You know, I kind of like covering some of the more obscure and under-appreciated Appendix N books because I have more of a chance to sort of “break” a story. (That’s what it feels like when there are practically no other posts on a given book.)
With this week’s retrospective, my efforts basically just serve as an independent confirmation of what just about any game blogger could tell you. It’s almost scary how much everyone agrees on this work. Hopefully my piece will reach a wider audience than some of the stuff that is written more or less “for gamers only.” And hopefully I take some of the points a bit deeper. (I don’t think anyone cares, but I do have session reports to back up my points. Just sayin’.) But really… I wasn’t near as far out on a limb as I was thinking when I was writing this one.
And I should’t be surprised, but the basic tempo of my game sessions really is identical to those of other gamers that simply picked up nearly any edition of D&D and ran with it. I’m not even sure yet what the implications of that are, but I think there is a signal here that really deserves to be boosted. So… maybe not much new this time, but my mind is certainly blown.
Anyway, here’s my post:
RETROSPECTIVE: Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber
And here’s this week’s roundup:
Grognardia — “Reading this tale, it’s hard not to see in it the literary protoplasm out of which D&D arose. So many D&D staples, most notably the very idea of a Thieves’ Guild, are presented here in glorious form, making it an enjoyable way to see where Dave and (especially) Gary got the ideas out of which they created this game we all so love. Read it, if you’ve never before had the chance; read it again, if you have. It’s a great story by a great fantasy author.”
Semper Initiative Unam — “What I’ve found through play is that pre-written background doesn’t mean anything. This is because of a principle that writers are expected to bear in mind: the story you are telling should be the most exciting and important thing that has ever happened to the character. A background made up for a PC before the start of play is, of necessity, not that interesting; after all, they never got any experience points for it.”
Rogues & Reavers — “In the final story of Swords and Deviltry, we begin to see why Leiber had such a strong influence on D&D. Indeed, the second act, where our heroes drunkenly hatch a shockingly stupid plan and get neck-deep in trouble as a result, should sound familiar to any RPG player. We are all too delighted to see them narrowly escape, or at least it seems until the story reveals its tragic ending.”
Delta’s D&D Hotspot — “The interesting thing here for me is that it represents an excellent science experiment in things pulp: Were the early creations really better? When we ask the question in terms of D&D or Star Wars, the argument usually gets tangled up in the issue of, ‘you’re just being nostalgic; you don’t remember correctly’. But obviously in terms of Asimov or Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser I wasn’t reading them in the 1940’s; I’ve read the entire F&GM oeuvre in the span of the last year. And once again let me say clearly: The early stuff is fantastic and leaps off the page. The later stuff is dreadful and exhausting. This is not nostalgia speaking on the part of this reader.”
Grognardia — “One of the things that’s very clear, if you know anything about the history of roleplaying, is that Gygax and Arneson lived in a time before what we now think of as ‘fantasy’ literature existed. That’s partly because D&D’s success helped create and popularize that genre. Back in the early 1970s, ‘fantasy’ was subsumed within ‘science fiction.’ Consider, for example, that in 1970, the winner of the Nebula Award for best novel was Ringworld by Larry Niven, while the winner for best novella was “Ill Met in Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber. Tolkien’s The Lords of the Rings, though published in 1954-1955, didn’t achieve widespread influence or fame until the 1960s and 1970s, at once driving the growing popularity of fantasy and benefiting from it.”
Black Gate — “The swords & sorcery that works best for me, the tales that get my heart pounding, come in short story form. It was Robert E. Howard’s ‘Beyond the Black River’, Fritz Leiber’s ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’, and Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Reflections for the Winter of My Soul’ that made me love this genre. In those stories, the authors distilled everything down to forty or fifty pages of concentrated action, mayhem, and bloodshed. There are no wasted words, no longuers. While all three authors wrote decent enough S&S novels, it’s their short stories that roar down the tracks like a train, pulling me along. S&S is a fiction of action and plot. I want speed; economy of story-telling.”
Tor.com — “Where to start on Fafhrd and Gray Mouser? Well, you might as well start at the beginning, with Swords and Deviltry, the first collection, since it has their meeting and each of their prologues. Let me illustrate it thus: Fafhrd straps fireworks to his skis at one point in order to rocket across a jump. That sort of insanity is just so…well, so Dungeons and Dragons; I don’t know how Leiber does it. I mean, I just had an AD&D campaign end when our bard, after crowdsurfing a horde of damned and demons, delivered the killing blow to Zuggtomoy with a roll of a natural 100 on a rod of wonder, which on the alternate table we were using was “death ray, no save.” It was epic, in the truest sense of the term, and was only possible thanks to the critical mass of multiple players, a convoluted prior history of adventuring, random number generators, and sheer dumb luck. That makes sense, but Leiber’s imagination is so fruitful that…well, it is like he has a chaos theory generator in his head. Billions of flapping butterflies.”
Connor Coyne — “Howard’s ‘Conan’ stories tend to take themselves more seriously, indicting contradictory moralities and, by extension, ‘civilization.’ The Lankhmar stories promote the same message, albeit they are just as critical of barbarity as of settled life. But they also set a more playful tone. Even when stories turn deadly serious – and many are (‘The Unholy Grail,’ ‘Ill-Met in Lankhmar,’ ‘The Howling Tower,’ and others) – there is always something slightly tongue-in-cheek about the storytelling. Details are exaggerated. Life and death are approached as almost laughingly casual matters. Happenstance plays a significant role, and it is often difficult to find the point at which the protagonists’ skills end and their good luck begins. And even this good fortune typically leaves them alive and penniless…that is, exactly as they began except for their new scars and hard-won experience.”
Omphalos’ SF Book Reviews — “Leiber is a master of the written word, and this piece is an excellent example of what a talented wordsmith can accomplish with genre work. Leiber’s characters were excellently drawn; his settings were masterfully placed, and kept in the background where they belong; the plot was amazing; Leiber moved the story along effortlessly to its conclusion, and his use of the more subtle tools of foreshadowing, tension building, and even the use of silence was excellent.”