Friday, April 30, 2010

Cryptids Revealed!

Browsing Scott Francis' The Monster Spotter's Guide to North America, gave me some inspiration.  Here are Labyrinth Lord stats for a couple of "zooform phenomena" of our world--and maybe others....


No. Enc.: 1d4
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120'(40')
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 3
Attacks: 2 (any combo of claw & bite)
Damage: 1d4/1d4
Save: F2
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: None
Special Abilities: Stench: save vs. poison or -1 on attack roles.

Skunk apes are shaggy-furred primates native to warm, swampy areas--like Florida, where their most often sighted.

Skunk apes are notable for eyes that appear to glow in the darkness, and the strong stench that they exude--so strong that dogs will often refuse to track them. Skunk apes sometimes appear to leave three-toe tracks, which is unheard of for a primate, particularly when they have five fingers.


No. Enc.: 2d4
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 60'(20') (but can leap 20')
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1 (thrown rock) and Special
Damage: 1d3, Special
Save: E1
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: None
Special Abilities: Immune to nonmagical weapons; Bedevilment: save vs. spell or opponents are harried by the goblins prankish antics they suffer -2 on attack roles, or have concentration spoiled.

Hopskinville goblins are named for the (earthly) place they made their first--and only--appearance, though they are almost certainly extraterrestrial or ultraterrestrial in origin. They appear as roughly 3' tall humanoids with luminous, silver skin, large ears, and large eyes on the sides of their heads.

The goblins have clawed fingers, but never seem to use these to do real damage to people or animals. Instead, they hurl the occasional rock, and generally cause irritation and fear by making a weird nuisance of themselves--following people around, grasping at them or their belonging, scratching or scraping things to make irritating noises, etc.

In the one record encounter with these creatures, a family farm-house in Kentucky was beset by them one summer night in 1955. The goblins generally acted menacingly, but never caused much actual harm. They were, however, completely impervious to gunfire. The attack ended at sunrise, as mysteriously as it began.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Character Creation in the Old West

Last year, I started playing in the very occasional Boot Hill game of Regina, she of the web-serialized, historical novel Five Dollar Mail. Gina's group likes to go somewhat rules-lite. Gina gave me a page of information on the setting, basically boiling down to "a small town with a pony express stop in the Nebraska Territory of the early 1860s" and "magic exists, but it's not flashy, more historic-feeling." And she said: "come up with the character you want to play."

After a bit of consideration, this is what I sent her:

From The Western Gunfighter Encyclopedia (Wheeler, 1975):

CROWE, GIDEON (1820-?) - gunman, spiritualist, and carnival performer. Born into a once prominent Baltimore family, Crowe was the son of a former minister and a fortune-teller and sometime-actress, described as "of Gipsie [sic] blood" and purported to be the illegitimate daughter of infamous occultist/confidence artist Alessandro di Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo). Crowe allegedly fought in the service of the British East India Company in the latter days of the campaign against the Thuggee cult. Returning to North American, he was obscurely involved with the East Texas Regulator-Moderator War. He joined John Joel Glanton and his scalphunters, but deserted them shortly before the band fled Chihuahua as outlaws. He performed sharpshooting shows, and European-style phantasmagoria--"ghost shows," utilizing a primitive antecedent of the slide projector, for several years in theaters and dance-halls in San Francisco's Barbary Coast. His ultimate fate is unrecorded.

Despite being little known today, Crowe was the the inspiration for a dime novel serial, "The Sideshow of Prof. Crowe" in Mundsen & Grandee's Old West Library (1880). Here the carnival aspects are played up, and Crowe has accomplices in the form of "the mighty Negro, Samson," a mute strong-man; and "the sultry Gypsie, Appollonia," a medium. In addition to being a "dead shot with a pistol, " Crowe was said to be "master of the esoteric sciences" and "adept in the secrets of the Hindoo." In the pulp era, he served as the inspiration for a series of short stories by T. Mallory beginning in 1934 with "Satan's Gunman" in Western Mystery. Here, his associates were much the same, but Crowe himself is gifted with more of a supernatural nature. He is a skilled medium and occultist, and referred to as "the Frontier Faust." It is intimated that he is under some contract to send evil-doers to hell and is--at least once--called "the Devil's Pinkerton" by an adversary. The pulp stories, in turn, served to inspire Italian horror filmmaker Lucio Balsamo to pounce on the "Spaghetti Western" craze with Pistolero del Diavolo (1967, U.S. title: Satan's Gun). Gideon Crowe was portrayed by an actor credited (likely pseudonymously) as "Max Shreck," who is practically a Lee Van Cleef lookalike--which makes him not a bad likeness of the real Crowe given the one daguerreotype extant, believed to date from the mid-1850s.

My purpose here--writing it as "fictional non-fiction"--was to suggest hooks and interesting tidbits that might be of interest to the GM without necessarily assuming what was "true" in her world. Historically removed and masked by legend, who's to say what the truth of Gideon Crowe--the character who would result--was?

It's the sort of thing I would be able to get behind as a GM, but I was unsure how Gina would take it.

Luckily, she took it completely in the spirit intended. A few days later she emailed me the character with game abilities, fleshed out with tidbits inspired by the write-up.

I don't suggest something like this would work for ever campaign, or every player-GM team, but I think the collaborative nature of game worldbuilding should start from the very beginning, not just when the adventure begins.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wednesday Bonus Art

Given that Warlord Wednesday was msotly a reprint issue, I figured I should meet my quota of entertainment with some artwork I've scavenged--er, collected:

"Those aren't orcs!"

"Alas, the skull is not for sale...":

To the victor goes the spoils:

(This ones for Paladin in the Citadel :) )  Dejah Thoris walks her dog?:

Warlord Wednesday: Flashback

Let's enter the lost world with a briefer than usual installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

Warlord (vol. 1) #11 (February 1978-March 1978)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Chased by a charging triceratops, Morgan, Machiste, and Mariah manage to find safety in a cave. Mariah's cold, so Machiste lights a fire. Morgan stands by the opening and keeps watch, but by the time the triceratops leaves, Mariah and Machiste have fallen asleep. Alone with his thoughts in the dim glow of the fire, Morgan reflects on how he came to Skartaris and how he met Tara.

Emerging from his reminiscence with renewed resolve, Morgan swears, sword raised, to find his lost love.

Things to Notice:
  • The title page marks the debut of the tag phrase the series will carry in most issues for the rest of its run: "In the savage world of Skartaris, life is a constant struggle for survival. Here, beneath an unblinking orb of eternal sunlight, one simple law prevails: If you let down your guard for an instant you will soon be very dead."
  • Our heroes are quick to leave their horses to fend for themselves.
  • It's origin recap time, and for the second time in the series' short run--though this time is a direct reprint.
Where It Comes From:
Other than the framing sequence, this issue is a reprint of material from "Land of Fear", First Issue Special #8.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Rough Beast: The Orcish Mind

"A routine soul-smear confirmed the presence of pure evil."
- Dr. Hibbert, The Simpsons

Orcs as read in D&D are the epitome of evil, congenitally irredeemable. And they're ugly, too.

As something of a reaction to this portrayal, latter-day orcs are often semi-noble savages. Something like Star Trek: The Next Generation Klingons.

In the world of Arn, I wanted orcs to be creatures mostly as suggested in the Monster Manual. Clashes of cultures are fine, but I've got human cultures to clash. Orcs are to be monsters.

Just because they're monsters, though, doesn't mean there can't be a reason for their monstrousness. Orcs can be understandable, I think, without being particularly relatable.

My inspirations here are recent works with more of an emphasis on psychology. R. Scott Bakker's fantasy epic Prince of Nothing trilogy, and its follow-up, the currently on-going Aspect Emperor series, has a new take on the Tolkien-derived orc concept. The Sranc are derived in perverse fashion from the Tolkienian, elf-like Nonmen--making them analogous to orcs in more ways than one. The sranc are unreasoning marauders with beautiful Nonmen faces, who roam in large packs, and seem only semi-intelligent, but can employ weapons. Unlike Tolkien's orcs, the sranc explicitly derive sexual pleasure from their violence. Here's a descriptive passage from The Judging Eye:

"Running with rutting fury, howling with rutting fury, through the lashing undergrowth, into the tabernacle deep. They swarm over pitched slopes, kicking up leaves and humus. They parted about trunks, chopping at the bark with rust-pitted blades. They sniffed the sky with slender noses. When they grimaced, their blank and beautiful faces were clenched like crumpled silk, becoming the expressions of ancient and inbred men.

Sranc. Bearing shields of lacquered human leather. Wearing corselets scaled with human fingernails and necklaces of human teeth.

The distant horn sounded again, and they paused, a vicious milling rabble. Words were barked among them. A number melted into the undergrowth, loping with the swiftness of wolves. The others jerked at their groins in anticipation. Blood. They could smell mannish blood."
Like the neurosurgery patient turned serial killer in Crichton's The Terminal Man (1972)--violence seems to be wired to directly to pleasure areas of sranc brains. Presumably, this was done, along with the physical changes, by the No-God, who warped the sranc from Nonmen stock.

Another species or subspecies with modified neurocognitive structures are the vampires from Peter Watts' 2006 science fiction novel Blindsight. On Watts' website there's a rather clever PowerPoint-type presentation that details the fictional history how the search for a gene therapy for autism lead to the discovery of the genetic basis of vampirism. In Watts' novel, vampire (or as Watts would have it, Homo sapiens whedonum) brains are much better at certain types of pattern recognition and information processing than standard humanity--but are also violent, and totally lacking in empathy.  In other words, what we would call rather extreme sociopaths.

So what does this all mean for the orc? Well, it seems to me that orcs in the world of Arn, like Tolkien's orcs or Bakker's sranc, are the products of biothaumaturgical engineering. The base human (or other hominid) stock employed was twisted to create shock-troops for war--an intelligent creature imprisoned by a brain hardwired for hatred of all beings non-orc, and deriving a great deal of neurologic reward from inflicting violence. Individual orcs will vary in the degree these traits are manifest, and half-orcs even more so, but orcish brains make them what they've always been--the implacable enemies of man.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More Inspirational Nonfiction

Here, from my shelves to you, are five more works of nonfiction that I've find inspirational, or instructional, in the process of world-building:

Imaginary Worlds by Lin Carter: This first selection is an oldie--woefully out of print--but a goodie and worth seeking out. Not only does Carter provide a history of "secondary world" or "imaginary world" fantasy, but his last chapter is a "how-to" on world-building covering topics like religion, cartography, and naming. It's aimed at fiction writers, true, but it has some good thoughts for gaming world-builders, as well.

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall: Originally published in 1928, Hall's book is a good corrective to the simplified polytheistism in a lot of fantasy game worlds. He's got quick-read-but-detailed, chapter's on Pythagorean mysticism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and more mystery cults than you can shake a bone rattle at. It would probably be useful to add some color to modern, or modernish, occult games like Call of Cthulhu, too.

Dictionary of Ancient Deities by Patricia Turner & Charles Russell Coulter: Need inspiration for the portfolios or characteristics of gods in your game? Or maybe just need an obscure name to throw on an idol in a dungeon, and don't feel particularly like coining one? This books got you covered from A (Mayan death god) to Zywie (alternate name for Polish goddess of life, Ziva). It makes for interesting browsing for ideas you didn't know you needed, as well.

Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics by Chas S. Clifton: What's all this Ancient World-syle religion in a pseudo-medieval setting? Try out some of these challenges to Christian orthoxy through the ages. I've found heretical beliefs a big inspiration for "Catholicism-but-not" religions for games that need something like that. Not as much information as Cohn's book I've mentioned previously, but a breezier read and more browsable.

Monsters! by Neil Arnold: Arnold subtitles his book "the A-Z of zooform phenomena" giving a hint of his Fortean stance, but its weird sightings, urban legends, and mythological creatures make for fine adventure fodder. Arnold's entries suffer from a little sparseness of detail at times, and some of the monsters either already have analogs in gaming or would require a lot of thought to make them useful.  But things like the Hopkinsville Goblins, Jenny Greenteeth, or the cattle-mutilating, flying, Jellyfish of Japan, definitely have potential.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mail Order Magical Materials

From the early 1930s until after World War II, companies like King Novelty Company sold "curios,"--hoodoo charms and ritual materials--and grimoires (including the famous Pow Wows, or The Long Lost Friend) alongside cosmetic and medicinal items.

In the world of The City, catalogs like these are handy resources for material components and materia magica. Even in more traditional, pre-industrial fantasy campaigns these materials might be used to add some flavor to spellcasting. For campaigns that don't use material components, maybe these materials enhance the potency of spells?

Here's a selection of some of the materials offered in the catalogs with suggested D&D game effects.  Example spells affected for each material are from the Open Game License System Reference Document version 3.5.

Devil's Shoe-String: Thin, flexible roots of a family of plants related to honeysuckle. These can be used as components in spells to "tie up" or "hobble" enemies (Entangle, Hold spells, Slow, Snare) and also be carried for luck in gambling.

Goofer Dust: Made from graveyard dirt, powdered, shed snake-skins, sulfur, and salt in the main, exact goofer dust formula's are trade secrets of the various manufacturers. Goofer dust is sprinkled where an enemy will walk, or perhaps placed inside his shoes, and leads a magical poisoning. [On a failed saving throw, the victim suffers a -2 to penalty to attack rolls, saves, and ability checks for a period of 1-10 days.]

Graveyard Dirt: Dirt acquired in a graveyard can be used as a material component for some spells which do harm to others (Bestow Curse, Cause Fear), but can also be used in spells of protection (Various Protection and Magic Circle spells). Whether graveyard dirt is gathered by the would-be caster or bought from a supplier, care should be taken that it has been "paid for"--usually by leaving an offering of a silver piece in the graveyard--to appease the spirits of the dead.

Lodestone: Pieces of naturally magnetic iron ore. Lodestone is a component used in spells of luck (Locate and Find spells), or attraction (Charm and Summon spells). Some hold that different color lodestones have greater potency when used for specific purposes.

Four Thieves Vinegar: An ancient, Old World formula, this is a mixture of herbs and vinegar, which can be ingested or applied topically to provide resistance to disease and magical protection. [Adds a +2 to saving throws against disease, and a +1 against spells for 2-12 days with each application.]

Van Van Oil: Made from herbal essential oils, it may be applied to the body or a surface as a component of spells of protection ([Alignment], Magic, Arrows, etc.). It can also be used to anoint magical items like amulets or rings to enhance them, or weaken cursed items. [Application of the oil adds one additional charge (1 time/item) to an item with limited charges, adds a bonus to the effect of any non-charged item for 1-10 hours, or removes the deleterious effect of a cursed item for 1-10 hours. These last two effects may be gained more than once per item, though never in a cumulative fashion. The oil has no effect on scrolls, potions, or magical weapons or armor.]

For information on real-world hoodoo and rootwork, and more examples of magical materials. check out Cat Yronwode's great website.

Friday, April 23, 2010

This Land...

"As I went walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway..."
Arlo Guthrie, "This Land is Your Land"
Last Sunday, I mentioned the City sandbox campaign. I thought I might give a little more information on City, and its world.

The City sits at the mouth of the Eldritch River on the eastern coast of the New World (which isn't really new at all) facing the ocean, across which lies the Olde World which still suffering the effects of the strange weapons employed in the last war.

With the ocean and the Olde World behind us, let's heading out west. We come to the Smaragdine Mountains. These parallel the east coast, running into the sea in the north and petering out in the south. These old, forested hills are the home of superstitious yokels, moon-shining ogre clans, crafty conjure-men, and magical beasts. In the south, where the mountains shrink to hills, then flatten, and finally sink to vast swamps, we again find monsters--prehistoric holdouts and belligerent (and malodorous) skunk-apes.

West again, over the mountains, we find steel-towns, and corrupt Lake City, run by warring gangsters, on the shores of the Inland Sea.

Beyond the cities and still fertile farm lands, are the Dustlands. These were farm lands once, but now ruined by drought, ruled by sentient, malevolent storms--cyclone suzerains and tornado tyrants--and haunted by black-dust ghosts.

Eager to leave the Dustlands behind us, we push westward and find more mountains. These are rugged peaks that dwarf the Smaragdines, and shadow hardpan, high deserts. These are places of old mining ghost towns, deep canyons with ancient cliff dwellings, and strange, diminutive mummies that might still whisper in dessicated voices to those that will listen.

West again, one last time, and we're in the lands of Hesperia, and at another coast. Hesperia is the most civilized place we've come to since we left the east--and maybe more civilized, depending on who you ask. Sunny, palm-treed Heliotrope, in the south is the home of movie industry that entertains a continent. In the north is decadent San Tiburón, where lives a vagrant, who's either the Maimed King of the New World, or a sad lunatic.

And that's a brief, fly-over tour of a continent.  Sea to shining sea, as it were.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Names to Conjure With

A really good name for a character in fiction is a marvellous thing.  Some very good writers just don't have the naming facility, while others, perhaps less talented in some respects, have a great knack for it.  In alphabetical order, here are fifteen of my favorite names from fiction of the fantastic (and one comic book series)...Or at least there a sampling of those favorites I can recall at the moment.  How many do you recognize?
  • Anasurimbor Kellhus
  • Caladan Brood
  • Dorian Hawkmoon
  • Druss
  • Eldred Jonas
  • Feyd-Rautha
  • Jherek Carnelian
  • Kull
  • Smaug
  • Susheeng
  • Syzygy Darklock
  • Tars Tarkas
  • Tempus Thales
  • Tobias Moon
  • Uther Doul
As a bonus, here are some organizations from fiction with cool names:
  • The Blasphemous Accelerators
  • The Big Coffin Hunters
  • The Bloody Mummers
  • The Deacon Blues
  • The Galrogs
  • The Silent Oecumene

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Tower of Fear

Let's 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...

"Tower of Fear"
Warlord (vol. 1) #10 (December 1977-January 1978)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Morgan, Machiste, and Mariah are riding through the jungle when Morgan catches sight of a megalithic cirlce--where it appears a human sacrifice about to take place! In righteous fury, Morgan charges in and cuts down the purlpe-robed cultists. By the time Machiste and Mariah arrive, Morgan's escued the beautiful, intended sacrifce.

The girl protests that Morgan shouldn't have interfered. Her name is Ashiya, and she was chosen to be sacrificed so that the Mask of Life, a national symbol which had been taken from her people in conquest, would be returned to them. Morgan asks why they just don't take it back, and Ashiya replies that they have no warrior mighty enough to retrieve it from the Tower of Fear.

So of course, we next find our heroes at the base of a forbodding black tower. There are strange gargoyles, suspended in the air on floating discs, but not guards. No one who's entered has ever survived to tell of the horrors within. Morgan is confident he and Machiste will, but adds that the "ladies better stay here." Mariah is incensed at his chauvinistic attitude, and bets that she can reach the top of the tower before the two men. Grinning, Morgan and Machiste accept, and ask for the stakes...

The heroes enter the tower's doors, and see a spiral stair. Before Mariah can enter, Morgan slams the door shut. He still thinks its too dangerous for her. The two warriors mount the staircase, which spirals ever upward into darkness, to the heart of the tower. They haven't gone far before they're startled by transparent, eerie green tendrils materializing to grasp at them. In a moment, they're fighting in the grip of a gelatinous one-eyed creature--with a hungry maw!

Desperate, Morgan cuts through the tentacle holding him, and dives sword first, driving his blade into the creature's eye. The creature howls in pain, but by the time Morgan has regained the stair, it's disappeared--"gone back into whatever hell spawned it!"

Morgan and Machiste finish the climb without incident, and find themselves at a narrow bridge, crossing to a door. As soon as their on the bridge, a vortex of energy grows out of the darkness in front of them, and begins to disgorge demonic humanoids of various forms. Morgan and Machiste do battle with the creatures, but realize they have to find a way around the warp. They decide to slide under it, and Machiste does. Morgan, still cleaving demons, is right behind.

Opening the door allows light to flood in, which causes the demons to move away. Morgan and Machiste get through the door and close it behind them, leaning against it in fatigue from the their trials. That's when a voice says: "I was beginning to think you'd never get here."

A smug Mariah lounges, twirling what's apparently the Mask of Life around her finger. Mariah explains to the flummoxed heroes that, while they relied on brawn, she used her brains and observed that the gargoyles at the tower's base sat on anti-gravity discs. She road one up to the top like an elevator.

Their quest completed, the three's combined weight allows them to ride the disc back down. They give the mask to the grateful Ashiya, and Mariah reminds the two men that its time to pay up on the bet. A little later, the three ride away, with Machiste complaining his crown doesn't fit as well on his newly shaved head. Morgan vows not to underestimate Mariah again--or to make anymore bets with her.

Elsewhere, Ashiya drops her magical disguise, and reveals herself to be an old witch. She gloats over duping Morgan, her master's enemy, as she places the mask of life on the face of the body before her. The body seizes, then rises to a sitting position. The man removes the mask to reveal the newly-scarred visage of a resurrected Deimos!

Things to Notice:
  • Our heroes tend to believe stories told to them by beautiful damsels in distress without any real verification.
  • Morgan somehow didn't have to do anything to make good on the bet with Mariah.
  • This is the first appearance of Machiste's classic, bald look.

Where It Comes From:
This issue has a real "sword and sorcery" feel. The title recalls the likes of Howard's "Tower of the Elephant", Leiber's "The Howling Tower", and Moorcock's "The Vanishing Tower", to name a few. The materializing tentacled beast, recalls the extradimensional Thog of Robert E. Howard's "Xuthal of the Dusk" (also called "The Slithering Shadow") which first appeared in Weird Tales in 1933:

 ...and was adapted in Savage Sword of Conan #20:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An Annotated Appendix N for Arn

For those who follow, or have occasionally enjoyed, my posts on my current campaign setting--the continent of Arn--I thought the a lists of its inspirations might prove of interest.  There are a myriad of smaller inspirations (including a lot of nonfiction) which have added details to "fill out" the whole, but these are the biggest influences, and the reasons why:

James Branch Cabell. Jurgen, The Silver Stallion, and Figures of Earth (in order of influence). Cabell's ironic tone and mannered, roguish characters, are a big influence on how I portray NPCs in the campaign, and the elaborate, almost farcical cosmology, has some influence on the world's interactions with the multiverse.

Robert E. Howard. While I love Howard's work, he's not a big influence of the current conception of Arn, but "The Hyborian Age" essay was one of the earliest influences, and I can still see its traces.

Fritz Leiber. The Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories. Beyond the "implied setting" of D&D, these are probably the biggest inspiration. "Ill Met in Lankhmar", "The Adept's Gambit", and "The Cloud of Hate" are probably the most pertinent.

Clark Ashton Smith. The tales of Hyperborea were a strong general inspiration, and to a slightly lesser extent the Zothique cycle stories, particularly "The Back Abbot of Puthuum." The tales of Averoigne were influential on the development of Llys and the Llysans (particularly "The Holiness of Azédarac", "The Disinterment of Venus", and "Mother of Toads").

Aaron AllstonWrath of the Immortals.  Though I not a fan of much of its execution, the basic portrayal and conception of the Mystaran Immortals influenced the Ascended of the world of Arn a great deal.

Frank MentzerBECMI Dungeons & Dragons.  The "end game" of immortality was the inspiration for ascension, and the seed of much of Arnian religion.

TV & Film:
Deadwood (2004).  The almost faux-Shakespearean but profanity laced dialogue of the folk of Deadwood, is how I imagine the urban-dwellers of Arn talking--but never seen to remember to try to replicate in play. Ah well. The mire streets, and ramshackle brothels and taverns of Deadwood also have a place in the Arnian aesthetic.

Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).  Tarantino's loquacious rogues are good models of Arnian adventurers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Swords in Space!: Iron-Wolf

In 1973, in the seventh issue of DC Comic's Weird Worlds, readers were told that the title would no longer feature Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations. Instead, the next issue would debut a new creation from Howard (then Howie) Chaykin--Iron-Wolf. Chaykin said his intentions with Iron-Wolf were to "combine elements of those magnificent swashbuckling films--Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, Robin Hood--in a cosmic setting." The result was a space opera adventure like a mix of Dune and Flash Gordon--three years before Star Wars.

The saga begins in the 61st Century with Lord Iron-Wolf defying Empress Erika Klein-Hernandez of the Empire Galaktika. He's angry because she's selling the secret of human space travel--an anti-gravity wood grown on his homeworld of Illium--to barbaric aliens. Iron-Wolf turns rebel--and pirate. Along the way he crosses swords and exchanges blaster fire with the ogrish aliens, and his traitorous brother. At that's only in his first appearance!

The following issues feature disguise as Shakespearean actors, clashes with the Empress' vampiric Blood Legion (all of whom we see, interestingly, are black), and disillusionment as the democratic rebels Iron-Wolf joins prove to be involved in the trafficking of a dangerous drug. And...that was it. Unfortunately, Weird Worlds was on life-support when Iron-Wolf strode into its pages. It expired with issue 10, just three issues later.

Luckily, wooden spaceships and vampire legions proved too cool to stay in comics limbo forever. In 1992, writers Chaykin and John Francis Moore, with the artistic dream-team of Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell returned to the character with Ironwolf: Fires of Revolution.

The graphic novel reworks some of the conceptual elements. The so-called Empire Galaktika is now a small, "backwater" entity. The characters' fashions move from hippie-meets-disco to sampling a bit of both the Victorian and Restoration eras. The technology is a little bit less space opera and a little bit more steampunk. The story's different, too--a little less adventurous, and taking a darker, more cynical tone as it's fit into Chaykin's retconning of DC's science fiction characters in the Twilight limited series. Still, it gives Iron-Wolf's saga an ending, and has really gorgeous art.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Toward A Hard-boiled Fantasy Sandbox

"Walk down the right back alley...and you can find anything."
- Sin City (2005)

Folks of a poetical inclination have called the City "unnamed."  Truth is, the City has too many monikers for anybody to know them all. But you say "the City," and everybody from yokels up in the Smaragdine Mountains, to the newsie on the corner knows where you mean. There was a city here before it became the City, you know?  Then some swell got himself itch to be an emperor and brought the five baronies together. So here we are, and that swell got his empire, but maybe it didn't turn out the way he thought. The City doesn't need soldiers or armies when it's got commerce and style.

Alright, maybe they've got all the movie stars--and most of the sunshine--out there in Hesperia, but all the other culture's right here. Ships come into this harbor from all over the world--bringing stuff to sell, bringing people. And a lot of the decide to stay.  You go to the right neighborhood and you'll swear you got dropped into some foreign country. And the nightlife? This town jumps, friend. From low-class gin-dives to tony swing-clubs, it roars.  I'd steer clear of the hinky alchemical liquors, though.  Word to the wise.

Now, those joints I was talking about are full of would-be toughs and hard-cases come here to make a name for themselves. They go ransack the ruins the Old Ones, left all over the countryside, then they come to the City to sell their haul and hit the town. City-folk are happy to separate a rube from his money. Gin, jazz, janes--you know, whatever. Guys can make money too, if they know were to look. The gang bosses that run the streets always got a need for muscle, or a little cheap wizardry. Sometimes the ghouls from Undertown get kind of rowdy, and the coppers start looking for guys to deputize, too. Or maybe the rail-yards are looking for bulls to crack a few goblin skulls. Then of course there are bounties on monsters that need killing.  What, you think there's only gold down in those ruins? Anyway, you get the idea. There's dough to be had, and plenty.

So welcome to the City.  Have a good visit--but watch yourself, pal, things can get rough.

Friday, April 16, 2010

You Meet in A Tavern...

Ah...but which one?

Here are a couple of answers to that question from the streets of Terminus, city on the River Fflish, in the south of Arn.

The Green Griffin Inn
The Griffin is a sometimes rough, always busy inn and tavern favored by adventurers new to town. There is a 50% chance of a fight of some sort erupting on any given evening. The lower level holds a common room with several tables, a bar, and a kitchen in the back. The upper floor holds a small number of rooms. The laconic barkeep is named Azgull, but called Az. He's a black-haired and moustached man of middle-years, often with a severe expression and wary eyes. He's also a former adventure (Fighter 4). He'll answer reasonable questions about what he's seen or heard (in as few words as possible), but when he's done, he's done, and no amount of charm will cajole more. Coin occasionally will.

There are usually 1-2 serving wenches working at all but the latest hours. They sometimes make extra money from prostitution, or by selling-out hiding lawbreakers to the City Watch. There's a 30% change that one of the barmaids on duty at any given time is Not What She Seems.

The proprietor of the Griffin is Gelsh Zem, called "Gelsh the Whiner" (behind his back). Gelsh is a smallish, balding man, with eyes that dart like spooked birds, and a bobbing Adam's apple. His anxiety is no doubt increased by the fact that the previous owner (his uncle) was slain by a drunken Kael barbarian a few months ago. Gelsh speaks in an overly officious manner, and is obsequious to the those he from whom he has something to gain, and rude to those he views as beneath him.

The Lion's Den Alehouse
Located near public baths catering to soldiers, and former soldiers, the Lion's Den tends to attract a warrior clientele, though its not exclusive. There are rarely any fights in the Lion's Den. It's the best protected tavern in the city--though this does not mean on duty watchmen are welcome.  The structure is a long hall, popularly believed to have been the mead-hall of a Kael chieftain when Terminus was only a village, called Meln. Long tables with benches run down the center of the room, with small, round tables in the more private periphery. All of the wall decorations have a martial theme. 

The proprietress of the Den is called Deela. She is handsome, well-muscled woman with mannishly short, blonde hair. She's friendly, but no nonsense, as those that cross her discover. Though she only ever speaks of her past obliquely, she is an Arnian peasant girl turned camp-follower of a mercenary company, then mercenary, and finally, mercenary captain. She respects skill and arms, but also artistic talent--a former lover, for whom she still carries a torch, was an actress and musician. The Den is run with military precision by a former sergeant (Fighter 5) of her company, Bernal Obrek, a ruddy-complected, bear of a man, with a bald head and thick moustache. Bernal is a fine cook--and deadly with an iron-banded cudgel or, should the need arise, a warhammer. If Bernal takes to a visitor, he will point them in the direction of the patrons who are likely to be the highest paying employers.

At any given time, the Lion's Den will be patronized by mercenaries looking for work, or captains looking to hire fighting-men. Protecting caravans from Kael banditry, or pacifying rebels or bandits (the two typically being one in the same) in the Dharwood. There is a 30% chance that there will be a Llysan filibuster or their agents present to recruit the gullible or desperate for conquest and glory.  They promise pay, and ultimately, land in the conquered territory to any man who will follow.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Peoples of Arn: the Hazandi

The itinerant and enigmatic Hazandi can be found throughout the known world, but their numbers are larger in Arn than anywhere save the petty kingdoms of Erida's Bandit Lands. An ancient and fiercely independent folk, Hazandi wander in caravans, travelling wherever they will. This tendency, abetted by their insular nature, no doubt forms the basis of the distrust with which they are sometimes viewed. The Hazandi hold their way of life as part an ancient agreement struck between them and the two gods (a male principle and a female principle) which they believe rule the universe. They assert that the twin deities will provide for any Hazandi--so long as he or she is wise enough to make use of their divine generosity. Usually this means living off the land's bounty, but it can also be applied to exploiting the needs or gullibility of outsiders. Their caravans visit the towns and villages of settled folk to trade items acquired in their wanderings, earn coin by entertaining, fortune-telling or hawking folk remedies—and on occasion outright theft from the unwary.

Hazandi have their own form of mysticism, which likely has its origins in the vast lands of Urda, east of the Eridan continent. They commune with their twin gods, consult ancestral spirits, and treat with lesser spirits of nature, through the use hallucinogenic substances, and ecstatic rituals. Hazandi women in particular, are held both within their culture and without, to be born with the second-sight, and ability to perceive invisible spirits. The Hazandi spiritual system is strongly aniconic, but they often scandalize other cultures with their frequent use of erotic representations, particularly of generative organs in various degrees of stylization.

Hazandi bands are often made up of a few extended families. Bands are led by a headman, but all adult members of the tribe are allowed to speak at councils. Women are usually the spiritual leaders, and magical ability is thought to pass through maternal lines. Hazandi of both sexes join secret societies whose membership reaches across bands. Each society has its role in Hazandi culture, and its own closely guarded rituals.

Hazandi typically have tanned to olive skin tones. Their hair color ranges from auburn to black and is often worn long by both men and women. Tattooing is not uncommon among the women of the Arnian Hazandi, who favor geometric patterns on their arms and hands, or sometimes cheeks. Hazandi dress is colorful compared to the other folk of Arn, and when entertaining, often revealing.

MANY HAZANDI (Roll d20, 3 times):
1. Can play a musical instrument.
2. Don't reveal their real name to outsiders.
3. Swear "by the holy tryst!"
4. Believe in the evil eye.
5. Wear rings on multiple fingers.
6. Can do card tricks.
7. Sing bawdy songs.
8. Will sale a nostrum remedium to anyone with any ailment.
9. Like to party with elves.
10. Seem to be related to every other Hazandi they meet.
11. Know someone who can sell you what you're looking for.
12. Speak Common with an accent.
13. Claim that talk of Hazandi thievery is a slander.
14. Have a "grandmother" with the second-sight.
15. Challenges others to knife throwing contests.
16. Has tattoos.
17. Has pierced ears and a pierced nose.
18. Can walk a coin across their knuckles.
19. Thinks Llysans are prudes.
20. Will remind Kael of their cultural blood-pact, if necessary.

SOME HAZANDI (d10, once)
1. Have the power to lay a curse upon dying.
2. Are on a secret mission for the society of which they're a member.
3. Are outcasts under a mark of death.
4. Have the second-sight (or think they do).
5. Are of another race, but were raised Hazandi.
6. Have a portentous birthmark.
7. Are running an elaborate confidence game.
8. Have taken a non-Hazandi name.
9. Always draw attention with their manner of dress.
10. Have a twin with whom they share a psychic connection (or so they say).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Every Picture Tells A Story

Here are some pics I gathered.  Some were snagged for posts already written, but unused.  Others have yet to find their proper place...

The streets of Terminus, in southern Arn, at nightfall...

An audience with an Onirean potentate...

Pnathfrem Lloigor, crime boss in Terminus, finds your story dubious...

Eerily, the Priest-King's concubine looks just as she must have in life, despite the millenia that have passed...

Warlord Wednesday: Lair of the Snowbeast

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

"Lair of the Snowbeast"
Warlord (vol. 1) #9 (October-November 1977)

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell

Synopsis: Morgan, Machiste, and Mariah trudge through the snow in a perpetually clouded valley in the midst of a blizzard. The three are searching for shelter, but before they can find it, they cross paths with a megalictis--a giant wolverine-like carnivore. The beast slashes Morgan with its claws, but he still manages to jump on its back and put seven shots into its skull.

Machiste and Mariah crouch over the fallen Morgan, unsure if he's alive or dead. From out of the blowing snows, approachs a group of men riding mammoths. The men demand Machiste and Mariah come with them. When the two protest that their friend needs medical attention, the men's leader callously replies that he's dead--or will be very soon.

Before they can offer any further protest, Mariah and Machiste are snatched up by the mammoths' trunks. The mammoth-riders and their captives disappear into the storm, leaving Morgan were he fell.

But Morgan isn't dead. Willing himself to stand, he trudges on through the snow seeking shelter until he can't go any further. With a resigned "aw, what the hell--" he collapses again.  In his half-conscious state, he imagines a strange, butterfly-winged woman lifts him in her arms and carries him away.

When Morgan returns fully to his senses, he's lying in a warmed, inhabited cave. His wounds have been miraculously healed, though his outfit was apparently shredded beyond repair. Suddenly, Morgan turns to see a yeti-like monster entering the cave. He tosses a burning piece of wood at it, and snatches up his sword.

The creature's faster. It catches Morgan mid-sword-swing, and slams him up against the wall. As it seems poised to deliver a killing below, its expression suddenly softens, and it lets Morgan go. At the beast's show of mercy, Morgan intuits that it was who saved him. There's an intelligent mind trapped in the creature's brutish body! The beast hits the cave wall, seemingly frustrated by its condition. Morgan apologizes for judging by appearances.

He asks the beast if it knows where the mammoth riders might have taken his friends. Mutely, it shows him a city in the distance, atop a tower of rock--and connected to the rim of the valley by a bridge. Morgan salvages what clothes he can from the beast's cave and heads out into the storm. The creature seems worried about him going, but Morgan tells it not to worry--he's not going to throw away the life it saved.

Morgan climbs the rock tower, back into tropical temperatures. At the top, he finds Mariah and Machiste about to be sacrifices in a barbaric ritual. He swings Tarzan-style into the fray, cutting down enemies as he goes. He frees his companions, but soon the sheer numbers of tribesmen threaten to overwhelm them.

Suddenly, the shrieking snowbeast drops from the trees. It tears through the tribesmen, and grabs Morgan to rescue him. Mariah and Machiste misunderstand the beast's actions, and Machiste throws a spear into its back to save his friend.

The beast is dying, and Morgan lashes out verbally at Machiste for his rash act. Suddenly, the butterfly-winged woman materializes from the beast's corpse. She tells Morgan not to grieve, because now she's free. She explains that her name is Tanea, and long ago, she dabbled in the black arts to save her tribe from a plague. The price she paid was to be imprisoned in the body of the beast--until someone came along who could see beyond the bestial exterior to the beauty within. That "someone" was Morgan. Tanea gives him a passionate kiss, then flies off.

Mariah asks Morgan to explain, but Morgan says he doesn't think he can--and suggests they leave before the remaining warriors come back.

Things to Notice:
  • Morgan dons his classic loincloth costume for the first time.
  • Dig the very disco-era design of Tanea.
Where It Comes From:
The obvious source for this issue's story is the fairy-tale "Beauty and the Beast." The first published version of the tale ("La Belle et la Bête") was by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot, Dame de Villeneuve, and appeared in La Jeune Américaine, et les Contes Marins in 1740. Grell's version, of course, does a gender reversal on the usual tale.

Grell's Bête may have its origins in a made-for-TV horror movie airing earlier in 1977. Snowbeast, broadcast on U.S. TV on April 28, starred Bo Svenson and told the story of a white-furred, bigfoot-type creature's attack on a Colorado ski resort. Beyond the name, Warlord's snowbeast has at least a bit of resemblance to the movies:

Megalictis ferox a large predatory mustelid of the early Miocene. It resembled a wolverine but was larger--Wikipedia suggests a mass up to 60kg--though A Dictionary of Zoology (1999) by Allaby is apparently familiar with the Skartarian variety. It suggests they can be up to black bear size.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Post-Game Report: A Sea of Troubles

This past Sunday, we continued our Warriors & Warlock campaign, using a freely-adapted version of Paizo's Children of the Void in the Second Darkness adventure path. Our regular cast:
Brother Gannon - Is he thief, monk--or both?
Renin - Mind-mage out to save the world who hates and fears him. Or something.
Zarac - He loves only gold...but he really likes his sword.
Things looked bleak for our heroes and their attempt to get in on the "skymetal rush" on Devil's Elbow Island after the fall of a star--and a resultant tsunami that wrecked Raedelsport's harbor. Luckily, a merchant-speculator, Tavrem Kalus, had come to their aid with an offer of passage on the only ship available--for a forty percent cut of the profits, naturally.

The party had dinner with Captain Djosspur Kray aboard his vessel, the Flying Cloud. Mainly, this was a chance for the Captain to grill the three on what their objectives on the Devil's Elbow were, and to deliver some exposition about the island's curse! Said curse involved a siren named Ysersei, and made its dread presence felt in the form of Brother Gannon's player's inability to pronounce the siren's name, even with the other players' couching.

The dinner was interrupted by the sound and smells of burning. Rushing up to the deck, they found black-clad saboteurs setting fire to the sails. Gannon dispatched one with a quickly thrown dagger. Renin mind-blasted one from the mast. Zarac rolled too low on initiative to do aught but shout encouragement.

Despite their style of dress, the saboteurs were no ninja. More like non-ja. They beat a haste retreat over the side of the ship. Quick thinking Renin telekinetically dipped a barrel in the ocean and used it to douse the sails. Gannon and Zarac apprehended the two fallen saboteurs--who were unconscious and didn't really put up a fight.

The Captain set his crew to repairing the sails, and gave the party leave to conduct the interrogations as they saw fit. Two captives meant two interrogations. Renin proceeded with mind-reading his captive. Zarac and Gannon planned to resort to "harsh interrogation techniques," but finding the W&W rules required a full day for really good torture, they decide just to Intimidate.

The two saboteurs sang the same song: the party's old nemesis, now supposed business partner, crime boss Clegg Haddo hired them to make sure no other ships got out of the harbor. The party at first takes this as a personal attack, but later decided it was just Haddo hedging his bets against everybody. As thanks for the information, the saboteurs get thrown overboard still tied.

The repairs were completed by dawn, and the Flying Cloud crossed the eighteen miles to the Devil's Elbow. The closer they got, the more nervous Captain Kray was. He found a good reason to be--as soon as they docked, they were approached by a ragged group coming out of the forest, asking passage back to Raedelsport. These few were all that's left of the mixed human and dwarven mercenaries hired by the Lord Mayor of Raedelsport to get the skymetal. The leader of the expedition, Urumdarru Goldhammer, told a story of strange, deadly creatures lurking in the forest, who passed on a horrifying contagion to men they killed.

Kray is ready to go now, for sure, but promises to pick the party back up in three days time. The three adventurers are left on the docks with the sea to their backs, and the foreboding forest in front of them.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Two Faiths

I've alluded to the predominant religions of Arn and western Erida in a couple of places before, but I'll present them here in more detail. The two faiths are related historically and tend to be able to co-exist without much conflict, though this varies with time and place. As with any widespread religion in the real world, they are understood and practiced in a variety of different ways by adherents in different areas, but the essential elements are presented here.

The Church of Ascension
When Ahzuran achieved apotheosis and became God-Emperor of Old Thystara, he set in motion drastic changes in the traditional religion of the empire. The old gods were no longer seen as the unknowable creators of all, but instead as beings in a higher state. With a living God-Emperor, it was natural that his cult would become preeminent, and the cults of the other gods suffered as a result. It's possible that sectarian violence might have ripped the empire apart, and it certainly weakened it, but its dissolution was forestalled by the establishment of the Concordant. This allowed the continued existence of the old cults with some modification under the authority of the new church.

Authority within the church is nominally centralized, at first in the person of the God-Emperor, then later in the Hierophant, who is taken to be Noble Ahzuran's representative on Earth. The size and complexity of this task for those of less than Ascended capabilities often makes the authority essentially ceremonial, however. The major cults of the old gods (Seiptis, Æternus, Illumé, etc.) and the Ascended which arose in Ahzuran's wake (Ffalstagg, Illyra, etc.) have seats on the governing counsel who advise (and elect) the Hierophant.

The principle doctrine of the Church of Ascension is that man may achieve apotheosis by following the ancient paths rediscovered by Ahzuran. Acension is achieved by deeds which may be beyond the power of many, but piety will at least guarantee the faithful who don't ascend a place in the afterlife ruled by their patron Immortal.

Clerics of the Church of Ascension, not only pursue the paths of Ascension themselves (for the greater glory of the Church, of course) but aid other adventurers in this quest. They play a role in helping the church hierarchy determine the fitness of new godlings or entities encountered to be added to the Annals of the Ascended for the purposes of recognition and veneration.

The Issian Church
Over a century after Ahzuran moved beyond this plane, leaving his empire and church in the hands of mortals, a Thystaran man named Issus claimed to have a revelation. Issus proclaimed that, in a vision, Ahzuran and other great Immortals had shown him the truth--that Ascension was a state all men deserved. However, the arduous paths to Ascension, achievable only by a few, were not the true way this was meant to be done. Ascension only worked because the one true god, the solitary and increate Source of All, had made the multiverse in that way. Ascension wasn't godhood--just one a step closer to communion with the godhead. With faith and adherence to moral teaching, anyone could achieve that state--and more--upon death. The "gods" of the Church of Ascension, and the ancient cults, were re-conceived as saints, who were not to be worshipped, but venerated for the lessons they taught man through their life and travails, and the intercession in worldly events they might provide.

Issus is said to have been martyred (though the details of this is one of the church's mysteries) and to have ascended beyond any other. His teaching were popular and spread among the poor and disenfranchised of the Thystaran Empire. The nascent religion was unable to gain a significant foothold within the halls of power, and remains a small cult in its native land to this day.  In the more rural colonies and provinces, the Issian faith proved more popular, particularly as the Empire began to decay. After the Empire's fall, Issianism became the preeminent religion of Western Erida--particularly in Llys and Staark.

The Issian Church is much less hierarchical than the Church of Ascension. Each Issian state had its own autocephalous hierarchy, but all recognized each other. This changed with the diabolic transformation of the Llysan branch of the church. The Issian Church of Llys transplanted to Arn is even less heirarchial with individual church's essentially asserting independence, though they tend to cooperate with each other.

Clerics in the Issian Church are interested in helping the poor and downtrodden as mandated by their belief (particularly those suffering under the yolk of evil (i.e. rebellious) ascended), and in expanding the temporal power of their church, both by proselytizing to the unfaithful, and filling the church coffers with treasure.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Stuck in Medieval with You

I may ramble a bit here as the argument is still forming...

I've been thinking of late about fantasy, both as a literary and rpg genre, and whether there's room for old school-style adventuring outside the bounds of "medieval fantasy."

Obviously, I don't mean the literal, real-world European Middle Ages, but stories with a technology level somewhere between the Iron Age and the Renaissance. Sure, at least on the blogosphere, there's been an emergence of science fantasy, mixing remnant super-science with more primitive technology. Some of these baroque worlds are pretty divergent from real world analogs. There's a definite sort of Heavy Metal dream-logic feel to some, which tosses all sorts of technological assumptions out the window. Still, even in these worlds, one gets the feeling there's a fair number of swords being swung.

I don't think the issue comes down just the firearms, though maybe that's a bigger deal than I'm allowing. Is there any reason dungeon-delving couldn't be accomplished with more "modern" weapons? Would there presence drastically alter the mood?

There's the subgenre of urban fantasy, which may be underrepresented in rpgs, but does exist. Urban fantasy, though, rooted in bringing fantasy to the familiar, doesn't really capture the unknowable aspect that underpins a lot of pulp fantasy. Too much unknown in an urban fantasy setting, and its likely to veer into more of a horror mode.

Then there's fantasy in sort of Victorian-esque settings--what's often called steampunk--a term which really seems to easier to apply as a certain sort of visual aesthetic than literary genre. Some of works often placed in this category, like China Mieville's Bas-Lag stories, and the works of Stephen Hunt take place in full-fledged "secondary worlds," not the usual alternate histories. Mieville's work in particular, could no doubt serve as inspiration for a dungeoneering-based rpg (there are even D&D-style adventurers making an appearance in Perdido Street Station), but is there an rpg work in this direction yet?

Heading across the Atlantic would give us Western (meaning the genre, of course) fantasy. Stephen King's Dark Tower series is even an example of secondary world (epic) Western fantasy, to contrast with the more common alternate history fantasy of, say, Deadlands. There was a d20 supplement or two that grafted elves and dwarves into the Old West, which seems to a surefire way to suck any "unknowability" or "weird" out of the setting with the leech of predictability.

That's been precisely the problem with a lot of fantasy space opera/fantasy-space. We get Dragonstar instead of Starlin's Dreadstar. Really, no works have given us weird space fantasy, or dungeon (asteroid?)-delving space fantasy, as far as I know.

So fantasy with firearms is clearly do-able, but its tougher to find those fantasies combined with a world designed for pulp fantasy--picaresque, secondary world settings, with elements of weird, and the unknown/unknowable. I'm not convinced this can't be done, though.

It seems to me what you need is a setting that is removed enough for our time to have been mythologized a bit, much in the same way that the pre-modern world has been. You could set a dungeon-delving campaign in an alternate 1960s, but then you would get urban fantasy (of a sort) not pulp fantasy. The Old West and Victorian England, are definitely mythologized enough, but probably so are the Roaring Twenties and the Napoleonic era, and others. The future is--ironically--pretty mythologized too, but set things too near-future and you're in urban fantasyland.

While traditional fantasy will always have a preeminent place in my heart, I can't help but think that these other eras can be mined for new settings to expand the vistas of fantasy gaming. I'm not sure adventurers should be confine to a technological level that's largely a historical artifact of the fantasy genre's evolution.

I'm gonna think more about that.

Friday, April 9, 2010

From Here to Eternia

A recent post and discussion over at Spell Card! got me thinking about my love for Masters of the Universe. I don't mean the 80s cartoon with a Captain Marvel in purple tights and a Prince Valiant haircut, a cowardly lion tiger, and a moral for kiddies every episode. I mean the first, more pulpish, post-apocalyptic, sword & sorcery version--before even the 1982 DC comics limited-series. I mean the version appearing in the the four original mini-comics (though these first few were picture books, not comics).

These four were written by Donald Glut, who knew how to adapt Sword & Sorcery material for younger audiences with his comics work, including Dagar the Invincible and Tragg and the Sky Gods for Gold Key. Glut talks about the origins of some of the concepts in an online interview. The evocative art for the four stories was by Alfredo Alcala, a Filipino comic book artist who's worked for DC and Marvel, on books including Conan, and Kull the Conqueror. What the two gave us was darker, moodier, and more streaked with pulpy highlights, than the decidedly brighter, more superhero-esque cartoon to follow.

To illustrate what I mean, let's take a look at the first in the "saga." Here's my commentary on 1981's He-Man and The Power Sword:

We open with a bona fide Hero's Journey "Call to Adventure." He-Man, greatest warrior of his primitve jungle tribe, leaves his people to go defend the legendary Castle Grayskull ("a place of wonders") from the forces of evil. Instead of having a secret identity, He-Man is part of a proud (sometimes) barbaric lineage of Sword & Sorcery characters. He's got a nobler goal than Conan or Brak, but like those forebears he's fascinated by a wondrous elsewhere.

He-Man becomes the first of his people to "trudge the craggy cliffs and quake-torn valleys" outside of the jungle. It's not long before his courage and "jungle-bred stength" is needed. He sights a jade-skinned woman in a cobra headress fighting a purple monster that looks like it might be from a lost in space episode. He-Man rushes into the fray and despite the woman's mystical blasts ("She is a sorceress!" he thought), he pretty much does the monster slaying himself.

Had this not been a kid's book, the shapely Sorceress might have rewarded the warrior other ways, but since it is, He-Man instead gets "Supernatural Aid" (again with the Hero's Journey!). The Sorceress gives him the treasures she's guarded all these years, things made "centuries before the Great War by Eternia's scientists."

Here's one of those cool details. We've got a Great (so great its capitalized) War, and scientists making medieval appearing weapons. "What kind of scientists are those?" one might well wonder. I know 8 year-old me did.

He-Man takes the loot which includes a "strange vehicle" (understatement) that's "combination battering ram, catapult, and space-warp device." Those pre-Great War scientists did some out-of-the-box thinking.

Meanwhile, Skeletor, and his minion Beastman, and ogling the "warrior-goddess" Tee-La (it was hyphenated here) who's watering her "unicorn charger." The two villains attack, as Skeletor plans to make Tee-La his bride. We're told she "fights like a demon, her body possessing the spirits of many ancestral champions," but Skeletor's energy blade wins the day.

They carry her with them to Castle Grayskull--"a fortress so ancient no one knew its origin." Over the objections of the Spirit of the castle, Skeletor forces open the Jaw-Bridge. Skeletor's after the other half of the Power Sword so that "the magic fires, created by ancient scientists and sorcerers will blaze again." Cool.

It turns out Skeletor is from another dimension. The Great War ripped a whole in the walls between dimensions and threw him into Eternia. He plans to open another rift and bring through an army of conquest.

Elsewhere, He-Man is visited by Man-At-Arms. What happens next is weird: "'And what brings the famous Man At Arms to my humble house?' He-Man asked sarcastically." Why all the sarcasm, He-Man? Anyway, Man At Arms ("whose people are the masters of all weapons") fills He-Man in on Skeletor's shenanigans. The two set out to stop him, with impulsive He-Man space-warping ahead.

Somehow, in the bowels of Grayskull (sold separately), Skeletor knows He-Man is coming and sends Beastman up to shoot the turrett laser at at him. Beastman proves surprising effective at this, and has He-Man down when the Man-At-Arms cavalry arrives to turn the tide. The He-Man makes the Jaw-Bridge open wide and the heroes head inside to find Tee-La.

Skeletor's had enough time to get the the Power Sword reunited. As the blade crackles with "green fire" he boasts: "I am invincible. There is nothing I cannot do. Nothing!" The best use this power for is apparently making weapons come to life and fight He-Man.

At that moment, the Sorceress reappears glowing with the same green energy as the power sword (Ah hah!). She chastises Skeletor for abusing power and splits the sword again. He-Man, Man-At-Arms, and the just freed Tee-La throw a beating on the two villains, but let 'em cry "mercy!" and run off (it's a kid's book, remember?). The Sorceress again hides the Power Sword and changes the lock on the castle.

"Do you think that's the last of those two or the Power Sword?" Man-At-Arms asks.

Do I really have to tell you He-Man's answer?

There you go, Great Wars, green Sorcereress, extradimensional portals, barbarian heroes, super-science, and sorcery. How cool is that?