Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Blood of Belshazzar as a Sword & Sorcery RPG Premise

Sword & Sorcery is experiencing a bit of a comeback in rpging these days.  I've mentioned two very excellent games previously: Barbarians of Lemuria and Jaws of the Six Serpents.  Thulsa has done some amazing Hyborian Age conversions of classic adventures, such as Shrine of the Kuo-Toa and Vault of the Drow, as well as some well-regarded original works, such as The Spider-God's Bride and Song of the Beast-Gods (neither of which I have, but intend to rectify that soonishly).  And that's just the tip of the sword, not including the mood among the OSR that now leans toward S&S scoundrels and highjinks and away from the Epic Fantasy heroes and grand destinies.

But S&S as a literary genre does present some problems for gaming.  I'm speaking here of what might be called "the high end" of the S&S protagonist spectrum; that is, those stories that are about powerful, capable Heroes (in the original, Hellenic sense of the word).  This is as opposed to those protagonists who congregate about "the low end" of the spectrum; that motley assortment of ne'er-do-wells and crooks who populate the thieves' quarters of the imagination and who, one might say, descend from Clark Ashton Smith's Satampra Zeiros (spiritual father to D&D adventurers everywhere), rather than Robert E. Howard's King Kull of Valusia.  

It's relatively easy to find a gaming premise for this second sort and, indeed, most of the OSR has rediscovered it: a bunch of desperate chaps face magic and monsters in pursuit of loot.  The former group is trickier.  Imagine trying to play a game where you have King Conan, Elric of Melnibone, and Kane the Killer as your party.  Fascinating, yes, but what the hell do they do together?  Whatever they decide to do, they do not meet in a tavern and decide to bash the local dungeon for profit.

One solution is to drop the idea of "the party" as the part of the protagonist in the literature is more usually a one- or two-man show.  Conan never called for a cleric and Fafhrd and the Mouser are pretty-much a three's-a-crowd act (except Oort the Mingol, I guess).  That's fine but pretty much requires losing most of your players (assuming you have a regularly-sized group). And it still doesn't actually give you a premise.

Thus I was struck the other day as I read, for the first time, REH's The Blood of Belshazzar, originally published in 1931, but which I read in the excellent Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventures Stories of the Old Orient.  I consider myself a Howard fan, and have read all the Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane stories, but I had never read any of his Oriental Adventures tales; a situation which I have gladly changed.  The Blood of Belshazzar is actually one of the weaker stories in the collection; a not-too gripping murder mystery which does not even have the advantage of The God in the Bowl's giant snake.  Which may show, once again, that literary merit is not identical with gaming merit, because it seems to me a wonderful premise for a "high end" S&S game.  

Without going into too much detail, the story is set within the lair of a notorious bandit chief, who has collected together the worst of the worst as his lieutenants.  None of them trust one another, but all try to retain the good graces of the chief for one reason: the lust after the fabulous gem he owns.  Howard writes:

"How do you hold supremacy over these wolves?" asked Cormac bluntly. 
Skol laughed and drank once more. 
"I have something each wishes. They hate each other; I play them against one another. I hold the key to the plot. They do not trust each other enough to move against me. I am Skol Abdhur! Men are puppets to dance on my strings. And women"--a vagrant and curious glint stole into his eyes--"women are food for the gods," he said strangely.
The story of the gem is perhaps the high-light of the tale and the thing is described in terms startlingly reminiscent of the One Ring in Tolkien:
"Then Belshazzar's lords entreated him to throw the gem back into the sea, for it was evident that it was the treasure of the djinn of the sea, but the king was as one mad, gazing into the crimson deeps of the ruby, and he shook his head. 
"And lo, soon evil came upon him, for the Persians broke his kingdom, and Cyrus, looting the dying monarch, wrested from his bosom the great ruby which seemed so gory in the light of the burning palace that the soldiers shouted: 'Lo, it is the heart's blood of Belshazzar!' And so men came to call the gem the Blood of Belshazzar. 
"Blood followed its course. When Cyrus fell on the Jaxartes, Queen Tomyris seized the jewel and for a time it gleamed on the naked bosom of the Scythian queen. But she was despoiled of it by a rebel general; in a battle against the Persians he fell and it went into the hands of Cambyses, who carried it with him into Egypt, where a priest of Bast stole it. A Numidian mercenary murdered him for it, and by devious ways it came back to Persia once more. It gleamed on Xerxes' crown when he watched his army destroyed at Salamis. 
"Alexander took it from the corpse of Darius and on the Macedonian's corselet its gleams lighted the road to India. A chance sword blow struck it from his breastplate in a battle on the Indus and for centuries the Blood of Belshazzar was lost to sight. Somewhere far to the east, we know, its gleams shone on a road of blood and rapine, and men slew men and dishonored women for it. For it, as of old, women gave up their virtue, men their lives and kings their crowns. 
"But at last its road turned to the west once more, and I took it from the body of a Turkoman chief I slew in a raid far to the east. How he came by it, I do not know. But now it is mine!" 
Skol was drunk; his eyes blazed with inhuman passion; more and more he seemed like some foul bird of prey.
It is my balance of power! Men come to me from palace and hovel, each hoping to have the Blood of Belshazzar for his own. I play them against each other. If one should slay me for it, the others would instantly cut him to pieces to gain it. They distrust each other too much to combine against me. And who would share the gem with another?
The plot kicks into gear as our protagonist enters as a new lieutenant, the bandit chief is killed, the gem disappears, and all hell breaks lose.  

I think that this would make a fantastic starting point for a game, providing a shape of what stories could be told, but giving the players fairly free reign to take that story wherever they wish.  Do they team-up and try to keep the gang together, perhaps establishing themselves as true political powers in the region?  Do they play the other villains (including, potentially, the other PC's) off one another?  Or do they bring the whole situation crashing down in blood and fire and ride off, laughing, into the night?  And, as each PC would have his or her own reasons for being there in the first place, the players and GM both would have this great stew of motivations, both complementary and conflicting, with which to play.

You needn't be restrained by the device of the gem - anything could serve as The Most Fabulous Thing in the World.  I'd be tempted to do more with foul rituals hinted at by Skol in his likening of women to food for the gods (if this had been a Conan tale, I'm pretty sure that Howard would have done so too).  Maybe the Thing is occult knowledge and what the PC's learn might set the stage for the next phase of the campaign.

Anyway, this is the sort of thing I think could work wonderfully well for games that aren't trying to do Ye Auld Game.


  1. I think "Blood of Belshazzar" makes a lot more sense if you go by the idea that the gem is, in fact, somehow supernatural in nature: it explains things like Skol's descent into irrationality, as well as making the history of the gem more sinister.

  2. Certainly the details work that way; if this were a Conan story, we might here a bit more about the flooded, antediluvian city and the foul, Old Ones worshipped there would probably be the object of Skol's obscene rites. But I think it works fine without that; the gem being a symbol, like the One Ring, of The Most Desirable Thing in the World.

    And yes, I have made a comparison between Howard and Tolkien! I dare!