The Shield & The Ring
2023-05-23 – Epidiah Ravachol
"The Shield & The Ring" was originally published on July 12, 2012, on the old Dig a Thousand Holes blog. I don't recall exactly what conversations where going on at the time that prompted it. In all likelihood, this was just a meditation on how stealing tricks from professional wrestlers could improve your role-playing experience. It's no coincidence that the ideas I hit upon below make up the core of the essay I wrote for Nathan D. Paoletta's definitive game on the topic: World Wide Wrestling. But it is also possible that I was responding to some discussions around the genre of sword and sorcery that were happening at the time. Not surprisingly, I have a number of opinions on that topic, and what follows looms large among them as well. Whatever the impetus, this post gets to beating heart of the Perilous Phase in Swords Without Master and has applications well beyond, in any game where glory is to be found in victory or defeat.
If you look closely at the tiny, tiny rogue illustrations in “The City of Fire & Coin,” you may notice that both Manyara and Snorri carry shields. In fact, both have helmets, Manyara is almost fully armored, and Snorri seems to be well protected by a couple of fur-covered life-preservers, while Muaphet is all but naked. Clearly Muaphet’s the most badass, right? Running into battle next to these chumps who hide behind their shields?
The current pop culture image of Conan is a bare-chested man who depends solely on the strength of his sword arm to protect him. But this is not Robert E. Howard’s Conan. In the original fiction, Conan wasn’t a fool. If he knew he was heading for a fight, he’d gear up and get some appropriate armor on. Because that’s how you survive a fight, by being prepared.
Conan wore armor because it made no sense for him not to. This should be reason enough for your rogues to do the same. But there is another, deeper reason that Howard dressed Conan in his armor. A reason that holds true for your rogues as well. Conan’s armor exists to be dented, scratched, torn, cracked open, rended from his body by some of the most impossible foes in all of Hyboria. He wears armor to cede glory to his foes.
This, my friends, is the secret difference between action and epic action. It’s not the pacing. It’s not the music. It’s not the choreography. It’s not the breath-taking vistas or frenetic cinematography. It’s not the scale and it’s not the stakes. It’s the shield.
Manyara is big, powerful and deft. Unarmed and naked, she can charge into a phalanx and toss hoplites around like a farmer scattering seeds across a well-furrowed field. Within moments, her steely grip and calculated throws would shatter enough bone and resolve to clear a circle around her–room enough to breathe. The hoplites quickly part, forming a corridor between two shield walls. At the end of this corridor is an eight-foot tall monster of a man, covered in scar tissue and overly ornate ceremonial armor, swinging a small petrified tree as a cudgel.
Because she was not born a fool, Manyara plucks a spear and shield from one of the bodies that lay at her feet as the giant charges down the corridor.
With wild reflexes, Manyara gets her shield up just as the giant’s cudgel slams down upon it, bending the bronze disc over her straining arm and driving the shield-edge into her back flesh. Bellowing, Manyara lifts her shield arm and drives her spear deep into the giant’s exposed underarm and shoulder. He reels back, discarding his club and pulls the spear from his tissue with nothing more than a wince before seizing Manyara’s shield with both hands. For a moment, they are locked in a in a tug-a-war, but the straps fail Manyara and the giant tosses the shield aside.
When he lunges for Manyara, grasping with both hands, she retreats just enough to rob him of his balance and he staggers. Panther-like, she leaps upon her foe’s back. Thrashing about, she sets her whole body to the task of throttling that trunk-shaped neck of his. No matter how he claws at her with his stony hands, he is unable to pry her free and eventually he succumbs to the darkness. By then, the hoplites have wisely routed.
That Manyara sure knows how to kick some ass. While what she did to the hoplites is impressive, the greater glory rests in her battle with the giant. It rests there, because that’s exactly where her rogue player put it. In Swords Without Master, as in pro-wrestling, you invest glory in your opponents by treating them as credible threats, by suffering beneath their onslaught, and when you’re ready to collect your return, by sacrificing to overcome them.
This is the purpose of a shield: to be sacrificed on the altar of your opponent for your eventual glory. So why doesn’t Muaphet carry one? Is he not interested in glory?
Against my better judgment, I’m going to let you in on a secret. But first, you must swear a blood oath that you will never, ever reveal what you know, even under threat of torture or death. And above all else, once you’ve read this secret, do not let your envy get the better of you. I cannot be held responsible for the consequences.
Muaphet, like all Raum, wears a plain bronze ring on his right hand. A ring he is careful never to draw attention to. For this ring reaches out and silently stops the heart of the first three people between any two sunrises who covet the ring or wish its bearer dead, chiming like a temple bell only its bearer can hear each time it does so. It is a powerful sigil, but one that carries with it a great weight. At least one particularly rapacious companion of Muaphet’s has fallen prey to it the moment he unearthed its secret.
But there’s more to this secret. Or rather a secret that rests on top of it. For unbeknownst to Muaphet, the Worm Cult has discovered something of the ring’s nature. And so, at each sunrise, while the Maw of the Worm sleeps, three of the faithful volunteer to cleanse themselves, stand before the altar of the worm, and wish for Muaphet’s death so that the Maw may resume the hunt unfettered upon awakening. And all Muaphet can discern of these plans is that at each sunrise the bronze ring chimes thrice in quick succession.
And thus Muaphet’s rogue player invests glory in the Maw.
- More adventures of Manyara and Snorri can be found in issues 1, 4, and 11 of Worlds Without Master.
- More adventures of Muaphet Raum can be found in issues 3 and 8 of Worlds Without Master.
- And as always:
Swords Without Master
Worlds Without Master, issue 3.