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Classical Wisdom: The Phoenix in the Sword

This is the first of what I hope to be a regular series of articles on the ‘classic’ stories that inspired early roleplaying games. More specifically, I intend to read these stories (many of which I haven’t read, or read so long ago as to have forgotten them) as a modern Game Master and see if there’s anything in them that still resonates today, 41 years after the first commercial roleplaying game hit the shelves.

Today I’ve decided to start with the very first story about Conan the Barbarian by Robert E Howard, “the Phoenix in the Sword,” which was originally published in Weird Tales in 1932. Outside of roleplaying games (I remember grabbing the first AD&D module to feature Conan hoping for the barbarian class rules and being disappointed by “Conan, the Fighter-Thief”), my primary experiences with Conan were the various Marvel Comics titles and the two movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role.

Conan’s adventures take place in Hyboria, a cultural mishmash of ancient and medieval Earth cultures set on Earth in an age after the fall of Atlantis and before our own ancient civilizations arose. For me, one of the most striking things about Hyboria is its similarity to Middle-Earth (The Hobbit is seven years away), from the general shape of the continent to its position between a more fantastical age and our own. It’s worth noting that humanity is the only true “race” of Hyboria – there are no elves and orcs here.

Upon reading Conan’s initial story, I found several things that were striking to me as a Game Master (well, four things, but one, Conan’s status, was incidental to the first point).

First, “the Phoenix in the Sword” is actually a rewrite of a Kull the Conqueror story. For me, having thought of “Conan” and “King Conan” as being two distinct lines, it was surprising to learn that “King Conan” came first; he is already a barbarian king on the throne of Aquilonia, having killed the previous despotic king and now, ironically, is largely despised himself as a foreigner.

There are many “would be” or failed campaigns that lay fallow among my notes; it’s comforting to read a successful example of changing up the window dressing and reusing them. Also, I enjoyed the theme of “happily ever after” denied – Conan got what he wanted only for it to cause him more trouble. I often hear my players voice their character goals around the table. Usually I think about what trials I can give them to make attaining those goals worth it. Now I’m thinking about how to make them question whether acquiring those goals were worth it!

Second, Thoth-Amon, the sorcerer of the story (sorcerers do exist, but they are rare, dangerous, and usually villains) is reduced to being a slave on account of him losing the Serpent Ring of Set. The Ring literally falls into his lap during the course of the story, as a conspirator who was planning to kill Conan just happened to have bought the ring from the thief who stole it from Thoth-Amon. As a GM, I cry foul. No disrespect to REH, but this is lazy plotting to me and an excuse to give Conan a summoned monster to fight in what is largely a standard “conspirators wish to knife the king to death but he is ready to face them” plot to show off the barbarian’s fighting prowess. As a GM, I’d craft a whole adventure or even a campaign around the PCs trying to stop a Big Bad from regaining her superweapon, not just give it back to her for fun!.

Third, the as-yet-unpublished Middle-Earth rears its head again. We have a formerly magically powerful bad guy reduced to near-impotency because he lost his evil ring – a ring which finds its way back to him – and he’s working with another bad guy who thinks he’s using the former big bad for his own purposes. In the end, the ally gets crushed. While I have no reason to think that J.R.R. Tolkien was ripping off Conan, this does serve as a warning to me that players are going to get taken out of my adventure plots if they match something familiar too closely.

Fourth, for all of covers I’ve seen over the years with a half-naked Conan posing with half-naked women, there is only a passing reference to “ladies” in the entire story. All of the named characters are male. In my own games, I often strive for more diversity – especially considering that I usually have at least one female player – and frequently switch NPC genders for important characters if I feel the setting material is too heavily weighted.

Overall, it was an entertaining enough read and I look forward to seeing where REH takes Conan. As a GM, I think Point 2 is the biggest lesson for me – don’t throw things at the PCs “just because.” If I want to jazz up an encounter, there should be a rational (at least within the context of the setting) reason for it to occur.

So how about you? Have you read “The Phoenix in the Sword?” What lessons have you gleaned from it? Do you use “just because” regularly in your campaigns?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Classical Wisdom: The Phoenix in the Sword"

#1 Comment By Jeff M On August 10, 2015 @ 8:07 am

Nice article. On point two, I would just hasten to remind you that REH was a pulp writer cranking out material as fast as he could to make a living. So yeah, it was a bit lazy but it was also pulp and coincidence was abundant in many pulp works.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 10, 2015 @ 8:30 am

Oh, I realize that, Jeff, and in many ways being a GM is similar (i.e. “crap it’s Wednesday and I haven’t even thought about Friday night’s session? What can I come up with to fill four hours?”). That said, Point 2 is something I’d try to avoid as a GM.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On August 10, 2015 @ 9:17 am

I haven’t read much Conan. I had heard bad things about the writing and plots, but later heard that the issue was that the original Conan stories are bold, but imitators’ stories are often mixed in any collection. Reading original REH Conan is on my to read list… but that’s a long list.

#4 Comment By mrm1138 On August 12, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

Make sure you pick up the three Del Rey collections: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan. Those editions are drawn directly from Howard’s original manuscripts and are placed in the order in which he originally wrote them. They also have some fantastic illustrations and supplemental material.

#5 Comment By Tomcollective On August 11, 2015 @ 6:39 am

I found the prose well written and the dialogue almost anachronistic. The woman in the story was also very much of the “panicking and needs a good slap” variety. I’m not one to judge an 80(+/-) year old story’s gender politics, but the combination kept interrupting me with “this was written in the 30s!” moments. This ultimately got in the way and I never finished the story. I can see why he earned his reputation, and I won’t dismiss his whole catalog based on this one story I half read, but I’m also in no rush to head back. Having read so much stuff influenced by him, there’s also a bit of deja vu. You recognize a lot, but since he invented it, you do a lot of “SO THAT’S where that comes from”!