Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Fresh Water and the Lake as Dungeon

Yesterday I dredged the pond for blanket weed. In amongst each netful of juicy brown squelchy organic mess from the bottom - rotting vegetation, gooey mud, fibrous plantlife - I discovered a little treasure: dragonfly nymphs, dozens of them, each a few inches long, with angry murderous expressions on their faces at having been disturbed. It was amazing to thing that they had probably been down there for two years or so already, living out their lives with us on the surface completely ignorant of their very existence.

It got me thinking about fresh water - lakes, ponds, rivers - and how under-utilized it is as an environment for adventure in D&D. Undersea adventures, we know about, at least in theory if not in practice: we've all got our monstrous manuals brimming with sahuagin, locathah, aquatic elves and ixitxachitl. But under-lake ones?

Structurally, the under-lake adventure is similar to that of a dungeoncrawl. There is a deep, dark, Loch Ness-style body of water: murky and muddy and green. Beside it is a village. The villagers know that there are strange beings down there on the lake bottom. In fact, maybe they believe that down there on the lake bottom there is a gateway to hell. They fish on its surface, and sometimes they see things moving through the gloom. They say that there was once a city there, or a temple, or a castle, or all three, until the inhabitants wronged the gods and the valley was flooded. And so on and so on. And rather than simply strolling into the dungeon, the PCs can borrow a boat and dive into it - or just swim. All they need are a way to breathe underwater and something to weigh them down.

And what do they find down there? In a body of water the size of Loch Ness there could be entire ruined settlements, entire living settlements of whatever creatures are down there, cave systems burrowed into the lake bottom or sides, forests of weeds, chasms and ravines, miniature deserts of rock (not to mention a hundred different Nessies). Plenty of stuff to bring back to the surface for the enterprising D&D PC.

The logistical niceties are in a way what I like the most. How do you get heavy stuff up from the bottom of a lake? How do you make sure that when you leave the lake and come back, you going to end up at exactly the same location given how hard it is to judge where things are from the surface? How do you find your way around in the murky depths were visibility is only a couple of yards? How do you locate the body of a fallen comrade?

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Poetry RPG Challenge

A friend introduced me to the 200 Word RPG Challenge. I quite like the idea as an example of constrained creativity, but it got me wondering whether 200 words was too much - and too banal a concept. Would it be possible to create the rules for an RPG in the form of a single haiku? The rule is that it has to be entirely complete and playable - no extra explanation allowed.

Here was my first attempt:

Roll a d-20
To do whatever you want
Higher is better

But there maybe isn't quite enough there (on its own, the haiku sort of implies you can do whatever you want automatically and the higher the dice roll the better the result, but there's no accounting for failure).

Another one:

Player and DM
Each roll a d-100
Compare the results

I quite like that one. Although, as above, it also requires a little bit of creative interpretation to tell that the idea is the player and DM both roll 1d100 and the player succeeds or fails accordingly, with the difference between the two scores affecting the extent of the success or failure.

A last effort along similar lines:

Success or failure?
Competing d6 results
Determine outcomes

This makes me wonder about other poetry-related RPG challenges. Can you come up with a complete ruleset in the form of a sonnet? How about a limerick?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Recommendations: Bartok, Wolfe, Dixon, Huss

A few cultural artifacts I've been enjoying lately. The first is Bartok's music for the 1924 ballet "The Magnificent Mandarin". Here's the synopsis from wikipedia:

After an orchestral introduction depicting the chaos of the big city, the action begins in a room belonging to three tramps. They search their pockets and drawers for money, but find none. They then force a girl to stand by the window and attract passing men into the room. The girl begins a lockspiel — a "decoy game", or saucy dance. She first attracts a shabby old rake, who makes comical romantic gestures. The girl asks, "Got any money?" He replies, "Who needs money? All that matters is love." He begins to pursue the girl, growing more and more insistent until the tramps seize him and throw him out.  
The girl goes back to the window and performs a second lockspiel. This time she attracts a shy young man, who also has no money. He begins to dance with the girl. The dance grows more passionate, then the tramps jump him and throw him out too.  
The girl goes to the window again and begins her dance. The tramps and girl see a bizarre figure in the street, soon heard coming up the stairs. The tramps hide, and the figure, a Mandarin (wealthy Chinese man), stands immobile in the doorway. The tramps urge the girl to lure him closer. She begins another saucy dance, the Mandarin's passions slowly rising. Suddenly, he leaps up and embraces the girl. They struggle and she escapes; he begins to chase her. The tramps leap on him, strip him of his valuables, and attempt to suffocate him under pillows and blankets. However, he continues to stare at the girl. They stab him three times with a rusty sword; he almost falls, but throws himself again at the girl. The tramps grab him again and hang him from a lamp hook. The lamp falls, plunging the room into darkness, and the Mandarin's body begins to glow with an eerie blue-green light. The tramps and girl are terrified. Suddenly, the girl knows what they must do. She tells the tramps to release the Mandarin; they do. He leaps at the girl again, and this time she does not resist and they embrace. With the Mandarin's longing fulfilled, his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

LIKE. Here's a rendition with the score:

The second is Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Arete. I can't remember who it was who recommended these books to me in the comments to a post on this blog, but whoever it was - thank you. Soldier of the Mist was one of the best fantasy books I had read in years. Soldier of Arete is even better. I would scarcely have thought that could be possible. I could also have scarcely have thought it possible that I could respect Wolfe's work more than I did already, but this, to me, is next-level stuff: in fact, I'm just going to go straight ahead and right now give him the coveted Noisms Award for Best Current Living Writer. It's him. Don't disagree. You're wrong.

The third is Judson Huss. Somebody shared some of his work on G+. It is so far up my alley it is practically right at the end of it, with the biggest, fattest rats, oldest piles of rotting waste, and most well-stowed mob hits. I mean, look at this stuff. It's like Dali, Bruegel, Bosch and Escher put in a blender and given the slightest hint of essence of Larry Elmore:

The fourth and final is Dougal Dixon's After Man: A Zoology of the Future. I must declare an interest: Breakdown Press, who are publishing it, are people I am working with and I've gamed with one of the people who run it. That may colour my appreciation for the book, but I doubt it. I was a fan of Dougal Dixon's work anyway - his Complete Book of Dinousaurs and Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures are a huge inspiration for Behind Gently Smiling Jaws - but again, this is sort of next-level stuff: what do you get when an expert on evolution and paleontology gets to speculate about the future of evolution? Well, stuff like this:

Goes up there with Mythago Wood, Jin Ping Mei and Herodotus's Histories in the list of "Books I want to make into campaign settings".

Friday, 11 May 2018

Small is Beautiful

The virtue of smallness of scale has been a theme on this blog since days of yore (see herehereherehere and here). But the capacity of the real world to pack huge variety into tiny spaces still fascinates me.

Consider the Wrekinsets. A Dark Age Anglo-Saxon sub-kingdom within the kingdom of Mercia which was itself subdivided into sub-sub-kingdoms. You could quite easily walk up and down its length from north-south or east-west (assuming it roughly corresponds to modern Cheshire with some extras in Shropshire and Flintshire) in a couple of days if you meant it. And yet it was an entire kingdom of its own with further major political divisions within it.

Consider the Principality of Theodoro. A tiny Greek Orthodox statelet on the backside of the Crimean peninsula. The rump of the Empire of Trebizond, which was the rump of the Byzantine Empire, which was the rump of the Roman Empire. Look how teeny-tiny it was (it's the green bit):

My rough guess from squinting at scale maps of the Crimea is that the Principality of Theodoro was about 30 miles across, from east-west. Comfortably walkable in two days, if that. But with its own distinct political, social, legal systems; its own foreign policy; its own culture. (I love how wikipedia lists is population as comprising "Greeks, Crimean Goths, Alans, Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchaks, and other ethnic groups...." We like to imagine ourselves as living in diverse societies.)

Consider Wearside Jack. In the late 70s the West Yorkshire police were desperately searching for a serial killer (the "Yorkshire Ripper") when they received a series of letters and an audio message from somebody claiming to be the killer who later turned out to be a hoaxer. This man was clearly from Wearside (meaning the city of Sunderland and its environs) but dialectologists were able to place him far more precisely than that - as being from Castletown, an area within Sunderland which is little more than a few streets. In other words, the way he spoke was enough to place him in a geographical area of about a square mile or so.

Consider that Hilbre Island is only 11 acres in size but it has its own special sub-species of vole.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Emishi Knight

A fierce warrior from the personal war band of an Emishi lord. He is violent, powerful, and vengeful, covered in tattoos, with a thick beard, long hair, and black body hair on his chest, arms and back like a wild boar. Everywhere he goes, he rides on the back of a horse, which towers over the steeds of Yamato people, and he is ready to fight and die at the command of his lord or in the name of his own dignity.

HD 4-6 (1d3+3)
AC 4 (Hide armour [AC 7] and protective tattoos)
#ATT 2
DMG As weapon (spear or short sword) +2
*Has a steed with 3 HD and 2 attacks doing d3/d6 damage (bite and kick)
*His tattoos offer:
-Protection from Fire
-Jump if leaping
-Spider Climb if climbing
-Shocking Grasp if grabbing/grappling
-Water Breathing if submerged
*Like all Emishi, he can Speak With Animals at will and Charm Mammal once per day

Emishi knights always have three items of jewelry (randomly determined).

If met as a random encounter a solitary Emishi knight will be 1 - Carrying out a command under oath; 2 - Hunting; 3 - Defending his honour. Roll on the sub-tables below for more details:

Carrying out a command under oath:
1 - To rescue a woman kidnapped by another local Emishi tribe
2 - To track down and kill or capture an outlaw
3 - To kill a man-eating bear or wolf pack
4 - To recover a lost treasure stolen by an animal spirit
5 - To steal something from a wizard
6 - To investigate tales of mysterious travellers from the South

Hunting: the Emishi knight is 1 - Currently stalking prey; 2 - Carrying home a kill; 3 - Decides to stalk the PCs

Defending his honour:
1 - By challenging men he meets to wrestle
2 - By challenging men he meets to fight to the death
3 - By kidnapping a woman from another local Emishi tribe
4 - By climbing a mountain
5 - By exploring a cave
6 - By sailing across the sea to an uninhabited island

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The Semi-Unique Monster

Monsters in RPGs tend to fall into one of two camps: the species and the unique. The tarrasque is a unique. Orcs are a species.

Creatures in children's TV programmes and books often fall in the middle-ground: they are semi-unique. There are four teletubbies. Are there more? It seems unlikely: they are a race unto themselves. In In the Night Garden, we encounter the tombliboos (three creatures who always seem to be kissing each other whenever I watch it), the pontipines (a family of ten tiny people with no feet), and the tittifers (a small group of hyper-real birds). They are each apparently a species in their own right. In the Clangers the titular creatures - weird pink things with long snouts - are a single family of beings who inhabit a hollow planet far away.

The reason for this is, of course, because children's stories are often about families, don't need bestiaries, and don't need to make any sort of particular sense - that's not the point. But nonetheless, I find the implied settings in which these semi-unique creatures live fascinating. Worlds in which a single family or a small group of similar beings can exist on its own, living on its own terms, without being part of a bigger whole.

In fantasy for grown-ups, the semi-unique monster takes on a slightly disturbing tenor that isn't present in children's stories. Isn't there something terrifying and horrible about the idea of being part of a group of half-a-dozen creatures who are all there is of your species? I don't mean because of the threat of extinction; I mean because however hard you search in life for a sympatico, a soul mate, somebody who truly understands you, well, this is it, the entire pool you have to draw from.

There's also something compelling, though I can't quite put my finger about what it is, in the idea of people in a D&D world being able to refer to an entire creature type, found nowhere else in the world except in their little local 6-mile hex, as a collective noun. "Watch out if you are travelling through the Old Forest tonight. That's when the pontipines come out." Is it just because it harks back to the kind of thing I might have read in the tales of my childhood? Very probably, but I like it, all the same. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Death of the Archetype and the Character as Brand

Film is often said to be a "literalising medium" and the modern Hollywood machine in particular has no respect for expressionism, symbolism, or the surreal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the all-powerful juggernaut that is the Origin Story: it's not enough for a popular character - be it Wolverine, Superman, Batman, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Captain Kirk, Spock, Malificent, etc. - to simply stand fully-formed, larger-than-life, as you find him; no, there has to be a cultural product detailing where he came from. Not even dream-characters in Alice in Wonderland are safe: even the Mad Hatter gets an Origin Story of sorts nowadays, because he isn't allowed to simply exist - the logic of film demands he be from somewhere and that we understand why he is mad. 

It isn't hard to understand why this is: a character like Han Solo is no longer just the roguish smuggler who everybody prefers to Luke. He's a brand in his own right, or is readily commodified as such, and why should an opportunity to spin him into a money-maker be spurned? The easiest way of doing that is by making a film providing the definitive explanation as to where he came from: nerds will queue in droves to see it and non-nerds know enough about Han Solo to want to find out. Never mind that the power of a character like Han Solo comes from the fact that he is not so much a character as an archetype, and that's the point (if you listen to and believe George Lucas, it was even his point when he wrote the original films). No, he must be rendered prosaic so he can be better monetized. 

What do we lose from this? Not a great deal, I suppose, but we lose something: the notion that fiction actually has primordial, intuitive significance that gets at the structures underlying our common humanity and which can't be reduced to just words on a page or images on a film. Han Solo as a human being, who was a child once and who is the way he is because he never learned to love/became embittered by a personal tragedy/whatever the Origin Story is, will be a less dramatically compelling one than Han Solo who simply is. The attempt to make him seem a more realistic and plausible character will deprive him of his potential to mean something else. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Naacal Dancers in the Dreams of Ice

Groups of Naacals came to the Dreams of Ice long ago in order to dance. There, with no music to disturb the purity of their movements except the breath of the wind and the crunching and creaking of the ice and snow; with nothing to influence their thoughts or feelings except vistas of endless white; and with the extremity of the cold forcing them to put themselves through ever-greater exertions in the name of their art, they believed that they could ascend to pinnacles of physical expression higher than they could possibly climb in the Unremembered City.

Whether any of them have achieved this is a matter of opinion. Over the eons each group has, in its isolation, been through schism, revolution, counter-revolution, renaissance, evolution, regression, and return-to-roots, each on many occasions, and has developed innumerable eccentricities and formalities as a result. Over time the obsessions of these groups of Naacal dancers have come to define them, and they now typically no longer dance for enjoyment or even to hone their skills, but rather because they remember how to do almost nothing else.

Group Composition
Current Dancing Style
Solitary – a single Acrobat (1d6+3 levels) and d3 random servitors
Jerking, frenzied and arrhythmic
Currently in schism (divided into two camps)
Utter stillness punctuated by sudden flamboyant motions
Gradually starving due to servitors malfunctioning
Small – 1d6 Acrobats, 1d3 Decadents, 1d3 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+2 level leader), and 2d6 random servitors
Ballet-like leaps and throws
Fierce conflict with another nearby dance group over a theoretical dispute
Uniform and rhythmical, with each dancer performing in carefully choreographed synchronicity
Disturbed by nearby singing dogs who destroy their perfect silence each dawn and dusk
Medium – 2d6 Acrobats, 1d6 Decadents, 1d6 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+4 level leader), and 2d6 random servitors
Slow, graceful, elegant
Targeted by a band of cannibalistic hunting Figments
Primitivist, incorporating animal cries, copulation, and excretion
Feel that they have lost their ability, and that their movements have become trite and ugly
Large – 3d6 Acrobats, 1d6+3 Decadents, 1d6+3 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+4 level leader), and 4d6 random servitors
Ground-based rolling, writhing and wriggling
Targeted by nearby monstrous Figments
Individualistic: each member performs one of the above
Are studying a nearby Figment village to learn new “naturalistic” dance techniques

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

After a War

There is a sub-genre of fiction (detective fiction usually) which is set in the aftermath of a war. A nonexhaustive list of this includes films such as The Third Man, Three Kings, The Good German, and books such as Tokyo Year Zero (which is execrable - I feel duty bound to warn you not to read it if you're considering it), the De Luca trilogy, the Bernie Gunther series, and I suppose A Song of Ice and Fire and those Steven Erikson books if you want to stretch things a little.

As a setting for fiction that kind of background works, because everything is up for grabs. The normal rules don't apply. Somebody has taken society in both hands and shaken it to pieces like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing and now the constituent pixels are trying to find their way together again. The out-and-out chaos and totality of conflict itself has passed, but events take place against an unsettled backdrop which is intrinsically interesting as a result. It's plausible that people are going missing, settling scores, stealing things, breaking up or getting back together, and all the other stuff of good fiction, in large quantities.

A post-war environment also makes great campaign setting material for similar reasons. Red dragons have just swept through the land burning random settlements on their way somewhere else. Gibberlings have just invaded and fucked everyone over before throwing themselves into the sea en masse. A devastating plague of russet mold which almost emptied the land has just receded. The storm giant overlords have recently been overthrown and the men of Fantasyworldland have thrown off their shackles. And so on and so forth. In that kind of setting, the sandbox almost creates itself: everywhere they look, there's a plot hook for the PCs to get involved in or just a ruin to loot or explore.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Some Servitors in the Unremembered City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Life in the Unremembered City

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Touching Alignment Languages with a Barge Pole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Magicians as Billionaires

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 April 2018

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

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

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Everybody Loves Our Game: On the OSR "Scene"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Mediterranean and Cultural Coolness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 March 2018

The Phantom Force Awakens a Menace

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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