Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Questing for Tanelorn

For [reasons] I've spent much of the last couple days reading through Michael Moorcock's old Elric stories (I happen to own a couple gigantic omnibuses)...mainly the latter ones (The Vanishing Tower and Stormbringer), but digging about here and there. It's been a while since I really sat down and gave them a straight read; probably pre-marriage, in fact (circa 1998...twenty years ago!), so long before I ever started this blog or giving a good, hard look at the Dungeons & Dragons game. It's amazing what a debt the game's design owes to Moorcock's stories.

Which, sure, is "common" knowledge: Gygax has mentioned Moorcock in interviews, and he's listed as inspirational reading material both in Tom Moldvay's Basic book and the fabled Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

[this was not meant to be any kind of Appendix N post or research, just by the way...I wasn't re-reading these stories for anything gaming or blog-related (strangely enough). However, it IS interesting that the only Elric books named in the DMG are the 1963 Stealer of Souls and the 1965 Stormbringer novel. The former is a collection of five stories: The Dreaming City, While the Gods Laugh, The Stealer of Souls, Kings in Darkness, and Flamebringers (later renamed The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams). While these short stories are very much in the wandering adventurer, amoral sword-and-sorcery style that is the bread-and-butter of Old School play, I'm more interested in Moorcock's works' influence on the design of the game...and for that, you need to look at Stormbringer]

(*ahem*) YES, it is common knowledge that Moorcock provided an influence, but other than the whole Law-versus-Chaos alignment axis, I hadn't considered it too much, till now. As far as game (design) concepts go, I'd probably rank Moorcock's work as the prime influence on the game...certainly more so than Tolkien (whose main contribution are some fairytale races and monsters with the LotR serial numbers filed off), and probably more than Howard's Conan stories (which are, in the main, stories about a single, super heroic protagonist...hardly the model for an adventuring party). Only Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Mouser stories seem on par with Moorcock's contributions, and then mainly in tone (prior to the addition of the thief class).

However, much of the "accepted" cosmology of D&D can be cribbed straight from the world of Moorcock's Young Kingdoms. The struggle between Law and Chaos (with Neutrality in the middle) and what that all means is very well explained, and is prominent. The existence of past civilizations (and ruins ready for plundering) as well as the general search (or acquisition) of huge amounts of wealth. Motley groups of scurvy treasure hunters joining up together for mutual (mis)adventure. An abundance of magic, including potions, scrolls, items, and weapons. Intelligent magic items (possessing of purpose). Magic-users being readily available (if not entirely common, outside certain locales). The "Higher Planes," those who dwell there and how one arrives (via the "astral plane"). Elemental planes (and their inhabitants). Monsters of various sorts fit for fighting (unlike, say, Lovecraft's creatures), many of whom are NOT of standard myth and folklore but demonic combinations of various animal types, often with strange powers and resistances (like magic resistance). Different nations of peoples, different languages that can be learned. Planar/world hopping. Small scale combat. Large scale combat. Naval battles feature prominently (especially catapult-laden galleys) in many of the stories. Riding on the backs of flying creatures (dragons, demons, giant mechanical birds, etc.). Hunting out magical artifacts and the existence of ancient tomes of magic.

Humor...generally of the darker also present, as is failure, tragedy, and death.

Even Elric's own ancient people, the Melniboneans, seems the model for OD&D's elves. Long lived, inhuman, and fey, they freely mix magic and warfare...and the description of Elric:
"A tall man, broad-shouldered, slender at hip, a man with slanting brows, pointed, lobeless ears, high cheekbones..."
Could easily describe a D&D elf (especially as they've been pictured in later editions.

[interesting that the earliest illustration of an elf in OD&D shows the being sporting a full beard, unlike the later depicted, hairless race. While Elric is always illustrated as clean-shaven, it is explicit in several parts of the text that he shaves, while others of his species sport facial hair in various styles]

Also, stylistically, the world of Elric is all over the place. Yes, there is ridiculously extravagant headgear. Yes, there is the medieval side-by-side with the Renaissance with the fantastical in terms of architecture and culture/society. Yes, there is religion (fantasy religion) and gods (fantasy types on different sides, fighting against each other through proxies) and adventuring priests...though none of these seem restricted in weapon type. Yes, there's plenty of necromancy and undead abominations. Yes, there are magical traps and riddles that need to be deciphered and navigated by our bands of intrepid adventurers as they explore the ancient strongholds of long-dead wizards or perished civilizations.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to see the extremely strong connections between the Elric setting and Dungeons & Dragons, but I'm a little surprised at how I've glossed over these connections (or outright ignored them) in the past. Part of it, I think, is that the Elric stories are (to me) mainly about the exploration of a miserable individual's mental grappling with his own place in the universe (made palatable by the fantasy adventure genre in which the character is immersed). If you detach yourself from that part of the story (Elric, as a character, develops little throughout the works, and remains tortured and bitchy till the end...certainly in part due to Moorcock writing the LAST chronological story of the abino very early in the series), then you can see all the D&D tropes in which the protagonists find themselves.

Minus the Vancian style magic, of course.

[also nothing in the Moorcock novels explain "alignment language" as far as I can tell]

I've written before about my love for Chaosium's Stormbringer RPG (at least the early editions) and its suitability to running a game in the style of an Elric tale. I continue to stand by those statements. However, as I prepare a B/X campaign for an upcoming "summer project," I can't help but think that Moorcock's Young Kingdoms setting would make an excellent backdrop for Old School adventuring...a good base on which to lay a campaign foundation.

Not that I want to create something cynical and nihilistic, mind you (if I did, I'd just play Stormbringer!). Nope, nothing so destructive as a world on the edge of extinction. But there are plenty of ideas to mine from Moorcock's work...especially with regard to cosmology and its interaction with play mechanics...and I kind of feel like exploiting those ideas. I mean, why not?

Looks like Elric and Moonglum to me...


  1. Excellent analysis. When I read those books as a teen, I was so immersed in D&D that I did not notice those influences. I'm not sure there is a literary source for alignment languages; I think that uniquely stupid idea is a Gygax original. Did anyone ever use them? Does anyone still use them?

    1. Sort of. The closest I've come to it is porting Abyssal, Celestial, and Infernal into earlier editions, but even then there only a choice for magic-users or clerics based on their alignment or deity; rarely used by fighting men.

    2. Planar languages make far more sense than the bizarre concept of philosophical languages intelligible only to others who share the same philosophy--even if they hail from other countries, worlds, or planes--but if your alignment changes, you totally forget your old alignment language as you acquire the new one.

  2. Another excellent literary/gaming analysis! I've read and enjoyed Elric for years but I also never thought about from a game design standpoint other than the obvious Law-Balance-Chaos alignment system of the early editions.

  3. Totally agree. When I was a teen Elric and Brust's Taltos stories felt closest of anything I'd read to what D&D was like (I'd not actually get my hands on anything written by Leiber until college). For that reason, my elves tended to be more than a little Melnibonéan/Dragaeran, until tielfings were introduced and kinda stole that slot.