Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Star Eagles Highlights Flexibility of Ganesha Games "Song of" Miniatures Rules

Ganesha Games recently launched a Kickstarter project for their upcoming space fighter miniatures combat game Star Eagles, and it looks like a winner. The game is designed by Damon Richardson and aims to be a quick to play and deep simulation of desperate starship dogfights in the deeps of space between the forces of ConStar and the S'Sekai. Watching the how to play video Damon put out to promote the project, one thing stand out very quickly. Like many Ganesha produced miniatures games, Star Eagles uses the very flexible Song of Blades and Heroes fantasy skirmish rules as its foundation.  Song designer Andrea Sfiligoi has already demonstrated the flexibility of the Song system in a variety of genres in his work for Osprey Publishing, but this is the first time that framework has been used for spacecraft battle simulation.

One of the key innovations of the Song system is how it simulates who has the "initiative" in combat situations. Damon's video highlights this innovation in the how to video, but it deserves highlighting that the system forces players to choose between being aggressive which may cause them to lose the initiative before they desire or to play more cautiously which may result in them not achieving as much as they'd like during their turns. It's a great way to reflect how certain strategic choices can affect later tactical decisions. This isn't to say that Damon's game is a reprint of Song, like most games that use that system as a foundation there are significant differences, rather this is mentioned to praise Damon for selecting a system that better emulates the chaos of a dogfight than a standard igo-ugo system would.

There are a couple of additional things worth mentioning with regard to Star Eagles. The first is that this is a project that demonstrates how exciting the times we live in with regard to gaming really are. While Kickstarter is used by bigger companies to mitigate risk by combining market research and capital for projects, and in my opinion this happens to often, this is a case where it is being used as it should be. This is a small company creating a product that could not otherwise be produced at the high level of quality they are planning, and by small I mean REALLY small since most game companies are small in any comparison with the corporate world. Addition to being  a small company, this is an international endeavor where the designer and the publisher are on different continents working together to create a product to be sold around the world. Damon Richardson, who was a fine Forgotten Realms DM in his youth, lives in Reno, NV while Andrea Sfiligoi of Ganesha Games is located in Italy. This is something I would not have imagined possible as a child, but is something that happens with relative frequency in the modern gaming market. Exciting times indeed.

Check out the Kickstarter and back it if the theme interests you.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Planescape: Torment Returns on April 11th

When Bioware released Planescape: Torment in December of 1999, they did so just as 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons was gasping its last breath. Planescape was an odd choice to base a large scale computer rpg upon. The setting was unique, creative, exciting, and critically acclaimed, but it wasn't a particularly high volume selling setting for TSR. Add to this that Wizards of the Coast had just purchased TSR in 1997 and the Planescape setting, like many other D&D/AD&D settings, had been partially released to the wilds to be curated by fans. The game and the IP were languishing in limbo, even as the D&D brand would be resurrected shortly by the release of 3rd edition.

It may have been an odd choice, but it ended up creating a brilliant result. Planescape: Torment leveraged Bioware's Infinity Engine to create an rpg experience unlike any that had been produced to date. Most of that experience was rooted in the surreal qualities of the Planescape setting which may not have been a bestseller, but it was a magnificent creation. David "Zeb" Cook and his team of creative talent that included James Ward, Dana Knutson, and Tony DiTerlizzi combined their talents to produce an innovative and interesting sandbox. A sandbox that Chris Avellone and team explored with inspired creativity. Planescape: Torment is the Infinity Engine game I've played through most frequently, and given the strength of those titles that is saying something.

On April 11th, 2017 game developer Beamdog will be releasing a visually updated version of the game for both the PC and Tablet. Do yourself a favor and pick it up when it comes out.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Mystrael Shawk -- An Effect Based Lightning Wizard for D&D

Last week, I discussed how useful it can be to approach D&D magic from an effects based or special effect design philosophy as both a player and a DM. Using this approach allows for gamers to add a little of narrative magic without the need to have a deep understanding of the mechanical balance underlying the game system required to make new spells from whole cloth. This is an approach used by the Champions role playing game and by Pinnacle Entertainment Group's Savage Worlds rpg. The Savage Worlds rule book describes this approach in the following way:

"But just because these powers work the same from setting to setting doesn’t mean they have to look the same, have the same names (to the characters in that world), or even have the exact same effects—that’s where Trappings come in. 

For the most part, Trappings should be merely cosmetic. But sometimes it makes sense for there to be additional effects. A heat ray should have a chance of catching combustible objects on fire, for example, and an electric blast should do slightly more damage to targets in full metal armor."
Coming at magic from a special effects approach can be intimidating and you might not trust me that it can be done without creating a lot of work for players and DMs, but I'm going to attempt to show you how it does just the opposite. It allows for the creation of a lot of imaginative and narrative effects without the need for creating new mechanics. To aid in this process, I will be posting a series of D&D 5e Wizards based on Power Themes and who use effects based spells.

Image Source Anna Steinbauer
Mystrael Shawk 
Human Lightning Wizard (Soldier) 
Level 5

Str 8 (-1)   Dex 14 (+2)  Con 14 (+2)  
Int 16 (+3)  Wis 10 (+0)  Cha 12 (+1)

HP (5d6+10) 32           AC 12 or 15 (dex; Crackling Aura + dex)
Init +2      Speed 30      Proficiency Bonus +3

Attacks: Dagger +5 (1d4 piercing), Dagger (ranged) +5 1d4 piercing, Spells +6 
Senses: Investigation 16, Perception 10
Saves: Intelligence +6, Wisdom +3
Skills: Arcana +6, Athletics +2, Intimidation +4, Investigation +6, Sleight of Hand +5 
Feats: Keen Mind
Human Traits: Bonus Skill (Sleight of Hand), Bonus Feat (War Caster)
Wizard Traits: Spellcasting, Arcane Recovery, Arcane Tradition (Abjuration), Lighting Ward (13 HP)
Spell Casting Ability (Known: 3, 6, 6, 4; Slots: 4, 4, 3, 2; DC 14)

Cantrips:Lightning Ball (Acid Splash), Crackling Illumination (Light), Shocking Grasp


1 -  Arc of Lightning (Burning Hands), Crackling Aura  (Mage Armor), Electric Shield (Shield), Synaptic Shock (Sleep), Static Tickle (Tasha's Hideous Laughter), Plasma Arc (Magic Missile)
2 - Lightning Cloud (Cloud of Daggers), Immobilizing Shock (Hold Person), Electrify Weapon (Magic Weapon), Mystral's Lightning Arrow (Melf's Acid Arrow), Clinging Field (Spider Climb), Electrical Flash (Blindness/Darkness)
3 - Electrical Animation (Animate Dead), Sphere of Lightning (Fireball), Ride the Lightning (Fly), Lightning Bolt

As you can see, merely by renaming some of the spells the descriptive effect in play of certain spells is altered without changing their effects. Take Crackling Illumination as an example here. When it comes to game effects, it doesn't matter whether light is produced by illusory fire, real fire, crackling electricity, or radiant illumination. All that matters is that the spell produces the effect of light. Similarly for Mage Armor, since we aren't categorizing any kind of damage, the appearance of Mage Armor doesn't affect game play.

It isn't until we get to spells like Lightning Ball (Acid Splash) that one's "but that's a typed damage and it matters" alarm should flash a warning that there might be some mechanical differences of consequence. One could merely hand wave such concerns and point out, as Michael Shea at Sly Flourish often does that Dungeons and Dragons isn't designed to be a balanced game and that imbalance is a part of what we like. I won't do such hand waving here, though that is a perfectly "D&D" thing to do. Instead, let's take a look under the hood of Acid Splash.

Range: 60 feet
Damage: Save or Take 1d6 Acid Damage
# Creatures affected: 1 or 2 within 5 feet.

The reskinned Lightning Ball only changes one aspect of the spell, the damage type. In fact, since the spell already can damage up to 2 creatures in close proximity the spell's mechanics fit nicely with the reskin. The question here becomes, "Does the spell significantly improve if it becomes lightning based?" There are after all different creatures who are resistant/immune to different damage types and affecting a disproportionate number might affect game balance. This criticism only holds so much weight since the Elemental Adept feat allows casters to ignore type resistance (though not immunity). So...what are the differences between Acid and Lightning regarding number of creatures affected?

Creatures Resistant to Acid in Monster Manual: 17
Creatures Immune to Acid in Monster Manual: 15
Number of Creatures Vulnerable to Acid: 0

Creatures Resistant to Lightning in Monster Manual: 34
Creatures Immune to Lightning in Monster Manual: 19
Number of Creatures Vulnerable to Lightning: 0

Here we can see that by choosing a Lightning damage type, the spell has become more limited with regard to the number of creatures it can damage. Given the negligent effects of changing the damage type, we can quickly see that this won't change game balance.

Similarly, describing Sleep as an effect that results from a quick electrical burst or Spider Climb as a static field that surrounds the hands and feet of the caster does nothing other than add a narrative touch to play. The same is true for describing Animate Dead as electrical impulses arching through corpses to control their movements.

There are some damage types that are clearly better or worse than average when it comes to this kind of analysis. Very few creatures are resistant to Radiant damage and 98 monsters are immune to poison, for example, and you would have to decide whether or not to do the "it doesn't really matter" hand wave or ban those as reskinnable trappings in your games. One thing to consider for spells like Sleep is that you might have the creature's resistance apply to the hit points rolled against the spell. That significantly reduces the power of that particular spell against certain foes, but it adds the illusion of unpredictability to your magic and makes magic more magical.

My next character will be a cold themed Wizard.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Using a Special Effects Approach to Spell Casting in D&D Games

There are too many spells in Dungeons & Dragons and it reduces the sense of wonder in the game. Magic systems are one of the most difficult design challenges that face prospective game designers, players, and game masters. Magic in fiction, and in our imagination, often defies quantification. In fact, one might argue that what makes magic magical is that it is mysterious and that by quantifying it, you diminish its impact. I am sympathetic to this view, but I actually think that having the rules present purely mechanical effects and letting players add special effects is the best way to handle this problem.

The solution that D&D often uses is what Jeff Grubb calls the "Very Large Spellbook" approach in the Kobold Guide to Magic. This works by flooding the zone with so many spells that no one really knows what every spell does and thus leaves a sense of wonder as new things are discovered. The problem with this approach is that you can end up with five different spells that turn a target's bones into liquid. This isn't bad when the mechanical effects of each spell is different, but can be a problem when many of them have pretty much the same effects with minor changes in the amount of damage done. If the spells have different mechanical effects, it allows for themed mages. If it only fiddles around the edges of damage, it isn't very interesting. Jeff Grubb's discussion of how standardizing bones into liquid spells reduced the wonder of the game, while reducing the number of times spells need to be looked up in the rules because no one knows how a specific spell works.

One solution often under utilized in D&D circles is the approach used by Champions.

Whether or not you play the game, the Champions role playing game by Hero Games is one of the best role playing games ever designed and is one that every Game Master should read for advice on how to best run a game in any system. My first experience with the game was the Revised Edition, also known as the 2nd Edition, of the game, and I spent hours upon hours making characters for the system. Okay, I spent hours and hours making my version of the X-Men for the system only to have friends who were more experienced with the system tell me how I had done everything wrong, but that's beside the point.

The thing that most struck me about the game, and that still amazes me, is how the game took what is often called an effects based approach to gaming. What is typically meant by this description is that the rules don't worry about what powers and abilities look like, rather we are only concerned with their in game effects. While this is a central concept to how the character creation system works in Champions, it was an idea that took a few editions to fully articulate. The first edition of the game, published in 1981, only mentions the concept in passing in the Energy Blast power and on page 29 where it describes how to model a character who can change shape using Multipower with three slots that each represent a different special effect. The second edition expands on this idea more clearly and states on page 47, "Powers in Champions have been explained thoroughly in game terms, but the special effects have been left may be lightning, fire, cold, sonics, radiation...The special effects of your Power can contain minor advantages and disadvantages..." By the 3rd edition of the game, the designers have moved discussion of special effects to a position at the beginning of the Powers chapter, rather than following it. On page 20 it states, "When choosing powers in Champions always start with the effect and work back to the cause." The stress here is that the mechanics are important for the adjudication of success or failure in the game, but that what something looks like in the minds of the players during the game doesn't need to be categorized in the rules.

This special effects, or effects based, approach was relatively freeform in the first three editions of Champions and is what enabled players to simulate an infinite number of effects with only limited mechanics. For this reason, I prefer to call this earlier approach to effects based design the special effects approach. This distinguishes it from the more granular effect based approach of later editions of Champions and give primacy to only quantifying what absolutely must be represented mechanically and leaving the rest to improvisation. Later editions of Champions, beginning with 4th edition which is my favorite edition, began a process of quantifying too many effects for my tastes. Given my preference for improvisation, I prefer to avoid over quantification of phenomenon. Your mileage may vary on that account, but that will have little bearing on this discussion as it continues.

So when might a special effects approach help a D&D game?

Let me look to one of my favorite online shows to explain.

An example of a situation that could have benefited from a special effects approach occurs in Episode 8 Part 1 of Saving Throw Show's series "The Lost Brigade" when Havana Mahoney attempts to have her Druid Theronna Wolfmancer cast the spell Summon Swarm upon some creatures she and her allies were combating. This event happens at around minute 41:37 in the episode (also embedded above). The Dungeon Master, Mason McDaniel, initially encourages a special effects approach when Havana asks what the spell looks like and Mason gives a few possibilities while leaving the final depiction up to her as to whether the rats she wants to summon burrow out of the earth or are vomited from her mouth. Either one of these options is narratively interesting and visually exciting. It's a good moment of game play, but this quickly gets sidetracked as the group attempts to find the spell in the rules. This leads to a few minutes of discussion which pull both the players and the audience out of the game. Eventually, it is discovered that the spell Havana wanted to cast is a Pathfinder spell. She asks if she can use it anyway, but after some discussion this is rejected and Havana sighs and casts Call Lightning. It's the first time in my life that I think I've ever seen a Druid essentially say, "yawn...I guess I'll just use the old standby Call Lightning. YAWN again. KABLAM! DRUID TAC-NUKE! Wish I could have done something interesting."

And you know what? I agree with that assessment. I really wish that Havana had been allowed to cast her 2nd level Summon Swarm spell, but how do you do that?

The first thing that you can do is to let the player use the Pathfinder spell. For a second level spell, which was the case in the episode, this wouldn't particularly damage the game as OP-finder doesn't spiral out of D&D maths until higher levels. In this case, the player would have summoned a swarm of rats that attacked the monsters as listed in the Rat Swarm entry. This isn't a bad solution, and it would have rewarded the player for an inspired narrative choice, but it isn't a special effects based approach and the search of various wiki/books delayed game play. Notice, I am not discussing that Havana's presentation of how big the swarm would be and how much damage it does wasn't accurate to the Pathfinder rules. That was merely a product of the websearch and getting her phone trapped by wiki-spam.

The second approach, the special effects approach, is to ask what special effect the player wants and what mechanics fit the expressed mechanical limits. Havana wanted to use a 2nd Level Druid spell that summoned a swarm of rats that bites foes. So the mechanical emulation is area effect damage appropriate for second level. The first spell that jumped into my head was Spike Growth.

"But," you say, "Spike Growth is a spell that transforms the ground into spiky thorn covered terrain."

Does it? Not from a special effects/effect based approach.

From this approach, the spell covers a 20 foot radius of terrain with ___________ which makes the ground difficult to walk on and which cases a creature to take 2d4 piercing damage for every 5 feet they travel. This transformation is camouflaged as to not be obvious until the victims move into it and take damage.

So here are the effects:
20 foot radius
Difficult Terrain
Moving within or into causes 2d4 piercing for every 5 ft moved.

Havana wanted a swarm of rats to attack the foes. This pretty much does that. All you have to do is say that Theronna Wolfmancer has summoned the rats and that the creatures will soon feel those effects. Imagine the shocked looks on the creature's faces as rats rose from the earth to devour them.

That's not all this spell could represent. It could represent an area of earth where magma has been brought close to the surface, ice spikes, the thorns in the book, a miasma in the air that chokes those who move through it. None of those effects change the mechanics of the spell, which are what define the level of the spell, but each of those feels different in play due to the role playing aspect of the game. It is key to note that the damage is piercing for creatures who have those kinds of resistances.

Personally, I like the idea of Spike Growth being a near invisible miasma of toxic spores which pierce the lungs. The again, whose to say that Call Lightning couldn't just be Lightning Rats rising up from the earth to bite opponents with their Lightning powers or even just the summoning of a Pikachu?

What are some other spells that you would/could reskin for different effects?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Kickstarter Superbacker's Thoughts on Late Projects

I've been backing Kickstarter projects, primarily Tabletop Gaming projects, for quite some time. I've been a fan of the platform from early on and really like the idea of supporting creators by providing them the fund to work on creative projects. Some friends of mine and I even put together a small project of our own a few years ago.
I believe that helping a creator navigate the balance between keeping the wolves away from the door and making something neat is a worthwhile endeavor. We're likely to get better freelance projects if freelance creators don't have to worry about whether they will be able to eat or not. This isn't to say that I think Kickstarter funds should be used to buy meals, unless that's what the Kickstarter is about, but rather to say that money being fungible Kickstarter allows creators to spend their own money on food because backers are willing to cover some of the R&D expenses that the creator might have needed to take out of the food budget in order to make a thing.
Just because I'm a believer in the platform and concept doesn't mean that everything I've backed has come to fruition. In fact, I'd like to share with you some of the projects I funded many moons ago that are still in process and to share my thoughts regarding why I'm not in a fervor and yelling at the creators who have yet to deliver projects...if they ever will. To that end, I'm sharing projects in three categorys: Late but Likely, Late and Uncertain, and Written Off. 

I want to make clear that I am not listing any of these projects to shame anyone, far too many backers make that their life's work. Instead, I wanted to show how creative many of the ideas presented on Kickstarter are and how there are projects offered that one might never see if Kickstarter didn't exist.
Kickstarter projects I've been waiting to be completed for years, but have confidence will be finished by professionals due to personal emergencies or need to have other priorities like having a roof overhead. Most of these projects are by people I know and who have a long history of creating excellent products in the industry:

Project I'm uncertain about, though it looks like it is going to make it even after horrible tragedy:

Project I'm certain I will write off as a sunk cost and never receive because law suits and D&D seem to go hand in hand:

I've had good success overall with the projects I've backed seeing daylight. I've also never viewed Kickstarter as "pre-ordering" products. It is a means to help creative people make interesting things that they couldn't afford to make otherwise. So long as the makers are making a good faith effort, I'm fine with the risk.

Of these projects, I dumped the most investment into the documentary. It funded in 2012 and has encountered many legal conflicts. I had high hopes for the documentary and got to meet some of the crew when they hand delivered my copy of Playing at the World that was part of my pledge.

As for the other projects?

Being creative is hard. I backed these knowing that I was funding the creation of a project. I was "Kickstarting" it. This isn't "KickCompletionBond" and it's not "KickPreorder." Things like BackerKit and PledgeManager are pre-order portals that allow people to take low risk on backing and go all in only if a project finishes. Those I hold to a stricter "purchase" standard and there is a difference between backing and purchasing.

I'm happy to have supported authors and creators who have created entertaining products in the past and who have supported me in some of my creative endeavors.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why Conan Endures: an Updated Article from the Archives on Robert E Howard's Birthday.

A decade ago, USA Today printed an article by Mike Snider who wrote about Conan's reemergence as a relevant subject in popular culture (hat tip to SF Signal for the story). In response to this article, I wrote a blog post advancing the argument that there are those of us who comment about popular culture who think that Conan has never been an irrelevant figure in society. How can a character who serves as the inspiration for an entire literary genre become truly irrelevant? Every story about a sword wielding barbarian, no matter how trite or bad, is at some level inspired by Robert E. Howard's creation.

At the time Snider wrote his article there was some exciting news for Conan fans. Snider pointed to five recent developments that signal Conan's relevance:

  1. The PS3/XBOX 360 Video Game
  2. The "Conan The Phenomenon" hardcover by Paul Sammon
  3. The Savage Sword of Conan Trade Paperback Collection by Dark Horse
  4. and
  5. The Conan movie by Millennium Films.

Those were important offerings for the Conan fan. Some where better than others, and I wrote some thoughts about how the phenomenon knows as vast narrative hindered the film.  What is also true is that having a plethora of Conan merchandise in the pipeline wasn't a new occurrence. Snider seemd to be under the misunderstanding that 2007 marked some kind of sudden explosion in Conan related material.

Snider neglected to mention:

  1. Conan: The Ultimate Guide by Roy Thomas which released in September 2006
  2. The new Conan comic book series (first released in 2004) written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Cary Nord by Dark Horse
  3. The Mongoose Publishing Conan Roleplaying Game
  4. not to mention
  5. The Age of Conan series of media tie-in novels published in 2005 and 2006
  6. or
  7. Del Rey's publishing of Howard's Original Conan Stories released in 2003
In the years since Snider's article, we've seen:
    1.  A second role playing game which earned over $500,000 on Kickstarter. 
    2.  The Conan board game which earned over $3 million on Kickstarter.
    3.  Pulposaurus's upcoming pre-painted miniatures war game CROM: Conan Rise of Monsters.
    4.  An upcoming feature length film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
    5.  Son of Zorn, a sit-com inspired by Conan, He-man, and Thundarr the Barbarian.
The Conan explosion is perpetual and it isn't a new thing either, I could have pulled numerous examples from the 90s or the 80s of Conan releases. Conan is always lurking in the pop culture subconscious. We do a disservice to Conan fans, both existent and emerging when we use Arnold Schwarzenegger as the archetypal Conan representation, as Snider appears to do in the article. Some like Arnold as archetype, but I find Conan to be one of the most underestimated characters in American literature (with Natty Bumpo being a close second) and the Governator's portrayal -- while fun -- lacks the depth the character actually has as a literary figure.

When it comes to depictions of unreflective low art, one need look no further than the commonly perceived opinions of Robert Howard's Conan stories. If you ask the average man on the street to describe a Conan narrative, you will likely be given a tale of lust and violence. In the tale Conan will rescue some half-naked maiden from some rampaging beast and the story will end with the woman becoming all naked as she swoons at the hero's feet. In fact, a great deal of Conan pastiche has been based on this very simple formula and even a couple of the original tales fit this mold. The largest problem with such a vision is that it is not all that accurate when looking at Howard's tales of Conan as a whole. There are tales of this sort in the Conan oeuvre, but there are also tales of visionary wonder.

Like most authors, whether they write literature or Literature, Howard's writings reflect his own thoughts, experiences, and education. The writing reflects the aesthetic tastes of the author, or his/her understanding of a prospective audiences literary tastes. What makes something worth reading again and again is when an author satisfies those with "lower" tastes while providing them with some food for thought. Howard is no exception. In fact, I was surprised while I was rereading the first published Conan story, Howard's The Phoenix on the Sword to find that the author seemed to be hinting at a theory of the value of literature and its role in society.

Howard's Hyborean Age is a mythic world filled with magic and wonder, but it is also a world based on the history of the real world. Howard combined multiple eras of history so that societies whose "real world" existence is separated by centuries could co-exist narratively. Conan's own people, the Cimmerians, are based on a very real historical peoples. Both Herodotus, in his Histories, and Plutarch, in his Lives, mention the Cimmerian peoples (called Cimbri in Plutarch). In The Phoenix on the Sword, Howard appears to expect his audience to have at least a little understanding of the historical Cimmerians in his conversation of the role of literature in civilization. Conan, as protagonist, must hold ideas which the reader sympathizes with for the particular narrative of Phoenix to work.

So what kind of people were the Cimmerians? According to Herodotus they were a people who were pillagers and raiders, but not rulers.
For the Cimmerian attack upon Ionia, which was earlier than Croesus, was not a conquest of the cities, but only an inroad for plundering.
Herodotus, Histories, I, 6

What did they look like? According to Plutarch:

Their great height, their black eyes and their name, Cimbri, which the Germans use for brigands, led us merely to suppose that they were one of those races of Germania who lived on the shores of the Western Ocean. Others say that the huge expanse of Celtica stretches from the outer sea and the western regions to the Palus Maeotis and borders on Asian Scythia; that these two neighbouring nations joined forces and left their land... And although each people had a different name, their army was collectively called Celto-Scythian. According to others, some of the Cimmerians, who were the first-to be known to the ancient Greeks... took flight and were driven from their land by the Scythians. Plutarch, Life of Marius, XI

What was their temperament? According to Homer:

Thus she brought us to the deep-Rowing River of Ocean and the frontiers of the world, where the fog-bound Cimmerians live in the City of Perpetual Mist. When the bright Sun climbs the sky and puts the stars to flight, no ray from him can penetrate to them, nor can he see them as he drops from heaven and sinks once more to the earth. For dreadful night has spread her mantle over the heads of that unhappy folk. Homer, Odyssey, XI, 14

It is Homer's description of the Cimmerians that Howard uses in Phoenix to describe the mood of the people and to separate Conan from his kin. When Conan is asked why the Cimmerians are such a brooding people, Conan responds:

“Perhaps it’s the land they live in,” answered the king. “A gloomier land never was – all of hills, darkly wooded, under skies nearly always gray, with winds moaning drearily down the valleys.” – Phoenix on the Sword

The average Cimmerian is a dour and towering barbarian who destroys civilization then returns to his gloomy homeland only to begin the process again later. Howard's typical Cimmerian is similar to that of the classical scholars, and presents a figure most unlikely to advance the literary arts. But this is where Conan differs from his kin. In The Phoenix on the Sword, Conan is an older man who has conquered on of the greatest nations of the Hyborean Age expressly to free them from tyrannical rule. He conquered to rule, and to liberate an oppressed nation. A far cry from the typical barbarian. By separating Conan from his kin, Howard simultaneously increases the audience's sympathy for the barbarian king while enabling the character to advance a theory of the value of literature.

The Phoenix on the Sword is the tale of a plot to assassinate King Conan, a plot organized my a Machiavellian figure named Ascalante who desires to assume the throne. Ascalante is the product of civilization, but he is the antagonist of the story and so Howard uses his opinions of the Arts as a way to separate him from the audience's sympathy. When he describes a poet who has been brought into his conspiracy he describes the poet in pejorative terms. These terms evolve as the narrative moves from unpublished draft to final published form. Ascalante originally expresses his disdain for Rinaldo (the poet) in a long description:
“Rinaldo – a mad poet full of hare-brained visions and out-worn chivalry. A prime favorite with the people because of his songs which tear out their heart-strings. He is our best bid for popularity.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

By the time the story is published the description is changed to the very brief, "“…Rinaldo, the hair-brained minstrel.” [Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword(published)]. In the published form, Howard leaves out the value of Rinaldo's participation in the plot because it is redundant with information presented later in the story. When Ascalante is asked what value Rinaldo has as a conspirator, Ascalante's response is similar in both the published and unpublished text, but his hatred of Rinaldo is made more clear in the draft than in the published text:

“Alone of us all, Rinaldo has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a civilized land. He idealizes the king whom Conan killed to get the crown, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils of his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they openly sing The Lament for the King in which Rinaldo lauds the sainted villain and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but the people snarl.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“Rinaldo – bah! I despise the man and admire him at the same time. He is your true idealist. Alone of us all he has no personal ambition. He sees in Conan a red-handed, rough-footed barbarian who came out of the north to plunder a peaceful land. He thinks he sees barbarism triumphing over culture. He already idealizes the king Conan killed, forgetting the rogue’s real nature, remembering only that he occasionally patronized the arts, and forgetting the evils under which the land groaned during his reign, and he is making the people forget. Already they open sing ‘The Lament for the King’ in which Rinaldo lauds the saintly villain, and denounces Conan as ‘that black-hearted savage from the abyss.’ Conan laughs, but at the same time wonders why the people are turning against him.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

In both descriptions the poet is shown to be a blind idealist. Rinaldo, it appears, cannot look beyond the Cimmerian stereotypes as presented by Plutarch and Herodotus. Howard doesn't require the reader to have those preconceptions, but for the reader who has read Herodotus and Plutarch the stereotype becomes even clearer. Also by editing down the prose the author, either willingly or at editorial command, displays an amount of trust that his audience can reach the proper conclusion that barbarism typically destroys the valuable within civilization. What is interesting is that while Rinaldo is a conspirator, the poet is an antagonist, he is not a villain. He is a blind a foolish idealist, not acting in his own self interest. Ascalante even goes on to describe Rinaldo's motivations:

“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism, rising, as he thinks, to overthrow a tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“Because he is a poet. Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and the future. Rinaldo is a flaming torch of idealism and he sees himself as a hero, a stainless knight – which after all he is! – rising to overthrow the tyrant and liberate the people.” – Ascalante in Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished First submitted draft)

Ascalante specifies what kind of idealists poets are. They seek an imagined perfect society, and will always look for it no matter how good the society they are currently in happens to be. But this is Ascalante, the Machiavellian civilized man, and his opinion about what the value of the poet is. For him the poet is an easily manipulable puppet. What about the barbarian turned king, the protagonist, and oft argued proxy for the author? (It should be noted that many argue that Conan often reflects Howard's own views, this is not an original assertion on my part.)

Conan adores the poet, and understands the criticisms. He is aware that the poet's plays are leading many among the people to despise him, but he too is persuaded of the need for justice. When his chief adviser, Prospero, discusses disdain for Rinaldo, Conan comes to the poet's (and poetry in general) defense. The text is near identical in the published and unpublished format.

“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rhymes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter, for he has hear ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I will die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (unpublished first submitted draft)

“Rinaldo is largely responsible,” answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. “He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester’s garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rimes for the vultures.”
“No, Prospero, he’s beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live for ever.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

For Conan, the atypical Cimmerian, poems and the arts have more power than weapons or royal authority. Not only that, but it is right and just that this is the case. Conan, the barbarian, is the defender of the value of literature, while Ascalante, the civilized man, sees literature as only a tool used to manipulate the foolish. Conan would seek to discuss the past and future, the ideal ones, with the poet, while Ascalante would merely use Rinaldo to destroy what he opposes. Conan's conflict between desiring a free press and swift justice, and the eventual melee that will result because of his favoring of the press, are made clear in the poetic prologue to the final chapter of the narrative.

What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs – I was a man before I was a king. – The Road of Kings Phoenix on the Sword (published)

Surprisingly, Conan's love of literature and the arts, and his defense of them, is so deeply rooted that he initially refuses to kill Rinaldo when Rinaldo attacks him. He still believes he can reason with the poet, it is only when he is left no other alternative that he kills the poet (the text is identical in both published and unpublished forms).

“He rushed in, hacking madly, but Conan, recognizing him, shattered his sword with a short terrific chop and with a powerful push of his open hand sent him reeling to the floor.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

“He straightened to meet the maddened rush of Rinaldo, who charged in wild and wide open, armed only with a dagger. Conan leaped back, lifting his ax.

‘Rinaldo!’ his voice was strident with desperate urgency. ‘Back! I would not slay you ..’

‘Die, tyrant!’ screamed the mad minstrel, hurling himself headlong on the king. Conan delayed the blow he was loth to deliver, until it was too late. Only when he felt the bite of the steel in his unprotected side did he strike, in a frenzy of blind desperation.

Rinaldo dropped with his skull shattered and Conan reeled back against the wall, blood spurting from between the fingers which gripped his wound.” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

What is interesting in the narrative is that of all the conspirators, there are twenty in all, none are able to injure Conan with the success of the poet. The poet has both damaged Conan's regime and his body and yet Conan was ever reluctant to, though in the end capable of, slay his greatest enemy.

“’See first to the dagger-wound in my side,’ he bade the court physicians. ‘Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus.’

‘We should have hanged him long ago,’ gibbered Publius. ‘No good can come of poets..’” – Phoenix on the Sword (published)

What does this tell us of Howard's thoughts regarding the arts? We know that Conan loves them, but we also know how they were used to manipulate the populace and how his own love for them almost cost him his life. Is Howard trying to discuss how Plato's critique of the poets is a good one, while at the same time defending the possible nobility of the poet (as Aristotle does in his Rhetoric)? I think these are questions intentionally posed in the narrative (I know...never guess at intentionality), and make it clear why Conan's first story The Phoenix on the Sword was so compelling to readers when they first read it.

It should be noted that the story was originally submitted as a Kull tale, though I have yet to analyze that draft like I have these two subsequent writings. The Kull version was rejected by Weird Tales and the final (rather than the first) Conan version was the first appearance of what has become a culturally iconic figure.