Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Savage Sword of Conan Volume One

As I'm going through my books, some reorganized, some being boxed up in case I have to move, one of the series I've gone through again and again, is the black and white compilations of the old Savage Sword of Conan reprinted by Dark Horse Comics. At a cover price of something like $17.95 when I bought it, probably cheaper through Amazon, you would be hard pressed to find a better visual deal.

When I say visual, I mean that it has a lot of well known comic artists ranging from Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Walter Simonson and others. The cover itself is an old Boris image and probably not one of his better ones. While the background and skeletons and material look fantastic, Conan himself looks like he has some intenstinal problems and the lady looks like she's just turned her head to avoid seeing something.

But the stories inside also contain a wealth of inspiration both visual and written. Some of it drawing on Robert E. Howard's original material but much of it new. Well, new at the time eh?

So what could a role playing GM take from it?

Atali: In the first story, one I believe reprinted from the comic proper, and one done up by the master himself, Conan meets Atali, the First born of Ymir, the Frost Gian't daughter. While she has no combat role in the encounter, she does lead Conan into an ambush and is whisked away from trouble by her father before Conan can have his way with her. Seemingly innocent people leading characters into ambushes is an old favorite of Robert E. Howard and he's used it in many situations. In some instances, the person leading the ambush doesn't even have to be 'innocent' looking but may have something that the players need.

Red Nails is the next story up. It showcases Conan and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood against a decadent city of savages who've fallen from their once timeless strengths. Some try to sacrifice Valeria for the promise of everlasting youth. Some Conan because he's simply too dangerous to keep around. There is an ancient item that in D&D would act as a wand of disintegration or something along those levels. The war between the internal factions also makes a good set up for a good 'hex crawl'.

Another bit here is the fate of the horses. The characters aren't in visual range of their horses, but they hear something happening to them. "Horses in terror and agony and mingled with their screams, the snap of splintering bones." It also showcases that in isolated regions, some strange monsters may pop up as Conan winds up fighting a dinosaur in this far off region.

Among the old adages here, Conan comes into contact with more treasure that he could ever possess or take back. "Precious jade? Surely not in such quantities!" The walls themselves are covered with it. If as a GM you put in vast decorative wealth, don't be surprised if the player's try to steal it. On the other hand, it is a common trope in Sword and Sorcery settings.

In another yarn, The Secret of Skull River, the inhabitants of a small town are poisoned, turning into horrid mutant things suffering from boils and a leprous appearance. This is a byproduct of magic being done at a nearby tower. In addition to the poisoning effects, the wizard has turned brothers into what can be described as either hill giants or ogres. This method allows the GM to put some monsters that might not fit into a standard Sword & Sorcery campaign by using magic to turn normal people into limited monsters that may never show up again but can fit the bill at the time. One interesting twist here, is that Conan winds up befriending one of the giants, Grandall, who only seeks to be human again.

This isn't necessarily another 'standard' but even in some of the old fantasy video games, when you beat an enemy, you can 'befriend' that enemy or use them in your party. The GM can set up the character to have a 'health bar' that resets on the players side if the players beat the monsters but do so in a way that brings the monster to their side. This can be as simple as communicating with it, some odd ritual if they need the monster or something else that fits he campaign.

Curse of the Undead-Man starts off in a manner that some games can use. For example, if your players have been like mine, at times they may have too much freedom. They may be pondering things to do. They may be debating and discussing and the game may not get started for hours. That's when you bring the game to them. Curse starts off with Conan merely walking down the street and having first one group running into him seeking to escape from some pursuers, and then another group, this one armed and waiting to deal death, seek them out and in doing so, run into Conan. It also brings in Red Sonja, who at this point, we've not seen as readers before, but knows Conan. The recurring NPC or the 'guest player' make a good fit here.

Black Colossus is a story I've covered in a different post. This one is a single issue as opposed to the five issues that Dark Horse took to tell it in the graphic novel. This one benefits tremendously from John Buscema's art in its showcasing of 'cyclopean blocks and shattered stone images amid the sheer breath taking sweep of the naked desert beyond." It also brings in the hand of the "railroad" in that a princess in dire need seeks wisdom from the temple and her god Mitra bids her "Go you forth alone upon the streets of your capital and place your kingdom in the hands of the first man you meet there." Who of course turns out to be Conan. Another example of the story coming to the characters.

A Witch Shall Be Born has a few goodies to yank. The first being 'the evil twin'. The second being 'the mark'. Mind you in this case the evil twin has the mark so it's one and the same here. In other settings though, having a birth mark of a certain type can put the characters in a position of notoriety or fame. The evil twin can have many implications. For example, if the players are new in town, they may be mistaken for someone else. They may be the 'evil' twin so to speak.

The Savage Sword of Conan has many unique monsters with great visuals. The black and white ink work showcases the Cimmerian age well.