Monday, October 11, 2021

Learning About D&D From Comic Books, Part One


There are many different ways to structure a roleplaying campaign - number of players, frequency of play, flow of in-game time may all vary from table to table.  However, there are lessons to be learned regarding getting what you want from your campaign.  It may be helpful to look at models from outside of D&D to think about campaign structure in new ways.  For the purposes of this post, I’m using “campaign” in the modern sense - a series of game sessions - not in the classic “campaign = gameworld regardless of who’s playing in it today” sense.  We’ll come back to that later.

Let’s look at superhero comics.  Comic books run the gamut as far as genre and theme; some feature a single hero, others a large group of heroes.  If we break down “kinds of superhero comic” based on membership and flow-of-time, and look at it as a series of D&D adventures, some patterns emerge.

The categories:

TEAM BOOK, MINOR LEAGUE.  A group of PCs who only adventure together, never solo.  Membership may change over time, and the group might temporarily expand or contract.  The adventures are generally serial and without pause, as the heroes have nowhere else to be and don’t exist outside of the team adventures.

TEAM BOOK, MAJOR LEAGUE. (Avengers, Justice League, Fantastic Four)  A group of PCs who adventure together; some PCs may have solo adventures outside the group, others perhaps not.  Membership may change over time, and the group might temporarily expand or contract.  The adventures may be serial or more episodic, in part because some members may be elsewhere having separate adventures.

THE “NON-TEAM”. (Defenders) A group of PCs who each have their own solo adventures, but come together periodically to address a shared threat or mission greater than any one of them could tackle.  Guest stars may be common.  Adventures are typically episodic, and as one chapter ends, the PCs split up again, only to reunite again at a later date to address another issue.

THE SOLO. (Most superhero comics!) A single PC has adventures in serial or episodic format.  The solo nature of the narrative produced allows for more time spent on friendly NPCs, romantic entanglements, personal problems, and the like. 

THE DUO/PARTNERSHIP.  (Power Man & Iron Fist, Hawk & Dove, Cloak & Dagger) A pair of PCs work together.  If the PCs share a theme or origin, the majority of their adventures will be related to that theme.  If the PCs are themed to different subgenres, typically the adventures will sometimes favor the background or disposition of one PC over the other, and sometimes the adventures will be against a new/shared foe or threat.

THE TEAM-UP BOOK. (Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-In-One, The Brave & The Bold, etc)  Basically a rotating duo book.  A main PC teams up with different other PCs, usually one at a time.  Only the “main” PC is constant, although the “guest star” PCs may return periodically.  Adventures are typically episodic, and may be themed to a subgenre or location more appropriate to the guest star than to the main hero.  (ie when Spider-Man teams up with Doctor Strange, you’re getting a mystical adventure; Strange isn’t showing up just to help Spidey punch the Scorpion.)

THE CROSSOVER.  Two or more of the above structures overlap for a limited time, usually with a single goal or mission, or united against a single threat.  In many cases the PC groups will temporarily clash before uniting.  Often the PCs will be forced by circumstance to split up into smaller groups, each one combining members of the two different teams.

As we look at these structures, we have to ignore the relative power levels of the superheroes as we understand them, since we’re talking about D&D and not some narrative system where Superman and Robin have the same value.  However, as stand-ins for D&D PCs who may or may not have different kinds of adventures, they work if you squint. We'll look at a few of these more in depth in later installments on this blog, especially talking about using alternate campaign structures like the solo and duo, and thinking about crossovers.

Most D&D campaigns are, by this diagnostic system, “minor league team books”.  The PCs have adventures together, and are never adventuring apart.  Membership changes when a PC dies, a player leaves or arrives, or there’s a strong organic need for somebody to swap characters. This is certainly the way I played throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s - perhaps you did as well - and it has become the default playstyle.  It’s to the point now that this playstyle also seems to presume that the PCs all sit at the same power level and advance together, not only because they’re always playing together, but because the mechanics of the game ramp everyone up at the same rate more or less, and it’s become a goal of play to maintain that.  Remember that for a moment.

Most of these campaigns are not only closed in terms of participation, but sealed in time - once they’re over, they’re over.  Characters from this story may show up later in another story, but generally each campaign is considered separate, perhaps even taking place in a different world, or - because they are run by different DMs - considered to be not in continuity with one another.

Campaign setups with fewer players can and do work just fine - the duo, the solo hero, and so forth.  In most cases those campaigns are also closed and sealed, as above.  So long as these are the default playstyles - closed, sealed - campaigns exist in their own bubbles and rarely affect one another.   

Let’s return to the xp question.  In your “standard” team book campaign, everybody earns xp together.  Maybe somebody falls a little behind because they missed a session, or maybe everybody is marched forward by milestones regardless of participation.  These kinds of setups tend to have the assumption that everybody is the same power level, everybody shares the major goals, and everybody will advance (roughly) at the same rate.  Any other campaign structure will break that assumption, as PCs will definitely be gaining xp at different rates (Thor has his own comic, so he earns xp solo and when he’s doing Avengers stuff; the Black Knight doesn’t have a solo comic, so he’s only earning xp during Avengers comics).  You could do something different with this, and have Spider-Man gain xp at a greater or lesser rate depending on whether he’s teaming up, but let’s not go there today -- it’s needlessly complex and we’re only talking about some basic concepts here.

A classic old-school, or wargame-style, playstyle breaks all of this in a couple different ways.

First, the assumption that there will be many PCs/players, and they will not advance at the same rates.  The more you play, the faster your PC advances (presuming survival of course!).  The open table concept falls here - you’ll have players who only show up once, and that’s okay, and what their PC does that night is just as canon as anybody else’s actions.

Second, the assumption that the world moves on at a steady rate regardless of your participation.  In some cases this is down with “1:1 time” (the benefits and drawbacks of which are better explained elsewhere), or in some cases it’s just “we play on Fridays with or without you”.  The clock doesn’t stop because your players did, because you don’t just have these five players!

Third, player-driven action means that PCs can recruit one another for particular needs.  When Spider-Man needs help fighting vampires, he calls Blade, because even though they don’t regularly hang out, they know each other from a previous team-up (or a friend of a friend!).  Similarly, if there’s a temple full of undead that the regular PCs can’t crack, why can’t they call every cleric and paladin they know and ask them to show up for a special sortie?  In the classic campaign structure, they can, and they should!

The good news is that this kind of structure opens things up considerably.  Imagine if your world moves forward on its own and is not beholden to the whims of a single group of (fickle!) players.  Perhaps you have a regular Friday group (your Avengers), but also run on other so:

  • Regular in-person game with PCs A, B, C, D, and E

  • Online side-game (duo style) with PCs F and G

  • Occasional online sessions with PCs B and E (the ranger and the druid, off doing elf-focused nonsense, let’s say)

  • Solo in-person game with PC H

  • That slow-moving play-by-post with PCs J, K, L, and M

  • That con game you ran last week with PCs N, O, P, Q, and R.

  • Don’t forget your previous regular game from five years back: PCs S, T, U, and V.

If all these games are in continuity with each other, and mapped meaningfully to a calendar, you’ve managed to be not only an exceptionally busy DM, but the master of a living world.  It doesn’t matter that most of these PCs may not interact with each other.  They could.  It’s allowed.  Nobody’s stopping you.

When that play-by-post is over, run another and invite a different mix of folks.  Invite the con players to bring their new convention PCs to your online game.  Invite the guy from the solo game (H) to sit in on the regular game for a couple sessions.  Mix and match.

The campaign is not ‘Avengers vol. 1’.  The campaign is ‘The Marvel Universe’.  A story ends, but the campaign doesn’t.  A group fizzles, but the campaign doesn’t.  A living world style of campaign is resilient and cannot be torpedoed or killed by a playgroup folding, a DM moving to another state, or the arrival of a time-dominating child.  The campaign continues on, so long as people are playing in it.  

More players = a more resilient campaign.  Actually, I’ll go one better - more players means an ANTIFRAGILE campaign, where stressing the system makes things BETTER because of things that emerge via real play.  If you’re not familiar with the various mappings of the social network of the Marvel universe, search ‘Marvel social network’ and check it out.  More players, more players.  If I were to give generic advice to spruce up any D&D campaign, it would be “play more, with more players”.  It’s just that simple.

As we move on through this series of posts, we might have a lot of "thoughts" and few "answers", but that's okay. Future installments will discuss solo & duo campaigns, running team-ups and crossovers, getting someone else to be your Doctor Doom, and beyond.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Critter Gitters: Into the Desert

 We had a pause in the Critter Gitters game back in April.  Not a pause in the game-clock, mind you, but a series of events that snowballed and led to us not playing for a couple months in a row.  Thankfully we're now back at it with some regularity - having a periodic, nicely-scheduled game night is healthy, and keeps the campaign ticking forward in a meaningful way.

So, what's been happening since the sky giant nonsense and the Christmas episode and the housekeeping?

First off, the Gitters walled off the access to the catacombs where the ghouls were, then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

After a short "summer break", the Gitters reconvened in the town of Bitter Luck and decided - mostly Hogan and Pips leading here - that an expedition into the Devil's Desert, to seek the lost Potbelly Mine, would be worthwhile.  If they located and claimed the abandoned silver mine, surely they'd be wealthy; and the trip itself would yield critters and weirdness and things to explore.  So they spend hard-earned gold on some wagons and gear and a ton of food that should last the trip, figuring they'll be gone for several months (and will need to hunt along the way, too).  Oregon Trail time!  Save versus Dystentery.

Now because this group is explicitly drop-in/drop-out, we're basically saying that all the current Gitter PCs are on the expedition, and whoever is playing that night gets to do the "away team" stuff like investigate the weird lights on the horizon, or delve down into that howling cave, etc.  But everyone is assumed to be around, and if for some reason they get in a "lost in the desert with no food" situation, that'll affect every PC.

There's a lot of critter gittin' the first session as they play out plenty of overland travel.  Jossshua the lizard wizard captures a giant frilled lizard and loads it, hogtied, into one of the wagons.  It was a whole thing.

One night their camp (circled wagons and all) is infiltrated by a winged monkey who tries to set the Conestogas alight.  Luckily, recently-promoted roustabout Warwick (ie a new PC) is on watch, and his keen eyes spot the simian arsonist, and he blows the monkey away without hesitation (killing the thing outright thanks to a good roll - there will be no limping off into the darkness for this monkey).  Now the PCs are worried about winged monkeys as a desert threat, and they muse aloud about the thing's intelligence, and was it acting under directions.

During the next day's travel they locate an old stone temple half-buried in the sand, and send a team inside to investigate it.  They best a couple lesser mummies, mess with a trap and a secret door, find a bottomless pit with some THING in it...   and locate the living-space of whatever wizard-priest had been living here - probably the monkey's master, based on the widdle monkey beg and spare fezzes - before they busted in.  They conclude, rightly, that the nefarious caster escaped through the now-shattered magic mirror.  The Gitters collectively shrug, then set to work hauling a golden statue out of the place.

Those of you familiar with X4 Master of the Desert Nomads may recognize that temple (albeit with some changes).  The desert the Gitters are traversing has been seeded with locations and stuff from X4 as well as X5 Temple of Death, so there's the potential that they'll run into more of this stuff, particularly if they seek it out.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

On the Workbench

 I have a couple projects I'm working on, all at various stages.  I hesitate to presume which one will be complete first, as that isn't really how my brain works - I hop back and forth as inspiration dictates.  Here's a preview of what's (probably) coming:

Travel Guide vol 2 (name in flux).  A sequel, format-wise, to Lumberlands.  This one focuses on a mountainside retreat where wizards go to have their (debauched) conventions.  If you want to spend a week in a casino town full of tipsy magic-users (who all hate each other, have secrets, know spells you don't, and are probably worth stealing from), this is the place for you.  This mini-region is probably also a good place to drop all the "set in a wizard's tower" adventures you keep meaning to use, but don't.  Just like Lumberlands, this one should have plenty of inspirational NPCs, random tables to help you run on the fly (including for wizard generation), and more adventure hooks than you can shake a wand at.

Working on the wizard stuff makes me feel like the Arcane Abecediary needs an update, probably including a bunch more wizard-y stuff (Wampus Country Wizardry seems a likely omnibus title).  Getting this updated, expanded, stuffed full of art, and in print would be a pretty stellar thing.

Travel Guide vol 3 is about an enchanted forest full of ravens and unseelie fae and things who are the gangs/factions (The Warriors is an over-the-top inspiration here), and exists now primarily as a sheet of paper with a bunch of ideas on it.   I think a drop-in fairy forest would have some use in many campaigns.

Based on percentage of completion, the thing that's likely to see the light first is Poggle Hollow, a quick-and-dirty mini-hexcrawl about nasty little dog-men, and inspired by our own (quite stupid) dogs.  This one will be a very basic pdf with some illustrations and maps by me.  I'm telling myself I can get this out the door in September.

A long ways off is something collecting the bits and pieces I've been using in the current iteration of Wampus Country with the "Critter Gitters" party - the badlands town of Bitter Luck, and developed versions of some classic blog content like Massacre Mesa and Buzzard Gulch.  I think it'd be fun to take all that stuff at some point, polish it, and put it out there with notes from the actual campaign.

Friday, May 28, 2021

For the Birds

During the shopping season that follows Thankstravaganza each year, a handful of newly-available items tend to become fashionable and highly sought after by the wizardly community of Wampus Country. Perhaps it is some construct, or an item of clothing, or a rare and chic familiar; other years the prize is an unusual foodstuff or beverage, or garish knick-knack. As trendsetting wizards go, so go the idle rich, the haute frontiersman, and so on, trickling eventually down to the common man, who often manages to score a cheap knock-off of the trendy item the following winter. Some years the pursuit of, and competition for, the desirable "get" has reached a legendary level - consider the tiny peach golem companion 'Tickle Me Momo', which fetched hundreds of dollars per plushie on the black market until it became common knowledge the 'stone' at the center of each giggling peach was in fact an abyssal shard. Adult wizards today also likely recall the fad for cabbage- and lettuce-kin of their youth forty years past. It seems each generation of wizards rediscovers the obsession with talking produce. 

 A few years back, the desired enchanted item was not a construct or summoned creature, but an unusual set of clothing: the so-called 'hoot suit'. This coveted clothing made the mad wizard "Hoot Suit" Rawlson famous, and he raked in sufficient moolah that year to build his palatial castle, The Rillerah, on the southern shore of Shining Lake. To make the suits took no little skill, and a good bit of material, including feathers from both giant owls and wild owlbears, the difficulty in procurement of said hoot-parts limiting production severely. Each hoot suit was slightly different in appearance, but they all shared certain characteristics - a feathered union suit with a hood decorated to look like the face or beak of an owl (the 'hoot snoot'). When kept clean and in good order (no mangy patches of missing feathers, for example), the Hoot Suit conferred upon its wearer the ability, once per day, to transform into a normal-sized owl for about a minute, simply by uttering the suit's command word (itself stitched inside the suit). Now a daily transformation such as this has its value - in escaping uncomfortable situations (like an unforeseen melee, or the arrival of Aunt Agatha at one's doorstep) or allowing explorer-types an opportunity to reach places to which they could not easily climb. Yet the real value of the Hoot Suit became apparent when someone - presumably a wizard - realized that by intoning the command word backwards, they could transform into a fully-grown owlbear, for five minutes or so, once per week. The fact that the 'owlbear mode' exhausted the suit's power for seven days thereafter was not seen as much of a disadvantage. 

 Soon everyone wanted one of Rawlson's creations. The price climbed. The black market resellers gouged. Things got out of hand after several weeks, and Rawlson himself delivered a wagon-full of his wares in River-Town, and declared them the last. The news was not taken lightly - fights broke out among shoppers, and spilled into the streets, drawing rival gangs into the fray. The Hoot Suit riots lasted nearly thirty-six hours, leaving scores dead, buildings torched, and Rawlson himself missing a foot (which may, to this day, sit in the belly of the wizard who chomped it while in owlbear form). Hoot Suit Rawlson retired, finished building his castle, and perhaps today continues research into owl-related magics.  Rawlson is a known rival of 'Thunderbolt' Black, who often mutters his name resentfully.

A typical Hoot Suit.

 enchanted clothing 
 Appearance: a brown-feathered union suit. Rumors persist of a prototype "snowy hoot suit", white-feathered, which has the usual powers but also provides resistance to cold. 

 Powers and qualities: 

 Owl Form. Once per day, the wearer may transform into a normal owl for one minute by saying the command word. The suit can provide only one transformation per day, even if you later take it off and hand it to another party member. Nice try.

 Owl-Bear Form. Uttering the command word reversed will transform the wearer into an owlbear for five minutes. This power cannot function if the owl form has been already used that day, and it exhausts the suit for seven days. 

 Give A Hoot. The Hoot Suit cannot function if it is damaged or soiled in any way. 

I know she seems cute and all, but she does puke up pellets on occasion, so YMMV.

 BONUS SPELL from "Hoot Suit" Rawlson's bird-themed spellbook 

 Parakeet Paraclete (lvl 2). Summons a small parakeet, lorakeet, or budgie which speaks eloquently and has considerable training as a barrister. When the bird appears, it knows the local legal system and can sufficiently read the mind of its client (who need not be the summoner) to understand the charges at hand and supply a reasonable defense or, if the client is the plaintiff, mount a strong argument. The parakeet tarries up to two hours, enough for a hearing before a judge, surely - then disappears. Re-casting will summon back the same bird so it can pick up where it left off after a continuance.  If at any point a mirror is nearby, the parakeet may become fascinated with its own image and unable to continue its litigation.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Reskinning Saves for Fun & Profit

 I'm not the first person to do this - not by a long shot - but when I wrote up the pregens for ScrumCon, I elected to change the names of the saving throws.

On the surface, this seems a no-brainer for anybody who's throwing genre-emulation house rule attempts at a wall to see what sticks.  Surely the saving throws should be against whatever the common threats are; or, to put it another way, reading the list of saves should tell you something about the campaign.  Why wasn't this more common during the G+ OSR bloom?

I think it's a fun conceit and I'm going to stick with it for a while, but there are some reasonable precautions that must be taken.  I can't rename saves willy-nilly; or rather, I shouldn't rename a save in a way that changes the things to which it applies - not without some thought.  It's all well and good to rename 'Dragon Breath' (or 'Breath Weapon' if you prefer) to something better suiting your campaign as a hit of flavor, but that save still needs to be something a thief would be good at.  Otherwise your save numbers will start to make less and less sense as the PCs go up in level and get a little more differentiated from another.  Also, we should be cautious that a save that previously got used a lot doesn't become a rare save just because of the name change.  This is all an experiment, and we have to acknowledge that experiments - especially house rule experiments, and double-especially ones that seem Very Clever Indeed - can fail.  We must be vigilant for that failure and be willing to repair!

Accomplished wizard the Phenomenal Phopp and his peacock familiar, Xerxes, desperately try to remember which saving throws they're good at this week.

Old Saves vs New Saves for Wampus Country

Death Ray & Poison is now Horrible Death! encompassing poisons, death rays, any convenient save-or-die type effect, and Obvious Death Magic.

Magic Wands is replaced by Dark Science!  which includes weird technology, magic items and artifacts, any cosmic tech surrounded by a nimbus of Kirby dots, Elder God Cthulhoid Nonsense, and probably psionics.  PCs in Wampus Country don't have psionics, but a visiting brain-eater might.

Paralyze/Petrification is now Marvelous Transformation!, something that happens in Wampus quite a bit.  If we're turning something into something else by any means - spell, curse, faerie glamour, gorgon breath - this category applies.

Dragon Breath is Legendary Peril! which as of right now probably includes not only breath weapons, but other massive or storied attacks of legendary creatures as well.  When that mountain giant throws a house at you, you use Legendary Peril to dodge.  Grumpy whale with a clock in its side tries to swallow you whole?  Legendary Peril.

Staves/Spells is now Uncanny Sorcery!, covering all spells and magical effects not from other sources.

Will this breakdown work for my B/X games?  Only time will tell.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

aka 'Scrumberlands'

 I'm hoping to run Wampus Country - in particular the Lumberlands - at a number of virtual cons this year, and the season is upon us.  First up was ScrumCon, a wonderful local con that I've enjoyed attending in recent years.  To prepare for it, I did a couple of things.  First, I committed to the bit - all my con games this "season" will be Lumberlands, and they'll all be wilderness exploration using the low-prep tables in the book.  That's the whole point of the Lumberlands book, you're supposed to be able to use it at the table or for quick pre-session prep.

The next thing I needed was pregenerated characters.  Since I was running in B/X this go-round, I invested some time in writing up six pregens, all first level:

Hugo, a fighter

Red Rae, a thief

Olga von Sprinkle, a cleric

the Radical Razmatazz, a magic-user

Needles, a dwarf

Pvt. Hambone, a dog

Hand-drawn character sheets, y'all

As I wrote them up, I ensured they matched with the stellar illustrations Alex Damaceno did for Lumberlands (I did not have illos for Needles or Hambone - perhaps later this year).  I resolved to use these pregens throughout the summer, and further, to advance them as they gained xp through play - even if that meant they advanced unevenly.

The Sunday of ScrumCon arrived, and it was time to kick the tires on the Lumberlands book.  About half an hour before game-time, I prepped some content.  Grabbing a sheet of paper, I put the starting town of Squeamish at the bottom, and then drew three vectors coming out of it to the NW, straight N, and NE.  Along these vectors, some circles representing points of a pointcrawl, and links from side to side.  At the end of each vector, I made a note on a destination, corresponding to a rumor.  If they chased the sasquatch rumor, they'd go this way, etc.  Then I used the encounter tables in the book to roll an encounter for each point.  Lumberlands includes critters, carnivorous plants, NPCs, and other assorted weirdness, so there was a decent mix of "stuff" on the pointcrawl map by the end of it.

We had five players, so every PC save Olga was chosen (a first-level cleric in B/X doesn't get a spell, I wonder if that was a factor).  They elected to head northeast, pursuing rumors that might lead to the secret squirrel city high in the trees.  Along the way they dealt with things like:

* a weird reverse-gravity area

* a headless ghost

* man-eating plants

* warring gangs of lumberjacks

...and a couple other things as well (critters!).  I don't want to spoil the tables too much by reciting everything that happened, but they survived and even thrived (and were unafraid to run away when necessary).  At one point they encountered some squirrels, and stole - or maybe traded for - a mysterious package one squirrel carried.  Within the folded oak-leaf was a piece of magically-charged root.  When Razmatazz chewed the enchanted root, I rolled on a table to see what knowledge it contained (certain magic trees containing memories and knowledge is one of the central gimmicks of the Lumberlands), and surprise surprise, I rolled that the root contained a secret the imbiber sought... so of course that was the location of the squirrel city.  Jackpot!  The PCs sought out the city and managed to parley with the squirrels there for a bit before we wrapped the session.

I think it all worked nicely as a con session and allowed the players to explore the highlights of the Lumberlands setting.  A pleasing conclusion!  I still need to assign and track xp for the session.

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.