Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet

Ta-nehisi Coates's run on Black Panther feels like a historic moment in comics: it marks the first black superhero being written by one of the most prominent black voices in contemporary literature at a time when black bodies are explicitly a fulcrum of modern political contention. (Black bodies have always been a fulcrum of American politics, but America has rarely admitted to this fact.) It might be expected, then, that Coates's Black Panther series would speak to the precarious situation (both political and lived) of the black body within the fictional context of comic books. After all, the subtitle of Coates's series, A Nation Under Our Feet, echoes the title of Steven Hahn's account of Southern black political struggles from slavery to the black diaspora within America.

Coates's Black Panther is political, inasmuch as it speaks to how power is constructed, defined, and exercised. But this Black Panther series is as much a part of Coates's deconstructive project as his book Between the World and Me. One of the main points of Between the World and Me (aside from the precarity of the black body and the centrality of that vulnerability to America's history) is the necessity of critique. Between the World and Me is ostensibly a letter from Coates to his son, telling him that he needs to deeply question the narratives he's going to inherit about blackness and America throughout his life, but it's also a letter to every reader who picks up the book--and it tells us the same thing: don't except the validity or truth of the American Dream without really looking at it with open eyes.

Black Panther continues that deconstructive critique, but unlike Between the World and Me it isn't oriented specifically toward race in America. There are a few illustration choices in the series that recall America's current racial tensions. For example:

This alternate cover for the first issue shows the Black Panther surrounded by white policemen with guns at the ready--an understandable anxiety for the possessor of a black body in the current cultural moment of militarized police forces and "stand yoru ground" dogma--although such a scene never happens in the comic the cover adorns.

Similarly, this page shows the Black Panther going prone under what could be interpreted to be a bullet wound to the head. (It's not; it's the technological part of his costume activating.)

Instead of dealing with the myths of race and the society built upon them, the deconstructive thrust of the book is specifically applied to the superhero genre: in Coates's series, it may well be the case that the Black Panther is not the hero of his own book. On the surface, that sounds like madness; of course he's the hero of the book, it's named after him and he's in the foreground of the cover! That's how you know he's the hero, right?

As far as I can tell (and I admit that I am far from an expert on capes comics), a superhero needs four things to be defined as such: powers or abilities beyond the normal ken, a willingness to use those powers or abilities for the greater good, a weakness of some sort, and villains to fight against.

I want to talk about the first three as a group because they are the mostly tightly entwined in Coates's Black Panther. The Black Panther's abilities and his willingness to use them for good are both undermined by his major flaw. Unlike Superman and his vulnerability to Kryptonite, the Black Panther's flaw is not external; it is intimately interior--his flaw is his own internalized self-doubt. The Black Panther doubts everything essential for his own self-belief that he is the hero of the tale. He doubts his ability to protect his people and promote their welfare, he doubts that one man can make a difference and steer history and polity in the right direction, he doubts that he is a just ruler of his kingdom, he doubts his inheritance, he doubts the very shape of kingship because it seems at odds with the nation's will. He doubts that being a superhero is possible.

He has good cause for doubt himself because the villains that oppose him aren't necessarily wrong. In the handful of issues collected in A Nation Under Our Feet, we get introduced to "villains" that often seem as heroic as the title character, and are in fact differentiated from the Black Panther largely by their vastly different and incompatible political beliefs and worldviews. The two women who are renegade royal guards turned against they system they once upheld, for example, do more to protect the downtrodden of Wakanda, and are far more effective at doing so, than T'Challa is throughout the initial issues of the series. Their belief that no one man should have exclusive access to political authority must ring true for a number of readers--it echoes the vigilante mindset of adored heroes like Batman, while also recalling true democratic principles. These villains hardly seem villainous.

Tetu and Zenzi, the other group of "villains" that the Black Panther must contend with, also seem to linger in a liminal gray area that is hard to convincingly describe as villainy. As a shaman, Tetu is representative of African land itself, and its rejection of the traditional regime's various environmental and biopower transgressions; as the leader of the People, he represents popular uprising against traditions that no longer embody the human beings who must live as one with the land and each other. Zenzi is likewise cast as a potential liberator; her ability to bring the people's resentments and anger explosively to the surface is effectively a symbolic awakening of the political consciousness and radicalization of lingering dissatisfaction with their sovereign, and perhaps the idea of sovereigns as a whole. It isn't so easy to see these two characters as villains either; contrasted against the Black Panther's inclinations and actions, they might be kind of outsiders we love to see stand corruption and tyranny.

Without a clear hero and without clear villains, Black Panther is shades of gray all the way down. The intersections tear themselves apart, as crossroads always do. We have, of course, seen deconstructions of the superhero genre before. After Watchmen, we might even claim to have suffered a deluge of them. But few deconstructions of the capes-and-costumes genre have connected that deconstruction as closely to critiques of national relations of power, nor to the ways that the politics of nation are always already the politics of the individuals--from highest to lowest--from which the nation arises.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

To the Devil a Daughter

Bad Books for Bad People is back with its fourth episode, in which we turn our critical eye toward Dennis Wheatley's To the Devil a Daughter.

Ultra-prolific British pulp author Dennis Wheatley is best known for his occult thrillers, which combined Wheatley's fascination with magic with his conservative politics. Kate and Jack tackle his 1953 offering To the Devil A Daughter, which involves a mystery author and her interior decorator son who get enmeshed in an occult conspiracy when they delve too deeply into the mysterious young lady who becomes their neighbor on the French Riviera.
This month's guest reader is Kristen Korvette, founder and editor of Slutist, whose study of (and firsthand experience with) witches make her an ideal fit to read from a stuffy, ultra-conservative book about sinister Satanists.
Why does possession by the devil turn our imperiled heroine into someone vastly more awesome? Will a mutual hatred of taxes bring the novel's heroes into an understanding with the villains? Are our hosts secretly Dennis Wheatley villains themselves? How is Stalin involved in this whole mess? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
Intro/Outro Music: "The Devil's Skin" by Gein and the Graverobbers
Find us at BadBooksBadPeople.com, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


A lot of steampunk settings run shallow, but that is not the case with the post-apocalypse steampunk Seattle described in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Priest’s re-imagined Seattle has been left desolate and dangerous by the "trial run" of Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine–the "Boneshaker" in common parlance. The Boneshaker drilled under many buildings in the city (most notably the banks), which collapsed several structures. Worse yet, the drill released a toxic substance now known as Blight gas from deep within the earth; those who are exposed to too much Blight gas become rotters–that’s zombies, to you and me. In the aftermath of Blue’s experimental drill, Seattle was evacuated due to being overrun by rotters and Blight gas. Massive walls were erected to keep the gas and rotters contained (the gas is heavier than air), and the city was largely abandoned.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the city is uninhabited. Desperate and mad hold-outs still carve out an existence within the city walls. Doornails (as in, "Dead as a...") have created their own fortified enclaves, Chinese immigrants man massive air pumps to bring fresh air in from above the city’s walls, and scrappers search the refuse and rubble for items worthy of salvage.

The city isn’t as inaccessible as is generally assumed, either. Sky pirates can tether their airships above the walls to transport goods and people in or out of Seattle. Similarly, the tunnels that make up the water runoff system can be navigated to provide entrance to and escape from the city.

There is good reason to enter and leave the city, especially if you’re a ne’er-do-well of the criminal sort. Chemists have formulated a way to distill Blight gas into an addictive drug called lemon sap, so dealers rely on opportunist entrepreneurs to harvest the Blight gas from within the city’s walls and on rogue scientists to render the gas into its profitable form.

Of course, any sort of expedition into the city will be dangerous. The Blight gas that clings to the streets requires that any travelers don filtration masks and cover as much skin as possible (the gas is highly corrosive). The hordes of ravening rotters make stealthy movement a must. Additionally, the people who still live within Seattle are highly factionalized; straying into territory controlled by a group you don’t belong to is a recipe for an early grave.

However, as hardscrabble as Seattle is, efforts have been made to make it a more survivable place. The various inhabitants of the city have worked hard to create sealed-off areas that offer a haven of fresh air. These safe-zones are accessible by retractable ladders, platforms, and catwalks. (Rotters can climb, but not without difficulty.) Some of these safe harbors even contain a stock of refreshments for the weary traveler.

Furthermore, the city’s residents have heavily-fortified their regions against rotter incursions and against attacks from each other. Because occupying the upper stories of extant buildings risks exposure to the Blight gas, Seattle's survivors have build down into the earth, carving out subterranean kingdoms supplied with semi-fresh air. 

Twisting tunnels and secret doors offer a veritable city-beneath-the-city to explore. And with the amount of experimental steam-tech left over from Leviticus Blue’s experiments, to say nothing of the new creations doled out by the sinister, masked Dr Minnericht, there is surely enough loot here to tempt an outsider into delving Seattle.

Now that's some good world-building.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Dirtbag Dragonlance

I admit that I loved the first three Dragonlance books in junior high; I had pneumonia for a month at the end of 6th grade and read the first trilogy and thought they were the best thing EVER. Then I read them again at the end of high school and wondered what was wrong with me back in the 6th grade. Now, they seem better than most game-related fiction, but thematically and stylistically the world of Krynn seems flat and more than a bit dull. As a game world, the setting, plot, and characters possess zero moral ambiguity (even though the dominant moral compass seems hopelessly out of whack).

Still, I think we can work with this.

Instead of a Nice Guy Place where everyone has flowing hippie hair, what if we spun this as Dirtbag Krynn, a land where trailerpark denizens do batt‚le against other inbred jerkwads over the fate of a meth-faced planet?

* * *

As long as we’re being honest, we can admit that Tanis is lame as hell. His love-triangle plot is lame, his mixed-heritage outsider plot played out with a minimum of real drama, and he looks like he belongs in Fleetwood Mac. What if Tanis were more like this Red-Headed Stranger?:

How much cooler would Tanis be if he was a weed-smokin’ country outlaw? So much cooler. I’m pre‚tty sure Shotgun Willie would have no qualms about bedding both Laurana and Kitiara; hell, he’d probably maneuver them into a three-way.

Kender are a problem. They're kleptomaniacs and somehow also annoyingly cutesy-poo. In keeping with the aesthetics of Dirtbag Dragonlance, they become a new race: Meth Heads. Think about it, they’d still steal shit and act all jittery-spazzy.


Want to see what they serve at the Inn of the Last Home?

Dragons are, of course, a big part of Dragonlance. But in Dirtbag Krynn "dragon" is just what they call one of these:

Yeah, they come in different colors and shoot all sorts of killing-you-loudly stuff out the front. Done deal.

Dragonlances? Another nickname. For hyper-powered shotguns:

The Towers of High Sorcery? More like the Towers of Skynyrd, AC/DC, and ZZ Top. The Test of High Sorcery involves chugging Tussin and confronting the demons of rock, maaaaaaaaaaaan.




Draconians? Nah, nah, son. Juggalos:

Sunday, November 20, 2016


With its first issue published in 2013, Sandman: Overture arrived many years after Neil Gaiman's original Sandman run concluded in 1996. Overture is positioned as a prequel to the justly celebrated Sandman saga; it aims to flesh-out the previously hinted at conflict that left Morpheus weakened and vulnerable to capture by the occultist Roderick Burgess in the first issue of The Sandman series.

As a physical object, the deluxe edition of Overture is a fairly lavish affair. The hardcover is protected by a nice slipcover, there are multiple pull-out spreads, and eye-popping color-saturated psychedelic-inspired art--although sometimes the art crosses over into the realm of the garish.

Overture's story involves Morpheus attempting to undue a problem that he helped to create--a running theme of Sandman in general. In a galaxy other than our own, Morpheus let a dream vortex develop into a destructive state that claimed countless lives. This first dereliction of duties is followed swiftly by another; after Morpheus finally cleans up the mess create by his reticence to kill the vortex, he neglects to destroy a star that has become infected with the vortex's calamitous intent. The chaotic residue left over from Morpheus's failure to deal with the vortex in its entirety spreads like a cancer through multiple worlds connected by the Dreaming, threatening to destroy the universe as a whole.

And thus, a hero's journey is called for. In the company of a cat-ish aspect of himself (or so he thinks) and an orphaned girl named Hope, Morpheus must finish what he left unfinished, a feat compromised by other stars who bar the Sandman from his goal, and a host of other complications that encompass both external resistance and his own internal grappling with the responsibilities of his position and purpose. The connection to the previous Sandman comics is well-made; this Morpheus is one who again grapples with duty, the importance of storytelling, the nature of dreams, etc.

Where we have seen Gaiman pattern his own mythopoeia after Greek tragedy and Shakespeare drama, we now see him again return to Classical appropriation--but in Overture this takes a Freudian turn. His most direct route to resolving the dilemna of the mad star stymied, Morpheus must return to both Father and Mother for aid that hardly feels like aid. This, in itself, gestures to the most under-theorized aspect of the Oedipal complex--not the need to best the father and possess the mother, but rather the need to reveal both father and mother as intrinsic and inescapable elements of the self. When Morpheus deals with his father's stoic briskness and fetish for obligation and his mother's morbid consumption and blank satiety, he's really addressing those sides of his own personality and weighing his flaws against his own merits. The Oedipal call was coming from inside the house all along because Mom and Dad were never home to begin with.

Overture's unveiling of a new epic tangent that the Sandman series had yet to plumb is compelling, but also partially a misstep. Part of the power of myth is in the gaps--the spaces between the stars grant us telemetry by which to chart a course. By filling in some of the gaps of The Sandman--providing Morpheus with parents, especially parents as cliched as Time and Night--we lose a little mystery. Similarly, Overture is too apt to explain itself in ways that myths never do. For example, we are shown that the cat accompanying Morpheus was Desire all along, even though this was something that a mildly-astute reader would have surmised for themselves without the need of a reveal. Guessing at how a magic trick is performed is far more satisfying than getting confirmation. Overture is more successful when it lets the reader put the pieces together, as it does by not stating that his brief time with the orphaned Hope later inspired the finishing blow in Morpheus's battle in Hell.

Not everything can be Greco-Freudian, of course. In the end game, Morpheus must go biblical or go home. At Desire's prodding, he builds an ark and fills it with dreamers who can dream reality back into existence after the now-unavoidable catastrophic flood. And then we're back where we started, quivering within a summoning circle in the basement of an English manor house.

* * *

Many thanks to Scott Martin, who bought me a copy of Overture purely because he wanted me to talk about it. That's both generosity defined and an uncommon willingness to hear me natter. This one's for you, Scott.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Sporting Life of the Mind Flayers

Maybe in this campaign setting mind flayers won’t have the Squidface-from-Star-Wars-meets-low-grade-Cthulhu vibe we’re used to.

Rather, mind flayers will be a race of weird sentient squids that mind blast their enemies, climb atop their skulls while they’re stunned, bore into their craniums and start driving their victims around like a fleshy car.

When they’re done with a particular "vehicle" they eat his or her brain and find a new ride. These mind flayers are the Grand Theft Auto players of the Far Realm.

Perhaps mind flayers even have a sort of decadent NASCAR vibe where they actively hunt people who seem like they would be particularly fast...all because there is a grand footrace in which the mind flayers race their host bodies on a track lit by fungoid light deep within the Underdark.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mr. Mancible Raunch, Etterchap

Mr. Mancible Raunch is an arachnoid, but he prefers to be referred to as an etterchap. Raunchy, as he is known to his friends, has an absolute mania for clothes and accouterments of the latest style. He’s also a notorious ladies man; despite his unusually appearance, he has a charming manner and a number of women of various species pine after his spidery affections.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Raunch is simply an empty-headed fop. He currently serves as the Chief Operative of the Worthing & Moncrieff Detective Agency, an organization that functions much like a city-wide arm of "personal law enforcement" in Scarabae. The Worthing & Moncrieff Detective Agency employs a number of spies, investigators, guards, infiltrators, and (some say) strike-breakers. In his role within the company, Mancible Raunch assigns appropriate agents to tasks that suit their skills. As such, Raunch is an important man for crypt kickers to be on friendly terms with, as he has been known to employ hard-luck ne’er-do-wells as "independent contractors" for the Agency.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Protective Detournement in Fantasy Fiction: Reification and the Anxiety of Influence

Sword & Hood: the current face
 of fantasy reification
Reification only occurs in regards to literary genres when the rubber hits the road in marketing. Genres become stable, recognizable things only when a literary form is transformed into a commodity. The "Fantasy and Science Fiction" section at Barnes & Noble only exists because books that fall into the category of "Fantasy and Science Fiction" have proven themselves to be profitable when marketed according to that rubric. It is the libidinal economy of the publishing market that dictates the categorization of literature; often, this is a four-way complicity between writers who fit their imagination into pre-established modes, publishers looking to profit from marketable categorization, literary critics who prop up the internal mechanics of categorization, and readers who are willing to put up with artificial boundaries structuring their experience of literature.

The effect of literary reification is (at least) two-fold: the candy-coating shell only goes on the chocolate when its becomes apparent that the chocolate is worth money; the shell is there because it is the part you can put a logo on.

Additionally, once the other hopeful authors smell blood in the water (or milk in the chocolate), they know that if they want to swim with the big fish they're going to need to make their competing products fit the already-in-place shape provided by reification. Successful examples of "genre writing" begets imitators and derivatives. When Twilight was the unstoppable juggernaut of the publishing world, suddenly all these other books with Twilight-esque covers and content appeared on the shelves too. Even Pride & Prejudice started to look like it had some sparkle to it:

Literary reification, then, creates walls. But what of innovation within genre, those works that attempt to tear down walls and assert the primacy of different literary modalities? What work do they do and how do they do it?

We might look at "sword & sorcery" as a paradigmatic reaction against, or innovation away from, the Tolkienian strain of "high" fantasy that preceded it and that had necessarily become a reified form of fantasy fiction. Indeed, the phrase "sword & sorcery" was concocted to define how the fiction of Robert E. Howard was different from that of his predecessors. An exchange of ideas between Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber in the pages of various fanzines led to Leiber asserting, "I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!" (Amra, July 1961).

Of course, with time and the acceptance of sword & sorcery as a term of definitional power, it too became a literary reification with expected boundaries and internal literary conventions. Walls were built anew from the rubble left by the vandals at Tolkien's gates. Due to that reification, we now generally know what to expect from a novel marketed as belonging to the realm of swords & sorcery: barbarians with mighty thews, decadent civilizations vs. the vigor of the natural savage, personal danger instead of imperiled worlds, and protagonists dispossessed of moral certitude.

In the terms used by Deleuze & Guattari, Howard's rebellion against Tolkien-esque fantasy is the matter of mapping versus tracing. Tolkien's world is fully traced; Middle-earth is a closed system of unitary distinctions between signifier and signified, between ring and power. Howard's world, in contrast, is a mapping of the ecstatic elaboration of Conan as a metaphor that changes as he becomes reaver, conqueror, king, et al.

But if we see a shade of rebellion in the way that Howard's sword & sorcery tales do not conform to the literary conventions of high fantasy, there is iconoclastic dissension within the ranks of swords & sorcery as well. Michael Moorcock's Elric, for example, seems crafted as the antithesis of Howard's Conan: Conan is a barbarian, Elric is the ruler of an effete and decadent empire; Conan is strong and physical, Elric is weak and must rely on drugs and magic to live; Conan is a warrior, Elric is a learned sorcerer better suited to the book than the sword; Conan's sorrow is the boredom of peace, Elric's melancholy is that his peace will always be interrupted by the cruel machinations of fate.

We could read Moorcock's Elric series as a detournement of Howard's sword & sorcery tales, and especially as a detournement of the economics of the fantasy fiction marketplace. Nevertheless, Moorcock's intentions with Elric might have less to do with moving away from Howard's mode of fantasy adventure and more to do with clearing away the detritus that accumulated around Howard's vision; Elric isn't the antithesis of Conan, he is the antithesis of the economic reiteration of Conan across thousands of characters who are Conan in all but name. Elric doesn't battle with Conan in the economic arena, he battles against imitation, the watering-down of the imaginative power of fantasy by genre-based marketing, and especially the copycat authors who would steal the gift of fire from Howard.

(Note that Karl Edward Wagner further detourned sword & sorcery fiction not by reacting against Conan and Elric, but instead by crossing the streams and combining them as an admixture in his character Kane.)

This "protective detournement" is a peculiar form of the anxiety of influence. Its goal isn't to silence the previous poet's voice or to bury one's artistic father figure, but rather to save the progenitor from being overwritten and diminished by those who are content to speak falsely in the poet's voice or to prop him or her up as an effigy. 

By using the phrases of their influences to speak new sentences, those who practice protective detournement seek to keep the voice of their inspiration vital. The agon is not to compete against the father, but rather to strive against the sons and daughters who would wear his mantle as their own without having earned it.

This phenomenon is observable in fantasy fiction outside the confines of sword & sorcery as well. Although on the surface it may appear that George R. R. Martin's project is to revise the optimistic thrust of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle to account for the corruption in mankind's heart, the real aim is to keep Tolkien's form of storytelling current and accessible, modern and flexible. 

And yet, protective detournement itself is prone to the reification always already present in genre-creating, genre-bending, and genre-breaking--especially where economic success looms on the horizon. Martin may change the game from rings to thrones, but his detournement has already become another category of imitation and crass marketing; witness the rise and fecundity of the "gritty fantasy epic" that currently clogs the marketplace for fantasy fiction. And so the agon continues: swords against darkness and deviltry, certainly, but also against the reification of the imagination too.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Storm of Wings

A Storm of Wings is an incredibly frustrating book because the ways in which the author tries too hard and doesn't try hard enough collude against the story. M. John Harrison tries far too hard to convince the reader that the setting of his novel is dream-like, hallucinatory, and weird. That's a fine world-building goal in itself, but when one of your primary ways of achieving a phantasmagorical setting is to describe things over and over with the words “indescribable” and “alien,” you're actively avoiding engaging with language to show the reader how strange your fictive world is—you're telling the reader how odd it is, which (as a writing technique) has very little impact on the reader's aesthetic response.

Harrison's other technique for expressing the strangeness of his setting is similarly flawed; he tends to jam incongruous words together in a way meant to be surprising, misdirecting, and novel, but these lexicographic pile-ups often over-reach and come off as lazy shorthand that would be better better replaced by concrete description.  Also, Harrison is overly-pleased that certain words live in his vocabulary; “gamboge” and “hieratic” occur frequently within the text as pale markers of the author's self-assumed cleverness. The rarity of oft-unused words can't carry descriptive weight alone.

The saddest victim of Harrison's excesses and deficiencies is the pace of the novel's plot. Underneath all the verbiage and attempts at disorienting imagery lies a simple narrative core: the world is being invaded; unlikely heroes must assemble; the nature of the invaders needs to be uncovered; the invaders need to be stop and the world thus saved. This is an archetypal, but still enjoyable, narrative structure. But it seems that Harrison is embarrassed by how typical a story he is telling because he takes every opportunity to avoid telling it. 

Alternately, one may suppose that he's embarrassed at writing in the fantasy genre.

My copy of the book is about one-hundred and forty pages long; the first ninety pages are spent gathering the characters to their quest and illustrating their disaffection and alienation by the above mentioned means. The actual plot only really kicks in during the last forty pages of the book, and proceeds almost perfunctorily as a chore that has been put off but now must finally be done.

When the plot does lurch forward, it's clumsy on its feet. Despite spouting some of the worst attempts at nonsensical “alien” dialog ever committed to paper, the ghost of a spacefarer suddenly becomes lucid and drops a huge chunk of plot revelation because the author has been neglecting to seed bits of actual story throughout the narrative. Our ghost here is constantly farting and belching; this important because...? Ah yes, bodily functions signal weirdness or some such.

The tragedy of Storm of Wings is that Harrison is clearly capable of so much more. The Pastel City managed to tell a story directly while still presenting a unique world and making a case for the author's aesthetic taste. Although still excessive, though to a lesser extent, In Viriconium has a sort of lunatic charm. A Storm of Wings itself is littered with sparkling lines that are beautiful, true, and deserving of a better novel to bejewel. “We value our suffering. It is intrinsic, purgative, and it enables us to perceive the universe directly,” Harrison writes powerfully. Would that the rest of the book was built from this sense of direct perception, and not reliant on gimmicks of language and a dialectic of pretense and indolence.

That Time I Fixed the B/X Thief

Straight up: the thief sucks in B/X D&D. It's the only class that is actually bad at its core shtick. 

But we can fix that. Above you see the rather baroque and over-complicated division of thief ability scores and their chance of success per level. My advice: just use the Hear Noise column for all Activities Thiefly in Nature.

This also means that you can assign a 1 in 6 chance of success to non-thieves trying to do Thiefly Stuff.


(This was an old idea I had from years ago that someone asked to see again, so here it is, posted for posterity.)

Monday, November 7, 2016


We played a lot of TORG in high school, when we weren't playing D&D or Warhammer FRP. If you aren’t familiar with it, here’s the basic premise: earth has been invaded by a bunch of different "realities." Each of these realities is a different genre, so there is generic fantasy reality invading Great Britain, a cyberpunk reality invading Japan, a pulp reality invading Egypt, etc.

Do you ever look wistfully at your shelves and shelves of games and think, "Man, I wish I could run some of these settings I’ve accumulated over the years?"

Why not run them all at once?

What if earth was invaded by the "realities" of the game settings you’ve got collecting dust? 

Here’s how I’d go about it (click to enlarge):  

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Three Views of the Basilisk

- Hanns Heinz Ewers, Alraune

- Paracelsus

- Jorge Luis Borges, Book of Imaginary Beings

Friday, November 4, 2016

Other Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings

D&D has three classic "demihuman" (ugh) races, which have accumulated some fairly generic lore over the years. Consider the following as one way to re-flavor dwarves, elves, and halflings while keeping their core conceits:

Dwarves aren’t greedy; rather, they are addicted to finding. The joy of a dwarf is the joy of discovery, of excavation, of beholding the unearthed. That curious, proximate joy can be measured by the length between an object’s disappearance from the world and its dwarven rediscovery. An item recovered after a few years of laying lost will give a dwarf a momentary, fleeting shiver of pleasure, but a dwarf can be sent into paroxysms of jouissance at the uncovering of an item from a long undreamt past age. Nevertheless, all findings, even climatic rediscoveries, are transient pleasures. A dwarf must seek the forgo‚en anew and hope to find something even more elder and misplaced in order to simply feel. For this reason, dwarfs are most commonly found within the Sea of Rust, where they mine the silt of decay for remnants of eras now past.

Those who are now elves were once gods. Among the fey they were peerless; they were worshiped by goblin, sprite, and leprechaun, and that devotion transformed them into divine manifestations of Faerie itself. But when men arose and prospered upon the Earth, they did not deign to bend their prayers to the dimly-perceived elves of Faerie. As men grew in numbers and asserted belief in their own gods, the elves grew weaker until they were reduced in mystic strength below the fey that once offered them blood sacrifice. This diminution of status from godling to long-lived mortal drove the elves mad; each elf possesses a sliver of retained divine intelligence, but it struggles against confinement within the contours of a mortal brain. All elves are haunted by the memories of their former godhood. Worse yet, these memories are not just recollections of the gloried past, but also persistent reflections of the future and of presents that represent other, unfulfilled potentialities that will never come to pass. The elven mind struggles to sort through this confusion of omniscient experience and remain present in the moment-to-moment flow of time—to others the elves seem hopeless fey and lost in the tumult of their own lost transcendence.

Halflings are not born; they are made by the dark magic of hags and left in place of a stolen human child as a changeling. The viciousness of hags is legendary—they rear the pilfered child as their own, raising them to be pawns in their war against humanity, and leave a halfling behind as a joke on the bereft human parents. Indeed, the name “halfling” is a cruel mockery: their stunted bodies are only half at home in a world made for larger folk and as their inhuman parentage is discovered they are destined to only find half as much love from their foster parents as the natural child would have been given. To be a halfling is to be Byronic, morose, and desperately ravenous for more of everything that is denied them; halflings live in a constant existential morass of half-emptiness—nothing satisfies, nothing sates, and nothing fulfills. They seek half again as much food as the hungriest man, half again as much adventure as even the most curious explorer, and half again as much wine, pleasure, and love as the most debauched libertine. They are both a satire on mankind and a satyr of mankind.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Jack of All Trade's Pulau-Pulau

What the gaming scene really needs is a campaign setting that is just absolutely miserable. I’m talking about a world of mud, rain, and deformed peasants. Someplace where the available classes are Cripple, Syphilitic, and Bastard. (Multiclassing is possible; you can be a Syphilitic Cripple or Syphilitic Bastard, but the XP requirements are pretty hefty.) This is a world filled with monsters that would as soon give you a blood-eagle as look at you, but the real monsters are the brain-damaged townsfolk and the toothless administrators motivated only by greed and bloodlust. This is a setting in which nothing will ever get better, and in which a Heavy Maiming chart will be consulted for every hit–critical or no. Let’s not even talk about the detailed rules I’m homebrewing to cover infections, equipment breakage, and random miasma clouds.

Just kidding, there is already a ton of that kind of setting being played.

Let's do this instead:

Precis: An island in the East Indies where bumbling-yet-oppressive French imperialists are stymied by swashbuckling American and European secret agents.
Conspectus: Ruled by Governor Croque and Captain Brogard in the name of Napoleon Bonaparte; improbable steam-powered inventions; intrigue, spy games, and general skullduggery; incompetent French soldiers clashing with masked heroes fighting for the people’s justice; historical anachronisms abound; missions delivered by revolutionary-minded parrots; guests appearances by Lewis & Clark, the Marquis de Sade, Blackbeard, Thomas Jefferson, and, of course, Napoleon; swordplay, swinging on chandeliers, cape-swishing; pirates, insurrectionists, assassins; so many puns.

How I'd Do Pulau-Pulau as a Savage Worlds Setting
Setting Rules I'd Use From the Savage Worlds Deluxe book: Heroes Never Die, High Adventure

Some new setting rules:

Everything is a Weapon
Jack of All Trades is full of swashbuckling action; even though the characters usually fight with rapiers and sabers, they also often use the environment to fight one another. To help encourage the use of items in the background (stray ropes on the dockside, flipped tables at an elegant party, etc.) drop all penalties for improvised weapons and assign them damage dice that exceed what you would assign in a more "realistic" setting. Also, let them be used creatively (with a bonus to the roll) for Agility and Smarts tricks.

You Can’t Take the Pun-ishment
Anyone making a wise-crack or pun right before making an attack gets a +1 bonus to their Fighting, Shooting, or Throwing roll.

Arcane Backgrounds: Weird Science, maybe pull in Alchemy from Regime Diabolique.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Total Skull - Horror Movies Watched in Oct. 2016

Starry Eyes is like a less stylish Neon Demon that substitutes aspiring actresses for aspiring models. The plot has more substance to it than Refn's film, but it still manages to be underdeveloped and underwhelming. The pull quote on the cover about how it is like Cronenberg and Lynch coming together in one film couldn't be farther from an accurate statement--where is the psychological depth, the willingness to get weird?

The conceit of Behind the Mask is that we're watching a documentary being filmed about a potential killer who wants to follow in the footsteps of Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, and Freddy Krueger. It's semi-comedic, and blatantly referential to all the tropes of the slasher genre. You'll see the final act's twist coming a mile away, but you could do worse than this movie.

In Let Us Prey a precinct of police officers and a number of apprehended criminals go through a rather biblical dark night of the soul. The narrative weight of themes that revolve around the nature of sin, redemption, and judgment is spoiled by a gonzo and often nonsensical plot. Does no one near the police station hear the gunshots happening within the building or notice that it is on fire? 

I've watched The Descent a bunch of times, and I never get bored with it. The claustrophobia, the brutality, the moral bleakness...this is a horror movie I unreservedly recommend. It's a modern classic of the genre. The horror of what's going on within the caves is excellent, but the horror going on between the characters is even better.

I've been obsessed with this V. C. Andrews's Gothic novel since I read it, so I figured I should give the recent Lifetime adaptation a chance. Mistakes were made. Nearly everything that makes the novel an insane psycho-sexual roller coaster is absent here. 

I love a good historical ghost story, but unfortunately The Awakening wastes a decently atmospheric build-up on a convoluted final third. I really liked that the central character was a strong, seance hoax-busting woman, and I also enjoyed the added atmosphere lent by the trauma of World War I, but ultimately the contrived ending didn't do the rest of the film justice.

Tomb of Ligeia isn't the strongest movie in the canon of Roger Corman's adaptation of Poe's stories, but let's be honest: I'll gladly watch any Corman-helmed Poe riff if it has Vincent Price in the lead. Admittedly, the film has about two climaxes too many, but this is cinematic comfort food for me.

It turns out that watching Scarlett Johansson--even if she's playing an extraterrestrial predator--pick up and dispose of a series of men is actually pretty boring. The long close-ups of her face and interminable shots of driving didn't help.

De Palma's cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's novel is less about the anxiety surrounding adolescent sexuality, and more focused on the prurient adult interest in adolescent sexuality. The opening scene, framed as a soft core porn enticement, gives way to the horror of watching. Also note the gym teacher's unhealthy obsession with her students and the ways in which Mrs. White's fixation on sin and repression function as a voyeuristic doubling.

Heavy on atmosphere, light on scares, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is an odd little meditation on what really produces spectrality, and its close relationship to spectatorship. And I do mean meditation; if you like your movies action-packed, this quiet little number is not for you. Even fans of slower, moodier pieces might need to approach this one in the right frame of mind.