Star Wars: A Galaxy of Subgenres

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am a Star Wars fan. For as long as I can remember, the adventures of Jedi, smugglers, X-Wing pilots and weird alien heroes has enchanted me. It isn’t the kind of fandom that involves editing Wookiepedia or memorizing every species homeworld (not that there is anything wrong with those things) but rather a simpler, joyous kind of fandom that had me tearing up when I first heard the theme played in a theater in 1997 when the Special Editions were released. I first saw Star Wars sometime in the early 1980s on Betamax tape and had been re-watching the trilogy and (perhaps more importantly to my love of Star Wars) gaming in the universe by way of West End Games role-playing game. And, of course, there were comics and novels and video games.

The question as to how and why Star Wars managed to become such a powerful pop cultural force based on one ground breaking but ultimately indie sort of film is both interesting and probably unanswerable. No doubt many have tried and much has been written by both experts and amateurs alike. I won’t both injecting my voice into that discussion. Rather I want to talk about what it is I find so compelling about Star Wars and how it informs the direction of my own creative energies.

In brief: Star Wars, while representing a single milieu, contains within it many different subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. Just on its face, the original 1977 film is both a spaceships-and-laser-guns Science Fiction film AND a heroic journey, swords-and-wizards fantasy film. There are alien horrors weird enough to make H.P. Lovecraft proud as well as World War II ace combat. Lucas borrowed heavily from all kinds of film and fiction and so too did the people that followed him, from the earliest Marvel comic books to the current games and cartoons. Star Wars is inclusive, allowing it to tell different kinds of fantastical stories.

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed and was very impressed. this was hardcore military sci-fi in the Star Wars universe. The grit and relative realism presented in the novel juxtaposed well against the action-adventure melodrama of The Force Awakens. I don’t do reviews, but I will make recommendations: if you like Star Wars and you like gritty military sci-fi, Twilight Company is definitely worth your time. I could give or take the flourishes in the audiobook — music and sound effects, primarily — but they did not reduce my enjoyment. But more to the point, Twilight Company stands as a useful example for how Star Wars, while remaining fantastical space opera, became a successful vehicle for another genre. Like super hero comic books, Star Wars takes so much inspiration from so many other sources that it is a genre chameleon.

I like blurry genre lines. It is one of the reasons I am drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction, I think. Whether it is Gamma World, Thundarr or my own ReAwakened World, futuristic and unrealistic PA fiction is freedom to play with elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, westerns and more. Star Wars does that too, and very likely instilled that sensibility upon me (along with the aforementioned super hero comics).

My first novel Elger and the Moon is available for Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in print from Amazon.

Elger Update: The Words, They Are Written

It has been a long time since I mentioned my novel Elger and the Moon, which I began in earnest a little over 15 months ago and finished the first draft of just less than a year ago now. Well, the last day of 2016 turned out to be the day I finished the editing process (which I did with the input of a good friend who is also a professional editor). That means the book is done!

 

Well, the words anyway. It seems there is a lot more work yet to be done. I hemmed and hawed over whether to submit it to publishers and agents, or to self publish. I finally decided on the latter. I am not especially good at selling anything, let alone myself, but I am even less patient and the prospect of waiting years to find a publisher and then see it published was too daunting. So instead I will cinch up my mantaloons and do what I need to to get it out there and seen. From there, it is up to, well, you guys.

 

Over the next weeks expect to see more news about Elger here as well as other things. Table top (or virtual table top) gaming is still a huge part of my life and I have much to share on that front, as well as thoughts and opinions of everything from the awesomness that is the newest Star Wars to my complete and utter spasmodic anticipation for Horizon: Zero Dawn. Long story short: expect more geekiness out of me than you saw in 2016, as well as a little of the promotion (which I am no good at).

 

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

The High Guard

A decade ago, the dragon Zaskettr returned from the grave and in a rain of fire and death killed the High King, destroyed the capital and thrust the island nation of Maroester into chaos and ruin. There were those sword to defend the king and the realm, but they had grown aloof and self interested. Their great battles were won, they thought, and they retired to their villas and their self interests. They were not there that day when the dragon returned. they were not there for their king.

Maroester was discovered 250 years ago by the Vastlund Empire. The local inhabitants — called the paku, or halfling in the Vastlund tongue — were quickly pacified and assimilated while Vastlund’s slave race — the uyghur, or “orc” — was imported to build the Empire’s newest colony. This island held secrets, however, and in the wild forests and deep mountains and jagged dells there lived other beings. These were the races of the fae, the Fair Folk — haughty and wicked elves, crafty and suspicious dwarves, wild and mischievous gnomes, dark and murderous goblins and many more besides.

But neither the paku nor the fae races were the first to settle Maroester. Something older lived there, something woven into the land and tied to the fabric of magic itself. Ruins cover the island and deep within them lie secrets far older than either mortal or fae, and far more dangerous than either.

Nearly a century years ago, the Empire retreated from Maroester. Some calamity befell the Empire at home and the fleet and the legions left. Only the Margraves — something like barons — and there sworn retainers were left to maintain order. It was not enough. The island quickly devolved into civil war as the Margraves fought one another for control, the orc slaves rebelled and the fae worked their dark tricks on men.

Margrave Emrys Wellard became High King of Maroester when he killed the dragon Zaskettr and used its hoard to consolidate power: some Margraves he bought off and others he raised armies to defeat. He freed the orc slaves and gave them there own lands in the rugged center of the island and he brokered peace with those elves and dwarves who might treat with him. After a seven year campaign, he forged a prosperous nation that could survive the abandonment of the Vastlund Empire. Among his most trusted allies and favored servants were the High Guard — heroes of their own lands and regions and people that gathered under his banner to bring peace to Maroester. they were diverse in kind and objective, but all chose willingly to serve the High King for the sake of Maroester.

For forty years the High king ruled and peace reigned. The High Guard subdued rivals and defeated monsters from the wilds, tamed wild fae and delved secrets in the ancient ruins. But eventually peace got the better of them all and they parted ways and retired. That was when Zaskettr struck. No one knows how the wyrm returned from the dead , but it came back more powerful than it had ever been. It destroyed the capital of Bishop’s Gate and killed the High King and his court. The smoldering ruins of the king’s castle are its lair and the Molten Throne is its most prized treasure. And with the death of the High King, the unified land of Maroester crumbles. The Margraves fight amongst themselves while the old animosities between men, halflings, orcs and fae reignite. Dark monstrosities in the wilderness walk freely and the dragon’s presence sends magical energies and ley lines into choas.

 

Now more than ever, Maroester needs the High Guard.

 

The Dreams of Ruin: The Review

Truthfully, this will be more of an “overview” of The Dreams of Ruin by Geoff Grabowski than a review. Being friends with Geoof and having written for him, plus being a huge fan of the out there weird fiction science fantasy that populates the spaces in Geoff’s head between gardening and economics (no, really) I am not really qualified to give you an unbiased review of the book. That said, my goal isn’t to simply sell you the book either, except by telling you what it is, for real, and if that’s a thing you want to experience (and it should be) then go out there and get it. Or, well, click here.

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 The Dreams of Ruin (DoR) is a 261 page supplement for Labyrinth Lord and Mutant future, so called Old School Renaissance games published via the Open Games License by Goblinoid Games. As such, the book is compatible with most other old school rules systems, from Swords and Wizardry to OSRIC and, with a little more work, the likes of  Basic Fantasy and Castles and Crusades. It is not a complete game, but is also more than simply a setting book or an adventure. Aimed at high level (15th or higher) play it is designed to give epic heroes a run for their money.

 

Setting and Tone

The title refers to a setting element that can best be described as an inter-dimensional infestation or infection — a world ending seepage across realities that takes the form of a terrible, primeval dark forest haunted by corrupted beats, faceless puppets and hate filled unseelie Fair Folk. It is at once the villain of the piece as well as the location in which adventures take place, and due to its pan-dimensional existence it can contain elements from worlds of fantasy, science fiction and every permutation of the two together. this is the key component of the DoR from a genre standpoint: it hearkens back to the weird fiction roots of D&D, where elephant headed alien gods entertained Cimmerian barbarians and fantastic city states of the dead sat on the ruins of a billion year old Earth. In an era of fantasy dominated by Lord of the Rings and The Song of Ice and Fire on botht eh page and the screen, it can be easily forgotten that what we call the fantasy genre started out much more diverse and stranger than it appears today.

 

If you are familiar with Geoff Grabowski’s work as line devloper of White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted RPG the fusion of epic struggle and science-fantastical elements that dominated that game are here as well, though in a much more focused manner.

 

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The art of DoR is evocative of that same weird fantasy vibe. It ranges in both polish and quality but never wavers in tone. Whether it is a horned devil encased in power armor or a Puppet of Ruin (seen in the image above) massacre, the art remind the reader that this fantasy is different than the endless stream of heroic quests that have come before it.

 

In tone, the writing of DoR is generally conversational. The author addresses readers’ (presumably Game Masters) concerns directly, anticipating questions and alternating between readable prose and bullet points. He wants you to be able to understand this stuff so that you can use it in your game, which is often forgotten by game designers and authors. This book is full of strange ideas and non-standard fantastic elements and the author endeavors to get you to understand and accept those elements before moving on to the next bit. That said, it is not “simplistic” and the book does not appear to be written for the Game Master new to the craft or new to Old School games. it is safe to say that the author expects that your campaign reached the suggested high levels through actual play and therefore the GM knows how to run the game and incorporate new ideas.

 

Nuts and Bolts

The Dreams of Ruin is more than a descriptive book. The author develops a numbner of subsystems that provide concrete guidelines on how to implement the DoR into a campaign. The two most important are the rules governing how the “dark forest” manifestation of the Dreams works in play, and the rules for actually overcoming the threat of the dreams.

 

As stated above, the DoR are an infection in the world. Not surprisingly, that means it starts out small and grows in both size and virulence. In the parlance of DoR, the Dreams go through a series of Blossomings before they consume the whole world. The author lays out in meticulous detail how each blossing occurs, including tables for the size of the Dreams as they spread. In addition, each stage of the Dreams is given its own encounter tables and associated rules. It is possible using these rules to divorce the Dreams from its world ending aspects and simply use it as a very dangerous zone in the campaign world.

 

In addition to encounter tables, there are rules for the effects the Dreams have on those that travel through the forest (hint: it isn’t good) and the various sorts of entities and hazards that fill the Dreams. These are more than quick stat blocks. there is an ecosystem of terror here, with warring factions and dangerous interlopers — because of the inter-dimensional nature of the DoR, almost any sort of terror or treasure can be found within. Make no mistake, this is a truly high level threat zone and low level characters attempting to pass through, even briefly, will very likely meet a grotesquely cruel end.

 

The other major rules component covers how the player characters can actually cleanse their world of the infection that are the DoR. This is not simple task of killing a boss monster or casting a high level spell. Instead, a detailed process of research and experimentation is laid out. There are the usual assortment of new spells and magic items, but in order to “win” the player characters will have to understand the threat their world faces and then develop a method by which to counter it. It is a long process that engages players as well as their characters and gives the GM a built in system for motivating investigation and adventure. Most of all, the process is as spectacular as one would expect to be undertaken by PCs that amount to godlings themselves.  For example, one of the prescribed methods to stem the tide of the Dreams is referred to in the book as “Massive Geomancy.”

 

Final Word

The Dreams of Ruin is unlike anything currently on the market for Old School Renaissance games. It considerably expands the horizon of that particular subgenre of adventure game fantasy, inviting the audience into a world where slaying the dragon and saving the princess are barely more  interesting than doing the dishes. It embraces the weird fiction influence of the past while being wholly original. And while I will not give it a grade due to my personal relationship with its creator, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who enjoys OSR gaming and wants to try something out of this world.

 

For a few more days as of this writing you can back the Dreams of Ruin Kickstarter here. You can even get a copy of the game here beforehand and then decide that Geoff deserves your support. If you want more information, read my interview with Geoff here.

 

Happy gaming.

Interactivity and Entertainment:Thoughts on Telltale’s Game of Thrones

I’ll open with Full Disclosure: I have not read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. At least, I have not ead all of it. I did read A Game of Thrones and get halfway through its sequel, A Clash of Kings, before my interest in Martin’s characters and world building was overcome by my impatience to see the story told. Therefore, my familiarity with the series is primarily rooted in the HBO television series — which is good, because Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones adventure game exists in the television universe, rather than the literary one.

 

The first episode (we’ll get to that in a moment) is titled Iron from Ice. My intent is not to review it — there is a good one here at GameSpot for those who are interested — but suffice it to say I very much enjoyed it and found it compelling enough to write this post based on my experiences with it. I played it while on a four hour flight home from San Juan, entirely in one two and a half hour or so sitting, which makes it about as long as one might expect a film to be but it felt just about the same length as an episode of the television show.  Just a note: I played it on an iPad 2, which meant it did not look great and the frame rate was a little choppy, but I do not think it impacted the experience too negatively. I plan on purchasing the complete series for either my PS3 or my gaming PC, so neither of those issues should be a concern for future episodes.

 

Before I continue, I encourage you, if you have not played the game itself or read a thorough review, to go to the GameSpot review linked above and give it a read before continuing — or, better yet, head over to Steam, the App Store or other game retailer of your choice and pick it up and play through it once. First of all, I do not intend to recap the story in detail (though there may be more than a few SPOILERS for the game in the rest of this post) and second, I am responding to the nature of adventure games in general, Telltale games in specific and this one in particular when I am discussing “Interactivity and Entertainment.”

 

That all said, let’s get right to the core of the matter: Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 1 – Iron from Ice is  a story which the audience experiences both passively (just like the television show, for example) and interactively (like a more traditional video game). I know that is a little controversial to say, but allow me to explain : Iron from Ice is a story because it has all the qualities of a story (a plot, character, setting, themes, mood, and so on) and while the interactive elements are compelling, they ultimately only have a superficial impact on how the story plays out. The story elements, while mutable to an extent, still exist as prescribed by the creators, so the “game” aspect of it is mostly an illusion. This is true of most adventure games, though most adventure games rely less on story on more on discrete puzzles to engage the player. This is also true of many games that do not even fall within the genre of “adventure game.” A game like the original God of War, for example, is mostly a linear series of set pieces that must be solved in a specific manner (aka puzzles) and a specific order, with frenetic combat thrown in to make it seem more like what we usually think of as a “game.” By contrast, something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is more game than story. There is a main quest line, of course, and a number of subplots all prescribed and populated, but all of those can be ignored in favor of looting dungeons, hunting dragons, collecting books or a million other things. While the game-story dividing line is broad and blurry (with even Skyrim only just on the “game” side compared to something like Pong) but Iron from Ice very clearly rests comfortably on the “story” side of the line. If you disagree, I encourage you to let me know in the comments or on the facebook page where we can discuss it further, but for now I am going to move forward with this definition in mind.

 

An interesting aspect of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is that these properties are highly successful television shows (of course spawned from comic books and novels, respectively) with well established and consistent tones, atmospheres and styles. Both shows leverage not only the source material but deviating from the source material, and each uses surprise and even shock to enhance its storytelling (rather than to replace the need for good storytelling, as a lot of lesser shows and films will do).

Exhibit A — Reactions to the “Red Wedding” on the  Game of Thrones television show:

 

You do not get this sort of visceral response unless the audience is fully invested in the story, which in itself is a sort of interactivity in the fiction. It seems inevitable, then, that the next logical step is the more properly interactive, immersive and invested world of electronic games for these properties: it is no longer enough to gasp at the knife as it is drawn across the throat, but also to be responsible for it by choosing the words and actions of the character whose life now flows freely onto the cold stone floor.

 

In both Game of Thrones and Walking dead, the story that telltale creates centers not around the protagonists of the existing properties (though many of those characters weave in an out of the stories) and instead star new characters. These characters are carefully integrated into their respective worlds and, especially in Game of Throne, echo archetypes from the source material, but new characters provides both a sense of ownership for the player as they make choices for those characters, but also a sense of uncertainty important to their properties.  Both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead have made it clear that no one is safe. A new character otherwise unconnected from the source narrative means an unknown fate and, by that, potential doom at any point. After all, the game presents enough other characters — you control four in Iron from Ice and a fifth is strongly hinted at — that sudden death does not necessarily mean rebooting to the last save. All of this combined for a more immersive experience.

 

The interactivity fuels that immersion and is fueled by it. Often, when the player chooses dialog or an action for the character they currently control a little note appears in the corner, telling the player that this character or that noticed it or will remember it. It says to the player, “Your choices matter,” even if they really do not. And, ultimately, that the player thinks the choices matter is far more important to their enjoyment than that those choices do matter. The stories are so well crafted that the apparent choices seem to lead naturally to the outcomes presented, even if those outcomes are prescribed anyway. Therefore, the interactivity of it, the choosing it and being immersed by it and feeling connected to the characters and the world, is both the goal and the means to the goal. Yes, Telltale has a story to relate, but you are responsible for getting there and along the way you find yourself deeply connected to the events of that narrative.

 

I think there will always be a place for passive entertainment — reading a great book, watching a great movie or listening to a great album. But technology has finally gotten to a place where a whole new world of truly interactive, immersive entertainment — going for beyond simple stories and games, I think — sits before us. Telltale has managed to dare us to dip out toe into that future.

Going All In with Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition

The face(s) of D&D 5th Edition!

 

I am a gamer. More specifically, I am a table top role-playing game gamer. And to be precise, I am a Dungeons & Dragons gamer. That’s not to say that I have not tried, played, game mastered and/or completely geeked out over other games — I have — but my first game was D&D and D&D is where my gamer heart lies.

 

Dungeons & Dragons is on the cusp of its 40th Anniversary this year, and is launching it’s so-called 5th Edition. (I say “so called” because counting the editions, especially when you factor in Dungeons & Dragons versus Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is a little bit wonky.) I myself and nearing my 30th year with the game: I started with D&D when I was 10 years old and I recently turned 39. However, I have not really been a D&D player for some time, not since the release of the 4th Edition of the game in 2008. I played 4E for about a year and even tried to run it, but eventually realized it “was not D&D” to me and abandoned it for Pathfinder. That game, the spiritual successor to the D&D 3.5 rules, proved just too fiddly and “crunchy” for my taste and after a few attempts at serious campaigns I abandoned trying to run the game (but still play it). I won’t get into too many specifics, but the fact is that I have a “D&D sweet spot” as it relates to rules and DM control and complexity. The perfect level of that is probably found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.

 

For some time after its announcement in 2012, I was ambivalent regarding the new 5th Edition of my favorite game. At that time, I was still enamored with Pathfinder, suppressing my misgivings and running it despite my inability to keep it all straight. Although Wizards of the Coast — D&D’s owners and publishers since the late 1990s when TSR was a burning ship and us rats were leaping into the ocean of games by other publishers — opened up the 5th Edition (or, D&D Next as it was called then) to public play test, I only lightly perused the documents and went about playing Pathfinder. I was sure for a very long time that Pathfinder *was* D&D and WotC would never be able to produce a suitable game to match the trademark again. I secretly wished Hasbro would sell the property off and Paizo, publishers of Pathfinder, or some other entity would snatch it up and treat it right. But, alas, that did not happen and as time went on I became disillusioned with the increasingly complex Pathfinder system and started drifting away from D&D, old and new, altogether.

 

A strange thing happened then, one I should have predicted but failed to see. As the actual release of D&D 5E approached, a fire kindled in my belly. I felt an anticipation, a hope, a preemptive joy that spoke one truth from inside: D&D was coming back. I did the same thing with 4th Edition, to be honest. Despite everything I had read that turned me off during the lead up to 4E, I pre-ordered the 3-book slipcase edition. Not only that, since it would not arrive until a few days after launch, I actually ran out and bought a 4E Player’s Handbook on launch day — for a game I knew I would not like, simply because it was a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. With 5E, as soon as the Basic Rules appeared on the Wizards of the Coast website for free, I downloaded them, and as soon as the Starter Set — which I had swore not to purchase since it was not a “complete product” — was on the shelf, I purchased not one but three copies (one for myself and two for friends). The difference between 4E and 5E, though, was that upon reading 5E, I said to myself: *this* is D&D.

 

It is difficult to articulate what makes a game “D&D” for me, and I won’t bother trying in this post. Suffice it to say that something in these initial 5E offerings remind me of that favorite edition of mine, 2E, with just enough novelty to suggest something special is happening. As with every other edition of D&D since I started playing way back in 1985, I want to be in on the ground floor and embrace the game that has given me so much pleasure and allowed me to express so much creativity. More, D&D has served as an open door through which many of my closest friends have emerged. There are many reasons for that, which I will explore perhaps in a future post, but the bottom line is that D&D is an intimate sort of entertainment, and that builds friendships.

 

In any case, what this means to both of you, me dear readers (hi, mom!), is that this blog is going to be dominated by gaming in general and D&D 5E in particular for the foreseeable future. I have been sort of at a loss with this and my own creativity for a while anyway and I am hoping that a focus on gaming and 5E will re-energize my creative batteries and allow me to make some progress. Plus, the fact is this blog is mostly for fun and therefore, i should make it about what I enjoy, and D&D is one of those things.

 

I plan to, in the near future after attending GenCon, producing some regular features, including Magical Mondays (new spells, items and magical locations), Wicked Wednesdays (new monsters, villains, traps and tricks) and Setting Saturdays (fantastic peoples, places, organizations and such like) just as exercises to keep my creative juices flowing and my players on their toes. With any luck, there will also be more than a few rants and raves and opinion pieces regarding the game.

So here’s to the newest iteration of the first and greatest fantasy role-playing game ever created, and to all the gamers out there who have eagerly anticipated its release. Huzzah!

 

The Too High Bar

The very first story I remember writing was a fantasy. I don’t recall how old I was, although I am fairly sure I was under 10 because I had not yet discovered Dungeons and Dragons, but I do remember writing it in one of those black and white covered composition books. Nor do I recall anything of the story itself, except that it was about a champion on a quest to slay a dragon. Strangely, I do have a very specific memory of writing it, particularly at a moment when I described how the dragon’s eyes “glew” with fierce light and my mother corrected me that it was “glowed.” I recall arguing, as well, holding up “blow” and “blew” as evidence that she was surely wrong. I do not remember whether I changed it. I wish I still had that notebook. I would like to know more about what I wrote, perhaps even uncover what it was inspired by. I imagine that nothing had so great an influence on that story as the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon, which was my first exposure to Tolkien.

 

I love fantasy, especially the “Tolkienesque” kind, with elves and dwarves and heroes and Dark Lords and all the other trappings. I love Tolkien’s work in particular, but to be honest I am not that discerning at times. For example, to my shame The Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies are as close to my heart as is Lord of the Rings. Not because they rival the good Professor’s work in skill and craft, of course, but because of where they landed in my formative reading experience. In gaming, both table top and electronic, that flavor of fantasy is by far my favorite. All that said, I find that I have a difficult time writing fantasy. As I just began rereading The Lord of the Rings again — the mark of great literature is, I think, that one can revisit it again and again and always find something both meaningful and new in it, because the great works are able to speak to us across the changing landscapes of our lives — I think I finally hit upon why I have such difficulty with writing fantasy:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien.

 

In particular, I will never be able to craft a world in the way that he did, with its deep history and complex languages. The fact is, I am far more interested in storytelling than world building. The problem is that the definition of fantasy for me, what makes great fantasy so rich and powerful, is a great fantastic world that is complex, cohesive and real feeling. That is what Tolkien created in me with his work, and now when I desire to write a fantasy, to tell stories about champions hunting evil dragons, I cannot help but see how thin and brittle the world in which I place that story is. The bar Tolkien set is too high for me to reach and so I often do not try at all.

 

What I found I prefer, as far as world building is concerned, is to take something familiar, whether it is our own world or the typical medieval fantasy world or any other archetypal setting, and season it with the unfamiliar. When it comes to fantasy, though, this is something that is all too common and I dread the idea of being another terrible Tolkien imitator, making Middle Earth with cat folk, for example. Unfortunately, I believe some stories belong in certain genres and are best told in those genres, which leaves me at a loss sometimes when I have a story to write that is absolutely, unequivocally a fantasy story. A world of knights and ogres and wizards and dragons brings with it a host of implicit qualities that aid the author in communicating with the audience, conveying meaning easily while offering accessible opportunities to subvert assumptions. Every genre is a toolbox with which the writer builds a story with the help of a genre savvy audience. To feel a genre closed off from me, especially one I so love, because of my own inadequacies is, to say the least, unpleasant.

 

This is a limitation I do not feel with other genres. If I have difficulties with any other genre in this way, it would be hard science fiction and that is only because I am not a scientist or even an engineer and therefore do not know a lot of things I should know in order to write such a story. Even so, I do read a lot of science and have access to the Internet, so I have those two tools — knowing which questions to ask and where to go about finding the answers — which usually suffice for any given story I am likely to want to write. There is no equivalent in fantasy, no way to Google up a long and detailed history of a particular region so the singular chapter the protagonists spend in the place is as real and convincing as life outside the reader’s window. Instead, I find myself relying in writing on a skill that has served me well in game-mastering table top role-playing games: treating the world like an old time Hollywood movie set, all veneer and no substance. That works when at a table, helping players navigate a monster riddled maze or dragon-haunted badlands. Players see through that sort of thing and don’t care because they are engaged in the game itself; readers are not so forgiving, I don’t think. Or, at least, I am not, which brings us back around to the problem itself:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien. The bar is too high.

Comic Books and Genre Freedom

I recently purchased a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, a Netflix like service from Marvel Comics that lets you read tens of thousands of older (from the earliest days to just six months old) Marvel Comics. I dove right into The Mighty Thor series from the 1960s, specifically Walt Simonson’s run. Those stories always seem to top “Best of” lists not only for Thor but for Silver Age Marvel Comics in general, and since I am not nearly as well versed in Marvel lore as I am DC, I thought it would be worth my time.

 

And boy has it been so far. The most surprising aspect of the run is how modern it feels, relatively speaking. Both the art and the writing would have me place the book much closer to the 1980s, when I started reading DC Comics. The other thing that struck was just how Out There the stories are, not only steeped in Norse mythology but also science fiction and cosmic horror and, of course, super-heroic derring do. If you have never read the saga of Beta Ray Bill, alien champion who wins the mantle of Thunder God, I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience.

 

The “Out There” quality is what inspired this post, as recognizing it helped me coalesce a thought that has been swirling about in my head will-o-the-wisp like for ages: in comic books, it seems to me, one has license to break the rules of genre as nowhere else. That is, in comic books, be they superhero tales or science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, there is an implicit freedom to go a little gonzo and let your imagination run wild. Sure, there are many slice of life, realistic and even “hard” sci-fi and “low” fantasy comics out there, but by and large, comics are a place where creators are keen to indulge their most extreme flights of fantasy, often to the benefit of their readers.

 

Allow me to present a personal example: I have had, for some time, this idea about a “reverse Superman” of sorts — a human character from Earth who, when he travels to another planet, he gains super-human powers. In this tale, the “planet” is actually a system of moons around a super-Jupiter, and it is the strange radiation from that world that gives the protagonist his powers. The hero is the fiance of an alien princess who was “slumming” on Earth before her pre-arranged marriage but fell in love with our hero. When she was forcibly escorted back by the agents of her father and husband-to-be, he stowed away and only upon their arrival did he learn of his powers. The moon worlds are all pulp sci-fi environment worlds — and ice planet and a desert planet and an ocean planet, etc… — and his adventures are equally operatic.

 

It used to be that this sort of non- or wrong-science adventure was the province of the pulp magazines. Over the years, though, prose science fiction and fantasy has gained a certain level of respectability, or at least there is a level of expectation from fandom that works will be either “realistic” or, at the very least, quite serious in their treatment of fantastic elements. But in comics, that unwritten rule has never taken hold. In comics, John Carter can still adventure on Mars and Thor, God of Thunder, can team up with a genetically engineered cyborg hero to fight demons from a dimension beyond space and time.

 

Why is that? When Simonson was writing, at least, one could point to comics as a medium aimed at children, so adherence to any sort of scientific or internally-consistent standard was unnecessary, even unwelcome. My response is: Perhaps, but that does not explain why comics continue to be that way now. We still accept an alien from Krypton who can fly under the power of our yellow sun’s radiation and who fights cyborgs powered by pieces of his dead homeworld. Ridiculousness, to be sure, but both acceptable and preferred, even. Comics readership has gotten older with each passing decade, and more and more speculative fiction media, including the newest in the form of video games, tries to enter the field with solid grounding and “realistic” speculative elements.

 

I think it because strange ideas, the kind of things present in the pulps of yore, are more easily conveyed through the juxtaposition of image and art and that we, as a community of readers of speculative fiction, still need a little gozo to go with our hard sci-fi, low fantasy and psychological horror. In a few strokes of an artists pen and a few captions of a writer’s words, whole worlds can be created. Moreover, because most of us do come to comics when we are children or adolescents, we retain a childlike wonder in engaging comics and are more accepting of the wondrous in panels and thought balloons.

 

Sometimes I worry that I am simply being “lazy” wanting to write comics instead of prose, but the reality is that often what I am looking for is not ease of creation — it is said Allan Moore’s scripts are longer than most novels, and he is perhaps the greatest of all writers who embrace the gonzo aspect of comics storytelling — but the freedom to use ideas I fear are not “acceptable” for prose, like humans made interplanetary superheroes by way of gas-giant radiation belts.

 

How Centaurs Came To Be

I like myths. Norse myths were among the first “fantasy” I ever experienced as a child, followed quickly by Greek mythology. Origin stories and fables and  cautionary tales all, myths have a power unlike any other form of literature. The only time I have ever been able to indulge in myth making, though, has been while writing for the adventure game (aka Role Playing Game) industry, where the work you do is not so much about writing stories as it is about building foundations upon which others can build their own stories.  The following sort of fits into that vein. It’s a story in that it has a beginning, middle and end, but also serves more to build a world and imply something with which to interact.

———-

How the Centaurs Came to Be

from the annals of Rovarik Balt, Imperial Historian Exult

 

A Word on Sources: The following history was distilled from a great many sources, not least of which the stories of the centaur people themselves. Their version — or “versions” I should say since no two tribes tell precisely the same tale — does not include the Empire, of course, as the nature of politics and war make it unseemly to tie oneself to one’s enemies so intimately. Also, given the race’s descent into barbarism, it is in fact possible that the links to their Imperial Origin were lost. Our own histories do not mention the centaur people at all, of course, at least not until only a few centuries ago with the disastrous “first” contact between us. With the end of the Low Campaign and the Start of the Duskward Expansion period, the entire eastern region was abandoned and fell into legend for centuries. It is no wonder that the then nascent centaur tribe did not figure in Imperial report. Rumors can be found in various travellers writings and the infamous explorer-merchant Argipol claims to have met them in his “Travels Beyond the Blue Mountains.” So little of that volume is based in truth, however, that the best one can say is that it is possible he heard an accurate report of the centaur people third hand and, as was his style, embellished it. Despite the questionable veracity of all of these sources, and many minor others, something like the true origins of the centaurs can be carefully reassembled like a shattered vase under the steady, skilled hand of a master historian. What follows is my most humble attempt.

 

In the thirty-third year of the fourth century after Luminov blessed the Sky Throne and established our beloved Empire, His Most Adored and Beloved Emperor Niko II ordered the Low Campaign to expand the Reach of Luminov into the river lands east of the Blue Mountains. To this end, over the course of some nineteen years, Imperial outposts were established in that wilderness and garrisoned with Knights of the Empire. As it was Nikos’ most wise desire to seed these new lands with the children of the Empire, the knights were called Unchaste and the maids and wives of the knights lived too at the outposts.One outpost well beyond the mountain wall was called Epo and it would be the last outpost before the demise of Niko II and the Ascension of Niko III that altered the course of the Empire and pushed it westward.

 

Epo was governed by Lord Kavil eth-Gard and housed only twenty-two thousand knights. With the wives, concubines, servants and daughters  of the knights, the population of Epo was last recorded as eighty-seven thousand and three hundred twelve. The fertile river lands let Epo remain self sustaining except for iron from the Blue Mountains, and luxuries from across the Empire. In the five years of records that survive for Epo, only two hundred nine boys were returned to the Empire and replaced with squires. In addition, in the final year of record, Epo sent ten thousand bushels of wheat and three thousand twenty one local slaves to the capital as treasure. A notation was made by the Lord Collector of his surprise that Epo could become profitable in a mere four years. One wonders what could have been, had eth-Gard not failed so spectacularly.

 

The river lands were people by barbarians of no special merit. They were neither savage nor enlightened, warlike nor docile, dark nor light. They lived in mud huts and raised mean livestock and tended meager fields. What these lands did have in great abundance, however, were horses. The horses of the river lands were of the purest, strongest stock, for their Divine Mother, Eki, ran still among their herds. As great as an oliphant and as swift as a shooting star, Eki the Horse Goddess blessed her brood with such speed and endurance and courage as unseen in all the Empire. The people of those lands, being barbarians and hence taken to worshipping walking gods like Eki, would not tame any horse. Their stories, it was recorded by eth-Gard, did speak of tribal chiefs so brave and strong they could harness Eki herself and be rewarded for this deed with a great stallion for a steed.

 

Eth-Gard decided he would tame the Horse Goddess and gain this reward. He wrote he did so for the glory of the Empire, for no cavalry mounted atop the Steeds of Eki could be withstood, but I believe it was his own hubris that drove him to this act. Eth-Gard had nine wives and fourteen concubines and yet he wanted to conquer more.

 

Here, the story becomes muddled. In eth-Gard’s surviving writings, he spent nine days tracking then breaking Eki, finally so great in his efforts than Eki bent to knee to let him place the bridle upon her. In the ancient tales of the centaur skalds, Eki teased eth-Gard, running circles about him for ninety days, letting him neither sleep nor eat. It was only when he was going to expire for his love for her that she rewarded him by allowing him to ride her, unbridled, back to Epo. The storytellers of the barbarians of the river lands, who still live in their mud huts and raise their mean stock, have yet another version, where eth-Gard tricked Eki, offering her a Sidereal Apple with one hand but slipping The Iron Bridle (both objects from their body of myth) on her with the other. Some stories even cast theirs as a romance, with the prize not his choice of stallion, but consummation.

 

Whatever the truth, all sources agree that eth-Gard did indeed win his contest with Eki and was rewarded with a great stallion. Being a shrewd commander, eth-Gard chose not the stallion with the mightiest thews or fastest stride, but the one who held sway with the most mares and young stallions, for eth-Gard wanted a great cavalry for the glory of the Empire. His choice was a good one and he gained his wish, for within a few years he had built a herd where not only did every knight have a stallion of Eki, but so too did every lady have a mare of Eki.

 

At that time, among the many tribes of the river people only one remains known by name. They called themselves the Ghurst and they painted themselves white and raided the farms of the other folk. For a time, eth-Gard not only ignored the Ghurst but actively, though secretly, aided them in their trepidations until, as he desired, the other tribes of the river folk begged for Imperial protection. With his great cavalry of Steeds of Eki, eth-Gard came to their aid. But by then the Ghurst were a mighty horde and they number ten savages for every Imperial knight. War was upon the river lands and the fate of the Empire in that region rested upon Lord Kavil eth-Gard.

 

It is here where Imperial records end. According to reports buried deep in the archives, eth-Gard’s cavalry was destroyed and the Ghurst attacked Epo, murdering, raping and pillaging. No revenge was offered, for Nikos II died and his ambitious son’s eyes turned to the west to the Dusk Isles. In order to learn what became of eth-Gard and how his fate led to the creation of the centaur race, we must turn to the centaurs themselves. Though additional research has provided some validation for what follows, and my own expertise has abolished much hearsay and myth, uncertainty remains.

 

In the centaur version of the war, Kavil eth-Gard and his cavalry mounted upon the Steeds of Eki pushed back the Ghurst in every battle. These victories were hard won, so go the tales, and the horses were the greatest casualties. Eth-Gard held no regard for the mounts. In his mind they were simply tools. He ordered his men to ride them all day into a lather and then fight until dawn. The lame were slaughtered for meat to feed the eth-Gard’s knights and the wounded were executed rather than healed. Eki, say the centaurs, raged at the treatment of her children and appeared three times to eth-Gard. At each appearance, a knight died, his soul simply whisked away from his body which then withered and turned to ash on the wind, for every mount that had died that day. Eth-Gard ignored these warnings and pushed on, driving the horses to death in pursuit of the Ghurst.

 

Eki, say the centaur priests, anguished over her choice for the turning of the moon. With her divine might, she could have eradicated the knights and freed her brood, but perhaps that would only bring more knights. More importantly, they say, by then the tribes of the river people had realized the horses could be tamed and had begun to do so themselves, driving and beating the animals like lowly cows or dogs. Eki desired only that the men of the Empire value her children as their status warranted. So, she cast upon them the only curse she could imagine that would bind the men to their horses: she magically, physically, permanently hound eth-Gard and his knights to their stallions, making man and horse one, creating the centaur race.

 

Waking at the day and finding themselves now half man and half horse, the Imperial knight-centaurs wailed and gnashed their teeth. The Ghurst saw an opportunity and attacked, but the newly forged centaurs were greater than man and horse had been separately. Donning their breastplates and helms and wielding their lances and swords, they slaughtered the Ghurst to a man.

 

When the battle was done, eth-Gard lay mortally wounded among his company. The man-horses around him wept openly and Eki appeared. As she stood over eth-Gard, she saw the sorrow around her and said, “Even tied to this cruel fate, your men love you.”

 

Eth-Gard is said to have laughed at the goddess. “That is not why the men weep,” he said. “Another among them will rise to lead.”

 

“Then they must love your country very much,” Eki said. “For your men cannot return to that place as man-horses.”

 

“You are wrong again,” answered eth-Gard. “If my men chose, in these new forms they could crush the cavalries of the Empire and not just return home, but take it as their own.”

 

“What then?” asked Eki. “Why do they weep if not for love of their captain or love of their country?”

 

“They weep for love of their lines,” answered eth-Gard as he neared death. “In these forms, none shall ever father a son again. Our wives will run from us as the monsters we are, and even those that might not would be broken beneath us.”

 

“Such is the fate they chose in ignoring my warnings,” chided Eki. When eth-Gard laughed, the goddess asked, “What brings you mirth now, cursed one, upon your deathbed?”

 

“In your rage,” said eth-Gard, “you have lost count. Here, bound to mere men, are all your stallions, no more able to sire a foal than father a child. And your mares, they are all in the hands of our wives. As surely as you have cursed us, you have cursed your own brood.”

 

Furious, Eki rose above eth-Gard and threatened to come down and dash his skull with her hooves. But she knew he was right. In her wrath she had sealed her ken’s own doom and in so, her own, for what is a goddess without a people? So, letting eth-Gard expire of his wounds, Eki raced from the field of battle to Epo. Thereupon, she used her divine might to bind every knight’s wife to the mare he had gifted her. Thus born were the centaur women.

 

For a time, the centaur people tried to emulate Imperial society but their spirits were as bound with horses and their bodies. With the Empire thinking Epo razed by barbarians and turned westward and the centaur slaves to their animal whims, the inevitable occurred in short order. In time, the centaur tribe split and split again, and spread to the corners of the world. All remain in service to Eki, however, and bitter enemies to the Empire.