Friday, 29 May 2009

Talent Borrows; Genius Steals

Aaron of Like Being Read to From Dictionaries brainstorms an 80s fantasy cartoon setting for his OD&D/S+W game:

"I want you to imagine Snarf, a Robear-Berbil, and Deputy Fuzz, out of their gourds on spin, arguing about who gets to keep the Lavender Death Laser they found behind the bureau of the evil sorceress queen."

My inner geek roars in exultation. I would play in that game in an instant! :)

Also, Fight On! #5 is here to drink all the booze, goose your Mom, and wreck your house. If you're here you already know...

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Dodging the Old Skub Bandwagon

And thus it came to pass that the latest skubstorm of old schoolyness broke. The blognards were tossed hither-and-yon by the raging torrents of their own verbiage, thesis-nailing, vermiphagy and protestations that "I can do no other." Fortunately, Amityville Mike brought sanity to proceedings by the wisdom of reference to the original sources. In this instance the Dragon Dude's HandGuide Old School Game Determination Table. An exhausted peace settled upon the land.

For the record: 170% old school (this week), no position on skub, and I've spent the weekend keying another section of the Vaults.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Arty-fartyness and Historical Oddments

No directly Vaults-related content, just lashings of (laudanum-laced and phantasmagoric) braincustard:

Aeron at the Monster Brains blog (a top notch source for archaic-looking pics and inspirational braincustard) comes through with some nostalgia-inducing images from the AD&D Colouring Book. It's woodcut-tastic!

A Journey Round My Skull (your one-stop-shop for Poets Ranked by Beard Weight and Serbian Sesame Street) offers us some painterly faerie tale illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Monroe.

Kuksi sneers and says That's not baroque: this is baroque.

The Athenaeum presents 436 pics by German artist Albrecht Dürer (who cannot be praised highly enough, IMO).

Cabinet of Wonders (top stuff!) on the nexus of evil, deformity, disease and moral decay in western art, and how they often blend together.

The always-interesting Curious Expeditions spoils us rotten with the Victorian Art of Mourning, the macabre Cathedral of Antlers, and a heady draught of picturesque Ottoman depravity: eunuch executioners and slave armies, death by testicular compression, the infamous sultanate of women, and Sultan Ibrahim "I like big butts, and I cannot lie" Osman the Mad's wacky ways with the ladies...

Yep. That'll shift the old writer's block.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Star Trek capsule review - "NERD!!!!!"

I have no idea what was going on in this film. There was entirely too much lens flare, jerky camera work, visual effects maelstrom, and extreme close-up idiocy going on for me to make out anything of what was supposed to be happening. You'd think a big budget film like this could have afforded a steadycam and a couple of long lenses...

All bitching about the absurdly bad cinematography aside, I have to say I wasn't greatly impressed by yer man Abram's "Star Trek" reboot. The casting was good-to-excellent (exception: Simon Pegg in full-bore "Did anyone order a large ham?" mode). The acting was...workmanlike. The FX was up to the usual high standard of the Hollywood eye-candy machine. The cameos and in-jokes were acceptable, but uninspired.

However (and this is a but worthy of a place in Monument Valley): the fridge logic of the plot was the worst since "X-Men 3". Hey, wait a second Mr angry vengeful Romulan dude (who I'm sure we already saw in "ST:Nemesis"). You know there's a supernova destined to destroy your homeworld centuries hence; why not use the phlebotium bomb in your ship to become a pre-emptive hero by beating Spock to it - by centuries? No? Ok. I'll leave my brain at the door for this one, shall I?

"Star Trek" works best when it is about the mystery, grandeur and wonder of space travel. This film was a workmanlike rehash of "Wrath of Khan" and little else.

rating: 2 phasers (out of 5)

The Ferris Wheel of Doom - WIP

My personal homage of the infamous Hellevator of Castle Greyhawk is the so-called Ferris Wheel of Doom which connects the first 6 levels of the Vaults. Why anyone would choose to use a giant observation wheel as a major internal transfer system in an underground complex is an open question.

The Wheel Chambers
When initially encountered it is unlikely that the player will realise that the Ferris Wheel is in fact a wheel. The majority of the workings are hidden behind stone walls, with only the doorways and switches that allow access to the transport capsule visible. The doors, of which there are one on each of levels 1-6 of the Vaults are made of heavy bronze, elaborately-decorated and surrounded by a baroque profusion of pilasters, architraves, and friezes. A single "call capsule" button (each of unique appearance and operation) is generally to be found in the same room as the door.

Random Call Capsule Buttons

1a statue of a succubus holding a bowl. The bowl must be filled with 1d6x1d6 hp worth of intelligent humanoid blood to call the capsule.
2a gong. Possible secondary effects as per Amityville Mike's fine article on gongs and the bonging thereof
3 small silver butler's bell on a podium. When tinkled the bell unleashes a full 8 bell carillon which attracts monsters as a Shrieker.
4an open-mouthed idol. 1d10x1d10gp, a gem, or a magic item must be fed into the mouth.
5a 3-foot long railway signal locking lever. Expect catastrophic consequences if pulled by a dorf.
6a chased and enamelled hunting horn chained to the podium. Can only be blown by someone of Con 13 or above.
7a chased and enamelled drinking horn containing 2 pints of:
1 - a light ale - heals 1d6 damage (as Grognardia Jim's liquid courage rule)
2 - a heady mead - gives a +2 bonus to Int, Wis or Cha checks (choose, or determine randomly) for next 1d3 turns
3 - a burning winter ale - heals 1d10 damage, character is -2 to all checks for 1d3 turns
4 - a smoky arval ale - grants +4 bonus to the next save the character makes
The horn must be drained in a single draught (unmodified Con check) by a single drinker to call the capsule.
8a wire and nail puzzle (plonk one in front of the players if you have it handy)
9an elemental focus. Must be dealt a particular amount of elemental damage to call capsule.
1 - fire/heat
2 - water/cold
3 - air
4 - earth/stone
5 - quintessence (weird sh*t of the DM's choice - wood, void, heart, molybdenum, etc.)
6 - two of the above (roll twice)
10a speaking tube. The requirements to call the capsule (singing, speaking a particular phrase or language, having the players recite some verse, etc.) are at the DM's warped discretion

There is a 1 in 6 chance that the capsule is absent when the button is pressed. Absent capsules will return in 1d6 turns.

The Capsules
There is a 1 in 6 that a capsule is occupied when the door open. The DM should create a random encounter from a randomly determined level to which the Ferris Wheel has access. There are no limits on creature types or number due to size, intelligence, etc. (Yes, vermin and dragons both love to ride the Ferris Wheel)

The Ferris Wheel chambers are 10' x 20' rooms of mutable appearance and decoration. Sometimes there are seats, sometimes not. Sometimes there are windows onto strange vistas, at other times the walls are panelled with inlaid maquetry of exquisite design, or with diamond pattern sheet steel, or with marble. Sometimes the light comes from torches in wall sconces, at other times it radiates from ceiling panels, wall-mounted globes, or even the floor. The one commonality is the control panel, which is mounted at human eye level to the right of the door (when facing it).

The Control Panel
The control panel (however it chooses to appear today) has 12 buttons/settings/plugs. These are numbered 1-10 (in a random alphabet), with the last two buttons being invariably marked with a hold door button, and with an infinity symbol.

Numerals 1-6 - roll 1d6, add number pressed, count in base 6. The capsule ends up on that level of the Vaults. How often the sequence changes, or if it is entirely random, is at DM discretion.
Numerals 7-0 - By themselves these numbers do nothing. But, when used in combination with others, they can be used to reach particular areas outside the Vaults (see Combos section, below)
Hold Door button - can be used to hold doors open or closed.
Infinity symbol - When pressed a demonic, gape mouthed green face appear, laughs maniacally, and then vanishes. The capsule jerks violently. Roll 1d30 on the table below...

1 Adamantinarx-on-the-Acheron (Wayne Barlowe's "God's Demon")
2 Altdorf (Warhammer World)
3 Atlantosh - the cheap theme park version of Atlantis
4 Erelhei-Cinlu or Menzoberranzen (50/50)
5 Lankhmar or Viriconium (50/50)
6 London (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Ruined London (Diamond Dogs/Steel Tsar)
-- 2 Londres (Hawkmoon)
-- 3 Steampunk London 1855 ("The Difference Engine")
-- 4 5,000AD - After London (Forgotten Futures 5)
-- 5 Puritan London ("The Adventures of Luther Arkwright")
-- 6 Elizabethan Londinium (Moorcock's "Gloriana")
-- 7 New Crobuzon or Armada (50/50)
-- 8 Sigil or Earth 2009 (50/50)
7 Ancient Rome, Athens or Alexandria (1in3)
8 MegaCity 1 or Mos Eisley (50/50)
9 Metropolis (50/50 - DC Comics or the 1926 movie version)
10 Taashban (Narnia) or Kublai Khan's Xanadu (50/50)

11 Doomed City (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Atlantis - the day before
-- 2 Numenor - the day before
-- 3 Pompeii - the day before
-- 4 London - the day before the Great Fire
-- 5 Lisbon - the day before the 1755 earthquake
-- 6 Port Royal - the day before the 1692 earthquake
-- 7 Tokyo - the day before (roll 1d6)
-- -- 1 - 2 the great Kanto earthquake
-- -- 3 - 4 the Tokyo firestorm
-- -- 5 - 6 "Gojirah!"
-- 8 San Fransisco - the day before the 1905 earthquake
12 The Lost World
13 Skull Island (50/50 - Treasure Island/King Kong)
14 Mythic Lands (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Khemri (Egypt)
-- 2 Achaeia (Greece)
-- 3 Midgard (Norse)
-- 4 The Four Worlds (India)
-- 5 Chung Kuo (China)
-- 6 Sinbad's Araby
-- 7 Mandevillean Asia
-- 8 The Seven Cities of Gold
15 Swiftian Lands (roll 1d6)
-- 1 Lilliput
-- 2 Brodingnad
-- 3 Laputa
-- 4 Luggnagg
-- 5 Balnibarbi
-- 6 Glubbdubdrib

16 Tekumel
17 Arrakis (Dune) - "Spice must flow" (25% chance Didcot 3 (Urn) - "Tea must flow")
18 The Dying Earth
19 The Mighty Land of Vanth
20 Middle Earth (roll d3 for Age of the World)
21 Gamma World/Mutant Future
22 The Hyborian Age of Thuria (Conanistan)
23 Pavane Europe (steam-Catholicism)
24 Naziworld (The Man in the High Castle)

The Depths of Space
25 The Moon (roll 1d8)
-- 1 Wellsian Selenites
-- 2 Baron Munchausen/de Bergeracian allegorical oddness
-- 3 ...made of Green Cheese
-- 4 Lunar jungle (Aldiss' Hothouse)
-- 5 ...dominion of the Feral Clangers
-- 6 The Tibetan Afterlife
-- 7 ...of the Lovecraftian Dreamlands
-- 8 You gatecrash the Apollo 11 landing
26 Venus (roll 1d4)
-- 1 Saurian-infested jungles
-- 2 Weird Tales/Northwest of Earth-style
-- 3 The Treen Empire
-- 4 Militaristic Teutonic craftsmen (Mutant Chronicles)
27 Mars (roll 1d4)
-- 1 Burroughsian
-- 2 Wellsian - "Uuuuuuh-lah!"
-- 3 Mad Gods and Moravecs (Dan Simmons "Ilium")
-- 4 Canals and Colonies (Space:1889)
28 Mongo ("Flash! (Aah-ah)")
29 Skaro (Dalekworld)
30 Deep Space (roll 1d6)
-- 1 Wildspace (Spelljammer)
-- 2 Hippyspace (spacewhales, nebulae, etc.)
-- 3 The Ulyssesverse
-- 4 Starship Warden
-- 5 Moonbase Alpha
-- 6 Chiron Beta Prime or The Dark City (50/50)

Where exactly in this new world the door opens, whether the PCs are forcibly ejected, and how long the door remains open are entirely at the DM's option.

Poking at mysterious, inexplicable objects in the underworld is rarely a wise choice. The Ferris Wheel of Doom is no exception. Random button-mashing may have no result, may cause dangerous environmental effects, or may take experimenters to particular locations.

22 - Glorantha
34 - You really don't want to know.
42 - Earth, Galgofrincham or Ursa Minor Beta
69 - San Dimas ("Excellent!")
410 - The Library of Babel
666 - Hell (Barlowean, Dantean, cartoony...)
9001 - DBZ world
1010001 - the machine realm (Mechanus)
5550690 - a dark-skied world where self-willed automata farm human beings
0112358132134 - Leonardo Fibonacci's study in 13th century Florence

(bronze door image plundered from

Friday, 15 May 2009

Beyond the Gothic

Some interesting (if under-explored) observations on the semiotic representation of evil in architecture. Particularly timely given all the delicious dungeony goodness in Knockspell #2.

Evil Lair: On the Architecture of the Enemy in Videogame Worlds

(hat tip: Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing)

"Conan. What Is Best In Life?" "Loincloths, Oil, und Muscles"

Although it is the quintessential sword-and-sorcery simulator there is one fantasy archetype that old-edition D&D does not model well. That glaring exception is the hulking barbarian clad in naught but posing pouch, furry boots and horned helm (see example to right).

With rare and honourable exceptions - such as Iron Heroes - it has long been the case that wandering around D&D-land dressed like a Chippendale will get you fatally shanked by dungeon denizens even faster than would mouthing off at the daddy of A Wing.

Some people are quite content with this status quo, but I for one feel it is nothing less than a betrayal of everything Robert E. Howard stood for!

Fortunately for those of us devoted to True Historical Accuracy (tm) in our gaming, extensive scholarly research has been done in the field of alternate armour types by Professors Atlas, Vallejo, Bell, Frazetta and Schwarzenegger of the Correspondence College of Physical Development, Venice Beach, California. It is thanks to their obsessive dedication to the study of glistening biceps, bluging pecs, taut thighs and ...Sorry, what was the question?

Alternate Armour Schema for Old School Gaming Simulacra
(cheesy Conan pose high-fantasy mod.)

Jaguar pattern bikini or posing pouch + magic Frazetta oil = AC7 (12)
Chainmail bikini or fuzzy wifebeater + MFO = AC5 (14)
Brass pan lids or posing pouch & single pauldron + MFO = AC3 (16)

Frazetta Oil is an alchemical item available to the following classes:

Fighters, Thieves, female Elves - Yes
Clerics, Wizards, male Elves - No
Dwarves, Obbits - Oh, hell no!

Frazetta oil, and the specialist garments required to utilise it safely, cost the same to purchase and maintain as the standard armours of equivalent AC value. Excessive muscle development and clinging legwenches/boy-toys attracted by the pungent musk of the oil cause encumbrance equal to standard armour types.

edit: As written this (tongue-in-cheek) mod gives thieves the option of wearing an armour equivalent to plate mail in protective effect. Given the existing strictures on the use of their special class abilities when armoured this should not present too great a problem.

(image shamelessly pillaged from Greywulf. Thrud © Carl Critchlow)

Luck Does Not a Hero Make

This is in response to a post I came across via Whitehall Paraindustries in which poor old Gleichman ends up in a frothing rage at how gormless and direly in need of a character-building thrashing are the youth of today. Thinking that it couldn't be that bad I clicked over to The Core Mechanic and had a look at the target of his ire. And what did I read?

"The difference between good intentions, and true heroes is only one thing: Luck."
- Tom W at The Core Mechanic

This is the opening comment of a paean in praise of Fate point systems.

Now, I'll go on the record here and say I'm not adverse to using Fate / Heroic Destiny / Get Out of Jail Free mechanics in my games. If used right (ie: at a meaningful cost in either character ability or player narrative control - see SuperNecro's fine system for an example of what I consider "cheating fate done right") they can be an excellent source of drama and thematically appropriate action in a game. Likewise, I'm all for opportunities for player-driven, in-game awesome when playing. The bravura stunt that comes off just right and leaves a PC surrounded by a corona of radiant win! is something for which we're generally on the lookout. However, such things are more precious and appreciated if players earn them against the odds and through their own efforts.

There is a converse to what TV Tropes calls such Crowning Moments of Awesome, and that is, in one word: failure. Failure, although something to be avoided with all the wit and cunning at your disposal, is an important teaching aid. Failure is how you learn to do it right next time; it is the bitter aloes used to purge the poison that is stupid; and, ultimately, failure is the salt that makes the sweet taste of victory all the sweeter.

I'm not suggesting you should actively seek out opportunities to suck and fail in the name of drama: but you should certainly be aware that the risk of failure is always going to be there in any co-operative game worth the playing. Smart players will not try to create mechanics to fudge away risk. Instead they will take account of it, and actively work to minimise the risks to which they expose their characters (for what else were situational modifiers created?).

Stop. Think. Research. Plan. Choose your own battlefield and terms of engagement. Weight the odds in your favour any way you can. Then run screaming into harm's way.
Remember: Rainbow Six; not Halo.

All this theory aside, having "75 characters die over 2 years" in a single campaign doesn't sound to me like the result of a policy of thoughtful, tactically astute play. If anything, it sounds more like a lemming-like rush to self-immolation. The first lesson I for one would take from this hecatomb is: "Stop running at things with your head son."

I think there is something of a disconnect in understanding of how story works in RPGs. Tom seems to think in terms of designated protagonists and 'achieving the mission', whereas I - and quite a few of the OSR - think in terms of potential heroes in an emergent story. Unlike a Hollywood film if things go badly in an RPG then the original 'intended script' gets torn up and a new one is written in by events. Through the choices the players make the session stops being the story of "Our glorious victory over the Trollish Horde" and instead becomes the tale of "The day we fought a doomed last stand against overwhelming odds" or "That time we got our butts ignominiously handed to us by the Trolls" (which varies by player skill and degree of situational hilarity).

"Suddenly the player, not the GM got to decide exactly how lenient the rules would be for them... The Die Hards could still start their character at zero fate, spend their extra attribute points on enormous strengths and dexes, but if the dice killed them; they died, no excuses."
- Tom W at The Core Mechanic

Erm, call me an oddball if you will, but the players should already be doing this by careful, skilful play. Cinematic gaming does not, and should not, equate to plot immunity. The knowledge that there is no meaningful threat to the characters (be it to their persons, or the agenda they are trying to advance) sucks all the drama out of a story. Immunity to death is especially bad for this. Plot armour leaves no room for Boromir's last stand; no room for King Theoden's doomed stand against the Witch-King; no room for El Cid; no room for Druss; and no room for most of Kurosawa.

Sometimes failure is the right answer, and true heroes make their own luck.

Thoughts? Opinions? Brickbats and flung excrement?

note: Dan Collins (of Diminutive20 and OED fame and a man who abhors Fate mechanics) weighs in on the related subject of coddling players and the interesting question of what adversity reveals about character.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Teachings of Rients, also Knockspell

Rients-san has spoken! He has vouchsafed unto the oldschoolians the Miscellaneum of Cinder, which you can now get for a pittance at lulu (and are stealing the food from the mouths of his children for so doing. Buy many copies!). Everyone reading this will already know that he is also graciously offering Special Edition copies to those who send trinkits which amuse his ancient and subtle mind.

Capsule review: This is 36 pages of top stuff. I LOLed, several times. I also seethed that I didn't think of half the stuff in there myself (only ever a good sign). I imagine that having this to hand during a game will be the equivalent of having Obi-Wan whisper "Use the Force Luke!" as you hurtle desperately down the weekly DMing trench wondering how you got yourself into this jackass situation again.

However - and here follows a caveat of positively Maliszewskean gravity - as with disengaging a sophisticated targeting computer and instead firing blindly like some ignorant farmboy somehow given control of a precision flying machine, using this little volume on your game may end badly. But, even if mis-using the advice therein results in an ignominious Porkinsdeath it'll doubtless be spectacular and hilarious (and thus worthy of a tearful "Jeff broke my game" blog post which will garner many consoling comments of "Cri maor plz").

Rating: 4 + 1/2 (Krull) glaives out of 5

Oh yeah, and Knockspell #2 (Matt Finch and co-conspirators) allows you to steal the food from the mouths of many starving offspring at once thanks to its' sheer value for money. Bound to be excellent. Buy it sight unseen and be the wonder of future generations thereby.

(image imperiously confiscated from oral tradition blog (SFW))

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Orcish Atavism

Orcish Atavism
No. Enc.: 2d4 (3d10)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 150' (50')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 1+1
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Damage: 1d6
Save: F1
Morale: 6
Hoard Class: none

Atavisms are a degenerated sub-species of Orcs used as guard animals, food and breeding stock by their more humanoid kin. A grotesque admixture of orc and pig, atavisms are of limited intelligence (being about as smart as a dog) but retain all the malignancy and low cunning of the Orcish race. They are able to convey basic wants and needs in a pidgen Orcish. But unless driven by the whips of their keepers, are generally content to wallow, gorge and rut.

Although they can shamble along on their hind legs for short periods, atavisms are much faster when running on all fours. Their eyesight is poor, but their sensitive snouts allow them to track as well as dogs. If encountered away from their Orcish keepers, atavisms live as omnivorous scavengers. They attack armed humanoids only if clearly superior in numbers and power to their potential prey.

note: Atavisms inspired by the twisted imaginings of William Hope Hodgson and by Scott of World of Thool, whose dropsical, banjo-twanging Wilderlands Orcs were f'ing sick and are standard issue in my games (to the ongoing horror of my players).

(image copyright Wayne Barlowe)

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Bronod Rhong

Bronod Rhong (aka the Cyclopean McDoom)
Armour Class: 3
Hit Dice: 8
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 1 (clunking fist)
Damage: 3d6 + curse
No. Appearing: 1
Save As: F8
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: XVIII (special)
Alignment: Chaotic
XP Value: 1560

Hated and hateful, these asymmetrical monocular giant-kin lurch through the underworld seeking only to sate their unappeasable hunger, greedily devouring anything they can cram into their leering maws. They are capable of bellowing only a garbled, glossolalic Common which consists mainly of nonsensical repeated mantras.

Encountered alone (they hate their own kind almost as much as they do everything else), bronod rhong possess thick skins which are insensitive beyond measure, turning aside all barbs (they have AC0 vs arrows, bolts, and all thrown weapons). Bronod rhong attack with their grossly over-sized right arms, lashing about them with abandon. They never retreat from combat, lacking the sense to withdraw even when maintaining their position will result in their inevitable destruction.

These dreadful monsters labour under a unique curse in that all they touch is doomed to misfortune (save vs. spells or be affected as bestow curse), and that any wealth which falls under their baleful gaze is instantly rendered worthless (save vs petrification or any gold carried turns to lead, unattended objects save on a 16+). Thanks to this racial curse a bronod rhong's hoard never contains gold. Any roll indicating gold should instead read as an equivalent amount in other coinage.

How such a hateful creature endures to plague the world is a mystery to sages and adventurers alike.

Friday, 8 May 2009

My Appendix N (let me show you them...)

Inspirational And Instructive Reading in High Fantasy, Sword-and-Sorcery, Sword-and-Planet, and Other Esoterica"


Adams, Richard - Watership Down (and "Tales from..."), Shardik
Anderson, Poul - The Broken Sword
Barker, Clive - Books of Blood series
Dahl, Roald - omnia opera
Gemmell, David - omnia opera
Harrison, M. John - Viriconium stories
Hodgeson, William Hope - Carnacki stories
Howard, R. E. - Conan, Solomon Kane
Kay, Guy Gavriel - The Fionivar Tapestry
King, Stephan - omnia opera
Lewis, C. S. - Narnia stories
Leiber, Fritz - Swords against * series
Lord Dunsany - Pegana stories
Lovecraft, H. P. - Cthulhu Cycle stories
Lumley, Brian - Titus Crow/Dreamlands stories
Mieville, China - Bas Lag series
Moorcock, Michael - omnia opera
Newman Kim - his Warhammer novels (written as Jack Yeovil)
Peake, Mervyn - Gormenghast trilogy
Poe, E.A. - omnia opera
Pratchett, Terry - omnia opera
Tolkein, J.R.R. - omnia opera
Wagner, Karl Edward - Kane stories
White, W. H. - Once and Future King
Williams, Tad - Memory, Thorn and Sorrow trilogy

Harrison and Holt - The Hammer and the Cross trilogy
Weis and Hickman - Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies
The Maginobion, Arthuriana, Greek and Norse myth


Anderson, Poul - The High Crusade, Flandry of Terra
Asher, Neil - omnia opera
Ballard, J. G. - omnia opera
Baxter, Stephen - Xeelee sequence
Bear, Greg - Eon
Clarke, Arthur C. - 2001, Rondevous with Rama
Conan Doyle, Arthur - Professor Challenger stories
Herbert, Frank - Dune series, Eye, Helstrom's Hive
Heinlein, Robert - omnia opera
Lewis, C. S. - Silent Planet trilogy
Miller, Walter - A Canticle for Leibowitz
Saberhagan, Fred - Berserker series
Simmons, Dan - Hyperion Cantos
Verne, Jules - omnia opera
Wells, H. G. - omnia opera


Gaiman, Neil - omnia opera
Mills and O'Neill - Nemesis the Warlock series
Moore, Allen - omnia opera
Talbot, Bryan - The Adventures of Luther Arkwright


Albrecht Durer
Hieronymous Bosch
Wayne Barlowe
Ursula Vernon
Keith Thompson

Honourable Mentions

Bengtson, Franz T. - The Longships
Cornwell, Bernard - Arthur trilogy, Stonehenge
London, Jack - Call of the Wild, White Fang

~ END ~

So, yeah. The usual suspects, plus some 80s Brit comics

(image yoinked from Neil Asher's series on Reader's Bookcases)

edit: art section added 11/05/09

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Ideas Appear in the Weirdest Places

Has anyone else noticed what an excellent vein of weird and evocative quasi-words you can mine from blog comment word verification boxes? It makes a good blog post into a gift that gives twice.

Erm, time to get out more I think...


"You cannot defeat me. I command tiny men!"

So Chgowiz (crazy wind-maddened barmy that he is) starts off a spontaneous blog round-up on the subject of "what keeps the uber-monsters of D&D from destroying the world?" and - being the simple creature fascinated by bright colours and loud noises that I am - I have decided to follow this latest bandwagon.

So here is my take (although it owes a lot to Keith and Frank's Tome Series) on why humans in D&D-land aren't already slaves, fodder or spawn:

* Numbers - Most of the ubermonsters of D&D are predators living at the apex of an often-rickety energy pyramid. It takes insane amounts of calories and/or magical energy to support the living airborne furnace that is a dragon. This necessarily limits the number of these creatures in an area, especially so in the energy desert that is the underworld. Multiply this by the weird dietary requirements of the mind flayers and you've one major limiting factor on why the ubers can't conquer the world: they can't get the grub.

Numbers are equally a problem when it comes to aggression. Sure, a bunch of giants may ruin the day of one village, but, as Frank and Keith put it, on a large scale there are never enough of the ubermonsters to amount to anything more than crime. Unless the Jotenking is actually getting ALL the giants together to start the Grand Giantish Trampling Crusade dedicated to squishing the small folk en masse, then most monstrous incursions equate to little more than local difficulty ("Sorry baron, you're on your own with this one...").

* Reproductive Rate - Be it slow, or unusual, or cursed (see taichara's thoughts on dragons) the reproductive strategies of many of the D&D ubermonsters are generally...less than optimal in terms of speed and numbers of offspring. In the long term humanoid races can and will outbreed things like dragons or giants, and then the long fight back begins. Ever watched ants take down a scorpion? It's slow and messy, but there's only ever one outcome.

As for the monsters with an endless spawn cycle (like the undead). Well, much like a virus, they tend to destroy what they require in the very act of their reproduction, necessitating an unsustainable pillage-burn-and-move-on strategy in reproduction and feeding. When the horizon-darkening ghoul swarm has passed through (eating everything living in their path as they go), you're left with that rarest and most precious of thing; empty fertile land. That spells one thing: settler rush! ("kekekekeke")

* Isolation - let's be blunt. Most of the ubermonsters in D&D live in some pretty inhospitable places. They either dwell in mountains, or in tunnels in the ground, or in swamps, or on other planes entirely. Living is such a manner is no way to maintain a complex and sophisticated culture. If they want the advantages which access to extended trade and information networks provide then ubercreatures will generally have to come to terms with other cultures, even if that accommodation is parasitic in nature (Rakshasa, doppelgänger). That's when alignment of interest and, ultimately, assimilation happens. It happened to the Mongols in Persia, India and China; it happened to almost everyone who encounters American culture; heck, it even happened to the mitochrondria in your cells.

Those creatures who don't seek the advantages of external contact and trade generally get bypassed and left to rot in their lairs until someone sufficiently greedy and lustful for glory comes and picks them off (see class levels below).

* Active Opposition
- Cultural Hatred: "Mindflayers, Kuo-Toans, and Team Monster simply do not play the same game that everyone else is playing, mostly because their culture simply does not understand other races as having value. And that means that even other Evil races want to exterminate those peoples as a public service." - Keith and Frank

- Class Levels: It is a provable fact that D&D-land shares a cosmology with "Highlander" in that killing the powerful and taking their wealth and toys makes you more powerful in turn. If you're a big, visible threat (like a dragon) then opposition will come from miles around to take a pop at you. Ubermonsters either have to be like western gunfighters - always ready for the next punk who wants to call them out - or they have to retreat into the wilderness for some peace and quiet (see 'isolation' above). If you're a quiet threat (like doppelgänger), then you can either keep your head down and move circumspectly, or you can expect to be on the receiving end of witch hunts.

* Agenda
Q. Why, given that it spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined, does the USA not just invade Canada and take their abundant resources?
A. Because the Americans can get what they want more easily and cheaply without declaring Canada a rogue state.

Things could arguably be the same in D&D-land. Why should the local dragon torch the human city and sift the ruins for loot when it knows that useful quislings like Casiodorus Rex will happily run a loot-and-virgins protection racket for it? Why should the mind flayers invade their (pretty hardcore) neighbours in the underworld for brains when they can just teleport to the surface and buy cheap slaves from the orcs who knock over isolated farmsteads on their behalf? Why would the doppelgänger kill and impersonate the king if what they really want is new experiences, rather than a perpetual grind of government business? Sheer damn laziness is a powerful (de)motivating force in human affairs; I can't imagine D&D-land being all that different.

That's my take anyway. Thoughts?

(pic looted from outdoor oddities blog)

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Bestiary of the Vaults: Tologs

No. Enc.: 3d6 (6d10)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 60' (20')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 1d4 hit points
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: 1d4 or weapon -1
Save: 0 level human
Morale: 6 (9 in special circumstances)
Hoard Class: none (XIII)

Tologs are small humanoids (2-3 feet tall) which infest the upper reaches of the Vaults, subsisting on a diet of cave insects, fungus and carrion. They dwell exclusively underground, the oily, shadow-born skin of their emaciated limbs and bloated bellies being unable to stand the sun. Small pointed fangs fill their small mouths and a malign cunning animates their beady, eirily fish-like eyes (Tologs have infravision to 60ft). They speak only rarely, and then only in their own gibbering patois.

Tologs are habitual petty thieves (able to move silently 2in6, pick pockets 2in6 and hide in shadows 4in6). They prefer to pilfer small shiny objects which are then woven into bizarre and complex sculptural forms called tologworks (imagine a dreamcatcher which has been fought over by a bower bird and a pack-rat). Explorers of the Vaults often find these tologworks suspended from ceilings and overhangs. The creatures are viciously protective of their object trouve assemblies and will react with shrieking outrage and furious assault (morale 9) if these are damaged.

A tolog living area is invariably a toxic warren of stolen junk (some of which may still have value) and layered organic detritus through which dozens of these creatures scrabble and dig. Tolog packs are dominated by the largest, most corpulent and most aggressive of their kind, with 1 in 10 of their number being exceptional tologs known as sachis. Each of these grotesque little monsters has 6 hit points, attacking as a monster with 1+1 HD.

note: I'm sick of kobolds and the Tucker/Meepo fanboi baggage that comes with them. The tologs (a backronym name fro "those orrible little oily guys") are intended as a replacement for them.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Blueprints and Blather

The second quadrant of level 1 of the Vaults has been mapped. A couple of days of staring cluelessly at gaming boards for things like chess, backgammon, nine mans morris, and the like finally resulted in a wholly tangential, mildly drunken two-hour mapping binge last night. Strangely enough, having "X-Men 2" blaring in the background is excellent mapping inspiration - the Alkali Lake base, the tunnels in the X-men Mansion, Nightcrawler in the disused church, even Cerebro: all good, stealable stuff.

(related, and semi-topical: no, I won't be bothering with the "Wolverine" movie. I know a Hicksian P.O.S when I see one)

Oddly, it seems that as I create more Vaults-specific creatures, locations, and iconography the process of mapping out sections and filling rooms with interesting, bizarre stuff becomes *much* easier. Sure, it's nice to be able to write "2d6 Goblins", or "20 rats", or "50% chance 1d6 Orc slavers" and just forget about it. But scratching down "2d6 Tologs", or "1 Rook Seer and entourage", or "1d3 Mrotas" has me actively thinking about what has attracted these weird creatures so close to the surface (and, in some cases, has me making a note to work out what the heck these beasties actually are before the PCs bump into them!) That in turn leads to further embellishments to the area they'll be encountered in.

The art of Keith Thompson, Ursula Vernon (particularly her Gearworld, Bestiary and Oddities galleries. The winged phalloi? Not so much) and Wayne Barlowe's (Inferno and its' companion piece "Brushfire: Illuminations from the Inferno") have been a great help in tapping into this self-perpetuating cornucopia of bizarre imagery and situational complications. The almost Boschian baroque aspects of their art are top notch inspiration when it comes to adding fun replacements to the usual suspects of the monster menagerie. Of course, having Barlowe's "God's Demon" and the Weta Workshop "Natural History of Skull Island" as my current bedtime reading helps a lot too.

"Dark have been my dreams of late." - King Theoden, LOTR:TT

If he'd been a gamer the next thought would have been:

"I'd better make notes while I still remember the details."

So, yeah. Mapping begets gribblies, which beget tricks, traps and setting colour, which in turn begets a lot of erasing, swearing and more mapping. I just can't wait to throw my group into this, and (inevitably) watch them ride heedless and roughshod over my carefully considered setting details in search of gold, glory and sweet lewts. The little tinkers.

Thanks to Amityville Mike for pointing me in the direction of Dungeoncrafter v1.4, and to Harmyn at the Dragonsfoot forums for his excellent TSR Classic Blue tile set. It looks like I might be able to include actually legible to human beings maps in with my one page dungeon sections.

edit: semi-related, subterranean fun in Rome (the Domus Aurea, and the stacked Basilicae of San Clemente).
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