Category Archives: RPGs

Unseen Influences: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Drow Elves

The first edition cover of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Gods of Mars. The reason John Carter looks so goofy is because he is in fact wearing a wig in this scene. And no I’m not joking.

It’s been eighteen months or so since the last Unseen Influences.  What better way to expand on the series than to take it beyond Games Workshop’s fictional universes and into the realms of Dungeons and Dragons, the original fantasy game?  More specifically, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (first edition), and the dark elves.

The drow elves are iconic D&D.  At first glance they seem to be a wild and strange creative burst on Gary Gygax’s behalf – bearing little resemblance to the Tolkienian elves that are the D&D mainstay.  From their first appearance in the Monster Manual they were intriguing.  Then Fiend Folio elaborated on that sparse description and really set the tone for these much-loved villains.

Later, the author R.A. Salvatore was able to spin the vicious subterranean elves into a series of best-selling novels.  Partly due to this, in the 90s there was an explosion of interest in the drow, including a special sourcebook for the Forgotten Realms, various modules and adventure campaigns.  Not to mention the misunderstood, angsty and maligned drow PCs who popped up in gaming groups all over the world – one of which was my own horribly evil drow wizard, Maladras.  Although he was not so much misunderstood as justifiably hated and feared…

Gygax was light on providing non-generic content for his original game, so monsters like the drow elves really stood out as different from the goblins, dragons, pixies and other creatures absorbed from mythology.  They are today regarded as one of Gygax’s most enduring and original legacies.  The Wikipedia entry for them goes so far as to claim that “except for the basic concept of “dark elves”, everything else about the Dungeons & Dragon (sic) drow was invented by Gary Gygax.”  But are the drow as original as they seem?

In fact, they are a mish-mash of many influences, some of which you can find out about on Wikipedia.  But most of all I think they bear a strong resemblance to the Black Martians, the ‘First Born’, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic 1918 novel The Gods of Mars.  Here are some notable similarities and a faint resonance:

  • The First Born and the drow both live deep underground, coming to the surface only to raid and take slaves.  Both are regarded as semi-mythological by surface dwellers.
  • Both have black skin, but are depicted and described as specifically non-African in features.  Compare also the Salamander space marines.  I won’t go into the strange ramifications of this trope for race-politics!
  • Both are violent, domineering, arrogant, lazy and inventively cruel.
  • Both the First Born and the drow are long-lived matriarchal societies of slave owners, ruled by a single vicious goddess (mortal in the case of the First Born, as it turns out).  This goddess demands Darwinian conflict from her followers  and the sacrifice of slaves for her amusement.
  • The goddess of the drow, Lolth (or Lloth if you are from Menzoberranzan), is a spider deity.  The First Born use a complicated ruse to lure the Therns, the White Martians, into their clutches to be enslaved and eaten.  Just like a spider and a fly…

Given that Burroughs’ John Carter stories are classics of early American science fiction, I think you’d have to show me some pretty compelling evidence to claim that Gygax had not read them.  It’s unlikely that we can ever know for sure if the influence was intentional or unconscious, but I like to think Gygax wanted to give a nod to ERB’s action-packed and imaginative Martian Tales.  A nod that no-one seemed to notice.

There are, as I mentioned, other influences that make up the interesting pastiche that is the drow elves.  The First Born are simply a major one, and one that is not normally acknowledged.  Feel free to point out others in the comments below, as well as any other drow-related musings you may have!

Oz Comic Con and my thoughts on 6th Edition 40k Allies

Taking the family to Melbourne this weekend to go to Oz Comic Con!  I’m a bit nervous actually, it’s the first long trip with our baby, so yeah, let’s see how he likes an hour in the car followed by eight hours on a train. One of the challenges of living in Australia is that to get pretty much anywhere besides where you already are involves at least a day of travel.  Doesn’t stop us though.

I’ve never been to a big con like this that wasn’t gaming related, so it’ll be interesting.  I’m curious to see Patrick Stewart in real life I have to say.  Every time I see him though I imagine him crouched in Ricky Gervais’s trailer saying “and then all her clothes fall off.”

So I’d better say something about games too – it’s kind of in the tag-line of the blog after all.  I used my 20% off for Australians (and other GW outcasts) voucher from Maelstrom to order an Infinity rulebook.  That deal was pretty genius of them I have to say, I haven’t bought any gaming stuff for ages bar a copy of Samurai Shodown Sen for the X-Box which I still haven’t played.  Oh and I scored an ancient (well, 1981) copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook from a second hand bookshop the other day.  Hooray for arbitrarily capped strength scores for everyone but Human Males!

But that Maelstrom voucher actually got me to blow the dust off my wallet and fork out.  I’ve been keen to finally read the background for Infinity so it was an opportunity, and I took it.

Brian from A Gentleman’s Ones kindly sent me the Killzone rules so I could play some 40k without turning into this guy:

What? It’s only turn two?

But it turns out I’m pretty excited for 6th edition now after all.  It was the allies that sold me.  Yeah, I realize people are concerned about balance but you know what?  No game is ever balanced, and I think the best possible thing you can do to balance a vast mess of a game like 40k is just make it into a huge free for all.  This is why I am stoked about the allies:

  • Too much poential synergy.  No-one could possibly absorb and analyze all the variables now.  Take that meta-jerks.
  • No more being unable to legally represent background-consisent forces like an Inquisitor and some inducted guardsmen, or Blood Axe Orks fighting with the Eldar.
  • If you’ve always had your imagination captured by the idea of Tau or Orks or Eldar or whatever fighting alongside other factions now you can do it.  Options, not limits, that’s what we should have, and that’s what’s been given us.

Official allies rules are what I have always wanted from 40k.  The army system as it was just seemed so creatively limited, and now I can buy whatever the hell models I like (except tyranids *cough* but who cares about them, right?) and come at people’s faces with bizarre circus freak armies.  Like, er, Chaos Tau, or re-programmed Necrons.  Just like Apocalypse, but I can do it in as small a game as I can fit ’em!

Anyway that’s it for now.  Got to go and pack for the train.  Have a good one everyone.

The Gods on Earth, the Million Gods, and the Philosophies

As well as the main family of deities, the world of Shail is home to divine beings who walk on the surface inside the Gloom Barrier, or sometimes show themselves as shadowy spirits before they succumb to Shail’s enchantment.  Even the True Gods must lose their immortality if they descend, so when they walk on Shail they possess mortals or inhabit avatars.

Divine spellcasters on Shail fall into one of two major traditions:  The worshippers of the True Gods, represented by organized clergy and churches; and the shamans of the Million Gods who propitiate countless spirits and ghosts.  Shail’s Druids, the followers of the Gods on Earth and the philosophers comprise other minor traditions.

Clerics of the True Gods are commonplace in every culture, though some gods are more important than others to each of the peoples.  These clerics manifest divine magic, as do the tribal shamans and witch-doctors who conjure the millions of spirit beings.  Some heretical scholars even believe that divine power comes from within, and that the god or spirit is merely a necessary catalyst.  After all, the flickering ghost of a bone-waving shaman’s father seems to grant the shaman as much power as mighty Khiro gives to his sun-priests. Whatever the case, the common people recognize the power of the servants of the gods, and treat them with respect.


HALAHNA (Neutral Good) Halahna is the Lady of Mercy, the goddess of healing, life and compassion.  Her bird was the crane but is no longer.  She was created by Shail from earth and the blood of all mortal peoples, and this bond with the mortals was to prove her undoing.  During the catastrophe, Halahna was so distressed by the plight of humanity that she passed through the Gloom Barrier in all of her glory to aid them personally.  Stripped of her divine powers and unable to pass through the barrier again, Halahna now wanders the surface of Shail as one of the Gods on Earth.  She is of course a supremely powerful and ageless being, still able to apparently grant miracles to her few remaining faithful, but she is now mortal and theoretically can be slain.

Domains: Healing, Good, Protection

MANALAUN (Neutral Evil) Manalaun  was a mighty human wizard a thousand years ago who was obsessed with uncovering the secret of immortality.  In a famous story told across the world, he used magic to trick Luna, herself the goddess of magic, into revealing to him a means to transcend his mortal form.  Once Manalaun gained immortality people discovered that if they prayed to him miracles were granted, and a priesthood was formed, the Cryptika.  It is a strange organization, more a circle of wandering agents seeking forbidden knowledge, with Manalaun himself as first among equals.  All Cryptiks (as they are known) are charged first with discovering a way to aid Manalaun to pierce the Gloom Barrier.

Domains: Knowledge, Divination, Trickery

THE EXILE (Chaotic Good) The Exile is a spirit of the Elves, a being made up, it is said, of their hope to one day return to their home world.  He has grown in power as the Elves degenerated from their original form, and his ascension to godhood tragically happened around the time the last known void craft was destroyed by Orcs.  He shows himself to Elvish tribes in times of great need, where they must escape from overwhelming danger.  The Exile is not a warrior so much as a saviour – he leads the Elves to safety when they need him the most, sowing discord among enemies and confounding their path.  His clergy are known as Callers.  They lead and defend tribes devoted to The Exile and call on him for aid when all seems lost.

Domains: Travel, Luck, Knowledge

THE GOD OF GHOULS (Chaotic Evil) The last of the Gods on Earth is the God of Ghouls, a hideous being who rose to immortality amid the fear and chaos of the Bone Circle’s failed rite in Felor.  He lurks at the heart of that shattered nation, served by the dead, and his motives are unfathomable.  All who live in Felor or travel through that cursed place are at risk of being taken before him as a sacrifice.  It is said he is grotesquely fat and depraved in the extreme, though since none have seen him and lived this seems to be little more than conjecture.

Domains: Evil, Death, Destruction Continue reading

The True Gods of Shail

Continuing my presentation of a complete campaign world for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition (or, with a bit of tinkering, any FRPG), here are the True Gods of the world of Shail . . .


The True Gods of Shail are the family of Shail and Avrantos, excepting Halahna, the lost goddess.  They are a small and tightly knit group, and have various manifestations across different cultures.  A god or godess who is paramount to the Dwarves for example may be a minor deity in the eyes of the Goblins, and vice versa.

Most people are not aware that their deity is the same being as another people’s in a different guise, though some scholars know the truth.  The Storm Cloud Orphans for example would be offended at the mere suggestion that their benevolent goddess Luna, guardian of magical secrets, is one and the same being as the Orc’s White Sister.  Nevertheless this is so, and Luna herself plays no favorites.

It has even happened that a god has manifested in two places at once and its aspects have offered encouragement to two warring parties simultaneously, as when Avrantos the Thunderer walked with the Black Serpent Orphans at the same time as his Elvish aspect Iya Skyspan gave hope to the Alluviel tribe in their war with the mercenary Humans.

The gods give strength impartially to those who have faith in them, and regard the aims and plans of mortals as beneath consideration.  The standard names of the Gods are those of the Khi Empire, old names that are widely used and have found their way into the Common Tongue.

SHAIL (Neutral) is the earth and the mother of the gods and intelligent races.  She has several aspects, usually a wise crone or a stern matron, or sometimes a crow.  She is the goddess of life and death.  Shail and Avrantos together came to the world from a realm unknown, and fashioned it into a living planet, forging The Gloom Barrier from their own essences.  Of all the intelligent humanoids only the Dwarves and the Elves were not created by Shail.  The former were made by Shotek from earth and spit, and the latter are degenerate descendants of travellers who crashed on the world before The Gloom Barrier was forged.  Shail is the name the Khiroans gave the goddess, and other races generally use variations of this name.  Shail is known to the Orcs by no name at all, only the title the Dread Mother:  She who gives and takes life.  She is a hideous Orcish woman with a necklace of skulls who brings destruction and blessings indiscriminately.  The matriarchal Orcs regard her as the most powerful of all gods.  Shail has no clerics.  Her clergy are the Druids, an ancient world-wide cult who were given a secret script by Shail herself and whose motives are utterly unfathomable to outsiders.

Domains: None

AVRANTOS the Thunderer (Lawful Neutral) is the consort of Shail and the god of the sky.  He is prayed to by farmers and kings for he guards families and nations and is a lawgiver.  Avrantos is the wisest of the gods but has a crooked leg, and walks with an oak lightning-staff which he uses to strike down his enemies.  At the beginning of the world Avrantos and Shail quarreled over whether to expel the Elves.  Shail wished to get rid of the interlopers, but Avrantos was more cautious.  In a rage he struck the earth with his staff, and the sparks formed the god Shotek.  More amused than threatened, Shail allowed the Elves to stay.  Thus they regard Avrantos as their protector and call him Iya Skyspan.  The Dwarves also hold Avrantos in high regard.  Avrantos’s bird is the eagle.

Domains:  Law, Guardian, Air

ESSA (Chaotic Neutral) is the goddess of love, passion and intoxication.  Her worshippers are lovers, warriors, drunkards, mystics and bards.  Those who live life to the hilt enjoy her favour, but those who cross her are cursed with addled wits.  Essa was washed ashore fully formed from the raging seas at the beginning of the world, so she is also the goddess of the waters.  The seagull is her sacred bird.

Domains:  Chaos, Water, Luck, Trickery

LUNA (Neutral) is the twin sister of Khiro, the goddess of the moon, secrets and arcane magic.  Her symbol is the crescent moon and her totem is the owl.  The Elves call her Lirielle and regard her as the greatest of the gods, even above Shail and Iya Skyspan.  The Orcs call her the White Sister and fear her as a harbinger of the Dread Mother.

Domains:  Magic, Knowledge, Luck

KHIRO (Lawful Good) is the Sun Shield, the son of Avrantos and Shail.  He is a hero who protects the weak and is the patron of many societies in many disguises.  He is the sun and the lord of day, and his bird is the hawk.  Khiro gave his name to the now destroyed empire of Khiroa, but he still has many followers.  The Order of the Sun are dedicated to him, but Khiro in some form is held in deep respect by nearly every society.  The Dwarves call him Kron, and he is their war god.  To the Gnomes he is a cunning and gentle warrior called Kilgillen.  The Elves call him Kailera, but they regard him as a minor guardian god who protects civilians in wartime.  Khiro is also one of the greatest gods among the wise Hashatra.  He is the nemesis of Skorn and is much beloved by many.

Domains:  Good, Sun, Protection

SHOTEK (Neutral) is a trickster and the god of merchants, thieves, and those who make their own luck.  Among the Gnomes he is a scientist and they think him the father of all things designed.  Shotek is a one-eyed wanderer and his bird is the cuckoo.  He was born from the sparks of the first fire when Avrantos struck the earth with his lightning, and as such is the god of fire and, by extension, genius.  The Goblins revere Shotek for his craftiness and guile.  Though he is the creator of the Dwarves many of them have turned to the worship of Kron (Khiro) and Avrantos in recent centuries.

Domains:  Luck, Trickery, Knowledge

SKORN (Lawful Evil) Skorn is the Bone King, and though he is also the guardian of tombs and the patron of medicine he is by no means benevolent.  Shail gave birth to him to be the bringer of mortality to her children.  Skorn competes for his mother’s affection with her other son Khiro, and the Bone King and Sun Shield are mortal foes who have slain each other’s aspects countless times over the ages.  The Great Mother is the only being who bears love for Skorn, and in return he serves her unconditionally.  His bird is the vulture.

Domains:  Death, Destruction, Evil


The thing to remember I think about making realistic gods in high fantasy settings is that they are real.  That means that they are not really gods in the way we think of them in the real world – beings that may or may not exist and may or not be omnipotent or immortal or any other attribute we want to give them.  Gods in high fantasy are actual beings as real as anyone on earth.  More than that, they are people, with personalities and thus strengths and weaknesses.  They are basically supremely powerful (but not all-powerful) people.

If you think about this, it means mortal people ultimately worship them out of fear or for personal gain or protection.  Of course the same thing happens in the real world, but in a D&D world you have more tangible reason to be afraid of your god or think they can help you out.

Continue reading

Introduction to Shail

I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to update so often anymore, but it’s holidays and I was just going through my old D&D files.  I found something interesting: a campaign setting I wrote in 2007.  I never got to use this world for a variety of reasons – most notably the edition changed and I became disillusioned with D&D.  But I put a lot of effort into this setting and I always thought it was a pity that no-one saw it but me.  I even harboured a secret dream of sending it to a publisher one day.

So I thought I’d put it up on my gaming blog, since that’s what gaming blogs are for, right?  I really enjoy reading step-by-step campaign settings on RPG blogs (like Von’s recent Vampire Dark Ages one), so I thought other people probably do too.  I think what I’ll do is each post, put up some of the material I wrote, followed by a bit of ‘meta’ describing the approach I took, how I got the idea, whatever.  Maybe – hopefully – you’ll see something you find in the material or the meta discussion that’s interesting for your own fantasy RPG campaign.

Right, so I wrote this for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition originally.  I guess that makes me an OSR blogger now 😉  The material could theoretically be used for any generic fantasy RPG, just ignore the rules stuff. In a couple of posts you’ll see what makes it a little different from your regular generic fantasy.

But first, I’ll begin where all good mythology should, in my opinion begin: with the gods and the creation of the world. Continue reading

Gaming Thoughts: computer vs. pen and paper RPGs

I was a child in the mid-to-late 1980s, and a teenager in the mid-to-late 90s, so I grew up in that unique time when computer and console versions of wargames and RPGs were starting to emerge and really challenge traditional games.

Back then, if you mentioned the words “wargame” or “role-playing game” the picture people got in their head was of a traditional table-top, board, or pen and paper game.  Now I think most people outside the gaming community, and even many in it, would first picture a screen, and the player either lounging around with a console controller or huddled in front of a keyboard and mouse.

I’m planning on writing a few articles on how the experience of playing each of these kinds of game differs, their strengths and weaknesses as I see them, and maybe mention a bit about these games changing place in the world while I’m at it.  So in this Gaming Thoughts, I’m going to start with what I started with:  RPGs. Continue reading

Bad Nostalgia

My epic three-day quest to find and upload this scene without spending a cent is a tale for another day . . .

As a thirty-something gamer it’s difficult not to fall into the nostalgia trap. Nostalgia casts a huge shadow in the gaming community right now, with the proliferation of OSR blogs, rapidly changing corporate paradigms, and beloved games being constantly re-iterated until they are almost unrecognizable when placed beside their original versions.  This issue seems to be rearing its head a lot lately in the blog community, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

Here’s what I’ve got.  It’s not as long as it looks (stupid narrow column width!) but nonetheless, you have been warned . . . Continue reading

TMNT and Other Strangeness

In my last post about D&D I mentioned that I played the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG in high school. It was actually a pretty great game, especially the character creation rules. I’ve never seen so much freedom to build your character from their physiology up. Anyway, I was reading about it on Wikipedia and saw this:

The initial edition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness was published with a section detailing a comprehensive list of mental illnesses that players could adopt for their characters, including an extensive list of sexual deviations. After parents of players objected to this list, the publisher covered over the list of sexual deviations with a plain white sticker. Subsequent editions removed the list entirely. Copies of the 1st edition with the list of sexual deviations consequently sells for a premium on auction web sites like eBay.

Ah,the days of mutant necrophiliac psychic frog mercenaries.  If only I could go back in time and stop my twenty-two year old self from selling my copy to a second hand bookstore.

Not that I’d sell it now – I’d play it again!

Why I Don’t Play Dungeons and Dragons Any More

Or, You took away my Gnomes, you bastards!

The time has come. I’ve been threatening to write this article on a few people’s blogs for the last few months, and here it is: “Why I Don’t Play D&D Any More,” with a subtext of “6th Edition Warhammer 40,00 Kind Of Makes Me Uneasy.”

You have got to be kidding me. We lost Half Orcs and Gnomes for these idiots? Are we sick of dark, edgy heroes fighting against their inner demons yet? No? Well wake me up when we are.

Continue reading

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