Monday, April 6, 2020

The Tower & the Shadow

Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued last night with the party pressing on toward the shadowy ruined tower (and forgetting their captive in the process). They made their way to the wall surrounding the tower's courtyard. It was made of an alien stone black as vantablack. As the party was peering over it to get a glimpse of structures on the other side, a monstrous black wolf whose breath was icy cold.

They found fire effective in combating the beast, but it seemed to be able to pass through other dimensions to move from place to place. It appeared behind the party and blasted them with its frigid, slaughterhouse-stinking breath. Most of the party went down under the assault; only Shade, Dagmar, and Erekose withstood it. Waylon had chanced to jump over to the other side of the wall, and so was unharmed. Dagmar did a mass healing, and the party dispatched the beast with fire based spells.

They moved into the courtyard and where drawn to a sinister looking stone shed. Waylon saw a treasure chest inside and was undeterred by the corpse of another of the wolf-things in front of it. He manages to pick the lock and get the platinum coins and opals inside, but then is trapped in the shed by a descending wall of shadow. He fills his life being drained away. He can't get through the door! He blasts it with an energy rifle and the shadow seems to weaken but doesn't give.

Dagmar uses a Sacred Flame against it, and again it weakens, but doesn't give. The rest of the part decides the evidence of radiant attacks damaging it isn't quite sufficient, and tries a series of other attack forms, as Waylon's life ebbs away. Eventually, they all switch to radiant attacks and the door is open and Waylon is freed.

The party moved on to the ruined tower and found several of the gloom elves waiting more them. They have a couple of captive members of the deer-centaur tribes folk caged with them, and then there's a door of purest shadow that writhes like a flame.  A Gloom elf huntress steps forward to parley. She suggests the party and the elves call a truce and go their own ways without further blood shed.

Shade demands the captives be returned. The elves are reluctant to do so; the captives "life energy" feeds the shadow and strengthens the connection to the Anti-Sun. The wish to extend the dark country of Noxia into this region. Shade holds firm and the Huntress agrees to consult their master. She walks to the door of shadow and calls out in a language the party doesn't understand.

The shadow of a man comes forth. It seems somehow familiar to them, but none of the party can place it. The shadow consults with the Huntress who bends her knee to it. She reports her Master agrees to their terms, but also wishes to speak with them. The party is wary, but agrees.

The shadow man writes upon a piece of the black stone of the ruined tower with his finger. The result are letters, black but now reflective and so visible. It reads: "You don't even know who your enemy is."

The shadow man leaves through the doorway.

The elves free the captives. The party also attempts to extract another promise that they won't disturb the villagers again. The elves reluctantly agree.

The party returns to the village for a rest with the grateful centaur-folk.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Eternian History Revealed

Eternian historians tend to agree that aspects of the Masters of the Universe myth and literary cycle are rooted in fact, though the historicity of any given aspect of the corpus is likely to be a matter of debate. There several recognized strata of textual sources forming the cycle, each paralleling a series of popular entertainments on Earth. Earth scholars have been slow to treat the Masters of the Universe mythology as an area of serious study, in part due to the bowdlerized form of its transmission, but also to the fanciful, even frivolous translations, done to serve the needs of a toyline.

The name of central figure of the mythos, for example, is risibly rendered as "He-Man." While this is not a wholly inaccurate, literal translation of his title[1] in the earliest texts (which could be read as something like "Supreme Man" or "Male Exemplar"), it seems to have been understood as something more like "Powerful Hero" or "Mighty Person" at the time those texts were written. Such carelessness is rife in widely available translations.

The most widely known version of the mythology, forms what is essentially the "Matter of Eternos," particularly focusing on King Randor and his court. The term "Masters of the Universe" arises from this era and refers to the elite warriors, comparable to the Knights of the Round Table, whose exploits are primary focus of the various epics and romances. He-Man is central to these stories, as the secret, heroic identity of Randor's son Adam, who is otherwise portrayed as callow or even foppish. He-Man's inclusion is unhistorical, but the Randorian Renaissance is a matter of historical record, and some of this Masters of the Universe are likewise attested.

The historical He-Man is believed to belong to the oldest strata of tales. These stories are simpler and portray a more primitive world still suffering the effects of the Great Wars, far removed from the technological rediscovery and courtly sophistication of Randor's time. This He-Man is a folk hero, who leaves his tribe to began taming or reclaiming the wilderness. He contends with monsters and personifications of cultural competitors.

One of the key events in these early myths is He-Man's encounter with a green-skinned Sorceress who gifts him with ancient weapons and armor from a cache hidden in a cave. In some myths of this strata, she is referred to as a goddess. The confusion regarding her identity likely later editing of the stories to preserve the importance of the Sorceress of Grayskull or her cult.

The earliest depictions of the Sorceress/Goddess show her in a cobra headdress. Many scholars believe this to be an important and revealing historical detail, reflecting the continued influenced of the Serpent centered religion of the conquering Snake Men. In contrast, by Randor's time, the Sorceress is clad in feathers and associated with the Eternian falcon, the Snake Men and their cultural having been thoroughly demonized.


1. Initially the title was thought to have been the character's actual name, but it appears in other records of that era clearly not referring to the hero. Perhaps the Eternian chroniclers were unaware of his original name among his tribe. This lack of identification is consider significant by those who doubt a single He-Man existed historically, instead viewing him as at least a composite of several real individuals, if not completely mythological. Some have seen Wun-Dar of Tundaria as the original of the He-Man character, noting the similar stories told about them, but it seems more likely some of He-Man's exploits were attributed by the Tundarians to their local hero.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Weird Revisited: The Ahistorical Historical Setting

This post first appeared in 2017...

Historically accurate Aristotle?
A social media thread about bad history in historical costume drama caused me to recall an idea I had years ago upon a re-read of Aaron Allston's wonderful Mythic Greece: Age of Heroes. At the time, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was still in syndication, and while not particularly good, it did suggest the using of Greek Myth and geographic as a backdrop for a fantasy setting that might not otherwise have a lot of the trappings of Greek myth. For the most part, Hercules stuck to the big names, but there's no reason you couldn't get as detailed as Allston's book, but give it a wholly un-Mythic Greece feel.

The changes can be big. Reign: The Conqueror (based on the novel Arekusandā Senki by Hiroshi Aramata) re-imagines the life of Alexander the Great as a sort of science fantasy thing with giant Persian war machines and Pythagorean ninjas. Or, they can be subtle, like Black Sails weaving historical pirates with a sort of prequel to Treasure Island. (The difference I see between this last one and a standard historical setting which would generally tend to insert fictional characters, i.e. the PCs, into history, is the "high concept" of the literary/historical mashup.)

A lesson on Greek myth every week?
So I say go ahead and run a Kirby-esque space opera based on the book of Exodus. Recontextualize the War of Roses to have it take place in something like Warring States Japan. Or take the history presented in the Book of Mormon and turn it into a hexcrawl as Jeff Reints did.

Let history be your guide, not your boss.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Weird Revisited: A Plague of Goblins

The original version of this post appeared in 2010...

"Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours."
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
Goblin plagues are suffered in the less settled areas of the world. They are more common in places which lie near ancient ruins. In such an infestation, tens, perhaps hundreds, of goblins swarm forth from underground dens or nests. They overrun manor, hamlet, and village, and have even been known to assail the gates of small cities.

No one knows what spawns goblins, but it is certain they don't reproduce in the manner of most humanoids. All goblins seem to be of the same sex, though in truth, this is something of a conjecture. Smaller goblins, perhaps immature ones, are seen among their swarms, but never is any parental nurturing or concern directed towards them by any of their fellows.

It's difficult to guess the intelligence of goblins. There's no questioning their cunning, but they don't build structures or make tools; they behave only as brute beasts. This may be more preference than lack of capacity, as there are reports of them taking up knives and smallswords and brandishing them in deadly mockery of humans. Though they may wear rags or stolen bits of clothing or armor as rude decoration, they are just as happy to go naked.

When swarms of goblins pour forth from the underground, they tend to move toward human habitations, though wild animals will sometimes suffer their assaults. While popular stories make much of the mischievous nature of goblin attacks--their crude pranks, surprise scares, and harassment of livestock--their deadliness should not be discounted. Typically, the actions of the swarm escalate from behaviors which create fear or annoyance to outright attacks with their sharp teeth, stolen weapons, fire, and sheer numbers. They have been known to consume humans they kill, but that seems to be an after-though.

The infestations may last as little as a night or two or as long as a month, depending on the amount of resistance they encounter. If the swarm doesn't end of its on accord, it can be dispersed by killing a quarter or more of its number.

Scholars have attempted to discern how goblin plagues might be predicted. Folklore suggests that they are "summoned"--perhaps by a child entering puberty. Adolescents suffering from the anxiety of an unwanted betrothal, the birth of a new sibling, or other sorts of emotional duress are thought to become unwitting "Goblin Kings" or "Goblin Queens," and call forth their subjects in some psychic manner.  Naturalists remained unconvinced but are at a loss to explain the tales of goblins paying rude homage (in imitation of human courtly deference) to a single child in a decimated village or attempting to abduct such a child without harming them in any other way.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Dark Sun Sword & Sandal Style

Dark Sun certainly seems to have an element of Sword & Sandal films in its DNA, either directly or indirectly through the obvious influence of 80s Sword & Sorcery films and art. I feel like that's an aspect that could be played up.

To do it "pure," you'd want to lose some of the Dark Sun grittiness. The desert is less Arrakis and more the arid regions of the Levant or possible Egypt. The struggle for survival is less important than the struggle against oppression and injustice. Luckily, there's a lot of that on Athas. Pretty much everything else can stay: gladiators, city-states, the occasional monster, muscular dudes without shirts.

For the full Sword & Sandal effect (at least in the Italian Muscle-bound hero vein as opposed to the Hollywood Biblical epic), it might work best to use something like Crawford's Solo Heroes rules like in Scarlet Heroes so the protagonists can pummel groups of mooks into submission with just their fists.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

A D&D Party as Skillful Companions

There is a type of folktale called Skillful Companions tale. It's exemplified by stories like the Grimm Fairy Tale "The Four Skillful Brothers." In these tales each character has a valuable, specific skill (sometimes highly specific). The use of each companion's ability is necessary to successfully complete the group's undertaking.

Noting that D&D characters (and rpg characters) are defined by classes, races, and player chosen abilities that make them ideally different from the other characters in their party, I going to suggest that D&D adventures really click when they work a bit like a Skillful Companions tale: when ever player gets to contribute their thing and their thing helps the adventure reach a happy conclusion.

I think "player skill" and creative solutions to problems should of course play a part in rpgs. Players derive more satisfaction from solving problems when they feel like they did it, not just their characters. But contrary to some not infrequently repeated old school wisdom I think the answer should sometimes be on your character sheet, or at least the tool your going to leverage to derive the solution ought to be. Having different character types or arrays of spells, weapons, and other abilities having mechanical differences would be inexplicable otherwise.

Adventure design for an unknown group of players obviously has a hard to tailoring challenges, but I think if you're making adventures for your regular group, maybe they should be crafted with the players in mind. There should never only be one way around a problem, of course, and player's can and should be able to avoid encountering a problem entirely, but there's nothing wrong with at least thinking of things that might give each character their time in the spotlight.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Setting Creation: Patchworks & Found Objects

To an extent, almost all world-building relies on borrowing, it's just a question of the size of the blocks being borrowed. Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age can show its inspirations pretty nakedly in places like Vendhya or Asgard, but even Tolkien's less derived-appearing subcreation has pretty clear analogs like an Atlantis myth. It's not surprising really; real world sources are built on foundations of history; completely imaginary cultures are not only harder to come up with, but also less detailed and less well thought out. The real question is how are these borrowings used?

Mystara (The Known World) is what I would call a patchwork. Its sources are almost always pretty obvious (and the writer's tell you what they are just in case you missed it), and they are stitched together with not much thought to realism. Patchworks have the advantage of being easy to get a handle on for GM or player, but run the risk of hampering the ability to create a vivid, new world. It's also easy for things to run to stereotypes and unintentional comedy, perhaps.

The other form of the borrowing in settings is the one I called the found object. Here the borrowed blocks are smaller, or less overtly recognizable, and they are used in a more transformed fashion. Howard's Hyborian Age actually straddles the border between patchwork and found object. Some of this, admittedly, may be the remove between our pop culture adventure fiction and that of Howard's day. It may be his sources were more obvious in the 1930s. But in any case Asgard as a "Viking culture" and Stygia as "evil Egypt" are pretty big patches. Nemedia gets a little harder to recognize. It's mostly "rival Medieval nation" but its elements of Holy Roman Empire aren't too difficult to see, and it also has details like a band of Northern mercenaries like the Byzantine Varangian guard. Then there are a few lands that are more obscure: Khoraja, for example, has a (Near) East meets West thing going on that might remind on of Howard's historical actioners in the Outremer, but also likely Trebizond.

Tolkien did this sort of thing, too. The Arnor/Gondor divide just changes the cardinal directions of the Roman/Byzantium split, in a way that mirrors the Israel/Judah divide. The Dunlending/Numenorean conflict has echoes of the Anglo-Saxons versus the Celts in the British Isles. These things are there without the borrowing being complete or obvious.

Is there a downside to the found object approach? Well, if the borrowings are too obscured you don't get any advantage of easy recognizability, which might be a problem if you are making a product to sell or trying to communicate things quickly to players. But you still get most of the advantages of patchwork for ease of your own work on the setting.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Conan, 1963

What if during the late 50s to mid-60s Sword & Sandals movie crazy, somebody had got around to making a Conan film? Here's my suggestions for the cast of a 1963 adaptation of "People of the Black Circle."

William Smith as CONAN

Former Miss Israel and Bond girl Aliza Gur as YASMINA

Jack Palance as KARIM SHAH

Christopher Lee as THE MASTER OF YIMSHA

Raf Baldassarre as KHEMSA

and Chelo Alonso as GITARA

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Wednesday Comics: New Science Fiction

This continues to be a good era for science fiction comics outside of the Big Two. Here are a couple of recent releases:

Simon Roy, the co-writer of Protector, is no stranger to quality science fiction, and he and his co-creators (co-writer Daniel Bensen and artist Artyom Trakhanov) have crafted a story set among warring tribes in a North America post a global warring apocalypse. The Hudsoni tribe worship the Devas who seem to be advanced artificially intelligent technology of some sort, but they may have met their match when a member of the Yanqui tribe awakens a robotic demon. There are two issues of Protector out so far, but I'm eager for more.

Cultural anthropologist Jocelyn Young is brought to a secret site in Siberia where delegations from other all over (including the Vatican) are congregating in secret around a startingly discovery: an ancient, crashed spacecraft. And then there's what's inside... Written by Justin Giampaoli with art by Andrea Mutti, starts with a vibe not unlike Arrival. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Weird Revisited: Scientia Potestas Est

This post originally appeared almost 8 years ago to the day...

[This relates to my previous "Apocalypse Under Ground" posts, so take a look.]

Wizardry is a curse on all mankind.

This is what the common folk say, and sages acknowledge the rise of arcane knowledge went hand in hand with the emergence of the underground--perhaps more than once in history. Wizards are aware of how they are viewed (and feared) and are unconcerned. When you’ve held the words that encapsulate the true forms of reality in your mind--when you’ve experienced true gnosis--you’re above petty concerns.

Practitioners of the arcane art have always existed. Mostly they’re solitary, exploring their art removed from the intrusion of the mundane world. The opening of the underground changed that. It's entrances glowed like an arcane beacon. Those who might have lived their whole lives without ever knowing they had the talent were transformed by what they encountered, reborn into a new world--if they survived their first delve.

The old wizards came out of seclusion to tutor these fledging sorcerers--and to use them them to grow their own power with secrets wrested from below. In time, the adventuring wizards came to surpass their masters, sometimes frighteningly so. These new grandmasters took apprentices of their own, for much the same reasons--though as wizards grow older and more steeped in the arcane, their thoughts and desires sometimes grow more alien, their whims more capricious.

One question above all concerns the grandmasters, though they seldom speak of it, even in their rare conclaves of peers: Does the arcane have a life of it’s own? Does the symbolary that is humankind’s closest approximation of the true description of the universe have its own agenda? If so, does it favor humanity--or the Monsters?

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Weird Revisted: Savage Swords of Middle Earth, Part 2

The original version of this post appeared in 2016...

Continuing an attempt to pulpify Tolkien's legendarium, let's take a look at the races other than Men.

Elves in Tolkien are superior to men in just about every way. Pulp fantasy has that sort of thing, too. Check out this quote regarding an ancient race from "Queen of the Black Coast":
“Cast in the mold of humanity, they were distinctly not men. . .in physical appearance they resembled man only as man in his highest form resembles the great apes. In spiritual, esthetic and intellectual development they were superior to man as man is superior to the gorilla.“
Howard makes mention of  evolution in several places. Sword & sorcery pulp worlds tend toward (pseudo-)science, as they partake of the genre-blending weird fiction tradition, whereas Tolkien's is mostly a mythic world. For the complete pulp feel, The Silmarillion would be merely myth and the true origins of most Middle-earth creatures would be scientific/materialistic--or perhaps some Theosophy-inspired mix of science and mysticism. No need to make a decision one way or another, though, for day to day adventuring.
"Do you not see now that your coming to us is as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten." 
- Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring
Decline of advanced races/cultures is a trope common to Tolkien and Howard, so good to go. The decline to "rustic folk of dell and cave" even kind of resembles the decline of the Picts as presented in Howard's "The Lost Race." Lord of the Rings is full of a lot of elvish badassery (the movies moreso) but the more that is downplayed and their waning and decline is played up, the more pulp fantasy it will be. Elves can still be a potent force, but they should mostly stay in their dwindling enclaves.

"I saw plainly the stunted bodies, the gnarled limbs, the snake-like, beady eyes that stared unwinkingly, the grotesque, square faces with their unhuman features..." 
- "The Little People"
Other Howard stories present the Picts or (a pre-Pict aboriginal race) as not just declining but degenerating. The same thing happens to the Winged Folk in "Queen of the Black Coasts" who become winged ape men by the time Conan meets them. One of several origins Tolkien considers for Orcs is that they are elves distorted and corrupted by Melkor. Perhaps the corrupted part is the main thing, then they sort of degenerate on their own?

In fact, there should be more evil, degenerate elves in general; the equivalent of the Black Numenoreans. I don't want to say, "drow," but Gary's description of Erelhei-Cinlu in Vault of the Drow is pretty pulpy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Wednesday Comics: Social Isolation Edition

If you're bored and stuck and home, you could do a lot worse than listening to our podcast The Bronze Age Book Club, where we explore one Bronze Age issue an episode. Our latest episode has been delayed, but not to worry, we have are continued to record and will get them to you as soon as we are able.

Still, there are already 15 episodes for you listening pleasure.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Weird Revisited: Middle Earth with More Pulp

"Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Númenor and the gleaming cities, and the years of the Fourth Age, there was an Age undreamed of, when realms of Elf, Man, and Dwarf lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. . . Hither came Aragorn of the Dúnedain, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a ranger, a wanderer, a chieftain, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the thrones of Arda under his feet." 
- The Red Book of Westmarch
I posted that bit of Howardian remix on G+ years ago goofing around, but it's a serious idea: What would Middle-earth be if presented in a more pulp fantasy (not just Robert E. Howard) sort of way? You could do a really comprehensive overall, sure, where maybe only the names remain the same, but I think a few tweaks here and there would make a big difference. Just take a look at things that are already pretty pulpy: 1) a fallen age following the sinking of a "Atlantis"; (2) Orders of beings with some more advanced and others more degenerate than others; (3) a lot of ruins strewn about; (4) a lot of wilderness separating civilized areas; (5) Magic (to the extent it is practiced by Men--i.e. humans) seems the province of sorcerers who are engaged with evil forces.

So let's start with Eriador, also called the Lone-Lands, which is pretty cool, because that's where the stories do, and see how it goes. Eriador is definitely a "Points of Light" place; a former advanced kingdom where most of the cities have fallen into ruin after a war with a Witch-King.

Witch-King Cultists: When a guy named the Witch-King used to rule, I think there probably should be hidden enclaves (or whole villages) fallen to his service and maybe worship of Sauron or Morgoth. They probably also engage in sacrifices commiserate with their Satanic cultist behavior.

The Rangers of the North: The Dúnedain who struggled against the Witch-King were descendants of Numenoreans (like Conan was a descendant of Atlanteans). After their defeat they become badass wilderness types organized into tribes or bands, I'd guess. They're about as much "barbarian" as Conan is, except they're in tight with elves. They roam the wilderness and hunt orcs and trolls (and probably those Witch-King cults). They could be part frontier lawmen, but also a lot like the settlers described in Howard's "Beyond the Black River":  "They were all gaunt and scarred and hard-eyed; sinewy and taciturn."

Replace the Picts in those Pictish Border Howard stories with orcs or Hill-men, and you've got it. Or replace Solomon Kane in any of a few of his stories with a lone ranger (heh), and that works as well.

Woses: Speaking of Picts, a couple of Howard's Pict stories are perfect inspiration for the mistreated, more primitive Drúedain. Check out "The Lost Race." Here's a perfect description:
"Scarce above four feet stood the tallest, and they were small of build and very dark of complexion. Their eyes were black; and most of them went stooped forward, as if from a lifetime spent in crouching and hiding; peering furtively on all sides. They were armed with small bows, arrows, spears and daggers, all pointed, not with crudely worked bronze but with flint and obsidian, of the finest workmanship. They were dressed in finely dressed hides of rabbits and other small animals, and a kind of coarse cloth; and many were tattooed from head to foot in ocher and woad" 
Hill-Men: Again speaking of Picts, in either Howards frontier stories or some of his other Pictish yarns where their degeneration is more sinister (after Machen) and less sad, the Hill-Men can be those sort of Picts. A little degeneration won't hurt. They're really likely to be those cultists mentioned above, too.

The towns: As to the civilized or more settled areas of Eriador. I strongly support MERP's idea that Tharbad (before it was a ruin) was a decaying city of cutthroats and thieves. A standard Conan tavern ought to fit in well, in any of those towns, too. Just substitute "Brythunian" with "Breeland" and you're good to go.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Elves from the Broken Sword

The elves of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword are like the standard elves of D&D to the extent they both share similarities to Tolkien's elves (in the case of Anderson's book, it's because they share the same sources), but are very different in other ways: they are haughty and cruel, more classic faerie-like, invisible to human's without witchsight and vulnerable to iron.

Here's an elven subrace for 5e that is a bit more like Anderson's version than the standard D&D ones:

Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 1.
Elf Weapon Training. You have proficiency with the longsword, shortsword, shortbow, and longbow.
Cantrip. You know one cantrip of your choice from the wizard spell list. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for it.
Fleet of Foot. Your base walking speed increases to 35 feet.
Iron Sensitivity. Iron weapons do +1 damage against one. You cannot wear iron weapons or armor, or even touch it without taking 1 point of damage per round.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Weird Revisited: Adventuring in The Time of Plague

This post originally appeared in 2010, but recent events brought it to mind...

A little light reading about the Plague of Justinian the other day (and the plague of no home internet access I continue to suffer) got me to thinking about the use of epidemics or even pandemics in gaming. Obviously, succumbing to infectious disease isn’t the most adventurous way to die, but plagues, particularly big ones, have a tendency to cause a great deal of social, economic, and religious upheaval, which is the perfect backdrop for an rpg campaign, or fodder for adventures.

First a few terms. An “epidemic” occurs when the outbreak of new cases of a particular disease exceeds the expected number for a given population. This is, as the definition suggests, somewhat subjective. A “pandemic” is when epidemic conditions exist over a wide geographic area--possibly even the whole world.

The most famous historical pandemic is probably the Black Death which affected Eurasia, and peaked in Europe around 1350. Low-end estimates have it killing a third of Europe’s population. The traditional culprit was thought to be bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, though their are some new theories.

The societal effects were profound. Depopulation meant fewer people to farm, and that coupled with livestock plagues, and climatic changes lead to famine and starvation. Fearful people blamed convenient scape-goats--often Jews--and Jewish communities were wiped out in some places. Fringe religious groups like the Brotherhood of Flagellants became more widespread.

The Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) is also thought to have been caused by bubonic plague. This plague may have weakened Byzantium enough that Justinian I was unable to reconquer Italy, shattering any hopes of reconstitute a whole Roman Empire. It may have also weakened Byzantium for its coming face-off with the Arabs a century later.

Y. pestis isn’t the only malefactor out there. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, and typhus caused pandemics before the the 20th century. Measles, yellow fever, and dengue fever never had the same spread, but have caused localized epidemics. Of course, in a fantasy world plagues might be more exotic, even magical in nature.

I can think of three broad ways a plague could be used in gaming. The first is plague as background color. Carts of dead, or oddly dressed plague doctors might just be part of the general ambience of a setting--particularly one with a grubby, "real" Middle Ages feel. It could be treated seriously, or darkly humorous.

The second is plague as apocalypse. As its been pointed out before, there is a post-apocalyptic element to the implied setting of D&D. Perhaps the apocalypse isn’t just a remote event, but ongoing? This could cast the player’s not as pioneers on the frontier, but as defenders of the fire of civilization. This might or might not have implications on the sort of adventures had, or it might just influence the tone.

The third is plague as campaign focus. Maybe the point of the whole campaign is defeating the forces of evil behind the plague? It could be introduced early, as a minor background element, but as more people succumb to the disease it grows in importance. Eventually, finding a cure might become the PC’s central concern, but only after its grown “naturally”( or unnaturally).

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Weird Revisted: Demonland

Art by quiteproustian
The promiscuousness of infernal beings is well-known, so it isn't surprising that by-blows of their trysts are found among mortals. While rare in most of the world, those with infernal blood are the majority of the populous in Demonland1, a city-state across the mephitic Wastes from the Country of Sang. Why so many descendants of infernal bloodlines should be found in one place is a mystery, but perhaps the area had a sulfurous air of hominess for their grandsires and granddams.

Demonland proper is built upon a cluster of small islands in a lake formed by hot springs. The boiling, caustic, malodorous waters are a perfect defense --though they also make life less pleasant for the inhabitants. Demonland’s potable water comes from filtered rainwater collect in cisterns and also by magical purification of the water of the lake itself. The city is only accessible by boat and all goods and visitors make the trip over by ferry.

Demonland is nominally ruled by a Duke (or Duchess), and though this ruler’s power is theoretically absolute, it is most commonly exercised in throwing lavish revelries at which the true rulers of the city go masked. These princes (and their masks) represent the seven capital vices exalted in Demonlander religion and culture. The prince of each vice is officially appointed by the Duke but in practice is more or less elected by general consensus, as the Duke shrewdly defers to the inclinations of the mob. They serve for an indefinite tenure, usually a year and a day. The princes are meant to most perfectly embody their vice, and would-be candidates campaign vigorously (all except the candidates for Prince of Sloth, of course) for the title by engaging in the most audacious (and public) displays of sinfulness to capture the jaded hearts of the populous. The princes hold absolute authority with regard to the practice of the vice they personify and make legal proclamations and levy taxes or duties that might be pertinent as they see fit. They are allowed to keep a percentage of any monies collected for themselves.

Diabolism is the state religion of Demonland. It inverts the morality of most human faiths, promoting vice and condemning virtue. Self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure are valued over altruism and self-denial; Greed and vanity are extolled, and charity and modesty condemned. Demonlanders, however, are only a trifle less likely to fall short of the ideals of their faith than folk elsewhere, so their practice of immorality is as prone to lapses as the practice of morality in other lands.

Art by Arthur Asa
1. The correct demonym is "Demonlander." Never call a Demonlander a "demon" as this is both inaccurate and rude. "Tiefling" is just as bad.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Half-Seen Tower

Art by Petr Passek
Our 5e Land of Azurth game continued last night with the party trying to find a way to close the portal to the Umbral Realm after having slain the shadow drakes. Nothing they try seems to work. They do discover the missing artifacts of the cervine centaur people (and 3 shadows in the process), and glimpse a partially ruined tower in the near distance, but only when the roiling shadow rising from the portal passes between them and it. Otherwise, it's invisible.

They decide to investigate, but first thing's first: return the artifacts to the tribe. Waylon and Erekose surreptitiously decide to Identify the items first, lest they turn over something truly valuable to the forest dwelling folk. The staff is nothing magical. The diadem is, but the specifics are hard to understand. Waylon asks Tualla if they might borrow for a while, but after Shade intervenes the matter is dropped.

But on the way back to the tribe's encampment they discover another enemy. A pale, black-eyed elf and a couple of hulking humanoids of unknown type are threatening a yearling of the tribe. When Erekose and Kully intervene, the elf and companions make their escape. The kid tells them they wanted to know about "the strangers that killed the drakes."

Shade will brook no child-threatening, so the party tracks them through a shadow-darkened mire to a dark, unwholesome pond surrounded by tall grass--and the half-ruined tower. Ever on the lookout for valuables, Erekose spies a glint of gold in the grass 'round the pond. It turns out to be a ring on the pinky digit of a half-decayed, severed hand.

Waylon tries to get the ring via mage hand, while Waylon goes in closer to investigate and a putrid undead thing rises from the muck to attack. Then another!

While the party is fighting the creatures, someone hidden snipes at them with poison arrows. When they are finally able to catch a glimpse of them, it's two more of the strange elves. The snipers press the party hard, but eventually 7 against two, causes one to beat a retreat and leaves the other asleep in the grass--a captive for interrogation.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

East of Caldwellia, West of Elmoreon

In recent discussions of vanilla fantasy, my friend Paul (owner of the long-hiatused blog, Dungeonskull Mountain) and I have bandied about the idea of an "80s fantasy" world. While we perhaps don't share exactly the same vision for that, both of us agree that famous D&D artists of mid-1e to 2e eras--particularly Clyde Caldwell, Larry Elmore, and Keith Parkinson--play a big part in that.

The visuals are clear and distinct, but is there a setting in the work of these artists distinct from just generic D&D?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think we can say make guesses as to what elements it may have and what elements it does not.

Glamorous Not Grotty
Glamorous might be a little strong, but hey, alliteration! Anyway, we are certainly not in the Dung Ages, or any version of gritty pseudo-Medieval verisimilitude.

Complicated Costumes and Culture
Compared to work of Frazetta, Kelly, or Vallejo, the clothing of the characters has a lot going on: fur trim, feathers, scales, etc. This tends to be true even when female characters are scantily clad. It's all more renfair that Conan. This suggests (to me) more of a high fantasy world than a sword & sorcery one, and an interest in visually defining cultures that doesn't get into the heavy worldbuilding of a Glorantha or Tekumel, but is definitely of the "needs a glossary at the end of the book" level.

Dragons & Drama
There are an awful lot of dragons. I mean,  they're showing up all the time. And often characters are confronting them in a way that suggest they are big, powerful heroes, not the type to die pointless in holes in the ground. The another name for high fantasy is epic fantasy, and that's what these images often convey.

A Touch of Humor
Despite the epicness and high drama, things are seldom if ever grim. In fact, from adventures posing with the tiny dragon they slew, to a muscular female fighter manhandling an ogre, a bit of humor is pretty common.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Red-Eyed Goblin

A goblin made with Hero Forge, colors accurate to the AD&D Monster Manual, except the hair where I had to guess.

And here's a Hobgoblin:

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Weird Revisited: Different Dwarves for 5e

Relevant to my earlier post on vanilla fantasy...

The Tolkien-inspired, Nordic-derived dwarves of standard D&D aren't the only dwarven subraces out there. There is another dwarvish tradition: a more folklore and fairytale one. The dwarves of the Country of Yanth in the Land of Azurth are that sort of dwarf.

Compared to the average D&D dwarf, they tend to be more social and affable. They are fond of good food and drink and are renowned brewers. While they may be miners or metalworkers, they are not as oriented toward these tasks as others of their race, and are just as likely to loggers, woodworkers, or farmers.They have no more love or precious metals or jewels than humans.

Unless otherwise noted, the folkloric dwarf subrace has the traits of the standard dwarf.

Art by Jerad S. Marantz
Ability Score Increase. Wisdom increased by 1.
Lucky. Like a Halfling's.
Size. Folkloric dwarves vary more in height than other dwarven races. Most are medium, but a few are under 4 foot and so small.
Dwarven Combat Training. They eschew the battleaxes and hammers employed by other dwarves, but are handy with the axe and short sword.
Tool Proficiency. Their choices for proficiency are smith's tools, brewer's supplies, cobbler's tools, woodcarver's tools, or cook's utensils.

Monday, March 2, 2020

My Flavor of Vanilla

Since my post on my occasional craving for vanilla fantasy, I've been thinking about what sort of vanilla setting I would do, if I was to do one. At least, what sort I'm leaning toward right now.

I would start with a setup substantially similar to Tolkien's Middle-Earth at the start of the Lord of the Rings. A great war, devastated the shining human kingdoms of the West. Amid the ruins are scattered petty kingdoms and free cities, "points of light" in the D&D parlance, dominated by the Small Folk--dwarfs mostly, but more of the folklore or fairytale variety than a Tolkienian one.

There are still humans there, of course, but the human dominated lands are mostly to the South. Elves exist too, but they are diminished (quite literally) from their Golden Age. They were once fairy lords, but now the elves of the West are short in stature and decidedly less magical. The Dwarf Folk view the elves with some suspicion, since some of their race sided with the forces of darkness.

The approach would be a bit more The Hobbit than Lord of the Rings; leaning more whimsical than epic. The 1937 original version of The Hobbit would be the most central of Tolkien's work. Other influences include Weirdworld, Wally Wood's Wizard King series, selected stories from Lord Dunsany, Scott Driver's Dwarf-Land, and bits of The Princess of the Goblin and a smidge of my own Land of Azurth, particularly some early ideas that got abandoned.