Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Iron Devil

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

"The Iron Devil"
Warlord (vol. 1) #7 (June-July 1977)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Morgan and Mariah, searching for Shamballah and Tara, have arrived in the city of Kiro. In the Thieves Market, Mariah draws the unwanted attention of a group of ruffians. Morgan charges to the rescue, cutting through the gang, but is caught unaware by an attack from behind, but is saved by Mariah and her rifle. The man turns, intent on putting his axe in her skull, but death catches up with him, and he dies at her feet.

The two head for the shop of the swordsmith Dak Bel Shan, who knows the secret of "Damascus steel." Morgan comissions him to make a sword for Mariah--and gives him her rifle for steel. Mariah protests, but Morgan points out the lack of stopping power of her gun, and the lack of replacement ammunition, and she agrees.

Morgan also suggests she get a Skartarian makeover to be less conspicuous. They head to the bathhouse, and, after a spa experience, Mariah emerges with Skartarian make-up, revealing outfit--and high heels.

Thanks to the story-aiding peculiarities of Skartarian time, the smith is finished. Mariah and Morgan get her sword and stiletto. Mariah surprises Morgan by revealing she's no stranger to the sword as six-time Russian National Sabre Champion. Leaving the smith, the two are ambushed and Morgan's knocked out by a blow to the skull.

Morgan awakens in a cell with Mariah. The two don't wait long before a guard comes to take time to the king. The two are escorted to the throne room, and Morgan is surprised to find Machiste there. Morgan's former oar-mate is the king of Kiro.

Machiste carries an unusual axe that never leaves his hand. He reveals he found it in a cave while on his way back to Kiro in the severed hand of a skeleton. The axe was a lucky find as it allowed him to defeat a marauding tribe of beastmen, by increasing his battle-savagery. Though the axe is now attached to his hand, Machiste is unfazed, revelling in the power he feels when he holds it. Illustrating the effect its has on him, Machiste attacks a serving girl who accidentally knocks over his drink.

Morgan intervenes and reminds Machiste of the ideals of freedom from tyranny they had previously fought for. He and Mariah move to leave, but an enraged Machiste has his guards attack them. The two make short work of them, but then Machiste challenges Morgan. The former friends wage a fierce battle, and Machiste draws first blood with a slash across Morgan's chest. Mariah pushes Morgan out of the way of the killing blow, and Machiste's axe gets stuck in the stone wall.

Before he can wrench it free, Morgan is back on his feet. A stroke of his sword removes Machiste's hand--and the influence of the axe. Machiste returns to his old self again. Morgan apologizes to his friend for what he had to do as Mariah uses a torch to cauterize the wound.

Later, a trusted Kiroan guardsman stands at the mouth of a volcano poised to destroy the axe. As soon as he removes it from the case that holds it, he becomes possessed by the weapon, and strides away purposefully from the volcano rim.

Things to Notice:
  • Mariah's chained up on the cover, but not in the issue.
  • One of the ruffians attacking Mariah looks kind of like Conan.
  • The fashion-forward gals at the Kiro public baths give Mariah the 70s comic raccoon-eye make-up (last seen in First Issue Special #8), and Farah Fawcett hair.
  • The temporal weirdness of Skartaris can serve the purposes of story.
  • As noted bfore, like a lot of pulp heroes, Morgan is easily (and frequently) knocked out.
Where It Comes From:
The title of this issue recalls the Robert E. Howard Conan story "The Devil in Iron," first in published Weird Tales in August 1934. The plots of the two stories share nothing in common, however.

"Kiro" may come from Cairo (from the Arabic al-Qāhira) the capital and largest city in Egypt. Another possibility is from KIRO, the designation of a radio and TV station in Seattle. Grell lives in Washington state, and moved Green Arrow to Seattle in the eighties, but I don't know whether he was acquainted with the area at the time he was working on Warlord, so the name may be a coincidence.

Damascus steel was used in sword-making in the Middle East between 1100-1700 AD. The swords produced were legendary for strength and sharpness. The exact technique used in the making of historical Damascus steel is uncertain, but Damascus steel used Wootz steel from India as a base, which is not what Mariah's rifle would be made of. What Morgan undoubtedly means with the use of the term (which is supported by the smith's description of his process on page 7) is a pattern-welding technique which can duplicate the appearance of Damascus steel. In this technique, layers of steel are combined with layers of a softer metal and folded over many times to remove impurities in the metal. By this folding a laminate is formed, and the resultant blade is more flexible for it, without sacrificing hardness.

Cursed weapons like Machiste's axe appear have a long pedigree in mythology, folklore, and literature. The Knight Balyn has a cursed sword in Le Morte D'Arthur, as does Svafrlami in the Poetic Edda. Morgan will get his own later in the series

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nonfiction for Your Appendix N

Fiction isn't the only place to find gaming inspiration.  Here are a few choice nonfiction titles pulled from the shelves of my library:


Icon, Legacy, and Testament by Frank Frazetta. Who doesn't like Frazetta? Monsters, warriors, and babes--Frazetta's paintings have the quintessential elements of pulp fantasy. Is there anyone else whose work touches comics, sword and sorcery, and various flavors of rock? The art of Frank Frazetta has given me a lot of gaming inspiration over the years. Back in the day, I had the idea of making a campaign world based on all the paintings in The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta Book Two (which was the only volume I had). Looking through these volumes, I sometimes think about that again.

The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn. This is the most scholarly book on this list, but its fascinating. Cohn chronicles the various millenarianist cults in Western Europe between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Religions in rpgs tend to be woefully bereft of the heresies, cults, and sectarian struggles that plagued the real world--which is unfortunate, because that's the kind of conflict that games could thrive on. Cohn offers up plenty of examples of cultic craziness to inspire your own.

The Magicians Companion by Bill Whitcomb. This is a really handy guide to a bunch of real world mystical traditions organized numerically, from unity up through--uh--91-ities? It's also got straight-forward overviews of mystic writing systems, alchemy, herbalism, and other stuff, and tops it all off with a cool glossary of mystical/occult terms. The presentation makes it really easy steal pieces and drop it into a game for some real world color. The elemental correspondence charts alone (planets, metals, directions, elemental kings, etc.) are probably worth it.

Things That Never Were by Matthew Rossi. This one is kind of "fictional nonfiction" or, as the introduction by Paul Di Filippo would have it, "speculative nonfiction." What Rossi does is write imaginative essays that do things like cast Doc Holliday as a Masonic Fisher King, speculate on the lost knowledge of Hypatia of Alexandria, and recast the Titanomachy as a generational battle between superhumans uplifted by alien nanotechnology. In other words, a lot of it reads like a game already. Every essay has something worth snatching, or at least will get the the creative juices following.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Phantasmagoric Lantern of Kulu Tu

The exact number of these items in existence is unknown, but it's theorized to be less than seven. Tavern-tales attribute their creation to the infamous Kulu the Illusionist, but these devices are actually the products of an unknown--though no less malign--genius.

These devices appear like any other mundane example of the primitive slide-projectors known as magic lanterns, the only difference being there is no way to change the slide being projected. When activated by placing a candle inside, the device projects strange and unsettling images of distorted, ghost-like figures and beasts. The projected image is larger and more distinct when a magical light-source is used, like a hand of glory, for example.

The image projected is no static scene, but a glimpse of the Negative Material Plane. The longer the device is left on, the thinner the "skin" between worlds becomes until the beings, the phantoms, from that plane are able to enter the Prime Material. When seen in the wan light of the projector the phantoms are ghostly pale, but when they pass out of the projector's cone of light, they become deep, featureless shadow. Their touch drains living things, indeed their very presence can can cause the wilting of nearby plants.

When the phantoms first emerge into the Prime Material, they may be given the name of a single individual. This individual the phantoms will seek out and drain with their life-stealing touch until he is dead. The phantoms are able to travel at great speed, perhaps by traversing between points of mundane shadow, so distance is no obstacle, but it does take time for them to locate the individual (by what ever eldritch means they utilize) and this process seems to take longer for more distant targets.

If they are prevented from getting to the individual, they will continue to try to do so until they are destroyed, or they dissipate. Phantoms drawn forth by light from a normal candle or other mundane light-source can only hold coherent form for twenty-four hours in the Prime Material, and every moment spent in bright sunlight doubles the rate of dissipation. Phantoms drawn forth by a magical light-source in the lantern will last for a week, or perhaps more, depending on the potency of the magic used, but are still just as susceptible to bright sunlight.

The wise user never allows more than three phantoms to emerge before extinguishing the lantern. More than that number, and the phantoms become likely to act more willfully, killing the summoner and anyone else they find rather than heeding a command. If the lantern is left lit and unattended, phantoms will continue to emerge until the light-source burns itself out, and wander out into the world with undirected malevolence.

The lantern can be used to study the beings of the Negative Material Plane, but only if care is taken to limit the length of its usage so that no phantoms emerge.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Page of Sages

"It is not well for men who come seeking sage counsel to cast fleers before them. Nevertheless, I am today in a merry humor and will give ear to your problem."
- Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, "Adept's Gambit" by Fritz Leiber
Need a translation of some hieroglyphs from a long-dead culture? Or maybe an antidote for an exotic drug? Or perhaps you need a way to defeat an old and powerful dragon?  Well, here are a handful of scholars and experts of various stripes from the world were is found continent of Arn who might be able to lend a hand...


Mnaurmon Lloigor: Thystaran scholar and historian, perhaps the greatest of the age. Mnarmonos Liguros (as he's known in his native tongue) operates out the Museum of Thystara established by Emperor Ahzuran. Mnaurmon appears as the stereotypical sage--long white hair and beard with a slightly disheveled appearance, bespeaking a lack of concern with such things. He has something of a temper and doesn't suffer fools well, but reserves a great deal of charm for women. In fact, Mnaurmon has a well-developed appreciation for feminine beauty, and is almost always accompanied by a well-endowed famula who acts as his scribe. Mnaurmon is sought for his knowledge of history, particularly in regard to the rites of Ascension, and the ruins left by the mysterious Dungeon-Builders. Given his access to ancient Thystaran scrolls, he has a good chance of locating information even if he doesn't have it immediately at hand.

Athas the Strong: is a powerfully built Thystaran man who looks more like a wrestler or gladiator than a sage. Dressed only in simple clothes and carrying few possessions, Athas wanders the world striving to learn the secrets of unifying mind and body, and developing the twain to their highest potential. It is said that Athas has already advanced those arts to an amazing degree, and achieved superhuman abilities. Tales (no doubt exaggerated) say that he has the strength of a giant, and that his skin can turn a blade. Athas teaches unarmed martial arts, emphasizing the mind-expanding aspects of their practice rather than violence--though he is certainly unafraid to use violence if the need arises. Beyond teaching fighting techniques, Athas is sought out for his almost mystical ability to discern critical weaknesses in any opponent, even those only susceptible to magic, otherwise.

Gwynhumara Star-of-Dusk: a striking, dark-haired, tattooed, Kael woman, beginning to approach middle age. Known as a wise-woman, among the tribes in Northern Arn and beyond, for her knowledge of monstrous creatures and how they can be hunted and defeated. The abandoned nests of dragons, the spoor of bulette, even the scat of the dread tarrasque, are arcana she has mastered. Gwynhumara is unlikely to leave the lands of her tribe, but those who make the effort to find her may gain the benefit of her wisdom if they bring a gift and show the proper respect. The more audacious the hunt, the more likely she is to give aid.

Tuvo brek Amblesh: Magister of the Library-University of Tharkad-Keln. Amblesh is a gnome--which means, in this case one, of the halflings native to the great library. He as a magister of the third-circle and prelector superior on the botanical and alchemical sciences, but--as the glyphs of his curriculum vitae on his giethi-stick suggest--he's highly knowledgeable on many topics. Amblesh is what one might call an "action scholar"--in the sense that, despite he's advancing age, he insists on doing fieldwork and frequently gets into trouble--not in the sense of being particularly adept at handling trouble. Luckily, he has a bodyguard,the amazon Zura Kai, to protect him when this occurs.


Amaranthine: Though she appears youthful, as with all elves, her appearance is deceiving--she is older than Thystaran habitation in Arn, at least. The aethyr woman who has called herself "Amaranthine" for the past few centuries, typically dresses in simple, but elegant robes of shifting-image, elvish eidolon-silk. She rarely ventures abroad, not even for the conclaves which gather most of her kind.  She prefers to spend her time on her small island in the middle of a tranquil lake in the Chailéadhain Highlands of Arn. Amaranthine is something of an oracle, but she prefers to deal in knowledge of the past as trying to make since of the tangled skein of futurity gives her a headache. Her most common service is to recall for a supplicant something they have forgotten--even something they have been made to forget by magic, or have lost through reincarnation. She also has a great knowledge of music, history, and--surprising given her isolation--current gossip of the elven community, though she is seldom sought out for these purposes.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Comic Book Swordswomen of the Seventies

"Sword-swinging fantasy protagonist" has generally been a male gig. The pulps gave us a number of Sword & Sorcery heroes of renown, but Jirel of Joiry, CL Moore's "gal Conan," is the only female heroine of note from the era--Howard's Dark Agnes being a "historical" adventuress. It wasn't until the Sword & Sorcery revival of the late seventies-early eighties that a more women joined the fray.

Despite the smaller number of sword and sorcery heroes in comics, there's a much larger percentage of swordswomen. This can probably be attributed to the visual nature of comics--and the inherent appeal of scantily-clad warrior ladies to a predominantly male audience. Despite that, the beauteous women warriors of comics are, for the most part, more obscure than their male counterparts. It's time they got their due, starting with the trailblazers of the 1970s.

The first swordswoman of the seventies didn't have to deal with sorcery, but she did exist in a post-apocalyptic-fantasy setting, so I'm going to give her a nod. Lyra of the Femizons is from the pages of Savage Tales (vol. 1) #1 (1971) in a story called "Fury of the Femizons." This might be Stan Lee's update on William Moulton Marston's psychosexually underpinned Wonder Woman concept, or a cautionary tale of what feminism gone wild (not a pay per view title, by the way) would lead to--or, an idea he scrawled on a napkin at a local deli to fill pages.

Lyra's 23rd Century is essentially reverse Gor, or The Planet of the Apes if you replace "apes" with "women." Lyra is the toughest gladiatrix around, defeating (and killing) the weak for the "vicious voluptuaries" of Queen Vega's court. That's until she meets hunky slave Mogon and agrees to help him with his evolutionary aims, for the sake of love. It all ends tragically, of course--well, mostly for Mogon. Lyra is forced to kill him to "prove" her loyalty to Vega. But she feels really bad about it and realizes, "when a man is but a slave--it is the women who live in bondage." Or something.

Our next swordsman is a little less obscure. Red Sonja, the so-called She-Devil with a Sword, debuted in 1973 in Conan the Barbarian #23. Sonja was Roy Thomas' Hyborian Age adaption of Sonya of Rogatino in his Conan-ified interpretation of Robert E. Howard's historical actioner "The Shadow of the Vulture." Thomas' Sonja got magical puissance with a blade from a goddess, along with geas that she would never know (in the Biblical sense) a man until he had defeated her in fair combat. After her Conan appearances, she got a famous chain-mail bikini from artist Esteban Maroto, and a lot of further appearances, including a succession of three self-titled series.

Marvel's loss of the Howard licenses couldn't sheathe Sonja's sword. She came back, and so did her chain-mail outfit so beloved by artists and fans. After a couple of one shots at other companies, Dynamite Entertainment picked up the character in 1999, and she's still going strong in an ongoing series and a succession of limiteds.


Just as Red Sonja was beginning to climb in popularity, DC unleashed their own swordswoman. Ravenhaired Starfire got her own title from the beginning, debuting in 1976. The creation of David Michilenie and Mike Vosburg, Starfire swung her sword for her world’s freedom from the alien Mygorg and Yorg for 8 issues. Like Lyra, she had a dead love for motivation, and like Red Sonja, she was always spurning the advances of other men.

The next two heroines chronologically have a connection to Red Sonja. The first, and the one to appear in the seventies, was Ghita of Alizarr. Frank Thorne took over the pencilling chores for Red Sonja in Marvel Feature #2 (Jan. 1976) and continued through the eleventh issue of her first self-titled series. Thorne spent most of the seventies getting photographed with attractive women--mostly by dressing up like a wizard and judging Red Sonja lookalike contests at conventions:


It's fair to say that ending his tour on Red Sonja didn't end his interest in buxom warrior women, so he created his own. In Warren's futuristic 1984 #7 (1978), the Red Sonja-reminiscent, but blonde-tressed, Ghita of Alizarr debuted. Freedom from Comics Code restrictions, freed Ghita from her clothes--frequently--and she proved not at all encumbered by any Sonja-esque restrictions on whom she might have sex with--or how often.

Ghita appears in three issues of 1984, and also in several collections where Thorne gets to play Thenef the Wizard in the cover photographs.

And here our heroines ride forth out of the seventies.  Next week, I'll take a look at swordswomen in the eighties and beyond.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Getting in Alignment

Quite a lot has been written on the internet and in print about alignment. I'm not particularly interested in wading in to one of those "why or why not" debates here--I don't think there's a definitive answer to "how it works" or "what it means." Still, in my current game I wanted to work with the elements that (to me) seemed quintessentially D&D (particularly quintessentially AD&D) and alignment was one of those. I also wanted a game world that to some degree "rationalized" those quintessential elements. In other words, I didn't want some of the situations that alignment can engender that work against the "feel" of the inspirations found in my personal Appendix N.

To that end, I set out my basic parameters. Alignment is a real, fundamental force in the multiverse. It is tied up in the cosmology of the Great Wheel of Existence. Gods and Ascended beings are fair "strongly aligned" to these planes and their intrinsic alignment forces, but regular mortals don't really have alignment per se.

I really like what Professor Barker has to say in The Tekumel Source Book: "The Gods express not so much human objectives as their own viewpoints of existence and the eventual destiny of the cosmos."

In other words, alignment isn't about human ethics, but instead about teams in a cosmic game. You choose a god of a particular alignment, you choose a side--but you get to choose how fervently you support your team. This allows a human world with shades of gray rather than absolutes, which not only looks more like the "real world," but more importantly looks like the worlds of Conan, Fafhrd & Gray Mouser, Kane, and most of the other pulp fantasy icons. This also explains how, for the most part, human societies can exist with a mixture of servants of different alignments side by side without constant holy war.

That all works, but AD&D has some beings which are more pro- or anti-social that others. Demons and devils are mostly antagonists for players--even evil ones. I think that the alignments are tangentially related to certain human moral or ethical concerns, even if that's not their primary focus. My conception of what those concerns are was influenced by a comment on a blog I read a couple of years ago, which I haven't been able to relocate, and so I can't properly credit. The unknown commenter mentioned the Moral Foundations Theory as a good model for what alignments "mean"--but didn't elaborate. A visit to Jonathan Haidt's website on Moral Foundations Theory made me think the commenter had a point.

In brief, the theory breaks human morality into five universal themes/concerns (and they're looking at a sixth). These are:
  1. Harm/Care - underlies virtues of kindness, and nuturance.
  2. Fairness/Reciprocity - underlies the virtue of justice, among others.
  3. Ingroup/Loyalty - underlies patriotism, among other virtues.
  4. Authority/Respect - underlies deference to authority, and respect for tradition.
  5. Purity/Sanctity - underlies the ideals of avoidance of physical and mental contamination.
 So, in no doubt an application of the theory its proponents never though of, these traits can be mapped to the orthogonal dualities of the AD&D alignment system. Good is concerned with Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, and Ingroup/Loyalty, while Evil is cruel, injustice, and sociopathic. Law is concerned with Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity, while Chaos is anti-authority, and profane. Neutral on either axis would be "no opinion" on the issue in question.

 Not that these values are what the alignments "mean" or completely represent in a cosmic sense, but like the story of the blind men and the elephant, these are the features humans can recognize and grasp.

So that's alignment in my current campaign. For the players it doesn't much influence things, as it isn't something characters "have." But it underlies how the world works, and it's given me some interesting perspectives on the natures of supernatural beings that do have alignments by allowing me to look at them in terms of the five foundations.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

So Far So Good

I just recently got a Kindle, and I'm eager to try out my first ebook. First, though I want to get through my stack of already purchased physical books. Which might take a little while.

I'm happy to report, though, that so far this year I've read several good books in the fantasy genre. Here they are, in the order I read them:

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington. This is the only singleton fantasy of my reads so far this year, which is a testament of the difficulty in finding such an elusive beast. Bullington's is a picaresque historical fantasy about two dimwitted, and thoroughly reprehensible graverobber brothers who manage to defeat a number of demons. There's a bit of horror here, a generous portion of humor (a lot of it dark), and quite a bit of violence.  There are a lot of great incidents, though my favorite would come down to the surreal horror (and humor) of the appearance of a naked, possessed man astride a demonic pig, and the ironic, knife-twist of the witch's grim fairy tale.

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch. The second in his Gentlemen Bastards series. I didn't want to like the first book in this series, party because I find skepticism about a lot of recent fantasy a good hedge against disappoint, and partly because the title bugged me with its alliterativeness (The Lies of Locke Lamora)--its just a thing I have--but against my will, I liked it quite a bit. This one again has confidence men in a fantasy stand-in for medieval Italy going after a big score, but it also has pirates. A lot of nice, light-but-flavorful wordbuilding, clever dialogue, and intricate capers.

The Blade Itself  by Joe Abercrombie. The first novel in the First Law Trilogy. It reminds me a little bit of the work of David Gemmell--and that's good. Abercrombie's got grittiness, political intrigue, and an eclectic group of flawed characters gathered by a wizard to save the world. And cannibals. Or more precisely, people who gain magical power by cannibalism. I'm looking forward to Book Two.

Warlord Wednesday: Home is a Four-Letter Word

Let's 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...

"Home Is A Four-Letter Word"
Warlord (vol. 1) #6 (April-May 1977)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: In a campsite at Machu Picchu, a figure emerges from the darkness. Travis Morgan, stunned and bleeding, staggers into a tent, catching a beautiful, red-headed woman half-undressed. She's only surprised for a moment before snatching up a rifle. Morgan identifies himself as "a traveler" before passing out.

When he awakens, he finds himself surrounded by a group of people who already know his name (thanks to his dog-tags), and identify themselves as archaeologists investigating the Inca ruins under the auspices of the UN. The leader is Professor Lakely. The woman whose tent he crashed is Mariah Romanova from the University of Moscow. Morgan tells the archaeologists his strange story, and in turn, they reveal to him a startling fact. The year is 1977--he's been in Skartaris eight years!

The archaeologists are understandably somewhat incredulous of Morgan's story, but admit it might explain some of their recent findings. They want to show him a structure they've found that predates the Inca by 10,000 years. Morgan to apologize to Mariah for the previous night, but they wind up getting into a political argument--the capitalist warrior versus the communist scientist.

Arriving at the newly discovered chamber, Lakely explains that he believes the Inca to be descendants of the Atlanteans. Morgan proves his theory by translating some of the hieroglyphics around a giant bas-relief of a feline humanoid. The writing reveals the chamber to be the tomb of a demon, Tikal, blinded and imprisoned for sacrilege against the sun god. It also warns of curse on those who open the tomb, but the archaeologists don't heed it. The crypt is broken open, revealing a statue of the cat demon.

At that moment, a helicopter arrives above. The archaeologists explain that they radioed the Air Force last night when they found Morgan's dog-tags. Morgan's concerned, and takes a look at the helicopter--which isn't USAF, but instead belongs to "the Company." Mariah doesn't understand Morgan's worry, so Morgan explains that his government won't believe his story about Skartaris and will assume his 8 year absence means he's gone over to the Soviets. Further conversation is cut short by the arrival of an agent with a automatic rifle.

Lakely tries to intercede, and gets a back-hand for his trouble. That triggers a rage in Morgan who throttles the first agent, and lays into his companions. During the melee, no one notices the eyes of the cat-demon statue come to life as they're struck by the rays of the sinking sun. They do take notice when it springs into an attack against the Company men. Bullets prove useless, and after dispatching the agents it turns to the archaeologists--but is stopped when Morgan deprives its eyes of sunlight. Again becoming lifeless, it topples to the ground and shatters.

With the government after him, Morgan has even more reason to return to Skartaris. He suggests to Mariah that her nationality is going to lead to more trouble as well, if she stays. He suggests she return with him--offering an archaeologist's dream. Mariah accepts, and the two are soon headed back to the inner earth via the Atlantean sub-shuttle. Meanwhile, the leader of the agents awakens and demands to know where Morgan is, but the Professor's enigmatic answer doesn't satisfy.

In Skartaris, Morgan and Mariah exit the shuttle. Tara is no where to be found. Morgan doesn't understand where she would have gone; he's only been gone a day. He's even more confused when he sees his helmet where he left it--but covered in cobwebs.

Things to Notice:
  • This issue takes place on April 15-16, 1977--around its publication date. Morgan has been in Skartaris 8 years.
  • Morgan dates himself--he was born in 1926.
  • Given everyone's state of dress (or undress) it must be an unseasonable warm April night at 7970 ft.
  • So much for covert. The CIA helicopter has a prominently displayed "Air America" logo.
  • The issue contains two Peter Pan references--Morgan calls Skartaris "Never Never Land," and Lakely quotes from the Disney animated film.
Where It Comes From:
In the introduction to Warlord: The Savage Empire Grell relates Mariah first name came from the song "They Call the Wind Maria" from the 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon, and the 1969 film adaptation with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Her surname is the feminine form of the of the name of the last imperial dynasty of Russia which ruled from 1613 until the revolution in 1917.

We get two Atlantean supernatural beings named this issue. The name Tikal comes from the name given to the site of an ancient Mayan city in Guatemala. The name of the Atlantean sun god, Ra, is the same as the ancient Egyptian sun god.

Air America, owners of the helicopter in the issue, was a cargo and passenger airline secretly owned and operated by the CIA.  It was involved in providing support for covert operations during the Vietnam War.

Lakely's quote--"second star to the right, straight on till morning"--comes from Peter Pan. This is Peter's explanation to Wendy and her brothers about how they'll to get to Neverland. The word "star" doesn't appear in the line in J.M. Barrie's original novel or stage play, however.  It was added in the 1953 Disney film version.

The underground sub-shuttle seen again this issue bears a resemble to the like-named subshuttle in the Gene Roddenberry created TV movie, Genesis II (1973):

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Magical Mystery Tour: The Gnomes

As mentioned before, there are two types of beings called "gnomes" in the world of Arn. One is a scholarly group akin to halflings, inhabiting and maintaining the Library of Tharkad-Keln. The other are ultraterrestrials--extraplanar beings--who have been characterized as an annoying group of pilgrims, or even less charitably, as an infection of the Prime Material Plane. It is this second type of gnome that will concern us here.

Gnomes usually appear as diminutive men with nut-brown skin and large, amber eyes. There are reports of green-skinned gnomes, and youthful females, but these are more rare. No one knows if these different forms reflect real differences within the gnomish race, or are only affectations.

Their demeanor is often perplexing, as well. They often project a knowing amusement in their interactions with other intelligent species, but can at times view even the simplest and commonplace things with child-like wonder. Unless directly threatened, they often seem blissfully unaware of dangerous situations.

No one knows on what plane the gnomes arose. Some hold that it was the elemental plane of earth itself, given their connection with that element. Others hold that they hail from an alternate material plane with a higher concentration of elemental earth. Wherever they came from, they're now a race of travellers--though the purpose of their travels is mysterious.

Gnomes go anywhere there is elemental earth. They somehow dwell within--and move and communicate through--something they refer to as "tesseract networks" within the elemental particles of earth (which as all natural philosophers know are cubic in nature). Gnomes occasionally invite other sapients into their "networks," but those who return are unable to give coherent descriptions of what they have seen.

Certain species of mushrooms represent "nodes" in the gnomish network, and are places from which gnomes emerge into our plane. Consumption of these mushrooms expands the consciousness in unpredictable ways--sometimes allowing experiences of the areas around other nodes in the gnomish network, perhaps in other time periods, or allowing direct mental communication with the intellects of the gnomes themselves. The minds of other species don't always recover from these experiences.

Despite their alien nature, gnomes are generally friendly toward other intelligent races. They will often trade gems or precious stones, though the items they desire in exchange can't be predicted. They are often skilled mages and have been known to join adventuring parties for a time, when they can find one willing to put up with their eccentricities. They go and come as they please with no explanation.  Mostly, they observe with interest, as if the world was a play put on for their amusement.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Honor Among Thieves: How's Your Crime Organized?

Fantasy gaming thieves guilds often tend toward a sameness--basically they're a sort of unusual trade union, as initially envision by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. This was a fresh take on things when Leiber did it, but its time for a little more variety. After all, there are plenty of real world current and historical criminal organizations for inspiration, as well as some more recent fictional ones. Characteristics of these groups can certainly be used to add color to your usual fantasy world's thieves.

In looking at real world organizations, we find they often emerge among minority groups. Gangs formed in immigrant communities in the U.S., often for some degree of protection, and these developed into Irish and Jewish mobs, and the Chinese Tongs. The mafia didn't start in in an immigrant community, but the insular nature of these communities in the U.S. and elsewhere often allowed it to grow even more powerful. Even when the organizations' members are part of the larger culture, they many come from groups who are downtrodden for reasons other than just being poor. The yakuza, for instance, are thought to have formed from a combination of the trade organizations for gamblers and peddlers. Their ranks tended to be drawn from outcast enclaves where people who performed activities that were seen as "unclean" lived.

How often do fantasy thieves organizations have a distinct ethnic character--or at least, a history of a distinct ethnic character? Or how about if the make up of a thieves group reflected something interesting about the social stratification of the society in question?

Another common trait of real world criminal societies is that they function very much like other sorts of secret societies. They have esoteric rituals and customs beyond just an argot like thieves' cant. The yakuza traditionally had (or have) elaborate tattoos. The mafia, at least in fiction, has initiation rituals and distinctions between associate members and "made" men. Even the traditional trade union approach might suggest some sort of pseudo-masonic rites for a any self-respecting thieves guild.

Sometimes, criminal organizations have political agendas. Some, like the Chinese Triads, are thought to have formed in response to invasion. Certainly there are criminal enterprises in existence today with political axes to grind--though admittedly, these often cross the blurry line into terrorist organizations. Still, a thieves guild with that sort of ambiguous nature would be interesting, too.

Lastly, real world organized crime groups aren't monolithic, and there's no reason fantasy ones should be. Families or clans within a larger organization, make for intrigue and gang wars, and a lot of other fodder for adventuring. Are the families tighly controlled by a central authority, or is the peace more tenuous?  Perhaps there are actually competing organizations in an area with different rituals, organizations, and backgrounds?

Those are my suggestions. If I had to pick a few resources to get the creative juices flowing, their certainly a lot a of "mob movies" worth seeing that give examples of how organized crime structures work. Most of Scorsese's mob films would do the trick, as would the Sopranos. To move away from the modern, the manga Lone Wolf & Club and the movies based on it give interesting vignettes on a lot of aspects of feudal Japanese culture, including the yakuza. In literature, Scott Lynch's recent book The Lies of Locke Lamora gives a lot of detail about the structure and ritual of the "Right People" of Camorr, an organization inspired no doubt by various Italian criminal societies, in the same way that Camorr is inspired by Venice.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stories in the Naked City


Here's an eclectic sampling of people from the streets of Terminus, most distant outpost of the fallen Thystaran empire, in the south of the continent of Arn:

Kro One-Eye: Alcoholic, and possibly consumptive, swordmaster. He either lost his left eye to a rebel in the Dharwood, or to an angry whore, depending on how deep into the cups he his when he gets 'round to the tale. He's a fixture in dives along Wine and Tavern Streets, regaling fellow patrons with daring (and dubious) tales of his youthful adventures, and the occasional demonstration of his skills. For a cup of watered wine he'll give a few pointers on use of the blade. For a bottle of good Kael whiskey, he'll take on a student. For a small cask of vintage Trosian Red, he'll fight at your side--as long as it doesn't take him far from the River District. (Looks like: Sam Elliott (with an eyepatch) circa Roadhouse; and Sounds like: Gary Oldman).

Nari: Dancing-girl and part-time professional mourner, residing in Copper Court. When not performing, her demeanor suggests she's seen it all and found most of it excruciatingly dull. When dancing, she can be found at the Quivering Navel, and in her off-hours she's often found smoking djesha-leaf resin from a waterpipe at Gelv's House of Innumerable Pleasures (where the pleasures are far from innumerable--perhaps only in the single digits). She can be relied upon to have heard a good deal of gossip and rumor, though she's also guaranteed not to have found much of it particularly interesting. (Looks like: Caroline Munro circa 1973).

The Gate Street Players: Ten thespians--six male, four female--operating out of a small theater on Gate Street. The Players tend to perform daring reinterpretations of the classics. Their current production is a take on Teleganexes' The Fall of Iztlann, where the traditionally male roles of protagonist Dyzanarios and his sword-brother Tekromo are played by women, and tragic ending is replaced by the two heroes--heroines--entering into a ménage à trois with Yla, the villainous witch-seductress. Their next production is to be the infamous Llysan work The King in Tatters, written by a madman, and performed just once--for the court of the Llysan Emperor the faithful night the execution of a peasant girl for diablerie failed, and the Emperor and his court died weird, and horrible deaths. Superstitious rumor holds the play is cursed and its performance opens a gate to dread planes. The Gate Street Players are undeterred.


Hrasthus Nort: Vagabond, beggar, and ambassador for the Vagrant City of Lardafa, the shanty-Atlantis of the Great Marsh. Nort, dressed like a ragged courtier come forth from the tomb after a half-century, is most often found around the the government offices, but sometimes takes a drink along Tavern Street. He carries a ragged sheet of sheepskin with the crudely drawn seal of Lardafa as a sign of his office, and is always accompanied by his similarly dressed attache--a mocking-monkey called Jip. Nort panhandles for coin, proselytizes to the poor about the wonders of Lardafa, and waits for his never-to-come audience with the Governor-Prefect. Sometimes, after a few drinks, he hints of ancient, eldritch things discovered in the depths of the swamp, dark bargains struck by Lardafa's Burgomaster Jero Flistapp, and a growing, unspoken fear among the city's populace. (Looks like: "Gabby" Hayes; and Sounds like: Brian Cox as Jack Langrishe in Deadwood).

Yreel Dahyût: One of the few women in the city watch, and the only officer currently. Dahyût is tall, and beautiful, if somewhat severe, in her always polished armor and spotless uniform. The deference granted her, and her bearing and diction, suggest an origin among the minor noble families of the Tabeidonian or Vararian Towers. Cursory inquiries would reveal this to be false. Dahyût has no family--indeed she has no history at all. She simply appeared one day as a high-placed and respected member of the watch. The purpose of this subterfuge, and the means by which is was accomplished remain unanswered questions. (Looks like: Kristanna Loken).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Swords & Stop-Motion


The tv promos for the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake has got me thinking about the fantasy films of animator Ray Harryhausen and the impact they had on both my love of fantasy and fantasy gaming. The only one of these films I saw in the theater at its original release was Clash of the Titans from 1981, but the others playing as a network TV movies of the week, or on a Saturday afternoon in the early days of cable, were treasured treats. Before the today's digital effects, the stuttering vibrancy of Harryhausen's creations gave the fantastic a weight and reality that cel animation and men in unconvincing suits couldn't hope to match.

Ray Harryhausen got his start on George Pal's Puppetoon shorts. Pal was later to be the animator responsible for effects in 1953's War of the Worlds and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Then Harryhausen worked as an assistant to Willis O'Brien, the animator for the original King Kong, on 1949's Mighty Joe Young. In 1953, Harry Harryhausen was the primary animator on his first feature, The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms.

It was in 1958 that Harryhausen made his first fantasy adventure film, and his first foray into the previously unchronicled adventures of Sinbad of 1001 Arabian Nights fame. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad has never held the attraction for me that the seventies Sinbad films do, but it does have a dragon, a two-headed roc, and the iconic goat-legged cyclops.

7th Voyage featured a fight with skeletons, a set-piece Harryhausen would reuse in 1963's Jason and the Argonauts. This one's got an appearance by the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, as Phineas, but of course the big stars are the creatures--which include the hydra, the bronze giant Talos, and the harpies. The iconic moment in this film is skeletons sprouting from sown dragon's teeth to fight Jason while Jack Gwillim, as Aeëtes, gleefully overacts.

1973 and 1977 brought us The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, respectively. The Golden Voyage had Danger: Diabolik's John Law in the lead, with the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, as an evil wizard, Koura. Depending on how old you were when you saw this, the stop-motion may have taken something of a backseat to the obvious charms of Caroline Munro as the slave-girl, Margiana. Still, it had a griffin, a centaur, and an animated statue of Kali. Eye of the Tiger (no relation to the Survivor song...probably) had Patrick (son of John) Wayne donning the blousy shirt as Sinbad, and doubled the feminine pulchritude with Jane Seymour as Princess Farah, and Taryn Power as Dione. Sinbad and crew go to Hyperborea with an alchemist (Patrick Troughton again) to find a cure for Farah's brother who's been changed into a baboon, by the witch Zenobia who's got a mechanical minotaur called the Minaton. We also get a giant walrus, insectoid ghouls, and a sabretooth tiger.

Harryhausen's heyday came to an end with 1981's Clash of the Titans. Like Jason, this was another foray into Greek mythology, with a few extra-mythic flourishes. Hey, records from that period are spotty at best. Maybe there was a clockwork owl, and a mishapen Calibos? I could do without the neon nimbus around the head of Zeus, though. The coolest thing in Clash has to be the kraken, followed closely by the phrase that heralds his appearances: "Release the kraken!"

By the eighties, stop-motion was beginning to seem quiant, and digital effects were on the horizon. Now we live in an era where whole worlds can be can be created with computer animation, not just individual creatures. I'm by no means a Luddite. I really enjoy digital animation and the vistas it's opened, but I do feel its ease and ubiquity has removed some of the specialness of Harryhausen's and other's stop-motion creations.

When I see a dragon these days, its going to be digital, the only question is its quality. But in the previous era, a dragon could be a bored looking iguana with a fin stuck on its back, or a product of craft and imagination--that was made all the more fantastic because it was unexpected.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Urban Decadence Made Easy

There are a lot great urban settings in fiction--Lankhmar, Shadizar the Wicked, Valkis, the Sprawl, and New Crobuzon, to name a few. As evocative as they are, these dens of iniquity pale against other colorful cities, made all the more interesting because they were real. Lankhmar never had prostitutes that advertised the particular fetish services they offered by various color combinations of boots and lacing, nor does even New Crobuzon sport boy-gangs with costumes like the Indian Chief in the Village People. Weimar Berlin had both. Want a place where adventurers roam streets run by crime-lords with sobriquets like Big Ears Du and Pock-Marked Huang? Look no further than 1930s Shanghai.

These two cities and more are found in two nonfiction resources, which will no doubt inspire in number of details for gaming cities and adventures to have, therein:



1920s Berlin is detailed in all its decadent, cabaret glory in Voluptuous Panic by Mel Gordon. Essentially an R-rated coffee table book (for people with R-rated coffee tables, I suppose) Gordon provides a lot of interesting text, too. He gives, for example, brief dictionaries of underworld slang, and a catalog of types of prostitutes (divided by indoor and outdoor) that's halfway to random encounter table. The focus is mostly on sex, but the expanded edition also has a chapter on the occult underground of the era.


Legendary Sin Cities is the DVD collection of a three-part, 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary. It lacks the detail of Voluptuous Panic, but makes up for it in scope. The three segments cover Paris, Berlin, and Shanghai, roughly over the 1920s and '30s. All three cities were, of course, drenched in vice, but each has its own character--Paris is jazz and art, Berlin is the last party in the looming shadow of Nazism, and Shanghai is a a crime-ridden cultural crossroads. At 210 minutes, the whole series is pretty short but enough to get a feel for the cities it profiles.

There are any number of ways either of these resources could be used to inform gaming. The context and character of the cities could be ported over to a fantasy world with only a little translation, or details could be yanked to add color to an already existing locale, or as a springboard for an adventure.

Regardless of their considerable inspirational value, they're fascinating windows into some interesting places and times.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Marsh God


The Marsh God is a Sword & Sorcery graphic novel written by Bruce Durham and illustrated by Michael "Mikos" Mikolajczyk.  It's the story of the mercenary, Dalacroy, who's the sole-survivor of an ambush.  In making his way through the marsh, he picks up an escaped slave-girl as a companion, and they soon find themselves facing the sort of dangers that Sword & Sorcery protagonists are called upon to face, including the titular god.

When a friend sent me the link to the graphic novel, I didn't realize untl I began reading the sample that it was an adaption of Durham's short-story I'd read way back in the late, lamented Flashing Swords e-zine, when it was under the editorship of Howard Jones, now of Black Gate Magazine.  "The Marsh God" appeared in issue 2 (one of my humble efforts, "God of the Catacombs," appeared in issue 6--there were a number of "gods" and "marshes" in Flashing Swords).

"The Marsh God" is classic Sword & Sorcery in a Howard-esque vein--no big deviations from the formula, but it does what it does well.  Mikolajczyk's art stumbles at times, but when he's on he's got a nice style more illustratorly than most current comic book artists--somewhat reminiscent of Barry Windsor-Smith in his Conan days.  He obviously put a lot of work into the panels.

If the above sounds good to you, you should check it out.  I recommend it.

Warlord Wednesday: The Secret of Skartaris

Let's 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 Secret of Skartaris"
Warlord (vol. 1) #5 (February-March 1977)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Morgan and Tara bid farewell to Machiste, and head out for Shamballah with other homeward bound former freedom-fighters. An encounter with a tyrannosaurus forces Morgan and Tara to climb a cliff in hopes of escape. They manage to dislodge a boulder, which crushes the carnosaur, and in the process, they discover a hidden doorway.


Inside, they find a massive computer which, when accidentally activated, reveals the history of Skartarian civilization. Before the sinking of Atlantis, many fled the impending disaster, and one expedition finding its way through the arctic to the entrance to Skartaris. There the Atlanteans built a new civilization, which in time surpassed their previous one, due to eternal daylight unchaining them from sleep/wake cycles based on the sun.

Unfortunately, the city-states they built went to war. In only minutes, their civilization was in ruins. Generations later, the Skartarians began to climb back to "various stages of barbarism," but there also emerged bestial humanoids that had been mutated by lingering radiation. The computer discovered by Morgan and Tara had remained dormant until Deimos' use of the hologram apparatus had activated it.

Further explorations are cut short by the sudden attack of a pack of hyenadons. The animals are dispatched, and the melee leads to the accidental discovery of another tunnel--this one containing a train or shuttle. Morgan theorizes that it once connected all the Atlantean city-states and wants to investigate, but Tara is afraid. Morgan steps inside the train and the door shuts behind him. Neither he or Tara can open it.

The train pulls away, and Morgan is knocked unconscious. When he awakens, the shuttle has reached his destination. He stumbles out...into moonlight. Travis Morgan has returned to the outer earth!
Things to Notice:
  • Machiste makes a sly hint as to his fame in Kiro.  This will be dealt with in future issues.
  • The Atlantean computer has apparently been recording history since the fall of the civilization that built it, and making a nice documentary on it--for whom?
  • Like a lot of pulp heroes, Morgan is easily knocked out, but never has any lasting neurologic damage.
Where It Comes From:
In a way, this issue marks the end to the first "book" of Travis Morgan's saga. Warlord, at least at first, is an adventure narrative following very much in the footsteps of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The usual plot outline, as established in A Princess of Mars, has a hero from our world meeting a princess from the fantastic world where he now finds himself, losing her, then regaining her after overcoming the villain(s). Just as their about to settle down as a happy couple, circumstances contrive to take the hero back to our world, separating him from his love. Burroughs uses this outline again in the first Pellucidar novel, At the Earth's Core. It's repeated in heavily Burroughs-inspired works like Warriors of Mars and Tarnsman of Gor, too.

The next "book" on the Burroughs map will have the hero returning, probably meeting new companions, and questing to find his lost love again. Which is exactly what happens in Warlord.

Returning to the details of this issue, the design of the Atlantean computer center seems to be inspired by some classic film and TV science fiction. Some of the details in the first panel echo the set design of Star Trek: The Original Series and Forbidden Planet. The computer core on page 8 seems an homage to this scene from Forbidden Planet:


The fall of Atlantean society and the degeneration of some of its descendants in non-human forms, echo themes found in pulp fiction, but also common to the post-apocalyptic genre in films (the Planet of the Apes films, Teenage Cave Man), and comics (Mighty Samson).

The dog-like animals that attack Tara and Morgan are referred to as hyaenadons. Grell is correct in dating them, as animals in the hyenadon family were extant from the late eocene. However, he suggests that they were the ancestors of wolves, which is incorrect. Hyaenadons belong to an extinct order of mammals known as creodonts.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Scum and Villainy



"She had to remind herself that he was not much more evil than most evil men."
- Fritz Leiber, "The Cloud of Hate"

Here's a hand full of villains involved in criminal enterprise from the streets of Terminus, last outpost of the fallen Thystaran empire, in the south of the continent of Arn:

Pnathfrem Lloigor: Vintner and boss of dives on the east of the city, between the River Fflish and Lion Street. He’s immensely fat, and balding, but also a dandy, given to dressing in ostentatious silks and gaudy jewelry. His high-pitched voice leads to rumor that he is a eunuch, but it’s an affectation. He enjoys putting off visitors of both sexes with leering glances, and suggestive quotes from his extensive collection of Zycanthine erotic literature.  Physically weak but shrewd, Lloigor might have long ago been displaced, except that he has a cousin in the Thaumaturgists Guild who has been known to come to his aid.

Sodmos Jasp: Bald, jaundiced, and skeletally-thin but for a pot-belly, he suffers from a metabolic malady no doubt caused by alchemical experimentation. He owns fourteen brothels and six pleasure dens on the west side, south of the river and north of Courtesan Street. His hated enemy to the east is Pnathfrem Lloigor. He made his start as a back-alley alchemist, and still carries on a side business selling cheap poisons, noxious contraceptives, and dubious aphrodisiacs. He is protected from enemies real and imagined by his dear, deadly, Saatha.

Saatha: An Amazonian woman in a silken veil and little else. The greenish tint to her skin and the vertical slits of her pupils in her jade eyes suggest otherwise. She wields twin, ornate scimitars which look like they're made of bronze, but are not. Their swift and deadly in her hands. It has been said that she is from a distance world--the Place of the Blood Red Sun, and that she has been bound to the service of Jasp. That's what rumors say. Saatha never speaks.

Tyrus Vaanth: Prominent slaver, and sophisticate. He's well-dressed, cruelly handsome--and just cruel. But never should it be said that he's impolite--unless one's at the end of his rapier. He's called "Whitehands" after the pristine white gloves he habitually wears. He fears contagion and sickness of all kinds. In times of stress he holds a perfumed cloth over his mouth to ward off miasmas. He seldom goes anywhere without his personal physicker, Doctor Panggiss.

Elrood Panggiss: Serves Tyrus Vaanth as both physicker and torturer. He's accent is foreign, but vague. He's rumored to be exiled from the court of some foreign potentate for unspecified crimes. His usually rigid and controlled demeanor hides a heart of sadist. He's addicted to analeptic zauphur which he carries in a silver snuff-box. His use of the stimulant feeds his growing paranoia, and fuels his cold depravity.  He's as proficient with a dagger (always envemoned with an exotic and efficient poison) as he is with scalpel, but considers it beneath him to use it except in direst need.

Handsome Sclaug: Half-ogre enforcer whose scarred visage is the opposite of his nickname.  He made a name for himself as a pit-fighter, but gave that up for for a more lucrative career working for various crime bosses.  He disdains weapons, preferring to use his ham-sized fists, augmented by (perhaps ensorcelled) cesti.  He does talk much, but is said to a pleasant singing voice.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Gnoll Truth, or, Yeenoghu Looks Like a Lady

Maybe OD&D gnolls were a cross between trolls and gnomes, but the gnolls that have entered the collective gaming unconscious are the anthropomorphic hyenas from AD&D.

It's not a big leap to think that hyena-like qualities should therefore inform gnolls' characteristics. It's been done to varying degrees before, starting back in Roger Moore's article in Dragon #63. I've never seen anyone work through all the implications of this, though. Certainly, it doesn't seem that's anyone's ever given much consideration to the folklore and historic beliefs regarding hyenas.


There are four species of hyena, but gnoll art tends to most commonly make them resemble the spotted hyena. Maybe there are more than one gnoll species, too? Perhaps there's a rare, gentle and insectivorous humanoid aardwolf. Or maybe they're not so gentle and they dine on formians?

Anyway, spotted hyenas are hunters and scavengers. They have powerful jaws and specialized dentition to crush bone--they are reported to outclass brown bears in this regard. They bring down game in packs, but they also follow other predators and steal their kills. They've also been known to dig up recently buried bodies from graves. Hyenas possess the ability to digest all the organic material in a carcass, including bone.

Male spotted hyenas are slightly larger than females, but otherwise there's very little to distinguish the sexes. Interestingly, even the external genitalia is similar due to the female's clitoromegaly (How's that for a conversational factoid?). Hyena clans, in fact, are matriarchal--led by an alpha female with high levels of androgens (male sex hormones).

Hyenas compete from birth. Particularly in same sex litters, neonatal fratricide (siblicide?) is common. Clans are hierarchical, with the pups of dominant females outranking the adult females subordinate to their mother--unless she dies.

Study of the spotted hyena gives us gnolls in matriarchal clans, who are fairly indistinguishable in terms of sex. There are probably some unusual--uh, physical characteristics of female gnolls--I'll leave it to individual GMs to work out the implications of those and how much game time they gets. On firmer ground for a game about killing things and taking stuff, gnolls probably eat their slain foes--bones and all. Also, competition is fierce within the clan, and only the strongest make it to adulthood.


So that's the current state of hyena knowledge, but there are some interesting things to be gleaned from outmoded/folkloric ideas. Take a look at this quote from T.H. White's translation of a twelfth century Latin bestiary, The Book of Beasts:

"[the hyena] is accustomed to live in the sepulchres of the dead and to devour their bodies. Its nature is that one moment is that it is masculine and at another moment feminine, and hence it is a dirty brute...it frequents the sheepfolds of shepherds and walks around the houses of a night and studies the tone of voice of those inside with a careful ear for it is able to do imitations of the human voice."
Again there's the link between hyenas and the dead; between gnolls and ghouls, both under the demon-lord Yeenoghu's purview. But how do we make sense of the rest of it?

Well, maybe all gnolls are skilled vocal mimics. Perhaps their shaman's are gifted by their god to imitate the voices of others?

And the sex switch? Given the unclear separation of sexes among his people--and their matriarchal nature--I suspect Yeenoghu is a hermaphrodite, or perhaps genderless, but probably referred to by gnolls with a feminine pronoun (if their language has such a thing). Yeenoghu is a consummate trickster then, not even willing to stick to one gender. Possibly, gnoll shamans follow their god's/godess' lead and go by the pronoun of the other sex, symbolically becoming like their deity. Maybe hermaphrodites are especially holy?

There you have it: gnolls informed by hyenas in fact and folklore. Who'd of thought hyena-men could so easily out weird troll/gnome hybrids?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wizards Three and the Apportioning of Loot


Amid the works constantly updated in the Library-University of Tharkad-Keln is an encyclopedia of famous, or infamous, mages. In its pages, one may find the likes of Kulu, Urthona, and of course, Yzorddathrexes.

Among the lesser--but no less interesting--arcane practitioners are the three wizards from the tavern tale "The Apportioning of the Loot." While we'll not concern ourselves with a recitation of that tale here, the strange events in the life of its principles are worthy of consideration, if for no other reason than they underscore the dangers of the thaumaturgical arts.

Kodos Nharn: Youngest of the three wizards, Nharn was a voluptuary, or (self-proclaimed) aesthete of worldly pleasures. He and Elberond Turms had quarrelled over a wand of exquisite workmanship and obvious sorcerous potency, and might have come to violence over it, had not Yrrol Othus interceded with a compromise. Turms got the wand, and Nharn two other items--a scroll and a jeweled bracelet. The bracelet he sold to pay off the debts accrued from his extravagant lifestyle. The scroll he kept, as he found it to be an item unchronicled in any catalog of arcane antiquities he consulted.

It was only seen once by anyone other than Nharn, as far as is known. A servant reported it to be a painting of an audience room of a sort, well-appointed, wherein a voluptuous, darkhaired woman in diaphonous green robes reclined on a great couch upon a dais. She was attended by beautiful youths of both sexes, also attired in diaphonous tunics. There was a sorcerous aspect to the painting in that, the servant averred, it looked like a scene from life somehow frozen in time rather than an artifact of brush and paint.

Nharn took the painting to his private chamber and it was never seen again. Nharn seldom emerged from his chamber thereafter, except to call from something from his servants. It was said that sounds of feasting and merriment, and strange music could be heard coming from the room, and sometimes unmistakably, more--primal--sounds of pleausure emerged. Yet no one but Nharn was ever admitted to the room.

This went on for a year. Then, on the night of midsummer, in the small hours, a beautiful, darkhaired woman emerged from the room. In a strange accent, but unmistakable tone of command, she released the servants from their duties. Then, she disappeared into the night. Nharn's creditor's took the house and all his belongings, including a weirdly realistic painting of a thin and dissipated Nharn, lolling drunkenly on a great couch, surrounded by sunken-eyed youths. This last item was purchased at auction by an anonymous collector, and has never been seen again.

Elberond Turms: A wizard of middling talent, but of some renown for his highly developed sense of fashion. Thanks to his wit and style, Turms was frequent a guest of the nobility. Turms was given a wand of exceedingly fine make from the haul. This wand increased his abilities several fold, and with its powers, combined with the patronage of his social connections, Turms established himself in Zycanthlarion. Turms was quit successful for many years, and the wand was seldom out of his hands. He was seen to talk to it at times, perhaps even argue with it. This eccentricity did little to harm him socially, but not so an ill-considered comment made publicly.

Perhaps under the influence of too much Trosian wine, Turms compared himself favorably with Yzorddathrexes. Though the archmage had not been seen for centuries, his Eidolon Tower still appeared above the city, and at intervals its base appeared in its streets. The tower and its master evoked a good deal of superstitious dread. Fearing sorcerous retribution for the insult, high society began to shun Turms, who soon turned to mind-numbing drugs to ease his own anxieties. First ostracized, then reclusive, Turms had vanished from Zycanthlarion altogether within months of the comment. A ragged street mountebank meeting Turms description (if one allows for the ravages of self-abuse) drowned (or was perhaps fatally bitten by a river-shark, accounts differ) in the town of Eelsport, after a lengthy argument with the fancy scepter he gripped tightly, even into death. Zycanthlarion society is still divided on whether the great Yzorddathrexes ever redressed the insult or not. The wand presumably lies in an unmarked grave still held in a moldering hand.

Yrrol Othus: Oldest and wisest of the three, it is said, Othus was not given to weaknesses of carnality, vanity, or over-ambition. To Othus, the supreme pleasure of the arcane arts was in acquiring knowledge. He chose from the treasures a potion--transparent in color, but given to producing prismatic eddies and oil-slick iridescence when shaken or swirled. The substance in the vial is now know by alchemical sages to have been phantasmagoric ahlzo. Uncharacteristically rash ingestion of the liquid led Othus to be able to perceive the noumenal planes and their denizens intersecting our own world unseen. Leading to even greater disorientation, he began to perceive the seething, chaotic maelstrom which arcane philosophers hold forms the multiverse's substratum. Alternately driven to horror and ecstasy by these visions, Othus eventually sought out the Harlequin Mage, and with that insane dwarf as a guide is said to have descended into a green-lit subterranean realm where the roiling, gelatinous dream-fragment of a dead, chaos god-thing was to be found.

No one knows, of course, what became of him, but two schools of thought predominate. One holds that he was there subsumed into the insane godhead and exists now only as a ephemeral fancy in that unfathomable mind. The other theorizes that he retains his form and individually and stays as the deity's sole worshipper, receiving its whispered, incoherent pronouncements for eternity.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Of Weird and Wonder

Media of the fantastic, it seems to me, has two primary modes for evoking encounter with the numinous. I've been thinking of these, of late, as "weird" and "wonder."

Okay, in one sentence that's probably more lit-theory words than a guy with a biology degree should be allowed to use in a day (even on the internet) but indulge me, dear reader...

"Weird" we sometimes think of as a genre, as in "weird fiction" or "the weird tale" (or Weird Tales). HP Lovecraft adopted the term from Sheridan le Fanu, and defines it in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature":

"The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space."
As ST Joshi points out--and as a review of weird fiction reveals--weird can pervade several different traditional genres: horror (of a couple of different stripes), fantasy, ghost stories, and science fiction. A related form is the French literary genre of fantastique which is about supernatural incursion into realist narrative.

I think this gets at the key to weird. It's about things which are unnatural (or perhaps suggest a radically different interpretation of nature). The occurrence of these events is often transgressive or surreal. They can be used to evoke horror, or unreality, or decadence --maybe all three--depending on the context. I think this is perhaps succinctly analogized by one of the character's in Machen's "The White People": "...how awful it is. If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning..."

Weird is the Garden of Adompha, the city of Xuthal, the Horla, and The King in Yellow. It's also the Gray Caps, fungoid overlords of Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris, and the red-curtained room with the oddly speaking dwarf in Twin Peaks.

"Wonder" encompasses what, in the discussion of science fiction, is called "sense of wonder," and in comic books is called "mad ideas." It's about the rush of understanding--or often just confronting--a novel concept, or an old concept in a radically new context. It's a response to encountering the sublime--at its purest its the sense of awe. It's an experience of the supernatural in a context of reverence, in the literal sense of greater than nature. As Damon Knight wrote, it's "the widening of the mind's horizons, in no matter what direction."

Wonder hasn't been identified as cleanly in the literature as weird. It really comes into its own in film where visual effects (special and otherwise) combine with calculated musical selection to push us in its direction.

Wonder is Lothlórien, Shai-Hulud, and "My God--its full of stars!" It's Jack Kirby's New Gods, Avatar's flying mountains, and Gaiman's Dream confronting Lucifer Morningstar in Hell.

While weird evokes the paranormal and "negative" qualities, wonder evokes the transcendent and "positive" qualities.

An interesting question, I think, is can these sensations be evoked in gaming?

Certainly, I feel like weird can. I think since the earliest days of the hobby, adventure writers and creature designers have groped for it. The blogosphere is full of efforts to bring it to bear, many successfully. I think its more than a matter of aping nineteenth century gothic lit, or 1930s pulp fiction, though. Some of those elements are too familiar. Borrowing of ideas from newer sources like fiction of the New Weird, the films of David Lynch, or some foreign horror films (euro- or j-) will probably do the trick. Kenneth Hite's works on gamemastering horror would also probably prove instructive.

Wonder is a bit tougher. Without visuals, it hinges on appropriate description--which is tough to do off the cuff and without knowing where the audiences' heads are going to be at the moment the description is delivered. The comic book approach of "mad ideas" where there's less focus on the centerpiece scene, and more on a flood of the "impossible" (or at least the kind of trippy) to create a similar effect. If you can't describe the city in overview in such a way that your player's are in awe, you can whittle them down with a lot of "smaller" amazing things as they're coming into town. The risk, of course, is in overdoing it, and making the interesting things too common-place.