Backstory Cards: for Roleplayers, Writers, and Game-Runners

Friday, April 20th, 2018 | Posted by C.S.E. Cooney


So, our friend Tim Rodriguez came by our home a few weeks back when we were hosting a game-night. We’d thrown the doors open to a bunch of game-lovers of our acquaintance for a night of food and play, and they flocked in with their favorite games (Wari, or Oware, being the game that got the most giggles) and some very fine (I was told) single malt whiskey. (Or maybe it was double-barreled? Something. I don’t know; I was too busy making lasagna.)

Anyway, Tim brought some new Backstory Cards to playtest. Most of us (including me) who volunteered to playtest with him hadn’t role-played in, well, ever. Or at least for years, the fog of memory obscuring most of the details.

. . . But since we were just testing the cards for story-potential and not playing an actual game, it seemed to work out well enough, and pretty soon we were all, like, a gaggle of giant fungal glow-in-the-dark monster crabs running around ravaged urban landscapes bringing down mobsters. You know. Like you do.

And sometime in all the chaos, Tim may have mentioned something about a new Kickstarter project.

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The Secret Origin of Ultron

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 | Posted by Steve Carper


With the entire world counting down to an imminent and inevitable event that may shake the entire world and light up Twitter like nothing previous – no, not a Trump impeachment, but the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War – an Avengers robot column may be the only thing to soothe and distract the hordes long enough for the rest of us to stock up on survival gear, water, and dark chocolate.

For that I need to go back one movie to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Every good comic historian knows the origin of Ultron. He’s introduced in the pulsating pages of Avengers #55 (August 1968) as Ultron-5 and his back story is laid out in delectable detail in Avengers #58 (November 1968). Some indefinite time in the past Hank Pym – Ant Man, Giant Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, pick one – was noodling around in his workshop tinkering with “a crude but workable robot .. A faltering step on the path to synthetic life!” For reasons never explained, the robot turns itself on and its brain evolves from infant to adult in a matter of magnificent moments, giving it more daddy issues than all the Miss Golden Globes titlests combined. He, now definitely a gendered he, blanks Hank’s memory while he spends time off-page continually upgrading his body so that when readers get their first glimpse he introduces himself as Ultron-5.

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2000AD’s The Complete Futureshocks, Volume 1

Saturday, April 14th, 2018 | Posted by Derek Kunsken


In my ongoing study of comic history and the craft of comic storytelling, I’ve looked at the history of 2000AD, Alan Moore’s Halo Jones, and the density of comic layouts, in part because as a novelist and short story writer, I’m trying to learn things from other story forms. And comics have a lot to teach me about pacing, conciseness and story density.

And in no place are stories more dense than in 2000AD‘s Futureshocks. These are stories that range in length from 1.5 pages to 4 pages (basically 6-20 panels). Luckily for me, 2000AD is issuing a collection of their first 5 years of Futureshocks in The Complete Futureshocks Volume 1, and they sent me a review copy.

The Complete Futureshocks Volume 1 is over 300 pages of comics, which by my rough count is about 80 individual stories ranging in length from 1.5 – 4 pages, with a few rare ones that stretched across two issues and totalled 6-8 pages.

What did I learn from all these very brief science fiction stories? A few things.

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March Short Story Roundup: Part 2

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Cirsova 7-smallThe past month saw a bumper crop of new short fiction arrive in my mailboxes, digital and physical. This time out, I looked at Cirsova #7, Swords and Sorcery Magazine #74, and the bonus story I forgot to read for my review of Tales from the Magician’s Skull.

I love Cirsova. When it first appeared two years ago, I was impressed with what I saw, and ended my review of its first issue with these words:

If this is what the first issue looks like, I expect future ones will blow me away.

Subsequent issues have upheld that initial promise, but I found this particular issue’s heavy dose of space opera and sword & planet tales not to my liking. I’m too easily bored by rockets and rayguns these days.

#7 commences the proceedings with “Galactic Gamble” by Dominka Lein. It opens with a line that demands more funny than is delivered by the story:

Rasmuel lost his keys on the asteroid Zalima-46. 

Space gangsters, space monsters, and even a fight in a pit did not manage to make this one a winner for me.

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By Crom: Arthurian Elements in the Conan Canon

Saturday, April 7th, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne

ConanArthurian_GuideCoverJohn Teehan, in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy: Volume One, challenges the reader to think of their favorite contemporary fantasy novels. And we’re talking Tolkien-onwards here, not just the past few years. Then he gives a list and says it would be difficult to think of a book that didn’t have any of the five themes on the list. He is making the point that the Arthurian legend, largely brought to popular culture by Thomas Malory, was an interweaving of those five themes. High fantasy epics like David Eddings’ Belgariad still follow this path.

I immediately thought about Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales and how they didn’t really emulate this pattern. Or so it seemed to me. My friend Deuce Richardson immediately pointed out two stories that did significantly incorporate these elements. So, I decided to go back to the very beginning and take a good look at “The Phoenix on the Sword”: then, do a less detailed survey of the following stories.

So, here we go!

Characteristic One – Commoner who is Really a King

Well…we’re definitely 0 for 1 right out of the gate. I think of Shea Ohmsford, who is a descendant of Jerle Shannara (Terry Brook’s Sword of Shannara) or Belgarion in Eddings’ previously mentioned Belgariad). They have the lineage of kings (or great sorcerers) in their blood. And they rise up to perform great deeds or rule kingdoms.

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Too Wide Sargasso Sea: Hammer’s The Lost Continent (1968)

Saturday, April 7th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey


Hammer Film Productions’ fantasy-adventure The Lost Continent is an adaptation of the works of William Hope Hodgson. Or it is to me, anyway. The credits say it’s based on the 1938 novel Uncharted Seas by Dennis Wheatley, but my eyes don’t lie: what Hammer put on screen is the nearest any movie has come to capturing the aura of Hodgson’s weird tales of the slimy terrors of the deep and the unknown horrors lurking in the Sargasso Sea.*

The Lost Continent arrived during the final phase of Hammer’s golden age. The company had moved out of its original studio at Bray and was now shooting at Pinewood and Elstree Studios. The feel of a unified family was starting to fray, and Hammer’s best in-house producers would soon depart. But producer Michael Carreras, son of studio head James Carreras, was still around and pushing Hammer to make larger-scale adventure films. Although Carreras was one of Hammer’s most prolific producers of horror movies — he produced Terence Fisher-directed classics like The Mummy, Dracula, and The Curse of the Werewolf — he never had any personal fondness for the Gothics. He saw lavish adventure and fantasy films like She (1965) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) as Hammer’s future. The Lost Continent was meant as an extension of the success of those movies, although it sometimes veered into horror.

Carreras was also an occasional director, and when The Lost Continent’s original director Leslie Norman (X the Unknown) fell sick early in production, Carreras stepped into the director’s chair. Carreras also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Michael Nash, the name of his gardener.

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The Robots of Mahlon Blaine

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018 | Posted by Steve Carper

Mahlon Blaine, Cowering Nude With Robot detail

Mahlon Blaine was born in 1894 and was blind in one eye. People have been writing his biography since the 1920s and that’s about all they can verify. He provided the cover art, a faceless figure carrying a sword and spear, for Sir Hugh Clifford’s The Further Side of Silence. When asked for a few words about his life, he provided these:

Mahlon Blaine has illustrated these Malayan dramas with the magic of his own experience. A New England Quaker descended from staunch old New Bedford Whalers, Mahlon Blaine went to sea at fifteen and sailed before the mast in one of the last of the old wind-jammers. Then under steam he commuted from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic, to the Mediterranean, to the Arctic to all of Kipling’s Seven Seas where a merchantman seeks cargo. It is such eastern ports as Macao, Port Said, Hongkong, Pearl Harbor, that have given him his gallery of wicked, twisted Oriental faces and the museums of the world that have been his art schools. He has sailed up the Congo to make a collection of African masks, rescued fellow countrymen from jails in Indo-China, and nosed into many a Malay river for strange cargo and shipped many a Malay crew. He thinks that Sir Hugh Clifford has an uncanny knowledge of native psychology and can substantiate many of the stories by his own experiences.

Not one word is true, except possibly for the last sentence and “he.”

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Witch World by Andre Norton

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Witch World 1963-smallThis isn’t merely an excercise in cross-promotion (it is that, just not only that), but also a chance to redress a failing in my reviews of Andre Norton’s Witch World books. Neither here at Black Gate nor back at my own site, Stuff I Like, have I ever actually written about the first book in the series, Witch World. Now that I’m a “special guest” on the just released episode of the Appendix N Book Club podcast about the book, I believe I have a responsibility to write it up, too.

I’ve written a fair amount about Andre Norton’s classic Witch World series over the past six years. So far, I’ve read five of the Estcarp books, two of the High Hallack books, and two collections of short stories. While several of the books are less than stellar, overall the series is terrific.

Sadly, instead of being one of the salient series from sword & sorcery of the 1960s and 70s, it’s a half-forgotten afterthought. While I want to say that that’s a savage indictment of the nature of contemporary readers, really it’s the lamentable reality of the fate of the vast sum of popular fiction, no matter how objectively good it is or how much we love it. All a fan can do is put it out there that these are good books, still worth reading, and hope for the best.

Born in 1912, Alice Mary Norton worked as a teacher, a librarian, and finally a reader for Gnome Press before becoming a full-time writer in 1958. By then she’d already had a dozen books published, including such classics as Star Man’s Son, 2250 A.D. and Star Rangers. Based on their easy style and simpler characterizations, most of her early books would probably be classified as YA today. It was with 1963’s Witch World that Norton first wrote a full-fledged sword & sorcery book, steeped in pulp gloriousness.

The opening of Witch World is straight out of a Third Man-style film noir. Some years after the close of WWII, Simon Tregarth is a disgraced ex-US Army Lieutenant Colonel and desperate black marketeer on the run from his own associates. He’s just killed two of them, but the worst and most dangerous is still hunting for him.

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Tolkien’s Magic Sword: Anglachel

Monday, April 2nd, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Turin_HurinI wrote a post here at Black Gate about Nauglamir, the necklace of the dwarves. Personally, I would love to see that tale as a separate novella (note to self: I’ve written Doyle and Stout – do not take on Tolkien…).

Today’s essay is about another item: a magic sword named Anglachel. It is really a minor element of the book, but the story of it weaves in and out of many other parts. That’s one of the true wonders of The Silmarillion. It’s a vibrant, interconnected history of Tolkien’s world. There are just SO many characters and stories throughout it.

I’m in that weird, small group which cites The Silmarillion as their favorite Middle Earth book. It is essentially a mythology and history of Tolkien’s world. While I love Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, Tolkien set the fantasy standard for world building. The Silmarillion is really several long stories combined into one book.

John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, was a master storyteller. The Hobbit, with its tale of plucky hobbits and dwarves, a wizard, a magic ring and a dragon made what has been termed high fantasy appealing to a large audience. And The Lord of the Rings is an epic saga of good versus evil and of never giving up on what is right, no matter how daunting the odds.

Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings included bits of Middle Earth history. Gimli sang ‘The Song of Durin’ as the fellowship travelled through Moria and Aragorn sang a song of Beren and Luthien early in his travels with the hobbits. It was the history of Middle Earth and events of the First Age that were always dear to Tolkien’s heart. He tried for decades to get The Silmarillion published and he constantly revised and added to his creation.

Of course, magic swords are one of the most popular tropes in fantasy (and role playing games). The appeal can probably trace its roots back to King Arthur’s legendary blade, Excalibur. Bilbo was given the elven dagger named Sting in The Hobbit. Aragorn’s Anduril (the reforged Narsil) is an important symbol in The Lord of the Rings, while Gandalf bore Glamdring (Hey Gary Gygax, who says wizards can’t use swords?), a sword that traced its lineage back to Turgon of Gondolin. As does its ‘mate,’ Orcrist, which found its way to Thorin as he sought to reclaim Erebor for Durin’s folk.

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Birthday Reviews: March Index

Sunday, April 1st, 2018 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Full-Spectrum-2-smaller Realms-of-Fantasy-February-2010-smaller Fantastic-Science-Fiction-Stories-June-1960-smaller

January index
February index

At the one quarter mark in our journey through the year, here’s a look back at the birthday reviews that appeared at Black Gate in March.

March 1, Wyman Guin: “Trigger Tide
March 2, Ann Leckie: “The Unknown God
March 3, Arthur Machen: “The Coming of the Terror
March 4, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison: “The Last Voyage
March 5, Mike Resnick: “The Evening Line
March 6, William F. Nolan: “Starblood
March 7, Paul Preuss: “Rhea’s Time
March 8, No Birthday Review published.
March 9, Pat Murphy: “On a Hot Summer Night in a Place Far Away
March 10, Theodore Cogswell: “The Wall Around the World
March 11, F.M. Busby: “Tundra Moss
March 12, Harry Harrison: “The Mothballed Spaceship

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