Tomes of Sword and Sorcery




Misfit Studios: OGL Barbarian Sourcebook

We seem to be experiencing a long-overdue Sword & Sorcery renaissance. I rejoice at the ever-growing volume of quality products now available to fans of the genre: games, comics, books, toys... hallowed artifacts to enjoy, collect and treasure.

The Barbarian archetype has also reestablished itself quite powerfully, as is meet. These are good times indeed.

Steven 'Conan' Trustrum, a wandering adventurer for much of his gaming career, established his own RPG kingdom not too long ago and has since been very busy impressing us with his OGL Barbarian product line.

Barbaric Treasures is the latest offering from Misfit Studios and it more than lives up to its name. Steven tackles the challenge of providing exciting options for treasure found in a barbarian campaign, and succeeds admirably.

First off, there are updated Skills, Feats and Professions related to creating, or appraising, valuable objects. These are practical, necessary and quite common sense. You start with the basics: goldsmithing, gem cutting, taxidermy, animal handling, fur trading, tanning and butchering, then move on to even more complex, yet savagely essential, uses of profit-generating skills and abilities.

There is a variant rule on handling supply and demand in your world, which adds a whole new dimension to raiding, trading and even questing. An item's scarcity is a powerful factor in determining its value (anybody out there who collects anything can understand what it is to want something quite badly, and then go to extraordinary lengths to obtain it; after many frustrations and long stretches of time... how sweet it is to hold your long-sought treasure in hand!).

Mundane trade goods are subject to market forces, so Barbaric Treasures starts with these. It even provides information on what you need to establish a mundane business in your campaign world.

New weapons, armor and combat maneuvers are, of course, introduced (my favorite weapon: the Man-Axe, my favorite maneuver: Through the Guts). There is also more on buying/selling/ using Piecemeal Armor (an innovation introduced in Barbaric Warrior). And now... even your trusty steed can get into the act.

Atlantean Weapons and Armor, practical artifacts with extraordinary qualities, are then introduced. This is another OGL Barbarian innovation. These rare items are definitely worth questing for and fighting to keep. Think of Conan's Atlantean Sword in the movies and live-action TV show: not 'magical' per se, but definitely something exceptional.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, Barbaric Treasures actually did. It concludes with Bestial Treasures - things of great value in a barbaric campaign (fur/meat/antlers/claws etc) and a catalog of unique treasure items from prehistory. One of the features that I really enjoyed was the 'knowledge known or misunderstood' tables. Not everything is -or can be- known about the rare relics from yesteryear one occasionally stumbles across. And sometimes our lore is downright wrong. These tables painlessly introduce that element into the game.

There are a lot of extra little goodies scattered like gems throughout the book. This seems to be a Steven Trustrum signature, and I enjoy finding these unexpected treasures.

Barbarians, in reality and in fantasy, are shameless opportunists and fiercely competitive to boot. Barbaric Treasures provides GMs and Players with enough loot to keep their barbarian characters happily hunting for a long, long, time. Which is a good thing. A very good thing.


Mongoose Publishing: Conan RPG Sourcebook

I am a big fan of Mongoose Publishing. They consistently produce high quality products that transcend their primary function as viable gaming tools. They are excellent resource guides for anyone interested in researching a topic - and serve as inspiring art-books as well.

Their Slaine and Conan RPG product lines are great examples of their multi-level devotion to delivering high quality offerings that are not only appealing, but maximally valuable to gamers, scholars and collectors alike.

Across the Thunder River brought the Pictish Wilderness to life, and introduced adventurers to the untamed wilds of Aquilonia's northwestern frontier. Aquilonia - Flower of The West takes you deep within the heartlands of the mightiest Western Kingdom during the Age of Conan.

All known sources of the Conan saga were raided and looted to generate this unparalleled treasure trove of practical Aquilonian lore. Howard's original tales, pastiches and comic book yarns all contributed to the booty, Mongoose Publishing then fleshed it out beyond all expectation. This is the ultimate resource guide to the noble land that most influenced Conan's unique destiny.

Life in Aquilonia: customs and costumes, one's place and social standing, calendar and constellations... all here. Every region, including Bossonia, Gunderland and Poitan is detailed in a national Gazetteer. There are even entries on the Pictish frontier so wonderfully presented in Across the Thunder River.

There are detailed sections on the lives of Aquilonian warriors and priests, healers and politicians. Special Prestige Classes, Skills and Feats allow you recreate the signature Aquilonian warriors in Howard's tales: the Bossonian Archers, Poitanian Knights and Pike men of Gunderland. The minutiae of feudal living are detailed as well, providing greater context and meaning to your gaming experience.

The crown jewels in this sourcebook are the legendary personalities you can now bring to life in your campaign.

King Conan the Usurper and the members of his royal household: Queen Zenobia, Prince Conn, Princess Radegund, Prince Taurus. The passages regarding these august personages are rich in lost lore from the Marvel Comics series.

His trusted court: Dexitheus, Count Trocero, Pallantides, Prospero, Publius. Recurring characters: Countess Albiona, Zelata the Seer and her Wolf... all yours, to do with as you will.

The book concludes with a Bestiary, a practical treatise on Aquilonian NPCs, helpful suggestions for the GM and a plethora of adventure hooks and scenario suggestions.

Armed with Aquilonia - Flower of The West and Across the Thunder River a GM can recreate Conan's rise to power - from lowly Scout to exalted Monarch - and allow his players to experience the excitement of life during the reign of our favorite Barbarian King.


Mongoose Publishing: Conan RPG Sourcebook

I've been looking forward to this sourcebook since the launch of the Conan RPG, and often speculated on the nature of its contents. Mongoose Publishing had already given us the Quintessential Barbarian I & II - both excellent and very comprehensive resources for roleplaying barbarians in d20 games. What more could possibly be said?

I expected a Gazetteer, Sourcebook and Gaming Guide to the Northlands: Cimmeria, Asgard, Vanaheim, Hyperboria. Perhaps the Border Kingdom and the frozen tundras far north of the Vilayet.

What Hyboria's Fiercest: Barbarians, Borderers and Nomads delivered was much greater than anything I anticipated. For starters, it radically redefined the Hyborian Age barbarian concept. Though there are certainly barbaric cultures, barbarians can be from almost anywhere, even Stygia and Shem! Wherever there is harsh wilderness, Barbarians may be found. Wherever there are borders... Borderers. This creates countless fascinating possibilities for the Hyborian roleplayer.

Secrets of the Fierce gives you new Skills and Feats as well as lots of useful information on surviving - nay, thriving - in extreme and unforgiving terrain.

Abroad in Hyboria
further hones your survival skills by tackling each environment and its challenges seperately.

Not tough enough yet? You will be after mastering Fierce Feats such as Extreme Might and Savage Cleave. If you really want to unnerve your enemies choose Teeth Gleaming!

Joining the Fray gives you many extra fighting options, some universal, others regional. Cimmerian Power, Hyperborean Stone Warrior Style and Pictish Stalking Cat Style are some examples.

My favorite section is By Mighty Thews, which introduces many barbaric multiclass options with a distinct Hyborian flavor. Variant rules (which brilliantly redefine multiclassing) are also provided for those craving even more variety in their game. Do you aspire to be a Shaman? A Harrower? A War Chief? Now you can by following these savage career paths.

The last two chapters By Honed Senses and By Beastly Union provide the same range of options to Borderers and Nomads.

I'm impressed! Phenomenally much so. What more can I say? This is a powerful and wonderful gaming tool and Hyborian resource.

And I can still look forward to Mongoose Publishing's eventual Gazetteer, Sourcebook and Gaming Guide to the Northlands: Cimmeria, Asgard, Vanaheim, Hyperboria. Perhaps the Border Kingdom and the frozen tundras far north of the Vilayet (Hint! Hint! Hint!).


Kaso Comics: Art Anthology

The artwork of Marcus Boas inspired me when I was growing up. I've had the pleasure of speaking to Marcus many times over the years at Conventions and it was my honor to interview him on my cable show. He has drawn several of my favorite Sword & Sorcery heroes, ranging from Conan (famous) to Kyrik (obscure).

Marcus has a passion for the classic protagonists and settings of heroic fantasy and - indeed - his paintings graced the pages of Heroic Fantasy, a Sword & Sorcery magazine in the late 70's, as well as many pulp paperback book covers. Marcus places himself smack dab into the worlds he is painting. He can be found battle-ready on Barsoom, chest-thumping in primeval jungles, shooting aliens and monsters with his pistol, and doing the gladiator thing in Roman times.

Enter the Worlds of... Heroic Fantasy is a collection of Marcus' finest work. His paintings are featured - in color and black & white - and there are many behind-the-scenes photographs of Marcus and his model Erin Kimsey that demonstrate the process of inspiration to creation. There are also images of the finished products as they appeared on store shelves.

This work was a wonderful stroll down memory lane, a guided tour I can now take whenever I am feeling a bit nostalgic.


University of Nebraska Press: Bison Books Trade Paperback

Steven Tompkins did an excellent job introducing and editing this collection of Gothic American tales by the father of Sword & Sorcery fiction. The stories themselves were old friends, and it was indeed great to revisit them. Marvel Comics adapted many of these stories into the Conan Saga, so newbies to the real deal may find them somewhat familiar if they've come to REH from the old comic books. The introduction and theme for this collection were refreshingly new, and quite exciting.

The Black Stranger and Other American Tales
by Robert E. Howard effectively focuses on REH's attempts to mythologize the American landscape. As this is a major aspect of my own life-work I was greatly intrigued by how one of my primary inspirations went about tackling this challenge. I learned a lot.

The Black Stranger
actually is a Conan tale. Most fans know it as the Treasure of Tranicos, and indeed it is... but with a surprisingly different ending. Conan does not proceed, loot in hand and with powerful allies, to win the crown of Aquilonia. He actually detours to the Western Ocean and returns, quite broke, to the pirate life once more!

Marchers of Valhalla, a James Allison tale of long-ago lifetimes, features a tribe of wandering Aesir and a loyal Pict adventuring in the post-Hyborian Age Americas. A rogue Vanirman is the Big Bad for much of this story.

The Gods of Bal-Sagoth is a Turlough O' Brien yarn. Turlough and his Saxon companion encounter a lost civilization and get involved in political power-struggles.

Nekht Semerkeh
t blends the sorceries of the Old World and the New during the time of the Conquistadors.

Black Vulmea's Vengeance
features the Celtic pirate, Black Terence Vulmea, and his cunning plan to revenge himself on an English officer. The Celtic code Vulmea lives by subverts his original purpose yet helps him succeed in a way greater than he could ever anticipate.

The Strange Case of Josiah Wilbarger is a strange story of dreams and afterlife assistance.

In The Valley of the Lost, the dim past eerily touches frontier America.

Black Canaan, a tale of African Voodoo run rampant, will offend some modern sensibilities, as will Pigeons from Hell. Howard's admiration for savages and primitives, however, shines much brighter than the shadow of words no longer considered politically correct.

Old Garfield's Heart is about the perils of having the heart of a pagan god beating in your chest.

The Horror from the Mound is a cautionary tale warning what happens when you casually dismiss local superstitions.

The Thunder Rider is a story of reincarnation and remembered lives, much like the James Allison saga but with a Native American protagonist. It appears to be the first in a series of untold tales.

Kelly the Conjure-Man, The Classic Tale of the Southwest and The Grim Land (a poem) read like living folklore and legend, definitely a direction Howard was moving towards.

I was especially impressed by REH's command of occult lore. His knowledge of actual arcana permeates this entire collection and makes me wonder how he acquired his magical information. Next time I re-read the biographical information I've accrued, I will seek clues among the many written words.

And I never before realized how pervasive the Hyborian Age mythos actually is in Howard's non-Conan/Kull tales. The Lovecraftian element is represented here as well, but echoes of Howard's unique and panoramic prehistory reverberate in every wonderful chapter of this great collection.

Thank you Steven Tompkins for opening my eyes to dark new horizons!


Wizards of the Coast: Hardcover

Almost twenty years ago, I impulsively bought a paperback book at a comic book convention. Not an unusual thing for me to do. It had a young hammer-wielding barbarian wearing a pelt on the cover, and lots of rocky, icy terrain. There was a dark-skinned savage ranger and what I took to be another barbarian, both kneeling, to the right of the youth.

Had I realized that these other figures were an elf and dwarf, I may not have bought the book. I would have dismissed it as too Tolkeinesque.

I read it on the way home and was hooked. I reread it, savoring each page, shortly thereafter.

Wulfgar the heroic barbarian, Cattie-brie the rough-cut but strangely appealing warrior woman, gruff Bruenor Battlehammer - the dwarf with a heart of gold, crafty Regis the rogue halfling, Gwenhyvar the astral panther and Drizzt do'Urden the enigmatic dark elf... I grew to care about these characters by book's end and eagerly looked forward to their further adventures.

The Crystal Shard
by R.A.Salvatore had it all: a barbarian's rise from servitude to kingship, heroic quests in the savage Northlands, a crystalline intelligence, demons from the Abyss, giants, ice-dragons, weapons of power, primitive warfare, snivelling goblin lackeys, trecherous wizards...

And the then unknown author (this was R.A.Salvatore's first Forgotten Realms book by the way) brought it all to life, created complex characters who cared about eachother and loved wreaking havoc with deadly weapons!

Two decades later, and I am still hooked. I've patiently followed the many adventures of these characters and have explored their world at great length between book releases. I even got really into the drow and their fascinating culture. Although I still avoid Tolkieneque fiction and spit at the mere mention of most fantasy elves and dwarves, Icewind Dale and its environs are exempt from these strong dislikes.

Though the quest to regain Mithril Hall, Bruenor's ancestral homeland, which unfolded in the second and third books of the Icewind Dale trilogy was pure fantasy cliche, I relished every page of it and rooted for Clan Battlehammer.

The Crystal Shard was recently released in hardcover for the very first time - with stunning new cover art - and is now officially Book IV in the greater saga of Drizzt do'Urden. Though the dark elf has captured the popular imagination and is accorded one of the greatest fantasy creations of all time, for me: the saga, which began with this book, is primarily Wulfgar's.

And shall always remain so.

Among modern Tomes of Sword & Sorcery, The Crystal Shard is a classic, a must-read for anyone who loves the genre.

I am Thor the Barbarian and I have spoken.

(c) 2005 The Barbarians