Skull-Face (1946)

Skull-Face and Others is Robert E. Howard’s first collection of short stories. The book was published posthumously in 1946 by August Derleth’s Arkham House (formed in 1939 as a means of preserving H.P. Lovecraft’s literary legacy, a mission that later expanded to Lovecraft’s associates like Howard). It is a good cross-section of Howard’s work, but of particular interest to us are the stories featuring King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane and the iconic Conan, of which Derleth says in his introduction, “there is quite possibly more blood-letting and more lusty carnage than in any other group of stories which have appeared in pulp magazine in America during the 1930’s.”

Most of Howard’s protagonists are fairly interchangeable – heavy fisted, slow to talk, suspicious of sophistication. Conan is the Howardiest of them – contemptuous of civilization which he sees as decadent, enslaving and, perhaps most of all, softening. All Conan wants is a drink, a woman and a good fight. What he inevitably gets is power, riches and responsibility. Inevitably, those who bear these gifts end up on the wrong side of Conan’s sword.

In this way, Conan is an odd inspiration for D&D, a game very much about the accumulation of wealth and power. Whatever his motivations, though, his world seems like the first literary example that feels like it could be a setting for a Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Arguable the best Conan story, “The Tower of the Elephant” is set up like a D&D module, whatever Conan’s motivation. He learns of the existence of a fabulous gem in a wizard’s tower by overhearing someone talking about it in a tavern. After a bar brawl, he navigates the tower’s many deathtraps to find the treasure and a lot more than he bargained with.

Thanks to the success of the Schwarzenegger movie in the early 80s, and the ensuing rush of cheap barbarian movie knock-offs, there was enough of an association between Conan and D&D to warrant TSR producing two Conan and one Red Sonja film-branded modules. We’ll get to those.

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