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Steely Gaze and Lethal Blows: Pulp Combat

Hugh Rankin“The Cimmerian laid his hand on his sword hilt, and the gesture was as fraught with menace as the lifting of a tiger’s lip to bare his fangs.” ­ — Robert E. Howard, “The God In The Bowl”

When it comes to the art of swordplay in literature, none have captured it with the electrifying style and thrilling wit of Robert E. Howard, ­ creator of Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, and many other quintessential heroes of the pulp era. Indeed, grandmaster Stephen King said of Howard’s abilities in his non­fiction essay Danse Macabre, “In his best work, Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks.” I recall my first meetings with Conan and his contemporaries with a special kind of reverence. Lovecraft was the gatekeeper, along with Scott Gray,­ a dear friend and gaming mentor ­who’d recommended I investigate Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos fiction. Suddenly my young mind was immersed in weird worlds of Nameless Cults and Hyborian Kingdoms. And the De Laurentiis films with which I was familiar took on new meanings once I was able to decipher those hallowed origins. The spectacle of cinema (albeit home video) only reinforced the verisimilitude of Howard’s writing.

Despite the visceral and violent nature of these tales, Howard’s craft proves there’s more to combat than the tawdry clash of steel. Unparalleled dramatic tension lurks in those moments before the deadly lunge; and silver­tongued swordsmen turn the tides of war with sharpened words. Every battlefield becomes a stage of the spectacular during that “Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.” It’s only fitting, then, that we look to Howard’s prose for inspiration when it comes to combat in Pathfinder and D&D. And instead of focusing on raw mechanics, let’s examine a few tropes from Howard’s stories and the cinema they inspired.

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Treasure Tables: Baubles & Trinkets

Illustration of an alchemy workshop. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.What happens to all the treasure that adventurers find? If it’s not useful, it usually gets sold. Should you find yourself frequently liberating others’ possessions, the following can be used to add a little variety to your loot or even as inspiration for a story hook. The value of the items can vary at the GM’s discretion but are suitable replacements for a quest reward or as the centerpiece for a small collection, although they could be worth more to the right person. You can roll randomly for a result below using the handy number provided with each entry to figure out your result on a d20. You can also pick one that works for the area in which your characters currently linger.

1. A pale gray, formless sculpture. While nothing about the piece gives the impression of movement, you get the vague impression that it has shifted every time you look away.

2. A small blue glass butterfly attached to a barrette. When the clip is opened, the butterfly stirs and gently flaps its wings.

3. A plain iron goblet with a cracked rim. It is filled to the brim with a frothy, clear amber substance that resembles a freshly poured lager frozen in place.

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Prepared!: The Forgotten Assistant

Alchemist SymbolIn great laughter, wonder, loss, and grief it is there—water at the corner of eye.

—Archdruid Naqua of Tellwood

Dungeon delvers discover that an abandoned alchemist’s lab has one remaining assistant in today’s elementally imbued scene.

The Forgotten Assistant

Your footsteps echo off the crude stone walls as you proceed down the corridor. Here and there strange fungus grows, and everywhere you hear the persistent drip of water striking stone. Rounding a corner, you find the floor littered with broken bits of clay and glass. Ahead, at the edge of your vision, a wooden door stands slightly ajar along the right-hand wall. A faint bubbling noise can be heard emanating from the room beyond.

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Howling Tower: A Need for Speed

Idylls of the King“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action comes, stop thinking and go in.”

―Napoléon Bonaparte

A combat turn in most RPGs represents 5 to 10 seconds. If you spend much more time than that deciding what to do on your turn, you’re wasting time.

That doesn’t mean your turn can’t take more than 10 seconds. It means you should answer the basic question, “what am I going to do this turn?,” in 10 seconds or less. Figuring out specifically how your character performs the chosen action within the allowances and restrictions of the rules can take substantially longer than that, especially if a fancy maneuver, an unusual weapon, or a complex magic spell is involved. But the basic question—”What am I going to do this turn?”—should be made quickly.

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