Monthly Archives: May 2015

Revision time… again!

I’ve been working on the Ancient Lands setting for a bit over four years now, and it seems a pretty regular ocurance that I feel like I went completely wrong somewhere and have to start all over. I think this is about the fifth time that I am sitting down to try to define the core concept of the world and pick the basic elements that are going to go into it. Though it’s not all in vain, as I am not completely starting all over again. It’s more like disassembling the whole thing and trying to put the pieces together in slightly different way, making some modifications at some parts while a few get discarded and perhaps replaced by something new. Or to use the poetic analogy I’ve heard somewhere, it’s like the waves on the beach, going back and forth, but each time getting a bit higher up the sand. Two steps forward, one step back. And I think I’ve come really pretty far by now. That I announced completion a few weeks ago does not have to concern us here now…

I think I primarily made two main errors, which resulted in the setting turning out as something somewhat different than I wanted it to. I think I also had a bit of a change of taste, as I’ve been reading a lot Sword & Sorcery and pulp over the last half year or so. I put the blame at Beyond the Black Gate and From the Sorcerer’s Skull, as well Planet Algol with all their pulpy goodness. Made me remember what my own work is missing and now I have to do it again to put it all back in.

The one mistake that I’ve made was with creating the concepts for my city states. They are city states and good ones, but they are more along the lines of Byzanthium, Carthage, and Babylon. And like Rome these are much more known as the capitals of big empires rather than the small Greek city states of the Trojan War I’ve really been thinking of when I had the idea. As a result, civilization got waaay too big. Much bigger than it really fits the concept of the Ancient Lands. In the stories they are called “kingdoms” and “cities”, but what I really need for the Ancient Lands are glorified fortified towns. The Golden Hall of King Theoden of Rohan is really the archetype for the kind of “palace” that is common in the Ancient Lands. This means I am probably going to scrap all the cities I have so far and start them all over again. Which given the amount of work I’ve put into them so far isn’t really much of a loss.

The other mistake was the backstory for the Vandren, a human tribe of horsemen inspired by the Scythians or Kozaks. What I’ve been working with almost from the very start was that the elves of the Ancient Lands encountered the Vandren when their explorers reached the Great Plains on the far side of the great forests and through them got access to exotic goods from the distant Western Lands. Pretty much all the recent history then build upon the elves and the Vandren making alliances, the Vandren migrating to settle in the Ancient Lands as their vasalls, and so on. But now I realized that this results in one very big problem. As it stands now, the great forests stop somewhere on the left side of the map where you see the edge of the Great Plains with a big arrow that says “To the Western Lands”. And that just doesn’t work for the kind of prehistoric setting I want to do. One of the very first concepts for the Ancient Lands was that of a Forest World, but what I ended up with is a world of plains and steppes with a few big forest which you can ride around. Now the forests are just big, but not stretching beyond the horizon into the unknown, beyond the borders of what mortal eyes have ever seen. I deliberately did not make a full continent or even a world map for the Ancient Land and had the sea only on one side with the other side being land all the way to the edge of the paper. But showing the far side of the giant forests and adding a (figurative) arrow that tells you what lies beyond completely defeated the purpose. I still love the Vandren and someone gave me a great idea how to salvage them. Instead of coming from the plains, the continent is now once again all forests and mountains, and the Vandren will be some kind of hill people. And instead of bringing spices and silks, they now simply trade in salt. Salt is the universal spice and more importantly food preservative. Everyone needs it in bulk quantities and really can’t do without it (or have a really terrible winter) and though I am mostly familiar with salt mines in coastal plains, there are actually many much older deposits in mountains like the Himalyas. So hill people could conceivably become major salt traders. Perhaps making them ride on horses doesn’t make as much sense in a forest and mountain world, but maybe I make them ride on oversized yaks. Or hadrosaurs. (Yes, in a fantasy setting riding hardrosaurs can make much more sense than horses.)

I already have a new vision for the setting in my mind. Not quite sure what I am doing with the naga and lizardmen yet, and I am not completely sure if there is a place for the dark elves without things getting too crowded. But I want to give a much bigger role to the kaas, which is inspired by the Lords of War trailers for World of Warcraft. (Only played Warcraft III, but they look cool.)

I’ll think some more about it before discarding what I’ve written so far, but I am actually feeling a lot more excited about the setting than I’ve been for quite some time.

Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Synopsis: What a shitty movie.

I’ve watched this movie about a year or so ago, but my memory was a bit hazy so I watched it a second time before doing a review of it. Why did I even bother?

Conan the Barbarian 2011

Conan the Barbarian 2011

The movie is called Conan the Barbarian, which is exactly the same name as the famous and highly regarded movie Conan the Barbarian. It’s neither a remake nor a reboot, nor anything like that, so why us the name of an already existing movie? There is an infinite number of possible titles, and so many options to name it that make it clear that it’s Conan. And now we always have to call it Conan the Barbarian 2011. Conan the Barbarian is not even the name of the series of stories, comics, and other stuff. Conan the Barbarian is just the name of a single movie. The Ahnold movie. This is a cheap attempt to cash in on someone elses good work. Despite not being a remake of Conan the Barbarian, and I think the director explicitly said it’s not a remake but a completely separate movie, Conan the Barbarian 2011 recycles the stupid subplot of Conan searching for the warlord who destroyed his village and killed his father. Which is a completely original invention of Conan the Barbarian and doesn’t exist anywhere else in the story of the character. Totally not a remake. Because they said so. Even Conan the Barbarian could barely be considered an adaptation of the Conan stories. Conan the Barbarian 2011 does a bit more name dropping so you know that it takes place in the Hyborian Age, but feels even less connected to the source material. Conan the Barbarian may not really have had much to do with the original stories, but I think it did a great job at visualizing the setting and bringing it to life. This movie doesn’t.

The movie is way too dark most of the time, so you can’t see anything. The music is also way too loud and the voices way too low, so you can’t hear anything either. Not that there would be anything to hear either. The plot is pretty much nonexistent. Any 20 minutes episode of Conan the Adventurer had more plot than this. And this is no joke. I actually mean that literally. While the indoor shots are always too dark, the outdoor shots of cities and fortresses all look terribly fake. They look like out of 300 or a Diablo III cutscene. Pretty, but completely inappropriate.

Continue reading

Book Review: Bloodstone

A while back I reviewd Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner, which I really quite liked. So I picked up Bloodstone, which was published two years later, but being a somewhat obscure series from the early 70s I have not the slightest clue in which order they were originally written. I have a feeling that Bloodstone might actually be a bit older, and perhaps even the first story of Kane.

Bloodstone

Bloodstone

Bloodstone is a single full-length novel which begins with Kane coming into possession of a strange old ring with a large green and red bloodstone. It awakens some long lost memories in his immortal mind and leads him to start another one of his enigmatic plans of conquest. In typical Kane fashion, even though he is the protagonist of the story, Wagner doesn’t tell us anything of what Kane is knowing or planning for most of the time. Usually witholding important information from the readers which the characters obviously know ranks at the very lowest level of cheap writing tricks for me. But with Kane Wagner is always consistent and we’re always kept in the dark of what is going on in his head. In fact, for large parts of the book Kane is completely absent and as in the other stories, the plot mostly follows other people who had the unfortunate fate to get caught up in his wake as he leaves a trail of destruction wherever he goes. Of those other characters we do learn a lot and their thoughts and plans are usually revealed very quickly. It’s a very daring and couragous method of telling a story, but one that Wagner manages to pull of successfully and it works really well.

In Death Angel’s Shadow and Undertow, I always had the impression that Wagner was not a man of great words who uses relatively simple language to talk about very complex and fascinating things. In Bloodstone, it seems more like he is trying too hard in channeling Lovecraft and Howard and pretty much every paragraph has at least one word which I don’t know. I always understand what he means out of the context of the sentence within the scene so it doesn’t hurt too much, but I think he clearly went overboard with it in Bloodstone. His other (and I presume later) works are much better in this regard. The other thing that I noticed negatively is that the story drags on for too long. Especially when it comes to describing the big fight scenes, but also when another mysterious location is visisted. I love well written description that go into a lot of detail to bring the sights and atmosphere to life, and the lack of such is something that often find frustrating in many fantasy stories I’ve read in recent years. But in this case Wagner is often not adding anything new and just repeats more of the same things he already said. With the big battle scenes I was sometimes tempted to flip ahead three or four pages, but I have to say that I generally get very easily bored by battle scene all the times. I usually skip the battle scenes when watching The Two Towers and I don’t even have Return of the King on DVD. So maybe it’s not actually that bad. Overall, this books seems not particularly strong when it comes to the degree of skill at the craft. Language a bit too cheesy, pacing could be a lot better, and the characters are not particularly deep or complex.

But all that doesn’t bother me at all, because it’s the plot where Bloodstone really show. Like the other stories I’ve read, Wagner once more showed that he had a really good instinct for creating plots that don’t tread down the old paths. At several points in the novel I got the feeling that everything seemed close to resolution, but when you’re only a quarter into the book, you know that it obviously can’t be the case. Part of this comes from the fact that we never really know what Kane is planning in the long term and we only follow his antagonist or allies as they are dealing with the issue currently at hand. But any time it seems like the adventure has been wrapped up, Kane plays his next card and reveals another step in his grand plan to the rest of the world. In a TV show or comic this could probably get pretty frustrating, but as Bloodstone is a single volume novel you know how much more you can expect to follow. There are plenty of nice twists, with probably the best one being the one at the end. It’s a rather unusual approach you’ve probably not seen before very often, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere and you probably see it coming two sentences before it happens.

Kane himself is mostly Kane as we know him. A brilliant schemer and utterly selfish bastard. But while his planning and manipulating in this book is very nicely done, his character is not quite as fascinating and disturbingly ambigous. In Death Angel’s Shadow, it is made very clear that everyone who know about Kane thinks that he is a terrible monster in the shape of a man, and everything we learn about his thoughts actually supports that assesment. Not that he’s eating babies and impaling people on big spikes, but it is very clear that his mind has absolutely no regard for anything that normal people would consider just or decent and that he walks on the corpses on innocents without any second guess. This element of his character, which combined with his compelling charisma makes him such an intriguing character, is mostly absent in this book. Here he is simply selfish. If you havn’t read any Kane stories before and then read Bloodstone, you’d probably not feel anywhere near as fascinated by him as I do. If this is indeed one of the first stories Wagner wrote about the character, he’s getting a lot stronger later on.

What I found very interesting about this book is that it finally reveals why Kane does anything that he does. In Death Angel’s Shadow that was always a great mystery. Why does he consider his immortality a curse and why does he live the kind of life he does if he could do pretty much anything he could ever want to? In Bloodstone, this part of his character is explored only briefly, but deep enough to get a pretty good understanding of how he ticks. It’s not really complicated at all and makes a lot of sense. If this is actually a good thing I am not sure. I really loved the walking mystery that was Kane in the stories I’d been reading before, and as of now I can not say if understanding his way of thinking makes his character more enjoyable or less. I probably have to read another collection of stories before I really know.

With all that being said, I still really loved reading this book. And I do recommend it, but with some considerations. If you havn’t read any Kane story before, I don’t think this is a good one to start with. It’s still a pretty good book, but it doesn’t really showcase how good Wagner could write this character. Even if the series of Kanes stories is something you’d love, Bloodstone might not be the book to win you over. If you know Kane and consider picking up this book, I fully recommend doing so. But if you are thinking of giving the series a try for the first time, better start with something else. Death Angel’s Shadow would be a good start, for example.

Ancient Monsters: Ghoul & Shade

I’ve been spending some more thoughts on undead in the Ancient Lands. Since there is only a single source of natural power and energy, anything that is unnatural is a corruption of it and also comes from the same source. Sorcery, demons, and undead are all really different forms of the same thing. In that context, I’ve been doing some reworking of the common undead types so that everything fits together seamlessly and makes all sense.

I particularly like the ghouls as being some kind of insane mutants. While they look more like diseased humans, they are actually a lot like Golum in most ways. The shadows are also cool. Usually they don’t really do anything and just stand around being creepy, but that means you can use them in much larger numbers and make them a type of dangerous environment.

Ghoul

Ghouls are humans, elves, or other humanoids who have been corrupted by the dark magic of sorcery or demons. Though they have never truly died, they resemble the undead, existing in a state between life and death. They grow gaunt with pale skin and dark sunken eyes and are suffering from madness, but are also filled with unnatural vigor and are much more cunning than any beast. Their clawed fingers can crush a mans throat and leave deep rends in the flesh of their victims, and their teeth have the strength to bite through bones, as they regain their strength by feeding on the flesh of humans and beasts.

Many ghouls once were adventurers and treasure hunters who delved too deep into ancient places where the living are not meant to tread, or what remains of those who become slaves of dark sorcerers or demons.

Ghoul (Barbarians of Lemuria)

Attributes
Strength 2
Agility 1
Mind -1
Appeal -2

Combat Abilities
Attack with bite or claw +2; damage 1d6-1 plus paralysis
Defense: 2
Protection: 1
Lifeblood: 10

Any character hit by a ghouls attack must make a Moderate Strength roll (+0/TN 9) or be paralysed for one hour.

Ghoul (B/X)

No. Enc.: 1d6 (2d8)
Armor: 14
Move: Normal
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attacks: Bite or claw
Damage: 1d4 plus paralysis
Save: F2
Morale: 9

A creature bit by a ghoul or hit by its claws must make a saving throw against paralysis or be paralysed for 2d8x10 minutes.

Shade

When people die who have been corrupted by demonic sorcery, the Corruption that wrecked their bodies can linger on, turning into Shades. With both the bodies and souls of the original person gone, shades are nearly mindless clouds of Corruption that float silently above the spot where they died. They are normally invisible, but cast dark shadows in the presence of bright lights and they can be clearly seen as shapes of darkness if any light shines upon them in the presence of dust or smoke.

Walking through a shade drains a small part of the life force of living creatures and can start the spreading of Corruption over time. While most shades stand motionless in the spot of their death and don’t seem to react to anything around them, some are aware of the presence of living beings nearby and attack when anything comes too close to them. While their insubstential clawn do not leave any physical injuries, being in prolonged contact with an attacking shade can quickly drain all the life energy of a living person and spread the Corruption through its body. People who survive the attack of a shade often show dark purple streaks on their skin that becomes ashen pale and cold, which will last for several days. Those who die will often leave behind a shade as well, joining those who killed them.

Shades are common in places where lots of people have been killed through sorcery, like the lairs of demons or the sites of sorcerous battles.

Shade (Barbarians of Lemuria)

Attributes
Strength –
Agility 3
Mind -3

Combat Abilities
Attack with touch +3; damage 1d6-1
Defense: 3
Protection: 0
Lifeblood: 5 (only harmed by magic)

When a creature is killed by a shade, a new shade appears in the spot of its death 3 rounds later.

Shade (B/X)

No. Enc.: 1d6 (2d10)
Armor: 15
Move: Normal
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attacks: Touch
Damage: 1d4
Save: F2
Morale: 12

Shades can only be harmed by magic weapons or spells. Any living creature killed by a shade must make a saving throw against Death or Poison or a new shade will appear where it died within 1d4 rounds.

Petty Gods: If this is a joke, I’m not laughing

Petty Gods is a book of about 300 minor deities and 100 monsters connected to them, which has been released this month and is entirely free for download. It’s the work of probably about a hundred different contributors, with most simply having contributed one or two gods or an illustration.

149434That sounded really interesting to me, as I always love to see an approach to religion in RPGs that is more animistic and dealing with minor spirits instead of continent spanning hierarchical churches. So I gave it a look.

And I have to say I am deeply disappointed. I don’t know what exactly I expected, but from the cover it was very clearly not this. Basically, all the 300 gods are jokes. You got such things as the god of coin debasement, a god of old string, the goddess of dumping corpses under a bridge at night, and about a dozen gods of crossroads. Is this book meant to be a parody? If so, I don’t find it funny at all. If this is an attempt at something serious, it’s a complete failure. If it’s meant as a nostalgic tribute to early D&D, I am not feeling it either.

I have nothing against a bit of silliness in fantasy and RPGs. Many of my favorite works are greatly overstretching any sense of plausibility and two of my favorite words in any language are ludicrous and preposterous. But even the most over the top Sword & Sorcery or Pulp Adventure at the very least takes itself serious and actually means to tell a genuinely exciting story with great themes. But this is not laughing with the genre, this is laughing about the genre. And I don’t find it funny at all.

"Stop that! This is getting silly!"

“Stop that! This is getting silly!”

The one good thing I can say about it is a ten page article by M.A.R. Barker in the appendix, which is about creating religion in realistic fantasy settings. Unfortunately, the good man had been dead for three years when this book was released. If he had had a chance to contribute directly to its creation, it might have turned out a lot better. Or perhaps the article should have been given to the other contributors before they wrote this nonsense.

Since its free, I can just easily delete the file and try to forget this wasted hour of my life, but if you would have to pay for this, I would consider this an exceptionally terrible book. Really can’t recommend it at all to anyone.

Fantasy Safari: Spears of the Dawn, Part 2

The Moatia are a race of short old men with yellow skin who walk with a limping gait. All of them are powerful sorcerers who live alone deep within the forests and warn away any intruders with markposts made from bones. They are often wicked and cruel, but are also very skilled healers who have medicine and powders to cure any ailment in existance. They never provide services for free though, and the prices they demand can be very steep or appaling. Moatia don’t use any weapons or attack with their hands, but fight entirely with their magic. They remind me quite a lot of central European witches in their behavior and role.

The Night Men are a race of humans from outside the Three Lands, but all of them are savage and deformed, but almost nothing is known about them other than that they sometimes cross the river at night and raid villages on the southern border. When they attack, they always do so in large hordes, and are usually led by a very powerful sorcerer or shaman. These raiders destroy villages and take large numbers of captives, which they take back to their jungles to be sacrificed in ancient ruined temples. Some people think that they are evil spirits or actually animals that have been transformed into human-like shapes.

The Obia is a spirit in the shape of a large leopard or jackal that serves sorcerers and witches as a guardian or to abduct people and bring them to them. Either to become their wives or for other unspeakable purposes. An obia can grasp a victims in its mouth without hurting them and then run off into the night at very great speed leaving barely any traces. Only the greatest hunters have any chance of tracking them down and find the place where the victims are held. Defeating the sorcerer and his obia guardian is a whole different story altogether.

Continue reading

Fantasy Safari: Spears of the Dawn, Part 1.

I reviewed Spears of the Dawn a few weeks ago, and it’s a nice little setting I recommend to anyone with interest in non-European influenced fantasy campaigns. I also really love the new classes and magic system based on Basic D&D that work much better for spellcasters in a Sword & Sorcery setting than standard clerics and wizards. But in addition to all that, Spears of the Dawn also has a short and very nice collection of monsters, which made me want to make another Fantasy Safari post.

As part of the funding campaign, all the art from the book was given away freely, which is always very nice when doing this series.

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Spears of the Dawn

Spears of the Dawn by Sine Nomine Publishing, 2013; 11 pages of monsters.

Eloko

Eloko

Eloko are a race of tiny people who look just like humans but have grass instead of hair and wear clothes made from leafs. However, there is nothing endearing about these little guys, as they like to eat humans. Lone hunters are a welcome meal for groups of eloko, but they have a particular taste for the flesh of women. Before they reveal themselves to their prey, they make their presence known by the ringing of tiny bells, which have the ability to cloud the thoughts of any human to the point where they will simply stand around motionless while being devoured alive. If someone can resist the mind numbning ringing of their small bells, eloko are still much more dangerous than their small size makes them look and a single one fights about as well as a fully grown crocodile. In groups they can be a real threat to small parties of adventurers.

Eternal

Eternal

The Eternal are probably my favorite monster of Spears of the Dawn and the major antagonists of the setting. When their evil kingdom was facing defeat by the five other realms of the Three Lands, they turned to dark magic to make themselves immortal. After their death, a magic ritual made their bodies return to a state of unlife, where they need to neither eat, drink, sleep, or even breath. Nor do they bleed and they are impossibly to truly destroy. Stabbing wounds don’t harm them at all and the only way to really harm them is to break their bones or chop off their limbs. While they are able to exist deep in the deserts or underground without any food or water forever and can not be killed by weapons, their unliving nature also makes them unable to heal as they are still corpses. The only way to restore their mangled bodies after suffering the effects of injuries, blasting sand, and the blazing sun is to feed on human flesh. And that already tells you pretty much everything you need to know to understand why they are such a terrifying menace on the Three Lands. They are a lot like vampires in many ways, but also distinctively different creatures. They do not have to feed on humans, but if they do not the ravages of time and the environment quickly take a heavy toll on their dead flesh. They are not harmed by sunlight and in fact nothing can really destroy them. The only way to deal with them permanently is to decapitate them so they are unable to feed and heal their injuries, but even when burned to ash and their bones are ground to dust, their immortal spirits remain, unable to gain a new body or truly die. And like vampires, many eternal sorcerers know the old rituals and can raise the corpses of their enemies to be their slaves forever. Spears of the Dawn is an interesting setting in itself, but the Eternal are what really is selling it to me. They are somewhat similar to an idea I had for my Ancient Lands settings, and I got a whole number of new ideas I want to include from the Eternal. Continue reading

Riddle me this

“Why do riddles exist in RPGs?”

The obvious answer is “Because Tolkien did it”. Which is the answer to almost every question about conventions in fantasy. (If not this, then “Gygax did it”.)

clip-l-incontro-tra-bilbo-e-gollum-lo-hobbit-un-viaggio-inaspettatoBut I think they are a terrible idea to include in a roleplaying game. Tolkien could use them in his novel because he knew the answer and the reader didn’t have to figure it out for the story to continue. And that’s one of the biggest mistakes many GMs and most writers of published adventures are making all the time: They approach creating adventures like writing a novel and then having the players act out the parts of the characters. But unlike actors, they don’t know the script. Story is certainly a very important element in most roleplaying games, but it works completely different from story in a novel or a movie. Story is what is happening now, not what somewhat has prepared to happen in the future. When you have the characters in the adventure face a riddle, there is a good chance that the players won’t figure out the answer at all. Then what? Or even if they do, it might take them a very long time and can very soon become the opposite of fun.

And what justification is there within the world of the campaign for the riddle being asked in the first place? The sphinx in the desert was asking riddles of travelers or it would kill and eat them. That was not a test of cunning or a password to be granted passage, but simply some additional torture before the poor traveler would be murdered. There was no point to it other than causing suffering. The secret gate of Moria did work really well with a riddle lock. But it worked not because the riddle was challenging, but because there wasn’t any indication that it was a riddle at all. Frodos stroke of genius was not solving the riddle, but recognizing that it was a riddle to begin with. However, that trick works only once and Tolkien already did it.

Other than this one case, riddle locks don’t make sense. Why would anyone secure an important place with a lock that random passer-bys can open with a few minuts of thinking? If it is to make any sense at all, then the answer would have to be something that is only known to people who have been initiated, but which an outsider can not possibly know. Which is very difficult to do in an RPG. Players only remember details about the setting if they know that this detail is probably going to be important later the moment they first hear about it. If a character should know something because of his background, but the player isn’t aware of it, you can’t use it for a riddle either. The only thing you could do in that case is to make a skill check or something like that to see if the character knows or remembers it and then telling the answer to the player. Which would be completely boring.

So my advice to anyone creating adventures: Don’t use riddles. They don’t make sense and are not as fun as you probably think they will be. (Because you already know the answer.)

Things that really piss me off: History Documentaries

I love watching history documentaries. There are lots of decent ones and even a couple really good ones.

But why do they all have such stupid names? For every single documentary that has the words secret, truth, lost, hidden or forbidden in the title, someone somewhere needs to be whacked in the head with a stone slab!

That is conspiracy theory crap! Don’t try to make your science more appealing by begging for attention by the dumbest of people.