Friday, October 9, 2015

The Man with the Wizard Van: An Interview with Wayne Snyder

My theory is that we just don't pay attention to the regular gamer and what he or she has to say about their hobby. I don't remember when or where I first started chatting with Wayne Snyder, but man, this is a guy that just seems to be in it for the fun. He's got it right.

Q: I feel bad for the rest of the gaming world because I own the best piece of art to come out of the DIY gaming scene: the picture you drew for the cover of Devilmount. Can you give us a bit of your background in art? How did you get started and what inspires your work?

I grew up drawing all the time. There was a lot of down time as a kid. Time spent waiting around while my mother took care of something or other. I remember drawing chainsaw armed robots on the back of the church program during Sunday services, using the back of a hymnal as a drawing board. I found my way to D&D the summer I turned 9 and it has been on my mind ever since. Fantasy art has filled my life. As a lad I learned a lot from Wormy comics in the back of Dragon mags. I spent long hours just staring at the illustrations in my game books. There is no separation for me between game and art. If a game doesn’t have engaging art, I won’t play it no matter how great the system is. Back in the 80s you didn’t have 40 reviews of a game available even before it came out. You walked into Walden Books once a month to see what was up and if a new book was on the shelf you took it down and flipped through it. You didn’t really have time to read and understand the core rules. I just looked at the pictures and made my decision based almost solely on the art, same with comics. Early on the 80s TSR art department became my pantheon of saints. I wanted to be Larry Elmore. Later it was Savage Sword of Conan comics and the European artists in Heavy Metal mixed with the grim dark of newly discovered Rogue Trader and Warhammer Fantasy. I took all the art classes available in high school and even took some of them twice and then trucked off to art school after that. But I had no idea what I was doing. I went to a really theory heavy fine arts program and they didn’t have much to say about my bugbears and castles. I was really na├»ve. I didn’t know enough to transfer to a different school, I just buckled down and made a bunch of conceptual art and graduated in 4 years with a BFA and a professional grade drinking habit and trucked off to the south with no greater aspirations than to sit on a porch and drink all the PBR.  I didn’t make much art for a long time. It wasn’t until I found G+ in 2012 that I really started producing again. That cover for Devilmount is one of the first pieces I had made in a really long time. The G+ rpg community is so inspiring, it really moved me to get back on the horse and reclaim a lost skill I really enjoy employing. I still make it my business to know all about fantasy artists and their bodies of work. It’s a hobby unto itself. I usually know more about the person who painted an rpg book cover than I do about the game itself. 
Q: You're a fan of Dungeon Crawl Classics. What is it about that particular fantasy rpg that drew you in initially, and what about it keeps you interested in it?

When I first stepped on the G+ scene back in 2012 I didn’t know anything about DCC. I believe it was Edgar Johnson who first posted an invite to the Metal Gods game. His blurb was brilliant and totally heavy metal. It sounded like everything I ever wanted in a game. I realized I had to play in that game. I had never played online and I was a bit worried but that went out the window five minutes in. I played DCC online for six months before I got around to buying the rulebook. The game is intuitive to me after years and years of D&D. DCC has a lot of things going on, but they don’t require constant book reference ruining the immersion and slowing down the action. The most entertaining part of any RPG is the people you play with, the smart, funny, clever fuckers, who make it all go round. DCC gives you room to play. It offers a swift coherent frame work to keep things rolling along, but it is an open field of player driven fun times beyond that. Now it takes a certain clever brand of person to really get on with a system like this. DCC has removed the rewards of power gaming and math hammering, which I’ve seen bloat some other games down, and through that, has created a self-selecting community of true fun seekers. Folks who want to min-max or “win D&D” don’t seem to want to play this game. It isn’t balanced, in fact it’s often completely haywire and that’s why I love it.  This play style has aggregated a super creative community (see all the zines) and you’ll rarely meet a player who you wouldn’t love to have back to the table. The amount of awesome new friends I’ve made in the last three years because of DCC is incredible and something I never would have expected to occur in my adult life.

Q: You're part of the triumvirate behind the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad 'zine. What's the hardest part of publishing a gaming 'zine? What's the most rewarding part?

I think the hardest part is laying out each issue, making it fit together coherently, and the business end of it, the production of physical copies and shipping logistics and internet store fronts. But Adam Muszkiewicz is a hero and he does all that unpleasantness for us. So for me the biggest hurdle is everyday life. Just having enough gusto left to draw or even come up with good ideas after a full day of landscaping work is getting harder and harder as age catches up with me. The most rewarding thing is having people enjoy the fruits of our labors. The zine makes people happy, and that makes me happy.

Q: Speaking of metal, I always associate you with crushing riffs. What are the last three albums that blew your mind? How does metal intersect with your love of gaming?

Satan Worshipping Doom by Bongripper is still making ripples in my brain juice with its all instrumental brutal crushing doom. Acid Mothers Temple & The Cosmic Inferno - Anthem of the Space is a real experience. I recently got to see them live and couldn’t get the smile off my face for a week. Ancient Japanese space hippies know where it’s at. I don’t think they have ever played the same song twice and that is perfect. Estron by Slomatics is an album I just can’t get enough of. It is a concept album, really a single 40 minute song. It sounds like the things Lovecraft talks about when he uses the term cyclopean. It would make a good soundtrack to the Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath motion picture.

Metal intersects with every aspect of my life. Metal is a lifestyle for me. It inspires my art and my gaming. It keeps me on point while I’m fighting dirt for a living. Like most good sci-fi and fantasy novels, there is a lot of philosophical truths under all the genre trappings, the skulls, and chains, and fire. Metal is my anthem for whatever I’m about at the time.

Q: You recently posted about how old-school miniatures, especially John Blanche's stuff, continues to move you. What is it about that style that speaks to you, and what advice would you give someone interesting in getting into the minis hobby?

John Blanche may be the longest working art director on any single gaming IP. He has been crafting the dual worlds of the gothic retro-future Warhammer 40k and the sodden moss shrouded medieval heap that is Warhammer Fantasy almost as long as I’ve been alive. It is in his blood. It is made of his blood. He crafts miniatures the same way he crafts his artworks. He builds them from the ground up, creates a story, and defines a mood. He has always been a kit basher and DIY miniature modeler, taking parts from any number of model kits and piecing them together to form something completely new. His mini painting style is reflective of his 2D works. He splashes on paint and inks, working over the surfaces in layers of colors and textures, letting the materials do the work for him. It’s grimy and corroded, stained, patinaed and beautiful. I’ve fallen in love with his miniature creations and the works of an ever growing group of artists who see his work as inspiration for their own. They work in the medium of tiny plastic, metal, or resin figures, where each miniature is a work of art in its own right. It is a far stretch from batch painting 100 space ork boyz to get them on the table by next Saturday. It’s the art in it, making it personal, which keeps me coming back, same as the DIY table top game scene.

My advice, to someone just stepping into the miniatures hobby, is start slow. Check out some skirmish games. Buy two or three minis at a time and work on them until they are done. See how long it takes you to do the work before you buy 200 of them. Having boxes and boxes of unpainted miniatures you’ll probably never have time to assemble and paint can be kind of depressing and you can easily tie up a hefty amount of cash that way. But if you’re trying to play some sort of huge wargame with 100s of little dudes on the table, all I can say is good luck with that.

Q: If you could command the DIY gaming braintrust to create one product for your use, what would you demand? 

Wow… I have trouble keeping up with the flood of great stuff people are putting out already. Something I would find useful would be a book of dungeon puzzles of varying difficulties, like a ZORK reference book.

Q: What's next for Wayne Snyder?

I’m working on a third issue of Dark Ruins, a mini adventure zine I’ve been putting out. I’m signed up to write and illustrate five monsters for Mike Evans' Hubris kickstarter, coming soon. I’ve got Metal Gods #4 in the works and some other illustration work for some indie folks. I’m really looking forward to being able to climb into the wizard van I’ve been working on and set off on a strange and exciting odyssey across the USA, meeting up with awesome gaming folks, playing games, do some camping and really make the most of this crazy hobby we all love.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Into the Odd

In my view, Chris McDowall's Into the Odd is the spiritual successor to Molday's Basic D&D

As a set of rules, Into the Odd has a laser-fine focus on exploration. The aim of the character creation section of the book is to get you a character quickly and efficiently, so you can begin playing immediately. The rules give you just enough mechanics to adjudicate any risky action that might be needful while exploring, and no more. Space--whether given over to text or illustration-- is treated like the rarest of treasure in the book itself; if it isn't essential, it got left on the cutting room floor.

Shockingly, Into the Odd actually manages to improve on Basic D&D's framework in places. Character generation couldn't be simpler: roll 3d6 for Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower, swap two of those scores if you want, roll 1d6 for Hit Points, cross-reference your Hit Points with your highest ability score on a table to see what you have for starting equipment. Six ability scores? Nah, why waste time dithering about the metaphysical difference between Intelligence and Wisdom. Picking a character class? Nah, you're all adventurers, why pretend otherwise. Shop for gear? Get out there and seek death or glory already.

The resolution mechanics are similarly streamlined: you roll a d20 and hope to equal or roll under one of your ability scores when you take a risky action. Combat works a little differently: if you want to hit something, you hit it automatically; roll damage (modified by any armor the target may have) and subtract what remains from their Hit Points. When all the Hit Points are gone, subtract damage from your Strength score and hope you don't take critical damage or run out of Strength and die.

(If auto-hitting bothers you, here's an add-on from yours truly: each attack is a Strength save. Succeed on the save and proceed to rolling damage; fail and miss.)

The player-facing rules all fit on a single small page. All the information on character advancement fit on a single page. All the principles of running the game fit on one page. The book also comes with a sampler of monsters, treasure, traps, some terse setting information, a sample dungeon to explore, a small hexcrawl to explore, And an "Oddpendium" of random tables. There are descriptions of the various Arcanum--weird technological/magical items that make exploring forsaken areas worth the obvious danger. The only thing that feels like a throwaway is the page on enterprises and detachments, which feels vague and poorly-defined. The art is okay, but nothing really stands out there. Keep in mind, though, that the book is tiny. It does one thing, and does it exceedingly well. The pdf is available here; the third printing of the hardcopy edition is currently available for pre-order.

If I were going to run a fast-and-loose game of dungeon exploration, Into the Odd would be my first choice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft: Tapestry of Dark Souls I

The Mists gather around us once more, leading us into the darkened confusion that is a Ravenloft tie-in novel! If you're unfamiliar with my Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft series, here's the deal: I read a Ravenloft novel and post an earnestly-hamfisted literary analysis of it to mine-out all the odd bits of unconscious sexual weirdness that inevitably creeps into these things. 

This October's victim is Elaine Bergstrom's Tapestry of Dark Souls, a book that seems to be somewhat reviled by Ravenloft aficionados for being a bit too visceral and morally bleak--which is odd because those qualities put it more in line with the Gothic literary tradition than any other books in the series.

The unstated theme of the first part of Tapestry of Souls is that a woman trapped in unhappy marriages might look to sapphic comfort as a nice alternative to stifling hetero-matrimony. Such is the case with Leith, who has an antagonistic relationship with her husband Vhar. It's only when she meets the adventurer Maeve that we see Leith actually react with interest to another person; their initial meeting is portrayed in tones of love at first sight: "The woman had a vitality that was impossible to ignore," Leith notes (28). Indeed, as soon as her husband is gone, Leith begins to think of Maeve as a surrogate for him: "But, without Vhar, I needed another protector. This woman had come with no one, her presence challenging every male in the room" (31). It is Maeve's combination of feminine and masculine qualities--that curious admixture that defines lesbian figures in the popular imagination--that form the basis of Leith's attraction to her; she takes note of Maeve's feminine beauty, but also prizes her ability to intimidate men on an even playing field.

Of course, the underlying impetus for that attraction is Leith's realization that fitting into the preordained heteronormative relationship of husband and wife has left her unfulfilled as a person and especially as a woman: "I thought of how poorly I knew my husband and much I resented him. He didn't love me. I was a useful possession like the knives in his crates, like this treasure in my lap" (37). Leith's resentments are portrayed in surprisingly sympathetic tones. Even when her indignation boils over into violence it actually reads as understandable, if not murderously empowering. As they struggle over possession of the novel's accursed tapestry, Leith thinks, "all the resentments I had buried for so many years exploded into rage, giving me a strength I didn't know I had. I swung the heavy skillet up and sideways against his head. He fell. I hit him again, and again. Then, dropping the skillet, I pounded him with my fists, stopping only when I was too exhausted to continue" (39). Leith is woman, hear her roar!

But what of the titular tapestry? It too has a symbolic function in Bergstrom's novel. This cursed, billowing, enveloping fabric functions as a chora-like figuration that promises feminine self-actualization, freedom from patriarchal constraint, and erotic liberty. The tapestry is the devouring maternal vagina that all men fear due to primordial prejudice: "Whipped by some internal wind, it broke free of its linen cover and billowed out into the storage room. I held tight to one edge, but the rest flapped out, covering Vhar. He cried my name as the cloth fell, and suddenly his voice grew sad and faraway, as though he were plummeting down a bottomless shaft. I pulled the cloth away too late. Worn planks lay beneath it, but Vhar--husband, adversary, friend--was gone" (40-41). 

Although the tapestry seems inimical to male life, for Leith it comes to represent the promise of recognition, shared sorrow, and liberation: "The shapes took on a shadowy life separate from the fabric, spinning away from it one by one, beating at the door like dry winter leaves in a gale. ... Real voices howled with fury at the chanting captors outside. I howled with them--first with fear and later with the terrible certainty that I belonged with them" (48). Compare that description of the damned souls trapped within the tapestry with this description of the women trapped within the walls in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper": "Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern DOES move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!" As much as those trapped figures are dreadful of aspect, they are symbols of just rage that is beginning to seek its own freedom; indeed, as the narrator of Gilman's story becomes addicted to watching the wallpaper expectantly, the tapestry--with all that it promises--becomes Leith's obsession. 

The tapestry also serves to blur the lines between different kind of female assignations. The categories of lover, beloved, mother, daughter, sister all become threads wrapped inseparably together in the tapestry's polymorphously perverse weave. For Leith, the tapestry promises not only the solidarity of sisterhood, but the long-withheld dream of motherhood: "I had suspected that I was pregnant before that terrible night in the shrine. Even so, I couldn't be certain that I had conceived before then" (53). Things become even more tangled as the relationship between Leith and Maeve begins to take on maternal and erotic aspects as well; "I see my mother in you," Maeve tells Leith in a rare moment of emotional intimacy--which is interesting as it is Maeve who has assumed a maternal role in caring for Leith. Again and again in the novel the boundaries of what separates one woman from another are transgressed or erased.

The metaphors and images of feminine malleability are given further strength when it is revealed that Leith has been infected with lycanthropy. Resonantly, Maeve refers to lycanthropy as "the change"; "Nothing can stop the change," she tells Leith (71). "The change" from woman to beast, of course, stands in for a variety of life-cycles through which women progress, most notably menstruation and menopause. Here, the notion of womanly change also stands in for potential freedom from men if women have the guts to seize it. Maeve describes her mother's failure to embrace the change and the liberty is brings: "My father used to speak longingly of her wit and beauty before the change. I think she could have reclaimed it any time if she wished, but she was too cowardly to leave him. Instead, she allowed herself to be trapped by him, then by my uncle, and then the town" (74). The change, then, is an escape from patriarchal control within the novel's narrative logic. Maeve herself is a vixen (a eyebrow-raising term term for a werefox) who displays her own change while simultaneously reminding Leith of her own agency as a woman, "'Change, but don't forget who you are. Remember before you make your choice,' she whispered and shifted form again. In moments, a large silver fox stood before me, its head tilted, its expression expectant" (75). Note that both women shed their clothes, inhibitions, human forms, and the shackles of normative society in this scene, all because the change frees them from constraint.

And Leith has good reason to rage against the machine; when husbands, monks, and surly menfolk aren't getting in the way of her fulfillment, they're taking the form of strangers who ask for a night's lodging only to administer a date-rape drug: "I said he could sleep in our garden. It seemed natural that I would share supper with him, then share his wine. So sweet it was, so honey-thick, so full of power. I woke with him beside me" (78-79). That's pretty heavy stuff for a Ravenloft novel. Nevertheless, at a third of the way through the book I'm finding that those hot-blooded and horrifying elements put Tapestry of Dark Souls more in-line with the Gothic's source material than anything else written for the Ravenloft line. We're definitely in Matthew Lewis territory here. Can't wait to see what happens when Leith's child is born!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Cittern of Cornelius Saltleven, Meister Dirgesinger

Few will ever know the depths of sorrow that fueled the art of the famed dirgesinger Cornelius Saltleven. It is reported that his songs could make a youthful man weep for weeks over a lost love that never even existed, that his funereal chants would move all assembled to wail and rend their black crepe garments, and that he was banned from performing in several villages due to the increased number of suicides that seemed to follow in his wake.

When Saltleven died, his tear-stained cittern was buried with him. Unfortunately, neither Cornelius nor his instrument were able to rest in their long-sought grave: Saltleven's body was exhumed by a doctor who wished to perform a post-mortem study of the singer's larynx to discover the biological cause of his voice's sweet melancholy timber, and his cittern was considered lost to illicit trade in morbid curiosities. 

Any bard who attunes themselves to the cittern immediately finds themselves knowing the words and melodies to these songs:

Like Ash on the Wind (fly)
The Greatest Sorrow is Unseen (invisibility)
We All Rise to Meet Our Lady of the Ravens (levitate)
Thee Old Salt Circle (protection from good and evil)
Eva Maeve and the Wolf (animal friendship)
The Manor House Aflame (protection from energy [fire only])
I Held the Devil's Asp (protection from poison)

The cittern functions exactly as an Instrument of the Bards (Doss Lute).

Friday, October 2, 2015

Last Chance on Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque Books

At the close of Halloween, 31 October 2015, the Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque books will be phased out. 

If you want a hardcopy of any of these, now is the time to pull the trigger. 

If you've been meaning to suggest these books to a friend, well, hip them to this sweet jazz now. Feel free to repost on social media and forums or wherever people gather to talk elfgames these days.

If you want to buy them all because one day they will be sought-after collectibles, well, go ahead but don't empty your retirement fund on these, okay?

There are still things within these books that I'm really proud of and would use in my own games; hell, I'll detail the best bits I'm still excited about below. But, at the same time, I now see what I could have done better; I've learned a lot about amateur publishing since I first started.

There is a small chance that some of this stuff will reappear in print in a different form at some point, but I don't know when or if that will happen. Ideally, I'd like to put these out again with better formatting and original art, but that means either finding the right collaborators to work with or really stepping up my pencil game. Interested parties know how to get in touch. We'll see how it works out. 

Buy 3 get the 4th one free coupon for Lulu: TRGE15
25% orders over $100 coupon: OCTBULK25

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque 
- my first compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction. The random background table is still a great addition for adding a bit of Warhammer flavor to OSR D&D rule-sets. Also, the rules and tables for terror and horror are the best rules-facing things I've ever written, hands down.

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque II
 - my second compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction. I still think all the random tables for vampires, werewolves, mummies, Igors, spiders, giant bats, flesh golems, and angry mobs are a lot of fun.

 Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque III 
- my third and final compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction. D&D has always needed Dandy and Spiritualist classes, and they're in this book!

Adventures on Gothic Earth 
- a compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction, but set in a version of our world's Victorian era. The new spells and bestiary stuff in this one are still pretty tight.

- A systemless "Gaslamp Fantasy" setting. Favorite bit: the setting-specific reason for Common being the default language.

Colonial Ethersea 
- Ulverland taken in the direction of Gothic Space Opera. Those orbital space stations tho!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Blade Born of the Executed King

The blade of this battle-scythe was not forged as a weapon of war in its first incarnation; originally fashioned as the blade of a guillotine, its steel attained mystical properties when it was used to execute a particularly tyrannous king of ancient Arksylvania. The blood of royalty, even those corrupt and cruel, possesses divine power--power that was transferred to the guillotine's blade as the king's sacred lifeblood forever stained it. Centuries later the guillotine's blade was discovered by the Order of the Crimson Martyrdom; one of their runesmiths refashioned it into a wicked scythe.

Stats: Greataxe, with the properties of a sword of sharpness.