Monday, June 26, 2017

OSR Campaign Commentary - Reel II - The Tracks Across The Sands of Mars - A Free OSR Download “The Brain-Stealers of Mars” By John W. Campbell Jr.

“Penton and Blake find Mars a pleasant place to be 
until they run afoul of the thushol, which can imitate anything!”

“The Brain-Stealers of Mars” (1936) by science fiction editor John W. Campbell Jr. &  illustrated by pulp artist Alex Schomburg. This is the precursor to the Campbell's Who Goes There! & has many of the fantastic elements of that novella plus more. I became aware of the story in its reprinted form from the 1952 issue of Wonder Story Annual magazine. I begged my adopted uncle for a copy of it & on my 14th birthday I got it. I've been a pulp head even before owning this piece of pulp history but this is a great space ripper of an issue as my uncle used to say. Alright this a great story for DM's who want to use a solid  old school adventure encounter for their science fantasy campaigns. A quick note John W.Campbell Jr. was a crack science fiction editor but a lightning rod of controversy.

This is the first of the Planeteers series of stories which is perfect fodder for a dungeon master looking for a template of a pulp space crew of adventurers. According to the TV trope website the Planeteers series was:

"Series of five science-fiction short stories by John W. Campbell, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories between 1936 and 1938, and collected in book form in 1966 as The Planeteers.
Ted Penton and Rod Blake have fled Earth in their nuclear-powered spaceship, the Ion, after a mishap involving their illegal research on atomic power (it involved destroying 300 square miles of Europe in an atomic explosion). Since nobody else on Earth is willing to use atomic power, nobody can catch up with them; and so while their lawyers try to sort things out on Earth, Penton and Blake bide their time exploring the Solar System and having adventures.We first meet up with our heroes on Mars, where they encounter centaurs and parasitic shapeshifters. Penton learns telepathy from the centaurs, which will prove useful in future dealings with intelligent aliens. After Mars, the pair proceed towards the outer system, where they start a revolution, fight blob monsters, learn alien languages, encounter high gravity and extreme cold, solve problems with the power of chemistry, etc."

This is an interesting story because not only do you get a great background piece for pulp adventurers but you also get a symbiotic relationship between two species. The proto shoggoth thushol are incredibly dangerous  but also the fact that their alien centaur neighbors have a strange relationship with them. Its almost as if the species were engineered that way.

You Can Download “The Brain-Stealers of Mars” Here

Also note that the centaur like race teaches one of the heroes a few levels of Mentalist ala Warriors of the Red Planet. There are some really unique things about the thushol, the monster doesn't seem done somehow as if its a monster that's a prototype creature although it reminds me a lot in some ways as a Gibbering Mouther. Another shoggoth variation if there ever was one. The monster that appears in 'The Brain Stealers of Mars' is most definitely a protoshoggoth creature. I think that the central Martian location described in the story is an elder thing spawning lab and research facility. A very dangerous adventure location that is clearly in some hidden valley around the Martian poles.

Just as the characters in “The Brain-Stealers of Mars” liberate a number of alien technologies. The characters in Who Goes There do something very similar when they go to finish the Blair thing.
Afterwards the trio discover that the Thing was dangerously close to finishing construction of an atomic-powered anti-gravity device that would have allowed it to escape to the outside world.
"No, by the grace of God, who evidently does hear very well, even down here, and the margin of half an hour, we keep our world, and the planets of the system too. Anti-gravity, you know, and atomic power. Because They came from another sun, a star beyond the stars. They came from a world with a bluer sun.""

There was another shape shifting dimensional jumping alien inspired by Who Goes There by Canadian-American writer A. E. van Vogt called The Vault of the Beast. A treasure vault on Mars (once again there's that classic pulp Mars connection);"Beings from another dimension have sent a living plastic "robot" to Earth to find the "greatest mathematical mind in the Solar System," and get that person to open a vault on Mars, containing one of the race of its creators. It is able to imitate any form of matter, and to tap the thoughts of the being it duplicates. The creature kills its way to one man, Jim Brender, who it believes is the man. The creature, in the form of another man, reveals that the Martian vault was built by the Ancient Martians, made up of an 'ultimate metal'. The vault is known as the "Tower of the Beast", located in a buried Martian city. It says that the key to opening it is 'factoring the ultimate prime number'."

You can Read Vault of the Beast Right Here

Vault of the Beast is a perfect set up for an old school adventure with some very strange roots in Mathematics & science fantasy. The other dimensional elder thing or Yithians who control the shapeshifting shaggoth menace are memorable & make excellent NPC's.
 So is this the only connection with the pulpy roots of the alien from John Carpenter's The Thing or John W. Campbell Jr.'s Who Goes There? Umm not exactly. " In 2006 Dark Horse Comics released a pre-painted snap together model kit of the alien as described in the original short story. It was sculpted and painted by Andrea Von Sholly. The model was unlicensed and was simply titled 'The Space Thing'"
A better description appears on the Entertainment Earth website;"The Space Thing Figure. Pleased to meet you earthling, I do not come in peace. This pre-painted figure stands 4 1/2-inches tall and is easy to pop together with a great-looking, Aurora-inspired display box.

Designed by Pete Von Sholly, this monster is his conception of John W. Campbell's famous shape-changing alien from the legendary story called Who Goes There?. He designed the creature during a fact-finding research junket to Alpha Centauri, and, thanks to his new 4-D camera, was able to incorporate details not found in our solar system. Pete's talented wife, Andrea, sculpted and painted the mode."

Ten Ways To Use The Brain Stealers Of Mars For Your Old School Campaigns 
  1. The locations detailed in the story are not the only Martian adventure  locations where
    the proto shoggoth thushol might be located there could me more facilities scattered throughout the solar system & beyond. 
  2. There is an echoing use of alien telepathy throughout the science fantasy series the Planeteers. This makes the mentalist class an essential thing when dealing with these types of aliens and seems to be a design conceit. This is something very similar to Larry Niven's Slaver race which has connections to the Elder Things and the Cthulhu mythos in his Known Space series. Could there be a Hyperborea connection? I think so.
  3.  The proto shoggoth thushol might appear in other forms in the Outer Worlds such as Jupiter's moons or near Saturn. They seem right at home in these worlds that Clark Ashton Smith talked about. 
  4. Some of the super science artifacts described in The Brain Stealers of Mars seem like their straight out of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. Could there be more of these connections in your campaigns? 
  5. The proto shoggoth thushol make perfect guardians for science fantasy ruins & facilities and might hold certain super science treasure vaults hostage. 
  6. Are there other powers holding sway over the places where the
    thushol were developed? Ancient curses similar to some of the alien weirdness we've seen in C.L. Moore's North West Smith series? An adventure hook if there ever was one! 
  7. There are a number of transcosmic alien presences in the Planeteer stories. Could these actually be The Great Race of Yith in disguise keeping tabs on a wide variety of eras? 
  8. The proto shoggoth thushol seem almost a not fully developed weapons system or defense could these monsters be some of the cannon fodder used in the wars of the Elder Things against their enemies? I think so. 
  9. There seems to be a sense of pure menace that hovers over these stories & a sense of the forbidden. Are there other far more hostile lifeforms waiting for PCs to discover? 
  10. The Brain Stealers has quite a bit to offer if a DM is willing to look into its weirdness and danger. Remember man is the warmest place to hide.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.