Friday, February 15, 2019

D&D and Tolkien

For many, Dragon #95 has a super-important article by Gary Gygax about Tolkien and his influence on the game.  I think there are some reasons to take some of this article with a grain of salt; after all, at the time, TSR was struggling with legal issues between Saul Zaentz's Tolkien Enterprises.

That said, I think he's probably largely correct when he states that he doesn't really like Tolkien all that much, and mostly only included Tolkienisms because of perceived strong demand from his players.  Let me reiterate a few passages:
By the tender age of twelve, I was an avid fan of the pulps (magazines of those genres), and I ranged afield to assimilate whatever I could find which even vaguely related to these exciting yarns.  
Meanwhile, I was devouring ancient and medieval history, tales of the American frontier, historical novels of all sorts, and the Hornblower stories in the old Saturday Evening Post. Somewhere I came across a story by Robert E. Howard, an early taste of the elixir of fantasy to which I rapidly became addicted. Even now I vividly recall my first perusal of Conan the Conqueror, Howard's only full-length novel. After I finished reading that piece of sword & sorcery literature for the first time, my concepts of adventure were never quite the same again. 
From these literary fruits came the seeds which grew into today's most popular roleplaying games. The concepts bloomed, producing their current forms, when fertilized by my early desire to play games of all sorts, my interest in devising my own, and my active participation in military simulation games. The last employed either miniature figures and models, or boards and counters, or combinations of all those. As a matter of observable fact, both game systems are still growing, ever changing, and I do not expect them to slow let alone wither for many years to come! 
A careful examination of the games will quickly reveal that the major influences are Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, A. Merritt, and H. P. Lovecraft. Only slightly lesser influence came from Roger Zelazny, E. R. Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer, and many others. Though I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit, I found the Ring Trilogy . . . well, tedious. The action dragged, and it smacked of an allegory of the struggle of the little common working folk of England against the threat of Hitler's Nazi evil. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Professor's dedicated readers, I must say that I was so bored with his tomes that I took nearly three weeks to finish them. 
Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite lowpowered (in terms of the D&D® game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games. The Professor drops Tom Bombadil, my personal favorite, like the proverbial hot potato; had he been allowed to enter the action of the books, no fuzzy-footed manling would have been needed to undergo the trials and tribulations of the quest to destroy the Ring. Unfortunately, no character of Bombadil's power can enter the games, either  for the selfsame reasons! The wicked Sauron is poorly developed, virtually depersonalized, and at the end blows away in a cloud of evil smoke . . . poof! Nothing usable there. The mighty ring is nothing more than a standard ring of invisibility, found in the myths and legends of most cultures (albeit with a nasty curse upon it). No influence here, either. . . .
Of course, his reading of Tolkien is extremely facile.  He's much less likely to incur the wrath of Tolkien's fans by being bored by Lord of the Rings than he is to have made the ridiculous claim that it's allegorical of World War II (especially odd considering that it was at least half written before the war.)  I've rarely ever found anyone who thought Tom Bombadil was the most interesting character and wish he'd... what, gone and fought Sauron in a duel?

Well, whatever.  Nobody has to like the Lord of the Rings, even if one's reasons for not doing so are banal and based more on an obvious misunderstanding than anything else.  But rather than talk about whether he should have included more Tolkienisms, I think the more interesting question is in this small selected quote:
The seeming parallels and inspirations are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Tolkien's literature. Frankly, to attract those readers  and often at the urging of persons who were playing prototypical forms of D&D games  I used certain names and attributes in a superficial manner, merely to get their attention! I knew full well that the facade would be dispelled by the actualities of play. I relied on the power of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game to overcome the objections which would naturally occur when diehard Tolkien enthusiasts discovered the dissimilarity. This proved to be the case far more often than not. Tolkien fans entered the D&D game fold, and became a part of its eager audience, despite the fact that only a minute trace of the Professor's work can be found in the games. As anyone familiar with both D&D games and Tolkien works can affirm, there is no resemblance between the two, and it is well nigh impossible to recreate any Tolkien-based fantasy while remaining within the boundaries of the game system.
See, that right there was always my primary disconnect with D&D.  Maybe almost everyone else did get over the bait and switch, but I didn't.  I found D&D more and more strange precisely because it became obvious that I couldn't recreate anything that resembled what I loved about fantasy literature while remaining within the boundaries of the game system.

And not just Tolkien, although obviously that was my favorite.  Quite honestly, in spite of the fact that Gygax claims inspiration (and it can be found here and there) in authors like Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft, Merritt, Burroughs, etc. the reality is that the game doesn't really resemble anything that any of them wrote either.  And I cordially (or maybe it's not as cordial as it should be) dislike the nebbish, anti-pulp crap of guys like Moorcock, de Camp, Farmer, and Zelazny, etc. that Gygax cites as as important as guys that I do like much better.

But let's face it; when my junior high colleagues were spending their time during class doodling dungeons on graph paper, I was doodling Christopher Tolkien style overland maps instead.  The degree to which I couldn't replicate something that felt more like the Prydain books or the Tolkien books, or some of the other high fantasy that I was mostly reading at the time was a major turn-off to me.

Today, I read much less high fantasy, but it's not really fair to say that I like sword & sorcery better than high fantasy, or that dungeoncrawling bears any more resemblance to sword & sorcery than it does to high fantasy anyway.  To be perfectly honest, I'd have had the exact same complaint about D&D if I had focused more on the Burroughs and Howard rather than Tolkien as my main inspiration back in junior high.

I'm not actually quite sure what to call the kind of fantasy I prefer now, honestly.  Certainly I'm a  big fan of stuff that borrows liberally from both high fantasy and sword & sorcery in many ways; much more of the themes and characterizations of the latter but with literary structure that more closely resembles the former.  And clearly I'm a huge fan of some genre splicing, particularly with regards to horror conventions, which create a weird hybrid of swashbuckling action and dark fantasy horror.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Music Is My Life

As my last post shows, the 80s were a great time from a pop culture perspective, all things considered.  Musically especially, and not only do I love 80s New Wave even today, but for many decades, most of the music I listened to was literally and only marginally evolved from 80s New Wave to begin with.

That said, the last five years or so has been my big exploration of a totally different musical scene; the rave scene of hard trance, hardstyle, progressive trance, some hard house here and there, and the various permutation of acid into techno, trance, and other styles that flourished from the late 90s to the mid 00s in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Switzerland, northern Italy, etc.  The scene is still going with new stuff even today, but most of the real classics come from that window.

Anyway, here's two versions of one of my favorites from this era, DJ Dean's "Music Is My Life."  While there are actually several really good versions of it, the best one, I think, is the Dave Joy Remix.  Dave Joy is actually Michael Hunziker, a Swiss DJ who had a few hits of his own, a few hits under a collaborative name with a few friends (Basic Dawn and Schattenmann) and who did a few great remixes here and there too.  The other version is by A*S*Y*S and is called the A*S*Y*S Acid Is My Life Remix, which shouldn't be too surprising, but it actually has a lot less of the iconic acid sound than you'd expect, and is instead a real percussion pounder with complicated, head-crushing breakbeats.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

For some reason, I've had that song "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Deep Blue Something stuck in my head this morning.  I think I heard it somewhere a few days ago and now I can't get rid of it.  It's a curious song; as far as a one-hit wonder jangle pop song goes, I suppose it's not bad, but I can never stop thinking about the fact that actually Breakfast at Tiffany's is a phenomenally terrible movie, and one of the few things about it that is a positive note is Andy Rooney's hilarious portrayal of neighbor Mr. Yunioshi—which naturally people now complain about as "problematic" although nobody (including Asians) ever thought so for at least thirty years after the movie was made.

No, mostly the problem with the movie is that it romanticizes the exploits of a a bunch of dysfunctional, psychologically broken people that are unrelatable and unlikable.  It really makes me wonder what kind of person would write the novella on which it was based, and who would have thought that it was a good idea to film.  I also wonder about it's "classic-ness"—in the days before the internet and the ability to personalize our experience and taste, it seems very likely to me that it's considered a classic because the broken, dysfunctional Hollywood and media types who eat this kind of crap up tell us that it is.  Other than the guy in the song by Deep Blue Something, I don't actually know anyone who likes the movie.  And curiously, he actually wanted to use the movie Roman Holiday, which is a much more likable movie, but he thought the title was too plain.  It's a rather sad commentary on how early the rot and decline of America had already set in that such a movie was made and was a major headliner title with major stars even as far back as 1961.

On the other hand—the famous theme song of the movie, by Henry Mancini, which is of course "Moon River" is an astounding track, and I even think Audrey Hepburn's inartful, unpolished, vulnerable performance is a big part of why it succeeds.

Of course by 1961 we know that American culture was about to take a nose-dive into the nihilistic and hateful counter-culture that poisoned the better part of a decade and a half of fashion, music, movies and more until there was a revival of sorts in the 1980s, right in time for my own adolescence.  But what we didn't understand at the time, or even until many years later, was that the 80s was merely an echo, a last gasp of a Western civilization trying to assert itself before being overwhelmed by anti-Western Civilization which followed and throttled it in the years since.  I don't even say Americanism necessarily; one aspect of the 80s (especially with regards to pop music) was that it was Anglic rather than specifically American.  And it's no accident that both America and the UK were presided over by last gasp champions of Western civilization, at least in some respects, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

But their efforts were doomed to failure, not because of defeat from without, but because of betrayal from within.  The "Right" as encapsulated by George Bush and the neo-conservatives was never part of the Right at all; they were always Trotskyite anti-nationalists who wanted to destroy America and Great Britain so that they could rule over the deracinated globalist empire that they tried to forge using American blood and money.  Sigh.  That said, the 80s did leave us with a few gems of pop culture nonetheless, and although American culture was healthier in the 50s and early 60s than it was in the 80s, in most respects, I still prefer the 80s because it's my generation.  And even the American music that I like from the 80s tries to sound British half of the time, but my favorite music is usually made by actual Brits.  For instance; another movie track is "If You Leave" by OMD.  Curiously, when the original ending for Pretty In Pink tested badly (any normal person could have told Hughes that it would, but of course, who in Hollywood has ever understood the psychology of normal people?) he asked OMD to whip up another song to match the re-recorded ending, and with less than 24 hours to do it, they came up with their biggest hit by far, and still to this day one of my favorite songs of the entire 80s milieu.

From a movie that isn't nearly as terrible was Breakfast at Tiffany's, of course, but which is also not really all that great either.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Rise of the Runelords and DH5

I like poking around in the online catalogs of public libraries near me, and using interlibrary loan to get stuff that's often out of scope for my own public library.  When I was younger, I was a HUGE proponent (and user) of the public library; my experience is somewhat soured lately both because like every other facet of the government it's turned into a profound well of anti-American virtue-signaling, and like every other public commons, it's been over-run and taken over by Fake Americans who make the place unappealing as a destination.  Who would have thought?  When I was 13-15 or so and couldn't drive yet, I would literally ride my bike more than half an hour one way deep into downtown Bryan (OK, Bryan wasn't a super big town, so downtown was modest) almost weekly during the height of the hot, humid Texas summers to spend a few hours browsing the shelves of the library, coming home with a backpack full of material to keep me busy that week.

Now that I obviously can drive but don't even need to because I live within a 15 minute walk of the public library, I rarely pop in except to pick up something that I've put on hold remotely.  Sad how that's changed.

But regardless, I found that the Anniversary Edition combined, compiled, and updated Rise of the Runelords campaign was available via interlibrary loan, and I went and requested it.  I just finished this morning the last few pages (to be honest, I skimmed the last sections which were new rules and new magic items, because I don't care that much about mechanics, and I don't play the Pathfinder system anyway.)

But it was interesting to read, and other than those specific last appendices (and some monster and character statblocks, although I did skim them to make sure I had the gist of them, at least), I actually read the whole thing.  I actually played almost half of it once long ago when it was still a 3.5 product, so it's not like I didn't know what to expect.  I was disappointed yet not surprised to see it swamped with D&Disms; references to not traveling because of the expectation of various teleportation spells or whatever, everything is a dungeon, everywhere is built on top of a dungeon, etc.  There are actually quite a few interesting and compelling ideas in there, but they are often breezed over and then loving detail is given to describing room after room after room with idiotic traps that make no verisimilitudinistic sense whatsoever, etc.  But although I was disappointed to see that, it's hardly like I was surprised.  What I hoped to find was that there was value to be had in the thing anyway, even if it had to be carefully extracted like a miner working a difficult to reach vein of precious metal buried in a difficult matrix of gangue.  How's that for a tortuous metaphor?

One thing that immediately leapt to mind, although it's a very big picture idea, and unrelated very much to the specific details, is that Varisia, the region in which this takes place, is very much what I need from my Hill Country DH5 development, and one or two of the details strikes me as superbly usable in my own milieu.  By this I mean specifically that the region is a frontier or backcountry region, but is subject to the influence of two large, rival city-states.  There are a number of other towns and settlements, but many of them—probably most of them—have some sort of loose vassalage or client relationship with one of the two city-states.  This doesn't mean that they aren't small and isolated and largely either independent in their day to day operations, or at least autonomous, but it does also mean that there's reason for them to exist, trade relationships, occasional feudal/vassal obligations to be fulfilled, etc. that makes for some interesting and believable reasons for them to exist and for people to travel from one to the other, especially people like the PCs who aren't likely to be rooted artisans, farmers or laborers or whatever.  And the fact that there are two rival city-states out there means that there is also reason for politics, skulduggery, intrigue, and more.  Even in the hinterlands, where agents of Magnimar and Korvasa might vie for influence with a settlement looking for protection from one or the other against hazards of the wilderness in exchange for exclusive access to mineral or lumber rights, or control of a strategic pass or ford or trade route, or whatever the case may be.

Anyway, I'm certainly not going to go and do a whole Rise of the Runelords Deconstructed, or anything like that.  In fact, I'm not going to do any of those types of posts anymore, I don't think.  That experiment was kind of played out already, and I can't imagine that I'd enjoy doing it again very much.  But reading these at high level and seeing if anything looks so compelling that I need to strip mine it out of the modules might be workable.  I'll probably read the Curse of the Crimson Throne too, which is the next Adventure Path after Rise of the Runelords, and which is set in Korvasa, the rival of Magnimar, which plays a significant role in this one.  I'll get to see both sides of the city-state rivalry, as played out in the adventure paths.  Not that either actually focuses on anything other than internal affairs, but still.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Bell Beakers role in forming modern Europe

I really wish this chart had marked Unetice.  It's curious that the Bell Beaker seems to be extremely close to Corded Ware, but pulling more towards the EEF-like genetics, but rather not as similar to Yamnaya as you'd have expected given the popular theory that it represents the superimposition of R1b Yamnayas over (among others) an earlier spread of R1a Corded Ware.  Looks like that is unlikely after all.

Anyway, the "Beaker Folk" and their role in turning Neolithic Europe into a Bronze Age Europe that resembles much more closely modern Europe is still unclear.  Where did they come from?  Who exactly where they?  What language(s) did they speak?  What was their interaction with the various material cultures with which they seemed to coincide in time?  And where did they go?  Are they the immediate ancestors (for example) of Unetice and additional later cultures, like Urnfield or Villanova?

For example, finding out that only about 10% of the Neolithic Stonehenge builders of England were successful in passing their genetic legacy to later British populations, who are overwhelming sourced to the Dutch Beakers doesn't necessarily mean much if you can't identify who they were.  They are too early to be Celtic, too late to be EEF, and the Beaker origin is hazy anyway (Dutch Beakers, both archaeologically and genetically seem to be most closely related to the Corded Ware subgroup called Single Grave Culture.)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Thought of the Day 2

It also occurs to me that I'm pretty darn tired of the trope that a campaign's main thrust is preventing the return or reincarnation or resurrection or reawakening (or whatever) of some ancient evil.  Is it somehow a truism that some evil dark lord of the past has to be worse than an evil dark lord of the present?  Why can't modern evil be compelling enough?

When we attempted to play through Rise of the Runelords, we got sick and tired of it (more specifically, the DM did) about halfway through the third module and we quit.  Now, years later, I'm actually reading the anniversary version of the campaign, and I just started the fourth module (y'know, the one where the fact that Karzoug the Runelord of ancient Thassilon trying to reawaken is actually revealed.)  When I did my CULT OF UNDEATH and ISLES OF TERROR projects, which deconstructed the Carrion Crown and Serpent's Skull adventure paths respectively, that was the gist of both of them as well.

To be honest with you; I've started to get a little tired of it.  We don't need some ancient dark lord like Tar-Baphon, Ydersius, or Karzoug.  There can be new warlords, tyrant warlocks and whatever that are equally compelling, and which belong to the modern age.

I mean; seriously—is Genghis Khan's legacy not sufficient because he wasn't Attila reborn?  Being Genghis Khan was good enough.

Ghouls > Vampires

There's a few type of undead that are actually sentient rather than merely automated and animated corpses.  Among these are the sorcerous liches, the warrior-champions known as wights, the cursed individuals known as mummies, some of the more unique incorporeal creatures like wraiths, etc.

I haven't always had a coherent vision of what to do with Undead (or any other type of broad monster class, for that matter) in DH5 or FANTASY HACK either one, and I've mostly just been aping some conventions of D&D in many respects.  The exception to this is that I consolidated all the various types of incorporeal undead under the GHOST label and gave it a bunch of a la carte options to create various different types of ghosts (although honestly, the Haunts rule in the first appendix does a lot of types of ghost better than the ghost rules themselves anyway.  Because of this, I probably should go through the entire list of undead monsters and prune, or otherwise make coherent the list.  Also; I've got some developing ideas about their role and nature on the setting that I want to address.

So first, let me grab all of the monsters and copy and paste out of my document so that I have them in front of me, then I can noodle around with what I want to do about them.
FELL GHAST: AC: 20 HD: 18d12 (130 hp) AT: Bite +18 (2d10+4), 2 claws +18 (d10+3) fell breath (DEX + Athletics check DC 25 to avoid) 1d4 STR damage STR: +12 DEX: +3 MND: -1, SPD: +7, S: flies, undead immunities, cast at will Blasphemous Piping of Azathoth DC 19, when the fell ghast reaches 0 hit points or less, it turns into 1d4 bat swarms as per the monster entry.
Large, dragon-sized and dragon-like undead monsters that are forces of pure necromancy, these animated collections of bones, dried, mummified skin, and stiff, dead flesh are terrifying creatures that only the most powerful of evil sorcerers can hope to deal with as equals. 
FLESH HOUND: AC: 14 HD: 2d12 (10 hp) AT: bite +4 (1d6+2) STR: +3, DEX: -2 MND: -3, SPD: +8, S: Immune to most forms of magical attack. Regular weapons do only half damage. Fire (magical or mundane) does 2x damage.
A minor alteration to the flesh golem stats, for a hound-like golem (instead of humanoid). 
GHOST: AC: 16 HD: 4d6 (16 hp) AT: touch +4 (1d6) STR: -4, DEX: +2, MND: +1, SPD: +2, S: undead immunities, only hit by magic or silver weapons, arrows do a max 1 HP damage. Ghosts also have one of the following special attacks. More powerful versions can be created by giving them two or more:
• drains 1d3 DEX on touch, creatures reduced to -5 DEX are immobile and helpless for coup de grace attack that kills them automatically
• as an action, may cast the spell Withering of the Haunter
• forces a Sanity check on all characters that can see the ghost
• under a permanent effect as if constantly casting the Blasphemous Piping of Azathoth spell
• can cast all spells up to 3rd level
The spirit of the departed, which for reasons which are unknown, lingers on earth to bring misery and fear to those who remain. Many, even when defeated, will return after many weeks, months or even years, if their remains are not properly attended to—they usually need to be exhumed, doused in salt, and burned. 
GHOUL: AC: 13 HD: 2d6 (8 hp) AT: claws or bite +2 (1d6) STR: +2, DEX: +0, MND: -1, SPD: +3, S: touch paralyzes for 1d4 rounds, humans wounded by ghouls 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.
Formerly humans, who fell prey to daemonic, cannibal rituals, and were transformed via blackest necromancy into feral, subhuman monsters that endure endless hunger for human(oid) flesh. Their most fearsome ability is their tendency to spread their curse to those who survive their attacks. 
GHOUL-HOUNDS: AC: 13 HD: 2d6 (8 hp) AT: bite +2 (1d6) STR: +2, DEX: +0, MND: -1, SPD: +7, 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. 
GOLEM, FLESH: AC: 16 HD: 4d12 (28 hp) AT: slam +8 (2d6+4) STR: +8, DEX: -2 MND: -3 SPD: -4, S: Immune to most forms of magical attack. Regular weapons do only half damage. Fire (magical or mundane) does 2x damage.
The stitched together remains of human(oids) given an evil unlife by foul magic. Flesh golems are notoriously tough and difficult to kill, although luckily they are very rare, and the research into the creation of one is usually punishable by death in most civilized lands. 
HEADLESS HORSEMAN: AC: 16 HD: 4d6 (16 hp) AT: touch +4 (1d6) STR: -4, DEX: +2, MND: +1 SPD: +10 (when mounted) 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. 
LICH: AC: 20 HD: 12d6 (48 hp) AT: touch +HD (1d6) STR: +4, DEX: +0, MND: +5, SPD: 0, S: undead immunities, touch causes paralysis (no save), cause fear in creatures under 4th level/HD, can cast spells up to 5th level
One of several end-states for evil, necromantic sorcerers, who prolong their life with their magic. These skeletal, undead wizards usually create horcruxes, which allow them to return even from death if defeated, unless the horcrux is itself destroyed. 
MUMMY: AC: 16 HD: 6d6 (24 hp) AT: touch +6 (1d6) STR: +7, DEX: -2, MND: +2, SPD: -2, S: undead immunities, takes only half damage from non-silver weapons, immune to most spells except fire based ones.
Cursed by evil sorcerers, in ancient times, some victims were doomed to become mummies, powerful undead creatures bound to their place of origin. 
NIZREKH ROYAL HERESIARCH: AC: 17 HD: 10d6 (40 hp) AT: touch +5 (1d6) STR: +4, DEX: +2, MND: +3, SPD: 0, 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. 
SKELETON: AC: 12 HD: 1d6 (4 hp) AT: weapon or strike +1 (1d6) STR: -1, DEX: -1, MND: -4, SPD: -5, S: undead immunities, only takes half damage from arrows or bullets.
A magically animated skeleton, which can serve necromancers as servitors or even warriors—although they are relatively poor at the latter. 
VAMPIRE: AC: 17 HD: 9d6 (36 hp) AT: bite +9 (1d6) STR: +4, DEX: +6, MND: +5, SPD: +5, 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, gaseous form at will, shape change into bat, can hypnotize (MND + level check, DC 19), avoids garlic and mirrors, immobilized and apparently dead if a stake is driven through its heart, drowns underwater in one round, creatures reduced to -5 STR die and will rise 24 hours later as a vampire under the control of their creator.
Another possible end state for the evil and powerful who wish to prolong their life unnaturally (like the lich.) Vampires retain their human appearance, but the cost is the undeniable thirst for human blood and sacrifice. 
WIGHT: AC: 14 HD: 3d6 (12 hp) AT: claw +3 (1d6) STR: +4, DEX: +1, MND: +1, SPD: 0,S: undead immunities, takes only half damage from non-magical or non-silver weapons, does 1d3 STR damage per hit (MND + level check to avoid, DC 14), creatures reduced to -5 STR will rise 24 hours later as a wight.
The reanimated corpses of powerful warriors or other champions, wights are powerful and deadly undead creatures. 
Haunts are a novel idea that combines elements of a trap and a ghost—haunts should be used liberally to create the classic "haunted house" vibe, or to create any eerie, horror-themed vignette in your Dark•Heritage game. In adapting the idea of haunts to m20, I'm needless to say going to be forced to interpret the concept very differently and with considerably less complexity, but I do want to maintain the idea of a haunt being somewhat midway between a trap and a ghost. 
Haunts are extremely difficult to notice without triggering them. While a normal trap can presumably be seen (if you know what to look for) haunts cannot. That said, as a haunt is being triggered, there is a brief moment when wary characters might be able to detect that something is happening (by making a MND + Survival check), and possibly mitigate its effects. If the PCs do not detect that the haunt is about to start, they are caught unawares and off-guard under the full effect of the haunt. If they do detect it, they have one round to attempt to do something to alleviate the effects of the haunt; flee the haunted area, cast some spell of their own, etc. This doesn't mean, of course, that the action that they choose to take will be effective. As GM, you will have to adjudicate what (if anything) their actions have on minimizing or defeating the effects of the haunt.
The effect of a haunt is usually replicated by using the mechanics for a spell. You can describe the haunt very differently than the description of the spell, but the mechanics will be the same. Haunts may have varying "caster levels" depending on how powerful you want the haunt to be, if the spell used is one in which its effects vary by caster level.
Haunts cannot be "fought" like a normal ghost; they must be destroyed by the PCs taking some specific action that causes the haunt to go away. They probably will not know what this action is, although they may stumble across it, or otherwise figure it out. (If you want, a MND + Knowledge check can give them a clue—often this needs to be done in a library or with a book or journal of a ghost-hunter, or someone else experienced in the works of the undead.) Mostly, haunts don't need to be destroyed however; the PCs' suffer the effects of them and then avoid them from then on out. 
Haunt trigger areas are usually relatively small; a room, a dell, a small stretch of hallway, etc. 
To create a haunt, you need to do the following, then:
• Pick a DC for the PCs to notice the haunt, as well as an effect that they notice.
• Pick a spell that the haunt triggers, or create your own spell-like effect.
• Pick a caster level for the spell (if applicable)
• Pick the way in which the haunt can be destroyed. In a pinch, use the go-to for ghost destruction; find the remains or body, salt and burn them. 
Here are a few samples:
BLEEDING WALLS (Notice DC 20 to hear the sound of disembodied soft sobbing.) The Bleeding Walls haunt causes thick rivulets and streams of blood to ooze from the walls, accompanied by the piercing sound of a woman's pained screams. Effect: Blasphemous Piping of Azathoth (4th Level spell.) If the PCs can leave the area after noticing the sobbing before it triggers, they can avoid the effect. The haunt can be destroyed if the woman's body hidden in the walls (who's sobbing and screaming you hear) is given a proper Christian burial in the hallowed ground of a proper graveyard. 
SLAMMING DOORS (Notice DC 10 to see the door start shutting.) The Slamming Doors haunt causes doors to slam shut and to be held shut. These door can be broken open (depending on the strength of the door), but will otherwise remain shut. The doors are supernaturally strengthened by the will of the malicious poltergeist that caused the door to slam. Usually, this will trap the PCs within an area, such as within a haunted house, etc. Effect: Invocation of the Dweller in the Gate. To avoid the effect, PCs must dart through the shutting door before it closes. The haunt can be destroyed if the door is broken and destroyed. 
CHOKING HANDS (Notice DC 20 to see/feel a cold mist starting to coalesce around the neck of the victims.) Ghostly hands made of gray mist will choke the PCs. Effect: Casts Moloch's Word (3rd level spell) at caster level 5. This haunt will continue each round that victims are within the target area, although it only effects one victim at a time. Victims being choked must make a DC 20 STR + Survival check to move, or else fall prone and be unable to move (another character can drag them out of the area, however.) The haunt will usually target one victim at a time until dead before moving on to the
next one. The haunt can be destroyed if the body of the murderer who it is reflecting is exhumed and their remains burned and salted (as for a ghost.) 
GHASTLY WHISPERS (Notice DC 20 to hear crescendoing blasphemous whispering before it is triggered.) The ghostly sound of at least dozens of whispering, screaming, sobbing, crying and cursing voices fills the heads of its victims, driving them rapidly insane. Effect: Casts The Seeping of Kadath on the Mind (4th Level Spell). This can be avoided if PCs run like the dickens out of the area before it targets them. This haunt can only be destroyed by a trained exorcist performing a night-long prayerful ritual using at least a gallon of holy water and uninterrupted prayer by an anointed priest—although the haunt will attempt to attack the exorcist repeatedly while the exorcism is underway. 
HEADLESS HORSEMAN (DC 15 to hear the clip-clop of galloping hooves before it appears.) A ghostly, headless soldier on a ghostly, skeletal horse appears and attacks those attempting to cross its area of road or dell or bridge, etc. Effect: This ghostly apparition cannot be fought like a normal ghost, as all attacks against it are ineffective, even with silver or magical weapons. It, however, attacks with its own spectral sword, with a To Hit bonus of +8 (2d6 damage) and it will continue to attack until all targets manage to escape its area of influence (often crossing a bridge or some other road marker) or they are all killed. The haunt can be destroyed by finding the remains of the ghostly, decapitated victim, and reunited it with the remains of its head.) 
BLACK CARRIAGE (DC 15 to hear the creaking of the carriage and clopping of its hooves before it appears.) A spectral black carriage, driven by a ghostly coachman appears and runs down all in the haunted area. Effect: Equivalent to the Summoning of Ithaqua (4th level spell). A DC 30 DEX + Athletics check allows the victims to dive out of the way of the wildly careening coach, although if will probably appear again moments later until the PCs are out of the haunted area. The haunt can be destroyed only by casting The Invocation of Kadashman (Ritual only spell) to summon a ghostly steed of your own which will lure the ghostly stallions deep into the ghostly realm, never to return.
 First thing I notice; I've got a monster entry headless horseman, and a haunt.  How did I miss that I duplicated that effort?  One of them has to go from the official list; probably the monster entry, although I'll keep it in my back pocket as an alternative, just in case I want it for something later.

The second thing I'm noticing is that although there are some significant stat differences between them, the wight and the mummy are conceptually very similar creatures; revenants of powerful individuals brought back to unlife to curse the living.  I'm not sure why wights bring back creatures that they slay as wights; that seems to be an unlikely condition for being a wight.  The real difference between them is more based on Egyptian vs European; the mummy is a specific archetype developed for the 1932 Boris Karloff film and a rash of ghost story hysteria relative to Pharaonic curses after the discovery of King Tut's tomb.  The wight on the other hand, is loosely based, in fantasy fiction anyway, on Tolkien's barrow-wights, which were in turn based on the Norse folkloric figure of the draugr.  Tolkien in fact borrowed the translation of barrow-wight from William Morris, who's translation of Grettis saga had pioneered that same usage already.  Does regional origin and maybe some visual cues actually justify having a separate creature type with a separate stat-line, when they are already conceptually so similar?  I'm not sure. I may consolidate them into a single stat-line, getting rid of the wight's "spawn new wights" ability while I'm at it.  It's not like I don't already have plenty of entries that in the description suggests alternate uses for the stat-line (for example, the cat stats suggest that they would work well for any other small creature capable of climbing and biting, such as a monkey or raccoon—not that either are all that similar to a cat in most respects, but that there isn't sufficient justification to create a new stat-line for them.)

Because I'm looking at my Dark•Heritage 2 ruleset rather than Fantasy Hack, I think the flesh hound and ghoul hounds and more especially the Nizrekh Heresiarchs are OK, although they are all three pretty esoteric ideas that kind of make me wonder if they don't rather deserve to be in some kind of appendix rather than the main rules.  But they belong in a ruleset that's more attuned to a specific setting than Fantasy Hack is meant to be, so I probably won't bother with moving or eliminating them here.  I might in Fantasy Hack, but... honestly, probably not.  I probably won't touch Fantasy Hack again, and just use Dark•Heritage 2 as my new ruleset for DH5; Fantasy Hack can remain as a very useful archive link, but trying to keep the two rulesets updated concurrently and in harmony with each other is probably too much effort to be worth it.

I'm considering some other structural changes that have more to do with minor setting details, but which will have an impact (possibly) on the stats.  For instance, I'm wondering if I want ghouls to be as weak as they are, or if I want to beef them up a little bit.  I also think I want to do some significant changes to the vampire stat.

Here's my idea.  What if vampires are an evolved form of ghoul?  The ghoul curse is what causes them to rise as an undead monster, but they rise cursed with madness caused by uncontrollable hunger for human flesh.  As they continue to evolve, if they survive this new state of undeath, some of them become so feral that they literally become animalistic; growing more bat-like features and even bat-like wings that they can manifest as a form of shapechaging (this ability is not yet showing in the stats.  It does, however, match sources as diverse as the movie Van Helsing and the new Warhammer Flesh-eater Courts Battletome.)  Some ghouls, through sheer force of will, claw their way back to a form of lucidity if not actual sanity, at which point they can evolve even further.  As they do so, their animalistic features will fade (although they can still shapechange into a hybrid bat form as needed) and they will come to resemble humanity from which they ultimately sprang a little more, although the beast of their hungering madness lurks just below the surface.  In this way, they become vampires.  Vampires in DH5 will not be the suave vampires of house-wife porn as they've become in soap operas like Anne Rice, the Vampire Diaries TV show or... heaven help us... the Twilight series, though.  Just because their feral features can be softened as some of their sentience returns doesn't mean that at best they don't end up still freakish and off-putting.

I'm not 100% sure that I want the Dracula-like weaknesses inherent in them either, though.  A weapon that's been blessed, or holy water; I can see that being a weakness to them.  Maybe they are sensitive to bright light, but they don't burst into flame in it.  Maybe running water and needing to be invited in cause them issues, but not as much as in Dracula, certainly.  And although the whole turn undead ability in D&D is heavily based on the concept from Dracula that the vampire couldn't abide the sight of a cross, I seriously doubt that I'll use anything at all like that in my system.  And maybe organic weapons (such as made from bone or wood) cause them undue damage; a nod to the whole staking business from the novel.

Garlic makes no difference to them one way or another.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Thought of the day

With regards to fantasy, I don't want to ever hear again, if I can help it, the words:
  • Dungeon, unless it's a place where prisoners are kept
  • Delve, unless it's referring to in-depth research
Conditioning because of Dungeons & Dragons has made too many fantasy fans forget that those usages such as are common in D&D actually have no precedent outside of the game at all.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Pathfinder Society Season #0 Part 1

I borrowed from a friend a bunch of Pathfinder Society scenarios.  These are the scenarios used in their official Living Golarion campaign, or whatever it is that they call it.  (Actually, I think they just call it the Pathfinder Society.  But it's like the RPGA and Living Greyhawk in structure, more or less.)  There are ten seasons in play already, and another that's partly through (I believe) and each season has somewhere around 25-30 or so scenarios.  I've read, as of this posting, only a few of the scenarios, and I'm not going to specifically "deconstruct" them as I had been doing with the other scenarios and adventure paths; largely because they're too short anyway.  Instead, I'll talk about them briefly.

In general, what I'm finding is that that the scenarios may have an intriguing and interesting high concept, but that they are largely too brief and truncated to really explore it adequately.  With each of them, though, I find my mind wandering while reading them to how this could be fleshed out to a small novella or shorter novel; y'know, like the earlier fantasy novels before the invention of the doorstopper novels that were about 50-80,000 words (200 printed pages or less, most often.)  They have titles that remind me of these kind of lurid neo-pulp novels too.  It's really quite a good idea.  Most of them would work quite well as that kind of thing.  Or, yeah, yeah, I know that they're written to be played in a very strict and controlled format for Society convention play, but for a more loose and normal gaming group attempting to use these, they could stand to be beefed up a bit with more details, more role-playing opportunities, and honestly, more action and adventure; they tend to have only two or three real combat encounters after a little bit of investigation, an extremely brief set-up (like a paragraph or two of expository "box text") and that's it.

And that box text is often quite silly.  Check out this brief sample: "You wonder how you ended up here, standing at the precipice of unknown terrors, and instantly Venture-Captain Adril Hestram’s wide looming face is conjured into your minds’ eye. His booming words ring out from memory as clearly as he spoke them only one hour ago." Worst infodump excuse I've ever read.

One interesting thing that they all do, though, is that the players are expected to belong to a "faction"; i.e., they are meant to be not only newly minted junior Pathfinder Society members (in game, not the Pathfinder Society RPGA organization), but also agents of sorts of their respective nationalities, and there is a separate mini-mission for each faction that PCs from that faction are expected to do as well.  By and large, while I think this idea is actually kind of brilliant, the actual mini-missions are kind of silly and poorly thought out. Some are even embarrassingly stupid (especially the Andoran ones, because Andoran is a stupid idea as a concept in a fantasy setting anyway.) However, I think the idea of each member of an ensemble cast having their own agenda besides just the "group" agenda makes for a much richer experience.

So yeah—in all, an interesting experiment for a person who just has normal gaming rather than Society play, but just a bit inadequate for that purpose.  Anyway, the ones I've read so far include:
  1. Silent Tide—there's an old bit of history at work here; a Taldan armada had attempted to attack Absalom, but it ended in disaster, and the the armada was sunk.  However, the oaths that the sailors and marines of the armada took mean that with the right stimulus, they can return from the dead to complete their work.  A guy has accidentally kicked off exactly that, and then a crime lord took control of the artifacts that cause it and is attempting to use it himself.  The PCs have to run around town a bit to stop the undead army from invading the city.
  2. The Hydra's Fang Incident—the wastrel third son of a Chelish noble has become a notorious pirate and now he's an embarrassment to his family and his nation, and is on the verge of sparking a war between Cheliax and Andoran.  Luckily, he's in port on Diobel, the smaller town on the other side of the island from Absalom notorious as a smuggling town. so you can go kill the guy and stop the war before it happens.
  3. Murder on the Silken Caravan—just when I thought that the whole point of the season was to be agents in and around Absalom, you're meant to accompany the funeral procession of a dead Pathfinder deep into Qadira with a caravan.  Turns out that there's a guy who's using goblin and harpy bandits to harass and rob these caravans, and you're supposed to get to the bottom of it.  And the lady running the caravan turns out to be a janni and the dead Pathfinder's companion.
  4. Frozen Fingers of Midnight—A Varangian guard type guy is also secretly a Pathfinder.  He's been cursed with some kind of freezing curse, and it turns out that an old enemy has done this to him.  He's entreated for help from the Pathfinders, but was unable to warn them that his personal retinue has been replaced by imposters.  Anyway, he's "rescued", his enemy, who's in town, is tracked down and killed, and then a magical portal takes the PCs to the frozen ship of his kinda sorta common law wife, who can remove the curse.  She didn't put it on him; in fact, she seems to actually kinda like him, but she needed the artifact you recovered from his enemy to end all this.
  5. Mists of Mwangi—Some demonic monkey idols brought back from the jungles of Mwangi to a museum in Absalom have unleashed a curse on the museum.  Mists which cause madness have affected the museum staff, turning them violently insane.  Also, the Ape God has called monkeys, apes, baboons and more from the menageries's throughout Absalom, who are here under it's thrall.  And, it's even animated some mummies and other undead in the museum's collection.  Infiltrate the museum, destroy the idols, rescue any survivors, and end the curse.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Friday Art Attack

I can't remember what this is supposed to be exactly, but I'm pretty sure I found it on a Duckduckgogo search for either Yeti or Sasquatch.

Maybe it's just because we live in a hateful gynarcho-tyranny, but I find the notion of Dark Lord's less frightening than that of Dark Queens.

These two have an interesting side by side comparison quality to them that I quite like.  Now, granted, Graz'zt and Iggwilv as presented by Wayne Reynolds is quite the iconic D&D character set by now, while whoever that big ogre-looking dude and that blond nearly naked chick are by Luis Royo look like pretty standard naked Luis Royo chicks and her monster.  But given how incredibly talented an artist he is, that's OK.

The iconic Strigoi image; the most bestial and ghoulish of vampires, who eventually evolved into the whole Flesh-Eater Courts concept.  Funny; at the time Vampire Counts first introduced this split, I didn't really think that the Strigoi concept was a popular one.  It must have been if it later evolved into an entire army, I suppose.

A Crusader undead.  Nothing special, just a cool piece of art.

Speaking of the Flesh-Eater Courts, here's an image from that army book.

In Contrast, here's a very iconic vampire.  Seriously; why do vampires always have to be wearing a lacy neckerchief, anyway?  In spite of the obvious technical skill of this art, I do have that particular detail.

Because one of the new Warhammer armies is basically an Aquaman or Little Mermaid elf force, they have a lot of models of elves (sorry, ...aelves.  How totally gay) who are riding on sharks and stuff.  Apparently, when fighting any other army that doesn't live in the ocean, these sharks either fly around or jump or something.  I'm not quite sure how that's supposed to work.  It's actually one of the weirder things in the new, much less compelling Warhammer world.

Another fantasy version of a vampire... and he's got a lacy neckerchief.  Sigh.

5e Vrock, I believe.  I think Sam Wood's illustration for 3e was still the best one, though.

Another basic yet well done undead illustration. 

And another horned yeti.  I wonder when horns started to become common on fantasy yeti illustrations, because there's obviously nothing in the folklore source material that suggests horns. 

Maybe it all started with The Empire Strikes Back.

An interesting take on a weird, humanoid yet serpentine demon or something.  Quite a fascinating concept, whatever it is.

While I actually found the books unreadable, I was really excited about the concept of C.J. Cherryh's Russian mythology/folklore fantasy.  As is often the case, she went too far into making it historical rather than fantastical.  Not the best approach for fantasy, and one that tends to bog down many works that otherwise have a lot of promise, in my opinion. 

Or maybe I just am kinda weird and prefer my historical swashbuckling romances and my fantasy to have a clean break in terms of the secondary world concept.

Dresden Files style modern urban fantasy, I guess, excepted.

Yet another concept on vampires.  As I've said several times this week, I prefer vampires who aren't overtly sexy and have some kind of inhuman, monstrous visual tic to them.

Because it's now no longer available, here's the necrosphinx model from the old Tomb Kings army list.  Not sure what I think about this still, many years after first seeing it.  Is it really cool, or just a little too... I dunno, out there?  I still can't decide.

A very fairytale like illustration, which I think is a classic mode of fantasy that is too often either ignored or poorly done.  I never would have thought that this would be one of the better sources of this kind of fantasy, but the Dresden Files books that feature the faeries do faeries better than most sources I've otherwise seen.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Indo-European phylogeny

Well, in light of the last post I made, I went and got a hold of the preprint of the Chang et al 2015 paper that was referred to in the comments, and read through it (although admittedly, I started skimming when we got the specific methods, about halfway through, and came back in for the discussion and conclusions.)

The gist of the paper is that it is a new linguistic cladogram that purports to eliminate errors that have dogged past cladograms, especially by introducing ancestry constraints that don't stretch the time frame required by being unable to reconcile, for example, the fact that Old Irish is an ancestor of modern Irish and Scots Gaelic, and not a sister language of them.  This not only strongly reduces the (already very low) probability that anything other than the steppe hypothesis works, but it also put constraints on the splitting of various branches from the whole, and shows more nodal relationships; like Indo-Iranian being a node between PIE and separate Indic and Iranian nodes, but further removed from that most obvious one.  Almost all linguists recognize Indo-Iranian, and most recognize the slightly more controversial Balto-Slavic and Italo-Celtic intermediate nodes.  This paper suggest many such intermediate nodes, which then in turn gives archaeologists and archaeogeneticists material to go look for to corroborate.

Anyway, it's one of the most interesting linguistic papers I've read in a long time, even though it's strictly speaking a statistics paper rather than linguistics per se.  It's obvious that it has informed the hypothesis that Davidski mentioned and which I referred to in my last post.  Let's see how I can make it work, if I can.  Because the family tree has time stamps on the nodes, let's start with the oldest and work our way forward.  Keep in mind that this can't analyze languages that are too poorly attested to be useful in the cladistic analysis, so if you want to try and speculate on where they fit in, it'll have to be speculative, or at best, rely on other evidence than linguistic.  I'm unfortunately not really familiar enough with the archaeological literature to posit where and how archaeological cultures can correspond to this linguistic phylogeny, but presumably it wouldn't be terribly difficult to do.  It does fit, albeit quite broadly, with David Anthony's revised steppe hypothesis in many ways.
  • By 6,500 years ago, 4,500 BC, the Anatolian languages had split out from PNIE, or proto-Nuclear Indo-European (i.e. everything else besides Anatolian.)
  • Between 3,500 BC and 4,000 BC, Tocharian had split off from PNIE.
  • By 3,500 BC, a node that includes Greek, Albanian and Armenian (and presumably Phrygian) branches off, but remains in close geographic adjacency for some time, so it can absorb some isoglosses via borrowing.  Presumably this is the first movement of Usatovo culture into the Balkans from the steppe.
  • By 3,000 BC the rest of the IE tree's node was starting to break up and the Indo-Iranian languages branched off.  Maybe this corresponds to their very early history as the languages of very northerly Eastern Corded Ware and before they really developed enough traits to truly be called Indo-Iranian.
  • Between 2,500 and 2,000 BC the Balto-Slavic languages split off, again representing a northerly Corded Ware dialect, no doubt.
  • By 2,500 BC, Albanian splits off from the Graeco-Armenian node, by whatever name this proto Albanian is known (Illyrian?)
  • Between 2,500 and 2,000 BC a Germanic node breaks off.
  • Shortly after 2,000 BC Italic and Celtic separate.  Iranian and Indic do right around here as well.  Not long after this, Greek and Armenian separate from each other too.
  • By about 500 BC, Baltic and Slavic start to differentiate themselves from proto-Balto-Slavic.  Not long after this, Brythonic and Goidelic Celtic split (no idea how Continental Celtic and Celtiberian fit into this at this point.)
  • A the Meridian of Time, Eastern Germanic splits from a node that contains Western and Northern Germanic still combined.  They will themselves separate before 500 AD.
  • By 700-800 AD or so, Slavic is starting to break up from Common Slavic and Vulgar Latin is starting to actually produce the Romance languages.  By 1,000 AD, both have sufficiently broken apart that even Late Common Slavic (or Common Romance) can no longer be spoken of and the specific daughter languages are recognizable.
Now, this seems to imply that Italo-Celtic is the last "core" of nuclear Indo-European, but of course, that's absurd; whatever joint innovations it has are shared peripheral changes combined with some shared conservative features (which, for example, led people to chase after a Celtic-Tocharian link decades ago).  Italo-Celtic developed, wherever and however exactly it developed and as the language of whatever material culture spoke it, far to the western periphery.  The chart could be drawn otherwise, but the dates would still be the same and the same lines would still connect even if you changed the order in which they were presented.  It also seems to imply that some steppe language core split off early, and while it's probably true that they were differentiating themselves early, they also maintained a degree of contact that allowed the sharing of innovative isoglosses well after their split (such as satemization.) 

But it really puts it out there that we can look for material cultures that represent some of these nodes.  For example, if Italic and Celtic didn't break up until after 2,000 BC, we can look for a material culture that's the right time, place, and has the right traits to represent it.  Maybe the Tumulus culture breaking up into Urnfield (early Celtic) and Terramare culture (Italic).  Which has the interesting effect of suggesting that maybe Venetic was a third branch of that group, originating in the Polada culture?  And if Germanic had separated from Italo-Celtic less than half a millennia before Italic and Celtic themselves split, then we can look for a material culture that's in the right time, place, and has the right traits to represent the three of them still in a state of some unity (Unetice culture leading to Italo-Celtic Tumulus and early Germanic Nordic Bronze Age?  This even potentially leaves room for that Nordwestblock, although we shouldn't consider that the archaeological culture boundaries we've devised are really boundaries that were meaningful back then.)  And the early Germanic should have a contact border with that material culture of proto-Balto-Slavic (Trziniec-Komarov culture), because they do not show a particularly close genetic relationship, but we know that there was a long period of contact relationship between them.

Anyway, it's not like that wasn't being done before this paper came out, but this gives a significantly improved roadmap of what to look for and when.

Anyway, here's the phylogeny from the article:

Another discussion about Celtic and Germanic:

Corded Ware and Yamnaya

Well, Davidski at Eurogenes has made a bold prediction, which I'm curious to see falsified or bolstered by more sampling.  His suggestion is that the model for the spread of Indo-European languages which I've espoused here is unnecessary; most of the extant Indo-European languages (and by extension, the Indo-European peoples) can actually be derived directly from the Corded Ware horizon (plus whatever locals they superimposed themselves over while doing so) and the specifically Single Grave variant is the source for Western Europe, not Yamnaya derived Bell Beaker cultures.  This is based on two key assumptions:
  1. At a genome wide-level, the Corded Ware and Yamnaya are extremely closely related.  His contention here is that that Y-DNA sorting between an R1a and an R1b patrilineal group is either an artifact of insufficient sampling, or simply a much less important data point than the genome wide statistical comparison.  Utilizing this genome-wide comparison, even the eastern and central European Bell Beakers, who are credited with being the source of R1b lineages in the North Sea region (famously, those who settled Britain in the EMBA period) can be derived from the Corded Ware and don't require an external stimulus.
  2. And even if it did, the usual suspects are suggesting that they provide the wrong specific clade of R1b.  The Carpathian Yamnaya extension is most likely the source, not of an overlay over Corded Ware that creates the the northern European I-E languages, but rather, of the southern Balkan languages and spread even further south and often eastward, such as Thracian, Illyrian, Phrygian, Greek, Armenian, etc.
Now, to be clear, what he's saying is that it looks like the R1b haplogroups that are today common in western and northern Europe cannot be derived from the Yamnaya expansion into the Carpathian basin.  Let's be careful that we don't load that claim with too much baggage.  And he's also admitting that it's a somewhat speculative assertion at this point, because there isn't enough data yet to confirm or refute it.  But he is making a prediction, based on what little data we do have, about what he expects more data to reveal.  And that prediction is that the Dutch Bell Beakers, who are the source of the later British Bell Beakers and probably the Nordic Bronze Age a little bit later, don't necessarily require an overlay of Yamnaya over Corded Ware, but rather Corded Ware over locals is sufficient to explain them.  

Of course, population movements are not so binary, so when we talk in generalities, it doesn't require that every individual conform to it, merely the preponderance.

Anyway, here's a few interesting comments from the thread where this prediction was made.  I leave these here without further comment from me, other than to note that this proposes a very different model than the one that I've seen online from most folks who are doing up-to-the-minute discussions, which consider Corded Ware to have been a satem language descended from the western half of the steppe (Sredni Stog II) with R1a Y-DNA haplogroups, and eastern Bell Beakers to be the classic example (among many other cultures of Europe that were related to it) to have been the source of centum languages, descended from the eastern half of the steppe (Repin and Khvalynsk > Yamnaya) and heavily R1b.  Although, that's the gist of why it's a bold prediction, isn't it?
This new set of proposed movements is extremely difficult to reconcile with linguistic isoglosses and the various trees for PIE. In general, the satem languages and Greek form an innovative core compared to Italic, Celtic, Tocharian, Anatolian, all of which left earlier. A derivation of those which left earlier directly from Yamnaya, through the Balkans and Bell Beaker in Western Europe for Italic-Celtic and other Western IE dialects (e.g. Ligurian, Venetic) and Afanasievo into Asia for Tocharian, plus a derivation of the innovative set of Indo-Iranian, Greek and Armenian from R1a and EEF containing Corded Ware, seem to make good sense of the genetics and the linguistics. If Western IE ancestry also derives from Corded Ware, we don't have much to explain the distribution of features among the IE languages.
Any proposed set of movements have to explain the core-periphery distinction described above, plus the following features:
1. Anatolian shares a few features with Western IE languages
2. Italic and Celtic must be close to each other until they split
3. Greek is partly in the innovative group and partly in the periphery
4. Germanic is like Greek, but is close to Celtic throughout its history as well
In particular, if Celtic, Italic, Germanic, all the way to Indo-Iranian all drive from Corded Ware peoples, how can it be that Bell Beaker is responsible for a single language family, Celtic, while Corded Ware--not much older than Bell Beaker--is responsible for a huge diversity of IE branches? The temporal chronology doesn't make much sense to me.
I recently believed this as well, but I changed my mind after reading Chang et al 2015.It looks like the innovative core was the centered on the steppe area. As waves of IE cultures spread from the steppe to surrounding environments, they lost contact with the core and thus didn't share in the innovations.In the example of the Satem isogloss, it looks like Corded Ware was originally Centum, but parts of it were Satemized later in a new wave emanating from the steppe, around the time of Sintashta. This wave of innovations spread to some areas adjacent to the steppe, like the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but cultures at the periphery of the steppe zone like proto-Germanic and proto-Greek were only partially influenced and more distant groups like Celtics, Italics, and Tocharians escaped the influence entirely. It does seem that the composition of steppe groups changed from Yamnaya-like Yamnaya, Poltavka and Catacomb groups to Corded-ware-like Sintashta, Srubna and Andronovo groups, and the later set is associated with Satem isogloss and other innovations.
Perhaps some parts of CW were centum, and that explains everything, but that basically means Corded Ware gave rise to all the languages that are part of late IE outside Anatolian and Tocharian, while BB gave rise to only Celtic, and maybe some para-celtic groups like Ligurian. How can that be when both groups are very little separated in age? Does this make sense to you?
If we accept what Davidski (and others) have postulated, the scenario looks something like the following if you try to correlate the Chang tree with archaeogenetic evidence:
Circa Yamnaya>>Tocharian
CW>>Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, (Daco-Thracian?)
Western Yamnaya>>Greek, Armenian, Albanian, (Phrygian?)
Some of these branches influenced each other after initial divergence, which would explain why there are isoglosses shared across some of these branches that remained contiguous with each other.
It should have been obvious long ago that most Indo-European languages have their roots in the Corded Ware complex, considering how similar Sintashta was to Bell Beakers, and how different they both were from Yamnaya.
There's been way too much focus on Y-haplogroups and their phylogeny by most, resulting in some wayward assumptions being popularized.
The Balkans are the only region of IE Europe today not dominated by late clades of R1a or R1b, and, judging from the aDNA record, did not have extreme male-biased replacement right away after contact with Steppe cultures and reached its current levels of steppe ancestry much later compared to Western, Northern or Eastern Europe. The EEF elites interred in kurgans mentioned by David are pretty indicative. The models of acculturation and integration may have more traction here than elsewhere.

Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Clever title.  Making reference to either Gibbon or Shirer, either one, is always a good idea.

Sadly, the title (well, and the Todd Marshall pencil sketches inside) were the best parts of this book.  I remember being keenly disappointed when I was a young college student.  As I was approaching graduation with my Bachelors, I had a few elective requirements to fulfill, so I'd go and look for upper level classes in subjects I was interested in, like dinosaur paleontology or anthropology.  And I remember thinking that taking an upper level class would mean I'd find some fascinating things out, but that we literally didn't learn anything that I didn't already know; in fact, often the curriculum would be dumbed down from what I already knew about the subject.

Steve Brusatte, who I had higher hopes for after seeing, among other things, his definitive tyrannosaur cladograms, is guilty of (among other flaws) doing the same thing in this book.  It really doesn't say much of anything that isn't already well known to anyone who has even a passing interest in dinosaurs, with the possible exception of a couple of pages of his discussion about the Triassic and the fact that it took another extinction event at end-Triassic to open up opportunities for dinosaurs that were otherwise occupied by pseudosuchians.

The other two flaws were, if anything, even more annoying, though.  I can forgive a book that doesn't tell me much that I don't already know—it'll be forgettable, sure, but I'll just chalk it up to the challenge of finding new information in the era where I've both taught myself how to read the technical literature, but I can follow developments in real time (or close to) because of the magic of the internet.  But when he spends an inordinate amount of time smugly, and even snarkily virtue-signaling, that's offensive.  When he spends an inordinate amount of time name-dropping and referring to at least two dozen people as "his really good friend" one has to imagine that cringy, insecure, social-status signaling is more important to him than the actual subject of the book.

I not only can't recommend this book, I can actively recommend that you avoid it.  Sadly.  I had high hopes for it.  However, not only did I get a few pages of Triassic discussion, a subject which is sadly untouched in the popular literature (although I've been following it on blogs like Chinleana for years) I did hear about a discovery that I had missed, the bizarre, bat-winged dinosaur Yi qi.  Sadly, a terrible name.  And how do you even pronounce it?  Yee chee? Yee kee? Or do you just say Yee?  But that wasn't even worth the price—which in my case was a few cents for gas and my time for me to go to the library and pick it up for free.

So, let me add something totally different to this post, just to make it a little more meaty too.  While toy sales is not something that I care about for its own sake, it's a great surrogate for Star Wars' place in fandom and the public consciousness.  Sure, sure—we all know what the Rotten Tomatoes score is for The Last Jedi and Solo (although, we all also know that it's been manipulated by lying SJWs who falsely claim that "alt.right trolls" are gaming the rankings; so based on this flimsy bald assertion, they've gone and ... gamed the rankings.)  And sure, sure—we all know what the ticket sales are.

But there's more going on than just that.  And the merchandising is an important part of the story.

So, watch this video.  It's fascinating stuff, and should be a wake-up call to the corporate overlords.  But the corporate overlords are not really that bright, and they are more defined by their belonging to an anti-American cult who thinks its more important to virtue signal how much they hate you and everything about you; your religious traditions, your cultural traditions, your legal traditions, and even your very right to exist at all in your own freakin' homeland than they are in, say, being successful with your multi-billion dollar corporation.  Billions of dollars is a small price to pay for comfort of delusional wishful thinking.  But there you have it.

And as a bonus; remember this?  Just a reminder that before the Green Cult went absolutely insane doubling and tripling down on the global warming hoax, people still knew them for what they were and called them out.  I'm reminded of it, because the global warming hoax was specifically (and self-righteously and smugly and snarkily) referenced a few times by Brusatte.  Seriously.  As if it isn't common knowledge that there's been more than 15 years of no warming and the whole hockey stick graph wasn't specifically and incontrovertibly exposed as a hoax.

But like I said; the Green cult is a cult.  Facts don't matter to them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Acid Nightmare

I just listened to this again (before that, I heard the 140 Squadron remix; now I'm literally listening to the original version.)  It's hard to overstate how much I love this track.  It's maybe not quite as chunky and intense as some tracks I have (although the Future Tribes and Pila's 2006 remixes certainly kinda are), but it's just incredibly anyway.  The face-melting main acid riff, the callback to Nightmare on Elm Street, the melodic piano of the Wavetraxx mix in particular; this is just a great track.

While I'm sure Frank Ellrich would love to live it down and get more recognition for his wider body of work (which is pretty extensive, after all) this collaboration with Kai Franz is still the best thing he ever did, and it'll be remembered as such forever.

That said, he also has some really good other stuff.  Acid Save Your Soul and Acid Headcracker are nearly as good, for instance, and come in a variety of versions.  The new(ish) song Sad Euphoria is brilliant, and the B-side Storm & Thunder is one of my favorites too.

Cult of Undeath "plot" outline updates

The following is my first stab at fixing some of the elements of the "plot" of the adventure path, both to make it much less linear in feel, much less railroady and much more focused.  This isn't meant to be the "final" version, I'm brainstorming with myself on how to improve the material I've already got.  Because it's a "brainstorming with myself" post, it might be all over the map, and it probably will be subject to future change.

First, let me make sure I'm clear with myself and what I don't like about the original outline.  Even though it features some significant modifications from the "plot" of the Carrion Crown adventure path, it still follows the general gist of the adventure path, sorta, and some of that may well be much of what eventually gets changed.  The things that don't work for me are basically:
  1. The first act feels a little too scattershot and maybe unfocused.  I think I need to better narrow down on what's going on, and not have too many things that are, essentially, tangents cluttering it up too much.  Or maybe find a way to make the tangents more meaningful rather than just "here's another monster to fight."
  2. The second act with its trips to the werewolf forest and the Lovecraftian seaside town feels tacked on, like the entire act is treading water rather than progressing towards the third act.  I kind of tried to fix that by making it less of a tangent and more of a rivalry between two bad guys, but I didn't do a great job of it, and the second act still feels kind of superfluous not only because it doesn't lead to the third act, but also because now it feels too repetitive with the third act.  The second act should make things more difficult for the characters, and leave them even more in the lurch.  Either that, or I treat each act as a separate "volume" or self-contained module of sorts, and have each of the three of them have their own satisfying conclusion.  I probably prefer that the second act act like a second act, not a second self-contained volume in a three part series, but we'll see how it ends up being when all is said and done.
  3. Either the second or third act needs to be significantly reformulated so that they're not essentially the same plot for both.
Anyway, let me focus today on the first act, not only because that's the easiest to do, but also because, well... it comes first, after all.  This is what I had for that in my original wrap-up outline for CULT OF UNDEATH, and let me repeat what I had before I go start making changes to it.
  • 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 flesh golem needs to be dealt with as well.  And then when that's done, the amulet is still missing, and hints point towards the possible thief, which will lead into 
(The last bullet point I just added, but it seems kind of obvious.  Maybe that's why I forgot to include it the first time around.) Part of the reason that this may feel disjointed and weird is that it's really two modules that I've combined.  Mostly what I did was combine the two characters and two plots and try to intertwine them.  The haunted ghost stuff and the Frankenstein monster are really two separate plot threads in the original source material.

I think maybe it would work better if I got rid of the idea (which came from Paizo) that the flesh golem was just a hobby of Lechfeld's and it's only out of control because of his death.  He didn't create it in a burst of curiosity or loneliness; he created it because he knew that as soon as he was dead, his undead amulet would be targeted by people who couldn't be trusted to take it.

This also serves to make Lechfeld much more sympathetic, although flawed, because his plan didn't work.  He protected his amulet during his life, but after his death, his plan failed.  Why?  Why didn't the flesh golem manage to ward off the depredations, and if it was unsuccessful, why is it now killing people instead of having been destroyed by those who stole the amulet?

I'm actually thinking that maybe some kind of vaguely Lovecraftian or daemonic parasite is attached to the golem's head and scrambling its programming; a contingency that was completely foreign to Lechfeld, which is why he didn't make a plan to protect against it.

Curiously, it also makes the Frankenstein monster somewhat tragic again, although not in the comically inept virtue-sniveling way that it was originally written in Way of the Beast, or whatever the module was exactly titled. Not entirely, because it's only semi-sentient at best; more like an AI than a sentient being exactly.  But still; it's failure is also not its fault, so there's that.

My first thought is that although once they find out what's going no at the very end, the two strands tie together better, for the majority of this act, nothing is different than it was before.  Maybe that's actually totally OK.  In fact, I kind of think that it is.  The presence of some kind of vaguely Lovecraftian entity also allows me to figure out a way to salvage the trip to fake Innsmouth too, maybe.  That helps set up my next post in this series, where I try to untangle the awkward threads that I have for acts II and III.

As a migrate further and further from the original Paizo plot, I'm even wondering about a couple of things: 1) do I want the pallbearers and heirs set-up that the module provides, and 2) do I want the ghosts to come from a haunted ruin of a prison, or are those distinctive enough to the module that I'd rather come up with something else?  If I do, I want it to be better, so we'll see.  The ghosts certainly don't have to come from a prison, or even from the same source at all, if I don't want them to.  That's easy enough to change.  Heck, they can even come shrieking down into town from the wilderness just outside, where their original versions were bandits.  Or they can just come from whatever source they originally came from; a random collection of psycopaths united only by geography.  

But changing the funeral set-up is a bit harder, because it's a good set-up, and no obvious alternatives suggest themselves (other than having the PCs be an investigative team looking into the possibility that he was murdered—but that's even more of a railroady introduction than it already is.)