Research mathoms III

I’ve been noting what’s NOT in Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity : The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or, The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft. But what’s in there? Here’s a screencap of the table of contents. It doesn’t list sidebars, but it does drill down to the section headings within the four main essays: On the road (which covers travel generally); Death, Burial & Grave Goods; Furta Sacra (all about relics and their theft); Into the catacombs (all about catacombs); Whither pilgrim? (a gazetteer of shrines, holy wells, tombs, and other pilgrimage destinations); and Relics & Clerics (which offers a revised clerical spell casting system and a completely different kind of cleric that is dedicated to pilgrimage). Click to embiggen.

toc-screenshot

 

Here’s one more mathom.

Beheaded martyrs

If you read much about martyrs, you will quickly notice that a large number of martyrs went through multiple executions before being really, sincerely martyred. They might be broiled, beaten, shot with arrows, crushed, hung, trampled by animals, or have any number of brutal treatments and still survive until they are finally beheaded. While we might be tempted to imagine the persecutors shouting “There can be only one!” scholars speculate that the beheadings are often later additions to the stories, because by the Middle Ages, only beheading was considered an appropriate execution for high-status individuals. For the saints to be killed by lesser — even common — means was incongruous with their status as God’s elect, so the hagiographies were amended to end with a more aesthetically pleasing (to the generally noble or high-ranking patrons of the scribes) death.

More fancifully, the trope of saints being beheaded also spawned another category of saints: celaphores. These were saints who are depicted — visually in icons and statues, or narratively in their hagiographies — as carrying their own severed heads. Celaphores are often said to have carried their severed heads to their burial places, in some cases preaching as they walked; most famously, St. Denis of Paris did this, but folklorists have counted more than a hundred cases. Apart from making memorable miracles and dramatizing the saint’s power over death, this behavior helps legitimize the final resting place of a saint, and discourages further translation.

 

 

 

Published in: on December 13, 2016 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Research mathoms II

Here are few more sidebars, etc., that didn’t make it into The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or, The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft. (#shamelesscommerce) The illustrations here and in the other Research Mathoms post were not necessarily meant to be in it though — we used only black & white or greyscale images that were in the public domain or under CC license.

The incorruptibles 

Many saints were found to be “incorruptible” when exhumed. In a few cases this meant that the corpse remained largely untouched by decay for a very long time — perhaps perpetually. The bodies are often displayed under glass. But most incorruptible bodies eventually decay. The designation that a saint’s body was “incorruptible” required only that the corpse look fresh when first exhumed. Decay may set in almost immediately. The relics would be encased in reliquaries, or possibly chased in gold, or covered with wax to represent the appearance of the body when it was exhumed.

St. Cuthbert being exhumed and found incorrupt (image from Wikipedia) — 

Note that “incorrupt” is a relative term. Here’s an incorrupt saint, St. Zita. Not too bad for a 750 year old corpse.

Image result for incorrupt

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Fantastic relics

In addition to the relics of saints and Biblical figures, some collections at shrines included unusual items such as Griffin’s claws, phoenix feathers, unicorn horns, and other parts of monsters — collected by pilgrims in foreign lands, sent as rare and valuable tributes, or even as trophies from the ordeals of saints. One church boasted that it had the tip of Lucifer’s tail, lost in a fight with a Syrian hermit. Some such objects were reputed to have their own occult power to heal, but most were simply exhibited along with the fine clothes, jewelry, and other valuables offered in honor of the saint.

Alicorns — the supposed horns of unicorns, most often in the form of narwhal horns or vessels carved from rhinoceros horns — were a highly valued item both because of their intrinsic worth (princes would pay up to 20 times their weight in gold for them, and a large narwhal horn could weight over 12 pounds) and for their supposed magical properties. St. Denis cathedral near Paris had a 7 foot long, 13 pound alicorn among its treasures; St. Mark’s in Venice had two alicorns, each about a meter long and supposedly looted from Constantinople in 1204, plus another of a later date that was two meters long; other impressive specimens were in cathedrals and churches at Milan, Raskeld, St. Paul’s in London, and Westminster Abbey. Alicorns were thought to cure or prevent poisoning and pestilential disease. Unscrupulous guardians might sell filings from the horns for quick cash, and there are records of alicorns being gilded or chased in silver to prevent this. Griffin claws — the horns of ibex or buffalo — were thought to neutralize poison too.

There were also an array highly unusual items with supposed supernatural origins in various church collections. A ray from the star of Bethlehem, objects given to saints by angels ranging from clothing to clocks, body parts from angels, the foreskin of Jesus (as well as many other unlikely mementos of his infancy and childhood), feathers (!) from the Holy Spirit, and even fire from the Burning Bush were all inventoried in various collections.

 

Corpse Roads and Lych Gates

The local parish church held funeral rites and everyone who could afford the fees would prefer to be buried in the parish graveyard. However as small villages sprang up further and further away from the central parish church, it became necessary to establish roads leading from the villages to the church. These roads would be used solely for transporting the dead for burial, as the presence of a corpse was unlucky at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Moreover the ghosts of the dead were thought to wander the corpse road for as long as the soul was in purgatory — potentially many years. For these reasons the corpse road was always laid out in unwanted and otherwise untraveled land. The corpse road was also kept as straight as possible, even if it meant cutting through difficult terrain or crossing streams, because it was thought the ghosts traveled only in straight lines, and no-one wanted the ghosts to wander off the road. Corpse roads always led to a Lych Gate, the gate to the burial yard (“lych” meaning body or corpse).

Lych Gate at St. Mary’s, Wendover (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Published in: on December 9, 2016 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Research mathoms I

Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity comes in at 128 pages. I wrote a fair amount more that did not make it in to the final version, because of space limitations (essays too long to be sidebars or boxed text and too short to be appendices), because they didn’t quite fit in the flow of the work or ramble a bit off topic, and in one case because a table was far too complex to fix in the page layout. Maybe some day an expanded edition will be possible (and I’d probably add some revised bits from Burgs & Bailiffs 1 and 2). But in the meantime I’ll post some research mathoms here on the blog: tidbits too good to leave on the cutting room floor. (The last one I thought made it in, so my apologies if anyone was thrown by the December 6 post. Having looked at the final draft I can confirm that it DOES detail fun stuff like the saint whose miracles include striking down his own family and making a pope crap out his intestines, the “code” used by funeral bells, and more. But here are some mathoms:

Jinn shrines

There are a number of sites in the Moslem world where the jinn are appealed to for intercessions. Illnesses, especially mental illnesses, are often attributed to evil jinn, and supplicants visit sacred places where the jinn congregate. In Baduan, India, for example, the shrines of several sufi mystics are visited for this purpose because the king of the jinn is said to hold court in a nearby banyan tree. Those suffering from mental illness are brought by their relatives, who make offerings to the jinn and hope to elicit their mercy. As unorthodox as this sounds, the jinn are thought to have mostly converted to Islam in Muhammad’s time, so there is nothing heretical about appeal to them.

(See Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven On Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. Farrar, Strauss, & Giraux, 2013. The introduction describes the author’s visit to such a shrine in Baduan and the place of jinn in shari’a law. Mostly excerpted here)

Animal catacombs

The Egyptians rather famously mummified various animals and placed them in human tombs. However perhaps less well-known are the animal catacombs under certain temples. One temple at Saqqara has a so-called “Sacred Animal Necropolis” with separate catacombs for falcons, cows, ibis, dogs, and baboons. The baboon catacomb has three levels with hundreds of mummies of olive baboons and Barbary macaques. These primates were raised at, and kept in, the temple for their entire lives. Similarly the falcons and cows were kept at cult sites for ritual purposes. The cults eventually abandoned the site some time under Roman occupation. The “Dog catacombs” — sacred to Anubis — include burials of foxes, jackals, cats, and mongooses.

Who stole Santa Claus? 

In the Middle Ages, Saint Nicholas of Bari (now known more popularly in the English-speaking world as Santa Claus or Father Christmas) was revered by sailors in particular because he once calmed a storm at sea while on a voyage to the Holy Land. The 4th century holy man and bishop lived and was buried in Myra, Lycia (which later would become part of Turkey). His tomb became a popular pilgrimage site. In 1087, after the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, Italian sailors and merchants from Bari rescued one half of his skeleton (despite the resistance of Orthodox monks at his shrine), ostensibly because of fears that the Turks would interfere with pilgrims or desecrate the shrine. During the first crusade, a party of Venetians rescued the other half of his skeleton and set up another, competing shrine in Venice. But the relics at Bari continue to excrete myron as they did at Myra, while those in Venice do not. The faithful would attribute this to St. Nicholas’ desire to be in Bari, while skeptics and Venetians might point out that the myron is actually water, exuding from the marble of the tomb which is, in all fairness, below sea level.

Some of St. Nicholas’ bones in Antayla, Turkey (from Wikimedia Commons)

Published in: on December 7, 2016 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Happy feast day, Saint Nicholas, wherever you are

Readers of my book will know that St. Nicholas has a grave in Myrna, Turkey, a tomb in Kilkenny, Ireland, and shrines in Bari and Venice, Italy — each of the Italian shrines containing half of his skeleton. He also has a sacred cave near Bethlehem and an island named after him with ever-sharp tools. I assume there are suitable festivities going on in all those places right now, December 6th, his feast day. Among his miracles are saving ships from sotrms nad raising three boys who had been mummified or pickled (depending on the story) from the dead.

Image result for st nicholas

 

 

#shamelesscommerce

Published in: on December 6, 2016 at 10:46 am  Comments (2)  
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The poor pilgrim’s almanack

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To no fanfare, my first game book — Burgs & Bailiffs Trinity : The poor pilgrim’s almanack, or The handbook of pilgrimage and relic theft —  has become available via The Lost Pages! So you can get it now in PDF, or pre-order the printed version and get the PDF along with it.

Paolo Greco, proprietor of the Lost Pages, did a bang-up job laying out the text, which was sort of complicated because the original manuscript had dozens of footnotes and sidebars, as well as some really big tables. Not everything could make it into the final product, so once I see the final product myself I’ll post some of that material here. I’m thinking of some of it as “research mathoms” — stuff I found or created that’s too good to throw away entirely but which didn’t fit in well enough to keep, either in terms of flow or formatting, like the giant table of carrying and pulling capacities for animals ranging from rats to elephants (if you need to know how much a goat can carry, how heavy different types of camels are, or how much traction a moose can pull with, it was in there!). So watch this space for research mathoms…

I eventually envisioned this as a sort of source book like the ones Steve Jackson has been producing for GURPS — chapters of informative text that is as well-researched as I could manage with gameable material (rules). I tried to keep it as system-neutral as possible, but really it’s meant for the, ahem, World’s Most Popular Fantasy Roleplaying Game, in the B/X or first Advanced edition. Thus the sidebars, dozens of brief “adventure seeds” like the GURPS sourcebooks, and so on. I’m not an historian by training but I do read a lot, and did my research at one of the largest public research libraries in the US, where I was also working.

I’m not sure what else to say about this, and as I’m on my lunch break now I don’t have time to get long-winded anyway, but for what it’s worth here’s an excerpt from my foreword, which really explains the project:

Although I’ve always been a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, another game has long haunted me: Fantasy Wargaming, by Bruce Galloway (and others). That infamous rule book has haunted me because of its unfulfilled promise — the idea of an historical, logical setting for adventures like those in D&D. In part FW failed to fulfill its promise because it was a haphazardly presented system of rules, and frankly the rules seemed unnecessarily complicated. But the real failure was that the game focused strictly on recreating medieval legends and sagas, which while interesting, were too esoteric for someone used to simple generic fantasy to get a handle on. My forays into running FW were pretty disastrous — I subjected my players to retreads of Viking sagas and Beowulf, which were OK for what they were but did not deliver the exploration and adventure we expected from a fantasy game. What I didn’t know then was that all the elements of dungeoneering could be realized in an historical setting. There really were adventurers who entered subterranean mazes, seeking treasure and braving dangers (real and imagined). They could be rogues, warriors, holy men, or magicians, just like in D&D. They might be seeking gold and gems, but they might just as well be seeking items with supernatural powers: the relics of saints. To find these underground complexes — catacombs — the adventurers would undertake long, perilous journeys: pilgrimages.

While this supplement could be used simply to rationalize dungeoneering in historical or pseudo-historical campaigns, the medieval superstitions and practices detailed here should also inspire new and interesting adventures, over land, at sea, and in town and city. Pilgrimages to shrines and other holy sites, whether for secular or sacred purposes, invite all manner of encounters and obstacles that will create exciting adventures. Lastly, the veneration of shrines and relics suggests a new conception of divine magic and clerics: the pilgrim miracle-worker. Paolo and I are excited by the idea of clerical magic which is grounded in historical beliefs, completely different from the usual wizardry and spell-casting that games use for secular magic-users, and which provides a justification for adventuring holy men and women. We hope that you will find ideas you can adopt in your own games, whether you follow the historical precedents herein or reskin them for your fantasy world.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Coming soon…

Inline images 1

Published in: on November 17, 2016 at 7:38 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Fantastic Worlds of Grenadier

I have never backed a game-related Kickstarter campaign — I simply couldn’t afford to at times, and I also grew very cynical about how they’re used by amateurs and conmen.  But there is one that I am backing: Terence Gunn’s Kickstarter to publish a revised and expanded version of his book on Grenadier Models. I was never able to track down a print copy of the first edition, and was not interested in an ebook, so I’m really happy to see this KS launch. Technically this seems more like a pre-order system for a self-publisher, as he’s already done the writing and layout, or is pretty close to being done, from the activity I’ve seen on the Collecting Grenadier Models Yahoo group. If you look at the tag cloud over the right-hand sidebar, you’ll notice Grenadier is one of the most common topics of my posts. For years they were my favorite miniatures company. Such a shame they couldn’t bounce back from the lead scare of the 1990s.

In addition to photos of most if not all of the miniatures Grenadier Models produced, Mr. Gunn interviewed the people who founded and worked at the company, so this looks like it will be the reference for Grenadier Models.

 

 

Published in: on July 1, 2016 at 1:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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Hmm, Things that make you go

So this book crossed my desk at work yesterday and joins the legions of books about the “Paleo” diet. Now there are many, many things to mock about the “Paleo” diet idea (in short, eat like people did before the invention of agriculture) and especially a lot to mock about the dumbed down version that tries to equate paleo with the Atkins death diet, but the hilarious thing about this book to me is that it tries to cash in on two fads at once — the juicing/smoothie fad and the Paleodiet fad. Because in the stone age, we all had masticating blenders in our caves, right? And made smoothies from the kinds of stuff on the cover here: collards, broccoli,  kale … you know … highly cultured variations of plants that only exist because agriculture. Yeesh. That said, vegetable smoothies are really healthy, so my mockery is tempered by that. It’s just a hell of a lot of trouble to go, and a little sad that people need all this fussing around to get them to eat their damn veggies.

Published in: on March 12, 2016 at 7:55 am  Comments (5)  

Badasses of the old west

Badasses of the old west : true stories of outlaws on the edge, edited by Erin Turner

6920854

Man, the title and cover really oversell this book. It’s actually a collection of short profiles of criminals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I’m not sure I’d have counted coastal Oregon in the 1920s as part of the “old west” but one of the longer entries chronicles an escaped convict who spent weeks on the lam there, forcing people to cook for him at gunpoint whenever he stopped at a house. Other criminals that are included don’t really seem to rise to the level “outlaw” status — a burglar who murdered a sleeping woman with a meat cleaver, a man who went on a drunken rampage robbing some railroad employees and shooting his brother-in-law, and several other cases of murder. There are a few bona fide famous outlaws mentioned — the James brothers, the Apache Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as infamous killers like John Wesley Hardin and William Quantrill. A few of the less well-known characters are pretty interesting too — Old Tom Starr and Dart Isom, for example. But all too many seem to have been selected for their evocative nicknames rather than their deeds: “Bad Eye” Santamarrazo’s crime was trying to poison a miner, and “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter murdered and dismembered an eccentric old man in order to take over his farm; in both cases these were the only crimes the subjects committed. Worse, a lot of them seem to be included simply because the writers found a lot of details about their trials and executions, which make for pretty uninteresting reading when the criminals were spectacularly inept. So it’s really a very mixed bag, some of it entertaining and some it boring.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly; maybe tales of men who were “badass” by some standard other than simply being killers. Really the vast majority of the people profiled sound like sociopaths and bullies. Most of the killings are ambushes or surprise attacks on unarmed men. I know that this is the reality of most crime generally and most of the killings in the Old West. I guess I was hoping they would be enough true stories where a gunslinger did something that actually was “badass” to fill a book. You know, stuff like this. Evidently not. I know, I know. Most of the people from history who we think of as “badasses” were actually sociopaths and bullies. The “most badass” warrior cultures — Vikings, Romans, Spartans, samurai, knights — were basically sociopaths and bullies who won more by surprise, material wealth, and ruthlessness than courage or toughness. That’s pretty much how human history works. Still, the Old Western idea of a tough individual dies hard, and maybe if we pretend the intent behind this collection was demythologization, it works. Except that the obviously amateur and amateurish articles don’t really address the question, and it’s more on the editor for pretending these are about badasses rather than a collection of crime stories.

I also wish the articles were signed, rather than just having a list of contributors on the copyright page, because the style and tone of the articles varies a lot. I get the impression that the publisher or editor just wanted to cash in on a great title and classic photo for the cover (a cowboy standing on the saddle of a horse and aiming straight for the camera with his gun), reprinting chapters from various “Outlaw tales of…” books in the publisher’s stable. If this is meant to be a “best of” collection, I’ll skip the books they’re excerpted from.

Published in: on February 27, 2016 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Creature compendium by Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr.

Old School Adventures™ Accessory CC1: Creature Compendium

Oh god, not another monster book, right? OGL/OSR monster books are, all too often, crapulous retreads of existing D&D monsters, with maybe a few variations: these orcs are blue! here’s a 2e monster statted out for B/X! purple, cerulean, and amber dragons! another kind of elf, this one lives in the desert! Less than inspired, you might say. You’ve probably got one two on your shelf or hard drive, and it gives you pretty much all the standard monsters, tweaked for a specific flavor of D&D. Ho-hum.

Creature compendium is having none of that. The monsters are mostly things that are not in any other monsters manual. They are not slight variations or reskins of existing monsters. Well, a few feel a bit like reskins, but they also suggest something different. Even the most derivative monsters in the book are kind of cool. I will give you two examples: Dunters and Cyclorcs.

Dunters are goblin red-cap berserkers. Basically tougher goblins, who go berserk like Berserkers, so that seems like a shitty reskin on the face of it. But they also have the traits of folkloric the Red Cap, a specific goblin who haunts an old ruined castle and dips his hat in human blood to keep it red. Except of course this is a whole race, so they lair in ruins and believe they must keep their caps wet with blood. I’ve certainly seen goblins before, and berserkers, and even Red Caps, but this combination of the three is not terrible.

Cyclorcs are one-eyed, overgrown orcs who are distinguished by their slightly better melee skill and worse missile skill; they also speak a dialect most orcs can’t understand. They do not accept leaders of other races, making them more independent than regular orcs. This is, in a way, the worst monster in the book. The only saving grace is that I happen to have a handful of figures that are would be pretty perfect for cyclorcs, so I for one might use this monster too.

And again: these are worst the book has to offer. The rest of the creatures are stuff from folklore or pulp comics that I’ve never seen adapted to D&D, totally new monsters of the sort you might find in the Fiend Folio, or jokey monsters that actually manage to be kind of cool. The introduction explicitly states that this book is meant to fun both to use and to peruse, so: mission accomplished.

There are Carriage worms, which are creepy giant worms covered in smaller parasitic worms. The parasitic worms have a paralyzing bite, and the big worm doesn’t have a real bit attack but can swallow you whole once you’re paralyzed. That is nice and creepy. And it spits a slippery but harmless slime on you. You’re not going to forget this encounter.

A number of monsters appear to be Japanese yokai, like the Whipwhirl, which is a flock of strips of paper that will tangle you up and try to suffocate you. Then there are Revolving beasts, which polymorph continuously into other monsters. These are all solid, and potentially deadly.

The jokey monsters include Ligers (“Ligers are a lion and tiger mixed, bred for their skills in magic”), Rotmouths (the monsters from the movie Critters), and the Mothman.You’ll also find a few monsters from movies (Ymir from the Ray Haaryhausen design, water devils that look like something from Princess Mononoke). But even these derivative monsters are usable. The in-jokes are sometimes subtle (no doubt I’m missing some; but the “Bestial beast” I think must be named in parody of the unlikely names of Fiend Folio monsters) and not all of them are all that funny (Skunkbears). Still, it’s far cry from the full-on stupid of something like The field guide of encounters.

The art is not always great. But as far as I can tell, the author also drew all the monsters, and by the way every damn monster has an illustration. None of those monsters-without-pictures that you skip over in other manuals.

All the monsters are statted out in both AD&D and B/X terms. Those are my two favorite iterations of D&D so I’m happy with that. I’m not sure it’s necessary to give both, since you can kind of derive the briefer B/X stats from the AD&D, but that’s fine. Another thing I like is the index and treasure tables. The index doesn’t just list page numbers, but also gives XP values across several game systems, covering most of the OSR bases.

My main complaint about this book is that the stat blocks are not entirely explained. For one thing, a lot of monsters have a dagger symbol following their name in the B/X stat block and this is never explained (I broke down and sent Mr. LeBlanc an email asking about this, and he said that it just means the monster has spells or psionics or other things not in B/X). There are a few bits of text that either unclear or possibly typos, but nothing as egregious as pretty much anything published for Castles & Crusades. Lastly there is no bibliography or list of sources — a problem pretty much all monster manuals share, so I shouldn’t single out this one. I just wanted to go on record saying it’s something that really ought to be included in every monster book.

I didn’t actually pay anything for my copy — I won a copy in New Big Dragon’s 12 days of OSR Christmas. I’d mention that as a disclaimer, but Mr. LeBlanc did not even ask for a review.  If you want a copy, it’s ridiculously cheap anyway: $2 for the pdf at RPGNow, and print copies are cheap at Lulu (especially if you use a coupon code, right this minute it’s JANEND20 for 20% off; while you’re there look for Paolo Greco’s Kefitzat Haderech and/or Burgs and Bailiffs), or if you’re in the US you can also go straight to the New Big Dragon site.

Published in: on January 26, 2016 at 9:16 pm  Comments (3)  
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