Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Session Report: West of Keep on the Borderlands

So I ran with my notes I worked up from a couple of Lovecraft and Howard stories. Here’s what went down:

The players took the survivor from the bandit attack and decided to take him to the city of Ib. The players go to the temple which looks like the parthenon. But there’s this green statue in the likeness of Bokrug inside it… of course with gigantic gemstones for eyes. Easily worth enough gold to level up the party!

The dwarf with charisma 17 brashly calls for a healer. Ten ugly green guys with flabby lips come out with daggers drawn. The dwarf just leaves. The players ponder trying to do something weird with flaming oil, but think better of it. They find an inn and refuse to eat the green gruel that the survivor slurps up. They stay the night and leave the guy there with a few gold pieces.

(All of this takes a long time to play out because the players are insanely careful describing their actions and deciding what to do.)

The party elects to go back to where they found the survivor and then leave the road, travelling a half day to the north… then making for the keep from there.

I roll a bunch of wandering monster checks and nothing comes up. The players find the skinned man that is staked to the ground. The players bury him and then attempt to make it look like he escaped.

The thief is painstakingly scouting ahead and then reporting back. A harpy comes and attacks him. He runs back to the party, but is grabbed and carried into the sky. The dwarf shoots the harpy twice with his crossbow and fails to kill it. The thief is murdered and carried away.

From there the players travel on to the keep without incident.

Total playing time was about two and half hours– a fair game session for people that still have lives. Three distinct adventure hooks were added to the campaign situation that time. No idea if the players will abandom them all to go grind on the Caves of Chaos instead!


West of the Keep on the Borderlands

I enjoy running Keep on the Borderlands with new players, however I find myself wanting to embellish the area map more and more the more I play it. I believe it is well known at this point that old pulp stories provide a better resource for stocking a wilderness map than either fantasy novels from after 1980 or rpg supplements. For those that are still not convinced, I offer this example.

Rather than start the classic module at the keep where the players can buy equipment and collect rumors, I want to play out part of the travelling that happens before they get there.

On the road to the keep, the players encounter a bedraggled survivor of a caravan that was destined for the keep. He tells of veritable army of bandits that emerged from the forest, ransacking and plundering the goods, killing the troops that were meant to relieve the forces of the keep, and kidnapping the merchants and artisans. And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the warriors with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The players have to decide whether to continue on the road and risk being waylaid by a superior force… or perhaps go around.

Now… to the north of the road, there is a random encounter table loaded up with mostly cannibals. (Give a 1-6 chance for a bear, spider, or wolf– otherwise it’s cannibals!) If the players strike off into the forest they will stumble across this grisly scene:

In a wide clearing, on a rather bold incline stood a grim stake, and to this stake was bound a thing that had once been a man. Kane had rowed, chained to the bench of a Turkish galley, and he had toiled in Barbary vineyards; he had battled red Indians in the New Lands and had languished in the dungeons of Spain’s Inquisition. He knew much of the fiendishness of man’s inhumanity, but now he shuddered and grew sick. Yet it was not so much the ghastliness of the mutilations, horrible as they were, that shook Kane’s soul, but the knowledge that the wretch still lived.

For as he drew near, the gory head that lolled on the butchered breast lifted and tossed from side to side, spattering blood from the stumps of ears, while a bestial, rattling whimper drooled from the shredded lips.

Kane spoke to the ghastly thing and it screamed unbearably, writhing in incredible contortions, while its head jerked up and down with the jerking of mangled nerves, and the empty, gaping eye-sockets seemed striving to see from their emptiness. And moaning low and brain-shatteringly it huddled its outraged self against the stake where it was bound and lifted its head in a grisly attitude of listening, as if it expected something out of the skies.

If the players want to follow this up, they will find the village “Bogonda, ruled by Kuroba the chief and Goru the priest.” They’ll be attacked by harpies on the way there, of course. And have to figure out what to do with a village penned in with harpies exacting an awful tribute on one side and merciless cannibals hemming them in on the other.

Meanwhile, to the southwest lies city of Ib. This is the closest thing to civilization that the players could reasonably get to if they would like to look for reinforcements.

It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. Very odd and ugly were these beings, as indeed are most beings of a world yet inchoate and rudely fashioned. It is written on the brick cylinders of Kadatheron that the beings of Ib were in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; that they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice. It is also written that they descended one night from the moon in a mist; they and the vast still lake and grey stone city Ib.

To the south there is a strange mausoleum:

And so they passed through the jungle until they came to a strange clearing among the giant trees—strange because nothing grew there. The trees ringed it in a disquieting symmetrical manner, and no lichen or moss grew on the earth, which seemed to have been blasted and blighted in a strange fashion. And in the midst of the glade stood the mausoleum.

A great brooding mass of stone it was, pregnant with ancient evil. Dead with the dead of a hundred centuries it seemed, yet Kane was aware that the air pulsed about it, as with the slow, unhuman breathing of some gigantic, invisible monster.

To the southeast the players will eventually stumble across the bandit’s camp. The players could attempt to infiltrate it and rescue captives or else try some other insane scheme.

How much should you prep for this scenario…? Eh, D&D is not that complicated. Make something up! You don’t know which way the players will go or if they will bypass most of this altogether. The point is to throw all this at them as the need for it arises and then see what they are most into playing. Read the three pulp stories referenced here before the game. Be prepared to wing it. Do additional prep if any of this strikes a note with the players.

It’s okay if the players ignore all of this and instead make for the keep as quick as they can manage. There’s nothing wrong with looting the Caves of Chaos instead! Of course, if they want to sell certain offbeat magic items, the City of Ib is going to be their best bet. And getting additional gear at the keep is going to be tough until those bandits are dealt with!

Aragorn Never Had an Identity Crisis

This came up the other day, so I had to look it up. Any classic character that is adapted to contemporary media is consistently mutilated into something they’re not. Most recently this can be observed in the many edits made to Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker in Disney’s cartoon adaptation of the original Star Wars film. It seems a small thing, maybe, but this is how people that hate us actively rewrite our culture right in front of us. Plenty of well meaning people take the knockoff for the original while their imaginations are dimmed. Before long, the waters are so muddied the original inspirational character concept is lost in the noise.

Now about Aragorn: was he reluctant to take up the mantle of king? Was he at all ambivalent about his identity and heritage? Let’s check back to the Council of Elrond and see.

Aragorn introduces himself in response to Boromirs tale of the dream about Imladris, a broken sword, and a halfling. Elrond identifies his lineage. Frodo reveals the ring. Bormir is still confused, thinking that the dream must indicate the doom of Minas Tirith. Then Aragorn says this:

The words were not the doom of Minas Tirith, but doom and great deeds are indeed at hand. For the Sword that was Broken is the Sword of Elindil that broke beneath him when he fell. It has been treasured by his heirs when all other heirlooms were lost; for it was spoken of old among us that it should be made again when the Ring, Isildur’s Bane, was found. Now you have seen the sword that you have sought, what would you ask? Do you wish for the House of Elendil to return to the Land of Gondor?

So… Aragorn announces himself as the true king at the Counil of Elrond to the steward’s eldest son. The reason he waited is because of prophecies regarding the ring, not due to some lame heroic journey that people decided that every single character arc has to follow starting some time in the late seventies.

Returning as king is politically complicated in war time, yes, particularly with the steward descending into madness. And it’s pointless anyway so long as Sauron is not defeated. With that miraculously taken care of, the way is opened for Aragorn to marry his betrothed with her father’s permission. Which was the plan all along.

He was humble, but he never compromised. He was, perhaps, an inferior guide for the fellowship in comparison to Gandalf. But he did his duty in that regard right up until circumstances dictated that he take another course– one that would involve leading an army of undead among other things…!

He never doubted his identity. He never shirked his responsibility. And he certainly never needed to be scolded by the guy that was going to end up being his father-in-law. Though he grieved in response to disaster, he never needed to be told to “boomer up” and be true to himself. He did what was right without compromise or complaint– with the hope that providence would set all things right in the end!

Talking Lovecraft with Zaklog the Great!

Hey, y’all.

Did this show with Zaklog the Great last Friday. Enjoyed talking Lovecraft and Lord of the Rings and… these obnoxious people that poison your mind until you’d begin to think that your “beloved past had never been.”

Lovecraft writes three times that “there was no hand to hold me back that night I found the ancient track.” After mulling this whole scene over in light of the Boomerclypse we’re in the process of rolling back, I’ve concluded that there was in fact a hand there. The hand of wisdom!

I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.

There’s a horror story for you. Don’t let it happen to you!

Leigh Brackett’s Science Fiction Masterwork: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs”

Leigh Brackett’s “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” is the guilty pleasure reading you’ve always wanted without quite knowing you wanted it. Incredibly, it effortlessly combines many awesome things together at once in a way that would be impossible to imagine without actually reading it:

  • Savagery that explodes off the page just like in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan.
  • Contempt for decadent civilizations that explodes off the page just like in Robert E. Howard’s Conan.
  • Scintillating femme fatales and genuinely appealing feminine foils that explode off the page just like in A. Merritt’s best novels.


And it even packs in the sort of “you’re my only hope moment” that would energize the opening act of Star Wars. That’s not much of a surprise coming from the woman that would ultimately be tapped to write a script for The Empire Strikes Back.

What is surprising is seeing the manifold layers of scheming, betrayal, and intrigue that most people associate with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Combined with a “He shall know your ways as if born to them” story beat, and it really is a shock how little Frank Herbert would have had to add to the admixture you find here in order to produce a critically acclaimed science fiction masterwork. Yes, he had to indulge in expansive, ponderous description of the sort you find in, oh, I dunno… The Lord of the Rings, yes. Yes, he had to have a gay bad guy, exploited Palestinian types, and some SRS BSNS maunderings about ecology.

But look at what really holds his signature work together: the skeleton of what is really nothing more than a typical entry in a run of the mill issue of Planet Stories. You know what I’m talking about. The type of adventure where the guy is on an alien planet and he has to confront a hysterically evil bad guy while fomenting a slave revolt as a distraction? That Dune is both critically and popularly considered to be one of the greatest works of science fiction of all time with a plot that was that done to death during the forties is pretty danged funny!

What’s even more interesting is how weak Herbert’s plotting became when his story sprawled beyond the confines of standard outlines of heroic fantasy. I admit, I rather enjoyed that part. Herbert’s blasphemous messiah in a world of patchwork faiths and supersciences? There was nowhere for him to go after conquering the universe, so he was reduced to bring some madman prophet with his eyes put out, wandering the desert…. And that was followed by a truly boring millennia-long reign of a gigantic worm-man who has nothing better to do than to repeatedly resurrect a bit character from a classic novel that almost could have been an intriguing pulp hero patterned after the sort of thing you’d read in any randomly selected issue of Planet Stories.

Who has time for that stuff?! Well hey, some people like it, sure. And some people just pretend to like it. But there is another way to go about doing fantasy and science fiction than the fashion that gets all the attention, critical acclaim, and big time awards. And this different way of doing things is– in the hands of a grandmaster of Brackett’s magnitude– awesomely and addictively readable.

But I will say one word on genre here that has been belabored elsewhere. A touchstone of pre-Campbellian science fiction and pre-Tolkien fantasy is that the lines between fantasy and science fiction get pretty darned blurry. Case in point, some H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous stories were straight ahead science fiction tales that got published in Astounding before Campbell took it over. Later on, his visage would grace the World FANTASY Award.

What genre does “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” fall under? Well it is pure “Planetary Romance” in the tradition of John Carter of Mars. Can you really call that “science fiction” when most people assume that that’s going to be more about getting the details right with regards to stuff like Space Stewardesses on Space Planes serving Space Ice Cream while walking around in Velcro boots as classical music blares in the background..? Maybe not.

People that demand that their science fiction be heavy on dry, tedious science “fact” are going to look right past the work of Leigh Brackett as if it never existed– as if it’s not a first class element of the field. They will also look at her brilliant depictions of heroics and heroism and dismiss them wholesale as if they are pure fantasy.

Their loss.

And that highlights the most interesting thing about Leigh Brackett and why she is so revered by fans of old style fantasy and science fiction. Yes, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” did come out in 1949, a good ten years after John W. Campbell pulled off the coup that would see science fiction “year zeroed” and the true golden age of the field memory holed. That’s five years before the publication of the Lord of the Rings which would gradually go on to have a very similar effect on fantasy within a few decades.

But pundits with an ax to grind really want to paint Brackett as a pioneer and an innovator. They really want to put her in some sort of narrative where everything is progressing to some grand culmination of social evolution. But that’s really not her. And the only way you can get to something like that is by either forgetting or diminishing the men and women she emulated.

Leigh Brackett wrote like Burroughs and Merritt and Howard even when it wasn’t cool. And she did it so well, it is impossible to mention their names today without also invoking hers. Planet Stories magazine was one of her main stomping grounds during her career as a pulp writer and one thing will be patently clear to anyone that spends some time reading the actual magazines: she wrote squarely within not only its overall editorial vision, but also the framework of its most derivative sort of stories. That she could do so while making it all seem fresh and exciting and new is really the soul of her genius.

And heck yeah, her tales of adventure and derring-do sure enough hold up to this day!

Do note, you don’t have to mess around with digging through PDF’s of moldy old pulp magazines to read this science fiction masterwork. Thanks to the mastermind behind Cirsova magazine, you can now hold in your hands all-new fully illustrated editions of Leigh Brackett’s seminal Stark stories.