Saturday, 17 February 2018

NPC Idea: Rumpelstiltskin's Child

What if Rumpelstiltskin's plan had succeeded and he had ended up with an adopted son? Brought up by an amoral trickster-devil, taught to be able to spin straw into gold and disappear or reappear wherever he desired - but, at his core, fundamentally and irredeemably good because of his kindhearted mother?

He would be ungovernable, untrustworthy, unreliable, unkempt, and uncouth, constantly using his talents in all manner of undesirable ways. Donating vast wealth to a beggar on a whim, with little thought to how the beggar will avoid being robbed the next day. Buying a war galleon and crew to help him realise a frivolous dream of becoming a pirate, roaming the high seas causing mayhem until becoming bored (and often leaving his victims behind, unmolested, on a rowing boat with a gift of a golden necklace and a cheerful, "Sorry!"). Breaking the hearts of young girls by plying them with trinkets before quickly becoming distracted by the next pretty thing to catch his eye, but trying to make amends with inappropriate presents for their mothers. Using his ability to appear from nowhere to spook old ladies and priests.

Alternatively, he would be morose, unhappy, ill-at-ease with the world, forever wary of using his gifts because of a pained awareness that he will draw unwanted attention to himself, and scarred by his upbringing with a wicked father. He would still be unable to resist the urge to perform small acts of kindness - a pinch of gold straw given to a poor urchin here, a donation to a dilapidated temple there, a gift for an old widow, revenge taken on a neighbourhood bully.

Other fairy tale "what if" ideas: Rapunzel marooned in her tower after the witch accidentally dies while on an errand; the seven dwarves are hired to preserve royals in glass before they die so they can live forever.

Friday, 16 February 2018

New Blog/Project

Some readers may remember my series of posts on the Fixed World. I recently started another blog which comprises a travelogue written by an explorer (of sorts) of that world. You can find it here.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Great OSR Novel?

There is no earthly reason why a great fantasy novel couldn't be written about dungeoneering. I picture it as being not so much character-driven as an extended depiction of a place: something like a fantasy version of Manhattan Transfer in which the main character is itself the dungeon, and its true nature and extent is gradually revealed as groups of adventurers encounter it, explore it, and expire - or successfully (or unsuccessfully) retire. 

It would also be more entertaining than Manhattan Transfer, which I think would have been markedly improved if there had been orcs in it.

I want this book to exist, and I want Gene Wolfe to have written it; the other option is Jack Vance, which would produce a decidedly different but also, the more I think about it, in some ways not-so-different text. A kind of picaresque, but a picaresque of location: it's not a story about the adventures of a rogue living off his wits in a series of bizarre encounters, but rather a story about a place in which adventurous rogues have bizarre encounters which kill them or make them rich. Each chapter is devoted to the career of a group of comrades in a different portion of the dungeon; they come and go, but in the end only the dungeon and its inhabitants remains. The reader has followed a narrative arc, not towards the climax of a plot, but towards knowing the fictional creation in intimate detail.  

(Gormenghast may in fact be a better exemplar.)

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Meta-Game Art Genre

In case you're not heard, Wizards of the Coast have finally got around to releasing the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in print form. If you want to own the version of D&D that Yoon-Suin was written for (never mind that it's also the best form of D&D ever made), get it.

I was going to write some sort of gushing paean to the Rules Cylopedia with this entry but then I was flicking through my PDF version in preparation for doing so and was reminded of this picture from inside:

It's an endearing illustration for a number of reasons. Partly, I think, it's because like a lot of the RC art it is somewhat imperfectly executed in a way that makes you - well, me anyway - feel an overwhelming sense of affection for it. Partly it's the fact that it is almost downplaying rather than hyping up the product by depicting players having a bit of a problem playing the game rather than unreservedly having a Great Time. Partly it's because it's so realistic: anybody who has played D&D can identify with trying to translate the map in the DM's mind into reality on a piece of graph paper (and any DM can identify with the realisation that, crap, you've made your map too complicated). Partly it's because it already looks like a bygone era - the hairstyles, the notepad, the t-shirt - and thus unintentionally but brilliantly combines nostalgia for playing the game with nostalgia for the whole atmosphere of the late 80s/early 90s when I was first encountering it.

But mainly I think it's just because it actually depicts people playing D&D rather than being an attempt to illustrate an in-universe element of it. It is not game art so much as it is meta-game art. That just makes it fun in itself. 

I started racking my brains to think of other examples of meta-game art that I've seen. I'm sure that this genre is not limited to this one example in the Rules Cyclopedia. (In fact there may even be similar examples within other D&D books.) But, off the top of my head, I simply can't think of any. Is my sleep-deprived mind playing tricks on me? Come forth with other examples and share them!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Fantasy RPG In-Group and Out-Group

I was sitting looking at my bookshelf earlier on this evening, and my eyes for some reason fell on Galilee, a doorstep by Clive Barker from the late 90s that I only vaguely remember reading. The thought occurred to me: I can't remember the last time, if ever, I saw anybody in any online role playing discussion of any description refer to any of Clive Barker's work whatsoever.

Then it hit me: Clive Barker, for some reason, is in the fantasy RPG out-group. There is a cluster of writers - shifty exiles and outcasts lurking just outside the borders our collective subconscious, like a pack of stray dogs or feral cats waiting for scraps which never come - whose work, while extremely popular with readers, never gets much of a mention when we fantasy RPG enthusiasts gather together to discuss our influences and inspirations.

Who else am I talking about? Well:

CS Lewis - out-group.
Guy Gavriel Kay - out-group.
Robert Holdstock - out-group.
Piers Antony - out-group.
Stephen Donaldson - out-group.
Terry Goodkind - out-group.
Julian May - out-group.
Robert Silverberg - out-group.
Harry Turtledove - out-group.
Tad Williams - out-group.
David Eddings? Out-group.

Against these are arrayed the in-group. Robert E Howard, HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, JRR Tolkien, Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, natch. China Mieville. M John Harrison. Michael Moorcock. George RR Martin. Lord Dunsany. Fritz Leiber. Glenn Cook. Lewis Carroll. Zelazny, probably?

What is it which defines whether a writer ends up in one camp or the other? We don't have big enough samples to make definitive statements, but I think casting my eye over the other we can suggest that there are certain indicators of toxicity to fantasy RPG fandom.

Provisional List of Indicators of Toxicity to Fantasy RPG Fandom

1) A sense of being "too popular", particularly if there is a feeling that the writer in question has dumbed-down in order to get mass appeal (David Eddings, Tad Williams, Piers Antony, Julian May).

2) The writer being notable for having certain religious or political beliefs which are not widely shared by RPG nerds (CS Lewis, Terry Goodkind).

3) Mixing the "real world" or real historical events with the fantastical (Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Holdstock, Harry Turtledove, and I guess you could include Clive Barker in that).

4) A feeling of being "high fantasy" (whatever that means) versus "pulp" (whatever that means) (this, I think, includes most of the names on my list).

5) Not being in Appendix N.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Animal Spirits

An entry from a random encounter table from my current work in progress, which is getting closer to completion:

Animal Spirit

An animal demigod, ruler of all of its kind who live in the region; a powerful elemental of nature who embodies the perfect specimen of its race and is imbued with the magic of the forest. Roll 1d6 to determine its type:

1 – Wolf. An impossibly large wolf with black and white fur, accompanied by a pack of seven followers. They appear out of the trees like ghosts, heralded by their howls.
HD 6, AC 16, AB +7, Attacks 1 (bite, 1d6+2), Move 180
Always acts first as though winning a surprise round despite forewarning of howls.
Can cast following spells: Bless, Heroism, Remove/Bestow Curse, Darkness, Haste/Slow, Invisibility 10’ Radius
Companions: HD 2+2, AB +4, Attacks 1 (bite, 1d6+1), Move 180

2 – Crane. White like the snow, with a crown of red feathers, the crane spirit comes shrouded in mist with a flock of a dozen ethereal companions who drain the life force of his enemies.
HD 4, AB +6, Attacks 2 (peck 1d4, buffest 1d3), Move 90 (Fly 240)
Can cast following spells: Darkness, Magic Aura, Sleep, Change Self, ESP, Ray of Enfeeblement, Stinking Cloud, Wall of Fog, Gaseous Form, Hold Person
Companions: HD 1+1, AB +3, Attacks* (XP drain), Move 90 (Fly 240)

3 – Boar. An instantiation of brute aggression: hard muscles, yellow tusks and eyes which smoulder like hot coals. He is accompanied everywhere by his harem of six females and their dozen non-combatant young.
HD 6, AB +7, Attacks 1 (gore 1d6+6, doubled on charge), Move 150
Companion females: HD 3, AB +5, Attacks 1 (gore 1d6, doubled on charge), Move 150

4 – Tanuki. The famous trickster of the mountains who delights in tormenting and befuddling the humans who enter his realm. He is rarely seen or directly encountered, but sometimes he can he heard drumming his own belly with his forepaws under the light of a full moon.
HD 5, AB +5, Attacks 1 (bite 1d4), Move 180
Can summon an encounter at will; if the Tanuki Spirit activates this power, roll another random encounter, which surprises the PCs automatically.
Can cast the following spells: Light/Darkness, Magic Aura, Sleep, Audible Glamer, Change Self, ESP, Invisibility, Forget, Magic Mouth, Phantasmal Force, Wall of Fog, Hold Person, Phantasmal Psychedelia, Suggestion, Confusion, Dimension Door, Growth of Plants, Polymorph Others, Polymorph Self, Shadow Monsters, Chaos, Geas, Mass Suggestion, Veil

5 – Monkey. The malicious, lazy and cowardly lord of the macaques, who enjoys nothing more than to demonstrate his self-proclaimed superiority over lowly humans. He has with him five male underlings and two dozen non-combatant females and young.
HD 5, AB +6, Attacks 1 (bite 1d6+2), Move 180
Can, once per day, strike somebody dumb, blind or deaf (once each) by touch – a condition which lasts for the duration of that day.
Can cast the following spells: Enlarge, Faerie Fire, Shield, Ray of Enfeeblement, Wall of Fog, Hold Person, Suggestion, Minor Creation
Male companions: HD 1+1, AB +3, Attacks 1 (bite 1d6), Move 180

6 – Serow. Ruler of the forest goats, the silent grey-furred denizens of the densest woods.  He prizes solitariness and secrecy above all things and seeks to achieve this through his magic.
HD 5, AB +6, Attacks 1 (gore 1d4+2, double on charge), Move 180
Is accompanied everywhere by a permanent spell of Silence, 30’ radius
Can cast the following spells: Sleep, Force of Forbidment, Forget, Stinking Cloud, Wall of Fog, Web, Hold Person, Gust of Wind, Improved Invisibility, Protection from Normal Missiles, Dimension Door, Minor Globe of Invulnerability, Feeblemind, Veil, Prismatic Spray

Animal spirits can speak with human beings and will respond favourably to supplication or humble requests for access to their lands; the more hostile the reaction dice roll, the more likely this is to be demanded by force. In return for allowing the PCs to remain, the animal spirit will demand a service of some kind. This will be (roll a d4 or choose as appropriate):

1 – Removing the Russian interlopers
2 – Removing the hornet spirit
3 – Removing Zenkō and his servants
4 – Helping achieve vengeance against local hunters (from the nearest village geographically)

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

He denies that he is ill, but they take no notice, kill him, and have a feast

I am almost finished re-reading Herodotus's Histories, this time Robin Waterfield's brilliantly readable and gossipy translation for Oxford World's Classics. I first read it back as an undergraduate and would have enjoyed it a heck of a lot more if I'd had this version.

You could make a superb campaign setting out of the world of the Histories, taking Herodotus's stories at face value. Just the many descriptions of the tribes of Libya, Scythia, etc., would be enough in themselves:

Next to the Zaueces are the Gyzantes. Bees produce a great deal of honey in their country, but even larger quantities are produced of a syrup, which is said to be the local specialty. Anyway, all the people there smear ochre on themselves and eat monkeys, which throng the hills in huge numbers. According to the Carthaginians, there is an island called Cyrauis off the bit of the coast where the Gyzantes live; they describe the island as being two hundred stades long, but narrow, accessible on foot from the mainland, and full of olive trees and vines. On the island there is supposed to be a pool where unmarried native women use birds' feathers smeared with pitch to draw gold dust up from the mud. I cannot vouch for the truth of this story; I am simply recording what is said. 
A very large tribe called the Garamantes live here... [It] is also the place where the cows walk backwards as they graze; the reason for this habit is that their horns curve forwards - so much so that if they walk forwards as they graze, the horns stick into the ground in front of them, and so they move backwards. In other respects they are no different from cows anywhere in the world, except that leather made from their skin is exceptionally thick and durable. The Garamantes use four-horse chariots to hunt the cave-dwelling Ethiopians, because the cave-dwelling Ethiopians are the fastest people of any of whom we have been brought a report. These cave-dwellers eat reptiles such as snakes and lizards; the language they speak is completely different from any other language, and sounds like bats squeaking. 
Far past this rugged region, in the foothills of a mountain range, live people who are said - men and women alike - to be bald from birth; they are also supposed to have snub noses and large chins, to have a distinct language, to dress like Scythians, and to live off trees. The tree is called pontikos, and is about the same size as a fig tree... When the fruit is ripe, they strain it through cloths and extract a thick, dark juice from it, which they call askhu. They lick this juice and drink it mixed with milk, and compress the thickest sediment into cakes for eating...They each live under a tree, and wrap white waterproof felt around their trees in winter, while dispensing with the felt it summer. They are said to be holy, and so no one acts unjustly towards them, and they do not have any weapons of war. When disputes arise between neighbouring tribes, they are the ones who settle them, and any fugitive who takes refuge among them is safe from unjust treatment. They are called the Argippaei. 
Rather than dying, [the Getae] believe that on death a person goes to a deity called Salmoxis (or Gebeleizis, as some of them call him). At five year intervals, they cast lots to choose someone to send to Salmoxis as their messenger, with instructions as to what favours they want him to grant on that occasion. This is how they send the messenger. They arrange three lances, with men to hold them, and then others grab the hands and feet of the one being sent to Salmoxis and throw him up in the air and onto the points of the lances. If he dies from being impaled, they regard this as a sign that the god will look favourably on their requests. If he does not die, however, they blame this failure on the messenger himself, call him a bad man, and then find someone else to send. They tell him the message they want him to take to Salmoxis while he is still alive. Another thing these Thracians do is fire arrows up into the sky, when thunder and lightning occur, and hurl threats at the god, because they recognize no god other than their own. 
Another tribe of Indians, called the Padaei, who live to the east of these marsh Indians, are nomadic and eat raw meat. They are said to have the following customs. If any of their compatriots - a man or a woman - is ill, his closest male friends (assuming that it is a man who is ill) kill him, on the grounds that if he wasted away in illness his flesh would become spoiled. He denies that he is ill, but they take no notice, kill him, and have a feast. Exactly the same procedure is followed by a woman's closest female friends when it is a woman who is ill. They sacrifice and eat anyone who reaches old age, but it is unusual for anyone to do so, because they kill everyone who falls ill before reaching old age.

I fucking love this kind of thing. I'm aware of attempts to produce fantasy versions of these more gazetteerish elements of Herodotus (Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities come to mind), but it's really very hard to top him.

Friday, 19 January 2018

In Which I Have a Breakthrough

For an extremely long time (blogger tells me it was 2014) I have been wanting to write up a campaign setting based on that wonderful bastard love child of Borges and Lewis Carroll - the map whose scale is 1:1 (mooted in "On Exactitude in Science" and Sylvie and Bruno respectively). 

My original idea was to imagine a country in which at one time there had been a ruler who dictated that a map should be made on a scale of 1:1, so he could survey his realm properly. It was necessary to float this map on the neighbouring sea or install it in a huge empty plain nearby, for obvious reasons, but over the centuries the wind and elements had torn it up into fragments which had blown around and caused the giant map to become fragmented and disrupted. Somehow, I felt, this ought to be the basis for an interesting and gameable campaign setting in which the PCs set off to these various different giant map fragments, but there were two insurmountable barriers to conceptual progress, namely:

1) Okay, so there are big bits of paper depicting fragments of a country on a scale of what? What is it about them that would make PCs want or need to explore them?

2) Paper is, let's face it, just paper. It's not as though anything interesting goes on on top of bits of paper which couldn't be accounted for without having the paper. (How, actually, is "An archmage has built a tower on this piece of map!" different from "An archmage has built a tower here!"?)

Today in the shower (natch) I made an epic breakthrough: it's not a map whose scale is 1:1. It's a scale model whose scale is 1:1.

This ancient ruler, whoever he may have been, began a project to create a scale model of his realm on a scale of 1:1, floating in the sea nearby. The passage of time (hurricanes, storms, freezing and thawing of the ocean, etc.) and the gradual disenchantment of his successors with the project render it incomplete and ultimately abandoned; some centuries after its inception the giant contraption is cut adrift and left to float away across the ocean like some vast island of flotsam. Parts break off and form mini islets of their own; other parts sink; other parts decay into ruin. Pirates use parts as bases; seagoing monsters lair in it; ghosts of dead sailors haunt it; outlaws and exiles infest it; wizards build strongholds in it; and so on and so forth.

I now move from the conceptual barriers to the practical. A floating warped and ruined three-dimensional replica of a real world place whose geography is the same, but different, and which gradually moves across the oceans in a shifting flotilla which is always slowly but definitely changing position. How to draw a map of that?

The Alternate Appendix N Campaigns

There are a few attempts to my knowledge to imagine 'What if?' scenarios in which Gary Gygax didn't draw from a rather esoteric list of pulp fiction of varying quality for his 'Appendix N', but other sources entirely. There's Mazes & Minotaurs, in which the inspiration for his game was imagined to come from Greek myth, and then there's that game somebody created, and which I linked to on the blog but irritatingly can't seem to find, in which 'Appendix N' was Shakespeare's plays. There may be others.

You can imagine more or less any alternatives using any set of similarly-themed fiction, of course. Here is a list of possibilities....

Lilliputians & Laputa. The game is based not around the exploration of dungeons but lost travelers shipwrecked in strange lands trying to find their way home; the nature of the lands they have to travel through are generated randomly. XP is gained by narrowly escaping death.

Herodotus & Histories. A variant, I suppose, on Mazes & Minotaurs. Herodotus's world is the real one: there are ants the size of dogs, Egyptians who do everything backwards, Indian tribes who have sex in public and eat each other when they get old, Persians who never lie...and the world ends at the Atlantic. XP is gained by visiting the Herodotus tourist trail (Croesus's offerings to the Oracle at Delphi; the temple to Aphrodite on the island on the Nile, etc.). 

King & Koontz. Ghosts and monsters haunt American-gothic landscapes. The PCs struggle to overcome ancient evil (and are frequently writers from Maine). XP is awarded for surviving each session. 

Twists & Copperfields. The PCs are members of the hard-working, deserving poor in the slums of 19th-Century London, scrabbling to survive as best they can and, if possible, climbing the social ladder. XP is awarded for progressing upwards through the slivers of English social hierarchy. 

Egils & Eriks. The PCs are 8th-century Norwegians exploring Iceland and Greenland, fighting walruses, raiding the civilized world, developing blood feuds, and discovering America. XP is awarded for...well....killing things and taking their stuff.

That's enough of that for one night.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Expressionism, Realism/Unnaturalism, and Hyper-realism/Hyper-unrealism

I want to draw a distinction between three different approaches to fantasy art: what I will refer to as "expressionism", "realism", and "hyper-realism". In reality, of course, everything is on a spectrum between those three points of the triangle, I know, but any taxonomy of anything will elide very fine differences and that's the nature of categorisation, so fuck you.

Let's begin with expressionism. I use this term not like an art critic but like a lay person interested in art. Expressionism is an approach to art which does not attempt to reflect any sort of seen reality directly in the photorealistic sense, but to express mood and emotion visually. In the context of fantasy art, it means art which does not seek to produce an image which would persuade you it is really real or could be a real thing in some fantasy world. Rather it means art which evokes the quality of a fantastical thing in pictoral form.

Hence, some examples:

"Crossing the Vimur River", by Hellanim (

"The Old Saints, VIII" by Valin Mattheis (

"The Ichthyosaur's Pool", an illo Matthew Adams did for Issue #1 of The Peridot

Next comes realism, or the attempt to create actual pictoral representations of fantastical things in such a way that you could imagine them appearing to the naked eye if you were to actually see them. ("Realism" is a slightly unsatisfactory label because, of course, we are not talking about "real" things; maybe a better term would be "Unnaturalism"?) It does not have to be photorealist; it may be impressionistic in its brush strokes.

Some examples:

"Lancelot", by John Howe

"Scythe" by Jakub Rozalski (

"The North Watch" by Keith Parkinson

Finally, there is, I would suggest, a third category, which I refer to as "hyper-realism" (or, perhaps more appropriately for reasons alluded to above, "hyper-unrealism"). This is fantasy art which attempts to produce a version of a fantastical reality which is more vivid and exaggerated than the more prosaic "realism" of the second category, while being faithful enough to an imagined visual reality that it cannot be described as being "expressionistic" (unless by "expressionistic" you mean "evokes a sense of vividness and dynamism").

Some examples:

"Mirror Men's Judgement" by Rhineville

You know where this comes from.

And this.

I have nothing against hyper-realist art particularly, but I would suggest that there is a preponderance of it in RPG products and this trend has become more pronounced over time rather than less so. I can think of two reasons for this: 1) RPG art is strongly influenced by comic and, nowadays, video game art; 2) RPGs are about action and imagination and hyper-realist art is the natural bi-product of the interaction between those two impulses.

Challenge me and prove me wrong, or agree with me and praise me and my taxonomy to the heavens.