About five and a half years ago, Borders in Cambridge had a sale on the Fantasy Masterworks series. I bought a lot of them, sure that I would get round to reading them eventually. I have just finished getting through them. (I still have some other books that I brought with me from England, but none quite so old. I do have journals from that long ago, though, still waiting to be read.) The one I’ve just read is the second volume of the collected stories of Conan the Barbarian.
I actually enjoyed this rather more than I expected to. While they are not going to join the list of my favourite books ever, they were definitely fun. Conan is implausibly strong, with impossible stamina and fighting skills, and a remarkable tendency to meet extremely attractive women in metal bikinis. Or nothing at all. He tends to go into underground complexes, kill monsters, and come out with treasure.
Oh my god, it’s Dungeons and Dragons.
D&D is often described as “Tolkienesque”, but the basic narrative structure is not very much like Tokien at all. In fact, back when I was writing for the Lord of the Rings RPG, one of the really striking things was how little like the standard D&D conventions Tolkien’s work actually was. Similarly, although Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books are cited as influences, and some ideas were simply lifted, the tone of the Dying Earth is nothing like the tone of D&D. (And the Dying Earth roleplaying game is very, very different from D&D, as it should be.)
Conan the Barbarian, on the other hand, reads more like a write-up of a D&D session than most D&D novels. (OK, “than most of the D&D novels I have read”, which only comes to a tiny fraction of the total published.) Since Conan is one of the archetypal “pulp” story series, this means that D&D is really a pulp RPG.
And this, dear readers, is why Conan the Barbarian counts as work for me. This sort of realisation is directly relevant to writing games, because it gives a bit more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s a good thing I love my job.