Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stone Walls; Iron Bars

The Black Iron Prison is the Plane of Confinement. Despite it’s name, the prison is not always as apparent as iron bars and stone walls (though it has plenty of that, carved as it was from ancient bones of some demonic titan)--its evil is more subtle than that. Restriction and imprisonment of various forms permeate it.

Portals to the plane are sometimes found on the Material Plane in the form palm-sized, rusted, black iron boxes, heavier than they appear.  Visitors to the plane describe an "outer" desert of squalid intern camps, stretched arond and inner, three (or more) dimensional Escher maze of cell-blocks, isolation chambers, and interrogation rooms.

The plane is the home (and the prison) of the deodands, a vile race sentenced to serve as the guards and administrators of the apotheosis prison as punishment for ancient crime. Demonologists have cataloged three primary castes or species of these creatures (though there are undoubtably more):

The lowest caste of deodands are tall, emaciated, scabrous creatures with frog-like mouths. Their bare skins weep a tarry ichor from numerous injection sites. They're junkies and dealers; they mix the astral excreta of despair, callousness, and resignation that oozes from the souls that fall into their hands with the bile of arthropodals that make their homes in the prison’s substructure and inject it beneath their skin. The tarry substance--and a brief respite from their paranoia in a cold, sneering high--are the result. The tar is packaged and sold (to the prisoners to be smoked or injected) in exchange for pleasant memories or dreams, or hopes--anything that defines the former self-hood of the soul. When not engaged in commerce, these tar demodands are the menials of the prison.  On the Material Plane, their shadows have the same viscous consistence as their tar, but no psychoactive properties.

The middle caste are the color of a fresh bruise.  Their limbs are swollen like blood sausages, and their tick-like bellies appear filled to near bursting, sloshing loathesomely as they waddle or fly drunkenly on ridiculously small wings. Their bloated faces are unpleasantly human-like and wear expressions of volutuous satiety, complete with drool running from the corners of their mouths and down their double (or triple) chins. Always their skins appear to glisten as if oiled; this is due to a slime they secrete.  They sweat even more when they eat, and they eat almost constantly. They fancy themselves gourmets, and there is nothing they consider so refined as dining on astral substance of souls. They prefer fatted souls, though and first expose victims to their slime.  Under the slimes influence, they become grossly corpulent. At that point, they're ready for the slime deodands who drain them to emaciation and let the process begin again. Slime deodands are torturers and interrogators in the deodand hierarchy.

The highest caste are strutting, sadistic martinets--the wardens and senior guards of the prison. They’re vaguely human-like in form, but with pale, wrinkled skin that seems ill-fitted to their bodies. They’re androgynous with bald heads and unfeminine faces, but pendulous breasts and high-pitched voices. They have a penchant for dressing in uniforms, the more elaborate the better. Sagging deodands (as they’re called) are found of searches, interrrogations, and tortures. They foster paranoid not as a hobby, or even a vocation, but simply due to their natures. Infractions are always found, and prisoners are encouraged to inform on others--but only after they themselves are questioned to the breaking point.

It’s a good thing for Prime Material Plane that deodands seldom arrive on it unbidden. Sadistic sorcerers have been known to arrange “renditions” for enemies, though the price for such a service is rumored to be steep.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Collect Call from the Outer Dark

The City is awash with weird rumors, but one of the weirdest is about thaumaturgic artifact said to be in the possession of (or perhaps possessing) the City Telephone Company. In some inner corporate sanctum (so it goes) a secret order of technician-priests performs rituals in the service of a mummified severed head.

The rumors vary as to whether the head is housed in the City Telephone Company Skyscraper (a ziggurat-like structure that’s highest tower is topped by a Tesla coil-like spire--could it be more that decoration?) or a few blocks away in the research laboratories of its parent company, Reade Telephone (confirmed to be working on advances like etheric image transmission and trans-mortem communication). Wherever its housed, the head is said to be studded with electrodes attached to the glass sphere surrounding it. Beyond the dome, the “altar” upon when the head sits is surrounded by magic wards and electrical equipment like rune inscribed van de Graaff generators. Despite the sealed vacuum that surrounds the head, the room is always filled with its sonorous babbling.

What’s the heads purpose? That’s the question, isn't it? Some think its pronouncements are coded prophecies dutifully collected and decoded by the scientists. Others believe it's some sort of extradimensional computation device; it’s vocalizations are sonic representations of binary code, ultimately describing the entire multiverse and giving thaumaturgic mastery of reality itself. Still others are sure the head's a demon from the depths of the Pit and the sounds that hold its acolytes in such thrall are a slow working spell to breakdown the walls of the material world and overturn Creation.

Some adventures have gone looking for the head. Most have found nothing but stiff security at the telephone company offices. If anyone’s ever found the head, it doesn't seem they've lived to tell about it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Weird Shadow Under the El

A strange and hungry shadow lurks in the City beneath the 7th Avenue El near the Grimalkin Street station. How long Has it been there?  No one can recall. Train riders prefer not to see it. They will themselves not to notice the too-complete darkness beneath the slats of the platform, insensitive to the movement of the sun or light sources.

Sometimes people go missing. Bums stumble after the glint of a forgotten bottle of whiskey in the edge to the railway’s shadow. Children follow a wayward toy that seems strangely drawn into the dark. Sometimes, lone travelers, late at night, think they here the voice of someone calling for help. or someone crying softly. People go missing, and they’re not seen again.

The Weird Shadow can be treated as a Greater Shadow with a few differences. It isn’t undead, and can’t be turned. It doesn’t travel, but instead stays beneath the El. It can mimic the voice of anyone it has heard, and reach out tendrils of darkness to grab small objects. It’s sometimes stores these in its formless substance to use as lures.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Savage Empire

This week, let’s take a look at Warlord’s prehistory--not the Atlantean origins of Skartarian civilization, but the origins of the series itself. Before there was the hollow world, the eternal sun, and Travis Morgan, Grell conceived of an archeologist transported back to ancient Atlantis to become ruler of a Savage Empire.

While attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, Grell created a comic strip called Savage Empire, born of his admiration for Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Burne Hogarth’s rendition of Tarzan. In 1973, Grell went to New York to try to sell the strip to a syndicate editor, but was unable to even get an interview to present it. He was told: “Adventure strips are dead.”

During that trip, he also went to New York Comicon. He left with a job at DC Comics, but Savage Empire was still in limbo. While working at DC, he pitched the idea to Atlas Comics. When DC publisher Carmine Infantino found out from Jeff Rovin about the meeting with Atlas, he wanted to hear Grell’s idea. While Infantino took a phone call, Grell had a few minutes to rethink things, and so when he pitched what came out was Warlord.

The two strips had a lot of similarities. The heroes looked something alike, and the female leads do too--they both look like Raquel Welch. In fact, the love interest of Savage Empire was named Tahnee (which happens to be the name of Welch’s daughter, also an actress, born in 1961). This Tahnee was “a lovely savage from the jungle kingdom of Valka” (perhaps showing some Robert E. Howard influence as “Valka” is the name of the favorite deity of his Atlantean savage turned king, Kull).

Raquel, "Tahnee," and Tahnee

Jason Cord, archeologist, was exploring a tomb on the isle of Kalliste (Santorini) when he was caught in the “laser-like light of a mystic jewel” and transport to the fabled lost continent. He was just in time to save Tahnee from sacrifice by the priest...Deimos. Obviously, the genetic relationship between Savage Empire and the Warlord of First Issue Special #8 is clear.

Grell relates this history and more in Back Issue #46 from TwoMorrows. Check it out and see more great Grell art.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield

I managed to pull myself away from SDCC to see Captain America: The First Avenger while I was out there.  My verdict: Best superhero film of the year.  It doesn't really do anything surprising, but it does what you expect it to do very well.

The film follows familiar lines, as telegraphed by the trailer.  "The formula that made a man out of Steve Rogers!'  with bits from the Ultimate Universe and the 1991 limited series The Adventures of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty.  A few new twists have Bucky being the senior partner in their duo (at first) and Cap as a war bonds sales performer before becoming a real soldier.

The World War II period is pretty well evoked (at least for a film like this)--it was certainly more convincing that X-Men: First Class' 1960s.  True, its Hydra seemed less Nazi and more Cobra at times (in fact, Nazis seemed to have been oddly verboten in this WWII film), but by the time they're playing a major role, the story was moving along too fast for me to care.

This film had to carry the weight of all Marvel references from the previous films to get them to the upcoming Avengers movie.  It could have easily collapsed under their weight, but the script handles the cosmic cube, the Howling Mad Commandos (if not in name), and Howard (father of Tony) Stark as if they were all there naturally and not as fan service.  As always, stay through the credits for the inevitable link to the next film.

After the (slight) dissappointment (or maybe just weariness of the genre) with ThorThe First Avenger has renewed my excitement to see the team get together.

Monday, July 25, 2011

SDCC 2011: The Curtain Falls

This is my buddy Brandon in the shot he orchestrated to commemorate his Comic Con experience.  It wasn't easy to get--mainly because the ladies got a lot of attention and were difficult to get to.

I managed to make it over to the few gaming related booths (Chessex and Steve Jackson Games for rpgs).  There was also a "Cthulhu Library" booth right next to SJG which had Lovecraftian merchandise of all sorts, including games.  I picked up Kenneth Hite's Bookhounds of London, and let myself get talked into a purchase of Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity on the grounds that the hardcover limited edition is hard to come by.  This delving into Yog-Sothothery led to the stunning revelation that Brandon had never heard of Cthulhu or HPL!

Needing to patch this gap in his geek education, I encouraged Brandon to buy one of Penguin's Lovecraft collections.  Later this afforded me the opportunity to mock him, by dramatizing his discovering HPL for the first time.  He took a picture of it:

Our luck with panels wasn't very good (all the ones we wanted to attend were had too long lines), but we did get into the Immortal panel by inadvertently breaking in line.  After hearing Tarsem Singh talk about his artistic goals, and seeing more footage from the film.  I'm a bit more interested in this than I was before.

That's the Con highlights.  It was interesting comparing this year to last.  The crowds seemed less on Thursday and Friday than the previous year, and the convention floor seemed less busy, whereas the panels seemed moreso. One thing that doesn't change is that it remains quite a spectacle.  Where else can you see four slave-girl Leias crossing the street in a loose approximation of the Beatles on Abbey Road?  Alas, I was too slow to photograph that bit of quintessential con, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Comic Con-fidential

I'm in San Deigo for Comic Con International, and again this year, the first bit of excitement centers around getting my pass.  This time, I get a text from a man who identifies himself as "Aric" who wants me to meet him in the lobby of a hotel in the gaslamp district.  After I final locate the hotel in question (which was much harder than it should have been owing to hotels and streets with almost identical names) Aric passes on the badges for myself and my friend Brandon (who always arranges these exchanges that somehow get left to me to carry out) marking us as "Professional Guests" (which amuses me to think we've somehow elevated the art of "guesting" to a degree as to actually be professional at it) and our oversized and gaudy souvenir bags that are the mark of SDCC attendance.

I thank Aric and make my way over to the covention through the crowds--and in the shadow of a giant inflatable Smurf.  Beyond that, the overwhelming message of the San Deigo streets is that I shoud play this Arkham City game because billboards are everywhere, including on the backs of moving vehicles.

Anyway, inside the convention center its the usual mixture of fairies, steampunks, and cardboard Daleks--though my impression so far is that there are fewer costumes than last year.  Ignoring the cosplay, I buy myself an $8 personal pizza and $4 bottled water and set out to do some shopping.  Several major genre book publishers are there, but they mostly disappoint me by serving up a plate of Star Wars or video game tie-in novels or fantasy with smoldering covers hinting at romance undertones.

I do see that The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is out, though I resist buying one at that momemt.  Also Grant Morrison's history of/meditation on comics Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human is out, so that I quickly download it to my Kindle.  I've only read a couple of chapters, but its great. Morrison's insights into the iconic comic characters are at once exactly what everybody says, but at the same time delivered in such a way as to seem fresh and insightful.  Maybe I'll do a fuller review at some point.

Back at the Con, Heavy Metal tempts me with the latest of Jodorowsky's and Mannara's Borgia and 2000AD woos me with a Nemesis the Warlock collection, but both lose me to the wonder of an almost 3 foot long shark swimming stately through the air above our heads, its tail moving sinuously as it goes.

I'm told these are called "Air Swimmers" amd will soon be available at a toy store near you.

After that I try to go to a Batman panel.  Too long a line.  I don't even try A Game of Thrones as its line already stretches into infinite.

Maybe I'll have more patience for standing in line on Day 2...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Map of Reality I Drew While I was Waiting...

...for my car to get repaired.

It's a bit incomplete--and not up to the standards of the illustration my posts usually have--but it summarizes what I've discovered so far about the multiverse of the Strange New World.

For instance, the Positive Energy Plane is just the beginning of the Prime Material--or the etheric echo of that beginning.  The Negative Energy Plane is the other bookend.

The highest Heaven is the domain of the Creator(s).  Most dead don't make it to the highest Heaven but maybe some lesser "heavenly" realm--like maybe the Elysian Fields (also called Summerland or the Fiddler's Green).  It's the counter-plane to the Wasteland, embodying "hope."  There are more of these heavenly realms.

At the "bottom" of reality is the Pit, the Abyss.  It's the place that fell the farthest in the Fall.  The place of beings with no place in creation who want nothing more than to tear it all down--the demons.  "Circling the drain" of the Pit, falling into it at different velocities, are hellish realms of various sorts.  Hell (appropriately) where the fallen angels hope to stage a coup in creation and then forestall its slide into the Pit.  Closer to the ultimate nullity are the Wasteland and the grim Black Iron Prison (which I left off the my map!) where the odious Deodands (named, interestingly, for an archaic legal term for a thing "forfeit onto God for causing a death") imprison, punish, and re-educate souls caged in their Escher maze prison hell.

Between Heaven and the Pit are planes more neutral to "good" and "evil"--or more accurately, they're places where the struggle between angels and demons is seen as beside the point.  The denizens of Machina (polyhedral nanomachines, forming the distributive conscious of their Singular god(dess), and other worshippers like the Mantid Warrior-Nuns) believe that only absolute order can restore creation to an unfallen state.  In constrast the formless, fluid intelligences of the Gyre (who often send technicolor clowns as their emissaries) believe that endless change is the only hope to recreate the conditions of the original Singularity of All and lead to the multiverse's reunion with the Godhead--or at least that's one of their myriad ideas.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: The Path Branches Ahead

Though we’re not quite at that point yet, there are some branches ahead in the trail, Warlord fans. Issue #71 is the last that bears the name of the series’ creator Mike Grell--though as I’ve noted before, since issue #53 it was actually written in part or in whole by Grell’s then wife Sharon Wright. Given that Grell returns to the character in a 1992 mini-series and then in a 16 issue on-going in 2009 (which brings an end of sorts to the saga), it would be reasonable to jump to reviewing those series after #71 on Warlord Wednesdays and view the remainder of the first series as apocrypha.

On the other hand, Dan Jurgens starts as regular penciller when the Grell’s are still writing it (#63) and continues through #93. If Grell is the Warlord’s father, Jurgens is at least an uncle. He’s responsible for a number of Morgan’s appearances in other DC Comics after the end of the series, and he drew the Grell written appearances of Morgan in Green Arrow (and apparently was instrumental in them occurring in the first place). Also, Cary Burketts stories in the near post-Grell period deal with important plot threads like the secret of Tinder’s origins and Tara’s relationship with Graemore, and introduce some cool new characters like Scarheart and Krystovar that seem to “fit.” Plus, I just think the "Time Paradox" and "New Atlantis War" storylines are cool.  Finishing all that would take us to issue #100.

The third option is to follow the series until its actual end. The last writer Michael Fleischer does have a Sword & Sorcery bent (giving a nod to the Clark Ashton Smith story “Isle of the Torturers”), but overall, the issues after 100 and until its end feel different that what came before. Part of it is more crossovers with the mainstream DCU, but also it just seems more like "generic fantasy comic" than Warlord. It’s not bad (mostly) and some of its pretty good, but its a new direction and less “of a part” with what went before.  But it is a part of the "official" series.

So it’s time for the mostly reticent Warlord Wednesday readership to make itself heard--if it exists, which the number hits I get on Wednesday’s suggest it does. I’ll probably put up a poll at some point, but I wanted to go ahead and throw the question out for comment. After #71, where does Warlord Wednesday go next?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wonders from the Planes

Besides the gray dust, other outer planar artifacts sometimes turn up in the more thaumaturgically-oriented private markets of the City, or end up in some structure of the Ancients to be found be adventurers. Here are a few of them:

Skeletal key: A minor artifact of the demonic gaolers from the plane called the Black Iron Prison. It’s a six inch long key that does indeed appear to be made out of bone. It can open any non-magical earthly lock, and a specific cell block within the plane of confinement, though it will be impossible to find out which one without magical or extraplanar aide.

Madness record: Condensed from the substance of their realm by the polychromatic clowns of the Plane of Chaos, these appear to be mundane 78rpm phonograph records. If the record is played, all those who are able to hear the strange and indescribable sounds on it will be affected as per the confusion spell.

Fabrication fog: A swarm of minuscule, polyhedral automatons from the Tesseract of Machina, the Plane of Order. These beings are packed into a small square box of some light, but extremely durable alien metal with cautionary text in several different scripts (but no earthly ones) engraved on it.  When the box is open the automata appear as a glittering swarm of fly-sized bronze shapes. They will be bound to the one who opens the box and serve him for one year (their power runs out then without recharge), until he is dead, or he gives them to someone else. They act like the fabricate spell, making whatever the owner desires within the restrictions of the spell (other than the need for the craft skill--the automata can manufacture anything non-magical item with a model or reference image). There are rumored to be versions of these which perform healing functions.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Strange Encounters

Fiction isn't the only place to get inspiration for events tinged with the supernatural, horror, or just the weird.  Peruse any book or website on unexplained phenomena and you ought to able to turn up quite a bit of usable material, depending on the genre you're gaming in.  Here are a few choice proportedly true vignettes I found on this UFO-oriented website.  There are hundreds more where these came from:

Location. Spike Island, Cork Harbor, Ireland
Date: June 1914
Time: afternoon
The 6-year old witness was walking along a path next to the sea with her eyes mostly on the ground. She happened to look up when she was about five yards away from the wall of local doctor's house and saw something bizarre. A strange figure was looking over the wall across the harbor to Cobh. She walked a few more steps nearer before she realized that what it was--and then she became rooted to the ground with fear. It was not ten paces away and she could see it only too clearly. It must have been a very tall creature, because she could almost see it to its waist---and the wall was at least five feet high. It was in the rough shape of a human being---that is, it had a head and shoulders and arms---though she didn't see its hands, which were behind the wall. Except for two dark caverns where its eyes should be, the whole thing was of one color, a sort of glistening yellow. As the wall was parallel to the road and on her left, the thing was looking past her---across the little road and straight across to Cobh. As the witness stood petrified, the thing began to turn its head very slowly toward her. At this point the young witness heard a voice in her ear: "If it looks straight at you, Eileen, you will die." Her feet seemed to be anchored to the ground by heavy weights, but somehow she managed to turn and run. She ran into a nearby cottage about 15 yards away. Her next memory was of Mrs. Reilly (the owner of the cottage) sponging her face with water, as she shook all over with shock and terror. She told Mrs. Reilly that she had seen something dreadful in the Doctor's garden. Mrs. Reilly told the young witness that she was not the first to see it and would not be the last.

Location. Linaalv Lappland Sweden
Date: 1919
Time: daytime
9-year old Ragnar Byrlind and his brothers & sisters were inside the family's house playing games when their mother called for them to come to the window and look. About 400 meters away some sort of object was coming along the road. It was a dark gray object, longer than the timber lorries of the present day. On what appeared to be a coach box at the middle sat a figure and two others were running in front of it carrying flashlight like implements in their hands. The entities looked like human beings and wore some kind of headgear but it was impossible to discern any details at the distance. When the object was at some distance from the observers it suddenly released a light smoke and disappeared on the spot. The family investigated the area but found no traces.

Location. Camperville, Manitoba, Canada
Date: winter 1930
Time: late night
On a cold winter night as the whole family slept they were suddenly awakened by the keen howling and frenzied barking of their dogs. Several family members quickly rushed out after getting quickly dressed. The dogs acted as if they were rabid but never approached the figure of a strange man that was standing by the fence next to the road. He was not wearing proper clothing. In the dead of winter with temperatures below 30, this figure wore a black tailed tuxedo and a white shirt. He stood there watching the dogs, and then he looked at the family. They walked towards him to see what he wanted but he backed up to the dirt road. Two of the men walked towards him. He watched them approach him and then walked backwards down the road. No matter how fast the men walked they could not get close to him. He seemed to be walking backward one step at the time but no matter how fast they ran they could not reach him. The men gave up and returned home. They never saw the stranger again.

Location. Northwest of Stewart, British Columbia, Canada
Date: 1938
Time: unknown
While searching for a missing trapper in a remote glacial area near the Alaskan border, constable Larry Requa entered a cave and discovered 5 “alien skeletons” which had extended craniums. One of the entities had a metal medallion on, imprinted with star symbols. All 5 entities were facing a stone altar and it was Requa’s impression that these beings had been “stranded” as they could not leave the earth. The cave had unusual characteristics as it appears to wind in a vertical configuration and the walls were extremely smooth as if these beings had used a “boring device” to make the tunnels within the cave. Apparently as of July 2000 the skeletons were still in the cave. It is not known what the present status is.

Location. Sonoma County, California
Date: 1950
Time: afternoon
Two men and one 17-year old boy were exploring some old mine shafts when they started hearing clicking noises. They could smell a fire so they were curious as to what was on fire all the way down in a mineshaft. They went further down and they started to see a weird substance on the walls of the mine. Then they saw the fire farther down and they noticed that there was something near it, but they could not make out what it was. Upon closer inspection they realized that it was some sort of hideous beast that resembled a boar with human features. It had hands and patches of red hair on its body. It appeared to be bashing an animal skull of some sort against a rock to be cracked open. As soon as the creature saw the witnesses it charged after them. One of them suffered a deep gash on his back as he crawled out of the shaft.

Location. Oracle Arizona
Date: 1950
Time: daytime
Juan Urrea was playing in the yard when suddenly the door of the outhouse creaked open. There, to his surprise, lurked a tall, kangaroo-like creature with blazing red eyes. It peered out around the edge of the door, and then beckoned him to come forward. Urrea believed the creature meant to do him harm. He ran and never saw it again.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Nautical Fantasy Inspirations

The maritime musings over at the Hill Cantons got me to thinking about inspirations for nautical fantasy games.  What follows is pretty much off the top of my head and it sticks to nautical or sea- themed fantasy (so no Horatio Hornblower or Treasure Island here), but I figure its a backbone to start with.

Classical Literature:
The Odyssey
One Thousand and One Nights. Particularly the Sinbad stories, of course.

Modern Literature:
Alan Cole and Chris Bunch. The Anteros series.
Leigh Brackett. The Sword of Rhiannon, “The Enchantress of Venus,” and “The Moon that Vanished.” These last two are on (or under) the strange gaseous seas of Venus, but I think that only adds to their exotic inspiration value.
Robert E. Howard. Conan stories: “Pool of the Black One,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” and “The Black Stranger.”
William Hope Hodgson. The Boats of the "Glen Carrig" and other nautical horror stories. "The Derelict" and "The Voice in the Night" are probably my favorites.
Ursula K. LeGuin. A Wizard of Earthsea.
Fritz Leiber. From the tales of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser: “Their Mistress, the Sea,” “When the Sea-King’s Away,” “Trapped in the Sea of Stars,” and “The Frost Mostreme.”
C.S. Lewis. The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader.
Abraham Merritt. The Ship of Ishtar.
China Mieville. The Scar.
Tim Powers. On Stranger Tides.
Cherie Priest. Fathom.
Karl Edward Wagner. “In the Wake of Night.” Okay, only a fragment of this exists, but the idea of the story is great.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). The original novel might be inspirational, too, but its this films visuals that really capture the imagination.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
King Kong (the 1933 and 2005).
The Lost Continent (1968).
Pirates of the Caribbean series.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

Pirates of Dark Water (1991).
One Piece. Which is also a manga.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

In the Gloom

This is a follow-up to my discussion of the gray dust earlier this week. Experienced astral projectionists and other sorts of planar travelers from the City know that all the outer planes between the unassailable heights of Heaven on high, and the abyssal depths of the Pit where the qliphothic things dwell, are conceptual places--and the prevailing concept of the Wasteland is gloom.

The Wasteland, Plane of Despair, is an expanse of cinereous, dessicated land and sunless, graveyard skies, but its not entirely featureless. An arthritic creaking might announce the appearance of corroded and broken playground equipment from the mists. One might stumble into a mire of quicksand ash or find a burned out and derelict house from either a recent or historical era.

Then there are the human forms coated in hardened ash, like the victims of a volcanic eruption, dotting the landscape at intervals like anguished sculptures. These are said to be the final remains of souls given over to an afterlife of despondency.  They arrive in the Wasteland as filmy shadows and over time petrify to immobile, tortured forms.

The inhabitants of the Wasteland are just as grim. The Faceless Mourners appear as women dressed in funeral veils and black dresses of a century ago. Sometimes they carry straight razors and sometimes ink black ichor drips from underneath their long sleeves and runs down the creases of their ashen hands. Sometimes they can be glimpsed in mirrors by a person contemplating suicide. It’s said that their appearance unsummoned on the Material Plane harbingers death.  Their keening causes stillbirth.

Particularly loathsome are the Lonely Husks. These creatures appear as androgynous human skins, as if the skin was shed whole like a snake’s. They attach themselves to sentients and slowly drain the life from them. They lie in bed. holding the victim close like a lover, whispering in the person’s ear of their undying devotion and begging--pleading--for the victim never to leave them, and to love them in return. First, the victim is weakened and fatigue, then over days, paralyzed. Finally they die in a period of 4-8 weeks as their lungs or heart gives out.

There are also fiends, likely relatives of demons or devils, which have adapted to life in the Gray Gloom. These entities claim rulership, but no one truly rules the Wasteland; It’s sufferings domain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hassled by the Man

My Strange Trails download is nonfunctional for the second time in two months.  Suspended.

It appears all anyone has to do is say to Mediafire "take that down" and it goes down.  Last time it was a film company saying I was violating their IP related to a film of their's I had happened to review (favorable) on my blog.  The fact that there was absolutely nothing in Strange Trails relating to their IP made no difference--since of course nobody actually read the file.  I'm sure if was just an internet search then seeing a download and the assumption was dread piracy.

So this time, I don't even know what the complaint is--just the name of the company that made it (which is a non-American media company I've never heard of).  At least this time I'm given the oppurtunity of rebuttal--which would be great if I knew what I was rebutting.

I suppose its time to go looking for a new host.  It's just frustrating it doesn't even require an actual allegation, just the suggestion of one.

Warlord Wednesday: The Talisman

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 Talisman"
Warlord (vol. 1) #61 (September 1982)

Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Jan Duursema; Inked by Bruce Patterson

Synopsis:  In the palace of Shamballah, Tara speaks with her “oldest councilman” whose name must be Omniscient Exposition because he helpfully runs down the events of the previous "kidnapping and replacement of Morgan with an impostor" story arc--including her growing closer to her childhood sweetheart, Graemore. He suggests she’s got to get her feelings in order to get her house in order. Mulling this over, Tara looks out over the balcony to see Morgan and Graemore having a duel below. Unsurprisingly, Morgan wins and soon has his sword point at Graemore’s throat.

Tara shows up and angrily demands to know what they were doing. Morgan says it was just a little fun--a contest to see who was the better swordsman, the better man. Tara suggests that being a better with a sword doesn’t make one a better man. She tells them not to engage in such foolishness any more, and storms off. Morgan’s response:

Meanwhile, Darvin and Griff are talking in their new hideout. Darvin tells Griff what he’s intuited about Tinder’s parentage because of the armband (Morgan’s wristwatch). He wants to make the royals pay to get their son back. Griff points out he doesn’t have Tinder. Darvin counters he does have the armband and Griff--and some red hair dye.

In the palace, Morgan and Graemore lounge around drinking. Morgan asks Graemore about his past with Tara. Graemore admits his love for her and reveals it was only the old king threatening his family that ultimately kept them apart. Then, Graemore gives Morgan a warning:

A little later, Tara summons Morgan to show him a message she’s just received. Someone is holding their son “Joshua” for ransom. Morgan knows it to be a lie, as he believes he killed Joshua (though, as faithful readers know, he did not). He surmises that this means they have Tinder, whom they think is Joshua because of the wristwatch. Though he suggests they sleep on it before they act, Morgan wants to catch whoever sent the message; they were helping his kidnapper Praedor and they now have the boy who freed him.

Meanwhile, Darvin’s eye-patched lackey returns to tell him that the message was delivered. Griff’s now a redhead, meant to fool the royals into thinking he’s Tinder. Darvin sends the one-eyed kid up to the roof as a lookout. As soon as the kid’s up there, he lights a cigarette...and carelessly disposes of his match.

Back in the palace, Morgan can’t sleep. He heads out into the city toward the appointed place of rendezvous. He finds the building burned down. Sifting through the ash and rubble, he finds his wristwatch with the skeleton of a boy too tall to be Tinder. He realizes the boy must have escaped, but he's unaware that the boy watches him at that moment. Tinder looks down from a nearby perch and realizes that Morgan is going to keep his talisman--and that (seeing Morgan for the first time without the mask) he’s the king!

Morgan returns to the palace and awakens Tara. He tells her what he found and that the boy they had couldn’t have been the one who helped him. He returns the wrist watch to her, telling her he wishes he could have returned her son.

Later, Tinder sneaks into the palace grounds and climbs up to look in the window of Tara’s chamber. The queen and her mate are sleeping, and Tinder sees his talisman around the queen’s upper arm. Resigned to the fact he won’t be getting it back, Tinder leaves the palace and hops a wagon heading out of town. 

Things to Notice:
  • We see someone smoking a cigarette in Skartaris for the first time.  In fact, other than Mungo Ironhand, this may be the first time we see someone smoking.
  • Graemore seems less of the delicate type he'll seem later in the series.
  • Praedor's name is still spelled "Praydor" in this issue.
Where It Comes From:
A talisman is a charm or amulet believed to have supernatural power.  In a less literal way, the wrist watch is indeed that: for Tara and Morgan it's symbolic of the son they lost, for Darvin it's the key to the big score, and for Tinder its in some clear way representative of who he is (ironically, he has no idea how much it is).  Significantly, all the principles are frustrated in their desires.

This is sort of an epilogue to the whole impostor storyline.  Tinder is again shuttled off stage.  We won't see him again for some twenty issues.

Monday, July 11, 2011

In A Handful of Dust

In the markets of Interzone or certain exclusive shops in the City, one might find gray dust. It’s an extraplanar substance, acquired in the Realm of Despair, the outer plane called the Wasteland or the Gray Gloom. The beings called the Faceless Mourners are rumored to trade it to the other worlds in exchange for tears of abandoned children or the captured last breath of suicides.

The gray dust has psychoactive properties, introducing the influence of its plane of origin into the mind of one who ingests or inhales it.

A failed saving throw results in one of the following effects (roll d6):

1 Fear - as per spell.
2 Anhedonia - the victim has a distinct lack of interest. They will take no action other that they aren’t forced, and are at a -1 to rolls when they do. Others react to them at a -2.
3 Despair - an intense low mood. Victim acts as if dazed, and has a -2 to initiative..
4 Anergia - Victim is exhausted.
5 Pain - pervasive aches and pains, effects as per Inflict Pain power.
6 Anxiety - effects like the shaken condition.

All effects last for 24 hours.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Court of the Air and Beyond

Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian novels are often called “Steampunk”--and I suppose they do have the essential elements with their fantastic pseudo-Victorian sort of setting--but they draw from a much wider range of genre fiction tropes. In fact, all the factions, locales, and (dare we say) character types seem to make tailor made for gaming inspiration.

The first novel, Court of Air (2007), introduces the basic setting elements (and they’re a lot of them!) in a story about two orphans in the Kingdom of Jackals (Britain’s stand-in) who come to play a role in a world-destroying threat--a Communist stand-in rebellion secretly subverted by Lovecraft-by-way-of-Mesoamerica insectoid Elder Gods looking to regain the ascendancy they enjoyed in the last Ice Age. The heroes include an agent from the steampunk equivalent of SHIELD complete with helicarrier (the eponymous Court of the Air), a boy of the feyblood (super-powered magical mutants hated and feared by the world) who gains the magical weaponry of a legacy hero similar to the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and a plucky young girl with ancient nanites in her blood linking her to the robot savior at the Earth’s core!

That’s only a few of the ideas Hunt throws at us. There’s enough for 3 or 4 Rifts supplements. We’ve got Middle Eastern stand-in Cassarabians with magical biotech, Steampunk computers like in The Difference Engine, airships (I did say it was Steampunk), and the robotic Steam Men. The Steam Men are probably my favorite element of the world--these coal-burning artificial intelligences field heroic armies of knights, worship (and are sometimes ridden) by spirits called the Steamo Loa, and throw the cogs of Gear-gi-ju to divine the future.

In the midst of these rapid fire ideas, there’s a fast-paced adventure story. This is true of all Hunt’s novels in the series (the novel’s are standalone, but they have recurring characters). The second novel, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, gives us a submarine journey up-river into a perilous jungle and a Bondian super-villain out to use ancient technology to take over the world. The Rise of the Iron Moon has a sort of War of the Worlds-esque alien invasion.

The world bears some resemblance to Tekumel in that civilization is fallen from great technological heights, and the artifacts of previous ages may appear like magic. It also contains a lot of stand-ins for real world historical elements--some of them with only the thinnest disguise. Quatershift, for example, is Revolutionary France with a mixing of various Communist states.

One characteristic of Hunt’s writing is a tendency to use portmanteau or sometimes punnning names. The world-saving robotic being is called Hexmachina. I’ve already mentioned the Cassarabians and the Steamo Loa. I could see this name practice irritating some readers.

I think these are minor quibbles. If you’re looking for good adventure fiction in a fantastic setting, particularly if you like sort of “kitchen sink” settings, I think you’ll find something in this series to enjoy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Stray Cat Blues

For those in the know, the whispered mumblings of an urban druid on the corner, the boastful wails of alley cats in the night, and the raucous debate of an ad hoc committee of the Parliament of Crows in the trees, can all point to the arrival of royalty in the City. In any night-spot from Broad Street to Solace, one might run into the coolest of cats, the Cat Lord.

The Lords of Beasts are held by (human) thaumaturgists to be eikones imbued with the symbolic power of their animal totems. The lords themselves dispute this and claim they're the gods of their respective species--the remnant of a time before mankind staged a coup and replaced the democracy of tooth and claw with the tyranny of the tool-user. A lot of the Beast Lords are still angry about the loss of the old order, the old balance.

The Cat Lord keeps his cool. From worship in ancient temples to the pampered care lavished on them today, man's done alright by his folk, and he’s got children amongst humanity. Certain families descended from ancient cat-worshipping clans still change into cats when their passions are high, or the moon is full. Sometimes he runs into one of them and maybe his green eyes show a hint of paternal pride, but he ususally shows no more interest in them than his other offspring..

What does interest him is avoiding boredom--and he bores easily. Secrets interest him, but he mostly keeps those to himself.  Sensual pleasures pique his interest, but he tires of lovers quickly. He used to enjoy the hunt, but he’s old and jaded now, and only something really novel is worth the bother.

A meeting with the Cat Lord should be handled with caution. He's got knowledge of possible use to adventurers, but he may or may not be motivated to share it. To try and coerce him is earn his ire, and that’s likely to end badly. Becoming too friendly with him is unwise, as well; the road he walks can be a dangerous one for mortals, and his friendship is often fickle.

The most important word to the wise: Only a rube gawks at the sharp-dressed guy with a cat's head seated in the corner table.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Trading Fate

In the Financial District of the City an unconventional commodity exchange exists among all the mundane markets. A secret market open to a few of the rich and powerful is said to deal in fate itself.

Many thaumatologists prefer to speak of “probabilities” and view the whole idea of fate as a remnant of the unscientific past. Others point to the numerous pagan deities devoted to the concept and argue that the power of human belief must surely have made an eikone of it.

While the theoreticians argue, the exchange does brisk business. It’s members are few--likely less than 20--and are all powerful thaumaturgists, extremely wealthy, nonhuman entities, or some combination of the three. The exchange building itself is accessed from the second floor of a small insurance office. It can’t be found without an invitation or powerful magical aid.

The trading room is always filled with a low, periodic thumping sound. The story goes that its the slow beating of a monstrous heart: the heart of an alien chaos god stored in something like a rune-inscribed Leyden jar. The living heart of minor chaos (it’s supposed) keeps Management or some other in being of Law from shutting down the operation.

The exchange is somewhat misnamed. The goal is to manipulate fate, but the commodity exchanged is perhaps better termed luck. Wholesale theft of luck would attract unwanted attention, so the exchange only snatches small quantities of it---embezzling the “could have beens” rendered purposeless by random tragedy or miraculous fortune.

These loose strands are snatched from the weave of reality by three automata like four-armed women, seated in the lotus and made of brass and porcelain. These are likely of extraplanar origin. It’s said that (for some reason) the automata are only ever observed in operation indirectly, through the use of a mirror.

The traders buy and sell the strands collected by the automata. They exchange them with each other for other things of value from the mundane to the esoteric, but they also use them. Small changes to fate, targeted to critical moments, and over a long period of time, can have a profound effect. A poor man can be become rich (or a rich enemy poor), a wicked life can be extended, or an innocent soul corrupted toward damnation.

If the tales are true, the members of the Fate Exchange buy and sell nothing less than the power of gods--exercised over one seemingly inconsequential event at a time.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Warlord Wednesday: Death Dual

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...

"Death Dual"
Warlord (vol. 1) #60 (August 1982)

Written by Mike Grell (Sharon Grell); Penciled by Jan Duursema; Inked by Mike DeCarlo

Synopsis:  Darvin is surprised to find the door to his dungeon open, but it makes little difference to the two assassins. The prisoner still appears to be safely chained and locked in his iron mask. That makes it easy for what the they’ve come there to do.

Things are not as they seem. The Warlord leaps up, slaps the big assassin in the face with a manacle, and wraps the other chain around the neck of the little guy. Grappling with the big one, Morgan stabs him in the chest with a spike on his iron mask.

Meanwhile, Tinder’s attempt to slip out is foiled by Darvin. He’s figured out the boy lifted his keys and helped the the prisoner escape. He raises his pimp-cane to strike the boy, but Tinder twists free, leaving his armlet (Morgan’s wrist watch) in Darvin’s hand.

Morgan, now freed of the mask, hears the boy’s scream and fears the worst. He snatches up the big man’s sword just as the little one readies himself for a duel. Morgan casts aside the broadsword in favor of a dagger, knowing he can’t match his opponents speed with the bigger blade in his weakened state. He lunges at the assassin...

Tinder makes good his escape, running over Griff in the process. Darvin helps the bewildered boy up. It’s time for them to make themselves scarce, too. Darvin’s confident that having the armband will be enough for his schemes.

Morgan and the assassin fight on. A swing that sticks the assassin’s sword in a wall, gives Morgan an opening. He buries the the dagger in the man’s chest. Morgan calls for Tinder, but the boy is gone--another tantalizing mystery. He turns his attentions back to wounded man. The assassin begs Morgan to end his agony. Morgan wants the name of his employer first. Praedor.

Meanwhile, Praedor’s imposter is running the council meeting and Praedor and his cronies are pleased. Tara’s down in the palace library reading old scrolls, looking for a way to overcome the “old boy’s club” of the council. Tara realizes she must denounce the man she believes to be Morgan to regain her position. Graemore shows up to lend his support, and tell her he loves her--which steels her resolve for she she must do.

Elsewhere, Morgan returns to the palace. He commands the guards to seal off the palace and find Praedor. He stalks into his chambers and surprises his double gazing at the mirror in a similar way to how the double first got the drop on him. Normally, Morgan would make short work of the imposter, but in his weakened state things aren't going well, until the cavalry arrives:

Both claim to be the real Morgan, of course. Tara poses a question only the real one would know: “Who’s the King of Swing?” When Morgan says “Benny Goodman” she swings the pistol his way. Quickly thinking back to things he’s told her, he realizes she must have meant to ask who the “Sultan of Swat” was.  He says “Babe Ruth.”

Tara shoots the imposter. Morgan embraces her, leaving poor Graemore looking on.

Later, a palace blacksmith prepares an iron mask. Far beneath the palace, in its dungeon, the mask is locked around Praedor’s head.
Things to Notice:
  • Morgan beats Conan and the Gray Mouser (well, at least they're stand-ins).
  • Praedor's name is consistently spelled "Praydor" in this issue.
Where It Comes From:
The title of this issue is a play on "death duel," of course. The issue ends with the common "identify the imposter" variant trope of the hero having to give some information only he would know--and having a little trouble remembering it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

A good Fourth of July to all my fellow Americans. I hope everybody enjoys the holiday.

While you're enjoying it, do yourself a favor and check out the very British Small But Vicious Dog B/X-WFRP hack from Chris at the Vaults of Nagoh. It's grim atmosphere might be a useful corrective to all that July sunshne and merriment.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Remember John Prester

Watching fireworks on a festive night in the month of Swelter, a visitor to the City might be asked: “Do you know the story of John Prester?”

It’s a trick the locals pull on tourists. The truth is no one remembers John Prester--not really. You sometimes feel like you know it. Or knew it--but it only lingers there almost on the tip of your tongue, just beyond memory’s reach. It’s a good story, that one; you just can’t recall.

There are hints, maybe. Are the fireworks just simple celebration, or do they carry some other significance? Surely there’s something to the giant puppets paraded through the streets--the “Mugwumps” with their motley dress, straggly goatees, stovepipe hats, and leering grins? What about the wooden toy guns the kids mock shooting them with? And what about the tune played by the street musicians and marching bands? Who doesn’t hear that with a twinge of deja vu?

When did all this start, anyway? When did John Prester and his crew save the City (surely that’s what they must have done) or nearly destroyed it (well, that’s a possibility, too)? Maybe it hasn’t happened yet and the celebration isn’t the ghost of a memory but the sign heralding what’s to come?

Ah well, let the City raise a glass to John Prester, anyway, whatever he did--or will do. A bastard bold enough to almost get remembered deserves that much, right?

Friday, July 1, 2011

City Factions

Pierce, two-fist proprietor of The Rusty Dagger, requested a guide to various factions of the City. As various groups have been detailed over the past year, this seemed liked a pretty good idea. They're aligned here by their allegiance to law (meaning the lawful government of the City) or crime. Whether they come down as allies or antagonists of adventures will depend on the adventurers' actions.

Many of the groups supporting law fall under the umbrella of City government:
The Exterminators: The hardworking men and women of the Municipal Department of Animal and Pest Control clean up messes left behind by adventurers and protect the City from wandering monsters coming up from the depths.
The Police: The Municipal Police Department has the unenviable task of dealing with mundane crime and the more supernatural menaces that sometimes threaten the City. They generate two “most wanted” lists: one for regular criminals and one for“specials."
Taxmen: The gray agents of the Municipal Department of Taxation and Finance work hard to divest adventurers of their booty--or at least the City’s legal share of it. Their service to bureaucracy and its tutelary spirit, Management, can make them surprisingly tough opponents.
Thaumaturgical Society: The professional organization for the City’s sorcerers. They establish standards of proficiency and rankings for magical practitioners. They also publish a journal of thaumaturgic inquiry.

The Druids: The City's acolytes tend to stay neutral in regard to the concerns of man. So long as the City abides, they remain aloof.
The Illusionist Guild: Allegedly a lodge of the international Brotherhood of Illusion (if such a thing just isn’t more smoke and mirrors). Generally this is a law-abiding organization, but its secrecy, and the inherent ambiguity of the arts of illusion make it somewhat suspect.
The Unknown: Also called the Inconnu or Unseen Lodge. A shadowy organization of powerful sorcerers.
Undertown: The parallel city of the ghouls beneath the City. Relations are generally cordial--but the ghouls’ dietary habits naturally make surface-dwellers wary.

Anarchists: Terrorist madmen in the service of extraplanar god-monsters of chaos.
The Five-Headed Dragon Society: A criminal cult among the Yianese. They’re based in San Tiburon, but their tendrils reach to the City’s Yiantown, as well.
The Hell Syndicate: The premier criminal organization in the City controlled by the infernal lords of the Nine Hells.
The Reds: Subterranean subversives and their human dupes dedicated to overturning the governments of the world and replacing them with their tyranny.