Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Voyage to the Purple Islands

Zerrett waited in the Library of the Ancients for his master's return.  As time passed, Zerrett's mind wandered back to his old life.  He wondering what a swordsman of his stature was doing here, away from the battlefield.  He remembered all the days of preparation, overturning wagon wheels until his body felt like a quivering newborn.  It took him over a year of strength training to effectively wield his mighty Dwarven war-axe, Ivarrol.  Perpetually black with blood and runes, faintly glowing like unhallowed doom as it hacked his foes into pieces.   Zerrett had been killing the enemies of S'kyrn even before he was strong enough to hold Ivarrol over his head.  It was a way of life.

Now, the warrior's axe leaned against a corner of his bedroom, collecting dust instead of gory crimson strands.  Zerret imagined the weapon restless, yearning... his soul the same – crying out for the once familiar sights and sounds of combat.

"What am I doing in a place like this?"  He said to dust and shadows.

As Zerrett paced back and forth, a book fell from the decrepit stacks.  It opened to an illustration of a Snake-Man slicing through a human's chest with a scimitar.  The image fascinated him; Zerrett didn't expect to enjoy it so, but he did.  The curving steel death ripped the man down his center.  It made Zerrett long for the crusades of his youth.  

Zerrett had only seen Snake-Men a handful of times, in drawings and in dreams.  They were said to have lived aeons ago in subterranean cities.  He’d been taught some of their history, part of an oral tradition passed down from his father.  The serpentine folk were conquerors.  They knew the exquisite beauty of slaughter just as they knew the dark secrets of sorcery.

"I see you've been reading."  Said Master Lynd.

"No, it fell open to that page."  Zerrett said, cradling the withered volume in his hands.  "I was just admiring the artwork."

Master Lynd considered his charge for a moment.  S'kyrn had fallen in the great war, just as the Dwarven kingdoms fell centuries ago.  Though not technically a slave, Zerrett wasn't a free man.  After the fall of S'kyrn, Zerrett's people were assigned to the Asgochians.  It was a slow and painful process to reeducate the S'kyrnians.  Many could not shake their ancestral bloodlust, Zerrett being a prime example.

"Thousands of years ago, the Snake-Men ruled this world, brutally.  The heavens thick with Wyrm Riders..."  Lynd's voice trailed off as he remembered something black and formless like the void.

"Ancient history."  Zerrett said.

"Not according to the prophecy.  Upon some accursed night of this very aeon, the Snake-Men threatened to return and assume their rightful place.  Not just deep within the mountains and below the land but everywhere."

"If they return, we shall destroy them."

"Many will try.  Of course, there will be a few who choose the opposite, those drawn to Chaos.  Thankfully, the realm is in short supply of wizards."

"Some of my people call the Snake-Men fiction."

"I'm not surprised.  Your kind are little more than barbarians from our perspective."

"What do you know of S'kyrn and its men... beyond what I've told you?"

"Do you know where the name of your country comes from?  S'kyrn was the name of an emperor, a Snake-Man."   Lynd noticed the young man silently scoff.  "It's true."

"I doubt that."


Zerrett placed the book back upon the stone shelf.  “Do you believe in prophecy?” 

“The Snake-Men did.  But then, they believed in all sorts of strange and blasphemous things.”  The Asgochian studied the library's crumbling stacks until he found the right book.  “Here it is... the purple islands.”

“I’ve heard of them.”

“And what have you heard?”

“Purple sand along the beaches, so dark they look almost black from a distance.”

“What else?”  Lynd inquired.

“Isn't that where the Snake-Men are from?”

“No, it’s where the last of them died.  We're setting sail for the islands tomorrow.  I wanted to surprise you."

"Very well."  Zerrett sighed.

"I thought you'd be more excited.  After all, there's sure to be plenty of battle.  A chance for you and that giant axe of yours to become reacquainted."  His charge beamed with anticipation.  Lynd returned the smile.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Venger's Top 80's Sword & Sorcery Films

No category of film exemplifies the struggle between good and evil like fantasy.  My top 10 is only as definitive as my subjective tastes.  Most are fantasy movies I grew up with, although a few I didn't see until later in life.  So, it's not just based on nostalgia.

Animated and muppet films like Heavy Metal and The Dark Crystal were excluded because I had to narrow it down somehow.  After all, how do you compare The Last Unicorn to The Sword and the Sorcerer?  I also had to draw a line somewhere between fantasy with a good deal of scifi (like Krull) and science fiction with a few sword and sorcery trappings (like Empire Strikes Back or Dune).  Flash Gordon was right on the edge.  For those of you who wish to count it, then put it at around #5.  Those who wouldn't count it as a sword & sorcery film can keep your nerd rage to a tolerable level since it doesn't appear on this list.  You're welcome.

Here it is, folks... the list you never asked for!

1.  Arguably the best (well, I'm arguing for it since it's at the top of my list) sword and sorcery film is Conan the Barbarian.  This film launched Arnold's career, and it's easy to see why.  Taken seriously and from such great source material, pretty much everything about the first Conan movie is awesome!

2.  Excalibur came out a year earlier, in 1981.  I have the HD DVD version of this and it's probably my favorite of all the 100 or so HD DVDs they made.  Again, the genre is treated seriously with capable actors, direction, and music.  To me, Excalibur is a timeless masterpiece of passion.

3.  Clash of the Titans!  This is another 1981 epic.  Closer to sword and sandals than sword and sorcery, but all the gods and titans and giant scorpions make it sorcerous enough for me.  This film has such a gentle touch and profound story to tell.  Truly mythic!  How many countless times did I watch this growing up?  Thank you, HBO!

4.  Speaking of watching HBO, fourth on the list is The Beastmaster from 1982.  Something must have been in the water right around 1980 for all this to have taken place  Beastmaster is heavy on the sorcery and that's just one of the reasons I like it so much.  So many great ideas well executed and flowing together.  It's a strange, creepy diamond in the rough.

5.  Krull is my fifth pick.  It probably has the most bad ass villain of all - some kind of alien demon that destroys entire worlds and has his own teleporting castle.  He's only known as The Beast!  A classic story full of dark weirdness, cool monsters, neat special effects, and a weapon that makes me long for something other than a sword.

6.  Hawk the Slayer.  Straight forward and no nonsense.  It doesn't have the best acting, the funniest jokes, the evilest villain, nor the most compelling story, but I gotta give it up for this movie.  It's a great and sadly little-known piece of sword and sorcery film-making.

7.  Legend is an fascinating film.  Not what immediately comes to mind when you think of sword and sorcery films.  However, it's heavy on the fantasy... fairy tale fantasy but, again, dark.  Gorgeously directed by Ridley Scott.  Starring Tom Cruise and the chick from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  That troll/witch creature was really fucking scary - even as an adult.  Plus the realistic goblins and Tim Curry as the Devil... wow!

8.  Conan the Destroyer!  I kind of wanted to put this sequel higher, but here it is.  A really strong effort and, all things considered, a great sword and sorcery movie... just not as awesome as Conan the Barbarian.  A bit less serious, but still some good characters - plus a Lovecraftian god freak-out rampage at the end.  Nice.

9.  The Sword and the Sorcerer.  Honestly, I don't remember a ton about this film.  Although, I remember really liking it.  Kind of a blur of Richard Lynch, a sorcerer demon or sorcerer making a pact with a demon...  Man, I've really got to watch this again.  It has a pretty high rating on amazon, so I'm using that to cantilever my faulty memory.  Can I blame it on being old?  I can?  Sweet.

10.  Deathstalker.  I remember this one being a lot of fun.  Quite a bit of carousing, female flesh, and pretty boy swordsmanship.  I also vaguely recall a lot of scenes from Deathstalker being reused in Deathstalker II.  What up with that?  This is another one I've got to revisit soon.

If there was a #11, it might have to be The Barbarians.  I just reviewed it here.  And after that, I guess films like Red Sonja, Dragonslayer, and Willow reside. Doesn't mean they're shitty, just not my favorites.

Well, thanks for reading and commenting.  I'm looking forward to what people have to say.  Feel free to post your own list.  There's probably a rare gem or two I've overlooked.


The Barbarians: Fantasy Film Review

What if you took Conan the Barbarian, doubled the bodybuilders, threw in some cheesy comic relief, a gypsy clown caravan, arm wrestling, Michael Berryman, the largest uncircumcised penis dragon to ever grace the silver screen, and that obnoxious laugh from Revenge of the Nerds?  Well, you'd get The Barbarians.  Not a great film, but definitely entertaining.

I hadn't seen this since I was a youngster.  I fondly (in a weird way that just sticks in your memory and won't fade away) remember the belly button / ruby scene.  I suppose, as a 14 year old boy (albeit with access to HBO) seeing a woman's exposed midriff was almost as good as bare breasts.  Not really, but evidently it was still memorable.

That ruby is the MacGuffin of this story.  The violent and unkempt hordes of Kadar chase down the caravan of jesters, minstrels, and cross-dressers in order to acquire the Queen's navel jewelry of supposed magical properties or something, though we never get to see them.

Speaking of boobs, there is some extremely brief female nudity, but what there is can hardly be seen - most of the story either takes place at night or in dimly-lit chambers.  Appropriate for a fantasy movie, but it makes picking out details a challenge.

About those dimly-lit chambers, they look fantastic and so do the costumes - hides, leather, pieces of armor, helmets, swords, and most characters seem to be covered in fur or black robes or half-naked women.  There are quite a few sets: villainous lair, medieval strip-club, treasure tomb, slave quarry, swamp, and the perfect archaic city.  How did the filmmakers find or create these sets?!?  It makes sword-and-sorcery movies today look out-of-place and stupid.

And here's another reason to praise The Barbarians - real blood!  Ok, it's not actual blood.  In fact, it's totally fake stage blood but, damn, did it look like the real thing.  1987 was before the blessing/curse of CGI.  So, when Kadar's favorite captive / harem girl gets whipped (gotta give Michael Berryman something to do!), we see the blood on her back, and when he dies at the end (not really a spoiler because he's the head bad guy and this is a B movie) Kadar's mouth overflows with crimson.

Which brings me to Richard Lynch himself.  Yes, that guy!  Richard Lynch has been the villain in more 80's movies and tv shows than you've fantasized about swinging a sword and carousing with wenches.  He's super-serious, intense, and you just love to hate him.  I mean, that's why he was the king of evildoers in that decade - he really makes a screenplay's asshole come to life.

There isn't much sorcery to go with all that sword, but we do get a bit.  Kadar's witch, China, is exotic, beautiful, and looks like she could cast a spell or two.  Rather than expensive pyrotechnics, the audience gets red eyes, smoke, cobwebs, and smoldering sorceress intensity - she pairs nicely with Kadar.

There are a few cons to all the previously mentioned pros.  The barbarian brothers seem to stumble into the right people or location without breaking a sweat.  It's all too convenient and not the least bit believable but at least the story doesn't drag.  Not all the jokes are funny, although plenty worth a half-smile or more.  The Weapons of Power look like cheap props decorated in plastic gold.

By the time it was released, this type of film was on its way out.  A shame, since sword-and-sorcery is one of my favorite genres of the 80's and that decade did it right.  I can't think of a decent one that came out of the 90's or 00's.  Of course, now we have Game of Thrones.  Great stuff, but sometimes I just want barbarians, blood, magic, naked women, AND cheesy dialog.  It might not be as epic as Conan the Barbarian, nor as awesome as Beastmaster.  Nevertheless, The Barbarians is worth seeing.

I just bought it as a double-bill DVD along with The Norseman (which I haven't watched yet).  Until next time, fare thee well, my friends, and wear your mark of the open road proudly!


p.s.  Oops, almost forgot.  Aside from the kinda lame Weapons of Power, Kadar brandished a pretty cool magic item of his own.  Below are the "official OSR stats" for it.

Shield of Blinding Light

This is a +1 shield.  The following enchantment can be used once per day: each opponent within sight has a 2 in 6 chance (alternatively, opponents could roll a saving throw to avoid - GMs choice) of being blinded by the shield's glaring light for 1d3 rounds.

Blinded characters move at half their normal speed, as well as, taking a 4 point penalty on their to-hit rolls, armor class, and saving throws.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

That Miraculous 15%

One of the players told me I had just uttered the quote of the day.  The intelligent and chaotic sword was being grilled by its new master and it responded with: "You don't get to hear my origin story before I've tasted blood."

Earlier this afternoon, I ran the very last playtest of The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.  I didn't think I was going to get the chance to do another one after Gary Con, but I did.

There are more reasons for GM burnout than too much gaming.  A few members of my home group started getting busy or had better things to do or maybe it was spring fever.  I don't know.

In any case, the two week break turned into a month break and I decided to do another public, noob-friendly D&D meetup (using Swords & Wizardry) instead of trying for one last big day of gaming with my homies.

Ah, new blood for the purple islands... In fact, there were 10 players.  10!!!  All but two were strangers.  That was gratifying because I feared that scheduling another home game would leave me with several empty chairs and the feeling that no one cares about the time and energy I put into scheduling/preparing for a game.

The public library was very accommodating - a nice, big, quiet, clean space with good tables and chairs.  Couldn't ask for more than that.  Again, it took me way too long to make 10 pre-generated character sheets.  About two hours time; I could have spent that on tweaking encounters and planning the story arc.

I completely forgot about Purple's spell casting mechanic until the end.  The party ran into two back-to-back encounters that were very similar.  Maybe the original Star Trek is rubbing off on me.  For all the variety in the book, the lack thereof in my near random choices was pretty ridiculous.  Only had one critical hit.  This time it was one of the PCs scoring it and not a monster.  Nearly the same result though - total bloody carnage!  I love my critical hit table, and my d12 concurs.

I came up with a new reason for PCs to arrive: as convicts upon the purple islands penal colony like Escape from New York meets Game of Thrones.  I'll definitely include that as a suggestion in the book.

The climax was anti-climactic, unfortunately.  That's not the fault of Purple or the players, just myself.  Pure GM ball dropping.  After three and a half hours of challenge and exploration, the PCs found some human/spider hybrid wizards within the tower they sought and asked them to open a portal back to their home in exchange for a magic sword of Chaos they picked up.  The spider-people basically said, "Sure."  The PCs went through the portal and that was it.  If that happened in a movie, it probably would have been a major letdown.  They got what they wanted too easily.  Where was the conflict, the drama, the barely getting out alive?

That's kind of a drawback with campaign world and hex crawl books, they can provide a terrific framework, but they aren't a scripted adventure.

Ultimately, I believe that this session was slightly more successful than the last.  Gary Con's was pretty awesome, but I just felt something was missing.  After a couple weeks of giving it way too much thought, I realized what it was.  The missing 15%.  I tried to run the Gary Con playtest as written, without going off script, without that little bit of ingenuity and invention.  I forgot to include that modicum of inspiration which makes every session unique.  In hindsight, I wanted to run Purple as uncontaminated as possible, meaning I tried to run it like a computer might have done if given the manuscript and nothing else.  Instructive, but a bad move in terms of the overall roleplaying experience.  When making the most out of an adventure, a GM always has to put his spin on it, his 15%.

Well, I've got more revising to do.  Next time I run Purple, it will be with the finished manuscript in hand.  Probably the middle or end of June.  Can't wait!


p.s.  Just want to mention that the image is not a part of the Purple book.  In fact, I didn't stumble upon it until after I wrote the framework and created the Purple Putrescence.  But it's awesome, and a super cool interpretation of that godlike entity slurping foolish humanoids as it passes overhead.

p.p.s.  Thanks to the Madison Geekery guys and gals who helped me playtest Purple!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Crawling over Hexes

Here's a little work-in-progress taste of the black and white map for The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.  Hopefully, it whets your appetite.  The b/w version will be in both softcover and electronic books, the color version will be available online and in the PDF version.  As soon as both are finished, I'll make them available to Kickstarter backers (sometime in May).

What else?  Purple isn't so much a module as a campaign world.  The idea started out as the former and quickly evolved into the latter.  Now, it's a sprawling wilderness of gonzo science-fantasy insanity.  I mean, every time I flesh it out the thing grows.  This thing could end up being around 160 pages by the time it's finished!

One of last weekend's Gary Con playtesters, Adam Thornton, said it felt like a cross between X1 Isle of Dread and Carcosa.  Well, that's pretty much what I was going for, so hearing that made me very pleased.

My only problem with Carcosa is all that awesomeness is just barely sketched out.  The GM isn't really furnished with many details beyond what color the people are, a sentence or two about their leader, mention of an alien artifact, and what abomination lurks nearby.  Purple is written for the GM on the go who doesn't need every last little detail described, but still wants enough material to run encounters without doing any heavy lifting himself.

Ok, I think that's it for now.  If anyone has a question, comment, suggestion, or anything else, please post it below.  Thanks!


p.s.  Cartography by Alyssa Faden.