Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Review: “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany is right there on the Appendix N Inspiratonal Reading list… listed as “Dunsany, Lord” no less.

Now… why is he there? Well, take your pick:

  • Because Gary Gygax grew up reading and enjoying these stories and this is a completely haphazard and idiosyncratic selection of things that just so happened to fire his imagination.
  • Because Lord Dunsany is arguably the most significant fantasist of the twentieth century and nobody collating a list of significant works of fantasy during the mid-seventies would have dared omit him.

Think carefully, y’all!

But seriously, though… the guy is positively tremendous. The story we’re going to look at today is my favorite short story ever. I had picked up Lin Carter’s compilation of Dunsany stories At the Edge of the World and when got to this one, I set it aside because I was persuaded then and there that I simply had to read all of Lord Dunsany’s fantasy from the very beginning. It’s that good!

A word of warning is in order here. Given everything else on the Appendix N list, you are liable to be extremely disappointed to find out that Lord Dunsany did not in fact write mind bendingly weird horror, blood soaked tales of sword & sorcery, sizzling planetary romance adventures, or off the wall science fantasy. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany actually had his work published in literary magazines! (His story “Time and the Gods” appeared in the same issue of a magazine that featured work by Bernard Shaw.)

But don’t let that scare you off. You’re going to be right at home with his stories. Among other things, they are the perfect prelude to the Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft. (And contrary to the haters out there, I think Lovecraft was pretty darn good at emulating the cadence of Dunsany’s prose.)

Even better, there are things here that really can be a big help to your tabletop role-playing game sessions. Dig this opening passage, for instance:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, for ever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind. Like a great wall is the mountain to the west. It comes up out of the distance and goes down into the distance again, and it is named Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean. To the northward red rocks, smooth and bare of soil, and without any speck of moss or herbage, slope up to the very lips of the Polar wind, and there is nothing else there by the noise of his anger. Very peaceful are the Inner Lands, and very fair are their cities, and there is no war among them, but quiet and ease. And they have no enemy but age, for thirst and fever lie sunning themselves out in the mid-desert, and never prowl into the Inner Lands. And the ghouls and ghosts, whose highway is the night, are kept in the south by the boundary of magic.

What a place!

What a stage!

Now I’m not sure how it is that we got to the point where role-playing game supplements went full on with the whole census data and almanac shtick. Honestly, the more stuff you give me the more stuff I feel like I oughtta be faithful to in running a game. That’s work! But worse than that, there’s only so much I can keep in my head at once. And even worse than that… the players are generally only going to want to hear at most half a paragraph sketching out the basic geography of the setting at any given time.

If you’re going to throw something like that at your players, you might as well make it something awesome like ghosts and ghouls that are kept out only by a boundary of magic… or even better, the personification of Death himself just chilling out in a desert! Heck, you just invited your friends over for a fantasy role-playing game. Imagine the look on their faces when they get a little unadulterated fantasy instead of yet another jumped up Poughkeepsie!

Short stories like this have to sketch out an entire world in a couple of paragraphs. And convey a tone and an atmosphere and a feeling all at once. And they have get to the point quickly– and convey that quickly as well. Just like you do when you’re running your games.

Here’s how Lord Dunsany does it:

From these three little kingdoms that are named the Inner Lands the young men stole constantly away. One by one they went, and no one knew why they went save that they had a longing to behold the Sea. Of this longing they spoke little, but a young man would become silent for a few days, and then, one morning very early, he would slip away and slowly climb Poltarnee’s difficult slope, and having attained the top pass over and never return. A few stayed behind in the Inner Lands and became the old men, but none that had ever climbed Poltarnees from the very earliest times had ever come back again. Many had gone up Poltarnees sworn to return. Once a king sent all his courtiers, one by one, to report the mystery to him, and then went himself; none ever returned.

This is what I call a situation. And this sort of thing is the bread and butter of role-playing game sessions.

Now, in our games the players are more likely going to have to foil some dastardly scheme perpetrated by Cthulhu worshiping cultists that are dead set on disrupting the magical barrier that keeps the ghosts and ghouls at bay. They’ll probably have to contend with Thirst and Fever as they head out into to the desert in order to challenge Death to a battle of wits. That’s just how we roll!

Where Lord Dunsany goes with this one is of course nothing like that. He’s more concerned with things like wise kings, beautiful princesses, heroic hunters, true love, solemn oaths, and terrible blasphemy.

You might recognize the overriding theme by the time you get to the end, though!

Read the whole thing!

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