Conan Performs a Sorcerous Ritual

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[Edit: Please see all the commentary in the post below between Jesse and myself about the nature of the ritual Conan uses and the Demon involved. I ended up seeing the in-game elements very differently than on my first pass of thinking about it.]

From “Beyond the Black River” by Robert E. Howard

“Then others will be on our trail?”

“They are now,” was Conan’s disquieting answer. “Zogar would never leave our tracking to one beast alone.”

“What are we to do, then?” asked Balthus uneasily, grasping his ax as he stared at the gloomy arches above him. His flesh crawled with the momentary expectation of ripping talons and fangs leaping from the shadows.

“Wait!”

Conan turned, squatted and with his knife began scratching a curious symbol in the mold. Stooping to look at it over his shoulder, Balthus felt a crawling of the flesh along his spine, he knew not why. He felt no wind against his face, but there was a rustling of leaves above them and a weird moaning swept ghostily through the branches. Conan glanced up inscrutably, then rose and stood staring somberly down at the symbol he had drawn.

“What is it?” whispered Balthus. It looked archaic and meaningless to him. He supposed that it was his ignorance of artistry which prevented his identifying it as one of the conventional designs of some prevailing culture. But had he been the most erudite artist in the world, he would have been no nearer the solution.

“I saw it carved in the rock of a cave no human had visited for a million years,” muttered Conan, “in the uninhabited mountains beyond the Sea of Vilayet, half a world away from this spot. Later I saw a black witch-finder of Kush scratch it in the sand of a nameless river. He told me part of its meaning – it’s sacred to Jhebbal Sag and the creatures which worship him. Watch!”

They drew back among the dense foliage some yards away and waited in tense silence. To the east drums muttered and somewhere to north and west other drums answered. Balthus shivered, though he knew long miles of black forest separated him from the grim beaters of those drums whose dull pulsing was a sinister overture that set the dark stage for bloody drama.

Balthus found himself holding his breath. Then with a slight shaking of the leaves, the bushes parted and a magnificent panther came into view. The moonlight dappling through the leaves shone on its glossy coat rippling with the play of the great muscles beneath it.

With its head low it glided toward them. It was smelling out their trail. Then it halted as if frozen, its muzzle almost touching the symbol cut in the mold. For a long space it crouched motionless; it flattened its long body and laid its head on the ground before the mark. And Balthus felt the short hairs stir on his scalp. For the attitude of the great carnivore was one of awe and adoration.

Then the panther rose and backed away carefully, belly almost to the ground. With his hind-quarters among the bushes he wheeled as if in sudden panic and was gone like a flash of dappled light.

Balthus mopped his brow with a trembling hand and glanced at Conan.

The barbarian’s eyes were smoldering with fires that never lit the eyes of men bred to the ideas of civilization. In that instant he was all wild, and had forgotten the man at his side. In his burning gaze Balthus glimpsed and vaguely recognized pristine images and half-embodied memories, shadows from Life’s dawn, forgotten and repudiated by sophisticated races—ancient, primeval fantasms unnamed and nameless.

Then the deeper fires were masked and Conan was silently leading the way deeper into the forest.

“We’ve no more to fear from the beasts,” he said…

Sorcery is not a job description in the game Sorcerer. It is a character’s ability to use Lore.

For some reason, a few people found Ron’s statement in Sorcerer & Sword that, “In game terms, Conan is a sorcerer!” controversial. I have no idea why. Conan performs sorcerous rituals and steps into the pools of Lore all the time.

In the above example, translating the event into the rules of Sorcerer & Sword, I’d say it was a Pact. Conan wants to ward off beasts that have been sent to follow himself and his companion.

Translating fiction not built from Sorcerer into Sorcerer’s rules is always tricky, and there is never a precise or correct method of translations (Lore always ends up being person/group specific and built through play), but here’s how I’d look at it:

The Player (playing Conan) gets bonus dice for the cool setup:

“I saw it carved in the rock of a cave no human had visited for a million years,” muttered Conan, “in the uninhabited mountains beyond the Sea of Vilayet, half a world away from this spot. Later I saw a black witch-finder of Kush scratch it in the sand of a nameless river. He told me part of its meaning – it’s sacred to Jhebbal Sag and the creatures which worship him.” Note that this is something the Player could have made up right on the spot. Howard certainly did in the Conan story!

I’d say it was an object Demon (the marking itself). I really like the description, so I’d say for the purpose of the game Conan doesn’t need to Contact or Summon it. This is a bit of a cheat, I suppose, but I really liked the description, so I’d probably be generous on this front. All the Character would have to do is make the Pact roll.

What I like about it, by the way, is the “no human had visited for a million years,” and later, “a black witch-finder of Kush scratch it in the sand of a nameless river.” There’s something, for me at least, a bit chilling about these details because they suggest Conan, too, was chilled by them. Conan went really off the beaten path in those incidents, and I think, if the Player plays that up for his character we’re in proper weird fantasy color. (Always keep this text from Sorcerer & Sword in mind: “The authors considered themselves not to be a branch of adventure fiction, but an adventurous branch of horror/surrealist fiction.”)

So, there is a Pact roll, a ritual is performed. And here is the meat of it for me:

“The barbarian’s eyes were smoldering with fires that never lit the eyes of men bred to the ideas of civilization. In that instant he was all wild, and had forgotten the man at his side. In his burning gaze Balthus glimpsed and vaguely recognized pristine images and half-embodied memories, shadows from Life’s dawn, forgotten and repudiated by sophisticated races—ancient, primeval fantasms unnamed and nameless.”

Something happens to Conan here! He becomes, without doubt, less than a man. Even Conan, who is Howard’s stand in for the man who stands against the stale, dead rules of civilization, becomes something not even Conan would recognize.

I find this fascinating, because this suggests, to me, that Howard–for all his love of Conan being impatient with the rules of men and cities, knows there’s something that Conan isn’t. Something no longer a man at all. And that is what Conan risks when he performs the ritual. After all, later in his life, Conan would become a king. And a good one! He is not incapable of dealing with civilization. He is a man, no matter what. But in the moment of this ritual, he risk slipping away from his humanity (his Humanity!). He is unaware of the man beside, forgetting him, lost in something carved in a cave when no one had walked “for a million years.”

For me, that’s the Humanity roll right there. Did Conan succeed? Did he fail? The fiction, as written does not tell us. (Remember, even if Conan lost a point, his behavior would not change.) But what would have changed, if we were playing out this moment at table with friends, is that we would know if Conan had lost a point. We would also know about bit more about Lore and how it works for Conan (it is his risk of become something less than savage, something so wild and primordial as to not even be human. Non-Civilizaed as Conan is, he is still human. If he lost that, what would he be? A creature of muscles wielding a sword as a monster in the wilds. A lone figure hiding in a cave, leaving bones and unused pelts for wanderers to find–and perhaps stumble across him before their end?)

So, the Player is describing something like this as the Lore roll unfolds:

“The barbarian’s eyes were smoldering with fires that never lit the eyes of men bred to the ideas of civilization… he was all wild…  had forgotten the man at his side. In his burning gaze… vaguely recognized pristine images and half-embodied memories, shadows from Life’s dawn, forgotten and repudiated by sophisticated races—ancient, primeval fantasms unnamed and nameless.”

All that stuff is happening inside Conan. If the Player brings that to the table, in that moment we have a great Sorcerer & Sword moment. Something where the Player is stating, “This is what matters to me: How do I hold the tension between being utterly my own man–but risk slipping from being a man at all.” It’s chilling, weird, thematically resonate and puts the Character’s Humanity on the line.

Sorcerer (and Sorcerer & Sword) is of course about the external goals and ambitions of the character–the broad agendas and the moment-to-moment conflicts. But it is also about what is at stake at the most intimate and personal element of the character–his or her Humanity. I’d say that this passage reflects something Howard cared about–his internal life. He created Conan to sort things out that he wanted to understand. In this, it is a mirror of how we approach Sorcererwe must care about something more than the color when we approach the fiction. Just as Howard did.

And you? How would you address this moment in Sorcerer & Sword rules?

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5 Responses to “Conan Performs a Sorcerous Ritual”

  1. jburneko Says:

    Hello CK,

    I see where you’re coming from but I think jumping to a Pact is a bit far. The fact that you felt the need to skip over a Contact and Summon to get there is a bit of system red flag. Also, from the quoted text I don’t see much expression of a Need or Desire nor any other signs of independent agency on the part of The Mark. It isn’t Stormbringer or Bloodstone.

    I, personally, have always read this scene as a Contain. It’s a ward against Zogar’s demonic forces that pursue Conan. Do not cross this point. However, I forget about the beat with the panther. There is nothing to suggest that the panther is itself a demon. Once the panther shows up, I’m thinking about Zogar clearly having access to the Command ability and thus even a Contain wouldn’t be very useful.

    So, given the moment with the panther I turn to this section of Sorcerer & Sword:

    “A player-character fighting an animal may employ a tactic that can’t be used against people. The character may, upon using an appropriate tactic, make a Will vs. Will challenge and any victories may be applied as bonuses to either attack or defense rolls throughout the entire fight.”

    The text frames this in terms of a fight but it clearly indicates that animals may engage in Will conflicts. So I can see the above being a Double-Roll situation Lore into Will vs. The Panther’s Will. That certainly hits the beat of Conan losing himself in primal forces.

    Another interpretation might involve the application of the rule that any Sorcerer can command any demon to do anything. This would speak to the text at the beginning that there are multiple beasts in pursuit, the panther being just one. And so Conan is commanding Zogar’s demon to withdraw it’s forces. Here, again I see a Double Roll Lore into Will vs. the demon’s Will.

    I see that the bit about Conan, for a moment, becoming less than a man is important to your reading. It’s true that none of the above options, even the Contain interpretation, by themselves calls for a Humanity roll. So, I offer this: remember that any and all actions are judged against Humanity as the context calls for. Punching a man may be a heinous act of cruel violence or an expression of brotherly comradery. So too may the act of a Contain or Lore augmented Will be an act of soul affirming faith or a step into primordial savagery.

    Jesse

  2. playsorcerer Says:

    Jesse,

    Thanks for that. I, too, felt that dodging the Contact and Summon I was a red flag as well. I posted this in part to elicit responses on this front.

    I think the “Commanding the Demon” with the Double Roll Lore into Will vs. the demon’s Will would be the way to go.

    But a question about this: When Commanding a Demon, does one need to have Contacted it first? Summoned it? And if not, if one can do this, what is the disadvantage to not having the Demon bound? (Certainly positive Binding for the Sorcerer offers a bonus. But a negative bonus would not.) Or is the idea in this case that since the panther is close, and acting as an agent for the Demon, it is “at hand” and Conan can order it? (I think this touches on the “subtleties” of Lore Ron always references that always make me feel somewhat out of my depth.)

    I think the Humanity roll would come about if the Player added the Color to the roll on his own, providing a cool moment for Bonus dice.

  3. jburneko Says:

    As a Sorcerer you can attempt to order any demon to do anything. That’s subject to normal constraints of interaction. It has to be here and able to interact with you. So if it’s someone else’s demon they have conveniently contacted and summoned it for you. And if it’s currently in another city then that doesn’t work either.

    My “Commanding The Demon” interpretation of the text assumes that Zogar’s demon is somewhere nearby (perhaps Cloaked) able to see the symbol and otherwise feel the force of Conan’s Will.

    There are two disadvantages:

    1) If you’re not Bound or Pacted to it, you have to order it around Will vs. Will for each and everything you want it to do. It’s only good for a single action. Attack him! Leave here! You can’t do open ended agreements or agendas here.

    2) If the demon is bound to someone else then the demon gets the Binding strength (regardless of whose favor it is in) as bonus dice to resist your command.

  4. playsorcerer Says:

    Right. I keep forgetting that about commanding unbound demons. (I learn it — and then I forget about it. I don’t know why.)

    I think how the method to handle the demon would be answered by drilling down more into the Demon’s specifics.

    Over at the Sorcerer G+ Community, Ron suggests ALL the creatures after Conan might be Demonic. It might be an Inconspicuous Demon using Command on beasts. It could also be a Possessor, Hopping from forest beast to the next.

    In each case the Demon must be nearby, yes? So the Contain would work, yes? Even in the case of an Inconspicuous Demon using command — even though you seem this might not work.

  5. jburneko Says:

    The Contain interpretation would work just fine with, as Ron said, a generous enough application. Does a Contain keep the demon out or does it also keep applications of the demon’s powers out as well?

    And yeah, at that point you’re down to context specifics. In one case (this one), yup, the Contain holds the inconspicuous demon and all its forces at bay. In another context maybe that’s the advantage of having Command. You can keep me out, but not my horde of 10,000 rats!

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