp collection, hopefully of the variety that will blow those 70s issues of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction out of the water. For a little over $20, I got a stack of 15 issues of Astounding from between 1949 and 1951. The real score of my Sunday haul, though, was this copy of Planet Stories from 1949 featuring a Leigh Brackett Mars novel.

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