Saturday, June 18, 2022

Regarding Three Hearts & Three Lions

Three Hearts and Three Lions.

The very first entry on the table of inspirational and educational reading, Appendix: N of the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide - penned by Gygax himself. Admittedly self-professed to be ordered by alpha, the significance of Poul Anderson's influence on Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons can't be understated: perhaps in contention with Jack Vance in representing the single most influential piece of the original game. While Vance's work has persisted even through the current edition in the form of his Dying Earth's interpretation on the invocation of magic - Anderson's influence on the undertone of the system - on monsters, on alignment, on expectations of a party member as player: all things that differ between the perspectives of a modern role-player and an old-school one - can't be understated; and the role of this, only one of dozens of volumes he wrote, in providing that context - in bridging that gap - shouldn't be underestimated.

From one role-player to another, one who came to the hobby in the post-Gygaxian era and who has since come to embrace the traditions enshrined before, I present one perspective: Three Hearts and Three Lions - and why it should be the first thing that new-comers to OSR gaming should read.

The Yarn, Itself

Three Hearts and Three Lions is a quick read - 220 digest sized pages in my copy - and largely a pleasant one. The tone of the book is jocular - told as though a friend was telling it to you at a bar and as though you're not sure whether or not to believe, but it's fun enough that you wind up listening. There are moments where the diction is difficult to follow - namely, when accents are affected by spelling: or when particular references are made to material science - however at no point in the reading did I have to go over the same text more than a second time. 

Likewise - I found myself getting attached to the characters: when something went ill for one, or when something happened to threaten the direction that I had wanted the story to take, I was personally affronted: fighting through temptation to skip ahead to see the resolution - in all but one case, my admonitions of the plot being rebuffed - again, as a friend might turn the twist and slam a mug against the table: pleasing the listener at the unexpected turn of events that led to where you wanted them to lead in the first place. 

Poul Anderson, 1964
Fanciful language is somewhat lacking - though fanciful elements are not: and each chapter leads into the next as episodes of the larger tale. You need to know, for example, the characters that are met in the first few chapters - but later chapters, such as the mystery of the lycanthrope, could stand on their own as a pulp publication outside the book - their inclusion serving as a way to bemuse the reader, but also to explain certain elements of continuity in the story and in the setting which otherwise might go unexplained: an act that the author is aghast to perform! Seemingly unrelated depictions, seemingly unconnected events, can be tied and understood to contribute to an over-all atmosphere and to better convey the nature of the world to the reader in interesting ways, such that these details are absorbed by osmosis rather than through a dump of fluff or flavor.

It is not, however, a perfect book.

To speak to the pieces of the book I did not like, I'll have to spoil a bit - I will try to hide the spoiler under a detail tag - which will hide or show at your leisure, provided you have a modern browser to use - however, if the tag doesn't work, skip ahead to the next heading, The Influence on Alignment.

Were I to complain about the book,

...I would have to complain about the ending. At the end of the hero's journey, he finds out who he truly is: his identity having been hidden from him by foul magics. United with his sword and his companions, the author reveals he is truly Oiger le Danois! A folk hero of European Christendom, hints dropped throughout the text hinting at his identity (including his name, itself!) can be pieced together to support the big reveal!

The book then concludes - no more action, no more dialog, no more adventure in the fanciful alternate Earth - with the equivalent of "He rode off, everyone loved him, and he conquered his enemies!" It's as though the point of the story was to present the puzzle, daring the reader to figure out who the character was - it's presented immediately as his own problem: who am I in this world? - before the jig is up and the secret is revealed in the finale. It's as though the book was not written to tell the story, but instead to masturbate the intellect and education of the author and his readers - not to enthrall and enchant, as to that point, it truly does.

Similarly, an afterword is provided wherein - not only did the story end unceremoniously, but the character is transported back to modern times through no effort of his own! In a very John Carter of Mars moment, he is transported back into the modern world while in the midst of battle - when the iron rails of plot necessitates it happen. John Carter transitions to Barsoom on death - and Holger Dankse (presumably named after the resistance group he serves to join) is transported to the alternative timeline when shot in the head by the Nazis. Following this, he is said to be seeking grimoires to restore him to the alternate Earth, to reunite with those whom he loves: and the author says, "I never heard from him again - people do go disappearing once in a while, you know" - as though to dare the reader to draw their own conclusion that Holger does indeed make it home.

Perhaps, it serves as a way to lend credence to the premise - that the story is told to the author by a friend who experienced it: so a return to our timeline is necessary to fulfill it.

And perhaps, I choose to believe he did make it back: as I would assume the author desires me to believe - thinking of the fondness I've developed, having experienced the adventure with its characters.

But in any case - I was disappointed by the ending - twofold: first, in the sudden "Everything seems black and impossible... but everything is suddenly fine now!" and second, in the intentional ambiguity of the post-script.

This point of contention may bother you too - or it may not. I should think anyone a fan of adventure and of fantasy would enjoy the story, regardless: and may simply do as I have done and chosen to believe.

The Influence on Alignment

Foremost among the lessons of Three Hearts and Three Lions might be the origins of Law and Chaos in the D&D alignment system. 

But CWR - I thought Michael Moorcock was the source of the Law and Chaos alignment spectrum in D&D? Many people do - and he did have an influence. His Hawkmoon and Stormbringer titles are listed in the same inspirational reading block as are Anderson's. However, Moorcock himself cites Anderson as an influence and inspiration for his interpretation of cosmic order: and though I swear I have read at some point that Gygax, himself, preferred Andersonian alignment over Moorcockian, I cannot find a source to cite for it and will have to be satisfied pointing out that Anderson was active earlier - 1961 (Three Hearts and Three Lions), 1954 (The Broken Sword), 1960 (The High Crusade) - than was Moorcock - 1965 (Stormbringer), 1963 (Stealer of Souls), 1967 (The Jewel in the Skull - the first title in the Hawkmoon series).

But I digress.

I won't quote Anderson on it - there are a thousand blog results who do when you google it - but where both authors will speak to alignment in cosmic terms: Anderson in particular does a good job of divorcing alignment from personality. A good person can be Chaotic - although their actions and their activities will undermine civilization; simultaneously, a bad person can be Lawful - they may murder, pillage, or make war on things that are holy, but those self-serving motives, those secular actions: they aren't indicators of their position in the greater scene. Anderson clearly and blatantly separates alignment from the personalities and goals of the people who serve it: which Moorcock does somewhat, although Moorcock tends to infuse his writing with his own nihilism, which dilutes the literary concept with intended metaphor. For that reason, Anderson is better in this regard - and I will speak no more to condemn one author in preference for another.

Another interesting component of Anderson's alignment: for humans, alignment is a choice - though naturally, humans tend towards Law. For other races - Elves, Trolls, etc - there isn't a choice. Their very natures are infused with Chaos: again, regardless of their goals or motives. Trolls in Three Hearts and Three Lions - or, True Trolls from Chainmail - and though they may be fickle, they may wage war on the forces of Law, they are equally facile in waging diplomacy: something that has more presence in The Broken Sword where the Elves do business with the Dwarves, a race which can touch iron and which are not born with an innate Chaos nor Law to them.

This bioessentialism - as it may be - is contrasted to the races of men: Elves are by their nature Chaotic - but no men are. We see two Lawful men, men who were once enemies on the battlefield as a result of ethnic and religious differences - but who became brothers with time. This fellowship, this kindred spirit of humanity, is a stark answer to the criticism that "orcs can't be evil" - absolutely: yes, they can - because like Three Hearts and Three Lions, humanity is one race, one people, with different creeds and different appearances - each, however, connected together by a permeating connection to Law, but given liberty to choose our own paths.

Once this concept - and that of alignment being something bigger, a dichotomy and narrative mechanic to facilitate non-combat interactions between opposing factions - than the personality litmus test it has become: once this concept has been grasped, other concepts similarly fall into place.

Fairy Tales Gnome Troll; Pixabay user Peter H.

The Influence on Encounters

But what then - tangibly - can be ascribed to Three Hearts and Three Lions that made it into the print of the books? Most obviously - monsters.

As one familiar with the LBBs (reprints, of course - gamer on a budget), when reading through Three Hearts and Three Lions, my Book II: Monsters and Treasure alarm went off several times during the read - it was exciting for me, seeing things in the source material that, in the original edition, so obviously paralleled in the game world! Dragons and barbarians notwithstanding - as surely, these creatures exist in a multitude of sources - other creatures seem to be uniquely inspired by Anderson's work. In illustrating as such, I submit two examples - which, in so doing, may entail spoilers to the plot: so I will, again, attempt to hide the core contents: 

The Troll

The Troll! The most iconic D&D monster outside the product identifying Beholder! Reviewing my copy of Book II: Monsters & Treasure, lavishly printed from PDF sparing no expense on my 5 year old HP 4000 series:

Juxtapose this to the penultimate encounter of Holger, et al, in Three Hearts and Three Lions:

The creatures described are the same - and the creature illustrated for D&D has been of this likeness ever since. The band goes on to strike it, again and again, only to find it regenerates after each assault:

From there, it's only by accident when the Swan May strikes out with the torch do they discover the creature's weakness to flame - rapidly (through player character ingenuity) turning the tide of the encounter. 

In either case - if you have not read Three Hearts and Three Lions, the troll scene is truly evocative: it's one to take inspiration from, in terms of how to play trolls when encountered in the D&D wild, and one that - for players who have not experienced trolls before (or even some who have) would provide a terrifying and memorable experience.

The Nixie

While less dramatic than the troll - the Nixie: an underwater fey who captures Holger with intent to hold him captive and prevent his destiny - is an interesting addition to this list as it translates directly into the rulebook at the table. Consider Book II: Monsters & Treasure:

Each of these elements, we see referenced in Three Hearts and Three Lions as our protagonist wrestles with the lake spirit. Firstly, regarding the mechanism of imprisonment of a targeted character...

...and secondly, regarding the guardians of the Nixie - down to the named species! 

When Holger escapes from the predicament (more to come on that escapade later in the article) he does so using the mechanism described - namely, employing a flaming weapon to fend the pike off while swimming away from the Nixie's grotto: 

Here found, admittedly, is a point of diversion between the book and the game. In Three Hearts and Three Lions, the fey cannot abide iron and cannot abide ultra-violet radiation (or, daylight - hence, you see the fey at night in their mythological tales of origin) - as such, the Nixie is held at bay by the burning dagger: in D&D, presumably, the flaming aspect must have been too accessible to make gamist sense. That said - the other parallels are too close to be coincidental: and the reader - again - is presented with a situation where wits are required to escape: something to challenge a party with and an example of how, using an effect like Charm Person - which, in early editions, was extremely hard to deter once it's set in - what appears to the modern gamer to be certain doom can be turned into a memorable event and escape worthy of retelling.

If monsters made it in with such alacrity, did also any of the magic? How many spells - or items, perhaps - were inspired by (or lifted from!) Anderson? Protection from Evil, in reference to the holy circles drawn to protect the party while it sleeps?

I'm not sure.

I am less versed in the spell lists than I am in the monsters: but an avid reader might be able to find them where I did not - and maybe even tell me about it!

Battles; Adolf Ehrhardt

The Expectation of a Player

Lastly - to speak to our protagonist: Holger.

Holger is a Danish-American engineer who returns to Denmark to subvert and fight Nazi occupiers during the World War II period. During that time - attempting to smuggle a person of interest out of the Reich's clutches, Holger is wounded on the beach: at which point he falls out of time and into an alternative Earth: wherein he goes on to meet fae and mythic creatures while questing about, seeking a way home. This sort of Isekai experience may sound familiar, reflected in the Dungeons & Dragons animated series as well as in the abandoned live action movie script Gygax had been working to produce while in Hollywood in the early 80s: but that's another topic for another time. To instead continue on the subject of the player, and what the original authors' expectations were of the player, one may consider three distinct moments in Three Hearts and Three Lions - note, spoilers to follow, but I will try to hide them in a details panel: if the panel fails, skip ahead to the paragraph beginning in bold with "as such."

The Thermodynamics of Dragons

Freshly betrayed by the Elf Lord, Alfric, Holger and his companions - the dwarf and the swan maiden - are accosted by a dragon: a servant of Chaos sent at the behest of Alfric or his ally, Morgan la Fey, to do away with them before Holger can fulfill his purpose: known to Morgan, but unknown to him or his allies. Hope is dim, the party convinced their adventure is at an end... but then this happens:

In this moment of hazard, Holger thinks quickly and acts unconventionally, saving the day with an out of the box approach. Holger knows about boiler explosions because - based on his background as an engineer and the timeframe in which this was said to take place, boiler explosions would have been something he - as a person - understood. His colleagues have no way of understanding what's going on - as boilers and the steam engines they power have not been invented in their timeline.

In the context of the narrative - this makes sense for Holger to know.

But would, in the context of the game, a player character?

Cursed Gold

Further along their way, the party rests - out of the Fey lands - but the Elf Lord Alfric has not yet given up - sending a Hill Giant to stalk them: waiting for a moment of "sinful thought" to annul the protection of holy symbols that they create or bear. When that moment comes - the Giant attacks: however, the party - recalling the bane that fey-folk have to the light - seek to entertain it with riddles, keeping it occupied until the dawn turns it to stone.

In a series of silly half-riddles that result in the Giant furiously attacking Holger, the plan succeeds and the Giant, faced with the piercing rays of the sun, is turned to stone: leaving a treasure pile behind in his sack. Though wary of words of a curse on Giant's gold won in such a manner, the party begins to loot the target... until this happens: 

Holger, as such, rescues the party from certain death - radiation poisoning! Though something that was new at the time of Holger's adventure in the 1940s, a pre-atomic era (and a phenomenon barely understood even when the book was originally released in 1961), again - Holger uses his out-of-world (out-of-character?) knowledge to protect his companions: allowing their journey to continue.

Magnesium Will Burn in Water

Later - nearing the end of their quest - the band crosses by a loch at the base of a cave through which they must travel to reach the resting place of the legendary sword, Cortana. Cross, Holger separates himself from the party and - making himself unsavory with some equally cross thoughts - opens himself to attack, where he is kidnapped by a Nixie. How will he escape? Wits - and recalling a piece of equipment stolen from the Elf Lord, Alfric:

The dagger - stolen earlier in the adventure and labeled "The Dagger of Burning" - Holger speculates to be made of magnesium based on its appearance and alleged inflammability. With it - and under the assumption that the ultraviolet radiation is what offends the creatures of Chaos, he puts it to use accordingly:

Escaping certain peril - again, by his wits: wits tempered by the perspective of a modern man, a 20th century engineer, rather than a fantasy paladin. Arguably - in this case - it's the act of figuring out the operation of a limited use magic item: but still - figuring out the use of the dagger entailed knowledge of chemistry which Holger would have, but his allies - native to the setting - would not.

As such, we find ourselves in a conundrum. In the context of the story, it makes sense that Holger will be able to use his life experience - his engineering background - to evade these hazards or to come up with creative solutions. However, in the context of the game - this brings to light an interesting concept: what Holger did, in each of these three cases, a modern Dungeon Master would cry foul as "Metagaming!" 

What does this imply of the behaviors and expectations of players over player characters?

What does this mean for the application of player skill and the understanding of what constitutes cheating - doing something your character would not: a problem which is identified in the 1e Dungeon Master's Guide - compared to what would be instead lauded a creative solution or application of talented imagination? 

A lesson - to be sure - for a new OSR player or aspiring OSR referee: in that it indicates the solution may not be direct confrontation, that the solution may lie in a creative alternative which nullifies the problem to begin with - but also a point of pondering for the experienced ref: at what point does player skill end and metagaming or cheating begin?

In 1974, perhaps, a lot farther along the scale, if Appendix N is to be believed.

Armor Gauntlet Sword Knight; Pixabay user StarGladeVintage

And Them's My Two Coppers

Thank you for reading! I hope, between the ten minutes prior to this line coming to your feed and now, I've provided some context and impressed upon you, dear reader, the significance of Three Hearts and Three Lions to the development and implementation of the original D&D game and the OSR experience - and provided a spur to the uninitiated to consume it, have you not already.

Stay blessed, all - and delve on!

Open license and public domain artwork retrieved from Pixabay and and adapted for thematic use. Attribution in alt text.

Three Hearts and Three Lions, written by and copyright to Poul Anderson, 1961. Images used herein taken from the Open Road Integrated Media edition, 2018 - with cover art by Jason Gabbert - all rights reserved by the publisher.

Image of Poul Anderson taken from Trader to the Stars, 1964, property of Knopf-Doubleday.

Dungeons & Dragons: Book II - Monsters & Treasure, written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, as well as all content therein is copyright and trademark of Wizards of the Coast LLC, 2013.

Clerics Wear Ringmail claims no ownership of and defers all rights to the respective authors and owners of the properties referenced above. Any content or imagery used herein is used under US Code Title 17 Section 107: illustrative to and in service of criticism and commentary.


  1. No mentions of the werewolf? bruh

    1. There is indeed a werewolf! And a fun game of Clue ensues while our protagonist attempts to uncover its identity through deductive reasoning!

      I thought about it - as lycanthropes do appear in Monsters & Treasure - but neglected to as the legend is pervasive enough and the encounter in the book is distinct from D&D enough that I couldn't rationalize it as derivative.

      Interesting chapter, though, to say the least!

  2. It's not metagaming if the GM put the magnesium dagger and the grindstone there in the first place.

    1. The way I like to pretend that went down:
      Player: "Hmm... so the Nixie has all manner of primitive equipment down here as sacrifices?"
      Ref: "Yup - but no knives or other weapons."
      Player: "I ask her to take me on a tour of the folderol."
      Ref: "uhhh... ok - so, she has a musical instrument...a chest of drawers... *looks left* a writing desk... a spinning stone..."
      Player: "A spinning stone?"
      Ref: "Yes?"
      Player: "I spin the stone, pressing my magnesium dagger against it until the heat produced by friction reaches 883 Fahrenheit: causing the dagger to ignite and blast UV light at the Nixie and her minions!"
      Ref: ...
      *notes: nixies will not fear light in the publication release of this module*


The Joy of Chainmail

Play-Cast Name: Chainmail ...