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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

12 Virtues from Balthazar Gracian

"So is all said at once. Virtue is the link of all perfections, the centre of all the felicities. She it is that makes a man prudent, discreet, sagacious, cautious, wise, courageous, thoughtful, trustworthy, happy, honoured, truthful, and a universal Hero. Three HHH's make a man happy--Health, Holiness, and a Headpiece. Virtue is the sun of the microcosm, and has for hemisphere a good conscience. She is so beautiful that she finds favour with both God and man. Nothing is lovable but virtue, nothing detestable but vice. Virtue alone is serious, all else is but jest. A man's capacity and greatness are to be measured by his virtue and not by his fortune. She alone is all-sufficient. She makes men lovable in life, memorable after death."
Aphorism 300
The Art of Worldly Wisdom
Balthazar Gracian
So there I was, taking a moment to clear-out some email and attend to comments, etc. and this popped into the in-box.  Talk about synchronicity. I've been outlining the Riskail zodiac (and corresponding Tarot), which is based upon a slightly shifted re-distribution rooted in the orientation of the Degrees of the Houses to the Decans and some other obscure and opaque terms/concepts I won't bore you with now. Suffice it to say, I've been wracking my brain for a suitable way to bring more of the right sort of versimilitude into the mix.  Balthazar's twelve virtues helps to flesh out the Aristotlean and other systems very nicely. Since this system is at the very root of a great deal of sorcery, magic, spell-casting, rites & rituals, even character development (remember Chivalry & Sorcery?), then I definitely need to have the proverbial ducks all in a row and Balthazar Gracian has come to my rescue in this endeavor, even if he has been dead for several centuries....
  1. Prudence
  2. Discretion
  3. Sagacity
  4. Caution
  5. Wisdom
  6. Courage
  7. Thoughtfulness
  8. Trustworthiness
  9. Happiness
  10. Honor
  11. Truthfulness
  12. Heroism
 I'll be going into this in more detail at the Riskail blog in about a week, once some more of the accompanying illustrations/sketches are ready to post...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Who Knows?



There are a series of Hero Pulp Essays by MARDLtransmit at Youtube, such as the first one above that introduces The Shadow.  They also maintain a channel of their own devoted to the Pulps which includes a series of Hero Pulp Essays that are fun introductions to some of these classic and often overlooked/forgotten characters.  ThePulp(dot)net site is also a handy collection-point of information on all things pulp and they maintain a fairly handy Forum that isn't overly crowded, if you're into that sort of thing.  I just don't much care for forums, personally.  Check out the video essays if you're at all interested in the old Pulp characters.  It's a handy introduction for people who are just discovering them for the first time and it's very nice to have a resource like this on-hand.  It might be fun and potentially useful to develop a similar sort of graphical introduction to the main NPCs, areas, core-concepts of an RPG setting like Trey's City, Urutsk, Planet Algol or Riskail...

Once we get things sorted-out after the coming unplanned move-everything-around session so that our ceiling can get fixed, and the computer gets inspected/vetted, we'll have to look into this Presentation/Introductory slide-show sort of thing.  Might be fun...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

That Squamous Feeling



Blair's recent "Just Imagine..." post at Planet Algol got me to thinking. He wants to play in an RPG that has Captain Kirk kicking Cthulhu's hind-end in a massively insane ultimate smackdown free-for-all that defies all common sense, good taste, copyright laws and any other crapulous creeds and legalistic impediments to gonzo free expression and Hargrave-level mad genius good times. That'd be cool. But it'd even be cooler if such a thing were televised. The revolution is already getting televised, even if it is over the internet, and I don't just mean "I Hit It With My Axe," the usual suspects doing gaming-related podcasts, RPG-podcasts, etc.  Nah.  That'd be too damn easy.

If the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society can produce a really effective pseudo-vintage faux-silent-era movie version of The Call of Cthulhu (which they did and it is absolutely wonderful and you can find it here and here), and the Trek-Fans have been able to crank out their own episodes of the series that would not die such as here, here and here, (and I'm really only scratching the surface when it comes to new versions of old Trek online...so definitely, if this is of any interest to you, check out the Wikipedia page on Star Trek Fan Films...there are a LOT of them...), then why not do a seriously demented mash-up involving Cthulhu's minions corrupting the Federation from within and bringing Kirk into the battle against the gargantuan nihilistic Jell-O(TM) bodied mathematically-dangerous, madness-inducing/anti-muse/squid-god of doom, despair and agony for all mankind?

My money's on James T. Kirk.  Especially if it's Shatner.  But even if it isn't Shatner, maybe it's better if it isn't Shatner/Kirk, you could show the forces of nihilistic gibberitude demolish the Federation, take on the Klingons and get smacked around by the Organians and so on.  Losing Kirk frees you up to blow shit stuff up in a big way, and that'd be good fun.  The PhaseII episode Blood and Fire comes close to bringing Cthulhoid squishiness into the future, even if it is just some 'Regulan blood worms.'

http://www.startrekofgodsandmen.com/
The quality is uneven and a bit hokey at times, but even so, the effects are at least as good as 1965 and steadily improving, the writing is getting better as people gain valuable first-hand experience, and actors from the actual series are getting involved...it sounds a great deal like the OSR in relation to RPGs, only it's television...podcasting...new episodes of old, dead shows...in a way it's as daft as doing marketing materials for dead RPG products, and who'd ever do anything as silly as that?  If you haven't experienced the burgeoning renaissance of fan produced episodes for Star Trek (likewise for Star Wars via Atom and Lucas himself since he officially & personally supports the making of fan-produced movies inspired by his franchise),  it's worth giving them a look.  Some are pretty good, some are more than a little rough, and quite a few are nowhere near as crappy as certain installments in the franchise's big-budget movies have been...but that's a pissing match calm and respectful discussion to have some other day.

Why stop at just a game session around the table?  Why settle for a few rolls of the dice when the technology is available and getting cheaper every year, allowing us to actually get out there and make the movies we want to see...as long as we dance around Copyright issues, trademarks, and other landmines of modern IP law.  The game scenario sounds like fun, and it is...Dave Hargrave would have run it in 1979 and he'd have included a Bolo tank and  a balrog just to keep things interesting.  Don't get me wrong, it would be a fabulously crazed thing to pull off at a convention or in a campaign...it is most certainly as Old School as anything else that claims the name in the RPG-end of the imaginative pool...but wouldn't it be more fun to see it come to life as a freaking movie out on that there internet?  We have tools and resources available to us today that the originators and root-level creators would have killed to get their hands on.  Why pitch your world, your game, your most precious possession to coke-snorting accountants and narcissistic 'producers,' when you can make use of the technology available to do it yourself?  DIY is at the core of the Old School weltenschaung, ain't it?  Heck, if budget is a problem, and unless you've got Paramount's backing it always is, why not do a fan production mash-up of Star Trek and Cthulhu over at the Go Animate site?  They already let people do Star Trek animations/toons...and HPL's stuff is in the Public Domain...so it's eminently do-able...just think, those Orion Slavegirls might have more than a little in common with the New Innsmouth colony...

If I get some time after the next big project, I might just see if I can re-build some of my old mini-comics over at Go Animate.  It might be fun to adapt some HPL short stories as 2-D Flash animations as well...
Why wait for the Nerd Messiah?  Rise up and exploit entertain the masses with technology!  Let's build fun stuff!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Atlas Rides Again, Sort Of...

Atlas Comics are (almost) returning from the beyond, and this time they're out for vengeance...err...or maybe this time they're Not out for vengeance?!?  WTF?  Well, in either case, two particular titles from the Atlas Comics all-too-brief hey-day are coming back, whether or not you care, remember them or want them to--because no IP, no matter how obscure or marginal or buried will escape the latest craze for comics sweeping Hollywood.  There's money in them there funny books.

The Press Release is available at the Atlas Archives site.  It reads as follows:

In 1974, Martin Goodman, the Founder of Marvel Comics, created Atlas Comics. On October 8th, 2010, Jason Goodman, the grandson of Marvel's Founder, will re-launch Atlas Comics at the New York Comic-Con.
Goodman, in association with Ardden Entertainment, will release Atlas' first two titles, THE GRIM GHOST and PHOENIX. Both series will draw from the original Atlas library that featured stories and art by such industry legends as Neal Adams and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko.
THE GRIM GHOST and PHOENIX are the first of many Atlas properties that Goodman plans on releasing. "Although my grandfather eventually sold Marvel, he insisted on keeping Atlas Comics in the family. As a result of his vision, Atlas Comics is the largest individually-held library of comic book heroes and villains on the planet."

Goodman continues, "We have twenty eight titles and hundreds of characters imagined by some of the greatest minds in the industry. They will now find a new life in comics, television, and movies. We are thrilled to finally bring these great characters back for the world to enjoy."

Co-President of Ardden Entertainment and comic book industry veteran, Rich Emms, and Brendan Deneen, Co-President of Ardden Entertainment and a former development executive for Scott Rudin and Bob & Harvey Weinstein, add, "Ardden has had success and critical acclaim for our own Flash Gordon and Casper the Friendly Ghost re-launches. We are very excited to be working with Jason and his Atlas team on revisiting a group of characters created by some of the biggest names in the business."

Ardden's Editor-in-Chief and legendary comic writer, J.M. DeMatteis, concludes, ""The Atlas universe is filled with characters of tremendous potential. I look forward to being a part of this re-launch as we re-imagine these wonderful characters and send them off on new adventures for the first time in thirty-five years."

For more information, contact Jason Goodman at Jason@NemesisLtd.com  or Brendan Deneen at Brendan.Deneen@GMail.com.
J. M. DeMatteis has cleared-up some of the accelerating Atlas-hype here on his blog.

So, yeah, we get two titles coming out as Zero issues at New York Comic Con...if they do well, we might get to see more of these two, and that opens the door for the dot dot dot part.  When I first heard the tale and read the various snippets and rumors, I was shocked that anyone would be so daft as to resurrect Atlas as a company, but reviving a couple of its characters, that might be fun and who knows where that might lead?
Guess the Grim Ghost has dropped the Revolutionary War-era get-up and got hisself all modernized and re-Grim-ified.  I like the typography...but the bulgy muscles don't really suit this character.  He's a ghost who has come back from Hell to send bad people there in his place.  He has a pair of supernatural flintlock handguns.  He's not a bruiser, more of a marksman or spiritual highwayman on the road to perdition, trying to go the otherway just a tad bit too damned late.  The core concept has a ton of potential inherent in it that never got the chance to really unfold in the first 3-issue run.  Compare the dark, brooding modern cover to this one from 1974:



That's quite a bold leap forwards on several levels.  It might even be an improvement, depending on the contents behind that cover.  I'm skeptical about the whole 'updating' approach, as it usually means dumbing-down, neutering and throwing away all the good stuff in order to present a bland, shallow, ultimately empty version of a character that can now be summed-up in fifteen words or less.  The same goes for dropping details from the costume and making everyone dress like a slacker or a hooker.  But then drawing historically accurate costumery is tough enough without having to do it on the killer schedule that producing a comic book requires.  I'll reserve judgement, for now, but they better not have reduced Matthew Dunsinane to some sort of emo lackwit with an overwhelming guilt complex over the souls he sends to hell in his place like some twisted outlaw psychopomp with blazing flintlocks and a centuries-old score to settle.  This is a guy facing the ultimate challenge to not become a cold-hearted, absolutely ruthless bastard of the worst sort...and seeing him struggle with that challenge would be wonderful...especially as he sends the all-too-deserving A**holes on to a suitable final reward...this could be dark, sinister, brutal and give Dennis Wheatley nightmares.  And That would be Cool.

We'll see what the new improved Atlas via Ardden delivers.

I'm not much of a fan of Phoenix/The Protector.  That short-lived series was an atrocious mess that was so badly kludged together that even the main charcter was ready to kill himself over how messed-up the book was...and they sorted him out by having aliens give him a shiny new suit, new powers and a new name in the third issue.  Arrgghh.  This one bites.  If they are reviving the character, maybe they'll play-up the aliens a bit more, maybe look to Roy Thinnes' role in The Invaders and go for a more Invasion of the Body Snatchers kind of vibe (like here, here or here)  with superpowered agents of competing pod-factions/alien forces who want Earth for breeding grounds.  That'd make more sense, and be a lot more fun than the way it got all mangled and messed-up the first time around.  In fact, you could easily take the way the original series re-vamped the main character to heart in a sort of bent and demented E. E. Doc Smith sort of approach and have him scavenge more and more technologies off of different servitor races and slave troopers and agents of the various competing powers kind of like a DIY junkyard-Iron Man who hybridizes things not meant to work together and winds up with a cyborg that only HPL could see coming...now that would rock.  I wonder what the new and improved revived version of this Atlas character is actually going to be like, though the ultra-manly pose and all those glistening muscles remind me of those sword-and-sandal Steve Reeves movies...just sayin'...


Okay, so Atlas might not be coming back exactly, but if I had to pick two titles to test the waters and see if there was any life left in the library, I'd pick differently.  Very differently.  The Destructor could easily get modernized into something very off-beat and cool, especially if the main character winds up doing some time in Afghanistan or found himself landed smack in the middle of a food riot in Haiti right after a nasty hurricane.  He also has the makings of a twisted take on the Executioner or Destroyer, and might wind up dropping the costume in order to use his powers more covertly...that one title could go a lot of different directions besides just parodying the whole Peter Parker stuff.  I'm a big fan of Remo Williams (Chiun!), Mack Bolan, and Nick Carter, so why not have a superpowered punk kid get trained-up to be some sort of superspy that isn't Jennifer Garner or Maggie Q...though the new Nikita is looking really good...


Now, as I've made clear previously, I'm a big fan of Atlas' Planet of the Vampires and I really liked the potential in their goofy Destructor and Chaykin's Scorpion would be awesome to see revived...again...away from the Marvel Universe...if that's even possible now.  (Same for Demon Slayer/Devil Slayer, I would guess...)  But the friggin' Phoenix?!?  Again: WTF!?!?  Phoenix!?!?!??  Why not Cougar, Wulf the Barbarian, or even Morlock 2001?  Grim Ghost I can see.  Heck, even IronJaw might have a shot at making the big time, really, but Phoenix is a flaming toxic waste spill amidst an earthquake during a full-out atomic war...talk about a mess to clean-up.  Ye Gods, even Tarantula makes more sense as an opening gambit than that train-wreck in the midst of oh so many other train-wrecks of bat-shit insane series/gonzo characters and off-the-wall concepts that proliferated within the pages of the first incarnation of Atlas.  You can check out the best maintained guide to Who's Who in the Atlasverse over at the Atlas Archives site, and decide for yourself.  (It opens on the letter 'B' since there are no characters in the Atlasverse with names beginning with 'A.'  It's just that friggin' weird of an operation.  Welcome to Atlas...)

Oh well, I guess that by merging the shiny-new Protector-suit from issue 3 with the clueless astronaut-jock-dude allows you to go for the more tried-and-true territory of the spandex-homoerotic tales of heroic man bondage and derring-do that we've come to expect from 'superhero' titles.  Sigh.  If anyone would take a chance and do something gloriously insane and offbeat, you'd think that it would be Atlas or someone seeking to revive Atlas...but Phoenix looks like someone is playing it really, really safe and comfortable and tapping into the vast reservoir of knock-off-itis and copy-cat syndrome that pretty-much killed things off the first time around.  We don't need another Superman Clone, what would be cool is to really, really stand all the cherished tropes on their heads, set them on fire and drop-kick the whole mythos into the gutter right before taking a seat in the pub.  But they aren't working with Warren Ellis, are they?  They ought to be.  Ellis could really sink his teeth into the Atlasverse and make it scream beautifully as he transformed it into something less derivative and more outrageous and feral than anything we've seen up to date.  I won't hold my breath for that to happen. But damn it would be fun.


Alas, for what might have been, The Scorpion is perhaps my all-time favorite Atlas title...but then how can you go wrong with Howard Chaykin at the drawing board and typewriter word processor -- in short: You Can't.  Don't even get me started on Iron Wolf...as that'll be a post of its own in the near future.  Promise.

I've always seen Atlas Comics as being sort of the Arduin of the comics world: off-beat, off-kilter, weird, gonzo and wonderful for making the attempt, whether or not they ever succeeded. They Tried To Do Things Differently. Sure a lot of both of their work is ultimately derivative, even sometimes blatantly so (Brute=Hulk Duh!)  But a LOT of imaginative literature, sequentially illustrated or not, is derivative of everything else that has gone before it.  Consider Moorcock's Elric; if it hadn't been for Howard's Conan to mock/reverse, there'd be no Elric.  Atlas might not have produced a new Elric, nor even given us a decent Conan-clone, but it did produce Wulf, Ironjaw and other properties that had they been given time, might have developed into distinct, unique characters that blazed fresh trails.  At least I like to think that they might have done so, given the opportunity.  Maybe, maybe this time around things can be different somehow.  If the rebellious, gonzo spirit of Atlas gets revived, not just the Trademark and the library of IP that they still have on hold...that'd be damn cool.
Here's what other people are saying about the return of Atlas Comics over at Techland, CBR and again at CBR, SciFiPulse, Newsarama, and Comix411.  Wow.  Tom Mason over at Comix411 really cut the BS and stated things pretty much the way I might have, but now I don't have to; definitely read Mason's write-up.  I think that he's right on the mark, except that Planet of the Vampires is only tangentially any sort of knock-off of Heston's The Omega Man.  The suits those vampires are wearing are unmistakable.  Too bad that they only really ever lifted the designer Italian leather suits from the movie, but that's a digression.  Besides, The Omega Man is an improvement over The Last Man on Earth (even with the wonderful Vincent Price), which in turn was a degenerative spawn of the 1954 Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend that got converted into the Will Smith movie that may be getting a Prequel.  But that's another digression.

To quote Heston from The Omega Man: "There is no phone ringing!"

Maybe the Eye will make a come-back, somehow and get his own title...

The people at Ardden Entertainment are already involved in bringing out the Flash Gordon: Invasion of the Red Sword series and Caspar and the Spectrals as well as reviving Atlas.  Ardden's Flash Gordon is derived from and uses the previous (timelessly cool) work of the legendary Alex Raymond as its springboard and the first series Flash Gordon: The Mercy Wars had a very pulpish feel to it, in the best possible sense.  It's as credible a re-working of the classic Sci-Fi/Fantasy/American Swashbuckler in a world of weird science run amok/sword and planet/planetary romance/pulp goodness that got started back in 1934. However you categorize it, genre-tize it or pigeonhole the over-arching thematic elements, Flash Gordon is fun stuff, the kind of thing that they just don't make any more because people are too damned uptight and concerned over labels, marketing categories, and literary movements. 

You know, now that I think about it a bit more, the future for Atlas Comics (with none other than J. M. DeMatteis at the editorial helm!) in conjunction with a company that is rolling out a very decent retread of Flash Gordon sounds very promising.  I just hope that they'll stay as far left of center as they began and run as hard and fast as they can out beyond the envelope of the safe, known, conventional and boring dreck we have too much of already.  Just as long as they bring back Planet of the Vampires.  Damn, I'd like to write that!  Reviving some of the old Atlas characters/concepts/series might be a lot of fun...

Are they looking for proposals/submissions over at Atlas?  Man do I have some ideas for them...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In The Cards...

Back in the Eighties, as part of the usual goings-on in our local gaming group, I started using little scraps of paper for the magic scrolls that the players discovered.  Each scroll would have a cryptic title and sometimes a little note or sigil/glyph on it.  If the player misplaced or lost the scrap of paper, the scroll was likewise lost.  When the player wanted to use the thing, they would hand it back to me and the ramifications and consequences of the scroll's activation were then played out.  It worked really, really well.

I did not invent this idea.  I'm not sure who might ultimately deserve blame/credit, but I was inspired to do this by none other than Dave Hargrave, the Man From Arduin.  You see, back in the Seventies, Hargrave produced a set of cards for spells, treasure items, etc.  You can still find Hargrave's cards here.  Those were the first ones that I heard about, and that's where I got the idea to draw-up my own set of Scroll Cards.

One particular refinement that we found particularly effective and entertaining was to write down a set of 3 or 4 different titles/spells on each scrap/scroll.  The person attempting to use the scroll then would choose which of the spells to trigger, release, set-off or set into motion.  They lost the other ones as part of the cost of activating any one of them, unless they were particularly adept at working with scrolls, employed a very skilled scribe, etc.  This little twist made the players make a choice as to which spell to use.  They knew that whichever one they chose, they stood to lose the other two or three options...unless they took very particular, specific precautions.  This approach to scrolls set in motion several different plots, scams and adventures in and of itself.

After a few years of using crappy little hand-scrawled scraps of paper, I set up a biz-card template in MSWord and ran off a few dozen random scroll-cards.  To say that this worked out very well would be an understatement.  Things happen, time passes and people come and go, and eventually I found myself scheduled to run some scenarios at a local gaming convention.  The old scroll cards were looking fairly crappy, after years of hard use by soda-slopping, snack-food gobbling gamers, those cards that hadn't gotten 'accidently' lifted, used to pick teeth, or ripped into confetti, etc.

So I put together a new set.  The ones shown up above.  The artwork shifted a bit after printing them off of another machine than the one I used to build them.  But they worked.  People at the convention found them a lot of fun to use.  They didn't need to know anything about Difficulty Class, Dice Modifiers, or anything else.  All they needed to do was pick a particular spell by name and declare that they were using it, and hand me the card.  You could say that it worked like magic.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Going for a Walk

Our schedule has been a bit messed-up since we re-structured the blogs and Summer has really disrupted things, but it is all settling down nicely and we're making significant progress towards getting things running smoothly again.  The articles on Chakras, alternative daemonologies/cosmologies, more Planar stuff, and the like are on the way.  There are also a few more author profiles, and we've been watching how the last round of media-related posts have gone over in order to gauge whether or not to waste invest any more time is such things.  If you have an opinion or advice on this matter, feel free to contact us.  We're interested in what you like/dislike about our blog and your feedback can help us plot the best possible course forwards.

That said, there are a lot of Riskail things moving towards completion once and for all and we're very excited about that, especially as Autumn approaches and we enter into the busiest part of our production cycle here at Netherwerks.  But today, after this post goes out, it is time for a nice long walk with the new camera.  We're going to need some a huge amount of textures to work with on all this new artwork that's coming through the pipeline...

Enjoy the good weather.  Be back soon.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fubar: Episode One of Trenches

Trenches is a 2008 SciFi webisode-series available via Crackle, and at Hulu, and at Trenches-online.  Unlike a lot of other webisodic efforts that have frankly bordered on the painful, Trenches manages to be rather enjoyable.  It's a good quality military SF series of web-broadcast episodes in the best tradition of Starship Troopers, which looks like the very real story-DNA that the writers stole pay respectful homage to in the first few episodes.  Later on, around Episode 5: Shallow Graves, it looks like they're diving for the Starship Troopers Two and Three direct-to-dvd franchise territory at times, but all-in-all it works. I really liked the first few episodes a great deal.  They are fun.  Grim, gritty and with loads of explosions and mayhem, but with a bit of that something special that makes it far more watchable than more pretentious crap.  The characters are promising.  Almost on a par with the Colonial Marines from Aliens in likability. It's not Roughnecks, nor even Space Viking, but it'll do for now and if Trenches gets some support, some viewers and a bit of feedback, especially now that it is being carried by Sony's Crackle, maybe the folks involved with this project will get a chance to deliver on some of the very promising potential.  It'd be nice to see just what happens next after the big reveal/cliffhanger at the end of Episode 10.  I just wish that Trenches, as with the Starship Troopers film(s) had brought in the powered armor, but maybe that's just me.  With the run-away success of Iron Man, maybe we'll finally get a real Starship Trooper movie...

Check out Trenches

From Crackle: Fubar


The Production Company behind Trenches has made a bunch of Concept Art, Stills, and other fun stuff available through the official Trenches website.  This is a very cool project.  I would like to see more of this sort of thing, especially in terms of developing fresh new science fiction, fantasy and Sword & Sorcery properties.  Maybe we'll see someone develop a credible and entertaining webisode series for Carson of Venus, Elak of Atlantis or Eric John Stark...that'd be a Lot of Fun.  Maybe with the Disney John Carter of Mars and the renewed interest in Buck Rogers, Green Hornet, and other classic/Pulp heroes/series, maybe that's just a bit closer to reality than ever before.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Space Viking


LibriVox offers a set of downloadable installments of an audiobook for H. Beam Piper's excellent Space Viking.  You can also download a zipped copy of the book via the nice people at LibriVox, or get it from Project Gutenberg.  Just so long as you get it and read it.  Piper packs more ideas into a single page than most modern writers can manage in their whole book.  Who knew that macro economics could be both Shakespearean and full of high-risk action-adventure?  The book remains eminently readable, loads of fun, and filled with ideas that you can use/explore to your heart's content in any SciFi setting.  It would make an excellent movie as well...so long as the producers/director avoided trying to 'Star Wars it up', or make it more 'relevant' to modern audiences (read: dumbed down for morons).

Like Herbert's Dune, the original not the posthumous-pastiche-things, there are some intriguing anachronisms at work in Space Viking, anachronisms that are inherently tied-into the setting and that make eminent good sense once you follow along the author's train of thought and the chain of consequences logically following out of their world-building process.  Just as Herbert acknowledged the pre-eminent utility and enduring presence of the Knife, so Piper uses submachine guns and not lasers, 'blasters,' or light sabers.  This choice is not because of any failing in terms of the settings' technology or military prowess, but rather an outcome dictated by the way the various cultures responded to interstellar travel, and how things developed as they expanded outwards.  He was a shrewd character H. Beam Piper was, very shrewd and quite clever.

(Space Viking available at Mobipocket)

The faux-medieval trappings of Space Viking, especially in the Sword Worlds that each developed along a heroic pseudo-Scandinavian cultural dynamic, actually makes sense, as much sense as any other derivative post-colonial culture makes any sense after the fact.  Technology remains discrete but integrated along practical lines amongst the Sword Worlders.  They like the good things in life and they freely partake in the very best that technology has to offer--on their own terms.  This sets them apart from the more decadent, welfare-state worlds of petty tyrants and Orwellian beauracracies surrounding them that were once part of the Federation and who've now regressed into savagery, barbarism and bizarre and often untenable political experiments.  In some respects Space Viking feels like Robert E. Howard in space, almost.  The Neo-Barbarians are a major threat to the established order, but even so, quite ironically, they are also the one real hope that true civilization has of being revived/restored from out of the ashes of the lingering dark age that was brought on by failed social policies, bad choices, entrenched incompetence, mollycoddled decadence and just the hint of inferiority/weakness in the old way compared to the gloriously efficient and superior (fascist?) mode of getting things done that survives, even thrives amongst the Sword Worlders.  The political ramifications and implications within Space Viking could serve as the basis of very hearty discussion regarding fascism, tyranny and imperialism...possibly equal to or even moreso than Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  At least Piper avoided questionable eugenics and controversial genetic engineering programs unlike Herbert and Cordwainer Smith...though those things could get squeazed into the milieu fairly easily, especially amongst one of the planetary societies that has fallen into barbarism.

One really interesting and quite excellent synopsis/review/critique of Piper's Space Viking has been done by Joseph T. Major.  He really does the novel justice as he goes into incredible detail in his erudite and thorough analysis.  It's very well done and really takes the novel apart step by step.

Piper's use of Toynbee's and Spengler's theories is well known and you can look into that via careful clicking through the Wikipedia page on Piper and following the digital breadcrumb trail by doing a simple Googlesearch on Piper and Toynbee and/or Spengler.  The theories of Toynbee and Spengler might take a while to sort through.  Toynbee alone published a considerable number of works based upon his theories.  You could look into the Toynbee Convector blog that David Derrick is doing as a possible jumping-off point into the murky, turgid waters of Toynbee's work...or not.  I leave that up to you.  It is fascinating stuff, if you're into the study of history...

What is more interesting to me right now, is how Piper developed his Neobarbarians, to quote:
"These are homemade barbarians. Workers and peasants who revolted to seize and divide the wealth and then found they'd smashed the means of production and killed off all the technical brains. Survivors on planets hit during the Interstellar Wars . . . who lost the machinery of civilization. Followers of political leaders on local-dictatorship planets. Companies of mercenaries thrown out of employment and living by pillage. Religious fanatics following self-anointed prophets."
What a very Pogo-like moment.  We have met the enemy and they are us.  The neobarbarians in Space Viking are as post-apocalyptic as you can get, and most of them are reduced to this state by their own actions rooted in fear and ignorance, the two pillars of modern marketing and political demagoguery.  Piper fairly heavy-handedly puts it right out there: barbarism is its own reward.  We either act to preserve civilization or we bring on the Long Night...hmmm...there are some very interesting political theories interspersed throughout this book, and not just jug-headed crypto-fascist rhetoric either, as some have claimed wrongly.  Quite wrongly, I feel.  Piper wasn't necessarily advocating a Heinleinian authoritarianism, but rather a quasi-Libertarian-esque policy of enlightened capitalistic self-interest that harks back to Adam Smith, but with feudal overtones.  Or at least that's my take on it at the moment.  I'll certainly reconsider my position in the light of any truly illuminating discussion or facts that suggest otherwise.

As we develop the Monarchist Worlds surrounding Aegron for the Riskail setting, H. Beam Piper's take on a capitalistic-industrialist-royalist hybrid-form of government (as well as a few other strange political structures) will definitely serve as a guiding light and an inspirational touchstone.  The whole commerce-raiding thing that Piper explored in Space Viking deserves to be more fully developed and fleshed-out, and the airships that spread outwards through the Sea Gates from Aegron are definitely ideological heirs of Piper's Sword Worlders in several respects, though not all.  At this point anyone writing about any form of futuristic feudalism in a SciFi context is inevitably going to get compared to Piper, Tubbs, Herbert, etc. so it's better to just accept it and do your best to get past the comparison by taking things farther out into unexplored territory where those predecessors didn't go before.  At least that's our approach, and our goal, in our personal efforts.

But this is post is about Space Viking, so we'll deal with Aegron another day.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this novel is that Lord Lucas Trask doesn't start this story off as a bright-eyed youngster.  He's a man in the prime of his life, coming from a fairly well-to-do Ranching Family.  He doesn't 'go up levels' in the course of his adventures, but rather makes the most of his opportunities, learns a great deal about his region of the old Federation, and exerts a powerful influence on things as he re-kindles the fire of Civilization from deep amidst the post-apocalyptic wreckage of the Federation worlds --and eventually his own people's worlds as well--that have slid into the decline of barbarism.  This approach was the one adopted for the Traveler RPG.  It also resembles the so-called 'End Game' in OD&D quite a bit.  Especially once Trask realizes that hunting down his enemy Dunnan just isn't very likely and that he'll need to ambush him instead, and to do that effectively will require a base.

Setting up a base is the start of Trask's transformation from a vengeance-driven man to a leader, ruler and ultimately monarch in his own right.  The political intrigues and machinations that develop in respect to his dealings with petty nobles who sieze the planetary throne back home and the not-so-slow (de)evolution of Trask's relationship with the new King of Gram and the implications of Trask's rise in relative power in proportion to his King gets complicated and is a riveting and memorable part of the story.

As Lucas Trask gains titles, recognition and patents of nobility, he also builds up his personal base of power and the economy of his base-world.  He plots raids in the early part of his efforts to kick-start the process, to grab some easy capital, and in the course of those raids Trask realizes a very important opportunity that leads into his establishing a network of mutual trade amongst his neighbors.  His small effort quickly escalates and the process of recovering the old Federation technology of the neighboring worlds leads to Trask creating a mutual defense treaty amongst his initial raiding-targets, and consequently becoming a major political figure in terms of more real power than the King he has sworn allegience and fealty to...and who now is growing distrustful, resentful and jealous of his success.

Finally the King of Gram goes too far and Trask declares independence...and he has the power and backing of his allies to discourage the King of Gram from launching any retaliatory raids.  In fact, it is Trask's allies who begin to prey upon the now declining Sword Worlds.  It's an ironic turnabout that follows logically, consistently and smoothly from the situation as established early on in the book.  The whole trajectory of Trask becoming a King in his own right is far more interesting than the pursuit of vengeance that set him upon this path in the first place, but that does get settled as well, and in a very satisfying manner.

I can't recall another rip-roaring adventure yarn that delivered as much in-depth and detailed socio-political commentary and that featured economics so prominently and yet readably.  Even the throw-away bits of exposition are filled with wonderful nuggets of information that show the incredible depth to which Piper developed his setting.  It truly is a crying shame that he decided to end things early, and his suicide leaves a gaping hole in SciFi that will never be filled, not even by Jerry Pournelle.

At heart, Space Viking is built-up around an idea: self-reliance.  Both individually and societally.  It's just an idea.  An idea used in a work of fiction that reflects one guy's opinion and vision and worldbuilding.  I'm not sure what I think about the full implications of his set-up, or his conclusions, but I do find Piper's writing engaging and his imagination entertaining and his ideas thought provoking.  Not bad for a 'Space Opera.'

Piper also wrote a number of stories set in his Federation, Empire, and Paratime settings, including the much beloved Little Fuzzy...which is very much worth reading.  If you've never heard of Piper previously, definitely give Space Viking some consideration.  It's easily one of the ten best SciFi novels ever written, at least as far as I'm concerned...

Some interesting H. Beam Piper sites to check out:
Zarthani An excellent first-stop on the road to discovering H. Beam Piper and his works, especially the TerroHuman Future History, Paratime, Little Fuzzies and his other works.

The very nice H. Beam Piper Memorial site.

Hostigos offers some support for Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, including the sequels by John F. Carr.

A great many H. Beam Piper eBooks are available via ManyBooks, including Day of the Moron, Ministry of Disturbance, and Omnilingual (which leads into Space Viking...)

Mark Damon Hughes has produced an Unofficial H. Beam Piper website.

There is a Summary Bibliography of H. Beam Piper at the Internet SF Database site.

Frederick Pohl remembers H. Beam Piper.  (Warning: If you don't already know the fate of Piper, this is heartbreaking to read.  Heck, it's heartbreaking to read even if you do already know how the story ends.)

and

Thousand Suns: The Piper Transmissions is a supplement for the Thousand Suns SciFi RPG from Rogue Games...which I haven't had a chance to look over in any real depth as of yet.  Thousand Suns looks very interesting, and sounds like a lot of fun, delivering an Imperialist/old school take on space opera that is obviously very closely allied to the sorts of fiction that H. Beam Piper wrote.  It reminds me a little of the early days of the Little Black Books for Traveler, before the Imperium took hold and it wasn't quite the free-for-all for anyone desiring to design their own SciFi setting any more.  That could be a lot of fun.

Speaking of the Little Black Books and Marc Millar's RPG-classic Traveler, you can check out the Traveler Wiki, explore the Traveler Web-Ring, give the Mongoose Traveler a look-see, or join-up at the Citizens of the Imperium forums.  The Traveler RPG is very much alive and well and going strong.  There are even a couple of efforts at converting it into aFantasy-context RPG, which are interesting and could be a lot of fun.

A Sidetrack Excursion into an Alternate Version of Traveler
If you want to examine the ongoing real-time efforts of a dedicated designer trying to convert Classic Traveler into a Fantasy-context RPG, check out Doc Grognard's blog, it's an idea that keeps re-surfacing from tie-to-time, especially since Mongoose announced the Traveler OGL license.  There's just something inherently appealing about adapting Traveler to a more Fantasy-oriented environment.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Vampire Circus (And How To Use It)

Vampire Circus is one of Hammer's better efforts.  But don't take my word for it.  You can read a review of it at the Internet Movie Database, Check out the Plot Synopsis at Allmovie, get more in-depth coverage at 1000MisspentHours, the BritishHorrorFilms site, or see loads of stills from the movie at the HorrorSeek site.  You can watch the movie online for free, for now...at least until the current rights-holders decide to put out an authorized DVD...though you can pick up a reasonably decent version of Vampire Circus from Brazil via Amazon in the meantime.  The Zone2  has the better cover, but it won't play in most machines here in North America, even if it is in English.  The cool cover with the Tiger-woman is for Zone2, the uptight/blah-cover that sucks is for North America.

 DoctorWho fans are quick to point out the appearance of Lalla Ward (The Second Romana from the 17th season, with Tom Baker as The Doctor), but very few people have picked-up on the presence of one David Prowse who plays the silent strongman--this is the actor who portrayed Darth Vader (with James Earl Jones doing the voice).  So there's some bonus horror movie trivia for you.

A Quick Plot Synopsis (With 30% more Spoilers by weight)
What made/makes Vampire Circus so special, aside from the gratuitous nudity, copious amounts of blood splattered everywhere, the usual Hammer-level of set design and period costumery, is the plot.  This movie begins where most other vampire movies (especially in 1972) ended.  The angry villagers are finally torqued off enough to do someting about the depredations of the vampire Count Mitterhaus and they manage, finally to kill him with a stake to the heart.  But before the nefarious Count can expire from his impalement, he mutters a curse upon the townspeople--they and all their children will die to restore the Count's life.  Then he goes limp.  The Count does not dissolve into goo or flake away into ashes like Dracula sometimes did.  He just lies there like a haughty, arrogant corpse with a touch of the Tom Jones/Englebert Humperdinck vibe going on.

The opening sequence leading up to the credits is in effect a mini-movie in itself, after a fashion.  Just over 10 minutes (closer to 12), the opening sequence covers more ground than most other entire movies.  It's jam-packed and moves at a brisk pace. The sub-plot with the school teacher's wife (a willing and sexually compliant accomplice to the Count) is super important to the rest of the movie even having a chance to take place.  Her disgust for her husband's perceived weakness is palpable and jarring, especially when she manipulates him to protect her from running the gauntlet of angry villagers, allowing her to run away back into the Count's crypt right before the Burgomeister has the villagers set casks of gunpowder all over the place to literally blow it all to hell.  The explosions are okay, especially for 1972.  But then who expects Serbian villagers to be experts in castle demolition?

The credits finally roll after the big blow-up sequence.  Time flashes forward 15 years.  Plague is upon the land and the village of Stetl.  The new doctor is a skeptic.  Everyone else is living in fear and under the looming shadow of Count Mitterhaus's dire curse.  They are also cut off from the rest of the world by armed roadblocks of angry men from surrounding villages who don't want anyone leaving Stetl to spread the plague any farther.  Dire times.  Grim times.  The doctor rides out to crash the roadblocks and get to the Imperial capital and acquire medicines and soldiers to set things to rights.  His son helps him get past the roadblocks by running past them as a decoy, then he returns to town to take up his father's business as resident medical expert.  Obviously they're desperate.

No sooner is the doctor gone on his mission than a travelling circus comes into town.  Somehow they managed to sneak in past the roadblocks.  They are The Circus of Night and they have come to steal the coins off of dead men's eyes, or so boasts their leader a mysterious Gypsy woman.

The Circus sets up their camp, puts on a few performances, and once everything is in place, they carry out the evil plan of the Count and begin to slaughter the villages' children, driving the Burgomeister insane with what he sees in the so-called Mirror of Life, and things look down-right grim until the doctor returns with medicine and a revelation: vampires are real and they've been killing off villages one by one along a path that neatly coincides with the route taken by the Circus of Night.  The doctor has medicine for the peculiar form of rabies that has been spread amongst the villagers by bats and a few soldiers to help get the drugs distributed and to sort things out with the Circus and their vampires.

Long story short, the Circus is stopped, but the Count is resurrected anyhow, and then finally killed by decapitation in the last couple of minutes of the movie.  The body count is extremely high.  There's a lot of blood spilled.  Some of it more convincing than the rest.  The big scene with the Twins in the chapel is unique, one large wooden crucifx impaling one twin killing the other one through their sibling bond.  In fact there are a lot of clever, interesting ideas interspersed all through this movie.  It makes for a wonderful double-feature with Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

How To Use It: Fantasy
Vampire Circus is an excellent source of ideas for how to handle the aftermath and repercussions of a bunch of meddling kids or unwashed adventuring scum who manage to kill off the local vampire nobleman.  This is definitely the single best example of a movie showing what happens after the Big Bad Guy gets staked.  The various interactions betwixt and between the villagers verge on the Soap Opera level, especially once it is revealed that the incestuous Twins are Count Mitterhaus's unholy offspring with the teacher's (ex)wife and that they are half-siblings to the girl Dora who is protected by a golden crucifix which her mother--the magically disguised Gypsy woman leading the Circus--must tear off of her so that they can drain her blood.  The level of twistiness borders on Shakespearean and then adds some decidedly Hammer-style perversity for good measure.  The various crisis and personal conflicts that some of these characters undergo is really intense and extremely well-done, and ideal for developing into a wealth of spin-offs and sub-plots.

The people involved in the killing of the Count are inextricably bound-up in the evil plot to resurrect him.  Everything is built-up from the villagers' staking of the Count, the Count's curse, the subsequent guilt and fear of the curse, and only intensified by the plague, the armed roadblocks, and the arrival of the Circus which many see at first as a welcome distraction from the unremitting horror of the plague and its nearly walking dead victims.

In terms of using this movie as a springboard for an RPG session or adventure, you could do far worse than to adapt the movie straight-off.  Especially if the players haven't seen it yet.  Even if they have, you can tweak things a bit to throw them off.  Switch genders amongst the bad guys--convert the Count to resemble Elizabeth Bathory more than a Dracula knock-off.  Switch the school teacher and his sluttish wife and maybe reduce the school teacher's husband to a Renfield-like character, or someone who got seduced and is in way over his head like Johnathan Harker in Stoker's novel.  Or maybe he becomes a vampire in his own right and takes the place of Mitterhaus's kinsman Emille.  That tightens things up a bit, and could lead to a quicker set of confrontations.  Or maybe he runs off with the Countess' body and only returns once he's been able to restore her to undeath/unlife.  In fact, taking that approach opens up the possibility of converting the scenario over from a Circus coming to town with bad designs, to a single guy in a wagon who is passing through looking for someone whom he believes can help him, but everyone else recognizes as a bad, bad person.

At that point you can dispense with the vampire aspect entirely, if you like and have him track down Baron Frankenstein, some other Mad Scientist, or some cult of zombie-makers or some more Lovecraftian cultists, evil patriarchs of banned temples, aliens at some bizarre crash-site...there's a lot of directions that this can go.  Plus, once the Countess is resurrected, however it takes place, you get the revenge trip all over again.  Maybe they sneak back into the village disguised as a Gypsy caravan or a Circus and things go to hell in a handbasket as they pursue the revived Countess' evil scheme for revenge and destruction.

It could work.

Just swapping-out the vampires for lycanthropes would shake things up just enough to throw off players who've seen the movie already.  Toss in some black magic, more curses, some connection to nonhuman monsters out in the deep wilderness who are using the Circus to scout out potential new raiding targets...and you've the makings of a really fun adventure.

In fact, the idea of the Circus being in cahoots with some band of violent nonhumans, say a group of goblins or tribe of orcs, takes the supernatural edge off of things enough to lull players into complacency and gives you loads of opportunities to string them along with red herrings until the orcs, goblins, bandits, whomever finally arrive and set the place to the torch.  You can even have a boss monster amongst the orcs or whomever be a lycanthrope or vampire, just to keep some connection to the source material...or to leave you an opening for a return engagement inspired by the opening sequence of the movie.

How To Use It: Super Heroes
Consider how it might play out if the Count were actually your settings equivalent to Doctor Doom, or one of his ancestors.  Maybe the movie portrays an incident that took place in the past, only things didn't quite go the way of the movie.  Maybe some time traveller has meddled with this situation and things need to be set to rights before a super-science power-armored vampire tyrant takes over the world with his armies of cloned vampire twin acrobats...thus you get to use the movie, and play out the situation into an alternate timeline as well.

How To Use It: SciFi
A derelict old tramp spaceship drags itself into the docking bay of a megacruiser, habitat, or spaceport.  Onboard is a travelling circus.  They have exotic beasts from several worlds, some of which are not quarantined or are unexplored.  They have political connections.  The authorities let them in, for whatever reason.  A plague breaks out, people disappear, and a faction of separtists, rebels or malcontents who'd been suppressed for decades surge back into action, led by some obscure noble who was reported dead long ago...

Whether they're actual vampires, aliens, human-alien hybrids, agents of the Annunakki, or whatever, the basic premise of the movies' Circus of sinister dwarves, homunculi strongmen, shape-shifting cultists, etc. all can work well within whatever confined, pseudo-utopian Orwellian society you care to drop them into...and if it's not a utopia, and more of a dystopia, all the better!  The Circus could be the front for a weird form of AI that possesses the dead out of a perverse sense of drama, or some evil mutant/alien conspiracy to overthrow the established powers.  Maybe they bring a nanotech/biotech plague that creates zombies, vampires,or worse with them.  Possibly the once deceased noble seeks to rise up from obscurity like an undead Paul Atreides/Dracula surrounded with an army of vampiric worm-symbiont assassins...

The point is to have some fun.  Use the movie as a starting-out point and see where your imagination takes you.
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