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Howling Tower: Conan the Instructor

Howling Tower: Conan the Instructor

Sigurd as Conan; "Sigurd kills Fafnir" by Arthur Rackham, 1911
I’m no scholar of Robert E. Howard, just a fan of his storytelling and his best-known character, Conan the Barbarian. Conan first crossed my reading list when I discovered a shelf of dog-eared paperbacks at the local second-hand shop. I was still a relative newcomer to swords-&-sorcery fiction at the time, and Conan was unlike any hero I’d encountered in the welter of Tolkien clones at the library.

Being young and impressionable, I read the stories nonjudgmentally. I didn’t know what portions came from Howard, from Carter, or from de Camp. The word “pastiche” wasn’t in my vocabulary. All three names got credit for everything, good and bad.

No one should be surprised, then, that Conan looms so large in my imagination and in my preferences when it comes to FRPs. Conan and Howard taught me many valuable lessons for navigating the worlds of high adventure.

Magic should be feared. Anything less than fear reduces magic to the level of an automatic coffee maker; its inner workings may be shrouded in mystery, but you know in your heart that it’s your friend. Magic need not be reviled, but it deserves the hefty deference afforded to professional wrestlers, nuclear bombs, and other cruel forces that can snap your spine or vaporize a major metropolitan area, especially when they are controlled by people who are more than likely insane.

Anarchy is good for adventurers. Unsettled times, weak central authority, and untamed frontiers are where the action is.

Never trust anything that’s too civilized. Civilization is decadent. Being accustomed to his wild Cimmerian homeland, Conan had little use for bureaucrats, kings, politicians, or anyone else who sought to impose their limits on other people. Any authority that didn’t serve the interests of the average Joe—in the Hyborean Age, that describes pretty much all of them—was no authority at all. If it couldn’t be ignored, then it deserved to be dismantled guard by corrupt guard and priest by cruel priest.

Never trust anything that’s even remotely serpentlike. You’d think this would go without saying, but if ever there’s a time when excess caution is justified, it’s when scales and forked tongues are involved.

Even the bravest heroes run away sometimes. No one should shy away from death when the time is right, especially if you can bring a half-dozen of the bastards’ heads with you to toss at Crom’s feet. Some foes, however, aren’t worth getting killed over. That goes double if their only motivation for picking a fight is because they hunger to lick the protein from your bones after softening it up with digestive slime.

The Hyborean Age is as much a character as Conan. Conan is a unique product of the Hyborean Age, but that world is also shaped and altered by him. Neither Conan nor his world is whole without the other. That relationship between character and setting is what every GM and player should strive for in an RPG campaign. It’s what brings the world to life in the participants’ imaginations.

If you’re a casual fan of Conan and Howard who’d like to learn more, then spend some time exploring the Robert E. Howard United Press Association website. It places an amazing trove of resources at the tip of your curved, wickedly sharp Nemedian blade.

10 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Conan the Instructor”

  1. I find that the fear associated with magic in Sword and Sorcery stories has slowly been evaporating with the WotC editions of D&D. I like this conceit (dangerous magic), and I find that in order to make magic different from real world technology, fear is an important aspect.

    Glen Cook talks about magic a lot in his books (the Black Company, the Dread Empire, and the Instrumentalities of the Night) and he has an interesting proposition: wizards are just like normal people except they command untold sorcerous energies. Whereas normal people might get into a fist fight, wizards are apt to get into magical duels and decimate whole areas. They simply cannot work together for any long period of time because of the human tendency towards conflict and the exaggerated might that magic gives them.

  2. I just purchased pdf versions of the Age of Conan from Steve Jackson Games. Wonderful stuff for a campaign set in the Hyborian Age.

  3. Josh:

    This is the same theory in super hero stories. Super heroes are terrifying forces of nature. When they go into public, entire city blocks are knocked down. Civil War did it’s best to address this. But marvel has never been able to touch this. The reason Watchmen was so inactive is that the one actual powered super hero, Dr Manhattan, is essentially a walking nuclear bomb and he’s pursued to stay in a government facility because the world fearson him.

    Magic should be like this. Walking weapons of mass destruction. Which supports why history shows they are feared, persecuted, they study in shadows and secret (root meanings behind cult and occult), and eventually either witch-hunted or they become dictators and tyrants.

  4. GeraintElberion


    A little pedantic but… ‘occult’ does come from a latin word for secret but ‘cult’ comes from a word meaning worship, care and reverence, it has the same root as ‘cultivate’

    More generally, if magic is a totally terrifying and overwhelming destructive force then I can’t give it to my players. So I like more nuance and variety of magic so that I can have spellcasting players (I mostly play PFRPG).

  5. GeraintElberion: I don’t think magic needs to be totally terrifying and overwhelmingly destructive. It needs to be something that frightens the average person. The same type of fear that most of us would feel if, say, a pride of lions with “I eat humans” tattoos strolled into the neighborhood and took up residence in the park. Even if they don’t immediately eat anyone, their presence is going to make you awfully nervous.

  6. I guess I’ve never understood why those conceits were never hard-boiled into a unique setting from TSR/Wizards (the licensed modules, being an exception, of course). Dark Sun, as a “Mars” analog, comes closest. Realms, despite having Hyborean roots, is, in its published form, far from it. More high Renaissance than anything. Greyhawk is more Lankhmar than other pulp influences. It just seemed that everything you described is, at its heart, the “default” interpretation of D&D. Any thoughts why TSR/Wizards didn’t fully embrace this play style in a published setting, rather than make it a “small enclave” within other settings?

  7. Mmm good reminder to look into that stuff again. I was already thinking about how to make my campaign a bit more grimey, Conan should help inspire. I’ll start with reading some of the comics again.

  8. I’m new to this genre but I’d like to learn more. Would any of you care to recommend what novels I should start with?

  9. James. Glad you’re showing an interest. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories aren’t really novels. They’re usually presented as collections of shorts stories, which originally appeared in pulp magazines of his era. Some of the stories I’m partial to, are Black Colossus, The People of the Black Circle, Beyond the Black River and Red Nails. (No, he didn’t put color in every title, but those are some of my favorites). Your library can help you out. Second hand bookstores often carry the anthologies, especially those edited by L. Sprague de Camp.

  10. Quite a nice list! I particularly appreciate the last one, since a lot of people (usually people “adapting” Conan into a new medium) forget just how much effort Howard put into the Hyborian Age as a setting, to the point of spending thousands of words writing a background to the time period that he didn’t intend to publish, just to serve as a guide. Unlike Tolkien, he didn’t have the luxury of decades to write a Middle-earth sized opus, but what he did create over the course of his short career was spectacular all the same.

    James, if you haven’t read any Howard Conans and are reticent, I’d suggest getting either The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, or Conan the Barbarian: The Stories That Inspired The Movie. The former is the first of three volumes (the others are The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan) which have the pure Howard texts. However, the way Howard wrote means that the Conan stories go through a marked lull in the middle before picking up again towards the end. Coming of Conan thus starts off strong, but it also contains some of Howard’s most mediocre stories, not to mention stories which would cause some considerable dissonance for modern readers. Unless you plan on getting the other two, I’d suggest starting off either with Coming of Conan knowing that it *will* get better, or just getting the second collection I mentioned, which has six of the best stories.

    Alternatively, try Project Gutenberg, which has the original Weird Tales texts. I consider the following Conan stories to be “essential”:

    “The Phoenix on the Sword”
    “The Tower of the Elephant”
    “Queen of the Black Coast”
    “The People of the Black Circle”
    “The Hour of the Dragon”
    “Beyond the Black River”
    “Red Nails”

    And these to be great reads and among the best S&S you’ll ever read:

    “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”
    “The God in the Bowl”
    “The Scarlet Citadel”
    “Black Colossus”
    “Rogues in the House”
    “The Black Stranger”

    The others are generally formulaic, and while some might have some points of excellence, they’re probably only for completists.

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