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Weird Revisited: Middle Earth with More Pulp

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 03/16/2020 - 11:00
"Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Númenor and the gleaming cities, and the years of the Fourth Age, there was an Age undreamed of, when realms of Elf, Man, and Dwarf lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. . . Hither came Aragorn of the Dúnedain, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a ranger, a wander, a chieftain, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the thrones of Arda under his feet." - The Red Book of WestmarchI posted that bit of Howardian remix on G+ yesterday goofing around, but it's a serious idea: What would Middle-earth be if presented in a more pulp fantasy (not just Robert E. Howard) sort of way? You could do a really comprehensive overall, sure, where maybe only the names remain the same, but I think a few tweaks here and there would make a big difference. Just take a look at things that are already pretty pulpy: 1) a fallen age following the sinking of a "Atlantis"; (2) Orders of beings with some more advanced and others more degenerate than others; (3) a lot of ruins strewn about; (4) a lot of wilderness separating civilized areas; (5) Magic (to the extent it is practiced by Men--i.e. humans) seems the province of sorcerers who are engaged with evil forces.

So let's start with Eriador, also called the Lone-Lands, which is pretty cool, because that's where the stories do, and see how it goes. Eriador is definitely a "Points of Light" place; a former advanced kingdom where most of the cities have fallen into ruin after a war with a Witch-King.


Witch-King Cultists: When a guy named the Witch-King used to rule, I think there probably should be hidden enclaves (or whole villages) fallen to his service and maybe worship of Sauron or Morgoth. They probably also engage in sacrifices commiserate with their Satanic cultist behavior.

The Rangers of the North: The Dúnedain who struggled against the Witch-King were descendants of Numenoreans (like Conan was a descendant of Atlanteans). After their defeat they become badass wilderness types organized into tribes or bands, I'd guess. They're about as much "barbarian" as Conan is, except they're in tight with elves. They roam the wilderness and hunt orcs and trolls (and probably those Witch-King cults). They could be part frontier lawmen, but also a lot like the settlers described in Howard's "Beyond the Black River":  "They were all gaunt and scarred and hard-eyed; sinewy and taciturn."

Replace the Picts in those Pictish Border Howard stories with orcs or Hill-men, and you've got it. Or replace Solomon Kane in any of a few of his stories with a lone ranger (heh), and that works as well.

Woses: Speaking of Picts, a couple of Howard's Pict stories are perfect inspiration for the mistreated, more primitive Drúedain. Check out "The Lost Race." Here's a perfect description:
"Scarce above four feet stood the tallest, and they were small of build and very dark of complexion. Their eyes were black; and most of them went stooped forward, as if from a lifetime spent in crouching and hiding; peering furtively on all sides. They were armed with small bows, arrows, spears and daggers, all pointed, not with crudely worked bronze but with flint and obsidian, of the finest workmanship. They were dressed in finely dressed hides of rabbits and other small animals, and a kind of coarse cloth; and many were tattooed from head to foot in ocher and woad" Hill-Men: Again speaking of Picts, in either Howards frontier stories or some of his other Pictish yarns where their degeneration is more sinister (after Machen) and less sad, the Hill-Men can be those sort of Picts. A little degeneration won't hurt. They're really likely to be those cultists mentioned above, too.


The towns: As to the civilized or more settled areas of Eriador. I strongly support MERP's idea that Tharbad (before it was a ruin) was a decaying city of cutthroats and thieves. A standard Conan tavern ought to fit in well, in any of those towns, too. Just substitute "Brythunian" with "Breeland" and you're good to go.

Elves from the Broken Sword

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 03/15/2020 - 14:00

The elves of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword are like the standard elves of D&D to the extent they both share similarities to Tolkien's elves (in the case of Anderson's book, it's because they share the same sources), but are very different in other ways: they are haughty and cruel, more classic faerie-like, invisible to human's without witchsight and vulnerable to iron.

Here's an elven subrace for 5e that is a bit more like Anderson's version than the standard D&D ones:
Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 1.Elf Weapon Training. You have proficiency with the longsword, shortsword, shortbow, and longbow.Cantrip. You know one cantrip of your choice from the wizard spell list. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for it.Fleet of Foot. Your base walking speed increases to 35 feet.Iron Sensitivity. Iron weapons do +1 damage against one. You cannot wear iron weapons or armor, or even touch it without taking 1 point of damage per round.

Why Ants?

The Splintered Realm - Sat, 03/14/2020 - 20:28
I think it's a fair question. Of my three 'properties', Army Ants is the most niche. It's got the smallest audience. It doesn't have the potential broad appeal of fantasy games. It doesn't have the competitiveness (and money-making ability) of supers gaming. It is, consistently, my lowest-performing major 'brand'.

So why the heck do I keep coming back to it?

It's a fair question, and one I ask myself a lot. Why wouldn't I work on something that people are more willing to pay for? Why wouldn't I develop a game that has a larger potential market? I think that there are two primary reasons...

1. Themes and Story. This is the big one. Army Ants keeps confronting me with the same themes that have always been interesting to me: the role of the individual in a society, sacrifice and friendship, grit in the face of adversity. Good vs. evil. These are hard-wired into the heart of the Army Ants world, and I get to continually refine these in new directions.

In addition, I conceived of an Army Ants 'super narrative' about twenty years ago, and I've never had a chance to tell the whole story. When I sit down to write about it, I'm not 'making things up'. It's all there, already largely formed in my subconscious. I'm just telling you a story that's already happened.

2. It's me. My fantasy game will never (ever) be more than a shadow of the grand-daddy of them all. I think it's a great, simple, clean knock off. But, at the end of the day, it's a knock off. It gives me a chance to re-create the game I loved growing up. That is powerful. But, every time I walk into a game or book store, I cannot help but marvel at the quality and quantity of content for D+D that I will never be able to replicate. The supers game is the same way, but with a different set of limitations. My game world (which is a big part of what I think makes a supers game tick) is never going to be more than a mashup of and reaction to the big two comic book universes. At the end of the day, that game is attempting to emulate someone else's material, not to forge my own.

Army Ants doesn't have any of those limitations. Nobody is doing Army Ants better than me. There is no external yardstick that I'm inevitably falling short of.

The other nice thing is that with Army Ants, I'm lingering in the shadows of some of my favorite worlds. Tolkien was mocked by the scholarly community for writing about hobbits and dwarves. Richard Adams and Stan Sakai have crafted stories around rabbits. Dave Sim did 300 issues about an aardvark. These are some of the people I most admire as a creator, and it feels like Army Ants is my world. It's where I want to spend my time. 

Weird Revisited: Adventuring in The Time of Plague

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 03/13/2020 - 11:00
This post originally appeared in 2010, but recent events brought it to mind...


A little light reading about the Plague of Justinian the other day (and the plague of no home internet access I continue to suffer) got me to thinking about the use of epidemics or even pandemics in gaming. Obviously, succumbing to infectious disease isn’t the most adventurous way to die, but plagues, particularly big ones, have a tendency to cause a great deal of social, economic, and religious upheaval, which is the perfect backdrop for an rpg campaign, or fodder for adventures.

First a few terms. An “epidemic” occurs when the outbreak of new cases of a particular disease exceeds the expected number for a given population. This is, as the definition suggests, somewhat subjective. A “pandemic” is when epidemic conditions exist over a wide geographic area--possibly even the whole world.

The most famous historical pandemic is probably the Black Death which affected Eurasia, and peaked in Europe around 1350. Low-end estimates have it killing a third of Europe’s population. The traditional culprit was thought to be bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, though their are some new theories.

The societal effects were profound. Depopulation meant fewer people to farm, and that coupled with livestock plagues, and climatic changes lead to famine and starvation. Fearful people blamed convenient scape-goats--often Jews--and Jewish communities were wiped out in some places. Fringe religious groups like the Brotherhood of Flagellants became more widespread.

The Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) is also thought to have been caused by bubonic plague. This plague may have weakened Byzantium enough that Justinian I was unable to reconquer Italy, shattering any hopes of reconstitute a whole Roman Empire. It may have also weakened Byzantium for its coming face-off with the Arabs a century later.

Y. pestis isn’t the only malefactor out there. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, and typhus caused pandemics before the the 20th century. Measles, yellow fever, and dengue fever never had the same spread, but have caused localized epidemics. Of course, in a fantasy world plagues might be more exotic, even magical in nature.

I can think of three broad ways a plague could be used in gaming. The first is plague as background color. Carts of dead, or oddly dressed plague doctors might just be part of the general ambience of a setting--particularly one with a grubby, "real" Middle Ages feel. It could be treated seriously, or darkly humorous.

The second is plague as apocalypse. As its been pointed out before, there is a post-apocalyptic element to the implied setting of D&D. Perhaps the apocalypse isn’t just a remote event, but ongoing? This could cast the player’s not as pioneers on the frontier, but as defenders of the fire of civilization. This might or might not have implications on the sort of adventures had, or it might just influence the tone.

The third is plague as campaign focus. Maybe the point of the whole campaign is defeating the forces of evil behind the plague? It could be introduced early, as a minor background element, but as more people succumb to the disease it grows in importance. Eventually, finding a cure might become the PC’s central concern, but only after its grown “naturally”( or unnaturally).

Weird Revisted: Demonland

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 03/12/2020 - 11:00
Art by quiteproustianThe promiscuousness of infernal beings is well-known, so it isn't surprising that by-blows of their trysts are found among mortals. While rare in most of the world, those with infernal blood are the majority of the populous in Demonland1, a city-state across the mephitic Wastes from the Country of Sang. Why so many descendants of infernal bloodlines should be found in one place is a mystery, but perhaps the area had a sulfurous air of hominess for their grandsires and granddams.

Demonland proper is built upon a cluster of small islands in a lake formed by hot springs. The boiling, caustic, malodorous waters are a perfect defense --though they also make life less pleasant for the inhabitants. Demonland’s potable water comes from filtered rainwater collect in cisterns and also by magical purification of the water of the lake itself. The city is only accessible by boat and all goods and visitors make the trip over by ferry.


Demonland is nominally ruled by a Duke (or Duchess), and though this ruler’s power is theoretically absolute, it is most commonly exercised in throwing lavish revelries at which the true rulers of the city go masked. These princes (and their masks) represent the seven capital vices exalted in Demonlander religion and culture. The prince of each vice is officially appointed by the Duke but in practice is more or less elected by general consensus, as the Duke shrewdly defers to the inclinations of the mob. They serve for an indefinite tenure, usually a year and a day. The princes are meant to most perfectly embody their vice, and would-be candidates campaign vigorously (all except the candidates for Prince of Sloth, of course) for the title by engaging in the most audacious (and public) displays of sinfulness to capture the jaded hearts of the populous. The princes hold absolute authority with regard to the practice of the vice they personify and make legal proclamations and levy taxes or duties that might be pertinent as they see fit. They are allowed to keep a percentage of any monies collected for themselves.

Diabolism is the state religion of Demonland. It inverts the morality of most human faiths, promoting vice and condemning virtue. Self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure are valued over altruism and self-denial; Greed and vanity are extolled, and charity and modesty condemned. Demonlanders, however, are only a trifle less likely to fall short of the ideals of their faith than folk elsewhere, so their practice of immorality is as prone to lapses as the practice of morality in other lands.

Art by Arthur Asa1. The correct demonym is "Demonlander." Never call a Demonlander a "demon" as this is both inaccurate and rude. "Tiefling" is just as bad.

The Half-Seen Tower

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 03/09/2020 - 11:00
Art by Petr PassekOur 5e Land of Azurth game continued last night with the party trying to find a way to close the portal to the Umbral Realm after having slain the shadow drakes. Nothing they try seems to work. They do discover the missing artifacts of the cervine centaur people (and 3 shadows in the process), and glimpse a partially ruined tower in the near distance, but only when the roiling shadow rising from the portal passes between them and it. Otherwise, it's invisible.

They decide to investigate, but first thing's first: return the artifacts to the tribe. Waylon and Erekose surreptitiously decide to Identify the items first, lest they turn over something truly valuable to the forest dwelling folk. The staff is nothing magical. The diadem is, but the specifics are hard to understand. Waylon asks Tualla if they might borrow for a while, but after Shade intervenes the matter is dropped.

But on the way back to the tribe's encampment they discover another enemy. A pale, black-eyed elf and a couple of hulking humanoids of unknown type are threatening a yearling of the tribe. When Erekose and Kully intervene, the elf and companions make their escape. The kid tells them they wanted to know about "the strangers that killed the drakes."

Shade will brook no child-threatening, so the party tracks them through a shadow-darkened mire to a dark, unwholesome pond surrounded by tall grass--and the half-ruined tower. Ever on the lookout for valuables, Erekose spies a glint of gold in the grass 'round the pond. It turns out to be a ring on the pinky digit of a half-decayed, severed hand.

Waylon tries to get the ring via mage hand, while Waylon goes in closer to investigate and a putrid undead thing rises from the muck to attack. Then another!


While the party is fighting the creatures, someone hidden snipes at them with poison arrows. When they are finally able to catch a glimpse of them, it's two more of the strange elves. The snipers press the party hard, but eventually 7 against two, causes one to beat a retreat and leaves the other asleep in the grass--a captive for interrogation.

East of Caldwellia, West of Elmoreon

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 03/08/2020 - 14:00
In recent discussions of vanilla fantasy, my friend Paul (owner of the long-hiatused blog, Dungeonskull Mountain) and I have bandied about the idea of an "80s fantasy" world. While we perhaps don't share exactly the same vision for that, both of us agree that famous D&D artists of mid-1e to 2e eras--particularly Clyde Caldwell, Larry Elmore, and Keith Parkinson--play a big part in that.

The visuals are clear and distinct, but is there a setting in the work of these artists distinct from just generic D&D?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think we can say make guesses as to what elements it may have and what elements it does not.

Glamorous Not Grotty
Glamorous might be a little strong, but hey, alliteration! Anyway, we are certainly not in the Dung Ages, or any version of gritty pseudo-Medieval verisimilitude.

Complicated Costumes and Culture
Compared to work of Frazetta, Kelly, or Vallejo, the clothing of the characters has a lot going on: fur trim, feathers, scales, etc. This tends to be true even when female characters are scantily clad. It's all more renfair that Conan. This suggests (to me) more of a high fantasy world than a sword & sorcery one, and an interest in visually defining cultures that doesn't get into the heavy worldbuilding of a Glorantha or Tekumel, but is definitely of the "needs a glossary at the end of the book" level.

Dragons & Drama
There are an awful lot of dragons. I mean,  they're showing up all the time. And often characters are confronting them in a way that suggest they are big, powerful heroes, not the type to die pointless in holes in the ground. The another name for high fantasy is epic fantasy, and that's what these images often convey.

A Touch of Humor
Despite the epicness and high drama, things are seldom if ever grim. In fact, from adventures posing with the tiny dragon they slew, to a muscular female fighter manhandling an ogre, a bit of humor is pretty common.

Red-Eyed Goblin

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 03/06/2020 - 12:00
A goblin made with Hero Forge, colors accurate to the AD&D Monster Manual, except the hair where I had to guess.

And here's a Hobgoblin:


Weird Revisited: Different Dwarves for 5e

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 03/05/2020 - 12:00
Relevant to my earlier post on vanilla fantasy...


The Tolkien-inspired, Nordic-derived dwarves of standard D&D aren't the only dwarven subraces out there. There is another dwarvish tradition: a more folklore and fairytale one. The dwarves of the Country of Yanth in the Land of Azurth are that sort of dwarf.

Compared to the average D&D dwarf, they tend to be more social and affable. They are fond of good food and drink and are renowned brewers. While they may be miners or metalworkers, they are not as oriented toward these tasks as others of their race, and are just as likely to loggers, woodworkers, or farmers.They have no more love or precious metals or jewels than humans.

Unless otherwise noted, the folkloric dwarf subrace has the traits of the standard dwarf.

Art by Jerad S. MarantzAbility Score Increase. Wisdom increased by 1.
Lucky. Like a Halfling's.
Size. Folkloric dwarves vary more in height than other dwarven races. Most are medium, but a few are under 4 foot and so small.
Dwarven Combat Training. They eschew the battleaxes and hammers employed by other dwarves, but are handy with the axe and short sword.
Tool Proficiency. Their choices for proficiency are smith's tools, brewer's supplies, cobbler's tools, woodcarver's tools, or cook's utensils.

Wednesday Comics: Bronze Age Book Club - Marvel Spotlight #33

Sorcerer's Skull - Wed, 03/04/2020 - 12:00
Last week saw a new episode of the Bronze Age Book Club podcast released Friday.


Listen to "Episode 15: MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #33" on Spreaker.

How to Create Your Own Country for Tax Reasons

Dungeoncomics - Tue, 03/03/2020 - 13:30
An arcology is a portmanteau of "architecture" and "ecology." The original architectural vision for an arcology was an ecologically neutral, self-powering, self-feeding, and self-sufficient enclosed system.

My Flavor of Vanilla

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 03/02/2020 - 13:10

Since my post on my occasional craving for vanilla fantasy, I've been thinking about what sort of vanilla setting I would do, if I was to do one. At least, what sort I'm leaning toward right now.

I would start with a setup substantially similar to Tolkien's Middle-Earth at the start of the Lord of the Rings. A great war, devastated the shining human kingdoms of the West. Amid the ruins are scattered petty kingdoms and free cities, "points of light" in the D&D parlance, dominated by the Small Folk--dwarfs mostly, but more of the folklore or fairytale variety than a Tolkienian one.


There are still humans there, of course, but the human dominated lands are mostly to the South. Elves exist too, but they are diminished (quite literally) from their Golden Age. They were once fairy lords, but now the elves of the West are short in stature and decidedly less magical. The Dwarf Folk view the elves with some suspicion, since some of their race sided with the forces of darkness.


The approach would be a bit more The Hobbit than Lord of the Rings; leaning more whimsical than epic. The 1937 original version of The Hobbit would be the most central of Tolkien's work. Other influences include Weirdworld, Wally Wood's Wizard King series, selected stories from Lord Dunsany, Scott Driver's Dwarf-Land, and bits of The Princess of the Goblin and a smidge of my own Land of Azurth, particularly some early ideas that got abandoned.

Launch Day: Part Two

The Splintered Realm - Mon, 03/02/2020 - 02:09
So, I'm not done with Army Ants news for the day. Hey, I promised the ants were on the march. For the next year or so, I plan to re-release the entire comics run of the MTDAA series, including some unfinished pages and a little bit of new connective tissue. I'm calling this Michael T. Desing's Army Ants remastered, and I will be sharing it on Tumblr. 

In the process, I am going back and re-scanning the original pages, or the best copies I can find. I am going to re-letter the entire comic using a font instead of the hand lettering, sharpening up the pages and doing touch-ups as needed. Since I am going a page a day, I can take the time to really clean this up to have a polished looking master set of pages at the end to do some sort of deluxe print edition. I've posted page one, and I hope you notice the difference between the versions.







Enter the Lumberlands!

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 03/01/2020 - 15:00

Erik Jensen of the Wampus Country blog and related publications is Kickstarting a new zine in that setting called Lumberlands: 

"...spend some time in the misty Lumberlands, a vast expanse of enchanted forest where brawny lumberjacks ply their trade, seek adventure and fortune, and defend the frontier from horrible sasquatches."

I loved playing in Erik's Wampus Country game in the days of G+ and I'm pleased it's been resurrected in this zine. Check it out!

MTDAA Twilight Has Arrived

The Splintered Realm - Sun, 03/01/2020 - 13:43
What if the B/X engine was used to create a mashup of a certain 1980s para-military post apoc game, another game set in a world of rampaging mutants, and the coolest elite military unit comic of all time?
It would probably look like this.
Michael T. Desing’s Army Ants: Twilight is two things: first, it’s an ongoing narrative about a group of ants at the end of the Ant/Wasp War, © Michael T. Desing. It is also a roleplaying game for two or more players, released under the Open Game License.
As a reader, you will hopefully decide to follow the exploits of a team of army ants on their greatest, and possibly final, adventure.
As a player, you will take on the role of an army ant or an allied bug, traversing the wilds. You will join with a team of other bugs to overcome the challenges that the referee places before you. You will use these rules, an assortment of dice, and your imagination to craft a shared tale of your adventures.
This core ruleset, which is also the first issue of the ongoing series, is released as a PWYW book in glorious full color, the way the 1980s would have wanted.
As part of the "Army Ants are on the MARCH" promotion, all other Michael T. Desing's Army Ants titles are also PWYW through March 31! Now is the time to get caught up on all things army ant.

One Day More

The Splintered Realm - Sat, 02/29/2020 - 21:23
Michael T. Desing's Army Ants: Twilight launches tomorrow, and I have a few little tricks up my sleeve yet to come. I finished edits today, and I'm very happy with this game. It is a tight little game - this is the game I wanted to write 25 years ago, but I just didn't have the chops to do it yet.

I look forward to sending it out to the world tomorrow, and I'm excited to hear what you think.


The Ants Are Ready to MARCH

The Splintered Realm - Fri, 02/28/2020 - 18:29
From now through the end of March, all MTDAA releases are up as pay-what-you-want downloads. If you have some holes in your MTDAA library, now is the time to fill them. This month will also see the release the the MTDAA: Twilight RPG, which uses the same system (and fundamental layout) as Tales of the Splintered Realm. It's a B/X retro style version of MTDAA with shades of Twilight 2000 and Gamma World. I expect it to be out early next week; I'm in final edits right now, and want to make sure that all the tweaks are sufficiently tweaked before I tweet. Or something like that.


Play Test Report

The Splintered Realm - Thu, 02/27/2020 - 12:27
I play tested the rules about multiple actions. I am trying out something that’s quite the departure for me; as a bug, you get a number of attacks each round equal to your level. Predators don’t get this benefit.
I created a level 5 red ant ranger and had him go off in search of an assassin bug who was holed up in a hut. There were four guards out front of the hut, four gnats who were keeping watch. My ranger, Nix, made is sneak check easily, and got within range. With his scope, he has a range of 8, so he was able to target them from 8 cm. He got five attacks, and hit with four of five shots, taking out all five gnats with surprise.
This got the attention of the assassin bug, who returned fire. They both had light cover, so the two exchanged several gunshots for a few rounds, but Nix was clearly superior. He took 14 points of damage out of his 50 hit points during the fight.
However, the gunfire attracted a tree frog, that attacked with surprise at the end of the round. This combat was a lot of fun; Nix got a few shots off before the frog hit him with a tongue strike and started dealing automatic bite damage. His weapon jammed and then he dropped it (with a series of 1s) and he had to pull out his survival knife. He started hacking at the frog, and ended up finishing it with 11 hit points left.
I really liked the multiple attacks per round, even for enemies. I like that a single powerful foe can fight an entire team at once; a level 3 bug can fire three times per round, giving him a lot of versatility in selecting targets.
I also like that there is a different ‘feel’ to the game between battling other bugs and predators. Other bugs pepper you with many small attacks, whereas predators are slower, but when they hit it packs a wallop.
I feel like damage doesn’t ramp up as much in this game as in the fantasy and supers games, so having the number of attacks increase offsets this. I like the subtle way that combat ‘feels’ different for this game rather than the fantasy game. It plays very fast. 

Weird(world) Revisited: Middle Earth the Mighty Marvel Way

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 02/27/2020 - 12:00
My recent post on "vanilla" fantasy made me think of Weirdworld and this post from 2010...

"For those who thrilled to J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"--An All New Adventure into Epic Fantasy!"

So cried the cover blurb on Marvel Premiere #38, the second appearance--first in color--of Marvel's decidedly un-Sword & Sorcery fantasy series. As such, it stands as an interesting artifact in comics history, fitting neither with the pulp inspired fantasies of earlier comics, or the D&D-influenced ones that were to follow.

The titular "Weirdworld" is a fantasy land inhabited by dwarves, elves, and goblins, and perpetually under threat from wicked sorcerers and other magical menaces. Its protagonists are two elves--Tyndall and Velanna--who are outcasts with mysterious (even to themselves) pasts. Their obligatory companion and comedy relief is Mud-Butt, an irascible dwarf.

Tyndall starts out solo and in black and white in Marvel Super Action #1, where he good-naturedly undertakes a quest on behalf of bigoted dwarvish villagers in "An Ugly Mirror on Weirdworld" (1976). Velanna joins him by that story's end, and they run afoul of a rejuvenation-seeking sorcerer in Marvel Premiere #38 (1977). Their next appearance, publication wise, would see them travelling with Mud-Butt to the City of Seven Dark Delights and crossing paths with the sorcerous Dark Riders, who were seeking to resurrect their fallen god, Darklens. The defeat of Darklens and the discovery of other elves, were related in the three part epic, "Warriors of the Shadow Realm" in Marvel Super Special #11-13 (1979). Epic Illustrated #9, and #11-13, in 1981 and '82, featured the "Dragonmaster of Klarn" storyline, that revealed more about the mysterious elves and their relationship with dragons. Finally, in 1986, Marvel Fanfare vol. 1 #24-26 saw a lost tale of Weirdworld--the first meeting of Mudd-Butt and the two elves, and vanquishing of yet another evil sorcerer. Work on this story had actually began back in the seventies, but it had been left unfinished.

Weirdworld was the creation of Doug Moench, and artistically designed, at least initially, by Mike Ploog. "Warriors of the Shadow Realm" had art by John Buscema, and featured a redesigned Mud-Butt--though no one knew it, since Ploog's original design didn't see print until nearly a decade later. Pat Roderick provided the pencils for the last two Marvel Fanfare issues.


I would have thought Weirdworld bore the influences of Bakshi's animated fantasy features Wizards and The Lord of the Rings--but it actually predates both of them. Any artistic resemblance may be due to Ploog's reported involvement in those two projects, or it may be coincidental. Tolkien would seem to be a likely source, but Moench maintained in that he had never read The Lord of the Rings in his essay on Weirdworld's origins in Marvel Super Special #11. He did admit to having read The Hobbit in high school, but denied remembering much about it.

Despite the superficial "Tolkienian" elements, I think we see in Weirdworld an artifact of a time when The Lord of the Rings-style portrayals of elves and dwarves (by way of D&D) were not taken as standard. The dwarves of Weirdworld bear more resemblance to the Munchikins of Oz than the ones from the Mines of Moria. Buscema's artwork in particular gives most of Weirdworld a kind of fairy-tale-ish look (inspired by Arthur Rackham, among others) that reminds me a little of later works by Brian Froud. The elves are likewise not wise and puissant beings superior to men in every way. Instead, their short and maybe more like non-Tolkien, pop-culture elves--like the sort that sell cookies or work for Santa. They're probably part of the pre-Tolkien lineage that influenced early D&D art (as James Maliszewski outlined here) and certainly seem to be kin of hapless Indel in the 80s D&D comic book ads.

Weirdworld offers a portrayal of stock rpg elements refreshingly free from the influence of the rising cultural familiarity with The Lord of the Rings, and the ouroboros-like D&D-ization of fantasy. Nothing in it is new, but their might be something there worth revisiting.

Let's Talk Scale

The Splintered Realm - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 22:52
One of the challenges I have always run into when designing RPGs around the ants is the idea of scale. One of the strengths of the setting is the scale - the idea that everything is happening in measurements of millimeters. This works in the smallest increments; it makes sense to have the ant heights in mm instead of feet - so a cm becomes the rough equivalent of ten feet which is great for ranges and distances in combat. It’s actually a pretty clean conversion from human to ant scale in this way.
However, it breaks down when we start talking about travel, flight, and vehicle speeds. Because the scale is millimeters, this also means that a meter is the rough stand-in for a mile (very rough, because it is actually about one sixth of a mile - making it quite a bit off). Since a wasp can fly about 40 kilometers per hour, we end up in trouble - that wasp can travel 40,000 meters per hour, making it as fast as superman within the game scale. In effect, the game world (which is maybe a few hundred meters across) is easily traversed in a short time by many insects. I always feel like I need to make the game world bigger.
However, I had not also considered the similar scale compression of time. An insect doesn’t live long. A red ant can live for 2-5 years, so a year is roughly two decades to the ants - and some other insects have much shorter life spans. In this compression, a month is two years, meaning a week is six months, a day is a month, and an hour is a day. A human lives an average of 70 years, so 70 x 365 = 27,375 days. An ant lives an average of 3 years x 365 days x 24 hours = 26,280 hours. So, in ant scale, an hour is equal to a day. Giving a speed in meters per hour may as well be giving that speed in meters per day. It would be ridiculous for us to give speed in miles per day; I am going 1500 miles per day! That sounds fast - it’s just normal highway speed. The default distance has been changed to the millimeter; the default time has to be changed to the minute. The one-minute turn is not only the default measure of game time; it is the default measure of insect world time as well. 
Back to our wasp. He can fly 40,000 meters per hour, so he flies 650 meters per turn. It’s still fast, but at this scale it sounds like helicopter fast, not superman fast. According to Google, an ant can walk 3 inches per second, so that’s about 7 cm per second, or 420 cm per minute. An ant can walk 4 meters in one minute. So, with a move of 4, you can travel 4 meters in one turn. However, 4 cm in a round (one second) is actually a little on the slow side; an ant should be able to move twice that in one round pretty easily.
What if the default setting of a round is that an ant gets two actions? More? What if a creature gets a number of actions equal to its level? Dang… a level 6 bug gets 6 actions per round? That seems crazy… but it’s also aligned with the source material. In action movies, the hero is taking five or six attacks to the mook’s one. This means that winning initiative, especially at higher levels, becomes vital. 
However, it also means that at higher levels you should have abilities to neutralize enemy attacks, automatically block, or to do some damage reduction. At higher level, you are going to have to get your opponent to exhaust a variety of resources in order to start landing your good shots. Against minions, you can mow down squadrons in short order; against an enemy commando, you are going to have to get past his luck, his tenacity, and his cool under fire in order to start hitting him.
Time for some play testing!

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