Role-Playing Games for Nehwon

Leiber and Fischer and the Origins of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Role-Playing

The connection between role-playing and the world of Nehwon goes back far—as far back as the Nineteen-thirties when Fritz Leiber and Harry Otto Fischer exchanged letters relating the exploits of their two “player-characters”, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Leiber was Fafhrd; Fischer was the Mouser. According to Leiber in his foreword to Night's Black Agents, written in 1946, the first words written came from Fischer: “For all do fear the one known as the Gray Mouser. He walks with swagger 'mongst the bravos, though he's but the stature of a child,” and ended with:

Anyhow, they met, and the saga of how the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd of the Blue Eyes came to the innermost vaults of the City of the Forbidden God and there met death in the moment of victory in no common fashion, was begun.

Leiber goes on to say: “My imagination was enthralled and I responded with a fragment hinting at some further exploits of the two strange ruffians. With subsequent letters, the saga grew.” The two played a game of story-telling with each other with these two characters.

D&D and the RPGs of the Seventies Hit the Scene

In the Nineteen-seventies, role-playing games, as we know them, came to be—the most famous of which, of course, was Dungeons & Dragons. In Gary Gygax's famous Appendix N, in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, published in 1979, he includes Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser not only in the list of inspirational readings but states that Leiber's stories were among the “most immediate influences.” It is widely speculated that D&D's thief class is heavily base on the Gray Mouser. (The other chief contender is Cudgel from Jack Vance's Dying Earth series.) The Nineteen-eighty Deities & Demigods includes three literary mythoi among the myths of history: Cthulhu, Melnibonėan, and Nehwon. Its Nehwon mythos included stats and write-ups for both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, many of the gods of Nehwon, and many of the monsters. In its introduction, it says of Lankhmar: “within the walls of the city lie everything an AD&D player could ask for.” Apparently, even in the early days of the game, the writers recognized the affinity of Lankhmar and the D&D style of play.

D&D's Lankhmar Products

For a little over a decade starting in 1985, the publishers of AD&D published a series of supplements and adventure modules for the world of Nehwon. Fourteen products were released in total. (see Dungeons & Dragons.) I have heard it said across the Internet by many that reading a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story reminds them of a D&D adventure. This is not surprising considering that writing about these two characters was a game of fiction between Fischer and Leiber. The spirit of adventure was within the pens of these two progenitors. And yet, playing a Lankhmar game using D&D rules feels more like the world of D&D than it does of Nehwon—at least to me. It is a strange asymmetry that Nehwon has provided richly to the richness of D&D, but D&D can only give so much back to role-playing in Nehwon. There are many issues at hand, but I believe the biggest obstacle is that D&D uses a magic system based on Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, and the magic of Nehwon is ritualistic as opposed to pre-memorized, whip it out at whim, spell slots. (see my articles on Nehwonian magic.)

The Brief Entry of Runequest

The last D&D Lankhmar product came out in 1996 and for another decade there was a dry spell for Nehwonian role-playing until Mongooses's RuneQuest picked up the license in 2006. It was a short-lived venture lasting only until 2009 with only four products released, and of those four, the main sourcebook, Lankhmar, was remade into Lankhmar Unleashed. It was as if they had no faith in their original launch of the line. As it was, nothing more came of it afterward.

Today, Savage Worlds, and Dungeon Crawl Classics

Nearly another decade had gone by before another company took a stab at Nehwon, and in this case, it was two! In 2015 both Dungeon Crawl Classics and Savage Worlds gained licenses to Leiber's works and started releasing role-playing sourcebooks, supplements and adventure modules for the setting. It is as if we are now in a Lankhmar RPG renaissance! DCC as of 2019 has released three products so far (see Dungeon Crawl Classics) and has funded an ambitious boxset through DCC Kickstarter. Savage Worlds so far has eight major products and numerous one-sheeters or other supplements. (see Savage Worlds).

The Good, the Bad, and the Original

As I have mentioned, D&D's magic system is all wrong for Nehwon. Also, its class system is a bit restricting to literary characters that dabbled in multiple interests. Fafhrd was a singing skald and the Mouser used to be an apprentice to a hedge wizard and still dabbles in sorcery from time to time. In D&D terms, Fafhrd would be a Fighter, Thief, Bard, and the Gray Mouser would be a Fighter, Thief, Wizard. Both D&D and RuneQuest forced the setting of Nehwon into their own rules-sets, like square pegs into round holes. I have not had time to explore Savage Worlds or Dungeon Crawl Classics efforts yet but in many of the comments from 2009 and 2010 to my original post on this subject (not to worry, you are not missing much from that post and the comments have been revived below) the commenters have recommended Savage Worlds as being a good fit. (For further reading on this subject, see Rose Bailey's Swords Against Editions.)

Nevertheless, I would like to see a company that would create a ruleset for Nehwon-style play specifically, as Robin D. Laws did for The Dying Earth. I am a firm believer that game mechanics provide the foundation for stylistic fidelity for role-playing with literary sources. The combat mechanics determine the feel of role-playing combat, the magic mechanics determine the feel of role-playing magic, and in general other mechanics can shape the roleplay of the game. The stories of Lankhmar have already informed my own homebrew system, the adventure scenarios that I have created, and how I run my games. For instance, I use a ritual magic system of my own design. If I could afford the license, I might take a stab at it myself! As it is, the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser deserve their own game system.

Here is a list of RPG systems that have been recommended in the dicussion below:

What RPG do You Use?

In the discussion below, I would like to hear your stories about running Lankhmar campaigns and what worked and what didn't. What game systems do you use or what game systems do you think would work well? Let me and others know what you think.

Discussion

SiebenaugGUEST: Siebenaug, 2019/05/11 13:53

I really would like to try a Nehwon campaign using the already recommended Barbarians of Lemuria. I need just the right players for it. Or be one of the just right players and let a great DM I know do the job. Till now I haven’t left Lemuria.

BoL is a full-fledged sword and sorcery system and you can translate some S&S heros one to one from a few sentences in the books. I also really love the magic systems. It’s very free and captures the essence of sorcery in S&S really good. I think it would work great with Nehwon style ritual magic. One rule of the DM I mentioned above is: “No spell-lists!” This holds also true for players. Magic is nothing easily reproduced. So the effects might differ, even if you try to do the same. Describe the effects, surprise the DM, and keep the magic magical.

To play a magic user in a sword and sorcery setting is difficult. To play a much specialised magic user even more so. But I can tell from experience that it isn’t impossible for some players.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2019/06/02 14:25

Hello Siebenaug, My apologies for replying late. The comment engine is supposed to send me a notification when someone posts a comment, but I must have missed the email. I have a copy of BoL. I'll have to look at the magic system again. It has been awhile. I do approve of magic systems that avoid the sterility and mechanistic technological feel that you get with most systems these days. S&S certainly requires the mysterious, magical, and even dangerous, feel for magic. Thanks for stopping by, Srith of the Scrolls

Brian RothBrian Roth, 2019/01/28 21:27

I remember a box set based in newhon during the 1st Ed. Ad&d era. it was the material that really introduced me to Lankhmar. But for the life of me I can't remember the name of the product, other than that it offered conversions into adnd, chivalry and sorcery, and another game system.

Anyone know of this product?

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2019/01/28 22:13

Wow! A 1st ed. Nehwon box set? I would love to find one, but I have never heard of one. Are you on Facebook? If so, post on the Scrolls Facebook page and ask there. It has over 600 people on it, so if it is out there, there is a good chance someone on the group would know about it. If you are not on Facebook, let me know, and I'll ask for you.

Good luck!

Srith of the Scrolls

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2019/01/29 19:19

Are you perhaps thinking of the Thieves' World box set that came 1981? It was system-agnostic and had conversions for various game systems. It is the closest thing that I can think of that fits the bill. Go here for a picture: http://irontavern.com/2013/06/05/a-thieves-world-tale/.

Patrick Maslenquestbird, 2010/01/31 17:06

My Nehwon campaign runs fitfully these days but I’ve used the Elric! (Stormbringer 5th edition) system for years, and I find it works well for Nehwon, except maybe for the magic (which for Nehwon requires special attention). It has a fast-paced and dangerous combat system and a skill-based character system, so that you can really make whatever character you want. You aren’t limited by templates or archetypes. It’s also very easy to teach to new players, and has only one fairly slim rule book.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2010/02/01 13:56

Hey Questbird, great to hear from you! The Elric! system sounds like another good one. I especially like using skill-based systems. Another one for the Lankhmar list!

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/12/26 05:49

@Christoffer & @Risus Monkey:

Sorry for the late response. December has been kicking my butt, but now that Christmas has come and gone, I can get back on top of things.

Thanks for the additional system suggestions. I wish I had a bigger budget to check out all the systems that everyone are using. Regardless, I like the idea of getting all these recommended systems for running Lankhmar in one place so that anyone interested in starting up a game will have a leg up in finding a good match for their vision of Lankhmar and their play-style.

@ Christoffer — Making failure fun in order to push along the story is a nifty concept. It reminds me of how The Dying Earth RPG works. It encourages players to play to their characters’ faults to make the story more fun. It sounds like Burning Wheel does the same. Certainly, the foibles of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are driving forces in their stories.

@ Risus Monkey — Over the summer I bought Spirit of the Century (w/ the FATE 3.0 engine) to get an idea of how FATE would do with Lankhmar. The mechanic I like best for Lankhmar is the FATE point system. Players get rewarded for allowing their characters’ flaws to be used against them, and then get to redeem the points to allow their character to do something extra special. Again as above, this fits with the Lankhmar stories very well.

I’ve heard of PDQ, but I have not checked it out yet. Risus is completely new to me.

Risus Monkeyrisus_monkey, 2010/01/12 09:10

Yikes, I really needed to proof my original response.

Anyway, Risus and PDQ# are both free… no budget required. You can find Risus at http://www222.pair.com/sjohn/risus.htm

Someday (hopefully soon), I hope to do a full Risus treatment of Lankhmar over at my blog (http://www.velvet-edge.com/risusmonkey/). If nothing else, it will give me a good excuse to reread the Fafhrd & The gray Mouser stories again.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2010/01/12 15:22

@ Risus Monkey — When you get that full treatment going be sure to let me know!

Risus Monkeyrisus_monkey, 2009/12/17 05:11

I know this comment is late but I just discovered your site. I’m a huge Lankhmar fan and ran extended Lankhmar campaigns back in high school (late 80’s) using first Rolemaster and then Gurps. If I were to do it again today I would almost certainly use PDQ#, as it specifically designed for swashbuckling adventures. My other course would of course by Risus, especially for play-by-chat games. I also think FATE would be a great choice.

Christoffer Lindstromchristoffer, 2009/12/12 01:43

We use Burning Wheel for an ongoing campaign in a city that is probably Lankhmar, we just call it something else. And I must say, it fits like hand in glove. The system is awesome in the way it centers action around the characters, it’s awesome in the way it makes failure fun and something the players almost seeks and failure pushes the story onwards. Check it out! http://www.burningwheel.org

Grim Jestagrimjesta, 2009/09/06 04:24

I also use Savage Worlds for my Sword and Sorcery games. I know this post is a bit late, but I saw this thread and thought ‘what the hell?’ Interestingly enough, your ‘Keeping Magic Magical’ thread sort of relates to this. You had mentioned how the average Joe on the street believes in a sort of ‘common magic’ made up of charms, blessings, curses and talismans. In Savage Worlds characters have a pool of tokens called ‘Bennies’. A ‘Benny’ allows a character to re-roll one Trait test (i.e. a skill or stat) and I’ve toyed with the idea of having ‘Bennies’ be representational of said folk magic. Whether to re-roll is the result of belief or real magic doesn’t matter. What matters is that the player is invoking these blessings or curses, rubbing a talisman he believes ties him to his gods, or chanting the charm necessary to perform this act.

It’s a minor point, but it tied this thread in nicely with the magic thread. Personally, Savage Worlds has become the house system at my table. I’ve used it to run everything from World of Darkness type games (esp. Wraith; the Necessary Evil book for Savage Worlds is awesome for things like Vampire or Wraith), Conan and Lankhmar style S&S, zombie apocalypse games, steampunk insanity, etc. (the list really does go on). But the system really feels at home with Conan and Lankhmar.

-=Grim=-

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/09/06 09:23

Great to have you here, GrimJesta! The more I hear people talk about Savage Worlds, the more it seems like it has quite the loyal following. Looking around, I keep finding the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition for under $10–certainly worth picking up to read at that price. Is this the book to get?

Sounds like you are on to something with the ‘Bennies’. Maybe for the campaign, you can change the name to get across that connection to folk magic? I’m not sure what would work though.

Udasuudasu, 2009/08/26 17:58

AD&D Mostly. I started converting ‘Swords against Sorcery’ for NWN, but went on to another project.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/26 18:17

@udasu — So what editions have you used for Lankhmar? Any preferences? If I still had NWN I would have to check out your Lankhmar Nights. That must have been a pretty ambitious project converting the old modules!

Udasuudasu, 2009/08/27 16:48

The NWN engine is 3rd edition, so I have to balance things a bit when I converting from 1st ed. I prefer the 1st ed. Ad&D conversions, since they were more true to Leiber’s world. 2nd edition brought more magic back, so canon-wise, it wasn’t as true to the source material. However, the 2nd edition sourcebook does have loads of mini-adventure seeds, which makes for a more ‘alive and adventuresome’ Lankhmar.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/27 17:29

Many of those Lankhmar supplements were great about adventure hooks. In addition to the main supplement, Thieves of Lankhmar is a great source for inspiration and has lots of detail on the workings of the city. CA1 and CA2, which I believe you used for NWN, are each a series of mini-adventures. Wonders of Lankhmar is nothing but a supplement full of one-page adventures! Tales of Lankhmar continues in the tradition of CA1 and CA2. I have to say I was really impressed with both Rogues in Lankhmar and Cutthroats of Lankhmar and their approach of covering groups of districts as a city guide with adventure hooks. I was disappointed when they did not continue the series into other districts.

Vacuum Jockeyvacuumjockey, 2009/08/24 03:39

I regularly run Lankhmar games using the old 1.ed. AD&D Lankhmar book and Barbarians of Lemuria. BoL works very well for Lankhmar; you may want to rework some of the Origins in char gen, and the Armor rules need a bit of adjustment, but apart from those small details BoL can run Lankhmar like a champ.

That said, I’m positive that Savage Worlds will do a good job, as will PIG’s Broadsword.

Oh, and a good city encounter guide is really helpful too — I’ve used Matty Finch’s City Encounters (http://www.lulu.com/content/e-book/city-encounters/3948902) with great success.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/25 15:52

@VacuumJockey — Anything in particular that you’re pulling over from AD&D 1ed. into BoL? Thanks for the tip on the City Encounters.

Garrettg, 2009/08/13 07:52

I am thinking of using the Warriors and Warlocks sourcebook from the Mutants and Masterminds game. It seems to allow the most roleplaying without getting in the way, which is all I ask of a game system.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/15 10:28

Thanks G. I’ve played in some Mutants and Masterminds games, but only as a superhero genre. Warriors and Warlocks you say. Another one to check out.

Dark Elf Drow7thknight, 2009/08/10 13:46

I like to use Lankhmar in a savage worlds fantasy Campaign that I am working on.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/10 14:02

Well that’s two for Savage Worlds so far. Thanks for dropping in 7thknight. The way you phrased that, it sounds like you were using Savage Worlds then decided that Lankhmar would make a good setting for it.

Herb Nowellherb, 2009/08/09 20:55

Have you considered ZeRPGs?http://www.midcoast.com/~ricekrwc/zefrs/

It’s the system from the mid-80s Conan game from TSR and is specifically designed for swords and sorcery with limited, and mysterious, magic.

I have a copy of the original TSR rules if you’d like to look. The world guide is great as it is in the form of a historian’s notebook.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/10 12:00

Thanks, Herb. I’ll be checking that out too.

Any other takers out there? What I’m trying to do here is not just get ideas for my own campaign, but hopefully get the experiences of other folks that have run Lankhmar in one place here where those who are new to running Lankhmar can benefit.

Thomas Emryysthomas, 2009/08/09 12:36

The Savage Swords of Lankhmar! :)

It would have a similar “pulpy feel” as using Fate.

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/09 13:22

I take it to mean that you would use the Savage Worlds RPG?

Thomas Emryysthomas, 2009/08/09 15:23

I use Savage Worlds for a puply feel, kinda like Fate would provide :)

*I tried to link a thumb picture of the nice character sheet, but I think the site doesn’t like that… Great site BTW, Love the Lankhmar. :)

Charles Fewlasssrithofthescrolls, 2009/08/09 15:27

Thanks. Yeah, I noticed that no image came through so I went ahead it edited your first comment so that it links to your image instead. I hope you don’t mind.

I’ll have to put Savage Worlds on my list to investigate. I’ve heard of it, but do not know too much about it.

Enter your comment. Wiki syntax is allowed: