Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sepulchral Choirboys

photo by mathyld Δ pyramids

A sepulchral choir, or spectral chorus, is an incorporeal manifestation summoned to drive a victim to madness and perhaps suicide. The choir is an apparition of skeletons of small children, only visible to the victim (unless the choir wishes otherwise) without the use of magic. Their beautiful, and intensely unnerving, singing is likewise heard by the victim alone--in fact, it specifically relates to the them, referencing their deepest fears, and darkest secrets.

The choir visitations will come mostly at night, but might also occur in the day when the victim is alone, even for a brief period. The haunting will so distract the victim they will suffer a -2 to all attack rolls and saving throws for a period of an hour after experiencing one, unless they make a saving throw. The psychic and emotional assault causes a progressive -1 per day to Wisdom, and an inability to get restful sleep or concentrate. The end result is insanity (as the options given in the confusion spell) or suicide. The choir may be turned (though this is only temporary), or banished by a remove curse.

Only one complete copy of the ritual needed to create a sepulchral choir is known to exist. It was found in the City, scrawled on the back of a handbill and left inside a hymnal in the Our Ladies of Sorrows Church.

Sepulchral Choir
Number: 1 with 1d4+2 in the choir
AC: 0
HD: (1+2)x number of choir members
Attacks: 1 (haunting singing, see above)
Special: have typical traits of incoporeal undead

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Something Evil

Wednesday again.  Time to 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...

"Something Evil"
Warlord (vol. 1) #49 (September 1981)

Writing and art by Mike Grell; inks by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Resting by a creek, watching Morgan clean his pistol, Shakira suggests that some of his brashness comes from knowing he can rely on the gun to save him. She proposes a wager: she bets he can’t go from where they are to the next camp without using the gun to get get himself out of trouble. Morgan takes the bet.

As if on cue, Shakira notices an ancient structure peeking over the forest behind him. Upon investigation, they find the massive structure covered with inscriptions. Most have been worn away, but what Shakira can make out is a warning: this place is sacred to the Evil One, whoever that might be. As they look into the entrance and find an impaled skeleton, it’s clear that whoever he was, he wasn't hospitalble to visitors.

Paralleling the story of Morgan and Shakira’s exploration, we get a tale of the Age of Wizard Kings. It begins in the Great Fire Mountain, where the lowly Craetur has secreted away the Necronomicon. He opens the tome and reads a spell, leading to him being consumed in hellfire and raising as the diabolic-appearing Evil One.

The Evil One subjugates Zarrgon Fire-Eye, his former master, and takes control of his castle. Desperate, Zarrgon secretly sends a message by bat to Mungo Ironhand and his friends---a message that is to affect the outcome of a battle fought thousands of years in the future.

In the Skartarian present, Shakira and Morgan make their way past traps, some already sprung on some would-be looters, and some still waiting. They press on, as Morgan’s sure there must be something here of value, given the number of people who've tried to get in. They’re unaware that their being stalked by a hungry leopard that entered the temple behind them.

They reach the main room where another skeletal treasure-hunter died at an altar with a crescent moon medallion in hand. Morgan places the golden crescent in the altar niche that fits it. A vibration begins in a large wall panel. Morgan barely has time to push Shakira out of the way before it explodes, to reveal:

The giant mummy attacks. Morgan dodges its blows, and cuts its arm with his sword, revealing the mummy’s insides are nothing but copious dust. Sword in one hand, dagger in the other, Morgan slashes furiously at the bandages holding the thing together until it collapses in a cloud of fifteen thousand year-old dust.

After pointing out to Shakira that he didn’t use his pistol, Morgan says its time to go. Shakira asks about all the treasure, but Morgan’s only interest is finding his daughter.

At that moment, the leopard leaps from the shadows. In one swift motion, Morgan turns and shoots. The beast falls dead. Shakira compliments his shot--and tells him he lost the bet. Morgan reminds her they never decided on the stakes, but Shakira replies, “Let’s just say you owe me one.”

Elsewhere, in Castle Deimos, Jennifer Morgan lies sleeping. Suddenly, she awakens.  Her eyes are wide with horror as she sees:

Things to Notice:
  • This issue repeats the parallel story gimmick of issue #17.
  • Zarrgon's name is misspelled Sarrgon this issue (as it was in his second appearance as well--so maybe his first appearance is wrong and his name is Sarrgon?)
Where It Comes From:
This issue's Age of the Wizard Kings story is a sequel to the back-up story in issues 40-41.  If Craetur was Gollum inspired, the Evil One is more of a Dark Lord like Sauron, though in appearance he resembles classic representations of the Devil. 

The Evil One of the Age of Wizard Kings was first mentioned in issue #31, which featured another booby-trapped tomb full of treasure.  A similar altar with niches for metal shapes appeared in issue #26.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Two Monster Tuesday

Vivisectors are members of a phylum of alien automata known as physickers. They are believed to have been created by a now extinct race for whom the constructs performed medical functions. Sometime in the ages since, they’re programming was corrupted, and they began stripping every world their swarm arrives at of life. The model called vivisectors, or scalpel-bugs, look something like a cross between a mantis and a firefly sculpted in brass, and about the size of a mouse. Their forelegs are razor-sharp surgical blades which they put to clinically precise, and deadly, purpose. Vivisectors will generally be encounter in a swarm.

Vivisector Swarm
AC: 2
HD: 4
Attacks: Swarm (3d6)
Save: MU4
Move: fly 120’(40’)
Special: would have most of the construct and swarm trait abilities.
Individual Vivisectors only have 1d4 HP, and do 1d2 points of damage.

Dungeon Chicken!
Amidst all the usual junk mail yesterday, I was suprised and pleased to received a The Hungry Bulette postcard from blogging compatriot, ze bulette.  It contained the stats for the dread dungeon chicken.  I got a laugh out of it, and I also have an old school monster card.  Thanks Bulette!

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Favorite Setting Book

In my early high school years, in the peak of my AD&D heyday, my favorite setting book wasn’t even a role-playing game supplement--or actually a book, I guess.  It was The Official Handbook of the Conan Universe. Marvel published this thirty-six page gem in 1986 as a reference to its various Conan comics. At the time, I thought it was just about perfect, and reconsidering it today in the light of the recent discussion of how to present setting material, I still think it’s pretty good.

Mostly it covered the various countries of the Hyborian Age, but it also had articles on Conan and other prominent characters, the gods and religion, magic, and (a bit unexpectedly) arms and armor. Of course, being a comic reference, it was well illustrated by John Buscema, and Michael Kaluta among others. The articles were short, amd to the point--most were half a page, and only a couple were two page spreads. Also, each featured a related quote from Howard’s work to give “the feel.” Here’s a typical example:

And another:

Since I wasn’t going to play in the actual Hyborian Age, but instead cribe for it for my own Howard/Leiber/Burroughs inspired setting, I found these to be nice bits of inspiration. I also found this presentation style really worked for my own setting write-ups (I had tried. but never quite been able to fit, the World of Greyhawk model--I couldn't come up with those imports and exports, and population percentages). Looking back at it now, I still think it would be useful for running a Conan campaign, at least if one was already pretty familiar with Howard’s stories.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beyond the Wall

In 5880, prior to visiting Staark, writer and Great War veteran, Geoffersen Turck, stopped in the Lluddish Isles. What follows is adapted from Turck’s journals...

Around midnight, a soldier shakes me awake and points out over the parapet. The sluagh are massing; there are at least a hundred, maybe more. They moan wordlessly and stagger like drunks, but they move with purpose toward this old, stone wall we stand on. It’s seventy miles long, twenty feet tall, and about fifteen feet thick, and its the only thing holding back the hordes of reanimated dead ridden by alien creatures out destroy the world.

Some of the Queen’s Albanish soldiers have captured one of the slaugh so I can see what they’re up against. It’s a man--or was. They restrain it, and tell me to watch. When it's decapitated, and the body's stopped writhing, something even stranger happens. The thing’s jaw moves like its pushed open from the inside.  First there's a shimmering like heat haze, then it resolves into a fat, crawling thing that might be a toad, if toads were translucent to the point of near invisibility, and their bodies and organs were trace with red neon.

The army wizard, wearing gauntlets of cold iron, scoops it up awkwardly like he's wrestling with angry jam, and stuffs it, squirming, into a thick-walled glass jar inscribed with runes. He fusses over the jar, whispering harsh syllables that seem to vibrate in the night air like a taut metal line, plucked. The thing's the size of a bowling ball, but just like it fit inside the dead man’s skull, it fits in the jar, and stares at us with vacant malevolence.

The wizard says it's a soldier, too, one of thousands, part of an advanced force from a plane of unformed chaos. They’re irritable things, affronted by the constraints of physical laws, and appalled by the solidity of physical matter.  They've been here for a while, waging a guerilla war against reality, inciting witches and would-be diabolists, exchanging inhuman knowledge for transgression.  The thinning of the walls between worlds caused by the Great War allowed them to bring over a larger force. “They all volunteered for a suicide mission,” the wizard says. “They had to take form to come here, now they can never go home.  They're only chance is to break down the whole material plane and return everything to primal formlessness.”

I think they sound pretty unified for a bunch devoted to pure chaos, and say so.  The wizard just scowls, and tells me it's getting late.  I decide he's right, and so I go to bed, secure in the knowledge that the material world will be here in the morning.

HD 3 AC 6 Attacks: 1 (bite 1d4 plus save or be paralyzed for 1d4 rounds); Save: M4 Special: Meld: may enter and animate dead bodies, which will function as zombies. May also enter the bodies of living humans. Humans so invaded must save or be dominated. They seldom stay in living humans long.). The bufonoid has knowledge of spells equivalent to a 4th level magic-user, but likely has access to specific spells not generally available.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sucker Punch Reviewed

I saw Sucker Punch last night with a group of friends. I had read a number of reviews before hand which were mostly negative--though some of the them were so hyperbolic and shrill it actually made me intrigued as to what had gotten their dander so up.

My advice: be not too dissuaded by the reviews--if it looks interesting to you go see it. I thought it was good, as did most of my friends. Even the ones who were cooler towards it found it compelling in many aspects and though it offered a lot to think about.  It's far from perfect, and Snyder's reach likely exceeded his grasp, but its also far from vapid.

The good: there are great visuals--things you really haven’t seen done before to this degree (particularly in the robot fight scene), there's good music, and sumptuous production design. There's a straight forward but serviceable plot that doesn't flinch from the likely unpleasant outcomes of certain realities, but doesn't wallow in them either.  The ultimate meaning of events is ambiguous, and the relationship of reality to dream in the film, offers things to think about and discuss, you like to think about and discuss film. Despite what some people would have you believe this is indeed a film where things are going on--and it isn’t necessarily killing dragons and shooting down zeppelins (though there is that).

You should see it if: you don’t mind a large wallop of artifice in your film (so you can groove with something like Moulin Rouge, 300, or Speed Racer--In fact, it might be helpful to think of it as a musical where the songs have replaced by fantasy action sequences), and if you like visual style-heavy, thematic, but not big on character exploration, media like many Heavy Metal-style euro-comic stories, films like El Topo, or some anime.

You probably shouldn’t see it if: somewhat “downer” material really bothers you (things like snakepit mental institutions, lobotomies, or women forced to work in brothels), if anything that seems similar to a video game incenses you, or purposeful anachronisms bug you, or club-ish covers of rock tunes are anathema, or if the things described in paragraph above this one sounded awful.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reader's Choice: Images of the City

From time to time, blogging compatriots and readers thoughtfully send me images they think might have a place in the City and its Strange New World.  Today, I thought I'd present some of those, and to continue with the community theme, ask readers to comment on which caption they prefer for each image--and write-ins are welcome, too, should you be so moved.  You choose how it fits in:

 Supplied by John Stater
A. Thexter Gorch, adventurer and master of pogonomancy.  Also, jug-player for the Smaragdine Mountain Boys.

B.  Everyone was surprised when Ethyn chose the lich's beard as his share of the loot.  We were even more surprised when we saw it fixed to his face--and growing--a few weeks later.  No one was surprised when his personality began to change...

Suggested by Adam Nowak
A. When the killings started, they'd always say, "She's only a little girl," and "The beast is stuffed."  They never suspected her...and that's what made Little Emmie such a deadly assassin.

B. I must warn you: if you should ever chance to look at this photo and the alligator is not in it, you must act swiftly and decisively, but above all, you mustn't panic.  The alligator, you see, will be behind you...and it will be hungry.

Suggested by Sean at Sea of Stars RPG Design
A. After his misadventure in the Outer Planes, they were forced into a strange relationship.  They were lovers by night when he was whole, but in daylight she guarded his skeleton against etheric parasites and  unscrupulous collectors.

B. Even by the standards of ghouls, Eulalie was perverse.  She only consumed men whom she had first seduced into a torrid, but brief, affair.

Suggested by timid traveller
A. The fae blood manifests itself in the afflicted children of Grand Lludd in a variety of ways.

B.  He was raised as a normal boy in every way possible, save for his isolation.  The cultists wished him to be unaware of his origins until all was in readiness, and the stars were right.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Planes: Positives and Negatives

I had intended the venture into the astral when next I picked up the topic of the classic D&D planes, but there was a vexing issue I left undealt with in the “inner” planes.

First, though, a correction: I had said that the etheric body dissipates shortly after death. Further research reveals this is only true when the etheric body is separated from the physical body at the time of death. If both bodies are in close proximity, then it seems clear that the etheric body lasts much longer—it slowly sublimates as the physical body decays.

It’s this slow decay of the etheric body that makes possible the creation of corporeal undead. Recall that the etheric body is imbued with vital energy—well, morbid quickening (i.e. “undeading”) occurs when the life energy of the etheric body is replaced by the energies of unlife. And where do these opposed energies come from? The two energy planes.

Positive Energy Plane
The etheric echo of the moment of creation (what some wags call the "cosmic orgasm"), the positive energy plane is an explosion of raw energy that pushes the elemental forces to codense and combine into mundane matter, and vitalizes all living things. It’s said to be found at the center of the universe, though it may be that travelling to it requires travel backwards in time more than space. A character exposed unprotected to the energies of the plane will gain 1d6x10 hit points a round, their every cell exploding with life energy. When a character’s hit points reach double their original total, he explodes--the matter of his being propagating out in space and time to perhaps give rise to whole biospheres. A character saved from such a fate will lose the increased hit points at a rate of 2d10 a round, but has a 30% of being changed in some way indicative of evolution to a higher state (an ability score increase, developing psionics, a innate magical ability etc.).

Negative Energy Plane
The etheric shadow of the absolute end of all things, the negative energy plane is cold and dark, and the only motion is the inexorable fall into the final abyss. Negative energy manifests as entropy in the physical plane, but in the etheric realm it’s the energy of anti-life, propagating backwards in time, foreshadowing the death of the universe. Some philsophers believe the energy planes occupy the same space, but at opposite ends of time. Unprotected exposure to the negative plane results in the loss of 2d6 hit points and 1 level or hit die a minute, until the being shrivels and dies, becoming a mindless undead, unable to move in a place where time has lost meaning, doomed to circle downward for a subjective eternity into oblivion. A character saved before the end will not recover lost levels without the aid of magic, and may forever be haunted by what they have experienced—though there is a 30% chance that undead will now ignore him or her unless the character attacks them first.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Dragon of Ice

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...

"Dragon of Ice"
Warlord (vol. 1) #48 (August 1981)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell; inked by Bob Smith

Synopsis: In Shamballah, Aton reports to Queen Tara. He gives her a progress report on the search for Jennifer Morgan, and tells her that Travis Morgan has again entered the shadow land of the Terminator. Tara laments that Morgan’s destiny seems locked in that land. Until he has burned away the bitter memories of what happened there, he’s doomed to wander--and as his bride, she’s doomed too.

After their audience, Aton is surprised when Tara comes riding up to him with a fresh horse in tow. She tells him they ride to find her husband, to see if if they can end his torment, and win him back from the violence he loves so well. They ride out for the Terminator.

Meanwhile, in that twilight land, Morgan and Shakira are making their way along the mist-shrouded coast, following what Morgan believes to be his daughter’s most likely path. When they spy a village ahead, Morgan thinks they should look there. Shakira belives otherwise, expressing her usual disdain for the habitations of man. To prove her argument she points toward what transpires on the outskirts of town: a beauteous girl, posed like a model, is apparently about to be sacrificed:

Morgan, per usual, gets fired up to save the girl from the “bloody savages.” Shakira tells him not to interfere, these things have gone on forever, after all—and they're too far away for him to make a shot, anyway.

Morgan isn’t sure about that. He braces himself, and aims carefully, taking his time. When he fires, he takes the high priest right through the chest. Very pleased with himself, Morgan jumps astride his horse and rushes into battle, ignoring Shakira’s pleas for him to wait.

Morgan fights his way through the crowd to the stone sacrificial table. He cuts the girl free, all the while speechifying heroically, while Shakira looks on and provides commentary:

Felled by the girl he meant to rescue, Morgan can only listen, stunned, as she accuses him of blasphemy, and berates him for interrupting their ritual and putting their people at risk from the Ice Dragon. She commands the mob of cultists to take him. Soon, Morgan finds himself being tied on the stone table, being prepared to take the girl’s place as a sacrifice.

The girl raises the blade above his chest. No one notices the black cat that’s slinked up to Morgan’s gear. Everyone is caught by surprise when the cat transforms into a woman, who snatches up Morgan’s pistol, and leaps across the table to shoot the girl. With a cry of “eat lead!” Shakira puts bullets in several more cultists.

When they’ve been cowed, she twirls the gun on her finger, and tells an incredulous Morgan that using the gun isn’t nearly so hard as he makes out. She cuts Morgan free just as one of the cultists cries out that the Ice Dragon comes!

The cultists run away, and our heroes prepare to do the same—but Morgan wonders if it’s a real dragon. As they see a looming shape emerging from the mists, Morgan thinks Shakira’s right and they ought to make their retreat. Then, he sees something familiar about the emerging dragon.

A viking ship, frozen in a winter storm with all hands aboard, then dragged by currents into Skartaris, and past this point again and again on an endless circuit. In frustration at the senseless death, Morgan throws the stone table into the ocean. They watch the ship go, and Shakira reminds him that it won’t change things.

Elsewhere, Jennifer Morgan's guide (who she now know’s as Faaldren) has brought her to the house of his master. Jennifer (who’s learned some Skartarian now) is eager to meet him. Faaldren promises she'll so soon enough, but first he suggests she take advantage of the luxuries of the house. He sets his mysterious box down and goes to prepare their meal.

Jennifer undresses and settles into the bath, unaware that she's not alone. The box opens, and something inside is watching her. Perhaps sensing something, Jennifer turns to look behind her…

Things to Notice:
  • For the second time, Shakira saves Morgan's life through the use of a gun of some sort.
  • Morgan never seems to learn not to rush in.
Where It Comes From:
This issue repeats the cargo cult element previously seen in issue #3.  It also has Morgan completely misjudging a situation like we saw last issue, and more significantly in issue #23.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tales of Earthsea

This weekend, I finally got a chance to see Studio Ghibli’s Tales of Earthsea on blu-ray. As the name implies, it's loosely based on characters and concepts from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. The plot, however, is not one found in any of her stories, rather it seems inspired by various incidents in the books.

My short review: it’s disappointing--though to say so feels a little unfair, even though its true. The animation is topnotch, though there isn’t really a moment where it soars (though maybe this is due to watching a film animated in 2006 in 2011--maybe standards have advanced). Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away had visual moments I hadn’t seen before, but I didn’t feel like that was true here. The story, likewise, was a serviceable fantasy tale, but felt generic and not particularly Earthsea-ish.

Indeed, Ursula Le Guin had some problems with it. Some of that’s to be expected--seeing your work taken apart and reconfigured in a form not of your making must be difficult. Then there’s the issue of the skin color of the characters which greatly bothered her in SyFy’s Earthsea mini, and bothers her a bit here.

I will say they tried more than SyFy did. The people of Earthsea still appear Caucasian (mostly) but largely in a sort of Mediterranean context (skintone and material culture), which I guess is better than making them all Nordic types. Also, there's the fact that most anime characters tend to look Caucasian to American/European eyes, even though the Japanese presumably don't see them that way.  Still, once the action moves away from the coast, touches like eyes painted on the bows of ships fade way, and we’re left with generic Fantasyland.

There are things to like, though. The characters are well-realized in the script (though the action of the script has a couple of problems), and the voice-acting is good. It shows the trait of Miyazaki’s best films in focusing (at least for a time) on the life of common folk, and it portrays quiet moments as effectively as it does action. There isn’t really anything that stands out that’s particularly “bad” about it.

It’s just that when I think of the studio that made Spirited Away and Nausicaa of the Winds, doing an adaptation of a series I remember fondly from my childhood, I guess I was hoping for something more.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Plane Talk About Ethereal Matters

In coming up with my own take on the classic planes--one that uses both AD&D cosmology and real world occult/esoteric beliefs as touchstones--I thought I’d start small with the microcosm of the individual. Coming as it does from relatively modern beliefs, the explanations in this model might not fit all campaigns, but the basic principles can probably be applied.

The body of an individual occupies multiple states of existence (or planes). The physical body, made of simple, everyday matter, is just the densest level of being. The subtle body of an individual, though not normally visible and made of “lighter” material, is no less integral. When the subtle body is separated from the physical for whatever reason, it’s tethered to its densest component by an umbilicus called a silver cord.

There are two parts of the subtle body. In order of decreasing density they are the etheric body, a being’s “shadow” in the substructure of the material planes; and the astral body, a being’s manifestation in the higher, noumenal worlds.

The Ether
The etheric body is generally invisible to the physical world, existing at a different vibrational frequency. It’s formed by the accretion of ether--the substance that is substrantum or medium supporting the material universe--or perhaps, as some theorist’s suggest, it would be more accurate to say it’s the area where the existence of a being deforms the geometry of the etheric plane.

It’s believed to be the etheric body that gives the spark of life to base chemical processes, and acts as the interface between mundane matter and higher states of being. To those able to see it, the etheric body appears as cloud-like aura vaguely in the shape of the being to whom it belongs; with sapient beings have thicker etheric bodies than nonsapient ones. The etheric body is just as mortal as the physical one. When a being dies it gradually disperses (usually over a matter of hours) until it is lost in the surrounding ether.

The etheric (or sometimes ethereal) plane is really the “canvas” on which the material world is painted--the matrix in which it crystallizes. The elemental forces are carried through the ether--or perhaps they excite it in certain frequencies. Some theorize that the etheric body is “vitalized” by the action of a positive energy. Undead might therefore be animated by negative energy. In this view, these forces cause flows or vortices in the ether in opposite directions.

The etheric body can be separated from their physical one via magical items or psionic discipline. Some spells or magical items allow the transformation of the physical body into an etheric form. Since the etheric is just part of a material world (only a different phase) there isn’t any such thing as the “deep ethereal”—at all points it is coexistence with the physical. However, sometimes this term can be appiled to the relatively less populated etheric regions coinciding with the vacuum of space.

Otherwise, this view of the etheric plane mostly conforms to the usual D&D traits and strictures. The plane appears as an all but featureless place of roiling grey and white mists (sorta like the Phantom Zone).  Entities inhabiting it are likewise ghostly and indistinct--though they sometimes possess translucent colors, particularly the bizarre etheric fauna which often resemble oversized microscope creatures or deep sea denizens.  The material plane can be observed from an etheric vantage, but it's as if its behind a veil of mist, or in soft focus.  Etheric beings can pass through nonmagical inanimate objects in the material plane, but living material beings are barriers.  While there is "up" and "down" in the ether, there is no gravity, and movement can be in any direction.  Physical beings fully converted to etherealness can move faster than their normal movement, but to do so causes vibrations in the ether that attract the attention.

When next I take up this subject, I’ll delve into the Astral.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Desolation Cabaret

In 5880, writer and Great War veteran, Geoffersen Turck, arrived in the Republic of Staark intending to write a travelogue of post-war Ealderde. What follows is from Turck’s journals...

Like home, the capital of Staark has an old name, which nobody bothers to use. It’s just “the Metropolis” these days.  I have to admit, it outdoes the City in some ways--giant skyscrapers are everywhere, with aircars flitting busily between them like insects, interrupted by the stately passage of the occasional zeppelin. Automata direct traffic in the streets, and there’s the ever-present hum and vibration of the underground factories and power plants. You could almost forget the country was flatten by war, then buried by debt--but of course, glittering towers and airplanes keep you looking up, instead of at the faces of the poor walking the low streets.

Then there’s the dark side--what they call “the half-world.” This is a town so full of prostitutes they actually publish guidebooks so the inquiring libetine can stay up on the shifting codes of clothing and color accessories that signal what sort of perversions a hire is game for! Below the elevated roads and railways, lurid neon decorates cabarets and clubs that offer all that's on the streets and more. These streets are all-night candy store for drug fiends--their narco-alchemists must work in shifts. Maybe they’ve got automata doing that, too. In the shadows on the periphery of this underworld are the poor, discarded veterans of the Great War. Those pressed into service by crime or poverty as Eisenmenschen--men thaumatosurgically reconstructed in the Imperial bodyworks with machine parts to be implements of war. The rising National Purity Party has been scapegoating these unfortunates in their rhetoric--blaming them for Staark’s humiliation and defeat.

The air’s starting to get to me. They say things about Metropolis’ air, like its some sort of intoxicant all its own. To me, it’s just the constant stench of stale cigarettes, diesel fumes, and sweat, poorly covered with cloying perfume.

I think I'll give the country a try.

There are areas of the Staarkish countryside posted with warnings. These are the desolation zones, places still tainted by the strange weapons used in the War. Mostly people heed the warnings--the signs aren’t even needed really, when you can see the sickly vegetation, or the pale glow on moonless nights, or hear the weird cries of things unseen. Locals sit in taverns and swap tales about things like gibbering mouths, dire worms, flabby men, or susurrous shamblers. They talk about the zones, but they stay out.

The fellows I’ve thrown in with have other ideas.

The government’s put a bounty on the malfunctioning constructs and golems from the war still stalking the countryside, still carrying out their orders. Menschenjäger--manhunters--they’re called. From the description of the frightened farmers, the leader of our band calls the one we're after a Betrachter, but when we finally see the thing, it looks like a cyclops to me.  Then it fires that disintegrating ray out of its eye and one of our group is seared to ash in its too-bright glow.

That night, after we’ve wrapped the head for transport, we’re sitting in the cold, and the tomb-stillness with the smell of burnt flesh still lingering unpleasantly, and eating iron rations, and I think--Maybe Metropolis isn’t so bad after all?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Wait & Resumption

One of the two groups I game with (the one I gamemaster, playing a Pathfinder module in Warriors & Warlocks) is going to be getting together Sunday for the first time since---I don’t even remember...December? Maybe its been even longer.

This is an unusually long break, but difficulties scheduling sessions is unfortunately quite common. Now this group contains three physicians with call and what not, but it isn’t just these players. The game I play in has been on a long hiatus, too, due to scheduling difficulties--though admittedly one of those involved our GM going to Manhattan to tap an appearance on the Daily Show, so I’d call that a reasonable excuse for a cancellation.

So, anyway, its hard. Hard to get busy adults together and hard to get back into the groove after a break. I wonder if these long breaks happen to other people? And if so, how do you guys recover after a break so long you’re lucky if players remember their characters’ names much less details of what was going on?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Luck of the Little People

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

In the City, there's a day when fountains are dyed green, a parade is held, and a great deal of alcohol is consumed (which is to say, somewhat more than usual). This celebration was brought to the New World by immigrants from the isle of Ibernia, a land under the rule of Grand Lludd.

Since before recorded history, Ibernia was the home of a race of pygmies known to later invaders as the Little People (a name the People themselves alternately reject or grudgingly accept). The Little People used the celebration to honor the Green Man, a mysterious eikone or pagan god of the natural world, who in some way helped them wrest control of Ibernia from savage giants (similar to hillbilly giants, at least in the legends) who dwelt there.

Waves of invaders, these bearing iron weapons, drove the Little People into underground homes and fortifications. There, waited out the invaders they couldn’t repel--and often ultimately assimilated them. A succession of Lluddish monarchs, from the earliest days of the kingdom through the rule of the Gloriana, down to the most recently decanted iteration of Her Preserved Majesty, Victoriana, have made that difficult. The magic of the Little People, cunning as they are in the art of illusion, has been no match for the doctors thaumaturgical in service of the crown.

To escape oppression, and poverty, the Little People immigrated to the New World, including City.  There many came to live in the crowded slums of the neighborhoods of Hardluck and Hell's Commot. Things weren't particularly easier there. As newcomers they were considered undesirables--viewed as drunken, and over-emotive. Some of these stereotypes remain, but over the decades they have made a place for themselves in New World society.

Over time, life in the New World has led them to grow taller (like the Dwergen before them), and most people who claim ancestry in “the old shires” aren’t remarkably short at all (though some pygymy families still remain). Whatever, they’re height, they care the pride of their people, and their yearly celebration with them.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Hunter's Moon

Time to 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...

"Hunter's Moon"
Warlord (vol. 1) #47 (July 1981)

Writing and art by Mike Grell; inks by Bob Smith

Synopsis: In the darkness of the Terminator, where the inner world of Skartaris folds back upon the outer Earth, Jennifer Morgan sleeps peacefully, unaware that she is in the castle of Deimos, her father’s greatest enemy.

She’s also unaware that there's a man standing above her with a dagger.

The cowled man who has been her guide hesitates. She may be the daughter of his masters greatest foe, but he can’t bring himself to harm her. Instead, he cuts his own hand, and lets the blood flow into a goblet. He opens the mysterious wooden box he carries, and proffers the cup: “I have done as you command, Master. Take this and drink deep!”

Elsewhere in the Terminator, Shakira and Morgan have been making camp to rest from their travels, when they’re suprised by a strange sight in the sky. Skartaris apparently has a moon! Morgan dashes off a fairly dubious theory:

Morgan decides to go hunting by moonlight, while Shakira catches a nap. Morgan finds a pond where animals are watering. He stalks up and pounces on an ibex-looking beast with his knife.

The moon sinks below the trees as Morgan makes his way back to camp. A dead body and the sound of battle diverts him from his path. Morgan runs toward the clamor with sword drawn, finding more bodies along the way. Finally, he comes upon a clearing where a man dressed like he’s from the upper world is engaged in battle against a group of savage foes.

Morgan admires the man’s skill for a moment before joining the battle at his side. Together, they quickly slay all their foes.

Morgan introduces himself, and the man--after getting over his suprise that Morgan speaks English--responds, in a Russian accent, that his name is Mikola Rostov. Then he demands to know where Mariah Romanov is. Rostov explains that he was Mariah’s fencing instructor--and more. He found out about Skartaris from the ever-helpful Professor Lakely. Morgan assures Rostov that he’s a friend of Mariah’s too, and he will be glad to tell him what happened to her.

Morgan makes a fire and cooks some of his kill. Rostov declines to join him in the meal, saying he has already eaten, and asks Morgan to go on with his story. Morgan tells him about the meteorite that sent Machiste and Mariah back to the past. Rostov’s skeptical about magic, but Morgan tells him it works, whatever it is.

After eating, Morgan drowses, and Rostov sneaks off into the forest to go on a hunt of his own. When he returns to camp, Morgan is awake and wondering where he’s been all this time. He tells Morgan he’s been hunting, but the explanation isn’t satisfactory because they have plenty of meat. Morgan also notices that Rostov looks larger now, more muscular.

Before Morgan can speculate any further, the tribesmen of the savages they killed drop a net on the two from above. They’re caught, and soon they’re tied to a post over the makings a fire. Morgan suspects the tribesmen intend to eat them--which is sort of an honor, given the cultural beliefs he attributes to the tribe.

Rostov is barely hearing Morgan’s explanation. He’s transfixed by the returning moon. Before Morgan;s eyes, Rostov transforms--into a werewolf:

Rostov bursts their bonds then savagely rips into the tribesmen. When he’s done with them, he turns on Morgan--who now has his gun and pistol drawn.

At that moment, the moon passes away, taking Rostov’s wolf-form with it, though it leaves him larger and more bestial-looking than before. He explains to Morgan that he suffers from the curse of lycanthropy. He came to Skartaris thinking the eternal sun would free him, but the strange wanderings of the ever-present moon has caused him to take on more wolf characteristics in his human form. He admits that Morgan chose the wrong side in helping him--it was he who attack the tribesman.

Rostov plans to continue his search for Mariah--and perhaps in this land of magic there may yet be a cure for his curse. Rostov runs off into the woods, as he again feels the pull of the returning moon.

Things to Notice:
  • Despite having been to the Terminator before, neither Morgan nor Shakira have never seen or heard of the wandering moon.
  • Shakira sleeps (apparently) through the whole issue.
Where It Comes From:
The title of this issues derives from the hunter's moon (also known as the blood moon--which is the title of a previous issue about a moon-like object), which is the first full moon after the harvest moon, which is, in turn, the first full moon after the autumnal equinox.  In the northern hemisphere it usually comes in October.

"Rostov" is a Russian placename.  The town bearing that name is better known to Russians as Rostov Veliky ("Rostov the Great").  It's one of the oldest towns in Russia.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monsters Re-Imagined

Last week, James over at Grognardia urged bloggers to post re-imagined D&D monsters from their own campaigns.  I actually did sort a series of these in the earlier days of my blog.  Since at the time of most of them, my followers numbered in the single digits, there's got to readers today who didn't catch them then.

So, here are most of my monster re-imaginings (excluding the ones from the City's world), summarized for for your easy browsing pleasure:
  • Beholders as insane, xenophobic murders.
  • Dwarves as Neanderthal descendants, uplifted by an alien AI.
  • Elves as transhuman, near post-scarcity anarchists, and a companion piece on the amoral, sensualist drow.
  • Goblins as a pestilence, like a swarm of locusts.
  • Gnolls informed by real (and folklore) hyenas.
  • Gnomes as extradimensional tourists--they came from mushroom-space!
  • Halflings as librarians and scholars at the world's greatest library.
  • Mind flayers as alien invaders from pulp stories or '50s sci-fi films.
  • Orcs as magical engineered violence-junkies.
  • Slaad strange origin options.  Take your pick.
  • Troglodytes as Sleestak-like fallen, dinosaur sapients.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Wild Wood

One tragic loss of the Great War was the area of Grand Lludd known as Wild Wood. Covering a hundred acres of farm and woodland, it was the home of varies species of anthropomorphic animals. Now much of the land has been despoiled, and most of its inhabitants have been killed or displaced.

These creatures were the product of biothaumaturgy and the eccentric genius of one man, Gaspard Mauro. Mauro gained the support of the crown in his endeavors by promising applications of his techniques in creating servitors to free mankind from hazardous labors.

His work never amounted to more than a curiosity.  Still, the Queen herself was quite fond of them, and on the occasion of her eighty-ninth birthday had a group of the animal-folk perform for her. There is one wax-cylinder recording said to exist of their cheeful, high-pitched singing.

Most of the animal-folk appear to have died in bombing during the war. There is evidence that some burrowing species may have survived, and there are worrisome reports that rats, taken to Communalitarianism, may have absconded with some of Mauro's notes, and are now undertaking a program of evolution and revolution among the rodent underclass of several cities.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Life Aquatic

A merman and his landwoman bride.  Grand Lludd, 5825.

In the waters west of Ibernia, ship passengers occasionally glimpse and wonder at light in the depths. These are the lights Undersea, municipality of the mer-folk. Part of the empire of Grand Lludd, the citizens of Undersea have never been Her Preserved Majesty’s most loyal servants. Only the threat of submarine bombardment has stifled open rebellion at times. Still, in these hard years following the Great War, land and sea need each other too much for such squabbles.

The mer-folk are not to be confused with mermaids, despite similarity in names. Those half-fish creatures (and wholly nonhuman, whatever their appearance) are more akin to faerie. Mer-folk look, for the most part, like surface humans except for a slight bluish tint to their skin, eyes a little larger than usual, webbed hands, and a slight tendency to barrel-chestedness--though its common for portrayals of them in art to exaggerate their inhumanness. So little apparent difference for beings naturally inhabiting great depths and pressures hint at the subtle magics that have been used to adapt them to a submarine life. Scientists suggest this points to them being an engineered race, perhaps derived from Meropian stock. Mer-folk find this whole line of speculation dull, and are largely unconcerned with their own origins.

Perhaps its this lack of curiosity, among other traits, that has led to the common Lluddish stereotype of Mer-folk as thickwitted. They're also held to quick-tempered and lascivious (a judgement perhaps derived from their indifferent attitude toward clothing--at least in the seas). Mer-folk don’t drink (at least not in their usual habitat) but their men tend to enjoy licking certain sea slugs for an intoxicant effect, and singing (it can be called that) gurgling, warbling shanties, while their women perform suggestive, water ballet-like dances.

Though they are limited in the areas of metallurgy, chemcal, and alchemical sciences, the mer-folk are not utter primitives.  They use magic to shape stone for buildings, and have either used animal husbandry or magic to enhance the abilities of sea creatures for their use.  The lantern jellyfish sometimes seen in aquariums are best known example. 

On land, mer-folk must wear something like reverse diving suits--pressurized suits filled with water--unless they have access to magic aid. They're able to breath air, but the exertion quickly tires them and it's uncormfortable for more than a half-hour or so. Their skin quickly dries out in air, as well.  The use of heavy suits isn't as cumbersome as it might seem as mer-folk are stronger than a surface human of comparable size.

There are some mer-folk enclaves in the New World. The largest of these are in New Lludd, there mer-folk are involved in fishing, and the Southron coast where they engage in sponge harvesting, as well.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Elven Chick? How 'Bout a Giantess?

A trip to the Smaragdine Mountains of the Strange New World can get a guy killed--particularly if the guy in question winds up peeping at a beauteous hill-billy giantess while she is bathing, and even more particularly if the protective father of said giantess is somewhere abouts when this peeping occurs.

llicit peeping related dangers aside, the Smaragdines have other hazards to offer. The inbred (and ill-tempered) ogres are around as well. They're often purveyors of bootleg alchemicals, but they don’t sell to those they don’t know, and stranger and “revenuer” are equivalent states in the dim, ogre mind.

Then they are conjure-folk. Nominally human, conjure-folk (or witch-folk) have made dark bargains for magical powers. Bargains that have made them more--and less--than regular humanity. They prefer the rural Smaragdines for the isolation they provide but also because nodes of greater magical energy are more common their than elsewhere. The skin that separates the material plane from the outer dark is easier to prick or pierce.

So why would anyone else want to go to the Smaragdines? Well, besides the scenic beauty, there’s mineral wealth to be exploited in the mountains, and the companies that do so often hire adventurers as muscle or troubleshooters. Law enforcement tries to stamp out illicit alchemical trade, and criminal types want to bring these same wares to market in the cities. Finally, there are the more unusual cases: academics looking to prove various theories in a variety of fields of study, or rich hunters looking to bag an exotic monster, or even Heliotrope talent scouts looking for the next it girl.

Maybe one about nine feet tall.

Illustration above by Reno Maniquis for Weird Adventures.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Weird Adventures: The City Mapped

Here’s the City area map for Weird Adventures, courtesy of the cartographic talents of Anthony Hunter.

Like all metropolises, the City grew by engulfing a myriad of hamlets, villages, and towns along the way.  It spread out from a humble Dwergen fort and trading post across what is now Empire Island, then beyond. Across the Rivers Wyrd and Eldritch, the most resistant of these entities had already grown strong by gobbling up smaller settlements, themselves. These couldn’t be fully conquered, they had to be accommodated, and so they became the other four baronies.

The “barony” title is now a relic, but at one time was quite literal. All of these areas began as domain grants to prominent adventurers by the Queen of Grand Lludd or (earlier) the Syndics of Gulden. Marquesa, for example, still bears the assumed (but not granted) noble title of its original ruler. Shancks was a name bestowed by the enigmatic, master assassin (one who's head existed only partially in this plane, but that's another story) who was the area’s first fief-holder. Empire Island’s name reflects the aspirations of its audacious conqueror.

The remaining two baronies were named for local features. Lichmond was the site of a group of burial mounds of the Ancients. Rookend was named for the dens of thieves, cutthroats, and smugglers (“rookeries” in the parlance of the day), that once squatted on its shore.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: X

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

Warlord (vol. 1) #46 (June 1981)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell; inked by Romeo Tanghal

Synopsis: Morgan, Aton, and Shakira arrive at the coast at the wreck of the Lady J, Jennifer Morgan’s ship. Morgan says they should split up to search for her, Aton going south, and Morgan and Shakira, north. If either finds her, alive or dead, they plan to bring her to Shamballah.

Morgan gallops off, and as Aton watches him go he pities his leader for the hardships the fates have brought him. What Aton doesn’t know is that Morgan's restless, warrior’s heart relishes this--the dangers and challenges to come...

One of those dangers presents itself soon in the form of one of Skartaris’ orange carnosaurs. The beast charges. Morgan draws and fires right into its maw. The bullet blasts through its skull, killing it instantly, but its momentum sends it crashing into Morgan, Shakira, and their mount, toppling them all.

Morgan is briefly unconscious, but as he awakens in a daze, he sees his old friend--sexy, personified Death--in front of him:

Morgan follows her gesture and sees Shakira (in cat form) lying apparently lifeless! Morgan cries out in denial as he sees Shakira's human spirit rise to follow Death. He staggers to his feet to go after them. He calls to his friend, but she doesn’t heed him. They pass through doors in the mouth of a cave, emblazoned with the legend: “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”

Morgan follows without hesitation. His mind reels as he enters a a subterranean realm of evil where demonic beings use humans as play things. He hesistates only a moment before following his companion’s path.

The doors slam shut behind him, and Morgan is accosted by the shades of previous enemies--Shebal, Stryker, and Chakal in the fore. They’ve been awaiting for Morgan. Waiting for revenge.

Morgan doesn’t waste time fighting the already dead. He takes a leap of faith into the pit of flame below while calling out Death’s name: “Azrael!” She hears him:

Morgan demands she return Shakira. Death calls him “my love” and declares him a faithful servant, but denies him. He bargains with her, offering his life in exchange. Again Death denies him, saying he serves her too well to take now, but she gives a counter-offer: ten years off his life is her price.

Morgan agrees. Death strikes him, causing a scar like a Roman numeral ten to appear on his breast--a symbol of their deal.

She shows him Shakira in the grip of a serpentine demon, and says: “Save her if you can.”

Morgan jumps from her hand. He cuts down the demon, then takes up Shakira in his arms. Fighting of off more demons, he makes his way back to the great doors, barely ahead of his pursuers. Once through, he makes it back to his mount before collapsing.

He awakens with Shakira’s hand on his shoulder. She’s relieved he’s alive; she thought the lizard had killed him. Shakira remembers nothing of what happened, and Morgan might chalk it up to a blow to his head himself.

Except for the X-shaped scar in his chest.

Things to Notice:
  • The cover illustration bears no relationship to this issue, but is a reasonable facsimile of last issue's events.
  • Death (or Azrael) returns.  We last saw her in issue #14.
  • Orange dinosaurs stll abound in Skartaris.
Where It Comes From:
See my commentary on issue #14 for my thoughts on Grell's depiction of Death.  New here is a name for her--Azrael.  This is the name of the Archangel of Death in some traditions, including some Islamic and Judaic lore.

The legend on the doors to the underworld ("Abandon all hope, ye who enter here") is a common translation of the Italian phrase "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate," which is the inscription over the gates of Hell in the Inferno section of Dante Alighieri's fourteenth-century epic poem, The Divine Comedy.  Grell also has Deimos use this quote back in issue #6.

Several previous Warlord foes appear as undead here.  Shebal is the gladiator trainer from issue #2, Stryker, the CIA agent from issues #4 and 13, and Chakal is the mercenary who gains a cybernteic arm from issues #25-27.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In Any Language

In my collection, I have two role-playing games that I am unable to read because they're in non-English languages.  Both of them I bought for their gorgeous art.  One of these games is the 6th edition of the venerable Swedish fantasy rpg, Drakar och Demoner ("Dragons and Demons").

This edition, published in 2000, is set in the world of Trudvang, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) has a strong "Northern thing" going for it (though I gather this something of a departure from more generic fantasy in previous editions).  Check this out:

The whole thing is in sepia which is nicely evocative.  The art avoids the sins of modern D&D art, thought it hardly could be said to be "old school."  Instead, its perhaps more classical illustration in style.

Here are a couple of the PC races:

Trollish races:

Of course, those are all my best guesses of what those images illustrate. I can't read the text.

Pretty pictures, though.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Will Eisner's Spirit

Yesterday (as Google kindly pointed out) would have been the 94th birthday of graphic storytelling giant. Will Eisner. Eisner was the author of numerous comics and graphic novels, but his most famous creation, The Spirit, appeared in newspapers.

The domino masked crime-fighter known as the Spirit appeared in June 1940 in a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement. The strip would continue in that format until October 1952. Later, Kitchen Sink Press and DC Comics would bring the Spirit into traditional comic book format--and of course there was the movie that should have been called Frank Miller’s Spirit since it bore only a passing similarity to Eisner’s work.

The most interesting thing about The Spirit was the way the stories were told. Unlike conventional hero comics, the Spirit was often merely an observer or a minor player in the events depicted--which were frequently character studies or musing on aspects of urban life. Sure there was a good bit of violence, noir crime, and femmes fatale a plenty, but there was also a good deal of humor. All of this was delivered in a visual style showing a greater sophistication and awareness of techniques from film than most other artists of the era.

The Spirit would be good inspiration for many sort of urban campaigns, particular in the pulp and low-powered supers genres. It certainly had an influence on the City, both directly, and  indirectly through Moore and Veitch’s Spirit homage, Greyshirt.