Monday, June 20, 2011

Holmes and Clark Ashton Smith

Over the weekend, I have been very much distracted by Mr. Clark Ashton Smith. I am not unfamiliar with his writings, even though I only discovered him as an adult; however, to date, I have mainly read his Zothique Cycle of stories. While I certainly enjoy his prose and would gladly read them again and again rather than what has passed for science fiction/fantasy over the last couple of decades, his stories have never really fired up my imagination. Until now. This weekend was the first time I ever ventured into Averoigne.

[Before anyone starts questioning by old-school cred, I was a player when my friends and I ran X2 Castle Amber and we never got to Averoigne during the campaign. Thus, I never had occasion to see the bibliography that Moldvay provided.]

Smith's The Beast of Averoigne caught me by complete surprise. There are stories that really excite and entertain. There are those that inspire. This one sent explosions of creativity bursting through my brain.

First of all, I love the groundedness of the story. I felt comfortable in the world — as if I were somehow familiar with it despite the fact I had never before read anything about it.

Secondly, I love the implication that the Beast itself is extraterrestrial. This leaves all kinds of room for whatever monstrosities one wants to inflict upon a campaign world (gonzo or no).

Finally, as someone who has not only spent quite a bit of time with Holmes, but extrapolating an assumed world from those rules, I have to ask: Is there a better example of a literary world for playing Holmes in than Smith's Averoigne? Personally, I can't think of any.

It hits so many of the notes I have found coming out of the Holmes edition:

  • It implies a Christian civilization at the edge of the wilderness.
  • Although tolerated, arcane magic is frowned upon as being pagan and corrupting.
  • There are Inquisitors that monitor and arrest wizards who do not use their magic to benefit the citizens of Averoigne.
  • The corruption of arcane magic dates to before the advent of Christianity, and runs deep.
  • There are powerful magic items which date from these ancient times.
  • There are plenty of ruins and abandoned chateaus (and therefore, potential dungeons) available for exploring.
  • I could go on…

From a purely (and geeky) historical point of view, the southern part of France (which is approximately where Averoigne would be) is a fascinating model for any campaign — especially if one chooses A.D. 1100-1350 or so. Pope Clement V refused to move to Rome. As a result, the papal court moved to France. A total of seven popes reigned from the Papal palace in Avignon. In addition, two antipopes used Avignon as their headquarters. This juicy history is chuck full of possibilities for all kinds of campaigns.

I also have in my possession an hagiography written by St. Gregory of Tours. In it he details the lives of several Gaulic saints from the 5th-6th centuries. Though this is well outside the time frame of an Averoigne-based campaign, it does lay the foundation for the beginnings of Christianity in the campaign world. These saints can be the background noise that defines the Christian civilization.

Finally, with the campaign world being so firmly grounded in a real-world location and time-frame, the clothes, armor, weapons, names, etc of characters can be clearly delineated. There are plenty of books available that can help define what it is a character can expect to be able to own and what they might look like.

I love it when a story starts me down a path like this…I just hope these seeds can someday come to fruition.


  1. I have to confess to not being as taken with Smith as others (to put it nicely), but that is one of the better stories, for all the reasons you mention.

    One thing I'm curious about: are you solely building a world based on what's in Holmes, or are you using it for your game, too? If so, how are you handling levels past (IIRC where Holmes stops) level 3?

  2. @Anthony

    Your reticence about Smith is perfectly acceptable — try as I might, I can't get excited about reading REH...

    At the moment, this is all an intellectual exercise (which I hope turns into praxis sooner than later). I am very much interested in what the rules and how they are written affect the assumptions about world-building. Later editions hard-wired paganism into the rules, for example. I find Holmes refreshing because it takes me in a number of unexpected directions, as opposed to other rule-sets I have played with over the years.

    As such, I spent time with the Grand Duchy and Portown to see what would happen in the process of using the one example found in Holmes and Cook of world-building. Whereas I found that fascinating and quite fun, I don't know how exciting it would be as a campaign world. In contrast, a world inspired by Averoigne just seems like the perfect outlet for taking those themes I see hardwired into Holmes (and by extension Cook).

  3. I've been quite taken with reading CAS of late.

    I wish i'd discovered him earlier.