Friday, June 9, 2017

Game 253: Conan: The Cimmerian (1991)

A gruesome opening screen foretells an equally-gruesome campaign setting.
Conan: The Cimmerian
United States
Synergistic Software (developer); Virgin Games (publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started:  9 June 2017          
Until just recently, I was familiar with the character of Conan primarily through the Arnold Schwarzenegger films, where I was 100% certain he was described as a "Sumerian." Thus, the moment I saw the subtitle to this game, I said, "Where the hell was 'Cimmeria'?" and embarked on a flurry of Googling that filled in some major gaps in my pop-culture knowledge.

The character was created by pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard in 1932 for a story called "The Phoenix on the Sword," published in Weird Tales magazine (1923-1954). Howard ultimately published 17 stories featuring the titular barbarian before committing suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. Afterwards, ownership of the character passed through several hands and resulted in numerous magazine stories, books, comic books, films, television series, role-playing games, and of course video games. Today, the character is half-in, half-out of public domain depending on when and how various stories were published, and in what countries, and who you ask. In any event, it's clear from my research that we owe Howard credit for dozens of sword-and-sorcery tropes that I've always just taken for granted, or mistakenly ascribed to other authors like Tolkien. A strong argument could be made for Howard as the grandfather of all modern heroic fantasy.
The original version of Conan had some body-building to do.
Uninterested in historical research, and limited by the availability of decent libraries near his home in rural central Texas, Howard set his tales in the "Hyborian Age," which follows the destruction of Atlantis and pre-dates the rise of known historical civilizations. Various authors have given the dates of the age from 33,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE. "Cimmeria" is meant to be the ancient British Isles, before they were isles, although confusingly the word is known to history as an early name for Crimea.

(As an aside, I find this time period extremely compelling. Modern homo sapiens emerged around 100,000 years ago, and yet the first civilizations from which we have historical records emerged only about 12,000 years ago. Imagine the countless generations within those 88,000 years--people with minds as developed as yours and mine--whose thoughts and deeds have been lost to history. Imagine all the heroes and villains, geniuses and leaders, who must have existed during that time. Imagine all the societies and cities that must have risen and collapsed, the inventions tried and abandoned, the science discovered and lost, the songs and poems composed and forgotten.)
A fantastic manual illustration evokes the art from the 1930s pulp magazines.
I don't know if I'll ultimately come to like Conan, but it was clearly created by people who loved the original legends, principally Robert Clardy, whose early works--Dungeon Campaign (1978), Wilderness Campaign (1979), Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure (1980), and Apventure to Atlantis (1982) were set at the dawn of the Hyborian Age. Clardy must have been thrilled to get the rights to make a Conan RPG. In programming it, Synergistic modified the game engine that goes back to War in Middle Earth (1989) and was used in Spirit of Excalibur (1990) and Vengeance of Excalibur (1991). I didn't love those games, but I recognize Clardy's and Synergistic's attention to historical and literary detail in creating them, as well as the production values they added to their documentation.

The game opens with an overhead view of Irskuld, the village in which Conan works peacefully as a blacksmith (his father's trade) and lives with his wife. Except one day, the hordes of Thoth Amon, high priest of the snake god, Set, override the village, slay Conan's wife, and knock Conan unconscious. When he comes to, he sets out on a mission of vengeance against the evil high priest.
The horde arrives...
A pretty cool animated scene shows the riders thundering into the city.
Thoth-Amon lightning-bolts my wife for no reason.
War in Middle Earth and the two Excalibur games transitioned the player from the map (campaign) level to the individual scene level. Conan intersperses between these two a "city" level in which Conan wanders around buildings and NPCs from a quasi-oblique angle. Entering buildings or engaging in combat transitions to the "scene" level of the previous games, often with individual objects to interact with. I rather like the addition of the "city" view; it's absence in the previous games created laughably small cities of only a single screen and a single NPC.
Map view. Apparently, more stuff will fill in as I discover it.
The interface has also been considerably simplified for Conan. You could play almost the entire game with a mouse, although (thankfully) there are also redundant keyboard commands. Almost anything interactable, you simply click on. Sub-menus appear when necessary.

Combat has never been a strength of this engine, and here it is relatively pathetic. You have three attack styles with your sword: thrust, swing (or side-swipe), and overhand (or chop). Each enemy has a weakness for a particular style, which you must figure out through trial and error. You start the game with no skill in anything but "swing," so a key early goal is to find a weapon master to train you in the other styles. But aside from the three choices, there are no tactics at all in combat. You just click on the enemy and keep swinging until someone is dead. Enemies don't seem to drop any loot, and so far my skill hasn't increased from fighting them, and there's no experience meter in the game, so I'm not sure there's any point to combat if you don't absolutely have to fight.
In combat, Conan looks appropriately barbarianish.
The VGA graphics at the "scene" level are very well-composed. Unfortunately, there's no sound except music, which offers syncopated rhythms that make it feel almost jazzy. (You can hear it in this video). It varies from location to location, almost mirroring Quest for Glory in the use of leitmotifs for various character types. But alas, I don't like constant game music even when it's good and have thus been playing in silence.
Conan's starting attributes.
Conan starts with 30 stamina, 50 defense, 50 "swing" skill, 60 stealth, a sword, and 30 bezants, standing on the world map just outside the city of Shadizar, for which the game box helpfully supplies a map.
Supposedly the largest city in the kingdom. Almost all of those buildings can be entered.
There are dozens of houses to enter and steal from, and I found that every successful theft raises my "stealth" skill by 1 point. Some of the buildings are locked; keys to these locks can apparently be found or purchased.
Conan is, canonically, a thief.
There are several stores buying and selling things like jewels, maps, keys, magic items, scrolls, and adventuring goods. I purchased a rope, flint and steel, and a torch, all of which sound like they will eventually be necessary. Inns sell rooms for the night for 20 bezants.
Stocking up on adventuring staples.
NPCs wander the map and tell you things about the city, Thoth Amon, or other topics, or occasionally just attack you.
An NPC fails to really "represent" his city.
Prompted by a hint in the manual, I searched the thieves' quarter until I found Master Quan Yo. He wanted 150 bezants for each training session, far more than I had, so I headed out to commit some thievery. There were times I found thieves already plundering the houses I entered, and they invariably attacked me. If I wasn't lucky enough to face a thief who responded to "swing," I invariably died.
Moments later, his head was next to his body.
The major chapters of the game are narrated by an old guy sitting around a campfire, and whenever Conan dies, there's a funny screen of him saying, "Wait, that can't be right...." before the game reloads from the last save. Sometimes these screens offer some hint as to why you died and how could survive next time ("Surely, Conan would have known to thrust against that enemy").
My inept playing confuses the framing storyteller.
Occasionally, guards catch you burglarizing a house (your sneak skill must have something to do with this), and you don't even get an option to fight. You just spend 3 months in jail and lose all your money. I'll suck that up later in the game, but at this point, when I'm trying to learn things, I'm reloading.
Don't do the crime if you can't reload an infinite number of times.
I wasted a lot of time in houses "finding" gold in urns and such, not realizing that you separately have to pick up items after you find them. Houses also occasionally delivered gems that I could sell at the gem shop.
Conan pawns his way to victory.
A few houses had rugs that, when activated, slid aside to reveal ladders going down to some tunnels beneath the city. I suspect these tunnels are key to accessing a section of the city called "Snake Alley" that appears on the map but seems to have no street access.
That must be a hell of a thick rug.
I didn't last very long in the tunnels, though. They're patrolled by some kind of lion whose weakness is definitely not "swing."
This encounter ended poorly for Conan.
At one point, a thief NPC told me to see his friend Jambal at the Shadizar Inn. Jambal might have a job for me. Unfortunately, when I visited Jambal, he just seemed insulted by my chosen sobriquet.
I suppose I could stand to put on some clothes.
Eventually, I amassed 300 bezants, returned to Master Quan Yo, and developed 50 points in both "thrust" and "chop." Now what I really need to do is systematically explore the map, particularly the labeled buildings like the Temple of Crom (my god), the Temple of Set (my enemy), and the Governor's Palace.
Conan engages in some of the game's limited character development.
Also, apparently a Master Thief wants to meet me:
So far, the game has a pleasantly simple feeling. The two Excalibur titles always had some army bearing down on you or some other kind of time limit, plus a baffling array of possibilities when it came to interacting with NPCs and the environment. Conan makes me feel like I have a lot more freedom to explore, and makes me less fearful that I'm missing something. On the other hand, I can already tell that this simplicity--particularly in combat--is going to hurt my assessment of the game as it wears on. This will be a fun 12-hour game. It will be an infuriating 40-hour game. By next entry, I should have a sense of which is shaping up to be more likely.


  1. Maybe not just 100,000 years even, maybe up to 300,000!

  2. Hey, nice historical research. I followed the same path as you, going from the movies to the books, realizing that what I tought being a stupid "holywood" franchise had actual deeper roots. Although for me I stumbled upon Conan the short story barbarian coming from Lovecraft. Because Robert E Howard wrote a couple of stories as part of the Cthulu mythos and both became friends and exchanged a notable correspondance. And actually, I recommend to anyone here to actually go and read some of the original Conan, it's truly worth it. Really vintage, but not outdated since it's coming from a true author, and especially if you are a Lovecraft fan, you will find a lot of similarities in tone. Like if Lovecraft was to write heroic fantasy, that's what you would get. A lot of the mystical background got lost in translation accross the century, obviously, although the first very slow-paced movie was surprisingly true to some of it.

    1. I second your recommendation strongly. While Lovecraft can be laborious with his writing, R.E. Howard is positively efficient and concise. His prose being so to-the-point that the scenes in which Conan slaughters a band of brigands feels totally real time. Writing for pulps, Howard had to choose his words very carefully and his editing was amazing. He tells his stories with no more words than necessary, something many writers of CRPGS could stand to learn.

    2. *cough* Torment Numenera *cough* ;)

    3. I think I read somewhere that there were even some hints in the stories that Conan is connected to the Cthulu universe, could be wrong though.

    4. I also came to Howard via Lovecraft and Sprague de Camp, and recommend his King Kull stories. Kull is a similar Atlantean character to Conan, who gains the throne of a major hyperborean kingdom and stars in several almost vignette-like adventures, often fighting the serpent cult of Set (?).

  3. "He wanted 150 bezants for each training session, far less than I had"

    far *more* than I had, I'm guessing?

  4. Ahh, Conan. I was maybe 6 year old when I saw this book that really made my imagination go wild. I believe my father bought it and left low enough that I could find it. I read it without understanding much, but it was really great. It was Conan "Godzina Smoka", (Hour of the Dragon), if you look it up you can see that it has awful cover. I no longer have it, since it was glued and glue was weak, so after losing about half of pages I decided that it is time to part ways. After that I read probably most of stories starring Brave Cimmerian.

    Yet, funny thing, what I remember best from all Conan books I ever read is the quotation (in polish, so I had to found it): "Creatures of night and the silence, the gray apes of Vilayet were voiceless." Man, were I horrified by this vision!

    To justify this longish rant: this game seems to be one of first that you played where I get the feeling that whole "experience" is created by pretty graphics and there's not much beyond it.

  5. I re-read the complete Conan chronicles a couple of years ago and for the most part they stood up remarkably well, apart from a few stories that had a pretty racist slant. Although that seemed more like a reflection of his time/place than any personal fixation (as opposed to Lovecraft), as he seems to be quite sympathetic to different races in most of his stories.

  6. Conan is also widely considered one of the main inspirations for classic/old school dungeons and dragons (0e, basic, and up to 1st edition). It's the difference between sword & sorcery fantasy vs epic fantasy. It's about gritty, small scale adventures, in contrast to sweeping, world ending stories. Classic RPGS played out in the same way.

    This is the kind of fantasy I live for.

    1. I can't think of any good CRPG with a real sword & sorcery setting. There are plenty of RPGs with barbarian classes, but they usually fall under your typical pseudo-medieval, Tolkien/D&D inspired generic fantasy. A good RPG that properly captures that sword & sorcery / Conan feel would be great. (I know there is/was a Conan MMORPG, but I don't care for those).

    2. There is a thread on the RPG Codex started just before Mr. Addict playing this game. The conclusion is the same as yours, no real good CRPGs with a S&S setting:

    3. One problem with placing stories in the Hyborian period is, it's still deep in the stone age. Glancing at theories that the Hyborian time would be between 35,000 and 10,000 BC, that's still at minimum 7,000 years before the first swords or metal armor would be invented. Imagining Conan with a stone-tipped spear or flint dagger doesn't seem quite the same. It also makes it unlikely that Conan was trained as a blacksmith.

      Still, if you're doing swords and sorcery I guess you can handwave away historical accuracy in the same moment you're imagining the magic. Or, alternately, you could imagine a lost civilization that invented metalworking and then was later destroyed, taking the secret with it.

    4. "Or, alternately, you could imagine a lost civilization that invented metalworking and then was later destroyed, taking the secret with it." I don't know a lot about archaeology, but is that too much to hope for? Wouldn't anything iron from that long ago have rusted to dust by now?

    5. I suspect that Howard, much like Lovecraft, was inspired at least in part by Charles Fort, with his tales of "out of place artifacts" such as the Dorchester Pot, a metal vessel purportedly forged by the antediluvian blacksmith Tubal Cain and extracted from solid rock.

    6. Unfortunately, there are reasons which make this very unlikely.

      It is pretty inconceivable that a civilization would only come up with iron working without any other metals. Iron, while plentiful, is difficult to work with (brittle), compared to gold, tin, lead and even copper. Some of those items should remain.

      Also, it is very hard to imagine a society with capability to make iron items and no farming. Since iron working requires furnaces, which pretty much requires permanent settlements. Meteoric iron, which is an alloy, is easier, but isn't plentiful enough.

      For a civilization like this to disappear without a trace we pretty much would have to be looking in the wrong place, or something happen to completely erase any trace of its existence.

      The only real option for a lost civilization we have is an extremely isolated one, that's currently under the sea. There's very little to support such a thing.

    7. Sort of. Metal artifacts, even the ones susceptible to oxidation, are frequently found in archaeological sites. Bone fragments, wood fragments, pottery shards, even garbage can teach archaeologists important things about people, time, and society. A sword-blade-shaped pile of rust would still be a dead giveaway. Heck, they can tell which bands of hunter-gatherers were in contact with one another by the types of stone tools they used.

      One theory about what humanity might have been doing in this period is called the Toba Catastrophe, where a supervolcano in Indonesia erupted and caused a 5-10 year winter, similar to the Tambora "year without a summer" of 1816 and the Krakatoa eruption of 1883. Supposedly the Toba Catastrophe caused the human population to drop to 5-10000 individuals, which would presumably have taken a great deal of time to recover from.

      The Hyborian Age is cooler, though.

    8. To support your great point about generations of people, heroes, villains, and sagas lost to time... You can still confront an evil snake god priest with a stone tipped spear, and he can still stab you in the back with a flint dagger... Could even be a magic stone tipped spear! It may not be as iconic, but if archaeology gives you a flatout "no" to iron, you don't have to let that stifle your imagination :)

    9. That's an interesting question. I don't know much about archeology myself, but rust needs oxygen, so it's unlikely that not at least some artifacts would have survived, e.g. in a moor. Another hint would be the lack of structures for iron processing from that time. You can't rule it out, but that scenario at least seems very unlikely.

    10. That's an interesting question. I don't know much about archeology myself, but rust needs oxygen, so it's unlikely that not at least some artifacts would have survived, e.g. in a moor. Another hint would be the lack of structures for iron processing from that time. You can't rule it out, but that scenario at least seems very unlikely.

    11. That's rather unlikely, for several reasons:
      a) some iron artefacts of such civilisation would likely survive one way or another (trapped somewhere with no oxygen access, like a swamp)
      b) there would be probably some sign of an earlier metalworking era (copper alloys aren't quick to degrade, so bronze or brass would be likely found)
      c) metalworking civilisation likely would have left some stuff made out of silver or gold - especially gold. And gold isn't something that would be lost to time after a period as short as 100 000 years.

      But I'm also no expert on archaeology, so take my words with a grain of salt. :)

    12. I find this time period extremely compelling.

      Me too. We can be certain that there were incredibly rich cultures, languages, epics and legends, musical traditions, feats of valor and compassion, etc. that are all now lost irretrievably to the ravages of time.

      Wouldn't anything iron from that long ago have rusted to dust by now?

      I'm not sure, though I think poor-quality iron rusts more slowly because of its impurities. But if there aren't undiscovered objects out there then, on the "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" front, could a volcanic eruption have completely wiped out all signs of a metalworking civilization?

    13. It seems unlikely that there were any major civilizations prior to known history... we were probably small tribes of hunter gatherers with small villages at our most advanced.

    14. The actual real possiblity of such a civilization is not really pertinent to its evocative power IMO. We can ignore the technical details of archeology in pursuit of suspension of disbelief. Like hyperspace travel in SF: it's not real, but it is believable to imagine it "could" be. Same here, there has not been a developed ironworking civ at that time, be it is believable it could have existed and disappeared and that's enough to make us dream.

      And besides, there's magic anyway so you can hand-waive anything. Like, to use a common trope, at the end of the civilization after it destroyed itself in wars, the last wizard alive cast a huge spell that sent all artifacts to a parallel plane so that future civs are safe from making the same errors. Or something.

    15. The problem with an unknown civilization possessing iron is one of infrastructure and influence.

      It takes a lot of infrastructure to forge metal. You need people to cut the wood, make charcoal, and so on. That means you need enough excess resources to support people who aren't involved in food production. So that requires a certain level of knowledge of food production.

      Secondly, suppose you have a civilization that can work iron while everyone else is on flint or beaten copper. That is going to leave an impression on those around you. You've now got weapons that work better, and sweet trade goods. You think there would be some trace of that, right?

    16. More boringly, to have a civilisation that has advanced metallurgy you pretty much need to have agriculture. While iron may rust the domesticated wheat would definitely been used in a widespread area. I think the best you can hope for are permanent, non-agricultural settlements based on fishing that disappeared beneath the waves because of the rise of the sea level.

    17. Like Atlantis, the original home-city of Conan?

    18. Adding to the debate, there are sites under water arguably to be the remnants of ancient civilizations. See for example which would by far predate all other known civilizations in the area. Who knows what might still be discovered. I think there is at least a small chance that some sort of lost civilization existed before 12.000 BC.

  7. My first Conan experience was "Conan the Adventurer", which had a great opening animation and theme song (look it up on Youtube!) and was pretty decent taken as its own thing. When I got older and started buying collections of the Marvel Savage Sword of Conan comic magazine and the original stories I realized that the cartoon was about as light and fluffy as a pillow compared to the source materials they were drawing from.

    Still, it made for a great starter kit.

    1. I definitely grew up watching those. It had an interesting central story arc, though they never really accomplished anything with it. Good stuff for what it was

  8. Pretty game, but Goldbox has spoiled me on combat. It looks like a Karate computer game I once had. Like you, the movies were my introduction to the world of Hyperboria.

    I guess, when you think about it, but all classes in Dungeons and Dragons are thieves or criminals. In 1st edition, anyway, you needed to get treasure to level up and that meant taking it away from somebody else, hence the muscle and firepower.

    1. No, you didn't need to. It did give EXP unlike later editions though. 1gp = 1exp. I'd hardly call all the classes thieves or criminals either...

    2. True.
      Adventurers=Advocates of communal ownership.

    3. @JJ Probably Karateka, a highly acclaimed game. I'm sure it influenced many games after.

  9. Really enjoyed the introductory piece on Howard's life and work--the man really doesn't receive his full due for everything he brought to the fantasy genre and the gaming world in particular, and his Conan work has largely been reduced to a sort of burly barbarian pastiche in the public eye. But Howard was a better--and more thoughtful--writer than he's often given credit for. Even his sloppiest prose (and he wrote some very sloppy prose) has something to recommend it, which is terribly rare in a writer so young; I've often wondered what he would have been writing at the age of 40 or 50, when so many authors start producing the work they're actually remembered for. (There's a good chance it wouldn't have been fantasy--Howard wrote westerns, historicals, sports stories, and so forth.)

    I do want to clarify and nitpick one item:

    Uninterested in historical research, and limited by the availability of decent libraries near his home in rural central Texas, Howard set his tales in the "Hyborian Age," which follows the destruction of Atlantis and pre-dates the rise of known historical civilizations.

    While this is fair enough shorthand, it's worth noting that Howard was incredibly interested in historical research--as noted, he had a fondness for writing straight historical stories and he made a point of collecting and lending the history books he could get his hands on. But he was also dashing off stories to earn a paycheck, and I expect the Hyborian Age allowed him to skimp on the research when needed; still, his interest in real-world history (both ancient and more recent--he had a keen interest in local Texas history in particular) is evident in his work.

    For further reading: Del Rey's three Conan collections (starting with The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian) contain all Howard's published writings on the character as well as a goodly amount of biographical info on Howard himself. I'd also highly recommend Novalyne Price Ellis's One Who Walked Alone, a memoir / journal of her years as a friend (and on-again off-again girlfriend) to Howard. Aside from being a compelling period piece about small-town life in 1920s and 1930s Texas, it gives quite a bit of insight into Howard as a person. (It was also, weirdly enough, adapted into a film: The Whole Wide World, with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renée Zellweger.)

    For folks simply interested in dipping into the very best of Howard Conan, I'd recommend a few short stories in particular, easily found (out of copyright) online:

    "Beyond the Black River"
    "Tower of the Elephant"
    "Queen of the Black Coast"
    "Red Nails"

    Any one of these should give a pretty solid impression of Howard's barbarian. (There are plenty of other stories, ranging from "quite good" to "a rehash obviously needed to pay the bills"; I encourage folks to determine their own tolerance level...)

    Apologies for the long comment and the derailing. Hope someone finds it useful!

    1. In the wake of Howard's suicide, attempts to finish or rewrite or invent new Conan stories have flourished, with many celebrated authors trying their hand. The versions that I remember best were published in the 80's in the aftermath of the Schwarzenegger movies and many were written by Robert Jordan, who later became famous for writing the Wheel of Time series, which George RR Martin was trying to parody with his Game of Thrones series, before he sank into self-parody.

    2. I'm glad you mentioned Robert Jordan's Conan books. They are the only ones I read in the Conan series, but remember enjoying them quite a lot as they were simple fantasy fare and everything else I read was so incredibly intricate. It was a refreshing break.

    3. It should be noted that Robert Jordan was a latecomer to finishing up Howard's unfinished work. Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine Crook de Camp wrote quite a few 'posthumous collaborations' based on Howard's unfinished stories and notes.

    4. Aye. And from what little I know, Conan started out small but Howard did continue his research on the early ages of human civilization, being so bold as to propose several scenarios of prehistoric advanced technology akin to magic.

      Some might even be true for all we know with all these OOPaArts and chronological anomalies that were being hidden pre-internet era but had to surface because, well, internet.

    5. I definitely second the recommendation of 'Tower of the Elephant.' My department chair let's me teach a course in Weird Fiction every few years, and this one is always a favorite of my students.

  10. "Imagine the countless generations within those 88,000 years--people with minds as developed as yours and mine--whose thoughts and deeds have been lost to history."

    There was an advanced civilization that ended up beneath the waves. It was called the Eternal Kingdom of Zeal, where dreams can come true.

  11. I haven't had a lot of specific replies, but thanks, everyone, for contributing so much to the understanding of Conan, Howard, and heroic fantasy.

    1. Well, there isn't much to say that you haven't already discovered without wandering into spoiler territory. It's a fairly simple game where progress depends more on finding the correct items (special swords against an enemy type or special items) than traditional stats and levels. It's definitely not an 40-hour game at least.

    2. He wasn't talking about the game itself. Unless you're trolling him.

  12. Hmmm yaknow considering how glacial/interglacial periods work I can easily see a bronze age or even iron age civilization having time to rise up and form and then being destroyed by the glaciers coming back or by being flooded out. It could explain a lot of the ancient flooding myths and even things like northern religions dislike of winter...more specifically the Norse descriptions of Ragnarok as leading to winter. Granted they probably wouldn't have been happy with winter anyway....still I wonder. Dammit never a good research library around when I NEED it.

    1. It is an interesting question- my automatic response is generally "if we haven't found proof by now, it probably didn't happen." On the other hand, from what I understand, the factors necessary to preserve ancient artifacts sometimes seem so unlikely, and our finding them kind of miraculous, that who knows? Maybe there are huge developments in human history we just have no clue about, that were wiped away.

    2. One of my favorite parts of Star Control 2:

      Then the Ur-Quan broadcast an odd message:
      All objects of human construction more than 500 years old were 'to be abandoned'.
      We didn't know what the Ur-Quan meant until they moved their Dreadnoughts to new orbital positions
      and opened fire on the surface with their fusion weapons.
      In seconds, large sections of London, Paris, and other European cities were incinerated.
      At first we thought they were going to annihilate us after all
      and we noticed that they were also striking such targets as the Giza Pyramids
      the Parthenon in Athens, and Stonehenge. Curiously, The United States was almost untouched.
      The flaming rain lasted for 40 hellish hours.
      It took days after we crawled from our smouldering shelters to realize what the Ur-Quan had done.
      Our new masters had targeted every building, monument or other man-made construction older than 500 years
      and destroyed it.
      In those two days, we lost most of the history of mankind.
      In some cases, the Ur-Quan destroyed places
      which we did not even suspect were significant.
      From their positions in orbit, the Dreadnoughts blew away a kilometer of land in central Iraq
      vaporized several targets in the Amazon rain forest
      punched a big hole through the antarctic icecap to destroy something deep under the surface
      and melted a broad swath of the ocean floor in the south-eastern Atlantic.

    3. @Joet88
      You'd be surprised how little we all know. To even think we know everything about the past shows just how much ignorance is filling that vacuum of knowledge in our brain.

    4. ^In that vein, this is instructive:

  13. Most of the tropes you mention originating with Howard probably came from Edgar Rice Burroughs, but thoae two are certainly among the most influential non-Tolkien fantasy writers.

    Not sure about Conan having a wife though; Conan's family barely rate a mention in the original stories, and the only hint of marriage for him comes well after he is King of Aquilonia.

    1. Conan living as a peaceful villager with a wife who gets killed by invaders is absurd with respect to the original stories and is probably more a nod to the Arnold movie.

      In the original stories, Conan basically left home because he had wanderlust and had heard stories from his grandfather of the wonders of the outside world. Cimmeria was described as a humorless, oppressively gray land, so yeah, Conan wanted to get out of there. The Cimmerians themselves, though, were a great warrior race that would have kicked the living crap out of anyone stupid enough to try and invade (except no one would, because there's nothing in Cimmeria worth fighting over).

    2. That isn't quite how I recall the first story? I recall him being part of a Cimmerian army that invaded some neighbours and lost, and he is forced to flee the battlefield, abandoning his weapons. When searching for shelter he comes across a tomb and breaks in, finding an excellently crafted sword, and from there sets out adventuring.

    3. Ah, my mistake. The Thing In The Crypt was a later story by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, not a Howard original. The earliest story in Conan's life by Howard is The Tower of the Elephant when he is well on his way around the world.

    4. No one really knows for sure, but I think The Frost Giant's Daughter is generally considered the earliest story in the chronology, although Tower of the Elephant is shortly after.

    5. It should be noted that L. Sprague De Camp is a somewhat reviled figure in Howard fandom and scholarship.

      There are several reasons for this, he changed a lot of the stories, wrote new stories from fragments, took other stories that were not Conan tales and turned them into Conan stories, etc. This made it somewhat hard to find the original Howard versions of the stories until the late 90's. He also wrote an unflattering biography of Howard "Dark Valley destiny: The life of Robert E. Howard".

      The De Camp bio is what prompted Novalyne Price Ellis to write "One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard the Final Years" as a response. As others have commented this was later turned into the movie "The Whole Wide World". While this was not a biography of Howard, it was a memoir of her time spent with him. So it was someone who actually knew him, De Camp did not.

      Sometime in the early 2000's noted Howard scholar Mark Finn would write what is considered the definitive Howard bio, "Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard".

      As a Howard fan, I have a decent amount of dislike for De Camp. Though, on the other hand, would Howard still be remember today without De Camp keeping the stories alive and pushing the brand? Hard to say.

      On a side note,there is a similar parallel with Lovecraft. I won't go into detail here, but there is a similar hate of August Derleth among Lovecraft fans. He exploited the stories and the brand for financial gain, but would Lovecraft still be remembered without him keeping the stories in print?

      Sorry for the long comment, I have others to make in this thread, Howard is someone I've studied quite a bit.

    6. I've been going through old pulp magazines from the '30s and '40 the past few years, reading the best stories (that is, either most anthologised or by my favourite writers), and skimming the letter sections.

      My impression is that Lovecraft was never forgotten, while Howard and Conan quickly sank into obscurity, and was rarely mentioned.

      The whole S&S genre was dead for many years, when Unknown ceased publishing due to the paper shortage during WW2, and Weird Tales returned Fritz Leiber's stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

      So I'm inclined to think that De Camp's efforts were more important to promote Howard than was Derleth's efforts for Lovecraft.

    7. I didn't know that about de Camp. I really liked his stories, though it has been a lot of years since I read them.

      I'm not sure the comparison between the archival efforts is fair. As I understand it, Derleth was working to preserve and popularize Lovecraft very shortly after his death, whereas de Camp was quite a few years later. So it could be Lovecraft was never forgotten due to his efforts early on.

      That said, are there any problems with de Camp not understanding Conan and his themes? That is the main reason that Derleth is disliked in the Lovecraft community, that he totally missed the point in a lot of cases. Other people writing in the same way at the same time, like Ambrose Bierce are much better remembered then he is.

    8. I might be wrong and confuse de Camp with one of other writers, but if I'm right then de Camp changed Conan the Believable and Reasonable Barbarian That He Was In Howard's Prose into what people remember most, which is Conan The Almighty Sword Swinging Hordes Defeating Single-handedly Invincible Killing Machine.

      But as I wrote, I might be confused.

    9. Yes, Derleth beginning his work soon after Lovecraft's death surely helped, but even before that there was a Lovecraft "cult". Howard (and Conan) had no such cult, and the few S&S heroes created after Howard's death by Kuttner, Moore and Leiber didn't last long. Leiber's Fahrd&The Gray Mouser were resurrected in the 1950's, though.

      I also found it symptomatic that Howard was not one of the 15-20 writers that were presented in the Famous Fantastic Myseries magazine's column "Masters of Fantasy", while Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith was.

      I think Lovecraft's legeacy could have lived on without Derleth, but Howard was in danger of ending up like A. Merrit, who was an even bigger name than the "Weird Trinity" in his day (and whose 1918 story "The People of the Pit" is as Lovecraftian as you can get), but who is all but forgotten today.

      I could be wrong of course; it's based on impressions from reading and skimming the pulp magazines (and some fanzines) and not scholarly "research".

    10. Yes, de Camp's portrayal of Conan is controversial, to say the least. De Camp was basically not sympathetic to Howard's themes or world view - de Camp liked to lecture about how in real life, barbarians were an undisciplined rabble that were easily schooled by elite Roman soldiers, which is why his Conan seems to yearn to be a smarter, more civilized man compared to Howard's hot-blooded and defiant character. To put it bluntly, de Camp's version of the character is kind of an oaf.

      De Camp also tended to promote Conan as "mindless escapist fun" and he tended to favor the more formulaic stories Howard wrote to keep the bills paid (Conan meets monster, slays monster, rides off with hot girl) over Howard's more ambitious and thematically rich stories such as Red Nails, Beyond the Black River, or Tower of the Elephant.

      Then there's the way de Camp used to promote himself as a full-fledged co-creator alongside Howard, and he supposedly was very prickly about attempts to publish Howard's restored texts over de Camp's edited versions.

    11. That is cool, and I had no idea about that.

      As to Conan being buffed up by de Camp: Quite possible. I've only read the stuff de Camp did in the 60s. I see that he did the novelizations of the movie in the 80s, and I would not be surprised at all if that was the period he became a walking god of combat.

      In the Howard and de Camp collections I read, (white cover with green titles, I think, looks like the 1968 printings) Conan was regularly kidnapped, enslaved, hunted, tricked.... He always managed to escape, hack or sneak his way out though. But he wasn't wading through armies to do it.

    12. Don't think actual barbarians would look like protein-shake-drinking calorie-restricting Dianabol users. They needed excellent aerobic fitness to go along with their anaerobic strength and had no reason to cut their fat content down to 8-10%.

    13. That's a thing with modern artistic interpretations, though, right down to the shaved bodies ;) If you look at the art in Howard's day, Conan looked rather different. I think Howard himself was thinking of a man about 6', 200 pounds, which in the 1920s would have made him a standout physical specimen but nothing like modern bodybuilders.

  14. If anyone's interested in more current Conan takes, the Dark Horse comic series is generally good--but the 2005 reboot with Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord is particularly great, starting with "The Frost-Giant's Daughter."

  15. Though I think like most people here that something should be still here if there was a civilisation advanced enough to have iron, I want to think that we haven't found any artifacts (yet) exactly for reasons stated in longish article talking about marking nuclear waste disposal sites for people who will walk the earth in ten thousand years. And also because climat was quite probably very different and what we look for is not where we look for, for example it can be hidden deep in Russia's territory, where all we have now is bog or swamps.

    Also I like the idea that legendary swords are basically iron ones found in bronze age. It would be great.

  16. Speaking of working with iron I've found it fascinating that many of American indian tribes had almost like a loathing of any possible use for metal working including the use of gold for currency or jewelry but on the other hand were more then happy to buy metal knives and such from the white men.

    1. Not sure what you're talking about here. The various Amerindian tribes of North America used readily-available copper quite extensively for a long time, and valued it quite a bit.

      There is evidence that copper tools (and, later, decorations) were highly prized in Amerindian trade networks.

      Unfortunately, North America is fairly poor in copper deposits accessible from the surface (or shallow mining) due to glacier action, and they didn't develop the tools needed for extensive mining to look for more. This, rather than any "loathing" of metalworking, is why the Amerindians remained a primarily Stone-Age culture until European contact.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Not to mention the vast amount of golden artifacts being shipped to Spain after robbing the New Worlders blind.

  17. I'm both surprised and delighted that you just found out about Conan's origins. As a child I had this sexy collection of Conan books with stories by Howard himself, Lin Carter, L. Sprague Decamp, among others. They covered the whole Conan epic chronologically from his first exploits to his old age. This was way before I was allowed to get near any of the (then considered) ultra-violent Schwarzenegger movies.

    The Conan books inflamed my imagination in such a way that soon I was writing my own Heroic Fantasy "novel" about a lone wandering barbarian, complete with lore and a detailed continent map.

    Btw, I'm puzzled by the word "sobriquet". Online sources tell me it designates a nickname?

    1. "Barbarian": Conan goes by Conan the Barbarian, and the character insulted him by calling him "barbarian."

    2. Only barbarians may call each other barbarians. It's socially impolite for someone out of their class community to call them barbarians.

    3. I actually misused the term. When I was studying Arthurian literature, "sobriquet" was the term always used for the titles or honorifics tacked on to the end of a knight's name, e.g. "Sir Bruce SANS PITE," "Lancelot DU LAC" or "Bran THE BLESSED." Apparently, this isn't a common use of the term, and it's more often just a fancy word for "nickname."

    4. It's a fancy word for a fancy nickname. Even if all your buddies call you "Schmitty," that's not a sobriquet. Outfit nicknames like "No Nose" DiFronzo or Harry "the German" Schweis are modern sobriquets. Pepin "The Short" or Charles "the Hammer" would be examples from history.

  18. If you're interested in such a thing, you can go to the Robert E. Howard Museum in Cross Plains, TX. It's the house he lived in and they have his bedroom set up the way it was when he was living there. REH was pretty big in my childhood so being there was very interesting to me.

    If you don't feel like going to the center of Texas, you can also watch the movie "The Whole Wide World" with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renée Zellweger.

    1. I'm actually only about 100 miles from there all this week. But I don't think I can get away to visit. Thanks for the information anyway.

    2. But... 100 miles in Texas is 'right down the street'!

      Then again, I drive 30 miles to get a bagel.

    3. And had you been there last week, you could have attended Howard Days. An event Cross Plains puts on every year to celebrate Howard. This year it was June 8-10. Though doesn't look like there were really any events on the 8th. Here is a link if you wanna check out what went on.

    4. No kidding. That would have been a fun tie-in if I'd flown in a couple days earlier. It would have been a nice escape from San Antonio, which once you've seen the Alamo is a strong contender for the Most Boring City in America.

  19. Based on what I know of aboriginal history - they have tens of thousands of years containing great leaders, philosophers, warriors, mighty tribes, mythopoeic rituals and land and food cultivating technology etc that only survive in tiny pieces by way of an oral historical tradition. The vast majority of battles would have been fought by spear (as is the case for most of human history) and many of the Aboriginal nations also had woomera (which throw spears even further) and boomerangs (non-returning ones, a sort of carefully shaped throwing club) which meant they had no need of the bow, although even woomera and bows were relatively recent inventions.

  20. The sewer monster reads more like "giant green rat" than "lion" to me, but it's ambiguous.

    1. That's obviously a Fell-Lion, a lion that turned green and scaly after being subjected to Set`s Serpentine Guardian ritual.

  21. The Conan the Barbarian copyright situation is one of the worst ever.

    The character is clearly in the public domain (like Sherlock Holmes, etc). However, there is a trademark on the name 'Conan' which means that if you want to call something 'Conan the Decapitator', for example, you will be sued by rent-seeking parasites.

    1. There's a Conan The Detective in Japan though.

    2. From Wikipedia:
      "Due to legal considerations with the name Detective Conan, the English language release was renamed to Case Closed.[1] "

    3. Except the japan one is for a character named edogawa conan, who is a detective teen turned children (because reasons) who had to use a makeshift name to blend/hide himself. Said name is forged using 2 detective story authors, a japanese autor named Edogawa Ranpo, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for sherlock holmes.

    4. Tell that to rent-seeking parasites.

  22. Howard's contributions to modern fantasy and more specifically sword and sorcery cannot be undersold. Especially to gaming and pop culture in general.

    Gary Gygax, co creator of Dungeons and Dragons cites Howard and Leiber as big influences. He also took cited many other influences, but Tolkien was not one of them.

    This may sound silly because there is obvious Tolkien influnce in the game. Though Gary said many times that is was a marketing decision. Tolkien was big at the time. So they included certain races, etc, to market to those people. There are some who will say Gygax only said that because they got in legal trouble with the Tolkien estate. They had to take Hobbits and Ents out of the game. They were able to keep Elves, Dwarves and Orcs. And I think there may be some truth to the fact that he may have been a little bitter.

    But look at the early rules and published adventures for the game. They were not Tolkien at all. They were way more Howard. Those early adventures are about treasure hunters and tomb raiders. Trying to get rich. Way more Howard than Tolkien.

    Also read "The Tower of the Elephant", or "The Scarlet Citadel". These are dungeon crawls.
    There is also some evidence that Tolkien had read Howard, though it is somewhat murky.

    Anyway, again, sorry for the long comments, I have a lot to say on Howard.

    Might do one more on him being part of the triumvirate of weird fiction.

    1. But the concept of an adventuring party is pure Tolkien, not Howard.
      The _goals_ of the party is of course more Howard, though.

    2. I just read The Phoenix on the Sword and I think I'm hooked. Any suggestions for the next read?

  23. Amazing. A few days after this post and a Kickstarter for a Conan boardgame appears? It's so coincidental, it's scary. By Crom!

  24. I don't know if anyone already commented on this, but you won't have to worry about 40 hours.

    From what I remember, it's a short game, just the right length for what it is.

    Now, I don't want to spoil stuff for you, especially with half-forgotten memories, but there's something about a map later on that will save you some frustration.

    If you want, I can elaborate.

  25. I'm curious to read the rest of your playthrough. I experienced much of the same frustrations when I played, until once I had a shop selling rope for less than another would buy it for. Some shuttling back and forth and I got rich.

    I played until I reached a specific encounter I just couldn't beat - it was a puzzle monster and I clearly didn't have the right approach. Eventually that PC died and Conan went with it. So I'm really interested to see how it should have played out in the end.

  26. It's too bad that Conan wasn't Sumerian after all ... If he were, he could have starred in a spin-off game of Dungeons and Dagons.


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