Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Historical Geography of RPG Playing

When I was a lad, knee-high to a grasshopper, playing RPGs was a secret shameful activity one generally conducted in a darkened room - typically somebody or other's bedroom or attic, occasionally a living room. Usually this room was covered with posters of hot women (Louise from Eternal, now better known as Louise Redknapp, was a particular favourite) and there was Warhammer paraphernalia everywhere. As time went on, there would also be the stench of cheap pot, teenage male sweat and grease, and unwashed leather jackets. 

Many years later, playing RPGs was a slightly less secretive and shameful activity one conducted in a brightly lit (indeed starkly, fluorescently lit) basement of a backstreet restaurant one entered through a nondescript door in a piss-stinking alleyway. There were no posters of hot women anymore; instead there were wargames piled everywhere and huge battle-maps where matches of Squad Leader were being kept in stasis for the following weekend. It didn't stink of cheap pot, but IPA and older adult male sweat and grease. The carpet hadn't been cleaned in years and was covered in bits of things you simply didn't want to even contemplate, yet alone ever touch with anything but the soles of your shoes. On all the walls there were shelves full of tiny draws, each of which was filled with anything wargame-related, from tanks to little plastic trees and bushes to ruined buildings. In the toilet was a chart which allowed you to measure how dehydrated you were by assessing the colour of your urine. There was also Warhammer paraphernalia everywhere.

Some time after that, playing RPGs was a still-slightly less secretive and shameful activity one conducted in a large room in a bleak sidestreet full of abandoned buildings on the outskirts of one of the shabbier shopping areas of the city. Again, no posters of Louise Redknapp. Instead, a vast horde of obscenely nerdish people, mostly men, constantly playing Magic: The Gathering and Yu Gi Oh! - like a scene from a Ligotti story, you had the suspicion upon entering the room that these people weren't really people at all, but figments of a dream; either always there, playing their meaningless games whatever the time of day, or never there unless you were - a cast of extras who came into existence only to serve as a vaguely hostile backdrop to whatever you were doing. The place stank of grease because of the burger grill in one corner of the room; inadequately ventilated, the room and everything in it was coated in a thin nasty film of oil. You only had to step in the door for it to cover you, so that when you got home you'd have to put all your clothes in the laundry basket (or better, a furnace) and scrub yourself clean in the shower like a surgeon or nuclear physicist. There was always an unholy racket of people getting too excited about Yu Gi Oh!, and every so often the Verbeeg-esque owner would lurch to his feet to bellow something in a voice that was oddly reedy for a man so tall. Occasionally prostitutes would come in to shelter from the cold and buy Pepsi. There was also Warhammer paraphernalia everywhere. 

Some time after that, playing RPGs was a shameful but no longer secretive activity which one conducted, guerilla-like, in various normal locations: cafes, bars and restaurants where real people lived and worked. There was no Warhammer paraphernalia anywhere and for the first time there was civilized alcohol consumption. There was no stench of grease or oil - merely a stench of paranoiac dread hanging over you at the prospect of somebody you knew coming in. You felt a bit like a really bad performance artist doing something vaguely weird in the background of other people's lives. 

Nowadays, playing RPGs is a not all that shameful and no longer secretive activity that you can actually do in a rather basic but friendly board game cafe. There is pretty good food and a decent selection of drinks, and you can actually sit there and play D&D as though it's normal. 

That is what I call progress. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

You're the Captain of Your Soul...Know What I Mean?

Whether Sartre was right about the real world, in the world of D&D, existence precedes essence. Your character sheet is really just numbers. You are free to do with your character what you wish. You can choose to be good, bad, cruel, kind, friendly, cold, brave or cowardly. A D&D PC is defined by himself and his actions (well, those of the strange demigod, known as the "player", who inhabits him).

Do you want to be a reckless wizard? A cowardly fighter? A profane cleric? Do you want to kill orc babies or try to reform them? Do you want to amass personal wealth or give it all away? It's your decision. Nobody else's.

In this and many ways, RPGs are - perhaps uniquely among games - an exercise in freedom. In any other game you can think of, be it cricket or chess, your field of action is restricted and limited by rules. In an RPG there are really no such restrictions (or at least, there don't have to be). Your freedom is constrained by the other players and social convention, of course; you can't just sit at the table and openly masturbate, or eat the dice, or whatever, but that's true of all other games as well. Where it matters, in an RPG there are no constraints.

Does this mean anything? I'm not sure, but I'll hazard this: playing an RPG gives you an interesting insight into agency. It may be that we are all just bundles of neurons who go around reacting to things and then rationalising our decisions after the fact, as it now seems fashionable for neuroscientists to argue. But playing an RPG you get a relatively unfiltered understanding of what agency is and means: the power to make decisions and choices and then act on them. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What Is A Bard?

I've just finished watching a documentary in which Nitin Sawhney composed a symphony for animals to listen to. It was successful for starlings, a parakeet, and a seal; dogs and wolves seemed nonplussed. Believe it or not this is actually a burgeoning field of study; it turns out all kinds of animals can and will respond to musical cues. Some of what is going on seems to concern teaching animals how to interact with music; some of it concerns finding out what kind of music animals naturally respond to.

I think there is something very moving about the former, but I find the latter more interesting. It turns out that we can figure out what kind of music monkeys like and compose it for them. (There is something Bartok-esque about it - I actually kind of enjoy it for that reason.) There are even people making music for cats (think Brian Eno doing something ambient).

Naturally enough, thinking about all of this my mind starts to wander: what if people in a fantasy world knew how to make music for dwarves or goblins or dragons?

Let's take that further. Imagine it was impossible to communicate through language with other races: humans, dwarves, elves and so on simply lack common key concepts which make true communication possible. But what if music - rhythm, tone, pitch - was something that all living things understood? You might not be able to really talk to a dwarf. But maybe through music you could find a way to share certain messages, emotions and so forth.

In this world, bards are essentially translators. The local dwarf citadel and human kingdom have been at war. As a peace overture, the humans send a bard to play certain melodies which communicate good faith and sincere intentions. Meanwhile a nearby orc tribe is gathering its warriors to take advantage of the human kingdom's weakness. A bard is sent with a group of drummers to beat out a rhythm from a mountaintop which will tell the orcs, "We're ready." The bard PC is like a snake charmer who gradually learns more and more specific ways to communicate with monsters and animals through music - and can improvise at a push.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Personal RPG Coefficient

In "The Creative Act", Duchamp talks about something he called "the art coefficient":

[I]n the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap which represents the inability of the artist to fully express his intention; this difference between what he intended to realise and did realise, is the personal "art coefficient" contained in the work. 
In other words, the personal "art coefficient" is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed."

In other words, a work of art is never what the artist fully intended. The difference between those two things - what he really wanted to create and what he in fact did create - is the personal "art coefficient".

RPG sessions are a bit like this, when you think about it. We are all nowadays, most of us, sandbox DMs, or non-railroading DMs, but still I think most DMs when planning a campaign have some ideas, however vague, about tone and quality and maybe certain key events and encounters. And this is also true on the microscale of individual aspects of a campaign, like NPCs, monsters and lairs: when planning or designing or thinking up such things, any DM has an idea in mind of how the PCs will interact with the NPC, defeat the monster, investigate the lair, etc.

We can therefore speak of such a thing as "the personal RPG coefficient". This is the difference between how the DM conceives of an in-game thing in the abstract, and how it actually turns out in practice. The clever and sarcastic NPC wizard does something stupid (the DM doesn't think things through). The sinister monster turns out to be really easy to defeat by the thoughtful players. The PCs discover the secret entrance to the lair before they come across the main entrance. And so forth.

Anybody who has DM'd a gaming session will be familiar with the personal RPG coefficient and its strange alchemy.

According to Duchamp the scale of the personal art coefficient didn't matter. All art is open to interpretation by the spectators. They are the ones who judge its success or failure. Not the artist. By implication, the artist may intend to do one thing, but utterly fail to achieve that in the final product. That doesn't matter, because those viewing it may judge it as good art and posterity may decide it is great art.

In the same way, it doesn't matter that the DM may have intended or predicted things will turn out one way, if they are different in the actual outcome. Those involved in the game may still judge it as good and fun.

Friday, 2 December 2016

One Page Risus Elementalists

For a long time, it's been one of my (many and unrealised) gaming ambitions to come up with a system for running a game which I call Risus Elementalists. The concept is simple: it's a very high fantasy "fantastical" sort of setting which is mostly based around this sort of tonal palette, and the PCs are elementalists. You get four magical stats. The magical stats have to be Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

What I have so far is as follows:

When you want to cast a spell, you roll the requisite number of dice and describe what you want to do. If you get one or more '4's or above, you succeed. The more '4's the better. You have to be able to describe what you are doing in a vaguely plausible way: "I summon forces of fire to blast my enemy" is fine. "I summon forces of fire to telekinetically move the object across the room" isn't really.

Combat between elementalists is like rock, paper, scissors. Fire beats earth because it can scorch and melt it. Earth beats air because earth is immovable. Air beats water because water is movable. Water beats fire because, duh. If magical combat occurs, both of the Elementalists note down on a scrap of paper what element they are using. On the count of three, they reveal it. If one has fire and the other earth, the one with fire wins automatically - and so on through the elemental "oppositions". If, however, the two of them have come up with non-opposed elements (for example, earth vs water) they roll their respective abilities and the one with the most successes wins.

Everything else is done through role playing.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

[Actual Play] Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Session 3

[Previous session report can be found here. I should briefly mention how I am dealing with having a rotating cast of PCs. Usually my games operate on a kind of implicit weird quantum space-time oddity: if a player is absent one week his PC is not there and never was. If he returns, his PC is there and always was. New PCs for new players, and replacement PCs for the dead, are generally introduced as quickly as possible if not immediately. However, since this is practically at the beginning of the campaign we just acted as though the new PC, Linga, had been there from the beginning, and didn't bother giving him an actual introduction.]

PCs present:

  • "Bash" (real name unknown), a Danish mystic, played by C
  • Raphael de Fonseca, a Jewish-Dutch scholar, played by M
  • Linga, a Malabar specialist, played by P

Here is what the PCs managed to map out in this session:

The goby fish left the PCs alone at the spot marked with the red [x] near chamber 25 on the map, which was a boggy area leading out into a sunlit realm of jungle. While the walls here were icy rock as elsewhere, a large open space of apparently natural equatorial forest stretched out before them. High above the canopy they could just make out areas of blue sky and sun.

The party knew they had to head East in order to meet the wise woman the goby fish had told them about, so they went more or less due East through the hot, dense forest. Eventually they reached another wall that was perpendicular to their advance, so they decided that to follow it South. This lead them to map out some of the contours of this big jungle "cavern". They found some tunnel entrances leading off it at various points, before eventually finding themselves back in the boggy area where they had begun. They retraced their steps East and this time followed the wall North, hugging it all the way, until eventually they discovered it curved back on itself and they were heading South once more.

It wasn't long before a stone-tipped spear flew out of the forest and hit the wall in front of them. Appearing as if from thin air, a number of reptilian humanoids emerged to warn them that they were entering hunting grounds. These humanoid things could not speak Dutch, or any other language that the PCs understood, but nonetheless when they spoke their odd chittering tongue the meaning was clear. 

The PCs attempted to explain they were looking for a woman, a concept which these lizard men did not understand very well; eventually they were satisfied with the description of an "egg layer" and a rough description of the difference between a man and woman. They thought that she might be found if the PCs headed North and then East. The PCs duly turned around, not wishing to fight, and the lizard men disappeared back into thin air, like Cheshire cats.

After travelling North for some time the PCs came across another wall and traced it East. Here, they discovered three alcoves. One of these contained a carved wooden snake, around 5' long, with seven stripes on its back; its mouth was open and it appeared hollow. The others contained wooden bas-reliefs of a man and woman respectively, with exaggerated genitalia. All of these wooden idols gave off warmth of some kind, but did not react to offerings; however, lighting a fire before them seemed to bestow an air of sanctity on Linga.

Between these alcoves was a very narrow tunnel which gave off the smell of the sea. Bravely, Bash volunteered to crawl inside and soon came across a large number of spiny red sea urchins which covered the ceiling and walls. Using his shield as a protector he slowly but surely forced his way through and managed to do so without being stung; eventually he emerged into a cave in which he could stand and which was full of yellow-blue urchins. These urchins gave off a strange, urgent susurrus which seemed to him to suggest he should touch them. Aware that they were likely poisonous but also reminded that he had been perfectly happy to lick poisonous toads in order to enter the crocodile's dreams, Bash decided to go along with the urchins. Touching them and being stung then allowed his brain to become chemically attuned to the urchins' hormonal communication method. The urchins revealed that they had been in their cave since time immemorial and were desperately hungry. They promised Bash that if he brought them living meat they would provide guidance to him about the woman he sought.

The gang decided to press on and continue following the wall. It curved around to the South and soon they found themselves coming to the end of the jungle: they were back in an oceanic zone, walking on a sandy sea floor and looking at the surface far above them. They stayed here pondering what to do for some time. They had realised by now that it seemed everything in the crocodile's dreams was somehow sentient. They had also realised that all of these sentient things seemed rivalrous. They did not want to kill anything or bring it to the urchins, because that might result in them making enemies. They were also increasingly dubious about their mission to help the goby against his hairy foes. Nonetheless, they decided that it might be desirable, if they could find something that was not sentient but alive, and take it to the urchins to see what guidance they could offer about the "wise woman".

Shortly after entering the oceanic zone they were confronted by four man-sized sharks. They beat a hasty retreat to the border between the oceanic and jungle zones [marked with a green squiggle on the map], assuming that the sharks would not be able to cross into the forested area. The sharks seemed about to attack, but Bash put on a show of bravado and aggression, waving his machete around and implying that trying to fight him would be a big mistake. This at least encouraged the sharks to parlay. 

In this conversation, the PCs were able to understand a bit more about the nature of this place. The sharks revealed that ever since "the ruler" had arrived, everything had changed: forest was mixed up with sea, but also all living things had become hunters. This is because "the ruler" enjoys hunting so much: his spirit had touched everything and the desire to hunt had pervaded all life there. 

The PCs did not want to fight the sharks, so they decided to try to ally with them in finding food for the urchins, and asked what the most delicious thing was that lived in the sea. The sharks without hesitation said that it was a giant clam which lived nearby. The PCs hatched upon a plan: they would open the clam and give it to the sharks. In return, the three strongest sharks would give the PCs the weakest one, which they could then take to the sea urchins. The sharks, being sharks, and each thinking of him- or herself as the strongest, agreed to this.

The sharks led the PCs to a nearby chamber in which, sure enough, lay a giant clam. The PCs informed the clam that they were its doom: they were going to drag it away to be eaten. Bargaining for its life, it offered them a safe sanctuary in which to stay - no sea creature could enter its lair and cause harm, nor on its guests. If the PCs let it live, it would provide them a safe place in perpetuity. Linga agreed to this and got given a pearl into the bargain (the removal of which was a great relief to the clam). But he was quickly persuaded to go back on his word: Bash and Raphael both reasoned that this "sanctuary" was useless as coming and going would involve traversing a shark-infested sea each time. The clam wailed and moaned and complained, but was dragged away in short order. The PCs took it to the very boundary of the jungle and ocean zones, so that they could open it up, give it to the sharks, take their weakest member, and escape into the trees if it all went awry.

The sharks were good to their and bullied the weakest of their number out of the sea area to be caught in a net by the party. Raphael and Linga then hacked open the giant clam and gave the meat to the sharks, while Bash dragged away the still-living captive shark to give it to the urchins before it ran out of air.

The session ended with the sea urchins slowly eating the shark alive while telling Bash the following information:

1. The wise woman is actually the Aunt of "the ruler", and she lives on an island between two rivers. On no account must a visitor touch the water from either of those rivers with any part of his body, because if he does so, his essence will be drained away and dissipated and he will simply become part of the crocodile's dreams.

2. The Aunt will react favourably to anybody who professes to know her nephew, "the ruler", by name. And his name is Sese-Mahuru-Bau.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Big Spaces in Little Spaces

Parts of one of the different sub-settings within Behind Gently Smiling Jaws involve areas which appear small on the map but which are very large. So a chamber which appears to be 100 yards across on the dungeon map could actually be 100 miles across. If the PCs move around the walls the chamber has its "ordinary" map-based circumference. But if the PCs move across it, it might take them hours or days to do so, and it might contain entire countries.

I have been thinking about this off and on for a while - not just for this game but also because I nurture ambitions of one day running a Mythago Wood campaign. (The eponymous wood looks like an ordinary smallish English wood but is actually vast - potentially infinitely big - once you get inside it.) It would look a bit like this:

The players mosey on down the corridor in the ordinary way. If they move around the walls of the chamber they find its circumference what it appears to be on the map (say, 300 yards-ish, because the chamber looks about 100 yards in diameter on the map's scale) but if they were to move across it they would be in, basically, a hexmap.

I feel as though this ought to be more difficult than it appears. The main thing to keep track of is just what hex the players enter. (The hexes would need to be numbered in reality of course.) They would then move around the hexes as though in a hex map, say on a 1-mile per hex basis. Once they got to the edge of the hex map, they would find the cavern wall wherever they emerged.

FLY, MY PRETTIES. Tell me whether there is anything about this concept that would make things particularly difficult to use in actual play.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Iron Rations

The word "rations" gets bandied about quite a lot in D&D. A week's rations. Iron rations.

Here's an extract from The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard's first hand re-telling of Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. The book contains an account of Cherry-Garrard's "winter journey", with two companions, to try to discover a rookery of emperor penguins and bring back some of their eggs. This was a 6-week trip through near total darkness, in temperatures between -40 and -60 degrees centigrade, carrying two heavy sledges. It is possibly one of the most riveting passages ever written in the English language about the hardships of wilderness travel.

But it also contains plenty of interesting information about things like, well, rations. Here's what the three men arranged during the journey:

By taking individually different quantities of biscuit, pemmican and butter we were able roughly to test the proportions of proteids, fats and carbohydrates wanted by the human body under such extreme circumstances. Bill was all for fat, starting with 8 oz. butter, 12 oz. pemmican and only 12 oz. biscuit a day. Bowers told me he was going for proteids, 16 oz. pemmican and 16 oz. biscuit, and suggested I should go the whole hog on carbohydrates. I did not like this, since I knew I should want more fat, but the rations were to be altered as necessary during the journey, so there was no harm in trying. So I started with 20 oz. of biscuit and 12 oz. of pemmican a day. 
Bowers was all right (this was usual with him), but he did not eat all his extra pemmican. Bill could not eat all his extra butter, but was satisfied. I got hungry, certainly got more frost-bitten than the others, and wanted more fat. I also go heartburn. However, before taking more fat I increased my biscuits to 24 oz., but this did not satisfy me; I wanted fat. Bill and I now took the same diet, he giving me 4 oz. of butter which he could not eat, and I giving him 4 oz. of biscuit which did not satisfy my wants. We both therefore had 12 oz. pemmican, 16 oz. biscuit and 4 oz. butter a day, but we did not always finish our butter. This is an extremely good ration, and we had enough to eat during most of this journey. We certainly could not have faced the conditions without.

(Pemmican is mostly meat with fruit and berries. The "biscuits" used appear to have been high-energy sources of carbohydrate as Cherry-Garrard mentions sugar and oats a lot, but apparently the recipe was a trade secret and isn't disclosed.) So 12 oz. of meat and berries, 16 oz. of what one must envisage as a kind of flapjack, and 4 oz. of butter was enough to live on per day travelling through the Antarctic during winter carrying heavy sledges. That's around 350 grams / 450 grams / 120 grams, give or take, for metric fans. In other words, call it something in the region of a kilogram of weight per day.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Thinking Beyond Samurai: the Ryukyuan Paladin

An old theme on the blog is doing different things with Japanese or pseudo-Japanese settings: getting away from samurai and ninja and all that. 

Here's a continuation of a previous post from earlier this year. Have a look at this conditioning video. Uechi-ryu is one of the traditional Okinawan karate styles, and arguably is one of the "purest" in lineage to the Chinese Southern kung-fu origins of modern karate. All the Okinawan schools practice conditioning of the hands and forearms to make them extremely tough and strong. 

It gave me an idea for a character concept: the Ryukyuan paladin. This is a holy warrior who is specialised in defeating the undead: he conditions his fists until they are harder than stone, allowing him to smash the skeletal and brittle bodies of the evil dead with the sheer force of his punches. He would use the scaling damage of the monk, but when fighting against undead enemies would do maximum damage with each hit - ignoring requirements to  In return, he sacrifices the ability to cast spells and heal with his hands. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

Do RPGs Build Character?

I am a big believer in building character. I think that there is great virtue in forcing yourself to become accomplished at things. There are certain things in life - learning another language; learning how to cook or make pottery or fight; familiarizing yourself with canonical works of literature and philosophy, and so on - which are important to do not just because they are good and useful in their own right, but also because they teach you focus and self-discipline and concentration and mental or physical toughness and persistence and all other kinds of things which your grandfather probably deemed important.

It is good to be the type of person who can say: If I am set a difficult task, I can force myself to do it because I have done even more difficult things before, by choice, so fuck you.

How do RPGs feature in this? What does being a DM teach you? If you were a grandfather or grandmother, what would you say to an 11 year old as you sat there wagging your finger at him and explaining the virtues bestowed upon somebody who regularly DMs a campaign?

Discipline. You learn the value of spending time working hard on doing things which may not even have any sort of pay-off (many of the maps and other things you create will not end up being used at all), and you will often receive barely any thanks for your effort if at all.

Preparation. You will have to be ready for each session. You will have to have prepared and planned materials, of course, but you will also have to learn how to mentally prepare yourself to be on top of your game. This is more difficult than it sounds.

Thoughtfulness and consideration. You will have to think about other people - what they might enjoy, what they might not. You will have to take account of whether other people are enjoying themselves during each session.

Confidence. You will have to be in charge, the centre of attention, the one who steps into the breach, the one who guides and leads when guidance and leadership are necessary.

Decisiveness. You will have to make decisions. There will be many times during a game where you will be called upon to make a decision. You won't be satisfied with the options available to you, because you have been taken by surprise by events. But you will have to decide anyway.

RPGs are fun, but fun things can also improve you. How else does playing RPGs make people better?

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Nouns in the Yellow City Trade Tongue: Extract from the Journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl

From The Journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl, p. 378:

"The Yellow City is a city of many languages but the visitor is immediately struck by the fact that all of the populace shift with great facility to their 'Trade Tongue' whenever they are speaking to one outside their immediate circle.

"I asked many scholars about the origin of this 'Trade Tongue' and was told that it had been created by of all things a dwarfish sorcerer, Chinzin, who was a member of the court of an ancient emperor of the city. (There is nowadays, of course, no emperor, and has not been for thousands of years.) This dwarf was tasked with creating a language which could be spoken by both human and slug-man mouths alike, in order that commands could be issued and trades carried out between the two species without the slug-man masters suffering the indignities of being unable to pronounce certain words - it being known that the slug-man mouth is much less dextrous than that of the human.

"It is for this reason that, despite it being in common use for thousands of years at least, the Yellow City Trade Tongue has apparently changed little in pronunciation or grammatical rules since the earliest of Chinzin's Grammars

"The most noticeable characteristic of the 'Trade Tongue' is that it is a language which disdains nouns and adjectives. It is said that the dwarfish languages with which Chinzin was familiar are composed entirely of verbs, so that if one were to refer to a tree, for example, one would express something akin, mutatis mutandis, to one speaking our language making the expression: 'growing, greening, talling'.

"Whether or not this be true, the 'Trade Tongue' functions largely on the basis of verbs. Chinzin's genius, if it can be described as such, was what to linguistic scholars in the Yellow City became known as the Great Gerund Moment. The 'Trade Tongue' is a language comprising entirely verbs, except when those verbs are transformed into nouns through the use of special 'gerund classifiers' as follows.

"Consider the word in the 'Trade Tongue' for 'fish'. It is omifamofö.

This can be broken down into constituent parts thusly:

omi (which is the infinitive of the verb, 'to swim'), famo (which is the infinitive of the verb, 'to breathe water'), and then a particular gerund classifier,  (which might be said to be the equivalent of our "-ing thing"). Hence, omifamofö, or 'swim breathe-water -ing thing'.

"To which the perceptive reader will ask two questions: namely, what is the origin of this strange 'gerund classifier' and the rules governing its use; and does this not result in nouns which are of extreme and unusable length?

"Chinzin developed not one gerund classifier but 14. This was in accordance with the prevailing epistemological philosophy of the time, which held that all things could be classified into 14 archetypes. Hence, 'nouns' in the Yellow City Trade Tongue take a separate gerund classifier according to what archetype they fit.

"Over time, of course, the vision of perfection from which Chinzin was drawing proved too restrictive for the messy and chaotic nature of living things, and over time gerund classifications have become somewhat arbitrary. Nonetheless, the Yellow City Trade Tongue can still be said to have 14 noun classes based on the following schema. The schema lists Chinzin's classification and the comments in parenthesis elaborate on the modern usage.

(a) things that belong to the Emperor (there is nowadays no "emperor" so this in general classifies things associated with the slug man caste) wi
(b) embalmed things (includes things that are artificially constructed or altered)
(c) those that are trained (includes children, agricultural animals, and so on) öha
(d) suckling pigs (this includes most mammals) ma
(e) mermaids (includes fish and other scaly things, and also hybrids)
(f) fabulous ones (includes abstract concepts or things known not to actually exist) bo
(g) stray dogs (includes things associated with low-status castes) iwo
(h) those that are included in the present classification (only used for the noun "thing" itself) ȍwȉ
(i) those that tremble as if they are mad (includes things which are amorphous and cannot be fixed, such as clouds) pi
(j) innumerable ones (includes things found in clumps or other large gatherings) p'o
(k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush (includes things artistically created) ahi
(l) others (a miscellaneous category - usually whatever is not currently classified or where the speaker does not know what class something belongs in) xhu
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase (includes things that change form or location) wu
(n) those that look like flies from a long way off (includes insects, and other tiny things)

"Hence the word for 'fish', omifamofö, takes the gerund classifier for mermaids, or . This may be contrasted with another word, for 'peas', or fuwafap'o (from fuwa, the infinitive for "to be green", fa for the infinitive for "to be edible", and p'o, the gerund classifier for things that are innumerable or found in clumps.

"At some point there may be required second-order agglutination as in: p'abahuwupixȁ, the word for a cup or bowl. Viz: p'aba (infinitive for 'to contain'), huwu (infinitive for 'to be liquid'), pi (gerund classifier for amorphous things, such as liquids), xȁ (gerund classifier for embalmed or constructed things). Similarly, rather than having adjectives, nouns are modified through the use of particles comprised of the stem of verbs. Thus, omifamoȕfö, or 'big fish' (formed by inserting the stem of the verb ȕmȕ, 'to be big', or ȕ, before the gerund classifier).

"The question remains: does this not result in unwieldy and lengthy nouns which make communication lengthy and difficult? The answer is that in ordinary circumstances, users of the Yellow City Trade Tongue are extremely aware of context, more so perhaps than any other peoples using any other oral form of communication. Thus, when from context the meaning is clear, it is quite natural and normal for a person to refer simply to a fish as a  (for example, when there is a fish nearby, or when the topic of fish has already been raised in the conversation). In another circumstance, he may use the word to refer to another thing which is classified with mermaids, such as a lizard, in abbreviation, where the context is clear. 

"Likewise, when sitting down for a meal, a person will not ask to be passed a p'abahuwupixȁ, but simply a pixȁ."

[With thanks to Borges and The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.]

Monday, 14 November 2016

[Actual Play] Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Session 2

[Last week I ran the first session of a "Behind Gently Smiling Jaws" playtest. I didn't do a write-up, but will from this one onwards. In the previous session, our brave adventurers had come from various places around the world to Port Keizerin Elisabeth, a port founded by the Dutch East India Company in a land they had called Paradijs Kolonie. They were motivated by one purpose: to investigate a legend they had heard, that somewhere in the jungle was a village, known as "the guarded village", which was guarded by a giant crocodile whose dreams could somehow be entered.

After hiring a local called Yosik to act as their guide, they paid for passage towards the village on the trading boat of a native, Fat Folo, who had set himself up as a middle man of sorts for trade between the Dutch and the locals. Set ashore upstream from Port Keizerin Elisabeth not far from the guarded village, they made their way there and discovered that the village sat by a large lake.]

PCs present:

  • Wilhelm Becker, an elderly German scholar, played by R
  • Raphael de Fonseca, a Jewish-Dutch scholar, played by M
  • "Bash" (real name unknown), a Danish mystic, played by C
The session began with the travelers standing on the shore of the Guarded Lake, confronted by a group of warriors daubed in white paint and bristling with blow guns, clubs, spears and so forth, in a large war canoe. The warriors, while hostile in appearance, seemed amused at the sight of these strange foreigners, and allowed them to get into the canoe to be taken to their village, which lay on the other side of the lake.

In the canoe Wilhelm (who could speak some of the local dialect) asked the locals some questions about their village, the legend of the crocodile, and how it was that the dreams of this beast could be entered by outsiders. It was revealed that a shamaness at the village knew the secret of how to enter the creature's dreams, and that for generations this knowledge had been passed down from mother to daughter to daughter again following the same lineage. It also turned out that nobody, as far as anybody knew, had ever gone into the crocodile's dreams and come out again. Those who entered never returned. The men also told Wilhelm that anybody was permitted to enter the crocodile's dreams, provided that they were earnestly seeking something and that they did not tell any lies.

Arriving at the village on the opposite shore the visitors were welcomed by all the villagers - about 200 people, including a vast gang of children, the chief, and also a fellow white European, who introduced himself as Dennis, an explorer in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. On learning that they had come to investigate the legend of the dreaming crocodile, Dennis let it be known that he considered the story to be a myth or hoax. But he was impressed by a display of power from Bash, who demonstrated that he was able to cure wounds through channeling mystical energies. Dennis told him that he would like to take him to Batavia to meet the Governor there, as a curiosity of nature, but Bash refused, saying he was not a curio to be displayed to amuse the wealthy.

The PCs then made their way to the shameness's hut, which stood apart from the others on wooden stilts, around 20 yards high. They climbed up and discovered a single, small room, where a woman, probably in her 30s, sat naked and cross-legged. On each wall there was depicted an icon of a jungle beast: a tree kangaroo, a quoll, a parrot, and a cassowary. The shamaness asked each of the PCs why they wished to enter the crocodile's dreams. Wilhelm gave the answer that he was now old, and had researched many things but wished to travel on one last great exploratory journey. Raphael revealed that he was searching for a lost tribe of Israelites he believed lived there. And Bash revealed that he had clearly been blessed with some kind of mystical power, but he did not know where it came from or who had bestowed it on him, and he wished to find out.

Satisfied with these answers and the honesty of the PCs, the shamaness agreed to perform the ritual to allow them to enter the crocodile's dreams. Before doing so, the PCs naturally asked some questions and received answers to them. First, they were told that natives of the village never entered her hut, or the crocodile's dreams, because they believed that the dream world was only to be accessed after death, and they did not wish to foreshadow what might happen after they entered the afterlife. Second, they were told that normally when a person entered the dream world, their spirit left their body behind. Sooner or later, the body that had been left behind would die, at which point the shamaness would throw it out of the hut and the villagers would feed it to the crocodile in the lake. This had happened to all travelers who journeyed to the crocodile's dreams (she did not know what happened to their spirits), apart from seven - the "seven who went before" - all of whom had found some way to transport not just their spirit but also their physical being into the dreaming. But they had all done this long, long ago - long before the shamaness was born. Finally, Raphael was told that one of these Seven, known as Pape Jan, might be an ally to him; likewise, one known as Xu Fu might be of assistance to Bash.

She also told the PCs that they must return the next day bringing with them as many frogs as they could from the lake.

This was achieved mainly through Bash bribing the local children with moonshine to catch frogs for them. Soon enough the party had well over a dozen frogs on their hands - Raphael and Wilhelm were able to gather some others. While this was going on, they caught a glimpse of the crocodile itself - a huge head at least 5 metres in length which emerged partially from the water for a moment before disappearing back below.

The next morning the PCs turned up back that the shamaness's hut and the ritual began. Each of the PCs licked the back of a number of frogs and soon enough each of them had fixated on one of the animal pictograms on the walls of the hut: these animals seemed to be communicating knowledge to them from the spirit realm. Wilhelm, whose vision fixed on the cassowary, began to dwell on the fact that he had come to believe in magic through handling a face mask from an obscure tribe which had seemed imbued with magical energy. The cassowary told him that, indeed, the face mask had been imbued with such energy and that, moreover, he would one day discover a mask which would give him such power that he would become a demigod.

Bash, who had fixated on the quoll, recalled the first time that he had used his mystical powers to revenge himself against childhood bullies. The quoll foresaw that one day in his future Bash would had dominion over many people and would have the authority to send huge numbers of men to their deaths at his own command.

Raphael, who meditated on the parrot, remembered legends of golems, things formed from clay and imbued with life to protect the persecuted Jewish people. The parrot predicted that Raphael would one day discover himself how to forge living things from clay.

Gradually it dawned on the three PCs that they were no longer looking at the animal pictograms but were each looking at a single reptilian eye that was growing inexorably, slowly but terribly larger. It may have been hours, days, weeks, months or years, but over an eon of time this eye was becoming big enough to be the size of a world. And each of them was falling into this world from a vast and distant height.

And then they woke up somewhere very cold: a dim tunnel, forged of ice and rock. They had their possessions on them, and noticed that the tunnel forked ahead of them, left and right. From the left there came a golden glow. From the right, a more unearthly, blue light. They decided to investigate the right, because they could also hear a strange scraping or digging sound coming from that direction.

After some exploration they eventually came across a series of caverns. These caverns had a strange physical character. They seemed filled with air. But high up in the "ceiling" was what could only have been the surface of the sea, and the sunny sky above it. It was as if the caverns were filled with the ocean, and yet the human explorers could walk in them and breathe as though they were on solid land.

In one of these chambers the PCs saw a huge shrimp, at least 8 feet long. This was the source of the digging - it was scrabbling through gravel, digging out thick green algae to eat. It did not notice them, so they explored a neighbouring chamber where they were confronted by a huge fish - of a similar size to the shrimp - which looked like a colourful goby or blenny. This fish could swim and float freely in the "air" as though it were water, and proved friendly, if elusive. It revealed that it was in fact married to the shrimp - the shrimp was his wife - and that she was blind and deaf but extremely dangerous if touched. The goby's main aim was to cajole the PCs into aiding it "smite" its enemies, a group of dirty, hairy creatures which lived nearby and which were threatening him and his wife.

The PCs were unwilling to involve themselves in a conflict unnecessarily, but after a fairly long conversation a deal was struck. The goby agreed that it would help the PCs find a woman (what the fish referred to as a "smooth but also dirty-haired one like you") who knew about writing and magic and things of that nature. If this proved fruitful the PCs would help smite the goby's enemies, and the goby would then reveal the location of a magical mask for Wilhelm.

While this conversation was going on, Bash performed an experiment by climbing the walls of the cavern and then, finally, shooting an arrow tied to a string up to the "ceiling". When the arrow penetrated the water line, it made a splashing sound and, when tugged back down, it was wet. It was as though when moving around these chambers the PCs were subject to their own physical laws, even though they were ostensibly under water.

The fish also revealed some more information about the nature of these "lands", as it called them. Apparently once he and his wife had lived peacefully in the sea, but then an outsider had come and he had radically changed the nature of things, physically and philosophically. Since this outsider had come, he had turned almost everything there into a hunter and a fighter, and he had also reformed its geography. The fish also revealed that any outsider who entered these "lands" would eventually also change its character in some way, simply by being there.

The session ended with the fish leading the PCs to a much larger chamber nearby which, rather than appearing to be under the sea, was actually filled with jungle and which was open to an apparently sunny sky...

[This is the map of this area of the crocodile's dreams as far as the PCs have explored it. Room 28 is where the fish's wife was eating algae. Room 26 is where the PCs encountered the fish. Room 25 is the new jungle cavern. The fish's enemies are apparently in the direction of the blue arrow pointing up.]

Friday, 11 November 2016

The City Standing Like a Candle in the Night

I got lots of great comments under my recent blog post describing a world in which the day and night both last 100 years. I have been meaning to collate some of the ideas I especially liked, so here are some of them:

1) The climate would be changing all the time. This seems a simple observation, but this would be a world of constant climatic churn, because weather patterns would always be shifting. The landscape in a certain spot could change quite noticeably even over the course of a decade.

2) Human civilizations would be largely migratory over the course of the day, perhaps even in the form of moving caravan-cities, but this would bring about quite interesting effects. First, there may be oceans, which would have to be sailed across on annual migrations.

Second, there would be "bottlenecks" formed by mountains, deserts and so forth. In such places there might be permanent settlements effectively charging tolls to pass - maybe operated by a different race equally capable of living in the day and the night (maybe run by dwarves or gnomes or something). These bottlenecks with permanent settlements would also get rich from trade.

Third, migrating peoples would follow regular pathways. While only the very oldest people might remember, it would be part of oral (or written) history. This would mean that people would bury or otherwise hide caches of supplies in regular spots to pick up 100 years later on the next passage. Some of these regular pathways might cut across the poles because that would be a shorter route.

Fourth, migration might go in reverse. A viable tactic for a civilization could be to stay put for 100 years until the night arrives, and then up sticks and travel across the night, circumnavigating the world, to find the day again as it advances from the other direction. This would be very dangerous because the night is full of dangers, but might also have big benefits once you were back in the day time. Nomadic peoples might also do this if there was a natural barrier - they might go from East to West over the course of the day until they come up against a wall of mountains or an ocean, and then wait there until night to fall, before quickly making a dash across the night back to day time on the other side.

Fifth, following on from that, some people might be cannibalistic or semi-cannibalistic. During the day they travel from East to West, and then turn around and go back across the night, living off the meat of designated tribe members on that journey.

Sixth, on the oceans there would be water-going people who would be, to some extent, much freer - but who would be in real difficulties in the ended up accidentally getting iced-in if they were in the wrong place at night.

3) Another tactic for civilizations may simply be to stay put. During the day, vast food stores could be gathered and huge underground networks dug to store it all. Then during the night everybody would move below the surface to effectively hibernate.

These underground stores would be easy targets for more nomadic types, especially as night approached. They would have to be very carefully defended and would make a great excuse for creating dungeons for PCs to explore (especially where for mysterious circumstances the owners have left, or have all been killed?).

The digger-types would be obsessed with record keeping and cycles. A nice tweak was the idea that, in this world, there might be regular changes in wind direction associated with different phases of the day and night. Digger-types might have special minarets built above their cities and angled specially to make sounds or vibrations when the wind changed around the time of morning.

And some of the more extreme diggers may abandon surface living entirely and descend further and further below...

4) There is also, of course, MAGIC. Perhaps some particularly advanced societies would have magical means of surviving the night (or day) - or maybe even travelling around in floating cities.

Putting this all together, I having been thinking today about a campaign setting taking place in The City Standing Like a Candle in the Night - a walled fortress inhabited by a great and advanced civilizations able to magically last the night. The PCs would begin there, at the very bottom rung of the social order, early in the night - just a year or two in. Surrounding them would be all kinds of opportunities for adventure. Intrigue in the City itself. Raiding nearby "digger-type" settlements with huge underground caches of valuables (perhaps one of which is abandoned and forms, essentially, a megadungeon, with many of the defences still intact). Stealing from dwarf or gnome toll-takers at a nearby migratory choke-point. Searching for caches left by migratory peoples. Tangling with orcs and other night creatures. Searching for hermits or elder beings who do not move with the regular cycles? Trying to track an infamous Laputa-like floating castle?

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Werewolf: The Misanthrope and Princess Mononoke

About six months ago I made the observation that Werewolf: the Apocalypse was basically a game about terrorism:

Werewolf's rules are terrible, but I've always thought that under its surface it has (interestingly but in a somewhat cowardly implicit fashion) suggested something that very few RPGs ever have: the PCs are terrorists. They have an aim in mind and that is to actively and aggressively defend the natural world from exploitation. And if that involves violence, so be it. This creates a sandbox game with a difference. Rather than seeking fame and fortune, the PCs are acting to preserve - searching out threats to a certain natural habitat and eliminating them with extreme prejudice. They are the white blood cells of gaia.

This appeals deeply to the one-time Green Party activist and wannabe zoologist in me. Last night, for instance, I watched a documentary about the slow loris and its disappearance from Java because human beings are desperate to keep them as pets and can't just leave the poor things along in their forests. As if that wasn't enough, the creatures' teeth are almost invariably tugged out with pliers to prevent them biting once they've been brought into captivity. Watching that whole sorry spectacle - an entire species being removed from the wild and made subject to all kinds of awful indignities for the sin of being cute - it struck me that the slow loris could do with having a werewolf or two around to even things up a bit.

But real life is complicated and I think one of the interesting things to explore in that sort of campaign is the fact that progress doesn't and won't stop. That was another theme in W:tA which I think perhaps came through a little better - the idea that however much the garou might kick up a fuss, industry and technology (what I think - my memory gets hazy - was referred to as the Weaver?) will not go away but will inexorably proliferate and advance. This was mirrored in the obsession which White Wolf seemed to have in those days with the motif of Native Americans trying Canute-like to resist an unstoppable tide of cultural and actual colonialism.

(Thinking about it, there is a kind of weird genealogy that can be traced from Tolkien's anti-industrialism, through the environmentalist movement via Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, to W:tA's heady mix of Native American-worship, environmentalism, suspicion of modernity, fantasy literature, and impending doom. But maybe that's another blog post.)

In other words, the pressure to make one's peace with industrial advancement and attempt to reach some sort of settlement with it was just as strong a theme in Werewolf as that of the nobility of futile resistance. In its own small way, I think that made Werewolf: the Apocalypse quite thought-provoking as RPGs go. While White Wolf games are all so terribly teenage, they ought to be lauded for at least having a stab at being "about something".

These themes are also present in Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki's best work. What is so brilliant about that film is the way it refuses to take sides - everybody in it is acting for understandable reasons. It would have been very easy for Miyazaki to take the route of going for a happy ending in which the natural wilderness is returned to its pristine state, but that wouldn't be realistic or fair to the human beings who are impoverished and need to use natural resources to survive and prosper. Instead, the film dwells on the fact that humans and the natural world need give and take. I think that is a very mature message to bring across in what is ostensibly a children's film.

So there is a lot to Werewolf: the Apocalypse. All it needs is better rules.

Monday, 7 November 2016

The Personification of Death

I saw Meet Joe Black last night. This is what happens when you stay at home with some beers and a Chinese and cycle back through everything you've Sky-plussed over the last three years. At some point, either the missus or I had apparently recorded Meet Joe Black to watch it at a later date.

It's a curate's egg of a film. There were elements of it that were stunningly well done: the scene in which Death makes his first physical appearance was particularly good - spooky but very understated. It was also very well-written and well-acted in the main; I felt like it was a bit of a throw-back to an era in which screenwriters actually wrote good scripts for grownups and actors weren't just there to emote in front of green screens. 

It's also quite refreshing to see a film-maker have a decent stab at a concept (Death comes to visit and falls in love) which seems on its face to be unflilmable. 

And yet Brad Pitt, an actor who I despise, delivers a performance which is a deep, black pit of ill-judgement that comes very close to pulling the entire film into disaster, like somebody constantly tugging at a tablecloth on a table covered in very expensive crockery, dragging it all closer and closer to the edge. You can almost see Anthony Hopkins suppressing the urge to slap him in some scenes. (Pitt almost pulled a similar trick in 12 Years A Slave but was thankfully restricted to just one scene in that.) The scenes which involve him speaking in a Jamaican patois, or is it an Irish lilt? are snigger-inducingly terrible. Genuinely some of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid. And his personification of Death, it has to be said, doesn't quite make sense: would Death really have never heard the expression "Death and taxes"? Would Death really not know what a doctor does at a hospital? Would Death really not know how to hold a conversation?

In any event, though, it got me thinking about the personification of Death. It's a common motif in legends around the world and also in fairy tales and fables, but not one that I've ever seen appear in an RPG (unless you want to count Wraith: The Oblivion, or my own [WARNING: PLUG ALERT] "Black Dream of the Dying" in Issue #1 of The Peridot, available from all good online RPG PDF stores). 

What would it mean to D&D-ize Death? You couldn't simply have Death appearing at random to take people away. (I suppose you could, but it would be a bit of a 'fuck you' to the players.) Nor could you have him appearing as a monster who can be fought, because that's ridiculous. 

Death probably works best as a source of plot threads: a figure who appears from time to time when a PC dies and offers a bargain - to allow the PC to live in return for fulfilling some sort of geas. But I also wonder if there might be some mileage in using Death (sparingly) as an early warning system if the players are going to do something, or go somewhere, where there is a very high risk of death through no fault of their own.

Let me make clear: I am a big fan of consequences, and PC death. I don't believe in fudging or letting people off the hook. But there are always (rare) circumstances in a genuine sandbox or dungeon where PCs face near-certain death by sheer fluke or by blundering into a situation where death is extremely likely because you, the DM, have accidentally constructed it to be so. Could the figure of Death be played as a joker card in those circumstances? A way for the DM to admit to himself that, oops, what I just did, or what I planned, is actually genuinely not fair and the players need a warning? A dark figure in a cloak with a scythe glimpsed in the distance or disappearing round a corner, to signal obliquely to the players (if they are quick on the uptake) that what they are about to do might have dire consequences? 

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil and Explaining Horror

I went to see Ouija: Origin of Evil the other night (there was nothing else at that time and we couldn't be bothered waiting).

It was rubbish. An enjoyable and fairly tight set-up in the first two Acts (interesting 1960s backdrop, likable leads, vague hints at having something meaningful to say about death and grieving) was completely ruined by a very silly final Act which came out all guns blazing, complete with naff CGI and Exorcist rip-offs - the only rule appearing to be that if the possibility presents itself to try to make the girls in the audience scream then you should definitely do it.

I am going to spoil the film very slightly, but only very slightly, now, in the interests of making a wider point. If you are going to see it, skip the next paragraph. 

The film's major failing (apart from losing its nerve towards the end and basically abandoning all sense of narrative coherence and consistency in order to set things up for a sequel) seemed to me to be that the whole thing was explained: the reason for the haunting, the nature of the spirits doing it, their back story, and so forth. (As is so often the case, it was blah blah Nazism-related - wasn't that already old when Carrion Comfort came out?) Everything was made clear and mystery shattered.

This happens a lot in horror - the need to provide reasons. Probably the most egregious example for me is the way Thomas Harris was forced into developing a backstory for Hannibal Lecter (Nazism again), who was so effective a villain in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs because he was simply inscrutably evil - almost like the devil in human form. There was no reason for it except that he was evil for evil's sake. There seemed something especially compelling about that - somebody who was perfectly sane and yet chose to be bad - so the explanatory backstory was particularly ill-judged.

It goes without saying that part of the reason why Lovecraft is so important is that he (sometimes - this gets overblown) eschewed explanations. Explanations render horror knowable and as soon as one gains knowledge of something the fear of it diminishes.

Put another way - the last thing a horror writer should be telling you about is the "origin of evil". No: what is of interest is the END PRODUCT OF EVIL. Cthulhu being traumatized by Nazis so that he becomes evil is not scary. Cthulhu coming to get you and you don't even know why: that is scary.

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Night has a thousand eyes, The Day but one

Let's explore a little more this idea of a world in which a day lasts a century.

Imagine the day slowly moving from East to West. In the areas that are light, plants would grow and animals flourish. In the areas that are dark, there would be ice and petrification. In the areas between - the "morning" and "evening" where the light strikes the globe at an angle, there would be drastic spring-like and autumnal changes. In the morning, we would find a world of thawing ice, rivers which have been frozen for 100 years suddenly breaking into motion, glacial flows, and everywhere green plant life emerging. In the evening, we would find the opposite: rivers and lakes freezing over, glaciers expanding, and plants slowly dying.

In such a world, if life could move, it generally would. Almost everything would be migratory and nomadic. The animals would gradually migrate from East to West to maintain the temperature and climate that was optimal for them - this would be unending. The only exceptions would be life forms equipped to live underground (who would largely ignore this slow waltz of the passing days) and those which were able to hibernate for a century.

The humans, who live in the day, would also primarily be migratory. I am picturing nomadic cities: huge trains of carts, caravans, and herd animals which would settle somewhere for a month or year and then move on with the day. Generally, the preference for advanced "civilized" societies would presumably to be remain somewhat to the West of the noon-line, to take advantage of the maximum fertility of plant life which had been exposed to the light for many decades. But I am also picturing entire civilizations founded on animal husbandry rather than agriculture: wildebeest and reindeer herders following the great migrations of those beasts.

In the morning and the evening we would find adventurers and pioneers - especially in the morning as new lands become exposed to warmth and light. People searching for new resources, new pathways, new lands to exploit. Adventurers in the evening would be outlaws and rogues, picking over the detritus left behind in the wake of the cities migrating Eastwards.

In the night live the orcs, and many other things. As evening advances they appear, like the vanguard of the darkness, hunting and raiding. In places, they might tangle with the rearguards of retreating human civilizations - just as, in the morning, human pioneers come across straggling orcs. In the dark places the orcs mine, build, and construct - citadels, tunnels and fortresses, which in the light of day human adventurers might explore.

Orc raiders and other night-time things would also be experts at concealment, though. During the night, they would burrow down into the earth, out of sight, and wait for decades if necessary for day to come so that they could emerge to wreak havoc. Then again, maybe both sides might engage in another sort of migration - from surface to underground and back again. Maybe both humans and orcs would have constructed huge city-states extending up from the surface and deep down into the crust of the world, so that during the day or night respectively they could ascend upwards or downwards as desired? Maybe down there great wars would be fought to try to undermine and destroy each other? Maybe just as the humans were coming to the surface in the light of day, the orcs would be concentrating their efforts on tunneling underneath their cities? And maybe all of this would connect with the vast and endless Underdark that lay deeper still.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Tolkien, The Orc, the Barbarian, the Savage, and the Sun

Because I am writing a book in the real world for my real job, I am enjoying re-reading a lot of Foucault. If you want to read philosophy that gives you ideas for games, Foucault may be the best option of all - not least because he is one of the very few philosophers who is fun to read. 

In the 1975-1976 lectures at the College de France (collected in Society Must Be Defended, which like most of the other collections of his lectures is rather inappropriately titled) we find this passage, about the difference between the Savage and the Barbarian. It is long but, as is often the case, worth reading and digesting.

The barbarian is the opposite of the savage...the savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters into a relationship of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is somebody who can be understood, characterised and defined only in relation to a civilization, and to the fact that he exists outside of it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization  - which the barbarian despises, and which he wants - is one of hostility and permanent warfare.  
The barbarian cannot exist without the civilization he is trying to destroy and appropriate. The barbarian is always the man who stalks the frontiers of States, the man who stumbles into the city walls. Unlike the savage, the barbarian does not emerge from some natural backdrop to which he belongs. He appears only when civilization already exists, and only when he is in conflict with it. He does not make his entrance into history by founding a society, but by penetrating a civilization, setting it ablaze and destroying it. I think that the first point, or the difference between the barbarian and the savage, is this relationship with a civilization, and therefore with a history that already exists. There can be no barbarian without a preexisting history: the history of the civilization he sets ablaze. What is more, and unlike the savage, the barbarian is not a vector for exchange. The barbarian is essentially the vector for something very different from exchange: he is the vector for domination. Unlike the savage, the barbarian takes possession and seizes; his occupation is not the primitive cultivation of the land, but plunder.  
His relationship with property is, in other words, always secondary: he always seizes existing property; similarly, he makes others serve him. He makes others cultivate his land, tend his horses, prepare his weapons, and so on. His freedom is based solely upon the freedom others have lost. And in his relationship with power, the barbarian, unlike the savage, never surrenders his freedom. The savage is a man who has in his hands, so to speak, a plethora of freedom which he surrenders in order to protect his life, his security, his property, and his goods. The barbarian never gives up his freedom. And when he does acquire a power, acquire a king or elect a chief, he certainly does not do so in order to diminish his own share of right but, on the contrary, to increase his strength, to become an even stronger plunderer, a stronger thief and rapist, and to become an invader who is more confident of his own strength. The barbarian establishes a power in order to increase his own individual strength. For the barbarian, the model government is, in other words, necessarily a military government, and certainly not one that is based upon the contracts and transfer of civil rights that characterize the savage.  
So we can well understand why, in modern juridico-anthropological thought - and even in today’s bucolic and American Utopias - the savage is, despite it all and even though it has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults, always the noble savage. Indeed, how could he not be noble, given that his specific function is to exchange and to give - in accordance with his own best interests, obviously, but in a form of reciprocity in which we can, if you like, recognize the acceptable - and juridical - form of goodness? The barbarian, in contrast, has to be bad and wicked, even if we have to admit that he does have certain qualities. He has to be full of arrogance and has to be inhuman, precisely because he is not the man of nature and exchange; he is the man of history, the man of pillage and fires, he is the man of domination. “A proud, brutal people, without a homeland, and without laws,” said Mably (who was, as it happens, very fond of barbarians). The soul of the barbarian is great, noble, and proud, but it is always associated with treachery and cruelty. Speaking of barbarians, Bonneville said: “[T]hese adventurers lived only for war . . . the sword was their right and they exercised it without remorse.” And Marat, another great admirer of barbarians, described them as “poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free.”

This, naturally enough, got me thinking amongst other things about orcs. Doesn't Foucault's description of "the barbarian" here remind you of Tolkien's orcs, and those of his imitators? I'm sure, in fact, that Tolkien had some of these thoughts in mind when he was describing his orcs as a kind of external opposition, existing only in opposition to civilization and living a purely military existence with the aims only of theft and conquest. (Although not, of course, remotely free.)

Tolkien's imitators, like the creators of D&D and Warhammer, also played on this theme. In fact, what Foucault is describing is even more fitting for the Warhammer greenskins I knew as a youngster in the early 90s - as a kind of parasitic satanic enemy of the civilized world: "poor, uncouth, without trade, without arts, but free". And free in the true, non-equal, sense of freedom which Foucault earlier identifies in the same course of lectures. The freedom which means being able to trample on the freedom of others rather than the "weak and abstract" type of libertarian freedom which consists in just being free as long as one doesn't infringe on other people's freedoms. (Foucault asks rhetorically at one stage, "What would be the point in being free, and what, in concrete terms, would it mean, if one could not trample on the freedom of others?" He might well have been channeling Grom the Paunch.)

It seems to me, though - and this may be entirely impressionistic - that at some point that view of orcs became a bit unfashionable. When I came back to RPGs and Warhammer and whatnot in the mid-2000s, it seemed to me that everywhere you looked, on forums and elsewhere, that orcs were being rehabilitated and reinterpreted as more akin to Foucault's savage. Fundamentally misunderstood and with the potential to be educated out of savagery. "It has to be admitted that he has done a few bad things and has a few faults," but the orc was conceptualised as being more interestingly presented as a sort of alternative to humans - the opposition between the two being thought of as simply a function of misunderstanding that could be remedied.

There is something very teenage about that rejection of "your father's orc". In actual fact, of course, the Tolkien/Warhammer understanding of orcs is far deeper and richer. The notion of a sort of looking-glass creature which exists not only in opposition to us but to oppose us, and which intends to appropriate our power, wealth and prosperity in order to destroy us, is extremely interesting. A looking-glass creature, or a product of the shadows as we are a product of the light.

A short section prior to all this discussion of barbarians and savages, Foucault paraphrases Boulainvilliers as follows: "Empires...rise and fall into decadence depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory." I found this stunningly interesting. What did he mean by that? Basically that Empires rise and fall cyclically. But let's take it literally: Empires rise and fall depending on how the light of the sun shines upon their territory.

If we are products of the light and orcs are the product of the dark, they live within the dark as much as we live outside of it.

Imagine a world in which a day is extremely long: let's say, a century. The globe spins extremely slowly on its axis. Humans live where it is light. Orcs where it is dark. In the places where day bleeds into night - at the edge of the light/dark, if you like - is a constant shifting front of conquest and retreat: the orcs conquer and take as the dark slowly advances; the humans pack their bags and flee, trying to stay in the light. On the other side of the globe, the orcs are in retreat as the dark recedes, and human pioneers and settlers colonise the bleak barren wilderness that is slowly revealing itself to the day after 100 years of night.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Tasu, Qato, and the Hog Sow

Another location from Behind Gently Smiling Jaws:

Sese-Mahuru-Bau's uncle knew of many legends of the forest. He once told the story of Tasu and Qato, the boys raised by a hog sow. 

Tasu and Qato were twins whose mother was killed by the cannibal Tamus. Tamus only realised after delivering the killing blow that the woman was pregnant; he abandoned her body as a result (the eating of pregnant women being taboo) and from it, the twins were born. They lived alone together in the forest until they could walk, and then they were discovered by a huge maternal hog sow who raised them with her piglets. When they became adolescents, the twins heard of this story from a group of passing hunters who had witnessed their mother's death, and they went in search of Tamus to kill him.

The crocodile's memories now contain the legend of the sow, her piglets and the twins. The sow is huge, hairy, and as tough as tree roots, and her strangely comforting smell is a mixture of earth, sweat, and motherly compassion.  She has six piglets who eat, sleep and shit in gleeful ignorance of the world beyond their family.

The twin boys Tasu and Qato accompany the sow everywhere. They are old enough now to have no need of their mother's milk or protection, but will kill and die for her without hesitation or question.

The group live in open area of remembered-dream-forest, used by the twins as a practice range and for hunting small animals. Strange plate-like fungus grows on many of the trees - another legend Sese-Mahuru-Bau's uncle told him about when he was young. If thrown, like a discus, the fungal spores spray out over a wide area in a cloud of powder which enters the throat and lungs and imbues itself there; those infected with the spores must always tell the truth from that point on if they speak.

The Sow: HD 3+1, AC 16, AB+4, Bite (1d6+2, doubled on charge) 
Tasu: HD 1+1, AC 14, AB +3, Club (1d6), Blowpipe (1d2, save vs poison or die as tongue swells and chokes; success means incapacitation for 2d6 rounds) 
Qato: HD 1+1, AC 14, AB +3, Spear (1d6), Blowpipe (1d2, save vs poison or be rendered permanently paraplegic as legs blacken and necrotise; success means incapacitation for 2d6 rounds) 
Tasu and Qato both carry pouches of bullet ants wrapped in leaves. The bite of these ants delivers excruciating pain resulting in vomit and hallucinations (save vs poison or be reduced to 1 hp and incapacitated for one day; success means incapacitation for d6 hours - roll on the hallucinations table in the appendix). If their lives are seriously threatened the twins will throw these pouches like grenades, scattering ants over a radius of 1d6 feet - those within that radius will be bitten automatically. 

Tasu and Qato will ask all travellers if they have seen Tamus or know of his whereabouts. They may provide guidance and assistance in return for help in finding and killing him. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

And Even Something Called A Firbolg!

I love it when non-D&D people write about D&D. Guess what! With Volo’s Guide both dungeon masters and players will be able to bring new races to the table, both as player and non-player characters. That includes rules for goblins, orcs and even something called a "firbolg."

Ooh! New races, you say? And as player and non-player characters as well? And what's a firbolg? It sounds awesome.

I should ignore articles like this, because I am just not the target audience and I am also the kind of person who gets profoundly annoyed by people telling me things like "we are living in a post-Game of Thrones world". But still, I can't help but feel that the really interesting and innovative thing to do - the thing that would really set DMs free, expand their minds, empower them, and "inspire new stories at the table" - would be a Monster Manual without the stats, the banal descriptions, the leaden prose, the amusing pseudo-narratives, the prescriptions, the stats. It would have nothing in fact but art. 196 pages of pictures of monsters. Just pictures. No words, except for a short introduction: "Do what you want with this."

That is a bestiary I would pay good money for. Volo can go fuck himself.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Interactive Fiction and Restricted Geography

For a short period of time, I'd say around 2008 or so, I got into what was in my youth called "text adventures" but is nowadays called "interactive fiction" or IF. As with lots of nerd pursuits, it turned out that somewhere between 1985 and 2008, people got a bit serious about what had hitherto been perceived as a childish thing, and did some quite innovative and artistic things with the form. I strongly recommend having a look at some of the work of Adam Cadre and Emily Short, for example. ("Photopia" and "Shrapnel" by Cadre are particular favourites.)

For that short period I tried to experiment with writing my own IF using the natural language programming tool Inform 7. I didn't have the patience for it, though, mainly because I think I was too ambitious and always ended up biting off more than I could chew: too many rooms, too many items, too much detail, too much to keep track of.

Which brings me to what I always rather liked about IF: restricted geography. A good short and interesting IF game works by giving the player a number of room-like locations (these could be natural or artificial) - certainly no more than, say, 20, and enough for the player to get to know and memorise into a mental map. There are a similarly restricted number of NPCs, items and puzzles - again, enough for the player to get to know and work out the relations between. There is skill in doing new and interesting things in that restricted literal and conceptual geography (you can only visit a certain number of places; you can only speak to a certain number of people, etc.), but there is also a certain value added for the player too: getting an intimate and detailed knowledge of place is itself, in its own way, fun. There is something almost territorial about it: the human need to get to know a certain area around you very well and force it to be familiar.

(Think of the last time you went to a new town or city, even if it was just a business trip for a few days, or whatever. What was the first thing you did? For me after dumping my bag in the hotel it's to walk about the neighbourhood and figure out what's what and where's where - to make it mine.)

This is why I like the idea of a location-based adventure or even campaign: a manor house, a cathedral and cloisters, a village, a palace, a castle, a tower and its grounds, and so on - an area which the PCs can really get their teeth into, and whose restricted geography facilitates that. (Of course, the key to any good location-based campaign is that the PCs are free to leave if they want to - but it's too interesting for that to happen.) A place which, through repetitive visits, the PCs get to know and understand in detail.

The Seclusium of Orphone should really have been a way of facilitating that sort of game - and does to a degree (I was surprised how well that book worked in practice to create a gameable location with a bit of work) - but I think there is space for something better and more expansive. Something which provides tools for coming up with restricted but detailed geographical spaces for a more small-scale and detailed type of game.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Paint Me A Picture

I have been reading a bit about The Arnolfini Portrait. I am not an art historian. But I get the impression that The Arnolfini Portrat is, to art history, a bit like what Hamlet is to English literature: the puzzle of what it actually means is, in a way, more interesting than the actual artifact itself.

The painting is of course fraught with symbolism and alternative readings, but what is probably more interesting is the idea that the painting actually symbolised something very tangible and, in fact, legal. Erwin Panofsky thought that the painting was itself an official record of the marriage Giovanni di Arnolfini and his wife, because Jan van Eyck was a notary as well as an artist, and makes such a big point of inserting himself into the painting as though witnessing the ceremony. This makes the painting a kind of unconventional and remarkable instantiation of a marriage contract. Linda Seidel, on the other hand, thought that the painting was almost a receipt for the dowry which Arnolfini's father-in-law paid (or was arranging to pay): the picture is an official record - a statement to the effect that "I have given this guy a heck of a lot of money and him and his family had better not weasel out of the arrangement if they know what's good for them. And look, this painting proves it."

Whether these interpretations are true or not doesn't matter: listen, in the 1430s in Bruges it was plausible that Italian merchant banking dynasties used phenomenally beautiful paintings for practical purposes in ways which to us seem entirely strange.

Let's make this game-able. Forget your 3000 copper pieces; art as treasure is much more interesting. But art in a D&D world doesn't have to be simply something aesthetically beautiful to steal/find and then sell. Art in a D&D world might mean all kinds of things.

Maybe in storm giant society, family history is recorded visually in decorations on big pottery jugs. A storm giant matriarch might do anything to recover one if lost (or might agree to anything if one was threatened with destruction).

Maybe for an ancient civilization, totems or idols were carved which, if interpreted correctly in the right sequence, show the direction to special locations. Maybe somebody would pay a lot of money for the missing idol in the sequence, or maybe the PCs come across the whole set.

Maybe for a certain cult of assassins, it is important for religious reasons to paint a picture of every victim in a certain symbolic setting to indicate why they were killed. If you come across one of these paintings you can possibly figure all of this out.

Or maybe the cult of assassins will only kill somebody if they are provided with a painting of that person in advance.

Or, to bring it back to Arnolfini: imagine you were a rich merchant banker and had given your son-in-law a huge lump sum of money to ensure your daughter was looked after until her death. You had this evidenced by the creation of a sumptuous painting. Now imagine it gets stolen or lost.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Preliminary Thoughts on Mapping a Tree

Thinking about the Fixed World led me a while back to speculate that in a land where it was always daytime and always summer there would be plants the size of buildings - and trees the size of skyscrapers or even bigger. That led me to think about a megadungeon that is a single vast tree.

This morning I started thinking about how you might map a tree that is basically a country.

The above picture is a diagram of a tree which stands in my garden.

All the major branches and the trunk are interconnected, on a tree. Anybody can travel between them if they are capable of moving along those branches. But then once you get away from the major branches there are vastly complicated networks of smaller branches and twigs that it would be impossible to actually map.

It makes more sense, then, to divide the tree up into zones. Away from all the major branches radiate networks, which are the different zones marked A, B, C, D, and E. (F is a separate zone where there used to be a big branch, which fell off.)

The red arrows are an attempt to illustrate depth - if the arrow is pointing down it indicates that the branch sort of comes back towards the viewer and if the arrow is pointing up it indicates the branch sort of points away. No arrow indicates the branch is side-on.

Then within each zone there are 4 sectors. Where sectors overlap with each other (A2 and B3, C4 and B2, C2 and D1, C3 and D3, and D4 and E1) travel between zones is possible by going between leaves and twigs in the different zones.

Within each sector there is no need to map anything - you just need to make a note of what is in each sector. It is presumed that there are ways of travelling within sectors fairly straightforwardly, because people will have built up ropeways, spider-silk bridges and whatnot to allow interconnectedness. So if you are in A2 you may have to travel for a day to visit the wizard who makes his home on a certain twig in A3, but you can do it.

All zones and sectors connect with what is called the outer canopy, which is obviously the outer bit which is all leaves, buds, and the very thinnest narrowest twigs. Out there it is probably impossible to build anything because of wind and rain and because of the activities of giant forest animals. Adventurers willing to risk that danger can go out into the outer canopy and use it to traverse the tree if they desire (for example from E3 to A3), but doing so will incur a huge risk.

I have no idea whether this would work or not in a game.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Sperm Whale DMing

"I felt a bit like a sperm whale that breaks the surface of the water, makes a little splash, and lets you believe, makes you believe, or want to believe, that down there where it can't be seen, down there where it is neither seen nor monitored by anyone, it is following a deep, coherent, and premeditated trajectory." - M. Foucault, lecture of 7th January 1976

A lot of bloggers and RPG publishers (I include myself in this) are a little like how Foucault describes himself here. Every so often you rise to the surface of the ocean and make a little splash in the form of a blogpost that hints to the world at large that you are working on something unfathomable and yet epic and brilliant in scope. Yet this may well be entirely a mirage - a glimpse of something that is in fact disorganised, chaotic, and barely moving forward at all.

But that is not what I want to post about here. Rather, I want to discuss the importance of the DM as sperm whale.

Sperm whale DMing is, as frequently as is appropriate, hinting that there are things going on beneath the surface of the campaign setting that are seismic and important - so important, indeed, that the PCs operate in a completely different sphere and cannot yet get at them. There are plots. There are movements. There are strategies. There are wars being fought, struggles being played out, loves being lost, dreams being won, seasons turning on different time scales, geological movements, symphonies being written, eras changing, things happening. The low-level PCs only get the tiniest hints, the merest whispers, of all of this. It is only as they get more powerful, more influential, more noticeable, more knowledgeable, that they start to pull at the threads and unravel the veils and turn over the rocks and look behind the curtains. The DMs role is just, every now and then, to ensure that there is just a little splash on the surface to hint at what is going on in the ocean currents below.

The crucial point here is that it does not matter whether the DM is actually following deep, coherent and premeditated trajectories. It is nice and interesting for him if he is. But at the same time, you can build those trajectories in a decentralised and disaggregated fashion, from the belly up: you can drop hints and whisper rumours and scatter clues without the foggiest clue how they all link together or what they mean. What you have is time. Time to ruminate and time to see where and what the PCs dig. You can build those deep trajectories from what you hint at, rather than the other way around.

That is, what you are really doing as you drop the hints and whisper the rumours and scatter the clues is planting the seeds for what you are going to work with later. Some examples of things a DM might throw into a campaign without any idea of future pathways:

-A man in a cape who the PCs see every now and then in the distance when it is raining.
-Rumours of something called The Sapphire Tower - a building whose location nobody knows, as it always seems to change.
-The aftermath of an assassination of some important NPC in which the assassin has apparently just killed himself.

All these things might just occur to the DM off the top of his head, or appear, perhaps, as random table results. It may be a year later that the PCs enter the castle of a storm giant and the DM decides, wouldn't it be fun if the man in the cape was the storm giant's servant and he has been watching the PCs for some time? It may be two years later that the PCs finally find out that The Sapphire Tower only appears after a rainbow or on the 366th day of a leap year, and that it is connected to some arch mage NPC who they have heard about in the meantime since the rumour was first dropped. Or it might be 10 sessions later that they discover that the assassination was carried out by the thieves' guild they have been working for and the DM has finally figured out the reason why. And maybe it's 10 sessions after that when the DM figures out how all those strands are tied together and are related to something deeper yet.