Friday, January 29, 2010

What Star Wars Got Right

Still working my way through Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Season One, delayed by the arrival January and the return of network TV from the holiday doldrums.

I've had many discussions over the years with various friends about what is "wrong" with the Star Wars films--and there are a lot of things. Mainly though, they boil down to bad writing. Well more completely stated it's: Lucas isn't a good writer compounded by the fact that Lucas isn't a good director of actors.

It's no accident that the best of the Star Wars Saga, The Empire Strikes Back, was at least partially written by Leigh Brackett--someone who surely knew how to write.

But anyway, that's a topic for another blog, maybe.  I'm not interested in revisitng the hate, but in accentuating the positive, to wit: What's good about Star Wars? And what's good that might be applicable to gaming?

To me, the core "good thing" is that Star Wars melds together two predominant forms of sci-fi adventure media (I specify this as it has very little to do with science fiction as a literary genre--even the science fiction sub-genre space opera only shares a few similarities with Star Wars until after Star Wars enters the public Zeitgeist).

The two types are:
  • Euro-style daring-do: This is sword-fights, castles, and princess-kidnapping villains. Like John Carter or Flash Gordon. The action and plots resemble The Prisoner of Zenda, and the latter-day stories can be seen as sort of allegories for young America interacting with the Old (decadent) World (Burroughs' The Mad King, comes to mind)..
  • "the flyboy" or square-jawed aviator tale: This is rockets and jetpacks, leather helmets and robots. This is like Buck Rogers, and Burroughs' Beyond the Farthest Star, and any number of serials--and both aviation and science fiction pulps at times. A purer modern example would be Sky Captain.
Star Wars eliminates the problem of having to give up jetpacks for swashbuckling by putting them both together! And this is not a bad idea. The incoherence that would be created by aviators wearing swords is resolved by giving the swords only to a select group (the jedi)--this was an innovation discovered by accident, it seems. Lucas' early drafts had "laserswords" being more commonly used.

But this still isn't all of Star Wars. Lucas lacquered it with Japanese exoticism by cribbing design, plot elements, and character from Kurosawa. Shooting in Tunisia, and having an expert in African languages provide him with Greedo's lingo and Jabba's Huttese further lathered on the exoticism. So another element of Star Wars is what we might think of as a sort of chinoiserie (if I can be allowed to somewhat misappropriate a term, when a better one doesn't exist). This is probably the element of Star Wars that I most think about playing up when I've though "How could Star Wars be better?"  This would lead to a Star Wars more like Dune, or most likely, more like a Heavy Metal story (or the Star Wars (and Dune) inspired Metabarons).

We're not done yet. The last piece, is latter century Americana. The original trilogy can't escape its 70s vibe, in some ways. Some of that is accidental no doubt--an artifact of when it was made. Other parts--primarily cut scenes of Luke and his teen friends--transplant American Graffiti car-culture to Tattooine. Episode II even gives us a 50s style diner! These elements are wholly Star Wars and not found in really any of its progenitors or imitators that I'm aware of (One Han Solo novel in the late seventies gives us an explicit disco, as well!).

So how might this be used in gaming? Well, I know that if I was looking to create my own Star War-ish space opera/science fantasy campaign, I'd look to these elements to make sure I got it right. Also, I think these can kind of be used like dials--one could turn down the elements one didn't like in Star Wars, while cranking others to eleven. If you want more Dune, play up the "exoticness," and chunk the Americana; more Sky Captain, means more swooping spaceships and fewer swords or Samurai movie borrowings.  If one wanted Star Wars that didn't feel like Star Wars, eliminating two, or perhaps even just one, of the elements above would probably do it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Enter the Lost World

"In the savage world of Skartaris, life is a constant struggle for survival. Here, beneath an unblinking orb of eternal sunlight, one simple law prevails: If you let down your guard for an instant you will soon be very dead."

So begins just about every issue of the longest running sword-and-sorcery saga in comic book history not based on a Robert E. Howard creation. It’s the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Travis Morgan, USAF, who is forced to ditch his SR-71 blackbird in the arctic circle, but instead winds up in a tropical jungle under an eternal sun, and is soon saving a sword-wielding, fur-wearing, princess with supermodel looks from a velociraptor.

Then things get really weird.

Over the course of the thirteen-plus years, 133 issues and 6 annuals, original run, Travis Morgan wandered through the dream-logic geography of a collective pulp unconscious world—a mash-up of prehistoric adventure, sword and sorcery, comic book sci-fi, and Bullfinch’s mythology, seasoned with a little Tolkienian epic. Damsels were saved a-plenty, monsters were slain, spells were cast, and swashes were definitely buckled. And since June 2009, Mike Grell, The Warlord's creator, has been the guiding hand for more of the same in a new series.

For the uninitiated, I'll summarize the basic set-up. The aforementioned Travis Morgan winds up in Skartaris, a world inside the hollow earth, bearing a strong resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar. Like most Burroughs protagonists, Morgan wins himself a princess and a kingdom. The main difference between The Warlord and most of Burroughs ouevre is the existence of magic. At first, this is teased as perhaps only the misunderstood, remnant advanced technology from a lost Atlantean civilization, but eventually true sorcery rears its head. This element, and the structure of most of the stories, lends a more sword and sorcery feel to the proceedings, than Burroughsian pastiche.

The Warlord was one of my favorite comics as a kid. It also provided a lot of inspiration for gaming in my early dungeon-mastering years. Well before Aaron Allston's campaign setting for D&D's Mystara line, my players were venturing into a hollow world. Like Skartaris, a couple of my campaign worlds have had a wandering moon whose movements weren't predictable. I also borrowed the cursed hellfire sword (first appearing in issue #34)--which had to draw blood every time it was drawn, even if it be the wielder's--and inflicted it on one of my players.

Skartaris was, and is, what would be called, in gaming parlance, a "kitchen sink" world. It's full of creatures from classical and medieval mythology, remnant super-science from Atlantis, aliens, sorcery, barbarians, lost tech from our world, time-travel, malfunctioning AIs, and of course, dinosaurs. In true "show don't tell" visual storytelling fashion this "anything goes" philosophy is driven home by great images: a tyrannosaur snatching up a unicorn in its jaws; a group of primitive cultists sacrificing a woman on an altar that's actually a crashed SR-71 jet.

One of the most interesting things to me about all this, and one of the things I find inspirational when considering rpg setting creation, is that Grell provides a rationale for these disparate elements existing together. In the distant past, we're told, Skartaris was Wizard World, a high fantasyish Tolkien-lite kind of world of elves, dwarves, wizards, and the like. After a time, for reasons never fully explained as I recall, this civilization waned. In the millennia that followed, openings to the outer earth allowed prehistoric animals to enter and avoid the extinct that claimed their fellows. Sometime later, an Atlantean fleet fleeing the destruction of their homeland arrived in Skartaris and built a technologically advanced civilization, only to have it end in nuclear war. Civilization slowly climbed back to the pseudo-Medieval level of the Warlord's time.

Ok, so I didn't say it was an airtight rationale, but its plenty good enough for gaming.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think this sort of "kitchen sink" fantasy might be exactly what I want to do with my next campaign. Maybe.

Of course, I'll still need to find a way to throw some Planet of the Apes/Kamandi elements in there, but I'm sure "the kitchen" sink is big enough.

Post-Game Report: What Lurks Below

Last Sunday, we continued our Warriors & Warlock campaign, using a somewhat re-imagined version of Paizo's Shadow in the Sky in the Second Darkness adventure path.  The characters were, as before: Zarac the fighter, Renin the psionicist, and Gannon, the thief-monk.

When last we left our intrepid heroes, they had just finished a pitch battle with a group of thieves and thugs hired to ambush them, by their (previously) trusted employer, Saltus, at the Grinning Goblin Gambling House. When their employer slipped into some secret tunnels, the players encountered their first dilemma of the evening--whether to loot the gambling house or give chase.

They did a little of both, allowing Saltus to make good his escape into a cave system ("smuggler's tunnels") beneath the gambling house. After delivering the coup de grace to a psionically stunned boar (the pet of Saltus' right-hand lackey), they quickly determined that none of them were particularly skilled at lock-picking, and so it fell to the psionicist to crush the locked trapdoor with his mental powers.

By then, their desire to get revenge on Saltus was beginning to pick up. It allowed them to avoid arousing Zarac's usually ever-present avarice, which would no doubt have led them to a submerged pirate treasure--but all a vengeful wight. Instead, they chose a different branch and wound up activating magical stalactites which served as a sort of cave security system for a den of troglodytes. These guys had their gambling interrupted:

So throwing down their "simple but inane" (according to the module) game, they came running for the party. The dice were fickle for the trogs. They kept getting natural "twenties" and equally natural "ones"--making them alternate between shrugging off the PCs best blows, and crumpling like paper. One troglodyte went down before they're even in melee range, felled by Renin's mind-bullets.

The other three didn't fall so easy. Zarac (already injured from the battle above ground) and Renin took wounds before they dispatched their foes. Each of the player's put down one trog, and Zarac delivered a killing stroke to the one previously blasted into unconsciousness by Renin.

So far so good--except the sounds of battle had alerted the other trogs, and the remaining adult males of the den came running. The PCs quickly assessed the odds, and made a strategic retreat. They climbed back up to the basement of the gambling hall, then removed the ladders, so the troglodytes couldn't follow.  They had by then recognized the odd smell they had noted in the basement earlier as a lingering sign of troglodyte presence, and weren't eager to have such visitations repeated.

They assumed that Saltus must have escaped. Again they returned to searching the various rooms of gambling house for valuables, or something that might explain his betrayal.

They'd forgotten something.

They forgot the elven ranger that lent them a hand last adventure, and the warning he gave of a renegade elf, apparently working with Saltus, at some unknown purpose. They forgot, and gave their hidden adversary, warned by her troglodyte minions, time to escape.

While they broke into the gambling hall's strangely sparsely funded vault, the weird shadow in the sky that had previously been of much interest, disappeared. While they sat at a bar, trying to figure out how to sell the business they now found themselves in possession of--and who to sell it to--a falling star streaked across the night sky. It slammed into a small island just beyond the harbor, leading to a earthquake and a tsunami.

These natural disasters had been foreshadowed by the dream that had brought Renin to Raedelsport. A dream the PCs had spent parts of several sessions trying to find someone to interpret. The looks on the players' faces when realization dawned was priceless.

The session ended with the characters looking out over the chaos in the city from the second floor of the Grinning Goblin, wondering just what might happen next.

Something I found interesting about the module was that it had a timeline of events that played out on their on. The players were able to interact with them, but they didn't require the PCs to be railroaded into doing so--were free to pursue their own agenda, and often did. While definitely a scenario with a plot (at least in the background), rather than a sandbox, I found it to have a lighter touch than other "story-centric" modules I've played in the past.

The conversion to Warriors & Warlocks has taken some extra work. Luckily, a large numbers of D&D monsters have been statted in Mutants & Masterminds terms on The Atomic Think Tank Message Boards. The three week breaks between sessions should have helped--and I suppose they did, in terms of providing more time to procrastinate.

The long between game intervals probably also led to player's forgetting some important details. From my perspective, this didn't impair the adventure in anyway, though the players felt the lack at times. Since they were relying on notes anyway, that just means they need to take better ones.

Overall, I think a good time was had by all.

In about a month, we undertake Chapter 2: Children of the Void.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Intellects Vast and Cool and Unsymapthetic: Mind-Flayer Speculations

The Illithid came for Rellan today.

They stood in the entrance of the holding cell like wet, bruise-purple statues draped in funerary black. They were motionless save for the subtle, vermiform writhing of their tentacles, and the pulsing of the thick veins wreathing their bulbous skulls.

They had been taking us one by one from the holding cell, for whatever obscure need they had. I say need--though the very concept seems incongruous with the cold dispassion which characterized their actions. Their intelligence was apparent in their black eyes, but inhuman in its workings, and far beyond ours, and so unknowable.

The psychic buzzing that always accompanied their presence seemed to paralyze us at their will. Faintly, sometimes in these visits I thought I could hear their telepathic voices, like distant whispers, as they discussed among themselves which of us to select. These psychic vibrations I perceived as pitched something like the voices of old women, but alien in their lack of inflection or emotion.

Today, the deliberations were quick. The buzzing rose in volume, and Rellan was seized by the emanations of their mind and walked stiffly into the presence of our captors, face contorted with the agony of his futile resistance. In a moment, they were gone, and we were free from the effects of their overbearing psychic presence.

As with the others taken before, we never saw Rellan again.

- From a journal found in a cleared room in the Labyrinth of Ulthraun, delivered to Tuvo brek Amblesh, Magister of the Library of Tharkad-Keln.

Everybody likes Mind Flayers. They're one of the classic monsters of D&D, and have entered the culture of fantasy gaming, appearing in sometimes slightly camouflaged form (and sometimes not) in other tabletop rpgs and computer games.

One of the most appealing things about the Mind Flayers is their inherent alien and mysterious nature. Multiple origins have been given for them in various D&D products over the years and editions. These different origins are often irreconcilable, at least in part.

I see that as a design feature rather than a bug. Mysterious and compelling adversaries deserve equally murky and evocative origins.

In that spirit, here are four possible origins for the Mind Flayers. They're in no way completely "original" and that's purposeful.  They draw from a host of pulp, weird, and science fiction sources, as well as referencing, in some ways, origins offered in official source material. They also utilize modern terminology to help evoke a pseudo-scientific air, but also to help the modern reader come at these classic creatures in a new way.  They're are not necessarily intended to be used verbatim "in game." On the other hand, a dying astronaut whispering his last words, or an ancient, half-malfunctioning video screen relaying one of these origins would be just the sort of genre-bashing that classic D&D was built from...

  • The Mind Flayers are abhuman mutants from a far future, dying earth. Endeavoring to save their civilization from extinction, they have been using all their failing super-science to cast as many of their dwindling number as they can back through the eons. In the current era, they are interested in humans as food--and as subjects for experimentation.  They hope to force-evolve mankind into their species, and restore a breeding population of their once mighty race.

  • The Illithids are vampiric thoughtforms from a higher plane. If they can be glimpsed in their "true" form by magical or psionic means, they resemble translucent, glowing jellyfish. They descended into material forms out of hunger and curiosity millennia ago, drawn like moths to a flame by the psychic energy of nascent sentient life.

  • The Mind Flayers hail from a planet destroyed by the gods themselves--either as punishment for their impious presumption, or out of fear of their developing power. Some illithid escaped the death of their world, and hide in subterranean enclaves, bidding their time, and planning their vengeance.

  • The Illithid are but the drones or puppets of ancient aquatic, elder brains. Either these coral-like beings evolved here, or perhaps arrived from some alien world. Whatever their origins, they construct larva which infect intelligent hosts and transform them biologically into illithid, subsuming them in a group mind. The ultimate goals of these elder brains are unknown.
Maybe these aren't mutually exclusive. Or maybe they contain a kernel of truth, but aren't literally true. Mix and match, and use 'em as you like. The goal is to keep the Mind Flayers scary and interesting--and strange.

Friday, January 22, 2010

And Now....A Wolf-Man On A Motorcycle

More specifically, it’s a criminal lycanthrope--member of a rather unusual gang in circa 1913 Los Angeles--astride a 1911 Indian Motorcycle.

I offer this in lieu of the digression I was planning on my preparation for this weekend’s impending game session. I’ll save that for a post-game report.

The art is by the very talented Diego Candia.  It's a panel from a digital comic I wrote and created which hopefully will be appearing as a download for a new application for a very popular device. I say "hopefully," as all the details aren’t ironed out, as yet. Anyway, the story is called Hell-Bent: Infamous Monsters, and features freelance troubleshooter Sam McCord, and his “floating gang” of specialists, versus the aforementioned criminal enterprise.

Though this is the first Hell-Bent story completed, it wasn’t the first conceived. In trying to come up with a second entry for Zuda Comics (and maybe influenced by the research I’d done in making up my character for a sort of magic realism Boot Hill game I was playing in), I conceived a horror/action/Western story, set in Mexico during the Revolution of 1913. Sort of The Wild Bunch or The Professionals meets Army of Darkness, maybe.  That story still languishes, after a couple of artists, and a number of other set-backs.

But the eight pages of Infamous Monsters--which I wrote almost a year ago--have been penciled, inked, and colored, and are being lettered as I write this.  And that’s pretty cool.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sword & Sorcery Heroes in the Bronze Age [Part 2]

This is the second part of an article originally written for my friend Jim's Flashback Universe Blog. It's part of a series called Bronze Age SpotlightThis particular piece examines the S&S characters adapted to comics in the so-called Bronze Age, this time, those from DC Comics, in the main.

In regard to Part 1, I'm indebted to Marty Halpern of More Red Ink who pointed out an error: Effinger's When Gravity Fails was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula, but unfortunately won neither.  The post was corrected accordingly, and in doing so I caught a few typos and cut-paste malfunctions which have also been corrected.  Dammit Jim,  I'm a Doctor not a word processor!

Hopefully, I'll be closer to error-free today...

DC's Sword & Sorcery: “TWO SOUGHT ADVENTURE”

“At least we have something in common!—we’re all three crooks!”
- Catwoman (to Fafhrd and Gray Mouser) Wonder Woman #202 (1972)

Perhaps it was because DC didn’t have the works of Robert E. Howard to fall back on, or maybe it was a reluctance to delve into this sort of material, but for whatever reason, they didn’t adapt as many literary sword and sorcery characters as Marvel.

When they did, at least they got two for the price of one—Fritz Leiber’s sword and sorcery duo, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.

Fafhrd and Gray Mouser’s prose debut was in Unknown in “the Year of the Behemoth, the Month of the Hedgehog, the Day of the Toad”—well, in story, at least. In our world we may reckon that as August 1939. Leiber chronicled the twain’s adventures off and on from that story until 1988’s “The Mouser Goes Below”—a longer span than the entire life of Robert E. Howard. Fafhrd was a Northern barbarian from Cold Corner, and Gray Mouser was a thief and one-time sorcerer’s apprentice from the urban South. They met in decadent Lankhmar, “City of the Seven Score Thousand Smokes,” and became lifelong friends and companions in (mis)adventure.

When Fafhrd and Gray Mouser came to comics, they did so in an unlikely place. They first appeared on the last panel of Wonder Woman #201, during her powerless, kung-fu-fighting, Diana Prince era. Issue 202 has them teaming up with Wonder Woman, her sifu I-Ching, and Catwoman, to thwart a wizard and save Jonny Double who’s trapped inside a mystic gem. In the words of Bart Simpson: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

The issue was written by New Wave science fiction luminary, Samuel Delany. Highlights include Fafhrd backhanding Diana, and Mouser and Catwoman having a totem-appropriate face-off, before they all decide to join forces. This all serves as a “backdoor pilot” for the twain’s run in the bimonthly Sword of Sorcery series premiering in 1973. It only ran for five issues, but featured original stories and adaptations, most scripted by Denny O’Neil (except for one by George Alec Effinger), and featuring art by Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, and Jim Starlin.

Fafhrd and Gray Mouser vanished from DC at the cancellation of Sword of Sorcery. The two were next sighted at a different company in a 1991 Epic limited series which reunited them with Howard Chaykin, who scripted adaptations of Leiber’s tales. All issues featured evocative art by Mike Mignola.

“Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

- Conan “Queen of the Black Coast” Robert E. Howard

Sword and Sorcery comics did good business in the Bronze Age, both with licensed characters, and original creations like Arak, Dagar, Wulf, Claw, Ironjaw, and the Warlord. It was a true Golden Age for comic book sword-swinging!

Today, Robert E. Howard properties are still appearing in comics, mostly from Dark Horse.  So far they've given us two successive Conan series and various limited series, a Kull series, and a Solomon Kane limited series. Image has given us a line inspired by some of Frank Frazetta’s great sword and sorcery-themed paintings. Marvel and DC, on the other hand, have concentrated on the mainstream superheroes that are their bread and butter; most of their sword and sorcery creations stalk only the back issue bins.  True, we have gotten a Showcase Presents: Warlord, but that's about it.

These things go in cycles, surely. Maybe one of these days will see Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Charles Saunders' Imaro, or perhaps the outré exploits of Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean, realized on the comics page.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sword & Sorcery Heroes in the Bronze Age [Part 1]

This is an article originally written for my friend Jim's Flashback Universe Blog.  It's part of a series called Bronze Age Spotlight.  This particular piece examines the S&S characters adapted to comics in the so-called Bronze Age.  I thought it was relevant here and worth repeating...

"Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars…Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."
- The Nemedian Chronicles (Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix in the Sword”)

In 1970, Conan came to Marvel comics, and by some reckoning, brought the whole of the Bronze Age with him. In the years that followed, other swordsman and thieves and various treaders of bejeweled thrones, would follow on Conan’s sandaled heels. They would be visitors from another time—another world—in more ways than one. The four-color world of superheroes would collide with the realm of Sword & Sorcery, a literary sub-genre born in what Lin Carter called “the sleazy, gaudy, glorious golden age of the pulps.”

So come with us now, back to the Bronze Age, where--in the Roy Thomas penned words of Conan the Barbarian #1—“A man's life is worth no more than the strength of his sword-arm!”

Marvel's Swords & Sorcery: “THE MOST SAVAGE HEROES OF ALL!”

Robert E. Howard’s Conan was the first literary sword and sorcery character to make it into comics, but he wasn’t the first sword and sorcery character. Conan made his debut in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales in a story titled “The Phoenix on the Sword.” This story takes place late in Conan’s life, when he’s king of Aquilonia. It seems a strange place to begin chronicling the barbarian wanderer’s adventures, given the distinct lack of wandering and the decreased levels of barbarism, but this beginning seems to have come by accident. Conan debuted in a story Howard rewrote from a story he had been unable to sell featuring an entirely different character. The original story was “By This Axe I Rule!” and the original hero was Kull. It was Kull, debuting in Weird Tales August 1929 with “The Shadow Kingdom,” who is often considered the first sword and sorcery hero.

Only two Kull stories were published during Howard’s lifetime, though others have made it into print in collections since. Like Conan, Kull’s a barbarian that winds up winning a kingdom. Unlike Conan, the majority of Kull’s adventures deal with his life after becoming king, and mainly center around how heavy the head is that wears the crown. Kull’s a more philosophical and introspective character than Conan—which may explain why he’s never been as popular.

He’s a (relative) latecomer to comics, too. He first appeared in 1971 in Marvel’s Kull the Conqueror, then a succession of two more short lived series of that same title from 1971 to 1985. He also starred in a short-lived, black and white magazine Kull and the Barbarians (which sounds like a gothabilly band, doesn’t it?) in 1975, and made some crossover appearances with Conan in Savage Sword of Conan. After years of quiet repose, King Kull loosed his blade again, this time for Dark Horse, beginning in 2008.

You just can’t keep a good barbarian down.

Not only wasn’t Conan the first sword and sorcery character, he almost wasn’t the first to make the leap to comics. Roy Thomas, tasked by Martin Goodman with bringing sword and sorcery to Marvel, had assumed Conan would be too expensive. As he relates in his essay in The Chronicles of Conan Volume One (Dark Horse), he had initially pursued the first sword and sorcery character he had gotten into—Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria.

The Thongor novels were a canny attempt by serial pasticher Lin Carter to combine two of his passions in one. To wit: Thongor--Northern Barbarian (remember Cimmerians? Like them) who adventured in a pseudo-prehistoric milieu (the Hyborian—uh, Lemurian Age) but one which included city-states, airships, and invented flora and fauna (like Barsoom, or Amtor, or—well, you get the idea). In other words, they were Conan if written by Burroughs, or Howard doing planetary romance (which he actually did once, but that’s another story). Thongor swung his first sword in The Wizard of Lemuria (1965).

Roy Thomas and Stan Lee figured the younger, less established Carter would cut a deal for less. And apparently, Stan thought “Thongor” sounded more “comic book”—and he has a point.

Such was not to be. Due to the vagaries of negotiation, Conan came through, and Thongor would sit on the sidelines until March 1973 with Creatures on the Loose #23, where he would begin flexing mighty thews and generally behaving in a Conan-esque manner. Ravenhaired Thongor became a red-head after a couple of appearances, perhaps to distance him visually from his barbaric forebearer. Only, presumably, his hair-dresser knows for sure. Thongor battled monsters and foul sorcery until Creatures on the Loose #29 (1974), when he lost the book to Man-Wolf. Several of his appearances were written by George Alec Effinger, whose 1986 cyberpunk novel, When Gravity Fails,  was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Gardner Fox, with a long history of comics work and sword and sorcery (with his barbarian, Kothar) would work on the run as well.

Thongor is obscure today, but he had shining moment of popularity (apparently) in the seventies. Lin Carter relates in Imaginary Worlds, that a Thongor musical was in the offing, though I’m unsure if it was ever actually performed. A Lin Carter website tells of a Thongor movie in production that was reported in Starlog #15, apparently from the same cinematic titans that brought us the Doug McClure (and Caroline Munro!) vehicle The Land that Time Forgot.

L. Sprague De Camp, pasticher-in-chief, and his aide—uh—de camp, Lin Carter, had been adapting Howard’s non-Conan yarns into Conan stories to feed the maw of the Lancer Conan paperback series. Thomas had copied that approach in the comics, but expanded it to the adaptation of even non-Howard stories into Conan stories. In March 1972, he’d port over another character into Conan’s world—aided and abetted by that character’s creator. The two-part story beginning in Conan #14 (“A Sword Called Stormbringer!”) adapted the original thin, white duke, Elric of Melnibone, in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Conan and Elric team up against Xiombarg, the Queen of Chaos, burrowed from the Chronicles of Corum, another of Moorcock’s fantasy series.

Elric, albino prince and sort of anti-Conan armed with the don’t-call-it-a-phallic-symbol sword Stormbringer, is the creation of Michael Moorcock, and first appeared in literary form in the 1961 novella, “The Dreaming City.” His story continues to this day, the most recent novel having been published in 2005.

This Marvel Team-Up-esque two-parter wasn’t Elric’s only foray into comics. French artist Philippe Druillet of Metal Hurlant fame, produced an unauthorized Elric graphic novel in the late sixties. Later, the “Dreaming City” was adapted as a Marvel (Epic) graphic novel by P. Craig Russell and Roy Thomas. Since the end of the Bronze Age, Elric has periodically raised his runesword in comics from First, Dark Horse, and DC.

One of the writers who provide more Conan comics material was John Jakes. Before he became forever linked with Patrick Swayze (at least in my mind) by the TV movie adaptation of his 80’s best-seller historical saga, Jakes wrote some Conan-inspired tales of sword-swinging adventure. His barbarian hero was blonde with a braided ponytail, named Brak. Brak first appeared in “Devils in the Walls” in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic. He went on to star in a series of novels beginning in 1968 with Brak the Barbarian. In 1982, Jakes’ second successful historical fiction series, North and South began, and Brak has been seen no more.

Jakes first foray into comics was without his creation. He wrote the plot that became Conan the Barbarian #13, “Web of the Spider-God” (January 1972). Exactly a year later, Brak debuted in the second issue of the horror anthology Chamber of Chills. This story was reprinted in the black and white Savage Tales (vol. 1) #4 (July, 1974), whose cover promised “THE MOST SAVAGE HEROES OF ALL.” Brak went on to do battle with the minions of evil, god-thing Yob-Haggoth, in his quest to reach Khurdisan the Golden and the high life, for just two more stories in Savage Tales (issues 7 and 8) before disappearing into the mists of Bronze Age legendry. Brak never even got a cover appearance, most of those having been hogged by Ka-Zar.

Next time, we'll take a look at Sword & Sorcery as adapted by DC.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Rock Cried Out: Dwarvish Origins

I'm probably not the first to notice that Todd Lockwood's rendering of the dwarf in the 3e Player's Handbook illustration of the PC races looks rather anthropoid.  It's proportions seem realistic--like the dwarf is a non-sapiens homonid rather than some fantasy creation, or just a stumpy human.

That got me to thinking about how to add a twist to dwarves in my campaign world. 

I thought about Arthur Machen's idea of an aboriginal race getting pushed out by later cultures, and becoming the source of legends of elves and faerie folk, as put forth in The Novel of the Black Seal, and borrowed by Robert E. Howard in several yarns.  That brought to mind a real relative of humanity maybe driven to extinction by our ancestors.  A group of short, stocky folk, dwelling in caves (in the popular imagination), and from northern climes--Neanderthals...

"Living in caves from the start, these aborigines had retreated farther and farther into the caverns of the hills..."
- Robert E. Howard, "People of the Dark" (1932)

This is a tale told by the dzarduk, the dwarves of Arn, in their great and hidden halls beneath the fells:

This is our oldest tale. A tale from before we counted time. This is the tale of how we became Dzarduk...
It was an Age of Winter and the People (who were not yet the Dzarduk) still lived above the ground. They worked only flint, and did not know the secrets of metal. They hunted great beasts of the forest and the tundra for their meat and for their skins.

It was a hard life, but the People were hard as well. They survived.

That was until the Tall Folk came.  They were not as strong, nor as hardy as the People, but they were more cunning in the use of tools, and they bred in greater numbers. The Tall Folk gradually forced the People from their ancestral hunting grounds. They drove them into the highlands and to the edge of the great ice.

It is likely that there the People would have died, but for the dreaming.

A young shaman had a dream of a star fallen from the heavens into the deep mountains long ago. From within the star, a voice beckoned. It promised safety to the People if they could find its resting place.

Older shamans felt the power of the dreaming, but disagreed on its interpretation. They called on the spirits for guidance, but got no answer. All the People met in council. Many thought it foolish to go further into the mountains, into the realm of ice. Others felt it offered their only chance of survival.

Debate went on far into the night, and when it was over, the People were sundered, each band going where it would. Those that chose not to follow the young shaman's dream were lost, and are no more.

The rest travelled many months in the mountains, through ice and snow. They fought great beasts, and remnants of elder races. Many of the People died.

When they finally came upon the valley where the star had fell, they knew it to be a place of great magic. The star, though broken and half buried, was a wonder--it was made of metal, though the People had no word for that substance yet. When they came close, all could here the voice inside, beckoning.

Many became afraid, and would not approach. The young shaman and a few brave hunters went inside the star. They beheld strange things that they could scarce describe. There were dead beings like men, some of them made of the shining stone, like the star itself.

As they stood inside the star, the shaman called out to the voice of its spirit: "You called and we have come. We beg shelter."

"Shelter I will give you," the spirit responded, "but not without a price. I have waited long for someone to answer my summons. I journeyed far to come here, so far I have forgotten much.  My people have died. Some on the voyage, some in our final fall. I have been damaged. There is no one to tend me."

"We will be your people," the shaman said. "Our old gods have forsaken us, or past on. We will tend you, and serve."

The shaman was then caught in a piercing light, and the hunters--brave though they were-- became afraid they had angered the spirit of the star, and it would kill them all. Then the spirit said:

"If you are to be my people, you must change. You are not yet suitable to my purposes. If you will serve, I will make you wiser than any other people in artifice and the working of metal. But you must be warriors as well as craftsman. I will make you stronger, and cunning in war.  That is the only way that we will endure."

The shaman didn't understand all the words the spirit spoke, but it knew truly that this was the only way the People would survive. He took the spirit's words back to the People. Many were afraid, but solemnly they accepted the offer.

The spirit revealed to the People the sheltered cave entrance that part of the star hid.  It showed them how they might find food in it's stores.

Around the fires they built that first night, the People told this story. The story of how we became Dzarduk, the people that were forged.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reel Adventure Seeds

Inspiration is where you find it. 

Here are a few adventure seeds, side quests--what have you--riffed off of films which might not neccessarily scream "adventure fodder."  Throw 'em in your sandbox and see what your player's do with 'em.

Mild SPOILERS follow, if you haven't seen the films. 

"What happened to her eyes?"

Quarantined by fearful authorities in a sprawling but isolated keep, the players combat an outbreak of a strange contagion which turns its victims into raving undead.

"Men like tempered steel.  Tough breed.  Men who learn to endure."

The PCs are hired by a nobleman to rescue his wife who has supposedly been kidnapped by a half-orc bandit chieftain, and taken to his wilderness stronghold.  As the mission unfolds, the PCs find that everything may not be as simple as they've been told.

"Ghost or not, I'll split you in two."

In a rural fiefdom, people live in fear of a monster which strikes without warning, killing people and livestock.  The PCs are hired to find the mysterious beast.  The hunt isn't easy as it appears, as powerful conspiracies fester, and the monster attacks may only be part of a larger, sinister plan.

"There ain't nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that's in it.  Or you. Or me."

The PCs hear that a nobleman is offering a hefty reward for anyone who brings him the head of the scoundrel who got his daughter with child.  A little investigation reveals the scoundrel is already dead and buried, which ought to make acquiring his head easy...Except that the grave's in hostile territory and other bounty-hunters are on the trail.


A PC excitedly brings an old box he found in the corner of a dungeon to the rest of the party.  It contains an ordinary appearing frog.  The PC relates that the frog told him that it's actually a Slaad potentate imprisoned on this plane, and cursed to this form.  If the PCs aid its return to its home plane, it promises them vast riches as reward.  This is what the frog's discoverer assures the others.  The frog or Slaad, however, never speaks to anyone but the character who found it...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Interlude in a Galaxy Far, Far, Away

Stopping the traditional fantasy train to stretch my legs at the science fantasy station...

I've been working my way through The Clone Wars: Season One on blu-ray.  While notably a kid's show in some ways (every episode starts with a moral, for instance) it is, in some ways, more complex and thoughtful than the prequel films.

Anyway, some half-formed observations about Star Wars' ubiquitous droids have been nagging at me for sometime.  Watching an episode the other day, and seeing those bird-headed (and brained) battle droids not only make poor tactical decisions, but do so due to over-confidence, it finally crystallized for me.

The humanoid species of the galaxy programmed these droids?  I think not.

Follow me here: I can buy that people might program artificial intelligences that make bad decisions--maybe that's just an unavoidable sequelae of having that level of AI.  But AI that are arrogant, boneheaded, dishonest, or overconfident?  That seems unlikely.  Yes, AIs like this do show up in science fiction, but they're typically unique entites, not armies of fretting domestics and slow-on-the-uptake battlebots.  I mean, if that was just the inevitable downside to sapient droids, then I think people would just choose to do without them.  Seems like they're more trouble than they're worth a lot of the time. 

So how does one explain the evidence before us in the canon--the fact that pain-in-the-ass droids are found all over the galaxy?

My theory is that the humanoid races don't actual make droids.  Those droid-foundries on Genosis are apocryphal.  I think droids are machine-life enslaved by the biologic sapients of the galaxy. 

I don't really envision Walrus Man or Snaggletooth out on slaving runs (though Jabba's treatment of Oola the Dancing Girl, and Watto's ownership of the Skywalkers might suggest that I'm being naive).  I think maybe certain fringe biologic races or perhaps other droids, sell the droids to galactic society.  These droids aren't manufactured in the sense of being designed by teams of engineers and rolled out of factories, but instead droids are self-replicating.  They "reproduce" in some way (not likely sexual, despite what your thinking), and the resultant neonate intelligences go through some sort of growth/maturation process.  This allows for their (many) personality quirks. 

I don't know if droids "evolved" naturally--I doubt it.  Probably they were initially created by a long-vanished precursor race, or by the transcendent AIs that succeeded a precursor race.  Since that time droids have been undergoing evolution, changing in ways that have made them as complicated and flawed as any biologic sapients.

So the slavery thing...Well, apparently galactic society is just hugely bio-chauvinist.  The bio-sapients are just culturally incapable of viewing droids as anything but machines.

I know this won't fit well with everyone's version of the "Star Wars Universe."  There are also probably some details from the films I haven't addressed.  But I find the nuance this adds to the universe compelling. 

All this speculation is making me consider an unconventional Star Wars campaign sometime in the future...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


“I feel myself becoming a god."
- Titus Flavius Vespasianus ,79 CE
One the fundamental features of D&D is that character’s become tougher and more powerful—often extraordinarily so—as they become more experienced, i.e. “level up” as the kids say. This has never really been addressed “in game-world” that I’m aware of except, in a way, in Mentzer’s so-called BECMI edition of D&D. Here the “endgame” became achieving godhood. I think this is an idea with a lot of potential—and a lot of potential to give “in world” context to other rules elements.  I’ve utilized to that end in the world of Arn. I don’t envision it as something to form the primary focus of the game (it won’t be the endgame of every campaign—or any, necessarily), but more as something to fill out the background. The major inspirations are the BECMI metagame plus some transhuman/posthuman space opera (particularly David Zindell’s A Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy with its “vastened” gods). Since first starting to play with this idea, I’ve discovered Erikson’s Malazan series contains the similar idea of heroes “bootstrapping” themselves into deities, so you might want to check them out as well.

The following is from a treatise by Mnaurmon Lloigor, a renowned scholar and historian, late of Thystara:

It is one of the fundamental features of the universe that mortals may by great deeds come to be invested with capabilities and perceptions superhuman, making them as gods. Such beings are known as “ascended.” Theologians argue this point with thaumaturgic and natural philosophers but have yet to articulate a compelling argument that the supernal objects of human worship are in anyway demonstrably different from ascended beings. In fact, some deities have emerged in historic times by this very process—noble Ahzuran, the patron of the Empire, among them!

How mankind acquired the knowledge of ascension is lost to prehistory. We certainly can trace it to the ancient Empire of the Godmakers, for whom ascension apparently formed a central cultural rite. Perhaps the Godmakers stole this knowledge, or were given it under apprenticeship to some nonhuman elder race. Some have suggested that it was the older, true gods, from whom it was stolen. Or perhaps it was they who carelessly bequeathed it to man.

From where ever it came, we know something of what that knowledge wrought. The Godmakers’ civilization soared to heights mankind has never achieved since, and numerous god-like beings—Immortals—arose.  These godlings made war with superhuman armies and reality-searing weapons against the last redoubts of the elder races, and fell abstractions from the noumenal planes, and finally, against each other.

Then they succumbed to strange fall, and their civilization was gone.

The Godmakers left us no written record (beyond perhaps some indecipherable monumental text), but fragments of their knowledge has been delivered to us through the hands of earlier ages, and the sometimes suspect memories of long-lived, extraplanar entities. Secrets were preserved in hidden places, in some cases by oral tradition, in others by arcane means.

And then there are the subterranean labyrinths constructed, or invoked, apparently to be the crucible of apotheosis—and persisting to tempt the brave or foolish to this day. The purpose of these structures, however, was not immediately recognizable. Other sources were less cryptic and less dangerous.

It was the young conqueror Azuranthus, known to us now as Ahzuran, who became the first man in millennia to claim these secrets from an ancient order of mystics, and ascend, becoming both emperor and patron deity. The knowledge of ascension became part of the teaching of the imperial cult, spread to all parts of the empire.

God-Emperor Ahzuran eventually chose to move beyond this plane. With strife between old faiths and new, political tensions in far-flung provinces, and the machinations of the nascent ascended which had followed in Ahzuran’s wake, the empire could not hold without its patron.

In the period of turmoil that followed, the class of professional adventurers emerged. Foremost, they were interested in finding wealth amid the ancient ruins, or even just looting the treasure troves of  Ahzuran's empire. Over time, however, skillful (and lucky) adventurers began to discover that the dungeons provided a path to ascension. This knowledge became widespread as the empire's successor states began to coalesce.

To this day, adventurers continue pursue the legacy of the Godmakers and of Ahzuran. They dream of temporal power and riches, but also of the chance of godhood. Perhaps some even think on Ahzuran’s last, cryptic pronouncements, wherein he hinted of levels of attainment beyond the ranks of the ascended, and suggested there was even greater power to be won in realms beyond human perception, for those audacious enough to seize it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

They Remember Lemuria: Troglodytes Revisited

It seems to me that the reptilian folk of D&D don't have a lot to differentiate them. Consider the poorly named troglodyte: It's only distinguishing factor from a variety of reptile-men is that it lives underground, and--well, stinks.

Alright, maybe that's a little unfair. Still, at the end of the day, the troglodyte isn't on anybody's "best monster list."

But what if the troglodyte looked less like a chubby lizard-man and more like this:

Now that look opens up a whole new set of associations...

"Sinuous bodies that moved with effortless ease, seeming to flow rather than step. Hands with supple jointless fingers and feet that made no sound and lipless mouths that seemed to always open on silent laughter, infinitely cruel. And all through that vast place whispered a dry harsh rustling, the light friction of skin that had lost its primary scales but not its serpentine roughness."

- Leigh Brackett, The Sword of Rhiannon (1949)
For one thing, the Sleestak image reminds me of paleontologist Dale Russell's hypothetical Troodon-descended, dinosauroid sapient, to whom the Sleestaks bear an uncanny resemblance. For another, anyone steeped in Land of the Lost lore knows that the Sleestaks are the degenerate descendants of a once advanced reptoid civilization.

Maybe troglodytes are a similarly fallen race, and maybe, like the dinosauroid, they share an ancient lineage. Maybe they were once the rulers of the world, before the rise of mammals. Whether this civilization was more like that of Robert E. Howard's Serpent-Folk or Harry Harrison's Yilané, is a matter of taste. Maybe it was a bit of both. Note that the world they were the rulers of need not be the campaign world--planar travel exists. In any case, they ruled from a lost continent, an ancient Mu or Lemuria, what have you, until some cataclysm (the arrival of the moon, perhaps? Hey, it go Doctor Who's Silurians out of the way) drove them underground.

Or maybe, it drove them all the way to the Hollow Earth. If so, maybe an advanced reptoid civilization still thrives there, waiting for the chance to try to regain the surface world. Or maybe they changed with the eons, too. A review of Burroughs' Mahars of Pellucidar might be instructive. Even in this rosier (maybe) scenario, some of their race wound up in-between the inner and outer worlds, in caves, slowly devolving and losing their ancient grandeur--becoming primitive and brutish, and possibly anthrophagous. In short, they became troglodytes.

So, its pretty easy to see where one might go with this. Like with the Sleestaks, there maybe be atavistic troglodytes who have intelligence (or even psionic powers!) not possessed by their peers, for adventurers to encounter. And of course, there could be an army of magical biotechnology armed reptoids waiting for the chance to bust out of the inner earth and lay low upstart mammalian civilization.

Maybe that disgusting stench is smell of troglodyte victory.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Fire & Ice

"I don't think I'd go talk to my Dad dressed like that."

- Dawn K., 2001 (as Princess Teegra, attired in S&S lingerie, talks politics with her father, King Jarol)
I rewatched  Fire and Ice (1893) for the first time in nearly a decade, and the first time ever on blu-ray.  It's murky and probably not hugely better looking than the DVD--and maybe not even the VHS.  The rotoscoping and cel coloring make the characters appear completely separate from the lushly painted backgrounds much of the time  It's silly in a lot of ways and has its share of plot holes. 

It's also probably the most Frazetta thing ever to make it to film--and that goes a long way.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dungeon Calling

As promised last post, here's pretty much the entirety of "pitch" I gave my players to give them a feel for the game I wanted to run. It seems to have worked well for those with a strong past history of D&D.  For the others, maybe not as much.  This was written before the GURPS incarnation of the game, sometime in early 2008, but most of the terminology has changed only slightly between conception and the current Warriors & Warlocks campaign.

The clever China Mieville quote at the beginning nails the adventurer even better than the one I offered up last time: "Anything for gold and experience..."

“…Apparently, there’s a few serious adventurers in town right now, claiming to have just liberated some major trow haul from the ruins in Tashek Rek Hai. Might be up for a little paid work.”
Derkhan looked up. Her face creased in distaste. She shrugged unhappily.
“I know they’re some of the hardest people in Bas-Lag,” she said slowly. It took some moments for her to turn her mind to the issue. “I don’t trust them though. Thrill-seekers. They court danger. And they’re quite unscrupulous graverobbers for the most part. Anything for gold and experience…”

- China Mieville, Perdido Street Station

All over the world there are found catacombs, tombs, ruined underground cities—dungeons. These dungeons are full of wealth beyond imagining—hoards of gold, silver, and jewels, and magical artifacts of a lost civilization much more advanced than the current one. Obtaining these treasures is seldom easy.  Dungeons are also full of deadly, inhuman creatures in a bewildering array of forms—strangely an even greater variety than in the world above.
Still, there are many brave—or foolish—enough to try.  They are called adventurers, and they are the legends, folk-heroes, or folk anti-heroes of their world. They're the Robin Hoods and Sir Lancelots of their world, but also the Jesse James, Doc Hollidays, and Bonnie and Clydes. They challenge the horrors of the depths, and wrest glory and riches from them.
Boomtowns grow up around the entrances to newly discovered dungeons.  Merchants, harlots, and entertainers seek to supply the needs of adventurers or relieve them of their loot. It is a fluid, chaotic age in many ways; the old stratifications of society are loosening, leading to opportunity and uncertainty.

And there are gains to be made beyond wealth and status. Such was the wisdom of the ancients that they were able to discover a fundamental trait of the universe. The quickest way to ascend to levels beyond the mortal realm, to gain the power of a demigod or even a god, is through the challenge of adventuring.

Quick isn’t easy. Many more adventurers end their careers with their bones moldering in the underdark—the victims of monsters, traps, or fellow treasure-seekers.

Adventurers are philosophical about this. After all, it just leaves more for the survivors.


ADVENTURER: An individual who utilizes his skills in magic or force of arms in the pursuit of wealth in various dangerous ways. The term is often used pejoratively by common-folk, but just as often tinged with envy or awe. It is commonly known that adventuring played an important, perhaps central, role in the rites of the GODMAKERS.  This does not endear the activity to religious or temporal authorities, though there is a degree of hypocrisy in their attitudes in that many of society’s leaders are former adventurers themselves, or at least the descendents of such.
ASCENDED, the: IMMORTALS who were once mortals.
ALIGNMENT: The name given to the moral “colors” of the spectrum of magical energies emanating from the Outer Planes of the GREAT WHEEL and infusing the PRIME MATERIAL PLANE. These are envisioned as matrix of the interactions of two axes—Good (eusocial, empathetic) versus Evil (antisocial, egoist), and Law (rules-based, stable) versus Chaos (anarchic, mutable). "Neutral" generally describes a state not strongly attuned to the poles of either axis, but can also refer to energies of balance.

CLERIC: Originally, the name used for a priest of a religious militant order, many of which were established for adventuring in service of their temple. Their ritual investment allows the practice of theurgy, wherein the cleric acts as a conduit for divine energies to cast spells. Over time, the term came to be applied more broadly to any theurgist, including non-militant priests or even laity.

DELVER: An ADVENTURER involved in exploring (i.e. looting) a DUNGEON.
DEMIHUMAN: Subspecies or closely related species to mankind, which are generally amicable and take part in human societies. DWARVES, ELVES, GNOMES and HALFLINGS are the most prominent examples.

DEMON: The colloquial name for the beings of the Abyss, primordial beings aligned to chaos and evil utterly devoted to the ultimate dissolution of matter.
DEVIL: The colloquial name for the hierarchical, egoist beings of the Nine Hells who seek to overthrow the current order of the multiverse. Legend holds that devils were initially soldiers for the gods in their war against the DEMONS and other chaotic forces in early creation before rebelling against their former masters.

DUNGEON: Most common name for the seemingly artificial, subterranean complexes found throughout the world. Most dungeons are ancient (from the time of the EMPIRE OF GODMAKERS, or before), though some date to known historic times. They are frequently inhabited by multiple species of exotic monsters, some found in no other environment. The monsters seem to be imprisoned there, hence the name. Some sages have pointed out the obviously magical nature of these environments, noting that the creatures residing in dungeons often have no visible means of sustenance, ensconced torches often seem to burn perpetually, and traps have been found to “reset” themselves after a space of time. The Godmakers believed the dungeons to be essential challenges for heroes on the path to apotheosis.

DUNGEON MASTERS: The putative beings or culture responsible for the creation of the majority of ancient DUNGEONS. They may or may not have been the same as the GODMAKERS.
DWARF: A DEMIHUMAN species with short stature and stocky builds. Dwarves are adapted to colder, mountainous climes, but often are at least semi-subterranean. As a group, they are known as fierce warriors and great artificers.

DRUID: Adherents to ancient cults in the service of the balance of nature. Druids are able to channel energies in the manner of CLERICS, though they serve an ideal or force rather than an IMMORTAL.

ELF: A DEMIHUMAN species close enough related to mankind to interbreed. Elves are theorized to have been magically uplifted (perhaps by an IMMORTAL patron) from base humanity—they are longer lived, more graceful and beautiful, and adept at arcane arts.

GODMAKERS, EMPIRE OF: An ancient hegemony spanning most of the known world.  The central rite of Godmaker society was the creation of new IMMORTALS by several paths their sages had discovered. Ultimately, the machinations of these Immortals and the erstwhile seekers of immortality caused their culture to collapse and led to large areas being devastated by arcane weapons of mass destruction. Historians argue over whether the DUNGEON MASTERS were of the same cultural lineage as the Godmakers, or preceded them.
GREAT WHEEL: The common model of the structure of the OUTER PLANES. While it in no way accurately represents the reality of these realms, whose actual structure is multidimensional and beyond human understanding, it conveys the metaphysical relationships between them.

HALFLING: Child-sized DEMIHUMANS often living close to human settlements.

HUMANOIDS: Anthropoid sapients mostly inimical to humankind. This includes orcs, goblins and related species.

IMMORTALS: Gods and god-like beings. The ASCENDED are Immortals who were formerly mortal, but acquired god-level power through various means. Some philosophers have hypothesized that all Immortals are ascended, but theologians ridicule this idea. Whatever there origins, all gods derive their magical abilities from one of the OUTER PLANES and must adhere to its ALIGNMENT.
MAGE: A practitioner of the art and science of ARCANE spellcasting, often also referred to as a wizard. Mage’s research and collect formulae for harnessing the raw energy of the multiverse for thaumaturgic purposes. These are formulae are ritually reduced to sigils which the mage imprints upon his consciousness to later released in a casting. Mage’s are barred by the interference of the Immortals from spells of healing or resurrection.

MONK: Generally refers to a member of a monastic religious order, but in the sphere of ADVENTURERS it refers to a member of an esoteric religious or quasi-religious sect which practices unarmed martial arts.
ORC: A humanoid species generally inimical to humans and DEMIHUMANS. Orcs are capable of interbreeding with humans, and half-orcs are often found among the ranks of ADVENTURERS.

OUTER PLANES: The thirteen conceptual realms idealizing the ALIGNMENTs. They are home to OUTSIDERs, which may appear on the PRIME MATERIAL PLANE.

OUTSIDER: Sapients from the planes other than the Prime Material; Ultraterrestrials.

PRIME MATERIAL PLANE: The universe, or set of universes, which are home to humanity. Based on the Great Wheel cosmology, it is literally the center of the multiverse.

PSIONICS: A paranormal power directed by the minds of gifted individuals and creatures. Its metaphysics is poorly understood save that it emanates from the individual, not from extraplanar forces, and that it is undetectable by means used to perceive arcane

So you get the idea.  While not comprehensive, it gives an overview of several of the common D&D touchstones, reinterpreted through the conceits of the setting.  It obviously something of a rationalized setting, in that many things are "explained" or given a sort of scientiftic veneer, as opposed to one which portrays the fantastic in an irrational or inherently irreducible manner.  This won't be the everyone's taste, and it's not to my tastes in every campaign, but it's what I wanted to do here. 

Another question it might raise is from what "stance" is it written?  Is it a document as might be read "in world" or a scholarly text looking at it from on outside perspective?  On that issue, I've never completely made up my mind.  I suspect that this is mainly "player"--as opposed to "character"--knowledge.  I think educated characters would be aware of most of the information presented above, but probably wouldn't understand it or conceptualize it the same way.

And looking back on it now, I think my conception of the setting, and where I want to go with it continues to change--in no small part due to it moving from an off-hand idea of mine to something others are interacting with and putting through its paces in play.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Being something of a world-building aficionado, I love a good glossary/encyclopedia at the end of a fine novel. Good supplementary material of this sort shouldn't be strictly necessary for the understanding/ enjoyment of the work, but it ought to enhance what's already there, and if there are sequels (and with fantasy fiction there usually are), tantalizingly hint at mysteries to come.

Tolkien, world-building master though he is, doesn't provide the best of these to my tastes. Mainly, this is because he was doing something different in his appendices.  He offered up several essays to expand or explicate his background, not give a ready reference or lay the foundation for sequels. No, interesting though Tolkien's Lord of the Rings appendices may be, I don't find myself revisiting them. They're just too weighty.

The the best, in my mind, is the "Terminology of the Imperium" in Frank Herbert's Dune. Not only does it support the text for readers of poor memory or with "exotic" word difficulty, but it expands upon the text in ways that feel like bonus value. There's nothing really there that you need to "get" Dune, but it certainly increases the feeling of depth in Herbert's world. Herbert also gives us some short Tolkien-esque essays as well, which are really good, but the "Terminology" is where it's at.

I've on occasion tried to use a similar device/technique in gaming. I know some might be critical of this. Their response will be something along the lines of "if the players need a glossary for your game then it's too complicated!" but I think that's a simplistic view. The exoticness of the names in Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne might be an impediment to some players (after all, a lot of people have a hard time remembering everyday English names), but does that mean they should be barred from playing in worlds with more challenging linguistic backgrounds?

Surely the litmus test should be: is the supplementary material enhancing the enjoyment of the players, or is it serving the ego of the world's creator?

Now, there's no reason it can't do both, but the former, I believe, is the essential ingredient.

Anyway, I first tried something like this back in the days of  second edition of AD&D. Our campaign was suitably in then-current fashion of "EPIC!" and had a large cast and a continental sweep. Tad William's lists of people, places, and things (broken up by culture) from his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy was the model followed. The player's at the time liked this, and I was pleased with how they utilized it in play, but my tastes have changed, and I now find this style of campaign suboptimal.

I did use a similar approach in a GURPS fantasy game several years ago. It was less well received this time--or at least it was utilized less in session. Maybe it was the player group, or maybe feeling they were a part of a "meaningful" storyline made the player's in the AD&D game more interested in savoring detail. Who knows?

In preparing my current game, I did sort of a "pitch" document for the players so we could get on the same wavelength. A portion of that was a short "encyclopedic glossary" as sort of flavor text. This time around, I didn't intend (or expect) player's to use it at gaming sessions.  I just wanted to help them get what I was going for. Largely, I feel its been successful in that regard, though maybe one of my player's may jump in here and say otherwise...

Next time, I'll post the text I gave the players--both to further my ongoing digressions on the campaign, and as one example of how I think a glossary can be used to enhance play.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Wild, Fantastic Hazard Had Been Their Lot

"They were immediately and absolutely recognizable as adventurers...They were hardy and dangerous, lawless, stripped of allegiance or morality, living off their wits, stealing, and killing, hiring themselves out to whoever and whatever came. They were inspired by dubious virtues."
- China Mieville, Perdido Street Station

When I was in the early stages of planning my new game (began in GURPS and now reincarnated in Warriors & Warlocks),  part of what occupied my imagination was a reconsideration of what an "adventurer" was.  The concept is such a staple of roleplaying, that I had for sometime just accepted it at its face and hadn't much thought about what it meant.

Well surely Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are adventurers in the rpg sense, as is Conan (for much of his life), and Imaro (at least the short-story version--he gets a little more "epic" in the novels).  Nifft the Lean fits the bill.  Owen of Marrdale and his companion, Khitai of David Mason's The Sorcerer's Skull would probably be welcome at guild meetings, too. 

But there are an awful lot of fantasy literature protagonists, though, that may have elements of the RPG style adventurer, but also, quite reasonably, embody some literary archetype.  We've got hidden monarchs, brave little tailors, cursed wanders, battle-haunted veterans, and wrathful avengers.  Elric, Kane, Salmanson's Tomoe Gozen, Taran Pig-keeper, and Arthur, King of the Britons, are all wonderful creations, but not archetypal adventurers--if one uses the term strictly in the D&D since.

Nothing wrong with that.  In fact, a little bit more backstory in a gaming character never really hurts, provided it serves as a springboard for good adventures or adventure elements.  Convoluted backstory with no game use is really just indulging the desire to write fiction in the guise of gaming (which may not be a bad thing either, but it's beside the point).  But none of those literary archetypes really encompasses the professional adventurer that one sees emerge from game manuals or sessions. 

Yes I know, I keep saying that but not really defining what I mean.  Well, let me direct your attention to exhibits A and B at the opening of this post.  First we find Dave Trampier's cover to the AD&D Player's Handbook which encapsulates perfectly the concept I'm driving at.  James Maliszewski at Grognardia dissects it just shy of perfection here, so I won't try to compete, only amplify by quoting his cogent observation about the enthusiastic fane-robbers: "These aren't necessarily heroes. They may be heroes, at least some of them, but they don't seem to be motivated solely by altruism."   To which I might respond, rhetorically: "solely?"

Exhibit B is the quote from China Mieville's wonderful, first Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station.  This is not a book about adventurers per se--any many ways, it's an anti-adventurer book--but such individuals exist on the fringes of the society.  Perhaps good aligned D&D characters might take offense at the description (though their behavior might suggest otherwise), but for neutrals and evils its a critical hit.

When I think of adventurers in this context, and not as characters in a typical fantasy novel, I begin to see a whole new group of literary touchstones.  Are the scalphunters-turned-bandits of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian that far off?  At least for a mostly evil-aligned party?  On the more virtuous side, how about Chabon's titular Gentlemen of the Road?  Moving from tumultuous history to dark future, I'd offer Case, and Molly, the protagonists of Gibson's Neuromancer.

We don't have to stick to literature.  I see a lot of inspiration in film, too.  Why don't we give our adventurers a Ennio Morricone score?  Tuco, Blondie, and Angel Eyes in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly may not be robbing crypts, but their hearts are in the right (or wrong) place.  Fist Full of Dollars (or its original Yojimbo) could almost be a D&D adventure if either director had bothered to include one short dungeoncrawl.  Probably the same could be said of The Wild Bunch.  I'd love to see a player do a medieval fantasy take on Holden's Bishop Pike.  Or even better: Borgnine's Dutch Angstrom as a dwarf.

Enough Westerns?  How about something from the Tarantino catalog?  Reservoir Dogs sort of ends like a number of my high school D&D games.  Pulp Fiction even has a scary dungeon.  From Dusk til Dawn has a whole adventuring party raiding a vampiric temple--only its cleric can't turn undead.  "Hardy, dangerous, and lawless" would certainly describe the Brothers Gecko.

You get the idea.  The traditional fantasy inspirations and their knockoffs will always have their place, but there are other sources to go to find models for the sort of folks that would brave dark labyrinths, kill things, and take their stuff.

Let's make the most creative use of those "dubious virtues," shall we?