RETROSPECTIVE: The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Monday , 1, June 2015 5 Comments

This book is superb. It’s not just a rip roaring yarn, either. It also explains a great deal about old school fantasy that you’re liable to have not even wondered about. For instance, it reveals that the most important “half elf” race throughout history was not the product of an epic elf/human romance, but was instead the result of a jaw-dropping elf and troll pairing. It shows why it was that it was of utmost importance in the Middle Ages to have your children either christened or dedicated to some pagan god as soon after their birth as was feasible. It reveals that Faerie have long been active all around us, but that even in the heart of the lands of troll and elf-kindred we cannot see them unless we have the gift of Witch’s sight. Going against the grain of more recent trends and impulses, this book demonstrates just how much more fantastic fantasy fiction can be when it is grounded in reality and history.

Not that there aren’t Elfland-like worlds here that can (with great difficulty) be journeyed to by mortals. Jötunheim, the land of the giants figures strongly in the tale. Not only does this incredible place contain a steading, but it is also a realm that does not “lie on the earth at all, but in strange dimensions near the edge of everything where creation plunged back into the Gap whence it had arisen.” While Poul Anderson is often invoked in order to illustrate how fantasy might have evolved without Tolkien’s overwhelming influence, the parallels here to Middle Earth’s Undying Lands are unmistakable.

Another connection to Dunsany and Tolkien here is that the tale is framed with the idea that the mythic past is actually our past. Of course, if our myths are in some sense true, that leads to the question of whose myths are true. And the surprising answer that we get here is that all of them are true. This is especially surprising given the number of people that have complained about how classic AD&D throws together basically every fantastic beast or being that anyone has ever conceived into one sprawling default milieu. The closest thing to this that many people might have come across might be C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories; consequently they might think that such a world building choice might be necessarily cute or silly or otherwise geared towards children.

And yet… despite being unflinchingly multicultural, the troll army depicted here is both believable and convincingly ferocious:

“Most of the goblin tribes we have either overcome or made alliance with,” said Illrede. “They have old grudges against both trolls and elves, but I have promised them loot and freedom for such slaves of their race as we have and a place just below us when we rule throughout Faerie. They are doughty fighters and not a few.

“Then we have companies from distant lands, demons of Baikal, Shen of Cathay, Oni of Cipangu, imps of Moorish deserts, adding up to a fair number. They have come for the looting and are not wholly to be relied on, but I will dispose them in battle according to what they can do. There are also stragglers who came alone or in little bands–werewolves, vampires, ghouls, that sort. And we have plenty of dwarf thralls, some of whom will fight in exchange for freedom; and they can handle iron.” (page 82)

Similarly, each part of England fields a different type of elf. Forest elves were brought and then later abandoned by the Romans. From Cornwall and Wales are the most ancient of the elves, “green-haired, white-skinned sea folk.” And in Pictland there are shorter, bearded elves with dark skin and (naturally) tattooed faces. The greatest allies of the elven people are the Sidhe which constitute an entire pantheon in their own right. Among these the Tuatha De Danaan were chief, “for they had been gods in Ireland ere Patrick” had come. But in Anderson’s telling these creatures did not simply sail across to sea to some sort of Elfland retirement home. As a faun recounts, it is the coming of the “White Christ” that ultimately puts an end to these mythic beings:

“I came from the south, after great Pan was dead and the new god whose name I cannot speak was in Hellas. No place remained for the old gods and the old beings of our land. The priests cut down the sacred groves and built churches– Oh, I remember how the dryads screamed, unheard by them, screams that quivered on on the hot still air as if to hang there forever. They ring yet in my ears, they always will.” The faun shook his curly head. “I fled north; but I wonder if those of my comrades who stayed and fought and were slain with exorcisms were not wiser. Long and long has it been, elf-boy, and lonelier than it was long.” Tears glimmered in his eyes. “The nymphs and the fauns and the very gods are less than dust. The temples stand empty, white under sky, and bit by bit they crumble to ruin. And I–I wander alone in a foreign land, scorned by its gods and shunned by its people. (page 14)

I’m not sure why passages like this surprise me so much. Christian authors like Tolkien and Lewis were widely considered to be among the best fantasy authors of all time when I was growing up in the eighties. And yet… Christian elements such as what Poul Anderson presents here were being steadily retired from fantasy even then. Instead of using real myths and reconciling them with the real world, fantasy authors and game designers more and more took to creating standalone settings with a more generic tone. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way that fantasy settings tended to come packaged with a cheap knockoff of the Greek gods and goddesses. Not everyone went along with this, of course. But it was a trend. It was so unsatisfactory that Steve Jackson’s Yrth setting intentionally incorporated actual religions like Christianity and Islam in reaction to it.¹

Just as one data point to illustrate this shift, I want to take a look at the fourth volume in the original run of AD&D hardbacks. This is not one that I remember getting a lot of attention, but Gary Gygax’s foreward made it clear that this work was serious business:

DEITIES AND DEMIGODS is an indispensable part of the whole of AD&D. Do not fall into the error of regarding it as a supplement. It is integral to Dungeon Mastering a true AD&D campaign. Experienced players will immediately concur with this evaluation, for they already know how important alignment is, how necessary the deity is to the cleric, and how interaction of the various alignments depends upon the entities which lead them. Those readers not well-grounded in ongoing campaigns must take my word for all of this, although they will soon discover for themselves how crucial the deities of the campaign milieu are.

That is insanely audacious, even for Gary Gygax. But this was after all a new book for what was to become the apotheosis of fantasy role-playing games: the first installment after the the initial core books were out. A few appropriate words were in order because it was put together by a couple of guys that weren’t Gary Gygax. They basically had to be ordained– anointed for the task, as it were. So from that standpoint, it’s completely understandable that the Old Man had to put in a good word for them.

Still, I have to say that the style of argument he takes there to buttress his remarks is quite out of bounds. They are not the words of a sales pitch. They are not merely an endorsement of someone else’s contribution to the game. We are in told in effect that the initiated and the enlightened will immediately see the value of the book. The people that don’t? They just haven’t played the game enough to understand. There’s nothing you can do with this if you don’t “get it” except pretend that you’re in on it. No wonder the early days of tabletop role-playing have the reputation for being some kind of cargo cult phenomenon!

The preface by James M. Ward could not offer a greater contrast:

The book should be used as a beginning framework for the DM. Sample it, take what is wanted, and start the gods as well as the players in a universe. While DEITIES & DEMIGODS reveals a great many divine powers and a great many powerful devices, it is the duty of the DM to add to, change, and otherwise modify the information on these pages for use in a campaign. (James M. Ward, page 4)

Something like that last bit belongs in just about every role-playing game supplement ever made. A lot of people lately seem to get hung up on whether or not the game master has the authority to make sweeping editorial changes for his campaign. But the invocation of “duty” here not only suggests the inevitability of this sort of thing, but implies that there’s more than a little nobless oblige that should go along with it. I may be reading too much into a very brief passage here, but it seems to me that James M. Ward really “gets” gaming. That being the case, it particularly irks me that this book has taken a lot of heat over the years for things that were cleared up in the opening pages:

DDG (for short) may resemble MONSTER MANUAL, and in fact does include some monsters. However, the purpose of this book is not to provide adversaries for the players’ characters. The information listed herein is primarily for the Dungeon Master’s use in creating, intensifying or expanding his or her campaign….

The most important thing to remember about this book is that, unlike the other AD&D volumes, everything contained within this book is guidelines, not rules. DDG is an aid for the DM, not instructions. We would not presume to tell a Dungeon Master how to set up his or her campaign’s religious systems. (DD p5)

Ah, the number of people that have called out this tome for statting up godlike beings as if they were just another variety of monster! And most people do see this work as being a glorified “Monster Manual.” Of course, many vocal connoisseurs of gaming seem to object to the monster books on principle— an attitude I was sympathetic to right up until the moment that I observed nine and eleven year old children encountering the old AD&D hardbacks for the first time. They understood nothing of the rules. They didn’t even roll up characters like I would have as a teenager. But they spent literally days on end reading about monsters and marking the ones that most inspired them. These books are not just a repository for the game’s implied setting. They are something more.

I think what it comes down to is that the monster books really captured and conveyed the zeitgeist of AD&D like noting else. I mean, few people actually understood the rules in the early days. I’m not even sure that you even could run the game with the rules as written. But even a neophyte Dungeon Master could grasp the contents of the monster books. For players, 80% of what you need to successfully play the game would have been in the character generation and combat sections. For the game masters? I think 80% of the what they needed to run a campaign was in the Monster Manual. It really was the heart of the game.

But the notes on using Deities & Demigods in actual play are quite good and go quite beyond the premise of things that your players can murder for treasure. If you are trying to run these beings just from their individual entries, you’ll miss out on this– and I think that’s exactly what happened with more than a few gamers. In fact, quite a bit of the material here is right in line with The Broken Sword and other literary inspirations:

  • “The source of a deity’s godhead is in some way connected to his or her earthly worshipers, however it is true that a god’s power often increases or decreases as the number of his worshipers varies. Thus deities, and clerics as their agents, constantly try to increase the quality and quantity of their worshipers.”
  • “The statistics given in this book can be of great aid, but they do not tell how a deity should be played. The gods are not lists of armor classes, hit points, and attack forms; treating them as such reduces them to the role of mere monsters. They are, rather, beings whose very presence profoundly effects the course of events.”
  • “If engaged in combat, deities will almost always call upon whatever aid they can. Some gods have specific aids or attendants listed in the text. Those who do not have creatures listed can still usually summon a retinue of appropriate beings from the Prime Material or the god’s plane of origin. After summoning aid, many gods will depart from the field, leaving the retinue to do the fighting for them.”
  • “The gods are not unwilling to aid their worshipers. The fact is, gods have so many worshipers that they prefer to give aid of a less specific and more general nature– subtle aid that will help their worshipers as a whole. This type of aid usually goes unnoticed in the short run (except by high level clerics, who know what to expect.) Specific aid to individuals is extremely rare, despite the fact that this is the kind of aid deities are most frequently expected to supply.”

This last one is reminiscent of the passage from The Broken Sword where Odin impersonates the devil:

“I stand ready to give my soul unto you if you will deliver my enemies into my hands.”

“That I may not do,” said her guest, “but I may give you the means to entrap them if your cunning be greater than theirs.” (pages 25-26)

And the devil himself actually turns up latter on:

The witch had no time for rites or offerings, but she howled the call which had been taught her, and a blackness deeper than night arose beyond the fire.

She groveled. Faint and cold, the little blue flames raced across him. “Help,” she whimpered. “Help, the elves come.”

The eyes watched her without anger or pity. The sound of the hunt grew louder. “Help!” she wailed.

He spoke, in a voice that blent with the wind but seemed to come from immeasurably far removed. “Why do you call on me?”

“They… they seek… my life.”

“What of that? I heard you say once that you did not care for life.”

“My vengence is not complete,” she sobbed. “I cannot die now, without knowing whether my work and the price I paid are for naught. Master, help your servant!”

Nearer came the hunters. She felt the ground shiver beneath the galloping hoofs.

“You are not my servant, you are my slave,” the voice rustled. “What is it to me whether your purpose is fulfilled? I am the lord of evil, which is futility.

“Did you think you ever summoned me and struck a bargain? No, you were led astray; that was another. Mortals never sell me their souls. They give them away.”

And the Dark Lord was gone. (pages 80-81)

Taking another look at this iconic game supplement as an adult, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Deities & Demigods is underrated. While it was not James M. Ward’s and Robert J. Kuntz’s intent that Dungeon Masters would import the entire range of pantheons into their campaign wholesale, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword offers a fascinating glimpse into just how you would go about it. Maybe the main problem with the syncretic approach of AD&D was that we never took it far enough…!

Of course, Deities & Demigods is noticeably out of step with, say, The Forgotten Realms and the many Tolkien pastiches that followed it. And again, when Steve Jackson produced his own fantasy game in 1986, he went out of his way to provide an alternative to the “superficial mumbo jumbo” that passed for the typical fantasy religions of the day. He gave players a way to be “paladins of a ‘real’ faith [rather] than of the Temple of Gooble the Mostly Omnipotent.” But by providing a range of real world pantheons, the designers of Deities & Demigods were equipping dungeon masters to embrace that same sort of world building decision six years before that. It might have struck people as being more and more unusual as the eighties wore on, but Ward and Kuntz didn’t really stray too far from the sort of thing that writers like Lord Dunsany, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Poul Anderson had done previously.

Deities & Demigods might not be the sort of “fourth core book” that it was originally pitched as being. Nevertheless… there is a lot of potential to be found within its covers. Anyone looking to make their fantasy campaign’s gods and goddesses do more than just provide clerical spells to their followers would do well to take a look at it.

¹ GURPS Fantasy first edition, page 70.

Special thanks to Chris Mata for providing me with a copy of this classic game supplement. It is not only the earlier unexpurgated edition with both Lovecraft and Lankhmar stuff included, but it also has some Erol Otus artwork that I had not seen before:

5 Comments
  • Cirsova says:

    I love that old picture of Yog-Sothoth!

  • Cirsova says:

    Also, the old DDG is what got me interested in Lovecraft in the first place. I saw all those messed up looking monsters and was all “Whoa, I gotta check out what that guy wrote!”

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