Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"The Snow Women" by Fritz Leiber

Although this blog is, by and large, dedicated to the development of Rogues & Reavers, I will at times diverge from that topic to discuss D&D more broadly. One of the topics I will be exploring is the literary roots of D&D, and how those roots shape my understanding of the game.

As I mentioned previously, I am not as well read in the history of D&D's origins as I would like to be. I'm working to correct this oversight in my education, and it has been an instructive process. Most recently, I read the tale "The Snow Women" by Fritz Leiber, which I'll be talking about today.

Best known as the origin of the Thief class in D&D (along with Cugel the Cleaver), I expected Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories to be purely stories of blackhearts robbing, whoring, and getting up to their necks in trouble. Although "The Snow Women" has double-dealing a-plenty, what surprised me was the tragic melancholy which pervades the tale. It was, at its heart, a noir thriller. Our protagonist (one would hesitate to call him hero) may be a bastard, but in comparison to most of his fellows Fafhrd is heroic, insomuch that he is conflicted about his foul deeds.

Adventure stories, as far as I can tell, are divided into two distinct styles: the classic western, in which our heroes are ultimately moral, despite any failings they may have, or hardboiled fiction, where such distinctions do not exist. If there is a redeeming feature to the protagonists, it is that they (sometimes) agonize over the moral compromises they are regularly forced to make. As Fafhrd puts it, "Oh, is there anyone in the wide world that has aught but ice water in his or her veins?" Hesitating to do whatever it takes to survive is a luxury few can afford in a cynical world, and often this leads to the defeat of our heroes.

Although this uncertainty does not haunt the earliest Swords & Sorcery stories, such as A Princess of Mars, it quickly pervades the genre. In his very first appearance, Conan laments, "In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless." Likewise, Elric of Stormbringer fame, Corwin of the Chronicles of Amber, and Erick John Stark of Brackett's Skaith tales all walk a fine line between what is right and what is convenient, often settling on the latter.

Experience with games like D&D and Vampire: the Masquerade has shown me that dictating moral behavior on the part of the players is a fool's game, so while I find this aspect of the story interesting I don't believe building mechanics that force emulation of this sort is wise. Instead, I think principles of scenario design should be set forth:

1. The world is a hard, unforgiving place: Heroes are a rarity, and often suffer for it. Everyone is looking out for themselves, and any sign of weakness will be exploited. Churches hoodwink, governments exploit, family manipulate, and commoners steal at every opportunity. Trust placed in your fellow human beings will, for the most part, be reciprocated with a knife in the back.

2. Only those close to you deserve any consideration, and often this is misplaced: Players generally will attach themselves to NPCs that show them kindness, but in a hardboiled game, this is something that they will generally regret. Those who seem to have the player's best interests in mind often are playing a game, with the PCs as pawns.

3. There are decent people out there, but it is impossible to discern sinner from saint: Whether it be Vellix, who was the only person who had Fafhrd's best interests at heart, or Evelyn in Chinatown, the demands of a cynical world forces even the most kind-hearted souls to become suspicious and to hedge their bets. Those NPCs that seem to have reservations about helping the heroes are often the ones who don't have any evil aspirations towards the protagonist, or may even wish for them to succeed. It is therefore exceedingly difficult to know who is friend and who is foe.

These underlying assumptions of the hardboiled thriller are interesting, and certainly a far cry from the "standard" D&D setting of the last twenty years, which share more in common with medieval romances and westerns. This may be due to the nature of the hobby shifting from a series of problem-solving exercises into a vehicle for wish-fulfillment, the evolving tropes from sword & sorcery to fantasy, or just because noir is depressing.

Speaking of westerns, it is interesting to note that the genre evolved into a noir-ish style as time progressed, thanks in large part to the influence of Kurosawa's samurai films, which were (in turn) influenced by Chandler and other hardboiled writers. Classic examples are Leone's Dollars trilogy, Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, and Pale Rider. I suspect this is the "sweet spot" where D&D works best - the protagonists vary between wretchedly self-interested and morally decent, at times robbing tombs and at others saving villages. Presenting opportunities for both should be the goal of any campaign.
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