Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Entering the Mazes

We enjoyed a great session of some 1st Edition AD&D goodness this past Saturday.

Since our scheduled DM announced he would be unable to run our normal game, yours truly DM'ed  from my Jennerak campaign material.

The four players rolled up 1st level characters which included a priestess of Bast the Cat Goddess named Aniya from the far lands of Kishtar, an elf magic user named Belarus, a gnome thief named Hoorstenfast, and a human fighter named Desmond .

 The characters met in the sea town of White Whelm. Things looked a bit bad when Aniya bristled at a town guard and drew her weapon which led to her and Desmond being arrested and hauled to the dungeons for a night.  Aniyas feigned insanity as a defense. They were  fined and Aniya was sentenced to a lashing. However, the torturer would not actually whip her but lashed the stones instead and bid her cry out as though in pain. They were released and sought lodging at the Sinful Centaur, where Belarus was busy gathering information and Hoorstenfast was planning on thieving from some drunken dwarves.

Belarus learned that the town had become more oppressive in recent years because it was tributary to the Barony of Kor and Baron Kor had had a change of personality after fighting in the Holy Wars in the East. Kor, whose banner is a black lion, has become somewhat of a despot now, and it has trickled down to his environs and their local governments. Moreover, he has been engaged in skirmishes with the elves on the Borderlands and his men have become hostile towards any elves in his lands as possible spies of the forest Kingdom. Belarus met an elf spy named Erretas in the Sinful Centaur who warned him to beware the shields of the Black Lion.

Hoorstenfast learned of a great sea monster named Drasilisk who demanded tribute in flesh or wealth from all who crossed into his waters--the Dwarves escaped by doing obeisance to Drasilisk and feeding him orc prisoners they had aboard the vessel they had chartered.

Belarus also inquired as to the location of Shamrann, a powerful wage whom he had heard tale of in other places. Erretas told him where to find the mage.

The next morning, the party went down on the beach to a walled in cave opening which serves as the home and fortress of the wizard Shamrann. After some parleying with the bizarre Gort, the wizard's servant (an unidentifiable creature of unknown origin), they passed by the two Brass Golems guarding the cave and into the library/cave/laboratory of the preoccupied Shamrann.  They told Shamrann that they sought both employment and knowledge and so learned of the wizard's fixation upon the vanished Jennerak civilization, mostly due to his assertion that they had discovered the secret of immortality and might still be in existence somewhere.

Shamrann claimed to have traveled the planes (he had once possessed the Codex of the Infinite Planes) where he met a creature called the Speaker, who claimed to possess all knowledge of all things in time and space past, present and future. On his planar travels he had also warred with a demon and freed the creature Gort. The Speaker said that the Jennerak had found immortality and that Shamrann might have it if he were to unbury their lost relics and books.

So Shamrann hired the party to travel to the Lonely Coast and enter---The Forbidden Mazes of the Jennerak.  He outfitted them and provided a vessel but asked for 10% of any monetary treasure found to fund his research and any Jennerak relics or writings. They set sail the following morning. Shamrann sent some goodies with them--five potions of healing and two scrolls--Protection from Undead and Protection from Shapechangers.

Upon arriving at the Lonely Coast a day, a night and a day later and using a map  provided by Shamrann, the found an old hill whose summit seemed to show artifices of human or Jennerak hands. A rampart led up to the hill which might have been an old road.  Atop the hill, they could see that all of the hills in this wasteland of grasslands and gnarled trees lacked any discernible peaks except the summit they had gained. They also found a wall built into the hill with two stone doors. And they found the Guardian…the Guardian was a fat tatooed bald man wearing a diaper like loin cloth and living in a wooden tub at the dungeon entrance.  He was eating when they found him, and he looked very happy to see new faces.

The Guardian informed the party that the dungeon doors could only be opened by means of a magic password that he alone knew. He would open the doors if they would play his game. His game was that they must face him as he faced them (stripped to loin cloths and with their weapons at a distance by a rock) , seated indian style and answer a riddle put to them. They got two tries--if they won, they might pass unmolested into the Mazes of the Jennerak. They asked "What if we lose?" "You end up like them behind that rock," he replied, pointing to a boulder. Upon looking behind the rock, the party found a pile of ancient and not so ancient bones of various races. When asked if anyone ever beat him, he said yes…"one fellow did a few years back. But that one never returned from the Mazes!" upon which saying he laughed with gusto. He also told them they must play the game upon exiting the dungeon as well.

The party agreed, not having much choice and guessing the strange man was far more than he seemed to be. Much to his consternation, they unraveled his riddle and were admitted. He promised them, however, that the riddle would be much harder next time.

The odd being leaned close to the wall and whispered the magic word, and true to his words, the doors opened. However, as the party passed in, they closed fast shut behind them!

Upon getting torches and a lantern glowing, they passed into a hall filled with ornate pillars and statues of beatific looking men and women they presumed to be the Jennerak. They bore inscriptions in ancient Jennerak (which some party members took as a language when creating their characters) declaring praises to an unknown but apparently good deity called "He of the Light".  They were investigating the hall and its doors and archways as well as for any secret doors when Desmond the fighter set his lantern down in front of an open doorway.

A spear came hurling out of the shadows beyond and struck him, doing three points of damage.  The party was suddenly beset by a chorus of howls and screeches as bestial naked humanoids covered in long hair and sporting gigantic bulbous white eyes with no pupils burst into the hall from two archways. There were six in all--three of them beset Desmond at the archway and three of them attacked the remainder of the party inside the hall. The beast men had giant misshapen ears and sharp claws but were intelligent enough to wield their spears efficiently as well.

The melee went badly for the party at first due to bad rolls but they rallied and managed to defeat the beast men, although Belarus, the elf magic user, who had only 4 hit points to begin with, got down to two and it was touch and go.  The party wiped their swords on the dead aberrations but were reminded of the value of stealth and marching order--mages should stick behind other classes.  The party then heard footsteps running away in the next chamber and rushed into an even larger room that had several door-less exits and some kind of channel/reservoir filled with water apparently pumped up from below. A dark figure disappeared with a splash before they could catch up with it.  No one wanted to dive in after it. The most notable feature in the room was a giant statue --perhaps "He of the Light"--knocked off its pedestal and replaced with a small, crude demonic four armed  and cyclopean Baboon image. Desmond quite rashly kicked the statue from its place but nothing happened.

The party retreated back to the first hall and searched an adjacent chamber where some relics were found in locked chests. Hoorstenfast picked a lock on one chest and they found an old scroll written in very corrupted Jennerak and quite younger than the other goods wherein someone had apparently detailed the demise of the locale.  It could not be completely deciphered even by those who read Jennerak. It was accompanied by a map of a vast underground warren--a real "mega-dungeon". There was also some monetary and precious stone treasure as well as a long sword of old Jennerak make which seems to be magical if it's lack of aging and lightness are of any signifigance. Desmond was the only character who could wield it so he naturally fell heir to it.

And here we concluded the adventure until next time. As DM, I got to roleplay several memorable parts, my favorites being a drunken dwarf, the A.D.D. Shamrann, the Guardian, and Erettas the elf spy. The players role played well and we had a great time. My son played and took a liking to his character which was really a spur of the moment quick roll up.

I indulged my fascination with the Jennerak concept by using the actual Forbidden Mazes map from the movie of the namesake of my blog and many of my dungeons....

Thought I'd share it with you. And ask a question--what do you as a DM do when a thief fails to pick a lock but then party members smash the lock, rendering the lock picking a moot point anyway?

Friday, November 11, 2011

What I'm Playing Now

We have begun a 1st Edition AD&D campaign largely based upon Greyhawk but allowing DM personal setting material to be added. Rotating DM's every 5-7 sessions and will be doing some of the older modules as we have players who have never done early TSR. The game is every other Saturday and I am playing an elven fighter.

Omnigon is an 80's science fiction game I picked it up on a clearance shelf at a game store, intending to cannibalize it for a post apocalyptic game I've been wanting to run. The setting looked cheesy but I figured, I'll dump that. Then I got to reading it and realized it was actually a very good setting with mechanics very like the old Gamma World or Basic D&D.  It's cool. No regular campaign planned as yet, just the occasional game. We are playing this Sunday.

By the way, having been digesting the Omnigon rules, I am impressed and will be writing a full review later next week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A New Wild West Blog

I was glad to note that one of my fellow gamers in the OKC Metro area has a new Wild West gaming blog up and going.

 Brent has a few good posts up already and showcases some of his homemade Western paper miniatures and scenery which are certainly commercial quality.

Brent joined our players for a few very memorable fantasy gaming sessions in a home brew setting I used to host. He is a highly entertaining and innovative player and has some great accents. More recently he began a Boot Hill campaign in a neighboring city which, alas, either work schedules, limited gas funds, or my other games have left me out of attending yet. But I'll bet he's one of the best GM's around.

Check out his blog and his artwork and please encourage him to keep blogging!

Wild West RPGS

E-Book Review "The New Death and Others" by James Hutchings


            Imagine, if you will, that Queen Scheherazade, that imperiled narrator of the Tales of the Arabian Nights, had married Hans Christian Anderson and  that their child had grown up listening to a harvest of new stories co-authored by his or her illustrious  parents. Then imagine that the child's tutors had been Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft,…with a few lessons from Stephen King… and Woody Allen as an eccentric uncle.  Finally, allow that this child has a precocious personality and has grown up to be a philosopher as well as a storyteller and poet. Now, if you were to ponder what sort of fiction such a prodigy might weave,  you might have an approximation of the type of delightful smorgasbord to be sampled in James Hutchings e-anthology  The New Death and Others.

                Very near to a hundred pages, New Death is filled with a variety of poetry, flash fiction, and short stories which possess a mingling of eloquence, nerve and depth that will convince you immediately  that these are children whom Hutchings has nurtured over the period of a lifetime, giving them printed life now in prose and poetry that is as well crafted and as stylized as any I have ever read.

                 I'm not a professional editor or reviewer--however, as a lifelong reader and lover of literature, and having had a few writing courses, I know good writing when I see it, and Hutching delivers this. His writing is strong, fluid, and filled with quiet energy and lucid reflection that renders highly palatable reading.

                Quite aside from craft, though, it is the contents of the tales themselves which make The New Death  original and compelling.

                Hutchings' influences will be recognizable by fans of fantasy and horror genres.   Several  of his poems  are direct homage to the works of Lovecraft  and  Howard,   clever and abbreviated retellings of favorite stories delivered  in  measured , rhyming verse. I have not included any sampling of these poems here but at the web link which concludes this review you can read several gems. It's no easy matter to write rhyming poetry that  doesn't  come across as trite or contrived but Hutchings knows his meter and the  value of the well chosen word and the results  are pleasant and absorbing lines which faithfully distill the ingredients of the  original stories. 
                  Yet for each of these tributes, there are numerous other poems, short stories, and flash fiction pieces that showcase Hutching's  individual vision  and originality as a writer,  ranging from loosely connected, fairy tale styled pieces highlighting Telelee, a fantasy city/world of the author's creation, to excerpts of modern horror fiction,  to flash fiction bits containing brief but  wry and insightful commentary on modern cultural trends and their attendant human inconsistencies ,  hypocrisies and absurdities.  Consider this bit , entitled "Compatibility":

Once upon a time there was a man who only desired to make love in the back yard, in a wading pool filled with red wine.
He went on the internet looking for love, but found only rejection, until someone directed him to a site specifically for singles with wading pool/back yard/wine fetishes.
There he met a woman who shared his desires. They chatted online, spoke on the phone, and at last agreed to meet.
The man was very excited. He began telling the woman how he would slowly inflate the wading pool, and then equally slowly fill it with bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Wait," said the woman. "Isn't Cabernet Sauvignon a red wine?"
"Yeah. So?" said the man.
"Oh. I probably should've said. I only want to make love in someone's back yard in a wading pool filled with white wine."
"Get away from me, pervert," said the man.

Good stuff. Then there is the bit entitled  "A Date With Destiny", which uses the foibles of Internet personals dating to underscore an important life truth:

Once upon a time there was a man who had a date with Destiny. He dressed in his best clothes, made sure to put on deodorant and aftershave, and masturbated beforehand, so that he would not be led into error by lust. At the appointed time and place he presented himself, flowers in hand.
Alas, he had never met her in person, but had arranged the date through meetallegoricalfigures.com. And username hotdestinyfate69 was not Destiny at all, but Ambition, who had used Destiny's photo to get more messages. She meant to explain this before meeting him, but always decided to do it later.
So Ambition turned up, presenting herself as Destiny. She agreed with everything the man said, and the man found her delightful. In truth the man liked the idea of going out with Destiny, but probably would have found Destiny herself a bit bossy. Ambition and the man stayed together, and lived happily ever after.

Then there are scatterings of  shorter  pen pricks delivering social or political satire, like "Auto-Pope" :

In the year 20__ the College of Cardinals elected the first robot Pope.
They chose it out of desperation. All the other candidates had something horribly wrong with them. Some were child abusers. Others were members of the Mafia. Still others were women.
Sadly it exploded when someone asked it whether married gay couples should get divorced.

                The poetry  and flash fiction in New Death is a great bonus to the price of admission, but  for me the  feature attraction is Hutchings' collection of short stories,  tightly written narratives containing unique characters, evocative settings, and imagery certain to haunt you long after reading.  The Telelee stories are whimsical flights of fancy delivered in the moralistic  flavor of the Tales of the Arabian nights and the Sinbad stories but also evincing something of Lord Dunsany's  Gods of Pegana.  My favorite of these is "How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name", a narrative about an overly ambitious sorceress named Abi-Simti who, aside from sacrificing one of her feet for a cloven hoof in order to gain magical knowledge, is willing to make a compact with the infernal spirits of the underworld themselves in exchange for such arcane lore. Part of her terrible plan involves nefarious designs upon the Cats of the mystical city of Telelee, which seems to lie in the land of the same name.

                Here is a sample of Hutchings narrative from the tale's opening:

                "Death stalked the cats of Telelee.
                Throughout the city there was much hiding under couches, and a yowling fear of shadows who came in the night. These shadows gathered squint-eyed kittens and cats trembling with age. Starving alley cats like leather bags filled with bones and pampered house-cats more spherical than cat-shaped, alike were taken. The shadows asked not whether a cat was tom or queen. White cats and black, tabby and orange, grey and tortoiseshell, cats that looked like their owners and cats that looked like nothing but cats, the shadows hungered for all."

                 Abi-Simti is quite a character, and she establishes her ruthlessness by essentially kidnapping the Cats of Telelee and imprisoning them on an isle within the parts of a giant mechanical harp which makes its "music" by pricking or pinching variously pitched cats like keys in a ghoulish piano:

                "First she brought forth creatures of a far star, who looked like shadows, but had substance, and who obeyed her commands, though not willingly. She bade these creatures to go forth, and gather the cats of Telelee. This they did, with silent and terrifying efficiency.
                Having dismissed the shadows, Abi-simti then found with her arts an island that had no name, and no-one living there. She summoned a djinn of the air to carry her there, along with her feline captives. There she bound spirits of the water as her slaves. They worked day and night for many months. Nigh every tree on the island was felled, the rocks in the streams were cut and shaped, and even the sand on the beach was fused into glass. At the end of this time, there stood a huge harp. It was higher than three elephants standing one atop the other, and had hundreds of strings. There were metal fingers to pluck the strings, hundreds of fingers for hundreds of strings, so that the harp seemed to be caressed by a centipede of prodigious size.
But the strangest part of this harp was the music it made. For the strings brought forth no sound. Instead, when the mechanism was operated correctly, the metal fingers would pluck a string. This plucking would cause cogs to turn wheels and wheels to turn cogs, and at last a lever would fall. At the end of this lever was a nail, and at the end of the nail was a cat, which would yowl in pain. Abi-simti had arranged the cats so that the cry of each one was the exact pitch that the corresponding string should have made."

                As an aside, I should mention that cats and insights about the nature of cats are sprinkled throughout the anthology, and for the life of me I cannot surmise from them whether Hutchings likes or dislikes them but lest cat lovers be  needlessly offended, I should say (without spoiling) that Abi-Simti is opposed in her plans by Artimesia, a clever white moggy cat with a black patch over one eye, and all does not end as one might fear. The ironic ending of "Isle of Cats" highlights that ambition without moral restraint can be not only unrewarding but downright dangerous.

                Some of the Telelee yarns could be read out loud to children. I plan on reading "How The Isle of Cats Got Its Name"  to my young nephew and I feel it would make a good illustrated children's book in its own right. But like the Arabian tales or the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, even the tales which children would enjoy are wrought with themes  substantive and enjoyable to adults as well.  Like Aesop's fables, they have a "moral of the story" but instead of spelling this out Hutchings lets the tale itself deliver the moral to the thoughftul reader . Forget the morals though…the Telelee myths are filled with imaginative scenery and chimeras that evoke  wonder… one story features a woman who is carried each day by white apes up a perilous stair to a scriptorium high in a tower where she copies ancient manuscripts and then parachutes down, falling in love one day with a shepherd she spies from the escarpments.

                There are far more than the Telelee stories though. Another jewel is a story about a scholar from the fabled and fantastic city of Mayajat who goes on a quest to break a lunar spell which holds him bound, finding himself passing through a strange horror called the Ziggurat and winding up at a convocation of monsters. Then there is the one about a demoness who is charged with inventing  punishments in hell and, against her darker nature  and the infernal laws, ends up falling in love with an incubus assistant, the affair ending up, as so many love trysts do, complicated and filled with bitter irony. Yet another tale, one of my favorites and one which I believe would make a good basis for a horror film short,  is Todd, a terrifying yarn about a little boy who descends into the darkness of the city's drain tunnels to hold court with what might be an infernal supernatural presence or only the demented projections of the tale's narrator, Todd's friend, who follows him into the tunnels and watches him from afar. Todd is what you might get if you blended the movies Stand by Me  with The River's Edge and a dash of It…yet the story is uniquely Hutchings'. I can't write this review without including a sample from it:

One big city feature we had was a world-class system of storm-water drains. We weren't supposed to go down there. Rain could come without warning, and you'd be drowned. It totally happened to a kid who used to go to our school. Just like a kid at our school had sex with the art teacher after the prom, and a kid got caught pulling himself in the bathroom. Maybe it was all the same kid. A kid who went to every school, leaving each time he had sex with the art teacher and got caught pulling himself in the bathroom thinking about it, finally drowning himself in despair after running out of schools. A tragic hero of our times.
At the time we did believe in this drowned kid. But we went down there anyway, to explore, and smoke, and talk about the things that being in a tunnel under the ground made boys think of in those days. A lot of the time that was either nuclear war or Dungeons & Dragons (for those of you under about thirty-five, Dungeons & Dragons is like World of Warcraft played with pen and paper and dice instead of a computer). We talked about girls too, but that wasn't because of the storm water drains. We talked about girls everywhere, and I don't think anything we said was true.
Todd really took to the drains. He did something no one else did, which is go down by himself. ...like a troll in one of our games of Dungeons & Dragons, Todd went down there all the time. I don't think I could have gone in by myself. Not that anyone said he was brave. It just proved he was a freak.

Our narrator decides to follow Todd into the storm tunnels, following his torch light into terrain both spooky and vividly real to anyone who haunted such places as a youngster. A familiar modern urban setting takes on a macabre aspect as the narrator beholds strange and disturbing rites...

                The tale for which the anthology is named, The New Death, is a an ironic and amusing tale about the Grim Reaper and his alien counterpart--a very clever vehicle for contrasting two views of death and dying. You will enjoy this one. And if you came of age in the late seventies or early eighties, the whole collection will contain some very welcome scents of nostalgia as well as a lucid reminder that we don't live in that world anymore.

                It's very evident that years of hours of loving care went into crafting some of these tales. M.A.R. Barker, creator of the fantasy setting of the world of Tekumel,  wrote somewhere  that the Empire of the Petal Throne stories began to be written in his high school days but that Tekumel became more fully focused and developed much later in his life.  You get the sense in reading this anthology that these stories have been with Hutchings for a very long time, polished and smoothed over a period of years before he actually put them in print. Not one of his actual stories seems to have been a night's hacking at the keyboard but old wine in a new vessel.  I imagine that Telelee, even if it wasn't named such, is a place dreamt of by a much younger Hutchings when he was open to the spell that fairy tales and myths can weave upon people lucky enough to believe in them or at least wish they could be true.

                I  highly recommend that you obtain Hutching's e-book. It's a worthy purchase in the electronic age, since its cost is minimal and it can be bookmarked on your desktop for morning chuckles with coffee in hand or before bed time horror reading. It is loaded with hours of enjoyable reading and you will  revisit several tales.  It is available in ten different formats, including as a Kindle download. I'm only sorry there isn't a print copy available, but there is always Kinko's.

               I also recommend New Death as an example  of how e-books and online communities offer talented and creative people a relatively simple and inexpensive way to get their writing or artwork before an appreciative audience. The anthology is sure to offer ideas and inspiration to other hopeful authors and lead them to take the initiative and do the same thing Mr. Hutchings has done. I only hope they do it as well as he.

               The New Death  and Others can be obtained at Smashwords: