Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Chigasaki, 2028 AD

[I lived in Chigasaki for almost four years, between early 2003 and late 2006. Of all the places around the world I've been for any length of time, Chigasaki is my favourite after my home city of Liverpool. I've often thought about setting a campaign there. Currently I have an idea for a Cyberpunk 2020 game set in the city, taking place in the broader context of my Japan, 2028 AD campaign setting.]

Chigasaki City

Population (2020 census): 216,378
Ethnic Composition (unofficial*): 91.9% Japanese, 4.2% Korean, 1.8% Philippino, 0.8% Chinese, 0.6% Other Asian, 0.4% South American, 0.2% Black African, 0.1% White European
Major Industries: Manufacturing (machine parts, pharmaceuticals, military hardware, nanotechnology, biotechnology), tourism, fishing
Mayor: Shimoyamada Yonosuke (New Komeito)
Notable Sites: Samukawa Jinja (the most important shinto shrine in the region) is situated to the north in Samukawa town; the Southern Beach is, along with Kugenuma-kaigan, famous as the birthplace of surfing in Japan.


Chigasaki was a seaside resort town from the time of the Shogunate; in fact the Tokugawa family long maintained summer residences in the area, taking advantage of the warm waters of Sagami Bay and glorious views of Mount Fuji.

After the Second World War, particular after the 1960s, Chigasaki began to achieve fame for surfing, and is widely known as the place where the sport first became popular in Japan. It gained a reputation as a playground for young Tokyo-ites and a desirable residence for the nation's burgeoning nouveau-riche.

During the Daikonran Chigasaki escaped severe damage, although it was the scene of several riots between supporters of the New Komeito party and various fascist and communist groups. After the onset of the war in 2020 the city underwent further industrialisation (which had hitherto been light), concentrating on producing machine parts for military vehicles, and high-tech components for biological and nanotech weapons.


Both the Hitotsuyanagi and Hoshino conglomerates have a strong presence in Chigasaki, making it a front line in the corporate cold war between the two groups. Kimura Seimei, one of Hitotsuyanagi's flagship companies, has its Kanto headquarters in the north of the city; other Hitotsuyanagi group corporations with plants there include the biotech research company Murada Bio and the rocket manufacturer NRC. Hoshino group companies in the city specialise in pharmaceuticals and machine parts.

The war between Hitotsuyanagi and Hoshino occasionally turns hot, as when a car bomb near Kita-Chigasaki Station killed three civilians and an executive officer for Kimura Seimei in December 2027.

Immigrant Groups

Kanagawa prefecture has had large, longstanding Korean and Chinese populations, both with histories stretching back to before the Second World War. The city has also relied on immigrants from the Philippines, Indonesia and South America to support its industry since the 1990s. Post 2016 and the institution of the new regime saw increased immigration also from Africa and Eastern Europe.

Organised Crime

Organised crime groups in the city include the yakuza clans Kawabata-gumi, Tsurugaoka-kai and Ota-kai. As is traditional, the membership of these clans is international in character, with up to 50% of the membership being of Korean-Japanese, Chinese-Japanese or Philippino-Japanese origin - obviously as a result of the limited economic opportunities offered these groups. Chinese Triad gangs also have a presence in the city, notably the 14k group; there is a constant low-level war between it and the yakuza clans.

Economic activities carried out by these groups include prostitution, pachinko, pornography and tobacco and firearms smuggling - primarily from the Occupied Regions. Drug-running remains a lesser concern.

Other Issues

Chigasaki is a centre for illegal whaling and fishing for endangered species of shellfish. This is a longstanding issue which various city governments have attempted to resolve, sometimes through force and other times through incentivising; none have been successful. It is a widely acknowledged truth that police corruption is mostly responsible for the failures.

Chigasaki is also a staging point for ferries to the Izu-Shoto Autonomous Economic Region, since the creation of a new harbour in 2019. Ferries are available for employees in AER-based companies only, and security in the area is strictly enforced. Human rights abuses, including summary beatings and imprisonment without trial of 'trespassers', are frequently attributed to corporate security around the harbour area.

*The Japanese government does not collate data on ethnic composition in its census.

Monday, 29 June 2009

S. John Ross Speaks Words of Wisdom

Best quote ever by S. John Ross over at Jeff's Gameblog (towards the bottom of the comments):

I do have a strong pro-scenario, pro-honest-tactics, pro-let-the-dice-fall, anti-story, plot-is-just-for-structure-make-it-about-the-PCs-and-their-choices-not-your-whiny-ass-narrative-go-write-a-novel-if-you're-so-into-yourself agenda.

To which I can only say, amen! And that I would like to make this a motto.

It ties neatly into a comment I made over at Compromise & Conceit. (I'm not stalking the poor fellow, honest - he got grist for his blog mill from some posts I made about Tolkien, so this is my way of returning the favour). Mr. faustusnotes had written:

It’s really hard to interfere with PCs actions coherently [in a Cyberpunk game], because in any sci-fi future the power of the state is so overwhelming that the one consistent thing criminal PCs can expect is that they will die horribly and probably before they even know what happened; but there’s no reward in doing this, so you have to contort your story to enable them to escape and still be challenged.

To which I thought: I beg your pardon? And replied:

I have to ask: why on earth would you not have criminal PCs die horribly if they transgress the law in an obvious way? Punishing idiotic behaviour is precisely the sort of thing that will force the players to learn how to achieve their goals in cleverer and more subtle ways. And that will result in a much better game for all concerned – which is the “reward”. Letting players off the hook is the worst thing you can do; it encourages the bad behaviour.

It helps if you think of the players like pigeons in a Skinner box, I find.

The reason problems like the one Mr. faustusnotes describes arise in people's games is, of course, that dirtiest of all dirty words - story. Namely the GM's story. Story implies a beginning, a middle and an end, and this results in 'contortions' (fudging dice rolls, making enemies suddenly incompetent, letting players get away from what should be certain death) when the story begins to go off the rails.

To which the proper reaction should be: fuck it. The player makes the choices and the GM goes with it, and if this means horrible death then so be it. Those are the terms on which player buy-in occurs (that their actions mean something and have consequences) and that's the way the GM should deal with the game.

The flipside of that particular coin, of course, is that players owe it to the GM not to throw their toys out of the pram when things go (justly) awry. If the GM's responsibility is to give player choice meaning, then the player's responsibility is not to piss and whine when that doesn't go their way.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Nihilism and Robin Hood in 2020 AD

Mr. faustusnotes, regular hand-wringing cry-me-a-river liberal commenter on my entries (just kidding) in my last entry made the comment that Cyberpunk 2020 encourages nihilism and criminal behaviour. I challenged this, pointing out that most RPGs seem to take this sort of behaviour as standard. He then followed up with the contention:
I don't think most PCs [in most games] are nihilists and criminals. Most PCs cooperate with a group of people to save the world from evil. The fantasy genre context for nihilism is completely different to the cyberpunk context.
Thinking about this, I realised that nihilistic criminals tended to be type of characters my group and I always made up for our CP 2020 campaigns, because we were teenage boys, but the game itself can be played in a moral way - and that this is very consistent with the genre.

Bruce Sterling's introductory essay to William Gibson's short-story collection Burning Chrome is a vital read for anybody who wants to understand cyberpunk as a genre. (In fact Burning Chrome, far more so than Neuromancer, is I think Gibson's true masterpiece. None of the stories dip in quality below excellent; all of them paint a compelling vision of the future.) As I've written several times, the key point that Sterling makes is that Gibson's stories - in contrast to sci-fi's general obsession with the square-jawed two-fisted heroic technocratic Ralph 124C 41+ type - concern themselves with the underbelly of society, the Victims of the New. His characters are those who have been crushed, eaten, chewed up, swallowed, and then spat out again by a society which has no place for them and does not care. This in my opinion is an almost Dickensian mode of fiction writing and highly moral: it says "These are the victims of this bleak future, here is their story, and here is how they win (or lose with defiance)."

CP 2020 can be all about that too. Ideas for Robin Hood style campaigns, off the top of my head:
  • A group of 'nomads' (Roma/Sinti or Travellers in Europe, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, tribal communities in Asia) are turfed off their land by the government or a corporation - how do they fight back?
  • The PCs are crusading investigative reporters uncovering dastardly exploitation of land or labour/war crimes/criminal activity/political corruption
  • The PCs are an ambulance crew/vice squad in the roughest part of a major city, trying to do some little good
  • The PCs are a group of vigilantes attempting to restore order in their neighbourhood in the face of police apathy
There are plenty more options for games which focus on stemming the tide of nihilism, rather than require nihilistic behaviour from the PCs.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

"It's not like I'm using, it's like my body's developed this massive drug deficiency."

So Sir Larkins has asked me to elaborate on why I commented in the past that Cyberpunk 2020 was "broken" as a game. I should clarify by saying that I love the game and have played it a lot, probably as much as D&D, and that there is a perfectly okay system lurking in there somewhere - if you're willing to house rule. A lot.

So what are the problems? Cyberpunk 2020's design flaws: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

1) The core mechanic (d10+skill+stat, beat the difficulty score) has a key problem, namely that failure is too frequent - whenever you roll a '1'. A 10% rate of failure, no matter how skilled the actor or how hard the task, is just too high to be credible.

2) The d10+skill+stat mechanic has that "Eh?"-inducing element which all systems using that mechanic have. I call it the Stupid Biology Professor problem: A biology professor with average intelligence (5) but a PhD in biology (+9) has the same chance of success in a biology related task as a brilliant person (intelligence 10) with only an A in biology at 'A' level (+4). That doesn't make sense.

3) Each role has a special skill, available only to them, which supposedly reflects their unique character. Except that most of these are poorly defined and far too broad in nature to be be associated with one role. The worst culprit was the Solo's special ability - Combat Awareness - which gives bonuses to initiative. Supposedly, it reflects the Solo's nature as a hitman/corporate assassin/mercenary. But if you think about it for even a second, it just doesn't make sense that a rookie Solo who's never even been in a firefight should be faster (way faster, potentially) and more combat-aware than a Cop who's seen 15 years on the street and been in countless gun battles with hardened criminals - simply by virtue of the fact that the Solo has a different role and thus possesses 'Combat Awareness'. This problem is common to essentially all the roles.

4) Characters start off with different amounts of cash depending on what role they have and how many points they've invested in their role-specific special skill. Works well for Solos and Techies, who have valuable special skills: not only does putting lots of points into that skill pay off in-game, it also means they start off with lots of cash. Not so great for Medias, whose special skill is basically a dump stat, or Fixers, whose special skill is amorphous, vague, and superseded by what happens in-game. Those characters have to trade off being a competent pauper or a rich specialist in a crap ability.

5) Netrunning is by turns incredibly dull, complicated, time-consuming and laughable in its vision of the internet. The last problem isn't the designers' fault, because how could they know? But the rest conspire to make what should have been an essential element really annoying.

6) Armour is too important. Even relatively light kevlar can stop most decent rounds. This is made worse by the cheap and readily available cyber implants which armour the skin. Combine the two and you have starting characters who are practically invulnerable to anything smaller than a FN-FAL and who you need a railgun to take down with one shot. But this of course applies to NPCs too - which then results in the need for the PCs to go everywhere with 7.62mm calibre assault rifles or bigger.

7) The Reflex characteristic was just far too important, as it governed everything from combat to driving to athletics to stealth. It was the very embodiment of the concept of the god-stat.

All of that said, however, Cyberpunk 2020 is still a lot of fun. Combat is exciting and lethal, the rules are very easy to grasp, character generation (if you're into random chargen) comes up with hilarious results. Moreover it gets that tone just right: the writing perfectly captured the mood of what cyberpunk is all about as a genre - those wonderfully 80s concerns about accelerating technological development, societal breakdown, the spread of Communism, and the rise of Japan. And yet it also captured the Punk part very well too - it manifestly concerned itself with Sterling's "Victims of the New" and what their role in the future would be. This is a perennial concern, something which speaks to the human condition, if you will, and ripe for exploration in gaming. (I've written about this before, somewhere - ah yes, here.)

If I was going to run Cyberpunk 2020 again (and I'd like to) it would be with the old house rules we used to use:
  • Netrunner is an NPC role
  • Anybody can pick any special skill, at double the IP cost
  • Starting cash is a flat rate for each role
  • Automatic failure on a roll of '1' can be re-rolled if you have +5 in the skill or more
Plus some extra ones I've been toying with while thinking over this entry:
  • There are no roles, just skills and abilities
  • 'Reflexes' gets split into Agility and Reflexes
More generally, some of the problems (especially those to do with the importance of armour and toting around massive guns) can be solved by the GM being realistic about what the police and society expects. No, it is not possible to walk around in broad daylight wearing a flak helmet without the police wondering what you're up to. No, you can't walk into a club cradling an uzi without the bouncers wanting to stop you. Yes, you will be minigunned down by SWAT team gyrocopters if you start a firefight in broad daylight. I don't think the rulebook stressed the importance of this sort of thing nearly enough, and consequently though our games were always a lot of fun for the 14-year-old male (full-body conversion cyborgs with smartchipped assault carbines chewing up entire shopping precints) I don't think they'd hold my attention for longer than about 10 minutes now. Well, okay, perhaps half an hour...

Friday, 26 June 2009

In the Halls of Mandos

My favourite roguelike game, T.O.M.E. has a "Lost Soul" mode, in which you start off as a dead soul, freshly arrived in the Halls of Mandos. Armed only with some starting adventurer's gear, the goal is to make your way back to the real world so you can live your life again. Except that the monsters inhabiting the Halls are the kind who ordinary adventurers will only be facing once they've reached level 50 - and you're right at the bottom of about a hundred dungeon levels.

The D&D equivalent would be trying to survive as a 1st level wizard in a dungeon filled with ancient red dragons, balors, pit fiends and a few tarrasques for good measure. You die time and time again - dozens upon dozens of characters consigned forever to oblivion. But every so often you manage to get a kill, of some lowly denizen, which nevertheless gives you enough XP to gain sometimes five levels at a time. And these little rewards keep you interested. Until you turn the next corner and that character gets splatted and you have to start all over again.

I want to make a campaign based on this.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Oh virgins, listen all virgins are liars honey

I've been thinking about playstyles today. Not that GNS nonsense. The old fashioned personality clashes that go on in a group of role players sometimes.

I suppose, generally speaking, I tend towards a certain level of intra-party conflict (as in, party disagreements, insults and bickering) in my gaming. I put this down to three things:

1. Reality, by which I mean the truism that people flung together by circumstance (as PCs in a campaign often are) aren't going to get on like a house on fire without some work and common bonding experiences which bring them together. This serves to make party unity and comraderie, when it eventually happens, all the more rewarding; the team is a team because over a period of facing common challenges they have come to trust and rely on each other. A priori unity, where everybody is friends from day dot, seems forced by comparison - unless of course there's a backstory explanation for it.

2. I've done most of my gaming - in fact almost all of my gaming - with other men. (Some men in that position worry about this; I've seen threads on rpg.net expressing anxiety about the number of women in the hobby. For those of us who can meet women in our daily lives, it's less of a problem.) Now, I hate to generalise like this without a license, but it's also a truism that when a group of male friends get together the primary mode of interaction is the insult - the cruder the better. This naturally bleeds into character interactions within the game, in my experience, and though it adds a little spice and a little edge to proceedings, it's also always carried out on a shared understanding that the bickering and insults are tongue-in-cheek and not to be taken at all seriously. This is the kind of atmosphere that I, and I suspect most male gamers, are used to.

3. Some of the absolute best gaming experiences I've ever been party to revolved around some big in-character arguments which practically elevated themselves to theatre. The time when half the party secretly struck up a bargain with a dragon that had killed various friends and family members of the other half, who then found out. The time when the amoral thief character cheerfully offered up another character's pets to be eaten by a group of grell in exchange for safe passage. The time when one character shot a vital witness and took the entire campaign onto an entirely new trajectory - from investigation to fleeing the law. The time we spent the entire night arguing about whether to kill our captive worst enemy in cold blood or let him go. These episodes all stick in my mind far more than any in-game triumph - perhaps because those sort of moments get the closest (in my experience) to the oft-sought after but rarely-found genuine immersion.

Is this a rare point of view? Obviously it's impossible to know what "other gamers do", but I'm intrigued about how cooperative or not groups of PCs tend to be in other people's games. I should add the caveat that I'm not talking about PCs fighting each other, which I've always avoided, but a healthy level of trading insults and general banter.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Warhammer FRP 2nd Edition: What D&D 3.x Should Have Been

I'm enjoying running my Warhammer FRP PBEM game. Proceedings have been amusingly chaotic and the party members have an interesting tendency to attack everything on sight, which should prove entertaining in the long term.

I'm also enjoying the system, which is rare for me - generally speaking my philosophy on system is "Who gives a shit so long as you have motivated players and good characters, and we're not playing Blue Rose?" But WFRP really scratches that itch I have for realistic, gritty, low-fantasy nastiness, plus mutants, chaos gods and unreliable firearms.

The best thing about WFRP is the combat, which is both tactically fun but also pretty authentic in feel - the characters seem fragile in the same way that real people are fragile, and armour and shields are often the difference between life and death. It's a far cry from the weird D&D world of hit points, armour class and abstract mechanics - which is part of the charm, of course, but just not a proper fit for so many styles of gaming.

What interests me most about WFRP is that the combat is at least broadly similar to D&D 3.x's - everything is based on full and half actions, swift actions, free actions, etc. - but the difference is that WFRP's system just works, whereas I never felt D&D 3.x's did. Attacks of Opportunity were always annoying and fiddly; grappling and unarmed combat generally was a mess. Worse, the obsession with the tactical minutiae of combat never sat right with the level of abstraction at which the traditional mechanics existed - combat itself was exceptionally detailed tactically, but at the point at which hits and damage (the meat and bones) came into play, it suddenly morphed into something very simplistic. By contrast, WFRP combat is always at the same level of abstraction and the same level of detail, whether you're working out what actions exactly your character can do this round, or working out where he's been hurt and how badly. More importantly, its combat isn't likely to be ruined by overly powerful magic-users doing everything, or by killer class-combination "builds" dreamed up by annoying adolescent boys with nothing better to do with their time and posted on the internet.

WFRP's system is so robust and fun, in fact, that I think it would work perfectly for historical gaming, especially around the period which the Warhammer world is roughly analagous to. I can just imagine a game set in the Italian Wars, or during the Conquest of Mexico, or during the zenith of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of Byzantium, perhaps.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Touching It with a Barge Pole

Let's lighten things up around here and talk about racism.

Somebody put up a thread over at rpg.net with the provocative title Playing in a Racist Campaign the other day, and I just had to break my self-imposed rpg.net pointless-debate vow of silence. Namely here, here and here.

Partly because, to be honest, it's a pet hate of mine when people on internet forums drop in the middle of a debate with a self-aggrandising "I am clearly on the side of the angels" post which adds absolutely nothing substantive. But also because, really, I had to know whether or not I'm alone in thinking that there's something strange about the moral compass of a great many D&D players.

Namely: there seems to be a tendency among a large group, let's call them a sizeable minority, to eliminate issues of racism (I suppose sexism too) in the campaigns in which they play - that is, to give characters the attitudes which young, urban, middle-class types in the real, modern day world profess to have. Bob the dwarf and Lothario the elf might be non-human mystical beings from a pseudo-medieval world in which dragons exist, but hey, deep down inside they're not really any different to Bob the SOAS lecturer and Lothario the Dentist from Dublin in our reality.

What's weird about this is not the laudable attitude that racism and sexism are bad and it would be nice if everybody did have the tolerant attitudes of Bob the SOAS lecturer. What's weird is that Bob the dwarf and Lothario the elf have probably killed dozens of orcs in their lifetime just for being orcs, have probably either first or second hand knowledge of rape and torture, think nothing of pillage and burglary, and regularly engage in bouts of violence against unthinking animals which in our world would bring the RSPCA and PETA down on them like a ton of feathers. In other words: Nothing about these people is at all like a modern day, real world, young, urban, middle-class person - either in attitude or experience. Apart from the fact that they're carefully and deliberately not bigoted.

Does anybody else think this is odd, not to say morally contradictory? Why is it that issues of bigotry are swept under the carpet, but ultra-violence (usually racially motivated ultra-violence at that) is a critical part of almost every single D&D campaign that has ever been? That is to say, why is racism apparently ranked higher than murder in the heirarchy of things that are bad?

I'm not arguing that D&D shouldn't be violent. Nor am I arguing that it is, or should be, racist. I am arguing that it's rather unrealistic and strange for a D&D campaign to not even deal with the idea that, hey, people of difference races probably don't get along so well together, especially given all the sectarian and racially motivated killing that goes on. That the issue should not even be explored requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Moreover, it is kind of worrying to me that squeamishness about racism is a commonplace in the gaming community, but squeamishness about murder generally isn't.

Also note: I hate having to say this, because it should be taken as read, but of course I think that real-world racism is a blight on society that needs to be got rid of. Just to make that clear.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Gods of the Yellow City

The Yellow City is famous for its many cults, religions, and spiritual movements. The shrines and temples associated with these groups line the God River as it runs through the city, clustering along its banks as if tapping into some sort of holy source. Nobody has ever counted or surveyed the gods worshiped in the city in their entirety, and in any case the number continually fluctuates as the little religions rise and fall. But the number certainly runs into the thousands.

Priest characters from the Yellow City are free to create any deity they like. Alternatively, they can randomly generate a patron god for their character using the following set of tables.

1. Determine God's Aspect

Most gods in the Yellow City take on an animal or plant form. Roll a d30 to determine this.

1. Rhino 2. Elephant 3. Crane 4. Mantis 5. Beetle 6. Monkey 7. River Dolphin 8. Octopus 9. Tree 10. Turtle 11. Tortoise 12. Spider 13. Scorpion 14. Snake 15. Dog 16. Crocodile 17. Hawk 18. Shark 19. Dragon 20. Frog 21. Venus Flytrap 22. Poppy 23. Orchid 24. Lilly 25. Hog 26. Dhole 27. Lizard 28-30. Hybrid (roll twice).

Determine God's Alignment

Roll d3 twice to determine alignment (1. Law 2. Neutral 3. Chaos; 1. Good 2. Neutral 3. Evil).

Determine Spheres of Influence [If using 2nd edition, Priest spell spheres should be based on this.]

Roll a d3 to determine the number of spheres, then roll a d20 to determine the nature of those spheres:

1. Rivers 2. Death 3. Pain 4. Pleasure 5. Creativity 6. Healing 7. Dreams 8. Magic 9. Love 10. Sex 11. Men 12. Women 13. Children 14. Food 15. Disease 16. Famine 17. Harvest 18. Oceans 19. Trickery 20. Weather

Determine Sacrificial Rites

Roll a d6 to determine the nature of sacrifices the devotees offer:

1. Human 2. Amphibian 3. Mammal 4. Bird 5. Reptile 6. Invertebrate

Determine Holy Colour

Roll a d10 to determine the god's holy colour, worn by its acolytes:

1. Yellow 2. Red 3. Blue 4. Purple 5. Green 6. Orange 7. Black 8. White 9. Pink 10. Brown

Finally, Determine Sex

Roll a d100. 1-49. Male 50-98. Female 99. Hermaphrodite 00. Asexual

An example:

Gulhaa, the Source

Gulhaa, the Source takes on the ferocious aspect of a gargantuan, warty frog with the head of a bull elephant. His statues, usually of bronze, are always gold-leafed on his long, powerful tusks. His eyes are usually embedded rubies.

Gulhaa is a benevolent deity [lawful good]. He presides over the two most vital elements of life itself: Death and Sex. The act of copulation is believed to be a form of worship by his followers, as is the act of mourning; funerals at his temples are riotous affairs which often descend into orgy. As Gulhaa takes the soul of the dead person into his great maw, so he oversees the creation of souls anew.

Gulhaa's servants wear purple, and offer mammalian sacrifices - typically monkeys, cattle or capybara - on their holy days.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Second Chances

Just watched the Next Gen episode Second Chances the other night. It's the one near the end of Season 6 where the crew discover an alternate Will Riker who was spawned in a freak transporter incident and ended up marooned on an uninhabited world for eight years.

This is one of those fantastic ideas that (idiots) who poo-poo sci-fi don't appreciate. And like a lot of Next Gen ideas it's handled amazingly well within the space of 42 minutes; how those writers managed to pack so much story into that space of time and do it so competently is a minor miracle.

Anyway, it got me thinking about an idea for a one-on-one game. The fate of "Thomas" Riker is fascinating - how would you cope with suddenly discovering that not only have you been marooned for 8 years...nobody even knew or cared that you were gone because (effectively) a doppelganger was in your place, making up with your estranged dad and shagging your girlfriend? How would you make a life for yourself as "the other Will Riker" in the brave new reality you've had thrust upon you?

This is the kind of thing that role playing games were invented for.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

She saw the world and she wanted it all

In a high minaret in one of the largest palaces of the Yellow City sits Xíklí Gá, child of one of the richest of the city's merchants. Grown fat now, and old, she can only move with the aid of her human slaves, who bear her great molluscoid body around on an ebony palanquin. But her ambition knows no bounds. From her vantage point in her palace she can gaze out over the entire city, which she dreams she will one day own.

Xíklí Gá has fingers in many different pies. Organised crime, legitimate trade, gambling, politics and opium dens, she is a powerful player in all of those worlds. Many adventurers and mercenaries find employment in her amorphous organisation - so much so that "taking Xíklí's silver" has become a byword in the slums for turning to the life of a sellsword.

Xíklí Gá

Chaotic 8th Level Slugperson (Mage)

STR - 9
INT - 18
WIS - 17
DEX - 4
CON - 16
CHR - 10

Equipment: The Ring of Li Hiaqiu [Ring of Protection +5], Vinegarroon Claw Amulet [Amulet of Immunity to Poison]

Bodyguards: Four 4th level human fighters. [Sword, spear, shield, scale mail.]

Weird Fiction Interview; Last Word from China

Back in the land of the living, and more China Mieville. (I'm not a stalker, honest. He's been guest blogger all this week on another blog I occasionally read, so he's looming large in my google reader tray. This will be my last Mievillian post for a while.)

But anyway, there's a good interview here, in which he and Jeff VanderMeer bat various issues back and forth in an entertaining if slightly smart-alecky way. Especially good near the beginning, where he talks about "the Weird" and the sublime - high-falutin' English-literature-undergrad nomenclature aside, it's rather nice. Quote of the interview:

I think a lot of what we admire in Weird Fictioneers is not that they see, but that they make a decent fist of expressing.

We all see weirdness, awe, beauty, the sublime, whatever, in our lives; the talent is in putting it into words. Or, I suppose, pictures.

The whole thing is well worth reading, though, and there are some good comments underneath it, too.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

U-Turning on Tolkien

I'm writing this from a roadside internet cafe somewhere in the depths of Iwate prefecture - I wouldn't normally have bothered spending the extra 200 yen, but I just spotted something in my google reader feed that I had to link to: China Mieville saying nice things about Tolkien. (Regular readers will know why this is of extra special interest.) It seems China has had a change of heart, and it's a welcome one. Three quotes I picked out on a cursory reading:

Whatever we see as the drive behind Tolkien's tragic vision, and however we relate to its politics and aesthetics, the tragedy of the creeping tawdry quotidian gives Middle Earth a powerful melancholia lamentably missing from too much of what followed. It deserves celebrating and reclaiming.


[S]ay what you like about him, Tolk gives good monster. Shelob, Smaug, the Balrog...in their astounding names, the fearful verve of their descriptions, their various undomesticated malevolence, these creatures are utterly embedded in our world-view. No one can write giant spiders except through Shelob: all dragons are sidekicks now.


In his abjuring of allegory, Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really 'about' something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and 'solve' the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code. His dissatisfaction with the Narnia books was in part precisely because they veered too close to allegory, and therefore did not believe in their own landscape. A similar problem is visible now, in the various tentative ventures into u- or dystopia by writers uncomfortable with the genre they find themselves in and therefore the worlds they create, eager to stress that these worlds are 'about' real and serious things--and thereby bleeding them of the specificity they need to be worth inhabiting, or capable of 'meaning', at all. [Emphasis added.]

I find China's comments about 'Oedipal Resentment' on the part of young writers towards Tolkien pretty funny, because he's obviously speaking from experience but isn't honest enough to say so. I also think his own fiction has strayed into the territory he rejects in the third quoted section above. But this is the best piece I've read on Tolkien in some time, and it's nice to see that China's grown up quite a bit. I was going to buy his latest book anyway, but I think I might get it even sooner than I was going to.

Saturday, 13 June 2009


I'll be away from teh interwebs for the next few days. Unforeseen circumstances and all that. Should be back to regular posting and comments answering from Thursday or Friday.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Hireling Backgrounds

We all know hirelings are a cornerstone of D&D and other dungeon-delving type fantasy games. Cross their palms with silver and they'll follow you to any dragon's den. But what's really in it for them? What's all that silver for? Roll a d12 and find out.

1. The hireling is an opiate addict and needs money for his fix.
2. The hireling's sister was abducted by bandits and he needs ransom money.
3. The hireling is on the run from the law and being a hireling is just a cover.
4. Money makes the world go round and this hireling is just a greedy bastard who wants more of it.
5. The hireling spends all together too much on whores.
6. Gambling debts and loan sharks makes earning money a matter of life and death.
7. The hireling is a lothario and bon viveur and needs silver to maintain the lifestyle "to which he has become accustomed."
8. The hireling is an ascetic who wants to earn money so he can give it to his religious order/the poor.
9. There are a dozen children for the poor sap to support.
10. The hireling is saving money so that he can buy a boat and head off to the New World.
11. The hireling is an ex-military man and the only skill he has is with a sword.
12. The hireling wants to pay a cleric to heal his wife of a debilitating disease.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Upkeep Stuff

I have now entered the 21st Century and joined this twitter thing everybody is talking about. I won't talk about RPGs much but you're welcome to follow my ramblings about law, academia, booze and girls there if you like; this is the place.

Also, I feel like I should update on Yoon-suin, in case anybody is still interested. Work continues apace (i.e. aslowpace, aha ha ha). I've been methodically jotting down ideas as they come to me and writing up some travelogues that I'll put up on the blog at some point. I'm not sure whether to "do a Scott" and just create a wiki, or compile a pdf and release that.

Finally, I notice that the inestimable taichara has decided to put some entries together into a document for release, for which she [I'm pretty sure she's a she; correct me if I'm wrong] should be applauded to the heavens.

Monday, 8 June 2009

This kiss you give is never going to fade away.

Saw Terminator: Salvation over the weekend and mostly hated it (though there's no denying the brilliance of the effects and some great explosions and crunching action scenes). But it has me in a post-apocalyptic frame of mind.

I was 10 years old when the Iron Curtain fell and therefore of that last generation who knew at least something of the Cold War. (I remember being told by a primary school teacher what to do in the event of a nuclear attack - I think it boiled down to getting into a bath and covering it with a mattress, or if not, hiding under something slanted like a conveniently placed door taken off its hinges and leant against a wall. Even at the age of 9 these methods struck me as somewhat unlikely. If only I'd seen the fourth Indiana Jones film - I would have known to just get in the fridge.) I even participated in a debate on the merits of Britain maintaining its nuclear deterrent at the age of 10 or so; as a young boy who liked drawing pictures of stuff blowing up, I was naturally in favour.

So although nostalgia is perhaps the wrong word, nuclear war does have something of an old-fashioned, almost retro feel to it that I oddly appreciate. It is as associated with my childhood as is Mr. Whippy ice cream, summertime ant plagues, football in the park after school, and fights with my sister. Something that was in the background and which we didn't think much about, but lurked there all the same. A very distant and very vague threat that manifested itself in news stories about the Berlin Wall, Ceausescu, Trident and Letters of Last Resort.

I've thought about post-apocalyptic gaming many times before, but never really played it - unless Cyberpunk 2020 counts, which I suppose it might. Perhaps another idea for GURPS. Ah, the possibilities, the possibilities:
  • What would have happened if the Cuba Missile Crisis had kicked off?
  • What would have happened if the Nazis had won the race to nuclear power?
  • Some unlikely future scenario?
  • The invention of time travel sees a temporal cold war a la Star Trek: Enterprise except good, finally resulting in nuclear apocalypse in the Age of Sail?
The last is my favourite.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Men at the Last

[Credit to Big Fella for the idea.]

The Men at the Last are an order of clerics, executioners, surgeons and mystics, who have accompanied the armies of Cournouaille since before the establishment of the Duchy. Usually not more than 100 in number, they tend to those wounded in battle or diseased - and are there to kill with mercy those who are beyond their help. They always do this with a misericorde - a long, very thin knife which they insert into the heart by plunging it down behind the collar bone or through the ribs. For heavily armoured men the blade is sometimes pushed in through the eye to the brain.

If they can, The Men at the Last attempt to capture the last breath of each patient in a glass jar - just before or after administering the coup de grace. A huge collection of these jars can be found in the order's headquarters, the monastery at Douamenez. Arranged in rows on shelves in a vast, domed hall, on hot days the sun streams in through the windows and makes the jars glow with astonishing clarity. On such days the men of the order gather in the chamber, imagining that they can see the very souls of the men they have slain, trapped within the jars.

Legend has it that when if ever Douamenez should be in peril, the jars can be shattered and the dead of Cournouaille will go to its rescue, whereafter they will achieve their final release.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Make War, Not Love

When I'm not the DM in a game of D&D (which isn't often), I usually play fighters. I like not having to think about magic, psionics and what-have-you, and just get on with killing things with extreme prejudice. (The fact that this playstyle is no longer supported by D&D - all the classes are now all about resource management - is one of 4e's big turn-offs.)

One thing I've noticed over the years is that people who play fighters tend to choose the same weapons - longsword, battle axe, maybe the occasional spear or two-handed sword. (I believe one of those idiotic min/maxing stalwarts from the 3.X days was a fighter with a chain.) This has always been boring to me and I've always tried to equip my fighters with signature weapons that not many other people use. These have included, over the years, the khopesh, the glaive, the morning star and the quarter-staff.

Of course, if you really want to go to town, there are weapons like the misericorde, macuahuitl, or bich'hwa that would do the trick. Sure, they might not do a lot of damage in D&D terms, but they really make a fighter stand out from the crowd...

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

R. I. P. David Eddings

After I badmouthed David Eddings only a week ago, the man has now passed away and made me feel bad. I didn't really like his books - though I did enjoy The Mallorean series for what it was - and thought that they were a very cynical marketing ploy. Still, he was one of those writers who popularised the genre, bringing it out of its 1970s/80s funk and transforming it into the mighty behemoth it is today; for that reason I think all fantasy fans should be at least respectful of him.

He also wrote one of the most memorable scenes in fantasy (for me), which occurred in I think the second book of The Mallorean. In it, Garion and chums are set upon in a forest by zombie-like attackers, reminiscent of the creatures in the 28 [weeks, days] Later films, and have to resort to creating a kind of forcefield around themselves which the enemies fling themselves at. It's a very exciting scene and one that's stuck in my mind for the 13 years or so since I read it.