During a bit of research, I recently stumbled across the fact that Ken Rolston, one of the lead designers on both Morrowind and Oblivion, cut his teeth working on the Stormbringer pen & paper RPG. I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t mean anything to you, but that’s exactly why I’m writing these words right now. The more you look into the most celebrated works of fantasy gaming over the years, the more you hear the name of author Michael Moorcock and his criminally underappreciated protagonist, Elric of Melniboné.
Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné, might sound like the most clichéd paperback name you’ve ever read, but nothing could be further from the truth. Elric was first introduced to the world in June of 1961, via a novella titled The Dreaming City. At that time, most fantasy fiction was either pulpy stuff like Conan the Barbarian or the high, complex fantasy of writers such as Tolkien. These stories told tales of unlikely heroes, slaves, hobbits and downtrodden humans, who sacrificed everything for the good of their people. Elric, on the other hand, was an irredeemable asshole. While Frodo was busy traumatising himself for the good of Middle Earth, Elric was off betraying his own people to a bunch of pirates, accidentally killing his lover, and spending the entire journey home contemplating his own suicide, and that’s just the plot of the first story.
However, it wasn’t just in its rejection of Tolkienesque tropes that Moorcock’s work was innovative, many concepts which are really key to modern gaming were forged by the pen of this criminally overlooked writer.
He was the first fantasy author to really explore the concept of order vs chaos, especially in relation to a pantheon of Gods. This would later become a staple of fantasy RPGs like D&D and Warhammer, the latter of which pretty much copied everything, right down to the symbol. The concept of a vorpal blade, a term first penned by Lewis Carrol, was really only solidified by Moorcock in the form of Elric’s sword, Stormbringer. A demon which transformed itself into a sword, Stormbringer is capable of devouring the soul of anyone it cuts. Elric both loves and hates the sword, as it is the source of all his power, yet it frequently causes him to slay friends and lovers. This exact archetype would later appear in pretty much every fantasy universe going, from Nethack, to D&D, to the DC comic book universe.
I could go on and write a full essay about why the Elric saga is such an important piece of historical geek culture, but I’d prefer you to discover it for yourself. The legacy of Moorcock’s work is far-reaching, from Hawkwind’s 1985 album, Chronicle of the Black Sword, to Vampire: The Masquerade creators, White Wolf, naming their entire company after one of Elric’s titles.
Stick some heavy metal on, pick up The Dreaming City, and soak up the doom-drenched atmosphere. I promise you won’t be disappointed.