The other evening I asked my World History class if they knew “The Riddle of Steel?”
I didn’t expect them to know the answer. The original Conan the Barbarian movie came out in 1982 after all. And as for the 2011 version, most likely nobody had seen it either. Still, one can hope to be pleasantly surprised, right?
One of my students said: “It’s getting the right carbon content when smelting iron.”
We were talking about Ancient China in comparison to other ancient cultures (Egyptians, Sumerians, Hittites, etc.), and how the Chinese were able to make the first known blast furnaces hot enough to make good steel as early as the 4th century B.C.E.
So the student’s answer was pretty good.
I wasn’t going to give away the real answer. That would have entailed me to do my best Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones impressions–and how would I get my class on track after that?
Later we discussed certain passages in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as an example of Taoist philosophy/religion. And I explained how they could use some of these lessons in a job search–I’m always looking for way students can actually use what they’ve learned from my classes.
This, I think, gets to the point of this post.
One of the best things about being a tabletop gamer–especially a game master–is there’s always more to be learned. Even as a player, you can find inspiration and lessons in the vast collective consciousness of stories and histories of the ancients.
This is what Robert E. Howard did when he first penned Conan–or rather the pseudo-history of Conan’s Hyboria. John Milius, the main writer for Conan the Barbarian, did something similar. There’s a reason why Conan in movie was taken to the East…”where the war masters would teach him the deepest secrets.”
Some of these lessons are deep, primal, archetypal, thematic. “The Riddle of Steel” made Conan the Barbarian go beyond a mere fantasy-adventure flick. The Art of War, upon closer examination, is about keeping the peace of the self and the kingdom intact.
With these lessons from history you can practice them in the safe environment tabletop gaming, before implementing them in the real world.
(Also, if you haven’t watched the original movie before, do so. Watch it at least three times or until you really understand the “Riddle of Steel”and then head on over to “Everything You Never Knew About the Making of Conan the Barbarian” at i09 for some really insightful content).