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A Tale of Two City Books

Thanks to my public library, I’ve taken a good look at a pair of books with some interesting gaming potential, sharing almost identical titles and filled with information about abandoned and ruined places across the globe. They are, Atlas of Lost Cities by Aude De Tocqueville and The Atlas of Lost Cities by Brenda Rosen.

Published in 2007, the Rosen book is done in a classic history book format and focuses exclusively on ancient sites. It has an excellent selection, with a mix of famous and obscure cities. Plenty of wonderful photographs augment the historical content. The cities are grouped into classifications such as “Cities of the Sea” and “Sacred Cities”, opening each section with a discussion of the characteristics these cities have in common.

The De Tocqueville book was published in 2014 and is done in the style of a travel guide. Cities are grouped by continent and the organization makes the book easier to navigate. The entries are written with a more colloquial voice and it includes evocative, stylized maps that gamers should enjoy. Something I particularly like about the De Tocqueville book is that it doesn’t limit itself to ancient sites. There are plenty of modern cities included, which makes it a great resource for contemporary games looking for an eerie setting. They also provide good inspiration for post-apocalyptic games.

Both books are good reading, but from a gamer’s point of view I prefer the De Tocqueville book. The concise descriptions are easier to use for adventure inspiration and the inclusion of so many modern sites makes it a unique resource. It is notably lacking in photography, an area where the Rosen book excels, but I resolved that problem by keeping my iPad handy.

Both books are available on Amazon and are not particularly expensive. The De Tocqueville book also has a sister tome called Atlas of Cursed Places by Oliver Le Carrer, that is on my reading list.

Image from http://www.pdclipart.org/

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2016 in Books and Comics

 

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C.S. Lewis as a DM

For bedtime my family has been reading through the Chronicles of Narnia and we’re currently on Book 6, The Magician’s Nephew*. It’s been a lot of fun rediscovering these stories with my kids and this is one of the books I don’t remember very well.

Last night we came across a passage that made me realize what a great dungeon master C.S. Lewis would have been. The children, Digory and Polly, have come to a room filled with people, or excellent simulacrums of them, dressed as royalty and sitting in chairs. In the room is a low stone pillar with enchanted writing carved in it. Sitting on top is a small golden bell and hammer. The inscription reads:

“Make your choice, adventurous Stranger:

Strike the bell and bide the danger,

Or wonder, till it drives you mad,

What would have followed if you had.”

The Magician’s Nephew, Pg. 50

Beautifully insidious. Really, for any adventuring party worth its salt, you don’t even need an enchantment to compel and torment the players. Their imaginations will do all the work.

“‘Oh but don’t you see it’s no good!’ said Digory. ‘We can’t get out of it now. We shall always be wondering what would have happened if we had struck the bell. I’m not going home to be driven mad by always thinking of that. No fear!'”

The Magician’s Nephew, Pg. 50

The best part is that my children recognized the trap immediately, and loved it. Especially my daughter, who is now gaming with us in my Stonehell Dungeon campaign.

NarniaBook6

*We are of course reading it in the classic order, not the heretical “chronological” order that they’re published in today. Such blasphemy.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2016 in Books and Comics

 

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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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Why I Will Never Get Caught Up

Hi, I’m the Fractalbat, and I’m a book-a-holic.

Hi Fractal.

The problem is that I don’t make enough time to read all the books, so I’m constantly backlogged. Or, as I like to think of it, never without something to read. Every now and then I promise myself that I won’t get any more books until I’ve checked off at least one or two that I already have.

But…

See, on Thursdays I go to SCA fight practice and I have a stretch of time between when I finish work and when practice starts. Enough that I’m at loose ends. Sometimes I take that time to try and put a dent in my backlog of books, but sometimes I just want to walk around and browse. Enter 2nd and Charles, a bookstore I’ve mentioned before.

Believe it or not I’m usually pretty good about browsing in bookstores, what with the cost of the printed word and all. However 2nd and Charles has one bookshelf in their sci-fi section devoted to old paperbacks, and they’re only a dollar each. It’s practically guilt-free book buying, and best of all these are not the kind of books you’ll find on the shelves at your local Half Price Books. No, these are things like old DAW paperbacks and issues of Starlog. Things that clearly came from somebody’s collection.

I like to keep a couple books in the car. I call them my “backup books” for when I get caught with time to kill and nothing to read, or I forget my book when I go to work. But if this keeps up I’m going to need a little bookshelf.

Hmm… Now there’s a thought. Instead of using cup-holders as a selling point, talk about how many paperbacks a car can hold. Maybe redesign the glove compartment. I mean, who actually keeps gloves in there anyway?

Books2ndCharlesSometimes they have good used gaming books too, though on this visit nothing caught my eye.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Books and Comics

 

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Ye Olde Gaming Shoppes

Greetings Programs,

Life has been quite hectic recently, which has left less time for blogging and a lot less time for gaming. So posting will continue being less consistent than normal (as if it was ever consistent). However, even though I haven’t been gaming I have had the opportunity to hit some really good stores.

First on the list is Yottaquest. Located on the north side of Cincinnati this is a store I’ve known about for a while but just visited for the first time. It’s a good sized store with a friendly staff who were happy to talk. The front of the store is dominated by Warhammer and similar miniatures displays, as well as popular gateway board and card games. Moving deeper you’ll find a wide variety of offerings to suit whatever geekish tastes you prefer, and in good quantities. Role playing games of all types are represented, including a decent selection of Dungeon Crawl Classics products. Board and war games fill several shelves and there is a generous selection of comics and manga. I am particularly delighted that they sell used and out-of-print games, just the thing to warm my OSR heart. I am impressed by how the store manages to embrace current gaming store trends while keeping an old school game store feeling. Yottaquest is definitely on my “to visit” list for future trips.

Next on my list was re-visiting two of my old haunts. One of Cincinnati’s small communities is Mt. Lookout, which boasts a nice collection of locally owned restaurants and shops. I used to make regular trips down to Mt. Lookout to grab a burger at Zip’s Cafe and hit the stores, but it’s been a good ten years since I’ve last been there. When I found myself in the area with some time on my hands I jumped at the chance to drop by, with two stores in particular as my goal.

Boardwalk Hobby Shop is a nice store with its own distinctive style. The biggest draw at Boardwalk is modeling and there are kits of every type available, as well as all the paints and tools you could want. They don’t carry any miniature gaming figures but they have a better selection of paints and brushes than most stores that are dominated by Warhammer. Aside from the models they also have a good selection of board games, ranging from classic and family games to more “gamer” oriented fare. Boardwalk also offers a section of puzzles, including a better selection of 3D puzzles than I’ve seen in a long time.

Unfortunately for me, since my last visit they have moved away from carrying role playing games. They only offer a small number of 5th Edition D&D books where once two aisles were filled by D&D, GURPS, and Chaosium titles. But if you are looking for a board game, model, or painting supplies, Boardwalk is a good place to visit.

Last is the jewel in the crown, the place I most wanted to visit again, that store which makes my wallet tremble in fear. The Dust Jacket.

The Dust Jacket is not a gaming store, it’s a rare book store. The first thing you see when you walk in are shelves filled with leather bound tomes, set collections, and 1st edition books. Moving deeper you’ll find an impressive collection of books on all subjects. Their world and military history sections are particularly good. This place is a treasure vault for bookworms that goes beyond a simple used bookstore. You’ll find books on World War One written in the 1920’s, poetry books from the 19th century, novels that have never been reprinted, and more.

If we lived in a Call of Cthulhu world this store would either be our last hope or the place where the end of humanity begins.

If I have any nits to pick with The Dust Jacket, it’s that their science fiction section is unimpressive. However the wonderful selection of history books more than makes up for it.

Often when you revisit an old favorite store you find that things have changed or that they aren’t as good as you remembered. In the case of The Dust Jacket, I swear the store is even better than I remembered. I will not let another decade go by without returning, no matter how much my wallet begs me to do otherwise.

Agent13small

My Favorite Yottaquest Acquisition!

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, Reviews

 

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Thoughts from History of the Kings of Britain

Last week I talked about the book, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

There is a ton of great inspiration you can find in this book that’s just perfect for gaming. Today we think of the Mediterranean as a densely populated region, but in the legendary time of Brutus it was a wilderness in which he could hope to find a new home for his Trojan people.

“Meanwhile the Trojans sailed on for two days and one night, with a favourable wind blowing. Then they touched land at a certain island called Leogetia, which had remained uninhabited since it was laid waste by a piratical attack in ancient times. Brutus landed three hundred armed men on the island to see if anything at all lived there. They found no one, but they killed all sorts of wild animals which they had discovered between the forest pastures and the woodlands.”

They came to a deserted city and there they found a temple of Diana. In the city there was a statue of the goddess whcih gave answers if by chance it was questioned by anyone.”

-Page 64

This could just as easily be the setup for a story by Clark Ashton Smith as a chronicle of history. An ancient lost city, a forgotten temple, it’s an adventure waiting to happen. Proving that they are good adventurers, Brutus’ troops don’t play with the magic statue right away. They return to the ships, deposit the things they’d discovered, and plan what to do next. Brutus decides to make sacrifices to the gods and ask Diana’s help.

“O powerful goddess, terror of the forest glades, yet hope of the wild woodlands, you who have the power to go in orbit through the airy heavens and the halls of hell, pronounce a judgement which concerns the earth. Tell me which lands you wish us to inhabit. Tell me of a safe dwelling-place where I am to worship you down the ages, and where, to the chanting of maidens, I shall dedicate temples to you.”

-Page 65

For a man of the medieval church, Geoffry was remarkably cool with paganism. As long as it was pre-Christian and British. Like all things Saxon, he has nothing nice to say about their religion.

“Brutus, beyond the setting of the sun, past the realms of Gaul, there lies an island in the sea, once occupied by giants. Now it is empty and ready for your folk. Down the years this will prove an abode suited to you and to your people; and for your descendants it will be a second Troy. A race of kings will be born there from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject to them.”

-Page 65

Thus was Brutus set on the quest for Albion. Though as it turns out Diana isn’t completely right and there are still a few powerful giants living there. Which works out well, as it give Brutus and his people something to heroically strive against once they arrive.

Empty lands are a recurring theme in the book. There are realms that have been empty since ancient times, such as Ireland, Albion, and Leogetia, but there are other areas that rise up and then fall in a much shorter period of times. When good kings rise up Geoffry describes them as repopulating lands and even cities that had been abandoned under weaker kings, or from the pressures of war and disease. The most dramatic case of this is found at the end of the chronicle:

“When Cadwallader fell ill, as I have begun to tell you, the Britons started to quarrel among themselves and to destroy the economy of their homeland by an appalling civil war. There then followed a second disaster: for a grievous and long-remembered famine afflicted the besotted population, and the countryside no longer produced any food at all for human sustenance, always excepting what the huntsman’s skill could provide. A pestilent and deadly plague followed this famine and killed off such a vast number of the population that the living could not bury them.”

“The few wretches left alive gathered themselves into bands and emigrated to countries across the sea.”

-Pages 280-281

Once the plague ran its course there was a race to repopulate Britain which was won by the Saxons.

For gaming purposes this is a stark example that every ruin doesn’t need to be an ancient one. Dungeons, castles, even entire realms can fall in short order and leave behind plunder for those brave or foolish enough to go adventuring for them. It also shows how quickly evil forces can invest these realms. In some ways this works better than the ancient dungeon model, as it provides a good reason why the player characters would expect to find loot that others hadn’t already plundered.

Some of these elements are present in Michael Curtis’ excellent Stonehell Dungeon, where the dungeon only recently became open due to the overthrown of the mad king who used it as a prison.

Imagine a game where Greyhawk had been ravaged by a magical plague, something akin to Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Something so horrible that the people fled the city as fast as they could. Now, five years later, the party has reason to believe that the curse has been lifted. With that knowledge they have the chance to delve into the city before it is repopulated.

Another theme that shows up repeatedly is the unsteady nature of the feudal world. Absolute monarchs rule absolutely, and just beneath them are many people who want a shot at that power. Nobles constantly try to topple the king and alliances shift like sand in a windstorm. Yesterday’s ally may be today’s mortal enemy and there is enough murder and duplicity to satisfy any Game of Thrones fan. (Though it lacks Tyrion’s witticisms.) A king had to be cautious and always keep one eye behind him, especially if he left his realm for an extended campaign.Thus was Arthur stopped from taking the crown of Rome not by its legions, but by having to turn back and deal with Mordred’s betrayal.

Image from http://www.pdclipart.org/

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2014 in Books and Comics, Gaming, History

 

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The History of the Kings of Britain

I’m back!

Last week was family vacation time for me. It was Thanksgiving Week for those of us in the U.S. and when I wasn’t eating tons of food I was catching up on my reading. One of the books that I devoured was The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and what a fun read it was.

To any readers in Britain, my hat is off to you. The legendary history of Britain is far cooler, and bloodier, than I ever realized. It’s an epic full of treachery and mysticism where nearly every page is filled with battles involving thousands of warriors soaking the fields in blood.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a religious figure who lived in the 1100’s and was most likely Welsh. His two most famous works are The History of the Kings of Britain and The Prophecies of Merlin, which at some point he combined into the former work to act as a bridge between the reign of King Vortigern and the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, setting the stage for King Arthur’s rise. Geoffrey does not claim authorship of The History, rather he claims to have translated it from, “(a) certain very ancient book written in the British language,” which he received from Archdeacon Walter of Oxford.

One of the first things to be clear on is that the British Geoffrey is talking about are either the Welsh or those who settled in what became Brittany. Everyone else is a foreigner. Normans? They don’t enter into the story. Celts? They’re newcomers that the British gave Ireland because it had been uninhabited since the giants vanished. Picts? They’re barbarians from the continent. Saxons?

Geoffrey of Monmouth had a lot to say about the Saxons. None of it particularly nice. They’re the well-spoken version of Orcs in his history of Britain.

Did I mention that Geoffrey was probably Welsh?

According to legend, British history began with the fall of Troy. The surviving Trojans settled in Greece, where a boy named Brutus was born. Brutus is banished after he accidentally kills his father, so he and his followers set out on an epic journey to find a new homeland. Along the way they end up fighting many battles, finding more Trojan survivors, and eventually coming to a mysterious island whose population has vanished. In the ruins of a city they find a temple to Diana, who gives Brutus a prophecy of where he may found his kingdom. Following Diana’s guidance, Brutus and his followers sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic, sailing north along the Gallic coast where they find even more Trojan survivors and hear of a wondrous and fertile island called Albion, which matches the description of Diana’s vision. Brutus leads his people to Albion where they defeat the giants living there and establish the city of Troia Nova, which would later become London. Brutus becomes the first king in this new land and his people take on his name and becoming the Britons.

 The Brutus Stone located in Totnes, England, is said to be where Brutus first set foot on Albion’s soil. Given its distance from the coast Brutus must have had long legs.

From this fantastic beginning Geoffrey spins tales of kings of great power and nobility as well as those who are petty and duplicitous. Giants and dragons lurk in the early tales with visions and prophecy enough to please any fan of the Greek legends. King Leir’s story is here, writ large and bathed in blood. The brothers Belinus and Brennius battled each other for the throne but later united to oppose the might of Rome. The brothers sacked the Eternal City, Belinus returning to the kingship of the Britons while Brennius stayed and ruled Rome with an iron fist. Doomed Vortigern, who discovered the boy Merlin. Vortigern played for power, rising to the kingship through treachery and murder, only to watch his kingdom crumble. In the end his name was cursed by both Briton and Saxon and he was burned to death in his fortress tower. Following him came Aurelius, Uther, and finally the glorious reign of Arthur. King Arthur, who ruled an empire of 30 kingdoms, who destroyed the forces of Lucius Hiberius, Emperor of Rome, and who would have worn the imperial crown had he not been forced to turn back by the betrayal of Mordred and Guinevere.

Geoffrey’s Britain never recaptures the golden era of Arthur. Civil wars, betrayals, invasions, and crimes that turn god against the Britons cause the fall of the once-great kingdom. Finally a plague ravages the land so severely that almost every inhabitant is killed or flees. When the plague subsides it is the Saxons who return first, growing ever more numerous and powerful. A few British kings still rise up to stem the Saxon tide, but the time of true British rulership is at an end.

Fans of Thomas Malory’s romantic Arthurian tales will be surprised at how different these stories are. There is no Camelot, no round table, no Sir Lancelot. Kay is not Arthur’s ill-tempered step-brother, but his trusted seneschal and a leader of great renown. Bedivere is Arthur’s cup-bearer and most famous warrior. Arthur’s nephew Gawain is most recognizable, being as strong, courageous, and hot-tempered as his later portrayals show. King Arthur himself is quite different. There is no Sword in the Stone or Lady of the Lake in his story. He is a less romantic figure, but in many ways a mightier one whose empire is far more vast than it is under Malory’s pen. The biggest difference is Merlin, who plays no role in Arthur’s life but is a major figure in that of his three predecessors.

The History of the Kings of Britain is a delightful read and full of inspiration for any gamer, particularly those of the Old School Renaissance. In upcoming posts I’m going to look at a few aspects that I found particularly inspiring for use at the game table. This is a brutal history of poisoned cups, burned cities, and armies tens of thousands strong.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2014 in Books and Comics, Fantasy, Gaming, History

 

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