Our Appendix N Archeology and Adventures in Fiction series are meant to take a look at the writers and creators behind the genre(s) that helped to forge not only our favorite hobby but our lives. We invite you to explore the entirety of the series on our Adventures In Fiction home page.
Adventures in Fiction: Turning the Khlit Stories of Harold Lamb into RPG Adventures!
by Julian Bernick
Spoiler Alert: What follows is a discussion of Harold Lamb’s work and how to adapt some of his themes and stories for DCC adventures. Spoilers, both light and heavy, abound! Don’t worry, you’ll enjoy Lamb’s work anyway!
Here in the Goodman Games world, we’ve been rediscovering the works of Harold Lamb. He wrote timeless adventure stories that influenced a bevy of Appendix N authors, most notably Robert Howard. The strength of Lamb’s tales are tight plotting, crisply drawn characters and rich historical detail. But as enjoyable as Lamb’s tales are, they lack some of the cardinal elements of Appendix N literature and DCC RPG adventures: supernatural magic, brooding extra-human entities from beyond space, and the never-ending struggle between Law and Chaos. Without these elements, what can we draw from these adventure stories to enrich our adventures for DCC RPG? For this essay, I’ll discuss the Khlit stories collected in Wolf of the Steppes. These tales are just a fraction of Lamb’s pulp stories, but still provide plenty of useful ideas for DCC adventures.
One strength of the Khlit stories is the scenarios that Lamb fashioned for the character. These are no dungeon-delve or rescue-the-princess stories. Each of them is framed as a high-concept scenario testing the limits of Khlit’s strength, resourcefulness, and honor. The breadth and novelty of these scenarios give us a good example of the wild possibilities mostly ignored for traditional module writing: Why shouldn’t the adventure be the defense of a fortress against an invading horde, such as in Changa Nor? Or the infiltration of the headquarters of a legendary grandmaster of assassins, such as in Alamut? Or, as in Wolf’s War, the single-handed routing of a vastly superior force using only asymmetric warfare? Crafting adventures that incorporate these types of challenges forces everyone to raise their game. These are not mere puzzle encounters, but whole premises that can’t be overcome by brute force or exercise of magic. Such adventures are sure to generate unique challenges for your PCs, as they will have to carefully engage with the environment and NPCs to succeed.
This brings us to the role of supernatural elements in Lamb’s stories, which are quite different than that of Appendix N. Although there is no magic per se in the Khlit stories, the characters understand the world as a religious and magical one nonetheless, even if the author and readers know better. In Changa Nor, the fortress’s inhabitants believe their faith will actively protect them. In Alamut, the populace fears the mystical powers of the Old Man of the Mountains, whether or not such powers actually exist. In The Mighty Manslayer, the treasure of Ghengis Khan is said to be protected by an ancient curse, but this “curse” turns out to have a natural, if unusual, explanation. When the shaman dances and augurs in Wolf’s War, the locals believe him, whether his powers are truly given by the gods or not.
Of course, this formula can be slightly altered so that the magical elements are brought forward and made real. In the world of DCC, where supernatural forces are rare, but rightly feared, the gods of the temple fortress may protect the defenders. The Khan’s treasure is cursed! And the Old Man of the Mountain does wield the exotic powers ascribed to him. Thus the villains and hazards of Lamb-inspired adventures have the legendary powers they would need to truly challenge spellburning, god-aided, mighty deed-inflicting protagonists like those of DCC.
Having decided on this approach, how to add these elements in a way that remains true to Lamb’s rich historical settings—since place, religion and culture are such important elements of his work?
The answer is in the setting itself. To keep in the spirit of Lamb, the menaces and supernatural entities at play should draw on folklore, fairy tale, and religious traditions rather than Lovecraftian menace or science fiction elements. This can be easily done by drawing on the locations of his tales. The fae of Lord Dunsany might be old hat for the DCC faithful, but the legends of medieval Persia, China, Tibet, and Russia could provide some interesting new hooks and adversaries for DCC campaigns, with plenty of demons, djinn, curses, witches, and talking animals. The essential element in constructing an adventure that feels like a Harold Lamb tale is filling it with backstory, events, and characters that would feel true to a wandering Cossack fighter, a Persian mercenary, or a Mongol general. Additional sources to inspire you would be the same that they knew: The tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, the legends of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, and the countless tales of Russian and Central Asian folklore.
Lastly, one of the striking things about the Khlit stories is Khlit’s honor. No matter the challenge, Khlit is above all a man of his word. Thus his stratagems and negotiations take on added import because everyone senses his honesty and commitment—and he must remain faithful to his word. In Wolf’s War, Khlit promises to ride alone into his enemy’s camp in exchange for a woman’s life, apparently sentencing himself to certain death; but he does so only after he has destroyed the camp and scattered the fighting men who inhabit it. PCs may make similar rash promises to their patrons, gods, kings or adversaries, and memorably raise the stakes for a session or a campaign. Just as Khlit is saved by his craftiness, good fortune, and the loyalty of his comrades, so should PCs who play in the spirit of heroic tales be rewarded with plenty of Luck points, as well as the loyalty and awe of their NPC comrades. When they succeed, like Khlit, they will win even the grudging and jealous admiration of their foes!
No matter what, the best way to draw inspiration from Lamb into your DCC game remains to read and enjoy his work and to play some Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG!