Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tolkien and Howard

It's not often that one sees J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard conjoined in a way that emphasizes a similarity between these two very different authors, but that's just what Al Harron did in a post to The Cimmerian from this past July. He writes:
It is often said that Howard, along with Tolkien, is one of the foundation stones upon which the grand tower of modern fantasy is built: it is just unfortunate, as with Tolkien, that so many look at the surface elements like people, places and things, and assume that this is their lasting appeal. With Tolkien it is the elves, dwarves, orcs and quests to defeat Dark Lords which run wild in dime-a-dozen Tolkien imitations, with none seeking to adopt or even address the deeper themes: the sense of deepest tragedy and loss, that nothing is permanent in this world despite the grand designs of elves and men, of the far-reaching consequences of war affecting even the faraway Shires of the world, and the realization that no matter what power a Dark Lord can exercise, he cannot reach to beyond the stars.

With Howard, it is the obvious pulp trappings like the thickly muscled barbarian hero rescuing frightened, voluptuous damsels from irredeemably evil sorcerers or monsters that turn up time and again: little to none of the deeply cynical worldview, fighting the cold indifferent cosmos with all the fire of human spirit, striving to survive in a dangerous and violent world. Most of all, the innate tragedy of man, who despite his strength and will is yet powerless against the might of time, a brief candle in the mad immensity of night. Those stories of Ersatz-Conans in other worlds, or even “official” pastiches, are no more like Howardian under the surface than He-Man is like Conan.

Harron's point is both correct and applicable to RPGs, which have, as the years have worn on, become more focused on surface elements of their supposed inspirations than on their deeper themes. Now, as I've said before, I'm not actually all that interested in playing a game that cleaves too closely to Tolkien's -- or Howard's -- worldview, but I nevertheless find it a little sad how shallow are many readings of these authors (and Lovecraft too, come to think of it), resulting in their caricatures often having more influence than they themselves do. That's a pity regardless of what one thinks of these writers, even moreso if, like me, you think they have a lot to offer.

56 comments:

  1. Not much to add except that those are really great points. Back in our old English lit days, we were all forced to pick apart the most mind-numbing stories and get at the "real" subject matter that lay beneath. This was the goal every English teacher and professor pushes their students towards.

    And yet, when it comes to things like Fantasy literature (Sci-Fi for some reason gets a pass here, ah well), critics take one look at the surface elements and, if there is any deeper reading that goes on, all that they ever get out of it is obvious Jungian and Freudian symbolism. Both Tolkien and Howard have some very profound things to say about the human condition, but it always gets lost in the medium, so to speak.

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  2. It is the "timeless" elements of these, and other, writers that make them the great classics. Sadly, it is later readers that latch onto the shallow, surface elements. Ironically, the depth of these authors must have some impact on people, as they recognize the greatness even when they fail to identify it.

    On a random note, I read somewhere once that Tolkien very much liked Howard's writing. I suspect the reverse would've been true, as well.

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  3. Opposing View-

    What if ones doesn't subscribe to the concept of futility of human existence; thinks that the fire of the human will is itself a sad, childlike trait; and is at peace the the infinite weakness of humanity in the face of greater powers?

    Is writing/gaming Sci-Fantasy only predicated upon the themes you have pointed out a few times in these articles on Pulp and Gaming? Is the Pulp mentality the end-all be-all of the overarching 'literary' genre of Sci-Fantasy?

    When does cleaving to the Old Ways itself become farcical?

    Looking back at the Classical stories/legends/myths is much closer to the origins of those very 'noble' traits which you, James, cite, and they all result in the failure of the hero to gain lasting peace. Why not cleave to the originals, rather than their 20th century derivatives?

    Howard blew his brains out, and Lovecraft was an effete racist WASP minus the Protestant.
    --They were just men. Men who never really grew up into the light of human responsibility of caring for their fellow doomed neighbours.

    Not much of a role-model, either as a person, or as writers, IMO --and I love Lovecraft's works, simply for the vistas, the turgid prose and the pacing he mastered.

    I'm certain that Sci-Fantasy is capable of growing up (not that it has, and likely has even regressed in most cases), as is gaming.

    Themes of exploration; the hunt for basic survival needs; the fallibility of one's own drives and reasoning; and the 'meaning' of one's own existence seem like far better topics to explore than trying to distil the essence of Howard's forlornness and Lovecraft's ennui.

    But what do I know?

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  4. On a random note, I read somewhere once that Tolkien very much liked Howard's writing. I suspect the reverse would've been true, as well.

    So far as anyone has determined, Tolkien's supposed liking for Howard is based on a comment made by L. Sprague De Camp in which he mentioned having given a copy of a some fantasy collection that included a REH story in it to Tolkien when they met in the early 70s. The collection has (I think) been found among Tolkien's library, but there was no evidence that he'd read any of it, let alone had anything positive to say about REH.

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  5. Timeshadows,

    I did say that I actually have very little interest in playing RPGs that cleave too closely to either Howard or Tolkien, both of whose fictions are superb but which present problems when translated into gaming. My post was simply about the way that both authors' works are looted mercilessly for surface-level ideas rather than engaged for their deeper meanings.

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  6. That's a nigh-stunning observation. You're right to add Lovecraft in there, too (which immediately sprang to my mind, too, as I read the passage).

    I'm not entirely sure what an RPG devoted to those themes would look like, actually. Perhaps a lot of the flavor of the Warhammer milieu.

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  7. can the point of the post be extended to a D&D game/campaign?

    if so, whose responsibility is it to develop a theme under the surface action? and because at least a chunk of the responsibility is the DM's, does this become even harder when we relinquish control of the plot to the players?

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  8. I don't know that RPGs ever latched onto the deeper meanings of any novels that were part of their genesis.

    Sure you can make a setting that mimiced or ourright duplicated (via pastiche or license agreement) a particular novel or genre.

    Whatever your hopes are an author the nature of RPGs puts the tone and tenor the campaign on the Player and GM.

    The best example of this is White Wolf's Vampire. Many people played vampire (werewolf, etc) as a power trip rather than use the angst riddled tone of the rule books. The main concession I see these group make to the author's idea of Vampire is that they continue to incorporate the politics and social structure of vampire society.

    The same can be seen with Call of Cthulu. Despite some brilliant mechanics like sanity and pitch perfect writing (for the most part). Most groups I was part of were mostly gun bunnies.

    Guns a-blazing was not always the solution we choose mind you. But we damn made sure that if we were going to die with frothing mouths it would be with guns a-blazing.

    Understanding the roots of RPG by reading the stuff in Appendix N is a good thing. But only in that it helps the GM and players roleplay. As far as rules goes trying to capture a specific feel is hard and often just gets in the way.

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  10. I'm not thinking so much of writing rulesets to evoke certain themes, but about playing a specific adventure (in my case a D&D adventure) that evokes certain themes. For instance, does The Tomb of Horros have a theme? Both as written and in the way that's it's played on any occaision? Or does the incredible (and incredibly engaging) unpredicability of a story generated in real-time overwhelm anything more subtle?

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  11. I think few people comment on the dark tone of Lord of the Rings. Most of the book is as bleak and hopeless as anything Lovecraft wrote.

    The entire book feels like the world is on a precipice headed for destruction, and everyone in the story is quite aware of it. The collective world of men is bound to pay the price for the failures of its great heroes of old.

    But most people seem to just remember it as a twee fantasy epic about fighting a Dark Lord.

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  12. I seem to recall making a similar argument about Howard/Tolkien in an earlier commentary on this blog; something about inevitable declining worlds, if memory serves. So, suffice to say I agree with this observation.

    That said, what apparently bored Gygax about Tolkien was the lack of action, so perhaps the deeper themes were never really present in early RPGs to begin with, or at least intentionally.

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  13. But most people seem to just remember it as a twee fantasy epic about fighting a Dark Lord.

    Including quite a few professional writers who should know better ...

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  14. so perhaps the deeper themes were never really present in early RPGs to begin with, or at least intentionally.

    Likely not. I don't think D&D, in any of its forms, has ever been a very "deep" game. It's always been quite action-oriented, which is why pulp fantasy was its main inspiration. My point is simply that a lot of gamers see the works of Tolkien or Howard (or whoever) primarily as fodder for more "stuff" -- monsters, races, magic items, etc. -- rather than as anything more than that.

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  15. >They were just men. Men who never really grew up into the light of human responsibility of caring for their fellow doomed neighbours.<

    Is HPL or REH different then any other writer when it comes to personalities?:Hemingway Salinger, kerouac, Bukowski all share the same traits as they did. It comes with the neighborhood.

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  16. While it's true that in practice, most D&D play does not involve the same themes that are found in Tolkien, Howard or _____, there are plenty of thematic undercurrents built into the game itself that are just as "deep" (what sort of device does one use to measure the depth of a theme?) James talked about exploration not so long ago. We could say loads about the "crypto-colonialism" someone mentioned in the comments to that post. I've talked a little bit about the meaning of the monster a while back on my own blog (look, a shameless plug). Would being more aware of these themes lead to better gameplay? Or is it better to simply operate under these built-in paradigms without necessarily understanding their nature? Where can I sign up for Dungeon Philosophy classes?

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  17. Btw I don't meant to suggest that the designers of OD&D had any sort of desire to impart some level of "thematic content" to the game. I'm willing to bet it wasn't even a consideration. However, intentional or not, themes might naturally arise from the symbolic phantasmagoria that IS the meat-n-taters of D&D. After all, Gygax et al did not invent these elements, they merely constructed a ruleset where these thing could interact.

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  18. there is a strong element of tragedy to d&d in that as a character survives to higher and higher levels, the prospect of that character's death-- while less likely, becomes more terrible. this is a common theme in literature and legend, but often with regards to material posessions or political power (e.g. sword of damocles) but in D&D, even the acquisition of "experience" is a treasure that will be lost.

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  19. Likely not. I don't think D&D, in any of its forms, has ever been a very "deep" game. It's always been quite action-oriented, which is why pulp fantasy was its main inspiration. My point is simply that a lot of gamers see the works of Tolkien or Howard (or whoever) primarily as fodder for more "stuff" -- monsters, races, magic items, etc. -- rather than as anything more than that.

    Sure, but then the question is "have we become more focused on the surface elements of the literature or are we just as focused as we ever were?" You imply above that previously RPGs were less focused on those elements, but it seems to me that they are no more or less focused than they ever were.

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  20. I think as important as Howard and Tolkien are, we need to add Lovecraft to the list as well.

    When I look at old D&D books, I see a lot of mythos influence. Of course, Howard was influenced by Lovecraft in his Conan stories too, so it might be that.

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  21. You imply above that previously RPGs were less focused on those elements, but it seems to me that they are no more or less focused than they ever were.

    Yes, I can see where I did make that implication. I should have been clearer in saying that I think RPGs nowadays are even less concerned with deeper themes than were those at the dawn of the hobby.

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  22. I think part of it is that gaming, as a collaborative medium, is a more difficult medium for expression than literature is. Writers can easily propound themes of Long Defeat and Eucatastrophe or of Corrupt Civilization and the Noble Savage, or even of Cosmic Insignificance, because they wield complete creative power over events. Removing some of that control and handing it to players makes many of the outcomes hazy and unpredictable: I mean, what if the dice (and the stars) are aligned, somebody happens to bring a really big gun, and he *kills* C'thulhu? That could easily happen in just about any RPG with Gamist or Simulationist pretensions. (Speaking of pretensions: Look! GNS theory!) That's how that "If it has stats, we can kill it." meme came into being.

    I think if an RPG game has a unifying theme, it's usually either accidental and realized after the fact, or written directly into the rules and the game elements before the game starts.

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  23. >simply about the way that both authors' works are looted mercilessly for surface-level ideas rather than engaged for their deeper meanings<

    Just like greek (and other) myths, the themes and philosophies and undercurrents etc. are as deep as you want/need them to be. You can see them as man railing against the uncaring Gods/Universe, or you can see them as just stories about lions with eagle heads. When you are young, the monsters are always cooler than whatever human philosophies you can get out of the tales.

    Personally, I love the musceled dudes/chicks fighting monsters and godless demons in my games. But I also love pathos, irony, tragedy, wonderment and all that deeper junk. But to be honest, I think I became fond of those things more from the Marvel Comics I was reading than Howard, Tolk, and whoever else.

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  24. does it matter how we interpret the random elements (dice rolling?)

    it might be obvious that we interpret them as random in the gameworld, but I think there's another explanation.

    the dice roll is not a representation of randomness, but of the micro-calculations made by the character that the player doesn't get. so when the player rolls a "2" on a to-hit roll, he wrongly interprets it as bad luck. the character, with the advantage of being there, knows that in fact, he expected his enemy to dodge to the left and instead he dodged right.

    so the "lucky" player who kills Cthulu is instead playing a character who, whatever errors he's made previously, gets everything right the one time it really matters.

    so the random elements shouldn't preclude theme-- it just means that what theme is generated "in the work" is a product of randomness "in life."

    I heard somewhere that Tolkien flipped a coin to decide whether Gandalf, when offered the one ring, would accept the offer of ultimate power and despite hoping to use it for good, end up creating destruction larger that what Sauron ever dreamed of.

    And ever getting tails on the first flip, he called best of out three.

    (joke.)

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  25. Yes, I can see where I did make that implication. I should have been clearer in saying that I think RPGs nowadays are even less concerned with deeper themes than were those at the dawn of the hobby.

    I always figured that the point was to come up with your own.

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  26. Timeshadows--

    Real artists can't really "pick" their themes. Their themes emerge while they try to write good stories because those ideas are what's in them.

    In most cases, the only service you can honestly ask an artist to perform is to show us themselves as an example of what a human being was or could be.

    Bad writers ignore their themes when they pop up, or try to force other people's themes onto their own writing. That's why they're bad writers.

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  27. D&D exposes the hidden theme within the DM. A spontaneous story evolves out of the dice rolls and lethal rules, the player's actions and personality, and the personality and interpretation of the DM.

    In OD&D characters carve out an emergent history action by action, roll by roll, with some awareness that they might be snuffed out at any time by the rules or a fickle DM.

    D&D has never handled fate and prophesy well because not even the DM knows what is going to happen.

    This creates a gameworld wich is strange, does not conform to many bread&butter narrative tropes, and is often senseless in a cause/effect kind of way.

    The only books that I have read which felt like this were Jack Vance's Dying Earth writings.

    As an example, seemingly major characters often appear and disappear in the story with little lasting impact and many seemingly important McGuffins are brought up and dropped with little lasting effect to the story.

    Best of all, Vance's characters respond to important mind blowing things in a nonplussed and often irritated manner, EXACTLY LIKE SOME VETERAN PLAYERS DO!

    In Vance's Dying Earth, there is little of consequence despite the scope of many of the adventures. This is mostly because the Earth is nearing its inevitable end. Yet the characters, while generally aware of this, behave with often great gusto and luxurious language while doing little to nothing to try and "fix" the sun. The only character who even think it is possible are treated as imbiciles by Cugel.

    I think it perfectly reflects the irony of RPGs. We put great energy into our games and derive great pleasure from playing them when they are little more than a passtime and do nothing to directly address problems in the real world.

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  28. Wow, Zak, I totally disagree, though I think I can gather where you're coming from. First of all, the whole good/bad writer dichotomy is necessarily subjective. Secondly, some writers don't view themselves as artists at all. Some of them set out to write a story they think is going to sell. Does that make their work "bad art"? I don't think we can say that objectively.

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  29. P.S. Has anyone read "The Days of Perky Pat" by Phillip K. Dick?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Days_of_Perky_Pat

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  30. G. B.

    I didn't say "writers who think they are good writers do (whatever)" I said "good writers". Period.

    Whether or not you think you're any good, and no matter why you're writing--whether or not you think your writing is art--if you are listening to the "themes" that emerge in your own head you MIGHT one day be good. Because you're following something nobody else can ever follow.

    If you don't, you will DEFINITELY be bad.

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  31. Emonator--
    "D&D exposes the hidden theme within the DM. A spontaneous story evolves out of the dice rolls and lethal rules, the player's actions and personality, and the personality and interpretation of the DM...."

    Totally agree.

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  32. I liked Timeshadow's comment. Maybe the Old Ways are a mess of cultural contradiction that it's best to overcome?

    My own favorite 1970s pulp author is Karl Edward Wagner who edited a lot of Conan stuff I understand.

    I read mostly 'High Lit" fantasy like Tolkien and LeGuinn. Most of the pulp stuff is not girl friendly in more ways than one, but I've read enough of the B-Stringer stuff like Lin Carter to know that Robert Howard was a much better writer on several levels.

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  33. "IMHO" Zak. At least until somebody breaks out the Astral Yardstick of Subjective Measurement. I appreciate the writing of plenty of guys (and gals) who were more interested in selling than propounding some quasi-mystical artistic vision. That's just the reality of needing to make a living. Many authors were able to "have fun with it" and put bread on the table at the same time. Very few were so successful that they could indulge in writing whatever they felt like.

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  34. James: Al Harron here. Thanks for taking the time to read my review, and I'm rather amazed at the response and discussion gathered. Ultimately, my problem with things being insufficiently "Howardian" is only with the poor pastiches and otherwise that purport to do Howard justice, but fail, either because they mistakenly go for the fluffy High Adventure style of "Conan the Destroyer", or they turn the whole exercise into a Gor fantasy.

    As such, I think "Day After Ragnorok" successfully achieves that sense of "man as ant" while imbuing it with enough defiant energy at the situation that shows human ingenuity at its best.

    This is essentially what separates Tolkien & Howard from Lovecraft, in my opinion. In Lovecraft, the universe is doomed and there ain't much you can do but gibber blasphemously in the foetal position and pray Cthulhu eats you first. With Tolkien, sure the magic's leaving the world, but with the death of elves and dwarves comes the birth of man: after the Old People pass, the new people step up to the future. And with Howard, the universe may be cold and indifferent, but by Crom you'll live deep while you live, living, laughing and loving until out, out, brief candle.

    So while Tolkien & Howard are both surprisingly dark and nowhere near as twee and safe as certain commentators assert, that's not to say there isn't a bright light to mark the beacon of hope.

    Timeshadows: I would like to point out that it isn't necessarily that I agree with Howard's/Tolkien's/Lovecraft's worldviews or consider them inherently superior to different ones, but that their writings are so deep-rooted in their personal philosophies that, in order for something to be "Howardian" or "Tolkienian", it has to be more than simply including certain tropes they utilised. It's the difference between choosing to emulate the message, and emulating the form the message takes.

    I would be a rather poorly-read person indeed if I only read work which I considered to follow those author's example out of principle, but my main point is that if you're going to call something Howardian - or Tolkienian or Lovecraftian - then it should bear more similarity than surface elements.

    For example, "Where Eagles Dare" and "Saving Private Ryan" are both films set in World War 2. There the surface elements are the same: it features American soldiers fighting Nazis in the European war theatre. Yet there is much different about the films too, to the point where they are fundamentally of different temperament: one is a heroic, fun adventure, the other a sombre, dark drama.

    Thus if someone was going to make a new adaptation of "When Eagles Dare" I'd be very nonplussed if they altered the tone to resemble "Saving Private Ryan". It's for the same reason that the horrible "Dungeons & Dragons" film was rightly panned despite the apparently "Tolkienesque" elements of elves, dwarves, dragons and such.

    So ultimately, sure, I'd be interested in any literature or RPG which serves as a dramatic counterpoint to Howard/Tolkien: I just ask that said literature doesn't try to call itself what it ain't.

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  35. ... And I just realised I called the film "When Eagles Dare": it's "WHERE Eagles Dare", of course. Poor Shakespeare'll be doing cartwheels at Holy Trinity!

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  36. The problem with pioneers is that they get judged by different standards. The sucessors to Tolkien and Howard may not have the philosophical orientations of the pioneers but they still form a pastiche that the genre is still richer from it.

    Similarly, for all the Role Aids, it had to culminate into something better. One has to play through some of sloth in order to get something greater later on.

    I realize that when I am playing Traveller. There is alot of what people call "bureaucratic play" say unlike Feng Shui but through that sloth elements of greatness shine through.

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  37. I agree with the overall sentiment of the post, but do RPGs really need deeper themes? Not that I think that James is suggesting they do, but they are games after all.

    Also, I think by struggling too hard to keep players on the same page thematically, one runs the risk of forcing a story (though not necessarily a plot) on the group. That's rarely a good thing, in my opinion.

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  38. I don't think its fair to call HPL a racist, as he was simply a man of his era.

    While it would certainly be true, so too would it be true of all most all writers, academics, politicians, artists and prophets throughout human history.

    Even Abraham Lincoln would be considered a disgusting racist by today's standards, that does not diminish his standing, for taking one of the early steps out the culture of his era.

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  39. @ James M: So you did. My apologies for jumping that particular gun. Thank you for pointing it out. :)

    @ Crow: Interesting choices you've presented. Perhaps the conclusion is partially based on the sort of men you chose to illustrate your point. I'll have to ponder what you have said.

    @ Zak: Perhaps.

    @ Bulldada: Yay! K.E. Wagner! :D I wonder if there are any other RPGs which are more informed by themes present in Tanith Lee's works than the old boy's fraternity. Even C. S. Lewis, Gene Wolfe, or Ray Bradbury?

    @ Taranaich: I can see your point. I was suggesting, though, that earlier strains of the Archetypal struggles are perhaps a better source for 'starting fresh' or even basing one's views to then write from, rather than trying to plumb the depths of their 20th century re-writers.
    --I often choose to write from a stylistic perspective, or even theoretical perspective that I do not personally hold, so as to challenge myself to write from the character's PoV, rather than one I am intimately familiar with. Well, at least I start that way, and then the -self- takes over and I'm then writing an outsider's view of my personal reality, as you suggest.
    ---Good things to think about from a fiction perspective, but I don't see much correlation to gaming, for reasons elucidated by other posters.

    Nice discussion; good topic, too. :D

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  40. Timeshadows: I agree, that in creating new things, it's nice to go back to the roots. After all, much of what made Tolkien & Howard great was their 20th-Century spin on old folklore and mythology.

    But, again, I come back to the whole "only call yourself Howardian if you are Howardian". Kenneth Hite was very lucid in his assertions of Howard's influence on his setting, and unlike too many, he actually succeeds.

    So while I might not be able to say much about DAR's gaming sensibilities, I think of myself being in a position to see if Hite's proclamations of "Howardianism" stand up, and in my opinion, they do.

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  41. @Timeshadows

    If you want an RPG informed by Gene Wolfe, look no further than D&D. Wolfe just ripped off Vance, after all.

    "What if ones doesn't subscribe to the concept of futility of human existence"

    Then one is deluded.

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  42. Timeshadows:
    Nice.
    Thoroughness rules.

    (Though we all know that, otherwise we wouldn't be reading Grognardia.)

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  43. Being apart of the Conan RPG community, I notice that most of the anti-Tolkien opinion stems from a general fatigue of High-fantasy in general. If anything, the root to all the High-fantasy fatigue is all the exposure of generic villa fantasy throughout the 90's, and super-cliché fiction like Eragon. I notice many people enter Conan expecting a cheep bit of escapism, but never expecting the deeper appeal of Howard's work.

    In context of role-playing, Sword & Sorcery appeals to people differently then high-fantasy. S&S fans like magic to be stranger, and less utilitarian. They want gods to be dark and indifferent. They want real effort to matter over a magical mcguffin, and a heroic sacrifice should never be cheapen by a resurrection spell. They have no issue with creatures like Beholders because they are strange and unique, but if they crop up a lot, then they loose all their charm. They dont like morality plays because it feels patronizing, and motivation driven on the fulfilling some epic destiny is seen as really garish. And yes, they are drawn to the more shallow, hedonistic elements of S&S, but there is noting really wrong about that, as long as they keep their heads about themselves - thankfully, they are usually more mature about handling such these things then most.

    REH fans dont reject Tolkien outright (a good number of them are still enjoy reading Tolkien), they just prefer Howard's rawness and pacing over Tolkien's flavourful prose. All-and-all, it all about apples and oranges.

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  44. @Timeshadows

    I always thought your posts were very positive, but kind of light. Nice to see you've found a position you won't back away from. I have new respect. Make'em read Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and The Master Of Ballantrae one after another, I say.

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  45. Players & DM's will create their own thematic elements. Hopefully, there will be some synergy here, but, an amusing exercise might be to ask your players, after a year or so of play, how they would describe the deeper elements within the campaign.

    Zak - I agree with your pov, at least to some extent, which is why I often like to DM on the fly. I found early on that I could tune in to my DM muse easier during a session, and was less likely to overthink or distrust where my spontaneous creativity was going.

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  46. > I think RPGs nowadays are even less concerned with deeper themes than were those at the dawn of the hobby.

    There's an awful lot of RPGs out there. I just can't agree with this statement.

    Wasn't Dragonlance all about "deeper themes"? Doesn't Dark Sun try to bring some of this up. Maybe those are caricatures (I'm not that familiar with them, see below) But, certainly all of White Wolf products are meant to be played that way. And the entire "indie"/Forge scene is ALL about themes over game.

    The whole storypath movement you rail against is meant to be exploring these deeper meanings. At least that is the intention I get from reading them.

    Personally can't stand those kinds of "games". Good for books, movies, and story telling, not for games. I want Conan The Barbarian not Conan the Literary Analysis. YMMV ;)

    [and damn, 45 comments! you're blog has gotten too popular]

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  47. @Nagoroa: Ripped off Vance? The Urth cycle is more Dying Earth than almost anything else, sure, but it's also got a hell of a lot of Borges in it.

    Me, I'd go with--and this is where the "almost anything" comes in--"The Christ story, retold on the Dying Earth, with a bunch of Borges, the Frankenstein story, and plenty of Lewis Carroll stirred in, in a ginormous stew with damn-near-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink as well."

    @Timeshadows: for a Wolfean campaign, well, you could come play in certain of my games, or there's always GURPS: New Sun. Empire of the Petal Throne is, uh....more Howard than Vance in the same way Carcosa is more Lovecraft than Vance, maybe?

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  48. Emonator gets big points here. Great observations.

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  50. Howard, along with Tolkien, is one of the foundation stones upon which the grand tower of modern fantasy is built.

    Grand tower of modern fantasy? Wow, that's more credit than I would give to modern fantasy, by a bunch.

    @Adam Thornton -

    Me, I'd go with--and this is where the "almost anything" comes in--"The Christ story, retold on the Dying Earth, with a bunch of Borges, the Frankenstein story, and plenty of Lewis Carroll stirred in, in a ginormous stew with damn-near-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink as well."

    These are precisely the reasons I couldn't stand Book of the New Sun despite it coming highly recommended by many SF authors I admire. It just comes across as muddled, to me.

    Empire of the Petal Throne is, uh....more Howard than Vance in the same way Carcosa is more Lovecraft than Vance, maybe?

    I dunno, I think EPT is very Vancian. It takes place on another planet in the far future, with no remaining connection to Earth and weird alien beings mixed with even weirder human cultures. Sounds like about half of the Vancian SF oeuvre.

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  51. Emonator gets big points here. Great observations.

    I second the motion.

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  52. Howarth: it depends what one means by "modern fantasy." I'm not referring to the post-Tolkien glut of derivative doorstoppers that suffocate bookshelves since the '60s, I'm referring to the likes of Wolfe, Vance, Lieber, Anderson, Zelazny, Brackett, Wagner, Le Guin, Moorcock and others. Anyone post-Dunsany, really (Dunsany being the architect of the "grand tower", so to speak).

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  53. Thanks for the props.

    I always wrestled with D&D to be like Tolkien for most of my gaming career.

    After reading Vance, everything has clicked.

    I think the core themes which grow most rampantly in the "soil" of OD&D game form and mechanics are the themes which underwrite Vance.

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  54. @Taranaich Howarth: it depends what one means by "modern fantasy." I'm not referring to the post-Tolkien glut of derivative doorstoppers that suffocate bookshelves since the '60s, I'm referring to the likes of Wolfe, Vance, Lieber, Anderson, Zelazny, Brackett, Wagner, Le Guin, Moorcock and others. Anyone post-Dunsany, really (Dunsany being the architect of the "grand tower", so to speak).

    Ah, that's okay, then ;-).

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  55. Hey, if anybody wants to continue this conversation I just wrote a long rant on ideas this post (and the comments) brought up for me over here:

    http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2009/10/where-action-is-part-2-grognardia-jack.html

    (Don;t mean to steal your thunder James,but I also don't want to drag the comments off into a hydra of comments only tangentially related to your original post.)

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  56. Good point.

    I won’t ever claim to be deep. ^_^

    In Tolkien I see a theme of struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds.

    In Howard I see the theme that the seemingly invincible foe isn’t.

    Both of which I think have made appearances in campaigns I’ve played.

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