Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Wednesday Comics: Hill House

Hill House is a horror imprint of DC Comics curated by horror writer, Joe Hill. He writes a number of comics himself, as well as presumably selecting the other creators. I have read at least the first issues of three of the four current titles and while it's difficult to draw definitively conclusions in this age of decompression each is off to a promising start.

The Dollhouse Family
Six year-old Alice is left a Victorian dollhouse by a great-aunt or something, and soon finds she can visit the house's inhabitants. and can even escape the domestic violence of her home to live their all the time. There's a price, I'm sure. This one is written by Mike Carey and his art by Peter Gross.

Low, Low Woods
Described as "coming of age body horror" it tells the story of two outsider teenage women in a dying mining town with a cold seam fire beneath it. There's also a mysterious plague that causes people to lose their memory and the girls already have one night they can't remember in a movie theater. Then there are the skinless bodies (undead maybe?) they show up sometimes in the woods. Unlike The Dollhouse Family, it's harder to see where this one is going. It's written by Shirley Jackson Award winner Carmen Maria Machado and features art by Dani, fresh from Coffin Bound.

Daphne Byrne
In Victoria era New York, Daphne Byrne has recently lost her father and her grief-stricken mother is an easy mark for spiritualist hucksters. In dreams, Daphne is contacted by her presence who claims to be her brother and promises help for her situation. It's writer by television writer and playright Laura Marks, and features artwork by the great Kelley Jones.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Getting Out of Rivertown

Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued last night with the "Masters of Mayhem" in the midst of a robbery. Using a Blades in the Dark-esque opportunity to retcon planned events (at the price of a greater chance of a complication), the players attempt to establish that they bribed the vault guards to look the other way prior to the robbery. They are successful with the pertinent rolls and the retcon is established. The approaching guards are ready to be knocked out with a sleep spell, if necessary.

But the angry invisible stalker has not been bought off. It attacks the party again, and Bellmorae (disguised as the vault manager Wotko) is unable to get it to stand down. The party eventually kills it with magic and stolen energy weapons.

The party decides to get out while the gettings good, but their only choice is to leave their Armoire of Holding behind with the hope of regaining it later. On the way through the lobby, "Wotko" (the disguised Bell) is accousted by a customer demanding her attention. She manages to talk her way out of it and they leave the vault with Gladhand's gold.

The party becomes concerned that when the real Wotko and his associate awaken, they may well draw attention to the Armoire, leading to the heist being discovered. They figure they have to get out of town. But they also want to get the Armoire back. They make the mistake of letting Gladhand know this before negotiating for a higher fee, and he offers to both help them get out of town and retrieve the Armoire in lieu of further payment. 

Ultimately, though, they decide not to take his offer of getting them jobs and cover identities with a caravan heading across the Dragonspine Mountains to the Country of Sang. Instead, they plan to make their own way to the Sapphire City along the Wizard's Road, and from there to Virid to meet Queen Desira.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Talislanta: The Continent and Magic

This is a follow-up to this post, and the beginning of my examination of the setting throughout its publication history. First up, the big picture.

Talislanta the setting is named for the continent which is its central focus. Though other, semi-legendary lands are mentioned in passing, The Chronicles of Talislanta (1987) makes a pitch for dropping the continent into any fantasy setting:
As to the land of Talislanta: those scholars who do not dismiss the topic out of hand disagree as to the origins of this otherwise forgotten realm. Some claim that Talislanta existed long ago, perhaps during the legendary First Age of Atlantis. Others, lending even broader scope to their imaginations, cite Tamerlin’s chronicles as proof of the existence of parallel worlds or alternate realities. Proponents of the hollow earth theory, avid readers of Charles Fort, and others of similar bent may formulate even more intriguing explanations for the Talislantan texts.
This vagueness regarding the wider world doesn't last. In 1988's Sorcerer's Guide, Talislanta's world is placed on the plane of Primus within the wider Omniverse, not utterly unlike D&D's planar setup, but much less complicated. With the 2nd edition and The Talislanta Worldbook (1990), Talislanta's planet gets a name: Archaeus. Archaeus has seven continents in total:


The origin of magic in the Talislantan milieu is revealed for the first time. A tribe of "Sub-Men" (Talislanta's name for the primitive humanoid inhabitants of much of the continent) discover the wreckage of a ship of some kind and find a crystal orb that contains "the secrets of a lost and forgotten art—magic." Learning magic, these Sub-Men develop into the race known as the Archaeans (simply called "Men" in the 1st edition).

The 3rd edition largely follows the Worldbook's details, but demotes Archaeus from the center of its system to being a planet orbiting binary stars. This star system is just one of many within the material plane. The Sub-Men tribe uplifted by magic from a wrecked "strange vessel," now become known as Archaens.

Archaeus' solar system is de-emphasized in the last two editions, but the origin of the Archaens is now firmly established. In the 4th edition, Sub-Men is a derogatory term for the "Wild Folk" and the crashed ship is called out as "alien" and called an "ark." The 5th edition, affirms the ship was alien and states that it is believed to be of extra-dimensional origin. There are parts of it still in existence, recognizable by the rainbow color they emanate. The Sub-Men are again Sub-Men.


Why does the stuff about the Archaens matter? Talislanta was established from the beginning as a post-apocalyptic setting with frequent references to a Great Disaster. The Archaens were not only the ancestors of the "human" races of Talislanta, but the source of most of its magic, and also (perhaps) the cause of the destruction of their own civilization.

The idea of magic, or at least the advanced practice of magic, being alien in origin is a nice little detail to me, and one I don't think Talislanta has ever explored to its fullest. There is a lot that could be done with that in a campaign.

The vacillation between extraplanetary aliens and extradimensional ones, seems to coincide with some ambivalence about whether Archaeus is a planet in a science fiction conception or a "world" in a fantasy conception. I like a view of "outer space" more metaphysical than strictly physical, like in Medieval cosmology or pulp fiction like Howard's "Tower of the Elephant" or Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, for Talislanta. I favor a more fantastic Archaeus, as well. One where you could sail across an ocean and into another world, perhaps.

Those preferences are in general. For the Sword & Planet thing I'm planning, I'm go with a much more realistic world around a realistic star.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Through A Veil of Blue Mist Did I First Behold Talislanta


I've mentioned my appreciation for Stephan Michael Sechi's Talislanta setting. Since I'm contemplating running a Sword & Planet game that uses Talislanta as the "planet," I though it was a good time to revisit the setting, and it's publication history in a series of posts, as I think about what I'm going to use and what I might do differently.

Historically, Talislanta is both a setting and a game. It's core, however, has always been the systemless Chronicles of Talislanta, first published by Bard Games in 1987. Chronicles is the narrative of Tamerlin, a wizard from another world, as he explores the continent of Talislanta. Sechi's imaginative setting is made more compelling by P.D. Breeding-Black's distinctive illustrations.

When I first encountered Talislanta, I didn't have much experience with Sechi's inspirations: the works of Jack Vance, Marco Polo's Travels, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and the comics of Philippe Druillet. To me, it seemed more daring than the implied setting of D&D, and at once goofier and more lurid than the likes of Middle-Earth. It reminded me of Star Wars and comic books. I liked it instantly.

My appreciation has only grown over the years. So, I'm going to trace Tamerlin's journey and the places it visits across editions and think about how I might make it my own, influenced by my understanding of Sechi's stated influences and influences of my own.

More to come.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Weird Revisited: In the Twilight

The original version of this post appeared in 2016...

At least ten empires rose and fell during the Meridian of Earth. Each was glorious and wrested such secrets from the universe as to enable it to bend laws of nature, obdurate to earlier cultures, to its whim. Each in time fell into decadence, dwindled, and died, but at the end of the Meridian Time, the Earth had been transformed by their works; it had become the abode of beings other than Man.

As the Twilight fell and the sun grew bloated and sanguine, those Outsiders and abhuman things encroached ever closer on the nations of Man. By and by, they gained greater dominion over the Earth. In the early centuries, the technologies of the elder Meridian still functioned, and Man comprehended enough to build great walls as a defense against the inhuman. As Twilight deepened, many of these redoubts fell, but a few stood fast and managed even to throw back their foe. The Coming Night was held in abeyance for so long that generations passed and many began to doubt it would ever fall.

But beyond the walls, the Great Beasts crouched and waited with patience inhuman but not infinity, and abhuman armies gathered in the deepening in gloom...


Here's the pitch: Take the early modern bleakness, occasional black humor, and body-warping chaos of Warhammer Fantasy and put it in a Dying Earth gone weird like Hodgson's The Night Land, making sure to filter the Watchers (Great Beasts in this case) through Lovecraftiania, a hint of kaiju, and good old fashion goetic demonology. Wrap it all in "points of light" surrounded by walls out of Attack on Titan.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Campaign Idea in Pictures

A scout ship crashes on a distant planet.

A world teeming with life, some of which mysterious shows ties to Earth, and primitive civilization.

Things are not what they seem.

But what can explain the apparent examples of magic?

The short pitch summary: A Planetary Romance short of sandbox, inspired by Vance's Planet of Adventure series with Talislanta (modified to taste) used as a base.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Setting History Should Do Something

If setting books for rpgs sometimes get a bad wrap, history sections of setting books are probably even more widely reviled. There are reasons for this, but I don't think the solution is that history should be banned from rpg books entirely. I do think it's worth thinking about why we have history (particularly deep history) in rpg setting books, when it's useful and maybe when it isn't.

My thesis is that history in rpg books is most useful/good when it does something. Possible somethings are:

1. Helps to orient the reader (mostly the GM) to the themes/mood/flavor of the setting.
2. Directly establishes parameters that impact the player's adventures.
3. Provides "toys" or obstacles.

It is unhelpful when it does the following:

1. Describes events that have little to no impact on the present.
2. Describes events which are repetitive in nature or easy to confuse.
3. Provides few "toys," or ones that are not unique/distinctive.

Now, I am not talking specifically here about number of words or page counts, which I think a lot of people might feel is the main offender. Those are sort of dependent on the style/marketing position of the publication. Bona fide rpg company books tend to be written more densely and presumably read more straight for pleasure. DIY works are linear and more practical. My biases are toward the latter, but I am more concerned with content here. I do think in general that economy of words makes good things better, and verbosity exacerbates the bad things.

Let's get into an example from Jack Shear's Krevborna:

Gods were once reverenced throughout Krevborna, but in ages past they withdrew their influence from the world. Some say that the gods abandoned mankind to its dark fate due to unforgivable sins. Others believe that the gods retreated after they were betrayed by the rebellious angels who became demons and devils. Some even claim that the gods were killed and consumed by cosmic forces of darkness known as the Elder Evils.
Looking at my list of "good things" it hits most of them. It helps orient to mood and theme (lack of gods, dark fate, unforgivable sins), it sets parameters for the adventurers (cosmic forces of darkness, no gods), and provides obstacles (demons and devils, rebellious angels, elder evils).

That's pretty brief, though. What about a wordier example? Indulge me in an example from my own stuff:

So, the good stuff: orienting to theme, mood. etc. (deep history, memeplexes, super-science, transcendence as old hat, names suggesting a multicultural melange), setting parameters (a fallen age compared to the past, psychic powers, vast distances), and toys and obstacles (psybernetics and a host of other advance tech, Zurr masks, Faceless Ones!)

But wait, have I done one of the "bad things?" I've got two fallen previous civilizations? Isn't that repetitive and potentially confusing? I would say no.  The Archaic Oikueme is the distant past (it's in the name!). It's the "a wizard did it" answer for any weird stuff the GM wishes to throw in, and the source of McGuffins aplenty. The Radiant Polity is the recent past. Its collapse is still reverberating. It is the shining example (again, in the name) that would-be civilizer (and tyrants) namecheck.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Weird Revisited: The Planetary Picaresque

This post is of relatively recent vintage (2017), but I've been thinking about this sort of thing again...


We're all familiar with the Planetary Romance or Sword and Planet stories of the Burroughsian ilk, where a stranger (typically a person of earth) has adventures of a lost world or derring-do sort of variety on an alien world. I'd like to suggest that their is a subgenre or closely related genre that could be termed the Planetary Picaresque.

The idea came to me while revisiting the novels in Vance's Planet of Adventure sequence. The first novel, City of the Chasch, is pretty typical of the Planetary Romance form, albeit more science fiction-ish than Burroughs and wittier than most of his imitators. By the second novel, Servant of the Wankh (or Wanek), however, Vance's hero is spending more time getting the better of would be swindlers or out maneuvering his social superiors amid the risible and baroque societies of Tschai than engaging in acts of swordplay or derring-do. One could argue the stalwart Adam Reith is not himself a picaro, but the ways he is forced to get by on Tschai certainly resemble the sort of situations a genuine picaro might get into.

These sort of elements are not wholly absent from Vance's sword and planet progenitors (Burroughs has some of that, probably borrowed from Dumas), but Vance makes it the centerpiece rather than the comedy relief. Some of L. Sprague de Camp's Krishna seem to be in a similar vein.

The roleplaying applications of this ought to be obvious. You get to combine the best parts of Burroughs with the best parts of Leiber. I think that's a pretty appealing combination.


Monday, January 6, 2020

Weird Revisited: Map of the Azuran System

This post is from 2015. I revisited in in 2018, but with the demise of G+ the image is now gone, so it bore reposting...


This is a "work in progress map of the Azuran System, location of the Star Warriors setting I've done a couple of posts about. Some of these worlds have been mentioned in other posts, but here are the thumbnail descriptions of the others:

Yvern: Humans share this tropical world with sauroid giants! They have learned how to domestic these creatures as beasts of burdens and engines of feudal warfare. Some Yvernians are able to telepathically communicate with their beasts.

Vrume: The desert hardpan and canyons of Vrume wouldn’t attract many visitors if it weren’t for the races—the most famous of these being the annual Draco Canyon Rally.

Zephyrado: Isolated by its “cactus patch” of killer satellites, Zephyrado is home to hard-bitten ranchers and homesteader colonists—and the desperadoes that prey on them!

Geludon: A windswept, frozen world, Geludon is home to mysterious “ice castles” built by a long vanished civilization and the shaggy, antennaed, anthropoid Meego.

Robomachia: A world at war! An all-female civilization is under constant assault from robots that carry captives away to hidden, underground bases--never to be seen again.

Darrklon: Covered by jagged peaks and volcanic badlands shrouded in perpetual twilight, Darrklon is a forbidding place, made even more so by its history as the power base of the Demons of the Dark. Few of the Demons remain, though their fane to Anti-Source of the Abyss still stands, and through it, they direct the Dark Star Knights and other cultists.

Computronia: A gigantic computer that managed the bureaucracy of the Old Alliance and served as its headquarters. It is now under the control of the Authority, and its vast computational powers are used to surveil the system.

Elysia: Elysia was once a near paradise. Technology and nature were held in balance, and its gleaming cities are as beautiful as its unspoiled wilderness. Elysia’s highest mountain was site of the training center of the Star Knights. Now, the Star Knights have been outlawed and the people of Elysia live in a police state imposed by the Authority.

Authority Prime: This hollowed out asteroid holds not only the central headquarters of Authority High Command, but its training academy and interrogation and detention center, as well. 

Friday, January 3, 2020

More on Clerics

It is no secret that clerics have always held a bit of an uneasy place in D&D. They were supposedly inspired by the vampire hunters of Hammer Horror with some further borrowings from Crusader orders. Even if later editions with variable domains, weapons, and powers have ameliorated there implicitly Christian, monotheistic origins, we are still left with them serving pantheons drawn from modern imposed-systemization on characters from later versions of myth, a systemization alien to actually polytheistic religions. But still, it's only a game, we can run with that, right?

Well, we're still left with unanswered questions regarding how the cleric class fits into the structure of religious organizations. Do all priests have spells? If so, where do they get the experience to go up in level?


Here are some possibilities drawn from real world examples that are potential answers, though of course not the only answers, to these questions. Most of these assume clerics adventure because they are "called" to in some way. Whether this is a legitimate belief on the part of the cleric and society or a mistaken one would depend on the setting.

Lay Brothers 
Clerics are not ordained priests but warrior lay brethren, like the sohei of Japan or the military orders of Europe. They would overlap a bit with paladins, but that's real just a matter of whether they were stronger in faith or battle. In this version, priests might or might not have spells, but if they did it would strictly be at the dispensation of their deity.

Prophets/Evangelists
This is more or less the idea I proposed in this post. Clerics are outside the church hierarchy, though they may or may not have started there. They were chosen by their deity for a special purpose. They may be reformers of a church that has been corrupted or lost it's way, founders of a heretical sect with a new interpretation, or the first in ages to hear the voice of a new god. Priests here may have no magic or may be powerful indeed but false in their theology.


Mystics
Similar to my "Saints and Madmen" ideas before, mystics are either heretics or at the very least esotericists with a different take on their religion than the mainstream one. The difference between this and the Prophet above is that they have no interest in reforming the church or overturning it, they are either hermits or cult leaders who isolate themselves from the wider world to pursue their revelations. John the Baptist as portrayed in The Last Temptation of Christ would fit here, as would perhaps the Yamabushi of Japan, or certain Daoist sects/practitioners in China. They might be not at all scholarly (with all spells/powers being "gifts of grace" unavailable to less fanatical priests) or very scholarly with powers/spells coming from intense study or mediation which even more mainstream priests cannot master.

Special Orders
Clerics are members of special orders within the church hierarchy dedicated to recovering the wealth and lost knowledge of dungeons for the the glory of their deity and the betterment of their church. Not all  priests have spells. Clerics are priests chosen for their aptitude or particular relationship with the divine or whatever. These orders may be quite influential within the church hierarchy, but their mission thin their ranks and keeps them in the wilderness and away from centers of power--perhaps by divine will or by design of church leaders.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Weird Revisited: Different Takes on Clerics

I was thinking of writing a post on different approaches to clerics in D&D--then I discovered I had already written one in 2015! I plan to expand on this in an upcoming post..


While on my vacation I did have a could of ideas of different ways to approach clerics. Nothing that would change there mechanics really, but changes to their "fiction" within D&D-like implied settings.

A God for Every Cleric
D&D talks a lot about clerics acquiring followers and whatnot, but only level titles hint at them being in a hierarchy from the outset. Maybe that's because every one of them adds a new god/Avatar/Saint/interpretation? They're struggles are the beginning of something at least partially new. Each cleric is the founder of a new cult, if not a whole new religion, and their deeds are its founding legends.

Saints & Madmen
Maybe clerics aren't priests with orders and heirarchies at all? Maybe they're crazy hermits and empowered saints? I've thought along these lines before, but there clerics were evangelists of a new apocalyptic cult. This way, they have always existed, but they're holy and special. Not all priests have spells.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Wednesday Comics: My Favorites of 2019

In no particular order, here are my favorite comic book series of 2019. This only counts series that started with a 2019 cover date.

Spider-Man: Life Story: The life of Peter Parker as if he aged in real time. Sometimes the reconfiguring on famous storylines of each decade is tedious, but in the chapters where it works, it works well.

Coffin Bound: Izzy Tyburn, chased by an unstoppable killer unleashed by an ex-lover, vows that if the world won't have her in it, it will have nothing of her at all. Reminiscent of the classic days of Vertigo.


House of X/Powers of X: The X-Men as a science fiction. It's main flaw is that it leads into ongoing X titles that have thus far failed to live up to it.

Jimmy Olsen: a humorous homage to the Jimmy Olsen comics of the Silver Age from Matt Fraction and Steve Leiber. No collection as yet.


Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt: Forget Doomsday Clock, this is the comic book follow-up to Watchmen worth reading. By Kieron Gillen and Caspar Wijngaard.