August 31, 2012

Maroto: Sword & Sorcery Artist Supreme

If there’s one artist I look to as having captured the epitome of sword-and-sorcery, I would say that for me it’s not so much Frazzeta as Esteban Maroto

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Just as I like black and white photographs more, so I tend to prefer pen-and-ink art over paintings.  Maroto’s illustrations may never have been historically accurate, but he was rarely depicting history anyway; he drilled straight into that heady mix of violence, horror and eroticism that’s the heart of the sword and sorcery genre and made it his own with his lush detail and touches of the Art Nouveau style. 

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I actually prefer Maroto’s Red Sonja to Frank Thorne’s, and only recently did I find out it was Maroto who gave Sonja her signature silver-coin bikini.  See what I  said about Maroto and historical details?  But really, tell me what boy in the 70’s didn’t buy Red Sonja for the chain mail bikini?  I know I did.

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I also love Maroto’s way of ignoring the conventions of comic-book paneling, and instead designing his page as a single narrative canvas, echoing Renaissance-style religious paintings.  There’s so much detail for your eyes to trace that you can spend ten, fifteen minutes on a single page. 

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Maroto was best known for his work on Savage Sword of Conan, and the Warren magazines Vampirella, Eerie and Creepy, specially for the serials Vampirella, Dax the Warrior, and El Cid.  A collection of his works was published in the USA as Xotica Volume 1 in 1995.  I’m not aware if there were any other volumes.

August 30, 2012

Swords of the Four Winds Preview

I’ve received the illustrations for Swords of the Four Winds, so now it’s just a matter of finishing and polishing off a few more stories.  Here’s an excerpt from one of them, In the Service of the Serpent King.


Thau Sang addressed the pirates in Nusaradyan, a language he spoke only haltingly, but his voice was clear, and his words compelling. Briefly he spoke of the rebellion that had overthrown him, sending him fleeing down the Annala River with only a few retainers, his attempt to make a deal with Datu Nagbuaya, encountered by chance at the river’s mouth, and Nagbuaya’s treachery. Then he spoke of his intention to return, of the chests of silver and rare spices that would be his to give if his throne was restored to him, and of the jewels and fine swords and horses that could be looted from the rebel nobles, with his royal blessing. He spoke of cities that must be sacked as examples to the wicked, and the pirates began to cheer and call out pledges.

But not all. Pandara quickly noted that no few of the captains looked skeptical, and as he feared, one of them garnered the courage to speak up. “Bah! How many of us here are princes and chiefs in our own homes, but can never return?” the dissenting captain challenged, swaggering to the forefront. “Many – even you, Pandara! Aye, even I, Matalam, would also promise you baskets of pearls and chests of silk for your blades to help me return – but I doubt I could ever deliver them, so I do not.

“I say, anyone with any pretension to royal blood may promise the moon, but there’s nothing like sure gold in the hand! Why risk our lives in a venture with such narrow chances of success, when there’s an easier way already? I say this king and princess are in our hands, let us take the certain path and offer them for ransom!” Matalam cried, and many of the captains growled their approval.

“Ransom, ransom!” the dissident captains began to cry, and their men echoed them. Those initially fired by Pandara’s words and Thau Sang’s promises looked uncertain, angry but still tempted by Matalam’s logic.

Nayyadi cast one pleading glance at Pandara.

“Enough!” the Pirate Prince roared, and a listener too far away to make out the words would have mistaken him for a tiger. He squared off before Matalam. “I lead here, and I say we take service with King Thau Sang, for the booty of a kingdom,” he growled, but pitching his voice to carry and remind the pirates what this was about. “Are you challenging me?”

Matalam spat at Pandara’s sandaled feet. “Aye!”

Some captains shouted for the formalities to be observed, but Pandara and Matalam wasted no time. With one accord they unsheathed their weapons, Pandara taking his father’s battle kris in his right hand and a dagger in his left, Matalam drawing a Quan saber whose hilt he manipulated to split into two blades. He grinned exultantly at Pandara. “I outreach you twice over now, Pandara,” Matalam gloated.

“You’re still fat and slow,” Pandara taunted back, and then the battle was joined.

Matalam was indeed a big man, not as tall as Pandara who was very tall for an islander, but his girth was enormous, his dark face round and his chins multiple. But weak and slow Matalam was most definitely not, and his Quan sabers rang like bells against Pandara’s blades. His blows were so powerful they drove Pandara back, and again and again they drove the Pirate Prince’s blades out of line, creating openings that Pandara could only deny by hurriedly leaping or twisting away. Matalam began to laugh.

Pandara was forced onto a patch of soft sand, where his feet sank with every step and slowed him down. Matalam, laughing even louder, closed in for the kill. But he had failed to reckon the true depth of his opponent’s warcraft. Pandara made to back away again, luring his opponent into deeper, softer sand, and then suddenly he dodged sharply to the right. Following him, Matalam dug his feet into a hole Pandara’s feet had made earlier, floundered, and then was knocked over by a shrewd kick. Before he could recover, Pandara flicked the sabers out of his hands then knelt over him, holding the kris to his throat.

“Submit!” he demanded.

August 28, 2012

Heroic Fantasy: Age of the Warrior

I found my copy of this book sometime in the ‘90’s, at a bargain bookstore selling second-hands from the U.S. It even had the stamp of some town library on one of the inside covers – which town, I can’t remember.  (I’m old, and the book isn’t with me.)

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The book, which sadly I couldn’t take with me when we moved because the paper’s gone mildewy, which, gives me asthma, contains some gems of sword and sorcery and was my introduction to the work some authors I’d never read before.  Chief among the new discoveries was Charles Saunders, as there was an Imaro short here, E.C. Tubb, whose Dumarest novels I’d read but never knew he’d dabbled in sword and sorcery, and Hank Reinhardt.

The best story for me was far and away Reinhardt’s Age of the Warrior.  It lovingly takes the standard, practically cliched tropes  of the genre and extrapolates them forward.  The protagonist Asgalt, was a barbarian very much in the Cimmerian mold, ‘able to fight all day and drink all night,’ now in semi-retirement as a Duke after rising through the military of a kingdom. 

The story though catches up with him as a crotchety old man, but a barbarian invasion forces him to take up the sword again and race through enemy-occupied territory to get a vital message through.  As a foil he gets a younger warrior to go with him, and there are several hilarious passages where the old barbarian huffily measures his prowess against the young protégé.  In the end, though, they’re cut off at a bridge by the enemy, and Asgalt makes the only decision an old but still hale barbarian hero can.

Age of the Warrior really hits all the right notes for me – the indomitability of a barbarian spirit, the code of self-heroic sacrifice, and embracing doom with style. This story is a real gem.

On top of that, Saunders’ Death in Jukun is a fine gritty thriller, there’s a deliciously ironic Cyrion adventure by Tanith Lee, The Mistaken Oracle by A.E. Silas ends on a fine note of grim laughter, and there are three interesting essays on the genre by Reinhardt.

August 26, 2012

Tribes of Bronze: Nature of Magic

cloaker_smlThere are two forms of magic on the world of Melkor, Mysticism and Sorcery, and they are closely related. Mysticism develops the innate psychic powers, allowing one to touch others’ minds, create an astral projection, and most importantly, to contact beings from other dimensions. This last is the foundation of Sorcery, which is the art of contacting, summoning and compelling alien beings from other dimensions to do the sorcerer’s bidding.

Unfortunately for mankind, all the beings sorcerers have contacted so far have been utterly abhuman in nature, taking joy only in violence, fear and torment; thus all such beings are termed demons. Sorcery relies very heavily on knowledge unearthed from Ancient sources, as it seems Sorcery was extensively practiced in many previous civilizations. Ancient records and grimoires provide valuable information about the various demon types and how to contact them, and what astrological signs to watch for in determining which dimensions are easier or harder to reach at any time.

Magic is rare, and because people violently fear it and its practitioners, is usually practiced in great secrecy thus making it seem even rarer. Sorcery is illegal in nearly all kingdoms, and Mysticism usually allowed only to priests. Getting into magic is a slippery slope, for once a Mystic begins opening his mind to the other dimensions he also opens a door for demons to either attack him or tempt him into practicing Sorcery as well. Few can resist the seemingly easy power Sorcery offers.

Sorcerers also know a terrible truth about the gods of Melkor: they know the gods don’t exist. There are no true gods, no good gods, in this world or any of the other dimensions sorcerers have reached, and any that seem real are merely demons in disguise.

Sorcery Game Mechanics
Summoning a demon requires that you win a Quick Contest vs. the demon.  Victory means it comes to the earthly plane and is willing to do your bidding.  Anything else means it ignores or resists your call, and on a critical failure, it may decide to turn against you. 

Ritualized summoning requires extensive preparations which you must describe to the GM.  The main benefit of ritualized summoning is that you get three tries to obtain a Victory.

Demon Types
I’ve still to set the demon types’ names in stone, but these are what I’ve been thinking of so far.  Nearly all magical effects require the agency of demons.  I want magic in Tribes of Bronze to be really ghastly in nature, thus the designs:

Illusion Demons
Can use their powers to distort perceptions over a  place, object, creature or person.

Reshaper Demons
Demons that can temporarily possess an indicated victim (this will require a Contest of course), and warp the victim’s body with unnatural modifications.  The modifications may be positive or negative, but they will always look unnatural and at least mildly horrifying or sickening. (This replaces polymorph-type spells in the setting)

Melder Demons
Melder demons can possess the bodies of dying humans or animals, filling them with new life and warping them in unnatural ways to make the body stronger for combat.  The Melder then uses the body to inflict pain and terror by attacking and consuming people.

Reanimator Demon
Reanimators possess corpses and reanimate them with a sick, horrid semblance of life. The Reanimator can stay in the corpse until the corpse is totally destroyed, say by fire, or it is banished.  (This replaces all kinds of undead creation spells in the setting)

Whisperer Demon
Whisperers are weak but malicious manipulators, who can be summoned and interrogated for their preternatural knowledge.  Whisperers will deliberately use the opportunity to tempt, provoke, and otherwise manipulate the summoner into causing as much trouble as possible.

Screamer Demon
Screamer-type demons inflict terror and madness with their eerie vocalizations. 

Primordial Demon
A gigantic, slimey, shapeless, multi-eyed and multi-tentacled horror that likes to play with its food. Its favorite dish of course is  people.  The go-to for every sorcerer with a private dungeon to guard …

Brute Demons
Demons that can manifest with solid bodies and fight effectively, delighting as they do in blood and violence.

Mysticism Spells/Powers
For Mysticism, I want a selection of psychic powers that feel like they could really come from the mystic’s mind alone, but avoid the science-fiction-ey feel of standard FRPG psionics.  I’ll be working out the rationales for why these things work the way they do later, but for now:

Oneiric Whispers
The mystic can enter the dreams of a sleeping person and hold a conversation with that person’s mind.  When the person awakens, he will remember the message and believe the mystic talked to him in a dream.  This spell requires some form of psychic link between you and the subject.

Oneiric Visitation/Oneiric Assault
A development from Oneiric Whispers, the mystic now enters the dreaming person’s mind and gets to play with it.  The caster can trigger sensations, such that the dreamer believes he or she is physically interacting with him.  Beware, though, many wizards have died from attempting this on a barbarian’s main squeeze …

Silent Howl
The mystic sends a purely mental howl straight into the mind of a victim, causing confusion and terror. Basically a mind-blast, but with the requisite horror trappings for a true sword and sorcery feel.

Astral Projection
The mystic can send out an astral form, which can fly and pass through solid barriers. Doing so, however, opens him up to assault from other dimensions. The character’s body remains in a catatonic state during this time, and so must be protected from all threats.

Astral Guide
You may not only project yourself in astral form, you can aid others in doing so. Without an Astral Guide, non-mystics cannot do astral  projection.

Leech Life
Your character can psychically leech life energy by touch. When you do so, your character’s injuries heal by the same amount that your victim loses life force.

August 25, 2012

Swords of the Four Winds: Frontispiece

(C) Raymund Bermudez. All rights reserved

Concept sketch by Raymund Bermudez, meant for the frontispiece of my Swords of the Four Winds anthology. I am soooo glad I got this artist!

Tribes of Bronze: Kharzond

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Closeup of the super-continent of Kharzond.  The area between the Cymrael Mountains and the Gryphon Mountains is a rain shadow, so the land here is arid. I’ve decided to add a desert where the lack of rain is worst, just west of the Gryphons, as all the rivers from the Gryphon flow east. (There could be underground rivers flowing west …)

PS – this map was  made with the aid of Tiffany Munro’s excellent pack of Tolkien-style fantasy map brushes

August 24, 2012

Tribes of Bronze: World Map

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First draft of a map for the Tribes of Bronze setting. A lot of the place names are tributes to some of my favorite S&S authors. Click to open a larger image in a new tab.

The world is at the ending of an Ice Age, so the edges of the continents are severely affected by flooding. Kharzond is meant to be a supercontinent, with civilization concentrated in Omphale, the fertile region surrounding the Amrian Sea.

August 23, 2012

The Sorcerer as Terrorist

What is a sorcerer’s role in a sword and sorcery RPG’s setting? I think the selection of spells typically presented for a sorcerer in FRPGs, D&D in particular, tend to obscure what a sorcerer really should be doing in the world. That is, to live off fear.

Yup, that’s right.  A sorcerer uses their arts and powers to live off peoples’ fear of them.  In myths and folktales, from sources as widely spread apart as Russia’s koldun and the mangkukulam from my own country, the sorcerer or witch is depicted as making demands backed up by threats of curses, essentially blackmailing the community.  In other words, terrorism.

Classic sword and sorcery stories follow the theme, with the sorcerer often shown as scheming his way to greater power by controlling or supplanting monarchs, as in REH’s Hour of the Dragon.

Quite a few ‘adventuring’ spells fit this purpose very well.  Anything that can cause physical harm, or affect the mind, or call up an agent to harass or threaten a victim, have very obvious uses in the sorcerer’s private campaign to achieve dominance. 

What’s lacking is rules for their use in non-combat situations, but this is something any experienced GM should be able to handle.  Easy enough to say, “All right, so you want to cast Influence on the Duke. If he fails his save, he’ll do exactly what you tell him and exile your rival Viridis of the Green Tower.”  What’s important is that you know you can do this, and that you can get concrete game or story  benefits from it.

But the real strength of magic, as it’s depicted in our source fiction, is the sorcerer’s ability to use it remotely, and to hit their victims where it hurts the most – sustenance and posterity.   Blights and murrains on crops and livestock can bring a population to its knees.  Infertility, or finding ways to kill off an important person’s heirs, will also be considered a nightmare in a society where inheritance of lands and titles plays a major role.

Granted, such spells should be rare – but they should be available, perhaps in the form of single-use scrolls or as very resource-intensive rituals. 

Also, like real-world terrorists, sorcerers would do best to operate in secret, or to surround themselves with such mystery and security in some remote stronghold that it’s almost impossible to get at them.  That, or protect themselves by openly seizing power, as revolutionary groups have done from time to time in Third World countries.

So far, these ideas have been more suited for NPC, especially villain, sorcerers.  What about the PC sorcerer? How to take this idea for your character and still be a hero? My idea is to take the Batman route – your sorcerer is the dark power on the side of justice, feared by other sorcerers because you know all their dirty tricks.

August 22, 2012

In a Maranao Antique Shop

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After shooting the street parade during the Kadayawan Festival, I retreated from the enervating heat into the Aldevinco native crafts arcade.  Spotting some beautifully incised brassware, I entered a shop called Omar’s Antiques – and this rack of vintage kris  was staring me right in the face! Note the use of old coins to decorate the scabbard of the kris at top right.

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Wonderful carved scabbard for a kampilan, 5th from left.

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Ivory pommel on a silver hilt, brass collars on the scabbard. This kris must’ve belonged to a noble, or a successful warrior.

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I don’t know what the sword above is, it looks like some kind of saber but the hilt seems to be the tip of an elephant or walrus tusk. 

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A selection of kris hilts. I just love the art of the southern Philippine peoples.

August 21, 2012

Tribes of Bronze: a Campaign Idea

The idea of Volkerwanderung has always interested me.  Imagine, if you will, entire nations of barbarians relentlessly marching toward civilization’s heartland, their return cut off by some catastrophe, hell-bent on gaining new lands or die trying.  Add the haunted ruins of past civilizations, scheming sorcerers, and increasing monster infestations, and you’ve got a heady sword and sorcery brew.

(Note - All illustrations below are merely to illustrate my intended flavor for the campaign; I make no claim that they’ll be used should I release this commercially – much as I’d have loved to commission Frazetta)

Frazetta

In Tribes of Bronze, I’m setting this Volkerwanderung on a fantasy world that’s still in the Bronze Age, a Chariot Age, with the pre-Classical Mediterranean Basin as my peg for civilization.  The campaign’s premise is that all the PCs belong to a tribe, which the players get to create together, and their goal is to ensure the tribe’s survival. 

Each tribe will have, among other distinguishing details, a Signature Weapon and an Expertise in which characters of that tribe have bonuses.  For example, if you want to model a tribe after Howard’s Cimmerians, you could give them swords as their Signature Weapon and Mountaineering as an expertise.

In addition, I’m thinking of creating a Cold War-like split between the dominant civilizations of the world, so that tribes get pitted against each other constantly in proxy wars and shifting, polarizing alliances.

Adventure Ideas:
Some adventures I’m thinking of for this include:

1) A powerful monster or colony of monsters is denying a vital resource to the tribe.  Maybe it’s occupied the river, thus preventing fishing, or it’s driving off the game, etc. etc.  Only the heroes can deal with it – everyone else is just too frightened. (REH fans will probably recognize echoes from Valley of the Worm here …)

9cf0re22) The tribe has been attacked by another, formerly friendly tribe.  The new enemy is numerically superior or has some other powerful advantage on its side.  Our heroes must find a way to ensure the tribe’s survival against this new threat. Finding out the cause of the attack will likely lead to more adventures.

3) The tribe encounters an abandoned city in its wanderings.  The heroes are elected to explore it, possibly after others have tried, but failed to return.

4) Slavers have kidnapped members of the tribe.  Our heroes have to get them back.

5) Imperial envoys arrive, bearing rich gifts and promising more if the tribe will mount an expedition against another tribe.

6) A sorcerer is gathering a barbarian horde by a combination of tempting promises and threats backed by his armies and his command of demonkind.  He regards anyone not with him as against him. Now his envoys are visiting the tribe,  demanding total submission.

Epic Achievements
The campaign will celebrate the achievement of epic, history-making milestones for the tribe, such as:

1) Eliminating another tribe, by either complete extermination or absorption.

2) Conquering a province of either of the world’s two empires, and keeping it for the tribe, whether as a truly independent state or as a vassal or ally of an empire.

3) Sacking an imperial city, or destroying an imperial army in battle.

4) Elimination of a titanic-scale monster.

5) Establishing a kingdom, and gaining its recognition by all neighboring tribes and at least one of the civilized empires. While anyone can declare themselves king at any time, it really matters only if you can take on all challengers and make them say ‘Uncle.’

August 17, 2012

The Sapphire Goddess by Nictzin Dyalhis

Nictzin Dyalhis.  You would expect a character with such a name to inhabit the pages of a sword and sorcery story, as some Evil High Priest™ type but no – this is an honest to gosh byline. 

Nictzin Wilstone Dyalhis was a contemporary of Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft, Bloch, Kuttner, etc., one of the star contributors to Weird Tales, but also one of the rarest.  In a writing career spanning fifteen years, he only published eight stories.  I’ve only read two of them, The Sapphire Goddess and The Red Witch, both in the Echoes of Valor anthologies edited by Karl Edward Wagner (who was no slouch in the S&S world himself).

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In this story, a modern Earthman finds himself transported to another world where demons exist and magic works, and where, apparently, he has been a king. 

Adventures and mayhem follow, as he is led to believe that a wizard can restore his memory in exchange for his retrieving and delivering to the wizard a sapphire statue of a goddess.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say our hero finds the sapphire goddess is indeed the key to his past in more ways than one.

Sapphire Goddess mixes tropes of both the sword and sorcery and the sword and planet genres, stirs in some nice plot twists coming from the way magic works in its world, and includes a comical yet kickass sidekick. Makes me wish Dyalhis had written more of this stuff, or better yet, made more stories about the characters used here.

Mythic Wizards in My Game

A chat with Alex Osias from Armchair Gamer got me thinking again about how I want magic users to play in my games.  I highly favor a more mythic take on the spellcaster, with magic being more than just another weapon for the players.  Alex then asked me, 'What makes a spell seem more mythical?'

I said, 'involvement of supernatural entities, need for ritual preparation, use of symbolism, use of the principles of sympathetic magic, and ... you can't substitute a grenade launcher and still have the same effect in game.'  I'm not that satisfied with that answer, though.  One of the lessons I learned in the Hari Ragat  playtests was to balance the role of the spellcaster vis a vis the the other character types, which in Hari Ragat are primarily heroic warriors.  How to have the flavor of magic I like, while keeping the player happy with a good sense of purpose and role within the game?

Magic is a way of life
I want magic to not just be a power that can be used when it's wanted, it's something that should shape the character's life, in terms of her actions and thinking.  The Way of Magic is a constant search for knowledge and power, for things that give you advantage when you need to cast spells. 

For example, I'm now thinking that perhaps babaylan in Hari Ragat begin with the ability to talk to only a few Ancestors, perhaps only those in their direct family line. She must earn the ability to contact more, especially the more ancient and heroic, and therefore more powerful, Ancestors.

I also like very much the way Chris Bunch and Allan Cole handle the wizard characters of Janos and Janela Greycloak in the Antero series. Both characters' lives are a quest for a great magical discovery.  Both characters are constantly gathering things that can help in their spellcasting; for example in one scene Janela puts away tufts of musk ox fur found on some brambles, and later summons that musk ox herd to trample down a pack of dire wolves. (See my notes on Spellbinding for more on this manner of doing magic.)

Perhaps another thing we can introduce is the idea of personal sacrifices.  A wizard may not be able to live a normal life, because the requirements of practicing magic impose certain taboos.  In the Thieves' World series, the sorcerer Lythande's magic is based on her hiding her true gender. Elric lives under vows and pacts with the supernatural made by his ancestors, which often limit his choices of action.  Odin sacrificed his left eye to gain the runes.  In Chinese fantasies, the eunuch sorcerer is a figure of dread. What did your character give up to be a wizard?

Magic is a means for achieving what the physical cannot
We're looking at some niche protection here, and also to make the wizard (or sorcerer or shaman or whatever) have a much more supernatural feel.  Right now I'm looking at three aspects, I may add more if I can think of them: 

Preternatural Knowledge
A wizard should have the ability to know, or investigate, things he cannot know  by natural means.  The far past, without aid of books.  The future, or possible futures.  The presence of the invisible, or the otherworldly.  The existence of magical talent or potential in someone or something.  This knowledge could be gained by means of divination spells, contacting otherworldly entities, or assuming that wizards have some kind of sixth sense.

Using this in the game means relying on the player of the wizard character to help drive the plot.  I am eager to give the wizard clues no other character can learn, but as player, your part is to get the rest of the party to do something about those clues.  To prevent other players from jumping the gun, I usually try to pass the wizard's player these clues privately.  

Environmental Manipulation
As a GM, I really don't like what I call point-n-zap magic. You know them - they're always the spells with the clearest descriptions in the rulebooks, because they exist only to be used in the most heavily-ruled aspect of the game, combat.    

I also don't like magic being too common, or used too frequently.  However, I do like occasional, epic manifestations of magic.  A sorceress lashed to the mast of a ship, chanting all through the night to so the ship can ride a storm wind and cover a year's voyage in one night.  A villain causing an entire cliff to crumble and wipe out an army (from REH's Scarlet Citadel).  Blizzards pummeling the Nine Walkers on Caradhras (LOTR). 

Yes, I think environmental manipulation on this grand scale is one of the most epic things that magic can do.  And I'm willing to let player characters achieve them - but there'll be a price.  Items and lore that they may have to quest for.  Allies that they need to recruit. Perhaps even seeking an audience with a god - I mean, bringing down a  mountain on your foes isn't likely to gain the favor of that mountain's deity, is it?  But the best and most interesting kind of sacrifice is self-sacrifice -- a character taking on extreme risks or even death to achieve some epic magical feat.  That storm-singing sorceress I mentioned? That was my wife's character in a Sea Rovers of Syrene game. 

Ability to deal with the Supernatural/Incorporeal
One of the coolest aspects I liked in David Gemmell's Drenai series was the ability of some heroes and villains to fight in astral form.  Only the well-trained or superbly talented could do it; there were rare cases of shamans or wizards aiding the non-magical heroes to do it as well, but the key here is that those heroes could do so only with that aid.  

A wizard should have the ability to see and engage the Unseen.  As a corollary, there should exist in the game forces and creatures that no other character type can deal with effectively without a wizard's help. 

As a corollary to this: wizards tend to attract their own kinds of threats.  An all-swordsmen party will run into less supernatural threats because the supernatural's less interested in them, but add a wizard and suddenly you'll have the attention of unquiet spirits, demons, and rival wizards ... 

With this in mind, I'd equip my players' wizards with banishment spells, warding and containment spells, maybe even astral projection and astral-form combat.  I'm also thinking that I need rules for astral combat.  Maybe specifying that only those who have the talent or training, or the guidance of an adept, can manifest their weapons and armor on the astral plane; otherwise, you enter astral combat 'naked.'  

Magic is self-limiting
I'm not that fond of the Vancian spell-casting paradigm used in D&D, but I understand the need for it.  Making magic an unlimited power not only unbalances the game, it'll take away its sense of the fantastic.  I'm also not that fond of spell points, not in large numbers, because it's one more thing for players to track. 

That said, the solution I've come up with is still very similar to using spell points, simply because it's so easy to understand. In Vivid, you can cast easy, minor spells without much risk even without bonus dice.  But the major spells do require quite a few bonus dice, so you end up hoarding the resources needed to generate those bonus dice.

Wizards are capable of more than spell-slinging
If wizards will now cast less minor spells, in favor of casting occasional but bigger spells, they should be capable of more in the game.  In combat, a wizard should at least be able to defend herself; maybe not deal the most damage, but at least keep a foe engaged long enough for a fighter to come in and help.  

Thus I don't restrict the weapons or armor a wizard can use in my games; what protects the fighter's niche is the simple fact that a wizard's player has strong reasons to allocate more skill dice to wizardry than to swordsmanship.  This means if your character inspiration is Elric or Gandalf, you won't be left moaning that all you have is a thin robe and a toothpick.

Digging deeper, though, I see a change in role for the wizard for that mythic feel I want in my games.  I'm taking away the D&D wizard's role as artillery; what am I giving in return? In my game I think wizards will end up as active plot drivers.  A wizard's supernatural concerns and need to gather the resources required to cast The Big Spell should drive quests and sub-plots, and help give the party purpose.  

I want the players of wizards to assert themselves, to lead, plead, bargain, or connive at getting what they need for their art. Think Gandalf chivvying the hobbits along and making speeches at the council of Elrond, or Kane scheming to get to Arellarti and activate the Bloodstone ...

August 14, 2012

The Subtle Jester of Scorpio

ae_25_legionsI couldn’t resist posting this.  As an uber-geeky sword-n-planet fan, some of the best moments I had when reading Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot novels was when I would encounter one of his many subtle, good-natured digs at Edgar Rice Burroughs or other writers.

In one book, I forget which, Dray Prescot relates that during the American Civil War he ran into ‘a Virginian gentleman who was much inspired by my adventures’ and wanted to do the same!  Talk about turning the tables!

In another book, Dray Prescot wryly observes that he’ll have no truck with declaring himself ‘the best swordsman on two planets.’  Yowch!  Anyone for a John Carter-meets-Dray Prescot-in-a-battle-royale comic book crossover?

Another writer Bulmer turns Prescot’s broadsides on is John Norman, notorious for his S&M-flavored Gor series.  On the far side of Kregen is a continent called Gah (gah! the puns!) which is considered in particular distaste for its slavery practices.

August 12, 2012

Secrets of Scorpio: the Dray Prescot Saga

What consists of over 50 volumes, is more popular in German than English, and was told by a fictional character to a non-existent person?  Yes, I’m talking about Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot series, all written under the pseudonym of Alan Burt Akers.

ae_4_swordshipsBulmer wrote up the Prescot series from 1972 to the late 1990s, and got 37 of its books published in English; the remaining books were published only in German and translation is still ongoing.  They chronicle the adventures of British sailor Dray Prescot,  who is mysteriously transported to Kregen, a planet orbiting the double suns of Antares.  As a sword and planet series, they seriously rival Burroughs’ Barsoom series in extent, world detail and popularity.

I first encountered the series way into the middle of things, when a friend handed me his copy of Mazes of Scorpio, #27 in the series.  I didn’t like it.  At the same time, I was intrigued by the rich detail of the world being painted, and the premises behind the hero’s presence on this alien world.  I also couldn’t get into Bulmer’s narrative style at the time – I hated the way the narrator constantly declares things in the negative – “I did not smile,” I did not do this, I did not do that. 

But fast forward some time later, and I gave the series another try, this time with the first two volumes – Transit to Scorpio and The Suns of Scorpio. This time, lover of exotic worlds that I am, I got hooked.

ae_27_mazesAgent of the Star Lords
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Prescot series, as compared to the Barsoom novels, is Prescot’s existence on Kregen as a catspaw in some cosmic game he has yet to understand. 

The Star Lords intermittently and arbitrarily whisk him away from the life he has built for himself on Kregen to take part in conflicts elsewhere on the planet, and when Prescot refuses, they punish him by sending him back to Earth. 

Prescot’s absences often have major impacts on his relationships.  In the Krozair Cycle, Prescot is made absent from Kregen for twenty-one years, causing him to miss an emergency summons from the knightly order of the Krozairs of Zy. The dishonor of this failure causes his children – who have matured to adulthood by the time he returns – to hate him.

Prescot is continually caught between having to obey the Star Lords and resisting their commands – he cannot afford to displease them, as he stays on Kregen only by their sufferance, but at the same time their missions often put him in danger and tear him away from his people at critical moments.

Barsoom Matured
Kregen in many ways is the idea of Barsoom matured – enriched with more details and stronger themes.  Bulmer’s choice of Antares for his setting is said to be a subtle homage to ERB, Antares being derived from ‘anti-Ares’ – in short, ‘the other Mars.’

Kregen has some very strong long-running conflicts which make it interesting.  For one, there is the perceived opposition between the deities of the Green Sun and the Red Sun, around which the Krozair cycle revolves.  Then there are the invasions of the Shanks, a race of fish-men from the unknown far side of the planet; and the machinations of Phu Si Yantong, a sinister Wizard of Loh aparently bent on world domination and the destruction of Dray Prescot.

Another aspect I like is Bulmer’s attention to religion and culture; there are dozens of gods and beliefs, saints, and frequently conflicts between religions. 

ae_11_armadaThe same attention goes to military ranks and titles of nobility, with different nations having different titles – a nice contrast to ERB’s universal use of just a few titles like jeddak – and to military details such as weaponry and organization. 

Technology on Kregen is not static. Time and again, Dray Prescot is able to introduce an innovation that helps his chosen side triumph. He also has his failures and frustrations, such as his inability to find the secret of creating fliers in the Hamalese style, forcing him to improvise skyships with sails in Armada of Antares.

Strangely enough, the fevered imagination with which Bulmer infused Kregen with its richness is also one of its weaker points.  There’s an incredible array of names and terms to keep track of, as Bulmer seemed to try to outdo ERB’s penchant for exotic terms by inventing a name for everything.  There are also a lot of recurring characters, who often get only a short introduction or none at all in the later books.

The result is that it is harder to get into this series from just anywhere in the sequence.  Enjoy Kregen by reading Transit to Scorpio first, so you get a more gradual introduction to the details.  Highlights in the series for me (caveat: I don’t have all the books) are Armada of Antares, Krozair of Kregen, and the Vallian cycle especially Captive Scorpio and Golden Scorpio.

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