Friday, April 19, 2019

The Azurth Dictionary

It's been a while since I've shared the Dictionary of Azurth, your abbreviated (but free) guide to assort people, places, and things in the Land of Azurth.

Get it here.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Weird Revisited: Rumored Mysteriarchs of Hidden Zed

I'm back after a hiatus caused by moving and a lack of internet access. Here's a classic Land of Azurth post from 2015, that soon may have relevance for my current campaign... 

As their name should suggest, little is known of those great magi, the Mysteriarchs of Zed, and this is presumably the way they prefer it. Even great wizards are powerless before rumor and tale-telling, however, and so the names of some alleged members of that shadowy assemblage are widely whispered in the Land of Azurth:

art by Francisco Segura
The Great Enigma may or may not have ascended to a higher plane to compare his knowledge with that of more potent beings than humanity, or perhaps he lingers awhile yet to train worthy apprentices. He has placed himself under a peculiar geas wherein in a challenge he will only cast any spell his opponent hasn't thought of yet, but none that they have.

Art by Algosky
Agar the Green holds unorthodox theories about slime and its place among the primordial elements. He makes a study of various slimes, oozes and jellies, and spends much of his time in a semi-viscid form to aid his research. Some of his colleagues suggest he has even sought the lubricous embrace of Jellia, the Gelatine Princess of the Ooze Folk, but such matters are scarcely the topic of polite conversation.

art by Moebius
Generys the White is said to have lived half her life in the realm of dreams, and this has made her cold and cruel in her affairs in the mundane world. She knows secrets that are only shared in dreams and the making of potions that aid either forgetfulness or memory. Any gift of a jewel or precious stone from her is to be avoided at all costs, but must be refused politely.

Monday, April 8, 2019

On the Nature of Planes

Discussion around my last couple of posts got me to thinking about planes and how one might present them. I don't think there is a right or wrong way to do it, but I think certain approaches imply certain things more than others.

There  may well be interpretations other than the three I've presented below, but hopefully this will delineate where the key differences lie.

First, here are the traits I'll use to describe them:

  • Physical worlds are composed of matter and energy, physics and biology,  and function similarly to our own, though may in some ways be alien. Physical worlds in are generally finite, though they may reside in an infinite substrate (like the astral plane or space of some sort).
  • Metaphysical worlds mimic physical worlds in some ways, but aren't really fully natural or "functional." Examples would include pop conceptions of Heaven (a bunch of solids clouds, with some angels and a set of golden gates) and Hell (a cavernous realm of fire). In literary fantasy settings (be they trad fantasy, pulp science fiction, or superheroes), the difference between physical worlds and metaphysical ones may only be discernible by context. Metaphysical worlds may be finite or infinite, but if they are infinite they are likely only notionally so--characters are always tend to show up "where the action is."
  • A fixed reality is one where things appear to obey mundane physical laws, with exceptions for magic or special powers. The local laws might differ from the primary world's, but they are still rules that govern most everyone.
  • A mutable reality is more dream-like or the power of one or more beings to manipulate its nature is so significant that things can't be taken for granted.

Planets/Worlds/"Alien Sphere": Physical spaces, whatever their actually shape/structure that exist either in the same universe as the primary world of the setting or accessible universes. In fact, they may be the other universe, made up of a number of sub-worlds. The world or universe may be reached or traversed by strictly physical means, but often can only be accessed by some sort of special device or power.
Traits: Generally physical and fixed.
Examples: Marvel's Microverse and Negative Zone; the Marvel Cinematic Universe's version of the Nine Realms; perhaps Yag ("Tower of the Elephant") and other mystically described planets in pulp fiction.

Conceptual Realms: Generally supernatural places of supernatural beings, often arranged in levels or perhaps energy states. They are typically reached by magical or esoteric means, but the magical means may be as simple as walking through a seemingly mundane door or gate. Some can't be visited by physical bodies, but only by spirits, astral forms, or the like.
Traits: Metaphysical and (mostly) fixed.
Examples: various after-lifes, places where demons and gods dwell; The Realm of Dream from Sandman; The Matrix and other virtually reality realms are non-supernatural examples.

Gygaxian Esoteric Planes: Places that often bear the names and some of the characteristics of various historical conceptual realms but are more defined in their characteristics. They are inhabited by supernatural beings that tend to behave like mundane beings, the only difference being "power." Geography tends to be more important than in conceptual realms; planes can be mapped to a degree, and travel along associated terrain may be necessary.
Traits: Physical or Metaphysical, mostly fixed but can be mutable.
Examples: The Great Wheel as presented in AD&D or the 4e Cosmology; Marvel Comic's version of the Nine Realms in Thor.

At first blush, one might suggest the Gygaxian Esoteric Planes are just conceptual realms adapted to the requirements of a game, but I don't think this is the case. In the same way old school games are able to support a more mutable, fantastic, mythical underworld, they could also support conceptual realms (indeed, some rpgs already have them as background elements), but for whatever reason, Gygax and his successors chose not to portray most of the Great Wheel that way. Similarly, weird or magical planets were hardly unknown in the source literature D&D was drawn from (and would eventually show up in Planescape and Pathfinder's Golarion Solar System), but this wasn't the path chosen for D&D either.

Whether the rejection of these options was a misstep or an innovation, depends on your point of view.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Planets For Planes

I alluded to this yesterday, but I thought I should expand on why I have a bit of trouble with the "Planes as Planets" idea. First, I should say, I think this is fine for a certain sort of "magic is misunderstood science" pulp settings, and it would work wonderfully with a conception of planet something like the ancient idea of the crystal spheres because then the planets basically are planes. (GURPS Cabal by Kenneth Hite sort of takes this approach.)

True, the planes as typically presented are a bit abstract, and any many cases it might not be immediately apparent what adventurers should do with them. On the other hand, "planes as planets" runs the risk of too much mudanity. In a magical setting, I feel like the environments need to be sufficiently strange (and challenging!) to explain why you just don't have them exist on the main setting world (or beneath it).

I think science fiction might offer some suggestions. This can get tough, because adventurers don't usually go around equipped with the sort of gear space explorers have to deal with hostile environments (though it certainly could be available to them). This means sticking a bit more to pulpier sci-fi with more human-friendly environments for inspiration.

Here are two examples from the work of Stanley Weinbaum I think would work:

Weinbaum's Uranus from "Planet of Doubt" is permanently shrouded in green-gray mists (visibility only out to a few feet) and heated not by the too-distant sun, but by volcanism. There are strange, swirling beings (or what appear to be beings) of solidified mists with "the faces of gargoyles or devils, leering, grimacing, grinning in lunatic mirth or seeming to weep in mockery of sorrow. One couldn't see them clearly enough for anything but fleeting impressions—so vague and instantaneous that they had the qualities of an illusion or dream."

Those apparitions are not what they seem, but I won't spoil it for you--and of course, it doesn't really matter to your setting what Weinbaum did with them, anyway.

Then there are giant, tubular beasts resembling a larger, stranger version of the processionary caterpillars of Eath--or when they are forming a "train," Jason Sholtis's googlopede. They are a hazard that can't be defeated by brute force (probably, though multiple fireballs cure a lot of problems!), but rather have to be overcome strategically.

All you need is the addition of some treasure player's might want, and Weinbaum's Uranus is ready to be explored.

Weinbaum's Venus from "Parasite Planet" is even more interesting, though its shear hostility may make it less suitable. It's tidally locked, with a desert hot side and a frigid cold side, and a strip of more hospitable (relatively) twilight zone. That zone is a mostly jungle, hotter than anything on Earth, plagued by mud eruptions that make encampment tricky. It's teeming with life of an unsavory, but gameable, sort:
A thousand different species, but all the same in one respect; each of them was all appetite. In common with most Venusian beings, they had a multiplicity of both legs and mouths; in fact some of them were little more than blobs of skin split into dozens of hungry mouths, and crawling on a hundred spidery legs. 
All life on Venus is more or less parasitic. Even the plants that draw their nourishment directly from soil and air have also the ability to absorb and digest—and, often enough, to trap—animal food. So fierce is the competition on that humid strip of land between the fire and the ice that one who has never seen it must fail even to imagine it.
If that's not enough, the air cannot be safely breathed, except right after a rain, due to the risk of inhaling mold spores that will sprout in the lungs. Food or water left exposed for even a short period of time begins to growth fuzz.

Terrans brave Venus because of its bounty plant-derived substances for pharmaceuticals, predominantly an anti-aging drug. Similar "potion ingredients" might tempt adventures. Venus also as a very D&Dish creature:
...the doughpot is a nauseous creature. It's a mass of white, dough-like protoplasm, ranging in size from a single cell to perhaps twenty tons of mushy filth. It has no fixed form; in fact, it's merely a mass of de Proust cells—in effect, a disembodied, crawling, hungry cancer. 
It has no organization and no intelligence, nor even any instinct save hunger. It moves in whatever direction food touches its surfaces; when it touches two edible substances, it quietly divides, with the larger portion invariably attacking the greater supply. 
It's invulnerable to bullets; nothing less than the terrific blast of a flame-pistol will kill it, and then only if the blast destroys every individual cell. It travels over the ground absorbing everything, leaving bare black soil where the ubiquitous molds spring up at once—a noisome, nightmarish creature.
Again, something that brute force might not be the best way of countering.

Those are just a couple of examples. Weinbaum's fiction is in the public domain at least in some countries, so visit the internet and read more about them.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Weird Solar System of "Life on Other Worlds"

"Life on Other Worlds" was a feature that appeared periodically in Planet Comics in the 1940s. Most were drawn by Murphy Anderson, but the writer is unknown. I am not completely sold on the sometimes promulgated "Planes as Planets" idea in regard to D&D's Outer Planes, chiefly because I think it sometimes sells planes and planets a bit short on weirdness, for some reason. Reading some of these "Life on Other Worlds" segments and thinking about them as planes as caused me to rethink that position.

Take Saturn, for instance:

Mercury is more conventional, but still:

Monday, April 1, 2019

Encounters In A Martian Bar Before the Gunfight Started

Art by Jeff Call
01 A jovial human trader eager to unload a large, glowing jar containing squirming creatures he claims are Mercurian dayside salamanders.

02 A shaggy, spider-eyed Europan smuggler waits nervously for her contact.

03 Four pygmy-like “mushroom men," fungoid sophonts from the caverns of Vesta. They are deep in their reproductive cycle and close proximity gives a 10% chance per minute of exposure inhaling their spores.

04 A Venusian reptoid lowlander with jaundiced eyes from chronic hssoska abuse and an itchy trigger-claw.

05 Two scarred, old spacers in shabby flight suits.  They're of human stock mutated by exposure to unshielded, outlawed rocket drives.

07 A cloud of shimmering lights, strangely ignored by most patrons, dances around twin pale, green-skinned chaunteuses. It's  actually an energy being from the Transneptunian Beyond.

08 An aging, alcoholic former televideo star (and low level Imperial spy) with 1-2 hangers-ons.

09 A Venusian Wooly who just lost a Martian chess game to a young farm-hand who doesn't know any better.

10 A Martian Dune Walker shaman on his way to a ritual at a nearby Old Martian ruin, with a bag of 2d6 hallucinogenic, dried erg-beetles. He dreams of driving all off-worlders from Mars.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Dungeons of High Camp Revisited

Art by Jim Holloway

This is an update to a post from 2017, originally conceived as I was reading Hero A Go-Go by Michael Eury. That book chronicles superhero comics' response (and influence on) 1960s camp pop culture. It's a combination that didn't always work well; many of the works now seem more goofy kitsch perhaps, and some are really just unfunny parody of superheroes. Still, when it works there is a certain charm to a lot of folks, as the revival comics Batman '66 and Wonder Woman '77 indicate.

I wonder why there hasn't been as much of a concerted attempt at published camp works for Dungeons & Dragons? Certainly, farcical humor abounds at the gaming table, and a number of comedic adventures have been written (a lot illustrated by Jim Holloway), in fact a couple of my Hydra colleagues have been taken to task for humorous elements in their work. There are, of course, humorous illustrations in the older AD&D books. But as far as I know, there has never been a camp setting or camp-informed setting--unless maybe HackMaster counts? Maybe it's just too difficult an approach to sustain well throughout a written project?

I should back up a bit here and define what I mean by "camp," since it's not a term with a universal, clear definition. What I mean in this case, is not the farce or cheese, but a sort of knowing amusement. An "engaged irony." As Isherwood would have it: "you’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it." The "it" in our case being elfgames.

The settings of some OSR-related folks seem to me to have elements of camp without going all-in: Jason Sholtis' Operation Unfathomable, Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons, some of Jeff Reints stuff, and my own Mortzengersturm. Dungeon Crawl Classics with its "airbrushed wizard van" elements could be taken as camp, but I'm unsure whether that is the intention.

Art by Jim Holloway