Monday, December 30, 2019

The Outer Dark of Space

There are rpg publications out there combining the Cthulhu Mythos with science fiction, and maybe even some combining transhuman science fiction with it, but I don't know if any of them have combined the mythos with hard science fiction with a bleaker edge like Reynolds's Revelation Space or Blindsight by Peter Watts, or maybe a hard science fiction Prometheus.

The magic and occultism of Lovecraft's (and other's) stories are just the primitive misunderstandings of extremely advanced technology. The many of the so-called deities of the mythos are entities predating the current universe, somehow intertwined with its structure.

The Great Old Ones and other Elder Races have been fighting to control these entities or the knowledge they possess for billions of years. In their long war, they go quiescent or hibernate for extended periods to build their energies and plan their strategies for the next titanic battle. Many of these beings are no longer conscious or sophont by our standards, but rather post-intelligence. Other species are nearly powerless in the face of these titans, and so they hide when they are awake, and the try not to wake them when they are sleeping--though some are not above attempting to "hack" them or exploit their advance technology. This is the solution to the Fermi Paradox.

I figure human civilization would resemble something like Revelation Space. AI probably exists, but there are not yet hypersophont AI (at least not widely known) like in the work of Karl Schroeder or Hannu Rajaniemi, because their existence might make the mythos races less special.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Against the Weasels

The occupation of Toad Hall in Wind in the Willows by the weasels, ferrets, and stoats would make a good setup for an adventure of anthropomorphic animal characters in a low-level D&Dish fashion. In fact, if you make Toad Hall more of a castle and put a village around it, you'd have a nice setting for a Beyond the Wall sort of things focused on exploring the dangers of the Wild Wood.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

5e Santa Claus

'Tis the season for 5e interpretations of that jolly old elf, Saint Nick. Several different versions are already wrapped and under the tree:


Friday, December 20, 2019

Skywalker is Risen

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has not exactly been embraced by critics, though this is unlikely to blunt its box office draw much. Stars Wars fandom is ever hopefully that the dark times are over and what they love above Star Wars will finally be restored (when the fall from grace occurred, depends on who you ask, and probably what point in their life you ask them).

Like Abrams' first Star Wars film, RoS feels like it's trying to jam several movies into one, though the finale draws mostly from Return of the Jedi. It all moves very fast, and largely that's to its benefit, though that means no location develops a sense of place beyond set-dressing and character development is pretty shallow. (This film and the short run-time of the Mandalorian episodes, which are like hour dramas with most of the non-action excised, make me wonder if perhaps SW works best as a modern serial. Certainly the Clone Wars animated series played to those tropes as well to good effect.) It's fine, but it has the upshot of only occasionally (for me) wringing any real feeling from the proceedings, even failing to evoke any appreciation of it on a toyetic level. I saw nothing in this one that makes me want to buy the art book to delve into the design.

None of this is to say I didn't like it. It was a pleasing experience, though the enjoyment was pretty shallow. Only in a couple of places did it evoke any nostalgic feelings for the series' passing (I won't say which scenes for the sake of spoilers), and then only on the level of say the recent finale of The Deuce. Nothing on the level of the death of Spock (to evoke it's closest cultural competitor).

I am curious about the future of Star Wars, which will  probably get me in a theater to see at least one more.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Weird Revisted: Fiend Folio...In Space!

If your looking for some alien monsters for any traditional science fiction game you could do a lot worse than starting with the original Fiend Folio, I think. I'm not even talking about things like reskinning undead as nanotech animates or victims of exotic plagues (though you can certainly do that); I think there are a lot of creatures in there that are just straight up science fiction.

The first creature listed are aarokocra, which are just straight up birdmen--like the Skorr of the Star Trek Animated Series and a bunch of other places. The algoid is a psionic algae colony; the CIFAL a colonial insectoid intelligence. (It even has an acronym name!) Osquips are pretty much ulsios from ERB's Barsoom stories. The grell already looks like a pulp sci-fi monster: I think there was one in Prometheus, wasn't there?

Yeah, there it is.

Anyway, demon, devils, and elemental princes are out without substantial overall, but some less interesting monsters for fantasy purposes might be made a bit more interesting in a science fiction context. Lava children might be a silicon-based lifeform that (like the horta) needs to be contacted rather than killed. Yellow musk creepers and zombies (undead also-rans) would work great in a horror scenario on a deadly jungle world. Even the much maligned flumph is less silly when it's a weird alien (maybe).

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Kung Fu Dark Sun

art by Eric Belisle
Still on a wuxia kick and thinking about the arid lands of Northern China, it occurs to me that Dark Sun might be an interesting mashup with kung fu action. It is true that the default 80s barbarian film meets Mad Max aesthetic of Dark Sun doesn’t scream Crouching Tiger or Hidden Dragon, but that aside, I think it’s actually not a bad fit. Let me run the list:

  • The downgrading of weaponry due to the scarcity of metal in the setting leaves space for bare-handed martial arts.
  • The Elemental clerics thing can easily spun in a wuxia direction (as seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender).
  • The "fighting oppression" angle of Dark Sun dovetails nicely with with the "fighting corrupt authority" aspect of some wuxia.
  • There are Thri-Kreen who are praying mantis people, essentially, who would be natural practitioners of praying mantis kung fu
  • Athasian Dragons aren't common monsters but beings of immense power, like the Chinese conception of the creature (though Athas's is certainly not benevolent). 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday Comics: DC Special Series #21

We're going to be reviewing this issue on the upcoming Bronze Age Book Club podcast, so it seemed like a good time to revisit it here...

Super-Star Holiday Special
DC Special Series #21 (Spring 1980). Cover by Jose Luis-Garcia Lopez

Synopsis: Len Wein tells it like this:

Iffy history aside, it's a good enough intro for 4 seasonal tales in the DC universe.  First up, Jonah Hex:

"The Fawn and the Star" Written by Michael Fleisher, art by Dick Ayers & Romeo Tanghal

It's Christmas eve, and Jonah Hex is after the Tull brothers across the snowy wilderness. He comes across a little girl and her father fighting over whether to kill a fawn with a hurt leg. Uncharacteristically, Hex sides with the girl and even bandages the animal's wound. To mollify the father, Hex agrees to get him something else for the family's Christmas meal. Maybe Hex's show of softness is due to a similar episode in his childhood. He saves a raccoon from a trap and nursed it back to health in the family barn. When his father found it, it wound up on the families dinner table.

Hex follows the bright star in the south and comes to a cave. The Tull boys are hiding there. In a firefight, Hex blows them up with dynamite, but somehow manages not to mangle them too badly to collect his bounty or destroy their stuff--which includes a bunch of provisions for the trail he takes back to the relatively greatful family. We can only hope the Tull brothers learned the true meaning of Christmas before their deaths.

Next up, it's Christmas Eve in Gotham...

Written by Denny O'Neil, Art by Frank Miller & Steve Mitchell

Crime never takes the night off--someone even stole a star off the department store nativity scene-- but luckily neither does the Batman. He moves through the sleet-coated night to a party thrown by Matty Lasko. Lasko has a boat waiting in Gotham harbor and that's enough to raise Batman's suspicion.  After Batman roughs up some goons, Lasko tells him it was a favor for an old cell-mate: Boomer Katz.

At a soup kitchen in Crime Alley, one old timer asks another about Boomer Katz and finds out Katz has got a job as a Santa at Lee's department store. The old timer leaves an envelope surprisingly full of money, and sheds his disguise on the roof, revealing himself to be the Batman. He's certain the only reason Katz would have gotten a job at a department store is to case the joint, and Lasko must have arranged his escape. It's a shame , too; Even Batman believed Katz had finally gone straight.

At the department store, Lee is having second thoughts. When his boss praises his skill as a Santa, it brings a tear to his eye. Out by the nativity scene, he tells Fats (a bald guy that holds a cigarette holder like a German in a movie) he can't go through with it. Fats isn't cheered by this turn, and he and his goons pull guns then force Katz to get them in to the store's service entrance. They're after the store's daily receipts. When they've got them, they plan to kill Katz, but he throws a box of ornaments at the thug and runs away. He's shot in the shoulder but manages to escape.

Batman hears the shots. He bursts through the window and saves the store manager from Fats, taking him down with a small Christmas tree. The manager tells Batman how the thugs forced Katz to help them and are now trying to kill him.

Inbeknowst to Batman, the thug has his gun to Katz's head and his holding him somewhere near the nativity scene. Batman has been unable to find Katz, but ironically, he's nearby talking to a cop. Batman looks up and notices the star is back on the nativity scene and its light is shining on--Katz and his would-be killer!

Batman saves Katz and takes out the thug. And that star?

Batman is pretty unconcerned, but I guess in a world with Superman and Green Lantern and what have you, stuff happens.

The holiday spirit moves us again, next week.

Monday, December 9, 2019

In Sly Took's Vault

Our Land of Azurth 5e campaign continued last night with the party revising, then attempting there plan to break into the criminal vault of Sly Took (brother to Mapache Took of the Racoon Thieves Guild) to steal back the ill-gotten gold of former Mayor Gladhand. They decide on a classic "Trojan Horse" plan using the Armoire of Holding they acquired long ago as the horse.

Waylon and Kully play at delivering their presumably magic item stuffed armoire for safekeeping at the vault. The two meet with the vault manager Wotko (a red panda person, oddly) and everything goes smoothly at first. After depositing the armoire in their assigned vault, they get the moment they've been waiting for and attack Wotko and his subordinate to get their keycharms.

What they hadn't prepared for was the invisible stalker that guarded the vault. As soon as they attack Wotko, it attacks them. After a couple of rounds, Dagmar recalls she can abjure elemental spirits, and she turns it.

The party quickly grabs the keys. They take Gladhand's gold from another strongbox (all 600 lbs. of it!) and close up the armoire. Bell magically disguises herself as Wotko, just as a group of guards approach them...

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Pai Mei and Ringlerun

Reading book one of Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong, I've been reminded that D&D shares perhaps unexpected similarities with wuxia, the Chinese genre of martial arts adventures:

Advancement is important. adventurers go on adventures, martial artists train, but the desired result is the same.
High level characters can perform superhuman feats that are not necessarily viewed as superhuman within the fiction. D&D characters get extra hit points to shrug off attacks or various other special abilities (particularly in editions after 2nd). Wulin heroes get to fly around and do things with focused internal energies.
The protagonists are a class apart from regular folks. Adventurers on one hand, members of the wulin on the other.
Characters tend to have the their own thing. Call it "niche protection" or special techniques, the heroes of D&D and Wulin tend to be distinctive from other members of their party.
Special abilities tend to have names. Wuxia's are tend to be more flowery, admittedly.

There are some elements of wuxia that D&D doesn't tend to emphasize--but there isn't any reason it couldn't:

Mentors are important. How many D&D characters seek out a sifu or mention one they had in the past? No reason they couldn't though.
Named organizations. D&D characters used to join guilds (though that's less of a thing in later editions), but D&D could use more of the societies, sects, and schools of wuxia. Also, PC groups with names.
A world with its own rules. Adventurers are separated from normal folk by their abilities and activities but members of the wulin or jianghu are expected to adhere to certain codes, and compete with each other, almost like a large, loose organization.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Cool Stuff I Read Recently

Well, technically I listened to these as audiobooks while doing a lot of drving for work. All three of these fantasy novels have pretty interesting settings.

The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht. In a cold, decaying city besides a bay that births horrors thanks to an ancient, magical cataclysm, a monster from streets falls into the thrall of a practitioner of forbidden magic bent on revenge against his city's occupiers. An interesting setting (something like a late 18th Century Lankhmar crossed with Halifax) with immoral protagonists hatching a diabolical plot.

The Ingenious by Darius Hinks. The flying city of Athanor travels between worlds (I assume, it's a bit unclear), guided by the priest-alchemists known as the Curious Men. The Curious Men care little from for the teeming masses of the underclass who inhabit their city, many unwilling refugees from Athanor's conquest of their homelands. The Exiles are political dissidents from some distant land, forced to become a criminal gang to survive. The young woman who they look to to lead them back home and to victory is now a drug addict. When she becomes embroiled in the forbidden experiments of a Curious Man she gets a taste of something even more addictive: the forces wielded by the alchemists.

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang. An ancient China-like empire owes its power to  "slackcraft," the ability to manipulate the elemental "natures" flowing through all things. The most able practitioners of slackcraft are trained in the order known as the Tensorate. Twins born to the Empress are destined to play a role in the growing Machinist rebellion, which wants to use technology to free common folk from dependence on the Tensors. Another interesting facet of the world is that children are genderless and sexual maturity is staved off until an individual "confirms" their adult gender and undergoes a ceremony.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Wednesday Comics: Gift Guide 2019

With the holiday season drawing near, here are some eclectic recommendations for the comics lover in your life (even if that comic's lover is you):

Head Lopper Volume 2: I recommended volume one of this fantasy series back in 2016. In this volume, Head Lopper and friends take on a Tomb of Horrors-esque "killer dungeon."

Hero-A-Go-Go: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters & Culture of the Swinging Sixties: This is a lighter, but fascinating comic book history, focusing on the camp-craze whose epicenter was the 60s Batman tv show.

Hey Kids! Comics!: This collects the limited series by Howard Chaykin about the history of comics from the 40s to the 2000s as seen through the eyes of three (fictional, though clearly with elements of real people) creators who got their start in the Golden Age. They interact with a number of other characters who are fairly thinly disguised stand-ins for real personalities in the industry. The through-line is the reputed Jack Kirby adage: "comics will break your heart, kid," or at least leave you embittered and angry, as editors and publishers profit from your work and fandom misunderstands the real history.

H.P. Lovecraft's The Hound and Other Stories: Gou Tanabe's manga adaptation of the Lovecraft's fiction plays it really straight, but that makes it accessible to the Lovecraft fan or Western comics fan that doesn't necessarily consider themselves a manga fan.

Monday, December 2, 2019

New Gods for Old

Art by Jack Kirby

While I have always been more enthusiastic about the standard (A)D&D Cosmology compared to a lot of people, one thing has always bothered me about it: the shoehorning in of the various mythological figures from Deities & Demigods into the canonical version of a planes. Perhaps they were meant to merely placeholders for something you created, but I don't think they are ever discussed as such. The every god and the kitchen sink approach loses the flavor of the various mythologies, and undermines the unique (at least weirdly syncretic) flavor of the Great Wheel. I think they can for something new and much weirder.

But there's something else wrong. Geoffrey Grabowski (lead designer of Exalted 1e among other things) hits on it:

There are infinite infinite prime material planes. Well wow. Against that, even greater gods look tiny. Even if you give them plenty o' powers like Grubb's cosmogony does, or like the immortals rules that appear in some versions of the game do, they're still essentially the pantheon from Lord of Light. They might have a lot of superpowers from tapping into whatever god-power comes from -- possibly belief-energy? -- but they don't command their context. They're finite beings pretending to universal domain against a backdrop that makes their charade a joke if you have any distance on the tableau.

Nowhere in the canon planar materials do we get the feeling that these gods created the planes. Maybe they created one of an infinite number of Primes, but they are not the creators of the Outer Multiverse. They are its inhabitants. At best inheritors, at worst squatters.

It seems to me that what the D&D Planes need is either (a) new gods that are vast and strange, so that they seem reasonable creators of the vast, baroque, orrery in which they reside, (b) more Kirby New Gods/Thor-esque super-powered adventurers (i.e. the next level of the game. Immortals done right.), or (c) both.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Weird Revisited: The Dead Travel Fast

In the deserts north of Heliotrope, weird monsters of the outer dark and thrill-crazy youths race hopped-up roadsters across dead sea bottoms.

In Hesperia, a “car culture” has emerged. Like the Southron bootleggers, some young Hesperian men have taken to modifying jalopies for the purpose of drag-racing. Most of the modifications are strictly mechanical, but would-be racers save up for more expensive thaumaturgical or alchemical modifications.

While some racing occurs along highways, the real action is out in the desert. There, on the vast and empty beds left by ancient seas, law enforcement doesn’t intrude, and higher speeds can be reached. The speeds, and the often haphazard modification of the cars, sometimes make these races deadly--but these mundane dangers aren't the only things to fear.

Maybe it was just the psychic energy boiling off youth hopped-up on alchemical drugs, speed, and the proximity of death; or maybe the death of the ancient seas left the skin of reality thin, inviting irruption. Whatever the cause, broken and burned-out husked of roadsters--and sometimes the charred and mangled remains of their drivers--have been reanimated by outer monstrosities in forms as colorful and grotesque as something from a drug delirium nightmare.

Appearances by these creatures are things of fear and wonder for the human racers. The unholy growl of giant engines and the overpowering smell of burning rubber presage their arrival--almost always between the stroke of midnight and first light of dawn. They're practically worshipped as secret and strange god-things. Rituals are performed; crude talismans of twisted steel and burnt chrome are fashioned. The bravest (or craziest) of the young drivers sometimes join in their monster races, and those few that survive with life and limb, and sanity, intact are often dragged along in the creatures' slipstreams as they roar back into the void, and are never seen again