Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Sounds of Gaming

I’ve seen other bloggers mention music at their gaming sessions. Sometimes it just seemed to be something that was playing in the background, other times people choose it as a sort of game soundtrack. I don’t know how widespread either of these practices are; Neither have been common in groups I’ve played in, but I don’t know that I have a big sample.

It would seem to me that music might break immersion in the game at times--at least popular music--as it might have very different associations for a person or take them out of the game at hand. Then again, immersion isn’t terribly important to all people or all games at all times--and it’s not like plenty of other distractions don’t present themselves that have no possiblity of game enhancement.

I can think of one game I ran where we did use music and sound effects where it very much enhanced everyone’s enjoyment. In a FASA Star Trek game back in the nineties (when dinosaurs ruled the Earth) we approached the sessions as if they were episodes of a Trek TV series. We would begin with a teaser or cold open to sort of get the adventure started, then my friend whose house we played at would cue up the theme song on his computer. Periodically, we’d also interject appropriate turbolift, transporter, or computer sounds--not always, but enough to remind us of the sensory environment of the world we were trying to emulate.

Those touches and a group of players who were all knowledgeable Star Trek fans made that the best media property based game I’ve played. I’ve dabbled in a fair number of licensed rpgs over the years, but none of the have ever come close.

So what about you guys: experiences good, bad, or otherwise with music and sound effects in games?

Monday, May 30, 2011

I Walked with a Xombi

A trip to the comic book store last week informed me that the new Xombi series from DC I had been anticipating had already arrived. Issue #3 was on the stands, in fact. Not wanting to jump in there, I haven’t started the new series yet, but the original was one of my favorites. It may just the the best bit of 1990s Vertigo-esque weirdness not done at Vertigo.

Xombi debuted (with an (at the time) trendy 0 issue) from Milestone in January 1994. It was the creation of writer John Rozum and artist Denys Cowan. The titular Xombi is David Kim, a scientist working with a nanotechnological virus for tissue regeneration. Kim is gravely injured when the villainous Dr. Sugarman attempts to steal the still-untested virus. Kim's assistant injects him with the nanovirus, saving his life--but at a price. Kim awakens to fine his poor assistant has been partially devoured by the nanites, scavenging for raw materials to rebuild him.

The now enhanced Kim is virtually indestructible and potentially immortal (a “xombi”)--and this is only the beginning of the weirdness. Kim becomes involved in the struggles of various supernatural forces secretly living among humanity.

It’s the offbeat cast of supporting characters and villains are really what made Xombi great. The evil Dr. Sugarman uses spindly, mummy-wrapped beings called “rustling husks” as henchmen--homonculi created from the corpses of insects that died trapped between window panes. Kim’s allies include the clairvoyant Nun of the Above, and her superpowered junior associate Catholic Girl. There’s also Rabbi Sinnowitz, an occult expert and golem manufacturer, and another Xombi--this one created by magic in ancient Africa. Did I mention the siblings Manuel and Manuella Dexterity? It’s just that kind of book.

I’m hoping for more of the same from the new series. The original Xombi is good read, particularly if one likes nineties-style quirk comic weirdness. Too bad it hasn't been collected yet.  It would be great inspiration for modern occult conspiracy games like Unknown Armies, but it has ideas that could be put to use in horror or supers games as well.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Arriving at the City

It’s been a long time coming, but the Warriors & Warlocks game I was GMing is drawing to close, and I’m going to be running a game set in the City. Hopefully, I’m going to have a couple of new players joining as well--two folks whose games I’ve had the pleasure of playing in--who were interested in getting in on a City-based game.

One of the questions has been: What system? I wanted something fairly “rules lite”--I have better things to do than learn and adapt a complicated new system. It also needs to be fairly amenable to tweaking since I wanted some rules elements to reflect the setting.

I was initially thinking of using Labyrinth Lord as my base, but I’ve recently changed my mind. Stuart Robertson’s Weird West has the elements I like in old school systems distilled to their basic elements, and given a little more flexibility, thereby.  

So as I gear up for the game, I’ll be talking about some of my modifications. Honestly, I’m not as much of a rules-fiddler as I was in my youth. This heresy in some circles, no doubt, but "perfection" of rules just just doesn’t interest me that much, now (though I’m glad it interests others, so I can benefit from the fruits of that interest) .

Like I said, I'll make some modifications/additions, though.  I've already thought about some cosmetic changes.  I thnk I'll rename Skill; It seems like the name confuses some people initially as they think of it as representing knowledge, whereas mechanically, it stands in for dexterity and physical skill.  Maybe "knack" or just back to "dexterity?"  Likewise, I may broaden Magic to "knowledge" which more broadly reflects its game use (though I don't find that name as snappy, admittedly).
I think magic will be something that gets some attention--not so much to change the basics, but to add some detail in keeping with the diversity of magical practice among Weird Adventures setting spellcasters.  Like I say, I think the basic system is resilient and can handle these additions with little fuss. 

Anyway, more to follow in days to come.   And of course, my choice of system for my game won't affect Weird Adventures--which is designed to be rules lite to begin with, but uses the OGL where it does touch upon rules elements (like monsters).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Trouble with Doubles

“Listen to me! Please listen! If you don't, if you won't, if you fail to understand, then the same incredible terror that's menacing me WILL STRIKE AT YOU!”
-Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) trailer

So might one hear some paranoid derelict rant on the streets of the City--and they just might happen to be right. The creatures called "doubles" are one of the insidious tools of subversion used by the Reds in their tireless attempt to remake the world in the image of their freedomless subterranean society.

Doubles are either an artificial lifeform created by the Reds or their former (now extinct) masters or “natural” underground creatures--perhaps selectively bred over generations to optimize their utility. Whatever their origins, doubles are force grown in gestation pods then sent to surface world to steal the identity of humans and replace them. Normally, they're spindly, vaguely humanoid creatures, unsettling in their bland featurelessness, but they can perfectly assume the form of anyone they mimic. Without the use of magic or medical tests, only the unsual glow of their eyes that can be glimpsed in certain lighting conditions gives them away--a situation the doubles seek to avoid if they can help it.

The doubles must observer humans they plan to duplicate. The longer and more detailed the observation, the better the duplication in terms of appearance and behavior. This is often accomplished by the surveillance devices of the Reds. Doubles can change forms on the fly, but their mimicry won’t be as convincing.

It’s believed Reds mostly target government officials or other important figures for replacement, but given the psychological warfare they wage against humanity, they aren’t above random replacement of regular individuals simply as an act of terror.

[Doubles are, of course, doppelgangers with a new veneer for the Strange New World. This version would work just as well in a pulp, atomic age, conspiracy, or maybe even supers game, though.]

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Send in the Clowns

From The Mundy Guide to the City: A Comphrensive Guide to the Five Baronies of the Metropolis:

The neighborhood of Little Carcosa is one of the City’s most mysterious ethnic enclaves. It’s narrow, cobblestone streets, exotically dressed residents, and unusual scents given the feeling of stepping into the Old World--though where in the Old World is part of the mystery. The Carcosan homeland doesn't appear on any known map.

The people of Little Carcosa are as enigmatic as their homeland's location. Their swarthy complexions and the cadences of their speech recall the Near East, perhaps some place in Empire of Korambeck. Their clothing, manners, and ever present smiles make one think instead of the Orient and Yian.

Besides its general ambience, Little Carcosa holds other delights for the visitor. Its markets are small, but often have unusual items imported from all over the globe. The primary local craft is hand carved masks, both fanciful and grotesque, which are sought by a small, but dedicated, group of collectors. The spicy cuisine is an acquired taste, but many City gourmets extoll its exotic charms.

A rare treat is Little Carcosa’s street festival. It’s occurrence is hard to predict based as it is on an arcane sidereal calendar, but the Carcosans must plan for it well in advance, despite no outward preparation apparent to outsiders. Young and old alike take to the streets in masks, forming a raucous procession following a group of clowns. These clowns are apparently master contortionists (and possibly even illusionists of some sort) performing feats that scarcely seem humanly possible, and sometimes border on grotesque.

Outsiders are urged to leave after the the main part of the procession has past for their own safety. A final performer sometimes follows the parade, wearing a pale mask, and dressed in yellow, tattered robes, his appearance tends to whip the already excited crowd into a frenzy. While there have been no verified cases of violence, and urban legends of disappearances or mental breakdowns are certainly simply that, the intensity of the proceedings may be beyond the comfort of the casual visitor.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Conspiracy

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...

Warlord (vol. 1) #56 (April 1982)

Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Mark Texiera; Inked by Pablo Marcos

Synopsis: In the back alleys of Shamballah, a group of street urchins gang up on another young boy--a boy they know as “Tinder,” but we know as Joshua, the lost son of the Warlord. The urchins want Tinder’s armlet (really a wristwatch given to him as a baby by his father), but he refuses and holds his own against them. He’s been toughened up by life on the streets since his adopted parents were killed by the Therans.

The urchins are finally dispersed by their Fagin, a mustachioed man named Darvin. He offers Tinder a place to stay and a place in his gang, but when he gets too close to the armlet himself, Tinder warns him off with a knife. Darvin considers killing the boy and taking it, but then he intuits in some vague way that its worth more with the boy than without. Instead, he reiterates his invitation, and Tinder joins him.

Meanwhile, in the palace, Morgan is in his fancy duds (last seen in Kaambuka) and is putting his adventuring accoutrements away in a chest. Shutting that chest is a momentous thing for Morgan, but when he discovers Tara watching him he takes her up in his arms and leaves it behind.

Elsewhere, a conspiracy is set in motion by Morgan’s return. Praydor, one of the treasonous plotters, makes his way from the palace to rooms in a bad part of town. There he meets a man whose features are in shadow, but we’re told he’s an impersonator of some sort. He’s tired of waiting and he’s eager for his costume to arrive. Praydor assures him it will be there soon. He also asks what they’ll do with the “package” once they’ve gotten it. Praydor tells him they’ll turn it over to Darvin, who’s possessed of a deep dungeon. Praydor takes his leave with one last instruction to the other man: “Make your move soon.”

Back in the palace, Morgan and Tara discuss politics. Morgan’s planned reforms for Shamballah don’t sit well with some people in power. Tara’s even heard rumors of an overthrow plot, but hasn’t been able to confirm them. A council meeting soon follows, and Morgan is at odds with some on the council and ends up storming out in anger.

Tara finds him in a garden hitting rocks with a stick. She assures him they’ll implement his ideas eventually; they’ll just have to get around the council. Their conversation is interrupted by a servant, Remald, who brings Tara a message that there's a man seeking an audience with her. He told Remald to recite a for Tara the poem “One Dark Rose,” and Tara smiles as she realizes who the visitor is. She leaves Morgan in the garden. Morgan soon gets irritated--and curious. He goes looking for Tara and finds:

Tara introduces her old friend Graemore, and introduces Morgan to him as her “royal consort.”

Morgan quickly excuses himself and goes to his chambers. He looks at himself critically in the mirror. He flexes his biceps. “Face it Morgan,” he tells himself, “You’re old, and that guy isn’t.” He turns from the mirror--but glimpses that his image doesn’t turn with him. Perplexed, he swings around to look at it. It smiles at him, gloatingly.

And then he’s knocked out by Praydor’s blow to the back of his head.
Things to Notice:
  • This is the first appearance of Graemore--who looks like cross between a seventies rocker and Robin Hood in this issue.
  • We're never told what exactly Morgan's "radical" plans for Shamballah are.
  • Morgan's vanity comes to the fore when he's out of his element.
Where It Comes From:
Political intrigues with duplicates are a staple of adventure fiction.  The grandfather of this trope may well be L'homme au masque de fer (The Man in the Iron Mask), the final section of Alexandre Dumas' The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later--the last novel in the D'Artagnan series.  We'll see more of this next issue.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

(Pre-)Summer Reading

I don’t care what the calendar says: 98 degrees is an evocation of summer if there ever was one. Close enough at least to mention some vacation reading selections that could also provide some rpg inspiration.

Leviathan, and its sequel Behemoth (and Goliath on the way) by Scott Westerfield imagine a quite different World War I where the Entente Powers are Darwinists (utlizing “fabricated” animals as technology) and the Triple Alliance are Clankers utilizing mechanical technology far advanced of our real history. I suppose the setting might be called steampunk, but the mechanical technology is firmly hydrocarbon-powered, and the biotech adds a new angle. The series follows Deryn Sharp--a Scottish girl masquerading as a boy so she can join the British Air Service, who winds up serving on the bioengineered airship, Leviathan, and Aleksander of Hapsburg--secret heir to Austro-Hungarian Empire, currently being hunted by his country’s German allies.

There is, of course, the hint of possible romance between the two, and conveniently the adults are often out of the way so our teen protagonists can save the day (these are YA novels), but there's plenty of action--and beyond that--there’s a lot of interesting worldbuilding and plenty of neat alternate tech for any sort of rpg. Then there’s the great illustrations by Keith Thompson to really inspire:

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman is also about a Great War, but this one is in a fantasy (rather than science fiction) context. The West--a part of the world only becoming “stable” as it's settled by humanity--has become a battleground between two groups controlled by inhuman powers. The agents of the Gun are notorious outlaws, given superhuman abilities by the demons inhabiting the firearms they carry.  The people of the Line live regimented, industrial lives in the service of 28 sentient Engines. Caught in between are the mass of unaligned humanity, and the mysterious and powerful Folk--the original, nonhuman inhabitants of the West. The knowledge that there is a weapon--a thing of the Folk--that could end the war sets in motion a race to retreive the one, brain-damaged man that may know its whereabouts. This man, an aging general, and his hapless doctor get caught between the forces of Gun and Line.

One caveat: there's a sequel coming, so it's not "done in one."  Don't let that dissuade you.  Gilman’s world has a lot of great ideas to steal for an rpg setting, and gives great example of non-medieval secondary world fantasy to stand beside those of Mieville, VanderMeer, and King. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Earth's Mightiest (Animated) Heroes

While I found Thor merely adequate, I have been getting my Marvel media itch scratched by The Avengers: Earth’s Mightest Heroes, an animated series on Disney XD--and now partially available on DVD. This series and anticipation of the Captain America film have been sorely taxing my gamer ADD with the siren’s call of superheroics.

Anyway, season one of A:EMH tells the story of the formation and early days of Marvel’s premier team. Actually, it starts before the formation of the team, giving us background on the major characters and setting up all dominoes that will get knocked down over the course of the season. Not only does this give the Avengers-to-be a chance to shine individually, but it gives their world a more “lived in” feel like the comic book Marvel universe.

The version of the Marvel universe presented borrows from the Ultimate universe and the Marvel film universe, as well as good ol’ Earth-616 (as the kid’s call it). Anthony Stark, in particular, is inspired by the movie version; the voice actor practically channels Robert Downey, jr. Coming before the release of their film debuts, Thor and Hawkeye are more like their comic book portrayals.

Though it takes five episodes (sort of--three were aired divided up into shorts) to get the team together, the rest of the season covers a lot of heroic ground. There are breakouts from supervillain prisons, the formation of the Masters of Evil, Loki’s usurpation of the throne of Asgard, and--oh yeah--the creation of the Cosmic Cube. All that still leaves enough time for the origin of Wonder Man, the awakening of a Kree sentry, and a struggle for the throne of Wakanda.

The production values of the cartoon are good. The writing and voice acting are roughly comparable to the Warner Brothers Justice League series. The designs are the melding of traditional cartoon styles and a touch of Japanese influence (but not enough of that to bother anime-haters, I wouldn't think) like in most animation for the U.S. market is these days.  The animation itself has an occasional rough spot, but is overall pretty good, too.

If you enjoy animated superhero action, or just need something to bridge the gap to next superhero summer blockbuster, check it out--ignore Kang's dubious look.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Spectacular Losers

For every adventurer that achieves fame and fortune there are a dozen who have short careers and die pointless or bizarre (or sometimes both) deaths in cramped spaces underground. The successful ones get celebrated at Munsen’s Museum. The losers have their own shrine on the boardwalk of Lapin Isle: Jago’s Museum of Death in the Depths. Here’s a sampling of the stories to be found there:

“Sweet Tooth” Artie Gaff: Lost his life in a macabre freak accident after a roll of the hard candies he habitually carried became tainted with a droplet from an ooze he and his party had defeated earlier.  The "sugar slime" that grew from the remainder of the candies required the action of the Exterminators to stop it.

Nellie Eastpenny: Supposedly crushed under the boot of a giant. It has been of little solace to her grieving family that scientists have since proven that a giant of that size is an impossible violation of physical law.

Smiling Dave Delgroot: Contracted a peculiar wasting disease from a plague-carrying undead creature. His facial features were the first thing to go.

Janice Doppelkin: Was executed for her crimes. The jury at her trial was unanimous in their verdict of guilt, but divided as to whether her crime was better termed “double murder” or “murder/suicide.” After three days on a delve, Miss Doppel returned to find her man en flagrante with a duplicate of herself, apparently created after she looked into a magic mirror on the first day of the expedition.

Wilbert Vrockmorton: Died more indirectly from delving than most of his fellow unfortunates in the museum. After a successful expedition, Vrockmorton was drinking with his fellows at a City saloon. A challenge from Zanoni (born Theron Astley) lead to his consumption of a bottle of wine brought up from the underground. Upon downing a glass, Vrockmorton disappeared--whether by disentegration or some sort of teleportation no one could say.  Occasionally, a magic item turns up in the hands of various dealers in the City: A glass eye called the Eye of Vrockmorton--said to impart protection against inebriation if carried.

Augie "the Mace" Munce: Decapitated by the bite of a monstrous humanoid, probably a troll--a creature Munce had turned his back on after presuming its defeat.  In certain adventuring quarters, the verb "to munce" is used to refer to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Apocalypse Trio

With the world predicted to end this weekend, I figured one good apocalypse deserved another--or maybe three.  Using Chaotic Shiny's Apocalypse Generator to get the world destroying juices flowing, this is what I came up with:

“And The Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead”
Initial Cause: ancient evil unearthed and oceans rise
Threats: fast zombies, sea monsters, and slow zombies
Atlantis rises...from the dead! Hordes of zombies crawl out of the ocean depths to invade the land. These are probably under the command of an oceanically imprisoned creature--the alien god of Atlantis.  This could be turned into a post-apocalyptic by turning the clock ahead a bit to Waterworld-esque future.

“Red Tooth and Claw Dawn”
Initial Cause: pollution
Secondary Cause: communists
Threats: mutated animals, fanatics, communists
Combine the ecological horror of Prophecy (1979), and the Russian invasion of Red Dawn to get a world where mutated giant bears and Soviet aggressors threaten to make freedom-loving Americans an endangered species.

"Blood Red Planet"
Initial Cause: alien invasion
Secondary Cause: biological warfare
Threats: aliens, vampire, and mutated animals
Let’s take Atlas Comics' Planet of Vampires (which is sort of Omega Man meets Planet of the Apes) and combine in with War of the Worlds (why not? Apeslayer already combined POTA with War of the Worlds. I say vampires can go anywhere apes can). Let’s say some bioweapon used by the Martian invaders turned large numbers of people into bio-vampires. In a future world, overrun by Martians and their vampire lackeys, humans are hunted for sport.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Weird Adventures: Sample Pages

Time for another Weird Adventures update.  I thought you guys might like to see some of the finished (or hopefully finished) pages.  The layout was done by my good friend, Jim Shelley.  My concept was that each section would sort of resemble a story in a pulp magazine in layout.  Jim pulled that off wonderfully!

These first two pages are from the section on the New World:

Daniel Kopalek's artwork looks great there, doesn't it?

This last is from the section on the Union (other than the City, which has it's own section):

More to come.  Stay tuned! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Have a Nice Day!

Even in Hawaii it's Wednesday...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...

"Have a Nice Day!"
Warlord (vol. 1) #55 (February 1982)

Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Mark Texiera; Inked by Mike DeCarlo

Synopsis:Morgan, Tara, and Shakira ride toward Shamballah. They’re enjoying the warmth of Skartaris’ eternal sun after their time in the Terminator. Morgan guides them toward the merchant road which will run through the kingdom of Kaambuka, ruled by his friend, Ashir, on its way to Shamballah.

Coming over a rise, they’re surprised to see a full-scale battle going on. Troops laying seige to a fortress throw themselves against it and, again and again, are turned back. Morgan’s in for another surprise when he sees that the defeated army is under the command of Ashir!

They quicken their pace to catch up with him. Ashir greets them, and promises to tell them what’s going back in his palace, over wine.

Later, Morgan fills Ashir in on what has happened since they last met. Ashir asks if Morgan is finally giving up the adventuring life to go back to Shamballah with Tara. By way of an of answer, Morgan reminds Ashir that he gave it up. Morgan changes the subject to Ashir’s recent troubles.

Ashir tells him a gang of bandits seized control of that watchtower they were at earlier. Sitting on the trade route as it does, the bandits have been able to use their position to exact tribute from all the merchants passing through. The result is that trade has been disrupted, and the merchants are looking for other routes. Ashir’s forces have made three attempts to retake the fortress, but each time they've been repulsed.

At that moment, a servant girl brings in Tara and Shakira, who were apparently found fighting in the courtyard. Ashir tries to sweet-talk each in turn and gets rebuffed by both ladies. Ashir makes a second try at Shakira while Morgan talks to Tara. He tells her he’s got to help Ashir one last time, then he’s done. Just one more time. Tara acquiesces.

As Morgan and Ashir walk off arm in arm to plan, Shakira confronts Tara:

Later, Morgan and Ashir ride at the head of the army returning to the fortress. Ashir asks Morgan if he’s sure this plan will work. Morgan assures him “this one’s in the books...sort of.” Ashir wonders, as well, what the runes mean. Morgan’s answer is cryptic.

The bandit guardsman in the tower is surprised by what he sees left at the fortress’ gate:

The bandit leader is uncertain what to make of it. He supposes its a peace offering of some sort. Someone suggests they take it inside, but a door on it raises the possibility men may hide inside. The bandits decide to burn it instead.

They set it ablaze. The whole gang has quite a time watching, and perhaps ridiculing the hapless men that might have been hiding inside. So good in fact, they don’t pay attention to the backdoor of the fortress--and that’s where Morgan and Ashir’s forces strike. When the leader and the majority of his force come running back, they find the fortress has already fallen into their enemies hands.

After the bandit's defeat, Tara and Morgan make ready to leave Kaambuka, but Shakira decides to stay behind. She says (cryptically) that she’s seen Shamballah at the height of its glory, and she has no desire to see it otherwise. Tara and Morgan bid their friends good-bye.

On the way back to Shamballah, they pass the burned out place of the woodcutter who helped Morgan warn Shamballah of the Theran invasion. Bodies litter the ground, and Morgan summarizes the retreating Therans must have exacted revenge. Morgan is sure the man’s family had gotten out safe, he recalls the man had a son--not knowing the man’s adopted son was his own son, Joshua.

Morgan and Tara enter Shamballah’s gates to cheering crowds. In the crowd, is a young, red-haired boy wearing a curious armlet--a wrist watch...

Things to Notice:
  • Texiera's version of Ashir wears armor.
  • Is Ashir really hitting on Tara right in front of Morgan? 
  • Again we get a reference to Shakira's familiarity with Skartaris' past.
Where It Comes From:
The title of this issue relates to a ubiqitous phrase of the seventies--particularly when associated with the smiley face.  Wikipedia has an overview here.  Morgan's knowledge of the classic smiley and its association with the phrase is an anachronism given that he's been in Skartaris since the sixties.  Bernard and Murray Spain didn't put the two together on various novelties until 1972.  Maybe he saw it on his brief visit to Machu Picchu?

The history of the smiley face as a symbol is also well-covered on Wikipedia--though no mention is made of Trojan smilies.

Morgan's trick is, of course, inspired by the Trojan horse used by the Greeks during the seige of Troy in Homer's Illiad.  Besides the shape of wooden device being different, Morgan also (wisely) chooses not to climb inside his Trojan Smiley. 

The Trojan rabbit sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail also gets referenced.  Texiera's rendition of the guardsman who first sights the smiley face looks a fair bit like the taunting French knight from that film.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rider of the Weird West: The Merkabah Rider series

In the mood for some good Weird Western fiction? Well, hit the trail with Edward Erdelac’s Merkabah Rider series and you’ll get it from both barrels.

The titular Rider is a Hasidic Jew and an initiate of mystical order known as Merkabah Riders. The Rider roams the post-Civil War Old West, combating supernatural evil with his esoteric powers and knowledge. He’s armed (and armored) by a coat full of magical talismans, mystic spectacles (etched with the seal of Solomon), and mystically engraved Volcanic pistols--particularly effective on the astral plane.

The first volume in the series is Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Plains Drifter.  It's composed of a series of short-stories or novellas, with the glimmering of an overarching plot running through. Over the course of the stories, Rider combats a Canaanite god, a demonic tornado, and the denizens a house of ill-repute where Lilith herself is the madam.

The stories have a lot of real world mythological and occult detail--interpreted through a unifying mythos--but all of that only serves to enhance the pulpy action. In this way, the stories are perhaps most similar to Richard L. Tierney’s Simon Magus short-stories--though those have more of a Cthulhu Mythos bend (though that’s not entirely absent from the Merkabah Rider, either).

Another nice element is the little homages and sly references Erdelac drops into the yarns. There’s a direct homage to Howard’s “Kelly the Conjure-Man” (based on a real Texas legend, according to Howard) and “Black Canaan.” Some real world historical personages show up: note the real name of “Sadie” given in “Nightjar Woman.” There also other details mentioned throughout that I suspect are references to famous Western films, as well.

So much material that could vaguely qualify as Weird Western is largely “everything and the kitchen sink” steampunkian monstrosity (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but the Merkabah Rider stories have a versimilitude about it them that comes from riffing off real world magical beliefs and placing everything in a real world context.

So check out High Planes Drifter, and its sequel Merkabah Rider: The Mensch with No Name--and I sure a third book in the series is on its way. They’d make great inspiration for Stuart Robertson’s Weird West rpg, and others I’m sure.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Revenge of the Tiki Spirit

In the islands of the Tranquil Ocean (particularly in the Pyronesian chain), the natives create carvings of roughly human shape. Their shamans coax powerful spirits to inhabit these statues, and they become objects of veneration for the tribesmen.

The spirits of these idols are typically elemental in nature. Given the number of volcanic isles, its not surprising that fire elementals are the most common, though wind and water are also found. Many of these elementals are quite powerful, though their bonding to the statues gives them certain weakness. Some require sacrifices to maintain their powers. Bound to a physical object, they can be removed from their island homes by moving the statues. They may be compelled to serve the possessor of their statue, though they will look for ways to free themselves and avenge their enslavement. They may be placated by minor acts of veneration, but the exact nature of these rituals varies from spirit to spirit.

The spirits are always at least large elementals, but they differ from others of their size in being bound to the statues. Though wooden, the statues can’t be destroyed by nonmagical means, unless the elementals are slain beforehand.

art by Keith Tucker
 I’m at a conference in Hawaii this week, so my presence on the blogosphere and my posting may be lighter than usual, but this post seemed particularly apropros.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

They Like You for Your Brains

Bored with your monsters? Tired of the same old thing? Here’s a couple of mechanically-unchanged stalwarts with a shiny new finish:

Moon Men
Mysterious beings that appear by night and move silently to feed upon the minds of humans. Moon Men appear as tall humanoids whose heads are hidden beneath gleaming, featureless domes. These scientist-sadists rarely make any attempt to communicate, and treat other sentients with clinical detachment, as if they were mere cattle.

These are good ol’ mind flayers--because tentacles are so last year. The only change would be to dispense with the tentacle attack--or maybe keep it and have pseudopods emerge from a Moon Man’s liquid metal head. With that option, they might literally eat brains, but otherwise its the mind they’re after, not the meat.

Though the picture is Mysterio, the name was inspired by a pulp hero with a similar look.

Brain Parasite
“The brain was in a serious state of liquefaction. Only the brain-stem had any discernable structure. A puncture in the back of the skull likely indicates where the creature insert its venom...Yes, that’s the thing in the preservative vat there. It was completely invisible--or more precisely, simply, unseen--on the victims back until it was killed.  And by then it was too late.”

These reskinned intellect devourers look like the zanti from the Outer Limits and act sort of like the mutant spiders from Metebelis 3, the titular Planet of the Spiders in Doctor Who. I imagine they inject some sort of a toxin into the skull, dissolve the brain slowly, and suck out the sweet, sweet juice over time. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Art of Illusion

Beyond the “scientific” sorcerers of the Thaumaturgical Society and the hedge hex-workers and folk conjurers, there exists another group of magic-users in the City. Illusionists (as they style themselves) bridge the gap between real magic and stage performance.

The origins of the arts of illusion are obscure. Thaumaturgical scholars suggest it developed as a way for low-skill sorcerers to earn a living, while illusionists hold it developed from ancient mystery ritual practices in Ealderde given to mankind by a pagan trickster god. Illusionists claim (much to the irritation of their thaumaturgical rivals) that several historic mages revered by thaumaturges were actually illusionists who pulled off big tricks. However it began, illusionism seems to have first been practiced as a form of thievery, usually as part of a confidence game, but gradually developed into a performance art.

Illusionists know powerful spells, but their repertoire is mostly limited to those that deceive the senses in one way or another. They combine the use of real thaumaturgy with the use of sleight-of-hand and other stage tricks. Economy of magic is their goal; They look down on the obvious displays of thaumaturgists.

Illusionists, it's said (by illusionists), take a solemn oath not to reveal their secrets (magical or legerdemain) to non-illusionists. They claim that there exists an international Brotherhood of Illusion which enforces this pledge--though evidence for the existence of this organization is hardly above suspicion as fabrication. Certainly, an Illusionists Guild exists in the City, but the theatrics and misdirection surrounding it make it impossible to know its true size or influence.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Sorceress Supreme

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 Sorceress Supreme"
Warlord (vol. 1) #54 (February 1982)

Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Mark Texiera; Inked by Mike DeCarlo

Synopsis: Returned from their sojourn in the Arctic, Morgan, Tara, and Shakira approach Castle Deimos, unaware of what’s been going on inside. An exhausted Ashiya slumps in a chair and complains to Faaldren how Jennifer’s insatiable hunger for magical knowledge has been taxing her to the limit.  As if on cue, Jennifer calls “Mother!” again--for that’s the guise Ashiya has employed to gain her trust.

Jennifer is trying a variation on a spell and wants her "mother’s" aid. Ashiya tells her she would like to do some learning herself. She wants to know more about the Atlantean machines in the laboratory. Jennifer assures her she already knows all of that--and again insists on her help with the spell.

They’ve only just finished the ritual when Ashiya’s raven spy flies in to tell her visitors are approaching the castle. Ashiya goes to prepare a welcome.

Morgan rushes across the draw bridge and into the castle, eager for news about his daughter. Instead, he’s surprised to be greeted by Rachel, his dead wife. Morgan goes to her, so caught up in the moment that he doesn’t bother to question how it could be. He pays for his credulousness when Ashiya blasts him!

The portcullis falls. Shakira pushes Tara inside to get her out of the way, and quickly changes to cat form. Her head is caught, but she avoids being skewered.

Though knocked to his knees by Ashiya’s blast, Travis Morgan isn’t down. Gritting his teeth, he rises to face the woman in his wife’s guise. She blasts him again and again, but he staggers forward until his left hand is around her throat and his sword is in his right.  Morgan squeezes:

Morgan raises his sword, swearing Ashiya will pay for her charade. At that moment, Jennifer rushes in with a cry. She blasts her father aside. Ashiya yells for her to kill Morgan.

But Jennifer smiles wickedly and summons her powers. “I didn’t save you from him,” she says. “I saved you for me.”

Ashiya intends to serve no mortal, and so the two engage in a magical duel. In the direct contest, Ashiya soon bests her former student. But before Ashiya can finish her, Jennifer fires one last blast which appears to miss. In fact, she’s energized the Atlantean machinery around the old witch. When Ashiya gathers her power, she's engulfed by the machinery’s energies.

Morgan gets to his feet, wondering what the hell just happened. Jennifer causes the portcullis to rise, freeing Shakira. Morgan goes to his living wife, Tara, and takes her in his arms.

After everyone has exchanged stories, Morgan and companions prepare to leave. Jennifer says she won’t be joining them. There’s much learning left for her to do in this place, and Faaldren has agreed to stay with her. She tells her father to content himself that she’s found a place in this world of his. Tara reminds him that Jennifer is no longer a child--he gave his time with her to someone else. Morgan knows she’s right.

And so, father and daughter part again--each taking up a new life in Skartaris.

Things to Notice:
  • This is the first issue Jennifer appears "in costume" within the issue.
  • Shakira's near brush with portcullis-death isn't even commented on. 
  • Jennifer seems to know before Ashiya's betrayal that she isn't her mother.  She seems more calculating in this issue than she will later appear.
Where It Comes From:
This issue's alliterative title was probably borrowed from Marvel's Doctor Strange, who's known as the Sorcerer Supreme.

WARLORD WEDNESDAY BONUS: Check out this Warlord fan art from Felt.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Gore Between the States

I’m off work today for that most archaic of state holidays, Confederate Memorial Day. So in honor of the day, I thought I’d highlight one of the most gameable of movies alluding to the Civl War. I refer, of course, to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs!

For all of you who’ve ever said to yourself: “It’s too bad Brigadoon isn’t a gore film”--well, this move's for you. In brief, a group of Yankee tourists head down to the South, but get tricked into the out of the way town of Pleasantville. There they find themselves the guests of honor at the centennial commemoration of the town’s destruction by Union troops. “Guests of honor” in this case meaning victims of torture in the hayseed townsfolk’s sadistic picnic games. Two of the tourists manage to escape and return with the local sheriff, only to find the town has disappeared.  It was destroyed 100 years ago! The townsfolk, meanwhile, wait elsewhere and look forward to their next celebration in 2065.

Beyond the obvious horror usage, towns that appear on schedule can be used in any sort of setting. Fantasy surely, but science fiction could work as well with a suitable technobabble explanation. The inhabitants could be pleasant--but really, what would be the point in that?  Orcs, vampires, zombies, Confederate zombies--all good candidates.

Of course, there’s another fun group that returns “when the stars are right.” There’s no reason why New England should get all the Lovecraftian fun. Adding a touch of Cthulhu gives extra meaning to “the South shall rise again!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Black School

photo by Geoffrey Dunn
In the days when the City was only a village crowding a fort at the end of Empire Island, there were rumors of a sprawling house, beyond the glow of the village lights, built in single night by devils at the command of a cabal of evil Ealderdish sorcerers. The sorcerers came to this place in a swamp in a wild land to open a Black School--a Scholomance--to tutor what students would come in the dark arts.

Some stories say some natural disaster (an act of God) destroyed the school, while others say a group of righteous adventurers razed it, and a few hold it just disappeared, as if hell reclaimed it. No one really knows for certain.

What is known is that the place where the Black School once stood was eventually engulfed by the growing City and became the area called Scholo. Whatever industries that have tried to take hold there--from farms, to brothels, to sweatshops--never seem to last for long. The area seems strangely prone to fires, and strange accidents.

The only thing that lasts in Scholo is magic. As other enterprises have dwindled, magic book shops, alchemical supply stores, and the offices of cut-rate thaumaturgist-for-hire have thrived and grown to crowd Scholo’s streets. Thaumaturgists live here, too--mostly young would-be up-and-comers, and old has-beens and never-wases. They practice their arts in small, threadbare apartments, and congregate to trade secrets (and lies) in a few small cafes and bars.

On almost any night, if you sit in one of the bars long enough you’ll hear mages talk about the Black School. They’ll say it appears some nights of the new moon, in that old park where nothing has ever been built and nothing but twisted and blighted tress grow. Some brave souls have gone in, the story goes, and found it bigger on the inside--and growing larger all the time with creaks and groans. Amid its many rooms are libraries full of occult and sorcerous lore.

It’s a tempting destination for those young up-and-comers, but the old timers remind them that most who go in never come out again, and those that do have emerged haunted, shattered men, prone to suicide, and unable to remember any but barest details of what they experienced there.  What fragments can be gleaned from them suggest malign ever-shifting architecture, sadistic traps, strange hauntings, and halls stalked by a half-real creature--never fully manifest on this plane--that pursues intruders.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Thor and Wonder

I saw Thor yesterday and thought it was good--though I wonder if “good” superhero films have gotten common enough that I’m no longer impressed by mere competence. I do know that the formulaic elements of the “successful comic adaption” are beginning to wear thin.

So anyway, Thor drapes the Iron Man frame with interesting enough characters, a von Daniken-Kirby "gods from space" rift, and some cool action. It was in this second part, though, I was a little disappointed in their choices, given the source material they were working with.

One of the most interesting things about Thor the comic (and one of the things I think would be most interesting to steal for gaming) is the mixture of mythological elements and Jack Kirby’s crazy sci-fi-ish design. The preponderance of evidence in the comics doesn’t make the Asgardians just extraterrestrials (or even extradimensionals) who were mistaken for, or gave rise to, legends of the gods of Norse myth--they're people who we’re told and descended from a guy who got licked into existence from ice by a giant cow and who endure repeated cycles of the end of the world. And it’s a world where Odin zaps Jane Foster with a fairly technological looking wand to turn her into a “goddess.”

What Kirby started with the Asgardians in Journey into Mystery--and developed to its fullest “are they aliens, gods--or both?” fullness in the New Gods at DC--is a science fantasy blurring of traditional definitions, a thread only Grant Morrison, among all of Kirby’s successors, seems particularly interested in exploring. Kirby seems to be saying that in this modern world, tech should be as much part of a god's trappings as ever-full flagons and flying goat-chariots were in the past.

Check out this scene:

A somewhat bug-eyed monster alien-looking troll captured and carried in some mechanical contraption, guarded by warriors in retro-futuristic armor, against a backdrop of strange planetoids.

Or how about Kirby’s vision of Asgard:

A pulp sci-fi future city on an asteroid floating in a romanticized cosmos with a very literal rainbow bridge connecting it to the rest of the universe.

Obviously, some of this stuff might have come across as silly on film--maybe some of it teeters on that edge as it is. The movie makes some gestures in this direction with some of its design, but it also is very insistent about Einstein-Rosen bridges and its implication that the Nine Worlds can be seen with Hubble. The point (well worth remembering for gaming I think) is that the oft-quoted Arthur C. Clarke line that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” doesn’t have to mean that the wonder and strangeness must be stripped from either.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sounds of the City

A soundtrack sampling for the City and the Strange New World:

Bright Lights & The City: "Sing Sing Sing" by the Benny Goodman Orchestra

A dust-up in a gin-joint: "Odd Ones" by the Seatbelts (Cowboy Bebop)

Magic-usin' dames is always trouble: "I Put A Spell On You" by Nina Simone

Foreboding in the Dustlands: "Ben Searches the Junkyard" By Jeff Beal

Here they come--get ready: "Tiger Tank" By Lalo Schifrin

A cheerful traditional in the Smaragdines: "O Death" by Ralph Stanley

Nothing ever happens out in the sticks: "Murder in the Red Barn" by Tom Waits

Entering a mound in Freedonia: "White Lightning" by Charles Bernstein

There's an old preacher who they say can perform resurrections: "Ain't No Grave" by Johnny Cash.

I guess we all knew it would come down to this: "The Verdict (Dopo la Condanna)" by Ennio Morricone

Also, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Canageek who nominated my blog for Stuffer Shack's "Rpg Site of the Year" contest.  It was an honor to have even be nominated in the company of a number of great sites.

And--while I'm at it--thanks to everyone else for following, commenting, and reading.