Saturday, May 6, 2017

Simplicity Himself

I discovered Warhammer in high school. Some friends I met in art class were into the miniatures, and brought a catalog with them to school one day. Needless to say, I was impressed. I'd never been into miniatures before that, and the old Warhammer stuff was pretty cool. That led to me playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle and buying, though never actually playing, WFRP and Rogue Trader. I didn't keep up with Warhammer, but the old stuff definitely certainly fired my imagination.

Which brings me to Simplicius Simplicissimus, Warhammer's great-grandfather (or maybe closer than that). Written in 1668 by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, it is a picaresque novel set in Germany during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). It is the story of a simple country boy who gets whisked into the big events of the day, and I would say definitely an influence on the grim world of perilous adventure presented in Warhammer ... except I don't actually know that this is true. I suppose if you're making a game/setting inspired by the Thirty Years' War in Germany, you're going to end up with something akin to a book about those same events.

The main thing that makes me think there's a link is the progression of Simplicius from career to career over the course of the book. He begins as a simple farm laborer, and then becomes a religious hermit, a fool, an outlaw and sneak thief, a dragoon, a charlatan, etc.

No trollslayers, but still ...
The book is a fun read, and the Alfred Thomas Scrope Goodrick translation I read (from Project Gutenberg) was easier going than you might expect for something written a few hundred years ago. I'll also note that the book moves along at a pretty good pace - old books are sometimes slow (because they didn't need to compete with TV), but I never had the temptation to skip ahead in Simplicius. The book isn't entirely "safe for work", but it doesn't delve too far into sex and bloody brutality. I definitely give it my recommendation as a book to read on par with most modern adventure fiction.

Literary merits aside, the book presents good fodder for fantasy gaming, Warhammer-style gaming especially. The supernatural shows up a couple times, but isn't prevalent, so it's mostly about normal people trying to make their way in a rough time and place. Here are a few passages from the book that I found particularly interesting:

This is the introduction to the hermit who takes him in. This guy is about as Lawful as the book gets:

So I plucked up heart to come out of my hollow tree and to draw nigh to the voice I had heard, where I was ware of a tall man with long greyish hair which fell in confusion over his shoulders: a tangled beard he had shapen like to a Swiss cheese; his face yellow and thin yet kindly enough, and his long gown made up of more than a thousand pieces of cloth of all sorts sewn together one upon another. Round his neck and body he had wound a heavy iron chain like St. William, and in other ways seemed in mine eyes so grisly and terrible that I began to shake like a wet dog.

A description of the soldier's life. This would apply to most old school fantasy adventurers as well:

For gluttony and drunkenness, hunger and thirst, wenching and dicing and playing, riot and roaring, murdering and being murdered, slaying and being slain, torturing and being tortured, hunting and being hunted, harrying and being harried, robbing and being robbed, frighting and being frighted, causing trouble and suffering trouble, beating and being beaten: in a word, hurting and harming, and in turn being hurt and harmed--this was their whole life.

The goings on of the aristocracy at a party - I thought it might make a good random table for behavior in inns and taverns:

'Twas indeed a wonderful pantomime to see how they did fool, and yet none wondered but I. One sang: one wept: one laughed: another moaned: one cursed: another prayed: one shouted "Courage!" another could not even speak. One was quiet and peaceable: another would drive the devil out by swaggering: one slept and was silent, another talked so fast that none could stand up against him. One told stories of tender love adventures, another of his dreadful deeds in war. Some talked of church and clergy, some of the constitution, of politics, of the affairs of the empire and of the world. Some ran hither and thither and could not keep still: some lay where they were and could not stir a finger, much less stand up or walk. Some were still eating like ploughmen, and as if they had been a week without food, while others were vomiting up what they had eaten that very day.

A list of hangover cures:

There wormwood, sage wine, elecampane, quince and lemon drinks, with hippocras, were to clear the heads and stomachs of the drinkers;

A strange spell from the book:

And no sooner had the rogue mumbled some words than there sprang out of each man's breeches, sleeves, boots and pockets, and all other openings in their clothes, one, two, three, or more young puppies. And these sniffed round and round in the tent, and pretty beasts they were, of all manner of colours, and each with some special ornament, so that 'twas a right merry sight.

If you like gore, the book has some gore. This could also work as a description of a fantasy battlefield:

The earth, whose custom it is to cover the dead was there itself covered with them, and those variously distinguished: for here lay heads that had lost their natural owners, and there bodies that lacked their heads: some had their bowels hanging out in most ghastly and pitiful fashion, and others had their heads cleft and their brains scattered: there one could see how lifeless bodies were deprived of their blood while the living were covered with the blood of others; here lay arms shot off, on which the fingers still moved, as if they would yet be fighting; and elsewhere rascals were in full flight that had shed no drop of blood: there lay severed legs, which though delivered from the burden of the body, yet were far heavier than they had been before: there could one see crippled soldiers begging for death, and on the contrary others beseeching quarter and the sparing of their lives. In a word, 'twas naught but a miserable and pitiful sight.

The effect of gunpowder on the world (i.e. look out high level fighters):

But 'twas this cause made me so great a man, that nowadays the veriest horse-boy can shoot the greatest hero in the world; and had not gunpowder been invented I must have put my pride in my pocket.

On the glories of gold (and some supernatural associations with gemstones):

Yea, I could even take upon me to prove that this same money possesses all virtues and powers more than any precious stones; for it can drive away all melancholia like the diamond: it causeth love and inclination to study, like the emerald (for so comes it that commonly students have more money than poor folk's children): it taketh away fear and maketh man joyful and happy like unto the ruby: 'tis often an hindrance to sleep, like the garnet: on the other hand, it hath great power to produce repose of mind and so sleep, like the jacinth: it strengtheneth the heart and maketh a man jolly and companionable, lively and kind, like the sapphire and amethyst: it driveth away bad dreams, giveth joy, sharpeneth the understanding, and if one have a plaint against another it gaineth him the victory, like the sardius (and in especial if the judge's palm be first well oiled therewith): it quencheth unchaste desire, for by means of gold one can possess fair women: and in a word, 'tis not to be exprest what gold can do, as I have before set forth in my book intituled "Black and White," if any man know how rightly to use and employ this information.

Probably not the best name for a game (bolded text):

And though I did no deed evil enough to forfeit my life, yet was I so reckless that, save for sorcerers and sodomites, no worse man could be found.

On random encounters in the Black Forest:

... that I should not escape from the peasants of the Black Forest, which were then famous for the knocking of soldiers on the head.

A melee:

... when we did least expect it, came six musqueteers with a corporal to our hut with their pieces ready and their matches burning, who burst in the door and cried to us to surrender. But Oliver (that, like me, had ever his loaded piece lying by him and his sharp sword also, and then sat behind the table, and I by the stove behind the door) answered them with a couple of musquet-balls, wherewith he brought two to the ground, while I with a like shot slew one and wounded the fourth. Then Oliver whipped out his terrible sword (that could cut hairs asunder and might well be compared to Caliburn, the sword of King Arthur of England) and therewith he clove the fifth man from the shoulder to the belly, so that his bowels gushed out and he himself fell down beside them in gruesome fashion. And meanwhile I knocked the sixth man on the head with the butt-end of my piece, so that he fell lifeless: but Oliver got even such a blow from the seventh, and that with such force that his brains flew out, and I in turn dealt him that did that such a crack that he must needs join his comrades on the dead muster-roll. So when the one that I had shot at and wounded was ware of such cuffs and saw that I made for him with the butt of my piece also, he threw away his gun and began to run as if the devil was at his heels. Yet all this fight lasted no longer than one could say a paternoster, in which brief space seven brave soldiers did bite the dust.

A spell to force thieves to give back their stolen goods, worth 10 sp (or more or less, depending on your system):

And since 'tis as grievous to lose such things as 'tis hard to get them, therefore the said Switzer would move heaven and earth to come by them again, and did even send for the famous devil-driver of the Goatskin, which did so plague the thief by his charms that he must needs restore the stolen goods to their proper place: for which the wizard earned ten rix-dollars.

I hope this motivates you to give the book a read, especially if you're a WFRP player or game master. Well worth the time!

3 comments:

  1. Good post about an excellent novel!

    Simplicissimus (along with the sequels, especially The Tale of Courage, The Notorious Thief, Whore and Vagabond) may be my favourite book of all time, and it made an impression on me all right. It dares to be a funny book about a great tragedy, and it is full of life, wisdom and wit. Great stuff and really one of the major adventure novels.

    Since the time I found it some fifteen years ago, I have read more picaresque stories from the period, of which I would recommend LeSage's Gil Blas the most, which is another page-turner. It is crammed so full of good stuff that I typically only read a few stories at a time - there are more plot twists in the first twenty pages than entire novels.

    WRT adapting Simplicissimus to gaming, it fits Warhammer well in theory, but I never had luck with it. Something about WFRP always derailed my attempts to run a campaign with a similar tone, no matter how good a fit it seemed first. Sometimes it was the Old World that intruded, and sometimes it was the rules that didn't work out. It proved completely elusive. Over the years, this annoyed me so much I wrote and published a separate game that draws specifically from picaresque stories (and a little bit from Moorcock's War Hound), local legends, swashbuckling movies and the whole milieu of 16th century Central Europe. This became the Helvéczia boxed set, which I still have hopes of publishing in English one of these days - I have the rulebooks translated but need to do more work on the modules and supplements.

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  2. I need to look into those other books.

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  3. You may also wish to check out the Spanish picaresque tradition - that's where it all started with Lazarillo de Tormes, and where the genre first flowered (Don Quijote is obviously the most famous of them). These are the precursors to most of the pulp fantasy stories we read and enjoy - and many of them hold up rather well.

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