Rank #1: Episode 3 - Fritz Leiber's "Swords and Deviltry"
Leiber and his lifelong friend Harry Otto Fischer created Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in an exchange of letters in 1934, basing the pair loosely on their own friendship, with Fischer as the diminutive Mouser and Leiber as the towering Fafhrd. The first story featuring the Twain (as they are often called) to appear in print was “Two Sought Adventure” AKA “The Jewels in the Forest” in 1939 in Unknown magazine. A handful of further Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories trickled out over the next two decades until Cele Goldsmith commissioned brand-new stories for Fantastic magazine starting in 1959, which lead to the Ace paperback collections of the late 1960s.
Other than the continued interest in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, this new appreciation of Leiber’s fantasy fiction was one of the biggest contributors to the sword and sorcery renaissance of the 1960s. In fact, Leiber is credited with coining the term “sword and sorcery” in 1961 when Michael Moorcock called for a name for the type of fantasy fiction that Howard, Leiber and others were coming to exemplify.
By the time Swords and Deviltry was published Leiber had been writing tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for over 30 years, but it is only in this book that he revealed their full origins in the stories “Induction” (1957), “The Snow Women” (1970), “The Unholy Grail” (1962), and “Ill-Met in Lankhmar” (1970).
Swords and Deviltry featured a typically moody Jeffrey Catherine Jones cover, although the effect is compromised by the trade dress of later printings:
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s gaming history actually predates their first publication, as Leiber and Fischer created a complex three-dimensional board game in 1937 to amuse themselves and help them visualize the Twain’s stomping grounds of the city of Lankhmar and the world of Nehwon. This game was later re-developed and published by TSR as Lankhmar in 1976.
Leiber and Fischer weren’t mere hands-off IP licensors, however. Leiber would contribute a witty conversation with Fafhrd and the Mouser about wargaming in the very first issue of The Dragon (1976), followed by the short story “Sea Magic” in issue 11 (1977). Fischer’s short story “The Childhood and Youth of The Gray Mouser” then appeared in issue 18 (1978).
Lawrence Shick and Tom Moldvay gave Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser their first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons write-up in issue 27 of The Dragon (1979). The Twain and various other denizens of Nehwon were given a whole chapter in James M. Ward’s and Robert J. Kuntz’s Deities & Demigods (1980), with memorably gritty illustrations by Jennell Jaquays.
Future notes on the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series will cover later TSR Lankhmar publications, post-TSR licensees and other games that have been directly influenced by the city of Lankhmar. Stay tuned!
Jul 24 2017
Rank #2: Episode 2 – Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, & Lin Carter's "Conan"
In a now controversial move, series editors de Camp and Carter filled in gaps in Conan’s timeline by expanding Howard’s unpublished notes and fragments, re-writing non-Conan stories, and writing entirely new stories, thus jump-starting the Conan pastiche era.
For the purist, the Howard-only stories in this collection are “The Hyborian Age, Part 1” (1936), “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933), “The God in the Bowl” (1952, Howard’s original version first published 1975), and “Rogues in the House” (1934).
Regardless of the editorial controversies, the Lancer/Ace series was the only widely available source of Howard-penned Conan stories for nearly three decades, sustaining the sword and sorcery boom from the late ‘60s to the mid ‘90s. Robert E. Howard’s furious prose and the now-iconic Frank Frazetta cover illustrations on many of the volumes have cemented Conan the Cimmerian in popular culture. Frazetta had clearly read and internalized the dynamism of the Conan stories, as shown by his cover painting of Conan’s epic struggle with Thak the apeman from “Rogues in the House”.
As Dungeons & Dragons was created in the era of peak Conan, it is natural that Conan’s presence would be felt, starting with a write-up in Robert Kuntz and James M. Ward’s OD&D supplement Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (1976). Gary Gygax himself would write up Conan as he appeared in various stages of his career in Dragon magazine issue 36 (1980)--a treatment that presaged the eventual AD&D Barbarian class in Dragon issue 62 (1982) and Unearthed Arcana (1985).
Conan the Cimmerian has since remained a perennial roleplaying game property, both with TSR and other publishers, but that’s a story for another day….
Jul 14 2017
Glowburn-Mutant Crawl Classics RPG
Podcast – Spellburn
Save for Half podcast
Fear of a Black Dragon
The Save or Die Podcast!
The GROGNARD Files
Podcast – DCCRPG AP – The Iron Tavern
The Cromcast: A Weird Fiction Podcast
Gaming and BS RPG Podcast
The Vintage RPG Podcast
Old School Blues: The Revival!
Rank #4: An Interview with Michael Moorcock
Dec 02 2019
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Rank #5: Episode 51 - J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Two Towers" with special guest Anna B. Meyer
Jul 29 2019
Rank #6: Episode 51.5 - J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Two Towers" with returning guest Daniel Bishop
Aug 12 2019
Rank #8: Episode 50 - Extra Credit - Clark Ashton Smith's "Hyperborea" with special guest Jeffrey Talanian
Jul 15 2019
Rank #9: Episode 12 - Michael Moorcock's "The Stealer of Souls"
At first glance, Elric of Melniboné appears to be the very antithesis of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian: a physically weak sorcerer, addicted to drugs, symbiotically linked to the malignant black sword Stormbringer, and the rightful emperor of a cruel and decadent pre-human civilization. Moorcock and Elric are often characterized as a negation or rejection of Howardian swords & sorcery, but that’s a drastic oversimplification of Moorcock’s relationship to pulp fantasy.
Moorcock was precocious fantasy talent, creating fanzines as a schoolboy and becoming editor of the professional magazine Tarzan Adventures by the age 17 in 1957. Moorcock was a notable contributor to AMRA, a fanzine that was a hotbed of discussion about fantasy fiction and counted among its many notable correspondents Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, and Roger Zelazny. As mentioned here, the term “swords and sorcery” was coined by Fritz Leiber in dialogue with Moorcock, although Moorcock has always preferred the term “epic fantasy”. Moorcock has at times minimized but never totally denied his appreciation for Howard, most likely hoping to let the Elric saga stand on its own two feet. He’s also held up his deep regard for the works of Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber, and Fletcher Pratt among others and was later a founding member of the Swordsmen and Sorceror's Guild of America, none of which indicates someone contemptuous or indifferent to fantasy fiction.
Moorcock continued to write Elric stories in the late 1960s and the 1970s that were set prior to the events of Stormbringer. DAW Books republished the Elric Saga in 1977, arranging the stories by internal chronology, splitting the stories from The Stealer of Souls between The Weird of the White Wolf and The Bane of the Black Sword, the third and fifth books of Elric’s saga respectively. With Moorcock’s approval, Del Rey/Ballantine began publishing the “definitive” version of Elric’s saga in 2008, once again collecting the stories in publication order.
Elric’s saga clearly had an impact on Gary Gygax as he specifically mentions Elric as a playable figure in the “Fantasy Supplement” to Chainmail (1971). The Law vs. Chaos alignment system in Chainmail and original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) may have originated with Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, but there’s a distinct Moorcockian flavor in practice, although that would obviously vary from gaming group to gaming group.
Rob Kuntz and James Ward wrote up Elric and the Melnibonéan mythos in the fourth Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods, & Heroes (1976). Four years later, Kuntz and Ward would detail the Melnibonéan mythos for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in Deities & Demigods (1980). Although TSR had permission from Moorcock to use Elric for D&D, their West Coast rivals Chaosium secured the official Elric license in 1981, leading TSR to remove the Melnibonéan section (and Cthulhu Mythos section) from the third printing onwards of Deities & Demigods. As a result, the first two printings of Deities & Demigods are now highly sought after collector’s items. In the meantime, Elric’s gaming presence has remained tightly bound up in the RuneQuest/Basic Role-Playing system for over 25 years, with the exception of Chaosium’s D20 System adaptation Dragon Lords of Melniboné (2001). There is currently no gaming license for any of Michael Moorcock’s works, so it remains to be seen if Elric will ever make an official reappearance at the gaming table….
Oct 30 2017
Rank #10: Episode 29 - Fritz Leiber's "Swords in the Mist" with special guest Joey Royale
(Please also see the Episode 3 and Episode 18 show notes for additional information about the saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser)
Swords in the Mist (Ace Books, 1968) by Fritz Leiber was originally published in paperback as the third book in Ace Books’ complete seven volume saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
The stories is this volume are “The Cloud of Hate” (1963), “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (1959), “Their Mistress, the Sea” (1968), “When the Sea-King’s Away” (1960), “The Wrong Branch” (1968), and “Adept’s Gambit” (1947). “Adept’s Gambit” was the very first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story written in 1936, only to be rejected for publication in Weird Tales magazine. It did not appear in print until after World War II in the hardcover collection Night’s Black Agents (Arkham House, 1947). H.P. Lovecraft himself read “Adept’s Gambit” in manuscript after Leiber’s wife Jonquil opened a correspondence between the Leibers and Lovecraft that lasted until Lovecraft’s death in early 1937. Lovecraft became a great champion of “Adept’s Gambit”, calling it “remarkably fine & distinctive bit of cosmic fantasy”. The draft that Lovecraft read and critiqued is now lost, but we do know that Leiber removed the overt Cthulhu Mythos references in the story and eventually created the world of Nehwon rather than continuing to set Fafhrd and the Mouser’s adventures in the Mediterranean and Near East of Antiquity.
The other particularly notable story in Swords in the Mist is “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, which was originally commissioned by Cele Goldsmith for the all-Leiber November 1959 issue of Fantastic magazine. Leiber’s career had hit the doldrums in mid-1950s partly due to alcohol problems, so Goldsmith’s commissioning of “Lean Times in Lankhmar” was significant step in bringing back Fafhrd and the Mouser. New tales of Nehwon would appear regularly after that up until the late 1980s, enshrining the Twain as Leiber’s most beloved creations.
Jeffrey Catherine Jones provided the cover art for Swords in the Mist, opting to create an overall mood of mystery and epic adventure rather than a literal depiction of a scene from any of the stories. Once again though, the trade dress of later printings constrained and compromised the overall effect:
TSR continued to hold the role-playing game license for Lankhmar during the 1990s, publishing the following adventures for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition: LNA1: Thieves of Lankhmar (1990), LNA2: Newhon (1990), LNA3: Prince of Lankhmar (1991), LNQ1: Slayers of Lankhmar (1992), LNR1: Wonders of Lankhmar (1990), and LNR2: Tales of Lankhmar (1991). Additionally, Lankhmar: City of Adventure was updated for AD&D 2E in 1993 and it was followed by the sourcebook Rogues in Lankhmar in 1995. TSR’s last Lankhmar product was the boxed set Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar: The New Adventures of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser (1996), which was both a campaign setting and a stand-alone game featuring a stripped-down version of the AD&D 2E ruleset. TSR self-destructed shortly thereafter in 1997 so that was the end of Lankhmar in Dungeons & Dragons. That wasn’t the end of Fafhrd and the Mouser’s adventures in roleplaying though, but once again that’s a story for another day….
Swords in the Mist (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Book 3) (trade paperback/Kindle ebook)
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser publication order reading list - Michael Curtis and the Goodman Games crew have compiled an original publication order reading list for the DCC Lankhmar Kickstarter, helpfully highlighting stories they consider “essential reading”.
Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Cloud of Hate and Other Stories collects the 1973 DC Comics series Sword of Sorcery, featuring adaptations and original tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by comics legends Denny O'Neil, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, and Jim Starlin.
Jul 23 2018
Rank #11: Episode 18 - Fritz Leiber's "Swords Against Death" with special guest Jen Brinkman
The stories is this volume are “The Circle Curse” (1970), “The Jewels in the Forest” (1939), “Thieves’ House” (1943), “The Bleak Shore” (1940), “The Howling Tower” (1941), “The Sunken Land” (1942), “The Seven Black Priests” (1953), “Claws from the Night” (1951), “The Price of Pain-Ease” (1970), and “Bazaar of the Bizarre” (1963). “The Jewels in the Forest” was the very first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story to appear in print, under its original title “Two Sought Adventure” in Unknown magazine in 1939. The subsequent four stories also appeared in Unknown, which was cancelled in 1943 due to wartime paper shortages.
A further handful of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories including “Claws from the Night” and “The Seven Black Priests” trickled out over the next two decades. In 1957 all of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories to date except “Adept’s Gambit” (1936/1947) were collected in the Gnome Press hardcover Two Sought Adventure. This collection was later expanded to provide the spine of Swords Against Death.
Dec 18 2017
Rank #13: Episode 19 - Jack Vance's "The Eyes of the Overworld" with special guest David Hoskins
After The Eyes of the Overworld Vance once more took a long hiatus from the Dying Earth before returning again to the setting in the mid-1980s with Cugel’s Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984). The Dying Earth books remain Vance’s most recognizable works, even lending their name to an entire subgenre of science fantasy, although the evolution of the subgenre can be traced back at least through Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912).
Dec 25 2017
Rank #14: Episode 58 - Michael Moorcock's "The Singing Citadel" with special guest Dirk the Dice
Nov 18 2019
Rank #15: Episode 23 - H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" with special guest Bob Brinkman
Given H.P. Lovecraft’s omnipresence today, it’s easy to forget that he had largely faded out of reading public’s mind within a few years of his death in 1937. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei did their best to keep Lovecraft in print by founding the small press Arkham House in 1939, but the publishing house’s output for its first 20 years was mostly limited to high quality hardcovers in short print runs.
Arkham House was often on tenuous financial footing from its very founding, but the snowballing revival of interest in Lovecraft’s Weird Tales compatriot Robert E. Howard in the 1960s seems to have also raised Lovecraft’s visibility. Arkham House seized the opportunity by releasing three newly re-edited omnibus volumes of Lovecraft’s fiction, The Dunwich Horror & Others (1963, revised 1985), At the Mountains of Madness & Other Novels (1964, revised 1986), and Dagon & Other Macabre Tales (1965, revised 1986) and then licensing the stories for paperback publication.
At the Mountains of Madness & Other Tales of Terror (Beagle/Ballantine Books, 1971) was a slimmed-down version of the Arkham House hardcover and featured the novel At the Mountains of Madness and the short stories “The Shunned House”, “Dreams in the Witch-House”, and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”.
Mar 05 2018
Rank #16: Episode 14 - Sterling E. Lanier's "Hiero's Journey"
In 1961 Lanier began his literary career with the publication of his first short story in Analog magazine and by landing an editor’s position at Chilton Books, best known then and now as a publisher of automotive repair manuals. Lanier cemented his place in science fiction history in 1965 by convincing Chilton to publish Frank Herbert’s Dune in hardcover after it had already been rejected by over 20 publishers. Lanier’s strong interest in ecology must have made the Dune stories jump out at him as they were being serialized in Analog magazine. Unfortunately a prophet is never honored in his own land and Lanier was let go from Chilton the following year when Dune initially failed to live up to sales expectations.
Lanier’s creative output was jumpstarted by his dismissal from Chilton and he began working in earnest as a sculptor, jeweler, and writer in the late 1960s. Among his notable works from this period were miniature portrait sculptures of characters from The Lord of the Rings that were supposedly admired by J.R.R. Tolkien himself and that may have served as character models for Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.
During this time Lanier also began writing his Brigadier Ffellowes short stories, which were inspired in equal part by Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens “club tales” and his enthusiasm for cryptozoology. Lanier’s interest in ecology and weird creatures would come into full bloom in his first novel for adults, Hiero’s Journey, which his old employer Chilton published in hardcover in 1973, followed by a Bantam Books paperback in 1974.
Hiero’s Journey is clearly the main literary inspiration for James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet’s Gamma World (TSR, 1978), the archetypal post-apocalyptic role-playing game. Gamma World and its spiritual descendants such as Mutant Future (Goblinoid Games, 2008) and Mutant Crawl Classics (Goodman Games, 2018) form the weird, kitchen-sink, far-future branch of post-apocalyptic role-playing games as opposed to the more gloomy and “realistic” near-future post-apocalypse RPGs typified by The Morrow Project (TimeLine Ltd., 1980) or Aftermath! (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1981).
Gary Gygax cited Hiero’s Journey as an influence on Dungeons & Dragons and it’s easy to see why. For example, from the original 1974 rules we have the various jelly, mold, ooze, pudding, and slime monsters that echo the outgrowths of the House; they were later fully fleshed (sprouted?) out in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (1978). Psionic powers were first introduced in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry (1976) and have appeared in many subsequent editions of Dungeons & Dragons, although they’ve never co-existed easily with the magic system. As for the protagonists, Hiero Desteen* provides one model for how the cleric class could be roleplayed as warrior-priests as opposed to the typical healer/protective spellcaster; of course, Hiero could also be modeled as a ranger with the same effect in play. In a similar vein, Brother Aldo provides a slightly different take on the druid as cheerful and kind-hearted, yet resolutely dedicated to preserving the balance of nature.
A third book in the Hiero saga was planned but never materialized, but it’s said that Hiero’s Journey is very popular in Russia and that as many as 20 unauthorized works set in Hiero’s world were published in Russian around 2002-2004--apparently, a Hiero never dies….
Nov 13 2017
Rank #17: Episode 48 - August Derleth's "The Lurker at the Threshold" with special guest Jon Hook
Jun 17 2019
Rank #19: Episode 24 - J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" with special guest Daniel J. Bishop
Mar 19 2018
Rank #20: Episode 11 - John Bellairs's "The Face in the Frost"
The Face in the Frost was published in hardcover by Macmillan in 1969, with quirky pen-and-ink illustrations by his friend Marilyn Fitschen that reinforced the alternating whimsy and dread of the story. The book did well enough for Bellairs to turn to full-time writing, with his next work The House with a Clock in its Walls was also a dark fantasy, although set in the late 1940s. Supposedly Bellairs had difficulty selling The House with a Clock in its Walls until a publisher suggested rewriting it as a young adult (YA) book. The House with a Clock in its Walls proved to be a huge critical and sales success, so much so that Bellairs would remain best known as a YA author for the rest of his career, completing a total of 15 books for young readers.
It’s interesting that The Face in the Frost did not differ dramatically in mood and tone from Bellairs’ gothic mysteries for young readers, yet it was never re-marketed as a YA work. Ace Books published The Face in the Frost in paperback in 1978, but its odd man out status as Bellairs’s only substantial adult work may have contributed to it going out out of print after Bellairs’ death in 1991. It was then only available only in specialty press editions until it was finally republished in 2014 by Open Road Media, although unfortunately without Marilyn Fitschen’s illustrations.
The Ace Books paperback cover by Carl Lundgren (also the cover artist of Dragon magazine issues 50 & 68) renders Prospero as an archetypal high fantasy wizard and captures some of the eeriness but none of the whimsy of The Face in the Frost.
It’s unclear when Gary Gygax first encountered The Face in the Frost, but it may have been fresh on his mind as he was writing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In The Players Handbook Gygax explicitly states that magic-users must consult their spellbooks in order to memorize their spells, which echoes Prospero’s habit of studying his spellbook at night before the next day’s journey and adventures. In contrast the Original Dungeons & Dragons box set merely states that a given spell (slot) may only be used once a day--no mention is made of memorization or spell preparation.
It appears that Gary Gygax wanted to provide a narrative and theoretical underpinning to what may have originally been a game balance decision. He found much of his answer in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, but The Face in the Frost may have helped to reinforce his design choice. To the dominant Vancian strain and the acknowledged influence of de Camp and Pratt’s Enchanter books may we now add The Face in the Frost as a direct influence on the AD&D magic system?
Oct 16 2017