Friday, October 19, 2012

Conan: Born on the Battlefield

Dark Horse comics has been publishing Conan comics for a while now. Not only have they done brand new stories, as well as stories based on Howard's original material, but also reprints of Marvel Comics own Conan stories as well as the stories of Conan from the magazine via the Savage Sword reprints.

In this volume, Born on the Battlefield, labeled 0, Kurt Busiek writes of Conan's youth with illustrations by Greg Ruth. Greg does a great job of illustrating Conan in his various stages of life. I've always been one who thinks more of Conan in his 'pantherish' style rather than the hulking style that is often incorporated into some of the icongraphy associated with Conan.

This volume itself is a nice collection as, like many of the Dark Horse collections, it not only has a great introduction, this time by Ed Brubaker, but has a nice set of additional materials including various sketches by Greg at the end of it. It's a bit of an odd task as Conan is a fairly well known character but it is not the first time Conan's early years and birthing even, have come under scrutiny. I'll be talking about some of the spoilers specific to the book below so if you don't want any information ruined for you, read no further.

First off, as a Dungeon Master, I am not that interested in starting backgrounds for some games. This may sound cold or callous but in a AD&D 1st or 2nd edition game, I'm not too worried about building in too much until the survivability factor comes into its own. If you're a first level wizard with four hit points, I don't need to see six pages of how and why you came to learn sleep and magic missile.

In more... I hate to say story driven games, because I've played plenty of D&D games where it wasn't about dungeon crawling at all, but in games like Hero or GURPS, even starting characters in those games, and others like them, tend to have a little better survivability factor and more reason to have a certain set of skills and a background story can flesh that out some.

As a player, the more complex the game system is without survivability, like Rolemaster, the less likely I'm going to invest any time into making a detailed background myself. For a convention character, I might whip a few paragraphs together if he's not starting past first level.

On good old, when the question of background comes up, there are some who prefer only what is revealed during actual game play. It makes the characters more organic and real to them. I can see that point.

I suspect that many Dungeon Masters fear that players try to build too much into their background. That player's are looking for that 'gimmie'. In some aspects, its not a goal without effort. While writing may come naturally to some people and like pulling teeth for others, it still involves some effort to write it down, to provide it in context of the setting, and to present it to the Dungeon Master. Is that worth a reward? Depends on how the DM is going to run the game and what the long term intentions are.

Anyway, most of Conan's background doesn't really lend itself too well to a RPG outside of the events of his birth where his mother is fighting on a battlefield, hence the title of the volume. Events like these can fall under an 'omens' table if you will.  The old Central Casting: Heroes of Legend provided a few different types of tables to roll on for these bits. Mind you though, there are differences between where your born and what happens when your born. The battlfield for example, is merely a location. Making the birthplace an unusual local isn't a bad thing mind you, but what if it'd been in a castle during a siege? What if it happened in jail or a brothel?

Adding other details like a twin tailed comet being visible to all on that night, or all the milk turning sour or the birth of farm animals with hideous mutations? That's an omen.

For much of the material, Conan's personality traits tend to emerge, but that would be somewhat difficult to mine for much outside of modeling a character directly on them.

However, the importance of Conan's grandfather is reinforced here. I say reinforced because while this is volume 0, it is certainly not the first in the actual printed publication and Conan's grandfather has been referenced as the one who helped instill the wanderlust in Conan.

This bit of background building, of relatives who help mold the character, are useful in a few ways. It allows the player to claim to have some knowledge of X, but that knowledge of X is coming from a third party, is coming from a perspective that's some odd twenty to thirty years off, and may be embellished to provide entertainment. This can easily smooth over any differences between what the player thinks he knows and what the setting actually is.

Perhaps more importantly, Conan's grandfather dies at the end of this volume. While that may sound harsh, it does allow Conan to go wandering without too many ties left to his home country.

For gaming purposes, Brita's Vale from its initial description alone makes a worth addition to a setting, "Dark forces seep from the blood-soaked ground. The vale attracts wizards, madmen who feast on human flesh, and worse they say." Now many game settings already have such a location as the Battle of the Bones in the Forgotten Realms, but its good to have a spot where the fields of the dead are stacked high and strange things wander.

The closer one gets to such a location, the more things can be of the 'other'. In this comic for instance, Conan dreams of a panther he has slain providing him with dire omens. When he gets to the vale itself, breathing in the dust of the dead provides him with visions of how the fighting went. In the midst of that he is forced to fight for his life against a cannibal and sees a bone-witch who appeared in other comics that series wise, take place later, although again, the printing chronology make that reversed in when the reader initially saw them.

Having such a location allows the setting to have graveyards that aren't man made but yet, are visited by men. In settings that are soaked in superstition, many sword and sorcery ones for example, the Game Master can run counter to those traditions and have it be where individuals meet to discuss various business matters as normal people stay away from these 'haunted ruins'. It could also be a place where survivors of the wars come yearly to pay their respects to the dead. It could also be a place where certain items have been rumored to be lost ever since the original conflict.

One 'moral' lesson of this series though, is an old one; No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Conan, as a youth, sees strangers coming to his homeland, a wizard and her daughter. The daughter grows up even as Conan does and the two becomes lovers. While playing, the daughter falls into a field and startles a bull. Conan leaping in to save her winds up putting the strange girl in front of his fellow villagers and that in turn brings her wizard father. The two sides do not see things eye to eye and soon the civilized lands know of the value of ore and other valuables in Conan's home.

That in and of itself leads to a war where Conan takes a place among the men and the end result? The girl and her father are dead. Not at Conan's hand mind you, but the end result is still the same. The very thing Conan sought to prevent, the death of the girl, comes about in a long drawn out way that costs many their lives on both sides, because Conan tried to do the right thing. Are there events and elements in your own setting that can trigger a negative? Something that should be done for the greater good but isn't because the current cost of doing that would be too high?

The destruction of the invaders and their fort though, follows another example of one of Howard's themes that barbarism is the natural state of the world and that it will sweep away civilization.

Born on the Battlefield is an interesting take on Conan's early years. It makes him a little "too" much in my opinion as he's always killed various animals, experienced the supernatural and taken part in a war, well before leaving the homeland, but at least its not so far out there that future adventures he has are reduced to repetition or lesser actions. If you're interested in seeing how Kurt Busiek, known his his initial tenure on the story, The Frost Giant's Daughter, back in 2005, this is a good volume to pick up.