Thursday, 27 April 2017

[BLOG] The Smell of Chicken Guts: The Unlikely Hero of the Hungarian Old School

How do you sell the idea of old-school gaming in a country where few had heard of role-playing games before 1990, virtually nobody before 1985, and where their popularity only took off in the decidedly not old-school 1990s? The question has probably been pondered by everyone in Hungary who has enjoyed and tried to spread this game style. A few old gamers (and this means someone who had first met AD&D before 1993) can point at an indistinct legacy of home campaigns, early game magazines and naïve fantasy. More can recall to the Fighting Fantasy series, which had enjoyed incredible popularity for a few years and spawned numerous professional, semi-professional and homemade imitations. Sometimes, it is easy enough to bring up Howard and other sword & sorcery classics. But for a certain gamer generation, my best bet has been to say, “It is a bit like the Chaos novels.” It is a code word, and most of us know its meaning instinctively.

Let’s return to the early 1990s. One of the important (sometimes beneficial, sometimes detrimental) features of this period in fantasy fandom was the combination of exploding demand combined with very inadequate supply. Before 1990, Hungary had been ruled by hard, speculative science fiction with frustrated literary ambitions and few compromises towards soft SF. Fantasy was right out. The Lord of the Rings, a major popular hit, was released by a proper non-genre publisher, despite its rejection by the literary establishment (including its translator, the future president of Hungary between 1990 and 2000, who had once referred to it as “the world’s largest garden gnome”). But suddenly, as things came apart, nothing was off-limits. Genre fantasy and other pulps, then including science fantasy, UFO literature, pornography, action novels, bodice rippers, New Age manuals, ancient astronauts and who knows what else, started to appear as a trickle and then as a deluge, mostly by grabbing the works of authors who were too distant or too dead to protest about their royalties. Somewhere in that colourful, excited rubbish was John Caldwell’s The Word of Chaos.

A Classic
The Word of Chaos – with the phenomenally ugly cover of its first edition – quickly became a hit, and was followed by the publication of Caldwell’s other books. In a few years, it formed a pentalogy (The Heart of Chaos, The Year of Chaos, The Chaos of Chaos [you might get the idea someone was running out of the titles] and Chaos Unleashed), and established itself as one of the popular fantasy series in Hungary. It was only a few years later that most of us learned that “John Caldwell” had never existed, and was the pseudonym of Hungarian pulp fantasy fan Istvan Nemes all along. Like his contemporaries, Nemes – who had worked as a programmer in various odd jobs, and was long involved in SF fandom – chose the alias for marketability. English genre authors, thought to be more authentic, commanded more respect and sold much better, while Hungarians were just not taken seriously. In time, Nemes also turned out to be several other people, including Jeffrey Stone (whose Trilogy of the Night is the best damn magic-meets-technology novel ever written, and the work “Melan the Technocrat” comes from), David Gray, Mark Wilson, and even more, including Julie Scott, Audrey D. Milland and Julia Gianelli (these were for the bodice rippers). Conversely, to add to the naming confusion, Wayne Chapman, the author of In the Month of Death and Flames in the North, the other major fantasy darling of the early 1990s, turned out to be two people working under a common pen name – and it was not much of a surprise when a third (in)famous fantasist specialising in dark and visceral historical fantasy, “French-Canadian” Raoul Renier, also turned out to be a domestic product in the person of Zsolt Kornya, a protégé of Nemes of the eighteen pseudonyms. But back to our main subject.

The magic of The Word of Chaos (and the early Chaos books in general) is easy to understand. It is adventure fantasy in the finest tradition, and to those in the know, it was immediately obvious that it was closely based on AD&D – from its distinctive character types to specific spells (which are memorised by the protagonists, a tell-tale sign if there ever was one), it was all there, and it read like the transcription of a long-running campaign. And what a campaign! This game featured classical adventuring including daring raids on a pirate ship, the search for a powerful and lost magic spell (the titular word of chaos, something of a mixture between confusion and power word: kill), dungeoneering, plane-hopping and city intrigue. It never hesitated to kill off its characters, even beloved ones, or yank the carpet from below their feet. In the best picaresque tradition, it was full of ups and (a lot more) downs, playing out in a dangerous and corrupt world full of uncertainties.

But what gave the stories their own charm was the double-dealing and backstabbing that never happened properly in the dead boring Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books. The Word of Chaos featured an ensemble cast of treacherous assholes who were bound together by nothing more than chance and external circumstances, and proceeded to plot against each other each time the GM seemed to have left them to their own devices. Intriguingly, it was not the real evil characters who came across as total scumbags, but mostly the good-aligned and neutral ones, who would just as readily kill you as anyone else, but they would do it in the name of goodness and decency. Druids, in particular, were portrayed as sanctimonious fanatics who will never hesitate to murder someone “for the cosmic balance” or some other sick prophetic ideology. When you meet these guys and girls, you’d better have your weapons ready. (If there is anything specifically Hungarian about the novels – and considering they were born of a fascination with western cultural imports, there isn’t much that’s readily apparent – it is this utter disdain for corrupted idealism, and a general sympathy for underdog characters caught between massively powerful hostile forces.)

Fighter/Cleric 3/2, AC 6, flail 1d6+3
Which brings us to the core feature of the series: the Chaos series is written from the point of view of the bad guys. In the eternal war between Order and Chaos, Nemes put his money on the side we are accustomed to see as antagonists. It is no great hero or naïve farmboy who is used as the viewpoint character, but a smelly, cynical, questionably aligned and not particularly heroic half-orc fighter-cleric. Skandar Graun, the hero of the series, walks into the novel as a low-level scoundrel, and while he has an epic destiny of sorts (among many others which, however, remain unfulfilled), he is little more than a crude brigand with a low cunning and a hope of making it big. Skandar Graun is likeable precisely because he is an asshole – although an underdog asshole. He cheats, fights and betrays his way through the series, performs human sacrifice for his patron, Yvorl, god of Chaos (Fiend Folio reference!), summons slaads (and again...), misleads and steals from his companions, and he has a singular important ability – he has a penchant for being the last man (well, half-orc) standing when the excrement hits the fan.

When we meet him, we are introduced to Skandar Graun through this passage:
“When he recalled his shameful deed, he angrily bit off a piece of the wooden mug. What a dumb mistake he had made, he scolded himself. How could he be so senseless to crush not just the traveller’s head with his club, but also flatten his beautiful bronze-studded helmet! He hadn’t made a mistake like that in years. Afterwards, he had tried in vain to repair the dented helm, but it could not be helped. So did Skandar Graun inherit the stranger’s good steel sword, his dangerous spiked flail, three throwing daggers and his bag of money; along with a shield and a lordly set of armour – but his hairless brown head would go uncovered. To make his misfortune even worse, the man’s cordovan boots wouldn’t fit his enormous feet no matter how much he prayed and cursed – although he had tried both. What more could he do? He stuck with his old, battered and hole-riddled boots which had accompanied him since forever. Well, at least he was used to them, and they didn’t stand out much from his usual attire: his grease-stained, hairy leather pants hung dirty from his waist, and around his knees, they were riddled with hazelnut-sized holes to provide ventilation. And we should not think his glinting armour would stand out much from his tattered clothes. To soften the baronial effect, Skandar Graun didn’t discard his beloved old black cloak, which he had inherited ten years ago from his foster father, and which had since assumed the effect of camouflage through several tears and unidentifiable stains. The cloak also had an advantageous feature by reeking of the smell of chicken guts, suppressing the disgusting human odour emanating from the victim’s freshly acquired shirt.”
This was clearly heady stuff, neither Drizzt nor Sturm and Caramon, who had always struck us as colossal bores and suckers (especially in comparison). All of us wanted to be Skandar Graun or someone like him in our games. Well, or at least Yamael, the mysterious, taciturn, mint-chewing half-orc assassin, another one of John Caldwell’s characters... or Marlena, the treacherous elven thief... or someone else from the long series of treacherous lowlifes inhabiting the pages of his book. There were several of them, as the series cheerfully went through characters like a shredder, replacing them with newer and newer anti-heroes from a revolving cast.

But by the time we got the idea, playing Skandar Graun or his demon-worshipping friends and enemies was no longer an easy option. As it turned out, they had come from an earlier, more risqué and titillating era of Advanced Dungeons&Dragons, full of demonic statues with gemstone eyes, poison, deadly illusions, half-orcs, assassins, half-orc assassins, naked chicks with bat wings, anti-paladins and devil-worshipping clerics. The campaigns serving as a basis for The Word of Chaos and its sequels took place around 1986 and 1987, while the game in town around 1992 and 1993 was the bowdlerised 2nd edition AD&D. This was the “Angry Mothers From Heck” era, the TSR Code of Ethics era (see my comments under this post), the patronising “let’s protect the kids and their impressionable little minds” era. It was almost the same game in body, but it was obvious to us it had been robbed of its spirit and authenticity. The fuckers had stolen our half-orc assassins and fighter-clerics, and given us worlds we immediately recognised and wrote off as phony imitations; they tried to blind us with “official” AD&D novels which never compared favourably to the earthy colours and dark wit of the Chaos series.

We would play with what we had, but we sure envied those older people who had access to the exciting stuff, real AD&D – and sometimes, in the fan translations that circulated in the gaming scene in the form of worn photocopies, we could find a hint or two of what had been; perhaps an alternate class, perhaps a few pages of interesting magic items. Mind you, this was pre-Internet: I would not see an authentic demon-idol 1st edition PHB until 1997, and at the time, it was selling for the local equivalent of a hundred dollars – tantalising, but out of reach. At the same time, the Hungarian gaming scene itself was changing, and AD&D was mostly supplanted by M.A.G.U.S., a locally written game (on which I may write later), which, despite its many problems, offered some of the interesting adult themes we were interested in.

The Secret Ingredient
Many years later, acquiring the genuinely old-school modules and supplements, and getting to know the actual personalities involved in the original Chaos campaign, revealed more pieces of the puzzle. The GM behind the original games, it turned out, had been the same “Raoul Renier” who had later made a name for himself as an author of dark historical fantasy and a vocal RPG critic – at the time bitterly and vehemently opposed to Gygaxian AD&D. But, even more intriguingly, I began to discover that the seminal Word of Chaos was actually based on two very identifiable modules, beginning with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (although its role is only episodic in the book’s original edition), and largely playing out in The Secret of Bone Hill, featuring much of its sandbox environment from the town of Restenford to the ruined keep and its dungeons. This was a revelation not just because it put a concrete place behind our favourite teenage reading material, but because it showed us how much more the book (and presumably, the campaign it was based on) had given us beyond the bare module. Bone Hill’s throwaway NPCs were spun into fully realised characters: Locinda the half-orc, a minor mercenary NPC, appears as Bloody Lucy, Skandar Graun’s long-term love interest; the wizard Pelltar becomes Peltar, a servant of Order and the half-orc’s implacable nemesis; Restenford is a bustling place of intrigue and danger, and as for the ruined castle and its dungeons on Bone Hill, it is much more cool when it is used in the novel’s showdown than it appears in writing (and it is not too shabby that way). Now here was a proper way of using game materials – something nobody had shown us properly in the 2nd edition era.

Of course, Skandar Graun’s adventures continued – first in the initial pentalogy (these short novels total maybe 700 or 800 pages altogether), and then through several more books. As they proceeded, the books’ connection to actual play grew weaker – the second novel, The Heart of Chaos features an extraplanar quest through the mad plane of Limbo (structured as a multi-level “dungeon” reversing many AD&D concepts – good mind flayers and evil silver dragons, and another treacherous adventuring party), while the rest deal with the war between Order and Chaos. Our favourite half-orc, who starts out as an unknowing pawn, eventually ends up getting fed up with the crap he is given so much he ends up knocking over the game board, more as a form of ultimate protest against all the misfortune and death he had been surrounded by than in the hopes of actually accomplishing something. Apparently, it was at the early stages of this campaign arc where the original Skandar Graun had died, and the rest of his stories have less connection to gaming – although they still make for good reading material. The less said about the later sequels the better: – they felt like the series had finally succumbed to burnout and a breakneck pace of writing, descending into self-parody in an embarrassing way that still leaves a bitter aftertaste. Ultimately, the series was also made into a fairly lacklustre and ponderous RPG (that didn’t quite have the adventurous charm of the original series), and even a badly botched CRPG (which, as it often happens in the externally funded Hungarian computer game industry, was shut down by its publisher halfway through its development and released as a buggy, half-finished mess).

But that’s not the reason we still remember Chaos. The ultimate essence of these pioneering stories shines just as brightly as it has always done: after all, they are our stories, and they represent fantasy just the way we have always liked it.


  1. Sounds like utterly brilliant trash. And that phenomenonally ugly cover also manages to be incredibly cool at the same time. How many illustrations can pull that off? ;-)

    1. That's what it is: honest, not terribly serious pulp fantasy with a lot of heart. And yeah, I have a special affection for that hideous cover - I have a tattered old copy signed by the author. :D

  2. The first two books are eternal favorites of mine. They are some of the best books I ever read. :)

  3. Trilogy of the Night... oh, I loved it. I think I should read again the Chaos novels too.

  4. I think the neutering effect of TSR's code of ethics, BADD, League of Angry Moms and suchlike is put way out of proportion. First, we haven't even heard of such things until many years passed, especially in distant post-communist Hungary, second, nothing on earth prevented anyone from playing backstabbing bastards even with the oh-so-bland 2nd edition sources if that was your heart's content (we certainly had our share of brutal blade-happy barbarians and Kali-worshipping child murderers - oh so cool, so evil or oh so juvenile). Third, there was the mass of 1st edition materials still floating around in massive amounts, so demons, devils, half-orc assassins or cocky cavaliers were hardly unknown to our tender young minds.

    1. It is easy to be cynical about things you could take for granted. Naturally, you always value the things you don't have higher than the things you do. If we had all that stuff at our fingertips, it would never have had the mystique of distance.

      A lot depended on personal networks. People in the large city clubs (*cough* *cough*) probably had access to a lot more than people in private groups or outside the capital.

      I briefly had contact with people who were involved in the club scene (this is also why I started with the domestic Combat and Magic instead of AD&D), but just as quickly lost this connection. They played with a lot of photocopied materials from several different sources (including the famous Ruby Codex, some 1st edition materials, and some stuff that was homebrewed), while we had the photocopied Psionic Handbook, and for some inexplicable reason, the anti-paladin NPC class, which one of the players JUST had to play. (He was killed by his own companions who were scared he would end up killing them.)

      The risque stuff and 1st edition content was something we were vaguely aware of, and mostly missed, but couldn't get our hands on. For a while, we did not even have a monster book, and had to guess or make up our own.

      Also, I have personal (and therefore probably overblown) experience with TSR's blandness creeping into our game and having a negative effect on our enjoyment. The more official materials we picked up, the less we ended up enjoying the game, until our group fell apart. Some of that was surely teenage stupidity, but I do believe TSR shares some of the blame as well. Especially in hindsight, the bulk of their generic AD&D material strikes me as pretty much useless garbage. The worlds are another matter, but we didn't play Ravenloft or Dark Sun.

    2. That is, what I am writing about is not a thing but its absence.