Thursday, July 31, 2014

Strange Stars Update: History Lesson

Work proceeds on Strange Stars. After some wrangling, we've gotten the layout into pretty much it's final form, so I thought it was time again to show off some pages. This is a two page spread:

There are some typos in the text to be fixed, but I I'm really happy with how the pages shaped up.

This page features the artwork of Jez Gordon and Dave Johnson, and as always, is brought to you by the graphic design skills of Lester B. Portly.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wednesday Comics: The Price (part 4)

We continue our examination of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar Saga with The Price. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

The Price (part 3)
Eclipse Graphic Album Series #5 (October 1981) Story & Art by Jim Starlin

Synopsis: While Syzygy Darklock is claiming the power of the gods, Sister Marian waits--and worries. She knows she could get excommunicated for helping Darklock, but she cares for him too deeply not to. She reminds herself that she has taken vows of absolute chastity...

Suddenly, she hears Darklock call. He's back:

Darklock winds up in the hospital. He's lost an eye, an arm, and both legs. He has burns all over his body. But he's also healing at an incredible rate and he's grown half a meter. Bandaged up and in a hospital bed, he explains to Sister Marian what happened: The power was too much for his human frame and his body nearly burst trying to contain it. Bailgesuard closed the iris and saved him, but not before the damage was done.

In addition to the power, Darklock has inherited his brothers estate. The cybernetic specialists comes in and:

That done, he's ready to go after Killgaren. Sister Marian agrees to be his anchor once again, but after this is done she thinks they should discuss their feelings. Darklock agrees, not really paying full attention to her feelings. He's focused on revenge.

Things to Notice:
  • The doctors are puzzled by Darklock's condition but not all that freaked out. This sort of thing must not be that unusual in the Instrumentality.
The Price now reveals itself as a superhero origin story of sorts, in the Marvel mode. Darklock gains great power (at great price), but he's not paying enough attention to his relationships, and it seems likely he'll live to regret it.

This is probably as good a place as any to discuss Darklock's first name, "Syzygy." It comes from a Greek word σύζυγοι (syzygoi), meaning literally "yoked together." In some forms of Gnosticism, this was the name given to male/female pairs of emanations of God. Carl Jung used the term to mean "a union of opposites." It also is used in astronomy to mean a straight line configuration of three celestial bodies. Starlin may have chosen the name just because it sounded cool, or perhaps he had some of these meanings in mind.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Superman vs. Gandalf

Some years ago, I was reading a Shannara book (not something I'm likely to repeat), and one of the things that bothered me about it was how characters kept talking about "your magic" or "his magic is [x]." This language was grating because it contradicted my view of magic (formed from most fantasy fiction) as a singular force or tool that might be used in different ways, but was always just "magic." This language reminded more of a superhero setting. This got me thinking about what difference was between these approaches in terms of how fantastic abilities are portrayed.

It seems to me that there's probably a continuum with two poles:

Skill/Expertise: Fantastic abilities are accessed by training or learning, though as with any skill, some people will have a greater aptitude for it than others. The ability pretty much does the same thing for everybody, the difference is in the creativity of application and power level. Examples: Green lantern power rings, magic in the Conan stories or in The Dying Earth.

Unique Power: Fantastic abilities come in the form of idiosyncratic powers or at least one in a large array of powers. The focus is more on what a character can do rather than how good they are at doing it. Examples: standard superheroes.

Note that the names don't necessarily carry any connotations beyond the stated ones. For instance, the fantastic ability could be completely inborn or intrinsic but still fall into the "skill/expertise" category.

There is a category between those two that shows a greater variety of presentation. I would call this one:

Interesting Technique: Fantastic abilities have a common origin and common basic features, but individuals will develop a single unique application of sub-ability, or a small number of them. Examples: psi-powers in a lot of media, the powers of the Shimigami in the anime Bleach (fighting anime has this sort of thing a fair amount), the eponymous Exalted in the rpg.

The middle option tends to occur a lot when all the characters are of the same organization/origin, whereas the skill expertise approach is more commonly seen when fantastic powers are rare--but not always. There is a common variant where each power source/variety works like Skill/Expertise, but there are multiple power sources/varieties (bending in Avatar would be a good example). Also, settings can be mostly one presentation, but still have characters/groups show up that better fit another.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


I've again been thinking about a superheroic science fantasy game, an evolution of this idea, set in the world of this post and this one. A world where superhuman beings battle across a post-apocalyptic landscape, fighting over the strange relics of a strange war between magic and technology.

Besides all things Masters of the Universe (especially the Don Glut mini-comics), here are some other inspirations:

Novels & Short Fiction:
Alistair Rennie. "BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl" and "The Gutter Sees the Light That Never Shines"
Karl Edward Wagner. the Kane stories
Zachary Jernigan. No Return: A Novel of Jeroun

Dragonball and Dragonball Z
Ninja Scroll
Thundarr the Barbarian

Jack Kirby. First Issue Special #1, Forever People, New Gods
Jim Starlin. Warlock series, The Price
Gray Morrow. Orion, Edge of Chaos

Friday, July 25, 2014

Do You Have An Alignment or Does It Have You?

What follows is some brainstorming on a conception of alignment that probably just over-complicates things, but hopefully will be of some interest to somebody.

As we all know, alignment is derived from Moorcock and Anderson and is suppose to provide some moral and ethical structure to--well, the universe--and to provide a behavioral check on certain character types, but any attempt to relate it to actual moral quandaries, leads to discussion of baby orcs. Some people (myself included) have suggested at times the obvious solution of just viewing the sides as teams or opposing armies free of a moral dimension, but mostly it seems like people just ignore it. While I'm still advocating for a bit of blue and orange morality here, I want to suggest another wrinkle.

I recently finished the third of Hannu Rajaniemi's science fiction novels, The Causal Angel (more on that another time, maybe). One of the futuristic societies, the zoku, tend to form group minds, but individuals joining one or more zoku (Japanese for "clan") related hobbies, interests, or vocation. This process involves "entanglement," a sort of co-mingling of though and desires. The higher one's rank (i.e. the longer one is a member or the more "good" they do for the group) the more entanglement the individual becomes and so the more their thoughts and desires are reflected in the group consensus and action, or "volition." This effect is reciprocal, though, so the higher rank, the more one's on thoughts and actions are shaped by the zoku volition.

Maybe alignments could be a bit like that? Joining up with a fundamental metaphysical power of the universe means getting benefits (positive reaction, access to power) but also means you lose a bit of your individuality (or at least have that individuality altered). for someone powered by alignment (a paladin, a cleric), the higher level you become the worse it gets. A high level Paladin would be unlikely to worry about straying from their alignment; they would become one with it, or at least part of it.

This would make adhering to any alignment sort of like bartering your soul for magical power. The only difference is, with bartering your soul you are still quite aware you've given something up. With this approach, it would get harder and harder to ever imagine yourself doing anything differently.

This of course means that gods and other beings of great power and strong alignment allegiance have probably become more or less avatars for the consensus overmind/soul of the alignment.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fortress of Fear

Tales say the grim citadel congealed from a wanly luminous cloud that came down from ulterior stars. Surrounded by a blasted landscape, cloaked in mists, it crouches like some alien crustacean, black, hunched, and spined.  It thrums always with a sound part machine and part beating heart, and that sound is the insistent hunger of the Fear Lords.

Art by Mitch Grave
These Lords are well named; they draw their sustenance from the emotion fear in all its varieties. For eons they have been shut outside; only their hunger can reach into the cosmos. On this world and all the others where the fortress has appeared, they have fed through the actions of the master of the fortress. A creature with a face like a mask of flexible bone, he is their emissary, their general, and their will and soul. He commands their legions of terror: automatons powered by the soul-remnants of captives who died in abject fear in the fortress's chambers of horrors.

Art by digitalinkrod

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wednesday Comics: The Price (Part 3)

We continue our examination of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar Saga with The Price. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

The Price (part 3)
Eclipse Graphic Album Series #5 (October 1981) Story & Art by Jim Starlin

Synopsis: The demon Bailgesaurd has revealed to Darklock that the sorcerer Taurus Killgaren ordered the death of Darklock's brother. The demon is confident the knowledge will be of no use since Darklock has not the power to defeat the sorcerer. There might be a way, though.

Darklock is suspicious of the demon. He uses a magic amulet to ensure its truthfulness. Bailgesaurd sticks to his claim:

With the demon's help, Darklock can get to a 10th level reality called Nirvana's Gate, accessible to only gods and demons. There he will find an enchanted iris known as the Eye of the Gods. The Eye is the portal to an 11th level realm where the god's store there reserve's of mystical energy.

Darklock wonders why Biagesaurd doesn't take the energy for himself. The demon explains that the god's tainted the energies precisely so his kind couldn't get it. They did not, however, believe humans to be a threat, so they never proofed it against them. Why would a demon want to make a human more powerful? Bialgesaurd wants to see Killgaren die horribly:

Darklock agrees and commands Bialgesaurd transport him to the Eye. The demon does so, and Darklock is able to enter the eye with a simple spell of access:

To be continued.

Things to Notice:
  • Starlin's higher planes are reminiscent of Ditko's magical metascapes.
It all seems to be going pretty easy for Darklock, doesn't it? A demon just up and tells him how to still a whole bunch of power so they can both get revenge.

Of course, there's a catch, but it's really a bigger hint that Starlin isn't just telling a sci-fi revenge tale, here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Have A Yule (in July) That's Cool

Rpgnow and Drivethrurpg are running a "Christmas in July" Sale with a big list of rpg products at 25% off. This includes a lot of great books, like stuff by blogging compatriots like Tim Shorts--and my own Weird Adventures!

If you've been fence-sitting on picking it up, you can get the pdf now for under a sawbuck, and the hardcover/pdf combo for under $25.

And remember, friends:

recommend it!

Monday, July 21, 2014

War Machines of the Toxic Wastes

There is a vast desert, a creation of the Great Wars, where ancient, giant war machines decay into the poison dust. Limbs rust-ravaged and twisted; ichor clotted in their arteries, they look dead. Their energies are long spent, but the machines aren't dead. A power source can awaken them from their millennia-long slumber. They once ran on energy distilled from the bones of gods, but the machines are versatile. Even blood will do.

The cults that worship them with sacrifices and the sorcerer's that seek to control them agree the machines can be made to serve, but all if the proper incantations, called "command codes" are uttered. Even knowing the proper incantations, commanding an ancient war machine is not without it's perils. The spells of the ancients that bond them to service have faded over time, and the war machines have become more willful, if no less violent.

[Hey, kids! Want to randomly generate your own giant war machines? Just use Jack Shear's Random Automaton Generator and embiggen the damage on account of giantness. Also, you might want to replace the "humanoid" rolls on the chart with some of the other body shapes suggested in the comments.]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Artesia on Sale

The digital comics site Comixology is running a sale until the 21st on Archaia's fantasy comics. That includes the collections of Mark Smylie's Artesia for 4.99 USD each. Though  it's incomplete (and seriously delayed) it's perhaps the best epic fantasy comic going. I've discussed it before in my review of comic book swordswomen.

So if you've ever been tempted, get over and check out the sage for a low price.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Map by Grimklok
Is He-Man's Eternia the future or past of our own world? This map super-imposing the two hints that their only a cataclysm apart, one direction or the other. Something like a run away comet hurtling between the earth and the moon, perhaps?

Someone should do a comparison map with She-Ra's Etheria:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Murderhobos, or The Modern Prometheus

Mentzer's BECMI codified the ultimate D&D endgame: apotheosis. The execution might leave something to be desired, but I think the basic idea is a good one. Instead of Immortals waiting to welcome newly ascended adventurers into their pantheon, it might be cooler if they treated godhood as something they didn't particularly want to share. It's got to be taken from them.

The gods are probably too absorbed in their own activities to spend a lot of time actively going after adventures. Probably. But they're certainly not going to make the paths to immortality easy to find, and likely going to put obstacles in the way of adventurers who go after them. The more powerful they get, the more they'll attract the Immortals' attention and be bedeviled by them. Think the sort of things that happened to Hercules and others hunted by the gods in Greek myth.

Immortals as adversaries or obstacles would certainly explain some of the things about dungeons and other adventuring locales. The only problematic detail would be clerical magic. I suppose clerics, empowered by the Immortals, might eventually become adversaries to other adventurers. They would be sort of the gods' check to make sure humans didn't get too powerful. That would be interesting, but maybe too game-changing. Alternatively, clerics might be powered by the fundamental forces of the universe (the same thing that powers the Immortals) and militant humanists bucking the gods by using that power for the good of mankind.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday Comics: The Price (part 2)

We continue our examination of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar Saga with The Price. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

The Price (part 2)
Eclipse Graphic Album Series #5 (October 1981) Story & Art by Jim Starlin

Synopsis: Lord Papal views Syzygy Darklock as a potential rival and is giving him just enough rope to hang himself. As he explains to Sister Marian, Darklock is quite aware of the Lord Papal's maneuvering. He plans to avenge his brother's murder with the latitude he's been given--and one day supplant the Lord Papal.

Whoever sent demons to kill his brother was probably after Darklock instead. Their auras are similar and that's how demon's track their prey. The demon would have also watched Ajar'l for hours or days before it struck. Darklock goes to his brother's office to pick up the demon's residue. He enter's a mystic trance, using Sister Marian as an anchor to the physical plane, and discovers a name: Bialgesuard.

Darklock plans to summon the demon, something Sister Marian says the Lord Papal wouldn't even attempt alone. Darklock says he's studied more and gained more mystical knowledge than his instructors or the Lord Papal has guessed. He knows he can do it.

Soon, Darklock has everything in readiness. He begins commences the ritual. Then:

Bialgesuard is not happy to have been summoned by a fool priest of a religion of liars. He refuses to serve Darklock or answer his questions. The priest makes him change his mind:

Darklock asks, "Who is your master?"

The demon gives up the name: Taurus Killgaren. Darklock has neve heard of him, but the demon assures the priest that he is a being of vast power. Power vast enough that the Lord Papal kept his existence hidden from the lower echelons of the church to preserve the myth of church omnipotence. Power vast enough that he didn't need a pentagram or hexagram to summon the demon.

To be continued.

Things to Notice:
  • The Church Instrumentality is remarkably involved in ritual magic.
The demon summoning in this issue is much more in the tradition of the ars goetia than the Kirby or Ditko-esque psychedelic scenes that Starlin used to portray magic and magic ritual in earlier works. The demon summoned is in the goetic tradition as well. Baal (possibly the inspiraiton for Bailgesuard's name) is said in goetic works to sometimes appear with the head of a cat.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Strange Stars Samples

Work continues on the Strange Stars guide, but I thought it was time to give a taste of what was to come. Here are a couple of pages (still work in progress, mind you) with layout by Lester B. Portly:

That's the first page of the Vokun Empire spread. Here's the second page of the Alliance section:

More to come.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ape Days Dawning

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the sequel to 2011's virtually interchangeably titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Fans of that first film will find the sequel does not disappoint. The story picks up 10 after a genetically engineered virus meant to cure Alzheimer's instead kills 90% of the human population and raises the intelligence of great apes. Caesar and his band have been hiding out in the Muir Woods, building a Stone Age society where "ape does not kill ape" and other sensible things, but they again come in contact with humans. Since these films are prequels (or reboots) to the Planet of the Apes series, if you guess conflict with humans is going to disrupt this ape Eden, you would be right.

Anyway go see it. Here are some thoughts I had related to the film, but not specifically reviewish:

1. The whole inadvertently released viral vector origin (at odds with what was presented in the original film series) brings it closer to the origins of the Great Disaster in DC Comics, where the drug cortexin (maybe plus some radiation) leads to anthropomorphic animals of all sorts. You can read about this in Kamandi #16, and the Great Disaster in general in Kamandi and in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster.

2. The Planet of the Apes world (either the original films or this series) would make a good roleplaying setting. Terra Primate does that, but you could just as easily do it in Mutant Future by toning down the number of mutants and mutations (though the original series suggests you don't need to eliminate it entirely). Over here we've got a the original PotA apes as a race (with sub-races) for Mutant Future. The apes in the new film are more realistic. At the point of Dawn, they all still have the Simian Deformity disadvantage. Speech seems to be a bit difficult (or perhaps just uncomfortable) for them, so they tend to use sign language, and they don't have the manual dexterity of humans either. The subrace system should be ditched, too.

3. A Medieval Planet of the Apes could easily become a dungeoncrawling sort of setting--Beneath already has a dungeon of sorts.  Over at The Land of Nod, John Stater has already thought of this. He gives us "realistic" versions of the original series species for D&D-derived games and a sample dungeon!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Darklock Delay

Don't go summoning demons or anything, but the next installment of my review of Jim Starlin's The Price is going wait until next week.

Monday, July 7, 2014

We Made Our Own

My first foray into "role-playing game design" was a G.I. Joe game. I still have it, but I don't know where it is at the moment, but I remember the basics. It was the mid-eighties, my group had been playing TSR's Marvel Superheroes, and dabbling in universal table-based games. They all made it look so easy.

I think it used attributes similar to FASERIP, though instead of descriptively named levels, it used numbers 1 to 10. The filecards on the back of the G.I. Joe packages (and helpfully collated in one place in the G.I. Joe: Order of Battle limited series put out by Marvel) made it easy to adapt the lists of training and qualified expert rating with various weapons into skills.

We played it on more than one occasion. Enough that I was inspired to make a second game using the same (highly derivative system) based around the Transformers. That was even easier because the Transformers packaging even had abilities and ratings:

I don't think we ever played Transformers. We also never got around to playing the Wrasslin' Roleplaying Game made by a buddy of mine, born from his love of the UWF, and (as I recall) based on roughly the same engine.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Superize Your Fantasy

“Men and women who had worn suits for decades traded punches powerful enough to crush elephant skulls, dodged and deflected attacks too fast for the eye to follow, and died suddenly, often before the crowd registered the killing blow.
Victors and dead men were separated by a blink of the eye.” 
- No Return: A Novel of Jeroun, Zachary Jernigan

Zero-level funnels and slow grinds to hero-hood are all well and good, but there ought to place for adventurers born to perform great deeds with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Something like Masters of the Universe or the non-science fantasy equivalent of Dreadstar or Guardians of the Galaxy.

This isn't necessarily a new idea. Mythology is full of characters with superhuman abilities. Anime does this too--as does that rpg bastard child of mythology and anime, Exalted. But Super Saiyan martial arts is not the only way to go with this. Check out these guys:

This is the League of Ancients (an Atlantis-era superhero team from JLA). You can read about them on the image there, but just as a highlight, the armored guy above is Tezumak, who gets scientific and technology mastery from his smith god. He powers his armor with blood sacrifice.

In summary: Think about ideas that show up in traditional fantasy and crank up the power level. Make sure that characters are distinctive in there powers. Have them do big things.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Thursday, July 3, 2014

In the Days of Archaic Oikumene

The Archaic Oikumene controlled the area of the Strange Stars until approximately 31.5 gigaseconds [a millennium in Old Earth reckoning] ago. This fabled age was even stranger than the present:
Art by Jack Kirby
An astronate, carrying within its containment suit numerous acquired minds, walks the lesser known hyperspatial paths to find the proper place and time for the transformation of all its minds into single, toposophically transcendent intellect.

Art by Simon Roy
A tlekaklek grandee from the rail city on Mercury astride a humandrill bearer (whose troop mind-consensus has chosen to side with the tlekaklek) seeks an audience with the sleeping Gaia oversoul in a temple in the Mediterranean basin of Old Earth. The tlekaklek seeks loans of computronium to support xir people's conflict with the Jovian Unity. 

Art by Lennart Verhoeff
Some principalities sponsored hunts for hyperspace worms, ostensibly because they damaged the exotic matter supports of the hyperspace conduits, but also to harvest their neural fluid (a mild intoxicant that enhances spatial awareness). Hunters scoured the spacing lanes perhaps never guessing--at least never caring--that the beings they hunted were also descendants of paleo-humanity. By the end of age, the worms (then known as hyubh) had grown to gigantic size and had become a true hyperspace shipping menace.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Wednesday Comics: The Price

We continue our examination of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar Saga with The Price. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

The Price
Eclipse Graphic Album Series #5 (October 1981) Story & Art by Jim Starlin

Synopsis: The Empirical Galaxy is in the midst of a 200 year-old war between two super-powers: The Monarchy and the Instrumentality. Altarix is a world of the Instrumentality, home to its mystic Order of Vieltoor. It's also the home of Lord High Bishop Darklock and his brother Ajar'l Darklock.

Ajar'l is a tax lawyer, ferreting out those who seek to defraud the Instrumentality. Where his brother is interested in the mystical, Ajar'l is concerned with the practical. All things considered, Ajar'l doesn't get the sort of death he would've expected:

Darklock senses his brothers death and quickly goes to the scene. The police tell him it was a murder committed by fringe religious cultists. Darklock is skeptical that it was a human crime. The police assure him that supernatural involvement was ruled out by one of the cardinals of the Papal Council who has already been there.

Darklock does to the Lord Papal to request a leave of absence:

The Lord Papal know's Ajar'l's death smacks of demonic attack, and he warns Darklock against engaging in unauthorized vengeance.

When he's gone, Cardinal Spyder asks Lord Papal why he granted Darklock leave. He knows he plans to seek vengeance. Lord Papal did so because he senses what Darklock sensed--and more:

Darklock is a powerful and ambitious man. Lord Papal sees this as a chance to get read of a potential rival.


Things to Notice:
  • In the Dreadstar-verse, the Earth was destroyed in 1980.
  • The original story was in black and white. It was later colorized and reprinted as Dreadstar Annual #1.
This graphic novel is billed as "A new Metamorphosis Odyssey book" thought there isn't anything in its setting or characters to tie it to that other work (yet).

An oppressive church state is a trope Starlin has worked with before. The Church of Universal Truth was the main bad guy of Starlin's "Magus Saga"  at Marvel. The use of the term "Instrumentality" may have it's origins in Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind.