Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bringing Yog-Sothothery to D&D (or your FRPG of choice)

As someone I know once said, and I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember the exact words: when playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying you think you're playing D&D, but soon you discover that you're actually playing Call of Cthulhu.

As I've wandered quite far afield in my fantasy tastes in some ways, I do sometimes wish to return to The Lord of the Rings with some kind of twist.  Even though the Warhammer setting is almost completely ridiculous in its recycling of over-used and even cliched fantasy elements, seeing them juxtaposed with a Lovecraftian undercurrent somehow just works and I like the setting a lot.  It helps that the Black Library has a lot of good fiction in it too.  I sometimes think maybe that I've wandered too far afield, and something a little more Warhammer-like wouldn't be fun to dabble in.  Of course, that's part of why I have the slightly revised incipient MAMMOTH LORDS setting; which is more "Hyborian Age" than Lord of the Rings, but eh.  Close enough.

That said, the idea of mixing a Lovecraftian tone onto high fantasy, or even evolved modern Sword & Sorcery seems difficult.  What would these kinds of stories even look like?

Copied from an old post (geez, nearly ten years now) on how to adapt a Mythos-like tone to specifically D&D-like setting/game, I present for your enjoyment, a great example of what a SWORD & SANITY game might look like...

1. The Old Speech: Traders on strange vessels have arrived from faraway lands, speaking strange tongues. They're goods are odd, artistically, but nothing is dangerous about their cargoes. But the language they speak- it's hard to forget. People dealing with them pick it up quickly, and find its vocabulary replacing their own. They find themselves considering things to have darker, more malign implications than other. Sexual attraction becomes overwhelming desire for dominance and subjugation, students become mindlessly devoted to their now-cult leader like teachers, and so on. Soon they lose their ability to speak any other language, and start infecting others...friends, family, townsfolk, whoever. The PCs can be involved at any stage- hired as guards for merchants, assigned by the local rulers to investigate, infected and hoping for a cure, whatever. Eventually there will be riots as the infected descend into madness, becoming as the Old Ones. The traders depart for the next port, leaving chaos in their wake and taking with them the strongest of the infected. 
2. The Sky: The PCs are underground, battling some cult or some evil underground race that already worships foul, blasphemous deities. Something alone the lines of Drow or whatnot. They discover an idol to said deity that leaves an impression in their minds- they start having strange dreams of a great eye moving behind clouds in the sky, a nameless terror of open spaces, etc. When they return to the surface they find themselves beset by a vision of the sky, one terrifying and ominous. Forced to flee for their sanity back underground, they'll have to search for source of this ancient evil in order to cure themselves of this Old One induced agoraphobia.  
3. The Gates: The PCs discover, or are hired by those who have discovered, whatever the hook, two mystical portals that lead between two important locations in the campaign. However, travelling between these portals isn't something people can just describe- they never remember exactly what it was like, just that it was unpleasant and violating. The time it takes to travel between each portal varies, and some people come through with a bizarre, fatal sickness (i.e., radiation poisoning). At some point someone doesn't come through the other side, and the PCs have to go in to get them. Say an empire was trying to use the portals as a way to secretly move troops or spies into a rival empire, and their army never appeared on the other side. Something along those lines. (Or they arrived...changed) 
4. The Strange High Castle in the Mist: Haunted Castle. Crazy old Witch lives between the dimensions within, drives residents mad or sucks them into her crazy multi-angled plane. I.e., it's Dreams in the Witch House, only in a castle, and probably with more stabbing of things with swords.  
5. The City of the God: Decadent city in a wasteland. Fading power, evil nobility that exists only to gratify its monstrous urges...and the PCs are captured, or their beloved NPCs are capture, or the King's Daughter has been captured, or they're out to find this city to A. Enjoy its forbidden delights B. Steal something from it C. "rescue' someone who went to enjoy its forbidden delights...and may not want to leave, like the King's Evil Daughter, etc... 
Anyway, somewhere in the city is a god trapped in a pit- not a Big Timey God, more like an overweight shoggoth with some spells or a lesser Old One. Anyway, like Conan, they probably have to stab it at some point to get away. Extra points if the city and its inhuman nobility are destroyed in a cataclysm as the PCs flee. 
6. The Glove Cleaners (stolen from an Unspeakable Oath): Someone with access to a mythos tome and a printing press has decided to start scattering pages and excerpts from it all over the place. Never enough to assemble a whole spell, but just enough to unsettle those who read them and upset the delicate balance of the fragile or sensitive. Now the King's Daughter (i.e., insert Generic NPC In Distress) has gone mad after collecting too many of these fragments, and the PCs have to go hunt down the printer who is disseminating the forbidden knowledge. But he doesn't even know why he does it, just that he has the urge, and is otherwise a normal guy. (Probably protected secretly by a cult for your obligatory battle sequence) EDIT: Even better if you borrow from "Rome" and have it be mythos-themed graffiti against the local government or nobility. 
7. The Disturbances: In the "Call of Cthulhu" short story, when the Big C stirred in his sleep as a result of Ry'leh's short rise to the surface, psychics, sensitives and artists all over the world went mad, had nightmares, or otherwise had a pretty bad couple of days. Now it's happening to the PC's homeland, continent, or to the King's Daughter. The PCs have to go and travel to the location of the not-awake-but-not-asleep GOO and stop its cultists from disturbing its slumber. They haven't woken it up, but they're causing it to thrash around a bit in its Forbidden Island/Underground/Remote Mountaintop/Ancient Ruin/Underwater Chasm/Vast Forest prison. That or it's not cultists but foolish archaelogists who happen to be mostly deep sleepers. Or...Dwarves. When in doubt, blame the dwarves...

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Horse, The Wheel, and Language

I like pie.  I also like PIE, the acronym of Proto-Indo-European, and one of the most important and interesting prehistoric stories ever told.  I've long been of the opinion that a book, like the Gears' People of the Wolf, but without the raging political correctness, and focused on the PIE community, would make for excellent reading.  Maybe I'd use it to tell the story of the break-off of proto-Tocharian, most likely represented by the Afanasievo culture of the Altay Mountains.

In this, I'm with the mainstream of workers in the field, who do not see either the Anatolian nor the Armenian hypothesis as particularly serious, as both have very challenging problems that their theories do not even attempt to account for.  The Armenian hypothesis is largely based on linguistics, and is—at best—handwavey about archaeology, while the Anatolian hypothesis does the opposite; proposes an archaeological solution that ignores linguistics.  The only model that has the potential to be taken seriously is the Kurgan model.  I'm kinda sorta reviewing the book (not that it's new, but I just read it just now) The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David Anthony.  He adds a bit to the discussion by drawing on some archaeological data that has been largely unavailable to the West in the past because of the Iron Curtain, as well as more work that he was personally involved with in detailing new Pontic-Caspian steppe fieldwork.  And although it post-dates this book, genetic evidence, particularly the R1B1 Haplogroup, but even moreso this really quite new work further corroborates the Kurgan Theory.  But it's a mistake to think, as the copy on the cover of the book I'm talking about says, that this is really new.  The Kurgan Theory was first put forward by Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in 1956, further reinforced/reiterated by J. P. Mallory in the 80s, and now with the 2007 publishing of Anthony's book, it's even more solidly mainstream than it already was.  Otto Schrader proposed the same homeland, using at least some of the same arguments, back at the very beginning of the 20th century, and even by Theodor Benfey some decades before that.  The theory has been augmented by more information, but remains little changed since at least the 50s, when Gimbutas first laid it out.

In spite of the fact that ever more facts are brought to bear on question, it remains, of course, an unproven and unproveable hypothesis, a just-so story, if you will.  In Anthony's book, the just-so stories tend to be on a more micro-level, and I'll mention a few specifically in a bit.  I will point out that, of course, in this discipline, a just-so story isn't necessarily untrue just because it is unproven.  Barring the completely shocking discovery of clay tablets or other decipherable texts in languages and from cultures believed to be illiterate, we will never be able to prove that Proto-Indo-European is associated with the steppe cultures, or how the languages spread.  Anthony's work is clearly influenced by a number of ideas that are somewhat faddish these days—some of which the genetic information listed in the link above—are already partly refuted, or at least its implied that they are not correct.  Among these faddish ideas that Anthony buys into are the following:
  1. Although he makes an attempt to step outside of the western box and accept the old Russian paradigm of folk migration, he still is very reluctant to do so, and fills such talk with caveats, virtue signaling, skepticism, social linguistic spread models that don't require much in the way of actual migrations of actual people, etc.  Of course, the link above clearly indicates that a lot of Yamnaya people actually moved into areas that shortly thereafter emerged as speaking a differentiated Indo-European language.  
  2. He believes that the original "Old European" languages of, for example, the large and long-lasting Cucuteni-Tripollye culture probably had a very early branch of the Afro-Asiatic language.  This is based on a single possible loan-word (which Mallory mentions in his book decades earlier); the word *tawr- for bull.  Given that their is no other evidence whatsoever for an Afro-Asiatic language in Europe, this seems far-fetched.  Granted; the linguistic picture of Old Europe is very poorly documented, and therefore anything said about it is by necessity at least somewhat speculative, but if I were a betting man, I'd put money on it being related to the pre-Greek substrate language, such as Pelasgian, which might be related to either the Minoan language of Crete prior to the arrival of primitive Greek on Crete, or to the somewhat hastily proposed Tyrsenian language family which includes Etruscan.  Both of which, I'll add, are geographically much closer to the Balkans, and which are observable not Afro-Asiatic, being rather either language isolates, or more likely members of families that were already in decline with the advent of writing, and therefore remained poorly documented and somewhat anonymous.
  3. The wheel had to have come from the Near East.  Actually, there are three competing theories for where wheeled first developed.  As it turns out, the Pontic-Caspian steppes and the Proto-Indo-Europeans of the Yamnaya Horizon are one of those three candidates.
  4. In general, Anthony seemed to be very reluctant to give too much credit to the Indo-Europeans about all kinds of things, but as we chip away at the biases and prejudices in the science through new information, we're coming around more and more to reiterating the ideas that were popular in the first part of the 20th century after all.  Heck, I expect very shortly to see a re-embrace of the word aryan as a descriptor of the Proto-Indo-Europeans after all, since reflexes of it appear all over the place, even if they're now largely discounted.  The "evidence" used to discredit this once wide-spread linguistic belief appears to be little more than, "the Nazis liked to use it, so therefore it's racist, and therefore its out of favor." While this may well do for a political idea, anyone who knows anything about how science works should know that this is no good.
  5. Although it seems possible—maybe even probable—Anthony's identification of the Maikop culture as non-Indo-European and probably proto-Kartvelian in nature (although the Pontic or the Caspian language families, also indigenous to the Caucasus and appearing to be isolate-families unrelated to each other or anyone else could do so as well) it remains speculative.  I will add that although there are clear ties between Maikop and some of the steppe cultures, they do seem to be economically unrelated, at least.  I suspect that Anthony is right in decoupling them from the PIE family, but I'll also note that this is a unique addition of his own.
  6. Anthony's description of how the languages may have corresponded with specific cultures, especially the spread of IE languages into Europe, and which languages later developed from specific archaeological material cultures is, by its very nature, a just-so story.  Even if he's right, it's all speculative.  He even acknowledges this tacitly in the text by sprinkling these discussions with a lot of "probably" and "possibly" and "perhaps" caveats.
That said, his model is quite nice, and describes the development and earliest spread of the Indo-European languages quite neatly.  Lacking another model that does so any better, there's no reason not to accept Anthony's description of how it all worked.  A few places where it differs from Gimbutas' own description: 
  • He believes that the Bug-Dniester culture may have been linguistically part of the same complex from which PIE derived, but that it probably was absorbed linguistically into the language spoken by the Criş farmers (which, see above, he equates with Afro-Asiatic, I presume it's more likely that it was a native Aegean/Balkan language instead.)  In fact, much of the cultures associated with IE archaeology, he posits are too early to be anything other than pre-PIE cultures that were on their way to developing into PIE.
  • The Suvorovo-Novodanilovka culture, which seems to have replaced the lower Danube Old European cultures like Cernavoda he associates with the very first group to split off of archaic PIE—the ancestors of the Anatolian branch.  He also posits a minor climatic change (not unlike the Little Ice Age) as causing environmental shifts as the cause for this change, more than any cultural effect.  Major changes to the Tripolye towns and on the steppes themselves seem to have happened concurrently.
  • He has five "final Eneolithic" cultures that he posits as being on the very eve of classic PIE: Mikhailovka I, Post-Mariupol (which he admits is an awkward name for a culture), late Sredni Stog, late Khvalynsk and Repin.  It's from the latter that he derives the Afanasievo migration and founding of the Tocharian branch, although he admits that continued contact with subsequent Yamnaya peoples flowed eastward for some time.  Also on this eastern frontier of the Caspian steppe region (still on the west of the Urals, though) is where he places the domestication of the horse, first for hunting, and later for riding, earlier in the Neolithic.  It's also here on the eastern frontier that true pastoral nomadism, with mobile dwellings, is established, which brings us into the Yamnaya horizon.
  • He believes that the material cultural same-ness of the Yamnaya horizon (which is partially due to terminology; the Yamnaya horizon certainly had significant regional variants all along) probably disguise the spread of a "prestige dialect" from the east, which homogenized the PIE-speaking area.  This actually isn't necessary, since we have no idea to what degree mutual intelligibility existed among the dialects already extant in the area.
  • Although he replaces Mallory's rather vague story of steppe intrusions into the Balkans with specific Yamnaya sites in the Balkans, he still maintains an air of vagueness about it when he asserts that they "probably" are the roots of the Celtic and Italic branches, and maybe the German ones too after they moved up into the Corded Ware horizon.  He later makes a vague case for Greek and Armenian coming out of the steppes a little later, but this is much more vague; and doesn't address at all where the Thracians, Dacians, Illyrians and Phrygians may have come from, since they have to be derived out of the Balkans as well.  For that matter, the Baltic and Slavic families get barely a mention.
  • He also tells an interesting story of the development of Proto-Indo-Iranian and its eventual split into specific Indic and Iranian language groups, but by this time, he's clearly just making assignments.  Much of what he said was proposed, and then criticized by others as being too vague, years earlier; i.e., the identification of the Sintashta culture with Indo-Iranian, Andronovo with Iranian specifically, and some southern Andronovo variants as well as the filter through the BMAC as the vector for Indic.  There isn't really any new archaeological evidence that he brings to bear, although he is a bit bolder than Mallory was willing to be in assigning ethno-linguistic identities to various material cultures.
All in all, a good book.  An interesting one.  I may have buy a copy to be a companion piece to Mallory's book, which I own and pull out and read every few years or so.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A pair of interesting links

Discussing D&D, the Appendix N, Lord of the Rings and its influence on the game, and the cultural context in which D&D was first created.

Great reads, both of them.  Both come highly recommended.

https://jeffro.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/appendix-n-survey-complete/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/retrospective-the-hobbit-and-the-lord-of-the-rings-by-j-r-r-tolkien/#wysija

Undead in Dark•Heritage

I've blogged before about my love in general for the Undead as a monster type.  Here, for instance.  And I've talked plenty about the Warhammer setting, which I think is pretty nifty, and does a number of things that I also like, including (but not limited to) their interpretation of the Undead, which in many ways I'd like to borrow from rather heavily.  As this Halloween season is upon us, I'd like to talk just a bit more about the Undead, the Warhammer Undead in particular, and what use I can get from them.  While we do this, to set the mood, why don't you hit play on the video below, to hear the first track of the soundtrack to Bram Stoker's Dracula.  While it's playing, you can scroll down and keep reading.

 

Now.  I'm also on record (see my first link above) as thinking that there are too many Undead monsters in general.  Most of them are minor variations on only a handful of original themes.  And Warhammer has a lot of Undead.

To recap, for those who aren't already familiar with it, the Warhammer game has had Undead from pretty much its inception in the early 80s.  Back then, the Undead were a single army list, and things like mummies and vampires were assumed to march together.  Keep in mind that Warhammer is primarily a miniatures battle game, and therefore its goal was to create interesting army lists rather than to necessarily represent a coherent setting.

But this seems to have gradually changed somewhat; a number of "lumped" armies were split into different thematic elements in order to better align with the fiction of the setting.  Chaos, for instance, became three armies: warriors, daemons and beastmen, which are all separate, but who sometimes ally with each other.  This happened to the Undead as well, and they split into two armies, the skeletal Tomb Kings with a dry, Egyptian-like theme, and the Vampire Counts with a more eastern European Dracula and whatnot type feel.  This change didn't happen until the 6th edition, though—in Y2k—so it's a relatively recent change.

More recently yet, for the End Times, Nagash has been reborn, and with him are a handful of his most important and infamous generals—Arkhan the Black, his most trusted lieutenant while yet alive, Neferata, the first of the vampires, and Mannfred von Carstein, arguably the most powerful of the vampires.  Under the influence of these most powerful of Undead, including Nagash, the founder of the entire art of Necromancy and the Father of the Undead (both types) the two armies were, again, brought together in alliance, at least, and you can again create an army list that mixes Tomb Kings and Vampire Counts forces under the aegis of a reunited Undead.

What I'd like to do is go through the entire list, including links to images of the miniatures (I wish they had art instead of miniatures, but finding really good art of the miniatures themselves is harder than it should be).  I'll summarize what each type of monster is, and then briefly talk about whether or not I think there's a place for it in the DARK•HERITAGE setting or not, and if so, what kind of place.  For my money, I'd prefer to see many of these as almost individualistic creatures rather than "troop types" if I use them, or I'd use various of them as merely variants on the same theme.  But let's get to it, shall we?

Nagash, Supreme Lord of the Undead
Click on the images to make them larger, if needed.  The first here is Nagash himself.  As the Father of All Undead, now reborn as a kind of God of Undeath, if you will, he's a towering figure both literally and figuratively in the setting of Warhammer.  Monstrously sized, and still bearing the Egyptian like iconography that was his birthright in life, Nagash is an awesome piece of sculpture, and one of the few characters to have really great artwork associated with him—although don't take my word for it.  Do some Google Image Search for yourself!  I'd post some, but I already have many times.

As discussed with my CULT OF UNDEATH thread and mini-setting, which is set in Tarush Noptii, my own vampiric kingdom more closely resembles the Vampire Counts in tone and theme than the Tomb Kings (although the Tomb Kings could represent even more ancient vampiric expansions of the distant past.) My closest analog to a Nagash like figure is probably Tarush himself.  I've never really described exactly what he is.  Is he a god?  Is he a mortal Necromancer turned larger than life due to his own fell sorcery?  I think of Tarush as somewhat like Kina from the Black Company in most respects, and those questions about her are not necessarily clearly answered either.

Going through the list of miniatures online (which doesn't necessarily have an order that makes sense) we get next to the Blood Knights, semi-feudal vampires that ride on horses and fight as knights, basically.  Being vampires, of course, they are rather savage and bloodthirsty (literally) compared to other knights, and have a host of supernatural abilities.

My conception of Tarush Noptii is that it is primarily a mortal kingdom, although certainly ruled over by an undead (i.e., vampire) aristocracy.  The notion that there could be some of these vampires who are sadistic and bloodthirsty hand to hand combat juggernauts is not in the least out of character, although ranking them up as heavy cavalry probably is.  The nature of the the vampire aristocracy is that they tend to be very individualistic.

Neferata mounted on Dread Abyssal
Neferata, the Mortarch of Blood is next in our list.  The same kit can also render either of the other two Mortarchs, Mannfred von Carstein or Arkhan the Black, but rather than post images of all three, just click on the links above to see them.  They're all quite similar.  Arkhan is perhaps a little different to the other two, as they're vampires and Arkhan is a lich.  As such, he has a much more skeletal visage and doesn't need to drink blood, but that's more cosmetic than anything else.  All three are potent warriors and sorcerers who are almost impossible to kill—really the main feature of any evil champion.

All three ride on dread abyssals; some kind of demonic creature in a skeletal monster form, stuffed with the ethereal skulls of souls that they devoured in the afterlife or something like that.  These monstrous skeletal bodies were wrought by Nagash himself, in part as a display of his mastery over the concept of Undeath and his godlike power.  I could certainly see the dread abyssals, or something very like them, having a place somewhere in DARK•HERITAGE.  They're cool.  As for characters like Arkhan or Neferata or Mannfred; again, I don't make so many distinctions between types of "supervillains."  All three could qualify as equivalents of the Ten Who Were Taken in the Black Company, and therefore all three could qualify as part of the Heresiarchy of the Twelve in DARK•HERITAGE which is a similar concept.  The first thing any sorcerer who aspires to that level of power does is to make himself functionally immortal.  Whether that's through something like conventional lich-hood or vampirism or some other method is less important than the end result, really.

Mortis Engine
The Mortis Engine is a massive model, but basically it's a Corpsemaster, a master necromancer, sitting on a throne that's borne into battle by a horde of banshees and other spectral ghost-like creatures.  To be honest with you, I prefer to again minimize the distinctiveness of various creatures. Ghosts, banshees, wraiths, spirits, phantoms, spooks, poltergeists, etc.—they're all really just disembodied spirits of some kind.  While the details of the manifestation of any such disembodied spirit may differ somewhat, is there really a conceptual difference between any of these?  I think not.  In DARK•HERITAGE while certainly a ghost may have a banshee scream, or a wraith's life-draining touch, they really aren't different classes of monster; that's just individual variation among them.

The Coven Throne is another variation on this same model, and it's also a variation on the same concept.  Rather than a Corpsemaster, it has a reclining female vampire attended to by her attendants, on a palanquin carried by the same types of spirits (literally the same models, of course) as that of the Mortis Engine.  I can see why from an army list standpoint they'd maybe be separate, but I can't imagine any reason why my setting would need to make a distinction between a Coven Throne and a Mortis Engine.  And since open battle between monsters is more of a Warhammer thing than a DARK•HERITAGE thing anyway, I'm not sure that I'd ever have any need for either of them anyway except as a bit of color.

Morghast Archai
The difference between the Morghast Archai and Morghast Harbingers is really more about having different weapons; this big Grim Reaper-like pole-arm with a ghostly wailing haft (pictured, left), or big paired sword-like blades.  The Morghasts are supposedly the corpses of some type of pseudo-angelic being sent by the Egyptian-esque god Ptra to kill Nagash many thousands of years ago.  He killed them instead and turned them into monstrous, flying undead things.  Their bodies are stuffed with the ethereal skulls of the victims of their deadly blades.

These are a really arcane and esoteric type of creature, but they also are not terribly unlike the dread abyssals, which I can see a place for.  I do have angelic like creatures already in DARK•HERITAGE and I can see a place for a real master of the undead to turn them into a cruel, blasphemous parody of their original purpose as an undead creature, not unlike the morghast.  Mor-, of course, is probably from Tolkien's own use of the prefix (as in Mordor) because it has the proper sound to readers of fantasy to be "evil."  Because it also sounds like mortis, the Latin word for death, it gets double the exposure as sounding "bad."  Ghast is a D&D creature; a kind of more powerful ghoul, but the name seems to have been coined originally by H. P. Lovecraft in his Dreamlands stories.  It's obviously a based on the word ghastly, which actually comes from the Middle English word gast which led to—not only ghastly but also the English word ghost.  A ghast is just, then, an alternate spelling, if you will, that never quite made it into being a real word, of ghost, and it is meant to be the same thing.  It's also cognate with the German word geist, as in poltergeist.  Keep that thought in mind as we proceed to more creatures....

Ghoul King mounted on Terrorgheist
The next kit is the Zombie Dragon with Vampire Lord or Terrorgheist with Ghoul King.  A zombie dragon is pretty much what it sounds like (although animated mummified dragon would probably better describe the model) and the terrorgheist is supposedly some kind of pseudo-skeletal super-gigantic bat creature.  In reality, conceptually the terrorgheist is no different than the fell beasts from Lord of the Rings, although with a less overtly scaly dragon-like appearance than the movie gave them (which is fine.  I'm a much bigger fan of the books than I am of the movies.)  The name terrorgheist is actually kind of interesting, because gheist is very similar (deliberately) to geist, but with the added [h] it makes it look more like ghost.  I like the concept that poltergeists are merely one manifestation of the the concept of different kinds of -geists.  But -geists should be ghosts, not gigantic bat things.  I love the concept of the gigantic undead skeletal bat thing, but it's not unique to Warhammer, just the specific visual.

I also don't think that there's really a difference between a "vampire lord" and a "ghoul king" other than a bit of thematic cosmetics.  A ghoul king is a more savage flesh-eating, ugly type of vampire, while a vampire lord is a more traditional, romanticized Dracula-style vampire.  But they're both vampiric monsters.

The Casket of Skulls is basically the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark except instead of a French archaeologist allied with Nazis opening it, it's a Lich King.  While the Ark of the Covenant is a bit too "done already" for my taste to be used without being an obvious call-back to Raiders, the Lich Kings are important.  In reality, from my perspective there's only minor differences between a lich and a vampire.  The vampires are more human-like in appearance in most respects; the liches bodies having rotted away to a skeletal, mummified husk, and the vampires require feeding on the blood, flesh or life-force of the living, whereas liches merely hate the living, but do not require anything of them.  Ideally, for a master sorcerer, he'd have neither the weakness of needing human life force to sustain him, nor the weakness of a wasted physical appearance, but in reality, even the greatest of sorcerers usually fail to completely implement that, so they're left with at least one of the two drawbacks.  This is the primary difference between liches and vampires.

The Black Coach is a very iconic Dracula moment.  A haunted coach picked up Jonathan Harker and bore him to Castle Dracula.  Games Workshop has reimagined this as a war machine of sorts; the coach bears the coffin with the vampire in it, and rides over the battlefield, sucking the life and even blood from enemy troops that it runs down.  This is... well, it's a miniatures wargame, right?  It makes sense in that regard.

Of course, the concept of haunted coaches drawn by skeletal steeds and manned with wraith-like coachman is perfectly acceptable in DARK•HERITAGE, or as far as I'm concerned, just about any fantasy setting that is even tangentially related to Western civilization.

The Bone Giant is, surprisingly, not merely the animated skeleton of a giant, according to the Tomb Kings army book.  It is instead, basically, a really big golem made out of bones.

I'm a big fan of the notion that there isn't a real difference between golems and the animated undead.  Undead that actually feature the trapped soul of people are one thing, but being merely an animated corpse or whatever is no different than being an animated anything else, therefore you could almost consider any mindless undead as merely a golem made from a human body.  Of course, in many systems, such as D&D, golems are very powerful adversaries whereas skeletons and zombies and other mere animated corpses are not.  Do with them as you will.  I actually prefer zombies to be more like the original Haitian folklore of zombies.  Zombies of modern zombie pop culture have actually picked up a number of traits that were originally more associated with vampires and other revenants.  I like the notion of undead creatures being somewhat more like Frankenstein's monster or Herbert West's reanimated corpses, which are—as it happens—basically flesh golems in D&D terms.

Sepulchral Stalkers
The Sepuchral Stalkers and Necropolis Knights are two different troop types in the same kit.  As above, they have a golem-like quality to them—they are basically animated snake statues with an undead patina laid over top of them.  The Necropolis Knights are animated statues of cobras with a golden human skull-like (but fanged) mask, ridden by skeleton warriors.  The Sepuchral Stalkers use most of the same parts in the kit, but they actually have a core of a human corpse in their torso and carry weapons with bony human arms, as pictured there to the right. The latter even hide beneath the desert sands, rising up in ambush.  The idea of human corpses merged with animalistic statues and animated isn't something that would be foreign to DARK•HERITAGE. In fact, I can see expanding this beyond the merely snake-like into other animal forms as well, maybe.  Heck, the Soulhunters from Privateer Press's Cryx armies (worthy of another similar post someday, for sure!) are kind of the same concept, except in "undead centaur" form.

Necrosphinx
Speaking of which, the Necrosphinx is another animated golem in human-animal hybrid form.  Shaped like a leonine centaur with a massive humanoid torso and muscular arms bearing ghastly gigantic blades, and Egyptian sarcophagus like iconography, the Necrosphinx is a real showpiece of a miniature and monster—although again, unless you decide that "undead" and "animated statue" aren't really significantly different from each other, exactly how it fits into an "undead" army is a little obscure, in my opinion.

The model can also be made as a Khemrian Warsphinx, which uses the same leonine body, but instead of the human-like torso, it has a neck and skeletal sabertooth-like head, and on its back is a howdah for skeletal warriors.  If golems and sepulchral stalkers or Necropolis knights can fit in DARK•HERITAGE than certainly something like this can as well—although maybe it's a bit too distinctive to the Warhammer world at this point.

Carrion are gigantic undead vultures.  I'm not even going to link to the image, because I actually think the models aren't that great, and because they're already similar to fell beasts, as noted above.  Conceptually they're no different, although the terrorgheist model is certainly much larger and more impressive than the carrion models.

Vargheists
Another one I won't link to an image to is the ushabti, either with great weapons or with gigantic bows.  They are also stone golems, basically—9-10 foot tall statues of animal-headed warriors with a very Egyptian like look.  Since clearly in Warhammer, at least for the Tomb Kings army, golems and undead are basically the same, these fit into that same kind of niche.

Yet another one that doesn't need linking to an image: fell bats.  Described as such: "Fell bats bear as much resemblance to ordinary bats as maddened lion bears to a domestic cat."  You get the idea.  Really big, monstrous bats.

Crypt Horrors are basically super-ghouls.  They bear a strong resemblance to ghouls, except for the ruptured spines with bone spurs and stuff sticking out of their backs.  The kit can also be used to create vargheists, which are basically devolved vampires that have succumbed to savagery and bestiality until any aspect of their humanity has been stripped away.  Vargheists are also winged, but the concept doesn't require that they be.  In fact, I think that ghouls are basically just uglier and more savage versions of the vampire concept to begin with, so they're on the same spectrum as vargheists in that regard.  I really don't see any compelling reason to keep them separate, especially if I want my vampires to not be too cliche and be stuck with all of the Dracula conceits, which to be fair, most vampires in fiction do.  Varghulfs, on the other hand, seem to be conceptually the exact same as the vargheists, but they're bigger and more powerful, looking even less like anything humanoid and even more like some kind of gigantic bat-monster.

Varghulf
I'll skip the Screaming Skulls catapult as a warmachine more geared towards an army game than one that I'd have any need for.  The Tomb Guard come next, and they're basically the same as those mummified priests that Brendan Frasier has to fight in The Mummy.  No need to picture them again here.  The Grave Guard are the Vampire Counts equivalent to them Tomb Guard, and they are specifically called out as wights; embodied and relatively powerful undead best exemplified by the barrow-wights of Tolkien or the draugr of Norse mythology and several Norse sagas—ultimately Tolkien's source too.  Warhammer also has Tomb Heralds, but these are just standard bearing Tomb Guard champions, not another concept.

I'll also skip the named characters, such as Settra the Imperishable, or Count Mannfred (actually the same character as the Mannfred named above, but this is an earlier version of him, and one not mounted on a dread abyssal.)  There's also a third version of Mannfred, as well as other von Carsteins—Isabella, Vlad, etc. and many other characters.  I'll skip them all in favor of coming up with my own unique characters, thankyouverymuch.

Corpse cart
I'm also going to skip the next few entries, after merely acknowledging their obvious existence—the humble foot soldiers of the undead: animated corpses.  Zombies, skeletons, armored skeletons, skeleton cavalry mounted on skeletal horses, skeletons on bone chariots drawn by skeletal horses, etc.  I will acknowledge the most unique among these types of models, though—the corpse cart.  Drawn by zombies and covered in impaled zombies writhing on its frame, and driven by a "macabre, shrouded figure" that could be a necromancer or something else, it's a real visual treat, if nothing else.

And I'm also going to skip solo models that are not really unique.  I've already talked about vampires, liches, wights and ghouls, for instance, plenty, so there's no need to point out that yes, there is a Vampire Lord and a Mounted Vampire Lord; there are Tomb Kings and a Lich Priest, and Wight Kings, and Necromancers.  Duh.  The models have to exist, but I've already talked about them in connection with something else, so I'll skip those entries.  There actually aren't too many left that I haven't already covered, and of those, even fewer yet that aren't merely variations on a theme that we've already talked about.

For instance, Black Knights are visually obviously drawn from the Black Riders of Tolkien, but in reality, conceptually they are simply mounted barrow-wights.

There's the Spirit Host and the Banshee, but I'll call them variations on the ghost theme and be done with it.  Swarms of bats, giant scorpions, and zombie undead wolves round out much of what else you'd expect (or maybe not, giant scorpion?  I guess that sounds vaguely fantasy Egypt like or something) from an undead army, and the final pieces are cairn wraiths and hexwraiths, although the only difference seems to be that the latter is mounted and the former is not.  An amalgam of archetypes including the ghost, the Ringwraiths and the Grim Reaper, these are relatively powerful, incorporeal creatures.

While a few of these concepts are probably too specific to the Warhammer setting to sit very comfortably elsewhere, most others (as is typical of that setting) come from somewhere else originally anyway, and can easily be ported into any fantasy setting without too much explanation of where they fit, assuming of course, that any kind of undeath is a thing in said fantasy setting to begin with.

Mourngul
Having a quick look at Forge World for alternate and rarer miniatures, we get the Mourngul, which is conceptually very similar to the wendigo myth; a famine spirit, if you will, eternally hungry and more solo; less likely to be part of any type of army.

This brings to mind another point, which I'm make briefly, but which is only tangentially related.  In the Iron Kingdoms setting, there were a number of monsters that were meant to be "solos" if you will.  As the Warmachine game became more popular, there was increasing pressure to use some of these monsters and ally them with one of the existing factions.  Therefore, guys like the pistol wraiths, machine wraiths, the cephalyx, etc. had to be shoe-horned into an existing armies.  Some of them (the cephalyx) they later backed off from on that, and made them "mercenaries" i.e., unaligned with any specific faction after all.

This is of course a problem with Warhammer, where all of these monsters are meant to be troop types in a fantasy army.  Some of them fit that archetype somewhat poorly, being essentially big monsters, or scary monsters, rather than troops.  But in many ways, if they fit the concept too poorly, they don't get added to the line-up in the first place.  One thing that is important for DARK•HERITAGE is to remember to decouple anything, regardless of source, from that paradigm.  There aren't armies of undead monsters marching through the setting.  Undead tend to be more individualistic and frightening monsters, not troops.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Spider-Men

Although I've largely sworn off comics altogether—given that they've been so thoroughly and disgustingly infected with SJW nonsense—I'm having a hard time letting go completely from a minor hobby that I indulged at least somewhat for decades.  Of course, then I'm immediately turned off by SJW nonsense, and stay away again.  And I doubt I'm the only one.  Online chatter about the so-called new Secret Wars event (no relation to the former Secret Wars event)—which was basically Marvel's version of Crisis on Infinite Earths—suggests flagging sales are responsible for the massive rearrangement of their continuity, rebranding of their properties, and consolidation of their more profitable lines/characters.  If this is true, the reason for that is easy to see; the comics themselves have wandered very far from the movie versions, which are more classic.  Sadly, the revamp doesn't fix any of the problems; in fact—if anything, they're quite worse.  If you thought SJW nonsense was a problem before, check out the line-up of the "All New, All Different Avengers!"  Does this seriously sound like something you want to read, or does it sound like doubling down on exactly the problem that led to their decline in the first place?

  • Iron Man - OK, so he's a classic.  He's fine.  In fact, he seems to have become the new Marvel mascot.
  • Vision - the android is also an Avengers classic.
  • Ms. Marvel - although this sounds like an Avengers classic, this is actually an all new character, a Muslim teenager from New York, with all new powers and an all new outfit, etc.
  • Spider-Man - adding Spider-Man to the Avengers seemed like a smart move.  The most popular team paired with the most popular single character.  Of course, this is sexually ambiguous "black Hispanic" Spider-Man Miles Morales.  Not Peter Parker.
  • Captain America - what every Avengers line-up needs is Captain America!  Except: it's actually Falcon, now in a red, white and blue suit.  Although he may call himself Captain America and Marvel may well wish us to believe that it is, this is a totally different character.
  • Thor - another founding Avengers member except that... for reasons that still don't make any sense to anyone, Thor is now a woman.  Not as in Thor was turned into a woman, a popular trick up Loki's sleeve, I might add, but as in a woman is now Thor.  Permanently.
  • Nova - again; not the original Nova, but his son; a now "white Hispanic" character named Sam Alexander.  And again; a teenager.
Almost none of those characters are recognizable.  Most of them are deliberate perversions of existing, well-loved characters, made all "Diversity, Inc.-ified" via bizarre SJW affirmative action.  In spite of our soi-dissant "elites" doing their best since the 1965 Hart-Celler Act to replace us, Marvel's audience is still primarily and predominantly made up of white male readers.  Why they think that a pathological aversion to showing any white male fictional character in a positive light, to the point where they deliberately replace the white male characters with diversity edition candidates in the same roles is likely to do anything other than turn off their core audience is beyond me.

One splinter aspect of this is the Spider-Verse event and the follow-ups through the post-Secret Wars All New, All Different (i.e., now with as few white males as we can manage!) Marvel is that a whole host of spider-characters now inhabit the Marvel universe.  Although beta-male losers in the writer's seat has made even some of these characters unreadable (seriously; they've even made freakin' Peter Parker unlikable!) I still think that there's some serious potential inherent in this scheme of a variety of spider-characters operating potentially somewhat together.  To whit:
  • The Amazing Spider-Man: now Peter Parker is in a Tony Stark like role as an industrialist and head of Parker Industries, with Spider-Man supposedly as his "bodyguard."  A little girl tells him what to do, and despite the fact that he's a scientific genius with super-powers and years of hard experience, he seems hapless about this.  This is just the beta-male writer not actually understanding how regular, healthy human interactions are done, so I expect that it may yet shake itself loose and turn into an interesting take as an evolved, older Spider-Man if Marvel can get some actual talent in place here.
  • Spider-Man: now with Miles Morales, in the kinds of classic stories that Peter Parker typically used to be in.  Again; if it was already working with Peter Parker, why change it to Miles and hope that he clicks with the core audience?  Chances are it won't.  Certainly I'm turned off.  I do admit to liking the Miles Morales version of the suit a lot, though.  Of course, at least since the combination of the regular and Ultimate universes, at the very least Morales doesn't need to have replaced Parker; he can exist alongside him.
  • Spider-Man 2099: Miguel O'Hara, from the year 2099 when clearly we've been more thoroughly blended with the Hispanic population (although apparently the only thing that does is give us a larger library of names) was a decent character, and he's apparently now stuck in the present.  Not sure where this one is going to go, or if he's going to stay in the modern era or become an itinerant time-traveling Spider-Man or what.  He's a reasonably popular character, though—although it is hard to see what his distinguishing "schtick" is if removed from his futuristic setting.
  • Silk: So apparently Marvel decided that when Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider oh so long ago, the spider didn't die before it had the chance to bite one more character, Korean American Cindy Moon.  Although she suffered a somewhat cloistered adolescence, she's here now, with a slightly tweaked power set compared to Peter.  She even works as a junior reporter for a female JJJ-like character in journalism, who wants to turn her alter-ego into their own corporate badge, the way the Daily Bugle has managed to do with Spider-Man.  So... she's literally reliving Peter Parker's story except as an Asian-American woman.  What; white Hispanic Spider-Man and black Hispanic Spider-Man wasn't enough diversity for you?  At least she has an interesting look—although curiously, at first she just sprayed webs all over herself so she looked like a kinda sexy combination of that girl from the Fifth Element and the Mummy.  But when her boss remarked that her costume was tacky, she felt insecure and had to come up with a real costume.  I kid you not; that was a direct quote of dialogue.  How feminism has fallen into self-parody from the days of "I am woman, hear me roar."  Not that that wasn't pretty darn silly to begin with.
  • Spidey: A series of flashback one-shots with Peter Parker.  Rather than story arcs, this is to be completely made up of one-shots from back when Peter was younger.  Although its supposed to be in-continuity (although taking place earlier in time) to the mainline continuity, it's a little bit unclear how well this one will fare.  Especially since it largely steps on the toes of 1) past Spider-Man collections, the Miles Morales Spider-Man and Silk.
  • Spider-Gwen: an intriguing concept from an alternative world where Gwen Stacy got bit by the spider rather than Peter Parker, and where Peter himself was killed.  It's not clear if she will be a major player in the continuity, or if her ongoing story will further explore her own alternate reality more, or a combination of the two.  It's clear that her visual design is really cool, and she's already been showing up as a costume at conventions and whatnot.  However, simply having a good visual design isn't sufficient to making a character interesting, which is why it remains to be seen if all of these alternate spider-characters can "make it stick" with their own mags or not.
  • Web Warriors: Kinda like The Exiles; a bunch of reality hopping (a la the old TV show Sliders) alternate Spider-characters teamed up to fight extra-dimensional threats or whatever.  Spider-Gwen is included, as well as Spider-UK; a kind of Captain Britain and Spider-Man amalgam, Spider-Ham (I'm sorry to say, since it can't possibly be taken seriously with him in it), the Indian Spider-Man, Spider-Man Noir (who really needs an ongoing series, TV show, or more video games—his levels in Shattered Dimensions were very much my favorites, although he's another that without the context of his setting probably isn't going to be nearly as cool), and Anya Corazon, another Hispanic, female Spider-Man copy, who's got a more mystic source to her power (a shamanic spider -tattoo or something like that.)  There's even controversy on Wikipedia about her as to whether she can be claimed to be the first Latina super-hero; nobody seems to be able to explain how merely being Latino actually makes a super-hero interesting.
  • Spider-Woman: Jessica Drew, from the regular continuity, seems to be the star of this mag.  I kinda like Ultimate Jessica Drew, and I'm not sure exactly what happened to her during Spider-verse and Secret Wars.  In addition, I thought regular Jessica Drew was killed.  But apparently, sometime later this month even, her new mag will ship, and she's in her third trimester of pregnancy.  Again; not sure how being a heavily pregnant vigilante super-hero is a great way to be an interesting story especially from a heavily SJW-infused company, but I'll withhold formal judgement until I actually get a chance to see it, or at least hear about it.  She's probably a knocked up single mom too—but exactly what the circumstances are related to her pregnancy still remain to be seen.
It's no surprise to me that Marvel's movie and television properties are doing quite well while their comic books—supposedly their core business—seems to be floundering.  Hopefully the infection of SJWism stays isolated to the comics, though, because once they his the Cinematic Universe, it'll go downhill really, really fast.  And with the kind of money that they toss into those movies—well, you only need one The Lone Ranger to end a streak for good.

It's worth noting that notably missing from the roster of characters are either of the Scarlet Spiders: Ben Reilly or Kaine Parker.  

Here's a few images of some of the characters that are less familiar that your basic Spider-Man.
Spider-Gwen with the mask off.

Spider-Gwen in costume

Kaine Parker, the darker of the two Scarlet Spiders.

Silk

Another Silk

Spider-Man 2099's costume has been somewhat redesigned

Friday, October 02, 2015

Stormcast Eternals

I am somewhat tangentially involved in the Warhammer hobby.  My brother played it for quite some time, although I'm given to understand that he recently sold most of his stuff and is bailing on the hobby somewhat.  I've got some of the End Times novels, although I haven't yet read them (it starts with Nagash, and I want to read the Nagash "historical" trilogy first) and I've got a pretty big collection of old White Dwarfs because I used to follow the hobby more closely by buying White Dwarfs.

Honestly, though—the notion of buying and painting an entire army was always fairly daunting, to say nothing of finding players to oppose, setting up, and going through an entire game.  I was drawn to many aspects of the setting (still am, as should be obvious, since I often link to artwork from the setting, or make reference to characters from the setting, like the aforementioned Nagash, for example).  So, I lingered on the sidelines of the hobby, basically reading White Dwarfs and buying the occasional miniature that I liked.  Which back then, wasn't as many as it is now—I came into Warhammer during their very cartoonish phase, which lasted most of the 90s, I think—but the minis were cheaper and didn't require nearly as much assembly as they do now, so I'd still do it on occasion.  I also got a bit interested in their less intimidating smaller scale squad type games like Necromunda, Mordheim or most especially Blood Bowl, a game that I still love, by the way.  And since there's a really quite good Blood Bowl game on Steam, I can still get after it.  I dislike the inability to customize the models rendered in the game (my own actual pewter and plastic orc team is made up almost entirely of customized Warhammer, Warhammer 40k and Gorkamorka models customized for the Blood Bowl pitch) but the sequel, which was just released and is desperately awaiting updates with more teams before I'll buy it, seems to offer much of that, actually.

So, I'm a little late to the party, since my fringe involvement has faded even more outer limit fringe involvement in recent years.  But I'm a bit surprised to see that they "blew up" the setting so that they could reboot it into a Warhammer Settting 2.0 (for context, although there have been many editions of the game over the years, the setting has generally remained unchanged since the early 80s, except for minor tweaks.  To my surprise, this year it was, as I said, completely blown up, advanced many generations, and now it's a totally different setting.

One of the new additions to the game as part of this is the Stormcast Eternals, which look suspiciously like fantasy Space Marines.  Their backstory is that they are essentially pseudo-angelic, not too unlike the High Men and Archons of Age of Wonders, although I doubt Warhammer specifically stole the concept, since it's a relatively universal one in many fantasy settings.  Here's a picture of one:

Of course, one of the more interesting things that I've seen, which was inevitable given that these guys are already sporting the nickname "Sigmarines" is conversions using them with Space Marines to give unique characters, librarians, Adeptus Custodes troops, and other weird stuff like that.

Fun stuff.  Although the Citadel plastics are ridiculously overpriced for what they are, they are really easy to work with and really easy to convert.