Friday, December 19, 2014

Super-Monks Forge "Magic" Swords

Apparently, between 800 and 100 AD, at least about 170 swords were forged bearing the runic inscription "ULFBERHTS." These swords were better than ordinary swords, forged by a band of what are described as "super-monks." Very cool if you're into that sort of thing. Check this out.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Fixing" Burning Wheel

From a message board conversation with my frequent game design collaborator Nathan Ellebracht, on how he'd change the Burning Wheel game to suit our particular group's style. Be warned! Highly technical content, understandable only by gamers who other gamers think are "too much."

"What I want to do is drop the lifepaths character creator, drop all their skills and all their traits. At character creation, we'll come up with character concepts, decide a bit of their backstory, and set their age. Their age sets their base stats, a character less than 30 will have 6 points to distribute between their mental stats (Will and Perception), and 14 points to distribute between their physical stats (Power, Speed, Forte and Agility). At 30, and every ten years thereafter, they'll gain a point for their mental stats, and lose 2 points from their physical stats, up to 60, where they lose a point in their mental stats and the 2 points in physical stats up to 100+. Depending on their backstory, players can lobby to have up to one additional mental point, or 2 additional physical points for every 10 years of backstory, but it has to justify the addition and I imagine that it'll be agreed to or denied by group consensus.

The derived attributes will be derived similarly to how they already are. Steel and Circles start with a base of B3, and like with stats, backstory may justify an increase up to B5. Health is still the average of Will and Forte. Mortal Wound is still the average of Forte and Power, plus 6. Superficial Wound is still half Forte rounded down plus 1. Hesitation is still 10 minus Will. I'm dropping Resources, Reflexes and Stride. I'd prefer to just use coins or other concrete currency to deal with money issues, the Speed stat will be used instead of Reflexes, and nobody uses Stride for anything anyway.

You get a number of trait points equal to 1/4 your character's age, rounded down. Make up the traits you want your character to have, funny accents, personality quirks, likes and dislikes, that sort of thing. Any trait like that, where it's just about how you'll play your character, costs 1 point. If you want a trait that can occasionally give you a mechanical advantage, like +1 dice to a roll, then that will cost up to two more points, depending on how "powerful" you want it to be. No more than two mechanically-modifying traits per character at creation. You can gain additional traits in play by roleplaying them, provided the group agrees. Additional traits are awarded at the end of the session when XP is awarded. You can also gain additional traits either temporarily or permanently as a result of disease or injury or a particularly traumatic experience. Such traits are awarded in play. Traits awarded in play usually decrease the exponent on a stat, attribute or skill.

You get a number of skill points equal to 1/2 your character's age. Skills are things your character can do that not everybody else can do. Reading might be a skill in a setting where not everybody is literate, but if the setting is such that everybody is expected to be able to read, it's just a general ability that can be handled with a Perception stat roll. Define your skills based on your character concept and the setting, and determine which stat or attribute works best as its root. If two or more stats work best as the root of the skill, use their average, rounded down. It costs 1 point to buy a skill, they open at 1/2 their root value rounded down. You can buy the first advance on a skill for 1 point, the second advance for 3 points, and the third for 6 points, but no character can advance a skill more than three times at character creation. We'll use the Beginner's Luck rules for getting new skills in play, more on that when I talk about XP and advancement.

Property, gear, relationships and starting cash are determined entirely by backstory, character concept and setting.

Mortal Wound, Superficial Wound, and Health all work differently. Your MW exponent is your max Hit Points, and the Hit Points you start with. Superficial Wound is your base soak value. When you take damage in combat, you subtract your SW from that damage, then subtract whatever's left from your Hit Points. There are penalties for being wounded, from +1ob, to -1d, up to -5d. Players can distribute those penalties anywhere within their HP range they wish, provided they are in order. Your character is incapacitated if any base stat roll would be out of dice due to penalties or when they run out of HPs, whichever comes first. A character that runs out of HPs is dead, unless a Persona Point is spent, in which case, they are incapacitated.

Recovering HPs is a matter of making a Health roll. You can make a Health roll to recover HPs once per "narrative day." The number of HPs you recover is equal to half the number of successes you roll, rounded up. The Health attribute is affected by wound penalties, but can never drop below B1. Recovery rolls can be aided by having someone else use a relevant skill; their Obstacle is equal to the number of dice the wounded character has lost, at least 1. Success means the wounded character gets an extra die with which to make their Recovery roll.

Beliefs are not determined at character concept, but are created and placed "in play" in play. Players can have one Belief "in play" at a time, and they should be addressed directly to what's at stake in the scene or scenario they are presently involved in. Beliefs can and should change as soon as the scene or scenario changes such that new things are at stake and previous issues are resolved. They are basically "This is my goal in this scene." If you can say, "I can't let X happen," or "I have to Y," you've stated your Belief. Beliefs should be specific to the scene or scenario, but not too specific. "I have to kill this sonofabitch" is a valid Belief. "I have to damage this guy with my sword" is not.

Rewards and advancement are also pretty significantly changed. You earn Fate points for playing to your traits, no more than one per trait per session. Those Fate points are awarded at the end of the session. It's basically a checklist, verified by the rest of the players; did you use your accent, did you play that limp, that sort of thing. You can also earn a Persona Point for playing traits, if you play those traits in a particularly interesting or impressive way; for example, substantially changing the story's direction or having everybody rolling on the floor laughing at it. Those Persona points are awarded when the impressive use of the trait occurs, and you can't nominate yourself for it.

You can also earn Fate points for playing your Belief, but to earn it, you have to play it in an interesting or surprising way, or in a way that the GM or other players particularly like. If you make someone say, "That's cool," or "I didn't expect that," or you play your Belief in a way that helps the GM open up new plot possibilities or create interesting future scenarios, you've earned your Fate; one per Belief, per scene or scenario. You can also earn a Persona point for playing Beliefs, but only if you succeed in your stated goal. If the stakes of the scenario (relevant to your Belief) remain unresolved, or if they're resolved in a way that's contrary to your character's stated Belief, you don't get that point. These points are awarded when these things occur.

Deeds points are plot or campaign rewards. When a major plot point is resolved, or something epic happens to substantially change the direction of the story, it will probably be worth a Deeds point. Like the other artha, it will be awarded when it happens.

Instead of tracking skills for advancement every time they're used, we'll distribute three kinds of XP at the end of the session. For convenience's sake, we'll use their names for the three kinds, Routine XP, Difficult XP and Challenging XP. The GM (probably me) will award these points based on what happened in the session. Generally, it'll be about 20 RXP, 5 DXP, and 2 CXP per session. You can distribute those points to your skills or stats how you wish. Skills, Stats and Attributes advance according to the normal advancement rules, so a B1 skill needs 1RXP and either 1 DXP or 1 CXP to advance, we'll just use their table. Figuring that up at the end of the session shouldn't be that bad.

When you want to learn a new skill, you have to open it up with a Beginner's Luck roll, and you have to use BL for those rolls until that skill is learned. To learn a skill after it's been opened, you have to spend a number of XP points on it (of any variety) equal to 10 minus the root stat(s) value of the skill. So if you want to learn Mycology or something, and it's rooted in your B3 Perception, you have to open it by rolling your Perception with a double obstacle (beginners luck), and then spend 7 XP points of any variety on it, and when you do, you no longer roll beginner's luck, and your skill is opened on your skill sheet with the same value it would have if you bought it at character creation.

I also intend to make combat a bit more traditional. We'll use Speed rolls to determine initiative and order. Damage will be just a straight number derived from your Power and the weapon's base value. Armor will add to your soak value."

Interesting food for thought. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Herkimer Battle Jitney

One of my favorite superhero movies is Mystery Men. In it, the team uses a vehicle called a "Herkimer Battle Jitney" to attack Casanova Frankenstein's mansion. It is, according to the team's resident mad scientist and creator of non-lethal weaponry, Dr. Heller, "the finest non-lethal military vehicle ever made!"). It's certainly cool-looking. and it makes the top of my list for best super-team vehicle ever. Whether the Herkimer Battle Jitney was real, or just created for the movie, I didn't know and never thought about until today, when I saw a picture of the GM Futurliner. I decided to learn once and for all about the origin of the Herkimer Battle Jitney. Thankfully, the internet is stuffed with tons of facts. Wading through the poop to find the gold, here are the prevailing theories. Which one sounds right to you?

1. The Herkimer Battle Jitney was a real vehicle, the Z17 Marauder. Contracted by the US government, the Zephyr manufacturing company built around 100 of these heavy combat troop transport vehicles. Built between 1948-1950, they were found to be impracticle for the changing type of warfare. The Z17 was named for the number of persons that could be accomidated (17), and Z for the Zephyr manufacturing company. The Zephyr manufacturing company was previously known for building fire engines.

2. The Herkimer Battle Jitney was a actual military vehicle produced in a US / UK co-op in the early to mid 1950s, there are only 5 remaining in the world and are in the hands of private collectors valued at roughly 30 million dollars each in running condition.

3. The Herkimer Battle Jitney was built for the movie. It's running gear was a 1979 ford semi truck, with the cab removed, and the body was a modified Airstream camper.

Which is true? The last. Kinka Usher, the movie's director, says as much on the DVD commentary, apparently. I've found a few references that it appeared on ebay several years ago, quite damaged, listed for $10,000 and received no bids, but I can't verify them. It's probably rusting away in a studio junkyard, or sold for scrap by now.

What's fascinating about the vehicle used in the film, however, is an arcane inscription on the vehicle: PAKAWALUP. If you search for that term, it's the name of two bombers (Pakawalup and Pakawalup II) used by the 751st Bomb Squadron in World War II. So the designers of the prop (or someone) did some research.

This is further evidence of the meticulously detailed alternate America depicted in Mystery Men (localized in the fictional Champion City). It's all background and detail, never part of the plot, but there are numerous neon signs in Russian and an Asian script, alternate technology such as the coin-operated televisions, and so on. The architecture is both familiar and exotic, comparable (maybe) to some of the more extreme versions of Gotham in some of the crappier Batman films.

The best alternate reality settings are fertilized by the real world. Throwing in the actual name of a military vehicle is one example of that. The other is that Herkimer is a real company established in New York in 1921 and still going strong, apparently. They built small engines for drones, and model engines for hobbyists. In an alternate world, they surely could have ended up with a military contract to produce a fleet of battle jitneys.

That's one mystery of the Mystery Men solved. Here's another one.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Crucifixions of 1982

In western culture, the image of a crucifixion carries a lot of weight. It's gotta be a bad way to go, especially for a guy like me, who, last time I checked, couldn't even do one pull-up. I came across a random image today that reminded me of two of my favorite childhood movies (neither of which are appropriate for children, but I was raised by permissive liberals) that featured crucifixion scenes. And while theologically, Jesus sort of had to die for that whole plan to make sense, other heroes were under no such obligations, and handled being crucified in a far more proactive way. 

First, let's look at the the 1982 John Milius movie Conan the Barbarian. I'm one of the few folks I know who actually considers this a good movie. As far as I'm concerned, it's a borderline art film, wisely stocked with athletes instead of actors, who would have just screwed it up (of course, James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow are brought in, much as Alec Guiness in Star Wars, to give it a little credibility). Our eponymous hero, after bungling his first attempt to infiltrate Thulsa Doom's Mountain of Power, is crucified on the "Tree of Woe." Like all good movie bad guys, they leave Conan alone on the tree, assuming he'll die (instead of posting a watch or something like that just to make sure...this is what I call the "Tie Up James Bond and Tell Him Your Evil Plan Then Leave Him Alone to Escape" mistake). While on the cross, Conan behaves in a very un-Christlike fashion. That is, as far as we know, Jesus was not attacked by vultures while he was on the cross. He didn't manage to bite one to death while crucified, either. But Conan did. Then again, Conan and Jesus had fairly different priorities. Conan hangs there for an unspecified amount of time, but we see the sun rise and set a few times. When he's almost dead, he sees his good buddy Subotai, the archer, who comes running over the dunes as the music (ripped off from Holst by Basil Polidouris) swells and Conan lapses into relieved, semi-maniacal laughter. Even so, Conan is still in danger of death and he must be taken to Akiro, the Wizard of the Mounds. He saves Conan's life in a bizarre ceremony, as Conan's girlfriend Valeria essentially makes a deal with the gods to trade her life for his. All in all, Conan handled his crucifixion fairly well, losing, in the end, only his girlfriend. Ultimately, this is not much of a loss for him, as a quick perusal of Conan book covers proves Conan is rarely without a girlfriend - and with few exceptions, they're cringing, naked, chained-up girlfriends. (In a related note, this also causes me to believe that artists Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo both have bondage fetishes that they expect Conan fans to share, because such scenes are actually featured very rarely in the original Robert E. Howard books.)

For our next crucifixion, we move to a much, much worse movie. That being said, it might be a bit more "fun" than Conan the Barbarian. I speak of another 1982 film, The Sword and the Sorcerer. Starring Lee Horsley (TV's "Matt Houston," who later became a writer of western novels) as a mercenary with the World's Most Ridiculous Sword (a sword that obliged a generation of Dungeon Masters to tell players, "no, your sword can't shoot blades like the one in that shitty movie"), the action centers around Talon, a former prince whose family was killed by the bad guy, Cromwell, at the beginning of the movie. He comes back home to help overthrow Cromwell, who has imprisoned the next-in-line to the throne. Talon agrees to help the fellow's sister, Alana, but only if she sleeps with him after the job is done (what a hero). Anyway, after a bunch of silliness featuring sexualized torture, gratuitous violence and nudity, and a plot that seems to consist mostly of aimless mercenaries chasing and being chased by soldiers down an endless sequence of dungeon corridors, Talon is captured and is - you guessed it - crucified as entertainment at Cromwell's feast. Not one to take such treatment lightly, Talon manages the feat of actually pulling his nailed hands off the cross and leaping into battle, causing the bad guys to leave their feast quite forgotten as they fumblingly charge into the fray. Nails still firmly plugged through his palms, Talon nevertheless manages to retrieve his sword, shoot some sword-blades, kill the bad guys, sleep with the girl, and cede his rightful place as king to Alana's brother (which leads me to believe Talon and Alana were related in the first place, though perhaps not as closely related as Cercei and Jaime - a nice little "ew" factor to end the film on). Like Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, Talon can't stay with the girl once he's got her, leaves shortly after deflowering her, and goes off to fight in sequels that never came - the bones, muscles, and tendons of his hands perfectly intact after an extremely brief interval of healing.

There are other crucifixions from other films in other years. In 1989, John-Claude Van Damme is crucified in the gilded turd Cyborg, and of course, the hundreds of crucifixions in 1960's Spartacus go without saying. But the ones from Conan the Barbarian and The Sword and the Sorcerer are the ones that leap to my mind. What's your favorite non-Jesus crucifixion? 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why I'm Not a Cop.

Because I actually care about this blog, I try to keep it free of the knee-jerk political posts I sometimes make on Facebook. I don't know why I get involved in that stuff. It usually leaves me emotionally exhausted and pissed off at myself for either starting, or joining in, conversations that are sort of pointless (I mean, when is the last time you ever heard someone change his or her mind after a political conversation?). It's a bad habit, and you can usually tell when I'm in a bad mood from the tone of my Facebook posts.

Today I got a FB message from a friend and mentor that called me a bigot in the politest possible terms (that is, a bigot for the Left, as Woody Allen said). I had to admit it was true.

In an example of scathing self-reflection, let me admit this publicly: I am deeply offended on a personal level every time I hear about a case of police misconduct and/or corruption. And yet, on TV cop shows, when they start beating the crap out of a suspect in the interrogation room, my reaction is usually something like "Hell yeah! Kick his ass!"

Yes, I'd be a terrible cop.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Dodecahedron & The Tesseract

After watching Interstellar, I thought a lot about the tesseract or hypercube, which I first heard about as a kid reading A Wrinkle in Time, and later encountered on Carl Sagan's original Cosmos. The subject always fascinated me, and why not? I love that I can think about something without really being able to picture it. The three-dimensional "shadow" of the hypercube is the best way to approach understanding it, if you have no math (which I don't). In fact, almost everything on that Wikipedia page I linked to above is Greek to me (in some cases, literally).

The reason I bring this up will be utterly obscure to anyone who isn't in my gaming group: the relationship of the tesseract to the dodecahedron (sort of). If you're not into Gonen's World, you can stop reading now, because this won't mean much to you. The dodecahedron - known to gamers as the twelve-sided die or d12 - has always held a place of semi-mystical significance in the fictional Gonen's World, mainly because of a story I heard when I was in third grade that stuck with me over the years. In the original Cosmos, Carl Sagan talks about Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mystic/mathematician, attempting to suppress knowledge of the dodecahedron because, through some mathematical contemplations I can't understand, the dodecahedron led Pythagoras to the fact that the square root of two is irrational. That suggested to the Pythagoreans that math couldn't explain everything and that maybe their view of the perfectly ordered universe was a bit off. Even as a third grader, that fact disturbed me. It was, perhaps, the first time I had any indication that adults, scientists, preachers, authority figures in general, might actually lie about something. In my little mind, the dodecahedron morphed into a symbol of truth - particularly, a symbol of hidden truth and secret meanings. Much later, when I began working on Gonen's World in the mid-1990s, the dodecahedron crawled out of my subconscious and inserted itself into the fiction as a powerful cultural, religious, and mathematical symbol. So those who have gamed in Gonen's World know the dodecahedron well.

Now back to tesseracts. In reading the Wikipedia article, trying in vain to understand sentences I just don't have the math for, I came across what is, to me, a fascinating reference: "The rhombic dodecahedron forms the convex hull of the tesseract's vertex-first parallel-projection." I don't know what a rhombic dodecahedron is (I mean, I read the link, but I still don't get it). I'm not sure what a "vertex-first parallel-projection" is, either. As best as I can tell, the rhombic dodecahedron seems to frame a three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional tesseract. That's the important point for me. It was a moment of serendipity. Two things that have lurked in my mind since childhood now coalesce. It's not important that I understand the math, or appreciate that a rhombic dodecahedron isn't the same thing as the "perfect solid" dodecahedron with twelve identically-shaped faces. What matters is that in Gonen's World mythology (fictional though it may be), the dodecahedron just got more credibility as a mystical, quasi-magical (or, as we say in Gonen's World, mathemagical) object/concept. If any kind of dodecahedron and the tesseract are connected in any way, even theoretically, I feel like it justifies or legitimizes my fictional concept of the dodecahedron all along. If, in Gonen's World, the dodecahedron is the pathway to "magical" power, maybe it has something to do with it giving the practitioner of such arts a gateway or, better yet, a control panel of sorts to operate in higher dimensions, manipulate space, time and matter, and achieve "magical" effects.

It's not necessary that the "Laws of Nature" in a fictional world be in accord with the laws of the real world. But it is nice when they're somewhat self-consistent, and that's my big discovery here today: more evidence that the dodecahedron was and is the best choice for a mystical symbol of hidden meanings and ultimate truth in Gonen's World.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Silence, Part 1: The Freshman (1925)

When a silent film catches the attention (and heart) of a modern viewer (in this case, me), it's a special little phenomenon - sort of like time travel. And while culture certainly changes over time, "good" is "good," regardless of your perspective. So when I see a silent movie I like, or don't have anything else to talk about, I'll review it in this "Silence" series.

Since I'm not a fan (at all) of college comedies or football, I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed Harold Lloyd's 1925 film The Freshman. It was my first experience with Lloyd, and I'll have to watch more of his films, but I'm almost ready to call him the equal or superior of Charlie Chaplin when it comes to clever physical comedy.

The hapless Lloyd (whose character has the name Harold Lamb, who was a prolific writer of historical action fiction at the time) arrives at Tate University, desperately wanting to be popular. He mimics the behavior of "The College Hero," from a favorite film of his, and takes the name Speedy. A prankster gets the whole university in on a joke - they treat Lloyd as if he is the popular fellow he wants to be, but make fun of him behind his back. The naive and gentle-spirited Lloyd is, of course, oblivious. While courting his landlady's daughter (who likes him for who he is), he tries out for the football team. He fails miserably, but does manage to get a job as the tackling dummy, then the water boy. The joke is exposed during the Fall Frolic dance, when Lloyd shows up with an ill-tailored suit that keeps falling apart. The tailor is on hand to make surreptitious repairs during the dance, resulting in some of the best physical comedy I've ever seen. Eventually, Lloyd gets incensed when the prankster gets too friendly with the hatcheck girl - the landlady's daughter.

In revenge, the prankster tells Lloyd he's been the subject of a huge joke, and that everyone actually thinks he's (what we would today call) a big nerd. The hatcheck girl tells him to be himself, and cheers him  up a bit. But he's still determined to prove himself to everyone. He gets his chance in the Big Game against another university, whose footballers are so tough, they knock out almost everyone on the team. Lloyd, the water boy, finally gets his chance. He rallies the team and leads them on to victory - not through any athletic prowess, but in a series of tightly shot, well-choreographed, and clever tricks that win the day. In the end, he gets the popularity he wanted by being himself, and he gets the girl.

This set the template for about a thousand other college movies that followed, and remained one of Harold Lloyd's top films. Lloyd himself has a ton of charisma, and I'll have to check out more of his movies.

In a final note only Colin Lee Campbell will get - check out the "college beanie" in the top photo...

Monday, November 24, 2014

While everyone else was doing LSD...

...some young men of the 1960s were gaming. Although, to be fair, for all I know, they could also have been doing LSD (which, I'd imagine, would really make the battle come to life). Here's an interesting newspaper photo published almost 50 years ago in the April 17, 1966 issue of the picture supplement to The Minneapolis Tribune:

I found this on the always-interesting but rarely updated Grognardia, by way of the Vintage Wargaming blog. I'd seen this photo before as it's included in Jon Peterson's must-read Playing at the World, but the color really makes it pop. If you look at the caption, you'll see that the fellow reaching over to move his troops at the very end of the table is a young Dave Arneson.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Foreigners Want Our Women!

I've been perusing old issues of Fight Comics published in the 1940s, and I'm left with only one reasonable conclusion. Foreigners - particularly Asians - enjoy tying up and menacing American girls. If you don't believe me, take a look!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Forsaken Lyonesse

Goeffrey McKinney used the obscure the old Ambroise Bierce story Carcosa as the basis for a truly unique and horrific setting for fantasy roleplaying games. I came across this scan from an old copy of Weird Tales, the classic fantasy/horror pulp. It would be fun to create a game setting out of it:

I'd never heard of the author, R. Jere Black, Jr., but it seems he was a rather interesting fellow. I'm also impressed with the art included here. A little research reveals it to be Hugh Rankin, who illustrated many of the early Robert E. Howard stories, and who created some of the first images of Conan.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tonight, I Hunt

Note: Here's a new short story. I hope you like it. 

I am O-Bo. I am what the God made me. I am the largest and strongest of all those who dwell in the highlands. Tonight, I hunt.

Mother says to be careful when I hunt. She used to bring me my food, but now I must hunt, for her bones creak and her skin sags. Her fangs have fallen out. She will not hunt, but must lie upon her bed of bright stones. She will soon be gone and stand before the God and it will ask her if she has reaped a good harvest of flesh, and if she has not, she will be cast out of the Hunting Grounds, and be no more. So will it be with me, should I fail the hunger inside me—because the God put it there, and it is my entire purpose.

I creep into the darkness and it hides me, but the Night Face shines above, so that I may see by its dim light. The God put the Night Face there for such as I, who hate the Day Face and must go abroad by night. The God pushes aside the brambly hedges as I pass. I seek the lair of the monsters, who are fat and fleshy. I do not wish to enter their lair, only to spy upon it and catch one or two if they stray from their shelter. They will be good eating, and I will bring one to Mother, though she says her time has come to face the God and she will not eat it.

The lair of the monsters is far below the rocky land where Mother and I live. At the hedge-edge that rings the hill-country I see the hateful orange lights of the monsters' flames. They forge their bright claws in hot fires. These claws they hold in great esteem. I have hidden outside their flimsy wooden gates and watched. Silver water turns to sharp claws, and the monsters hammer the claws until they are long and terrible. Sometimes the monster with the red robe speaks foul words to the sword, while another punches queer signs into the still-shining claw as it cools. Mother says those claws are to be feared. The monsters put evil spirits into such claws. The spirits enter the monsters who wield the claws. The monsters are thus emboldened to hunt our kind, for they hate the God and everything it has made.

I smell the carcass just before I smell the wolves that surround it. I stomp heavily as I follow the scent, to frighten the wolves away. They too venerate the God and it has put fear of my kind into them. I hear them scatter through the brush, seeking prey closer to the monster lair in the valley below. There the monsters gather large pens of wild creatures, which they bend to their will to do their work, or which they fatten for the slaughter, spoiling the meat with their small flames.

The carcass lies twisted beneath an ancient oak. It is a monster, encased in hard gray skin. It is folded back upon itself. Did it climb the tree? Did the oak throw it out? It is easy to crack the skin and scoop out the meat inside. It has been here for days and the mung is suckable. I enjoy this before I grind through the pungent flesh and snap tiny bones with my teeth.

Then I notice the bright, hard claw that lies upright behind a clump of thick bushes. Its point pierces the ground. I do not think it was put here by design, but dropped by the monster when the oak ousted it from its perch. The handle catches a ray from the Night Face and for a moment, gleams like the bright stones of Mother's bed. I have fangs in my mouth. They are sharp. I have small black claws on my digits. They are sharper still. But the monster-claw, long and gleaming, bound by its handle of gold, is even sharper. This much is clear from the way the rays of the Night Face play across its surface. There, I see the monster-signs hammered into the claw. If its spirit makes a monster more powerful, if its spirit hates the God that made me, I will take this thing and break it upon my knee.

I reach and grasp it. It is small and awkward in my big hands. Perhaps I should not snap or shatter it. Perhaps I could use it. If the monsters make such things to slay such as I, then how much more so would it slay them? I can eat my fill, and Mother too, and perhaps she will rise from her bed of bright stones. Perhaps all will be as it once was, in the days when the God was pleased and all was right with the land, before the monsters came with their sun-flames and sharp claws, to rip up the trees, to tear the soil, and to fill the night with their blasphemies against all that the God has made.

Now, I can feel that the claw is less awkward in my hand, as if it has grown to fit it. Or does my hand shrink? Do I shrink? Do the rays of the Night Face grow darker? Mother? Where is O-Bo?

I am Varakian, slayer of monsters. I am what this blade makes me. Tonight, I hunt. It is my entire purpose. With this sword, forged under the auspices of the Priest of the New God, inscribed with the Words of Power, I seek out the lair of the ogre queen, who legend says lies upon a couch of jewels. I shall slay her, thus ridding the valley of her evil. Men say she is guarded by a hideous son, a repugnant thing, a monster. And yet, the New God speaks clearly to me, and I understand, without knowing or caring why, that as long as I hold this spirit-forged blade, I have nothing to fear from the ogre-queen's son.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Buckaroo Banzai

The full title, of course, is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. I hadn't seen this cult classic in years. Like, many years. I think I may have been about 12 years old. For some reason, on impulse, I obtained and viewed this movie recently, while my son and I enjoyed the best plate of homemade sausage hash I have ever made. I was struck by two things: Peter Weller didn't always look like Skeletor, and I'm pretty sure the characters were inspired by Doc Savage and his group of stalwart aides.

Like Doc, Buckaroo is a master of brain surgery. Like Doc, he is an inventor and physicist on the cutting edge of modern technology (well beyond it, actually). Like Doc, he is an accomplished musician (Doc is a violinist and composer, while Buckaroo fronts a rock'n'roll band--Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Caveliers). Like Doc, Buckaroo has a group of fiercely loyal buddies, all of whom are inferior to him but whose help he nevertheless needs. Furthermore, they've all got colorful nicknames. Where Doc has Monk, Ham, Long Tom, Johnny, and Renny, Buckaroo has Rawhide, Perfect Tommy, New Jersey, Pinky, and Reno. Luckily for him, these cronies stand in as his backup band, fighting force, and support team.

The movie itself was directed by W.D. Richter, who has never quite achieved Hollywood greatness. In fact, Buckaroo Banzai was such a dismal failure, financially, that the production company that made it broke up. Richter, of course, would go on to at least One Awesome Thing - he co-wrote my favorite comedy/action movie, the unadulterated classic Big Trouble in Little China.

The best thing about this film - which has its ups and downs on almost every other front - is the cast. Peter Weller - despite not looking even remotely half-Japanese - plays the lead. John Lithgow hams it up as the arch-villain, ably supported by an incredible trio of character actors: Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) and the lesser-known Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple) and Vincent Schiavelli (Amadeus, Better Off Dead). Among Buckaroo's team is a young Jeff Goldblum, who does his usual stretch of an acting job playing a character that is exactly like Jeff Goldblum, and the underrated Clancy Brown (Highlander, the voice of Mr. Crabbs on Spongebob Squarepants, and the voice of Lex Luther in Justice League Unlimited). Carl Lumbly, who plays an alien, also did a voice on Justice League - Martian Manhunter. And finally, if you ever forgot how hot Ellen Barkin was (and still is), check out her role as the ridiculously named "Penny Pretty," Buckaroo's suicidal love interest.

The movie is odd. It's strangely edited and often feels disjointed. But it has a compelling quality that kept me watching. It's worth another look, and I will say that the effects hold up rather well over the years. Jon Lithgow's performance is so over-the-top that it rivals that of Jeffrey Jones in the similarly odd Howard the Duck - but that's another entry. Doc Savage fans can tell me whether they think they see any parallels between Doc and Buckaroo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Second Editions from Pharaoh

Pharaoh Publishing USA has released second editions of Conley Stone McAnally's Wilson Bay: Tales From an Eskimo Village and its sequel, Jump, Alaska: Tales From the Interior. Read all about 'em right here!

Monday, November 10, 2014


The news is a bit late, but on October 25, 2014, I married Jenny Vochatzer - er, McAnally. She's beautiful and funny, hard-working and generous, responsible and intelligent. I love her. Here are some pictures.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rosie the Riveter Facts

For work, I've been doing research on Rosie the Riveter (in all her many guises). Some of the facts I found were staggering. They made 292,000 airplanes? Two hundred ninety two thousand airplanes? I knew World War II was big. I didn't know it was that big. I wonder how many warplanes and associated aircraft we have now? How much else would just one of those pay for?

At any rate, here are some interesting tidbits: 

Number of “Rosies” (estimated; there are no records): Over six million

Number of “Volunteer Rosies”: (Estimated; there are no records): at least 10 million

Examples of items produced by Rosies and the “few good men” who worked alongside them:
Airplanes: 297,000
Tanks: 102,000
Artillery pieces: 372,000
Warships: 88,000
Small arms ammunition: 44,000,000.000 (44 billion) rounds
Artillery ammunition: 47,000,000 tons
Examples of items produced from materials collected by volunteer Rosies:
An old shovel had enough iron for four hand grenades.
One pound of waste fat had enough glycerin for a pound of gun powder.
12,000 old razor blades had enough steel to make a bomb.
I've also seen what seem like countless images of the iconic Rosie the Riveter in red bandana, making a muscle and proclaiming "we can do it!" I prefer the image of Rosie by Norman Rockwell, which I've included here. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

New Pharaoh Titles

Hey all. I've been woefully negligent about keeping up with my blog - mainly because I've been busy. Some of what I'm busy with has now come to light.

Pharaoh Publishing USA has released the second edition of Tales From Homer by my dad, Conley McAnally. It was the first book I did with Pharaoh and over the last year or two I've figured out how to do 'em better. Tales From Homer has been with me my whole life and I wanted to give it the treatment it deserved. I've added a "Who's Who in Doodenville" and an excerpt from the sequel, Tales From the Lake, which is also out. You can order both on Amazon, here and here. I'm also busy with second editions of Conley's Jump, Alaska: Tales From the Interior and Wilson Bay: Tales From an Eskimo Village. Hopefully I'll be finished with those soon. After that, I'll tackle O'Brian's Black & Tan: Tales From an Irish Pub.

Now that I've published pretty much everything my dad has yet written, and have paid tribute to my friend Colin Lee Campbell by publishing his two great books (Tales From Cape City and Funeral Train and Other Stories), I intend to shift Pharaoh's focus from finding new authors to bringing back to print some forgotten classics in the "Tales Time Forgot" series. This will focus on little-known works of speculative fiction that have fallen into the public domain and have been largely forgotten. Even if they're not forgotten, you certainly can't find them in print anywhere. Many people are satisfied with e-books. After all, you can download almost everything ever written that is in the public domain for free or cheap. But you can't get 'em in print. And print is what I love. It's an open niche that needs to be filled.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Game Master

...or the Dungeon Master. Referee. Judge. Narrator. Storyteller. Showrunner. Whatever you want to call it. It's the most satisfying hobby I know. I am the God of my own microcosm. I have the power to create alternate realities. The worlds inside my head are as real to me as the outside world. Here is a grandiose and borderline silly picture (sort of a poor man's William Blake illustration) of the Game Master (here the DM) at work.

This picture, incidentally, comes from an article by Gary Gygax on alignment in The Dragon #9, in which he advises some players to hide their alignment, even from the DM. Interesting.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Vintage German Sci-Fi

Here are just a few (eight) awesome covers of the German science fiction magazine Terra, culled from about 500 of them you can find here. Cool stuff! Very inspiring for Starseeker, for those of you who know what that is.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Art and the Man

I've loved composer Richard Wagner since I was in high school. The "Good Friday Spell" from Parsifal is one of my favorite pieces of music. He wrote the librettos for his own operas - unheard of in his day - and seemed to espouse a doctrine of redemption through self-sacrifice. Of course, he was Hitler's favorite composer, and Wagnerian music was a must at all Nazi rallies. I'd like to say it's not Wagner's fault. He was long dead by then. But I think the only reason Wagner wasn't a Nazi is because he died in 1883. His book Jewry in Music, some selections from which I have recently had the misfortune to peruse, is proof enough that he was an asshole.

Does that mean I'll stop listening to him? No. His music elevates and inspires me. It's proud and beautiful, strong and sad, and has the perfect synthesis of words and music.

For me, art must be divorced from the man or woman who created it. In some types of art - popular music, for example - this is not possible. The artist is the art, sometimes. But as long as the art of an offensive person is not suffused with what offends me, I think it's O.K. to appreciate that artist's work.

Paying for it, and by extension helping to fund their offensive agendas, is a different ethical conundrum entirely. Wagner, at least, is dead, so I don't have that problem.

As for Orson Scott Card, well...that's another story. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Underwater Adventures?

In our long-running Gonen's World campaign (a tabletop roleplaying game), we've seen the march of history in the imaginary world during the 14 years we've been playing. From a pastoral medieval land of the Age of Fable, to the gaxium-powered technology of the Classic Age and beyond, the thrust of technology always seemed to be "up." Balloons to airships to ether flyers. But in the last campaign, I started wondering about "down." Gonen's World, like ours, is mostly covered by oceans. What's beneath them? While I had intended to jump off into the ether for a Space 1889-style campaign eventually, this picture by Albert Robida, the Victorian-era French illustrator, caught my attention. I wonder if a Jules Vernesque undersea campaign might be fun? Robida is always good for inspiration, and when he works in color, his illustrations really pop. Those of you who know Gonen's World know this picture fits pretty well. It's even in the "official" Gonen's World colors of blue and orange. Cool stuff!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Call Me Snake: Black Ambient

Since I'm taking a break from social media, I'm sharing more here on my blog. Even though I have no followers, I do get a fairly regular amount of traffic from God-knows-where. You can see from the sidebar I've added a Music page to share some of my creations. Whenever I update that page, I'll share the post here as here goes. 

I enjoy writing and recording music of all kinds. I have been in many rock bands over the years, but aside from occasionally recording with the Electrophonic Foundation, I have essentially lost interest in rock'n'roll, leaving it to younger and more energetic people. My current interest is in ambient, generative and atmospheric music, which I record under the name Call Me Snake. With the last-minute blessing of my late friend Ian Thomas, I have resurrected his CD-R label, Minutewax, to share my stuff with anyone who might be interested. As I release something, I'll post a link to it here and offer commentary that might clutter up the official Minutewax page.

Call Me Snake • Black Ambient
MINWAX03 • 20 minutes
Track List:
01. Night Alone
02. Random Angels
03. Metal Frog
04. Static Stalker
Commentary: This is part one of an ambient trilogy. From the editorial review on Amazon: "Meditation music for metalheads. Drones, bells, static, disembodied tones and voices. Backdrops for sinister moods or creative trances." This is my second ambient recording, and the first one I thought was good enough to share. It is essentially me learning my way around the concept of "generative" music. It is not so much "composed" as "discovered," as I play keyboard parts and layer them without being able to hear the other parts. The notes and chords are generated randomly using music dice. I don't know if anyone else will enjoy this sort of thing, but I find it very helpful to set the mood for deep thinking and writing certain kinds of stories and games. That being said, I wouldn't call it "relaxing." It is a bit too harsh for that. I would like to make it cheaper, but Amazon is the easiest way to share a physical CD. If you really want it and don't want to pay $9 for 20 minutes of drones, hisses, and bells (and who could blame you?), drop me a line and I'll share the mp3 files with you. I think tabletop gamers might like it for horror games such as Call of Cthulhu or something like that. I intend to use it for my gaming explorations of Carcosa.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda

"...the true church cannot declare itself infallible, but rather calls itself ecclesia semper reformanda ("the Church which must be always reformed"), the church that is always repenting of error."

Interesting comment. I read it in an article about the so-called Great Apostasy - the idea that the Christian religion has fallen from an earlier, purer ideal. I fell into that article by clicking over from this one about Christian Anarchism, which seems a little scary. Nevertheless, I agree with Christian Anarchists on one point: government and authority is founded on violence and the threat of  violence. Recent events in nearby Ferguson, Missouri make this all to clear.

At any rate, I had not stumbled over any of these concepts before, and the statement I quoted above really hit home. Wherever we fall on the spectrum of theism to atheism, I think that statement is one most people I know can agree on. Of course, I take that one step farther, and would add that scripture itself cannot be automatically considered infallible. Institutional religion of all stripes has a tendency to devolve into exclusionism, fostering the concept of the "other," and, despite the best intentions of what must be millions of true believers, manages at most a condescending form of love to non-believers.

Personally, I endorse the radical reformation of Christianity and a return to its pre-Nicean roots, if that's even possible. Unfortunately, I'm too busy writing superhero stories, playing old D&D, and watching samurai movies to spearhead that effort.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lester Bangs Interviews Brian Eno

If you're even remotely into Brian Eno, or interested at all in some of his concepts behind the process and practice of writing and recording ambient or generative music (or even rock) this is a must-read.

When Eno says he's "not a musician" he's not being snarky. Interestingly, I've just read Daniel Boorstin on J.S. Bach. Bach said composers have more in common with skilled craftsmen than with artists. I don't entirely disagree. It does seem to jive with some of the things Eno says in this interview. Very interesting views on the creation of music from a fascinating individual. I firmly believe that most great art happens by accident, and that many artists delude themselves ex post facto that they did it on purpose. I certainly feel that way about my own stuff. Eno owns up to this, and in fact seems to prefer it. Discovering music as you create it is a lot more fun than planning it out in advance.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sensational News: Old School!

Searching for design ideas for the Gonen's World Addendum journal, I found these from the long-running French periodical La Petite Journal. Sensationalism in the news is obviously not a new thing. I wonder how fast these illustrators worked? Interesting stuff.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Dark Art of Sidney Sime

Sidney Sime was a Victorian-era artist, best known for his illustrations for Lord Dunsany's works of proto-fantasy. Sime was admired by H.P. Lovecraft, who mentions him by name in The Call of Cthulhu. Take a quick look at some of his work and it's easy to see why.