Fear hovered in the moonlight over Lankhmar. Fear flowed like mist through the twisting thoroughfares and mazy alleyways, trickling even into that most intricately curved and crevice-like street where a sootily flickering lantern marked the doorway to the tavern of the Silver Eel.
-- Fritz Leiber,
"Claws from the Night"
But oh, this lifelong servitude to girls -- whimsical, innocent, calculating, icicle-eyed and hearted, fleeting, tripping little demons! White, slim-necked, sharp-toothed, restlessly bobbing weasels with the soulful eyes of lemurs!
-- Fritz Leiber,
The walls and low ceiling teemed with pictures, mostly in yellow ocher, of demons, strange beasts, bat-winged girls, and other infernal beauties. Their slow looming and fading was nightmarish, yet gently so. All in all, it was one of the pleasantest journies the Mouser could recall, equal of a trip he had once made by moonlight across the roofs of Lankhmar to hang a wilting wreath on a forgotten tower-top statue of the God of Thieves, and light a small blue fire of brandy to him.
-- Fritz Leiber,
"The Lords of Quarmall"
The folk of Lankhmar are so bound by tradition that it was unthinkable that they would interfere with any activities as legitimate as those of an extortioner -- the Number One Extortioner, too -- even in defense of a most favored priest, but there are occasional foreigners and madmen to be dealt with (though in Lankhmar even the madmen generally respect the traditions).
-- Fritz Leiber,
"Lean Times in Lankhmar"
"None can use black magic without straining the soul to the uttermost -- and staining it into the bargain. None can inflict suffering without enduring the same. None can send death by spells and sorcery without walking on the brink of death'' own abyss, aye, and dripping his own blood into it. The forces black magic evoke are like two-edged poisoned swords with grips studded with scorpion stings. Only a strong man, leather-handed, in whom hate and evil are powerful, can wield them, and he only for a space."
-- Fritz Leiber,
"The Unholy Grail"
Curses were violent things that led men to cast themselves off mountaintops or dash their children's brains out against rocks, and women to castrate their bed partners and set fire to their own hair if there wasn't a handy volcano to dive into.
-- Fritz Leiber,
"The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars"
For those unfamiliar with Lankhmar, or those who simply want to know how I see it (and will thus affect how I design the game), Iíve tried to define here some of the mood and style of Lankhmar. Hopefully these notes will help you create characters and plot lines which will fit well into the game world.
In trying to define the essence of Lankhmar Iíve broken it up into five categories:
I think the best way to define swords and sorcery stories is that theyíre the action movies of fantasy literature. Thereís a heavy emphasis on action, often violent, and mood. Thereís typically a dose of humor, often dark, mixed with the violence. And just as action movies are typically defined by classic schlock, the genre also includes some amazing gems. In the case of swords and sorcery, the Conan and Elric stories fill the role of classic schlock (OK, start the flames) and the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories are the gems.
Many of the elements of swords and sorcery will be familiar to gamers from that old standby Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, the Lankhmarian roots of D&D are easy to discern (and acknowledged by the creator) though heavily genericized and watered down. Almost any typical D&D trope can fit well into a swords and sorcery world if you remove the Tolkienesque elements and give it an extra twist on the grimness knob.
One extremely common element of swords and sorcery that we wonít necessarily have to copy in the game is the misogyny. The classics of the genre treat female characters primarily as either scantily-clad prizes or conniving harpies. Even the "feminist" S&S works of Marion Zimmer Bradley and her allies are more than balanced out by the infamous Gor novels! While Leiber is better than most (in the later stories his heroes get downright domestic), his works still display a generous mix of helpless ingenues and femme fatales. So while female players are welcome to play temple prostitutes, lusty duchesses, or heartless divas, you should feel no barrier to creating strong well-rounded female characters.
At the heart of every Lankhmar story lies the tension between the absurd and the macabre. This tension creates a unique edge to the stories which is part of what sets them above much of the rest of the S&S genre. I hope to capture that edge in this game and ask everyone to cooperate. If you encounter something and youíre not certain whether to laugh or be horrified, then weíll have achieved the right attitude!
Probably the best example of this tension is the famed Thievesí Guild of Lankhmar. The very concept, of course, is comical--a professional organization for thieves!--and Leiber plays it to the hilt, describing classes in lock-picking and a alluding to a convoluted system of degrees and titles like "cutpurse second-class". Yet at the same time, the Guild is a source of horror and fear, ruthlessly stamping out all competition and committing great atrocities against the protagonists. This is not one of the prosaic and almost mundane thievesí guilds so commonly found in D&D, but a much more complex source of both humor and terror.
This tension between the absurd and the macabre shows up in the people of Lankhmar and should show up in the characters in the game. Characters often have physical or psychological eccentricities of the most outrageous yet bizarre form. Examples from the books include: the Overlord whose phobia about hair in his food is so strong that he ordered all the palace slaves shaved head to foot; the king of Quarmall, whose eyes are dead white surrounded by red; the black Kleshite jungle priests dwelling in the frozen north; the mad explorer Lavas Laerk, whose entire crew has sworn a vow of silence until they find the lost land of Simorgya; and the sorcerer Ningauble of the Seven Eyes (sometimes referred to as the "Septinocular One"), who lives in a cave and is apt to speak in long-winded homilies. Players are encouraged to make their own characters equally colorful.
Fantasy is often divided into "high" and "low" versions. While high fantasy concentrates on epic quests and great battles between good and evil, low fantasy deals with the other side of the coin, the daily lives of people. Like most swords & sorcery, Lankhmar falls on the low end of this spectrum. Fafhrd and the Mouser arenít out to save the world. Their goals are much more prosaic: making off with the big heist, bedding the beautiful girls, and simply surviving with all their appendages intact. They donít get involved with wars or causes. Though they occasionally run afoul of kings and merchants, theyíre dealings are always on an individual level.
This feature will carry into the game in that there probably wonít be any uber-plot, a huge over-arching confrontation between good and evil. Instead, there will be lots of small plots, though there will certainly be opportunity for overlapping and getting them mixed together. Character plot hooks should be based on individual goals of survival and advancement, not universal conquest and domination. The idea will be to create a game which has the feel of a dozen Fafhrd & the Mouser stories going on at once, with each individual character simultaneously serving as a leading protagonist (or antagonist) in one or two, a supporting character in a few more, a potential supporting character in most, and an extra in all the rest.
While high fantasy is often typified by great battles between good and evil, white and black, low fantasy tends to concentrate on the gray areas in the middle. Lankhmar takes this a step further by pretty much eliminating the white all together. Of course, thereís still a lot of black left, but moral issues are much more often a choice between black and dingy gray.
Basically, Lankhmar is not a nice place. The terms decadent and corrupt donít even do it justice. What do you expect from a world in which the two "heroes" are freelance thieves? And theyíre the good guys! The moral ladder only goes down from there. Traits such as innocence, purity, and piety are rare, and the characters defined by those traits usually end up being victims. Greed, cynicism, and lust are far more common attributes. Itís not the Lankhmar is unrelievedly evil, but itís bad enough that when Fafhrd decided to get religion he chose to follow a priest who patted a child on the head even when he though no one was looking, an incident so unique that it stuck in Fafhrdís head.
While the term "swords and sorcery" seems to put arms and magic on equal footing, in most S&S stories thatís actually not the case. In fact, it would be more accurate to call it "swords versus sorcery", since in a typical S&S story the swordsman is the hero and the sorcerer is the villain.
Leiberís stories stick with this dichotomy. In Lankhmar thereís always something unwholesome about the practice of magic, and though we hear mention of "white magic" most of the examples we see seem to be pretty close to pitch black. Our sword-wielding heroes usually find themselves going up against sorcery with a mix of skill and cunning.
Lankhmarian magic is also not about tossing fireballs at opponents. Itís much more subtle but just as deadly. Nehwonian magicians operate in hidden labs or temples, from which they send forth curses to afflict their foes. The spells can be spectacular, like the webs of ice in "The Snow Women" or the Cloud of Hate in the story of the same name, but just as commonly they work through devious twists of fate or imperceptible mental influences. In any guise, however, magic should always have a creepy, unpleasant aspect.
That doesnít mean that all magic-using characters in the game must be outright evil. Both of Fafhrdís and the Gray Mouserís mentors are powerful sorcerers who seem to have no soul-stealing or populace-slaying plans on their agenda. Nevertheless, if you decide to play a wizard, youíll most likely want to define yourself on the villain side of things, or at least an amoral mercenary type, in order to keep in the sprit of things. Also, while Lankhmar is awash in petty divinators, priests, and witches, most of them are quacks or at least of minimal power. Truly powerful magic is actually not that common, and Iíd prefer not to have more than two or three mighty sorcerers duking it out in the middle of the game!