Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: Fritz Leiber

In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons and Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the fourth post in the series, featuring a look at Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.

Guys, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are basically the bee’s knees. In fact, I might go so far as to say they are the most Dungeons and Dragons of anything on the Appendix N list. Leiber obviously couldn’t have known that when he was writing the duo—at least not at first, starting them in 1939, but I guess perhaps he found out along the way, since he wrote them until 1988—but more interestingly, I don’t think Gary Gygax could have known, either. Now, obviously he knew that it influenced him in creating the game, but the thing about the Lankhmar stories is that they are actually how people play the game as well.

You know, I saw a funny image recently that had a picture of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and the Rohirrim all posed like a bunch of cool looking tough guys, all epic in scope, with a caption of “How Most D&D Groups Begin” and then it cuts to an image below it labeled “How Most D&D Groups End” with a picture of the Monty Python crew in Holy Grail. Snerk. Still, I do find that most roleplaying groups have a strong element of black comedy running through them, along with a charming sort of nihilism. They aren’t all flowery speeches to elf queens; in fact, more often they are sarcastic quips to bartenders. Which, in a nutshell, is Fafhrd and Gray Mouser’s game.

Where to start on Fafhrd and Gray Mouser? Well, you might as well start at the beginning, with Swords and Deviltry, the first collection, since it has their meeting and each of their prologues. Let me illustrate it thus: Fafhrd straps fireworks to his skis at one point in order to rocket across a jump. That sort of insanity is just so…well, so Dungeons and Dragons; I don’t know how Leiber does it. I mean, I just had an AD&D campaign end when our bard, after crowdsurfing a horde of damned and demons, delivered the killing blow to Zuggtomoy with a roll of a natural 100 on a rod of wonder, which on the alternate table we were using was “death ray, no save.” It was epic, in the truest sense of the term, and was only possible thanks to the critical mass of multiple players, a convoluted prior history of adventuring, random number generators, and sheer dumb luck. That makes sense, but Leiber’s imagination is so fruitful that…well, it is like he has a chaos theory generator in his head. Billions of flapping butterflies.

Personally though, Swords Against Wizardry is my favorite omnibus, because it has the story “Stardock” in it, which is my favorite Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story by a mile (even if it doesn’t have Lankhmar in it). In short: the pair decide to climb the highest mountain in the world. You know; like if Everest came complete with the boilerplate fantasy hyperbole—like if Olympus Mons was on Earth. On a rumor, a riddle…because of course these two adventurers would undertake a task no one has ever accomplished because of a poem. With a snow leopard as a companion. Sounds like Mouser took a level in Ranger to me; it explains why he can dual-wield Scalpel and Cat’s Claw, too, for that matter.

Of course, just climbing an impossible mountain is almost too easy! So we get to have giant invisible flying manta rays trying to eat them, while invisible demigods riding on the giant invisible flying manta rays are trying to murder them. Well of course, you are saying, that is just obviously what happens when you try to climb past the rime and ice of a primordial peak. What else would you expect? Weird gnomes? We’ve got them too! Also, and perhaps most crucially, there are also invisible demigod ladies who’ve taken a fancy to our heroes.

We’ve talked about ladies and their representation in the pulps that influenced Dungeons and Dragons. They’ve ranged from the rotten to the pretty solid, but most fall into a big box labeled “problematic.” Leiber’s ladies (should that be Leiber’s Ladies, as a sort of fantasy Charlie’s Angels? I’d read it!) are generally on the positive end of the spectrum. They are defined by their roles as romantic foils, but they aren’t negative roles. They have agency, but typically in service to either narrative fiat or the agenda of the antagonists…and are almost always weird.

By way of example: here, the women in question are the invisible, nude godlings who live on the mountain. They “reveal” themselves to Gray Mouser and Fafhrd by covering themselves in paint or in lace. Pin up, sure, but not offensive. They aren’t even the weirdest ones; for a while Gray Mouser is involved with an albino were-rat, and Fafhrd dates a ghoul whose flesh and organs are transparent, leaving only her skeleton visible. Eventually the two settle down with two female counterparts, Cif and Afreyt, who are the best of Leiber’s women; as his Lankhmar stories evolved, so too did his characters.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal favorite thing about the books: the wizards. Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Think of them as if Gandalf had a baby with Wilbur Whatley. You know, they sort of show up, meddle, display a casual alienation and inhuman form that makes you shudder at the indifference of the universe, make a few cheap jokes, and then exit from the story. Like if Guillermo del Toro got his art team together to brainstorm new faceless creatures for a Baba Yaga movie (I’d watch it!). Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, on the other hand, aren’t playing Call of Cthulhu. They’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, sword and sorcery style. SAN checks? No sweat. These are guys who clawed their way from first level to twentieth. They can handle some tentacles and a few eyes too many or two few. What’s the big deal?


Mordicai Knode is leaving diligent markings on the dungeon wall with chalk and a series of thieves’ cant markings so that the absent Tim Callahan can catch up with the rest of the party.

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