Thursday, October 8, 2009

Roots of Role Playing - Harold Lamb

This strays a bit from the topic of gaming for children but I think it's interesting to look back at the roots of the hobbies we enjoy. In this case we're talking about the roots of the role playing game.

Gary Gygax lists a number of authors as influences in the development of Dungeons and Dragons. One of the more famous of these is Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, Kull, and many other famous pulp fantasy characters. I think Howard had a rare gift and his work is well worth seeking out. Nevertheless it is hard to deny that Howard's talent only went so far. He wrote fabulously but remained within a certain range.

I was very excited to discover Harold Lamb, a writer from a period slightly before Howard who seems to possess the ability to fully develop the pulp adventure story. I started with Lamb's Cossack stories, happily collected and available on Amazon or through the library. His first few pieces are capable but unremarkable. They're short adventures set amongst the Cossacks and while pleasant are burdened by some irritating antisemitism. Suddenly in the third or fourth piece Lamb seems to find his muse and the writing just begins to explode from the page.

To offer more detail would spoil some surprises that Lamb throws the reader's way. Suffice it to say that his stories become fantastically exciting while remaining historically rooted. Many authors of the day worked within the bounds of "historical fiction" but seemed to stray from reality as the mood struck them- Dumas being an admirable example, Talbot Mundy less so. Harold Lamb seems intent on remaining as accurate as possible to setting and culture while continuing to deliver the thrills and hair raising adventures.

There is very little in Lamb's work that is overtly related to fantasy- no elves or wizards. Nevertheless, his themes of adventure, quests, travelers in strange lands and amongst strange cultures all echo across the decades into the role playing games we enjoy today. I highly recommend them to anyone with an interest in adventure tales or historical fiction. They're appropriate for good readers and with the exception of one early story are notably free from the racism and sexism so common in that period's literature.

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