Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Spookshow by Tim McGregor

I just read Spookshow by Tim McGregor, which is a free ebook.  It's actually only a fragment of a book, although it's long enough to be a short novel.  It doesn't actually end, except on a cliff-hanger.  Of course, if you sign up for his newsletter, you get the second book in the series free, which is actually a prequel to the first (or maybe it's just the first book, and he took a fragment of the second to create this?  Not sure.)

Anyway, while I'm not really thrilled with the way that he structured this; I'd actually have just preferred a freakin' real book instead of what ended up being a teaser, and I'm also not really thrilled with his afterword, where he seems to equate believing in ghost stories with being religious—I have to admit that I really quite enjoyed this book and would like more.  I signed up for the newsletter to get the second book, and if it's as good as this is (so far) I may well buy more in the series (there's nine or ten of them in total, counting this as number one.)

I've said many times before, and I will again, that I think that there's tons of room for horror elements in fantasy, and this is a good example of how they can be utilized—although you'll probably want to move the setting from middle-of-nowhere midwestern town Ontario to your fantasy setting of choice.  Anyway, given that the book is free, I highly recommend that you go get yourself a copy and try it out.

Also; kind of by accident, I ended up listening to YouTube videos of Think Up Anger and Hidden Citizens tracks while reading it.  Can't tell you how appropriate that ended up being. 

Monday, October 16, 2017


Estemmenosuchus is likely one of the ugliest land-creatures that ever lived.  Coming to us from the Permian fossils of... the Perm, actually (Cis-Ural Russia) in the Wordian age of about 267 million years ago, it predated the great die-off at the end of the Permian by about 15 million years, and followed Olson's Gap by only about three million years.  Olson's Gap, previously thought to be an actual gap in the fossil record, is now sometimes called Olson's Extinction, and is meant to show how the primitive pelycosaur and reptilomorphs faunas dominated by animals like Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus and Diadectes and the caesids were replaced by more advanced therapsids.  Bob Bakker, in his famous pop-science book The Dinosaur Heresies, published in the 80s, called this event "the Kazanian Revolution" and proposes that this is when warm-bloodedness took over the megafauna of the world permanently.  Prior to this "Kazanian revolution" (Kazanian is a regional stratigraphic term, which corresponds to the upper Guadalupean, which is when the Wordian is placed.  It gets little use today except in older Russian paleontological papers) the fauna was "cold-blooded."  (Although the book is old, much of it is out-dated, and it was kind of old news even when it was published, that particular chapter is still worth a read.  See if you can score a copy at your local public library.)

Although the words aren't very popular anymore with working scientists, who have embraced the cladistic terminology like a bad fad, it represents the turnover from pelycosaurs to early therapsids, and was a revolutionary thing to have happened, even if Bakker is wrong and the early therapsids weren't warm-blooded (although they probably were.)  It was a major shift in the fauna towards the development of mammals, and would be followed by further shifts into more advanced therapsid groups until true mammals finally appeared—right about the same time true dinosaurs appeared in a rival lineage—in the Middle to Late Triassic many millions of years ahead of Estemmenosuchus.  But our buddy for this week was an important goal-post to be crossed on the way there.

Estemmenosuchus was a relatively large animal; the largest of the two species could reach lengths of nearly 15 feet, even though it was a sprawl-legged, short-tailed critter.  It was probably fairly bulky, and would have weighed nearly as much as a hippo or rhino. The smaller species is more like the size of a large pig or tapir.  It's believed to be a herbivore that lived in the floodplains drained by rivers running from the relatively newly raised (and therefore sharper and taller) Ural Mountains.  Estemmenosuchus is famous for it's moose antler-like headgear, as shown in the pictures attached, but it's also famous because good skin impressions are found associated with it.  This means that it provides evidence of a kind that even other, more primitive therapsids do not (for that matter, we rarely have this kind of evidence for more advanced therapsids either.)  Curiously, this skin is not scaled at all, nor is it hairy, but evidence shows that the skin was highly glandularized.  This would suggest that its lack of hair might be an adaptation to its relatively large size and warm climate (i.e., rhinos, hippos and elephants are all almost completely hairless today too) but that it is skin that is already prepared to deal with hair and warm-bloodedness.

If this is all actually true, which it appears circumstantially that it well may be, then Estemmenosuchus is part of one of the very first terrestrial faunal assemblages that could be called truly "modern", albeit extremely primitive for a modern assemblage.

Estemmenosuchus was associated with Eotitanosuchus and may in fact have been frequent prey of that animal as well as the myserious "Ivantosaurus ensifer"—a very large carnivorous primitive therapsid who is believed to be a large representative of either Eotitanosuchus or maybe Biarmosuchus tener.    The whole faunal assemblage, as illustrated by a Russian paleoartist, is shown below:

As you can clearly see, the smaller Estemmenosuchus species has by far the more elaborate headgear.  These animals were replaced as large herbivores in the next faunal assemblages by tapinocephalians such as Ulemosaurus and the South African Karoo version, Moschops.  

Although these large-bodied sprawling therapsids, living among primitive archosaurian fake crocodiles and gigantic amphibians and primitive tree ferns, club mosses and other strange plants are, as I said, a "modern" fauna in the sense that it represents probably warm-blooded megafauna, it is still extremely primitive; only one faunal assemblage is more primitive in the Russian fossil record; and it has a close relative, Parabradysaurus present therein.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Star Frontiers Appendix N

Did you know that Star Frontiers has it's own "Appendix N"?  It's actually called READING FOR FUN AND IDEAS and it's printed on the back inside cover (in that weird blue script that TSR used to use.)  If I ever knew that, I'd forgotten it long ago.  Let me go through what it says, briefly:
The following list of books contains suggestions for reading that is relevant to the STAR FRONTIERS game. The more a player or referee reads for fun, the more ideas he will have to use during play or in creating an adventure. 
The books listed below are only a few of the many good science and science fiction books agailable. Most of the authors listed have written many more books than can be shown here, so this list should be used as a starting point. 
Asimov, Isaac—Extraterrestrial Civilizations
Bylinsky, Gene—Life in Darwin's Universe
Dole, Robert—Habitable Planets for Man
Feinberg, Gerald and Robert Shapiro—Life Beyond Earth: An Intelligent Earthling's Guide to Life in the Universe
Anthony, Piers—Macroscope
Anderson, Poul—Ensign Flandry series
Asimov, Isaac—Foundation trilogy; I, Robot; The Gods Themselves
Asprin, Robert—The Cold-Cash War
Bester, Alfred—The Stars, My Destination
Blish, James—Cities In Flight
Bradbury, Ray—The Martian Chronicles
Brown, Frederick—What Mad Universe
Brunner, John—Stand on Zansibar
Budrys, Algis—Rogue Moon
Chandler, Bertram A.—Commodore Grimes series
Clarke, Arthur C—Rendezvous With Rama; The Fountains of Paradise
Clement, Hal—Mission of Gravity; Close to Critical; The Nitrogen Fix
de Camp, L. Sprague—Krishna series
Dick, Philip K.—Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Dickson, Gordon R.—Dorsai series
Drake, David—Hammer's Slammers
Farmer, Philip Jose—Riverworld series
Garrett, Randall—Starship Death
Goulart, Ron—many short novels
Haldeman, Joe—The Forever War
Hansem, Karl—War Games
Harrison, Harry—Bill, the Galactic Hero; The Stainless Steel Rat; Deathworld series
Heinlein, Robert—Starship Troopers; The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Herbert, Frank—Dune series
Laumer, Keith—A Plague of Demons; Retief series; Bolo series
LeGuin, Ursula K.—The Left Hand of Darkness
Lem, Stanislaw—Solaris; The Cyberiad
Longyear, Barry—Circus World
Niven, Larry—Ringworld; Ringworld Engineers; Tales of Known Space
Nive, Larry and Jerry Pournelle—The Mote in God's Eye
Norton, Andre—Star Rangers
Pohl, Frederick—Gateway
Pournelle, Jerry—The Mercenary
Russel, Eric Frank—The Great Explosion
Saberhagen, Fred—Berzerker series
Silverberg, Robert—The Man in the Maze
Simak, Clifford D.—City
Smith, E. E.—Triplanetary; Space Patrol; others in the Lensman series
Stapleton, Olaf—Last and First Men
Vance, Jack—Big Planet; The Gray Prince; Tschai; Planet of Adventure series; Demon Princes series
Van Vogt, A. E.—The Weapons Shops of Isher; The Silkie; Voyage of the Space Beagle
Varley, John—The Persistence of Vision
Zelazny, Roger—Lord of Light

Friday Art Attack

Before I begin; a few Star Wars rumors.  They may qualify as spoilers if they turn out to be true, but I suspect that they won't.  However... I kind of wish that they would.  These are awesome ideas; better ideas than I have confidence that the creative team is likely to come up with, honestly.  Anyway, if you don't want what may possibly turn out to be spoilers, avoid the "dot points" and scroll below them.
  • Snoke is some kind of dark side vampire or mummy like creature.  In fact, the Brendan Frasier The Mummy is a perfect analog; Palpatine found him somewhere out in the vast unknown regions of the galaxy in a sarcophagus or something and brought him back.  Now, he's trying to regain his full power by absorbing force users like the Jedi.  Rumors suggest that at the end of the movie, he'll absorb Leia, and that's how she dies.
  • Snoke is the author of the prophecy of the Chosen One, and the whole point of it is to keep Jedi and Sith in contention—it's all a bunch of manipulation, not some kind of "destiny".  The prophecy ended up being self-fulfilling.
  • This means that Snoke is some kind of Ur-Evil that makes even the Sith look like chumps.  Doable, or trying too hard?  Don't know.  Don't know if there's anything to these rumors or not, honestly, so we'll see.
Anyway, if you're not here to get Star Wars rumors, I've also got a small announcement of sorts.  I've made sure to put some kind of paleontological image in my Friday Art Attacks, but I'm going to stop doing that.  Instead, I'll have a Monday post series, where I designate an "extinct animal of the week."  Needless to say, these will mostly be dinosaurs, but not necessarily always (I do love some of the classic Age of Mammals fauna, especially saber-tooths too much to ignore them.)  Because of this series, I'll probably not post much (if anything) about paleontology otherwise, so you don't need to worry about getting buried under a deluge of posts like the last two.  I'll just do one a week on Mondays.  (I'm tempted to do other series too, but let's not run before we're walking, as the saying goes.)

Well... maybe this is a kind of paleontology picture.  Do European cave men come home after a night out to find that cave lions have killed their women and taken over their homes?  Maybe.  Today, cave lions are extinct and European men are not.  I expect in the relatively near future that the savages who are today attacking their women and invading their homes will find out that that's what happens when you go too far.

I've had a funny obsession with orcs that are more human-like and less monstrous for a long time.  This is apparently an image used in a Paizo image, which is funny because Paizo's orcs are pretty much just monsters.  I don't know why I have that obsession; I guess it goes back to enjoying people in funny masks rather than "truly alien aliens."  Thanks a lot, Star Wars.  Anyway, I'm not really sure what to do with Gunaakt; orcs as monsters, or orcs as green-skinned tusked people?  We'll see.

Rather than Gunaakt, I'm finding myself more drawn to fleshing out Nizrekh, actually—the kinda piratey Egypt island country crawling with undead that are more sophisticated, ancient and maybe even more powerful (but if not, certainly they're very alien) than the Timischburg vampires.  Once I finally finish doing the CULT OF UNDEATH project, I'll start looking through more Paizo adventure products to see if anything can be lifted from them to continue to flesh out this setting, which is shaping up in some ways to be a smaller, contracted, cherry-picked ersatz Golarion in some ways, in the way that Timischburg itself ended up as a cherry-picked and customized faux Ustalav.

AD ASTRA has a bit more of a traditional space opera vibe, and this is almost a little bit too "straight up fantasy in spaceships" look to it to be a real space opera thing.  On the other hand; can I see the crew of a space pirate fleet marching into a town that they've bombarded from orbit to rape, plunder, and demand ransom looking a lot like this?  Yeah, I think so...

There's no doubt that the Shadow Sword class invented for DARK•HERITAGE and ported into FANTASY HACK, while based on the Jedi concept in most respects, is also meant to have more of the look and feel in actual practice to some kind of supernatural ninja.  I don't know that they'd be really overtly Japanophile, but still, they'd have to have something in common with the classic 80s supernatural ninja archetype, and they were designed as such from the get-go.

There's all kinds of potential dark lords; they don't have to all be demigods trying to conquer the world like Sauron.  In fact, I like the idea of regional dark lords; the idea of a Herne and the Wild Hunt, who has a tree deep in the Myrkwood Forest (note: I don't actually have a Myrkwood forest; that's a Germanic archetype, which is exactly why Tolkien used it) filled with skulls, and who surrounds himelf with Cat Sìth (or however you want to spell it—Scottish is a weird language) guardians.  Cat Sith sounds too much like the Darth Vader of cats rather than an actual folkloric creature, so I'd probably go with something like Cait Sidhe myself.

Anyone who liked The Grudge and/or The Ring and wants to see it amplified and brought into fantasy is going to love this bad mama jama.  Personally, and it's hardly the first time I've said this, I think fantasy is thoroughly enriched by looking through the horror tradition for inspiration.  Not that it hasn't always had a lot of crossover appeal, but sometimes it makes sense to overtly and deliberately cross-pollinate too. 

I've got more than one place where I get fed a steady diet of old, forgotten pulp stories (or at least their covers, which hopefully prompt one to go see if the story itself can be found.)  The summary of this story doesn't actually sound as much up my alley as I'd hoped, but that cover is unforgettable.  This is maybe a bit too 30s-40s pulp to be of too much specific use in AD ASTRA, which has more of a Star Wars aesthetic (even if both are clearly heavily influenced by 30s-40s pulp) but maybe I can find a way to work it in...

Do Timischburg and Nizrekh have some kind of connection?  Egyptian-style mummies?  Maybe Timischburg's undead were originally refugees of some kind of Nizrekh?

I believe that I probably grabbed this image from an old iteration of Wayne Reynolds' website.  But I lost track of what it was, and was trying to find for a long time the D&D book that included it.  Only to eventually discover that it was the cover art for a Reaper miniatures game.  Dwarves vs. undead?  Maybe that's why I have so few dwarves in the Timischburg and surrounding area setting.

I do still like the notion of old-fashioned looking space-ships coming up to lunar or asteroid dome colonies.  They're obviously limited in terms of what you can do with them, but not so limited that they can't be fun.  (Anyone remember the old Sean Connery movie Outland?

This isn't really an AD ASTRA usable piece of work; it's just Boba Fett with a double missile, a lightsaber, more weapons including a darksaber, and a pit bull.  It's Boba Fett amped up.  Cool image.

Although not utilizing the same alien races, obviously, Star Frontiers is another good analog in some ways to AD ASTRA; it's old fashioned pulp space opera.  Now, I don't necessarily like the idea of fighting worm-like Sathar, or working for some kind of "UN in space" kind of vibe.  I prefer a more Old West in space with settlers and pioneers rather than corporate interests and agents, or self-righteous exploratory government-funded ships (thanks, Star Trek, for that miserable trope.)

For those not familiar, this specific art was associated with the cover for Alpha Dawn Expanded.  There was a (lesser) piece of art featuring some of the same characters on a Basic book.  Together, the two would have had the same feel and appearance as the B and X of the Moldvay/Cook B/X series of D&D—which was current at the time, so that was almost certainly deliberate.  Star Frontiers doesn't use a system anything like D&D, though (sadly) because it was produced in an era when different systems was still all the rage... long before new system fatigue set in and most gamers decided that system for its own sake wasn't actually very interesting.

For the curious, there's a small treatment in the d20 Modern book d20 Future that is basically Star Frontiers ported over to that system.  Personally, I more just like the picture and the vibe that it gives off rather than anything specific about the game itself, which wasn't completely up my alley anyway.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Dating the Mamenchisaurus Assemblage

The Upper Shaximiao, or Shangshaximiao Formation has also been referred to by Chinese paleontologists as the "Mamenchisaurus Assemblage", to separate it from the "Shunosaurus-Omeisaurus Assemblage" or Lower Shaximiao (or Xiashaximiao) formation.  Although I had read many times in the past that it is dateable to the Oxfordian, or concurrent with the early part of the Morrison, it looks like in reality it's a fair bit earlier; during the Bathonian and Callovian, nearly 10 million years prior to the corresponding Morrison-Lourinha-Tendaguru-Solnfohen Formations.  While there is a radiometric date or two to back this up, the real reason this is believed is due to faunal dead-reckoning, and I just read a paper by a number of Chinese paleontologists (note: just because I just read it doesn't mean it's new; it just means I hadn't found it yet) that discusses this at length.

The lower formation may even be as old as 170 or so million years ago, whereas the latest part of the formation may have just barely squeeked into the Oxfordian.  The lowest part may have even squeeked into the older Bajocian.  The Mamenchisaurus Assemblage therefore probably is more like 160 million years ago, vs. 156-146 million years ago for the Morrison, depending on how deeply into it you go.  Of course, none of this means that you can pinpoint precisely in what year a dinosaur fossil died and was buried, so sometimes you have to take the best guess and average in the range.  If the Shunosaurus-Omeisaurus Assemblage is thus about 170 million years ago, and the Mamenchisaurus Assemblage is 160 million years ago, then the "Camarasaurus-Diplodocus Assemblage" of the Morrison is about 150 million years ago; although we can speak at least a little bit intelligently about the fact that that's the midpoint of a ten million year spread, and that we can say a few provisional things about how things changed over that ten million years.  But still; the point is that the Mamenchisaurus Assemblage represents an earlier stage of the "Jurassic Aspect" fauna.

Now, we have to be a little bit careful.  The map below of the Late Jurassic gives some indication of why the Tendaguru, Lourinha and Morrison would be similar; they hadn't been separated for very long or by very far.  As sea levels surged throughout the Jurassic, they would have allowed faunal crossover of large animals to a wide degree, so it's not surprising to see that we see either the same genera, or at least very closely related genera within the same families at all three locations.  China, on the other hand, you can see is quite far away.  In the preceding Middle Jurassic periods, this connectedness would be even more marked.  Also; Mamenchisaurus Assemblage animals are found in more recent formations than the Shanshaximiao, so some of the same animals may have actually been coterminous with the Morrison after all (at least the early part of it); but not from this formation specifically.

So when we see faunal differences, we have to remember that time and space both play a factor.  The paper says this as well, but the only variable that it really analyzes or postulates as having a significant impact is time.  That said, I think that they're on to something.  Let me summarize their main lines of evidence.
  • Freshwater fishes and bivalves found are consistent with a later Middle Jurassic age.
  • Mamenchisaurus is abundant in the upper member, but completely absent in the lower.
  • Short-necked cetiosaur grade sauropods like Shunosaurus are completely absent from the upper member, but abundant in the lower.
  • Extreme rarity of any coelurosaurs in the lower member
  • Relatively primitive megalosaur-grade therapods, getting progressively more advanced and replaced by carnosaurs as we move from lower to upper.
  • Calibrated phylogenies show an earlier grade to the Mamenchisaurus assemblage than to the Morrison.
  • Presence of primitive ornithischians like fabrosaurs in the lower member.
  • Overall more primitive sauropod genera, lack of shared families with the three formations of Europe-North America-Africa.
  • Overall lack of relative diversity (Mamenchisaurus in several species, vs. at least half a dozen genera of sauropod for the Morrison)
  • Fewer mammals and small-bodied therapods
  • No iguanodontid-grade ornithopods in China yet.
They note that overall there is less collection done, compared with the Morrison in particular, so more work can yet be put together to detail the differences.  They also note that the Mamenchisaurus Assemblage seems to be coterminous in time with the fossil asssemblages associated with Chuanjiesaurus Assemblage from the more southerly Yunnan province, which raises interesting questions about localization between the Yunnan and Sichuan basins.  Which, after all, aren't that far apart from each other.

Curiously, they also note that the Mamenchisaurus Assemblage carries forward into the late Jurassic in the Suining and Penglaizhen Formations, although those are much more poorly known and understood than the Upper Shazimiao.  They include this nifty chart:

And that chart doesn't even have the Shishugou Formation (of Guanlong and Yinlong fame) in the Junggar basin which also has Mamenchisaurus fossils, the carnosaur Sinraptor and megalosaurs like Monolophosaurus.  And what paleontological post would be complete with just charts and maps?  Here's Yangchuanosaurus.  Rawr!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Dinosaur predator size discussion

Well, I've grabbed a few "silhouette" images.  I can't find one that does everything I want.  Most people throw in T. rex and then compare it to large carcharodontosaurs, because they're the biggest.  But I'm more interested in the Morrison animals, and their analogs around the globe at the same time, at least right now.  Actually, what I was most interested in was in comparing the Epanterias specimen to Saurophaganax.

Just a quick refresher.  I've done a MEET THE TYRANTS and a MEET THE CARNOSAURS series of posts; the latter is more important in this particular instance, since Allosaurus, Epanterias and Saurophaganax are all carnosaurs.  I haven't ever done a MEET THE MEGALOSAURS, nor was I planning to, although they're still very important animals in this discussion.  The Morrison is the famous late Jurassic formation of the American West, and it is vast (although most of the formation is underground); famous sites like the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry and Dinosaur National Monument are just the tip of the iceberg.  It stretches from just north of the Canadian border, covers most of Montana, all of Wyoming and Colorado, the eastern half of Utah, the western half of North and South Dakota, parts of Nebraska, the northern half of New Mexico, and corners in Idaho, Kansas and Arizona.  Of course it's both overlaid and underlaid by other formations frojm other time periods with different fossils too.  At its base, the Morrison is possibly the very latest Oxfordian period of the Jurassic.  It continues on through the entirety of the Kimmeridgian, and ends in Tithonian, although it does not go all the way to the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary at the end of the Tithonian.  Early Rocky Mountain orogeny (the Nevadan) created conditions not unlike the Andean stratovolcanos along what was the west coast of North America at the time (North America had not completely accreted the island arcs and other terranes that came with the subduction of the Farallon plate under the North American plate, so the west coast was further east than it is today.)  These mountains could have been in the 20,000 ft. elevation range, much like the higher Andes are today.  Much of the rest of the territory to the east was relatively flat, and the Morrison is mostly the drainage basins of rivers flowing from these mountains into the Sundance Sea, an epicontinental extension of the Arctic Ocean that came down through Canada and relatively deep into the US, although it receded and expanded multiple times throughout the Jurassic (no relation to the later Cretaceous Niobrara Sea.)  The Mesozoic was altogether warmer than the climate today, as the Earth's climate has almost always been (so much for global warming) so the northern extents seem to have been marshy subtropical wetlands, while to the south it is much drier, and characterized by sand dunes.  Much of the dinosaur fossils are found in mudstone beds, suggesting that they lived in either riparian or coastal floodplains and that their fossils were buried by seasonal (or probably even more exceptional) floods.

Another interesting facet of the Morrison is that it corresponds in time with several other formations around the globe.  The Lourinha Formation of Portugal is believed to be coterminous with the Morrison in time, and has many of the same animals in it (or very closely related analogs.)  The Tendaguru Formation in Tanzania is also believed to be coterminous, or maybe slightly later (going right up to the end of the Tithonian).  Tendaguru was less marine (no Sundance sea) while the Lourinha was more marine, being right on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean (as it is today.)  The Morrison is also either coterminous or very close to the Upper Shaximiao formation of China; the so-called Mamenchisaurus Assemblage, although the animals there are not quite as closely related to each other as those of the other three formations, they are still very similar.  The Solnhofen Limestone of Germany is also the same age, but as it represents a marine archipelago of small islands, some of the European fauna appears to be different.

All of these formations are characterized by a number of hypsilophodont and early iguanodont grade ornithopods, a wide (even bewildering, as scientists wonder how they distinguished themselves without head-to-head competition) assemblage of sauropods, several stegosaurs, early ankylosaurs, and several therapods, including large carnosaurs, large megalosaurs (maybe including Megalosaurus if it hadn't been replaced by it's close relative Torvosaurus yet), medium sized ceratosaurs (including Ceratosaurus) small coelurosaurs, and even very early tyrannosauroids, often of the proceratosaur family.

So anyway; what are these big therapods?  Who were the biggest bad-boys of meat-eaters in the Morrison?  First off, it's worth noting that we don't know exactly what lived when; although we can detect some variation from early to late Morrison, it's not always easy to correlate differing sites across the formation exactly.  These animals may not have all lived at the same time.  Some specialists believe that Torvosaurus was replaced partway through the Morrison as "largest carnivore" by Saurophaganax, although others suggest that they merely represent differing environmental preferences.  In general, the animals seem to have gradually gotten bigger as the Morrison progressed.  But with the caveat that some of this stuff is speculative, I'm just going to throw them all in to be sure.
  1. Ceratosaurus was clearly the smallest of the "large" therapods.  Originally thought to be a hold-out of a much more primitive group (well, technically this isn't untrue) it is now believed that Ceratosaurus actually represents a brave new horizon as close relatives of it ended up becoming the Gondwanan abelisaur family which ruled the meat-eater guild in the late Cretaceous of the south.  He doesn't actually appear in any of the images, but if you look at the allosaur progression below, he'd be about the size of the "Big Al"—the smallest of the listed allosaurs here.

  2. Allosaurus is not only the most common, but clearly the most important meat-eater in the Morrison, and they come in various sizes.  The largest is Epanterias which is mostly not believed to be a separate valid genus anymore; although it might be a separate species after all (in which case, it would be Allosaurus amplexus.)  In the image below, you see an average sized Dinosaur National Monument allosaur (green) compared to the specimen that was originally named "Epanterias" but which is now usually considered to be merely the largest allosaur specimen.  Paul and Carpenter do note, however, that it is higher in the Morrison (i.e. more recent) than the type specimen, and therefore could well represent a different animal—although it isn't a good enough, diagnostic set of remains, so it can't be definitively called anything.  Whether or not there's really a late appearing, extra large allosaur or if it's an allosaur relative that deserves its own designation may remain a mystery until something else is found that can clear it up for us.  Although it's tantalizing to point out that Saurophaganax, the largest shown below, is also late in the Morrison (and to date, only found in the south of the formation; New Mexico and the tip of the Oklahoma panhandle.)  If "Epanterias" is non-diagnostic and is also late in the formation, could it be a Saurophaganax from further up north?  For that matter, what exactly is Saurophaganax?  A descendant of Allosaurus or a close relative that coexisted, but was much more rare?

  3. The next image below shows the largest specimen of Yangchuanosaurus (beige) from the Shaximiao formation mentioned above next to "Epanterias" (light blue), the largest Torvosaurus specimen (green) (once thought to be a unique animal named Edmarka rex) and Saurophaganax (maroon.) Torvosaurus was also present in the Lourinha under a different species, and seems to be a close relative of the earlier Megalosaurus, which although is famous as the first discovered dinosaur, is also relatively poorly known.  Even more primitive megalosaur relative Marshosaurus was in the Morrison, but not a ton is known about it.  Assuming the remains we have are full grown, it would have been smaller than Ceratosaurus.  It's interesting to see the clear size progression, although for the most part, they're in the same order of magnitude.  These were all fairly large carnosaurs.  The darker blue... well, see below.

  4. While Saurophaganax does seem to be the largest Jurassic therapod for which we have direct knowledge, there is a trackway found from the same era in Morocco, which seems to suggest that possibly larger animals yet existed out there.  The illustration above uses this trackway, the 19IGR, and scales up an Allosaurus skeleton to fit the tracks.  In doing so, it gets us to well into the big carcharodontosaur or tyrannosaur range, and possibly even rivals them—although be careful making too much of this, as comparing the skeleton of one animal to the footprints of another that lived very far away in both time and place is fraught with one possibly bad assumption after another.  Plus, for all we know, it could be an early member of some anatomically divergent family, like the spinosaurs, which are found in the same area later in the "mid" Cretaceous.
I should point out yet again, that the Morrison is my favorite dinosaur formation. Not only is it local to America, particularly the American West, which makes it likable, but it's also got that really classic sauropod-carnosaur vibe.  So to really kind of explore what was there, what the biggest and most interesting animals we'd find there might be, is a very specific niche dinosaur interest of mine.  I like the tantalizing possibility that there are animals here as big as any of the carcharodontosaurs or tyrannosaurs of the later Cretaceous, and I like the tantalizing possibility of the largest dinosaur ever living here (Amphicoelias fragillimus) even though it probably didn't.  But we honestly don't know a lot about the upper limits of size for most of these animals.  There are very few for which we have enough samples to say, and the largest, oldest individuals would be rare even in life, much less in the fossil record.  

Can we say definitively that Brachiosaurus didn't grow as big as Sauroposeidon, for example?  Or even Alamosaurus and Argentinosaurus and Puertasaurus?  No, we can't, because there aren't enough specimens, and the specimens we have aren't very complete anyway. (Not only that, the most complete specimen we do have appears to be a subadult.) All we can say with certainty are that 1) they're all in the same order of general magnitude in size, and 2) we seem to have a larger specimen of some of those other three, at least right now.

Even if it was.... there are only 12 specimens known, sometimes only from a single bone, of Brachiosaurus.  It is also only known from the earlier part of the Morrison.  Did they go extinct later?  Or do we just not have enough sampling to verify that they were still there?

Blade Runner

I didn't see the new Blade Runner yet.  This coming weekend looks pretty bad too.  Honestly, I'm probably OK with that.  Although I want to see it, I haven't been waiting with bated breath (not baited breath, although that common typo offers a fascinating idea for some kind of vampire trap or something) for it to come out.

As it happens, I think the original Blade Runner is one of the most over-rated films in all of science fiction.  It's really just not that interesting of a story.  The pacing is terrible, it's over-acted (especially by Hauer) and William Sanderson's character is just plain embarrassing.  There are other problems with the film, especially if you want to get really nitpicky, which I don't.  This is more my speed. (And I agree; I'd probably watch Air Force Two also.  But not Re-regarding Henry.)  For that matter, Ridley Scott is himself vastly over-rated.  Sure, Alien is a pretty cool movie.  I'll give him that one.  But with regards to Blade Runner, I often wonder sometimes if the only reason this movie is popular with the geek crowd is a combination of its visual design and the fact that it was pretty much the only cyberpunk movie ever made for years and years.

And maybe cyberpunk just isn't as compelling of a genre as we thought it was in the 80s.  Mad Max spiked barbarian post apocalyptic movies look dated too.  Now, the aesthetic of cyberpunk isn't a bad one.  Check out this collection of Star Wars figurines reimagined as cyberpunks, for instance.  And you can't go wrong with this awesome picture that made the rounds a while back.

Or this one.

And I do really like the analog-synth soundtrack of Blade Runner (by Vangelis).  I think a synthwave, purposefully retro-80s soundtrack would be entirely appropriate for AD ASTRA, for instance, even though it's a capes and lasers and swords space opera, not a cyberpunk in the least.  But AD ASTRA, like Star Wars before it, is capable and in fact designed specifically, to absorb just about any pulp or even quasi-pulpish influence.  Where Star Wars had an element of cyberpunk aesthetic (or maybe it's just sci-fi noir, which is pretty much indistinguishable) in the lower levels of Coruscant, for instance, AD ASTRA's urban blight ecumenopoli will have a similar vibe.  I'm perfectly fine with coopting the aesthetic of cyberpunk, at least sometimes, but I'm pretty distinterested in the themes of cyberpunk.  Back when they were written, they prefigured a lot of the same themes that artists like Ballard had already suggested (or for that matter, artists like John Foxx and Gary Numan—who could possibly tell me that the song "Are Friends Electric?" isn't a proto-cyberpunk song?)—the problem is that the reality has mostly come true (barring cyborgs—we just carry our smartphones around with us instead of having them installed directly in to our bodies) and if it has been dystopian, it seems nobody much cares after all.

By the way, that action figure guy has lots of Star Wars interpretations.  My favorites are probably, along with the cyberpunk one I linked to above, a basic Revision, and one more overtly in the Republic Serial vein.  I also notice that in his various reinterpretations of Star Wars, his Boba Fett analog is usually a lieutenant to his Darth Vader analog, and there's rarely an Emperor analog; Darth Vader is just the big bad guy.  In other words, Darth Vader is the Emperor, and Boba Fett is Darth Vader, rather than an intriguing hired gun who represents a kind of off-grid power.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Columbus Day

A day late and a dollar short.  Thanks for the raw material, Heartiste!

As he points out, the real story of the the discovery of the New World is usually buried, and it comes in two parts: 1) 95% of the population of the New World died without ever seeing a single white person (or even a "white hispanic"); they died from diseases that spread through the New World in what is probably the worst documented plague in the history of mankind, and 2) the injuns weren't nice people—they truly were savages who killed and tortured each other, who practiced human sacrifice, cannibalism, rape and murder, and more.  The notion that somehow white people are the only ones guilty of original sin, while the red, brown and black peoples are all innocent, back to nature, Green party hippies, is just so completely absurd that I honestly don't know how anyone has ever managed to take it seriously.  As the relevant point of the "16 Points" says, "The Alt Right does not believe in the general supremacy of any race, nation, or people. Every race, nation, and people has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and possesses the sovereign right to dwell unmolested in the native culture it prefers."

Add to that the other relevant points: "The Alt Right is openly and avowedly patriotic and believes patriotism, regardless of your nation, to be a virtue. It supports all nations and the right of all nations to exist, homogeneous and unadulterated by foreign invasion and migration."

"The Alt Right believes that the hierarchy of decision making employed by humans is identity > culture > politics."

"The Alt Right is opposed to the rule or domination of any native ethnic group by another, particularly in the sovereign homelands of the dominated peoples. The Alt Right is opposed to any non-native ethnic group obtaining excessive influence in any society through nepotism, tribalism, or any other means."

"The Alt Right understands that diversity + proximity = war."

"The Alt Right is a philosophy that values peace among the various nations of the world and opposes wars to impose the values of one nation upon another as well as efforts to exterminate individual nations through war, genocide, immigration, or genetic assimilation."

That said, I refuse to feel guilty or make reparations for something that someone did 500 years ago, so screw you.

In a way, the second part of this is related; although my kids try sometimes to argue with me about it, below is the only thing I hear when I listen to rap "music."  And as near as I can tell, that's the only thing anyone hears, including its fans and it's practitioners.  It's the whole point of rap "music."  Identity > culture > politics.

"But Mr. Desdichado!" I hear you say.  "That doesn't make sense, because a lot of white people listen to rap too! And Eminem!  And even Katy Perry and Taylor Swift integrate a bit of rap in their totally white music!"

Ever hear of blackgeld?  Yeah, I'm not sure why we pay it either.  Even if some of the payments are cultural rather than just financial.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Broad influences

What I've read and/or watched recently, and how it can apply to gaming—no matter the genre.  You should cultivate broad influences.  I've heard of people who only read fantasy novels.  I've heard of people who only read D&D novels, fer cryin' out loud.  That boggles my mind.  Anyway, just in the last few weeks:
  • The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini Everyone should read Sabatini.  This was always one of my favorite novels, but for whatever reason it wasn't available for free in Kindle, so I hadn't read it in many years (I do have hardbound copies of a few novels, printed in the teens and early twenties—almost 100 year old books! now, but much of his best output is available on Kindle for free, since it's public domain now.)  This is a good one, but I think I actually prefer Scaramouche and Captain Blood after having read all three of them again in the relatively recent past.

    Not only is he a truly gifted author in terms of style, but Sabatini is normal, healthy person who can write likable, healthy, heroic characters.  Major Sands is another interesting comic relief and rival, Tom Leach (a fictional counterpart to Edward Teach, obviously) is a truly frightening villain.  As with other Sabatini novels, not only is the confident, heroic, swashbuckling protagonist well done and an archetype that is sadly lacking in much of modern fiction, but the romance between a him and a woman worthy of his attention is something that few people even believe in anymore, I'm afraid.  So, we've got classic protagonist, classic love interest, and a quite clever plot.

    I don't know that all of his novels are equally good.  He wrote a lot, and only a few of them really became big hits back in the day (although almost completely forgotten today).  But I certainly recommend the three mentioned above, and I've heard from my brothers that St. Martin's Summer is just as good, although I haven't yet read it myself.
  • Hatari! Starring John Wayne, Hardy Krueger, Bruce Cabot, Red Buttons, and the ever-lovely Elsa Martinelli.  This is one of my favorite movies of all time, for a variety of reasons.  It's actually surprisingly laid-back and moves somewhat slowly.  The characters amble through the movie offering, often, little more than humorous character vignettes, as there isn't a lot of plot to go on either. So... what's to like?  Well, the premise is both unusual and incredibly intriguing; a bunch of guys who live on a ranch in Africa, running around catching animals for zoos and circuses (for the season portrayed, it's all for the zoo in Basel Switzerland.)  The characters are all very masculine and very likable, and into this mix comes a couple of lovely ladies, leading to what is the only example I can think of a romantic comedy for men.

    I've long been a fan of the idea (sparked by this movie and the brief scene in Jurassic Park II where they do something similar) of a team of guys who do this same work on alien planets with dinosaurs, or other big crazy alien wildlife (thoats, calots, white apes, and zitidars?)  Yet another in the long list of brilliant ideas that I've had and then done absolutely nothing with.  Nigel Marvin's odd dinosaur/nature show Prehistoric Planet has a little bit of this vibe as well, although bowdlerized for a PBS-friendly audience.
  • The Moon Pool by A. Merritt.  I actually just started reading this one, and it's part of a collection I bought for the Kindle on Amazon.  As near as I can tell, it's no longer for sale, but the collection is called 8 Novels + 8 Short Stories, so it's all of his novels and a fair number of his stories—most of his output.  I'll talk more about this when I'm done, but this is something I should have read quite some time ago, I suspect.  As Jeffro has been pointing out for some time, A. Merritt is a true lost classic; more popular in his time then Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard (yet less prolific than either), he can maybe be seen as the true face of the great lost, pre-Tolkien fantasy genre and emblematic of the memory-holed pulp greatness.  As Jeffro said of him: "The most popular story of all time according to the readers of Wonder Stories magazine back before the Campbellian Revolution had fundamentally transformed science fiction? The Moon Pool by A. Merrit. The most popular story that Weird Tales published in its heyday? The Woman of the Wood by A. Merritt. The story selected as the readers’ favorite out of fifty-eight years of Argosy magazine? The Ship of Ishtar… by A. Merritt."

    But again; let me save a more detailed discussion for when I've finished the collection. 
  • SJWs Always Double Down by Vox Day.  If you haven't read the preceding book, you really should—SJWs Always Lie.  It is one of the best, and in fact most useful books ever to come out of political/social non-fiction commentary.  The sequel, which was just released today but which I've already managed to log almost half-read while waiting on some things this morning, is more organizational rather than individual, and is just as highly recommended.
  • Planet Dinosaur, not to be confused with Dinosaur Planet, a similar yet inferior production.  While they're all fairly well done, only about half of the episodes are really worth watching again.  After all, I need it for my Hatari!-Jurassic Park mash-up idea!  A little longer ago, I watched Chased by Dinosaurs, the Nigel Marvin show that followed Walking With Dinosaurs and preceded Prehistoric Park, which put me in the mood.
  • Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard, which I've already talked about a post or two back.
What's coming up in my reading and watching?  I'm actually watching almost nothing that's new on TV, and I can't think of anything that I'm looking forward to seeing in theaters until Thor: Ragnarok comes out in November.  I'll probably eventually see the new Blade Runner movie, although I've always thought the original was curiously over-rated and not actually even a good movie, much less a good sci-fi movie, and I'm sure I'll see Justice League.  So, it's old stuff for me; I've been meaning to rewatch The 13th Warrior for a little while, and I'm trying to decide on some Halloween themed movies that I want to see; maybe the 2010 Wolfman remake, and maybe I'll rewatch Woman in Black so I can finally get around to seeing the sequel.

For reading, I'll finish SJWs Double Down in the next day or two, I imagine, I'll keep chugging away at the A. Merritt collection, although I've got a long way to go there, and I really need to keep at least some progress on my slow-moving reads of The Winds of Gath by E.C. Tubb, Enemy of Man by Scott Moon, and the first Universe in Flames trilogy by Christian Kallias—who I think is probably better as an artist than as a writer.  His book is (so far) pretty amateurish, but his cover art is amazing.  And being amateurish isn't a horrible crime, it's just that with so much to read on my docket, it means that he keeps getting pushed inadvertently to the back burner.  I'm also going to pick up the first couple of Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu books, in my continued exploration of pulp fiction that I'd certainly heard of but which wasn't exactly on my radar before, and I'd love—for that matter—to dive a little bit into some Seabury Quinn.  If that wasn't intimidating enough, a couple of books that are relatively "hot" on my docket include P. G. Wodehouse's William Tell Told Again and some Edgar Rice Burroughs that I've never read before, probably starting with The Outlaw of Torn.  After that, well—even though it's been decades since I read parts of them, I never finished the Caspak series (ERB) or the Mucker series (ERB) or the Moon series (ERB) so I'll need to read them all together in their entirety.  I've been wanting to re-read the Otis Adelbert Kline Mars books, and I've never read his Venus books, although I have them all on Kindle in a collection.  Lin Carter's Zanthadon books I bought in a "megapack"—cheap older books on the Kindle is really a brilliant idea, by the way—and some Thomas Bullfinch and Howard Pyle is high on the list too.  Probably all of these will take a back seat to the new Galaxy's Edge book when it comes out in a couple of weeks, although maybe if I'm truly in the middle of something, I'll finish it before starting that.  I'd actually like to re-read all of that series as a refresher, but I've got too much else to do for that to be a high enough priority to crack into the other things I'm reading.

Sigh.  Too much to read and too little time.  

Friday, October 06, 2017

Friday Art Attack

What's not to love about a gigantic, fiendish shark-like creature with bony, plated and ridged hide, bound in chains and stuck with weapons like some kind of weird piercings?  The seas of DARK•HERITAGE and TIMISCHBURG both could be home to this sinister White Whale of a beast.

Orcs in TIMISCHBURG are not necessarily the savage brutes with absolutely no redeeming qualities that you find in other settings.  Rather, orcs are much like half-orcs are often portrayed—except without obligatorily nasty orc parents.  They also aren't necessarily so monstrous in appearance.  A gray skin color, tusks, and pointed ears, yeah—nobody's going to mistake them for humans.  But they are more human-like than Warhammer or Warcraft orcs, certainly.

Sometimes in space opera, we focus on exotic but ultimately human-friendly planets.  After all, if we want people to run around sword-fighting and wearing capes in a swashbucklery fashion, we have to limit how much we deal with the truly hostile alien environments.  But sometimes a stark, gray, airless lunar landscape says SCIENCE FICTION as much as anything else does, and AD ASTRA specifically does allow for a patina of hard sci-fi aesthetics, at least.  Although it deliberately eschews very much actual hard sci-fi...

One of my absolute favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings is Book I; the hobbits' flight with Strider to Rivendell.  Although analyzed tactically, the Ringwraiths seem to be surprisingly ineffective, they are however, very effective atmospherically.  I find the Ringwraiths to be perfect as an actual horror element in the moat iconic example of high fantasy a fascinating juxtaposition, and think all fantasy should cultivate at least some of that horror element.  I've decided with FANTASY HACK, of course, to eliminate the wide array of incorporeal undead; there's a single stat-line for ghosts.  However, they do come with an almost a la carte range of options; turning spells into spell-like abilities, and at the upper end, giving them essentially the same spell-casting abilities as the lich.  Which, along with a fear-causing special ability and maybe a STR draining special ability (the Black Breath) allows them to be Ringwraiths for all intents and purposes.  But maybe rebranded a bit, like the picture above has done.

I've almost always taken an iconoclast position by default on a lot of questions.  If T. rex is everyone's favorite dinosaur (and it seems like it is) then I'm going to prefer a just as big carnosaur.  Just because, I can't like the same thing everyone else does!  I know, it seems childish and stupid, but it's a knee-jerk reaction for me that I've had for as long as I can remember (growing up as a little 5-6 year old in Texas during the time of Roger Staubach, I had to pick the Raiders as my team just because it was too easy to like the Cowboys.)  This is Saurophaganax, the bigger closely related cousin to Allosaurus from the very latest Morrison Formation.  So it's a local to the American southwest; yet another reason to love him.  Finds so far come from Oklahoma and New Mexico, but it probably wandered farther afield.  It may have been a denizen of the more xeric southlands, though—further away from the Sundance Sea.

A collection of concept art for space-ships for Bungie's Destiny.  These are a bit smaller than what most AD ASTRA PC groups would travel in, although if AD ASTRA PCs were more wont to travel alone, this is what they'd travel in.  That doesn't really well-represent the notion of the group of player characters as a more or less coherent party, though—so slightly larger ships would be more the norm.

Although I haven't yet figured out exactly how, I really love that gigantic, obviously artificial ring around that planet, and I want some AD ASTRA world to have one.

This is what a really nasty witch or sorceress; a real BBEG, in a FANTASY HACK game, would look like.  Complete with a nasty daemon companion of some kind.  Probably a Hell Hound, although giving it something other than flame breath would be interesting.

Holy cow, but if that isn't exactly the spittin' image of the worst kind of barbarian you can imagine!  I actually see this is one of the few human warlords able to thrive in Gunaakt, leading savage orcs, who willingly follow him because he's bigger and badder than even they are.

Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard

I've only read a handful of the non-sword & sorcery stories of Robert E. Howard.  I'm, of course, familiar with the fact that he wrote in many markets, but other than a few Bran Mak Morn and pseudo-Lovecraftian horror stories, I've read few of them.  Heck; some of them are rather harder to find that the Conan stories, certainly.

But today, I just read Skull-Face, his pseudo-Yellow Peril story, about a Fu Manchu character who's goal is to overthrow and enslave the white race.  I suppose this is one of the stories that the "oh noez, muh fainting couches!" crowd use to condemn Howard of the worst (and in fact, only) sin acknowledged in today's sick society: racism.  I, on the other hand, thought that the story was quite good and disturbingly prescient in some ways.

And, it must be noted, it has an unusual take on the Lovecraftian itself.  The character for whom the story is named; the main villain, is more than merely a Fu Manchu wannabe.  Heck, Ming the Merciless is a Fu Manchu wannabe, on Barsoom, for all intents and purposes.  But Skull-face's real name is Kathulos—and it's deliberately fashioned to resemble Cthulhu.  As with Lovecraft's creation, there are long-running myths among the primitive and debased peoples of the earth that Kathulos will rise from the sea and destroy the modern world for their benefit.  To quote a small section from near the end of the story:
"At night I dream of them, sometimes," I muttered, "sleeping in their lacquered cases, which drip with strange seaweed, far down among the green surges— where unholy spires and strange towers rise in the dark ocean." 
"We have been face to face with an ancient horror," said Gordon somberly, "with a fear too dark and mysterious for the human brain to cope with. Fortune has been with us; she may not again favor the sons of men. It is best that we be ever on our guard. The universe was not made for humanity alone; life takes strange phases and it is the first instinct of nature for the different species to destroy each other. No doubt we seemed as horrible to the Master as he did to us. We have scarcely tapped the chest of secrets which nature has stored, and I shudder to think of what that chest may hold for the human race."
Does that passage not sound like it's deliberately paraphrasing Call of Cthulhu?  I'm quite certain that it is.  Kathulos, as it turns out, is an Atlantean sorcerer.  He, as well as numerous other Atlanteans, saw the writing on the wall, found some way to turn themselves effectively immortal and post-human, and then slept as Atlantis sank, and sleep still at the bottom of the sea in lacquered sarcophagi, waiting for conditions to be right for them to rise again.  Which is the end to which Kathulos works; to raise his brethren from the bottom of the sea.  The black races were the traditional slaves of the Atlanteans, but the yellow and the brown races he uses as well, seeing them as ultimately disposable.  The white race, on the other hand, is to be exterminated, or at least nearly so, leaving only a tiny remnant to exist as slaves.

So Kathulos actually ends up being not only Fu Manchu, but also The Mummy and Dracula and Voldemort (he has an unusual control over snakes and other reptiles, and is often described as oddly reptilian) and the D&D lich archetype, all rolled up into one single character.  He's truly a great example in most respects of what I envision for the Nizrekh royal heresiarchs from TIMISCHBURG.

Of course, this being Howard rather than Lovecraft, the next passage in the story following that overtly Lovecraftian quote is one that is equally Howardian:
"That's true," said I, inwardly rejoicing at the vigor which was beginning to course through my wasted veins, "but men will meet obstacles as they come, as men have always risen to meet them. Now, I am beginning to know the full worth of life and love, and not all the devils from all the abysses can hold me." 
The protagonist and his friend—Steve Costigan (no relation to his boxer character of the same name) and John Gordon, a kind of 1930s era James Bond) are interesting characters too—I don't know if Howard, or any other pulp writer, wrote a hashish addicted protagonist, a victim of the Great War and the psychological toll that it inflicted on many.  Zuleika provides the romantic interest, and she represents a literary and cultural trend that's been completely forgotten in the years since except by a few, that of the Circassian Beauty.  Not that she resembles, necessarily, any real Circassian person in any detail, nor does she resemble the "moss-haired girls" of P. T. Barnum, which he called "Circassian beauties."  But it's worth remembering that for centuries, Circassian women were supposedly the most beautiful on earth, were the mistresses of de Medici Genoan leaders, and were highly sought after by Ottomans who could afford harems as concubines.  Looking at the pictures below, they may have been on to something.  In any case, this story is highly recommended.  It's not that long—short novel or maybe novella sized in length—moves quickly (as is Howard's wont) and is amazingly creative and interesting.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Revisionist D&D history

I think sometimes people aren't very willing to confront reality if it isn't what they want it to be.  Well, no.  I actually know that to be true.  We prefer pretty little lies that flatter something about us to harsh truths.  The problem with this approach, of course, is that eventually you run face-first into the brick wall of reality at full speed.

Sadly sometimes people continue to deny the existence of brick walls even after that happens (Amanda Kijera.)  But although this sounds like a post about political or social issues (and I use that metaphor all the time when discussing those) this is, no, a D&D-related post.

I recall very clearly that many self-described old fogeys in the D&D realm complaining bitterly about the comic book style art of 3e (and beyond) and the departure from very traditionalist pseudo-Tolkien fantasy in terms of races and classes and setting, etc.  If elves and dwarves and fighting-men and magic-users was good enough for E. Gary Gygax, then by golly, it's good enough for gamers today!  This perspective has been pretty thoroughly debunked in many venues (I'm thinking particularly about Jeffro's Appendix N survey.)  But the evidence was always right there in the games themselves.  An awful lot of the artwork in the games is very obviously comic book style.  And I don't just mean Jeff D.  If you look at the frontspiece art for the B/X books, by Bill Willingham, for instance, you'll see what I'm talking about.

Here's the Basic art.

This one isn't so bad.  I mean, sure—it's comic book style, but it's also relatively traditional fantasy stuff, right?  There's a very reptilian dragon breathing fire (I was never sure why they had dragons in the Basic set, which only took characters to 3rd level, if you recall.)  The chainmail bikini elf and fairly comic-book-like warrior, not to mention whatever spell that flying flaming bird thing is supposed to be are traditional subjects in a traditional manner, even if the art looks like it was literally drawn and inked by comic book artists.  But then we get to the Expert set.

What am I looking at here?  The guy on the left looks like one of the X-men, with his glowing hands about to shoot some kind of blast like Havok or something.  What's that weirdly dressed chick in the middle supposed to be?  An elf with really crazy braids?  A tiefling? I mean, no—that can't literally be true, because the race wasn't invented or named until Planescape came out in 1994, many years after the Expert set (although curiously Zeb Cook is the author of both.  Funny coincidence.)  But if you didn't know that, you'd sure think that she looks an awful lot more like a tiefling than an elf.

The little dwarf with his funky knife and Santa Claus outfit is somewhat more traditional, but he's still clearly drawn in a comic book style.

I think a lot of people are in denial about the fact that D&D was always rather gonzo and had all kinds of weird stuff that bears little to no resemblance to "extruded fantasy product" in its original incarnation.  And, for that matter, several incarnations afterwards too (it's not like B/X was the original incarnation.  It was printed in 1981, seven years after the printing of the original D&D book, and is arguably the third version of the D&D rules. Fourth if you count AD&D as a version, which seems to be the direction most go today—although Gygax stressed that it was a different game (I suspect he did this for legal reasons related to the acrimonious infighting between TSR and Arneson, though.)

Anyhoo—I'm not even sure that this is the most overt example, but for whatever reason this one always stood out in my mind when I was a kid.  I never really entertained the idea that D&D was a vanilla extruded fantasy product emulator. It always felt more like a Heavy Metal emulator than anything else to me when I was younger; in fact, that was part of its bad boy rock star appeal when it went through its era of peak faddish popularity. I even went through a phase in the mid-80s or so where the fact that it wasn't was one of the key areas of dissatisfaction that I had with the game!  That seems funny and even a little embarrassing to admit today, but y'know.  Kids are dumb.  I should know; I've got three teenagers now.  I wasn't immune as a teenager either.

I wonder sometimes what D&D would look like today if it hadn't been hijacked by the pro-Tolkien and only ersatz Tolkien crowd.  Clearly it ended up wandering away in different directions from Tolkien since then, but what if the gonzo had always just been part of the fabric of D&D, as opposed to an element that was actively suppressed for many years?  I guess we'll never really know, but it's still an interesting thing to think about.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Wake of the Watcher deconstructed

First, let me requote my outline, bolding the parts that have something to do with this module.  You may notice that my plot outline is much simpler, more straightforward, and less... gratuitous fan service of Lovecraftiana, maybe you can say.  But after quoting that, let me summarize briefly the adventure as written and then go through the encounters that it has to see if any of them will be usable in my framework.
  • A well-loved professor, Alpon Lechfeld has died in what appears to be an accident—although there are some suspicious clues that cannot rule out foul play.  For the sake of getting the game going, I'm going to tell the PCs that they've all been asked to be pallbearers and are named as (minor) heirs in his will.  He'll give them a few things, but most of his fortune is left to his daughter Revecca.
  • Ghosts are appearing in town, threatening (or at least frightening) many residents, that can be traced to a haunted and abandoned ruin of a former prison.  Why are they leaving their normal territory? (linked to the murder above.)
  • A rampaging Frankenstein-monster is blamed for some more townsfolk murders.  This, and the ghosts, are probably happening at the same time, so nobody knows which is responsible.
  • A mob of townsfolk wants to exhume Lechfeld and "put down his corpse"—of course, it turns out that someone has already exhumed him and dismembered his corpse, as well as apparently eaten some other recently dead in the graveyard.  Notably, an amulet that he was buried with is missing.  Revecca suggests that this amulet kept the ghosts in check in some way; if it's gone, that explains their extraordinary aggressiveness.
  • The Frankenstein monster was a creation of Lechfeld himself in an extremely foolhardy experiment years ago, and it has come into town looking for him when he stopped visiting.  It really is a monster, though, not some misunderstood something or other—he's killed numerous townsfolk viciously.
  • The ghosts have to be put down (salt and burn their remains) in their haunted house.
  • The professor's beautiful and friendly and otherwise hopefully quite sympathetic daughter, is missing.  Gigantic wolf-paw prints and other hints of that nature surround the area she was last seen.
  • Her kidnappers are, indeed, werewolves from the Bitterwood, and they've taken her to Innsburough.
  • To follow up, the werewolves may have to be confronted in the Bitterwood, though.  They're too good at covering their tracks to be followed to Innsborough.
  • The Black Path has Revecca in their grasp, and want to sacrifice her on the Devil's Reef by Otto von Szell, the manorial lord of the Innsborough territory.
  • Revecca knows enough about her father's amulet to use it as a key to enter the sealed tomb of Grozavest.  This ability is related to its ability to suppress undead activity in some way.  But Otto von Szell had his own ideas, and wanted to call up some undersea daemon (Typhon?) to destroy his rivals in the Black Path.  Namely, Grigore Stefanescu.
  • Stefanescu steals Revecca and her father's amulet, either from the PCs if they've rescued her, or from von Szell if for some reason they don't.  Maybe it's a ghoul group that actually carries out the abduction?  Ghouls from Dragomiresti seems like a good way to bring that into play.
  • The ghouls take Revecca to Grozavest, where Stefanescu foolishly intends to "rescue" a Primogenitor sealed in with Melek Taus, thinking that by so doing, he will gain a champion capable of dealing with any of the other noble houses.
The module as written has the PCs chasing a mysterious "Dark Rider" (and never catching him) to Illmarsh, Ustalav's version of Innsborough, only to find a clue there that sends them back to the capital.  Both are, of course, a riff on Lovecraft's Innsmouth, but what the module suggests is that the Deep Ones and in-bred villagers' deal is on the ropes, because mi-go have invaded the Deep Ones home under the water and enslaved them.  Both have brought all kinds of Lovecraftian monsters to bear to try and gain advantage over the other, leading to a somewhat embarrassing collection of fan service where you see just about every Lovecraftian monster that you can think of sitting around in some room somewhere waiting for the PCs to stumble across it.  Anyway, here's the vignettes in order.  Some of them will be useful to deal with the very reduced version of the module that I have, but many of them will be not only superfluous, but embarrassingly so.  Remember, that I may well use names interchangeably; in Timischburg, the ersatz Innsmouth is Innsborough; in Ustalav, it's Illmarsh.  The Whispering Way becomes The Black Path, etc.

THRUSHMOOR This is completely unnecessary in my version of the module, except for one thing that might be desirable.  It's a reasonably largish town that the PCs have to pass through, where they can get all kinds of rumors about Innsborough, foreshadowing how weird and disturbing it's going to be.  If you re-read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" you'll see that Lovecraft himself uses a similar structure for the same reason; in fact, the protagonist of that story wasn't even going to go to Innsmouth, and hadn't even heard of it before, until he started getting these rumors.

AMBUSH To keep Thrushmoor from being too talky and boring, they suggest that a cultist ambushes the PCs at the livery as they're asking about clues about the "Dark Riders"—a undeath cult assassin with a few ghouls hiding in a hay-wain that's lost a wheel.  When they ask the PCs for help, they wait until they're in an uncomfortable, flat-footed position and burst out of the hay.  Well, as Raymond Chandler said (paraphrased), when in doubt, have some thugs with a gun show up.  Barring guns, some undead thugs sound workable.

SHIPWRECK AND MORE TALKING On the way from Thrushmoor to Illmarsh, the PCs see a ship struggling at some lonely and abandoned quay.  The guy on it is a curious inventor type who's come up with submersibles, but for now the PCs are merely meant to meet him so that they can conveniently go to him and recruit him to help them dive later.  Since I have little interest in exploring the Deep Ones' lair underwater, I see no reason to include this.

THE MAYOR AND MORE TALKING  The Mayor of Illmarsh recruits the PCs (by force, if need be, it says.  Seriously) to help him investigate missing people, but what he really wants to do is take control of the Church, and be even more powerful and influential in town, without a major rival.  I don't have a mayor, I've got an isolated and disquieting manorial country gentleman, Otto von Szell.  Also, since there's no war between Deep Ones and mi-go in my version of this, there probably aren't missing townspeople.  Rather, much as in the Lovecraft original, the PCs are prime suspects to become the next missing people to have passed through town.  And then, in what sounds suspiciously like a joke, the mayor suggests that the Watcher in the Water (sorry, Tolkien, excuse me, Watcher in the Bay) is just a myth, and then as soon as the PCs wander near the docks they get attacked by one, which is a semi-mundane giant octopus, lacking all of the suspense and terror of the attack on the Fellowship by the Watcher in the Water by Tolkien; although a good GM could make something of it, I suppose.

THE CHURCH Churches in Timischburg are Christian churches, but here, it's a church to some sea or nature god or other of the Paizo pantheon.  Of course, in either (as in the Lovecraft prototype) it's not-so secretly a church to Dagon.  Paizo calls it the Recondite Order of the Indomitable Sea, because I guess after everything else, they couldn't just use the Esoteric Order of Dagon.  This is probably one of those scenes that you want to include somehow, but going into the church and starting to just kill cultists as soon as you walk in seems a little... I dunno, way too caricaturishly D&D, maybe.  Presuming that you find the secret doors at the rear of the church, you also end up finding 1) some of the missing townspeople's bodies, with their heads exploded, and 2) "the scion of the sea" a weird lobstery monster (some kind of extra-special modified chuul, to be exact.) And then, 3) the "slug spawn" who look kind of like the ear worms from The Wrath of Khan but who actually cause their victims heads to explode after a few days, kind of like the chestburster from Alien turned up to 11, I guess.  There's this whole thing where the slug spawns protect you from mi-go mental manipulation, but the sad side effect, of course, is that your head will explode.

I actually kind of like the head exploding idea, but I don't think this is the place for me to use it.  I'll save it for something else, probably.  Anyway, after getting this far, the PCs probably suspect the Deep Ones infiltration of town life (especially if they've read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth") but don't know what to make of the slug spawn, and don't know anything about the mi-go thing.

BARON'S HOUSE  I actually have a current, present manorial gentleman who's the de facto authority in town, but in the Paizo version, this baronial authority has been MIA (KIA, I should say) for decades, and his manor is abandoned.  Lacking anything else to do or anywhere else to explore, eventually they're supposed to make their way there where they discover the full details of the Deep Ones nonsense, as well as figuring out that something is seriously wrong with deal between the townsfolk and the Deep Ones, and that there's some greater threat going on under the water still.  There's a ton of encounters here in what is essentially a Lovecraftian dungeon, but few of them, in my opinion, have adequate explanation for why they would exist other than as a guided tour of Arkham Country, with Lovecraftian monsters as attractions in an amusement park.  I could potentially use... some of these, I guess, but nowhere near most of them, because they make little to no sense.  Anyway, here's a (more or less) complete list of stuff you find here.
  • Poor victims of the Deep Ones breeding program, who are now also victims of something else (see below)
  • A swampy giant of some kind (not sure why? Bodyguard of the vizier, or something?)
  • lots of cultists
  • the cult leader, who's head explodes and he turns into a pseudo-Dark Young of Shug-Niggurath on being defeated in combat (not kidding)
  • spectres, who are the ghosts of some old tax collectors killed by the insular townsfolk years ago.
  • yellow mold (ok, that's not necessarily Lovecraftian)
  • hounds of Tindalos, who are lurking around waiting to ambush the PCs in some room for some reason.
  • a shantak (yeah, flying around near the balcony hoping someone will walk out so he can attack them.  Sometimes I hate D&D, at least as it's poorly played and conceived.)
  • a moldy plant thing—a variant shambling mound is what they use for stats, but it somehow manages to feel very Lovecraftian in a pseudo-original way, actually.
  • plenty of Deep Ones (they call them scum in Pathfinder, based on the D&D monster of the same name.  It's kind of absurd that there are several riffs of the Deep Ones in D&D—sahuagin, scum, locathah, kuo-toa, etc.  Anyway, scum is what we get here.  FANTASY HACK goes straight to the source and just has Deep Ones.  They're public domain, anyway.
  • A colour out of space, complete with a well of sorts for it to hang out in.
SUBMARINE DESCENT I don't envision that my PCs will ever take a submersible down to the Deep Ones lair (or even ever conceive of something like a submersible, for that matter)  Besides, Deep Ones don't live in "lairs", they live in cities like many-columned Y'ha-nthlei.  In any case, this is chock-full of superfluous encounters as well, most of which I wouldn't even use even if I were to do anything with this segment, which I won't.
  • a "devilfish" attack (a kind of mini-kraken)
  • plenty of Deep Ones (ok, these aren't superfluous, at least)
  • dimensional shamblers
  • some kind of weird "fungus oracle"—it's just a big fungus mouth with tentacles and short stubby legs.  I guess the Paizo folks decided that a Zuggtmoy vibe was really Lovecraftian—which certainly isn't untrue, but I'm not sure specifically why they're supposed to be associated with the Deep Ones or the mi-go either one, except for "the fungi from Yuggoth" which I don't think is meant to be taken too literally.
  • mi-go, by the way.  You'll fight a few.
  • a gug (yeah, I dunno.  The flimsy excuse is that the mi-go are doing all kinds of weird experiments in here)
  • loads of brain cylinders
  • and finally, it ends with a fight against a Dark Young.  Then, while they're on their way back to the surface, the mi-go laboratory that covers the Deep Ones lair collapses.
  • as an aside, they propose that the Deep Ones will eventually return and things will return to normal before too long.  Assuming that the PCs don't massacre everyone in town for being a vile cultist, of course.