Glorantha Part 1

Greetings! I’ve decided to once again revive the ol’ blog to get myself into writing again, and to share some thoughts I have about exciting new trends in tabletop gaming! It’s been about a year since I did the last post on Tekumel, the fascinating setting created by M.A.R. Barker. Since then I’ve continued to immerse myself in various old-school gaming experiences, while trying to stay abreast of the new ones. I am now a proud father, so my time for running and researching  games is much more limited. Still, there is one setting in particular, along with its associated rule-sets, that has truly captured my imagination. This is Glorantha, the setting for the classic RPG Runequest (RQ).

I have actually played in a Runequest game before, but it wasn’t set in the traditional world of Glorantha, and my GM used the oft-maligned third edition rules from Avalon Hill, dating back to the mid-80’s. Through no fault of the GM, I didn’t have a stellar experience with the game, and I developed a bad attitude about the system. I didn’t think about RQ for years after that, except to complain every now and then about the games tendency to produce inept characters that were terrible at everything. What finally convinced me to take another look at the tabletop RPG was the release of a new mobile game, set in the Glorantha. This was called Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind.

Six Ages

Six Ages is an interactive fiction game, with a mix of RPG, strategy, and simulation elements. The artwork in the game was stunning, and I was very intrigued by what appeared to be a non-traditional approach to fantasy and world-building. I also checked out the prequel to Six Ages, King of Dragon Pass, which is a cult classic in its own right. Both are available on mobile platforms, and KoDP can be played in its original form on PC as well.

These are excellent games, and if I can find the time I would love to review them in more detail. But the focus here is on Glorantha itself. If you are looking to explore this fascinating setting, the two games are the perfect gateway into doing so. I would recommend starting with King of Dragon Pass if you are interested in tabletop Glorantha, because it takes place in a time and place that is much closer to the default setting in Runequest.

What is Glorantha? It is the setting that was “discovered” by Greg Stafford in late 60’s, and explored more fully after the founding of Stafford’s company Chaosium in 1978. You might have heard of Chaosium, as they are also the creators of the wildly popular and influential Call of Cthulhu RPG. Glorantha was the setting used in Chaosium’s earliest forays into game publishing, with the wargame White Bear and Red Moon, and the first edition of Runequest.

Glorantha is truly unique as a setting for its depth, breadth, originality, and quirkiness. If I had to summarize it quickly I would describe it as “mythic bronze-age fantasy,” and also probably mention its unusual historical influences, and the way magic and myth influence everything about the world, right down to the laws of physics. I think one of the best things I can say about it as a setting is that it is very non-Western (and non-Tolkien) in tone and flavor, and has very little to do with medieval European history or mythology. So many fantasy settings are, more or less, bastardized versions of our own world and history, and you’ll find very little of that in Glorantha. There are fictional cultures that have clear real-world analogues, such as Ancient China or Sub-Saharan Africa, but most of them are blends of different peoples, places and religions, with innovative twists.

You’ll find a decadent empire that is equal parts Roman and Persian, tied together by a transgressive feminist religion that glorifies life and diversity, but also dark magic and demons. There are tribes of hill folk (the default player characters in most Gloranthan games) that could be described as rugged individualist Greek/Norse/Celtic/American Settler barbarians, that worship the Old Gods. My personal favorites are the strange cultures of the Far West, which have the trappings of Classical Athens, Byzantium, and Ancient India, with a fractured humanistic religion that combines Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Hermetic Magic.


It is a living, breathing world of its own, and immersing yourself in it can be overwhelming. Once I had dipped my toes in with the PC games, I decided to check out the book that is currently considered to be the most comprehensive source on the setting: the two-volume Guide to Glorantha. I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this one. This is a massive, 800 page tome that covers everything you could possibly want to know about the world, including mythology, history, cultures, and a detailed look at every geographical region featured on the above map (and then some).


I’m still working my way through it, but I’ve enjoyed every bit of it so far. I will say that it doesn’t make for the best introduction to someone that is “Glorantha-curious.” The sheer amount of information, while interesting, is totally staggering, and not always presented in a way that makes sense the first time through. There are a lot of references and name-drops that are not fully elaborated on, and some information presented is deliberately ambiguous, especially with regard to mythic events (the Yelmalio/Elmal controversy still confounds me).

I think a better way to get into Glorantha is to check out the recent material that has been released for Runequest. There is a new edition of the game called Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (RQG) that is being published by Chaosium. This game is generating a lot of buzz, and has received some stellar reviews. There hasn’t been a new Chaosium edition of the game since 1980, so that alone is exciting to lots of people. I like the new edition because it smoothly integrates the Glorantha setting into the old-school mechanics in a way that hasn’t been done before. There is also a nice, short, focused introduction to the world that would be an easier start for the casual fan.


I will hopefully be running an RQG campaign in the next few months, once I finish our current Unknown Armies game. I have a lot more I could say about Glorantha, Runequest or other associated games, but I will likely have to leave that for another post. I hope that I have piqued the interest of any readers. Exploring Glorantha is rich and rewarding, and I have found much joy into escaping there. I hope you can as well!



At last! I have decided to revive this blog, at least temporarily, to get myself writing again. Much has occurred since my most recent post, nearly a year ago. I have finished a grad program, and I nearly have my license to teach elementary school in Massachusetts. My wife and I are also expecting our first child in a few weeks. Indeed, many great changes are occurring!

But in the midst of all this, I finally have more time to devote to other things I love. Namely, writing, and immersing myself in other worlds. While I was in grad school, I didn’t have much time for escapism (although I did wrap up a long-running D&D campaign). In recent months I’ve gotten back into Jack Vance, and now, the works of M.A.R. Barker, which will be the primary focus of this post.

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (born Phillip Barker, and known as “Phil” by friends and family) is the creator of the world of Tekumel. It is an exotic science-fantasy setting that the Professor has been developing for most of his life. He was a friend of the original designers of Dungeons and Dragons, including Dave Arneson, who was an occasional player in his games. The D&D crowd at TSR decided to publish Barker’s setting, along with an original RPG rule set, in the “Empire of the Petal Throne” box set in 1975. This original edition of the game was one of the earliest tabletop RPG’s ever published, and featured the first complete setting paired with rules.


(The original 1975 boxed set)

Barker was a fascinating guy. He passed away in 2012 unfortunately, but he left behind quite a legacy as a writer, linguist, gamer, and builder of worlds. Much like the revered J.R.R. Tolkien, he was a linguist, and created numerous constructed languages to go along with his setting. The most developed of these is Tsolyani, the language spoken within the default starting region for Tekumel games. Unlike Tolkien, Barker studied South Asian and Native American languages rather than European ones, and his setting is an interesting amalgamation of the cultures and histories of those places. Tsolyanu, the Empire of the Petal Throne itself, feels like equal parts Indian, Aztec/Mayan, and Persian/Arabic. Rather than settle for a pseudo-European fantasy world, or a sword-and-sorcery pastiche, Tekumel features rich, ancient cultures steeped in history and hoary tradition.

Barker as a worldbuilder is also strongly influenced by the trends in fiction that came before him. He was an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, drawing inspiration from Jack Vance and corresponding with writers like Lin Carter. I tend to think of Tolkien as fitting into a category of “mythic fantasy,” given that his world and invented cultures are based on a tradition of mythological storytelling, with gods creating the world and so forth. Tekumel is based on the science fictional premise of a futuristic world populated by humans, and many other alien species, which is then cut off from the rest of the universe by a mysterious cataclysm. Related to that disaster are actual god-like beings, and actual magic which flows from another dimension. Tens of millennia after this event, humans and other species now live at a level of roughly bronze-age technology, with ancient sprawling empires, magic, gods, and a general sense of unchanging tradition and ritual.

I have been aware of Tekumel since my college days, although I don’t remember how I stumbled across it exactly. I used to actually trawl through lists of published RPG’s on Wikipedia, to get a more complete picture of the hobby, so that could be it. I remember thinking the world was interesting, but also somewhat inaccessible. The odd-sounding names and constructed languages seemed off-putting I guess. Also, there wasn’t a lot of easily available material out there, except for the recently published version of the game in 2005 by Guardians of Order, which I wasn’t willing to buy. More recently however, there has been a small Tekumel revival, coinciding with the “Old-School Renaissance” for D&D inspired games. First off, the Tekumel Foundation which manages Barker’s intellectual property has started publishing the old books on DrivethruRPG. A new RPG called Bethorm was also recently published, with an old-school feel meant to evoke the original game.

Choice of Games, which I have written of in earlier posts on this blog, also released a game set in Tekumel a few years ago. It was this that got me interested in Tekumel again more recently. The game didn’t get amazing reviews, but I thought it would be a good way to re-introduce myself into the setting. “Choice of the Petal Throne” does indeed have issues, namely some flat characters and a rushed ending, but got me excited about the world again as I had hoped.

From there, I purchased “Swords and Glory, Vol. 1” from Drivethru, which is considered to this day to be the Professor’s most comprehensive sourcebook on his fictional world. The book is fascinating and immersive, but also challenging in some ways. Written in the early days of the hobby, the text is dense, with very few illustrations, and an odd sense of organization. It covers dozens of cultures across a continent the size of Asia, and details everything from histories and religion, down to the minutiae of silverware etiquette. There are no maps, and until the new PDF’s were released, there was no index. It took me weeks to read through it in small bites, but I feel like it was worth it. Anyone looking to really dive into Tekumel should check out this book.

Swords and Glory

Another good way to get a feel for the setting is to read some of Professor Barker’s own fiction. He published five novels over the course of his life, which were set in Tekumel. I recently finished the first two, “The Man of Gold” in 1984, and “Flamesong” in 1985. I enjoyed them both thoroughly, and was pleasantly surprised at Barker’s ability to tell an intriguing, complex story, and create some sympathetic characters as well. Fair warning though, Barker’s style can be just as dense as his gaming material, and the frequent exposition drops can get a little ridiculous. He wrote the other three novels later in life, and they are apparently not as good as the first two. They are also out of print and difficult to find, but hopefully will be released in PDF by the Tekumel Foundation sometime soon. I plan to read them if I can find them, mainly for the descriptions of other parts of Tekumel.

Man of Gold

You would be hard-pressed to find a setting more deep and fully-realized than Tekumel. I’m looking forward to trying it out as a role-playing game (I got my copy of Bethorm a few weeks ago). Perhaps that will be the subject of a future post, if I can actually get a group together!

Iberian Honeymoon Part 1

Greetings! I’ve decided to take a break from posting fiction-in-progress, and reminisce about some of our recent adventures in Portugal and Spain. For those of you who don’t know, I recently tied the knot with my amazing wife Abi Nighthill. Months earlier we planned a honeymoon to the Iberian Peninsula. We chose Portugal to fly in and out of, because it was inexpensive, and were told by multiple people that it’s a very underappreciated vacation spot. We were both really curious about Spain as well, so we sandwiched it in.

The trip lasted around 10 days, and consisted of three major portions.

  • Lisbon (Lisboa) – Lovely capitol of Portugal.
  • Bilbao (Bilbo) – The largest city in the Basque Country of Spain.
  • Porto (Oporto) – Portugal’s second largest city, home of Port wine.

We flew in and out of Madrid, and then connected to Portugal

I’m hoping to write a few posts about each leg of our journey, and cover the highlights. My purpose here is more to recount our experiences, and not necessarily to make recommendations or paint an accurate picture of what these places are like. We tried to go off the beaten path whenever possible, and we skipped some of the usual “must-see” attractions in each place.

To start with, here are some cool things we did in and around Lisbon.

Lisboan Fado


The traditional music of Portugal is called fado. It contains the “soul of the Portuguese,” embodied in the Portuguese word “saudade.” There is no direct English translation of this word, but basically it means “longing,” or the feeling that follows after one has experienced great loss. It is definitely very sad, but quite beautiful music. Traditionally it is performed with a vocalist (male or female), and two musicians on classical and Portuguese guitar.

Abi and I went to two different fado shows in Lisbon. Our first night there (after sleeping the better part of a day), we went to a hip sort of bar that attracted a younger crowd. The interior was loaded with local artwork, and even our place mats were creatively styled. Our singer for the evening was male, and his performance seemed to be geared toward easing tourists into what can be, for some, a challenging style of music. He was actually pretty funny, and didn’t fit my image of what a fado singer was. Still, it was a great introduction to the culture, and the excellent wine and Portuguese tapas didn’t hurt either.

Our second fado show was a little more traditional. The space was small, dark and intimate. We were right up front for the performance, and this time we had a female singer (a fadista). She had the shawl, the saudade vibe, and really belted those sorrowful tunes.

Sintra (Quinta da Regaleira)

At one point we took a day trip out to a neighboring town, Sintra, which is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. The trip was easy enough, since there’s a commuter rail line that connects with the city. Sintra is located west of Lisbon, in a range of hills not far from the coast. It was a popular place for the royal family of Portugal to spend their leisure time, as well as an assortment of aristocrats, rich capitalists, and so on.

There’s a lot to see in this seemingly small town. The royal family had two summer palaces here, there’s a ruined castle dating back to the time of the Arabs in Portugal, and more summer homes and palaces than anyone could see in a day. We hit the Pena Palace, and the Moorish Castle, and that managed to take up much of the morning and the afternoon. These were fascinating in their own way, but in the middle of August, they were packed with both local and foreign tourists.

But the true highlight of that visit was the strange and mysterious Quinta da Regaleira. This mansion and the surrounding gardens were bought in the 19th century by an eccentric millionaire who was obsessed with the occult. He hired an Italian architect to transform his whole estate into a bizarre work of esoteric symbolism. The grounds feature twisting pathways, carved figures from mythology and different religious traditions, underground tunnels, and an “initiation well” that has a winding staircase built into it, allowing visitors to venture underground and explore secret caves.

Abi and I were most excited about the well, and our journey through the grounds was built around the goal of finding it. Even with a map, we got hopelessly lost, and we ended up visiting nearly every strange place in the estate before we found it. After descending and wandering through dimly lit caves, we found another, unfinished well, that we could climb up and return to the surface. As she put it, we were “initiated,” then “uninitiated.”

We also found, inexplicably, a field full of cats.

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Literary Lights of Portugal

While we were visiting Portugal (and before we left), I tried to immerse myself in the local literary tradition. I didn’t know much about Portuguese literature, and I find reading the great works can add another layer of fun onto seeing the sights. I sampled Jose Saramago, probably the best known name because of his novel Blindness. Eca de Quieros is a 19th century novelist who wrote in a realist style, and his work is both insightful and sometimes really funny. Luis de Camoes is the Shakespeare or Cervantes of Portuguese letters. He wrote an epic poem in the style of the Odyssey called the Lusiads. He also had possibly the craziest life of any writer I can think of, complete with battles, doomed love affairs, and shipwrecks.

Image result for luis camoes

But the writer I chose to read throughout most of the trip was Fernando Pessoa. He is associated with the Modernist tradition, and did most of his writing in the early twentieth century. He is most famous for inventing dozens of alternate writing personas, or “heteronyms” for himself. More than simple pen names, these people he wrote as had complete fictional histories and identities, and sometimes expressed very different opinions from one another. His longest work is the “Book of Disquiet,” which I am still currently reading.

Abi and I visited the cafe that Pessoa was known to spend time at. The Cafe a Brasileira was a hot spot for artists and bohemians in the olden days. I also found out from reading signs that the word “pessoa” in Portuguese means “person,” which is kind of ironic. His name sounded like “Fernando Person,” but he was really lots of people!

Pastel de Nata

We tried some decent food in Lisbon, but my favorite culinary experience was the pastries. One kind in particular is incredibly popular all over the country, the Pastel de Nata. These are little tarts filled with sweet egg custard, baked in the oven. I must have tried these at 8 different restaurants throughout Portugal. The best ones I had were at La Brasilieira, but supposedly the best of all are located in the neighborhood of Belem, where the Pastels were invented by monks. I heard there were crazy long lines, so we avoided them. These tarts are so popular that there’s even a chain of bakery/restaurants called “I Love Nata.” I’ll have to find a place that makes them stateside…

Anyway, those are my personal highlights for Lisbon. My next post will be for Basque Country and Bilbao!

Weird Fiction Part 6


Greetings friends/family/uncategorized! I haven’t posted on this ol’ blog in a few months, because I’ve been crazy busy! I did a month of intensive grad school classes, I got married, and I went on a honeymoon trip to Portugal and Spain with my lovely wife. It was incredible, and I might do a post reminiscing about some of our experiences, but for now, here’s another piece of my short story cycle. I took an even longer break from writing this, because I’m at kind of a point of transition with the story. It’s difficult to work in exposition, and move things forward at the same time, but that’s what was required for this entry. Hope you enjoy it!

Entry the Sixth, the 18th Day of Poldoure, 738th Year of the Sanguine Reckoning

I have nearly caught up to the present day with my account. Those who read this journal now understand how I came to be back in the Doctor’s guardianship, short of a few valuable appendages. All that remains is to recount the rest of my punishment. I do not recall that time with fondness, but there were a great many revelations to be had as I stewed there in a thin puddle of nutritious slime.

Before I write further, there is the day’s draw to consider: the Sightless Scholar, a hungry looking woman clutching a tome, bleeding holes where her eyes once were. I’m sure there are a number of interpretations one can draw from that particular portent. All I can think of is that I lacked everything the Scholar has, with the notable exception of my eyes. I was her opposite in every way, except that our deprivations made us hunger all the more.

There were periods in which I was allowed to do little more than sit there, staring at the blank wall and contemplating the wretched state of my existence. Of course, to add insult to injury (decapitation in fact), the Doctor had Albadore bring me my books and make sure my poor head was kept alive with the proper fluids and electric stimulation. Were I able to speak, I would have apologized for visiting such trauma on his own unfortunate skull, but I doubt it would have counted for much. He could be a spiteful old badger when he felt he was wronged, and he enacted many small, poetic revenges on me for those few days. Leaving the phosphor-lamps on at night, setting me sideways in my tray, so that the nutritive slime lapped at my face, and so forth. Once he even put a tea cozy over me! Tucking me in for the night, so he claimed. I assure you, it is a special kind of Hell to have an itchy, foul-smelling woolen case over your head for all hours of the night, and no recourse for its removal.

But in spite of all the embroidered torments that were administered, there was the occasional escape. As the Doctor mentioned, I had my reading assignments. She created a marvelous device for me, which was a great kindness, though one born of necessity. I doubt it would be a very marketable patent, as there are few decapitated people with a great desire for reading, but there are stranger things I suppose. It resembled a dental brace, with graceful mechanical arms for the turning of pages. By winking I could turn forward or backward through a tome, and by sticking out my tongue I could bring forward the next book.

There were strange, arcane texts that I would not have expected from the Doctor’s pragmatic library: Practical Psycho-Cartography by Professor J.M. Phillicue, Deific Diagnostics by the Baroness of Ilquarx. And, oddly enough, more travel writing than I had ever laid eyes on. Veritable mountains of journals, expedition logs, photographic folios, all the secrets of the wide world that were forbidden to me during my upbringing, laid bare.

I learned of the strange lands beyond the Gateway Principalities, and all their checkered histories: Bloated, decadent Sanguinia, the Inverted Mountains of the South, and the half-sunken Ichthocracy. Beyond the Cavitous Sea the world grew stranger still, where the exiles of Lancully bartered in precious fats, the spirit-ridden Mabaséantes mixed piracy with politics, and the giants of Culahd made love to mountains. I was dazzled, overwhelmed. If I hadn’t already been missing my body, I would have felt lost, dissolved in the beauty of it all.

But why? Why was I allowed to learn about the outside world at last? As the Doctor came close to finishing her repairs to my body, I learned the answers to some of my questions. She appeared one afternoon, looking deprived of sleep and spattered in the black fluids of her medium. She sat in her armchair and regarded me coolly.

“In a few more days, you shall be up and about, free to ruin yourself and embarrass your creator once more. I wish to inform you of the next phase of your training. You have studied the required subjects, and hopefully read your fill, soon you shall practice journaling.”

I must admit that this wasn’t what I was expecting. The writing of diaries didn’t sound particularly glamorous or exciting at the time. I had in mind missions of espionage and intrigue, in which I would shake the very political foundations of the continent like my literary heroes. What better use for my abilities after all?

“You shall go on an expedition, or a journey if you prefer. Your purpose, for the moment, is to investigate a certain phenomenon that has manifested among the various states and polities of the West. You will not be the first to do so, but you will be the first who has been so thoroughly prepared. Your ability to blend in among those you travel among, your wit and cunning, and your remarkable stubbornness towards dying will serve you well in these endeavors.”

Never before had she been so forthright with me. I felt both sated and starved, as a million more questions formed with each of her words. Yet I still cruelly lacked the devices for giving them voice.

“Documentation is of the utmost importance. My colleagues and I do not desire the detached report of a scientist. No, your personal thoughts and observations are essential to your log, otherwise we risk corruption. Your innocence, your creative spark, should protect you from the attentions of the aberration that you study.”

Still she spoke in hints and riddles, to my utter frustration. But now there was hope, now there was a future for me! And I felt it approaching faster than ever before. But must she still be so obtuse? What was this “phenomenon” she spoke of?

“I can tell you only little of what y0u will study, for I know only little, and your ignorance will provide you some protection as well. This world we live in, that you and I were brought into, it has a sickness, an inherent flaw that was present from the moment of its conception. That sickness has a name, an identity. There are those who have followed before us, who tried to learn that name and understand it. They have all been lost, or utterly destroyed. Your purpose, your Great Work, is to finish what they started, to do what they could not. You will identify and diagnose the sickness, so that we address the possibility of curing it.”

Had I lungs, I would have asked: How will I know? How can you tell me so little if this Work is so important? How could anyone identify a flaw in the world itself, if I am part of that same world? Endless questions, esoteric, obscure, so metaphysical as to be practically meaningless. Was I to be a wandering philosopher?

“Initially, your work is to be simple. You will travel, observe, learn the customs of the people you travel among. You will provide a full and comprehensive picture of the places you visit, a holistic diagnosis. The deeper your observations, the more likely it will be that you or I uncover a pattern. And everything you write, you will send back to me for analysis. Together, we will discover a lead, a place where we can start to understand the bigger picture.

“As I mentioned, we are not the first to embark on this endeavor, but all others before us have failed, and the work they left behind for study is scant and fragmentary. When you are ready, you will study what remains of the journals of an old colleague of mine, Dr. Solit Hebdomon, our immediate predecessor for all practical purposes. In his writings lie our first clues. But even without those journals, our course is clear. You will create a faithful travelogue, and write what you see, nothing more.”

It sounded simple enough, though her vague references to destruction, failure, and the seeming impossibility of this ill-defined task made me uneasy. And of course, there was the uncomfortable question of what sort of “attention” I would be drawing with my work. Dr. Swantopelk rose from her chair.

“I must retire now, for it will do neither of us any good if I were to collapse from exhaustion. I no longer have my youth. Like this world we live in, my growing infirmity is showing itself plainly. I bid you good night. Enjoy the simplicity of your current state. Your life will grow infinitely more complicated when I stick your head back on your body.”

She left me in darkness, to contemplate the enormity of all she had told me. I wonder still at what she said. Is it mercy to be left in the dark? Is it better not to know? I would find out in time, no doubt. But there is no way to be a seed in the ground, and not want to sprout forth. Nothing that you are told about your future, or warned of, will remove that desire.

Weird Fiction Part 5


Here’s the next piece of my story cycle. June has been exceedingly busy, and July will be a test of my sanity. I just started grad school, I have to finish a Pathfinder project by the end of the summer, and there’s still a wedding to help plan. Not a lot of time for pleasure writing, but, it’s still pleasurable, so who knows.

Entry the fifth, the 12th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

Here we are. Obviously I survived, in some form or another. Obviously I am now back at Swantopelk Manor, a prisoner once again. Why bother to relate this part of the tale, concerning my upbringing and that first taste of freedom? Why bother when it doesn’t concern itself directly to my Great Work? I shall endeavor to answer this question, but first I must finish the tale, and relate my conversation with the Doctor. I remember it very well indeed, and have listened to the wax cylinder recordings to fill in the gaps in my (usually) crystalline memory.

And for the Demiurge Deck today, we draw The Pillory. The exquisite Sanguine Era illustrations feature a poor fool in stocks, surrounded by disapproving authority figures. Reflecting on the circumstances after my return to the Manor, I believe that lucky bastard had no idea how very fortunate he was.

I awoke. What I first noticed was a numbness below the region of my neck. This was unexpected, as the memories of my escape from the Retrievers flooded back to me. Perhaps having my body slammed against every support structure holding up Harrowgate had not done as much permanent damage as I had thought. Still, I couldn’t move a muscle except for in my facial region. A numbing agent in all likelihood. I focused my eyes from their initial blurriness and looked around. I noted, with a twinge of disappointment, that I was back in the Doctor’s workshop. There were the familiar cluttered tables, the mewling specimens imprisoned in their bell jars, and the gently bubbling vats. I was home.

The Doctor was there as well, sitting in a high-back tufted chair and smoking a damp cigarillo. The look she gave me could have withered the weeds out of our summer garden. There were only two occasions on which she smoked: when she was in deep thought regarding a problem or conundrum, and when she was unspeakably angry. The thought that she could be both at once was unsettling. She spoke in her dry, reedy tone-

You awaken at last. Welcome back to your home, my dear creation. We have had quite the little adventure, but it has now come to an end.”


I tried to speak, but found I could only produce gurgling noises. The numbness I felt was so total and complete that I couldn’t even squeeze a puff of air from my lungs. Dr. Swantopelk smiled in a way that was unpleasant by anyone’s standards.

You will find it is quite impossible to speak. I wanted to have your full undivided attention as we have this little discussion, free of your usual flippant remarks.”

I settled for sticking my tongue out.

You have been a disobedient and willful creature since the moment of your genesis. More so than any other project of mine, you have confounded me with your love of mischief. And now I’ve been forced to use those miserable antiques to apprehend you. I’ve payed out of pocket for the damages you have indirectly caused, and been forced to pen a letter of apology to the Office of Gatekeepers and the Council of Plutocrats in Harrowgate. And poor Albadore had to have stitches! You have humiliated me, as well as yourself, with these wild escapades of yours.”

I rolled my eyes in the most dramatic fashion possible. Even with limited tools at one’s disposal, I find that impressive effects can still be achieved.

I see that my admonishments fall on deaf ears. And I know that your great fall did not damage your hearing mechanisms. Perhaps when you come to understand the nature of the punishment I’ve devised for you, you will learn to be a bit more contrite. Observe.”

The Doctor slowly rose from her chair and walked over to me. She gazed into my eyes, still smiling, and stroked my hair. She then gripped my temples, and lifted me up! At first I thought she had gained some ungodly strength in my absence, but the truth was far more dreadful. She tilted her hands and swung my head down, and with dawning horror I understood why I couldn’t feel my body. My body was nowhere to be seen at all. I had been reduced to my most basic form, my head.

She had been keeping me comfortable (and alive) with a drip solution fed into my cranium through rubber tubes. These now trailed beneath me onto the table, where I had apparently been resting in a petri dish. I gurgled and spat, my eyes likely bulging out of my head with outrage. I imagine this experience would drive a human mad, but remember that I had once been nothing but a head in the Doctor’s laboratory, meant to observe and nothing more. For me this was rather like being transformed into a baby. Still, having enjoyed the use of a body for many years, it was frustrating to say the least. The Doctor chuckled with sadistic delight.

Yes, you understand now, don’t you? This is a consequence of your actions! This is what happens when we are impatient! And look at what has become of that wonderful body I made for you!”

She carried me over to a gurney, where a lumpish form was concealed beneath a dirty sheet. With one hand she pulled it off, and there was my poor frame. It was bruised, battered, and betrayed. One of the arms had been lost, a leg hung on by a mere thread. It looked pale, and everywhere had blackish bruises and sores that oozed a viscous oil of the same color (my “blood” for lack of a better description). I did feel remorse then, not for the Doctor and her silly pride, but for my poor, dear body, which I had subjected to such strain on my adventure.

It’s quite a miracle that we recovered it, and you, at all. When I read the Retrievers’ report I couldn’t quite believe it. You fell, nearly 500 meters. You broke every bone in your body, and then you sank into the Strait. Thankfully what was left of your body went into torpor while the Retrievers fished you out of the mud. The carrion fish did a number on you of course. I’ll have to give you some rudimentary gills for next time…”

This was a positive note, at least she hadn’t decided to destroy me. Then, as if anticipating my thoughts –

I’ve put too much work into you to allow you to go gallivanting around, and ruin your precious body every time!”

She carried me back over to my tray, and dropped me unceremoniously on my side. After a few gurgles of protest, she thought better of it and set me upright once again. Facing me in her chair with steepled fingers, she seemed to be struggling with some sort of problem.


Surely you understand that you would have had your chance to see the world? With your Great Work, I imagine you would have seen more of it than you cared to. But we must follow procedure! There are tests, measurements must be taken! In spite of your arrogance, you must know that you are not ready for all that!”

I regarded her coolly. I was no longer angry with her. I was curious. I wanted to know at last why she had made me. I think she saw that look, that spark of curiosity in my eyes. Had I summoned tears, or had I continued to defy her, it wouldn’t have moved her one bit. But that look of wanting to know, I think it broke her. She removed her spectacles and rubbed her forehead.

Yet, you performed rather well, didn’t you? I’ve received reports from the authorities as well. You impersonated several people, with impressive accuracy. You conducted yourself with foolishness at times, but cunning and charisma as well. I certainly didn’t train you for any of that. And the Retrievers. No one has ever given them the slip, but you certainly gave them a good run, didn’t you? I seem to have crafted a savant.”

It should be known that I have a great weakness for compliments.

Time is against us, always. We never have enough, and now, less than I thought. I grow old, as you can see. And your purpose must be carried out before it’s too late. When I saw you had escaped, I was furious. I wanted to have you destroyed, and to start it all over again. That was foolish, I admit. I am still too human it seems.”

At that she stood, and adopted her old expression of mild annoyance.

I have come to two decisions. The first, as a continuation of your punishment, is that you shall languish here in the laboratory, fully conscious, while I work to repair your body. I will not allow you the comfort of torpor. You will think on your stupidity and rashness, and when I am finished I will re-attach your head, IF, you can convince me that your are remorseful.”

I tried to look as much so as I could, although it’s difficult without body language.

Second, we will enter a new phase of your education. Your Great Work is to begin ahead of schedule, and for that, we must prepare you adequately. You will have reading to do, and when you have the use of your digits again, you will practice your writing. That is all. For now.”

She left, slamming the metal door of the laboratory. I felt many things then: elated, frightened, a bit confused, and desperate to know more. I felt all of those, in the phantom of my gut.

Images courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images

Weird Fiction Part 4


Here’s the next part of my short story cycle (what do I even call this thing!?). I was stuck on this part for awhile, and it’s longer than the other pieces I’ve posted. I was riding high on my creative juices a few months ago, but then I suffered one of those app crashes everyone knows and hates (thanks OpenOffice). I lost a few pages worth of progress, and it was hard to go back to it after that. Eventually I forgot most of what I had written, so I guess that allowed me to dive in again with less grief. The only phrase that survived the original draft was “inconvenienced by an eyeball full of glass.”

Entry the fourth, the 10th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

My draw for today is one of the Tensions, those significant cards which can change the entire meaning of a full reading. While I am not performing the Deck’s proper ceremony, the skin of my neck still crawls at the weight and power of these cards. I have drawn Terrible Joy.

My adventure in Harrowgate soon drew to an ignominious end. The doctor of course had her servants looking for me, probably as soon as I had made my escape. She was an artist of the vats, and rented out a number of her creations to various agencies and interested parties. The infamous Spore Hounds, Jagged Men and Mud Puppets were all of her original design, and she has lived well from the bounty of her genius. One might wonder why she kept poor old Albadore employed at the mansion when she could easily breed her own housekeepers. My personal theory is that she felt obligated to her grandfather, whom she inherited everything from. Pity is something she struggles with, but debts she can certainly respect.

Another part of her considerable inheritance were the Swantopelk Retrievers. Though she was a talented sculptor of flesh in her own right, she preferred the use of these old retainers for her dirty work. I was not the first of her creations to escape from the laboratory, and these old fellows had proved useful countless times in the past. I had never seen them in action until that day, and I shan’t forget it anytime soon.

I regret to write it here, but I must be honest in my account. I had gotten a bit carried away at that Harrowgate pub. That, no doubt, is what led to my discovery. My body is strong and versatile in many ways, but I don’t think the doctor had alcohol in mind when she crafted it. That first sip of forbidden liquor sent thick lightning running through my blood, and I was lost in a joyous fever. It might be accurate to label me as a lightweight.

I remember little of those few hours I spent at the Ebullient Bass, but I know that as I spent more of that unfortunate woman’s money on what I thought were samples (those glasses are rather small after all), I became less concerned with hiding my identity as an escaped laboratory experiment. I joined a group of dockworkers singing an earthy canzonet about a woman’s massive skirts, and what she might have kept concealed within them (the possibilities were nearly endless). We shook the very Bridge with our songs. I played against a blind Billower in a game of Catafalco, and I lost what was left of my stolen money (I’m quite sure he cheated).

Things took a more unfortunate turn for me when I began flirting with a pretty young serving girl. I was quite far gone at this point, and the hospitality of the Bridge-folk only made things worse, as my new friends kept buying me more drinks. She was friendly, and probably used to this sort of attention, but not from one such as I. At the urgings of the dockers I went to compliment her on her smile, and ask if she would accompany me for a promenade. She replied by saying she would be the only one promenading, while I would surely be dragging my feet in the gutter. Taken aback, I asked if she did not fancy my rugged features and strong chin. She replied again that she preferred women.

Alas, I took that heart. I asked one of my stevedore acquaintances to purchase me another mug of ale and a roast mud chicken. In return I would show the tavern the finest party trick they had ever seen. They obliged, while the serving girl went on to ignore me. I wolfed down the food, and began to perform some sloppy exercises. I remember the crowd going quite silent as I changed. My hair once again rolled down my shoulders in blonde curls, I grew some modest breasts and hips, and what I imagined to be a lovely feminine face. I had no mirror to work with, not to mention I was stone drunk. My features probably looked as bruised and misshapen as an old fruit, and I think I forgot to drop my mustache. Still, it was a dramatic enough change to cause quite a stir. Some were shocked and frightened, others amazed. There are of course many singularities in our world, and a shapeshifter is not the strangest of them in Harrowgate, but I made some waves all the same. The serving girl, to her credit, continued to overlook me. I went on to perform some contortions, and imitations of famous city figures (of which I had little knowledge of course).


At that point, someone must have slipped out and told the story of the Metamorphate Cross-Dresser on the streets, and it wasn’t long before there were three new faces in the Ebullient Bass. The first time I saw them I thought they were from the local constabulary, known as the Slews. Yet even in my altered state I could smell something wrong about them, and looking again I saw their features more clearly. A Retriever is a highly specialized creature. They are bred for the hunt, and nothing else. When they are not being called upon, they languish in a certain wardrobe in the Doctor’s mansion, little more than a collection of clicking, quivering parts, all wires, tubes and coppery froth. On assignment, they are grown a fresh coat of rubbery, glistening flesh, to carry forth their machinery. From a distance they might be mistaken for a particularly loathsome-looking human, hunched, misshapen, androgynous. Upon closer inspection the irregularities become glaring. Their false skin is translucent, their eyes bulge like a drunk snail’s, and continually they sweat a fishy syrup from their overworked pores. The Doctor, in the name of decency and appreciation for décor, has them ever-clothed in heavy black greatcoats, and bowler hats. Quite out of style, and out of place, yet I didn’t notice them until too late.

The three of them stood there in the doorway, dinner-plate eyes twitching and button-black pupils clicking back and forth, in uncanny unison. I stood unsteadily upon a dining table, a bottle of Migsby’s 18th in one hand, just starting the first verse of another bawdy lyric. Their eyes suddenly fixed on me with a snap, and the three of them began to quiver like a tuning fork in tapioca. There was a rasp, and the nearest of the vile puppets opened it’s mouth like a great sick frog. There was a blur of gray, and I found that my voice was suddenly constricted. There was an icy pain around my throat, and looking around to face my would-be captors, I saw that the leader had me constrained around the neck with a cold, wet chain, shot forth from its gullet. All voices and susurrations could no longer be heard, the tavern was silent. I barely had time to croak out an “Oh my,” when someone screamed, and I felt myself lifted off both the table and my feet. The Retriever crouched low to the ground like a beast, on all fours, and jerked it’s head sideways, retracting the chain in it’s mouth at the same time. The force was enough to break a man’s neck, but thankfully, I am not a man, and my neck is made of hard-wearing stuff. 

I crashed to the floor while panicked patrons backed away from the violence, and my hands gripped the chain while I was dragged closer to the Retrievers. The other two made ready with manacles and additional chains produced from their coats. I held on to my bottle of wine, as I felt it could be of use. When I was within a good distance from the foremost of them, I made ready for a rapid and painful transformation. As my captor made ready to subdue me, I first gripped my Migsby’s (a fine vintage, it felt criminal to waste it so) and brought up the bottle towards the creature’s eyes with great force and vehemence. It shattered, spraying glass and red nectar all over, but mainly into it’s face.

When one is inconvenienced by an eyeball full of glass, it becomes difficult to stay focused on the goals at hand, but it still had me by the neck (and I doubt the Doctor allowed them to feel pain). It groped at me, but it missed the key moment when I flexed my transformative skills. I expanded my neck to an excruciating degree, causing it to balloon outwards. For a moment I feared the chain would cut into my skin (I could already feel the trickle of blood), but with a clatter I burst the links and was free. The other two lurched forward to finish my arrest, but I was too quick for them. I leaped backwards and kicked over a table. While one picked shards of glass out of it’s ruined eye, the others crouched low and fired their chains. They both missed, but shattered the table. As splintered wood and dust filled the room, I looked about for an escape.

To run past them through the main entrance would be folly, and I couldn’t escape them in the streets. Fighting them was out of the question. My body is a tool of great utility, but it is no weapon. I’d be better off seducing them. I noticed then another point of egress from the Ebullient Bass. It was not a pleasant option, but I found my life was becoming a catalog of dire choices. I began to run.


Rattle, clink, and smash, that was the Retrievers’ song, and I danced to it with leaps, bounds, ducks and rolls. They obliterated the furniture, and more than once brought low an innocent patron as they staggered forward and launched their mancatchers. At one point they caught me about the arm and yanked me backwards again. Without even thinking I squeezed my muscles and shed the arm like a lizards own tail. I would mourn it’s loss later (little did I know that I would have more mourning to do than that). The window was in sight. It overlooked the rafters, and the sea below. I buried any thoughts of death or injury. Pausing just long enough to look at the Retrievers and impart on them a lewd gesture, I leapt through the open window.

Those thoughts of death and injury I had buried quickly resurfaced. I fell freely in exhilaration for a few moments, then realized the architecture of the lower bridge was more complex than I first thought. Hitting the first steel girder was a lesson in both pain and physics. I escaped the inevitability of neither. Vomiting blood and other things I rolled off and fell several stories further, numb and nauseous, but still alive. Girders two through four had me thinking more seriously about my own mortality. Was freedom worth all this? Was it true freedom I had discovered after my escape, or would I forever be dogged by my creator for the rest of my existence? I loved life, but in my rashness I had perhaps closed off many opportunities. I was afraid.

Lower Harrowgate rushed past me, a blur of smoke, steel, and desperate humanity. I settled on the fourth steel girder with a wet crunch (it was slightly wider than the others) and I took stock of myself. I was missing an arm, and had effectively lost a leg to girder three. I have blood, and I have bones, though neither are of the same composition as those with more traditional physiology. The Doctor gave me these things, and fear I may have wasted them. I bled profusely, and had made a mess of my poor skeleton. Terrible Joy, freedom and it’s consequences. The cards always make a bit more sense in hindsight.

But I was even less free than I had thought. Black shapes were moving at the edges of my vision. I thought I was losing consciousness, but they were very real. They were like birds, flying swiftly through the rafters above. Only they weren’t in fact flying. They were swinging. As they descended I saw them more clearly. The Retrievers had their chains extended, and were roping along from girder to girder like daemonic apes. Somehow their hats stayed on in the strong winds of the under-bridge (probably fixed to their heads). The landed in a circle around me, peering down like hateful toads. I could see their mouths open slowly, making ready to complete their mission. They seemed to grin, though I knew this to be an illusion. Within those slack maws I glimpsed a spinning complexity of clockwork and machinery. I was so very weak. I had performed many exertions and complex transformations that day, more than I had ever done before. I felt a flicker of pride at that, but I could barely move.

Their chains shot forth, and all three wrapped around me tightly. Movement was all but impossible. Their was a hiss from all three, and a series of clicks. Their chains became separated from their gullets, and they set to work tying me off with manacles and padlocks. All their equipment dripped a grayish slime, and smelled faintly of fish oil. I struggled like a babe, but only succeeded in pushing myself a few inches. The Retrievers seemed satisfied that I was secure, and threw back their heads for a moment. I heard a squelching and a rattling all at once. I surmised that they must be coiling a new set of chains within their inner mechanisms, if the sound was any indication. Though I was weak, and near death, I had another, rather suicidal idea.

I was quite close to the edge of the girder, and below me was naught but sea-fog and the waters of the Effulgent Strait. I closed my eyes and steeled myself for one last, minor shift in anatomy. The Retrievers continued to re-calibrate, and I slowly, very slowly, extended my neck to the edge of the girder. It only took a few inches before I was able to reach the edge, and close my teeth around the bitter metal. They must have been finishing their business, but I gripped as hard as I could with my jaw, enough to crack a molar, and dragged myself forward with the dregs of my last strength. There was no longer any thought or reflection on this course of action, my body had chosen freedom, and my mind would follow along come death or drowning. I heard the Retrievers stop their ominous rattling, but by then they were too late. A caterpillar in chains, I heaved myself over the side, and fell. I turned in the air, to look up at the under-bridge one last time. The Retrievers shot forth new chains to catch me, but they fell short. Rolling now in free fall, I descended through the ocean mist and saw the dull surface of the water approaching fast. Mercifully, my body failed me at last and I fell into black unconsciousness. Surely I hit the Strait like a meteor, with an impact that should have destroyed me, but I did not awaken even for that.

I do remember afterwards, however, that I dreamed of water.


Images courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Image’s photostream

Our Steps, To the Night


I’ve been wanting to write another game review recently. The Banner Saga is one of my all-time favorites, both in story and in gameplay. The designers who created the first game, Stoic Studios, have at long last put out a sequel, the Banner Saga 2! I pre-ordered it, and then kind of did a marathon run the week that it came out. After waiting two years, it’s kind of hard to eat your dessert in small bites. Now I’m doing a second play-through with my fiancee (we play hot-seat), and my thoughts on the sequels pros and cons are coalescing a little better. My review is going to focus primarily on the story, but I’ll cover the gameplay a bit too.

First off, there are going to be some big *SPOILERS* for those who haven’t played the first entry in the series.

The first chapter of the Banner Saga ends with a climactic battle, and the tragic death of one of two central characters. That character then becomes the leader of the first game’s caravan in TBS2. This makes at least two playthroughs kind of mandatory, because your choice of protagonist makes for a very different experience each time. So, you have Rook’s story, and Alette’s. With old man Rook, the story is more about the grieving process, and trying to find other reasons to go on with your journey. You get to deepen your relationship with other characters like Iver and Oddleif, and continue to be a leader (and renowned hero) in the eyes of your caravan. *MORE SPOILERS* My favorite moments of Rook’s story (in highlight-able text): the dream conversation in the forest, saying goodbye to Iver in Fiskivik, the Godstone Lauga (finally!!!).

So if Rook’s story is about being a hero trying to find his way after losing the reason to fight, Alette’s is about becoming that hero, and filling in her father’s shoes. A lot of the characters who are present for Rook function as either emotional support, or backstabbing enemies who can’t be trusted. These characters maintain that role for Alette, but also play the part of guides and teachers. It’s up to you, as Alette, to choose who you’ll listen to and allow to influence your journey. I still haven’t finished Alette’s story, but if the young heroes’ tale is more your kind of thing, then I would recommend choosing her as your first main character.


The third protagonist (although in any game he would be the second) is an interesting new character who was introduced at the very end of the last game, Bolverk. This broken-horned Varl berserker is the leader of the Ravens, an amoral, hard-bitten pack of mercenaries who serve the highest bidder. The Ravens represent their own caravan separate from the main one, that split to follow a different route early in the game. Bolverk’s chapters feel very different, since you’re a cutthroat mercenary and you have to keep your warriors in line. Your choices tend to be much more morally gray, and sometimes downright despicable. But there are things that Bolverk cares about, and as I came to understand those things, I felt more of a connection with him and his Ravens. He values keeping his promises, maintaining the reputation of his band, and he cares about his men (although he would never reveal that to them).


Most compelling of all for me was the complicated relationship with his second-in-command, Folka. She is an all-around great character for so many reasons. First, she’s a shieldmaiden, and that’s badass. Second, she provides the moral and human element to Bolverk’s story, which would otherwise be kind of bleak and hard to empathize with. She’s the one who questions your orders and decisions, she’s the one who keeps asking you about your feelings (faen humans), and when things start to change for Bolverk later in the game, she’s the one who worries about you when no-one else does. And in spite of all that tenderness and vulnerability, she’s still an incredibly competent warrior and leader, who never flinches or hesitates when things are tough. It’s beautiful to me because Bolverk is kind of a monster in some ways (and for the record, he is not actually human), yet she clearly cares about him. She sees the person inside the beast that he usually presents to the world, and recognizes his pain and loneliness. She herself is no stranger to those things, so he’s kind of like her perfect soulmate. Except that he’s from an all-male race of brooding giants who don’t understand relationships and can’t reproduce, so… there’s that.

This is clearly a story where the greatest strength is in the characters, but I loved the twists and turns of the ongoing plot, which concerns the end of the world, the dangers of magic, and a really big snake. We get to see new parts of the setting that were referenced in the previous game, and meet some new characters, the Horseborn (centaurs!). I loved most of the story, and I found most of it really compelling, but there were some holes here and there. I will list them briefly *MORE SPOILERS* –

  • While I loved the Horseborn, I wish I could have learned more about what was actually going on with them. The Horseborn in your caravan only barely speak your language, so you don’t learn that much about them. You get the sense that their race is very fractious and war-like, and they’re probably dealing with the same upheavals in the world that everyone else is, but you really have to read into things to get that part of the plot. Also, their role in the ending was kind of confusing.
  • The ending itself is definitely going to be tough for some people to swallow. I personally thought it was cool, but they introduce a lot of ideas and developments rather suddenly, and you’re left with some big questions. People you thought were friends turn out to be enemies (I think?) or at least a source for complications. The ending probably would have felt a little less arbitrary if they had spent more time exploring the characters of Juno and Eyvind, who (of course) play a really important part in everything.
  • Also on the subject of the ending, there isn’t really a proper final boss fight, like there was in TBS1 against Bellower. This might feel like a let-down for some players. My guess is they felt like Bellower’s legendary difficulty was too much, and didn’t want to go through all the fan rage with another really tough boss. Personally, I only found Bellower to be unfairly tough on Hard mode, but maybe I was just lucky.

Golly, I’ve spent this entire post talking about story (hopefully that tells you something). I found the gameplay to be excellent, but not that different from the first. It’s overall easier, because they’ve tweaked the “Renown” economy from the first game. While there are fewer fights (and no longer an option to go into a second round), you get WAY more renown for each one, and I never felt like I had a shortage like I usually did in the last game. You have more choices in leveling your characters (the cap has gone up to 10), and can now choose a second ability from several options, depending on their class. The caravan mechanics are also a bit different, and generally a lot easier. Clansmen are no longer useless food vacuums, as they will forage periodically to add to your supplies. You can also train them to fight as warriors, independent of story events. The “War” events are gone, so I wasn’t even entirely sure what the point of warriors and varl was, other than to protect the clansmen in story events. But those don’t happen often enough for it to be possible to lose the entire caravan, so IDK (shrug). I didn’t fall in love with the first game for its quasi-Oregon Trail gameplay, so I don’t care that much if it doesn’t gel perfectly. 

There’s a bunch of new characters, and thus new classes, and they all try to do something interesting and unique. I liked them all for the most part, but there’s a few disclaimers here. First off, many of the characters in Bolverk’s story are awesome, but they’re kind of hard to use effectively. Bolverk himself is great, but mainly because he hits twice. His abilities just don’t come in handy very often, and there’s also a chance that he’ll attack allies too (he is a berserk after all). Many of the new characters are like this, good in terms of stats, but hard to use the way they’re intended. The new “Skald” characters are really neat, but I hardly ever used them for this reason. My favorite newbies on the battlefield were the Horseborn, who make up for their lack of story flavor with being super-great fighters. In particular, the female javelin-throwers were amazing, and skyrocketed to level 10 before anyone else did. That’s all I really care to say about game-play, except for this; you can get a bear, his name is Spinegrinder, and I love him. He’s kind of a secret character, but I’ll give you all a hint for finding him. You’ll need Eirik from the first game, and when you reach the land of the angry bog-people, don’t worry about stomping all over their stupid traditions.

So overall, I found the Banner Saga 2 to be an excellent title, and a worthy successor to the original. An incredibly gripping story of war, community in exile, and the end-times, combined with a deep cast of characters, will leave you aching for the final installment of the epic trilogy. What’s two years to Banner Saga fans? We learn to endure, in longing and sorrow. Onward!


Weird Fiction Part 3

Utkin & Brodsky 2

And now, the last part of my short story. This brings us, more or less, up to the point at which I’ve stopped writing. So if I post more of the Creature’s journal entries, it will be new territory for him and I.

Entry the third, the 7th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

I have risen early and foregone my exercises, much to Dr. Swantopelk’s annoyance. Surely the woman understands that for me to write is essential, on the eave of my journey! She drew from the Deck this time, shoving the card in my face. As if that would help. Still, the daily draw is once again a portentous one, The Broken Portal. I say that a door with a broken hinge is still a door, just don’t slam it on your way out.

All that aside, I was getting to the good part. I had successfully escaped from my confinement with the doctor, and fainaigued my way onto a transport steamer. Now I approached the Great Bridge of Harrowgate. I had read often of this marvelous city, but was not allowed to view any pictures.

The doctor was curiously withholding on certain subjects, and one of them was imagery, of any kind. I was never allowed to see paintings, sketches, or photographs of any of the places I read about. My books were also lacking in descriptions of common people and their customs. I assumed the doctor had her reasons, and she made up for it by giving me more fiction and fantasies than I could consume, but I never stopped wondering at these things.

In all that time, I had thought that the bridge was but a monument through which one entered the city. I discovered on the deck of that steamer that I was mistaken. The bridge was the city. It was an ancient structure, over 600 meters in height, and perhaps 200 meters in width. I remember that the ancient Eucrasians had it built, or so the prevailing theory went. It could have been someone older, and more inhuman. I had no trouble believing that this structure was beyond humans to conceive, as we came ever closer.

It had a frame of some strange, reddish metal. The architecture of many civilizations had been built into that frame, with the graceful black spires of the Gatekeepers on the bridge itself. There was little negative space left on the bridge after all these centuries. Many had built their homes and apartments into the scaffolds. I noticed too that the houses, factories and municipal buildings no longer stayed confined to the bridge, but spilled over onto either side of the Effulgent Strait, the city bleeding into the forests of Thornheim and the industrious townships of Billows. But it was one country now, and this was the gate. That struck me suddenly, how it was both a bridge and a gate, which controlled entry into the Sea of Eyes. A city and an artifact, an entity that was many things, and nothing definable at the same time. An entity much like myself.

I grew impatient to explore. I would disappear into the streets and scaffolding of Harrowgate, and return to the doctor, along with her lessons and experiments, when it so pleased me. The ferry finally docked and the passengers and I jostled each other onto a waiting platform. This was rigged up to some complicated machinery with cables, and lifted our platform upwards. As we rose, I caught glimpses of the Rafterhoods, the slums where those unfortunates who couldn’t afford the limited space of the bridge surface lived in squalor. Along with these were the Dunworks, the shipyards that lowered and raised their commissions with colossal cranes. They rained sparks and spewed black viscosities into the water below.

Soon enough we came to the surface, and I gripped the railing in fear and excitement as the wind whipped my hair (which now was short, wavy and brown). I stood on the Grand Mese, the road through the top of the bridge, connecting the Principalities in their commerce. I could see the palaces and High Offices of the Gatekeepers, those mysterious plutocrats who ruled the city, and some say the whole continent. Beyond was the Yawning Bay, always curtained in mist, and on the other side the Sea of Eyes, which glittered with the light of the fattened sun. I had never been so high up, and I was seized by momentary vertigo. The ships and steamers below were now like toys, and the city that spilled out onto either side of me looked like a black, smoking woodpile.

I spent some time walking the Grande Mese, being as careful as I could to avoid the steam-cars and the horse-drawn curricles. There were all manner of folk traveling in either lane, pilgrims, merchants, and simple people no doubt returning home from their labors. From the north there came Billowers, Tatterfolk of all different stripes and colors, little Terceans scuttling along on business for their Queen, and a few Melancholian Aesthetocrats dressed in black and indigo. In the other lane coming from the south across from me, I saw extravagant Thornings, mud-stained Vetchmen, and an imperious Ichthyan with his retinue of glass-domed armigers.

I must have looked quite the bumpkin, but I could not conceal my awe. Here was a kaleidoscope of images, sounds and smells. So much more than the doctor had ever allowed me to taste in the laboratory. I was free, uncontrolled, I wanted to let my skin free to dance in the street, while my bones and innards roiled on the pavement screaming for joy. Yet even in that moment of triumph, I knew that I shouldn’t be too indiscreet. If I revealed any oddness about myself, I might be discovered by the authorities and dragged back to the doctor before I was ready. After some time seeing the sights on the Grand Mese, I took a public elevator to one of the Rafterhoods. There was something I had been itching to try, and I guessed that I would have more luck finding what I sought in darker corners.

So many of my stories, like the capers of Mad Poller and Whistlejack, involved the characters having social interactions in a pub, and imbibing generous amounts of alcohol. I was never allowed a drop of drink when I lived with the doctor, even at parties, and now I was determined to try some. In retrospect, this was the very height of foolishness. If I wished to continue being in control of the course of my life, I needed to be in control of my faculties, but alas, I hungered too much for new sensations.

I departed from another creaking elevator into the smirched alleys of the Rafterhoods, eagerly searching out a drinking hole. I came across a suitably hoary establishment called the Ebullient Bass, marked with the simple image of a gutted fish. Men, and other things, spilled out into the street, their faces jolly, or nauseated, but frequently both. This was exactly what I had sought. I sidled in through a portal framed in pipes, and sat before the barkeep. The interior was red and smoky, drowning in bustle and noise. I didn’t know what to order, and more importantly I didn’t have any money to do it. I quickly left the bar and retreated into the shadows, before I drew the publican’s suspicion.

I had used my abilities to acquire what I needed on the steamboat, but that had attracted the most unpleasant attentions. Now I opted for a subtler approach. I spied a woman laughing and carrying on in a corner booth, her many ruffled skirts beyond understanding, and her hair stacked to the ceiling like a bird’s fortress. She wore a bag that surely bulged with treasures, and I had a thrilling idea of how to explore it’s contents. I concealed my fingers in my coat, and stretched them back and forth, repeatedly, until they lengthened and coiled about like snakes. I placed myself near the woman, but not too near, and let my slithering digits creep down to the floor, and into her purse. It took many attempts, as the woman kept many hairbrushes, and assorted feminutiae near the top, but soon I had a handful of greasy, wrinkled bills.

I returned to the good boniface with a smile cracking my face. I asked for something strong and fiery, and he (or possibly she, the form was lumpy and ambiguous) shrugged and poured me a glass of something brown and granular. I could swear that something swam in the depths of the glass, unaware of the world around it. I decided to open it’s world, and tipped it back down my throat.

What occurred afterward is best left to another entry in this journal. I have not the strength to continue in any case.

Artwork: Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin

Weird Fiction Part 2

Utkin & Brodsky 1

Here is the next installment of my short story. The Creature escapes from the home of his creator to explore the wider world, and get into some mischief.

Entry the second, the 6th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

After a round of calisthenics in this bracing winter weather, and a few body-molding exercises, I am once again in the right mind to practice my journaling again. The Demiurge Deck has granted me the Flushed Face. The Face on the card does not smile, I wonder what causes it to flush so?

I had last left off with my escape from Dr. Swantopelk’s laboratory. I feel before I continue on that thread, I should explain a few things about my Great Work. At the time, I had only received the vaguest hints that the doctor had created me for any concrete purpose. I knew that I was not the first of her living, self-aware creations, and I may not be the last. I had many theories about why I was made, but none of them could be confirmed. I thought that by seeing more of the outside world, and understanding the lives of natural beings, I could make more sense of this riddle. In fact my adventures would result in my learning of the Great Work, but not in the way that I suspected.

I worked my way through dense woods and fields, avoiding Suet Flies and the hungry Woolbeasts. Overland travel has never been practical or safe, with the aggressive wildlife and persistent growths, and so it was to my benefit that few were walking the overgrown paths. I would look up and occasionally see a misshapen cargo blimp staggering on it’s way towards the city. I doubt that any blimp operator would think twice at seeing me cut through the wild land, but paranoia and ignorance ruled me. I shaped myself to look like the earthiest, hairiest yeoman I could imagine from my books, and kept to the undergrowth.

I eventually arrived at a fishing village called Blumderry, with transport steamers bringing traffic to the city. I attempted to make myself look a bit more civilized. I was still wearing Albadore’s well-pressed uniform, but it was now somewhat tattered and the proliferant lichens of the woods had already started to grow on my arms and shoulders. No one was suspicious however, and I was able to make my way through town unhindered.

I found Blumderry quite fascinating. The buildings were ancient brickwork, and rotting wooden tenements all crowding together. In a place that has been civilized for some time, the voracious lichens and fungi will only grown on the outskirts. There were working folk hauling in their catch of Greater Salt Shrimp, an old man playing the bellow-box on a stool and singing a bawdy tune. I even saw my first Ichthyan, wearing a frilly pink dress, and having her scales polished at a salon. I couldn’t stay and enjoy the sights for long, I knew the doctor had likely discovered my escape, and sent her family’s Retrievers after me. And besides, even greater sights awaited me in Harrowgate, the greatest city in the world. I had no reason to dawdle, but I realized I was unequipped for a journey by boat.

I remembered that people in the outside world made use of currency for trade and transactions, and in my haste I hadn’t thought to steal any from the mansion. And no, I didn’t feel guilt at having the thought! Guilt is a difficult emotion for me to process first of all, and I knew the absence of a few ducats wouldn’t cause the doctor to lose sleep. Anyway, I was penniless, and I wondered how I would buy passage on a steamer. I had to think of something quick, as the next ferry was ready to leave, and I may have been trapped in that village for some time.

I remembered my novels of romance and intrigue, namely the Adventures of Madame Velderine and her Lewd Monacle, and decided I could try out seduction as a means of passage. I went into a clearly abandoned home, where I found a tall, cracked mirror. I had to filch a meat pie from a bakery (that I did feel rather guilty about) to fuel a transformation, and then got to work. Within a half-hour I had removed my hirsuteness and resembled a comely young female, slender and blonde. I remembered from my stories that men preferred females with large mammary glands, lips, and bottoms. I didn’t have nearly enough calories burned to grow more fat or muscle, but I improvised by inflating some air-sacs in the breasts. Soon they ballooned outwards rather nicely, and bounced a bit. I was surely irresistible. After rifling through more abandoned houses (the village was full of them, I suppose the local economy had seen better days), I found a tattered old gown to wear, and a broken suitcase. Disguises would surely be useful.

I marched down the main street to the ferry, my new mammaries bouncing so much I could hardly see ahead of me. I stood in line with the rest, trying to look like I fit in. I drew quite a few stares, which I took as a good sign. When I reached the end of the queue, where a mustachioed chaperon took tickets and identification, I adjusted my gown (which was torn in a few strategic places), and put on a look of confusion and distress. I told him that I was a seamstress looking for work in the city, and a scowling rake had made off with my papers, money, and my best clothes. Perhaps I was laying it on a bit too thick, but my my looks did what my words could not. The chaperon, filthy pig that he was, took immediate pity on me and ushered me into a first class suite. He sat me down and offered me a mug of hot bokum. It was the first time I had tried the spicy elixir of the Mabase, and I found it much to my liking.

Still, at that point it was an unfortunate distraction, as that ape of a chaperon tried to force himself on me! His face was all bristles and reeked of shellfish, he pinned me to the wall and ran his vile tongue over my face. I understood little of sex then, and was caught quite off guard. I protested, and gave him a slap to remember. Undeterred, he responded by groping my chest, so hard did he squeeze me that there was a sudden pop, followed by a gentle hiss. It was his turn to be caught off guard, and I took the opportunity to break my mug over his meat-slab of a head. When I was assured he was unconscious, I stripped the scoundrel and thoroughly tied him up in bedsheets. Since my previous disguise was ruined, one breast hanging like a wrinkled gunnysack, I made use of his uniform. His appearance was not to my liking, so I altered myself to resemble a character from one of my romances, since I was apparently now living in one (albeit one poorly plotted).

I made myself scarce for the rest of that voyage, looking busy on the fore-deck, and avoiding other crewmen. The experience with the chaperon was unnerving, but not unexpected. I knew that those who included seduction in their arsenal often faced such hazards. Still, I had done well for him, and my prize lay ahead, the Grand City of Harrowgate! It rose just over the horizon, first it’s baroque towers, and then the arch of the Great Bridge itself, straddling the Effulgent Strait.

Though I ache to continue the story of my adventure, and describe the wonders of that dream city, I grow weary once more. I should save my strength, and tend to my muse, for another entry. In that way I will be able to give Harrowgate true justice with my words.

Artwork: Town Bridge by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin


If Not Now, Then When? If Not You, Then Who?

Unknown Armies

THE TIME IS NOW. One of my favorite RPG’s, the occult horror classic Unknown Armies, is on Kickstarter, and there’s only 4 days left! I should probably mention that it’s hit 500% of it’s original funding goal, so y’know, it’s doing fine. But I want to geek out about it because it is such a good game, and I’m unspeakably happy that it’s getting more attention and love right now.

The Kickstarter is for the 3rd edition of the game. It was originally released in 1998, and now it’s experiencing a revival. The new edition will be released as 3 core books, with an additional two setting books released as stretch goals. I’m feeling slightly grumbly about the multiple books (cuz I’m poor), but also excited that fans will be getting so much material. The project is currently being helmed by Greg Stolze, an incredibly talented writer and game designer who was one of the two geniuses behind the original game. He has since gone on to create the One-Roll Engine, and several awesome story games.

This man is, in my opinion, the finest writer to ever work in tabletop games, period. He writes excellent fiction and fluff, but his real (and subtle) talent lies in writing text for the rules. Reading the rules for an RPG can sometimes be a slog. They’re often dry and abstract, but unfortunately they’re the most important part to study if you’re the GM. Stolze writes rules in a clear, conversational style that is always easy to grok, and often as much fun as learning about the world. Reading a rule book by Greg Stolze actually makes me excited.

So, one may ask, what makes this particular game so special? What is it even about!? The setting is the modern era, mainly in the USA. It focuses on a loose, disorganized “Occult Underground,” made up of weirdos and outcasts who compete for power and influence. Some of the Underground is represented by cabals of mystically aware people, or sometimes by crazy loners known as “Dukes.” In a typical game, you have a group of people who are exploring their own personal paths to power (and usually, corruption and insanity), and also coming into conflict with others who want the same thing.

It’s special because of it’s themes and influences, and it also features well-designed rules combined with a fun and unique system for magick (note the “k”).

  • While most urban fantasy or occult horror settings feature traditional vampires, werewolves, and hermetic-style mages, UA draws influence from different genres. David Lynch, James Ellroy, and Tim Powers have all been sited as influences. While Grant Morrison or Robert Anton Wilson have not been specifically mentioned by the authors, those writers also do a good job of evoking the weirdness of the setting.
  • A central theme is human responsibility. There are no ancient alien gods, no shadowy monster societies that secretly rule the world. It’s all just humans. We are the monsters, we are the ones responsible for the world we live in, and we’re the only ones who can change it. I like the freedom and power this gives to players in the narrative, and the way it affects world-building.
  • The game runs on a pared-down percentile dice system. Think Call of Cthulhu, but much easier to learn and play with.
  • Magick comes in several different forms, but it follows a “postmodern” theme (syncretic, self-conscious, rebellious, deliberately different). My favorite are the “adepts,” who are so obsessed with a particular worldview that they can change reality. Every adept has a school, like Entropomancy (chaos magick), or Dipsomancy (alcohol magick), a set of ritual behaviors that help them gather power (for the above examples, taking crazy risks and getting drunk), and taboos that they must avoid to hold on to their power. These are built around the idea of risk and consequence. On the quest for power, you are going to take risks, and most likely lose a part of yourself along the way.
  • There are lots of other things that make the game unique and well-recommended, including a very influential system for representing and roleplaying stress and mental illness, brutal and realistic combat, and fast-and-loose character creation.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and if you’re interested in the Kickstarter, jump on board while you can. Better late than never after all!

(He said, writing this post at the absolute last second).