Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Black Stranger and Other American Tales by Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard is best known for his sword and sorcery contributions including Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane. Each of which has had movies, comics, and other good stuff developed around them. Having said that, Robert E. Howard also contributed a lot to the horror genre. Mind you, things weren't quite so broken apart that Conan never experienced some horrific situations.

In many ways, the heroes of the horror tales, are more similar to August Derleth's tales in which there is opportunity to battle against the horrors as opposed to the original Cthulhu myths proper where well, even finding out about how insignificant you are was enough to send your pansy ass shrieking to the abyss.

I was lucky enough to pick up this volume, along with several others in the Bison Books reprints for cover price. Now the only two I don't have, that I'm aware of, are the Boxing Stories and Lord of Samarcand, both of which tend to veer up in price. Perhaps those two were limited, or even more limited printings. On the other hand, I've read most of Robert's work before thanks to the old Baen reprints way back in the day and the more recent Del Rey publications.

This volume, starting off with the Black Stranger, makes me smirk when it has "Other American Tales" on its cover because the Black Stranger is actually a Conan novella. I'll be discussing some specific spoilers below so if you'd rather not know specifics, read no further. Short review would be it's Robert E. Howard and unlike say Tolkien, Robert manages to put more story in a handful of pages, or at least more action, than Tolkien does in sixty.


1. Starting in the middle. As the tale opens, Conan, unnamed at this point, is in the middle of a dead run. His equipment stripped from him, his body ravaged by minor cuts and bruises, he is on the lamb from a legion of Pict enemies. When running your own campaigns, if you have enough trust and buy in from your players, don't be afraid to start in the middle. Have them roll dice for initative. Have them already be in the middle of the story.

2. The Human Foe: While there are supernatural entities here, Conan's main enemies are those who like himself, are reavers and pirates. He has to spend more time navigating the quickly turning truces he forges among the powers in the manor and pirate boats, then he does fighting against the Picts and the Black Stranger himself.

3. Treasure is Fleeting. In 3rd edition and onward, the game made some changes to how a character was assumed to be armed. In this volume, Conan boasts, "What are a handful of jewels to me, when all the loot of the southern seas will be mine for the grasping?" (pg. 76) It's a feature of the Sword and Sorcery genre often where after horrific odds and suffering and loss, the character gives up some or all of the meager treasures to others more in need of them. Mind you, it often doesn't matter to these characters because they are so self assured that more will be coming down the pipeline, they are free with the funds. In a game where the treasure is built into the balance, if the GM makes no effort to compensate for those level assumptions, either in allowing players to have more powers, abilities, statistics, hit points or something, then there is no reason why the players would do so. They will NEED that treasure by the book to survive.

Marchers of Valhalla, The Gods of Bal-Sagoth, and the Horror From the Mound, showcase another interesting facet of these older tales. That its okay to destroy cities, civilizations, and indeed, whole island if it serves the story. Marchers of Valhalla and The Gods of Bal-Sagoth have differences in the way their approach their methodology, but the end result is the same.

In your campaign, ahead of time, have those ancient and decaying civilizations whose glory is held on only by the thinnest of threads that can be snipped by the players if events work out that way. Having the players so equipped that thousands may live and die on their choices, gives them a much greater impact on the setting.

On the other hand, if you do as Robert E. Howard and others have done, and make these isolated civilizations, places that are difficult to find, places that are not normally easy to access, then while the players still have such an ability to impact that society, the overall campaign will only be minimally impacted.

Mind you, in today's society where you can travel sixty miles in an hour or less in a car, the spread of civilization in olden times might be so vastly different that no real mountain range or other magical needs of keeping civilizations separate from each other may need to apply. Distance itself may prove to be the solution.

Black Vulmea's Vengance hits a theme that Robert is good with. Throwing characters together that have no reason to trust each other outside of their mutual need for good sword arms and keen eyes. The initial 'heroes' hate each other due to the deeds each has performed against the other but by the time the novel ends, they at least have tolerance for one another. In role playing games, it can be difficult to have such a situation in terms of the players trusting each other.

On the other hand, if you have players who are okay with such back stories being woven, and they know ahead of time that if they can work things out for the good of, you know, actually playing the game as a team instead of breaking the party down loyalty lines, then it can be well worth doing so. In one of the Elric tales, when he is attacked by pirates, one of the pirates turns against his 'allies' and helps Elric overcome them. The two remain good friends until the typical Elric ally fate falls on that individual.

Another aspect of the old tales, at least by Robert E. Howard, is that equipment is transitent. This isn't to say there aren't fine and quality weapons out there. Even Conan is given a magic sword at one point in the old stories. But rather, by having the characters be more... self sufficient, the characters are the showcase of the story. In certain genres, such as the superhero one, this is far easier to do than in others, like Cyber Punk, where much of the game revolves around who has, or at least knowns how, to use their toys the best.

If looking for some short stories and novellas to get the images of action flowing, Robert E. Howar'ds The Black Stranger has a lot to offer.