Monday, 12 March 2018

Caesar, Homer, Pytheas and Lugh

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 March 2018

RPG Books as Imagination Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 March 2018

When is a Quantum Ogre a Quantum Ogre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 March 2018

Japanese Kids' Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Reaction Dice Which Create the World - Matagi Hunters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

What is the Blogosphere for now? New Modes of Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 February 2018

NPC Idea: Rumpelstiltskin's Child

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 February 2018

New Blog/Project

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

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Great OSR Novel?

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

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

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

(Gormenghast may in fact be a better exemplar.)

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Meta-Game Art Genre

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Fantasy RPG In-Group and Out-Group

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

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

Who else am I talking about? Well:

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

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

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

Provisional List of Indicators of Toxicity to Fantasy RPG Fandom

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

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

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

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

5) Not being in Appendix N.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Animal Spirits

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

Animal Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 January 2018

In Which I Have a Breakthrough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alternate Appendix N Campaigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's enough of that for one night.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

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

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

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

Hence, some examples:

"Crossing the Vimur River", by Hellanim (

"The Old Saints, VIII" by Valin Mattheis (

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

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

Some examples:

"Lancelot", by John Howe

"Scythe" by Jakub Rozalski (

"The North Watch" by Keith Parkinson

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

Some examples:

"Mirror Men's Judgement" by Rhineville

You know where this comes from.

And this.

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

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

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Anak Wungsu and the Ziggurats in the Shallow Sea


The Sumerians, Babylonians, Elamites and other ancient peoples of the fertile crescent spoke of a race of fish-men, who dwelt at the bottom of the Persian Gulf and rose to the surface as caprice dictated. Whenever they appeared, it was said, they would dispense dangerous wisdom to the peoples on the surface - the kind of wisdom that leads to civilization but also brings with it disease, war and enslavement.

These fish-men were first named in a human language by those young grand-nephews of the Naacals, the Sumerians, who called them the Oannes. Their existence was no myth. The Oannes were ancient astronauts, an alien race who originated in the cosmos but who had been dwelling on earth for aeons in cities they built in the pitiless frigid blackness of the oceanic depths.

In times past - before even the Naacals had risen to prominence, when the earth was stalked by giant mammalian beasts - these Oannes also built tombs and other monuments in the warm shallow seas near the coasts, all of black obsidian embedded in white sand and coral in azure waters lit by sunlight beaming through. The crocodile saw this, of course, on its wanderings. Black geometric nests or hives swarming with the activity of things that to its mind looked like fish, though fish of an altogether unusual type, with gracile hands and tentacles and fingers able to manipulate objects, and intelligent eyes. Their mythagos haunt its memory as scaly fish with many arms endlessly grasping, clasping and groping around them as they swim through clear warm waters around reefs of vivid coral in the Remembered Ocean of the crocodile's mind.

The Coming of the Naacals

The first Naacals who came to this region of the crocodile's memory were nomads, navigators and explorers fascinated by the possibilities offered by the infinite warm sea. But they were quickly followed by others - those with an interest in the locations of the cities of the Oannes in the real world. For, these Naacals reasoned, there might be some correspondence between the patterns of the locations of the huge black geometric shapes as they existed in the crocodile's memory, and the actual settlements or constructions of the real Oannes that have been lost for millennia in the world above. It might be, they thought, that one could survey this region of the crocodile's memory and use it as some kind of map or guide through which to locate the ruins of the vanished civilization of these alien visitors. Theorists, then, and cosmologists, but also treasure hunters; they remain there still, though many have lost their minds or forgotten their original purpose, and merely roam the seas in their automated vessels without aim or destination.

The Coming of Anak Wungsu

Anak Wungsu is a Balinese trader who, hit by a violent cyclone when sailing his ship, was forced off course and shipwrecked on the shores of Paradijs. More than half-dead and with nothing on his person, he was nursed to health by natives who found him naked and desperate, washed up on the beach. His commercially gifted mind soon realised that there were commodities in this new land waiting to be gathered and taken back to Bali and sold - and his eyes grew bright as he imagined the possibilities this new trading route could offer him. He set off into the interior where he came upon the Lady of the Lake and was told by her of the untold riches and treasures of the Naacals waiting to be discovered beyond the veil in the crocodile's mind. He passed behind it at once.

Anak Wungsu soon made his way to the ziggurats under the sea, as if sensing by instinct the traces of greed which the Naacal explorers and cartographers had left behind them on the surface of the water. Once there, he set about building the grandest vision he could hold in his mind's eye - a vast trading network spanning the ocean's floor and bringing with it untold wealth and commerce to its centre. Goods, commodities, treasure and produce flowing between and around the black undersea Oannes "hives" in endless streams of import and export and all with him in the middle.

Now all of the mythago Oannes "hives" team with the activity of trade as their inhabitants head out into the seas around to harvest resources they can truck, barter and exchange. All of them obsessively seeking the crucial comparative advantage over the others - or attempting through force and subterfuge to take control over sources of revenue. Every one of them a rival as much as a friend, aware in the abstract that trade benefits all, but as forgetful of it in practice as the humans participating in the spice trade in the Moluccas. An unending struggle for commercial domination that frequently spills into violence and which can never end except in a constant competition that can only accelerate in intensity and never diminish.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

When Yoon-Suin Meets Rifts

In the lobby of the Museum of Historical Interface, at the Brunswick Dock in Hibap'ȕ/Liverpool, there hangs a framed letter, printed on a material now known to be yak skin and written in the High Yellow City Trade Tongue. It is hidden behind a large reinforced glass case which prevents the public approaching closer than three yards, and has two permanent security guards stationed beside it for 24 hours a day. This is necessary to prevent its theft, many attempts at which having been foiled in the time it has been housed at the Museum. It is the only known replica on Our Side of the Rift of the infamous letter which the explorer Omswarop Chal sent to his master, the Grand Matriarch of the Ulele Clan, at her residence in the Wagtail Quarter, on returning from his first journey through the Rift, and hence its value is beyond priceless. The year 2018 represents the tri-centennial anniversary of the sending of that letter and Chal's first traversing of the Rift, and hence the first contact between Our Side and Theirs, and on January 12th the great-grandson of the Grand Matriarch will be in attendance paying a full state visit. Given that the matriarch of the Wimxhȁ clan and her extended family will also be present, it is the most important event expected to take place in Hibap'ȕ/Liverpool this century so far. [...]

The Case for the Small and Complex

It's a truism that the world is getting more complex in the digital age. In fact, the truth is the world is in many ways much simpler than it used to be, and that complexity tends towards simplicity over time, growing merely complicated rather than complex.

One of the best examples of this is language. Ancient languages are much harder to learn than their modern equivalents. Chinese characters, when they were first invented, were insanely complex, requiring dozens and dozens of brushstrokes. Now they require orders of magnitude fewer. Old English nouns had five cases, three genders, and could be categorised as strong or weak. Modern English nouns basically do not have cases or genders. Japanese used to have counting systems for literally hundreds of different objects (including many different species of fish); now Japanese linguists observe that the counting systems are collapsing into a mere handful.

This is also true at the granular level: five hundred years ago people living in Cumbria would not have understood people living in Cornwall because they spoke different languages. Now almost nobody speaks Cornish and the Cumbrian dialect is basically standard English with a funny accent and a few odd words. The linguistic landscape of the British Isles is becoming ever more uniform as minority languages die out and dialects merge and flatten. Multiply this by a million for the rest of the world.

Law is the same. Once England was a patchwork of, in effect, different legal systems, for different regions, different purposes, different disputes. Five small towns in Kent, the Cinque Ports, had their own entirely separate courts. So did the Church of England. Now there's uniformity. Again, multiply that a million for the rest of the world - and add the universalizing effects of international commercial law.

And consider politics. Read Herodotus and you get the impression that almost every square metre of the ancient world had its own ethnic group, city-state, language, unique culture and fiercely independent ruler. Thracians, Phrygians, Scythians, Lydians, Lycians, Paphlagonians, Pamphylians... Just think of modern day Turkey - one country with one main language and ethnicity and a few minority groups - and compare it to Anatolia in the age of classical antiquity and you will see how much the world has simplified geo-politically.

Why do I harp on about this at such length? For many reasons small, dense campaign maps are to be favoured, but you can add realism to that list of reasons. Small geographical areas packed with different cultures, legal systems, languages, religions and polities reflect what a pre-modern world would be like.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Appearing to do two things while really doing neither

Sodajerker recently released an interview with Noel Gallagher. I am not a huge Oasis or Noel Gallagher fan, but you couldn't escape his music when I was a teenager - it was basically the soundtrack to life in Britain between about 1994 and 1997 - so I was still fascinated to hear his views on the creative process. 

He used a nice metaphor to describe the old principle that creativity is all about putting in the hours: he likens it to fishing - you may not catch a fish by fishing in the river every day, but you absolutely have to go to the river if you are going to catch one. Creativity isn't magical; it's time and effort, mostly.   

But the really interesting throwaway revelation was that a lot of his songwriting is done by noodling round on a guitar while watching TV with the sound turned way down. As I think he puts it (I don't have a transcript), to the untrained eye he is playing guitar while watching the TV. But actually he is doing neither. He is in a kind of fugue or flow state, waiting for something to hit him. When it eventually does, that's when the work begins and the actual songwriting starts.

I would not want to compare myself to somebody like Noel Gallagher, but I was struck by this because it is exactly the same thing I usually do - the TV is on in the background and I have a notepad in front of me jotting things down. I'm not really paying attention to the TV, and not really thinking hard about what's on the notepad. Something about that brain state results in a kind of tuned-down, out-of-focus blue-sky thinking that occasionally causes gold to flow out of you, and if you pay just enough attention you can catch hold of a handful of it and then get to work shaping it into something. In other words, doing two things in a half-arsed fashion allows you do to a third thing - come up with ideas - amazingly well.

I don't have an explanation for this, except to suggest that perhaps something about watching TV keeps part of your brain sufficiently distracted that it stops editing out some other part of your brain which is responsible for your imagination. If it's true, it supports the idea that the brain is essentially modular and part of being successful is the quest to herd those different modules into behaving in the ways in which you want them to. It's as good an excuse I can come up with for watching Homes Under the Hammer repeats on the Home Channel at 9 o'clock at night.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Uesugi Saburo's Slavers

A band of desperate, stinking, uncouth killers who roam wild and rural places searching for children to kidnap and sell into servitude down south. They are largely cowards but that does not stop them slitting throats in the night or kicking the weak and frail to death for sport. They are led by the exile Uesugi Saburo, once the third heir of the great and ancient Uesugi clan, cast out from his family for his wayward behaviour and long since sunk into debasement.

There are 18 of his comrades in total; major NPCs are:

The Onmyouji of Mount Kintake. A tall, thin purported soothsayer and wizard who in fact has no magical prowess - but is expert in chicanery and bluff. He wears a baggy purple kimono which conceals his many tricks and gadgets.

4th level Specialist, 16 hp, AC 12, AB +1, Weapons: Short sword (d6)
*Carries the following special equipment:
-6x smoke bomb (can be thrown after being set alight; explodes to cause a cloud of dense smoke of 6' radius to appear, lasting 6 turns and blocking the line of sight)
-6x gas bomb (as with the smoke bomb, but emits noxious gas that causes effects as a stinking cloud and does not block the line of sight)
-4x flash bangs (packages of powder concealed up the sleeves which can be produced with a flourish to cause loud bangs and bright flashes of light which deafen and daze anybody in a 6' arc in front of the Onmyouji who is not forewarned for d3 turns)
-4x "pharaoh's serpents" (a small package of white powder which, when lit and thrown on the floor, instantly produces a glowing "snake" of ash and billows of smoke which momentarily make it seem as though a large magical serpent has been summoned - until the onlooker realises it is not moving or otherwise inspects it closely)
-4x blazing batons (foot-long sticks coated in a chemical which burns intensely when lit and can be used to send signals, set light to flammable objects, or dazzle people [-4 to all dice rolls for d3 turns] by waving in front of their eyes from a distance of up to 12')

Little Kikuchio. A huge figure, thick and tall like a cedar, who wields a 5-foot long rice-pounding mallet in one hand like it is a fly swat. He speaks like one would imagine a tree to speak if it could: slow, deep, simple.

4th level Fighter, 32hp, AC 16 (cuirass and greaves), AB +5, Weapons: Rice-pounding mallet (1d12+4)
*His rice-pounding mallet cannot be wielded by anyone with a STR less than 16

Mame-san. A glum-looking man with an adolescent frame and wistful eyes whose disappointment with the world manifests itself in acts of extreme cruelty and violence.

4th level Specialist, 18hp, AC 14 (leather cuirass), AB +3, Weapons: Bow, knife
*He carries a copper amulet from an ancient Chinese kingdom, with the character for 'water' carved crudely into its surface; this allows the wearer to move instantly up or down a river up to a distance of 100 yards if he touches the water

The Lady. A failed maiko who has taken up with Saburo as his “crown consort”, though they are not officially married. She still wears the tattered regalia of a geisha, and often sings old songs she learned during her training – melancholy ditties about three things she rarely now enjoys: feasts, love, and beauty.

4th level Specialist, 15hp, AC 12, AB +2, Weapons: Naginata (1d6+2)
*She carries a pouch of makeup which, when worn, allow to her to make suggestions to any men who are attracted to women; these function as the spell and she can make a total of three to any one man

Uesugi Saburo. A tall man who was once handsome, but who wilderness exile has rendered thin, drawn, and unkempt. He has missing teeth and is balding, and his once fine aquiline nose is broken half way down. Nevertheless, he still carries his swords – ancient heirlooms which he polishes daily and loves more than anything else in the world.

5th level Fighter, 30hp, AC 18, AB +6, Weapons: Daishou (1d8 and 1d6)
*He carries a katana and wakizashi that were forged in the time of the Sengoku era by a master swordsmith and which he stole the night he was forced to leave his castle. When used together in daishou form the wielder suffers no penalty for fighting with two weapons because the swords are so well-balanced; the swords are also forged so finely that they can easily break or shatter lesser blades (there is a 1 in 6 chance an opponent in melee's weapon breaks each round of combat)

Ordinary members of the slaving band are 1st-level Fighters. Typical stats are as follows:

6hp, AC 16 (cuirass and greaves), AB +2, Weapons: Wakizashi or yari

Thursday, 4 January 2018

On High Level Warriors, Gods, Mortals and More

I read The Iliad for the first time over the Christmas break (the Penguin Classics prose version, for those of you familiar with it). I was expecting something that was going to be interesting but turgid and difficult; I'm not sure why I had that impression, because it's actually a rip-roaring page-turner of a yarn and I bloody loved it. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised - if something has been raved about for 2,500 years it's probably a pretty safe bet it's worth a read - but still, it's amazingly fresh, vivid and exciting even to the modern reader. 

I thought about D&D a lot while I was reading it, because I think the case can quite easily be made that The Iliad is the most D&D thing ever written other than D&D itself (or, vice versa, that D&D is the most Iliad thing ever written other than The Iliad itself, except obviously Mazes & Minotaurs?). What is Achilleus, other than a 20th-level fighter in comparison to the 1st-4th level Trojans he dispatches with ruthless ease? What are the Achaean invaders, if not murderhobos in search of booty, glory and XP at the expense of all else? How else can the behaviour of the protagonists be explained, other than that they are being controlled by the kind of wild uber-machismo that often overtakes groups of teenage D&D nerds?

I jest, obviously - the culture that produced The Iliad utterly fascinates me and the beautiful complexity and dark brilliance of the narrative is done a hideous injustice by comparing it to a mere RPG, but still, bear with me. Four thoughts emerge:

1) I'm serious about the levels thing. Hektor, Paris, Achilleus, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Aias and so on make perfect sense when thought of as higher level warriors; they are more-or-less impervious to harm from ordinary mortals in only the way that a 9th+ level warrior facing 1 HD monsters can be. I'm surprised, indeed, that more has never been made of the depictions of high level fighters in D&D materials. A 12th-level fighter should be practically a demi-god, shrouded in mighty armour and bristling with magical weapons, like the member of a race of superheroes descended from Krypton, inspiring awe-like worship in his followers and utter terror in his enemies. In The Iliad, Hektor and Achilleus are forces of nature, able to sway a battle one way or the other with their mere presence and the effect it has on their enemies. D&D writers have never been ambitious enough in their descriptions of what being a high-level fighter entails - possibly because of a misplaced desire for realism when they should be dialing things up to 11. 

2) Gods in The Iliad have three different modes: squabbling together in Olympus, descending to earth to interact with humans (from shooting them with arrows like Apollo to guiding them around like Hermes), and, most interestingly and strangely, acting to possess them like Biblical evil spirits: Terror, Panic, Strife, and other emotions are not in fact mere emotions at all but actual persons, who stalk among men and infect them when the time is right - or at the behest of other gods. Clerical magic not as protective/healing spells, then, but rather as the ability to summon personified emotions to possess one's enemies or friends. Imagine if your cleric, instead of being a walking CLW factory, instead was able to call upon the god Panic to walk among that tribe of orcs bothering you and spread his power through them. The cleric as invoker and summoner of raw and terrible emotion. 

3) For all that the culture of Homer's Iliad is alien to the modern reader - harsh, violent, obsessed with honour, despising weakness, glorying in death - it is a very human text: it is emotions (pride, anger, love, hate, friendship, desire) which dominate and drive the narrative, not reason. The characters routinely ignore good advice when it is given, let stubbornness get the better of them time and again, and never, ever stop to think things through. Their passions overwhelm them in a way that is both exaggerated and also very true to how people actually run their lives.

What I find most interesting about the humans in the Iliad is that, for them, death is just something that happens. It was all around them: battle, disease, starvation, wild animals, floods, storms. One's own mortality was lurking nearby waiting to confront one at any given moment. Yet this did not lead these people to live their life like frightened rabbits hiding down holes, scared of danger. Quite the opposite: they threw themselves into their own lives, and deaths, with gay abandon, hunting their own mortality down, grabbing it by the neck, and throttling it.

In other words, it depicts humans as all passionate, over-emotional, and carefree - almost careless - with their own lives. Mortality doesn't breed fear; it breeds a devil-may-care perspective on physical danger.

The elf stands as counterpoint to this. If you were immortal, you would treat your life like a precious piece of porcelain and swathe it in yards of cotton, because death would mean missing out on thousands, nay, millions of years of experiences - you would want more than anything to be still around in a billion years' time to see how it all turns out. You would also, being jaded by age and the feeling of having seen everything before, probably view emotions with a heavy dose of skepticism. Why let temporary feelings perturb your carefully-worked out plans, your painstakingly-created work of art, your eons-long ponderings on the nature of your own navel?

4) Everything is Ancient Greeks. I knew that there was a longstanding legend, rumour or piece of propaganda which held that Britain was colonized by refugees from Troy. But, in reading around The Iliad, I also learned that the invading army of Achaeans mostly never made it home but were instead rumoured to have spread around Europe and founded its various civilizations. So you have this strange alternative history presented in which the conflict results in the emigration of Greeks and Trojans to all the far-flung corners of the known world, bringing with them the seeds of their culture and inevitably, one supposes, clashing with the locals. I can't be the only person who immediately starts thinking of campaign ideas: Achaean warriors ending up in ancient China or Japan, anyone? Trojan refugees in aboriginal Australia - no takers? Odysseus ends up sailing over the ocean and finds himself in pre-Maya Mexico, perchance?