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?"

Friday, July 29, 2011

Into the Midgewater Marshes

'I am being eaten alive!' cried Pippin. 'Midgewater! There are more midges than water!' - J.R.R. Tolkien

Like most of us, I have an utter revulsion for small biting insects, against whose predations there is little defense.  The first time I ever read The Lord of the Rings, I cringed in sympathy as the hobbits followed Strider into the Midgewater Marshes and in the years since, I've traversed many buggy places in the world, and have come to appreciate Sam's query, "What do they live on when they can't get hobbit?"  But never more so than in the last week.

Compare scene above from the movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, with the uncannily similar view from my bedroom window in the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

The following excerpt from The Lord of the Rings describes the Midgewater Marshes, but applies equally well to the tundra along the Hudson Bay coastline, where I spent the last week doing palaeontological field-work:

"The ground now became damp, and in places boggy and here and there they came upon pools, and wide stretches of reeds and rushes filled with the warbling of little hidden birds.  They had to pick their way carefully to keep both dry-footed and on their proper course."

In Churchill, too, the ground was damp, and in places boggy, with pools here and there.  There were also the cries of arctic terns and the sinister cackling of hidden ptarmigan.  But above all were the thick swarms of blood-sucking insects, including three different species of mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, deer flies and, yes, midges.  Black flies and midges are especially annoying as they have the tendency to fly into your ears, up your nose, in your mouth if you are so foolish as to open it, and I was even temporarily blinded by getting one in my eye.

What do they live on when they can't get palaeontologists?
The picture above is Royal Ontario Museum palaeontologist, Dave Rudkin, approximately fifteen seconds after getting out of the truck as he stopped to load his shotgun.

One of the challenges of doing field work in settings like this is to remain focused on the job at hand while also keeping a constant eye out for approaching polar bears, all the while trying to fend off thick swarms of insects that are determined to drive you insane while they drain your blood.  Then there are diverting games, like competing to see who can kill the most mosquitoes with a single swat.  All in all, it becomes very difficult to maintain concentration under such circumstances and I now have an all-new appreciation for the effectiveness of the third level AD&D Druid spell, Summon Insects, which I have adapted for my Swords & Wizardry campaign.  The spell effects seem pretty realistic in my experience, and this would make an excellent anti-magic-user spell.

Conjuration of the Pestilential Swarm
Spell Level: M3
Range: 60 ft.
Duration: 1 round per level of the caster

This spell causes a swarm of flesh-eating insects to envelop the targeted victim.  The swarm deals 2 points of damage per round.  The victim is incapacitated while engulfed in the swarm, and is unable to take any action except to swat ineffectually.  If the target is killed before the spell expires the swarm can be directed at a new target.  The swarm can move 20 ft. per round.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Painting the Mythos: Deep Ones

I haven't been doing much painting, or posting, lately.  Like much of the continent, Winnipeg has been caught in the grip of a brutal heat-wave, and with record-breaking humidity to make it extra fun.  So I've spent the last week cowering in the basement of my non-air-conditioned house.  One of the best ways to survive the heat is a vacation to the beach - unless, that is, the local residents all have a certain 'Innsmouth look.'

Dagon has long been my favourite Great Old One, and his cults figure prominently in most of my campaigns.  And of course, what's a Dagon cult without Deep Ones?  As an aside, if there is anyone who hasn't read Lovecraft, but is looking to give him a try, I recommend The Shadow Over Innsmouth as an excellent jumping in point as it is a wonderful, creepy story that is a great introduction to the Cthulhu Mythos.

The body was base-coated with a mix of Reaper Forest Green and Mahogany Brown, then layered with successively lighter tones of green and turquoise.  The under-arms and belly were painted with a mix of Pale Green, and Pure White, with a wash of Sunlight Yellow around the margins.  The eyes were painted Deep Red, then blended up through orange to yellow at the center.

The base was sculpted using Epoxolite epoxy modelling putty.  I glued sand on the base behind the creature, and sculpted ripple marks in front, then filled these with Realistic Water to make it look like the Deep One is standing at the water's edge.

Deep Ones have long been present in D&D, represented by the Kuo-Toa, but several other sinister aquatic races have appeared in the game, such as Sahuagin and Aboleths, which like many of D&D's classic monsters, have some obvious Lovecraftian influences.

A few years ago, during a heavily Dagon-centric sea-faring D&D campaign, my players all chipped to buy me this awesome Dagon figure in hopes of eventually confronting him.  Sadly the party all wiped at mid-level, prematurely ending the campaign before the epic confrontation could occur.

The heat wave in Winnipeg has finally broken, and I'll be spending the rest of the day packing for my own trip to the sea shore.  Tomorrow I'm off for a week of field-work in Churchill, a remote community on the shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba's subarctic, and assuming I don't have any fatal encounters with polar bears or Deep Ones, I'll post pictures when I get back.  For those of you still suffering the heat, try to keep cool, and if you are planning a trip to the beach, keep a wary eye out for wide-mouthed locals with bulging eyes - you never know...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

For the Guidance of Wise Men

I took my daughter to the beach today. I set up my beach chair near the water's edge, and prepared to enjoy a little Vance while watching her frolic in the water.  Alas it was not to be.  An officious teen-age life guard made her get out of the water and told me that she couldn't go back in without an adult in the water within arm's reach. This might seem reasonable, except that in this circumstance she has had two years of swimming lessons, was splashing in knee-deep water while wearing a floater jacket, and I was only a few meters away watching.  There was no possible harm that could have come to her, but that doesn't matter.  Rules are rules and must be strictly obeyed, right?  Apparently, Surf Nazis really do exist.

This whole thing got me to thinking about how our society is becoming increasingly regulated by 'zero-tolerance' policies.  A common example that frequently irks me is school buses.  Whenever a school bus embarks or disembarks passengers a battery of flashing red lights signals the imminent demise of the world and a big stop sign is displayed to drive the point home.  There is even a big long bar that swings out to physically prevent kids from running in front of the bus and into the street.  All traffic in both directions must stop until the lights stop flashing.  Again, a reasonable precaution.  In some circumstances.  But, more often than not, the bus ends up bringing four lanes of traffic to a grinding halt on a main thoroughfare at rush hour for the sake of one child whose parent holds her hand while she gets on or off the bus.  There is no possible threat to the child from street traffic unless said parent physically hurls her in front of a passing car, yet everyone must still stop.  This continues on from pre-school right through high school, and I sat waiting a few weeks ago, for a group of seventeen and eighteen-year old students some of whom have the right to vote, but can't trusted to get off a bus without killing themselves.

I could cite many other such examples of ridiculous safety precautions to protect us against non-existent or extremely improbable threats, that I'm sure exist, primarily, to increase my blood pressure.  It isn't just the inconvenience that annoys me, but also the social implications of artificially selecting for stupidity by weening common sense out of the gene pool and raising a generation of narcissists who have been taught their whole lives that the world, literally, stops for them.  But, every time someone dies of improbable circumstance, the Maude Flanders' of the world embark upon crusades to make sure that it never happens to anyone ever again.  The end result is that we are plagued with yet another 'zero-tolerance' policy.

Now, I'm all for rules and guidelines, but I have absolutely no patience for stupidity, and in my experience zero tolerance = zero brains.  The people whose job it is to enforce rules usually fall into two camps; they either are not allowed any latitude in applying the rule, which is likely the case with bus drivers and officious teen aged lifeguards, or they lack the wit to understand the rules they are paid to enforce, which covers most bureaucrats and administrators, though some are just bullies who like to bludgeon people into submission, wielding a rule book like a truncheon.  I ran into into far more than my share of these latter two types of administrators during my years in the navy, and I'm sure that anyone in any branch of civil service has as well.

Stand by for segue in 5....4....3....2....1....

 For nearly as long as role playing games have existed there has been conflict between rules-lawyers who insist on strict interpretation of the rules and are quick to jump on the slightest infraction, and those who prefer to wing it and use the guidelines to adjudicate situations on a case-by-case basis using common sense to modify the rules to fit the circumstances.  And, yeah, just like those administrators, there are game masters who just don't understand the game or who are bullies who empower themselves with the rules.

But it occurs to me that a sort of zero-tolerance policies are making its way into modern game systems, creating a third type of rule-Nazi; game masters who are not allowed any latitude in the interpretation of the rules.  Games like 4E have such complex tapestries of rules, designed to cover every situation without the need for much thought or common sense, that even if you wanted to, winging it would only cause the tapestry to unravel.

It is interesting that our hobby parallels society as a whole, and that as our lives become increasingly regulated by rules that often don't make any sense, so do our games.  Coincidence?  I don't know, but it's interesting to ponder.

I was confronted by the rules-as-written vs. rules-as-intended dilemma just other day while playing in a Warhammer 40K mega-battle.  We're running a huge multi-session battle with three teams of six players and no less than 12,000 points worth of miniatures on the table.  At one point my partner proposed firing on a group of Space Marines and Dark Eldar who were locked in close combat.  According to the rules you are not allowed to shoot into close combat, but the rules assume a fight between two sides and the intent is that there is too great a risk of hitting your own men to shoot into a melee.  In this case, because the melee involved two enemy forces, it would make perfect sense to shoot at them, because no matter who dies, we win.  There was strong objection by one of the Space Marine players who argued that the rule was the rule and should not be broken (though I doubt he would have mounted such a ardent objection had it not been some of his troops involved in the melee), and it is another interesting example of rules applied when it doesn't make any sense.

Now, I'm a 'spirit of the law' kind of guy, both in life and in gaming, but obviously not everybody agrees with that philosophy.  So, I guess all you can do is try not to let the bastards get you down and take heart in knowing that some day, even Surf Nazis must die.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Day of the Dying Earth

Today is Canada Day, and in my house that means just one thing.  My family heads off to attend the Canada Day celebrations leaving me at home, blissfully alone, with an entire afternoon to myself.  Yes, it is the Day of Sean!  I'm even thinking of petitioning to have Canada's birthday officially renamed The Day of Sean in much the same way that I renamed my birthday Sean Appreciation Day - I still get cake and presents, I just don't get any older.

I spent the afternoon on my front porch with a carafe of coffee and a good book - namely, Jack Vance's classic, The Dying Earth, which I am only now reading for the very first time.  I can't believe I've been playing D&D for thirty years without having read this, one of the Appendix N books that Gygax cited as one of the most immediately influential upon AD&D.  And wow, have I been missing out.  I recently ordered Tales of the Dying Earth, which contains all four of Vance's Dying Earth books.  I've just gotten through The Dying Earth and I'm absolutely enamoured.  This book is fantastic!  If there are any other recalcitrant hold-outs out there, do yourself a favour and pick this up.

As I immersed myself in tales of self-centered protagonists searching the ancient ruins of our advanced civilization for artifacts of power, I couldn't help thinking that this would make a fantastic campaign setting or rpg, and sure enough, the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game is published by Pelgrane Press and their free quickstart rules can be downloaded here.

Now I'm to haul my barbequed hamburger-laden stomach off to the back yard to start on The Eyes of the Overworld, and bask in more Vancean goodness, so I bid you all a very happy Day of Sean!