I just found out about this site from a friend on Facebook. Despite the name, the coverage is not restricted to these islands. There are – to pick a topical example – some good photographs of the remains of a Soviet-era submarine base in the Crimea.
But the pictures that really grabbed me (and the ones that led me to the site in the first place) are of the old railway tunnel under Scotland Street, Edinburgh. I’ve stayed in Scotland Street before – in a basement flat, as it happens – unaware that this was mere yards away.
Now there’s a tunnel just crying out for a shoggoth… Tekeli-li!
And on the topic of Lovecraftian horror, West Norwood Cemetery in London, with its catacombs and its hydraulic coffin lift would make a perfect location for Cthulhu by Gaslight investigations. There’s even a map.
The site’s layout is rather clunky and it’s not that easy to navigate. Nevertheless, if you’re seeking visual inspiration for your Cthulhu game – or post-apocalypse bunker, or city underworld, or steampunk megadungeon, or whatever – it’s well worth trawling through the categories.
Ian Miller’s eldritch dragons graced the pages of David Day’s Tolkien Bestiary back in 1979. For me, there’s something uniquely compelling about their blend of organic, mechanical and purely geometrical morphology. I’ve often felt that dragons shouldn’t just be overgrown reptiles, but something more alien, something… Other. Miller makes that happen.
The red dragon above is one of the artist’s more recent works. You can see it and much more besides at Miller’s fantastic web site here.
Are your players getting too big for their boots? Need a worthy adversary to strike the fear of god(s) into them? Here’s one.
Grim Aegir is a villain in the medieval Icelandic romance Göngu-Hrolfs saga. At the start of the saga, he is introduced thusly (trans. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards):
No one knew Grim’s background or his family, for he’d been found on the beach at Laeso Island by the sorceress Groa. She [...] reared Grim as her foster-son. She taught him so much about witchcraft that no one in Scandinavia could rival him, and his nature was utterly different from any other man’s. Some people think that Grim’s mother must have been a sea ogress, for he could travel at will in both sea and fresh water; that’s why he was called Grim Aegir. He used to eat raw meat and drink the blood of men and beasts. He would often change himself into the forms of various creatures and could do it so quickly that the eye hardly saw it. His breath was so hot that even men in armour could feel it burning them. He could spew venom and fire at people, killing both them and their horses, and they were helpless against him.
Ah, they knew how to make memorable NPCs in the 14th century! I’ve statted him out in the style of Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes.
Armour Class: 3
Hit Points: 48
Magic Ability: 16th level
Fighter Ability: 8th level
Grim Aegir is immune to damage from non-magical weapons. In melee he goes berserk, gaining +2 to hit due to his inhuman ferocity. He uses polymorph self to assume the forms of monstrous beasts – dragon, serpent, boar, bull, etc. He can pass through the elements of earth and water, at his normal movement rate, as if they were air.
Grim has two breath weapons, each of which he can use up to three times per day. He can spew a stream of venom at a single target within 30 feet (save or die) or breathe a cone of flame (30 feet long and 10 feet wide at the base) that inflicts damage equal to his remaining hit points (save for half damage).
If any of his limbs are cut off, they turn into poisonous snakes with 2 hit dice apiece. If he is killed, his face contorts into an expression of such stark hatred and malice that anyone who sees it must save vs. death ray or die on the spot. Even after death, he lashes out violently with his fists until reduced to -10 hit points, after which he stops moving and his body crumbles to dust.
“Viking Warrior” by vempirick on deviantART
The internet seems to be full of something called Ragnorak. Come on, internet! Get your act together. Have you never heard of Google or Wikipedia? Gah.
A ragnorak is, obviously, something you wear when you want to avoid getting wet during the final inundation of the earth.
I’ve been reading Flashing Swords!, the 1970s “sword and sorcery” anthologies edited by Lin Carter. The first volume closes with a story by Carter himself, entitled ‘The Higher Heresies of Oolimar’. It’s easily the worst story in the book, although – considering that the others are by Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance and Poul Anderson – that’s hardly surprising and not inherently disgraceful. It is a slight and silly piece, but eminently plunderable for gaming ideas nonetheless. There are some interesting magical devices (I might deal with them another time) and a few memorable monsters. One of these is the hlagocyte. I wasn’t sure whether the word was a “real” one, so I googled it and was quite surprised to get only a single hit: a short review of Carter’s story that focuses on the monsters. So the name is evidently the author’s coining. Carter must have been quite taken with the hlagocyte, because he describes it at some length:
Imagine something very like a honey-bee, only swollen to the proportions of a giant elk [...]
The head was half as big as the body, a great pear-shaped horny bulb, clad in a glistening carapace reddish-brown in color. To either side of the head swelled huge twin patches of eye: they seemed glittering masses of twinkling black crystals; actually they were compound eyes, made up of many thousands of tiny ocelli. A complicated set of toothed mandibles thrust out below the front spur of the head, complete with a long, obscene proboscis [...] Two branched and bulb-tipped antennae grew from the base of the mandibular jaws. These twitched about in a mechanical, jerking way, tasting the air. The top of the thing’s head was fronded with long feathery hairs [...]
Behind the head came a narrow stalk of neck, then the abdomen swelled into a monstrous egg-shaped thorax mailed with interlocking plates of darker red-brown. The horny, chitinous armor of the giant hlagocyte had a waxy sheen and exuded a not-unpleasant, sharp, medicinal odor, rather like the clean stench of iodine. The thing had three sets of legs, also thickly covered with long feathery hairs [...]
Folded back against the top surface of the thorax were two pairs of stiff membranous wings. They glistened glassily, like thick sheets of mica, and flickered with tints of brown-gold, dark blue and cloudy grey.
This beast is not a foe for the tale’s protagonists Amalric and Ubonidus, however; it’s transport. Effectively, it’s a two-seat light aircraft:
Wooden saddles were built just behind the hlagocyte’s head, strapped securely to the rear portion of the horny skull and to the jointed short neck. They would ride together, and side by side. The wooden saddles were padded with leather and looked not uncomfortable, actually. With a long-suffering sigh, Ubonidus permitted Amalric and the innkeeper [...] to strap him in.
The narrator then explains how the creature is controlled:
[T]he rider holds two long hardwood batons wherewith to guide his mount by tapping it adroitly on one or another of the flat protuberances that rise between and to the back of the huge glittering compound eyes [...] By rapping the nodes in various combinations it is possible to communicate a remarkably complex set of instructions to your steed, and the hlagocyte can comprehend such instructions, for it possesses a remarkable intelligence, although it has been fully domesticated and is quite docile and even friendly, in a cold insectoid way, despite the ferocity and horror of its physical appearance.
We are even told that the hlagocyte was developed 6,000 years ago by the sorcerer Lokoto Xodar, who was “a real genius with the breeding vats”. (He certainly seems to have spent his time more profitably than did the insane wizard whose genetic experiments spawned the owl bear.)
Anyway, time for some stats.
HD 8; AC 4 ; AT 1 slam (2d6); MV 6/150 (flying); AL N. Special: Can carry up to two human-sized passengers.
Yes, you read that right: an hlagocyte’s flying movement rate is 150. Not 15. One hundred and fifty of your old-school game inches. That’s my best estimate based on this sentence:
The monstrous insect-steeds could fly a mile high, and could travel at the astounding velocity of seventy-five miles per hour.
That’s a game-changer right there. Aboard an hlagocyte, your player characters (or two of them, anyway) can travel 600 miles in one eight-hour day. That’s twenty 30-mile campaign hexes, which means they could cross the territory covered by the World of Greyhawk map, east to west, in a week. (They could cross the Carcosa map in a morning.) They can easily catch or outrun a flying dragon. Even rocs and pegasi – hitherto the fastest things in D&D skies, with a movement rate of 48 – are utterly outclassed by the hlagocyte. All of which means they should be rare, exorbitantly expensive, and learning to control one should be difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, they require hlagocytic syrup, a concentrated nutrient in gluey liquid form (usually supplied in a kind of “nosebag”), to provide the energy for long-distance flight. Too little syrup, and the hlagocyte becomes fatigued. Too much, and it can become drunk, with unpredictable consequences.
I’ve been reading the early Judge Dredd stories for the umpteenth time, and halfway through “The Day the Law Died” an idea struck me and I started grinning from ear to ear. Meet the re-skinned hill giants of my Alien Orifice campaign.
The “Hordes of Klegg” are brutal mercenaries who prefer their payment in meat. Green-skinned reptilian humanoids standing 10-12 feet tall (though their posture is somewhat hunched), kleggs revel in violence and butchery. They also enjoy a rattling good sing-song before battle.
A typical klegg carries a huge plasma projector (range 50 ft, damage 2d8, 6 shots per magazine) for ranged combat, but in melee prefers to use its fearsome natural weaponry to maul opponents.
HD 8; AC 4 ; AT 1 maul (2d8) or by weapon; MV 12; AL N.
The plasma projector comes from Stars Without Number. Kleggs would work well in that game too.
Well, I said there might be cake, and lo! there was cake. This was the view from the players’ end of the table last night, halfway through our 40th anniversary OD&D shenanigans. Tear your eyes from the Victoria sponge if you can, and you’ll see the three little beige booklets resting atop the S&W WhiteBox book, which I kept nearby in case I needed backup. (I didn’t.) You’ll see my spiral-bound notepad, and you might also spot a printed sheet of NPC retainers generated by Meatshields!, one of the most useful old-school resources out there. Behind the makeshift DM screen is the adventure. More on that in a minute…
The character sheets in the foreground are facsimiles of TSR’s own OD&D-era sheets – made available by Michael Falconer here – which are hilariously unfit for purpose, omitting as they do several details of moderate importance such as hit points, AC, etc. Luckily my players are unfazed by such trivial issues, and soon adapted the sheets to suit their requirements.
Let’s take a closer look at that character sheet on the left. This is Oxtwentytwo, a 4th-level anti- (or “auntie”) cleric equipped with plate mail, a mace and a potion of clairaudience. (I gave each PC a chance equal to level x 5% of having magic items from appropriate lists. Oxtwentytwo was the only PC who got anything.) He sports a two-tasseled hat, rolled randomly on JB’s table for such things. I know, I know, that’s not OD&D by the book, but my players would sulk if they didn’t get their random hats.
The other PCs were Arneson, a cleric, and Snodrug, a fighting-dwarf. I ran the Lost Level of Stonehell Dungeon by Michael Curtis, because it seemed to me to connect the origins of the hobby (it’s written for OD&D) with our ongoing campaign (Stonehell on the Borderlands) in a thoroughly satisfying fashion. The players were surprised – pleasantly, I hope – to find themselves in a familiar milieu. There were a few differences, though: the Keep, where they began the game, was newly constructed. There was still scaffolding up and the Cup & Cudgel tavern smelled of fresh paint and varnish.
Retainers were hired and the party, nine-strong, set off to investigate a tunnel revealed by a recent landslide, which took them into the dungeon.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the session. In brief, Oxtwentytwo fought and killed a giant beetle, Arneson turned some zombies, Snodrug found some stairs, everyone failed to find a secret door, they were chased by flying swords, the anti-cleric removed most of his clothes to plug the orifices of some gargoyles (it’s complicated), they defeated an enchanter and his retainers (though they lost two of their own retainers in the process), and finally they were torn to pieces by a pack of carnivorous apes. (Clad in plate mail, they couldn’t run away.)
It wasn’t quite a TPK, though. If you look closely at Snodrug’s character sheet (below right), you’ll see that his retainer Mortta – randomly generated by Meatshields!, remember – has a “vial of something”. Towards the end of the climactic fight, only Arneson and Oxtwentytwo remained alive, laying about them with their maces. In desperation (down to 1 remaining hit point), the anti-cleric grabbed the vial from Mortta’s corpse, unstoppered it and downed the unknown contents in one. I had no idea what was in there so I had Craig, Oxtwentytwo’s player, roll percentile dice and I consulted the potion table on page 24 of Monsters & Treasure. The result: polymorph self. “I change into a wasp and fly away!” cried the exultant Craig. Irritated beyond measure by this abandonment, Arneson ignored the apes and, in the last act of his life, aimed a blow at the fleeing insect. He missed, and went down under the apes’ furious onslaught.
It was a thrilling, hilarious and totally unexpected end to the evening’s proceedings. It’s not the first time I’ve run a game and only one character has survived. It’s not even the first time I’ve run a game and only one character has survived – with a single hit point. However, it is certainly the first time I’ve run a game and the only survivor is a wasp with 1 hit point. For all I know, that’s never happened in any game, anywhere, in four decades and millions of games of D&D. Although – you know what? – I wouldn’t be surprised if it has.
I love this crazy game.
Finally, here’s another cake (rum-infused Christmas cake this time) with the lovely Shuna casting charm person. Craig is just about to fail his save.
Dungeons & Dragons, the Allfather of role-playing games, was first published by Tactical Studies Rules in January 1974. Today we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary, not just of D&D but of the birth of a whole hobby. My dictionary defines a hobby as “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure”. Tabletop role-playing games offer several kinds of pleasure, some of which can be enjoyed alone: reading rulebooks and supplements, learning new words and concepts, researching genre fiction or historical reference materials, creating worlds and characters with which to populate (and explore) them. You will be able, I’m certain, to recall many happy hours spent poring over library books, drawing maps of dungeons and star sectors, inventing new spells and monsters, and so on.
But the hobby lives at the table, where characters take on the semblance of real people in extraordinary situations and the game world unfolds around them with all its mysteries and potential rewards. There’s simply nothing else like it. In the thirty-one years since I took my first thief Spryre Worthen into a nameless “mazey dungeon” and got him out alive, I’ve been hooked on the experience of sharing a secondary world with friends and exploring it together at the table. Reading, writing, drawing – those are all splendid things, but the core of the hobby is social interaction. I’ve made many good friends playing these silly make-believe games, and this evening three of them will be coming over to mark the occasion of D&D’s 40th birthday with – what else? – a game. A dungeon crawl, to be precise, using the OD&D rules. As ever, we’ll begin by getting a takeaway supper from my local chip shop, after which 3d6 will be rolled in order, ridiculous names and random hats will be bestowed upon characters, and play will commence. There will be excitement, trepidation, laughter, searching, fighting, cheering, looting, more than likely some fleeing and – yes, perhaps – dying. There may even be cake. It will, I confidently predict, be uproarious fun.
So thanks to Dave and Gary and all the game designers who followed where they led. Hats off to all the players and referees around the world who’ve kept the hobby alive and thriving for four decades, despite the disdain or incomprehension of their peers and the distraction of new technologies. Happy birthday, Dungeons & Dragons. Many happy returns, RPG hobby.
Now stop reading this and go and play your game.
Last weekend, my friend Stuart (erstwhile player of Frack the thief) and I paid a visit to the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. Someone had recently donated a load of SF and fantasy paperbacks, many of them in the Panther/Granada editions from the 1970s and early ’80s that hit my nostalgia button hard. Most were in good nick too. Oxfam were selling them for a pound apiece. I had a tenner in my pocket, so here’s what I got:
Half of them (the Sheas, the Vances and the van Vogt) I’ve already read, or even got on my shelves, but at £1 each I couldn’t resist. I can always give them as presents. Of the others, what should I read first?
This story is doing the rounds of UK news sources today. The MV Lyubov Orlova, an ill-starred Russian cruise ship with a strengthened hull for polar voyages, has been adrift in the Atlantic Ocean for a year. She is thought (for some reason) to be close to the British Isles, and the Irish coastguard is staying vigilant just in case the “ghost ship” runs aground and discharges her cargo (crew?) of disease-ridden cannibal rats. It’s silly journalism, if you ask me, but it’s pretty good imagination fodder for gaming purposes.
Who or what is aboard the vessel? Roll three times on the following table:
1. Giant rats (3d100) – 10 times normal chance of disease
2. Wererats (2d6)
3. Vampires (1d6)
4. Drowned zombies (4d6)
5. Sea-ghouls (2d8) – including solicitous chief steward
6. Eye of the deep (1)
7. Pirates (1d20+20)
8. Acolytes of Cthulhu (1d20)
9. Deep ones (3d4)
10. Shoggoths (1d4)
11. Mutant giant two-headed octopus (1) – standard 8 tentacles but two beaks for biting
12. Morkoth (1)
Alternatively, make it a cannibal ship (whatever that implies) full of ghost rats.