Thursday, December 14, 2017

What Star Wars got Right

Trey Causey revisited an older post recently, and he's still 100% correct in what he notices.  However, I don't think he gets the whole story.  He correctly notes a few things:
  • European-style swashbuckling action; here he means "Euro-style" in the sense of the Ruritanian romance with princesses, nobles, swordfights, etc.  He specifically references Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Mad King, which was his own take on the Ruritanian romance (and is therefore one of the better ones); he doesn't mean that the authors are necessarily European.  Specifically mentioned both Burroughs and Alex Raymond, who are both Americans—rather, the setting has a kind of romanticized European Old Country charm.
  • The more pulp type of square-jawed science fiction with jet packs and robots and stuff.  The vibe of The Rocketeer or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (although both post-date Star Wars; maybe the original Buck Rogers stuff is the best analog.  I'm not 100% sure that a clear line can be drawn between works from this oeuvre and the one mentioned above; or maybe he just happens to have examples that often blur the lines (specifically Flash Gordon and Barsoom.)
  • Fun exoticism that takes the elements that made Orientalism and chinoiserie popular, but even more alien; funny-headed aliens speaking Huttese that actually sounds like a real language, for instance.
  • Nostalgia for the Americana that Lucas himself grew up with; many have remarked that there is much more in common between Star Wars and American Graffiti than initially meets the eye.
What he doesn't point out, which I think is also part of it, is that all kinds of other genres get heavily mixed in.  There's a lot of Western influence to the point where the cantina scene is almost exactly a straight up saloon with Han Solo and Greedo as gunfighters.  There's a lot more noir influence than many realize (although it became much more overt over time, especially in certain episodes of the prequels and the Clone Wars series).

The fact that the Star Wars setting can credibly work for everything from Graustark to a train heist to Roman gladiators to steely-eyed gunfighters with tumbleweeds rolling by to walking the plank pirate stories to Raymond Chandler to Godzilla stories to zombie plague stories—and none of it really feels too forced or out of place—is part of the charm.  The original movie trilogy didn't literally use all of those elements, but it used a lot more than some people realize.  They are somewhat subtle, I suppose, and because they're just embedded in our cultural psyche, we don't really think much about them, but Star Wars is basically every single type of romanticized boy's adventure story rolled up into one.

This is also where Star Wars is going to go wrong in the future, to the extent that it isn't already, though.  Those who are making new Star Wars movies have embraced the feminist imperative.  Because the feminist imperative is fundamentally at odds with biology, there's nowhere to go with this but down.  There's a reason that Star Wars is a melange of boy's adventure tales, and making all of the boys bumbling comic relief and making Mary Suewalker act like a boy, except even more capable at anything and everything isn't going to make Star Wars more appealing.

As an aside, I watched the 1981 Clash of the Titans last night while holed up in the house due to lots of falling snow, inability of our infrastructure to clear the roads well, and stuff getting canceled across the board that I would otherwise have been out doing.  It's not a great movie, but I've kind of got a soft spot for those old cheesy sword & sandal movies, especially with the stop-motion mythological monsters.  I imagine most D&D players kind of do.  Now, I might watch the 2010 remake here soon, but even if I don't, I think I can remember well enough why that failed compared to the 1981 version, and much of it comes down to that.
  • In the 2010 version, Perseus is kind of whiny and reluctant.  I hate the trope of the reluctant hero.  Men that women love and other men aspire to be are movers and shakers.  Leading men who are passive, or even worse, surly and whiny, just are incredibly unlikable.  The Perseus of the earlier version, on the other hand, is happy to go find his destiny; he's even impetuous about it, which gives him a kind of youthful charm.
  • In the 2010 version, Andromeda isn't even the love interest.  Oh, she's pretty enough, but she's cold, distant, and there's nothing feminine or charming about her at all.  (For that matter, the same is mostly true of the actual love interest, some new character played by Gemma Aterton.  She's credited as Io, but has absolutely no connection to the mythological Io, so I don't know why.)  Judi Bowker's Andromeda, on the other hand, is everything a young princess should be; full of youthful, virginal sweetness, compassion, femininity, and very, very beautiful.  When she runs off on her horse in front of the guys, it's not because "I'm a manly pseudo-woman in the feminist vein, here me roar!" it's because she's young, impetuous, in love, and it makes her even more cute and more feminine rather than less so.  It's not unlike the famous line from A Princess of Mars; "Fly Sola, Dejah Thoris stays to die with the man she loves."  The men react to it fondly.  But they protect them, even from themselves, and when Andromeda wakes up to find that everyone except old Burgess Meredith has already left and there's nothing for her to do except go back home, it's sad, but not as sad, reckless or foolish as taking the girl you love into harm's way.  These two are where I say that the feminist imperative fights against biology; the story that the feminist imperative would have us tell simply isn't a story that most people are going to react to very well, because it makes men into low-T losers, and it makes women into pseudo-men.  And then to make it worse, these pseudo-men have plot immunity to even minor setbacks, because the shrieking harpies who write this stuff can't bear to see them suffer even that.  So the stories not only feature unbelievable and unlikable characters, but they also feature unlikable, boring plots with no real tension or suspense.
  • Poor Sam Worthington is probably a decent guy, but I've never yet seen him in a movie where he had any charisma or chemistry with the other actors.  Harry Hamlin, on the other hand, isn't a particularly talented actor, but even so, he had a kind of dumb jock charm, and it was credible that Perseus and Andromeda were victims of young love.
  • On the other hand, the 2010 version had much better special effects, and usually better action sequences (although I actually think the Medusa scene works better as a tense horror scene than as an action scene, so 1981's version actually wins there.  By a little bit.)
  • Yes, I admit that my exploration of The Serpent's Skull eventually led me to believe that I did need snake-men instead of merely lizardmen.  And yes, I did gravitate towards making them different by going more with a yuan-ti abomination than with just scaly people with snake heads.  And yes, that led me to Medusa, and proposing a link between Medusa, lesser medusae, and the snake-men.  And yes, that led me to watching Clash of the Titans, mostly to see the Medusa scene all over again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Capsule review of Nizrekh

What is Nizrekh?  In short, it's a part of the TIMISCHBURG setting that is an island nation off the coast (so to the south and a bit to the west) of Timischburg itself.  I expect that it's kind of a satellite to Timischburg itself in terms of importance, but it's going to be sending agents and more to the benighted shores of my fake Transylvania from time to time.

In the language of the "Hollywood pitch" Nizrekh is "Undead and pirates from ancient Egypt."

An archipelago nation, Nizrekh was once a much larger island, and the very first High Civilization of Mankind lived on it.  Terra Atlans, it was called, and they ruled with an iron fist over the continent, although they were little interested in the people there except to take them occasionally as slaves, or to exploit the natural resources of their lands.  Mighty in technology and in magic, the Atlaneans were unchallenged for centuries.  When their Doom came, it came because of the curse that befell one of their own.

A princess of Atlans named Medusa brought a curse down on the people for reasons that are now forgotten (or better said; there are competing accounts of what happened.)  The ancient, heathen chthonian entities that the Atlaneans worshiped turned her into a horrifying monster for her crimes, her body below the waist transformed into that of the thick snake, her hair turned into a nest of vipers, and her malicious gaze would turn those who beheld her to stone.  Full of hatred and bitterness for what happened to her she took her revenge on her people, and waged war against them.  Although it's not clear how this happened, she did in fact bear children after her transformation, and these are called the lesser medusae, or sometimes the gorgons.  Their own petrification abilities were similar to that of their monstrous mother, although less potent, and those of sufficiently strong will could resist it.  Medusa herself was finally killed by a hero, but her vile progeny, which now included the warlike snake-men continued a bitter war of attrition against the Atlaneans.

Disgusted with the behavior of the Atlaneans, who had fallen into bitter rejection of their gods, a massive sea monster known as Mekaketos destroyed their island, killing most Atlaneans and snake-men both.  There are disturbing rumors that Megaketos was not related to Ketos, but was rather Cthulhu itself, awakened for a short time by the gods.  If so, the devastation to Terra Atlans makes more sense; the majority of the land was sunk and only sun-bleached fragments of it remain.  A single structure, the great pyramid of Halkatash is all that remains.

New peoples came to these islands, peoples from the shoreline of what would later become the countries of Gunaakt, Baal Hamazi and parts of Timischburg itself.  These were mostly simple fishermen and other coastal types, but they grew in power and influence as well, becoming wealthy traders and sailors.  Occasionally, they would find nests of snake-men still lingering in the islands, but mostly the survivors of that Pyrrhic war had fled for foreign parts.  But at the height of their power, they discovered that not all of the Atlaneans were dead.  Some of the wisest and most powerful (and the most blasphemous and corrupt) knew that their destruction was imminent.  Sacrificing many of their lesser brethren's lives and souls in foul rituals, they turned themselves in the Heresiarch's—arch undead that combine the strengths of both vampires and liches with few of their weaknesses—and sealed themselves in thick sarcophagi that would be able to survive the sinking of their land, slumbering for centuries or even millennia on the bottom of the sea.

Nobody knows how many of these there are, but about half a dozen or so returned to their former lands (or what was left of them) and quickly conquered it with their foul and powerful magic, establishing themselves as undead Pharaohs over the Nizrekhs who lived here now.  They did, however, not disrupt the native Nizrekh culture too much, and are content to rule openly yet quietly.  The world is not as primitive as it was in their time, and much of their science (if not their magic) was lost in the destruction of their world, so they bide their time, attempting to locate and raise the rest of their brethren and fortify their power base before they make any attempt to expand their influence through conquest yet again.

The Court of the Heresiarchs

Today, they rule over an aristocratic urban Nizrekh, a strange place where necromantic magic, Immortal soldiers (mummies) patrol the streets, and powerful traders still make their living.  But more along the coasts are lawless communities, which have gradually become more mixed and cosmopolitan—havens for pirates and other worse riffraff who make of themselves a nuisance across the entire Mezzovian Sea.  Few foreigners leave these anarchic, violent pirate cities, as they are rarely welcomed in the urban centers ruled by the Heresiarchs.  In addition to these pirates, natives who live in rebellion against the Heresiarchs wander the plains and other inland rural areas of the islands.  For some reason they are tolerated, to a point, probably because they cause very little actual harm.  However, unknown (presumably, at least) to the Heresiarchs, these nomadic rebels have made contact with a cell of medusae and their snake-men soldiers, and may have found a means to wage a more successful rebellion—even if the cost is their own humanity, ultimately.

Anyway; that's Nizrekh in a nutshell. The advent of the Heresiarchs spawned a "Golden Age" of necromancy among the people, and a recognition of their past dealings with the snake-men has also spawned numerous odd details, including the worship of many snakes and snake-like entities, even as actual snake-men and their medusae rulers gather to threaten them yet again.

More details on some aspects of it will be forthcoming in future posts.

Worst classic D&D name

There's some terribly stupid names in D&D.  While not meant to be exhaustive, this list is certainly a few of the worst.
  • Blibdoolpoolp—kuo-toa sea goddess that looks like a naked woman with a lobster head and lobster claws instead of hands.
  • Yan-C-Bin—how do you even pronounce the "C"?  Evil prince of air elementals (it doesn't help that that's also kind of a stupid concept.)
  • Ixitxachitl—not only are demonic intelligent manta rays who are the favored children of Demogorgon incredibly stupid, but why'd they have to get this mouthful of vaguely Aztec sounding consonants appended to them?  On this list, throw otyugh and svirfneblin too.
  • Speaking of which, just because a name is a "real" one doesn't mean that it's a good one that anyone would be interested in.  Q'uq'umatz may be an Aztec god, but as the D&D god of frog people, it should have been at least somewhat anglicized as Kukumatz or something.  That at least doesn't look like a cat walked on my keyboard.
  • For that matter, anything with gratuitous apostraphes, since English doesn't include glottal stops, should get the ax.  Yes, Fraz-Urb'luu, Graz'zt and Drizzt Do'Urden, that means all of you.  This got worse when Forgotten Realms turned uber big in 2e, but obviously G'ary Gy'gax himself wasn't immune to it. Yeenoghu isn't great, but at least it avoids that particular trap.
  • Zygag.  Blegh.  Drawmij is just as bad.  Iggwilv is nearly so.
  • Yes, I know St. Cuthbert is a real person (or at least, it's based on a placename that's named for what was believed to be a real person.)  That is not the name of a god in a polytheistic pantheon.
  • Also for that matter; some of those pulp writers did not have a good ear for names.  Cthulhu was deliberately designed to be unpronounceable, but that's just silly.  Nobody will ever say a word that's unpronounceable, so it has to get linguistically "eroded" into something that actually fits the language of the people saying it.  That's why in spite of its atrocious spelling, most people who care to aren't particularly bothered by pronouncing cuh-THOOL-hoo.  It's not exactly how Lovecraft tried to say it was pronounced, but who cares.
  • On the other hand, when I took the old Slavic god Chernobog and modified the spelling somewhat to Chernovog for my DARK•HERITAGE setting, I actually had no idea that D&D had already done so as well in the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft which, give me a break, I've never read (and which doesn't predate my setting by much either.)  Heck; I came up with the idea independently, borrowing from Disney's Fantasia for crying out loud.  Maybe I should adopt my original spelling Czernovog?  Or Sir Walter Scott's dubious spelling of Zernebock?  Or the Chronica Slavorum's spelling of Zcerneboch?  In Serbian, it's spelled Crnobog, Polish Czarnobóg and in Czech, Černobůh.  In Russian, Bulgarian and Croatian, of course, it's written in Cyrillic letters.  I've got lots of options.  I thought Chernovog was the closest to English that I'd likely get without sounding exactly like the guy from Fantasia, but it seems I wasn't the first to independently think that.  Of course, their Chernavog seems to be some kind of Green Man evil druid demon-lord figure, while mine is much more like Nyarlathotep's Black Pharaoh persona and the father of the kemling race.
  • It is kind of ironic that in the 3e Ravenloft they call Chernovog "the Green God" when the name, literally translated from the Slavic language, means "the Black God."  But I doubt the D&D developers did very in depth research into the name; they just liked it.
  • On the other hand, when C. J. Cherryh wore her Russian fantasy trilogy and used the spelling Chernevog, she knew exactly what she was doing, I think.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Optional Fantasy Hack material: more monsters

Developed as I've gone through my CULT OF UNDEATH project, and just a bit of my ISLES OF TERROR project too (although I may yet have more from that) here's some more monsters that can be added to your FANTASY HACK game.
HEADLESS HORSEMAN: AC: 16 HD: 4d6 (16 hp) AT: touch +4 (1d6) STR: -4, DEX: +2, MND: +1 S: undead immunities, only hit by magic or silver weapons, arrows do a max 1 HP damage.  Also: drains 1d3 DEX on touch, creatures reduced to -5 DEX are immobile and helpless for coup de grace attack that kills them automatically, forces a Sanity check on all characters that can see the horseman.  
MOUNT: AC: 15 HD: 5d6 (20 hp) AT: bite +5 (1d6) STR: +3, DEX: -1, MND: -3, S: breathe fire (1d10 HP damage—DEX + Athletics check DC 14 will halve damage.) 
These two go together, needless to say, although it would be unusual that the mount would continue to fight if the horseman was killed.  Headless horsemen are often geographically bound; i.e., if you make it out of the woods that it haunts and crosses the covered bridge that leads to town, you have escaped from it.  Or something along those lines.
GHOUL-HOUNDS: AC: 13 HD: 2d6 (8 hp) AT:  bite +2 (1d6) STR: +2, DEX: +0, MND: -1, S: touch paralyzes for 1d4 rounds, humans wounded by ghoul-hounds are cursed if they fail a MND + level check (DC 12) and will slowly turn into ghouls themselves.  This process involves taking 1 point of MND damage every day (which does not heal overnight) until they reach -5, at which point the conversion is complete.  GM may provide antidote/remedy to counter this curse.
Ghouls hounds are to wolves or large dogs what ghouls are to people; a kind of undead monstrosity with many of the traits of a ghoul.  These horrible canine monsters sometimes haunt the area surrounding a powerful undead, such as the forest around the castle of a vampire lord.
SPIDER-BABOON: AC: 12 HD: 2d6 (8 hp) AT: bite +2 (1d6) STR: +1, DEX: +3, MND: -4, S: Acrobatics affinity, successful bite attacks deliver poison.  Target must succeed on STR+Level check DC 14 or take 1d4 STR damage.  One minute later, a second check must be passed or character takes 1d4 DEX damage.
A monster that was supposedly bred in Hell; these are like an agile primate, but with multiple eyes like a spider, and a poisonous bite.  They are not native to anywhere on Earth, but may infest certain cursed areas, and some powerful sorcerers even summon one as a familiar (since it has 2 HD, any sorcerer of 4th level or higher.)
NIZREKH ROYAL HERESIARCH: AC: 17 HD: 10d6 (40 hp) AT: touch +5 (1d6) STR: +4, DEX: +2, MND: +3, S: undead immunities, only takes half damage from non-silver weapons, regenerate 3 hp per round, on a successful hit (MND + level to resist, DC 19) does 1d4 STR damage, can hypnotize (MND + level check, DC 19), avoids crosses and mirrors, immobilized and apparently dead if a stake is driven through its heart,  cause fear in creatures under 4th level/HD, can cast spells up to 5th level.
While the vampires of Timischburg have a powerful undead grip on immortality (of a sort) they are pale shadows of the true masters of undeath, the Royal Nizrekh Heresiarchs.  There are only a handful such that exist, but all are powerful scions of undeath and thaumaturgy, and attack with powerful physical as well as magical abilities when they are spurred to combat.  They rather spend their time in Machiavellian manipulation against each other and other rivals, however—if they are reduced to fighting for their lives, usually something has gone really wrong for them.

Like Liches, Heresiarchs have horcruxes that make their total destruction extremely difficult, and many enemies that think that they have destroyed one find to their fatal chagrin that they just keep coming back.

The best literary comparison to the Heresiarchs is the Ten Who Were Taken from Glen Cook's The Black Company.
SPIDER, GIANT: AC: 15 HD: 7d8 (35 hp) AT: bite +6 (1d6+4 plus poison)  STR: +6, DEX: +1, MND: -4, S: successful bite attacks deliver poison.  Target must succeed on STR+Level check DC 14 or take 1d4 STR damage.  One minute later, a second check must be passed or character takes 1d4 DEX damage.
Modified from wyvern stats.  Less of a Shelob and more of the Mirkwood spiders, though.
DOPPLEGANGER: AC: 14 HD: 3d6 (12 hp) AT: broadsword +3 (1d6), STR: +2, DEX: +2, MND: +2 S: Can change form as a single action.
Can mimic the appearance of any character, PC or NPC.
FLESH HOUND: AC: 14 HD: 2d12 (10 hp) AT: bite +4 (1d6+2) STR: +3, DEX: -2 MND: -3 S: Immune to most forms of magical attack.  Regular weapons do only half damage.  Fire (magical or mundane) does 2x damage.  
CHILD GOLEM: AC: 14 HD: 2d12 (15 hp) AT: slam +5 (2d4+2) STR: +3, DEX: -2 MND: -3 S: Immune to most forms of magical attack.  Regular weapons do only half damage.  Fire (magical or mundane) does 2x damage.
Two minor alterations to the flesh golem stats, for a hound-like golem (instead of humanoid) and for one made from the corpses of children.
SLENDERMAN:  AC: 16 HD: 4d6 (16) AT: touch +4 (1d6) STR: -4, DEX: +2, MND: +1 S: undead immunities, only hit by silver or magical weapons, arrows do a max of 1 HP damage, forces Sanity check on all who see him, drains 1d3 DEX each round on touch attack. Characters with -5 DEX are helpless and immobile, and will be killed by coup de grace. 
MOURNING MAIDEN: AC: 16 HD: 4d6 (16) AT: touch +4 (1d6) STR: -4, DEX: +2, MND: +1 S: undead immunities, only hit by silver or magical weapons, arrows do a max of 1 HP damage, casts Glance of the Gorgon as a 5th level caster once per round.
Two variations on the ghost template, as needed for a specifically haunted house themed adventure.
SNAKEMAN: AC: 16, HD 2d8 (10 hp) AT: bite +3 (1d8+4) or bow and arrow +2 (1d6+4). STR: +2, DEX: +0, MND: -1 S: amphibious, successful bite attacks deliver poison.  Target must succeed on STR+Level check DC 14 or take 1d4 STR damage.  One minute later, a second check must be passed or character takes 1d4 DEX damage. 
Powerful children of Medusa (the original) they often are ruled by a lesser medusa (as shown in the stats for FANTASY HACK).  They lack the petrification ability, but are quite large and strong, and have a poisonous bite.  From the waist down, they are a slithering snake, like medusae, but they lack the snake "hair" and in general have a more serpent-like face.
SNAKE GOLEM: AC: 20, HD 4d12 (28 hp) AT: glaive +6 (2d8+6). STR: +6, DEX: +0, MND: -1 S: Turn to Stone on failed DC 12 MND + level check) if you look the snake golem in the eye
In the very early days of humanity, when the Heresiarchs of Nizrekh were new, their wars with the snakemen were legendary.  Some of their slain enemies were turned into a horrifying creature; undead skeletons of the largest and most powerful snakemen; like giants compared to their stunted cousins who survive today.  Their skeletons are fossilized into black marble, but with a baleful light in their eyes, they still serve their conquerors.  They also have a bit of the curse of their Mother, Medusa, in that they can turn opponents to stone (albeit not as reliably as the medusae can.)

Why not D&D?

Reading a review of Atonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, I was struck by the passage posted below.  First, let me give a little context.  The system for this game is a slightly derived evolution of AD&D.  The setting is a pastiche of Howard and Smith and Lovecraft's S&S output.  As I've noted before... well, read it for yourself.
So what's the problem? 
The problem is that AD&D is a poor vehicle for portraying adventures in that world. AD&D is all about collecting: the heaviest armor, the baddest weapon, the deadliest spells, the flashiest magic items. Conan or the Gray Mouser were never defined by their +2 frost brand sword, boots of striding and springing, gauntlets of ogre power, and rope of climbing. No sorcerer of Howard's or Leiber's ever cast a spell like ice storm or haste. 
When magic spells function like rocket launchers and tasers, wizards turn into soldiers. When the power of magic items outstrips the power of the character wielding those items, the character becomes an adjunct to his gear, a carrier. Both of those styles are characteristic of AD&D (and, by extension, AS&SH), but they're contrary to the pulpy flavor that Hyperborea wants to place front and center. [...] 
Could AD&D / AS&SH replicate Weird Tales? Of course they could, but not without either the DM or the publisher of the setting placing severe limits on what's allowed. 
Rules have profound impact on the underlying assumptions of a game world. In the stories of Howard and Leiber, human freedom, courage, and indomitability are ultimately more powerful than the potent but decadent force of civilization and its corrupting familiar, magic. Contrast that to AD&D, where a high-level magic-user is unlikely to be bested unless he's confronted by an almost equal use of magic and where a warrior's or thief's inventory is likely to contain as many magical items as a wizard's, if not more. 
AS&SH's extensive chapters on AD&D-inspired spells and magic items contain no discussion of limiting magic for the sake of preserving the old-shool weird fantasy feel this game wants to be about. The original DMG at least contained warnings to the DM about what would happen if too much magic was set loose in the game. That warning wasn't just Gary spouting about his preferred style of play; it was motivated by the sacks of letters TSR received from DMs begging for advice after rampant magic torpedoed their campaigns--magic that was, in most cases, generated straight off the game's treasure and magic item tables. Since AS&SH's random treasure table is nearly identical to AD&D's, history leads us to expect it to generate the same Monte Haulish problems. [...] 
Grafting AD&D's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to spells and magic items onto Hypberborea is a disservice to the pulp-style setting. Of course, a DM can go through the AS&SH spells and magic item lists and cross off all the effects and items he wants his players never to get their hands on. I'd be fine with that approach if AS&SH was a generic fantasy game, but it's not. 
As it stands, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is the Odd Couple of FRPGs: two individually excellent products cohabiting the same box yet living in separate universes. If you're looking for a solid, approachable retroclone of AD&D, AS&SH is a strong choice. If you're looking for a weird fantasy setting inspired by the stories and ambiance of Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, and Smith, you won't find one much better than Hyperborea. But these two sharing an apartment? The linguini will hit the wall.
In other words; D&D (or at least AD&D) is a poor emulator of exactly the kind of source material that it deliberately claims to be emulating.  Yeah.  That's a problem.

Read the full review here:

The Mysterious Morrison

I'm a huge fan of the Morrison Formation; the famous North American formation from which Brontosaurus and Allosaurus and Stegosaurus come.  Although it's very well known and kind of established what was once seen as a "standard" Jurassic fauna, there are actually some real questions i it is representative, or unusual.

In large part, this is because of the strange prevalence of diplodocid dinosaurs.  The Morrison is teeming with them.  It's got Diplodocus itself of course (two species, probably separated in time) plus Apatosaurus, Barosaurus, Supersaurus, Galeamopus, Kaatedocus, the newly re-split out Brontosaurus plus (probably) Amphicoelias

The most common sauropod was the macronarian Camarasaurus, however, and Brachiosaurus appeared rarely, probably living more in the highlands where it's remains were less likely to be fosssilized.  Nowhere else is this diversity represented, and even in contemporary faunas that are often compared to the Morrision, the diplodocids are much more rare and less diverse than they are in the Morrison.  In the Lourinha formation, for example, there's only Dinherirosaurus (which may be simply a different species of Supersaurus instead) and in the Tendaguru, there's only Tornieria.  Portugal's fossil needs more surveying (the same is true for Africa's) but in Tendaguru it seems abundantly clear that the analog to Brachiosaurus (Giraffatitan) is relatively much more common.

So the diplodocids are actually present in only a fairly narrow window of time, and really only had amazing diversity in one (albeit a large one) location; the Morrison itself.  Other than that, they don't really appear anywhere else, except in small numbers in some formations that are contemporary in time with them.  What does that mean?  Were they a briefly flourishing local family, or do we just need to find more of them in the rest of the world as more formations get to be better known?

It seems clear that the macronarians, especially the titanosaurs, are the most diverse and successful clade of sauropods; they lasted the longest, were by far the most widespread, and had by far the largest number of clades and specimens both.

But somehow, I can't get over the classic "Brontosaurus" and "Diplodocus" that I grew up with.  Along with "Brachiosaurus" (which was actually based on the African skeleton rather than the related but different North American one, so it isn't actually Brachiosaurus after all) they were the three sauropods that everyone knew; the most well-known, the longest and the biggest, respectively.  None of those is true anymore, but it's weird to think that the classic dinosaurs I knew... aren't.

(Sigh) Hopeless and hapless moderates

I've been banned from commenting three times in the last couple of months at Breitbart.  Not for saying anything that isn't untrue, or even readily documented.  For saying something that's too right wing for them.

They are especially hard on anyone who points out facts that call into question the Jewish narrative.

Well, yeah.  Modern Judaism is essentially the corruption of the Pharisees turned up to caricaturish levels.  The Talmud is little more than an exercise to excuse any form of exploitation (especially of the goyim) that Jewish elders wish, up to and including pedophilia. 

It gets difficult, especially in the wake of (((the Gropocaust))) to see the Judaic religion as anything other than a tribal supremacist cult.

How can you tell a lying moderate from someone who's actually on the Right? (I hesitate to even call them conservatives anymore, since the Conservative Brand has been so tarnished by losers who don't even attempt to "conserve" the little girls' room, much less anything else about Western civilization.)  Ask them if they support the same policy for Israel that they do for America.  Border wall?  Strictly controlled immigration?  Deportations of foreigners? Toleration of a foreign nation on our soil that refuses to respect the anthem or the flag?

If it's good enough for Israel, it's good enough for America.  If you think Israel can have it but America can't, get out and go home to Israel where your true loyalty obviously lies.

Steve reviews The Force Awakens... the comments section at Vox Day's.  I have tickets to see The Last Jedi on Saturday. But I can't say that my expectations are very high.
I finally saw about half-to-[two-]thirds of The Star Track Awakens recently because I have a little boy who likes the robot character BB King and demands to see it on Netflix. 
I really don't know what the fuss is about. 
Bargain Bin Keira Knightley couldn't act her way out of a damp paper bag. She's not terrible, she's quite pretty in a boobless, definitely-check-her-ID sort of way, but teeters on the verge of being insufferable for the entire film. 
D'Shawn the Stormtrooper is a bag of meh too. Apart from being incredibly sweaty and spazzing out because someone gets a tiny bit of blood on his helmet (so much for the training at stormtrooper school), he's a completely forgettable and redundant character. 
Dago Han Solo - gay. 
Actual Han Solo - cuts a pathetic figure, still dressed like he did in the 70's even though he looks about 90 now. At least his dog is still alive but even he doesn't look happy. 
Dork Helmet - Terrible. I felt like cringing whenever he flew into an infantile rage. They lampshade his difficulty enunciating through his breathing mask early on in the film, but that doesn't forgive the fact I could only make out about 2 words out of 3 - at best. James Earl Jones' elocution teacher wept. 
Grand Moff Rick Astley - I didn't believe for a second that this pissy ginger nerd was some sort of badass leader of men. He came across more like a peevish assistant manager at PC World. 
Carrie Fisher - they did a good job on the CGI to make her look slightly under 300 lbs. 
Gollum - dunno why he was even in this film. 
Orange Female Mr Magoo Yoda - I don't remember anything she said or did, because I was distracted by the way her eyes look like they're set in puckered bumholes. 
The usual teevee sci fi worldbuilding credibility problems exist. In Star Force'scase, we're supposed to believe that these people live in a society which has mastered cheap, easy faster-than-light travel, AI, and antigravity. Fine. But why, then, does everyone seem to be poor? [ed. note: this one doesn't bother me at all, on the other hand.  We have all kinds of fantastic technology in OUR world too, and yet most people are poor and getting poorer, even in the so-called First World.]
Overall I give The Last Starfighter Awakens two light-phasers out of five. It's apparently entertaining enough for preschoolers, but only for about 20 minutes until they decide to do something more amusing such as trying to shoot the cat with a nerf gun. The new characters are all garbage except for BB King, and he's just R2D2 after eating too many robo-carbs.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Deconstructing the Serpent's Skull 5: The Thousand Fangs Below Part II

PART FOUR: CITY OF SERPENTS  Really about half the city, but this is the payola for the whole module; finally infiltrating the serpentmen held portion of the city, fighting a bunch of them, and rescuing Eando Kline so he can tell you how terrible their plan really is and you can gear up for even more gratuitous snake killing in the last installment.  The "random" encounters you're likely to have here are mostly patrols of six serpentmen fighters.  (If you haven't noticed, yes—I emphasize the -men in serpentmen and lizardmen and ratmen too for that matter, because I refuse to bow to the politically correct nonsense that quietly changed them to serpentfolk and lizardfolk and ratfolk in the official crazy Seattle sources.  Now that I've pointed that out, I can probably just quit using the italics, though.)  There are also several non-random serpentmen guardposts with six or more soldiers standing there keeping watch.  All in all, you could conceivably kill a couple dozen serpentmen guards just wandering around town.  According to the module, they are disciplined enough to maintain their post even if they hear a disturbance from somewhere else in the city, which is mostly good for the PCs, if perhaps unlikely in real life.  Then again, who knows what snake men would do if they existed in real life?

For some reason there are also four vrocks (vulture demons) literally dancing in one of the street intersections, and they attack anyone who comes by.  Why the snakes haven't attended to that obvious threat is... I dunno.  There's actually, other than that, surprisingly little to do or see in the snake section of the city, other than their big fortress.  This is, of course, crawling with snakemen guards and advanced snakemen officers, but there's also a number of other monsters to fight in here.  Let's go through what you'll face in the Thousand Fangs fortress:

There are stats for bloodwine, a potent drink that the snakes like, but which is poisonous to most other peoples.  There are two "great cyclopses" that are dominated by the head snakey-head himself.  There are also two iron golems (with snake heads) that you'll have to fight.  How you can do this "stealthily" is beyond me, so most likely you won't actually.

There's a succubus spy, who works for the head-snake.  Supposedly the vrocks came with her, but why they're out dancing in the streets is... I dunno.  She'll pose as one of the dead companions of Kline, most likely, and follow the PCs around as a sympathetic help, looking for the best opportunity to stab them in the back (probably when something else dangerous is around.)  She may even get away and plague the PCs later, although she has no other role in this adventure.

The other major guest is the urdefhan defector mentioned in the last post.  There are also four starving, savage gugs, trained to not attack serpentfolk hiding behind a secret door nearby.  This means that Paizo treat gugs as if they're little more than animals, but in The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath, they are city-building and presumably civilized, if violent.  After this, and a fair bit of wandering around exploring other rooms, many of which are not particularly interesting, you eventually stumble across the commander of the snake guard, sitting in his office oblivious to the carnage happening among his charges.  In a moment that kind of made me chuckle, you can then go kill his harem of snake girls in his seraglio.  Unless you decide that that's too sexist or something idiotic like that.

There's also a named snakey witch to kill, with a bunch of crap in her laboratory of magical research.  There's also some strange thing called a "gohl" or serpent cloud, which is described as, "a conglomeration of thrashing, serpentine tails and three fanged snake heads with gold and emerald scales."  There's a room full of the sarcophagi of magically hibernating snakemen from ancient times, guarded by a snakeman ghost sorcerer who's own hibernation was botched or something.  It also tells you how you could wake them up, although how the PCs would figure that out or why they would want to is... I dunno.  But the snakes now living here haven't really figured this place out either, and have been scared off by the ghost, so they haven't explored a secret chamber behind it, guarded by a chain lightning trap and having a bunch of magic items stashed away in it.

More secret and hidden doors lead to the dungeons below the temple.  There's more guards here, unsurprisingly, and loads of imprisoned morlocks (like 200 of them.)  They can be convinced, albeit with some difficulty, to riot and try and join their brethren, which creates a nice distraction for you, except by this point, you've already killed almost everything in the temple anyway.  There are four snake-demon things here (fiendish spirit nagas, to be exact) as well as the actual body of the woman the succubus is impersonating.  If she's still with the PCs, that'll be awkward for her, and she'll probably flee.  You'll also probably kill the head snake torturer,  at which point they'll finally find the famous Eando Kline.

Technically, the adventure is over at this point, but there's a few loose ends to wrap up.  Do they go back to Izon and tell him that they killed his defector for him?  Do they go back to the old morlock lady and tell him that they rescued her Pathfinder for her?  Both?  Neither?  Do they interrogate Kline here and now (details of what he knows not included in this volume) because; I mean, after all the torture equipment is handy.  (Heh.)  Or do they take him back to the surface to rest and recover and tell them about the impending end of the world at his leisure?  Or do they just tell him and his elf-lover Juliver to get to the surface on their own while they continue to explore the city and kill anything that's left in it?

If they do the latter, there's a small section on the city, including some encounters, that aren't directly related to the module, so are left to the appendix.  Here, we have "serpentstone golems", which are animated statues of snakes and hydras with breath weapons—not a bad idea, and not unlike some of the old Tomb Kings troop types, as I recall.  There's other treasures, traps, and some giant morlocks to deal with too.

The bestiary includes, along with "random encounters" which are mostly patrols and guards of things like morlocks, intellect devourers, urdefhans and serpentment.  There's a few other things, but honestly, most of them fit poorly and I don't know why a GM would want to use any of them.

There's an "arcanotheign"—a strange herald of "mad god" of wizardry.  There's some kind of giant cobra that supposedly comes from Zulu mythology (it's a little ridiculous at this point to pretend that African mythology has anything to do with an underground city of snakemen, though.)  There's a folkloric Ugandan giant eel monster (same) and Zulu haunted tree.  None of which I can imagine having anything to do with an underground serpentmen city.

And that wraps up the penultimate Serpent's Skull adventure.  ISLES OF TERROR is moving along quit rapidly, isn't it?  Much easier than my CULT OF UNDEATH project was.

Friday Art Attack

Since I was starting to not enjoy trying to tie pictures to one of my three "active" campaign settings, I've decided to get rid of those tags from these Friday Art Attack posts and no longer make any attempt to link them explicitly.  Unless, of course, I have a picture that just perfectly fits, which by coincidence, my first one for this week does.

Good old fashioned yeoman soldier.  A classic of pseudo-Medieval fantasy.  This would actually fit quite well in DARK•HERITAGE Mk. V

I like the pseudo-80s vibe to this illustration, even as it is something bizarre and occultish.

You really can't go wrong with yetis, sasquatches and savage apes.  I'm really digging them lately, as a matter of fact.

Speaking of, an illustration of a white ape attacking John Carter and presumably Dejah Thoris in a ruined old city of Barsoom.

4e style Orcus and Demogorgon fight two PCs, including a dragonborn.

I believe this was the cover to a Gor book (yep, just looked it up.  #20: Players of Gor.)  I actuallly remember seeing this on the shelf in the book section of Wal-Mart when I was a teenager.

A decent reptilian demon fight piece of art.

Everybody needs ancient ruins in the desert!

Everybody needs people with gigantic swords riding T. rexes!  Unfortunately, there's a bit of a subtle anime vibe to the character.

Very much in the vein of the DARK•HERITAGE Mk IV setting!

This Mexican comic book is what Flash Gordon or Star Wars with trashier chicks should be like.  Check out that awesome fake Darth Vader!

An interesting take on a general of the undead.

An interesting sword & sorcery piece.  That does look like a woman, though, which is odd.

The Martian Maginot Line.  From the Destiny series.


I had sequestered copies of some music files on a thumb drive as possible parts of a hardstyle megamix #5.  Unfortunately, I lost the thumb drive!

Now, of course, that doesn't mean that I lost the files; I just don't remember which ones they were, so I'd have to go back to my big 64 GB micro-SD card in my phone and pull them again, and hope I get at least some of the same ones.  In other words, I have to start completely from scratch all over again.

This is probably OK.  Since doing that, I've gotten really into Heady and Project One, and picked up a few Tuneboy tracks, so I'd probably do it differently anyway.

Among the tracks that I could conceive of adding, although this is clearly three times or more too many, so it'll have to be reduced, are as follows.  I've put in red the absolutely must include:

  • Air Teo—Terminator
  • A-Lusion—Feeling This
  • A-Lusion—Let The Music Take Control
  • Arkaine—Lost in Eternity
  • Audiofreq—Helix
  • Atmozfears and Lady Faith—Pleasure and Pain
  • Bass Modulators—Anthem of Summer
  • Benny Benassi—Back to the Pump (Technoboy Remix)
  • Blutonium Boy—Dark Angel
  • Coone—Starf•ckers
  • DJ Stardust—The Sound of Vintage
  • Emax ft. Natski—Don't Lie [Tranz-Liquants Mix)
  • Genox—Future Memories
  • Hardforze—Slammin
  • Hauyon—TAWF
  • Headhunterz—D-Tuned
  • Headhunterz—The Sacrifice (Brennan Heart Remix)
  • Headhunterz vs Wildstylez—Blame It On The Music
  • Justin DJ & Davide Sonar—Techno Noise
  • Kuijin-Fu & MCP—Binary Wars
  • Machine ft Raw Manners—Self Esteem Fund (Geck-o Remix)
  • Mauro Picotto—Komodo (Zatox Hardstyle Mix)
  • Mike Steventon & Tone—Get Up
  • MKN—Bass in the Place
  • Nitro Man—Techno Prime
  • Noisecontrollers—Revolution is Here
  • Philippe Rochard meets Nu-Pulse—The Survivors of Hardstyle
  • Pitchers—Black is Back
  • Project One—Fantasy Or Reality
  • Project One—Life Beyond Earth
  • Project One—Numbers (Wildstylez Remix)
  • Project One—Rate Reducer (Headhunterz RMX)
  • Project One—The Story Unfolds
  • Ran-D vs Adaro—My Name is Hardstyle
  • Re-1st—F.I.R.E.
  • Refuzion—Euphoria
  • Tatanka—WGTD
  • Technoboy—War Machine
  • TNT—First Match (Noizy Boyz Remix)
  • TNT—Yeah
  • Tranz-Liquants—Problems (Problem One)
  • Tuneboy—I Will Growl
  • Tuneboy—Wackyjackie
  • Tuneboy ft E-Life—Devotion
Should be able to hear most tracks on Spotify, and all tracks on YouTube.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Deconstructing the Serpent's Skull 5: The Thousand Fangs Below Part I

The adventure that I looked forward to the least of the series.  Sigh.  Might as well bite the bullet, read it all the way through, and summarize what's here.  After this, I only have one more adventure to do and then my spread of all of the raw materials in The Serpent's Skull will be complete.

But before I reassemble those elements into my own creation, like a LEGO set where I'm building my own thing, I'll go and finish that same task for CULT OF UNDEATH; the last step which I kind of never really did.

Anyway, the official summary of the adventure before it starts goes as follows:
Once they have repaired the magical portal in the Vaults of Madness, the PCs find themselves in Ilmurea, far below the city of Saventh-Yhi. From Juliver, they know that Eando Kline is held prisoner somewhere in the city, and that an ancient and terrible evil is about to be awakened. The PCs must find the captured Pathfinder and learn what he knows, so that they can take action to prevent the serpentfolk from rising to their former power and threatening the rest of the world.
Entering the city, the PCs find out that Kline made contact with a group of morlocks, but before they can talk with these “friendly” morlocks, they must fight through a group of morlock barbarians controlled by intellect devourers. After lifting the morlock siege, the PCs discover that Eando Kline went on to meet with another group inhabiting the city—a race of vampirelike outsiders from Orv called urdefhans. 
To find Eando, the PCs must somehow deal with the urdefhans. Whether they approach the urdefhans peacefully or with force, the PCs have the opportunity to learn that the leader of the urdefhans, a half-fiend named Izon, met with Eando Kline. In exchange for the urdefhans’ support against the serpentfolk, Eando went into the serpentfolk-held portion of the city on a mission for Izon, but was captured and never returned. 
The PCs finally learn that Eando Kline is being held in the great fortress of Thousand Fangs in the center of the city. They must infiltrate the fortress, sneaking past or fighting through the degenerate serpentfolk guards to reach the captive Pathfinder in the dungeons below the fortress. Once the PCs have rescued Kline, they must escape the fortress and Ilmurea and return to Saventh-Yhi, where Kline will reveal the true magnitude of the serpentfolk’s plans.
In general, I'd suggest that that's too complicated, with three power groups of different races all squabbling in a full-out gang war for a single city, and other shadowy puppet-masters (the aforementioned intellect devourers) involved too.  Plus, the intellect devourers were done fairly thoroughly in the last module, making it also repetitive.  But that's always been my biggest beef (well, in the top three of my big beefs, at least) with these Adventure Paths—they're way too long, and they drag on and on and on like a tedious death march.  But, again—that's a structural problem that'll be addressed at the end when I reconstruct the elements into something I can use.

PART ONE: THE SHIMMERING SPIRAL Ilmurea is an Underdark (or Darklands, to use the Paizo proprietary version of the same concept) serpentmen city built on the shores of a vast underground lake.  This is a fairly transparent reference to the Serpentmen of Valusia, which Lovecraft hinted at, in "The Mound" lived underground now.  Along with "The Mound", Lovecraft's longer story The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath is often credited with being the source of the concept of the Underdark in the first place.

This section is really just an overview of the city, the factions, and the rest of the encounter areas.  There is another section after the module proper that gives a proper description of the city.  It's an interesting city map.  I'm always a fan of good city maps, and Serpent's Skull provides at least three of them that are all quite good.  There are a few areas that are "outside" of the "further detail" sections which are described here, though, such as the vemerak; a kind of "scorpion-centaur" of sorts.  For some reason, there's an area mapped and shown which is not described and you're supposed to discourage the PCs from exploring it (sigh), a gigantic sea serpent on the upper (and northern) lake, where the serpentmen control the city, and a number of gugs (8, in two groups of 4) that hang out in some giant fungus fields.  I clearly don't have anything like a vemerak, since it's a Pathfinder monster and quite weird, but I've got a sea serpent and gugs both already and have had since FANTASY HACK was first formulated.

PART TWO: THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE  The Forgotten People being debased descendants of the Atlanteans who built the city described earlier, who have now become morlocks.  Unlike the cannibalistic morlocks of The Time Machine fame, these are meant to be sympathetic (yet ugly.  Maybe that makes them more sympathetic to the SJWs at Paizo.) The sympathetic ones are allied with Eando Kline, the Pathfinder that the writers expect the PCs will be there to rescue. They are also living in the worst part of the city, because they are the least powerful faction, and to make things even worse for them, they are undergoing a civil war of sorts between the nominal leaders of the group and those who have been taken over by the intellect devourers.  Encounters with pairs of morlocks with an intellect devourer inside (who comes out and fights after the morlock itself is killed, which is admittedly a cool idea) wander this area.

Personally, I'd probably rather use some stuff that I already have, maybe with a slight variation.  I have my Cursed race, which are conceptually like Paizo's fetchlings or Wizards of the Coast's shadar-kai; that's close enough to morlocks that I'd rather just use them instead of creating morlocks from scratch.  If I wanted do create morlocks, though, the RTP race creator rules could do it for me—give them the kemlings night vision, the wall-climbing ability mentioned below and an Affinity for stealth—because it uses three, it will take the negative RTP of being at a -2 to all d20 rolls when in the presence of bright light.

But I'd probably just used Cursed.  And instead of intellect devourers, maybe just use succubi, but give them the ability to possess people.  They are incorporeal when possessing someone, but if their host is killed, they emerge and work as normal.  I might describe them differently than succubi, but daemonic possession is certainly a classic trope.

There is also an area with two gigantic elephants-sized spiders who attack without warning, and wrap people up like Shelob.  Most of these are dead, but there is a morlock with a Pathfinder symbol who's only mostly dead, and Miracle Max can revive him and he can fill the PCs in on what's going on.  He's also supposed to become a PC groupie in thanks for being saved, I guess.  Apparently the witch shaman priestess who rules their tribe has been put under siege by the possessed morlocks, and now you're expected to go rescue her first, although he's a terribly hideous damsel in distress (I do not recommend a kiss afterwards.)  They have to fight there way past ancient Atlantean stone golems (I keep reminding myself that I need to do stats for them some day), two elder earth elementals who are only there because of some bit of backstory that the PCs will never find out and four cloakers; a bizarre D&Diana monster.  You start to reach the possessed morlocks, fight some of them (and their intellect devourers), including their best warrior, who is possessed, and his flunkees, and some leftover alchemical golems that the intellect devourer from the last module made.

Not that's it's necessarily the PCs fault, but by this time, you will have slaughtered at least half of the remaining morlocks, and they're down to less than twenty individuals.

PART THREE: CITY OF FIENDS  The next step up to the next level of the city takes us to the next least pathetic group in the city; the urdefahn.  These are some weird "Orvian vampires"—fiendish people with transparent skin, big vampire-like teeth, and a thirst for human flesh and blood, which drains strength from the victim.  They can also go out with a bang by exploding in a bomb of negative energy if they're about to die.  Honestly, I think these guys are a little weird.  It's an attempt to merge the concepts of the vampire and the tiefling, and come up with something that's a little of both.  I'm not sure if I'd want to recreate them in m20, or just have them be kemlings, or something, if I were to adapt their role here.  They also frequently fly around on gigantic undead bats called skavelings, which is an idea I quite like.

Anyway, supposedly you're to make an alliance with these guys against the snakes, which is what Eando Kline was trying to do (although he never came back.)  There's lots of encounters of both scattered about.  There's also the ruins of an old Atlantean cemetery with some mummies hanging around.  Why the PCs would find them and the people who live here wouldn't have isn't ever adequately explained, but hey—D&D.  Whatcha gonna do?

There's also an independent player in the area, hiding out in an old building; a drow assassin.  She's not home (although you meet her later) but she's got an entourage of some driders. She's on the hunt of a mark that is in the prisons of the urdefahn, and might work with the PCs, since she doesn't care in the least about anything other than getting at him as easily as possible. There's another gate going deeper into the Underworld, and to keep the PCs from going that way, there's a rather silly unexplained neolithid with some charmed gugs, which is supposed to be more powerful than the PCs can handle, hanging around by it doing... I dunno what exactly.

The chief of the urdefahn is a winged half-fiend version, named Izon (which is, admittedly, kind of a cool name.)  The building that he's taken over for his "palace" has, as you can imagine knowing what kind of game this is, a bunch of monsters in it, only a few of which make any sense.  These include:

  • more urdefahn guards
  • giant-sized morlock slaves
  • more guards, along with "piscodaemons" which, in spite of their name, are actually humanoid lobsters with little Cthulhu heads. (I guess to Paizo writers, anything that lives in the sea is a "fish.")
  • the drow that the assassin is hunting
  • more "piscodaemons"
  • Izon himself.
Presumably, the PCs talk to at least one of the two; Izon or the drow, and get more information about Kline.  They also learn that a defector who is an enemy of Izon fled and joined the snakes.  Kline went to go kill him as a show of good intent to Izon, but hasn't been seen since.


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

African savannas

While reading a book on sauropods recently (which I really need to finish ASAP) I came across a section on predator/prey relationships.  It made the good point (this is not original to this book, but I can't remember where I saw it previously) as it described them.  The east African savanna is sometimes put forward as a mature, modern ecosystem, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that it is actually predator impoverished.  Namely:
  • The climate is particularly arid (I mean, not desert arid, but not super productive) and the large herbivores tend to migrate out during the dry season, providing a particularly lean maximum for predator numbers.
  • It's never been known without the specter of human interference, as Massai and other human tribes have been cattlemen in the area, hunting predators both as a demonstration of masculinity and as rivals for their food.
  • In the relatively recent past, it had actually several other large predators that are now extinct (Dinofelis and a species of Megantereon and Homotherium, among others).
Although the predator/prey ratio in the savanna is today less than 1%, it probably should be "stable"; i.e., in an ecosystem fully recovered after a mass extinction event, at 3-5% or so.

As an aside, it should be noted that the herbivore diversity isn't as high in Africa today as it was in the Pleistocene either.  There are only two proboscideans, when there were 4-5 in the past, for instance, at the top of the large herbivore guild.  This included not only the African elephant, but the "Asian" elephant, in the form of Elephas recki, which actually originated in Africa, mammoths in the form of the earliest known mammoths (so they're also originally an African only animal; like Elephas, Mammuthus is best known after it left Africa and was gradually replaced by Loxodonta), Stegodon and Deinotherium—many of which are contenders for the largest non-baluchatherium terrestrial mammal.  There are reports of remains referable to the mastodon (Mammut) genus from Africa from the Pliocene and early Pleistocene as well.

So for this week's (belated) extinct animal of the week, I offer up the jaguar-sized Dinofelis.  Famous for some fossils that are found in a predator trap with some baboons, which it was obviously eating them, as well as bipedal savanna apes like Australopithecus and Paranthropus.  It's also been suggested that they may have been (along with other saber-, knife-, dirk- and scimitar-toothed cats) have been capable and in fact specifically co-evolved to hunt proboscideans like the elephants, mammoths, mastodons and the like—at least young and old examples of them.  (Homotherium was particularly a hunter of them, it seems, based on bone isotope studies as well as the Friesenhahn cave finds in Texas.  Smilodon, on the other hand, seems not to have been—prefering bison and camels in California and peccaries and llamas in Florida, and toxodonts and litopterns in South America.  Given this, the evidence for Dinofelis having such a diet seems less strong than one would like for those who are making the claim.)

Still, although he's a little lost in the shuffle of bigger and more local saber-tooths, you gotta hand it to Dinofelis who is supposed to have eaten early hominids, assuming that the Out of Africa theory remains credible.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Demon Lords

After my Angazhan post late last week, I've given this some more thought.  I've given this some thought before, but maybe it's time to update my approach, since I've 1) created another "major" setting emphasis since I made the post linked below (TIMISCHBURG) and 2) made significant changes to the setting that I made that post about in the first place (DARK•HERITAGE.)  I actually haven't changed my approach too much since then, but some things are different, and they apply equally to the two settings listed.  First, the post I'm talking about: here.  Second, a brief description of what the three settings that get the majority of work on this blog basically are.
  • TIMISCHBURG: The most "plain" of the settings; designed as a place to run my alt.D&D game, FANTASY HACK, so it's the most D&D-like of the settings.  That said, many of the D&D vanilla fantasy races (like elfs, dwarfs, etc.) are optional modules that feature rather dimly in the setting; it's definitely a humano-centric setting more in the vein of some classic sword & sorcery type settings than D&Dish per se.  But it includes the option of being more D&Dish by making some of the vanilla fantasy races available and providing a place in which they can be from.
  • DARK•HERITAGE: more diverged from D&D per se; it is now a very specific kind of "Old World colonies on a New World"—the Hyborian model of familiar races and countries, but with a geography that is more Colonial North America and a setting that almost verges on Mongo sometimes.  Except less alien and more dinosaurian, or something.
  • AD ASTRA: the space opera setting.  Although it's got a lot of attention here, this post doesn't affect this setting much, if at all.
All of these settings have eschewed the typical pantheon of pseudo-mythological gods, or at least, it doesn't include them as "true religion"—Christianity takes that place, as it should.  That doesn't mean that there aren't powerful entities that may bear some resemblances to mythological entities can't exist, merely that they aren't "gods".  They are powerful monsters or beings, certainly, however.  This is actually not unlike their appearances in the Dresden novels.  Mab and Titania have so appeared, as have (in more cameo form) Odin and Pluto, so far.  But Christianity is obviously real in the Dresden universe too; it features fallen angels that possess the pieces of silver of Judas, an archangel or two have made cameo appearances, and the power of the faith of characters like Michael Carpenter.

Of course, in Dresden, it's not necessarily clear that being a Christian is "better" than having faith in... whatever.  Harry has faith in "his magic" and currently none of the Knights of the Cross are Christian.  That isn't true in my settings, where "activating" any power of faith (which is much more subtle than anything that, say, the cleric class will likely do) requires you to have faith in doctrines and concepts that are true, not just in anything.  Faith isn't a power in its own right, it's powerful because your faith is rooted in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is the only thing in which you can correctly have faith.

Anyway, this post isn't really about that.  It's about demon lords and other powerful "outsider" antagonistic entities.  As I said in the link, and this is equally true for DARK•HERITAGE and for TIMISCHBURG, my approach here is less like that of D&D exactly and more like that of Lovecraft.  This doesn't mean specifically that Cthulhu, Hastur, Tsathoggua Azathoth, Shug-Niggurath and Nyarlathotep are villains in my settings, but that I've taken a similar approach.  What exactly is that approach, you may ask?

At its heart, Lovecraft's "Yog-Sothothery" was the esoteric mentioning of several names across many stories, even by various authors, in such a way that it created the illusion of some commonality.  With very few exceptions ("Call of Cthulhu" itself being one, and The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath being one as well) these guys don't ever really take an active role in anything, nor do they appear in person except in extremely rare circumstances.  They do, however, have a "mythological" role in things; they are worshiped as idols, they are supposed to be the creators of various monstrous races (such as Tsathoggua created the Voormis, etc.)—altogether, they have a role more like many of the gods of the Warhammer setting, like the four chaos gods, Gork and Mork or the Horned Rat, than they do like D&D demon lords exactly.  They're very much more in the background than anyone like Graz'zt or Orcus ever is in D&D.  You'll never fight them.  They will never be statted.  The chances that I'd ever even consider one of them making a personal appearance (other than in a legendary flashback, or something) are probably very close to zero.

(On the other hand, if I ever get around to developing the FALLEN SONS setting, which I've only ever mentioned briefly as a high concept so far, it'll feature them prominently.  But they'll be downgraded to threats that are within the scope of very high level PCs, and will serve more like daemonic mobster capos or something.  But that's a totally different high concept that will have little in common with the other ones mentioned here.)

I see the demon-lords as chthonian entities that are leftovers from the War in Heaven, or perhaps who wandered the early creation before the creation of the sun, trying to thwart the designs of creation, prior to the Garden of Eden.  Today, they find themselves locked out of creation mostly—like Cthulhu, buried under the sea and dormant, or like Azathoth, locked deep in outer space, or like Hastur, trapped on an alien planet far away.  Their vile creations may wander the world still, and cults may be dedicated to them.  In fact, both of those are absolutely true, and will feature as major antagonists in any campaign I run or story I write.  But the demon-lords themselves, as the Old Ones in Yog-Sothothery, cannot act directly "until the stars are right."  This will be like the Civil War in Heaven 2.0, except raging across the face of the world, and the souls of the righteous and the wicked both will side with either God Himself or the Evil One.  The old world will pass away in a Ragnarokian apocalypse, but will ultimately be remade (or maybe resurrected), cleansed of evil as a reward for the Righteous who will live therein as a Heaven or Pleasaunce.

So, who are these chthonian entities, then, and what can we expect from them?  Here's a partial list.  Because I'm treating them as if they were Yog-Sothothery, this isn't concrete, nor is it meant to be complete.  There could be all kinds of other ones lurking in the background.
  • Chernovog (sometimes spelled Zernebock)—The Black Pharaoh.  Patron God of Baal Hamazi, and said to resemble a tall, handsome, supremely evil kemling, with obsidian-black skin, a crown of six-inch horns ringing his head, glowing red eyes and a wicked smirk.  Real life literature and folklore antecedents: Krampus, Zwarte Piet, The Black Man of the Woods (from Salem witch trial fame), Graz'zt and Nyarlathotep's own Black Pharaoh avatar.
  • Dagon—This one is the most similar to the D&D version of the character.  Almost exactly the same, as a matter of fact.  And why not, since D&D Dagon borrows so heavily from Lovecraftian Dagon?  I think of him as not terribly unlike Cthulhu himself, combined with the Kraken of Clash of the Titans fame.  Probably the newer movie, because although it's rather stupid, it does have better visuals, at least.
  • Charon—literally the King in Yellow.  I'm not quite sure why The King in Yellow got associated with Hastur in the Yog-Sothothery literature, but in my case, it's Charon.  He's a combination of the King in Yellow of the Robert Chambers story fame, the Greek god that poled a barge across the River Styx, and the Grim Reaper.
  • Tarush—The God of Undeath, who has fallen from the sky and now resides in hibernation (or in a coma) in a buried crater underneath the city of Grozavest.  Because of his presence, it is always night in Grozavest, an astronomical implausibility surely, yet it happens nonetheless.  Although the Royal Heresiarchs of Nizrekh are more powerful undead than most "modern" vampires or liches, the curse of vampirism seems to have spread from the spot where Tarush fell.  
  • Cernunnos—imagine an anthropomorphic baboon or mandrill, but the size and muscular build of King Kong, with gigantic stag antlers and a long prehensile rat-like tail with a stinger on the end.  Cernunnos is the god, especially, of the orcs, the thurses, and the ettens, who are all said to be his creation.  What exactly am I going to do with orcs, anyway?  I'm giving serious thought to giving them the appearance of new Planet of the Apes style apes rather than gray or green-skinned savages or even Lord of the Rings movies style orcs.  I may not even call them orcs anymore to represent this split, but I'm not sure about that.  I may, in fact, want to reskin the entire goblinoid groups into intelligent (albeit savage) monkeys and apes of some sort; goblins being baboons, orcs being anthropomorphic chimps, and thurses being the biggest, "gorilla" types.
The below are, at the moment, less detailed, but they should be obvious, more or less, based on either their mythological or their literary antecedent, since they are not creations of mine.
  • Ishtar
  • Surtur
  • Perun
  • Veles
  • Azathoth
  • Yog-Sothoth
  • Shub-Niggurath
  • Tsathoggua
Although Cernunnos has some aspects in common with part of Demogorgon's "portfolio" and Tarush does as well with Orcus, they aren't really very good analogs to them per se, nor are they necessarily meant to be, exactly.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as referenced in the Book of Revelations play a role, or at least provide a framework for some of the most significant of the demon-lords in my settings:
  • "And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer."  This is Chernavog; perhaps the least destructive of the bunch, since he represents "Conquest" more than any other concept.  However, he is the patron of the kemlings, not of any human population, to which he is at best contemptuous.  If he ever had any care for humanity, he has since turned his back on them and represents the conquest of humans.  But at least he doesn't want to exterminate them, so I guess that's something...
  • "And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword."  This is Perun, who also has some commonality with Khorne—a savage killer who revels in violence for its own sake.  I'm considering also combining Perun with Surtur, or maybe just using the latter name.  (Better yet, attempting to find an Anglo-Saxon equivalent: Sweart, or something.)
  • "And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.  And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine."  Culsans, the Judge and associated with famine—not mentioned above, but would have some similarities to Nurgle/Nergal.  Maybe I should officially adopt the name Nergal and focus more on the famine aspect?  The mythological Nergal was also a god of the desert, the burning sun, and the underworld—also associated with famine.  In Warhammer, of course, he's more associated with plague, but among the actual Four Horsemen, the first is the one that has plaguy connotations.
  • "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."  Charon, but also combined with The King in Yellow.  Orcus would actually be Hell here—a nod to his actual mythological roots among the Romans.  This doesn't mean that he would be the same as the D&D Orcus.  But there's not really any reason that he doesn't have to be.  I think of Tarush as maybe being the Hell that followed the Fourth Horseman, who has since fallen to the earth.
Well; I don't really have a D&D like Demogorgon anymore, although Cernunnos kind of fills some of his savage nature role.  But here's a picture of him anyway.  I don't know why he's full of lava and his heads don't look like baboons, but it's still cool.