Monday, May 31, 2010

Short People, Big Worm

The first known people from Ealderde, the Old World, to arrive in the environs of what is now the City, were the Dwerg-folk of Gulden. Though of human stock, the Dwergen are pygmies--the males less than five feet tall, and the women even shorter. Perhaps because of their unimposing stature, they devoted themselves to becaming wealthy through trade, and became a far-ranging mercantile people.

Over three hundred years ago, they struck a deal with the natives of the New World allowing them to build a fort and trading post that would one day grow into the City. The Dwergen were eventually outnumbered by immigrants from other lands, but people of Dwerg descent make up most of the "old money" families of the City. Today, they're generally of normal height, due to interbreeding with newer arrivals, but there's occasionally a throwback to the old blood.

The people of Gulden were never great wizards, and neither are their descendants. Historically, they lived in fear of the White Women--those born among them with the taint of witch-blood. These pale-skinned, ice-blue eyed, overwhelmingly female, infants were left exposed in the wilderness, where they were generally found and taken in by a sabbat of White Women. The White Women were said to torment isolate Dwergen, particularly males, and often visited curses upon rural villages that didn't pay them adequate tribute. Though the birth of a White Woman among modern Dwergen or their relatives in the New World isn't viewed with the superstitious dread it once was, it's still considered ill-omened and a source of family shame. Among the most conservative families, such children are still sent away or hidden from public view.

Despite their lack of aptitude with sorcery, and perhaps because of their conflict with the White Women, Dwergen traditionally were knowledgeable in regard protective circles, charms, and sigils. They also worked hard at perfecting alchemical arts--particular in the realm of the development of alchemical brewing and the thaumaturgically assisted growth of mushrooms with unusual properties. Unfortunately, these arts are mostly lost among those of Dwergen descent in the City, who tend exhibit only the shrewd-dealing traits of their ancestors.

Another reputed relic of the Old Dwerg days of the City, is the ancient wurm. The wurm is a dragon-like serpent, which dwelled in the streams and fens of the main isle of what is now the City, receiving the fearful deference of the natives. By draining the wetlands, and diverting many of the streams underground the Dwergen sapped the strength of the creature and drove it from the surface. City folklore holds that it still lives, nursing a grudge against the City that prospered in the wake of its defeat. It particularly yearns for vengeance against those of the old Dwerg blood, and devours all those that fall into its clutches. Rumor holds that the downtrodden and disenfranchised of the City--often recent immigrants--sometimes worship the wurm with hidden, and primitive rites, hoping to gain its favor by helping it in its vengeance and eventual return to the surface.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bug Powder

Bill: What do you mean, "it's a literary high"?

Joan: It's a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.

- Naked Lunch (1991)

Bug Powder is a strange magical substance found in the City, and its world, and possibly elsewhere. It generally appears as pale yellowish powder, and its official use is as a professional-grade insecticide. It can be found in containers from several different and mysterious suppliers--"Benway Chymical", and "Voke & Veech", are prominent examples. Bug powder will indeed serve as an insecticide, but if nasally insufflated (snorted), or injected intravenously in small doses it has euphoric and mild hallucinogenic properties.

Long-term use generally leads to dependence, but also, like use of a large single dose, seems to open a doorway to another plane. Users report travel to an exotic, desert world under two reddish moons, were lies a sprawling pennisular city called Interzone, on the quivering banks of a gelatinous sea. The swarthy inhabitants of Interzone appear human in all respects, but have undefinable and unsettling air of strangeness about them. In addition to the natives, humans from many time periods and worlds, as well as alien beings, can be found sweating in Interzone, perusing their own agendas. There is a great deal of political intrigue in the city-state, and several different political factions--but the goals of these groups and the reasons for their conflicts often seem contradictory, if not outright nonsensical.

Mystics and planar scholars believe Interzone to be an interstitial realm acting as a gate or "customs station" between the material world and the inner planes. Supporting this view is the presence of soldiers the Hell Syndicates, as well as miracleworking street-preachers and holy hermits professing the varied and conflicting "ultimate truths" of the Seven Heavens. A slight variation on this view, is that Interzone is not so much a part of the astral plane, but more an extension of Slumberland, the Dream-World, located in some seedy Delirium ghetto. Further exploration will be needed to determine this for certain.

This exploration isn't without dangers. While physical dependence comes from the bug powder's use, the thinning of the psychic barriers between the material world and Interzone serve to cause a person to involuntarily shift between the two. This tends to generate feelings of paranoia--and perhaps rightly so, as the more time one spends in Interzone, the more likely one is to become an agent (perhaps unwittingly) of one of its factions, and fall prey to its byzantine intrigues.

One final interesting bit of Interzone lower is that the natives hold that their city-state, was actually once six cities of very different mystic character, physically indistinct and loosely co-spatial, but still spiritually differentiated. The names of theses putative cities when uttered with the proper ritual, are said to be a powerful spell, though sources disagree as to what purpose.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Alternate Islands: Other Ways to Get LOST

"Guys...Where are we?"
- Charlie Pace, Lost

Well that seemed to be the question, didn't it? Now that Lost has finished its sixth and final season we still may not have a definitive answer. No reason, then, not to go looking for alternatives...

I've already suggested that Lost had parallels with the lost world genre, but we needn't stop there. Here are two more alternative islands for Lost-like shennanigans, suitable for gaming.

"Do that good mischief, which may make this island thine for ever..."
- Caliban, The Tempest

"I'm not a big believer in... magic. But this place is different. It's special."
- John Locke (Terry O'Quinn)

Not long after their arrival on the island, the survivors of Oceanic 815 realize they're not alone. There's a group of "others"--a strange society supposedly descended from shipwrecked Italian sailors, and two supernatural beings: a monster that appears as a cloud of smoke, and an entity which appears as ghosts of the dead. These are said to to be the servants of the mysterious and sorcerous ruler of the island--Prospero. One is Caliban, the rapacious son of the witch from whom Prospero wrested the isle and its wellspring of magical energy. The other is Ariel, a spirit of the air, Prospero freed in exchange for service. Which is which remains a mystery, as the actions of both are ambiguous. Then, of course, there's beautiful Miranda, the ingenue and daughter of Prospero--or is all of that just an act?

For extra fun, this Lost in the Tempest, comes with the optional Forbidden Planet--er, Island--add-on, where the Ariel and Caliban are just two aspects of Prospero's psyche, given form by ancient alien technology. Or maybe all the non-crash survivors are the productions of a deranged reality-warping alien AI, fixated on Shakespeare?

"It's an island, where I live. So far as I know, it hasn't got a name."
- H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau

"You taste like fish biscuits."
- Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly)

Let's call this one: Island of Lost Souls.  Turns out Wells's novel was true, but not the whole story. The unorthodox (read: utterly insane) experiments of vivisection enthusiast Dr. Moreau only worked on the island, where certain "anomalies" subtley bent the laws of nature. We all know how that ended, so when DHARMA arrives in the seventies to follow-up on those anomalies (Magic? Alien Nanotech? Both?) , they find the island inhabited by the tribal "others"--beast-folk descended from Moreau's experiments. The war between DHARMA and the beast men leaves the island mostly uninhabited by humans until the faithful plane crash.

Did Wells tell us Moreau died? Like I said, that's not the whole story. Somehow, the doctor either evolved himself (or degenerated) into a inky swarm of some sort. Still intelligent, Moreau means to regain control of the island, and his rebellious creations. And then, with the crash survivors, he'll start a whole new set of experiments.

Of course, there are others: Lost on Skull Island, Lost on Monster Island, Lost on Mysterious Island, maybe even Lost on the Isle of Dread?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cthulhu Behind Glass

I got back from my conference last night, so I'll be back to my normal posting schedule anon.  One last filler post for today. 

As a follow-up to my photo of my Howardian bookcase, I thought I'd show my Lovecraftiana bookcase, which includes not only works by the master, but allied works as well as references and commentaries.  The lower shelf (not fully pictured) holds the complete supernatural fiction of the Robert W. Chambers, who of course was one of Lovecraft's inspirations.

Probably the most obscure (though still readily available) volume here is Richard Tierney's Drums of Chaos wherein his historical Sword & Sorcery character, Simon of Gitta, teams up with his pulp sci-fi character John Taggart.  Oh yeah--and Jesus makes an appearance.  Other more off-beat titles include the flawed but entertaining Shadow's Bend, in which Lovecraft and Howard go on a road-trip to save the world, and Nick Mamatas's Move Underground, which is a Lovecraftian tale as written by Jack Kerouac.

Some of the Chaosium volumes are out-of-print, though, so maybe they're the hardest to come by, these days.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Skartaris Revealed

I'm taking a break from my issue by issue examination of DC Comics' Warlord, to offer the offical map of Skartaris.  This originally appeared in Warlord Annual #4 (1985), but essentially the same map was feature in DC Who's Who.

This was, of course, after the end of Grell's involvement in the series.  Grell has said interviews that he always resisted mapping Skartaris, as he felt that would impair the sort of fantasy-land nature of the place: "Why would you put boundaries on your imagination?"

I imagine a lot of fans felt otherwise, and it appears DC editorial staff did, as well. 

Here's the map as it appeared.  Many of the places have already appeared in my review--Kiro, Bakwele, Bal Shazar, and the forest of Ebondar.  Many others though, lie ahead.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Brief Programming Note

I'm out of town conventioning for the next few days--navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Big Pharma and the occasional protester--so my posts may be thinner.  By the end of the week, I expect to be back to my regular schedule.

For today, please enjoy this interesting bit of Bronze Age comic book cartography from Atlas Comics' Wulf the Barbarian #3 (1975):

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Of Drifting Inspirations

For me at least, ideas tend to drift a little with time. Case in point: the setting idea I introduced as a "hard-boiled fantasy" sandbox has moved a little from the mean streets walked by Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. Not that the City doesn't have those streets--it certainly does, but consideration of the wider, weirder, world, and thinking about all the disparate elements of fantastic Americana I'd like to include has caused a shift in tone, or at least a broadening. Of late, I've been thinking of the ironic humor of perennial favorite (of mine anyway) James Branch Cabell, or, more apropos to this setting--Damon Runyon.

Anyway, with all that said, here are the current major ingredients of my strange stew of American fantasy/pulp weirdness:

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: American fantasy at its most quintessential. W.W. Denslow illustrations help, but the classic film versions are probably influential, too.

Dashniell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon: I didn't say the hard-boiled influences were totally gone. It's got tough guy dialogue, a femme fatale, and double-dealing to get an ancient artifact.

Manly Wade Wellman, the Silver John, Judge Pursuivant, and John Thunstone stories. Fantasies that draw on American traditions--but also aren't afraid to make things up.

Max Collins and Terry Beatty, Johnny Dynamite. The 1994 limited series.  A private dick out of Mickey Spillane takes on a criminal Faust, in a psychotronic yarn.

Eric Powell, The Goon. The title character and his side-kick against zombies and other weird menaces in a fictional (and somewhat surreal) American city in a period vaguely between the Depression and the 50s.

E.C. Segar,  Popeye. Fisticuffs, quirky characters, a Sea Hag, and a Goon (no relation ;) ).

Animation & Film:
Baccano! (2007) anime (based on the light novel series by Ryohgo Narita) about warring criminal families, immortal alchemists, and a host of other quirky characters vying for an elixir of immortality in the 1930s.

Carnivale (2003): HBO series about a secret battle between Manichean forces coming to its resolution in the Depression-era dust bowl.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964): An mysterious Chinese man brings his fantastic circus to a small Southwestern town. Plenty of weirdness in an American setting.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dungeon, American Style: City Lost, Canyon Grand

"The latest news of the progress of the explorations of what is now regarded by scientists as not only the oldest archaeological discovery in the United States, but one of the most valuable in the world, which was mentioned some time ago in the Gazette, was brought to the city yesterday by G. E. Kinkaid, the explorer who found the great underground citadel of the Grand Canyon during a trip from Green River, Wyoming, down the Colorado, in a wooden boat, to Yuma, several months ago."
-- "Explorations in Grand Canyon," Phoenix Arizona Gazette (April 5, 1909)

So begins an article that describes the discovery of a "great underground citadel" with its entrance in the Grand Canyon--a real American dungeon.

Ok, maybe not real--despite what you might read on the internet about sinister Smithsonian cover-ups. But it is a American, and has the makings of a great dungeon.

The byline-less article tells the story of G.E. Kinkaid (or Kincaid, in works of a more recent vintage) who's thumbnailed as "a explorer and hunter all his life" and said to have worked for the "Smithsonian Institute" for thirty years. Kinkaid was travelling from Green River, Wyoming, to Yuma, New Mexico, down the Colorado in a wooden boat. In the Grand Canyon, in what is thought by subsequent researchers to be Marble Canyon, Kinkaid discovered the entrance to a cavern "1,486 feet down the sheer canyon wall." This cavern "hewn in solid rock by human hands, was of oriental origin, possibly from Egypt, tracing back to Ramses."

An expedition under the "S.A. Jordan" (another figure whose existence is difficult to verify) started mapping the cavern in good adventurer-style. Highlights include two large chambers, radiating passages, assorted idols, mummies wrapped in bark, mysterious hieroglyphics, and a "grey metal" that baffled scientists, but resembles that most valauble of D&D coinage metals, platinum. And one other intriguing random treasure: "Strewn promiscuously over the floor everywhere are what people call "cats eyes', a yellow stone of no great value. Each one is engraved with the head of the Malay type." The whole 1909 article is helpfully provided here, rich with cool detail.

Even better, Jack Andrews, a researcher on the topic, offers a map in the article on his website:

Admittedly, The layout's a little plain as dungeons go, but a location that can only be reached by climbing nearly 1500 feet down the wall of a deep gorge, or up from a fast moving river, is actually the sort of place adventurers ought to be going. Probably there'd be some nonhuman inhabitants in a fantasy game, but cranky mummies or even rival treasure-hunters would work in a pulp setting or wild west.

I wonder what those "cat's eyes" stones will appraise for?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Settings I'd Like to See

Hey, full games are fine--I'm not picky--but its these settings in particular that I'd like see:

Once Upon A Time in the West
I know we've had "elves and dwarves in the Old West" and "let's have a lot of fantastic things going on in an alternate history Old West", but I'd like to see something more like the post-Apocalyptic, sort of Arthurian, fantasy Old West of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I'd settle for the more-coherent-than-Deadlands alt-history fantasy of Mark Sumner's The Devil's Tower, or Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, which is even better, but really pre-classical Western era.

Bedeviled Dinosaurs
Hairy primitives and their dinosaur companions (or vice versa) versus more belligerent hairy primitives, prehistoric monsters, and space aliens. In other word's Jack Kirby's Devil Dinosaur series exploding into rpg form.  It would be a lost world well worth finding.

Giants in the Earth
Take parts of Exalted, but emphasize the Biblical inspirations, and combine it with some wild-eyed von Daniken-esque fantasizing, preferably in the key of Kirby's (him again!) Eternals and put it all in a Sword & Sorcery prehistory.  Nephilim tread the jeweled thrones of the earth under their sandaled feet.

A Different (Head-)Space
I'd like an action/adventure space opera with a little bit more of the trippiness of Dune, particularly as it would have been adapted in Heavy Metal or Epic magazine. Star Wars informed less by Alex Raymond derring-do, than by Jim Starlin psychedelia. Something more like Dreadstar, Metamorphosis Odyssey, or European imports like The Incal, or Metabarons.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: All Men Are Mine

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"All Men Are Mine"
Warlord (vol. 1) #14 (August-September 1978)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Machiste and Mariah keep a worried vigil at the side of an unconscious Morgan. The events of last issue left Morgan weak from loss of blood, and infection has set in. Despite her best efforts with Stryker's first aid get, Mariah worries that Morgan is dying.

Within the depths of his perhaps-fevered mind, Morgan finds himself falling through darkness. Then, in some sort of cave, he encounters a woman shrouded in shadow who calls to him in a sultry voice "with a touch of fire and ice." The woman calls him beloved and says she has been his companion since before he came to Skartaris--when he was hunting as a boy in Wyoming, and when he was flying missions over Vietnam. She says he has served well as her champion, but now she beckons him to her embrace, offering "the sweet blackness of eternal sleep."

She is Death.

Morgan, sword raised, snarls at her to stay away. Death, seemingly stung by his refusal, repeats that she offers him release from the suffering and give him a place in the Hall of Heroes. Though he acknowledges that life brings pain and anguish, he still refuses--violently--as he tries to run her through.

Death is unfazed, and calls him a fool. She can be tender or terrible, she reminds him. And life can be terrible, too. Her touch on his sword sends a chill through it that sends Morgan reeling. Her blasts of "nether energy" drop him into a realm of nightmare. He battles demonic creatures at overwhelming odds, but he still refuses to take her hand and the succor she offers.

Next, he finds himself hanging on a torture rack in a dungeon. Still Morgan rejects her embrace. Death asks why, and Morgan's only reply is to scream out the name "Tara." Spurned for another woman, Death tells him to go and suffer hardships and agony, but promises that one day he will cry for her kiss. Morgan denies that, and flippantly says he's got things to do other than think about that--but he'll see her around.

Death replies that indeed he will. "In the end," Death reminds him, "all men are mine."

No sooner is that admonition given, than Morgan awakens, much to relief of his two companions.

Things to Notice:
  • Again, the cover bears little relationship to the events of the issue. It does look a lot like DC horror covers of the Bronze Age
Where It Comes From:
The conflict with Death in this issue seems part of the general Bronze Age comic tradition--compare Starlin's portrayal of Death in Captain Marvel, and numerous DC horror and war comics, which of course in influenced by a host of other media.

The physical appearance of Death is a bit of a depature from the usual. Despite the traditional Grim Reaper on the cover, death is a voluptuous Skartarian woman in the issue, with some Indian flourishes to her attire. In fact, given her belt of skulls, Grell may have been inspired the Indian goddess Kali, who often similarly accessorizes:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Post-Game Report: Tooth and Claw

This past Sunday, after a bit of a hiatus, we continued our Warriors & Warlock campaign, using a freely-adapted version of Paizo's Children of the Void in the Second Darkness adventure path. Our regular cast:
Brother Gannon - Good with knives.  Wishes he had more poison.
Renin - Uses his fry yours.
Zarac - Hopes you've got gold in your teeth.
Left on the dilapadated docks on the island of Devil's Elbow, our heroes had four days to find a haul of skymetal and return back here to meet Djosspur Kray, and his vessel The Flying Cloud, for their trip back to Raedelsport.  Also, there was the question of what sort of creature had decimated the dwarvish contingent, and what became of all the mages from the Esoteric Order of Cryptographers.  Since it was already dusk, the party checked out the old buildings around the dock.  Finding one of them in reasonably good condition, and free of any dangers, they made camp for the night.

The module has a robust wandering monster table, but I had inadvertently left the notebook wherein I had done the Pathfinder to Warriors & Warlocks conversion of the monsters at home.  I had to improvise.

The next morning, the group leaves the docks and heads up the step trail to the failed and abandoned settlement of Witchlight.  Wandering monster time!

Luckily (for me, perhaps not the players), the Warriors & Warlocks book provide me with some ready to use monster stats.  The party soon finds they're being followed by three utahraptors...

...One of which is shown here in silhouette with a man, Renin probably.  That's just the pose they were in right before the thing took a bite out of him.

Anyway, the raptors are upon them--all hissing, feathers, and wicked talons.  Unlucky rolls insure they hit the party hard, and all three are wounded before they hit the beasts.  By the end of the fight, all of the party have been stunned at least once, and Gannon has been disabled.  Most of the damage against the raptors comes courteousy of Renin's brain-frying mental blasts, but Gannon gets hits in, and Zarac rallies at the end to kill two of them with one mighty blow, utilizing a nifty feat.

The party spent the next couple of in-game hours trying to get enough good healing rolls to go on--and giving Gannon a couple of doses of the healing potions they had had the foresight to purchase before beginning the venture.

Limping on up toward the settlement of Witchlight, the party sees vultures circling ominously overhead, and a light flashing peridiodically high in one of the still-standing towers...

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Man of Wealth and Taste

"We may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talent."
- Mark Twain

Mr. Scratch, or sometimes "Nick Scratch", is a mysterious fixture in the City. Scratch makes all the right parties, and can be seen in all the tony night-spots.  He might be glimpsed hobnobbing with the scions of old-money Dwerg families, rising-star city aldermen, or high-placed members of the Blefuscu crime family; or buddying up to the hippest entertainers, or even some of the more public supernatural denizens of the city. At the same time, more than one down-and-out hophead, or death-row loser, will spin you a tale of having met him outside some dive in Hell's Commot, or on a smuggler's dock obscured by midnight fog off the Eldritch.

Wherever he's met, Scratch is always stylishly and impeccably dressed. His handsome features are typically adorned with a sardonic grin. His moustache and beard are always neatly trimmed, and his hands well-manicured. Most people either don't notice--or are too polite to mention--the small horns on his forehead. He's usually flanked by "muscle" of almost preternatural quiet. This goons act more like well-dressed statues than men--unless Scratch needs them to make a point.  He maintains a well-appointed office in a skyscraper downtown (on the 66th Floor, naturally), though that's seldom where people first meet him.

The business he conducts is as eclectic as the people he conducts it with. Often he gives favors, some seemingly inconsequential, others of great importance, but doesn't always ask for anything in return. At least, not immediately. He provides tidbits of information at a price, but is just as likely to save someone's life gratis. It's not always hard to discern some pattern in his actions, but his ultimate goal remains elusive--if indeed there is one.  Still, more than one tale of woe in the City begins with a seemingly positive meeting with Scratch.

Scratch's physical appearance, and thedeals he sometimes offers, suggest a connection to the Hell Syndicate, though which of the eight infernal families he might work for is unclear. Some have suggested he might be the son of a hell-lord, given control of the city to "make a name" for himself.  Others think that for all his mysterious airs, he's just another sap working out the terms of a Faustian contract.  Still others point out that the diabolic boss of bosses hasn't been seen for sometime. It's been whispered, perhaps recklessly, that Scratch might be old Morningstar himself, in disguise. What a being of that kind of power would be doing in the role of middling operator in the City is a worrisome thought.

art by Seth Frail

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Real Dungeons, American Style: Murder Castle

While not the first American serial killer--that infamy seems to be due the Harpe Brothers, Big and Little--Herman Webster Mudgett alias "Henry Howard (H.H.) Holmes" is certainly an early, prolific, example. After his arrest in 1894, Holmes confessed to 27 murders, but the actual number could be as high as 230. Most of these were committed during the World's Fair of 1893 in Chicago, in a structure that would become known as the Murder Castle--a real American dungeon.

Mudgett was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He attended medical school but got expelled for stealing a cadaver. After that, he began to travel the Midwest, making a living by con games, insurance fraud, and multiple marriages for money. In 1886, he took up residence in the Chicago suburb of Englewood, and began working at a drugstore owned by a widow under the alias Dr. H.H. Holmes. The widow likely became one of his victims, and he took over ownership of the drugstore--and possibly sold the widow's skeleton to a medical school. Holmes bought the empty lot across from the store, and from 1888-1890 personally supervised the construction of a three-story, block-long, turretted structure, combination storefront, offices, hotel, and mansion, which neighbors dubbed "the Castle." There was a lot of turnover in the construction workers; Holmes fired people to avoid paying them, and to keep anyone from asking too many questions. It wasn't any good to have people wondering about the purpose of gas jets in the guest rooms, an elevator shaft sans elevator, soundproof vaults, alarm bells triggered by opening apartment doors, large kilns, quick-lime pits, and chemical laboratories--not to mention the more mundane stairs to no where, hidden passages, and peepholes. In this nightmarish edifice, Holmes tortured and killed a succession of wives, secretaries and office-girls, and paying guests to his hotel during the Exposition. Holmes dissected the bodies, performed chemical experimentation on them, them dissolved them in quick-lime or burned them in the furnaces, though some parts got saved in the vaults.

Wikipedia describes the gruesome doings, thus:

"Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that let him asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge soundproof bank vault near his office where they were left to suffocate. The victims' bodies went by secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools...Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he sold skeletons and organs with little difficulty. Holmes picked one of the most remote rooms in the Castle to perform hundreds of illegal abortions. Some of his patients died as a result of his abortion procedure, and their corpses were also processed and the skeletons sold."
The Murder Castle could easily haunt a wild west or pulp setting, but I also think Holmes and his gruesome set-up could easily be transferred to a more typical fantasy setting. Perhaps Holmes's stand-in is an evil wizard? Certainly magic might add even more devilish traps to torment players. And luckily, The Chicago Tribune of Sunday, August 18, 1895, gave a diagram and supplementary drawing of the Murder Castle, suitable to get the gamemastering juices flowing:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hither Came Conan, the Cimmerian...vol. 3

After ordering six months ago, I finally got my copy of Robert E. Howard's Complete Conan of Cimmeria Volume 3 in the signed limited edition, yesterday.  The wait wasn't all Bud Plant's fault--the book had been delayed from its original release date.  In fact, for a while, it looked like it wasn't going to come out at all.  Volume two of these deluxe Wandering Star editions came out in 2003, and only Book Palace stepping in seems to have got this volume to print in this format.

Thankfully, here it is, and its just as pretty as the two previous volumes--red slipcase, and color plates by Gregory Manchess, plus tonal illustrations.  The contents are the same as Del Rey's The Conquering Sword of Conan paperback from 2005, but getting it with color paintings, signed and numbered by the artist, and on that crisp, acid-free paper, with that new book smell, just makes it feel--I don't know--more important.

Anyway, its got Howard's original versions of the Conan stories from 1935-36, which include "Beyond the Black River" and "Red Nails."  It also includes some of his original synopses, letters, and a Howard-drawn Hyborian Age map.  I don't know if I like Manchess's art as well as that of Gianni in the last volume, or particularly Schultz's in the first, but it certainly isn't bad by any stretch. 

The only question is, how am I going to fit this volume in the "Howard Cabinet" with its peers?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mind Flayer with Extra Pulp

"...across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. "
- H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds
"CREEPING HORROR...From the depths of time and space!"
- Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) poster
One of the possible origins for mind flayers has always been extraterrestrial (or maybe ultraterrestrial). Given that, its easy to give them more of a pulp sci-fi veneer--to add a little Amazing Stories chrome to the basic Weird Tales model. This is exactly what I've been playing with for my Strange New World fantasy pulp setting, so cue the theremin...

The horrific beings known as mind flayers came to earth after despoiling--and possibly destroying--their native world. They came seeking raw materials and rare elements needed in the manufacture of their star-faring saucer-ships, but these cold beings of intellect, evolved even beyond the need for speech, began to change unexpectedly upon exposure to humanity. After millennia, appetite was reawakened in them.

The subtle psychic flavors of human emotions are like nectar to their once utterly logical minds, particularly the various permutations of fear. But the greatest delicacy, beside which the purely mental morsels pale, is the visceral pleasure of consuming raw human brains. Preferably, fresh from the skull of a still-living victim.

Mind flayers typically descend on rural areas--isolated farmhouses, or sometimes even small towns. Acquisition parties of 1d6 mind flayers move forth and use their mental abilities to dominate the minds of their victims (those who fail a save vs. spell) and summon them from their homes. They lead their prey back to their saucer-ships where they may consume them at their leisure--after an aperitif of terror. On those who prove resistant to their psychic command, they use their ray-pistols to stun (on a failed save vs. paralysis) for 2d4 turns, or to kill, searing for 5d6 radiation damage.

Once victims are aboard the mind flayer vessel, rescue becomes more difficult. The vessels' silvery hulls are virtually impervious to normal weapons--conventional explosives and even many magical attacks are unable to penetrate them.

It has been suggested that mind flayers may have a preference for women captives.  A sinister connection has been drawn between this and the fact that all recorded mind flayer encouters have seemed to be with males--in so much as the sex of an alien being can be determined accurately.
Mind flayers can't be appealed to for mercy, or reasoned with. Humans are no more than cattle to them. It has been theorized that only magic, a force that seems beyond their understanding, limits their predations on man.

Art by Doug Stambaugh.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Hunter

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"The Hunter"
Warlord (vol. 1) #13 (June-July 1978)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Morgan, Mariah and Machiste trudge through knee-deep water in a swamp, pushed on by Morgan's desire to reach the Great Fire Mountain--and beyond that Shamballah, and his beloved Tara. Without warning, a long-necked saurian raises from the water and attacks. After a short battle, the beast is slain when Morgan puts his sword through its skull. As the three move on, Morgan muses that the creature was defeated easier than he expected. Mariah quips that maybe he has "a guardian angel."

A ways down the trail, Morgan finds proof of his suspicions.  A bullet casing shows his guardian angel has "traded his harp for a rifle."

As they discuss what this means, an unseen, would-be sniper gets them in his sights. Under fire, they flee--as the hunter expected. Morgan trips a wire, and a heavy log swings into them, knocking them unconscious.

When Morgan awakens, he's facing Stryker, the "Company" man who tried to take Mariah and him in back in Peru. Stryker lost an eye and his job in the wake of those events, and he wants revenge on the man he holds responsible. He coerced Professor Lockley into telling him the incredible truth of where Morgan and Mariah had gone, then spent a year looking for the entrance to Skartaris. Since arriving, he's been tracking Morgan.

Stryker's tied Machiste and Mariah to a tree and rigged it with C-4, and intends to play a game with Morgan for the three's lives. He's left the detonator, which is the only way of deactivating the bomb Mariah and Machiste are tied to, about a mile upriver. Detonation will take place in an hour. Morgan gets his sword, his knife, the promise his gun is somewhere along the way--and a five minute headstart. Stryker plans to hunt him, and the only way to save his friends is to play the game.

Morgan takes off running, and almost immediately triggers a snare. He cuts himself free, ignoring Stryker's taunts--but now he moves ahead more cautiously.

Mariah asks Stryker why he's doing this since he knows Morgan's no traitor. Stryker lists the injuries he suffered--which he blames on Morgan--and says that he had been told he would never walk without a cane again. What kept him going was hate.

Morgan encounters a series of cunning traps in the jungle. He avoids a large board full of spikes, but gets stuck in the thigh by a smaller one. His attention concentrated on man-made danger, he almost falls prey to a poisonous snake, but manages to cleave its head in two with his sword.

Finally, he reaches a clearing where he sees his gun atop a rock. Morgan knows its likely to be a trap, but he has no choice if he's to save his friends. Morgan dashes across the clearing under a hail of wooden darts, many piercing him. He lunges for his gun, but we see that it has been booby-trapped with C-4.

From a distance, Stryker sees the explosion and smiles. He makes his way to the detonator, thinking to go ahead and blow up Machiste and Mariah without waiting for the time to run out. He finds a grim-faced Morgan, stuck with darts and bleeding, holding the detonator. Morgan detected the trap because of the rubbery, unnatural smell of the C-4--very out of place in the jungle.

Morgan tells Stryker the first rule of Skartaris: "always expect the unexpected." Before Stryker can raise his rifle to fire, Morgan has drawn his pistol and killed him--putting a bullet through his eyepatch.

Things to Notice:
  • Once again, the cover scene doesn't quite jive with events in the issue.
  • The swamp seems a little shallow for the size of the saurian that attacks the heroes.
  • Stryker is the first villian outside of Deimos to return for a rematch with Morgan.

Where It Comes From:
The protagonist being hunted like an animal is a common action/adventure plot, deriving from the 1924 short-story "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell. The story has been adapted, either directly or loosely, in a number of films and TV series, beginning with 1932 with the movie of the same name. Interestingly, a 1967 episode of Gilligan's Island that spoofs the trope shares the title of the "The Hunter" with this issue.

C-4 is a plastic explosive more powerful than TNT.  It apparently releases toxic fumes when burned, but nevertheless small amounts of it were supposedly used by troops in Vietnam to heat rations, as it burns slowly when lit by a flame.

Many of the traps employed by Stryker in this issue resemble those utilized by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tall Tales

"There were giants in the earth in those days."
- Genesis 6:4
And not just in those days:

In 1884, a skeleton 7 feet 6 inches long was found in a massive stone structure likened to a "temple chamber" in a mound in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

In 1925, amateurs excavating an Indian mound at Walkerton, Indiana, uncovered the skeletons of eight ancient humans measuring from eight to almost nine feet in height. All eight had been buried in “substantial copper armor.”

The Lovelock Reviewer-Miner reported in June of 1931 that two large skeletons were found in the Humboldt lake bed near Lovelock, Nevada. The first of these found measured 8 1/2 feet tall and appeared to have been wrapped in a gum-covered fabric similar to "the Egyptian manner."

The San Diego Union (August 1947) reported that F. Bruce Russell, a retired Ohio physician, had discovered a caves underneath Death Valley containing the mummified remains of men 8-9 feet tall, clothed in gray material "taken from an animal unknown today" accompanied by hieroglyphics and depictions of prehistoric animals.

Regardless of the veracity of these stories, if real-world North America can have legends of giant-folk, then the Strange New World of the City, certainly has them for real.

"It is only within the last few years that most people have stopped thinking of the West as a new land. I suppose the idea gained ground because our own especial civilisation happens to be new there; but nowadays explorers are digging beneath the surface and bringing up whole chapters of life that rose and fell among these plains and mountains before recorded history began. . . . We hear rumours of still older things, too . . ."
- H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop, "The Mound"
Before the arrival of the people considered by the explorers from the Old Countries to be the "natives" of the new continent, there was a more advanced civilization in the New World. Perhaps they were descedants of an even more ancient race from a land called Meropis, now vanished beneath the sea. Or maybe they came from another world. Whatever their origins, these Ancients, as they are now known, built the underground complexes explored by adventurers, and buried their dead in great mounds.

And they were giants. Or at least giantish, with males being perhaps eight feet tall--though their were some populations that were even taller. Their rumored degenerate descendants, the hill-billy giants of the Smaragdines, are taller still--brutish males being just shy of ten feet tall, and their statuesque females somewhat under nine.

But it's the Ancients that concern us here. They're considered extinct, but perhaps there are lost cavern-cities where they can still be found. They were rumored to be masters of great magic, as well.  Perhaps some found a way to preserve themselves in some sort of ageless sleep, waiting for the time when they could reclaim their rulership of this land.

Ability Score Requirements: STR 9, CON 9
Ability Score Modifiers: STR +1, DEX -1
Ability Min/Max: STR 7/19 DEX 3/18 CON 7/18 INT 3/18 WIS 3/18 CHA 3/18
Allowed Classes: Fighter, Magic-User or Cleric (Unlimited), Thief (8th), Assassin (9th), Ranger (10th)

Monday, May 10, 2010

No Really, It's a Holiday!

As a state employee, I've got a holiday today for Confederate Memorial Day--not to be confused, of course, with regular Memorial Day.

So, in the spirit of the day, here are some former Confederate soldiers of note:

John Carter, Warlord of Mars

Jonah Hex, disfigured bounty-hunter

Ghost of J.E.B. Stuart, haunter of tanks

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Strange Relations

This week, it was reported that a team working on Neanderthal genome sequencing efforts found that all modern human populations, outside of Sub-Saharan Africans, share some Neanderthal genetic material--perhaps 1 to 4 percent of their total genome. This suggests some interbreeding went on sometime before 45,000 years ago--after the first human exodus from Africa, but before the split that led to groups spreading out over Eurasia.

Maybe its just me, but I think this has some gaming applications. I've already suggested that dwarves are Neanderthals uplifted by an alien intelligence--at least in my campaign setting. Let's add to this idea the background of Ska from Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy--who hold themselves to be the only pure humans because they believe all other populations to be interbred with Neanderthals--and apply the resultant mixture to the standard D&D implied setting, and see what we get...

Maybe elves represent "pure" humanity undiluted by interbreeding with other hominids? They never left the ancestral homeland, whether in some Uttermost West, or elsewhere. Why not the South where the ancestral population might be darker-skinned (and perhaps call themselves "the First Born" for a nice Burroughs Easter egg)? Then, "humans" could be a more mixed bunch, descendants of folk who left the ancestral homeland and encountered other groups. Dwarves would still be "purer" Neanderthal descendants. This would nicely set elves and dwarves up as disparate groups, but humans would share a bit of both.

We don't have to stop there. Orcs could be descendants of another hominid species entirely, as might halflings--or maybe halflings are just an interesting human sub-population, whichever. The point is, all humanoids and demi-humans could be woven into a riotous fantasy hominid family tree.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Kill the Gods and Take Their Stuff

In comic book parlance, I presented the "Modern Age" version of four deities yesterday--though of course, they've been subsumed under the two primary faiths. Today, I'm going to provide AD&D Deities & Demigods stats for the original (the "Golden Age", if you will) versions of a couple of them as created by my cousin, Tim (my first DM) back in eighties.

 I toyed with the idea of scanning these pages, but they weren't really legible that way, so transcription had to be the way. Unfortunate, that--because you guys miss out on my cousin's "outsider art" illustrations that accompanied the stats.

So, here's more "setting archeology."  The stats are presented unchanged from the twenty plus year-old documents, so I'm afraid I can't explain the rationale for some of them...

ETERNUS (Æternus)
greater god
AC: -12
Move: Infinite
HP: 400
#Atk.: 2
Dmg/Atk: 6-60, or by weapon type
Spec. Atk: see below
Spec. Def.: see below
Size: L (9')
Magic Resistance: 90%
Alignment: Lawful neutral
Worshippers' Align.:Neutral or good
Symbol: golden helmet
Plane: Twin Paradises
Cleric/Druid: 20th lvl. cleric
Fighter: 20th lvl. ranger
MU/Illusionist: 20th lvl. MU
Thief/Assassin: nil
Monk/Bard: nil
Psionic Ability: I
S: 25 (+7,+14) I:25 W:25 D:20 C:20 Ch:25

Eternus can not be harmed by any form of attack using physical means, except barehanded. Eternus can shape-change at will. He can shoot rays of blue light from each hand that can polymorph other, condemn forever to the astral plane, cause 5-100 damage, or completely heal all wounds, at his choice.

CAIRN (Kaarn)
greater god
AC: -6
Move: 15"
HP: 375
#Atk.: 3
Dmg/Atk: 6-60, or by weapon type
Spec. Atk: see below
Spec. Def.: see below
Size: L (15')
Magic Resistance: 70%
Alignment: Neutral evil (chaotic)
Worshippers' Align.: all evil and murderers
Symbol: black battle axe and sickle
Plane: Pandemonium
Cleric/Druid: 15th lvl. in each
Fighter: 25th lvl. ranger
MU/Illusionist: 10th lvl. in each
Thief/Assassin: nil
Monk/Bard: 15th lvl. bard
Psionic Ability: I
S: 25 (+7,+14) I:25 W:20 D:25 C:25 Ch:25

The mere sight of this god (at Cairn's wish) can cause immediate and irrevocable death (no saving throw) to any non-divine being. He can cause plagues, drought, or floods at a whim. He can shoot from his palm a ray of disintegration as a 30th level magic-user. Moreover, any steel weapon striking the god does double damage to its wielder.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Old Gods Not Gone

I've written before about the two major religions of the continents of Arn and Western Erida in my current campaign world. Both are built on the bones of older religions--most centrally the polytheistic faith of Old Thystara. The "Old Gods" of Thystara were held to be primal beings, older than the universe--not mere Ascended  from a known point in history. The oldest of these Old Gods still worshipped will concern us today.

Here they are, as they're known on the continent of Arn:

"The Overlord"; Supreme Ruler of the Gods, God of Just Rulership, Law and an Ordered Cosmos; Shield Against Chaos
Æternus is seen as sanctifying appropriate authority. When even God-King Ahzuran took his thrown, he bowed to the sun symbol of the Overlord atop the staff of the primate of the Æternian church. He's often invoked in the preamble to any solemn oath.
Depiction: A tall, regal man clad in a golden helm and blue armor, with a sun symbol on his chest.
Symbol: A ten-pointed sun emblem on a blue field, or a golden helm.
Clerical Strictures: Clerics in the Overlord's service may wear any kind of armor, but prefer the mace as a weapon. Most go into battle wearing great helms in homage to their deity.

"The Horned One"; The Black Rider, God of Death, War, and Plagues
Kaarn is fundamentally the lord of things that bring death. His bannermen are Terror, Hurt, Dread, and Woe. The call of his hounds is said to cause a wasting disease in those who hear it. He is held to be shunned by the other gods, but is worshipped by humans to appease his godly wrath.
Depiction: A gaunt giant clothed in black. His head is a human skull with blood red stag antlers. Less commonly, he appears as a muscular man in black armor, his face hidden inside a horned helm.
Symbol: An antlered skull, a red right hand, a black battle axe (in his aspect as war god); a black sickle (as lord of death).
Clerical Strictures: Clerics of the Horned One seek to slay foes in battle, and in doing so appease Kaarn and delay the annihilation of humanity. They wear black robes and/or black armor, sometimes with golden, death's head masks.

God of Light, Communication, and Inspiration
Illumé is a Promethean figure, symbolizing the bringing of light into the world--both in the literal and figurative senses of illumination. He represents sudden, mystical insight in contrast to Seiptis's hard-won erudition. His flaming sword, Adjaskar, cleaves through lies and veils of misunderstanding.  He is invoked at the beginning of negotiations and at the signing of treaties.
Depiction: A lean, human male with a crown of flames, bearing a flaming sword. It is held to be he who first greeted Ahzuran into the ranks of the gods after his Ascension.
Symbol: a flaming sword, or a flaming crown.
Clerical Strictures: Illumé's clerics see violence as secondary to parley, though they are not pacifists by any means.  They are charged to act as mediators and end conflicts both great and small whereever they can.  Certain monastic orders of his priesthood are also purveyors of psychedelic fungi.

"The Wise"; God of Knowledge and Truth, The Divine Archivist 
Seiptis is a seeker after, and preserver of, knowledge. He also tests the knowledge of others--folklore has it, he forced Ahzuran to submit to a rigorous examination on the fundamental rules of the universe after his Ascension.
Depiction: Seiptis is depicted as a muscular man in a loincloth (like an ancient slave-scribe), with a owl's head, and glowing pupil-less eyes.
Symbol: An owl's head on a white field, or a statuette of an owl in precious metals.
Clerical Strictures: All priests of Seiptis must have some area of scholarly pursuit so that they may serve their god by increasing the knowledge of mankind.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Trilogy

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

Warlord (vol. 1) #12 (April-May 1978)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Mariah is journaling in the port city of Bakwele when Machiste finds her. The two go in search of Morgan (who said he was going to "scare up a martini"). They find him in the middle of a barroom brawl.

Machiste heartily approves, while Mariah (predictably) does not. She wonders aloud why she followed Morgan to Skartaris, but doesn't like it when Machiste intimates that it might be because he's a man--and she's a woman.

Mariah (changing the subject) asks why Machiste, a king, leaves his kingdom and follows Morgan. Machiste says his people are capable of ruling themselves, but tells a story to explain why Morgan commands his loyalty. After they escaped the gladiatorial school, Morgan united the undisciplined group into an army, forging them together with talk of liberty. On the day before a raid, a young boy, Aton, approached Morgan and asked to join the cause of freedom. Morgan is surprised to learn that the fame of his group and his message has spread. Morgan gently tells the boy that he's too young--there's time later to choose the bloody life of a warrior.

Aton hasn't gone far when he's attacked by a purple carnosaur. Morgan rushes to help, opening fire with his pistol. Enraged, the beast turns on him. Aton cuts its Achilles tendon, giving Machiste and Morgan time to kill it. Morgan, impressed, makes Aton his herald, outfitting him with a helmet, a banner, and a fine steed. He tells him to go out and proclaim the cause of liberty. Machiste arrives at the point of his story: Morgan is a dreamer.

Mariah wonders if she has misjudged Morgan because of their political differences. She relates her own story. Shortly after their arrival in Skartaris, she and Morgan happened upon a beautiful unicorn. Morgan tells her that the unicorn shows that Skartaris is a place where "all of men's dreams can come true." No sooner has he spoke, than primitives attack with arrows, and slay the unicorn to win the sacred power of its horn. Morgan is seized by rage. He attacks the hunting party, and kills them quickly. Then, Mariah watches as he kneels down beside the fallen unicorn and weeps.

Mariah suggests that he's a man of contrasts, beyond understanding. Machiste is about to reply, when they have to move to avoid a tavern brawler tossed in their direction. The fight finished, Morgan walks over to them. Mariah explains that they've been trying to figure him out.

Morgan, smiling, says they might as well stop trying. What makes a man give up his home and security for the life of a warrior and wanderer? Perhaps it's the thrill, he muses. He admits the life he's chosen is likely to be a short one, but it won't be dull.

Things to Notice:
  • The scene depicted on the cover don't occur in the issue.
  • The "Skartarian hieroglyphs" on the tavern's sign say "Crazy Earl's" in English.
  • This is the first appearance of Aton, who later becomes a semi-regular. His next appearance is in issue #38.
  • Is that Barney (or a close relative) that menaces Aton?

Where It Comes From:
The title "trilogy" refers to the three stories--and three insights into the man, Travis Morgan. Exploration of just who Travis Morgan is, particularly from the viewpoint of those around him, becomes one of Grell's primary concerns in the saga.  This is particularly apparent as he revisits the character and world the 1992 limited series, and in the new series, currently on-going.
Unicorns also make a several appearances in Grell-penned issues. They seem to represent the primeval beauty of Skartaris, and are often used,whether explicitly or implicitly, to contrast this aspect of Skartaris with its savagery--like in this issue.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

100 from the Sorcerer's Skull

This is my 100th post--somewhat artificially because I didn't want it to fall on the sarcosanct Warlord Wednesday.

It's been an interesting 127 days, particularly the past few that have seen a crude dungeon map drawn by my cousin twenty plus years ago bring in about 5200 viewers--which is around 100 times as many as I get on a usual day.

I'd like to thank my friend Jim who pestered me until I did this (so he could stop having to read my essay-like emails on gaming topics, probably), put together the banner to my specifications, and became my first follower.

Then there's the Old School Rant (now Jump) that found my "Saturday Morning Sorcery" post worth passing on, and James of the Underdark Gazette, whose generous review brought a lot of folks by.

And  of course, I'd like to thank the 41 (as of this writing) followers I've got, and the RSS feed-readers--from the ones who've been around for months, to the one's who've just arrived.  It's nice to know my ramblings have an audience.

Eberron and Clashing Inspirations

My friend Chris (of Chris's Invincible Super-Blog fame) invited me to play in the new game he's starting up--a Pathfinder campaign in the Eberron setting.

In getting ready for the game, I've been perusing the Eberron Campaign Setting book--something I haven't really looked at since I purchased it in curiosity, because it was the winner of WOTC's setting contest. The introduction has a section on the "Tone of Eberron." I think a lot of the elements mentioned here--the emphasis on "cinematic" action, the blending of pulp and medieval fantasy conventions--go a long way to explaining what the judges at WOTC found appealing about the setting. There's also references to "a thousand shades of gray" and "dark adventure," which seem to suggest moral ambiguity and edginess--things the kids are thought to be into.

What drew my attention in particular is that Eberron's version of the old "Appendix N" are all film references, not literary ones. Nothing wrong with that, in particular. The list of inspirations for my current campaign contains a filmography. What's particular interesting is not that its a list of films, but rather that its a fairly disparate group of films.

I can put Brotherhood of the Wolf, and From Hell together. These are "cinematic" (in the since of visually dynamic) and somewhat "dark" in tone. Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Mummy certainly fit together with over-the-top action and a bit of humor. Maybe Sleepy Hollow and Brotherhood and of the Wolf bridge the cap between those two and From Hell in slightly different ways.

The ones that really have me scratching my head are Name of the Rose, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon. I can put Name and Maltese together, or Maltese and Casablanca, so maybe by the transitive property I can group the three, but I have a harder time putting them with most of the films above.

I'm sure I'm over-thinking this. I firmly believe that inspirations can have dissonance as well as consonance. But without any explanation, I sort of think these references were slapped together for very superficial reasons without much thought to how one might conceptualize their elements to come up with a coherent "feel" for the setting.

Luckily, I'm not the DM this time, so I don't have to put those things together, and I'm certainly won't deny that there are some cool elements to Eberron, for all that.

And in the end, its gaming--with friends.  And that ain't bad.

Monday, May 3, 2010

My First AD&D Character

The nostalgia continues.  Here's the character sheet of my very first character in any version of D&D I (1e AD&D, in this case) from almost thirty years ago:

I realize that this just slightly more age worn that say, the Dead Sea Scrolls, so I'll reiterate some of the key points.  The material document itself is a sheet of typing paper on which the layout of the official AD&D character record form has been re-created in blue ballpoint pen.  The character is Grimlin, a 13th level elven fighter whose hit points have seen a high amount of revision, but now number "1900."  I don't recall how that came to be, but I'm sure there's a story there.  Probably several.  All epic.

This character was inspired by the elven hero of one of the D&D: Endless Quest books.  He had a sword which would light up when he said "Sword of the Magus light this place!" or something similar.  He was definitely a "short" elf, not a tall Tolkiennian one.  I named him "Grimlin" because I had recently discovered the folklore creature of that name, and thought the name sounded cool--this was before the 1984 film.

Now let's take a look at the loot on the back:

I should explain that we played for sometime without a copy of the Dungeon Masters Guide.  The first one I'd ever seen was when I got it for Christmas the year I got my very own copy of the Players Handbook (the new one with the Easley cover).  I say that to illustrate that we had, therefore, never heard of a "Monty Haul campaign."  With that in mind, I'll let you review the list of magic items on your own.

Now despite the vast power of Grimlin and his companions, there was no "ascending to godhood" like I heard mentioned by other players I would meet at Boy Scout camp, or other summer programs, back in the day.  No, Grimlin and his gang were still schlepping it through dungeons--though dungeons which extended to the Outer Planes, admittedly (note that Grimlin had the Rod of Asmodeus in his possession).  Said schlepping required lackeys, and Grimlin has ten alignment-congruent henchmen--Hawk (named for the Slayer?), Taran (named for the pig-keeper?), Goan, Roland, Nordon, Pannon, Gord (before Gygax!), Nar, Jor, and Thor.

I actually have my second character, too--a bard named Robin Goodfellow--but that sheet is in worse condition than this one, and much less epic, as it comes from a less "anything goes" time in our gaming--which is to say still probably pretty damn "anything goes."

But we had a helluva lot of fun, and that's what matters.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Map from Ages Past

This map was drawn by my cousin, Tim, who introduced me to gaming back in the earlier '80s.  Somehow, it came into my possession years--decades--ago. 

We never gamed in this dungeon.  I don't know if Tim did with another group.  I've thought about using it myself on several occasions, but I don't know if I ever did.  Since the various iterations of my campaign world relate to Tim's rather bare-bones world in a fashion similar to the relationship the Marvel Universe has to Timely Comics, Kazoth has been mentioned at times.  I've always conceived of him as one of those demon/monster/god-things, like Thog, or similar creatures, from Robert E. Howard's oeuvre

Looking closely at the map, I see several interesting things:

It amuses me that the innermost sanctum of Kazoth (where he has his own chamber) also houses his vestal virigns "and such" (whatever that might mean) and his sacrificial victims-to-be.  This says to me Kazoth is the kind of god-thing who would have a mini-frdge full of drinks in his den.  He just doesn't want to go far for stuff. 

Its interesting the walls of these chambers are rough-hewn (I assume that's what that means), suggesting it might be older than the rest of the complex.

 Most intriguing is the secret passage surrounding Kazoth's chamber.  I wonder what purpose that serves?  Perhaps its a doctrine of the faith that Kazoth's taking of sacrifices must be recorded in gory detail, so scribes watch unobtrusively to do just that.  Or maybe Kazoth gets cranky if his every need isn't responded to instantly, and its just for convenience?

Moving to the other side of the complex we find the mysterious Room of Illusions.  I assume all the "X's" are locations of various illusions.  Why would a temple complex need this?  I'm not sure. Maybe its for psychological torture to make a sacrificial victim juicer for old Kazoth.

Leaving the Room of Illusions, one encounters several traps (the dotted lined areas) which I suspect are probably trapdoors.  So many traps in one place perhaps argues against my explanation for the illusion room, but perhaps there just here because of those three treasure chests.

On the other hand, the naming of the Passage of No Return reinforces the notion that most who saw the Room of Illusions were on a one way trip.

I think the name of the last area I'll comment on may give away its inspiration.  The Room of Souls may have at least acquired its its title from the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark--I would suspect specificly from Kenner's Well of Souls Playset

I could see the statues there supporting a Raiders connection as well, though I'm sure these statues come to life at some inopportune time for the players.

At least that's how I'd do it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Free Comic Book Day!

In honor of Free Comic Book Day, my friend and sometime collaborator, Jim, over at the Flashback Universe Blog, has posted a comic I wrote called Hell-bent: Infamous Monsters.  This is the first of two Hell-bent stories I wrote to actually see completion.  Both feature the exploits of former Rough Rider, Sam McCord, and his gang of eclectic troubleshooters--Turner the former buffalo soldier, Pursuivant the wealthy adventuress, Alba the laconic Apache, and Morgan the sharpshooting movie cowboy--in the years just prior to World War I.

This story finds McCord and his crew facing off with an unusual Los Angeles gang that might be somewhat familiar.

The comic was illustrated by the very able, Diego Candia, with lettering and production design from Jim.

So anyway, check it out here with the Flashback Universe web comic viewer.