Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Own Private Idaho Glacial Rift

The New York metro area is currently experiencing a blizzard characterized by gale force winds and expected snow accumulations of up to two feet. Having been scheduled to work a graveyard shift, I decided to come to work early to avoid the worst road conditions (and to get my car off the street and into a deserted parking lot). I have had to shovel the area immediately outside the doors to the building a couple of times so I'll be able to exit the building.

The howling storm outside reminds me of the first time I played through Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, while a middle schooler- a blizzard had dumped about a foot of snow in the area, and classes were canceled for the day. A family friend trekked across town so he could play a marathon D&D session with my siblings and I (broken only by an epic assault on the snow in the driveway so mom could drive to work). The session went on until well after nightfall, and our friend stayed over so he wouldn't need a ride home on icy streets. Never have I experienced a gaming session that was so appropriate to the prevailing conditions outside.

G2 is perhaps my favorite in the "Giants" series, due to its unusual setting. The glacial rift, bordered by translucent ice caverns conjures up some unforgettable imagery, and provides a good showcase for those woefully under-utilized arctic monsters. It's also the only module in the series that wasn't directly inspired by DeCamp and Pratt's The Roaring Trumpet. The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is pretty much "nicked" whole cloth from DeCamp and Pratt's novella (a retelling of the tale of Thor's journey to the garth of Utgard-Loki), even down to the feast being held in the giant chief's steading:

After a good hour of climbing, Shea began to get glimpses of a shape looming from the bare crest, intermittently blotted out by the eddies of mist. When they were close enough to see it plainly, it became clearly a house, not unlike that of the bonder Sverre. But it was cruder, made of logs with the bark on, and vastly bigger — as big as a metropolitan railroad terminal.

Thjalfi said into his ear: "That will be Utgard Castle. Ye’ll need whatever mite of courage ye have here, friend Harald." The young man’s teeth were chattering from something other than cold.

Skrymir lurched up to the door and pounded on it with his fist. He stood there for a long minute, the wind flapping his furs. A rectangular hole opened in the door. The door swung open. The chariot riders climbed down, stretching their stiff muscles as they followed their guide. The door banged shut behind them. They were in a dark vestibule like that in Sverre’s house but larger and foul with the odor of unwashed giant. A huge arm pushed the leather curtain aside, revealing through the triangular opening a view of roaring yellow flame and thronging, shouting giants.

Thjalfi murmured: "Keep your eyes open, Harald. As Thjodolf of Hvin says:

All the gateways Ere one goes out

Thoughtfully should a man scan;

Uncertain it is Where sits the unfriendly

Upon the bench before thee."

Within, the place was a disorderly parody of Sverre’s. Of the same general form, with the same benches, its tables were all uneven, filthy, and littered with fragments of food. The fire in the center hung a pall of smoke under the rafters. The dirty straw on the floor was thick about the ankles.

The benches and the passageway behind them were filled with giants, drinking, eating, shouting at the tops of their voices. Before him a group of six, with iron-grey topknots and patchy beards like Skrymir’s, were wrangling. One drew back his arm in anger. His elbow struck a mug of mead borne by a harassed-looking man who was evidently a thrall. The mead splashed onto another giant, who instantly snatched up a bowl of stew from the table and slammed it on the man’s head.

Hall of the Fire Giant King is heavily inspired by a journey to Muspelheim in The Roaring Trumpet, even down to the troll servants of the fire giant monarch (Surt in the case of the novella), and the cameo appearance of some familiar evil genii:

They turned from the ledge into another tunnel. This sloped up then leveled again where side tunnels branched in from several directions. Snögg picked his way unerringly through the maze. A tremendous banging grew on them, and they were passing the entrance of some kind of armory. The limits of the place were invisible in the flickering red glare, through which scuttled naked black things, like licorice dolls. Heimdall whispered: "These would be dark dwarfs from Svartalfheim, where no man nor As has ever been."

While it borrows liberally from the novella, I'd have to say that I prefer Against the Giants, because it ditches the cutesy-poo elements of DeCamp and Pratt's work. The substitution of a party of mortals for the largely divine cast of characters in the novella is also an improvement- the dramatic tension is much greater in Against the Giants than it is in The Roaring Trumpet because the outcome is unclear- the divine protagonists of The Roaring Trumpet will survive until Ragnarok, while the fates of the all-too-mortal Frush, Fonkin, Gleep Wurp and the gang are anything but certain.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!

One of the most unusual traditional Christmas decorations is the Catalonian caganer, a small figurine of a person in traditional peasant dress answering the call of nature. The figurines are typically hidden in the elaborate Spanish nativity scenes, discreetly going about their business. It's a funny reminder that the sacred and the profane mingle in everyday life, and that the swaddling clothes of the babe in the manger eventually needed laundering. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the caganer is that one should never lose one's sense of humor, because, as St Ita noted, a scowling countenance is detestable to God.

Merry Christmas to all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Rogue Taxidermy and Obscure Chimerae

Last week, a friend persuaded me to attend the fifth annual "Carnivorous Nights" rogue taxidermy contest in Brooklyn. It was a night of two-headed squirrels, and other taxonomic oddities, including a wolpertinger. This tiny teratological terror was the subject of a comic riff on Albrecht Dürer's Young Hare watercolor:

One can clearly see that the jackalope is a descendent of this wee little chimera.