Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Painting the Mythos: Mi-Go

June has been a difficult month for me.  Lower back pain has prevented me from sitting for more than few minutes a time and has really cut into my gaming, painting, and blogging.  Fortunately, after a couple of weeks of physiotherapy, I'm starting to reclaim my life and hopefully I'll be posting a little more regularly.

While I haven't gotten much painting done, I did manage to finish off the intersellar horrors we know as the fungi from Yuggoth.

"They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where the head would ordinarily be."
-from The Whisperer in Darkness

This is not a fantastic sculpt, and it doesn't reproduce Lovecraft's description with much fidelity.  This miniature is too humanoid in appearance and lacks the mi-go's crustacean-like multiple sets of jointed appendages, but it will do in a pinch.

The fungi from Yuggoth have established numerous colonies in the mountainous regions of the world, where they mine for rare ores.  They are more closely related to fungus than animal and they communicate with one another by changing the colours of their brain-like head.  They can communicate with humans by speaking in buzzing, insect-like voices.

The mi-go needed to keep a close watch on Larry, the fun guy from Yuggoth
Mi Go
Armour Class: 8         Special: grapple
Hit Dice: 2                 Move: 9/15 (when flying)
Attacks: Nippers        HDE/XP: 2/30

Mi-go attack with both claws at once.  If the victim is hit the mi-go will attempt to grapple the victim and fly off with him, either dropping him from a great height or suffocating him in the upper atmosphere.

If slain, a mi-go's body will dissolve in just a few hours.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Demons of Darkness

When I first started playing D&D I had not read much in the fantasy genre, other than Tolkien, and I had a tough time putting the game in a familiar context and wrapping my head around what it was all about.  Consequently, a lot of my early gaming was influenced by mythology, and by my love of Ray Harryhausen movies, particularly Jason and the Argonauts, and the Sinbad movies.

One of the most influential of these cinematic frames of reference was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which helped me to visualize what a D&D adventure should be like.  This movie pretty much had it all: a fragmented treasure map, a sinister sorcerer, fearsome monsters, fabulous treasure and, best of all, one of the hottest slave-girls in cinema, played by Caroline Munro of Hammer Films fame.

I just watched this movie again yesterday, for the first time in years, with my five-year-old daughter, and I was  amazed to find that it still embodies many of the things I love in a D&D game; particularly the dark and sinister nature of magic much like my favourite pulp sword & sorcery novels.

This is something that I've always felt has been lacking from D&D magic.  Even as a kid, D&D magic never really resonated with me, mainly because I'd never read the works of Jack Vance, and I had no literary or cinematic context in which to place it.  I still haven't read Vance, but I recently order the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus so that shortcoming will soon be rectified, and maybe I'll finally gain a greater appreciation of D&D magic.

Nonetheless, magic as a sinister force is a well-entrenched convention in my favourite sword & sorcery novels, but it was interesting to see how my early exposure to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad influenced my perception of magic users, since I was only introduced to S&S fiction after having played D&D.

At the beginning of The Golden Voyage we are introduced to the evil sorcerer, Koura, a swarthy, and charismatic figure whose very demeanor implies power and menace.

Right from the get go, we know that Koura is a powerful man not to be trifled with, but that power comes at a cost.

We first see the toll that magic takes on Koura when he is forced to create a new homunculus familiar to replace the one that burst into flames after Sinbad caught it spying on him.  As Koura prepares to animate the new homunculus, his henchman begs him not to weaken himself, but Koura replies that the demons of darkness will not be denied and proceeds to slice his arm open and let his blood drip down onto the homunculus, bringing it to life.

Notice how much older Koura looks at this point?  One the really cool things about this movie is how he very gradually becomes aged and weak as the price for his magic.  In the latter half of the film he looks seriously worn out, with red-rimmed eyes, greying beard, and withered hands.

Each spell ages him a little more until, at the end he is withered and frail, with barely the strength to crawl the last few feet to the Fountain of Destiny.

This is great stuff, and I've always wished that the D&D spell system included some mechanic to represent the physical or spiritual cost of trafficking with the "demons of darkness." For the past couple of years I've been tinkering with rules to accomplish this, but with an option for truly evil magic users to make human sacrifice to avoid paying the cost themselves, which is another classic sword & sorcery convention (and also provides the characters with a steady stream of slave-girls to rescue).

Another thing I love about The Golden Voyage is the nature of Koura's magic.  It's subtle and relatively low-key.  He doesn't go around flinging bolts of arcane energy, immolating his enemies with fireballs, or frying them with lightning bolts.  Instead, Koura delves into his chest of spell components to animate the figure head of Sinbad's ship to steal his chart of Lemuria, collapse the entrance to subterranean caverns trapping Sinbad and his crew, and finally animating a statue of Kali to gain the loyalty of Lemurian savages, then pitting it against Sinbad in a dramatic fight.

Thus, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad remains one of my favourite cinematic examples of the sword & sorcery influences in D&D.

What is especially interesting is how closely Koura's homunculus familiar resembles the Find Familiar spell of AD&D.  He uses the familiar to spy on Sinbad, and is able to see and hear what it does.  There is also an obvious physical link between Koura and his familiar, and he cries out in pain when the homunculus is killed.

This is such a great and iconic magic user spell, that no sword & sorcery campaign should be without it.  Since Swords & Wizardry Whitebox has no Familiar spell, here's my one of my own:

Bind Homunculus
Spell Level: M1
Range: Near caster
Duration: Permanent

Once bound, a homunculus becomes the caster's familiar, serving as a spy, scout, and guardian.  It can converse with its master with whom it shares a mental link allowing the caster to see and hear what the homunculus does.

The magic user must craft the homunculus out of materials costing no less than 100 gp.  The magic user may sculpt the homunculus in any form he desires, but they are often given wings, allowing them to fly.

To animate and bind the homunculus the magic user must complete a one-hour long ritual that culminates in the caster sacrificing 1d4 hit points to bring it to life.  The homunculus has a number of hit points equal those lost by the caster.  The magic user heals this damage normally, but should the homunculus be killed he immediately loses those hit points permanently.

Armour Class: 7             Special: n/a
Hit Dice: <1 (1d4 hp)     Move: 9/15 (if flying)
Attack: Bite or claw        HDE/XP: <1/10 xp

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Painting the Mythos: Serpent People

This was a pretty straightforward miniature to paint, complicated only by its small size (about 2 cm), which made the details difficult to paint, especially for my aging eyes that have become spoiled by the larger 28 mm scale miniatures that are popular today.

The serpent was base-coated with Citadel Orkhide Shade, then given a black wash.  The scales were picked out with Citadel Gnarloc Green, and then the body was washed with Citadel Thraka Green. The scales were highlighted with Citadel Goblin Green, followed by an extreme highlight along the most prominent ridges on the head, jaws, and neck with Reaper Pale Green.  The body was then glazed with very watered down Thraka Green, to knock back some of the harshness of the highlighting and smooth out the finish.

The robes were base-coated with Citadel Scab Red then washed with black.  A mid tone layer of Citadel Mechrite Red was applied to all but the recesses of the robes, which were then highlighted by a 1:1 mix of Mechrite Red:Citadel Vomit Brown.  The eyes, tongue, and fangs were painted in, and voila, a quick and easy paint job was complete.

The idea of an ancient civilization of snake people is a recurring theme in many fantasy role playing campaigns, as well as fantasy literature.  Serpent people figured prominently in Chris Pramas's popular Lovecraftian-influenced D&D 3.0 adventure, Death in Freeport, and the snake-like Pantathians are common antagonists in Raymond Feist's Midkemia novels. Serpent people just keep cropping up, and as worn out as they idea may have become, I never tire of them.

In D&D the serpent people are presented as the Yuan-ti, but while traditional serpent people rely upon sorcery and super science, the Yuan-ti have been upscaled and depicted as heavily muscled warriors.  I've got a real fondness for snake people of any ilk, and I have a number of Reaper 'Yuan-ti' miniatures, which I've painted in a variety of colours to represent species diversity:

But, as cool as these guys are, I'll always prefer the robed bipedal snakes of the Cthulhu mythos that scheme in secret, summon demons, and whip out ray-guns to dispatch interlopers.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Painting the Mythos: Nightgaunts

"...Shocking and uncouth black things with smooth, oily, whale-like surfaces, unpleasant horns that curved inward toward each other, bat wings whose beating made no sound, ugly prehensile paws, and barbed tails that lashed needlessly and disquietingly.  And worst of all, they never spoke or laughed, and never smiled because they had no faces at all to smile with, but only a suggestive blankness where a face ought to be.  All they ever did was clutch and fly and tickle; that was the way of the nightgaunts."
- H.P. Lovecraft - The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Here's the latest miniature in my quest to finally paint my boxed set of Call of Cthulhu mythos creatures.  The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath was the very first Lovecraft story I ever read, and so nightgaunts (and ghouls) were the first mythos creatures I was ever introduced to, and for that reason they occupy a special place in my heart.  There is something chilling about a silent bat-winged and faceless creature that carries its victims off to untold terrors even if their signature 'tickle-attack' struck me as little silly back when I was young.

The nightgaunt was a tough one to paint; at least difficult to paint well while remaining true to Lovecraft's description.  Once upon a time I might have simply painted the whole thing black and called it done, but this does a grave disservice to such a nicely-sculpted miniature and would obscure much of the detail.  While I've stuck with black as the dominant colour, I also highlighted the body with dark grey to make the details stand out as well as suggesting light reflecting off the smooth, oily skin.  The deep red on the inside of the wings does not strictly accord with the description, but it provides a spot of much needed colour to punch up the model and emphasize the detail.  The wings were painted with Reaper Deep Red, then dry-brushed with Reaper Blood Red, then lightly dry-brushed with Reaper Entrail Pink.

Armour Class: 6                     Special: N/A
Hit Dice: 3                              Move: 12/18 (when flying)
Attacks: Grapple or tickle       HDE/XP: 4/120

Grapple: if a nightgaunt makes a successful melee attack against AC 9, it has successfully immobilized its victim.  The victim may attempt to break free by making a successful strength check minus the HD of the nightgaunt.
Tickle: a victim previously immobilized by grappling can be tickled, which will paralyze him for 1d6 rounds unless the victim makes a successful saving throw.  No type of clothing or armour will protect the victim from  this attack.

Nightgaunts may be summoned by sorcerers who serve the Lord of the Great Abyss, and they are often employed to retrieve objects or kidnap subjects for the sorcerer.  They also sometimes dispose of the sorcerer's enemies by dropping them from great heights or stranding them in some forlorn and dismal locale.

New Spell:
Summon Nightgaunt
Spell level: M5
Range: Near caster
Duration: 1 turn per level of the caster

This spell may normally only be learned by priests and cultists of the Lord of the Great Abyss.  It must be cast at night when moon is below the horizon, upon a flat stone surface inscribed with an Elder Sign.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: Blackmarsh

I spent most of the month of May traveling to conferences, and I just returned home from a trip to the northern rockies to find a copy of Rob Conley's Blackmarsh in my pile of mail, courtesy of Tim Shorts of Gothridge Manor.  So after weeks of travel it was nice to relax at home with good coffee and a new game book.

by Robert S. Conley, Bat in the Attic Games
Available from RPGNow
PDF: Free
Staple-bound soft cover: $7.00

Blackmarsh is an old school product that would feel right at home in the 1970's; from its cover, which resembles the World of Greyhawk folder, to its layout and presentation, it radiates old school charm.  This is a product I wish I'd had thirty years ago and if it had been included in the Holmes Basic Set along with Keep on the Borderlands, I would have had a much easier time figuring out what D&D was all about and how to go about creating my own setting and adventures.

This fifteen page booklet describes the geographical area around Castle Blackmarsh, the principle stronghold of Law in the region, which, in the finest old school tradition, sits atop a dungeon that its rulers lack the man-power to clear out.  A map and description of Castle Blackmarsh is also included.

The setting consists of bare-bones descriptions of seventy-five locales, by hex number, which provide numerous adventure hooks that the DM can use to create site-based adventures.
E.g. 1911 This network of caves is home to 105 orcs (1 HD) of the Bateater Tribe.  They pay an annual tribute to the Brotherhood of the Raven (see 1807).

The minimal detail in Blackmarsh allows beginning DM's to expand upon it as they like and use it as a starting point to create their own campaign world.

There is very little to criticize in this product.  The maps are of professional quality, and the text is well laid-out and easy to read.  My only suggestions for improvement would be to put the maps at the end of the book so you don't have to hunt for them every time you want to reference a hex description with its location on the map.  Also, several of the locale descriptions are events-in-progress, such as "six trolls are feasting on the remains of a slain merchant caravan," which conjures the image of six trolls sitting around drinking tea and playing cribbage to pass the time until the adventurers arrive.  A better approach, in my opinion, would be to describe the area as home to a band of trolls who like to waylay caravans.

My understanding is that Blackmarsh will be included in the Delving Deeper boxed set, which I think is an ideal use for it.  I can't think of a better way to give beginning DMs a playground in which to place their adventures.    While Blackmarsh is not likely useful to experienced DMs I heartily recommend it for beginners and I think it may become a classic introductory product that will be as fondly remembered by a new generation of gamers as Keep on the Borderlands was by ours.