Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Weird Frontier

This cover deserves to be the basis of an rpg setting.

Well, maybe not just this cover all on its own, but the crazy idea it and the series (Tomahawk) it's a part of suggests (at least to me)--namely, combining the James Fenimore Cooper-style frontier tale with fantasy. Transplanting the whole civilization-against-the-wilderness thing to a colonial pseudo-America.

It’s almost completely unmined territory. It’s only been sort of attempted once, as far as I know--Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series does early nineteenth century fantasy in an alternate North America. Sure, one could point to novels (and even an rpg or two) with a kind of “Illuminati/Masonic magic behind the revolution” or a “Ben Franklin cavorts with the Hellfire Club” sort of deal, but all of that pseudo-historical “hidden magic” speculation fails to deliver a moment of rpg inspiration Zen like:

Wilderness adventures wouldn’t be the only way to go. Surely things like Mystery Hill, and the rampant speculation such sites inspired (even at the time) ought to suggest plenty of ancient American civilization to provide honest to goodness dungeons. There might not be demi-humans (though there could be), but all the other standard D&D ingredients are easy to find.

Maybe I’ll work on something like this once I’ve got Weird Adventures out of the way. Heck, the Strange New World was probably something like this, about a century and a half earlier then then the period I've been chronicling.

Monday, November 29, 2010


The Muto-Scope appears as some version of kinetoscope or early motion picture device. In reality, it is a magical artifact created for unknown purposes. It is often found in aging, second-rate arcades, or in the hands of collectors, where it’s true nature will often not be recognized.

Looking through the viewer and turning the metal knobs (marked with arcane symbols and metrics which no one is able to decipher) will allow the operator to focus in on any individual within a twenty mile radius he or she thinks of. The operator need not be aware that it's his or her thoughts bringing the target into the viewer for the scope to work.

Once a target is the viewer, turning the crank will cause mutation. Nothing short of magical shielding can protect a target from the effects. If the crank is turned clockwise, the target will evolve to a form in some (teleological) way more suited for their current environment. For example, intelligence might increase if that is what’s needed at the current time.

Turning the crank counter-clockwise will lead to devolution to a more primitive, ancestral form. First, more bestial, protohuman characteristics will appear, then baser mammalian ones, followed by reptilan traits. Fifteen seconds of scope operation on a target will lead to some minor atavistic traits emerging. A full minute will total transform the target physically into a more primitive, humanoid form.

In either direction, the duration and degree of change are related to the duration of crank operation. A minute of operation leads to changes lasting 1-6 hours, whereas ten minutes leads to changes lasting 1-6 days, and possibly (if a saving throw is failed) permanent. Both directions of change are ultimately dangerous, with clockwise ultimately resulting in a coldly intellectual, sociopathic, post-human monster, and counter-clockwise leading to a primitive beast of some sort.

Inspection of the device will reveal nothing about how it operates. Even disassembly (an action with unpredictable repercussions) is unlikely to provide any useful information. A small brass plaque low on the machine's back suggests it was manufactured by “Coppelius Novelties”, but a corporation of that name has been difficult to locate.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Hopefully nobody has to stalk their own turkey like this Pilgrim maiden...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Bring On the Back-Ups!

For the majority of issues 29-88, Warlord featured a back-up story. One of these short series, Wizard World, was connected to the action of the main title, but all of the others were completely independent. Let’s take this Warlord Wednesday to look at the first two.

First Appearance: OMAC #1 (1974)
Last Pre-Warlord Appearance: Back-up in Kamandi #59 (1978)--also the last issue of Kamandi
Featured as Back-up: Warlord #37-39, #42-47
Next Seen: DC Comics Presents #61 (1983)
His Story: OMAC (One Man Army Corps) was a Jack Kirby creation, a mohawked super-cop in the near future (“The World That’s Coming”). The Warlord back-ups were by Jim Starlin who had also done the back-up in the last issue of Kamandi.
How He's Like the Warlord: he fights for justice; his fashion sense is perhaps questionable.

First Appearance: Warlord #48 (1981)
Featured as Back-up: (technically an insert) Warlord #48
Next Seen: Arak, Son of Thunder #1 (1981)
His Story: Arak was a Native American taken by Vikings to Carolingian Europe where he interacted with characters from The Song of Roland, and mythological creatures, in a very Robert E. Howard-esque way--not surprising since Arak was the creation of Conan’s original comics scribe, Roy Thomas. Arak’s series lasted for 50 issues.
How He's Like the Warlord: he swings a mean sword; he romances a warrior lady.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Adventurers of Yesteryear

The City's seen its share of adventures over the decades.  Many of them, both world-renown and relatively obscure, are celebrated in Munsen's "Life of Fantastic Danger" Museum.  Here are a few examples:

Enok “The Axe” Bludgett
A celebrity adventurer of the late of ‘40s (3840s, that is). The above tintype was sold all over the city.  He's pictured here with his favorite weapon, and axe rested from hands of an undead Northman whose dragonship thawed from an iceberg in the City’s harbor in 3842. Bludgett died tragically of an eldritch venereal disease contracted from a succubus just twelve years later.

Violet M’Gee
Stenography school dropout, turned adventuress. She's pictured here in 3875, with her legendary pistols--magical items supposedly made by an ancient forge god she and her companions discovered trapped in a bricked-up sub-basement in Yronburg.  She spent two months in a sanatarium suffering from the psychic backlash of firing a bullet made from the materia of the Outer Dark at the dread lich aviator, the Bloody Baron.

Colonel Balthazar Hacksilver
Southron Thaumaturgist and sometime ally of Bludgett. Though the title of “colonel” was an affectation, Hacksilver was knighted by Lluddish Queen during her first decanting. He’s perhaps best known for the ability--learned from a postherd recovered from a tomb beneath a mound of the Ancients in Freedonia--to remove his head from his body. Reportedly, Hacksilver’s body would fight on with his saber, while his head cast spells from a safe distance.  Some thaumaturgical scholars believe the amazing spell Hacksilver uncovered was incomplete, and therefore completely misinterpreted, which led to Hacksilver's eventual descent into the mental illness known as Ackerlast's Schism.  There is some disagreement as to whether his death is better termed a murder or a suicide.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter is Coming: Pics Prove It

I know I'm not the only one excited about the upcoming HBO series Game of Thrones based on George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the more set pictures I see, the more I feel like they're getting it right.  Entertainment Weekly's got a whole series of pics on their website.

I'm glad the armor and clothing have more of a historical feel than is generally the case for TV fantasy (like the recent Legend of the Seeker).

Here's Stark sons Bran and Jon Snow.  Barrington (Snow) isn't really how I pictured him, but that's to be expected.

I think Nikolaj Coste-Waldau is great choice for Jaime Lannister--and check out that armor.

Daenerys' costume does seem a little generic fantasy-ish, though Emilia Clarke wears it well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Unknown

The most feared thaumaturgists of the City are the cabal sometimes called the Inconnu, or the Unseen Lodge, but most often called simply the Unknown. In bars frequented by mages, or in thaumaturgical lodge houses, it's not uncommon to hear “friend of a friend” stories, or paranoid urban legends about them. The Thaumaturgical Society of the City refuses to publicly acknowledge the existence of this powerful group--but privately makes sure to stay out of there way, while trying to collect as much information on them as possible. If the conspiracy theorists are to be believed, even the Hell Syndicate tends to avoid confronting them directly.

Beyond their shadowy existence, little is known for certain about them, though there is a lot of speculation. No more than ten ever appear at one time, but it's unclear whether this represents their entire membership. None of the members names or faces are known as they tend to appear in carnival masks, and sometimes costumes, thought to have occult significance, but their meanings remain obscure. Powerful mages are believed to become members by invitation, and are only admitted after achieving some incredible feat of magical prowess.

The strangest rumors about the Unknown are related to their activities. Minor mages have found themselves given the formulae of new spells, which have led to spectacular results for good or ill at times, but at others have appeared to do absolutely nothing. Prominent businessmen or up-and-coming adventurers have been destroyed by invisible entities, and it has been rumored the Unknown were responsible, but no one knows why. However, town fathers generally consider them friends of the City, apparently for actions they have taken in the past, which are not discussed, and only recorded in the most secure of records, if at all.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Life in Sorcery

In the City and the New World in general, thaumaturgical practice and education are not as finely developed as they were in Ealderde, the Old World, prior to the Great War. There are no equivalents to the grand, old thaumaturgical academies like Hoagworts (tragically destroyed by prismatic-bombs from Staarkish zeppelins) or Germelshausen (closed to new students after its previously periodic synchronicity with this plane became unpredictable).

The New World does have a few small, private academies which vary greatly in quality. Most were started by wealthy practitioners with a particular theoretical model they wished to promote. Such training leads to students highly skilled in illusions, for instance, but with little facility in other areas; or graduates all pledged by blood oath to some extraplanar power.

Most thaumaturgists are trained by means of an apprentice system. Old practitioners take on students and train them to a point they are able to safely (supposedly) carry on their own independent study. Just as with the academies, this tends to lead to students with highly varied skill-bases and theoretical orientations.

The upshot of this is that many thaumaturgist lead short careers---and possibly lives. Some die or are disabled in magical experimentation. Others become the plaything of malign entities. Most just find the extent of their talents really isn’t all that far, and wind up trying to eke out a livings as hedge-sorcerers in small towns, or find work as shabby carnival mentalists, or laboratory workers for unscrupulous, or fly-by-night alchemical companies.

Thaumaturgical societies, common in most large cities, have tried to ameliorate these problems by providing standards of proficiency, and a ranking system. Critics charge that such societies are at best trusts attempting to drive out competition, and at first cabals seeking to gain political power.

It’s these factors that lead to the common man’s frequent skepticism and distrust in regard to magical practice and practitioners. Lurid confessionals have stories of depraved, sex magic cults and newspapers carry reports of charlatan grifters.

Still, public opinion is schizophrenic when it comes to magic. Newspapers and newsreels are full of stories of celebrity sorcerers, and pulp magazines, radio dramas, and movie serials fictionalize their exploits. Confidence is also stronger in alchemistry and other sorts of applied thaumaturgical sciences.

Most sorcerers take the public’s love-hate in stride. For most, learning secrets beyond the kin of most mortals, and wielding, in whatever limited way, the primal forces of reality, tend to heady enough thrills to push other concerns aside, at least for a while.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Why is this gorilla crying?  I have know idea, when there are so many cool things on the internet to salve his wounded soul.

For instance, Scott, pround owner of a Huge Ruined Pile, has constructed a like-named forum for the discussion of fantasy fiction of the classic and pulp varieties.  Come join us.

John Stater, blogging east of Eden in the Land of Nod, has released Pars Fortuna Basic as a free pdf.  I've only had time to give it the briefest perusal, but several cool bits caught my eye.  Check it out!

Looking for an alternative to bog-standard fantasy worlds?  Harald, in the pages of The Book of Worlds, is gradually unfolding a setting which uses liberal portions of White Wolf's Mage and the Cthulhu Mythos, seasoned with Dieselpunk, and served up epic fantasy-style.  See, Space Nazis!

Finally, somewhere out in the Hill Cantons of Texas, Ckutalik is masterminding a Pulp Fantasy Society to bring past masters back into print.  No James Branch Cabell yet, but surely that can be rectified...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Gambit

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

Warlord (vol. 1) #35 (July 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: We open where we left our heroes last time: Morgan is about to bid farewell to Mariah, Machiste, Mungo Ironhand, and the Age of Wizard Kings, and use the hellfire sword to return to Skartaris. Morgan is indeed transported out of Wizard World, but instead of Skartaris he finds himself in some body's 20th-Century Earth living room, in what he intuits to be (perhaps) New Jersey.

Morgan doesn’t have a lot of time to consider this strange development, because an armored woman named Agnes announces her presence and declares her intention to battle the mighty Warlord. Morgan is dubious, but Agnes attacks, so he’s forced to fight back. The two fight there way into a den. Morgan demands to know how he got here and how he can get back to Skartaris.

Agnes claims to know, but distracts him with thrown pool balls, and makes a dash for a gun cabinet. She snatches up a rifle, but in some higher realm someone cries “foul!”

Giant figures in shadow seem to be looking down at the combatants, discussing the events as if they’re part of some game. One declares Agnes a “Chaotic Good Primitive, without a knowledge of modern weaponry.” The other concedes the argument: “Point, Morgan!” he says.

Morgan quick-draws his pistol and fires at where Agnes was, as she fades out of existence. Morgan thinks he could use a drink right about now, and suddenly there’s a bar and bartender in the room to oblige. He pours Morgan a scotch, but also pours something else out of a small vial. Morgan drinks. By the time he’s realized he’s been slipped a Mickey, he’s sliding to the floor.

Red robed figures enter a door behind him. They bear Morgan away for “the sacrifice.” Morgan is placed on an altar--or table. The lead cultist raises an electric carving knife over him. In the other realm, two dice roll and one player decries “a lucky throw.”

Morgan suddenly awakens and grabs the leader. He tosses him into his fellows, then snatches up his sword. Morgan cuts into the cultists. The leader realizes the only way to keep Morgan from “winning” is to spill blood and release the demon--even if its his own! He stabs himself with the carving knife.  Elsewhere, a demon playing piece is placed on board, while Morgan faces a being of fire, emerging from the burners of the stove.

Morgan fights back, but he can’t cut what isn’t solid. The demon blasts him out a window and into the front yard. It comes charging out after him. He picks up a car off the curb, then tosses it at Morgan. Dice roll. Morgan dodges, and the car hits a hydrant. The torrent of water released reduces the demon to a cloud of smoke.

Morgan tries to lean against a tree--and it topples over. It’s not even real. A piece with two figures is placed on a board. The sound of a chainsaw starting gets Morgan’s attention. He turns to see Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, with a chainsaw and battle-axe, respectively.

Again, dice roll. Morgan fights the two, and discovers they aren't real either--they have no blood or internal organs. Morgan finally defeats them, but by that point the house is engulfed in flames from the demon.  Morgan fears he’s trapped in this lunatic world.

Elsewhere, gods (with familiar names) finish a game:

The gods box up their game of Devils & Demons, promising they have even more in store for Morgan.

The hero in question arrives back in Skartaris, where Shakira and the mayor of the dwarves have been waiting. Shakira asks where he’s been, but Morgan replies she wouldn’t believe him if he told her. Morgan accidentally cuts his thumb on the hellfire sword, and Mungo Ironhand’s admonition that the sword must always draw blood holds true.

Things to Notice:
  • Dungeons & Dragons seems to have provided some inspiration for this issue.
  • Morgan can somehow tell he's on the east coast, probably New Jersey.
Where It Comes From:
The last panel of this story gives its inspiration  as a nightmare:

Like most representations of these characters, Grell's renditions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee seem informed by John C. Tenniel's illustrations.

"Agnes" may have been inspired by Robert E. Howard's swordswoman of the same name, Agnes de Chastillon.

The "gods" gaming with Morgan's life are Mike Grell, Jack C. Harris, and Joe Orlando.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Livin' on Marvel Time

Gary Gygax said: “You can not have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not kept.”

I wonder if that applies to superhero games, too? If so, its a bit difficult to find that strict time-keeping in the source material--at least at Marvel and DC. Both companies long ago adopted de facto “sliding timelines,” and have since enshrined them in company policy, more or less.

For the uninitiated, in the Marvel Universe, this means that the current “heroic era" never gets more than about 10-15 (depending on who you ask) years-old. The Fantastic Four originally got their powers in the sixties. In the Lost Generation limited series in 2000, that event seems to have occurred in the late eighties-early nineties; now, it probably happened around 2000.

Now, the number of events between the beginning of the current age and the ever-advancing now keeps increasing, though the distance between those two points remains constant. Eventually, there'll be a major crossover everyday of Peter Parker’s life since he was 16.

It was not always thus. As George Olshevsky’s Marvel indices show, early Marvel, seemed to follow “real time”, more or less. The reason comics abandon it, like most serial media, was presumably to have evergreen brands.

A superhero rpg campaign doesn’t need brands. There’s no reason why heroes in a Marvel-inspired rpg campaign couldn’t grow old, have children, and retire and make way for the next generation. DC has toyed with this in comics themselves (safely placed on Earth-2, for the most part), but this would be fairly new territory for Marvel.

I’ve run a Mutants & Masterminds campaign based on that premise in the past, constructing a timeline from Olshevsky’s work, and my own collection of date references from comics. I could have saved myself some work, had I discovered the The Wastebasket blog and Tony’s chronology work on what he calls The Original Marvel Universe. Though my conclusions sometimes differ from Tony’s, the detail and analysis he puts into the OMU is great.

I suspect if I ever run that campaign or a similar one again, I’ll find the OMU indisplensible.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How About Masters of Fantasy?

Showtime’s Masters of Horror was in the grand tradition of TV horror anthologies and aired over two seasons from 2005-2007. It featured famous names in horror film (Argento, Gordon, Carpenter, Miike, and Hooper, among others) directing episodes, several of which were based on famous short-stories, or stories by famous authors, including Lovecraft, Barker, Bierce, Matheson, and Lansdale.

Masters of Science Fiction was a short-lived ABC show with a similar premise, though devoted, as the title suggests, to a different genre. It featured adaptations of stories by Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Sheckley among others.

It would seem to me that in the wake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter films, and with A Game of Thrones on its way to HBO, the way might be paved for a fantasy anthology--a Masters of Fantasy, perhaps?
In thinking of stories to adapt, one would have to think of things that could be done justice in an hour time-frame, in the budgets it would likely have, and for the audience of cable TV. Like the anthologies mentioned above, a mixture of classics and new stories would probably be what we’d see.  Of course, while their would probably be a temptation to go with stories set in the modern era, what I'd want to see would be a mixture of settings, both mundane and fantastic. 

Here are some stories, off the top of my head, I think would work in those parameters:
  • “The Charnel God” by Clark Ashton Smith
  • “People of the Dark” by Robert E. Howard
  • “Only the End of the World Again” by Neil Gaiman. (I would love to see “Murder Mysteries” but it might be a bit ambitious)
  • “Undertow” Karl Edward Wagner
  • “O Ugly Bird!” by Manly Wade Wellman
  • “Mai-Kulala” by Charles R. Saunders
  • “The Sustenance of Hoak” by Ramsey Campbell
  • “The Cloud of Hate” by Fritz Leiber
What about you guys: What would you like to see? What would work?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Down South

art by Glenn Orbik

“...snake-charmers, phoney real-estate operators, and syphilitic evangelists.”
-H.L. Mencken
The region between the hegemony of the City, the Smaragdine Mountains, and the eastern coast of the New World is known generally as the South. Popular conception holds a dim view of the South, and its people are painted with various unflattering stereotypes. The poor are viewed as over-religious, unwashed dullards, and its would-be gentry as grandiose eccentrics living in the past.

It is true that the South has been slower to embrace the industrialization and engagement in the wider world that mark its neighbors like the City and the Steel League, and its folk are often hidebound and insular. These traits aside, there are many things which might draw adventurers here.

There is one industry the South excels at—bootlegging. Though the South’s tradition of fire and brimstone Old-Time Religion ensures that most counties are “dry”--and even more liberal localities prohibit alcohol sales on Godday--this hasn’t stopped the manufacture and smuggling of alcohol. The lowland moonshiner typically sticks to alcohol; he’s is less likely than his Smaragdine brethren to also be involved in bootleg alchemicals in general (though it may only be a matter of time). Southron bootleggers are famous for their skill behind the wheel of their suped-up automobiles (sometimes even magically enhanced) used to outrun authorities on rural highways and back-roads. Both sides of the moon-shining equation offer opportunities for people of action.

In addition to the highways, the lesser travelled waterways of the South are conduits for bootleggers, smugglers, and criminals on the lamb. Bayous and swamps can hide a multitude of sins, if one can deal with the hostile locals (including conjure-men or hoodoo doctors), skunk-apes, gator-men, and dangerous animal life. Outsiders should be cautious before choosing to follow a local fugitive into the interior. The largest of these swamps are the closest thing the Northern continent has to the Grand Cinnamon River basin in Asciana.

There is also perhaps a little money to be made, and a lot of justice do be done, in defending Black or Native communities from terrorizing by the Knights-Templar of Purity. This can be a dangerous proposition as Black-Folk are legally disenfranchised in much of the South, and the Knights-Templar wield more power here, so near there place of origin, than in most other places. Some whole towns are under their sway, so that knowing who is an enemy and who is not can be difficult to discern.

If adventuring, or perhaps just do-gooding, wears thin one can always visit one of the cities the South does have to offer. The old and decadent canal-city of New Ylourgne, largest city in the South, offers a respite from the rural. It also boasts a higher concentration of magical practitioners than even the City, and magic shops well-stocked with exotic material components.

Friday, November 12, 2010

More Images from the City

Where you’d never expect it.  The famous Ealderdish hit-man Anton Mocata--known as “the Ghost”--was responsible for 112 (known) murders before he was finally brought to justice.  His use of a magic ring conferring the power to open dimensional doorways allowed him to strike easily at even the most well-protected targets.

Adventurer prepares to enter the belly of the beast.  The preserved carcass of a great leviathan in a melting iceberg offers a challenge.  Groups of adventures raced to be the first make the treacherous descent into the creature's gullet to see what ship-bound treasures it might have swallowed in life.

Night of the Vermilion Butterfly.  A secret society among some of the joy-girls in brothels of both the City and San Tiburon Yiantowns rose up to challenge the Yianese criminal guilds.

A danger even to itself.  An Ebon-Land basilisk, petrified by its on gaze and a clever adventurer with a mirror, was put on display Empire Park.

Frontier Adventure.  A scene from a comic book adaptation of James Ynismore Drakeland’s beloved Buckskin Tales, depicting an encounter with a "rustic giant" out of the Smaragdines.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

It's Veterans Day, and I'd like to commemorate some of the lesser known--but no less brave--men and women who've served their country in uniform--however tattered or non-regulation those uniforms often seem to be...

What special forces squad would be daring enough to go after Hitler?  Well, the same one that served in every U.S. conflict from World War II to Vietnam--and did it their way.  I refer of course to Sargeant Nick Fury and his Howling Mad Commandos!

They say you can't pin a medal on a gorilla (see, they're doing it right there on the cover!), but I say: why not?  So what if he doesn't meet the grooming standard?

War's ugly and so were they--but they got results.  And their name's alliterative.

And of course, who could forget the Warlord, formerly Captain Travis Morgan, USAF.  He proves the old adage, "old soldiers never die, they just become Sword & Sorcery heroes in the hollow earth."

All frivolity aside, I'll put one nonfictional veteran on the list.  U.S. Army trauma surgeon, and my best friend from med school, T (née Tara):

Happy Veterans Day!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Sword of the Sorcerer

Wednesday again.  Time to re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"Sword of the Sorcerer"
Warlord (vol. 1) #34 (June 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: The mayor of the dwarves declares Morgan a hero for his actions last issue. As such, he feels Morgan is worthy of treasure: a gleaming sword from the Age of Wizard Kings called “Hellfire.” Morgan notices an opening in the blade near its hilt. The mayor says that legend holds there was once a gemstone there, but it was shattered, then stolen, long ago. Recognition dawning, Morgan pulls out the pieces of the hellfire gem and fits it into the blade. The sword “seems to shimmer with new life.”

In the ancient past of the Age of Wizard Kings, Machiste, Mariah, and Mungo Ironhand ignore the posted warnings and enter the castle of Wralf the Wretched. They hope he can return Machiste and Mariah to the present of Skartaris.

Wralf appears before them and is unsympathetic to their plight. He tells them he can’t help them, but when challenged on this by Mariah, he amends that to say he won’t.

At that moment, energy leaps from the hellfire sword. Spacetime is split open, and Morgan is transported to the Age of Wizard Kings and in the middle of his friends’ encounter with Wralf.

Wralf doesn’t give the reunited companions time for pleasantries. He demands Morgan surrender the sword. When Morgan declines, Wralf presses opens up two trapdoors--one which Morgan falls through, and one that swallows the other three.

The trapdoor drops Morgan onto a slide. He manages to stop himself from a precipitous drop, by wedging his sword between the walls. He climbs up a distance, then goes looking for his friends.

Meanwhile, another slide has dropped his friends on to a pathway. Mungo casts a light spell and begins to lead them out of the darkness. Unfortunately, they encounter a furred monster with scythe-like hands.

Mungo’s response is to run, but Machiste grabs his cape and pulls him back. They need the light to fight by. Machiste and Mariah battle the monster--unaware they’re actually fighting Morgan disguised by Wralf’s magic!

Morgan tries to hold his friends off while not hurting them. Mungo realizes there’s magic at work. He casts a spell himself, which dispels Wralf’s illusion.

Mariah remarks that Wralf must have changed Morgan into a monster, but Mungo corrects her. The spell was on them; the hellfire sword makes its bearer immune to magic. Mungo adds that Morgan has the same sword Wralf wears.

The three explain to Morgan that only Wralf is able to return them to Skartaris. Obviously, he’s being uncooperative.

As if on cue, Wralf appears among them. He's is tired of toying with them, and wants the sword. Morgan replies he’ll have it over his dead body. Wralf replies “that can be arranged,” and pulls his sword. He also magicks a glass dome over the other three so they can’t interfere.

Morgan and Wralf fight, their twin swords giving off magical energy as they do. Finally, Morgan delivers a mighty blow right on the gem in Wralf’s sword--and splits it, knocking it from the blade! Morgan realizes (at last) that Wralf’s blade is the one he now wields, but in the past.

That sword now seems to move of its on accord, and thrusts into Wralf’s heart. Morgan is confused. 

With Wralf dead the other three are freed.  Mungo says he should have told Morgan about that characteristic of the sword before--once the hellfire sword is drawn it must always draw blood. This is the price one pays for the immunity to enchantment the blade confers.

Morgan’s eager to show Deimos that power, but with Wralf dead, how can they return to Skartaris? Mungo clarifies: the sword grants Morgan the power to return, it’s only Mariah and Machiste that can’t. If he sheathes the blade, it will return him whence he came.

Mariah and Machiste urge him to return. They say they’ll find a way back somehow--and until then, they have each other.

Morgan sheathes the sword, and bids his friends farewell, promising he’ll see them again.

Things to Notice:
  • There's a hook horror beneath Wralf's castle (sort of).
  • Mungo Ironhand is implied to be the ancestor of the dwarves of Skartaris.
Where It Comes From:
The title of this issue is the same as a 1976 Sword & Sorcery novel by Gardner Fox.  The whole sword "cursed to have to draw blood" is reminiscent of the folklore around the swords of Japanese swordsmith, Muramasa Sengo.

Again, the comedic elements, and some of the design elements, of The Age of the Wizard Kings seem reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi's 1977 animated feature, Wizards.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Even More Inspirational Nonfiction

Here are the latest acquisitions for my own nonfiction shelves, which you might find inspirational or isntructional in gaming, particularly world-building:

Intoxication in Mythology by Ernest L. Abel: This might be useful as you’re brainstorming for your submission for James Maliszewski’s Petty Gods. In encyclopedic fashion, Abel briefly describes deities, substances, locales, and myths from all over the world related to intoxicants. This is sort of broadly defined, so you’ll likely find some entries (like Orion’s story) you wouldn’t have thought of as “drug-related.” It’s an interesting read, which makes me think there should be more subject-focused mythology books like this.

Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest by David Hatcher Childress: This is shouldn’t be confused with a rigorously scientific archaeological work, and the travelogue nature of it means some sifting is required to find the gold, but it covers just about every weird lost civilization legend of the American Southwest I’ve ever heard of. If you enjoyed my posts on Lost Cities of the Grand Canyon, then this will probably be a welcome edition to your library.

The Tarzan Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs by David A. Ullery: This bills itself as an illustrated reader’s guide to ERB’s Tarzan series, and that’s exactly what it is--and as such it chock full of world-building goodness from a master who knew how to balance world detail and story. Included is an overview of the Mangani (ape) language, and others from the tales, a section on lost cities, civilizations, and peoples, and a biographical sketch of Tarzan. You don’t have to be a Tarzan fan to find this stuff inspirational. In fact, if you can’t find half a dozen adventure seeds or cool things to swipe for your setting, then you haven’t read it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Adrift Amid the Random Isles

If your players find themselves, like Captain Bill Clanton and the two Javasuan maidens above, adrift in the South Seas, you might need to know that sort of island they ultimately wash up on. For just such an occasion, I present the Random Island Generator:

Island Type (d10):
01-02: Volcanic (extinct)
03-05: Volcanic (active)
06-07: Mountain top of a drowned continent
08-09: Coral atoll
  10:  Exotic (man-made, giant turtle, floating, etc.)

Island Size (these are all small in a general sense--that’s why they’re uncharted) (d6):
01: Very small (1-10 sq. mi.)
02-03: Small (11-49 sq. mi.)
04-05: Medium (50-200 sq. mi.)
06: Large (201-1000 sq. mi.)

Inhabitants (d6):
01: None
02-03: Animals
04-05: Intelligent Creatures (then see below)
06: Special

Intelligent Creatures (d12):
01-02: Crabmen
03: Lava Children (active volcanic only)
04-05: Sahuagin
06-08: Humanoid
08-10: Human
11-12: Exotic (tiny humans, giants, animal-headed, etc.)

Civilization (d100):
01-11: cannibal
12-15: peaceful
16-25: war-like women (50% man-hating, 50% man-hungry)
26-35: feuding tribes
36-45: Gender-split, feuding
46-55: Cargo cult
56-65: Lost colony, highly developed
66-75: Lost colony, devolved
76-80: Seeming utopia
81-91: Remnant of a great civilization
92-00: Other (monster-worshipping, alien, etc.)

Unique Monster (if desired) (d6):
01-03: Giant animal
04: Froghemoth
05: Living Statue(s)
06: Earth-bound god

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tombstones in Their Eyes

Sit down in any small-town diner in the West of the New World, and like as not, you’ll hear stories of ghost towns. These are minor trail-stops that wasted away when the course of the railroad or the highway took civilization elsewhere; or mining towns that went from boom to bust when the mines dried up. Most of the time, the stories say they’re haunted. Sometimes, the stories are true.

It’s not a rare thing to encounter a ghost--most human habitations of any size have their share of them. What makes the real ghost towns of West unusual is that they’re not places of single hauntings, or even a group of restless spirits. In other places, a dilapidated tavern may be full of ghostly revellers and staff. Ill-fated hotels may have multiple patrons who never leave. But visitors to some of these towns have recounted tales of almost entire, if small, populations of ghosts.

This is a misperception, or perhaps it’s better termed a trick. There are no ghosts in these towns. The towns themselves are the ghost.

For reasons unknown to modern thaumaturgical sciences, the West was fertile ground for the development of deranged genius loci--spirits of place. Maybe these lonely places grow mad with isolation, or maybe they’re born bad--a final curse of the Native shamans driven from their ancestral lands. Whatever the case, the spirits of these towns, either in madness or as an attempt to ease their loneliness, populate their streets and structures with the semblances of people from their memory. Essentially, they put on a phantasmagorial puppet show.

Some ghost towns are homicidal in their madness and seek to lure in living humans, then kill them in fiendish ways. Others are simply lonely, and will attempt to beguile or otherwise convince humans into staying with them.  Whatever their desires, they sit quietly in the high desert, the lonely praire, or snow-bound mountainside, forlorn and waiting.

No. Enc.: 1
HD: 12
AC: see below
Abilities: Ghost towns may be destroyed, or at least weakened to the point where they can no longer manifest significantly on the prime material plane, only by destruction of most of the structures making up the town--so traditional hit points don’t apply. Eidolons created by the town act as ghosts, but of lower hit die, as the total number of its manifestations can have no more than 12 hit dice, total. The ghost town may produce more phantasms than this, but the rest are simply illusions with no substance. None of these sub-ghosts automatically cause aging and fear, but they can display a horrifying countenance which will do so. Ghost towns may also use telekinesis as per the spell, but must wait 1d4 rounds to do so again.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Living Tattoos

Living tattoos are two-dimensional, intelligent entities--parasites perhaps--which manifest as body art. The origin of living tattoos is mysterious, but they first appeared in the Orient in the dim past. They prefer to keep their existence a secret, hiding among mundane tattoos.

These beings can be place on human skin by means of a summoning ritual, and a magical ink known to the sorcerers of the High Lords of Yian, and perhaps others. Once they have been placed, however, unless they are magically bound, they may wander and pass to others by physical skin-to-skin contact for several seconds, at least.

Living tattoos have no magical ability to coerce bearers, but their constant presence and whispering influence tend to eventually lead all but the strongest willed to fall under their thrall. For every week a person bears a living tattoo, there is an additional -1 to his or her save against doing as the tattoo suggests (wisdom bonus, if any, adds to the save). Living tattoos have goals of their own, but in general, urge bearers acts of violence or depraved pleasures.

The tattoos can not be physically injured except by means that destroys the skin of the bearer, though a remove curse can cause them to flee to another bearer in available and failing that, cast them from this plane, and certain spells are able to affect them directly.

There are rumored to be factions among the living tattoos. They work at intrigues through the proxy of their bearers to get the upper hand on the others of their kind. The ultimate stakes in these games remains mysterious.

Living Shadow
No. Enc.: 1
Hit Dice: 6
Save: F6
Morale: 12

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gone to Texas

Which I have, on business--but the title as much refers to the phrase people in the 19th Century might find carved in the door--often in the abbreviation "G.T.T."--of the abandoned homes of friends or family.  "Gone to Texas" was used to describe folk who have found it expedient to leave their homes due to debt or other legal difficulties.   The phrase provides a title for the 1975 publication of Forrest Carter's novel, better know in its film adaptation--The Outlaw Josey Wales.

All this is by way of introduction of a little project I started a year or so ago which might be of interest to those playing (or planning) Western rpgs, or just those with an interest in the Western genre in film.  I present to you, the Western Film Timeline, which places the events described in various movies in a historical context.  It remains a work in progress, but covers events from 1836 (The Man from the Alamo) to 1917 (The Professionals).  Corrections are welcome.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Birds of Prey

Let's re-enter the lost world with another installment of my issue by issue examination of DC Comic's Warlord, the earlier installments of which can be found here...

"Birds of Prey"
Warlord (vol. 1) #33 (May 1980)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Morgan and Shakira are flying along on the disc they stole from the titans. Morgan broaches a subject with Shakira that’s been bothering him: is she a woman who turns into a cat, or a cat turns into woman? And how does she do it, anyway? Shakira refuses to answer the first question, only replying “I have to have some secrets.” She suggests that maybe her ability is “magic.”

Morgan has little faith in magic. He shows Shakira the burned-out remnant of the Hellfire Stone. Magic can’t bring back his son, and it can’t make him forget he caused his son's death. He keeps the stone as a reminder of magic’s limits.

The conversation is interrupted by the attack of winged, bald men Shakira identifies as “hawkmen.” Morgan and Shakira hold their own against the attackers until the hawkmen lasso Shakira and bear her off into the sky. Watching her abduction, Morgan lets his guard down for an instant and is hit from behind, knocking him from the disc.

Morgan’s quick reflexes allow him to save himself by grabbing the control cable, but supporting his wait shorts the controls. Morgan finds himself dangling in midair, being dragged behind a runaway flier. He travels that way for short distance, until the flier gives out, and plunges to the ground.

Morgan lies unconscious in the forest, where he's found by a group of dwarves. They debate what to do with him, worried he might be allied to the hawkmen.  Eventually they decide to take him to their village and let their mayor decide what to do.

In their quaint, tree village, they bring Morgan before the mayor. Before he can pass judgement, Morgan awakens, which causes all the dwarves to run away in fear. Morgan coaxes them out of hiding by convincing them he’s not with the hawkmen--in fact, he’s their enemy. The dwarves are pleased by this, as the hawkmen raid their village and steal their women. The mayor pronounces Morgan a friend and offers him a drink:

The strong dwarvish liquor brings tears to Morgan’s eyes and almost makes him fall over. The mayor opines that “it takes some getting used to.”

The mayor tells Morgan the hawkmen are away on a raid to the South. That gives Morgan the idea to prepare a surprise for them on their return. The mayor says Morgan will have to do it alone--the dwarves are too small to stand up to them. Besides, they’ve got know way to reach the hawkmen’s aerie. He shows it to Morgan, high atop a giant tree. There’s no way to climb up!

Morgan asks if they’ve ever tried, though he knows the answer.  He tells the mayor all he needs from the village is 100 feet of rope and goat-skin full of their dwarvish firewater.

Morgan begins climbing the tree. He’s surprised to find guards swooping down at him. After a precarious battle with Morgan swinging around the giant tree trunk on his rope, the hawkmen are defeated. He resumes his climb with more urgency. He has to reach the top before the rest of the hawkmen return.

Upon reaching the aerie, Morgan makes a grisly discovery. Scattered about are human (or dwarven) bones. No sooner has he found the fate of the hawkmen’s captives, than he sees them returning with Shakira. Morgan quickly spreads the liquor around their nest, then hides.

As soon as the raiders carrying Shakira are within the nest, Morgan attacks. He cuts Shakira free, then throws down a torch, igniting the liquor. Morgan grabs Shakira’s hand and says their only way out is to jump into the lake below.

Shakira balks with a feline dislike of water. She turns into a cat to run away, but Morgan snatches her up. He jumps from the tower with her cursing him.

Morgan and Shakira climb from the lake and look up at the aerie, now engulfed in flame. The mayor thanks Morgan for his help, and asks if he got his cat back. Morgan replies, “Yes..."

Things to Notice:
  • Where are the hawkwomen?
  • Shakira talks while in cat form.
  • Dwarven females are taller and less comical looking than the dwarf males.
Where It Comes From:
The hawkmen are likely inspired (and named) for the hawkmen of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comic strip, and related media.

The dwarves Morgan encounters seem to have a Munchikin-esque character, mode of dress, and appearance, though they live in tree homes more like the Keebler elves.  It's possible that The Wizard of Oz was the whole impetus for the story, with the dwarves inspired by the Munchikins and the hawkmen standing in for the evil flying monkeys.