Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Response to the Grognardia essay "More Than a Feeling"

James Maliszewski posted this essay over on Grognardia, which really rubbed me the wrong way. Which lead me to try to write a paragraph in response, which lead to this response. I figured I'd post it here, as the topic might generate some decent discussion.

His essay is here.

GROGNARDIA: More Than a Feeling


My response is below. I couldn't post it over there because it was too long.


I think the very idea of a rigid definition flies in the face of what the old school renaissance represents. Plus, it is totally subjective as to what old school is. It varies from person to person. Some just want the nostalgic feeling of playing an old game they used to play when they were 13. Some just want fast resolution with less rolls. Some want megadungeons. Some define it as strict adherence to a certain ruleset or clone. Who cares?

I guess my question is, what does it matter? If someone asks you what old school is, define it however you want to. It is different for everyone and will be defined differently by everyone.

Even that 13 page essay by Finch which summed up what old school was all about

http://www.lulu.com/content/e-book/quick-primer-for-old-school-gaming/3019374

listed some things that not every group in 1976 did. OD&D was, from what I understand, the most heavily houseruled game in existence. Hence AD&D. Look at your own game James, and the huge changes you implemented to the core rules.

This old school thing has a life of its own, and it is driven first and foremost by FEELING. People felt dissatisfied with what they were playing, and wanted to either capture or recapture another feeling while playing. For some it was a feeling they used to have when playing at age 13, for some it was trying to feel what those others were talking about.

This game is driven first and foremost by feeling. We don't play it for any other reason. It's a feeling of fun flavored with various aspects of whichever version of the game we are playing. To the extent that a ruleset or adventure or DM flavors that feeling with something considered by players to be old school, its completely subjective as to what that thing is which gives the feeling, because the feeling is subjective.

You can't objectively create through definition that which creates a subjective feeling in a player.

I think in trying to define it you will fulfill the prediction made by EN Shook on Lord of the Green Dragons here:

http://lordofthegreendragons.blogspot.com/2009/04/old-school-vs-new-school.html

Wherein he basically predicts that old school degenerate into fundamentalism. This post of yours seems to be leading the charge.

I have to ask what purpose would a definition serve? So you can give the 2 minute elevator sales speech to someone using terms consistent with everyone else? To what ends? So the game grows? So more people play? So more sales are made of old school clones? What's the ultimate goal you are shooting for? What's the ultimate vision you have?

The only thing you say as to a reason why it matters is:

“If the old school is just a feeling, then it's purely subjective and beyond our capacity to argue for.”

And “Likewise, when a player of such games claims he's doing so "in an old school style," I have no recourse but to accept him at his word and move on, because no argument could possibly be offered to disprove his feeling that he's playing an old school game.”

And “If one actually believes, as I do, that games like OD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Empire of the Petal Throne, and so forth offer something unique that no game published in the last 20 years can match, then we ought not to rest our case too heavily on nebulous quasi-emotional impressions. I think there are enough clear, rational, and unambiguous arguments in favor of the old school that there's very little need to invoke feelings at all.”

What’s this big need you have to argue in favor of a particular game or group of games? Who cares? To argue implies that you think you’re right. And to a certain extent, you may be. For some people. But it’s all subjective and based on the feelings those people would get if they played those games. Nobody plays a game because of the nature of the mechanics of it. They play because the mechanics help them to create a game that makes them feel good playing it. If you think those games might do that for a person, then just recommend those rulesets to those people. No definition needed. No need to argue

The reasons you like old school games are yours, and might be shared by many people. However, your reasons for liking old school games may not appeal to a ton of people who nonetheless play older rulesets. To think that your reasons are the right and true reasons to the extent that you feel the need to fix definitions so that you can better argue your case that old school games have a lot to offer, I think you slip into arrogance. People argue because each thinks they are right. How can ou be right when this whole thing is subjective and driven by feelings?

You can't control this thing. It will grow with or without a definition. People will keep checking out different boards, games, blogs, and make their own definition of old school based on a feeling. They might even start up a game and call it old school–and the game will be something completely different than yours. Those players then have a definition of old school in their heads. They spread that definition far and wide.

Old School to me is like a constantly mutating virus, changing all the time by interacting with its host's DNA, the DM's and Players, and then getting passed on to others. Rather than making them feel sick, this virus makes them feel good. All based on feelings. Who cares if the virus is different from one player or DM to another, as long as it makes them feel good?

If people ask me what an old school game is I just point them in the direction of certain boards, blogs, rulesets, essays and clones. I let them figure it out for themselves. Sometimes their definition of what old school is comes close to mine, sometimes its radically different. But when they say they are laying an old school game now thanks to their investigation of the various websites and games, and I see that they are happy, I say good for them.

I don’t see how your strict definition of what old school is actually grows the old school renaissance. Since there are so many definitions out there, most of which seem to be based primarily on feelings, if you exclude them because they don’t share your definition, you just shrink the members of the old school renaissance as defined by you. Which leads to accusations of bad/fun/wrong. Leading to alienation. Leading to people dismissing us as a bunch of crotchety old people who don’t welcome new people unless they enter the renaissance on our terms because of our definitions. Is that the result you are looking for?

One last point I want to make is that feelings drive this industry. Feelings either for or against are what makes people do or not do something. People are not rational creatures. You assume you can lay out a Mr. Spock style rational argument in favor of one system and get people to play? What's more convincing, an essay based on clear definitions of something laying out the logical reasons why something is good? Or a friend, who when asked why they like their particular style of old school game, gushes out with joy and enthusiasm all kinds of subjective reasons, but puts them out there with such a FEELING of happiness that its infectious and gets that friend to ask if they can join in their game? Which option will grow the old school renaissance more?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

ARMY MEN! and my first ever homebrew miniatures wargame last week.

Mother’s Day was hectic as usual. My brother’s 18-month-old triplets are walking now, and trying to get into everything they shouldn’t be into. We’ve learned to play zone defense in my parent’s small apartment. After dinner, during diaper changing time, I decided to make myself scarce, as usual. This time I took my 4-year old nephew with me.

“Hey Matt, let’s go explore upstairs!”

“OK!”

Upstairs is where we had our rooms as kids. It’s just as small as downstairs, but is in an attic, so the ceilings are low and hazardous for me. Matt seemed to have no trouble with head bumping, and was greatly amused by my own problems with it.

First we explored the bedroom my brother and I shared as kids. I showed him where our beds used to be, where my father’s never-used exercise machines now gather dust. Surrounding all those machines are my mother’s “junk”. There’s no better word for it. From the day we moved out, her “junk” began multiplying like tribbles and took over every nook and cranny of the upstairs.

The exploration took us to my sister’s old bedroom, long since overrun by the junk tribbles. This room now functions mostly as a route to the second bathroom, used only in emergencies. Off of the second bathroom is where the real fun starts. That’s where all of our old toys and games got stashed. All the stuff that had too much sentimental value to throw out. Matt’s eyes lit up as we entered.

The kid really has no chance. My brother and I have been playing D&D for about 25 years. We decided long ago that Matt was will be playing D&D before he goes to kindergarten. A few months ago, we even took him on a 90 minute train ride to New York City (each way!) to go to Compleat Strategist (the world’s greatest gaming store) to buy him his first set of dice. He picked red, his favorite color ever since the song “Big Red Car” from the Wiggles..

Everything we do with him is a pre-D&D exercise. Hence the “Exploration” we were undertaking in the mysterious and unknown “Upstairs”.

He immediately hit the boxes on the floor, while I looked at the box with the old Commodore Vic-20. I stopped using it after I exhausted its whopping 5k of memory with a paper route tracking program I tried to write in1983. It was on the shelf next to the 10x magnification telescope I bought at a yard sale for 5 bucks. It even came with a sun filter.

In the back of the room was a hole in the sheet rock, leading to an area of the attic where we stored even more stuff.

“Hey Matt, what’s that?”

“Um, a hole in the wall?”

(He’s kinda straightforward that way.)

“No! It’s a Secret Room!”

“Ooohhh!”

So, having made our detect secret door check, we crawled in.

“What’s this?” he asked me, holding up a piece of plastic in the light.

“An Army Man Matt!”

“Ooohhh!” After looking at it some more, “Um, what’s a army man?”

“Let’s go downstairs and I’ll show you!”

Heading downstairs, holding his father’s old Matchbox car, stepping over freshly changed babies, we hit the kitchen table.

I took them out and showed him what they were. There was the grenade man, the bazooka man, the rifle man (both standing and kneeling down), and the tank and airplane of course. He immediately began lining them up behind the barricades, as I emptied the box of the other stuff. I found darts, cards from the old Dungeon! Game, dead batteries, and even a 6-sider.

I put the Dungeon! cards in my wallet for future use at our D&D game. My brother walked in and said “Army Men !?!”.

“Yup. And miniatures.”

“Ahh.”
.
Our D&D game hardly ever uses miniatures. We only have one guy who owns any, and he brings them every week for the big battles, which hardly ever happen. He brings them religiously, except of course for the prior session, which is the first time we actually needed them in 3 months. My brother got my point. We now had a backup. I put the 6-sider in the bag along with the army men, figuring I’d add it to our D&D dice pool, put the army men away, and helped pack the kids in the car.

My brother called up later that night and said that Matt was really into the army men. We always love it we he gets into stuff that we used to like as kids. It’s a blast being kids again with a 4 year old. He even watches and loves the Superfiends, which was our favorite cartoon growing up.

The following Friday I showed up early at my brother’s house for D&D, brown paper bag in hand. I picked Matt up and put him on the pool table, which serves as the D&D table on game nights, and dumped the paper bag out in front of him.

“Army men!!!”

We spent the next 15 minutes arranging them. He took the green guys, there being no red guys. I was stuck with the grey guys, Nazi’s obviously, since he declared that he had the “good guys” and I had the “bad guys.”

Once we got down to the bottom of the pile, I found the 6-sider again. My brother walked over, got on his son’s side of the table, and said he had to go to bed soon, so we had to start cleaning up. I was struck with a sudden bit of inspiration. I told Matt it was time for WAR!

I told him to roll the dice and tell me how many dots showed up. He rolled a 6. I knocked down 6 of my guys and put them in the bag.

Then it was my turn. Rolled a 1 of course. I knocked down one of his guys, and put him in the bag, over his loud protests. It took a minute or two for us to explain the game to him, but he finally got the point. Especially since he kept rolling high and I kept rolling low. Figures. We both started adding in appropriate sound effects, whether for grenade, gun, or bomb, and started moving the pieces across the table to knock the other guys pieces over.

I was struck by how natural the desire was to find a way to resolve the Great Army Man War of 2009. My brother and I used to just throw blankets on the floor and arrange the men in the nooks and crannies, then shoot each other from across the living room. Sometimes we’d use balls to hit the other side’s guys. But dice as a mechanism never occurred to us back then. I’m glad it occurred to Gygax and friends.

On his way up to bed, Matt told everyone how he beat me at army men because he was the good guys and the good guys always win.

It was the first miniatures wargame I ever played. It will probably be my last, because I can’t imagine it gets any better than last Friday. As far as D&D goes though, the kid has no chance. :)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

MtG, D&D, RPG's, and Me

I saw my first collectible card game tournament today. A bit late to the scene, I know, but I’m an old bastard. What can I say.


What drew me there was the hope that I had finally found a store in my state that sold RPG books other than 4e. Upon entering the place, I was taken back by the sheer number of pudgy teenage boys shuffling cards and eating junk food.


You see, I never understood the attraction of the whole card game thing. From Magic on down. I didn’t get the attraction when they first came out, and still don’t get it after having tried it a couple years ago. Back in the 90’s, when TSR was going under, not knowing the inside scoop, I blamed those card games for killing my hobby. I could never understand how D&D players could be lured away from D&D to play such a thing, forsaking the hobby and causing it to die off--like it was so obviously doing, since none of the bookstores or hobby stores stocked D&D books anymore. I never would have predicted that a card game company would eventually, with the release of the OGL, save and preserve the hobby for all time.


I’ll be 39 next week, my birthday falling on the next D&D Gameday (thanks WOTC!). I’ll be a few years older than Gygax was when he created D&D. It’s kind of odd to think that a guy my age created a game I loved so much as a kid, but I do see the connection in our common roots and interests.



Gygax was a history buff, particularly military history, which lead him to military miniatures wargaming. D&D was an offshoot of that experience. Likewise, I was a big history reader as a kid. After devouring the set of World Book Encyclopedias at home, at age 9 I was let loose in the local library to consume all the history, archaeology and biographies I could find. I wasn’t into sci-fi, and had never heard of fantasy books. I liked escaping into the past, discovering different cultures, understanding the great figures and the great events that shaped the world. When I was introduced to D&D as a freshman in High School, I saw it as a way to actually take part in the same sorts of things I had only read about. I was especially interested in medieval history at the time, so it was a perfect fit.


I was never a gamer, in that I never liked to play games like card games, board games, checkers, chess, or anything like that. I still don’t. As a kid, I liked to go out in the yard with my friends and make believe we were superheroes, or Planet of the Apes, or SWAT, or war, or cowboys and Indians, or King Kong v. Godzilla v Rodan v. the Smog Monster. The mechanics of those make believe games didn’t matter much to me. We just went with whatever we felt would be the right way to resolve all the conflicts, in order to have the game over by the time we were called inside for dinner. As such, the D&D mechanics didn’t matter that much to me. They were just a vehicle to let me play make-believe at the kitchen table with my brother.



I played D&D because I wanted to be someone great. Someone important who did big things. Growing up as I did, in the area I did, there wasn’t much hope of that in real life. It wasn’t even a possibility that went through my head. I expected my life to be: graduate from high school, work in a factory, have a family, grow old, and die. That’s what everyone I ever knew did. D&D let me be something more.


As we got older, our game changed as we changed. As my level of understanding of history and the real world grew, so did the game world we played in. Our shared love of history let my brother and I put all of that into the games we played, which allowed our game to grow in scope. We became bigger players on the fantasy world stage as our characters grew in level.


My love of fantasy novels began after I got into D&D. Starting with the Hobbit and LOtR, I eventually read every mainstream fantasy author for the next 20 years. Later I got into the boks that inspired Gygax---Leiber, Howard, Moorcock, etc. Fantasy novels didn’t get me into D&D, but they did complement my interest in history and in big things being played out on the world stage. To the extent that I could relate to the little guy who came from nothing but who went on to do big things, I would love the book all the more. Plus, the books fired up my imagination. No longer was my creativity limited to what happened in real history with real cultures. I could imagine anything I wanted to. It was all possible in my D&D universe.


I don’t look at D&D so much as a game, as I do a vehicle for the imagination. A means of escape to alternate realities which I only read about in fiction or non-fiction, where I could be whatever I wanted to be.


I think that’s why I never understood the collectible card game thing. It is just a game, no different than chess or monopoly, in that they don’t allow the same level of escape that D&D does. While they share common mythological elements like dragons and demons, it isn’t fantasy. It’s just a game. Even my short-lived experience into the MMORPG world left me feeling the same way. There was no bigger picture, just endless killing and looting, with ever more things to loot and kill. No immersion, just addiction. I don’t enjoy playing games. Never did. I enjoy imagining.


I took a break from D&D from the time 3.0 came out until late 2006. As such, I missed basically the whole 3.0/3.5 era. My roots are in the AD&D/2nd ed./Red Box world. Back in 2000, my brother and I and some friends bought the 3.0 core books, but never used them. When we decided to start playing again in late 2006, since 3.0 was what we had, it’s what we used. We didn’t even know there was a 3.5 or what d20 was all about until 2007.



After taking about 7 years off from the hobby, I find that both I and the hobby have changed a lot. For my part, I have learned more, and so bring more of that to the game. I am more multi-faceted, I have more depth as a person, and therefore so do my games.



Over the last year or two, as I reviewed more of the 3.0, 3.5 and d20 books that were published during my hiatus, I see that the game has changed too. As the 3.x game evolved, it became too rules focused for me. At times, even the houseruled 3.0 game we play, which is a lot like AD&D in feel, is too rules-cumbersome. The rules sometimes drag us out of the immersion of the scene we are in, whether that scene be combat or non-combat. It takes us out of the immersion of being part of GREAT EVENTS that shape the world. It seems that most of the splat books that came out, especially In the latter years, focused on combat and all things related to combat. Eventually, the next incarnation of the game followed that evolutionary path and became what appears to be primarily a tactical miniatures wargame. There seems to be far less of a focus on the fantasy immersion element than earlier editions of the game.


Seeing this card game tournament today made me think that this is the best route 4e could have taken for its survival. I think the electronic culture of video games, IM, MMORPG’s, and the constant structured activities in kids lives these days, to the extent that you don’t see kids going out and playing in the yard, making up games with whatever is at hand with their friends, has made the influences on kids today very different than mine. Therefore, the game they would enjoy playing would be very different than mine.


The end result is shown by the answer to this question: When was the last time you saw a kid today reading a non-school book just to learn something for the sake of learning? I don’t mean Wikipedia or web pages. I mean a big thick adult book on a non-fiction subject that they either bought or got from the library, which was totally unrelated to school, a rock band, or a video game or other aspects of popular culture? I think it’s telling that in the bookstore in which I am typing this rambling pile of words, there are exactly 2 ½ shelves of RPG books and 38 shelves of Manga. I counted. 38. For Japanese comic books. There are only 4 kids in the whole Barnes and Noble superstore on a Saturday afternoon, one of which is 7 and sitting next to me with her mother, whining that she wants more candy. The other 3 kids are teenage girls sitting over near the magazines reading tabloid style magazines.


If you characterize the game Dungeons and Dragons as a vehicle used to express your interests, then maybe latter day 3.5 and 4e are completely appropriate for today’s audience. They don’t get into the larger scope stuff in the core rules. It’s not about historical-based anything. It’s game mechanic based, where the game mechanic takes precedence over fantasy immersion, historical period immersion, or role-playing a character while in character, method-acting style, immersion. While you can use the core rules to make the game larger in scope, the core rules don’t have it as an assumption or an expectation that you would actually make a game as I described in the last sentence. The primary assumption seems to be that the bulk of the game is centered on tactical combat. The design of the game follows that assumption. As such, it seems to be that a lot of people trying to make a 4e game into another style of game other than tactical miniatures wargaming, are having a tougher time of it than in earlier editions.


I think this may be why so many (mostly older) gamers are getting into the old school gaming thing, or checking it out. We want to go back to a simpler thing which reminds us of simpler times. To a game where we can let our imaginations run free, and where the game mechanic was a means to that end, and not an end it and of itself.



With so many of us being older, having grown in knowledge, maturity, and depth, we realize we have less need of rules to get us where we want to go. It’s about the fantasy, the immersion, the history and the creativity it unleashes in us. Not the mechanics---the “game” part that makes me feel like I am playing Stratego or Poker or Battleship or Monopoly or an MMORPG or Diablo 2.


So, after drinking this (now cold) overpriced Chai tea, and after having wandered over to the 2 ½ shelves of RPG books in my ever-increasingly futile attempt to find a non-4e RPG book on a store’s bookshelf, I guess I’ll wander over to the history section and read about Vikings and imagine how I can incorporate that into my game next week. Even if I buy a Viking book though, I won’t be reading it tonight. Tonight I start the “Prince of Nothing” series, which looks to be right up my alley.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sometimes, a skeleton is not just a skeleton.

I’ve been thinking about the combat encounters for the Bard Rock Band campaign (detailed elsewhere in my blog, below). Our houserules give an AD&D feel to a 3.x game, in that we’re giving xp for gold, having a slow experience point progression, and the magic will be of the weird, mysterious, wondrous sort. No magic items which give a numerical bonus will exist. We are also setting the game in Green Ronin’s Freeport, which is itself set in Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

In trying to give the game a Swords and Sorcery feel, like the Conan, Elric or Leiber books, one of the big elements is the monstrous foes faced by the heroes. I’ve noticed that quite often, the monstrous foes are fearsome, and the heroes don’t want to fight them, but are often forced to. When given the opportunity though, they will take the gold, avoid the monsters, and run away. There is never a theme in the novels of “If I kill this monster, I become a tougher fighter, and am then better able to kill more monsters, and get more gold.” They may want the gold and the lifestyle, but they don’t necessarily want to put themselves at risk to do so.

One problem with D&D and trying to recapture that feel of S&S books in the game, and generate those feelings of “Holy CRAP! I’m not fighting that! Run away!” amongst the players, is that the monsters are all well known. After 25 years of playing the game, you know that if you’re a 3rd level character, and you enter a room with 2 skeletons, you’ll likely mop the floor with them. No challenge.

Think about that for a second. In Sword and Sorcery novel terms, some evil wielder of foul arcane power, a master of the necromantic arts, goes through an evil ritual to raise the dead in a horrific form, and make them his servants. He lost part of his soul to do so. The foul beings stand before you, the antithesis of all of life. In D&D terms, the players say “Meh. Only skeletons. One HD. Arm the blunt weapons. Let’s kill them quick and take whatever crap treasure they have, and get to the next room where we can hopefully fight something stronger and get more XP.”

That’s a big disconnect between the two genres.

How to bridge that disconnect? Make every monster an unknown factor. In other words, ignore the monster manual statblocks. D&D gives very specific rules on game mechanics for everything. For the players, the rules give them a sense of what they are able to do, and when. It lets them know what the effects of their actions are going to be in game terms. It also gives them an idea of their chances of being able to pull off certain actions, such as skill checks. It’s fine that their players know their characters abilities and detailed specific effects of spells, their magic items, and actions. However, the rules should not give them a very certain idea of their chances of success in combat, except in very limited circumstances.

For example, a wolf is a wolf. A dog is a dog. A old man farmer is likely not a good fighter. Things that occur naturally should all be about the same in their stats, and are hence predictable. But when it comes to undead, dragons, things created through arcane means, horrific creatures, extra-planar creatures, etc., all bets are off. This is where we throw the rules out the window. Especially the rules on giving monsters “classes”, along with skills, feats, etc. A monster just has abilities. Special attacks and special defenses. Like it used to be in AD&D.

I thinking giving monsters classes, levels and progression equivalent to the PC’s is one of the biggest mistakes made in 3.x. It limited the game in terms of monsters to whatever the rules allowed. If the rules didn’t allow it, the monster couldn’t do it, unless you created a rule to allow it. And if you create the rule for the monsters, in an effort to appease the God of Balance, you had to make it available to PC’s too, and vice versa. Yeah, great way to stifle imagination. Imagination within rules is no imagination at all. Screw balance. The only predictable thing I want in my games is that the players are going to be nervous, excited, scared, and having fun.

That being said, Why can’t an owl bear have fire resistance? Why can’t a skeleton emit an electrical shock or life-stealing cold damage when hit? Why can’t trolls breed with giants, giving a subbreed of giants some regenerative ability? Why can’t there be 10 HD skeletons that just explode when reduced to 0 hp?

Our houserules do away with the 15 minute adventuring day, and the incentive to fight to move up in level (the fighting is the smallest part of the xp equation, the looting and living the lifestyle is the biggest). In eliminating predictable stats and abilities for monsters which are not naturally occurring, (in other words, anything in the monster manual which doesn’t exist on Earth in 2009), the players now have to wonder if they should fight or run—with running being the likely first option, and fighting only as a last resort. If you can scoop up some treasure as you are running out the door, all the better. This is how encounters with monstrous creatures often turn out in the S&S books I enjoy. The experience point system we have in place rewards that behavior. Thus more closely bridging the game between the game rules and the game style.

As long as the players have fair warning, they shouldn’t complain. Besides, remember the early editions of the game? Where it was strongly advised that the players do not read the monster manual or the DM Guide? There was a reason for that. This approach of unpredictable monsters just brings us back to a more old school feel to the game, both in game terms and S&S terms.

I’ll end with a passage from a Conan story I just finished reading. From “The Pool of the Black One” by R.E. Howard

Conan caught the girl’s hand, and fled. Slope after slope rose and fell before them, and behind sounded the rushing of a river. A glance over his straining shoulder showed a broad green ribbon rising and falling as it swept over the slopes. The torrent had not spread out and dissipated; like a giant serpent it flowed over the depressions and the rounded crests. It held a consistent course – it was following them.

The realization roused Conan to a greater pitch of endurance. Sancha stumbled and went to her knees with a moaning cry of despair and exhaustion. Catching her up, Conan tossed her over his giant shoulder and ran on. His breast heaved, his knees trembled; his breath tore in great gasps through his teeth. He reeled in his gait. Ahead of him he saw the sailors toiling, spurred on by the terror that gripped him.

The ocean burst suddenly on his view, and in his swimming gaze floated the Wastrel, unharmed. Men tumbled into the boats helter-skelter. Sancha fell into the bottom and lay there in a crumpled heap. Conan, though the blood thundered in his ears and the world swam red to his gaze, took an oar with the panting sailors.

With hearts ready to burst from exhaustion, they pulled for the ship. The green river burst through the fringe of trees. Those trees fell as if their stems had been cut away, and as they sank into the jade-colored flood, they vanished. The tide flowed out over the beach, lapped at the ocean, and the waves turned a deeper, more sinister green.

Unreasoning, instinctive fear held the buccaneers, making them urge their agonized bodies and reeling brains to greater effort; what they feared they knew not, but they did know that in that abominable smooth green ribbon was a menace to body and to soul. Conan knew, and as he saw the broad line slip into the waves and stream through the water toward them, without altering its shape or course, he called up his last ounce of reserve strength so fiercely that the oar snapped in his hands.

But their prows bumped against the timbers of the Wastrel, and the sailors staggered up the chains, leaving the boats to drift as they would. Sancha went up on Conan’s broad shoulder, hanging limp as a corpse, to be dumped unceremoniously on to the deck as the Barachan took the wheel, gasping orders to his skeleton of a crew. Throughout the affair, he had taken the leadwithout question, and they had instinctively followed him. They reeled about like drunken men, fumbling mechanically at ropes and braces. The anchor chain, unshackled, splashed into the water, the sails unfurled and bellied in a rising wind. The Wastrel quivered and shook herself, and swung majestically seaward. Conan glared shoreward; like a tongue of emerald flame, a ribbon licked out on the water futilely, an oar’s length from the Wastrel ’s keel. It advanced no further. From that end of the tongue, his gaze followed an unbroken stream of ambent green across the white beach, and over the slopes, until it faded in the blue distance.

The Barachan, regaining his wind, grinned at the panting crew. Sancha was standing near him, hysterical tears coursing down her cheeks. Conan’s breeks hung in blood-stained tatters; his girdle and sheath were gone, his sword, driven upright into the deck beside him, was notched and crusted with red. Blood thickly clotted his black mane, and one ear had been half torn fromhis head. His arms, legs, breast and shoulders were bitten and clawed as if by panthers. But he grinned as he braced his powerful legs, and swung on the wheel in sheer exuberance of muscular might.

“What now?” faltered the girl.

“The plunder of the seas!” he laughed.

“A paltry crew, and that chewed and clawed to pieces, but they can work the ship, and crews can always be found. Come here, girl, and give me a kiss.”

“A kiss?” she cried hysterically. “You think of kisses at a time like this?”

His laughter boomed above the snap and thunder of the sails, as he caught her up off her feet in the crook of one mighty arm, and smacked her red lips with resounding relish.

“I think of Life!” he roared. “The dead are dead, and what has passed is done! I have a ship and a fighting crew and a girl with lips like wine, and that’s all I ever asked. Lick your wounds, bullies, and break out a cask of ale. You’re going to work ship as she never was worked before. Dance and sing while you buckle to it, damn you! To the devil with empty seas! We’re bound for waters where the seaports are fat, and the merchant ships are crammed with plunder!”