Sunday, July 6, 2014

Savage Sword of Conan Volume Five

Just an FYI, I'm probably going to hit all the volumes of the Savage Sword of Conan compilations. I own the first six physically and all of them electronically. Dark Horse did a sale not too long ago on the whole bundle where you got the entire run for under $100 bones. Personally I'd rather have the physical copies, but due to the sheer size of the books, I stopped at volume six. Just no where to put them. As a matter of fact, as I've been reviewing them now, I've been putting them into a box to take to storage. Ah, if only I had massive wealth to spoil myself with a massive house with massive basement for physical storage of such products.

As in previous volumes, there are a plethora of artistic giants in this volume. Many of the tales are illustrated by the master of all things comic Conan, John Buscema, but we also have some by Kerry Gammill and Tony de Zuniga among others.

This is another massive volume that collects the Savage Sword of Conan, at least the Conan tales, from 49 to 60. It clocks in at 544 pages, but the last few are ads for various comics and busts and other bits of Conan miscellanea. Amazon has this one for under $15, clocking in at $14.96.

One of the longest tales, lasting several issues, is an adaptation of Conan the Liberator and a few more issues dedicated to Sword of Skelos. These were comics I read back in the Frank Fazetta cover days of Ace Publications. Well, let me amend that. I bought them second hand in the early eighties as I think the original covers were well before my time.

I know that historically that the add ons to the Conan mythos get a lot of flack but for my original reading? It fit like a glove and worked well. It keeps the whole series together up to the twelfth volume, at which point future volumes dropped the Fazetta covers and wandered all over the place despite having the same numbering. Like looking at my shelf, I can see The Sword of Skeleos is Volume 15.

In terms of inspiration, well, the art in black and white, is very powerful and very old school. It's also very ancient in terms of how it depicts everything. Most buildings appear to be rough cut from rock and barely made habitable. The time it takes people to learn things from afar is weeks, months, or never. Reputations may follow a character from town to town, but nation to nation? Perhaps...

For the cover? Dark Horse, in my opinion, dropped the ball here. If you flip it over, you see the back cover which has part of the cover where Conan has bloodied sword in one hand and crown in that other. It's very powerful and would've been a better choice for this volume.

Like many other compilations of Conan, the chronology only follows the current story. There's no guarantee that the next issue in the volume will continue on with that pattern. Instead it reads like some broken account of Conan's life but usually they'll preface it with something along the lines of, "And here's a tale from Conan's days as a XXXXX."

In terms of my bullet point lists?

1. The Wheel of Destiny is not kind: During the adaptation of Conan the Liberator, Conan suffers many setbacks and loses his army, yeah, an army of ten thousand strong, to traps and magic and spying and betrayal. It's a good look at how even someone as powerful, well known, and respected as Conan can suffer setback after setback and still move forward. If you're players are so sensitive to defeat and temporary setbacks, you have to ask yourself if that's the group for you.

Mind you, the game system has to take part of that blame too. For example, I've been playing a lot of Warhammer FRPG and I've mentioned that it's got a lot of swing in it's combat. I've mentioned that it's a little easier in second edition as opposed to first edition due to the use of Fortune Points. Part of that is counted because xp doesn't buy as much as it used to and the ultimate safety net of Fate points is still around.

If Conan were in Warhammer FRPG, he'd have burnt through several Fate points. For example, there is one scene where he's poisoned by Alcina, a 'wench' he picks up at a local tavern, and left for dead. Poisoned and left for dead. Only magic and a skilled healer manage to save him but it's a perfect example of Fate points in use in the comics medium.

But why mention that it's a matter of game system? Again, all my opinion here mind you. In basic, first, and second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, magic items didn't necessarily come by the level to assure that the players had power levels of X, Y, and Z. This built the expectation in 3rd and 4th that the characters have to have such items and means at their use. It was so ingrained that there were optional systems to strip the magic out by making the characters MORE inherently powerful. This is the expectation.

Mind you, in a group of friends and close acquaintances, you can do whatever you want, but if you don't let people know that expectations X, Y, and Z don't apply to your world, being captured and sold into slavery even if only for a brief time and stripped of their items, especially for say the Mages, as opposed to the Monks? Grumbling may be heard around the table.

2. Know Your Setting: One thing I didn't like about the whole Liberator thing? The full blown introduction of Satyrs as a race, harvested for their 'magical' blood. In say, the world of Elric, Corum, or any of the numerous Dungeons and Dragons setting, I would't have batted an eye. In the Conan setting? It jars. If you're skilled enough as a game master or have a group open enough not to care that much about cannon, then run with whatever you want. The interesting thing? I don't recall any reference to the Satyrs in any other Conan story, even those after his crown is achieved.

3. Big Stakes Big Risks: Conan notes that if he fails in his whole liberation thing, he's done. Too many people at this point have heard of Conan whose been everything from a general in several armies, to a pirate, to a leader of numerous bandit groups both in the desert and in the city. By taking up arms and leadership against a king, Conan is putting his name out there in such a big way that failure will result in him, even if he fails but survives, having no where to run when its over.

4. Flawed Villains: Right now I'm reading the first book in the Dragon King Saga by Stephen Lawhead, in the Halls of the Dragon King. One of the villains is actually laughing at his own evil plots. Oh the inhumanity of the cheese there. Here, we have several skilled villains in opposition to Conan but they are not perfect. For example, the assassin who tries to poison Conan didn't bother to check to see if he was dead? That assassin's master doesn't count on Conan's long history with magic and a trap designed to kill Conan fails. It's okay to have formidable foes, but make sure that they have their own failings.

5. Satisfying Conclusion: Now this could just be a result of where this adaption ends and that it takes off not into the life of King Conan, but the wizard whose working behind the throne, Thulandra Thuu, after several issues and attempts on Conan's life, runs away with magic. It's like if the players were using Teleportation to escape a battle and then next adventure was just into a completely random dungeon. "Man, glad we escape the lich and his minions. Oh well, into the dragon's lair!" It was entirely unsatisfying to me as a reader to see the build up of Conan and the gathering of his allies only to have the pinnacle fight end on, at best a draw.

6. Respectable Reputations: One of the reasons Conan is able to do so much as a general against a king, is that he has a reputation that stretches back decades at this point. Those in the army who may look at him and initially see 'a barbarian' then recall that oh yeah, this guy has done A, B, and C. It's said that he's fought against sorcerers many times so if he says there's something wrong in the pass up ahead, I'm not arguing with him. Having the Non-Player Characters respect the profession of the players and the reputation that they've built up in game is a great way to showcase the player's impact on the world. Sure, when they started off it may have been brawls in the tavern when someone questioned their competency, but now? People are listening to them and adjusting their own plans based on what the players are saying.

7. Crazy Town: In an old Warhammer FRPG adventure, I think it's Night at the Three Feathers, the characters are at an Inn and there are a random number of things that the characters can get involved in and it can be played several different ways and manners. In the Sorcerer and the Soul, adapted from Conan and the Sorcery by Andrew J. Offutt, Conan, after one of those bar brawls, is on a ledge and hears of a planned robbery of an item of great importance, the Eye of Erlick, and thinks to go ahead of them.

But as he leaves, he doesn't hear them change the time and date that they're going, and Conan runs into them, and other thieves as well. It makes for a nice chaotic mess and winds up more chaotic then initially thought possible for a 'simple' job. It also winds up with Conan tasting Fate's harsh lash again as he loses his soul to a wizard who then uses this leverage to get Conan to do his dirty work.  Try to mix it up when the players think that they have all the answers.

8. Non-Player Characters are people too: Conan is joined in his rebellion against the king by the king's own elite personal guard, the Black Dragons, because the King is insane and has sacrificed the captain's daughter to try and gain immortality but hey, no harm no foul right? Not quite. Giving NPC's family members that they will seek to avenge, their own passions and their own goals, allows the players to have more of an insight into the world and more options to interact with it. Allied with some henchmen and cast fireball into a crowd at market time and kill those henchmen's family members? Yeah... sleep with one eye open!

Again, while I know that black and white comics, and non-canonical tales of everyone's favorite barbarian aren't for everyone, the low price point, the massive page count, and the 'romp' of different eras and takes on Conan make it well worth reading.