Monday, March 29, 2010

A Little Housekeeping is in Order

I started this blog mainly in order to post comments at OSR blogs, but I have been very remiss in linking to other blog. At this stage, I would consider myself OSR adjacent- my paucity of posts has mainly dealt with inspirational reading culled from folklore.

My gaming background is fairly deep, but narrow- I was introduced to the hobby through Moldvay Basic, then dabbled with a bit of Moldvay/Cook Expert, then went on the AD&D1E and never looked back to Basic (pity, but the siren song of d10 for fighter hit points was too hard to ignore). In high school, I played a fair amount of TFT, and Gamma World was a continuous one-shot diversion. To my shame, although I love HPL, I have never played a game of Call of Cthulhu. I actually find a lot of Lovecraft to be pretty funny- distressed gentlefolk who find themselves under siege by indescribable horrors which they then proceed to describe, love it but don't find it scary. I never did get to AD&D2E (why change a system that works for a lesser imitator), played a one-off Vampire game but decided that any "modern" simulation tends to draw out the Jane's enthusiast.

It has been a while since I've rolled a bunch of polyhedrons, but it's good to start reading about the hobby again, with the provision that it'll lead to playing once more.

I'll take this week to get a decent blogroll going, and finally throw the old skull into the ring for reals.

Monday, March 22, 2010

From Hibernia to the Astral Plane, via the Pliocene Five Planes

Reading over my last post's links to The Book of Invasions, I could not help but be reminded of Julian May's "Pliocene Exiles' Saga", which began with 1981's The Many-Colored Land. In the book, two related extraterrestrial races, the Tanu (based on the Tuatha de Danann) and the Firvulag (a mash-up of the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians) have emigrated to Pliocene-era Earth, forced out by the society which had given rise to them due to their adherance to an ancient religion rooted in race-based ritualistic warfare. The two races exhibit formidable psychic powers- the Firvulag have operant abilities (illusion-spinning being a particular talent), the Tanu having latent abilities which are stimulated to even more potent operancy through the agency of torcs. The status quo between the two races is disturbed by time-traveling 21st Century dissidents who choose to pass through a one-way time portal in Southern France. The arrival of humans, who are genetically compatible with the extraterrestrials (yeah, it's not hard science fiction at all), upsets the equilibrium of the two races, leading to an eschatological conclusion to extraterrestrial rule.

When I conceived the original title of this post, I had been under the false impression that The Many-Colored Land had been published in the late 70's, and that the githyanki/githzerai conflict had been inspired by the Tanu/Firvulag split in May's series. The book was, however, published in 1981, the same year in which the Fiend Folio was published. Charles Stross' githyanki (a name cribbed from George R. R. Martin's The Dying of the Light) originally appeared in White Dwarf #12, published in 1979, though I can find no mention of the githzerai making an appearance in the magazine. The original thesis of my post being shot down by the intrusion of fact, I would now propose that the inspiration of the conflict could be the Vadhagh/Nhadragh enmity in Michael Moorcock's Corum novels, which were also inspired by Celtic legendry. The Vadhagh and Nhadragh, like the Tanu and Firvulag, are also paranormally-gifted humanoid elder races shaken up by the advent of humanity.

At any rate, Julian May's novels are a goldmine for ideas concerning psionics, and a nice alternative take on Charles Stross' creations (potentially invaluable to those wanted to avoid entanglement with I.P. lawyers). Technological enhancement of psychic powers, "elves" who employ energy weapons and suborbital flyers, illusion-spinning mutant freaks- all can be found in May's gloriously sprawling books. In my research, I discovered that White Dwarf #51 contained writeups of May's creations- I wonder how many readers noticed a certain similarity to previous Fiend Folio creations.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Firbolg Ruminations

This being the eve of St. Patrick's day, it would be most appropriate to write about the Fir Bolg, a people described in the Book of Invasions as having been descended from an earlier people, the Nemedians, who were subjugated by the Fomorians. There are various theories regarding the derivation of the name, a possible translation of Fir Bolg would be "men with bags", according to legend, the name refers to a period of slavery, during which the Fir Bolg hauled dirt from fertile lowlands to less productive lands in leather bags. In some versions of the legend, these bags were sewn into leather boats, which were used by the Fir Bolg to sail to freedom in their ancestral homeland. Another possibly etymology would link the Fir Bolg to a Celtic thunder god, and attempts have been made to conflate them with the Belgae who Caesar mentioned in his Gallic War Commentaries.

According to legend, the Fir Bolg were defeated by the Tuatha Dé Danann in the First Battle of Mag Tuiredh, but were granted the province of Connacht due to their valor. In TheTain, Cuchulainn's foster-brother Ferdia was a noted Fir Bolg.

Despite there being no indication of superhuman stature in the Irish legends, the Firbolg (sic) managed to make it into the "Giants" section of the Monster Manual 2, along with the Fomorians of legend (another legendary foe of the Tuatha dé Danann). The Firbolg was presented as a sort of giant magical trickster, a leprechaun with a pituary condition. It was also the beginning of a wonky trend (continued into second edition AD&D) in which the damage inflicted by giants took the form (weapon type x N + strength bonus), rather than the classic Xd6 of the original Monster Manual giants. For game purposes, I like to conflate Fir Bolg and Gáe Bolg, so any Firbolgs encountered tend to be armed with double-sized spears and like weapons (tridents, partisans, spetums, and particularly harpoons- which seem to be a good substitute for the original barbed spear o' doom).

The computer real-time tactical game Myth: The Fallen Lords featured a really nice alternate portrayal of the Fir Bolg as forest-dwelling archers who, judging from the manual illustrations, came across as neo-Neanderthals.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Little Musical Interlude, in Keeping with the Season

Not having the luxury of that much free time, it's hard to keep up with a decent posting schedule, but not posting would inevitably lead to dropping this endeavor entirely. In the interests of staying in this game, here's a musical prelude to St. Patrick's Day:

The song Dearg Doom (an unholy mix of Gaelic and English loosely translated as "Red Destroyer") comes from the band's 1973 The Táin album, inspired by the Táin Bo Cuailnge ("Cattle Raid of Cooley"). The annotated Horslips lyrics page has a funny item about the genesis of the song (which is an unholy mash-up of folk epic and Marvel Comics- conflating Cúchulainn with Dr. Doom).

The blazing guitar riff that anchors the song is the traditional O'Neill's Cavalry. The look of the video, the band's outfits, and the subject matter all remind me of Spinal Tap's Stonehenge, I'd love to know if there was a connection. Of special interest is the chainmail "glove" and silver paint on the lead singer's hand, a nod to Nuada of the Silver Hand, king of the Tuatha de Danann, and a cognate of Nodens.

Oddly enough, this song became a number one dance hit in Germany. Who'd a thunk it? The "Jethro Tull-esque" song Trouble with a Capital 'T', from the Book of Invasions album was frequently found on pub jukeboxes in my neck of the woods. King of the Fairies (NO LAUGHING!) is a great instrumental from the Dancehall Sweethearts album.

In 2004, the Decemberists released a pseudo-metal (Art Metal?) album also based (loosely in their case) The Táin.

Monday, March 8, 2010

About the Nym

The nym I am blogging under is a tribute to tenth century Icelandic viking and poet Egil Skallagrimsson, who was immortalized in the saga which bears his name. Much of the content of the Icelandic sagas is very matter-of-fact (genealogies and minutely-detailed recollections of political and social events in the the Norse world), there are occasional glimpses of outré subject matter, recounted in the same generally dispassionate tone as the mundane events. The presence of half-trolls and shape-changers in the community, uniped attacks, and struggles with undead are told with a tone suitable to a newspaper's "Community Events" column.

In Egil's Saga, there is an account of the exhumation of Egil's bones, and the following description of his skull:

The skull was wondrous large, but still more out of the common way was its heaviness. It was all wave-marked on the surface like a shell. Skapti then wished to try the thickness of the skull. He took a good-sized hand-axe, and brandishing it aloft in one hand, brought down the back of it with force on the skull to break it. But where the blow fell the bone whitened, but neither was dinted nor cracked.

This seemingly outlandish description was cited by some scholars who wished to dispute the veracity of the saga, but UCLA professor Jesse L. Byock proposed that Egil suffered from Paget's Syndrome, a condition which causes abnormal bone growth. The picture on the blog is that of the skull of an individual with Paget's Syndrome.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gifts Gary Gave Us

Now, on the second anniversary of Gary Gygax' death, I feel compelled to write concerning the man's contributions to his fans' lives. Gary's love for the English language suffused all of his work- his prose used a glorious palette of purples, or, as he would put it mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac and deep blue. What other individual has ever inspired fourteen-year olds to casually throw around words such as milieu, or phrases such as in durance vile? Imagine the consternation of hundreds of high school teachers, scratching their heads in puzzlement as they reached for their dictionaries, wondering where a precocious freshman had encountered such highfalutin' words. Though he wrote for an initial audience of wargaming enthusiasts, history buffs, and college students, his narrative voice never changed, even though his target audience came to include many children and adolescents- his writing never took on a condescending tone. While there have never been any studies of the phenomenon, I would have to guess that exposure to Gary's writing was a guaranteed boost for SAT verbal scores.

Gary broadened our scope, he inspired us to seek out obscure reference works and largely unsung legends, as well as the fiction that inspired him. Without Gary, how many of us would have read The Kalevala, The Tain, the Icelandic sagas, La Chanson de Roland?

While Gary's fans were an imaginative lot to begin with, Gary gave us a means to pool our imaginations, to share our particular interests as we created shared narratives. Some brought a love of classical myth, some an interest in film, some a knowledge of Medieval history, of organismal biology, of martial arts, all had something to throw into the communal stewpot of our games and campaigns. Gary took the typically private life of the imagination, and gave us tools to make exercise of imagination a public endeavor.

Although I never had the honor of meeting the man, his works still resonate with me, and his avuncular kindness and good humor shine through in posts that I have read subsequent to his passing. While the best way to honor his legacy would be to throw some 20-siders, it's a workday and a weeknight, so this long-overdue tribute will have to suffice.