Friday, December 31, 2010

Calendars & Girls

In the City, as in our own world, the wall calendar is a popular place for pin-up art. Major corporations, like car or tobacco companies, can afford to commission their own art and have their own unique calendars printed. Smaller businesses, eager for promotional items, turned to companies that produced generic items like playing cards, match books--and yes, calendars--featuring pin-up art, which could be imprinted with their own brand.

Brun & Bonnell were one such company, and they specialized in promotional items for expedition outfitters, gun shops, smiths, pawnbrokers, appraisers, and other businesses who catered to an adventuring clientele. One of their lines featured “women in peril” illustrations--in this case, pin-up girls in exotic locales menaced by monsters. Below is the preliminary illustration by the renowned artist Reno, which appeared in a 5887 calendar produced by Brun & Bonnell:

For those interested in the City’s calendar (beyond the pin-ups, of course):

The months of the year:

And the days of the week:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Titan and the City

The City once had a singular protector. A bronze-gleaming, orichalcum titan who watched, unsleeping, from atop the highest spire, and sped through the streets in pursuit of evil-doers. He was the greatest gift of the City’s greatest artificer, a wizard of science and thaumaturgy, who built the son fate had denied him. A son with an intellect and moral code as superhuman as his impregnable body.

The father and his City watched his son and creation with pride. The titan woke the somnambulist army of an insurgent nightmare, helped raze the hellish Charnel Gardens, smashed the Reds' war-behemoth nest, and nearly lost his life incinerating the Damnation Photo in the primal fire of his own alchemical heart.

It was all over five years ago. It was then the old wizard died.

The titan has barely been seen since. City-dwellers glance upward, and see the lights on the 86th floor of the Imperial Building that never go dark, but whatever the titan does in his creator-father’s laboratory, he doesn’t share with the world. People ask, “can a construct grieve?”

But the titan still goes out into the City, using all his resources to make sure he’s unseen. He goes to where he can't help but be reminded of a time where his strength and intellect were not enough.  He watches a lovely woman in eternal sleep.  A woman whose life he saved, but whose spirit he could not. He recalls with absolute clarity every detail of the brief time he knew her. He watches her with eyes that don’t blink, but dim a little with something that might approximate longing, and regret.

Perhaps the question people should ask is: “Can a construct love?”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Feast of Agravar

For the last time in 2010, 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...

"The Feast of Agravar"
Warlord (vol. 1) #39 (November 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Travis Morgan bids faithful Aton farewell. He says that he may have fallen short of the dream who gave his former army, but Aton has done well. As Morgan departs on the back of his winged horse, Firewing, Aton tells him that he hopes he finds what he’s looking for.

Once they're airborne, the black cat accompanying Morgan transforms back into Shakira. After meeting his daughter she had never heard of, Shakira wonders aloud what other secrets he’s hiding. Morgan retorts that he’ll spill his secret when she tells him hers.

Their banter is cut short as a flock of pink pteranodons attack!

Morgan and Firewing manage to out-maneuver the winged reptiles. As the companions continue on their way, a man watching them from the ground below talks to a mysterious wooden box bound in bronze. He calls it “Master” and agrees that--despite the pteranodon’s failure--they shall yet triumph over the Warlord.

Miles away, Morgan sights yet another ancient ruin and wants to explore. Shakira (predictably) is entirely incurious about the past. As Morgan prepares to enter the ruins,she notices talon scratches on Firewing's flanks. She scolds Morgan, telling him he should treat the horse better, that he should stop treating him like a possession. Morgan asserts that Firewing does belong to him. He enters the ruins, leaving Shakira to tend the animal.

Even in the darkness inside, Morgan can make out Atlantean machinery. He hears a hum, and knows some of it must still be active. He inadvertently trips a sensor, and the lights come on, and the facility comes to life.

Shakira joins him inside.  She asks what this place is. Morgan explains what he knows of the history of the Atlanteans in Skartaris: how they civilized war to the point of it being as easy as pushing a button--and how that was their undoing.

The two enter a living area and are suprised to come face to face with a robot, who greets them. The robot bows, and introduces himself as “Bogg.”

Bogg says his function is to serve. He was built by the Atlanteans, but over the years he has had the oppurtunity to serve the representatives of the many cultures who have passed through since the Atlanteans destroyed themselves.

Bogg offers the two drinks. Shakira laps at hers like a cat. As Morgan sips his, he asks if Bogg gets many other visitors. Bogg says "no," as the locals fear and shun this place. He was beginning to get concerned; the Feast of Agravar is at hand, and its been a long time since there have been celebrants.

Before Morgan can ask what the robot means, he notices Shakira is out cold. The wine is drugged! Morgan moves to attack Bogg barehanded, but succumbs to the drug’s effect himself.

Bogg drags our unconscious heroes from the room, and the robotic housekeeping unit tidies up behind them, removing all signs of what has transpired.

Morgan and Shakira wake up bound to a stone table in front of a pit. Bogg explains why he brought them here. The Atlanteans built their complex over the lair of Agravar. Long after their passing, Agravar was able to break free from his prison. The Feast of Agravar was a rite observed by the primitive tribe who took refugee in the complex. They saw Agravar as a god.

Morgan can’t believe that Bogg buys that primitive superstition. Bogg replies that he does not, but periodic feasts do seem to keep Agravar from wrecking more of the complex. In this way, Bogg fulfills his primary function--that of custodian.

Shakira doesn’t want to participate in any feast. She turns back into a cat, slips her bonds, and bounds away. Bogg goes after her.

At that moment, Agravar emerges from the pit:

Meanwhile, Bogg searches the complex for Shakira..and finds her, as she (now back in human form) blasts him with an Atlantean weapon she and Morgan saw earlier.

Back in the feast chamber, Morgan bursts his bonds to fight for his life. He hurls a piece of machinery at Agravar, but the device is destroyed by contact. Morgan realizes its body must be made of a “molecular acid”--which also explains how it burrows through solid rock. Knowing he can’t fight it, Morgan makes a hasty retreat.

Agravar is faster, and is almost upon him. Luckily, Shakira comes to the rescue with the blaster. She shoots Agravar through the head, killing it. The two leave the facility, as automated housekeeper goes about cleaning up the monster’s body.

Outside, they find Firewing’s saddle, but no Firewing. Shakira tells Morgan she set him free. Morgan couldn’t own him, he could only enslave him. She returned him to the skies. He has more important things to do, she says--and somewhere in the skies we see Firewing flying close to a winged mare...

Elsewhere, Aton is worried as he comes upon the grounded and damaged Lady J--the ship that carried Jennifer Morgan--on some Skartarian shore...

Things to Notice:
  • There's an almost literal "Chekhov's gun" in this issue.
  • The housekeeping robots in the complex are almost Jetson-like in their comic efficiency.
Where It Comes From:
This issue seems to combine elements of two previous issues.  We've got the ancient robot gone bad from "The City in the Sky" (issue 8)--the names of the two robots (Bogg and Tragg) are even similar--and the sacrifice to a snake creature in ancient ruins from "War Gods of Skartaris" (issue 3).

Bogg is even closer than Tragg to their likely inspiration: the robot Box from the film Logan's Run (1976).  Box is a former servant (his job was to freeze sea food and store it) whose interpretation of his programming has drifted a bit list like Bogg.  Box also has an expansive and gregarious personality like Bogg.

Not long after his appearance in the story, Bogg says his function is "to serve man."  This wordplay on the duplicitous robot's part is a reference to the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man," based on a short-story by Damon Knight.  The story's famous twist is based on the same play on the meaning of "serve" as Bogg's comment.

Agravar is a Spanish verb meaning "to make worse."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

One Year with the Sorcerer's Skull

Today is this blog’s first anniversary--or it will be, at exactly 1:22pm. That's one year and over 300 posts of the sorts of things my friend and first follower, Jim Shelley, was tired of hearing about over email, so he suggested a started blogging about them.

115 public followers (and about 60 shy folks on feed only) later, I’d like to think my ramblings have found some sort of audience.

Here are some interesting stats from the year:

Heaviest Traffic Day: May 3, 2010, with a bit over 5,000 unique visitors, riding off the popularity of my cousin’s Temple of Kazoth map, and my first AD&D character, after my friend Chris “Invicible Super-Blog” Sims twitted about it, and somebody linked to it on metafilter.

Most Popular Post Otherwise: My posting of the map of H.H. Holmes’ Murder Castle on May 16. It’s also the post with the most “legs”, still getting a fair number of hits to this day.

Most Commented Post: "The Old-School RPG Blogger Advancement Table" with 35, on September 17 (it’s good to know I didn’t totally peak in May!).

Media Inspiring the Most Post Titles: Song titles and lyrics apparently give me the most inspiration, as I’ve gone to that well for titles around two dozen times, with lines nicked from old spirituals, David Bowie, Steppenwolf, and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, among others.

Anyway, thanks to all of you commenters, followers, and linkers for giving me the encouragement to keep this going!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Time Gone By

I took in the Coen Brothers’ rendition of True Grit on Christmas day. My short review: It’s very good. It also got me to thinking about an element of Westerns and other historical genres that often seems neglected in fantasy and science fiction role-playing games.

An exchange between Texas Ranger LeBoeuf and Rooster Cogburn about where they served in the Civil War sets the events of True Grit in a specific time, or at least, a specific era. This is pretty common in Westerns, though there are, of course, ones that take place in the vague “Old West.” It seems to me, there are roughly five eras in the the Western genre:
  • frontier era of buckskin clad mountain men and the wild places.
  • Civil War and the Indian wars with blue versus gray as backdrop.
  • The post-Civil War Indian warfare
  • The classic gunfighter era of a mostly Indian-free West with range wars and gunfights in corrals
  • The Dying West of aging heroes and outlaws whose time has past
Now, no one comment (please) to tell me this list is historically inaccurate!  I'm well aware that, in real history, these eras aren’t distinct and overlapped quite a bit.  I think this rough, somewhat fictionalized progression suits my purposes here. These eras aren't always important to what the heroes in Westerns are doing, but they define the world in which their exploits take place. The world of the 1840s frontier is very different from 1881 Tombstone, and even moreso from 1913 Mexico.

So I wonder how many people have exploited the march of history as backdrop in their fantasy games. True, Medieval sorts of societies changed quickly less than that of the nineteenth century, but they did change--and fantasy worlds maybe even more so. Is the adventuring experience for characters in one decade the same as the next? Has there been a revolution, or a new dynasty come to power? Maybe a plague, even collapse of a mighty empire?

Is history something happening in your games, or it only something that once happened in the remote past? Do progressive campaigns reflect the passage of time, or do they tend to all take place in a nebulous “now”?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone has a great holiday.... are a couple of pin-ups to help spread the cheer.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's Yule-time in the City

In the City, the ancient Yule season is marked by visitation from two preternatural entities. During these twelve days--spanning the end of the month of Aforeyule and the beginning of Shiver--forces of light and dark, law and disorder, do symbolic (and sometimes actual) battle in the wintry night.

The first is of these entities is a beloved bringer of joy. Old Father Yule brings gifts to children--and rarely, adults in dire need. Not every act attributed to him is really his--tradition has gift-givers acting in his name--but the results of his actions have been seen, and the being himself encountered, too many times to be discounted. What exactly the red-robed, bearded presence is is matter of conjecture. Some hold he’s merely a powerful (and eccentric) thaumaturge, but most believe him to be an eikone, perhaps the transformed remnant of a forgotten, pagan deity, saved (Oecumenical Hierarchate averrs) by the power of the Redeemer.

Old Father Yule is a jovial fellow--unless someone tries to bar him from his rounds of gift-giving. Then, they find his mastery of the winter elements, and control over the flow of time, make him a formidable foe.

The second entity is neither beloved nor a bringer of joy. The Grumpf is a horned, furred, goat-legged humanoid, with a long and mobile tongue. The Grumpf punishes the wicked (it is supposed), but also generally creates mayhem and chaos. He runs or rides through the City, or jumps across roof-tops, frightening people and animals in the process. He damages property (particularly that of churches) in minor ways, and yells elaborate and improbable obscenities. Most seriously, he occasionally snatches up lone, and (it should be said) mostly ill-behaved, children and switches them in public view. He sometimes does the same to young ladies he finds alone--though he tends to threaten poor girls with this torment more than he actually follows through.

The ill-behavior of the young girls so menaced has never been definitively established.

Adventurers have occasion to interact with these two entities. Every year, some make a game of pursuing the Grumpf through the City. He’s occasionally been driven away for a night or two, but despite much swearing of solemn oaths (and much swearing, in general), he’s never been vanquished.

Father Yule, on the other hand, is a target of less noble interests, and sometimes comes to adventurers for aid. The Hell Syndicate never interferes with Yule, but some unbalanced, lone evil-doers seem to have a peculiar fixation on undoing the holiday. Often the adventurers Father Yule summons to his service are ones that others might say were in need of a moral lesson of some sort.  Father Yule's intentions in this regard remain mysterious.

Some have suggested that Old Father Yule and the Grumpf are actually twins--or perhaps even two sides of the same entity. A force of balance, briefly unyoking order and chaos to make a holiday more memorable-- and strange.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Shape of Things Gone By

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...

"The Shape of Things Gone By"
Warlord (vol. 1) #38 (October 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Travis Morgan and Shakira and flying long on their new winged steed, whom Morgan has decided to name “Firewing.” Morgan points out to her the Terminator--the point where the inner world of Skartaris folds back onto the outer world. There looking for the coast so they can follow it down to Shamballah, but Shakira spots something else on the sea below.

Men on board a ship--the Lady J--from the outer world, are in a battle with a aquatic reptile. Despite their guns, they seem to losing.

Never one to be overly cautious, Morgan leaps from his mount, sword in hand. He lands on the back of its neck, and drives the Hellfire sword into its skull. Its brain destroyed, the “loathsome leviathan” slips beneath the waves with Morgan in tow. The Hellfire sword seems to be stuck. Finally, Morgan pulls it free and rises to the surface, a trail of blood following him.

Climbing on board the ship, he asks after the injured man. The other man (surprised Morgan speaks English) gives his name as Pat Chambers, and says the injured man is the captain, Harry Grimes. At that point, Chambers is in for a further surprise, as Shakira flies down on Firewing. Morgan introduces the beautiful woman as “his cat,” but offers: “it’s a long story.”

Morgan asks how they got here. A voice behind him responds: “Through the North Pole opening...”

Morgan looks around--and now he’s the one in for a surprise:

It’s Jennifer, his daughter! She confronts him for abandoning her. Morgan’s explanation is that she was eight years-old when her mother was killed. The Air Force was no place for a little girl--then Vietnam happened. He sent her to live with her Aunt Marie, who he thought could better give her “the kind of things a girl should have.”

“Everything,” Jennifer replies, angrily, “but a father.”

Jennifer explains what happened after he left:

And now she finds him running around in a loincloth like some savage--(she gestures to Shakira): “and God knows what else!”

Perhaps eager to change the subject, Morgan asks how they found him. Chambers tells him it was because of Stryker. In his obsession with revenge against Morgan, he had tracked down Professor Lakely to force him to give up Morgan's location. Lakely heard how the press had hounded Jennifer, and came to her to tell her that her father was still alive, and in Skartaris. Chambers helped Jennifer organize the expedition.

Morgan has Shakira and Firewing go aloft and guide the ship to shore. Afterwards, Shakira flies oof, bored by their English conversation. Jennifer asks how a place like Skartaris can exist, but Morgan doesn’t really have any answers for her. He instead wants to know why just three of them came on the expedition. Jennifer says there were more, but the others died. Chambers reports their numbers are even fewer now: Captain Grimes is dead.

The three bury him, and Jennifer places flowers on his grave. No sooner are they done, than a group of armed men attack. Morgan tells Chambers to take Jennifer and run for the boat as he holds them off. Morgan drives off their first assault, but he suspects they’ll get reinforcements and come back.

In moments, his predictions are right. They return in greater numbers, and Morgan hears one cry: “Death to the Barachian raiders!” Morgan realizes the men think they’re pirates!

He begins to explain when a spear carrying a familiar banner flies in between the combatants. Morgan recognizes the banner as his own! The man on horseback that threw it is unfamiliar to him, though. The man replies that he’s Morgan’s herald. Morgan realizes it is young Aton, now grown to adulthood.

Aton tells his men that Morgan is the one he’s been telling them about. The Warlord who leads a fight for freedom. The men cheer. Jennifer can’t understand their words, but she senses they see her father as some sort of hero, and wonders if she’s misjudged him. Morgan replies, “No, I think you had me pegged about right.”

He suggests they talk and get to know each other better. He tells her the story of his time in Skartaris, of his companions and family, his successes and failures. In the end, Jennifer says he’s given her a lot to think about. Morgan tells her to take her time. He’ll have Aton look after her a minute while he takes care of something.

Back on the Lady J, Morgan confronts Chambers who holds an uzi. “I gather that’s for me.” Morgan says.

Chambers realizes Morgan knew all along. Morgan tells him it wasn’t hard. When he saw him shoot the sea creature with an uzi...well, he knew only the Israeli army and the secret service have those. Which is Chambers?

Chambers replies that Stryker was his friend. He blames Morgan for what happened to him. He was the one that proposed the idea of the expedition to Jennifer--all for a chance at revenge.

But he throws down the uzi. The one thing he didn’t count on was falling in love with Morgan’s daughter!

Morgan tells him not to take it so hard. He wouldn’t have killed him anyway. Chambers is confused until he looks behind himself--and sees Shakira poised to throw a spear in his back!

After repairing the Lady J, Chambers and Jennifer are ready to return to the outer world. They plan to keep the secret of the inner world--no point in Skartaris dying like the outer world is. Morgan asks if she thinks she can help that world. She responds she’s going to try.

They set sail, and Morgan bids farewell to his last link to outer Earth. Shakira complains she couldn’t understand a word they said, so she doesn’t know what happened. Morgan says he’ll tell her about it...sometime.

Things to Notice:
  • This is the first appearance of Jennifer Morgan who, based on the dates given in the story, is 21 years-old at the time of this issues publication (and since Warlord seems to occur in pretty close to "real time," at the time of the story).
  • Again the odd flow of time in Skartaris is reinforced as we're reintroduced to Aton as a grown man.
  • Morgan assumes nothing has changed about the availability of uzis in the outer earth since he's been away. 
Where It Comes From:
The title of this issue is likely a play on The Shape of Things to Come--which is the title of a 1933 novel by H.G. Wells, among other things (including one song extant at the time of this issue was written).

"Barachians" probably comes from Baracha, a pirate haven in Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, but it could have been suggested by Barrachina, a Province of Spain--and also a restaurant in San Juan Viejo which opened in 1963.

The Uzi is a submachine gun officially adopted by the Israel Defense Force in 1951.  The U.S. Secret Service did indeed use the Uzi as their standard submachine gun from 1960s to the early 1990s.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


21 WYRDSDAY.  Winter Solstice * * * Four days before Yule * * *  Since colonial times, City-dwellers from the Northern Old World, including the Old Money Dwergen, pass a bribe to the constabulary so they can practice midwinter mummery by dressing like goblins and other bogies and capering around bonfires in public places.
- From the Almanac of the City 5888: “Accommodated to the Five Baronies But May Without Sensible Error Serve for the Entire Metropolitan District, the Greater Hegemony, and Even Points More Distant”

An ancient Winter Solstice legend among the people of Northern Ealderde holds that the night belongs to Bertha, Queen (also called “Grandmother”) of the White Women--the cast-out witches of the North. On this longest night of the year, the Dwerg-folk would huddle near their hearthfires, their windows shuttered tight, while Bertha and the White Women ruled the night, accompanied in their revelries by goblins, boggarts, and other malicious beings (now extinct). Woe came to any good-folk they caught outside. They either died of fright, or were torn apart by the celebrants in ecstatic frenzy.

The Northern folk developed an apotropaic ritual, wherein they disguised themselves as the various humanoids and malign spirits they feared so that they could pass among them without harm. Today, many people of Northern Ealderdish descent honor their ancestors on the Solstice by dressing up in costume, getting inebriated, and partying.

It was been noted once or twice--though not given much attention--that a somewhat higher number of disappearances and murders occur among the revelers on this night. The inevitable result of drunken foolishness surely, except that more than one shaken and haunted-eyed murder has claimed they had no control over their actions when they committed the deed--indeed many claim no memory of the event. Many of these assaults are committed against complete strangers, so that there is no discernible motive.

And then what are we to make of the few people every year who claim to have glimpsed a pale crone, clad in white, moving silently among the crowds? And the fact that many having this experience require brief hospitalization for inconsolable fear, boarding on hysteria, afterwards?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

For a venerable holiday icon, Santa Claus sees a lot of action. Could the Easter Bunny conquer the Martians? I think not.

Not only does he best alien invaders, but he teams up with Merlin to whup Satan in this 1959 gem, which could only come from south of the border. Frank L. Baum (of Oz fame) retcons Claus into Oz lore, and has him Santa raised by a wood nymph, educated by a council of magical creatures, and gifted with immortality. The Japanese thought that was so cool they made an anime about it with the appropriately anime-ish title Young Santa’s Adventures (Shounen Santa no Daibôken).  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Santa Claus (or Father Christmas across the pond) shows up in Narnia to give the Pevensie kids the magic items they need to beat the White Witch.

Claus isn’t always the good guy, though. The far future of Futurama has a Santa Claus robot who takes down the naughty with extreme prejudice. The DC Comics anti-hero, Lobo, under contract to the Easter Bunny, goes after a badass Santa who’s abusing his elves.

All this makes me wonder if Santa Claus makes many appearances in gaming. Sure, most of these appearances are somewhat comedic in nature--but too comedic for Encounter Critical, or even Old School D&D? I think not.

John Stater gives us cool yule magic items, and a certain red-clothed demigod in NOD #6. Has anybody else had Santa come down the metaphorical chimney of one of their games?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Armor Class: 9?

Descending.  And, of course, not taking into account any dexterity bonus.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Seeking Answers?

Occasionally, I've been asked questions about the City and the Strange New World (some in person, some via email) by the inquisitive among you.  Maybe the answers to some of these will be of interest to others...

Does the City have a name other than just “the City?”
I sort of dealt with this way back in my first post introducing the City. It does have an “official” name, which I’ll probably save to reveal in Weird Adventures--not that its anything spectacular, but I’ve got to retain some mystery, haven’t I?

This world’s history seems to closely parallel our worlds. How closely? Was there like a Revolution War in the City’s world?
The Strange New World, and its strange earth as a whole, are certainly pretty close in many historical details to the earth we know. In some ways, it resembles our world more as its seen through some popular media. The Old World of Earlderde is more of a crazy quilt of bellicose, small states--often with eccentric governmental systems--like something out of The Prisoner of Zenda or The Mad King, than it is historical Europe post-World War I.  In the West of the New World, desperadoes, and wild Indian (or Native) tribes exist side by side with automobiles and other "modern" conveniences, much like how our real world West was presented in some old time radio shows and movie serials.

To the specific question about the Revolutionary War: No, there wasn’t one. The Ealderdish colonizers were too involved in their own squabbles to ever really keep close tabs on their colonies. Eventually, they were just able to declare official independence. 

Are there vampires in this world?
Yep, and werewolves, and mummies. Vampires, I’ve talked about in this post, revealing them as the addicts they are.

When are you going to put some of this stuff in print?
When I get it ready. :)

I have, of late, considered putting together a free pdf with expanded versions (perhaps with annotations) of some of the topics I've posted on which won't see much coverage in Weird Adventures

Also, I have in mind a detailed adventure locale set in the Strange New World: the expansive estate of a wealthy, reclusive--and recently deceased--wizard.  Here's one hint: "Rosebud." 

Of course, Weird Adventures gets my creative energies first.

Anyway, else out there in Internet-land has any short asnwer questions like those above, you call always post 'em in the comments, and maybe I'll answer them. :)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Monster Canyon

In the West of the New World is one of the geographical wonder. Nearly 400 years ago, when Eadlerdish explorers were first making there way across the western desert, they came to a huge, steep-sided canyon they described in their writings as “a great abyss.” The Natives told them it was impassable, and the abode of monsters. Those early explorers only went far enough to determine the apparent truth of the Natives’ words, and turned back.

It would be 200 years before any Ealderdishman found a way across, and thus proved it was not impassable. The “abode of monsters” part remains true to this day.

The feature is today known as the Grand Chasm, or the Colossal Canyon--and sometimes, the Monster Canyon. It's around 500 miles long, up to 20 miles wide, and reaches a depth of nearly a mile and a half. The Red River runs through its depths, cutting deeper into rock in a time-frame of eons, though some thaumaturgists believe the scale of the chasm indicates something more than natural forces were involved in its making.

The canyon has tributaries--”lost valleys” which boast flora and fauna long extinct in other parts of the world. Procurers for circuses and zoos sometimes enter these regions to bring out beasts for public show, as do alchemists in search of exotic botanical materials. Scientists point to the unlikelihood of viable animal populations surviving in such small places and suggest that vast cave complexes must underlie the entire region, providing a wider habitat.

Other places in the canyon attract adventurers and other treasure-seekers. There are ruins and entrances to caves, some of them previously inhabited or even perhaps made by some human hands. Tombs of the Ancients or some allied culture promise treasure, and ancient magics.

Any treasure to be found there is never easy to acquire. Getting into the canyon is difficult--the easiest way is to come downriver--though there are precarious trails that wind downward from the rim, if you can find a guide. Guides come at a price, and may not be completely trustworthy.

Once a way is found, things only get more dangerous. Wayward flying reptiles from the lost valleys pluck travellers from boats or trails. Cavern crawlers, cave fishers, and other strange creatures (the results of ancient magical experimentation gone awry?) crawl forth from hidden recesses of the chasm when they sense a meal. Then, there are primitive human tribes--some too debased to be worthy of the name--descended from Natives or lost expeditions often fallen to superstitious worship of the canyon's monstrous inhabitants, and sometimes cannibalism.

Still, adventure and treasure calls, and there are always those brave or greedy enough to make the descent.

(My article on the lost cities of the Grand Canyon in the world we know would be instructive and inspirational here as well.) 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: A Horse of a Different Color

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...

"A Horse of a Different Color"
Warlord (vol. 1) #37 (September 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Beneath the eternal sun of Skartaris, Travis Morgan and Shakira share a whispered conversation, as they crouch in the jungle. Their discussing a wild horse drinking from a pond, which Morgan intends to try and capture. Shakira thinks he’s going to get his neck broken.

Morgan’s determined. He sneaks up and leaps on the stallion's back. As it begins to buck, we now see that it's no ordinary horse, but a winged one!

Shakira tells Morgan to jump, but he ignores her, confident he has the situation in hand. The horse takes flight and Morgan has no choice but to hang on until it lands again. The horse takes Morgan toward a fanciful and futuristic-looking castle atop a spire of rock. There the beast lands at what Morgan takes to be its home.

Meanwhile, an exasperated Shakira runs along, trying to follow Morgan’s path. She’s brought to a halt when a lasso slips over her. Acting quickly, she cuts it with her spear. She finds herself facing an unnaturally tall, broadly smiling man she first takes for a Titan. She takes off running. When the man gives chase, emerging fully from the foliage, she realizes he's actually a centaur.

She trips her pursuer with her spear, then holds him helpless at spear’s point. The centaur protests he meant her no harm, but Shakira points out that’s exactly what he would say in this situation. The centaur tries to bargain for his life with some sort of service. At first, Shakira isn’t interested in his perhaps lewd suggestions, but then she thinks of something he can do for her:

Offered little choice by Shakira, the centaur, who introduces himself as Arvak Thunderhoof, agrees reluctantly to give her a ride to Morgan’s location.

In the castle on the spire, Morgan marvels at the decor--amazing life-like statues representing all the ages of man in Skartaris, from the Age of the Wizard Kings to the present. While he’s examing the art, a beautiful green-haired woman enters, and asks if he likes her collection. She asks Morgan to forgive her for not greeting him earlier--she wasn’t expecting him until much later.

Morgan asks me she means, but she doesn’t reply. She gives her name as Astarte, but says his other questions will wait, and makes her point with a smoldering stare and her arms around his neck...

On the ground below, Arvak points out the castle to Shakira, naming it Grimfang. Shakira intends to climb the spire. Arvak tells her it's impossible; no one could attempt that climb and live. Shakira attends to try, regardless--Morgan would do no less for her. She can’t figure out why that moves her--she’s never been particularly loyal to anyone--but it does. She transforms into a cat and bounds off.

She begins the climb. It’s difficult even in her cat form. It becomes more so when a hawk swoops down to make a meal of her. Shakira finds a wide enough perch, then transforms back into a human. The diving hawk gets a surprise--and a punch in the head.

In the castle above, Morgan still has questions, but Astarte puts him off by offering him wine. Morgan refuses, bu Astarte insists, and something about her eyes seems to compel him....

Then, a snarling, black house cat leaps between the two, and buries its claws in Astarte’s face.The glass she was offering Morgan spills. Morgan recognizes Shakira but doesn’t know what’s going on.

Astarte finally succeeds in casting Shakira away, but only after accidentally knocking over one of her statues. Morgan reaches down and dips his fingers in the red liquid from the goblet. He realizes it isn’t wine, and he knows how Astarte came by her “art collection.”

Morgan pulls his hellfire sword. Within the glow of the hellfire’s mystic gem, he sees Astarte’s true form--a green-feathered, harpy-like creature.

She says she would have made Morgan immortal in stone, but now she’ll send him to the halls of death. Morgan offers her some wine first--and throws the remaining liquid from the goblet into her face. Astarte turns to stone in mid-lunge, then crashes to the ground, and shatters.

Shakira asks if Morgan’s noticed how bad his luck’s been with woman lately. Morgan declines to discuss it.

Morgan and Shakira fly out of Grimfang on the back of the winged horse, while below, lonely Arvak watches them--Shakira, actually--go.

Things to Notice:
  • Grimfang is in sort of an isolated place to attract a lot of visitors, it seems.  The time it took to acquire her collection must matter less to someone apparently as long-lived as Astarte.
  • How does Morgan instantly know where Astarte's statues came from just from figuring out the liquid isn't wine?
Where It Comes From:
This issue is largely Greek mythology inspired.  It's got a winged horse (pegasus), a centaur, and a women who turns things to stone--though admittedly, not with her gaze like a gorgon.  Like Circe, Astarte offers refreshment which will transform the consumer.

Arvak Thunderhoof seems to have a bit of the classical centaur lecherousness, though he plays more like a seventies ladies' man than the would-be abductors of myth.

"Astarte" is the Greek name of a goddess of the Eastern Mediterranean of Semitic origin.  Her purview was fertility and war.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Petty God: Noom the Ubiquitous

Symbol: A small statue, boundary marker, or herma with an head of an (often bearded) old man wth a bemused expression.
Alignment: Lawful

Noom the Ubiquitous, or Noom the Unlooked For, is the patron of the lost (both people and things), wanders, and things overlooked. For as long as there have been roads, streets, and trails, people have been placing crudely fashioned statuettes of this smiling godling along them. He oversees journeys that are not as planned. He brings the lost traveler to a place more interesting than where she intended to go, and insures that lost items wind up in the hands of those who might need them at a crucial moment.

In manifestation, Noom looks like a portly, aged, dwarf in bright clothing. The pockets on his clothes always look full, and he typically carries a peddler’s sack, fit to burst,on his back. He seldom appears though, preferring to act through his idols.

Noom has few if any worshippers. So ancient and forgotten is his cult, few even realize the small, roadside statues represent a god. Noom aides travelers not in exchange for their veneration, but out of whim. Anyone lost in the presence of a Noom statue has a 40% chance of attracting the godling’s attention. This increases to 60% if they sleep in close proximity to a statue.

Noom will not help a lost traveler find their destination, but will either subtly guide something interest their way, or guide the person to something of interest. “Interest” in this case, may be the threshold of adventure, but it will generally not be something immediately dangerous (like a wandering monster). Noom’s intercession will never be obvious. Events will always seem natural, if perhaps a little strange.

Other times, Noom’s influence will be felt in the finding of an innocuous, but ultimately useful item. These will seldom be magical, and will never appear to be particularly value at first (though they may actually be). These will be found in the dust or weeds around Noom idols. It will be strange in many cases that the item could have been lost where it is found.

Destroying a statue of Noom will bring the godling’s displeasure. Doing so may result (50%) in getting lost, at least for a time, in an unpleasant and possibly dangerous way.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inception and D&D Cosmology

Rewatching Inception on blu-ray this weekend I thought of another way some of the film's concepts might inform an rpg setting. Its portrayal of descent through “levels" of dream got me thinking how that might be applied to the standard model of AD&D cosmology.

First, you’d have to take the occult/mystic view that the multiverse beyond the Prime Material is largely a conceptual or spiritual place. The macrocosm (all that is) is reflected, perhaps even encompassed, in the microcosm of a human being. This is hardly a new view, but a different from D&D’s more mechanistic approach.

If the planes aren’t necessarily physical places in the usual sense, but more like states of consciousness or spiritual planes, they’re probably mostly reachable by astral projection, mental/spirit travel, or the like. Travelers’ bodies are left behind in the semblance of sleep.

The first stop would be the astral plane. This area would be malleable (to a degree) to the mind of an experienced traveler. Maybe it also impinges on dreams so random dream stuff is here that can be utilized. The distance through here to any “outer” plane might be a factor of attunement to that planes dominant emotion/ethos/mind-set, or maybe it has to do with some other factor.

Like dream-levels in Inception, I think it would be cool if time ran different in each planar level. The further from the Prime Materal, the “slower” time runs. The astral is only a little slower than the Prime, but in Hell things seem to last forever.

Anyway, that might mean that while each outer plane has a particular theme or character, it will be filtered through the consciousness of the traveler. Everybody gets his own heaven and hell--and nirvana, or whatever. I don’t know how that would work for a party. Maybe the lead traveler would have the biggest influence, but if they split up, individuals would gradually find themselves in very different realms. Of course, maybe the planes are sentient too--iconic representatives, after a fashion, of certain ideas. Maybe they assert their own influence which establishes the broad strokes of their appearances.

Anyway, I think you can see where I’m going with this. I suppose this idea might work better in a modern occult game or something like that, but I see it as playable with traditional fantasy, too. Characters (or players) need not have a real understanding of how the planes operate for them to work this way. In fact, it might be more interesting if they didn’t.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Night Mail

The New World depends on the timely delivery mail of over large distances. Unfortunately, large swathes of the continent are mostly unsettled, only cut by lone railways, or haphazard auto trails. Bandits, hostile Native tribes, and wandering monsters still harry travellers in much the West, while malevolent storms and ravenous zombies menace the Dustlands. The skies have often become the best option.

The Union has a postal service, but it relies on private contractors to carry air mail. Many of these companies are small operations, or even sole propietorships. The pilots are typically recruited from the ranks of barnstorming daredevils or veterans of the Great War. Their planes are often rickety and aging, held together by paint and wishful thinking.

The larger, or more reckless, operations run night and day. Coast-to-coast routes can be flown by most carriers in around 30 hours, pilots staying awake with black coffee and alchemical stimulants. Larger (and much more expensive) planes can make the trip in less than twenty. The smaller planes go from the City to San Tiburon in jumps--making deliveries in the Steel League, Lake City, and some Western cow-towns along the way.

That's assuming the planes make it safely. Aviation is a dangerous business in the best of conditions, and conditions are seldom the best. Thunderbirds hunt western skies, wings crackling with St. Elmo’s fire, riding the storms their presence invokes. Air-bandits strike from mountain hideouts, or (it’s rumored) cloud-hidden flying fortresses, to down and loot commercial planes. The whispered come-ons of slyphs seduce lonely aviators to their doom. Elemental storms smash aircraft out of spite.

Then there’s the strange fauna of the upper air. Eerily translucent, gelatinous predators, like something out the ocean depths, which drift downward in response to air vibrations, and almost certainly, magical energies.

Thamaturgical enhancements can, and have, improved aircraft engines and systems, but their use is limited for safety reasons. Magic energies tend to attract dangerous para-elementals of lightning (or electricity)--entities called gremlins or glitches by those in aviation. Their very nature disrupts electrical equipment; and their chaotic anti-potential can disrupt mechanical devices, and react with thamaturgical equipment in unpredictable ways.

Their presence interacts with the human mind, too. Pilots who have suffered gremlin attacks often report hallucinating outlandish, colorful, diminutive creatures--if they survive the encounter.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Structures of Magical Revolutions

We’re all familiar with the advance of technology and the shifting--sometimes radically--of scientific ideas. The ether theory gave way to special relativity; the bow gave way to the gun. So why is it we seldom see any advancements in the technology of magic, or magical paradigm shifts, in rpg settings?

Not that magic isn’t shown as changing over time, but it's almost always a fall from a more advanced state, even a golden age, to its current one. Mostly, though, this seems to just a change from more magic to less. Sure, this gives a convenient rationale for ancient magical ruins and magical items laying around, but there are other explanations for that stuff, surely.

Why can’t magic missiles be more powerful today than 100 years ago? Maybe old spells have completely fallen by the wayside due to improve defenses (maybe, though, those defenses have been lost too?). Or how about old magical theories giving way to the radical new theories of a Magus Einstein? Different magical schools/styles need not be equally valid views that just add “color”, one could be more true than the other. What would that even mean: more powerful spells? shorter casting times? higher levels attainable? bragging rights in the outer planes?

Anyway, its something to think about: What are the structures of magical revolutions?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Crime & Amusement

A covert war is being fought along the boardwalk, and in the places of amusement, on Lapin Isle on the southeastern coast of the City. The war is between two lords (or one lord and one lady) of petty crime. The stakes are the illicit earnings from all the beach’s pick-pockets, quick-grab artists, petty confidence tricksters, and part-time prostitutes. Neither of these would-be kingpins are human, but are, in fact, coin-operated fortune telling machines.

In the middle of the boardwalk, a penny arcade is the domain of Mister Chax, the All-Knowing Homonculus. Inside his glass case, Mister Chax appears as a ventriloquists dummy in a natty suit with dead (yet still too-knowing) eyes and a leering, plastered grin beneath a pencil-thin moustache. His communications come on cards, neatly printed and filligreed. Chax’s gang is mostly scruffy urchins who seem innocuous when encountered singularly, but sinister in packs. They speak in a ridiculous child-argot never completely intelligible to adults, without magical aide. Some of them are very large for their age.

Chax also has been known to employ inky, spider-things the size of wharf rats with almost human faces and derisive, whispering voices. Their bites cause painful pustules and nightmares.

Mister Chax’s rival can be found in a novelty shop near the entrance to Lunar Rabbit Park. Her glass case gives her name as Grisselda, but her followers--her “ducklings”--call her “auntie” or “great aunt.” Grisselda appears as an old woman, like an Old World grandmother. She tells fortunes by the use of playing cards, and this is also the way she communicates with her followers. These are mostly young girls, either in their teens or early twenties, who dress like prim young ladies, perhaps on a church trip. Their dainty purses hide switchblades, maybe pocket revolvers, and nasty, back-alley magic items. The cryptic meanings of Grisselda’s cards are interpreted by an oracle. She's a girl a little older than Auntie's standard soldier, with eyes older still, and porcelain skin. She typically dresses like an aspiring torch-singer, and smokes a cigarette through a holder. Her name is always Esme.

Chax and Grisselda try to keep their war sotto voce. They have no wish to attract the authorities, but also no wish to draw the interest of the malign godling of Lapin Isle, the dark personification of the rabbit in the moon; the thing like a man in a bunny suit that is not a man.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Back-Ups Are Back

For the majority of issues 29-88, Warlord featured a back-up story. Let's take a look at another couple of the series featured there in:

First Appearance: Claw the Unconquered #1 (1975)
Last Pre-Warlord Appearance: Claw the Unconquered #10 (1978)
Featured as Back-up: Warlord #48-49
Next SeenWonder Woman #21 (2008)
His Story: Claw is a barbaric warrior from the world of Pytharia who has the right hand of a demon thanks to a curse.  Claw recently got a revival at Wildstorm and a crossover with Red Sonja.
How He's Like the Warlord: he's a sword-wielding tough-guy in a fantasy world.

First Appearance: Warlord #63 (1982)
Featured as Back-up: Warlord #63-88
Next SeenConqueror of the Barren Earth #1 (1985)
Its Story: The Barren Earth is really just plain old Earth--only in the far future after the Sun has become a red giant.  Jinal Ne'Comarr (our heroine) is a human from intergalatic space on a mision to reclaim mankind's homeworld in her civilization's war with the alien Qlov.  The Barren Earth graduated from back-up status to a limited series...and then it was gone.
How She's Like the Warlord: Jinal swings a sword (well, an energy blade) and carries a gun.  She's from a more advanced culture hanging out in a primitive one amid the remnants of advanced technology.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Clipped in the City

Here, once again, are a few pictures from various periodicals published in the City, and their accompaning headlines:

A novelty automaton from a boardwalk attraction inexplicably began to rob patrons at gunpoint.  Where the automaton got the gun has yet to be discovered.

Across the plains of central Freedonia, authorities are chasing an armored giant (likely a hillybilly giant, but possible a golem) responisble for the robbery of several banks and at least one train.

A cadre of adventures rescued women kidnapped by a rogue thaumaturge before he could preform the ritual he presumably had planned.  Whatever their original hair color and style, all the women had been magical transformed to long-tressed, platinum blondes.  The women were unharmed by their fifteen hour ordeal, and in fact evidenced little emotion due to mesmerism.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ideas I Wish I'd Had First

Recent travel and conference attendance has impaired my post writing and general blogosphere presence, but has given me time to read other stuff while in hotel rooms and airplanes. In finally getting around to reading China Mieville’s latest fantasy novel Kraken, I’ve found it has several cool ideas to steal for gaming.

Kraken is set in modern London and concerns a curators descent into the city’s occult underbelly after the theft of a specimen of giant squid. It’s a Tim Power-ish set up and story (in a way, so was Mieville’s last modern novel, The City and the City), I think, but written in Mieville’s distinct prose style.

Anyway, there are several good ideas in here that I wish I had thought of first. There is a general strike amongst magical familiars, being lead by the spirit of an ancient Egyptian shabti, who took part in an uprising against the dead they were meant to toil for in the after-life. There's the menacing duo (there are a lot of menacing duos in fiction, aren’t there?) Goss and Subby, who get into a magically protected house by having themselves folded up and mailed in a box.

Best so far, though, is Mieville’s description of the “memory angels” which guard various London museums:

“In the Museum of Childhood were three toys that came remorselessly for intruders--a hoop, a top, a broken video-game console--with stuttering creeping as if in stop-motion. With the wingbeat noise of cloth, the Victoria and Albert was patrolled by something like a chic predatory face of crumpled linen. In Tooting Bec, the London Sewing Machine Museum was kept safe by a dreadful angel made of tangles and bobbins and jouncing needles...”
If there's anything the City needs its genius loci like that!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gloves of Gold

The gloves of gold appear like a set of modern boxing gloves, red in color, but with a golden glimmer, which appears as a bright glow to those with magical sight. Some scholars believe they are items of great antiquity and have changed their appearance with time, originally being only simple leather straps of the kind worn by ancient Ealderdish pugilists.

The gloves are often found in gyms or boxing training centers. They will appear as normal items until “activated”, though it is unclear what is necessary for this process to occur. Some claim they reveal themselves when they know they’re needed.

There are some legendary previous uses of the gloves. Most recenlty, in 5880, Basher Brant went ninety-nine rounds with Death’s champion in a match refereed by an avatar (or senior representative) of Management for the lives of his adventuring companions.

Once activated, the gloves are usable by anyone. They imbue the wearer with pugilistic skill, whether the individual possessed it before or not. Gloves allow the wearer to strike creatures who can only be harmed by magical weapons. Further, they enhance a wearers ability to “K.O.” even magical opponents.

Benefits: The gloves are a +3 magical weapon. On a a natural twenty, the opponent gets a saving throw. Success means they are stunned for a round and unable to act. Failure means they are knocked unconscious for 2-20 rounds.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Weapons of Choice

[Article by H.L. Candor, reprinted (with permission) from True Adventure magazine, month of Pluvial, 5887.]

The general public of the New World sometimes finds it amusing to see adventurers, delvers, and other sorts of modern soldiers of fortune, decked out with an array of improvised weapons. Even more puzzling, and usually viewed as colorful eccentricity, are the publicity and autograph photos of such characters brandishing ancient weapons in this age of the machine gun.

These practices are not mere affectations, but rather coldly practical and pragmatic choices made by professionals (mostly) who know their business.

Consider the assort pick-axes, wrecking-bars, truncheons, and over-sized knives the City’s adventurers are wont to carry when bound for the wilderness or some subterranean ruin. These implements are tools as well as weapons--handy for the spelunking, entry-breaking, cracking treasure chests, and other utilitarian tasks facing them. If they can also be used to break the skull of a man-eating troglodyte, or dissuade an inebriated hillbilly giant, so much the better. Bullets are, of course, effective in these sorts of situations, but the prudent--and therefore long-lived--adventurer is always prepared.

In the case of delvers equiped like Medieval men-at-arms, we must look to history. The union of the ars thamaturgica and the practical sciences is uneasy at best, and of recent vintage. Mankind has possessed gunpowder for centuries, but only rarely in all that time have the sorcerer’s talents been used to enhanced these sorts of weapons. Rarer still are they in the ruins and crypts of the New World, where the Ancients never deployed mundane weaponry that advanced. This sort of aid is essential; hard won experience has taught generations of adventurers that there are some creatures which prove resistant--or indeed impervious--to all but magical weapons, whatever the weapon’s deadliness otherwise.

For this reason, adventurers looking to improve their odds of survival and material reward have had occasion to take up the use of weapons found in some tomb or trove which would otherwise be considered archaic. Swords, battle-axes, and assorted pole-arms are found in the arsenals of modern professionals. For some, the use these weapons is merely as adjuncts to their use of firearms; for others, the magical archaic weapon becomes their signature.

So, next time you see a photo of one of the City’s famous adventurers sporting a weapon that looks more at home in a museum or even the tool-yard, remember: these may not be just weapons of choice--they maybe be weapons of necessity!

Ruby Ring - Adventuress, pin-up girl, and sometime actress, posing with her magic scimitar 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Behind the Blurry Veil

...Or, “The Creation of a Petty Goddess”

Yesteryday, James Maliszewski of Grognardia gave me the good news that my Petty Gods submission, Drasheeng of the Blurry Veil was accepted, and he posted a great depiction of the deity in question by Mark Allen.

Drasheeng was conceived as the godling of misperception due to intoxication--and deception utilizing that misperception. She aides the aging harlot who relies on her client’s drink-blurred eyes to enhance her beauty, the roguish youth plying the reluctant maid with wine, and the confidence man who supplies intoxicants to muddle his marks’ better judgement.

The inspiration for this goddess came from the term “beer goggles” and musing on what that concept's patron diety would be like. How might she best exemplify it?  I surmised she’d probably have a body like a Frazetta babe, and behind her blurry veil, a face like:

But of course, nobody ever sees that until the next morning...