Friday, December 31, 2010

R.I.P. Those we lost in 2010/Frazetta and Dio Shrine

One of the numerous blogs I try to keep up with is James Maliszewski's Grognardia. There are many things about Mr. Maliszewski's blog which I enjoy, one of which is he keeps me informed of the death of designers/heroes/people somehow important to the gaming community at large. I don't mean this in a morbid way, only in the sense that it is important to remember and honor those that have given the gaming community joy through their contributions, even if their contributions were to a game I do not play. In some cases, the departed are not related immediately to the gaming community, but only peripherally through the books, movies or whatever that are often enjoyed by gamers.

The departed for 2010 mentioned in Mr. Maliszewski's blog this year are: Frank Frazetta, J. Eric Holmes, Charles S. Roberts and Edwin Charles Tubb. The links provided are to Grognardia as James has done them justice with his eulogies. I feel I have nothing more of value to add regarding these great men, but do wish to pay them my respects. I do this on the last day of 2010 in remembrance.

Of the four, the death of Frank Frazetta had the greatest impact upon me, as his paintings influenced my imagination during my youth far more then I can express. My reading habits in the years I was stumbling about book stores, magazine racks and libraries, trying to find what my niche was with literature were often influenced by Mr. Frazetta's cover paintings alone. Meaning, I was often as not willing to give something a read BECAUSE Frank Frazetta's covers attracted me versus who wrote the work or who the main character was. I have lost count of the number of tattered paper backs, comics and magazines in my collection that I keep simply due to the gorgeous Frazetta art work. Frank Frazetta's muscle bound heroes, scantily clad (or nude) women illustrated my youthful lust for fantasy and still do to this day. Thank You Mr. Frazetta.

I give honor to Mr. Holmes. I never played, owned or have personally leafed through his version of Dungeons & Dragons, but I feel he was one of the many who shaped a game that will always have a place at my table in one form or another. Thank You Mr. Holmes.

As to Mr. Roberts, I never played his games, but appreciate that without war games and war gammers, role playing games may never have developed. Thank you Mr. Roberts.

As for E.C. Tubb, I have never read any of his science fiction, but perhaps I should correct that. Thank You Mr. Tubb.

I would like to add a name to the list: Ronnie James Dio, born Ronald James Padavona.

It may seem odd that I add a Heavy Metal singer to the list above, but not so at all to me. When I think back to my gaming days in Jr./Sr. High and even somewhat into my college days, my memories are often clouded with the music I listened to while casting dice. Several bands come to mind: Metallica, Megadeth, Black Sabbath (both with Ozzy and with Dio) and of course Dio. It wasn't just the games, books, movies and comics that formed my imagination, it was the music too.

While I realize that music is not as universal amongst gamers as other media, I've known just as many gamers who find inspiration in classical music as those who find inspiration in Rock or Heavy Metal; differences in music aside, I feel music is just as important to a gamer's "Appendix N" as any other media; regardless if that music is a charging classical ensemble or a growling guitar fired over a driving drum beat.

For me as a youth, the later held true, just as it has for many gamers. Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal music were synonymous in my bedroom as a lad. I can remember many a time sitting in my bedroom, drawing up a new dungeon while listening to heavy metal. My bedroom walls were plastered equally with fantasy inspired art, balanced out with heavy metal posters (Iron Maiden posters had the largest lion share. While I didn't love their music, I did like it, and Eddie in all his ghoulish aspects was rocking as far as I was concerned). It wouldn't be a stretch to say that this often close association of heavy metal and D&D, fanned the flames of the anti-D&D reaction of the 80's and that just made me love "Satan's Music" even more.

My musical tastes have changed over the years. Now, I am just as able to appreciate and find inspiration in Beethoven as I am in a haunting New Age piece. Still, while I may not listen to Heavy Metal as much as I once did, it has a dedicated section on my iPod.

Ronnie James Dio was amongst those musicians that fed my gaming fire; perhaps, I might even say chief amongst them. Black Sabbath was always one of my favorite bands, and while I prefer the Ozzy Osborn years, I won't turn down the chance to rock out to some Heaven & Hell inspired Black Sabbath either, nor will I dial the volume down on "Holy Diver".

Thank You Mr. Dio.

I'll close this post with a mini-shrine to the two men lost in 2010 that inspired me the most over the years and always will. Frank Frazetta and Ronnie James Dio.

If I could only choose one painting by Frank Frazetta, it would be his iconic cover to Conan the Adventurer. Conan and Frazetta will always be intertwined for me.

As for Ronnie James Dio, well just watch the video to his classic "Holy Diver" and it will explain why Sword & Sorcery and Dio are one and the same to me. And of course, crank it up!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Phoenix Barony: Session 3

The group managed to meet for session 3 this past Tuesday and we had three players plus myself this week instead of the mere two we had for session 2.

The campaign world is The Phoenix Barony and the rules set is Tunnels & Trolls 5th edition.

I tried to get a bit more organized this session and recorded the characters' names for posterity: Alesian a Wizard Elf, Kilshalt a Warrior/Wizard Elf and replacing our dead elf from the second session (whose death brought an abrupt end to our Elven Trio) Olga a Warrior Dwarf. Our fourth player is still regrettably too busy with school work to join us and it appears he will remain so until June.

We picked up this session where we left off last. I quickly brought Kilshalt back into the action. He was grievously injured at the end of session 1 first from a failed attempt to make a make-shift staff and then from being pig-stuck by a goblin's spear. At the beginning of session two, his two elven companions camouflaged him in the woods near the goblin campsite before setting off in search of the goblin lair. At the end of that session Alesian ran from the goblin lair after watching his companion die with several goblins on his tail. He hid in the woods and was luckily not found by his pursuers. Meanwhile, as I explained at the beginning of session 3, Kilshalt had some tense moments of his own as several goblins passed nearby his hiding spot as well.

When it was obvious that the coast was clear, Alesian went to where he had left Kilshalt. The two of them then made their way to the village of Humble. All of this was prelude that I explained for the benefit of Kilshalt's player as he was absent during session 2.

In Humble they reported their encounter with the goblins to the local powers who, as reward for having slain some of the goblins, put them up at the Inn of the Sleeping Dog at the village's expense. The characters mentioned to Bobbert Tobit, the proprietor of the Sleeping Dog, that they were looking for a third or fourth companion to accompany them. They had decided that after either receiving magical healing, or failing that, waiting for time to cure their wounds, they would return to the goblin's lair for a second run at it. Bobbert introduced them to a lady dwarf drinking sullenly in the corner that was seeking adventure. Thus they met Olga. Bobbert then pointed them in the direction of Fizzer's House o' Majiks for possible healing.

At Fizzer's they encountered an enchanted floor mat that was disgruntled with them for standing upon his face. They found Master Fizzer Skudbaddoodle an agreeable, but scatterbrained chap. The inside of his house proved to be a definite bachelor pad, even worse, a wizard's bachelor pad. In short, it was a hot-mess of eccentrically organized disaster. He invited them in and striking up a conversation with them, divulged that the goblin lair which they had received their wounds at was long ago part of the lair of a Warlock Warrior. He did not mention the Warlock Warrior's name. Upon discovering that they were indeed near broke, he lowered his usual price of 500 gp for Restoration Majiks, and settled for the 40 gp's they had, plus the promise that they would do their best to retrieve a book for him titled A Treatise of the Three Tailed Cockatrice, which last he knew had been in possession of the Warlock Warrior who once resided at the goblin's lair. He also, explaining that he was in need of coin himself, encouraged Alesian to return when he was ready to learn some higher majiks.

Healed and ready, they set out immediately for the goblin's lair and explained to Olga on the way that they were also seeking a young Ind girl named Iris that had presumably been taken prisoner by the goblins and they accounted for how her dying father, whom the goblins had recently relieved of one of his legs, begged them to rescue her with his dying breath. They neglected to divulge that they were originally following the girl and her Merchant father with the intention of possibly robbing them. No sense in giving their new companion a sour disposition towards them.

Arriving once more at the goblin lair, they immediately noticed that there were no guards present. They proceeded with curious caution to explore first the caves belonging to the women and youngling goblins. Finding nothing of interest there but bedding and such fun goblin toys as rats on sticks, they proceeded to the main lair. They found the bodies of the goblins they had slain, still laying where they had left them. They proceeded to investigate those caverns they had visited in their previous foray, and took to thoroughly search them this time, along with looting the dead goblins and retrieving the possessions of their fallen comrade. Searching the rest of the lair turned up more dead goblins. They also discovered a hidden passageway that they presumed to be an escape route. It seemed it had been used. This required them to lift a portcullis that the goblins had lowered after their escape. The passage led to the other side of the sizable hill in which the caverns were long ago dug into.

The last room turned up their biggest discovery. They found Iris. The girl was still in the goblin's prison. The door leading to the prison had been spiked closed from the outside. Inside the prison lay Iris, sleeping, nude, covered in blood, but not her own. The rooms other occupants were all dead: a hobgoblin and two more goblins. All three had been slain by some sort of clawed/fanged beast that they did not find. They of course immediately suspected Iris of being a Were.

Iris did not speak common and none of them spoke Ind, but through trial and error, they discovered that the girl spoke Classical. Thus, Alesian was able to communicate with her. Their suspicions of her were deepened when she asked them to lead them to the Shaman's room. There she searched until she found something they had taken from her father: a sprig of wolfsbane.

They wished to clear the collapsed stones from a passageway that they hoped led deeper into the lair, but they would need tools. Alesian left Olga and Kilshalt to do what they could. Taking a list of items dictated by Olga that she would need to clear the rubble, Alesian left for Humble, accompanied by Iris.

In Humble, he first delivered Iris to Fizzer and delicately explained the young girl's plight to him. Fizzer put her in a pair of silver manacles, for her own protection, and took charge of her. At Grimlie's Gear, Alesian bargained for the tools that Olga wanted then set off at once to rejoin his companions.

Meanwhile, after muscling a bit of the stones out of the way, Olga and Kilshalt were attacked by two large spiders, one of which bit Kilshalt, but it's poison did little more then cause him an irritated wound. They easily dealt with the critter, then when further inspection revealed more webbing on the other side of the partially collapsed passageway, they set the offending webs on fire with oil and torch.

Rejoined by Alesian and armed with the tools requested by Olga, they spent the rest of the day clearing the passageway. This took them late into the night. They decided to sleep before exploring more, and settled upon camping in the goblin's escape route. They closed the portcullis to guard one side of the passage and took turns guarding the exit.

After eating a breakfast of hard biscuits and cheese, they set off to explore the unknown. This part of the lair, which they assumed was the unnamed Warlock Wizard's abandoned complex, was much better designed then the goblin's lair. It was obviously built by craftsmen, unlike the goblin's lair which was a crudely expanded natural cavern.

They did much exploring. The complex was, for the most part uninhabited. They did have a slight run in with two more spiders, and some odd purpled eyed white mice who created some sort of phantom ogre that only Kilshalt could see. Eventually, he realized it was an illusion. They did notice throughout the complex that there were any number of small tunnels near the floor. These tunnels were 2 1/2 feet high at most and no more then 1 1/2 feet wide. Most were concealed with loose rubble, but it was obvious that something uses or at least used them. All of them were too small for them to possibly explore.

An entrance to a lower level was discovered via a trapdoor hidden beneath an old bed; however, it is very narrow, so narrow that only daggers could be used for defense within it and even Olga the dwarf would be forced to slouch in order to walk within them. Alesian and Kilshalt would have to bend over in an exaggerated manner to follow her.

During their explorations of the goblin lair and the abandoned complex, they found a modest amount of treasure. Amongst those treasures was the book: A Treatise of the Three Tailed Cockatrice

That brought the session to a close. There was more exploration then combat, which after the combat heavy second session was a nice reprieve. I would like to note that Fizzer took the personality was inspired by Prospero from John Bellair's The Face in the Frost.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

John Carter in Comics UPDATE

This book hit comic shops and fine book stores today. I'll be snagging myself a copy this weekend.

Horror Classics: Graphic Classics Volume Ten

This slim volume was a great find at my local used book store. I have a thing for reading classic stories adapted into my favorite media. I was doubly excited because the cover promises stories by Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, three of my favorites in one volume and in graphic format.

Stories adapted in this book include: "The Mummy" by Ambrose Bierce; "The Thing on the Doorstep", Lovecraft; "Some Words with a Mummy" by Poe; "In a Far-Off World" Olive Shreiner; "The Thing at Ghent" Honore de Balzac; "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs; "The Open Window" Saki; "A Day-Dream" by Fitz-James O'Brien; "Keesh, Son of Keesh" by Jack London; "Professor Jonkin's Cannibal Plant" by Howard R. Garis; "The Beast of Averoigne" by Clark Ashton Smith; "Selina Sedila" by Bret Harte.

A short bio is included of each author and artist. All of the art is black and white and while I had some stories that I enjoyed the art in more then others, or at least I felt the art fit the stories better in some then in others (for instance Michael Manning does an excellent job of drawing H.P.L.'s "The Thing on the Doorstep"and I encourage you to check out Mr. Manning's art here), I wouldn't consider any of the art here poor or jarring/mismatched. John W. Pierard's illustrations for "The Monkey's Paw" were also memorable for me and I was happy to learn that he has work in Graphic Classics: H.G. Wells and Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker, two books that I am eager to get my hands on.

The stories by Poe, Lovecraft, CAS, Jack London and W.W. Jacobs I know for certain I have read before (in written word format). Some of these stories I am sure I have encountered before, but do not remember them, I am sure there were a few I've read in this book for the first time. I know that I had read "The Monkey's Paw" before, but it was vague in my memory. After re-discovering it here, I have decided that I must chase down some more W.W. Jacobs.

My favorites: "The Beast of Averoigne", "The Thing on the Doorstep", " The Monkey's Paw" and "In a Far-Off World".

A quick look at Graphic Classics website shows that they have several more volumes in print, and based upon the strength of Horror Classics I will be seeking out many of these for my bookshelf. One upcoming project of their's I am particularly excited about is Western Classics which includes an adaption of Robert E. Howard's "Knife River Prodigal".

Seek this out. Read it. Enjoy it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: Heavy Metal Movie (1981)

Ahh, how I love Netfilx. When this movie was first released, I was only ten years old. I did manage to see it, I believe in 1982. I would often spend the night at my grandparents' house. One big selling point for staying at my grandparents was that they had "Home-Box". I would sleep downstairs, and watch late into the night. I discovered Heavy Metal late one night, and watched it (with the volume turned low, so Grandma wouldn't come downstairs and find me watching "dirty shows"). I was enthralled.

Due to the long unavailability of the film, I didn't watch it again until this past weekend. It is stream-able on Netflix. Some things just don't weather well with time.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't hate it the second time through, but it wasn't as "awesome" as my memory served. I can forgive the animation. For it's time, it wasn't horrible at all. This was one of America's first cartoon adventures for adults. Some of the stories still hold water, in a "check your brain at the door and just don't think about it too hard" sort of way.

The menu of short films is a mixed bag of things I love: hard boiled dystopian future noir with "Harry Canyon"; Sword & Planet with "Den" and "Taarna"; space opera with a splash of comedy in "Captain Stern" and "So Beautiful and So Dangerous"; and EC Comics style horror with "B-17". All of the stories are loosely strung together with a plot device of a glowing green orb called the Loc-Nar which is the sum of all evil. As a device, it works, but is clumsy and unnecessary. I suspect it was thrown in by the producers in order to be able to sell it as a movie versus an anthology of short films.

The later choice would have been more appropriate as it would be more in spirit with the magazine of the same name that serves as the inspiration for the film. My experience with the magazine is minimal. I have read a few stray copies here and there, but I am not a dedicated reader.

As to the shorts films that make up the movie, "B-17" was by far my favorite, but I have an inclination to like a story that would have fit well in the long defunct EC Comics line. "Taarna" and "Den" are close second and thirds for me. Again, these two segments play to my like of Sword & Planet stories, not too mention a strong dose of naked breasts and eroticism. I'll be honest, this movie lives as a cult classic in my mind for it's notoriety of having lots of animated naked women and lots of sex. "Den" plays to those strengths well with its plot line of a scrawny nerdy young man named Dan (voiced by the late John Candy) who is whisked off to another planet and has his body transformed into the muscular Den. On this mysterious planet, he scores with not one, but two beautiful women in less then 24 hours. That story line could have easily been one of my adolescent day dreams.

In short, this will always be a cult classic for me. It is not perfect, but for its intentions it was great. It has all the elements that I nostalgically love of early fantasy/science-fiction films from its era: a bit of cheese, lots of action, boobies, sex, blood and grit. Heavy Metal has one more element that many such movies of it's ilk and era did not have: a kick-ass soundtrack of 80's rock to include Sammy Hagar, Nazareth, Black Sabbath, Devo, Cheap Trick, Blue Oyster Cult and others.

I think gamers could take inspiration from the film. I'm sure my early games did. While that inspiration may come from the story lines, in my own games I think it serves as a reminder to show not tell, and in true Heavy Metal style, go over the top. Don't try to subdue your description. Give the players bright blood, gaudy dressed villains, memorable locals.

A few well placed buxom women with large exposed breasts never hurts either. Extra credit if you can supply a live action model to your gaming table.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Current Reading

As I've stated before, I am in the midst of reading the DMG Appendix N in its entirety. Thus far, I've made my way through Poul Anderson and John Bellairs. Next on my list, I'm reading alphabetically, is Leigh Brackett. I decided that before moving onto Brackett, who I have never read, I would re-read Burrough's A Princess of Mars, as it is my understanding that Burroughs' work had a large influence upon Brackett.

At the same time, I have a large stack of comics calling my name that I need to catch up on. Not to mention Literary magazines, bought yet unread and a growing number of books outside of the immediate interests of this blog that I've been meaning to get to; although, some of them are related and will turn up here.

I also have a number of posts I need to make concerning books I've read from the Ballentine Adult Fantasy Series and Paizo's Planet Stories, which do not cross paths with Appendix N. So it will be a few weeks before I get to Leigh Brackett in my Appendix N series.

Barsoom in Trade Reprint Comics

A bit of research answered my own question as to the availability of adaption of Barsoom to comics. Dynamic has the licence to produce new Barsoomian adventures in their comics, but Dark Horse Comics has been and will be producing the reprints of classic versions of John Carter from Dell, DC and Marvel Comics.

The first is all ready available, Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars: The Jesse Marsh Years. This volume reprints the original three issue run of John Carter of Mars published by Dell Comics 1952 to 1953. The series was later reprinted by Gold Key Comics in 1964; however, they were reprinted out of order. Jesse Marsh penciled this series while it was written by Paul S. Newman. Marsh was known amongst Burroughs' fans as the "go to artist" for Tarzan. He penciled Tarzan comics for nineteen years. Newman was one of the most prolific comic book writers of his age. Although it is in dispute, he may have been one of the creators of the character Turok. This book is available in hardcover and retails for $29.99. It can be purchased here, but as always, I encourage you to purchase from your local non-corporate bookstore first. I myself do not own this volume, nor have I ever read it in any format, but continuing my obsession with all things Barsoom, I will be purchasing myself a belated Christmas present soon.

Not yet available, but of greater interest to me, is Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars: Weird Worlds. This volume, also from Dark Horse Comics, is not yet available, but DHC has listed the publication date as January 12, 2010. Originally published by DC Comics, the tales reprinted in this volume first appeared as back up features in Tarzan #'s 207-209 and later in Weird Tales #'s 1-7, in the late 70's. This is, to my best understanding, an adaption of A Princess of Mars to comics form. I look forward to this as I am a big fan of science fiction and fantasy comics published in the 60's, 70's and early 80's. A further selling point from me, as posted on DHC's site: Featuring the work of comics legends Marv Wolfman, Murphy Anderson, Gray Morrow, Sal Amendola, Joe Orlando, and Howard Chaykin! (I dig Marv Wolfman and Howard Chaykin). It is priced at $14.99.

Lastly, but of greatest interest to me is this volume also from DHC. This is to be a collection of Marvel Comics entire 28 issue run, plus all three annuals of Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane's 1977 John Carter, Warlord of Mars. I have in my collection, I believe three or four issues of this title. I wish I could say for sure, but they are stored away at my parents' house in far off PA (I live in AK). I don't remember them, but again: MARV WOLFMAN! Plus: CHRIS CLAREMONT AND FRANK "FRIFFEN" MILLER! (I'm dying to see Miller pencils of Burroughs' creation). Also, I like the premises. The series takes place, mostly, between paragraphs 3 and 4, chapter 27 of A Princess of Mars. If memory serves correctly, this would be a period of eight or nine years from the point in time that Carter marries Dejah Thoris and later saves Barsoom from certain doom as the air machines stop working. Priced at $29.99, I look forward to the promised March 2, 2011 publication date.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dejah Vu (Sorry I couldn't resist)

I visited Dynamite's home page and read their solicitation for Warlord of Mars #3. It sounds like the adaption of A Princess of Mars begins in this issue. Issue's 1 and 2 were prequels. This sounds like a good place to jump aboard then I can seek out the two previous issues.

Judging from the cover art alone, oh yeah, I'm in. I'm a sucker for comics with pin-up girl art. I'll be visiting my local comics shop hopefully today, but probably with the holidays not until some time next week.

Dejah Thoris

Tonight is a sleepless night for me. What pray tell is keeping me awake? I can't get over how awful Traci Lord's portrayal of Dejah Thoris was from the 2009 movie adaption of Princess of Mars.

This fit of turning over constantly in bed eventually led to my self exile from bed (prompted by several hems and haws from my lovely wife). I searched for images of Dejah Thoris.

Wow, there are some titillating images of Dejah available on the web. Many are lovely, and I can't post them all. My Dejah must be sexy, but not helpless. I think this is why I chose this classic cover from the Marvel adaption of Burroughs work.

It works for me, because A) Dejah is sexy on this cover and B) even though she is in chains, her face radiates confidence and defiance. Now that's the Dejah that keeps me awake at night. ;-)

I've never read these. I wish that I had, and now that I seem to be on a kick of all things Burrough, I may have to haunt ebay in search of these; although I am hoping for a collected volume somewhere. I'm not sure that there is one. Published in 1977, written by Marv Wolfman and penciled by Gil Kane. Being that I am a comics guy, that doesn't sound like too bad of a combination to me. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone that has read these.

Dynamite Entertainment has begun a 12 issue series. From what I've read, issues 1-3 are a prequel to Princess of Mars, issues 4-9 are an adaption and 10-12 will be a new story. I'm not sure how many issues Dynamite are into it, I believe two, three at most. It may be worth my time hunting down the back issues and adding this title to my pull box.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Princess of Mars (2009)

Waring, SPOILER alert for the film and the novel of the same name by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I realize I run the risk of sounding like a slavish fan-boy, but wow, did they only skim Burrough's Princess of Mars before making this film? What's wrong with it? First off there is the modernization by having John Carter be a top-notch hot shit super soldier in the modern times. The film starts with him in Afghanistan, he is horribly injured in a confrontation with opium dealers then the gold Army sends him off to Mars (but not the Mars we know, another one, yup) utilizing a top secret method that is sort-a-kinda tested but not really. The reason? Well that remains unclear even after watching the film. At least John Carter is still from Virginia.

The Green Martians have only two arms, no extra appendages, all the cool stuff you might remember from reading the novel, such as John Carter becoming a respected member of the Tharks by learning and mastering their barbaric ways, that's not in the movie. Instead Carter learns to speak their language by eating a bug. Remember how he earned the respect of the Green Martians by teaching them animal husbandry and friendship? That's missing to. We don't get to see Carter's relationship with his faithful Martian hound Woola. There are no white apes, these are replaced by flying spider creatures, sooooooo less cooler then white apes (I dig apes).

There is no sub-plot involving the malign Sarkoja. Sola makes an appearance, but her story is never told.

Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris? Well first: she ain't red. Second, and this sounds cruel, but maybe twenty years ago. Traci Lords was 41 when this movie was made. In my mind, I picture a young dark haired beauty in her twenties, and oh yeah...RED!

Rumor is that Disney/Pixar is producing a live action/digital film that should see the light of day possibly in 2012. I recommend waiting for it and keeping your fingers crossed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Phoenix Barony: Sessions 1 & 2

With the death of our Darkling Ways campaign, we launched into David Bezio's The Phoenix Barony utilizing Tunnels & Trolls (5th ed.) as our rule system.

Three elves in search of something, were traveling east from the North West. Their temporary destination was a nearby inn. Along their route, they fought a not-too smart, but hungry troll, but dealt with him easily.

Staying the night at a travelers' inn, they caught the attention of a suspicious looking gent. The gent approached them and told them of a father and daughter, the father having a fat purse. He told them that retrieving said purse from the father, who had left earlier in the day heading east, and giving him a "piece" of whatever was in there, would put them in his good graces. He inferred that he was in a good position to send more prizes their way.

The three elves set off in pursuit of the father and daughter. All they knew of them was that the pair dressed and presented themselves as if they were from far off Ind across the sea. The road taken by the pair was obvious; however, two hours past night fall, they noticed a camp fire not a great distance from the road to the north. They investigated.

A path in the woods was found that led to an obviously often used camp site. The camp site was in use at the time by four goblins roasting a human leg over a fire. The element of surprise being in their favor, the three elves cast two volleys of arrows and a Take That You Fiend spell. One of the goblins was able to skewer one of the three intrepid elves with his spear, not killing him, but bringing him dangerously close to death.

After dealing with the goblins, the owner of the leg over the spit was discovered. He was a traveler from Ind who spoke broken common at best. He begged them with his dying wish to rescue his daughter.

Another path was discovered that led further north. Determining that their injured brother elf was too gravely injured to continue, they helped camouflage him near the camp site and the two others continued onward.

The goblin lair was found. With the wise use of some Panic! spells, entrance was gained. Six more goblin guards were dealt with. Things went well until a goblin shaman was encountered. With a Take That You Fiend spell of his own, one of the two elves (a female rogue) was killed. The last elf standing made a narrow escape from the complex with grievous wounds of his own.

He waisted no time leaving but did manage to collect his wounded comrade at the campsite. The two set out for the village of Humble, in need of healing and some more muscle.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Appendix N: John Bellairs "The Face in The Frost"

Moving on from the "A's" to the "B's" listed on the DMG's Appendix N, I had the pleasure of reading John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost.

Originally published in 1969, Bellairs has stated that he was inspired to write a book staring a wizard after reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Having a wizard as a protagonist, or in the case of Bellairs two wizards, is where most of the similarities end; both works are without a doubt grounded in High Fantasy.

Bellairs is better known for his Young Adult works. Initially, The Face in the Frost was billed as such; however, be that as it may, this is a novel easily enjoyed by any reader who loves fantasy, regardless of age.

I first became aware of this novel after having read Lin Carter's non-fiction book about fantasy, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy. In his book, Carter discusses The Face in the Frost as the third of three works published since The Lord of the Rings, that in Carters own words: I have read three absolutely first class fantasy novels published since The Lord of the Rings first appeared in print in this country (the United States) during the mid 1950s. And only three.... The first two Carter wrote of were Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, and Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain; Katherine Kurtz and Ursula K. LeGuin get honorable mentions. John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost gets the nod from Carter as being worthy of being placed upon the book shelf alongside The Lord of the Rings.

I bring this forward as I would like to emphasize once more my love for Lin Carter as an editor and fellow fanatic of great literature. By many critics accounts, he had glaring faults as a writer, and if stories are true perhaps as a person as well, but as a lover of Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery fiction, Carter did much for the genre and his fellow fans with his editorship of The Ballentine Adult Fantasy Series, which I've spoken of before.

It's a mystery to me as to why some works made Gygax's Appendix N while others did not. For instance, John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost does, but neither Peter S. Beagle nor Katherine Kurtz do. My suspicions lean towards a theory that Dungeons & Dragons grew from Gary Gygax's love of pulp fiction, not the fantasy literature that exploded upon the scene after the publication of Tolkien. I believe this for Gygax names EC Comics and fantasy/horror/science fiction movies as inspiration as well. Gygax was known fan of Hammer Horror Films, which were pulpy in tone as were EC Comics.

It is again the old odd argument of D&D's inspirational material. The outsider looks into the gaming circle and sees the usual assortment of gamers seemingly reliving a Tolkien fetish as they hack their way through dungeons in the guise of elves, dwarves and halflings (hobbits). The fans of the game, or at least many, know that they are actually playing out their fantasies of yes kin akin to the kindred of Tolkien, but more in the vein of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and nightmare tales from H.P. Lovecraft. Some, perhaps even Gygax himself, are angered at the simplification of The Lord of the Rings = Dungeons & Dragons and vice versa.

It is mystery. If Tolkien had not published his masterpiece, there would have been no boom of interest in the 1950s/60s/70s in the genre of fantasy. This resurgence of interest lead to a fan named Lin Carter who took the reigns of editing at Ballentine and reintroduced, and in some cases introduced for the first time, fantasy readers to such greats as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Katherine Kurtz and John Bellairs. It should not be forgotten that Lin Carter as the men-tee of L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in reintroducing fantasy lovers to Howard's creations as well; although the manner in which it was done angers Howard purists to this day.

What I'm driving at is simply that Gary Gygax, having stated himself that he was avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950...most likely was exposed to many great works by being a fan of the Ballentine Adult Fantasy series. For instance by reading the Ballentine paperbacks he could have been exposed to H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was one of the authors re-introduced by Carter to the public in the Ballentine Adult Fantasy series. Most likely, with his age being taken into account, his exposure to Bellairs was the Adult Fantasy series.

Also, it is possible that Gygax never read the pure versions of Howard's Conan yarns. Gnomic Press published them prior to the altered versions that de Camp pushed onto the public, but the de Camp versions, along with Marvel Comics, were the stories that most readers in Gygax's age group would have been exposed to. After all, Gary Gygax was born two years after Howard's death, and wouldn't have come into his formative reading years until four years prior to the cancellation of Weird Tales.

The popularity of the character of Conan led to the formation of the sub-genre of Sword & Sorcery. I believe, and I have no proof there of, that Gygax's leisure reading was more geared towards Sword & Sorcery rather then the High Fantasy inspired by Tolkien. Many of the works included in the Ballantine series were more geared towards High Fantasy. So while Gygax certainly read some, perhaps many or even all of the titles in Carter's Adult fantasy series, he would have paid attention to other works more in the vein of Howard's Conan tales. I specifically point out the Conan tales, as Gygax specifically named them in Appendix N.

I find myself curious as to why, if H.P. Lovecraft got the nod in Appendix N, why not Clark Ashton Smith? Perhaps the answer to that lies in the proper full title of Appendix N, Inspirational and Educational Reading. The italics on "Educational" are mine. Perhaps I can only answer many of my own questions by reading the appendix in entirety with the goal of educating myself about Dungeons & Dragons.

I did not intend such a long ponderous entry, but it is interesting to see how reading Appendix N gets my gears turning about the origins of the game. Gary Gygax aptly named Appendix N. It can inspire great gaming and educate the reader about Gygax's creation.

Back to the work at hand, I really can not state more then has been stated elsewhere. The Face in the Frost is a joy to read and it reads quickly. The fact that Prospero studies his spells from a spell book prior to casting, has been pointed out as a possible influence upon D&D. I would also like to point out that there is a scene which may have been the introduction for the spell magic mouth as well.

In Carter's Imaginary Worlds, a prequel to The Face in the Frost is talked about and was to be published in a volume of literature aimed at young fantasy readers titles Young Magicians. That book never saw print, and the manuscript for Bellairs story is assumed lost. He did begin work on a sequel titled The Dolphin Cross. It was never finished, but the 150 pages of it which were written are available in print.

My copy is a used Ace printing (1981) that I found in a local used book store. I have seen multiple copies available. There is a current edition in print as well. As always, I encourage you shop locally and support your favorite non-corporate owned book store. Hopefully one that serves coffee not bought from Starbucks and has a lazy cat rolled up in a cozy corner.

Happy Reading. Good Gaming.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Favorite Old School RPG Art

I really dig Erol Otus art. I'm not sure where I've seen this one before, but I dig it. EO had an amateur style that managed to mix sexy with campy.

I'm off to a hockey game tonight, Christmas shopping tomorrow and Football Sunday. In between watching games, I'll be prepping for my Tunnels and Trolls game on Tuesday.

Happy Friday to all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: The Phoenix Barony

I was turned onto David Bezio's The Phoenix Barony by James Smith of The Underdark Gazette fame. He pimped it for the November 28th 2010 edition.

I would like to say whole-heartedly, Thank You Mr. Smith for tipping me off to this and thank you Mr. Bezio for writing it. tPB is exactly what I have been looking for. I wrote previously that my Darkling Ways campaign had come to an abrupt end. Much of the reason for that was, as much as I enjoy the concept of creating my own game world, the actual work involved requires much more effort then I am willing to put forward.

What I needed was a bare-bones world to place my adventures in. I wanted something generic. Now there are many "generic" worlds out there, but most of the more popular ones such as The Known World (or Mystara, if you must, but ONLY if you must), Greyhawk, Blackmoor etc.; however, a well known generic world comes pre-packaged with player expectations formed from years of supplements, be those professional or amateur.

I wanted, needed, a setting that was generic, but with no pre-expectations. Again, I could have gone to any number of sources available on the web, and many of them are well done. The problem with most is I have found very few that are well done for me personally.

The Phoenix Barony is a short work, about 30 some pages. The artwork is tasteful and suited to the subject at hand. I found few typos, if any. There are bits of flavor fiction through-out that are well done and add atmosphere.

I own the PDF of The Phoenix Barony which I picked up from Lulu here. There is also a paperback edition available here, that after having read and mucked around in tPB with my players a bit, I am keen on buying it for myself as a Christmas gift.

From the publishers blurb:

The Phoenix Barony™ is a high fantasy adventure setting for the Labyrinth Lord™ RPG or any Basic/Expert Fantasy Role Playing Game. It is a concise lighthearted setting covering an area 100 x 100 miles. In this book you will find details on the world the Phoenix Barony is set in, descriptions of all the major locations in the Barony, history, Religion, organizations, and NPCs that make the setting unique. If that isn’t enough you will also find the details of a smaller adventure area within the Phoenix Barony, hints of further adventures that take place there, and a complete 1st level adventure to get you started.(OSRIC friendly)

That is an apt description of what you get "out-of-the-box". It feels like a "high fantasy adventure setting" very akin to what a generic 0ld-school D&D campaign typically feels like. If you're looking for dark and moody with low-magic, look elsewhere. In the author's own words:

"(The Phoenix Barony's)...only real "unique" quality is that it doesn't try to be. This setting is hopelessly traditional vanilla flavored high fantasy...Still, it is my hope in sharing that it is just thing that some people have been searching for.

Mr. Bezio explains in his introduction that this has been a labor of love for him for 26 years. "I began role playing in 1981 with a basic version of the world's most popular role playing game. Through several years and several editions the setting you hold in your hands gradually developed". I assume from that statement that his world was used with Basic D&D, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, possibly first and second edition (hence the "OSIRIC friendly" comment from the blurb), as well as possibly 3rd edition. Reading through it, it seems obvious that this is a setting that grew organically. What makes it work for me, where other borrowed home-brew worlds have not, is he has kept it generic for 26 years. I'm sure there are details not included in his document that make his own personal Phoenix Barony unique then say mine, but he has made, I suspect, some wise editorial decisions in not including too many of those.

The Phoenix Barony is written with the intent of using Labyrinth Lord™ RPG. Mr. Bezio also states "or any Basic/Expert Fantasy Role playing game". I don't know if he ever intended Tunnels & Trolls™ to be included in that list, but I took him at his word and T&T 5th edition is my rules set of choice for my personal tPB game. My group and I are two sessions in and it is working wonderfully. I see this as more proof that Mr. Bezio has done a wonderful job of keeping his setting uniquely generic.

As promised in the blurb, you the reader are given details of an area 100 x 100 miles. These details are just enough to give you what you need, without overburdening you with superfluous details. A history is given that sets up the major bad-guy, Geltrod the Vermin Lord, and gives enough detail on the political situation to spark a DM's imagination. The same level of detail is given to religion, organizations and non-player characters. There are side-bars throughout that give more information for many of these topics. Mr. Bezio does all of this with a mere 20 pages.

From there the focus is narrowed to an immediate adventure area. In this section are three population areas along with three different wooded areas, lakes and rivers, roads and mountains. All of these are staples of such classic campaign kick-off modules such as Keep on the Borderlands. There is also a section titled "Places of Interest" which describe possible adventuring locals (some of which Mr. Bezio promises to publish adventures for).

The Village of Humble is given a thorough treatment as a default town to base adventures around or in (again a future adventure Vermin of Humble is promised). This section is well done. There is a map that is more then sufficient and all the shops that an adventure will need in his early career are included, along with the NPC's which run them.

Lastly, included is a short adventure meant as an introduction to the realm called The Lost Daughter. I am currently in the midst of running this for my players and will give more details on it at a later date. I will mention that The Lost Daughter is available separate as a free PDF, and it is generic enough to slide into just about any campaign.

All of what I have stated is praise, so I feel I must point out some faults. One glaring thing missing to me is a table of contents. That is forgivable, but it would have made page flipping easier; however, in all fairness, this is a short document. I will survive without a table of contents. I have read complaints in other reviews of some of the names being too generic or cheesy. I disagree, but there is an easy fix: change them if you don't like them. My main complaint, is hopefully not a complaint at all. Mr Bezio speaks of four adventures that will give more detail to the immediate adventure area. These are: Vermin of Humble, The Legend of Jub-Jub Lake, Dragon Head Peak and The Lost Keep. Of these, as of my writing this, only The Legend of Jub-Jub Lake is thus far available. It is my highest hope that Mr. Bezio will provide the other three adventures as promised and soon. I personally would love to see Vermin of Humble ASAP!

In summary, David Bezio has done a wonderful job of presenting a campaign world that is generic, yet doesn't feel generic. There is just enough meat on these bones to allow a DM such as myself to jump right in.

Another Dead Campaign, but Gaming, Finally!

Due to a very much too long lapse in playing, my groups Darkling Ways campaign has come to an abrupt end. I promised myself I wasn't going to let this happen; however, my lifestyle, which includes too much travel at times, is not conducive for a long term campaign. In the future, I am aiming lower. I would be happy with a campaign more in the 12 to 15 session range. As that is about the number of times I get to game in a 52 week calendar year.

The campaign was not a dud. It was entertaining. I was happy with the rules system we as a group settled upon, Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game. BFRPG is a good mix of Old-School with a dash of d20 thrown in. This works well for me, as I do prefer an old-school style of play; however, I appreciate things such as ascending AC for what they are: "easier".

I attempted to leave my game world setting generic and develop it as I went along. This worked to a degree. I think I would have done better starting with a "pre-packaged" generic world, such as The Known World, or Greyhawk; however, both of those with later supplemental material became loaded down with pre-expectations. Without having a bare-bones setting to work off of, I found myself floundering, as I am not good at maps and the big details. I do great with the small details, meaning, I can create an NPC on the spot complete with name, personality and quirks, but ask me "what's on the other side of those hills?", and I'm stumped.

A new campaign has risen from the old. Not from the ashes. I started over. We are two sessions in. This time out of the gate, I decided to use Tunnels & Trolls 5th Edition. My choice of T&T comes not from a lack of love for BFRPG, I like the later, and will most likely keep it as my go to system for D&D. T&T is fun.

I've used it little over the years. It is one of those games that sit upon my shelf and gets talked about, but very little play-time. I had been thumbing through my T&T 5 box set in between bouts of "Dungeon Master Block", by which I mean I was trying to think of a way to re-energize my excitement level for my Darkling Ways game and failing. I simply fell out of love with the old campaign and started jonesing to run some Tunnels & Trolls.

My choice of 5th vs 7/7.5 is simple. I own 5th and do not own any edition after that. AND, I'm happy with 5th, warts, bumps, silly-spell names and all. I added a couple of later edition house rules to my 5th edition and presto! Game on!

As for world settings, I was going to start a new campaign in my Darkling Ways world, but T&T just didn't feel right. Not wanting to repeat my previous mistake, I did some research and came across The Phoenix Barony. Thus far, I am more then happy with tPB, and will talk more at length about it in the future. I will say this now, it is an excellent bare-bones setting, with no pre-expectations from myself or my players. I kinda wish I had started my BFRPG in tPB.

We are two sessions into the new game, which is shaping up to be a "mega"-dungeon delving campaign. I put the "mega" in parenthesis, as it is not an unending dungeon. Thus far I have 5 levels planned with a possible 6. When it is explored, the campaign is over.

As always, I enter with high hopes, but this time with limitations.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Appendix N: Poul Anderson's "Three Hearts and Three Lions

Originally appearing as a 1953 novella in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Three Hearts and Three Lions would later be published as a novel in 1961. I have not read the original novella, nor am I certain as to its availability outside of a possibly expensive on-line auction; I would however, be keen to the idea.

This was actually the first of Anderson's three novels listed on Appendix N that I read. I'm not sure why I didn't write about it first, accept that I just wasn't sure exactly "what" to say about it.

I'm still not. Is it a good book? Most definitely. I read most of it on a short two hour flight, and stayed up late that very same night to finish it. It's not often I find a novel any more that is enough of a page turner to entice me to miss sleep. I like my sleep.

I wonder how much it differs from the '53 novella. While the novel is strongly in the vein of traditional fantasy, there is a definite lack of Tolkienisque influence. This isn't surprising, as the original novella appeared before tLotR and the '61 novel appeared five years before Tolkien's masterpiece was wide read in it's Ace and/or Ballentine paperback edition. I'm on record as being a fan of any work of fantasy that manages to tell a good and original story outside of imitating Tolkien. Three Hearts and Three Lions does just that.

It's influences upon Dungeons & Dragons are obvious. Anderson divides his fantasy world, that of the Holy Roman Empire on one side and Faerie on the other, into two classifications: Law and Chaos. It is easy to see that D&D's alignment system was most likely adapted from this novel. The class of Paladin may also have come from Anderson's portrayal of his main character, Holger, as well. The AD&D description of a Troll is almost word per word from Three Hearts and Three Lions.

As far as availability goes, I easily tracked down a copy at a local used book store. A quick search on Amazon turned up many copies available as well. As always though, I encourage the patronage of your local non-big-box stores.

I put off writing about this novel as I felt I should say more then "loved it", but honestly, I can't think of any thing new that hasn't all ready been said. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Appendix N: Poul Anderson's "The High Crusade"

Having read "The Broken Sword" previous to this novel, I found it an odd juxtaposition to the former. First, the tone here is much lighter. Anderson does not attempt to take his story seriously, but at the same time, he is a serious enough writer that the reader is able to take the novel seriously. Secondly, while "The Broken Sword" fits nicely into the nitch of Sword & Sorcery, or possibly just Fantasy, "The High Crusade" fits imperfectly in both Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Originally serialized in Astounding Magazine in the year 1960, The High Crusade opens with a starship landing in England during the 14th Century. The English overtake the aliens, hi-jack it and end up light years away from home in a star-spanning empire ruled by the Wersgorix, a blue-faced alien race that rules several other races through having the most advanced technology.

The story that follows is that of Sir Roger Baron de Tourneville and his exploits in which, well, not wanting to give too much away, I'll say "God Favors the English". As mentioned earlier, the tone of Crusade is much lighter then that of The Broken Sword. There are many humorous moments in this short novel, along with short spats of high adventure. The narrator is one Brother Parvus a Franciscan Monk who explains his Christian name thusly:

"...I am of low size, and ill-favored, though fortunate to have the trust of children"

Brother Parvus gives a sometimes first hand account, and when necessary, recounts details he was not present to witness. As a narrator, he works wonderfully as I never found the story jarring. Along with humor and adventure is twisted in a tale of love lost, love betrayed, love regained, the classic "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back".

The edition I have was published by Baen publishing in 2010, as a 50th Anniversary edition. It includes an Introduction by Astrid Anderson Bear, the daughter of Poul Anderson and the wife of Greg Bear. There are also five Appreciations of the novel, one each from: Diana L. Paxson, Eric Flint, Greg Bear, David Drake and Robert Silverberg. Included after the novel proper is a short story written by Anderson and in the same universe as The High Crusade titled "Quest".

"Quest"first appeared in Ares in 1983. It is set, appropriately enough, 30 years after the events of The High Crusade and tells the short tale of Sir Eric in his quest for the Holy Grail. The high moment of this story for me was a "singing sword" (a technological construct of the famous relic) that has the wrong tape inserted into it before battle. As Sir Eric rushes to confront a dragon the sword sings:

Oh, give me a haunch of ruddy beef,

And nut-brown ale in my pot,

Then a lusty wench with a sturdy arse

To bounce upon my cot--

It is a short tale, but everybit as enjoyable as its predecessor.

I pondered upon why Gary Gygax included this novel in his Appendix N. There are two possibilites, the first is in Mr. Gygax's own words:

for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartly recommend the works of these fine authors to you.

That may be reason enough, for The High Crusade is without a doubt a story that can and most likely will be enjoyed by gamers of all different lots; however, what is the direct impact of this novel upon Dungeons & Dragons?

I thought long upon this, and remembered a section in the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide in which Gygax spoke of keeping campaigns fresh and alive. He spoke briefly of having realms similiar to the lost island of King Kong, and The Isle of Dread does that well, or perhaps realms similiar to Jack Vance's Dying Earth. He then presented alternative rules for converting AD&D characters to Boot Hill and Gamma World.

In my younger gaming days, this is something that me and my friends took literally. We had six-shooters, shot guns and mutants making frequent appearances in our games. With the acquistion of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, robots and ray-guns gained heavy circulation.

Perhaps Poul Anderson's The High Crusade served as Gary Gygax's inspiration for this simple idea. Eric Flint, in his Appreciation sites Anderson's tale as heavily influencing his own genre twisting tales. Even if it were only a subliminal influence on Gygax's idea, it serves as an excellent example of what Swords & Ray-Guns could be.