Sunday, 22 April 2018

Some Servitors in the Unremembered City

The levels of artistry which the Naacals once reached in their engineering of automata might seem almost godlike to the crude intellect of 17th century man. They became so skilled that the prosaic goal of efficiency came to seem to them almost quaint: at the zenith of their prowess, they came to prize only aesthetic innovation and sheer eccentricity, and it is the servitors from that era - beautiful, twisted, and strange - which today roam the plazas and avenues of the Unremembered City.

Tiger Lily: Something resembling a huge, bulbous orange-black flower, standing man-high on its spindly stalk, with fronds emanating downwards from its "head" like tentacles. From them it emits clouds of tiny razor-sharp disc-like spores, each no bigger than a grain of sand, which swarm through the air and carve or cut solid objects - including, where necessary, human flesh. HD 2, AC 6, #ATT Special, DMG Special, Move 90.
*Emits spores. It has 1d4+5 fronds, each of which can emit one cloud of spores (the process taking one round). Each spore cloud moves at 90 and can: 1 - Slice flesh (each spore simply cutting the skin at random, doing 1d3 hp damage automatically without the need for a 'to hit' roll), 2 - Clog lungs (the spore cloud entering through the nose and mouth to lacerate the respiratory tract from within - the victim can avoid this by covering the nose and mouth if forewarned, but otherwise suffers 1d6 hp damage automatically), 3 - Blind (the victim can avoid this by covering the eyes of forewarned, but is otherwise blinded - temporarily for 1d6 days, or permanently if the spore cloud can successively attack for 3 rounds in a row). Spore clouds do not regenerate and must return to the host within 6 rounds or the spore lose power and fall to the ground inert.

Porcelain Mule: A white-green ceramic quadrupedal form with a long, narrow, expressionless face like a horse's skull. If given a burden and a destination to carry it to, it will perform the task with remorseless and relentless energy; otherwise it stands inert awaiting instructions which nowadays rarely come. If a non-Naacal approaches it emits a foul, piercing bray in the manner of an outraged ungulate. HD 3+3, AC 4, #ATT 1 (trample), DMG 1d4, Move 180.
*If a non-Naacal human approaches within 20 yards, the Porcelain Mule will bray; it is never surprised and does this automatically. Anyone within 20 yards is deafened for 1d6 days (1d3 hours on a successful save versus poison), and any living thing within the vicinity will be put on the alert. Roll 1d4 times on the random encounter table to see how many things, or groups of things, come to investigate (arriving 1d10 minutes apart).

Cat With Cobra: Two automata perfectly crafted to resemble their respective inspirations. The first is the kind of cat the Naacals favour - short-snouted and long-limbed like a caracal. The reproduction is perfect, down to each individual silicon hair and whisker. It is accompanied everywhere by an Egyptian cobra, whose every individual scale was hand-crafted. Once created to assassinate political rivals, these servitors have become outmoded by the death of politics in the Unremembered City; now they simply do the only things they understand, which are to hunt and kill indiscriminately. The cat and cobra have the same stats: HD 1+1, AC 3, #ATT 1, DMG Special, Move 150.
*Always surprise opponents unless the opponent is forewarned or magically able to detect threats.
*The snake strikes to paralyse (no save is permitted; the effects last 1d6 days); the cat then automatically dispatches the victim with a bite to the neck if it is able to get within striking range. Having killed once, they flee and will not kill for the remainder of the day.

Dweller in the Reeds: A diminutive humanoid shape, thigh-high on a man, made of a thick emerald-green gel into which have been pressed small slats of jade, like lamellar. It lurks in gardens, parks and other green spaces, cultivating the plants which the Naacals favour and ruthlessly exterminating those they do not. Its fingers are made of narrow points of jade so sharp that they can sever tree branches like butter and so gracile they can carve decorative hieroglyphics and pictograms into the smallest and most delicate of flower petals. They defend their gardens tenaciously if they are disturbed or threatened; otherwise they are harmless. HD 1+1, AC 4, #ATT 1, DMG Special, Move 90.
*Always surprise opponents due to camouflage unless the opponent is forewarned or magically able to detect threats.
*Does 1d3 damage per attack but the attacks are of sharpness and directed against the legs.
*If able to attack the face of an opponent, its attacks permanently blind if hitting successfully.
*If struck to cause damage by a pierced weapon, the weapon sticks in the gel of its body 50% of the time - it can only be tugged free if the Dweller is inert or killed.

Padfoot: Something resembling both a tree-frog and an ibis. Four-legged, man-sized, with soft amphibian skin and splaying feet perfect for climbing and treading across ponds full of lily-pads, but with a black feathered head and downward-curving scimitar of a beak. In times past it was used as a spy: able to move in perfect silence, climb vertical walls, walk or swim across waterways, and probe with its beak. It was deliberately imbued with a curiosity which still enlivens it. It follows intruders at a safe distance, watching, until distracted or somehow given the slip. Anything it sees it will report if asked by a Naacal. HD 2, AC 4, #ATT 1, DMG 1d4, Move 150.
*Always surprises opponents due to silence and stealth.
*Climbs vertical and smooth walls (and can even move upside down across ceilings).
*Swims perfectly.
*Exudes greasy toxins from its skin; if touched with a bare hand (when dead or alive) it causes a sickening illness which has an onset of 1d3 hours and causes complete paralysis for a week (on a failed save versus poison) or the equivalent of a slow spell for a week (on a successful save). The grease is visible on close inspection. If the toxin is ingested it causes death within 1d6 minutes; no save is permitted.

Pthalo Hound
: A pile of deep, intense blue powder, bound together and animated so that resembles a stalking canine. It is completely featureless except for its brilliant hue. An artistic endeavour which once amused some forgotten Naacal engineer, it never had any purpose except the aesthetic. If touched, it collapses back into its constituent powder, which sticks and stains indelibly. HD *, AC *, #ATT *, DMG *, Move 180.
*When touched, it immediately disintegrates. Roll a d8 or d4 to determine wind direction. Enough of the powder will blow in that direction for 1d6 turns, to a distance of 30 yards, to cause permanent blue stains on any living thing or object in its path. These stains can never be removed, even by a wish spell. The remaining powder lies in a pile and can be gathered if desired.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Life in the Unremembered City

The Unremembered City bears that name because, in all of the worlds inside the crocodile's mind, it is the only place which is made not of the stuff of memory, but of the real world. Every grain of sand comprising the island on which it sits; every pebble making up its walls, columns and plazas; every blade of grass and flower; and every fleck of paint or crumb of gold leaf which decorates it, was brought there physically by the Naacals in the Age of Discovery and imbued with magic to ensure that the crocodile does not remember it. Unlike anywhere else within its mind, the Unremembered City is not malleable and does not give rise to refractions. It remains.

At first glance, the Unremembered City is like no city anywhere. It does not have houses, or apparently dwellings of any kind: it is a place of plazas, wide open spaces, separated from each other by low walls. Some of the plazas are gardens thick with vegetation; others are starkly empty, made only of vast plain flagstones, baked by the sun. Towering over them stand thin, high pyramids, and geometrically-shaped mounds of earth on which stand colonnades and open-walled belvederes and pavilions, carved from black or white stone and decorated with pictographs of gold or silver leaf. It resembles not so much a settlement as a gathering of monuments, like the life's work of the world's greatest architects brought together in one place - which, of course, is what it is, or once was.

The Naacals living in the Unremembered City do not build houses because they do not have need of them: the last time any of them chose to marry or have children is now so long ago that none of them can remember it, and they cast aside material concerns even longer ago than that; they have no individual property to protect. When it rains, they shelter under a nearby colonnade or pavilion; at night, they seek privacy wherever they fancy, since their population has now dwindled to such an extent that much of the city lies empty for most of the time. The rest of their days, they roam where they will, sometimes coming together to sing, to dance, or to make love, as the mood takes them, but at other times sitting each alone and in silence, contemplating the passage of time and wondering about what meaning life can have when it is infinitely long.

The Naacals who remain in the Unremembered City are impossibly old, and their proclivities accentuate the natural conservatism that comes with age: the few who remain are the least enterprising of their race. Any of their brethren who had any curiosity about life and any desire to live it left long ago to explore the infinite worlds of the crocodile's mind and find their fortunes within it - and their descendants live there still. What is left is the rump: those who were too cowardly, feeble and dull to leave when they were young, and who have grown ever more cowardly, feeble and dull with every passing moment since. Their ancient husk-like figures - untouched by age but somehow bent and twisted by time nonetheless - haunt it like ghosts.

But this in no way means the Unremembered City is not a place for adventure. Far from it. Naacal treasures and technological artifacts are everywhere - lying largely abandoned by the inhabitants of the City, who long ago considered themselves to have reached the pinnacle of achievement in the arts, philosophy, and science, and lost interest in those pursuits as a result. Their riches and powerful technologies are available, then, to those who would come to the City and take them - and as a consequence, agents of the Seven are often abroad in its plazas and walkways, on the lookout for tools they can bring home to their masters to further their ends. And at the same time, the servitors of the Naacals have not decayed at all in their faculties since their creation, and these many different automata - guardians, sentinels, and others besides - are as active as they have ever been, protecting the shadows of the civilization which once created them. That is to say, great wealth and power awaits explorers of the Unremembered City, but they will meet competition - and hostility - if they want to get it.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Touching Alignment Languages with a Barge Pole

One way to think of alignment languages is to think of them as a kind of slang or jargon - a special manner of speaking which people of certain classes or interest groups start to develop.

I was thinking about this earlier today while attending an academic conference at one of the UK's most elite "old school" universities. I won't mention which university or the subject, but it was one of those instances in which an ordinary person would be fully justified in leveling against academics the accusation that we are all ivory-tower-dwelling, clean-fingernailed, over-educated, lily-livered fantasists who ought to go out and get a real job rather than sponging off the state to support our meaningless, divorced-from-reality "scholarship". At various times, such ordinary people would come in to the hall to deliver coffee or sandwiches or croissants or whatever. And whenever I did so, I thought to myself, "They must be listening to this and wondering what on earth we are talking about." Academicspeak is in a sense a bit like what an alignment language might be like: the words are intelligible to anybody, but they are used in such a way to make the content of a conversation inscrutable to outsiders.

Hobbies are like this too: listen to two people talk about a genre of music you don't know about, or an art movement you've never heard of, or some obscure interest like koi carp, and you'll find it hard to follow the conversation because of its special vocabulary and subject matter. There is even something approaching this phenomenon in political discussions. The conversations between people who are united in the same political persuasion tend to have their own cadences, their own in-jokes and nods/winks and reference points, which will leave others cold or nonplussed.

This is really, I think, a sensible way to think of alignment languages. But it's also a bit boring and, more importantly, isn't really true to the source material: alignment languages aren't described as being jargons. They're described as actual languages of a sort (comprised of "passwords, hand-signals and other body motions", as the RC puts it) which, in a sense, transcend all borders, racial differences, and geographical features: if you're lawful evil, you can communicate with all lawful evil creatures even if you don't share a common spoken language.

What to make of this? It implies certain things which are very difficult to conceptualise or imagine working in reality:

1) Alignment is something which has a known existence within the game world itself: you know what alignments are, and you know what alignment you are. It's not just a shorthand way to describe character traits. It's a real phenomenon.
2) Once you change alignment, you stop understanding the previous alignment language and start understanding a different one.
3) You should be able to look at two people having a discussion in an alignment language that isn't your own, and know that they are conversing in their alignment language (because suddenly starting to use "passwords, hand-signals and other body motions" to chat to that hobgoblin must make it pretty obvious).
4) If you could see somebody speaking in their alignment language, and if you knew the alignment of the other party to the conversation, you could guess the first person's alignment. If A is speaking in an alignment language to a hobgoblin, you know that A is lawful evil.

And even setting that to one side, there's also the question: what do the "passwords, hand-signals and other body motions" look like? Apart from sounding vaguely dirty, there isn't a great deal of information there. Maybe Chaotic Evil involves maniacal a-rhythmic dancing, while Lawful Neutral is a highly circumscribed set of deliberate gestures which must be performed perfectly in order for the meaning to be communicated. Maybe Neutral Evil involves blood-letting and pain.

The notion that alignment is something which people in D&D worlds actually believe is something that needs further analysis. Today, having spent so long listening to ivory tower academic nonsense, I'm incapable of doing so, so the most you're getting out of me is this half-formed and somewhat half-arsed blog entry.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Magicians as Billionaires

High-level magic-users, if the basic assumptions of a standard D&D setting held true, would be the equivalent of the modern world's billionaire class. With the ability to travel across continents and summon powerful servants on a whim, and with entire rooms full of magical item bling at their fingertips, they would have much more in common with each other than anybody else - a bit like how, if you take the average super-rich Brazilian, South African, Indian, South Korean, Australian and Canadian and put them in a room they will seem more similar to each other than they will to their own typical countrymen. 

This could very well be how the common tongue got started. Globe-trotting members of super-rich elites need their lingua francas. For our world, it's English. For a D&D world, it's the common tongue; a dialect created my magic-users from across the planet to communicate with each other, which has filtered down to the hoi polloi because people who like to think they're upwardly mobile all want to speak it. 

It could also be why wherever you go everybody seem to be using the same spells. Super-rich people on Earth all go to the same sorts of parties, listen to the same sorts of music, take the same sorts of drugs, wear the same fashion brands. High-level magicians in D&D land are the same: one of them comes up with a new spell and suddenly everybody else has to have it. Certain brands, like Mordenkainen, Leomund, or Bigby, are all the rage at different times. And every so often somebody finds a charming little spell created by some obscure tribe, orc shaman, or hobgoblin witch and turns up at the next feast to show it off, and within a year everybody's using it - just as some Hollywood star will start eating Burmese street food or whatever one day and it becomes (literally) the flavour of the month.

It's also surely why high-level magic-users all live in megadungeons full of traps and guardians. Your average multi-billionaire has pads in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo, his villa in Sao Paolo, his getaway in Sorrento, and all that, but the place he really relaxes is his secret hideaway - his private island in the Philippines; his ranch in Patagonia; his estate in the Scottish Highlands. And he competes furiously with his peers to build the best, biggest, most beautiful or unusual of the lot. If they could, you can be absolutely sure they'd have a manticore guarding the entrance, poisonous gas traps everywhere, and a tribe of vegepygmy slaves. 

Monday, 9 April 2018

Incomplete List of "You Couldn't Make Them Up" Village Names in Lincolnshire and East Anglia

Chapel St Leonards
Mavis Enderby
Old Bolingbroke
Wood Enderby
Market Rasen
Potterhanworth Booths
Tumby Woodside
Ashby Puerorum
Deeping St Nicholas
Quadring Eaudike
Parson Drove
Thorney Toll
Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen
Marshland St James
Burnham Overy
Brancaster Staithe
Old Leake
Leake Common Side
Anton's Gowt
Holland Fen
Burton Pedwardine
Little Plumpstead
Whimpwell Green
Barton Turf
Houghton St Giles
Langley Street
Framingham Piget
Caistor St Edmund
California (!)
Hobland Hall
St Olaves
Weasenham All Saints
Wood Dalling
Skeyton Corner
Great Snoring
Ivy Todd
Cockley Cley
Black Street
Bruisyard Street
Wetherup Street
Lower Street
Barking Tye
Hitcham Causeway
Butley High Corner
North Cove
Ilkesthall St Margaret
Silverley's Green
Pixey Green
Stoke Ash
Thornham Magma
Thornham Parva
Maypole Green
Cove Bottom
Friday Street
Wicker Street Green
Santon Downham
Rockland All Saints
Saxtead Little Green

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Everybody Loves Our Game: On the OSR "Scene"

I am just finishing off reading Everybody Loves Our Town, Mark Yarm's superlative oral history of grunge. It's a really entertaining book, phenomenally comprehensive and detailed, and compulsively readable even (I think) for people who aren't into that kind of music. It goes back right to the very early days, with the formation of the U-Men in 1981, and charts the emergence of a regional scene, its sudden blossoming in the early 90s, and its very rapid demise afterwards.

It's a huge nostalgia trip for anybody who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I think: while my home town can't exactly lay claim to being like Seattle circa 1991, I recognised a lot of the texture of the life that's portrayed in the recollections of the interviewees. So many of the elements of teenage life back then - forming bands, drinking and smoking pot and trying not to be discovered doing so, hanging out with friends just sort of wandering the streets or lurking in parks, listening to heavy metal on cassette tapes, going to all-age 'rock nights' and open mic nights at local venues (in our case, for some reason, the ballroom of a once-grand-but-now-faded large Edwardian hotel), wearing lots of denim - seems to have been a commonplace throughout the Western world (now much reduced). You could probably have grabbed the average 15 year old from Seattle and dumped him in Wallasey and vice versa and he would have fit it like a glove. We just had less heroin and guns.

What interests me most about the book is the social anthropology of "scenes". For a while, by all accounts, there was a Seattle grunge "scene". (One which became a monster, exploded, and then transformed into something self-referential, self-parodying, and destructive.) My home town had a "scene" when I was 14 or 15 - sets of familiar faces, names, people-who-knew-people, common cultural reference points, common slang terms, common hangouts. There are heavy metal scenes, Irish dancing scenes, horror fiction scenes, underground S&M scenes, communal sewing scenes, dining club scenes, single malt whisky scenes... Permanent or temporary conglomerations of people, habits, ideas, vernaculars, and interest surrounding a common geographical or cultural core.

For a long time now I've been dissatisfied with the use of the phrase "Old School Renaissance" or OSR. I prefer to think of us as a "scene". We are a DIY D&D (or, to widen it out, DIY RPG) scene. Maybe a collection of scenes: there is a DCC scene, a LotFP scene, a Black Hack scene, a true grognard scene, and so on and so forth.

The interesting thing about a scene is, while friendships might form within it, it's not really about being friends. Nor is it about pursuing a certain goal. In a music scene, for instance, there are rivalries and even mutual hatreds. Bands don't particularly pursue the wider goal of furthering the cause of other bands. Rather, a scene is something that simply forms by accident around a set of shared interests or behaviours, and as a consequence of the interactions of human beings who have those shared interests or behaviours - nothing more or nothing less. It's not formed by a group of friends getting together to share interests. It's formed by a group of people who share interests coming together as an inevitable consequence of those shared interests: teenagers who like rock music and drinking will find themselves forming a local scene without knowing it; people who like watching and making YouTube reviews of single malts (like yours truly) will find themselves forming an online scene of sorts - it just happens. The "OSR" is the same: people who like "old school" D&D and making RPG materials by themselves have ended up making a scene because that's how scenes happen. Nothing more or less.

Another interesting facet of scenes that bears emphasis is their definition of themselves as being unlike other scenes. The Seattle grunge scene defined itself as being against hair metal. Single malt whisky drinkers define themselves as being against chill-filtration, added colour, and no-age-statement whisky. The DIY D&D scene defined itself, very early on, as being against 4th edition. The rejection of orthodoxy is an important element in the formation of a scene.

Scenes can also end - or transmogrify into something else. The Seattle grunge scene didn't last long. The outlook for the single malt scene is much better. What about the DIY D&D scene? Things seem okay so far. We'll find out if it can last the distance.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Mediterranean and Cultural Coolness

Back in the mists of time, I wondered aloud on the blog why it is that you get lots of Japan-inspired RPG settings but not many Polish, Tongan, Turkish or Malagasy-inspired ones. (I was living in Japan at the time and observed that this was surprising because Japan "is on its knees in almost every sense, utterly lacking in self-confidence, and faced with a hopeless and near-apocalyptic future of population crash and economic catastrophe". Things have changed a bit now, and Japan is growing increasingly self-secure in cultural terms, I think, although you still do have to wonder who is going to be putting rice on the table in 50 years' time.)

The real oddity is the lack of Mediterranean-inspired settings. Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt loom relatively large in the minds of nerds. But when you think about how culturally important, historically significant, geographically varied, and magnificently interesting the countries of Southern Europe are, it's unusual that you don't find many RPG settings (or, for that matter, fantasy series) which are set in worlds inspired by the histories of Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Turkey, or for that matter Italy and Greece if you take them out of the ancient world.

Put it another way: I think I'm hardly going out on a limb if I suggest that RPG settings (at least in the English-speaking world) are preponderantly simulacra of either Northern Europe or Japan. After that you get Ancient Greece and Rome, and then I think pseudo-Middle Eastern settings a distant third. After that comes everybody else.

What are the reasons for this? I expect that it is partly because, although the Med is just round the corner from us Brits and we're hopping on planes to Rome, Corfu, the Costa del Sol, the Algarve and whatever at the drop of a hat, for Americans and Australians those places probably feel distant and exotic and not nearly as well known. (I was trying to count earlier on how many times I've traveled to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Israel, or France. It's more than a dozen, definitely.)

I expect also it is because the Mediterranean cultures feel (rightly or wrongly) 'civilized' in the popular imagination - places which respect learning, the arts, and cloak-and-dagger politicking. This is in contrast to Northern Europe, which feel like they are wild and lawless. You'd find dungeons full of dragons all over Scandinavia, Germany and the British Isles. You wouldn't find them in Sorrento - at least, not in a way that appeals to your average gamer.

I suppose, finally, you can also blame Tolkien and his imitators. Tolkien was all about "the North". That permeates his work. The fantasy genre in general, following in his footsteps, hasn't strayed convincingly or in great numbers from that path. Japan is an exception, because nerds love samurai and ninjas, and also anime and tentacle porn. And Westerners have been obsessed with Japanese culture since the impressionists at least, for complex reasons that I'm sure could fill 1000 blog posts. But not many countries can say that.

Friday, 23 March 2018

The Phantom Force Awakens a Menace

I feel like I may have courted enough controversy for a while, but, goaded by a comment on a recent entry, I'm going to put myself out on a limb again. So here goes: in hindsight, I find myself appreciating George Lucas's efforts in The Phantom Menace a little bit more than I once did.

Now, hear me out. I'm not crazy. I recognise that as films, the prequels taken in toto are dreadful. Attack of the Clones may be a genuine contender for the worst film ever made. It's awful. It has no redeeming qualities at all. Revenge of the Sith is a little bit better, but not much. Nothing about it is good, but passages of it rise slightly above the level of shite. 

But, say what you want about The Phantom Menace: at least George tried to do something genuinely ambitious. The attempt to tell the story of Darth Vader by actually beginning with him as a "lovable" (I use that adjective advisedly) child is, when you think about it, a pretty bravura act that I don't think has a parallel in film history. Certainly not genre film history. The execution doesn't work. But by golly at least he won't die wondering about what would have happened if he'd made that film. You have to give him that.

This dawned on me shortly after watching The Force Awakens. I don't think history will look kindly on that film in particular or Disney's Star Wars efforts in general. For starters, I think we'll get into "diminishing returns" territory fairly quickly if they keep up the pace of a new Star Wars film of some kind every year or two. But more importantly, The Force Awakens was the opposite of ambitious: it was a safe bet, an underarm throw, an open goal. What could be easier to pull off than a remake of A New Hope given the vitriol that has been heaped on the Star Wars prequels and the incredible juggernaut of nostalgia that sits behind the "originals"?

George Lucas caught lightning in a bottle with A New Hope. He went chasing after it again, bottle in hand, in making The Phantom Menace. He came back not so much with lightning but with bird droppings. But as a human endeavour I appreciate the effort. He tried, didn't he? Goddamit - at least he did that.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic

The interaction between magic and technology has interested me for a long time. But there are fine distinctions between different approaches to that interaction.

What I'm not particularly interested in are fictional universes in which magic takes on the functions of technology, as though "magic" is just another tool, like steam power or the dynamo, available for instrumental ends. Harry Potter is a bit like this: magic is almost just another form of energy transfer which can be used to, say, imbue a mop to make it clean the kitchen for you or transform a chair into a butler who now sets the table for dinner or whatever. Boring.

I'm also not very interested in fictional universes where magic can be explained through physics just like technology can. The best example of bad practice in this respect is, without question, midichlorians. How to make something mystical and awe-inspiring seem bland and uninteresting in 5 seconds: provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for it.

No. What I mean by the interaction of magic and technology is something akin to what I described in my last post: the deployment of technology to achieve a magical end, or vice versa. Recording a curse on a cassette tape and then putting the tape near the victim is a great example. Some others: translating spells into binary code to allow them to be read and processed by computer. Making voodoo dolls for technological objects (create a model of somebody's car and then puncture its wheels to stop the actual real-life vehicle from moving). Charm Person delivered via a snapchat message. Creating a doppelganger of somebody by downloading all the data Facebook holds on them.

Have there been any RPG settings which have mixed magic and technology in this way? The only examples I can think of that come even close are the different character classes in Unknown Armies (Pornomancers and Videomancers and all that), and maybe some of the ideas implicit in Mage: The Ascension?

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Curse You! Or, Putting "Spells and Magic" to Use

When I was in Kyrgyzstan, I'd sometimes come across reams of cassette tape, pulled out of the actual cassette, and hung on shrubbery by somebody's house or at a roadside or on a piece of waste ground. Spools of unnatural, metallic black string spread about in a vaguely menacing way, like the excretions of some predatory cybernetic insect that had just passed by.

I asked some friends about this, and they said that these things weren't usually there by accident. This was modern shamanism at work. If you've got an enemy, get a shaman to record a curse on a cassette recorder. Then unwind the tape and put it near your target's house and the curse will take effect.

I was fascinated by this concept and found the whole thing genuinely creepy - a 21st century Central Asian equivalent of the voodoo doll. There's something I find horribly compelling about the idea of one person taking the trouble to put all the spite and malice they hold against another person into a physical manifestation in that way. You don't just sit at home and stew about Ulan and how he stole your girlfriend/killed your brother/robbed you/eats with his mouth open/whatever it might be. No: you hate that fucker so much you're going to make your hatred take metaphysical effect. That takes some extra special meanness of spirit, doesn't it?

Curses in D&D are uninteresting. There are cursed items (a Sword -1 or whatever, or a ). There are creatures who attack with a curse, like, I suppose, lycanthropes. And there are the reversals of the Bless and Remove Curse spells, which basically inflict the target with annoying negative modifiers for a period of time.

This is a shame, because curses can spur interaction with the game world in a number of ways. First, if a PC is inflicted with a curse they may have to find a certain person to help cure it, or a certain item, and that could require travel and various adventures. Second, if the PCs want to inflict a curse on an enemy, they might have to, again, find help or a certain ingredient to put the curse into effecft. And third, if the PCs are inflicted with a curse but aren't sure by whom, they may want to investigate. Any of those scenarios are great grist for the adventure mill.

The old 2nd edition Spells & Magic supplement had a Random Insanity table that I'd like to crib for curses. It goes like this:

d100 Result
01-15 Delirium
16-20 Disorientation
21-24 Attraction
25-37 Phobia
38-40 Paranoia
41-46 Alienation
47-53 Amnesia
54-61 Hallucinatory insanity
62-64 Melancholia
65-69 Dementia praecox
70-74 Monomania
75-79 Mania
80-81 Manic-depressive
82-89 Hebephrenia
90-95 Catatonia
96-103 Delusional insanity
104-114 Schizophrenia
115-119 Homicidal mania
120-124 Psychic translocation
125+ Pursuit

("Pursuit" being literally pursuit by a demon or spirit or other-dimensional entity or whatever.)

With just a little bit of work, what you have there is a list of interesting curse types, and all you need then do is decide who gets to cast them, in what circumstances they can be cast, what's needed to give them effect, and what's needed to dispel the curse. Or you could do it randomly. Viz, something like this, but with more entries:

Curse must be uttered by…
Ingredient to give effect
Ingredient to dispel
Takes effect by
Young female dwarf
At a new moon
Severed human finger
Blue rose
Speaking the curse in the victim’s presence
Old deaf elf
At dawn
Poison arrow frog
Firebird’s feather
Having the victim read the curse from a scroll
Orc child born on a full moon
At winter solstice
Monkey paw
Dragon scale
Having the victim eat or drink something which the curse has been spoken over
Wizard’s widow
On a mountain top
Having the victim looking in a mirror the curse has been spoken over
Galeb Duhr
At dusk
Piece of meteorite
Having the victim spill blood with a knife the curse has been spoken over
Undead spirit
On a body of water
Peacock’s liver
Ice from a glacier
Automatically once uttered

Monday, 19 March 2018

Would You Play D&D with Donald Trump?

So, apparently WotC are going to introduce sexfluidity in elves by releasing a supplement for you to buy. The main purpose of this entry isn't to speak to that, but if you will, please indulge me digressing for just a moment. It always amazes me how people who define themselves as "geeks", who also I think in general tend to define themselves as being roughly "on the left" so much as they think about those things at all, will so readily and uncritically take on the status of capitalist consumers. A sizeable portion, indeed, will even do this to the extent that they buy (no pun intended) into the notion that progressive values themselves can be happily and unproblematically commodified. Do you want to be progressive when it comes to matters of gender, sex, and sexuality? Great: now buy a product to confirm it to yourself and others. For US$50 no less.

What a strange world we live in. Let's make no bones about it: in D&D you can play a dwarf with three penises married to a genderfluid asexual baboon if you really want to. Your imagination has no limits. Why buy a book giving you permission to enact the values you supposedly hold dear, when you can just do it anyway?

But so much for that. Lately I've been good about using the blog for fewer rants. What I'm more concerned about is the reaction to this announcement. And no, by this I don't mean that I've seen hundreds of blog posts or forum comments or had any conversations in which people have been expressing their opposition to sexfluid elves (who were always pretty genderfluid at least anyway, weren't they? I mean, come on). No: the reactions I have seen can be categorised as follows.

  • Roughly 50% saying "So what?" (The correct reaction.)
  • Roughly 50% saying "I wouldn't game with anybody who would have a problem with this, and I'm glad WotC have done this because it means people who are on the Wrong Side of the Debate will be flushed out and I won't have to game with them as a consequence."

I don't believe that the latter 50% actually proportionately represent half of all gamers. I think they are a tiny minority. But they are becoming ever more vociferous. For these people, social interactions, particularly the games one plays, are not just part and parcel of being a human living in the world, but are vehicles for expression of political stances. For them, being on the Wrong Side of the Debate doesn't just make you misguided or even stupid. No: it makes you worthy of being only an outcast, a pariah, somebody with whom no interaction of any kind can be permitted, least of all pretending to be elves together (sexfluid or otherwise).

I hate that kind of thing. I think it is awful. I look back in my life and think of all the great friendships and conversations I've had with people who hold diametrically or at least very fundamentally different views to mine: Communists, atheists, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, born-again-Christians, Northern Irish republicans, Scottish Nationalists, UKIP voters, Manchester United supporters, Black Supremacists, White Supremacists, gun nuts, Daily Mail readers, Guardian readers, radical feminists, Australians, even fans of Doctor Who. In the abstract I might have thought, or still think, that the views of those people are wrong - in many cases even odious, dangerous and appalling. But almost invariably, when opinions are filtered through the good humour, self-deprecation, negotiation and common sense of face-to-face conversation, they are revealed to be absolutely no reason for anybody not to enjoy another person's company. 

My heart sinks that so many intelligent people are turning their back on the possibility that those who violently disagree can get along. Not to be melodramatic about it, but what future is there for our poor sad species if we get to the point where people are no longer even willing to put certain differences to one side for the sake of having a bit of fun? I mean, hop on a plane to Israel or Kashmir or Belfast and you'll find endless swathes of charitable organisations trying to get people who would willingly actually kill one another for being on the Wrong Side of the Debate to just get together and enjoy a meal or play football or music or whatever. They do this in the entirely creditable and sensible belief that having people set aside their differences to do fun things together might actually help find ways round problems. Meanwhile in nerd land people are busy sticking their fingers in their ears and proclaiming loudly how vehemently opposed they are to playing D&D with imaginary people who wouldn't be in favour of sexfluid elves.

When I write down the list of types of people who I would categorically rule out playing D&D with, it's really very tiny indeed: it's just people I personally don't get along with or people whose behaviour has been such in the past that I would have difficulty trusting them. In other words, people I consider to be dicks. If you are going to be a dick about your opinions, whatever they might be, then fine - that qualifies you as somebody who I probably wouldn't willingly associate with. But in life I tend to find that actually most people aren't actually dicks (except on the internet, that is) - even people whose views I would actively probably find repellent if written down.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Caesar, Homer, Pytheas and Lugh

What if, when Julius Caesar first sailed across the Channel to carry out his first abortive foray into Kent, he had discovered that refugees and returnees from the Trojan War (Achaeans and Trojans alike) had got there first? And what if those larger-than-life heroes of Homeric myth had mingled with the figures of Celtic legend, the Fomorians, the Tuatha De Dannan, Math ap Mathonwy, the black dog and all the rest?

Fast forward a hundred or so years, and there would be a walled Roman settlement there on the Thanet coast. It would be a place to trade for tin, slaves, and other commodities, and also for magic and druidic mystery and wisdom. Inland, there would be hill forts and towns, some ruled by native Celts, others ruled by Achaean and Trojan demigods, living in an uneasy and chaotic network of alliances, rivalries, conflicts and betrayals. In the forests would be fey beings of Celtic myth, "fair folk", dragons and giants. And the glory-obsessed Achaean and Trojan sons would be forever straying into the fairy realm to try to win eternal fame for themselves.

That would be a good place to run a campaign of D&D.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

RPG Books as Imagination Training

We are now in the Bronze Age of OSR blogs (the Golden Age being 2008-2009 and the Silver Age being around 2009-2012), and I think Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City may be the best and most important blog started in this era. By which I mean he is consistently finding new and useful things to say at a point where most other blogs have grown jaundiced and tired.

A case in point is his most recent post, RPG Books as Fiction. Go and read it. It's long, but worth it.

Where I think Joseph is precisely on the money (the whole thing is on the money, but on this point it is especially so - if that isn't a tautology) is here:

"I suspect that what [most RPG books] primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead."

This describes much of my teenage experience of reading RPG books to a 't'. Yes, my friends and I played a lot of games. But how much published material did we actually use for its intended purpose? I can remember a couple of sessions where we played some published Planescape adventures. But the vast bulk of my memories associated with RPG books was paging through them on long car journeys or while on holiday and just, well, imagining what it would be like to use them. "Wouldn't it be great to be in a session where we encountered a morkoth?" I would think as I browsed through the Monstrous Manual. "Wouldn't it be great to have a PC find the Hand of Vecna?" I would think as I read the section of the 2nd edition DMG on 'artifacts'. "Wouldn't it be great to run an all-druid campaign?" I would think as I flicked through the Complete Druid's Handbook. "I'd love to run a campaign set in the Philippines," I would think as I sat reading the Cyberpunk 2020 Pacific Rim Sourcebook. My experience of actual gaming was a pale shadow of the kind of things that my adolescent brain could come up with left to its own devices.

(Not incidentally, I had a similar relationship, thinking back, to Games Workshop books. My friends and I played a heck of a lot of Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, and Necromunda. But being impoverished 13 year olds, we could barely afford any models. We primarily resorted to using a huge mass of ancient lead figures bequeathed to one of us by an older brother or cousin, and we could only dream about the possibilities of actually being able to buy a Basilisk/Lehman Russ Battle Tank/Dark Angel Dreadnought/Orc Shaman Riding a Wyvern or whatever, while paging through 'Codex' books. With Games Workshop, though, the requirement to just sit around reading books and imagining was more or less a nakedly commercial phenomenon rather than anything else.)

It may seem that this makes buying and reading RPG books an extremely decadent and even perverse activity - like a kind of unexciting pornography in which you don't even get to imagine having sex with a beautiful woman but instead just imagine being a horrendous nerd. One view is that it's basically impossible to sink any lower in the hierarchy of cool than fantasizing about playing D&D; you're so tragic that you can't even find a few catpiss-stinking neckbeards to game with and have to simply wish that they existed.

That's one way of looking at it, but when I look back now I can't help but feel that I would have been wasting my time even more egregiously by, for example, playing video games or even reading bog-standard fantasy novels. It might be true that most RPG books aren't particularly well-written, and you couldn't class any of them as being 'literature' in any real sense. But their great virtue is their open-endedness. They don't pretend to be coherent narratives - except for the most railroady of published adventures. At their best, they are a kind of springboard for the imagination: 96 pages of ideas, some better than others, but all of them at least capable of being played around with and squeezed and squashed and stretched and turned upside-down and kicked about until they turn into something wonderful. I may never have got to play in a game in which a morkoth was involved, but I was able to imagine dozens of potential morkoth-scenarios.

In other words, that time spent just browsing RPG books and imagining never-to-be-realised possibilities was a kind of imagination boot-camp, imagination circuit-training, imagination bikram yoga. Since the imagination is a muscle, I think it came in more than handy. Still does, as a matter of fact: I don't think I'll ever run, say, The Veins of the Earth, A Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong etc. at the table, but the thing about the imagination is, there's never a bad time to tone it up a bit.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

When is a Quantum Ogre a Quantum Ogre?

The answer: when it's really a quantum ogre.

2011. Halcyon days. Summers were warmer then, and chocolate was tastier. There wasn't so much rubbish on TV, and children were polite to their elders. You could get change out of a £5 when you ordered a pint, and Suzanna Reid was still on BBC Breakfast. We will not see times like those again.

The talk of the town back then was quantum ogres. Like paleontologists picking over the bones in a mound of Inner Mongolian dust, it is impossible for us in these much-diminished days to establish just how that discussion began and what colour feathers it had. (A post I wrote in September of that year may bear some important clues.) Suffice to say: in that era, a mighty beast stalked the earth, and its scientific name, "Palette Shifting", gives some indication as to its nature.

I return to the desert to conduct more field work on the topic with some trepidation. But I believe that I may be able to at least provide a footnote to our understanding of the quantum ogre's life-cycle and behaviour.

Let's put it this way: palette shifting, meaning the quasi-railroading practice of substituting one encounter or location for another, to make sure the PCs experience it come what may (or to make sure they avoid something dangerous), is dastardly, rotten behaviour that cannot be countenanced. But the quantum ogre is nothing to be afraid of; in fact, the quantum ogre is your friend. Most of the work of running an RPG is, when it boils down to it, quantum ogres. Quantum ogres are everywhere.

What is a random encounter table, but a list of quantum ogres? An encounter takes place: the dice dictate it. But until the random encounter table is consulted, nobody knows what the encounter is. Like Schrodinger's Cat, until the dice are rolled, the encounter is all the encounters on the random encounter table. It is quantum ogres all the way down.

But that's obvious. Let's think a little bit more: when it comes down to it, isn't most of what a DM does at the table a matter of quantum ogres? Almost all that a DM does is to react to what the PCs do. What does such-and-such an NPC say in reaction to what the PCs say to him? What does such-and-such a monster do when the PCs do such-and-such? What happens when the PCs try such-and-such on the trap? It almost always comes from the same place: you don't know the answer to any of those questions until forced to produce an answer. The DM's head is a Schrodinger's Box: the answers are in there, in a sense, but until there's a need for them, he typically doesn't know what they are.

In that sense, your brain is full of quantum ogres. More than that, it should be full of quantum ogres, because the alternative is preconceptions about what is going to happen in any given circumstance, which is the enemy of flexible and responsive DMing. Quantum ogres in this view are not palette shifts; they are palettes full of colours whose hue you can't see until they're on the canvas.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Japanese Kids' Books

Children's books (I mean little kids' books, not YA fiction) are an often-untapped resource for inspiration. This is especially true of little kids' books from non-English speaking countries. I'm in the lucky position to have access to lots of Japanese kids' books, and thanks to that I've been introduced to the work of the inimitable Katayama Ken.

Here are some pieces from his 楽しい冬ごもり, a particular favourite:

See what I mean? It's like Van Gogh had a love child with Brian Jacques. I especially love the way the firelight in the second and third pictures imbues the scene: it may be the most effective painting of firelight I've ever seen.

Then there's Matsutani Miyoko, whose work is more like brass rubbings made by Monet:

Finally, there's Kimoto Momoko, whose works looks like Salvador Dali crossed with Dick King Smith:

Grainy internet pictures may not do them justice; I hope this isn't the case.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Reaction Dice Which Create the World - Matagi Hunters

Long-time readers may remember three posts I wrote about using reaction dice to build the game world (herehere and here). I still intend to expand on this idea a lot in New Troy. But I am also 'piloting' minor elements of it for The Valleys of the Winter People. In this setting, the men in remote mountains form roaming bands of bear hunters in the winter, the matagi, who gradually revert to a semi-wild state when on the hunt. If they catch and kill a bear, they return to civilization triumphant. If they fail, they gradually become bears themselves.

In encounters with the matagi in the wild, the DM rolls a reaction dice as normal, but this determines both the reaction of the hunters and their current state, which is linked. Hence:

2-3 Attack: The matagi are almost entirely in a feral state - a sliver away from tipping past the point of beyond return. Their senses are all preternaturally heightened, meaning they are not surprised, and they are aware of the PCs from d100 yards away. Their only interest in the PCs is as prey, but they do retain enough sentience to be capable of communication.

4-6: Aggressive: The matagi are a mixed group, who have been long on the hunt without success. 1/3 are fully human, 1/3 are semi-feral, and 1/3 are entirely feral. The senses of the semi-feral and feral members are heightened, as for the 'Attack' result, and these will target the PCs as prey; the other members of the group may be reasoned with and can control the remainder if they are persuaded to do so.

7-9: Cautious: The matagi have been hunting for some weeks without success. They are largely fully-human, but have 1-2 semi-feral members with them. The semi-feral members will not target the PCs as prey without the permission of the full humans. The senses of the semi-feral members are heightened as for the 'Attack' and 'Aggressive' results.

10-11: Neutral: The matagi have recently begun their hunt. They are fully human, and cautious but not aggressive. They are surprised on a roll of 1 and the encounter distance is standard.

12: Friendly. The matagi are returning from a successful hunt. They have a killed or captured bear with them (50% chance of either) and are in exceptionally good spirits; they are surprised on a roll of 1-2 rather than 1, and are on their way back to a random village (1 - Odose; 2 - Shariki; 3 - Bihoro; 4 - Komakai). The encounter distance is standard.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

What is the Blogosphere for now? New Modes of Play

Zak S recently put a post up on G+ (which I hope he won't mind me paraphrasing and quoting from) to the effect the OSR or DIY D&D or whatever you want to call it has been a success: it has its own momentum now and it has actually become possible for people to simply make things and publish them without having to pass by the traditional gatekeepers of the hobby. He closed by saying, "The way of talking about games we had was designed for a situation of convivial stylistic and commercial underdoggery which no longer exists in the same way...different things are going to seem interesting or worth saying, and we're gonna have to figure out what they are."

I think this is especially true of the traditional D&D blogosphere. A few years ago, when Monsters & Manuals hit its 1000th entry, I put up a post bemoaning the decline of blogs. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been so hasty, because actually my own blog entered a bit of a "Silver Age" shortly after that that lasted a good two years, during which my readership exploded to levels never before experienced. It has gone down a bit since then, but that's mainly attributable to me posting less frequently and with less quality, I think, than previously (parenthood has given me a permanent -2 to my INT score; I hope it's not cumulative with each baby).

But it's indisputably the case that blogs aren't what they were, partly because the "stylistic and commercial underdoggery" has gone away, and partly because so much has been written and said that needed to be written and said that it feels as though we've run out of things to write about. There is always going to be call for more creative content (monsters, art, new rules, etc.) but any more writing about the principles of good play would probably now be flogging a dead horse. We've got 10 years of that behind us.

I think, though, that a few big undiscovered countries remain - enough, in fact, to provide plenty of grist for further elucidation and insight. For starters:

  • Nobody has posted anything definitive yet about running underwater adventures/campaigns
  • And for that matter nobody has posted anything definitive yet about running wilderness exploration adventures/campaigns either 

More than that, though, while we have become very good at ploughing the furrow of "rogues exploring a sandbox in order to get rich", what we have only begun to scratch the surface of are different modes of play. Think of all the metaphorical internet ink that has been spilled on how to successfully run rogue-PC-oriented sandbox games, and consider that there is surely an equivalent amount of that ink to spill on how to effectively run games that have different sets of starting parameters. What, for instance, are best practices for games in which the PCs are "good guys"? What about best practices for games about spying or diplomacy? What about best practices for games in different eras - pseudo-Victorian period, pseudo-Ancient Greece, pseudo-WWI? What about games in which the PCs are defending an area from invaders? And so on.

What I think it boils down to is: we've said most of what we need to say about dungeons and hexcrawls. But there are more things in heaven and earth than that.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Confessions of a Lazy Wannabe Novelist: A Call to Arms?

I have spent an inordinately large amount of time in my life penning the beginnings to short stories and novels. (My Mum still occasionally jokes that after I left home for university she went through my bedroom to transform it into a guest room and found box after box stuffed to the gills with hundreds and hundreds of sheafs of paper, all labelled 'Chapter One' at the top. This is almost certainly true.) I sometimes wonder if there is space in the market for a book of first pages to novels: here are 300 starts to stories - you, the reader, make up the rest! If there was, I'd be a millionaire before I knew it.

I have a short attention span, I am lazy, and I am hyper-critical of my own work. These are traits which I suspect most published authors have, but they get around them somehow. I know this, because I have managed to do so outside of the context of writing fiction (I wrote a 100,000 word PhD thesis; I wrote a 300+ page long RPG setting book and have another one close to completion; I have just about finished an academic monograph). So what is it about writing fiction that's different?

It is partly, I think, because I care about it too much. I don't want to write stories. I want to write work of heartbreaking and epoch-making quality. This sucks the enjoyment out of the process: from the start, I feel immense pressure to begin the literary equivalent of carving Michelangelo's David.

But also it's because, paradoxically, despite writing a lot, I don't write enough. I have honed my ability to write a good start to a story to a razor edge. But because I stop after a few pages, my ability to tell a good tale on paper, start to finish, lies unpracticed. I begin to bore myself very quickly, because I haven't figured out how to properly pen what I am compelled by the weight of history to call a "gripping yarn" - entirely because I never get far enough to do so.

Are you, like me, a lazy wannabe novelist? Are you caught in the paradox of writing a lot, but not enough? Let's start a support group. No pressure. Put your email address in the comments or where I share the post on G+. I'll set up a G+ group where we can share sob stories and cajole each other to write, and possibly even critique things we eventually get finished.

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)