Friday, October 19, 2012

Conan: THe Frost-Giant's Daughter by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord

As I continue to go through my various graphic novels and other bits, I find myself looking at my Conan collection one more time before putting them into storage to free up room for various other projects around the apartment.

This volume, the first collection of the monthlies by Dark Horse comics, brought Conan back screaming into the comics field. While no small part of that is thanks to the writing chops of Kurt Busiek, let me be honest and say its Cary Nord's powerful artwork and the amazing coloring job they did on these first issues that brought fans of the genre flowing towards the comic.

I'll be discussing some of the specifics below so if you would avoid spoilers, read no further.

Kurt uses an old method of starting in the middle of the action. Conan comes across a woman just about to suffer some unspeakable horror from raiders when he decides to interfere. By doing this, it puts him firmly into the conflict. This is something that has happened to Usagi Yojimbo many a time. In a role playing game, if your players are even slightly motivated by stopping atrocities, this is an easy method to use.

They are leaving the bar in the middle of the night and hear a scream. Being the poor part of town they would be the only ones to react. What do they do? They are travelling between towns and come across a group of merchants suffering a goblin raid. What do they do. By starting where action is, you firmly put the ball into the player's lap. They have to do something. This is something used in written adventurers as well. The first book in the adventure path by Paizo has the players in a city that comes under attack by goblins. What do they do?

This being Conan though... well, the villagers he saves are grateful but the menfolk who return as Conan's done are a little suspicious of him. After all, he is a Cimmerian. What the hell is he doing so far away from his own people? Most games downplay the differences between cultures and have universal languages. This isn't necessarily a bad thing and playing the differences up too much can lead to its own problems. Having some cultural animosity that can be overcome by actions isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The other part about this being Conan though, is best to lock up the ladies! Conan quickly works his way into one of the village lass's.... er... hearts, but of course she already has a man. Jealous is a powerful motivational tool. When looking at the motivations of those that could be enemies in the campaign and looking for the why of it, jealous is a quick villain motivation.

Another part that follows here, is Conan's lack of experience in the world. He wants to see the Hyperboreans who his grand father described as being something akin to the elves of other fantasy games but turn out to be more like Melnibonians from Michael Moorcock's Elric series. His grand father never ran into them personally but had heard about them and passed that information down. This second hand information allows the Dungeon Master to put out some feelers and if the players don't bother to gather more information then whatever befalls them next is firmly on their shoulders.

In terms of the Hyperboreans themselves though, Kurt does a good job of bringing this ultra-high fantasy race into the otherwise grim and gritty sword and sorcery world of Conan. They are a race of near immortals powering their decadent society with the souls of the dead and using individuals like Conan, whose captured thanks to betrayal, into the arena to fight for their entertainment. Others are turned into monstrous albino hulks that are used to in turn capture further people.

The interesting thing about this volume though, and perhaps its because its the first one, is that Conan doesn't actually 'win' if you look at the big picture. While in many tales his wealth is lost in order to motivate him to keep adventuring, here his big 'win' if you will, is merely his escaping the Hyperboreans.

In some campaigns, the assumption is that if the players go there, they should win through. In some cases though, it should be clear that is not a real possibility and the best they can hope to do is emerge with some new knowledge and know to never go that way again.

Kurt's early work on Conan stands the test of time although the high magic within it may not be to every one's favor and the artwork of Cary Nord is brimming with violence and power. The visuals alone should be able to provide some inspiration if the whole trip of Hyperborean fails to do so.