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.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Brothers Squamous: Introduction and Key Themes

Once again, politics has reared its ugly head on G+ and the blogosphere. The only antidote, I feel, is for those of us sane ones who remain to Keep Calm and Carry On. To that end, a creative project. (Long term readers of the blog will know how appalling my track record is with this kind of thing. But whatever. Sooner or later one will stick.)

I have a folder on my desktop which is called "Current Projects". It has over a dozen subfolders. One of them is called "Three Green Dragons Dungeon". There is nothing in it except a .txt file called "Basic Idea".. Let's change that: I'm going to create this "Three Green Dragons Dungeon" through posts on the blog, little by little, drawing direct inspiration from this awe-inspiringly wonderful series of posts by Benoist on therpgsite. Now just try and stop me.

What is the "Three Green Dragons Dungeon"? Well, it's a dungeon created by three green dragons, duh. The "Basic Idea" .txt file reads as follows:

Dungeon on an island in the middle of a lake which is itself on an island in the middle of a bigger lake.
Conceit is that three green dragons, all brothers, created a fortress there to house their treasure. 
Guarded by golems they created from wood, earth, mist, dawn light, noon light, evening light.
Then something happened and they went into a deep slumber. Over time new inhabitants moved in. But the golems are still there. And also the dragons.

Looking at this now, I instantly pick up a few broad themes that I would like to explore:

1) The number "three". There is a kind of interesting symmetry between the notion of a dungeon on the island in the middle of a lake which is itself on an island in the middle of a lake, and the notion the dungeon is created by three brothers. (If I wanted to push that symmetry, there I suppose ought to be a dungeon on an island in the middle of a lake, which is on an island in the middle of a bigger lake, which is on an island in the middle of an even bigger lake.)

2) Rings. Islands on lakes on islands on lakes creates visions of concentric circles - at least in my head. This is something to be explored in the architecture of the dungeon. Also, dragons like rings.

3) Family. The dragons are three brothers. I like the idea of them as rivals. But I also wonder if another family member could be involved somewhere - a sister, or their mother?

4) "New inhabitants". I already feel like I know the tonal palette, here. It's Northern Europe; it's old school dragons like Smaug or St George's enemy; it's deep dark forests and brooding fjords and mountains; it's mist and rain; it's Celtic, Nordic and Saxon myth-inflected; it's fairy tales and folklore and bedtime stories - but it all has to be original. No straight lifting, and no orcs, goblins, dwarves or elves (at least as we understand them).

5) The golems. Again, we find echoes of the number three. The golems are made of wood, earth or mist; or of dawn light, noon light and evening light. Maybe each brother has purview over one element from the first of these trios and one from the second? Mist pairs nicely with dawn light, but other connections aren't readily apparent...

6) The nearest town. Why is it that I want it to be ruled by ettercaps? But I do. A silk-spun settlement with an ettercap queen, where human life is tolerated in the interests of trade - and in return for the occasional titbit of fresh, tasty human flesh.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Being Watched

Apparently, watching other people play D&D is a thing. It's growing in importance. In a sense, it's not difficult to see why: watching other people do things seems to be a hugely popular hobby nowadays. You can watch other people play video games, watch them drink whisky and eat food (this is big in South Korea, apparently), watch them draw or paint... And people do the watching in their millions. I think, if I wanted to play amateur sociologist for a second, that there is something linking the prevalence of online porn with that of these other forms of passive entertainment - clearly, there is something in our brains that makes us dangerously susceptible to vicariously enjoying fun things without having to go to the bother of doing it ourselves. 

(There seems something qualitatively different about watching people play a sport and watching them play D&D or have sex or drink whisky. I'm shit at rugby but I enjoy watching it. I can actually do all of the others.) 

It also isn't difficult to see why this is growing from a marketing point of view. Putting liveplays of D&D on youtube and doing nothing to discourage people from uploading such content themselves is a no-brainer for WotC. Of course that works as a form of marketing, and it's sort of amazing that nobody really thought of doing it properly until recently. 

Part of me welcomes this, even if the thought of watching other people play D&D generally brings me out in hives. When all's said and done, it's no different to watching TV, and I'd be a hypocrite if I said I never watched TV. And I would not disparage people who choose to do it, either as performer or audience. 

On the other hand, there's part of me, the fuddy-duddy Roger Scruton-reading part of me, that wants to assert that actually no, this is really fucking weird: watching other people play D&D is one of those fall-of-the-Roman-empire-style symptoms of civilisational decline - I can't think of much else that is more decadent and pointless, more of a waste of one's precious seconds on God's beautiful Earth, than watching other people play RPGs. At least the Romans got to have orgies and nice wine when they were allowing their civilisation to go to the dogs, for fuck's sake. 

But anyway. What is perhaps a more productive line of inquiry is: what happens to RPGs when they're performed in front of an audience - for the players and also the watchers? 

For the players, it seems to me that the urge to satisfy the audience must become overwhelming, and that this urge, if pursued, can't help but lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. Instead of being about the game, the practice will end up being about making sure that the content is entertaining. That will inevitably, I think, lead to narrativist-style Dragonlance-ism and pre-plotted campaigns: the idea that the game will speak for itself and let story emerge organically will be seen as too much of a risk of becoming boring or not making sense. (At its worst, this will lead to widespread scripting, which was clearly going on in Titansgrave: The Whatsit of Thingummy.) There may be honourable exceptions. But I suspect the general trend will be in this direction. 

And that will, I think, in turn lead to a perpetuation of that style of play among the watchers. I don't think anybody could dispute the proposition that online porn has changed the way lots of people have sex. Sex is nowadays frequently performed, obliquely or explicitly, with reference to pornography. The same thing, it seems to me, will happen with any sort of activity that is widely watched. People will want to - God help them - emulate the kinds of things Will Wheaton and his ilk get up to on their liveplays. It will happen inevitably. It can't be stopped.

I could, King Canute-like, rage against the dying of the light and try to put some more "old school" liveplays up there on youtube myself, but I increasingly think that the best course of action for a neo-luddite like me is just to try my best not to know anything about that world, insofar as it's possible to do so, and do the diametric opposite: play in a physical space with actual people, roll dice, and write stuff on notebooks in pencil - and hope that I can find enough like-minded people to keep the flames of civilisation going... 

Monday, 28 May 2018

To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn....

The OSR, such as it is, can be thought of as having been an exercise in archaeology: digging out the "real game" from the layers of dull earth piled on top of it over the eons - and discovering what it does well when performed in optimal conditions.

But there are still things that D&D does badly. One of them is the passing of time. Despite Gygax's famous admonition that you CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT, D&D tends to ignore the passing of years and seasons as an in-game phenomenon. As a result, D&D campaigns, even long-running ones, typically pay at best lip service to the notion that "it is winter" (or whatever) and basically only keep track of how many days are passing by in order to see how many hit points are healed or how far a distance is traveled. (This may also be why D&D campaigns are ludicrously sped-up and compressed when you really think about it: the amount of stuff that D&D PCs get done over the course of an in-game week or month is typically crazily vast.) There are exceptions, I am sure. But this has been my overwhelming experience.

A lot gets missed this way. For one thing, the rhythm of the seasons is intrinsically interesting and can lead to different types of adventure. Pendragon is obviously the forerunner in this regard, but the cycle of: downtime in winter/preparations in spring/proper adventuring in summer/girding-of-loins for winter in autumn presents all kinds of important and useful challenges which lead very quickly, I think, to many interesting alternative modes of play. The potential of these different modes have not yet really begun to be properly explored - what can you do to make spell research, social climbing, storing of food, training, long-term plotting and scheming, and so forth, more interesting and gameable?

But there are long-term cycles and changes too. Populations of animals peak and crash due to annual variations in the real world, and also because of long-term trends whose causes we can only guess at. (This May there have been greenfly everywhere in my local area - vast swarms of them, even in the city centre. Where have they come from? They weren't here in these numbers last year.) Why wouldn't the same thing happen with the populations of orcs, kobolds, mold men and manticores - assuming these beings fit into the natural ecology? There are different species of insects who are locked into a 13- or 17-year breeding cycle. What if that was true of goblins - or gargantua?

Finally, what would or could the passing of the seasons mean in a fantasy world? Maybe magic fluctuates in power or changes its effects altogether from season to season. Maybe in winter beings from the spirit world visit ours. Maybe in spring giants migrate. Maybe astrology is real.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Projects I Will Never Finish

A complete series of campaign books for all the Inner Planes

A Call of Cthulhu supplement for games set among Japanese immigrants in Latin America in the 1920s

The Book of Judges as a campaign setting

The PCs are insects - like arthropod Redwall

Portmeirion as an adventure site

The Tyne Valley painstakingly mapped and made into a hexcrawl

Herodotus' world recreated as a hexcrawl

Romans explore Kent; Celtic mythology is real

Stone Age Britain with Lovecraft entities

Licensed version of Mythago Wood

Chinese explorers in Kofun-era Japan

Wildlife photographers on alien planets

This list

Friday, 25 May 2018

D&D and Doux Commerce: Alignment Rethought

Doux commerce is the notion that trade has a "sweetening" effect on human relationships: commerce brings about peace, because through it people get to know one another, cooperate, and become able to get what they want from each other without violence. It's a notion that's been around since the time of Adam Smith at least, and is at the root of the existence of the European Union, among other things.

What if amenability to peaceful exchange was at the root of D&D alignment? At one extreme are the genuinely selfless: the monk who has taken the vow of St Francis; the Buddhist priest who gives away all his possessions and lives by begging, and so on. A little bit further in and you have elves, who prefer to enter into relationships of exchange rather than violence if they can possibly help it. In the middle you have humans who are about as likely to engage in trade as war. Moving further towards the other extreme you have dwarves, who jealously guard their own possessions and do not trade them away even at an apparently fair price. Then you have orcs and goblins who prefer to steal or take by force. And then at the very opposite extreme are dragons, who zealously guard every last copper coin of their treasure hordes and never give any of their possessions away at any price.

It's not a matter of good and evil: ostensibly evil things (illithids, githyanki, ogre magi) may be generally more willing to give and take than ostensibly good ones (dwarves, sverfneblin, werebears). It's not about morality, per se. It's about whether, in a sense, you play well with others - whether you do so for selfish reasons or otherwise.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks in which decades happen

Well, it happened. I sat here quietly, like granddad sitting in his easy chair with a can of special brew and the TV remote, waiting to see if his ungrateful grandchildren remember his 80th birthday. And sure enough, the day came and went without even a card, let alone a phone call. None of you bastards noticed that the 17th of May 2018 was the ten year anniversary of this blog - I didn't even get one lousy congratulatory email. Was I eclipsed by the bloody royal wedding? Was that it? I refuse to believe that Monsters & Manuals Day 2018 wasn't the subject of at least one street party with purple and yellow bunting and free opium for all.

I jest. Yes, it was 10 years ago I started writing this blog: Saturday, 17th May, 2008. You can find the first entry here. I started with a pretentious, half-workable idea, and I like to think I set the tone very nicely for what followed: a decade of mostly pretentious half-workable ideas, during which time there has been:

  • 1,352 posts
  • 1,696,166 page views
  • Probably getting on for a billion broken promises about stuff I'd blog about/publish
  • One marriage
  • One baby
  • One massive natural disaster and the loss of most worldly possessions
  • A PhD
  • A move between countries
  • Shit loads of alcohol imbibed
  • Yoon-Suin

And lots else besides. Ten years is a long time. There's a scene in Magnolia that I often remember, where a character - an old man slowly dying - insists that "Life's not short - it's long". I know what he means when I look back over the last decade. I don't feel like it's a case of blink-and-you-miss-it. I feel like it's a veritable ocean away. In May 2008 I was living in Kawasaki city in Japan, working for a startup, usually packing in 12-14 hour days, doing very little in the way of creative projects, eating and drinking out almost every night, and living for the weekend. 

Fast-forward ten years and I am living in North East England, with a job that offers almost limitless flexibility, doing lots of creative things when I can in between looking after a baby girl and fulfilling husbandly duties (which, for those of you unmarried men out there, involves disappointing amounts of sex or romance and mostly doing stuff like taking the bins out, unblocking the plug hole in the bath, and mowing the lawn), living for the weekend because it means I'll have time to iron my shirts for the week ahead, and spending most evenings knackered on the sofa drinking 18 year old Glenlivet because one of the few things that improve with age are taste buds. You can pack a lot into a decade. Trust me.

What does the future hold? God knows. Blogging is hard when you've got other commitments, and having young children ratchets up the difficulty factor of everything exponentially. 2016/2017 were peak years for this blog in terms of page hits. 2017/2018 has seen a precipitous decline - most of the blame for which can be lain at my daughter's feet. I work every evening, more or less, on RPG stuff, but mostly that work is unseen as it is being ploughed into creating publishable material for different projects. The blog often doesn't get a look-in, sadly. 

Now, don't worry, I have no intention of quitting. I've been doing this for 10 years now, and it's become pretty much the longest-running single thing I've ever stuck at - that includes jobs and even careers. I'll still be writing Monsters & Manuals until the day Google pulls the plug on it (which in occasional dark moments I suspect of being only just around the corner). It might not always be what it once was. But then again - what is? 

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Fresh Water and the Lake as Dungeon

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Poetry RPG Challenge

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

Here was my first attempt:

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

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

Another one:

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

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

A last effort along similar lines:

Success or failure?
Competing d6 results
Determine outcomes

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

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Recommendations: Bartok, Wolfe, Dixon, Huss

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

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

LIKE. Here's a rendition with the score:

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 May 2018

Small is Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Emishi Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The Semi-Unique Monster

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

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

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

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

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