Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Bon Mots - Darkseid & Cinderblock

Darkseid left his suit at the cleaners, and all the other DC villains mistake him for Cinderblock, who got stuck working overtime at, you guessed it, the dry cleaners, trying to get all the invulnerable super-blood of Darkseid's costume.
Cue the Odd Couple theme music...

Darkseid gets roped into participating in some heist Cinderblock was supposed to do. The other villains are really rude and dismissive and don't listen when he tries to tell them he's not Cinderblock. "Stop messin' around, Cinderblock", etc.
The villains dig a tunnel under some science complex. Darkseid is tasked with punching through the underground portion of the security wall. He's not even trusted to go in and grab the loot. But showing initiative befitting a planetary ruler, he goes ahead and gets the stuff.
When he comes back out of the tunnel, laden with riches, he finds that the other villains are getting their asses kicked by a hyper-obnoxious team-up of Booster Gold and Guy Gardner.
Darkseid gives the heroes the old Hulk-Loki treatment, thus saving the heist just when it seemed all hope was lost. The other villains hoist him onto their shoulders and carry him back to their hideout, cheering "Cin-der-block! Cin-der-block!"
Meanwhile, all this has been intercut with scenes of actual Cinderblock working at the dry cleaners. They just can't get the damn super-blood out of Darkseid's clothes! Cinderblock knows he's running late for the heist, but he really needs this job, and his manager is so despairing that Cinderblock can't bear to leave the poor guy.
They call in Chemo, then Plasmus, but neither can get the stains out. The boss is ruined. He's spent far more than Darkseid paid, but at this point, it's all about not getting murdered for failing a New God.
Cinderblock has an idea. If the boss is willing to bust open the piggybank, they can call in Lex Luthor. They guy's a genius, he can solve anything, right?
Luthor shows up, and he's thrilled to get his hands on some super-blood. He has just the right tools to extract it and bottle it, and pays the boss a finder's fee that's even more than he spent hiring the Chemo and Plasmus. The boss is so relieved that he's not going to get vaporized, he gives Cinderblock a big tip. 
Cinderblock leaves, just narrowly missing seeing Darkseid who's arrived to pick up his uniform.
Back on Apokolips, Darkseid has returned to his routine of bossing around parademons, etc. He starts yelling at Kalibak, but then remembers the other villains yelling at him when they thought he was Cinderblock, and has a change of heart.
Cinderblock leaves the cleaners to go to the bar to apologize for missing the heist. He knows he took so long the whole thing is probably over by now. He's shocked to find an impromptu celebration in his honor. "There he is! The man of the hour! Get over here, Cinderblock old pal!"

All in a day's work...

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Why the Sun is Dark and the Realms are Forgotten

From the Sorcerer's Skull's recent posts about Dark Sun have gotten me musing about the relationship between the world of Dark Sun and other fantasy worlds within the WOTC orrery.

Magic in Dark Sun is scarce, and comes at a high price, especially compared to places like the Forgotten Realms, where magic is plentiful and virtually free. 

Suppose that the relationship between these planes isn't just one of coincidence or natural variation, though. What if it's not just that Athas has less magic and Faerun has more? Suppose that the relationship is one of cause-and-effect. What if the Realms are rich because Dark Sun is poor? What if Dark Sun is poor because the Realms are rich?

The basic idea here is that mana is a finite resource. Every time you use it to cast a spell, you're also using it up. (Or perhaps it replenishes itself, but slowly. Over geological time, not human time scales.) 

Faerun is a lush, tropical land supersaturated with mana. With mana so abundant, people use magic with abandon. Magicians are everywhere, and every other adventurer carries a magic sword, sings magic songs, punches with a magic-infused fist. People summon fire elementals to cook their breakfast, cast illusions to amuse their kids, rely on healing spells in lieu of any other form of medicine, brew potions so they can drink magic, make trinkets so they can wear it.

Athas is a desert. It's desiccated. There's very little mana left. Accessing it is is hard, few people have the ability to access it, and they only spend it on spells that are important. Even the most callous and depraved Sorcerer King or Templar Defiler isn't going to harvest the souls of a thousand worshipers or kill all the crops in a hundred mile radius just to iron their shirts, or light their cigarettes, or play a little light jazz to set the mood for a date. Even if they're going to waste their magic, they're going to waste it ostentatiously and dramatically as a show of strength, to impress an ally or overawe a foe. To waste magic in private really would be too much of a waste.
Dark Sun Creature Catalog cover by Wayne Reynolds
There are a couple possible relationships.

Perhaps Faerun is the past and Athas is the future. 

In ye olde days of yore, the Realms could use magic for anything, so they used it for everything, including the pettiest, stupidest shit you could possibly imagine. Goodberries on your cereal in the morning. Disposable Tenser's floating discs to carry home your groceries. Bardic inspiration before you take a test. Scrying when you don't feel like walking to the library. Leomund's tiny hut to keep out of the rain. Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion for a weekend getaway. Glamours on everything. Continual lights on everything. Sleep spells to knock you out when all auras and dweomer's you've been staring at all day start to mess with your circadian rhythm.

Eventually the supply of mana just can't keep up with all the demand. Peak Mana arrives when wizards have to start going farther and farther afield, work harder and harder, longer and longer, to bring back a diminishing supply of mana. Sadly there's no such thing as renewable energy in this world. Some genius invents solar power and starts extracting elemental fire straight from the heart of the sun. Some other geniuses come up with wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy, letting them convert the air to smoke, the seas to salt, the ground to dust. The inexhaustible bounty of the Realms is exhausted, and there simply isn't enough mana from any source to maintain civilization in the style to which it had become accustomed. 

Then comes the Collapse. Then there is no Faerun anymore. Then there is only Athas.

Or perhaps Faerun and Athas are separate. Perhaps Faerun is a resource extractor, and perhaps Athas is a resource.

If Dark Sun and the Forgotten Realms are different planes, then when Faerun starts to run low on domestic mana, they'll begin plundering their neighbors for supply. Perhaps they start by whaling - capturing dragons, demons, angels, and gods to press them like olives, crush them like grapes, until hot, wet, living mana pours out to fill the pipes and keep the faucets running. 

But as the herds then and the fisheries grow sparse, Faerun's prospectors will turn to other worlds. Some planes are easy to reach, and have deep wells of easily tapped mana. Some planes are like shale oil and tar sands. They're hard to get to, their climate is hostile, and it takes so much more work and effort to extract their mana, like wringing it from a damp dishrag. Athas is the tar sands. Athas is wrung out.

Magicians in Dark Sun divide themselves into Preservers and Defilers. The locals do their best to monitor their Mana Footprint, to cut back on their Mana Emissions. They name and shame. They reduce, reuse, and recycle. But it doesn't matter, because theirs is a problem that can't be solved by individual conservation or local action. Every mage in Faerun is a Defiler ... of Athas.

This is why the Realms aren't forgotten exactly, but they are a closely guarded secret. When the Mana Barons and their pirate crews set sail, they fly no flags, they carry no papers. They dare not bring with them anything that could identify the name or location of their homeworld. 
Dark Sun Campaign Setting cover by Wayne Reynolds
The really exciting part of either idea comes when the people of Faerun and Athas finally get to meet.

When people from Faerun come to Dark Sun, they arrive as imperialists. They've landed with their cargo holds empty, and won't be leaving until they fill them up with mana. They're not particularly concerned about how big a mess they make, or how many people they hurt, while doing it. Indeed, there are surely some among their number who are mostly there for the chance to commit violence and atrocities in a context where their home government will not only tolerate their depredations, but reward them for it. 

Others may be motivated by patriotism. Still others find meaning in their work knowing that they're helping to maintain the high standard of civilization, imagining that the Faerun too would be a desert ruin without their efforts. And some are just there for a paycheck, doing the only job they could find at the time they needed work, their only consolation the knowledge (or at least hope) that the money they're sending home is enough to support the people they're sending it to.

When citizens of Athas arrive in the Forgotten Realms, they want revenge. If they're there, it's because they've finally realized who destroyed their world, and they're going to make those fuckers pay, and stop them from plundering anyone else.

The only real question, when the hotwired Spelljammer crashes through Elminster's tower like the Old Mage built it out of Jenga blocks and plows through the center of Waterdeep like a plow through that verdant, mana-rich soil, when a mob of gladiators and psychics and giant mantises tumble out of the wreck wearing leather bondage outfits and carrying weapons made of the bones of the last people they killed, the only real question is whether they have a plan to bring the fight directly to the Big Mana companies who've been financing all the drill sites on Athas, or if they're just going to start breaking things and killing people in an indiscriminate frenzy of vengeance.

Either direction of visitation sounds like a pretty good game session to me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Blogs on Tape 4 - Resources 4 All

Nick LS Whelan has started the fourth season of his Blogs on Tape podcast, and I'm honored to have one of my posts included as the first episode of the new season!

Another round of big thanks to Nick for the entire Blogs on Tape project, and for including my work in it!

Friday, June 18, 2021

Bones of Contention

I recently joined the Skeleton Crew of a new blogging enterprise - Bones of Contention.

The overall goal of the blog is to serve as a repository of reviews written by a group of people who have at least somewhat similar taste in RPG adventures.

Individual motives for participating probably vary from person to person. My motivation is to take a closer look at the kind of adventures that interest me most, to understand how they work, and to think about how they could be improved.

My initial plans are to focus on adventures that use procedural generation, and to look at some of the new "heartwarming" rulesets that are being released. I may expand my list as I go. These are things I've been meaning to look at more closely anyway. So for me, joining Bones of Contention was originally mostly  an excuse and a motivation to actually go forward with that intention.

That said, I think there's something valuable about creating a miniature community of reviewers, and I'm curious to see how our tastes will evolve over the course of the project. Will they converge? Will they grow apart? Will any of our reviews produce valuable aesthetic or game-design insights? I'm excited to find out.

You can read the introduction, and meet the other Skeleton Crew members, here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Gygax 75

There's a worldbuilding challenge called Gygax 75 that's been making the rounds on the blogosphere. I decided to try to look its origins and follow the people who undertook it, as is my way.

The earliest origin of the Gygax 75 challenge is an article written by Gary Gygax in the April 1975 issue of the Europa fanzine. Gary lays out a 5 step process for building a new fantasy campaign. I think it's fair to say that this 45 year old piece of ephemera isn't the immediate source of most blogger's participation in the challenge, though.
Initial credit goes to Charles Akins from Dragons Never Forget. Charles is the one who found the long-forgotten Gygax article on the Internet Archive and shared the link with the blogosphere. Charles is also the one who called this worldbuilding method "Gygax 75" and threw down the gauntlet to make it into a blogging challenge.

The Gygax 75 challenge is a 5 step process that's supposed to take place over 5 weeks. Dragons Never Forget describes these in much better detail than me, laying out the parameters of the challenge, but permit me to at least briefly outline them.

Week 1 - decide on the thematic basis of your campaign and pick out some inspirational materials that you can refer to whenever you need help populating your campaign with details

Week 2 - draw a region map of the wilderness adventuring sites that will surround the dungeon that will form the heart of your campaign.

Week 3 - draw your dungeon! in one week! Gary recommends starting with some overview planning to pick themes, monsters, and architectural oddities for each dungeon level, and then setting out to draw and key the first few levels. in a week! I would argue this should be an 8 week challenge, with week 3 devoted to planning and perhaps mapping, and weeks 4-6 given to keying levels 1, 2, and 3.

Week 4 - design a "home base" for your players, replete with factions, NPCs, and rumors so your players can engage in social intrigue in between trips to the dungeon.

Week 5 - design the larger world around the starting region. you don't need a detailed map of the whole world, but you should know the other regions that can be reached from the current one (either by overland or magical travel) so that you can start writing rumors to entice your players to travel to them.

The Gygax 75 Challenge Introduction - Charles links us to the original Europa article and provides links to his other posts in this series.

1 The Setting of the Campaign - summarizes Gygax's worldbuilding advice and lays out his own campaign inspirations, setting the stage for post-apocalyptic science-fantasy.

2 The Map Around the Dungeon - Charles creates his starting region, the Valley of the Three Forks.

3 How to Build the Gygax 75 Dungeon - summarizes Gygax's dungeon-creation advice. pick your themes, place your setpiece treasures and encounters, then write or borrow random tables and procedurally generate the rest.

3 Dungeon Level 1 - the top dungeon level is a ruined, abandoned temple

3 Dungeon Level 2 - the next level features a hall of statues and a giant chamber full of pools

3 Dungeon Level 3 - a prison level, with an exit leading down to allow for further expansion

4 The Local Town and All the Trouble - Charles goes over Gygax's town-building advice and comes up with a list of neighborhoods and the most important shopkeepers in each one.

5 The World Plan - describes three important factions that will be encountered outside the Valley

0 Conclusion and Links to Other Challengers - Charles once again encourages us to take up the Gygax 75 challenge, and points us to Viridian Scroll and Beyond the Gates of Cygnus.
As is often the case in these kinds of situations, the person who created the challenge and the one who popularized it are not the same person. Credit for successfully spreading the word goes to Ray Otus of Viridian Scroll. If you've seen another blogger taking on the Gygax 75 challenge, they've likely been directly inspired by Ray. If you've seen a single-link version of the challenge, it's probably been to Ray's free pdf version on itch.io. Ray fully credits Charles, but Charles inspired a couple bloggers, while Ray inspired at least a dozen. I should note that Ray's pdf contains both more detailed instructions and a workbook to follow along in, so the work he put into the presentation might explain his greater success in popularizing the challenge.

As we'll see in a minute, Ray and JJ from Beyond the Gates of Cygnus did the challenge at the same time and recorded several episodes of the Plundergrounds podcast about their experiences.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Ray describes the premise of the challenge and links back to Dragons Never Forget and Europa.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - gathering together inspiration, Ray envisions a world where Iron Age humans in city-states reside uneasily alongside communities of monstrous humanoids.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - Ray sketches and then finalizes a vibrantly-colored map of a desert region, Timuria, the Land between Two Rivers.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - more iterative sketching results in a single dungeon level based loosely on a Hindu temple. 

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - released more retrospectively than the others, this one covers setting up the town of Addak, which matches the vaguely Babylonian naming scheme of the other cities.
Over at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus, Cinderella Man JJ used the Gygax 75 challenge to create a setting for a Delving Deeper campaign.

0 Creating a Delving Deeper Campaign in 5 Easy Steps - JJ announces the start of the challenge, which he's completing simultaneously with Ray Otus from Viridian Scroll.

1 The Overall Setting - in addition to using the Delving Deeper rules, this setting will be inspired by the band Rush.

2 The Starting Area - a town called Willow Dale, a Necromancer's tower in the heart of dead forest, and the River Dell leading to the Down Mountains.

3 The Dungeon - JJ creates the most important details for the Necromancer's tower dungeon.

4 The Home Base - the basic features of the town of Willow Dale.

5 The World - more Rush albums are brought in to help define nearby regions of the gameworld.
The Plundergrounds podcast is a collaboration between Ray Otus and JJ. In addition to taking the challenge at the same time, Ray and JJ met once a week to compare notes and talk about their worldbuilding progress.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - introducing the challenge and comparing sources of inspiration.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - drawing the starting area maps.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - starting dungeons that will continue being updated over the next couple weeks.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - working on the starting villages.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 5 - thinking about the wider worlds, and looking back on the challenge.
Not everyone who starts the Gygax 75 challenge decides to finish it. Most people, in fact, seem to stop after a couple weeks. The next person I found who started the challenge was Italian blogger Omnia Incommoda Certitudo Nulla. They were apparently inspired by a post by Shane Ward on a message board called OSR Pit

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week One - the starting pitch here is for a campaign world inspired by The Hobbit, but also by Dracula and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week Two - a starting map, largely without features, and a wandering encounter table emphasizing human antagonists like duelists, cultists, and bounty hunters.
Shane Ward from 3 Toadstools Publishing was the first person I saw who took up the challenge because of finding Ray Otus's itch.io. He got scooped from being the first person to start it without a personal connection to Ray because he managed to inspire OICN to try the challenge before starting it up himself.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Shane announces the challenge and starts brainstorming, drawing on ideas from Piers Anthony and fantasy botany.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - a more developed start to the setting, inspired by Xanth, Shanara, and Disney's Robin Hood.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2? Sorta - Shane begins drawing a region map, listing possible encounters, and thinking about character classes
Verbum Ex Nihilo also briefly attempted the challenge.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - about the potential benefits of structure and deadlines in worldbuilding, with the challenge as one way to impose them.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - about the process of selecting a notebook, creating a mood board, and attempting to conquer writer's block by looking for structures to build one idea off another.
Dave from Blood of Prokopius was the next to complete the challenge. Dave comes in with his own ideas and methods for creating sandboxes, keying dungeons, etc, so an interesting part of his commentary is about trying to set his own approach aside to try it Gary's way (as interpreted by Charles and Ray).

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge - introduces Dave's inspirations, science fantasy pitting the forces of Heat & Light against the forces of Cold & Dark.

1 Laser Guns and Plasma Swords - defends adding scifi weapons to this particular fantasy setting.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 2 - Dave draws a fantasy map loosely inspired by Kyrgyzstan, starts stocking his sandbox, and creates a very Lost World random encounter table full of dinosaurs and cavemen.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 3 - a general plan for a dungeon of caves atop a glacier atop a crashed alien spaceship.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 4 - keying the dungeon with monsters and treasures, and writing a wandering monster table.  

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 5 - Dave names his starting city Darkport.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 6 - Dave creates a random name generator to name two shops, and observes some differences in the equipment lists of Basic and B/X.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 7 - human and elven factions for Darkport.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 8 - Dave builds out his world by adding three more factions and developing a key NPC for each.
King Brackish actually attempted the challenge twice, first starting it on Tomb of the Wandering Millennial (apparently inspired by Verbum Ex Nihilo), and then restarting and finishing it on Brinehouse.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Brackish proposes a setting inspired by Berserk and Dorohedoro, among others.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the city-state of Evangelos, surrounded by the Blackmange Forest and the Sancana Steppe, and a random encounter table full of megafauna, necromancers, and skeletons.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 1 - Brackish restarts the challenge with a similar, though not identical list of inspirations.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 2 - a new region map with the port city of Dis on the coast of an ocean, surrounded by three distinct forests. the new random encounter table emphasizes boars, wolves, dragons.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 3 - Brackish outlines the three-level Temple of the Swine God.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 4 - the village of Mun, along with 10 shops and 5 NPCs.

5 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 5 - more worldbuilding, including a sun god, rumors of dragons and falling stars, and religious-themed magic treasures.
Andrew Sawyer from Seven Deadly Dungeons is the last person on my list to finish the challenge. 

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Andrew's plan involves creating a fantasy postapocalyptic Meso America.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the region contains an active volcano, a ruined city, and several places where ghosts are on the haunt.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - Andrew has a pretty cool dungeon concept here. the whole complex is a superweapon meant to kill angels. the top level is filled with ghosts, the middle is a star chart that functions as the weapon's targeting system, and the bottom level is a site for the blood sacrifices needed to power the weapon.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - NPCs from the character's home base, all of whom have terrible injuries, which is presumably meant to communicate something about the danger of this place.

5 Gygax 74 Challenge Week 5 - encounter tables for three terrain types.
I've noticed religious themes, and especially postapocalyptic settings have come up in several of these challenges. Justin Hamilton from Aboleth Overlords picks a decidedly Biblical apocalypse to set his game in the aftermath of.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - human civilization has returned to a late bronze age in the aftermath of a Deluge that drowned the world.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the setting gets a name, Umbroea, along with a list of villages, geographic features, possible dungeons, and encounters. 
I'll admit that Liche's Libram's Tlon setting is the one that excites me the most out of all of these. It's one that they were working on before, and seemed to use the Gygax 75 challenge as a way to continue building out their setting. Tlon reminds me of Dying Earth fiction, but transplanted from Earth to a Dying Mars.

1 Tlon Week 1 Gygax 75 Challenge - an overview of the setting's themes. everything is old, civilization is crumbling, water is the most important treasure.

2 Tlon Week 2 Surrounding Area - a visually compelling map, accompanied by descriptions of two cities, a couple geographic features, and a necropolis.
Rob Magus from Penny Ventures decided to make a setting in the aftermath of a cyberpunk apocalypse. I like the image he conjures of whole forests of solar-panel trees.

1 Technoccult Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - the opening setting pitch. images of demon-haunted computers and ghost towns of still-functional neon lights.

2 2d6 Electric Devil Skeletons Gygax 75 Challege Week 2 - locations for the Technoccult setting and a random encounter table with a number of undead cybernetic monsters.
Like Liche's Libram, The Eternal Slog was already working on their Zorn setting when they discovered the Gygax 75 challenge, and started it as a way to do a bit more worldbuilding on an ongoing project.

1 G75 Challenge Week 1 Zorn - the setting here is a previously undiscovered island that rises out of the ocean in 1936 on the even of WWII. various countries send explorers to the island to plunder its ancient occult treasures to use in their war effort. a pretty solid pitch!
Jim from d66 Classless Kobolds is an interesting case to me. He published his Weird North game in August 2020, then started the challenge in October to start making a campaign setting for the game.

1 The Conceptual Beasts of the Weird North - human Vikings on an alien planet that resembles Earth's arctic north, full of ancient tech and extradimensional visitors.

2 The Dank Morass A Swampcrawl for the Weird North - a rather nice-looking pointcrawl map and a random encounter table full of dinosaurs and robots.
Mihau from Fractal Meadows of Reality started the challenge to work on a far-future alien world setting. One interesting thing about going through these challenges is getting a chance to see where the current campaign setting zeitgeist is at. Science fantasy, post apocalypses, aliens instead of demihumans, and magitech meets stone-age all seem to be en vogue right now.

1 Attempting the Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - inspiration from videogames and an online art book that looks very cool to me. humans and aliens on a distant world ruled by satellite gods.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 Plains of Eyes and Hands - the Ascendancy of Teal arcology sits aside the Plains of Salt, and an encounter table full of megafauna and cavemen.
Phoe of Magic Trash is the most recent person I've spotted to start the challenge. His proposed setting is inspired by extremophile biology and vernacular architecture - a winning combination as far as I'm concerned!

1 Gygax 75 Week 1 - no humans, no humanoids, only talking animals and extremophile aliens, each building unique cities.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 The Legend of Gygax's Gold - a few points of light in the wilderness, with attention given to the architectural style of each place.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

My Earliest Comic Issues

On Discord, From the Sorcerer's Skull posed a question about people's earliest memories of owning comic books. I believe his questions were about the first comic you ever read, the first comic that was ever bought for you, and the first comic you ever bought with your own money.

I'm not following his prompt exactly, but I decided to poke around on the Great Comic Database and try to find the earliest comics issues I ever owned. Today, most of my media consumption is pretty purposeful. I rarely watch or read anything that hasn't been recommended to me by a friend, or that I haven't read about first by browsing reviews. But as a kid, I was far more beholden to what was available at the time. As a result, many of my first issues are the final part of a multi-part storyline.

I only ever had the one issue of Amethyst, and maybe a couple of Transformers. I collected perhaps a half-dozen Alf issues over the next few years, and the same with What If? I got maybe a dozen or so issues of Spider-Man before moving on to other things. I somehow never bought another Superman or Flash or Captain America, although that's how I learned about Daredevil, and Guardians of the Galaxy and Daredevil became the main two comics I collected after that, along with Generation X when it showed up. I never had anything like complete runs of any comic though. There were always gaps where we didn't make it to the bookstore that month, or for whatever reason there was no new issue available.

Looking back on them now, I notice how beautiful the art in Amethyst was, and what a terrifying body-horror villain Skyhook made in Superman. I wonder about Circuit Breaker's war against the machines in Transformers, and what it was that made the world go mad in The Flash.
Amethyst #4, Feb 88
What about you? What were the earliest comics you remember reading or owning or buying?

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG

The Class Alphabet for DCC
In spring 2016, David Coppoletti reached out to me and a couple dozen other DCC fans on Google+. He had an ambitious idea - a sourcebook of 26 character classes for Dungeon Crawl Classics. Sometime in fall or winter 2020, David's idea appeared as a finished book, The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG. You can read Raven Crowking's review here.

I was convinced by David's G+ pitch, and wrote the Knave. Later, due to the logistical challenges of managing the contributions of so many collaborators, I ended up a second class, the Cyber-Zombie.

The Knave receives, I think, the single longest class write-up in the book. My goal was to combine the various Jacks of fairy tale and nursery rhyme, characters like Liane the Wayfarer and Cugel the Clever from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, the Fool from Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic, the imagery of playing cards, and the tarot. I was also experimenting with the limits of the "you're no hero" writing style; I described Knaves as being nasty in a way that almost makes me uncomfortable to reread. The Knave class is so long because there are four fully described sub-classes based on the suits of playing cards, each subclass has its three Mighty Deed of Arms equivalents they can learn, there are 22 spell-like effects based on the major arcana of tarot, and also, yes, because of long-windedness on my part.

The Cyber-Zombie was my attempt to create a class that you can only start playing after your previous character has died. I was definitely inspired by Terra Frank's three undead classes from the first Gongfarmer's Almanac. As a Cyber-Zombie, you start out at whatever level your old character was, and you retain a remnant of your old class powers, although reduced from before. Cyber-Zombies also get upgrades. I based the possible upgrades on Super Metroid and Mega Man X, and on the Centurions cartoon series. 

The other authors in the collection are a veritable Who's Who of DCC fans and publishers - including Reid San Filippo of the Crawling Under a Broken Moon zine and the subsequent Umerica sourcebook and adventure series, Diogo Nogueira of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells and Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells and plenty of other projects, and plenty of other names that you might recognize from their contributions to The Gongfarmer's Almanac, their participation in various DCC podcasts, their DCC blogs, or other gaming publications.

It's a pleasant surprise for me to see The Class Alphabet finally out. This was one of the first times I was invited to contribute to a collaborative writing project. Quite a lot has happened in my life, and in the world, since David first approached me. I'm very happy to see that he was able to realize his goal.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds

How much damage does a hit point represent?

For some time now, the official standard in D&D and Pathfinder has been that starting characters get the maximum hit points at 1st level, based on class. So typically 6, 8, or 10 - maybe 12 for certain fighting types or 4 for certain magicians, depending on the ruleset - plus a bonus for a high Constitution, which is pretty common.

You gain about half that amount, rounded up, plus the Con bonus again, each level. So it would be fairly normal to see an adventuring party with hp totals of 7, 10, 13 at 1st level; 12, 17, 22 at 2nd; and 17, 24, 31 at third. 

I would also say it's standard that these hit points are treated as representing real, physical damage. In most games I've run, played in, or observed at an FLGS, the Game Master says something like "you hit!" and "you miss!" to describe combat results. They describe damage as being "just a scratch" or "a really bad wound". Characters recover lost hit points with the help of healing potions or healing spells, because those lost hit points represent bodily injuries that need to heal before the hit points can be restored.

(Let me digress for a moment to acknowledge that there are people who'll talk until they're blue in the face and you're blue in your soul about how well actually Gary never intended hit points to indicate anything so concrete as bodily health, etc, they have always and everywhere represented an abstracted reserve of luck, martial skill, fighting spirit, elan vitae, and character morale that gets depleted during combat, etc etc, anyone who says differently is playing the game wrong and ruining the hobby with their scurrilous misinterpretation of the founders' intentions, etc etc etc. I'm actually sympathetic to the argument that we could describe combat differently, but I think I'm on solid footing about how the game is usually played, and I don't find it useful to pretend that one's own preferred playstyle has some deep rooting in custom and tradition just to facilitate a rhetorical appeal to faux-historical authority.)

Most weapons use d6, d8, and d10 dice to deal damage, plus of course a likely bonus for high Strength. That means that depending on the match-up of character and monster and weapon, most starting characters can sustain maybe 2-3 hits before they run out of hit points, and can probably endure another 1-2 hits each time they level up.

So returning to my original question, how much damage does one hit point represent?

The Alexandrian argues that the answer is on a sliding scale. Suppose getting hit with a short sword deals 4 damage - how much bodily injury that 4 damage represents depends on whose body it is. For a 1st level thief with 7 hp, that 4 damage is over half their total. That's a pretty grievous injury. Another hit like that and they'll either be dying or just plain dead. For a 3rd level fighter with 31 hp, it's not so bad really. They could get hit 6-7 more times like that before it would kill them. The severity of the injury isn't determined so much by the number of hit points as it is by the proportion of the total.

DM David suggests that the abstraction of hit points - the fact that they don't easily map to any particular amount of bodily injury - is the reason for their enduring appeal. He observes that virtually every game that sets out to "fix" D&D's combat settles on some kind of rule to make hit points and weapons damage more "realistic", and that despite these many "fixes", D&D's decidedly un-realistic combat remains more popular. He argues that this is because it's more fun. Players like the positive feedback of actually hitting their opponents, and they like not dying instantly the first time an attack hits them. It's more fun to narrate combat as a trading of blows than as a series of dodges, blocks, whiffs, and misses.

When I first learned about D&D, before I started playing, I thought that 100 hit points per character sounded about right. I suppose I must have been thinking of hp as percents. If you'd asked me how long a fight should last back then, I probably would have wanted something like the duration of combat you get in a round of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. For "boss fights" anyway, although I don't know if the rhythm of lesser battles against weaker monsters leading up to the climactic crescendo of a "final boss" would have occurred to me then. 

But some people want something different. They want combat to be short, decisive, and deadly. Or they want combat to be a "fail state", a mistake that you instantly regret making. Or they want it to be more "realistic". Or they want it to be more concrete and less abstract. At the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past, reinventing the square wheel as it were, I have a proposal for how to do that.

You're dying, John.

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds
  • One hit point represents one bullet wound.
  • The number of hit point a character possesses represents the number of times they can get shot before dying.
  • The amount of damage an attack deals represents the number of bullets that hit the target.

Saito's not going to make it, is he?
  • Attack rolls truly are "to-hit" rolls. If you roll a miss, that means the bullet misses its target.
  • Your "armor class" represents your ability to dodge or evade. It's affected by your agility and by ducking behind cover, which causes the bullets to miss you.
  • Body armor allows bullets to hit you, and so doesn't affect your "armor class" at all. Instead it provides something like a saving throw after combat to see if it successfully prevent the bullets from damaging you as much as they normally would.

  • Hit point totals are low and will remain low. A non-combat character can survive being shot maybe 1-4 times, a combat-oriented character can survive maybe 1-6. Hit point totals probably don't increase as you gain levels, or only very slightly.

  • If a character with 1 hit point gets shot, they start dying. If a character with 0 hit points gets shot, they're instantly dead. Most civilian NPCs have 1 hp. Having 0 hit points represents an state of illness or frailty.
  • Dying will turn into dead unless you go to a hospital or other surgeon. Any character who gets shot will die from their injuries unless they take the time needed to apply competent first aid to their wounds. 
  • Any bullet wound that isn't treated in a hospital or equivalent will result in the permanent loss of 1 hp. Any bullet wound that is treated still requires something like a saving throw after treatment to recover, otherwise it's lost permanently anyway.
  • Recovery times are long. Expect to spend something like 1 hour per bullet wound on first aid and something like 2 weeks per wound recovering afterward. And those might still be "unrealistically" abbreviated. Translate into your game's relevant "turn" and "downtime" categories as necessary.

  • Most unarmed combat deals 0 damage. You can wrestle someone to restrain them, get in a fistfight in lieu of negotiation, maybe even knock someone unconscious, but your bare hands aren't likely to kill anyone, except under extraordinary circumstances. A critical hit might kill, even by accident, and so might beating a helpless person.
  • Knives deal maybe 1 damage. You get something like a saving throw. If you succeed, you still need first aid, and will suffer the consequences without it, but otherwise you take 0 damage. If you fail your save, you need a hospital, and take 1 damage. Knives can kill, but not as easily as a gun.
  • Most bullets deal 1 damage, but special guns might have special characteristics. A very weak gun, perhaps one that's very quiet or easy to conceal, deals maybe 1 damage, like a knife. A very powerful gun, or one that's firing very dangerous ammo, will definitely deal 1 point of damage and will maybe deal 2. Again, you need something like a saving throw. Armor piercing bullets don't allow you to make a save to prevent their damage, but let's say they only deal 1 damage if you're wearing a vest. Special guns and special bullets are very expensive.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

My Earliest Childhood Fantasy Inspirations

The other day, I was talking with some friends about our childhood fantasy inspirations. It occurred to me that everyone's knowledge of fantasy (or any other genre) is very limited at first, and grows over time.

But if I cast my mind backward, I can still kind of recapture what the fantasy genre looked like to me as a child. If I'd been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12, these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to provide the inspiration for my game.

For me, let's mark the end of "childhood" and the start of my teen years with the roughly simultaneous discoveries of Magic: The Gathering and The Duelist magazine, JRPG games I could read about in Nintendo Power magazine even if I didn't own them, and my family's first subscription to 1990s dial-up internet. Those three discoveries gave me windows outside my parents house and shaped my view of fantasy in my teen years, and they probably established the type of fantasy world I'd imagine today. But what I'm writing about here comes earlier, before that, when my world was still small.

What were your earliest childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world look like back then?

The Sword in the Stone - The origin-story prequel of the saga of King Arthur, Sword in the Stone tells the story of an unloved young squire nicknamed "Wart" who meets the wizard Merlin and his familiar, Archimedes the owl. Merlin and Archimedes tutor Arthur by showing him the world from the perspective of two different prey species, one a fish, and one a bird, both times defending him from predators, and eventually from the shapechanging witch Mad Madam Mim. The film ends when Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, almost by accident, while trying to fulfill his duties as a squire.

As a child, I was small, skinny, and had few friends. I found Arthur's life as "Wart" easy to relate to. One thing that stands out in this movie is just how tiny Arthur is, and how giant all the adults seem by comparison. The magicians' duel between Merlin and Mim, with all its creative shapeshifting, including her ending up as a dragon, is a real delight to watch - as are the scenes of Merlin magically packing up his study and cleaning the kitchen.
Robin Hood - The familiar story of Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, does battle with Prince Jon and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and comes to the rescue of his girlfriend, Maid Marian. Oh yeah, and everyone's an animal. Robin is depicted a hero of the people, beloved by the townspeople, and a group of small children who - in an almost metafictional gesture - play pretend at being Robin Hood themselves.

The Disney films on this list weren't just three of my favorite fantasy movies, they were also three of my favorite Disney films, and three of my favorite movies period, growing up. The music is especially good in this one, and the costumes are easy to imagine transposed onto human characters, and Robin in particular is a master of disguise. (Although his fortune teller disguise seems to be based on, and to perpetuate, stereotypes about the Roma people.)

Sleeping Beauty - A fairly standard telling of the story of Sleeping Beauty that's elevated by its details. The evil fairy Maleficent is frightening even before she turns into a dragon, the good fairies are fun to watch when they're fighting over what color Aurora's dress should be, and if the instrumentals sound good enough to dance to, it's because Tchaikovsky wrote them for the ballet.

All the verve and personality in this movie is reserved for the supporting cast, but they have it in spades. Maleficent is one of the all-time great villains, she turns into a giant black dragon, and I love her little army of mismatched goblins. She says "hell" once, you guys, which seemed like a big deal at the time. And even if most of what is does is stand there and look vaguely handsome, I also liked Phillip's brief turn as a dragonslaying knight on horseback.

LEGO Castle - Although I've often lamented that LEGO got much cooler right after I stopped playing with them, what I probably mean is that that's around the time they started making licensed sets with recognizable characters from other intellectual properties. I had a few sets of knights, bandits, and the "forest men" who are clearly modeled on Robin Hood. I used them to act out Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, and to make up my own fantasy stories. If I had been running a game of D&D as a kid, I would definitely have used these LEGO minifigures to represent each character.

The Princess Bride - The classic story of True Love TM , Westley and Buttercup fall in love when they're younger, and separated by circumstance, she gets unwillingly forced into an engagement to a prince, and Westley returns bristling with talent and dressed in all black to rescue her. There are some really excellent sword fights, and various extremely silly supporting cast members.

As a child, I really don't think I understood that this is intended to be a comedy. I read the book too, with its fake editor's notes and summaries of the expurgated materials, and failed to understand that the supposed "good parts edition" was the only edition, there was no actual unabridged original that I couldn't locate. For all that, I really enjoyed this movie, perhaps especially Westley's sword fight with Inigo, wrestling match with Fezzik, and battle of wits with Vizzini.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - Prince Adam of Eternia transforms into the indomitable He-Man, defending his kingdom from invasion by the evil sorcerer Skeletor and his army of colorful minions. The characters on He-Man are essentially fantasy superheroes and supervillains, but they'd probably make good additions to any cast of NPCs.

I've heard from people who've rewatched this cartoon that He-Man never actually uses his sword as a weapon, that he always wins his fights with other feats of unarmed strength, but as a kid I never noticed that. He-Man is one of the earliest cartoons I can remember watching, and I was kind of obsessed with it at the time. I had some of the action figures and played with them constantly, I played at pretend sword-fighting, on a few occasions I even wore across my chest so I could carry a toy sword on my back. While this was on the air, I never got tired of it.

Circle of Magic - Randal, a young squire, abandons the path to knighthood to learn magic. After seeing a demonstration by Master Maddoc, Randal follows him to the city where he wins admission to a wizard college. He meets Lys, a girl his own age who starts out homeless, orphaned, and dressed as a boy, stealing food to stay alive. Given an instrument and a chance, she develops into a successful traveling minstrel. Randal travels too as a journeyman wizard, and is joined by his cousin Walter, who has become a knight errant. Their adventures frequently culminate in an attempt to banish a demon from the world.

I think I probably bought these books off the Scholastic book carts on one of the occasions they took over the lunchroom at my elementary school. I remember sneaking out of bed to lie on the floor so I could read them beneath my nightlight. As a kid, to a certain extent, almost all my fantasy inspirations felt personal. Maybe all my classmates knew the Disney films, but none of my friends had seen Labyrinth or the Dark Crystal. But even today, the Circle of Magic books still feel personal. Unlike the other items on this list, there are no rewatches or reviews online, no shared generational nostalgia. 

I didn't understand why at the time, but I felt especially interested in Lys's story. These days, with the fantasy books I seem to read, I'd almost be surprised to find a girl character who doesn't disguise herself as a boy for safety, but at the time, Lys wasn't an example of an archetype to me, she was a unique and surprising individual. I liked that she and Walter were shown to be as skilled at their careers as Randal was at magic. 

There was also some subtle commentary in these books. Wizards don't tell lies because their magic will betray them if they do. Wizards don't use swords because they promise not to, and so using one would mean breaking a promise, and thus telling a lie. And in their travels, the group comes to a town where the upper class all wear fancy dueling swords, which they observe are quite different from the heavy killing blades Randal and Walter grew up with.


Return of the Jedi - Luke Skywalker helps rescue his friends from the alien gangster, Jabba the Hutt. They discover the location of a new, incomplete Death Star. The Rebel fleet will attack the space station while Luke and his friends turn off the shield generator that protects the station. The generator is on a forested moon, and they're aided in their attack by the alien Ewoks. Luke also goes to the Death Star to convince Darth Vader to quite the Empire.

In general, as a kid, I drew thick boundary lines between the genres, but the last Star Wars movie slipped through my firewall to inform my vision of fantasy far more than it did scifi. I was thrilled by the raid on Jabba's palace and the climactic sword-fights between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Evil Emperor (who shoots lightning out of his fingers!), and the Gamorrean guards joined the ranks of the goblin army in my mind.
The Neverending Story - Bastian skips school to sneak into an attic and read a new fantasy novel, also called The Neverending Story. In the book, the world is being dissolved by the encroaching Nothing. Heroic Atreyu travels across the shrinking countryside to find the Childlike Empress and try to save both her and the world, risking death several times along the way. He eventually gets help from Falcor the luck-dragon, and Bastian begins to understand that he has a role to play too - the fantasy world can't survive without the imagination of its readers.

This was another one I read. I found a luscious hardback copy of the book on my parents' shelves, printed with green and red ink to designate Bastian's and Atreyu's stories. It blew my mind when I discovered that there was a whole second half to the book that continued after the endpoint of the movie. I know everyone feels sad when they watch Atreyu's horse drown in the swamp, but the scene that always made me saddest is when we meet the rock giant for the second time. The first time, in the beginning, he's happy and confident, certain he can outrace the peril that's chasing him. When we see him again, he's wracked with guilt over being unable to save his friends from the Nothing, disappointed in himself because there's no one else left to be disappointed in him. For whatever reason, the way he was haunted by his failure really resonated with me, even when I was too young to have failed at much in life yet.

Labyrinth - Teenage Sarah wishes the goblins would come take her screaming, crying baby brother away ... so they do. To rescue him, Sarah has to navigate a maze with a shifting layout to try to reach the castle of the Goblin King. She helped by a handful of the labyrinth's inhabitants, and obstructed by the majority of those she encounters. She learns both self-confidence and a willingness to trust deserving friends, and eventually rescues her little brother, but retains a connection to the goblin kingdom.

This was one of the few fantasy stories I was aware of where a girl hero saves a boy damsel, and I really liked Sarah as a character. She's smart, but more importantly, aside from acting impulsively on her feelings at the beginning, she finds her way through the maze by being emotionally intelligent. I also felt there was something interesting about the Goblin King insisting that he only acted like a villain because humans like Sarah wanted him to, which makes him a bit like the Lucifer character from the Sandman comics - although I wouldn't read those until like a decade after I first saw Labyrinth. The visuals in this film are really good, the MC Escher inspired staircase room remains part of my idea of what dungeons should look like.
The Dark Crystal - Two elf-like Gelflings, Jen and Kira, meet on a quest to find a crystal shard and return it to the great Crystal. They're pursued by the horrible vulture-like Skeksis, who rule the world, and have bred monsters to protect the Crystal from being repaired and made whole. When the Crystal is repaired, the Skeksis merge with the ancient Mystics, each pair fusing to become a single body. These restored beings abdicate their rule and leave the world to the Gelflings.

I'm certain I didn't understand this movie as a kid, although I loved the visuals. The plot isn't necessarily that complex, but I found it disorienting. It doesn't just tell a new story, it tells it using unfamiliar characters. There are no humans or recognizable animals in Dark Crystal, it's got its own complete ecology. Like Neverending Story, it tells the story of a world that's practically disintegrating from some sort of overuse and exhaustion, a world that is reborn like the first day of spring after a final victory that's less about defeating an enemy than fixing something that was broken.
The Secret of NIMH - Field mouse Mrs Brisby knows that she needs to move her family out of their cinderblock home before the farmer ploughs the field, but her youngest son is too sick to move. She seeks help from the mysterious rats of NIMH. She meets a friendly crow, a terrifying giant owl, puts sleeping powder in cat named Dragon's food dish, and eventually uses a magic amulet she got from the rats to levitate her house to safety. The rats are having their own internal disputes, which they settle with a lot of sword-fighting.

I thought this was the coolest animated movie as a kid. One of the rats says a swear word - "damn!" When the rats sword-fight, they get cut, their swords get bloody. Nicodemus and the Owl both have scary glowing eyes, and the amulet lets Mrs Brisby use what amounts to telekinesis, but animated with absolutely gorgeous glowing fire light. Between Mrs Brisby's dead husband, her deathly ill son, and the Lab Animal style revelation of the source of the rats' intelligence and powers made this a pretty dark movie. Although as I write this, actually several of the films on this list have some pretty mature themes for children's entertainment.

Looking across the different stories, it becomes possible to draw out common themes, to see the key features of a campaign world inspired by these movies begin to take shape.

Your friends are small and weak - When the heroes in these stories have allies - friends who support them even if they don't join in their adventures - those allies tend to be marginal and vulnerable. They're children, the elderly, people who have been disabled by sickness, or people who spend most of their time helping the above. Think of Robin Hood's many supporters among the poor, and Friar Tuck, whose obligations to his ministry limit how much he can help his criminal friend.

When the heroes receive supernatural help, its often from allies we might think of as gnomes. They might not be called gnomes in-fiction, but I'm thinking of the podlings from Dark Crystal, the observatory keepers at the Southern Oracle in Neverending Story, perhaps even Yoda. These allies can provide information, medical attention, a place to sleep, but there's a reason they aren't adventurers themselves.

Heroes wear black - And not just literally, like Luke in Return of the Jedi and Westley in Princess Bride, (and Zorro!), but also figuratively, many of these heroes are criminals and outlaws, and many of the villains are kings and princes, people with the law, the government, and an army on their side and at their command. Jabba the Hutt might be referred to as a gangster, for example, but he's the one with the palace, the courtiers, the guards, the multiple sites where he executes people for spectacle. Even the heroes who used to be royal themselves have been thrown out of power. If they retain anything at all from that time, it's a bit of status and respect from the common people. These are adventures where the bad guys have won before the story even starts, and the quest is an attempt to repair a situation that has been broken for quite some time.

Villains lead goblins - The villainous rulers of these stories wear quite a bit of black themselves, and they're often quite frightening and imposing. Think of Skeletor's skinless face, Maleficent's horned headdress, the Skeksis' terrible bird-like features, or Darth Vader's whole costume.

The villains also frequently have their own private armies of goblins, who look quite distinctive compared to the goblins that I saw later in Magic and Pathfinder illustrations. These goblins are typically short, pale brown or sickly yellow skinned (not human skin tones, more like colors you might associate with disease), and with diverse bestial features. Some have pig's noses, or animal maws, or horns, some mostly look like kids, and their individual uniqueness gives them a distinctive look when they're grouped together. Goblins are cunning and dangerous, but also cowardly and undisciplined. They're like a cruel reflection of kids and gnomes as allies.

Dragons are deadly - Mad Madam Mim and Maleficent turn themselves into dragons, the LEGO knights fight dragons, and the Rats of NIMH live in fear of Dragon the cat, who killed Mrs Brisby's husband and broke Mr Ages' leg. While many of the fights in these stories are fought until one side can knock out or capture the other, a fight with a dragon stands out because it's a fight to the death.

Knights should be a character type - I still remember how surprised I was learning about D&D and realizing that knights weren't really a viable character class. There are fighters who wear plate armor, there are self-righteous paladins, and occasionally there's some sort of cavalier as an optional addition to the core rules, but despite how often they appear in the fantasy media (and LEGO sets!) I was familiar with as a kid, knights just don't really have a place in standard D&D. They certainly would if my kid self ran a campaign, though!

The protagonists of these stories are more likely to be former squires than active knights, but there are plenty of knights in armor among the supporting casts. Knights errant should probably also be a possible NPC ally, someone you could recruit to accompany you and fight on your behalf. I would probably let the players take turns controlling their mounted champion in combat though, so it doesn't feel like fights are decided by contests between a GM-controlled protector and some GM-controlled monsters. Speaking of combat...

Fighting means sword-fighting - I think the most common sort of fight in these stories is a one-on-one duel with swords. As others have noted in detail, this is not a type of combat that standard D&D models particularly well, although I think it probably requires a change in the common practices of description more than it requires a change in the rules. These sword fights are rarely to the death. They typically end with someone surrendering, being taken captive, or knocked unconscious.

Swamps are scary - Princess Bride has the Fire Swamp, Neverending Story has the Swamp of Sadness, Labyrinth the Bog of Eternal Stench, and Return of the Jedi has Dagobah, plus poor Mrs Brisby's house sinking into the mud in Secret of NIMH. Swamps are a place where heroes are at their emotional low point and villains have the upper hand. If you're in a swamp, something has already gone wrong to get you there, and things are about to get worse. If a friend is going to die or get captured, it's very likely to happen in a swamp.

Magic is giant - Besides the dragons, these stories have other giant magical creatures. Think of Morla the Ancient in Neverending Story the Owl in Secret of NIMH. Places of magical power are ancient and oversized. Magical creatures are giant and terrifying, even when they're not overtly hostile. They might offer some help, but they're not allies - they must be convinced to intervene, and might demand a price for their assistance.
The worlds these stories describe are troubled places. The rulers of the land are typically evil, and things might be in actively in the process of getting worse. These rulers are magical and frightening. They're powerful fighters in their own right, and they command things like dragons and armies of goblins that strengthen them more.

Any benevolent leaders have been cast out of power or co-opted. They either retain just enough royal status to make useful hostages, or they're so busy trying to care for the government's victims that they have no time for adventuring. And their aid to the poor limits their ability to oppose the government - they can't openly defy the rulers without endangering the people they're working to help.

The heroes and their allies are both figuratively and, often, literally small and vulnerable. They are taking a terrible risk to their lives by trying to free the land from the evil of misrule. They're outnumbered, out-equipped, and overmatched. They rely on stealth, magic, and a tactic of surgically striking at their enemy's weakest point to have any chance of victory, or even survival. This is why our heroes travel overland, to avoid the enemy's power centers and guard posts. This is why the fate of the world is decided by swordfights and appeals to the conscience of the main villain's lieutenants - because that's the only scale on which the heroes can fight and possibly have a chance to win.

The heroes' weakness is contrasted against both the villains' strength and the hugeness and indifference of most magical places and creatures. In addition to an villain who wants to kill them, the heroes also face a world filled with oversized and overpowering magical creatures who simply don't care about them or their problems.

If I were to add any more stories to this list, I might pick Alice in Wonderland or David the Gnome or Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Pirates of Dark Water - but for the most part, I don't think the themes I pulled out would change very much. A list like this is partly generational, partly idiosyncratic. I know you would have been inspired by different stories, would have taken different lessons from them.

What would be on your list of inspirations when you were little? What kind of fantasy world would you have built out of them?