Random plots

I saw this web site, “The story starter,” recently — it was highlighted in a blog about writers. It just generates randomized sentences, and they are kind of goofy. Some examples:

The absent-minded dentist dialed the cell phone in Fort Knox on Wednesday for the Russians.

The religious trivia whiz jumped near the hidden room during the heatwave to clear the record.

The smart diamond cutter spoiled the joke near the huge truck four days ago to cover things up.

There is something to be said for specificity, but with so many random clauses, there’s almost too much to incorporate.

But the “junior” version is pretty cool. The prompts it generates are much simpler, and more evocative because of that.  Here are some examples:

The flower grower was following a treasure map near the volcano.

The fisherman was looking for clues on the moon.

The writer was crying near the lake.

See? There’s a lot less to go on, but for me anyway that gives the imagination more of a spur. Why is the writer crying, and why at the lake? is an interesting question that allows the story be sad, scary, funny, or whatever; the adult version sentences, being more detailed, seem to have fewer possibilities.

Naturally my thoughts also turned to using these sorts of things for quick adventure prompts for D&D. I started looking around for other story prompts or plot generators and was surprised at how many there are.

I particularly like a fairytale plot generator here and a fantasy plot generator at the same site. Actually I pretty much stopped looking once I got to that site. There is a full list of its plot-generators here. If you happen to roll up an interesting one, why not leave it in a comment here?

Published in: on May 25, 2015 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Fiend Folio as implied setting

Some time ago, Jeff Rients posted something about running D&D with only the Fiend Folio as the monster manual.  I don’t remember exactly how detailed he got with that, and haven’t been able to find the exact post (this?  or this?) , but since I was looking over the Fiend Folio the other day, I started thinking about what the implied setting of the Fiend Folio might look like.

One thing that might stand out is that there are some knock-offs of standard monsters. Hoar foxes fill the niche of Winter wolves (though they are smaller, fewer HD, and not as evil), for example.

Another thing is that there are many references to standard races and monsters, so really you need to decide whether, say, Flinds require the reintroduction of Gnolls, Nilbogs require the presence of Goblins, the Norker entry allows in Hobgoblins, and so on. You could just ignore those references, or you could grandfather in the things that the FF listings assume. Either choice seems legitimate to me.

The first thought I had was how the options for PC races would look. There are no dwarves, no halflings, no elves other than the Drow, and no gnomes other than Svirfneblin. Drow elves do not seem appropriate for PCs due to their evil nature. Both dark elves and deep gnomes have so many inherent powers that you’d need to (ok: I’d want to…) introduce some kind of extra rules to ration them out as they gain levels, and that isn’t appealing to me either.  Lastly, those races are supposed to be enigmatic, barely-known races of the underdark, and having them as PCs would undermine (hah!) any attempt to keep the underworld mysterious, IMO. Githzerai and Githyanki may have become available as player races in 2e/Spelljammer, but they too seem so alien and mysterious they’d be better left as monsters.

If you wanted to allow some of the FF monsters to be player races, there are not a lot of good-aligned humanoids. I think alignment might matter because in AD&D as it stands, the allowed player races were all good-aligned in the Monster Manual — with the exception of half-orcs, who are not given a separate entry in the MM. Come to think of it, though, most of the human listings are neutral, so probably neutrals are ok too.

That leaves us with a few oddball humanoids, like the Aarakocra, which were ported in as player races in the 2e book of humanoids, and are also good-aligned, though their power of flight seems like a potential headache. The Quaggoth could be a neat mock-Mok, for a Thundar inspired campaign. The Qullan, which seem to be a source for the Talislantian Thralls (or at least share a common ancestor), would be ok as a colorful (hah hah!) option, perhaps replacing Half-orcs, and maybe Sulks could replace Halflings.

I’d be tempted to consider Grimlocks as a possible player race too, because although they are evil, there were several attempts to stat them up for players — both a semi-official Dragon article (#265) and a much older zine I no longer have (it was a small fanzine, I gave it away and don’t even recall the title). The idea of blind berserker is just too fun to leave out of your campaign.

One last thing on the player side of world-building is deities and religion. If you stick to the deities presented in the Fiend Folio, you get a very dark fantasy indeed! Lolth, the Elemental Princes of Evil, and two Slaad demigods. Oh, you also get the Aleax, which the gods send to punish you for varying from your stated alignment.  The Death dog, being descended from Cerberus, sort of implies that there could be Greco-Roman gods in the setting (and the Aleax, which also looks fairly Classical era, would be typical of the Greek gods’ screwing over mortals). Because Retrievers were designed by Demogorgon, I guess we have him too. The Sons of Kyuss mention an unnamed evil deity. The Eyes of Fear and Flame were created either by chaotic evil gods to destroy the lawful, or by neutral/lawful gods to test the lawful. The upshot, then, is that you better not look to the gods for hope or help in the Fiend Folio world.  If they notice you at all, it will probably mean they send an Aleax after you, who will fight you and either take half your XP and all your stuff, or if you are lucky, take you out of the campaign for a year and a day. Fortunately, most of the things that look like undead in the book are either not turnable or not really undead, so you won’t miss having a cleric (unless you encounter 4-40 Nilbogs, which can only be hurt by healing spells!).

So I’m getting the sense that this Fiend Folio world is really dark.

Anyway let’s look at the monsters that look like they might be undead.

Crypt thing

Obviously NOT undead

Turnable undead: Apparition, Coffer corpse, Huecuva, Penanggalan (flying head form), Poltergeist, Sheet ghoul, Sheet phantom, Son of Kyuss

Non-turnable undead: Death knight, Penanggalan (human form), Revenant, Skeleton warrior

Not actually undead & non-turnable: Adherer, Crypt thing, Eye of fear and flame, Gambado, Githyanki*, Necropidius, Vision, Yellow musk zombie

*Like the Meazel, the Githyanki are obviously based on the Iron Maiden mascot “Eddy”.


Iron Maiden album art from “Somewhere in a dungeon”



Only a minority are turnable, and most are turned as wights, wraiths, or specters, so your cleric has little chance.

All those non-turnable undead and pseudo-undead also remind me that the FF is sometimes criticized as consisting of a lot of screw-the-player gimmick monsters.  While there are a good number of gimmicks, you have to admit the Monster Manual has plenty of those too (Ear seekers, Shriekers, Gas spores, Rot grubs, Rust monsters, Yellow mold, Brown mold, and so on and on!).

I guess we should also look at the giants and dragons, as those are staples of fantasy, and I admit they are a little underwhelming. The giants are not bad — at 12 and 14 HD, they are as tough as anything in the Monster Manual, and the Mountain giant certainly looks like a classic storybook giant.  The Fog giant, with his surprise ability, looks deadly, though they should probably have the ability to generate fog too. The dragons, on the other hand, are maybe the weakest thing about the Fiend Folio world.  Instead of being the benevolent spiritual beings of Chinese folklore, or the destructive forces of nature of Western folklore, they seem to be inscrutable spirits of nature — not necessarily hostile, but capricious and dangerous.  Some demand tribute, some accept bribes, but none have much in the way of clear or useful motivation.  They are all shades of neutral, and that makes them seem more like animals than dragons, despite their generally high intelligence. The trolls of the Fiend Folio are all pretty good though — in fact I like them more than standard D&D trolls.  They are certainly more like Norse trolls, and the Ice trolls and Spirit trolls suggest they are more supernatural than standard D&D trolls.

So if I were to describe the world of the Fiend Folio, I think it suggests that monsters tend to be otherworldly — ethereal, elemental, or undead, or else they are beings from the underworld of dungeons and caverns. The animal-type monsters are mostly botched magical experiments like Gorilla-bears, or gigantic vermin like Giant Bats and Giant Hornets, or else super-predators like Babblers.



The humanoids are often alien (Kuo-toa, Firenewts) though some resemble the primitive or militaristic subhumans we find in the Monster Manual. So, it is certainly recognizable as D&D. It is just a little darker, a little wackier, and maybe a little more dangerous, since there are almost no “standard” low-level monsters that you can just fight (exceptions being things like Xvarts and Norkers, though the Norker’s high armor class makes them a real danger to first level PCs). For example, Quaggoths (HD 1+2) go berserk and fight to negative hp; Qullans (HD 2) have super-sharp swords that score bonuses to hit and damage (but of course the blades quickly lose this property when looted!)

Looking at the dungeon monster tables in the back of the book, all the “weak” monsters are thieves or ambushers like the Jermalaine, Mite, and Snyad. Humanoids like Bullywugs can make three attacks, or have boosted AC like the Norkers.  And that is just the level I monsters.  As you go to higher level charts, it seems that the FF monsters tend to have boosted AC, HD, or other powers, compared to their Monster Manual peers.  However, I have to say that dungeons stocked according to the FF charts would be a lot less predictable than the standard DMG tables.

So — and this looks like my second or third attempt to wrap up, I always sucked at conclusions — so anyway, the Fiend Folio world looks like something it could be pretty fun to run. It would slightly crank up the weird and the deadly, and downplay clerics and demi-humans. The only thing I’d really miss are the original dragons and some of the staple, dare I say iconic monsters like orcs, beholders, and rust monsters.  Instead, we’d have norkers, slaad, and disenchanters. Which is to say, the kid gloves would be off and the difficulty cranked up to Ultraviolence. Sounds like a plan!

C’mon in! The ichor is fine!

Published in: on October 1, 2014 at 8:00 am  Comments (12)  
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Dreams of magic (Adventures in dreamland part III)

[FWIW WordPress is not good at inserting footnotes, so I’m putting some in brackets.  Apologies in advance for the interruptions they may make.  Like this one.]

So here’s three things that have been rattling around in the attic of my mind — I mean I have never found the time to think too seriously about it, nor to gather much evidence/research, apart from a few links interspersed in this post.  The three things are yoga, magic (should I spell it “magick”? ack!), and lucid dreaming.  Starting with lucid dreaming:

I became interested in lucid dreams about twenty years ago in college (and apparently there has been a resurgence of popular interest in this topic lately).  I’d been having a number of strange dreams, and began keeping a journal of them, and my casual interest in interpreting dreams led me to references to lucid dreaming and the idea that lucid dreaming could be a learned skill, rather than just a random event.  I’d had a lucid dream or two, and began looking into how others cultivate them.  It turns out it is a lot of work and at the time I had too many other interests to pursue it seriously, but I did take some notes that are probably lying around with my other college papers somewhere.  Two interesting things I learned about lucid dreaming were (1) an exercise that is supposed to help make them occur (there are others, but I found this one very simple), and (2) a reason some people seriously work on lucid dreaming.

One exercise used to cultivate lucid dreams is to continually interrupt your waking day, perhaps every fifteen minutes or half hour with an alarm on your digital watch [yes, that dates my source!], and ask yourself: Am I dreaming or awake?  The idea is to make a habit of questioning your state, so that your mind will continue to do so at night in your dreams.

But what would be the purpose of lucid dreaming anyway? If you believe dreams have hidden meanings that your brain (or some higher power like God), is trying to communicate to you, it doesn’t make much sense to interfere with the dream; you should probably just try to be receptive to the message, right? Maybe you could ask follow-up questions of the things or people in your dreams, or intentionally recreate partly-forgotten but significant details, and so on.  So in that case lucid dreaming might be helpful, but it’s not something you’d want or need to do very often.

Another reason to try lucid dreaming would be entertainment — using your dreams to realize fantasies, or just try flying, walking through walls, and other things that might happen in dreams.  I’m not sure if it is true, but I read that your dream experiences could only recreate actual sensations you’ve had in real life, so for example if you try to dream about flying, your sensations in the dream will have to be based on similar feelings you’ve actually had (amusement park rides perhaps or jumping on a trampoline?).  So in principle you couldn’t really use lucid dreaming to have completely new experiences, but perhaps you could recombine past experiences into chimerical new experiences.  It’s pretty hard to imagine that anyone would put in the effort required to learn to dream lucidly when they could use that time to actually have new experiences instead though.

So what else do you have to gain from having a lucid dream?  Some sources mentioned using lucidity to interrupt nightmares or other unpleasant dreams, and that might be important to someone plagued with bad dreams.

But the most interesting take on lucid dreaming was attributed to Tibetan Buddhism.  I’m not sure if this is an unusual esoteric teaching or mainstream to Tibetan Buddhism, but the thinking is: there is a parallel between the phenomenology of recognizing wakefulness vs. dreaming and the phenomenology of recognizing the illusion of individuality vs. the reality of oneness.  In a lucid dream, one might have an experience of  “Aha! This is just a dream!”; in meditation, one might have an experience of “Aha! This is just a life!”  So, becoming aware that one is dreaming (and perhaps seizing control of the dream) would be an experience analogous to enlightenment. The idea is that both Buddhism and dream work place importance on recognizing different states of consciousness; perhaps lucid dreaming would be useful as a sort of spiritual exercise.  In fact there is a tradition called Mi-lam (or Milam yoga, or simply dream yoga) in Tibetan Buddhism that utilizes lucid dreaming as step toward enlightenment.

If we stretch this analogy (perhaps to the breaking point), it gives an interesting take on the ‘siddhis‘ of Tantric Yoga (the alleged supernatural powers attained by enlightened yogis). A lucid dreamer gains control over dream reality; if Tantrism is correct, an enlightened mind gains some control over waking reality.

So this is where the magic comes in.  In the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a great deal of interest in ‘rehabilitating’ occultism as a legitimate pursuit in the age of reason. Indeed one of Aleister Crowley’s magazines, The equinox, used the motto “The method of science, the aim of religion.”  Crowley is fairly infamous as magician/scam artist/seducer (and supposedly much worse), but he retains a certain amount of respectability among occultists as a pioneer in occult scholarship.  I found some of his writing interesting enough to read a fair amount of his stuff in graduate school; it’s fascinating and crazy stuff.  I’m neither spiritual nor gullible enough to take his writings at face value.  But some of his readers see his writings on magic as metaphoric explanations of his mysticism rather than literal claims about supernatural powers. The lines are pretty blurry really even if you take him literally.  I think that he was mostly pulling his readers’ legs, but may have been legitimately interested in mystical experience and enlightenment.

Going back to that little exercise for noticing dreams: there is an oddly parallel exercise recommended in the writings of Crowley.  It is not a perfect parallel, except that it involves interrupting one’s day periodically.  Crowley recommends that occult students use a sort of aversion therapy to overcome bad habits — by cutting your forearm every time you catch yourself doing it.  (I think the bad habit he was trying to break the student of was using personal pronouns like “I”, in an attempt to help annihilate personal identity… a very Buddhist goal!)  Anyway it was interesting to me that both exercises, while wildly different in degree (annoyance vs. self-harm) and different in immediate goal (recognizing the dream state, not thinking about oneself as a separate thing), were similar in that both might be aimed at attaining a sort of enlightenment, and both involve periodic rather than really focused attention.

But the most common prescriptions for attaining enlightenment involve deeply focused attention — meditation, yoga, and so on.  Could the ceremonial magic of the Western tradition, as described in various grimoires and masonic rituals, likewise be forms of focusing attention?

In an article in The equinox (v.1, no. 2)  titled “Postcards to probationers,” Aleister Crowley suggests that Western ceremonial magic, and Eastern yoga, are practices which correspond to one another.  He actually uses simple tables to suggest the identity of various elements of each system (listing first the four most widely-recognized methods for each and adding two more esoteric methods for each). I’ve combined the two tables here to focus on the fact that he’s correlating Eastern & Western methods.  I’m not sure to what extent yoga had been ‘seriously’ studied by scientists at the time The equinox was published (I think v.1, no. 2 would be the winter of 1909/1910), but there is certainly a long tradition of casting meditation and yoga as sciences rather than purely spiritual, religious, or occult practices.  I suspect Crowley hoped that some of the legitimacy of Eastern practices could rub off on Western occultism.

(Eastern practice)

(Western practice)



The Holy Qabalah.

Union by Knowledge.


The Sacred Magic.

Union by Will.


The Acts of Worship.

Union by Love.


The Ordeals.

Union by Courage.

add Mantra-Yoga.

add The Invocations.

Union through Speech.


The Acts of Service.

Union through Work.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to add a seventh line for dream work — assuming we take the leap that identifies the ‘goetia’ (the black magic described in Western grimoires) with lucid dreaming.

add Mi-lam yoga

add Goetia (Lucid Dreams)

Union through Dreamwork.

Many goetic texts are cataloged by A.E. Waite in his famous Book of Ceremonial Magic (originally published as The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, and later republished as The Book of Spells, in many editions). These grimoires often give detailed instructions regarding the proper scents, illumination, and other sensations that will help increase the effectiveness of the rituals, according to occult correspondences; in addition to preparing the mind with specific incantations and visualizations, instructions are provided to pinpoint the best times of day for specific invocations. These are almost always ‘dark hours’ of early morning or late at night, and this has led some (I no longer recall where I first saw this proposed) to speculate that the grimoires are actually providing instructions on lucid dreaming.

Some of the ceremonies even instruct the user to retire to bed before beginning the incantations, but this is unusual.  In any event, it is at least somewhat plausible to interpret the practice of magic as a form of dreamwork.  The fantastic appearances of demons and spirits, the preoccupation with asking where treasures are hidden and when it would be felicitous to remove them, and the preoccupation with having specific (or in some cases generic) people appear to the magician for “venereal experiments”  all make a sort of sense if we understand the ceremonies as preparations conducive to the sort of dream one desires rather than as effective methods of altering reality.  Granted this is a rather impoverished sort of rehabilitation of ‘magic,’ but at least it does not rely on supernatural explanations.

Tibetan Buddhism describes a number of “intermediate worlds” or “bardos”; the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan book of the dead can be read as sort of grimoire that prepares the dying for the dream-like intermediate world experienced during transmigration from one life to the next.  If you read some of the goetic texts, and then the Bardo Thodol, there are certainly some parallels in terms of each providing a sort of field guide for the fantastic — the grimoires describing fantastic demons and angels; the book of the dead describing Buddhist deities.  The imagery of each, though alien to modern sensibilities, would probably be quite meaningful to their audiences, who would understand the language of colors, animals, and other symbolism in them.

A couple of possibly supporting pieces of information I stumbled upon in Rickert’s book At day’s close rekindled this whole line of thought.

Item: witches in the early modern era often confessed to attending Sabbats and working their spells late at night, arising from their beds after their husbands were asleep.  On the one hand this is actually kind of disconfirming my theory about magic being dreamwork, since Rickert considered this an example of the sorts of nocturnal activities people got up to between the two “sleeps” each night. [Typically, people slept from about 9 PM to just after midnight, woke for an hour, and slept again until sunrise or just before it; this wakeful hour might be a time for prayer, sex, reading by candlelight, talking, smoking, or just laying awake.]  Even so, I can easily imagine the whole Sabbat being a realistic dream that begins with a dream that one awakens, especially since pre-industrial people were so afraid to go abroad at night.

The other bit is his mention of the Benandanti — a fertility cult that existed in Friuli, Italy, whose members claimed to battle witches in their dreams.  The battles were apparently to save their crops, and the witches fought armed with bundles of fennel as a weapon; the cultists used bundles of sorghum.  Wikipedia expands on this cult, which I’d never heard of before, and mentions similar traditions of demon-battling werewolves, vampire-hunters, and such; I should mention that I have completely neglected to consider shamanism, which of course is another very occult and very dream-interested tradition; even if you want keep things Euro-centric there are plenty of Western shamans, like Hungarian taltos and the Alpine shamans who can join the nocturnal feasts of the Nachtschar (phantoms of the dead who appear in dreams). [“Nachtschar” appears to be translatable as ‘night phantoms,’ however at least one source identifies the Nachtschar as the shamans Rickert mentions; others identify the Nachtschar as a sort of early modern survival of the legend of the Wild Hunt.  One relatively famous case was of a herdsman who testified against witches at their trial, saying he’d been shown their Sabbat by a guide-angel on a nocturnal ride; of course he found himself tortured and forced to confess that the angel, originally described as wearing white with a red cross, was really a cloven-hoofed devil.]

So my point, insofar as I have one, is just to suggest the possibility that grimoires and scriptures were intended to populate the dream world, rather than the actual world, with demons, deities, and — magicians!  And there is plenty of tradition populating the dream world with adversaries such as werewolves, demons, witches, and the undead.

So, dragging this back to D&D and such, suppose your game world worked this way: wizards have to first become powerful in the dream world, and then can begin to have these powers leak over into the real world.   Perhaps an apprenticeship is spent in drug- or magic- induced coma, dreaming away for months or years, and this accounts for the typically weak and frail bodies of wizards.  And of course the master occasionally shows up in the former apprentice’s dreams, for good or ill.  The time required to re-memorize spells needs to be spent in solid REM sleep (which helps explain the daily allowances of spells in the otherwise Vancian system).

Dare you sleep in a dungeon, perchance to dream … when who knows who or what else is dreaming, or haunting dreams, in that underworld?

Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 11:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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That’s Weird Lisa…

A couple of weeks ago we had a joint birthday party for myself and my dad, and so Riley and three of her cousins entertained themselves by playing with my toys in the basement while the grownups talked after dinner.  At first, it was a little hairy because Quinn & Riley wanted to play “Ships & Ships,” a game Cameron devised which involved gathering things and bringing them to a lighthouse in order to upgrade to a larger ship, all the while fighting sea monsters and merpeople. They played that for hours the last time my Man-o-War stuff was out, but Cameron did not feel like refereeing that and Quinn came close to a meltdown.  But in the end Cameron acquiesced and they played it for a while; a little later they put away all the ships and switched to setting up a village using all my terrain and townsfolk, plus a few monsters.

The village

The each had their own houses…

Riley’s house … she was the witch with a cat

Quinn’s house … no surprise he’s the one with a sword!

They told me a little bit about all the characters and places, but I didn’t catch all of it.

This must be the watering hole

Some farms…

These were the ‘farmerboys’

More famers. These were the only guys who like…

…the “mean girl”

I dunno. She looks pretty nice.

The king was in a castle.

It’s good to be the king.

For some reason the blacksmith had a tower too.

Aw lookout… this guy’s up to no good.

They also introduced one scary girl as “Weird Lisa”

No, not a reference to Riley’s Aunt Lisa, although she is weird too.

Did not ask why the apothecary is a smoking dwarf, but it fits.

Smoking will stunt your growth, you know.

Some dude singing in the ruined church…

After that they asked for cardboard to build their own buildings, and Parker & Cameron also made a few fairies out of crafting scraps to inhabit the unfinished houses.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

Waste not want not.

It was getting pretty late by then, and we didn’t have time to assemble their fairy houses.

The younger kids were getting along so well they petitioned for an impromptu sleepover. I am not so sure Cameron was as interested in that but again she took one for the team. I have no idea how late they stayed up, but the younger kids were all up by 7:30 or 8, and after pancakes we played some more. Riley and Quinn built a dungeon using components from Descent and guarded it against my monsters with a few characters, in a kind of ‘reverse dungeon’. Then we played a game of Zombies!!! at Quinn’s request. I left out the cards since he & Riley can’t really read that well and the pictures on the cards are kind of frightening. Quinn was zombie-killing machine!

Super glue for two broken Man o War ships … 99 cents

Cleaning up the table, putting things away, and sweeping … 1 hour

Gettin’ my nerd on with the kids … Priceless!

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm  Comments (5)  
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The worm Ouroboros (review)

Lately I’ve been trying to read as much ‘classic’ fantasy as I can.  My main criteria for counting a work as a classic has been (1) the work or author is prominent in Gygax’s Appendix N; or (2) it was written before the resurgence of epic fantasy in the early 1980s (which I, rightly or wrongly, attribute largely to the success of D&D and the renewed interest in the Lord of the Rings due to the film, television specials, and general fantasy revival of the period), or (3) it is mentioned in the wargame Hordes of the Things.

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison certainly meets criteria (2), and for some reason I thought I’d seen it listed in BOTH the Dungeon Masters Guide and Hordes Of The Things, but somehow neither mention it.  I must have just run into repeated references to it in other sources…otherwise I’m not sure why I held it in such esteem, sight unseen.  I suppose I’ve seen it mentioned positively in various blogs and surveys of fantasy literature, but however I first heard of it,  I’m glad I did.  It is magnificent.  I agree with a lot of other readers who comment that the ‘induction,’ which introduces the story as taking place on the planet Mercury, visited by an Earthling after a dream-like journey, is very odd; the more so because the Earthling disappears from the story around chapter two, without ever being of any import to the plot.  Odd but not a fatal flaw by any means.

You can download a reading of it here, or get a text version here (it is out of copyright).  I read the Dover reprint, but will have to check out the reading some time.

There are reviews and synopses aplenty all around the internet, so there is not much for me to add, except to say I found it much, much better than I expected.  I had read some criticism of the goofy names and place-names (apparently Eddison had created the characters and story as a child, and returned to it as an adult to actually write it, but did not have the stomach to change the names), and I was a little put off at first by the extremely antiquated prose, although as I read on, I grew to like it more and more, and savored it.  The Elizabethan prose is really beautiful, even when the narration describes death and dismemberment.  It is not a book you can tear through in one night, but why would you want to?  The story line is interesting, the characters are vivid (although you may want to keep notes to keep some of the names straight), and world draws you in.

The world of the book is called “Mercury” although really it is an alternate Earth; in fact the Greek gods are invoked by the characters and the world is inhabited predominantly by humans though they call themselves Demons, Witches, Ghouls, Imps, Pixies, Foliots, and Goblins.  An early chapter mentions that the Demons are horned, but this is never mentioned again and it may be a reference to their helmets.

The story tells of a war between the Demons and Witches, which involves several pitched battles, and an expedition to recover a Demon lord who is magically kidnapped to a surreal ‘underworld’ (which is actually atop a mountain).  His brother eventually reaches the mountain-prison, after battling a manticore and taming a hippogriff.  Part of his journey is obstructed by various hellish visions, including one of his trapped brother:

Darker grew the mist, and heavier the brooding dread which seemed elemental of the airs about that mountain. Pausing well nigh exhausted on a small stance of snow Juss beheld the appearance of a man armed who rolled prostrate in the way, tearing with his nails at the hard rock and frozen snow, and the snow was all one gore of blood beneath the man; and the man besought him in a stifled voice to go no further but raise him up and bring him down the mountain. And when Juss, after an instant’s doubt betwixt pity and his resolve, would have passed by, the man cried and said, “Hold, for I am thy very brother thou seekest, albeit the King hath by his art framed me to another likeness, hoping so to delude thee. For thy love sake be not deluded!” Now the voice was like to the voice of his brother Goldry, howbeit weak.

But the Lord Juss bethought him again of the words of Sophonisba the Queen, that he should see his brother in his own shape and nought else must he trust; and he thought, “It is an illusion, this also.” So he said, “If that thou be truly my dear brother, take thy shape.” But the man cried as with the voice of the Lord Goldry Bluszco, “I may not, till that I be brought down from the mountain. Bring me down, or my curse be upon thee for ever.”

The Lord Juss was torn with pity and doubt and wonder, to hear that voice again of his dear brother so beseeching him. Yet he answered and said, “Brother, if that it be thou indeed, then bide till I have won to this mountain top and the citadel of brass which in a dream I saw, that I may know truly thou art not there, but here. Then will I turn again and succour thee. But until I see thee in thine own shape I will mistrust all. For hither I came from the ends of the earth to deliver thee, and I will set my good on no doubtful cast, having spent so much and put so much in danger for thy dear sake.”

So with a heavy heart he set hand again to those black rocks, iced and slippery to the touch. Therewith up rose an eldritch cry, “Rejoice, for this earth-born is mad! Rejoice, for that was not perfect friend, that relinquished his brother at his need!” But Juss climbed on, and by and by looking back beheld how in that seeming man’s place writhed a grisful serpent. And he was glad, so much as gladness might be in that mountain of affliction and despair.

Eddison clearly has read his Arthurian romances, Norse sagas, and Greek myths, and the heroes of his story tend to be much more like Nietzschean ‘blond beasts’ than the sort of characters that populate modern fantasy novels.  In fact there is another scene on the mountain where Lord Juss is ‘tempted’ by a vision of despair at the ‘meaninglessness’ of his struggle, but he eventually overcomes it by sheer force of will.  I understand Tolkien disliked this work’s ‘morality’ (and terrible names) while praising the world-invention and writing.  Like Tolkien and many other readers, I found Lord Gro — the Goblin traitor — to be the most likeable character, and probably this is because he is the one character least at home in the book’s world.

I wish I’d found this map and printed it out while I was reading this book, but as usual I did most of my research after finishing it.

One of the most interesting aspects of the invented world to me is the number of proverbs and sayings Eddison has his characters recite. I think that on my next reading* I might even try to extract all the “Mercurial proverbs” into a future post.  They are very colorful and would help bring alive an alien, archaic world for a RPG.  I am guessing that some or most are actually drawn from literature, just as the songs and poems in the story are (Eddison even provides a list of sources for these in an appendix, as well as a chronology, including many ‘off-screen’ events).

Another clever stylistic device is the use of even more archaic English when letters or books are read. Here is an example from a letter:

Unto the right high mighti and doubtid Prynsace the Quen of Implande, one that was your Servaunt but now beinge both a Traitor and a manifiald parjured Traitor, which Heaven above doth abhorre, the erth below detest, the sun moone and starres be eschamed of, and all Creatures doo curse and ajudge unworthy of breth and life, do wish onelie to die your Penytent. In hevye sorrowe doo send you these advisoes which I requyre your Mageste in umblest manner to pondur wel, seeinge ells your manyfest Overthrowe and Rwyn att hand. And albeit in Carcee you reste in securitie, it is serten you are there as saife as he that hingeth by the Leves of a Tree in the end of Autumpne when as the Leves begin to fall. For in this late Battaile in Mellicafhaz Sea hath the whole powre of Wychlande on the sea been beat downe and ruwyned, and the highe Admirall of our whole Navie loste and ded and the names of the great men of accownte that were slayen at the battaile I may not numbre nor the common sorte much lesse by reaisoun that the more part were dround in the sea which came not to Syght. But of Daemounlande not ij schips companies were lossit, but with great puissaunce they doo buske them for Carsee. Havinge with them this Gowldri Bleusco, strangely reskewed from his preassoun-house beyond the toombe, and a great Armey of the moste strangg and fell folke that ever I saw or herd speke of. Such is the Die of Warre.

Even some of Eddison’s characters stumble over written documents, and while it does add another level of difficulty to an already difficult book, it certainly increases the feeling that you  are observing a real, if strange, world.

I was tempted to look for a ‘meaning’ to the story, despite Eddison’s straightforward rejection of such in his dedication:

It is neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake.

This reminded me immediately of Tolkien’s statement that LotR is not an allegory either, not that anyone believes him.  Taking Eddison at his word, The worm Ouroboros is a great story, capturing a strange but believable world inhabited by the kinds of heroes we find in Viking or Celtic legend: a world at war, and with heroes who live for war.  It is not surprising that Tolkien would find the unabashedly pagan heroes and their love of battle distasteful, but taken as a story, and not a morality play, there is much to enjoy in the doings and sayings of these barbaric nobles.



*Yes, this ranks with The well of the unicorn, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, and Lord of the rings as something I’ll be re-reading.

Published in: on December 16, 2011 at 3:13 pm  Comments (4)  
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What is the Telengard setting anyway?

OK, if you’ve been following this blog for the past few months, in addition to the usual stuff (posting pictures of minis painted to the exacting standard of “I can kinda tell what it is from arms length” and ranting about games), I’ve been describing the half-baked “Telengard setting” I’m using for my the D&D game I am running. What is it?

It is a pastiche of dozens of sources and influences, many ripped off wholesale, along with some original ideas.

Computer games. I stole the name from the classic computer game Telengard, which provides the namesake for my Mount Telengard, a heavily mined mountain near the default town Skara Brae. “Skara Brae” is in fact the name of a real archeological site, and also the name of the main town in the classic computer game The Bard’s Tale (the name is also ripped off by the Ultima series of computer games). So the two main locations are obvious homages to old computer RPGs. I am using the Bard’s Tale‘s map for the town, and all the taverns and inns of the town are named after Telengard inns, and I’m throwing in various elements from CRPGs, although much of these are still undiscovered in actual play.

Other blogs. Norse Catholic Church? Thanks, Rolang. Combat house rules? Trollsmyth and Rules, Roles, and Rolls. Adventurer’s guild? Save or Die! Skill system? Largely Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Carousing rules? Jeff’s Gameblog and Playing D&D with Porn Stars. Hirelings Guild’s oath? Telecanter. Monsters? Several from Telecanter and Rules, Rolls, and Roles, and I think one from What a horrible night for a curse!

One Page Dungeons. Entries from the 2009 and 2010 OPD contests have been incorporated into settings, as well as maps from various web sites, resources from fan sites, and so on.

Ideas from my brother Tom and various internet forums. Tom’s been DMing for decades, and when he’s not running a game he’s endlessly tinkering and gathering ideas too.

Weird stuff that occurs to me. Under the influence of the above things, I am adding all kinds of details, monsters, NPCs, and so on. In all honesty and humility, my players seem to have enjoyed the dungeon levels and adventures that I made up myself a lot more than they’ve enjoyed the dungeons I’ve taken from other sources. I like to think that even the things I ran “as written” (the LL wiki adventures and Telecanter’s Alabaster Tower and so on), I altered a little in the direction of fun, or at least my sense of fun.

Anyway, my point (and I do have one), is that even though there is always undeniably a lot of effort on the part of the DM to create and run a campaign, I have been unbelievably lucky to have had access to the unlimited riches of all the other blogs out there, and resources other people posted at various places for free, and of course the invaluable input of my players, particularly Tom. I feel much more like an editor than author when it comes to my setting, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So when someone asked me if I’m ever going to “publish” my campaign setting for free or for sale, I realized that even if I wanted to, there would necessarily be page after page of credits to everyone else I’m stealing ideas from. In my opinion 90% of gaming supplements remorselessly steal ideas without giving credit to sources, but I think that morally, it is wrong to deny credit where it is due. So I doubt I’ll ever try to put it all together into a “package” other than this blog. I kind of wish, now, that I’d set up an independent blog for the setting, and will probably do so if I ever get another campaign going, although honestly I could go on with Telengard for years. I think I made several bad choices at the beginning of the campaign that are coming back to haunt me (mainly regarding my own bookkeeping and lack of preparation) but even if the current group decides to move on to another game, or I need a break, I could see rebooting it, perhaps as a sort of “Western Marches” thing at a FLGS or the library.

When Goblinoid Games released the LL files as text documents, I immediately wanted to start cobbling together a “Telengard player’s handbook & campaign guide.” But the fact is, I would be among the last people to want such a product from someone’s home brew game. I was briefly excited when James Maliszewski announced that he meant to publish Dwimmermount, because I imagined he’d edit together his posts on world-building and design decisions along with the session summaries. When it became more clear that he was envisioning a campaign source book with just his house rules, maps, and such like, I was … “meh.” I’d read it but don’t think I’d run it. 90% of my gaming experience has been with home-brew worlds, often house-ruled to hell. The idea of playing in someone else’s world (even Tolkien’s or George Lucas’ as in MERPS and West End Games’ Star Wars), just never appealed that much. On the other hand I have read with interest other people’s adventures, house rules, and “stuff” (monsters, magic items, tables, etc.) and really gotten a lot out of them. So it might be worth compiling for my own amusement and the convenience of future plunderers. Hmm.

Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 3:14 pm  Comments (3)  
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The guilds of Skara Brae

The Adventurers’ Guild

The guild’s High Council has one member from each of the guilds listed below and also from the Norse Church.  Any member of the Adventurers’ guild may also belong to no more than one of the other guilds listed below.  The AG has a monopoly on all training beyond 4th level.  Members must sign & abide by the AG compact, and tithe 5% of all treasure recovered from the Telengard dungeon, monster lairs within 300 miles, and any rewards for AG sanctioned quests.  The guild enforces a strict hierarchy such that low-level parties must yield to higher level parties in the dungeon, giving them first crack at any unexplored areas and access to stairs leading down.  (In fact, the foot of Mount Telengard is crowded with the pavilions of mid-level adventurers who, because of the Guild’s hierarchal nature, are able to demand admission charges from lower level parties who want to enter the dungeons).  Their symbol is a torch, rope, and pole.

The Hirelings’ Guild

Combatant and noncombatant hirelings may be hired here.  HG members will always insist that their employers swear to the Five Finger Oath.  Their symbol is an open hand.

The Thieves’ Guild

Members surrender 10% of all proceeds from thieving within Skara Brae (including swindling, picking pockets, burglary, etc.).  Unauthorized theft within the city will be dealt with severely.  The Slayer’s Guild often takes contracts to enforce the Thieves’ Guilds’ sanctions.  Most specialized thief equipment can be purchased only through the guild. Their symbol is an eye.

The Slayer’s Guild

A.k.a. the Assassin’s Guild.  Any murder for hire in Skara Brae and the environs must be contracted through the guild.  Members tithe 10% of all such fees to the guild, and the guild maintains a monopoly on all sales of poisons. The Slayer’s Guild is currently closed to player characters.  Their symbol is a skull.

The Three Warrior Brotherhoods

Fighters may join one of the brotherhoods.  At 4th level, lawful and chaotic fighters may become champions of their respective alignment, gaining certain benefits as long as they uphold their alignment and the principles of the brotherhood.

Neutral: The Fire Guard

The Fire Guard are mercenaries, operating as guards (and firefighters) in Skara Brae and as soldiers for the city-state.  They live communally in the Jomsburg, a keep within the city.  In order to gain admission, prospective members were required to prove themselves with a feat of strength, often taking the form of a ritual duel.  Once admitted, the Fire Guard require adherence to a strict code of conduct in order to instill a sense of military discipline among its members: defend his brothers, avenge their deaths, never speak ill of his fellows or quarrel with them, never show fear or to flee in the face of an enemy of equal or inferior strength (though orderly retreat in the face of vastly superior forces is acceptable).  No Fire Guard is permitted to be absent from Jomsborg for more than three days without the permission of the brotherhood.  Their symbol is a flaming sword.

Lawful: Templars

The Paladins are a religious, chivalric order of warriors sworn to defend the weak, uphold the law, and maintain the highest standards of honorable conduct.  Templars must: always help innocents in need, avenge injustice, keep their word, and punish evildoers. Lawful champions are called Paladins, and gain several benefits, including protection from evil and outer planar creatures, turning undead as clerics, and minor healing abilities.  Their symbol is the same as the Norse Church (a stylized hammer often resembling a cross).

Chaotic: Marauders

Marauders generally travel alone or in small bands, provoking duels and battles in order to gain money, land, and prestige.  Their code of honor requires that they: respect the rules of dueling (no interfering once a duel begins, and no magical aids may be used) and never turn down a challenge to combat.  Chaotic champions are called Berserkers, and they gain the ability to enter a frenzied state that increases their ability to take and deal damage. Their symbol is the eight arrows of Chaos.

The Demihumans’ Guild

The Elves, Dwarfs, and Halflings of Skara Brae are minorities and have formed a single guild to protect their interests in a land dominated by humans.  The guild provides training and healing to members.  Their symbol is two hands locked in a handshake.

The Norse Church

The only officially recognized church in Skara Brae is the Norse Church.  The Norse pantheon is worshiped in it, but special staus is accorded to Odin (the All-father and creator of the earth), Thor (the son of Odin, protector and savior of mankind, and Odin’s representative on Midgard), and the Norns (holy spirits that guide fate).  Most believers pray primarily to Thor, or to other Norse gods according to their respective fields of influence.  Odin and the Norns are venerated but also held in awe and fear, so that only the priests may speak their names or directly invoke their aid.  The Norse Church’s symbol is a stylized hammer (often resembling a cross).

(Other religions exist in the area but they not given a seat on the Adventurers’ Guild council and so are unable to train clerics above fourth level.  An underground cult devoted to the children of Loki is also rumored to exist but this has never been confirmed.  The temple of Kraken, the temple of the Whispering God, and an order of Druids all exist in or near Skara Brae.)

What, no Magic-Users’ Guild?

Well, that’s another post.  The short answer is there is a Council of Wizards (to sanction and advise), but apprenticeship, training, and spell sales are handled on an individual basis.

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ye gods!

My brother has been DMing for a long time — around 30 years, if my memory is right. One thing he’s been pretty worried about lately is the place of gods in the game universe. He’s felt for some time that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for anyone to worship an evil god. Pretty much every pantheon has several evil gods. Moreover, if every god can work miracles, why should anyone worship just one of them? He’d rather just take the old “implied Christianity” of D&D to use a stand-in Church of a creator, with one god. I’ve pushed him to make room for Druids, which are nature-worshipers or perhaps pagans in his games but he like to leave the Church ascendant in most civilized areas. He definitely doesn’t like the idea of introducing multiple conflicting pantheons, as some D&D campaigns did back in the days of Gods, demigods & heroes and Deities & Demigods. (In fairness I think both supplements instruct DMs to choose one pantheon, but there has always been an anything & everything goes mentality among a lot of players!)

Anyway, in an effort to mitigate some of his concerns I suggested that the gods might be called various names but all actually represent a small set of actual divinities. We both prefer historical pantheons, so I created a table of corresponding gods & goddesses, allowing a multitude of cultures and cults while keeping the divinities down to about a dozen individuals. I had it in my mind that any gods from each pantheon that are not covered should be equated with demons, devils, aliens, or other less-than-divine beings, perhaps demigods (which could still exist as distinct entities in their multitudes, but which would in principle be mortal). A pdf of the chart is here: The universal pantheon. I tried to correlate Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, Hindu, and Mesopotamian gods into the list, as well as Christian saints and the Trinity. The Mesopotamian gods are combined from the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Syrian pantheons — I just used the names I was most familiar with.

I don’t think this idea is really all that original; I suppose occultists have attempted such correspondences for centuries, and the Greeks and Romans famously identified their gods with the gods of other cultures.

I based my chart partly on the Interpretatio graeca linked above, and partly on some work I’d done for my GURPS Bestiary of Spirits, as well as additional research. The infamous list of saints from Bruce Galloway’s Fantasy Wargaming certainly helped too!

Although I have problems with the conceit of clerics just worshiping one god in a pantheon, this system would allow such dedicated clerics to recognize their own god as another when in a different setting. But mainly it would give a DM some rationale for why the northerners worship Odin and the southerners worship Zeus and the two gods haven’t smitten each other’s followers.

We have not actually used this idea in a game, but I though I’d share.

Published in: on July 20, 2010 at 10:14 am  Comments (10)  
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Godhead like a hole

Two observations:

  1. D&D has an implied Christian setting, at least in the earliest versions where clerics pass through the Catholic hierarchy as they gain levels and use crosses, and some devils are largely lifted from Dante and European occultism, and all that.
  2. D&D also has an implied pagan setting, what with the stat-ing out of deities and mythological monsters, the druids and all that.

Who says these can’t go hand in hand? You could go the obvious “Broken sword” route and have the pagan gods in conflict with the Church, or fearful of the “White Christ”… or you could just say, why can’t Christianity be pagan?

Here’s a possible pantheon: The many Christs.


Published in: on July 19, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Quick links for monster ideas

(Image source: Edward Foster’s Book of Strange)

David Lovelace’s Book of beings (now also available at Dragonsfoot as a pdf!)

The Cryptoid zoo, a cryptozoology site

Dave’s mythical creatures and places



Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 1:44 pm  Comments (3)  
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