Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Pax Americana

"In Which We Burn"
The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 (January 2015), Written by Grant Morrison; Art by Frank Quitley 

Last week saw the release of the fourth installment of Morrison's Multiversity storyline. Pax Americana is perhaps the most ambitious issue to date, being a refiguring of/homage to Watchmen, and either a commentary on deconstruction and comic book violence or the essentialness of violence to American cultural--or possibly both. So check it out.

All that aside, the issue takes place on Earth-4, which is essentially (or possibly exactly) the same as Earth-4 (first appearing in 52 week 52 in 2007), the home of Captain Atom, the "Quantum Superman" that appeared in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. In other words, it's a mixture of the Pre-Crisis Earth-Four (home of the characters DC acquired from Charlton Comics) and the Earth of Watchmen (characters inspired by the Charlton characters--well, after they were inspired by the Archie/MLJ characters). If that's a bit confusing, there is some background here.

Blue Beetle (Earth-4)
This Blue Beetle is Ted Kord, Earth-4's version of Charlton's second Blue Beetle, who first appeared in Captain Atom #83 (1966). There is mention in this issue of Dan Garrett, who shares a name and probably more with Charlton's first Blue Beetle--who they had purchased and revamped from Fox Comics. The original version of that character (and the likely inspiration of Pax Americana's Dan Garret) first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1 (1939). Both these Blue Beetles have analogs in the first and second Nite Owls in Watchmen. The Question's accusation of the Beetle's impotence in this issue is a specific reference to Nite Owl.

Captain Atom (Earth-4) 
First Appearance: Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1 (2008)
The original Captain Atom first appeared in Space Adventures #33 (March 1960). Both that one and this one are Allen Adam, who gained super-powers after being "atomized," then reforming with atomic powers. This Atom's expanded consciousness, almost godlike power, and blue skin are borrowed from Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen.

Nightshade (Earth-4)
Eve Eden is the daughter of the Vice President and a superheroine. The original Charlton Nightshade first appeared in Captain Atom #82 (1966) was the daughter of a U.S. senator and a visitor from another dimension with the power to manipulate shadows. An otherworldly origin for Eve's mother is mentioned in this issue, but her veracity is questioned by both Eve and her father, and her mother is portrayed as suffering from dementia, at least at the time of the story. The Nightshade stand-in in Watchmen is Silk Spectre, though she is not as close an analog as the male characters.

Peacemaker (Earth-4)
The original Charlton Peacemaker (a man who "loves peace so much he's willing to fight for it") first appeared in Fightin' 5 #40 (November 1966). The loose Peacemaker analog in Watchmen is the Comedian. Dialog in Watchmen hints that the Comedian assassinated John F. Kennedy, a parallel to the Peacemaker's actions here, though in a very different context. Unlike the cynical Comedian, the Peacemaker of this story seems to be a well-meaning idealist.

The Question (Earth-4)
One of a couple of similar masked and fedora-ed vigilantes created by Steve Ditko, the Charlton Question first appeared in Blue Beetle #1 (1967). Rorshach in Watchmen was inspired the Question and his non-Code approved doppelganger Mr. A. While taking a role in the story similar to Rorschach's, Pax Americana's Question moves beyond the the black-and-white moral reasoning of Mr. A and Rorschach and espouses of 8 color spectrum theory of moral development (probably from here). He is, however, as ruthless as both of those characters.

This is actually Yellowjacket's first DC Universe appearance in any version. The original Yellowjacket was Charlton's very first superhero character, debuting in Yellowjacket Comics #1 (September 1944). That Yellowjacket was Vince Harley, crime writer. This one is Vince Harley, comic book writer. He has no direct specific Watchmen analog.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Down in Troglopolis

The vast system of caverns and passages that riddle the underground of the Land of Azurth are a realm unto themselves, known (appropriately) as Subazurth. Parts of Subazurth are wild and dangerous and in the hands or claws of monsters of various sorts, but other areas are quite civilized and organized into petty kingdoms and even cities. The greatest of these is Troglopolis.

 Troglopolis is a large city, perhaps not so grand as the Sapphire City of Azurth but hardly unimpressive. Most of its inhabitants are pale, large-eyed humans called Underfolk. They busy themselves the the same sorts of tasks that occupy those on the surface: they cultivate mushrooms and lichens, fish underground lakes, mine metals, raise bats and train them to carry messages, drain goblinic slime pools for public safety, and engage in commerce--some of this with the surface world.

The practice of religion is found amongst them, as well, of course. They know of Azulina and her handmaidens, but they also venerate relics they find in their caves. These anomalous items do not seem to have come from Azurth above--in fact, they sometimes seem of more advanced manufacture. The Troglopolitans view these as gifts from the gods.

Humans aren't the only inhabitants of Troglopolis and the civilized regions. Their are little folk like in the world above, though there are some varieties not found in Azurth proper. The troglings (or troggles) are furred and tailed humanoids who typically live rather shiftless lives amid ancient ruins of a pre-human civilization.

There are also the diminutive but industrious deep gnomes (sometimes called red gnomes, for the color of their caps). They enlarge passageways to standard sizes, shore up caves, decorate areas with blocky, angular sculptures, and even cultivate the grow of crystalline rock candy outcroppings that so many creatures use for sustenance. It is quite likely that a great under-city like Troglopolis would not be possible but for their efforts. Deep Gnomes are collectivist, owning everything in common and valuing the public good above all. Other species are sometime derisive of them, even destroying the gnomes’ work when it suites them, but the deep gnomes seem oblivious to such affronts, wholly content in their labor.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

It Came from the 80s

You never know where you might find a map usual for a game.

Need of village of nonhumans to visit/slaughter. How about a smurf village?

Need an Under(not so)dark or a small scale wilderness pointcrawl? Visit Fraggle Rock.

Friday, November 21, 2014

My 5e Stuff So Far

I figured I had done enough Fifth Edition posts that it was time for a sort index. This doesn't include Land of Azurth campaign material without any game mechanics, so it's all monsters and races:

New/Modified Races:
Dwarf, Azurthite A more fairy tale/folklore version.
Elves, Gloom Dark elves without the Drizzt.
Rabbit Folk
Frog Folk

New/Modified Monsters:
Bugbear: In Azurth, they're the stuff of nightmares. Literally.
Death Dwarf: And you thought dero were bad...
Hobgoblin: In Azurth, our hobgoblins are different. And crazy.
Manhound: They aren't lycanthropes but they're pretty bad.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Faces of Mars

On Google+ the other day, Evan Elkins sparked a conversation about the portrayals of Mars in the works of Clark Ashton Smith, CL Moore, and Leigh Brackett. While there are a lot of differences between their future red planets, they start from a Barsoom base and had an ingredient ERB never utilized: colonialism. Not that it was a particularly glaring oversight for Burroughs to ignore it; his earth folk on Mars were never numerous and trickled in one at a time. These three, though, developed there respective Mars into something less fairy tale or Gulliverian travelogue and so they had it--but they dealt with it differently.

In Smith's Mars stories ("The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," "The Dweller in the Gulf," "Vulthoom") have colonialism merely as a background. The native Martian aihai are largely just set dressing. They act as bearers or as guides for the earthling archeologists and treasure-seekers that are the protagonists of Smith's tales. The history of Mars is more potent--and more deadly. Earthmen seem to have free rein on Mars in the present, but that only gives them the freedom to blunder into ancient places where they don't belong. The Curse of King Tut's Tomb and Fawcett's doomed expedition to the Lost City of Z are good templates for Smith-style Mars adventures--as might be Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

CL Moore's protagonist is not a treasure-seeker or archaeologist like Smith's and his fate is not as grim. He's not a representative of colonial authorities--in fact he's often hiding out from them--and exists in a criminal underworld made up of native Martians and outcasts of other worlds. He might be Charlie Allnut in the African Queen or Jake Cutter in Tales of the Gold Monkey--except the same ancient horrors Smith's protagonists unearth are still lurking out their, waiting to snare the unwary. Despite Moore's more multifaceted approach, her stories still don't involve resentment Martians might have against the Earth. The colonization is still mostly window-dressing.

Brackett's portrayal of Mars is much like Moore's, except that deals specifically with the tension between colonizer and colonized. This is something that develops; her earliest Mars stories are more straightforward sci-fi adventures. Eventually though the Tri-Council of worlds is seen to be of secondary importance to "the Company." Brackett's Martian's for all their Celtic names resemble Native Americans as they were beginning to be portrayed is Westerns like Cheyenne Autumn or Duel at Diablo. There might also be a bit of Heart of Darkness in Brackett's Mars, at times, though her protagonist is unique: an outsider, himself, and more savage than any Martian drylander. This doesn't make him any less resented by the Martians though, because they don't just resent people of Earth as their conquerors, they resent them for being young upstarts with less history. Brackett for all it's Old West by way of the Middle East flavor is more than a little China under the thumb of the Great Powers in the the early 20th Century.

There are ancient secrets lurking on Brackett's Mars. too. (You pretty much can't have pulp Mars without them.) Here, though, it isn't greedy colonizers digging them up or merely stumbling upon them, its Martians hoping to use them against their enemies (i.e. mostly the colonizers). Unfortunately, for them, they are seldom exempt from ancient dangers.

What's the point of all this? Well, I think this distinction is strong (though certainly not solitary) distinction between the Mars of these respective authors. Gaming in any sort of colonial Mars setting would require some consideration of how that fact of this colonization will impact the PCs and their actions.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wednesday Comics: The Path Taken

"The Path Taken"
Artesia #6 (June 1999) Story & Art by Mark Smylie

Synopsis: Outside the walls of Dara Dess, Artesia sacrifices a ram to the gods. Soon after, the Kings of the Highland Citadels arrive. She tells them of the arrival of the Thessids in the Midlands. The kings will not ride with her, but they agree to each send a banner lord to accompany her. They ask if she plans to proclaim herself Queen of Dara Dess. If she presses her claim, they will standby and bear witness.

Her siege has taken its toll. Only a hundred men still stand with Bran; the rest are dead or have deserted. Artesia's forces greatly out number them. She gets word that they have breached the walls:

Artesia encounters Ulin, one of Bran's best warriors. He's angry at her ambition, asking why should couldn't have waited until he had gotten  Bran out of the way. The two fight, and Artesia finally stabs him with the end of her polearm. He staggers away through the doors into the throne room. Bran is there with the rest of closest warriors. Through the back, Artesia runs Ulin through.

Bran chides her for killing Ulin and says she comes as a usurper. Artesia retorts that that was how Bran took the throne. In the highlands, she reminds him, kingship is taken by popular acclaim or force of arms not bloodline.

He accuses her of betraying him and stealing his men. She replies that she served him well and made him a conqueror--and then he killed her sisters. She sends their ghosts to confront him. Bran protests that he didn't kill them, it was the Agallites, but the ghost of Lysia points out he didn't stop it.

Bran and his men proclaim they are not afraid of ghosts and order the spirits to begone. Their charms protect them.

Artesia responds that he understands so little. (They come, the ghosts say. They come.) Did he think the sacrifices and prayers were for nothing? Does he not understand who she serves? And then, they are there:

Bran falls back in fear. His men fall to their knees before the goddesses. The goddesses of war proclaim their blessings on Artesia. And they are gone.

Artesia tells the men to hold Bran. They do as she bids, removing his crown. She begins a spell, a curse, even as Lysia asks her not to:

She takes his head past her troops to the shrine of Yhera. There she places it on a pole. Bran's spirit must stay her and watch over the highlands and one day Artesia will return and he will tell her what he has seen and heard. She kisses his head on the lips. This too shall have consequences, Lysia warns.

Artesia cannot turn back. She has made her choice. For good or ill, she is "loosed upon the world."

Things to Notice:
  • Poor Ulin. We barely knew him.
  • Artesia employs a voulge I think. Sorry Gary, I've forgotten all the polearms you tried to teach me in AD&D.
The three goddesses that come to Artesia's aid are the Gorgonae, the triple war goddesses. Their name comes from Greek mythology, obviously, but they most resemble the Morrigan, a Celtic trio of goddesses associated with war and death.

Bran (the Welsh word for "jackdaw") is named for a character in Welsh myth, whose severed head also keeps watch.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Druid's Cabin in the Woods

In our Land of Azurth game this weekend, the party left Rivertown headed for the Enchanted Wood, hoping to put a stop to the poachers--and win a reward. With the elven ranger in the lead, the group eschewed the trail to follow the Babbling Brook (which actually babbles), hoping to come across a talking animal that might be able to tell them where to find the poachers. Ironically, A non-talking mockingbird told them (via Speak with Animals) about things that were neither man nor beast hunting in the woods and a horned shadow that crossed the moon on those nights. They found tracks a couple of days old that looked like human hands but with claws, supporting the mockingbird's story. Dagmar the cleric's knowledge of religion provided the clue that the Horned One, Lord of the Hunt, was an archfey that fit the description of the shadow.

They followed the tracks to a hidden trail then to a ritual circle formed from wooden posts and a great oak festooned with deer skulls. The party decided to hide out in the woods and stake out the circle. While they were waiting, a talking rabbit wandered by. He told them that a witch and a group of cultists used the circle and some sort of box was involved in the ritual. He also told them about a druid ("The friend of the forest") that lived on the other side of the wood.

Art by John Hower

The party got the rabbit to show them to the druid's abode, but not before the cleric and ranger got briefly enrapted by the glossolalia of the Spouting Spring (they were saved by the frox thief throwing a big rock into the water, disrupting the sound). They found the druid's door magically locked, and the druid seemingly unconscious on the floor inside. A disagreeable bluejay living in a bird house told them after a visit from a witch who drew some sigil on the door, the druid had not been out of his house. Erkose the Figher broke a window so that Waylon the frox could climb in. The druid was still alive, but barely arousable. Waylon was able to force the door to open from the inside. Dagmar deduced that a potion--herb-based but magical enhanced--cause the druid's current slumber. She and the ranger were able to locate a plant to at least ameliorate its effects. The druid, Llailogan, confirmed that the witch Ursa had poisoned him.

In his short intervals of wakefulness, he told them that Ursa had a pact with the Horned One and was trying to return the world to a savage state. She used a ritual given to her by her lord to create manhounds. Are the "jaded gourmands" of the rumors working with her?

Since darkness was falling, the group stayed in the druid's house overnight. They hear the baying and howls of dogs in the night, and faintly, a strange music that the bards notes seems to have a rather large assortment of instruments. Passing the night without ever seeing the manhounds, the party resolved to set a trap for the cultists and set out the next day to do that.