Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Charmed Life of an Adventurer

"Prophecies and charms marked his face, talismans against attacks from animals, demons, and men."
- Brian Catling, The Vorrh
Some editions of D&D have felt suggested magic items were required equipment at certain levels. Even before that, the fact that you could sell magic items suggested the existence of places they might be bought: Ye Olde Magic Shoppe. Neither of these facts have ever sat well with some people, who view these as part of a mundanifying, possibly even industrializing of magic. In general, I would count myself among them, though it depends on the setting, really.

There is a way to have common magic items without sucking the mysticism and mystery out of them and raising the specter of industrialization. That would be to replace many magic items with with charms or fetishes. Charms (and blessings) are mentioned in the 5e DMG , but they are envisioned as short-term or single issue enchantments on an individual. I think they could be applied to items, though they still might be single or short-term use to differentiate them from standard magic items.

There might be other differences:

  • They would appear more like art objects than practical tools, though they might also be laid into practical tools (or people) with markings/runes.
  • They could be acquired at shops, but they would generally bespoke, not bought off a shelf (though some might be).
  • They would be pretty common, almost ubiquitous among adventurers, but they would be more specialized. Instead of a Ring of Protection, their might be a talisman of protection against weapons, one against magical attacks, one against the claws and teeth of beasts. (This approach would require more record-keeping, but might or might not be worth it.)

A lot of the adventurer's acquired wealth would go into buying new or longer lasting charms. Healing potions could stay potions, but they could be replaced with poultices or talismans instead. Maybe their would be a mixture of both, and could be purchased. "True" (permanent) magic items would be rarer, and perhaps only found among the ruins of the past. They would almost never be sold.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Things I Read Last Week

These are the comics I've read over the past week. Only one of them is new.

Martian Manhunter (2018) #5
John Jones discovers he's not the only Martian that survives his planet's death, and he needs John Jones partner, Diane, more than ever to bring him in. The parallel story of the last days of Mars draws incrementally closer to its tragic end. This continues to be one of the few current comics I'm interested. but the decompression is starting to wear on me.

Kill 6 Billion Demons Book 3
I confess the first two installments of Kill 6 Billion Demons were interesting to me because of the setting, and because I thought it was leading to somewhere cool. This volume, though, I enjoyed for what it was doing at the moment. Here we get an epic heist story or classic D&D setup in the city of Throne itself.

Black Hood (1991)
Black Hood was the last of the ongoing series as part of DC's Impact Comics line, a resurrection of Archie's MLJ heroes. Black Hood has the best high concept and the best first issue of the Impact titles: It ends with its Punisher-esque, journal-narrating, vigilante hero getting killed, and a teen age kid taking up his mask that is more than just a simple piece of cloth. The premise unfolds less grittily than one might image given that '91 was when comics were at peak anti-hero, but then the Impact line was aimed a bit at younger readers, which in that era didn't mean anime-inspired stylization in the art and more simplistic stories, but instead younger protagonists and less violence. Sort of. The whole series is available on Kindle/Comixology.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Genre of D&D Art?

Jason "Dungeon Dozen" Sholtis and I were talking the other day, after we both watched Eye of the Beholder, the new documentary on D&D artists (which you should see too). Jason was skeptical of the idea (mentioned in the documentary) that "D&D art" was a genre, instead viewing it as part of the wider field of fantasy illustration. I put forward an argument, that he found at least somewhat convincing, that D&D (or rpg) art, might at least constitute a subgenre of fantasy art, and that it could be identified by its tendency to emphasis certain traits across several editions. Here are the traits I came up with:

Prosaic or Humorous Scenes
While fantasy illustration is no stranger to humor or protagonists that are less than competent, but not large than life, these sorts characters are depicted in a higher proportion of D&D art.

More Detail on Monsters
Monsters in much traditional (pre-D&D) fantasy illustration are best described as "phantasmagoric" or fanciful, charitably--and perhaps even outright goofy. D&D monsters are not always anatomically or realistically considered but they are generally detailed and usually dynamic.

Placing the Viewer with the Protagonists
The eye of the viewer is often positioned as if they might be a companion of the pictured protagonists or at least a close observer, rather than viewing the action at a remove. The primary focus then is often placed on the antagonist (or monster) rather than the heroes.

Emphasis on Small Groups Rather than Individuals or Clashing Armies
This one is obvious due to the "party" structure of rpgs, and it is perhaps the one most frequently supported by the art. The party is often displaying teamwork.

Anyway, I think those sort of make the point. I do think there are some others regarding costuming and composition of scenes, but these are the ones I feel most certain about. Of course, there is a lot D&D art that don't show these characteristics and there is some non-rpg fantasy illustration that does. These are really about tendencies, not absolutes.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Weird Revisited: Ursoid Mutant Dunes

The original version of this was posted in 2015, shortly after I had seen Mad Max: Fury Road.

I've got just the thing for a Mutant Future or Gamma World mini-sandbox: do a bit of reskinning on Chris Kutalik's Slumbering Ursine Dunes (if you don't have copy--well, it's available now.)  Here's some thoughts on changing the basic setup.

Out in the desert, there's an ancient rune and a crashed alien spacecraft, slowly burning holes in reality itself.

The Background as Only the GM Knows It
Milt Grisley was an underground cartoonist who got his chance to sell out in the eighties. His Sleepy Beartm character went from counter-culture anti-hero to toyetic, afernoon cartoon pitch-man--and made Grisley rich in the process. Theme parks followed--the one outside of Las Vegas was the biggest, Once Grisley was well into Howard Hughes level eccentricity, he even had a futuristic, planned community built nearby. It was going to be a utopia in the desert run by a super-conputer and thoroughly Sleepy Bear-branded. Then the bombs dropped.

The super-computer has grown more self-aware over the centuries--and also crazier. It thinks it's the real Sleep Bear, now. Its public face is one of the old animatronic, amusement park bears. Somewhere along the way, a tribe of mutated ursoids found it (perhaps following the old signs emblazoned with Sleepy Beartm) and now worship it like a god, following the computer's every command no matter how ridiculous.

They lived peaceable and kept to themselves. They even allowed some humans to settle nearby. Everything was fine until the crash. A saucer full of Greys, sliding across dimensions, went down in the desert near the installation. Maybe it had something to do with a top secret military installation the government never officially acknowledged that was hidden near Bear Town, or maybe it was just a freak coincidence. Whatever the cause, crash it did, and its reality-shifting engines went critical, dumping their cosmomorphic fuel all over the landscape, turning everything weird...

So, hopefully the recastings are clear: Medved is the super-computer whose avatar is an animatronic cartoon bear. The Eld are Greys and their golden barge is a big saucer (don't worry about the different deckplans. It's weird on the inside.) The Weird is created by spaceship fuel. Ondrej is probably a mutant shark and cartoonish pirate, holed up in the pirate island in the middle of the brackish and radioactive artificial lake in the amusement park.

See, not so hard? I'll let you take it from there. Make your own adventure in the Mutants Dunes.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Secrets of Harveylands

This map of "various Harveylands" comes to us from Richie Rich #230 (1987). Before its publications, the proximity of many Harvey characters was apparent, but the fact that their entire kids comic "universe" existed in one locality was a bit of surprise. Looking at the map, I think we can discern other truths about the "Harvey Universe."

The mountains separating it from the outside world reveals it to be a hidden land in the old tradition of Oz or Opar. It is primarily inhabited by magical or fairytale creatures (some in semi-isolated subregions), with one isolated island being the home of talking animals. Based on the comics, these animals enjoy a higher level of technology and infrastructure than the surrounding "enchanted forest" dwellers (though so stories suggest at least the Devils have access to TV and radio.) There are also the two anomalous comics related industries.

Richville's wealth and isolation are a bit of a puzzle. I suspect it is something like the isolated Amazon cities of the rubber boom. The only question is what provided the fortune for the Richs and their city? Whatever it is, it likely has something to do with the magical nature of the surrounding countryside.

Spooktown seems to be the next largest city, and it is walled. Possibly it isn't open to non-ghosts? Maybe witches, since they seem to live in close proximity. Spooktown is big enough that it has suburbs, apparently, where Casper resides.

I always took Tiny Town to be a settlement of normal humans in the Stumbo stories--tiny only in comparison. I wonder now if they are actually smaller, and so Stumbo's size in the stories was exaggerated by the comparison.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Charlton Action Heroes

Since I've covered the MLJ/Archie characters recently, and the Tower Comics T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents back in 2017, it's time the Charlton Comics "Action Heroes" got there due. Charlton had published superheroes in the Golden Age, but what they are remembered for (well, besides what DC has done with their characters since) is their Silver Age publications.

Like Archie Comics' hero universe, Charlton's had an early, false start. In the wake of DC's Silver Age success in the late 50s, Captain Atom by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko debuted in the science fiction anthology series, Space Adventures, starting in 1960. Captain Atom last appeared there in 1961 and by the end of that year, his artist was doing seminal work for Marvel.

In 1965, with Marvel and DC enjoying great success with superheroes, Charlton revived Captain Atom with reprints. The Golden Age Dan Garrett Blue Beetle had been reworked and re-introduced in 1964, but that character and Charlton superheroics really took off in 1966 when Dikto returned. His renewed work with Captain Atom and his introduction of a new Blue Beetle led Charlton editor Dick Giordano to debut the "Action Heroes" line. Along with these two Ditko characters (and later the Question), Giordano included Peter Morisi's Peter Cannon...Thunderbolt, Frank McLaughlin's Judomaster, and Pat Boyette's Peacemaker.

Unfortunately, the Action Heroes were not a resounding success. By the end of 1967, all the series were cancelled. After the demise of Charlton in the 80s, DC would acquire the characters. It's thanks to DC that we have any of the Action Heroes material collected at all. Maybe we'll eventually get an omnibus due the Watchmen connection?

Peter Morisi's estate owns Peter Cannon. Dynamite Comics currently has the license for him and has published two series since 2012, the latest is currently ongoing.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Greek Myth Godbound

Reading Kevin Crawford's Godbound (which is pretty cool!), I've been thinking about how I might use it, if I ever got around to it. I have two ways I might use it, actually, but here's one of them.

The first borrows some from my old Gods, Demi-gods and Strangeness idea, except it would shift to being more about Kirby-esque super-gods heroics like The Eternals or The New Gods rather than mortal plagued by science fictional gods.

The background: For reasons not fully known to anyone but himself, the titan Kronos sought to create a more permanent world of matter and time, something less mutable than the idea-space of chaos where the titans existed. Eleven of his peers were either dupes or co-conspirators in the creation.

The Titans were lessened by their participation in the Cosmos project. They were forced to embody and support fixed aspects of the architecture of Kronos's world: They entered as creators but became as much prisoners as those that came after them. Like in Greek Myth (and Exalted's Creation), the Earth is flat:

(The world probably resembles the world known to the Ancient Greeks, but maybe "blown up" slightly.)

Kronos's rule was in many ways a Golden Age, with human's living in protected gardens, yet at the caprice of Kronos and his allies. The Olympians also resented his command, and they led a usurpation, that toppled the Titans and imprisoned them away.  Humans were freer, but also suffered from disease and hunger and lived shorter lives. The Olympians restricted human technology, fearful initially of another revolt.

In the current age, the Olympians are decadent and distracted. Mighty heroes and demi-gods have appeared among human, ready to rediscover the technology of the Titans and challenge the gods themselves with their deeds.

The Feel: Mythic Greece as a science fantasy, superhero epic. This is a "ahistorical," mythical ancient Greece. I mean, more ahistorical than usual. It might be a distant past like the Camelot of 8000 BC in DC Comics' Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight. It has a bit of Kirby, a bit of Starlin, maybe a bit of Peter Chung's Reign: The Conqueror.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Why Isn't There a Game for That? [Update]

I originally wrote this post in 2014, so it's probably time to check back in and see how the rpg landscape is changed. There are a number of genres/subgenres that are under-utilized or not utilized at all in rpgs, despite the fact they would probably work pretty well. Here are a few off the top of my head:

Humorous Adventure Pulp
Basically this would cover the whimsical, fantastical, and often violent world of Thimble Theatre (later Popeye) and the Fleischer Popeye cartoon. A lot of fist-fights, fewer guns. This would also cover Little Orphan Annie, various kid gang comics, and (on the more violent end) Dick Tracy.
Update: Still nothing. It's probably not a genre that has a lot of cachet for modern audiences.

Wainscot Fantasy
Little creatures hiding in the big world. Think The Borrowers, The Littles, and Fraggle Rock.
Update: I've found forums and blogposts where others are asking about this sort of thing, but no games still. Well, no published games. There's a quick and lite Fraggle Rock game here.

Kid Mystery Solvers
Scooby Doo is probably the most well-known example, but you've got several Hanna-Barbera returns to the same concept. Ditch weird pet/side kick, and you've got The Three Investigators, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. 
Update: Looks like there is a game called Meddling Kids. I don't know anything about it though.

Wacky Races
I've written about this one before--and Richard has run it. Still needs a game, though.
Update: There is a board game, which perhaps is a better fit for it.

The Dungeon That is Never Cleared

I'm sure there are the exceptions, but it seems like that Gygax-approved secondary goal of dungeoncrawling is to clear dungeons to make the land safe for decent folk or something like that. I don't know how much that's that's done these days, but at least dungeon rooms and levels are cleared to allow safe havens/base camps.

What if the dungeon were so alien that sort of thing were unlikely? A dungeon could be looted, but it never could be tamed. This wouldn't mean that the dungeon is static or unchangeable by adventurers, just that it would always retain its essential, deadly, character.

I've been reading The Vorrh by Brian Catling, a novel which has at its center (sort of) the eponymous, immense, ancient forest that is steals people's memories and is supposedly uncrossable. I'm also thinking of the toxic, alien nature of the Zones in Roadside Picnic.

Maybe a mythic underworld as hostile as either of these, would be a bit too much of a killer dungeon (but then again, maybe not) but some movement in this direction might be interesting. In both cases, the appropriate sort of preparation might be key. In the Roadside Picnic case, that means good intel and appropriate gear. In the case of the more mystical Vorrh, it might involve a separate quest to get the needed knowledge, blessing, or key.

Philotomy in his off-quoted "Musings" got it, particularly if we go light on "versimilitude" and allow just enough "internal consistency" for player choices to be meaningful:
"...a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer.   
It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it."

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Marvel's Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes film series ended with a whimper rather than a bang with 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but it was followed by a 1974 TV series that was likely the catalyst for Marvel Comics licensed adventures. The color series, Adventures on the Planet of the Apes only lasted 11 issues. It began with a colorized adaptation of the first film, reprinted from the more successful series the black and white Curtis Magazine title, Planet of the Apes.

Doug Moench was the only writer, working with a rotating cadre of artists, including Mike Ploog and Tom Sutton. The entire film series was adapted with varying degrees of fidelity, but what was more interesting was the new content where Moench's imagination was given freer rein to add to the Apes mythos. There were brains in jars and Middle Ages style jousting apes, coonskin cap wearing frontier apes, and ape mutants riding giant-frogs called Her Majesty's Cannibal Corps.

Boom! Studios has collected the entire run of the magazine series in four hard cover archives, but unfortunately the first volume (at least) is out of print, and tends to be sort of pricey on ebay.

Luckily, the internet comes to your rescue! If you interested in the magazine series, this site will be useful.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Planes of Chaos

Discussing cosmogony with an being of chaos, much less a Chaos Lord, is likely to lead only to more confusion. Linear logic, causality, even truth, are concepts beings of Chaos find unnecessarily limiting. Turning to their sacred writ (such as there is) will be of little help, either. The Hymn to Perplexity is composed entirely of questions and no answers.

Still, when they choose to, the ancient monsters and angels of Chaos remember the Godhead, the One that encompassed all. It was no more Order than Disorder, no more Constant than Mutable. If there was a Fall, it was Chaos that was indistinguishable in any meaningful way from what came before; It is Law that is the aberration. And even that aberration was born of Chaos.

Limbo is akin to what the multiverse was before Mechanus, before time existed. It is primordial soup from which any concept or being might be instantiate.  Chaos did not remain untainted by Law, however. Form, causality and other concepts gave shape to the previously formless. The border regions coalesced into something different.

Arborea is the home of beings who revel in the the gratification of the senses. They seek to woo other souls to throw off the shackles of Law and experience the pleasures of greater freedom. They never coerce beings into accepting their gifts (such would be a violation of freedom), but mortal souls may not be prepared for the experiences they offer.

The sad, dangerous monsters of the Abyss cling only to the concept of Self. The entirety of cosmos is merely an insufferable dream they can never wake up from. They torment or toy with other beings, even other demons, in attempts to exorcise their irritation. They are seldom successful.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Weird Revisited: Beneath the Fog Sea

The original of this post appeared in 2012...

The children of port cities are wont to crowd the docks when any airship comes in, but none generate the excitement that the return of a vessel laden with strange, subnebulous treasures does. Many’s the young lad or lass who dreams of one day being one of the daring divers who brave weird miasmata and battle strange creatures to win fortune and fame.

The modern world has four strata. The highest is the upper atmosphere of relatively benign flying things. Just beneath are the High-Lands of plateaus and mountain-sides where humanity dwells. Lapping at these lands at the lowest elevations is the Fog Sea, a region of roiling, glowing, multicolored mists. These mists are eldritch things: toxic, mutagenic, or both, with lengthy and concentrated exposure. Inhospitable though this region may be to humans, there are many flying or floating creatures which make it their home.

The deepest depths of the fog shroud the lowest strata: the Low-Lands, the Undersea. Here one may find true oceans of water (gray and toxic from absorbing the overhanging fog), but more importantly, here lie the ruins of a once great civilization. This is thought to be the ancient home of man, before whatever happened, happened, forcing him to seek higher ground. Ancient treasures--both of wealth and knowledge--were left in these ruins. Though sailing a whole vessel through the fog is generally considered too risky a move, divers and diving craft are sent down to reclaim these treasures.

The fog isn’t the only danger. If the strange flying and floating things weren’t enough, the ruined cities themselves are inhabited by monsters. Some are mutated animals, others are humanoids--perhaps the degenerate descendants of the humans left behind. These savages view divers as violators of their territory at best and potential meals at worse. In the shadowy depths, divers do battle with these creatures, steel against steel, as firearms often misfire dangerously when submerged in the fog. The psychoactive properties of the mists have given strange powers to the creatures that dwell in it--but sometimes limited exposure does the same for divers, too.

Despite the dangers of death or loss of humanity, the rewards are great. There is no shortage of youths willing to sign on for a voyage beneath the Fog Sea.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Planes of Pure Law

The Analects, concerned primarily with the philosophies and doctrines of the forces of called variously Law, Order, Persistence, or Certitude, are silent on emanation of the first Aeon--The Fall-- where a lesser infinity of the Godhead was broken in some sort of hypercosmic trauma. The first concept to differentiate or separate from formlessness was Order, and everything that was not was Chaos. Thus, the first Syzygy was born.

As Order was elaborated, mind was born. The Prime Mover sought to make the multiverse as precise and orderly as its thought process. It constructed more of itself, a vast planar machine, and called it Mechanus.  If the whole universe were a vast computational engine, it could model the Godhead with such fidelity that it would be the Godhead--or at least the Godhead to the maximum resolution of the fallen universe.

But Unity no longer existed. On the expanding boundaries of Mechanus, interaction with Chaos created doubt, and doubt led to schism. The Boundary Archons became convinced that intellect and logic alone could not describe the Godhead or form Unity. Nor could the necessary transcendence occur by coercion. These seven Archons created the Heavenly Mountain, and at its peak was Abolition of Self, which would transform the souls born of chaos into what the Archons in their certainty knew the cosmos needed.

Other Border Archons believed that the cosmos could only be changed by force. They even dared consider that the former oneness might never be restored--but perhaps a new unity could be constructed. Mechanus's measures were too passive. They had seen the worst of Chaos, and the equations of the Machine were not adequate to the task of subduing it. Chaos could only be expunged, and those too weak to resist it would need correction or destruction themselves. Only the strong would have a place in Unity. They burrowed into Chaos and fixed it with chains called Oppression and founded Hell.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Consulting the Sages

Our Land of Azurth 5e campaign continued last night with the party still in the future, spending the night in the apparent safety of the Frog Temple (whose messiah, they believe is Waylon the Thief from some point in the future). They are awakened by the white glow of a point floating air that spreads into a line vibrating with the words of Phosphoro. The wizard asks if they have acquired the book. Before they can answer, something disrupts his transmission.

That something turns out to be a ball energy that resolves into a humanoid form. In a booming monotone, it demands that they turn over the Book of Doors, explaining that the Mysteriarchs of Zed will brook no one unworthy gaining entrance to their hidden city. It also declares that it is not fool by the trickery inherent in this "anomaly," though who this comment is aimed at is not clear. The group assumes it to be Roderick Drue, but the confused young man protests his innocence.

The party surmises they do want to to fight this creature, much less the Mysteriarchs, so they bargain: They will give up the book, minus the page they must give Phosphoro. The creature summons a "factor" of the city empowered to make such negotiations.

After some talk, the factor agrees to their terms. Additionally, he warns them their presence here might summon a "Time Keeper." He has the "golem of pure magic" examine the book, then remove the page Phosphoro will need. Then the agents of Zed leave taking the rest of the book with them.  When they are gone, Phosphoro renews contact. The party explains the situation, and Phosphoro prepares to return them home. Due to the nature of temporal magic, he states they will have to drift out of this time slowly. It make take hours or days.

With nothing to do but wait, the party tries to find out more about what calamity befell their homeland. They seek out the Standing Stone Sages. The sages don't know much that can help them, but do reveal that The Clockwork Princess and Queen Desira, the Enchantress of Virid, were allies in their rebellion against the Wizard.

No sooner are they done talking to the Sages than they encounter a strange ooze shot through with electrical impulses that seems to follow them. The attack it at a distance, finding it resistant to most things, but vulnerable to cold. Relying primarily on such attacks, they destroy it before it can ever get an attack in.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Weird Revisited: Bug Powder

This first first appeared. Way back in 2010...

Bill: What do you mean, "it's a literary high"?

Joan: It's a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.

- Naked Lunch (1991)

Bug Powder is a strange magical substance found in the City, and its world, and possibly elsewhere. It generally appears as pale yellowish powder, and its official use is as a professional-grade insecticide. It can be found in containers from several different and mysterious suppliers--"Benway Chymical", and "Voke & Veech", are prominent examples. Bug powder will indeed serve as an insecticide, but if nasally insufflated (snorted), or injected intravenously in small doses it has euphoric and mild hallucinogenic properties.

Long-term use generally leads to dependence, but also, like use of a large single dose, seems to open a doorway to another plane. Users report travel to an exotic, desert world under two reddish moons, were lies a sprawling pennisular city called Interzone, on the quivering banks of a gelatinous sea. The swarthy inhabitants of Interzone appear human in all respects, but have undefinable and unsettling air of strangeness about them. In addition to the natives, humans from many time periods and worlds, as well as alien beings, can be found sweating in Interzone, perusing their own agendas. There is a great deal of political intrigue in the city-state, and several different political factions--but the goals of these groups and the reasons for their conflicts often seem contradictory, if not outright nonsensical.

Mystics and planar scholars believe Interzone to be an interstitial realm acting as a gate or "customs station" between the material world and the inner planes. Supporting this view is the presence of soldiers the Hell Syndicates, as well as miracleworking street-preachers and holy hermits professing the varied and conflicting "ultimate truths" of the Seven Heavens. A slight variation on this view, is that Interzone is not so much a part of the astral plane, but more an extension of Slumberland, the Dream-World, located in some seedy Delirium ghetto. Further exploration will be needed to determine this for certain.

This exploration isn't without dangers. While physical dependence comes from the bug powder's use, the thinning of the psychic barriers between the material world and Interzone serve to cause a person to involuntarily shift between the two. This tends to generate feelings of paranoia--and perhaps rightly so, as the more time one spends in Interzone, the more likely one is to become an agent (perhaps unwittingly) of one of its factions, and fall prey to its byzantine intrigues.

One final interesting bit of Interzone lower is that the natives hold that their city-state, was actually once six cities of very different mystic character, physically indistinct and loosely co-spatial, but still spiritually differentiated. The names of theses putative cities when uttered with the proper ritual, are said to be a powerful spell, though sources disagree as to what purpose.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Weird Revisited: Anti-Elves

This post first appeared in 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 elves. 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.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Azurth Mailbag: Are the PCs the Straight Men?

When I said this might be a recurring feature, I didn't think it would be so soon, but Jack Shear of New York asked an interesting question as follow-up to a comment I made on social media: "What does it look like when Azurth PCs are playing the straight man to the setting's fancifulness?"

My comment about "the PCs as straight men" was a reference to an idea that gets bandied about from time to time that originated with this blog post, I believe. Now, I sort of like this idea for a lot of settings. But the Land of Azurth is different.

Different does not mean my Azurth campaign is comedy game, though like any D&D game, it has its share of comedic moments. Rather, it is a world that is very serious in its unseriousness, even its ridiculousness.  Pun names for characters (like the perpetually throat-clearing mayor of one small hamlet, Effluvia Flimm) are common, and "joke" monsters or treasures are not unheard (though they aren't particularly common).

I'm not looking to get a laugh of the players with all this, though it's fine if I do on occasion. Rather, I'm trying to present a certain of world like Oz or Ooo, and these are just the sort of things these kind of worlds have. In this context, I hope that this sort of playfulness aids immersion instead of harming it.

So, anyway, the world as presented sort of puts the player in the roll of straight man in a couple of ways. One, they must stay goal-oriented and aware of potential danger (even death), despite the occurrence of odd, perhaps even ridiculous things: A dwarf polymorphed into a horse has disguised itself among hippogriffs in a sub-grade-school costume. You make landfall on an island populated by living candy. A court of talking animals puts you on trial for the slaughter of their kind. None of these things are the stuff of "serious" fantasy, at least of the action-oriented sort, yet here they are. The DM presents them seriously, with ne'er a nudge or wink, and the characters had better deal with them as such, even as the players may note their ridiculousness. And it keeps coming.

The second way is perhaps more common to certain sorts of adventure fantasy, specifically the works of Jack Vance. The PCs are adventurers of competence, even heroism, in a world where those traits may be uncommon. Like Vance's Adam Reith in the Planet of Adventure series, the PCs must contend with venal, self-absorbed, conniving, hidebound, and eccentric NPCs quite frequently. Some of these NPCs are also dangerous in the usual D&D sense, but most of them are just somewhat unhelpful. The PCs can only shake their head in frustration and press on.

This latter bit could probably get annoying to players if overdone, but I seem to have kept it in bounds, because the players actually seem to have some affection for a few of the recurring NPCs, even if they roll their eyes at them. It tends to be clear who is a villain and who is just an everyday rogue, and they reserve their hatred for that second bunch. Also, having distinctive characteristics for the NPCs seems to to keep them entertained.

So that's how Azurth is often the Costello to the PCs Abbot.

Got a question on the Land of Azurth or the campaign? Leave it in the comments or email me.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Superheroes at Archie

Archie Comics is best known as the publisher of the teen humor character whose name it bears, but the company has also produced superheroes throughout much of its history, since its inception as MLJ Comics in 1939, in fact. They've never had the profile of DC's or Marvel's characters, but the MLJ/Archie characters are perhaps first among also-rans. It was the MLJ characters, after all, that Moore used in his original pitch that became Watchmen.

To get the low-down on these "Ultra-Heroes" (The term used in the Mighty Comics of the 60s. Presumably a reaction to Marvel and DC trademarking "Super Hero.") you could do a lot worse than the MLJ Companion from TwoMorrows.

The history of the characters can be divided into publication eras. The Golden Age started with Pep Comics in 1940. The Shield would appear there, America's first flag-clad hero, 15 months before Captain America. The Comet was there, too, unusually violent, and ultimately the first superhero to die. The Hang Man and Black Hood followed, but all the superheroes ultimately gave way to Archie Andrews and the Riverdale gang.

With the dawn of the Silver Age, the MLJ superheroes were revived first in the Archie Adventure Series and then Mighty Comics. Joe Simon created the Fly, who was likely inspired by Captain Marvel (Shazam to kids today) and was perhaps one of the inspirations for Spider-Man. DC's success was the impetus for the revival, but Marvel's success guided its development. Jerry Seigel was brought in as main writer and either was trying to do a burlesque of the Marvel style or was unable to take it seriously. Either way, the Mighty Crusaders (as the new team was called) were "High Camp" a year before the Batman TV show made it the hip way to handle superheroes.

The campy 60s titles died away, but the heroes wouldn't stay down. They were brought back in the late 70s in reprints as part of the Red Circle line. The early 80s saw new stories produced, masterminded by Rich Buckler, with a grittier tone in keeping with the times and in some ways anticipating what was to come. Archie backed off from this pretty quickly, rebranding the line as the Archie Adventure Series again and making them more kid-friendly. They even got a toyline.

They were revived by DC under the !mpact imprint in the 90s, then again in an attempt to add them to the DC Universe in the 2008, but DC lost the rights in 2011.

Archie Comics have been publishing the superheroes themselves since 2012, but it doesn't look like they've published anything since 2018. Given the Mighty Crusaders history, I suspect they'll be back. You can't keep the ultra-heroes down.