Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Look Out! Pink Elephants on Parade

“I could stand the sight of worms,
And look at microscopic germs,
But technicolor pachyderms,
Is really much for me.”
- “Pink Elephants on Parade”
Those who become too inebriated or intoxicated, invite the astral invaders known as pink elephants into their minds. These creatures appear as gelatinous, multi-colored, bipedal elephants, with sinister, leering expressions and eyes as featureless as the abyssal depths. They are non-corporeal, and can only be harmed by magical means, except by other astral beings. They cause fear in those able to see them (unless they make a save vs. magic).  Unreasoning fear drives those that perceive them to fight for their lives against the elephants as if they are corporeal beings--which can lead to the victim inadvertently injuring themselves or those around them. During this period (which lasts 1-4 hours) the victim's mental faculties (Intelligence and Wisdom) and dexterity are effectively reduced by 1d4. After the resolution of the elephants' attack, the victim will sleep for 2-12 hours and awaken with a monstrous headache. There is a 33% chance that an encounter with the elephants will lead to more serious, permanent impairment of mental abilities, if a save vs. death is failed.

Pink Elephants: HD 3, AC 7 [12], Special: cause terror, noncorporeal.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Ten Cent Menace

A weird menace haunts the newsstands and magazine racks of the City. Behind some seemingly innocuous--if lurid--paper cover there lurks an alien entity with an appetite for human minds. This entity has no official name, but is sometimes called the “shudder pulp” after the odd “some walked across my grave” feeling people often describe upon first encountering it.  A warning, perhaps--which they generally ignore.

The entity appears as a pulp magazine of the most prurient variety. It changes the specifics of its title and cover image on each occasion, but invariably teases tales of violence, sadism, and the macabre. There are some reports of the entity appearing as comic books as well, but these have no been verified.

A purchaser will find the pulp largely indistinguishable from any mundane publication of the type. The stories will be as expected from the cover, though perhaps a little less logical and more nightmare-like that would be typical. A Wisdom roll upon first browsing its contents gives the victim a change to recognize the inherent wrongness of the publication and avoid further harm. A failed roll means the victim will read the entire volume, over a period of time. unless there is some intervention.

Every story read (there will be 2d6 in the volume) will require a saving throw (with a progressive -1 for every previous story read) or result in the loss of 1d4 points of Wisdom. When a victim's wisdom drops to 0 they disappear from prime material plane, and no where knows where they are taken.

In addition, even having the item in one’s possession requires a saving throw every 1d6 days or else the possessor acts as if under a Suggestion spell and performs increasingly depraved acts (though starting at the relatively mundane) bearing some similarities to those depicted in the stories in the volume.

The entity may be destroyed by any of the usual means used to destroy a mundane magazine (HD 1-1). Destroying its physical manifestation breaks its spell, and limits further effects. However, it will likely re-coalesce elsewhere in a slightly different form in 1d10 days.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Truth, Justice, and all That Other (Gaming) Stuff

This weekend I picked up Green Ronin’s DC Adventures: Hero’s Handbook, which is the main book of their new DC Comics rpg. It utilizes the the latest iteration of Mutants & Masterminds' take on the d20 system--the version that’s going to be in Mutants & Masterminds 3e, which is suppose to be coming this fall.

My history with role-playing in the DC universe goes back to 1985 and Mayfair’s DC Heroes. That was the third superhero rpg we played--after Villains and Vigilantes, and the first edition of Marvel Super-Heroes. Mayfair’s system (later to be dubbed the Mayfair Exponential Game System and be acronymized as MEGS), was a little unusual and abstract, but it did allow a world to exist that went pretty seamlessly from street level to cosmic, and it used kind of cool, balanced “parallel mechanic” for physical, mental, and spiritual activities.

My group played a lot of DC Heroes in its second edition incarnation from 1989. Unlike, interestingly, our long-term Marvel game, we didn’t use “real” DC characters, but made up our own instead. In fact, I don’t know that those characters actually inhabited the DCU because I can’t recall if we ever interacted with any of the “big names.” I think we found it had a better character generation system that Marvel which, even in the advanced game, always seemed like it was an afterthought to the designers.

Anyway, back in the present day, I haven’t given DC Adventures a thorough reading, but right off the bat I notice a few changes. The ability scores have expanded beyond the D&D standards. There’s “stamina,” which is probable renamed “constitution,” but there’s also an agility in addition to “dexterity,” and “charisma” is missing, but “presence” appears. They don’t run the usual 3-18, but instead the score now seems to be the old bonus/penalty that was related to the score. This caused a moment of confusion when I paged through the book and saw Batman with a Dexterity of “7”--which is actually pretty high once I figured out what they were doing.

Some other changes seem inspired by other superhero rpgs. Powers seem a little more “effects based” than previously a la Champions, but I may be overstating this, because there doesn’t seem to be a huge change, here--maybe just in how they present it. “Fighting” is now an ability score--shades of Marvel Super-Heroes. In another MSHRPG call-back that made me smile, the determining of the damage condition from an attack is now decided by referencing a table which has color-coded columns of green, yellow, and red (and also blue) like the much-beloved Universal Table.

I haven’t reviewed the book enough to start the inevitable quibbling about the stats of famous characters, but overall it looks pretty good if you like Mutants & Masterminds, and makes me interested in seeing the third edition/

Friday, August 27, 2010

Professor Crowe & His Ugly Bird

Art by Daniel Kopalek
Professor Enoch Crowe and his familiar/partner-in-crime are wanted for the sell of unlicensed alchemicals, and fraud related to such, in the City and smaller municipalities in the Smaragdines and the South. The Professor (this title is an affectation--he holds no known degree) sells dubious nostrums from the back of his truck which he drives on a circuitous route mostly through rural areas, but sometimes visiting poorer neighborhoods of cities.

Crowe will typically have the following “cures” for sale, but will only be specifically hawking one at a time:
  • Priapic Vigor - said to increase male sexual performance (allegedly made from extract of satyr musk, and other natural ingredients).
  • Hirsutific Unction - said to cure baldness cure (from "essential oils" of de-odorized skunk-ape hide)
  • Triodia’s Specific - An unguent (sometimes tonic) to cure venereal disease. (from alchemical purification of a species of lilly that grows in secret Ealerdish grottoes where nymphs are known to bathe).
  • Panaceatic Lens Treatment - The patient sits under a head-sized dome of purplish crystal (actually colored glass) which he or she is told will “re-align their mental energies and vital forces to be in greater harmony with the universe.” Mostly, it does nothing, but Crowe can use it to given a suggestion (as per spell) to the patient.
Crowe can also produce some genuine minor magical potions, but only sells these to high-dollar costumers, and may just as like substitute a minor cursed potion, if he thinks he can get away with it, and might lose a sale otherwise.

Crowe’s partner or servant, is called by him “Dearest” or perhaps just “Bird,” but is known to everyone else as “Ugly Bird.” Ugly Bird is an harpy of a particular spiteful disposition--and this is in comparison to others of her kind who aren't paragons of compassion. She won’t generally be seen when Crowe is about his business of sales, but she is always watching, and never far from his side.

Prof. Enoch Crowe: MU4, HP12, spells commiserate with his level, and 1d10 real potions in his truck, besides his charlatan’s wears.

Ugly Bird: AC 7 [12], HP 17, 2 talons 1d4 each, Special: flight, unlike often presented, harpies in the world of the City have no “siren’s song” power.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

200...and a Few You Might Have Missed

Welcome to my 200th post, 241 days since the inception of my blog.

Instead of looking back at my most popular posts, I'd like to re-offer some of my favorites that didn't find an audience the first time.  Since the readership is bigger now, maybe somebody we'll find some value in these "gently used" posts:

On January 15, Reel Adventure Seeds distilled four films in four different genres and one Warner Bros. cartoon down to their essense and recast them as fantasy gaming adventures.

Fantasy Pharmakon on February 12 maybe didn't grab people with its name, but it offered up some recreational pharmaceuticals from fantasy literature, suitable for game consumption.

Last but not least, March 16's Scum and Villainy presented a gallery of eclectic, urban rogues from the city of Terminus, in my world of Arn campiagn.

Thanks to all of you who've supported my efforts!  I hope you'll continue to enjoy 'em in the future.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: This Sword for Hire

It's 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...

"This Sword for Hire"
Warlord (vol. 1) #25 (September 1979)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: In an oasis on the edge of the Great Desert, Mariah, Machiste, and Tara take a rest from their travels. Tara sits alone, and Mariah and Machiste speculate on how hard things must be for her--losing her son and having her husband run off. Mariah says she must hate Morgan, but Machiste doesn’t believe that she’s capable of hating him--any pain she feels is born of love.

“Barely a hundred leagues” to the south, Morgan is in combat against Atalus, a fellow mercenary. Morgan bests him with arms, then unarmed. Atalus doesn’t survive the last contest. After the fight, another mercenary, Chakal, demands to know why Morgan just doesn’t leave. He’s angry Morgan supplanted him as second in command. Morgan offers Chakal a chance to fight him, as well, but Commander Balfoosh shows up and breaks up the impending duel. He tells them they’ve got a job: Prince Kali has offered a “hundredweight of gold” for the capture of the thief, Ashir.

The thief’s trail takes them west and south, high into the Mountains of the Sun. A rock-slide set as a trap sends most of the band to their deaths; only Balfoosh, Morgan, and Chakal remain alive. They don’t have long to feel lucky, as they soon encounter a mohawk-sporting snow giant a “monster who stalks the mists in search of man meat”--which is just as scary as it sounds.

The giant smashes Balfoosh. Chakal cuts off one of its fingers, only to get knocked from his horse by a back-hand slap. While the giant’s distracted, Morgan leaps onto his shoulder and strikes. He drives his sword into the brute’s ear and straight through its skull.

The giant topples over, dead. Morgan is again the last left standing.

Morgan decides to continue after Ashir alone--there’s a reward to gain and he’s got nothing else better to do. He hasn’t gone far, when, through a moment’s inattention, he stumbles into a trap. A branch whips back and unhorses Morgan. A man in a brightly colored costume jumps from hiding to attack with a dagger.

Morgan isn't as helpless as he seems, and he greets Ashir the Rogue with a shield in the gut. He uses its leverage, and his foes momentum, to to flip him. Ashir only just manages to keep himself from falling over the cliffside. The thief asks for parlay, but when Morgan helps him up, he punches him, then challenges him to a swordfight. The two exchange quips as they cross blades. Morgan bests Ashir at both.

He tells the rogue he plans to take him back to Prince Kali, but asks what it was he stole from the prince. Ashir tells him it was a woman--and she wasn’t stolen--but now he wishes he hadn’t bothered, because she left when the gold ran out. He asks Morgan why he continued to pursue him after the others died. Morgan says he did it for the same reason Ashir steals--money.

Ashir doesn’t believe him. He agrees they're motivated by the same thing, but it isn’t money--it’s adventure, and action. Even if it’s a short life, Ashir asserts he will have no regrets. Morgan replies that he’s already got regrets. He climbs into the saddle, deciding not to take Ashir back.

Chakal, who didn’t die at the giant’s hand, has other ideas. He holds his bow on Morgan, arrowed nocked, and says he’ll take the prisoner. Ashir asks if Chakal is a friend. Morgan replies, “Nope. Just a corpse,” as he shoots Chakal dead with his pistol.

Ashir asks Morgan wear he’s headed. He tells him he could use a man like him, because not far from where they are there’s a hidden temple that houses a great jewel...

Elsewhere, in darkness, sinister eyes watch Morgan in a crystal ball, a talon-like hand resting atop it.

Things to Notice:
  • This is the first appearance of Morgan's companion, Ashir.
  • Most members of the mercenary band wear Turkic/Asiatic garb, but Balfoosh wears Greco-Roman garb.
Where It Comes From:
The hero spending some time as a mercenary is a common Sword & Sorcery plot line, demonstrated most notably in the life of Conan.

The character of Ashir seems inspired by roguish and swashbuckling characters played by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and (later) Errol Flynn.  He even looks facially a bit like Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood:

Though Ashir's name is Middle Eastern (it's a Hebrew first name, but also happens to be the name of an Assyrian god), his costume is late Medieval/Rennaissance European.  He wears, for example, parti-color hose.  These disparate elements perhaps suggest his influences drawn from the likes of Thief of Baghdad, but also more swashbuckling films like The Three Musketeers or Robin Hood.

Chakal is an approximation of the Turkish çakal, from whence we get our word jackal.  "Balfoosh" was apparently once a place around the Caspian Sea, but the name also might derive from the usual pronounciation of the name of the South Dakota city Belle Fourche ("belfoosh"), the geographic center of the United States, and destination of John Wayne's herd in The Cowboys (1972).

Note: In my review of last issue, I accidentally left out the epilogue! That showed Harrando, greatest thief of Skartaris (and Ashir's rival, as we find out this issue), sneaking into Castle Deimos and stealing the ring from the moldering corpse of Deimos, only to then be engulfed by strange, yellow tendrils.  Harrando also looked a lot like Douglas Fairbanks, too.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An Evening With the Nocturnals

Nocturnals is a series of comic book limiteds and one-shots written and drawn by Dan Brereton. Its main characters are a vigilante team of--well, monsters--who tangle with gangsters, supernatural menaces, and an evil corporation that serves as a front for Lovecraftian invaders. If it sounds like role-playing game fodder, Green Ronin beat you to it with a 2004 sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds. I also count the Nocturnals among the inspirations for my Strange New World of the City setting.

It all started with an eponymous limited series published by Malibu Comics’ Bravura imprint in 1995. It’s since been collected under the subtitle, Black Planet. It introduces the mythical Northern California town of Pacific City, and its resident extra-legal heroes, Doc Horror (a two-fisted scientist from an alternate dimension with a dark secret), and his gang. The group includes: Polychrome, a ghost; Firelion, an artificial, pyrokinetic samurai; babe from the Black Lagoon, Starfish; reptilian genetic chimera, Komodo; and undead gunslinger, Gunwitch. Also tagging along is Doc’s daughter, Evening, who likes to be called Halloween Girl, and carries creepy toys inhabited by spirits.

Their foes are the forces of the corporation Narn K and their mob allies. Narn K manufactures artificial humans and human-animal hybrids in its Monster Shop, but, more sinisterly, is a front for an invasion force. The alien Crim overran Doc Horror’s homeworld, the Black Planet, and only the Nocturnals stand in the way of them doing the same to Earth.

The adventures continue in another limited, The Dark Forever, in 2002. Halloween Girl gets her own stories in Witching Hour (1998), and the Troll Bridge one-shot in 2000. Gunwitch takes center stage in Outskirts of Doom, also in 2002. After a hiatus, the gang was back in Carnival of Beasts in 2008. Green Ronin’s Nocturnals: A Midnight Companion, isn’t just a gaming supplement, but a “bible” to the series’ characters and their world with material written by Brereton, himself.

Anyone who’s a fan of psychotronica, or just good comics, should probably spend an evening or two with getting to know the Nocturnals and the mean (and weird) streets of Pacific City.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dungeon, American Style: The L.A. Lizard Underground

On January 29, 1934, The Los Angeles Times published a stunning report on an ancient, underground city beneath the streets of L.A. That’s enough for an American dungeon, but it gets even better. The city wasn’t alleged to have been built by Native Americans, pre-Columbian explorers, or even Atlantean survivors, but rather by Lizard People.

Cue Sleestak hissing here...

“Busy Los Angeles, although little realizing it in the hustle and bustle of modern existence, stands above a lost city of catacombs filled with incalculable treasure and imperishable records of a race of humans further advanced intellectually than the highest type of present day peoples, in the belief of G. Warren Shufelt, geophysicist mining engineer now engaged in an attempt to wrest from the lost city deep in the earth below Fort Moore Hill the secrets of the Lizard People of legendary fame in the medicine lodges of the American Indian.”
- Jean Bosquet, L.A. Times, 1934
It must be said, that Shufelt was a man with some unusual ideas even before the whole lost lizard city thing. He had designed and built an apparatus which he claimed could detect any substance by honing in on its vibrational character.. The device--which was a pendulum in a glass box, attached to a black box affixed with compasses--could not only be used to detect gold and valuable minerals, but could even track down a person using a hair sample.

Using this miraculous device, Shufelt was able to discover a subterranean complex beneath Los Angeles and running under Santa Monica Bay. When he mapped it out, the system of tunnels looked (to him) like a lizard.

In researching the mystery of the complex’s creation, Shufelt was told about a race of “Lizard People” by a Hopi Indian, Chief Little Green Leaf. Indian legends (according to Little Green Leaf) held that a “great catastrophe” had sent the Lizard folk underground 5000 years ago.

Like any good dungeon, this one’s got treasure. First off, the Lizard People kept all their knowledge on gold tablets 4 ft. long and 14 in. wide. On one of these was supposed to the “record of the origin of the human race.” They also had imperishable food supplies “of the herb variety” and a chemical solution which could cut through rock, that they had used to build the tunnels in the first place.

By the time the story broke in the L.A. Times, Shufelt and crew had been digging shafts to get into the city. Updates on the project appeared in newspapers. Then, abruptedly, the project was cancelled. By March 5, 1934, the shafts had been filled in and the contract cancelled.

Maybe, it came to an end because Shufelt was a nut, and his story a fantasy. Or maybe that’s what Enik and his boys want us think.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Roadside Distractions

When travelling beyond the City, across the roads and highways of the Strange New World, you never know what you might find...

Bring Me The Head...
A down-on-his-luck adventurer with a broke-down car is stranded at an abandoned roadside diner. He carries a strange bag, that turns out to hold the head of a Zingaran bandit hero stolen from his grave--a head that's still very much alive due to a spell cast by a bruja.  He plans to sell the head to a cabal of wealthy cultists for a substantial sum. The only problem is, he’s pursued by Zingaran revolutionaries who want it back, and Hell Syndicate thugs playing to collect on the soul-debt the bandit chief welched on.

Nightmare Town
Strange doings, in a small, isolated, desert town with a secretive sort of excavation--guarded by out of town thugs--on its outskirts. The locals are tight-lipped and scared, but what they do say is interesting.  They tell how the town has been taken over by the urbane, but menacing, Llewellyn Wail--the enormous, hairless, and almost-albino overseer of the dig--and his hired guns. They're looking for the meteor that crashed near the town about a hundred years back--in a place animals avoid, and old-timers call haunted. Townsfolk have seen weird burns on injured diggers, and heard them discuss the need for welding torches--maybe even magic ones.  Then there's the odd glow, and unnerving hum, coming from the excavation site that makes folks want to close their shutters and cover their windows at night.

A Burial Is Arranged
In a roadside oddities museum, the mummy of a Native medicine man puts out a psychic plea: "Return me to my ancestral grounds for burial and I'll show you the hidden riches of my people."  What the mummy doesn't know--and neither does anyone else--is that the road back now cuts through a stretch of badlands swallowed by a black dust elemental and crawling with zombies.

The Blood-Spattered Bride
A late-night sighting of a woman in a white dress on the side of the highway leads to the discovery of a ghost-town where a macabre wedding is in the offing.  The vampiric bride, and the rest of her undead wedding party, are waiting for the groom--and they're not too picky, as long as he's living.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kaiju Dissected

Ever hve a game session grind to a halt when your players needed an anatomical diagram of a giant monster and you, as GM, were unable to produce one?

No?  Well now you'll never have to worry about it ever happening!

Here's two diagram's of the innards of gamera, a giant mutant fire-breathing turtle, but it could easily be--well, another giant, mutant fire-breathing turtle.  Or maybe the Tarrasque

Here's a flavorful Japanse-language diagram, like something froma forbidden text in the hand of the nefarious Black Dragon Society, perhaps:

And here's an English language version courtesy of Shout! Factory:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Clipped in the City

Here are some pictures from daily newspapers on sale on street corners in the City:

The Intrepid Subterreners to Take Fight to Reds

Advertisement for Djinn Cigarettes

Comissioner to A Frightened City--"Slimes No Longer A Threat"

Phantom Soldier Seen Again in Subway Station

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: Song of Ligia

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...

"Song of Ligia"
Warlord (vol. 1) #24 (August 1979)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: A Kiroan merchant ship plies the southern coast, bound for marketplaces in Kallistan. One passenger is the subject of shipboard conversation--Travis Morgan, the man called the Warlord. Morgan takes no pleasure in that recognition. It reminds him he was once a man with a purpose. Now, he’s just a wanderer.

He doesn’t have long to dwell on self-pity, because he sees a ship bearing down on his vessel--not a good sign, as the captain avers that these waters harbor only pirates and slave-raiders. As the pirate ship closes, Morgan comes alive with anticipation of the coming battle, and takes command of the frightened crew and passengers. He leads a charge on to the pirate vessel, bringing slaughter where he goes, until a pirate’s arrow pierces his shoulder. He topples from the ship, into the sea.

Morgan manages to fight his way back to the surface where he clings to a piece of mast. The merchant vessel, still in the clutches of the pirate ship, burns in the distant. Adrift, alone, and losing blood, Morgan’s thought drift to Tara, his wife. In his delirium, he hears Tara accuse him of killing their son then abandoning her. Shouting her name, Morgan lets go of the piece of mast and raises his sword high, as he sinks into the depths.

Unconscious, Morgan somehow comes into the hands of a beautiful, green-skinned woman. His presence is an unexpected gift from the sea. She removes the arrow from him, then heals his wound by using her magical song to transfer it to her own shoulder, where it then fades--though plainly, the process causes her pain.

Morgan’s pain continues, too, though his physical injury is gone. The woman reads his emotional torment in his memories. Again, she sings, and takes it away. Morgan awakens in an idyllic world fashioned from his dreams, without any memory of his past life. With the woman in his arms, his memory loss doesn’t seem to matter.

Morgan and the woman, Ligia, live together in love in the magical dream-world she created in an air-filled bubble for him at the bottom of the sea. She provides food and everything else he needs. But as time passes, Morgan becomes increasing preoccupied with his lack of memory. He’s nagged by the feeling he’s forgotten something important. He spends his moments alone staring at his rusting weapons and armor, hoping they will give him some clue.

Abruptedly, their peace is shattered by an attack of the Piscines-- fish-men--who capture Ligia. Without a thought, Morgan arms himself and plunges through the skin of the bubble, into the ocean, to try and rescue her. The battle-fever returns, and he slaughters all the Piscines but one. That one throws a trident at Ligia.

Morgan dives to deflect the weapon, but his timing is off, and instead it pierces him in the stomach. Ligia is in despair. She has wanted to protect Morgan, and now he lies dying. She realizes she has been wrong to take away his past and try to make him something he could never fully be.

She doesn’t wish to lose him, but neither does she want to see him die. She must use all of her power to save him--her magic will be at an end. So she sings, and the bubble collapses, and the sea washes away the dreamworld.

Travis Morgan washes up on a beach. His memories are returned, but now he has a new one to haunt him. The name “Ligia” is on his lips.

In the ocean depths, a green dolphin frolics in the cool waters and hunts among the coral. Occasionally, she passes a tiny, ruined castle on the ocean-floor, and she, too, remembers.

Things to Notice:
  • Despite carrying a shield, Morgan doesn't seem to use it much for actual defense.
  • Ligia seems to have scales around her eyes, giving her a "fish-woman" sort of appearance--which is odd given the reveal of her nature at the end of the issue.
Where It Comes From:
The title of this issue references the fact that Ligia (sometimes Ligeia) is often given as the name of one of the sirens in Greek mythology.  Grell's Ligia acts as the exact opposite of a siren, since she saves Morgan, rather than using her song to lure him to his death, but the element of beguiling is still there.  Though the sirens were island-dwelling creatures in the original myths, later folklore and art has given then an aquatic, often mermaid like character, again similar to Ligia here.

This issue seems to draw inspiration from a couple of episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series.  Ligia's ability to heal by taking wounds on to herself was likely inspired by the identical abilities of Gem, the title character of "The Empath," a 1968 episode. The basic plot--a woman who is not quite what she seems who builds a world/sanctuary for the human man she's in love with--is essential the same as a 1967 episode "Metamorphosis." 

And while we're on the subject of Star Trek references, Ligia's green-skinned, black-haired appearance might have been suggested by the Orion slave girls--if not from a certain green-skinned goliath popular at DC's competition.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Quality of His Enemies

Everyone knows the importance of the cultivation of a good villain, or ideally an entire rogue’s gallery, in a superhero game. After all, supervillains need to be at least as interesting as superheroes--maybe more so. People probably think about it less in fantasy rpgs, but its sitll something worth considering.

A lot of fantasy villains tend to be one-off, true enough. Anra Devadoris only bedeviled Fafhrd and Gray Mouser once, and any number of evil sorcerers didn’t survive one encounter with Conan’s mighty thews. Still, there are recurring bad guys--Conan’s got his Thoth-Amon, after all, and Sauron keeps menacing Middle-Earth like he’s Dr. Doom after the Fantastic Four.

My high school gaming group had a lot of fun with their foe Kulu the Illusionist. Kulu was the creation of my cousin who introduced me to gaming, and showed up in his campaign, and in virtually every iteration of my campaign after that. Players came to recognize the bald, purple-robed wizard by description alone--and man, did they want to kill him. In true super-villain fashion, Kulu always escaped the the player’s wrath to fight another day. A super-villain can easily become annoying if they seem protected by the GM, but I think the player’s were always able to soundly defeat Kulu so that he never got on their nerves in that regard.

Another, less conventional, nemesis was Kallus the Merchant (and yes, I think its just coincidence that both these villains have names that start with “k”). Kallus had funded some shady ventures that had put him at odds with the PCs, and a hot-tempered barbarian assassinated him for it. Kallus was gone, but his legacy lived on to vex the players. The merchant guild in town erected a statue in his honor, and people were always talking angrily about his unjust death. The PCs had to keep quiet, lest they face justice, and they were frustrated as the crooked merchant was lionized in death. Then, relatives of the merchant started hiring bounty hunters to track down Kallus’ murderers.  The PCs would find themselves periodically having to either fight off and misdirect these guys at the most inopportune times. All of this only occasionally intruded on the lives of the PCs, but it was a source of amusement for the players--well, at least for their DM.

So anybody have any good recurring villains in their games?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. Gaming

I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. the World this weekend, which is of course the film adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s action-comedy graphic novel series. For the uninitiated, it tells the story of the eponymous slacker who must defeat seven evil exes in mortal combat so he can date cool-chick Ramona. Scott inhabits a strange alternate Toronto where amazon.ca delivery-girls take shortcuts through subspace (at least an American one do), demon hipster chicks are summoned, and vegans are gifted with incredible psychic powers by virtue of their diet.

If it sounds a little cutesy, it is, but that’s part of its charm. It’s obviously informed by a love of video games, as references abound, but it strikes me that Scott Pilgrim’s world isn’t too far off from a table-top rpg, particular a post-computer-game one like 4E D&D.

For instance, Ramona, Scott’s inamorata, carries a subspace suitcase--a hipster purse with the properties of a bag of holding--in which she carries a large hammer +2 against girls, and a titanium bat +1 against blondes.

After defeating one of the exes, Scott wins a mithril skateboard with the stats +4 Speed, +3 Kick, and +1 Will. Alas, Scott never took skateboard proficiency--instead opting for longsword--so he’s unable to use it.

See what I mean? With the movie out, its too bad it wasn’t capitalized on with a table-top rpg as well as the inevitable video game.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Devil's Jukebox

The so-called “Devil’s Jukebox” is a malign, arcane device that may be encountered in shabby dance-halls, two-bit gin-joints, or lonely roadside bars from the outskirts of the City to the coast of Hesperia. Its presence often heralds some sort of tragedy or misfortune--it has been seen in farm towns just before devastating floods, and captured in the background of crime scene photos of gangland massacres.  Often though, the Devil’s Jukebox causes its own tragedy.

The device is supposedly the only existing Schreckwalder Lapsit Exillis model jukebox in existence, the last model personally designed by company co-founder Wolfram Schreckwalder before his seclusion--and the tragedy that followed. No one knows how the device came to be imbued with magical power, though there are always tales that it was made on commission for some extraplanar power.

It plays standard 78rpm shellac records, though no one has been able to change the records in this machine. Attempts at removal lead to another copy of the record in question re-appearing in the device, and the removed one crumbling away to dust with a hint of brimstone in the air. The jukebox does change its own records from time to time, though no one can predict when this will happen. It can hold up to twenty records, though no one has ever heard more than a handful of the songs in its repertoire and lived to tell about it.

Here are a few of the songs that have been heard played by the machine, and the magical effects that occur when they play. Effects last as long as the song plays (4 minutes, or less) unless noted otherwise. The jukebox seems to play these songs at random, and it starts or stops as it will. Songs may be selected by number, but few are foolish enough to actually make it play:

1. “Devil’s Blues” by Springheeled Jack Jamison: The attentions of an infernal entity are drawn to one of the people present, or perhaps them all. The length and nature of the attention is variable, but it is always troublesome in character.

2. “Take My Soul” by Wendell Clavinger: One person present has there soul trapped elsewhere--likely in some item at some remote location. Their body functions normally but appears to be in a coma.
3. “It’ll Come Back Around” by Billy Barrow and His Jazz Revenants: Ghosts of dead enemies/foes materialize and attack or otherwise bedevil those present.  Additionally, any dead bodies present will rise as undead.

4. “Don’t the Time Just Fly?” by the Legendary Smaragdine Mountain Boys: While only enough time to for the song to play seems to pass for those present, d100 hours pass outside--possibly even longer.

5. “Gallows Swing” by Los Hermanos Acuna Western Orchestra: Within an hour of the song playing, a lynch mob of 10-30 will seek out one of those present and attempt to deliver swift justice for a violent murder they are sure the individual committed.

6. “Poor Me” by the Gentlemen of the Road: One person present (at random) will lose all their wealth and non-magical possessions by a series of seemingly coincidental misfortunes over the next week.

7. “Sea of Tears” by Tic Doloreux and his Orchestra: All present are struck with intense sadness. Those who fail a saving throw will become suicidal and attempt to end their life unless the song ends before they can do so, or they are prevented by others.

8. “Must Have Been the Moonlight” by Irena Dubrovna: One person (at random) present when the song plays is stricken with lycanthropy, though this will not necessarily be evident until the next full moon.

9. “You Make Me Crazy” by Hugh Strange and the Bedlam Orchestra: Everyone hearing the song is struck by an unreasoning frenzy wherein they attack each other in a murderous rage. They take no actions requiring forethought or planning (like casting spells) but will employ available weapons.

10.  "Missing You Missing Me" by Jonny Favorite: Everyone hearing the song becomes permanently amnestic regarding some important memory in his or her life.  This varies from forgetting a single important fact, to complete loss of identity.  Occasionally (30% of the time), someone present will have memories replaced with ones not their own.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Lies Your Mummy Told You

Far to the west of the City, within the great Stoney Mountains, there are remote places where ancient ruins dot the hardpan, high-desert landscape. From these ruins sometimes come unusual artifacts, none more so than the so-called dwarf  mummies.

Dwarf (sometimes pygmy) mummies look just as their name suggests: they are wizened figures little more than a foot tall, in their usual seated pose. Despite having none of the usual signs of life, the mummies are endowed with the magical semblance of life at least, and though they don’t move (usually) they are aware, and interact with their environment.

The susurration of the mummies can be heard by all, if conditions are quiet enough, but only the one “owner” of the mummy will be able to understand their dessicated whispering, which will sound as if spoken directly into their ear, even if they are as much as ten feet away.

The mummies' utterances will fall (either randomly or at the GM’s whim) into the following categories:

01-02: Pained, non sequitur reminiscences, possibly related to their long ago lives. These are related to times far too remote for modern hearers to relate to them in any useful way.
03-04: Cryptic foretellings of the future (anywhere from 1 week to 10 years hence) which will relate to the “owner.”
05-06: An exact and surprising statement about some predicament currently vexing the “owner.” The mummy will not elaborate.
07-08: A cryptic statement which seems to be about some predicament vexing the “owner,” but is in fact just nonsense.
09-10: Veiled Suggestions that someone the “owner” is close to is in fact conspiring against them. This may or may not be true, but the mummy will have details that make it seem so. Details will only be delivered in a way that makes the mummy seem reluctant to talk about the issue.

The longer a person owns a mummy, the more uncritical they will become about its statements. After a week or more in their possession, the owner will react to the mummy as if it has a Charisma of 18. After a month, a failed save will mean the owner acts as if charmed by the mummy in regard to believing everything it says, and treating it as if it is a trusted confidant.

No one knows who the dwarf mummies are, nor their purposes.  Any answers the mummies' give in this regard will certainly be lies.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Maps of Four-Color Fantasy Lands

When secondary world fantasy made the jump from literature to comics in the wake of Tolkein and Howard it brought the tradition of the world-map along with it.  Of course in comics, they'd have to be full color.

Here are two prime examples, suitable for gaming inspiration:

"I feel like a character from Howard or Tolkein. Pretty soon, though, I'm gonna wake up and find this is a spaced-out dream. And I'm gonna swear off reading sword-and-sorcery sagas!"
-- Jim Rook, Showcase # 82 (1969).
Myrra is the fantasyland that rock musician Jim Rook, and his girlfriend Janet Jones, get transported to in Nightmaster, starting in Showcase #82 (May 1969).  Rook is revealed to be the descendant of Nacht, an ancient warrior of Myrra, and the only one who can wield his ancestor's Sword of Night, and save the world from the evil Warlocks.  Nightmaster was the of writer Denny O'Neil and artist Berni Wrightson.  As some of the place names on the map might suggest (Duchy of Psychos, for instance) there was a bit of a late sixties camp element to Nightmaster's adventures, but not as much as some of the names might suggest.  Nightmaster ran through just three issues of Showcase.

"...On a nameless world in a forgotten time..." is a pretty typical beginning for these sorts of things, and that pretty much sums up Wulf the Barbarian.  The series was from Atlas/Seaboard Comics (helmed by Stan Lee's brother Larry Lieber) and ran for four issues in 1975.  Wulf is the son of royalty, orphaned when trolls in the service of an evil sorcerer, killed his parents.  Wulf spends the next decade training as a warrior to reclaim his kingdom.  As one might imagine, the road to reclaiming that throne is potholed with a number of fantastic obstacles.  Wulf was written and drawn by Larry Hama, and inked by Klaus Janson for his first two outings, with multiple creators pitching in on the last two.  This map is from Wulf the Barbarian #3.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Children of Ba'al

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...

"The Children of Ba'al"
Warlord (vol. 1) #23 (July 1979)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: Travis Morgan has left the twilight of the Terminator behind, and we find him back under the eternal Skartarian sun, bathing in a forest pool. Morgan’s “jungle-sharpened” hearing leads him downstream where he finds beautiful, golden-skinned, blonde youths of both sexes frolicking in the water. It’s a tableau of merriment incongruous with his experience of Skartaris.

As Morgan watches, the idyllic scene is shattered by an attack by green-skinned, Neanderthalish brutes. He springs into action, and unarmed, takes out several of the brutes quickly. They have numbers on there side though, and Morgan only defeats the last after a desperate underwater struggle.

When the battle’s over, Morgan confronts the golden-skinned folk. At no time in during the melee did any of them raise a hand to help themselves--or him. Morgan wants to know why. A beautiful woman bids him peace, and expresses gratitude for his help. She offers to tend his wounds and take him to there village where all will be explained.

The people call themselves the Children of Ba’al. Morgan is surprised by the openness of their dwelling. He can’t understand their lack of fortifications any more than their lack of self-defense. He directs his questions to a groovily mustachioed man he takes as their leader, but the man, Arn, tells him they are a society of equals. They don’t fight the green-men, the Orms, because they are too powerful.

That really gets Morgan going, and he gives the golden-folk a speech about the need to defend themselves, or be picked off one-by-one. Perhaps somewhat shamed by Morgan, a group reluctantly leads him to the entrance to the Orms’ subterranean city. Morgan plans to go below, and asks if any will accompany him. Only the woman who first spoke to him volunteers.

The two move underground. Morgan is surprised by a glow ahead in the tunnels.  The woman tells him it comes from the power source of the Orms which gives them light and warmth. Morgan suggests they need to move quietly now, as guards will be near.

Morgan’s intuitions prove correct. He drops stealthily upon a group of them. When one begins to get away, he’s fell by a spear thrown by the woman, much to Morgan’s surprise.

Finally in sight of the city, Morgan is amazed that the primitive-appearing Orms built something so impressive. They find the machine that generates their artificial sun. Morgan sabotages it with a shot from his gun. He and the woman flee the city, fighting as they go.

As they're emerging from the tunnels to the surface, someone strikes Morgan on the head and knocks him unconscious.

Morgan awakens tied to a skull-adorned stake. The Children of Ba’al dance around him in wild abandon. Dead Orms are strung up in front of a grotesquely grinning idol, and a large cauldron. Arn tells Morgan they owe him a debt--and they plan to repay him by affording him the honor of sacrifice to the great god, Ba’al. Morgan politely declines, but Arn tells him that he must be sacrificed so they can proceed with the feast of Ba’al. Only then does Morgan notice the Orm arm hanging out of the cauldron--or cook-pot--and realises with horror what the feast entails.

Before Arn can light the kindling beneath Morgan, he’s impaled by an Orm's spear. The Orms massacre the Children of Ba’al, then turn to face Morgan. He’s recognized as the one who raided their city. Morgan begins to offer some explanation, but to his surprise an Orm frees him. The damage he did to their power source was minor, and they enjoyed watching him squirm as when he thought he was going to end up in the cook pot.

Morgan feels like a fool. The Orm agrees he should. Because of him, the Children of Ba’al, who were only a minor threat before, had to be wiped out. Morgan was going to teach them to fight, and that would have made them too dangerous. Sheepishly, Morgan asks if there’s anything he can do to make it up to them.

The Orm tells him to stay away--or next time he’ll end up in their cook pot.

Things to Notice:
  • One of the girl's of Ba'al gives the Vulcan salute as a sign of peace.
  • Arn has a groovey seventies' moustache reminiscent of Peter Wyngarde as Jason King.
  • Skulls are common sacrifice-stake accessories in Skartaris.  The one Machiste and Mariah were tied to in issue #9 is identically decorated to the one here.
Where It Comes From:
The inspiration for this issue seems have common from a combination of the Star Trek original series episode "The Apple" and a clever inversion of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine

"The Apple" has the Enterprise crew interacting with a race of beautiful innocents, called "The Feeders of Vaal," who serve a giant monster-head idol, and need to learn to stand-up for themselves.

The Time Machine, of course, has the protagonist siding with the beautiful but ineffectual Eloi, against the bestial, but more advanced Morlocks--who it turns out use the Eloi as a food source.

Ba'al is a Northwest Semitic language title meaning "lord" or "master."  It can be used to refer to any god, but is often used to refer to the primary god of a given people or city.  Baal has come to be used as the name of a demon in Christian demonology.

Orm is a word found in modern languages descended from Old Norse that can mean variously "worm", "snake", or "dragon."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Crisis in Multiple Games

Back in 1985, the comic book crossover wasn’t the perfunctory non-event it is today, but instead something exciting and new. We had had Marvel’s Secret Wars (1984) and Contest of Champions (1983), but then there was DC's twelve-issue “maxi-series” Crisis on Infinite Earths. Even though I was primarily a Marvel fan at the time, Crisis was out “epic-ing” everything that had come before.

In this environment, my cousin and I hit upon the idea of doing a multi-game crossover campaign. At the time, our repertoire included AD&D, Gamma World, and Villains and Vigilantes. We planned to include them all, with one of the two of us on DM/GM duties.

Unlike comic book crossovers, I don’t think it was our plan to have characters meet up--we weren’t interested in that conversion task. Instead, there would be some threat affecting the “multiverse” we took for granted that all our game world’s inhabited. I think the basic idea was borrowed from the plot of Crisis--there would be some sort of device (like the Monitor’s pylons in the early issues) that the characters had to defend to keep their world safe. Or maybe, there was some item they had to find first. Maybe we talked about different ideas at different times, I don’t fully recall.

In any case, we never did it. Maybe just because we never got around to it, or maybe we decided it would be more fun to plan than to play.  I think I did run an AD&D game once were the character's glimpsed their other character's in different game-worlds in the mirrors of an evil sorcerer's sanctum, so I didn't entirely give up on the multiverse idea.

Anybody else every attempted a cross-game crossover, or at least thought about it?

Monday, August 9, 2010


The City may the unofficial commercial capital of the New World, but Heliotrope is the center of its entertainment industry. The Heliotrope of the gossip rags and glitzy film premieres is only part of the story. Old and powerful magics lurk behind its sun-blinded streets and beneath the banner of the famous “HELIOTROPELAND” sign.

The first indication of its secret strangeness, is that Hesperia, the west coast territory encompassing Heliotrope, was once an island, separated from the mainland of the New World by a strait. Maps and accounts of Ealderdish explorers over two centuries are quite clear on this point. As one explorer’s narrative puts it:

“...there exists an island very close to a side of the Earthly Paradise; and it is populated by black women, without any man among them, because they lived in the way of the Amazons. They have beautiful and robust bodies, and are fierce and strong. Their island is the most formidable of the World, with its tall cliffs and rocky shores. Their weapons are of gold and so are the harnesses of the beasts that they domesticate and ride, because there is no other metal in the island."
Legend holds the Black Amazons had a queen and high-priestess named Kalifia, who was a demi-goddess, a daughter of a sun god, who was renown for her magical prowess. What became of the amazons and their queen is a mystery, because by the time the Ealderdish had reached the long-rumored island, it was no more. There was no civilization of warrior women. There wasn’t even an island!

These historic peculiarities might have been forgotten, if it weren’t for what the media has dubbed the “Heliotrope Witch Coven.” Sensationalistic confessional accounts by supposed defectors from the cult describe a secret society, dominated by women, who practice ancient rites and worship a “Black Mother” goddess with orgiastic rituals, and sometimes blood sacrifices. The goal of this cult is said to be a gynocratic magical revolution and an overthrow the the Ealderdish God. To this end, they conspire to gain wealth and political influence, aided by potent magics. These accounts always suggest that prominent citizens are involved in the cult, and that the prime movers of the film industry are either cult acolytes, or else under the glamour of the witches.

Hesperian government officials take the story seriously, and have sought to ferret out the cult.  Black-listing of suspected cult members has occurred (casting doubt on the idea that they control Heliotrope--unless it’s all an attempt at misdirection?)

It has been suggested that the Black Mother of the witch cult is no other than Queen Kalifia. The wise queen (it’s supposed) chose not to fight the invading Ealderish directly, but instead to remove her people to elsewhere, there to begin an occult guerrilla war to regain a continent.

True or not, the theory would probably make a good movie.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tempted by the Fruit of Another

My gaming group is still in the midst of Pathfinder’s Second Darkness Adventure Path, modified for Warriors & Warlocks--something I find it difficult to generate a lot of GM-enthusiasm for as my interest has drifted over to the City, a place familiar to readers here. The difficulty comes in the fact that my player’s haven’t made that same mental leap.

This is a common problem for me, an expression of the oft-cited “Gamer ADD,” I suppose. I always seemed to be pining for the next game while sitting at the table with the current one. I'll be playing GURPS Fantasy while thinking about Transhuman Space, then half-heartedly exploring Transhuman Space while dreaming about Mutants & Masterminds.

A lot of it, I think, is the time-frame involved. As the GM and “game planner” I’ve spent a lot of quality time with the game-to-be before the player’s get there, and so I get burned out on it sooner. Also, our frequency of gaming as dictated by the difficulty of coordinating busy adult schedules, means weeks (sometimes even a month or more) between sessions, meaning there is no such thing as a “short” campaign, whatever occurs in-game.

Anybody else experience this problem? Any solutions?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Adventuring in the Time of Plague

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 plot element. 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, August 5, 2010

Weird Adventures Art

Here's a sampling of some great art done for my Weird Adventures setting.  This post might also be titled "My Internet Was Out all Last Night and I Had to Improvise," but hopefully it will be of some interest...

"The Hard-Luck Hooligans Meet a Naga, Or Why You Should Stay Out of Mr. Lao's Curio-Shop"
by Doug Stambaugh

Un Pistolero Zombi de Zingaro
by Daniel Kopalek

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Warlord Wednesday: The Beast in the Tower

It's 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...

"The Beast in the Tower"
Warlord (vol. 1) #22 (June 1979)

Written and Pencilled by Mike Grell; Inked by Vince Colletta

Synopsis: In a dive in one of the outposts along the Terminator, Travis Morgan tries to drink away his pain. He’s approached by an old man who offers to tell his fortune for a few coins. Morgan replies he doesn’t need anyone to tell him about his life; if the old man could manage to see beyond the bloodstains he’d see fire and steel, death and destruction, and loss. As the old man turns away, he offers that there is one more thing: destiny.

Later that night, Morgan is waylaid by four thieves. They find the warrior is not as drunk as they imagined. Morgan’s battle-instincts overcome his night of drinking, and he makes short work of three of them, but he doesn’t detect the fourth sneaking up behind him.

Before the last bravo can strike, he goes down with a crossbow bolt in his back. Morgan looks up to see his rescuer is a beautiful young woman. They lock eyes for a moment, and he is surprised to see something "nameless and unspeakable" there. Abruptly, the girl runs off.

Morgan notices that the crossbow bolt is solid silver. This makes him even more curious and he decides to pursue the girl.

He hasn't gotten far before he hears her scream. He rounds the corner and finds the girl being pulled into a tower by a group of soldiers. Two of them take her into the tower, while two stay to take care of Morgan. That proves to be a tactical error, and Morgan is soon using his pistol to shoot the lock so he can kick in the tower door.

He finds discovers the place to be larger on the inside than the outside, and full of crazily twisting stairways. And the door he came in is suddenly gone.

Then, there’s the large snake that comes slithering at him. It tries to squeeze the life from him.  Morgan stabs it through the skull, but its not dead yet. He snatches up a nearby brazier and shoves it’s contents down the serpent’s throat. Morgan’s left with what feels like a couple of cracked ribs, but he’s alive.

Morgan continues up into the tower along the surreal stair. As he notices the fire from the brazier beginning to spread, he thinks about turning back. Then he hears a scream, and that spurs him on.

At the end of a twisting catwalk he catches up to the other two soliders outside a door in the mouth of a giant skull. They don’t last any longer than their compatriots. Morgan kicks in the door...

And finds himself face to snarling face with a man-beast! It springs at him, catching him off guard. In an instant, he’s own his back striving to keep slavering jaws from his face. He’s dropped his sword, but he remembers the silver quarrel. In an act of desperation, he stabs it into the creatures side.

Before his eyes, the creature transforms into the girl he saw before. He realizes that she was a werewolf. The old man from the tavern is suddenly behind him, and adds that the girl was also his daughter. The old man apologizes for his deception.  This has all been a charade with the purpose of getting Morgan to kill his daughter to free her from her curse. He thanks Morgan and bids him goodbye.

Morgan worries the fire will soon consume them, but the old man replies he has no desire to leave, but Morgan must go to his destiny. In the space of a heartbeat, Morgan finds himself standing safely outside the tower as it goes up in flames.

He recalls the girl’s face which, in death, seemed to be smiling.

Things to Notice:
  • Morgan gets his Sword & Sorcery dialogue on in his fight with the thieves.
Where It Comes From:
This issue is very much a classic Sword & Sorcery story--the hero goes into a magic tower and fights a monster for the sake of a beauty.  It even has a big snake.

The basic plot bears a good deal of similarity to that of "Mai-Kulala" by Charles Saunders, one of his Imaro short-stories appearing in the anthology Swords Against Darkness IV (1979).  While the settings are very different, both feature a hero duped by an old man into killing his daughter, who's cursed to be a were-creature.  Both stories appeared in 1979, so I don't know which came out first.  It's interesting though, that the old man and his daughter are African in appearance in this issue, just as the characters are the fantasy Africa setting of Saunders' story.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Death & Revolution

“Death revenges us against life, strips it of all its vanities and pretensions and converts it into what it truly is: a few neat bones and a dreadful grimace.”
- Octavio Paz
Death rules Zingaro in more ways than one.

This country of the New World, west and far to the south of the City, practices an unorthodox version of the Oecumenical faith that venerates the Barren Madonna, Our Lady of the Grave, “Sainted Mother Death” as its patron saint. This saint isn’t recognized officially by the church, and theological scholars speculate that she is either a syncretized pagan death goddess, or else an eikone of death dressed in an Oecumenical nun’s habit--or perhaps both. Her festival is the "Day of the Dead," where the people of Zingaro pay homage to the ghosts of their ancestors and offer gifts of skull-shaped sweets to any undead they encounter--which are not as uncommon there as in most of the New World, and no where so common as town of Cujiatepec.

Skulls are an important symbol to Mother Death, and the most powerful of the items connected with her veneration are the crystal skulls. Seven of are known to exist, but some thaumaturgical archaeologists believe there may be as many as thirteen in existence. These mysterious items predate the modern land of Zingaro, perhaps being artifacts of pre-historical New World civilization, or of drowned Meropis. Whatever their origin, the Lady of the Grave has claimed them as her own. Folklore holds they are the transformed skulls of men who so loved the Lady that she preserved a part of them forever--while taking their souls into her eternal embrace as God wills.

The skulls exhibit a variety of supernatural powers. An owner is able to focus a skull's power to strike an enemy in his sight dead once a day, and is able to raise one zombie a day to do his bidding. The skulls are also said to provide sporadic visions of the future. Most importantly, perhaps, brujos have predicted that the man who will rule Zingaro will possess one of the crystal skulls.

Death also rides Zingaro in the company of war. It began as a populist revolution over twenty years ago, but has become a bloody civil war with no end in sight. Various contenders for the presidency have bases of power in different parts of the country. They commit atrocities against other factions in the name of strategic advantage, and bleed their own people to fund their campaigns--which often require foreign mercenaries.

For the reason mentioned above, the various former generals, bandit chieftains, and populist leaders who via for control of Zingaro, also via for control of the crystal skulls. They are quit willing to pay adventurers to plunder Native ruins or old tombs in search of them, but probably just as willing to double-cross them when they have what they want.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The New Pulp

The sort of action-filled, lurid stories that populated the pulp magazines have never completely left us, but for a couple of decades have been relegated to horror and men’s adventure paperbacks to be found in racks at super-markets, drug stores, and truck-stops. These days, there’s been a resurgence of very pulp stuff in a more upscale market under the more acceptable guises of “thriller” or “horror.” They still may not be the most highbrow of literature, but their narrative verve, and wild ideas make them ideal gaming fodder.

Case in point: The Dragon Factory by Jonathan Maberry. This is the second of his Joe Ledger novels, though I haven’t read the first, but I gather its sort of in the zombie genre. Mr. Ledger is a badass ex-cop who works for a secret government organization which is now on the outs with the current administration (whose being duped by the evil super-rich, who want to get their hands on Ledger’s boss’s super-computer). Those evil rich are personified in the beautiful, albino, sexually deviant, brother and sister, Jakoby twins, who wanted to sell transgenic monster soldiers to the highest bidder, and their ex-Nazi daddy who wants to unleash global ethnic cleansing. And that’s all just the set-up!

In comparison, David Wellington’s 13 Bullets is positively mundane. It’s only got a state-trooper and a federal agent going up against a nest of vampires. These vampires aren’t the brooding, sparkling variety, but rather low-level superhuman monsters with an appearance like Nosferatu’s ugly brother. Though Wellington’s tale has many modern, cinematic touches, he draws on older myths for some elements of his vampires--for example they don’t reproduce in the usual modern way.

Apparently, in a later novel in the series, Wellington has the protagonists find the remains of a Union vampire unit from the Civil War!

You get the idea. And those are just a couple of examples. More pulpy goodness no doubt awaits.