Monday, November 12, 2018

Throwdown at the Toad Temple


Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued, with our heroes still trying to figure out a way to free the Land of Under-Sea from the evil of the Temple of the Toad. After a night's rest to heal their wounds, they decide to infiltrate the temple during sunrise services. They are joined by the cat man Calico Jack. Smooth-talking there way past the guards ("as long as you sit in the back") the PCs saw the service, ending in the sacrifice of hapless froglings into the maw of the toad idol.

They noted the tapestries and friezes seem to denote some sort of apocalypse, that allow frog or toad people were spared, apparently under the protective hand of some sort of banjo-playing, messianic frog figure. They figure if push comes to shove, Waylon can inpersonate this "Frog Jesus."

While the cultist were distracted with their ritual, they pick the lock and enter one of the adjacent rooms. They find equipment they don't understand...


...including what appears to be a weapon, but when someone seems to be coming toward the door, they have to hurry into another room. Seeing signs of their entry evident, the cultist raise an alarm that is announced through the temple by a disembodied, feminine voice.

The party tries to make a break for it, but the doors are closed. They attack the guards and cult elite present in a pitch battle. The guards go down quickly, though there are a lot of them. The higher level cult members are armed with weapons that shoot searing beams of light. They nearly kill the Sorcerer, Kairon, with these weapons.


The high priest is particularly hard to kill, even with the party's concentrated attacks. He offers to parlay for their lives, but the party doesn't believe him. Erekose strides up and brings the fight to him. The High Priest emerges from cover to accept the challenge. He deals Erekose two devastating blows with his great sword, but now he's in the open and the party finishes him off.

Their victory is short lived, because more guards arrived. Shade releases the jade bear she acquired long ago, and Dagmar throws down her serpent staff, which becomes a giant python. The party and their animal allies kill the guards. For the moment, the temple nave is theirs...

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Well-Met in Umberwell

I reject the notion that there is one right way to do a setting book. Those making the argument in favor of a more terse or utilitarian style often point to the bloat found in setting books by the major publishers. While I won't deny there is often a verbiage problem with those books, I'd also suggest that they are an easy target for the people making these sorts of arguments, i.e. members of a community to some degree defined by its opposition or at least contrast to major publishers' ways. While I'm sure not everyone is a fan for a number of reasons, I've never seen anyone cite The Tekumel Sourcebook volumes or Glorantha books as examples of overwriting.

There are two thoughts I have about setting books that (I think) better get to the truth of the situation. The most obvious one first: People like or want different things. Some people want to be transported, others just want prompts or aids. The second thought is that settings should be written in such a way as to make the setting more interesting, realized, and playable. Any verbiage not to this end is excess, but also any brevity that undermines those elements counts as a deficit.

All that preamble to cite an example of something that does it right, the third of such supplements to hit the mark, as I see it, by Jack Shear: Umberwell: Blackened Be Thy Name. Umberwell is one of a handful of 19th Century-ish fantasy settings in terms of technology, though the vibe is a bit Elizabethan underworld, a bit Dickensian nightmare, and a whole lot New Weird. It is also, as are all of Jack's settings, eminently integrated in a D&D environment, embracing the whole Star Wars cantina array of races and classes. it does this all in 134 pages.

The city has a European feel. Its island arrangement recalls Venice, and its character recalls London (or versions of London like New Crobuzon). It might be a bit Weimar Berlin in its decadence. There are bits of New Crobuzon evident, certainly, a bit of Sharn perhaps, and I perhaps flatter myself that I see some glimmers of the City in a couple of places, but it is its own thing.

It succeeds where Eberron, to my mind, fails. Eberron's vague, 21st Century Americanness skims across the top but does not penetrate the weird and Medievalist elements. Eberron is to genuine pulp sensibility what a guy sporting a fedora in an Instagram pic is to Sam Spade. Umberwell feels authentic (for lack of a better word), but never in a way that sacrifices it's fundamental D&Dness.

It is not complete, in the sense that it does not try to give you the totality of a world, nor does it attempt to. If any given Forgotten Realms splat is like a history or geography book, and Weird Adventures a travel guide, Umberwell is like a travel essay or TV show. It is painted in impressionistic strokes and focuses its efforts on the things that directly confront its visitors (i.e. the players and DM), only filling in other details as needed to color and accentuate those.

And yes, I'm thanked in the book, so my review is assuredly unbiased, but if anything I've written sounds interesting to you, so should check it out, then tell me I'm wrong.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Saragossa Manuscript Redux

Yesterday, Amazon delivered the blu-ray version of the 1965 Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript directed by Wojciech Has. The film has been praised by the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Neil Gaiman. Jerry Garcia supposedly helped supply funds to get a full cut of the film restored. I have yet to check out the blu-ray transfer, but the film I know from the DVD version. It has impressive black and white imagery, and an unusual use of music--sometimes its a usual (if quirky) sixties film score, but often it has touches of primitive electronica experimentalism reminscient of some sci-fi scores of the era.

I first went looking for the film in 2010 because of its source material, the novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815). The book bears some resemblance to works like the Arabian Nights or the Decameron. It's a fantasy (at least in part) describing the experiences and stories related to a young Walloon officer in the Sierra Morenas of Spain in 1739. It includes gypsies, cabbalists, Sapphic sister Moorish princesses, and hints at secret history. The stories are nested like Matryoshka dolls, with narrators of some stories showing up as characters in others. Neil Gaiman, a fan of the work, has called it "a labyrinth inside of a maze." It combines elements of the gothic and picaresque with eroticism and humor.

The book itself has an interesting history. It's so convoluted in fact that Potocki's authorship was at times doubted. The novel was written in French, and over an extended period in several stages. The first few "days" were published in 1805 in French. Later, the entire manuscript was translated and published in Polish, but then the original complete manuscript was lost, and had to be "back translated" into French for a complete French version. Wikipedia suggests that scholars now think their were two versions: an unfinished one from 1804, published in 1885, and a rewritten, tonal different complete 1810 version. Only the first of these versions has appeared in English, though both are available in French.

Potocki himself is an interesting and character. He was served as a military officer, and was also for a time of novice of the Knights of Malta. He traveled and wrote scholarly studies on linguistics and ethnography. In 1790, he was among the first to fly in a hot air balloon. He also committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Allegedly, this was done with a silver bullet he fashioned himself and had had blessed by a chaplain!

Anyway the novel is well worth your time as is Has's film.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Wednesday Comics: Wytches


Wytches (2014) is a limited series written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Jock. It's film rights have been optioned, so if you read it now, you'll feel like one of the in-crowd when and if the film comes out. Beyond that, I think it's worth your time for the comic itself.

The titular "Wytches" aren't your typical humans who have made a deal with the devil. Instead, there are inhuman creatures people make deals with. Their angular forms resembling trees in silhouette and allowing them to blend into the forests. Their abilities may be magical, or maybe not. They are presented as "sciences" not known to humans, allowing them to cure diseases for humans who give them what they want. What they want is sacrifices, people who are "pledged" to them.

Sailor, the teen daughter of the Rook family, newly arrived in Litchfield, New Hampshire, has been pledged.  By the time her father, Charlie, comes to believe her fears that something supernatural is stalking her, it may already be too late.


Wytches reminds me a bit of the fiction of Laird Barron with its hidden race in an American woodland and secret cults. Snyder's story felt a bit slim for 6 issues, but in no way incomplete. It is no doubt well paced for a film. Jock's art fits the story well, and wisely only gives us glimpses of the wytches or their horrors. Matt Hollingsworth's color aid in this obscuration by at times strategically hiding parts of the seen with blotches of color. It's a more effective technique than it may sound.

There may well be sequels in the works that further the conflict between wytch-hunting "Irons" and the wytch-cults, but this story stands on its own.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Damselfly [ICONS]

Art by Dean Kotz

DAMSELFLY

Abilities:
Prowess: 6
Coordination: 5
Strength: 4
Intellect: 4
Awareness: 5
Willpower: 5

Determination: 1
Stamina: 9

Specialties: Aerial Combat; Investigation

Qualities:
Alien Law Enforcer
Branded as an Enemy of Zurrz-Zann
“Compassion guides my pursuit of justice”

Powers:
Flight (Wings) 5
Mind Control (Insects only, Burst) 4
Shrinking 7
Stinger Gun: Blast 5, Stunning 5 (Extra: Burst)
Law Enforcer Armor: Damage Resistance  4

Background:
Alter Ego: Xazandra Zaantarz alias Cassandra “Cassie” Saunders
Occupation: Former Zurrz-Zannian Law Enforcer, now Social Worker
Marital Status: Single
Known Relatives: None
Group Affiliation: Super-Sentinels
Base of Operations: Lake City
First Appearance: GUTS AND GLORY #67
Height: 5’7” Weight: 122 lbs.
Eyes: Blue Hair: Black

History:
Xazandra Zaantarz was born on Zurrz-Zann, a technologically advanced world in a other-dimensional microverse where the dominant lifeforms have both insectoid and mammalian traits. Shortly after Xazandra joined the ranks of the law enforcers, a psychic breach from Earth’s dimension affected the minds of many Zurrz-Zannians, causing them to engage in criminal behavior and civil unrest. The Ruling Council ordered Enforcer Zhaan Katar to go to Earth and end the psychic assault. Xazandra was assigned to assist him. Zhaan expressed irritation at being assigned such an inexperienced partner, but he would later admit he was strongly attracted to her from the start, a feeling that was mutual.

On Earth, the two disguised their alien features and assumed the cover identities of John Carter and Cassandra Saunders in Lake City. There, they successfully tracked down Mut-Ant, whose birth had been the cause of the psychic assault. They were able to infect the Mut-Ant swarm with a chemical that dampened its psychic signal, freeing Zurrz-Zann from its influence, though ultimately Mut-Ant escaped.

Confessing their feelings for each other, Xazandra and Zhaan decided to stay on Earth, so they could be together more easily (given the rigid hierarchy of their home), and build a life in this new world. Having made connections with the Lake City police department in tracking down Mut-Ant, the pair were able to continue crimefighting on a quasi-legally sanctioned basis as Dragonfly and Damselfly, while maintaining their cover identities. They were eventually invited to join the Super-Sentinels.

Over this time period, Zurrz-Zann fell under the sway of a dictatorial regime. The pair were ordered back home, but they disagreed on how to handle the summons; Zhaan felt it was their duty to return, while Xazandra wished to stay on Earth. They were unable to resolve the dispute before a trio of Zurrz-Zannian enforcers arrived to retrieve them.  Zhaan agreed to return with them, but Xazandra fought back. In the ensuing melee, Zhaan and two members of the retrieval team were apparently killed.

Xazandra, now regarded as a traitor to Zurrz-Zann, continues her life on Earth. Recently, she has encountered Hornet, a masked Zurrz-Zannian operative who she believes may be Zhaan--  although how he may have survived, and why he does not seem to remember her, remain unknown.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Gateway to Adventure


A common trope to fantastic fiction, in everything from The Wizard of Oz to The Chronicles of Thomas Convenant have the protagonist transported from our world to another. Some subgenres (like Sword & Planet) work almost exclusively that way.  For some reason, that trope is mostly absent from fantasy gaming, despite media inspired by fantasy rpgs (like the Guardians of Flame series and the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon) including it.

Recently, reading some of L.Sprague de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias sequence, specifically some Krishna stories, has made me think this avoidance might be unfortunate. The Krishna series is broadly Sword & Planet like Burroughs's John Carter tales, but with a difference. Wikipedia sums it up like this:

The seven novels and four short stories of the Krishna sequence follow various Earthmen and occasional other aliens in their encounters with the pretechnical local culture, in which their pursuit of their own often petty ends tend to have ramifications ranging from minor to history-changing on a society struggling to adapt to the more advanced civilization.

The Terran interlopers on Krishna often go disguised as native Krishnans. This literalizes what is going on in D&D on a meta-level: Everyday Earth folk from a technological society masquerade as members of a Medieval or early modern society for their own petty ends. Why not make it literal in game, too?

The basic setup could go something like this. Say some kids did disappear in steam tunnels into playing an roleplaying game back in the 70s due to a rift to a another world. These rifts may have opened worldwide at the same time Roadside Picnic style, with likewise similar, ineffective worldwide response to try to contain them. The world on the other side of the rift is a mostly a Medieval/early modern one where "magic" appears to function (though magical artifacts do not function, or perhaps not for long, upon returning to Earth). The desire to exploit this world and possible learn the secrets of making "magic" function in our world is intense, so despite official restriction groups or parties are hired to sneak in. A greased palm or two insures a blind eye is turned to this, so long as the adventures outfit themselves with native tech.

This would have a few advantages or interesting aspects. The PCs ignorance of the details of the world would no longer be a bug but a feature, as would schemes or plots with anachronistic elements. The colonialist or exploitive aims of Earth from add complications or opportunity for the PCs.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Weird Revisited: Tales from the Graveyard

This reposting would have been great for Halloween. Ah well, it originally appeared in April of 2011, so hopefully it works well at any time of the year...

Barrow Island lies close to Empire Island in the Wyrd River. It’s the location of the City’s sprawling potter’s field, but its association with the dead goes back much farther. There are stately Dwergen cemeteries dating from the earliest days of colonization, and even unmarked Native burial grounds.

The only living inhabitants on the island are those that tend the graveyards. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, the entire population of the island’s single village--some 700 souls--were found dead, and subsequently buried in a mass grave nearby. No further attempts at settlement were made. Still, the size of grounds to maintain and protect, and the large number of interments, necessitates a fairly large staff.

The graveyard staff (barrow men) are a clan of several interrelated families--”Keeper,” “Graves,” and “Digger” are among of the most common surnames. They’re usually a people of unique (one might say hideous) appearance, though there are exceptions, particularly among the women. Whether this is from inbreeding, intermixing with their bitter enemies, the ghouls, or the dark influence of the island itself, is uncertain. Whatever the reason for their frightful appearance, the barrow men are unperturbed by it--in fact, they seem to delight in the revulsion it sometimes causes in others.

The barrow men love a good tale, the more macabre the better--particularly if injected with a bit of gallows humor. They collect them, and swap them; the number known and their novelty are a measure of status among them. Any visitor to the island will almost surely be regaled with one or more depending on the length of their stay.


BARROW MEN (RACE)
Ability Modifiers: CON +1, CHA -1
Classes: All
Languages: Ghoulish
Racial Traits:
  • +2 to savings throws vs. poison, disease, or contagion.
  • horrify: If given time and opportunity (i.e. not in combat or other extremely active situation) a barrow man may enrapt listeners with a tale of horror. This works similar to the bardic fascinate abilty. After the tale is complete, a failed saving throw leaves the listener shaken with a -2 to all attack rolls and other checks for 1d4 rounds.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Gostya [ICONS]

Art by Chris Malgrain

GOSTYA

Abilities:
Prowess: 5
Coordination: 4
Strength: 7
Intellect: 9
Awareness: 6
Willpower: 6

Stamina: 13

Specialties: Scientist, Technology Expert

Qualities:
Uplifted Soviet Space Probe
"I am superior to biological life"
"You will be cataloged and preserved...after disassembly."

Powers:
Blast: 7
Damage Resistance: 5
Immortality: 6


Background
Alter Ego: None
Occupation: Gatherer of Information, Would-be World Destroyer
Marital Status: Inapplicable
Known Relatives: Inapplicable
Group Affiliation: Masters of Menace
Base of Operations: Mobile
First Appearance: ASTOUNDING COMICS #299
Height: 5’9” Weight: 425 lbs.
Eyes: Red Photoreceptors Hair: None

History
Gostya (“Visitor”) was the nickname given a Soviet deep space probe. While crossing the orbit of Jupiter, the probe fell into a wormhole. The probe emerged in a distant solar system where machine life had taken over after the passing of its ancient, biological creators. The machine intellects were amused by the primitive probe and upgraded it to sapience so that it might better accomplish its mission of exploration.

Gostya began a journey that would eventually lead her back to Earth. Along the way, her newly evolved mind perhaps began to slip into madness. Fixated on her mission, she began molecularly disassembling lifeforms and artifacts she encountered so that she might acquire and preserve information about them to the atomic level.

When she finally arrived back at Earth, she was horrified to find no intelligence she judged worthy of receiving the information she had collected. After an encounter with a group of astronauts, she concluded the biological beings that built her were inferior to her in every way. She decided that Earth, too, must be disassembled and cataloged and that she alone would preserve knowledge.

Her scans of Earth did detect energy signatures similar to her own. Curious, she investigated and found that it was the temporal link used by Futura. Gostya came into conflict with the heroine when she tried to acquire it. At the end of their battle, Futura believed she had destroyed the invader, but Gostya re-assembled over time and has continued to menace the Earth, showing particular interest in the technology of Futura’s future, which she is certain is derived from her own in some way.