Shadows in Plato’s Cave

eggknightI had a very peculiar dream last night. I’m normally a pretty sound sleeper, and thus don’t usually remember my dreams very well, but this one impressed itself on my brain… and I think I remember it vividly because I was having it right before I woke up. Now, I’m not a big one for dream interpretation. I subscribe to Scrooge’s theory that dreams are more of an indication of restless sleep than anything else (“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato,” said Scrooge to Marley in ‘A Christmas Carol.’). Perhaps dreams are just a series of images, sounds and sensations flashing through our sleeping brains and we string them together into some sort of narrative afterwards, creating a pattern out of the random firing of mental pistons. In any case, dreams seem like the gift of the subconscious. I enjoy their illogic.

Last night’s dream started with me attempting to attend some sort of medieval recreation event. No, I’m not a re-enactor of any sort, so this didn’t seem like something I would do — but as far as I remember, that was the scenario. In order to join the event, one had to sign up at various tables, fill out forms and pay $127.00 (my dreams are very reasonably priced!). For this price, we were guaranteed a chance to ‘live life as a medieval person might have.’ We would start off as peasants, working on a farm, and then we would be taught to make armor and weapons and be allowed to live as knights. Near the end of the event, we would take part in a battle. And the place was run a bit like a haunted house or an assembly line— while the second group was experiencing ‘village life,’ the first group would be making their armor and becoming knights. It wasn’t really clear to me how long the process of going from peasant to knight took — I was under the general impression it took about an afternoon, but it was a dream, so everything was kind of fuzzy.

The ‘sign up’ event was fairly complicated and required that one fill out several forms at different stations. All of this took place in a large, convention-center like building with cast concrete walls, deep red carpet and indirect lighting. I was supposed to experience medieval life with some friends (they were non-specific friends — this was a dream, after all) but got separated from them in registration. Young kids kept getting in line ahead of me and when it was their turn to deal with whatever person we were all standing in line to speak to, they would just stand with their mouths open, paralyzed with indecision, further gumming up the process.

I finally got through the lines and was given my peasant’s smock and a straw hat which was much too small for my head and looked too much like a cowboy hat to convince me it was properly ‘medieval.’ I asked the costumer if there were any larger hats and she shook her head. I got dressed and hurried off to hope to join up with my group of fellow peasants. I don’t know what I did with my street clothes. Perhaps I left them on the floor of the convention center.

I exited the convention hall and found myself outdoors, in an area where participants who were dressed as knights milled about in improbable armor. One particularly memorable specimen was wearing plate armor that looked like it had been made of triangular bits of metal bolted together to form a giant metal egg that protected the body and articulated arm and leg coverings that looked like sections of stove pipe. Others had some form of scale armor that looked like randomly shaped metal plaques bolted to a coat. There were tents everywhere. To one side, other students of the medieval experience labored at anvils with hammers, creating their weapons and armor so they could join the ranks of knighthood. In the distance I could see pennants flapping in the breeze and hear trumpets blaring as two large groups of ‘knights’ approached each other with weapons in hand — obviously these were participants who were engaging in their final event; the grand battle that was supposed to be the capstone of the medieval re-enactment. I was a mere peon amid these powerful nobles, however, and wanted to get among my own kind. I hurried off to join the peasants.

I could see the ‘village’ from across a field and ran towards it. As I approached, it became obvious that the village was neither as large nor as impressive as it first appeared. While the buildings looked correct from a distance, as I got closer I could see that they were made from cast concrete and plywood rather than cut stone and wattle-and-daub. They were also sized incorrectly; more like children’s play houses than full sized dwellings. Unfortunately, I had approached them from the wrong side and a pond lay between me and the village. Rather than waste time going around it, I hiked up my smock and began to wade through the pond, heading towards an inviting looking stairway at the water’s edge that led into a monastery complete with a concrete cloister and some decidedly non-period looking iron railings that looked straight out of The Home Depot.

The water was deeper than I thought and soon I was swimming the pond/moat. I reached the iron railing and managed to grab it but suddenly I was exhausted. Try as I might, I just couldn’t haul myself out of the water; it held me in place like glue or I was suddenly afflicted with weakness. I could hear my fellow peasants within the village and monastery, talking to each other, but I couldn’t move a muscle. Perhaps this was because I was waking up. I found myself in my bedroom, in my bed. “What a strange dream,” I thought as I awoke.


Brazen Bull and amazing rocks

brazen bull

I found this picture of a saint (Saint Antipas, probably the patron saint of appetizers) being roasted alive in a ‘brazen bull’ / fondue pot on Wikipedia. The way the saint is popping up out of the bull-bowl like a cartoon character in a cannibal’s cauldron is somewhat amusing, but what is really amazing are those cubist mountains in the background… I love those. I’m going to need to learn to paint like a Greek or Russian monk.


Hey, kids, either learn to write well or this monster will kill you…

Just kidding. I’m working on a poster for a school writing program featuring a ‘dragon’ character (who is the school mascot) and was asked to provide and old-time D&D style lizard (red) breathing fire and waving a scroll and a quill pen around. The final poster will be a tall rectangle; the lower half will be bright yellow with bold text on the bottom telling the kids what they have to do or else the dragon will immolate them (“immolate” is a good vocabulary word, kids, and will appear on the next test). Other text will appear in the scroll and there will be a big headline in the black space on top that the kids will hopefully be able to read, etc.



It’s been a long haul to get to this point, but I’m pretty pleased with the result. The ‘sample images’ I was given to draw from included the old TSR “basic box” that I remember so fondly from my childhood. Hopefully the kids will like it.

Jack Vance R.I.P.

cugelAll three people who read this blog probably already know that Jack Vance, author of The Dying Earth stories and so much more, died last month at the ripe old age of 96. If you are looking for the facts, the LA times can tell you what you need to know.

The first Vance book I remember reading was “The Gray Prince.” I remember finding the cultures Vance described as very interesting, and after I started reading the Dying Earth stories, I began to understand that Vance wasn’t just another science fiction/fantasy author; I think he was a social commentator in the style of Swift or Twain. In “The Gray Prince,” Vance presents us with fictional world in which numerous intelligent species claim to be the original inhabitants with a moral claim to primacy; by the end, we discover that nearly all of the sentient races of the world are the descendents of colonists who have been practicing generations of self deception and selective editing of their own history and the real ‘original inhabitants’ are the ‘morphotes,’ a race of bisexual savages that all the other species have previously agreed to collectively look down upon as utterly degenerate. Stories like Rhialto the Marvelous or the Cugel saga seem (at least to me) to have more in common with Twain’s “Roughing It” or Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” than the offerings from George R.R. Martin or other science fiction/fantasy genre authors. Maybe that’s why Vance isn’t as well known as most of his contemporaries; with it’s social satire elements, Vance’s work might have been too ‘highbrow’ for the science fiction and fantasy crowd who wanted pure escapist fiction, but, since it was also associated with the pulps genre fiction, it was too ‘lowbrow’ for the academic world. I don’t know if lacking the household name status of some of his near contemporaries irked Vance; to his credit, he didn’t seem to try to change his style or his content to pitch his fiction to a wider audience.

But I think Vance was, to a large extent, a satirist who happened to work in sci-fi/fantasy. Consider this humorous exchange from Vance’s “Cugel’s Saga:”

“The folk are peculiar in many ways,” said Erwig. “They preen themselves upon the gentility of their habits, yet they refuse to whitewash their hair, and they are slack in their religious observances. For instance, they make obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand, not on the buttock, but on the abdomen, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What are your own views?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method carries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views!”

I also love Vance’s baroque prose and imagery. In any case, it’s been a while since I have read any Vance; now might be the perfect time to dig out some of his books and read them again.

Helena Zmatlíková on Monster Brains

This cool-as-hell illustration (and others) appeared recently on one of my favorite sites, Monster Brains. The artist is Helena Zmatlíková. Visit Aeron Alfrey’s Monster Brains for more

7 heads and 3 eyes on each head = 21 eyes.

Wizards does maps right!

My friend Jon C. just sent me links to these utterly fantastic narrative maps of Tomb of Horrors and White Plume Mountain made by an artist working for Wizards of the Coast. Its been decades since I adventured within these classics, but I was surprised at how much I remembered — White Plume Mountain, in particular, made a big impression… especially that room with the swinging chain platforms over the pit of boiling mud.

I don’t know if this sort of map would be practical for every purpose, but I love the 3d representation and the way you instantly understand the relationship between the different heights/depths on this kind of cut-away map. But I’ve always loved cut-away views of buildings, ships, etc. Witness my maps from Aldeboran that I posted in 2011. Not pretty or precise, but you get a sense of how the levels fit together (edit: I intended to say my maps from Tana Tak were not pretty — I think the Wizards maps below are plenty pretty).

Click images to see bigger:


Puffer Fish and Plant Fiber Armor

I was reading about Nauru and found this fascinating picture of a Nauruan warrior from around 1880:

His armor appears to be woven from some sort of coaconut fiber or jute and his helmet is made from a puffer fish. I found another picture of the type of helmet:

And someone in a museum looking at another example of the armor — look at the spear/sword weapon:
And a couple other examples of armor made from plant fibers. I really like the helmet on the one on the left:
And then, finally, this picture… which is probably not from some Native Pacific culture but is possibly some weirdo Euro bondage gear… or maybe a suit for protection from weasels of something:



A while back, Grognardia was working on collecting a book of fantasy gods made from descriptions and illustrations contributed by the masses which was to be called ‘Petty Gods’— a tribute to the old “Unknown Gods” published back in the day by Judge’s Guild (I still have my copy of ‘Unknown Gods’ squirreled away). At some point, the project stalled and Grognardia retreated from the public scene. Most people thought it was a shame because the contributor work had all been all or mostly done — someone said it just needed layout and editing and the book was just in limbo (which reminds me — I have several things to finish, but that’s another subject for another post).

Greg “Gorgonmilk” has been working on getting the stalled ‘Petty Gods’ book back up and running. To that end, Greg started trying to get in touch with the original contributers and re-assemble the book (or a close facsimile thereof)… and new suggestions for godlings, godlets and other divine beings began pouring in. Which is great because:
a) The ‘Petty Gods’ book was so far along that letting it stall seems a shame,
b) Rather than just pissing and moaning, Greg grabbed the gorgon by the horns and milked it! He got off his ass and did something… which is something we need more of in this world.

Now it seems that the original manuscript for Petty Gods has been discovered and released via free PDF! Get it from GORGONMILK here! The new contributions will apparently be assembled into another volume! It’s an Easter miracle! Thank the Rabbit God! Praise his chocolate eggs! And thanks to Gorgonmilk for lighting the fire that made it happen.

I didn’t get in on Petty Gods 1, but will contribute to the 2nd one. I have some illustrations of some divine beings based on an Arthur Maachen story (written up by Geoffrey McKinney) that I just finished (they need to be scanned) and am trying to contribute my own Petty God… a (very) minor deity named ‘Pafflum’ from my own Aldeboran campaign.

The above picture is a scene from some play about Mormonism. I think those are the ancient ‘Lamanites.’ Looks like something that would happen on Aldeboran. Although on Aldeboran it would probably involve a lot more stabbing and head chopping.

"The Dungeon Master" Fiction in the New Yorker

“I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.”

The above quote is from a Sam Lipsyte short story called ‘The Dungeon Master’ about kids who play D&D.  I predict that most of the online D&D community would hate it but I liked it. Sort of like a slightly less pessimistic Flannery O’Conner writes about kids playing D&D — or something like that.

Read more:

It’s less about D&D and more about being a teenager and how teenagers can be really shitty to one another yet still think of these people who they are shitty to (or who are shitty to them) as ‘friends.’ Perhaps the turning point between ‘teenagerism’ and ‘adulthood’ is when we say, “Why do I still want to hang out with X? X always acts like a douchebag! I’m going to stop spending time with him.”

I know some people are going to bitch up a storm about some detail or another that was ‘wrong’ in the story (“Can of strawberry milk? Strawberry milk doesn’t come in cans! Totally badwrong writing! The author completely destoyed my sense of immersion with that strawberry milk in cans bullshit!“). Mostly they are going to hate the story because the characters in it are misfits. I kind of think they will be missing the point of the story, but, well, whatever.

Please try to enjoy.

Look at this:

I was looking at the back endpaper of my DCC RPG book (published by Goodman Games) and just feasting my eyes on this work by Peter Mullen:

I know it’s going to make me sound like a complete suck-up, but Mullen is, in my opinion, the best artist working in art for RPGs today.  His pictures just blow me away with their dark humor and the way in which Mullen manages to squeeze 100 different stories into the one panel.  It reminds me of many of Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings:

When I was a kid, we had a lot of ‘picture books’ (many of which were pretty old, dating back to the 50s or earlier).  My favorites were the ones with drawings that were like ‘panoramas,’ broad views with dozens (or more) small dramas all taking place in one picture, so your eye can wander around and take in all the different interactions taking place within the single panel.  Like a ‘Where’s Waldo,” there was no ‘central theme’ or ‘focal point’ in these darwings.  The one panel is a collection of little vignettes; the visial equivalent of a puzzle with a lot of different pieces that all add up to a whole. 

In the case of Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” (below), it’s a social critique of what happens when gin is cheaper (and safer) than water, milk or tea.  Bosch (above) painted hell — some say he was crazy or hallucinating because of the ergot fungus; others claim that his paintings were filled with secret messages for fellow mwmbers of ‘mystery cults,’ still others say that many of the scenes and symbols had meanings that would have been more obvious to his contemporaries but have become less familiar to the modern viewer.  I just know that I like them.

Whenever I look at work like Mullen’s “Into the Frying Pan,” (top), I get discouraged and jealous.  Discouraged because I like looking at Mullen’s work more than my own and jealous because I’s love to be able to say that I drew/painted something like that. I’m trying to channel those feelings of envy in a more productive direction and allow that maybe my envy means that Mullen has raised the bar for me and it’s time to shake things up and challenge myself to do better.