Monday, January 25, 2010

E. E. “Doc” Smith; Skylark of Space

From what I understand, Doc Smith is the real grand daddy of Science Fiction novels and formulaic Science Fiction such as Space Opera and tales of galactic empires. The short novel, Skylark of Space, certainly supports this theory. The story was first published in Amazing Stories in the fall of 1928. I’ve created the following outline, or synopsis, to illustrate how ol’ Doc Smith’s work could cement the foundation of all subsequent literary and pulp Sci-fi.

Government employed scientist “A” discovers an extremely economic source of nearly unlimited energy. The fuel source is a compound derived from a meteor and is, thus, in limited supply.

Government employed scientist “B” is the only co-worker of “A” who believes the potential of “A’s” discovery. Scientist “B” is also willing to use any means to steal ideas, material and inventions from “A” including kidnapping “A’s” fiancĂ©.

Scientist “A” resigns his position at the government agency, purchasing the supposedly useless meteorite waste from a surplus auction on his last day on the job. “A” then demonstrates his discovery to an extravagantly wealthy inventor friend who he invites to assist in building his Skylark of Space. Extravagantly wealthy inventor friend “jumps at the idea.”

Unscrupulous scientist “B,” to our knowledge, still employed by the government is also on the payroll of the only metal fabrication facility capable of building a spaceship. Scientist “A” and his investor friend know this so they build a dud or dummy ship while their Skylark is assembled at a secluded location by a smaller fabrication firm. Both ships are completely assembled on the same date, scientist “B” steals the dummy Skylark, kidnaps “A’s” fiancĂ© and the serialized space race is off to the stars.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Random thoughts on the OSR

Yesterday I had a random thought moment which I'm prone to have occasionally. I’m not sure what triggered this “flash” of personal enlightenment; perhaps I was thinking about my constant search for old books and gaming material. I realized that for ten years, between 1980 and 1990, I only used five books for role playing games. I owned the Holmes Basic rules, Ad&d Player’s Handbook, DMG and Monster Manuel and first edition Gamma World and these where the only books I used for the first ten years of my role playing career. So this is my personal definition of Old School Gaming; simple game settings and systems derived from a minimal amount of source material and that’s how I still role and roll.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lloyd Alexander; The Book of Three

A good friend or mine suggested these books, the Taran wander series, in a conversation about genre fiction that was initially written as juvenile fiction. I found a few of these books, The Book of Three and The High King, at a used book store on New Year’s Day and I agree with my friend and fellow gamer, the series may have been conceived as juvenile fiction but they read like classic fantasy fiction.

Alexander dedicates the book, “For the children who listened, the grown-ups who were patient,” which implies that he wrote the book for young readers. At the beginning of the book we are told that Coll is, “charged with the practical side of his (Taran) education.” Based on these comments alone as evidence that these books were intended as juvenile fiction I suggest, simply because the main character or characters are juvenile, doesn’t categorize the book to the childrens' shelves. Of course, Harry Potter’s the most famous modern example of this point. I am probably over analyzing this subject and ignoring the fact that these books, Alexander’s and Rowling’s, are juvenile fiction because they contain no content of an adult nature. This brings up another comparison between The Book of Three and Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. Anderson’s main character engages in “adult situations” throughout the book but there is no suggestion of adult-only activities in The Book of Three.

The characterization in The Book of Three, like Three Hearts and Three Lions, could easily be the bases for player characters in a fantasy role playing game. The characters are; Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper, Eilonwy the sorceress apprentice, Fflewddur the bard, Hen Wen the oracular pig and Doli the dwarf guide and magician, This is as solid an adventure party as I’ve had at the gaming table in the last four months. The characters’ names give me another argument against The Book of Three as juvenile fiction, what young reader would be accustom to these Old English names? I will, again, concede the point, I am sure many young readers could adapt to the ancient linguistics as easily as I did.

I have, unintentionally, left out one among the adventures of the tale. I feel certain that Alexander was familiar with the work of Prof. Tolkien because Alexander’s character Gurgi is so similar to Golem. Gurgi is the guide for the adventurers in the early chapters of the book and is an annoying, occasionally childish, but ultimately entertaining character.

Other elements which I feel make this a good, if not great, fantasy story are the magic items, magic creatures, monsters and bad guys. The Book of Three, a magic tome in the story, is introduced in the first chapter, “The Book of Three… the boy believed, held in its pages everything anyone could possibly want to know.” (p. 15) Taran is never allowed to read the tome but he cannot resist the temptation to access the secrets of the book. When he reaches for the book his fingers receive a shock as if being stung by hornets. Coll, Taran’s guardian, explains, “that is one of the three foundations of learning; see much, study much, suffermuch. “ (p. 19) After this introduction to the magic system, the Book of Three is forgotten while the tale explores other magics.

The bard, Fflewddur, has a unique magic item. Fflewddur explains that he actually failed his examines to enter the Bard’s Guild, he is a fine storyteller but is not a talented musician. His stories could be referred to as tall tales, bordering on lies, so the Guild Masters rewarded Fflewddur with a magic lute which allows him to perform beautiful music. The balance being that the lute will break a string each time Fflewddur’s tales become too tall.

A third magic item is the sword Dyrnwyn which is stolen from the crept below the Spiral Castle as Tarran and Eilonwy escape the castle dungeon. The castle begins to crumble from the foundation as Eilonwy crawls from the crept with Dyrnwyn in tow. When the adventurers reach safety, away from the tumbling masonry, Tarran attempts to inspect Eilonwy’s new treasure. Eilonwy refuses to give Tarran the sword as if she is controlled by an evil charm associated with the sword.

Later the adventurers gain the assistance of the Fair Folk. This group or race resemble what we traditionally call fairies and Alexander’s treatment reminds me of the presentation of fairies in the works of Jack Vance. They are as likely to play tricks on the humans as assist them, “Spare me from fools and Assistant Pig Keepers,” Doli the Fair Folk guide exclaims at one point.

I could go on listing the details of this book and describe the story completely. This would hardly do justice to the fine work of Lloyd Alexander and leave little reason or enjoyment in reading the book. I did discover, while planning the blog, that The Book of Three is an available e-book at Google Books. Thanks to the magic of modern tech we’re all “just a click away” from this old-fashioned fantasy tale for the enjoyment of Old Schoolers or Junior Grognards.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mutant Future session 3, part 1; 12.15.09

Bucky McLeroy, the whitetail deer anamorph, ran the thin plastic card through the slot of sluts next to the giant gate. There was an immediate click and a hum as the gate began moving, opening into the vehicle storage room. Bucky and his companions, Hedgehog Jack and Brother Mathias, watched as the door magically opened into the room they are in. Their discovery of the ancient lock mechanism by the gate allowed their giant donkey friend, Bottom, to join them. Bottom had previously been stuck in the passage beyond this gate. He was too large for the smaller passages the other three adventures had used to get around the gate.

“Now that we’re all in here, what the heck is that,” Brother Mathias turned to face a large circular pit which dominated their end of the vehicle storage room. “I,” began Hedgehog Jack, but he was interrupted by Bottom. “Let’s see how deep it is,” without warning Bottom turned and kicked Candy Cane into the pit. Candy gave a brief grunt and scream, but she vanished into the depths of the pit in the blink of eight mutant eyes.

Hedgehog Jack cleared his throat, “I was try to tell you all, I threw a torch in there and couldn’t tell where it landed.” His companions, including Bottom, were all stunned by Bottom’s sudden and swift elimination of Candy Cane. “That’s a deep pit,” Bottom added in a stunned tone.

The circular pit was twenty feet across, Bucky pointed out, “There’s a ledge up on the wall around the pit. There’s also a ladder that leads up to the ledge. I’ll climb up and investigate it,” he volunteered. “You there,” Bro Mathias said, selecting one of his followers. “You, Bacon Fat, climb up to the ledge with Bucky while I remain here and perform the proper penance for our newly lost sister, Candy Cane.” Brother Mathias began to mumble is liturgical nonsense as Bucky and Bacon Fat mount the ladder to the ledge around the mysterious pit.

At the top of the ladder Bucky found that this ledge went halfway round the giant pit below. In the middle of the ledge they discovered a shrine of the ancients. “There is a shrine to Cau-tion and Poos,” Bucky announced to the companions gathered around the pit. The shrine contained many lines of messages in the ancient languages which Bucky investigated as best he was able. “There is a lever next to Poos’ name,” Bucky announced. “I’ll attempt to push the lever,” he added. Bucky attempted to move the lever only to discover that it was immobile. “The shrine also has the slot of sluts. It may respond to the Magic Card of Activation,” he suggested.

“Oh say can you see the sacred stash of tokens to Visa the spirit of finance…” Brother Mathias abruptly stopped his meditations. “Brother Axel Grease take this, the Magic Card of Activation, to our Brother Bucky,” he instructed while removing the card from his neck and handing it to Bro. Axel.

Bucky placed the Magic Card of Activation into the Slot of Sluts and slid it back out as they had recently learned to do. “Cau-ton has accepted the offering of the Card of Activation. I hear a humming within the shrine now,” he announced. “Try to move the lever now,” Brother Mathias shouted. Bucky pushed the lever forward activating some mechanism down inside the Pit of Mystery and the companions waited in stunned silence to discover the results of their latest action.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was only a minute or more, the companions could see that a section of the floor was rising out of the Pit of Mystery. As the floor came into view they could see a large cage and the shadow of something moving within the cage. “What by the Financial Fathers is that,” said Bottom. “It’s a cage on a raiser,” responded Bucky from his post on the ledge. “No, there’s somethin’ in the cage,” yelled Hedgehog Jack.

The “raiser” reached a few feet from the floor level just as Jack finished his comment. The shadow took one step and was out of the cage and into the artificial light of the vehicle storage room. The creature that stepped into the light appeared much like a giant man but a giant man with four arms. The companions where silent for a shocked moment which was long enough for them to realize that the giant four armed creature only had one eye.

The one eyed creature continued to move away from the cage and the companions quickly gathered their thoughts and their actions. Brother Mathias began shouting orders, “Bacon Fat and Axel Grease, you must descend form that ledge and join us in combat with this terror!” The creature moved aggressively toward Bottom who quickly moved to avoid him. Bottom spun around and kicked the creature back toward the cage. Bucky quickly fired an arrow from his long bow but failed to hit the creature.

Hedgehog Jack was still morning the loss of his very good friend, Candy Cane, and was too shocked to help combat the monster. Bacon Fat and Axel rushed into the fight and joined Bro. Mathias in casting sling stones at this horror from the Pit of Mystery. The one eyed creature from below rushed at Bottom again and grabbed the giant donkey with two of his four fists. Bottom was able to kick the creature back into the pit as Bro. Mathias yelled, “The magic items, don’t we have some magic items of destruction? Buck, you should pull the lever thus lowering this creature back into it’s very spawning pit.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Bucky. “Oh yeah, I have a magic item of destruction,” responded Bottom. “Let me find it.” While Bottom looked through his belongings for a magic device, Bucky released another arrow but failed to hit the, rather large, beast. Then Bucky pulled the lever and activated the raiser into downward motion. “I’ve found it, I’ve found it,” Bottom shouted. “Launcheth thou the Magic Device of Destruction in the direction of this pit beast,” Bro. Mathias instructed. Bottom managed to properly manipulate the Magic Device and throw it before the beast could climb out of the pit again.

The Magic Device released an explosion as it hit the raiser at the feet of the pit- spawn creature. The creature gave a yelling scream of pain and beat at the walls of the pit. The raiser continued to lower, “It appears the creature was only harmed by the device but was not slain,” Bro. Mathias announced. “I have a Magic Device of Destruction too,” Bucky volunteered as he tossed a second device into the pit. The resulting explosion released fire out of the top of the pit and produced a scream that could only signal the death of the pit-spawn creature.

--- We finished the Mutant Future adventure on Dec. 22 and we're back to playing first edition AD&D now.