Thursday, May 21, 2009

Three Threads

I make no secret of my deep abiding love for the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft. I consider each of them, in their own ways, literarily significant authors whose works transcend the limited venues in which their writings first appeared. But my purpose in this entry isn't to laud their lasting value as writers. Instead, I want to briefly touch upon the things each brings to bear when considering "pulp fantasy D&D," which is to say, an interpretation of the game that eschews both the high fantasy of Tolkien and (especially) his imitators and the "cinematic" approach so in fashion these days.

Robert E. Howard: It's easy to discern the influence the creator of Conan might have over Dungeons & Dragons. Howard is the only one of the Big Three mentioned by name in OD&D, which places him among a select few authors (along with Burroughs, De Camp, Leiber, and Pratt) whose acknowledged influence is there from the very beginning. REH brings not only a certain "blood and thunder" mindset to the game, but, more importantly, an emphasis on broadly adventure broadly defined. He's a reminder that D&D is, at its base, a game of action and exploration, about overcoming challenges and profiting -- and dying -- from doing so.

That's absolutely essential to any notion of what a pulp fantasy D&D needs to be and Howard offers that in spades, not just in his Conan stories but in all of his major story cycles. That's not to suggest that the game can't be more than that by any means, but it's nevertheless vital that we not lose sight of the fact that any "meaning" D&D has is an emergent property that arises through play rather than being some a priori property of it.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Old Gent isn't mentioned in OD&D, but he does make an appearance in Appendix N, making him a natural fit for a pulp fantasy D&D. HPL brings a lot to the table, first and foremost a counterpoint to exaggerated devotion to Howard. In Lovecraft's worldview, human beings are small and insignificant, beneath the notice the true lords of the universe. Left to its own, Lovecraftianism tends toward bleakness and that's not a good feel for a pulp fantasy D&D. but neither is excessive confidence in the capacity of the average man to achieve anything of lasting worth.

More than that, Lovecraft acknowledges that there's a wider world beyond the petty concerns of mortal men. His awesome cosmicism is, I think, an important element often overlooked. He makes plain the idea that there is more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy and, worse yet, those things are utterly alien and, in many cases, functionally malign. Lovecraftian entities make terrific opponents and his cosmicism, ironically, helps buttress a powerful humanism when placed within a larger pulp fantasy context.

Clark Ashton Smith: The Bard of Auburn isn't mentioned in either OD&D or AD&D explicitly and, by most accounts, his direct influence over Gygax and Arneson was minimal. I think that's a shame, because what CAS brings to the table is something D&D desperately needs and has always needed: a sense of exoticism and mysticism. By this I mean that all too often even D&D's most outré elements quickly become banal, reduced to a series of game stats that fail to convey the eldritch beauty of the Other Side or the exhilirating danger posed by meddling with the forces of magic.

Despite this, Smith grounds his fantasies in reality. By that I don't mean to say that he was a Gygaxian naturalist avant le fait. Rather, it's that his descriptions are luxuriously sensual and bodily. Unlike Lovecraft, very few things in Smith's writings are "ineffable" or otherwise defy description. The result is a strange literary alchemy that doesn't reduce magic to a formula while simultaneously investing it with reality. That's something D&D could benefit from immensely.

These then are three threads from which I've been trying to weave my Dwimmermount campaign. They're all the three threads about which I'll be talking more in the coming weeks, with lots of examples of just what I mean and how others can do the same in their own adventures and campaigns.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me that an accident of history and fate put these three authors together (in a literary sense) at the right time and place to be such a seminal influence on D&D and literature as a whole. All three are so complementary, yet so very different in outlook and style. It is a pleasure to put the "big three" together as influences for a D&D campaign.

  2. I kind of wish I had a gaming blog some days. I think I could make an interesting post about my own influences, since I'm of a post D&D generation (born 1978) and managed to be influenced by cheesy fantasy movies, Saturday morning cartoons, and video games instead of any kind of fantasy literature.

    Seems like quite an undertaking, though.

  3. What is the "cinematic approach?"
    (Anyone who thinks they can answer, please do.)

  4. "What is the 'cinematic approach?'
    (Anyone who thinks they can answer, please do.)"

    People generally use it to mean assuming that the PCs are the ultimate badasses who always come out on top in any conflict and look good doing it, like in a typical action movie.

  5. One of the things that attract me to Clark Ashton Smith is his sense of humor. The way he manages to weave a sense of irony and dark humor into some truly horrific imagery.

    Smith was also the last of the Big Three that I read, and I sometimes wonder how my perception of pulp fantasy would differ had I read him first rather than last.

  6. I also admire Clark Ashton Smith's ability to spin a tale and I always preferred his characters. Conan was less a man and more a primal force of nature, always better than those around him, that gets a little old after a while quite honestly. Lovecraft's characters are usually either petrified or insane and that goes with his stories. But Smith could create characters that seemed as real as it could get for their surroundings. Satampra Zeiros in the "Theft of the 39 Girdles" stands out as how I imagine a hapless D&D character shambles through a roughshod adventure, especially the ending. The slightest characters count and add to the dynamic of his settings. All three were great writers and I constantly re-read their works, but I will always prefer the Dark Prince of Zothique.

  7. I'm a little curious what is meant by the "cinematic approach" too. I mean, I use cinematic to describe my games, but I wouldn't put that in opposition to "pulp influenced" as James apparently does. Nor would I use it to describe, as Will says, "the PC's are the ultimate bad-asses." What does that even mean?

    Howard was very clearly influenced by the historical swashbuckling stories that were contemporary (and a little bit earlier than him) as written by guys like Rafael Sabatini. Captian Blood. Scaramouche. The Black Swan. Etc. Since that same swashbuckling high-action vibe is often used to describe cinematic, and yet is also interchangeable with the word "pulp" as an adjective, I'm struggling to see exactly how they're different, unless you mean something different than I do when you use that word.

    Which is, ultimately, the problem with some of these buzzwords that get tossed out to describe various games and editions these days. What does it mean to be "cinematic?" What does it mean to be "pulp?" "Anime?" "WoW-like?" They're all fairly meaningless at the end of the day. Or rather, they mean different things to different people.

  8. Howard is the only one of the Big Three mentioned by name in OD&D, which places him among a select few authors (along with Burroughs, De Camp, Leiber, and Pratt) whose acknowledged influence is there from the very beginning.Don't forget Dunsany and Tolkien (or, rather, "Sunsany" and "Tolkein"), who are both name-checked in Vol. II.

  9. I'm looking forward to reading about how you weave those threads in your campaign, James.

  10. And Poul Anderson is mentioned with regard to True Trolls.


  11. To me AD&D is about wilderness, exploration, and mystical. Mysticism comes out in the geography of the fantasy world - forests, fields, riverine banks and wastelands evoke different moods, which in the world of AD&D affect the real world. With these three I'd say you captured the spiritual dimension that draws me to role-playing. Now I will have to start readign these guys.

    With regards to cnematic, I'd say this refers to the way soemone described 3.5 DMing to me - No real dungeon map, die rolling to figure out if the party has "dsicovered a secret door" and can do a sneak attack or will have to barrel in trough the front door and charge the monsters. This version of the agme involves no labyrinth, no dungeon crawl and instead has a tabletop stage, where the party's miniatures is facing off agaisnt various attackers, one encounter after another. Think Diablo approach to PNP D&D.

  12. I think that's a little closer to what I think of when I hear the word cinematic in regards to how the game is played. A cinematic game isn't a tactical miniatures combat game, it's a game in which actions take a narrative flavor.

    That's probably a misnomer, because I don't see how that makes the game more cinematic in a literal sense... but that's the way it tends to get used anyway, I guess.

  13. I think cinematic might be used to refer to a style in which the mundane details and bookkeeping get minimized to allow for more focus on the drama and the action. So less time tracking exact encumbrance, less time exhaustively searching walls for secret doors or digging through monsters' trash to find hidden gold, more time on exciting stuff. I don't think it's incompatible with a pulp sensibility, or with old-school play. Certainly a good number of folks on Dragonsfoot play in such a style. Read Predavolk's campaign journal of his players running through the G series, and I can hardly think of a more accurate term than "cinematic" for the adventure and action described therein.

  14. I've read a good deal of Howard and Lovecraft, but not so much Smith. Can someone make a recommendation of what CAS I should peruse first?

  15. Shimrod has it exactly. A cinematic game is one where, as MST3k instructed us "It's just a show, I should really just relax". Mundane things like encumbrance and trail rations get lost amidst the excitement of an outrageous (I had to struggle to not capitalize-and-exclamation-point that, shades of Aquaman) adventure, and they only become important if it would be exciting and dramatic.

  16. Rach, according to your definition of cinematic being exciting gameplay not encuimbered with gold coins, wet feet and back sore fro sleeping on the ground, above mentioned sword and sorcery would fit your bill pefectly.


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