Friday, February 24, 2012

The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett, Pt. 2

Part 2: Class, Civilization, and Rugged Individualism in Hardboiled Gaming

Edgar Rice Burroughs laid down the tropes for sword & planet fiction, which in turn were inherited from the Lost World genre. Frightful savagery, "oriental" tyrants, superstitious cults and the rotting splendor of fallen cultures are integral aspects of colonial adventure, but Brackett turns these on her head by casting the main character as a "civilized savage" who arrives on Skaith as a prophet of doom, representing the coming changes that will wreak havoc on their way of life. In doing so, he acts as the catalyst for those changes, despite his reservations over being thrust into a messianic role.

This criticism of colonial adventure is not the only modern concern that Brackett brings to her work. The Galactic Union is a sort of ineffectual bureaucracy that, due to a blend of progressive moral relativism and political expediency, is willing to allow their own agent to die rather than raise a ruckus with the rulers of Skaith. One can certainly see here a mirror of Howard's cyclical histories of savagery/decadence/degeneration, with the Union cast in the role of Rome before the fall, but also a  satire of the United Nations' non-interventionist policies.

Yet, despite such modern concessions, these reinforce the Western ideal of the rugged individualist, who is not hoodwinked by the veneer of civilization but rather determines life on his own terms. This is a key to understanding hardboiled sword & sorcery, which not only reflects the actions of the players, but of the people they interact with. I discussed this a bit previously in my essay on "The Snow Women", but it bears examining with a bit more depth.

From the deeply cynical view of the hardboiled genre, along with revisionist Westerns, social structures and normative beliefs exist as a method of exploitation, through which the few may control the many, and the weak can subvert the strong. Piety, ideology and similar platitudes exist only to justify bad action and as a consolation to those who are getting the short end of the stick. Howard clearly displays such sentiments in his early Conan stories The God in the Bowl and Queen of the Black Coast, where the conflict between the forces of civilization and our Cimmerian protagonist lampoon modern sentiments. Conan, who only understands the plain truth of power, will not be swayed by noble sentiments to bow to any man.

One is hard-pressed not to extricate a political subtext to all of this. Perhaps the most honest interpretation would be an American Libertarian view, where the sword and sorcery hero is akin to the protagonist of an Ayn Rand novel, the only decent and forthright man in a contemptible society. Depending on your proclivities, however, you could also move sharply in the opposite direction, as the Italians did with Zapata Westerns such as Duck, You Sucker! These films emphasize the abuses of a corrupt elite and, while they do not deify the lower classes, one's sympathy certainly lies with the "common man".

How can we bring such sentiments to the table? This can be best handled in the portrayal of NPCs, casting the majority into a series of broad categories:

Middle Class: Priests, bureaucrats, merchants, shopkeepers, robber barons, and the like, the middle class is the single group most invested in the perpetuation of the "lie" of civilization. They are often small-minded moralizers, quick to preach of their virtue and look down on others while constantly scheming to rob everyone else blind. They will spit on adventurers and other ragamuffins, disdaining (and secretly fearing) them for throwing off the yolk of the class hierarchy. Never ones to engage in direct violence, the cowardly middle class will be quick to throw the book at anyone who threatens them and, failing that, will use deception and/or hired thugs to eliminate such opposition.

Lower Class: The unfortunate majority, the lower class is the serf, the common laborer, the unwashed mass. Barely scraping by, the lower class have been treated like dogs their entire lives and, for the most part, they have learned to act that way. They will take any advantage, accept any charity, suffer through any indignity from those of a higher station and thank them in return. That said, the lower class is not fooled by sermons of virtue or the greater good, but have only learned to smile and nod in obeisance. They do what they must to get by and, while wretched, are a patient and crafty sort. Unwary adventurers will likely be drugged and robbed blind, while a foolhardy tax collector who fails to bring a personal guard will not survive long, as farm implements quickly become weapons.

Upper Class: Unlike the middle class, the elite care little for the stories their governors spin about their charity, grace, and mercy. Frankly, they find the plight of those below them laughable and care for little except their own indulgences. Most are so indolent as to be useless except for their great wealth, but they can be incredibly dangerous if inconvenienced or, worse, threatened. Unaccustomed to being denied any pleasure, should their ire be raised they will often become obsessive with destroying whoever slighted them. They can prove lucrative patrons, but their capriciousness make them unpredictable, at best.

Free Agents: Not everyone is willing to accept things as they are, or the station which they find themselves born into. Crooks, fallen women, highwaymen, artists, pioneers, prophets, revolutionaries, treasure hunters and the like take on a heavy burden of social stigma, but in exchange enjoy a freedom that few know. Almost universally feared and despised, these fortune-seekers blaze their own trails, and while most die in ignominy, a few manage to become legendary in their own right. PCs generally fit into this category. There are a number of broad archetypes clumped together within this category that deserve to be looked at more closely, but free agent serves as a catch-allow for individualists and non-conformists (at least for the purposes of this essay).

Barbarians: Those not of civilization at all, barbarians are those that hail from nomadic or tribal cultures. They are generally forced into undesirable or underdeveloped regions where civilization has not been able to take hold, and are shaped by the rugged landscapes they inhabit. Although "savage", they are generally understood to be exceedingly honest and straight-forward, caring little for the niceties of "decent folk", and generally hold city-dwellers in contempt. Like the protagonist in Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, the simplicity of their lifestyle gives them a nobility which is to be admired. At the same time, the tension between these people and agrarian communities often flares into violence, and there are no guarantees that visitors will be treated kindly. Moreover, their frankness means that they're willing to employ sometimes brutal methods to get what they want, and many casually engage in violence and thievery.

Savages: Distinct from Barbarians, whose nobility of spirit make them a class of people to be admired, savages are primitive people who are to be despised. Low, cunning, and degenerate, savages most often are the remnants of a fallen culture, but can also come from a subhuman race, such as orcs or tharks. In-fighting, a love for cruelty, and dirty tricks define the savage, who can only be dealt with through a show of strength. Individuals can sometimes rise to the class of barbarian, and those that do often emerge as great leaders (as long as their lieutenants don't stab them in the back). It is usually possible for savages to be redeemed, but they'll kick, bite and curse you every step of the way.

Just keep each of these distinctions in mind when designing NPCs, and you're game will quickly move into a more hardboiled direction. Although it's good to mix up player expectations now and again, these stereotypes are even more useful when dealing with faceless characters plucked from a crowd.

Next: In our final article on The Ginger Star, we discuss social satire in game design and present a couple new monsters from the book.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Murderous Menagerie: Varmints

While I really do want to cleave as closely to my design goals as possible, it is exceedingly difficult not to brew up new monsters. So far I've resisted temptation, and to sate my creative urges I've decided to fill in additional details on monsters invented by the pulp masters in a series I'm calling Murderous Menagerie.

Our first entry into the series is our goblin stand-in, The Varmint. This nasty little beast was inspired by the following passage from C.L. Moore's "Black God's Kiss":

"[A]t her feet a ravening circle of small, slavering, blind things leaped with clashing teeth. They were obscene and hard to distinguish against the darkness of the hillside, and the noise they made was revolting. Her sword swung up of itself, almost, and slashed furiously at the little dark horrors leaping up around her legs.They died squashily, splattering her bare thighs with unpleasantness, and after a few had gone silent under the blade the rest fled into the dark with quick, frightened pantings, their feet making a queer splashing noise on the stones."

Disposition of the Varmint.
One of the most persistent scavengers of the savage world of Krül, Varmints are a vile semi-sentient infestation of twisted humanoids that, while individually only a nuisance, will butcher entire villages if allowed to spawn in great numbers.

Face of a Varmint.
A Varmint is a sexless critter of roughly humanoid shape, covered in thick, matted black fur and stout of frame. They are often seen with a drooping, distended potbelly and even those that have not fed for some time will have a flaccid, dessicated flap which hangs limply over their crotch. They possess unnaturally long, thin and knobby limbs with gigantically oversized hands and feet and thick black nails set with deep-cut grooves. Their most notable aspect, and their most horrifying, is their wildly varying countenances which make it quite easy to distinguish one member of the species from another. Resembling nothing so much as children's Halloween masks, but often possessing an mocking or surreal quality, reliable sources have documented jack o' lanterns, clowns, devils, popes, pigs, and other creatures and personages far and wide.
Limbs of the Varmint.

Being nearly universally despised, with almost every sentient creature exterminating them on sight, the Varmint is a cautious and crafty beast during the first phase of their life cycle, either as solitary creatures or as part of a small enclave. More often than not they will burrow in a shunned locale in close proximity to a settlement, despite the potential dangers, for they love nothing but the cries of children and the gurgling screams of their parents as they are dragged into the crypt, warren, or sewer they inhabit.

Once settled, the Varmints will begin stalking outlying homesteads or crumbling slums, having an almost preternatural ability to identify the wretched, the desperate, the outcasts, and the loners. They prey on those for whom no tears will be shed and few inquiries will be made about their untimely demise. After a victim is selected, the Varmints will stalk the poor sod, learning his or her habits and routine. It is at this point that their ingenuity at sabotage and trap-making comes to the fore, as they will carefully arrange an "accident" to befall the victim, preferring to main or disfigure their prey, both to prevent flight and to further repulse those around them.

Fur of the Varmint.
Scholars are uncertain why Varmints do not attack in this moment of weakness, as it is exceedingly rare that they will kill their prey directly after the accident. Some speculate that the Varmint has too great a love of suffering, and would rather extend the agony of their victim rather than quickly snuff it out. Others, however, argue that the maiming of their victims is actually a practical matter - tragedy brings people together, and the injured party may attract friends and relatives. If so, the Varmints will shift their attention to newer, easier prey. In either case, after a week or so, if the opportunity presents itself the Varmints will attack. Their favored method is to strike quickly and from darkness, concentrating on the wrists, ankles, and throat, so as to prevent escape and the summoning of aid. It is at this point, once the victim is completely helpless, that they will drag their prey to their lair so that he may be eaten at their leisure. More often then not, the victim will survive for hours as they dine on his still-living tissue.

That Which Remains
Although the above example is the favored hunting method of the Varmint, it should also be noted that their tactics will change in the presence of children, which they seem to consider a particular delicacy. Despite the inherent risks, Varmints will often risk life and limb to play out a sadistic game of their own devising for which they are particularly well suited. Like with their adult victims, they prefer children who are ostracized from their peers, shut-ins who have grown too dependent on their parents and, likely, the parents on them. Varmints are quick to stalk the child, eliminating them with much greater haste than their traditional victims so as not to raise the suspicions of the parent. It is at this point that the Varmint severs the tongue from the mouth of the deceased and actually sows it into their own. As previously mentioned, the Varmint is only semi-sentient, and has no tongue of their own, both in the physical sense and in the linguistics. Indeed, they only communicate through inarticulate gibbering, snarling, and howling, but with the tongue of a child a loathsome transformation takes place, giving the Varmint a voice, if only temporarily. Until the tongue rots away, the Varmint is able to speak with the voice of the child like a parrot, repeating any phrases that the child has previously uttered. Using this bizarre ability, the Varmint will stalk and harry the parents, sometimes drawing them, siren-like, to their dooms, or (should the child's disappearance be noted) mocking the bereaved as a voice beyond the grave.

Inspiration for the Varmint.
Once properly engorged, Varmints do not undergo what we would consider "normal" biological functions. Indeed, Varmints do not possess intestines or anus, and therefore do not defecate. Instead, they become increasingly bloated with their own filth until they perform a sort of ritualistic purification process. A pack of Varmints will gather around a large cauldron which they will fill with the collected fat and hair skinned from their victims along with semen and the collected filth which they disgorge. Then, heating the cauldron, they croon a horrible song without lyric or rhythm, but which they seem to know instinctively, as they hop and caper around the fire. Inside the cauldron, a strange alchemical process takes place wherein the attendant matter begins to congeal and shape, until a fully formed (and fully grown) Varmint leaps from the pot, ready to join his compatriots. As such, there are no children amongst the Varmints, nor any females. They are ravening monsters to the man, and should even a single Varmint survive, their awful cycle will continue.

Despite the murderous intentions of these small bands, however, they would hardly be a threat to civilization as a whole if it were not for their unusual relationship to that essence of life itself, clean water. While the Varmint is perfectly capable of slurping down brackish or polluted liquids, pure spring water is the bane of such creatures, acting in the same manner as the most potent of acids, causing them to dissolve into boils and black sludge. A danger lies inherent in such a method of dispatching the creatures, however, as the boils will soon thereafter pop, discharging a noxious gas. If inhaled, the gas will cause temporarily hallucinations, causing those that inhaled the fumes to hear a raucous cacophony of Varmint screams and gibberings, driving them into a temporary state of violent madness. Moreover, if confronted with a source of natural spring water, Varmints will, lemming-like, irrationally rush towards the offending pool and leap into it straight away. This befouls the spring with the grotesque black sludge from which they are constituted for generations to come. As water is such a precious resource in many parts of Krül, this can lead to the depopulation of entire towns as they are forced to migrate to a new source of clean water.

A spring destroyed by Varmints.
It should be noted that while the toxic effects of a Varmint dissolving in water can leads to sickness for years, the greatest danger lies in the shorter term, as for up to a week the soiled spring will have additional, mutagenic properties. Those foolish enough to imbibe such foul stuff will grow greatly ill over the next few days as their stomach swells to an abnormal size. Indeed, should this happen they are most certainly marked for death as a Varmint is gestating inside of them. With a scant few days, the foul critter will claw its way out, slithering either from the mouth or the rectum, where it will immediately try to kill its weakened host.

Finally, the greatest threat posed by Varmints is not their destruction of the water supply (although that is terrifying enough), but rather when their population reaches a certain critical mass. None are certain exactly when the tipping point is, but it is estimated to be between fifty and two hundred. Once their communities reach this point, they gain an extraordinary boldness, gathering in an open area beneath the moonlight to unleash a mad series of screams and howls, piling atop one another in ritualistic fashion, blindly biting, scratching, and copulating with one another in a gigantic orgy of violence. As a single mass they then go forth, tearing across the land in a murderous rampage that descends on every living thing it spies upon. This twisting, crying tower of bodies will only stop briefly to rest and spawn before setting out once more, growing ever greater in size until it is put down, and leaving only devastation in its wake. 

Another (obvious) inspiration for the Varmint.
Since we're not at the point where I'm ready to stat out monsters for Rogues & Reavers, I'll leave that to you and your favorite system. Here's a quick recap on their abilities, though:

* Mechanically similar in strength to a D&D goblin.

* Can use weapons, build traps and sabotage devices to create "accidents".
* Will attempt to cripple/disable foes instead of killing them outright.
* Cannot speak except when using the tongue of a child, tongue will rot in 1d4+3 days.
* No women and children, new spawn made from boiling fecal matter.
* Treat clean water as acid. If destroyed through such a method, boils will pop in 1d3 rounds (10-30 seconds), requiring everyone within a 10' radius to make the equivalent of a savings throw or go violently insane for 1d6 minutes, attempting to kill everything in sight.
* When the Varmint population reaches a certain number (i.e. Referee fiat), they combine into a huge rolling ball / weirdly tilting tower that should be treated as a much tougher creature with a swallow ability and a hefty hit point total.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Talkin Bout My Generation

Sitting in my 'draft' pile of posts right now are monster ideas, unfinished series, rules design, and a lot of other long essays of dubious value. There will be time enough for that in the future. Tonight, I want to really get to the heart of the matter, to cut the bullshit down to the quick.

Tonight, I want to get real. Get real about...

That's right, He-Man. The red-headed stepchild of sword & sorcery, the dirty secret of old-school D&D inspiration. We'll wax poetic about how awesome Thundarr the Barbarian and the D&D cartoon, but the big, looming S&S icon of the '80s is the Mattel toyset that dominated a decade.

When I say "us", I'm not talking about the Greybeards. I'm talking about those Johnny-come-latelies of the TSR era who never saw the White Box back in the day (woodgrain or otherwise) but instead played with Rules Cyclopedia or the much-maligned 2e. The age demographic is mid-20s to mid-30s, and we generally seem to have a taste for a more "wild and wooly" brand of S&S that is a dash more colorful and bizarre than bog-standard D&D. Science fantasy elements are almost a given within this group, as well as a love for the aesthetics of early Heavy Metal and Warhammer and a desire to escape Tolkien's dirty touch.

My 6-Year-Old Brain Just Exploded
Where did this damn-the-torpedoes, do-it-your-own-way lot come from? One could blame the wild, sometimes silly experimentation of 2e settings and products like Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and Planescape, but I think you need to dig a little deeper into the early development of our collective imaginations. Thanks to the excellent blog Monster Brains, I have unlocked the key to our wholehearted embrace of sword & sorcery, as well as our willingness to mix the chocolate and the peanut butter in a glorious mash that defies good taste and common sense. Go to this post and spend a few minutes studying those images. Take your time, I'll wait.

 Welcome back. Now, ponder the image on the right. We've got a good little Conanesque hero, battle-axe in hand, clearly inspired by Franzetta. No big whoop if he was fighting, say, a big snake. Instead, he is facing off against a skull-faced warlord riding a giant robot spider and wielding a Satanic rod that fires lightning bolts. If that doesn't sound like something straight outta Planet Algol, Dandy in the Underworld, In Places Deep, American Barbarica or Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa, you haven't been paying attention.

If you're a kid of the '80s or early '90s, you missed the boat on sword & sorcery. Unless you had a much older brother who passed down Conan, the pulp revival of the '70s had come and gone. For most of our generation, we're coming at the classics as adults, and find they have a strange resonance with us. Why is that? Certainly, the writing's a lot stronger than the fare we had set in front of us - Kevin J. Anderson and Margaret Weis cannot hold a candle to Howard or Vance, but I also suspect there's something more.

We're a generation that was born breathing in the last gasp of the sword & sorcery era, smothered by the rise of fantasy and the brandification of a market. We basked only in the after-effects, a Bronze Age that perpetuates the work of the masters through endless deconstruction and commentary. Yet, one of those after-effects loomed large in our formative years. That's right, He-Man.

Fuck yes, machine-gunning buzz-saw flying saucers!
It is difficult to play up the seismic shift that the Masters of the Universe had on popular culture during that time. Not only was it one of the first series to introduce Japanese animation techniques to American children, but the relentless marketing saturated playtime to an unheard-of degree as regulators softened on advertising in children's television. This created a bombshell where you ran home after school, watched He-Man (specifically developed for syndication to reach as wide an audience as possible), and then got together with you friends to re-enact the scenes you just saw on the screen. It was so big that unless you were a "square" like Jeremy Duncan (of the previously mentioned Dandy in the Underworld blog infamy), whose parents didn't allow him to watch it because of its "Satanic" content, then you watched it religiously.

Side Note: Jeremy, in an anecdote about He-Man, described it as a "forbidden pleasure".

Now, I won't say He-Man is great art. Frankly, looking back you can see it did more harm to our culture than good. However, I would also argue that we were injected with the DNA of sword & sorcery at an early age, now shrouded by the mists of time, and are harkening back not to the He-Man that was (which, when viewed through adult eyes, is frankly awful), but rather the He-Man that ought to be.

I'm not talking about making the "ideal" He-Man setting or anything of that sort. No, fan fic has got that arena locked down. I don't need Eternia, Prince Whitebread, or that annoying little dude with an "O" on his chest. Instead, I'm talking about intergalactic vampire warlords invading your sword & sorcery world and installing Satanic Lich-Kings in a bid for colonial rule. Pterodactyl riders with laser guns in a dogfight with UFOs piloted by serpent men. Cleaving through hordes of cyborg beast-men as we leap from asteroid to asteroid towards that leering organic castle in space.

This is the influence of Larry DiTillio (Masks of Nyarlathotep author) and DC Fontana (Star Trek: TOS writer), those giants who tried to distill the worlds they loved into something ready for Saturday morning. That anything-goes spirit of Masters of the Universe is our inheritance, and I think it's time that He-Man left the ghetto and is embraced as a foundational inspiration for our little corner of the OSR.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett, Pt. 1

Part One: An Introduction

A large number of pulp fiction writers have been rediscovered recently as the OSR examines the roots of their hobby. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and Jack Vance, in particular, are highly touted due to their sway on Gary Gygax in the design of Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately, there are a good many authors that have failed to receive such acclaim, being viewed as secondary in influence and, therefore, importance. One of the most tragically neglected, to my mind, is Leigh Brackett.
Cover by Jim Steranko!

This is peculiar to me because Leigh should be poised to become the next major breakout from the pulps. Her credentials are astounding - she wrote The Big Sleep with William Faulkner, along with several other famous screenplays: Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye, and most notably to the geek aesthetic, the first draft of Empire Strikes Back. Almost her entire body of work has been reprinted over the last several years, and for good reason. She's got a quick, punchy prose style of the sort found in the hardboiled detective genre (unsurprisingly, as she wrote several novels in that vein) which she employs seamlessly into the planetary romance genre. To modern eyes, it is infinitely more readable than Edgar Rice Burroughs and its underlying satirical elements present a more mature work, to boot. Yet, somehow, she has continued to languish in obscurity.

After such a preamble, it will come as a small surprise that I thought very highly of The Ginger Star. I had previously read two earlier novellas starring the novel's protagonist, Erick John Stark, "The Secret of Sinharat" and "People of the Talisman", and I was excited to start the Skaith Trilogy, centering around a backwater planet whose society is rocked to the foundation when they are visited by intergalactic explorers. Skaith is almost a perfect model for the "implied setting" I had mentioned previously (and which I will discuss at length shortly): corrupt bureaucracies, petty despots, colonialism, degenerate barbarian tribes, lost civilizations, false religions, and a strong element of social satire. In short, it is a perfect blend of the tropes that make sword & planet / sword & sorcery great. If you want to see the DNA of the genre laid plain, you could do worse than to read The Ginger Star as a capsule review of the movement in its entirety.

Next: Colonialism, Civilization, and Rugged Individualism in Hardboiled Gaming

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Burroughs doesn't spend a lot of time pussyfooting in The Gods of Mars. Within ten pages we see John Carter fighting side by side with his old compatriot, Tars Tarkas, against a vast horde of monstrosities:

"[S]treaming in from all directions across the meadow, from out of the forest, and from the far distance of the flat land across the river, I could see converging upon us a hundred different lines of wildly leaping [plant men], and with them ... that most dreaded of Martian creatures: the great white apes of Barsoom."

"It was into the eyes of such as these and the terrible plant men that I gazed above the shoulder of my foe, and then, in a mighty wave of snarling, snapping, screaming, purring rage, they swept over me and of all the sounds that assailed my ears as I went down beneath them, to me the most hideous was the horrid purring of the plant men. Instantly a score of cruel fangs and keen talons were sunk into my flesh; cold, sucking lips fastened themselves upon my arteries. I struggled to free myself, and even though weighed down by these immense bodies, I succeeded in struggling to my feet, where, still grasping my longsword, and shortening my grip upon it until I could use it as a dagger, I wrought such havoc among them that at one time I stood for an instant free."

"[T]he whole howling pack of hideous devils hurled themselves upon me. To right and left flew my shimmering blade, now green with the sticky juice of a plant man, now red with the crimson blood of a great white ape; but always flying from one opponent to another, hesitating but the barest fraction of a second to drink the lifeblood in the centre of some savage heart. And thus I fought as I never had fought before, against such frightful odds that I cannot realize even now that human muscles could have withstood that awful onslaught, that terrific weight of hurtling tons of ferocious, battling flesh.
With the fear that we would escape them, the creatures redoubled their efforts to pull me down, and though the ground about me was piled high with their dead and dying comrades, they succeeded at last in overwhelming me, and I went down beneath them for the second time that day, and once again felt those awful sucking lips against my flesh."

That, right there, is the model for high-level D&D.

Unfortunately, as many know, it is exceedingly difficult to make such combats enjoyable, even in the rules-light early versions of D&D. However, the game which spawned D&D, Chainmail, points towards a rather elegant option. Chainmail, being a miniatures war game, handles combat on a much more abstract scale than even OD&D. Individuals are clustered into Troops, which are comprised of twenty units. These can be fielded directly against Heroes and Super-Heroes, which are power single-unit troops, as well as tougher monsters such as giants and dragons. In OD&D, your PC would qualify as a Hero at 4th level and a Super-Hero at 8th, with a domain earned at name level, meaning that you could reasonably face large swaths of enemies who had been compacted down to a reasonable size. This creates a "widescreen combat" approach that fits nicely with John Carter's heroics.

Ripping off this idea for Rogues & Reavers, enemies that are too weak to threaten the PCs individually can be grouped into Troops, which are handled as a single foe. This is certainly not a new idea in RPGs, as later games like Feng Shui and 4e would similarly cluster goon squads, but the difference between the two approaches is the purpose they serve. In Feng Shui, "mooks" exist to as an ego boost at low levels, providing foes to dispatch with laughable ease. For Rogues & Reavers, the goal is to simply and hasten combats that could potential employ hundreds of characters. Low-level PCs will not take out hordes of 1 HP enemies, but rather as the players grow in power they will overcome thresholds that reduce once-dangerous foes into simple goons to be slaughtered en masse (contrast the battle against the single White Ape battle in A Princess of Mars to the carnage described above).

If there is one place where Burroughs improves from A Princess of Mars, it is in his depiction of action. While Howard may be the master, ERB has a strong showing here, along with his escape from Omean, which strikes me as similar to a lot of scenes in Star Wars, and the incredibly brutal struggle in the gladiatorial pits of Issus. There is a great depiction of a military conflict with the siege on the Valley Dor, and any referee looking to liven up his battle scenes would do well to drink deep from this stuff.

Not only is the action top-notch, but the dungeon sequences are also quite stellar, possessing a quality of otherworldly menace. The disembodied voice and swiveling, self-locking doors of the Chamber of Mystery, as well as the nasty flood/fire combo trap of the final battle both are worth cribbing notes from, but by far the most effective is when John Carter becomes lost in the darkness. Stalked by faceless, nameless monsters that slowly surround him on all sides, we are treated to a harrowing struggle for survival against a pack of beasts out of a nightmare:

"For what seemed hours the eyes approached gradually closer and closer, until I felt that I should go mad for the horror of it. I had been constantly turning this way and that to prevent any sudden rush from behind, until I was fairly worn out. At length I could endure it no longer, and, taking a fresh grasp upon my longsword, I turned suddenly and charged down upon one of my tormentors.

As I was almost upon it the thing retreated before me, but a sound from behind caused me to wheel in time to see three pairs of eyes rushing at me from the rear. With a cry of rage I turned to meet the cowardly beasts, but as I advanced they retreated as had their fellow. Another glance over my shoulder discovered the first eyes sneaking on me again. And again I charged, only to see the eyes retreat before me and hear the muffled rush of the three at my back. Thus we continued, the eyes always a little closer in the end than they had been before, until I thought that I should go mad with the terrible strain of the ordeal."

This sequence touches upon something that has long fascinated me about dungeons but which I have yet to employ to its fullest potential: the darkness. Anyone who has explored underground passageways, either caving or in urban exploration, is aware of the pervasive darkness that is so unlike life on the surface. There is a sensation that one's light source truly is one's only tenuous link to safety and sanity, and there is little that has unnerved me more than having a light flicker and dim while beneath tons of rock. Unfortunately, tracking torches and oil is just the sort of record-keeping that players are quick to forget, so there has been few chances for players to be lost at the bottom of a maze somewhere deep underground surrounded by total darkness. If they do end up in such a predicament (likely only to occur if I start tracking torches myself, or if they get separated), you'd better believe I'm going to have some of ERB's stalking eyes wander out of the depths.

Despite all of the strong points of this novel, some of the top-notch melodrama of A Princess of Mars is missing, with nothing as stirring as the Sola-Tars Tarkas-Sakoja triangle. Only the final act, and the threat of Phaidor's revenge, really pulls at the heart-strings.

Phaidor is an interesting archetype, the femme fatale, that seems to get little play in RPGs, rarely appearing in published modules or at the table. I suspect that this is because role-playing is a game first, and players rarely act against their best interests. This means that they will be happy to engage in a dalliance, but will kill even their own mother without a second thought if they prove to be an obstacle; because of this, it is nearly impossible for a femme fatale to work her charms on the PCs outside of magical coercion.

Juvenile adventure fiction is likewise bound to have moral protagonists who are not swayed by their lust for flesh, and in this Phaidor provides a good example of how to handle the femme fatale. Carter chastely refuses the aggressive, shockingly beautiful woman who then wheedles and schemes, looking to coerce Carter if he will not join her willingly and, later, to get revenge on him for refusing her. A parallel example is The Enchantress from Marvel Comics, an old enemy of Thor, who is similarly chaste.

The femme fatale, when faced with a hero that refuses to fall for her charms, inevitably becomes obsessed with said hero. This leads to stalking, where the woman murders other love interests and will pull any foul trick to win the hero's heart.

Of course, this sort of thing is pure male fantasy, a tremendous boost to the ego, and perhaps more than a bit sexist. That said, D&D is (at least in part) a game about fantasies, and not all of them are entirely pleasant. There's plenty of darkness in D&D, and the important part is to keep the fantasy separate from reality.

Speaking more broadly on the topic of sexuality in D&D, it is strange to me that such a subject is so rarely touched upon, yet plays so large a part in the source material. The human form is constantly a source of inspiration and celebration in swords and sorcery, with Howard and Burroughs' loving depictions of Dejah Thoris and Bêlit; both Conan and Liane the Wayfarer gleefully jump headlong into danger to satisfy their loins. Yet, in D&D, there is traditionally a prudish, almost puritanical spirit that hangs over the table. That's something that I hope to challenge in my home games, as I suspect that many players, when invited to pursue a romantic angle, will do so even without a substantial reward. If you have any advice or experience in this undiscovered country of adventure design, please feel free to share!

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not talk about the titular gods in The Gods of Mars. ERB casts a cynical eye towards the institution of religion in his second novel of John Carter's adventures, a trope which would be much-imitated by his pulp progeny. Here, religion is a sham, with churches existing to bilk their congregations and any "gods" nothing more than aliens with strange powers dressing themselves in pseudo-mystical nonsense.

Obviously, this is a far cry from the assumptions of D&D, where the gods are categorically real and very divine. Their claims are even backed up by Heavens and Hells which can be easily visited by high-level spellcasters, leaving little room to doubt their absolute truthfulness. To my knowledge, TSR would buck that trend only twice: in the Dark Sun and Mystara settings. In Dark Sun, where the gods have abandoned mankind but presumably still exist, the "false gods" that step in to fill the gaps never make assertions to divinity - they simply can provide spells to the clergy. Mystara, on the other hand, establishes that certain gods achieved divinity through exposure to magic radiation from a crashed starship. They do not go so far as to say all gods are false, however, only some are "false-ish", having achieved immortality through a shortcut of sorts. Both, as I've illustrated, only take half-steps in this direction.

If it is not already obvious, my own aesthetics fall much more in line with the sword & sorcery genre, and Rogues & Reavers will reflect that, having no traditional gods or planes of the afterlife. If there are any "true" gods, they will be silent and their domains unattainable by mortal man. The majority of priests will be corrupt bureaucrats intent on seizing power and extracting wealth, and any gods that appear will be the furthest thing from the divine.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

There are certain novels that you never really finish. You turn the last page, but are aware that it must be re-read, preferably several times, before you can truly appreciate it. I distinctly recall the first time I had this impression after completing the first Amber series by Zelazny, and again after reading Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. A book of this sort resonates with you, and demands your attention at least one more time. Both The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld fall into this category, as they reveal more of the "soul" of D&D than perhaps anything I've seen so far, and yet also promise so many unique possibilities that it seems a shame so much has been left behind.

Many words have been spilt over the picaresque nature of this novel, so I won't blather too much about that today. Instead, I'd rather concentrate on two elements that seem far more uncommon in D&D today, but which I believe should be of critical interest.

First, there is the comedic element, which is a peculiar mix of whimsy and satire that emphasizes on bawdiness and trickery. This is common amongst picaresques from antiquity (the Satyricon) to the modern day (Flashman), but seem to have fallen by the wayside in how the game is played. This strikes me as an unfortunate turn of events, as elements of this type of humor are so pervasive in the source material, from Clark Ashton Smith to Fritz Leiber and most obviously in Vance.

Humor in gaming publications, on the other hand, is generally of a highly self-referential sort, with pizza or dice monsters, broad lampoons of fantasy staples and nerd stereotypes, and similarly dull claptrap. Even the few satires produced in RPGs often rely on topical elements, which in turn assure that they have no lasting value (see image to the right for a prime example).

Vance cuts deeper, however, with his cynical views on religion, virtue, charity, beauty, and man's capacity for self-delusion. It is here where many games, including my own, lack. We are so busy building worlds that we forget to underline any meaningful statements, or (in the case of story games) we swing too far in the other direction, ham-handedly belaboring a point until the entire group is sick of it.

Happily, Vance provides us a solution to this "all or nothing" mentality that seems to cleave the gaming audience. He never strays overlong into any specific territory, and even the most involved satires never comprise more than a single episode ("The Pilgrims"). Moreover, Cugel is often invited to act badly, with opportunities for mischief dangling like low-hanging fruit. Often these "opportunities" end up doing our hero more harm than good, and we enjoy watching our morally bankrupt protagonist have the tables turned on him. It would do more referees well to learn from Vance, as the plot threads we lay out commonly appeal to the common good, or are reciprocal in nature, with PCs and patrons both standing to gain.

The lie of Dragonlance and its ilk has trained many referees (myself included) to believe that D&D is a story about morality, where right action is rewarded and villainy is punished. This has even been passed along to our bastard child, the video game RPG, which will sometimes offer amoral choices but often have serious consequences for doing so. Many scripted D&D adventures go even a step further, with the only opportunities for adventure being those that coincide with the cause of "good". Yet, the primary sources quoted by Gygax indicate otherwise, and our plot hooks should reflect that. Let's consider some of the "hooks" laid for Cugel:

* A merchant proposes to Cugel that he should rob the home of a wizard while he is away.

* On passing, a man explains how he has toiled for forty years to earn a great treasure. He now only needs to go collect it.

* A deposed king explains to Cugel how he has been searching for the artifact which will restore him to the throne. Moments later, Cugel stumbles upon the artifact laying on the beach.

* Monsters capture Cugel, but offer to set him free should he attract others to the cave where they dwell.

* A clan of yokels offer Cugel safe passage through a section of forest, but want his female companion in exchange.

* The mayor of a small town offers Cugel a position that will give him access to the village's entire savings.

... The list goes on. In each of these circumstances, there is clear opportunity to profit by taking the low road. Complications arise, of course, but the author never passes judgment and neither should we.

The complications I mentioned previously are another important aspect to understanding the humor of Vance - the swindle. Generally speaking, everyone Cugel encounters is out for themselves on the Dying Earth an they care little that it comes at the expense of others. The majority of the characters are actively trying to screw one another, and those who act righteously are hypocrites, fools, or both. Referees intent on emulating Vance should consider this and have a stock of scams on hand which NPCs can employ in their attempts to hoodwink the players.

The second aspect of Eyes of the Overworld which I want to discuss is the dramatic reversals of fortune that Cugel undergoes over the course of the book. One day a king, the next enslaved, this is common amongst picaresques but exceedingly unusual in D&D, at least until the dice turn against you. There is a hard-coded upward trajectory in D&D where one gathers treasure, gains experience, and grow increasingly tougher to kill, insulating oneself from bad fortune. The natural "arc" is one of a successful self-made man, ala Robert E. Howard's Conan.

Amongst old-school circles there has been a push against this trend to a certain degree, with greater rewards for carousing and otherwise pissing away your money. Compared to the highs and lows of Cugel, however, this is nothing.

I suspect that there are two reasons why this has developed:

1. "My Precious Character": Canny players discovered a long time ago that referees, wanting their players to have fun, will bend over backwards when serious pressure is applied to them. Whining, guilt trips, arguments, and the like are the surest way to get many a referee to comply with their demands. Many a die has been fudged and many a point-buy system introduced to ensure that the players get their way. This also extends into play itself, where the arc of accumulation and improvement is all but guaranteed.

2. "My Precious Campaign": Give the players too much power, the story goes, and they'll run roughshod over your campaign world, murdering important NPCs, turning every dungeon into a cakewalk, and ruining all your plans. Before you cry too many tears for that imaginary noble patron, however, you should keep in mind a lesson that the earliest referees kept close to heart: what the DM gives, the DM can taketh away. Which leads us to...



                    Monty Haul or the Boom-Bust Cycle of Gygax & Ward

Rust Monsters, disenchanters, and the Tomb of Horrors all have one thing in common - they are corrective measures, ensuring that players never stay ahead of the game for two long. In the first two examples, they do so by stripping the characters of items which have proven to become burdensome. In the last, it is to strip the players of characters which have become problematic. Later philosophies would mock these devices as attempts to correct the mistakes of the referees, but I'm not certain that is the case. Temporarily giving players access to powerful magics and great wealth acts as a "release valve" where they can blow off some steam and throw their weight around, lording it over their foes until the wind blows the other direction, leaving them destitute (and likely with a great number of enemies looking for revenge). While players may initially chafe at such vagaries of fate, I suspect this is just a question of managing expectations - hand them a crown, or a dragon mount, or a rare artifact at low level, and let them wreck a little havoc. Then, just as quickly, snatch it away. The consequences of what they did with such power will likely create more adventures then you would've conceived on your own

Non-Stop, aka Starship by Brian Aldiss

 Today I want to talk about Non-Stop, aka Starship, by Brian Aldiss. The book is best known amongst RPG fans as the primary inspiration for Metamorphosis Alpha by James Ward, the first sci-fi RPG and predecessor to Gamma World.

Metamorphosis Alpha remains, perhaps, the single most intriguing game I have never read, (although that'll soon change thanks to the recent reprint found here). I first heard about MA in an editorial by Roger Moore in Dragon Magazine #177. Moore, in that article, discusses "kinky" games, by which he means RPGs based around unusual or gonzo concepts. He discusses three in particular: Bunnies and Burrows, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Lace & Steel. All three of them held quite a bit of promise to me, but this being before the internet age, I had no way to track down these oldies. I eventually got Bunnies & Burrows, and even played a few sessions, but Metamorphosis Alpha and Lace & Steel continue to evade me.

Out of the three, though, Metamorphosis Alpha really set my young mind afire, and for good reason - not only is the concept solid gold, but it is the "0e" of Gamma World, the first game I ever ran. Since that point, I have been fascinated by the concept of a generation ship and interested in the origins of such an idea.

As best as I can tell, the first author to play with such a concept is Robert Heinlein with his novella "Orphans in the Sky", which sets down a basic framework from which Brian Aldiss expands. In many ways, Non-Stop is a commentary on Heinlein's work, presenting a darker, more complex ecosystem and a shocker of an ending.

It is also eminently gameable. Rarely in literature prior to D&D will you see dungeon crawling evoked so perfectly, as a group of adventurers wander down corridors, clear rooms, and ascend through different levels. One can easily imagine how James Ward thought this was a perfect vehicle for an RPG.

Beyond the  clear parallels, I found two other aspects of this novel fascinating. First, Non-Stop is structured as a mystery, with a series of progressive revelations that reorient one's understanding of the setting that the book takes place in. This reminded me greatly of the mystery component of West Marches, wherein players discovered clues scattered across the sandbox setting that would point towards hidden dungeons and lost treasures. That brought me back to one of the most important components to dungeon design: they are essentially mysteries which work on multiple levels.

On the most immediate level, the question is "What's in the next room?"

On a deeper level, the question posed is "Why is this stuff here?"

As these layers are peeled away, the final question is "How did it come to be this way?"

These questions should not go unanswered. When designing a dungeon, it needs to be more than a random series of rooms without purpose. There seems to be a school that embraces the concept of a mythic underworld, viewing the abnormal physics and obscure origins of such a concept as an excuse to throw out Gygaxian Naturalism altogether. I wholeheartedly reject such a view, as one of the greatest joys a player can achieve is puzzling together the 'reality' of the game and, in doing so, become more invested in said reality.

This is not a refutation of the concept of the mythic underworld. In fact, I love the idea of a semi-sentient, hostile dungeon which casually tosses out natural law - such a place becomes a dangerous, alien environment and emphasizes the foolhardy nature of any sort of 'delve'. I'm not even opposed to Philotomy's assertion that such an underworld's "purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend". Mysteries often remain as such, and you can structure your dungeon so that the truth never becomes clear, through incomplete or conflicting information.

Instead, what I propose is that such questions should be settled in the mind of the Referee, and when designing dungeon rooms there should be hints which speak to riddles of the underworld. As I laid out above, the three levels of mystery lend themselves to different sorts of clues that are laid within the dungeon:

1. Teasers: These are sense impressions which allow the players to guess at what is in the next room. Does a weird greenish light emanate from beneath the door to the right, while a deep metallic grinding groan from the door to the right? These clues often do not reveal much, but they invite speculation and can invoke a sense of wonder or dread.

2. Room Contents: Although some may see any description of a room beyond a cursory summary of loot and monsters as just "fluff", I find it more satisfying to have a short description with indicators as to the purpose that it serves beyond a place to kill monsters. Sometimes this can be obvious, such as rows of spice jars and hanging pots and pans, while at other times it can seem more obscure, such as the green tentacle jerky hinting at the roper colony deeper within the complex. Best of all is when these clues overlap, alternating tension ("tentacles?") and release ("oh, it's just a kitchen") in short order.

3. Grand Mysteries: Nailing the origin of the dungeon (or, if a larger or older complex, weaving together the narrative threads with explain the 'story' of the dungeon, from conception to its modern state) requires more careful, top-down planning, as the clues have to be interspersed close enough to maintain interest while remaining vague enough to preserve the mystery. Ancient inscriptions, old diaries, long-lived denizens, and the like all should deliver bits of exposition but should always end with more questions asked than answered, at least until the final levels of the dungeon, where the deepest secrets can be revealed. Non-Stop structures this beautifully, and the series of reveals keeps the reader hooked until the final moments.

Beyond the mystery structure, the other element in Non-Stop that I loved was the many factions of the ship: The Greene tribe, Forwards, Outsiders, Giants, the Rats - each of these groups have a different understanding of their ecosystem, and are constantly struggling with one another for resources and control over the ship. As the protagonist, Roy Complain, and his compatriots encounter each of these groups, and come to see their perspective, it not only contributes to the mystery but also makes the ship come alive as a "real" place.

Factions in dungeons are all too often static, even when the adventure background informs us that they're at war with one another. At most, we may see a set piece skirmish triggered when we go into an appropriate room, yet this always sat poorly with me. The dungeon should be a living, dynamic locale where tribes invade, fortify and repel their competition, and the players are an 'eco-bomb' which throws things into chaos, the extent of which they may never understand. The swirling chaos of cause and effect is something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about, but have yet to develop a model to handle this smoothly in a game environment.

Finally, I should mention that there's a great monster race in Non-Stop which I'm totally going to rip off - the rats. A colony of organized, intelligent rats that live in the walls and kidnap men who wander too far from their tribe, these little buggers scared the bejeezus out of me. Mix them with Brown Jenkin from Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House and you've got nasty little monsters constantly watching the party and probing for weakness.
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