I, like many folk of my age, category, and interest set, have many fond memories of Waldenbooks. I mean, as a kid there were basically two things you could be guaranteed were fun at any U.S. mall: Kay-Bee Toys and Waldenbooks. They were two oases in a desert of clothes outlets and anchor stores that your mother dragged you to on far too many occasions. Still, being able to go to those two stores somehow made it all worthwhile and I weep for the youth of today (and myself for that matter) that malls have now become all clothing & eateries, as both those wonderful chains are gone forever.
Yet I digress, as I’m writing today to speak a bit about a book I well remember purchasing at Waldenbooks back in probably 1987 (although the book’s production date is 1985). This gaming campaign setting, Lankhmar: City of Adventure, was produced by TSR after it acquired the license to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser universe and it does an admirable job detailing the base game mechanics for driving a square peg (Swords & Sorcery) into a round hole (Dungeons & Dragons).
I was too young at the time to properly see this problem and simply enjoyed the game for what it was, another cool setting to have my characters visit (and more importantly steal Nehwon Throwing Daggers, which did 1D6 damage instead of the 1D4 of normal D&D daggers). This was also one of the more interesting cities designed by TSR, in that it is not only huge, but it has a series of square ‘blocks’ that are empty in the map and can be filled in by the DM to customize the city to your personal campaign.
Still, as I look at this large 95-page supplement today, I’m saddened by the thought of what could have been if this kind of development and money had been focused in the right direction. To me, Lankhmar falls well short of the mark because the world of Leiber is inherently NOT D&D, and therefore trying to statistically recreate Fafhrd & Mouser, or anyone or anything else in that universe, is going to fall dramatically short. It is for the same reason that Pete Fenlon developed Rolemaster, and thereafter Middle-Earth Role-playing, because he couldn’t play the world of Tolkien using the table-top mechanics of Gygax’s gaming opus, D&D.
The same can be said for the artwork of this book. Although it is covered by the great Keith Parkinson and fully illustrated by Jeff Easley, the two artists are intrinsically D&D in their design and style, and they fail miserably to bring classic pulp swords & sorcery to life in this book.
When you think Lankhmar, you should being seeing lithe rakes and muscled barbarians with half-naked women at their sides. It is the realm of Frazetta, Boris, or Kelly, and as good as Parkinson is, his cover might as well have been on a random Dragon Magazine as on this supplement, meant to depict such a lush and pulp-filled world. Now, hiring Frazetta might offend a large group of mothers and tank your product sales, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t the ‘right’ thing to do when honoring a license.
Easley is no better because by this point he is… well EASLEY! His work is also rushed, static, and uninspired, as though doing black and white illustration (which he’d begun with such flare in The Red Box or The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth) wasn’t in his job description anymore.
I blame this not on Jeff’s talent or mindset, but simply on his overuse in ‘the pit’ for whatever project needed done ASAP, as well as the fact that by this point he was D&D and all his work reflects that game.
All said, TSR’s Lankhmar: City of Adventure is really more Greenwood’s Waterdeep than Leiber’s Swords & Sorcery classic, and that should make all gamers sad. Sure, someone with epic knowledge of the fiction could correct the feel through role-play and description, but you’d still have to look at that Parkinson cover and try to negotiate exactly how Mouser was a 3rd level magic-user, and in the end be spoiled by it all.
I hope that someday this setting gets a reboot that doesn’t reflect the current style of gaming art, but instead creates a throwback homage to both art and mechanics, but only time will tell if that ever occurs.
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