Monday, March 28, 2011

Smells Like Victory Delving!

It has come to my attention that there is a "library scented" perfume named, in a creative ferment, "In the Library". Hmmm... how about a perfume like "In the Labyrinth", smelling of slime poison and prootwaddle sweat?

Barring that, how about an "In the Miskatonic Library" variation, with the scent of old parchment and lemon oil underlaid with the faintest hint of *****SPOILER WARNING***** deliquescing Wilbur Whateley?

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Sad Centennial

I try to avoid posts which may be interpreted as political, but today I must comment on the the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One of the worst workplace disasters in United States' history, this fire claimed the lives of 146 individuals, mostly young immigrant women. The women had been locked into their place of employment so they would be unable to steal, or take unauthorized breaks.

Look around your workplace- note the well-marked fire exits, rap your knuckles on the solid fire doors, appreciate the fact that you aren't locked in... now, mouth a prayer to honor the young women who fell from the skies like blossoms on an early spring day a century ago.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Strossful Week

I finally got around to reading Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives, and I am kicking myself for not having read the book earlier. The book, the first in Stross' "Laundry" series, is an unholy mash-up of the spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror, and computer programming culture... a combination that could have been awful in the hands of a self-important author. Stross' obvious love of his inspirational source material is tempered by a wicked sense of humor- the book is an affectionate piss-take on the spy and horror genres.

The protagonist of the short-novel The Atrocity Archives is Robert Howard (yeah, this is a precedent setter), an IT professional for an absurdly bureaucratic branch of the English Secret Service that deals with occult threats. In the milieu that Stross creates, certain esoteric mathematical formulae can breach the walls between universes and allow "Eldritch Horrors from Beyond" into our world. Having been pressed into service after being nabbed for a potentially earth-shattering prank, Howard is now a cog in the Civil Service. The novel begins with Howard's first foray into fieldwork. After a lengthy introduction to Stross' setting, the narrative picks up speed and becomes a roller-coaster of a plot involving Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, a beautiful philosopher who knows too much, Nazi revenants, and even worse horrors. There are moments of horror- a trip to the eponymous archives to determine the nature of the threat facing the protagonist is a gruesome riff on the "Nazi Occultism" meme. Stross serves up some startling plot twists, as hunters and hunted switch roles. Throughout, there are funny allusions to other works of fiction, cartoons, and hacker culture, and a prevailing theme of the ridiculousness of office culture- the "paper clip audit" is dreaded as much as the "Soul Sucking Horrors".

The climax of the novel involves a military expedition through an interdimensional gate to a starkly hostile parallel universe- the whole makes me wish I had been sitting at the table while Charles Stross was behind the screen, rolling dice by the handful.

The book also includes a shorter coda, a novella involving another threat to the peace and sanity of the good people of Earth. While not the tour de force of The Atrocity Archives (who can top Nazi necromancers, and the things that make them look like a bunch of naughty schoolboys?), The Concrete Jungle is a tight thriller which deals with intra-agency conflict, and its unforeseen consequences.

The afterword to The Atrocity Archives is just as good as the two "stories" in the book. Stross comments on the Cold War horror fiction of Len Deighton and the early-20th Century espionage thrillers of H.P. Lovecraft (you read that right). He also goes on to note the similarity of his concept (although the execution is radically different) to that of Tim Powers' Declare (he was told not to read it until he'd finished, or his creative process would have been derailed) and to the CoC supplement Delta Green (which he claims has tempted him to pick up the dice again).

How good is this novel? It was good enough that I hot-footed it over to the local bookstore to pick up the sequel, The Jennifer Morgue, which gleefully skewers the conventions of the James Bond novels and movies. It's another delightful read, and the recognition of the tropes being skewered is a great deal of fun. For a nice introduction to Stross' Lovecraftian espionage tales, I'd recommend A Colder War, which is not really connected to his "Laundry" series, but has similar thematic elements.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sandbox Surprise 1: Bicephalous Badlands

This post, the first in my, uh, cat scat series, is inspired by, and dedicated to, the lovely Magdalena, the two-headed tortoise who captured the hearts of millions around the world. The bicephalous eagle was inspired by the heraldic animal- I have quite a few neighbors of Albanian descent, and the double-headed eagle features prominently on bumper stickers and car window decals.

This particular micro-biome should be located in a region of "rough" area, or possibly a range of hills near a desert. The terrain is roughly suggested by the North American Badlands. All of the following should be considered open content pursuant to the guidelines of the Open Game License

Bicephalous Badlands

The terrain of this region is characterized by broken rocky terrain, cris-crossed by numerous gullies. The flora is adapted to arid conditions, with scrub brush dominant. Whether due to chaotic influence, or the lingering influence of deleterious magic, much of the vertebrate life of the region is afflicted (or blessed) with bicephaly. The region is normally shunned by humankind due to the evil reputation of the place, but occasional punitive missions are undertaken by the nomads of the surrounding lands, though most of these peoples have strict taboos against women entering the area (due to an intuitive fear that the curse hanging over the region could effect human embryos). Other human groups that may be found in the area are adventuring bands or dervish warbands on a crusade to combat the evil denizens of this land.

Random Encounter Table:

2. Giant 2-Headed Troll (1-2)
3. Eagle, 2-Headed (1-3)
4. Bicephalous Dog (2-24)
5. Ettin (1-4)
6. Bird, Flightless (rhea sized), Bicephalous (1-12)
7. Badger, Bicephalous Giant (2-5)
8. Camel, Bactrian- Bicephalous (1-12)
9. Mammal, Small- Bicephalous (typically harmless herbivorous rodents/insectivores)
10. Reptile, Small- Bicephalous (typically harmless 2-headed snakes or lizards)
11. Tortoise, Giant 2-Headed (1-3)
12. Men, Nomad (5-30)
13. Snake, Giant- Amphisbaena
14. Men, Dervish (7-28)
15. Men, Adventuring Party
16. Hydra, 6 Headed

For bicephalous versions of regular animals, merely add another bite attack, but subtract 3” movement due to motor functions being controlled by two heads (an initiative penalty might also be in order). The bicephalous tortoises are barrel-sized, inoffensive herbivores with 3 HD, movement 3”, AC 2, and an ability to bite (defensively) for 1-3/1-3 damage.

One Hex Horror: Shrine of the Ettin God.

This pilgrimage site, dedicated to the god of the ettins, is located by a low tor- it is suggested a party’s approach to this vicinity be made in a gully, so the visibility is limited. As the party rounds a bend, the gully opens up, within 500’ of the tor, and the party is greeted by a grisly sight:

Peering around the bend in the gully, you see that it widens into a desolate dale perhaps a quarter of a mile in width. Dominating the skyline at the end of the dale is a small, flat topped tor. Closer at hand is a gruesome sight- the desiccated corpse of a large humanoid is propped up by a crude cairn of fieldstone. Affixed to the right shoulder of the corpse with a wooden stake is the head of a smaller humanoid. Gazing past this grisly greeter, one can see several additional corpses, in varying states of decomposition, marred in similar manner.

These corpses are the remains of victims sacrificed to the ettin god. The tenets of the ettin religion include persecution of monocephalic creatures. To honor the ettin god, sacrificial victims are “perfected” by having second heads attached to their bodies. An examination of the corpses in the vicinity reveals that the “composite” sacrifices in the area are made from various humanoid species- humans, ogres, orcs, dwarves…

In the dale, there is a 1 in 10 chance per turn that a wandering monster may show up:

1-4. Ettin “pilgrims” (1-3) coming to the shrine to make obeisance
5. Pack of death dogs (2-8) seeking sustenance
6. Giant 2-headed trolls (1-2) on pilgrimage to shrine

At the base of the tor, there is a cave in which the ettin shaman dwells. The ceilings of the cave are approximately 15’ high in the centers of cavern areas 1., 2., and 5., and approximately 12’ in the center of the other chambers.

1. Vestibule: This area is inhabited by a pack of 14 bicephalous dogs (h.p. 17, 16, 14, 14, 13, 12, 12, 12, 10, 9, 9, 9, 8, 6) , which are considered to be sacred animals. These creatures are fiercely loyal to the shamans but will attack all others who enter the cave. During the course of combat, there is a 35% chance per round that either of the shamans will hear the combat and come to aid the dogs the following round.

2. Sanctuary: This cave is used in religious services- there is a flat, blood-stained boulder, approximately 6’ x 4’ x 3’ in the center of the cave which serves as an altar. A crude stone axe, used to decapitate captives (the ettins use clubs as melee weapons), rests alongside the altar. In a crude bag made of camel hide, is an assortment of miscellaneous objects- a tortoise shell, various animal skulls, bits of oddly shaped stone (including a chunk of lapis lazuli worth with a base value of 20 g.p.)- used to perform divinations of dubious utility. The first-level shaman (h.p. 56, spell cure light wounds) is typically in this area, performing various minor rituals and routine shrine maintenance.

3. Guardian: An amphisbaena (h.p. 34) serves to guard the adjacent holding pen. This horror was originally tamed by the senior shaman using a snake charm spell, and has subsequently become accustomed to the presence of the shamans, who feed it on a regular basis. It will attack any monocephalic foes with great ferocity. Among the various bones of small animals, there is a 150 g.p. opal.

4. Holding Pen: This area is blocked off by a large boulder which takes a strength of 20 (singly or combined) to move. Future sacrificial victims are kept in this area. Currently in the pen are a badly beaten ogre (current h.p. 7) and a dwarf who was captured while prospecting for gold (LN, level 3 fighter, average stats, h.p. 16). While these two individuals have no love for each other, they maintain an uneasy d├ętente in the face of their common enemy.

5. Living Quarters: The two ettin shamans use this area as a dining area, and the junior shaman sleeps here. Although the ettins have a midden outside their abode, they are indifferent housekeepers, so there is a small scattering of bones (camel, human, flightless bird) around this chamber. In the pile of dirty furs that the junior shaman uses for bedding, there is an ill-used giant weasel pelt which could still fetch 150 g.p. if salvaged), and a “hoard” of 157 silver pieces.

6. Senior Shaman’s Room: The senior shaman (3rd level, fights as 11 H.D. 69 h.p., cure light wounds, cause fear, chant) resides in this alcove. He is immensely strong (+1 to damage rolls) and unrelentingly vicious. Among the furs which he uses as bedding, there is a +2 cloak of protection and a cache of 83 copper pieces, 62 silver pieces, and three gems (500 g.p garnet, 100 g.p. spinel, and a 50 g.p. bloodstone).

Nice Sandbox You've Got... Shame if Something Happened to It*

"Sandbox campaigns" and "hex crawls" being popular forms of play, I've been thinking about nasty little surprises that can be deposited in the sandbox like cat scat. Even in a "vanilla" fantasy campaign, little elements of weirdness serve to spice things up- I favor micro-biomes which are affected by extraplanar forces, or pernicious effects of bygone magical effects of great power. Dropped into a hex, these areas can perplex players and make them search for a greater underlying pattern that might not be significant.

Because of the flexible nature of "sandbox play", these items will just consist of an underlying theme and some vague characteristics, and a suggested random encounters table. At the heart of each item, I'll include a "One Hex Horror", a smaller set encounter area from which the nature of the larger "biome" can be extrapolated.


Disaster in Japan

When I started this blog, I determined to include as little "real-world" content as possible (after all, this is about escapism), but I have to express my sorrow at the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan. I have a real appreciation for Japanese culture, and an affection for the Japanese people. One of my sisters-in-law was born and raised in Tokyo, and has family still living there. I traveled to Japan for my brother's wedding several years ago, and found the Japanese people to be extremely hospitable and gracious. My heart goes out to them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's Cute! It's a Mutant!

It's a cutant!!!

The pattern of the plastron of this adorable monster is quite pretty, it reminds me of some sort of glyph.