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:



I went to Greyhawk Ruins and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt!

I’m just riding on Grognerdia’s coat-tails here, but I’ve always liked “Greyhawk Ruins” even though the Greyhawkites probably mostly hate it… and the fact that I like it is probably an indictment of my low standards and questionable taste. I don’t really want an ‘official’ Castle Greyhawk but understand that many do. ‘Greyhawk Ruins’ probably disappoints the serious Gygax fan, but, since I don’t have a horse in that particular race, this represents no skin off of my nose. In my own case, if I were to use it (unlikely), I wouldn’t insist that players accept it as “the real deal.” Then again, I don’t want anything ‘canon’ or official anyway. I’d probably rename it something silly and derivative like ‘Blackhawk Castle’ or ‘Greymoor Castle’ and plop it right between ‘Verbosh’ and ‘Valley of the Umpa-Lumpas’ on my map.


Likes for me include that it is pretty damn big and probably qualifies as a ‘megadungeon’ with factions and little stories going on, NPCs for the players to interact with and some interesting challenges that include lots of traps, rooms where players may have to fight their way across boiling tar pits, volcanoes, flooded areas, etc. Dislikes include that some of it (well, quite a bit of it) seems more than a little monotonous (room after room filled with 10 ogres, 20 troglodytes, etc., just sitting around waiting for adventurers to show up).

The maps are pretty weird (no grid and a color coding system that is never really adequately explained — my assumption is that the different colors are in the order of the spectrum (Roy G. Biv) with ‘red’ areas above orange, orange above yellow, yellow above green, etc.)… but, for me, the shitty maps are not a deal breaker and I can live with them. The maps are also all rendered without a scale and at an angle so the top of the page is ‘northeast’ rather than dead north, as in most other TSR D&D dungeon maps. I cropped a random section of one of the maps at right to show you what I mean.

Information is some parts is a little sketchy, but I actually prefer too little info rather than too much simply because I don’t want to read long winded essays on the history of every stick of furniture nor do I need exact counts of how many dirty socks are in the footlocker of the bedroom of the bugbear chief on the 3rd level. Just give me the bare bones and I can flesh out the details if need be. If I were ever to use this thing at the table, I would like the shorter entries since I can scan them right there at the table and, in a moment, know what the players are up against without having to stop the game so I can review several paragraphs of dense text.

It was written for D&D 2nd edition. This makes some people unhappy but I don’t see that there is much about it that I couldn’t convert to another pre-3e form of D&D or other retroclone on the fly.

Interior art is from Thomas Baxa, Mark Nelson and Dave Simons; three artists I don’t know much about other than that they did a bit of work for TSR back in the 2e days. Most of the art looks like the art from the comic books I remember seeing as a kid from the late 1970s — sort of generic and wholesome-looking, which is a plus for me. The style of art makes me think that having Batman or Wonderwoman appear in the picture would not seem too out of place.

There is no ‘overriding’ story to the dungeon other than this: Long ago, Zagig the Wizard built a castle made of three towers where he collected his trophies, housed his guards and performed his experiments. Then he vanished and the castle began to fall apart. The dungeons beneath it are intact, however, and lots of adventurers go there. Some return with treasure; some never return at all. Of the castles/towers, little remains other than the ground floors.

The castle itself consists of three towers on mesa-like formations connected by bridges. Each ruined tower has it’s own basement, so technically I guess there are three ‘dungeons’ but they have a few inter-connections between them. The main tower is ‘Tower Zagig’ which is supposed to be the most dangerous. The left tower is ‘The Power Tower’ in which Zagig performed his many experiments. It’s front door is guarded by a group of elves. The right tower is ‘The Tower of War’ which is guarded by dwarves. If I remember correctly, the dwarves and elves demand visitors pay them a tribute for the privilege of using the doors to their respective towers.

Potentially, players can just go to the Ruins to bag XP and gold. There are also several factions (groups competing to control the dungeons, escaped slaves, a cabal of magic users who use a section of the dungeons for their experiments) that could be interacted with and the imaginative DM could figure out other quests and conflicts.

Sadly, I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to use ‘Ruins of Greyhawk.’ My days of running players through dungeoncrawls are probably long behind me; I don’t like playing online and players in my area seem to prefer a different style of game. Lack of interest from the local pool of players is probably also keeping my own Megadungeon, Mines of Khunmar, as something I will get to finishing “someday.”* And, really, who cares? What is in ‘Mines of Khunmar’ that is any better than anything else a halfway creative person with a lot of time of their hands can make?

* “someday,” with each passing real day, becomes more and more like “never.”


“The Evil Underground: Chapter 2” (slightly nsfw)

Longtime followers of the blog may remember when I presented chapter 1 of a biographical comic book I was working on about the life of Richard S. Shaver (artist, conspiracy theorist, author, paleo-archeologist, philologist and philosopher).  If you haven’t yet read it, go back and read chapter 1 before you read chapter 2.

You can click on each page, below, to see a bigger version.

I’m writing the chapters as I go (which may or may not be the best way of going about this; I don’t know).  The story is ‘true’ (at least from the narrator’s point of view; objective truth or whether or not Shaver was psycho are not my interest).  The next chapter will probably involve Raymond Arnold Palmer and the famous “Mantong” letter.

At the current rate of production, I should have the whole thing done sometime around 2020 or so (sigh). Actually, I hope to have it done sooner, but every project I currently have on the workbench is unfinished and I’m getting a bit psycho feeling over not getting any single one done.  Evil Underground/Richard Shaver Comic will come out sometime after I finish ‘Exquisite Corpses’ v2… which should be sometime early next year (I hope).

Adventurers and BEM Lurker

Just finished this private commission today.  The client gave me great latitude with subject matter, but wanted a group of ‘dungeoneers’ in peril.

"The Evil Underground" in production

If you haven’t been keeping up, I’m doing a comic book (ahem, graphic novel) about the life and work of Richard S. Shaver, the artist, writer, conspiracy theorist, outsider, etc. (chapter 1 was previewed here).

I haven’t tried to draw a comic book in something like 30 years, so I’m learning as I go along. But it’s been a very interesting learning experience, although it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.

I started by trying to write out what I would have happen in the series, but that made it kind of difficult to imagine and I found myself writing things like, “1) Richard thinking, “I’ve got to figure out what is happening…” Foreman: “Get to work!” 2) Richard (working)”All right, all right.” I just didn’t think that kind of script would be very helpful.

I then started doing pencil sketches on notebook paper — just fast scribbles — as an outline. In this way, I could think about and work on pages as a complete unit. I’m not tied to a specific page count or layout, but I want to avoid having a particular interaction between two characters end on a page where the viewer/reader will have to turn the page to resolve that interaction.

Below is a sample page. This is page 1 of chapter 2.

I decided that the first 2/3rds of every page 1 of each chapter would be taken up by a ‘splash’ panel that sort of introduces each chapter. Between the time I drew the rough layout (above) and the chapter 2 page 1 (below), I decided to make the art of the ‘splash panel’ refer somehow back to the cover of one of the pulps. The splash panel from Chapter 1 was based on an Amazing Stories cover from one of the early issues that had the Shaver Mystery in it. The splash panel from chapter 2 is based on the artwork from another pulp from 1938 (can’t remember the title right now, but I’ve reproduced the art below (last picture in the thread).

After I have my rough layout, I begin drawing the panels on bristol board. I initally use hard pencil to rough out the panels and figures, then add the lettering and then try to improve/tighten up the drawing. When the pencil roughs look pretty good, I use a pen to ink all of the letters (lettering is my least favorite part), then I go in with brush, nib pen and a fine tip magic marker (usually in that order). Finally I use a little china white to cover any smudges or add white highlights. As you can see, I made a few changes between the ‘rough’ version and the inked art below. Instead of the woman being tortured (above), I borrowed the girl in chains being menaced by “Igor” (below) with some sort of furnace/idol in the background. In the panels below, I made a few changes, including giving Shaver’s wife more of a 1930s contemporary hairdo. There were also some small changes in dialogue.

Finally, below is a copy of the artwork I used for the inspiration of my chapter 2 splash panel. It’s a fairly typical pulp cover from the 1930s… you have a ‘mad scientist’ type lowering a woman into a glowing vat of some kind in the background while a girl chained to some girders is being menaced by a defective in the foreground. I liked the woman’s pose and thought the defective could model as a stand-in for one of Shaver’s dero. In case anyone is wondering, this picture was the model for the splash page of chapter one.

The Mole People

A number of years ago I was staying with friends in Brooklyn — I was looking for something to read and I found a book called “The Mole People” on the shelf. It was a real page burner — I think I read the whole thing in one night. The author, Jennifer Toth, claimed that there were thousands of people living beneath the city of NYC in old subway tunnels, access tunnels, sewers, etc., and human habitation went up to seven levels below ground. These people were mostly hermits and the homeless, but Toth also claimed that there were some who never (or rarely) came out and had descended into a state of madness that included acts of cannibalism.

(The image above left is from the 1956 film, “The Mole People,” which has nothing to do with Toth’s book. “The Mole People” movie featured Hugh Beaumont, who I think was also the dad on “Leave it To Beaver.” The image below right is, of course, a drawing of “The Mole Man” by Jack Kirby.)

Although the book was criticized for being short on evidence and long on sensationalism, there was a brief period of time during which the book was flying off the shelves — I think people were enjoying it the same way they enjoyed a good horror film… and perhaps it was fun to imagine cannibals and genetic throwbacks living a brutish existence beneath your feet for many New Yorkers at the time.

The concept of life underground has always fascinated me. Back when I was in Gradeschool, I and my friend Eric Piccione used to draw our own comic books for our mutual amusement. One of my favorite characters was Jack Kirby’s “Mole Man” villain. He had been human but was so ugly that human society rejected him, so he set off to explore the farthest reaches of the earth since human kindness was denied to him. He eventually found his way underground, where a race of bald yellow dwarfs with bad eyesight followed him. His eyesight degenerated but his hearing and other senses became extremely sharp; the Mole Man and his minions were always using fiendish traps like pits that opened beneath your feet or boulders that fell from above to kill those who would intrude or interfere with the plots for revenge against the surface dwellers. He and his followers were blind in daylight and had to wear special glasses, like an eskimo’s snow goggles, in even the dimmest light, but to gain advantage they would simply shut off the lights. I liked Kirby’s mole people so much, I ripped them off for my own comic books — calling them “Grobes” and giving them some sparse hair. Like Kirby’s mole men, my Grobes would work with ant-like fervor beneath the ground, undermining the structures of the surface dwellers until they collapsed. Or something like that. I can’t remember. I think there are still some copies of my old comics in the attic back in my parent’s house in St. Louis.

There was also a 1951 Movie called “Superman and The Mole Men” (which I have never seen), and, one of my favorite beer-and-popcorn films, Marebito (based on the works of one of my heroes, Richard S. Shaver) with ‘Dero’ instead of mole people.

Richard Sharpe Shaver

Richard Sharpe Shaver (b 1907, d 1975) was a writer, painter, welder, ‘paleo-archaeologist,’ alarmist, prophet, conspiracy theorist, mental patient, visionary, dreamer and tortured soul.

Apparently, some time around 1944 or 1945, Raymond Arnold Palmer, an editor at Ziff Davis Publications magazine “Amazing Stories” (a man who went on to do much to create the popular UFO culture in the US) fished a letter out of the trash written by someone named Richard Shaver. Shaver claimed that all of human language was based on a series of sounds, each of which could be represented by a letter, and that by using this alphabet (which he called ‘Mantong’), one could decode the secret meanings of words as handed down to current civilizations by the Atlanteans.

An introduction to Mantong
by Richard Sharpe Shaver

This was the letter originally sent by R.S. Shaver to “Amazing Stories.” It was published by Ray Palmer in the ‘Discussions’ section of Amazing Stories in January of 1944. Apparently, the letter was read by Howard Browne, Palmer’s Managing editor at thee time, who tossed it into the trash saying, “The world is full of crackpots.” Palmer fished it out, saw a possibility and decided to run the letter and the alphabet in the magazine. The response from readers was enthusiastic. People wrote in to say that they had applied the ‘Mantong’ alphabet to all sorts of words in many different languages and claimed to have gleaned hidden meanings from the translation.

“Sirs, Am sending this in hope you will insert it in an issue to keep from dying with me. It would arouse a lot of discussion. Am sending you the language so that some time you can have it looked at by some one in the college or a friend who is a student of antique times. The language seems to me to be definite proof of the Atlantean legend. A great number of our English words have come down intact as romantic –ro man tic-“science of man patterning by control,” Trocadero – t ro see a dero- “good one see a bad one”- applied now together. It is an immensely important find, suggesting the god legends have a base in some wiser race than modern man; but to understand it takes a good head as it contains multi-thoughts like many puns on the same subject. It is too deep for ordinary man – who thinks it is a mistake. A little study reveals ancient words in English occurring many times. It should be saved and placed in wise hands. I can’t, will you? It really has an immense significance, and will perhaps put me right in your thoughts again if you will really understand this.
I need a little encouragement.”

The Mantong Alphabet –
A – is for Animal
B – is to Be
C – means See
D – is the harmful energy generated by the Sun
E – is Energy
F – means Fecund
G – means to Generate
H – means Human
I – means I
J – is the same as G – generate
K – means Kinetic, as in motion or energy
L – is Life
M – means Man
N – means child, as in ‘ninny’
O – means Orifice, a source
P – is Power
Q – means Quest
R – horror; signifies a large amount of D present
S – means the Sun, which emits D
T – is the beneficial force, the opposite of D
U – means You
V – Vital; in Shaver’s words, ‘the stuff Mesmer calls animal magnetism.’
W – Will
X – Conflict, sometimes meaning D and T in opposition
Y – means Why
Z – means Zero, or when T and D cancel one another out.

“We present this interesting letter concerning an ancient language with no comment, except to say that we applied the letter-meaning to the individual letter of many old root words and proper names and got an amazing “sense” out of them. Perhaps if readers interested were to apply his formula to more of these root words, we will be able to discover if the formula applies … is this formula the basis of one of the most ancient languages on Earth? The mystery intrigues us very much. – ED.”

Shaver later claimed to have discovered that these ancient civilizations had hidden images, films and records inside of rocks, and stuff really started to get weird. Like many conspiracy theorists, Shaver claimed to know a great secret that threatened all of mankind. According to Shaver, there was a subterranean race of evil humnoids, whom he termed the ‘dero,’ who enjoyed capturing surface dwellers and enslaving, torturing and sexually abusing them. The editors at Amazing Fantasy said they had to “tone down” a lot of the sex and violence (and sexual violence or violent sex) in Shaver’s stories before publication. Shaver stated he had lived underground with the ‘Tero’ (good Dero) for a number of years and that all of his “Shaver Mystery” stories were true. Others said he was in a mental asylum during that time.

Eventually, the “Shaver Mystery” was dropped from Amazing Stories and Ray Palmer went on to other things. The sci-fi fans who cried ‘hoax’ and used to heckle Palmer and Shaver publically (including a young Harlan Ellison) declared victory. Bizzarely, one of the major complaints of the anti-Shaver Mystery crowd was that “if the Shaver Mystery was suppossed to be the truth, it did not belong in a magazine devoted to fiction.” Shaver felt that the decision by the publisher to no longer carry his stories was a part of the plot to silence him and conceal the Dero plot against mankind. He and his wife retired to a small town in Arkansas where he ran a shop selling geological specimens as well as publishing his newsletters, making his remarkable paintings and continuing his research until his death.

Most people consider him a crank and a crazy. They call his conspiracy theories a ‘hoax.’ As far as I can tell, however, Shaver was dead serious about his beliefs. Was he really lying if he believed what he was saying?

Some of Shaver’s books can be read for free on the net:
I Remember Lemuria
Return of Sathanas