Thursday, 28 April 2016

Shaving the Subcultural Sausage into Slivers

When human beings get into something, they become obsessed with subdividing it in ways that, to an outsider, often seem utterly obscure.

Here is a chart showing all of the different styles of karate originating from Okinawa, which any non-karate person would see as more or less exactly the same if they saw them in action.



Underneath it is a chart of different styles of metal. For a non-metal fan (like me), I can just about discern that there is a difference between black metal, which is the kind where the guy shrieks like he is having his testicles mangled in a vice, and death metal, which is the kind where the guy sounds like he is so depressed and angry that he wishes he was having his testicles mangled in a vice. But it turns out that if you are into metal you are usually also really into its cladistics: there are dozens of different ways of screaming and dozens of different kinds of testicle-mangling devices.




And, you've guessed it, here is a chart showing (some?) of the different varieties of D&D and its retroclones. You and I both know that all of this, to somebody who has no interest in D&D (particularly before 3rd edition), is all just footnotes on the original version: to all intents and purposes none of it actually matters. Yet still. 



(I wish I could find a proper version of this image in a scale which is readable, but you get the point.)

I find this sort of genealogy fascinating. What to one person is hitting and kicking people, playing a guitar really loud and screaming a lot, or pretending to be an elf, to another is a vast and complex field of nuance stretching to each and every horizon and beyond. The particular tiny distinctions between different ways of pretending to be an elf matter.

I want to go out on a limb and say that men - a certain type of man - find this stuff important to a greater degree than women do. For some reason it's more often the case that when somebody is getting uptight about how something is categorised, nine times out of ten it's a man. Why is this? To play armchair anthropologist, is it something to do with a testosterone-driven need to organise and structure the world - to maintain order over complexity? To reduce the confusion, chaos and happenstance of human experience to a set of strictly delineated categories which can then be discussed, compared, critiqued, loved, hated, and (perhaps most importantly) named?

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

[Actual Play] 5th edition in Pre-Medieval Japan: Session 4 - Goro Couldn't Bear It

(You can read previous session reports for this campaign here.)

The three philosophers had been effectively wiped out by the guardians of the tomb of the lichen-man king. Only their (NPC) guide Pasekur remained conscious and able to fight. It would be another day before the group could even think about travel or exploring the remainder of the tombs. Pasekur set about trying to hide the three corpses under a nearby fallen tree and settled in for the night.

In the evening, flushed grouse indicated the presence of intruders. Pasekur and Terasu, who was by now awake and able to move, decided to try to stay out of sight, but were quickly noticed by what turned out to be four Emishi hunters from the village of Bihoro. These mountain-siders were considerably wilder and rougher than their coastal brethren, but were friendly enough; the leader, Itakshir, warned about the dangers of these tombs, and offered the strange Southron travellers a feast at the village if ever they made their way there.

By mid-morning the next day Monomi and Goro were also able to move, but they decided to spent much of the day recuperating; it was mid-afternoon by the time they began exploring the tomb of the lichen-man king. They discovered what was clearly a burial chamber. It contained a skeleton together with a bronze cuirass, sword and helm, the latter of which was strangely and noticeably unrusted and pristine. There were also a number of amulets, anklets, and other trinkets - as well as a skin cask sealed with bearskin, which the philosophers quickly surmised contained the breath of the lichen-man wizard given to the king to accompany him to the afterlife. All around this chamber were rich paintings of hunting scenes; a frequent recurring motif was a man with a large red beard and red hair, who was presumably the king himself.

The tomb led to at least one other chamber but Monomi was keen not to disturb anything more than was necessary and was satisfied leaving with the cask. Goro, on the other hand, decided to pocket one of the amulets to see what would happen.

With their instant task completed, the three philosophers headed back to Okoppe. The journey took them some three days. On the way they came across a handful of cranes which seemed to circle around them overhead a few times before flying off back the way they had come; spooked by this, the philosophers took a wide detour to avoid anybody who might be following them. Eventually they arrived back at the village, where Monomi gave a rousing account of their travails to the locals. Then the shamaness Umoshmatek invited the three philosophers to take part in the ritual that would make use of the lichen-man wizard's breath. The essence of this ritual was to boil the cask in water inside a sealed tent over the course of a night. The condensation from the steam that would collect on the inside of the tent could then be soaked in bear skin and squeezed out into a pot. This fluid could then be poured into the river mussel goddess's pool to bind her into her mussel form.

The ritual had strange effects on both Monomi and Goro, who undertook dream quests under the influence of the steam-filled air in the tent. Monomi dreamed that he was racing through the streets of some Chinese city at night, whereupon he was confronted by an authoritarian figure who commanded him to use a newly-granted power over the clouds, wind, and rains for some unspecified and incomprehensible purpose. Goro, meanwhile, dreamed that he was confronting a gargantuan locust-like insect who drained him of his very existence. The onmyoji discovered that this meant in future his relationship to the physical world had become somehow attenuated, so that he could move through space instantly over very short distances.

[Mechanically, Monomi can now control the weather 1/week and Goro can blink 1/day - if they pass WIS checks at DC 10]

The next morning the ritual was over and was successful: the philosophers now had a gourd containing water infused with the breath of the lichen-man wizard. This, Umoshmatek told them, they had to pour into the river mussel goddess's pool - but only when she was in river mussel form. This would bind her in that state. If, on the other hand, they did it while she was in human form, it would bind her in that state instead - ruining their plan.

The philosophers spent some time discussing what to do as they journeyed towards the river mussel goddess's waterfall pool. Their initial plan was for Monomi to use his newfound power over the weather to cloak the pool in fog so that Goro could sneak forward with the fluid and pour it in. Goro could then use his new power to teleport instantly away before her bear guardians got him. But after a while they decided this was a bad idea - it was likely the river mussel goddess would be very hard to sneak up on in her natural environment. Instead, they hatched a different plan: Goro would attempt to flatter the goddess into transforming into her river mussel form. He would then pour the fluid into the pool, grab her, and teleport away and then they would all run off back to Okoppe as fast as their legs could carry them.

The plan initially worked well. Goro entered the pool and began flattering the river mussel goddess so that she agreed to reveal the beauty of her natural form. As soon as this had happened he poured the lichen-man-wizard solution into the pool, binding her in that state. Her bear guardians, who had been watching the whole thing, immediately attacked and Goro's blinking power fizzled and failed; he was badly mauled. Monomi, Terasu and Pasekur began raining magical spells and missiles on the bears, killing one, but the other clawed Goro to the ground, rendering him unconscious and very nearly killing him outright. This bear was finally dispatched, however, when Monomi and Pasekur bravely charged forward into its teeth to save their comrade.

The three philosophers and their trusty Emishi guide then began swimming downstream back towards Okoppe, with the river mussel goddess in tow....But not before they had noticed that the entire episode had been witnessed by one of the goddess's Emishi slaves from the top of the waterfall....

Monday, 25 April 2016

High Concept Megadungeon: The Corridors of the Crocodilian Mind




The mind of gharial is old, very old, older than men, older than the mountains, older than the gods, older than time. They have lived unchanged since the world was a formless mass and they and their prey were all that lived in the newborn waterways of that primordial earth. To the gharials the oceans themselves are young.

Inside the ancient corridors of a gharial's mind are memories of such antiquity that all trace of them have faded elsewhere in the world. Beasts long extinct whose bones are now dust. Spirits whose substance have gradually tattered and frayed down the eons until nothing remains. Civilizations which have risen and fallen and whose ruins are no longer even part of distant legend. Lands which have sunk beneath seas so deep that not even the kraken have seen them. The ghairals have witnessed it all and it lives inside them still.

Memory. The mind of a gharial is a store of it so vast that its extent is beyond contemplation. If one could get inside such a mind one could discover secrets and wonders from beyond time itself - if one could survive the things which live within the memories of the oldest of the old.



Thursday, 21 April 2016

[Actual Play] Cruth Lowlands Campaign: Session 9 - On the Usefulness of Perfume for Escaping Vampiric Mists

Previous session reports can be found here

PCs present:

  • Jason, playing Naghmeh, a 3rd level magic-user
  • Patrice, playing Dragosta, a 3rd level fighter

Andy's player, Luke, was unavailable today, so it was just "the girls" in this session - although as was pointed out fairly early on, the PCs are now quite a procession: Dragosta on a warhorse with barding, Naghmeh on a fine riding stallion, a cart pulled by oxen, another pulled by mules, two hirelings (Zoe and Zeno) equipped with fine chain mail and longswords, their cleric retainer Philemon, and the bullywug Yokomosok. This doesn't include Andy and Sir Gerard (who we decided had returned to Riverfork to oversee construction of the new inn.)

The band left the Jann's tent and headed in the direction of the Tower at the Fork, where they were going to investigate the activities of smugglers in the area, and a missing shipment of grain. This led them to the village of Myrsina, a small hamlet where there was a ford over the wide Magos river and what appeared to be some sort of pit. The villagers came out to greet the newcomers and Dragosta and Naghmeh began questioning the headman, Christos, after showing him their letter of marque from Sir Georgios. Christos informed them that there was small garrison at the Tower at the Fork led by a knight called Sir Acamos, but Sir Acamos rarely ventured out of his tower and seemed to prefer the pleasures of wine, beef and whores to stopping smugglers. The PCs rapidly surmised that Sir Acamos might well be in cahoots with the criminals. 

The PCs also learned that in a week's time the village would host the annual wrestling tournament, with fights taking place in the pit in the middle of the settlement. People would come from all around the neighbouring area to watch or take part, and the victor would get the hand in marriage of the local Beauty Queen - or a tithe of the proceeds from last year's harvest. They were naturally extremely keen to take part, and decided that this was perfect timing to sort out the smuggling problem and then return for the wrestling. 

There was some talk of visiting the tower and taking on Sir Acamos directly - perhaps even offering to garrison the holdfast for Sir Georgios themselves - but ultimately the PCs decided to head South down the river and try to tempt an ambush. As night fell they set their carts and oxen by the river and then hid nearby, watching to see what happened; eventually, as dawn approached, a small raft or skiff appeared, crewed by two figures. These figures apparently noticed the carts and then set off back downstream. 

Yokomosok was sent in pursuit and he swam off down the river. A few hours later he reported back, saying that the raft had gone downstream to a series of caves. The PCs and their entourage immediately set off to investigate. This resulted in a quick but bloody battle in which sixteen smugglers were killed, with Zeno shot through the eye with an arrow and instantly slain in return. But the PCs were able to kill the leader and also capture an elf woman who was with him. This woman, called Naomi, revealed herself to be an outlaw from her homeland who had been cast out for delighting in murder, theft and blasphemy. She had taken up with the smugglers as a result. Dragosta, wearing the magical cloak taken from the elf wraith the party had tangled with earlier, was able to use its strange suggestive power over elves to persuade Naomi to join the party. Naomi agreed (probably sensing opportunities for more murder, theft and blasphemy), and informed the PCs that there was a much larger fortress nearby which the smugglers had infested, and they were led by two mighty were-boars who would not be easily defeated. She also confirmed that Sir Acamos was in league with the smugglers. 

Hidden in the smugglers' caves was Niketos's missing shipment of grain and a flat barge-like boat. The party piled all the grain on board, together with the corpse of the leader, and began the laborious journey back to Riverfork, with their oxen pulling the boat slowly upstream. Their plan was to head back to town, deliver the grain to Niketos, plan an attack on the smugglers' fortress, and then go to Myrsina for the wrestling tournament.

On the way, they came across a group of five pixies sniggering in the trees, and engaged them in conversation. Dragosta eventually offered the pixies her bottle of elven perfume (also taken from the elf wraith) in return for them warning the party of any threats while they were travelling in the forest. The pixies, loving the smell of the perfume, agreed. This was to come in very handy that night when the pixies warned the party of approaching vampiric mists, advising them to flee as quickly as possible. The PCs abandoned the boat and cart and quickly fled with their oxen, returning a few hours later when it was safe. The only sign that anything untoward had happened was the smuggler chief's corpse, now entirely drained of blood and totally dessicated.

It eventually took four days to get back to Riverfork. On the way, Naghmeh suddenly remembered that she could cast the Read Languages spell. She used this to spend 20 minutes reading the books she had recovered from the elf wraith's tower. The first was apparently a diary and largely useless, although it did contain many references to something called The Emerald Fortress, which she found interesting. The second was seemingly a book of clerical wisdom that a holy man might use to enhance his power. Naghmeh asked Naomi about The Emerald Fortress. Naomi told her that The Emerald Fortress was a now-legendary and lost castle made entirely from green, volcanic glass, which had once been the capital of an elven kingdom in these parts, known as Cruah. That was the origin of the word "Cruth", which the humans now used as the name of this land. 

Back in Riverfork the PCs recovered their payment from the delighted Niketos for the return of his grain, and also reported to Sir Georgios on the treacherous Sir Acamos's doings. Sir Georgios agreed that there needed to be some way to trick Acamos into revealing his betrayal, but the PCs decided to take care of that after storming the main smugglers' fortress and killing their were-boar leaders. For this, they would need silver weapons, and discovered that in a halfling village a few days to the South West there could be found three dwarf triplets who were expert blacksmiths....

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Being a Good Player

Comments on a recent post got me thinking: most people who talk about RPGs online are DMs - content creators, organisers, systematisers. People who are only ever players are a kind of silent majority. This means you don't get much discussion regarding how to be a good player, or play theory, or whatever. Or you may see the occasional list of desirable traits without much elaboration on how you get them. 

What makes a good player? Lateral thinking is extremely useful, as a means of traditional problem-solving but also simply as a way to be creative in reacting to what the DM throws at you. (Not that I want to turn into Edward de Bono all of a sudden - I've always thought he was kind of a knob.) There are all sorts of techniques for getting better at this, of course - not least the book Lateral Thinking itself. This is the kind of skill that results in players planning to assassinate a powerful nobleman they've discovered they have to kill by putting explosive materials in his horse; using the corpses of enemies as a sled to slide down a rapidly collapsing pyramid; or relocating a river mussel goddess to a human settlement so she can live off their detritus as a means of persuading her not to kill people anymore - all of which are examples that spring to mind of things that have happened in games where the lateral thinking of the players has impressed or surprised me. 

The importance of paying attention goes without saying, but it's all well and good saying it. How does once get better at it? The obvious thing is making notes - important names, importance places, important rumours. Jot them all down somewhere so you can refer back. So that you don't forget entirely or annoy the DM by constantly asking "What was that guy's name again? You know, the guy with the stuff."

A third thing: think about consequences and air them. A creative DM has to have ideas to riff off. This may be a view behind the curtain that reveals a bungling technician where there ought to be a wizard, but I'm sure I'm not the only DM who steals ideas from the players when they are idly ruminating and then runs with them. Players' fears, hopes, dreams and anxieties are part of the stuff of the game - part of the glorious feedback mechanisms that make a campaign sing. So to be a good player, speak a lot about what is going on in the game. Ruminate on things. Give him stuff to work with. A good DM won't just use what you are thinking directly. But he will pick it up and twist it, stretch it and spin it around to make the game richer and deeper.

Is that it? It'll do for starters.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Impenetrable Nerdiness of RPGs

On a comment thread on G+ I wrote the following: "The nerdishness of RPGs is made of titanium. It is inpenetrable. They will never, ever be cool. They are like trainspotting or morris dancing. Face it." I was half joking, but I also think it's true. All sorts of things are becoming cool nowadays that never were previously, whether fantasy fiction, vinyl or real ale. This is generally A Good Thing, as I think it means that people are becoming less caught up in what's cool and what's not. And that's all to the good, because let's face it, the idea that some pursuits are cooler than others is brainless and awful and responsible for a lot that's wrong in the world.

But D&D is resistant to this trend. It hasn't become cool at all. (Let me make clear, first, that I don't particularly give a shit about this. Whether D&D is 'cool' or not is of the tiniest importance. But it is anthropologically interesting.) Why? I think that it is probably something to do with vulnerability. Not many people like speaking in public, acting on stage, singing openly, putting themselves out there. It scares them. This is because when you are speaking publicly there is nowhere to hide, no protection. It's just you and the audience. You are figuratively naked. Stripped of social protection. You have to perform and everybody is watching. Some people naturally love, or grow to love, being the centre of attention in this way (I can be a bit like this), but most hate it, and even those who love it are lying if they say they don't get a little nervous beforehand.

Playing an RPG is not quite speaking in public or acting, but it is close. It involves making yourself vulnerable: you are going to pretend to be an elf and everybody is watching. This is not just a bit nerdish, then; to most normal people it is both a bit nerdish but also scary. And by definition the people who do it must also be both nerdish and odd enough not to care about the scariness. Why involve yourself in a hobby like that?

This leads me to two further thoughts: this may be why LARPing is the uncoolest thing ever invented - it is scarier yet even than tabletop gaming because it is even more explicitly about making yourself vulnerable. It also raises the question - why is acting not uncool? Partly of course, it is: am-dram is largely the realm of nerds of a different kind. But it may also be to do with the special prestige accorded to the profession - you're entertaining others and they're paying you. If you are playing D&D you are at best entertaining a handful of others and nobody in their right mind is giving you money for it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

RPG Theory: Ants, Spiders and Bees

Zak S recently wrote a post about theory. It is worth reading. I have nothing in particular to add to it, except insofar as I am somebody who, as an academic, does theory for a living. I think about it and write about it and teach it. I am the kind of person who has actually read stuff by Luhmann, Foucault, HLA Hart, Adam Smith and Ronald Dworkin, and thinks about what it all means. Some would call me a despicable overeducated bookish geek. Others would call me a despicable overeducated bookish and pernicious nerd. In any event, I can speak with a little qualification about theory.

There are theories and there are theories, and some are more persuasive than others. Ultimately I think the ones that stand the test of time are the ones which are grounded in actual empirical knowledge and practice. (This may seem obvious to somebody who doesn't work in academia. Let me tell you - amongst some people that observation would be very controversial.) Adam Smith clearly spent a heck of a lot of time simply watching people and how they behaved - and was also employed as a customs officer. HLA Hart was a practising barrister. David Ricardo was a successful businessman. Foucault's work is based on an extremely detailed, intimate and careful familiarity with the history of his subjects. And so forth.

Now, let me qualify this. I am not making an anti-intellectual statement here: being a "good" theorist, if there is such a thing, does not mean being a philistine who is only interested in practice and practical things. HLA Hart's work was steeped in a classical education. Ronald Dworkin may have had the practical experience of being law clerk working at the US Supreme Court, but he was also one of the most gifted scholars of his generation. And nor am I making a blanket statement. Some theory has no grounding in practice at all, and you could even say it flies in the face of what seems to be empirical knowledge, yet remains (to my mind) successful and persuasive: I am thinking of people like Arendt and Sartre. But in the main, theory tends to be most successful when it is founded on practical experience with the subject matter at hand.

Ultimately this goes back to Francis Bacon, obviously. In The Novum Organon Bacon comes up with an extended metaphor about scientists, and divides them into three categories - the ants, spiders, and bees. Ants are those who only work at the ground level - "they only collect and use" - meaning they do not think about general principles or how to apply the knowledge they glean in a general way. They are all about the practicalities and nothing else. Spiders are the opposite - they only "make cobwebs out of their own substance" - meaning they spend all their time coming up with rules and principles but are divorced from actual real world practice. But then you have the real scientists, the bees, who gather pollen from flowers but then convert it into something useful: honey. People interested in producing useful knowledge have to be like bees, gathering information from the real world and converting it into principles which can be applied generally.

Bacon's metaphor is quite powerful and can be used in a variety of contexts. It works also with RPG theory. Who are the ants, spiders and bees here?

Ants

The ants are those who simply go around picking useful things out from the internet or books and putting them into use, but don't really think about how the useful things they are getting can be the basis for general principles. I am thinking here about DMs and players who trawl through forums for stuff they can use in their game, buy lots of modules and adventure paths, and so on, but never actually use what they are getting as the basis for their own creativity. It never really occurs to them that, as well as using things that other people create, they can do their own imagining too. They don't look at the latest Pathfinder adventure path and go, "Hang on, I can do that just as well if not better." They don't look at Monster Manual IV and go, "Hang on, I'll create my own monsters." They "only collect and use".

Spiders

The spiders are those who think and discuss but never play. They spend all their time on the internet arguing with other people about principles, ideas, and rules, but they never actually do anything. They merely "make cobwebs out of their own substance", which ultimately is neither use nor ornament. (Never mind that cobwebs are actually useful for spiders - Bacon's metaphor isn't perfect, but everybody gets what he means.) We all know where these sorts of people can be found, and who they are. Their principles and theories are worthless because they are untested and simply emerging from the aether within the spider's mind.

Bees

The bees are those who read RPG books, trawl forums and books for stuff to use in their games, read about RPGs, and also, crucially, create lots of materials for RPGs and play RPGs. This gives them a sense of what works and what doesn't - a genuine understanding of how things work in practice - and as a result, they are able to come up with general theoretical principles that can be applied universally. How to construct a sandbox that thrives. How to come up with interesting monsters, traps or tricks. How to make a megadungeon. How to adjudicate fairly. How to draw up a good random encounter table. And so on.

This is of course just a roundabout way of saying that good theory is contingent on good practice. But I am after all a despicable overeducated bookish and pernicious nerd.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Two Problems for Every Solution

I am trying to remember which author I read talking about this - I have a feeling it was Ben Bova - but there is a simple rule which a lot of writers of adventure stories, space operas, thrillers, mysteries, etc., follow (often perhaps unconsciously): for every problem that the hero(es) solves, you need to pose him (them) two more. This is the source of narrative drive in a page-turning book or edge-of-the-seat film. The plot takes on a life of its own as a result - and the best and most satisfying of plots is one in which the problems keep proliferating in this fashion until the resounding climax in which they all get solved at once.

Think about The Empire Strikes Back. Our heroes escape the Imperial fleet and make it to Bespin. Okay, one problem solved. But it turns out Lando is in cahoots with the Empire and Darth Vader is already there, so Han gets encased in carbonite and Luke gets chopped to bits. One difficulty gets replaced by two and the audience remains hooked. This also works on the micro level: at one point Lando manages to release Chewie and Leia. But they're too late to stop Han being shipped off... oh, and there are also loads of stormtroopers now shooting at them. And so on. 

This isn't a hard and fast rule, of course, but it clearly exists as a sort of rule of thumb. What I've noticed lately is that it also seems to happen in a lot of the games I run; there seems to be a similar process at play by which problems tend to proliferate. The PCs may achieve something, but in doing so they bring other problems into existence at an exponential rate. I don't believe that I cause this consciously. It seems to be a happy accident. But it gives my campaigns (to me, the DM, at least) a kind of page-turning quality. The 'plot' (which is not pre-ordained, of course) rattles along and I'm hooked.

For example, in one of the games I am running, the PCs solved the disappearance of a group of villagers - but as a result of this they now have a vengeful demigoddess to deal with and a magic potion to track down, not to mention having to act as a go-between for two power centres and becoming entangled in an apparently unrelated issue to do with the enchantment of a young noblewoman. There is an apparently preliminary resolution which itself has ripple effects and repercussions which themselves have to be solved - and so on, ad infinitum,

This is another of those examples wherein an unplanned sandbox game causes story to emerge in a random (but very satisfying) way. But I suppose if you wanted to run a more planned, narrative type of campaign you could put this rule into effect in a more conscious fashion.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

[Actual Play] 5th Edition in Pre-Medieval Japan: Session 3 - It was a really good job they brought the guide...

(You can read the previous session report here.)

Our three philosophers (who are most assuredly philosophers, despite doing so little philosophising so far), Monomi, Goro and Terasu, had made the decision to attempt to forcibly relocate a "disorderly" river mussel god who was plaguing the local Emishi villagers. To do this, they needed to find an Emishi elder to cast a magical bond on the god to keep it from shifting its form for a time. They headed, then, to the village of Okoppe, which they knew to be friendly to Japanese 'Southrons' like themselves.

They travelled by night, following the salmon river, and in the early hours came across somebody hiding in the trees. Tempting this person out of hiding with the use of magical legerdemain, they discovered a young woman of aristocratic bearing. She revealed herself to be the daughter of Lord Uesugi-no-Mishiri, the Japanese noble who had established the small colony of Kawa-no-Kuchi where their adventure had begun. She said that she had gone out for a walk in the evening and had somehow become lost, and had been wandering the forest alone all night.

The philosophers were naturally suspicious of this (they watched her closely to check whether she had a fox's tail underneath her robes) but offered to allow the Uesugi daughter to accompany them. On the way, they asked her a little more about her situation, hoping to flush out the truth; it turned out that her father had recently had a new concubine brought to him from the South. Our three philosophers began to suspect that there may have been some sort of enchantment afoot associated with this new concubine. But they set that to one side for now.

By morning they reached Okoppe and were brought to the headman, Menkakush, whose daughter, Toitoi, spoke Japanese and could translate. The headman agreed that the philosophers' plan was a good one, but he was unwilling to offer help unless he could receive something in return. He revealed that his village's traditional fishing areas were being encroached upon by the warlike people of the nearby village of Kikonai - and also by the Southron settlement of Kawa-no-Kuchi. The three philosophers eventually agreed to go to Kawa-no-Kuchi and intercede on his behalf with Lord Uesugi. They stayed for a feat and ate the smoked salmon offered to them. Monomi chatted some more with the Uesugi daughter, and learned that her father was very much a man of action - given to solving problems through force of arms and derring-do. He had established this settlement in the North in order to expand his family's power and wealth, and also, hopefully, to curry favour with the Emperor. The philosophers decided they would have to present their plan as an opportunity for the Uesugi to grow.

The next day, they headed to Kawa-no-Kuchi and were ushered into Lord Uesugi's hall. The Lord was there with his two advisors, his wife, and a very beautiful young woman who was apparently his new concubine. There was some initial befuddlement at the appearance of his daughter: it seemed that Lord Uesugi and the others had been under the impression that his daughter had been ill and was sleeping in her bed chamber. They were surprised to find her out and about. But she was quickly sent away and the three philosophers began discussing their plan. (They resolved to investigate the mystery of the Uesugi daughter at a later date.) This was, in brief, to gain the assistance of the people of Okoppe in binding the river mussel god and bringing her downstream to the area around Kawa-no-Kuchi. This would benefit the river mussel god (more detritus for her and her kind to feed from), benefit the people of Kawa-no-Kuchi (they would have mussels to eat), and also benefit the Uesugi (greater wealth and a 'curiosity' for the delectation of the of the Emperor in the South). All that needed to happen in return was for Uesugi to agree to give the people of Okoppe protection in their fishing. After some discussion with his advisors (his general, Hatake-no-Yama, and his onmyoji, Takayama-no-Mahotsukai), Lord Uesugi agreed to this, and gave his sealed written promise to the philosophers to take to Okoppe.

Back in Okoppe, the philosophers were welcomed and thanked profusely. They were then taken to a middle-aged woman, Umoshmatek, who was a shaman and storyteller. She agreed to help in the binding of the river mussel spirit, but to do that she needed to use the magic of the lichen men. The lichen men had lived in the forests long ago, before even the Emishi had come, and though they had now left, their tombs could still be found. Umoshmatek needed the breath of a lichen man wizard, which would have been given to a lichen man king, queen or princess to take to the afterlife for protection. With this, she could exert power over the river mussel god. She explained that there was a lichen-man tomb two days up the salmon river to the North-West; it consisted of three burial sites, one of which she knew to be the grave of a king, marked by wooden stakes. The other two sites "should on no circumstances be entered". The philosophers prepared to set off, and took with them a guide - Umoshmatek's son, a young hunter called Pasekur, who was keen for adventure.

Two days later they arrived at the tomb and, sure enough, discovered three cave entrances in a small river valley, one of which was marked with wooden stakes. There were also three stone cairns at the base of the valley, by the river side. Deciding to follow Umoshmatek's advice, the three philosophers began investigating the staked tomb while Pasekur waited outside. Inside, they found some tunnels, with the sound of growling audible from deeper within. Despite this growling, they investigated the first chamber they came across - a room decorated with paintings all around its walls. Many of the paintings depicted hunting scenes, but another depicted two snow-capped mountains, with what seemed to be a volcano in between them. Monomi ran his fingers over this painting and became overwhelmed by a strange sense of nostalgia for this view, that he had never seen before.

Just then, Pasekur called for help from outside. All three philosophers ran out and discovered three skeletons emerging from the stone cairns. They were wearing rusted bronze armour and helmets, and carrying bronze axes. Terasu made a plea to Amaterasu, the deity of the sun, and blasted one of these skeletons to smithereens with a bolt of light. Monomi charged downhill to attack the others. But just then, from behind, two skeleton dogs appeared from inside the cave and ran out to attack Terasu and Goro. In the ensuing melee, Terasu - despite valiantly defending himself with his mace - was ultimately rendered unconscious and bleeding. Goro, badly wounded himself, was forced to try to drag his comrade away, but the dogs leapt upon him, savaging him and likewise causing him to lose consciousness. In the meantime, Monomi and Pasekur destroyed the remaining two human skeletons, but Monomi was badly hurt; the two of them then charged the dogs in an attempt to rescue Terasu and Goro from certain death. The dogs fought fiercely and Monomi was then also critically hurt; this left Pasekur, the young guide, alone and with only a small stone axe to defend himself, against the two undead curs. Yet the local kamuy must have given aid to his arm, because he was able to vanquish them both and then stabilise the three philosophers and keep them in the world of the living.

And thus the session ended. A near TPK, and Pasekur was very lucky with the dice rolls at the end. I rolled in the open, but it was exactly the kind of result that would have happened if I'd been fudging! The philosophers were a bit foolish in all rushing out of the caves and leaving their rear completely undefended against whatever growling menace was behind them, but then again, they are philosophers and not tacticians, after all. The funny thing about 5th edition, of course, is that if you give them a day or so's rest they'll be right as rain. That's no quite how things worked in The Revenant! Tune in next time to see what on earth happens next.... 

Monday, 4 April 2016

Plausible Women

I have recently been reading Leviathan Wakes. It is a reasonably enjoyable read. The authors are clearly from the Dan Brown school of novel writing: rule one is no chapter can be more than 10 pages; rule two is every chapter has to end on a cliff-hanger. Rule three is that you shouldn't stop for a second to wait for the reader to realise things don't make any sense. This means the book fairly rattles along. Alas, it also isn't very good, though: the dialogue and characterisation are atrocious, for one thing, but the worst aspect is that the plot just strikes me as being ludicrously implausible. I don't mean that it is difficult to suspend disbelief about the science or anything like that - I mean that I simply don't believe for a moment that any of it would actually happen given the initial premises of the (very interesting and at times innovative) setting. So I am a little bit baffled by its apparent popularity (surprise, surprise - there is also a TV series).

What I really wanted to write about was women, though. Blimey, but science fiction and fantasy writers have a hard time depicting female characters. I don't think I'm being too controversial in saying that writers in these genres are very sensitive and alert to the fact that there has traditionally been a certain image problem with their field: twenty years ago SF and fantasy was very much seen as almost exclusively being the preserve of the unwashed male nerd. There has therefore been a strong push-back against this; it seems to me that many SF and fantasy writers are quite deliberately and self-consciously making an effort to appeal beyond the core unwashed male nerd audience (presumably also at the behest of publishers with an eye on expanding their market), and what this has come to mean is: more female characters depicted positively, doing positive things, and even (heaven forfend!) being the heroine of the whole thing.

All well and good - I have no problem with this. I am not a Men's Rights Activist or Gamer Gater or anything like that. I like women and find them interesting and valuable as human beings (especially when they're naked). My problem is not with the impulse, but with the way it is executed, and it is simply this: to many male SF and fantasy writers, having strong and positive female characters means having female characters who are indistinguishable from the male ones except for the fact that they are nominally of a different sex.

I am picking on Leviathan Wakes here not as a particularly egregious offender, but simply an example of this trend. None of the characters in it are convincing, but the female characters even less so, because to all intents and purposes they are all the same as the male ones. The obvious truth that men and women are equal is conflated with the obvious untruth that men and woman are the same: competent in the same way, intelligent in the same way, flawed in the same ways. They speak the same, think the same, and act the same. Swap the names around and you would notice no difference; sex is cosmetic if even that.

This is odd, when you think about it. I mean, as far as I can tell - and I have met one or two women in my life - one of the most obvious things about them is that really they are quite different to men in the main (and to a straight man this is part of what gives them their charm). They speak differently, think differently, and act differently. They are not all that much like men, really, and I find it difficult to imagine how anybody who has ever actually talked to a man and then talked to a woman would fail to see this. If I was a cultural feminist, I might even suggest that there is something rather strongly anti-woman in the notion that, to be valued as men's equals, they ought to come to resemble them.

To the male nerd eye, being valuable as a human being means doing things that are held in high esteem because they are the traditional purview of high-status males (and which male nerds secretly or openly want to be good at). Those things are largely fighting, exploring, engineering and hunting. To the male nerd SF writer, then, writing female roles that portray women positively means writing female roles that involve women being just as good at and as interested in fighting, exploring, engineering and hunting as men - and leaving it at that.

Lest it be said that I am advocating essentialism of the sexes, or something, I want to make it clear that what I mean is not that I want all women who appear in SF novels to be mothers, nurses and midwives. That isn't what I'm driving at, at all: what I want is strong female characters who plausibly appear to be women. Who are written in such a way that they appear to be like the women I know in real life - not just Ralph Ruth 124c 41+ (competent square-jawed types who happen to also have breasts). Am I alone in feeling this way? Which authors am I missing out on? Off the top of my head, William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson are two male writers who I think have notably got it right. Which others?