Successive waves have washed back and forth over the line between sorcery and technology in Tartary. Right now the mood is decidedly technurgical – something unexplained may make the giant run, but its skeleton is almost certainly worked wood or metal, its eyes cameras or viewing screens. And inside there will be a pilot – tucked away, perhaps, like a baby bird in an egg, but altogether in command.
But things were not always thus. Some hints of how they might have been before can be seen in ancient statues, which show stunted, cat-like creatures perched atop strange bodies, steering them to terrible purpose
And then there are the writhing, tormented pits of Azoth under Dashoguz
Most such remnants are assumed once to have been clothed in metal plates, as they would be now. It is inconceivable that the world of power and subjugation should have been ruled by such soft-bodied things, no matter how strong their grip.
Still there are hints that the day of solid iron may be reaching its end. Rumours are circulating that strange, flowing forms have been seen issuing from the Archmage of Ashgabat’s cult-tower (that palace or tomb where the Great Bashi has sealed himself up these past fifty years).
And these fluid giants, the size of a fighting machine, appear to be thinking for themselves.
(BTW, some much better monster creation over here)
Looking at the trailer for the latest film in which Johnny Depp’s makeup upstages the titular character, I realise that what I really want to watch is a movie all about disruptive technologies. Or even just about the disruption caused by the train (sorry Johnny and whoever, I don’t care so much about your horse-on-horse action. That opening voiceover totally sold me that you were men of the past, packing six-shooters in an emergent age of machine guns).
It’s debatable how important the railroad was in “winning the West” (though it did supercharge historical change from the cowboys and indians horse-wars to the steel-driving men and mechanized warfare that ushered in the Interstate Highway system), but it’s really not debatable how important it was in Russia’s parallel annexation of Turkestan – rails rolled right over the Turkomans, Uighurs, Tatars and Kirghiz.
So of course, rival railway plans are big news in Tartary’s Tournament of Shadows (movie link!). And following Old Bloody Eyes‘ dictum that “to astonish is to triumph” (shock and awe, 1880 edition), style is just as important as substance. You want your trains to look strong, sleek, inevitable.*
For instance, the Bullet On Steel Shafts (photographs intercepted en route from Far Nihon) causes a lot more buzz around the Khanates’ walled gardens than the prosaic “high speed transportation link” that the Rumis are pushing (as if they could ever marshall the infrastructure).
Still, the project that’s getting most of the hype – that’s been praised by the Seers of Otrar themselves as “distressingly intimidating,” is the Azeri Koblobr:
Its bluff, flat front and nearly-blind pilot’s gallery suggest heavy armouring, possibly the presence of a ram,
but the feature that’s caused the most consternation is the long, narrow slit that runs right down the front of the machine, which appears to conceal some further purpose. Hints of Overworlder collusion in the train’s design has lead to a riot of speculation.
Needless to say, a dozen Khans and Viziers would pay handsomely for a copy of the plans…
* see, there’s a reason why the USSR put its railway museum in Tashkent, lynchpin and starting point of the Turk-sib railway, which allowed troops to be sent at speed anywhere in Russia’s conquered territories turned “friendly Soviet republics.”
Edit: Robert Parker’s essay on Carcosa = Masters of the Universe is here. It is better than mine, and it was he who first got me thinking on these lines (although at the time I wrote what follows I had not read his essay). Recommended. OK, so here’s my contribution…
I don’t want to see Carcosa go authentick.
When I first played DnD I didn’t get it. That’s not completely my fault – Vance, Lieber, even Howard weren’t on the fantasy and science fiction shelves at my local bookshop. Instead Tolkien and his imitators were. And Tolkien’s delightfully grounded, authentickally mythickal, pseukdo-historickal type of fantasy was what I knew. And DnD had elves and dwarves and hobbits (yes dammit hobbits) and orcs and goblins and chainmail and platemail and swords and shields and bows and so I mistook it for Tolkienian Fantasy.
And so its non-Tolkienian elements often seemed jokey or stupid or devaluing to me, like TSR didn’t understand how authentick this fantasy business needed to be, if it hoped to be taken seriously (I was a weird, intense kid). When I saw Bracers of Defense I deliberately thought “plate for thieves” instead of Wonder Woman – and I thought it really hard, exactly because I could see Wonder Woman out of the corner of my eye the whole time (and TSR were just fine with that, too: they didn’t set about disabusing me of my moneymaking misconceptions. It would’ve been easy to put lightsabers or rayguns or Klingon fighting barbecues or Holtzman shield generators on the weapons list, but they didn’t. Instead they printed magazine articles about “realism” and historical assassins’ guilds*).
And so all that stuff which didn’t fit a Tolkienian idea was as far as I was concerned a set of in jokes to which I was not privy. And I know that this is a common lament in the OSR.
Now it’s 30 years later and I think I kinda do get it, but because I spent a good 20 of those years looking the wrong way, there was a lot I missed – that I dismissed out of hand.
So. Carcosa. It’s not a Robert Chambers game. Giant Evil Wizard nailed it, I think, when he talked about its B-movie aspect. But of course it’s not really Carcosa Wacky Races either. Despite my own cartoon splatbombs thrown at McKinney’s setting, I understand and like its squicky, dark, doom-laden (but not Elrician), down-at-heel, hopeless, Lovecraftian edge. I want it to be serious and thoughtful and full of difficult choices and ready for grownup themes (not merely “adult content”).
But what really intrigues me about the setting is how it straddles different tones – how it can veer serious or haplessly tragicomic or gonzo or weirdly historically relevant. I like it on that cusp. Actually, I think maybe the best way to respect it, to take it seriously, is to recognise that it’s not CoC – that it makes no decisions for you about how you might play it. That actually it deliberately doesn’t give you the ammo to turn it into something that can be worshipped.
So it’s with the deepest and sincerest respect for all that Carcosa can be and mean that I now share a realization, which hit me like a thunderbolt last week:
Skeletor is a bone sorcerer.
Why is his body musclebound and his head a skeleton? Because his flesh is all there, but transparent.
And he belongs in Carcosa. No I don’t mean that Carcosa is really a He-Man setting, or that I want my Carcosan opponents to adopt Skeletor’s cackle or his ludicrous villainous schemes or that I really want to play Masters of the Universe and will bend Carcosa to fit this fever dream. Instead I mean Carcosa can stretch to cover MotU – it can serve to ground material of that level of lunacy, to make it meaningful, to give it a dramatic frame so that you can actually game it and have serious fun.
Also he has the wickedest set of Wacky Racer rides evar. Check them out:
Masters of the Universe, in short, is one possible Carcosa (especially if you flip over the old master-slave dialectic there), lurking somewhere under the surface alongside Poe and Conrad and Pelsaert and Spinrad and Boorman and Golding. And it took Geoffrey McKinney, Jeff Rients and Earl Norem to make me see it.
After all, where but Carcosa would you expect to see this?
*and still today, among these enlightened people of the OSR, the spectre of realistic feudalism in DnD lingers.
1. To fight the shoggoths you have to become one… and then find a way to get the humans to work with you.
2. Your dad built an empire but now he’s been assassinated, so you, the dissolute playboy, are thrust onto the throne.
3. King Narai is dead and a war of spies begins; you are anyone in Ayutthaya during the ensuing political free-for-all – Chinese, Persian, French, Dutch or English merchant-adventurer-ambassadors, Samurai royal bodyguards, Thai royal hopefuls, funerary architect-acrobats, members of Phaulkon’s secret service… (Local colour and history abound in this one, but since the political map is being redrawn right at the moment the adventure starts, you don’t need any prior knowledge of it to play).
4. The Navy’s sent a squadron to help the new governor of the Bahamas crack down on the buccaneers, and here you come into port with your very first prize in tow.
5. “You must rescue the princess! But the witch’s curse has destroyed all our weapons! Take this gelatinous cube and a potion of Feather Fall instead.” (yeah, I know. That’s three sentences. It’s still not as bad an abuse of the rules as #3. And there’s worse to come.)
6. You are rough-and-tumble pirate-peddlers, making a living off inter-island trading and raiding, when the Dutch show up in their floating fortress, offering to buy all the nutmeg and cloves you can supply. How will you treat with these red-hairs, who are looking around for a place to plant their castle? What about when not one but 20 floating fortresses show up? The long form of this pitch is Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Milton; as a campaign it could take on a 200 year sweep and expand to fighting off the Europeans and the Qing, forming a league of islands, even building a new, seaborne Islamic or Fukienese Empire to rule the waves right out from under Britannia.
7. When the soldiers came they killed your whole village and you were driven into the hills. There you found nature spirits, who agree to help you if you help them. Now you can fight back against the soldiers, but take care not to pique the curiosity of the emperor’s sorcerer-viziers. This spirit-medium game looks like vodou* or kami worship or ma khi on the outside, but is secretly Pokemon reskinned. Who understands the spirits best? Who knows what, in the end, they want?
8. Bad guys are planning to seize the world’s oil chokepoints, and you have to stop them! Or maybe help them? Or seize them yourself? Nothing is clear in this globetrotting, port-hopping, Bond-Cthulhu exploration of the high finance and criminal underworld that runs international shipping.
* crazy but true: textedit wants to autocorrect vodou to voodoo. So it knows both words and considers one of them correct?
Why is space in D&D only divisible into 10′ cubes? This thesis explores the development and universality of those methods of mapping, describing and producing space that are characteristic of D&D and their spread beyond that game into other media. Theories of the Sociology of Knowledge and the Social Construction of Technology are applied to analyze the spread of the methods, their effects on the imaginative constructs produced and their role in commoditizing maps, modular dungeon blocks and related products. The spaces produced using the methods are compared with those made by various architects’ methods of modular space construction to inquire into the cultural matrix, structures and functions of published and hobbyist-produced dungeons.
And as a reverse Joesky for people who have no interest in D&D, sometimes it’s only when you see the invention that you wonder why the hell people aren’t doing it already: collapsible, stackable shipping containers. (In this case, though, I’m guessing there IS a good reason why it’s not being done – because anything that can collapse will, at some point, hurting people. Still, advantages are so obvious… I guess the market will decide, and then we’ll know)
I really, really love some of these pictures over at Dungeons and Drawings.
Part Cthulhuvian horror, part alchemetic elixir, the Formless Spawn of Azoth is an intelligent black oil, which can shape itself however it chooses. It is also caustic – touching it inflicts 1d4 damage.
Its intelligence depends on the amount of liquid gathered together in a single body: in small quantities it behaves like any normal liquid but a cube 1 foot high* has intelligence (and size) 1 (enough to attack and to hunt for more Azoth). A cube 3 feet high (roughly the volume of a stereotypical pirate’s barrel) has intelligence/size 3, a 10-foot cube has intelligence/size 10.** The maximum is intelligence 20: larger bodies of Azoth exist, but they are no more intelligent.
Its real strength is its ability to assume and hold forms. One of its favourite tricks is to masquerade as a labyrinth. A 10′ cube can stretch itself to form an 80′ corridor or two 20′ square rooms or any other combination of spaces and switchbacks.*** It will lure a party of adventurers in by making noises at the farther end, then continually add rooms in front of them, taking them away behind, until it has them where it wants them. It can hold small items, like door knobs, to augment the illusion. It’s also fond of masking pits and chasms. If prompted to attack it can collapse onto the party inflicting 1d8 damage per round to each person until the adventurers manage to free themselves.
And it’s a magical ingredient, a necessary component of the philosopher’s stone and a host of other magic items, spells and potions. Usually sold in very small flasks.
It is said that the great alchemist Agathodaimon worked closely with Azoth: he called it an indispensible help and the keeper of his memory palace.
No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: you decide
Movement: 120’ (40’)
Hit Dice: 5hp per point of Int/Siz (note, unlike Int, there is no ceiling for HP)
Attacks: Siz 1-2: 1d4. Siz 3-6: 1d8. Siz 7-9: 2x 1d8. Siz 10-15: 3x 1d8. Siz 16-19: 4x 1d8. Siz 20+: 5x 1d8. Or “tunnel collapse:” 1d8 per round until you save vs Str -encumbrance.
It can be hurt only by fire or by magic weapons.
If encountered in a stand-up fight (a rare occurrence) the number of attacks it gets per round depends on its size/intelligence (see stats). These attacks take whatever form you like – long ropy strangling tentacles, mouths that spit Azoth at faces, great wallowing waves, stabbing spears, gloopy attempts to get inside the PCs’ armour…
It can move in short, fast bursts but can’t sustain a pace much faster than a running man.
If set on fire it will try to shed the burning parts to keep from being entirely consumed (save or take burn damage again next turn. Recalculate size from current HP. Quickly, now! No, sod it; just abstract to 3 basic sizes: initial, barrel size (when 15hp are left) and 1 cu. ft/5hp).
It is imiscible with water but avoids rivers because running water is inimical to its magical nature (save vs confusion/paralysis each round).
If it’s so smart, why does it hang out in places where PCs all come with torches? See 9and30’s “I meant to do that” for advice of/on genius. I reckon if it can it arranges for a strong smell of naphtha or open barrels of gunpowder or some other fire deterrent in the anteroom of its hideout. Anyway, burning Azoth is probably not at all good for you. The smoke alone. You make that up.
Why doesn’t it divide into many pieces to get more overall attacks per round? Because it would rather make the best decisions each round as the figh develops, and it doesn’t trust its less-intelligent sub-selves to do that. Maybe it also fears mutiny from some of its less trustworthy impulsive sides.
* 7.5 US gallons. or about an anker.
** Calculating volumes sucks, and a linear relationship between volume and Int would quickly lead to hyper-intelligent spawn. The Int/Siz rating here is a fudge for convenience’s sake. Anyway, all these numbers are rough. Wing it. The reason I’m sweating a bit about the size to intelligence ratio is that it affects the monster’s versatility and threat level. Something man-sized with human intelligence is trouble like Terminator 2, while something small enough to hide in your Guinness that’s still smart enough to cut the brakes on your car is a campaign all on its own.
*** OK, here we go with the volumes. It can encompass 8 times its own volume. So a Siz 5 spawn is just big enough to make a 10′ box, a SIz 11 could cover 10 squares of 10’x10′, Siz 12 can do 14 squares, Siz 15 could do 27 squares and Siz 20 could do 64. I know the surface area goes strange for differently shaped volumes, the reason it doesn’t get a free pass for doing a single giant bubble chamber with a high ceiling is then it needs more buttressing, OK?
Also in my Flash Gordon games this is secretly what the priesthood of Klytus are; man-size bodies uniformly possessing 15 Int. Individual priests are expected to return to the main pool periodically to share their experiences and receive new orders (something they are not always keen to do). They tend to be creatures of few words: compared with the hard work of talking, keeping the glass eyes and gold mask in place, even when asleep, is trivial.