Archive for September, 2012

28
Sep
12

watchmen: rorschach and the comedian

joesky tax

Links to a zipped file containing idiosyncratic adaptations for Marvel Heroic Role-Playing of Rorschach and the Comedian, circa the 1966 Silver Age period that I posited must exist in my earlier post.  The adaptations reflect personal choices, and I welcome commentary or suggestions about improving them.  Also, these character sheets are formatted for shit.  This is because I don’t know how to do graphic design, don’t care to learn, and have other things to do than please you.

violence in watchmen

Having paid my tax, I get to blither for a few hundred words.

When comics fans talk about the “Dark Age” of comics, they usually place its advent with the DC’s publication of Watchmen in 1985 and The Dark Knight Returns in 1986.  For the next several years, comics were saturated by graphic violence.   Over at Marvel, by 1989 the Punisher was holding down three separate titles based entirely around shooting criminals, and Wolverine probably surpassed Spider-Man as the company’s most popular character.  (1986 also saw the Mutant Massacre, which to my 10 year old mind was awesome.)

Given the increasingly graphic displays of violence in popular culture throughout the 1980’s, I think it’s unfair to blame super hero comics’ bloodlust solely on Moore, Gibbons, and Miller.  But I do think that Watchmen has interesting things to say about violence, and its gruesomeness is anything but gratuitous.

When I think about violence in Watchmen, the scenes that immediately leap to mind are the Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally Jupiter, and the set-piece battle in the last two issues.  But that’s because the rape scene was unprecedentedly repulsive in mainstream comics, and the set-piece is a great integration of action, character development, exposition, and moral dilemmas.

But these scenes are in one sense extremely unusual: they’re super hero fights!  With only two or three exceptions, all of the violence in Watchmen consists of super heroes beating the holy hell out of ordinary people.  This starkly contrasts with, say, Jack Kirby–another creator obsessed with violence as an artistic theme.  For Kirby, violence is a titanic, revelatory clash between unconquerable equals, even when Jimmy Olsen has to crash a motorcycle into Superman’s junk.  For the most part, equals don’t fight in Watchmen: super powered humans maim, cripple, murder, and vaporize largely defenseless people.  While it may not be the first to do so, Watchmen is certainly the most successful comic to view super human violence through the eyes of its victims–it’s the horror of Sally’s victimhood that makes the rape scene so terrifying.

The brutality of the violence in Watchmen plays to this as well.  When Rorschach takes out a fellow prisoner, he doesn’t just punch the guy: he scalds him so badly with a tub of boiling fat that the man dies.  Ozymandias surely breaks the jaw, the teeth, and the nose of his hapless would-be assassin.  There’s a sadistic element here: these victims are (literally) power-less, and we get to see every gory detail of what that would mean in a world where these sorts of people exist.

I would argue, though I may not be able to support, that it’s this element of sadism that was so attractive to the mainstream comics industry and/or fans who were entering their mid-teens at the time.  (The sadism element is perhaps even more pronounced in The Dark Knight Returns.)  Part of what was great about the Mutant Massacre, from a young reader’s perspective, is that the Marauders killed the HELL out of the worthless Morlocks, paralyzed Colossus, crippled Nightcrawler and Shadowcat, and drove Angel to commit suicide.

Watchmen may not have directly caused the over-the-top violence that began to saturate comic books in the late 1980’s, but its phenomenal success gave the industry a slight push over the precipice.

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27
Sep
12

Dolphins Rape People, Brooklyn 9/30/12

On my way to the Games that Can’t Be Named where I first saw people playing Everything is Dolphins, I came across a DOLPHINS RAPE PEOPLE sticker on Houston St. (This is apparently both true and part of a viral marketing campaign, in which I guess I am now complicit.)

The synchronicity was every bit as weird as the intrusion of rape culture into my daily life. I had to Google dickwolves, although I do run into prison rape jokes often enough that it’s my current go-to answer for “what aspect of contemporary life is like slavery in that we accept it as normal in a way future generations will be horrified by”. (In college the popular candidate was “eating meat,” but I say to hell with that. My grandkids will no doubt be freaked out when they realize that their dad grew up eating meat that came from killing animals instead of cells grown in a vat, but that’ll take a lot of figuring out.)

I bring this up because I’ll be playing Everything is Dolphins this Sunday at the game’s release party, which is being held at the Brooklyn DIY space confusingly called Shea Stadium. I have no fear that dolphins raping people will be part of the fictional events because I’ve played with many of the GMs who are listed as running Dolphins at the event and they are good-hearted folks, Ray’s Cyberpanky N.O.W. – an homage to R. Talsorian’s trying too hard to be edgy back in the day – notwithstanding.

As a rule we’re on the wrong continent for LARPing gang rape, which I also had to Google after Jason Morningstar opened my eyes to games that mess with the concept of “the bleed” during a highly enjoyable lunch at Durham’s Backyard BBQ Pit. I can well imagine a scenario in James’ proposed Watchmen campaign where Adrian Veight decided to invent Gang Rape to avert Armageddon between old-schoolers and story-gamers by giving them a common RPG enemy – although Jason and I are hardly our respective sides’ ideal cold warriors, and when I was in Oslo I had a great time hanging out with Matthijs whose description of We Eat Murder seems to me equally likely to have been a Veight Ent. fakery designed to unite Americans in nerd-rage.

Anyways reasons you might care about the Everything is Dolphins release party:

  1. If you are in the NYC area, or just like to know that gaming is happening in non-traditional spaces and reaching different audiences, this is Shea Stadium’s inaugural event of this kind. I hope that it’ll be successful enough to be the first of many. Come out and show your support! Tell your friends!
  2.  Dolphins publisher PlaGMaDA, the Play-Generated Maps and Documents Archive, continues to hatch stuff of interest to gamers everywhere. They’ve recently launched a Kickstarter to fund a book of ’80s fan-created D&D modules, The Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord & Other Adventures (which you can see in the archive here), and the Wired piece on it in their October issue also mentions that they’re raising money to make Dave Arneson’s papers available to the public through the archive:

Here’s the info on the event this Saturday – see you there!

We cordially invite you to a free party at Shea Stadium for the release of Ray Weiss’s first pen and paper role playing game, Everything is Dolphins. Here’s the list of activities.from 5 – 8, several dudes from bands (and otherwise) will be running games of EiD. Including:Eric Harm of Titus Andronicus

Brian Dudolevitch of The NuclearsHillary Livingston of Baby CastlesRay Weiss, author / of Butter The Children.(each table should be able to support 2-6 players)————————————————

At 8 begins a full fledged dance party featuring.

8PM DJ Mike Mckeever (Life Size Maps)

9PM DJ TBA

10PM DJ Zack Staggers (So So Glos)

11 DJ Baby Castles (Awesome DIY Video Games)

————————————————

Copies of the game will be on sale at the party.

Goodies like shirts, sample adventures, and other cool shit all on sale for cheap.

Free Admission.

All Ages

20 Meadow Street, L train to Grand.

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,’. . . (@)’ —~~~~ ,’
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22
Sep
12

Ayn Rand vs. Aleister Crowley: FIGHT!

james, why haven’t you been boring us with your blogging lately?

Lately I have been experiencing a rolling series of professional ethical crises in my new job!  It is awesome sucky.

But gaming-wise I could tell you about the latest adventures of my beloved  Sir Carabad who went to to war on King Arthur’s behalf against Rome.  Sir Carabad was part of a peace envoy lead by Sir Gawaine to parley with the Emperor of Rome, when Gawaine went psycho-killer and beheaded one of the defenseless diplomats and then led the Romans into an ambuscade and slaughtered them.  (As related in Book V, Chapter VI of Le Morte.)  Mallory for some reason leaves out the part where Sir Carabad, who was participating in the negotiations in good faith and who has an irrepressible urge for Justice, challenged Sir Gawaine to a duel after insulting Gawaine’s family as a bunch of backstabbing sadists.

Or I could tell you about or Barbarians of Lemuria game, in which I have sworn eternal revenge on Tavis’s buxom yet treacherous barbarian Zharrna, who stole the skull-sized ruby from the Pyramid of Skulls.

But that’s a story for another time maybe.  Here’s what I’ve really been concentrating on:

watchmen ’66!  now, with more KA-POW! and SOK!

The comic book world has been roiled up for a couple months now over DC Comics’ effort to wring every last dime out of their most prestigious property by releasing a bunch of Before Watchmen comics.  Other than general disinterest, I have no strong feelings about this.  Alan Moore sternly disapproves, but I suspect Alan Moore sternly disapproves of almost everything at this point.

Mainly, I figured if DC was going to exploit this terrible idea, why couldn’t I?  And thus, I decided I wanted to run a few games of Marvel Heroic Role-Playing set in the “Silver Age” of the Watchmen setting.  It’s one of those terrible ideas that I can’t say no to.  (As one Red Boxer phrased it, “When I play super heroes, I want to be Captain America, inspiring millions by punching Hitler in the mouth.  I don’t want to be raping people to death.  Thanks but no thanks.”)  Plus, it returns Watchmen to its Charlton Comics action hero roots: Moore and Gibbons coming to pick a fight with Ditko on the man’s own turf.

(As I assume all readers know, Ditko is a die-hard Randian; Moore seems to be an acolyte of Crowley; Watchmen is, at least partially, an agon between Moore’s and Ditko’s ethical systems.  I would love to figure out a way to fit L. Ron Hubbard into this somehow, and then we could have all of the Twentieth Century’s great crackpot philosophers in one bundle.)

but watchmen isn’t a standard superhero world, is it?

I’d argue it totally is.  The first few times I read Watchmen, I was struck by how spare and under-populated its super-world was: as a Marvel Zombie, I owned The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which listed 960 pages worth of characters, compared to the mere 6 major and 8-10 minor super-folk of Watchmen.  Also, comics fans tend to talk about Watchmen as a “realistic” setting.  But check it out:

By the mid-1980’s, you’ve got mass-produced electric cars and airships (possibly operating on anti-gravity–it’s not clear how Archie stays aloft), a bio-dome in Antarctica, cloning, a disintegration chamber, widespread genetic engineering (including the four-drumstick turkey seen in issue #1), glider wings, grapple-guns, infravision goggles, laser pistols, psychics, psychic sensitives, a “solar mirror weapon,” man-made tachyon pulsars, and teleportation blink-bombs.  All of that stuff would have been in development and even more exotic in the mid-60’s.

I think mainly what’s going on here is that super hero tech exists, but it’s expensive, and a lot of the people we see in Watchmen aren’t especially economically successful.

Ozymandias has a mutant lynx, an Antarctic Fortress with a disintegration box, multiple tachyon-pulse satellites, and a giant psychic suicidal xenomorph.  But then, Ozymandias is brilliant and has absolutely tons of money.

A rung or two down the economic ladder, Nite Owl II owns a radar-invisible submersible aircraft with missiles and flamethrowers (and a hidden runway).  Plus he’s got night-vision goggles, a laser gun, an owl-car, and a proto-type exoskeleton.  Not bad for a talented millionaire.

A rung or two lower still, Laurie Juspeczyk grew up in Beverly Hills with a super-hero for a mom and the best trainers money could buy.  By the time she’s 16, she’s evidently an extremely capable gymnast, martial artist, and detective.

In the Watchmen world, if you’re clever, rich, and motivated, you can be a super human.

Watchmen also contains implications of psychic phenomena.  The Giant Space Squid was cloned from a the brain of a “psychic,” and Ozymandias boasts that “sensitives” all over the world will have nightmares for years.  Nobody responds to this by saying, “WTF are you talking about, ‘psychic’?  I call bullshit on that, Ozymandias.”  (The characters object to the feasibility of other parts of his plan, but that aspect just slides by unremarked.)  Apparently it’s an accepted thing in this world, though kept entirely off the illustrated page.

Deschaines, or the xeno-organism based on his brain, could apparently transmit thoughts like telepathy, and others can receive those impressions at least on a subconscious level.

Curiously, Robert Deschaines was also described as a “clairvoyant” and a “medium.”  A medium is a term usually associated someone who makes contact with the spirit world of ghosts.  That’s an interesting concept.  Doctor Manhattan is, fundamentally, a ghost: a disembodied intelligence who took on material form but was never fully committed to the material world.  (Some of the ghosts in Inferno have a similarly screwed up perception of time.)  Are there other beings like Doctor Manhattan out there in the quantum foam, things that people like Deschaines could communicate with?

This line of thinking might imply that Moloch the Mystic was more than a mere stage magician; his act may have included genuine hypnotic abilities or mind control.  Considering he spent several decades worrying the Minutemen and the Crimebusters, and apparently his arch-foes were the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan and the extremely formidable Comedian, he probably had more going on than just a pinstripe suit and a .38 revolver.

(That’s admittedly a whole lot to infer from a stray comment about Deschaines, a character we never see.  But I think it’s self-consistent.)

The genetic engineering stuff shows up with Bubastis’s debut around 1975; Ozymandias notes that “eugenics” has taken great strides since 1960.  Via comic book logic, it’s impossible to imagine that this wouldn’t get used to genetically engineer humans or animals to perform certain tasks.  There’s the possibility of transgenic animals or people with grafts.  We don’t see any–but the plot never takes us toward genetics in any serious way.  We do see a roast turkey with four drumsticks in issue #1, though, so the technology has become sufficiently cheap and commonplace to have routine domestic applications.

The other thing we’ve got going on is cloning.  So it would be possible to mass-produce or create one-off duplicates.  Deschaines’s brain isn’t just cloned, it’s cloned and augmented in unspecified ways to create the Space Squid.

Just as importantly, Ozymandias’s plan depends on the fact that you can encode memories onto cloned brain tissue.  The volume of memories may not be very great compared to a true human, but it certainly sounds like the Giant Explodey Squid had at least an encyclopedia inside.  This suggests that cloned humans could be grown with memories of the original, or with specially encoded skill sets, or both.

Surprisingly, we don’t see much of computers in the Watchmen World.  With all the money in the world, Ozymandias is rocking what looks like an Apple IIe in his corporate HQ.  I guess most of the R&D budget went into these wackier technologies and computers are languishing behind.

Did the Comedian receive some kind of steroid treatment?  He seems to bulk up a lot over the course of 20 years, and is still a huge guy in his early 60’s.  My preferred explanation is that he’s been in the military for 40 years and it shows, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him to take steroids either, and it might explain a portion of the character’s aggression.  (As a reader of the comic, I don’t like this theory, but as a gamer looking for hooks, it doesn’t sound absurd.)  The problem with this idea is that you’d think we would see other juiced folks running around, either as CIA operatives or as criminal goons.  We don’t see anything like that.

But we do hear about various villains.  Not just Moloch and the Big Figure, but Jimmy the Gimmick, the Underboss, the TWilight Lady, and Captain Carnage, as well as old-timers like Captain Axis and the Screaming Skull.  There were apparently a fair number of these guys in the early 1940’s–see Hollis’s dying flashbacks–and in 1977 the Comedian teases Nite Owl II by suggesting he’s only comfortable fighting guys in Halloween suits, which implies there are still several around.

Interestingly, there may also be super heroes unaccounted for.  During the first and only meeting of the Crimebusters, Captain Metropolis opens the meeting by saying, “Let me say I’m pleased to to see so many of you here.”  The whole cast is present for the meeting, so you’d figure Captain Metropolis would say something like, “I’m so happy you all decided to come.”  But Moore’s a careful writer, and the implication is the actual attendees are a clear majority, but not the entirety, of those invited.  Who the heck else did he invite?  Mothman’s been committed by then, Hooded Justice, Dollar Bill, and the Silhouette are all dead, and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have sent their designated replacements.  There must be other super heroes out there who just never enter into the story for whatever reason.

I grant this is a little weird, given how tightly structured Watchmen is, and how comprehensively Moore and Gibbons designed their world around their six protagonists.  But it’s not unprecedented in comics.  Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men rarely involved other aspects of the Marvel Universe; Ditko’s Doctor Strange almost never had cross-overs.

We can theorize a leaping, capering character in Greenwich Village–the Village Idiot–possibly based around Ditko’s Creeper.  Maybe a Southern version of Hawk & Dove, Freedom Rider and the Nighthawk.  Charlton’s Nightshade never shows up in Watchmen, but might be a refugee from the paranoid Meta-Zone of Ditko’s later Shade the Changing Man series, which could be the source of all the aliens that Captain Atom was always fighting with, as well as the inter-dimensional space Doctor Manhattan teleports through.

Anyway, I do think this is a viable concept.  The trouble is thinking of a precipitating event…

16
Sep
12

The World’s First D&D Players and Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary

The Kickstarter for Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary is ending in nine hours. It’s a project deserving of support for a number of reasons, one of which is the quality and range of voices they’ve collected. Check out, for example, Atlantic editor Ta-Nehesi Coates on growing up with the Keep on the Borderlands:

I  met the filmmakers at last year’s Gen Con, was impressed by their passion and professionalism, and have enjoyed finding things to do to help the project along. One of these was to moderate the panel at Gen Con 2012 at which a preview of early footage was shown. A number of folks who were interviewed for the film were on hand, both on the panel and not. After watching the clip and talking about the parts of the D&D story each of us thought were the most important to be told, I took questions from the audience. The one I remember best was “Who were the players in the first ever session of D&D?”

Fortunately, I had a ringer in the audience to call on: Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World. I figured Jon was the kind of person who could rattle this off, but he was able to do even better than that. “Actually, one of those original players is here in the audience. David Megarry, would you please stand up?”

After the applause died down, David started telling us about what he remembered about those earliest Blackmoor sessions (refereed by Dave Arneson) and the people he played them with. The thing I found fascinating – and wouldn’t have understood before Playing at the World – was that the groups entering the Blackmoor fantasy world were still segregated according to the nations they played in  Arneson’s prior Napoleonic campaign. David still remembered them as such – he was like “well at first it was just Russia and Spain, it wasn’t until later that the groups in the dungeon really started mingling.”

It’s now possible to know more than ever before about the earliest roots of gaming. The job now is to put these stories together and reveal what they mean, and I think that Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary is going to be an invaluable part of that process. Go back it now before it’s too late!

05
Sep
12

Lich defeats 1st level party

In hindsight, rushing the Lich wasn’t the best idea. (And okay, we had like five 5th level guys, but two 1st level players for whom this was their very first B/X session.)

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how a lone spell caster type enemy can be taken down with a dedicated rush. We took out Strahd that way. We took out Devil Guts that way. We took out the Necromancer of Were-Tiger-opolis that way. But sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, the bear eats you.

Some of our problem was bad luck. We got hosed on some important initiative rolls, our archer couldn’t hit anything to save his life, and we had several rounds of unlucky saves against confusion.

Some of our problem was smart play on the GM’s part. The Lich initially took to the air, so our (too few) melee guys couldn’t get to him. The Lich was also somehow protected against holy water (protection from normal missiles?). The persistent confusion effect made it impossible to plan anything beyond the immediate round, and was arguably more effective than cloud kill would have been.

Some of it was just the design of the Lich as an enemy. The “see and flee” effect is a tremendously useful passive defense that applies against the entire party, and there aren’t a lot of ways to remove fear on several guys at once running at max speed. Though the Lich doesn’t level-drain, it paralyzes foes in melee, which means the party has an ethical dilemma about retreating and leaving valuable allies behind. The Lich’s ultra-low AC, by B/X standards, at least, means it can probably avoid conventional attacks long enough to get a spell off.

But mostly it was dumb strategy on our part, mostly mine. I blew my only dispel magic getting past an enchanted trap. We couldn’t bullshit his Iron Statue long enough to regroup and form up. The silence 15 foot radius was a lucky break, but after that our only real plan consisted of sniping a levitating Lich and trying to find a way to drop a chain of undead binding on him. Which should have worked, but for some very bad luck. Meanwhile the rest of us were too confused or fear-stricken to adequately help out. It was all we could do to retreat, though apparently we dished out some hefty damage.

I pushed for attacking again the next day before it had a chance to heal up, but got outvoted. Next time, pal. Next time.

02
Sep
12

Wear a Tall Hat Like a Druid in the Old Days

By stringing together lines from Mark Bolan lyrics, this Abulafia generator has everything you need for generating the themes of your next D&D game. A million thanks to Jeremy Duncan at Dandy in the Underworld for creating this handy non-pharmacological tool for injection of the daydreamer fantasy strain.

I’ve been buckling down to read Playing at the World cover to cover, after intially dipping into pages at random and then picking the brain of its author Jon Peterson as often as I could at Gen Con. I haven’t yet reached the chapter on the cultural influences of fantasy and swords & sorcery that fed into D&D. Convenience sampling indicates that this section is typically completist and uses primary sources to reveal all kinds of antecedents that are new and exciting, but I don’t yet know what it makes of T. Rex. Certainly I learn something about the early ’70s from the fact that a band whose first drummer was called Steve Peregrin Took was able to make it big with a mash-up of druidic lyrics and video effects of clouds drifting against mirrorshades.

One idea that came up in talking with Jon was that pattern recognition is fundamental to D&D. This is central to Playing at the World‘s theme of simulation because it means that the level of detail provided by the game can be very coarse. Given just a few dots and lines, humans will tend to see a face; add gamers’ willingness to participate in the process of imagining another reality and you get vivid experiences from a handful of d6.

An example of pareidolia, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”

For me, the enjoyment of pattern recognition in itself is part of the pleasure of playing in the old-school style. Random encounters, sparse one-page-dungeon keys, and evocative hex descriptions all foreground the experience of making narrative sense out of very minimal inputs. And playing with systems like OD&D that are full of lacunae and contradictions compels pattern recognition at the table on the level of game design; we’re cobbling together both an imaginary universe and the way we simulate it. I find that a high level of indeterminacy in story and system go hand in hand to create the sense that we’re discovering an independently real place through play. Both the things we discover there and the lens through which we view it are continually adapting as this other world comes into focus.

However, thinking about T. Rex also points out that pattern recognition works on familiarity. We see faces in rocks and trees because we’re humans and that’s what our brains are primed to see. Bolan’s lyrics often touch on mythology because that’s a deep well of familiarity that can be tapped with just a word or a sentence fragment.

It’s unlikely that T. Rex was any kind of formative influence on D&D’s creators, especially never having been big in America, but there’s no doubt that a huge part of D&D’s early audience was made up of the kinds of longhairs who thrilled to find hobbit references in Led Zeppelin lyrics. Gygax didn’t see Tolkien as a significant contribution to D&D, but this becomes academic once hundreds of thousands of people seize on the game as their gateway to Middle Earth. Likewise, the fact that the face on Cydonia is in reality just a coincidental arrangement of shadows on rocks shouldn’t limit our enjoyment of this:

One of the major accomplishments of the OSR has been doing the kind of religious education you need to see Jesus’s face in a tortilla. Marc Bolan’s lyrics can look like word salad if you don’t bring a big investment in druid hats to the party, while they’re super exciting if you care a lot about Beltane walks. Likewise new-school gamers didn’t see the virtue in random encounters causing TPKs because they hadn’t read The Seven Geases, and scorned games that generated narratives of amoral murder-hoboes because they lacked the Vancian language that made Cugel’s similar exploits suitable material for “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy.”

The fact that we’re now ready to play the DCC RPG as a “system that cross-breeds Appendix N with a streamlined version of 3E” depends on a lot of work getting people to read the fantasy canon that enables us to make a vivid image out of the minimalist elements of 1974-era D&D. My favorite part of being in the loop of the DCC development team was getting one another up to speed on the things ’70s fantasy means to us. Here’s one example from Erol Otus:

“George Barr is one of my favorite artists because he puts personality into his creatures, they all seem to have intentions. Little did I know that some 20 years later I would be sharing artistic duties with him on Star Control 2. I don’t remember Alan Garners story in detail except I have a feeling its one of the several that formed the basis for Harry Potter.” – Erol Otus, 2010 email

If the OSR is ready to rest on its laurels and go gently into that good night – which is a thesis I offhandedly advanced at Gen Con and need to explicate in a future post – it’s because we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding random Mark Bolan lyrics as a gateway to the wonders of 1970s daydream fantasy. However, the fact that there are still more of these awesome paperback covers Erol turned me onto which I haven’t blogged about yet means that maybe there is still some distance to go before we deposit our corpse in the well where it will taint the groundwater for generations to come.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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