Notes from Leprecon 44

Last month I was part of Leprecon 44, a sci-fi/fantasy convention held in Phoenix.  I ran my game, moderated some panels, and took some notes.

I moderated a Game Master panel. You have to be careful with these, particularly if the panelists are all also game designers (3 out of 4 of us were) because we are likely to slip out of running a game and into designing a game, which is a different panel. I’d give us a C+ for staying on topic.

Bottom line is a good GM works with the players to tell an engaging story. (Panelist Eric Wile stressed the term “engaging”). Ken St Andre (who wrote Tunnels and Trolls) felt it was more about stakes. If the stakes are high for the characters, engagement must follow.

You have to read your players. Getting a player to look up from the rules and actually use their imagination is a skill that can be taught, but not everyone wants to learn. And, alas young GM’s, there is no substitute for experience. If you want to become a good Game Master, run a lot of games.

I learned a lot from the Alex Pescador panel on scripting for comic books.

Pescador is the sketch with a dialogue bubble. 

I must confess that I have been to a lot of panels and am getting to the point where I rarely learn anything new. But Alex taugfht me about page layout for print (not at all straight-forward), the various bubble styles, and , as you can see, what a box-line is.

Also, he passed out free comics.

Comixology is doing to comics what Amazon does to the rest of media.

I did a panel on “Where Artists get their ideas” which was anecdotal, but not terribly enlightening. (Their heads – that’s where they come from). But I did meet Lubov and Annette Sexton-Ruiz who are both fascinating just to talk to.


The screenwriting panel had only John Proudstar, and I merely attended. The notes above sum it up pretty well.

And I sat on a panel, not as a moderator, but as an actual panelist about alternate  and fictional history, which is the general course of this blog, and took no notes, because I had to really pay attention. Sorry.

I guess you’ll just have to keep reading….


Rules of Magic

Magic needs rules to be an effective story-telling device. Even though you are channeling enough Power of the Cosmic Chaos through your body to melt a skyscraper, there are rules, right?

Well, there should be.

And even though I hear people at workshops and cons gush over the works of Brian Sanderson as if he invented the concept, Hard  Magic – meaning magic with rules that the reader is in on – has been around since the 1970’s with Jack Vance and Larry Niven (yes, he wrote fantasy once in a while and oh, yeah, Dungeons and Dragons – which was literally a set of rules for using magic.

(Yes – I am aware that Gary Gygax, who wrote the original D&D books, was heavily influenced by Vance. )



Sanderson’s Laws are not laws about magic (compare with Lydon Hardy’s Master of the Five Magics, which actually spelled out the laws of magic in a prologue) but instead govern writing about magic.

The primary source is essays on his blog.  I’ll summarize the actual laws here with links to the relevant essay:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.


Sanderson’s Second Law can be written very simply. It goes like this:

Limitations > Powers

[The limitations on magic are more interesting than the power of magic – my summary]

Sanderson’s Third Law of Magics 

Expand what you already have before you add something new.

Which is really general world-building advice applied to magic systems.

For my fiction, which all shares the same essential cosmology, I relied upon a different law:

Clarke’s Law: Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Thus I cooked up the Central Galactic Wish Machine, a matter/energy converter that ca be controlled by thought. In the Go Action Fun Time Universe, the Titans stole one and brought it with them when they fled to Earth to escape law enforcement.

More about that here.

Soon enough, those wily little humans learned how to use it (the technical term was spellcraft) – at least in a limited fashion, and magical mayhem ensued.

This is also the premise behind the magic in Beanstalk and Beyond, except few of the characters (and certainly not the narrator) have an inkling of the true backstory behind it all.

The game mechanics of GAFT go one step further stating that :

Magic is a hand-wave for forces that cannot be explained by physics. (If you can explain it with physics – do that.)

Magic is a status unto itself: there are forces that only affect magic, and there are things that are immune to magic.

Every parameter in magic is randomly determined. You do not have a range of 60’. You have a range of 1d6x15′.

All magic has a duration (randomly determined, natch.)

Let me note here that by forbidding permanent magic, we eliminate a lot of the world-breaking potential of magic.

When I ran the Antediluvain FRP game, using my own rules (of course) each of the five distinct civilizations practicing magic had distinct systems. To simulate (enable) this I drew inspiration from (stole from) different published magic systems. The Atlanteans used the old ICE Rolemaster system, the Gondwannan civilizations borrowed from various editions of D&D (So the Ophirian Detect Magic [AD&D2E] differed from the Stygian Detect Magic [3E] ) Imperial Tang used Palladium, and so forth.

That might seem like a lot of bookkeeping, but I chose those books because they were on my shelf.

If you are just writing narrative fiction, of course, you don not have to, and probably shouldn’ t explain all the technical nuances of spellcasting to anywhere near that detail. But you should know.

You are the expert.

Which brings me to my own humble law of fictional world building: If you don’t know – then nobody knows.

[This sets up an upcoming entry about magic vs technology.]

Giants That fell From the Sky (Giant Primer part 5)

Last of a five part Primer on Giants (which starts here).

The religious mysteries of the various cultures that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea basically start with some sky god knocking up the earth goddess. Some have a prologue of sorts where an unknown (and bored) creator diety brought all creation into being, and then that god – or his son, knocks up mother earth, and the action starts.

Invariably, though, He spills his seed upon the ground, and that makes a mess of paradise.

You know what this means, right? Yes. Aliens.

When I expand upon that notion (wholly unsupported with actual fact – so that we’re all clear) I think of Titans. First, because you can derive a narrative like this fairly cleanly from known mythology. Second, because I happen to know a good bit about that mythology and third because Titan is easy to spell and type.

Also, the Titans were big. Sources that agree on nothing else agree on this. Big horny giants from the sky. Aliens.

The Titans

Atlas – via Wikipedia commons

Here’s how I have imagined it for my time-traveling superhero RPG Go Action Fun Time:

As the Old Galactic Empire fell apart, during what we call the late Pleistocene,  a starship made its way out into the frontiers of the Galaxy, far beyond any working jump-gate, and took orbit around our small planet. The starship was crewed by refugees, or revolutionaries, or criminals, depending upon your perspective, but none disagree that they were no longer safe in known Imperial Space.

They set up operations on a small continent (Atlantis – as it would turn out), tectonically unstable, but rich in resources. The operation was to be brief – a rest stop to re-supply the Mother Ship – but something went Very Wrong in orbit, and the landing party found itself stranded in this primitive paradise. Or, alternately, depending on the source, the Mother Ship recalled them and when they refused to go, they were abandoned. Or, they were simply abandoned.

The Titans, like most advanced races, found it easier to adapt themselves to an environment rather than the other way around, and they assumed a form modeled on one of the most versatile species in extant in that biosystem at the time – namely hominids. Except they adopted a really astonishingly large version of it.

(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Titans – doing what they do best.

They possessed star-age technology, but little infrastructure to support it. For that they needed labor.  The legendary Hectonchirie and Cyclops were gigantic automatons, but even these great things were insufficient. They began modifying the local fauna, creating giant chimeric monsters to serve as beasts of burden.

Even this proved unsatisfactory. The local hominids seemed puny, but they were relatively bright and versatile. What could we do with them to make them a little larger?

Among their wondrous artifacts, though, was a “wish machine”, a matter/energy converter that can be controlled by thought; the pinnacle of Titan technology, and almost certainly stolen by this particular group.

Sheltered by their isolation, and cushioned by their stolen technology, their passions ran unchecked by hardship for centuries, and the whole planet became their footstool. Their civilization was a long, destructive party that raged for thousands of years. But their slaves kept learning, and became more and more independent, running a shadow society around and in spite of the quarreling Gods, who took it all for granted until it was far too late.

Civil war, a slave insurrection, and tectonic instability finally caught up to them, and they were forced to abandon their civilization. Many abandoned the planet altogether, but a few remained: The Titans, the Aesir (who would inhabit North America until the end fo the Ice Age),  the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia and Greece. But they were too few to call a civilization, and the world, as it were, had passed to humans.

The Nephilim

Good, clean Biblical fun.

Closely related to this are the Nephilim – mentioned in the Bible and consequently speculated upon by all manner of new age and fundamentalist Christian wackos to the point where it’s not even fun anymore.

For my money Nephilim = Titan. The outcome was the same.


A nice clean summary:

The Muans (Giant Primer pt4)


Kumbhakarna the rakshasa out for a stroll.

The third of our giants who grew from the ground are the Muans. The series starts here.

Muans ( a term made up well after the fact) are a race of supernatural immortals native to southeast Asia. Their lost history informs the legends and myths behind the Asura and Devas and Jinn and Oni of more recent human cultures.

The term comes from the pseudo-scholarly work of Col James Churchward at the end of the 19th century. While he was in error about just about everything in his speculative account of a prehistoric south-pacific lost continent, we have appropriated the name anyway.

The lower sea levels of the late Pleistocene revealed the fertile hills of a great peninsula stretching from south-east Asia, across what is now called Oceanea, and nearly to Australia. Across these muddy hills, a large and aggressive strain of Homo Erectus concocted a civilization of sorts that we now call Mu.

That Homo Erectus inhabited this peninsula is a paleo-archaic fact. Beyond that, we speculate that they developed a civilization of sorts, and then a mighty civilization. That civilization allowed them to grow – physically – into something much larger and fiercer than their humble Homo Erectus progenitors.

Homo Erectus topped out at 6’ or so, which was enormous compared to contemporary hominid species. While they matched modern human in size, their skulls were smaller and flatter. This did not stop them from using fire and devloping a distinct style of tool making often referred to as Acheulian culture. (So if you need a name that is not Mu – there you go).

Let us imagine now that some of these fellows went beyond fire and finely chipped stone axes; that they created a genuine civilization of some sort on the muddy shores of that ice-age subcontinent. What might remain? Not much, the rising seas would not have been kind. But folklore in that part of the world goes back a looong way.

Hawaiian lore speaks of a transpacific civilization before the Polynesian culture which conquered the island around the 13th century. This civilization actually had very little structure. The people hunted and fishing, shared everything communally, and disputes were settled by the eldest among them. This speaks more of a low population density than any particular enlightenment.

Southeast Asian folklore is filled with ogre-like creatures with fangs and occasionally too many limbs or heads. These creatures were slavers and cannibals. Until you get to Hindu myth – which is never that simple.

Ravana fighting Indra and his elephant because politics.

The Asuras and Rhaksasas of Vedic myth opposed the gods (specifically they opposed Indra and his allies), and often behaved badly towards those ends, but not all were evil. Most adhered to a fairly ascetic life, and the differences between the Asuras and the gods seem mostly political.

Asuras and Raksasa are shape-shifters, and come in a bewildering variety of forms.

Let’s put this together in a single (wholly fictional) narrative:

At least a half million years ago, the advancing Acheulian civilization stumbled upon the secret of eternal life. Perhaps it was gift from Outside Forces, perhaps it was derived from purity of spirit, perhaps they developed it through science. Remember: humans got from wild wheat fields to landing on the moon in just over 5000 years.

So the Muans had biological regeneration, shape change, and dimensional manipulation (to carry some legends forward). That’s better than computers and gunpowder. Respect.

It may be that the price of eternal life was never having children.  If so, it seems the Muans found a way around it, but the results might have been horribly mutated: the Oni of Japanese myth, and a tribe of descendants crossing Africa and eventually working northwards up the Atlantic to become the Fomorians.

Muans themselves lived by a strict moral code. They worshipped no gods, and indeed spat upon all supernatural notions. They fought one another, but never to the death, and serious disputes were always arbitrated by other Muans. They had an ascetic philosophy of continually improving oneself – for what else is the point of eternal life?

But Muans regarded all other human variants as little more than animals, suitable only as slaves, and occasionally food. Hece their reputation in folklore.

As the ice age ended, about 15,000 years ago, the waves would start to overtake their homeland. Crushed for resources, the Muans began to battle one another – unheard of to that point. Even so, a series of volcanic eruptions about 8000 years ago would have sealed their doom as a coherent people. The survivors wandered inland, and disappeared into myth.


Mu in general:

Homo Erectus


Other Mythology

Asuras are mythological lord beings in Indian and Persian (Ariæns) texts who compete for power with the more benevolent devas (also known as suras).[1] Asuras are described in Indian texts as powerful superhuman demigods or demons with good or bad qualities. The good Asuras are called Adityas and are led by Varuna, while the malevolent ones are called Danavas and are led by Vritra.[2] Other specific sections of Asuras exist, and they are known as Daityas, Anavayas, and Raksasas.


The Fomorian Giants

Fomorians came in all shapes and sizes

The Fomorian Giants are the great race that plagued successive generations of settlers or would be conquerors in prehistoric Ireland. Accounts differ, wildly, but what most have in common was that they were giant, often misshapen, and fond of the sea.The Irish Celts, from where this legend sprang, claimed to be the fifth distinct people to occupy the emerald isle. The Fomorians plagued peoples one through four; though they, themselves, are not counted among those races. It seems are large mutant friends were happy to raid and even occupy the land, but never really settled it enough to be considered a native race.

What accounts the Celts gave were then recorded post Christianization, with that medieval compulsion to somehow Christianize everything.  According to the Christianized version, the Fomorians were the descendants  of Ham, the cursed son of Noah, and this accounted for their disfigurement. These notions, so you know, barely line up with the Biblical material, have no basis in known archeology, and are often wildly racist.

That said, the notion that the Fomorians came from Africa is not out of the question.Prevailing currents make it far easier to sail north from the west coast of Africa than the reverse. Sub Saharan Africans of any tribe would have seemed quite alien in prehistoric Ireland.

That would not necessarily make them giants, but the Bantu people have folklore about poorly behaved, mutant giants called Zimwi, but we might as well call them ogres. (more on the origin of ogres and the word ogre in later entries). Maybe a group of them went sailing one day, and couldn’t find their way back.

It is equally plausible (actually more so) that they were of Germanic or even Pictish origin. They could even be the southern cousins of the Jotun.

It seems more fun to say that they were a tribe of African ogres who migrated, intentionally or otherwise by boat to the north Atlantic.

The most famous description of a Fomorian has then with one eye, one arm and one leg, which seems inoperable. There are many differing descriptions of their mutations, so let’s say that none looked alike. A surplus or deficit of limbs, eyes, ears and mouths may have been common. Some even had a surplus of heads (AKA Ettins). They tended to have darker skin, but even this was not universal among them.

Fomorians could farm (or so claimed the Irish Celts) but preferred the sea, perhaps living on fish, and even whales. Later, as humanity expanded, they became fond of plunder. Fomorian evolved in later Irish to mean pirate.

art by Andrew DeFelice

The original etymology of the term Fomorian (I am using a very anglicised variant here) is contested. There is a theory that it meant under the sea instead of from the sea. Perhaps some had gills.

There is also a theory that the term meant lower demons – though this seems to be a Christian interpretation. What is not in dispute is that some Fomorians had magic powers over weather and darkness. Maybe magical ability was a mutation as well.


Fomorians were a match for all but the mightiest heroes of Irish mythology, and given that their ranks are populated with a scattering of giants and wizards and super-human warriors, this would take some doing. While they were driven out, finally, by the Tuatha DeDann, Fomorians were said to raid well into the era of Celtic legend.




What most people don’t know is that the Fomorians were an actual race of giants who lived in ancient Ireland around 1500 BC, during the Bronze Age. Their territory included Ireland, the Inner and Outer Hebrides islands, the Shetland islands, Orkney islands, Pomorania/Pomerania, and Scandinavia, in regions that overlap with the Norse gods. Historically their realm was called Lochlann.


African Zimwe

Image Credit

Andrew DeFelice


The Giant Primer: Norse

Hearthstone gamecard art : Artist Greg Staples

Giant Primer hub page

To western minds, the most common sort of giant we conjure up are derived from Norse and Celtic mythology – more specifically the Norse. The vikings thought a lot about giants, and unlike the Celts, they had the good sense to record their tales prior to becoming Christians.

To the Norse, the giants were the counterparts to the Gods; the loyal opposition. The giants were not necessarily evil (nor were the Aesir and Vanir necessarily good).  Rather, the gods the vikings revered fought to create some useful order within the chaos that sprung from the giants.

Daniel McCoy, compiler of Norse Mythology of Smart People explains:

Jotunheim is also known as Utgard (pronounced “OOT-guard;” Old Norse Útgarðr, “Beyond the Fence”), a name which establishes the realm as occupying one extreme end of the traditional Germanic conceptual spectrum between the innangard and the utangard. That which is innangard (“inside the fence”) is orderly, law-abiding, and civilized, while that which is utangard (“beyond the fence”) is chaotic, anarchic, and wild.

The old Norse term for giant, surviving to us as Jotun, roughly translates to “Devourer”, which is chaotic and untidy, but not essentially evil. The Norse saw this as a necessary part of the Cycle of Things: order is carved out of chaos, but chaos inevitably creep back to devour order. Yet from that chaos, order will eventually emerge.

The Norse gods sprang from the corpse of a great giant that had consumed the previous world. So it goes.

Let’s translate that to fur-clad boots on the mythical ground.

The Jotum are a large, proud race of giants dwelling beyond the frigid horizon – in this case Greenland, and the northern wastes of Asia and north America. The center of their lands was the Arctic Ocean.

While relatively uncivilized, they were not stupid, and this, coupled with their large size, could enable them to withstand the arctic conditions of the latter ice ages. But large size brings large appetites, hence their reputation as devourers.

There would not have been a lot of them – needing a lot of territory to sustain themselves. Twenty giants assembled would be an army.  But that would be all they would need unless they were assaulting Asgard itself.

Where puny humans see strength in numbers, giants would see only scarcity. They would have little incentive to invent civilization as we understand it. The primary purpose of organized agriculture, after all, is to allow for an increase in population. Also, glaciers will discourage this anyway.

So they hunted and gathered in sparse groups spread across sprawling territories. Even isolated they had nothing to fear but starvation and each other, and the latter would have been an unlikely threat.  Every Jotun knew every other Jotun.

One can easily imagine them riding about on the glaciers, atop their mastodon mounts, trained polar bears flushing out seals. Perhaps they herded wooly rhinos the way we herd cattle.


Given that humanoids cap out at eight feet and a thousand pounds or so, a twelve foot, six ton giant could only be sustained supernaturally. Now, let’s go to the Niven theory of magic, that it becomes more prevalent in barren wastes than in settled, or biologically richer lands. Under these assumptions, the giants would need the glaciers just to stay standing.

In the end, the giants overtake the Gods in the Ragnarok, but the Norse saw this as part of a cycle rather than an ultimate end. And the pattern, deep winters, rising oceans, long period of warm calm, receding oceans and deep winters, can be loosely mapped to expanding and contracting ice ages.

The Asgardians might mitigate the Jotun for a while, but they never overcome them. The true enemy of the Jotun is global warming.



A Primer on Giants

This is part one of several.

Image source:

Giants of all shapes and a surprising variety of sizes stomp all across the myths and folklore of the world. It seems that wherever people have made up stories, they have made up stories about giants.

The boring part first: it does not tax the human imagination to anthropomorphize natural forces into people-shaped gods larger than ourselves. It is by far more likely that each and every giant myth arose from our own imagination along these lines, compared to actual giants as actual fact. Giants are a grittier, more grounded re-imagining of our own gods, or more commonly, the downgrading of the gods of those we have just conquered.

Sure, on occasion, one tribe would encounter a substantially taller tribe, and in retelling that encounter the new strange tribe may grow taller with each telling. The Caucasian giants of prehistoric America may very well be tales of the Inuit’s encounter with Vikings, passed and expanded upon all down the trade routes as far as Peru.

It is supposed, though not established, that the effective maximum height for a human frame is about fifteen feet. As height doubles, mass squares. So if we doubled Shaquille O’Neal (pro basketball player – using his official playing stats of 7’1” and 325 lbs) we get 14’2” and over 105625 lbs. That approaches the limit for proportionally scaled calcium bones to sustain the load. However, you will almost certainly run of of blood circulation before that point.

The tallest known humans hover around 8 feet tall, all suffering from a tumor in their pituitary gland causing the gland to release an excess of growth hormone. Most have circulatory problems. The high end for fully functional seems to be about 7’6” and 350 or so pounds. There are many famous athletes and performers (besides O’Neal) who functioned at or near this size, and perhaps many more that we do not know about. These conditions, though are extremely rare, and it’s hard to plausibly imagine an entire people this size.

Actual facts, though, are not nearly as compelling as completely making shit up. So let’s do that instead.

Giant myths grow from two varieties: those that grew upon the Earth, usually before the dawn of humanity, and those who fell from the sky, typically, but not always, to interbreed with humanity.


Norse Giants

The Fomorians

The Muans