A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of — Part One

Thursday, August 6th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Conan-Adventures-in-an-Age-Undreamed-Of RPG-small

That title is probably the last time, in this article, that I’m going to refer to this game with all those words. It was important to get it right, the first time, but usually I just call it Conan 2d20.

Because that’s what it is: it is playing a Conan game by using Jay Little’s 2d20 engine or mechanic, which he designed for Modiphius. There are other Conan RPGs out there, all of them, of course, out of print: an “original” TSR Conan RPG (I’ve never had the experience), a GURPS version (I only just learned about this one, and I’ve never played GURPS — the Hero System was my game of choice during the “universal system” era), and Mongoose’s d20 version (which I did play, at GaryCon one year, and it was a delight!). Outside of RPGs designed — or modified — specifically to accommodate a Conan vibe and setting, there are a number of options ranging from d20 derivations from Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea to Low Fantasy Gaming to Crypts & Things to Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells to “other system” derivations such as Savage Worlds to RuneQuest to Barbarians of Lemuria to many others that I’m either forgetting or about which I simply don’t know. Of these other games, when I make an argument that Conan 2d20 is my most favorite system for accurately emulating Conan pulp fiction, I should make clear that I have not played all of them, though I have read (and even played) most of those listed above.

Getting into Conan 2d20, for the casual gamer, or for the merely curious, demands a fair amount of cognitive load. This is because, I believe, the system is so innovative — and those innovations are precisely what makes this a Conan game. I have encountered many anecdotes of gamers and consumers gleefully obtaining this gorgeous hardcover tome (or PDF), riffling through it, saying, “Huh?” then setting it aside with a “Sorry, not for me, but the art is pretty, and this still makes a good resource.” This describes my own initial reception, as I was losing my mind to higher Levels of play in Pathfinder and, with immense relief, was going “old school” by picking up Swords & Wizardry. But I kept sneaking glances at Conan 2d20 and thinking “what if?” Bob Byrne and I tried to do something via Play by Post. In my home group, a year or so later, I got a 1e enthusiast to start running for my casual players so that I could give 2d20 a go with two seasoned players. But then, after I had successfully run two adventures, the pandemic hit, and these two players weren’t interested in online play.

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Rogue Blades Presents: Howard Days 2020

Friday, June 26th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

gateMost readers of Black Gate are probably already aware, but for those who are not, Robert E. Howard Days has been a major annual event for the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, since 1986. The gathering, including an annual dinner and festival and much more, has celebrated the life and writings of Robert E. Howard, the godfather of Sword and Sorcery literature and the creator of such fictional characters as Conan the Cimmerian, King Kull, the boxing sailor Steve Costigan, and many others. Yes, all of this has gone on in June for more than three decades.

Until this year.

As one might expect, because of the Coronavirus, Howard Days did not take place in 2020.

How sad.

But understandable.

Still, I had the great fortune to attend Robert E. Howard Days in 2018. I had planned to visit again in 2020, but … well, we all know what happened.

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Weird Tales Deep Read: October 1934

Sunday, June 14th, 2020 | Posted by John Miller

Weird Tales October 1934-small

Cover by Margaret Brundage

This third installment of the Weird Tales deep read covers the eleven stories in the October 1934 issue, including the first Jirel of Joiry story by C. L. Moore. Her flame didn’t burn as long in the Unique Magazine as the Lovecraft-Howard-Smith trinity’s did, but it did burn as brightly. Moore had sixteen stories in Weird Tales between 1933-1939, twelve in an incredible burst of creativity in the years 1934-1936.

This issue had three stories set in the U.S. (27%) and one each in France, Hyperborea, the U. K., Hyboria, Africa, Serbia, Italy, and an unknown locale (9%). Six had a contemporary setting (55%) and five were set in the past (45%). All in all a decent issue, with the stories averaging 2.27, the score being dragged down by some of the shorter pieces, which were largely undistinguished.

Notable authors include Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, with one of his longest and most ambitious stories, the aforementioned C. L. Moore, and fairly reliable veterans Paul Ernst and H. Bedford-Jones, and Manly Wade Wellman. The Ernst and Eadie offerings could be considered science fiction, the rest fantasy.

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Weird Tales Deep Read: March, 1933

Friday, May 22nd, 2020 | Posted by John Miller

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Weird Tales, March 1933. Cover by Margaret Brundage

This installment of the deep read of the Unique Magazine examines the nine stories in the March, 1933 issue of Weird Tales. We see some familiar names from the previous column: Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Harold Ward, as well as a couple who might be familiar to fans of pulp fiction, Otis Aldebert Kline and Paul Ernst. Kline is probably best known for his imitation Edgar Rice Burroughs planetary adventure novels. He was also Robert E. Howard’s literary agent for awhile, which will no doubt come up for discussion at the appropriate time. Paul Ernst was a rather prolific pulpster, possibly remembered mostly today for writing the Avenger hero pulps, but he was also a frequent contributor to Weird Tales.

Some stats for this issue before we get to the individual stories, then a few comments on some of this issue’s offerings. Locations: US (4/9; 44%), fictional realms (2/9: 22%), Venus, UK, France, Tibet (all 1/9: 11%). Contemporary setting: 6/9; 67%). Past: (2/9; 22%), Future: (1/9; 11%). Four of these stories (44%) are part of a series: Quinn, Howard, Kline, and Smith.

Seabury Quinn [Jules de Grandin] (2) “Thing in the Fog, The” [US, PA, Harrisonville, fictional town; Contemporary] Occultist de Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge literally run into a man on the street being attacked by a werewolf. He’s only injured but his companion is killed by the creature. They soon learn that his future wife was once the werewolf’s fiancee and that he’d initiated into his clan. After the wedding, the bride is again transformed into a wolf by a potion given her anonymously by her werewolf ex, but she attacks him while both are in their canid forms, giving de Grandin the opportunity to deliver a fatal shot. De Grandin then releases her from her curse by using an incantation in the form of a prayer. [Medical doctor. Occultist. Occult being, werewolf. Death by occult being, werewolf. Love triangle. Magic potion. Werewolf transformation by magic potion. Magic incantation, prayer]

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Rogue Blades Author: How Robert E. Howard (and Glenn Lord) Changed My Life

Friday, May 15th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

The following is an an excerpt from Roy Thomas’ essay for the upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life.

I’ve told this story so many time by now that I figure everybody who would want to know it is tired of it already, but I can’t make up new facts just because I have to write a new article, can I? Well, maybe there’ll be a few twists in my tale this time, because I want to tell it a little bit more from the angle of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) and Glenn Lord (1931-2011).

Robert E. Howard came first, but just barely.

I had, to the best of my memory, never heard of Robert E. Howard — or of Conan or any of the other Howard characters — when the Lancer Books paperback Conan the Adventurer appeared on the racks in 1966, some months after I started working for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics. Well, truth to tell, he was mentioned in a couple of paragraphs in my fan/friend Richard A. Lupoff’s 1965 book Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventures as one of the literary heroes inspired, at least in part, by Tarzan of the Apes… but that part of Dick’s study slipped right past me, leaving no imprint on my mind. When I saw the first Conan paperback, my eyes were drawn — as they were meant to be — by Frank Frazetta’s stunningly savage cover. I bought that book as I’d been buying others of an ERB ilk, pastiches of Burroughs by Otis Adelbert Kline, Gardner Fox, Lin Carter, whomever. I didn’t always actually read those pastiches, but I kept a little collection of them on a shelf in my apartment. One day I might get around to them.

castle of blood brunner the bounty hunter Rage of the Behemoth

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John Bullard on Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River”

Sunday, March 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Beyond the Black River-smallKeith West dropped me a note this week to alert me to the publication of an intriguing 3-part article on his blog Adventures Fantastic.

“Beyond the Black River”: Is it Really “Beyond the Brazos River”? was written by Robert E. Howard scholar John Bullard, who’s been editing Howard’s correspondence for the next edition of his collected letters. The article examines Howard’s influences when writing the classic Conan tale “Beyond the Black River,” and particularly how he drew from a famous incident in Texas history to create the ending.

I’m not a Howard scholar myself, and generally leave these debates on Howard’s sources to the experts, but Bullard’s piece weaves together fascinating tidbits from letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Carl Jacobi, and others, plus an interview with Novalyne Price Ellis, to make a compelling case for his theory. Just as interesting to me was the intimate glimpse into Howard’s creative process, and his close friendships with his fellow pulp writers. Here’s a sample:

Robert E. Howard’s Conan story, “Beyond the Black River” is considered to be one of his best stories by his fans. It tells of an attack by Howard’s favorite historical peoples, the Picts, against the encroaching colonization of the Aquilonians on the Picts’ deeply forested land between the Thunder River to the East, and the Black River to the west in his fictional Hyborian world setting…

Howard’s recounting of Texas history and characters enthralled his pen pals, and in several of the surviving letters, they encouraged him to write about this history in his fiction…. Yet, prior to the second half of 1934, Howard was unsure of how to incorporate his knowledge of the settling of the Texas frontier into his stories….

Yet sometime after writing the letter to Jacobi, Howard seems to have had a breakthrough in how to incorporate his knowledge of Texas history into his stories and began writing what is generally considered to be one of his finest stories sometime during the Summer or possibly early Fall of 1934… In a December 1934 letter to Lovecraft, Howard wrote:

“My latest sales to Weird Tales have been a two-part Conan serial: “Beyond the Black River” — a frontier story; …in the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely — abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen. Some day I’m going to try my hand at a longer yarn of the same style, a serial of four or five parts.”(Lovecraft, Dec. 1934)

We’ve discussed “Beyond the Black River,” and its importance to the modern fantasy canon, previously at Black Gate. Recent coverage includes:

Hither Came Conan: Keith West on “Beyond the Black River”
Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Beyond the Black River”

Read John Bullard’s complete 3-part article at Adventures Fantastic, starting here.


Rogue Blades author: Robert E. Howard, Conan and Me

Friday, March 20th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeBelow is an excerpt from author John C. Hocking’s essay for the upcoming book, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, from publisher Rogue Blades Foundation.

I was a precocious reader.  By the time I was seven years old, guided by the taste of my father, I was reading Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E.R. Burroughs, E.E. Smith, and Lester Dent’s Doc Savage stories.  Around this time my father, an art and history teacher, a martial artist and collector of swords, became a little frustrated that my mother was less than keen to accompany him to see a new, supposedly pretty hardboiled, Western movie called A Fistful of Dollars, so he took me.

In addition to thrusting upon my youthful eyes an unimagined example of cinematic style, the film presented a powerful vision of a highly qualified good and a frighteningly believable evil in stark conflict beyond anything I’d encountered before.  Every aspect of the movie resonated with me, but the depiction of fearsome, believably dangerous villains being faced down by a hero who was actually dangerous enough to confront and destroy them instantly made most of the reading, TV and movies I’d known seem somehow inadequate, even false.

Then, in the summer of 1967, my Dad brought me a copy of Lancer’s Conan the Adventurer.  The Frazetta cover promised much, but I read the first story in that collection, Robert E. Howard’s “The People of the Black Circle,” on a quiet sunny morning and it blew my little mind.

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The Illustrated Safari

Sunday, January 26th, 2020 | Posted by Milton Davis

Changa and the Jade Obelisk cover-small

Cover for Changa and the Jade Obelisk #1

Changa’s Safari began in 1986 as a concept inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan. I wanted to create a heroic character with all the power and action of the brooding Cimmerian but based on African history, culture and tradition. Although the idea came early, the actual execution didn’t begin until 2005, when I decided to take the plunge into writing and publishing. During its creation I had the great fortune to meet and become friends with Charles R. Saunders, whose similar inspiration by Howard led to the creation of the iconic Imaro. What was planned to be a short story became a five-volume collection of tales that ended a few years ago with Son of Mfumu.

I had always seen Changa’s story as a visual experience. When I began writing the first story I imagined Michael Clarke Duncan as Changa, the Indian Ocean with his crew from adventure to adventure. After Duncan passed away; I settled on Michael Jai White as a worthy replacement for my hero. Having Changa travel the world for his various adventures was also part of the visual experience. It was my hope to one day see it all take place on the silver screen.

A few years ago I embarked a project to make Changa’s Safari an animated series, a project that is still in development. But recently I imagined Changa as a comic book series. I still had a strong desire to see Changa visually, and I felt that the comic book medium would be the fastest way to do so. The comic book would also serve as storyboards for a possible movie, if the opportunity ever came up.

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately: January 2020

Monday, January 20th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Garrett_SweetsilverEDITED“Say, Bob, it’s been an ENTIRE month since you told us what you’ve been reading lately. The suspense is keeping me up at night.” OK – so nobody said that to me. I’ll tell you some of the stuff I’ve taken off of the shelves lately, anyways.

GLEN COOK – SWEET SILVER BLUES

I’ve already written about Glen Cook’s terrific hardboiled, fantasy PI series featuring Garrett. It combines Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolfe, and Terry Pratchett in a terrific fashion. I have a hard time imagining a better series. I’ve talked to a couple fellow Black Gaters about a round-robin look at several books in the series: So many ideas, so little time.

I’m working on this essay on Sunday evening, mere hours ahead of deadline, because I spent a couple hours yesterday re-reading book one, Sweet Silver Blues, instead of sitting at the keyboard and writing. I like it quite a bit, but it’s in book two, Bitter Gold Hearts, that the series really settles in. I’ve read most of the series at least twice before over the years. A few of my friends didn’t care for 2013’s Wicked Bronze Ambition, the last (but hopefully not final) book. It’s definitely not one of my favorites, but it’s still Garrett, and I hope there will be at least one more.

This is one of my favorite series’ in both the fantasy and private eye genres. HIGHLY recommended. And I’m also a huge fan of Cook’s The Black Company, which is light years away in tone and style. He’s simply a very good writer. Black Gate buddy Fletcher Vredenburgh did a fantastic walk-through of the entire series last year.

JOHN D MACDONALD

John MacD has been my favorite author for about three decades now. I enjoy his standalones, his short stories, and his Travis McGee books. I’ve written about him several times, and if all I did was write for Black Gate (sadly, I need to pay my bills and other such nonsense), you’d be reading a LOT about him here.

Earlier this month, after holding off for over twenty-five years, I finally watched the 1970 adaptation of Darker ThanAmber, with Rod Taylor as Travis McGee. Then, I went and re-read the book over the next couple of days. Taylor grew on me as the movie progressed, and they followed the book fairly faithfully. The final fight scene between McGee and Terry was really something to see.

I think this is a better version of a McGee novel than the 1983 film starring Sam Elliot (why in the world would you transplant McGee to California?!).

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Hither Came Conan: Gabe Dybing on “The People of the Black Circle”

Monday, July 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Black_Circle

Fellow Black Gater Gabe Dybing loaded his entry directly into the website and it fell off my radar. My fault. HERE is the final entry in our Hither Came Conan series, as he tackles “The People of the Black Circle,” which I’ve always felt, story-wise, was one of REH’s more unique Conan tales. Read on! 

Robert E. Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle,” first published in the September, October and November 1934 issues of Weird Tales, contains all of the elements that, in retrospect, entail an ultimate Conan tale. As an exemplar of what was to become known as the Sword & Sorcery subgenre of fantasy literature, “Black Circle” exhibits Conan as a swordsmen at the height of his career in brigandry: the tale commences with Conan negotiating for the release of seven of his hillmen chieftains who are being held by the Devi of Vendhya for ransom or execution.

But Conan has not lost any of his more youthful thiefly abilities; his introduction in this story has him climbing through a window after sneaking over a barbican and single-handedly dispatching of the guards there. The “sorcery” portion of the Sword & Sorcery subgenre is supplied here by not just one but by an entire Circle of magic-users. Most notable of these are Khemsa (who even is a perspective character!) and the Master of Yimsha, who ultimately is the chief adversary of the novella. To further exemplify the Sword & Sorcery genre, the narrative contains ample doses of the weird—monstrous antagonists, an adventure locale worthy of a Dungeons & Dragons module, and even one secret passage! But that’s not all!

Other Conan stories contain these things, too, but this story is the very best Conan story because it has what no other does — the Devi of Vendhya. “Black Circle” exhibits all the things that we love about Conan, but, unlike any other, it also details the making of a lover and a heroine to complement Conan in every way.

What? Isn’t that heroine supposed to be Red Sonja (to confuse the Conan “canon”) or one of Conan’s two great “loves” (Belit or Zenobia)? Perhaps, perhaps not. Conan had many women throughout his varied careers, and if he never came to actually “love” Yasmina, the Devi of Vendhya, then he at least recognized in her, at the end of this tale, all of the qualities that he most valued in a woman. A major aspect of “Black Circle” is just who Conan is at this time of his life and what characteristics could counterbalance this hero as a satisfying lover, if not a full mate. Through her experiences in this tale, Yasmina transforms — at least in Conan’s eyes — from an artificial and unattainable Devi into a true “elemental” woman of passion and desire.

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