Thursday, January 7, 2010

Howard's "The Hyborian Age"

The other day, Deuce Richardson of The Cimmerian once again did me an honor by using my Tolkien birthday post as a springboard for musing about world creation and its limits. In addition to reminding me that I really need to change my "About Me" picture from the one I posted at Halloween, Mr Richardson's post reminded me of Robert E. Howard's essay "The Hyborian Age," in which the author briefly laid out the history of Conan's world. I long ago noted that Howard's imaginary world is, in many respects, a perfect model for roleplaying settings and I stand by that assertion. REH strikes the right balance between borrowing from real world analogs and making details from whole cloth. It's one I've tried to emulate in my ongoing Dwimmermount game.

So, I went back a re-read Howard's essay yesterday and I was surprised at how long and specific it was. My memory of it was that it was a short and fairly "fluffy" piece, with little specificity or depth. Certainly there aren't lists of kings (though some rulers are mentioned by name) or extensive gazetteers and the dates are mostly vague, but there is a wealth of information to be gleaned from the essay. As I understand it, Howard prepared the essay in preparation for writing the Conan stories, although whether it actually predates the writing of "The Phoenix on the Sword," I cannot say with any certainty. Regardless, the essay indicates that Howard did give thought to the historical/cultural background of the Hyborian Age and was not simply making up details as he went along.

The demands of fiction are, I think, rather different than those of roleplaying, which is why I generally advocate a more "seat of the pants" style of world creation. Anything more than a general outline is, in my experience, an impediment to the cross-pollinating creativity between players and referee that I so enjoy these days. This seems to have been the case in a lot of the earliest RPG campaigns too, with details being added over time rather than laid down in stone beforehand.

Take a look, for example, at the rather brief history included in 1975's Empire of the Petal Throne and compare it to the reams of details created in its wake. Tékumel is popularly portrayed as an obsessively detailed world and so it is. Now. But at its inception, at least in its initial presentation for roleplaying purposes, it was probably less detailed than is almost pre-packaged setting currently available. Likewise, even now, after 30+ years of continual play, there are still many, many aspects of the setting that have never been established, such as the name of the continent on which the Five Empires are situated.

In any case, "The Hyborian Age" is worth re-reading if you haven't done so in a while. I found it clarified some thoughts in my mind about the process of world creation and I'll likely have more posts on this topic in the near future.


  1. Hey James! Sorry about the pic. It was the only one I could find.

    I'm glad I inspired you to reread "THA". There really is a lot more to that essay than first meets the eye. Almost biblical, IMO. REH packed a lot of data into that piece.

    According to Patrice Louinet (and I agree), Howard did not start composing "THA" until after he wrote his third Conan yarn, though obviously he had a pretty solid picture in his head from the start. It appears that he wrote up fairly detailed lists of kings, names and nationalities (Aquilonians average just shy of 5'11", BTW). All of those (which are all that's survived; who knows what's been lost) are in the back of THE COMING OF CONAN.

    I've been meaning to start a series of blog entries entitled "The Hyborian Age: Chapter & Verse" to go over all the information contained therein. The only thing holding me back is that I haven't gotten copies of the 3 previous "THA" drafts that have yet to be published. Once I get hold of those, it's on.


  2. I actually included an excerpt from the essay in my Age of Conan OD&D booklet. It's available online, being one of his works that has fallen into the Public Domain. One of the interesting things is that Howard threw a wrench into his own cosmology when he introduced the Purple Empire of Acheron in The Hour of the Dragon. Acheron does not neatly fit into any part of his Hyborian or pre-Hyborian histories. Personally, I slot it between the Thurian Age and the Hyborian, but that's just me.

  3. I don't see how REH's "cosmology" was compromised in any way, though Acheron seems to violate Hyborian Age chronology on a surface level.

    All evidence points to REH sticking pretty strictly to the order of events he laid out in "THA", but not the timespans when it came to writing the Conan yarns. Everything I've heard from Howard scholars that have seen the previous drafts is that what might be 500yrs in the final is 2000 or 5000 years in previous drafts.

    One might then posit that the final draft is the last word, but REH almost immediately contradicted the timespans given in "THA" when he wrote "The Scarlet Citadel", did it again soon after with "Black Colossus" and did it yet again with THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON. For his stories, which are what count, ultimately, REH telescoped the "THA" timeline. A good rule of thumb to use is to triple the timespans given in the essay.

    BTW, Howard stated in his synopsis for "HotD" that the Acheronians were ethnic Hyborians.

  4. I love reading that essay, but it's worth remembering the stark differences between that and Tolkien's efforts. First, it seems likely that the essay grew from the first stories. That says, once again, that story was primary for REH. Whereas, for JRRT, the story was almost an after-thought; a justification for his word-building.

    Second, the Hyborian Age actually says very little about the Hyborian Age. It's really more concerned with giving a sweep of history feeling. I think the description "biblical" is a pretty good one.

  5. Another example of obsessive detail not being what people think is Runequest. If you look at the state of affairs with the release of RQ2 and add up what's in that volume, White Bear, Red Moon, Nomad Gods, and all the available issues of the Wyrm's Footprints you get a lot less detail that the 3rd or 4th edition Forgotten Realms hardbacks.

    When I started re-collecting RQ I couldn't wait to get it and all that great mythology and stuff. I was amazed at how much I'd inflated what was in that one volume.

  6. @Matthew: I think you're misreading Tolkien. All indications from the various volumes of the History of Middle Earth are that the genesis is in the earliest stories of the Lost Tales. Tolkien was upset that the English lacked a national epic (Beowulf is a Geat and Arthur a Celt). The earliest lost tales are the stories brought back by Eriol/Ælfwine when he visited the isle that would become England.

  7. @Herb--I think Tolkien's motive is a bit difficult to get at, but he is pretty explicit that the Lord of the Rings was written mostly as a way to present his ancient songs and history and language.

    But, a digression maybe.

  8. I think THA and the other REH notes mentioned demonstrates that world-building isn't epic fantasy tolkienian detail vs. S&S seat of the pants, but a continuum.

    Howard thought seriously about his world and its relationship to real history. Clark Ashton Smith said the language of Zothique was Indo-European. and gave some examples of it in an unpublished story.

    This is something the "detailed world-building! No world-building! Fight!" arguments tend to ignore.

  9. The Hyborian Age is indeed meatier than a lot of proponents of broad-stroke setting design putting it forward as an ideal seem to realize. However, very little of its length is taken up by discussion of the people and places of Conan's era. Most of it is concerned with what happens in the centuries after Conan was king; its real purpose seems to be to give some context to how the Hyborian Age relates to real history, there's precious little in the essay of much relevance to anything Conan does. My last read of it, I was struck how its last half turns into a traditional narrative, with specific characters interacting to create a particular incident, not so much a historical survey.

  10. More re: world-building than Howard specifically, to my thinking the major difference between literary efforts and gaming efforts is that game worlds are, I think, best done as a group effort rather than the work of one person. More on that at my own blog.

    Recently saw a book "The decline & fall of the Cthuluhu mythos" and while I didn't get to read much of it I think author may have some interesting comments about the effect of other writers "adding" to Lovecraft's world. It is interesting that Lovecraft welcomed some collaboration, shunned other offers of "help", and the posthumous collaboration, well, let's let sleeping shogs lie.

  11. REH seems to have wrestled with a lot of the same issues of historical realism vs. creative play that RPG world-builders do. In 1933 REH wrote: "There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction. I wish I was able to devote the rest of my life to that kind of work... I could never make a living writing such things, though; the markets are too scanty, with requirements too narrow, and it takes me so long to complete one. I try to write as true to the actual facts as possible, at least, I try to commit as few errors as possible. I like to have my background and setting as accurate and realistic as I can, with my limited knowledge; if I twist facts too much, alter dates as some writers do, or present a character out of keeping with my impressions of the time and place, I lose my sense of reality, and my characters cease to be living and vital things; and my stories center entirely on my conceptions of my characters."

  12. On Tekumel's detail: It's my understanding that M.A.R. Barker has been detailing the world since his childhood in the 1930s. Though its original presentation for roleplaying did not encompass all that detail, I believe much of the detail was already there at that time. The best way to see the detail of Tekumel is the GameScience edition of Swords & Glory. It is printed on that tissue paper that bibles are printed on in two colums and a very small font. The detail is nothing short of incredible. You can find, for example, what people in a given region build their houses from! Anyway, I'd say Tekumel's detail easily rivals Tolkien's.

  13. MtbDM,

    It's true that Professor Barker has been developing Tékumel in various forms since he was a child. However, my point was not that his own private version of the setting was not as detailed as Tolkien's -- it may well be -- but rather that, as a setting for roleplaying purposes, the information presented in 1975's Empire of the Petal Throne is remarkably scant, particularly when compared to the later Swords & Glory material. A newcomer to Tékumel, who picks up EPT is, in my opinion, a lot less likely to be intimidated than one who picks up S&G, with its wealth of anthropological data about the peoples of Tékumel. That was my only point.

  14. First, my apologies for missing this when it was first posted; I'll pay more attention, in the future, as your posts are always worth reading.

    Much of the detaiked information which we now take for granted about Tekumel was very well developed by Prof. Barker as a setting for his fan fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. I've seen his hand-carved figures, made in the 1930s, his first map of Tsolyanu drawn while he was in high school in the 1940s, and we have copies of his 1950s history, 'tourist guide', grammar, and script of Tsolyanu in our collection. There is very little 'drift' between what he wrote originally as background setting for his fiction and what was published in the late 1970s and early 1980s as reference material for RPGs. The 'short history', as you noted in your original post, that was included in the TSR edition of EPT was edited down from a longer version that was in the original mimeographed 'playtest' version of the game. All of that edited material was included in the Gamescience "Sourcebook", and of course expanded upon in that volume.

    And, of course, we should always remember that the Professor grew up reading REH and H. P. Lovecraft as they were being published; I once had the great fun of taking the Professor out to see the first "Conan" movie, and hearing his comments on reading REH for the first time 'back in the day'...

  15. Ha!

    The comment you just made answers my comment, and you are indeed correct. From my recollection of the time, Gary Gygax asked that the introductory history be trimmed down for the very reason that you cite; he felt that so much history might intimidate the prospective player or GM, especially given that at that point in time (the spring of 1975), nobody really knew what would or would not work in an RPG.

  16. Gary Gygax asked that the introductory history be trimmed down for the very reason that you cite; he felt that so much history might intimidate the prospective player or GM...

    And I really think that is the point regarding world-building and gaming. What Barker, Tolkien, Howard, or anyone else does for purposes of story is a different matter than what works for a game setting.

    The original EPT is the only version of that game that made me feel as if I could run it without taking a degree in Tekumel Studies.

  17. The original EPT is the only version of that game that made me feel as if I could run it without taking a degree in Tekumel Studies.

    I feel much the same way and I've been a fan of Tékumel for a long time.