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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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 Author: He Himself was in Every One of Them

Friday, July 10th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

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

Howard changed my life

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

conan #4From the cradle to the grave, Life is one long roleplaying game. Every day presents us with new situations that require us to make choices, and those choices, while opening up new opportunities, will generally close off other possibilities. (Unless certain physicists are right, and each possibility opens a new universe. But that’s another essay altogether.) Of course, in Life the game is enormously complex, because each of us is playing many characters, many roles, often juggling several at once, and each of these roles is very interactive, depending to some degree on how other people respond to the character we are playing, and how we respond to theirs. Fortunately, most of us slide in and out of these roles unconsciously: if we had to actually think about what our role in the scene is and how we should play it, I think we would most likely flub our lines.

We don’t always recognize when we’ve come to a crucial decision point, one which will set the course for our future. Spring 1971: I was in college, in a Religious Studies class, and struck up a conversation with a guy who was doodling some great comics in his notebook. As we talked, I casually remarked that I’d given my comics, baseball cards, and other ‘kid stuff’ to my brother. Next class, Charlie Williams tossed a comic onto my desk and said, “Read that and tell me it’s kid stuff.”

It was Conan the Barbarian #4, “The Tower of the Elephant,” and the first page pulled me in. Not only was it my introduction to the work of Robert E. Howard, but Charlie guided me into the whole world of Marvel Comics, which for some reason I had missed. (I read Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos during a war comics phase when I was about twelve or thirteen, but somehow managed to be unaware that Marvel did superheroes, as well. I was a DC guy, especially Green Lantern and Batman, all the way. Probably poor distribution to the comics racks at the few stores in my community.)

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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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Weird Tales Deep Read: July 1933

Sunday, April 26th, 2020 | Posted by John Miller


Somewhat fanciful Brundage cover for “Hand of Glory”

This is the first in a series of posts I’ve wanted to do for awhile now, a detailed look at a single issue of Weird Tales magazine where I do a short analysis of each story, the famous, the infamous, and the forgotten. Just to make things a little confusing, I rate these stories, unlike movies, on a 1-5 scale, with the lower the number, the better the story. You can look at these ratings as A-B-C-D-F, or Excellent – Good – Mediocre – Below Average – Poor.

I wanted to start with a memorable issue, so I chose the July 1933 entry, one of the best I’ve read so far. I’ll start with a short overview and then get into the specifics of each story.

This issue is at the beginning of the Unique Magazine’s (as it sometimes called itself) Golden Age (roughly the early to late 1930’s) with a total of four of the nine stories penned by what I like to think of as the Holy Trinity of Weird Tales writers, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. The ubiquitous Seabury Quinn is also present with one of his ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories, along with tales by early giants of science fiction Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson. Sheridan Le Fanu contributes a classic reprint. The final story is by Harold Ward, a fairly prolific pulp writer noted for complicated plots often bordering on the incoherent.

The Howard story is one of his slightest, but moderately effective. The Smith, set in what is probably the first shared-world universe in science fiction — the Cthulhu Mythos — is also rather slight, but vastly more imaginative. The Lovecraft story under his byline is one of his classic Cthulhu Mythos tales. His second story in this issue appears under the name of Hazel Heald, which requires a bit of explanation.

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