Monday, January 31, 2011

Untrue North

An arctic of only (now melting) ice is sort of boring, don’t you think? At least in comparison to the flights of Age of Exploration fancy. Why settle for just ice when you could have a magnetic Black Rock, a swirling whirlpool, and islands of pygmies? Check out this 1595 map:

Gerard Mercator’s (yes, that Mercator) based his maps and his descriptions in a letter to John Dee off older works. He describes a landmass divided into four lands by channeled through which water rushed into the whirlpool surrounding the Pole, and.”descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel.” This unusual geography supposedly led to the deaths of 4,000 men from the expedition King Arthur had sent to the islands.

At the pole itself, in the center of the maelstrom, was a giant black, a mountain, Rupes Nigra--the Black Precipice. As Mercator writes: “Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone. And is as high as the clouds...” It’s magnetism was said draw ships made with iron nails to their doom.

After reading about all of this, I think I know what the North Pole of the City’s world is like...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Black Train is Coming

“A black train runs some nights at midnight, they say..”

-- Manly Wade Wellman, “The Little Black Train”

Hobo-goblins, human tramps and bindlestiffs, and other Bethren of the Road, tell stories in their camps and jungles of a preternatural train that runs from this world to planes beyond. This lore is seldom shared with those outside their communities, but folklore records regular folk having chance encounters with the phantom.

The appearance of the train changes with time. It always appears old, like it has a decade or two of service behind it behind it, but otherwise stays current with locomotive technology and styles. It's not marked in any way, and has been described by observers in paradoxical ways. It’s plain and nondescript, yet powerfully commands intention. Some feel an intense unreality upon seeing it, others the cold hand of fear.

The train starts on mundane tracks, but as soon as it's "out of sight" of its observers it begins to shift into other realms. Some dreamers have seen it crossing the lunar wastes from the vantage of the parapets of the Dream Lord's castle. It is known to make stops in depots in the Hells. Planar travelers have attested to seeing rails that fade into nothingness at the mouth of the gyre at the bottom of reality.

Mostly, it seems carry certain dead to the afterlife, though why it comes for some and not others is unknown. Hell Syndicate snitches know of it, but not who operates it. Angels likewise keep a serene silence. Most who ride the train are dropped off in the waystation realm of the dead, from there to travel on to their souls' final destination.  Some, however, are taken directly to the outer planes. Others seem to ride the train for longer periods of time. They're found snoozing in couch cars, or drinking and playing cards in the dining car. Waiting, perhaps, for something. They’re sometimes inclined to conversation, though they seldom have anything useful to say.

Adventurers have sometimes used the train as a quick ride, either to the Other Side, or the Outer Planes. Hobo-goblin glyphs sometimes point the way to likely places were the train may appear. The train’s gray, nondescript, and seldom seen staff do not object to taking on new passengers, so long as they pay the fare--which varies, but is always in silver.

There's always the option, for those with fare or without, of hopping one of the train’s empty freight cars, but riding an open car through other planes is a dangerous proposition, and the boxcars are only empty of freight--not necessarily other travelers.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Naturalism of the Fantastic

Wanting to create your own unique wildlife a la the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, or just wanting to get outside your usual monster manuals? Here are a few choice works of speculative nonfiction from my own shelves that you might consider adding to yours:

It’s 50 million years in the future: Do you know where your species is? Answer: Extinct. But hey, check out Dougal Dixon’s speculations about what crazy wildlife might have emerged in that far flung age in After Man: A Zoology of the Future. How about whale-like animals evolved from penguins, or large carnivores descended from mustelids (weasels, and their ilk)? Check out wikipedia for a complete rundown.

After Man won a Hugo Award when it was published in 1981. It has been out of print for a while, so it may be hard to come by, but worth getting if you can find it cheap.

Easier to find, is a more recent (but similar) work by Dixon, this one tied into a 2003 BBC documentary miniseries. The Future is Wild details evolution on earth over a span of 200 million years, checking in at three different periods. Again this is a world post-mankind. Here we get pack-hunting, flightless birds, terrestrial squids called swampuses, and the slithersucker--a predatory slime mold.

Dixon doesn’t have a monopoly on speculative naturalism. Conceptual designers for movies get into the game, too. For those of you who’ve wondered what’s so hard about pulling the ears off a gundark, or what exactly a scruffy nerfherder herds, Whitlach and Carrau provide answers to these questions, and many others, in The Wildlife of Star Wars. It’s far from bantha poodoo.

The World of King Kong gives us an isolated island where dinosaurs got 65 million (give or take) more years of evolution--which turns out mostly to be in the direction of “scary” and “more dangerous.” They share their inhospitable island home with all sorts of invertebrates grown larger than conventional science would say they ought to. And then there’s that giant gorilla everybody’s talking about..

So there you have it, plenty of creative creature inspiration. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

There's A Story There

Sometimes a chance encounter opens the door to adventure.  This is as true in the City as anywhere.  Truer, probably...

An odd decoration on the hat of an aging beauty in a downtown bar. Ten years ago--when this picture was taken--Etta Bly was an adventuress in her prime. That was before alcohol and fast living took its toll. She still wears a cocktail hat adorned with a gear that looks like orichalcum (but isn’t) from the soul machinery of Primus, God-Engine and First Cause of the Modrons. It was a gift from a “made man” in the Hell Syndicate when a young Etta was, briefly, his moll. Etta killed the two-timing gangster--wasting a number nine shell from her wonderbuss. She vowed to keep the hat even as she blew her wayward beau a kiss as he was sucked into the blackness of the void, and nonexistence.

But on Mechanus, the values of “revenge,” and “just cause,” have been calculated. In the ten years since, several iterations of hardened, extraplanar expeditionary units have been generated, and the invasion counter is decrementing. Either the soul cog will be returned, or a horde of implacable, improbable contraptions will lay ruin to the world.

A caged sprite in small curio shop. The sprite begs for freedom in a tiny, pitiful voice to anyone that will listen. She also likes sugarcubes like others like cocaine. She was smuggled in from Ealderde, an accidental addition to an illicit shipment of weaponized faerie from the Great War. She knows her warped bethren are loose in the City, imagining themselves behind enemy lines, and planning the commando raid they were shaped for.

A werewolf speeding down a dirt road on a motorcycle. A lonely desert ghost town, plays host to a gang of lycanthropic motorcycle enthusiasts, bored and looking for entertainment.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: The Pit

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 Pit"
Warlord (vol. 1) #40 (January 1981)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Bob Smith

Synopsis: Last issue, a visit to Kaambuka and his friend Aram al Ashir, thief turned king, has embroiled Morgan and Shakira in a web of intrigues and assassination plots.

More surprises await when Morgan watches, stunned, as King Ashir's betrothed enters the city--and its his own mate, Tara! An already strange situation takes a grim turn, as Morgan notices two more purpled hooded, flamboyantly dressed assassins in the crowd of on-lookers, and they're headed for Tara.

Morgan vaults from the balcony, and lays into the would-be assassins with his hellfire sword. He grabs one of them and demands to know who sent them, but he’s forced to use the hapless man as a human shield when a rooftop bowman takes a shot at him. Morgan fires back--with his magnum--and he doesn't miss.

The danger over, Morgan’s and Tara’s eyes meet for a moment. It’s fleeting. Then, Tara begins to act as if she doesn’t know him. Ashir runs up and introduces himself, and Morgan. Tara says she's heard of “the Warlord,” and she takes a jab at Morgan and Shakira:

Introductions aside, Tara retires to her quarters to bathe. Ashir is pleased--a beauty like her makes his crown feel less heavy! Morgan is focused on finding out who’s behind the assassination. He stalks off leaving his friends Shakira and Ashir puzzled, as they have no idea why his mood has darkened.

As soon as Morgan’s out of sight of others, he sneaks over to Tara’s room. He wants to find out why she didn’t acknowledge him. Despite his care, as he climbs to the balcony, he’s observed.

Meanwhile, Shakira has ditched Ashir to hunt a mouse in cat-form. She happens to walk by a partially opened door where the conspirators are talking. Their robed leader, a man known as Harrarh, listens to the report of the spy who saw Morgan go to Tara’s room. Harrarh sees this as an opportunity to let Ashir’s friend undo him by breaking the alliance. He calls for the guards loyal to him to be summoned. Shakira tranforms to human form to run away quickly with this new knowledge.

Morgan surprises Tara, who’s been crying in her room. The two long separated lovers embrace. Tara explains that Shamballah’s council of elders forced this marriage to Ashir upon her. They feel an alliance with Kaambuka is vital with the Theran army on the march against them. She hopes she can convince Ashir to abandon the idea of marriage, but still accept the alliance.

Morgan isn’t happy with any of this. If Ashir won’t free Tara from the contract, he says he’ll kill him. Tara points out that would mean certain war, but Morgan says he’s been to war, and never for better reason.

Their conversation is cut short, as Harrarh and a group of guardsman break in to seize the two of them for betraying the king under his own roof. Morgan knows these guards are from the same group as the assassins, and he and Tara  slash into them with their blades.

The guardsmen fall before the pair, and they turn their attention to Harrarh. He fires a magical blast at Morgan, but the Hellfire sword protects its bearer from magic, and Morgan is unharmed. Harrarh throws down a glass globe filled with the a mixture derived from the black lotus. The gas incapacitates our heroes.

When they awaken, they're tied and hanging over Harrarh’s pit. He explains to the assembled lords of Kaambuka that he plans to execute these traitors, and end the rule of a pretender so foolish as to be gulled by them. He exhorts the lords to join him in rebellion.

Morgan threatens to tell the nobles what Harrarh’s been up to, but Harrarh plans to drop him into the pit first.

Both are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Shakira and Ashir with a bow, drawn and aimed at Harrarh. Ashir reveals Harrarh’s plots and assassination attempts, and commands the lords to apprehend him. Harrarh threatens to drop his friends to their doom if he doesn’t stand down. Ashir responds by putting an arrow through his eye. Harrarh’s body topples backwards into the pit, and into the maw of an amorphous, orange, creature.

After Morgan and Tara are freed. Ashir says that after hearing Harrarh, he knows that Tara is Morgan’s mate. He would never dream of separating his friend from his woman. “Take her,” he says. “She’s yours.” Morgan thanks him.

Tara, incensed at being treated like an possession, knocks Morgan flat. When Ashir tries to placate her by kneeling and kissing her hand, she knees him in the jaw. She tells Morgan there was a time when she gave herself to him, but now he must win her.

Then she rides away in a huff.

Morgan changes clothes quickly. Ashir asks what he’s going to do now.

Morgan replies: “What else? I’m going to win her.”

Things to Notice:
  • Assassins in Kaambuka don't seem to believe in being inconspicuous.  They tend to dress like circus performers.
  • Theran is consistently misspelled "Theron" is this issue.
Where It Comes From:
Pits, particularly with amorphous monstrosities, are a sword and sorcery genre staple, though this may be more common in sword and sorcery comics than prose.

Black lotus is the source of a deadly poison in stories by Robert E. Howard, among them "Tower of the Elephant."

Harrarh may have been inspired by Harrar, an important ancient city in Ethiopia.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, Robot

Ninety years ago today, the word robot entered the science fiction lexicon. It came by of the Czech language play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. In the years since, robots have been unceasingly abused, or alternately, unceasingly rebellious against their human masters--at least in fiction.

The word “robot” derives from the Czech word robota which means “work” or “labor,” and figuratively “drudgery.” The word was supposedly suggested by Čapek’s brother, Josef. Over time, it’s all but replaced “automaton” which had been previously used for mechanical beings in English.

Interestingly, the robots in R.U.R. aren’t mechanical, but are instead biological constructs--more like what GURPS (Biotech and Transhuman Space) call bioroids (a term they borrowed from the work of Masamune Shirow)--than Robbie, or R2D2. The play clearly has them constructed, though, not grown like synthetic bioorganisms in other science fiction.

In the world of the City, I think there probably is an island where a scientist from Ealderde, Karel Rozum, has already fired up his vats and molds, and made his first organisms from alchemical protoplasm. He’s got a dungeon full of deformities and malformed monsters, the detritus of working the kinks out in his process. But he’ll get it right, eventually...and then what?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Run Rabbit Run

The City doesn’t have a monopoly on weirdness in the New World. There’s plenty for rural areas as well...

In the west of Freedonia, there exists a population of jackrabbits or hares the size of bison. Locals call them “lagoes” or “leaps.” These animals exist in a fair limited geographic area, but are still occasionally hunted for fur and food, and even used as mounts.

The origins of the lago are obscured. Most experts believe they are the result of some demented thaumaturgical experimentation, but a few consider it possible they are prehistoric survivors, or mutations from accidental exposure to magics of the Ancients.

Lagoes have historical been considered nuisances as they take grazing land away from cattle, and can ravage farmers' fields. Ironically, a use for the beasts’ being discovered--in the form of an interest in their fur for coats and trim for clothing--did more to bring them the brink of extinction that any previous effort. Their relatively fast reproduction rate for such a large animal, combined with the fickleness of fashion saved them.

Natives in the area have a superstitious dread of the animals, believing them to be the reincarnated souls of a gluttonous and grasping ancient tribe.  Folklore of the first settlers likewise takes a negative view, suggesting that they are sometimes infected with a degenerative disease that leads to frenzied attacks against other animals or man in its early stages.  Eating of lago meat is avoided by old trail hands for this reason for fear of contagion.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Five Favorite Howard Yarns

On Robert E. Howard’s birthday yesterday, I was thinking about my favorite stories by him. It can be tough to choose--there are a lot of good ones to consider. Here, in no particular order, are what I think are my top five:

"Worms of the Earth": Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts is (almost literally) willing to make a deal with the devil to get revenge on the hated Roman conquers. This is a tour de force by Howard with some great elements--the clash of cultures Howard loved in his historical fiction, a brooding hero, and weird horror.

"Xuthal of the Dusk": Also called "The Slithering Shadow." This may not rank among the best of the Conan stories for most folks, but I love the setting of a lost city full of drug-addled inhabitants awaiting an inevitable--but unpredictable--death from a weird menace. The original title is suitably enigmatic, too.

"Blades of the Brotherhood": Apparently, Howard’s original title was “The Blue Flame of Vengeance,” but I first encountered it under this title in the Marvel 1986 comics adaptation, with great art by Bret Blevins. Solomon Kane takes on a gang of pirates he’s been dogging, as he’s wont to do. Kane gets some great, badass lines, and deeds to match.

"The Shadow of the Vulture": My favorite of Howard’s historical actioners, its got an epic plot that would make a great film. It's got German Ritter Gottfried von Kalmbach with Howard’s real Red Sonya (no “j” or chainmail bikini) against the Turkish Empire, culminating in the siege of Vienna, 1529.

"Queen of the Black Coast": While there are plots, and settings I like better in other Conan tales, there are spots in this story where Howard’s writing really soars, and Conan’s musing on philosophy are great.

Close to these are “Pigeons from Hell,” “Red Nails,” and “People of the Back Circle.” I fact, ask me in a week and one of those will have bumped one the ones above out of a top spot. In fact, in most of Howard’s fantasy stories I find some elements I like even when the whole thing may not work for me.

Happy belated birthday, Bob!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Strange Trails--Free Download

Need a Weird Adventures appetizer?  Well, how about a download to tide you over?

Strange Trails features:
  • Eight articles from this blog, some expanded, and all of them annotated and illustrated--including artwork by our man in Manila, Reno Maniquis, and that ostensible cat, Johnathan Bingham.
  • An “Appendix N” for the City and its world.
  • A shot of flavor fiction to set the mood.
And all for the low, low price  Get it here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Release the Hounds

Chronos hounds, or temporal hounds, are extradimensional beings who sometimes hunt the Prime Material Plane. Some ancient tomes hold that these creatures are benevolent, and defend causality and stability against horrors form outside spacetime. Observed behavior of chronos hounds is ambiguous at best, and those who may encounter them are urged to caution.

From a distance, a chronos hound has the silhouette of a large, lean dog. A closer look reveals that the body of the creature is actual more like a human's, perhaps specifically an androgynous youth's, twist and stretched to conform to a canine’s basic arrangement. It's front paws, for example, are slender, human-like hands. The heads of the hound is always blurred and indistinct, as if in constant motion, but there is the suggestion of toothy, canine jaws, and glowing eyes. Hounds appear to be able to speak by telepathy, but also make a garbled sound like the cough and growls of a pack of dogs, as if heard at the other end of long and empty hallway. Their skin is hairless, and the faintly luminescent blue-white of moonlight.

Only in the past decade, has metaphysics developed the proper theoretical framework to understand the chronos hounds--and even now those theories remain controversial. The most brilliant minds in the City hold the hounds to be a wave function which only observation causes to collapse into the form of the creatures described above. Thaumaturgic investigation suggests they serve an eikone called Father Time, or are perhaps extensions of his will. They act to prune "streams" of time and possibility--making reality from probability--toward some inscrutable purpose.

# Enc.: 1d6 (1d6)
Movement: 120’ (40’)
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4
Attacks: 1 (bite),
Damage: 1d6
Save: F4
Chronos hounds are only visible if they choose to be, prior to acting. Only some rare circumstance keeps a first attack from being by surprise. Their actions in this plane have a stuttering appearance, as if they are teleporting short distances rather than moving normally. Chronos hounds reduced to 0 hit points disappear entirely. Chronos hounds are able to pass through (or around) any physical barrier--or indeed temporal barrier. A combat with them may begin one day, only to have them break off the attack, and re-appear months or even years later.  A first encounter with a chronos hound, maybe not be the true first encounter, from the perspective of the creature's timeline. Whatever subjective amount of time appears to pass in combat with them, 1d100 minutes have based for the world external to the combatants.

The greatest enemies of the chronos hounds are the achronal hyperbeasts, which they will fight to the death when they encounter them. Thankfully, these higher order dimensional monstrosities are seldom encountered on this plane.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Wizard World

This week, let's journey to the distant past of the lost world of DC Comic's Warlord, and check up on Machiste, Mariah, and Mungo Ironhand in the "Wizard World" back-up feature...

"The Book of the Dead" Parts 1 & 2
Warlord (vol. 1) #40 (December 1980) and #41 (January 1981)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Dwarf wizard Mungo Ironhand searches for something in the library of the recently deceased Wralf the Wretched while Mariah and Machiste look on. Mungo stops his search briefly to have a martini, and leaning against a wall, manages to accidentally open a secret door. In the small room behind it, he serendipitously finds what he’s looking for--The Book of the Dead, a tome of the dark arts.

Mariah is skeptical, but is concerned that even if it's real, it’s a thing of evil. Mungo assures her that power is neither good nor evil--it depends on how its used. He thinks he can use the book to send them back to their own time.

At that moment, a wizard appears in a burst of fire and brimstone, and snatches up the book. Machiste throws a dagger, but it’s too late. The wizard is gone as quickly as he came.

Mungo tells the other two that that was Zarrgon Fire-Eye. He lives inside a volcano called Great Fire Mountain. They have to get the book back from Zarrgon, or they’ll see what happens when the book falls into the wrong hands!

Astride giant, flightless birds the trio head for Great Fire Mountain. At the volcano’s base, they abandon their mounts, and climb. They find Zarrgon’s fortress in the volcano’s smoldering crater.

Our heroes descend into the crater only to be attack by diminutive brutes riding small pteranodons. Their tiny spears are little more than an annoyance, but one of the flying reptiles grabs Mariah by the hair--and begins to raise her into the sky. Machiste grabs her hand, and pulls her back to safety. Mungo suggests they take shelter in a cave up ahead.

Zarrgon, watching the trio escape his minions uses a blast of energy to cause an avalanche. Our heroes are buried!

Or so it appears. Actually, Mungo uses his magic to shield them. They manage to get into the cave before Mungo’s strength gives out, but the cave’s entrance is now blocked. The three are plunged into darkness.

Mungo fumbles for a moment, but manages to produce a magic flame from his finger. In the light he casts, the three are surprised to see a crouching humanoid:

The thing, which calls itself Craetur, bounds off promising that Zarrgon will make them pretty trophies, too. Mariah wonders what he’s talking about, but not for long. Mungo points her to a wall of skulls.

Determined not to wind up on that wall. the trio makes their way deeper into the volcano until they discover a stairway leading upward to a door. They soon find themselves in Zarrgon’s fortress, and after a short and stealthy search, locate the wizard, lost in study of the book.

Mungo has a plan. They waylay two guards and get disguises for Mungo and Machiste. They enter the wizards chamber, and move closer to attack. Before they can, Zarrgon glimpses Machiste’s mace hand.

Quickly, Machiste throws a dagger. Zarrgon laughs when it strikes the Necronomicon, not him. He blasts away at the two with magic energy. Mungo fires a blast of his own, but hits the dagger embedded in the book. Again Zarrgon mocks them.

He doesn’t see the dagger pommel begin to grow and change into the shape of a woman. He has no idea he’s been tricked until Mariah grabs him by the shoulder, then spins him around and punches him off the platform.

The three grab the book and try to make their escape before Zarrgon recovers. Before they can climb out of the crater, a recovered Zarrgon blasts them. The path crumbling beneath his feet, Mungo almost falls into the volcano, but Mariah saves him.

The Necronomicon, however, falls into the roiling smoke below. Mungo’s lost his chance to be sorcerer supreme, but consoles himself with the knowledge that the book can no longer fall into the wrong hands.

In the volcano below, Craetur picks up the book from the rubble, and pronounces it “pretty.”

Things to Notice:
  • Wizardly knowledge is vast. Mungo Ironhand knows a lot of 20th century popular culture.
  • Mariah has heard of the Necronomicon.
  • Zarrgon's name is mispelled throughout Part 2.
Where It Comes From:
The evil sorcerer Zarrgon maybe be named for the comic book character Sargon the Sorcerer, or more likely, they both take their names from Sargon the Great of Akkad.

The Necronomicon, of course, comes from the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Craetur's appearance and behavior is modelled on that of Gollum in the works of J.R.R.Tolkien.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Real Dungeon Hazards: Snotties and Slime

Ooozes and slimes aren’t just the the subject of Gygaxian dungeoneering fancy. Interestingly, it appears they have some basis in subterranean fact. Ready for an introduction to the world of snotties, red goo, and green slime?

"Snotties" look like small stalactites, but have the texture of mucus and drip battery acid. They’re actually colonies extremophile archaebacteria that thrive in intense levels of atmospheric hydrogen sulfide produced by volcanism. They’ve only been found in a few places including Cueva de Villa Luz, southern Mexico, and Sulphur Cave in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Other unusual things have been uncovered in Cueva de Villa Luz by the self-styled SLIME (Subsurface Life In Mineral Environments) team. “Red goo” is an acidic (pH 3.9-2.5) breakdown product of clay, which also makes a home for bacteria. “Green slime” which may be decaying algal elements.

Sulphur Cave also sports the red worms which live off sulfur--the only such higher organism ever discovered residing on land.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Dead Travel Fast

In the deserts north of Heliotrope, weird monsters of the outer dark and thrill-crazy youths race hopped-up roadsters across dead sea bottoms.

In Hesperia, a “car culture” has emerged. Like the Southron bootleggers, some young Hesperian men have taken to modifying jalopies for the purpose of drag-racing. Most of the modifications are strictly mechanical, but would-be racers save up for more expensive thaumaturgical or alchemical modifications.

While some racing occurs along highways, the real action is out in the desert. There, on the vast and empty beds left by ancient seas, law enforcement doesn’t intrude, and higher speeds can be reached. The speeds, and the often haphazard modification of the cars, sometimes make these races deadly--but these mundane dangers aren't the only things to fear.

Maybe it was just the psychic energy boiling off youth hopped-up on alchemical drugs, speed, and the proximity of death; or maybe the death of the ancient seas left the skin of reality thin, inviting irruption. Whatever the cause, broken and burned-out husked of roadsters--and sometimes the charred and mangled remains of their drivers--have been reanimated by outer monstrosities in forms as colorful and grotesque as something from a drug delirium nightmare.

Appearances by these creatures are things of fear and wonder for the human racers. The unholy growl of giant engines and the overpowering smell of burning rubber presage their arrival--almost always between the stroke of midnight and first light of dawn. They're practically worshipped as secret and strange god-things. Rituals are performed; crude talismans of twisted steel and burnt chrome are fashioned. The bravest (or craziest) of the young drivers sometimes join in their monster races, and those few that survive with life and limb, and sanity, intact are often dragged along in the creatures' slipstreams as they roar back into the void, and are never seen again

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Descent in the (Real) Depths

Adventurers traveling to a remote jungles to enter a gigantic cave, inhabited by things like poisonous centipedes isn't just the stuff of table top fantasy.  The February issue of National Geographic has an profusely illustrated article about an epedition to Son Doong Cave in Vietnam.  The cave's at least 2.8 miles long and is some places as tall as 460 feet.  Check out all the pictures and an interactive map here.

Not enough for a jaded delver like yourself?  Well, marvel at the the crystal formations in Mexico's appropriately named Cave of Crystals.  If that's not an adventurous environment (minus, you know, the extreme heat of 136 F and 90-100% humidity) I don't know what is:

Note the size of the people in relation to the crystals!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Grip of the Octopus

Astral cehalopods or astral octopuses are extradimensional sentients, and either conquerors or gourmands, or some mixture of both. They are parasites feeding off the subtle emanations that radiate into the astral space from intense human emotion. They appear as large and admittedly somewhat fake looking octopuses when viewed under astral-sight, but are otherwise invisible.

Astral octopuses of different groups, or perhaps just different tastes, prefer different emotional spectra, which they dine on exclusively. Some have a taste for anger or fear, while others favor love or passion. Others of more exotic dietary preferences, like paranoia or religious ecstasy, have been encountered.

These creatures bind invisibly to a human being's astral body. By delicate, astral manipulations of their hosts’ consciousnesses, they are able to influence them to to actions or behaviors more likely to lead to the emotional flavors they favor. They do not control behaviors--at least at first--merely make their preferred course of action seem more reasonable. Over time, however, this influence grows and their favorite emotional diet becomes their hosts’ usual emotional state. This too often leads to an early death, mental hospitalization, or incarceration.  Though some hosts are able to resist for decades, magical intervention is the only way to free them from the creatures once and for all.

Mercifully, astral octopus infestation is rare. It is most commonly seen in adventurers who have had contact with the raw astral plane, those suffering certain curses, or mediums or spiritualists who have engaged in astral projection. However, those who have attended seances or engaged in the use of certain recreational alchemicals have been known to be afflicted.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Call for Cartography

In working on Weird Adventures, I’ve become aware that my mapmaking skills, while fine for my little gaming group, are not up to the standards I want for a commercially available product. With that in mind, I thought I’d summon the power of the web to help make up for that deficit.

I’m going to need at least two maps for the book. One of a sort of a standard “fantasy map” variety--a continental map. Another will be a little bit of a departure--a map of a “modern” urban center, of which this map of Gotham City would be a resemble example:

I’m willing to pay for said maps, of course, though obviously my budget isn’t extravagant.

So my question to the ether is: does anybody know where I can find a good rpg cartographer? Self-nominations are welcome, as are enquiries for more details. I can be reach at my blog email address: theinscrutabledr3[at]gmail[dot]com

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Brotherhood of Death

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...

"Brotherhood of Death"
Warlord (vol. 1) #40 (December 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: In the royal palace of Kaambuka, Ashir complains to one if his minsters about the dreariness of kingly business. Suddenly, he sees someone interesting entering the palace--his friend Morgan, and Shakira. Ashir jumps down, sword drawn, to “settle an old score.”

Morgan and Ashir engage in a friendly duel. Morgan concedes that Ashir’s gotten better--now he’s a second rate swordsman rather than third. Guardsmen runs to their king’s rescue, but Ashir assures them everything is fine.

Morgan, mindful that the hellfire sword must always taste blood if drawn, gives it a little from his own thumb.

Later, Shakira reclines as she engages in conversation with Ashir. Ever the ladies’ man, he asks her why she stays with a savage like Morgan, contrasting the Warlord with himself. At that moment, Morgan enters in fancy duds similar to Ashir’s. Shakira’s verdict: they make him look ridiculous. Ashir’s serving girls have a different appraisal...

Ashir bemoans the boredom and drudgery of kingship compared to the excitement of a rogue’s life. The latest torment heaped open him: a political marriage to another head of state--a woman he has never even seen! He’s sure he’ll have to give up his harem for a fat wife.

Morgan suggests they do something reckless to celebrate his bachelorhood before it ends. Ashir suggests a royal hunt, and Morgan and Shakira agree.

In a dark chamber beneath the palace, conspirators watch our heroes in a crystal ball. Their robed and hooded leader wishes to assassinate Ashir before he can be married and solidify his place on the throne. The Guardsman Mustulous suggests a poisoned dagger, but his master silences him with a warning that he will obey or be food for the creature in the pit. The master raises a small charm made from an animal claw, and says he has a plan.

Later, in the forest, Ashir prepares to administer the killing blow to a charging, wounded stag with his dagger. He jumps across the beast’s back and drives the blade into its heart. Morgan and Shakira watch, and Shakira wonders why he takes such chances. Morgan replies, jokingly, that he has nothing to live for.

Morgan catches sight of a sabretooth stalking from the jungle toward Ashir. He cries out to his friend as the creature pounces. Ashir is too surprised to act, but Morgan lunges and meets the cat in midair!

He puts the beast in a full-Nelson, Tarzan-style, but it throws him. It moves forward to attack, until its distracted by Ashir, raising his bow. Again, the beast jumps at him. This time, Ashir is prepared, and his arrow takes it in the eye.

The cat’s dead. Shakira wonders why “her brother” attacked Ashir in the first place. Morgan finds the master plotter’s charm braided into the cat’s fur--and he points out the identical one dangling from Ashir’s belt. He realizes it was a set up.

Watching in his crystal ball, the master knows their stratagem has failed. He tells Mustulous that now they’ll do things his way. He cautions that this time there must be no mistakes--and the Warlord and his companion should die, too. Mustulous vows he will not fail. Looking down at tentacles writhing in a pit, the master reminds him of the consequences, otherwise.

Returning to the palace, Ashir is grousing about a return to boredom. It’s Shakira that first spots the masked assassins waiting to strike, and dispatches the first with her spear. Then Morgan and Ashir have their swords out, and the assassins quickly fall.

When the melee is over, they find the men are from among Ashir’s guard. Ashir realizes his political enemies have deeper resentments than he thought! Morgan suggests that he could abdicate, since that’s what he’s been wanting anyway.

Ashir’s had a change of heart. He’s finally found something that makes a king’s life interesting!

At that moment, trumpets sound the approach of his bride-to-be. Ashir’s new found joy evaporates. Morgan reminds him that it’s his duty, and suggests that he really doesn’t know that she’s going to be ugly.

Ashir is unconvinced, but goes to the window to look out at his intended. He exclaims in surprise at her beauty. Morgan, on the other hand, is dumbstruck.

Riding in his own on lost mate, Tara!

Things to Notice:
  • Ashir wears the same outfit as in his previous appearance--either he was a well-dressed thief or he's a shabbily dressed king.
  • Shakira's spear always seems to show up when she needs it, even when she doesn't seem to have had it with her in previous scenes.
Where It Comes From:
This issue shares its title with a 1976 blaxploitation action film, but its real inspiration seem to Ruritanian romance with its outsiders visiting a kingdom and becoming embroiled in political intrigues and assassination plots.

The name of the treacherous Mustulous, recalls the Latin word for "weasel-like", mustelus.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Murky Waters

“...haven’t much time. They’ll come for me soon, but I must record some fragment of what I’ve seen. The world must know what it is they’re plotting...They’re old--terribly old. From the muck they must have watched our ancestors crawl up onto land. Even from the beginning, their cold, alien intellects must have plotted our enslavement...”

-- Excerpt of transcript of audio tapes made by Professor Henery Gilmarth
The entire university was saddened by the news of the death of folklorist Henery Gilmarth. Gilmarth was found drowned in Mirky Creek, near a Southron town of the same name. Gilmarth had gone to record the peculiar hand-fishing techniques used by some rural Southrons to pull catfish from their dens.

Gilmarth had sent a cryptic message by wire to his research assistant in the City. It suggested these fishing activities were actually connected with some sort of cultic ritual related to the veneration of some unusually large, and up to now unknown to science, species of catfish.

When Gilmarth did not return on his scheduled train, inquires were made. His belonging were found in his hotel room, though the reel from his tape recorder had been removed and apparently hidden amid the clothes in his suitcase. No trace of Gilmarth was found, until children playing in the creek sighted his body a week later.

Local police have ruled his death accidental.

OLD ONE (intelligent catfish species)
# APP.: 1-4
AC: 4
MOVE: 90” (30”)
HD: 4
ATTACKS: 4 (1 bite 1d6, 2 feelers 1d4)
SPECIAL: dominate, slime
Old Ones are sentient fish resembling catfish. They are an ancient race, perhaps the oldest intelligent race in the world, and have an abiding contempt for other species. The Old Ones dominate and co-mingle their blood with isolated human communities along the rivers in which they dwell.

On a successful hit to an opponent, or if an opponent hits an Old One with bare skin, the slime which coats their skin gets may get transferred. A victim must make a save throwing or experience hallucinations, and perhaps paranoia, for 2-8 hours. Scrubbing the slime off with soap or an organic solvent will half the duration of effect. On a damaging bite, genetic material may be conveyed by some unknown means into the victims bloodstream. On a failed saving throw, the skin around the area begins to alter in appearace--to change into a an Old One/human hybrid form. On one short exposure, the effect is short-lived perhaps 2-16 days, but longer with lengthier, repeated exposures.

Three times per day, Old Ones can, with concentration, mentally enslave a person within 30 feet. This functions like the dominate person spell, and allows a saving throw every 24 hours to escape thralldom.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Foul Language

The Canadian film Pontypool presents a “zombie” outbreak with a novel twist. The zombifying vector is a neurolinguistic or perhaps memetic “virus.” Some sort of infectious agent that hijacks certain previously innocuous English words, and when understood, begins overtaking the minds of its victims. As William S. Burroughs would have it: “The word is now a virus.”

Fantasy or weird fiction already presents a kind of malevolent Stendahl Syndrome in the pages of Chamber’s The King in Yellow, and Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. And of course, there’s also already the idea that words themselves have magical potency--Vancian Magic, anyone? Power Word Kill?

Perhaps magical formulae could get infected like the English language does in Pontypool.

Or perhaps something more has been lurking there all along. Maybe magical words or ideas are a virus or a living thing of some sort already. Maybe they don’t turn the user into a zombie or kill them, but maybe they have goals all their own.

Could it be that people who become magic-users are the ones that magical language or symbology can’t destroy or transform into some mindless creature? Or maybe they survive exposure, but all mages are driven a bit mad.

Maybe a they can “fire,” but they can never truly “forget.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In Deep, Crimson Shadows

Check out the great art above from Chris Hűth for the upcoming (I promise!) Weird Adventures setting. This is, of course, the Red Dwarf--the malign genius loci of Motorton in the Steel League.

Since the days when the site of Motorton was a plague-pit for Old Fort Narrows, the area has been the home of the dwarf. He’s a harbinger of calamity; doom in a dapper, red suit.

Rumor says that those unlucky enough to have an audience with the dwarf are brought to a Room with Red Velvet Curtains (sometimes just “The Red Room”). Visitors--survivors--describe the room as located in the basement of a ritzy old hotel, but no one has been able to relocated the building or provide directions to it later.

What comes from a meeting with the dwarf can’t be predicted. Sometimes, he’ll tell his visitor’s future. Other times, he’ll ask them for a favor, or tell them how they can get their heart’s desire. However it starts, it always plays out badly.

It’s worth noting that the infernal criminal organization known as the Hell Syndicate stays out of Motorton.  It’s the dwarf’s city.

Characters may have heard other rumors about the dwarf:
  1. He can’t be hurt by anything but a magical weapons.
  2. The tea he sometimes offers visitors can bring strange visions, and cause madness
  3. He carries a pocket watch whose hands only move when someone dies--or maybe when someone particular dies.
  4. Bones excavated from the old, mass plague graves can be used to ward against him.
  5. He’s only dangerous because Motorton’s sick. If the city could be healed, the dwarf would be benevolent.
  6. The dwarf is only a midget human sorcerer cashing in on an old legend. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
  7. There’s a red leather journal of a young girl, who died in an asylum, that contains, in its ramblings, the red dwarf’s true name, and the ritual to bind him to service.
  8. The dwarf is always accompanied by the same gang--a black-haired moll in a red dress with a silky voice, and twin bruisers with the same first name.
  9. The Red Room is actually the lowest level of Hell. The dwarf is actually Morningstar in disguise.
  10. The dwarf isn’t a real entity at all, just the physical representation of the death curse of a Native shaman on the Ealderdish invaders. Treating it like a real being only increases its power.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Weird (Non-)Fiction

Want to crank up the weird or strange in your game? Here are works from my library that I’ve found inspirational in doing just that--and with some thought they're applicable to many different genres:

Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival by Joscelyn Godwin: What’s weirder than Antarctic Nazis? Well, that’s just the--uh--tip of the iceberg. The Hollow Earth gets covered here, too, of course. Kenneth Hite called it “The Best Interdisciplinary Book on the Poles” [for the purposes of High Weirdness] in Suppressed Transmission, which pretty much says it all, really.

Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies: Every practitioner of the magical arts, from the dungeon-crawling magic-user to Dr. Strange, has need of magic tomes. This book details the real world history of such books from the ancient world to Anton LaVey, with stops in Lovecraftiana and the Third Reich along the way.

The President’s Vampire: Strange-but-True Tales of the United States of America by Robert Damon Schneck: Did Andrew Johnson pardon a man guilty of drinking the blood of two sailors? What’s the deal with the diminutive mummies found in Wyoming? And what happened in Massachusetts in 1853 when a cult gathered to assemble a machine messiah? All the answers may not be found in this Fortean tome, but the discussion of these bits of esoterica will at least allow you to understand the questions.

Find these books and others like them at your local library...And if you can’t find them there, go to a better library. I hear Miskatonic University has a great one...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tall in the Saddle

Heroes in the Strange New World don’t come much bigger than Jaymes “Big Jim” Trane, seen here on the steps of the Freedonian High Court House. Trane was a star of numerous Heliotrope Westerns, starting in the silent era, but also a real Freedonian lawman.

As his height would suggest, Trane was the son of a half-giant woman and her minister husband. Trane began working with horses at a young age, and dreamed of running off and joining the circus, a notion looked upon unfavorably by his parents--an opinion not a whit improved when actually he ran off and joined one. After years with the circus, performing for the crowned heads of Ealderde and the potentates of the Orient, he wound up in the region between Freedonia and the Vast Plains Territories known as the Native Concession.

Here, he became a ranger, upholding the law and mediating between the Native tribes and the white settlers. He brought down outlaws like Heck Thorn and his Roaring Boys; and more exotic menaces, like Ancient mummies (taller than he) risen from burial mounds, and the urbane Zingaran vampire lord, Don Sangre.

A series of dime novels insured Trane’s fame grew even more, to the point where it was unclear where truth ended and tall tale began. Trane did, in fact, train a giant prehistoric cat to serve as a mount, but generally preferred horses, and kept the cat on his ranch. He did ride a elemental tornado like a bucking bronco, through use of a magic lariat, but did not in fact, ever lasso lightning with a telegraph cable.

His legend made in Freedonia and the Native Country, Trane went on to conquer Heliotrope in over a hundred Western films. He insisted on authenticity whenever possible, shooting Guns in the Ghost City in an actual ghost town, and Beast of Shudder Flats with an actual desert landshark. He also appeared as a matinee “singing cowboy” in several pictures, displaying a surprisingly good baritone.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: The Unfinished Dragonsword

I’ve discussed before some of the other fantasy and science fiction series that ran as back-ups in Warlord. Today, I’ll take a look at the saga of Dragonsword, appearing in Warlord #51-53. The series was written and created by Paul Levitz, with art by Tom Yeates.

Dragonsword tells the story of Thiron, an apprentice warrior of King’s Isle, sent by his masters to kill a dragon as an initiation. Thiron’s accompanied on this quest by his smart-aleck squire Dysillus, who is apparently a chimpanzee (though he refers to himself as a halfling at one point). The pair fairly quickly locate the dragon, and after a short battle, Thiron slays it.

Unlike a lot of tales of dragonslaying, that’s only the beginning of this story, not its climax. Thiron’s sword, bathed in the blood of the dragon, now seems imbued with the dragon’s spirit and power--and it talks in the dragon’s sibilant voice. This was apparently all according to Thiron’s master Jerrand’s plan, and that of King’s Isle’s ruler--the Archmage Anna--who mostly is called “Archmage,” presumably because “Anna” lacked the desired gravitas.

The Achmage plans to use Thiron and his dragonsword to kill her former partner,the Emperor Quisel, whose overstepped his bounds by acquiring a magical battle axe from a pact with the Netherworld. The Archmage says the axe is so powerful, it could perhaps leech all the magic out of the world and kill them all.

The whole group teleports to Quisel’s citadel so Thiron can slay him. They encounter skeletons along the way, butThiron easily bests them. One vanquished skeleton begins to warn Thiron that Jerrand and Anna are not to be trusted and will betray him. Jerrand crushes the skeleton to shut it up, and Anna quickly ushers Thiron along on his quest. Dysillus, at least, begins to get a little suspicious.

The group confronts Quisel. Anna aknowledges that her and Jerrand’s ancient vows won’t let them fight him, but Thiron can. Quisel taunts Thiron, asking if he’s bothered to ask why he was needed in all this, why didn’t Jerrand or Anna wield the dragonsword?

Thiron doesn’t listen to any of this and keeps fighting--that’s until Quisel disarms him. Thiron begs his companions to give him his sword, but they won’t. Anna says they cannot, that only Thiron’s own hand can save him.

Quisel, laughing, raises his axe for the killing blow...

And so the tale ends. Dragonsword remains incomplete to this day.

This short and unfinished series is interesting because its aesthetic is a bit more Medieval than most fantasy comics. It may show the influence of Prince Valiant, but perhaps owes some inspiration to the film Dragonslayer, which opened in June of 1981--though this was only a couple of months before Dragonsword’s debut.

Maybe one day Dragonsword will get a collection, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Addendum: Learned reader Austin points out my post title is fallacious and Dragonsword did indeed have an ending!  It was featured in the next issue, but not noted on the cover.  That's what I get for relying on the internet and not verifying.  Ah, well!  Expect a complete review at some point in the future.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Monster-slaying in Suburbia

Sprawling as the City is, its hegemony extends beyond the borders of the five baronies, into suburbs and to more distant, smaller urban areas. These areas face the same sort of challenges as the City, albeit on a smaller scale. Wandering monsters occasionally come in from the countryside, or up from ancient catacombs. Creatures which specifically hunt humans sometimes find isolated, small towns or suburbs easier pickings, at least for a time. Then there are human threats from rogue thaumaturges, strange drifters, robber gangs, and the like.

Many suburbs and small towns don't haven’t enough funds in their community chests to hire many former adventurers as law enforcement, if any. Often, they have to provide their own protection, and so form vigilance committees, sometimes with several “clubs” or branches under the auspices of an elected body. In some places, people from all walks of life practice with weapons to defend their community.

Just like in the old days, mob justice can be miscarried, so adventurers should take care. Get fresh with the wrong waitress in a two-bit town, or flash too much magic to scare the rubes, and they might find themselves facing a gang of armed townsfolk.

Monday, January 3, 2011

You Never Forget Your First...Dragon

My first adventure and I get a dungeon AND a dragon?”
- Chad, 2011
Yesterday, a group I’m gaming with reconvened after a holiday season hiatus. My friend Chris is GM of a Pathfinder game set in Eberron. Last time, our intrepid band, trying to find a way through a ruined castle built inside a gigantic cave, freed a fighter (a new player, our friend Chad) who had been held captive by performance-enhanced goblins working for some mysterious big bad. Agnar (as he named himself) quickly showed us what kind of fighter he was going to be, by rushing heedlessly unto an alchemical laboratory (from which several goblins had been attacking us from cover), killing a goblin alchemist, destroying a shelf full of potions, and setting the room ablaze.

That was Chad’s first ever rpg session. Yesterday was his second...and he killed a red dragon.

True, she was a weakened thing, and hobbled by some magical chains of some sort (how weakened, and hobbled in what way, remains mysterious), but she was still a dragon, and with her special goblin entourage, could have easily done us all in. With a little bit of tactical planning, a bit of luck--and no small measure of daring--we triumphed.

It’s been enjoyable to sit back and play instead of game-mastering, but what’s been most fun is seeing a new guy get into gaming. I should say Chad just isn’t a guy who’s never gamed before--he’s a guy who’s been actively disdainful of gamers, thanks to the customers he had to deal with back when he worked at a comic book store. To see the unbridled fun of getting scaling walls, taking goblin scalps, and charging a fifteen foot tall dragon with a frost axe turn a hater into a that’s entertainment!

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I caught Tron Legacy last week. It was entertaining, though not of the caliber of my other holiday visit to the theater to see True Grit. The internet has led me to believe that a lot of people have a great deal of affection for the original film, which I had interest in as a kid, but never any great passion.

What I most liked about the first film was the design aesthetic, something that the new film “updated”--I think, to its detriment. French comic artist, Jean “Moebius” Giraurd was responsible for many of those designs, and his seventies Metal Hurlant sensibilities come shining through. Sensibilities which had their impact on the imagination of old school gamers through the work of Moebius, Druillet, and others.

Of course, Tron’s “world inside a computer” concept was always silly, and even more hard to buy today when the public’s knowledge of how computer’s work is greater than it was in the early eighties where they were essentially “magic boxes” to most of the populace. Still, if gaming and comics have taught me anything, its that cool things don’t necessarily have to make sense.

It strikes me that old school style adventuring could take place in a world of a Moebius/Tron aesthetic. Programs could have different functions lending to fighter, magic-user, cleric, thief sort of divisions. Maybe clerics, for example, are genuinely the priests/mediators for the “User” cult, interfacing with the System’s mysterious and puissant architects and programmers?

They could travel through glowing, block dungeons on a monochrome grid searching out abherrant code or virus-monsters which endanger the system (one could borrow freely from ReBoot here too, which did some of the conceits of Tron better, but without the cool design elements).  In classic old school style, digital adventurers could be champions of the system's Order against viral-haunted, error-filled Chaos.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

Young 1927 looks all business.  2011...we'll have to see.