Wednesday, March 28, 2012

True Tales from the Science Wars

The prolonged rivalry between between pioneering paleontologists O. C. Marsh and Edward Cope is rich territory for adventure. The link provides more detail, but the elevator version is this:

In the late 19th Century, two rival scientists used the forces of academia, bureaucracy, and the occasional private army to wage a bitter war for America's dinosaur bones. 

The facts are entertaining on their own, but we don't have to look far to spice them up with a What If? or two.

What if the remains being shipped back East weren't actually ancient fossils, but newly cleaned bones? Maybe these scientists discovered the Valley of Gwangi. In real life, Buffalo Bill served as a guide on Marsh's first bone-hunting expedition. It seems only fitting that Cope might have enlisted Turok, Son of Stone to do the same for him. We just need to convince Mark Shultz to illustrate the damn thing.

What if the fossil hunt led to a much larger discovery? Y'know, like the remains of an ancient alien city or something. Why should Antarctica have all the fun? I'll play Cowboys vs Shoggoths any day, thank you very much. Miskatonic University would soon be involved, as would the Smithsonian and the US Geological Survey (with whom Marsh holds considerable sway). I'm betting George Custer and the 7th Cavalry stop buy just to make sure these "aliens" aren't Lakota or Sioux. Gary Gianni could draw the crap out of this one.

Regardless, it's a given that the very non-dead Secret President Abraham Lincoln has his robotic eye on all this.

Further material on the real life version of these events can be found in the PBS film Dinosaur Wars and in the mightily illustrated Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Out West

“They got some money out there and they’re givin it away
I’m gonna do what I want and I’m gonna get paid”
-Tom Waits “Goin’ out West”

There are many reasons that a good man might throw down the shackles of society and head into the savagery of the West. Here are 30.

1.     Owed money to an Aether Baron.
2.     Wanted Man (roll d6 to find your crime: 1.Murder 2. Slavery 3. Terrorist 4. Hoodoo 5. Theft 6. Rape). There’s an even-steven chance you’re innocent.
3.     Developed death wish after being spurned by true love.
4.     Military deserter. (50% chance you’re the sole survivor of your unit. If so, there’s a 90% chance your resurrected war buddies are looking for you).
5.     On Safari (roll d6 for preferred prey: 1. Dinosaurs 2. Thunderbirds 3. Giants 4. Morlocks 5. Skunk Apes 6. Luchadores)
6.     Ran out of the last town (50% chance you start play tarred & feathered)
7.     Signed on with a Snake Hunting outfit from down South.
8.     Radium prospector.
9.     Something to Prove to Your Pa.
10. Fled a pregnancy. 25% chance the girl’s father has a price on your head.
11.  Cursed by a Conjure Man to never sleep in the same place twice.
12. Balladeer come to chronicle the taming of the West.
13. Compelled by psychic fever.
14.  Hoping to flee persecution (racial or religious).
15.  Hopes to commit persecution (racial or religious)
16.  Legend-obsessed scholar seeking the Scientific City of Murania
17.  Came to bring Law to a lawless land (50% chance deputized, otherwise a vigilante).
18.  Here to bring Almighty God to these heathens.
19.  Entrepreneurial dreams (D6: 1. Rancher 2. Merchant 3. Saloon Owner 4. Brothel Owner 5. Farmer 6. Lotus dealer)
20.  Factory job back East replaced by robots.
21. Rowdy gunfighter hoping to make a name.
22. Fled the Plague.
23.  Scientist come to study Thunder Lizards.
24. Secret Agent of the Theosophical Society.
25. Gypsy wanderlust.
26. In search of High Adventure.
27. Seeking vengeance against the (d6: 1.Witch 2. Gunfighter 3. Snake Cult 4. Gang 5. Troll 6. Robot) that (d4: 1. Murdered your family 2. Murdered your horse 3. Stole your fortune 4. Cheated you in cards)
28.  Runaway slave.
29.  Joined up with some road agents.
30.  Swore to never again wear a gun, came to train with the Luchadores.

*also, I feel like I should do a random table to find out WTF is going on in that Frazetta piece up top.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pt. 2, The Coward Strikes

April 15, 1865
Attempt on the life of President Lincoln
Assassin foiled, First Lady clings to life

War Department.

Washington D.C. An assassin struck just before 10pm last night, at the Ford Theater where the President and Mrs. Lincoln were attending a production of Our American Cousin. The assassin, believed to be John Wilkes Booth, the actor, crept into the balcony and attempted to shoot the president from behind. The pistol malfunctioned, sending a ball into the head of the First Lady. She is not expected to survive.

Mr. Booth then leapt to the stage and escaped through the back of the theater. Witnesses heard him cry out a phrase, possibly in Latin, though others said they heard him hiss, as a snake might.

A second grisly scene was found behind the theater when police discovered clothing and a flayed human skin—believed to be that of the assassin—near an open sewer pipe. No blood or other remains were found. How such a murder could happen so quickly and with no witnesses is unknown at this time. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Stygian Menace, part 1.

Serpent Men. The name alone conjures fear.  Assassins, they strike without warning using the deadliest venoms.

They are shapeshifters, possibly lurking among us even now. But the illusion can be undone by a magic word [according to Bob Howard], a set of alchemical lenses [or so John Carpenter said] or even by their own exuberance in states of excitement or *shudder* sexual ecstasy [David Icke swears it’s true].

They are not bold. Like their lesser brethren, they sneak and slither. When a snake bites a man, it is usually out of stress or fear.  Perhaps their secret war on us is also waged out of fear, a defense against Man’s omnipresent imperialism.

They come from Alpha Draconis, but ruins found on the trans-Neptunian object 42355 Typhon are arranged in a shape identical to that of the Great Serpent Mound in Southwestern Ohio.

Worse are the so-called Abominations, made half-human through surgical means. In the winter of 1864 the entire population of Silvertip, Montana vanished overnight, only to be found in their beds a few days later—limbless, insane, but alive.  The survivors raved of a serpent army marching to war on human legs.

Pinkertons burned the town and loaded the survivors into black coaches, never to be seen again.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Sun That Never Sets

"There have been many books recently about important ideas or commodities that have changed the world. This one, I am happy to say, traces the cultural history of an idea that was wrong and changed nothing—but which has nevertheless had an ongoing appeal."
-David Standish, from his introduction to Hollow Earth: the Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastic Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface

The concept of a hollow earth is, to me, as rich as any distant star or Martian desert. In fact, the similarities between the Mars of fiction and the hollow earth extend far beyond Burroughs. Both have fascinated humans for thousands of years. At some point, each has been treated as seriously by science as it has by a religious fringe.The mid-century monsters of a Cold War America were as likely to come from below as above. And the allure of each has not suffered significantly from their outright disproval. The Hollow Earth has all of the alien romance of Barsoom, in a place that is just beneath our feet.

Imagine the powerful vertigo felt by Admiral Byrd or Travis Morgan as they looked to a concave anti-horizon rising infinitely into a sky that was not a sky. It would have to feel as if one were tumbling into it, yet were still somehow safe in gravity's kung-fu grip. 

How strange that the tiny sun above your head never actually sets. 

Plus, it's packed to the crust with stuff. From Agartha to Shamballa to the Secret Land of Ogg, it seems that everything ever lost on the surface world finds its way to the center: Hyberboreans, Lemurians, extinct megafauna, flying saucers, cavepersons, psychic monks, wayward Centurions, curious Victorians, Goddamn Nazis, the Marshall family, Richard Sharpe Shaver, and the reptilian fever dreams of David Icke are all rattling around down there. It's like a hamster ball for the imagination. 

Serpent men next. For real this time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Unmade World

Robert Vaughn in Teenage Caveman (1958)

Nearly every D&D setting I know is set in a post-apocalyptic world. The archaeological evidence for this is as clear as the graph paper it's drawn on. At some remote point in history, someone had to lay the first stone in the Huge Ruined Pile your PC is meant to suffer though.

That's hardly a knock against post-collapse settings. The concept is as solid as they come. There's a good reason it's all over Appendix N. But it's interesting to think what the opposite would mean for a game. I don't recall too many RPG settings taking place in young or pseudo-prehistoric worlds (though the Lost World trope is fairly well represented). Is there a Hok the Mighty RPG? Fire & Ice? It seems like a missed opportunity. What's not to love about playing a Primitive Savage fighting in a world ruled by thunder lizards? More interesting are the stakes of your survival, which may also mean the survival of your tribe, even your entire species.

Seems like you could do a kind of Sid Meier's Civilization take on the D&D endgame, where instead of building a stronghold and attracting followers at 9th Level you're growing and advancing your tribe from your very first adventure. Experience points could be cashed in to raise tribal stats like Culture, Resources, Military Strength, etc. Almost like Settlers of Catan, but instead of drawing for resources you go on adventures to get them. Grab your obsidian axe, Grodd. Tonight we steal sheep!

Tomorrow: Serpent Men and the Hollow Earth

EDIT: There's something in the water, because Jeff is talking about this today too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mummy Brains

Thinking of dabbling in Carcosan sorcery but worried you may still have some pesky shred of humanity lurking in your withered heart? Want to raise an army of Amphibious Ones to smite your childhood enemies but aren’t quite ready to pay the awful price? Grab your Potassium Axe, bro. We’re off to the Radioactive Desert, where Mummy Brains dot the wasteland like cat turds in the neighbor kid’s sandbox!

Mummy Brains can cast rituals with no need for sacrificial hoo-ha, which makes them not only monster, but also artifact and NPC.  The Evil Brain is a venerated concept in comic book sci fi, and one that neatly circumvents Carcosa’s most lurid details. Just put any ritual you don’t want to deal with into the mind of a mummy brain. Plus, questing after a disembodied brain beats a crappy journey to Mordor any day.

Can you prevent Mum-Ra from getting the old gang back together and summoning Nyarlathotep? Who will stop Krang the Konqueror from using his robot body to terrorize the Bone Man village? Will Grodd find the Hypothalamus of Hodag before the Mi-go get their chitinous claws on it? What happens when a zombie eats one?

Honestly, Mi-go and Mummies seem like great opposing factions for this whole dumb experiment. Imagine the opening scene of Temple of Doom, but with Mummies, Mi-go, Jale slave girls, and the PCs all fumbling over a really top-shelf brain cylinder containing the Brain of Nurhachi.

Of course, merely finding a mummy brain won’t make it cooperate. In the unlikely event that it doesn’t try to kill you, it’ll probably want to strike some kind of bargain for something it wants (like a working body, or a really nice brain pillow). In fact, PCs may be forced to bargain with them given their wholesale immunity to pretty much everything. 

Good luck with that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cartoon Carcosa

Leaving the (largely overstated) squickery aside, the core aesthetics of Carcosa owe nearly as much to Jack Kirby as they owe Howard or Lovecraft. If I heard you pitch a game that involved mighty-thewed barbarians killing Evil Sorcerers on a distant world filled with robots and mummies and dinosaurs and Space Alien technology, my first reaction would be to kiss you and my second reaction would be to start practicing my Thundarr impression as I rolled up a character named Grodd Wizard-Slayer. 

It's the B-movie aspect, the pulp Sci-Fi disguised as Heroic Fantasy that I love about Carcosa. I know it's ostensibly written as a horror game, with difficult moral choices built right in, and there is plenty in there to support that kind of game. But that’s not what I’m usually looking for in a game. I mean, I effin’ ADORE Call of Cthulhu, but there’s still a pizza and a six-pack on the table when I run it.  And while it’s fun to watch players fall into the occasional philosophical tight spot, wall to wall nihilism just ain’t my go-to style of game. 

On the other hand, riding a triceratops hell-for-leather into a field of soon-to-be-dead robots is totally my style of game. I’ll go one better: using robot blood to warpaint your Triceratops like the side of a mid-70’s conversion van is probably some form of apotheosis moment for me, gamewise.

Is that still Carcosa? Probably. I’ll ask myself that question again once I’ve gone a little further with this dumb idea. 

Note: the above text refers to the original, art-free paperback version of Carcosa. I have yet to invest in the newfangled LotFP version.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Goodnight Moebius

Moebius has inspired me since I first saw his work as a child. The news of his death, especially in the wake of Ralph McQuarrie's recent passing, bums me out immensely.