Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Pole axes, falchions, and other stuff...

When I first started playing D&D, I had no idea what a Bec de Corbin was, nor something as exotic sounding as a Bohemian Ear Spoon. The name alone was enough to conjure all sorts of mental images. Although recent versions of D&D seem to forgo the roots of the game with regard to the medieval influences, some of you may still want to include the variety of weapons 1e etc included. 

Luckily, there are various ways of finding out what those weapons looked like and what they did. You could, for example, get your hands on a copy of G.C. Stone's A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times, Together With Some Closely Related Subjects. I advise getting a used copy, as they're cheaper (mine was less than 20 quid and seems to be an ex-library copy from Canada). It's a weighty illustrated tome that describes a variety of weapons that could be used in D&D or a similar fantasy setting. You just have to try and ignore the fact that it was written quite some time ago and still lists some cultures as being 'savages'. I kid you not.

If, however, you want a quick overview you could always try YouTube. For starters, there's this:

Or this:

Okay, the presenter is a bit creepy but neverthless it's interesting to see a reconstruction of these items and, to a certain extent, how they were used. 

If you don't mind the somewhat flippant approach to the subject matter, there's this:

Parts 2 and 3 can be found here and here. This gives a good basic overview of the sort of weapons one could use in earlier versions of D&D.

One interesting factor about some of these weapons is that they have more than one use. The pole axe has, for example, three different parts that can attack in different ways and these could be handy for different situations. This is isn't really covered by the 1e D&D weapon rules aside from what happens when being charged by an opponent. I guess that one could, as is the case with some monster attacks, divide up the potential damage into different types.

From an artistic point of view, such footage can come in handy when trying to visualise how someone might look when putting such weapons to use. There's also the fact that most of the people involved in these videos are wearing armour etc similar to the sort of kit adventurers would in a fantasy RPG setting (although perhaps not all that plate...). It seems that quite a bit of fantasy art owes more to LARPing or Renaissance festivals - which isn't a good thing.

Anyway, hopefully the above stuff shows that you don't have to resort to silly giant two-headed axes, massive manga-esque swords etc in order to have some interesting weapons to hand in D&D and other similar RPGs. As I've said before, history has usually already provided a tried and tested precedent that you can borrow from - and a fair few of these are somewhat exotic.

Right, I'm off to the shops. Now, where did I put that Earspoon...?

Friday, 23 November 2012

Japan's ninjas heading for extinction

An interesting article appeared today on the BBC website about the demise of the ninja. It seems that once the last generation of actual ninjas dies there will be no more of them. I hope that there is going to be some sort of effort to set down information about what they did for the historical record.

I also imagine that, once this last generation has gone, the way ninjas are portrayed will probably get even sillier than has been the case over the years. As a subject, they've had a rough handling from film and TV - not to mention RPGs. Even basic ideas about what they look like have been disposed of, for various reasons. For example, this is what a ninja actually looks like:

And this is an example of how a modern RPG tries to do things:

The above image comes from a Gaming As Women article.
Note the difference between reality and a badly researched image. Poor ninja. And in the above case, poor female ninja. I also imagine you could hear her approaching a miles off with all that kit clunking about.

Why is this a big deal? Well, even in a fantasy setting, what enriches any given subject is how much it can tap into what's already real. I mean, what's the point of doing anything about ninjas if it's not taking a lot of cues from the real ones? Add to that the fact that, if you're going to borrow ideas from the history of any given culture, are you doing yourself any favours by trying to rewrite that for your own ends? Too many people have done a bad job of it - do you really want to add to that? If you're going to borrow, do a good job of it. Likely as not, the realities of how your chosen subject matter has developed during it's existence is going to a rich source of ideas and inspirations. Chucking all of that out of the window to make some half-assed presumptions is probably not a good idea.

If you don't believe me, see how bad things can get: MST3K goes toe-to-toe with 'Master Ninja'...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

All hail Escher Girls...!

On a day when some silly people couldn't decide whether they're still scared of women or not, I thought I'd draw attention to the excellent Escher Girls blog

Although it focuses more on artwork from comics, anime and digital RPGs, those providing artwork for paper 'n' dice RPGs should take note. As I pointed out in one of my previous blog posts, the depiction of women in RPGs is usually awful. Escher Girls does a great job of showing the same sort of silliness going on in other types fantasy artwork. For me, this works well on several levels:

- It shows that there seems to be little interest in actually depicting women in any sort of realistic manner, either thematically or physically.

- It shows how bad a lot of artwork is. Many artists either have no idea how to actually draw, and/or ignore anatomy in order to create some very weird poses. These are also sexualised, for some reason or other. Okay they can't draw men either, but they don't seem to try and make them fit into such poses. I suspect that what's actually going on is that artists are copying other artists, rather than learning how to to draw. This may explain why modern comics seem to be distorting things even more than older comics. Or, it may be that 'how to' guides by established artists also have  a poor attitude towards the subject.

- It's thought-provokingly funny. By deconstructing the various images, it shows how badly done most of them are and at the same time makes it very clear how far such imagery goes in it's crassness. This works especially well when the the characters are changed to being men. It's also interesting to see how changes can be made in order to make the images actually work.

Mixed in with all of this are a variety of posts which consider what's going on in the imagery and what it suggests about the various attitudes and assumptions involved. As with the Gaming As Women blog, it does a very good job at holding these things up for consideration. 

The world of RPG art is still pretty much making the same mistakes as many comics, anime, etc. It's obviously not because it's trying to treat the subject matter with any sort of balanced consideration. Or maybe it's just laziness. Either way, it should be easy enough to fix if enough time and consideration is given to the subject. It would also help on a technical level. Artists should be familiar with anatomy. They should have been to life drawing classes - or should plan on going to some. Don't simply copy what others have drawn. If instead you can only copy from photos, find some good ones. Even somewhere such as Flickr has enough stuff to pick from that doesn't rely on clichés.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Turn to 400 - The Fighting Fantasy documentary film

As it's just passed the halfway mark, I thought I'd take the opportunity to plug  this Kickstarter project again:

If, like me, you grew up with the FF books and would like to see this worthwhile project come to fruition, please chuck some money at them! More info can be found at the project's Kickstarter page...

Friday, 16 November 2012

Today's eye candy... artwork by Russ Nicholson

I've been a big fan of Russ' work since I first saw it in 'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain' but I only discovered his blog today. It's full of pieces by him that I've not seen before, and has many interesting insights about how his work develops.

The thing I enjoy the most about Russ' work is his use of line. The balance and the contrast of his marks and how they work as an overall whole is very interesting. They seem very fluid but at the same time are very accurate and well placed. Every mark is there for a purpose and not just something to fill in open space.

Very much worth a look!

The Gallery: Russ Nicholson

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Can RPGs be too clichéd (or worse)...?

A pet peeve...

One thing that's always bugged me about RPGs - especially those with a fantasy setting - is that they can tend to be chock full o' clichés. Not so much in how they read as a system or a world as such, but how they present themselves to potential players (and everybody else, for that matter). I noticed this as a new player back in the 80s, and it still seems to be a thorn in my side today. It doesn't seem to be as much of a 'problem' for, say, sci-fi or horror RPGs. Okay, this may be more about artwork than anything else, but art can sometimes be it's own strong theme within any given RPG. We can't deny that it's used in RPGs as a way to help frame the overall vibe of the game - but it seems that some clichés just won't go away. So let's consider a few of them...


Let's face it, women are usually portrayed pretty bloody poorly in a lot of fantasy RPG art. This isn't just the case in '70s era D&D, where the social mores of the time were a little... different (not that that excuses it). It's still the case nowadays. WotC and Paizo are both guilty of this with D&D and Pathfinder. Much as they may try and wriggle out of it (i.e. see this interesting post over at the excellent Gaming As Women blog), they still tend to churn out the same old crap. Or variations on it. It's not exactly original nor is it something that sends out any sort of positive signals. Do I blame the artists? Well, yes and no. Maybe they just like to draw scantily-clad women. Or maybe their art directors say they should draw them that way. Either way, it's lazy.

The interesting thing is that the game world of D&D etc doesn't really mention anything about the role that women have in them. Okay, maybe these can be inferred in some way, but that's perhaps down to who's playing the game. Things seem to be inherently less polarised than real-world modern societies. But the way RPG art handles things tends to ignore this and instead plumps for tried and tested fantasy portrayals. To my mind this actually makes things less interesting. It seems that such portrayals have missed the plot.


What do I mean by equipment? Well, I mean clothing, weapons, armour and general kit. There seems to be a tendency in modern versions of fantasy RPGs - and, again, D&D and Pathfinder being obvious examples - to seem to want to go down the World of Warcraft/Japanese digital RPGs route. That is, equipment is portrayed in a rather silly way, and some bits tend to get ignored completely. So the overall picture of any given character type focuses on certain things at the expense of others.

Let's take armour and weapons, for instance. Originally, D&D took it's influences for such things from the Medieval period, and with good reason. The way armour and weapons evolved up to and throughout that period fits the setting well, whilst at the same time suggests a plethora of styles and designs. However, this tends to get ignored. Your average depiction of a fighter-class person tends to owe more influences to Frank Frazetta than anything else. Or, as I mentioned above, World of Warcraft in mordern versions of some fantasy RPGs. Thus we see depictions of madly impractical armour and weapons - huge swords and double-headed axes, armour that you can probably only stand up in because of the spikes, huge curved sections, etc. Again, who's to blame? Well, I'd say artists. It seems that people haven't done some actual - even basic - research. Perhaps all that actual history just isn't enough. This is a real shame because if they stopped looking at how other lazy artists have done the same thing (a copy of a copy of a copy...), they'd see that armour and weapons from history can be interestingly eccentric. To give one example: many moons ago I created some artwork for the 'Ultima Thule' sourcebook for Ars Magica. I dug into my research and looked at how Viking and Scandinavian clothing, weapons, etc should look. This fed directly into my illustrations. All of that was then undone by the cover artwork, which decided instead to resort to clichés. The Viking even has a horned helmet. Oh well. Anyway - have a look at this page on medieval weapons and armour. Lots of odd designs there, but all evolved to be that way from practical use. This doesn't have to mean that it's boring. Similarly, if we have a look at the historical artwork of an artist like Angus McBride we can see that there's a variety of interesting shapes, designs and colours.

As for other bits of kit, things tend to get worse. Practicality is out the window. If a woman is wearing anything, it tends to be scanty in some way. If it's a magic user or magical character class, they wear some sort of elaborate cassock - unless they're a female magic user, in which case they wear something scanty but long-flowing (i.e. see the Pathfinder core rulebook cover). You rarely see 'in-action' scenes with the characters lugging about the stuff we all know they should have: rope, baggage, lighting, bedding rolls, etc. No-one seems to be wearing anything that would help you in a cold, dirty, inhospitable dungeon environment. Why can't someone depict a magic user in a more practical garb? A cassock-like thing doesn't seem all that sensible to me. Imagine the draughts, for starters.

To sum up (for now)...

Okay, this may seem like a bit of a rant. Perhaps I'm taking things too literally. But why should the depictions in fantasy RPGs be doomed to stick to clichés? It seems a bit half-arsed. Things don't seem to have changed all that much since the '80s. It's all a little too staid and predictable. Whilst I'm not saying that fantasy RPGs have to take their influences from medieval stuff, it might actually help drive things along more original paths. Failing that, is it perhaps too much to ask that something more imaginative gets added to the mix?

That's it for now - until I can write about some other stuff along similar lines. Please feel free to pick holes, disagree, etc...

Monday, 12 November 2012

On the Physiology of... the Otyugh - Part Five.

Inside and out...

Two areas will be considered in today's update. First of all, the mouth. The Otyugh is described as having a sucker-like mouth that's full of teeth, and one or two of my previous scribbles have suggested how this might look. The scribble below goes into a bit more detail:

If we run with the idea that Otyugh is a sort of dungeon hoover, this area would usually be busy chowing down on various nasty things. At the same time, this also suggests that the whole mouth and throat is like a nozzle and a pipe - only a lot more dangerous. It also occurred to me that the mouth and teeth might be able to extend a little in order for the monster to get more of a bite, and this is what I've suggested in the lower part of the scribble above. The overall look is a cross between a pig's snout and a shark or lamprey mouth. If we zoom in on the only solid part of the whole area, a tooth looks like this:

The idea here is that the teeth are scooped shard-like pieces arrayed inside the mouth. These would act both to cut and perhaps also to rotate backwards from the root to convey it's food into the mouth. Imagine hundreds of these teeth acting in unison and the Otyugh seems more like a garbage disposal unit - which is effectively what it is.

The second point for consideration is how the monster might appear under the surface. I don't imagine the Otyugh having a skeletal structure in any practical sense:

Instead there's a main spine-like cartilaginous mass running along the top of the body, which is flexible but tough and acts as an anchor point for both the internal organs and the outer muscle layers. You can see more of this in the cross-section detail below:

Seen from the front: (A) skin/hide (B) muscle layer (C) internal organs

The upper left of the scribble is a section of the 'spine' as seen from the side; the detail in the bottom left shows the underside of a spine section with the tendon, etc attachments to the internal organs. The greater mass of the Otyugh is still fleshy lumps of muscle and organs. The spine, teeth, eyes and tentacle edges are made of tougher, solid stuff but the overall design is still one which is both flexible and resilient.

Next up for consideration is how the muscle mass might work and be arranged around what I've shown in the above scribbles...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

More monster scribbles...

While the Otyugh stuff is on hiatus (I need to do some more scribbles of it's internal structure), here's a pic of a Gnoll...

... and a Bulette:

I like the Bulette because, as with the Otyugh, it's a bit of an oddity. Mind you, I've not put much thought into getting the details right (i.e. the armoured bits). It's just interesting to play around with as a design. If anything, I need to stress the 'armoured armadillo' vibe of it some more.

As for the Gnoll, it's another D&D creature that I find interesting. They're a bit more uncouth and raggedy than your average Orc, Kobold or Goblin. The only problem area with design is how much the neck should extend from the shoulders. The hyena-like features would suggest a longish neck, but I'm not sure yet if it looks right. I think I need to do more studies of hyenas to get my Gnoll looking less like a dog.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Some tasty eye candy...

If, like me, you find 'old' sci-fi book and magazine artwork a constant source of interest, inspiration and delight, you might want to go and have a look at this Flickr Pool.

Be warned: it will eat up hours of browsing time without you realising it...

Monday, 5 November 2012

On the Physiology of... the Otyugh - Part Four.


As the Otyugh is a weird creature, with a pair of eyes on a stalk and an aversion to light, one idea that came to mind was whether those eyes are actually anything normal. By 'normal', I mean whether they would be like an animal eye, with a similar lens, retina, etc. My line of thinking was continuing along with the idea that bits of the Otyugh are 'solid' in some way. A few themes could follow this; namely, whether the eyes are compound and also if they might be formed from blobs or clusters.

As you can see from my previous scribbles, I've suggested that there are blobby bits at the end of the eye stalk. If we zoom in on just this area, one concept was that the eyes are within the stalk and are made up up of several smaller solid sections:

You can see the aforementioned blobs, with nerve strands leading away down the stalk. Zoom in a tad more, and things start to look like this:

The picture above shows how the blobs are clustered within the left and right sides of the stalk, and I've included a side view of one blob. When I say 'blob', the idea was really more along the lines of them being solid in some way, and sensitive to light - but perhaps too much, hence their photophobia. One visual that fed into this design was the way things look when you slice a gooseberry in half:

Note the veiny bits leading to the seeds

Why a gooseberry? I dunno. Perhaps it's the way transluscent and solid mixes together. As I've said before, this mixing is how I imagine the Otyugh's overall look.

Anyway, another approach might be that the solid parts of the eye rest on the surface of the stalk. One interesting creature that uses minerals as the basis for a kind of eye is the chiton. Perhaps the Otyugh could have something similar, at least in the sense of those blobs being more like encrusted, light-sensitive primitive eyes formed from some sort of solid matter:

The scribble above maybe has things looking a little too conventional, but with the fourth drawing I was also thinking about the ways those solid bits might work as a single cluster.

This last scribble mixes the above concepts together:

The idea with this is to have a rough faceted look, either like coal or roughly worked flint. I've drawn an individual blob just to give some impression of the idea I'm trying to get across.

Still, I've not settled on a final look - although I tend to gravitate towards the look and feel of the last scribble. I also like the idea of the being able to see the nerve strands within the eye stalk. Maybe perhaps if the tip of the stalk was a little more opaque and was pigmented with various disgusting hues, it would help with camouflage when the Otyugh is hidden away...

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Turn to 400 - The Fighting Fantasy documentary film

I thought I'd take the opportunity to plug  this Kickstarter project:

If, like me, you grew up with the FF books and would like to see this worthwhile project come to fruition, please chuck some money at them! More info can be found at the project's Kickstarter page...

Friday, 2 November 2012

On the Physiology of... the Otyugh - Part Three.


Here's a pencil scribble in which I try to out flesh out the overall shape of the Otyugh a bit more:

This is starting to move along the lines of how I envisage it might look, although the design is still evolving. 

As the Otyugh is described as having a pair of ridged tentacles, one is issue with this might be about how it can move along as it eats it's way through dungeon crap. When on the surface, this may not be a problem, but I was wondering whether they might sometimes actually be more of a hinderance than a help. One option might be that it drags its tentacles along with it as it moves, like this:

That might not always be practical. One thing that occured to me was the fact that the ends of the tentacles, being sharp, may be more like some sort of chopping/digging/cutting tool, as well as being weapons. The reason this popped into my head was from prior experience of... er... crap. Many moons ago (when I was 16, in fact) I got a part-time job helping to do maintenance work on a small-holding (a type of small farm). One of my main tasks was to herd goats from their covered pen each morning to a nearby field - I also had to herd the bloody things back again at the end of my shift. Another task was to clean out the pen. This wasn't a simple case of just chucking down some straw, oh no. My employers asked me to clear out all of the accumulated crap that had been there for years. This meant I had to chop down through a 2-foot deep layer to the concrete floor beneath. This was no easy task. Compacted years-old goat crap is very resilient, I'll have you know. I had to use various implements (fork, spade, hoe and shovel) just to make any sort of dent in the upper crust. Not all that much fun, as you can probably imagine. Don't try to imagine the smell as I broke through the surface either. This was all done at the handsome rate of £1.25 an hour for my troubles. I must've been bloody mad.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that the Otyugh may possibly have to contend with similar trials when chowing down on dungeon crap, especially if it found a compacted layer in some dark corner somewhere. Perhaps it would need to chop its way through, thus leading to it evolving sharp edges to its tentacles - a handy adaption, as it also helps with defending itself. This might also mean that it would need to retract its tentacles when chopping and eating its way along:

Hmm - but maybe this makes it a little too seal-like...

With that in mind, I had a go at scribbling a few different ideas for how those sharper bits might look.

There's the spiny, curved profile theme:

Or variations on the 'chopping' theme:

I've yet to make up my mind which way the final design might feature these appendages.

Next up for consideration: the eyes...