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Once More Unto The Breach

Vacation time!

Next week I’m off to Pennsic War!

This is the biggest event the Society for Creative Anachronism puts on. For the rest of this week I’ll be busy preparing.

Places to go, people to hit, packing to be done.

My old, faithful friend.

My old, faithful friend.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Blog News, SCA

 

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Tyrannosaurus Rex

We might have to update the “Number Appearing” stat for Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“The fossilized remains of tyrannosaur tracks found in British Columbia are providing the strongest evidence yet that these predators travelled and hunted in family groups”

-I09 July 24th, 2014

Pack hunting Tyrannosaurs, for when your party gets too complacent. This would be perfect for an adventure where higher level PCs return to the Isle of Dread, expecting a cake walk now that they have a few more levels under their belts. Or make them the minions of an ancient empire from Pellucidar, unleashed upon an unsuspecting world by an earthquake.

The evidence for this is still far from conclusive, but never let the facts get in the way of a good adventure idea.

They’re calling groups of these dinosaurs a Terror of Tyrannosaurs, which just makes it more fun.

Tyrannosaurus

I’ll just… leave this here.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Cool Stuff, History

 

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Comics Comics and more Comics

I’ve been on a graphic novel spree, thanks to a number of my inter-library loans all showing up at once.

Invasion!

First up on my list was DC’s 1989 series Invasion!. I wasn’t reading DC at the time so all I knew about the event was that it is a massive crossover involving freaky looking aliens and a big chunk of the DC universe. I also knew it involved Australia, thanks to an issue of Uncanny X-Men that lampooned the event.

All in all it is a fun read. The alien race known as the Dominators, who are cool looking thinly-veiled adaptation of Yellow Menace imagery, have foreseen a time when Earth’s penchant for creating superbeings will threaten their dreams of galactic conquest. This was the birth of DC’s idea that even seemingly normal heroes have a metagene, or the “We Want Mutants Too” era of DC. The Dominators forge an interstellar coalition to invade the Earth and suppress its superpowered potential until it can be studied and controlled.

This event does a lot of things right. Each member of the coalition has its own reasons for joining the cause, which the Dominators manipulate expertly, and each has a specific role to play. For example, the Khunds provided ground and space forces while Thanagar provided air support. The Daxamites acted as impartial observers, at least initially, and the Gil’Dishpan handle logistical support. Other races are bullied into neutrality. The Dominators do a good job playing their allies against each other, planning for the inevitable collapse of the coalition once the invasion is complete. They also take into account threats like the Omega Men, the Green Lantern Corps, and even made sure to acquire approval from Darkseid before proceeding with their plan. I like it when a story covers its bases so completely.

The story is well written and fun, with massive heroic stands by the heroes and lots of skulduggery among the villains. The collection does a good job of giving you the meat of the story, but as often happens with massive crossover events it’s obvious that there are a number of side stories we are not getting to read. This is one of several problems I have with big crossover events, that we rarely see a good job done of collecting them into trades. Invasion! itself was only three issues long, but it crossed into 30 other issues. Boiling all that down into a single book severely reduces the impact of the whole storyline, but I must admit that Invasion! pulled it off better than most graphic novels.

I’m looking at you Blackest Night, you sorry excuse for a collection.

Invasion! wasn’t as game changing to DC as some of their other events, but it’s a fun read. Especially if you like mixing space opera with your superheroes.

Ronin

Every now and then I like to pull out an old book and remember a happier time, when Frank Miller was brilliant and not just a hack with a reprehensible world view.

Miller was one of the biggest stars in the 80’s comicbook renaissance and I was among his ardent fans. My leather bound collection of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One is one of my favorite books. His legendary run on Daredevil is the only period where I followed the book and the surreal Elektra: Assassin made a big impact on my teenage self.

Ronin was written and illustrated by Frank Miller in 1984. It was the second piece by him that I read and I remember liking it a great deal, but wasn’t sure how well it would hold up to a fresh reading. I’m pleased to say that I still like it a great deal.

The book is a mix of Samurai and Cyberpunk genres that would make any Samurai Jack fan happy. The art shows a lot of Miller’s signature style, but has a Moebius flair to it that suits the story well. The opening premise is about a young samurai who fails to save his master from a demon. Now a masterless ronin, he sacrifices his life to bind himself and the demon into a magic sword. The two are released centuries later in the ruins of New York City, where a massive bio-mechanical compound has been built to develop technology for reshaping the world

I can’t say much more about the story without revealing the plot twists. Overall it holds up well, though I see some flaws that herald a few of Miller’s less pleasant cliches and there are a few events that don’t further the plot and feel like padding. The romance in particular has some logistical issues, but is nowhere near as problematic as Miller’s recent work.

If you are a fan of swords and cyberpunk, and if you want to read Miller from when he was a rising star, Ronin is a good choice.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

With the release of the new movie, which I still haven’t seen, I thought I’d check out this iconic story from the classic X-Men era. This is one of those stories I knew from pieces, as it heavily influenced the X-Men for many years, but had never read in its entirety.

I used to religiously collect Uncanny X-Men, which was their current timeline, and Classic X-Men, which reprinted the adventures of the team that took over after the original X-Men retired. Days of Future Past fell into the narrow window between when I started reading Uncanny X-Men and when I stopped collecting Classic.

The story’s premise is of a nightmare future where Sentinels rule the United States. All mutants are killed or locked in concentration camps and most of the old heroes and villains, mutant or otherwise, have already died. The rest of the world has sworn nuclear war the moment the Sentinels move beyond the United States, which the uncaring robots are poised to do, and all hope rests on a few surviving X-Men.

Rachel Summers, who was first introduced in this story, telepathically beams the mind of Kate Pryde back in time where she possess the body of her 13 year old self. From there she had to convince the X-Men of her story and rally them to stop the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The assassination of a US senator by the Brotherhood was the catalyst for the long nightmare and stopping it would hopefully write a new future, erasing the world Kate came from.

That’s pretty heavy stuff, knowing that you are erasing your existence in the hopes that a better life, a happier “you”, will take your place.

I love this era of X-Men. The writing is melodramatic, but they manage to hit my sweet spot for telling grim stories without giving into the gritty darkness that later took over comics. These still feel like adventures, which is no small feat when you’re doing a story about a mutant holocaust.

Another thing that surprised me was how short this storyline is. The collection includes unrelated issues from before and after the event so that it can fill a whole trade paperback. Days of Future Past cast a shadow over X-Men stories for years, yet the event was only two issues long.

Two issues. Take that Age of Apocalypse.

All in all, it was a very satisfactory weekend of superheroic reading. Now if I can just get my hands on Jim Starlin’s omnibus Dreadstar collection. I might break down and get that one off Comixology.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Books and Comics

 

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Real Life Car Wars – Not Involving Me!

“Eight years ago: “Crazy Joe” Harshman wins Fresno destruction derby by mounting a surplus .50-calibur machine gun in his Chevy.”

-Car Wars timeline, 1983 Edition

Thankfully, this time my post on real life Car Wars doesn’t involve me getting rear ended.

What it does involve is two Audis, an (autoduel) arena, a pseudo-Kenny Loggins soundtrack, and a whole lot of paint.

The grenades were a particularly nice touch.

“Seven years ago: Armadillo Autoduel Arena opens on former site of shopping mall in Austin, Texas.”

-Car Wars timeline, 1983 Edition

If this spawns a new extreme sport I will watch the heck out of it.

The “making of” video is also a good watch.

Well done Audi. Well done indeed.

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2014 in Cool Stuff

 

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Bedroom Wall Press Goes Free

John Berry, who writes the Bedroom Wall Press blog and such games as Hulks & Horrors has made a big announcement:

“Starting today, Bedroom Wall Press products are free and open source products.”

-Bedroom Wall Press, July 12th

Bedroom Wall Press is the archetypical small press OSR publisher, it’s a writer who loves gaming, particularly old school, and wants to get his product out into the world. To further that goal he is making the .pdf versions of his books free. Fans can still buy physical copies as well. Berry has also released his products under the Open Game License, which means that other publishers can now release material for his games.

Go read the post. His words are better than mine and he talks about the thought processes that went into this decision. It’s a neat thing to read and you can find it right over here.

Bedroom Wall Press has four books available. Hulks & Horrors is a science fiction game based on original Dungeons & Dragons. Heaven’s Shadow is a game of angelic assassins. Arcana Rising is an urban fantasy game and Welcome to Neuro City is the cyberpunk expansion for it.

I have a pdf copy of Hulks & Horrors and while I haven’t run it, I have mined it for ideas to use in my Stars Without Number game. I haven’t looked at the other books yet, as Urban Fantasy isn’t my thing right now. However, now that they’re free, I’ll be checking them out.

 

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2014 in Cyberpunk, Gaming, Science Fiction

 

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Scary Discovery

Investigators have discovered vials of Smallpox virus dating back to the 1950’s.

“They were found in an unused portion of a storeroom in an FDA laboratory, located on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.”

-The Raw Story, July 8th 2014

Smallpox is a horrible virus, causing terrible sores and was responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone. It’s also responsible for wiping out unknown millions of Native Americans who caught it from European explorers and colonists. The development of the Smallpox vaccine and the virus’ eradication in the wild is one of the triumphs of modern medicine. The World Health Organization made the following declaration in 1980:

“Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.”

—World Health Organization, Resolution WHA33.3

It’s not yet known if these vials contain still active samples of Smallpox. Also of note is this quote from the story:

“If viable smallpox is present, the World Health Organization will be invited to witness the destruction of these smallpox materials, as has been the precedent for other cases where smallpox samples have been found outside of the two official repositories.”

According to international agreements, only two places in the world are authorized to keep samples of smallpox: the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia.”

-The Raw Story, July 8th 2014

“As has been the precedent for other cases,” meaning that this has happened before! Not to mention the two labs which we know still keep samples for study. And while I understand why we should keep samples of the virus around for study, the gamer in me can’t help but think of all the horrible potential this offers.

If all this isn’t scary enough, there is an even darker chapter in the history of Smallpox. In the 1970’s the Soviet Union was putting a huge amount of resources into their biological weapons program, including work to weaponize the Smallpox virus. This lead to an accidental release of the virus from their facility on an island in the Aral Sea. A nearby ship had accidentally sailed into the restricted waters and one crew member was on deck at the time. She was infected and spread the virus to others. Most of the people infected had been vaccinated against Smallpox but suffered symptoms anyway, suggesting that the strain developed in the laboratory was able to overcome the vaccine. At least two unvaccinated children died. The Soviets moved quickly to contain the outbreak and to cover it up, officially reporting it as an outbreak of Anthrax caused by poorly prepared meat. (Details of this can be found in the book The Dead Hand)

The idea of a virulent plague kept in a long-forgotten laboratory is the stuff of nightmares.

Which of course makes it perfect for gaming, particularly of the Espionage or Superhero genres. A game could be based on an archivist discovering an entry about a top secret lab where such samples were kept. When terrorists steal her notes the race is on to rediscover the laboratory and secure its contents.

Oh, one final note. The Soviet Union based their biological weapons facility on Vozrozhdeniya Island, also known as Rebirth or Renaissance Island, to keep it isolated. At the time the Aral Sea was the fourth largest sea in the world. However massive irrigation projects have all but drained the sea in what some have called the worst environmental disaster in the world.

Vozrozhdeniya ceased being an island in 2008. Anyone, or anything, can now walk out to it. Or away from it. Recognizing the threat this posed to the world, the United States and Uzbekistan conducted a cleanup project of the facility back in 2002.

Hopefully they found everything and there isn’t a forgotten part of the lab where vials of weaponized Smallpox are still waiting to be found.

Sleep tight!

The Aral Sea, from 1989 to 2008.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Gaming, History

 

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The Adventures, My Friends, Are Blowing In The Wind

Here are some adventure ideas based on last week’s post about windmills on medieval maps.

1. Murder Mystery - The town has suffered a rash of thefts and vandalism; Windows have been broken including the stained glass of the church. Jewelry taken from bedrooms while their occupants slept. Small mirrors vanishing. Silver and gold pieces plucked from counter tops when nobody is looking. The incidents seem random and no suspects have been identified.

The old windmill on the outskirts of town has been abandoned for many years. Stories tell of the miller going mad and murdering his workers, whose souls are said to still haunt the place. Two nights ago a watchman noticed flashes of light glinting from the mill as the sun set, its blades glittering in many colors. Investigators approaching the windmill will see that the tattered cloth sails of the blades have been replaced with a thick mass of black feathers with all manner of shiny objects, including broken glass and the stolen items, woven into the bizarre tapestry.

Stranger still is the enormous flock of crows gathered around the windmill, silently watching the investigators. As the setting sun’s rays begin to glint off the illicitly adorned windmill’s blades the entire flock begins to beat its wings, creating an unnatural wind. The sails begin to turn, causing a hypnotic glare to be thrown across the town.

2. Drawing Conclusions - The court magician was well known to be a bit off, but he served the king well and his knowledge of unearthly beasts saved the city against the forces of chaos. So when he asked to move from his tower into the city’s great windmill, the king was happy to grant the request.

In the years of peace that followed the magician became more and more absorbed in his studies. He has sent out adventurers to retrieve all manner of arcane objects for him, including strange inks and feathers from increasingly exotic and powerful winged beings. Other magic users speculate that he is researching spells related to the wind, possibly looking to tap into the Elemental Plane of Air itself.

The magician has also begun drawing strange figures on the sails of the windmill, having several more blades installed to accommodate his designs. One of the adventurers or a local bard may remember having seen devices meant to entertain children that have figures drawn on a wheel. When the wheel is spun it gives the illusion of movement to the figures. The magician may be planning something similar on a much larger scale, but to what end? And the figures he is drawing don’t appear to be any creature you’d find in the sane world.

3. Fe Fi Fo Fum - The town has suffered a rash of grave robberies and a reward has been posted for anyone who can solve the case. Investigations of local magicians and surgeons have turned up nothing. A warren of ghoul tunnels may be discovered, but the ghouls within have already been destroyed. Recently by the looks of it.

A new miller has been producing fine flour, which the baker has been turning into a most excellent bread. The bread is so good that it has become the talk of the barony and demand among the nobles has made the miller and baker quite wealthy.

Years ago the miller and baker were clerics in the cannibalistic Cult of Vaprak. The cult was crushed by the baron’s forces and the other clerics tortured and executed for their crimes. The two survivors swore revenge.

The clerics are behind the grave robberies. They are grinding the bones in the mill and using it as flour for the fine bread. The Feast of Vaprak approaches and on that day they will unleash a curse that will cause all who have eaten the consecrated bread to transform into ogres.

4. Winds of Change - The sea walls of the port city are lined with a battery of unusual windmills. These windmills are capable of generating gales powerful enough to swamp ships and through their magic the city has resisted all invaders. The mills also create gentler winds, capable of speeding allied ships on their way. This has lead to peace and prosperity for many generations.

Recently there have been accidents; a ship blown off course, a storm drawn in instead of repelled. Most recently a group of fishing boats were overturned when the mills’ winds unexpectedly surged with power.

The secret of the windmills is that the wizards’ guild summoned and enslaved Air Elementals to power them. Over the decades the wards have begun to weaken as the guild became complacent. There are few remaining who have the skill and power to restore the wards. To do so will also require rare ingredients and adventurers to retrieve them.

If they fail the Air Elementals will break their bonds and wreak vengeance on the city. A vengeance that some would consider justified. Guild spies are ready to eliminate anyone who discovers the secret of the windmills, especially among the adventurers in the guild’s employ.

5. When the Wind Blows - A great mountain towers over the city and at its peak is the opening of a mighty cavern. Smoke has begun to emerge from the cavern’s mouth.

This heralds the awakening of Ashterath, an ancient red dragon of terrible power. Long ago Ashterath’s fire destroyed entire cities and the plunder of kings was taken for his bed. Armies fell before the dragon’s might.

The reign of terror was finally ended when the Goddess of Night Breezes sent four artifacts down to her faithful clerics. These artifacts were large whistles, cast from mithril and adorned with diamonds. The whistles were attached to the sails of a windmill standing in the shadows of Ashterath’s mountain and as the blades turned the whistles generated soothing music that lulled the dragon into an enchanted sleep.

The whistles of the goddess have been kept safe within the vaults of her temple, or so everyone thought. When the vault was opened the reliquary was empty except for a silver ring engraved with the symbol of Dirk Tongue-Lasher, the legendary Thief of the North.

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Have you ever used a windmill in your game? Do you have any more adventure seeds? I’d love to hear them.

If you’re looking for inspiration, I recommend checking out the 1937 cartoon short, The Old Mill. It’s a classic piece of Disney animation. I would expect Mouse Guard players in particular could get some mileage out of it.

OldMill1

Plus it has bats! I’m kind of partial to bats.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Dungeon Design, Fantasy

 

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