Sunday, March 27, 2016

Carnivorous Plants

The Ya-Te-Veo, or Carnivorous Plant

The April 28, 1878, edition of The New York World carried a story with the subtitle “The Man-eating tree of Madagascar.”  This was back in the good ol' days when news agencies didn't have any particular reverence for such esoteric concepts as “truth” or “ethics.”  Although the story is fabricated, it still has a few points of interest.  For one, it mentions a theory that “the germs of life not only may have been, but may still be brought to this earth from some other point in space, by means of aerolites, meteoric dust, or some kindred agency.”  More to the purpose of this post, it discusses a strange form of plant life – Crinoida dajeeana – and the Mkodo tribe that worships “the great tree devil.”

In terms of physical description:
          If you can imagine a pineapple eight feet high and thick in proportion resting upon its base and denuded of leaves, you will have a good idea of the tree...  From the apex of the truncated cone (at least two feet across) eight leaves hung sheer to the ground, like doors swung back on their hinges.  These leaves, which were joined to the top of the tree at regular intervals were about eleven to twelve feet long...  They were two feet through their thickest part and three feet wide, tapering to a point...
          The apex of the cone was a white, round, concave figure...  This was not a flower, but a receptacle, and there exuded into it a thin, treacly liquid, honey-sweet and possessed of violent intoxicating and soporific properties.
The story also relates how the Mkodos forced one of their number to the top of the tree where she drank the fluid.  Thereupon...
          The slender, delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered over her head, then, as if instinct with demoniac intelligence, fastened upon her with sudden coils round and round her neck; then...the tendrils, one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity rose...and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening, with the cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas...  And now the great leaves rose slowly and swiftly like the arms of a derrick...and closed about the...victim with the silent force of a hydraulic press and the ruthless purpose of a thumb-screw...  A moment more...from their interstices trickled down the stalk of the tree great streams of viscid, honey-like liquid, mingled horribly with the blood and oozing viscera of the victim.  At the sight of this the savage hordes...yelling madly, bounded forward, crowded to the tree, clasped it, and with cups, leaves, hands, and tongues, got each one enough of the liquor to send him mad and frantic.  Then ensued a grotesque and indescribably hideous orgie...
Of course, because it was published in a newspaper, some people considered it to be a factual account.  I guess we could call this an example of Edgar Allen Poe's Law.

In 1887, Buel's Sea and Land discusses the Yateveo plant (depicted above).  Supposedly, “when excited it violently agitates its long, tentacle-like stems, the edges of which, rasping upon each other, produce a hissing noise...”  Also, the 'stems' are so poisonous “that if the flesh of any animal be punctured by the sharp barbs, a rapidly-eating ulcer immediately forms, for which there is no known antidote, and death speedily ensues.”  Although he devotes a full page to its picture, Buel doubts – but does not completely discredit – the existence of the Yateveo.  I find it interesting that Buel was compelled to mention that – even at the late date of 1887 – some people doubted the reality of the gorilla.  Buel states, “I do not say that the gorilla is a myth, but until stronger evidences of its existence are produced we may expect that there will be doubts of its existence.”  At a point in time when the existence of gorillas could be doubted, I suppose that entertaining the possibility of a tentacle tree was not completely irrational.

If nature has deprived us of man-eating plants, at least we can rely upon fiction to supply us with such entities.  Dragon #53 (September, 1981) contains a article that describes John Wyndham's triffids in D&D terms.  Evidently, Doubleday, publisher of The Day of the Triffids, granted permission for this.  The person responsible for the article is Mark Nuiver, whose known contributions to role-playing games are limited to a few creature write-ups in Dragon.  Here is an edited presentation of the D&D triffid:

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Visit to the Treasure Vault (Part IV)

Art by Stephan Peregrine

(Yes, I'm dragging this thing out another week.  I have some irons in the fire, but currently the fire is lukewarm – if that makes any sense.)

The object depicted above is Mordin's Mystical Mirror.  According to Flying Buffalo's Treasure Vault, Mordin was a “great and powerful wizard” who wanted “to take over the Sarilian Empire.”  Apparently, Mordin did not accomplish this and, upon his death, “most of his possessions [were left] to various Sorcerers' Guilds.”  The mirror's current owners, Wil Lake and Ike Moss, say they purchased the mirror from a “little known” Sorcerers' Guild.  However, there's nothing to suggest any association between Mordin and the mirror.  Wil (human) and Ike (half-elf) are confidence artists and, in their efforts to sell the mirror, they claim that Mordin created it.  The circumstances of the actual origin of the mirror – and how Wil and Ike acquired it – are not detailed.

Wil and Ike attempt to sell the mirror for ten thousand gold pieces, “but they will settle for 5000.”  They claim that the mirror can be used to view past events.  This is true to a limited extent; the mirror can show “what happened five minutes ago at the mirror's current location.”  Wil and Ike will also provide a (bogus) book of incantations that can be employed to change the difference in time and location of the “target.”  (The rune-like symbols on the frame “are, in fact, meaningless.”)  Anyway, the wording in the book “is complicated enough for a dim-witted buyer to get so confused as to give up and for those of average intelligence to conclude that the mirror's failure to 'change settings' is their fault for misreading the instructions.”  I guess that smarter than average people aren't going to buy the mirror.

The first scenario suggestion for this item is that “Wil and Ike make their pitch to the player characters.”  (yawn)

The second scenario suggestion involves Baron Throkmorton, a noble interested in improving his position via blackmail.  He knows of Mordin's Mystical Mirror “through paid spies.”  The baron prefers to remain anonymous in his dealings; in fact, “He does all of his business through disguised middle-men.”  When he buys the mirror and discovers that it doesn't work, “he hires the player characters to track down Wil and Ike, in the interests of getting his money back.”  If the player characters pester Wil and Ike, the confidence artists “will threaten to announce the baron's intentions unless he leaves them alone.”  It is not explained how Wil and Ike know that the baron is their customer or what his intentions would be.  Ike has 'good' ability with the following types of magic:  combat, clairvoyant, conveyance, and concealment.  Perhaps he was able to use magic to determine such information.  (Incidentally, Wil can “conceal his identity.”  He has a 75% chance to fool a stranger, but only “a 25% chance of fooling anyone who's seen him before.”)  If Wil and Ike are threatened with death, “Ike will calmly announce that he has a written record of the transaction specifying not only the place, the time, and the name of the buyer but also his speculations on what the buyer (Throkmorton) intended to do with the mirror.”  Ike states that the written record...
...will be magically prepared to materialize in the hand of every bellcrier in town the instant either Wil or he dies.  Of course he's bluffing, but Ike is a good bluffer.
Of course, if the point is to recover the money, any threat of death is itself a bluff.  Also, if Wil is killed, the bellcrier notice is essentially Ike's confession of perpetrating a scam.  Also, being a good bluffer is irrelevant if lie detection magic can be brought to bear.  Yet Ike is 'good' with concealment magic; perhaps he can magically thwart lie detection.  Regardless, the basis of the scenario should not be about threats and counter-threats.  I would expect that Wil and Ike have a cagey plan to avoid the consequences of their criminal activities, possibly a plan utilizing magic.  In the first scenario suggestion, Wil and Ike leave town after selling the mirror.  There's no reason why they wouldn't do the same in the second scenario.  The challenge to the player characters should be tracking down the two rogues and/or defeating whatever plan they implement.

Treasure Vault is not without its attempts at humor.  One of the described items is The Staff of the Sigil.  If a magic-using character strikes someone with the staff and speaks that person's true name, the victim goes to “an extra-spacial prison, and is in a state of suspended animation.”  The face of each victim appears carved into the staff.  One of the non-player characters associated with this item is:
     DUKE FORTINBRAS V.  Human.  Ht: 5'6".  Wt: 220 lbs.  Age: 58.  Fighting prowess: poor
     Duke Fortinbras was a very fat, gray-haired little man.  He was the first victim of the staff, and his chubby little face can be seen at the very top.  The expression is one of sheer confusion.  Fortinbras was a selfish, hedonistic, and altogether despotic ruler.  He had a great fear of magic and outlawed all forms of it.  Should he be recognized (from a portrait, for example) and brought back (by striking the staff to the ground and saying “Fortinbras the Fifth”), he will be very indignant and downright antagonistic toward the wizard who rescued him.  He has been rescued from the staff on the three different times since his imprisonment 75 years ago.  Each time he was returned to the limbo-like prison by his rescuer, who couldn't put up with him any longer.
This is an attempt at humor, albeit not a very successful one.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Visit to the Treasure Vault (Part III)

Art by Stephan Peregrine

While Flying Buffalo's Treasure Vault is intended to be generic enough to accommodate a multitude of fantasy settings, there are hints of a consistent background environment scattered throughout the book.  I suspect that this is part of author Steven Howard's effort to “interlock” the non-player characters as proclaimed on the product's cover.

Page 20 tells about the Warrior Queen Harmon, “the beautiful conquerer of much of the continent some seventy years ago.”  However, four pages later, the legend of The Eye of Gamel – a precious stone – indicates that King Farelis gave that stone to Harmon no earlier than fifty years ago (“when the Kingdom of Farelis was conquered by Harmon”).  You see, “The...eye has been missing for 250 years having been lost during the siege of the temple by godless barbarians.”  Then, “It reappeared nearly 200 years later in the treasury records of King Farelis III.”  Yet the following paragraph states that the priests of Gamel have been “anxious to retrieve it...for over 250 years.”  They would not have been looking for the stone for more than 250 years if they only lost it exactly 250 years ago.  If we assume that the first reference to 250 years should have instead been 270 or 275 years, the mention of “over 250 years” makes more sense and otherwise conforms to the notion of Harmon's conquest “some seventy years ago.”  Anyway, at some point there was a “tumultuous revolution which led to Harmon's death.”  Apparently, Harmon established several “secret treasure troves” prior to her demise.

The “godless barbarians” responsible for the disappearance of The Eye of Gamel may be associated with Konig the barbarian, “a famed adventurer and a great leader of men” whose similarity to any Robert E. Howard property is surely coincidental.  The legend of Konig begins thus:
Many years ago, a tribe of mountain-dwelling barbarians were captured and enslaved by a group of power-hungry wizards.  Konig, a member of that barbarian tribe, was working in a silver mine when he dug through to a big cavern where he found [a magic item that provides significant magic resistance].  What happened next is not clear, but it is known that Konig led the barbarians in a revolt against the magicians, who were powerless to stop them.
Konig is also associated with the magic sword Firebrand.  It seems that Konig recovered the sword from “the heart of an active volcano that went dormant for just three days every hundred years.”  Konig “returned it to the volcano just prior to his death.”  Page 14 indicates that the next dormant stage will be in 19 years.

Firebrand was one of four 'swords of the elements' which “were forged in ancient times by the legendary Elemental Lords so their chosen champions might do battle.”  Each sword is representative of one of the classical elements and their hilts are depicted in the image above.  How the swords were named is not explained in Treasure Vault, but I suspect that the Elemental Lords held a contest to see who could come up with the crappiest name.  The winner was Earthor, the earth sword; Aireon and Waterrel – the air sword and water sword respectively – tied for second place.  With the swords, the Elemental Champions were evenly matched against one another.  For whatever reason, the Elemental Champions were abolished and the Elemental Lords “allowed the swords to fall into the hands of mortals.”  The current possessor of Earthor is described as a detailed personality.
     ABNESS FROND.  Half-elf.  Ht: 5'6".  Wt: 130 lbs.  Age: 50.  Fighting prowess: good with any type of sword, otherwise poor.
     Abness is a fairly typical pre-middle-aged half-elf.  His hair is long, blond, and braided in the back.  His not-quite-human eyes are deep gray.  His slim body is quite muscular, particularly in the arms, shoulders, and chest.  Abness makes his living as a swordsman.  He does several different sword tricks, including fighting with a sword in each hand, juggling swords, and fighting three opponents at once.  He is taciturn and secretive, altogether an uncommunicative sort.  If pushed, he will reveal a little of his past and allude to “friends in high places.”
     Abness does indeed have friends in high places.  He has a natural rapport with birds.  He can speak with them, and they will obey his instructions to the best of their ability.  He is loathe to use this power in front of others, as he knows there are wizards who would love to dissect his brain to find out his secret method of communicating with birds.  He obtained Earthor when his best friend, an eagle, brought it to him.  He doesn't know where the eagle got it.
I would think that the ability to fight three opponents at once would be indicative of at least very good ability instead of merely “good.”  Anyway, in one 'scenario suggestion', the player characters “find out Abness' secret and are blackmailing him by threatening to turn him in to the Wizard's [sic] League.”  (Blackmailing a taciturn swordsman – or swordshalf-elf – who owns a powerful magic item and who can talk to birds is always a good idea.)  The other 'scenario suggestion' has the “birds...behaving strangely.”  When the player characters try to find the reason, they “stumble across Abness” and he attempts to protect his secret.  So, what's with the birds' behavior?  The 'scenario suggestion' does not explain.  As is evident, the 'scenario suggestions' have little to do with the magic item.  Although Abness is an interesting NPC, his connection to the magic item seems almost to be an afterthought.

The Elemental Lords could cooperate at times.  The Stone of Fire “was created as a joint effort of the Lords of Fire and Earth.”  In modern times, the stone came into the possession of “the great adventurer Paritobes Spring.”  For reasons not disclosed, Paritobes used the stone “to burn down the stables of the barbarian hero Konig.”  As a result, Konig evidently killed Paritobes and “The Stone of Fire has not been seen from that day.”  Konig would have no use for the stone since it “can only be used by those magicians who are able to cast fire-based spells.”

With regard to geography, the “Three Kingdoms” are mentioned twice in Treasure Vault (and are unlikely to be the Three Kingdoms from Chinese history).  The kingdom of Darkholm is referenced on occasion and may be one of the three.  The Orclands are also mentioned.  There are Dwarven Mountains, but there is also a remote Dwarf Island.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Visit to the Treasure Vault (Part II)

Art by Stephan Peregrine

Stephan Peregrine's sole magic item contribution to Flying Buffalo's Treasure Vault (1984) is “The Spirit Boat.”  This item appears as a small carving; the cat-person depicted above is shown wearing it on a thong about his neck.  Supposedly, there are several Spirit Boats, but this Spirit Boat “is said to have been fashioned from a fragment that the god Hrong Hrong struck from the left tusk of the Star Behemoth (the great mystical monster that haunts the abyss between universes).”

The Spirit Boat is able to... the command of its owner, assume the form of a full-sized sea canoe...In its expanded state, the Spirit Boat seems ghostly and transparent but is quite solid to the touch...this vessel can magically move without sail or paddle...It can easily sail (or fly) through the lower, middle, and higher astral planes.  However, it cannot travel to other universes or sail the skies of the material world.  And being a holy object, it will refuse to enter any of the demon-worlds.
More interesting than the magic item are the associated non-player characters.  First, we have Helga..
...a forest-witch and priestess of a coven of goddess-worshippers.  She has a vast knowledge of herbalism and natural medicine.  Her special talents include preparation of antidotes for rare toxins.  Helga owns a small farm and supplements her income by raising cart-ponies and by selling the occasional magic charm.
With regard to fighting prowess, Helga is “good with dagger, poor otherwise.”

One day, while looking for herbs in the woods, Helga came across a “strange cat warrior almost lifeless.”  This is our second non-player character, Prince Rrau, “an unintentional visitor from another universe [where]...His world is one in which cats have evolved into the dominant life form.”  (Prince Rrau received The Spirit Boat as a gift “from the cat-shamans of Smoke Isle.”)  It seems Prince Rrau “was a powerful wizard-warrior” in his home universe before “supernatural invaders...sorcerously blasted [him] out of his world.”  However,
“due to the subtle differences in the dimensional fabric, his magical powers are often ineffective or reduced.”  Of course, if I were a cat-person trying to impress a naïve forest-witch, that's exactly the sort of thing I would say.  “Yeah, I'm a totally awesome wizard-prince in my native universe.  My magic doesn't work here because of...uh...subtle differences in the...uh...dimensional fabric.  Yeah, that's it...dimensional fabric!”

Speaking of things I would say, no explanation is made of how Prince Rrau can communicate with the denizens of Helga's world.  We see in the picture above that he's wielding some kind of blaster gun; maybe he has a universal translator as well.  Regardless, Peregrine's drawing is special; if it was a black velvet painting, I would proudly hang it on my wall.

Anyway, the salient details for Prince Rrau are:
Ht: 5'11".  Wt: 170 lbs.  Age: young middle age.  Fighting prowess: excellent with rapier and similar weapons, otherwise very good all around.  Magic ability: uncertain.
We also learn:
     His weaponless self-defense technique approximates “tiger-style” kung fu (GMs may wish to add damage done by unsheathed claws).
     Sadly, he knows that his people must yearn bitterly for him to return.  This often subdues an innate good humor, but he finds spiritual strength by meditating on the god Hrong Hrong.  The only human Rrau completely trusts is his friend Helga; with other humans he is wary, being an alien in an alien world.
Naturally, Prince Rrau's “main goal is to find a way – through science or sorcery – to return to his world and destroy the enemies of his people.”  For her part, Helga “plans to help Rrau return to his world [and]...To this end she is resolved to advance as far as possible in esoteric magic and science.”

There are three “scenario suggestions” for The Spirit Boat.  Of course, since Prince Rrau owns the item, all of the scenarios involve him and Helga.  (They are “interlocked,” so to speak.)

In the first scenario, The Spirit Boat has been stolen.  Prince Rrau and Helga hire the player characters to recover the item from the “fanatical collector of occult objects” who hired the thief.

The second scenario starts with a “friendly nature-sprite” providing some information to Helga.  A wicked necromancer-king has plans to obtain The Spirit Boat.  (The player characters are supposed to be enemies of this necromancer.)  Rrau suspects that the necromancer has magic that will allow the feline prince to return to his own universe.  So, in a manner that the book does not detail, the “player characters enlist to help balance the odds in the upcoming confrontation with the necromancer and his army of spies and undead shock troops.”

With the third scenario, the player characters overhear Helga and Prince Rrau in a used bookstore.  While doing so, the PCs uncover information regarding the location of a secret library that was once owned by somebody “who may have known how to convert a Spirit Boat into a vessel capable of making the jump from one universe to another.”  On the basis of this scant prospect, the player characters accompany Prince Rrau and Helga because they know “that such a library might contain other information of extreme value.”  (This assumes that the PCs reveal the existence of the secret library to the cat man and the witch.)  Of course, “the road to the library leads through lands beset with plague, bandits, and civil war.”

To me, an obvious scenario would be the arrival of Prince Rrau's supernatural enemies in the campaign world.  They need to retrieve Prince Rrau for some reason; possibly to install him as a puppet ruler in his native realm so as to quell unrest.  The only way to track him is by detecting the Star Behemoth vibrations generated by The Spirit Boat.  The villains consider adding the campaign world to their list of conquests and the player characters get in their way.  Can an anthropomorphic wizard-prince cat, a bored looking forest-witch, and the neighborhood player characters thwart the diabolical depredations of extra-dimensional invaders?  Well, can they?!?

For some reason, I find Prince Rrau and Helga intriguing; maybe it's the gonzo concept.  Maybe it's that somewhere, there's a story – nay, a saga – of Rrau and Helga and their adventures.  Perhaps it exists only in Stephan Peregrine's imagination; perhaps Rrau and Helga were player characters in some long ago campaign; perhaps (Hrong Hrong help us) Rrau and Helga were protagonists in a badly written, never to be published novel.  Whatever the case, I want to know that saga; I want closure.  I suppose it's lost now, like