Friday, 20 October 2017

The Back of the Garuda: Or, Yet Another High Concept Campaign Setting

The last thing I need to do is come with another high concept campaign setting (I already have the dreams of a sleeping crocodile to finish off, and then the megadungeon inside a giant tree...), but what the heck, why not jot this down while it's fresh on my mind?

Have a read of the wikipedia entry for Garuda, the mythical gigantic bird-gods of Asian legend. Check out this paragraph:

Garudas are the great golden-winged Peng birds. They also have the ability to grow large or small, and to appear and disappear at will. Their wingspan is 330 yojanas (one yojana being 8 miles long). With one flap of its wings, a Peng bird dries up the waters of the sea so that it can gobble up all the exposed dragons. With another flap of its wings, it can level the mountains by moving them into the ocean.

A bird with a wingspan of 2640 miles. I can only speculate on how big that would make a feather, but think about what kind of societies might exist buried down beneath the plumage in what would presumably be near-darkness. Underdark creatures burrowing through the skin. Cities built into the hollow spaces within the feathers (living on the brink of potential apocalypse when a feather comes loose or the bird gets too vigorous with its preening). Blood farmed (mined?) for food or other purposes. Constant efforts to overcome radical shifts in the direction of gravity as the bird alternates between flying and perching upright. Legends of the great open space above, which can only be seen by climbing far, far upwards beyond anybody's wildest imagining...

Maybe I ought to stop reading wikipedia entries.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

If You Go Down to the Woods Today...

Whether the jungles of South East Asia, the taiga of Siberia, or the ancient mixed woodlands of Europe, forests fascinate me. I like being in them and I like thinking about them: to be in a forest is to be completely surrounded in a gaia-like ecosystem, made all the more interesting because it obscures your vision and plays tricks with sound. This means that exploring a forest is a bit like exploring an overland dungeon - you never know what is around the next corner.

There is also some sort of primitive fear - the fear of a Savannah-dwelling early human/primate - of those dark, closed-off, cool spaces. To stand in an open space looking at a wood is like standing at the threshold of another, different world. A world where you don't belong. A wild place.

Bill Bryson described being in a forest nicely in A Walk in the Woods:

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowheres. And they are alive.

But there are difficulties running games in forests realistically, by which I mean, without just being yet another bunch of adventure locales except featuring treants, dryads and wood elves rather than derro and drow and whatnot. Taking advantage of, and emphasising, the uniqueness of the forest as an environment. I think there are chiefly three sets of problems.

1) First, as Bryson also puts it, when describing the experience of actually walking through a forest for day after day:

There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter.  
At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.

Existing in a mobile Zen mode is nice, but not really what an RPG session is all about. In other words, exploring a forest is fun and interesting, but in reality also full of nothing-much-at-all in terms of excitement, danger, and adventure.

You can add excitement, danger and adventure with random encounters, of course, or hex locations, or even pre-planned encounters, for that matter, but at some stage it seems to me that if you're doing that too much you're not really being faithful to the nature of being in a forest as opposed to other sorts of environment. Emptiness and featurelessness is part of what journeying through a forest is.

2) When you are walking through a forest, you get surprised by things all the time. It's not an environment for humans (unless perhaps you are born into a tribe in the Amazon, and even Amazonian tribespeople manipulate their "forest" environment a lot). Your senses don't function well there: your main strength is sight, which is rendered defunct by the lack of visibility, and in comparison to just about any animal you could name, you have pathetically rudimentary senses of smell and hearing. The long and short of it is: whatever is round the corner knows you are there before you know about its existence. You are forever flushing grouse, being scared out of your skin by sudden bird alarm calls, and trying to identify the sources of mysterious movements in the undergrowth. You could be hunted and stalked with embarrassing ease by any serious predator.

This would make for good natural world as survival horror gaming (there is death lurking everywhere and it will get you) but not, I think, a long-term campaign.

3) Forests are in a sense featureless, but if at any given moment you stop while walking through one, you will be confronted by a radically different geography than you would have five minutes earlier. There are inclines, crevasses, streams, clearings, fallen trees, boulders, pools, a whole array of different features swallowed up by the trees and undergrowth and suddenly revealed to you as you pass by. More than in any other environment, the surroundings really matter - there is stuff everywhere.

So a realistic encounter in a forest has to take account of that. Want to fire an arrow? Deal with the fact that it's more difficult for your target not to be in cover. Want to creep up on an enemy? Deal with twigs and dried leaves everywhere. It's not so much that there's plenty of scenery to interact with, it's that you are overwhelmed by scenery; you have scenery up to the eyeballs, more scenery than you know what to do with.

This, among other things, makes forest adventuring - doing justice to what makes a forest a forest - one of the true last great frontiers of gaming.

Friday, 29 September 2017

10 Yoon-Suin Dungeon Ideas

Dwarf fortress infested with Tulpas.

Secret crystal dragon treasure stash guarded by enchanted beasts (shishi, chinthe, etc.)

Observatory taken over by its automata caretakers.

Mine whose slaves have uncovered ancient magicks transforming them into ab-humans.

Great forge on the coast which uses sea water for cooling: it has created steam devils as a side effect and they have killed the owners.

Tomb of an ogre-mage trader on the back of a wandering giant tortoise.

Maze built by fakirs out of giant butterfly wings as a meditation aid to walk through 'mindfully'.

Major rakhosh's dwelling place: on the underside of a giant waterlilly leaf in a vast lake.

Quarry originally used for making statues; galeb duhr have been disturbed and they now use the quarry to store 'statues' of their own in the form of corpses.

Inverted pyramid home of an archmage which balances on a mountain peak which rises through the middle of a glacier.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Risus-based Hairy Maclary Story Game

Hairy McLary from Donaldson's Dairy
Charismatic Leader 4

Hercules Morse
As Big as a Horse 4

Bottomly Potts
Covered in Spots 4

Muffin McLay
Like a Bundle of Hay 4

Bitzer Maloney
All Skinny and Bony 4

Schnitzel von Krumm
With a Very Low Tum 4

Scarface Claw
The Toughest Tom in Town 4

It practically plays itself!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

There'll be no accusations, just friendly crustaceans...

On G+ somebody asked about an underwater campaign setting I was supposedly writing, called "Unit Swim" or "Union Swim" or something. This tickled me tremendously, but it also gives me the opportunity to talk about Behind Gently Smiling Jaws a bit - which I haven't done in a while.

One of the rules I made myself promise I would follow, pretty early on, is that nothing in BGSJ would come from or be based on other existing works of fantasy. It all had to be either completely novel or based off real world history or legend. This has worked well in large part, but has created a real sticking point in one area of the world map - the Underwater Ziggurats. These are remnants of alien cities on the sea floor which the crocodile supposedly saw in some lost era, akin to Atlantis - the conceit being that aliens did actually colonise the ocean bottom millions of years ago and the crocodile was witness to this. It's based on the Yonaguni Monument/Formation.

So far so good, but it turns out it is really difficult not to turn this area of the campaign setting into Deep Ones and Cthulhu and Father Dagon. Coming up with a concept of aliens living in underwater cities which owes nothing to Lovecraft is hard. His work is practically the first and last word on the subject.

I'm working on it.

Another stumbling block is more practical: format. I know that producing an eight-volume slip case is a really bad idea. A really, really bad idea. A really, really, really bad idea. But sometimes bad ideas sound very good - like that decision to eat a Double Decker after lunch, or that decision to miss the last train home on a night out, or that decision to have a cigarette when you know you shouldn't.... The multi-volume slip case idea just will not relinquish its hold.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - World Landscape Campaign Setting

world landscape is a made-up backdrop of beautiful European scenery in a painting. They are arguably examples of the shadow fantasy genre. Here is one:

A: The Gerontocracy of Basiney. A city where one in a thousand citizens is born an immortal struldbrug, who gradually accrues more and more wealth until he wields immense power and influence (but is too decrepit to enjoy it). A place in which corporatism not merely dominates but has run amok, like renaissance Florence or early modern Amsterdam as imagined by Gordon Gekko.

B: The Platinum Mountain. Ruled by a white dragon demigod who spins platinum thread, mined by his dwarf serfs, into webs and coils which he then magically animates into automata to serve him.

C: Servasser, the Sea Wolf Port. A fishing settlement which now lies largely abandoned; the population of fishermen and fishwives were infected by lycanthropy which spread through them like a plague. Now they inhabit its dilapidated ruins and raid the surrounding seas to assuage their ravenous hunger.

D: Gwenteliver's Castle. A fortress owned by the storm giant Gwenteliver, who surrounds herself with human slaves who she gradually interbreeds with giant insects, reptiles and other beasts. Her collection of art is unrivaled and strongly desired by almost all the Gerontocrats of Basiney.

E: The Smugglers' Cove. A small, secluded bay where smugglers from the neighbouring land of Celquinox come to liaise with rogue traders sneaking goods for trade past the tax collectors of Basiney. The people of Celquinox are a race of mutes who extend their necks with metal bands until their vocal chords no longer function; they employ their children to communicate on their behalf with strangers, and talk to each other with secret gestures they do not teach to outsiders.

F: The Entrance to the Spirals. An underground network of caves extending far beneath the surface of the earth, created in the ancient past by a burrowing worm which dug in endless repeating spiral tunnels. Somewhere these spirals connected with the tunnels of underground denizens such as the duergar, neogi, kuo-toa and the like, and they now throng with busy subterranean life which boils up from the bowels of the earth towards the surface.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Because Allah Loves Wondrous Variety

I do the odd bit of volunteering with a local wildlife conservation trust. A lot of this involves what is euphemistically called "grassland management" - what this typically means is cutting and raking up vast swathes of grass and other vegetation in order to allow tiny and obscure native species of plants to flourish. We arrive at some very remote and windswept location and destroy the peace for a day with strimmers, leaving it looking like a sheep that's been sheared - where once there was a jungle of plant life, now there is an open and empty patch of stubble. Like the deforestation of the Amazon in miniature. (But the main thing is that there's now a bit more growing space for a rare little flower that looks like a blob of moss and which nobody except a few enthusiasts has ever heard of.)

What I've learned from all of this is that, just when you think you have a feel for how much variety there is in the natural world, you find out you don't know the half of it. Grasslands are unbelievably varied. Today I was in a more-or-less unique habitat - a strip of land about a mile long and no more than 100 yards wide along the side of a river. Mine run-off containing traces of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead had been put into the river during the industrial revolution and gradually this had seeped into the banks at various locations up and down its length. While the river is now pristine, the heavy metals have remained in the soil. This was one such location, and it had resulted in a blend of plant life that you would find nowhere else on earth - including a sub-species that you find literally nowhere else other than these slivers of land on the upstream banks of the Tyne.

And that was just in the afternoon. In the morning we had been at an abandoned quarry where the limestone scree happened to produce the perfect conditions for a certain rare alpine flower. The site could have been no more than 400 yards in diameter. Go outside of that limit in any direction and you would be in a different habitat altogether and noticeably so.

The world is a patchwork of different environments so multitudinous it is almost mind-boggling. When creating a hexmap we tend to paint in very broad brush strokes - forest, grassland, desert, etc. This makes life easy, but causes us to miss out on some benefits that thinking in very granular detail could bring. Consider: what different types of grassland might exist in a world where there is not just mine run-off but also materials left over from magical duels? What types of unique habitats might sprout up around the corpse of dragons? What might the existence of a megadungeon do to the area around the entrance? And what kind of druids, treants, and other guardians would exist to protect these unique environments?

Monday, 11 September 2017

Good DMing Advice; or, God Loves a Trier

One of my favourite bits of DMing advice comes, in all places, in the 2nd edition DMG. Zeb Cook (I am paraphrasing because I don't have it to hand) basically foreshadows some OSR thinking in one place only, which comes in his discussion of stat requirements for character classes. Don't let players access any class they want, he recommends; keep the stat requirements for rangers, paladins and so forth strictly. Encourage players to play the stats they are given, so to speak. Let the dice fall where they lay; so your PC didn't end up getting the 17 CHA required to be a paladin. Stop being titty-lipped about it - you can play a fighter who always wanted to be paladin but failed (or hasn't yet succeeded).

In other words, a fighter who wants to be paladin is already way more interesting than a paladin. That's a PC with a ready-made goal and pretty much ready-made personality too. He may not have special paladin powers but being "awesome" isn't what the game is really about. It is more about trying hard and applying yourself and getting involved.

You can tell 2nd edition was very much focused at a younger audience - this is the kind of advice that's important for kids, whereas adults should in theory at least have already learned those lessons. But the wider point holds for all ages: it's good for starting PCs to have goals. It makes the PC part of the world and gives the player an impetus to drive things along, which helps the DM tremendously.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Nevelskoy's Privateers

The realm of the Tsar has finally finished its vast Westward expansion and made its way to the mouth of the Amur River and the great island of Sakhalin. Nothing of this is known to the inhabitants of the Japanese islands, but the world has far from lain still since their isolation began. Now Russian explorers, adventurers and pirates are beginning to make their way across the Sea of Japan - albeit in small numbers. Here is an expedition of such men: a blend of banditry and science with a common aim of invasion and theft.

Leader: Gennady Nevelskoy. A fur trader, explorer, pioneer and buccaneer who has spent two decades charting the waters of Kamchatka and Sakhalin and trading with their natives. Now he has headed south to Vladivostok and formed an expedition to try to capture Nipponese to bring them to the Tsar - or, failing that, to bring back treasures at the very least.

HD 4, AC 16, AB +5, ATT Sabre, two pistols, Move 120
*Can fire both pistols in the same round if both shots are directed at the same target
Possessions: Splint mail armour, sabre, two pistols with ivory butts [350 sp each], powder and 50 shots, gold signet ring [300 sp], ruby-studded gold thumb ring [1,000 sp], silver belt buckle [50 sp]

Second in Command: "Fyodor" the Koryak. A native of Kamchatka who Nevelskoy befriended in his youth; the two saw in each other a desperation to make the world their own, and quickly became partners. Fyodor's real name was unpronounceable to Nevelskoy, who called his comrade after Saint Fyodor the Black, a Duke from the middle-ages who married a Mongol princess. Fyodor comes from the warlike Koryak tribe and wears the lamellar armour of his people; in a fight his brown eyes shine with dangerous glee.

HD 5, AC 20, AB +6, ATT Axe, javelins, Move 120
*Fights in a frenzy; once in melee he does not retreat and fights to -9 hit points
Possessions: Axe, 4 javelins, lamellar armour (seal leather and metal), religious charms (reindeer horn carvings of indistinct figurines)

Clergyman-scientist: Kirill Laxman. A Lutheran priest from Finnmark who came as a missionary to Siberia and hence to Japan. While nominally aiming at conversion his true passion is the recovery of flora, fauna and ancient artefacts which he can take back home to his museum in Irkutsk - or even to the Tsar in St Petersburg. He is middle-aged, bespectacled, and balding, but as tough as a life spent in the wilds of Siberia would suggest.

HD 3, AC 14, AB +1, ATT Pistol, knife, Move 120
Possessions: Spectacles, binoculars, note book, St Christopher necklace [100 sp], pocket watch [priceless in Japan], hide armour

Geographer: Vasily Golovnin. A minor nobleman and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, aiming at least notionally to chart the coastline of Nippon and, in particular, easy landing locations. In connection with this he wants any and all information available about the lay of the land, the locations of rivers, and so on. However, he also has an alternative secret goal which is to do away with Nevelskoy and Fyodor, paid for by the duo's enemies and rivals in Vladivostok. He plans to do this through concealing their deaths as an accident or, at last resort, poisoning their food. He is tall, thin, with an unhappy straight line of a mouth and sunken eyes.

HD 3, AC 16, AB +1, ATT Pistol, sabre, Move 120
Possessions: Telescope, compass, charts of Kamchatka and Sakhalin, hide armour, vial of arsenic

Crew: A mixture of outlaws, runaways, dispossessed noblemen, brigands, adventurers, escapees, mercenaries, thugs and petty criminals, united under Nevelskoy’s man’s-man leadership toward the common goal of getting rich off the exploitation of exotic wildernesses.

They are as tough as hard leather, as mean as snakes, as gluttonous as dogs, and as clever as magpies. There are 24 of them in total.

HD 1+2, AC 16, AB +2, ATT Sabre, axe or spear; and/or musket, Move 120

Ship: The Speshnoy is a small sloop with a shallow hull capable of being moored on land. It carries supplies of rations, fresh water, rope, and other such items. It also contains 6 sacks of gunpowder, each weighing 10 kilogrammes [worth 200 sp each], and 56 one-litre flasks of vodka [worth 50 sp each]. Locked in a chest, to which only Nevelskoy has the key, is 20,000 sp worth of gold bullion in irregular small slabs, for bribes and emergencies.

Camp: The Russian crew have created a camp in a cove on the beach. The Speshnoy has been dragged ashore and there are tents placed in a semi-circle around it; there are always four guards on watch during the night. During the day the crew roam the forests nearby in groups of 3-6, hunting, foraging, and searching for natives to kidnap or items to steal.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Dictionary Monsters

For years now, off and on, I've been meaning to write this post - but kept forgetting. Patrick's most recent post gives me the necessary spur to do it.

It all began back when I was living in Japan. My then-girlfriend had this electronic dictionary which resembled a mini-laptop; it contained more or less every English and Japanese dictionary ever published, and allowed you to search and cross reference between them in very powerful ways. (It was the kind of thing now rendered defunct by ubiquitous smart phones and Google; dictionary websites and Google Translate are much more superficial but allow the language learner to translate simple words and phrases just as quickly if they don't mind some inaccuracies and decontextualisation.) One day I was bored for some reason and started looking up simple words in it in pocket dictionaries, like "cat" and "table", wondering how they had been defined. I suppose I was entertained by the sheer redundancy of having the word "cat" in your bog-standard definitional dictionary; in what universe are there people who are good enough at English to be able to read and understand the definition of "cat", but who don't already know what a "cat" is?

Of course, such words are in there because of the need for completeness and because the mother of all dictionaries, the OED, is not really a catalogue of definitions but a catalogue of word histories and genealogies. But you get the idea: it's interesting to imagine an obscure people living in a parallel reality who understand our language but are fascinated by concepts such as "cat" and "table" as they page through our dictionaries.

(If you're curious - or if you are one of those people in that parallel reality - a cat is a "small animal with soft fur that people often keep as a pet" and a table is a "piece of furniture that consists of a flat top supported by legs".)

The interesting thing about these definitions is they don't really tell you a great deal. They flirt at descriptiveness without being particularly descriptive. A cat is a "small animal with soft fur" - so it could have six legs or two; it could have a single cyclopean eye; it could have no head at all but eyes and mouth located in its torso. Looked at this way, dictionary definitions are quite inspiring and lead to all sorts of flights of fancy. Consider:

"A domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, non-retractable claws, and a barking, howling, or whining voice."

"A tailless amphibian with a short squat body, moist smooth skin, and very long hind legs for leaping."

"A gregarious burrowing plant-eating mammal, with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail."

"An eight-legged predatory arachnid with an unsegmented body consisting of a fused head and thorax and a rounded abdomen."

"A long limbless reptile which has no eyelids, a short tail, and jaws that are capable of considerable extension."

"A large perching bird with mostly glossy black plumage, a heavy bill, and a raucous voice."

"A heavily built omnivorous nocturnal mammal of the weasel family, typically having a grey and black coat."

What images do they call up in your mind, once you've got past the actual image of the real-world creature referred to? What does the large perching bird say with its raucous voice? Why does the heavily built weasel wear a coat? Why is such prominence given to the domesticated carnivorous mammal's non-retractable claws? What direction to the long limbless reptile's jaws extend in?

Seen in this way, the dictionary becomes a source of great inspiration for monster design. You could, if you were minded to, create an entire setting that way: replacing all the real world animals with new creatures based only on their dictionary descriptions. A world in which people farm sheep and cows but they're not our sheep and cows; hunt foxes but they're not our foxes; put down traps for mice but they're not our mice....and so on and so forth. Alternatively, it's just a way to come up with something different when the juices aren't flowing. What's in the next cavern in the dungeon? Ok, a snake...but its jaws extend forwards.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Old Farts Solve Mysteries

The other day I was sitting in a cafe in Hexham, a rather eccentric old market town in Northumberland, just watching the world go by. Like everywhere in Northumberland, Hexham is a weird mix of the very wealthy and the very rural - two worlds co-existing side-by-side, one in which everybody is a solicitor who shops at Waitrose; the other in which everybody is a farm labourer whose parents are cousins. (China Mieville missed a trick with The City & The City - he should have set it in the English countryside without a doubt.)

A group of old men - old farts, let's face it - were sitting on the next table on the pavement, having what seemed like a regular meeting. They were old friends who may very well have been meeting up for a cuppa every day for the last 40 years; that was the kind of vibe they gave off. However, you couldn't, if you had tried, come up with four more different characters.

One of them was big, Jabba the Hutt corpulent, wearing a black waxed jacked despite it being summer, and with his thinning hair plastered to his scalp with styling gel in a manner that suggested he had scooped fistfuls of the stuff out of a bucket and lathered his head with it an hour previously. But, to top it off, he had somehow managed to get what looked like a half dozen or so pigeon feathers stuck into it. He didn't seem to be aware of this, and his friends were seemingly too polite to tell him, but they were right there, plain as the nose on your face. I imagine his name was Derek.

Next to Derek was another portly character but one who carried it with that sort of rotund dignity which some older men can pull off - he was the kind of guy who would pat his stomach after dining on a dessert of a cheese platter and port and announce "I always say that a belly on an older man signifies a certain joie de vivre!" He was wearing an expensive blazer and a turtle-neck sweater and had a neat beard. He looked like a retired art salesman. Let's call him Jeremy.

Standing chatting to them, obviously not quite having got round to ordering a drink yet, was a more wiry character dressed head to foot in expensive cycling gear as though he had literally just finished completing a stage in the Tour de France five minutes earlier. Skin-tight blue lycra, slipstream helmet, the works. He had the body that most fit 55-60 year old men have: skinny everywhere except an overhanging pot belly they can never get rid of. He was plainly having his mid-life crisis 15 years too late. He looked like a Brian.

And pulling up a chair as I sat there was somebody we'll call Gary - tall, thin and slightly dreary, a long drink of water. He was an ageing hippy sort, wearing a colourful woollen garment I can only describe as a smock, sandals, and ragged denim shorts. He was the kind of guy who has thumb rings. I think he may have been wearing a CND badge. What I am absolutely sure of is that he was carrying a Waterstone's bag and brought out of it to show his friends a biography of Bob Marley he had just bought.

I felt immediately like somebody ought to write a novel about Derek, Jeremy, Brian and Gary. They were, clearly, a cabal of wizards, vampires, or occult investigators. Why else would they be meeting up like that, except to discuss the sacrifice of virgins or plot the assassination of a shaman in Mongolia via astral projection?

Better yet, they were self-evidently NPCs in a campaign of Call of Cthulhu, instantiated into our reality from a gaming session taking place among a group of teenagers in a flat nearby. These gamers had concentrated so hard, and smoked so much weed, that their shared imaginings had actually manifested themselves corporeally in the form of these men sitting in Hexham high street. That could surely be the only explanation, couldn't it?

The good thing about Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness, I always think, is that you only have to really look just around the corner for inspiration to smack you in the face. With D&D you have to work a little bit harder. Fantasy is one thing. The real world is a much stranger place.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Living Treasures and Human Capital

In Britain, at a certain point in their career, celebrities start to get referred to as "national treasures". The exact stage at which this happens differs by the individual, but at some specific moment, as though it is preordained, journalists collectively begin to use this phrase to refer to a given person whenever they mention them. Usually these people are extremely obscure to foreigners - Bruce Forsyth, David Attenborough, David Jason, Victoria Wood, and Ken Dodd are the names that spring immediately to mind; Stephen Fry has been making a concerted effort to achieve National Treasure status for what seems like decades now.

In Japan they have a different and more official "national treasure" club. Skilled craftsmen of whatever kind can, in recognition of their excellence in pottery, metalwork or whatever, be bestowed with the status of "living national treasure" (literally translated, a "human national treasure"). This entitles them to a lifelong government stipend, among other things. In Japan, they take crafts seriously.

Anyway, I was thinking about this earlier today: what if there actually were human treasures, who were worth XP just like gold or silver? Don't think slavery. Think in-game rewards for having sway over great artists and craftsmen.

What if, as well as for recovering a treasure chest from the dungeon, you could also earn experience for rescuing a kidnapped artisan of great renown? What if you could get XP for having a famous sculptor under your exclusive patronage? What if you could gain a level by persuading a brilliant potter to switch his allegiance from one lord to that of your own liege? I suppose what I'm saying is: What if there was a systematic way of valuing human capital in D&D?

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Valleys of the Winter People - Intro

The introduction to my next project, which is nearing completion in first draft form. It takes LotFP's pseudo-real world setting and has a look at what is going on in its version of 19th century Japan

It is the 7th year of the Tenpō era, which in distant Europe would be known as the Year of Our Lord 1837, and the Shōgunate is in its late autumn. Famine ravages the land. Everywhere peasants are in open rebellion. The samurai classes are growing impoverished and weary. Tokugawa Ieyoshi, the 12th Shōgun, is unhealthy and unpopular; the bakufu government, which has kept Japan in feudal isolation for 200 years, will disappear within a generation and the country will then be propelled into the modern age.

But for the time being, Japan hides itself behind the seas which surround it, and maintains its strange and lonely seclusion.

In the extreme North West tip of the island of Honshu the land and people practice their own form of isolation. Here, lost valleys of thick beech forest lay much as they have for a thousand years, cut off from the outside by ridges of hard mountains, harsh winter snows, and lack of interest. The people who live in those valleys are known as the Matagi, the "winter people", bear hunters, who still practice a way of life that they were following before the people known as the "Japanese" were ever even here. It is said by those who know of them that they are the last remnants of the people called Emishi, who in the ancient time of legends challenged the Japanese for rulership of the islands.

In the forests of the Matagi, things are not as they are outside. Ghosts lurk in the dark beech glades. Animal spirits stalk the mountains. There are rumours that fortresses and tombs of old Emishi kings lie hidden in isolated places, and that in those ruins treasures are hidden, waiting to be recovered. For those that know of it, the lands of the Matagi are distant, perilous, and alien - but also promising.

Adventuring PCs who have come to the forests of the Matagi are desperate samurai who, in need of wealth or glory, are willing to risk their lives in search of Emishi treasures. They have travelled by dark lonely roads and narrow paths to this land of rumour, and, if they are blessed, will leave it transformed so they can return to their homes and live in riches and good cheer - or at least survive the famines and rebellion which threaten to sweep society asunder. 

Friday, 25 August 2017

Every Studio Ghibli Film I Have Seen Reviewed in One Sentence

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind - Pre-Ghibli and has the feel about it of work produced by a man still feeling his feet; I like elements of it but it has never quite grabbed me: 6/10

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
 - The first Miyazaki Ghibli film - feels like he set out to create a blue-print that would almost become cliche by the end of his career: 9/10

Grave of the Fireflies - Slightly (but only slightly) over-rated tea-jerker; I find it a bit too manipulative while recognising its general excellence: 7/10

My Neighbour Totoro - Adorably under-stated modern fairy tale: 9/10

Kiki's Delivery Service - Dubbed versions of films are always terrible and this is doubly so of Ghibli films for some reason; this is the worst culprit - in Japanese it is a charming but throwaway romance; in English it borders on annoying: 7/10 or 4/10

Only Yesterday - The rarest of rare things - a successful film about childhood that is made for grown-ups and depicts childhood accurately: 9/10

Porco Rosso - I've never been able to make my mind up whether this is work of imaginative genius or a good idea in need of a better plot: 7/10

Whisper of the Heart - You'd have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy this film but it is, overall, a little bit too gentle even for somebody who likes understated films: 6/10

Princess Mononoke: Miyazaki's best effort in my view - a really mature, complex and deep story that does genuine justice to the subject matter: 9/10

My Neighbours the Yamadas - This may be my favourite Ghibli film of all from a sentimental perspective, but you may have to have lived in Japan and understand Japanese to really appreciate it; establishes Takahata's artistic vision as far superior and wider in range than Miyazaki Hayao's: 10/10

Spirited Away: You can't possibly argue that this film isn't a great technical and imaginative achievement but I find the denouement slightly perplexing and verging on the disappointing, as with many Miyazaki films: 8/10

Howl's Moving Castle: Beautifully atmospheric curate's egg; there are elements to adore and astound, but I always think of it as somehow less than the sum of its parts: 6/10

Ponyo: As with his first film, this late-era Miyazaki effort is a microcosm of his work - charming, imaginative, complex, beautiful, strange...but with problems of pacing and plot: 8/10

From Up on Poppy Hill: Of great historical curiosity because I lived and worked in and around Yokohama for years, so I have a hard time watching it as just a film; it's like a time capsule in animated form: 7/10

The Wind Rises: I can't decide - is this film the absolute apogee of Miyazaki's artistic and technical genius, in which he raises the bar for animated films forever, or a slightly over-long and even, dare I say it, slightly boring historical epic?: 7/10

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: This is not just the best Ghibli film of all, but quite probably the best animated film ever made (I'm still not sure I've quite recovered from the weeping wreck it reduced me to at the end) - it's almost as if Takahata watched Miyazaki making The Wind Rises and thought, "You think you're doing something accomplished?": 11/10

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Dragon Body Snatchers of Vesper Autumnale

The northern mountains of Vesper Autumnale are burrowed through with the lairs of dragons of many different types - red, white, gold, silver, amethyst, crystal, and so on. Their internecine warfare is unending, which is just as well for the clans of scavenging body-snatchers who roam nomadically through the high passes. These peoples eke out a living purely from making use of the bodies of dead dragons; whenever a wyrm is killed in war or dies of age or disease they are appear, furtive, careful, quietly turning the corpse into something of great value.

Each adult member of every clan specialises in a certain task. For instance there are Armourers, who use the scales to fashion mail; Skinners, whose job is to separate hide from flesh without damaging either; Ivorists, who work the claws and teeth into useful products such as glue and paste; Ocularists, who use the lenses of they eye to produce fire-starting devices; and different artisans for every internal organ and muscle group, and more besides. Most prestigious of all are those with the dangerous task of making useful items from the glands which produce the dragon's breath weapon attack.

These different specialists each have different titles within each clan, and each clan can recite generation after generation of masters and apprentices all the way back to great antiquity. Because their way of life is so reliant on maximizing the use of whatever they find - for the high mountains are barren and can support little life - the greatest sin for the body snatchers of the mountains is sloppy workmanship, and the greatest virtue devoted craftsmanship.

A clan may go for vast stretches of time without finding a corpse, so the discovery of one is a great bonanza. It means that the clan is guaranteed food, shelter and other amenities for the foreseeable future. The rare occasions when clans go to war against each other come when two of them come across the body of a dragon at the same time. If the corpse is that of an ancient wyrm they may reach a compromise. But if it is that of a mere mature adult or younger, only a fight will resolve ownership.

Monday, 21 August 2017

You Are the Modern Inklings

I have been quite down about the internet lately. So much sound and fury signifying nothing. But seeing all the G+ posts from people at Gen Con got me thinking about how many great, like-minded people there are out there in the world who I would know nothing of if it weren't for social media, and by extension I started thinking about the commenters on this blog over the years and, what can I say? I got all mushy inside, all bleary-eyed and sentimental, considering all of the value which you collectively have added to my life - in reading all of this nonsense and being such a good sounding board for my weird ideas.

I love you guys.

What I think blogging has allowed me to do is, in essence, find my own version of The Inklings, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis's group of friends who would meet twice a week at an Oxford pub (beer on Tuesday morning, conversation on Thursday evening) to talk about the things they were collectively interested in. Blogging is less fun in that it doesn't involve turning up to work half-cut every Tuesday - what could be more redolent of a long-lost era than a bunch of Oxford dons meeting up each Tuesday morning to go on the piss? - but there is something fundamentally similar about it, for me: an opportunity to share my ideas and creative impulses with my sympaticos, my tribe, my CS Lewises. (Not that I claim to be any sort of Tolkien.) And that should never be underestimated.

There's no substitute for real conversation and real, regular meetings with good friends. But at the same time, nor is there a substitute for being able to write blog posts about slug-men and have them find a worldwide audience. So, thanks, internet. You are a tool for evil and will bring about the ultimate decline and fall of Western civilization - of that I have no doubt. But you're not all bad.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

What Might Have Been

From a very recent biography of Tolkien by Raymond Edwards:

"In the late 1960s, the Beatles were keen to make a version of The Lord of the Rings, with the four of them playing Gollum, Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf. Tolkien, who detested the group as a whole, and the bumptious John Lennon in particular, was furiously opposed; they did not secure the rights."

I am guessing:

Gandalf - George
Frodo - Paul
Ringo - Sam
John - Gollum

Paul I am sure would have insisted on being Frodo, and really George has to be Gandalf. The other two are tough ones.

Yoko could have been Wormtongue.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws - Draft World Map

I took a few minutes to do this earlier today, using Hex Kit. What can be done in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea is pretty impressive. This is by no means final or illustrative of the flavour of the art, but it's certainly more evocative than what I could draw or come up with using other hex mapping software.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Practice Makes Perfect(ly Nice)

How to think about practising and role playing?

Well, what does it mean to be good at an RPG?  Basically, it means that, by your presence at the table, other people have a good time. As the DM you create a setup and run it so that the players have a good time. And as a player, by your actions, being proactive and thoughtful, you make it so that the DM and other players enjoy themselves.

Creating a detailed and intricate campaign setting means nothing if the players don't enjoy interacting with it. Getting your PC to level 20 doesn't matter if you're an arsehole and stop being invited to play.

So practice in the context of RPGs isn't really about getting good at the skills involved - doing voices, lateral thinking, puzzle solving, drawing maps, whatever - although those things all help. Instead, it's about being a better person. More engaged, more considerate, more amiable, more interesting and interested.

That's a good recommendation to take part in a hobby if ever there was one.

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Thrown Object

As we speak I am sitting here watching the javelin competition at this year's athletics World Championships. The distances the guys get are, it goes without saying, impressive - over 90 metres at their furthest. To achieve this they take a huge run-up and practically launch themselves along with the javelin, sometimes literally diving forward through the air after the throw. The result isn't particularly accurate in any sense. The javelin lands somewhere broadly in front of the thrower in a 30 degree or so arc, pinioning itself into the turf with what you imagine is a satisfying 'pock' sound several seconds after it's left his hand.

Put it this way - javelin throwers would have a really hard time hitting individual targets if they were using their skills in anger.

Compare this with a cricket fielder going for a run out. Usually he's moving at pace, has to reach to the ground and pick up the ball which is also moving at pace, and then take a shot at a few slivers of wood at an acute angle under severe time pressure. They don't always hit the target but they can be extremely accurate.

(Cue gratuitous 1990s cricket clips featuring Jonty Rhodes below.)

What I'm trying to get at is: accurate throwing is a matter of chucking small dense items at stationary targets. A cricketer has a reasonable chance of hitting the stumps because they're not moving.

Does it make sense to say that thrown objects in D&D only hit if the target is stationary, i.e. surprised? Perhaps not - we've all been in the situation as a kid where your friend is about to throw something at you from a few paces away and you know that you're likely to be hit however much you might duck and dive. But it might make sense to come up with a thrown object house rule:

Thrown Objects House Rule

Standard ranges for thrown objects/weapons only apply where the target is stationary. Otherwise, the effective range of all thrown objects is 5 yards.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Being Creative While Being Busy

A while ago in the comments somebody asked me to write a post about how I manage to juggle work and family commitments while also making RPG material. The pat answer is "with great difficulty" but the long answer deserves more than that. While not wanting to hold myself out as being an expert or guru of any kind - I can barely tie my own shoelaces - here are my tips for staying creative while being busy.

  • Quit social media except for what's necessary for work or you have some special overriding good reason (I use G+ to keep up to date with the RPG world, for example), leave your phone in your pocket or bag unless it's ringing, and don't surf the internet unless you have a specific reason for it. I am not perfect at following this advice, but I am working on it and gradually improving; I haven't been on Facebook for six months and am close to deleting my account, and I deleted my Twitter account ages ago. I don't know anything about Instagram or Snapchat and I have no intention of ever doing so. I am also planning to switch to a dumb phone soon. Cutting down on internet use frees up huge wide vistas of time stretching out before you as far as the eye can see. You might think you miss it when it's gone. Trust me, you don't. 
  • By a similar token, control your email use. The best way to do this is not to check emails until noon. This gives you a productive distraction-free morning, but you can do something similar in the evening, giving yourself free time to do creative things when you get home from work.
  • Get disciplined about leisure time. On your death bed you're not going to regret the fact you didn't watch enough TV. I don't live the lifestyle of a monk but I don't touch boxed sets with a barge pole. I watch a lot of sport but that's the kind of thing you can have on in the background while you do something else.
  • Do a little bit of something every day. It doesn't matter what it is or even if it's just writing a sentence or two - force yourself. You can find time. If you take a break for a day or two you lose momentum surprisingly easily.
  • Take time to think. This is related to the first bullet point, but freeing yourself from your phone is great for this. I spend quite a lot of time on the train while commuting, or sitting in a cafe, or waiting for my wife to do something or other, just sort of gazing about myself. I get lots of ideas for things that way. 
  • If you have a baby, you basically have to tough things out at times. If I'm at home I can work on something while my wife and the kid have a nap, for example. It means I don't get to take a nap myself but it's worth the sacrifice. 

I hope that's helpful and that the person who asked sees this (I can't remember which post the comment was on and Blogger doesn't provide a way to search comments).

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

A Phenomenology of Playing a Character

When playing a character in a role playing game, my consciousness tends to operate across a number of different phases of association with the character and the events that are taking place in our shared imaginings:

The Dissociated Phase. Here, my consciousness is more or less entirely abstract from what my PC is notionally 'doing', and I am hardly thinking about him at all - I am in the game, but just listening to what else is going on as an interested observer. It's as though my consciousness is standing outside the 'body' of the PC and is ready to re-inhabit it when required (it seems strange to speak in those terms, because of course the PC doesn't have a body at all, but that's the most intuitive way of describing it). Typically, this is the phase my consciousness is operating on when my PC isn't actually involved in doing anything and the spotlight is elsewhere. It's fairly uncommon, because even in those moments my consciousness is usually in the Mind's-Eye Phase (see below).

The Mind's-Eye Phase. Here, I am picturing what is going on, the scene that is being described, and my PC's place in it, in my mind's eye as though it is play or film taking place there and I am watching it as a third party. This can take place whether my PC is directly involved in what's happening or not. The association between my consciousness and the PC doesn't really have any emotional content except the kind of emotional content I get watching sport or TV. It is quite common - perhaps the most time is spent in this phase.

The Immersed Phase. Here, my consciousness is immersed in what is happening in the game. It would be wrong to suggest that this is like my consciousness merging with that of the PC, or changing in any way. It is still my consciousness and I am feeling what I probably would feel if I was in the position the PC is in. So, for example, the maybe the DM is describing the appearance of a beholder in a particularly evocative way and it is so immersive that I can actually feel a sense of impending doom. This usually happens at least once a session when something exciting is happening or during a heated in-character conversation or something like that.

The Identification Phase. This is the extremely rare occurrence that I actually feel as though my consciousness has - at least to a degree - merged with that of the PC and experiencing events not as myself but as the character and in way that is qualitatively different to how I would experience it myself. This phase is very rarely entered (much less than once per session).

The Mountain Dew Phase. Here, I am completely disengaged and fiddling with the dice, looking for something to eat, eyeing up the waitress, and not really paying attention to what is going on.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Where's Wally? (or "Waldo") and the Shadow Fantasy Genre

Readers of this blog are familiar with the fantasy genre and all of its thoroughfares and highways, as well as its dark alleyways and nooks and crannies. You know your way, like everybody, to Tolkien and Martin, Brooks and Goodkind, Donaldson and Jordan. You also know how to get off the beaten track and find Bellairs, Bunch and Dunsany. But are you familiar with what goes on outside the city gates, in the places which don't appear on the maps at all?

I'm not talking about the kind of fantasy literature that exists outside of the fantasy section of the book shop because it isn't marketed that way (Attwood, Calvino, Borges). I'm talking about fantasy works that truly live in the shadows, away from the gaze of the experts, in old children's books, board games, card games and boys' own comics, all of which can be far richer sources of inspiration than what you might find recommended to you on Goodreads. This tends to be because this style of fantasy - what I am going to call the shadow fantasy genre - is not created for fantasy fans or people who are knowledgeable about the genre, meaning the creators have considerable license to let their imaginations run riot. 

I know of no better example than Where's Wally? The Fantastic Journey. In the first couple of Where's Wally? books Wally is just wandering around like a tourist in real-world locations or else appearing at various historical events. But as the series go on things get strange as the creator, Martin Handford, starts to go off piste. In "The Great Ball Game Players" four teams seem locked in an endless competition to throw each other's balls down a bottomless hole. In "The Ferocious Red Dwarfs" a pseudo-Chinese army battles against, well, a load of ferocious red dwarfs. In "The Battling Monks" two orders of holy men representing fire and water wage eternal war against each other. And in "The Knights of the Magic Flag", well, this happens:

These creations do seem to owe something to established fantasy fiction and also to fairy tales (there is an Arabian Nights style scene in this book, as well as one that seems to pastiche D&D, complete with fire-breathing dragons lurking in tunnels being pursued by incompetent "hunters"). But the freedom of creating a picture book for kids, and the lack of any sort of requirement to appeal to hard-bitten fantasy fans, means that Handford can just throw different elements around and see what sticks. "So there is this pseudo-Chinese empire. And it is under attack from red dwarfs," is not interesting enough to be the plot of a fantasy novel, but it doesn't need to be - it's practically just free association, but quite productive as a result. You could make a D&D campaign out of that easily.

Video games can have this quality too, of course - in fact they may be the most obvious location of shadow fantasy works. Just look at Zelda, Mario, or the Final Fantasy series. But more traditional games shouldn't be overlooked. When I was a kid I remember spending a lot of time playing fantasy top trumps with this set - check out the "orc", the "elemental", the "vampire", the "golem" and the "fool"; what's the implied setting, there? It isn't D&D, is it? Those pictures seem self-evidently to have been painted by somebody who knew a little bit about the fantasy genre, but not much, and comes up with something that is in my view not just charming but also really quite intriguing and unique. 

The shadow fantasy genre - keep your eye out for it. It can be found in the strangest of places.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

High Court Bailiffs Story Game

I am not a great one for TV or reality shows in particular but I have a real soft spot for Can't Pay? We'll Take it Away! For the uninitiated, it's a programme which follows around High Court Enforcement Agents (bailiffs to you and me) as they try to recover debts, or carry out evictions, arising from High Court judgments. Surprisingly, it's not as trashy as it sounds. For what it is - a cheaply made Channel 5 documentary series (Channel 5 is the barrel-scrapingest of the 5 main terrestrial TV networks in the UK) - it is quite sensitively done and even manages to mix in a lot of social commentary through the back door. You do get cases of genuine deceitfulness, villainy and/or fecklessness but most of the cases are purely about bad luck, and the producers are good at emphasising that. In some of the episodes the bailiffs personally become involved in fighting against poorly-run local authorities for the rights of evicted tenants to get access to emergency social housing. In others they choose not to enforce their writ because the subject is disabled, in dire straits, ill, and so on. What you get is an interesting and quite depressing depiction of life in early 21st century Britain (particularly London): lots of consumer debt, huge pressure on the housing system, lots of renters, lots of squatters, lots of self-employed people living on the edge of the bread line, lots of people who don't really understand the legal system but end up at its sharp end nonetheless.

The first two seasons are now available on Netflix and I recommend checking it out if you have never seen it. In the episode we watched last night, which is illustrative, the team had to evict a tenant who hadn't paid rent in 18 months and whose landlord was his own mother; evict illegal migrant tenants with a disabled son from a tiny one-room flat in a house in London because the landlord wanted to renovate it (quite heart-rending); remove a Spanish guy from an appallingly tiny room with no windows in a London tower block; and deal with an eviction of a tenant with clear psychotic issues whose pastor was trying to act as a go-between. Describing them in this way makes the series sound like gawking at human misery. I think it's the opposite: an objective but sympathetic depiction of an astonishingly difficult job carried out in trying circumstances, and a really rather shocking indictment of circumstances in Britain today.

You could make a great story game based on it. It is by nature episodic and has the same basic structure: High Court bailiffs arrive somewhere needing to solve a case (i.e., get money or carry out an eviction). They may face a web of lies which they have to untangle. They may face violence. They may face obfuscation. They may face pleas for compassion. There are also all sorts of complications which can arise: battles with local government; misunderstandings with the police; language problems; logistical difficulties (how do you value a light aircraft and remove it for auction to pay off a debt?). And there are different methods of achieving success: friendliness, tough love, physical coercion, mercy. Every subject of every writ is different - one day it might be a taxi company who owe money to a contractor; the next a tenant who hasn't paid rent in two years because he or she thinks the landlord is doing a lousy job; the next an eviction of a young family. Victory could be defined in terms of getting the job done, but equally could be defined as getting the best possible outcome for everyone.

Random tables of course: random writ (evict or recover a debt or both); random client; random subject; table of complications. You could do it in 12 pages. High Court Enforcement Agents in the Vineyard, you could call it.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

It Doesn't Matter Who Plays Dr Who

I have never understood the appeal of Dr Who - in my view its rightful place is surely alongside repeats of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and The Brittas Empire on Gold at 3pm on weekday afternoons - but be that as it may, for some reason it's popular and I have to accept that in the same way I accept that there are people who buy recordings by the Black Eyed Peas. 

Anyway. It turns out that the next Dr Who (I refuse to refer to this person as "the Doctor") is going to be played by a woman. Gadzooks! Another victory in the gender wars! My opinion on this is pretty similar to Brendan O'Neill's - as it typically is (if you want my opinion on anything going on in pop culture you could basically phone up Brendan O'Neill and ask him) - namely, I thought that at some point, like, 20 or 30 years ago, there was a general consensus that your identity, sex, race, creed, background, religion and so forth didn't matter and it was your own unique personhood, character, talents and abilities which were to be valued; but it seems that we've collectively decided to go back to 1957 and act as though actually people in the old days were right all along and it's important to put each other in boxes again. So whereas we seemed to have reached a stage where we could get past all that bollocks about identity mattering and be free to just be people, all of a sudden it matters again and we are collectively diminished as a result. When Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the important thing being the content of one's character, he was just talking out of his arse, and bizarrely it is the supposedly liberal left-leaning chattering classes who are leading the vanguard against him. The important thing about Dr Who is not the content of his character. It's his uterus, or lack of it.

I suppose you can trace all this back to Hegel via Kojeve and the French Marxists of the 1960s - the notion that ideas are the vehicles of historical change and hence you can actually shape the world through pop culture. Having a woman play Dr Who can actually contribute to sexual equality in this way: you produce fiction which points towards sexual equality and thus another small step goes in the right direction and influences things that little bit more. It's a very attractive idea to intellectuals, academics artists, writers and so on, of course, because it makes it seem as though their work is deeply important in some sense. And it seems to be becoming, ironically enough, increasingly attractive to the politically engaged modern nerd via the mechanism of consumer capitalism: you can contribute to changing the world through your hobbies and pastimes and choices as a consumer. By watching Dr Who, the half-formed thought goes, you can actually now have a stake in promoting sexual equality, just as you can by watching Wonder Woman or the remake of Ghostbusters. (And the producers of movies, TV programmes, books and whatnot are well aware of this trend - what a shot in the arm all this is going to be for BBC Worldwide.)

There is an alternative take on this, which is simply that trends in pop culture tend to reflect and come after changes in the general culture. In this view, the female Dr Who is just a more-or-less inevitable consequence of a big societal shift towards female empowerment that has nothing to do with what people watch on TV and everything to do with technological development. There's nothing trailblazing about it, in other words - it would have been if it had been produced in the 1890s - it's just reflective of the way the world is, or is becoming. This I think is actually generally speaking the way things work, although there are of course outliers like William Wilberforce or Mary Shelley who act as "norm entrepreneurs" or whatever you want to call them. 

Irrespective of that, I find it kind of sad and strange that people feel as though this sort of thing matters - as though there are legions of young girls out there who will now watch Dr Who and feel empowered as a result. It's odd to imagine that people would need a character in a TV show to allow them to aspire to something, rather than actual real family members, friends and role models. And I think it is even odder that somebody would need such a character to look like them in order to be inspiring - the characters in Star Wars I always aspired to be like were Lando and Chewbacca, and when I was a kid I used to have inspirational quotes by American Indians on posters on the wall. It didn't matter a jot to me that these people weren't white men and hence couldn't inspire me, and I can't think of much that is more small-mindedly conservative than imagining anything different. So in my view not only is the notion that having a female Dr Who matters for sexual equality empirically wrong, it is also morally bankrupt and narrowing. Let's be grown-ups: David Tennant can inspire young girls if that's their thing and Jodie Whittaker can inspire young boys. 

(And I would add as an addendum that all of my criticisms can be leveled at the Men's Rights Activist types getting their knickers in a twist about all of this - but doubly so.)

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tolkien's Drow, the Bizarro Orc, and Corrupt Elfdom

As a general rule I try not to re-read books these days, but I make certain exceptions. I'm currently on may way through The Two Towers for the first time in years (one of my favourite sections in the trilogy - the travails of Pippin and Merry - which I always found more interesting than the Frodo and Sam bits). It gave me an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the way Tolkien presents orcs in the series - taken in isolation from the goblins in The Hobbit.

It's probably worth noting that Tolkien takes his time with the orcs. They appear first as rumours in The Fellowship of the Ring, then as brief encounters, and finally in the Mines of Moria as a kind of general menace, but they are barely described, and I don't think there is a line of dialogue involving an orc until Chapter 3 of The Two Towers. Then suddenly you're in their world, and it's a very different one from the world of Warhammer or D&D orcs. These are in their own way quite articulate ("Saruman is a fool, and a dirty treacherous fool"; "..., I daresay"; "You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams..."; "Untie your legs? I'll untie every string in your bodies!"; "I'll cut you both to quivering shreds!"). They seem to know all about civilized life even if they despise it ("You'll get bed and breakfast alright..."; "What do you think? Sit on the grass and wait for the whiteskins to join the picnic?"). They are sarcastic ("Splendid!" "Fine leadership!"). They even seem to have a sense of comradeship and loyalty ("stout fellows"). 

That's when you remember that for Tolkien orcs are, of course, originally supposed to be twisted and corrupted elves. They are not green-skinned thugs. They're a warped vision of perfection. (Is it possible that they also live forever?)

It makes you wonder about dark elves, and "drow". It isn't really worth rehearsing all the many arguments one could have about drow, but perhaps worth considering: orcs and drow are in a sense the same thing. That closes off certain options but opens up a lot of others. If orcs were corrupted elves, what would that mean?

In classic D&D, elves have the following abilities:

-Detection of hidden doors
-Immunity to ghoul paralysis
-Spell casting
-Friendship with animals

So let's imagine orcs as things which can:

-Magically conceal any doorway or entrance
-Cause paralysis with a touch
-Dispel magical spells cast by others
-Destroy natural life, maybe by draining its essence in their surroundings?

This gives orcs more of a feeling of a creature from a fairy tale, but not one that is entirely displeasing. It certainly makes them seem more dangerous

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

When Thoughts Collide (and Have Sex and Make Baby Thoughts)

It's funny how two streams of ideas can come together gradually in your mind without conscious effort - just time. A bit like your brain being a primordial ocean in which molecules of carbon and oxygen and whatever float around and gradually make stromatolites after being zapped by lightning at random (or something - I was never the best at science).

For a long time I've been ruminating over at some stage creating an animal fantasy-based RPG. I have written dozens of posts about this over the years, probably, but still feel compelled to insist that this is nothing to do with a love of either furries or manga. (The more I think about it the more I come to the realization that it's just being English. As in many other obscure fields, we are world leaders at making up talking animal stories - I suspect because, as Roger Scruton would put it, the English countryside is a home. Other countries have wildernesses full of danger. We have hedges and wild flower meadows. Nature is friendly and safe. But I digress.)

I have also been thinking of different iterations of an idea which seems to have burrowed its way into my psyche and won't let go: the megadungeon inside a giant tree.

Well, at some stage the animal-fantasy molecules and the megadungeon-inside-a-tree molecules seem to have coalesced together to produce life of sorts. What if there was a giant tree the size of a mountain and it was populated in its roots by dwarves who look like badgers, trolls who look like hedgehogs, elves that look like spiders, goblins that look like foxes? What if the heartwood was burrowed through by kobolds that look like ants? What if orcs who look like woodpeckers infested the bark all the way up, burrowing tunnel-cities into its walls? What if a dragon who looked like a tawny owl had a nest somewhere in a hollow? What if a society of bugbears who look like robins inhabited its branches?

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Monster Connections Table

Having a baby has led to me reading lots of Beatrix Potter books out loud. (Babies, it turns out, just like to listen to anything. I could probably read my daughter At the Mountains of Madness and it would have the same reaction - but it would be a terrible affront to her dignity to do something like that, so I won't.) The other day it was the turn of The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. (If you want recommendations/reviews, Two Bad Mice and Jeremy Fisher are the best ones in my opinion.)

The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is a strange beast. In the other Potter books the animal and human worlds interact in a realist fashion - Peter Rabbit is actually a rabbit who actually wears human clothes. But in Mrs Tiggy-Winkle things slip into a fairy tale reality in which the talking hedgehog might simply be a figment of a little girl's imagination (or IS IT?). It also isn't really a proper story; it is rather a kind of extended vignette in which the author simply riffs on the idea of a hedgehog washerwoman.

But I digress. The point of interest in Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is its implication of a kind of animal society existing under our noses. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle isn't just a washerwoman in the abstract - she does jobs for the other animals in the local area (washing cock robin's waistcoat, cobbling Sally Henny-Penny the chicken's shoes, etc.). I was quite taken with this idea of an entire community of animals who actually have neighbourly connections with each other and an economy of sorts, and I got to thinking, naturally enough, about D&D. A troll's lair is in one hex; in the next hex to the West is a dragon; in the next hex to the East is a dwarf mine. Instead of existing in isolation, why not make them connected?

Hence, I bring you the Monster Connections Table:

Monster A
Monster B
Is rival to
Is friends with
Trades with
Performs tasks for
Is subservient to
Has an alliance of convenience with
Secretly controls
Pretends to be allied to
Has been bewitched by
Is master of

Should be fairly self-explanatory - after stocking your hex map pick a monster as Monster A and see what his connection is to Monster B in the next hex.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Generating the Infinite River

A long time ago I wrote a blog entry about exploring an infinite river. I've always had it in mind to take that idea somewhere, wherever it may be. The answer: probably nowhere, but at least in theory there could be a game lost in the tributaries.

The PCs start off at an original base in a port on the river. From there, they can explore. They do this hex by hex, with a method for procedurally generating hexes and their contents as necessary. Every six miles (or twenty miles or whatever) there is a new hex with new contents - geography, adventure locales, settlements, etc.

What I hadn't realised at the time but which is increasingly clear to me is that the only way that this can really make sense conceptually is if the PCs are only able to move downstream from a location upriver (perhaps because the flow of the current is so strong it's impossible to row or sail against it for any length of time). This is because the inhabitants of each hex, which are procedurally generated, can be fairly easily created so that they have knowledge of what's upstream (because the DM and players know this also) but not what's downstream (because that hasn't been generated yet). In other words, since every downstream hex is not generated until the PCs actually go there, the inhabitants of existing hexes can't really have any interactions with the inhabitants of downstream hexes. Only upstream ones. This means the flow of traffic/exploration must all be downstream.

What this means, of course, is that the Infinite River never reaches the sea. The question then becomes: is there a sea at all? I leave that question to the philosophers.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Pape Jan in the Dreamtime of Man


When the first apes who could legitimately be described as "human" spread their way across the savannah the crocodile was there to bear witness, gliding through the waterways like a rumour of a murder. It saw the infancy of human life out of the corner of its eye, paying as much attention as a man does to the hopes, concerns, lives and deaths of deer: occasional subjects of disinterested study; occasional meals.

It remembers those early humans chiefly as bipedal, hairless creatures - something like a beast of the land, but also smooth and sleek like a fish or snake. Forever making strange chattering noises, like a bird; the crocodile does not understand the concept of speech, and if it thought about the behaviour of early humans at all, it surmised that they were somehow able to understand each other through pheromones. It thinks of them as cowards, who were extremely skittish around water and terrified of confrontation unless they were armed and in large numbers, though sometimes, at night, it perceived the warm glow of the fires they were somehow able to create, apparently from the dust itself. It saw their villages too: nests, it thought, like those of some social insect like a bee or wasp. It has no understanding of their hierarchies or sexes: it never paid enough attention, nor is perhaps capable of comprehending such a thing as a "family" or a "chief".

The world of man's dreamtime it remembers better. Hot and blasted by the sun except when the rains boiled up from the land and spilled back down like a waterfall. Dotted everywhere with trees, as far as the eye could see - flat-topped Acacias, components of an infinite archipelago in a sea of dry grasses. And rivers, great rivers, like muddy water spilled over flat ground, in the summer dried to narrow ribbons and in the rainy season bathing the world in wetness. Each year marked by the great migrations of wildebeest when there was more food than could be eaten and the female crocodiles stank of their fecundity. In those centuries the crocodile fathered more broods than it could count if even it was able. In its memory, a time of plenty, a time of joy, a time for living like no other.

The Coming of the Naacals

The first Naacals who came to the Dreamtime did so because they believed that in the search for origins they might discover deep truths about the human race and where it came from, and thus better understand themselves and others and in that way transcend their limitations and deficiencies. Scholars, then, and explorers, but also spiritual seekers - the kind of poets, mystics and dreamers who believe that one's character is like a blade that must be honed.

These seekers were first disappointed, second made afraid, and third and finally became embittered. In some embitterment manifests itself as single-minded pursuit of their original goal in spite of its clear failure. In others it appears as a kind of brutal nihilism which glories in the lack of ultimate cause and hence ultimate meaning. In others still it comes as a horrible weariness that has no respite. In many it is a mixture of all three. Naacals persist in the Dreamtime still but almost all of them are alone, and almost all of them beyond redemption due to their exhaustion, hatred, or inhuman determination.

The Coming of Pape Jan

Pape Jan is a king of the "Third India" of Ethiopië, who traveled beyond the sea in the antique past to spread the word of God among the heathen peoples of the Orient. Long thought to have forged a kingdom there, in fact he eventually made his way to Guarded Lake, and, with the help of the Lady of the Lake, ventured from this world to the crocodile's memory so as to raise a great host there and bring it back for his holy wars.

Finding his way to the Dreamtime of Man, Pape Jan came upon the strange memories of proto-humans living there and knew what his task must be: to not only bring them to worship of the true and living God, but then to use them as his war host in his battles against heathens elsewhere. He built a fortress in its wastes and from it plots his campaigns; his missionaries swarm across the savannahs bringing the proto-humans to him, and he baptises them in nearby rivers in the name of Jesus even as more flock around.

Yet Pape Jan's energy, dedication and psychic strength are a curse as well as a blessing. He has brought religion to a race of beings which had hitherto had no concept of it, nor even the capacity for conceiving of it, because the crocodile had no understanding of religion with which to endow its memories. It has found ground that is not just fertile but fecund - and occultism has spread throughout the Dreamtime like a plague. Strange new systems of thought and belief proliferate among the proto-humans in nightmarish abundance, each nest holding rabidly and single-mindedly to its own strange interpretation of doctrines of virginal birth, living sacrifice, commandments, and the eating of flesh and blood. Pape Jan cannot convert his charges fast enough to stem the tide of warped idolatory that now prevails across much of the Dreamtime.

Worse, as with all of the Seven, Pape Jan's own dreams, memories and visions have too begun to spread. Demon princes have appeared - Ornias, Beelzeboul, Asmodeus, the Star Sisters, the Wingdragon, Envy, Rabdos and others more terrible yet. His quest to spread the word of God has become a quest of a burning sword, and his orthodox crucifix a war standard at the head of armies which make the crusade for Jerusalem appear a mere skirmish.

DMing in the Dreamtime of Man

The Dreamtime of Man has at least four modes of adventure. As adventuring explorers and brigands the PCs may simply explore the infinite Acacia-dotted savannahs in search of Naacal treasures and wealth to bring back to Paradijs Kolonie and thus gain wealth and glory. Alternatively, they may become involved in Pape Jan's missionary work among the heathen proto-humans - or in the internecine struggle between the infinite competing religions of those new believers. Third, they may attempt to plunder the treasure houses of the demon princes who now make their homes in the Dreamtime. And fourth and finally, they might choose to involve themselves in the Great Crusade of Pape Jan itself, as he sends out his armies to battle the denizens of Hell as they appear in this new world he has discovered.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Tree Megadungeon and the Mythic Upperworld

About this time last year I had the idea of creating a megadungeon inside a gigantic tree. For some reason today that idea came back to me, spiraling up out of the mists in my brain. I started thinking about the burrows in the roots at its base, and how you could invert the traditional way of doing things and start your PCs off down there, in civilization, ready to explore their way upwards. You could call this, "The Mythic Upperworld". To the people living down in the soil underneath, the tree up there is an alien place of verdant life, light, sap, wind, water, and strange green and brown fecundity. To them in their shadowy, dank, dark world a place of danger, adventure, and legends they are too cowardly or conservative to verify. (This is where the PCs come in.)

What sort of city would exist in the roots of this place? Where would the PCs begin their campaign? I picture a society made up of quiet, furtive things at home in damp loamy soil. Myconids and mold men, of course, but also a variant of the drow - loam elves, you could call them - pale, maybe even blind, hateful of the sun. Creeping spidery things, like neogi and ettercaps. Hook horrors and umber hulks kept as slaves or pets to dig tunnels and fend off enemies. All thing which hate the light green living world above, but who thirst for knowledge of it and its treasures.

To a neogi or loam elf living down in the Great Root City, what would the leaf canopy miles above represent? Heaven, or hell? An abode of the gods, or devils? Most likely the latter. Most likely the green cloud far above would represent fear, hate, danger, misery, death. The top of the Mythic Upperworld, like the bottom of the Mythic Underworld, is simply an infinite abyss. I like the thought of PCs reaching the top of the tree some day and discovering that all the stories they have heard in the Great Root City are mirrored precisely in reverse up there - because for the dwellers in the canopy, hell is all the way back down.