Sunday, October 31, 2010

Season of the Witch

The last day in the month of Redfall is known as Revenant Night. This is an old, pagan festival, never successfully extinguished by the coming of the Oecumenical Church. Folklore holds that the walls between the realms of the dead and the prime material plane thin, so that spirits who have not yet moved on to their plane of final reward can slip back into the living world. This seldom seems to occur in this modern age, but magical practitioners don’t rule it out entirely.

The time around Revenant Night is observed in interesting ways in different parts of the New World. In the City and other parts of the Union, many adults may go masked, and there is something of a superstition against using one’s real name lest it be overheard by malign spirits--though this is more observed in playful fashion today than a fearful one. Children dress in more elaborate costumes and in engage in ritual begging door-to-door.

Out in Heliotrope, witch cultists of the Black Mother are purported to have one of their most important sabbats on this night. Police often raid reported ritual sites, but usually only collar intoxicated young playboys, and naked, would-be starlet, cigarette or hat-check girls. The real power rituals and serious practitioners remain elusive--or either are smart enough to pay off the cops.

In some towns in the Steel League the evening before Revenant Night is called “Eve of Madness,” or the “Night of Misrule.” Some scholars believe this festive night of tomfoolery and petty vandalism has its historic origins in the mind-altering (and perhaps delirium inducing) effects of certain fungi which bloom on grain at this time of year in Ealderde. Others believe it is a psychic release, necessary due to the astrological influence of the Blood Red Moon--a full moon of large size and rust color which occurs around this time.

The Eve of Madness can turn ugly. Murders, sometimes gruesome and senseless ones, occur more often on this night, as does arson, and sometimes there's strange mob violence where the perpetrators seem to be in some sort of trance. This is most common in Motorton, the bustling manufacturing city built atop the mass plague-graves of Old Fort Narrows. Here the Red Dwarf holds sway. This mysterious harbinger of calamity once appeared as a redcap, but now is seen more often as a dwarf dressed dapperly in a crimson suit. It's said that the Dwarf has claimed the night as his own, and has been known to have his henchman bring random people off the street to his Room with Red Velvet Curtains (sometimes just the “Red Room”). Visitors describe the room as found in the basement of a ritzy old hotel--but no one has been able to relocated the building or provide directions to it later.

The Dwarf will sometimes tell his visitor’s future. Other times, he’ll ask them for a favor, or tell them how they can get their heart’s desire. However it starts, it always plays out badly. A meeting with the dwarf is an ill-omen however sharply its dressed.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Gill-Man vs. Wolf-Man

To finish off my Halloween review of all the non-vampiric Universal monsters, we come to the gill-man and the werewolf. Both are zoanthropes, and perhaps as such, both represent fears of nature or man’s own animalistic side, though at that point the similarity seems to end.

The gill-man is elusive. His appearances in media are more rarified, no doubt due to his proprietary, rather than folklorish, origins. In addition to the Creature trilogy, stand-ins make appearances in The Monster Squad, and Monsters vs. Aliens--where interestingly he’s grouped with decade-appropriate monster stand-in colleagues rather than the Universal monster old guard.

The proto-gill-men of Lovecraft’s "Shadow Over Innsmouth" have miscegenation fears in their DNA, which seem absent from Universal’s creature--unless his attraction to human females is a hint at this. In some ways, the Lovecraftian angst underlying the Deep Ones makes them more interesting than a fish King Kong. That’s part of the reason D&D’s Kuo-toa (more Deep One-ish in character) have always been more interesting to me than the other evil fishmen, the Sahuagin (Gill-Men).

I guess Dr. Who's Sea Devils and Silurians might be mined for gill-man inspiration. Anything might help. Gill-man’s got a good look, but little else to give him real monster memorability.

Neil Gaiman has a short-story called “Only the End of the World Again” where Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, winds up in Innsmouth and tangles with Deep One cultists. This may be as close as media has given us to a Gill-man-Werewolf bout.

Werewolves seem to have what it takes for urban fantasy fiction. Werewolf sex probably seems even naughtier, I suppose, than lovin’ the living dead. In fact--Teen Wolf aside--there’s always been something a little “adult situations”--maybe even exploitation--about werewolves. They don’t just strangle like the mummy or Frankenstein, or give a killer kiss like a vampire--they rend and tear and chew. Werewolves are as much serial killer as wild beast.

Is it any wonder that werewolves are almost as likely as vampires to get the grindhouse treatment? I would suspect only “almost” because vampires maybe give more excuse for nudity, and blood effects are cheaper than wolf prosthetics. But the wolf man gets by, and whatever budget.  Paul Naschy’s got a whole series of werewolf movies where the werewolf's origin involves being bit by a Yeti, and he fights Templars--how’s that for game inspiration! Then we’ve got a werewolf biker film (Werewolves on Wheels), a werewolf women in prison effort (Werewolf in a Women’s Prison); and, if Rob Zombie had his way, a werewolf Nazi-ploitation film--Werewolf Women of the S.S.

Werewolves: the most gameable of monsters, whatever your genre.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Out of the Void

Salvaged photographs all show the same thing. Beings in strange suits, with face-plates empty but for the absolute black of the void. There’s an alien presence stalking the west of the New World...

In the summer of 5880, news of an approaching rogue planetoid swept the globe. The greatest scientists and thaumaturgists worried over charts and formulae, and made dire predictions. From the streets of the City, to the savannas of Ebon-Land, and across the half-ruined cities of Ealderde, people watched the skies, and faced the fearful prospect that the end of the world was near.

The world obviously didn’t end that summer, perhaps thanks to the actions of a renegade scientist and two less than willing companions. The scientist had constructed a rocket and planned to guide it into the planetoid, altering its course. This plan was doomed to failure, according to accepted theory. Thaumaturgists had long been aware that the alien, and hard to placate, elementals of vacuum and radiation were perturbed and driven to madness by the movement of large bodies like the planetoid. Also, astral projection had detected malign energies emanating from the planetoid.  Was this the psychic death-cry of world propagating backwards in time, or something else?

The scientist averred he had novel approach to thaumaturgic shielding. His rocket could run the gauntlet. In retrospect, it may be that his thoughts in this regard were not entirely his own.

The three man rocket blasted off one a summer night on an apparent suicide mission. The planetoid’s course altered and the world was spared. Those who knew of the rocket assumed it had succeeded in its mission, and would never be seen again.

That was before last year, the falling star on Revenant Night (when tradition holds the dead can walk), and the reports of three beings in singed pressure suits, proclaiming the dawn of a new world. That was before towns were found emptied but for shadow imprints burned into walls or sidewalks where their inhabitants had been disintegrated.

Union officials have plotted the course of the harbingers (as they have come to be called). Moving from the Stoney Mountains, they’ve passed through only small towns, some barely worthy of the name. They’ve passed into the Dustlands where strangely the tornado overlords have given them wide berth. Ahead, lies the heart of the Steel League, and beyond that, who knows?

The crater left by the falling star has since been examined. It was found to contain the remains of a rocket resembling the one launched by the renegade scientist eight years ago.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Top Ten Horrors

In no particular order, here are what probably my favorite horror short stories (though I would imagine I've forgotten something)--just in time for Halloween.  Links to e-texts provided where available.

"The Great God Pan" by Arthur Machen
"Who Goes There?" by John Campbell
"The Voice in the Night" by William Hope Hodgson
"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"Into Whose Hands" by Karl Edward Wagner
"The Clown Puppet" by Thomas Ligotti
"Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard
"Don't Ask Jack" by Neil Gaiman
"Whisperer in the Darkness" by H.P. Lovecraft
"Born of Man and Woman" by Richard Matheson

Honorable mentions go to "Dread" by Clive Barker, "Dr. Locrian's Asylum" by Ligotti, "The River of Night's Dreaming" by Wagner, "The Sandman" by E.T.A. Hoffman, "The Repairer of Reputations" by Robert W. Chambers, and "The Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick.  Maybe I should have done a top twenty!

Warlord Wednesday: A Monster Memorial

In keeping with the season, I'd like to honor the various creatures, subhumans, demons and god-things, that have met their final reward through the efforts of Travis Morgan and his friends.  Who could forget these favorites:

The lizard-men Morgan found worshipping his plane in #3:

The tragic werewolf in the tower from #22:

The punk snow giant Morgan ran across in the mountains in issue #25:

The fish-men who bedeviled his submarine paramour in #24:

And post-Grell, the vampire queen of a frozen valley from #108:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Famous Monsters: The Mummy

In 1932, The mummy was the third of the classic Universal monsters to appear, following Dracula and Frankenstein who had debuted the previous year. It was probably Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 that raised the public profile of mummies--particularly Egyptian mummies--enough to get a film made based on the concept. Universal’s run of mummy movies was followed by a Hammer franchise in the fifties, and a post-Indiana Jones re-imagining in 1999 kicked off another series at Universal.

Like Frankenstein, mummies don’t usually get to be sexy...Well, except Valerie Leon as Princess Tera in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb:

But the above photo illustrates one of the interesting things about movie mummies. At some point in the story, they tend to regain a less dessicated form and don’t really look like a mummy anymore. The other take frequently seen is to have the mummy be some mute automaton doing the evil bidding of some wicked priest--in other words a classic (pre-brain-eating) zombie.

Maybe this is the big problem with mummies. They're either essentially what gaming would call liches, or they’re zombies. It’s really only a roll of bandages and Egyptian bling that make them stand out.  Shamble, moan, strangle.  Repeat.

I suppose some difference can be discerned in their origins. Liches are boot-strapping undead; they’re generally self-created, and so have to be evil individuals of esoteric knowledge. Classic zombies are either living people (and so not undead at all), or they have something unfortunate (and undeserved) done to them after death by an evil individual of esoteric knowledge. Mummies are either being punished (in most of the mummy films), or honored or accidentally created (like real life).

And of course, they need not be Egyptian. Mummies come from all over, and some of these other mummies have made it into fiction. The Aztec mummy got its on film series, which includes a fight with a robot.

Not psychotronic enough for you? Well South of the Border, they don’t stop at just Aztec mummies. They've got a whole museum full of natural occurring mummies in Guanajuato. In film, these guys wind up fighting superhero luchadores on more than one occasion. Again, the differentiation between them and zombies is largely semantic. Still, Guanajuato’s peculiar mummies can be good game fodder, even without the masked wrestlers.

No reason mummies should have be from historic eras. Howard’s titular mummy from the modern adventure yarn Skull-Face, is Kathulos, an undead sorcerer from Atlantis.  Now he's a mummy who doesn't just shamble and moan.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Famous Monsters: Frankenstein

With Halloween drawing nigh, I thought I’d take a look at the iconic Universal monsters and what inspiration can be found to freshen up their traditional protrayals in gaming. Since vampires (particularly Dracula) have gotten a lot of virtual ink in the blogosphere of late, I figured I’d with start with the vice-president of the monster club, Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein, to his friends.

I suppose you could call his type “a construct” or a “golem.” It’s not really an archetype that seems to fire people's imaginations to the degree the vampire does. No series of sexed up urban fantasies for the ladies about a hunky dude made from stitched together corpse pieces (at least not that I’m aware of).

Comics still seem to love Frankie, though. Mark Wheatley gave us Frankenstein’s Mobster, where a slain cop in a city overrun by crime becomes a “made man”--literally. Grant Morrison offered up a more over-the-top, pulpy adventurer Frankenstein as part of his Seven Soldiers line. Somewhat similar (though less over-the-top) was the Wachowski Brothers’ alt-history, Doc Frankenstein

I should point out combining Frankenstein with pulpy elements didn't start with these recent comics.  The Utley and Waldrop novellette "Black as Pit, From Pole to Pole" (1977) has Frankenstein wandering into the Pellucidar-esque Hollow Earth.  Dell comics made him a superhero back in the sixties.

Perhaps the best way to reimagine Frankenstein is in terms of what he's come to represent. Critics of genetic engineering and the like are always invoking his name. Splice is just the most recent riff on this sort of (post-)modern Prometheus.

How can this all be related to gaming? Well, the flesh golem of AD&D’s Monster Manual is the classic movie Frankenstein, and most sci-fi/conspiracy games do a riff on the more modern science-fear inspired Frankensteins. It would be cool, though, to see a more intelligent, villainous Frankie. Something along the lines of his original portrayal.  Something less "stand-in for fears of man overstepping his place," and more singular menace.

Jess Nevins argues in Fantastic Victoriana that Shelley’s protrayal of the monster has a tinge of Yellow Peril to it, and I think he’s right. Maybe Frankenstein with a Fu Manchu spin would be the way to go? Let’s let the guy with bolts in his head have some soliloquies instead of just grunts.

Addendum: Check out Jim Shelley's Flashback Universe blog for a couple of comics panels of Frankenstein fighting a dinosaur, and a pictorial overview of various comic versions of the monster.  Great minds think alike!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

One Panel Adventure Seeds

Here are some vignettes clipped from Golden Age comics chosen for adventure inspiration.  I've contextualized in the world of the City, but they could take place almost anywhere...

An obsessed half-ogre strongman, a cold beauty...a recipe for more than big top drama?

As madmen go, at least he's polite.

The leader of the spider-folk talked a lot.  That was good.  It kept him from using his scalpel.

A ghoul on a spree, with a taste for beautiful dames.

When you're on the lamb, you take your chances with back-alley sawbones.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Geography That Wasn't

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on lost cities, phantom islands, and the like, and I've come across some "historical" maps that time has proven to be more like alternate history.  Maybe you'll find some inspirations from these examples of terra fabula, too:

First off, here's California back when it was an island.  It ddin't finally settle on the North American mainland for good until the 1770s.

Let's get rid off that pesky California (and all the Americas, for that matter), with Paolo Toscanelli's 1474 map which gets the the earth's circumference wrong and has Cathay and Cipangu (Japan) just a quick sail away.  Hey, this map was good enough for Columbus!  Helpfully, the real North America appears ghostly in the background of this reproduction.

And this is another projection.

Finally, here's an island of Taprobana, which may have become Ceylon, or Sumatra--or disappeared all together.  It was an important trading port between east and west.  Marco Polo thought Adam was buried there, on the top of Mount Serendib.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Green Hell


The jungles of Asciana’s Grand Cinnamon River basin are a popular setting for pulp adventure mags found on any newsstand in the City. The stories may be fiction, but the adventures are real. The continent of Asciana was once home to an advanced civilization, perhaps a culture related to either Mu or Meropis. Tales say that ancient cities--and ancient treasures--may have been swallowed by the jungle and await rediscovery. More than one would-be adventurer has been lost in this “green hell” searching for these legends.

It’s a place of exotic dangers. Natural dangers include giant snakes, river sharks, piranhas, and even carnivorous plants. Then there are the intelligent threats. The hostile (sometimes headhunting) Native tribes, and the reptilian caimen-- somewhat smaller and more nimble relatives of the northern gatormen--are well known.

There are also more mysterious, lesser understood threats. Forrester and Randon’s 5877 expedition reported the existence of xenophobic mushroom people, dubbed myconids, which zealously defend their territory against intruders. The mutated plants and animals they used in their defense were viewed by the expedition as examples of powerful thaumaturgy, but later scientists reviewing their accounts have suggested that the myconids may actually employ an advanced biological technology. The expedition was lucky to escape with their lives, and were unable to bring back any specimens for study.

Even more enigmatic are the creatures hinted at by the tragic Wilmarth expedition. The information is fragmented, gathered as it was by necromantic communication undertaken by Wilmarth’s widow--a process hindered by the manner of his death. In any case, if the murmurings of Wilmarth’s traumatized and shrunken head are to be believed, there are intelligent (and malevolent) stingrays found in remote tributaries of the Cinnamon which exert a supernatural influence over nearby human tribes.

Whatever the reality of these rumors, the ultimate truth is clear--the Ascianan jungle is a dangerous place, indeed.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Land of the Titans

It's Hump Day in Skartaris! Time to re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"Land of the Titans"
Warlord (vol. 1) #32 (April 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: We find our hero just where we left him last issue: on a beach, awakening to find himself at the feet of two menacing-looking, ruddy-skinned, giants (roughly twice Morgan’s height) in hoplite-ish sort of garb. They grab an astonished Morgan by the arms to take him captive, but Morgan executes a remarkable gymnastic kick and gives his captor two boots to the eyes.

The first giant drops Morgan, giving him time to pull his sword. As the second moves in with a spear, Morgan throws his sword through the giant’s jugular, killing him. Morgan’s turned his back on the first though, who uses that opportunity to incapacitate our hero with a “crackling bolt of sinister energy” from a futuristic device.

The giant dumps Morgan onto a disc-shaped flying platform and takes him to a nearby city. He uses the futuristic device again at a different setting to “stimulate” Morgan to consciousness. He awakens to an audience with the beautiful (and giant), Queen Amarant of the Titans, who’s none too pleased that he’s killed one of their race:

Morgan starts to protest, but a blow to the back of his head stifles his rebuttal. The queen has him taken away until she decides how to kill him.

Morgan wakes up to a pretty face looking down at him. The face goes with a pretty (and non-giant) fur-clad female form. This is Shakira. She came to help Morgan because she heard he killed one of the titans, and she could use a warrior like him to help her escape. She thinks that they can get around the few traitorous slaves that act as guards and steal one of the titan’s flying discs.

Morgan’s wary, but Shakira seems to offering the only available option. After overpowering one guard, the two make their way stealthily to where the titans manufacture their weapons. As they steal across the room on a catwalk, they’re discovered by another slave who calls out in alarm. The titans begin firing their weapons at the two. One stands in their path at the end of the walk. Morgan delivers a flying kick to the titan’s chest, knocking him over the railing, and into the machinery on the manufacturing floor.

Slaves are coming at them from the other end of the catwalk. Morgan picks up the axe of the fallen titan, and kills them all, but the melee has given time for a titan to draw a bead on Morgan with his weapon. Lightning fast, Morgan pivots and throws the axe. The blade strikes home--but too late to keep the titan from pulling the trigger.

Bound and defeated, Morgan and Shakira are brought before Queen Amarant. She plans to execute Morgan for the murder of half her race. Morgan gives her a lecture on how her kind are unjustly subjugating the humans, but she backhands him and orders him to silence.

Shakira begs the queen to leave Morgan alone. The queen says Shakira was always her favorite, but since she’s chosen to side with Morgan she can share his fate. The two are sent to the arena.

Their weapons are returned, and they need them, because they find themselves facing an angry woolly rhinoceros. The two battle the beast, but Morgan is injured, and becomes an easy target for a charge. Shakira interposes herself, distracting the animal and leading it to charge the arena wall. She vaults over the beast on her spear, and its charge destroys the wall, just under where Amarant sits. Queen and beast are both dead.

Morgan and Shakira use the ensuing chaos to make their escape. The two remaining titans try to stop them, and their race is consigned to extinction. The now-freed slaves flee in terror. In the wake of the battle, Morgan and Shakira stop to consider the fallen Amarant.

Morgan points out the titans might have done great things, if they hadn’t tried to be gods. Shakira replies that people will make what gods they will. She will mourn the death of Amarant a bit. She was always well cared for, but the queen tried to bend Shakira to her will, and that she couldn’t tolerate. “It’s my nature to be independent,” she tells Morgan--and startles him by transforming into a cat.

The two newly minted travelling companions fly away on one of the discs.

Things to Notice:
  • The titans are given a pinkish skin-tone sometimes used for Native Americans in old comics--and sometimes for Barsoomians, too.
  • Morgan gets knocked unconscious.  Again.
  • Shakira, as is her wont, wears furry ankle socks.
Where It Comes From:
This issue is very pulpy with its lost island with dying race of giants with advanced technology, but I'm unsure of any specific inspirations.

Amarant, queen of the Titans, derives her name from the herb amaranth, or amarant, meaning "unwithering" in Greek.  Mythology associates amarant with immortality--an ironic association for the queen given the events of this issue.

The real importance of this issue is in it being the first appearance of Shakira, who becomes Morgan's long time companion.  Shakira is an Arabic name meaning "thankful."  The character was inspired by Isis, the woman and cat, who is a companion to Gary Seven in the 1968 Star Trek original series episode (and backdoor pilot) "Assignment Earth."

In cat form, Isis was shown perched on Gary Seven's shoulders much in the same way Shakira will later ride Morgan's.

Note the collar motif, too, just like Shakira.

Isis was played by Victoria Vetri, who also starred in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970).  Despite the hair and costume color difference, one wonders if Vetri's appearance here combined with her roll as Isis were influential on the look of Shakira.  She's even got the spear Shakira also sports on the issue's cover.

Not quite from when dinosaurs ruled the earth, but still prehistoric, the creature Morgan and Shakira encounter in the titans' arena appears to be a Pleistocene native, Coelodonta antiquitatis, otherwise known as the woolly rhinocerous.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

15 Games with Annotations

I rarely participate in these blogosphere trends (mainly because I tend to come to them too late), but here are the fifteen most meaningful games to me, not necessarily in order.  I've provided a little explanation for some of them, as well:
  1. D&D (mostly AD&D 1e, but also Moldavy/Cook, Mentzer, and 2e)
  2. Marvel Super-Heroes (probably the game I've played the most after D&D)
  3. GURPS (the game I've played the 3rd most, probably, considered all the different settings)
  4. Mayfair's DC Heroes
  5. Villains & Vigilantes (my first non-D&D game, and a frequently played one)
  6. FASA Star Trek
  7. Shadowrun (1st ed.)
  8. Talislanta (not much played, but always a favorite setting to read)
  9. Star Frontiers
  10. Empire of the Petal Throne (never played, but a setting I've always enjoyed and own virtually ever published supplement for)
  11. Gamma World (the third non-D&D game I played)
  12. HERO System (mostly, Champions)
  13. Call of Cthulhu (only played a few times, but it stoked my burdgeoning interest in pulp fiction)
  14. Doom (time was, I enjoyed a good 1st person shooter)
  15. Pool of Radiance (the only crpg I ever played for any amount of time--which wasn't much)

The Art of Tuesday

WWWD - What Would Warduke Do?

Save vs. Petrification... Now.

So that's where elves come from!

Undeath Rides A Horse

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hell's Hoods

The times change in the infernal realms, just like on the material planes. For the modern denizens of the City and the New World, devils have shed their medieval image, and appear as members of the extraplanar organized crime group called the Hell Syndicate. 

In the City, human crime is ultimately controlled by the Hell Syndicate, though many criminals may never actually meet a devil--until, perhaps, they go to their ultimate reward. In other places, Hell’s influence is less direct, coming mainly in the form of consultation or aid to individual criminals. Make no mistake, though, anything that prays upon the moral weaknesses of mankind, enriches the Syndicate’s accounts.

Since the disappearance of Morningstar, there hasn’t been a “boss of bosses” of the Hell Syndicate, but the chairman of its board of directors is Asmodeus, of the Nessus family. Through a combination of persuasion and intimidation, he keeps the other bosses in line. Mostly.

The remaining eight infernal families, and their current bosses, are:
  • Avernus family - Led by Andras “The Owl.” This family specialty is "murder for hire."
  • Dis family - Run by Dispater. The Dis family is linked to the illegal arms trade worldwide.
  • Minauros family - Led by Mammon. This family corrupts via greed, and keeps the Syndicate’s books, making sure the bosses of Hell get their proper percentages.
  • Phlegehthos family - Their boss is Belial. They’re reported to run underground torture clubs, and gambling bloodsports.
  • Stygia family - Run by Geryon. This family is extensively involved in counterfeiting, and also in various sorts of fraud.
  • Malbolge family - Led by Moloch “The Bull.” Involved in extortion and protection rackets, and armed robbery.
  • Maladomini family - Their boss is Baalzebub. Baalzebub’s proboscis is in prostitution, pornography, and the narcotics trade.
  • Caina family - Led by Mephistopheles. Focuses on influence-peddling, and the corruption of government and corporate officials.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It's Adventure Time!

Is everyone watching this?

For those of you that aren’t, Adventure Time is a animated series on Cartoon Network created by Pendleton Ward. It relates the adventures of Finn, a 12 year-old boy; and Jake, a 28 year-old dog with size-changing and stretching powers, who right wrongs (or try) in a loopy, post-apocalyptic world with the whimsy of Oz, the intoxication amenability of H.R. Pufnstuf, and the utilitarian illogic of eighties video games.

There are quite a few D&D-related references, too. In one episode, Finn frets over imprisoning his nemesis the Ice King when he has done anything wrong (at the moment) because it’s against his “alignment.” The Ice King, in an earlier episode, wonders to himself why he’s not liked, musing: “Is it because I’m a magic-user?”

Then there are nice, humorous plays on traditional fantasy tropes. Our heroes visit a City of Thieves, which has the property of turning everyone with its walls into a thief. There are princesses a plenty to be rescued--though most are far from beauteous. Inhabitants of the land can engage in magical summoning of dire beings from other planes, like when Finn inadvertently summons the business-suited, sole-sucking, Evil Lord from the Nightosphere.

Like any good fantasy, Adventure Time boasts and array of interesting creatures. There are the werewolf-like why-wolves--”possessed of a spirit of inquiry and bloodlust.” The vapid,  valley-girlish Lumpy Space Princess, is representative of the extraplanar cloud-realm of Lumpy Space. Then there’s the wizardry-teaching Bufo, which are tadpole-like things in wizard hats, floating in the throat sac of a anthropomorphic frog.

Yes, its pretty weird.  But also very cool. Check it out.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Beasts in the East

The Demon Isles is an archipelago to the east of Yian. In the ancient writings of the Yianese, it is known as “The Barbaric Eastern Land of Ugly and Ill-tempered Dwarfs.” Today’s unlucky visitor to the Demon Isles might quibble with the “dwarf” part, but would probably otherwise agree with those ancient scholars’ characterization.

The thousands of islands that make up the chain are mountainous and mostly volcanic. Prevailing archaeological theory holds that they are remnants of ancient Mu, or some other, nameless, lost continent. Some sunken, ancient structures have been found in the surrounding waters, though no ruins are catalogued on the islands themselves. The Demon Islanders don’t permit archaeologists--or indeed, anyone else--to visit unmolested.

The dominant species of the isles are humanoids with bright red skins, small horns, and somewhat bestial features. They are called “Demon-folk” in rough translation from Yianese--not as a reference to any presumed extraplanar origin, but to their temperament. Some scholars believe them to be distant relatives of the now extinct Ealderdish goblin. Others contend that they are an artificial race, synthesized by some elder culture, or perhaps the sorcerous (and sinister) Ku’en-Yuinn of Yian.

Whatever their origins, the Demon-folk are a race bred to violence and warfare. A warrior caste rules their society. It’s young are raised under harsh discipline and allowed to practice their war-skills upon members of the lesser castes with impunity. In adulthood, these skills are put to use against their caste-equals in other clans or tribes. Or, when the opportunity presents itself, against foreigners--whom they universally regard as inferior.

At its most organized, the Demon Isles are a military dictatorship under the iron fist of a warlord. It’s at these times the Demon Islanders are most dangerous to their neighbors, as they may coordinate raids by sea--though at best they are mediocre sailors. Luckily, their typical state is one of feudal warfare with various chieftains and their bannermen vying for supremacy. The swords of the Demon-folk are most often raised against their own kind.

The Demon-Islanders have a level of technology barely beyond the medieval. They have acquired flintlock gunpowder weapons from captured foreigners centuries ago, but even these are not widespread. Wisely, care is taken by their neighbors to ensure no more advanced weapon technology falls into their ever-belligerent hands.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Apocalypse Clown

“You’ve heard of the Clown?”

“Yes, well, we discounted the stories at first, too.  Who wouldn't?  But the rumors persisted.  Of course, we were skeptical, but we sent agents, nonetheless. Can never be to careful.”

"I should add, these agents did not return."

“At any rate this..clown simply appeared among the deep jungles tribes. Somehow he won them over. Make-up, motley, and false nose, yet he won over cannibal tribes. Miraculous acts were performed, supposedly. This was months ago. Now the natives worship the man like a god, and follow his every command, no matter how...ridiculous.”

“His people only emerge from the jungle to raid neighboring tribes. Peaceful tribes.  Tribes with whom we do business. They take heads.  We hear they kill all the men, and take the women and children back with them into the jungle for who knows what. Human sacrifice, perhaps? Nothing would surprise me now.”

“He’s a threat to our interests in the entire region. Is this a problem we can count on you to solve?”

(With apologies to Conrad and Coppola.  And Bozo.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Wings Over Shamballah

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

"Wings Over Shamballah"
Warlord (vol. 1) #31 (March 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Morgan, wounded and exhausted, sits atop a step pyramid in the ruins of Shaban D’Aba. Around him are the slain bodies of his foes--fifty or more wild dogs. Three times they’ve come at him, and three times Morgan has beaten them back. He looks worn down and all but defeated, but as still more dogs approach, his eyes blaze anew with a savage gleam. Again, the battle is joined.

Morgan was barely 100 leagues from his destination, Shamballah, when the first wild dog pack attacked him. The assault had sent Morgan into a rushing river, and he was swept several miles downstream. As he emerged from the water, he heard the dogs in the distance, still on his trail. He ran into the nearby ruins. There he made his stand on the low, step-pyramid.

Now, the pack is down to three, and with a few strokes of Morgan's sword, one. The last dog pounces. Morgan skewers the animal, but as he leans against an ornate monolith in exhaustion, he accidentally triggers a trap door. He plummets into the inside of the pyramid.

By the light coming through the trapdoor, Morgan sees he’s landed in a room full of treasure--piled gold coins, overflowing chests, and gleaming weapons. Even marvelling at the riches around him, Morgan’s keen senses tell him he’s being watched.

He turns to see two hunched and monstrous trolls standing like statues in twin alcoves. Morgan realizes these ruins must date to the Age of the Wizard Kings, as such creatures have been extinct for eons.

Morgan is able to roughly parse the glyphs around the alcoves.  They tell him that this vault holds the combined wealth of the Wizard Kings of the Seven Cities. They placed it here, guarded by powerful magics, against the greed of the Evil One who had brought strife to their land. The spells could only be broken by drenching the steps of the temple in blood. The writer, Mungo Ironhand, hoped that the race of Man, new to the inner earth, would fair better against the Evil One than they had.

Morgan realizes the blood of the dogs he killed must have broken the spell. He wants none of the wealth around him, calling it “goblin’s gold.” But a finely made shield catches his eye, one with a hawk blazon not unlike his own. He picks it up to replace the one he lost. As he’s looking for a way out, he hears “a dry creaking sound, like the crackling of dead leaves.”

He turns round just in time to avoid a troll's axe:

Morgan swiftly counterattacks, skewering one of the trolls on his blade--to absolutely no effect. He slices clean through one’s calf, again to no effect. Pressed back, Morgan pulls his pistol, and blows gaping wholes in their undead flesh. Still, they keep coming.

One of the creatures catches Morgan’s arm in its grasp. Then, surprisingly, the thing’s hand bursts into flame as its caught in the shaft of sunlight coming through the open trapdoor. The sun burns then!

Thinking quickly, Morgan uses his new, highly burnished shield to reflect the light from above in the direction of the trolls. The two go up like “dry leaves in a forest fire”; their moldering bodies reduced to ashes.

Morgan grabs one of their spears and uses it to hoist himself up through the trapdoor. He closes the entrance, thinking that it might be better to keep the gold hidden, in case there might be a use for it in the future. He sets out again for Shamballah, and his wife, Tara.

But the curse of the Wizard King’s isn't done yet. The hawk emblazoned on his shield pulls itself free, and grows into a giant, black, bird of prey! It grabs Morgan in its talons and takes to the air.

Morgan’s sword has no effect on the bird. He carries him over the jungles, then over the golden towers of Shamballah. Morgan passes helplessly over his destination, and his wife picking roses in her palace garden, then out to sea.

A sudden storm comes up, slowing the hawk’s flight. Suddenly, the bird is struck by a bolt of lighting. It drops Morgan into the storm-churned waters below.

When the storm has passed, Morgan awakens to find himself washed up on a beach. He raises his head from the sand to see the armored legs of what must be a giant warrior before him...

Things to Notice:
  • At some point, Morgan learned how to read Ashtari (whatever that is).
  • The cursed shield Morgan's finds is emblazoned with a symbol (coincidentally, one presumes) almost identical to his own banner.
  • This is the first mention of the Evil One who will appear later in these pages.
Where It Comes From:
Though the coloring doesn't support this, Morgan's characterization of the wild dogs chasing him and the way Grell has drawn their ears suggest they are suppose to be African wild dogs.

The trolls in this issue have the weakness to sunlight often attributed to them in Scandinavian folklore, though the more typical trope is for them to turn to stone (this also happens in The Hobbit, of course).  Perhaps undead trolls respond differently?

The cruel twist of fate taking the hero away from his beloved when he's so closse seems to be the sort of complication one would find in Edgar Rice Burroughs' adventure novels.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Weird Adventures Update: Monsters

Art by Seth Frail
With Halloween approaching, I’ve been thinking about monsters and the monster chapter of Weird Adventures.

“Thinking” only, because I’m currently writing the section on the Strange New World (from whence the Borea post--just in time for yesterday’s Canadian Thanksgiving). That is, when I’m not working on upcoming presentations and research projects. or getting ready for community forums, and all the other things required in a demi-academic, public sector career--which all seem to have fallen in the current month...

Where was I? Oh,yeah. Monsters. So, in addition to the hobogoblins (ably rendered above by Seth Frail), we’ll feature the black-dust elementals, nightmarish bugbears, theatrical ghouls, and two varieties of zombies I’ve discussed here. There will also be monsters I haven’t touched on yet: hit-fiends from the Hell Syndicate, the mischievous, electric elemental gremlins; goons (of the non-human variety), and (perhaps soon to appear here) the militaristic Demon-folk of the far eastern Demon Isles.  All statted for use in your old school rpg, but adaptable to whatever game you fancy, of course.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nothing Like the Mighty Samson

The first post-apocalyptic series in comics was DC’s Atomic Knights (which I’ve discussed previously), which was released in a collection earlier this year. The second series showcasing post-nuclear holocaust heroics was Gold Key’s The Mighty Samson debuting a year after the fall of the Atomic Knights. Dark Horse has started releasing the series in archive editions, and its full of plenty of post-apocalyptic weirdness for gaming inspiration.

The Mighty Samson was the creation of Otto (Captain Marvel) Binder and Frank (Ghita of Alizarr) Thorne. Samson lived in a devastated, fallen world, but The Road this was not. In fact, the amount of undecayed detritus of civilization laying around puts this firmly in the “junkyard future” camp of the likes of Thundarr the Barbarian.

Samson is mutant, born with superhuman strength and resilience. Even in his youth, he’s a hero to his primitive tribe in the land of N’Yark, where the jungle overgrows the ruin of Manhattan. Samson teams up with a wannabe scientist and his daughter who are trying to rediscover the technology of the ancients. He battles a lot of portmanteau monsters like the liobear, and this guy:

Besides monsters, Samson contends with the evil of man. And of women, too--particularly the technology-seeking, choker-wearing, Terra of Jerz, whose’s always trying to invade N’Yark and woo Samson to her side.

The Might Samson stories are certainly of their era, which means they're not as action-packed as modern comics, nor are the characters terribly deep. Still, there’s a lot of crazy invention in these tales making them worth looking into for anybody playing Gamma World or any other science fantasy, post-apocalyptic game.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Way Up North

Borea is the sprawling land north of the City and the Union as a whole. It's more sparsely populated than its Southern neighbor, owing to a more frigid climate. Most of its cities and towns are clustered around either the Inland Sea, or the West Sea and the Strait of Anian--which form the Northwest Passage allowing westward travel from Ealderde to the Far East.

There are those who choose to live in the Borean wilderness or more isolated towns. Hunters and trappers still eke out a living as they have for over two hundred years; there’s still a market for the meat of dwindling mammoth herds, or the golden pelts of the aurumvorax. The vast northern forests still support a thriving timber industry. Then there are the aboriginal peoples who follow the ways of their ancestors, some of them living in the ice-bound wastes where few “civilized” folk ever care to go.

Borea’s cold owes to more than its latitude. Some strong northern winds are actually born from the confluence of elemental water and air, forming elemental ice. The preternatural cold of these winds can freeze unprotected animals or people in their tracks, cause trees to explode with quick-frozen sap, or even coat whole villages in ice. Boreans try their best to avoid these death-ice winds, and experienced woodsfolk know the signs that mean such a wind is coming.

Over the vast wilds of Borea, the Boreal Mounted Police are responsible for keeping the peace and enforcing justice. These intrepid lawmen contend with human criminals, and monstrous menaces (like the wendigo), as well. Like the Freedonian Rangers far to the south, the mounted police are a special breed, inured to life on the fringe of civilization. As such, they're figures romanticized in fiction and film in Borea, and famed in even more southern lands.

The North has its share of mysteries, too. Shimmering, phantom cities sometimes are seen in its skies, which may be ghostly glimpses of the distant past, psychic projections of the fabled paradise of Hyperborea, or something else. Then there are legends of an Arctic island warmed by volcanos or hot springs, which may be the ancestral home of the all the natives of the New World. Other legends, or sea tales, speak of ancient longships from the Old World emerging from the icy mists, manned by undead raiders, and laden with centuries of plunder.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Weird Fiend Folio

The AD&D Fiend Folio is weird. I don’t mean that in the sense of it being odd (though it’s maybe that, too) I mean in the sense that a lot of its monsters evoke a weird fiction feel, at least to me. Sure, its easy to make fun of the Folio--there are a number of misfires there. Any time you talk about it someone always goes and mentions the flumph, so its got that to live down.

But I think there are a number of creatures that would be at home in the works of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, or any other weird writer you could think of. All they need is the proper context. Let’s take a look:

algoid: Ok, the picture doesn’t help us here, and I’m not sure what this thing's about really, but the basic concept of a sentient algae colony seems reasonably Lovecraftian.  He gave us space fungi, after all.

apparition: like the coffer corpse, the crypt thing, and the revenant, these are exactly the sort of undead that show up in weird tales. Admittedly, though, there’s nothing special about them other than the Russ Nicholson art that really gives them a lurid feel.  Still, the raw materials are there for building a weird atmosphere, absolutely.

bullywug: Things you can describe as batrachian tend to be sort of weird (this would apply to the slaad as well--which remind me a bit of Smith's Tsathaggua, anyway). I could definitely see the bullywugs in the Dreamlands, but I guess that’s about it.

crabman: Here’s a case where the picture does not help, but crustacean sentients actually appear in a Robert E. Howard tale (“People of the Black Coast”) though their whole deal is a little more aboleth-like there, appearances aside.

dark creeper: these guys have always reminded me a bit of Howard’s portrayal of the Little People.  You could always give them a little of the whispery evillness of the lil' demons in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. This time, the illustration really helps.

Cryonax: a yeti with tentacles for arms doesn’t seem like Lovecraft, but does seem exactly the sort of thing one of Lovecraft’s lesser disciples would have created.

gibberlings: have a name like something out of a weird tale, but I suspect they’d just be a brief, colorful mention in passing in Dunsany or the like.

Githyanki and Githzerai: with their whole feud thing seem like something that could come out of a more science fantasy weird story, and again, the visuals help.

Kuo-toa: or should I say, Deep Ones?

shadow demon: are not too far removed from the menace of the CAS story “The Double Shadow.”

yellow musk creeper and yellow musk zombies: fairly weird fiction-esque at face.  It's got the "yellow" thing going on in the name, too.

And that’s just off a quick flip through. I’m sure there are plenty of others sandwiched between the needle men, and thorks--and of course, flumphs.