Monday, February 28, 2011

Mosquito, Repellent

In San Zancudo, from the shade of a cantina, one can watch a colorful parade in honor of the national “bird”--the mosquito.

San Zancudo straddles the treacherous strait between the northern New World continent of Septentrion and the southern Asciana. The way through is difficult due rocks and a peculiarity of geology which causes the depth of the passage to change--the volcanic rock pushed up periodically by subterranean pockets of steam. Only the San Zancudan pilots know the timing of these movements, and the way through, from the Meropic Ocean to the Tranquil.

The strait isn’t the only unusual thing in San Zancudo. In previous times, it’s jungles were home to a speices of mosquito that could grow to the size of a small dog. These creatures were never numerous when compared to their smaller cousins, but dangerous due their voracious hunger for blood. A eradication campaign earlier in the century was thought to have wiped them out entirely, though there is some evidence this may not be the case.

The celebration of mosquitos San Zancudo may not be innocent frivolity.  There are rumors that the pagan cult which once worshipped an obscene, vampiric mosquito goddess still exists in the deep jungles. The old temples may still hold orgiastic rites where victims are sacrificed to the god-thing, manifest in a monstrous cloud of mundane (but ravenous) mosquitos. The giant insects are held to be the goddess' prize servitors and the enforcers of her will.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

More Elephants on Parade

Last week, I talked I chronicled an unusual elephant-shaped building in the City. The inspirations for that post were the three exemplars of zoomorphic architecture constructed by James V. Lafferty in the late nineteenth century. The first (and the only one still in existence) was “Lucy,” built in 1881 in what is now Margate, New Jersey. Lucy is 65 feet tall and 60 feet long. Here’s the plan for Lucy filed with the U.S. patent office:

Lafferty built one larger. The Elephantine Colossus, built on Coney Island in 1888, was 122 feet tall. It was destroyed in a fire in 1896, but here’s a diagram of its insides:

The third was 40 feet tall, and built in Cape May, New Jersey, in 1884. It was named “The Light of Asia,” but known as “Old Dumbo” to the locals. Never financially successful, it was partial torn down, and what left of it was burnt in 1900.

I think any of these structures would make an unusual set-piece in a Victorian (or perhaps an unorthodox Old West) game. They certain could inspire similar structures for use in any era or setting.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Rogue Elephant

To adventurers in the City, the question, “have you see the elephant?” has a different meaning than elsewhere. Some have encountered an infamous, wandering hotel in the shape of an elephant, now the residence of a dangerous (and possibly insane) sorcerer.

The Mastodon Colossus, or Hotel Elephantine, was built as a tourist attraction on Lapin Isle in the City’s barony of Rook End. The (admittedly eccentric) architect Jamis Maguffin constructed it through consultation of certain codices of the Ancients--and some magical materials probably dating to Meropis dredged from the City’s harbor. The elephant was twelve stories tall and had stout legs 60 feet in diameter. It had 31 guest rooms, a gallery, tobacconist's shop, and an observation deck shaped like a gigantic howdah.

Most spectacularly, the whole thing was planned to move. Maguffin promised that when all of the thaumaturgic glyphs and enhancements were complete, the elephant would be able to ambulate without any seeming change to the rooms on its interior. These enhancements, unfortunately, would take some time.

Eleven years later, when the thaumaturgical working was (supposedly) nearly complete, the elephant walked away one night with a compliment of guests. Most have turned up dead in various locales, all over the world and beyond, in the four decades since.

The theft and the murders were laid at the feet of Hieronymus Gaunt, lich and (self-styled) wicked sorcerer. He and a band of miscreants entered the elephant and completed the rituals to give in motion. Since that time they've travelled the world in decadent style, taking their seemingly unending orgy of dark thaumaturgy, baroque perversity, and deadly amusements where they may. Sometimes, when it amuses Gaunt, they take others aboard and survivors have reported stores of plunder, both mundane and magical.

I may do a post on the real elephant-shaped buildings of our world in the next week. Until then, read more about them at your local library.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

On some moonless night in the City, you can look across the Eldritch River and see on the other bank a shining, alien city with buildings that look as if there made of blown glass and infused with a pale, fluorescent glow. In the morning, you might look again at the same place on the far bank, wondering if the strange city had just been dream, and you’d see the gray smokestacks and worn docks of humdrum Hoborxen, and you’d be sure you that it had been.

And you’d be wrong.

Since the earliest days of Ealderdish settlement, strange things have been seen and heard in the area that would eventually become the city of Hoborxen. These irruptions from elsewhere have only increased over the centuries since. Now, in the night, the working class neighborhoods and decaying waterfront of day Hoborxen are intruded upon, and sometimes replaced, by an otherworldly city of tall spires, all its buildings made of something resembling glass, warm to the touch like the mantle of a recently lit lantern.

Every night, some part of Hoborxen is replaced by the intruder--sometimes only a single structure, other times an entire neighborhood. On nights of the new moon, Horboxen is entirely replaced. The city begins to appear at dusk, as if emerging from an unseen but evaporating fog, or coalescing from the dying light. The strange glow of its structures rises slowly; it's brightest at midnight and wanes toward dawn.

No human inhabitants of the alien city are ever seen, but it's not completely deserted. Fairy-like creatures--obscenely jabbering, cinereous, and moth-winged--sometimes buzz about its streets or lewdly call from high perches. A low growl, a sound as much felt in the bones as heard, periodically reverberates through the streets, and some explorers have claimed to heard a woman crying or laughing softly.

Exploration of the glassy structures usually turns up everyday detritus from Hoborxen, most of which is of little value. Sometimes, things lost elsewhere in the world turn up here, but again seldom anything of real value except perhaps to the one that lost it. It’s a common tale among adventurers that there's a great treasure haul somewhere in the city, but no one has retrieved anything more than a few enigmatic, otherworldly trinkets.

Would-be treasure-hunters should weigh the likely gain against the potential dangers.  A number of people entering the areas of the alien city are never seen again. 

The people of Hoborxen are inured to these nocturnal visitations, and rarely remark on them, though addiction, violence, and suicide are more common there than in neighboring towns. No one knows where they go when they’re elsewhere. “Nowhere,” they say, and shrug and turn away.

Some thaumaturgist muse darkly that there may come a time when Hoborxen will be gone entirely, every night. And after that, will the incursion spread?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: The Gamble

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 Gamble"
Warlord (vol. 1) #44 (April 1981)

Writing and art by Mike Grell; inks by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: On a lonely Skartarian beach, Jennifer Morgan awakens to the sound of a voice commenting on her beauty, and finds herself under the gaze of a hooded man carrying a brass-bound wooden box on his shoulder.

Along the Terminator, the rim where the outer North Pole meets the inner world of Skataris, Morgan and Aton arrive at the city of Bantuhm.  Finding Jennifer is their goal ultimate, but Morgan's brought them to this “den of thieves and assassins” because he needs a good swordsmith.  He must have a replacement for the magical Hellfire sword which he was forced to give up to escape its malign influence.  Morgan tells Aton to find a bar and he’ll meet him later.

Aton hasn’t even gotten his drink before he’s enticed into a game of chance by the roguish Tevalco El Cint, over the warnings of the establishment’s barmaid.   A simple shell game is what el Cint offers—and a small wager.

When Morgan finds Aton later he’s looking downcast over his ale.  Morgan has had no luck finding a blade, and it doesn’t improve his mood to hear Aton lost their horses gambling!  Morgan’s response to this news:

The Tevalco el Cint intervenes to offer Morgan a deal.  There’s “a certain jewel in a certain tower at the center of a walled maze” that el Cint will exchange for their horses.  Morgan reluctanting agrees, and soon the three are standing outside the large gates in the wall around the tower.

Morgan wonders why there are no guards.  El Cint tells them they're not needed.  He ushers the two through the gate, telling them the difficulty isn’t getting in, but getting out—and he slams the gate behind them, locking it somehow.  The key to the gate, he assures them, is in the same chamber as the jewel.

Morgan and Aton have no choice; they start out through the hedge maze.  The correct path is hard to find—and the maze has deadly traps, including rabid dogs that come running at them out of the darkness.  Morgan and Aton have to dispatch them without getting bitten, which they succeed in doing, but at the cost of Morgan’s remaining ammunition.

Making it through the rest of the maze without incident, the two come to the door in the base of the tower, guarded by two apparently empty suits of armor—one which turns its head to follow them when they’ve past!  They're only a little ways up the tower stairs when they realize the suits of armor are behind them.

Morgan knocks one down with a handy flaming brazier, proving for certain that no one is inside.  More suits of armor join the chase, and with the fire is spreading.  The two run into a room where they find the key and the jewel.  Aton snatches up the key, but the room is ablaze, and Morgan isn’t about to let them burn to get el Cint his treasure.  The two are forced to jump from a high tower window into water below.

When the two walk back into the tavern, el Cint is surpised to see them—he had bet 100 silver pieces that they wouldn’t make it!  Since they don’t have the jewel he won’t return the horses, but he does offer Morgan an attempt at his game: a chance to win the horses against their service in another enterprise.  Morgan agrees.

El Cint works his shell game again, and asks Morgan to guess where the pearl is.  Morgan’s response:

Then Morgan tells the now one-handed el Cint how it is:

Morgan and Aton walk toward their horses, and encounter a black cat that transforms into Shakira.  She tells Morgan not to be so surprised: she told him they’d meet again.  She asks where they're going.  Morgan doesn’t know, but he does know they’ll have to make a side-trip to pick up more ammo first.

Much later, the trio ride into the ruined city where Morgan stashed his ammunition.  While Morgan and Aton retreive it, Shakira walks into an old room and activates a monitor, making it show an image of how the city must have looked in ages past.  Shakira sheds tears, staring at it.   Then, she turns the computer off and leaves the room.

Things to Notice:
  • The Terminator tavern girl sports the raccoon-eye make-up not seen in Warlord sense the seventies.
  • Was Shakira following Morgan and Aton all this time?  It doesn't seem likely she'd just turn up in the same city.
  • We get a hint at Shakira's mysterious past.
Where It Comes From:
The hard-to-breach tower with treasure inside is a Sword & Sorcery staple, perhaps starting with the Conan story "Tower of the Elephant" (1933).

Bantuhm is perhaps derived from Ban Thum, a district in Thailand, or Bantoom, a Barsoomian city-state.

"Tevalco el Cint" is a pseudo-Spanish name; "el cint" is apart of several Catalan place names.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Prez's Day

I missed the real Presidents Day, but maybe American Presidents-Might-Have-Been have their own separate day? There are a lot of these guys, as a quick look at tvtropes will reveal, but one of the craziest is America’s first teen president--Prez.

This idea was the brainchild of writer Joe Simon (most famous for his work with Kirby--solo he gave us Brother Power the Geek) and artist Jerry Grandenetti. The series is predicated on the notion of a Constitutional amendment lowering the age for eligibility for office (which may have been inspired by the 1968 film Wild in the Streets). The upshot is a teenager gets elected, and who better than a earnest and idealistic kid from Middle America whose mother even named him “Prez” ‘cause she thought he’d be President one day?

Prez Rickard served for 4 issues. An unpublished story appeared Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2. Prez also had a continuity-busting crossover with Supergirl.

President Rickard had an evenful time in office. There was a U.S.-Russia chess match resulting in chess-based crime, and an act of war by Transylvania,  with vampire bats as a bioweapon.

Then there were domestic threats. Prez's attempt to outlaw firearms (as one might expect) earned him the ire of a group called the Mintueman--and an an assassination attempt. From this misadventure, the young president learned peace and love weren’t the answer to everything.

Prez’s tale was told again in Sandman--recast as a sort of modern fairytale which fits the material nicely, even though the original comic was more goofy than anything else.

So let’s take a moment this Un-President’s Day to remember Prez: The First Teenage President of the U.S.A.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Piece of the Action

Lake City on the Inland Sea is foremost among the municipalities of the Inland Sea Combine, and the second largest city in the Union. It’s also completely controlled by organized crime.

Traditional government broke down toward the end of the last century, in the wake of vicious gang warfare. Finally, the boss of the Strillo crime family made a Faustian deal with the Hell Syndicate. Granted hellish powers and infernal soldiers to swell his ranks, he quickly overwhelmed the other gangs and took control of the city. Since then, a succession of gang bosses have controlled the city through use of patronage and influence-peddling, though they are certainly not above the application of violence and intimidation.

Lake City’s mayor and city council are elected, but all are indebted to the gangs. The city is divided up into territories doled out to “underbosses” who not only oversee criminal enterprises, but also control voting precincts and act as unofficial magistrates, in a sort of  de facto feudal system.

Poor youth look up to the gangsters, and hope to join their ranks one day. Every neighborhood has stories of a local kid who rose up through the ranks to get his or her own piece of the action through judicious application of street-smarts and gunplay.

What only a few of the wide-eyed youth ever live to see--an unlucky few--is the boss of bosses.  They never have to take part in the ritual visits of "made men" to pay fearful homage and offer sacrifice to Ziacomo Mostruoso, imprisoned behind strong thaumaturgic wards in the sub-basement of an old prison, his immortal body and devious mind ravaged and mutated by a lifetime’s exposure to the raw energies of hell.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Midnight in the House Tenebrous

There are places in Nla-Ogupta--that ancient, decadent, Venusian Venice--where Terrans do not go. The Street of Blue Vines was one of those. The buildings along it crowded close, as if trying to conceal some secret. The uncanny glow of bioluminescent lantern-jellies that cling to haphazard lines seem dimmer than elsewhere--as if they too were conspirators. It's said that in millennia past, when Egypt was young, the Street of Blue Vines was a place where cultists trafficked with inhuman gods. Old Venus-hands, deep in their cups, spin tales of cannibalism, and alien sexual rites. That's what the rumors say.  No Terran knows, and if any polite Venusian knows, they don't speak of it to offworlders.

But on this night, a Terran does wind his way down the serpentine Street of Blue Vines. His stride is unhesitating--he hasn't come this way accidentally. He moves purposely to the darkened, leaning structure which bears no sign or legend, but nevertheless is known to the denizens of Nla-Ogupta's underworld as the House Tenebrous. He has come seeking this house, and the service it sells.  He's come to buy a man's death.

The Street of Blue Vines gets its name from the eerie, electric indigo vines and foliage that entwine 'round its most infamous denizen, the House Tenebrous. The House only permits entrance at night--in fact, it may be that it can only be located at night.

A seated, robed figured, appearing as a short and portly man, his features completely hidden in a cowl, asks any visitor who he or she might wished kill, and why. The figure’s voice sounds distant, and tinny, and seems to emanate from all around. The man never moves, even in the slightest.  Sometimes visitors get the impression that there are others in the room--the feeling of eyes upon them, or the hint of motion in the shadows of the audience chamber. Psychically sensitive individuals report “hearing” distant, unintelligible, whispers, and an unpleasant mental sensation not unlike smothering.

If the man chooses to accept the comission, the price is variable, and not always in money.  If a goal can be discerned from House's representative's payment demands, it is that they seem to be aimed at reducing Terran influence on Venus.

Eventually, though a space of week or months may pass, all victims of the House Tenebrous are found dead somewhere in Nla-Ogupta (or in one case, on a ship having recently departed there) without any apparent signs of violence or physical injury. Victims always appear to have died in their sleep, though often their face and bodies are contorted as if in fear or pain.

Friday, February 18, 2011

AD&D Cosmology: A Defense

The so-called “Great Wheel” of AD&D cosmology takes its lumps from folks who feel its non-mythic, too mechanical, and over-complicated. To these charges, I find the system guilty--but I’d add for the sake of fairness that one should look at its virtues. After a discussion of this nature over at Dreams in the Lich House, Beedo suggested I offer a counterargument here. I’ve touched on ways I feel the Great Wheel can be reconceptualized before (twice)--but I’ll summarize my argument in favor of it here, before diving into a slightly new way to look at it.

So, to it’s virtues:

1. It’s complicated: That’s right--this can be be both a deficit and an asset. The system of correspondences, associations, and the like in hermetic magic is a lot less streamlined than fire and forget or comic book-esque magic blasts, but its got a little thing called verisimilitude. Ptomelaic epicycles are complicated as hell (and terribly wrong) but they’re authentic. The Great Wheel, ironically, has some of this “almost too convoluted to make up” charm about it.

2. It’s consistent: The implied setting of AD&D has morality (i.e. alignment) as a tangible force with teams, and secret languages, and auras (or something) that can be identified by spells. It makes sense that the realms of gods, devils, and the afterlife would operate on this same system--as above, so below, as it were. In fact, any cosmology that doesn’t take into account the reality of alignment in AD&D as written, is really an incomplete one, as there’s an odd, omnipresent force unaccounted for.

3. It’s weird: By this I mean its cobbled together (syncretic might be a better term) and idosyncratic. It’s strangely uniform in some ways, and oddly random in others. In other words, it reminds me of crackpot theories of physics, or theosophic ramblings, and whole swathes of occultism. Looking at that diagram in in 1E Deities and Demigods is like hearing about the Philadelphia Experiment, or reading an occult tome that claims to be the “real” Necronomicon. It’s crazy, but the sort of crazy that makes one curious.

All well and good, you might say, but what do you do with it? This a complicated question.  First off, I’d say take a look at it through these principles:

1. The Outer Planes are representations of “human” ideas/concerns (the Anthropic Principle).

2. The Outer Planes are not material places but conceptual ones: their appearance is malleable, and they're perhaps more symbolic than literal: perhaps like being in a dream in Inception, or maybe like Ditko’s surrealist portrayal of magical realms in Doctor Strange comics.

3. Each plane is sort of symbolic or representational of some aspect of its alignment: Hades might be the archetypal prison, for instance.  Deities don't so much dwell there in the sense they someone might live in the suburbs, they dwell there in the sense that are associated with its archetypes or ethos.  In this respect, they might resemble the sephiroth of Qabalah as portrayed in hermeticism-- Alan Moore’s Promethea being a great (and gameable) representation of this.

If this generates any sort of interest I might give some examples in a future post--or maybe I’ll give ‘em regardless, if I’m of a mind.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Urban Monsters

Over time, metropolises like the City extend urban sprawl into areas which were formerly wilderness--wilderness haunted by monsters. Some monsters are pushed further out into the wilds, but others adapt to the new environments in which they find themselves. Then their are other creatures who have always been associated with man and his habitations in a variety of ways, from freeloader to predator. Here's a sampling of creatures one might encounter in the City and perhaps other urban areas:

Gargoyles: are Old World creatures who have been roosting in human cities since ancient times. Historically, some Earlderdish cities are reported to have formed pacts with gargoyle colonies for mutual protection. The creatures must have either stowed away or been purposely brought to the New World. Though admittedly ill-tempered and certainly capable of violence, they're generally not dangerous (except to small animals like pets) if given wide berth. Researchers in the City have tried to make contact with the sometimes temperamental creatures as its hoped that an understanding of the metabolic curse, pertrifactio progressiva, that causes gargoyles to age into stone statues might lead to an alchemical cure for petrification of various sorts.

Oozes/Slimes/Molds: These organisms can be found in underground areas like sewers and subway tunnels which they colonized from deeper strata of ruins, or where they were dumped by irresponsible alchemical concerns. These organisms have been known to spread up into basements, or even through the walls of decaying buildings.  Such incursions often occasion a call to the Municipal Department of Animal and Pest Control.

Undead: Ghosts are common in cities, with other incorporeal undead somewhat less so.  Spectral automobiles phantom trains, and the like are more common in cities than in rural areas.  Freelance specialists do a brisk business in disposing of many sorts of hauntings. Zombies are utilized (illegally) in underground fighting competitions for the purposes of gambling, or as cheap labor. Skeletons are less frequently used because they attract too much attention, but some ostentatious necromancers employ them as (ahem)--muscle--for just that reason. Barrow-wights are sometimes found haunting potter’s fields, old catacombs, and occasionally upscale cemeteries, though the dark processes that initiate a wight infestation are not understood. Ghouls of the Strange New World are not actually undead, but have a taste for brains which make them dangerous, particularly if handled less than courteously. Vampires--blood junkies--tend to slide over their unlife from more respectable areas to slums where their victims are less likely to be missed.

Devils: The Hell Syndicate prefers to use human agents, keeping its infernal troops in reserve, but there are a few exceptions. Succubi and incubi are heavily involved in higher-priced prostitution rings. Hit-Fiends, mostly disguised (barely) as mundane muscle, back up particularly high-placed human gangsters, and are sent rub out particularly annoying adventurer-types.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Hypothetically Collected

Warlord began (and ended) its run long before the days of obligatory collections, so it was written to work as a monthly magazine. However, the dramatic arcs Grell utilizes, particularly in the early issues, lend themselves to a certain structure. Given the number of issues I have under my belt now in this feature, it might be worth looking back as those arcs, and how Warlord could be arranged into collections. It probably goes with saying, but my arrangement would probably never be how it would really be done--I’m more interested in story than printing economy.  So here are the Books of Warlord, so far:

Book 1: “Savage World” (First Issue Special #8, Warlord #1-5): Air Force pilot Travis Morgan crashes in the inner world of Skartaris. He leads a revolution against tyranny, and wins for himself the heart of a princess--a princess which cruel fate separates him from.

Book 2: (issues #6-15): Morgan gains a new companion (and a new enemy) in a brief return to the surface world. With the help of friends old and new, he must overcome strange challenges to return to his mate, Tara--and his new born son!

Book 3: “The Quest” (issues #16-21): The Demon Priest, Deimos, has abducted Joshua, heir to the throne of Shamballah, and son of the Warlord. Morgan and Tara search Skartaris for their son, and finally face their enemy in the eternal twilight of the Terminator--but even in defeating Deimos Travis Morgan loses.

Book 4: “This Sword for Hire” (issues #22-31): Grief-stricken over having caused the death of his son (or so he believes), Travis Morgan wanders through various adventures, and encounters Ashir (the second best thief in Skartaris!)--but ultimately he can’t hide from his responsibility or his destiny.

Book 5: (issues #32-39): The beautiful and enigmatic shapechanger, Shakira, joins Travis Morgan on sword and sorcery adventures in their quest to reach Shamballah and warn the city of an impending invasion.

Book 6: “War & Wizard World” (issues #40-43): Morgan and Shakira find King Ashir beset by assassins, and betrothed to a foreign queen--Morgan’s own mate! As lover’s are reunited, a Theran army marches on Shamballah the Golden. Also: Machiste and Mariah’s adventures with the uncoventional wizard Mungo Ironhand in Wizard World (back-ups form issues #40-41, possibly 29-31).

I should add there have been two actual Warlord collections. Showcase Presents: Warlord is still in print.

We'll return to the lost world next week...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

As today makes it T-731 days between me and forty, there'll be no long post, just Marilyn cutting a cake. 

Maybe I'll spend the extra time doing something worthwhile--like working on Weird Adventures...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love (and Sex) in the City

The City has a holiday analogous to our Valentine’s Day, celebrated in the winter month of Gelid. Hearts’ Day, or Lovers’ Day, has its origins in ancient, pagan fertility feasts, and is a time when wise thaumaturgists know the powers of the eikone Doll are at their strongest. Her manifestations walk the earth, manipulating the lives of humans to induce love--or at at least lust or passion.

People who don't directly interact with Doll, tend to commemorate the day by exchange of heart-shaped cards and gifts with their sweethearts.  Male adventurers, like chivalrous knights in stories, are known to vow to win some prize or achieve some great deed for their inamoratas.  No doubt the tendency of adventurers to imbibe in large quantities contributesd to this behavior.

In general, sexual mores in the New World resemble our own world’s in the first half of last century, though the presence of magic has led to some differences. Coercive magic or charms, for example, are technically illegal in most jurisdictions, but such laws are infrequently enforced. People tend to be somewhat cautious about taking drinks offered from strangers, and the most prudent wear some sort of minor charm as a defense. Luckily, most such magics are of short duration and tend to only have a shallow emotional effect.

Prostitution is illegal in the City and in most places in the New World, but that doesn’t stop it from being commonly practiced. Higher class prostitutes tend to employ thaumaturgical or alchemical aids to enhance their appeal, and the pleasure of their clientele, particularly those of exotic tastes. Some of these enhancements are extraplanar in origin, coming from the lust laboratories (and sometimes the pain dungeons) of the Hell Syndicate.

Unwanted pregnancy is, of course, a concern. The usual barrier methods of contraception are known. Purely biochemical female contraception is understood in theory, but is at this point not feasible. Alchemical or thaumaturgic methods exist, but their use is nontrivial as the dosage must be varied based on astrological influences and the like, so failure rates are high.

Venereal disease also looms large. Healing magics can ameliorate the effects, but prevention remains the best policy. Militaries, in particular, view this as a serious threat to readiness, though different nations address the problem differently. Some promote abstinence, while others have instituted programs of education, provision of condoms, and alchemical monitoring.  In the Great War, some particularly fiendish (though not terribly effective) attempts at biological warfare used prostitutes carrying alchemically-wrought infections to strike at enemy troops.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mighty Marvel Manhattan

The center of the Marvel Universe has always been New York City. The Avengers Mansion, the Daily Bugle, Empire State University, Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, and Luke Cage’s old office above the Gem Theater, are all located in a fairly realistically portrayed (except, you know, for the superheroes) Manhattan. DC’s fictional cities were originally generic settings, and have become thematic support for their central characters, but Marvel’s New York has always been more of place which its characters adapted to, or arose from.

TSR’s Marvel Superheroes rpg dealt with the city in a few of supplements (New York, New York, and the map on the judge’s screen, to name a couple), but never really gave us a lot of detail. That’s a shame, because there’s more to be had from the comics. Wizard #199 published the map above, and an accompanying article, but the best reference I've found is Peter Sandersen’s The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City.

Sandersen, of course, contrasts the Marvel Universe version of the city with ours. He also (as one might expect) pulls out the occasional obscure detail (like the Snakeroot cult in catacombs beaneath Central Park’s Belvedere Castle from Daredevil). What’s most interesting to me, though, is how some of the geographic elements are really easter eggs for Marvel Comics history--like the fact that Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich shared an apartment at 177A Bleeker Street, which turns out the be Dr. Strange’s address in the MU.

If you’ve got a yen to game in the Marvel Universe, or are just a Marvel fan, I’d say its worth checking out.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Well-Dressed Man from Elsewhere

He appears without warning, other than perhaps the briefest sensation of jamais vu. He has been seen anywhere from deep underground, to swank nightspots, to the soft places which border the near Astral. He often asks a question--a single question--in a voice somewhat muffled (which might be expected, given the mask), and distant, and with a diction very, very precise, like an old priest intoning an old liturgy. Few have been able to recall the question he asked after the meeting, but many are certain that he did ask one.

He has been known to raise a hand sometimes as if in warming, sometimes as if supplication. He has never been known to make an aggressive act, but It is unwise to touch him, or to be touched by him. The results vary, but they are often fatal, and always strange.

More than one appearance of the Man in the same area, almost surely means he will appear again, and in increasing frequency until something happens, typically some dire event. There are said to be bas-reliefs recovered from drowned Meropis with images bearing an uncanny resemblance to him.

Those encountering the Man would be wise to leave his vicinity as soon possible--though a polite departure is recommended. Just to be in his presence for extended periods has been associated with the development of certain rare cancers and unusual autoimmune diseases.  The smoke escaping from beneath his mask, and from his collar and cuffs is luminescent, and radioactive.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Real Dungeon: Paris Underdark

Modern stylings aside, he looks like an adventurer, doesn't he?  That's the sort of person you'd expect to find beneath a great city in old--and often forbidden--tunnels, wherein there's a house of bones, it's entrance bearing the legend: "Stop, this is the Empire of Death."

Everybody's heard of the Catacombs of Paris, the subterranean ossuary and tourist attraction. Morbid spectacle it may be, but its only small part of Paris’ underground tunnel system, all part of the Carrières de Paris--the Quarries of Paris--a network of abandoned limestone and gypsum mines reaching back to the 12th Century.

Only the area of the Catacombs is now open to the public, but it's just a part of the potentially accessible area of the quarries. Delvers known as cataphiles make a hobby of illegal entry into these other tunnels--if not for treasure, at least for adventure.

Here’s a map of a portion of the quarries. It probably helps if you read French...

...or maybe you can just think of it as some suitably accent tongue.

An interative map and a number of pictures can be found at the National Geographic website, and more cool maps can be found in this months issue.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Berserk

It's Wednesday, and another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

Warlord (vol. 1) #43 (March 1981)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell, Inked by Bob Smith

Synopsis: Morgan has fought his way into a Shamballah beseiged by the Theran army, only to find Tara has been captured by the enemy. The enemy, however, is unaware they have Shamballah’s queen in their hands, taking her for some common wench.

Within Shamballah’s walls, Morgan has surmised this, based on the fact the Therans have yet to ask for their surrender. With Morgan’s laser rifle, the Shamballan Elder thinks they should issue an ultimatum--but the rifle is almost out of charge. It will only be useful in a bluff, Morgan thinks, but maybe he can use it to leverage a deal. The Council of Elders balks at talk of deal-making, but Morgan doesn’t want to hear it:

Morgan’s got a plan. He leads the elder to the subterranean complex beneath the city. It’s been flooded, but Morgan wants volunteers to swim through, outflank the Therans and take them by surprise.

Shortly, Morgan leads a small contingent into the Theran camp, where he’s greeted by the commander, Kaatar Shang. Morgan reminds him he’s seen what the laser weapon can do. Why not save further bloodshed by a single combat? If Morgan wins, the Therans leave and release their captives. If Kaatar Shang wins, then the city is his.

After hearing that Morgan won’t use his laser rifle, Kaatar Shang agrees. Laughing, he calls forth the Theran champion, Brador:

Brador attacks, landing blow after savage blow. Tara watches, not knowing why her mate allows himself to be battered without fighting back. At the same time, beneath Skartaris, the Shamballan volunteers make the swim. Soon, they emerge at a point behind Theran lines.

In the Theran camp, Brador’s blow collapses Morgan’s already bent shield, knocking him to the ground. Kaatar Shang tells Brador to finish him.

As Brador raises his weapon, Morgan sees a flaming arrow flash across the sky behind him. It’s the signal he’s been waiting for! His hellfire sword cuts down Brador in one stroke.

The Shamballans emerge from the forest for a surprise attack, and the rest of their army pours forth from the city gates. Hearing their battle cries, Kaatar Shang realizes who his captive is. He grabs the laser pistol and holds Tara at gunpoint.

Morgan only smiles, and reaches for his pistol. Kaatar tries to fire--finds the gun is useless. Morgan shoots him in the face. He frees Tara, who takes up a sword, and the two join the battle.

As soldiers fall before them, the hellfire sword drinks deep of their blood. It’s influence creeps into Morgan’s soul, causing him to exult in the slaughter. He almost beheads a surrendering Theran, but Tara stays his hand.

That breaks the sword’s spell over him. He realizes it's dark influence, and rejects it. Impulsively, he tosses the sword into a nearby lake, from which a glowing hand rises to grasp it, and draw it below.

After the battle, Tara and Morgan share a kiss while standing on a parapet receiving the adulation of Shamballah’s people. Aton rides in on horse back, carrying Morgan’s banner, and calls out to the Warlord. Morgan angrily tells him he doesn’t want to hear it now.

Later, Tara awakens to find Morgan not in bed beside her, and knows what is to come. She peers through the door left ajar, and sees Morgan talking with Aton. He gives Morgan a piece of the wreckage from the Lady J, Jennifer Morgan's ship. Morgan says he has no choice--he has to find his daughter. He turns to see Tara watching. She smiles sadly, and shuts the door. Morgan lowers his head with tears in his eyes.

Soon, he and Aton are galloping out of the city.

Things to Notice:
  • Morgan wears a slightly different outfit to go to war.
  • Where did four-armed Brador come from?
  • The Shamballan underground complex makes a return appearance.
Where It Comes From:
Kaatar Shang's name may have been inspired by Matai Shang, a villainous Thern, in Edgar Rice Burroughs' tales of Barsoom.  Brador's four-armed form somewhat resembles the Green Martians from the same series.

Morgan's casting of the hellfire sword into a body of water echoes events at the end of Le Morte d'Arthur, where Sir Bedivere, at Arthur's command, tosses Excalibur into a lake where it's caught by the Lady of the Lake.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Against Chaos

When the City was only a Dwergen fort on a swampy island, religious separatists from Grand Lludd were founding their own states some leagues to the north. These groups were sometimes derisively called “Sticklers” in their native country, but they called themselves the Lawful. Though their religion has disappeared in the centuries since, they left their mark on the New Lludd colonies they founded.

The Lawful took their name from their belief that existence was a struggle between the forces of Law (the living spirit of the commandments of God) and Chaos (everything non-godly). They opposed what they believed to be the excesses and superstitious ritual of Oecumenical Hierarchate, but also its softer stance on the practice of magic. They also rejected the worldliness of their homeland--the imbibing of strong drink, dancing, and merriment in general. The situation became intolerable when Gloriana became queen, and begin patronizing the thaumaturgical arts. It was even rumored that she was of fae-blood---a race inherently aligned with Chaos, and thus the Devil!

Their witch-hunting and monster-slaying was not as much appreciated as it had been in this new more permissive era. The Lawful sought a way to leave corrupt Grand Lludd behind and start afresh in the New World, where they hoped to build the perfect society.

Their first task was girding themselves for war. They had heard stories of the the New World, and knew it to be as infected by magic and godlessness as their homeland. And so, lead by their greatest holy warriors--their paladins--they set sail to bring the dominion of Law to the Chaos of the wilderness.

Things didn’t go exactly as they planned. They built settlements, slayed monsters and cleared ancient ruins, true, but the Strange New World infected them as well. Witches and warlocks (their terms for sorcerers) emerged among them, and they couldn’t ferret them all out. Contact with the Natives, Black folk, and other Ealderdish colonists softened their strict ways.

Today, the Lawful are mostly seen as just as quaint part of New Lludd’s past. Still, there are rumors of some families--and perhaps even whole villages--that keep to the hold ways. Stern folk living almost monastic lives, who believe they’re still in a holy war against Chaos, and so train their children generation after generation to take up arms against monsters and magic.

Monday, February 7, 2011


Here's more visual inspiration from the world of the City.

Okay, so this is a quick post.  I got back into town yesterday evening to find my house without power, which didn't get repaired until late, and the whole event lead to the loss of a couple of pieces of electronics.  Modern magics fail us sometimes!

Anyway, back to the Strange New World...

Black dust zombies are a constant danger in the Dustlands.

Tales overheard in a dockside tavern: Captain Clanton and the Girl Revolutionaries of Javasu.

It was a death-trap.  Four adventurers lost their lives there in the month of Swelter alone.

A succubus madam. Hell Syndicate middle management.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Fist Full of Nonfiction

Here are some nonfiction recommendations I’ve rustled up from my collection with an eye toward the Western genre. Given the broad influence of Western tropes, though, there’s some ammunition here for your post-apocalyptic, space opera and even traditional fantasy games, too.

The Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns lets loose with both barrels on that very genre-blending tendency. It catalogs instances of science fiction and fantasy elements showing up in Westerns in all media--and vice versa. This means it terms “Western” pretty broadly, so the rational for including some of the entries is tenuous at best. The other downside is it is the entries are pretty short; it’s a catalog not an in-depth discussion. Still, having all this esoterica in one place makes for easy idea mining.

Staying on the encyclopedia trail, around the next bend we find another McFarland & Co. offering, Spaghetti Westerns: the Good, the Bad And the Violent. This bills itself as a “comprehensive filmography”--though some Amazon reviews have noted it to be plagued by quite a few errors. Still, for the casual browser (particularly one looking for game inspiration) its brief descriptions and discussions of a whole lot of films--including lists of series characters like Django and Sartana--is pretty cool.

Once all the hard riding’s done, we can sit at the saloon and let director (and spaghetti western enthusiast) Alex Cox regal us with 10,000 Ways to Die--which is not only a cool title, but an interesting work of criticism on the genre. Cox gives his insights and research on several films, some of which are on the more obscure side. He also offers up a lot of criticism of Clint Eastwood, and some grousing about Sergio Leone, but that’s the sort of thing one get when you get one (rather opinionated) guy’s take on things.

In a similar vein, Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, is another interesting overview, but its even more “film class” in style and so probably less useful as inspiration. Frayling’s axes ground are different than Cox’s--he’s got little good to say about American Westerns inspired by Spaghetti Westerns, and a whole lot of good things to say about Segio Leone.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Weird Adventures: Imperfect Union

Courtesy of the cartographic skills of Anthony Hunter at Battleaxes & Beasties, here’s a look at the Union, a political body of the Strange New World. It’s presented here without the full key, but many of the denoted places of interested we’ve already visited: Motorton, the Red Dwarf’s city (4), the ogre-haunted Smaragdine Mountains (6), the perilous Grand Chasm (11), San Tiburon, where dwells the King (maybe) of the New World (13), and of course, the City (1).

The Union, itself is a confederation of former Ealderdish colonies, formed for their mutual protection after they were abandoned by the great colonial powers (who were distracted by one of their interminable wars). It’s founding states were the New Lludd Counties, the City and its client municipalities, and the Southron Shires. The Union was designed to have no strong executive, instead vesting its power in a bicameral Union Congress.

The General Assembly (the larger house), has three representatives from each member state, elected by popular vote, though the means by which the slate of candidates is arrived at varies from state to state. The General Assembly is presided over by a speaker elected by the assembly members. The speaker still holds the ceremonial “Speaking Stick” (in appearance, something like a fraternity paddle or cricket bat inscribed with runes), but trials by combat are now a rarely invoked a parliamentary tool.

The smaller house is really a committee, empowered to make urgent decisions--originally defined as times when the Assembly was not in session, but now with a wider application. The committee has one representative from each state, but the number of “votes” they command is based on the population of the state. Each is appointed by their respective state government, but must be approved by acclamation of the Assembly. The chairman of the committee is not officially a representative of any state, and is instead appointed by the Assembly. Decisions of the committee must ultimately be approved by the Assembly, but details need not be publicly debated, and so mostly aren’t.

The seat of the Union government is Phratropolis, a city built with embedded wards and protections in an attempt to shield lawmakers from sorcerous influence.