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?"

Monday, November 11, 2013

Adventures in Hybras

After a months-long gaming drought, I've finally started a new campaign to introduce my seven-year-old daughter to the joys of gaming.  I chose to use the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules; these rules are not quite as bare-bones as my usual Whitebox set, but not so cumbersome as S&W Complete.  In short, it is a great rule set for young gamers.

I've set the campaign on the fictional island of Hybras, off the south coast of Ireland, during the reign of the Roman Empire, and I've incorporated a lot of Welsh mythology into the setting.  I'm drawing primarily upon Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, Jack Vance's tales of Lyonesse (Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl, Madouc) and Grimm's Fairy Tales for inspiration.

One of the benefits of setting the campaign in a real-world setting is being able to use it as a spring board to teach my daughter about different ancient cultures and mythology.  While I've started the campaign in Hybras, I plan to eventually leave those shores and have the players travel the world and visit Rome, Greece and Egypt.

We're already two sessions into the campaign and my daughter is already pestering me for her own set of dice (because, as we all know, borrowed dice don't have the right mojo).  We're exploring the Caves of Chaos from the venerable Keep on the Borderlands.  This was my first introduction to D&D and I wanted it to be my daughter's as well.

The story, thus far, is that a vital trade caravan from Avalon has been hijacked by bands of goblins, depriving the isolated village of Caer Darrig of supplies it will desperately need before winter sets in.  A small group of villagers, led by Brianne the Bold and Ariana the Nimble have set out to track down the missing caravan.  While trekking through the woods late one afternoon, the band came upon a cozy-looking cottage in a clearing.  Ariana the Nimble horrified her mother and I by immediately proposing to "kill whoever lives there and take over the cottage!"  After sneaking up to the cottage and peering through the window she discovered the cottage was the home of a little old lady who was bustling about her kitchen, preparing her evening meal.  When my wife said, "See, it's just an old lady; she's no threat to us," my daughter replied, "Great, she'll be easy to kill!"  I can see that we have a natural born gamer on our hands.

It turned out that Ariana's instincts were correct, as the old woman predictably turned out to be a witch intent on charming and ultimately eating the party.  My daughter's indoctrination by the Brother's Grimm served her in good stead.

After dispatching the witch and looting her cottage of its valuables, the party tracked the caravan to the dreaded Caves of Chaos, where they explored one set of caverns, killing or capturing a band of wicked boggles that lived there.  They discovered the cache of captured supplies and rescued three captive merchants, who informed the party that Caer Darrig faced an even graver threat than missing supplies: an evil cleric of Chaos was uniting the various humanoid tribes to invade the village...

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reaper Kickstarter II: The Return of Mr. Bones

Having fulfilled the pledges from their first, fantastically successful Bones Kickstarter, Reaper is at it again and has launched a second Kickstarter, which threatens to eclipse the last.  The new Kickstarter has been live for about 20 minutes as I write this, and they are already have more than $211,000 in pledges (of a $30,000 goal).  So, if you missed out on the first Bones Kickstarter, or just want fill your entire house with polymer plastic miniatures and risk the ire of your wife (*cough, cough*), here's your chance!

Here's what the basic pledge will get you (they haven't put the stretch goal rewards on the site yet):

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Libram Mysterium: Submission Deadline

When I was a kid, summer holidays seemed to last forever and I had all the time in the world to do everything I wanted.  These days, not so much; each summer seems to pass more quickly than the last.  I feel like we only just opened Pulp Mill Press to submissions for the Libram Mysterium anthology, and now there are only two weeks left.

So if you're planning to submit a story and haven't done so yet, now's the time to finish it off and get it in.  If you are working on a story, but don't anticipate being able to finish by the September 1st deadline, email me at pulpmillpress4@gmail.com and we can work something out.  Go ahead, flood our inbox with submissions.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

What D&D Character Are You?

Here's a fun little personality survey to determine what type of character you would be.  It's pretty detailed, with 129 questions, although many of them didn't include a response that actually represented my beliefs or predilections.  So, what kind of D&D character would you be?

I Am A: Chaotic Good Human Wizard (7th Level)

Ability Scores:

Chaotic Good A chaotic good character acts as his conscience directs him with little regard for what others expect of him. He makes his own way, but he's kind and benevolent. He believes in goodness and right but has little use for laws and regulations. He hates it when people try to intimidate others and tell them what to do. He follows his own moral compass, which, although good, may not agree with that of society. Chaotic good is the best alignment you can be because it combines a good heart with a free spirit. However, chaotic good can be a dangerous alignment when it disrupts the order of society and punishes those who do well for themselves.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard's strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Unboxing the Bones

This afternoon while in the midst of editing stories for Libram Mysterium, which are coming in at a steady pace, my long-awaited Reaper Bones Kickstarter shipment arrived.  A disciplined man would have finished the story he was currently editing.  I am not such a man.

I did restrain myself enough to take pictures before ripping into the package and strewing the contents about the house, so I thought I'd share what a Vampire level box of miniatures looks like:

1. The 11-pound carton that UPS delivered to my door:

2. The box of Bones miniatures and the three miniature storage cases that were add-ons to the Kickstarter:

3. The insides of one of the storage cases (150 figure capacity):

4. And finally, the miniatures themselves (click to embiggen):

It took me nearly an hour to open each individually-wrapped miniature and set them up.  There are still some unopened packages in the background consisting of a small horde of goblins and rats that I still haven't opened.

This should be enough miniatures to keep me painting for the near future.  Of course there is still the odious task of washing and prepping each one and removing mold-lines.  To quote Homer Simpson: "Can't somebody else do it?"

Well, back to editing.  Keep those submissions coming, I'm starting to catch up!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Pulp Mill Press Now Open for Submissions

You know what I miss?  Pulp adventure stories.  The sort of dark, gritty tales with morally ambiguous characters that were made popular in the 1920's and '30's.  They've sort of fallen out of fashion these days - at least in short fiction markets.  The most recently published good short story anthology I read was the Thieves World series.

This is bad news if these are the sorts of stories you like to read.  It's even worse news if these are the sorts of stories you like to write.  There are few venues for speculative short fiction these days, and even fewer of them are receptive to heroic fantasy and weird fiction.  That's why Tim Shorts (Gothridge Manor), Ken Harrison (The Rusty Battleaxe), Boric G (The Dwarven Stronghold), and I decided to form Pulp Mill Press.  We want to publish the sorts of stories that we love to read and we're putting the call out for stories to be included in our first anthology, Libram Mysterium.  We know that many of the members of the OSR community share our love of weird fiction and we're hoping that at least some of you are writers as well as gamers and will contribute a story.

The pay isn't great.  Heck, it's non-existent; all we're offering in compensation is a complimentary electronic copy of the finished book.  The reason for this is that we don't have funding to buy stories, and we aren't in the position to make that kind of personal investment, so our plan is to hopefully raise enough money through the sale of Libram Mysterium to offer page-rates for our next anthology.  Eventually, we hope to be able to pay professional rates.  We are eager to work with new and emerging authors, to grow along with you, and to fill a much-need gap in the publishing industry.

We like our warriors mighty-thewed, our rogues cunning, our sorcerers sinister and our horrors cosmic. If you can tell a story with well-developed characters and fill us with wonder and dread we want to see it!

Please visit the Pulp Mill Press home page and submission guidelines for more information.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at pulpmillpress4@gmail.com.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Session Report: Canopus Rising

I've had a bit of a gaming hiatus lately, after my group of six years recently disbanded.  Nonetheless I had a great one-on-one Call of Cthulhu Skype session with Shane Mangus, guru of the Outer Dark.  Talk about pressure - maybe for my encore I should present a physics lecture to Stephen Hawking.  Anyhow, much fun was had and, for once, no player character died or went insane (but nearly all the NPCs did).  I present for your consideration: Canopus Rising...

The hills west of Arkham shelter deep valleys thickly-wooded and secret.  Farms dot the gentler slopes with moss-covered cottages and sagging barns, and the stillness of a languorous afternoon is filled with the thick droning of flies.  Richard Rafferty, freelance journalist, arrived in this torpid, lonely country to to investigate a recent report of cattle mutilation in the area.

Rafferty was met at the train station by local veterinarian, Dr. Peter Cross, who drove him out to the farm of Harley Jenkins, the farmer who just a few days earlier discovered one of his cows dead by unusual circumstances: three deep incisions on each side of the body, and a three-inch-diameter hole drilled into the top of the animals skull.  The brains had been completely removed.

Nor was this the first time that Jenkins had suffered such a loss.  Five years earlier he and his neighbour, Nate Kavanagh had lost animals to similar circumstances.  Indeed, as Harley Jenkins was happy to disclose, such mutilations had been occurring every five years, like clockwork, for the past fifty years - starting around the time that big meteorite crashed in the Sawnee Creek valley.

After photographing the scene, Dr. Cross dropped Rafferty off in town to check into a hotel, with a promise to pick him up first thing in the morning.  At a local diner Rafferty gossiped with the waitress about the incident and she told him that fifteen years ago two local boys, Mark Tilson and Billy Dufresne had been seen hiking up Sawnee Creek towards Crater Lake and the desolate surrounding area known locally as The Scar.  Neither boy was ever seen again.

After supper, Rafferty checked in at the police station and introduced himself to the sheriff, Al Corrigan, who was clearly frustrated by the recurrence of the mutilations and his lack of leads as to their perpetrators.  "These cows weren't killed by no animal I ever seen, and I can only guess it must've been a man that did it.  But I just can't imagine anyone from hearabouts doing something like that," he said.

The next morning as Rafferty and Dr. Cross were driving out to visit 'The Scar' they were pulled over by the sheriff, who asked the doctor to head out to Nate Kavanagh's farm - four of his sheep had been killed in the night.  Kavanagh found the dead sheep, killed in exactly the same way as Jenkin's cow, early that morning in their pen near the house with the rest of the herd.  Kavanagh said he never heard any sound of commotion or alarm from the sheep during the night.

After leaving Kavanagh's farm, Rafferty and Cross drove out to Jack Tilson's place - his son was one of the boys who disappeared fifteen years ago.  Over several glasses of home-brewed whiskey, Tilson told the story of how he'd led the search party looking for the boys.  He'd been scouting ahead, alone, along the shore of Crater Lake when he felt a strange compulsion that drew him towards a cave entrance.  At the mouth of the cave he smelled something like the musty, acrid smell of a snake hibernaculum combined with rotting meat.  So great was his fear and loathing that he shook off his torpor and fled the area without investigating further.  To his lasting shame, he was so unmanned by the experience that he never told anyone else about the cave and he's never ventured down into The Scar ever since.

Rafferty convinced Tilson to lead them to Crater Lake and show them the cave entrance, and perhaps gain some closure on his son's disappearance.  Tilson took his .30-.30 off the wall and guided Rafferty and Cross on a hike over the ridge to the west and down into Sawnee Creek valley.  They spent several hours hiking north up the creek bed to the shore of Crater Lake.  The thick vegetation abruptly died off, as did the droning of flies when they entered the desolate area known as The Scar - a broad swath cut through the valley where the meteorite had plowed through fifty years ago, which had never regrown.  Sure enough, concealed by rock outcrop was a cave entrance on the cliff face on the lake's eastern shore.  Approaching the cave the party was overwhelmed by the sickening smell from within, though Tilson said he didn't feel the same pull in his mind that drew him there the first time.  They entered the dark cave and Rafferty heard crunching beneath  his feet.  Shining the electric torch down, he saw that the cave floor was littered with animal bones - birds, rabbits, foxes, cats - and Jack Tilson suddenly gasped then fell to his knees and picked up a small human skull with a hole drilled in the top.  Next to it was another adolescent human skeleton.  Mark's and Billy's fate was finally discovered.

The party collected up the boys' bones and hiked back to Tilson's place.  Upon arrival they found that Dr. Cross's truck had been vandalized: the hood and doors had been torn off, and the engine and battery was missing.  Just then Sheriff Corrigan arrived and reported that John Crenshaw's tractor had been vandalized and destroyed.  They were able to make out where the truck engine had been dragged into the bush, and the sheriff, along with Jack Tilson, Dr. Cross, and Rafferty followed the tracks north along the ridge parallel to Sawnee Creek.  By early evening they had followed the tracks to north of Crater Lake towards Ashton Butte.  They began their ascent of the butte, and reached the summit just after sunset.  There, they found a pile of mechanical parts that had been assembled to form what looked like some kind of battery-powered transmitter pointing directly at the skyline due south.

Just then, Rafferty heard a soft scratching like claw on rock and turned to see an enormous, white-carapaced spider like creature scuttling toward them, snapping its pincer-like claws.  Dr. Cross feinted dead away at the sight of the creature, Rafferty and the sheriff drew their pistols and snapped off quick shots while Tilson drew a bead on the creature with his rifle and hit it, cracking the carapace badly.  The creature veered towards Tilson and grasped him in its pincers, lifting him, screaming, off the ground.  Rafferty and the sheriff continued to fire their pistols at the creature, to little effect - their bullets ricocheting off the hard bony carapace.

Tilson's screams increased in pitch and terror as the creature lowered a writhing, toothy proboscis onto his head and began to bore into the bone.  The sheriff dropped his pistol and grabbed Tilson's abandoned rifle and continued to shoot at the beast, producing some more small cracks in the carapace.  Tilson's screams suddenly cut short as the creature began to feed - the proboscis bulging sickeningly as it sucked up his brains.  The creature dropped Tilson's lifeless body then advanced on the sheriff who swung his rifle like a club to fend the beast off.

Meanwhile, Rafferty, who had fired his pistol empty, dragged the unconscious Dr. Cross behind a rock outcrop and spent a few moments reloading.  By this time, sheriff Corrigan had run out of luck and had been caught up in the monster's embrace.  His brainless corpse soon joined that of Jack Tilson's.  The creature's proboscis probed the air, as if smelling for the other two intruders, then it began making its way toward the outcrop behind which Rafferty was hidden.  His pistol now reloaded, Rafferty braced his arm against the outcrop and took careful aim at the creature's fleshy proboscis.  He pulled the trigger and the proboscis erupted in a sickening slew of green ichor and partially-digested grey matter.  The creature collapsed, rapidly hemorrhaging from its maimed proboscis, and quickly died.

Rafferty slapped Dr. Cross awake, and the two of them made carefully made their way back to Jack Tilson's place, where they notified authorities of the deaths of Jack Tilson and Sheriff Corrigan.  The next morning they accompanied a party back up to Ashton Butte and found that the creature had dissolved, leaving only a pile of disarticulated pieces of exoskeleton.

Later, back in Arkham, Rafferty read, in the Boston Herald, of a rare astronomical event: the star Canopus would be visible in the northern hemisphere for the first time in centuries and could be seen as the brightest star on the southern horizon.  Exactly where the jury-rigged transmitter was pointed.

Creatures from Canopus - Lesser Independent Race

It had a narrow, segmented torso from which extended eight long, multi-jointed appendages, each terminating in claw-like pincers.  The thing was wholly contained within a bone-hard carapace and, instead of a head, its proximal end bore a long, flexible proboscis, pale white, which writhed like a maggot, with a toothy serrated maw at its end.

These large spider-like creatures are native to the Canopus system, located in the Carina constellation.  They spread from world to world, stripping it of resources and their scouts travel the galaxy, hibernating in stasis within meteoroids for millenia, until chance brings them to a new world.  Should that planet have suitable resources for their needs, the scout will construct a transmitter and send a signal back to Canopus so that colonization can commence.

The creatures feed by luring their prey within reach with a hypnotic psychic siren call, then hold it tight with their pincers while boring through the skull with its rasp-like proboscis.  This creates a three-inch-diameter hole in the skull through which the victim's brains are sucked out.

STR      5d6 (17-18)
CON    4d6 (14)
SIZ       6d6 (21)
INT      4d6 (14)
POW    3d6 (10-11)
DEX     3d6+6 (16-17)
Move    8/10 (swim)

Avg Damage Bonus: +1d6
Weapons: Claws 40%, 1d6 + damage bonus
                  Proboscis 100% 1d4 boring, 1d6 brain sucking on the subsequent
                  round and each round thereafter.
Psychic Siren Call  (Roll POW vs. POW on resistance table to hypnotize prey and lure it close)
Armour: 6-point carapace
Sanity Loss: 0/1d6

Friday, June 7, 2013

Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter

The much anticipated (at least by me) Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter has finally launched, and in the first day the initial funding goal of $40,000 has been exceeded by more than three times.  So, this has clearly caught the attention of Lovecraft fans.

The bad news is that most of the funding levels allow only a limited number of backers and they've sold out quickly.  You know how most crowd-source projects offer greater rewards at successively higher levels?  Not so much, here.  Instead as each funding level sells out, you have to pay more to get the same stuff at the higher funding levels.  I guess this is a way of rewarding people who jumped on board early, but unless you were one of the lucky ones who got in during the opening minutes of the campaign, you're going to be paying more for the game, which kind of rubs me the wrong way.  So the earliest backers got the complete game with a pledge of $110 and as of this post, you now have to pay $125 (and that level is  nearly sold out, too). Each successive pledge level costs you more, topping out at $150 for the game (plus $45 shipping if you live outside the US).  The game will retail for $169, so backing the Kickstarter isn't such a great deal.

I'm still pretty jazzed about the game - just look at the awesome miniatures - but I'm going to pass on the Kickstarter and wait to buy this retail when it's released.  I'm pretty gun-shy of crowd-source projects to begin with, and the reward doesn't seem to be worth the risk on this one.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen (June 29, 1920 - May 7, 2013)

I was saddened to learn of the passing, earlier today, of film legend, Ray Harryhausen.  Ray was one of the icons of my youth and remains one of my great gaming inspirations.  Who can ever forget the awe-inspiring skeleton fight scene from Jason and the Argonauts, which is surely what many of us still imagine when we fight skeletons in our games.

 I've posted before on how influential The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was and is, and its status as probably the greatest sword & sorcery film ever made.

And, in Valley of the Gwangi, Harry showed us that dinosaurs are like peanut butter: they make everything taste better.  The only thing better than cowboys is cowboys vs. dinosaurs!

I'm happy to say that Ray Harryhausen's influence continues even today: my little girl is a fan of his work and has spent many a Saturday afternoon curled up on the couch with me watching his movies and eating popcorn; she loves the giant creatures of Mysterious Island.

A legend has passed on today, and an era in film making has passed with him.  CGI effects will never thrill me the way Ray's hand-made models do and their absence takes a bit of the shine and magic out of movies today.  Special effects are now so pervasive that they are taken for granted rather than marveled at the way we did when a gigantic horror lurched onto the scene of one of Ray's movies.  He will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Session Report: Church of the Celestial Redeemer

Following the harrowing end of last session, Morgan Lynch, P.I., got himself to the hospital to recover from the gunshot wounds he received from cultists of the Ashen Brotherhood.  Randal Carter decided to further investigate the Chalice of Antioch, which had been sold to Sebastian Crawe for the princely sum of $8,000, and arranged a meeting at Crawe's estate that evening to discuss it.

Meanwhile, Devin McTavish, a small-time thief, was casing Crawe's estate when he was interrupted by a car pulling into the drive.  Hiding in the bushes, he saw several men get out and burst into the house, and then heard gunshots ring out.  Two of the intruders came out of the house, hustling a heavy-set man with a bag over his head into the car, which pealed out of the driveway and into the night.  He wasn't able to get a good look at the intruders, but he did manage to see the licence plate as the car drove away.

McTavish sneaked in through the open front door and found two dead men in the entry hall.  He was standing over them when Randal Carter arrived for his appointment a few minutes later.  They began to search the house: Randal for the Chalice of Antioch; Devin for anything that wasn't nailed down and could fit in his pockets.  The chalice was not to be found, and Randal assumed that the mysterious assailants took it with them.  They searched the bodies; Randal recognized one of them as Sebastian Shaw's driver and body guard.  The other had no identification, but had a tattoo of a burning cross on his wrist: the sign of the Ashen Brotherhood.

Randal suspected that the Ashen Brotherhood was headquartered in the burned out Church of the Celestial Redeemer, and he convinced Devin to accompany him.  Since Devin was deeply in debt to Tony Gambini for gambling losses, and was eager to hock the valuable chalice, he agreed to go along.  They arrived at the church and saw the intruder's car parked outside it.  Randal and Devin watched the church for an hour until another car pulled up and two more people got out and entered the abandoned building.  Devin broke into a nearby building and called the police to report a disturbance at the church.

They waited still longer until a police car came to investigate.  Two officers went into the church, but never came back out.  Eventually, Randal and Devin screwed up their courage and decided to investigate the church.  They crept through the front door, and into the burned out sanctuary.  Having brought no flashlight with them, they were forced make their way by the small flame of Devin's Ronson Wonderlite.

Suddenly, the floor collapsed beneath them.  Devin leaped to safety, but Randal fell through to the basement, aggravating the old war wound in his leg.  Trapped in total darkness, Randal feared to move, lest he blunder into some hazard, and called up to Devin for help.  Devin found a stairway to the basement and discovered a store room that contained several boxes of candles.  He lit two of them, and by their slightly better illumination, he found Randal waiting in the room beyond.

They began to explore the narrow, claustrophobic passageways of the old church basement, ducking to avoid low-hanging steam pipes.  The walls were punctuated with burial niches, many of them dating back to the early 1700's and all of them recently broken into.  Eventually, they came upon a small alcove containing a statue, which concealed a shaft in the floor and an old iron rung ladder descending into the darkness below.

They climbed down the ladder into a short passage that opened into a large catacomb-like chamber with a sheer drop of twenty feet into water of indeterminate depth.  Stone pillars supported a narrow stone bridge across the chamber to a passage on the far side, but the bridge had several large gaps where the stonework had crumbled.  Likewise, a ledge ran around the length of the room, but it, too, had crumbled away in places, leaving a discontinuous path.  Wooden planks spanned between the bridge and the ledge, allowing cautious passage across the gaps.  As they made their way carefully across the precarious path, Randal slipped and fell into the water far below.  The water was deep enough to break his fall, but the splash disturbed something in the water.  A gasping moan echoed through the chamber, and though he couldn't see it in the darkness, Randal could hear something splashing toward him, gibbering and gasping with urgent need.  He frantically made for the edge of the room, where Devin could see a rusted iron ladder.  Before Randal reached the ladder however, something emerged from the black water in front of him, and wrapped wet, clammy hands around his neck.  Devin fired blindly down into the pit with his .22 automatic but failed to hit anything.  Randal managed to break away from the creature grasping him, and climb up onto the ladder, shaking off the reaching hands that grasped his legs.

Once they were safely beyond the catacombs and into the passage beyond, they descended a flight of stairs into a massive chamber carved out of solid rock, supported by stone pillars that had been carved in the likeness of suckered tentacles.  The chamber, which they realized was much older than the church that had been built above it, could not have been engineered by early 18th century miners, presenting an unsettling question as to its architects.  As the chamber was far too large for them to see across by the dim light of their single remaining candle, they made their way carefully along the wall, eventually coming to a stone altar that was stained in a brown coloured crust.  The wall behind the altar was covered with a large velvet curtain.  The investigators continued on, not daring to look behind the curtain, and found another staircase leading still deeper into the earth.  As they were about to descend, they were surprised by two robed cultists coming up the stairs carrying a large bronze calyx.  They killed the cultists, took their robes and lantern and carried the calyx back down the stairs.

They made their way into what looked like a laboratory, filled with jars, vials, flasks, and various apparatuses.  Sebastian Crawe was bound to an operating table, and two withered husks in police uniforms lay upon the floor.  A robed man demanded to know why Randal and Devin were not preparing the altar for the summoning ritual, and the cult leader quickly realized that his lair had been invaded.  Crawe screamed for the two men to flee and save themselves, but instead Randal drew his pistol while Devin grabbed his shotgun that he stashed within the calyx.  Chanting a blasphemous supplication to the dark gods, the sorcerer assailed Devin's mind with monstrous visions of an alien reality that caused him to faint dead away from the shock of it.  Randal opened fire on the sorcerer with his .38 revolver, emptying its chambers, but missing the target in his panic.  The sorcerer then cast his spell again, this time subjecting Randal to the mental anguish of the Great Old Ones.  Randal's mind snapped and he flew into a homicidal rage, throwing himself desperately at his assailant.  The two struggled desperately before the sorcerer was able to strike Randal across the head with his silver-headed cane, caving in his skull.  At this moment, Devin regained consciousness, groped desperately for his fallen shotgun and blew the sorcerer's head off with a blast of 12-gauge buckshot.

Devin freed Crawe, who told him that the Ashen Brotherhood was planning to resurrect Jaques de Molay, who had been burned at the stake for witchcraft in the early 14th century, and that the cult would soon be congregating in the chamber above.  The Chalice of Antioch was instrumental in completing the resurrection of Molay's incomplete remains and that it was somewhere in the chamber above.

The two quickly went back upstairs and drew back the curtain behind the altar to reveal a life-sized bas-relief carving of an enormous winged creature with the head of an octopus crushing men beneath his feet.  They discovered the seams of a door concealed within the carving and they entered the office beyond it.  Another door in the office led to a library which contained shelves of occult books and the chalice they sought.  Ignoring the books, Devin grabbed the chalice and the two fled from the church.

Sebastian Crawe told Devin that he was an agent of the Order of the Temple: remnants of the disbanded Knights Templar who had, for centuries remained true to their vows, and fought to protect the world from the forces of darkness.  The Ashen Brotherhood, on the other hand, was founded by renegade knights who escaped the arrests in 1307 and they were attempting to resurrect their Grand Master who was condemned to die in 1314.  Crawe offered Devin money to pay off his gambling debts if he, in turn, would help to destroy the Ashen Brotherhood.  McTavish, fearing for his kneecaps, agreed.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Still Crazy After All These Years

When I started my recent Call of Cthulhu campaign I had every intention, as a good old-school curmudgeon, of sticking with my second edition rule book.  That resolution didn't last very long.  My curiosity quickly got the better of me; I cracked under the strain and bought the current sixth edition rules.

'New editions' have come to be a euphemism for 'completely unrelated game system bearing the same name' such as Wizards of the Coast regards them, or 'marketing tool to force people to buy the same game every four years' such as Games Workshop regards them.  It was refreshing and reassuring, therefore, to see that Call of Cthulhu has changed little over the past three decades and the sixth edition resembles the first edition so closely that the adventures for each are fully compatible.

The various editions of Call of Cthulhu have not changed the game so much as refined, elaborated upon, and expanded it.  It's the same game I've loved for decades, but with more spells, more weapons, and more creatures.  The skill list has been consolidated: zoology and botany have been replaced by biology, and where once there were two separate skills for reading and speaking a foreign language, you can now do both with a single skill rating.  Finally, there are now rules, skills, and equipment for running games in 1890's, 1920's, or modern settings.  So the sixth edition rules are the culmination of more than three decades of excellence in Lovecraftian role play.

It is also, unfortunately, a badly laid-out, disorganized mess.  The book's designer indulged in an orgy of excess.  The heading fonts are overly-elaborate and difficult to read, a condition which is exacerbated by embellishing them with drop-shadows.  The text is too small, and is often underlain by watermark images including, Nodens save me, latin text that makes reading the book a torturous ordeal.  Especially bad are the 'spot rules' side-bars which consist of white text printed in a miniscule font on a black background.  And then, just because the page isn't already busy enough, it is further embellished with faux burn marks along the margins and between the columns.  My poor aging eyes were bleeding after five minutes.  By the time I was done reading it I'd failed two consecutive SAN checks was gibbering madly.

The material is also very badly organized, making it very difficult to look things up even with the help of the index.  The insanity rules, for example are spread throughout the book instead of contained within a single chapter.  It would be ironic, but not surprising, if the insanity rules actually drove some Keeper insane.

I took sixth edition out for a spin at my last session and several times failed, after five minutes of fruitless searching, to find a given rule.  I then picked up my second edition rules and found what I needed in less than ten seconds.  Every time.

So, in a nutshell, Call of Cthulhu, sixth edition, is an excellent rule system flawed by incredibly poor design choices that make the book an absolute nightmare to read and use.  I'm glad to have the new rules, but hiring Abdul Alhazred to do the layout probably wasn't the wisest choice.  Hopefully, the forthcoming seventh edition will be designed to be read and used as a game book should be.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Session report: The Molay House Mystery

Our first session centered around an archetypal haunted house set in Boston in 1921, a premise that has kicked off many a Call of Cthulhu campaign.  A young woman, Vivian Molay, had recently inherited the estate of her late uncle Victor.  Vivian, who had grown up in this house, raised by her uncle and aunt, had only unhappy memories of her childhood and wanted to sort out her uncle's estate quickly and sell it off.  Victor ran an import company and was a collector of art and artifacts, and Vivian retained the services of antiquarian, Randal Ward, to assess the collection.  Because she had been harassed by various parties wishing to obtain artifacts from her late uncle's collection, she hired Morgan Lynch, a Boston area private investigator to provide security while she dealt with the estate.  Finally, her boyfriend, Damian Chase, a wealthy dilettante, was on hand to offer moral support.

The three investigators spent the whole first day inspecting the house and taking inventory of its contents, including an impressive collection of French impressionist paintings and ancient artifacts from around the world.  Morgan checked out the basement, which contained a coal room and furnace, a wine cellar, and a mysterious bricked-up crawl space.  The second floor contained the master bedroom, Vivian's childhood bedroom an empty bedroom and a study, and the attic contained Camille Molay's sick room and a store room.

While the others were inspecting the rest of the house, Morgan got some tools from the garden shed and got to work demolishing the bricked up space in the basement: he crawled through into a another small room and opened up a cellar door in the floor.  Dropping down into what looked like a cold room he was horrified to find the dessicated corpse of a teenaged boy chained to the floor.

Meanwhile, Vivian disclosed why she was so uncomfortable in the house: at the age of thirteen she was forced to care for her invalid aunt Camille, who was confined to a bedroom in the attic.  As her aunt's illness progressed, her mind began to slip, and caring for her became an increasingly unpleasant task - the old woman sat alone in her rocking chair, staring out the window and demanding tea.  One day, Vivian brought the afternoon tea only to find that her aunt's body hanging from a home-made noose, her limp body twisting slowly from the rafters.  Vivian swore, though it was likely the fancy of a traumatized young girl, that her dead aunt then opened her eyes and stared accusingly at her niece.  The episode left Vivian in Ravensview Asylum for a time, to treat her mental trauma, before releasing her to a girl's boarding school; she had not been back to the house since.

Later that afternoon, there was a visit from a mobster who claimed be collecting $500 that Victor Molay owed to  Mr. Gambini.  He also mentioned, in an off-hand manner, that Mr. Gambini had purchased an antique silver chalice from Molay, and would appreciate its delivery as soon as it was located.  Since Molay's receipts made no mention of an outstanding debt to Gambini, the investigators assumed that the chalice was the real reason for the visit.

Over dinner it was noticed that the silverware bore the Molay family coat of arms with the inscription, do your duty, come what may, which Randal recognized as the motto of the Knights Templar.

Late in the day the investigators heard a rhythmic creaking coming from the third floor attic.  When they went up stairs they were able to determine that the sound was coming from Camille Molay's bedroom.  Opening the door they were stepped into the room, which was now stiflingly warm and heavy with the smell of camphor, and they could see someone sitting in the rocking chair, rocking back and forth, but there was no response to their queries.  Cautiously, Damian worked his away around the room to get a view of the chair's occupant and found Vivian, herself, sitting in a daze, completely unaware of her surroundings.  When he shook her and shouted her name, she came to herself and, horrified to find herself in her aunt's bedroom, she burst into tears, afraid and confused.

After calming Vivian down and getting her to bed, the investigators continued to search the house.  One of them searched an attic store room, which contained Camille's old clothes and effects, and hidden behind some boxes, the noose she had used to hang herself.  Meanwhile, an investigation of Victory Molay's office yielded recent receipts of import shipments to the Church of the Celestial Redeemer on Battery Street, a church that  was gutted three years ago in a tragic fire.  There were also receipts of payments made to a Tony Gambini under the heading 'customs inspection'.  Gambini was known to Morgan Lynch as a local mob boss with ties to New York's Marolto Family.

A concealed door in Victor's study led to a small library containing an esoteric collection of books on the occult, erotica, and pornography, including works by Aleister Crowley and the Marquis de Sade.  On one of the shelves was the silver chalice mentioned by the mobster, which Randal Ward recognized as the Chalice of Antioch, which the Knights Templar brought back from Outremere, and was once thought to be the holy Grail, itself - a notion dismissed by contemporary scholars. Also in the library was Victory Molay's journal in which the investigators that Vivian's parents were killed in a fire and that she and her twin brother Daniel had come to live with their aunt and uncle. Daniel had become fascinated first with his uncle's pornography collection, and later with his occult books.  Sometime later Victor caught Daniel and Vivian in the garden shed, naked.  Vivian was in a daze, apparently under her brother's mental control and had no memory of the incident.  After this, Daniel was sent to a succession of boarding schools, from each of which he was soon expelled.  As Daniel became gradually more recalcitrant, rebellious and dangerous, Victor finally locked him up in the basement.

The investigators met with Gambini at his offices in the back rooms of the speakeasy he operated, and asked him about his business relationship with Victor Molay.  Gambini told them that he had been paid, on several occasions, to use his influence on the docks to make sure that customs inspectors passed over certain of Molay's shipments.  When questioned about the chalice, Gambini said that it was merely a curio he payed Molay to import from the old country.  Molay's records made no mention of such a transaction, and the story contradicted Vivian's assertion that she remembered the chalice from her childhood and that it was supposedly an old family heirloom.

Next, the investigators went to check out the Church of the Celestial Redeemer, which was indeed a burned-out shell.  They attempted to enter, but found that the doors were chained and padlocked.  They asked locals if anyone had noticed recent deliveries made to the church, and were told rumours that the church might soon be renovated and reopened.  A limousine pulled up to the investigators on the street and they were invited in to speak with a heavy-set elderly man named Sebastian Crawe who offered them $8,000 for the chalice.  He gave them his card and left them to contemplate his offer.  Morgan Lynch demanded that Vivian come clean and stop treating them like saps.  He wasn't buying her story that she had no memory of a twin brother and had no idea why so many people were after the chalice.  Damian was angered by Morgan's brusque manner and took Vivian home, leaving Morgan and Randal to find their own way back.

Shortly after Damian and Vivian arrived back at the house, a pair of armed gunmen burst in and demanded the chalice. Damian led them upstairs to the study, trying to delay the thugs as long as possible.  Morgan and Randal arrived at the house and saw a strange car in the driveway and the open front door of the house.  Wary for trouble, Morgan readied his Colt .45 and they crept into the house and followed the voices upstairs where they were able to surprise the gunmen.  A short fight ensued in which both intruders were killed, though Morgan was shot twice.  He dismissed his injuries as mere flesh wounds, and settled for having his wounds cleaned and bandaged instead of seeking medical attention.  A search of the bodies revealed that both had a tattoo of a flaming crucifix on his wrist, which Damien recognized from his occult dabbling as the sign of a cult known as the Ashen Brotherhood.  The bodies were dragged downstairs and dumped in the basement.

That night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, Damian sat up perusing occult tomes in the library, and decided to check on Vivian.  She was not in her bedroom and, suspicious, Damian ran upstairs to Camille's bedroom where he found her, wearing one of Camille's old dressing-gowns, throwing the end of the hangman's noose over a rafter.  She broke down in hysterics when she awoke from her trance, and Damian spent the rest of the night watching over her.

The next day Morgan left the house to stake out Sebastian Crawe's manor.  Damian went down to the basement to further inspect the corpses of the cultists and to his horror they rose up and shambled after him. He fled up the stairs into the kitchen and slammed the door, and held it shut while screaming to Randal for help.  The corpses soon battered their way through the door, however then fell upon Damien and tore him apart with their bare hands.  Randal, meanwhile fetched a quilt, set it on fire then threw it over the heads of the undead horrors, and then fled as the house went up in flames.

Thus endeth the session, with Damian dead, Morgan on a stakeout, and Randal running down the street screaming in terror.  It remains to be seen whether Vivian escaped the burning house, the flaming corpses, and the vengeful spirit of her twin brother.  The mystery of why so many people are after the Chalice of Antioch remains to be solved.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Out of the Dungeon

After many years of running fantasy campaigns, I'm suffering from dungeon burn-out.  I just can't muster the enthusiasm that I need to run a good campaign, so I've decided to put my fantasy campaign on hiatus, shift gears and trade in the swords and armour for Tommy Guns and Elder Signs.

So I dusted off my old Call of Cthulhu boxed set and tried running a session of Lovecraftian horror for the first time in nearly thirty years.  I bought this game, on the advice of the game store owner, sometime in 1983 or 1984, and it was my introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  To say that it captured my imagination would be a gross understatement.  I spent countless hours reading and rereading the rule book and supplements, marveling at the mythos creatures, the sinister spells, and the tomes of forbidden lore.  It is fair to say that Call of Cthulhu has influenced every roleplaying campaign I've run since but, ironically, I've only ever actually run one or two sessions of Call of Cthulhu, back when I first bought it.

It's not always easy to find a group of players willing to give Call of Cthulhu a shot.  Let's face it, the game can be a tough sell to a lot of gamers.  Many of us engage in the hobby for the sense of wish-fulfillment it gives us: finding treasure, leveling up, and actually killing monsters.  It's a much smaller subset of gamers who get off on being messily torn apart, or going mad, whose only pay-off for successful play is living just long enough to uncover the next layer of the conspiracy.

Yet, there are enough such players to have kept Call of Cthulhu alive and well, and essentially unchanged, for more than three decades, which is an impressive accomplishment in the gaming industry - a testament to the lure of Lovecraft's mythos.

It was a challenge to run a good session, though.  Horror is hard enough to write, let alone to play.  In addition to the game master's normal duties of adjudicating player actions, keeping track of NPCs and running combats, you must also set the tone of the adventure, control the pacing, and provide enough clues for players to unravel the mystery.  That's quite a lot to manage and my old, long-vanquished stage fright made an unwelcome encore.

There are just so many things that can spoil a CoC session, and having uncooperative players practically guarantees failure.  Goofing around at the wrong time can spoil the mood, and rebelling against genre conventions, instead of embracing them, can ruin the game for everyone.  Horror genre gaming requires a lot more cooperation and collaboration between the players and GM than in many other types of gaming, especially a typical fantasy dungeon adventure, where part of the challenge and the fun is the almost adversarial stance of beating the GM's dungeon.  CoC requires a whole different outlook and style of play and it can be delicate juggling act, but I was fortunate in having a group of players who were willing to play along, buy into the premise, and work to make the session a success.

Consequently, the first session was a great deal of fun and, as all good adventures should, left the investigators with more questions than answers.

Until next time, save the last bullet for yourself.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cthulhu Wars

I just heard the news that Sandy Peterson is working on a new board game: Cthulhu Wars.  This is sort of like Lovecraftian Risk, where instead of taking on the roles of human investigators trying to save the world, players assume the mantle Great Old Ones competing to conquer it.  The game looks amazing from what I've seen so far, and best of all it will come with 28 mm scale miniatures for each faction, including the Great Old Ones, cultists, and servitor races and creatures.  By making the miniatures 28 mm, they can serve double duty in Call of Cthulhu games!

Check out the video interview with Sandy Peterson over on Lovecraft Ezine and be sure to scroll down to see the amazingly detailed sculpts of the miniatures.  These are some of the best looking Cthulhu mythos miniatures I've seen yet, and they certainly blow the doors off my old Grenadier minis.  So I'll be anxiously waiting for the Kickstarter, which Sandy anticipates launching sometime in the next month or so.  I don't much like crowd source funding, but I plan to jump in on this one when it launches.

Greens of Cthulhu, himself, and a human cultist for scale.

Monday, March 4, 2013

How Long Will You Survive?

I never thought I'd write about a video game on an old-school roleplaying blog, but Ubisoft's ZombiU, a launch title for the new Nintendo WiiU console, is a survival horror game that captures old school play style in a way that I've never seen in any computer or console game.

The game's subtitle throws down the gauntlet: How long will you survive?
This is more than just a catch-phrase, it is an concise summation of what this game is all about.

You play a survivor in zombie-infested London after the plague of 2012 and your goal is to stay alive for as long as you can.  No easy task; I lost my first character five seconds into the game and went through nearly thirty characters in the first four hours of play.

You begin this dark, gritty, and intensely frightening game by escaping a pursuing horde of the infected, hopefully finding refuge in a safehouse in the London underground, guided via intercom by an enigmatic character known as the Prepper (a modern-day disciple of the sixteenth century occultist, John Dee and a member of a cabal known as Dee's Ravens), then proceed to explore your surroundings by the dim glow of your flashlight, armed with your trusty cricket bat.

It's not all fun-and-games in the cozy confines of the subway tunnels, though; eventually you have to hit the streets to activate and hack into CCTV networks to get a window on the world above.  That's when life gets really tough; the infected lurk everywhere and you need to watch out for corpses - sometimes they get up.

A typical Friday night in Winnipeg
Reviews of ZombiU are all over the map: some reviewers love it; others hate it, and it's easy to see why.  The game is hard.  Damned hard.  If you're looking for a first-person shooter game to unwind with and mindlessly kill some zombies then you need to look elsewhere.  This is not the game for you.

The pace is slow, the combat is deadly, and when your character dies that's it.  Game over.  No reload, no respawn, no backsies.  You start with a new character and lose all your experience and gear.  Moreover if you're bitten by an infected - even once - you're done for and your character rises as one of them.  So if you want to retrieve your gear you need to find your infected character, kill it and loot his or her bug-out-bag.  Of course whatever killed you will still be there, so the number of infected will have increased by one.

This is a big deal because the infected are bloody hard to kill.  One by itself is a threat.  Two is often more than you can deal with.  Three or more and its time to utter the catchphrase of the OSR - Oh, shit, run!  The ubiquitous cricket bat is a ponderous and slow weapon.  You need to time your attack just right - if you swing too soon there is no time for another try (the infected are surprisingly fast); swing too late and, well, you get the idea.  Furthermore, these are no eggshell-craniumed walkers from The Walking Dead that can be killed with the casual thrust of a screwdriver: to put down one of the infected you'll need to hit it five or six times.  So clearly the cricket bat is really only effective against one foe at a time.

Guns are faster.  You can shoot quickly enough to deal with a couple of oncoming foes if you have a steady hand and cool nerve, and you only need to hit one about three times to put it down.  The problem with this is that the zombies lurch erratically as they charge, making a head shot difficult and if you panic you can blow through a clip of priceless ammo very quickly indeed.  Because you have to scavenge every round of ammo, and there is never enough, I save the gun for when I'm really up shit creek.

This is usually when my slide locks back, empty.
So what makes ZombiU appealing to old school roleplayers?  First and foremost, the game challenges the player, not the character.  Yes, your character does get level-ups and weapon upgrades, but these come slowly and are subtle improvements.  To succeed at this game you need to plan carefully, scout your surroundings, loot anything that isn't nailed down, take your time, and don't bite off more than you can bash.  One of the most important skills is knowing when to run and where to run.  If you don't have an escape route planned out you'll end up trapped in a dead-end or flee into a horde.  Does this play style sound familiar?

This explains the many negative reviews that ZombiU has garnered.  The level of difficulty and frustration is more than a lot of gamers are used to, especially if what they are used to is Call of Duty.  It's kind of like throwing a group 4E players into an old school dungeon crawl: they charge in, die very quickly, then complain about lack of balanced encounters.

In ZombiU, like in old school rpgs, there are no kewl powerz or awesome weapons, its just you and your wits against an overwhelming foe.

This contributes to the very effective sense of horror in the game.  I'm rarely scared by horror movies (in fact, I recently posted about misnomer of the horror genre in my other blog), but this game scares the crap out of me.  I find I can't play for more than half an hour before quitting with trembling hands, sweaty palms and my  heart trying to break out of my chest.  The dim lighting, confined spaces and restricted peripheral vision create a very claustrophic experience.  Things can very easily sneak up behind you, particularly when you have to look at the game pad to manage your inventory.  This adds to the tension of the game - you have to rummage quickly through your knapsack or something will come up on you from behind.

Here's a video clip of game play of a character trying to get to Buckingham Palace that will give you a good idea of what I'm talking about.

I'm no great fan of video games, but my feelings about ZombiU should be pretty clear by now: I love it. It is a scary, intense, and insanely difficult game that will undoubtedly challenge me for a long time to come, and it hits all the sweet spots that I love about old school roleplaying games.

 So, how long will you survive?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review: Dagger - Supplemental Rules for Roleplaying with Kids

Dagger is Brave Halfling's new rules supplement that strips down classic D&D to its barest essentials for playing with very young children.  Most of this stripping away is done to the character classes to make it fast and simple to get started, without having to learn a lot of rules.

There are four basic classes: Knight, Wizard, Elf, and Dwarf, with an optional Halfling class.  No attribute scores are used, and each class gets equipment package so there is no need to fiddle around with starting gold, shopping, or armour types.  Players can just fill out their character sheets, roll for hit points, and begin play immediately.  Knights get two attacks per turn and have AC 2, Wizards can cast two spells per experience level and have AC 9, Elves get one attack per turn, may cast one spell per experience level, and have AC 5, and Dwarves can automatically detect secret doors, can see in the dark, and have AC 2.

The supplement is only eight pages long (including the cover and the obligatory one page OGL) and the meat of it is on the first two pages.  The remaining four pages include spell descriptions and some monster stat blocks.

This supplement is a great resource for role playing with very young children who are not yet able to read and would otherwise be confused by the esoterica of a full-blown version of the game.  There are a few problems, however: there is a monster attack matrix, but no character attack matrix.  I'm not certain whether this is by design or accident, although the monster matrix appears twice so I'm inclined to believe the latter.  To-hit numbers are given for first level characters, but there is no progression for subsequent levels.  It is possible that characters are intended to use the monster matrix, but this is not explained, and if so, it would make more sense just to call it the 'attack matrix.'  In any event, the monster attack matrix is missing the armour classes, so it's of no use anyway.

Lack of usable attack matrices is no problem for experienced role players who will have access to them in other rule sets, and since the supplement contains no explanation of how to play, no equipment lists, and no treasure, a full rule-set of some type is required anyway.  This makes the four pages of spell description and monster stat blocks redundant, though; Dagger could just as easily be a two-page supplement and might be better served if it was.

It's tough to complain though, given that Dagger is available as a free download from RPGNow and DriveThru RPG.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A New Blog For New Times

Things have been pretty quiet here the last few months, and my posts have been few and far between.  There are a couple of reasons for this: after nearly three years of blogging about old school gaming I'm starting to run out of things to say, and I've lately been devoting most of my time to writing fiction.  I've dabbled at writing short stories, on and off, for the past twenty-five years and I've accumulated a good few rejection letters over the years (yes my stories go back to the days when they were submitted and rejected via the post office).  Anyway, I've decided to stop dabbling and get serious about the craft.

As part of this new path I'm on, I've started a new blog, Lore Deposits and Other Rich Veins, which is a platform to promote my fiction, but is also a broad forum for me to post about writing, books, movies, natural history and other things that interest me, including gaming and miniatures.  And it is there that I will be most actively posting from now on.

So my posts here at the Flaming Faggot are going to continue to be infrequent for the foreseeable future, though I will try to make at least a couple of posts each month - I'll try to keep up my session reports at least.  I'll also continue to follow and read all my favourite old school blogs and remain part of the OSR community, but with less active participation.

I hope you'll all join me on the new blog.  Although it isn't as gaming-centric as this one is, there will be plenty of interest, especially since many of you share my interests and tastes in literature, movies, and geek culture.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Appendix N and My Literary Inspirations

The Dungeon Master's Guide's famous Appendix N has long been the subject of much discussion in old school circles, but has lately cropped up again with a recent Grognard Games video, Cyclopeatron's recent post of his own personal Appendix N, and Aaron Steele's insanely extensive personal Appendix N listed in his recent post on A Paladin in Citadel.

Consequently, I've been giving a lot of thought, lately, to not only the literary sources that influenced Gary Gygax, but also those that influenced by understanding of D&D and inspired my style of play.

When I first discovered D&D by way of the Holmes Basic Set, I didn't have an extensive background in fantasy, and my understanding of the game was very heavily influenced by the small number of books I had read (plus a smattering of Ray Harryhausen movies, particularly the Sinbad movies, and Jason and the Argonauts):

Alexander, Lloyd, The Prydain Chronicles
Burton, Sir Richard, Arabian Nights
Homer, The Odyssey
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings

That was about it for my early gaming inspirations, and, many other people, I leaned very heavily on Tolkien as my primary source of inspiration for fantasy role playing.

The funny thing about our literary inspirations - what people are calling their own 'Appendix N' - is that the list changes over time.  The DMG's Appendix N list is static: these are the books that most affected the development of the game; but the books that affect how we understand and play the game changes over the years.  At least mine has.

Even after switching to Advanced D&D, I wasn't particularly influenced by the Appendix N reading list as so many other people were.  About the only books that I was introduced to specifically because of Appendix N were Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, and I didn't find them particularly inspirational at the time - I continued to use Tolkien for my crutch all through high school, and for many years after.

During the late '80's to 1990's I was inspired by the many epic high fantasy series by modern fantasists such as David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Raymond Feist, and so my list changed again.  It wasn't until the dawn of the 21st century that I fully embraced the pulp fantasy stories that inspired D&D to begin with, and my style of play changed with my reading list.  These days my campaigns are dark sword & sorcery adventures so filled with mad cultists, evil sorcerers, cosmic horrors and naked slave girls that the heads of post-Gygax TSR executives heads would explode with the politically incorrect wrongness of it.

So here is my current list of literary sources of inspiration that most directly influence my play style and campaign - some are very conventional, common to most of the OSR community, others may be less so.  It is worth noting the absence of Tolkien from the current list; although I will always love his work, I'm not currently drawing upon it for my gaming inspiration.

Asprin, Robert L. (ed.) Thieves' World et al.
The shared world anthology beginning with Thieve's World introduced us to the city of Sanctuary as presented by some of the most prominent fantasy authors of the late '70's and early '80's.  It will come as no surprise to any reader of this blog, that I have high regard for these books, as the blog title and masthead are inspired by the second book in the series, Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn.  Much of my campaign city of Catapesh was inspired by the stories of Sanctuary, particularly the poor quarter known as The Maze and its infamous tavern the Vulgar Unicorn.

Burton, Sir Richard, Arabian Nights
This 19th century classic, which influenced my early gaming, is the only book from my first list of literary influences to remain on my current list.  This edition was intended by Burton to titillate Victorian readers with salacious tales of the exotic Middle East. As such, it is a gross parody of actual Middle Eastern culture, but as an inspiration for fantasy campaigns with a near-eastern flavour it is an indispensable staple: bold heroes, evil djinnis, wicked sorcerers, and compliant slave-girls aplenty.

Herbert, Frank, Dune
The great houses of my campaign city of Catapesh and the political intrigue that infuses the city, owe their genesis to feudal structure of the empire of Frank Herbert's classic, Dune.  There is much to admire about this book, but the internecine struggles for power between the Houses Atreides, Harkonnen, and Corino always fascinated me, and though I've never consciously tried to emulate Herbert's milieu, the influence is undoubtedly there.

Howard, Robert E., Conan stories
These have, for the last several years, had the most impact on my gaming.  Howard's antediluvian Indo-European/African continent, with its familiar-but-different cultures, the intrinsically evil nature of sorcery, the self-interested protagonist, and the plethora of scantily-clad dancing girls have all contributed to my current milieu.   Also, the fact that no matter how big a score Conan takes, he always begins the next story dead broke, which is a facet that has directly contributed to my house rules designed to keep the players forever treasure-hungry.

Leiber, Fritz, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories
Along with the Thieves' World novels, Leiber's Lankhmar is an excellent source for city-based adventures.  The protagonists battle the city's thieves' guild, drink and wench in the Silver Eel, battle evil sorcerers, and try, usually unsuccessfully, to strike it rich.  Although Leiber's influence in the development of D&D cannot be understated, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories are, perhaps, the least important influences on my current list of literary inspiration.

Lovecraft, H.P., The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath
While I like all of Lovecraft's work, with At the Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, being two of my favourite stories, it is Earth's Dreamlands that have been most influential in my fantasy gaming.  Dream Quest was the very first Lovecraft story I ever read, and while it was very different from the horror that I was expecting, it has had a profound and lasting impact on my gaming since 1984.

McNaughton, Brian The Throne of Bones
This is a relatively recent addition to my personal 'Appendix N.'  I bought The Throne of Bones, shortly after it was published, about ten years or so ago, but didn't get around to reading until just last year.  I was immediately sorry I had put off reading it so long.  This book is a collection of very dark stories filled with tomb-robbers, necromancers, and ghouls that inhabit the necropolis of McNaughton's fantasy city.  It has been immensely influential on the development of the necropolis of Catapesh, which is where most of my current campaign's adventures have been set in the past year.

Moorcock, Michael, especially Elric and Hawkmoon novels.
I'm a great admirer of Moorcock's prose style and I love his anti-hero, Elric of Melnibone.  Reading the Elric stories is essential to really understand the nature of D&D's alignment system as more than just an artificial code of behaviour, but as side your character takes in the eternal cosmological struggle.  Hawkmoon I like mainly for it's darkly fantastical real world setting, the likes of which I am becoming increasingly fascinated with.

Smith, Clark Ashton, any, but especially his Averoigne stories.
I'm becoming increasingly interested in real-world historical fantasy settings, and the dark fantasies of Smith's fictional French province of Averoigne have been tremendously influential.

Vance, Jack, Dying Earth stories (The Dying Earth; The Eyes of the Overworld; Cugel's Saga; Rhialto the Marvelous)
I'm not sure if it's possible to truly appreciate D&D's magic system without reading Vance.  I certainly never did until reading the Dying Earth stories just a couple of years ago, despite having played D&D for more than 35 years.  Moreover, a great deal of Vance's exquisite prose style can be seen reflected in Gary Gygax's style, not the least of which in the many evocative spell names.  In many ways a fantasy milieu's tone depends largely on the nature of magic and for this reason, Vance is tremendously influential on my current style of play.

That pretty much rounds off my list of most important literary influences to my current gaming.  Of course many other excellent books have contributed to my gaming style, but not as obviously and directly as those presented above.  It will be interesting to revisit this list in ten years and see how much it may have changed.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Arrrrr mateys!

At long last, I finally know my pirate name!
My pirate name is:
Bloody Sam Flint
Every pirate lives for something different. For some, it's the open sea. For others (the masochists), it's the food. For you, it's definitely the fighting. Like the rock flint, you're hard and sharp. But, also like flint, you're easily chipped, and sparky. Arr!
Get your own pirate name from piratequiz.com.
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