Skelos – The Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy

I hadn’t gotten around to blogging in depth about this, and I probably won’t for awhile, but I just wanted to give anyone here who hasn’t already heard a heads up about the new Skelos Magazine.

It looks incredibly awesome, and much like our own issue 2, issue 2 of Skelos has a new piece by Adrian Cole! I would not be surprised if 2017 saw even more crossover.

I’ve already thrown in for a lifetime physical subscription. I believe in what these guys are doing and sense a weird pulp fantasy renaissance is on the horizon.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1376036639/skelos-the-journal-of-weird-fiction-and-dark-fanta/description

Final Thoughts on the Gray Prince

Some of my rantings from last year about Vance inspired PC Bushi to pick up The Gray Prince and write a really good review of it!

PC Bushi

So hard to find time for the finer things when you’re wasting it all on vidaya games. But I’m done with the Gray Prince and I’m all the richer for it.

If you’re interesting in a more thoughtful and insightful review than I’m about to lay down, I’d point you to the excellent write-up over at Cirsova. I’m not confident I would have made the connection myself, but the Uldras do present as the inspirational precursors to the Elder Scrolls’ Dunmer, in both appearance and background.

He’s also got some great observations about the SLU (Standard Labor-value Unit), which I’d have skimmed right over, and some of the technology and devices that would be well-suited for tabletop adoption.

For my part, I’m going to start on the negatives to get that out of the way. First, as I mentioned in my initial impressions, there is a certain laboriousness to some parts…

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Mixed Feelings About Bioshock Infinite

“It’s all right, I’m not like the rest – I’m a progressive!”

::headshot::

I got a lot of enjoyment out of the original Bioshock. It was a very flawed game in many ways and felt more like a visual novel that used an FPS engine, but the shooter part was fun and had a lot of physics toys to play with and was a more than competently done survival horror with some really good set pieces and a the delightful twist that we’d see later in games like Arkham Asylum where you realize that YOU are the monster that everyone else is trying to survive.  I skipped Bioshock 2 because when I heard the whole “Play as a Big Daddy!” pitch, I was all “really?  That was the WORST part of the first game! No thanks!”, but I’d heard great things about Bioshock Infinite, it was on clearance, so I decided to give it a go.

I spent much of the first two hours absolutely hating Bioshock Infinite. Being dumped in the sky city with little introduction was a poor repeat of the original Bioshock not because we’d done this before, but because without Atlas to be your guide and without the immediate threat of the crazy splicer holocaust you’ve been dumped into, you find yourself alone in a very picturesque but dead and static world digging through trashcans on your way to the story.  Despite the dozens of citizens of Columbia hanging around, none of them pay you the least bit of mind or seem to notice your presence.  And if you’re like me and like to thoroughly explore your surroundings in games like this, it becomes even more pronounced that you’re in this very wide linear path for nearly an hour looking for a depth that just isn’t there.

Ian Miles Cheong recently shared this meme:

FPS Level Design

Even moreso than its predecessor, Bioshock Infinite is the middle there, in spades.

Once the actual action finally got underway (and I died several times, losing all of the loot I’d spent the previous hour scrounging garbage cans for; but hey, I was playing it on hard), I was even more aggravated because it wasn’t doing the FPS part well either!  Unlike the original Bioshock, where enemies could be seen fairly clearly because they were, y’know, in the room with you, enemies in Bioshock Infinite are difficult to see to the point of being downright hard to find except for when you’ve been shot at by one.  It’s gone the freaking Call of Duty route to crouching and running from unseen shooters and taking shots at enemies either from a great distance or trying to close the gap and getting mowed down by suppressive fire.  Oh, yeah, and you can only carry two guns!  LAAAAAAME!

Also, I don’t think its look at Patriotism and Apotheosis of the founders is as interesting or nuanced as the first game’s look at Objectivism vs. Collectivism. The Randian may have been a self-important asshole and his paradise failed, but the labor thugs absolutely had a hand in Rapture’s failures, and the union boss is the game’s big-bad.  The weird Lost Cause prophet guy and his klansmen aren’t nearly as interesting as villains as Andrew Ryan and his mad scientists and libertine artists.

So far, Elizabeth has been the only redeeming aspect of Bioshock Infinite.  She does a good job at evoking the whole “video game caring potential” trope.  She has a likable personality, she’s actually got some decent mechanical uses (“here is money I stole”, “here is a first aid kit I found”, “take this gun I took”, “let me pick this lock for you”), you don’t have baby-sit her, and a lot of her AI interactions with the environment are charming and fascinating.  The last point, I think, is where Elizabeth really shines – here movement is both responsive to the player’s and predictive – rather than following on some typical AI path-finding trail behind your character, if you’re moving in the direction of some goal in a safe area, she’ll be moving ahead of you; if you’re just wandering around, she’ll wander as well at a safe distance, sometimes looking at things or out windows or getting a snack; if you’re really derping around, she’ll lean up against a wall or sit on a bench and wait for you to get your shit together.  It’s cute, it’s interesting to watch, and it really breathes life into the NPC character.  Elizabeth is a companion character done right.  She’s also the kind of dame who’s usually paired up with the hero in the pulps, but that’s a whole nother can of worms.

Even if everything else about Bioshock Infinite is terrible and tedious and unfun (and it looks like that’s the direction it may be going), Elizabeth is amazing and nothing short of a breakthrough.  I’d like to see her as a model for future AI companions in other games, perhaps those that will be more fun (at least to me) than Bioshock Infinite.

SUBMISSIONS OPEN: Tales of the Once and Future King

Malcolm the Cynic

Copied directly from Superversive SF:

  • Submission Period: May 16, 2016 – July 16, 2016
  • We will accept .doc and .docx submissions ONLY
  • Only standard manuscript format accepted
  • Payment: Pro Rata depending on the number of stories accepted – an equal percentage of royalties will be split
  • Word Count: Anywhere between 500-10,000 words
  • Poetry WILL be considered
  • Send stories to kingarthuranthology@aol.com
  • E-mail subject: SUBMISSIONS/Story Title

Calling all writers! As of today, I am opening up submissions to a new anthology: “Tales of the Once and Future King”. This will be an anthology of juvenile stories about King Arthur and all things Arthurian related. Juvenile is a broad term that can mean anything from a “Chronicles of Narnia” reading level to the later Harry Potter books.

The guidelines are very broad. Since it’s juvenile:

  • No sex
  • No unnecessary gore
  • No nihilism

HOWEVER – “juvenile” is not the same as “sanitized”. So:

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B4: The Lost City – Part 4

Last Friday’s delve into the Lost City proved to be a session almost as bloody as the first, but it was also, by far, the most lucrative session we’ve had.

There’s been some actual interest in facing down Zargon, who I’ve acknowledged is an actual thing with stats in the dungeon, but I’ve also pointed out that it’s beyond the scope what we’re planning on playing.  Still, if the current “arc” doesn’t end in a TPK, I might let them see just how poorly they fare against the godling by allowing the Priests of Zargon to take them by an express tunnel to the bottom of the pyramid.  The party missed the one chance I afforded them, but they’ll have others, I’m sure.

The party returned to the 4th tier to continue looking for the round-robin path to the King and Queen’s tombs that don’t require the whole party making saves vs. fear.  The Rats nest could have been an ugly affair, but the players triumphed and found a major cache worth over 2000 XP.  They crossed the hall, springing the rolling boulder trap; per the suggestion of the module, I was generous in letting the party dive into the room they’d just opened.  One player decided to stay on the other side of the hall and wait for the party to make the full circuit around the block.  This proved to be a fatal mistake: while the other party members went along the northern loop that would have circled back around, a large party of Zealots for Zargon were coming the opposite way.  The Dwarf kept quiet and watched them pass.  The rest of the party decided to ambush the zealots with some flasks of oil and whatnot, and managed to do pretty well against them.  Killed 8 of them and sent the cleric leading them running.  Of course, I figured that the Cleric knew his way around the pyramid, and send 4 of the zealots to run around the loop and try to flank the party.  And they ran smack-dab into the lone dwarf who’d been hanging out in the hallway.

So, while the party made pretty short work of the band of zealots they were fighting, the dwarf wearing full plate could not outrun the unarmored zealots who managed to hack him to pieces.  Never split the party!

The rest of the party went back to the safety of the upper tiers to rest before going back down and floating disking the dead out of the pyramid to bury.  On the way back into the bowels of the pyramid, they ran into some Madarua cultists who, I decided, bore a silver sword to give to the member who’d joined them as reward for having killed a bunch of Zargon’s followers; they’d need it.

Unfortunately, instead of following the outside track, the party went straight for the room where the shadows were hanging out.  At first, they wisely decided to back off, but then came up with this strange plan where they would try to lasso some random jars or something and pull them out of the room.  The shadows weren’t going to abide by this nonsense and prepared to lay the hurt down.  I let the party escape, deciding that the shadows were more interested in guarding the room than hunting, so after killing one character, I let the others flee without pursuit.

Part of me is glad that they abandoned the idea to send a single character in with one of the jars linked to the Jester’s Tomb to shove as many handfuls of treasure through the jar as he could before the Shadows ate him, but another part of me kinda wanted to see just how bad it would go down.

Several characters only needed a few more XP to reach level 2, so I gave them a hint about the treasure that the Carrion Crawler guarded.  That thing went down without even a fight!  Easiest 3000 XP the party made!

I don’t know if they’re going to take another shot at the shadows; there are 5 shadows and silver weapons only do half damage (the player with the magic sword wasn’t there that night).  Even if they show up armed to the teeth with silver weapons, it will be one of the toughest fights they’ll have – maybe even tougher than the king and queen.

So, a couple things…

I decided to abandon initiative by side.  It just wasn’t working.  You would think that it would simplify things, with each player going around the table in turn and doing their thing, but it never turned out that way; it would turn into arguing about who was doing what, who should move where, and ‘I didn’t actually do that, everyone just said that I should do that, but I haven’t done my thing yet’.  It was much worse with simultaneous combat, because where do people move and when?  No one is going to want to move until the monsters have moved, and if monsters are supposed to be moving at the same time… ugh!  So, I’ve gone back to individual initiative, and doing the countdown.  And as much as I hate the countdown, things are going much more smoothly.  I AM however, breaking up monster initiative where I can (I’ll put 2 or 3 monsters on the same initiative; I wasn’t going to track all 13 zealots initiatives individually), and it makes the fights a bit more dynamic, I think.

I felt bad that both PC deaths happened to the same player, but while the shadows were bad luck (one shadow attacked each party member who hadn’t run, and one hit did a MU in), the Dwarf was all on him.  Again, never split the party and don’t go off on your own!

Sources of wood in the Lost City are a bit incredulous. Since someone brought up how implausible it is that there should be stuff made out of wood (mushroom wood, no less!), I think I may introduce a scarcity issue to compensate for the shield rules I’m using.  There were at least three character deaths averted last session by shield-breaks, but hey, even if shields grew on trees, there aren’t enough trees down here to keep up with how quickly the party is going through them.  I’ll probably limit shield buying to one shield per session per member of the cult.

Level 2 is not all it’s cracked up to be for some classes.  A couple players were shocked that neither attacks nor saves go up until 4th level.  But hey, the clerics can cast cure light now, so that’s a game changer!  Sometimes, though, that extra hit die is what makes all the difference.  The tankiest member of the party is now a halberd-wielding, plate mail wearing 13HP Halfling named YOLO Swaggins.

One player was rather frustrated that denizens of the pyramid knew about traps, didn’t set them off and seemed to have decent knowledge of the dungeon’s layout.  Now, this is one I’ve actually had to think about.  Any time I roll a wandering monster, especially if it’s a group of intelligent monsters or Cynidiceans, I have to figure out which way they’re coming from, which way they’re going, what would’ve happened to them and why they were going the way they were going.  Most of the Cynidiceans on the upper levels know about the traps and also probably are the ones who will reset them.  I’ve also reminded my players that the Priests of Zargon run the city and are regularly bringing sacrifices to Zargon so know their way around the pyramid pretty well.

The players seem interested in at least finishing the top half of the Pyramid.  I’ll have to figure out some sort of reason for them to go down to level 5, as finding the regalia of the King and Queen complete the main task that they’ve been asked to complete.  I ought to stick something that will let them get home somewhere down there.  The biggest issue with the module, I think, is that it never really addresses the crux of situation – the players are lost in the desert.  There’s plenty of adventure in the pyramid and city below, but at some point, people are going to remember “hey, weren’t we from somewhere and on our way to a place before we got distracted by the dungeon in the middle of nowhere?”

A Quick Short Review Round-up

Here’s a quick look a what I’ve been talking about over at Castalia House.  If you haven’t read these, check them out.  Or better yet, find these stories and read them yourself if you can!

Coming of the Gods by Chester Whitehorn – Martian vs Rat-men
Assault on a City by Jack Vance – A pulp dame saves herself from rapists.
Cosmic Yo-yo by Ross Rocklynne – Asteroid Haulers crash the competition and find true love
Mists of Mars by George A. Whittington – A Martian Princess’ revolution succeeds with the help of a space cop
The Spider Men of Gharr by Wilbur Scott Peacock – Cryofrozen action scientist awakes to find Earth conquered by evil aliens
Retro Fandom Friday – 1940s fans celebrate and complain about Sci-fi

planet_stories_1945sum

Read Magic Through the Ages: Part 1 (OD&D)

After realizing that Magic doesn’t come close to working the way that we’d always played it, I decided to go back to the source texts and figure out where we’d gone wrong.  One thing I’d discovered was that Read Magic was the ONLY way scrolls could be used in B/X, and one had to sacrifice one of at most four level one  spells that one would EVER get on Read Magic or NEVER have access to Scrolls.  You could theoretically write a scroll and use it without having read magic, but this has more to do with B/X’s magic item creation that’s based on charges – it’s not a scroll you’re reading from to cast the spell, it’s a sheet of paper magically imbued with one or more spell charges, and you’re just as well off enchanting one of your other items, like your dagger, with whatever spell you want.  But I digress; I’ve decided that I will be doing a comparative look across all editions of Read Magic to dig just how possibly misunderstood this little spell is!

Read Magic: The means by which the incantations on an item or scroll are read. Without such a spell or similar device magic is unintelligible to even a Magic-User. The spell is of short duration (one or two readings being the usual limit). – Dungeons & Dragons Volume 1: Men and Magic, Page 23

So, in this case, Read Magic is the only way in which a Magic-User can read a scroll or spellbook, possibly even their own. One could theoretically cast at most two scroll spells using Read Magic. It says nothing about deciphering spells (i.e. the spell does not explicitly grant a MU the ability to go back to a previously Read Magicked scroll or spellbook with an ability to read and understand it; in fact, it almost sounds like the spell would not last long enough to transcribe a spell!)

In Men and Magic, we’re told under the Magic-User class”Wizards and above may manufacture for their own use (or for sale) such items as potions, scrolls, and just about anything else magical.” (p6) Scrolls are 100 GP per spell level. This means that only 11th level MUs and above can scribe scrolls!

I could be wrong in my interpretation, as there’s not a lot of meat to M&M, but I think that Magic-Users just get to know whatever spells they want from the various levels so long as they are capable of casting it. The concept of the dungeon book and refreshing your spells with scrolls introduced in Holmes is absent here. Both Magic Users AND Clerics can research new spells that are not on the list. A newly researched spell can, however, be shared with the party: “Once a new spell is created the researcher may include it in the list appropriate to its level. He may inform others of it, thus enabling them to utilize it, or he may keep it to himself.”(p34)

So, in OD&D, it looks like there is a list of “known spells” which all Magic Users in the world have access to some way or another. Those spells are there in their books that they bought at Spell Emporium at the cost of 2000 GP per spell level, I guess. “Characters who employ spells are assumed to acquire books containing the spells they can use, one book for each level. If a duplicate set of such books is desired, the cost will be the same as the initial investment for research as listed above, i.e. 2,000, 4,000, 8,000, etc. Loss of these books will require replacement at the above expense.”(p34)

Rules on scrolls are elucidated on in Monsters and Treasure:

“All Scrolls are spells for Magic-Users, and regardless of the level of the spell they can be used by any Magic-User capable of reading them. All “Protection” spells can be used by any character who is able to read. Scroll spells are of the 6th level unless necessarily higher, in which case they are of the minimum level necessary to generate such a spell. After reading a spell from a scroll the writing disappears, so the spell is usable one time only!” (M&T p32)

It’s also worth noting that DMs are advised to make non-Cursed Scrolls disappear to force players to read Cursed scrolls that will summon monsters, give PCs fatal diseases, turn them into insects, transport them randomly 1000 miles away or to another planet (like those are literally the 5 options on the table).

So Read Magic in OD&D:

  • Very probably the only way to use non-“Protection” scrolls.
  • Probably not useful to transcribe spells into your spellbook, but it doesn’t matter because you have all of the spells anyway.
  • Maybe necessary to read one’s own spell book.
  • If not necessary to read one’s own spell book, possibly not necessary to read another MU’s generic spellbook.
  • A fist-full of scrolls would not be of any benefit to increasing your overall casting power as Read Magic is likely required to use them; however if you have two scrolls, Read Magic could allow you to cast two for one once if your DM was generous enough to say that Read Magic lasts long enough to use two scrolls.

Magic in OD&D – very different from what one assumes as the Vancian Dying Earth themed system of scrounging magic and stealing spells!  I’m beginning to think that this aspect of D&D doesn’t show up until 1e AD&D, cuz it’s sure not here, not in Holmes, and definitely not in B/X.

I will be looking at Holmes in part 2.