D.M. Ritzlin on the Ten Greatest Sword-and-Sorcery Stories by Robert E. Howard

Saturday, September 26th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Brian LeBlanc, Sanjulian, and Margaret Brundage

Dave Ritzlin is the mastermind behind DMR books, publishers of the Swords of Steel anthologies, The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories,  the 2020 anthology Renegade Swords, and many other volumes of adventure and weird fantasy. He’s also a fine blogger and Robert E. Howard enthusiast, and this month he produced one of the most interesting articles on REH I’ve read in many years — The Ten Greatest Sword-and-Sorcery Stories by Robert E. Howard.

This lengthy and entertaining piece features all of Howard’s most famous creations, including Kull, Solomon Kane, and of course Conan the Cimmerian. Here’s Dave on “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”

The heroes of “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” are two renegades: Irishman Turlogh O’Brien, outlawed from his clan, and the Saxon Athelstane, who has thrown in with a group of Norse Vikings. The two have a history together, but they meet again when the Vikings attack a ship on which Turlogh is a passenger. The Saxon recognizes Turlogh in the stormy sea battle and takes him alive. Shortly thereafter the Vikings’ ship in blown off course and destroyed by a tempest. Athelstane is knocked unconscious, but Turlogh manages to save him. The two are the only survivors, and they wash up on a mysterious island (a classic sword and sorcery set-up!)…

In addition to being a spectacular sword and sorcery tale, “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” also inspired the name of one of the most amazing metal bands of all time. Byron A. Roberts, vocalist of Bal-Sagoth, is a talented sword-and-sorcery author as well.

Read the entire thing at The DMR Blog — a fine place to learn about new and classic fantasy of interest to REH fans old and new.


Weird Tales Deep Read: November 1934

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020 | Posted by John Miller

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Weird Tales, November 1934. Cover by Margaret Brundage (for “Queen of the Lillin”)

We’re back on more familiar ground with this issue of Weird Tales from its classic period. More familiar authors are represented, and although not every story is a classic the editors at least avoided any real stumbles this. The issue grades out to a 2.1, which all in all is pretty decent.

Both Howard and Lovecraft appear, although the Lovecraft tale is a reprint and the Howard is the last installment of a serial. E. Hoffman Price, Paul Ernst, and August Derleth, seasoned pulp veterans all, also contributed stories. Price tale’s is part of his Pierre d’Atois stories; , d’Atois, like another Frenchman who appears in a series of WT stories, is an occult detective. The Ernst is one of his slighter efforts. The Derleth is somewhat more unusual, although, as is common, also rather slight. We have to cover already trodden ground with two serials this time around. I’ve included the information on those stories for those who haven’t read all the posts in this series.

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

Monday, August 24th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

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In the previous two articles in this series (Part I and Part II), I have explained Conan 2d20’s core mechanic, character structure, and combat. I believe that this is what is required to begin to “grok” the principles of this game. For the concluding installment in this discussion, therefore, I will address criticisms, provide “mini-reviews” of the various Conan 2d20 supplements, and point to the overall Conan gaming community.

My online Conan group initially formed around me as GM. I ran two adventures over five sessions. Currently someone else is GMing and is soon to pass the “story stick” to someone else. This method of shared GMing, I believe, is representative of Robert E. Howard’s source material: episodic, (in our case) “main characters” come and go.

The current GM once gave to me what I think are accurate estimations of Conan 2d20 overall. He gives the artifact of the game (beautiful, full-color art throughout, well-bound, a place-ribbon included in every volume) and the system itself an “A.” Rules presentation he awards a “C.” He says, when he recommends Conan 2d20 to prospective gamers, he feels like he is recommending a friend who he knows is lazy to a job interview.

The laziness, perhaps, results from rules presentation. The book forces quite a bit of cross-referencing to figure out some of the particular action resolutions. Moreover, the reader must learn that some terms, which may at first appear to be synonyms of each other, likely have particular meanings in terms of game mechanics. This confusion is mitigated only partially by the use of capitals to denote particular mechanical functions. A lot of the rules, unfortunately not always expressly stated as such, must read as logical propositions, i.e., “if A and B, then C.” And this sort of reasoning delightfully spills out into the forums. Also on the forums are outright new rules constructions and innovations, usually to fill in what has inadvertently or by design been left out of the book. To be clear, the rulebook often states its ethos as being a flexible system wide open to GM rulings, but this assertion is compromised by the presence of Skill Talent trees: it is not unlikely that a chance GM ruling or group consensus, which may result in a campaign precedent, will “invade” a feature conferred by a Talent, which consequently invalidates the worth and usefulness of that Talent. With this measure of ambiguity, Conan 2d20 rules lawyers are likely to find many opportunities to bring suits to court.

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

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

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This is the second article in my “explanation” of Conan 2d20. Last time I focused on 2d20’s core mechanic and on this game’s design philosophy insofar as it is an emulation of the “physics” and flavor of Robert E. Howard’s Conan fiction. This one will detail more aspects of gameplay, particularly player character components and action scenes.

Last article, I maintained that Conan 2d20 characters begin as powerful in mechanical ability (unless the alternative Shadows of the Past character generation is used). When I argue that this system is one of the better ones for Conan gaming, my rationale begins in this place. People who want to play a Conan version of Swords & Sorcery, I believe, don’t come to that desire by imagining operating a 1 Hit Die noob who is struggling to survive an attack of rats and who must run from most monsters. In contrast to this vision, Conan characters, though chronologically beginning their careers as young people, are formidable. Consequently, right away in the “campaign,” the GM is free to throw whatever she wants at the characters, just as Robert E. Howard challenged Conan with whatever he fancied, with whatever he believed would make an exciting story.

I realize I am thinking of Conan 2d20 in relation to the elephant (no, not that Elephant in the Tower, but that other elephant of gaming), and I’ll try to give it a rest after this. The comparison is in front of me because, as I explained last time, I have read many reports of people giving up on 2d20 because its rules are too far off from their familiar d20 expectations. My argument is that this is because Conan 2d20 is formulated, specifically, to emulate Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Whether it succeeds or not is very much still under discussion, and, elsewhere, that discussion goes on and on. But I believe that the Original Game, as awesome as it is, is built, out of its wargaming roots, as a melting pot or synthesis for all of fantasy literature. Conan 2d20 does Conan, just that, with all of its requisite limitations of “real” characters doing heroic things. The d20 iterations of Sword & Sorcery — even those “hacked” to better do Conan — still contain some difficult features, qualities inherent in and virtually impossible to remove from the system design. Chief among these is level-based advancement and, in most cases, the magic systems.

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Rogue Blades author: Kosru’s Road

Friday, August 7th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeThe following is an an excerpt from Howard Andrew Jones’ essay for the upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life.

I kept missing Conan. He was all over the place in the 1970s as I was growing up. I couldn’t help but be drawn to the covers of the Marvel comic books that featured him, but I was a little kid and embarrassed to be seen reading anything with such scantily clad beauties in it.

Maybe if I’d been a little less shy I’d have read those comics anyway, but I simply didn’t dare. I stayed mostly with prose, devouring the Heinlein juvenile science fiction adventures, Ray Bradbury collections, the Prydain Chronicles, The Dark is Rising sequence, and anything that was Star Trek or remotely like it.

By the mid- to late-’70s, when I had discovered Dungeons & Dragons and its now famous recommended reading list, Appendix N, I hit the library, the bookstore, and the used bookstore in search of everything on it and, unfortunately, came up woefully short. This time, pure bad luck kept me from reading Robert E. Howard. When it came to Appendix N, the library held only the last few Amber books. I didn’t want to read them out of order, and I couldn’t find much of anything from the list at the bookstore.

By chance, the used bookstore had not a single Conan paperback. Instead it stocked the best of the Lankhmar books, the first three Corum books by Michael Moorcock, and a friend had the Amber novels the library lacked. Mostly because of these books I was transformed from a devoted science fiction fan who occasionally tried fantasy into a dedicated reader of fantasy, but the glories of Howard’s writings were still undiscovered territory.

In the years that followed, I saw the rows of Conan pastiche and was rightfully dubious.

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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

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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

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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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