Thursday, August 25, 2011

My GM Merit Badges

I didn't take up the Better GM Challenge posted at the Hill Cantons blog, mostly because I'm still trying to figure it out some best practices for myself. Every campaign I run could be considered an experiment in technique, trying to build on past successes to run the best game possible.

On the other hand, the excellent set of GM merit badges that Stuart at Strange Magic made are great shorthand symbols, and I think I can easily put together a set that represents my own GMing style -- or at least what I aspire to when I run.

  • My games will tell an interesting Story. It may not be the story I intend to tell, but it's the one I hope the players want to be in.
  • My games will be Scary -- or at least I try. I usually sneak in Lovecraftian things-man-was-not-meant-to-know whenever I can, even outside of Call of Cthulhu games.
  • My games focus on Exploration & Mystery. I enjoy setting up places for the PCs to explore and mysteries for them to solve.
  • I will Mirror back player ideas I think are interesting in the game. I am very open to player input, and I try my best to encourage players to add to the narrative, whether that means describing attacks in detail, monologuing, embellishing the current scene or adding NPCs and places to the world.
  • The GM is In Charge and "Rule Zero" is in effect. For this, what I mean is that I reserve the right to ignore the rules as written, but only if it's for the overall fun of the group. If it seems like a rule will prevent a PC from doing something awesome, that rule is getting in the way of the fun. I also hope that I have the trust of the players to know that I make decisions as fairly as possible -- most of the time in their favor.
  • My games use a pre-made Map and pre-scripted content. I like to have locations and scenes planned in advance like movie set-pieces whenever possible, and plan and follow a loose flowchart for the overall campaign storyline. These could be invented or from published material. Which leads into the seemingly contradictory badge...
  • My games rely on a lot of Improvisation rather than pre-scripted content. I like to throw out several plot threads and let the players pull on whichever ones they like. Because of this, I'm trying to plan more loosely and take a more improvisational approach to let them roam where they wish.
  • My games focus on interesting Characters and Drama. I try to populate the game world with NPCs that will be interesting for the PCs to meet, ally with, plan against, fight, and sometimes exist just for background and local color. I hope that these interactions create strong connections that will then lead to conflict and drama.
I wouldn't say that this is locked in, and would vary depending on the system, the setting and the group's own play style. If I am running Call of Cthulhu or a distinctly horror-related setting, I'd add the Run! badge.

Thanks to Stuart for a cool idea!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jimmy Sangster, RIP

Producer, screenwriter and director Jimmy Sangster passed away on Friday. He was 83. His scripts for both Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the U.S.) were absolutely essential for the rise of the Hammer Horror aesthetic.

This almost wasn't the case. In Sangster's version of the story, he was approached to write the script for Curse after suggesting several ideas for the studio, even though he wasn't going to be paid for it beyond his role as production manager. After the success of Curse he wrote the script for Dracula, The Mummy, and several other early horror classics for Hammer. In the Seventies, he wrote Hammer's remake of Curse starring Ralph Bates, The Horror of Frankenstein, but only on the condition that he could direct. His main interest was always with psychological and crime thrillers; he also produced most of those scripts including two films with Bette Davis, and directed Fear in the Night with Joan Collins.

He later wrote for U.S. television, including The Night Stalker, Ghost Story, The Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman.

Sangster was one of the last major creative crewmembers from the "golden age" of Hammer Horror. Most recently, director Roy Ward Baker passed away last year.

Read horror media expert Kim Newman's excellent obit for Sangster here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

121 Years of Howard Philips Lovecraft

I am Providence.
As Conan Week 2011 draws to a close, it's fitting to take time to remember another of the "triumvirate" of Weird Tales, H.P. Lovecraft, who was born 121 years ago today. His reputation stands as a close second to Edgar Allan Poe among American writers of horror, the supernatural and the macabre.

Today, his form of "Yog-Sotherey" -- what we today call the Cthulhu Mythos -- has become a prevalent form of horror for books, movies, games, even plush Cthulhus and other toys. It's a well-known fan meme. Ken Hite has suggested that all of this absorption into fan culture proves that Cthulhu and his otherworldly ilk are iconic figures, like Superman.

What is Lovecraft's lasting legacy? Others on the 'net have expressed this in a more erudite form than I could. I believe it is not only his own brand of "cosmic horror", the idea that there are things in the universe so completely strange and alien to us that our fragile minds cannot fathom them, not only the idea that humans are as insignificant to them as an insect might be to us, but the true message is that human beings are fully capable of reaching those same heights of inhumanity. I often wonder what H.P. would have thought had he lived to see the scale of atrocities during the 20th century.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Issues with the Conan Chronology

With a few exceptions, Howard didn't write about most of his characters in chronological order. He wrote the Conan series of stories as the ideas presented themselves, much in the same way as someone would tell yarns around the fire: "...and that story reminds me of the time that..."

The first Conan story to be written and to see publication was a tale of Conan as King of Aquilonia, "The Phoenix on the Sword", which is in fact itself is a re-working of the Kull story "By This Axe I Rule!". Howard started writing Conan at a point near the end of the character's career. As Howard wrote and published more Conan yarns, the settings and Conan's age and career would change -- king, pirate, mercenary, adventurer, thief.

In early 1936, Howard received a letter from P. Schuyler Miller, a fan praising the Conan stories and presenting his own ideas about the order of Conan's adventures.  In Howard's reply, his pleasure at Miller's enthusiasm over the stories can be felt. He suggested that the outline was "pretty close" and offered other suggestions. Miller and fellow fan John D. Clark compiled and published a new chronology later that year. If I remember correctly, Howard didn't make notes for himself about the chronology of Conan's exploits, at least none that are known to survive. He surely thought about it as he wrote, but the letter back to Miller is the only known affirmation by him about a possible order.

Howard doesn't reveal many details about Conan's early life in his stories. Conan was born on a battlefield (literally or metaphorically?); in his youth he broke the neck of a Cimmerian bull; by 15 years of age his exploits were talked about around the council fires; and he fought at the siege of Venarium. These milestones all take place before the events in the stories proper.

The problem with the Miller/Clark timeline is that not all of the Conan stories had seen print yet. There were more submitted but not yet published, still others that were not chosen for publication, and also various fragments and synopses.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when L.Sprauge de Camp and Lin Carter began to compile first the Gnome Press edtions and later the Lancer editions, they had access to these unpublished and unfinished works. As part of their editing and compiling process, de Camp, Carter, and Bjorn Nyberg finished the fragments, re-worked tales of other Howard heroes (for example, the long version of the El Borak tale "Three-Bladed Doom" was re-fashioned by de Camp into the Conan story "The Flame Knife"), and worked in their own stories to create a chronology that fit the material on hand. By finishing fragments and working in their own original stories, it also strengthened their claim of rights over the Conan works. This official timeline would be used for many years, eventually incorporating the various pastiche novels as they were published.

In 2003 Howard scholar Dale Rippke proposed his own version of a Conan chronology, meticulously going over only the stories and fragments written by Bob Howard, and using the clues therein to piece together a coherent structure. It has the benefit of incorporating many stories that Miller did not know about, and the objective view of only using those tales by REH. Trying to form a complete, concrete chronology is a difficult task. Rippke's textual evidence convinces me that his makes the most sense. Many other Howard fans must agree, as it was his chronology that has been used by Dark Horse for the comic series and appears to be the de facto "official" timeline adopted by Conan Properties.


Many fans enjoy having the object of their interests codified and explained. This can be seen going back to the first Star Trek fan projects like Enterprise bridge blueprints ("every function of every button explained") and technical manuals, through to books such as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, or The Atlas of Middle-Earth, and now today with sites like the Harry Potter Wiki. Fans enjoy knowing how things in the stories work and in what order their favorite characters' adventures take place. It also brings those places and people to life, and lets one imagine everyday life there.
"Any world-creator in a fantasy role-playing game setting can tell you about the hours/days/weeks spent building a working fantasy universe; immersing one's self in minutia and fine tuning the whole thing. There comes a point when the "Created-world" takes on a kind on life inside one's head. You are able to describe any part of it as if you had actually been there and experienced it. The whole thing transcends its origins and becomes (from a purely mental standpoint) a real place.

Every sense I get from reading Howard's Conan stories informs me that he experienced something very similar from his creation of the Hyborian Age world. He mentally lived in this place when creating and writing his Conan stories. Perhaps it was part of his putting on a persona as many authors do. All I can tell you is that he wrote these stories like he believed it. And, as any damned fine author does, he makes you believe as well." -- Dale Rippke, The Dark Storm Conan Chronology.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Howardian Movies without Howard Characters

Here's a short list of films that I feel exude the same sort of mood, atmosphere or style that you might find when reading a Robert E. Howard story:
What others did I miss?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Conan the Destroyer: A Re-Appraisal

My Conan Week post for today isn't quite ready for public consumption yet, so this is a on-topic re-post originally from last year. This week's theme might stretch into the weekend...

Several months ago, I had the chance to watch Conan the Destroyer again for the first time in quite a while. For years this film had the reputation of being "The D&D Movie". The title fits -- a motley group of adventurers are brought together for an epic journey...under false pretenses and with a stinging betrayal.

I know, I know, it's not Shakespeare. It's not even proper Howard, but it's fun. And it's all we had in 1984.

Even though it's less about Howard's Conan than even the first movie, there are still many things to like about it. Roy Thomas's involvement with the original story lead to the comic-book feel of the movie, even if he was disappointed with the final product. I'm not sure what to make of Richard Fleischer's work on the movie. He directed such great films as Tora! Tora! Tora!, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Soylent Green. I think more of the blame should go to the script.

One of my biggest disappointments with the movie is the score. Surprisingly, because the composer, Basil Poledouris, created one of the all-time best motion picture scores for the first Conan film. Some of those same cues are reused here, and the new music is rather pedestrian.

Despite its flaws as a whole, there are so many things to like about the movie. During this last viewing, I made some notes on the bits that I love, and the classic fantasy tropes that are used through the film:
  • A thief counting his coins
  • Soldiers "sneaking" up on our hero
  • A leaping backstab
  • Conan punches-out a horse, Mongo-style
  • A sorceress-queen who hires our hero for a quest
  • A fortress-city on a mountain
  • Evil-looking warlocks reading golden tablets
  • "Dagoth, the Dreaming God"
  • The Scrolls of Skelos
  • A prophecy of a virgin sacrifice
  • The threat of death/treachery
  • Rows of giant statues
  • The Queen's Guard following behind
  • Cannibal tribesmen
  • Decapitations
  • Gladiator pit fights
  • A crystal castle on a misty mountain lake
  • A wizard transforms into a bird of smoke
  • An impenetrable door with the only entrance being underwater
  • An enormous spiral stone staircase (this and the underwater entrance are my favorite scenes in the movie)
  • A hall of mirrors
  • "Out!!"
  • A sword fight on horseback
  • An ancient tomb in the desert (this entire sequence is another great scene)
  • Akiro nonchalantly lighting a torch with magic
  • Zula afraid of...a rat
  • Some really brutal swordplay against hordes of bad guys
  • A magical wizard duel
  • A secret entrance to the city behind a waterfall (my second favorite scene)
  • An arcane magical ritual
  • Sneaking in to stop the ritual
  • A giant Cthulhu Mythos beast (designed by Carlo Rambaldi, who won Oscars for E.T, Alien, and King Kong)
  • Conan tearing the magic artifact horn out of the monster's head and throwing it away with a priceless superstitious look
  • The new queen handing out rewards to the group

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Whole Wide World (1996): the forgotten Conan/Howard film

The Whole Wide World is not a Conan movie, but it is the Robert E. Howard movie. The marketing may have suggested to many that this was just another "chick flick", but it is much more than that. This romantic drama is chiefly based on the book One Who Walked Alone, the memoir of Howard by Novalyne Price Ellis, who was friends with and briefly dated Howard in the mid-1930s. Screenwriter Michael Scott Myers and director Dan Ireland worked closely with Mrs. Ellis to tell her side of their story.

We see the relationship distinctly from Novalyne's point of view, however it's still a great look into the thoughts and writing style of Howard. It's not completely accurate, and it is a dramatization. Even so, it's a pleasure to see these real-life characters brought to the screen.

Beyond the fun of watching a pulp legend portrayed on film -- shouting out the dialogue while typing a story, or passionately describing the history rooted in West Texas -- we also have the emotional connection to these characters and we feel the joys and sorrows of their relationship. TWWW is a great true story about this doomed relationship, told in a very real, well done and convincing way.

Could Novalyne have saved Bob Howard? Perhaps if the social conventions of the time were different, or if their obligations to others hadn't kept them apart. It's a heartbreaking look into the inevitable demise of a relationship between two different people who shared one passion: writing.

Vincent D'Onofrio shines in this film. He rarely disappoints in his acting roles and in TWWW he is so convincing as Howard. I can only guess what he was like based on written accounts by those who knew him. Having watched this film several times, it's easy for me to imagine Bob Howard as D'Onofrio portrayed him.

Rene Zellweger is fine as Novalyne. Her upbringing in Texas probably contributed to her performance. Unfortunately for me, I always see her as "Rene Zellweger" instead of the character she is playing, but that's just me. Zellweger and D'Onofrio have an uneasy chemistry on screen that does fit with the characters.

Zellweger's performance in this was overshadowed by the other little film she was in that year, Jerry McGuire. When she won the Oscar in 2004 for her performance in Cold Mountain, she thanked D'Onofrio for "teaching [her] how to work."

If you haven't seen TWWW, you've been missing a real treat.

Howard describes Conan from 1:04 to 2:30. The look on Novalyne's face is priceless.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Conan Week: Introduction

With high hopes for the new Conan movie being released on Friday (*fingers crossed*), I wanted to have a series of postings here this week about the character of Conan and his creator, one of my favorite authors, Robert E. Howard.

I should probably note any of the inherent biases that I have here. When talking about Howard and Conan, there's a sort of continuum of fans, and you can plot out fans on that continuum based on what appeals to them. On one end, you have a Howard fan who is a "purist", for want of a better term. He or she might acknowledge only the works that were directly written by Howard, and does not follow the movies, comics, pastiches by other authors, and so on. At the other end, we might have a person who is really a fan of the Conan character specifically and follows everything related to the character. Of course, I can't speak for everyone, but this has been my experience.

I like to compare this to the fans of two other long-running iconic characters, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. There are Holmes fans who acknowledge only the Doyle canon, and other fans who also enjoy the pastiche work like other authors' books, the movies and the Jeremy Brett TV series. Likewise, we see fans of Ian Fleming's original Bond stories, then there are the fans of only the Bond movies, which are of course different from Fleming's books. One type of fan isn't better than another, and I'd like to think that all the fans can find at least some bit of common ground.
"Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." --"The Tower of the Elephant", 1933.

For myself, I tend toward the Howard "purist" end of the spectrum, but I still enjoy many of the pastiche works. As long as Howard's original stories are readily available in print (as is the case with the marvelous work by Howard scholars for Wandering Star and Del Rey), then there is plenty of room for expansion of these characters' adventures. In my opinion, L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's  work on the Lancer/Ace series (and those Frazetta covers!) was very important for making Conan -- and by extension, Robert E. Howard -- popular with a wider audience in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and should be recognized for that accomplishment. Even so, the integration of their own writing into the Conan "mythos" and their rather brutal editing of the originals are difficult to forgive. I hate to even bring up such contentious work like Dark Valley Destiny, de Camp's psychological biography of Howard that introduced some erroneous facts and outright baseless conjecture. Scholars are still trying to repair lasting damage to Howard's reputation 40 years after the Lancer series first appeared.

There are great stories in some of the comics and pastiche novels. The novels tend to be hit-or-miss, depending on the author. Some are great (John C. Hocking, Karl Edward Wagner), others not so much (Leonard Carpenter, Poul Anderson, Steve Perry). The movies, for the most part, are fun and have some cool parts in them -- more on that in a later post. If you exclude some of these works out of hand, you'll miss out on some really good entertainment.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Next week is Conan Week

In the lead-up to the release of the new Conan movie on the 19th, I'll be posting each day next week about the character and his creator, pulp writer Robert E. Howard. I continue to bat around ideas for a Conan RPG campaign, and I hope this series of posts will help with that process and inspire others to take a look at the source material: Howard's original stories.

In related news, Dark Horse Comics is offering a bundle of the electronic versions of Conan issues #0-19 (by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord) for $20! I'm not sure how long the sale lasts, but their Facebook page seems to suggest that it runs through this weekend.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lulu coupon codes

 Good until this Friday night:
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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Back from Gen Con

Actually got back Sunday night but I've had no time to process it or report on it. I'm also trying to catch up on everyone else's reporting from the show. I'll be back with some thoughts later this week.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Dice Dice Baby

I haven't posted as much as I had intended to this week (not at all...), so I'll jump on the polyhedral bandwagon that Tim started over at Gothridge Manor. Here are two themed sets of dice from my collection for the "Show Me Your Dice Marathon".

I picked all but two of these d20s out of the Chessex dice-scoop bin at Gen Con several years ago. I wanted a set of "ugly" d20s to use for my True20 Freeport campaign. I only used the location die one time in a combat. We made up better damage effects on our own.

 This is my 40K dice cup. The red d6 brick for my Ork Speed Freek Pirates, and the grey and green brick for my Necrons. I also inherited some unit and vehicle condition dice from a friend and fellow player when he upgraded to markers from Gale Force Nine. I use the casino die as a turn marker, and the d4 is for tracking character wounds.