Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Bundles of Holding, Bellairs, and a Session Report

Firstly: the Bundle of Holding is running a Quick Deal for the Hydra Cooperative!

It's a heck of a lot of awesome stuff, available for $15 instead of the usual $75. Check it out here!

Next: To borrow Granny Weatherwax's phrase, "I ATEN'T DED." Been over a year since I've updated this! (I'd apologize, but we all know it'll happen again.)

I've started running Legacy of the Bieth again, which I'm hoping will help with both thinking about and actually creating RPG materials (and updating the blog with session reports). There's a golden zone somewhere out there, where social media interaction helps with brainstorming and creating but doesn't wind up taking away the energy for same. Maybe one day I'll find it. 

I did make a serendipitous discovery recently, though. 

Art by Edward Gorey for (presumably)
Bellairs' The Dark Secret of Weatherend,
via Brian Ashcraft

When I was a wee kid, I fell in love with the work of John Bellairs, a YA horror writer. He mostly wrote YA horror-fantasy, centering on kids in white 1950s-era US small towns encountering the eldritch. (One of his books, The House with a Clock in its Walls, got made into a movie a few years ago.) Bellairs wrote one adult fantasy/horror novel, The Face in the Frost, which is amazing -- wonderfully atmospheric and creepy, while also containing a great deal of whimsy and fun. The Face in the Frost made it onto Appendix N, and so has had a couple of folks discussing it in our scene (Appendix N Book Club, Dump Stat Adventures, and a surprisingly underpopulated Bellairs tag at Grognardia) Bellairs wound up passing away in his 50s or so from a cardiac issue, in 1991. 

A couple of weeks ago I found out that:
  • Bellairs had gotten like 1/3 of the way through a sequel to The Face in the Frost, called "The Dolphin Cross"
  • Ellen Kushner, who had worked as his editor, found a copy (perhaps the only copy) of The Dolphin Cross draft in like 2009
  • This had made its way into a Bellairs anthology, Magic Mirrors, released shortly thereafter by the New England SF Association
  • As a Real True Adult with Spending Money, I could purchase a copy of Magic Mirrors and cause it to be delivered to my home
So I immediately ordered a copy, and got to see a favorite author returning to a world I thought would never be touched again. It was a delight. 

The Face in the Frost is a charming novel, that reminds me in parts of T.H. White's Sword in the Stone, with its whimsical tone and complete and cheerful disregard for anachronism. At the same time, it's got scenes of strange magic and horror that absolutely stand out and grip the mind, and spots of quiet and incredibly evocative worldbuilding. There are two parts of the book that don't age well (no women characters at all, and a positive-intentions-but-awkward incorporation of a Kabbalah practitioner), so worth noting beforehand. If those two aren't dealbreakers for you (and very reasonable if they are!), I do legitimately recommend the book.

The fragment of The Dolphin Cross shows what might have been. It doesn't hold together quite as well as The Face in the Frost (which is to be expected, as a fragment of a first draft). But what little we do get, is more of the same: both in the charming and in the quietly creepy-as-hell. 

It's mixed feelings, reading through an unfinished manuscript of an author who you love. The last time I recall encountering it was coming upon the 21st (untitled) book of the Aubrey + Maturin series. Joy at seeing old friends, sadness knowing that this is the last time...but unlike many final volumes, a strange haziness of possibility. Less definite, perhaps, but more evocative of possibilities.  

Oh -- if you do pick up any John Bellairs books, make sure to get copies with the original art if possible (Marilyn Fitschen for Face in the Frost, and Edward Gorey for the YA books). Bizarrely, there are later editions that don't use the Gorey art. 

Another Gorey illo from a Bellairs YA.
Bellairs's description of the hooded figure
with tentacle was actually a slow-burn
inspiration for the Bieth...

Legacy of the Bieth Session Report, 7/15/23:

Three adventurers of Maaqil -- street urchin and aspiring assassin-poet Krim the Rat, Turanian lamia Sybaris, and nomad bounty hunter Uqab -- were on the trail of Red Mansur, a bandit who had stolen a box of anti-mutagens from local alchemist "the Whisper." Saleema the Sparrow, a local fixer who Krim knew, had hired the group to retrieve the anti-mutagens. Red Mansur's capture or death would be an added bonus.

The PCs tracked Red Mansur and his gang to the nearby town of Fara Yeni, where they found that one of Governor al-Hakam's cavalry patrols had serendipitously intercepted the bandits as they were striking a passing caravan. The cavalry troop had failed to take out the whole gang, however, and the PCs set off in pursuit of the escapees.

They managed to track the bandits into a cave complex, which the locals of Fara Yeni had informed them was once the redoubt of a dark sorcerer. As the PCs and their hirelings followed the bloodtrails, they discovered that the cave complex had been expanded at some point into an underground maze of worked stone. The corpses of two of Red Mansur's bandits lay abandoned outside the complex. 

After encountering a magical projection of a robed man that barked strange phrases and hurled a sphere of all-too-real energy at the group, the PCs entered a large room with four statues - three figures in armor (two androgynous statues wearing strangely jeweled armor and bearing maces, and a male warrior clad in chain with a shamshir), and a female figure wearing a robe similar to the magical projection's. Torches burned at the ends of the chamber, with a strange heatless green flame made out of crackling lines similar to an audio waveform projection. 

After briefly investigating the statues and torches, the group entered a door to their right, following a winding corridor to a partially flooded room, strewn with wrecked furniture and the body of another of Red Mansur's goons, this one with fresh wounds. As they investigated the body, the group heard a strange scraping sound approaching them from down the corridor. Electing to use the room's chokepoint and ambush any threat, they buckled down. A flash of green light from down the corridor collided with one of the walls, then resolved itself into a strange creature - leonine in form, but bearing two tentacles instead of a normal head, and the whole of its body defined by more green audio waveform lines. As the scraping sounds receded, the tentacle beast charged the PCs, but was dispatched in surprisingly short order by them and their hirelings. 

Behind the Curtain:

I'm currently kickstarting play by dropping the players at the entrance to a one-page dungeon, a resource I had forgotten about until relatively late last week. The One Page Dungeon Contest is seriously one of the best free resources out there for GMs who, like me, punted their prep until close to the last minute.

I'm happy with the hirelings setup I'm using, inspired by Gus L's start of play setup from Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier (which I used for the previous phase of the campaign). The players will have a pool of faceless hirelings back at base camp (guarding their communal resources), but can also take some into the dungeon with them (at which point the hirelings suddenly acquire faces, personalities, and quirks). If a PC dies or becomes incapacitated -- or a drop-in player joins up -- there's a fixed pool of hirelings (either established or faceless) for them to hop into (but a limited resource while the group is still away from their home base). 

I've got grand plans for the urban and factional side of play, but getting the bandwidth and time to do things the way I want is tricky. So I'm trying to find ways to move forward, and keep the dynamic of play going, while building the structure I want in the background. Having a really committed player who's only going to be available for a limited time will also provide an incentive! 

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