Thursday, 15 November 2018

Hiatus; Or, Becoming Jaded; Or, Toys, Pram, Thrown

I am taking a hiatus from the blog and all online discussion of RPGs. There are a couple of reasons.

First, I think I am becoming jaded. When I look around, what I mostly see are people with products to sell, most of which I think are over-priced, focused on style over substance, and not particularly interesting. I can't tell if this is accurate or because I am losing my enthusiasm. Probably it is a bit of both. Either way, it's a good reason to take a step away from things for a while.

Second, I am basically sick to death of the culture war bullshit surrounding the scene lately - which has raised its brainless boring head once again. As somebody broadly in the political centre I look to one side and see nothing but sanctimonious, judgmental pricks and on the other side nothing but childish mud-flinging philistines, and it increasingly feels like being stuck in the middle of a primary school playground. There is nothing for a sane person to do but say "A pox on both your houses!" and disengage. You're all wankers: you know who you are.

Third, my proper career is moving to the next level and I have family commitments which result in less and less time for thinking about RPGs. I am still keen on creating. I have less juice for it. I need to take a break to see if it is rejuvenating.

Don't view this as a melodramatic move or a cry for help. I think a big part of the reason why I am losing patience with this whole thing is because things are going well elsewhere and I can see less and less value in being part of the silliness of what the OSR thing has become. Let me put it bluntly: I can't give a flying fuck whether Writer X wants to work with Publisher Y because of Reason Z or not. I have better things to do. Get over yourselves. You're not important.

I will resume posting if and when I feel like I miss it. I hope most people reading this entry will not feel too alienated by it; sorry.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Night Hagdoms of the Calf Plateau

On the bare galeswept hump of the plateau, nothing can grow except for the most rudimentary life: lichens fed by starlight which achingly spread across the rock, inch by inch, century by century; fungal growths which grope their way over the surface, laying completely flat as though ducked down against the wind. But the surface is riven with deep ravine-like networks of cracks and chasms, gouged into the landscape by earthquakes and tremors, and those places are thick with life, scrabbling around in the utter blackness of permanent night where not even moon- or starlight penetrates. The reason is simple: guano. The bats which lair on the Calf in their millions are constantly producing nutritious effluent which flows in streams - sometimes rivers - of rain that gradually collect in these networks of cracks and flow downhill to the sea. All this waste produces enough food for entire ecosystems to be sustained.

Much of this life is the most base and unthinking kind: giant lice sucking on effluent and the giant centipedes and axlotls which feed on them; myriad types of nameless clawed arthropod things whose origins could only be guessed at if even they were known to the outside world. But there are societies there too: in those pitch black chasms, radiating across the plateau like old tangled cobwebs, are night hag triarchies, each ruled by a coven of three sisters, living off food their minions catch or grow for them, and permanently jostling for prominence against their rivals. There is no use speculating where these night hags came from: probably they are instantiations of the night itself, as though its sheer permanence in the seas of Nox Aestiva had to give effect to personifications such as them. Their slaves are the descendants of the rare travelers who have visited the Calf over the eons and become trapped; most of them ruined by inbreeding but adapted to life in the endless night with almost supernaturally elevated senses of smell, touch or hearing - and without the unnecessary encumbrance of eyes. These slaves in many cases now number in the thousands after generations of breeding across the eons, and have built entire towns by burrowing caves into the walls of their ravine homes. They war, trade, spy and conspire with and against one another with an intensity that is precisely converse to its import: the rest of the Fixed World has no idea they even exist, save for the aboleths who lair in the reefs off the coast and the tiny number of sailors who visit the island. 

To generate a night hag triarachy, roll on the following table. Descriptions of Assets and Issues are found below.

Minion type
Assets (d3)
Jermalaines – originally stowaways on a wrecked ship blown off course
Humans – originally pirates or traders on a wrecked ship blown off course
Magical lichen
Toxic gases
Derro – who originally burrowed up from some ancient now-collapsed labyrinth leading to the underdark
Mineral seam
Halflings – originally seal hunters from Mane Hiemalis carried on the back of an iceberg
Aboleth alliance
Slave uprising
Githyanki – originally pirates carried on the back of a zaratan which died nearby
Ochre jelly spawning site
Rival agents
Grippli, tasloi or lizardmen  – who were trapped on a giant tree which was blown into the sea in Meridiem Aestivus and carried to the Calf across the ocean
“Pet” galeb duhr
Monbat predators
Urds – who were flying in Mane Hiemalis and blown off course by a storm, to land on the Calf for respite
Magma pool
Tenebrous worm nest
Pech – who accidentally came through a temporary portal from the Plane of Earth and were stranded when it closed
Umber hulk breeding pit
Phase spider attacks
*Minions have their ordinary abilities. Unless they have innate infravision, they are now blind and rely on their other senses, and have accordingly outsized noses, ears and hands. This allows them to "see" in the dark, albeit at -2 to rolls requiring quick reactions (including "to hit" rolls).

When generating a triarchy, place the following adventure sites and generate further details using the relevant sub-tables:

1 - Night hunter lair
2 - Abandoned settlement
3 - Powerful exile/hermit
4 - Genie pilgrimage site
5 - Mephits
6 - Lava tube network

[Something incomplete I am working on.]

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Modern D&D Venn Diagram

D&D really is a thing again. A colleague of mine - a woman, 26, good-looking, reasonably "cool" or whatever word the kids are using these days - announced over lunch today to a group of us that she had recently switched from playing Settlers of Cataan with her boyfriend and mates to D&D. And she was loving it.

Never has a generational divide been more in evident. Everybody else around the table - 35+, professional, sensible, successful - cringed (except for me: I did my level best to be nonchalant). To them, D&D screams NERD if it screams anything at all. To somebody who is 26, D&D somehow manages to scream NERD, BUT THAT'S OK BECAUSE IT'S COOL TO BE A NERD NOW, SO HURRY UP AND ROLL UP A CHARACTER AND LET'S GET SOME CRAFT IPA AND E-CIGARETTES AND WAX OUR MOUSTACHES.

What interests me is not that D&D is reviving in popularity - it undoubtedly is (even the BBC is onto it). It's that it is popular in a totally different way to how it was in the past. I was not old enough to be playing D&D during the boom years of the late 70s and early 80s. But I am pretty sure even at the height of its popularity in those days that it was not being played by professional 26 year old women with robust social lives. Things have changed. The opening paragraph of the BBC article in the above link puts it down in part to "nostalgia". I don't buy it. My colleague ain't nostalgic - she probably wouldn't have had a clue what D&D even was 3 or 4 years ago. She's enjoying the game for what it is.

The real "meat" of the story is the fact that people are meeting up to play D&D at BrewDog pubs now. For those outside the UK, BrewDog was one of the first hipster craft beer companies to really get successful about 10 years ago: it has always billed itself as a "punk" brewer and branded itself as being a kind of market rebel (it probably tells you all you need to know that one of its lines is called Tactical Nuclear Penguin (insert eye-roll smiley here) and is 32% ABV). In the year 2007, it would have been about as far away from D&D as you can get. But in 2018, BrewDog is so D&D. It is almost painfully D&D. It is craft beer, it is guys riding around on old bicycles, it is ironic tattoos, it is veganism, it is gluten-free brownies, it is vintage plaid/checked shirts, it is taxidermy, it is urban beekeeping, it is bookbinding, it is shops and bars built inside cargo containers, it is Urban fucking Outfitters. Whether due to some work of marketing genius on the part of WotC, or (more likely) due to sheer accident, D&D has nestled in alongside those other pursuits perfectly - the paradigmatic post-ironic so-uncool-it's-cool pastime that exists outside of trainspotting and lawn bowls. Draw a Venn diagram of all those activities and somehow find some way to fit them all together and D&D could be right there in the middle.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no. I am glad that lots of people like D&D, because I like D&D and can see its great virtues in a world full of anxious people alienated from each other by the siren-song of fake technological connectivity and emancipation. At the same time, though, there is a part of me that cannot help finding every element in that Venn diagram profoundly irritating, and is horrified at the prospect of D&D becoming tarred with that particular brush.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Pied Piper of Syr Darya

I lie here on the couch watching football. I am infected by norovirus and feel about as bad as I can ever remember feeling. I can't eat, drink, move, or sleep. But what I can do, goddamit, is blog. "I blogged didn't I? At least I did that." Put that on my tombstone.

Feverish dreams gave me an idea: some renditions of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story end with the Mayor (who, you may remember, asked the Piper to get rid of the rats but then refused to pay, causing the Piper to disappear with all the town's children in a fit of pique) going off to search for the missing children - and he is often described as "still looking for them now". A bleak ending - in the book version my daughter likes, the Mayor is even depicted on the final page as an impossibly old man wandering through empty mountain passes in a perpetual and fruitless search.

So, I wonder - what if the Mayor's wanderings lead him to Yoon-Suin? That would make a great novel idea. He never finds the children. But he finds other things instead.

Other ideas for Yoon-Suin/real world crossover novels:

-Spanish or Portuguese conquistadores discover the Yellow City; Europeans are ravaged by horrible diseases
-An account of the British Purple Land Company setting off on voyages through oceanic wormhole things that open in the Gulf of Morays
-An account of the lost tribe of Israel wandering into Sughd from the West
-First contact with a trading vessel from  a Yellow City Noble House sailing up the Thames/Mersey circa 1800

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Remaining Soldiers

There is a popular history book waiting to be written about the role that disbanded military units have played in historical events: young men once gainfully employed who suddenly have nothing to do and who are trained in and accustomed to extreme violence can cause all kinds of mischief; multiply this by the tens of thousand or hundreds of thousand and suddenly they become societal problems - even global problems - in their own right. You could almost say that the demobbing of the German and Russian armies at the close of WWI was a significant cause all on its own of all the mayhem that followed; you could also spin the final conquest of the American West as partly the mere consequence of the unleashing of lots of demobbed soldiers at the end of a long and brutal war. A much more modern example is the sudden dissolution of the Iraqi army during de-Ba'athification in 2003-2004, which is said to have been supplied much of the fuel for the insurgency that followed and was also clearly a significant factor in the rise of Islamic State.

(I have a feeling I may have written a blog post on this subject before, but if I have, I don't remember where.)

On a smaller scale, Japanese "remainers" in Indochina played a key role in training the Viet Minh after WWII in their war against the French, and hence subsequently against the Americans; in a strange historical twist, a lot of the French Foreign Legionnaires in that conflict were also actually German mercenaries fresh from the war in Europe. Japanese troops who had previously been stationed in China also played a prominent role as mercenaries in the Chinese civil war in the 1945-1949 period, and let's not forget, of course, Xenophon and the march of the 10,000 - which is basically a story about a disbanded military force, and which supposedly inspired Alexander in his conquest of Persia.

The idea of ex-soldiers stranded far from home has been used before, in Twilight: 2000, but works equally well for fantasy games. Why are the PCs in Yoon-Suin, or Tsolyanu, or Sigil, or wherever else your campaign begins? Well, maybe they happened to be there fighting a war and the war's over. What could be more a more natural next step than for them to begin looking around for other opportunities for wealth and glory?

Friday, 26 October 2018

And Now She's Got Helicopters...

And Hosaka's helicopter is back, no lights at all, hunting on infrared, feeling for body heat. A muffled whine as it turns, a kilometer away, swinging back toward us, toward New Rose. Too fast a shadow, against the glow of Narita.
-William Gibson, "New Rose Hotel" 
It struck me today, as two unidentified helicopters hovered fairly low, in close proximity, over my neighbourhood, that you don't get a much more cyberpunk technology than the chopper.

Helicopters are about great inequality: inequality of military power (the Huey in Vietnam, the Hind in Afghanistan), inequality of wealth (the super-rich sky commuters in Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Mumbai, heading for their weekend haunts through the crowded sky on a Friday evening), and even at some level sheer inequality of physical geography (I can see you, and I am above you; you don't get much more of an unequal relationship than that).

Helicopters are about surveillance. From up there, they can see everything below. And it ain't hidden. You don't spy on somebody by helicopter. You openly watch them. You tell them: I have you in my sights, so watch out.

Helicopters are about intimidation. They are loud, powerful, and almost omnipotent when they are in the sky. They can move at will. Something about them makes you freeze, and look up. They make you feel like an Amazonian tribesman confronting the awesome force of modern technology for the first time.

Helicopters are about assassination, abduction, and carefully deployed force at a personal level. Helicopters don't drop nuclear bombs. They carry Navy SEALS teams to covertly kill Osama Bin Laden.

The internet and cyberware might be the technologies we think of when we think of cyberpunk. For me the chopper trumps them.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Yoon-Suin Community Continuity

There is a relatively good Yoon-Suin community page on G+ which, aside from the blog, is the main place for discussing the setting online. There is lots of interesting stuff there. Clearly, that page will have to disappear when G+ goes away. I am currently considering options for replacements.

Please let me know in the comments to this entry (or on the post on G+ - I will cross-post this to the Yoon-Suin community page there) what your preferred option is:

a) A discussion forum on the Noisms Games website (yes, this exists!)
b) A subreddit, if this can be arranged
c) Something on MeWe (I don't have a MeWe account yet, but it seems to be where a lot of G+ exiles are heading)
d) Some other better option I've not thought of (and tell me what that is and why it's good!)

Please don't recommend anything to do with Facebook or Twitter; I don't use them and dont intend to start.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Four Forge Spells

A cold evening in late October, with the wet wind washing against the windows and the dead leaves rattling in the street outside. Thoughts turn to the Forge. Here are some spells for you, just for fun:

Festering Cloth, Level 3. This spell is cast on a piece of cloth or other material, not smaller than the spread of his hand from thumbtip to little finger tip, and not bigger than his height from head to foot. It imbues the material with a disease, which is passed on to anybody who touches the cloth with their naked flesh, including the spellcaster himself; this condition is permanent. Any disease may be used, but by default the affliction is as follows: after 16 hours the victim begins to lose 1 hp and 1 point of STR and CON per hour until any of those scores reaches 0, at which point he or she dies.

Lucid Adoration, Level 1. This spell acts as Charm Person, but the victim retains the knowledge that he or she has been charmed and is entirely lucid for the duration of the spell. He or she must act as though charmed (obeying commands within reason, protecting the caster, etc.) but is able while doing so to complain, plot revenge, shout warnings to others, and so on.

Jullavierre's World Signal, Level 6. This spell allows the caster to send a signal, in the form of a bright light in the sky showing a single sigil or letter, which is seen or heard everywhere in the world. It lasts for 1 minute per caster level.

Ubara's Slate Ally, Level 6. This spell conjures a stone golem formed from slate, consisting of a large flat slab of stone with arms and legs formed from smaller slats of slate. It has the stats and abilities of a stone golem, but it suffers double damage from bludgeoning attacks and is immune to edged weapons. It is thin enough to pass through gaps 6" wide, and can set itself up as a wall, 8' high and 4' wide, which cannot be pushed over and which protects anyone immediately behind it from missile weapons, magic spells including fireball blasts, and so on.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Going is easy but returning is not

A lot of pedestrian crossings in Japanese cities play the haunting children's lullaby "Toryanse" to let you know when to cross - something which says more about East-West cultural differences than I think any words could. This is the tune itself; you can find other more "produced" versions on YouTube, but this version is more appropriate for the context in which the tune is generally heard (other than pedestrian crossings).

The words are in an old form of Japanese, from the Edo period, and aren't easily translated. You get different versions in different places. It is most often represented as a call-and-response dialogue, but it always isn't quite clear which of the parties is saying which line, and one of the words used, kowai, which in modern Japanese almost always means "frightening", could also just mean "difficult" in those days, and that seems to fit better. These are a few of my alternative translations depending on how you interpret the order of the speakers, with A the first speaker and B the second:

Alternative 1
Alternative 2
Alternative 3
通りゃんせ 通りゃんせ
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
ここはどこの 細道じゃ
B: What is this narrow path?
B: What is this narrow path?
B: What is this narrow path?
天神さまの 細道じゃ
A: This is the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine
A: This is the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine
B: Is this the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine?
ちっと通して 下しゃんせ
B: Would you please let me pass?
B: Would you please let me pass?
B: Would you please let me pass?
御用のないもの 通しゃせぬ
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
この子の七つの 御祝いに
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
御札を納めに 参ります
B: I have come with an offering
B: I have come with an offering
B: I have come with an offering
行きはよいよい 帰りはこわい
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
B: Even so, please let me pass
A: But even so
A: But even so
通りゃんせ 通りゃんせ
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through

(If you prefer a "creepier" version, you would translate the third to last line as "going in is easy, but returning is frightening [or scary]", which in my view makes it a bit melodramatic. It also must be said that on weblio, the meaning of the line in question is described as "going in is easy, but returning is not". You can also mix and match between the three alternatives if you think the final three lines are ABA rather than AAA.)

Interpretations vary, but the wikipedia article is I guess the mainstream view; it suggests the exchange is between a guard and somebody wanting to visit the shrine to celebrate their child reaching 7 years of age (3rd, 5th and 7th birthdays are special occasions for kids in Japan for Buddhist-associated reasons). According to weblio, there's no clear reason by returning is not easy, or "scary" - it could be because one must use all one's energy climbing uphill on the way and has no energy for the return route (or, I suppose, vice versa - maybe the way is downhill and the way back requires an upward climb).

But to me there is something more to it than that, especially in the context of the melody, which seems to make the journey fraught with underlying tension - "going in is easy, but returning is not" - and hints at much darker themes. Death seems to be lurking somewhere - or, possibly, the past: you can go on (if you have a good reason!) but going back is hard.

I love stuff like this. In particular, I love the idea of guards with ambiguous requirements and warnings. Fighting Fantasy books in particular were full of that sort of thing: it works well in the context of a gamebook where the guard can't be questioned, but can only issue dire warnings which you must needs ignore.

I also like the idea of a path which is easy to follow in one direction, but hard in another. It's difficult to operationalise in game terms (other than by making encounters much more difficult if going in one direction rather than another, which is a bit of a boring way of doing it); perhaps something as simple as section of dungeon being much bigger physically when travelling one way than another, resulting in many more random encounters?

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Diversity of Language

If you are interested in thinking about fantasy languages - at the level of sound rather than the technicalities of grammar, vocabulary and so on - you could do worse than subscribe to WikiTongues on YouTube, a collection of videos of people speaking various languages. Some of them may not be native speakers, or entirely proficient, but most seem authentic.

Just for fun, here are examples from around the British Isles. First, Welsh:

Second, Scottish Gaelic:

Third, Manx:

And now here are some from further afield. First, Mingrelian:

Now Mapudungun:

And Tibetan:

Friday, 12 October 2018

Old Blog Renaissance

As you may well be aware, Google+ is disappearing next year (at least as a public social media platform). It will be a shame to see it go - but there are undoubtedly benefits. Life is all about trade-offs. G+ had its good points: it made networking easier, and was more informal - there's no question a lot of products have come into being that would not have done without its existence, because of the ease with which it facilitated creative partnerships. And it was a great way to get players for online games - the biggest advantage of all.

But there were opportunity costs. A lot of my G+ feed seemed to be perpetually clogged up by political discussions, vaguebooking, and other "noise" (the polite way of referring to it). More importantly, I think a lot of online discussion about traditional D&D and other old games migrated to G+ around 2012-2014, and blogs suffered as a result. We lost a lot as a consequence - blog entries may be slightly more detached and staid than G+ discussions, but they are also longer and more carefully written, and more thoughtful. Social media saps nuance and rewards pithiness at the expense of real engagement.

I also think G+ had to a certain extent run its course for me anyway; I had started to visit it less and less, because discussion there was it seemed to me becoming less and less about games and more and more about peripheral subjects. I also think - although I don't have much evidence of this, just a vague sense from looking at traffic sources for my blog - that the platform may have been slowly dying off as a place for "OSR"-types to congregate anyway; there recently seems to have been more vitriol and more shameless plugging of product and rather less interesting chat, and I have certainly been getting fewer hits from it than I would have done in, say, 2013.

So I'll be sorry to see G+ disappear, but I think there will be a welcome rebalancing, now, in the favour of the blogosphere. The beginnings of this are I think already developing, and I must say I feel like my blogging habits have been slightly reinvigorated this week. Onwards and upwards: the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.

Seizing the Initiative

Initiative is a very deep and complicated subject. We all know it when we see it - typically when watching a sporting event. Suddenly, it seems as though one side gains the capacity to act, while the other can only react. The reasons why this happens, though, are not always easy to elucidate. Sometimes it can be put down simply to a sudden flash of individual inspiration - a football manager makes a substitution which makes a decisive impact on the game; a boxer lands a solid punch which momentarily stuns his opponent; a bowler gets a fire in his belly and somehow gets an extra few miles per hour from the ball (cricket fans will remember Mitchell Johnson's complete destruction of Jonathan Trott on day two of the 2013 test at the Gabba, which came out of the blue and not only gave Australia the initiative for the match, but the entire 2013/2014 series - and caused Trott to effectively lose the initiative for the remainder of his career). But other times it seems to simply be part of the natural ebb and flow of a game: when two teams are roughly equally matched, they seem to take turns with the initiative in a way that is hard to attribute to any one factor and can seem to happen almost at random.

We also know it from military history, too. I think the most famous example has to be Thermopylae, which according to cliche gave the Greeks the chance to "wrest" the initiative (when is the word "wrest" ever used but in that context?) from the Persians; other examples are the Battle of Kursk (after which the Wehrmacht "never regained the initiative" on the Eastern front) and Napoleon's failure to "wrest" the initiative at the Battle of Borodino by committing the Imperial Guard, after which he, er, "never regained the initiative" in the Russian campaign. You almost imagine "the initiative" as a physical entity in these descriptions: you take it, seize it, wrest it - reach out and grab it, almost. And then do your best to make sure the opponent doesn't grab it back.

D&D initiative is a bit milquetoast in comparison: if one party is surprised, the other has initiative, but otherwise...roll a d6 and the highest wins. This is modified in various editions, but even then in a boring way, taking into account Dexterity and so forth. It can add some dramatic tension and unpredictability, which in some sense reflects the chaotic and unforeseeable nature of "initiative" itself, but it doesn't give anybody the opportunity to, in British sporting parlance, "seize the game by the scruff of the neck" and, well, wrest it.

What if there was a rule that went something like as follows?

When one side is surprised and the other is not, the side that is not surprised has initiative for the entire encounter.
Otherwise, roll a d6 to determine which side has initiative for the entire encounter.
A side which "has initiative" acts first.
A side which does not have initiative can attempt to "wrest" it from the other. The method for doing so is as follows:
The player (or DM if acting for NPCs) announces his character is attempting to wrest the initiative by either carrying out an attack or - at the DM's discretion - performing a difficult task. He declares his intended action in the ordinary way at the start of the round. If he succeeds in hitting his target or performing the declared task, he wrests initiative and his side has initiative from the next round onwards. If he fails, in the next round he cannot act at all because of loss of focus.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Productivity Rules

I decided to get serious with myself about two years ago: no more wasting time. This was a gradual process. I stopped using Twitter and Facebook first. Then I got rid of my smartphone - except for listening to podcasts at the gym and occasionally keeping up with WhatsApp (I keep it in a drawer in my office most of the time). Since around June I have targeted email and device use in general: I don't check email of any kind before noon, and I am off grid by 7.30pm (TV and internet) - no exceptions. In the last two months I have also stopped going to online news websites.

What have I learned from this?

1. I am much more productive. The thing that has probably made the most difference here is cutting down on email and on evening internet use. I now write huge amounts longhand in the evening and get shitloads done in the morning for my "real job". I used to think I had a short attention span. What I've discovered is that having the internet always available, and the TV always on, shorten your attention span and it doesn't take long for you to learn how to lengthen it once those stimuli are removed.

2. Not having a smartphone means not having your headphones on all the time when outside, and it turns out that's really nice - almost like a blessed release from the tyranny of having to constantly be entertained. You start to savour opportunities to just be: a pleasant quasi-meditative state in which you just listen to what's around you and let it stimulate idle thoughts. I also get much more reading done during my commute.

3. Not using social media very much (I am still using G+ in much reduced form) makes a massive difference to your mental health. I was not particularly depressed or anxious before, but I did use to notice that after spending a lot of time dicking around on Facebook or Twitter I would begin to feel edgy, irritable and slightly out-of-sorts - a feeling of vague disappointment with myself and the world. That's gone away. 

4. I haven't missed any major news stories but I have missed a vast amount of inconsequential clickbait shite. Now if I ever do look at, for example, the BBC news website, it has a truly surreal quality - like news made up in a parallel universe by somebody trying to parody what he thinks is "news" here. 

5. Sometimes you want to take a photo but can't, because you don't even have a camera anymore that isn't inside a phone. This is the main disadvantage I've discovered.

6. The second disadvantage is that writing text messages takes ages, and smartphone users have a habit of sending you streams of messages all in one go, so by the time you've finished replying to their first text they've already sent about 5 others.

7. The urge to check your phone and/or email goes away pretty quickly - within about 48 hours. As time goes on you begin to resent having to do it at all, and frequently leave the house forgetting to even take your dumbphone.

8. You become by turns more optimistic and pessimistic. On the one hand, interacting with your fellow human beings in the ways that nature intended and through those ways alone, you generally feel happier and more comfortable, because you see people as they really are: generally decent, nice, community-minded, and lacking in extremism. You don't get to see them through the lens of social media, which turns everybody into an arsehole. On the other hand, you quite often find yourself looking around at all the people glued to their smartphones, compulsively and robotically scrolling as if they are getting paid for it, and despairing about the human race. (These feelings darken even further when looking at parents doing this while their children sit in puzzled and slightly sorrowful silence wondering when Mum/Dad is finally going to acknowledge they are alive.)

I offer these thoughts to you from a position of slight smugness, but you can join me: I don't regret any of the changes I have made whatsoever, and to bring things back on topic, so to speak, if you wish you had more time to devote to this hobby, the above are practical solutions to get it. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Hornbill Roc

The biggest and mightiest of all the inhabitants of the Tree are a pair of rocs, male and female. Far from being beasts of legend, they are in fact the only inhabitants of the tree who can be easily seen from the ground below, flying to and from their perches in the distant high canopy on clear days (or disappearing into the clouds when it is overcast). In spring, when the female is sequestered in their nest - a huge gouge in the trunk of the Tree itself - the male can often be seen bringing her food, his wing beats making a sound like that of distant thunder or the rumble of a far-off avalanche.

The nest itself is so large, to accommodate a bird that is over 120' long, that it hosts its own small world of predators and prey: giant beetles feast on the rotting fruit refuse littering the nest bottom; giant ticks lurk in the mass tangle of the bedding, waiting to attach themselves to succulent bloody flesh; armoured lice grope about feeding off whatever filth sloughs off the bodies of birds. In the "roof" of the nest a clan of swiftlet-people build their upside-down dwellings and fight off the predations of the burrowing grubs which dwell in the wood of the trunk; at night they leave to carry out their own raids on their enemies elsewhere. And the walls of the nest are full of cracks, crevasses and crannies, where there hide ambush predators: spiders, centipedes, snakes and much worse.

Almost nobody has visited the rocs' nest; fewer still do it and return. It is rumoured that down in its deepest, dankest, dirtiest place there lives a fakir who survives off fruit and other cast-offs and pursues complete self-abegnation - and this gives him insights into the nature of reality which no other is yet to grasp.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Notes on a Giant Tree

I am making a Yoon-Suin-based supplement set in a giant 2-mile high tree in the Mountains of the Moon. The introduction is here; I've decided to post a few further details for those who are interested.

The tree can be thought of as having four separate areas or sections: the base, the roots, the trunk, and the branches.

The base is a town built and run by six religious cults, each of whom worship an aspect of the tree:

  • The growth cult worship the asexual and non-reproductive nature of plant growth - not fecundity, but the act of getting bigger over time through the influence of the sun and rain
  • The cult of cyclical change worship the passing of the seasons and any other repetitive phenomenon, such as menstruation, the movements of celestial bodies, and seasonal events like storms, bush fires, the rainy season, and so on
  • The cult of branching worship things which increase in complexity, such as webs, networks, and also junctions and nests
  • The cult of the state of being home to many things worship the very essence of providing a habitat for life, and are interested in parasites, things which grow on other things, settlements and buildings
  • The cult of rootedness worship fixity, the quality of being stuck into the ground, such as foundations or mountains, or the quality of being difficult to move, such as heavy rocks
  • The cult of being alive but not sentient worship the state of having no conscious interaction with the world
(They will obviously have snappier names.) These cults have created a settlement around the base of the tree by dint of creating temples and shrines and other religious buildings and institutions; merchants and other outsiders are tolerated because the cultists need foodstuffs and other outside supplies, and hence over time secular ghettos have also been created under sufferance of the religious orders who are in charge.

The roots contain the vast and ancient birthing chambers of a civilization of beetle people, whose degenerate young might still be found, alongside tamasic men, mukesids, pajikots, and other entities that like to inhabit dark, damp places. 

The trunk is mapped out (see here) and contains diverse adventure sites with methods of navigation in between. There are rocs' nests (akin to those of hornbills), lichen "forests", cracks and burrows leading to networks of tunnels, wasps' nests, ant's nests, and also genuinely weird and supernatural locations like sone lairs where gravity flows sideways; platforms stuck into the bark to support towers or other buildings; sites of pilgrimage for the different religious cults, and so on. Some of the content will be pre-made; there will also be some random tables to generate new locations as desired.

The branches are a vast sphere of different settlements and locations that are often above the clouds; their contents are determined in a looser and more random-table guided way.

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?