Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hail, Hyboria!

In between all the other things I'm reading -- or should be doing instead -- I've been immersed in my various collections of Conan stories. In reading them, I've come to the conclusion that the Hyborian Age is about as perfect an example of a fantasy roleplaying game setting as you can get. It has the feel of history without the necessity for knowing any history at all. And of course, by "history" I mean "cool history." The world of Conan is like all the cool places in which you'd want to adventure mashed together cheek by jowl. Not only does this mean that your high chivalric knight can go exploring the Tomb of the Lost Pharaoh, it also means that his companions can be a Viking skald, a Mongol raider, and a priestess of Aphrodite. What's better than that?

When I was a younger man, I used to get hung up on making things as historically accurate as I could. So, if my campaign setting was a high medieval one in character, I didn't even allow Vikings, because they were from an earlier period of history. Likewise, my Egypt analog wouldn't be peopled by bald hieroglyphics-carving worshipers of Ra but by more "plausible" Arab stand-ins. Nowadays, though, I can't help but think I missed out on a lot of fun, as Two-Gun Bob understood very well. What's fun about the Conan stories is how the Cimmerian is able to wander across history, metaphorically, as he wanders across Hyboria. One story he's in what amounts to classical Greece, in another he's in medieval France, and in a third he's among a bunch of Aztecs slapped into the middle of a faux Africa. That gave Howard an opportunity to tell a wide variety of stories that drew on a vast number of pulp fantasy tropes -- and keep them fresh. No, much of it doesn't make any sociological sense, but to worry about that is to kind of miss the point, as my younger self no doubt would have.

The trick to pulling this off is twofold. First, make sure your analogs are analogs. Stygia, for example, isn't Egypt. It's a lot like Egypt, but it's not identical to the historical Egypt of any single era. Instead, it's a mishmash of many different eras, combined with stuff that Howard just thought worked in the context of the stories he wanted to tell involved Stygia or Stygians. Second, and in some ways, most important of all, the mishmash can't just be a mishmash. That is, it has to have a coherence of its own.

One of the reasons the Hyborian Age feels "right" is that Howard did a good job of giving the whole thing solidity, a sense that it held together without reference to the real world. He does this in a lot of different ways, from small details to off-hand references to imaginary histories he almost certainly never worked out in detail, but the combined effect is to make (to use my earlier example) Stygia simultaneously Egypt and more than Egypt. Stygia isn't just Egypt with the serial numbers filed off but rather an imaginary place that is immediately intelligible because it's enough like the pulp conception of Egypt to hook us, but also dissimilar enough to feel as it's not merely an unimaginative knock-off.

This is my ideal for a pulp fantasy setting. You see similar principles to those Howard used at work in both the Wilderlands of High Fantasy and in the early World of Greyhawk. I could also argue that Paizo's Golarion setting employs the same principles and that's one of the reasons their Pathfinder RPG project continues to interest me, even if I think the end result might wind up being more complex and detail-heavy than I prefer.


  1. I recently went back and read many of Howard's original stories, and I have to agree, as the same thing struck me on reading them, Hyboria is a very good fantasy setting and is actually well suited to D&D. In some ways, Greyhawk is Hyboria with Middle Earth attached.

  2. Your analysis is spot on, and you're right about missing out on some fun by being a stickler for history.

    The Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane works are just jam packed with gaming goodness.

  3. Indeed. I'm a big Howard fan. I always loved the vague historical connections.

    Stygia-North Africa/Egypt
    Aquilonia-(I always associated it with Rome, but it's acutally more like a generic middle Europe)
    Cimmeria-this one always confused me. It has Nordic and Celtic themes.

    There was a fantastic story (I forget the title) that was a 'lost' Babylonian (guessing here) city. Good stuff. If the reference is lost I'll have to dig out my book and find it.

  4. There was a good article recently over at the Cimmerian blog concerning the use of the word "Hyboria". Here's the link: http://www.thecimmerian.com/?p=1088

    I love your blog, James . . . do keep up the good work!

  5. Wonderful advice for anyone prepping to design their own homebrew setting.

    Another good example, although I don't think it's a sleek as Howard's, is EGG's setting in The Anubis Murders et al - a faux earth that looks and feels kinda sorta like earth, but is, well, cooler. It's the same with Hyboria - Howard took all the "cool" places you'd want to adventure in, and wove an illusion of verisimilitude around them to make it work, for the purposes of his pulp storytelling "yarns". The same works very, very well for gaming. Pluck the choicest fruits from the tree, give 'em a little polish to make them shine even brighter, and arrange to taste.

    My own woeful tale of the disaster that is the Harn campaign I'm stuck in (but leaving) is made all the more telling when I loaned the GM my three-volume Del Rey Conan anthologies, and he very obviously tried to read and failed. He gave them back to me a few weeks later and muttered something about how "he'll just buy copies of his own eventually", and then moved on to read something else. Pathetic.

  6. Liked this! I'm reading Conan again for 1st time in 30 yrs, told D&D friends, they showed me your blog. Lyon Sprague De Camp (famous sci fi writer & ed. of Conan) writes in the intro:

    "Howard's adventure fantasies belong to a kind of fiction called heroic fantasy . . . laid in a world not as it is, or was, but as it ought to have been."

    Your words reminded me of his!