Is there Red Nails influence in Dwellers of the Forbidden City?

April 7, 2011

Not really. Read on…

I’ve read in various places how the AD&D module I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City was inspired by and/or evokes the feel of REH’s Red Nails, considered by many to be the greatest Conan tale.  In fact, David “Zeb” Cook, the writer of Dwellers, confirms the influence in multiple places on the internet:

At Grognardia, responding to a question about Dwellers, pulp fantasy, and his favorite authors and stories:
“Well, I’m not surprised by the “Red Nails” reference since that was what I was clearly going for. It’s my favorite Conan story and the city was based off of it. It was originally something I did for my own campaign and then used it as my resume when I applied to TSR.”

Later in the same thread:
“Dwellers has a little bit more interesting history than most the modules I’ve done. It started as part of a campaign I ran before I worked for TSR. It wasn’t a city then, just the final ruins set in a jungle. I was trying for that pulpy Conan feel — fabulous treasure, decadent ruin, eldritch horror. Pretty much ripping off Red Nails. The main hall was my resume submission to TSR when I first applied (you had to provide a writing sample).”

This had me curious.  Let’s see what connections are found between Dwellers and Red Nails by examining some key elements:

(Spoiler Alert!)

Jungle. Both adventures begin in a jungle.  I don’t see any specific connections between the jungles in the two, but I guess a jungle is a jungle in this case.  The Forbidden City is directly surrounded by this jungle, but Xuchotil, the city of Red Nails, is on a barren plain outside the jungle.

Dragon. Red Nails contains a jungle dragon (described by REH to resemble a stegosaurus) that is central to the beginning of the tale and mentioned later as being a god to the city’s inhabitants.  Dwellers contains a Pan Lung (oriental dragon) that lives in a lake and is treated as a god of the Bullywugs (frog-men), but isn’t really given an important role in the module.  On the other hand, the module’s sandbox nature doesn’t really emphasize any individual elements, leaving it up to the DM and players to determine what things become important during play.

City. Xuchotil is neither ruined nor exactly a city in the usual physical sense.  With no streets or discernible separation of buildings, it could more accurately be described as a giant castle, perhaps in the vein of Lord Dunsany’s Fortress Unvanquishable or Peake’s Gormenghast.  I1’s Forbidden City is ruined with separate buildings, streets, avenues, parks, etc.

Dungeons. Subterranean Xuchotil is mentioned as a burial ground for the dead and holder of dark secrets and powerful magics.  Little if any of the story’s action occurs there, but it’s great and iconic D&D inspiration.  Most of the “dungeon” adventure in Dwellers is part of the several entrances into the city and has little in common with Xuchotil’s underworld.

Factions. Both Red Nails and Dwellers have factions that vie for control of the city.  There isn’t really any similarities between the factions of the two, either in makeup, history, or motivation beyond simply controlling the city.  In the Conan yarn the factions are all humans.  In the module the factions are humanoids or monsters.

Major Characters. Perhaps the female elf taking refuge in the mongrelmen camp in Dwellers was inspired by Valeria in Red Nails?  There is a scheming magic-user found in the Forbidden City with a female companion, but any similarity to the major characters in Red Nails seems incidental to me.

Monsters. Aside from the previously mentioned dragon, Red Nails only contains one other monster that I can find: The Crawler.  It is only vaguely described, but in a way that suggests a snake-like or tentacled creature.  Perhaps the Forbidden City’s Yuan Ti or Abeloth were partially inspired by The Crawler?  Dwellers has many other monsters, none of which resemble anything in Red Nails in my opinion.

Magic. The Forbidden City contains many magic items, most of which are standard AD&D trinkets.  Red Nails has several unique items, such as a Fiery Mask, Flute of Madness, Black Lotus, and more.  I’m not seeing any explicit similarities here.

Cultural Influence. The paper paneled walls of Horan’s lair and the Pan Lung dragon suggest an Asian influence for Dwellers, whereas the names of people and places in Red Nails are clearly inspired by Meso-American cultures.

Overall, I feel that the greatest similarity between Red Nails and Dwellers of the Forbidden City is that they both contain factions trying to take control of the city.  But those factions don’t bear much resemblance, nor do the cities.  The physical structure of the Forbidden City is more reminiscent of the lost city in another REH Conan story: The Servants of Bit-Yakin (a.k.a. Jewels of Gwahlur).  The city in that story is ruined and sits in a valley or crater surrounded by high cliffs, similar to I1’s Forbidden City.

The Wikipedia entry for Dwellers of the Forbidden City mentions its resemblance to the lost jungle cities of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The city of Opar from ERB’s Tarzan series is a possible influence.  But there is another:  Ashair, the Forbidden City!

Tarzan fights a water dragon in the Forbidden City! In the story, though, ERB describes it as a great shark.

(Looking for more Tarzan artwork?  Great collections here, here, and here.)

From Tarzan and the Forbidden City:
In the distance, visible above low hills, rose the summit of what appeared to be a huge extinct volcano.
“Look, Lal Taask!” exclaimed Thome. “It is Tuen-Baka. Inside its crater lies Ashair, The Forbidden City.”

It seems very likely that Tarzan and the Forbidden City is another influence upon Mr. Cook’s module.  Alas, I’ve yet to read the novel in its entirety.  Perhaps somebody who has read it can comment on how it may or may not have inspired Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

Explicit similarities to Red Nails are hard to find, but Dwellers definitely has a strong Howardian Conan feel to it and invites adventure.  Perhaps this is primarily what Mr. Cook was referring to in his quotes above.  But what about this:”Pretty much ripping off Red Nails. The main hall was my resume submission to TSR when I first applied.”

Is that hall actually in the module Dwellers of the Forbidden City?  Maybe some things on the city map could be called a main hall, but I don’t know of anything in the text that describes something like the main hall in Red Nails. What and where is this main hall?  Was it ever published?  Does it still exist?  Is it…lost?

In some ways, the basic D&D module B4 The Lost City more invokes the feel of Red Nails than does I1 Dwellers, especially the human factions in B4.  Mr. Cook is credited as a playtester in B4, but I wonder if he had greater input in the creation of that module?


One Response to “Is there Red Nails influence in Dwellers of the Forbidden City?”

  1. […] posts recently have been about lost civilizations, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc. Here’s a wonderful resource for anybody interested in those […]

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