I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there’s only so many writers in the same league as H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Jack Vance. And it’s tough sometimes. I mean… what am I going to do when I finally finish their last books…?
Coming across Fritz Leiber as part of this series though, I am delighted to realize that the stockpile of great reads just got significantly bigger. And he isn’t just one of those authors that make me realize just how good the classics of science fiction and fantasy really are. He goes beyond that; I mean I read him and it just hurts. Because how could I have waited so long to come across this stuff? What was I doing going through life not even knowing this guy’s name? And seriously, who is responsible for the fact that this guy was never on my reading lists? Why didn’t anyone tell me?!
Well never mind all that, this book is a masterpiece. It’s alternately engaging and delightful, humorous and horrific. The stakes change with an entertaining array of tempo shifts and the story keeps the reader wanting more. It’s fantastic. I am not at all surprised to see that this piece garnered a Hugo Award for Best Novella back in 1971. Everything about it is pitch perfect.
But the thing I want to convey to you about this book though is the fact that it manages to neatly encapsulate the very soul of Dungeons & Dragons. Now when I say that, I’m not talking about the fact that the thieve’s guild depicted here seems to show up in just about everybody’s fantasy cities in their role-playing campaigns. And I’m not even talking about how the characters in this story seem to jive with the depiction of thieves from Basic D&D, either. (Though, yes… now that I mention it I have to say that the fact that The Grey Mouser is a washed up wizard’s apprentice would tend to explain both the thief’s low hit dice and the tendency of early rpg designers to give thieves a certain amount of magical ability….)
No, when I talk about what D&D really is, I’m not meaning to get into all of the usual discussions of differences between the various editions. I’m not talking about the nuances of all the rules or the differences between the classes. I’m not talking about the definition of hit points, the length of a combat round, or the origins of the alignment system. What I’m most concerned with here are the sort of things that invariably emerge in the course of play… many of which are quintessential features of the game, but which nonetheless are not directly addressed in either the rules or the adventure modules.
If you’re not sure what I mean by that, then check out this passage from the story:
Each discerned something inexplicably familiar in the other.
Fafhrd said, “Our motives for being here seem to be identical.”
“Seem? Surely must be!” the Mouser answered curtly, fiercely eyeing this potential new foe, who was taller by a head than the tall thief.
“I said, ‘Seem? Surely you must be!'”
“How civilized of you!” Fafhrd commented in pleased tones.
“Civilized?” the Mouser demanded suspiciously, gripping his dirk tighter.
“To care, in the eye of action, exactly what’s said,” Fafrd explained. Without letting the Mouser out of his vision, he glanced down. His gaze traveled from the belt and pouch of one fallen thief to those of the other. Then he looked up at the Mouser with a broad, ingenous smile.
“Sixty-sixty?” he suggested.
The Mouser hesitated, sheaved his dirk, and rapped out, “A deal!”
This just perfectly captures the uneasy alliance that exists between party members in a typical D&D session. Oh sure, occasionally groups work out some sort of rationale for why a random assortment of good-looking adventuring types from all walks of life might come together and strike off into the wilds in search of excitement and loot… but mostly they don’t. You might say that these player characters find each other to be… inexplicably familiar. And even when they get into trouble due to how they end up working at cross purposes at times, there’s nevertheless something strangely civilized about their relationship– often in a way that is completely at odds with whatever rough cultures they supposedly hail from.
This is simply how things work at the tabletop. And no, there’s nothing in the rule books that really nail this down as a feature, either. People just seem to intuit that this is naturally how things ought to be. Of course, it’s also hilarious two iconic swords and sorcery characters coincidentally meet when both of them are attempting to kill the exact same group of thieves and then take their stuff. It only makes Fritz Leiber’s anticipation of coming trends in hobby gaming that much more delicious.
But this gets better, because check this out:
“Now how do we get into the damn place? Fafhrd demanded in a hoarse whisper. “Scout Murder Alley for a back window that can be forced. You’ve got pries in that sack, I trow. Or try the roof? You’re a roof man, I know already. Teach me the art. I know trees and mountains, snow, ice, and bare rock. See this wall here?” He backed off from it, preparing to go up it in a rush.
“Steady on, Fafhrd,” the Mouser said, keeping his hand against the big young man’s chest. “We’ll hold the roof in reserve. Likewise all walls. And I’ll take it on trust you’re a master climber. As to how we get in, we walk straight through that doorway.” He frowned. “Tap and hobble, rather. Come on, while I prepare us.”
As he drew the skeptically grimacing Fafhrd back down Death Alley until all Cheap Street was again cut off from view, he explained. “We’ll pretend to be beggars, members of their guild, which is but a branch of the Thieves’ Guild and houses with it, or at any rate reports in to the Beggarmasters at Theives’ House. We’ll be new members, who’ve gone out by day, so it’ll not be expected that the Night Beggarmaster and any night watchmen know our looks.”
“But we don’t look like beggars,” Fafhrd protested. “Beggars have awful sores and limbs all a-twist or lacking altogether.”
“That’s just what I’m going to take care of now….”
This is really the meat and potatoes of almost every D&D session I’ve ever run. You see… there’s always this thing that the players have to do. And invariably the players come up with these insane plans to accomplish them. I don’t even have to do anything, really. As soon as they perceive the objective, they’re off… hashing out elaborate workarounds for every conceivable problem. They sometimes get so into working this sort of thing out, they’ll brush me off when I suggest that we should maybe get started on, you know, actually playing the game. And the thing about these schemes, they’re almost always about something that the rules hardly even address at all. I mean… how can you know what a monster is really going to say when the players interrogate him? What’s going to happen when the players leave a commemorative plaque by the dungeon entrance and then overhear a non-player party arguing over what it means? How do you adjudicate combat when the players are on a slippery surface between boiling mud pots with all the players tied together with a single fifty foot length of rope?
And that’s just the random stuff that comes up in the course of the game! The things that the players come up with once this other stuff comes out are even crazier. I mean… what is going to happen when the players send in a possessed hill giant and an invisible thief into the banquet hall so that their magic-user can take over the hill giant chieftain’s mind in order to distract a company of drunken monsters with a speech while the rest of the party moves into position to unleash fireballs, poisonous snakes, and insect swarms all in perfectly optimized positions on the imaginary battlefield? What are all the monsters in the rest of that dungeon going to do when that particular party gets started…? Heck, how are the monsters that see all this first hand going to behave? Nobody knows! Not the players, not the dungeon master, not the adventure designer… nobody.
The only thing that’s certain is that the plan will completely fall apart when it comes into contact with game-reality. For instance, when the players decide to camp out in that very same banquet room and find themselves rudely awakened by loud banging on each of three different entrances into their temporary safehold! That sense of jaw-dropping panic that consumes the players when they are overwhelmed by trouble of their own making is eerily similar to what Fritz Leiber describes here:
“Night Beggarmaster!” he called sharply. The limping man stopped, turned, came crippling majectically through the door. Krovas stabbed finger at the Mouser, then Fafhrd. “Do you know these two, Flim?”
The Night Beggarmaster unhurriedly studied each for a space, then shook his head with its turban of cloth and gold. “Never seen either before. What are they? Fink beggars?”
“But Flim wouldn’t know us,” the Mouser explained desperately, feeling everything collapsing in on him and Fafhrd. “All our contacts were with Bannat alone.”
Flim said quietly, “Bannat’s been abed with the swamp ague this past ten-day. Meanwhile I have been the Day Beggarmaster as well as Night.”
This is where the fun begins: when the players’ brilliant plans land them in a situation where they are completely out of their depth. The action takes on an entirely different tenor. It’s amazing that it occurs so predictably given how little you can do to actually prepare for it. And their creativity is astounding. The dungeon master will be reminded of rules that no one normally bothers with. New applications for standard character abilities will spontaneously be developed. Odd things on peoples’ character sheets that nobody ever thought to use suddenly get brought out. And all of these things collide in this zany cascade of events that take on a life of their on.
Of course, the only thing better than the players miraculously pulling themselves out of the ensuing mess with just the right die rolls and tactics is when they realize just how badly they’ve been beaten and just what it is that they’ve lost in the exchange. There’s just something about those times that the players return from the dungeon with their noses bloodied– and worse, when they have nothing to show for it. Risking life and limb for a mere fifteen experience points is just plain insulting. It’s worse when casualties were left behind. But that is the point when a goofy collection of oddballs and miscreants suddenly pull together and become a well oiled killing machine. It’s a frightening thing to behold. Even the players can be taken aback by the horrors they set out to unleash.
I won’t spoil the story by revealing just what exactly it was the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser lost on their first adventure together, but I will show you this scene from the aftermath of their epic rampage through the thieves’ guild:
Their madness was gone and all their rage too– vented to the last red atom and glutted to more than satiety. They had no more urge to kill Krovas or any other of the thieves than to swat flies. With horrified inner eye Fafhrd saw the pitiful face of the child-thief he’d skewered in his lunatic anger.
That child-thief is the literary antecedent of every orc baby that has ever been killed in Keep on the Borderlands.
This story really captures the zeitgeist of great fantasy role-playing. It’s got it all: the random thugs joining together in an uneasy alliance as they set off in search of plunder, the over the top plans like something out of Mission Impossible, the incredibly frantic action when things falls apart, the laser-focused vengeance that consumes a rebuffed party, and even the reflection and remorse when they start to come to grips with all the carnage in their wake. Like I said, you won’t find this sort of thing spelled out in the rules or the adventure designs, but you will see it in actual play. It’s the stuff great gaming sessions are made of.
That this story that was published four years before the release of the original edition Dungeons & Dragons only makes it that much more impressive. And yet, these similarities are not a coincidence: in the introduction to that game, Gary Gygax cites Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser’s books as being one of four series that really captured the sort of fantasy that the game was designed to produce. But the success of his design work has been so influential, it has since overshadowed the authors that made it possible. Today there are countless gamers that have experienced adventures almost identical to the spirit of Fritz Leiber’s creations… but they often don’t have any idea how he was.
Fortunately, all is not lost: there just aren’t that many wandering monster checks in store for those that seek out these treasures of fantasy literature. This stockpile of great reads is here for the taking for anyone that has a craving for adventure.