Monday, 29 May 2017

The Pacification of the Nerd

I've been thinking about writing this post for a long time. I'm still not sure if I can put my finger exactly on what it is I want to say - but since that's never stopped me before I might as well go ahead with it.

There was a time when being a nerd was in its own way genuinely subversive. Most people reading this will have been alive and compus mentus in the 1980s and/or 1990s or before - cast your minds back to what it meant to be a nerd or a geek in those days. At least in my experience, there were two categories of such social pariahs. There were the real nerds - the kids who were into chemistry sets, train spotting or amateur dramatics and whatnot; the genuinely unfortunate sensitive and intelligent souls who didn't understand that Anglo-Saxon culture despises earnest and heartfelt interest in intellectual pursuits, and were bullied remorselessly as a result (but are probably now making millions working in STEM industries). Then there was the group which I belonged to, who were generally referred to as "the hippies" by the mainstream kids who we disparagingly referred to as "the trendies". We were nerds but we were into wearing denim and CND badges, and played in bands and drank alcohol and did other things we weren't supposed to. D&D and Warhammer nestled alongside other interests, like hanging out on park benches at night drinking cider or going to "rock night" at a local hotel every Wednesday or listening to Black Sabbath.

Either way, though, there was something about being a nerd that had a sort of punk quality to it. The "trendies" - the kids for whom wearing the latest fashions mattered, listening to chart music mattered, appearing not to care about school mattered, saying the right thing at all times mattered - were hugely suspicious of the "hippies" and hated and feared the real nerds beyond measure. The existence of the hippies and real nerds represented alternative lifestyles and possibilities - the idea that you could actually choose your own path in life and be into D&D or for that matter train spotting if that was what you wanted. (The truest punk of all was a boy I remember, called Paul, who was obsessively interested in chemistry and Land Rovers; he was bullied so much that eventually he had to be taught separately from the other kids for his own safety - that's how subversive he was and how much he threatened the established "popular" types.)

In its own way being a nerd at that time was also pretty strongly anti-consumerist. I don't think this was ever particularly well thought-out, but for us the idea that you had to be wearing the latest clothes, listening to the latest music and so on was anathema. Being a "hippy" was about not giving a fuck about that sort of thing. We got most of our fun out of the local library and musical instruments. The real nerds were into even more esoteric pursuits and were, of course, barely even aware of such concepts as fashion at all. It seemed to us (though I don't think I would have put it like this back then!) that physical status symbols like the Nike trainers or goretex jackets that were popular at the time were irrelevant to one's actual status. And we made a point of acting as if that were the case, with our greasy long hair, Doc Martens and West German army surplus jackets.

In any event, the point I want to make, I suppose, is that at one time being a nerd meant being rather strongly counter-cultural in certain important ways that, if you were being overly romantic, you could see as an important corrective to societal pressures to conform. The nerd was non-violent but also rather unpleasant to behold, difficult to understand, and bloody-mindedly unimpressed with the prospect of conforming. He was in his own way vaguely monstrous in the eyes of mainstream society.

Fast forward to 2017 and it seems to me that the dangerous, weird nerd has become pacified. It is hard to detail exactly how or when this happened, but the release of The Fellowship of the Ring film is a good place to begin the search. Nowadays there is such a thing as "geek culture" and it is all the range - from Hollywood to the world of fashion to the professional video game playing industry. The nerd is no longer the outsider; he is the king of Silicon Valley and hence the world. He is not the awkward, sharp, non-conformist splinter in the skin of the mainstream. He increasingly is the mainstream.

It's good that mainstream culture no longer militates quite so destructively against the defenseless nerd - I think poor Paul would have fit in a lot better if he had been born 15 years later - but quite a few things have been lost as a result. Not least of those things is what the nerd used to represent - the possibility and promise of non-conformity, and particularly non-conformity with consumer capitalism. The nerd as I remember him (whether of the hippy or the real nerd variety) above all wanted to carve enjoyment out of pastimes that weren't readily commercialized. You got your AD&D books, some scrap paper and pencils, a library card, a guitar and a load of hand-me-down Warhammer figures, and you were good to go. You didn't need the latest clothes, the latest gadgets, the latest football shirt.

In contemporary geek culture, that seems less and less the case: whether it's the latest collectible, the latest £50 PS4 game, or the latest $200 million dollar Star Wars extravaganza, it is all about the money and all about the status that comes from having the latest whatever-it-is-that's-cool. You could make the argument that in the last 15 years nerd-dom has colonised the mainstream but I increasingly tend to think it is the other way round, and the two-fingers-up to the "real world" that was the 80s/90s nerd has all but disappeared.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Naacal Logicians in the Ancient City on the Water

[Each level of Behind Gently Smiling Jaws contains a number of Naacal communities of different types. Here is an example.]

Naacal Logicians

A group of Naacal mathematicians who traveled to the Ancient City on the Water long ago to study its form. They were obsessed with the random and haphazard nature of its structure and riven by arguments over whether the city’s organization represents illogic, ab-logic, or a form of logic not yet given comprehensible analysis. 


21-40 0-level Naacal logicians, each with a 1 in 6 chance of having 1 to 6 levels as a magic-user. Randomly select a leader; the logicians do not consider power to be the best arbiter of right to rule.

7-12 martial automatons of random types.

7-12 servitor automatons.

The logicians are either fully sane (1-3), half sane (4-7), fully insane (8-11), or slumbering or inert (12). 

Sane: The logicians either 1) remain engaged in serene and blissful study; 2) have abandoned their quixotic efforts and wish to return to the Unremembered Island; 3) are riven into disputing factions who no longer communicate with one another (divide the logicians, guardians, servitors and any other servants or followers into d4 groups).

Half-sane: The logicians either 1) are convinced that they have made extraordinary breakthroughs and cannot be disturbed, and have become highly hostile as a result; 2) are constructing a new vast piece of apparatus which will enable them to transmute the ab-logical into the merely illogical; 3) are searching for human subjects to replace their brains with those of half-birds in the hope this will give new insights into the crocodile’s unconscious thought processes.

Fully insane: The logicians either 1) have developed a new language purely comprising logical concepts such as YES, NOT, OR, NOR, AND and so forth, and have forgotten how to communicate normally; 2) long ago had their servitors conduct brain surgery on themselves in order to better comprehend ab-logic, resulting in completely inchoate reasoning which prevents them from functioning as human beings any longer (they are either 1 – catatonic, 2 – frenziedly hostile, 3 – in a fugue state, 4 – in high sexual arousal, 5 – creating insensible diagrams obsessively, or 6 – breaking their own equipment or the structures of the city itself, at any given time); 3) have gained genuine insights into the ab-logical construction of the city, but this has warped their thought processes, blending the human and the reptilian and causing the logicians to become cannibalistic and debased.

Slumbering/inert: The logicians either 1) long ago decided that they must render themselves inert, because the Ancient City can only be constructed on the basis of dream logic; 2) became despondent and went into a deep sleep to wait for the end of time; 3) became so obsessed with their calculations that they could no longer perform basic tasks such as eating and drinking and were put into sleep by their servitors for their own safety.


The Naacal Logicians have Treasure Types A, N and O, and 2d6 entries from the Naacal Logician Equipment Sub-Table:

Item Type
Value in Paradijs Kolonie
Item Type
Value in Paradijs Kolonie
2d6 sheafs of equations
50 thalers
Silk robes
1750 thalers
2d6 sheafs of diagrams
100 thalers
Logic-based game akin to go
2000 thalers
Quill pen of an unknown bird
250 thalers
Scroll of logic theory
2500 thalers
400 thalers
Scroll of pure maths
2750 thalers
500 thalers 
Ceramic tobacco pipe
3000 thalers
750 thalers
Scroll of diagrams of famous mazes
3500 thalers
Model building
900 thalers
Scroll of celestial charts
4000 thalers
1000 thalers
Scroll of dream interpretation
5000 thalers 
1250 thalers
Rod of ESP
7500 thalers
1d6 steles of glyphs
1500 thalers
Idol of Seshat, goddess of mathematics and writing
10,000 thalers

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Embedded Social

Analogies can be dangerous. 

The term "social currency" is a tempting one for RPG designers, because it leads them down a strange dark path towards developing social mechanics in which PCs and NPCs can buy favours from each other, or command each other, after building up a certain amount of social points of whatever kind - a bit like real money to be spent.

But social currency isn't like money. The analogy doesn't work. 

Gold pieces in D&D are desirable (above and beyond XP) because they allow you to do certain things - buy nicer armour, build a castle, whatever - that there would be no in-game mechanism for otherwise. It is necessary for gold pieces to exist as a semi-abstract concept to facilitate certain important in-game functions.

Social currency works in a different way. There is already an in-game mechanism of action and consequence. Get the NPC on side and he'll be your ally. Do something for another NPC and he'll scratch your back some day. Schmooze up the mad archmage and he won't fry you. The mechanism is embedded in the very stuff of the game itself. The addition of a formalised abstract process is unnecessary and distracting and breaks verissimilitude, and is to be discouraged.

Here endeth the lesson.

Friday, 26 May 2017

An Introduction to the Ancient City on the Water

[This is the introductory section to a volume of Behind Gently Smiling Jaws.]


In the crocodile's youth, before it moved upriver and ensconsed itself in the lake in which it now dwells, it travelled the oceans - and saw a city on the coast, a kind of ancient Venice from the time before Venice was even a muddy village of barbarians who might one day become the Veneti. A place of rose-coloured stone, quaysides, domed towers and canals, which is nowadays not even the dust of a ruin or the merest rumour of human construction. That ancient coastal city still looms large in the crocodile’s imagination: a nest of bipedal creatures which have become attenuated by time and incomprehension to be something in its memory now like birds - their colourful clothes, which the crocodile did not understand, it interpreted as akin to feathers; the shouts and calls of the sailors blended in its mind with the cries of the gulls; their fishermen reminded it of seabirds stealing fish from beneath the waves. That is how those ancient human inhabitants are now constructed in its mind.

The buildings were a mystery to it and what it comprehends of architecture, it thinks of as a sort of endless jumble of hive-like mounds endlessly repeating, a fractal structure that a human would recognise as a never-ending repetition of canals, domes, quaysides, towers, minarets, walkways, apartments...a city with no end, but a city with no rhyme or reason. A chaotic mess crawling with half-birds burrowing in and out of its labyrinthine and meaningless doorways, windows, hallways and alleys. A bewildering pseudo-settlement, an Escherian nightmare, which looks as though it has all the things a city has and has none of them... yet also oddly and almost hideously beautiful, because if a crocodile is capable of feeling awe, it felt it studying that ancient city from afar.

The Coming of the Naacals

The Naacals who were attracted to the Ancient City on the Water came there for that hideous beauty. The impossibility of it – the sheer, galling size and scale of the incomprehensible catastrophe of architecture before them – enlivened their senses and intellects like nothing else. Some came to study its illogical forms as a new category of logic. Others came to attempt to catalogue its contents. More came because living in it elevated their creative, mathematical or metaphysical capacities to new levels of nihilistic ecstasy. Many came simply to bathe in the delicious confusion of its construction. Finally, some came to dance and fight and make music in architectural surroundings which they had not only never thought possible, but never had the capacity to imagine.

These groups inhabit the city still, in places. Over time they have become stranger – more and more focused on the task which they came to achieve (as though the only way to preserve their sanity in their unusual surroundings was to sacrifice all extraneous interests until that became an insanity in itself); or, alternatively, so well adapted to the confusion around them that their minds have become so akin to the city itself that the structures and architecture of their thoughts are no longer remotely human.

The Coming of Jorge de Menezez

Jorge de Menezez is a Portingale conquistador who sailed to the Spice Islands and brought fire, steel and blood with him. When he had finished his theft and murder in the Moluccas he sailed to Paradijs Kolonie in search of more. He was struck by the savage beauty of this new land and together with his brigandish crew struck out into the interior; his comrades each died one by one, and in de Menezez’s solitary jungle wanderings he became half-starved and more than half-mad. Leafing through his Bible brought him to the book of Daniel; he now believes himself to be the potentate of the Fifth Empire, fated to unify the entire world under one spiritual whole to usher in the second coming of Christ.

In his wanderings in the jungles of Paradijs de Menezez eventually came to the Lady of the Lake and she granted him passage to the crocodile’s mind after he insisted that no gate or harbour could ever refuse him entry. Discovering the Remembered Ocean he sailed across it in search of a new home in which to gather about himself an army to lead back to Europe in order to make Christendom his own.

Jorge de Menezez now makes his home in a great citadel where the Ancient City on the Water meets the Remembered Ocean. The half-birds living in his fortress prepare endlessly for the coming Reconquista of the real world - forging weapons and training in conflict; constructing newer and higher walls, battlements and quays; and building boats to sail the canals and shallow seas around the citadel. They wield cannons, black powder firearms, and other such creations of his memory, and work with a military zeal to further his ends.

But as with all of the Seven, Jorge’s manic puissant energy distorts the memory-stuff of the crocodile’s mind, warping what already existed there and creating new mythago-things from its substance. His crew – all eight-dozen-and-one of them – now inhabit the Ancient City on the Water too, with rival citadels of their own - like 97 shattered fragments of a mirror reflecting Jorge de Menezez’s megalomania back at him. Before he can return to Christendom at the head of his vast horde of half-birds, de Menezez must defeat all of his enemies in the Ancient City and bring it entirely beneath his sway, so that no possibility remains of his being undermined while his task is not yet complete. Throughout the labyrinth of canals the drums of war are beating, and the sky here and there is already darkened with the aftermath of cannonade…

DMing in The Ancient City on the Water

The Ancient City on the Water has at least three modes of adventure. As wandering vagabonds, the PCs might simply risk their lives in search of Naacal treasures to sell back in Paradijs Kolonie – probably using de Menezez’s citadel as a base. This will typically lead them to entanglements with the strange remnant Naacal populations of the city. Braver or more foolhardy, they might become involved somehow in de Menezez’s efforts to conquer the Ancient City – whether in support of it or otherwise. Finally, they may decide that they wish to take on the challenge of burgling the citadels of some of his 97 crew, or indeed the mighty citadel of de Menezez himself, for the treasures which surely lie therein.

In this chapter, you will find everything you need to construct material for gaming sessions set in the Ancient City on the Water – adventure locations, encounters, treasures and more.

Monday, 22 May 2017

BECMI: Goldilocks D&D

BECMI is my favourite version of D&D. Even when I'm playing other versions, I tend to think of things in Classic D&D terms and resort to its surprise rules, combat order, reaction dice, etc. 

What is it about those sets? The easy answer is that they are "just right". Not too simple but not too complicated; not too serious but not too frivolous; not too disorganised but not soul-less or lacking in character; being "all things to all men" while not being too bland. 

But that may be over-thinking it. Ultimately, it's not for any discernible rational reason that I prefer it. It's just that of all the versions of D&D I've played, it by far and away results in the most enjoyable sessions and campaigns. Something in the tone of the ruleset and the way it is presented bleeds into the game itself, so that it's impossible not to feel its breezy, unpretentious qualities resulting in a breezy, unpretentious play experience.

It's not what you want all the time, but sometimes a nice warm bowl of porridge (with honey, natch) and a good long nap is all you need. On those occasions, it's Classic D&D all the way.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The New Penny Dreadfuls

I bought these for 1p each (not including P&P). The new era of the 'Penny Dreadful' - the 'Penny Splendid'?

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Gonna Break My Rusty Cage

Recently I was listening to a podcast episode about the history of Magic: The Gathering. I am not a Magic player (I'm not sure I've ever even held a Magic card in my hands) but I was struck by something the interviewee said about his experience being a teenager in New Zealand in the early 90s. Back then, there was probably no cooler place in the world than Seattle. It was the epicentre of pop culture for a brief period of time. So for a kid growing up in the arse-end of nowhere in the antipodes, Magic had a kind of instant cache in being from the same place as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, etc. There was a kind of place-based mystique about Wizards of the Coast which undoubtedly had some influence in making Magic catch on.

My friends and I weren't into Magic at all back then (we were spending money we could ill-afford on Games Workshop stuff instead) but I know what the interviewee means. In the suburban north of England in, say, 1993-1998, Seattle had this strange quality to it. It wasn't just grunge; it was Frasier (which I will still watch gleefully despite having seen every episode over and over again); it was, a few years later, The Real World: Seattle. Seattle wasn't New York or LA or Miami, places with which we were familiar. It was somewhere exotic, distant (physically and psychically) that produced great music but also managed to pump out "alternative" cultural products like Magic: The Gathering and, in due course, D&D.

I went to Seattle for the first time almost exactly two years ago for a big work conference and loved it. My colleagues and I had a fucking great time for a week and barely did a lick of what we were supposed to be doing. The weather was surprisingly glorious. The city seemed to have its best face on. All my favourite people from work were there and we abused our expense accounts atrociously. We ate and drank like kings. The place didn't disappoint. I remember thinking how odd it was that such a charming and laid-back city should be the source of depressing heroin chic and nerd games that mostly get played indoors, but then again we only experienced it when it wasn't raining.

Anyway, this is all a rather rambling and roundabout way of saying that poor old Chris Cornell was a bit part of the mythos of Seattle when I was a teenager, and him and his music and, more than that, I guess, his era will be forever bound up in the tabletop gaming hobby for me. Soundgarden was the soundtrack to many, many games of D&D, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun and Runequest in my formative years, and I think in a strange way there was a kind of psychic continuum during those years in the early-mid 90s between RPGs, grunge music, and the city of Seattle. Chris, you were part of that psychic continuum, mate, so here's to you.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A Wrecked Junk of Penglai

29.22 - Wrecked Junk of Penglai

A vessel which sailed across the Remembered Ocean from the shores of Penglai in the Wide and Peaceful Sea. It was crewed by servants of Xu Fu, sent to spy on developments in the area and bring back useful items or information, but it foundered in pack ice and was dashed on the rocky beach. The crew of Hairy People have gone, but the captain and her aides remain, lurking in baleful isolation.

The Captain: the spirit of a minor female dragon, 6 feet in length, whose sinuous slithering form coils up in the bowels of the wrecked hull like a snake. She is a symbol of Xu Fu and, although far from him, still carries some of his power. 
HD 5, AC 4, ATT Bite 1d6+3, 5th level magic user (Spells: Dancing Lights, Charm Person, Hold Portal, Shield, Sleep, Enlarge, Darkness 15' Radius, ESP, Invisibility, Levitate, Scare, Stinking Cloud, Blink, Haste, Hold Person, FlyLightning Bolt, Suggestion
Aides: three large monkeys, one with scarlet fur, one with azure blue, and one with golden yellow. They constantly criticise the Captain's orders and bicker with each other, but carry out their alloted tasks nonetheless. Currently this consists primarily of efforts to construct a raft.
HD 2, AC 4, ATT Bite 1d3+1 
The scarlet monkey is aggressive and the Captain will enlarge him to engage in combat, so that he becomes the size of a gorilla. He then has 5 HD and Bites for 2d6 damage.  
The azure monkey moves quicker than lightning, faster than can be seen, and always acts first in combat.  
The yellow monkey can at any time suck in magical spells. When a spell is cast targeting her or something within 10' of her, she can forego taking any other action that round and simply breath in the spell like air. It is then nullified and she gains 1 HD. 

In the bowels of the wrecked junk is a treasure chest containing 100 silver bars, each worth 100 silver tokens; scrolls of commune, true seeing and word of recall; and a Short Sword of Penglai (does double damage against undead). A patina of gold leaf remains on sections of the hull and can be removed, resulting in 100 gold tokens' worth of gold for every 4 hours of individual human labour, up to 400 gold tokens.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Forever in Blue Jeans, or: How much is too much?

How much is $10 in real money? £7 or something?

DIY D&D is a small niche market inside what is itself a small niche market inside what is itself a small niche market. So you get prices which tend to fluctuate quite a bit, as you do in all small and relatively unstable markets (check out the exchange rates of the infrequently-traded currencies of African countries to get a sense of this). There is some great stuff put out for free. And some not-very-great stuff put out for quite considerable prices. And everything in between.

However, I feel like going out on a limb and saying: this stuff, considering what it is and what you get, is by and large cracking good value. To go to watch a film at my local independent cinema costs you a tenner to get in the door and easily £20 a head when you add in snacks and beer. For 2 hours of typically mediocre entertainment (blasted out at excruciating volume) preceded by half an hour of shit adverts. I pay something like £80 a month for the privilege of watching Sky Sports, which I reckon over the course of that month is probably less than 10 hours' worth of entertainment. A night out at the pub easily costs you £40. So how is $10/£7 for an interesting, creative and totally playable DIY D&D module anything other than brilliantly good value?

(One of the only things I can think of that you can buy and which is better value is printed books - I just got Mason & Dixon for 1p plus P&P off Amazon.)

The next time you see somebody complaining about the cost of a DIY D&D product, punch them in the face for being wrong.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot

"Spoken of in hushed tones in the city states of Yu Quan; remembered in the epic poetry of the nomads of Waisimadun; sung of in the hymns of the priests of the Red Lilac in Old Koesy; written in the skin-bound volumes of the High Chroniclers of the sorcerer-kingdoms of Ebbw - is the name of the Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot, that grand and ancient realm which, encircled in mist and storms, appears on summer nights or winter mornings like a ghost and remains for a week, a lunar month, or a year and a day, before disappearing from whence it came. Its date palms bear fruit that succors like no bread can match. Its sherbets and wines make the tongue sing. Its people are beautiful as though created from the stuff of genies. Its halls contain knowledge, arts and magicks which can be found nowhere else on this world. Its air is as pure as honey; its winds as refreshing as the touch of river water on a summer's day.

"And when it has vanished the people who saw or visited it do not forget it even to the ninth generation, nor even the ninety-ninth. And hence it is spoken of in hushed tones in the city states of Yu Quan; remembered in the epic poetry of the nomads of Waisimadun; sung of in the hymns of the priests of the Red Lilac in Old Koesy; written in the skin-bound volumes of the High Chroniclers of the sorcerer-kingdoms of Ebbw - that mysterious and legendary name of the Sultanate of Lost Eskinoot."

-From the Journeys of Rev. Ezekiel Violet (Hobshapper & Mill, 1737), Chapter XI.

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