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Category Archives: History

A List for Mugs and Molls

Here’s a classic web tool if ever there was one.

Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes: a Glossary of Hardboiled Slang has been on the Internet since 1993. As the name suggests, it’s a glorious collection of terms straight out of the noir pulps and movies, and comes complete with its own bibliography. It’s perfect to spice up any gangster-era game.

So glom that list you ginks, before I make you chew a gat.

MF-spy

 

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Stop the Presses!

One of the perks of living in Southwest Ohio is that I’m not terribly far from the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. It’s a wonderful facility, filled with aircraft and artifacts from every era of flight. Including of course the dawn of flight, appropriate for a museum located not far from the Wright Brothers’ home.

Not long ago we took a family trip to the museum. In the section where they have a Wright Flyer they also have an issue of the Washington Post dated Saturday, July 31st, 1909 that includes the announcement of the Wright Brother’s first flight.

This is a cool thing in itself, but what caught my gamer’s eye were two more articles that also ran on the front page; one is about a new secret weapon rumored to have been developed by the U.S. military and the second regarding a medical breakthrough that would be quite at home in the annals of mad science.

Please excuse the image quality. I had planned to find better shots online, but the Post’s archives are behind a paywall.

WashPost1

The first story is about a death ray that can hurl lighting to, “Make Enemy’s Guns Useless, Slay Men, and Cripple Ships.” The story comes from an anonymous source within a European government, and is used as an explanation for why the U.S. military seemed to have very little interest in the success of the Wright Flyer. The suggestion is that aircraft would be insignificant against an army capable of swatting them out of the sky with lightning bolts.

The second story is unrelated to flight, but no less intriguing:

WashPost2

The topic is a medical procedure being explored in Paris, by which a surgeon could sever a nerve in the brain. Doctor Bonnier believed that removal of this nerve, “relieved greatly persons suffering from melancholia and timidity.” Speculation was that the procedure had, “the possibility of turning a coward into a hero by a surgical operation,” a concept that was of interest in 1909, when everyone knew that another major European war would happen sooner or later.

I couldn’t locate more information on Dr. Bonnier, though I did find reference to the article in a professional journal of Phrenology. However it’s worth noting that the article uses the past tense regarding the doctor’s procedure.

He’d already performed the operation. More than once.

To sum up; we have the front page of a world-renowned newspaper running articles about aircraft, death rays, and medically created supermen.

Happy gaming!

 
 

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Divas, Dames, & Daredevils

A fun book hit my reading table recently, courtesy of my local public library, Divas, Dames, & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics. Written by Mike Madrid, the book is a collection of stories about heroines from the dawn of comics and includes a good deal of history about the characters and the industry.

Divas focuses in on books from the 30’s and 40’s, in a time when comics were still raw and their pulp foundations were still strong. It was a time before the Comics Code Authority sapped the life out of the books, blunting their edge and taming their characters. The heroines of these stories are hard fighting, tough characters, of a kind we don’t expect to see before the 70’s and 80’s.

“In these very early days of comic books, there weren’t as many established rules about how women characters should or shouldn’t act. As a result, many of these Golden Age heroines feel bold and modern as we read them today.”

Divas, Dames, & Daredevils – pg. 15

And bold they are.

I’ve been a comic book fan for most of my life. The pulp and super hero genres are favorites of my gaming group and one of the things we love to do is find obscure characters and introduce them into our games. This book presents us with a collection of adventurers and super heroes that covers quite a spectrum of styles.

“Modern day comic book readers might be surprised at the broad spectrum of heroines in Golden Age comics – daring masked vigilantes, queens of lost civilizations and intergalactic warriors, crafty reporters and master spies, witches and jungle princesses, goddesses and regular gals.”

Divas, Dames, & Daredevils – pg. 15

Madrid breaks the book up into sections based on different heroic styles, such as Women at War about heroines fighting in WWII, Mystery Women in the same style as The Shadow and The Spider, and Warriors & Queens whose adventures rival the likes of Flash Gordon. Each section includes a bit of history, and introduction to the featured characters, and a reprint of several adventures.

Because these characters come from anthology comics, their stories are short and tight. This does come at the cost of depth and the stories are simplistic compared to comics today, but this will be nothing new to readers familiar with golden age comics.

There are several characters who stood out in particular for me. One is Madame Strange, a vengeful woman of mystery who exterminates Axis spies without mercy. Among the Mystery Women, Mother Hubbard caught my attention for being a classic old witch complete with broomstick and potions, but who wields her black magic against crime. My favorite of the Daring Dames is Calamity Jane, a hard boiled noir detective who has more in common with Phillip Marlowe than the femme fatales he deals with.

Then there is Wildfire, a heroine with a magical power over flames. Wildfire stands out in this collection, as she is a character who would be at home in the Justice Society. Wildfire enjoys being a heroine and wields her abilities with wit and humor, showing the same “daring do” as Jay Garrick’s Flash or Johnny Storm’s Human Torch.

Another intriguing character is The Sorceress of Zoom, who possesses vast magical powers and travels the world via a city on a cloud. The Sorceress is interesting because she is not a hero, not intentionally. She is motivated by a selfish desire to expand her power and she is willing to kidnap and threaten innocent people to achieve her goals, but she does follow a personal code of honor. The Sorceress collects power for its own sake, but she comes into conflict with those who would use it for base villainy. In the end she defeats these petty mortals, rewards those who have served her well, and moves on to seek her next adventure.

It’s a delight to see these characters, heroines who have an edge and allowed to take the lead, and there is a sense of discovery as you read about these characters who have been lost to time. Madrid has a passion for these characters and it comes through in his writing. If you’re interested in the history of comic books, the role of women in early comics, or just want to read some fun adventures, I recommend getting your hands on Divas, Dames, & Daredevils.

DD&D

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Books and Comics, History, Pulps, Reviews

 

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Let us Address the Elephant under the Room

The Atlas Obscura recently posted an interesting article regarding the 1962 discovery of an elephant’s bones under the Vatican.

The elephant’s name is Hanno and he was a gift to pope Leo X from the king of Portugal in 1514. The article goes into the pope’s affection for Hanno, the political importance of such exotic gifts, and gives a glimpse of some other fantastic creatures that were kept in royal and papal menageries. It also touches on the excitement of the populace to see creatures from far away lands.

The whims and pleasures of the powerful are always great sources for adventure, in any genre. Far flung science fiction games can send teams to bring back monsters from frontier worlds. Fantasy games may have dungeon masters brushing off the old Dragon Subdual rules, or questing for a book of True Names in order to add a demonic Balor to an emperor’s menagerie of dangerous beasts. Cyberpunk games may send deckers deep into the dark web, braving black ICE in order to retrieve an AI construct devoted to poetic recitation, or a vivid simulation of extinct animals. Money alone doesn’t satisfy the desires of those at the top of society’s food chain, and they need minions to venture out and find new entertainments.

Then there are other uses for an elephant skeleton buried under the Vatican, as an enterprising necromancer may discover in a dark urban fantasy game.

Gaming inspiration aside, the article about Hanno is well written and gives a fun glimpse into history.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, History

 

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Living on the Edge of the World, and it’s Sinking

Kivalina is a town living on the edge of the world, and that edge is sinking.

“In this town of 403 residents 83 miles above the Arctic Circle, beaches are disappearing, ice is melting, temperatures are rising, and the barrier reef Kivalina calls home gets smaller and smaller with every storm.

There is no space left to build homes for the living. The dead are now flown to the mainland so the ocean won’t encroach upon their graves. Most here agree that the town should be relocated; where, when and who will pay for it are the big questions. The Army Corps of Engineers figures Kivalina will be underwater in the next decade or so.”

LA Times, Aug. 30th, 2015

Climate Change is a real thing and a source of great concern, but the Belfry is about gaming, and this story offers a lot of inspiration.

People are stubborn. We set down roots, build a community, and that parcel of land and the people who live there become bound to our psyche so deeply that we’ll do whatever it takes not to lose them. Come hell or high…

Well, you get the idea.

This is both a strength and a weakness. Sometimes it makes us stand in front of the oncoming storm until its too late, but it’s also the determination that has allowed us to spread across the globe, push back the frontiers, and go into space. You can be sure that if trouble befalls the first Lunar colony, the people there will risk everything to keep the community alive.

Kivalina is hardly a garden spot. Even before the weather began to warm up, the narrow spit of land was battered by storms and limited in resources, but for 110 years people have chosen to live there, carve out a place in the world, and defy the elements to live the way they want to live. It’s the stuff of which adventurers are made.

“When Hawley is asked why her people don’t move — somewhere, anywhere to be safe — she is polite but firm. The land and the water make the Inupiat who they are. If they moved to Kotzebue, they would be visitors.”

-LA Times, Aug. 30th, 2015

That’s the frontier spirit, still alive and well.

From a gamer geek standpoint it’s hard not to look at this story and think about all its parallels in fiction. From the isolated planetary outpost of sci-fi to the classic Keep on the Borderlands, or even the determination of King Hrothgar not to completely abandon his hall to Grendel in the epic Beowulf, legends are born from people who refuse to leave their homes. Reading through the LA Times story gives those of us living in comfortable suburbia a glimpse of how people on the frontier live.

And if you need more inspiration, just look at this image of the town.

Image by Don Bartletti, LA Times Aug. 30th, 2015

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2015 in Cool Stuff, History, World Design

 

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Demi-Humans and Dungeons, in the Real World

Recently the fossils of a previously unknown species of ancient human was discovered in a cave in South Africa.

That’s awesome in and of itself, but this video shows how they got to the remains to study them, including showing someone squirming into a tiny tunnel. They had to bring in a group of cavers who were small women who were capable of reaching the farthest chamber, which the map shows as being a vaulted 90’+ high cave.

Fantastic. No way an adventurer in plate armor is going through that tunnel.

I have on occasion designed low corridors in dwarf-built dungeons, but this makes me want to hide treasure beyond passages too small for anything but halflings and wood elves to crawl through.

Has anyone else ever put features like this into your dungeons? If so, I’d love to hear about them!

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Dungeon Design, History

 

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SpyCast!

I have a new podcast on my list!

SpyCast is the official podcast from the Spy Museum in Washington DC. The host and guests are former members of the intelligence community (including a few from the KGB) and they bring an interesting insider’s view to the topics of trade craft. The archives go back to 2006 and I’m only a few episodes in, but I am hooked. The conversations are casual and the guests are fascinating. The average episode clocks in from 30-60 minutes and if I have one complaint it’s that I want to hear more.

If you’re looking for some insights for your Top Secret game, or just a fan of espionage history, then check this one out.

You can find SpyCast on iTunes, or from their website here.

Spy-vs-spy

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in History, Podcasts

 

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Random Thoughts

My schedule continues to be bad for blogging, but has improved on other fronts.

Gaming: Our gaming group had a rare double-header, holding games two weekends in a row. Our GM is running a GURPS Supers/Horror game, where the adventures feel like a mix between Justice League and Hellboy, and set in 1960’s Florida. For this game I also get to run one of my long standing desires in supers gaming, a heroic duo. My friend and I created two brothers who were subjected to experiments by a mad scientist. This gave them the power to take on the abilities of different animals, much like DC’s Vixen or Animal Man, and like those characters they don’t change shape. However they do take on some physical characteristics as a special effect, such as growing feathers when channeling a bird, fur when channeling a canine, scales for fish, etc…

Their powers are activated or deactivated when the brothers touch, bringing in the inevitable Wonder Twins jokes. The two brothers are polar opposites on philosophy and argue incessantly, but are also protective of each other. Their code names are War and Peace and the animals they channel reflect their differing attitudes. War is a hot head and channels animals like wolf, kestrel, and shark. Peace is a pacifist (and a communist) and takes on animal powers like bloodhound, spider monkey, and dolphin. Their flexibility has made them very useful heroes and a lot of fun to play.

We’re looking forward to playing War and Peace again soon. Of course in a horror game there is the strong possibility of one of us dying. What will the other brother do if this happens?

Well… we did both take the Leatherworking skill…

Projects: My schedule has been bad for a number of things, but it has let me get started on a few projects. One of which is Car Wars related.

My love for Car Wars is well documented. I picked up a copy of the Classic Car Wars box set and a .PDF copy. One of the difficulties with the Car Wars arenas of old is that they came as folded maps and could be a bear to flatten out for game play. Using my PDF I’m printing an arena out in card stock and plan to assemble it on foam core, then play some games using the classic scale and rules. I want a fresh look at the old game to compare with 5th edition. I still have my classic Compendium, but the new box set takes the game back to a more basic form, before there was too much bloat in weapons and equipment. I’m quite pleased with the set and eager to try it out.

I’ve also finally started working on painting miniatures, something I haven’t done since my undergrad days. There are some miniatures I’ve been wanting to acquire and paint, but I know my limitations and I don’t want to invest the cash in something that might end up sitting in the closet undone for years. So I made a deal with myself; if I put a dent in some of the miniatures I already own I’ll go ahead and invest in the ones I want to work on.

To that end I’ve pulled out a couple boxes of Renegade Legion: Centurion anti-gravity tanks that I’ve had sitting in the closet for years. Centurion was another outstanding game from FASA that evokes the feeling of science fiction classics like Hammer’s Slammers. In my opinion it’s a far superior game to Battletech, with tighter and faster rules than it’s stompy-mecha big brother. Once I have enough tanks painted up I plan to pull the game out of mothballs and fire it up. It’s a good goal to work towards and I now have several Renegade medium APCs primed and waiting to go.

What about the miniatures that I want to acquire after I finish my tanks? For that I’ll be turning to the golden age Sci-Fi goodness that is War Rocket.

Adventure Seeds: One of the podcasts/blogs I follow is Skeptoid, a site where they take a critical look at various events and beliefs including cryptozolology, alternative medicine, and urban legends. Recently they ran an article entitled Lost Treasures of the 20th Century, and it’s full of great plot ideas for pulp adventures.

Some of the stories covered in the post are well known to me, such as the lost Nazi gold in Lake Toplitz and the lost Amber Room of the Russian empire (a subject worthy of its own post). Others I had never heard of, such as Yamashita’s Gold and the vanished crown jewels of Ireland. The post gives a nice short summary of these and other lost treasures, any of which would be a great candidate for writing an adventure.

Kung Fury!

Kung Fury is out! It’s free on YouTube in HD! Go! Go now!

Centurion1

Soon my plastic brethren! Soon we ride!

 

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Charles Darwin Pulls Off The Mask…

This is a cool image from Dungeon Inspirations, the walking stick of Charles Darwin!

 

There’s a cool short write-up about the walking stick at the Dungeon Inspirations site and I recommend going to take a look.

I’m a rather big fan of science and hold Charles Darwin in high esteem, all the more for him having such a cool walking stick. But I can’t help imagining a scenario where he holds this staff aloft, lightning strikes, and is revealed to be Orcus, Demon Lord of the Undead in disguise.

I’m sure the reasons for this masquerade will become clear after his new tome comes out, Undead, Demons, and Unnatural Selection.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2015 in Cool Stuff, History

 

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Skullduggery

In 1919 the Allied Powers compelled the German Empire to sign the Treaty of Versailles, thus ending the Great War. The treaty itself is legendary for being a tool for harshly punishing Germany by placing heavy burdens on the defeated nation. These include the dismantling of Germany’s military forces, stripping them of their colonies, demanding the return of an African king’s skull, crippling financial reparations, the…

Wait… what was that?

“ARTICLE 246: Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.”

-The Treaty of Versailles

I first learned about this provision while reading the 1938 book Brigade of Spies by William J. Makin. This delightful book is a highly sensationalized collection of questionable anecdotes about spies, focused mainly on tradecraft from The Great War and on through the 20’s and 30’s. It’s a rare glimpse into the world of espionage through the lens of Europe after the Nazis have come to power and before the outbreak of World War II. While I have reason to question many of the details presented, I’ve been surprised to find an element of truth to the stories I’ve investigated further. If you can find a copy of this book I highly recommend it, it reads like one big collection of adventure seeds.

Case in point, the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa.

According to Wikipedia, a source less entertaining but more reliable than Brigade of Spies, the man referred to in the treaty was Chief Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga, commonly known as Chief Mkwawa. He was the leader of the Hehe tribe in the former German East African colonial region, in what is now Tanzania. His name translates to “conqueror of many lands”. The title of “sultan” seems to be an error, as I couldn’t find any indication that the Hehe tribe were Muslims, and I’ll attribute that to the general European lack of understanding about the people of Africa and the Middle East.

In 1891 the German government sent a battalion of colonial troops under the command of German officers to suppress a rebellion by the Hehe tribe. Chief Mkwawa waited in ambush with a force of 3,000 warriors. German forces, under the command of Commissioner Emil von Zelewski, marched into the trap and were annihilated.

“The Germans imagined he could be easily conquered. A confident Captain Zeuike in charge of a number of askaris, set off for the interior. The Sultan was waiting for him – in ambush. The whole party was massacred and the Sultan returned triumphant to his kraal. Witch doctors danced in triumph and prophesied further victories.”

-Brigade of Spies, pg. 126

Three years later the Germans sent a stronger, and more cautious, force against the Hehe. They succeeded in defeating Mkwawa’s forces, but the chief escaped and continued to wage guerrilla warfare against German rule. It wasn’t until 1898 that the Germans finally cornered Mkwawa, who took his own life to avoid capture.

Most records say he shot himself, though the account in Brigade of Spies gives him a more romantic death by falling on his sword. What the accounts do agree on is that the Germans beheaded the corpse and sent the skull back to Berlin as a trophy.

During the Great War the Hehe people aided the British in fighting against German forces. With the conclusion of the war the story of Chief Mkwawa was retold and the idea arose of returning his skull to the Hehe people in thanks for their aid and as a symbol of Germany’s removal from power in Africa. Most accounts attribute this idea to Sir Edward Twining, then governor of Tanganyika, but again Makin’s book goes with a more romantic story of native delegates in tribal dress traveling to Paris and pleading their case to Lloyd George. What Makin did get correct is that the framers of the document did incorporate the demand into the treaty as Article 246, and once the German government had signed it they were compelled to turn over the skull.

There was only one problem, they had no idea where it was.

Makin’s book describes how over the years this provision would continue to bedevil both the Germans who had lost the skull and the British who had sworn to see it returned. Again there seems to be some truth to this and in 1953 (15 years after Makin’s book was published) Sir Twining once again pushed for Article 246 to be fulfilled. Finally in 1954, after searching a sizable collection of skulls kept at the Bremen Museum, and using questionable methods of deduction, the British government returned a skull to the Hehe people claiming it to be Mkwawa’s.

“The Museum had a collection of 2000 skulls, 84 of which originated from the former German East Africa. He short-listed the ones which showed measurements similar to surviving relatives of Chief Mkwawa; from this selection he picked the only skull with a bullet-hole as the skull of chief Mkwawa.”

-Wikipedia Entry for Chief Mkwawa, 4/7/2015

Chief Mkwawa is a hero to the Hehe people and to this day the skull is on display in Kalenga at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum. His life is already a tale worthy of legend, but when you add the unusual details about his skull and its inclusion in a document that had such an impact on the 20th Century it propels Chief Mkwawa’s story into the realm of mystery and pulp adventure.

Adventurers based on the skull could have British agents infiltrating Nazi Germany to locate the artifact, both to erase the embarrassment to Britain and to gain support in Africa. Meanwhile agents of the Gestapo would strive to keep the skull secret and eliminate the agents, while at the same time concealing the fact that they still possess it.

The importance of skulls is not limited to aboriginal people and inspiration can go into realms beyond Africa. Many religions venerate the bones of their saints, especially the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthadox churches. The skull of a saint would be a powerful MacGuffin for any pulp adventure. Or perhaps clues would be discovered for locating the skull of Brutus, the legendary first king of Britain. A race for such a relic could pit the player characters against all manner of opposition.

If you want something that appeals to those of us in the former colonies, consider this adventure seed; In the late 19th century there was no question that another war was coming in Europe. What wasn’t clear was who would be allied with whom and given the large German-American population there were people who thought the United States might side with Germany. Today we can’t imagine a time when the US and England were not the closest of allies, but before World War I it was not as certain. Especially when you consider that barely 100 years before the Great War the British Empire had invaded the US and burned our capital.

For this adventure the year is 1915. The Great War is well underway and while the German advance has been halted the allies are in a precarious position. England looks to the United States for aid but many of the people there are reluctant to get involved in a European war. Still aid comes in the form of money and supplies and there are those in the US Government who advocate for sending troops.

It is at this point that the player characters learn a well kept secret. During the War of 1812, when British forces were burning Washington DC to the ground, a small detachment was sent into Virginia to raid Mount Vernon. Their they broke into George Washington’s tomb and stole the head from the corpse. The skull was sent back to England as a trophy, but King George IV was appalled by their actions. By royal command all knowledge of the raid was made secret and the skull was hidden in the Tower of London. Meanwhile the Americans also kept news of the theft a secret to preserve morale in the face of invasion.

Now a crisis has arisen. German agents have broken into the Tower of London and stolen the skull. They plan to reveal the story to the world which would enrage the American populace, prevent the United States from entering the war, and possibly end their aid to England. It’s up to the player characters to find a way to stop this plot.

Skull_of_MkwawaSmall

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, History, Pulps

 

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