Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Still the best campaign setting

I’m slowly reading all of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar cycle. It’s something that I should have done a long time ago, but I only managed to track the books last year (in this case, the Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterwork Omnibus editions). Last week I read Adept’s Gambit, probably Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s weirdest tale as it takes place on Earth, in Seleucid ruled Tyre. It’s a real change of pace to their most common’s stories but it’s an excellent one, filled with its own unique flavor and good times (and probably the best portrayal of Ninguable of the Seven Eyes).

Adept’s Gambit is likely an earlier incarnation of the famous characters – maybe written originally as adventurers of the real world’s Antiquity, traveling through the ruins of Alexander’s fragmented empire. I don’t know. It’s the first story of the Twain written by Leiber and it carries a strange mix of Lovecraftian horror (or references to it) mingled with Leiber’s  clever dark humor.

It’s hinted in the tale that, thanks to their wizardly patron, Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser could be (or had been) sent to adventure in the future or past ages; so one could argue that Leiber was thinking on the possibilities of future stories set – maybe – during the Medieval Age or even the Renaissance.

Anyway, that’s not point of this post. THIS is the point – for me – of Adept’s Gambit:

Had it ended here, two weeks would have seen Fafhrd claiming that the incident of the wine shop was merely  a drunken dream that had been  dreamed by more than one – a kind of coincidence with which he was by no means unfamiliar. But it did not. After the ‘business’ (which turned out to be much more complicated than had been anticipated, evolving from a simple affair of Sidonian smugglers into a glittering intrigue studded with Cilician pirates, a kidnapped Cappadocian princess, a forged letter of credit on a Syracusan financier, a bargain with a female Cyprian slave-dealer, rendezvous that into an ambush, some priceless tomb-filched Egyptian jewels that no one ever saw, and a band of Idumean brigands who came galloping out of the desert to upset everyone’s calculations)…

The incident mentioned above is a strange curse whereby any unfortunate lady kissed by Fafhrd was polymorphed into a swine. There’re also funny remarks to similar curses “in the annals of magic and thaumaturgy” about an “…Assyrian warlord whose paramour was changed into a spider between the sheets, an a impetuous Ethiop who found himself hoisted several yards into the air and kissing a giraffe…”.

This richness of references to some of the various cultures that existed at the time; that meet and traded in that region of the Mediterranean is – for me – incredibly fascinating. It reminds me of the potential for weird and heroic adventures – in the best D&D style – that can so easily be ported to our Earth without the (each time harder) prospect of creating analog/mixed cultures that are there just to mask some cool legend or myth from our own world.

Of course, Leiber could easily have swapped the names, like most fantasy authors (and he eventually does that with his future stories), replacing, for example, our ‘impetuous Ethiop’ with ‘impetuous Kleshite’, but he kept that tale’s setting in our old real world. He not only kept it, but he made Seleucid Tyre cool – an a perfect place for adventure.

The thing is that our world’s history (and legends, folklores etc.) is a lot more exciting and interesting than most fantasy settings out there. It’s ironic that few authors (both of literature and RPG books) manage to transmit how easy and user-friendly our ancient Earth can be for fantasy campaigns.

The most common barrier mentioned is that Earth’s history and myth are just too detailed and extensive for the common Gamemaster to use. This is the same bullshit that people keep saying for running away of settings like Middle-Earth and Tekumel.

The second reason is the natural fear of every Gamemaster of looking unprepared in the face of his players. Using old Tyre (or Byzantium, or Rome etc.) can be daunting if one of the players at the table has a History Major (with a specialization on the Alexandrian Era!) or is a History hobbyist. Again, the argument is balderdash. I have players that know a lot more of Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance than I do, but when I’m running my campaigns in these settings they are my Faerun and my Krynn – and I let that quite clear to my players (before the game starts; as this is also important). It’s a part of the social contract at my table. This same rule should hold for Earth-based campaigns.

Finally, the argument that there is simply “too much stuff to read” should be actually taken on reverse: as a bonus! – you have tons of “free scenario supplements”. Take the elements that you need for your game and kick the rest out. The key here is explaining that to your players. You’re not giving a History class – especially if you’re using Circe-like curses on Tyrian taverns; you’re just running a game. While approaching these games it’s important to establish to your group that you’re not aiming for accuracy, but for flavor (although nothing really forbids your group from creating a campaign with a level of detail and minutiae like The Name of the Rose).

A good place to start – at least for me – is with the famous GURPS supplements (like GURPS Middle Ages), the AD&D 2nd Edition “green” books (like A Mighty Fortress) and the excellent Military History Books of Osprey Publishing. All of these aren’t probably totally accurate (most “serious” History books aren’t), but they are easy to read and have tons of good information for a Gamemaster starting a Historical game.

Going back to the “seek the flavor, not the facts” part, Adept’s Gambit is (again) a wonderful example of real places and ‘historical’ myths mixed with a lot of sword & sorcery tropes – like the Twain’s encounter with Ninguable in his multidimensional cave and their quests for items like Socrates’ Cup and the powdered mummy of the Demon Pharaoh. There are even Viking-like references to Odin, something that may be a little too early for Seleucid Tyre (though this is pure a guess of mine).

Leiber reminds us that creating new stuff even for our old Earth’s mythos can be as fun as elaborating pantheons for far fantasy worlds. Take this expert (also from Adept’s):

After Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser emerged from the Bottomless Caves into the blinding upper sunlight, their trial for a space becomes dim. Material relating to them has, on the whole, been scanted by annalists, since they were heroes too disreputable for classic myth, too cryptically independent ever to let themselves be tied to a folk, to shifty and improbable in their adventurings to please the historian, too often involved with a riffraff of dubious demons, unfrocked sorcerors, and discredited deities – a veritable underworld of the supernatural.

If there’s any orderly way of summarizing what I’m trying to say with this post, it’s idea expressed by the words above. [Damn!, just by reading them I want to create an entire campaign on Earth where the heroes are low-lives of the “supernatural underworld”, dealing with all kind of weird and left-out deities and spirits that live at the borders of classic myths. Perfect for a grim-n-gritty sword & sorcery game mixed with History.]