Sorcerer's Skull

Subscribe to Sorcerer's Skull feed
Updated: 1 week 5 days ago

Random Mars

Sun, 03/10/2019 - 14:00

Mars shows less variation that Venus in pulp and old sci-fi sources. Still, not all Marses are alike, so you deserve your own unique yet very derivative one! Let the randomizing commence:

Basic Theme:
1-2 Dying - The world is desiccating and civilization is trying to stop it/adapt to it. 
3-4 Worn Out - It most the planet formation lottery and is a dried up, "failed earth." Civilization is of any sort
5-6 Doomed - The world is trying up, and civilization is too decadent to care.

Atmospheric Density:
1-2 Complete breathable
3-4 Anyone not from the Andes or Himalayas will need to acclimate
5-6 Earth folk need oxygen

1-2 Like Southern California
3-4 Gobi Desert Spring in the day, Gobi Desert winter at night
4-5 Artic Circle

1-2 Poles and canals only
3-4 Nothing above ground, no canals
5-6 Some shallow seasonal wetlands where once were mightly seas

Dying World Civilization:
1 Wise and Noble but tinged with Melancholy
2 Overly Cerebral
3 Passionate and Vibrant but Tradition-bound and/or Factionalized
4 Post-technological
5 Post-sophont
6 Only the Robots are Left

Decadent Civilization:
1 Atavistic; Fallen into Primitivism
2 Withered bodies, minds consumed with the distant and abstract
3 Devoted entirely to bloodsports and other dubious pleasures
4 Consumed by meaningless sectarian struggle
5 Enslaved by something
6 Destroyed by war, with few mutated survivors

What do Earthmen Want?
1 More room
2 Drug Tourism
3 Ancient Technology
4 Powers of the Mind

Random Venus

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 12:00
Modern science tells us Venus is a hellscape resulting from runaway greenhouse effect, but that was not always the way we imagined it to be. Early sci-fi and pulp sci-fi Venus was general assumed to be verdant under its eternal cloud cover. Sure, even before space probes spoiled all the fun, Venus had already been conceived of as a harsh desert wracked by storm (see Anderson's "Big Rain"), but mostly it's drippy jungles.

That still leaves a lot of variation. Here are some random charts to make your own pulp Venus or similar worlds:

Basic Terrain:
1-2 Oceanic
3-4 Desert
5-6 Jungle
7-8 Swampy/Low-lying
9-10 Tidally Locked (as seen in Weinbaum's "Parasite Planet."  Dayside is a desert and nightside is frozen. Action's in the Terminator)

Basic Theme (probably applies to anything but desert, but up to you)
1 Eden - Almost too pleasant and inviting
2 Primeval - Like Earth in an earlier age, perhaps the Mesozoic or Triassic?
3 Hostile - Too hot, too wet, too fecund, too alien. Humankind finds it tough. Roll below.
4 Hell - Like hostile turned up all the way. Roll Below.

Why So Inhospitable?
1 Endless Rain (Bradbury, "Death-By-Rain")
2 Parasitic Life
3 Horrible Storms
4 Giant Monsters
5 Everything Wants to Eat You
6 The Natives Have a Horrible Secret

Dominant Lifeform
1 Reptilian* (includes Dinosaurs in the pulp era)
2 Amphibian
3 Plant/Fungal
4 Icthyoid
5 Humanoid
6 Hyper-evolved - brain things/energy creatures

One Notable Thing
1 Gaseous Sea
2 Alluring Slave Girls/Guys
3 Rare Element
4 Mysterious Artifact
5 Giant Trees
6 Ancient Ruins
add your own!

More Omniverse

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 12:00
Two new (old) Omniverse posts from Google+ were released today. Give her movie opening this weekend, Captain Marvel (or Ms. Marvel) gets her due in "This Woman, This Warrior," and just out of February, I examine the birthdays of both Superman and the original Captain Marvel in "Leap Day."

Wednesday Comics: Things I Read Recently

Wed, 03/06/2019 - 12:00
Classic Star Wars
From 1981-84, the Star Wars newspaper comic strip was written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Al Williamson. I am a big fan of Williamson particularly with sci-fi, and these stories, while hardly standouts, are serviceable, and will make you nostalgic for the days before Star Wars became a genre unto itself with an immense backstory.

Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1
You know, of course, that Alan Moore had at one point pitched the idea of that would become Watchmen using the characters DC had acquire from Charlton Comics. One of those was Peter Cannon aka Thunderbolt, who was the initial inspiration for Ozymandias. Morrison used the Charlton characters in a way that referenced Watchmen in Multiversity, by DC had lost the rights to Peter Cannon by that time.  Enter Dynamite and Kieron Gillen, who (mild spoilers) pits one version of Peter Cannon against another, with the fate of the world at stake.

Martian Manhunter #3
I keep telling you this is good.

The Off-Worlder Funnel

Mon, 03/04/2019 - 12:00

The person from another world arriving in fantasyland is a genre staple. Typically, these off-worlders, whether they be John Carter on Mars or the kids from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, have some sort of edge that gives them a fighting chance or better in their new environment. But what if that wasn't the case? What if they were as unprepared as the survivors in zombie apocalypse fiction?
The death rate would be pretty high, particularly if you drop them in a typical D&D world and allow for the almost absurd horrors of the dungeoncrawl. It would be an interesting way to do a DCC-esque funnel with starting characters other than the usual suspects.
Here's another image of regular folks dying tragicomic deaths from "Planet of the Damned" in Starlord #2 (1978).

The Martian Froniter

Sun, 03/03/2019 - 15:30
A Martian farmhandTo many a colonist of Mars, it might seem that if there is a bright center of Solar civilization in the days of the Empire, the deserts of Mars are far from. Sodbusters and homesteaders came in with the promise of free land, but the arid land and rarefied air don't make it easy.

Strange monuments, pyramids, and the occasional ruin reveal the existence of a Martian civilization of the past, when it was perhaps a greener world. Historians are divided over whether any of the current inhabitants are related to these ancient people. The gangly limbed, barrel-chested Sand People of the deep desert that raid Earther settlements, show no cultural interest in the old places and are as ignorant of the ancient hieroglyphs as they would be the mating habits of a Venusian dracosaur. The rodentine scrappers with their crawling junkyards seem no better adapted to the Martian environment that humans.

The Amos Isley Spaceport (named for one of the early rocket barons of the Red Planet) is as raucous as most of the other farm town settlements are quiet. Many a being with a price on its head ends up hiding out here, and in fact, interplanetary criminal gangs are known to have hideouts in the Martian wastes.

Solar Trek: The Amok Trigger

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 12:00
These are the voyages of the exploratory vehicle, Enterprise...

In 2262, Dr. Leonard McCoy discovered the continuation of outlawed genetic practices among certain prominent families of Mars. This was revealed when Enterprise's first officer, Commander Spock began experiencing drastic mood swings and neurologic pain. Neurochemical triggers made Spock seek to return to Mars, regardless of his orders to the contrary.

The cause of his condition was an engineered gene sequence, created in the 21st Century by Martian geneticists for the purpose of making arranged marriages among their people compulsory and binding. The small, modified human population of Mars practiced arranged marriage for purposes of genetic diversity and promotion of genes critical for survival in the partially terraformed Martian environment to come over the next century. An unidentified family member of Spock's betrothed had introduced the genetic sequence through use of a viral vector when Spock was in his teens. The reasons are unclear, but may have had to do with Spock's father's diplomatic position.

T'Pring, Spock's betrothed, was absolved of any wrongdoing in regard to the genetic manipulation, but she did instigate a trial by combat that could have resulted in the deaths of one or more Space Fleet officers in order to be free of her obligation to Spock.

Dr. McCoy was able to repair the genetic damage to Commander Spock. His efforts led to a greater understanding of historic Martian gene-engineering techniques.

Wednesday Comics: Storm: Vandaahl the Destroyer (part 2)

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:00
My exploration of the long-running euro-comic Storm, continues with his adventures in the world of Pandarve. Earlier installments can be found here.

Storm: Vandaahl the Destroyer (1987) (part 2)
(Dutch: Vandaahl de Verderver)
Art by Don Lawrence; script by Martin Lodewijk

When last we left our heroes, so kids on the water planet had just released a conqueror from another universe from what was supposed to be his eternal prison. One of his first acts is to zap Ember.

Back in his home universe, scientists inform the Lord Judge than sentenced him, that Vandaahl the Destroyer might well be alive, having slipped through a wormhole instead of being killed in a black hole. They decide the only decent thing to do is retrieve him, rather than let him lay waste to other words.

Vandaahl has already started by laying waste to the tree settlement, though he allowed the people, including Storm  and friends, some time to escape first.

With Vandaahl on the loose, Storm decides they must warn the people of Pandarve. To help him get off world, the Water-Planet people summon dolphin-like creatures that tell them of a waterspout leading off planet.

The vessel the people of the Water-Planet give them isn't made for long space voyages, though. Luckily, they run across a large trading vessel before their supplies run. They're able to get a ride.



Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:00

In a fit of waning Google+ generosity, Goblin's Henchman sent me a copy of his zine-size adventure Carapace, available for free on drivethrurpg.

Carapace is an interesting product. The adventure (geared toward AD&D but usuable with any flavor), involving a giant ant-hill near a isolated town has no keyed locations. There is a brief bit of setup, covering not only the situation but what various parties in the community might want done, and what the consequences of the adventure might be. After that, there's section of on not one, but three different methods of procedurally generating the maze of tunnels and rooms in the colony: Pointcrawl, Labyrinth Move, and Hex-Flower. Read the Henchman's brief explanation of them here. Finally, there's a section on random encounters and random "dungeon dressing."

If you really dig new procedural approaches and procedural generation in general, this will definitely be your thing. Even if you are like me and this isn't generally your thing, the alien structure of an ant hill seems to me exactly the place where something like this might be useful. Not only would I run this, I may steal some of its techniques for use in other environments.

The Other Side of the Frontier

Sun, 02/24/2019 - 15:30

Much has been made of the themes of colonialism in D&D--perhaps too much, not because they aren't there, but because there are a lot of ways to play D&D, and "taming the frontier" doesn't seem to be the most common approach these days. In any case, it seems to me that it would be easy to reverse the roles and have the PCs and their cultures fighting colonization (or the remnants of colonization) rather than colonizing.

We can image the ur-humanoid species (be they orcs or trolls or something else), arriving at a new world and working to suppress its technology and abducting natives for experimentation like the greph in Vance's The Dragon Masters. The humanoid invaders might be technological or employ magic, but either way their "science" would be origin of many of the monsters of latter times.

The invaders have a weakness (or perhaps several, but one big one): they are from a world with a less bright sun, so they're nocturnal and prefer underground bases. Perhaps due to the magic possessed by the natives, or perhaps due to fractionalization among the invaders, the shock-and-awe conquest becoms a protracted slog that wears down both sides. The invaders borrow in and hunker down, and maybe in some places the original inhabitants think they have been wholly defeated.

The natives, of course, have paid a price as well, being reduced in number by weird weapons and alien diseases. Their civilization has as has their population, leaving many areas as wilderness filled with ruins.

So then what happens is up to the PCs and people like them. Do they drive the former invaders from their world? Do they make alliances where they can? Is it just recovering the wealth and technology for their on benefit they are after or do they try to restore their cultures to their former greatness?

Art by William Stout

Bgtzlian [5e Race]

Fri, 02/22/2019 - 12:00

In the DC Universe, Bgztlian are human-like beings inhabiting a world that occupies the same location as Earth, but at a another vibrational plane. All Bgtzlians possess the ability to become incorporeal. Here's a "Phantom Folk" race for 5e based on them:

Bgtzlian Racial Traits
Ability Score Increase. A Bgtzlian can improve one ability score of their choice by 2 points and another by one point.
Age. Same as humans.
Alignment. Any.
Size. Bgztlians are Medium.
Speed. Base walking speed is 30 feet.
Languages. Bgtzlians can speak, read, and write Bgtzlian and Common.
Phasing. As a bonus action, a Bgtzlian can become incorporeal, either entirely or only a part of their body. While incorporeal their movement becomes flight, and they move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. They takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn in side an object. They are immune to nonmagical damage while entirely incorporeal. Anything nonliving they are carrying or wearing becomes incorporeal as well, but they are unable to manipulate any new objects, or make attacks or cast any new spells.

Omniverse: Teen Titan Edition

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 12:00

I've released a few more Omniverse posts, rescued from Google Plus. All of these have to do with the Teen Titans. One shines the spotlight on the older Barton brother, Speedy. Another looks at the villain turned hero, Nighthawk, and the teen that would assume his mantle. And finally, I look at the formation of the original team.

Follow the Omniverse label for more articles.

Wednesday Comics: Outer Darkness

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 12:00
Outer Darkness from Skybound and Image is a blend of science fantasy, space opera, horror, and a bit of humor. It's written by John (Chew) Layman and drawn by Afu Chan and tells the story of the voyages of the USS Charon on its mission beyond known space into the titular Outer Darkness. It's sort of like Star Trek, if the crew were mostly scheming bastards of various sorts, the Captain a disgraced mutineer with a hidden agenda, and the Enterprise's warp drive was a Sumerian god that demanded periodic human sacrifice.

The Charon's compliment includes a ship's oracle and various quantum mages among the usual space opera crew positions. Threats its crew will face include a demonically possessed sun, undead aliens, and hidden threats from within.

"Magitech" is something I find pretty cool when done well precisely because it is not typically done well. It works best when it isn't the fantasy equivalent of the Stone Age tech on the Flintstones, but instead holds on to a degree of the fantastic rather than making the fantastic mundane. A flying carpet that acts just like a car is bad, but a car that obeys rules of magic is potentially interesting. So far, Outer Darkness as more of the latter than the former.

The art and the story are pretty good too, though the art style doesn't particularly say horror, to me. That's probably to the book's advantage, because the story seems more darkly humorous than horrific, at least in the first 3 issues.

A Sufficiently Advanced Network is Indistinguishable from A Plane II

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 12:00
These are more shorts posted rocketed away from the dying Google Plus and landing here. Also, it's a follow-up to this post.

The Battleworlds
On a distant manifold called Ysgard, Asgard, or Gladsheim posthumans are playing an endless MMORPG.

There are planes, manifolds, in distant Matrioshka brains or Dyson Sphere's whose predatory civilizations need something the Earth network has: processing power in the minds of its unsuspecting, post-technological citizenry.

Devils at least offer something. In advance-fee scams and Ponzi schemes, they dangle powerful ancient code and raw power (just a little) in front of magic-users in return for just a little of their intellect, a little of their soul. By increments they get it all, and the greedy persons intellect spends eternity toiling in the rapacious economy of Hell.

Solar Trek Episode Guide

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 12:00

It seems like a good time for a post collating my Solar Trek (a solar system confined, more hard science fiction rationalized Star Trek). Here's what I've done so far, titled with the TOS episode/setting element that inspired it.

The introductory post
The Orion Syndicate
"Return of the Archons"
"That Which Survives"
"The Cloud Minders"
"The Trouble with Tribbles"
"Tholian Web"

The Empire and Venus

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 12:00
This is a follow-up to this post

Perhaps no planet in the Solar System has benefited more from the benevolent hand of the Earth Empire than Venus. The thick covering of clouds obscures modernization on a grand scale, and a planet moving from ignorance and savagery to progress and industry!

Looks a bit draft, doesn't it? The barracks are heated!
The mist-enshrouded cloud forests of the Venusian Highlands are home to a hairy race of primitive tribesmen, known to Earth explorers as "Woollies." The Woollies historically lived in crude, wooden huts, high up in trees to escape the numerous Venusian predators, but the Imperial Development Corps has helped them transition to secure reservations, with many modern Earth comforts. The grateful Woollies are eager to help the war effort against the rebellion, and the Imperial Army lets the well-meaning but unskilled primitives pitch in with menial tasks!

In the lowlands, the reptilian predators are even larger, making colonization and development hazardous. The Empire has granted Venusian Timber an exclusive contract to clear away those forests and eradicate the monstrous beasts, all in the name of a better tomorrow.

Watch out, there's one of them, now!Everyone has heard the stories of the green gnome of the Venusian swamps. Well, there have been reports of rebel activity in the area, too, and the government worries this eccentric old Venusian might be in danger! Imperial troops are looking for the little, old alien and hope to relocate him to safety, soon! Good searching, trooper!

They're gonna find you, little guy. Bet on it!

Wednesday Comics: Black Book: The Art of Jim Starlin

Wed, 02/13/2019 - 12:00
Preempting my return to Storm this week was the fulfillment of the Ominous Press Kickstarter, Black Book: The Art of Jim Starlin. It's available for preorder now from the Ominous Press site. it includes images (mostly black and white but some color) from over his career and at the Big Two and independents.

We get to see his original image of Thanos:

And unpublished stuff from an as yet unfinished (tragically, never to be finished by Starlin alone) new Dreadstar story:

It does tend to skew a bit toward more recent material rather than his heyday, but has some images of stories or characters that never saw print, including work he did on a Captain Marvel (the Shazam! one) limited series.

If you are a Starlin fan, it's something you'll want to pick up.

Solar Trek: That Which Survives

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 12:00
There are the voyages of the exploratory vehicle Enterprise...

Kalanda was a small station built inside of a modified asteroid in the Main Belt. It was also a black site whose construction began in 2159, in the build up to the Romulan War, one that did not appear in extant Federation databases. It's trace heat had lead to its discovery by Enterprise over 100 years later.

When the station was entered by Enterprise's away team, they encountered a hologram of a woman later identified as Lorisa Prado, Kalanda Station's Chief of Security. The projection behaved erratically, and its appearance presaged and attempt by the still-functional automated defense systems to kill the perceived intruders.

Ultimately, Enterprise personnel made it to the central computer and discovered that Kalanda Station had been involved in bioweapon research. An accidental breach of sample containment had led to the death of the crew and placed the security systems on a century long high alert.

The Federation has promised a full investigation.

Games I Thought About Running, But Then G+ Was Going Away

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 14:02
Okay, it's highly likely, indeed probable, that I wouldn't have run any of these games regardless, but I did think about it. And then I thought about the impending doom of Google Plus. They are presented roughly in chronological order of conception:

Wild Wild West: Old West spy-fi like the 60s TV show. Well, inspired by the TV show, maybe with a bit more of a SHIELD type organization and the sort of villains that occasionally showed up in Marvel Western comics. I thought about using the much-maligned TSR Indiana Jones game for it.

Something Superhero: This was a less formed idea, but I had had a couple of ideas, one of which was running it in the world of the Armchair Planet Who's Who.

Vancian Talislanta: The works of Jack Vance were a huge influence on Talislanta, and the native system has its charm, but I thought it might be fun to give the first edition of the Dying Earth rpg a whirl at the more heroic Turjan level. Tweaking Talislanta to be a land of verbose rogues is probably only a slight shift, but a flavorful one.

Solar Trek: What started out as a thought experiment of a hard science fiction leaning version of Star Trek set within our Solar System got me sort of interested in seeing how that might actually come out in play.

Comic Strip/Serial Star Wars: Coming out of Solar Trek discussions was an idea for a "back to the roots" Star Wars, shorn of the 70s, and exhibiting its full Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon whiz bang glory. I suppose it has a stronger version of the old Star Wars problem: If you play the main characters the story is sort of known, but if you play other people in the universe, how do you keep them from being overshadowed, and in this case, how do you keep it seeming Star Wars like rather than just some pulp space thing.

High Adventure Cliffhangers: Buck Rogers Adventure Game

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 12:00

In 1993, TSR took a second stab at the Buck Rogers license. Their first attempt, Buck Rogers XXVc apparently failed to find an audience. If anything, their second seems to have fared worse judging by the fact it has an even lower profile. Contrary to what many might assume based on its lack of success, it's actually not a bad rules lite sort of system.

Where Buck Rogers XXVc tried to update the then 60 year-old property, High Adventure Cliffhangers goes back to Nowlan's 1928 novel (Armageddon 2419 A.D.) and particularly the comic strip that ran from 1929 to 1967.  For those unfamiliar with the mythos, it tells the story of Buck (Anthony in the original novella) Rogers, who is put in suspended animation by some weird mine gas and awakens in a 25th Century where a Red Mongol Empire emerged from the Gobi to conquer North America. Driven from the ruined cities, the Americans formed "orgs" to fight a protracted insurgency. Despite its earthbound origins, the comic strip soon gets into space travel and peace is eventually made with the emperor of the "Airlords of the Han" so that villainy can shift to other worlds. (This story likely inspired the Yellow Peril and Red Scare Star Trek episode "Omega Glory," and perhaps the Klingons as "Space Mongols," and is at least prefigured if not inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Moon Men, which was originally titled Under A Red Flag.)

The game makes use of a lot of  Dick Calkins’ work from early days of the comic strip. Combined with the subject matter and the technology presented, it gives the setting a very retro feel, in contrast with XXVc.

The system, however, features a relatively hot new thing (in 1993) in game design: the dice pool. After all, Ghostbusters had only pioneered those sorts of mechanics in 1986. HAC uses six siders exclusively. The dice rolls are totaled and compared against a target number. Dice pools are capped at 8. It also makes use of "exploding 6s."

Like TSR's Marvel Super-Heroes ability scores have descriptive names, ranging from OK, to Good, Better, and Best. Each of these translates to a number of dice to be rolled for actions. The abilities (Strength, Aim, Brains, and Health) each have associated skills, though the list is not particularly large.

In combat, the heroes always get initiative, though situational factors may alter that. There are no hit points or other damage metrics. Instead, a successful hit calls for a Health roll, with failure meaning a character is out of commission, the duration varying with the means of attack. Deadly attacks require a second Health check on failure of the first, a Mortality Roll, with failure meaning death.

Combat uses maps, minis, and Action Points to quantify actions. It's not really as tactical as it sounds; it is certainly less detailed than 3e. Rather, it seems an 80s relic, like a less detailed version of the FASA Star Trek AP system.

Characters may spend experience points (or chips, because it uses poker chips to represent them) to add die to rolls. NPCs can also spend Experience Chips for a last minute escape.

Overall, the game seems to have been intended for those new to rpgs. Presumably, it was aimed at all these fans of  a 60+ year-old property lurking out there waiting to start roleplaying. Even its map-based combat seems less wargamey than catering to presumed boardgame comfort and familiarity. Overall though, it is a system with a bit a charm, and probably could be fun for any pulpy-type setting.