Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Allure of the Undead

“Though it can seem sudden, death is more of a process than an event.” – Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I have been fascinated by the undead for a long as I can remember. Frankenstein’s Monster is the first horror character I can remember falling in love with, and my predilection for this sort of thing has only grown as the years have passed. (Stephen King and George Romero’s film Creepshow, in which the undead figure prominently, came out when I was eight years old, and despite my pleas, my father, probably wisely, would neither allow me to watch the movie nor read the tie-in comic book. Of course, I have both now and cherish them all the more because of it.)



The concept of the deceased returning from the grave in drastically-altered form is not a new idea. Folklore from all over the globe teems with it. I suppose it’s because the concept of death’s being the end is so hard to swallow. Our consciousness seems like something that should endure indefinitely, yet few of us can hold on for even a hundred years.

 

In a recent interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson asked Larry King whether he wanted to live forever, and, without missing a beat, King replied, “Yes.” Tyson was somewhat thrown by King’s response, as he seemed to prefer the idea of making the most of each day, knowing that we are only given a limited amount of time. If we were to live forever, he maintains, there would never be any sense of urgency to do anything worthwhile. While I can understand Tyson’s point, I tend to agree with King’s position.

It’s fair to say that most people expire with a lot of things left undone, so it makes sense that we would conceive the notion that the dead sometimes come back. It is also related to the fact that humans are a fearful species. As if there weren’t enough reasonable things to be afraid of, we like to invent things that give us the willies. We also, apparently, need a way to keep people from wandering around after dark, lest they get into trouble. Unfinished business is, of course, just one reason that the dead might return. Someone’s disturbing their grave, an insatiable hunger for the flesh and/or blood of the living, revenge, being forced to haunt a house or some other location as a form of punishment, and being reanimated by magic or arcane science are others.

    

Of course, this sort of thing is very popular in works of supernatural horror and fantasy; in fact, it could prove challenging to find a book or movie in these genres that doesn’t contain at least some element of it. Arguably, the most popular “species” of undead is the vampire. These days, we differentiate vampires from zombies, but in many old tales they are essentially the same thing: creatures from beyond the grave who seek out the living for sustenance. Although vampires had been a part of European folklore for centuries, John Polidori wrote the first piece of vampire fiction, “The Vampyre,” in 1819 (during the same session in which Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein, interestingly enough). Of course, Bram Stoker would attain far greater success for his novel Dracula some eighty years later. Stoker considered calling his novel The Un-Dead, and this was, for all intents and purposes, the origin of the term (“undead” was previously just another way of saying “alive”).



Stoker also penned The Jewel of Seven Stars, a horror novel about an ancient Egyptian mummy. During this time, Egyptology was very much en vogue, and it therefore stood to reason that stories about mummies returning from their tombs would follow. Of course, writers such as Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, and M. R. James popularized the ghost story around the same time. Thus, vampires, ghosts, and mummies were the first three kinds of undead to capture the popular imagination. Bloodsuckers, check. Incorporeal representations of formerly-living people, check. Artificially-preserved, bandaged corpses that can curse you, check. Zombies as we know them came along later, although the idea was, in a way, alluded to in the Epic of Gilgamesh. (It is interesting that this, the world’s earliest surviving work of literature, would contribute something so vital to our modern speculative genres, despite the fact that horror and fantasy are frequently repudiated by the “intellectually elite.” Also, while I am not a big fan of the “zombie apocalypse” genre, I consider 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead one of my favorite horror films.) 




In the realm of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien introduced us to “wights” in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Similar to “undead,” the term originally referred to living beings, but Tolkien uses it to describe demonic spirits who possessed the corpses of those who had fallen in battle. Frodo and the hobbits encounter some in the Barrow-downs, an ancient burial ground beyond the Old Forest, and only manage to escape with the help of the mysterious Tom Bombadil. (This was entirely omitted from the film version, incidentally.) Wight was later appropriated by fantasy authors and game designers as the name of a powerful type of undead.



When Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) came along, its creators were fond of the idea of variety, so they invented numerous species of undead for adventurers to encounter. In 1988, TSR published Lords of Darkness, which was designed to be used with the then-current version of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This book is interesting because it focuses on ten undead types (skeletons, ghouls, shadows, spectres, vampires, et al.) and includes complete scenarios for each. In 2009, Wizards of the Coast, having acquired the game from TSR, released Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, a supplementary book for 4th-edition D&D that, in addition to nine detailed scenarios for both low- and high-level characters, gives players everything they could ever want to know about the various kinds of undead, including ecology and physiology (the latter of which is, to quote Tori Amos, “kind of gross”).

While the basic creatures can be found in the Monster Manual, this book provides players with all the details concerning every type of undead they could ever want, plus a whole section of new monsters, including subsets of well-known creatures, and even includes templates for creating your own. Some of the more interesting creatures include:

Blaspheme: A monster crafted from pieces of corpses and given life through magic and then tasked with guarding wizards' libraries.

Bone Yard: A huge mass of animated bones, such as those from a desecrated cemetery.

Deathtritus: Dead flesh, dirt, and crushed bone animated by necrotic energy.

Deathtouched Golem: An animated amalgam of corpses, grave dirt, hangman's nooses, and tombstones.

Nighthaunt: Cursed soul of someone who has eaten food infused with necrotic energy.

Skin Kite: A gliding mass of, well, skin that attaches to a target and eats its flesh until it can split in two, not unlike a dividing cell.

Wrath of Nature: A mindless embodiment of death, created by pollution.



Another interesting type of undead, which appeared in earlier versions of D&D but is not included in the current one, is the Crypt Thing. This creature appears merely as a skeleton in a robe, but it’s tricky. Many dungeons are actually tombs, with the adventurers’ objective being to destroy its chief inhabitant. This is often a “lich,” an undead wizard. The Crypt Thing’s job is to trick explorers into thinking that it is the lich. When it touches them, they are teleported to another part of the tomb where deadly traps await. 

   

It is also worth mentioning that Richard Lee Byers’ Haunted Lands trilogy (Unclean, Undead, and Unholy), published under the Forgotten Realms banner, is a veritable feast for undead lovers. One of the main set pieces of the series is the “Manufactory,” where undead are created for the army of the lich Szass Tam. The operations of the place are supervised by the foul Xingax, the enormous, mephitic aborted fetus of a demigod (yes, really). He transforms Tammith, a young girl who sells herself into slavery to pay off her father’s gambling debts, into a vampire, and though initially a villain, she eventually becomes an ally of the heroes and one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections of a Former Otaku

If you walk into a chain bookstore these days, it's a safe bet that you'll find a section devoted to manga, i.e. Japanese comics, often a rather large one. In the current market, manga is published in book form; these books, called tankobons, are compilations of comics that have been published previously, making them the equivalent of American trade paperbacks. (Some people like to call them graphic novels, but in most cases I think this designation is erroneous. Watchmen is one notable exception; even though it was originally published as a twelve-issue limited series, it has been in collected form for over thirty years and comprises a complete story.)



Instead of being published in monthly comics, as they are in America, manga are released in monochromatic, phonebook-sized magazines (there are some exceptions, but this is the way it is done for the most part). Some of these, such as Shonen Sunday, come out weekly and are sold everywhere. Rather than just featuring one story, these magazines are anthologies of numerous series. They are printed on cheap paper and are, not unlike newspapers, considered ephemeral. People read them on the train and toss them when they’re done. Fans of a particular series can purchase tankobons, which are of considerably higher quality and often even have dust jackets, at a later time. Some places even rent them out, not unlike the video stores of old. I once tried to purchase one from a shop, only to find out that it was not for sale.

For me, seeing such a huge volume of manga readily available is stunning. Frankly, most modern series are of little interest to me, though I do find the odd one here and there that gets my attention (examples include The Sacred Blacksmith, How to Build a Dungeon: Book of the Demon King, both fantasy series, and the various horror manga of Junji Ito, such as Tomie and Uzumaki). During my fervid manga period, which lasted from 1994-2000, there were only three companies translating and publishing manga: Dark Horse, Viz, and Antarctic Press, and their output isn't what you'd call huge. Comic stores usually had a single shelf devoted to manga, and I always wished there was more available. The most popular title of the time was probably Ranma ½, Rumiko Takahashi's comedic saga of a teenage boy who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water. Today, Takahashi is better known as the creator of the fantasy series Inu Yasha, which is a pretty clear indication of the delineation between older fans and newer ones.



In those days, manga was actually put out in comic-book form. The tankobons were broken up into chapters, translated into English, and then republished. In addition, the pages were reversed because Japanese read right to left. Many mangaka, i.e. manga artists, disliked this, and many “otaku,” American manga fans, did, as well. (In Japanese, “otaku” is a multi-purpose word roughly the equivalent of “geek,” but in America it is used specifically for fans of manga and anime.) Some series were later recompiled. After a while, the publishers decided not to reverse the art and to start putting the books out in their original form rather than breaking them apart. This proved to be a good decision, not only because it ultimately made more sense but also because it made manga easier to get into mainstream bookstores.

I read a ton of manga and watched a mountain of anime during those years. I was even a member of an anime club that met in a community center in Atlanta once a month. I frequented a Japanese bookstore that sold untranslated manga (so I could at least look at the art) and even tried to learn Japanese because there were so many series that interested me that had yet to be translated.

Most of the anime I absorbed has fallen by the wayside, but a few series remain favorites: Bubblegum Crisis, Dirty Pair, and Urusei Yatsura.



Bubblegum Crisis (1987-1991) is an eight-episode cyberpunk OVA (Original Video Animation) series heavily influenced by Blade Runner. It chronicles the adventures of four women calling themselves the Knight Sabers who wear “hardsuits,” technologically-advanced exoskeletons, and battle rogue androids known as “Boomers” in the Tokyo of 2032. It features gorgeous character designs by Kenichi Sonoda, the creator of the popular manga Gunsmith Cats. One of the most notable aspects of this series is its hard-rock soundtrack, which is a perfect fit for its gritty, violent world, where everyone is at the mercy of the evil Genom corporation.



Dirty Pair is a futuristic sci-fi series about the Lovely Angels, two beautiful but dangerous women named Kei and Yuri, who work as troubleshooters for the WWWA (Worlds Welfare Works Association). They succeed in solving all of their cases, but something invariably goes terribly wrong, resulting in massive property damage and casualties. Hence, they are more commonly known as the “Dirty Pair,” a name they despise. Creator Haruku Takachiho originally published several novels featuring the Pair before bringing them to the screen. The 1985 TV series ran 24 episodes, and there are several OVAs and a film. The TV series, which is the most comedic in nature, is by far the best, as far as I’m concerned.



Urusei Yatsura is a romantic comedy about an alien girl named Lum who falls in love with a boy from Earth named Ataru Moroboshi. While he is fond of Lum, Ataru is a lecher who cannot commit to one woman. As such, Lum gives him electric shocks whenever he chases anyone else. Naturally, Lum has friends from the stars who make further trouble for her beloved, whom she calls “Darling.” It’s also extremely weird, which is one of the main reasons it appeals to me. The title is derived from an untranslatable pun, so for the most part it has been left as is (AnimEigo, the company that released the anime in the States, retained the title but put “Those Obnoxious Aliens” in parentheses). The series is based on Takahashi’s earliest ongoing manga. The TV series, which ran from 1981-1986, comprises nearly 200 episodes, and six movies and an OVA series were also produced.

Most popular manga have been made into anime, and in many cases the anime proves superior, as the writers are able expand the stories and inject more drama (in the case of Urusei Yatsura, they often become far crazier). The series that I adore in manga form are Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku.


Shirow is probably best known for Ghost in the Shell, which will soon be released as a live-action film starring Scarlett Johannson, but I prefer Appleseed (1985-1989). Following World War III, Deunan Knute and her companion Briareos Hecantochires (named after the one-hundred-armed, fifty-headed monster from Greek mythology) join the police force in the city of Olympus, battling threats from both outside and inside the utopian metropolis. There have been several animated versions produced, but none of them seem to quite capture the spirit of the manga. 

  

Maison Ikkoku, which ran from 1980-1987, might seem like an odd choice, seeing as how it’s merely the story of a broke university student, Yusaku Godai, and the young apartment manager he falls in love with, Kyoko Otonashi. A widow, Kyoko is afraid to love anyone else, and Yusaku’s constant financial struggles and perceived duplicity certainly don’t make things any better. There is nothing even remotely supernatural or speculative about it. But something about it grabs me and won't let go. Its cast of wacky characters is certainly an element of its appeal, as is its frequent hilarity. It’s a huge story, spanning several years. I’m not sure of the exact page count, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands. 

I consider myself a “former” otaku because while I still enjoy manga and anime, I am no longer fanatical about them and am more interested in other things these days. (I never learned much Japanese, incidentally.) I know a few current otaku, and it’s clear that we are speaking different languages when it comes to our favorites. They have never even heard of the stuff I like and vice versa. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Magic of Miniatures

Diminutive representations of warriors, wizards, and monsters have been, in one form or another, part of fantasy gaming since the dawn of the hobby. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), was an avid wargame player and often supplemented the miniatures provided with his store-bought games with inexpensive toys (such as a now-famous set of rubber dinosaurs that inspired such iconic beasts as the Rust Monster and Owlbear) or made his own. In the mid-1970s, fantasy-miniature manufacturers began to spring up, making it far easier for gamers to procure the creatures they needed for their pencil-and-paper quests.



Strictly speaking, miniatures are not an indispensable element of role-playing games (RPGs). The Game Master (or Dungeon Master if you're talking in D&D terms) is responsible for describing the players' environments, so it's entirely reasonable to play a game completely within the framework of interactive storytelling. However, to avoid confusion, visuals are often provided. These can take many forms. The most common is a map, typically drawn on standard graph paper, with each square corresponding to a span of distance, such as five feet. Some game designers prefer to use hexagons (or “hexes”) instead because they more accurately represent the ways in which a character can interact with its surroundings. In games such as Metagaming Concepts' The Fantasy Trip or SPI's Citadel of Blood and Deathmaze (the latter two, while excellent, are only RPGs in the loosest sense of the term, but the principle’s the same), punch-out cardboard “counters” are used either to designate player and adversary positioning or to construct dungeons. But for those who are seeking an arguably richer gaming experience and are willing to shell out the extra cash, miniatures are always an option.


In the early days, companies such as Ral Partha and Citadel cast creatures in lead and pewter. Today, minis of this nature are produced by Reaper, Iron Wind Metals, et al. One of the potential drawbacks of metal miniatures is that they need to be painted, unless you're okay with your figures' looking vaguely silver-ish. For some, this has become a hobby unto itself and is, in fact, a frequent point of pride for players of games such as Warhammer (the Games Workshop magazine White Dwarf is essentially a showcase of miniature painting). During the 1980s, Ral Partha obtained a license from TSR to produce miniatures to be used with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and these high-quality figures are still prized by collectors.



In the current market, the majority of miniatures are rendered in plastic and are pre-painted. In 2003, Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), which had acquired TSR's assets in the wake of its bankruptcy, began manufacturing miniatures of this kind for D&D and continued to do so until 2010. Twenty-one sets were released, including both player-characters (humans, elves, dwaves, halflings, et cetera), monsters, and occasional “dungeon dressing,” i.e. pieces such as statues, portals, and sarcophagi.



Adopting the booster-pack model of its own wildly successful collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, WoTC originally packaged eight random figures of varying rarities in each box.
The “common” minis comprise the most frequently encountered creatures in the game, such as skeletal warriors and animals, which Dungeon Masters require in large numbers. The “uncommon” figures represent the less-common ones. The “rare” slot is reserved for dragons, deities, unusual monsters such as Mind Flayers or Beholders, and popular characters from the publisher's novel lines, such as heroic dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden and sorcerer Elminster Aumar from Forgotten Realms and vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich from Ravenloft. The minis varied in size from tiny to huge. Naturally, there was only one rare in each box, and these often showcased the most impressive sculpts and paint jobs.



These miniatures are convenient for players because they can be used right out of the box. While the primary purpose of the miniatures was that they be used in the RPG, the first seventeen sets included a card for each figure that could be used in a two-player tabletop skirmish game that pitted bands of minis against each other. The game proved fairly popular for a few years, with gaming shops hosting weekly tournaments with prizes provided by WoTC. In 2008, with the release of the fifteenth set, “Dungeons of Dread,” the skirmish rules were changed to reflect the impending release of the fourth edition of D&D. Unfortunately, because of this a significant number of players decided to abandon the game.



WoTC gradually converted all of the old sets over to the new rules free of charge, but by then the damage had been done. After the seventeenth set came out that autumn, the company announced that it was no longer going to support the skirmish game and that it had decided to restructure the line. One of the major changes was that heroes and monsters were now going to be released in different sets, ostensibly so that players would have an easier time getting figures to represent their characters. The player-character sets would be non-random, while the monster sets would include one visible figure. Additionally, the figure count for the monster boosters was reduced from eight to five (the heroes came three to a pack).



These turned out to be a disastrous decisions. Players were irritated by the reduction in figure count, and the new sculpts and paint jobs, particularly those of the heroes, left a lot to be desired. Moreover, not all of the visible minis in the boosters were equally desirable, and players wouldn't buy a set with a visible they didn't want. Stores refused to order more boosters because they couldn't sell what they had. By the time the third set in this format came out, WoTC knew that the end was near. The company only released one more set, 2010's “Lords of Madness,” which was, again, “blind” and included six figures per booster. It did go out on a high note, though, as the quality was excellent.

In 2011, WizKids, the manufacturer of the Heroclix and Mage Knight miniatures games, began producing figures for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. To make a long story short, Pathfinder is a fantasy RPG published by Paizo that is based on D&D’s 3.5-edition rules. This seems odd, but it was made possible by WoTC’s Open Game License, which essentially permitted anyone who wanted to use the rule sets of any of their games, including the ones it acquired from TSR. It seems foolish in hindsight, but at the time it was designed to kickstart a resurgence in tabletop RPGs, which were quickly losing players to online games such as World of Warcraft. In any event, the Pathfinder minis have proven, through twenty-four sets of various sizes (some as few as two, others as many as 55), to be of superb quality. In 2014, WoTC gave WizKids a license to produce D&D minis. So far there have been ten sets, again of varying sizes. As a whole, these minis have been excellent, as well, though the figure count has, unfortunately, been reduced again, to four per booster.



While it’s strange that the miniatures for two rival games are made by the same company, it does effectively guarantee that both lines will adhere to a high standard, as I can imagine that there is some healthy competition between the designers going on. (The Pathfinder minis do tend to look a bit better, it must be said.) 



Fortunately, those who still enjoy the D&D skirmish game have not been left out in the cold. When WoTC stopped making cards, they gave a free license to a group calling itself the DDM Guild, allowing it to design stats for the forthcoming releases. When WizKids took over, it was permitted to continue. It’s hard to find skirmish players these days, but for the hardcore fans it’s still one of the greatest games around.

There are, of course, dozens of miniatures companies not mentioned here. These are just the one with which I am most familiar. If you’re interested in RPGs and their ilk, miniatures can make great additions to your fantasy worlds. Unfortunately, they have become considerably more expensive in the last decade or so, but you can find bargains on eBay if you’re looking for singles or multi-figure lots.

It’s hard to deny the appeal of a game table covered with heroes and magical creatures. Even your non-player friends will be intrigued. It’s the best way to bring your imagined adventures to life.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Valley of the Worm

Robert E. Howard is best remembered for his greatest and most influential creation, Conan of Cimmeria, but his oeuvre comprises more than just adventures set in the Hyborian Age. He was, in fact, one of the most prolific writers of the pulp era; he contributed historical fiction, horror, sports stories, detective tales, and westerns to a variety of magazines.

Marvel began publishing Conan comics in 1970, originally in Conan the Barbarian and then in Savage Tales and The Savage Sword of Conan (the latter of which, taken as a whole, remains one of the greatest achievements in the annals of comic history). Along with its acquisition of the Conan stories, Marvel gained access to Howard's entire body of work. In addition to the adventures of King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn, Howard penned fantasy tales featuring heroes that were designed to be one-offs, and Marvel adapted some of these for its comics and magazines.



In Supernatural Thrillers #3 (1972), Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and Ernie Chan gave us their spectacular version of “The Valley of the Worm.” Originally published in Weird Tales in 1934, “Worm” is a sword & sorcery tale told by James Allison, a man on his deathbed reflecting back on the most remarkable of his many previous lives.

He explains that as a man called Niord he fought a monstrous “worm” (he chose the word because it was the closest approximation he could think of for the creature) and that this served as the basis for all the well-known heroic tales of the ancient world. To avenge the slaughter of his tribesmen, he ventured into the part of the jungle most feared by the locals and battled the enormous, serpentine horror, which had emerged from a black pit in the earth. Though he was triumphant, it was at the cost of his own life.

Like most of Howard's stories, it is rich in detail and wonderfully realized. It unfolds at an excellent pace and builds to its climax in an immensely satisfying manner. Though we are essentially told from the beginning how the tale will end, it still packs a punch. Thomas was the man behind Marvel's acquisition of Conan and had a real flair for adapting sword & sorcery tales, as well as coming up with new ones.         

By the time Kane began working at Marvel in the early '70s, he had already been in the industry for thirty years. His work for DC on such titles as Green Lantern and The Atom helped to propel the publisher to new heights during the Silver Age, the era in which superheroes took the world by storm after having diminished in popularity following the Second World War. He soon established himself as one of one of the industry's fastest and most reliable artists, and he illustrated more covers for Marvel during the Bronze Age than anyone else. His style mixes well with a variety of inkers, perhaps because it is fairly loose. Chan later developed a reputation for inks that were overpowering, especially when he worked with John Buscema on various Conan stories, but here he seems to follow Kane's layouts closely. 

  

Interestingly enough, this story was adapted again four years later by Richard Corben and published as the graphic novel Bloodstar. This version, which received critical acclaim, is obviously much longer, and Corben arguably improved upon the original story by providing the characters with greater depth and imbuing the overall narrative with more emotional weight. (It is worth noting that Kane conceived and illustrated the pioneering sci-fi/sword & sorcery graphic novel Blackmark a year before the Supernatural Thrillers adaptation.)   

One of the particularly intriguing aspects of this tale is the use of the word “worm” to describe the eponymous monster. Readers unfamiliar with the language of fantasy will likely only associate it with the rather unpleasant creatures that eat dirt and are used by fishermen as bait, but its use as a term for dragon goes back thousands of years, to the mythical tales of Germany and Scandanavia. (It is also sometimes spelled “wyrm.”) The most famous of the Anglo-Saxon epics is Beowulf, which features a fire-breathing dragon in its third act and was a huge inspiration for the works of fantasy luminary J. R. R. Tolkien.   

In the first chapter of The Hobbit, the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield describes the dragon Smaug as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.” Personally, I prefer the spelling “wyrm” not only because it differentiates itself from the aforementioned annelids but also because, frankly, it just looks cooler. In modern fantasy literature, particularly in Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives, wyrm is used interchangeably with dragon, probably because writers get tired of using the word “dragon” all the time. (Admittedly, the non-alliterative “Dungeons & Wyrms” doesn't have the same ring to it.) Moreover, “worm” refers to a completely different kind of monster, the most recognizable of which is the massive, armored bane of adventurers known as the “purple worm.”



(On a related note, a lot of people don't realize that Tolkien's use of “dwarves” as a plural for dwarf is nonstandard, which is why Disney's film is titled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fantasy, “dwarves” has been adopted as the standard, and I tend to agree with Tolkien's assertion that it has a better sound to it. This is, after all, the man who famously made us aware that “cellar door” is the most pleasant-sounding phrase in English (though he was not the first to do so), so it's fair to say that he know whereof he speaks.)

Allison declines to mention the age in which the story takes place because he believes that “historians and geologists would rise up to refute [him],” but he provides us with a few potential clues.

Niord utters phrases such as “By Ymir's Eyes!” on  a couple of occasions and  alludes to the name's being highly significant to his tribe. According to Arthur Cotterell's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Classical Mythology, Ymir is “the first living creature” in Germanic mythology, a frost giant (251). Not unlike the titan Cronos in the ancient Greek myths, he is overthrown by his offspring, in this case Odin, Vili, and Ve. (Odin, of course, is famous for being the father of Thor; the others are far more obscure.) All of creation then springs from his ruined corpse. Fans of Conan will recall that the Cimmerian frequently references this primordial being in his oaths, which is not at all surprising considering Howard's practice of appropriating deities from various mythologies for his own purposes. It is therefore likely that we are dealing with Howard's version rather than the “actual” one.

Niord identifies his tribe as the Aesir. This term, within the context of Germanic mythology, refers to a branch of the gods. In Howard's Hyborian world, the Aesir are the denizens of the country of Asgard; this is also the name of the home of the Germanic Aesir, analogous to the Mount Olympus of the Greek gods, though Howard's race is mortal rather than supernal in nature. Similarly, shortly after entering “The Country of the Worm,” Niord's tribe is set upon by Picts, though they eventually make peace and become allies. These are not the historical Picts, formidable warriors from what is now Scotland, but are, rather, the fierce Native-American-inspired race created by Howard.

Taken together, these clues suggest that Niord lived in the same age as Conan. This does not, however, assume that they were contemporaries. In fact, it's fair to aver that he actually predates the Cimmerian, possibly by centuries. His is a story concerned with the establishment of a civilization, whereas Conan's is one of traversing a world where many already exist. In any case, it is reasonable to argue that Niord is a figure from prehistory, from sometime after the sinking of Atlantis and before the first of humankind's records were written.        
  


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Awakening


In 1899, Kate Chopin published a short novel called The Awakening. Considered controversial at the time for its feminist themes and the candid way in which it deals with female sexuality, it has gone on to become a major headache for unsuspecting high-school and college literature students everywhere. 

Thankfully, this essay has nothing to do with it. 

The “awakening” I’m referring to was—for lack of a better term—an event that took place during my freshman year of high school, though it was not related to school itself. In June of 1988, I celebrated my fourteenth birthday. One of the gifts I received was a Nintendo game called The Legend of Zelda. Since then, it has spawned numerous sequels across numerous systems, has been featured in cartoons and comic books, and has appeared on t-shirts, tote bags, and even cereal boxes, but at the time it was a brand-new thing. I had gotten a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) the previous Christmas, and, having grown weary of Super Mario Bros., the game that came with it and of which I had at one time been a rabid fan, and Elevator Action, the second title I had picked up, I was eager to get into something else. I had no idea what Zelda was all about. At that time, the Internet as we know it today didn’t exist, of course, so you could only get information about NES games from Nintendo Fun Club News (the precursor to Nintendo Power), to which I did not have a subscription, or from word of mouth. I didn’t know anyone who had played the game, but I had seen a lot of commercials for it, so I decided to give it a shot. After all, Nintendo had cultivated a reputation for quality, so the odds of its being a letdown were slim. 



I imagine that for many players Zelda was a revolutionary game, as it was for me. Up to that point, most console games lacked an adventure component. The aforementioned Super Mario Bros., for example, only allowed you to go in a predetermined direction, and backtracking was not permitted. If you missed something, you had no choice but to suck it up and keep going. Zelda was different. Its world was open and, for the time, vast. You could revisit areas again and again. In fact, one of the chief elements of the game was exploration. You were not told what to do or how to do it. You had to figure everything out through trial and error, to traverse deadly forests and spooky graveyards to find the entrances to the game’s various levels. You had to determine how weapons and items worked and when they should be used. A map and instruction manual were included, but they only told you so much. Every now and then a wise old man in a cave would give you a clue, but it was often cryptic. For the most part, you were on your own. 
 
 

Computer-game players were already familiar with this kind of thing. Games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Bard’s Tale worked this way. The difference was that while these games required exploration and puzzle solving, they lacked action. The outcomes of battles were resolved by the computer, in a fashion similar to tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). In a sense, the computer rolled the dice for you during an encounter and told you the outcome. In many of these games, the player controlled an entire party of characters rather than just one. The reason for this is that tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) are designed to be played by a group rather than an individual, with each player having a specific function within the party (a fighter for combat, a wizard for magic, a cleric for healing, et cetera). 
 
 

Zelda, by contrast, was an action game through and through. It required fast reflexes and could be terribly frustrating at times, particularly if you wandered into an area filled with monsters you were not prepared to fight. Like computer adventure games, it had an overhead view rather than a side-scrolling one. Its closest antecedent was the Atari 2600’s Adventure, but while this game required exploration and experimentation and featured rudimentary action sequences (mostly running from dragons or trying to stab them), it was much smaller in scope, did not allow you to carry more than one item at a time, and had primitive graphics due to the system’s limitations. No one had seen anything like Zelda before.  

As I recall, it took me about a month to conquer it. For those four weeks, it was pretty much all I thought about. I even took the map with me when we went on vacation. It was the most immersive game I had ever encountered. But the experience of playing the game, while rewarding, was not the most important thing. I got something much greater out of it. It was my introduction to fantasy.

 

As an avid collector of Masters of the Universe (MoTU) action figures and a devoted fan of the tie-in cartoon during my younger years, I had been exposed to the concept of fantasy, but I had never really thought of it as a genre. I didn't even know what “genre” meant. I just found it cool that the warriors fought with swords and axes and that there were magic and monsters involved. D&D had become huge by the early 1980s, and many toy lines reflected its influence. I was a fan of many of the MoTU knockoffs, as well, including Thundercats, Blackstar, and The Other World, the first two of which also had their own cartoons. There was even a toy line actually based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was the preeminent version of the game at the time. The most memorable figure was probably Warduke, who was later made into a miniature as part of the D&D Miniatures set “War Drums.” Of course, there was also the D&D cartoon (the “Advanced” was likely removed to prevent confusion, although that didn't stop DC Comics from using it in the title of its early-'90s comic book series), which was fairly controversial due to the absurd allegations that the game was linked to suicide, antisocial behavior, and devil worship. I can remember watching it standing up so I could keep an eye on the door of my parents' bedroom. Not even kidding. 
 
 

By the time Zelda came along I hadn't given fantasy much thought in several years, having become instead interested in Garbage Pail Kids, Madballs, and horror films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Soon after I began playing it, I became intrigued by Zelda's fantasy setting, and when I had finished the game I began looking for others in a similar vein. When school started, I met a guy named John (with whom I remain friends to this day), who was a computer- and console-game enthusiast, an RPG player, and a fan of speculative fiction. He was the first full-on nerd I had ever met, and I mean that as an enormous compliment. He introduced me to D&D, Commodore 64 adventure games (with their cloth maps and copy-protection wheels), and Dragonlance novels. (I subsequently turned him onto Forgotten Realms novels, thus returning the favor.) It didn't take long to realize that I was onto something big. At the start of 1989, I began collecting comic books. I had grown up enjoying Superfriends, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and The Incredible Hulk on Saturday mornings, but I was a reluctant reader, so I had never bought many comics. Even though most comic books are not fantasy in the strictest sense, they feature speculative tales of a similar nature and borrow elements from fantasy, so there are, therefore, a lot of crossover fans. There's a reason that many comic-book shops also carry RPG books and accessories. 
 
 

The “awakening” was, hence, my discovery of fantasy fandom. In the span of just a few months, I had found my niche, and I have remained there ever since. Today, I have a comic-book and magazine collection that would have made fourteen-year-old me lose control of his bodily functions. I have well over 700 miniatures, a plethora of dice (especially d20s, my favorites), and a number of publications related to fantasy games going back to the 1970s, which are just engaging to read. I have used my writing ability as a means of sharing my passion, contributing to the hobby, and “giving back” to the community. I have found incalculable joy in the books and games I have picked up during the last 28 years.  

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if I had never slid The Legend of Zelda into my Nintendo Entertainment System in the summer of 1988. Traversing the environs of the fictional world of Hyrule helped me discover myself.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Alternatives to Traditional Roleplaying




Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the world’s first roleplaying game (RPG), was introduced in 1974. The original version of the game was, in essence, an expansion for Gary Gygax’s tabletop miniatures game Chainmail and, thus, did not have its own unique combat system. You had to have a copy of the miniatures game in order to play it. It was also, for some, difficult to understand. While these and other issues led some players to the conclusion that the rules needed clarifications and/or further development, there was no doubt that the fledgling company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) had a hit on its hands.



Within a short time, similar games were coming out of the woodwork. It seemed as though the gaming community had been waiting for the fantasy RPG to be created and just didn’t know it. The first of these was Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels & Trolls (T&T), which debuted about a year after D&D. While its predecessor was a fairly serious game, T&T was designed in a more lighthearted vein. It was also less complex and was the first game system to offer single-player options. One of the biggest challenges intrinsic to RPGs is getting a group together (and, having done so, preventing that group from imploding). By design, RPGs require at least two players, preferably more. Someone has to run the game in which the players take part (a Game Master (GM) in general terms or a Dungeon Master (DM) in D&D). But what do you do when you crave a fantasy adventure but don’t have anyone to play with?  



To solve this problem, T&T introduced solo adventures. These took the form of short books in which players make choices at certain points and turn to the corresponding section. For example, the text might say something like, “You enter a dimly-lit room. There are doors to the north and west. A small chest stands in one corner. To go north, turn to 25. To go west, turn to 78. To open the chest, turn to 44.” If this sounds familiar, it was later used by the creators of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, although the T&T books differed in that players use a character sheet and roll dice to determine outcomes, just like in a traditional session. Basically, the book was the GM.

Games Workshop (the British company known these days for the miniatures game Warhammer) founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone introduced Fighting Fantasy in 1982. Unlike the T&T solo adventures, these books were self-contained; they did not require players to use the rules of the “parent” game, as there wasn’t one. With titles such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon, Temple of Terror, and House of Hell, this high-quality series proved very popular and remained in publication until 1995, totaling 59 books.



Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf, launched in 1984, was similarly well received. It was unique in that the same eponymous character appears in every book, making it a true series. Other excellent offerings from various publishers include Fabled Lands, Middle-Earth Quest, and Blood Sword.  Dever also released a series called Combat Heroes that featured illustrations rather than text (a compass at the bottom of each scene had a page number at each point). These adventures could be played solo or against an opponent who had the corresponding book.



It is interesting that there were two game designers named Steve Jackson, a British one and an American one. The American, while working for Metagaming Concepts, gave the world the first “microgame,” Ogre, in 1977. Microgames were a brilliant innovation. They came in plastic Ziploc bags and contained only a rulebook, a map, and punch-out “counters,” i.e. game pieces. The publishers saved money and space by assuming that players would already have dice. Ogre, despite its name, was neither an RPG nor a fantasy game at all (it was, rather, a game of tank warfare). It could also not be played solo. However, games that followed, such as The Fantasy Trip, fulfilled both criteria. Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) followed with Deathmaze, which is only an RPG in the loosest sense but can be played by a single adventurer. In fact, many fans of the game insist that this is the best way to do it. Players build the dungeon as they go along by randomly placing room counters adjacent to one another. They then draw monster tiles, also at random, to introduce combat. In this way, the game is different every time.

     

There were a number of magazines that came with games included, as well. Both Flying Buffalo’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Games Workshop’s Warlock featured short solo adventures. Ares magazine was noted for its inclusion of a microgame, complete with counters, with every issue. Some of these games, such as Citadel of Blood, were rereleased as box sets. Ares was later absorbed into TSR’s Dragon, but it only lasted for a few issues before being discontinued.




Of course, computer games were also an option. In addition to text adventures such as Infocom’s Zork, players could delve into the dungeons of Rogue, a game created in 1980. It featured very basic graphics, with monsters and items and even the player himself represented by ASCII characters. The player was symbolized by the @; a B could represent a bat and a ! could denote a potion. Similar to Deathmaze, every game was different. Rogue proved so popular that its design was copied numerous times and even spawned a subset of computer games called Roguelikes, which continue to flourish today. Many of these, such as Moria, Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, NetHack, and Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), are available for free download.



For players who crave the “old school” experience, many of these options are still available. Gamebooks can easily be found on Amazon. In fact, some of the older ones, such as Fighting Fantasy, Blood Sword, and Golden Dragon, have been reprinted in recent years in nice trade editions. The more obscure titles can usually be found through independent sellers offering books in Amazon Marketplace. Of course, used bookstores are also a good bet. Microgames are no longer being produced, but if you’re willing to shell out the money they’re not impossible to obtain. Also, issues of Ares are available as PDFs on sites such as Archive.org. (You’ll have to cut out rather than punch out the counters, but that’s a relatively insignificant inconvenience.) 


    

I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the British Steve Jackon’s F. I. S. T. (Fantasy Interactive Scenarios by Telephone). In 1988, the Fighting Fantasy co-author came up with the idea for a telephone-based RPG. Callers would descend into a dungeon through a radio-drama-like experience in which they battled monsters and made choices using their phone’s keypad. Having seen ads for it in comic books of the time, I was interested in giving it a try, but it was a pay-by-the-minute thing, and I could see how it had the potential to add up quickly, so I never did (thus evading my father’s wrath). Jackson reportedly made a boatload of money with it. Of course, this kind of thing simply wouldn’t fly in our modern, cellular world. It was purely an idea of its time, which is what makes it so interesting when we look back on it today.        







Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On Nostalgia



I was in ninth grade, in 1989, when I experienced nostalgia for the first time.

           
I had recently begun collecting comics, and while flipping through an issue of The Incredible Hulk from early in the decade, which I had gotten from a friend along with a stack of others, I ran across an advertisement for a book of puzzles and games featuring characters from classic video games (Pac-Man, Q*Bert, et al). You might recall how they merchandized the crap out of these characters during the so-called Golden Age of Arcade Games. I remember stuffed animals, PVC figurines, t-shirts, candy, and jewelry, amongst tons of other junk.

I had, of course, been a video-game enthusiast since 1980, when I played Pac-Man in the local Kroger for the first time (I had no idea what I was doing, but I was hooked). I spent a lot of time in arcades, which in those days were everywhere. I grew up in a pretty small town, and we had at least five or six of them. I didn’t get an Atari 2600 until the price went down to twenty-five bucks (despite numerous attempts, I could never get my dad to shell out the bread for one before this development, even though he bought a Commodore Vic-20, which I really only used as a video-game console), but my cousin had one, and we spent an insane amount of time playing it. My uncle even subscribed to some sort of “cartridge of the month” club that mailed new games to you every few weeks. We were, perhaps not surprisingly, completely oblivious to the fact that the market crashed in 1983; all we knew was that you could suddenly get Atari games for pennies on the dollar.



Since then, I had graduated to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which I still consider the greatest console ever made. Even though it had only been seven or eight years since the Atari heyday, video games, both home and arcade versions, had changed immensely in that time. Even though we played a lot of Atari, we often complained about the poor quality of the graphics and gameplay. The home ports didn’t come anywhere close to stacking up to their arcade counterparts (the worst example of this was, of course, the Atari port of Pac-Man, which was infamously thrown together quickly so it could reach stores by the Christmas season and was a major contributor to the aforementioned crash). We always hoped for something better. When the NES hit, it felt like we had entered a completely different world.



I had fallen in love with Super Mario Bros. and played it in the Wal-Mart game room several days a week (I must admit that I once wet my pants in front of the machine because I refused to leave the game to go to the bathroom, which is pathetic behavior usually reserved for Las Vegas slot-machine jockeys). When I learned that the NES version was virtually identical (it turns out that there were actually some pretty significant differences, coupled with the fact that the game had originally been released on the Famicon in Japan before the arcade version, but I was blissfully unaware of any of this), I couldn’t believe it. The idea of a home system that was the equal of an arcade machine was a revolutionary idea. Even though my dad had been hesitant to buy an Atari at full price, he was willing to put an NES under the Christmas tree in 1987. (I was, ahem, relieved to find that the home version had a pause feature, thus obviating all future urine-related mishaps).

As I sat looking at the advertisement in that comic book, I began to feel peculiar. A warmth overcame me (thankfully, this time it wasn't pee), and I was filled with a profound sense of contentment. I had no idea what I was experiencing at the time, but I soon came to realize that it was nostalgia. While seven years feels like nothing to me now, in 1989 it was half of my life. As images of the hours spent playing Atari at my cousin’s apartment ran through my mind, I began to long for those bygone days. It was a simpler time, a time before the drama of junior high and high school, a time when no one really cared where your shoes came from or whether or not you were privy to the latest fads. I remembered days when I had to stay out of school due to illness, and my mom would take me to the Harbin Clinic and then to Revco so my prescription could be filled. I reminisced about Saturday afternoons with her at Madden’s Cheese Ltd. at the corner of Gala Shopping Center, where I’d get a sandwich and watch the ABC Weekend Special on the television on top of the drink cooler. I thought of seemingly insignificant trips I’d take with my dad to stores around town, where I’d get candy dispensers shaped like Star Wars characters or cheap toys that would invariably become part of some collection or other within the microcosm of my bedroom closet.



More than anything, though, I thought about what it was like being a kid. Were things actually better back then? Probably not, but my memory had romanticized those times, made them seem preferable to what my life had become in the ensuing years. I had grown to associate my life with my hobbies and pastimes. They had practically become my identity, and, thus, much of my nostalgia was inextricably linked to them. As I closed the cover of that comic, I found myself wanting more. It became something of an addiction. I began seeking out old (or old to me, anyway) books and magazines, ones that just about anyone else would find uninteresting. I once found a stack of yellowed video-game strategy guides at a used bookstore for about a quarter apiece. These days, those kinds of books are highly sought after by collectors, but back then no one else cared. I was ahead of the curve. Nostalgia for me is not just about video games, though; they were just the key that unlocked the vault and remain the best sources of it. Anything that reminds me of the 1980s is usually worth a look, especially if it’s related to one of the speculative genres.

I continue to take frequent trips down memory lane. The creation of MAME (Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator), which I can play on my laptop, provides doses of arcade nostalgia whenever I desire them, and the proliferation of plug-and-play consoles featuring both arcade and home games has made access to the past easier than ever (I’ll refrain from expressing my anger concerning the NES Classic Edition debacle at this juncture). Moreover, YouTube is a treasure trove of 1980s cartoons and commercials, as well as videos of people playing video games on every system imaginable.


Interestingly enough, I have found that there are two kinds of nostalgia: actual nostalgia and what I like to call “pseudo-nostalgia.” The latter is a peculiar thing indeed, but I in all ways embrace it. It allows me to look at something that I’m not familiar with from a particular era and get a feeling of nostalgia from it even though it was something outside my sphere of experience. I never played the Bally Astrocade, for example, but when I see an ad for it or read an article in an issue of Electronic Games, I can experience nostalgia because it is from the same time period that I was playing Burgertime and Tempest in the arcade. I also have a collection of old role-playing game (RPG) books and magazines (some of which I’ve found online in PDF format for free) from which I derive a great deal of joy, even though I didn’t discover those kinds of games until around the time that I got into comics. I love looking through them and imagining how exciting it must have been for those early players, when RPGs were just beginning to ramp up and everything was so new.

Do I credit myself as the creator of 1980s nostalgia, you ask?


Yes, I do.