Monday, 20 October 2014

Halloween Horrors Part II- Werewolves

So, the next member of the Major Horror Triumvirate to be tackled is going to be the Werewolf.

Now interestingly the Dictionary has a definition of Werewolf which challenges a lot of the Pop-folklore which has arisen from the many and varied films.

A person fabled in folklore and superstition to have been changed into a wolf by a bewitchment/curse or said to be able to assume the form of a wolf at will... In the Ancient Persian callander the eighth month was called Varkazana- October-November, literally "the month of the wolfmen". 

Now, please not the underlined point there. It doesn't mention the full moon at all. In fact the only reference to the Lycanthropic transformation being triggered by the full moon which I could find (which wasn't tied to the modern cinema era) involves sleeping outside on a particular Wednesday or Friday night in the summer with the full moon shining directly onto your face.
No one mentions being turned into a wolf/hybrid by force once the moon is full.

So, bear that in mind as we move into the world of the Werewolf.

OK, so what makes a werewolf? 
In short, a Werewolf is a person who can become a wolf-like creature or a wolf either through the magic of a curse of because of the moon...because that's what the moon does to certain people. Makes them wolves.

Oh really? And the sun makes vampires I suppose. 
Don't be daft. The sun makes Boggarts. However, the moon does have a strange effect on people. A very strange effect. If you ask anyone who works in the police or A&E they will tell you that their pick up and entrance rates go up around the full moon. It's a well known phenomenon in certain circles. And it makes a strange sort of sense.
The moon controls/causes the tides, its gravitational pull does that, or it's the moon's sex appeal to water doing it. Either way, that minx the moon does that to the largest bodies of water on earth and we squidgy humans are largely water, the moon is going to have something of an effect on us it is fair to assume.
Now bearing that in mind it is quite straight forward to guess that the moon might have something to do with Werewolves and their transformation.

How does one become a werewolf
Normally by being bitten by one, or being cursed. Other choices also include putting on a wolfskin belt/onesie or being bored and running around with a wolf hat on and howling at the moon.

What are the drawbacks
Well, depending on what variety of Lycanthrope you are dealing with anything and everything from being forced to transform under the light of the moon, full or not, right the way through to uber painful and/or permanent transformations.

What are the bonuses
Well, anything from increased sight and smell and hearing to increased agility and strength as well as rapid healing/immortality from anything short of silver...or dismembering and incineration, which works for more or less anything.

Are there any perks?
Did I mention the immortal bit? As well as the whole having a tail thing.

Do I have to become a wolf?
Why, no! Not at all, you can be anything you like! But if you are bitten by a Werewolf then some sort of wolf shape is traditional. The thing is that if you can change at will, as is often claimed, then you would be able to hold the transformation process at will...more or less. Once that becomes possible then you can choose how much of the wolf you would like.

Why wolves instead of bears or birds or badgers?
Anthropomorphic tendencies.

You what?
People like to give their qualities to animals and sometimes even to inanimate objects. The thing is that wolves are already very like people. They have rigid social structures and are dedicated and cunning predators. Qualities that early man saw and emulated. Early man studied the way wolves hunted and copied them, then they mystified the wolf. Golden eyes and all the rest.

How do you stop/kill a werewolf?
Well, if you can then lopping the head off is always a good option. Most things tend to struggle without the head. Traditionally however it should be a silver bullet. Preferably to the heart.

Is it permanent?
Well, death tends to be. Lycanthropy is usually permanent as well. Unless it is caused by a curse which is somehow lifted.

Werewolves in fantasy
So, having covered the basics of what they are etc we can address their general absence from the Fantasy genre.

Like the humble/stumble Zombie generally (with one or two exceptions that I have come across) Werewolves seem to have been sidelined into Horror-only. Usually set in our universe and stuck firmly there.

What could be more fantastical than a person who can change their shape? Well, having said that quite a lot and shape-changing is an area of magic that does pop up occasionally. But rarely is Lycanthropy mentioned. Which I find very odd, especially given that the father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien mentions werewolves in his epic creation story, The Silmarillion. Now, fair enough, they didn't quite make it into LoTR except as a brief footnote fund in the novel sized appendix, but come on, there has to be some more examples of Werewolves in fantasy out there.
And when I say Werewolves in fantasy, I don't mean fantasy about them, possibly set in our universe,because that is it's own genre, otherwise known as horror.
What I mean is the Dark Lords out there could be missing out on some seriously nasty shock troops!

Example time (parachute trousers are optional for example time)

  • Sorebum-"I really need that annoying band of freedom fighters flattened. They appear to have wiped out the Zombies I sent to wear them out and I don't want to waste more or try my crack legions. I need to hit them with something hardcore and vicious. hmmm..."
  • Henchman 6- "Lord of all darkness, what about the Werewolves?"
  • Sorebum- "Aha! I've got it, I will use the Werewolf Brigade!"
  • Henchman 6- "An excellent plan, my lord."
  • The Werewolves are committed after dark (these being the "change when you want" type of Werewolves) they sneak up toward the band of heroes.
  • Round dawn they attack. Dawn being the best time for sneaky attacks as everyone is a bit sleepy and generally not at their best, especially after a day of Zombie fighting. 
  • The tired heroes are battered by the ferocious assault and several are greviously injured before they can retreat.
  • Dark Lord Sorebum cackles and rubs his hands in glee at the news of the injured heroes.
  • On the next full moon (something has to kick off the change) the injured heroes change into Werewolves and run amok.
  • Sorebum-"Yes, I think that worked out rather well in the end. Pass the cocoa please Henchman 6."
  • Henchman 6- "Yes master."

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Halloween Horrors: Part 1 Zombies

Mogmush leant on the pommel of his huge sword "Cabbage" and watched the soldiery lining up. He shifted his weight before leaning his chin on the cold cross of the sword's quillons. He waved his hand at the men lining up. 

"So, the spears form the centre?" Mogmush took a lazy swig from a wine skin and wiped some dribbled wine from his chin. The knight next to him nodded slowly whilst eyeing the huge barbarian.
"And you lot with the shields and the swords and whatnot lurk on the ends of the line."

"That's right."

"And you stop the stinkers from rolling up the spears..." The barbarian paused in thought for a long moment. "Which is just as well as they're the ones who will win the battle for you."  

"Well I wouldn't go that far." The knight's voice sounded strained. A little further along the Wizard, Gudguff sniggered into his beard.
"No, think about it!" Mogmush was getting into his stride now. Or rather his lurch, given how much he had drunk. "The spears are nice and long and unarmored. They're terrified peasants stinking up the valley for the world to smell. The..." He paused, realising that he had already said called the horde of dead Stinkers. "Walking rot," he let the name sink in before carrying on, sounding pleased with his inventiveness, "will go straight for them. All the peasants have to do is some serious prodding." The barbarian nodded to himself. "It should work." 

"So pleased we have your approval." The knight muttered to himself before heading off to find his lord and complain. 

Mogmush stayed where he was and stared at the aggressive geography of the valley before them. 

The valley was simply known as "The Pass". It had defeated more armies than the plague and dysentery combined, or so the locals said. To be fair, they've  resisted Sorebum this long. The barbarian looked at the forces shambling into line down below, then raised his gaze toward the distant entrance into the steep valley. The walking dead clogged it from one side to the other and stretched back out of sight. 
There's more dead walking into this valley than I have numbers for. The huge drunkard mused. he spent a last moment looking out before shambling toward the waiting skirmishers. Mind you, I cant count so that's saying much.   

Yes, that's right, in the run up to Halloween I will be looking at some of our favourite creatures each week. This week I thought I'd tackle the one being that, despite world wide recognition and almost infinite movie, tv and literary incarnations.

So what's wrong with Zombies?
Nothing! Absolutely nothing. As fodder for fantasy they are perfect, the ultimate in chop-through-able bad-guys. They are excellent as expendable "troops" for the Dark Lords out there. Ultimately expendable, totally cost free to maintain and utterly obedient (to a given value of obedient) to the Dark Lord/s.

And I'm narked because with the possible exception of Song of Ice and Fire and a couple of choose your own adventure books Zombies don't seem to have made the crossover into mainline fantasy and I just don't understand why.

Lets go through the anatomy of the Zombie and see what we find.

Zombies the Ins and Outs.

  • Cause of a Zombie: Actually unknown. Unlike most other monsters or creatures Zombies seem to have no single cause. Rather you have a total smorgasbord of causes ranging from cursed graveyards, high background magic or magic meteors and GM food. Radiation would also be a half decent excuse as well as bizarre disease. The major thing with those last two would be that they would take over your entire plot, unless you had a seriously biiig plot. 
  • Type of Zombie: Realistically you've got two types. One. The first are the traditional, slow and stumbly but utterly implacable. Two. The second are a type not really seen in any of the popular incarnations. These would be the survivors, the first wave of the infected who just become mumified and leathery. Imagine a zombie made out of leather and wood, no soft targets just thick hide and bone. These things would be scary as hell and tough to deal with, a job for maces and heavy axe blades.
  • Spread: By spread I mean infection rate. Zombies tend to move toward clusters of people, meaning that they would go from village to village, gaining strength as they went. With the exception of refugees or maybe runners in an organised realm there would be little or no news moving from village to village. The slow and steady pace of a growing horde of mobile corpses would be sufficient to wipe out most of a region.
  • Response: At best the local lord/s would be poorly equipped to respond to such a threat. Most of their levies would probably have been devoured by the horde, leaving them with only their household troops to rely on. At best they would be heavily outnumbered and that would only get worse. If the local lord/s allowed themselves to be besieged by the dead then the situation would be equally shitty. They might be able to hold out, or whittle down the horde with some good arrow work, or maybe open the doors and use the narrow choke points to get rid of as many as possible. Assuming the weight of numbers didn't force them into submission. 
  • Cure: Magic! That or a lot of killing. 
So you're saying you want to see Zombies?

Look, they are a very versatile subject to play with. There are no shotguns to kill them, no generators to provide shelter and warmth and comfort. Just muscle and steel and fire. 
I'll now break down an example outbreak. 

  1. A bitter and hated man dies and is buried with bugger all ceremony, mourned by no one.
  2. The dead man rises as a revenant, a vengeful spirit hell bent on wreaking horror. In the process of the horror-wreaking half a dozen people are bitten. Covering a range of ages, builds and sexes. 
  3. The locals don't really understand the problem and dismember the Revenant but ignore the bitten, giving them such treatment as can be afforded.
  4. Several days pass, the bitten succumb and turn wiping out the whole village, which then slouches away towards the next village in the area. 
  5. Local lord hears about peasants abandoning villages, tax collector/s report no one around and spots of blood. Lord assumes his/her rival has launched a raid so goes to raid his/her rival.
  6. meanwhile the Zombies slouch onwards and consume more and more of the locals.
  7. By the time the Lord has finished with the rival, either winning or loosing, their housetroops are tired and wounded and totally unable to deal with the massive threat now lurking not far away.
  8. The Lord is besieged and unnable to do much of anything. His/Her rival turns up for some vengeance, spots the siege and goes home, deciding to ignore the threat as it's doing his/her job for them. 
  9. Six months later most of the local lords are now dead and slouching their way toward the capital as part of an enormous horde of the dead which no one realised was festering away within the borders. 
Zombies have a right and fitting place in the world of Fantasy that no one seems to be using at the moment, its a crying shame actually that no one seems to want to combine the two genres and create something new and functional out of it!

Mogmush gave up, he'd killed at least thirty or more of the stinkers. He didn't know that however as he couldn't count. He belched mightily before spinning around and wandering back toward the main battle line. 
"Bollocks to this!" He yelled to the skirmishers behind him who were still sending arrows at the shambling horde. "It's no fun when they don't fight back!" 

Mogmush crossed the hundred yards in fairly quick time and spoke to the grinning Wizard Gudguff. 

"Squishy bastards don't fight, they don't run, they just..." The barbarian struggled to find the words for his disgust, "shamble at you." 

"Good, so you've seen what we're up against?"

"Bollocks to them." Mogmush muttered as he urinated copiously toward the horde. Gudguff ignored the barbarian and summoned a fireball the size of a horse. 

"You'll want something hotter than that my friend." 

The fire sizzled toward the oblivious Zombies who were about to become a little more oblivious.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Communications and associated perils!

Verathog surveyed the destruction he had wrought and smiled to himself. Smoke billowed from a small hut which sagged as the flames ate away at it. 
Alright, so its not the biggest raid ever but it is a start. He looked at his "Horde". Dad'd be proud. 
At present the horde of Verathog consisted of his cousin Rofgah and his mate Tinny. Tinny was a bit slow and had a tendency to dribble if he was left unsupervised for too long. Rofgah was just the right side of thick but with a nasty streak thrown in. 

Between them the "Horde" and Verathog had conquered a hamlet thirty miles from home. Verathog looked at the ruin they had created and frowned. Calling it a hamlet might be a bit much. There's usually more than three buildings for a start. His heavy brows knitted themselves together as he frowned even harder. I'm fairly sure there's meant to be people in a hamlet as well... Behind him half of the "Horde" had sat down and was playing with a broken piece of wood, the other half was aiming a kick at the sitting member of the "Horde".

As far as military victories went it really wasn't much. As far as victories of any sort went it barely made the scale. 

Verathog let his shoulders sag for a moment as he surveyed the minor damaged they had inflicted onto the already fairly dilapidated settlement. It hadn't gone at all the way the wannabe Warlord had thought it would. 
He kicked a splintered wooden bucket that had been half broken before the trio had turned up. In fact all they had managed to do was break some of the half rotten wooden shutters and knock over the drystone wall. Even the rats hadn't been all that bothered by their arrival. Simply skittering away into the gloom and peering as the three young men, that is apprentice barbarian raiders, stumbled round the small yard and broke various things in a half-hearted and guilty sort of way.  

Dad wouldn't be proud of me for this...if he could see this he'd... The young man's thoughts lurched to a sudden halt. He looked around the broken down farm and basked in his sudden idea. Dad wont see this! No he wont! Verathog rubbed his hands together in glee as he stared at the "Horde". He might just hear about it though!
"Oi! Rofgah! get a fire started!" Verathog started slinging broken wood in the gaping doorway of the nearby farmhouse.

Right then, I'm banging on about communication this weekend. Having very recently entered the world of spontaneous mercantile opportunity information exchanges I have a different take on instant communications.

Right, so what's wrong with communication then !?
Absolutely nothing! It's a vital and essential part of being human! Or Elvish, Orcish, Dwarvish, Trollish, Dragonish, Wizardish or any other sort of ish you can think of. Without the ability to communicate societies of any Ish you care to come up with will fall apart!

OK, so how does that affect my Fantasy?
Depending on what sort of world you've built and what sort of rules it has it actually might not. The problem comes with Instant Communication.

You What?
Well, think about it! How can your Hero struggle against rumour and disaster if they are able find out the facts in a moment from some device which lets them speak to people on the other side of the world?
Think about it, word of mouth might be the best way to advertise something but rumour spread the same way is best way to inflate a minor issue into a major one.

Example time.

  • Dark Lord Sorebum decides his troops could do with some exercise.
  • He orders a single squad from the 666th Legion of Doom to go and hide in a farm, which is for the purpose of this demonstration roughly forty miles from the nearest city.
  • The farm is totally abandoned when the squad arrives but is one of dozens in the area, the others all being inhabited. 
  • Once the squad has been gone from the barracks for a few hours the rest of the Legion is sent out to find them. 
  • The Dark Lord is expecting this training exercise to last a couple of days and awaits the results with glee. 
  • In the area of the abandoned farm and it's hidden squad a small and not entirely intelligent child, perhaps a young shepherd of any gender you prefer, see the squad enter and gets entirely the wrong end of the wrong stick. 
  • The same child runs off to tell mother/father/the village elders what they have seen and exaggerates the number of soldiers because 1) They were scary looking armoured doom legionaries and 2) The child in question cannot count. Thus ten become a million. 
  • The parents/village elders, rather sensibly decide to go and investigate the child's claims but decide to leave for the morning. 
  • During the night the rest of the Legion of Doom arrive in the area and set up camp.
  • The locals miscount the campfires in the dark and shit their collective pants as they realise the child was right...more or less. 
  •  Word spreads and and spreads, the numbers getting slightly bigger with each telling until the rumour reaches the nearest city. 
  • Shortly after rumour come the refugees, or the sensible ones who decided to leave before things got really bad. 
  • The city Rulers see the fleeing slopmongers and, having heard the rumours, put two and two together to make fifteen.
  • Having jumped to the wrong conclusion the rulers rally whatever army or militia they have and decided to sally forth and meet the Legion/s of Doom.
  • The Legion of Doom, having completed it's training is now relaxing and totally not expecting to be attacked. 
  • When the army of the free(ish) city surprises the Legion of Doom and inflicts a defeat on them, most because of the element of surprise, Sorebum gets wind of it and is not amused.
  • Sorebum then commits the rest of the Legions of Doom and flattens the area. Something he had no intention of doing as it was primarily responsible for the production of novelty wooden clogs.
So, as we can see, with the uncertainty and lack of Instant Communication what is actually a simple (if misplaced and unadvertised) training exercise can be misconstrued as a sneak attack by an aggressive neighbour with a Novelty Clog Deficit. 

With Instant Communication however, the locals could have spoken to someone with some experience of military maneuvers. The poor slopmongers could have had their natural stampeding instincts overridden by a voice of authority. A parley could have been arranged and perhaps a quaint and possibly endangered cottage industry.

But, I need it to communicate vital plot points to my characters!
Then do the old fashioned thing and send a courier, or use the postal service assuming there is one. 

Yes! Mad bastards employed to ride or run as fast as they can with a letter or information or a parcel which they will hopefully deliver to someone you know. 

But isn't that slightly dangerous?Yes! It is! That's kind of the point really. If you have a vital message that needs to be delivered or a war will break out or if your character is in a war and needs a message sending (say for more men or thicker blankets or something) then you can ramp up the tension for your audience by having the runners/couriers die or sprain a limb or stop for a shit or something. We your audience will be on the edges of our seats/beds/other reading places as we wait for the message to be delivered. Imagine our horror as the Protagonist realises that the message has not gotten through! What then?

Ahhh! I get it!
I thought you might, but for now lets go back to the amazing power of rumour. 

Verathog was struggling to keep his expression in a sad face. This scheme is just too good! 
He moved away from the shocked villager-model of slopmongers he had been speaking with and lurched in a limping and obviously painful sort of run toward the village boundary. 

Four villages should be enough I think... 

His idea had been painfully simple. Which was just as well given that anything complex would become painful to think about for the "Horde". Tinny sometimes had trouble remembering to breathe. 

The plan was to spread rumours of his own ravaging and raiding in the surrounding shitty little villages. To help the rumours along Verathog had smeared himself in soot and ashes from the farm which the "Horde" had burned down on his order. 

And now we just go back to the first place and see if everyone has left!

As far as plans went it wasn't too bad. The theory was that, having seen smoke and spoken to their immediate neighbours, the local slopmongers would work out, eventually, that a ravaging horde of Barbarians was working its way through the valley. The slopmongers would flee and Verathog would be able to loot and pillage to his hearts content without having to actually do any work.

Several days later Verathog was cursing himself. To be accurate and fair he was actually cursing the world in general but his own name was top of that list. 

It was difficult to curse with the gag in but given that his arms were locked into the stocks he couldn't take it out. His eyes rolled in his skull as he struggled to glare at the crowd of slopmongers and their smug looking lord. 

How the hell was I supposed to know they had talking mirrors? How was I supposed to know that they were telling each other where I had been five minutes after I had been there? I barely knew were I was five minutes after I got there! How was I supposed to know they had sent someone out to the farm to see what had happened and found the "Horde" and arrested them for arson

The locals were listening to the smug lord making some sort of speech in their language. Verathog grunted when the lord stopped. and then again when the first rotten potato bounced from his forehead. 
Bloody talking mirrors.