Friday, June 2, 2017

The End of a Long Campaign

Tomb of Horrors original cover, art by David C Sutherland III

When I started my Pathfinder campaign, I wanted three things. I wanted to involve a lot of undead, I wanted killer dungeons, and I wanted an Egyptian theme to the campaign. Luckily, the first two go hand in hand. And when I discovered that Pathfinder's default setting of Golarion has an Egyptian-analogue called Osirion, it was suddenly much easier to set up.

My superobjective (an actor's thing) was that I wanted to have people in the house. A lot of middle-aged men suffer from loneliness and depression because they do not socialize enough. Having gamers in to laugh, kill things, and generally goof around forces me to be social once a week. I have noticed my depression has visited less often since I started the group.

I fused together Pathfinder's Osirion and Green Ronin's fantastic Hamunaptra for background. I didn’t have the time to write my own adventures, but I have a lot of deathtrap dungeons already, and it was easy to fill in with other adventures that fit the theme. I think it worked reasonably well.

The adventures were:

Hive of Villany: from Dungeon Crawl Classics #29, The Adventure Begins (Goodman Games)
The characters started out as prisoners, their sentences commuted by the Temple of Set in return for doing some dirty jobs. Their first assignment was to find out why the temple's bees weren’t producing honey. This properly set the campaign tone as not entirely serious.

Malice of the Medusa: Dungeon Crawl Classics #45 (Goodman Games)
The first actual tomb-raiding. This is a fun low-level adventure with good background, several small tombs, and an entertaining plot.

Forgotten King’s Tomb: (Kobold Press)
I hate to call this disappointing, but it’s a bit simple. I made this a more interesting adventure by allowing the adventurers to negotiate with the involved mummy.

Pyramid Pharaoh: I3 (TSR)
I bought this 1st edition adventure back when it first came out. I’ve carried it through many moves for more than thirty years, and finally got to run it. A wonderful adventure, a pseudoegyptian dungeon crawl set in a pyramid with a lot of creativity, plenty of strangeness, and a surprising amount of humor. The backstory provides a good hook that the players can figure out and interact with.

The Rebel's Ransom: Pathfinder Society 02-03 (Paizo)
A particularly good Pathfinder adventure, involving a certain amount of tomb-robbing, but with a twist. A combination of interesting characters, clever traps, and an enjoyable progression make this a great adventure.

Tomb of the Blind God: Dungeon Crawl Classics C9 (Goodman Games)
This was a side-quest that first touched on my own campaign arc. They are initially sent because a girl is kidnapped, and golly, there's grells, grimlocks, and more information about the past than they thought was going to be there.

The Scorpion Queen from In Search of Adventure (Goodman Games)
Maybe not the most inspired adventure. Still, a few puzzles, a little combat. The players didn’t seem to mind.

Imprisoned with the Pharaohs Imprisoned with the Pharaohs: J1 (Paizo)
One of the adventures that made me realize that a 3rd edition Egyptian-style campaign was possible. A fine adventure in a pyramid with mummies and all the Egyptian trappings I could want. Also the introduction to the mystery of Aucturn.

The Pact Stone Pyramid The Pact Stone Pyramid: J3 (Paizo)
Following on from the previous pyramid adventure, this was another pyramid dungeon crawl, and had its own contribution to the mystery of Aucturn. I provided my own answer to the mystery, and just about the time we were playing this, Paizo came out with their own. I liked mine better. Nevertheless, this was another fun pyramid adventure from the people at Paizo.

Wrath of the Accursed: Pathfinder Society 2-20 (Paizo)
A city-based intrigue adventure from Paizo. It made for a nice change of pace, giving the characters a chance to do some negotiation, and run through the streets of the city.

The Dog Pharaoh's Tomb: Pathfinder Society 3-12 (Paizo)
A smaller adventure than J1 and J3 above. Still, this was a good, rich adventure with interesting tomb traps, undead to destroy, and links to the future of the campaign.

Caves of the Crawling Lord: Dungeon Crawl Classics #37 (Goodman Games)
This was the adventure where the whole plot basically came out. And the characters learned that leaving the alchemist alone in front of the undead antipaladin was a mistake. Here the players found out about the Dynasty of Jackals, a line of corrupt and demon-consulting pharaohs whose names had been eliminated from official history. They discovered the mummified remains of the majority of the line, but not the ultimate resting place of the Dark Undying One, the last and most terrible of the Dynasty of Jackals. He was so evil that merely speaking his name would bring damage upon the utterer.

The Tomb of Horrors Tomb of Horrors: (3rd ed version) (WOTC)
Acererak was the court wizard of the Dark Undying One. The mechanics of Pathfinder mean that the adventure cannot be as deadly as it was originally intended to be. Still, the three pit traps puzzle is something you can't roll dice for, and it got the players, both here and in Necropolis. Good fun. This signaled the beginning of the serious trapped tombs adventures: the next three tombs were tributes to this classic.

The Tomb of Horrors Dread Crypt of Srihoz: Dungeon Crawl Classics 25 (Goodman Games)
Srihoz was the chief of the Navy under the Dark Undying One. This turned out to be more deadly than the infamous meat-grinder Tomb of Horrors. While the Tomb was first, the designers of the Dread Crypt also had some very dirty tricks to lay on the characters.

Lost Tomb of Kruk-Ma-Kali: (Kenzerco)
The tomb of the Dark Undying One’s mightiest general. Wonderful tribute to the Tomb of Horrors. But another instance where the extensive magics involved would have been much more expensive than a resurrection spell. But shush, because this one is really good, even though I ignored the wilderness adventure getting there.

The Mud Sorcerer's Tomb: Dungeon #138 (Paizo)
The individual entombed here was the tomb architect of the Dark Undying One’s court. And had directions to the tomb of Mrs. Dark Undying One. An update of a great 2nd edition adventure, also from Dragon magazine. A sly, thoughtful tribute to Tomb of Horrors, which fit easily with the campaign’s theme of tombs and deadly traps.

The Rolling Tomb: Dungeon #215 (WOTC)
An interruption of the main quest with a delightfully insane premise. The hook is "a full-sized pyramid on rollers is going to squash Pharaoh's favorite oasis. You will do something about this immediately."

StarHaunt Dungeon #207(WOTC)
StarHaunt was a bit of an emergency insertion. I'd made The Rolling Tomb too difficult. But replacing the meteor with an undead god-fetus made this adventure wonderfully macabre. Seriously. Look up "atropal scion" and tell me that isn't creepy.

The Tomb of Horrors Crypt of the Devil-Lich: Dungeon Crawl Classics #13 (Goodman)
After a couple of less trappy-deathy adventures, this was back to the meat grinders I love. Lots of traps, and traps within traps. There was a wonderful moment with the hellwasp swarms when everyone was helpless except the Fire Oracle. Who cashed in his chips later this adventure.

Necropolis: Necromancer Games
Sort of Gygax's adventure to top Tomb of Horrors, this is as gonzo and weird as you might expect. Wonderful, and one of the adventures the campaign was constructed to lead up to. Well converted by the people at Necromancer Games, and delightful fun for the players. They destroyed the Dark Undyng One, and the beacon that was drawing Aucturn close, amplifying necromantic spell effects. But that wasn’t the end of it all. Turns out the court wizard, Acererak also had a few lingering threats to the well-being of the world.

Prisoner of Castle Perilous: Dungeon #153 (WOTC)
The players learned that Acererak wasn’t quite as destroyed as they thought he’d been. And he’s mucking about with something in the Negative Energy Plane. Good adventure, and the beginning of the campaign’s endgame.

Return to the Tomb of Horrors Return to the Tomb of Horrors: (TSR)
I didn't use the introductory adventure, but the rest was pretty darn entertaining, if a little weird to convert to Pathfnder. Still, this is a solid, puzzling sprawl of a mega-adventure, and I’m quite happy that I finally got to run it.

Tomb of Horrors: 4th ed (WOTC)
This was the third and final Acererak the party faced. I’m a little sad I wasn’t able to reconcile the initial parts of the adventure with my campaign, instead only using the final adventure. Still, I liked this. Unfortunately, the party acted with a little haste before they learned what was going on, and managed to doom themselves. Ah well, such is giving control of the story over to the players. And there’s a lot of potential to having a new Devouring God.

There are a few adventures I wanted to run but couldn't find a way to slip in. Grimtooth's Dungeons of Death, Mayfair's Undead, and the Tomb of Iuchiban from Alderac. But they either didn’t fit the structure of the campaign, or mechanically would have lost too much when converted to Pathfinder. But now we’re onto a new campaign, one starting with zero level characters with random backgrounds and straight 3d6 characteristics. Let’s hope might oaks from small acorns grow.

I want to thank everyone who was part of the campaign, and made it the successful fun it was. Chris, John, Tristan, John, Diane, Shannon, Tara, Alex, Dave, and Nick: thank you all very much. I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Monday, May 29, 2017

I bit the bullet...

After literal months of agony and wishy-washiness, I pulled the trigger on my Patreon page. If you enjoy my writing, you can get previews of my books there, before they come out.

If you haven't yet read my work, you can mosey over to the page and read the first chapter of my fantasy/noir novel Necromancer for Hire. Only the first one is free. But if you support me at $2 or higher, you can read a chapter a week until it's finished. Support me at $5 a month, and you will get a copy of every book I publish, as my way of saying thank you.

I intend to change the contribution level names and images, but not the actual rewards as I go on with this. A hypothetical steampunk airpulp story will likely have levels that have to do with biplanes. Right now, it's all about the bodies.

And a huge thank-you to Darrell Grizzle, who joined within an hour of me posting the initial link. There are days when I doubt my ability to write a compelling, marketable story. Darrell killed that doubt for the next month. Thank you Darrell!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island, The Heart of Kaiju Darkness

The first thing I noticed, even in the trailers, is that Kong: Skull Island knows its roots. This is not Peter Jackson's unbridled King Kong. This is a movie that remembers the 1933 film, but at the same time is not enslaved to it. Kong's stature is erect, as it was in 1933, and more credible than in 1976. Kong battles an octopus-thing as he did in King Kong vs Godzilla. the Skullcrawlers are from the original film, and there is a giant spider in reference to the infamous lost and deleted scene. And, possibly because it's Legendary, there's a sly Pacific Rim reference when someone shoots a kaiju in the face with a flare.

Kong

One major thumbs-up for me is that Kong's island is in the South Seas, and the natives of the island are finally not African. Although Jackson's production used "a mix of Asian, African, Maori and Polynesian" actors, they do look very African. Not so in Kong: Skull Island.

For the first time, not everything is relentlessly hostile. Sure, the Skullcrawlers are just out for lunch, and the wee pterodactyls are pretty nasty, but Skull Island finally seems to have an ecosystem that doesn't try to consume every human that sets foot on the island. And because some of the shoot is on location, you can see the swarms of insects. It's a nice touch, although I suspect the actors were none too happy about it.

The Skullcrawlers, the main antagonists of the film, deserve some mention. Clearly modeled on the two-legged lizard from the original Kong, they've been upgraded. And they a good look. Like the MUTOs from Legendary Godzilla. Despite them being an homage to the original film, the feeling is that you have never seen anything like that before. Their movements are fluid for something that has such a unique method of locomotion. They're presented as frightening, and worthy opponents for the mighty Kong.

New Skullcrawler...
The new Skullcrawler

Old Skullcrawler...
The old Skullcrawler

The use of the military is interesting. Somewhat in keeping with the seventies end of Vietnam era. Col Packard (Sam Jackson) is a deeply traumatized officer who, on seeing his country leave a conflict unfinished, decides he is going to take no shit. Not from giant monsters, certainly. But his men are not quite as hell-bent as he is. So the military is not here for show, as it was in Ishiro Honda's work. But neither is the military turned into a bunch of clowns, as they were in the 1998 Godzilla. The military are depicted as individuals in a system, and the military is represented by different people. Which is, I think, pretty fair. Although I do take exception to Vietnam-era soldiers carrying poison gas grenades. But ultimately, in good kaiju film fashion, the military and guns are not the solution to the plot problem.

Kong downs so many helicopters I couldn't help wonder if he was still pissed off from the 1976 film, where he was shot off the World Trade Centers by helicopters with miniguns. But hey, they were dropping bombs...

It's a good film. Enjoyable, and I suspect it will stand up after repeated watching. I'll definitely be owning this one.

Next month, Colossal comes out, the Nacho Vigalondo/Anne Hathaway kaiju film. And you can bet I'll be there.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

We Have To Talk About Marvin

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, before he was dead Eerie was a Warren Publications magazine, which, in the seventies, was clinging to the format EC had been forced out of. Their flagship publications included Creepy, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Vampriella. In format, Eerie is similar to Skywald’s mood-horror, a black and white magazine that avoided the Comics Code Authority’s censorius eye.

The majority of the magazine was short, moody stories, often with a buxom woman to add a little sex appeal to the story. The initial Marvin story "One is the Lonliest Number" written by Allen Milgrom, primarily known as an artist, achieving great success with Marvel's Secret Wars II and two years on The Avengers. Esteban Maroto provides beautiful line work. With this frankly stellar combination of artist and writer, the Marvin story is affectingly tragic.

Marvin merited the front cover of Eerie #49 (July 1973) Swamp Thing was in full swing, and had just published issue #5. Man-Thing was still appearing in Adventure Into Fear, but by the beginning of 1974, would be in its own magazine. The Skywald Heap had just had its final story in Psycho 13 (July 1973). So the ground was well-tread, but Milgrom managed to put the familiar tropes into a unique story.

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, enjoying himself for the first time Marvin the Dead Thing is in many ways a distillation of the Swamp Monster trope. Marvin Kanfer, we are told in the first panel, had always been alone. Six panels later, he kills himself by throwing himself in a polluted river. The pollution from ‘several factories’ serves as the catalyst (like Ted Sallis’s Super Soldier Serum, Dr. Holland’s bio-restorative formula, or the executed babies in the Heap’s Wausau Swamp). The results, inevitable. Marvin returns as a swamp monster without knowing it (similar to Sallis in his first Man-Thing story). The police get involved, and Marvin gets to demonstrate his strength and his invulnerability to bullets. He is more sentient than the Man-Thing, but thought is slow, so he id not as in control of his mind as the Swamp Thing or Skywald Heap are.

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, and the stone of social approval This is the first time that the genre has mined the idea of family for the swamp monster. Previously, the monster had been a lonely presence without attachments, only friends and enemies. The transformation into the swamp monster got rid of the individual’s previous life. However, Marvin is a different sort of person. In a story that perhaps draws from the classic 1931 James Whale Frankenstein, Marvin is befriended by a young girl who is not put off by the way he looks. But a mob (literally, a torch-waving mob) comes into the swamp to hunt Marvin down. Instead of killing him, however, they kill little Susie. Unwilling to accept the death of the little girl who had been his playmate, Marvin places her body in the same toxic sludge that brought about his transformation. After weeks of waiting, he is rewarded with her sludgy resurrection. The two then bond, and presumably, live happily ever after as man and child, free of the restraints of society. The story is similar to a Morto do Pantono story, “A Pequena Silvia”.

There us a bit of metaphor to be drawn from the stone and rope that Marvin uses to drown himself. If we view this as a symbol of the weight of society’s opinion which weighs on Marvin, it is this that eventually drags him down. During his conflict with the police, Marvin pulls the stone and rope off, throws it as a weapon, or sign of defiance, then he is free of society's opinions and rules. He can return to the swamp and be what he is. There’s a happy naturalness in this story. Marvin is the living rejection of modern society, and once he is free of those bonds, he can finally find satisfaction. Society is so damaged that the transformation of Marvin from human into a swamp monster is what allows him to be happy.

Marvin the Living Dead Thing, and the worst moment of his unlife Esteban Maroto’s work is never more poignant as the image of Marvin holding his playmate in his arms. The despair and sadness on Marvin’s disfigured face is palpable, and really makes the point of the story.

Just under a decade later, in February 1982, literally the month that Wes Cravern's Swamp Thing film his the theaters, Eerie resurrected Marvin. The writer is different, and so is the artist, but this is the second Swamp Creature's resurrection . Perhaps, like the return of Swamp Thing, this return was prompted by the Wes Craven Swamp Thing film. But Marvin returned.

Bad people. Baaaad people This story is less straightforward. Marvin watches a young couple dump their stillborn baby into the polluted waters that transformed Marvin into the swamp creature he is. Bobby-Jean and Billy are a troubled couple. Billy said he’d marry Bobby-Jean, but he most take care of his grandmother. But Billy is apparently a serial impregnator, and his supposedly sick grandmother is someone who takes care of unplanned pregnancies. The two of them have a business together, him taking advantage of inexperienced girls, his grandmother getting paid well to deal with the pregnancies.

Vengeful Baby The stillborn babe returns to life, thanks to the polluted waters, and immediately goes out to seek its father. Bobbie-Jean, hemmorhaging, tries to escape into the swamp, and the baby finds Billy, killing him. It also kills his grandmother. Bobby-Jean, dying, is taken by Marvin to the swamp, and the three of them turn into a kind of happy swampy family.

There’s a whole lot more dialog and exposition in this story. And at the same time, it’s less atmospheric and less complex. This is a more straightforward murder and revenge story, and Marvin as a character plays almost no part in it. Instead, he is primarily a watcher of the action, only There are several moments when the writer uses the shortcut of a character ‘just knowing’ something that helps move the narrative along. “Ode to a Dead Thing” is not as well-written as the original story, but it does have its tender moments, such as when Marvin carries the dying Bobby-Jean into the swamps. It is a pretty straight riff on the original story, adding another member to Marvin’s family.

Happily every after... in the swamp
The themes of the original story are gone. Marvin’s rejection of the modern world has vanished, and been replaced by an evil family, Billy and his grandmother, who are selfish, irredeemable villains. They are villains who the reader will not mourn when they are murdered by the resurrected baby. Marvin’s story is more of a wrapper around the standard revenge story, with the resurrected swamp baby serving the usual Heap role of dispenser of justice.

“One is the Loneliest Number” The first Marvin the Dead-Thing story stands as an excellent encapsulation of the majority of the tropes that make the he swamp-monster work. Using the inherent loneliness of the character to good effect, as well as the pathos evoked by that character desperately, finally caring for someone else. This emotional work is muted in the second, more simplistic story, as mentioned above. I wonder if Marvin’s return was a test balloon for making him an ongoing character, If so, it did not catch on. Like Carlton’s “Lurker in the Swamp” there are only two Marvin the Living Dead Thing stories. They are worth seeking out for the swamp monster enthusiast, especially Eerie # 49.

Next Month, the end of DC's initial series of Swamp Thing, featuring writers David Michelinie and Gerry Conway.