Thursday, 20 September 2018

No Straight Thing Was Ever Made

I have always liked human characters, and human-centered fantasy fiction; there are lots of reasons for this, but I think fundamentally it is because there is something compelling about ordinary people in extraordinary situations (you might call that the root of all good fiction) and a fantasy setting is another layer of extraordinariness to stack on top of that. I was never the kind of person to favour playing a tiefling PC, for example. For me it was always much more interesting to wonder what it would be like to be a common-or-garden schmuck trying to get by in the multiverse.

(The same was always true of 40k, too. The Imperial Guard are the most interesting army, because the idea of ordinary human soldiers trying to take on chaos marines, tyrannids or eldar is itself simply the stuff of a good story.)

Let's face it, I also rather like the romantic mystery of the "other": dwarves, elves, etc., are much more compelling to me as inscrutable non-humans whose motivations and impulses might be gleaned from observation and experience but only very imperfectly. They are rendered much less interesting by having the human mind of an RPG player inhabiting them. 

That said, fantasy settings, particularly RPG ones, tend to revolve around four ways of presenting humans, all of which I think are honourable and good in their own way, but there is a neglected fifth option which would be worth exploring.

The first way of presenting humans is found in settings in which human beings tend to dominate because of some reason to do with their nature: they are more lively or creative, perhaps, than other races, or they are able to master commerce better, or there are simply more of them. Mystara overall presents humans in this way.

The second way is settings in which human beings are just another race jostling alongside others, a la Planescape or Faerun - you might call this the Mos Eisley cantina model. 

The third way is settings in which human beings are fighting for survival in a world full of monsters and horrible nasties, and indeed much of the excitement of the game comes from this - this is the "points of light" model found in 4th edition D&D and, I suppose, the Conan stories and sword & sorcery in general.

The fourth way is settings in which humans are the main focus simply because the setting is predicated on there being a human world and some sort of mythic otherworld along the lines of Mythago Wood or Narnia which can be entered but has a discrete existence of its own.

The neglected fifth option is the setting which takes seriously the question: what niches would human beings actually occupy in a fantasy world in which there were dragons, giants, elves and the like? What would human beings do in that kind of a world? Particularly one in which they were only a minor race, a bit like sverfneblin or gnomes in your standard D&D world.

Think of a civilization ruled by cloud giants. What would humans do in it? Humans are a lot smaller than cloud giants: maybe they'd be used for the delicate tasks - tailoring, lock-making, clock-repair etc. - that giant fingers are ill-equipped for. How about a civilization ruled by dwarves? Humans are more creative and artistic: maybe they'd be the entertainers, dramatists and painters. How about a civilization ruled by elves? Humans might be their warrior class, doing all the fighting for their risk-averse long-lived rulers (you could easily imagine elven city states fighting vast wars all entirely fought-out by human underlings). Maybe in a civilization ruled by derro or dark elves there would be space for human beings as tenders to the sick; no self-respecting derro is going to look after a fallen comrade, but humans might. 

In such a world, human PCs might be looked upon as vaguely exotic, but not very special, outsiders suited to certain roles but firmly on the periphery of society. How they navigate that world might end up being just as interesting if not more so than the dungeon-delving or whatever else they got up to. 

Monday, 17 September 2018

Occupations of the Poor

I've just finished reading Himmelfarb's The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. It's a great book that I would recommend to anybody, but a section on the anthropology of Victorian-era poverty, drawing heavily on London Labour and the London Poor, a collection of columns by the journalist Peter Mayhew, published in the 1840s, is particularly fascinating. I've got that book on order and will read and report back, but here are some of the contents cited by Himmelfarb; they are some of the "occupations" of the 19th century London poor - all of them very usable for a game set in Bastion, Sigil, or other pseudo-Victorian megalopolis:

Child-strippers - "Old debauched drunken hags who watch their opportunity to accost children passing in the street, tidily dressed with good boots and clothes" - their aim being to steal and sell those childrens' clothes, and ideally also their hair.

River-finders - boatsmen who would sail up and down the Thames, "hauling out the flotsam of wood which might be used for firewood or a baby's cradle, or the occasional corpse which could be turned in for a reward after the pockets had been picked"; they were apparently a hereditary class.

Street sellers of animals - "each with his own specialty (stolen dogs, birds painted to resemble exotic species, squirrels, rabbits, goldfish, tortoises, snails, worms, frogs, snakes, hedgehogs)."

Bone-grubbers - people who searched the streets for bones to grind for manure.

Pure-finders - people who gathered dog shit, to sell to tanners for purifying leather.

Sewer-men - those who entered sewers in search of coins, scraps of metal, bits of jewelry, rope or bones to sell on; they often had higher earnings than the best paid artisans and believed sewer fumes to have therapeutic qualities.

Mud-larks - "Children and old women whose job it was to dredge the mud left by the receding tide. Wading and groping in the mud for pieces of coal, chips of wood, scraps of metal, and bones, they passed and repassed each other without speaking, their eyes fixed upon the ground, their bodies bent over, clad in tattered, befouled rags, 'stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.'"

Sifters - "half buried in mounds of cinders and ashes, sieving through them to separate the fine dust from the coarse both from other varieties of refuse. Garbed in heavy leather aprons, they wielded their sieves so violently that the noise of the sieves striking the aprons was like the sound of tenor drums."

Monday, 10 September 2018

Vignettes on Books

Chaucer, living in the 14th century, claimed he owned sixty books, which according to David Wright's introduction to my prose copy of The Canterbury Tales was "more than many university colleges possessed in those days." He may have been lying, but that almost makes the point even more forcefully: to him, having sixty books was something to really, really boast about.

I also recently read Tomlinson's Life in Northumberland During the Sixteenth Century (published in 1897 and sadly not even available as an ebook); in it, the author trawls through all of the wills made during the century to try to establish the number of books that existed in the entire county of Northumberland at that time. He lists comfortably less than fifty (not editions - fifty actual physical books) most of which are the Bible and almost all the rest of which are prayer books.

Before the printing press, books were rare. We all like the image of the wizard's study, lined with shelves stuffed full of ancient tomes on magic, alchemy, philosophy, ancient languages, monster lore, siege engines, and the like. There's nothing wrong with that. But in wider society books should be rare, special objects, almost unique, and very expensive.

Friday, 7 September 2018

GW and DnD: Fun Over Fairness

I recently played Kill Team, the new(ish) squad-based Warhammer 40,000 battle game. It has probably been approaching 20 years since I properly played a Games Workshop game, so it was interesting catching up on what has changed (you're not allowed to say "Imperial Guard" anymore; for some reasons Harlequins are an entire army list now) and what has not (no squats). What has certainly not changed is what you might call the Design Philosophy of Games Workshop Games.

The Design Philosophy of Games Workshop Games is: battles have to be fun from beginning to end, and closely fought. What this tends to mean in practice is that battles have certain characteristics which are at best orthogonal to and at worst antithetical to actual tactics and strategy, namely:

  • There's a huge element of randomness in everything, so in many cases cleverness is confounded by a bad dice roll here or a good one there
  • The battlefield is really small and crowded and there aren't many battle rounds, so there is no sense in performing reconnaissance or carefully deploying or even really thinking very hard about what's going on except in a rock-paper-scissors way (he's got a battle tank over there so I'd better try to get line of sight on him with this lascannon; he's got a squad of terminators over here so I'd better find a way to get my meltagun guys over there too, etc.)
  • There's no consequence to weapons fire except at the level of whether it kills somebody or not, so you can't really deny an area to the opponent or destroy scenery or interesting things like that, and so everything that you do in a turn tends to revolve around destroying the enemy things you can see
  • Initiative is random and doesn't depend on anything clever or stupid that any of the players has done, and makes a huge difference
I'm not complaining about any of that particularly - it's fun - but it does make "battles" in Games Workshop games more of an exercise in just throwing the armies together and seeing what entertaining stuff happens than a tactical wargame per se

When you think about it in those terms, Games Workshop battles are really pretty like the way combat plays out in D&D - not perhaps by design, but by the preference of most RPG players. The immense weight that can become attached to single dice rolls. The fact that, without a battle mat, the locations of the combatants becomes sort of notional and everyone can more or less get at everybody else at a moment's notice. The general (not total, but general) focus on both sides killing each other rather than other objectives. The largely random way initiative plays out.

This says a lot, I think, about both games and the way people tend to approach them: it's more important that fun stuff happens during combat than that final results are fair. It doesn't particularly matter that the conclusion reflects perfectly the actual approach taken both sides and their relative skills in planning and execution. It matters much more that PCs x and y did cool things to win the day; PC z made a save vs death successfully three times in a row; that random Imperial Guardsmen (sorry, Astra Militarium guy) somehow survived a lascannon hit; that snotling took down a Great Unclean One; and so on. The fun is not in finding out who is the best tactician; the fun is in finding out what happens. 

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Encounters with Drovers

From The Drovers' Roads of Wales, by Godwin & Toulson, 1977:

"Long before the American cowboys launched a thousand legends, or the Australian over-landers doggedly took their cattle across a continent, the Welsh were driving their little black runts for hundreds of miles, over the mountains and into the eastern parts of England.

"From the time of the Norman conquest to the middle of the last century, any traveller in Wales might find his way blocked by hundreds of cattle, large herds of sheep, pigs and flocks of geese. From the eighteenth century, turkeys were added to the stream of beasts on their way east to the rich men's markets.

"The traveller would not come on the droves unexpectedly. If he was within a couple of miles of a farm, he would hear them long before he saw them. It was a noisy cavalcade and deliberately so. The drovers, walking or riding at the side of the cattle, would give warning of their coming with yells of 'Heiptro Ho!' When the farmers of the neighbourhood heard that shout, they rushed to pen up their cattle, to prevent any unsold beasts from joining the drove to the east.

"The memory of the noise the drovers made lived long. It was an Englishman from Surrey who told the historian Caroline Skeel what it was like. She recorded his words in 1926.

"A great feature of the droves was the noise they made. It was heard for miles and warned local farmers what to expect. The noise consisted of the shouting of the drovers combined, I suppose, with a certain amount of noise from the cattle. But it was the men's voices that chiefly attracted attention. It was something out of the common, neither shouting, calling, crying, singing, halloing or anything else, but a noise of itself, apparently made to carry and capable of arresting the countryside. The horsemen and two of the cattle acted as leaders to the rest, and the men kept calling and shouting the whole time. As soon as the local farmers heard the noise they rushed their cattle out of the way, for if once they got into the drove, they could not easily be got out again.

"These strange shouts and cries were probably among the earliest noises that man made. Students of dialect believe that words and sounds which have undergone the least change throughout the centuries are those which have been used in relation to domestic animals. These are the working noises of primitive man, handed down from generation to generation.

"When the drovers eventually came into sight, those travelling in the opposite direction were confronted by an imposing procession; and as the slow-moving stream of animals and their attendant drovers, mostly mounted on sturdy Welsh ponies, could stretch for half a mile, they often had to wait twenty minutes or more for it to pass by."

An idea for your random encounter table, free of charge.

Some others: what creatures would halflings, giants, goblins, orcs, centaurs, etc., drove? And where would they be droving them?

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

What Are RPGs Like?

Scott Adams, whether you love him, loathe him, take him with a pinch of salt, think of him only rarely as that guy who did the Dilbert comics and are they still going?, is worth keeping tabs on for occasional nuggets of gold he comes out with. One of his best, which I've heard him say repeatedly on various interviews, but which I can only trace in written form to this blog post, is that analogies are over-rated and over-used. They are like a substitute for thinking - a short-hand way of convincing yourself you understand something when really all you have done is imagine something that reminds you of it. What's worse, they're the enemy of rational debate: "all discussions that involve analogies devolve into arguments about the quality of the analogy, not the underlying situation."

I thought of that quote while reading the comments to my previous post. Not to point the finger at anybody in particular - I was as guilty as anyone else - but just as an observation: discussions of "what RPGs are like" always and inevitably devolve into arguments between different camps who claim they are like video games, like board games, like music, like novels, like toolkits, and so on, and are never very useful as a result.

What are RPGs like? Well, they are like all those things and more, but the truth is, they're not really like anything else. They are like RPGs. Trying to explain what they are like is like trying to explain what sport is like; what board games are like; what novels are like, and so on. You can't do it as an abstract exercise. It has to be done in practice. RPGs, then, are like anything which human beings do - to actually understand what they are, they have to be watched or preferably played.

We have to be very careful of slippage into analogy, because analogies are dangerous: as Kundera, my favourite person to pseudo-intellectually quote, put it once, "a single metaphor can give birth to love." The context of that quote is a man who dreams up a metaphor for imagining how a woman entered into his life (if I remember rightly, he imagines her being like Moses in the bed of reeds floating down the river and he chances across her). It causes him to fall in love, because he is no longer thinking of the woman as herself - he is thinking about her Meaning and suddenly their meeting seems fated. Allow yourself to become convinced by an analogy and you lose perspective on the real phenomenon

The same thing can happen with analogies for RPGs. The analogy becomes reified and may prevent you actually thinking about what an RPG is in its own right. If you thing RPGs are like stories, you may slip down the dangerous slope towards plot and railroading. If you think RPGs are like music, you may slide into "gamer ADHD", always on the look out for the next cool release. If you think RPGs are like collectible card games, you may stray into an obsession with "builds" and mechanics. If you think RPGs are like video games, you may find yourself being reluctant to kill PCs or start contriving set pieces rather than letting them emerge naturally. And so on.

Rather than think about what RPGs are like, it is probably best to think of them as a phenomenon that is unlike other phenomena and see what works best from there. Instead of thinking of things that remind us of RPGs, maybe the useful starting point is emphasising how they are not those other things - books, board games, sports, video games, toolkits - and what that means.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Goodbye to All That

I find it hard to conceive of circumstances in which I will buy another RPG rulebook "in anger" - that is, with the intention of playing games using it. I have a burgeoning collection of old RPG books that I will never play but which I like as objects. But the thought of learning how to use a new system, even a simple one, fills me with dread, sorrow, anguish and ennui. I cannot be bothered. The only thing I am now really interested in is content: imagine things which I can't imagine. I make an exception for useful subsystems within the context of games I already know. But I will almost certainly never learn how to use another RPG system afresh. I've had enough of all that.

Is there a word for people like me? "Grognard" has too many connotations, and I'm not old enough. Maybe RPG luddite? RPG philistine? RPG conservative? RPG reactionary? None of these are right: I'm not against change in general. Nor am I against new things. I'm just against spending time learning new systems.

Perhaps there's another way of putting it: as time goes on I become less and less interested in the kind of dilettantism that modern life encourages. We have access to so much new entertainments, new information, new content, new distractions, that we naturally tend towards becoming dabblers rather than experts. When there are 200 different RPG systems at your fingertips, it's easy to dip in and out of them, maybe play a few sessions of one before getting bored and moving on to another, maybe just reading bits and pieces of the rulebook for fun, maybe just looking at the pictures - all without ever putting in the time and effort to make use of any of them properly. We don't develop long-term relationships of mastery or expertise with anything - just a passing superficial interest in vast oceans of stuff.

Which is better: to be really, really good at running D&D, or to have hundreds of RPG pdfs on your hard drive and to know enough about them to talk about them online?

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Lamarckian Orc

What if orcs evolved through inheritance of acquired characteristics, so that a one-armed orc produced one-armed progeny; a body-builder orc produced more muscular whelps; a studious orc produced more knowledgeable offspring, and so on? What if orc breeds branched off from each other whenever a group of orcs began to act differently, or were subject to different environmental factors, or decided to purposively evolve?

How long would it take for a group of orcs to evolve themselves - through learning, exercise, surgery, and so on - into species of thing altogether different, so that they resembled dragons, displacer beasts, pegasi, and so forth?

Perhaps less ambitiously, how long would it take for a group of orcs to evolve themselves into three-armed variants, two-headed variants, super-intelligent variants, magical variants, and so on? How extreme would orcish body-modification get if they thought they could pass on their modified forms to their children?

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Mapping a Giant Tree Trunk

I've had some preliminary thoughts on mapping a giant tree, beginning with the trunk. Have a look at the following diagram, which is a section of a trunk:

The main concept here is the wraparound. This is a cylinder stretched out flat into two-dimensional space. The line in the centre marks the notional mid-point. Somebody could climb horizontally from square C5 all the way through D5, E5, F5 etc. right to T5, then round the "back" to A5 and B5 and to C5 again.

Locations on the trunk are marked with different colours. Black spaces are entrances to tunnel networks which are burrowed or dug into the tree itself. Red spaces are lairs for monsters. Green blotches are patches of lichen or moss. Grey ones contain a building or other construction created on the side of the trunk itself (usually on a platform of some type). 

Brown squares indicate places where branches emerge from the trunk. Mapping branches is the next stage to figure out: it will have to involve an iterative process for determining branchings.

There is also the potential to hand draw other features such as cracks. 

Sunday, 12 August 2018

On the Virtues of Terseness

Having previously praised the likes of MR James, Roger Zelazny, and Clark Ashton Smith, I must now give the most credit where it is most due: to whoever is the lost genius who wrote the monster descriptions for the Roguelike *band games (if indeed it is one person and not an OSR-sized brain trust). These one (sometimes two) sentence pencil sketches are masterpieces of communication, telling you exactly what you need to know while being powerfully, sometimes almost poetically, evocative at the same time. You sir, or sirs, or sirs and madams, have had the most influence on the way I think about monsters and the way they are described.

All the Zangband monsters descriptions are here, where you can read them for yourself, but here are some illustrations; I defy you to come up with more efficient one/two-sentence thumbnails than these:

Battle Scarred Veteran: He doesn't take to strangers kindly.

The Clear Icky Thing: It is a smallish, slimy, icky blobby creature.

Kobold: It is a small, dog-headed humanoid.

The Novice Mage: He is leaving behind a trail of dropped spell components.

The Nether Worm Mass: It is a disgusting mass of dark worms, eating each other, the floor, the air, you....

The Cloaker: It resembles a normal cloak, until some poor fool ventures too close!

The Giant Octopus: It doesn't move very fast, but when it does, watch out!

The Phase Spider: A spider that never seems quite there. Everywhere you look it is just half-seen in the corner of one eye.

The Disenchanter Beast: It looks like an anteater, and there is a static feeling crackling around its long trunk.

The Wereworm: A huge wormlike shape dripping acid, twisted by evil sorcery into a foul monster that breeds on death.

The Basilisk: An evil reptile whose eyes stare deeply at you and make your soul wilt!

The Mithril Golem: It is a massive statue of purest mithril. It looks expensive!

The Ghost: You don't believe in them, and they don't believe in you.

The Ethereal Drake: A dragon of elemental power, with control over light and dark, the ethereal drake's eyes glare with white hatred from the shadows.

The Mumak: A massive elephantine form with eyes twisted by madness.

The Chaos Drake: A dragon twisted by the forces of chaos. It seems first ugly, then fair, as its form shimmers and changes in front of your eyes.

The Anti-Paladin: An embodiment of all the cardinal vices, he beholds you scornfully.

The Time Hound: You get a terrible sense of deja vu, or is it a premonition? All at once you see a little puppy and a toothless old dog. Perhaps you should give up and go to bed.

Okay, so the last one is three sentences. What I like most about these descriptions is that they don't try to replace the image you already have in your head: whatever image of a ghost, novice mage, giant octopus, mithril golem, cloaker or or battle scarred veteran you have in your mind already is more than enough. It's only where the name itself does not make the physical appearance obvious that an actual description is required. A useful lesson for bestiary writing, I think.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Yoon-Suin Supplement: The Tree

There will at some point be a Yoon-Suin addition. This is from is the introduction.

The high, wild vastness of the Mountains of the Moon holds wondrous places far removed from the outside world, like closely guarded secrets the mountains themselves deliberately conceal from sight. In deep plunging valleys, hidden by impassible massifs on all sides, are things which would be famous throughout the world if somehow enough outsiders could visit for word to spread. As it is they sit mostly unvisited, unexplored, and unseen.  
In the heart of one such valley, one of the most remote valleys of all, stands The Tree. It has no other name, for it does not need one. All who know of it know there is no other tree in the world like it, and no tree for which it could be mistaken. It is a Tree like no other. 
The valley itself is a thickly-forested cleft gouged from the mountains by the blade of the river running through it. Rising up above the greenery around its feet - if "rising up" does the sight justice - the Tree stands, well over a mile high, as high as some of the peaks on either side of the vale, high enough for clouds to cling around its trunk and for its highest branches to be permanently coated with frost and snow. Its bark is covered with forests of moss and lichen; its roots spread beneath the surface of the world in a vast web which reaches beneath the mountains themselves; and its great bulk contains entire settlements, towns, kingdoms - bored into its trunk, nestled under its feet, or spread across its network of branches. 
The Tree is mostly unvisited, unexplored, and unseen - but not entirely. Sometimes adventurers, traders, sages or exiles make their way to that distant and isolated valley because of a whispered rumour or indiscretion heard in some opium den or tea shop in the oligarchies or Sughd, or even the Yellow City far in the south. They come in search of riches, opportunities, or even simply to say that they have seen and climbed such a tree and lived to tell the tale. Many of them never leave. This book enables you to run a campaign in which the PCs are some such visitors to the Tree, and see if they can survive - or even thrive - in its mountain-high frame.

[I will be blogging somewhat less in future months, as I'm on a productivity drive which involves cutting out almost all non-essential internet use. If posting seems light, it's not because I've gone away, but because I'm focusing energies on concrete goals.]

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Master of Monster Descriptions

Zelazny does not get enough attention in general in RPG circles, but in particular for his excellent, efficient descriptions of monsters. He may be the single most influential author on me in that regard. Some examples:

It looked like something that had started out to be a man but had never quite made it. It had been stepped on, twisted, had holes poked into the sickly dough of its head-bulge. Bones showed through the transparent flesh of its torso and its short legs were as thick as trees, terminating in disk-shaped pads from which dozens of long toes hung like roots or worms. its arms were longer than its entire body. it was a crushed slug, a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked. (The Borshin, from Jack of Shadows)

There was something unusual about their appearance... For one thing, all had uniformly bloodshot eyes. Very, very bloodshot eyes. With them, though, the condition seemed normal. For another, all had an extra joint to each finger and thumb, and sharp, forward-curving spurs on the backs of their hands. All of them had prominent jaws (and) forty-four teeth, most of them longer than human teeth, and several looking to be much sharper. Their flesh was grayish and hard and shiny. There were undoubtedly other differences also, but those were sufficient to prove a point of some sort. (The shadow creatures of Fiona, from Nine Princes in Amber)

Morgenstern was six hands higher than any other horse I had ever seen, and his eyes were the dead color of a Weimaraner dog's and his coat was all gray and his hooves looked like polished steel. (Morgenstern, from Nine Princes in Amber)

Head something like a croc's, only bigger. Around forty feet long. Able to roll itself into a big beachball with teeth. Fast on land or in water - and a hell of a lot of little legs on each side. (The Boadile, from This Immortal)

Her hair was green, though streaked with silver, and her eyes were round of moons of jade and her brows rose like the wings of olive gulls. Her mouth was small, her chin was small; her cheeks were high and wide and rounded. A circlet of white gold crossed her brow and there was a crystal necklace about her neck. At its tip there flashed a sapphire between her sweet bare breasts, whose nipples were also bare green. She wore scaled trunks of blue and a silver belt, and she held a scepter of pink coral in her hand and had a ring upon every finger, and each ring had a stone of a different blue within it. She did not smile... (Moire, Queen of Rebma, from Nine Princes in Amber)

It's the little things, really, that do it: the careful but frequent reference to vivid colours and simple adjectives (shiny, dead, sweet, sickly); the arch observations ("a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked"); and the wry humour ("there was something unusual about their appearance"). But it's very clever and incisive use of language, too - there's so much communicated in that very simple last sentence: "She did not smile."

Above all, what I like is that Zelazny is very comfortable with you, the reader, not having a clear picture in your head of what the monster is like - not so that you fill in the gaps yourself, so much as that you are given an impression in the artistic sense: a replication of what it would be like to encounter the thing being described. If you came across Morgenstern you wouldn't be jotting down every detail of his appearance. You'd notice the size, the eyes, the hooves - and then you'd run, or look away, or hide, or do something else. Capturing that in text is what Zelazny does at his best.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Gygaxian Scientasy

I have a lot of affection for a phenomenon which I am here going to call "Gygaxian Scientasy", or "scientasy" for short. (Terms which I would have preferred - "scientism", "scientificism", "scienciness" and so on - are all taken as words used to describe the application of scientific language and dogma in non-scientific domains like the humanities or social sciences to bestow a veneer of  false truthiness. "Scientasy", which is something slightly different, will have to do for my purposes.)

Scientasy is the mixing of the scientific and the fantastical - or, perhaps put more accurately, the handling of fantastical things in a non-expressionistic, quasi-positivist way. In Gygax's D&D, while there are magic, different planes and other worlds, monsters, alignments and so on, there is also a sense in which those fantastical elements are the subject of academic and pseudoscientific inquiry within the fiction itself. (Making Gygaxian Scientasy something a little different from the problem of banalifying systematization I have written about before, which is very much a case of nerds imposing order on the supernatural in order to make it into something usable in a game.) There are sages who study the world. And, moreover, there is a world for them to discover: there is an objective reality to all of this fantastical stuff - it is empirically verifiable that there are inner planes, that there is something called alignment and there are 9 varieties of it and it actually affects things, that there are deities and they have different "spheres", that there are different categories of magic, and so on. Despite its weirdness and wonder, Gygax's D&D is ultimately a positivist's universe. If you tried hard enough, thought hard enough, studied hard enough, investigated hard enough - you could actually understand how it all works.

Scientasy reached its apogee in 2nd edition, with the Spelljammer and Planescape campaign settings and the publication of the Complete Psionicist's Handbook. There is no more scientastical approach to D&D than that presented in Planescape, with its rigorous in-universe classification and taxonomization of infinity; it's not that the multiverse is carefully and circumspectly divided into different planes for different alignments or elements, and the deities and demigods categorised into different levels of power, and philosophies put into neat little boxes, and so on, just for the purposes of DMs and players - it's that all those different clades exist within the fictional world itself, where everybody knows about them and acts upon their absolute veracity. The very stuff of the multiverse comes pre-categorised.

I enjoy the scientastical approach because it seems so redolent of a late renaissance/early enlightenment understanding of the universe as something that could be got at by inductive reasoning but which, by the way, included angels, philosophers' stones, birds that go and live under the sea in winter, Blemmyes, sea dragons, and so on. Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton would have been entirely at home in your average D&D campaign setting: they would have loved trying to figure it all out. (And, of course, since our universe must surely be just another part of the Prime Material Plane, it's entirely possible that they are living somewhere on the Outlands as petitioners doing precisely that. Now there's an adventure module for you: a journey through the D&D multiverse in search of Issac Newton.)

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Plane as the Nose on Your Face

There are two models for the Inner Planes. Let's call them the purity model and the playability model.

The purity model is the one adopted by Monte Cook et al for 2nd edition Planescape. Here, each inner plane is comprised of the pure essence of whatever the core element is. The Plane of Earth is an infinite expanse of earth. The Plane of Air is an infinite expanse of air. The Quasielemental Plane of Salt is an infinite expanse of salt. And so on. There is no "up" or "down" - just endless [Element X] in all directions. In the Plane of Air, or Water, this means you are able to float up and down and side to side more or less freely, but in, say, the Quasielemental Plane of Salt you would have to burrow in those directions through solid crystals of salt in order to get anywhere.

Some concession to making those planes accessible to PCs came in the notion that there could be a bit of "bleed" from one into another, so you might get floating islands of earth in the plane of air, or bubbles of air in the plane of water, and so on. But otherwise most of the Inner Planes would be entirely hostile to PCs up to the very highest level, without cheats like Rings of [Element X] Resistance and whatnot. As soon as you appear in Salt you dehydrate and die; as soon as you appear in Radiance you go blind and insane and your face melts (something like that anyway), etc.

The playability model is the one adopted most memorably in my mind by Weis and Hickman in their lesser-known series, the Death Gate Cycle. Here, the world was divided into different elemental planes, but they were still livable to human beings: Air was a big void of air but it had islands floating in it which you could fly between on dragons; Earth was a big volcanic rocky place with tunnels in it but also a surface; Fire was a massive jungle with vegetation so thick you couldn't get to the ground; Water was a big globe of water which (if I recall correctly) you could breathe and which had floating Zaratan-like beast-islands in it. Here, while the different planes had different elemental characters, you could still, if you wanted to set an RPG there, have 1st level PCs adventuring quite happily.

The purity model is superficially the more interesting of the two in the sense that it's quite cool to try to imagine what kinds of things would exist on the Quasielemental Plane of Such-and-Such, but I wonder whether in fact this is true: it's probably more of a tricky, challenging and rewarding imaginative task to try to create a Plane of Salt/Ooze/Radiance/Earth/Mineral/Whatever which human beings could readily live in. What would a habitable plane of salt be like? How could you make such a place enough like a "real world" that it could plausibly be the home of human civilizations while still retaining the essence of a plane of salt? This seems to me to the interesting task, but the designers of Planescape sadly avoided it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Problem of Sport

I play a lot of sport, I watch a lot of sport. With the sole exception of golf, I can enjoy almost any sporting activity you could name. But I've never played in an RPG which has sport as its focus. I can think of a number of reasons for this.

1. A lot of nerds don't like sport. Thinking about it, most of the people I've played RPGs with over the years have been of the two-left-feet, "it's just eleven men running around on the grass chasing an inflated pig's bladder", last-to-be-picked-for-team-games-during-gym-classes subspecies of geek (which I think is probably the dominant variety).

2. There aren't many RPGs that concern sport, and the ones that do are not popular. This is undoubtedly causally related to reason 1.

3. Sport is hard to operationalise for RPG purposes. This is for two sub-reasons:

a.  If you want the actual sporting events to be the main focus, what you will essentially end up doing is playing out the minutiae of matches in extended form with bits of role-playing in between, so that ultimately you may as well just play a table-top sport game such as Blood Bowl.

b. If you want it to be more to do with role playing, you would either end up with a very proscribed and railroady sort of experience in which the PCs mainly do the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways (playing different teams in different places every week, repeat ad nauseum), or with a game which is mostly about the adventures the PCs get up to between games, in which case why not just have them be adventurers?

4. It's hard to think up new sports that make sense (just ask JK Rowling) and existing ones are really complicated to model. Games Workshop did a stunningly good job with Blood Bowl, which is ridiculously fun to play while also kind of making sense as a mixture of rugby league, American football and Warhammer. But that may be the exception that proves the rule.

That said, I don't think all of these problems are insurmountable. In order to work, the game would have to be both compelling in the sense of being very enjoyable and tense to play through a match/bout/event, while also having a method of generating interesting random events to take place during downtime, together with a way of rewarding PCs for spending time training or learning new skills. You would have to make both elements of the game equally rewarding and deep, in other words, and that would require a lot of effort.

Oddly enough, the "builds" mentality of 3rd edition D&D marries well to the idea of sport: it would perhaps be quite straightforward to develop a gladiatorial version of D&D 3.5, and I suspect many people have. Old School D&D, not so much - indeed, the general trend among storygamers and D&D enthusiasts alike is, I think, towards being rules-lite rather than crunchy, and if sport is to be done well there needs to be a good amount of crunch.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Harlan Ellison, Cognitive Dissonance, and Defaulting to Openness

Harlan Ellison died recently. He was by many accounts (his own included, probably), a difficult character. While respecting his work, I was never a huge fan. I love "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". Most of the rest of his stuff I can take or leave, and a lot of it I think is pretty awful. (Having read Dangerous Visions fairly recently, I was struck by the weakness of his own contribution to the volume when stood up against the other giants of the field, and it must be said that his mini-editorials almost ruin the entire project; but on the other hand, nobody else would have been able to pull the whole thing off, which I suppose sums up the man pretty well, overall.)

But already the usual suspects are starting to wring their hands about whether or not it's problematic to like Ellison's work because, well, he wasn't a terribly nice man.

What I think is this. Sometimes, very often in fact, you will in life come across people who don't share your views, who have done bad things, or who you otherwise consider to be odious for some reason, and yet are capable of creating or doing brilliant, amazing things. This will create cognitive dissonance, and that will cause you discomfort. How can it be that Eric Gill was a sex abuser of quite startling extent and yet created some of the nicest typefaces and most beautiful public art seen in the 20th century? How can it be that Gaugin created such wonderful paintings while simultaneously being, basically, a filthy old pervert and a sex tourist? How can it be that Orson Scott Card has Wrong Opinions but wrote something as great as Ender's Game? How can it be that Scott Adams has produced some of the greatest satire of the modern workplace while also being, well, really fucking weird? How can John Lennon have been so cruel to the people close to him? How can Richard Dawkins have written such fantastic books while thinking such objectionable things about people with Down's syndrome? The examples are endless. And you are going to have to find a way to deal with the issue, because if it matters to you that people whose work you admire also be good people who think the right things, your life will end up being greatly impoverished because - it turns out - extremely creative and capable people tend not to be perfectly nice all the time.

In some cases, escaping this form of cognitive dissonance is easy, because the person in question doesn't produce work which is actually any good. It's easy not to listen to Gary Glitter - as well as being a sex offender who has rightly faced criminal consequences of his behaviour, his music was crap.

It can also be easy when the person in question is dead. It's easy to use Gil Sans as your favourite typeface, because Eric Gill is long gone.

The hard bit is when you can't escape through either of those routes. Do you still want to enjoy Kevin Spacey's performance in Glengarry Glen Ross or American Beauty? Do you still want to enjoy the Harvey Weinstein-produced Pulp Fiction? (Assuming the two men are guilty of what they've been accused of.)

And don't hide behind the platitude that you can separate belief from action. The attitude often presented in these kinds of situations is: "Well, I don't mind what people think or believe, but I draw a line in the sand when it comes to actions." Yeah, right: so you'd be entirely comfortable supporting the work of an open, ardent and genuine Nazi or committed advocate of pedophilia provided they "didn't act on it"? What would make you dislike somebody enough that you would not want to associate with their art?

You have a choice, essentially, when approaching this issue, that comes down to a very simple equation. Do you want your default position to be open, or closed? Is what's important to you purity, or experiencing art? Do you want to focus your energy on avoiding what makes you uncomfortable, or accepting it?

The decision I have made is that it is better to default to the latter over the former, because in the final analysis purity won't make you a better person: art will. Purity has a superficial allure - it makes you feel as though you are contributing to a better world if you refuse all contact with anything produced by "bad people". What you are doing in fact is limiting your own horizons and narrowing your mind, creating for yourself an isolation chamber in which all you are ever exposed to is the product of the like-minded. It isn't necessarily easy. But I think openness is the better path to follow.

(A postscript: this interview about Harlan is worth a listen.)

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Why are there humans in Yoon-Suin?

The weekend is the witching hour for blogs. If posts only get a third of the number of page views on a Saturday or Sunday that they would get normally on a weekday, they only get a tenth of the number of comments.

This is the time for the silly, the experimental, the strange, the ill-advised, and the willfully obscure to sneak out of the window, climb down the drainpipe, and scamper out into the dark rain-damp streets to have their nefarious fun.

Today, I was thinking about the origin of Yoon-Suin and its place in the multiverse. Why are there humans there? I suppose the most sensible and natural explanation is that they have always been there, in the manner of fantasy races. Nobody asks where the elves came from in Mystara, or the dwarves in the Forgotten Realms. They're there because they are (or a god made them and put them there, etc.).

The second most sensible explanation is that humans came to Yoon-Suin from elsewhere. They were explorers, or would-be colonists, or refugees, or simply migrants. They came to Yoon-Suin, stayed, and proliferated. Now nobody even remembers that they're not actually native to the continent - except, perhaps, for some obscure monastic order somewhere in the Mountains of the Moon, and slug-man students of historical anthropology who have read the correct obscure tomes in the correct forgotten archives.

A third explanation: there is a rift somewhere in the fabric of reality that leads - or lead once - from Yoon-Suin to our world. In the ancient Australian outback, the deserts of Namibia, the Cheddar Gorge or the Lascaux Cave. Through it, slug-men once ventured and brought back slaves and captives for work, experimentation, pleasure, or perhaps merely to observe - and these slaves or captives, just like kudzu, Japanese knotweed, rabbits or the cane toad, found their new home much to their liking and spread with such rapidity it was as if they had always been there. As far as the slugmen are concerned, they really have: the introduction of humans happened so may eons ago that whatever forgotten archives may have documented it are long collapsed into dust and waste.

The latter two explanations raise further interesting questions: what was living in the Hundred Kingdoms, Sughd, the Mountains of the Moon, etc., before the humans came along and replaced them?

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The Brothers Squamous: The Brothers' Golems

In the previous post in this series, there was some discussion about the different types of golems in the dungeon. Here are some more thoughts:

Each brother has two different types of golem servants (again, I don't want to over-egg the trifecta motif too much), but there are different sub-types of each, all formed to perform one specific category of task and all of whom cooperate with each other to a certain extent in doing so. The snag, of course, is that the dungeon no longer resembles the dungeon they were created to work in, and this results in many unintended consequences.

Oriens was the first brother to emerge from his egg, at dawn. Ever since, his interests have been in new beginnings, in births, in youth, in novelty, in the future, in the East, in openness, in revelation.

From the morning mist and the dawn light he created golems. Those formed from the dawn light are ethereal and quick; the mist golems are silent and still - but both are transient: they form, dissipate, and re-form continually, shifting in and out of existence as they go about their tasks.

Examples of different sub-types of these golems include:

  • Sentinels - mist golems who watch 
  • Stalkers - mist golems who follow intruders
  • Revealers - dawn light golems who seek out things which are hiding or hidden
  • Prospectors - dawn light golems who move more quickly than time itself 
  • Reproducers - mist golems who create new mist golems, endlessly

Meridies was the second brother to emerge, at noon. His interests are in heat, in light, in the present, in action, in energy, in the sun.

He created golems from the noon light and from plants, which flourish in it. Those formed from the noon light are hot and bright; those created from plants are inexorable and strong - both types are powerful and dangerous, exerting the hideous might of the natural world.

Examples of different sub-types include:

  • Searers - noon light golems who cleanse entire chambers with their heat
  • Structurers - plant golems who prevent the dungeon collapsing with their tensile strength
  • Re-builders - plant golems who repair damaged corridors and chambers
  • Constrainers - plant golems which hold things still
  • Scorchers - noon light golems which blast and burn 

Vespara was the last brother to emerge, at dusk. His interests are in endings, in deaths, in the past, in slowness, in closure, in concealment.

His golems are made from the dusk light and from stone. Those created from the dusk light are creeping and hidden; those created from stone are implacable and resilient - both types are there to stop, to finish, and to close.

Examples of different sub-types include:

  • Ambushers - dusk light golems who hide in shadow and strike at those who pass
  • Barriers - stone golems who use their bodies to close off corridors and doorways 
  • Concealers - dusk light golems who hide things Vespara specified must remain unseen
  • Dismantlers - stone golems who collapse chambers and corridors 

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Homogenization of D&D

Ease of communication promotes assimilation. You only have to look around you for a few seconds to notice that. TV and the internet are bringing us all together at an astonishing rate. Whether you live in New York, Paris, London or Tokyo, your life experience is nowadays almost identical. The only differences are which paintings are in what museums and which language the street signs are in.

I exaggerate slightly. But not by much.

Since the World Cup is on at the moment, we can use football as an example. In case you're not familiar with the famous "Brazil/Zaire free kick incident" of 1974, watch this video:

At the time, it was widely believed that the player in question, Mwepu Ilunga, made this mistake because in Zairian football they didn't take free kicks as the "official rules" dictated. This story doesn't actually seem to be true: the player in question later said he did it hoping to get sent off, as a protest because he and his team mates weren't being paid properly by the Zairian footballing authorities. (There's also an apocryphal tale that gets bandied around holding that the Zairian players had been threatened with death by Mobuto Sese Soko if they lost the game by more than 3-0 and either the pressure got to Ilunga, or he was desperate to try to waste time and prevent the Brazilians scoring again.) But it illustrates a point: at that time, football was played quite differently in different parts of the world. It was rare for players to move overseas to play football, and there were radically different playing styles in England, Scotland, Italy, Brazil, and so on. It was only 20 years prior to the Ilunga free kick that Hungary had revolutionised international football by creating their new "WW" system and suddenly unleashing it on the unsuspecting English; it was possible for them to do this because nobody in England had a clue what was going on in Hungarian football. It was thus entirely possible for a viewing audience in 1974 to imagine that in Zaire they had different rules for free kicks: it's a reflection of how diverse the public understood international football to be

It wouldn't be possible nowadays. Football has globalized, and as it has globalized it has homogenized. I sit here writing this blog entry watching Brazil v Switzerland. Most of the players on both teams play together or against each other regularly in English, Spanish, German or Italian club football. Their club teams and international teams use the same or very similar formations. The two sides both emphasise the same qualities in players. In 1974 a tie between Brazil and Switzerland would have showcased two very different styles. Now, they're basically the same.

The same will happen with D&D. It is happening now. When I was a kid, the only frames of reference you had for understanding what D&D was actually like were the people around you who introduced you to the game, the page long "example of play" in the PHB, what you could glean from various hints and asides in the text of the rules themselves, and maybe the little "choose your own adventure" style intro in Red Box Basic. That was it. Other than that, you were on your own: D&D was what you and your friends made of it.

Think of a new player nowadays. You can go online and watch Will Wheaton, or a thousand other people, actually play sessions of D&D right in front of your very eyes. You can read forums, blogs, and other online resources discussing different play styles in intricate detail. You can directly contact many RPG designers through social media. You can go on Tumblr or Twitter and heap abuse on people who don't conform to what you think D&D is about. The texture of your introduction to the game, as a neophyte, is utterly different to what it was in 1985. 

D&D will become like football. It's not that all games will be the same, and it's not that there won't be innovations. It's that we'll end up with largely the same play styles dominating (some people will prefer "narrative" style games versus "OSR" style games, just like some football teams play a 4-2-3-1 versus a 3-4-3 or play an attacking game versus a counter-attacking style, but they will deploy those styles in homogenous ways) and there will be much, much, much less variety than there once was.

What happens when your touchstone for "what D&D is like" ends up being Will Wheaton and not, say, your friend's older brother and his mates (which was my introduction to the game)? A more significant question than can be dealt with in a blogpost, probably. Switzerland have just equalised and it's got interesting, so I'll leave it up to you to deal with in the comments. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The War-[x] Game

Put the word "chaos" in front of almost any animal name (or any object, pretty much) and instantly you get a monster idea. Try it. Chaos butterfly. Chaos dog. Chaos toad. Chaos cow. 

The same is also true of "war". War bat. War hippo. War heron. War owl. 

What I like about the "war-[x]" gambit is that you don't just get a cool-sounding monster name. You get an implied setting and culture surrounding it too. What society has war bats? Maybe a race of troglodytic jungle cave men who use their war bats, trained to fly into people's faces, to blind enemy warriors. What about war hippos? Clearly one that resembles Ancient Egypt, Nubia, or maybe Great Zimbabwe. Its elite warrior class, its knights, ride around on hippos and are even able to use them to travel up and down rivers (legends still tell of a famous battle in which an army of war hippos, together with knights, crossed the sea to sack a city of the Ancient Greece analogue in the setting). War herons are trained by a marsh-dwelling people to peck out the kneecaps or pierce the feet of intruders as they pass by thick reed beds. War owls are used by a society of nocturnal elves to scratch out the eyes of the foolish humans who enter their forests - or maybe to hunt down and devour pixies.

Try it and see. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

Lay a Little Egg for Me

Today we visited some friends in the countryside who keep, among other things, chickens. They have a flock of about a dozen of them, and the birds are free to roam across a large corner of an orchard which must be very close to chicken paradise: nice cool shade from the trees with a few spots of sun here and there, all the food and water they can drink, lots of grassy areas to roam around in, and shelter from the elements.

But chicken paradise, it turns out, is actually something close to HELL: a dystopian nightmare of viciously and vigorously enforced social hierarchy from which nobody can escape, characterised by unprovoked and brutal beatings, theft of food, sexual assault, and constant unrelenting low-level bullying and violence.

Animals do not have morals. But even within that context, chickens take amorality to the extreme.

They are also probably the scariest non-dangerous-to-humans farmyard animal. They are, to all intents and purposes, miniature velociraptors, and the link to the dinosaurs is absolutely transparent and clear as soon as you spend any time watching them - the only thing they really lack is teeth. The chickens at my friend's farm spent most of the afternoon stalking and catching flies through areas of long grass in their little domain. Watching them doing this was like a case study in efficient predation. Those flies had no chance. Each chicken was like a T-rex, striding back and forth with constant twitching head movements until it fixated on a fly landing on a blade of grass, whereupon it would dart its head forward with such speed that not even a blue bottle could escape. It wasn't hard at all to imagine what the results would be if those birds were 8 feet tall and became interested in the taste of human flesh. They would be ruling the planet within months and we would be laying eggs for them.

I missed a trick with chickens in Yoon-Suin. Our modern domesticated animals are descendants of the Red Junglefowl, a wild bird whose range almost directly maps to the regions of the world which were its geographic inspiration. I should have done something with that. In a fantasy setting, a race of chicken-men could be like orcs: a being with a society that prioritizes only selfishness, where might makes right, and where the only respected value is the pecking order - literally.


HD 2+2
AC 5
#ATT 2
DMG 1d4/1d6 (peck/gouge)
Move 180
ML 7
*Chicken-men can fly clumsily for up to 60' but need to land and then rest for 3 rounds afterwards.
*Chicken-men attack with a peck and a gouge from a taloned foot. They can instead sacrifice making those attacks in order to either:
1) Use both feet to trample and pin a human-sized-or smaller opponent to the ground; if they hit successfully they pull their target to the ground and pin it. This does no damage but in subsequent rounds the chicken-man can peck the head, doing 2d4+2 damage. The chicken-man will let go if hit and wounded.
2) Buffet with the wings. This hits any enemy in a semi-circular arc in front of the chicken automatically, doing 1d2 damage.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

D&D, Bourdieu, and Surfing

I am not an anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist or indeed anybody whose views you should take remotely seriously. I begin that post with that disclaimer. That said, I wonder why it is that, since roughly the turn of the 21st century, "geek culture" has caught on and become increasingly mainstream (recognising that being a "geek" is by no means the same thing in 2018 as it was in 1988). I suppose a conventional explanation for this might be that it's thanks to certain notable media successes, like the Lord of the Rings films, The Big Bang Theory, the various Marvel and Warner Bros comic and superhero tie-ins, all of which have made it okay to be into science fiction and fantasy.

I wonder whether the more realistic explanation is that social capital (and actual capital) increasingly accrues, in the knowledge economy, to people who are in one sense or another "geeky". Not to get all Bourdieu about it, but liking geeky stuff has become an act of social positioning: it has become associated with wealth and status in a way in which it never was when I wur a lad. It's not that the decision to define oneself as a geek is deliberate in that way. But it has become attractive for those reasons.

Which would partly explain why (see my previous post) playing D&D is now apparently common and socially acceptable at posh universities attended by young people who will be successful in future and running the country and all that jazz.

In other words - and I don't think is remotely deliberate - Peter Jackson just happened to make a trilogy of films for which the timing was absolutely perfect: he was riding a wave which nobody else had really seen coming either and happened to catch it just as it was cresting. It's still on its way to shore now and WotC are now riding it too.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Report from the Field

I recently had a (successful, thanks for asking) job interview at one of the UK's best universities (top 10 on all the ranking lists I'm aware of - that should help you stalkers out there narrow me down somewhat). While there, I took the opportunity to browse through their campus bookshop. Sure enough, nestled among all the textbooks on endocrinology and financial risk management; the medieval French literature and obscure theological tomes; the experimental postmodern novels and historical treatises on trade unions in Uruguay in the 1870-1890 period; etc., I found an entire bookcase - not a shelf, a bookcase - of 5th edition D&D books.

There can only be one conclusion, which I arrive at hastily and without any sort of empirical evidence beyond this anecdote: D&D is getting popular again.

Not hugely popular, I think. I doubt we'll get back to heady days of the 1980s and 1990s when British bookshops and even music shops used to have entire, vast sections of RPG rulebooks and supplements for spotty teenaged boys to browse. But things are happening for 5th edition in a way that I don't think they happened for editions 3 and 4. Whisper it, but D&D is almost in the cultural zeitgeist - for all my loathing of geek culture and all it entails, there is no denying its power and momentum.

A point of comparison: when I left home to go to university myself, back in 1999, I had already "grown out" of RPGs a few years earlier and wouldn't have dreamed of getting involved in them during my time as a student. (I returned to the fold in the mid-late 2000s.) The idea of RPG books being available in campus bookshops... it would have been unthinkable. The kind of student who exists nowadays - the self-identifying geek with the fashionably naff glasses, the t-shirt with its ironic and unfunny slogan, the so-not-chic-they're-chic Doc Martens, etc., you know the sort - simply didn't exist. There were plenty of nerds, but they either hid it more or less successfully (my attempted strategy) or were so utterly socially isolated, so far beyond the periphery of polite society that they were figuratively and might as well literally have been kobolds, that it didn't matter.

Now you can not only buy D&D books in prestigious universities that very posh people go to. You can (I assume) buy them without shame and even, possibly, in a way, you can even do it and be considered cool.

The times they are a-changin'.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Random Mythical Wizards in 7th Century Northern Japan

The forests of the Emishi are home to wizards and warlocks – solitary men of magic able to manipulate others’ minds, the land around them, and even death itself. These malevolent tricksters use these powers for their own pleasure, or in order to visit pain and sorrow on those they feel have wronged them: they only ever act without malice when they can benefit directly from acting against their true nature.

All wizards have 1d6+4 HD and spells as listed in the “Powers” column. Their servants are utterly loyal and can carry messages and perform other tasks appropriate to their nature - such as holding objects, stealing items, scouting, and so on. Wizards have the following treasures: Textiles x 1, Jewelery x 2, Magic x 2, Weapons x 1.

Servants (1d3 types)
Liar. The wizard spreads malice through convincing unfortunates of things that are not true.  (Charm Person, Fool’s Gold, Forget, Magic Mouth, ESP,  Suggestion, Tongues, Hypnotism, Misdirection, False Seeing)
At the top of an extremely tall tree in a crude tree house – a platform and bivouac. The wizard is able to climb up and down trees, and leap between them, with unnatural grace and strength.
Moths. Can scatter powder in their air from their wings as they fly, to cause the effects of a sleep, slow or stinking cloud spell. The wizard releases the moths from his clothing and they scatter their powder over an area of a 12 yard sphere within 100 yards of the wizard's location. The wizard has three moth swarms, each with the different spell-effect type and each of which moves at 90.
The wizard has targeted a prominent NPC in a nearby Emishi village for his malice.
Trickster. The wizard spreads malice through illusions and phantasms to terrify, confuse, or upset the unwary. (Audible Glamer, Change Self, Ventriloquism, Phantasmal Force, Improved Phantasmal Force, Mirror Image, Hallucinatory Terrain, Spectral Force, Confusion, Maze)
On a tiny island in a lake, just barely big enough for a clump of trees partially concealing his hut. The wizard can swim unnaturally quickly (at 180) and breathe underwater.
Woodpeckers. 1d3+1 in number. Together they can forego making an action to use their hammering on a tree to summon aid (as per the Animal Summoning II spell) once per day. They must all act in unison to do this.
The wizard wants a rare magical item (pick or create one, or roll randomly on the Magic Treasure List) and will help anyone who gets it for him.
Thief. The wizard simply steals things – items with the most sentimental value being best of all. (Pass Without Trace, Find Traps, Detect Magic, Jump, Invisibility, Knock, Feign Death, Dig, Blink, Dimension Door, Clairvoyance)
The wizard has no lair and roams about nomadically – he does not sleep and wears all his possessions. He cannot be tracked and will only be encountered randomly – unless he chooses to be found. 
Snakes. If the wizard is encountered outdoors, and is endangered, snakes strike. This happens once: anyone the wizard perceives as a threat within 50 yards, up to a total of 8 people, is targeted. Each must save vs poison or be paralysed and suffer hallucinations for 1d3 days.
The wizard was recently foiled in his plans by a local prominent NPC and will help anyone who brings that person to him dead or (preferably) alive.
Murderer. Quite simply, the wizard enjoys taking life. (Hold Person, Poison, Cause Serious Wounds, Cause Critical Wounds, Finger of Death)
In a deep cave in a cliff face, covered in hanging ivy. The wizard can see perfectly in the dark and is never surprised in his lair.
Owls. Familiars which bestow the wizard ‘s enemies with misfortune. There are three owls. The first may cast Feeblemind once per day. The second may cast Emotion once per day. The third may cast Confusion once per day.
The wizard has a rival nearby and the two are locked in war.
Seducer. The wizard seduces women (or men) to break hearts, disrupt family harmony, and humiliate cuckolds. (Charm Person, Suggestion, Command, Change Self, ESP, Friends, Hypnotism, False Seeing)
In a hollow underneath a huge moss-covered boulder, accessible only through a crack in the top. The wizard can shrink or enlarge himself three times per day.
Sparrows. A flock of tiny fluttering feathered sprites who, when acting together, form into a swirling swarm of razor-sharp wings that tear through flesh, bone and even steel. This acts as the equivalent of a Blade Barrier spell.
The wizard wants escorts to take him up a mountain, to an island off the coast, or another place that is difficult to access, in order to perform a ritual of some kind.
Enslaver. The wizard enjoys holding power over others and forcing them to obey his commands. (Charm Person, Suggestion, Command, Mass Suggestion, Hold Person, Paralysation, ESP)
In a cave behind a 20-metre tall waterfall with sheer cliffs on either side. The wizard can spider climb at will.
Monkey. A calm, sage-like simian with malevolent eyes who provides the wizard with a link to the world of the gods and spirits. He can cast one spell once a day from each of the cleric and druid spell lists up to 5th level.
The wizard senses the presence of the PCs as “strangers” and targets them.
Tormentor. The wizard derives satisfaction from the infliction of pain which does not kill. (Hold Person, Cause Light Wounds, Cause Serious Wounds, Shocking Grasp, Burning Hands, Scare)
On a hill top above an almost-sheer slope of scree; the wizard is as sure-of-foot as a goat and moves perfectly silently; he always surprises opponents except on a 1 in 10.
Cicadas. These hum, buzz, whir and chitter across a radius of 30’, causing deafness, producing silence throughout the radius, and causing debilitating headaches which paralyse on a failed save for the duration of the song. The song is continuous but the cicadas must break for one round in every 6.
The wizard is in the midst of a struggle for territory with an animal spirit.
Spoiler. The wizard’s pleasure comes from destroying that which is beautiful or creative, or simply causing the innocent to despair. (Bestow Curse, Putrefy Food & Drink, Cause Disease, Cause Blindness, Produce Flame, Insect Plague, Disintegrate, Transmute Rock to Mud)
In a village, Yamato fort, or other settled place. The wizard can disguise himself perfectly and lives hiding in plain sight. He can wear other disguises to resemble almost anyone he meets.
Flies. A swarm of 3d10 iridescent green flies which explode with blue flame on striking one of the wizard’s enemies. This destroys the fly and does 2d8 damage, as well as igniting any flammable material within 1 yard. The fly must successfully roll to hit (as a 1 HD monster). The wizard can summon new flies once per month.
The wizard is in love with a nearby Emishi woman, but he wants her love to be genuinely reciprocal.

Friday, 1 June 2018

The Brothers Squamous: Who Are They?

This post is the second in an ongoing series.

Three green dragons, all brothers, who have built a treasure house together. Each needs to be different. Each also needs to be a rival of the others.

The tonal palette of The Brothers Squamous is, as I decided in yesterday's post, North-West European. Giving the dragons Latinate names is an easy way, then, to make them distinctive. But their names have to stem from their nature. What is each dragon associated with?

Since one of the "trifectas" of golem types in the dungeon is morning, noon and evening light, I think that having each brother associated with either the dawn, noon or dusk makes sense, and also sets sparks of ideas off in my head. Maybe all of them emerged from their eggs on the same day, with one in the morning, one at noon, and one in the evening, and each has associated with that time of day ever since. (Perhaps their unacknowledged sister is the night?)

I think, then, I will call these dragons Oriens, for the dawn, Meridies, for noon, and Vespera, for the evening.

Oriens is interested in new beginnings, in births, in youth, in novelty, in the future, in the East, in openness, in revelation.

Meridies is interested in heat, in light, in the present, in action, in energy, in the sun.

Vespera is interested in endings, in deaths, in the past, in slowness, in closure, in concealment.

Their respective regions of the dungeon will reflect those characteristics - with the caveat that the brothers have all been sleeping for a very long time and the dungeon they created is no longer as they remember it.

I also did some thinking today about geography, and decided I didn't want to over-egg the importance of the number "three". Hence, the dungeon is just on an island in a lake which is itself on an island in a lake. There are, the internet tells me, a few of these in the world - here is a picture of one on the Philippines:

It would make sense, I'm sure you will agree, if the outer island had something WEIRD about it. More on that tomorrow.