Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Savage Sword of Conan Volume 2

The Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 2The Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 2 by Roy Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being somewhere along the "middle age" spectrum, I sometimes go back in my mind to try to ferret out what experiences might have been formative to me when I was growing up. The reason is entirely selfish - I want to recapture some of the feelings I had as a child, before the big bad world started beating me up, like it does all of us. Sometimes, when I go back, I am astounded at the age at which certain key events happened. Take, for example, my discovery of The Savage Sword of Conan, a "magazine" (really a comic book in which graphic violence and sultry imagery and subject matter were not strictly forbidden) that I first read when I was 8 years old. I remember the very night it happened: My father was enlisted in the Air Force for my entire childhood. We were living in Italy at the time and because the family housing on the base where we worked was being built, we lived in the town of Brindisi. Mom and Dad wanted to go see a movie (I originally remembered it as Superman, but that doesn't mesh with the timeline - this was before Superman was released), so they did what all good parents of Air Force dependents do in such situations, they dropped me off at the base's daycare (or in this case, night-care). Now, this may come as a surprise to some, but the military is not particularly good at understanding children's needs and is particularly bad at gauging what is age-appropriate material. So please don't be surprised when I tell you that I picked up my first issue of The Savage Sword of Conan, issue #20, at the daycare. I'm guessing now that, like most other reading material at the daycare, it was donated by some kind-hearted GI who thought that some of the older kids at the daycare might want to read a good comic book.

And how!

Not only did I get to read it there, the daycare person told me I could take the "comic" home with me, if I liked. My parents, hardly looking at it, let me take it.

Thus began the corruption of my youth.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I'm perfectly fine with it. Obviously, I liked it enough to come back to it after many years away. I read and occasionally bought issues of SSoC at the Stars and Stripes Bookstore on base. There were other comics (Star Wars came out that year, for instance), but nothing quite like SSoC. Even the "regular" Conan the Barbarian comic just didn't do it for me. Savage Sword's artwork was so much higher quality and the storytelling was much more compelling and complex than the simple Conan comic. Given the choice between buying an issue of Savage Sword and an issue of the Conan comic, I always went Savage Sword.

Fast forward to 2008, when Dark Horse comics re-released all of the Savage Sword of Conan issues in omnibus format. I was a little slow in hearing about this, but I caught up eventually. I read volume one and was mildly tickled by it, but not super impressed. Then came volume 2, the volume containing the issues from my time, and I was whisked back to my childhood days. Of course, I understand the subtleties and innuendos much better than I did then. In fact, the more I read and reread the stories, the more I appreciate them. Most of the stories in this volume were either direct translations of Robert E. Howard's stories or were constructed using Howard's outline notes for incomplete stories. Say what you will about Howard as a person, his strange idiosyncrasies and is misogyny (and there was much) - Howard was, above all, a solid writer who knew how to plot an intriguing story and who created, in Conan and others, characters who were always consistent with themselves. Still, as with any collection of short stories, whether in words or graphic format, these tales vary in quality and enjoyability. Some of this is due to Howard's writing (or incompleteness of writing, in regards to stories that were never fully fleshed out before his suicide), some is due to artistic interpretations of the works.

This volume covers issues #11 - #24, published April 1976 - November 1977. Here are some highlight and lowlights:

"The Abode of the Damned" tracks Conan through a city inhabited entirely by thieves and bandits, of which he is one of the most notorious. This one left me a bit flat, as the reverse deus-ex-machina, composed of three un-named sorcerous strangers, were the hinge point of the plot. Howard's written better.

"The Haunters of Castle Crimson," like many of the stories in this volume, is a complex intrigue of political machinations and deception. Here, not everyone is who they seem to be, and the implications for the rulership and influence in the region in which the story takes place are of great consequence. As with many of the Conan stories, sorcery is afoot, this time in the form of a skeletal horde of warriors who were betrayed and who seek revenge on the traitor. Layer on top of this a friendship gone awry between Conan and his old comrade-in-arms, Malthom of Nemedia, and you've got the type of yarn Howard is famous for. A very satisfying read.

"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" was my least favorite story of the volume. The pencils, done by Gil Kane, were my least favorite. This is a little strange, because the drawings are similar to those done by Jeff Dee, of Dungeons and Dragons fame. And I love Dee's artwork. Kane's work is like a poor pastiche of Dee, though I'm not entirely sure whether either knew of the other and, if they did, which one drew first. Maybe Dee's art is an improvement on Kane's? In any case, Kane's art was not for me and the story was pretty vanilla. Kane was well-known for his superhero art, but Conan was far more gritty than any contemporary super-hero. The music doesn't match the groove here.

"Shadows in Zamboula" was one of my favorites in this volume. An enterprising innkeeper is feeding his guests to cannibals, but Conan isn't about to be a meal! He rescues a maiden (a Howard trope used ad nauseum), Zabibi, who leads him to retrieve The Star of Khorala, a magical ring. While at the temple of the idol-god Hanuman, Zabibi is stolen from Conan (another Howard trope), and he encounters the sorcerous and monstrously strong Baal-Pteor, one of the fabled Stranglers of Yota-Pong. But Conan bests the brutish champion at his own game. Meanwhile, the priest of Hanuman, has captured Zabibi in order to exact revenge for her theft, along with her lover, of the Star of Khorala. Conan rescues her, then disposes of the innkeeper who got him into this mess in the first place, in an appropriately . . . culinary manner.

"The People of the Black Circle," which spans issues #16-#19, inclusive, is an epic tale that takes the themes of political intrigue, romance, sorcery, influence among thieves, backstabbing, and betrayal to their heights. This is one of Howard's best stories. If you're going to read one segment of Savage Sword of Conan in an attempt to get the feel of the series, this is the one. I won't spoil the story - I'm certain others have outlined it in other reviews. Suffice it to say that if you haven't read this, you haven't read Conan.

"The Slithering Shadow" is my top story of the volume. This was the one I read as a kid in daycare and reread time and time again. It is one of the most "Lovecraftian" Conan stories that Howard ever wrote (Howard and Lovecraft were contemporaries, by the way, and had extensive correspondence between them). Here, Conan and the Brythunian ex-slave, Natala, are seen about to die in the desert. Conan is about to administer the mercy stroke to her, to spare her the suffering of death by dehydration, when they spy a city in the desert. They investigate and find the city inhabited by a strange race of sleepers who wake only for limited periods to engage in all sorts of ribald decadence before again drugging themselves to wander among the dreamlands. The dread god Thog shambles in the shadows, eating the sleepers on his own inscrutable dinner schedule. Conan and Natala encounter a Stygian woman named Thalis who had come into the city of Xuthal as a child. Thalis lusts after Conan and, so, steals away Natala (see a theme here?) to torture the Brythunian out of sheer jealousy. Then the Lovecraftian element, the dread god Thog, crawls out of the shadows and . . . well, I don't want to spoil things for you. One thing I love about this story is that, while Conan, as always, escapes with his life, he is in the worst shape you will ever see him. We see that Conan is no superman. He is human, mortal, and vulnerable, especially to things, and here I mean "things that crawl around in darkness in order to kill you in nasty, face-melting ways", from places far-removed from our reality. If you're a fan of the Cthulhu mythos and want a segue into the world of Conan, this is the story for you.

There are several other stories in this volume, as well. Had it only had the last three I mentioned above, it would be a five-star book, albeit a much shorter five-star book. A couple of duds don't drag the volume down too far, and if you're not familiar with the original Conan stories, you might not even think the lesser stories are duds at all. And even the most jaded Conan fan will find something to love in this volume. I did, and some of these tales have stuck in my head for forty years now. I can't say that about a lot of things. Maybe when senility finally kicks in I'll start wearing a bearskin loincloth and swinging a sword. You'll probably see me in the headlines, by Crom!!!

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Beyond the Silver Scream, Dead Trees Edition

Thank you to all those who have purchased a copy of Beyond the Silver Scream thus far, whether as a PDF or as a hard-copy. It has been truly humbling to see your response and to meet so many of you at Garycon. Demand was beyond my expectations, and I quickly ran out of print copies at the convention. 

Now the good news . . . 

Beyond the Silver Scream is again available in print! So if you'd like a few trees to die alongside your 0-level characters, read on!

Welcome to Beyond the Silver Scream, a Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG-compatible 0-level "funnel"! Players begin as high school kids in the mid-'70s - early-'80s who go to the local seedy theater to catch the premiere of the new horror flick "Screaming Sorority Girls from Planet Playtex". But the horror isn't confined to the screen! And the special-effects are all-too-real. So take a seat and brace yourself for an adventure where the director isn't the only one doing the cutting!

Includes the full adventure and "The Dimensional Dogs" patron, a fully-fleshed patron for use with DCC RPG. 

Awesome art provided by Thomas Gile, Matt Hildebrand, David Lewis Johnson, Nicolo Maioli, and James V. West!
Praise for Beyond the Silver Scream!

"WARNING: Contents may daze and/or confuse. Unexpected, thrilling, blockbuster fun. Two thumbs up!" - Brendan LaSalle, author of "Hole in the Sky"

"This is the work of the Devil and his minions and should be burned immediately. Jack Chick would be appalled." - The Ghost of Patricia Pulling

“This made me feel the ‘VHS shlockfest’ love so much, I felt the need to adjust the tracking.” - Adam Muszkiewicz, "Drink, Spin, Run" Podcast

“Beyond the Silver Scream” takes teens of classic roleplaying games’ golden age — the 1970s/1980s — into the epic danger of gritty Dungeon Crawl Classics, while providing a unique springboard to your next fantasy campaign. If you want a blast of nostalgia coupled with weird intrigue and action, then buy this module and be prepared for a blast from the past… and beyond!” - Julian Bernick, co-founder, Minneapolis DCC RPG Society


The PDFs, both the "normal" edition and the "Metal" edition, are available at both DRIVETHRURPG. A print edition of the "normal" (har, har, this adventure is anything but "normal") edition is available there, as well. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Beyond the Silver Scream PDF available now!

Greetings, fellow tabletoppers! My DCCRPG Compatible adventure, _Beyond the Silver Scream_, is available in two PDF editions at: RPGNOW

Note that this adventure comes in two editions, the "normal" edition, and "The METAL Edition"! Content is the same for both, but The METAL Edition is in glorious white on black with red illustrations. The normal edition costs $3, while The METAL Edition costs $4. And for every metal edition sold, I will donate $1 to printing and production costs for _The Gongfarmer's Almanac_. Gotta keep that thing free because it's so full of awesome!

I am working on getting materials for printing up more physical copies in the near future. The adventure sold much more quickly than I anticipated at Garycon, so I needed to order more cover cardstock. If the stars are right, I will have some physical copies ready in a week or two. I will be sure to announce details on how to get your physical copy at that time. Yeah, I'm a little overcautious about potential mishaps (remember that last Kickstarter where you didn't get the stuff you paid for? Sure as heck is not happening on my watch!). Please also note that I will not be doing a physical copy of The Metal Edition at this point.

ADDENDUM: If you want to protest what some consider to be the Electronic RPG File Monopoly, you can alternatively purchase your copy at Tabletop Library: The New RPG Download Store. Both the normal edition and The METAL Edition are available there. In fact, I pick up a few extra nickels if you buy it there, than if you bought it at the other place. Your call. I'm easy.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Gary's Table

This is the guy who started it all, or at least pushed his creative vision into the public eye and provided the impetus that brought us all together. I owe most of my best friendships to this man, a man that I, unfortunately, never met. I admit a touch of sadness on this, the 8th anniversary of his passing, mingled with the joy of being amongst friends, doing that thing, which we love most. As I'm looking out on the snow-covered, sun-drenched hills on the eastern fringe of Lake Geneva, I see, in my mind's eye, a pack of furry gnolls descending down a hillside trail, a bulette burrowing a dirt-stained ridge in the snow, a ki'rin flying in the distant sky, and harpies among the branches. In reality, it is still Winter, the time of death and cold. But the sun _is_ shining. Spring is coming. I look behind with a twinge of sadness, but I look forward full of hope. Am I too sentimental? Probably. I shouldn't have to use the excuse of the sun being in my eyes to explain their watering. After all, it's just a game, right?

But really . . .?

Thanks, friends.

Rest in Peace, Gary.

And back to the table!