Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Professor Bindlestaff



Sometimes I see random things and like to use them as writing prompts.  My younger son used to have a particular alphabet book that always amused me because I saw the juxtapositions of the words on each page and wanted to try to make them into spells or monsters - I think they were mostly animals, so it was probably monsters I was imagining.  That book has disappeared (does your house-with-small-child work like that, too?), but the Little Boy recently picked out a dry-erase writing-practice book that also had juxtaposed words. Thus, the below.


Selections from Professor Bindlestaff’s Meandering Book of Somewhat Practical Enchantment


The visionary wandering wizard known as “Professor” Bindlestaff was, in his day, considered the clear authority on spontaneous magical glyphs, and invented many of those which are today used with regularity.  Throughout his peripatetic existence, Bindlestaff encountered all manner of lesser-known magical items and strange critters across the breadth of Wampus Country, and he took notes on a few in his one published work.


Ant acorn.  A figure of dubious power, appearing to be a palm-sized ant made out of acorns and twigs. The ant acorn may be commanded to burrow into the earth, transforming over three rounds into a majestic oak tree.  Among the leaves and branches of that oak will be 2d6 magical +1 arrows which can be easily plucked.  Each year, in perpetuity, the oak tree has a 10% chance of producing one new +1 arrow.  Further, if the oak is felled and its wood carved into a breastplate or shield, it will naturally be proof against insects - not just termites, but improving the wearer’s armor class against (even giant) insect attacks by +4.


Bee ball.  A bronze ball, fitting easily in the palm, cast with relief images of numerous bees; two different command words are inscribed in tiny print.  The bee ball can be invoked once per day by speaking the appropriate command word and hurling the ball at the ground.  The first effect summons a swarm of angry bees who will remain for 4+1d6 rounds and follow the wielder’s command. The second effect summons helpful bees who can shape themselves into the equivalent of a Tenser’s Floating Disc (cast at 12th level).


Crab duck.  Bindlestaff tried desperately to draw this critter in his notebook, but kept getting the angles wrong.  The crabduck is an unholy mingling of crustacean and waterfowl (see also ‘lobster-loon’) that menaces the southern shore of Shining Lake.  A bit larger than a standard duck, the armored crabduck has massive crab claws instead of duck-wings, and six webbed duckfeet allowing it to swim quite handily above or below the water.  The claw- and breast-meat of the crabduck are said to be quite delicious, and according to legend, he who sups upon crab-duck will have pleasant dreams.  (Eating crab-duck meat provides extra protection against nightmares, dream-domination, and the charm and fear effects of nocturnal critters).


Elephant fork.  This enchanted silver fork, emblazoned with a heraldic pachyderm, bears a simple yet unusual magical effect: it allows the user to take bites of food which are twenty or thirty times larger than usual.  An entire haunch of venison, down in one bite, for example.  The food is digested normally, and some intestinal distress may occur if the fork is used to enable overeating.  Although not mentioned in the text, the rumor is that Bindlestaff himself owned such a fork, and at one point during the siege of Starling Castle he gave it to a summoned xorn and commanded the beast to go eat the fortifications.  Oh, you’ve never heard of Starling Castle?  See, that’s why.


Giraffe glasses.  These spectacles are carved from giraffe bones and bear lightly-tinted green lenses.  When worn, the wearer can see as though he were four times taller than normal, allowing him to peek into second-story windows and over walls and hedges.  That’s it.  Not everything is a wand of fireballs.  Bindlestaff writes that although he could not be certain, he thought the glasses he examined may have had a secondary enchantment that allowed the wearer to speak the secret love language of giraffes (probably allowing a bonus when attempting to charm or convince them, among other possibilities).


Heart hat.   Once properly attuned to the owner, this chapeaux doubles as the wearer’s actual heart; that organ and the magic hat are inextricably linked, at any distance.  Applying a healing spell or other touch enchantment to the hat will target the owner.  Damage inflicted on the hat will be critically carried to the owner.  However, death of the owner does not intrinsically destroy the hat.  In fact, the hat can be used as an appropriate necromantic focus in lieu of the owner’s body for purposes of resurrection, speaking with the dead, and so forth.  The hat remains attuned to the previous owner, no matter the passage of years, until someone else puts it on.


Iguana Jump.  The particular example of a leaping lizard blade owned by Bindlestaff, in form much like a lightly-curved shortsword bearing etchings of a tipsy iguana along the blade.  Like all leaping lizard swords, Iguana Jump was +2 to hit and damage, and in the hands of an orphan allowed the casting of jump (caster level as character level) thrice per day.


Kite lion.  No doubt a relative of the much-storied paper tiger, the kite lion is a diamond-shaped origami man-eater which can flit about on the breeze and swoop down quite rapaciously upon its quarry.  The kite lion preys chiefly upon paper goods, and finds spellbooks and hand-drawn maps particularly delicious.  Bindlestaff himself recoiled as the kite lion attacked, not realizing the beast was going after the scroll-cases in his pack; the kite lion made off with weeks’ worth of work.  Based on Bindlestaff’s sketch, the creature was nearly the size of a normal lion, and flew at quite a speed.


Moon mop.  In the hands of a practitioner of magic, the moon mop can soak up pools of moonlight from the ground and then be wrung out into a bucket.  The liquified moonlight has myriad magical applications, as you well know, but if consumed straight, as a potion, the moonlight will heal 2d6+1 hp per dose.  Liquid moonlight may also cause damage to lycanthropes or trigger their transformation.


Necklace net.  Once a common item created by the Lakeborn and sometimes given to their agents, this choker looks like a fishnet of interlocked colored string.  The wearer can snap off the net and hurl it, causing it to expand into a dangerous binding net which counts as a web spell (caster level 5th) save that instead of appearing as a sticky arthropod product, it is instead a seaweed-choked antique fisherman’s net (random boot optional).  The necklace net is a one-use item, and it dissolves into fragrant chum at the end of its efficacy.


Owl pencil.  Bindlestaff only ever saw one of these, but presumed more existed - a wooden writing-implement filled with a “lead” composed of powdered owl-bones, dyed a deep crimson with the blood of an unknown critter.  Given the magical potency of the item, Bindlestaff supposed the skeletal powder was obtained not from a mundane owl, but one of the ancient owl-sorcerers who once ruled Wampus Country in antiquity.  The owl pencil can be used by any caster to inscribe a magical scroll of any spell he knows; said spell, when read from the scroll, has a 25% chance of having maximum efficacy in any variable of casting (range, damage, duration, etc).  The pencil has enough “lead” to inscribe a total of fifteen spell levels of scroll, then is exhausted.


Quilt rocks.  Sewn from fabric woven from cryosphinx wool and decorated in bright geometric patterns, these irregular spheres look like lopsided baseballs or rocks made out of grandma’s favorite blanket.  The quilt rocks (usually found in groups of 1d4+1) are very light when held, and quite squishy like a stuffed animal.  They have the curious property that when held in the hand, their weight is that of cloth and batting, but at all other times they are as heavy as a rock twice their size.  This feature allows the quilt rocks to be easily thrown as weapons, inflicting 1d6+1 points of damage to their target.  


Star spider.  Although it may sound like a horrible creature from the outer dark, in truth the star spider is an animated, five-legged trivet which has the ability to spider climb at will.  In addition, whatever object is placed up on the trivet - a fern in a planter, a plate of scrambled eggs, a spellbook - will adhere nicely to the trivet even when the star spider perches on a wall or upside-down on the ceiling.  The star spider is a construct and cannot speak.  The gravity-manipulating magic within the micro-golem is very temperamental; the nearby presence of any other levitation, gravity, or similar magic will disrupt (80%) or violently reverse (20%)   the star spider’s clinging ability.


Tiger turtle.  Also known as the snapping-cat, this house-cat sized critter makes a fine familiar.  It has a turtle’s shell and water-loving nature, but a tigerlike head and webbed, clawed paws.  The tail is a tiny, striped nubbin.  The tiger turtle is comically slow, even in the water, and - like some housecats - seems to spend most of the day asleep, but is totally content to snore away in a backpack much of the time so long as it is regularly fed smelts, kippers, anchovies or the like (preferably canned and as salty/disgusting as possible).  A happy, well-fed tiger turtle familiar grants its companion the singular ability to exude from the palms, once per day, a caustic solvent (“terrapintine”) that can disrupt or erase a magical glyph or warding-circle with a single swipe of the hand.  Bindlestaff surmises that glands from the critter could certainly be used in the construction of “something wicked big”, such as a staff of the magi.


Unicorn violin.  It takes an entire unicorn to make a violin; the neck is the alicorn, the body is part of the skull (with the eyes as sound-holes), and instead of catgut, luxurious hair from the unicorn’s mane is strung.  The instrument is decorated with a rainbow of colorful swirls, and produces a sweet tone without requiring any tuning.  When played, the magic of the unicorn violin restores the virginity of all females (of any species) within thirty feet.  Existing children do not wink out of existence, but any current pregnancies are mystically erased (somewhere in the Pit, a new lemure shows up), and fertilized eggs become unfertilized.


Whale x-ray fish.  Another Lakeborn gimmick, this time one of Wampus Country’s infamous figurines of dubious power.  This soapstone orca, carved in rustic style, has a cavernous open mouth and a semiprecious stone (typically a lapis) marking the whale’s blow-hole.  When the owner squints and looks into the whale’s mouth, he can see out the blow-hole as though wearing a ring of x-ray vision.  In an emergency, the whale’s owner can utter the command word inscribed along the roof of the sculpture’s mouth, and transform the whale x-ray fish into an actual immense whale, which heeds commands, for one hour before terminally collapsing into approximately one ton of delicious chocolate fudge.


Yak yarn.  This yarn is created from the wool of certain yak-men whose menace is well-known throughout the multiverse; there was once a colony of these nefarious humanoids in Wampus Country.  The yarn itself is enchanted, of course, but does not reach its real potential until it is crafted into a different form.  Crocheting it into a length of rope may create a rope of climbing; using ancient macrame techniques could yield an enchanted net, or a hat or coif.  The final enchantment of the product cannot be controlled by the knitter, but if a particular magic item is considered common, it is more likely to be produced.  Beware bizarre results!  Once transformed, the item cannot be unraveled back into yak yarn.


Zebra zipper.  A metal zipper sewn into a scrap of striped cloth, the zebra zipper has remarkable transformational power.  The owner holds the textile to their belly and slowly closes the zipper while thinking about zebras; in the space of a single round, they are polymorphed into an adult zebra.  The only downside is that to transform back, they will need the aid of a second party who can reach under the zebra’s belly and unzip the zipper, ending the spell.  Some examples of zebra zippers (25%) can also transform the user into a zebra-hippocamp or a zebra-pegasus.  While in zebroid form, the owner of the zebra zipper has statistics appropriate to their new form.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

KidLit: A Legacy of Living Toys

 Today we’re going to pretend to be James Burke and do some Connections-style meandering through children’s literature with an eye toward fantasy inspiration.  When we look at works we like, we often try to examine who influenced the author, and hop backwards in time.  We trace those connections not only in hope of bettering our understanding, but also discovering new authors, and getting a glimpse at the literary landscape before we were born.  We trace modern fantasy novels back to Tolkien and Howard, and to Lovecraft and Burroughs; we can then hop backward to Dunsany, MacDonald, Poe and so forth.  Literary genealogy as thought-experiment can yield interesting results, just as tracing your own ancestry does.  When we walk backward in time and come to an unfamiliar person, we then start to learn unexpected things. (This is a faux-introspective introduction to help explain why the rest of this post is meandering. Come along! You'll learn something, I promise.)

James Whitcomb Riley deserves some of the credit for what came downstream of his pen.  If you don’t know his name, it’s because time and fashion erode even the most popular artists from memory.  Riley (1849-1916) was chiefly a poet, well-known in his time, and especially famous in Indiana, and maintains lingering fame there.  Riley wrote much of his stuff in dialect reflective of that part of America, and much of his work was poetry aimed at children.  This is the guy who took the African-American folksong “Shortnin’ Bread” and published a version of it as a poem.  Riley was sufficiently famous, for a “rural poet”, to share stages with Samuel Clemens, at least until Clemens complained that Riley was upstaging him.  He also hung out with fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace (Ben Hur).  Riley’s folksy poetry, served up in nostalgic dialect, was a popular balm during a period of industrialization, harking back to an earlier time.


One of Riley’s most famous works was a poem called “Little Orphant Annie” (aka “The Elf Child”, 1885) - in which the eponymous orphan warns other children that misbehavior will make them the target of kidnapping by goblins.  Yes, really.  The poem was based on an orphan girl who worked for Riley’s family; he also wrote “The Raggedy Man” based on a hobo-type who worked for his father.   “Little Orphant Annie” inspires both Raggedy Ann and (the title of) Little Orphan Annie.  Perhaps we’ll talk about Little Orphan Annie (leapin’ lizards!) in another installment.


Johnny Gruelle, an illustrator and cartoonist, was family friends with James Whitcomb Riley.  He created Raggedy Ann (1915) and Andy (1916), and based Raggedy Ann’s name on the two aforementioned poems, with which he was very familiar.  Raggedy Ann is a strong entry in the “toys come to life” subgenre of children’s (nursery?) fantasy.  She’s an old rag doll who has adventures when her owner isn’t around.  This trope is of considerable vintage, despite what Buzz Lightyear stans might tell you.





Toys coming to life isn’t even new in 1915 when Raggedy Ann appears - after all, there was Hoffman’s (and Dumas’) Nutcracker that everybody knew about, and more...


Collodi’s Pinocchio (1881, 1898 for the American edition which Guelle no doubt knew) gave us a marionette who wanted to be a real boy.  This tale is sufficiently influential that we can credit Astro Boy and a thousand other robots-desiring-humanity to it, including Star Trek’s Data.  Have you ever actually read the original Adventures of Pinocchio?  There’s so much more to it than the Disney version (which is what you would’ve guessed, surely).  Even a quick skim of the Wikipedia article will show the differences (you had me at ‘undertaker rabbits’).  And hey, don't forget that 2e Ravenloft adventure The Created stars an evil version of Pinocchio called "Maligno the Carrionette".


Aleksey Tolstoy (distant relation to Leo) did a Russian pastiche or rewrite of Pinocchio; I’d never heard of it, or him, until I started poking around for this post.  Aleksey Tolstoy, writing in the 1920s, is still today a celebrated science fiction writer in Russia, and his work The Garin Death Ray is apparently credited by the inventor of the laser with specifically giving him the idea.  His novel Aelita involves going to Mars and finding an subterranean Atlantean civilization; since he’s a Burroughs contemporary, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like.


Much of Baum’s Oz oeuvre existed at that time, including the Gump (1904) and Scraps the Patchwork Girl (1913, certainly bearing a stronger resemblance to Raggedy Ann than the Gump does!).  And the production team behind the very successful stage adaptation of Wizard of Oz aimed for a repeat by staging Babes In Toyland (1903), telling a fairy tale about animate toys and, interestingly, including a dance number entitled “My Rag Doll Girl”.  Note that Babes In Toyland and its several film adaptations feature Little Bo Peep as a character.  Take that, Lightyear!  And don’t forget Parade of the Tin Soldiers (1897), a fine little march often performed in popular revues - including the famous Rockettes’ Christmas Show for decades.


The animated/living toy does seem to develop into a robust subgenre in the 20th century.  Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit was published in 1922, featuring a stuffed rabbit that hoped to become real, if only its owner would love it enough.  The Velveteen Rabbit has that scary scarlet fever bit and a bittersweet ending that seems to make it more in line with a Hans Christian Andersen story than what would become the standard “animated toys” romp of the 20th century.  Note that Margery Williams cited Walter de la Mare as her inspiration for writing children’s literature.  Also, Williams wrote a werewolf horror story ‘The Thing In The Woods’ which H. P. Lovecraft read and commented on - and may have helped inspire The Dunwich Horror.  Lovecraft also liked Walter de la Mare’s ghost stories.  I’m not much into horror myself, but I look forward to reading de la Mare’s forgotten fairy-story fantasy like The Three Mulla Mulgars, which sees a trio of monkeys grapple with a magic amulet.  Much more my speed.  Watership Down uses some de la Mare quotes in it, so we’re back to fantasy rabbits again there...


Thomas Disch’s Brave Little Toaster (1980) stars small appliances rather than toys, but has a similar “animated objects and their relationship with their owner/master” setup.  It’s also basically The Incredible Journey (1961) - there are no new ideas, perhaps, only novel and amusing permutations and recombinations.  Keep in mind that although, thanks to the animated movie, you may think of The Brave Little Toaster as a children’s story, it’s only a children’s story in form of presentation and structure - there’s a lot of humor and thoughtful stuff for grown-ups in there, and the novella itself was nominated for a number of fantasy & science-fiction awards.  When the novella first appeared in a magazine, it had cover art from Gahan Wilson, for crying out loud.  But of course Thomas Disch is best known as a New Wave science-fiction author in the first place, so maybe Toaster is his most kid-friendly work anyhow.


That seminal year 1980 also brings us The Indian In The Cupboard, featuring more toys come to life.  Lynne Reid Banks’ previous novel, The Farthest-Away Mountain, is a more straightforward fairy-story type fantasy with gargoyles and gnomes in it - I look forward to finding a copy.  Despite the Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels being bestsellers with a deepening fantasy (and time-travel) mythology - and a major motion picture to boot - the books have recently fallen out of fashion since the Native Americans in the books are portrayed as cultural caricatures.  Again, though, a movie puts the living toy gimmick back in the water.  80s kids were aware it was a thing.  The later film Small Soldiers only sort-of counts, since those action figures aren’t coming to life magically.


John Lasseter liked The Brave Little Toaster and wanted to do a film of it, but ended up doing Toy Story instead.  More on that saga here; that article will also reveal to you the connection between The Brave Little Toaster and Saturday Night Live.


Enough picaresque meandering!  Back to Raggedy Ann!


Although a good portion of the Raggedy books deal with more mundane living-toy adventures (the challenge of losing one’s stuffing, for example), they also contain all manner of fantasy-influenced adventures.  There are fairies right from the first book, and later witches, enchanted items, strange faraway lands, and wishes-come-true.  There is (light) peril, and there are occasional rescues to perform.  The first two books, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, are out of copyright - you can find them via Gutenberg, LibriVox, etc.   Gruelle’s fantasy The Magical Land of Noom, in which children build a flying-machine and meet the fantastic inhabitants of the Moon, is also at Project Gutenberg.


Raggedy Ann and Andy had renewed presence after 1977’s animated film RA&A’s Musical Adventure, featuring music from Joe Raposo of Sesame Street fame.  The movie’s lead animator was Richard Williams, whose legendary work I guarantee you’ve seen (click through and stare in wonder at all the stuff he’s touched, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit).  In the film, Raggedy Ann was voiced by Didi Conn, who later hung out at Shining Time Station with a bunch of talking trains, so maybe animating the inanimate is a thing she’s into -  I expect I’ll talk about The Railway Series another time.  The ‘Musical Adventure’ is bizarrely not streaming (way to drop the ball, Paramount) but exists on YouTube because of course it does.  I recommend checking it out; the central storyline is nonexistent, but there are a boatload of weird characters you could drop into your D&D game (once given weaponry, of course).


Living toys of all kinds have a long legacy in fantasy, and they're worth looking at as something to add to your campaign.  I'll forgive you if you feel the need to make them all dark and edgy to justify their inclusion... there's always Child's Play.  And remember, the cursed doll “Annabelle” - despite the china-doll portrayal in the films - is a Raggedy Ann.  Creepy.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Thievery: Some Comics

 


I often shake my head at the idea of buying a big rpg book - ostensibly full of adventure - and not using it for anything.  People do it; I've done it.  It's awful.  We should stop wasting our money.

Rather than dropping fifty bucks on the latest committee monstrosity, consider a smaller investment with potentially greater payoff.  A couple bucks' worth of old comic books might give you more neat ideas to mine than you'd find in some rpg products.

Today at the Ollie's Discount shop, I dropped five bucks on a grab-bag of five comics.  Three of them were pre-2000, pictured above.  There is stuff worth stealing in here - let's take a look and see what kind of loot we can find in here!


Alpha Flight.  There's a b-plot about Sub-Mariner and Marrina, but the main story here deals with the horrible demon-thing Pestilence, which has stolen the life-force of Snowbird's newborn child and is now using his "death and decay" powers to wreck Alpha Flight.  The Great Beasts - maybe the best part of Alpha Flight backstory - make an appearance here, so I'm already a fan.  Shaman gives us some exposition about how he brought Snowbird here, to this place of power, to have her (magical, probably shapeshifter) baby so that he (the wizard of the group) could anchor that superbaby to our reality.  It all went awry, of course.

LOOT:  Very Pregnant Woman with Magical Baby needs to be escorted to a mystical place of power before she delivers.  I've seen escort quests before in rpgs, but never one like that.  You could absolutely steal this gimmick.

Force Works.   This is Iron Man's 1990s team (so extreme!).  This ish is part of multi-title crossover shenanigans in which the Mandarin, who has replaced his hands with actual dragon claws, gets his revenge by capturing Iron Man and War Machine.  It's not a great issue (despite being early Abnett/Lanning), but there are a couple interesting things in here.

LOOT: Century is an alien member of Force Works with whom you may not be familiar, but his entire gimmick is that he's an artificial being who has the thoughts and memories of the last hundred members of his dying species living on within his head.  That concept - packing the brainscapes of a hundred people into one to preserve a species - is worth stealing.  You could do it with a lost tribe of dwarves or elves, or have that lich you've been working on be the repository for her entire lost culture.  What sort of powers might that give you?  If you have the memories of a dozen spellcasters...?

LOOT: The Mandarin has replaced his severed hands with the claws of a dragon (I presume one of the alien Makluan dragons tied to his rings).  A villain with dragon claws, or a demon's hand or something, grafted on could be very cool.  Or you could do it with a hero or an authority figure - the baron's been acting weird and won't take off his gloves (because he lost a hand in that battle last month and now has a devil's claw there instead).

LOOT: In this comic the Mandarin's castle has a spell around it that causes technology to fail.  We already have anti-magic shells and zones in D&D, this might be a fun variant if it's campaign-appropriate.  This could be an inherent effect around places of great preternatural magic, perhaps.  Walk too far into the woods and into the faerie zone and your flintlock just plain 

LOOT:  One of the Mandarin's superpowered agents is called Butterfly, and bad things happen to those upon whom she casts her shadow.  In this issue it seems like it's all techno-misfunction hexes, but you could do it as a general curse thing.  Standing in the hag's shadow curses you...that's pretty cool, and nice and mythic.  Think about how we're always keeping track of who's looking at the medusa's eyes and imagine how you'd track who is standing in the hag's shadow during a combat.  What happens when the light sources shift because somebody cast a spell?

Spider-Man 2099.   I enjoy the 2099 comics a good bit, but there isn't much to steal from this one as Spider-Man meets the future version of the Vulture, who is a flying cannibal who sides with the city's downtrodden.  There's a whole "for the people" speech that garners a little sympathy, but then he eats a dude.

LOOT: Making an otherwise middle-of-the-road menace into an Actual Cannibal might be just the thing to turn a C-level villain into a B+.  Probably works best for a villain who you wouldn't think is already a man-eater (ie, not an orc or an ogre).  Maybe that evil wizard likes to chew on folks, or eat their brains, because he believes it'll make him smarter.  (What if he's right and eating a hundred prepared brains of INT 15+ will give you a point of INT?  Metaphysics have consequences!)  Or perhaps not a villain - suppose the PCs have an allied fey elf person who occasionally helps them, and then one encounter they come to learn that this unseelie bastard has a very different moral code than they do when it comes to what's consumable.  Keep your aliens weird, people; and don't trust elves, since given half a chance they'll eat a baby.


So a mixed bag of ideas there, but you tell me - were they worth three dollars?

Thursday, March 18, 2021

JordanCon Interview

 Check out this interview I did with the gaming track for JordanCon!


I think it came out pretty well.  Anytime I listen to myself in an interview or on a podcast, I worry about whether I sounded competent and put-together.  I'm way past worrying about how my voice sounds or anything like that, but I do wince at every "um" that manages to make its way in.

Ryan and I discussed a number of things, including the perennial favorite "what is old-school gaming".  My answers are probably middle-of-the-road satisfactory; maybe not hardcore enough to please an old-school zealot, but that's the way it is.

We also talked about Lumberlands a bit, and how zines are a recent fashion in tabletop gaming.  Then we brainstormed an adventure.  Fifty-four minutes of unbridled brilliance.

If you click through on the link above to check out the JordanCon website - they're all virtual this year of course - you'll see they're having an adventure-writing contest.

Most importantly, I made it through the interview without Ryan asking me anything about Robert Jordan...since the only Jordan I've ever read was one of his Conan novels, and I don't even remember which one it was.

I have a couple more "talk about Lumberlands" appearances coming up, but as always I welcome your feedback and questions about anything gaming-related.  I often consider recording a video or stream to talk about Wampus Country, then think better of it, assuming nobody's particularly interesting in that sort of rambling or Q&A.  If I'm wrong on that, let me know.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

Into the Mearlsverse

 We sometimes talk about what a Gygax module is like; there are commonalities of structure and theme throughout.  And we commonly hear about Tom Moldvay's pulp inspirations in his adventures.  I'm wondering what thematic through-lines we might find in the works of other adventure-writers.

In this case, I'm thinking about Mike Mearls, who I didn't really think of as an adventure writer.  I thought of him as a rules guy primarily, and a developer.  Some time ago when raiding my collection for low-level content to rob, I came across my copy of The Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho - by Mike Mearls.  That rediscovery led me to consider "what's a Mearls adventure like?" and consider some kind of blogpost like this one.

I'd thought it would be easy - just a handful of adventures to look through.  I was dead wrong.  Mearls has quite a list of adventures to his (full or partial) credit, including stuff for the World of Darkness and Feng Shui.  I had no idea.  But there were a ton of fantasy adventures from across the years.  I wondered, did they resemble each other like siblings?  Were there elements Mearls used over and over?  And could you staple some of these together into a single campaign or hexmap?  A Mearlsverse, if you will.

Looking at the overall output, I needed to limit myself, so I had some parameters for the experiment:

* Adventures where Mearls is 50%+ of the design team
* Fantasy only, no World of Darkness or Feng Shui
* Shied away from Iron Heroes and Arcana Evolved stuff generally

The guiding spirit was "stuff you could easily steal for a standard-ish D&D game", which is why I left out the non-fantasy and the "rather non-vanilla" fantasy. I looked at the following adventures, listed with their level ranges, and themes. (Levels are going to be a little variant in meaning by edition, but this is close enough for our leitmotif-seeking purposes). The italicized works were produced by Mearls and a co-writer - no idea who had majority lift on these, so if you're looking for the Purest of Mearlsverses, drop these selections.


Hammerfast  (1st-10th)      dwarves, orcs, undead
Aerial Adventure Guide (cities of Sellaine and Dreadfall)  elves, undead
Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho (1st)   kobolds, ogre, evil wizard
Scalegloom Hall (1st)  kobolds
Fear the Worst (1-2)   mutants (WFRP adventure)
Keep on the Shadowfell (1-3)     kobolds, undead, Orcus
In the Belly of the Beast (2-4)  slavers, orcs, necromancers, nasty outsider
Death in the Skyfire Wastes (3rd)  undead
Darwell’s Tower (3-4)   necromancer
Daggers at Midnight (3-5)  urban, human foes
Looking-Glass Deep (4th lvl)  wizard’s abode, hobgoblins
Thunderspire Labyrinth (4-6) evil wizards
Return to the Moathouse (5th)  orcs, undead
Forge of the Dawn Titan (5th)  deviltry & hellfire
Folnar’s Dagger (5 to 7)  demon cultists
Siege of Durgam’s Folly (5-8)    ogres, clockworks, Orcus
Swords Through The Ice Gate  (6th)   bugbears, dragon
Prison City of Hell’s Reach human foes
Lost Menagerie (7-9) extreme wizardry, dinosaurs
Pyramid of Shadows (7-10)    evil wizard
Swords Against Deception  (10th) cult, undead
Demon Queen’s Enclave (14-17) demons, drow, Orcus
Beyond the Door (18th) extreme wizardry, time travel


The Mearlsverse is:
* A fairly standard ‘vanilla’ D&D realm, as you’d expect
* Big movers are wizards and their use/seeking of powerful unique artifacts
* Orcus everywhere you look.

What do we see here? Plenty of humanoids. I hesitate to say "Mearls loves kobolds" or similar, because many of those selections are kind of pre-made for an author when you're writing D&D jazz for a certain level, with vanilla-world expectations. But even controlling for that sort of baseline, I think we see some themes that tell us something about the Mearlsverse.

There's some sword-and-sorcery influence here, chiefly in the form of What Evil Wizards Do. Mearlsian wizard-antagonists seem to always be in possession of, or on the hunt for, a unique magic item. The macguffin is the raison d'etre. There are a couple dimensional portals. Note Mearls' use of Lieber-homage titles here and there.

Mearls digs Orcus. Plain fact. Fourth edition's code-name during development was 'Orcus', and you can see why here. Even if you filter out the Official 4e Product - which had an Orcus theme to much of the overall adventure path - Orcus still sticks his horns in at several points, and there are plenty of undead around. Undead are a D&D standard of course, but we see some interesting usages (as in Hammerfast).

Most of it is generic-temperate-Europe, as you'd expect. Death in the Skyfire Wastes is a Calimshan adventure, but not overly desert-y. Forge of the Dawn Titan, being a 'Lair Assault', doesn't have much to it, and I wonder if the "fire" themes therein were something Mearls would've picked for himself or if it was just his turn to write a Lair Assault. Swords Through the Ice Gate uses a "portal to frozen world" gimmick but you could use it in your Dope Rhymes of the Ice, Ice Maiden campaign.

Not a ton of dragon presence here, which is interesting. Plenty of dungeons, of course, and above-the-surface places to explore. There's also a bit of a hole in the level 10-15 space, so Mike, if you're reading this, that's the gap in the Mearlsverse. Send me an outline about an Orcus-aligned kobold wizard, I'll finish it, we'll make tens of dollars.

Were I trying to cobble these together into a campaign or hexmap, I'd probably steal the hexmap that comes with Hammerfast, plop another city on the coast, and then start dropping seeds in hexes.

I also note that I couldn't get my hands on the Feng Shui adventures to look at them for adaptation suitability, but one of them did have a time travel gimmick, so maybe it would fit in after all. Speaking of time travel, if I were to run the Mearlsverse experiment myself, I would make sure that the long-forgotten wizard referred to at the low levels (Lost Vault of Tsathzar Rho) was the same long-forgotten wizard trapped in a time anomaly in Beyond the Door at 18th level. Symmetry, people! Furthermore, I'd look into linking the demonic presences that are sprinkled throughout so there's a through-line there.

Fear The Worst is actually a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure featuring lots of human types and some chaos mutants, but it has a tasty pun title and a sausage festival set-piece, so I love it.

I'm still really reading through most of these beyond skim-level, so I can't/won't speak to how they might run. I haven't come across any stunningly clever bits that made me exclaim "Great Arneson's Ghost, I must Steal This Thing" yet, but they might be in there, hiding. The overall vibe is workmanlike, functional-seeming adventures, ready for customization to your game.

Gun to head today I'd choose Fear the Worst to run. Lost Menagerie looks good, as a lost world thing with dinosaurs. No idea if this exercise had any real lasting value, but my curiosity was sated. I would consider doing this again with Mentzer (I've run several of his R-series adventures) or digging out some older Chris Perkins stuff or something. Suggestions/revelations welcome.

*slaps cover of adventure*  You can fit so many kobolds in there.




Monday, March 8, 2021

What's Broken: Reviews

 On a regular cycle, someone complains about the death of the OSR (whether it was 2013 or 2017 or yesterday or tomorrow), and inevitably somebody chimes in talking about how things got “too commercial” and everybody in the “scene” wanted to make a buck and crank out a product.  That’s worth talking about, but there are some other issues that dovetail with it that I think I need to discuss first so we get a complete picture of where I’m headed with all this.



One core issues I see - and I’ve occasionally complained about it on social media, I suppose - is our lack of a review culture.  We don’t have meaningful reviews to consult and compare.  We have shilling and we have tear-down rants, and very little in-between.


There are two large classes of OSR “reviews”:


  • THIS IS BAD AND I HATE IT

    • “This is not written the way I would write it” (fair enough, but diminishing returns as to usefulness of this sort of review)

    • “This classic product sucks/can’t-be-run” (often with a side dish of “I’m much cleverer than these 70s-80s people”, which is distasteful even when true)


  • THIS IS AWESOME AND I LOVE IT

    • “Everything this guy/company does is equally great”  (usually not true, and how could it be?)

    • “This looks really high-quality doesn’t it”  (so?)

    • “This is super-innovative, subversive, artsy and I love it.  Also, my friend made it.  No, I haven’t run it LOL who actually plays games?”

    • “I used parts of this, twisted to meet my needs under a different ruleset, and I changed most of it” (interesting reading, and a standard byproduct of the way we hobby, but perhaps less useful to some readers)


With most of both of these written without ever having run the product.  Imagine how different our discourse might be if we had the expectation that once you ran an adventure, you actually talked about how it went.  Instead, we’re stuck in a rut where we have a “balance” between rants and stroking.  Bryce Lynch writes reviews which are sometimes amusing to read, but have become so repetitive as to be much less useful than they used to seem (whether this is Bryce’s fault or that of the endless stream of mediocre adventures he dares to read is a separate question).  Fear of a Black Dragon produces interesting reviews much of the time, although often they take a larger work and bang it into a rules-light shape.  Questing Beast usually does “reviews” that are more about the paper quality and the art than about using the material at the table.  Some old-school bloggers go in-depth into “what’s wrong” with a TSR module - and maybe even attempt to provide solutions - but never bother to run the adventure, even WITH the proposed fixes.  


Can’t we have reviews by people who ran the product?  Answer: perhaps not if we want reviews to appear during the main sales push cycle for a product.  Yet if everything’s available forever, I’d happily take a robust long-tail review culture over what we have now.


Here’s a call to action: if you haven’t actually used the product, don’t call it a review.  Have some dignity.  Call it a “first look”, a “preview”, an “impressions”, whatever.  Let’s make words have some meaning?  And if you do a preview and later run the adventure or the game, come back and do an actual review!  Compare your first thoughts to your eventual conclusions!


So here we are without a review culture to guide consumers (ooh, he said the “c” word!).  We have tastemakers and influencers but not reviewers.  Consumers - potential buyers of an adventure or a game - will see some guidance.  They are hungry for information to help them make a good decision about how to spend their money and time.  Without any reliable source of guidance to distinguish between products, we’re going to fall back on a) known producers of good reputation (be it writers or companies), b) impressive visuals (be it artwork or production values).  See where this leaves the independent producer?  In the mud.  If you’re a newish writer with a small budget, you will very quickly feel like you cannot compete.  And you can’t. 


Why can’t we talk like adults about products?  Why can’t we talk like adults about art?  There’s a gulf between “being courteous in criticism” and “avoiding all negativity”.  It’s nonsense.  We’ve gone beyond courtesy to cultishness.  You can’t criticize modern (postmodern?) works without being dogpiled.  (You can, of course, criticize things from before 2000 with impunity, and are encouraged to do so, because obviously they’re all Neanderthal crap.)  In OSR/indie circles, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “80% of what’s on DM’s Guild is hastily-produced shovelware that nobody will actually use at the table”. Dare I say it about the arthouse/indie OSR?  I suppose I do: “80% of what the OSR produces is farty shovelware that nobody will actually use at the table.”  Does that make it valueless?  Maybe, maybe not.  But we’re at the point where we’re afraid to express opinions and to disagree civilly.  It’s silly.  (Leave aside for the moment the idea that “proper” OSR mindset doesn’t really need anybody else’s product, as that’s a can of purple worms for a different time.)  Meanwhile, we have also somehow decided that we should only “review” products we like (because our time is valuable, and criticism is mean?), so we’re not learning anything from our (collective) mistakes because we aren’t talking about them.


While we’re at it: social media folks and YouTube types, please stop pretending that vagueposting about a problem you had with a product you refuse to name is helpful to the hobby.  It makes me want to call you and tell you there’s a small leak in your basement; no, I won’t tell you where.


We gave up criticizing “scene” products because it felt dirty.  It’s fine to yell at WotC, or TSR, or whoever.  Publicly criticizing another scenester, however, that’s backstabbing for triple damage, and completely verboten.  Unless you have a full-on beef, of course, in which case we’ll all gladly drink in the drama.  But actually talking about someone else’s work in a civil way?  Nope, can’t have it.  Not only do we have a layer of “you’re fine just as you are and shouldn’t be goaded into self-improvement”, but we have the scenester layer of “we’re all in this together and we don’t talk crap about each other”.  It’s nonsense, because it doesn’t improve the products, the people, the hobby, or the games.  It encourages everybody to try to be an unassailable auteur (“artiste”) and then get depressed when their macaroni-art high-concept adventure doesn’t sell five hundred copies.  You think rpgs are a community?  What functioning community sets its own members up for failure like that?  That isn’t a guild of artisans who teach one another, that’s a giant crab bucket.


I’ll come back to OSR marketing in another post and try to keep this one to the topic at hand - reviews are broken.


How do we fix it?  We reverse course.  We establish that it’s okay to talk about products and what you didn’t like about them.  What didn’t work for you, what didn’t work at the table.  We place the focus of the hobby back on the DOING - the actual playing of the games, and the discussion about what worked and didn’t.  We normalize accepting civil criticism civilly.


Play the games.  Talk about playing the games.




(Side-note: watch the interaction numbers on the post climb, since it's "Drama". And that's precisely the problem...)


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Strawberry Fields Forever

Something terrifying is growing near the village of Snailshingle; something other that threatens to consume the town...

The Situation

On the southern shore of Shining Lake sits Snailshingle, a picturesque village known only for the beautiful and tasty abalone found in their waters.  Locals harvest the plentiful snails for meat, and to use their iridescent lavender shells in jewelry-making.  There was a small problem a few years ago when one of the snails grew quite large and intelligent, but rather than let him start to think of himself as king of the snails, the savvy villagers taught him about adventuring and barrow-delving, equipped him with top-notch gear, and sent him on his way, apprenticed to a group of mercenaries that were passing through. Today, the charismatic whelk called Lawrence of the Lute is considered a local hero, and he even owns a stake in the pub that overlooks the beach.

Beyond the pink stucco walls of the tiny homes of Snailshingle are a series of gentle hills which were once host to surprisingly soft fescue that bore a faint cinnamon scent.  Today, however, those hills smell chiefly of strawberry - for they are covered with massive strawberry plants which seemingly came out of nowhere, sprouting and spreading over several weeks last Spring.

The folk of Wampus Country are a food-focused people, so you can imagine that the Snailshinglers rapidly descended on the newly-grown strawberry plants, seeking to harvest the succulent, sweet fruit the moment it was suitably large and red.  Tragically, the harvest went the other direction.  First, several villagers were found passed out at the edge of the strawberry patch; a few days later, the first corpse was discovered.  Word spread quickly - the strawberries were not to be plucked.  A party was dispatched to burn the strawberry field, but they retreated back to the town after two of their number started to bleed from their ears and collapsed.  One thing was certain: something was protecting the strawberries.  After a town meeting, a fence was erected some distance from the edge of the field, surrounding it.  The local priests march to the field each day and hurl blessings over the fence, in hopes of stemming the tide of the strawberry plants.


The Truth

The strawberries now grow plump and crimson year-round.  Those who touch the fruit immediately lose 2d4 hit points via blood loss, as the flesh of the hungry vampire strawberries rapidly exsanguinates them.  Hostile movements toward the plants invite psychic attack from the hive-consciousness among the strawberry plants.

The interconnected plant colony is - or perhaps was - a visitor from another plane or timeline, an intelligent strawberry plant of considerable psychic power.  Arriving in Wampus Country by unknown means, it planted itself and began to spawn... resulting in the current situation outside Snailshingle.  The underlying intelligence can probably be contacted via speak with plants - it can no longer utter humanoid tongues.  If contacted and negotiated with, the genius-intelligence plant may be convinced to be less dangerous to the villagers, but in exchange it will want assistance in investigating this world, reproducing peacefully, and achieving its own goals.  The strawberry-creature is capable of growing a pseudo-humanoid body in a matter of days, and investing it with a portion of its life force and mind.  This creature may make a fair sidekick for the right frontiersman.  Alternately, the plant-creature might be convinced, cajoled, or bullied into calving off a piece of itself into the shape of some other animal - a steed, a wolf, or even a hawk - to serve as a mount, companion, or familiar.



Creation notes: To give an impression of how we come up with things around here, this blogpost has its origin in the five-year-old saying something random about a 'vampire strawberry'.  The fifteen-year-old riffed on this, musing that a vampire strawberry would better be deemed a 'suckleberry'.  Fair point.  Contemplating this, I remembered a mutant strawberry plant I played in a Metamorphosis Alpha game at North Texas RPGCon... and thus we have a blogpost.