Vintage Treasures: Greg Stafford’s Pendragon

Saturday, October 26th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

Pendragon Chaosium-smallBack in August, I wrote a mini-history of one of my favorite gaming companies, Chaosium, in the middle of a review of Pavis: Gateway to Adventure.

That was fun. Plus, it was a great excuse to wax nostalgic about the brief period between 1981 and 1986, when Chaosium released some of the finest RPGs and RPG supplements ever created. Published in handsome boxed editions, they started with Thieves’ World and continued with Stormbringer in 1981, Borderlands (1982), Worlds of Wonder (1982), Superworld (1983), Pavis (1983), Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984), Cthulhu by Gaslight (1986), H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands (1986), Spawn of Azathoth (1986), Arkham Horror (1984), Ringworld (1984), Elfquest (1984), Hawkmoon (1986), and the fabulous Horror on the Orient Express.

Wonderful stuff. Masks of Nyarlathotep is frequently cited — even today — as one of the finest adventures released for any game system, and Arkham Horror is considered a classic board game, still in print today in a new edition from Fantasy Flight Games. Many titles were expanded and reprinted in later editions, including StormbringerCthulhu by Gaslight, and Dreamlands.

But perhaps the most celebrated release, of a fabulous line up, was the title that legendary game designer Greg Stafford — founder of Chaosium and creator of the fantasy world Glorantha — considered his masterpiece: the Arthurian role-playing game Pendragon.

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The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in September

Friday, October 25th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

dunsanyThe top article on the Black Gate blog last month was Foz Meadows’s debut piece for us, “Challenging the Classics: Questioning the Arbitrary Browsing Mechanism,” an unflinching examination of the value of the classic fantasy canon to the modern reader.

The classics were a popular subject last month: second on the list was M. Harold Page’s article “(Not) Recommending SF&F Classics to the Young Person or Novice.”

Third was Connor Gormley’s salute to the prose of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock, “Who Took the Flowers out of My Prose?” Still sticking with the classic theme, I see. You folks are nothing if not consistent.

Fletcher Vredenburgh’s look at Karl Edward Wagner’s Night Winds was in 4th place, and Jon Sprunk finally broke us out of our September fascination with fantasy classics with his post “War – What is it Good For? Violence in Fantasy Literature.”

The complete Top 50 Black Gate posts in September were:

  1. Challenging the Classics: Questioning the Arbitrary Browsing Mechanism
  2. (Not) Recommending SFF Classics to the Young Person or Novice
  3. Who Took the Flowers out of my Prose?
  4. Night Winds by Karl Edward Wagner
  5. War — What is it Good For? Violence in Fantasy Literature
  6. Why I Write Fantasy
  7. It’s Your Job to Make it Interesting. Just Do Your Job
  8. Vintage Treasures: The List of 7 by Mark Frost
  9. The Other Appendix N
  10. Andre Norton, Michael Moorcock and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D


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Excuse me, Are you Using that Plot Device?

Friday, October 25th, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

Crossing LinesThe other day, I was watching a new Canadian show that I’m not sure is even airing in the US called Crossing Lines. It stars, among others, William Fichtner and Donald Sutherland, and promises to be a kind of Agents of Shield without the Marvel universe – a group of police officers from different countries come together to solve international crimes as an arm of the International Court. So far so good, except for . . .

In the second episode, a tender moment occurs where two characters bond over similar family issues. They look warmly into each other’s eyes and promise to talk about it later. I call out “Dead man!” And of course I was right. One of them was dead by the end of episode, leaving the other feeling bereft. And leaving me rolling my eyes.

While “Dead man!” can be fun to play (as can “She did it!”) it’s a sad commentary on the state of narrative that these games can be played so often.

Okay, I hear you say, so it’s a plot device, and maybe it’s a bit overused (where “a bit” means I’m understating). Is that really so wrong? Yes, yes it is. The problem with this kind of thing is that because we recognize it, we feel manipulated, and when your viewers, or your readers, feel manipulated, you’ve lost them. You’ve reminded them that not only did you make this bit up, you’ve made all of it up. When your readers start considering the structure of the narrative, they’ve taken a step back from it. And bang, as they say, goes your willing suspension of disbelief.

We could argue that this kind of manipulation doesn’t happen as much in novels or short stories as it does in television and movies. Maybe not. Novels, for one, have time enough to make readers genuinely care about a character before she gets killed. And plot devices are actually useful things; both as readers and writers we love them, except when we hate them.

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Blogging Dark Horse Comics’ The Curse of Dracula

Friday, October 25th, 2013 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

dark-horse-the-curse-of-dracula-tpb-122289Marvel Comics’ long-running Tomb of Dracula series by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan was a landmark in the medium. The award-winning series set a standard in the industry that is still felt four decades on. Marvel shamefully squandered their efforts to turn the controversial monthly title into an adult-oriented comic magazine free from the strictures of the Comics Code Authority. A dozen years later, the duo reunited to revive the series for Marvel’s Epic Comics line, but this highly underrated four-part limited series was not granted the accolades or the follow-up it deserved. Flash forward to 1998 and Dark Horse Comics offered Wolfman and Colan a three-part limited series to reinvent the property for the up and coming rival in the field.

The only tragedy is that The Curse of Dracula ended up being another one-shot limited series, despite the storyline’s potential to be expanded further. Much of the Dark Horse series recalls the story and artwork in the Epic Comics limited series from earlier in the decade. The plot is equally complex and adult and the art pushes the boundaries to the edge yet again. Once again, Marv Wolfman is crafting a new set of vampire hunters and has Dracula rooted in the world of politics.

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Goth Chick News: Doctor Sleep or Back to the Overlook Hotel

Thursday, October 24th, 2013 | Posted by Sue Granquist

Doctor SleepI honestly never thought I would ever again gush about a Stephen King novel, but here I am.

You see, I’ve been disillusioned for some time – as in ever since The Stand. And before I start seeing dozens of posts about how great the Dark Tower series is, or Under the Dome for that matter, to me King is and always will be the teller of horror tales. And frankly, he hasn’t really scared me since IT.

Or maybe Pet Cemetery.

Honestly, I felt King had lost his horror mojo – or had it forcibly extracted during the conception of his son Joe Hill, who tears up the NYC Best Seller list every time he puts pen to paper.

But back in September 2011, as King was receiving an award at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, he talked a little bit about the latest novel he was working on, Doctor Sleep – a sequel to his 1977 blockbuster hit The Shining.

This is an idea that I’ve had for some time. I wrote a novel in the ’70s called The Shining… I always wondered what happened to that kid, Danny Torrance, when he grew up… and this story started to form. The book isn’t finished yet, it’s called Doctor Sleep. This kinda goes back to: what’s the worst thing you can think of? I knew that there were bad people in this story that were like vampires, only that what they sucked out was not blood, but psychic energy from special people like Danny Torrance. And I came to realize that these people were called The Tribe and that they move around a lot.

I was skeptical then and remained so all the way up until September 24th, when my copy of Doctor Sleep finally arrived.

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The Top 20 Black Gate Fiction Posts in September

Thursday, October 24th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

Pathfinder Tales King of Chaos-smallDave Gross shot to the top of our fiction charts last month, with an exclusive excerpt from his new Pathfinder Tales novel King of Chaos. The halo affect also lifted his previous book in the series, Queen of Thorns, into an impressive 4th place.

There were a few other new faces on the list. BG regular Peadar Ó Guilín debuts in 6th place with his fourth story for us, “The Dowry,” the tale of an artist caught with a wizard’s daughter who soon finds himself in the body of a dog, and Michael Shea makes the list for the first time with his novella of Lovecraftian horror “Tsathoggua.” John C. Hocking leaps into the list despite the fact that his “Vestments of Pestilence” appeared with only two days left in the month, with a story that author James Reasoner called “An absolute joy to read… If you’re a fan of action-packed heroic fantasy, I guarantee you’ll be entertained.”

Ryan Harvey returns with his new Ahn-Tarqa tale “Stand at Dubun-Geb,” which Tangent Online called “A fun story that reminded me of Conan.” It joins the first Ahn-Tarqa tale in the Top 20, “The Sorrowless Thief,” published in April.

Also making the list were exciting stories by Joe Bonadonna, Howard Andrew Jones, E.E. Knight, Mike Allen, Vaughn Heppner, Aaron Bradford Starr, Jamie McEwan, Martha Wells, John R. Fultz, Gregory Bierly, and David C. Smith and Joe Bonadonna.

If you haven’t sampled the adventure fantasy stories offered through our new Black Gate Online Fiction line, you’re missing out. Every week we present an original short story or novella from the best writers in the industry, all completely free. Here are the Top Twenty most-read stories in September:

  1. An excerpt from Pathfinder Tales: King of Chaos, by Dave Gross
  2. The Moonstones of Sor Lunarum,” by Joe Bonadonna
  3. An excerpt from The Bones of the Old Ones, by Howard Andrew Jones
  4. An excerpt from Pathfinder Tales: Queen of Thorns, by Dave Gross
  5. The Terror in the Vale,” by E.E. Knight
  6. The Dowry,” by Peadar Ó Guilín
  7. Stand at Dubun-Geb,” by Ryan Harvey
  8. An excerpt from The Black Fire Concerto, by Mike Allen
  9. Tsathoggua,” by Michael Shea
  10. The Pit Slave,” by Vaughn Heppner


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Scale: What Pre-Modern Battles Really Looked Like

Thursday, October 24th, 2013 | Posted by M Harold Page


More men please!

That battle scene from Gladiator?

More men, please! Where you see a line of Romans, imagine five. Ancient armies numbered in the tens of thousands.

Sure, a thousand be-weaponed extras on-screen makes your mind go “1…2…3… Lots.” But real battles were several orders of magnitude larger.

Waterloo French Cavalry

More cavalry please!

Remember the Rod Steiger Waterloo? More cavalry, please! That should be 9,000 sabres. When you measure it out, they should fill the space between the two farmsteads. The only reason the Allied Infantry didn’t turn tail and run was because Wellington had positioned them behind a ridge so that they couldn’t see the tsunami of horseflesh about to wash around their squares.

Take an earlier battle on the same scale; Chalons — Huns and “allies” versus some Romans and lots of Romanized barbarians who hated each other. Jordanes says Chalons left 150,000 men dead on the field. That has to be a wild overestimate. However, suppose he’s out by a factor of ten and the body count reflects 10% of the men fighting… that takes us back to one hundred and fifty thousand warriors jostling and yelling, say about 75,000 a side.

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New Treasures: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

Johannes Cabal The Fear InstituteI still remember the first Jonathan L. Howard story I ever read. It was buried in the slush pile and I’d almost given up reading submissions for the evening, but told myself I’d try one more before heading to bed.

Turned out to be a good decision. The story, about a young thief named Kyth hired to penetrate a deadly tomb, was filled with surprises — not least of which was the amiable lich who congratulated Kyth when she reached the heart of his lair. It was titled “The Beautiful Corridor,” and I was happy to purchase it for Black Gate 13 — and its sequel, “The Shuttered Temple,” for BG 15.

Jonathan’s first novel was the highly regarded Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009), followed by Johannes Cabal the Detective (2010). Now at last the third volume has arrived and it promises a fresh serving of twisted comic fantasy, as the intrepid and resourceful Johannes Cabal plans an expedition into the Dreamlands.

Beyond the wall of sleep lie the Dreamlands, a whole world formed by dreams, but not a dream itself. For countless millennia, it has been explored only by those with a certain detachment from the mundane realities of our own world, its strange seas navigated, and its vast mountains climbed by philosophers, and mystics, and poets.

Well, those halcyon days are over, beatniks.

Johannes Cabal is coming.

Cabal, a necromancer of some little infamy, is employed by the mysterious Fear Institute to lead an expedition into the Dreamlands, an expedition whose goal is nothing less than to hunt and destroy the dread Phobic Animus, the font of terrors, the very source of all the world’s fear. They will enter exotic lands where magic is common and monsters abound, see wonders, and suffer dreadful hardships. Cabal will encounter witches, vile abominations, and far too many zebras.

And, when they finally come close to their goal, Cabal will have to face his own nightmares, but for a man who communes easily with devils and the dead, surely there is nothing left to fear.

Jonathan’s most recent novel was Katya’s World, the first book of The Russalka Chronicles. Read Jonathan’s article on writing the Johannes Cabel series and his interview with John Joseph Adams.

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute was published by Thomas Dunne Books on October 1st. It is 334 pages, priced at $24.99 in hardcover and $11.99 in digital format.

Passive vs Active Heroes

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 | Posted by Alex Bledsoe

Ask any established actor, and s/he will always say something along the lines of, “it’s much more fun to play a villain than a hero.” It’s no wonder: villains tend to get the best lines (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”), certainly their share of the trophy companions, have a higher standard of living, enjoy life more, and many go to their eventual demise laughing.

There’s another difference, though, that strikes at the very core of the hero/villain dynamic. The villains get to be pro-active. That means that traditional heroes are always re-acting.

It’s in the nature of heroes to simply sit around and wait to be needed. The most vivid example of that is in Batman Returns, when Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is shown sitting alone in the dark until the bat signal calls to his alter ego. Superman can’t act until Lex Luthor unveils his nefarious plan. Philip Marlowe has to wait for a client to walk in the door.

Just chillin' wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

Just chillin’ wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

And this goes against one of the great Rules of Writing, which is to never let your hero be passive. But it’s in the very nature of heroes to be passive, to wait until the villain makes a move, to respond to a threat. After all, how do you act like a hero pro-actively?

Well…ask Conan.

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Where Did Fantasy Come From? A Review of Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 | Posted by James McGlothlin

Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers The Makers of Heroic Fantasy-smallI love fantasy literature. And I’m greatly interested in its history as well. Where did fantasy come from? Is Tolkien solely to blame? How does King Arthur and his round table knights enter in? What about this business with elves and dwarves? Am I the only one who thinks about where this stuff came from?

As far as I can tell, there are very few fantasy histories out there and not much more than cursory stabs at explaining how we have the fantasy literature that we do. (For a couple of very good ones though, see the introductions to David G. Hartwell and Jacob Weisman’s The Sword and Sorcery Anthology and Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders’s Swords and Dark Magic.) So, when I recently stumbled across a whole book devoted to the history of fantasy, I grabbed it!

The book in question is Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy by (now deceased) L. Sprague de Camp, originally published by Arkham House Publishers in 1976. Even if you haven’t been an SF&F (science fiction and fantasy) fan very long, you’ve undoubtedly come across de Camp’s name.

De Camp was one of the most prolific SF&F writers of the twentieth century. He wrote both fantasy and science fiction, as well as non-fiction. I first came across de Camp through my interest in Lovecraft. He seems to have been the first person to have written a biography of H. P. Lovecraft — one that unfortunately has not aged well. But it’s clear that de Camp was very interested in the history of SF&F and particularly fantasy.

I’m not enough of an historian to be able to criticize Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers on a scholarly level; but as far as being engaging and informative, de Camp’s book is superb.  I found it to be incredibly engrossing — one of those books that are hard to put down.

Lin Carter — another prolific twentieth century SF&F writer — gives a fairly long and informative introduction. It simply whets your appetite for what is to follow.

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