Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Wednesday Mini-Comics: The Battle in the Clouds

This is the third mini-comic released with the Masters of the Universe toys. Like the rest, it was written by Don Glut and written by Alfredo Alcala.

We open on Eternia's tallest peak where Stratos is somehow able to hear the sounds of battle far below. He flies down and finds He-Man riding the Battle Ram is putting a beating on Skeletor near Castle Grayskull. Somehow, now Castle Grayskull is near the ocean, because He-Man is able to toss a defeated Skeletor into it.

As He-Man and Stratos fly away, Mer-Man  pulls Skeletor from the water and offers to make a deal with him. He'll help Skeletor defeat defeat his foe in exchange for He-Man's weapons. The two villains start blasting away at He-Man,

Stratos swoops in and gives He-Man a lift to get him out of danger quicker, but a "great gust of wind" knocks He-Man off the Battle Ram, he he falls--only his super-garment protects him. He's just knocked unconscious. Stratos doesn't realize He-Man's gone. He just keeps flying.

Skeletor and Mer-Man see He-Man's fall go. In order to get up the mountain to where he fell to snatch his gear, the evil warriors steal Teela's horse.

Mer-Man gets to He-Man just as he's waking up. He's able to over-power him and steal his super-strength suit. His next stop: the Battle Ram.

He-Man plans to stop him. He goes to the edge of the forest and calls Battle Cat. The two head over to He-Man's place to get his force field suit (Apparently separate from his super-strength suit. Pretty inconvenient.), then to Man-At-Arms' cabin. They decide to fly the Wind Raider up to where Stratos took the Battle Ram and thwart Mer-Man.

He-Man is impatient with the speed the Wind Raider is making and grumbles he could have climbed up himself if he only had his super-strength suit. Man-At-Arms opines that "brute strength must sometimes give way to science" and opens it up full-throttle, shutting up He-Man pretty quick.

Meanwhile, Mer-Man has found the Battle Ram. When the Wind Raider reaches the peak, he attacks them with a volley of ray blasts. Man-At-Arms falls out, and only his armor saves him from dying in the fall. Battle Ram and Wind Raider hit each other head on.  Stratos strikes the decisive blow, though:

The battle in the clouds won, He-Man and Stratos fly off to get back the super-strength suit from the defeated Mer-Man and then rescue Man-At-Arms and Teela.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Power of Grayskull Compels You!

Dark Horse have been doing a great job with their series of Masters of the Universe reference works. The artbook was great, but for sheer information value and rpg inspiration James Eatock's He-Man and She-Ra: A Complete Guide to the Classic Animated Adventures and most recently He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: A Character Guide and World Compendium are goldmines.

The character guide and world compendium is so thick, I don't think I've given it a complete look through, yet. There is so much there! It covers ever continuity from the original minicomics through the on-going collector toy revival and the current DC Comics (though I don't know how up to date it is on the last group). It even has stuff from foreign comics and kids books. Major characters get much more extensive write-ups, and ever character or thing that has appeared in multiple media gets a discussion of the different portrayals.

At $35, some might balk at the cover price, but it's length and detail make it well worth it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


Drow as "elves but evil" has been done. Let's take a cue from Otus's ink-blot, living shadow rendition, and say that they are the arcane Evil Twins of evils. Maybe not quite Bizarro World duplicates, but close. They look like photographic negatives of some elf, somewhere, sometime. (It is quite possible that if a specific elf and anti-elf come into contact there will be an explosion, Or, they will untie into a single, transcendent being and leave this plane. In an explosion.)

Anti-elves live underground in ultra-controlled, industrial, technolgical environments because they hate nature. They want replace it all with a machinery hellscape like Apokolips. The only reason they haven't yet is because they hate the sun, too, and are forced to live underground. They're working on that one.

Anti-elves are profoundly unmagical. All those magical abilities listed in a drow stat block have a technological basis. No surface creature can steal a anti-elf device and make it work because their bio-energy polarity will just disrupt it and make it nonfunctional after a use or two.

Ant-elves don't believe in gods, meaning they accept the existence of tiresome things other races call gods, but they think them ridiculous impediments to their own purposes and would never worship them. All sacrifices you might see them make are strictly translactional. Any temples are really just fanclubs--an anti-elves are the sort of crazy, obsessive fans that are very likely to progress to stalking and murder.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Mortzengersturm Review on Gnome Stew

John Arcadian at Gnome Stew has a positive review of Mortzengersturm up today.

Here's a shipping update on the original batch of print copy orders: All U.S. orders here shipped as of Tuesday. The last two foreign orders I plan to put in the mail today.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

OSR Extravangza

There's a sell going on on rpgnow/drivethrurpg it includes basically every OSR thing you can think of and a number of Hydra Co-op products including the Hill Cantons trilogy (Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko) and also my very own Weird Adventures.

There are also some cool D&D megabundles (Known World Gazetteers and Planescape).

Check it out!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wednesday Comics: Weird Stuff I Read Recently

Rock Candy Mountain #1
by Kyle Starks
This series scratched my Weird Adventures itch. It's the story of Slim (down on his luck even by hobo standards), who encounters Jackson, a hobo badass on a journey to find that hobo Shangri-La, Big Rock Candy Mountain--if he can stay ahead of the Devil. It's kind of like a combination of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and maybe a martial arts movie.

The Grave Robber's Daughter
by Richard Sala
This one's a little bit horror, a little bit black comedy. No-nonsense gal sleuth Judy Drood's car breakdown near the town of Obadiah Glen. The town is deserted except for a group of  ne'er-do-well teens, a little girl--and an abandoned carnival full of sinister clowns. Drood will face sideshow mutants and magic potions before she solves the weird mystery.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Twin Peaks and the Investigative Sandbox

Twin Peaks
returned to TV last night, though I haven't seen it yet since I don't have Showtime. But hey, here's a map!

Also, check out this classic post on Weird Towns as "investigative sandboxes."

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Prometheus Unhinged: The Dungeon Mad God Machine

Seeing Alien: Covenant yesterday, which (no real spoilers) carries a theme from Prometheus (and from Frankenstein, ultimately) of lesser beings meddling in creation of life, gave me an idea. I've written before (and it's sort of baked into the rules in any case, most explicitly in BECMI) about dungeons in D&D being an engine of apotheosis.

What if dungeons didn't just create gods or god-like being? What if they tended to create mad ones? All those weird D&D monsters are waved off as the products of crazy wizards, but maybe they're more specifically the product of crazy, god-level wizards?

In fact, it's possible dungeons weren't originally a tool of apotheosis at all. One made race, the Engineers (or Dungeoneers) did it all on their own. The first dungeons were their laboratories, their three dimensional journals of magical experimentation. A delve into one charts (and recapitulates) their ascension to post-mortaldom--and their descent in madness. A dungeon then, is a living blasphemous tome, recording secrets man was not meant to know.

It goes without saying that probably all life in the campaign world began their. Everything crawled up from the depths, evolving away from its original purpose to its current form. Unless of course, that evolution was the point. The Dungeoneers might have felt they would only have arrived at godhood when they could create beings that could follow in their footsteps--or maybe even challenge their supremacy. Perhaps there's another, higher level game and they need soliders, or experimental subjects, to win it?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mortzengersturm Sales and Shipping

Add caption
My pre-convention stock of Mortzengersturm is out--but if you didn't get a copy yet, don't despair, I may well have some available after NTrpgcon.

Over half of the orders have shipped as of this week, so if you haven't gotten yours it may be coming soon. I am on target to ship the rest before May 29.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

5e Race Creation

I've posted this link before, but it just keeps getting better, so I thought it was time to remind everyone.  JamesMusicus has developed a formula for creating "balanced" 5e races and tested it through all the published races so far. He's also got a catalog of a bunch of new races he created.

Check out the other stuff on his blog here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wednesday Minicomic: KIng of Castle Grayskull

Taking a break from Storm, let's consider the second Masters of the Universe minicomic packaged with the first wave of toys in 1982. The comic, like the rest, was written by Donald Glut and drawn by Alfredo Alcala.

We open on He-Man and Battle-Cat happening by Castle Grayskull. He-Man tells his mount that the castle was "built by unknown hands before the Great Wars" and "whoever controls the castle controls the universe!" He-Man doesn't know it but he's being spied on from a parapet by Skeletor, who apparently scaled the outside of the castle to get there because he's got no way inside.

Skeletor uses his mystic blade to spy on the doings inside the castle as well. He see's Teela (the warrior-goddess) summoned by the Spirit of Castle Grayskull to be its guardian. The Spirit tells her that one day a king will come claim the castle's throne, but only after he finds and unites the two halves of the Power Sword. Not knowing it's being eavesdropped on, the Spirit reveals the location of the halves.

Skeletor, feels like kingship would suit him. He comes to the highest peak of Eternia, the home of Stratos, and melts one half free from rock. Next, Skeletor takes Mer-Man with him to surprise He-Man at his homestead, and before the hero can grab his super-strength outfit, they blast him. They get the other half of the sword from the rock his house is built on. Given how easy these halves were to find and the fact that two heroic warriors lived close by them, one wonders why they weren't found before?

Anyway, Skeletor rubs some gray clay on his face to disguise it and opens the jawbridge with the united power sword. Teela might have been a poor choice as guardian because a little gray facepaint has her totally fooled. She welcomes Skeletor as the King. No sooner has he sat in the throne, than he triggers the trapdoor and drops Teela into the dungeon. Skeletor marvels at all the weapons and computers and what not and boasts the secrets of the universe are his to command.

Meanwhile, this all apparently happened so quick that Mer-Man is still fighting He-Man (apparently He-Man's house is next door to Castle Grayskull), who has now managed to get his force field suit on. He-Man suits up again to increase his strength and heads out to get Skeletor.

Skeletor sees him coming on a viewscreen. When He-Man arrives, Skeletor punks him by causing the jawbridge to flip him inside. He-Man confronts Skeletor in his throne room, but in the face of his threats Skeletor calls "oafish" and zaps him with energy.

He-Man wakes up some time later in the dungeon with Teela. He tells her "Skeletor has gone insane!' Given that this is the sort of shenanigans we've seen the Lord of Destruction get up to in the first mini-comic, one wonders what He-Man is passing that opinion on. Maybe it's that Skeletor didn't strip him of his super-powered duds, which clearly was a dumb move as He-Man rips the door off the cell.

Skeletor notes their escape and sends animated suits of armor to stop them. Our heroes keep smashing them, but more keep coming. Skeletor moves in to watch the victory he is sure is coming up close--and Teela knocks the Power Sword from his hand.

Skeletor figures its time to beat a hasty retreat. He runs to the roof with the heroes on his heels. He tries to blast them with the laser cannon, but then:

Both hero and villain survive the fall. Skeletor gets chased off by Battle-Cat before he can blast He-Man with his energy blade.

The Spirit of Castle Grayskull again takes possession of the Power Sword and, maybe realizing its previous hiding places left something to be desired, now sends one half into another dimension. He tells the heroes that it maybe centuries before the true King of Castle Grayskull comes to claim it. He calls them Masters of the Universe and bids them go fight evil. In a spoiler heedless moment, we are told the Spirit smiles as they ride away because he knows He-Man will one day become the King of Castle Grayskull.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Kreature Kompendium

Threat N Ink Issue #7 Kreature Kompendium is a zine-size monster book compiled by Jethro D. Wall available via mail order here. It's for old school D&D mostly, but the stat blocks are variable and haphazard, and the mechanical description of special abilities nonexistent. In other words, if you're looking for a meticulously table-ready collection of creatures with novel mechanics, this isn't that book.

This, instead, is one of the inspiration fodder monster books, where the mechanical details come second to having something really interesting conceptually to throw at players. The Kreature Kompendium reminds me a lot of goofy fun bestiaries of old, like the monster book of the Field Guide to Encounters, but at times it has a more modern and knowing absurdist streak like something from the literary New Weird.

In the former category I'd put the Blignag Cocksparrer which we are told "prefer to ride sweet Nash skateboards into battle" although some "have looted BMXs from human victims or received them as gifts from relatives for Christmas." In the latter category is something like The Painting that Paints Itself and the associated random table to determine the PCs reaction.

As those descriptions might indicate, the monsters are a varied lot, other than they are all what you would call "nonstandard." A couple of my favorites: The Charming Tongued Snuggler that thinks it's the Snaggle Toothed Charmer, but its poor understanding of human frailty causing it to suffocate humans with its tongue while trying to drink their blood; and the Destroyer Bitch Goddess whose special attack generates a time loop where that attack is repeated 666d100 times.

It's a lot of fun. The artwork by various artists is evocative, sometimes crude, and always not the sort of thing that would be used in a modern, corporate monster compendium--which is exactly from what you want from a book like this.

If the above sounds interesting, then you should definitely check it out.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Mighty

Art by Jack Kirby
In the Country of Sang in the Land of Azurth, there are those born among the human tribes and city-states that have abilities beyond those of other mortals. These are the Mighty.

No one knows why the Mighty are so gifted. Some believe they bear the blood of the Ancients, who had mastered mastered sorcerery and science to make themselves superhuman, while others think that they are specially chosen by forgotten gods. Often Mighty individuals will appear as normal humans until some sort of fateful trial or challenge, but these experiences are merely the catalysts of change not the source of their power.

Mighty Traits:

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2, and your Constitution score increases by 1.
Age. The Mighty live somewhat longer lifespans as mundane humanity, perhaps a bit over a century, but the mature at the same rate.
Alignment. The Mighty may be of any alignment.
Size. The Mighty are powerfully built and generally tall (6 to 7 feet, or sometimes more). Your size is Medium.
Speed. Base walking speed is 30 feet.
Athletic Prowess. You have proficiency in the Athletics skill.
Superhuman Endurance. You can focus your will to occasionally shrug off injury. When you take damage, you can use your reaction to roll a d12. Add your Constitution modifier to the number rolled, and reduce the damage by that total. After you use this trait, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.
Strength Beyond Mortals. You count as one size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.
Fearlessness. You have advantage on saves against fear.

Art by Bruce Timm

Friday, May 12, 2017

Weird Revisited: Five Million Years to Dungeon

The original version of this post appeared in July 2010. I had just rewatched Five Million Years to Earth the weekend before.

Five Million Years to Earth (originally known in the UK as Quatermass and the Pit) was a 1967 Hammer Film adapted from a 1958 BBC TV serial of the same name. This was the third Hammer Film adaption of one of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials, featuring the British rocket scientist, Bernard Quatermass’s encounters with X-Files-esque alien incursions.

For those who haven’t seen it, the film starts with the discover of an anomalous primate skeleton by workmen digging a new underground station in Hobb’s End, London. The large-brained primate is found in strata much deeper than it has any business being. If this discovery weren't enough, digging is halted again when what is taken for a unexploded German rocket is found nearby--only the so-called bomb isn’t magnetic.

Quatermass gets called in, and soon discovers the thing isn’t some V-rocket, but something far stranger--an alien spacecraft. The history of Hobb’s End as “bad place” plagued by ghost sightings and poltergeist activity, and a shape suggestive of a pentagram on the outside of the craft, leads Quatermass to link the presence of the craft with the human perception of supernatural evil. When they are finally able to get inside the craft and find tripodal, arthropod-like creatures with horns--suggesting the horn’s of the devil--Quatermass sees his theory as confirmed.

A few more experiments and a lot more ominous psychic phenomena later, and we find out the aliens are Martians who, like Lovecraft’s Old Ones, experimented on human ancestors and influenced our evolution. Their race dying, the Martian’s came to the “hostile” environment of earth and tried to turn humanity into a mental continuation of their race, if not a physical one. This includes, unfortunately, their violent attitudes about racial purity, which awaken horribly in London humanity in the film's climax.

It occurs to me that this might be a good explanation for dungeons, if one wanted to go in a weird science-fantasy direction, rather than a “mythic underworld” one.

Consider this: a spacecraft from a dying world crashes in the ancient past on a fantasy world. Their psychic power is considerable--maybe they're those perennial brainpower-baddies, the mind-flayers, or maybe they're the thri-keen (why not give those guys something to do for once?). This race goes about influencing the evolution of the world. Maybe orcs and other humanoids are derived from hominid stock, or maybe, in a twist, humans (the moral mixed-bag), are derived from goody-goody elvish or dwarvish stock. Unlike Qautermass’s Martians, maybe our hypothetical race doesn’t stop there. Perhaps a whole lot of dungeon monsters are part of their attempt to recreate all the flora and fauna of their dying world? Other things, like undead, might be manifestations of their powerful psychic residue lingering in their semi-sentient technology. You get the idea.

This would probably work best in a world with only one dungeon (a megadungeon, naturally) where this was the “ultimate secret” in its lowest depths. Who knows, after discovering the spacecraft in the dungeons lowest levels, and mastering (or not) the alien psychic-tech, maybe the PCs go on their own voyage of conquest High Crusade style?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Three Rooms in Amber

I've been running X2: Castle Amber for my 5e Land of Azurth game. As my session reports suggest, I've tweaked so things and changed other quite a bit. At times, I've got better ideas after I actually run it. I may post all my alterations at some point, but here are the the pertinent encounters in the "color rooms" in Castle Amber:

Overview: I envisioned these rooms as looking like more fanciful (maybe) version of the sort of rooms in Versailles or Schönbrunn Palace. I didn't have good reference in place to get that across to the players when I ran it, though, and it probably doesn't matter much anyway. I won't repeat everything Moldavy wrote that I kept, but only what I interpreted or replaced.

WHITE ROOM: The white carpet is crunchy underfoot with frosty. The walls are dusted with frost. Hard rime coats the furniture. In the center of the room, In the center of the room a giant salamander (over 10 feet long), white and striped with vein blue, lolls on a chaise longue. It's finned tail extends well beyond chair and lazy stirs up snowflakes from the carpet. 

I think actual salamanders are more interesting that lizards for magical creatures. 

GREEN ROOM: The room looks like it might be in an abandon home. The green wallpaper is peeling, vines are growing down the walls. The giant in the center of the room is entirely encased in armor with a vaguely floral motif, and that armor is complete covered in verdigris. He is easily mistaken for a statue until he moves.

I had in mind this image by Eoghan Kerrigan for the appearance of the giant, if it were patined. I want to put a little bit of distance from the Green Knight so it wouldn't be immediately picked up on, but the schtick was still the same.

RED ROOM: A large man (barrell-chested and bandy-legged) in crimson monk's robes over glittering, golden scale armor, sits cross-legged on the floor in a pose of meditation. His skin is charcoal black. His eyes appear to be windows into an internal furnace. His reddish blonde hair glows and smolders like coals.  The man has fallen from the sun; he's one of the countless throngs of dwarfs that make up the sun. They labor at the work of the cosmos and dance and sing radiant hymns to the glory of the gods. The man was into the void in a gout of ecstatic solar toil and fell to earth. 

I utilized the background of my reskins of the Azer here, since I had never put it in a game. I already had another celestial castaway in the adventure.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Wednesday Comics: Storm: The Labyrinth of Death

My exploration of the long-running euro-comic Storm, continues with his adventures in the world of Pandarve. Earlier installments can be found here.

Storm: The Labyrinth of Death (1983) 
(Dutch: Het Doolhof van de Dood) (part 4)
Art by Don Lawrence; script by Martin Lodewijk

The giant creature with the multiple jaws holds back from attacking Storm and his comrades. They surmise it must be afraid of the light still emanating from Storm. It's something the monster has never seen before.

The Theocrats guards charge into the chamber. They aren't so luck. The creature begins devouring them.

Storm and friends, while somewhat conflicted about leaving the guards to their fate, realize the distraction they provide is their only hope of escape. Marduk's lackey manages to get away too, by following them.

Next they come upon a chamber full of rotting monster skins. This must be where it comes to shed. Ember notices a whole far up in the domed ceiling. They surmise the creature comes to this place so cases from decay can escape.

Storm comes up with a daring plan. Maybe they can use the skins to create a hot air balloon to fly up to the opening and escape. They cut strips of some skins and wrap them around swords and a shield to make a basket. They attach a balloon made from a large skin with similar strips.

Just as the balloon begins to rise:

The creatures tendrils wrap around Brush-head's leg. Rather than let the creature drag them all to their doom, the rebel leader cuts herself free of the balloon.

As the others rise to freedom, Ember recreates she never even knew the woman's name.

The opening is (luckily) large enough for the balloon to pass through, They kick Marduk's lackey off as they rise into the skies of Pandarve on their way to their next adventure.


Monday, May 8, 2017

The Inn Between Worlds

Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued last night with the fifth session of our free adaptation of X2: Castle Amber. Last time, the party had opened the gate with the silver keys--and promptly been attacked by an amber lion statue come to life. Two shatter spells meant the end to that creatures, and a load of amber shards as loot.

The party passed through the gate and found themselves in a rather unusual French inn, Bonne Joissance. Unusually because the staff are all fae, including the all woman band. Each will show the party to a door to a different locale where they fight find on of the treasures they are looking for (the same door, but it opens to a different place depending on which band member opens it).

The harp player opens the door to the forest Sylaire and a half-ruined tower upon a tor. There they find Freydis, a faerie queen who sits a vigil waiting for her lover. She will exchange the Sword of Sylaire for the party subduing (but not killing) her lover, now a werewolf under the full moon. The werewolf and his pack attack the tower, but again the mages save the day with a barrage of scorching rays.

When the door is opened by flutist the party passes through a limpid pond and a lovelorn knight, Luc. He's being trying to find a feather to match the one he snatched (and then lost) from the cape of a swanmay as she fled their dalliance at dawn. He's certain he can find a substitute to present to her, but no mundane feather seems to match. He is willing to trade the Ring of Eibon for a feather from the fearsome jubjub that dwells in the nearby forest. Shade the Ranger tracks the bird, and (via speak with animals) she learns it is willing to part with two feathers for something shiny. The party offers up some amber from the statue and gives one feather to Luc, getting the ring in exchange.

The drummer ushers them the hall of Lord Huidemar. Huidemar is very pleased to see the party as their coming has been prophesied. He relates that he is widely known as a fool, but he will become a wise man when they give him the feather of the Simurgh bird. They give him the jubjub feather instead, but he doesn't seem to know the diffference. They get the Serpent Encircled Mirror in exchange.

The guitar player opens the door to the location of the potion of time travel--the dungeons of the debauched sorceress, the Lady d'Azederac. The party interrupts a ritual. Their coming exasperates her but is not unexpected. It has been prophesied that beings from another world would bring her an acorn of gold from Eden. The presentation of this relic would turn her from her iniquities and set her on the path of saintliness. The party presents her with one of their acorns (though not from Eden, of course) and get the potion in exchange.

Returning one last time to the inn, the party uses the items to summon the tomb of Estyvan.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Weird and the Unusual

The difficulty with dealing with the fantastic is too-often repeated tropes/ideas become cliches, and kind of unfantastic. The D&D (read: prevailing) view of elves, dwarves, dragons, etc. has thoroughly mundanified and Gygaxian-realismed these things into yawns for a lot of people. Now, it's resonable to ask just how fantastic an element needs to be in a game about killing stuff and taking its treasure, but feeling burned out on the standard tropes has led to a lot of folks reaching for the Weird. It's funny that almost 100 year-old tropes can seem fresh and untrod territory, but fantasy is nothing if not a conservative genre, I guess.

The trouble is, those elements might get a little stale for some people, too, with repetition. So there's the New Weird or gonzo, of course, but I'd also like to suggest that maybe things don't have to be wholly "new." They just have to be a bit surprising, and those surprises can each be employed a small number of times so they stay fresh.

I think looking back to mythology and folklore helps a lot, because there are a lot of forgotten elements in those that make no sense from the modern perspective, and so have tended to be dropped from retellings. Medieval bestiaries are good, too.

Here's an interesting thing I came across a couple of years ago: "mundane" animals as treasure guardians:

Washington Irving notes the folk-belief that the spiritual guardians of buried treasure could take on the form of animals, such as toads. “Wild vines entangled the trees, and flaunted in their faces; brambles and briers caught their clothes as they passes; the garter snake glided across their path; the spotted toad hopped and waddled before them; and the restless cat-bird mewed at them from every thicket. Had Wolfert Webber [a man in search of treasure, but who was unschooled in folk-magic] been deeply read in romantic legend, he might have fancied himself entering upon forbidden enchanted ground; or that these were some of the guardians set to keep watch upon buried treasure.” Diedrich Knickerbocker (pseud.), “The Adventures of the Black Fisherman,” Tales of a Traveller (1825), 2: 356.

So replace a dragon or some other "fantastic" creature with just an animal, acting kind of strange and maybe able to talk. Adventure Time! sort of (I'm sure unknowingly) uses this trope with a frog that serves as a portal to lumpy space:

Monsters that want to chat, instead of kill the party immediately, are also a mythological staple that is not as often done in rpgs (though I try to do a bit of this in Mortzengersturm). This one can hard because PCs are a stabby lot, but it can help put them in the old school mindset of the goal being to get treasure, not necessarily kill things. A loquacious monster is a challenge, not an encounter.

Finally I would suggest the behavioral reskin (this is sort of a broader application of the talking monster principle). We're all familiar with putting new flesh on a set of stats, but a more subtler reskin will sometimes surprise players more. If goblins aren't following their Gygaxian role, but instead all consumed with building/repairing some ancient machine, maybe that hooks the PCs interest? Maybe it's only me, but I think backwards talking derro that can only be understood if you look in a mirror as they speak, move a known monster away from an evil dwarf back to the Shaverian paranoid weirdness.

Those are just some examples, which may or may not work for you, but I'm sure you can think of your own. Instead of trying hard to make things fresh and new, just make them a little odd.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

I was not as fond as most people of the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. I saw Vol. 2 last night, and while I still wish I had gotten a Farscape movie instead, I think this one is a better film that the first.

In brief, the new movie pits the Guardians against the Goldenskinned authoritarian snobs of the Sovereign (who they ripped off) and Ego the Living Planet (a universe-imperiling threat). It has plenty of action and perhaps even more physical comedy that the first (too many hyperjumps causes cartoonish facial deformation). It manages to give all the characters some story beats and something interesting to do--something that other large cast Marvel films haven't managed as well. In contrast to the first film, the characters are allowed to grow a bit, in contrast to being reduced from their two dimensional comic versions to one dimensional cliched archetypes. Freed from the need to blatantly tie in to a larger Marvel "epic", Vol. 2 gets to more full psychedelic space fantasy, like Farscape if it were a Heavy Metal comic or Star Wars with a dayglo aesthetic and more dick jokes.

There are still some things I didn't like: I have come to the conclusion I just don't care for the Marvel Studios "fantastic" aesthetic. I thought Asgard looked like a Nike commercial version of the Star Wars prequels, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy managed to make Chris Foss inspired designs seem uninteresting. I'm still not sold; it all looks very expensive video for a pop song I don't like, but there are hints this time of a particular philosophy of design that makes the seedy Contraxia and the ostentatious Sovereign throne room work for me better than anything in the first film.

Also, it still seems like dimension hoping more than space travel. Forget Serenity's "into the black;" except for the fact that people dying in the vacuum is a plot point, you could be forgiven for not realizing they were ever in space. Everything is as awash in color, and planets are passed in travel not as planets but as little tableaux or comedy scenes, like the cosmic equivalent of the hapless fruit vendor getting his stand smashed in a car chase. I think colorful, busy design can be but to great purpose (I love Speed Racer) and in sci-fi (like The Fifth Element or the upcoming Valerian), but something about the way Marvel does it rubs me the wrong way.

Oh, and the music cues are omnipresent. Upping the ante from its predecessor (but in line with Suicide Squad) its much like a series of short music videos for classic pop songs. While not as bad as Suicide Squad in this regard, it also has a few that are so on the nose that the movie is sort of narrating itself to you in song (cf. "My Sweet Lord").

Bottom line: If you liked the first one, you will almost certainly like this one. If you were so-so on the first one, you still might like this one.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Weird Revisted: Fantasy Pharmakon

In February of 2010, I had fantasy drugs on the mind. I'm happy to say that in the 7 plus years since this post originally appeared, a lot of fantastic intoxicants have appeared on blogs and OSR products.
"Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into locked a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can."

- Raoul Duke, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

A couple of years ago, I was following a messageboard thread discussing drugs--intoxicants--in the context of fantasy gaming. It was prompted by White Wolf's Exalted and the modern drugs like heroin and cocaine, apearing therein. One of the writer's involved with defended their choice to use those very modern drugs with those very modern names by saying that "made up" names for things were essentially lame/uncool, and that if a substance was familiar to player's under a certain name, that name ought to be used.

I disagreed in two ways. One, I think using too many words with modern connotations and origins can break the "mood" of fantasy. Such things are "amundisms," as Lin Carter would have it in his seminal exploration on world-building, Imaginary Worlds (1973). Secondly, and most importantly, why should a world like Exalted's Creation, where fantastic creatures like the Beasts of Resplendent Liquids exist--which eat raw materials and excrete drugs--be saddled with the same old, boring drugs found in the real world? Surely, that's a failure of imagination.

Thankfully, many writers of fantastic fiction have not been so limited. Here are several examples of fantastic intoxicants which should serve to inspire interesting new substances for role-playing game characters to use (or misuse):

Black Lotus
In most of Howard's Conan stories, black lotus is a poison (though in "Hour of the Dragon" it's noted that its pollen causes "death-like sleep and monstrous dreams"), but the ancestors of the thoroughly stoned citizens of Xuthal have cultivated it until "instead of death, its juice induces dreams, gorgeous and fantastic." The effects appear to be similar to more mundane narcotics in terms of the heavy sleep and euphoria it induces with the added effect of generating vivid, pleasurable dreams. Find it in: "Xuthal of the Dusk" in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

A mysterious, and powerful, new psychedelic drug on the streets of New Crobuzon in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Dreamshit takes the form of brown, sticky pellets about the size of an olive that smell like burnt sugar. Eventually, it's discovered that dreamshit is the "milk" of the deadly, mind-devouring, slake-moths. Find it in: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.

In Tim Lebbon's Noreela, fledge is a commonly used (and abused) substance. Mined from deep underground the yellowish substance is put to many beneficial uses by the race of fledge miners for whom it provides sustenance, healing, and the ability to project their minds outside of their bodies. The fledge miners experience no ill-effects from their use, but do have withdrawal if they go without it. Taken to the surface, though, fledge degrades in quality--its mental-projection effects greatly diminish--and becomes highly addictive. Not that fledge mining is totally without dangers. There are rare, but powerful demons (the Nax) sometimes found near fledge veins. Lebbon also gives us another drug--rhellim--which enhances sexual stimulation, and comes from the livers of furbats. Find them in: Dusk, and Dawn by Tim Lebbon.

The Plutonian Drug
The Plutonian Drug appears in the Clark Ashton Smith story of the same name. Also called "plutonium"--though certainly not to be confused with the radioactive element of the same name--it's found on Pluto by the Cornell Brothers' 1990 expedition (I remember watching the intrepid explorers' return on live TV in 1994, don't you?). Its native form is crystalline, but it turns to a powder when exposed to earthly atmosphere. Ingestion of the drug causes the user to be able to perceive their own timeline for a relatively recent period as if it were a spatial dimension, allowing them to see a short distance into the future. Several other extraterrestrial drugs are mentioned in the same story. Find them in: "The Plutonian Drug."

Appearing in a couple of stories by Leigh Brackett, shanga certainly brings out the beast in its users.  It isn't actually a drug, but a radiation produced by projector devices, the construction of which is a lost art. Users experience temporary atavism, allowing one to (as the quote goes) make oneself into a beast to get rid of the pain of being a man. The ancient projectors used a prism of an alien crystal rather than quartz, like the projectors found in the seeder parts of Martian trade-cities at the time of the stories. The crystals, the so-called Jewels of Shanga, produce a more potent effect leading to physical de-evolution, with longer exposure causing transformation to ever more remote evolutionary ancestral forms. Find it in: "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" (The Secret of Sinharat), and "The Beast-Jewel of Mars."

There you go. Five substances for hours of simulated enjoyment. Turn on, tune in, play on.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Wednesday Comics: Storm: The Labyrinth of Death

My exploration of the long-running euro-comic Storm, continues with his adventures in the world of Pandarve. Earlier installments can be found here.

Storm: The Labyrinth of Death (1983) 
(Dutch: Het Doolhof van de Dood) (part 3)
Art by Don Lawrence; script by Martin Lodewijk

Marduk's devices begin siphoning off the energy spacetime energy for which Storm is a conduit and storing it in batteries. Then, the energy begins flowing back into Storm, powering him up. He begins using that power to destroy the Theocrat's lab.

Storm's energy is rapidly dissipated, but luckily the rebels arrive just in time. Storm and his friends are reunited. Their are too many guards, though, so they have to flee with the rebels.

Marduk isn't worried. He's confident there is no escaping the corridor they ran into.

Soon, the rebels come up on the "Golden Gates of the Labyrinth of Death." No one has ever entered it and lived:

To Marduk's horror, that doesn't stop our heroes from entering. He orders his hapless guards in after them.

Storm and friends and "Brush-head" (Storm's name for the rebel leader) make their way through the labyrinth. Their way is lit by Storm, still glowing with residual energy. They see the Theocrat's guards behind them, and run off down a random corridor. After passing through narrow tunnels, the way widens again and they encounter a horror:


Monday, May 1, 2017

Mortzengersturm in Print--While Supplies Last

The print copies of Mortzengersturm, The Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak have arrived, and a limited number of copies have been set aside for online orders.

Go here for details. The link will be in the sidebar as long as their are copies up for grabs.