09 June 2015

Lankhmar has been Savaged: A review of Lankhmar: City of Thieves

A book you should read!
"Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries ...  Dominating the Land of Lankhmar and crouching at the silty mouth of the River Hlal in a secure corner between the grain fields, the Great Salt Marsh, and the Inner Sea is the massive-walled and mazy-alleyed metropolis of Lankhmar, thick with thieves and shaven priests, lean-framed magicians and fat-bellied merchants—Lankhmar the Imperishable, the City of the Black Toga." -Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry

Those words open the first collection of stories set in the world of Nehwon, mostly set in its legendary city of Lankhmar. This was the setting for the tales of two rouges, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. An odd pair, a tall barbarian from the North and a short, sword wielding thief (and a bit of a sorcerer), became like brothers trying to survive and thrive in a world with opportunities to win riches and lose them just as suddenly. They do all the things that great heroes of sword and sorcery do: eat, fight, womanize, gamble, and drink (not necessarily in that order).

The tales started as a series of short stories by Fritz Leiber, the first published in Unknown magazine in 1939. This was the age of pulp anthology magazines dedicated to imaginative stories of horror, noir, sc-fi,supernatural, crime and fantasy In the fantasy genre many heroes were created that are still known today: Tarzan (Burroughs), Elric (Moorcock), and Conan and Kull (Howard). A new set of magazines were released each month to enthrall readers. Leiber himself was inspired by a famous author of fantastical tales published in pulp, H.P. Lovecraft. Many of Leiber’s early stories were mythos-like horror, before moving on to become a master of science fiction and swords and sorcery.

Gray Mouser and Fafhrd
The pair of rogues was originally created by Harry Otto Fischer in a letter to his friend, Leiber. Fafhrd  was based on Leiber and the Gray Mouser was based on Fischer. Leiber liked the characters and began writing about them, with Fischer assisting on a few stories. The stories were collected into books starting in 1970, mixing the older tales with new ones as well, the last written in 1988. They are available today in printe-books and read to you by Neil Gaiman in the audiobook version.

Dungeons and Dragons is often said to be inspired by Tolkein. The races are for sure, but the staples of D&D came from other literary sources, Lankhmar being a major influence. You can see this from the Appendix N listing in the AD&D first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide where it lists Leiber as a "most immediate influence,” and in the first edition Deities and Demigods (aka Legends and Lore) Lankhmar’s heroes were stated out along with a collection of monsters and gods. The pair were not meant to be messed with, with Fafhrd being a 15th level Ranger, 13th level Thief and a fifth level bard. Gray Mouser was a 11th level fighter, 15th level thief and a 3rd level magic-user. Probably this was their final statistics.

Remember this AD&D book, Shane?
Lankhmar was previously available as an official licensed first edition  AD&D background starting in 1985, and later for second edition. Interestingly, one of the books released, Lankhmar: The New Adventures of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, was designed by none-other than Shane Lacy Hensley, the creator of Savage Worlds!

In 2007, Mongoose Publishing issued two game books based on the setting and then dropped the line. Now in 2015, Pinnacle Entertainment Group has released a new series of game books, this time for Savage Worlds. Oddly, another company is also licensed to make Lankhmar game materials, Goodman Games for their Dungeon Crawl Classics old-school game, though no date has been set for release.


So far three books are available for the Savage Worlds version of the Lankhmar setting, currently in PDF but soon in to be a physical book. You can go to Pinnacle's website and see how to order it. The first book, Lankhmar: City of Thieves, is reviewed here. The other two books so far is a book of adventures, Lankhmar: Savage Tales of the Thieves Guild, and the latest, Lankhmar: Savage Foes of Nehwon, which has characters to befriend/back stab (or both), plus an adventure generator.

Since the physical book has not shipped yet, I am reviewing the PDF. It is ninety eight pages of full color art with Pinnacles standard two column layout (which means it is good), and has artwork that ranges from above average to pretty good. Maps are very well done.

"Buy me!"
The first seventy pages are mainly rules, items and magic. The last part of the book gives an overview of the city, gods, the lands of Nehwon, stats for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and stats for common character types encountered in the alleyways and bars of the city. It has an index and the PDF is fully bookmarked (both of these are necessities in any game book, IMHO). The PDF has a few errors and possible omissions. One of the reasons for its release far ahead of printing is so the fans can search out and report problems, which will lead to a print edition with minimal errata. I hate errata so this is just fine, even though I cannot wait to have the book in my hands. At least you know it will not be a disaster like with the first printing of Mongoose Publishing’s Conan role play game (I love Mongoose, but that whole deal with that still stings).


I usually do not mess with reading the rules too much, because I usually will be running a game under another system (unless the rules are melded to the feel of a game). However, Savage Worlds is my go to system these days, so I looked at the rules intently.

First off, everyone is rogues in this city. This is not rogue as in a guy who can pick pockets, back stab, bypass traps and pick locks. It could be, but in this sense rogue means a “dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel” (thank you, Dictionary.com). You need to be this kind of person to survive in a world of skulduggery (thank you, Thesaurus.com). It is a general term, so you can still have a character based around what you want to play. Sorcerers are rogues, ex-mercenaries are rogues, and basically anyone of any profession who is trying to get by in the thankless city is one as well.

Making characters is the same as in standard Savage Worlds, and racial templates, new hindrances and edges are provided. Most players will create humans, the main race and most populous in Nehwon. This is not a Tolkein-ish setting, so there are no elves, dwarves, orcs, or other Middle-Earth derived races. There are cultural packages available that differentiate one human group from another, though these can be ignored if you want to create a specific kind of character: Lankhmarts (residents of Lankhmar) are used to danger and know how to watch out for it, while a Northerner, like Fafhrd, is bigger than most, and knows how to survive in the wilds. Other cultural packages are the Kleshites (jungle dwellers) and Mingols (who, as the name suggests, is based on the mongols. Not the best disguise, Fritz).

Told you they were weird.
There are two other races, but are rather uncommon. Nehwon ghouls are not undead, but they are weird enough to unnerve a person when met. Their flesh (skin, organs and arteries) are transparent, and you can see the skeleton though it. They eat flesh of creatures and other sentients, not all but enough to get a reputation for it. Ratlings are half humans and half intelligent rats who mated (I do not want to know details). Though not accepted in Lankhmart society, some are able to disguise themselves enough to fit in unnoticed in the world above.

The new, world specific hindrances and edges are detailed, and a list of prohibited edges provided to keep the feel right. A few of my favorite new ones are Amorous, a hindrance that makes a character easier to trick and be cheated when the character finds them attractive; close fighting allows knife fighters to move into the reach of a longer melee weapon to gain an advantage, and lunge allows a sword fighter to extend their reach, like a fencer. In Nehwon it is typical to name your favorite weapon, and the edge Named Weapon gives a bonus for it (combining with Signature Weapon can make a interesting combo). Many of the new hindrances and edges will be useful in other settings as well.


All the gear needed for the setting is here in one place to make it easy to peruse. The prices are in Lankhmar coinage (made of tiks, agols, smerduks, and rilks). While this adds flavor to the money, I find this causes the same problems I had with the Freeport Companion for Savage Worlds, making converting items from other books difficult. Steve Jackson's GURPS handles this by having a generic currency, marked “$” that represents dollars, or gold, or credits. It might be nice to include standard prices for each item for conversion purposes.

Armour and weapons are typical medieval, but you will not see anyone walking around in full plate. The best armor is chain, and that is used by soldiers and guards. Most people will wear nothing more than leather, some no armor at all (but that does have advantages as you will see below).


One thing I find admirable about the designers of Savage Worlds is that they get that different genres need rules that support the feel of the campaign. A fantasy campaign has a different feel than a hard sci-fi or hard boiled noir. This is accomplished by special Setting Rules. There are several for Lankhmar, but they are easy to implement and will not make the game any less fast, furious, or fun.

Some of the changes include not allowing bennies to offset critical failures, so there will be a few more complications because things go wrong. However, when a joker pops up for the initiative cards, everyone gets a benny, which is a fair trade.

Lankhmarts always seem to be living on the edge, and part of that is they are always needing money. This need drives the characters to sometimes take a job they find distasteful or outright wrong. There are rules for making coin disappear to keep this pressure building.

The Knock Out Blow simulates the fictional act of knocking a person unconscious when you have the drop and hit them in the head. This would be good for noir stories as well, because characters are always thumping each other in them. It is not good for a realistic campaign as hitting people in the head is more likely to cause serious brain injury and possibly kill rather than the character waking up groggy a little later (kids, do not thump each other in real life, only the game).

A young Denny Crane.
Heroes in Lankhmar heal a little faster and shake off bumps and bruises, allowing characters heal up and get back to adventuring (there are no clerics and few magic capable of healing). Most interesting is the Unarmored Heroes rule. In many stories heroes are unarmored and end up with their shirts off (like James Kirk in Star Trek; he always gets his shirt removed). In this setting it lets a character improve their soak rolls.

The setting section it also has rules for handling guilds (like the thieves guild; there are many different guilds in Lankhmar from beggars to “ladies of the night"). Rules for shadowing are also included.


The section on sorcery details the three types of magic in use: white magic, elemental magic, and black magic. Each has its own allowed power list and rules, though all basically work the same. White magic is a safe general magic to use. Elemental magic is not just air/earth/fire/water, it can mean non-traditional elements as well. Ice, earth, and sea are examples in the book. This affects the trappings of the powers. There are rules for making your own element for your spells. Cheese, for example, could be made an element (that is not in the book, I’m just kidding about cheese, though you could do it if you want a bit of silliness).

"I love you, Graywand."
Black magic is the dangerous type of sorcery and can end up consuming the character. The implementation reminds me of West End’s Star Wars RPG, where using dark side powers give dark side points until the character is consumed and becomes a villain NPC. It is the same here, the character gains corruption and becomes an evil NPC if he gains too much. Also, corruption alters the character and leads to new hindrances, usually physical, that can make the character into a freak show. The reward is that black magic is easier and faster to cast. A character can only use one type of magic, and the other disciplines may switch and become black sorcerers, however black sorcerers can never change away from the dark arts.

There are several new powers described, and some existing ones are altered to fit the world better.

The big difference is the how magic is cast. It does not use power points, instead is uses a variant of the No Power Points option in the Setting Rules section of the Deluxe rule book. The big difference is that some of the casting modifiers to the character’s arcane skill are larger, therefore harder to cast. Damage Field in regular Savage Worlds would have a -2 to cast; it is -4 in Lankhmar. This may be offset by taking longer to cast. For every round a character concentrates the penalty is reduced by one all the way down to zero. So, taking two rounds of concentration and casting on the third round would give a -2 to the arcane skill for Damage Field. Black magic users halve the casting penalty to allow stronger effects in less time.

There is also a system to cast spells as rituals. These take much more time, as much as a hour or more. Rituals automatically double the range of a spell, and there are options to further increase the duration and range as well. The example in the book uses the bolt power, but allows it to hit a subject on the other side of town (nifty!). A character can also try to use a power he does not have through this technique using his arcane knowledge, only it is harder to do. Other characters helping in the ritual, and the sacrifice of resources can improve the chance of the ritual working.

There are a few magic items detailed in the book, but not many. This is because in Lankhmar magic items are very rare. It is far from D&D’s “every treasure has something glowing in it.” Because of this, there is no sitting around deciding if it is better to have the ring of regeneration in the right-hand ring slot, or the ring of protection +1 instead. Another change of pace from the usual.


The rest of the book is about the world of Nehwon and the city of Lankhmar. There is a short 4-page section with a map to give to the players (you will have to copy it or print it from the PDF. Only very bad people deface their books). This gives the basic layout of the city and a bit of knowledge about the rest of the world.

That thing with them, its in the game book.
Then comes the GM only material. I will not go into detail here as it is a lot of fluff content about running games in Nehwon that a GM should delve head first into. It includes geography of he world, and then a very good section on the city. The thing it does most successfully is to explain what being in the city is like, from the smoke that always seems to fill the air, to the alley ways and stinky taverns. Use this wisely to describe the city to your players, GMs.

Coverage also includes weather, society, government and the law (or lack of it; there is much corruption in Lankhmar). It is also an immoral place full of dens of prostitution and the sad fact of slavery. Though against our rules today, these are common place and accepted in Lankhmar. In fact, prostitutes even have their own guild.

Also detailed are some of the more common places the characters will find themselves, such as the Silver Eel tavern or the Park of Pleasures, each with a nice description. However, it is very basic. Do not expect the depth of Freeport: the City of Adventure with its massive number of locations, in depth details, NPCs, and adventure seeds. Is this a knock? No, it is the standard for books like this and upholds tradition very well. You will have to use your imagination to fill in the rest. An NPC book has just been released.

Religions are interesting. There are lots of them, and they come and go. The more followers they have, the better situated they are on the Street of the Gods. At the front of the line is the most popular god of the time (they always seem to wax and wane and often disappear), with the smallest of cults at the other end, with bunches in the middle, all vying for converts. The gods are silent, though, and unlike many fantasy games do not grant any power to their clergy (so there is no ducking into the nearest temple of good to heal up. Another cliche breaker). There is another set of deities in town, The Gods of Lankhmar, but no one worships them, and for good reason. They have a temple, but it is not for people to come to, it is to lock the gods in. In one story Fafhrd summoned them to stop a rat plague. It was much like a Godzilla movie, they were a force to fix a problem, only with  massive collateral damage.


The book also includes two short adventures. They show the dubious morality of the setting as both include tasks that could be considered criminal. However, characters do have to eat (and drink, and drink more), so are they going to pass up an opportunity?


There is much I like here. In fact, I am not sure of anything I dislike, which is a rarity. I did post a suggestion that they add a section describing some of the gods people worship in the books, and while there are rules that point out that there are many languages, there is no list of any. I am sure they will get fixed, if not when the final version is out, but also possibly in other books.

Here are a few quick thoughts about the book which I consider standouts. YMMV.

No Tolkein races here, which is a nice change of pace. The standard fantasy races are used too much, so much so they are called “standard.”

Morally Ambiguous
Characters will have many choices to do right and/or wrong in a game. While they should be moral people at heart, they have to struggle with the things they have to do to survive.

The Magic System
The changes to the powers gives them more “grit” to fit into a gritty world. I like the contrast of the different styles of magic, and the interesting temptation of black magic.

Armor and Weapons
These are right for a more realistic medieval world. Who wears plate mail all the time, anyway?

Awesome Setting Rules 
The changes to the fiddlybits of the game do a great job of setting the mood. Simply put: These rules rulez.

In conclusion, I love it. Great read, great crunch, great fluff content. I will make a warning, there is a bit of content that may not be great for younger kids. There are prostitutes, including a “whore’s guild.” plus the whole moral ambiguity that I liked I think restricts the age groups to mature teens on up who can appreciate the shades of gray.  Anyway, as an adult I want more games for grownups!

Buy Savage World's Lankhmar: City of Thieves at Pinnacle Entertainment.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review, cultivated writing style. Thanks.