Chainmail Bikini: A Work in Progress
by Howard Whitehouse
Right now I’m working on a set of rules called Chainmail Bikini – a ‘Pulp fantasy’ game – with Roderick Robertson, my partner in a small operation called Pulp Action Library.
Our vision of Chainmail Bikini is a very light-hearted view of the Sword and Sorcery genre, more like the ‘Ahhnold’ movie version of Conan than Howard’s original (I realize this is heresy to some people), or the Fritz Leiber ‘Lankhmar’ books. It’s heroic fantasy treated with affection, but not too seriously – something of a send-up, but with an appreciation rather than condemnation for a world in which muscles are huge and underwear is shiny. Miniature wargames are not subtle things, and playing deliberately for fun rather than a highly competitive, serious set of rules seems appropriate to the genre. This is more about telling a tale of adventure, and smiling while we do it.
It’s not a ‘Conan game’, although I expect that a lot of potential players will use it for the mighty Cimmerian and his adventures. Our interests tend towards a broader, make-up-your-own-thing approach, but with references to the worlds of S&S, and what makes them distinctive from other forms of fantasy. There’s no prescribed world – we haven’t made one up – but we hope to be collaborating with others on specific universes.
As a game, Chainmail Bikini falls into the zone where miniature skirmish rules meet the less complex end of role-playing rules. It can be played as a ‘Players take on a GM’ affair; a multi-player free for all; or anything in between. It might be a ‘Heroes attacked by bandits’ scenario or a problem-solving game involving ancient scripts that must be deciphered (and not hacked up with axes). The story’s the thing, as the original sources make clear.
Let’s look at the various strands that go into this, where it all comes from and what’s involved.
THE WORLDS OF SWORD AND SORCERY
The late Lin Carter, a famously bad writer, a great editor and a key figure in the genre, defined Sword and Sorcery, as:
… an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land or age or world of the author’s invention – a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real – and a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.
---Flashing Swords! #1 (1973)
The sub-genre of fantasy literature known as ‘Sword and Sorcery’ (or sometimes ‘Heroic Fantasy’) has a number of characteristics that define it as different from the main stream of fantasy fiction. It is very much in the ‘pulp fiction’ tradition of muscular heroes and violent action.
The roots of Sword and Sorcery lie in the traditional sources of all modern fantasy – ancient mythology, the Norse and Irish sagas, medieval legend – filtered through adventure writers of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, such as H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt. These provided a ‘Boy’s Own’ ethos of thrills and chills which was to define S&S as a distinct form, with lost cities, fabulous treasures, and beautiful women with limited wardrobe choices.
The first flowering of Sword and Sorcery (not yet called that) emerged in the1920s and 30s with a group of American writers who published in magazines such as Weird Tales. Robert E. Howard, author of Conan the Barbarian and other mighty thew’d heroes (Kull, Cormac etc) is the best known of this school of lurid, atmospheric adventure fiction. Indeed, Conan is to Sword and Sorcery what Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade are to detective fiction: a touchstone character and the standard by which others are judged. Other writers of the era included Henry Kuttner (creator of Elak of Atlantis), his wife C.L. (Catherine) Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry was the first fantasy heroine, and – in a more ethereal style – the poet and fantasist Clark Ashton Smith. Not quite in the S&S genre, but crucially influential to the ‘Weird tales’ group was the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft; he became a mentor to younger authors and their work reflected Lovecraft’s use of arcane language and otherworldly monstrosities.
In the 1940s Fritz Leiber created his own S&S characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. This pair defined the archetypal coupling of a barbarian hero and a cunning thief. Poul Andersson took material from the Norse sagas to create the bleak fantasy world of ‘The Broken Sword’, and rewrote actual sagas in the fantasy style. Jack Vance wrote the sharp, clever Dying Earth series. L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt worked together and separately on fantasy in several styles, some of it very funny.
The defining elements of the Sword and Sorcery genre are as follows:
- A world recognizable to our own history, albeit history of a wild-eyed, don’t-bother-me-with-accuracy, variety. We might be in a real, named place (Howard set a lot of stories in the Celtic lands in Iron Age and Dark Age times), an imagined lost civilization like Atlantis or Lemuria, a future Earth with magic rather than technology, or another planet that happens to be a lot like Earth in important ways. That means “Red skinned babes with pointy ears”, mostly.
- The environment is a severe one. Mountains loom, volcanoes belch lava, primeval forests frown over the landscape. There are cave complexes, unscaleable cliffs and deep chasms, dotted with temples of old gods and tombs of dead magicians. Nobody has a field of carrots.
- Cities are teeming, corrupt, largely criminal cesspits of humanity where foetid slums sit next to palaces and temples. There are almost no hard working honest folk. Even the sellers of rat-on-a-stick will cheat you.
- Almost everyone is essentially human, although they run the gamut from ape-men through hairy barbarians to decadent civilized beings whose fate waits inexorably as punishment for not working at honest day-jobs. There are none of the Tolkiensque fantasy races that have infested fantasy literature and gaming. A dwarf is a short guy with a glandular problem. Poul Andersson had elves (mean ones), but this was an exception.
- Those who aren’t human are usually survivors from a primeval time, or demonic minions of some evil origin. They might come from another plane of being (a Lovecraftian touch which reappears with Michael Moorcock)
- The hero is often an outsider, or someone who has fallen from grace. Conan rides in from his primitive home in the north, and other barbarian heroes follow in his hoofprints. Moorcock’s Elric is wretchedly alienated from his society, despite being a prince. These are wanderers who brood a lot, and do a lot of questing (although, not being chivalric knights, they don’t call it that).
- The hero is a powerful fighter. Whether he possesses amazing strength and superb combat skills, or simply has a magic weapon (which carries its own price, naturally) the hero can - and will - take on opponents that no ordinary human could cope with. Or lots of ordinary opponents at once, of course.
- Magic is present, but usually as a dangerous tool of evil rather than a quick way of opening a jar of spaghetti sauce. It’s essentially a pulp-era substitute for the mad scientist, his lab and his minions. Big magic is usually ‘about to happen’ (until the heroes stop all this nonsense) rather than something that occurs in the course of the tale; it’s like a nuclear weapon rather than artillery fire in that respect.
- There’s a lot of sexual content, though usually of the kind that would appeal to fifteen year old boys living in Iowa in 1936. Careers open to women (who are always attractive, even if their brothers are cavemen) are limited to dancing girl, actress, princess or career thief/assassin. They perform all these roles in scanty attire. The best that can be hoped for is that they are spunky and heroic themselves, rather than annoying damsels in need of rescue.
- The adventures are fast paced and violent, with far more emphasis on action that dialogue or character development (who needs that?). It’s essentially a pulp form. Prose is purple, and plotlines can be fairly thin and episodic as long as something is always happening – or about to happen in a cliffhanger --------
Like that. Sorry.
Here’s a superb, tongue in cheek section from Poul Andersson’s essay, “Blood and Thunder”, which skewers the conventions of the genre he’d been instrumental in creating:
“With one stroke of his fifty-pound sword, Gnorts the Barbarian lopped off the head of Nialliv the Wizard. It flew through the air, still sneering, while Gnorts clove two royal guardsmen from vizor through breasplate to steel jockstrap. As he whirled to escape, an arrow glanced off his own chainmail. ---- Seeing a magnificent stallion tethered, Gnorts released it, twisted the rope into a bridle, and rode it off bareback --- Winter winds lashed his body, attired in nothing more than a bearskin kilt, but he ignored the cold. Sunrise revealed the shore and his waiting longship. He knew the swift-sailing craft could bring him across five hundred leagues of monster-infested ocean in time for him to snatch the maiden princess Elamef away from evil Baron Rehcel while she remained a maiden — not that he intended to leave her in that condition ---”
Exciting stuff, right? That’s the spirit we are looking to replicate in “Chainmail Bikini”.
We expect to have this ready for release later this year. Unless raiders from the savage north seize us as captives, or slay us without mercy (which seems more likely).
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