Monday, September 26, 2016

The Veiled Kings

(This story is a sequel to "Scion of the Black Tower")

Alzarra Dragonhand came over the sea and to the faded city of Knar, riding the prow of a black ship with her dark sword at her side. She was tall; lean and hungry like a sea-wolf. Her skin was dark and her black hair was braided like a knot of serpents. Her left hand was armored with black scales, and thus was given her name, a name feared in a hundred cities and hunted across the endless expanses of the old empires.

The ship rode the gentle wind in between the towering pillars that guarded the harbor. Long ago there had been a great sea-gate in this place, but now the stone was stained green with age and crumbled down into ruins that slumbered like the shapes of ancient glory hidden beneath burial shrouds. Ahead of her she saw the city itself arising from the cold mists, like a shadow in a forgotten dream.

It was familiar to her, though she had never seen it before. Every line and arch and tower looked right to her eye. The city was dark in the overcast day, hollow with shadows and empty places. The waters of the sea gathered at the edge of the docks green with weeds and choked by refuse. The smell of neglect and rot drifted over the slack tide, and the waves were marked by the slumped ruins of proud buildings now long subsumed into the sea, crumpled beneath the march of the waters.

Knar was a dying city. Once the outpost of a great empire, it remained like a single bone of a rotted body thrust up from the earth. Roads and walls and kingdoms died away and yet it remained. Much of it was abandoned, with far too few people still dwelling in the rotted stone towers and the open-roofed ruins. The great edifices were stained with algae and lichens, dripping with moss in the constant wetness of the climate. Knotted trees sprouted between the stones, and vines crawled and hung everywhere she looked.

Alzarra stepped off the boat when it drew up to the ancient jetty. The waterfront markets were sullen and gloomy, the narrow pathways choked by hooded people going silent about their way. She drew her own cloak over her shoulders and her hood up over her head. But she made no effort to conceal her scaled arm, as indeed she never would. It was the mark of her destiny, and she would not hide it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Dragon in the Dungeon

By the 1970s the Sword & Sorcery boom was in full swing, with books and comics both adapting older works and creating their own. After Conan the Barbarian in 1980 movies got in on the act, and it was inevitable that the genre would extend its reach into other media. One of the most influential on the longevity of the style was the advent of fantasy games.

Fantasy role-playing games grew out of the tabletop warfare simulations that had been a hobby since the 1780s and had grown immensely in popularity through the 19th century. It was after WW2 that the market for wargames exploded, and soon enough people started looking for new things. The popularity of fantasy in the 60s and onward provided an obvious outlet. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy provided many examples of epic battles, and imitators like Sword of Shannara doubled down on the big war sequences in line with the tastes of the time.

Because Tolkien, for all his heroic trappings, was not a fan of war as entertainment. He had served in the trenches of the Great War and lost friends. He did not glorify violence in his work. Other fantasy authors were, however, glad to make up for that. The strain of violent, darker “heroic fantasy”, descended from Howard and the pulp writers, was there to step into the breach.

Dungeons and Dragons was the first real fantasy role-playing game. After first attempting to make rules for fantasy armies, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created rules for playing an individual fantasy character, and the tabletop RPG was born.

Despite the amount of Tolkien influence on the worldbuilding of D&D – halflings, elves, rangers, etc – the gameplay owes much more of a debt to Sword & Sorcery tropes and styles. After all, while many players aspired to fight evil and do battle against powerful foes in a fully-realized High Fantasy realm, the truth of play was much different as the game was first written. Players dreamed of high fantasy, but that’s not what the game really simulated.

Because the world and play of D&D was pretty much the model for every kill-and-loot game since then, whether on paper or in video games like Gauntlet or Diablo. The whole point was to make your way through an underground maze, kill monsters, and take the treasure they left behind. There was some hand-waving towards good vs evil, but really, the moral waters of the original game were pretty muddy. It was a world with gods and heroes and devils and sorcerers, but rather than strictly good vs evil, it was much more players versus everyone else.

That is much more an S&S kind of setup, and even the image on the famous cover of the original Players Handbook depicted a scene right out of a Howard story: the heroes raiding a temple of lizard men, looting the treasure as they planned for the next attack. That is a scene that could have taken place in any S&S tale from the pulp days, and there are any number of tales by Howard or Leiber about the brave heroes venturing into some ancient ruin or haunted wilderness in search of gold and jewels.

In its earliest days, D&D required a very S&S kind of play – characters wandering from ruin to ruin, plumbing down into caverns and lost temples, killing anything in their path and then looting anything that was not nailed down. That is not a High Fantasy approach, it is explicitly rooted in the moral ambiguity and noir sensibilities of Sword & Sorcery.

When D&D blew up in popularity in the 80s, it got a whole generation accustomed to the tropes and feel of the pulps, and sent a lot of them hunting through libraries for classic works listed in the D&D bibliography for inspiration. I think more than shape the course of the genre as a whole, D&D had a big part in making sure there was an audience for it. A generation grew up dreaming about dungeons and ruins and swords and magic and monsters, and that made sure that the appetite for Sword & Sorcery adventure stayed fresh.

Monday, September 12, 2016

To the Skull Tower

Jaga made her way through the tenebrous jungle night under a full moon. A mist hung in the air, between the giant boles of the primordial trees, and all around were the sounds of the creatures of darkness. Insects cried and monkeys jabbered, and now and again came the tortured scream of a leopard. She moved with absolute silence, walking on bare feet as she slipped through the shadows and silver light to the place where she could look up to the dark tower.

She had never seen it, yet a thousand tales spoke of the skull-covered ruin high in the upland forests. The black stone was volcanic, hewn from the soil of the mountain, and the bones of those slain in that long-ago eruption jutted from the black glassine blocks, carefully cut so that each one showed the face of the dead to the solitary night. The tower was ancient and covered in red vines studded with thorns that dripped a killing venom; it had been built and abandoned in a forgotten age, and tonight a light gleamed in the topmost window.

Jaga reached the base of the tower and crouched in the darkness at the edge of the trees. Wary, her ears straining to hear the slightest sound, she tested her bowstring and loosened her sword in its sheath. Around her right wrist was a charm to ward off evil magic, and mail shimmered on her shoulders and arms. Inside, she would find the fugitive sorcerer Shevan, and this time, no spell would deflect her fatal arrow.

Monday, September 5, 2016

An Age Undreamed Of

One of the interesting things about studying the history of any genre is how sometimes obscure and unheralded people can make a big impact on the look and feel of one. Like how Ralph McQuarrie had a huge impact on how starships are designed and on the look of modern Sci-Fi in general, when for decades he was almost unknown outside of film buff circles. Similarly, the overall look of Sword & Sorcery in modern art and film owes a huge debt to artist Ron Cobb.

Cobb has had a kind of spotty, under-the-radar career. He has worked mostly as a conceptual artist, and has an impressive array of film work, mostly in the 70s and 80s. His work credits include classics like Star Wars, Alien, Total Recall, The Last Starfighter, and True Lies. A friend of Spielberg, he was originally to direct the proposed sequel to Close Encounters – a film to be called Dark Skies, but which eventually evolved into E.T.

The reason he was not around to direct said movie was because he had taken one of his few jobs as a full-on production designer for Conan the Barbarian. Cobb only ever took full production design duties on 4 films – including the cult classics Leviathan and The Last Starfighter, but it was his work on Conan that set the tone for an entire film genre.

Milius said he was much more influenced by Frazetta’s work than by Howard’s, and that may be true, because film is a visual medium, and the genius of Frazetta’s vision can’t be argued with. But it was Cobb who was tasked with coming up with the look of the Hyborean Age on camera. He couldn’t just copy Frazetta’s work, he wanted and needed the film to have its own aesthetic and feel, and so he set to work.

Obviously influenced by the jagged barbarism of Frazetta, Cobb needed cleaner, sharper designs that would work on film, as well as be physically sturdy and practical. They were filming in Spain, out in the boonies, and props and sets had to stand up to a good deal of punishment.

Cobb’s design work was up to the task, as he had a lot of experience working on film, and a study of his work reveals a style rooted in comic book flamboyance, but also with a meticulous attention to details. His designs are eye-catching, but conceived of with a great understanding for the needs of space and architectural practicalities. He made the temples of Thulsa Doom fantastical, but also with a grounding in real structures and a sense of almost Nouveau grandeur.

This combination of comic-book style and rich detail made his work a perfect distillation of everything the Hyborean Age needed to be. Milius’ movie was exotic and fantastical, but grounded in a gritty, real world. It was not a fantasy world with magic and monsters around every corner – much of it was just as real as our own history. Cobb’s designs were simultaneously iconic and believable.

It shows in how thoroughly his work was imitated by the slew of knockoff S&S movies that flooded out in the early 80s. From poor adaptations like Gor to straight-up pastiches like Barbarian Queen or The Sword and the Sorcerer, the look owed much more to Cobb’s design work than to any other artistic model. Everything from structures to costumes to the weapons was designed with an eye to his groundbreaking work on Conan.

Cobb has not worked on much of anything film-related since the 90s, and at the age of 80 I imagine he is probably mostly retired. His is another one of the mostly-unseen hands that shaped the image and popular conception of Sword & Sorcery, and like most his imitators have almost obscured his genuine contributions, but his work remains.