Saturday, March 29, 2014

Guns of the Dragon by Tim Truman (1998-99)


Shanghai, 1927. China is divided by civil war. In an effort to unify the country, Chinese nationalists along with the U.S. Army recruit three obscure DC Comics heroes – Bat Lash, Enemy Ace, and Biff Bradley – to recover a pair of mythological swords. The catch? The swords are located on the long lost “Dragon Isle,” and the heroes must also bring back a dragon to convince the Chinese the legend is true. And if that wasn’t enough, it turns out the communists, Japanese and supervillain Vandal Savage also want the swords - and they’re willing to kill for them.

My thoughts

Guns of the Dragon was a four-part miniseries published in 1998 and 1999 by DC Comics. The idea came from writer and illustrator Tim Truman, who wanted to pen a pulp adventure in the spirit of Indiana Jones but using DC characters appropriate for the time period. He also decided to set most of the action on Dinosaur Island, a location that was featured prominently in the War that Time Forgot, a 1960s comic about World War II soldiers fighting dinosaurs on an isolated Pacific island.

As for miniseries itself, all the pieces are there for a good story, and the plot gets off to a decent start in the first issue. But once the characters reach the island things fall apart. The main problem is there are simply too many villains, and their competing storylines break up the action. The art is inconsistent – sometimes it is really good, other times it is simply serviceable. And for a comic that came out several years after Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are a disappointment. They are drawn as lumbering, tail-dragging behemoths. I would have rather seen them portrayed as the active, agile creatures we know they were.

That said, Guns of the Dragon is an interesting piece of DC lore that fans of the comic universe may appreciate more than I did. Unfortunately, the miniseries has never been collected in a single volume. You will need to find the individual issues online or in a comic book store.

  • Dinosaur Island would pop up sporadically in the DC universe in later comics, and the island itself became a villain in the miniseries DC: The New Frontier.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thrilling Expeditions: Valley of the Thunder Lizard by Richard A. Johnson (2008)

Cover blurb

Thrilling Expeditions: Valley of the Thunder Lizard allows players to play big game hunters in a lost valley populated with creatures from before the rise of man, or have their pirates going ashore on an island where Neanderthals battle Saurians, or time traveling tourists suddenly stranded in Earth’s distant past.

This title will add dinosaurs not only to the .45 Adventure system, but to Gloire and Fantastic Worlds. In addition, the book will provide a Big Game Archetype for each of the three game systems. This release will allow players who may enjoy more than one of our games, the chance to get one book to cover all three.

The Valley of the Thunder Lizard is the first of the Thrilling Expeditions series of supplements. These supplements will be heavy on scenarios with at least one multi-part scenario for each game system. These scenarios should provide you with plenty of ideas for your own games.

So grab your rifle and prepare for Thrilling Expeditions!

My thoughts

Valley of the Thunder Lizard is a supplement for three tabletop miniatures gaming systems by Rattrap Productions, all of which share the same basic mechanics. “Miniatures games?” you say. “You mean like Warhammer 40K?” Actually, no. Warhammer games usually involve dozens of miniatures scattered across a large tabletop. The beauty of Rattrap’s systems is they are designed to be played with only a few 28mm miniatures in an area that can be a small as 2x2 feet. Building large Warhammer armies is expensive. Rattrap’s systems are designed for gamers on a budget.

All three systems use 10-sided dice to resolve conflicts. When attacking, for example, both players roll dice and add any modifiers specific to their figures. The player with the highest number wins the roll. Each figure have seven skills tied to a specific body location. Skills include brains, speed and brawn. When a part of the body takes damage, the associated skill is usually reduced by one point, making it harder to pass any challenges using that skill.

As for the systems themselves, .45 Adventure covers the 1930s pulp action genre, like Indiana Jones or The Shadow; Gloire covers pirates; Fantastic Worlds covers 1930s space pulp serials like Flash Gordon.

Valley of the Thunder Lizards is a solid supplement for anyone who plays miniatures games. It comes with stats for a wide variety of prehistoric creatures along with rules modeling how different types of animals should behave. There are a fairly large number of multi-part scenarios, each specific to one of the three game systems, although they could easily be adapted to the system of your choice. There is no background about the lost world genre itself as the author assumes players already are familiar with it.

I’m glad I have Valley of the Thunder Lizard although I admittedly don’t use any of its core systems – they are a bit too heavy on record keeping for me, given you must track wound locations (although, to be fair, it is easier than it sounds). Still, the scenarios and the book itself can be scavenged for ideas no matter what system you use. One thing to note is that since the supplement came out, a second edition of .45 Adventure has been published that makes several changes to the rules, including the use of multiple dice. I’m not sure how easily Valley of the Thunder Lizard can be adapted to the new system.

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Dragon Bones: Adventures in the Gobi Desert by Richard A. Johnson (2005)

Cover blurb

The time and place is Mongolia of the 1920s. Warlords and freeroaming bandits battle for control of the countryside. Your team of researchers and explorers must race against time to recover the fossils and get them out of the dangerous warzone and back to the safety of the International Zone in Shanghai.

The scenarios in this book are designed for 2 to 6 players. There are four chapters (scenarios), each is capable of being played in a single evening or several can be played at one session.

This book also introduces nine new archetypes to .45 Adventure; including Professors, Bandits, and the Dragon Lady. There are new rules for Mounted models and eight new skills you can add to provide even more diversification for your figures.

So put on your campaign hat, strap on your .45 and get ready for Dragon Bones: Adventures in the Gobi Desert!

My thoughts

Dragon Bones is a campaign supplement for the .45 Adventure tabletop miniatures rules system, which is explained in greater detail in my review of Thrilling Adventures: Valley of the Thunder Lizard. For the purposes of this review, it should be noted that Dragon Bones is not a stand-alone product. Rather, it is a series of linked game scenarios involving a fossil hunting expedition in the Gobi Desert in the 1920s.

The inspiration for Dragon Bones was the Central Asiatic Expeditions, led by famed explorer Roy Chapman Andrews. Among the discoveries made by Andrews’ team were the first scientifically documented fossilized dinosaur eggs. While paleontology was not the only reason for the expeditions – Andrews was a zoologist, not a paleontologist – it takes center stage in Dragon Bones. One player plays a team of well-armed scientists seeking to transport a cache of fossils out of Mongolia. The other player plays as a gang of Mongolian bandits wanting to steal the fossils. Each scenario has certain number of goals each player must attain to be victorious.

Dragon Bones is a fairly short supplement with only four scenarios, and one of them is only played if the expedition gets captured in the course of the other three. It does contain a few new rules for .45 Adventure, but those may have been made obsolete with the release of the second edition of the ruleset. There is no background about the setting except a short opening story setting up the adventures. You may find many of the provided character stats useful if you still play with the first edition of the rules, but otherwise there is nothing here gamers couldn’t come up with on their own.

  • For any players interested in playing out the Central Asiatic Expeditions on their tabletops, the U.K.-based miniatures manufacture Copplestone Castings sells some appropriate figures. Check out the site’s “Back of Beyond” section.
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Gunning for dinosaur

Reginald Rivers won’t take just anyone into the past to hunt dinosaurs. No, as the time traveling safari guide in L. Sprague de Camp’s classic short story “A Gun for Dinosaur” explains, he only takes big men strong enough to handle the type of weaponry needed to bring down the terrible lizards:
Here you are: my own private gun for the work, a Continental .600. Does look like a shotgun, doesn’t it? But it’s rifled, as you can see by looking through the barrels. Shoots a pair of .600 Nitro Express cartridges the size of bananas; weighs nearly seven kilos and has a muzzle energy of over twenty-two hundred KGMs. Costs twenty thousand dollars. A lot of money for a gun, eh?
Yes, a lot of money, but not so much if you want to stop a charging T. rex dead in its tracks, according to Rivers’ thinking.

Rivers isn’t the only time traveling hunter in fiction to speculate about what guns to bring along on a dinosaur hunt. Henry Vickers of David Drake’s Time Safari gives his clients a lecture on making sure they only carry weapons they can handle:
What I said, what I meant, was that size isn’t important, penetration and bullet placement is what’s important. The .458 penetrates fine – with solids – I hope to God all of you know to bring solids, not soft-nosed bullets. If you are not comfortable with that much recoil, you’re liable to flinch. And that means you’ll miss, even at the ranges you shoot dinos at. A wounded dino running around, anywhere up to a hundred tons of him, and that’s when things get messy.
As the above two examples illustrate, some science fiction authors have put a lot of thought into what types of guns would be needed to bring down already extinct species. So, were they right or were they off-target?

Let me answer that question by first admitting that I don’t know much about guns. Go ahead and revoke my man card if you wish. But I’m going to give it my best try by making a couple assumptions.

First, there is a wide array of military-grade, anti-armor weaponry I’m sure would more than do the trick. However, a lot of this weaponry must be mounted on vehicles because it is too heavy to lug around. There were no roads in the Mesozoic and most of the landscape would have been impassable terrain, so any hunters in the era would need to look for game on foot. That means they are going to need guns that are light enough to carry but have enough stopping power to bring down multi-ton dinosaurs.

Second, we can rule out a common assumption made by many early science fiction writers: That dinosaurs would be harder to kill than mammals because they had primitive nervous systems. Paleontologist Jose Luis Sanz noted this myth in his history of dinosaurs in popular culture, Starring T. rex! Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture. Referring to Poul Anderson’s short story “Wildcat,” in which a large carnivorous dinosaur continues to threaten the heroes even after being gutted by a spray of gunfire, the scientist wrote:
Anderson’s daring ideas are based on the strict inclusion of dinosaurs within the level of organization of present-day reptiles, with a generous supplementary dose of misinformation. Anderson supposed that dinosaurs would have tremendous vitality against wounds and mutilations (“a reptile dies with greater difficulty, since it is less alive”).
Dinosaurs were probably no harder to kill than mammals of a similar size. Of course, there were dinosaurs much larger than any land mammal that ever lived.

So, with those two assumptions in mind, what is a good gun for dinosaur? Here I’m going to cheat because at least one expert on firearms already has weighed in on the subject. Outdoor Life columnist John B. Snow pondered this question back in 2009 after watching Jurassic Park with his kids. His answer varied depending on the type of dinosaur. As for T. rex:
Personally, I wouldn’t go any lighter than a .458 Lott. The .470 NE (Nitro Express), .500 NE and .600 NE would also be good contenders. I would probably opt for a double-rifle with a red-dot sight on it. I’d want that red dot for precise bullet placement as the only shot that makes sense is a broadside shot that takes out either the hip or smashes the knee. Take out the leg to put it down and then finish it off with a double lung shot or a shot in the neck.
As for the smaller raptors, give Snow a star for pointing out the movie’s Velociraptors were much larger than the real thing. His choice of weapon would be a semi-auto shotgun loaded with buckshot. As for their larger cousin, Deinonychus:
A semi-auto shotgun loaded with slugs might serve well, but I’m going with a Springfield Armory M1A Socom 16 for this job. I’d put either an EOTech optic up front on it or something like the Trijicon SRS. Mount a SureFire X400 combo weapon light/laser and you’ll be good to go.
The 1997 film Jurassic Park: The Lost World also gave us an answer to the question. In it, the “great white hunter” character Roland Tembo carries a .600 Nitro Express – an “elephant gun” – specially made for the movie by the California gun builder Butch Searcy.

Still, let’s be honest: Any civilization that has invented time travel probably has access to firearms far more powerful than anything we have today. Or maybe not. In the David Gerrold’s 1978 novel Deathbeast, laser guns prove ineffective against a T. rex because the animal is simply too large for the beams to do major damage. Stick with bullets.

Then again, maybe you don’t need guns at all. In his nonfiction A Survival Guide: Living with Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period, geologist Dougal Dixon said bolas – ropes with weights tied at their ends – would be useful in capturing smaller dinosaurs for food. Of course, you would have to first learn how to throw a bolas without smacking yourself in the face. Consider the following video the first step on your path to becoming a mighty dinosaur hunter:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs by Max McCoy (1996)

Cover blurb


Fresh from a ride on a Nazi submarine, Indiana Jones is persuaded by a beautiful missionary to search for her missing father in Mongolia. Professor Angus Starbuck has discovered a dinosaur bone in the Gobi Desert. But unlike other such discoveries, this bone isn't ancient! As Indy crosses from China through a treacherous mountain pass to Outer Mongolia, he runs afoul of the region's fiercest warlords. Meanwhile the world's last innocent people, dwelling in a Stone Age paradise, are poised on the brink of destruction. Suddenly Indiana Jones is dueling wild dogs and bloodthirsty killers in a desperate effort to save the most historic discovery of the twentieth century: the last living Triceratops!

My thoughts

As far as tie-in novels go, I admittedly have more interest in Indiana Jones than Star Wars or Star Trek. So crossing the famous film hero with a story about living dinosaurs should be a sure hit with me, right? Well, no.

After an encounter with archenemy Rene Belloq and a crystal skull (!), Indy is approached by an attractive woman who tells him that her scientist father has disappeared in central Asia. The archeologist sets off to find the missing man, and along the way encounters Chinese warlords, fresh dinosaur eggs, legends surrounding the Garden of Eden, and a one-eared dog named Loki.

The obvious inspiration for Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs was the real-life adventures of explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, a man often inaccurately described as the historical figure the character was based on. Andrews led a series of expeditions to Inner Mongolia during the 1920s, and during one of the trips his team discovered the first scientifically documented fossilized dinosaur eggs. The setting provides plenty of opportunities for adventure – Mongolia at the time was a largely lawless land filled with petty bandit warlords. But The Dinosaur Eggs is a forgettable tale that, for me, never really captured the excitement of the movies. Part of the problem came with the characterization of Indy, who lacks his trademark cynicism in this novel. The action scenes are not particularly thrilling or suspenseful and the central mystery about the dinosaur eggs is clumsily resolved. Then there’s the dog, which exists only to provide a whopping deus ex machina ending.

The Dinosaur Eggs has long been out of print and doesn’t appear to be available in digital format, but don’t go to too much trouble tracking this one down.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

T. rex in my sights: The ethics of hunting dinosaurs

Cover art for "The Best of L. Sprague de Camp"
Image source
Chances are only the comet that ended their reign killed more dinosaurs than the time-traveling safari guide Reginald Rivers, but that doesn’t mean the man is without principles. As Rivers explains to an animal rights activist in L. Sprague de Camp’s short story “Miocene Romance”:
“Believe it or not, I’m a wild-life conservationist, too. I spend my own hard-earned money on organizations that try to protect endangered species, of course of which the Earth has lost hundreds in the last century. But the beasts my clients hunt on these time safaris are all long extinct anyway. Ending the safaris wouldn’t bring any dinosaurs or mastodons back to life.”
And that’s the end of the discussion, at least as far as Rivers is concerned. Dinosaurs are already dead so hunting them shouldn’t pose the same moral dilemma as hunting modern-day elephants or black rhinos, both of which still have a fighting chance of living long into the future. But is Rivers being a little too dismissive of the complaint lodged against him? If it were possible, would it be ethical to hunt dinosaurs and other extinct creatures, or should they enjoy the same protected status as many of today’s endangered species?

Before I go any further, let me say I realize this is a silly debate. The likelihood of any human ever getting to hunt a dinosaur, let alone meet one, is about the same as space aliens landing in my backyard and declaring me Queen of the Universe. (It turns out these particular aliens are a little confused about human anatomy.) But it is a fun thought experiment and an issue that really hasn’t been explored in literature despite the many tales of humans hunting the "terrible lizards."

The romance of the safari

As far as fiction on the subject, the great white hunter has been a central character in dinosaur stories almost since the beginning of the genre. The earliest example is Lord John Roxton from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The book was written during the early days of the modern-day conservation movement, but Roxton showed no qualms about shooting any animal, living or extinct. (“This is a Bland's .577 axite express,” said [Roxton]. “I got that big fellow with it.” He glanced up at the white rhinoceros. “Ten more yards, and he'd would have added me to HIS collection.”) Still, Roxton’s role in The Lost World is a relatively minor one. Later authors would elevate hunters to lead characters, creating a type of story that would become its own subgenre: the dinosaur hunt. Examples include de Camp’s Rivers of Time, David Drake’s Time Safari, David Gerrold’s Deathbeast, Robert Wells' The Parasaurians, Evan Hunter's Danger: Dinosaurs! and, most famously, Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder.” There is even a popular video game series, Carnivores, for anyone who wants to live out their own dinosaur safari.

Hunting a Triceratops in the video game Carnivores HD.
Image source
What is the appeal of stories about humans hunting dinosaurs? The lure is in the big game hunt itself, which has been romanticized as the ultimate test of civilized man against primitive nature. And the bigger the game, the more the romance, as author Bartle Bull explains in his history of the African safari, Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure:
When Europeans began to penetrate the interior of Africa in the early nineteenth century, animals were in such plenty that elephants foraged in herds of hundreds. At times antelope covered the savannah like a carpet. Lions were literally a pest. One might see 150 rhinoceros in a day. Dedicating a lifetime to foxes and pheasants, or at best to stag and boar, European sportsmen saw in giraffe and elephants the animals of paradise. To the European hunter, Africa was Eden.
Dinosaurs are the next logical step up from giraffe and elephants. They are the largest, most dangerous game, and therefore would be the most romantic to hunt. They also are conveniently extinct, giving modern-day writers politically correct prey to populate their otherwise unfashionable safari stories – most people today get squeamish when seeing an elephant put down, but they don’t have the same reaction when the animal in question is a T. rex.

The nature of time

Perhaps audiences should feel just as sorry for the T. rex. Dinosaurs, by the very fact that they’re extinct, would qualify as the most endangered of endangered species, right? That might be true if we found a dinosaur living today in the middle of the Congo rainforest. (For the record, we won’t.) But in most cases if we want to go hunting dinosaurs, then we’re going to need to hop in a time machine and travel back to the Mesozoic Era, and that’s where the question of ethics grows complicated.

Interior art for "A Sound of Thunder," published in Playboy in 1956.
Image source
The answer will depend on the nature of time itself. Can the past be changed? Or is it fixed, meaning nothing that time travelers do will alter the future? If it’s the former, then the dilemma goes beyond the implications for dinosaurs. Time-traveling hunters could put the very existence of the human race at risk. This is the situation explored by Bradbury in “A Sound of Thunder”: Stomp on the wrong mouse, the story’s safari guide tells a client, and the entire course of history is changed:
"So what?" Travis snorted quietly. "Well, what about the foxes that'll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man, no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life.”
The risks are so great in Bradbury’s version of time one wonders why time travel to the past is allowed at all. That said, chances are the famous author got it wrong. The general consensus among scientists since Einstein is that the past is unchangeable. This is because the passage of time is something of an illusion. The past, present, and future are not really separate entities. They exist more or less as a single, self-consistent whole. We think of the past as set in stone and the future as hazy and unformed, but in reality every event that will ever happen has happened, so the actions of future time travelers in the past already are a part of history. Stomp on all the mice you want, you're not going to change anything.

Besides laying waste our notion of free will, the concept of an unchangeable past gives credence to Rivers’ argument that it doesn’t really matter how many dinosaurs hunters kill  – we’re doing nothing that changes the fate of a species. Hunting dinosaurs is not comparable to modern-day efforts to save black rhinos because we have no knowledge of the future, meaning we could still play a role in the survival of the rhino population. But we do know what ultimately happens to T. rexes, so affording them the same protected status as black rhinos would be pointless. T. rexes will live and die during roughly the same time frame we see in the fossil record, whether we hunt them or not.

TARDIS vs. reality

We can’t stop there – the answer to our question gets even more complicated! Rivers' argument was an easy one to make because he essentially has a magic time machine. Like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, the time machine Rivers uses is able to travel to any point in the past. That means he can spread out his hunts over enough time so that their ecological impact would be minimal. Say, for example, that Rivers’ policy is never to travel to a time within 100 years of a previous visit. As a result, Rivers could make 1,860,000 trips to the Mesozoic Era before running out of times to visit. Given the billions and billions of dinosaurs that lived throughout the era, Rivers’ safaris would barely count as a blip.

Dinosaurs and the TARDIS from the 2013 episode "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship."
Image source
Unfortunately, time machines probably won’t work the way that Rivers’ machine does, if they work at all. Most time machines dreamed up by physicists won’t even be able to travel to the Age of Dinosaurs, given they can only take travelers back in time to the point of the machine’s creation. The one exception might be the creation or discovery of a wormhole that leads back to the Mesozoic. A wormhole is a tunnel through spacetime that theoretically could exist, although no evidence for wormholes has yet been found. The limitation of a wormhole is it could only connect us to one point in the Mesozoic, so we couldn’t pop in and out of different times throughout the era like Rivers does over the course of de Camp’s stories. This has profound implications for dinosaur hunters.

If we’re stuck with only single point of time we can access, then we could easily overhunt species in that time period to extinction. “Wait a minute!” you say. “You’ve already pointed out there is nothing we can do to change the fate of a species we already know is extinct.” True, but it is ignoring the fact that our knowledge of the prehistoric past is incomplete because the fossil record is an imperfect means of recording information. Only a tiny, tiny number of individual animals are preserved as fossils, with entire species likely leaving little to no fossil record at all. And we can say only in the very broadest terms the span of time that a particular species existed before dying out. That lack of information means we have no way of fully gauging our impact on a prehistoric environment, which leads to my next point: Any ethical hunter will tell you that one of the sport’s core principles is that future generations should be afforded the same hunting opportunities that today’s hunters enjoy. That’s why many hunters, like Rivers, are conservationists. It simply would not be sporting to hunt T. rexes to extinction because you are denying future hunters that same opportunity. Rivers may be able to shoot dinosaurs willy-nilly thanks to his magic time machine, where he can spread out any damage to the ecosystem over millions of years, but if we have a gateway to only a single period in prehistory, hunting would need to be strictly regulated to maintain animal populations for future generations of hunters. The concept is not so different from that of the modern-day game preserve, although in this case the correct term would probably be "temporal preserve."

Time travel is far-fetched to say the least, but what if we went the Jurassic Park route and cloned our dinosaurs? There are very good reasons to believe this is a dilemma we will never have to face, given that cloning a dinosaur is pretty much impossible. Plus I doubt that any company that went to the time and expense of bringing back a T. rex would simply sell off the hunting rights to the highest bidder. Michael Crichton had it right – businesses would maximize their profits by sticking those dinosaurs in a zoo and selling tickets.


This Lego dinosaur hunter set is probably as close as we'll ever get to the real thing.
Image source
One question I didn’t address here is whether we should be hunting animals to begin with. There are obviously some groups, such as PETA, that believe we should not. That debate is part of a much larger discussion that will need to be argued in other places. I also conveniently focused on dinosaurs and didn’t talk about prehistoric animals closer to us in time that may have went extinct because of human hunting, like mammoths. If we could bring mammoths back, should we be allowed to hunt them? The ethical questions there cut a little deeper and probably will need to be considered in a separate essay.

Now it's time to lay my cards on the table: What are my thoughts about hunting dinosaurs? If we were somehow able to invent a time machine, I would rather see the animals studied than hunted. That’s not to say there won’t be opportunities for limited hunts – to research dinosaur anatomy we’re going to need to kill a few of them. (If that shocks you, where do you think those animal mounts in natural history museums came from? They’re not facsimiles.) But for the most part, dinosaurs would simply be of too much scientific value to end up as trophies on some rich hunter’s wall.

It's not a dilemma that keeps me up at night. As I have already stated, time travel to the past is almost certainly impossible, so I very much doubt any hunter will ever get to test his or her mettle by staring down a charging T. rex. Luckily we have talented writers who can dream of what that experience would be like.

Coming next week: I put ethical questions aside and ask, “What is a good gun for dinosaur?”

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lands of Mystery by Aaron Allston (1985)

Cover blurb

Discover the world of Zorandar, a savage, timeless land where brave natives battle ferocious dinosaurs. Can you solve Zorandar’s ancient mysteries? Will you be able to defeat the despotic Emperor of the lost Roman Legion and his evil lizard slavers?

Lands of Mystery is more than an epic journey through the strange land of Zorandar. It’s an Adventure Sourcebook for both players and game masters. It shows you step-by-step how to build your own lost world campaign. Learn how to game-master and play all the cliffhangers and plot twists of your favorite jungle adventures. You get a full length Zorandar campaign novel, complete conversions for Chill, Call of Cthulhu, and Daredevils, and you get more action and adventure than any 96 page sourcebook has a right to have!

My thoughts

Hi, I’m Doug McClure. You may remember me from such 1970s dinosaur films as The Land That Time Forgot and At the Earth’s Core. I’m here today to tell you about Lands of Mystery, a campaign supplement for the 1980s roleplaying game Justice Inc. Have you ever wanted to star in your own lost world adventure, just like me? Well, now you can! And you can do it from the comfort of your home! But enough with introductions — now let’s explore the action, romance, and thrills that can be found within Lands of Mystery

Okay, enough of that. Rest in peace Doug McClure and The Simpsonscharacter you inspired. Lands of Mystery is just as it advertises: A roleplaying game supplement for gamers who want play the type of lost world adventures that were popular in pulp fiction during the early years of the 20th century. Populating its pages are beautiful cavewoman princesses, lost Roman legionaries, and intelligent, evolved dinosaurs. Even aliens are not out of the question if you really want to add them to your campaign.

The book is divided into two parts. The first half is an overview of the lost world genre, exploring themes, appropriate characters, and hazards players are likely to face. It is this first part gamers will find the most useful, as it is a sandbox for creating adventures of your own. The second half of the book is a campaign setting, Zorandar, which is an alternate world where dinosaurs still exist. It is useful for any gamers who don’t want to go to the hassle of building their own settings. Your mileage will vary depending on how “pulp” you want your pulp setting to be – a lost Roman legion didn’t strike me as a good fit, but it could always be substituted for a civilization of your choosing.

Lands of Mystery has been long out-of-print and is hard to find these days, which is a shame because it is one of the best roleplaying supplements about lost worlds ever written. While it does contain stats for various gaming systems, most of the material in the book is system neutral, so you can use it no matter what you play. From its nifty black-and-white illustrations to its comprehensive overview of the genre, Lands of Mystery is well worth the effort of tracking down, if you can find it for a reasonable price.

  • The author, Aaron Allston, has written several gaming supplements and science fiction novels, the latter mostly tie-ins to film franchises such as Star Wars. He is also the author of Dungeons & Dragons: Hollow Earth, a lost world setting for the popular roleplaying game.
  • Allston also wrote the story for the roleplaying computer game Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire, which is set in a valley filled with dinosaurs and primitive tribes. I recommend The Savage Empire and Warriors of the Eternal Sun (which takes place in the above Dungeons & Dragons setting) to any gamers looking for fun RPGs that are a little different from your standard sword-and-sorcery fare.

Friday, March 7, 2014

New dinosaur game on Kickstarter: "APEX"

If you're a brave soul and willing to throw your money into an unfinished product, there is a new deck-building card game currently on Kickstarter that may appeal to dinosaur fans. Titled "APEX: Theropod Deck-Builder Game," it is the brainchild of artist and game designer Herschel Hoffmeyer. Here is the description on the official website:
Apex is a theropod (two-legged, meat-eating dinosaur) deck-building game where you play as one of five apex theropods (Acrocanthosaurus, T.rex, Spinosaurus, Giganotosaurus, and Utah Raptor). The game supports 1-5 players which means it is designed to play by yourself or with up to four friends. The game will feature over 300 cards and a game mat to keep things organized and flowing easy.

In the game you fight for territory, expand your species, and evolve your dinosaur all while competing against other player controlled Apex predators for the same thing. As you progress through the game, many different environmental effects happen to territories such as tropical storms, super volcano eruptions, and botulism. The game has a built-in timer mechanic (doomsday) that makes games usually last around 30-45 minutes but it can be adjusted to make games longer or shorter.

The game is won by dominating 3 territories or having the most territory dominated at the end of the game. The game will feature over 30 dinosaurs and 8 territories with each territory having it's territorial boss that you must defeat to dominate the territory. These bosses consists of dinosaurs such as Carcharodontosaurus and Mapusaurus.
The art looks lovely and the theme is a welcome break from the many Dungeons & Dragons clones populating the market when it comes to these types of games. The creator also claims the mechanics for the game are finished - the only thing left to work on is the art. This is the first Kickstarter project I have backed, although only at a level to get me the basic game. Higher pledge levels can earn you additional swag, such as a game guide and poster. You have until April 2 to determine whether you want to back the project. Click here for the Kickstarter page.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

New dinosaur named after Dinotopia creator James Gurney

Want a dinosaur named after you? Then break out your paint brushes and get to work producing a series of critically acclaimed dinosaur art books.

A new species of dinosaur has been named after Dinotopia creator James Gurney. As Gurney explains on his blog:
Today a new dinosaur is being introduced to the world, and I'm thrilled and honored that that the paleontologists decided to name it after me. It's called Torvosaurus gurneyi. 

The dinosaur, which was discovered in Portugal, is one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs from the Jurassic and the largest land-predator discovered in Europe.
Lead author Christophe Hendrickx of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Museu of Lourinhã says, “With a skull of 115 cm, Torvosaurus gurneyi active predator that hunted other large dinosaurs, as evidenced by blade shape teeth up to 10 cm."
Mr. Hendrickx says he chose the name because of a childhood fascination with the book that I wrote and illustrated called Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.
Congratulations to Gurney! And this might be a good time to add that the 20th anniversary edition of the third book in the Dinotopia series, First Flight, comes out April 23. (Full disclosure: Gurney sent me an autographed copy of his fourth Dinotopia book, Journey to Chandara, back in 2007.)

You can read more about the discovery over at NBC News.

Monday, March 3, 2014

New look. New comments policy. Not-so-new book.

Anyone who has visited this blog in the past will notice something different. Yes, Prehistoric Pulp now sports a new logo and a new look. I wanted a design that not only made posts easier to read, but gave me more control over how they appeared on the page. I also felt the previous logo was getting dated.

As for comments, I decided to turn off moderation. I turned it on in an attempt to thwart spammers, but they really haven't been a problem. Your posts should appear instantly now.

I also wanted to draw your attention to an interesting little book that came out in 2012. A Survival Guide: Living with Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Period was penned by geologist Dougal Dixon and is available as a cheap digital download on It is a nonfiction book, but could prove a valuable resource for anyone writing dinosaur fiction. After all, how many books out there describe which dinosaur parts are best for eating? Here is a short review I wrote for The Miniatures Page last year:
Basically [A Survival Guide] is presented as a straight-forward survival guide, the big difference being it is about how to eek out a living in Jurassic North America - mainly because the time period is fairly well known in the geologic record. If you ever wanted to know which parts of a dinosaur would be best to eat, or how to build a shelter out of sauropod bones, or what ancient plants would be best avoided, then this is the book for you.

The book starts with a general overview of the Jurassic environment, detailing sources of water, the best places to gather the materials needed for basic needs, and the general climate (as it turns out, Jurassic North America was something like a giant desert oasis in that it got little rain but had lots of groundwater). Then it delves into the fauna and flora, spending several chapters on the dinosaurs you might encounter. One thing the author notes: There are a lot of meat eaters. But he points out they may have been fairly specialized in their choice of prey, so larger predators such as Allosaurs may just ignore you. I'm not sure if I buy that: Seems to me no predator would turn away an easy snack if one presented itself.

So, which dinosaurs could you eat? Well, forget sauropods (too big and their muscles are too tough, although their eggs and the soles of their feet might makes great meals). And forget armored dinosaurs such as stegosaurs - too dangerous. Your best bet would be the plant-easting Ornithischians, relatively gentle creatures that ranged from roughly deer-sized to cow-sized. Cut off the head, hands, feet and last two-thirds of the tail, and you have a lot of meat left. The author even delves into how to best cook the different muscle groups.

One thing to note about A Survival Guide – the author assumes you're pretty much dumped into the environment without the convenience of modern tools, so don't expect lengthy passages about what kinds of guns to bring along. Rather, the weapons are ones you can make from the environment. Hint: Learn how to throw a bola.
Let's be honest: Castaway would have been much better if Tom Hanks had been forced to dodge dinosaurs.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

When dinosaurs ruled the pulps

Cover art for "The Death of the Moon"
by Alexander Phillips. Image source
Dinosaurs have been a staple of pulp fiction pretty much since the first pulp magazine hit newsstands around the start of the 20th century. Look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s seminal work The Lost World, which was first published in Strand Magazine in 1912. The novel was soon followed by a slew of imitators, the most famous being Edgar Rice Burroughs, who would go on to pen The Land That Time Forgot for Blue Book Magazine in 1918. Burroughs’ work would later be republished in Amazing Stories in 1927, this time accompanied by cover art depicting various prehistoric creatures menacing the U-boat of the story.

The Lost World and The Land That Time Forgot are the two most famous examples of paleofiction from the pulps, but there were several lesser-known stories that were just as entertaining. Unfortunately, many of them are now accessible only through microfilm in library collections. As a result, few people will ever get to read Alexander Phillips’ “The Death of the Moon” or Katherine Metcalf Roof’s “A Million Years Later.”

That said, a handful of pulp stories have managed to land on the Internet, thanks to expired copyright protections and the dedication of fans of the genre. Below are links to six of them.

We start with “When Reptiles Ruled” by Duane N. Carroll (1934), the first of three stories here published in Wonder Stories. The tale is told entirely from the perspective of an egg-stealing Struthiominus, making it an early precursor of works like Raptor Red and Walking with Dinosaurs. The story starts on page 76 and is continued on page 116.

The next story is my favorite of the bunch, “One Prehistoric Night” by Philip Barshofsky (1934). Martian invaders attempt to colonize prehistoric Earth only to find the wildlife is more than they bargained for. This is one of the few early dinosaur stories that actually tries to get its science right, placing the right dinosaurs in roughly the right time frame. It’s also a wonderfully gory tale. The story starts on page 54.

Next up is “The Reign of the Reptiles” by A. Connell (1935). The plot concerns a man who is kidnapped by a trio of scientists who want to try out their time machine. He is sent back to the Mesozoic, where he encounters an intelligent race of reptiles experimenting on early humans. Yes, this was just one example of a bad habit in the pulps: Mixing cavemen and dinosaurs together. The story starts on page 8 and is continued on page 109.

We move over to Famous Fantastic Mysteries for the short novel Before the Dawn by John Taine (1934; republished here in 1946). The story is about group of scientists who witness the Age of Dinosaurs using a "time viewer." Also of interest is another short novel by Taine, The Greatest Adventure (1929), which involves the discovery of a lost world in Antarctica and its dinosaur-like inhabitants.

Amazing Stories gives us the next two stories. First is the World War II-era “Blitzkrieg in the Past” by John York Cabot (1942), which is a humorous tale about three U.S. soldiers who are accidentally thrown back in time with their M2 tank. Sadly, despite the dinosaur vs. tank battle we see on the magazine’s cover, the story is largely dinosaur free. It is instead populated by cavemen who are millions of years out of place.

The second story – “The Lost Warship” by Robert Moore Williams (1943) - also was published during World War II, but this time it involves a warship that has been hurdled into the ancient past. This is the only story I haven’t had time to read before posting this list, but glancing over it, the work appears a caveman-and-dinosaur adventure in the spirit of Burroughs.

Out now: "Cryptids" by Alec Nevala-Lee

Sadly, it doesn’t appear we will get any long-form works of paleofiction this year, but we do have one excellent novelette gracing the May cover of Analog Science Fiction & Fact: “Cryptids” by Alec Nevala-Lee.

“Cryptids” is a thriller that will remind some readers of Michael Crichton. Karen Vale is an ornithologist in New Guinea who is about to run out of funding for her field work when she is approached by a biopharmaceutical company with an offer she can’t refuse: The company has taken a keen interest in Pitohui, one of the world’s few poisonous birds. If the company can find out where the bird is ingesting the poison, then it could extract the chemical for its research. The trail leads Vale and her team to an isolated island holding a deadly secret.

That secret is pretty much spoiled by the magazine’s otherwise wonderful cover art, but don’t let that discourage you from picking up the story. The May issue of Analog is now available on newsstands and as a digital download.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cretaceous Dawn by L.M. Graziano and M.S.A. Graziano (2008)

Cover blurb

Enter the world of the predatory dinosaurs… if you dare.

A physics lab accident hurls four-and-a-half people and a dog 65 million years through time to the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs. Paleontologist Julian Whitney and his companions have one chance for rescue: a thousand-mile journey through the dinosaur-infested wilderness to a hypothetical reversion point. Meanwhile present-day police chief Sharon Earles tries to solve the mystery of half a corpse where five people had been moments before. Physicists are brought in to determine what went wrong. But can they get the lab running in time to retrieve the missing people… and do they want to?

My thoughts

Yariko Miyakara is “a crack young physicist,” we learn in the opening line of Cretaceous Dawn, but she is at a loss to explain why beetles keep materializing in her experiment to measure gravitons. She calls in paleontologist Julian Whitney to identify the insects, believing he is someone she can trust, and he quickly deduces the bugs have been extinct for millions of years. They decide to run the experiment again to see if they can make more of the beetles materialize. Instead, the lab vanishes along with the two scientists, a colleague, a dog, and one-and-a-half security guards. (Ewwwww.)

The accidental time travelers find themselves stranded 65 million years in the past. They quickly realize that if they are to be rescued, they will need to make a long, overland journey through the prehistoric wilderness to a spot where they may have a chance of being scooped back up into the present.

Cretaceous Dawn is a small-press title that has some good intentions but never really rises above being merely okay. The authors, both Ph.Ds, set out write a novel that painted as accurate a picture as possible of late Cretaceous North America, and in regards to other fiction on the topic, they were successful. Readers looking for a Jurassic Park-like adventure will be disappointed as the dinosaurs here are not rampaging beasts but more or less real animals that make infrequent appearances. The story is more about wilderness survival in the spirit of Robinson Crusoe, although the closest comparison would be George Gaylord Simpson’s short novel The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, which also concerns a time traveler stuck in the prehistoric past.

If Cretaceous Dawn simply focused on the adventures of its temporal castaways, I would probably think more highly of it. The problem is there is a side plot about a modern-day investigation into the disappearance of the time travelers. This secondary story breaks up the prehistoric action and seems only to exist to lengthen the novel. The authors also spend too much time trying to make their implausible theory of time travel sound plausible. I would have rather spent the time exploring the Cretaceous world.

Do I recommend picking up Cretaceous Dawn? I’m conflicted on this one. It certainly has things I like, but it also wasn’t as fulfilling a read as I had hoped. Dinosaur aficionados probably will enjoy this novel, but I think that anyone else delving into it will find the plot too slow paced for their liking.

  • According to the cover blurb, L.M. Graziano is a former professor of oceanography at the Sea Education Association while M.S.A. Graziano is a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.