Lankhmar levels 3: the first RPG

June 3rd, 2010 by paul

So here's the story of the first RPG:

Two Midwestern gamers create a miniatures-based wargame. During a scenario about capturing a castle, one of them has the bright idea of having each figure represent a single character, who would be roleplayed as an individual. This "role playing" element totally revolutionizes the game! Everyone who plays it loves it!

The game's fantasy world has a huge impact on the development of the fantasy genre. One of the original authors drops out of the scene fairly early, but the other goes on to great fame in the fantasy community. Besides his gaming credits, he writes picaresque novels and stories about barbarians and thieves.

Then, 40 years later, in the 1970s, the same exact thing happens AGAIN.

In a previous post about Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar boardgame, I wondered how the Leiber's 1930s version of the game, which preceded Leiber's Fafhr and the Gray Mouser stories, differed from the 1976 version published by TSR.

I've found an account of that game, by Dr. Franklin C. MacKnight, a friend of Leiber's, in a multipart article starting in Dragon #30. Here's what he says about the game:

I am one of the few people ever to have played the original game of Lankhmar other than its original authors, Harry Fischer, Fritz Leiber and Martha Fischer. There was also Prof. Lawrence (Larry) Howe of the University of Louisville, and that is all. Harry owned the board and hadn’t had many games-minded friends since college days.

It wasn’t the casual sort of contest that one could dash off like a game of backgammon or even chess. Lankhmar couldn’t be finished in a few hours. It was difficult to finish it in a few days! At least a weekend was needed unless one played an abbreviated version involving only two cities and two players (or two partnerships). I played the game only three or four times but that was enough to convince me that it was the greatest, most fascinating game ever invented by man. And, unlike chess, that noblest of board games which had an evolution over centuries, Lankhmar sprang directly from the minds of Harry and Fritz, aided by a map of Lankhmar done by Martha. Now Lankhmar has undergone a mutation to adapt it to the habits of wargame players and to become commercially viable.

Lankhmar wasn’t just a game, it was an adventure. The pieces were not mere abstractions, but heroes with personalities with which one identified. It provided an esthetic thrill unequaled in my experience in any other game anywhere.

It's hard to read the last paragraph of this quote without thinking that the 1937 version of Lankhmar was a proto-roleplaying game. Even taking into account the fact that the author is writing for Dragon Magazine and therefore may be RPGing it up a little, it still sounds like a description of D&D, right? "Not just a game," an "adventure". The pieces are "heroes with personalities with which one identified." And finally, "It provided an esthetic thrill unequaled in my experience in any other game anywhere" sounds a lot like the experience a lot of people had when they discovered D&D in the 70s and 80s: they had never experienced anything like it before, and for a lot of people (including me) it was a revelation.

Apparently, the world of Lankhmar was very much a collaboration between Leiber, Harry Fischer, and Martha Fischer. "The original mythos also contained other subsidiary characters (Pulgh and Movarl are now immortalized in the published game), most important of whom were the mysterious magicians and semi-deities Ningauble and Sheelba, who figured more prominently in Harry’s conception than in the early stories by Fritz." There's Pulgh: part of the original -- pre-publication -- mythos, who made it into the boardgame but not really into the stories.

It's fascinating how much the Fischers contributed to the world of Lankhmar. They even made up the name of the city, or all but one letter of it:

It is of interest that the name was originally spelled Lahkmar by Harry and is so spelled on the early maps by Martha. On one of these sent to Fritz, the "h" in Lahkmar was constructed with a fancy slant making it look much like an "n". This confusion may have caused Fritz in his first story to spell the name with an additional "n" and a misplaced "h". (Fritz says the change of spelling was not deliberate.)

The DRAGON series continues with a comparison of the new and old version of the rules, so that you could put together a pretty good approximation of the old game. It is pretty basic, by wargame standards: each character has a movement of so many squares (or hexes, in the 1976 game); a character can either move or attack (or do both, in the 1976 game). Melee attacks kill their opponents; arrow attacks wound their opponents (or the outcome is diced for in the new game.) The author rejects the idea that each figure represents a unit: each is a distinct character who is to be role-played.

LANKHMAR (LAHKMAR) is a game of personal involvement with individuals. It is also a game involving verbal banter, bombast and braggadocio on the part of the players.
Some examples:
At the onset of the game from the Lankhmar player:
"Pulgh is making a statement to his constituents and all enemies: 'Let it be known that it is my intention and pledge to end the nefarious existence of that loutish boor Fafhrd. I shall feed his liver by hand to my pet vultures, and hang his dismembered carcass on the walls of Lankhmar. And as for that disreputable cutpurse and varlet known as the "Mouser"...'", etc., etc. Or "'Aided by my honored ally, the Mouser'"', if that be the case!

That sounds like a role playing game, guys.

I'm overstating things a little: from the rules of the old game described in the DRAGON article, it doesn't have all the RPG elements we expect from a D&D-like game. It's a board game with one winner (if Fafhrd wins, the Gray Mouser loses); there is no mechanism for XP and advancement (although characters can find and loot weapons which increase their power); there's no character generation.

This gets into the question of what the minimum requirements are for a game to be an RPG. Can you make Monopoly into a RPG by announcing at the beginning of the game, "Let it be known that it is my intention and pledge to end the nefarious existence of that loutish boor the Iron. I shall feed his liver by hand to my pet vultures, and throw his dismembered carcass in the gutters of Indiana Avenue. And as for that disreputable cutpurse and varlet known as the "Scottie dog"..."?

I don't know if that's an RPG or not. But if the players of such a game really identify with their characters, and go on to write fiction about the Scottie dog and the Iron that changes the face of cash & capitalism genre fiction, unseating Ayn Rand herself as the master of that genre, then maybe it is an RPG after all.

Or not. But at any rate, Leiber and Fischer were on the same wavelength as Gygax and Arnesen, even if they didn't go at far. It's really nice ending of the Lankhmar board-game story that TSR ended up publishing it.

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4 Responses to “Lankhmar levels 3: the first RPG”

  1. Rory Rory Madden says:

    An interesting case, Paul!

    I saw some Indie rpg that this guy claims he adapted from what is essentially a medieval roleplaying game! I’m pretty sure he added some dice to it or something though! Should I buy it so we can look it over?!

  2. Paul says:

    Oh yeah, the one where the monks say they got inspiration from “David son of Arne and Gary of Geneva”? Maybe TSR is older than we realize.

    I personally believe that there never was literally a man named Gary Gygax; he is merely the accretion of hundreds or thousands of years of oral tradition, like David Bowie.

  3. Fascinating stuff.

  4. [...] is another potential pre-D&D RPG, joining David Weseley’s 1967 Braunstein and, perhaps, Fritz Leiber’s Lankmar. Of course, it all depends: is Midgard a RPG, like D&D, or just a play-by-mail boardgame or [...]

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