Thursday, 21 March 2019

Product Identity Tournament of Champions

According to the d20 SRD, the things WotC considers to be absolutely sacrosanct in terms of product identity (reading between the lines) is basically the character creation process, the experience point table, and the following monsters:

Beholders, gauth, carrion crawlers, displacer beasts, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayers, slaads, umber hulks, and yuan-ti.

I can understand why. If I was going to draw up a list of monsters which are The Most D&Dish of All Time, I would probably come up with something like that list. (Except for the gauth.) You might want to throw owlbears and bulettes in there too, for old times' sake.

So those are the contenders. But who would win the Product Identity Tournament of Champions? In the olympics of D&D-ness, who would get gold? Which monster is definitively the most D&Dish of them all, and why?

You can vote in the comments, which I will keep hidden until the result is revealed tomorrow(ish) to avoid people influencing the way others vote.

And you're not allowed to say "dragons". Product identity monsters only.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Actually Existing D&D

During the Cold War, it became apparent in the Eastern Bloc that there wasn't exactly a perfect correspondence between the Marxist understanding of the socialist mode of production and what was happening in reality. People coined a phrase, "actually existing socialism", to describe the imperfect real-life version. Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear leftist academics discussing something which they call "actually existing neoliberalism", to distinguish the real-life governing ideology in the modern day UK, US, and so on from the theoretical ideas of the so-called neoliberals (Hayek, Buchanan, Friedman, etc.).

This is because - in case this needs pointing out to anybody - it turns out that ideology doesn't tend to translate very well into real-world politics. What Marxist thinkers like to call "praxis" (you can always spot post-68 Marxist analysis because it generally cloaks its insights in impenetrable jargon so that the working classes can't even be bothered to try to understand them) is actually very messy indeed, to put it mildly.

This is also why when you tend to get ideologues together in an argument, they start saying things like, "Yes, the Soviet Union was a failure, but real communism has never really been tried!" or "Yes, laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th century was a failure, but real free market capitalism has never really been tried!" (I bet there are neo-Nazis on the internet somewhere who will tell you that, yes, Hitler's Germany was a failure, but real Nazism has never really been tried.) The messiness of the real world always gives them an excuse: "Ah, but if only Trotsky had been in charge." (The free marketeer's version of this is, "Ah, if only the State hadn't crowded-out private charity.")

D&D isn't an ideology exactly, but there's a big difference between the game's idealised form - the rules - and "actually existing D&D" as it tends to get played at the table. This is true of every edition. Praxis ain't easy.

I think the best example, the paradigm case, of this is weapon speed factors in AD&D. Those things exist in the rules, all right. But they are not, in my experience or to my knowledge, part of actually existing D&D. A similar one is the damage type versus armour type table (I may be misremembering the title of the table; I don't have a DMG from 1st or 2nd edition to hand), which tells you the AC modifiers to apply for a piercing weapon versus chainmail, a slashing weapon versus studded leather, a bludgeoning weapon versus plate, etc.

It's not that those rules wouldn't be interesting or even beneficial in play. It's just that people don't use them. There's a gap between system and actual games, and weapon speed factors and damage types versus armour types don't make it across.

As with all these things, there is a continuum. On one extreme there are the rules which are not present at all in actually existing D&D, like damage type versus armour type. (Somebody will now pipe up in the comments and insist they use that table, I am sure.) Then there are those which are present in actually existing D&D, but not in most people's games - racial level limits in 2nd edition, for example, or the stat limits for women characters in 1st edition. Then there are those where there is more of a genuine mix: I bet the majority of people who still play B/X or Basic nowadays have probably switched to ascending AC, but it's still possible to find descending AC in actually existing D&D in reasonably large numbers. And on the other extreme there are the rules which are there in the books and which people actually put into effect generally speaking - like hit points, or the six core stats.

Some people would probably conclude that the more the rules contained in the core books differ from actually existing D&D - i.e., the more the main rules are ignored by the players - the worse the game design. I tend to disagree. The messiness of D&D is part of its charm. So what if I can't be bothered using weapon speed factors in practice? I like the fact that they are there, to remind me that things would be pretty dull if theory and reality mapped each other too nicely.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Teaching How to Build a World

Just when I thought I was internet debate pulled me back in.

(This time, I mostly agree with Alexis - with the important caveat that a course on DMing at university is plainly ridiculous even in the context of the horrendously stupid and frivolous shite that people somehow manage to hoodwink their departments into allowing them to teach. If you really want me to explain why, I will do so in the comments.)

I want to use this as an opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of this recent post. The central thesis of that post, if you'll forgive me calling it that, was that all human activities need to be "taught" in some sense, but how this is best done depends on the activity. Some activities (martial arts, sport, learning to drive, learning to write) are best taught in an explanatory way - let's say, didactically - and others (philosophy, legal reasoning, creative writing) are best taught through demonstration and osmosis on the part of the student. Almost nothing is absolutely in one camp or the other - it's all on a spectrum, shades of grey, blah blah. (And, of course, solo practice, intuition, innate aptitude, and all sorts of other variables are crucial as well.) 

Let's take Alexis's example of world building. He's absolutely right - most existing advice on "how to build a world" is terrible to put it charitably. Just execrably bad, stupid, pointless and wrong, and generally written by ignoramuses whose sum total of applicable experience is that they know about Faerun and have read some high fantasy novels and thought about them for about five seconds flat. 

But the takeaway message from this is not that there just needs to be better such advice. It's that the entire exercise is fundamentally flawed, being based on a misunderstanding of how to "teach" worldbuilding. The people making these videos and blogposts are making the wrong assumption that worldbuilding is an activity toward the didactic, learning-to-drive end of the spectrum of teaching, when in actual fact it's much much more towards the demonstration/osmosis, legal reasoning and creative writing end of the spectrum.

Let me explain. I say this on the basis of Yoon-Suin, which I hope would persuade anybody reading this blog that, whatever that book's flaws, it at least demonstrates that I know more than the average about how to make an interesting campaign setting that avoids cliche and that people want to run games in. How did I "learn" how to make Yoon-Suin?

Was it watching videos on how to make a world? Was it reading blog posts about "how to make a cool campaign world"? Was it because anybody told me how to do it?

No. I had worldbuilding demonstrated to me. Partly this was from reading fantasy novels of the right kind - The Book of the New Sun, the Viriconium books and stories, Gormenghast, China Mieville's books, and so on. And partly it was from other RPG settings - chiefly Planescape and Darksun. And finally, partly it was from reading other people's examples within the "OSR" scene - Kevin Crawford's stuff and various others. I got it from watching others, not from being told what to do. It was osmosis. Not didactic teaching. 

That's not to say that "How To" posts like Rob Conley's old fantasy sandbox guide can't be useful. But go on over to that entry and take a look at it carefully: what makes it valuable is not the beginner checklist of 34 steps (which is at the "learning to drive" end of the spectrum) taken in the abstract, but the subsequent entries showing how Rob actually did it for his own example (which is the "philosophy" end of the spectrum). It's not, I reiterate, that there is any learned activity which is purely in one camp or the other. Everything is a mix. But almost everything in this DMing lark has a much bigger element of one than the other. 

And finally, I end on the obvious point which is that at the end of the day this is all a hobby. It is supposed to be enjoyable. Learning how to build a fantasy setting by reading The Book of the New Sun is, believe me, a heck of a lot better in that regard than this sort of thing.

Revisiting Warhammer/40k: Small Armies and the Implied Setting

It's well-known and obvious to even the youngest player of Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 that there's something fishy going on with the sizes of the armies and the way conflict is described in the fluff: you're supposed to be playing a game of epic war on which the fates of civilisations rest, but the battles themselves are fought out between armies usually of at most 100 models on either side.

There's no point blaming GW for this - after all, there are only so many models you can reasonably fit on a table, and while hardcore wargamers are happy playing games like Advanced Squad Leader where the battles can be billed as just minor skirmishes, that's not really a way to win friends and influence people outside of that extremely narrow circle.

So, I get it. It's more fun to imagine you're taking part in epic war than to imagine you're fighting out ultimately not-very-important skirmishes. But I'm interested in the gap between fictional expectation and gaming reality nonetheless.

Imagine if you just had the bare rules for Warhammer or 40k and the models, but none of the fluff. What would you assume about the setting? What would be implied?

In the case of Warhammer, it's clearly an extreme version of the Dark Ages or something like it - a "points of light" sort of a setting in which no single political entity can summon up more than a few hundred armed men to fight in a war at any time. It might be because of the collapse of a mighty empire as in the fall of Rome - a land a bit like the one described in Pendragon, with lots of petty kings squabbling over very small areas of land. Or it might be because of something more fantastical than that; maybe the internecine fighting between all these different races present among the minis has ground down population levels to such an extent that the survivors are living almost in a post-apocalyptic environment on the brink of total extinction. Or maybe it's a fantasy world that has been hit by a meteor, or devastated by a War of the Magi, or riven by disease or a magical curse - a dying earth. You get the point, anyway.

In the case of 40k, we have the strangeness of what is clearly very hi-tech armies fighting from extremely small population bases. What does that imply? It could simply be a matter of resources. Maybe the galaxy is full of lots of habitable worlds, but they lack the resources to support much in the way of population. Most can only bear a population of a few thousand. As a result, wars are only fought between comparatively tiny armies.

Maybe it's distance. Maybe it just takes so long for people to spread across interstellar space that concentrating large forces in one area is logistically impossible. Maybe this makes for a civilisation that is united only by tenuous communications and where the small groups of people are inbred, isolated, and divergent in language, culture and religion - but perhaps able to unite around a few shared artefacts and motifs.

Maybe the galaxy is ending a la Guardian ("dying universe" rather than dying earth) and there is almost nobody left, but those who are left occupy an increasingly small space and that's why they spend so much time trying to kill each other.

Or maybe in the future war has become ritualised and ceremonial, fought on agreed principles and in a deliberately equalised way, so that disputes can be resolved through controlled violence - perhaps under the supervision of gods of war or referees. There's no need for the wastage of total war when conflict itself can be more like a sport - albeit one that still satisfies the spectators with a bit of blood and guts and meltaguns.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The Gate of Ivrel Prologue and Map Test

I have just recently finished reading The Gate of Ivrel, a vaguely obscure (although apparently relatively high-selling) sword-and-planet novel by CJ Cherryh. I very much enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed it more because I deliberately - and this is the first time I've ever done this - did not look at the map on the first page or read the lengthy prologue before reading the actual story.

I have no concrete evidence for this, but I suspect often fantasy/SF authors are forced to write prologues by their publishers, who are worried that without Basil Exposition to come along and explain things beforehand, the readers won't be able to follow what's going on. (This is obviously more of a problem with films, where the anxiety that audiences are stupid and won't understand anything reaches fever pitch - think of the incredibly naff and unnecessary introductory segment to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring.)

I have even less evidence for saying this, but I strongly suspect this is the case with Gate of Ivrel. CJ Cherryh is a good writer with good taste, and the story stands on its own merits without its accompanying map or prologue, and you can piece together the background easily enough if you have half a brain. This is also of course much more enjoyable and interesting than having the information dumped on you at the start.

I'm going to take this approach to all fantasy novels I read in future, and I suggest you do too. I will also suggest that we call this The Gate of Ivrel Prologue and Map Test. If a book has a prologue and map and the story itself can be read, enjoyed and understood without that prologue or map, it fails the test - the publisher misjudged the audience and should be ashamed for it. If it has a prologue and map and genuinely needs them because you can't actually understand or enjoy the story without them, it passes.

Whether you would actually want to read a book that passes the test is a question I'll leave to the philosophers.

Not Really for Kids But Really Appealing to Kids

When I was a kid - let's say, probably aged around 7-11 or so - I used to get a huge thrill from certain visual artefacts (album covers, comics, book covers, and so on) that I thought were definitely Not For Kids My Age. Not because of sexual content, because at that age like most boys my view of girls could be accurately summarised as "Urghhhh". But because they managed to combine two things: they were obviously for teenagers or grown-ups, but at the same time they still had great appeal to the imaginative child. For a kid of my age in those days, most of the things that grown-ups seemed to be interested in (like Bullseye, Radio 4, Woody Allen films, Penguin paperbacks, newspapers, art galleries, the 10 o'clock news, Inspector Morse, etc.) were unutterably, unfathomably boring. But there were certain things that somehow weren't: they were definitely for people who were older than I was - maybe not definitely adults but at least teenagers - yet at the same time my childish brain could understand their appeal almost viscerally.

I'm talking about:

Is there a word to describe this quality - of being Not Really For Kids But Really Appealing To Kids? I don't think so. NRFKBRATK doesn't quite have the right ring to it, somehow.

Whatever you call it, this quality is responsible for a lot. I think part of the reason why I still like fantasy and SF so much is that I'm still able to look at that cover of Gate of Ivrel or Kieth Parkinson's Rifts piece and remember the excitement of seeing that kind of thing aged 9 and knowing that I was possibly a bit too young for it but didn't care. It's probably in fact precisely the feeling that caused me to start picking up Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf books in my local library at that age and never being quite the same person since.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The Beginner's Colloquial Orcish

I have been meaning to write various posts to do with structuralism, post-structuralism and language for quite some time, but haven't quite got round to any of them yet. They're brewing. But in that vein, a word about fantasy languages generally.

People in the Anglo-Saxon world tend not to learn other languages, and if they do, it's usually French or Spanish. This gives them a very skewed and narrow perception of the relationship between objective reality, "meaning", language and thought.

Let me give an illustration. In English, we distinguish between different circumstances in which the subject gets the object to do something. "The postman let the dog go for a walk" is different from "The postman made the dog go for a walk", which is different again from "The postman had the dog go for a walk", which is different again from "The postman got the dog to go for a walk". The distinction between "letting" and "making" is obvious. The differences between "having" and "getting" a little less so, but there are nuances of usage - if I "have you" read something, it has the connotation that I'm in charge, whereas if I "get you" to read something, it has more a connotation of persuasion.

In Japanese, there is no difference between any of these things. The sentence "The postman let the dog go for a walk" and "the postman made the dog go for a walk" (or "the postman had the dog go for a walk" or whatever) is exactly the same: 郵便配達員が犬を散歩させた. It's all in how you conjugate the verb, and the conjugation takes the same form for all those different situations set out above, in which English carefully discriminates.

Native English speakers find this odd: how do Japanese people tell the difference between "making" somebody do something and "letting" them do it? One answer would be, they get it from context. (And you can make it clear with judicious use of an adjective here or there.) But that doesn't actually capture the fact that the two languages are doing something fundamentally different. English distinguishes rigorously between the concepts of "letting" and "making"; Japanese doesn't. So, saying that Japanese speakers "get the difference from context" is a very English-speaker way of thinking about things: in Japanese there actually isn't a difference. This is not because Japanese people can't understand the difference between "letting" as in allowing and "making" as in forcing, but because the Japanese concept which is translated into English as "letting" or "making" means neither of those things. It means its own thing which is roughly approximate to both English "letting" and "making".

This is why people who are fluent in more than one language will often tell you that they actually think differently - and even have different personalities - when switching from one language to another. It's because a language is actually a structure which mediates between reality and abstract thought, and there is no direct connection or way for thought to interface with reality other than through it (I snuck a bit of post-structuralism in there after all).

Be that as it may, what would it mean to learn an orcish, elf, or dwarfish language?

An orcish language that exists as "ug" means "me", "bork" means "you", "ufufu" means "tree" has zero interest except perhaps something to pass the time. What's more interesting is reflecting on how playing around with concepts could pave the way to thinking about monsters in new and creative ways.

One simple way of doing this is merging concepts. What if, for example, in orcish, there's no distinction between "causing happiness" and "causing sorrow" - they're the same word, roughly meaning to "cause a strong reaction"? If that were the case, how would a human being communicate to an orc that being tortured causes a different experience to, say, sexual pleasure? To the orc, causing intense pain and pleasure are identical - or, to put it another way, to the orc, neither of those concepts exists as distinct from the other.

What if in dwarfish there's no distinction between avarice and prudence? What if in elven there's no distinction between nature and the self? What if for gnomes there's no distinction between gift-giving and theft?

As is often the case, these things can seem spurious at first glance but get interesting if you take the connotations seriously and extrapolate from the initial premise. What it? What then?

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Nobody Ever Told Me How To Do It

I thought I'd write a follow-up to these two recent posts, as I appear to be getting brickbats from the peanut gallery about them.

In Gerry Cohen's On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy he makes the argument that philosophy is something which cannot really be taught ("Nobody ever told me how to do it"). Philosophy students don't learn how to do philosophy in the university classroom through the teacher explaining to them what philosophy is, or even through explaining what thinking like a philosopher is. No: being in the classroom, reading and discussing philosophical texts, gives them the opportunity to see philosophy in action and thereby to learn how to think like a philosopher by a sort of osmosis. That's how one learns to do philosophy.

That's not to say that the philosophy teacher might as well not do anything at all provided there is a classroom and a reading list. Some (many) philosophical concepts are hard and need explaining. But the act of explaining itself should be understood as a demonstration of philosophy in action - part of the exposure of the student to what philosophy is - rather than an exercise in explaining how to do philosophy per se. Reading a difficult text by Heidegger and having its meaning explained to you is not the same as a teacher sitting down with you and telling you "how to do philosophy".

He is absolutely right about this, but it's not just philosophy: most academic subjects, to a lesser degree, are the same. There are important things that you need to be taught when studying history, literature, law, biology, economics, etc. But you can't really explain to somebody how to think as a historian, a literary theorist, a lawyer, a biologist, an economist. You can only provide them with the opportunity to see what it means to be one of those things, to think like one of those people, and hope that they take it from there.

The academic subject with which I'm most familiar, law, is a great example of this. It's fairly straightforward to memorise legal rules, whether they exist in precedent or statute. Some of them are complicated, but as long as you can read, and have the time and energy to just sit there and memorise things, and have a teacher to explain difficult concepts, you can perform that task readily enough. But legal reasoning - thinking like a lawyer - is a different thing, something that only comes to you (if you get it at all) from seeing it in action - reading cases, watching advocates, doing work experience, and so on - not from the teacher explaining how to do it. In other words, there is a bit of technical knowledge that has to be explained, but the bulk of the learning involves being introduced to a certain method of thinking.

Even the hardest of hard sciences, like maths and physics, are like that I think: it's not so hard to memorise that 2+2 = 4 or that a2+b2=c2 or whatever, and having a teacher is helpful to explain difficult concepts, but mathematical thought is a certain type of thinking that you develop yourself from ongoing exposure to it - you are introduced to it by your teacher, not taught it.

This can be contrasted with other exercises in human learning that are more technical like, say, learning to write, learning a foreign language, or learning to drive. Learning to write is almost entirely technical: it's how to hold the pen, how to physically make the marks on the page, how to make sure they correspond to accepted spelling conventions. You don't learn it primarily from watching other people write. You have to be sat down and have it explained to you over the course of years.

As an adult, learning a foreign language is the same: nobody is going to learn Swahili just from going to Tanzania and listening to people talk. Somebody (or a dictionary or textbook) has to explain to you what this word means, what that word means, how to conjugate this verb, how to make a noun into a verb, and everything else. You actually need to be taught it - shown it.

Learning to drive is similar: you need to be walked through the process of how to indicate, how to use the hand break, how to use the clutch, how to change gears, how to do a three-point turn, and all the rest. Back in the day I remember my driving instructor having little coloured dots around the rear window frames in the car, so when teaching how to reverse into a parking space he could tell you to line the red dot (or whatever) up with the line on the tarmac to make sure your angles were right. You don't learn to drive from watching others do it. You work through the process with somebody - usually an irascible older man - telling you directly what to do.

Now, don't misunderstand me: it's not that the actual practice of writing, speaking a foreign language, or driving don't involve intuition and that you don't get better at them with solo practice. It's just that the actual learning process is primarily one that has to be explained, rather than just demonstrated.

All the above is a rather long-winded way of saying: learned human activities exist on a spectrum. Some are almost entirely explained (learning to write), while some are almost entirely introduced (philosophy). In reality the vast majority of things are in the middle. Certain learned activities - car mechanics, martial arts, sport - are more towards the end of the spectrum where we find learning to write; others - creative writing, policing, teaching, acting, music - are more towards the philosophy end.

My contention is that DMing is much more something one learns to do well through what I've called "introduction" rather than having it explained - it is more towards philosophy than it is towards learning to write or drive; much more so in fact. At its core DMing is more akin to creative writing, teaching, acting or policing than it is mechanics or martial arts, and hence one can't learn a great deal from being told what to do or what not to do, but can probably learn better from examples and actual play reports and things of that nature, properly explicated - which would be the DMing equivalent of a philosophy student reading Being and Time and having it explained by a good teacher.

(tl;dr version: let's have less prescriptive DMing advice and more actual play reports accompanied by commentary on what worked and what didn't.)

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Three Things for The Weekend

Friday to Sunday is the no-man's land of blogging - empty except for mud, shell-holes, and the occasional Very light or stray trench mortar. Let's toss some grenades.

First, I enjoyed Stanley Fish's contributions to this debate on separating the art from the artist, a topic which is obviously very, well, topical for all sorts of reasons. I am a big Fish fan, and he hits the nail on the head here: basically, you have to take it on a case by case basis and the only people you really shouldn't trust are those who think there is a hard and fast rule which applies in all cases.

Second, here's a map I came across on reddit - it's the 25 biggest lakes in the world by area, all together. Make a campaign setting out of that, I dare you.

Third, check out the prices for the Planescape original boxed set on eBay. US$150 was the headline figure just for a bog standard "good condition" version, but there's also just the "Player's Guide to the Planes" going for US$88 (it's about 16 pages!!) and you can get the original set still in its shrink wrapping for US$500. Together with the Planes of Law set you can get a used original box for US$375.

People are free to spend money on whatever they like and long may that continue. But there's nowt so queer as folk.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

On Blogging and Commenting

Generally speaking I operate a very light-touch approach to comments on the blog, on the basis that almost everybody is generally decent and sensible. In the main I have been encouraged that over the 11 years of writing this blog this suspicion - that people can be trusted not to act like idiots when you leave them to their own devices - has been confirmed in 99.999% of cases.

I would like to apologise to that 99.999% of my readership for having to make this post: sorry. It doesn't apply to you.

However, there are some outliers, as I'm sure you are aware if you read this blog with any regularity. These are people who seem to think that because somebody is keeping a public blog, it means that readers are entitled to say whatever they like in the comments and expect a) to be humoured in doing so; and b) to get a reply. 

Let me disabuse those of you in the 0.001%. The only reason this blog exists is because I write it. The forum which it provides, in the form of the comments, to have your own say is only there because of me. If you want to write your own blog, you are free to do so and I rightfully have absolutely no say in the matter; but if you want to comment here, you are able to do that only because I have gone to the trouble of writing an entry and for that reason alone. 

This means that a) you should do it politely; and b) that you shouldn't expect me to humour you if you are being deliberately offensive, annoying, or obtuse, to either me or others. In general I lean towards being tolerant on the basis that I think pity is generally the appropriate emotion in response to trolling - imagine having such a miserable life that you gain solace from trying to make the lives of other people miserable as well - but my tolerance has its limits.

Comments will be moderated for the foreseeable future. In almost all cases I will wave them through but frankly I just cannot be bothered providing a public forum for all and sundry when it causes me to lose the enjoyment of interacting with people reading the blog - which in 99.999% of the time I like doing. 

Just Do It Well

Age, fatherhood, meditation and alcohol have had their effects on me: I am a much mellower person than I once was. In particular, I increasingly look on prescriptiveness as one of the worst of all evils. I could pick on a lot of other people for being prescriptive about how to play D&D, what an OSR game should look like, what the assumptions of "old school" play should be, what to avoid (railroading, quantum ogres, etc.) and so on and so forth, but it's more honest to hold up myself as the example: I once wrote this post, angrily making the case that the enemy of good gaming was the advice that you should just do "what works for you and your group". Those familiar with this blog will be able to cite other similar examples of prescriptiveness, I am sure.

I now look on the advise to just do "what works for you and your group" as the most profound and important advice there is, and the most difficult to carry out. People who play RPGs are human beings, and there is very little in the universe that is more complex than human beings - except the relationships between human beings in the context of a group. Navigating in that space is hard. Achieving satisfaction for everybody within it is harder still. It is not just the highest priority - it should really be the only priority.

Let's watch some YouTube videos. Some people will cite chapter and verse regarding the nature of songwriting: what works and what doesn't; what you should or shouldn't do; how long a song should be; when there should be a chorus; when you should go to the bridge, and so on and so forth.

But then think about "Where Did Our Love Go?" by The Supremes.

Where is the chorus in "Where Did Our Love Go?" How many rules of songwriting thumb does it actually follow? Not many. But who cares? It does what it does well: the ineffable and ridiculously soulful vocals of Diana Ross; the beautiful plaintive simplicity of lyrics that anybody who has ever broken up with anyone immediately feels and knows deep in the guts; that sax solo delivered with the most impeccable taste; the studied minimalism of the entire thing.

And think about "Maggie May".

What a strange piece of music, when you break it down to its elements: a rambling, repetitive, shambles of a melody that never seems to resolve into anything - again, it breaks more rules than it follows, but, again again, who cares?

And then there's "Hummer". 7 minutes long. Doesn't have a chorus (like with a lot of Pumpkins song, the chorus, if there is one, is a riff). It's got a melody, but you can't really sing along to it. And the structure is bizarre, starting off high, building to a crescendo, and then ending with a long and vague diminuendo with a thoughtful, almost pensive, end - to what is ostensibly a hard rock song.

And last but not least, just to prove a point - here's "Alone Again (Naturally)", which is about as perfectly-crafted a pop song as you can think of, obeying all of the conventions...except the lyrics, which are about as unusual as it gets in that context - opening with thoughts of suicide and ending with contemplation of death.

What am I trying to suggest? Whatever you do, just do it well.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

"Given population pressures in the underworld"

I found this little nugget in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual last night in the Myconid entry: "Given population pressures in the underworld," we are told, conflicts between humans and myconids are only like to increase.

"Given population pressures in the underworld." There's a lot in that sentence. It makes the underworld sound like Macau, or Bangladesh, or London: a teeming, densely-populated hive-like place where even space itself is at a premium - as though myconids, sverfneblin, derro, drow and the rest are not only constantly at war over resources but just over physical room in which to live. Ethnic cleansing and genocide would be the natural reactions of such peoples in that context: every war one of extermination or at least of expulsion.

In the modern age it's also quite hard to read that sentence and not immediately think about the other consequences of "population pressures" - environmental degradation, pollution, and the endangering or extinction of animal species. Cave or tunnel collapses due to over-mining or over-burrowing? Cavern-warming brought about by extensive mining causing geothermal leakages? Discharges of noxious gases from over-eager excavation projects? The gradual extermination of carrion crawlers, hook horrors or cave fishers, leading to knock-on effects on the ecosystem such as overabundance of russet mold, oozes, or puddings?

I always lean backwards and forwards on the question of whether to adopt a romanticist or classicist approach to the dungeon ecology. On the one hand, dungeon-as-mythic-underworld is more thematically interesting. On the other: well, let's face it, it's fun to think about the consequences of applying at least a half-coherent logic to happenings Down Below. 

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Size and Scale of Plot

People often say that travel in SF and Fantasy in general, but FTL travel in SF in particular, move "at the speed of plot" - getting people from one destination to another in exactly the right amount of time for whatever the story requires in terms of pacing. Nothing is worked out on the basis of scientific principle or even plain common sense. It's all just what's necessary for what needs to happen in the plot. If it needs to take ages to get from X to Y, it takes ages. If it needs to happen quickly, it happens quickly. If the characters need to arrive just in time, they do. If they need to arrive just too late, that's what happens.

This is undoubtedly true, and you can also extend it across other dimensions: size and scale.

I was thinking about while reading The Founding by Dan Abnett, a Warhammer 40k novel. I pick this example not because it is particularly egregious or unusual but because it is the opposite - a very ordinary instance of the way in which size and scale operate at the level of story rather than what might be realistic.

The opening section sees the action unfold in a battle on a planet whose population, we are told, is in the tens of billions - the tens of billions - which makes sense given that it is a densely populated industrialized world in the far future. War has been going on here for some time, so one would expect a reduction in population, but later on we are explicitly told that a single region of hills still houses a billion people.

But the action takes place at a scale which is, in that context, absurdly small: the absolute fulcrum of not just the entire battle, but the war on that planet - its Kursk, its Midway, its Amiens, its Gettysburg - unfolds on the scale of a couple of thousand men and about a hundred armoured fighting vehicles. (And it's important to emphasise that this is not just because Our Heroes manage to achieve the destruction of some vital MacGuffin which the enemies are using; the entire conventional action itself - the exploitation of a gap in "the lines" by a single armoured column - is thought of by the top General in charge of the entire campaign as the moment that will win the war.)

It's necessary to do this, because it's really difficult to write an exciting action novel about adventurous derring-do in which the actions of the characters can be felt to be decisive in a war in which there are presumably billions of combatants, unless you treat scale as being what's necessary for the plot, rather than what makes actual sense given what we know. (Or if you simply abandon any design on the actions of the soldier characters meaning much beyond survival or, say, acting in some moral and limited way to rescue civilians or whatever.)

Another scene. Later on in the novel, an assault takes place against an entire planet which is described as being not much more than the size of a moon. Here, the whole invasion force is counted at 50,000 men and, once again, the major action is fought by a unit of about 2,000. For the conquest of an entire world this is - which, even if it is not much bigger than our Moon would still make it comfortably bigger in landmass than Australia. Again, this is necessary for the purposes of the plot, which requires the unit in question to be at the apex of the conquest for reasons I won't go into to avoid spoilers, but it does not really reflect what would surely be the case given the factual circumstances.

It would be entirely possible to write a novel which treated the size and scale of intergalactic war in a more realistic way, of course, but if seeking to do it would not be a book about a group of soldiers actually affecting much at all.

It's perhaps reasonable to point out that Warhammer 40k books are a special case, because there's a strong incentive for authors to scale down operations to fit the skirmish-scale of the actual wargame and make it seem possible for conflicts of that size to actually matter in the grand scheme of things. But SF in general tends to operate the same way - think of Star Wars, where the fate of the rebellion hangs on what seems to be in the region of a hundred space fighters on one side and just the Death Star on the other. (Return of the Jedi isn't all that much more realistic in terms of scale.) In those circumstances of course logistics plays a factor as well - the special effects budget could only stretch so far after all - but the same will be true for most warfare in any SF novel or film you could think of.

And it's not just warfare, of course. SF in general - visual SF more than literary, of course - is highly reductive of the kind of complexity which would surely be implied by the circumstances. Klingons all speak Klingon and there is one Klingon Empire. Romulans all speak Romulan and there is one Romulan Empire. Cardassians all speak Cardassian and there is one Cardassian Empire. There aren't different Klingon ethnicities, different Klingon languages, or different Klingon Empires. Diversity sometimes exists for the fun of it as in Mos Eisley or on Ten-Forward where there are guys with blue skin and four arms playing craps against women with snakes for hair or whatever. But that's the extent of it. The stories necessitate keeping things simple for the audience: the size of the interstellar space, with all that implies, has to be squeezed down to fit the demands of narrative. (This is even more true of geography: Hoth is an ice planet, Tatooine is a desert planet, Endor is a jungle planet: what's Earth - that rare water/desert/ice/jungle/mountains/tundra/forest planet?)

I wonder if it is possible for somebody to prove that this is received wisdom, and write a book about intergalactic war which takes seriously the finance and logistics of conflict across the stars - or a book about exploring the galaxy in which other planets are as culturally and geographically diverse as Earth. Those books might not work, but they would certainly be different.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Campaign Hooks in Spam

I get a lot of spam comments on blogger, as I'm sure everybody does. Some recent ones I've been getting have a real Unknown Armies feel to them and would make great concepts to begin a campaign in that kind of modern horror setting. Here are two examples, shorn of links and email addresses:

I have been casting spells for many years and I have helped many people, I might be able to help you too. I am honest, and I genuinely care for all the clients who choose me to cast a spell for them.

If you have any questions about Love, Money, curse, protection, bad luck, divorce, court cases, or about me please call or email me. I really want you to feel comfortable before moving forward with any spells, or other services. I will take the time to explain things to you and provide you with honest advice, to what is best for your situation. I will not pressure you into having a spell cast, I will leave that decision up to you, and when or if you decide to move forward, I might be able to help you.

I will respect your Privacy. I will not seek to obtain any of your personal information beyond what you might voluntarily offer and all information you might give me including emails, phone numbers and photos will remain private and confidential.

I perform my Rituals only at night between the hours of 0.00 - 0.59 (South African time) lasting 1 hour but of course, this depends on the nature of the ritual, some rituals might take hours and can also become necessary to be performed at specials places like; flowing streams, cemeteries and other places dictated by the gods.

I do not want anyone to be under any illusions about my spells and its numerous rituals. Real and effective Voodoo is no child's play, it is expensive because, after the rituals, I will have to destroy all the materials involved by fire and the ashes scattered over a flowing stream or river. You will get what you seek. But please understand this might take a lot of time and that individual results may vary.

-Dr Ougudu Solution Temple

Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture. If you are interested contact us on [redacted].

-Lord Mark

Then there's also the inimitable JP Monfort, possibly the most prolific spammer of all time, who I have been meaning to mention in a blogpost for some years. I get emails from this man on a more-or-less daily basis to my work inbox, and this is typical:

JPMONFORTUNITEDKINGDOM THE OFFICE OF JP MONFORT | Building 200 Presidential Teams | [redacted]     Monthly Meetings Begin Q1 2019 at Hotel Savoy in London (United Kingdom) Telephone [redacted] Email [redacted] Website [redacted]

 All Britons Are Welcome, We Will Be Waiting for You 

We have invited you to join the Presidential team in your country. J.P.Monfort is currently setting up 200 presidential teams worldwide, inviting and nominating thousands of top-notch Experts in order to build multidisciplinary teams that will meet once a month and construct creative, imaginative, prospective and analytical policymaking proposals. 

Please remain patient and refer to the following two introductory articles published on The Huffington Post "Why I Embrace Integration " and "Fiction States ". 

For more information read The Monfort Plan summary. Congratulations on the nomination to join your country's most prestigious team, you are one of your country's best Experts and a potential crew member in the World's most revolutionary journey towards the best possible future, a borderless World of Eutopia and Cornucopia. You may now open the World Map of Fiction States . To confirm your Nomination to the Presidential Team send your Resume to confirm (at) jpmonfort (dot) eu. More from our side very soon. Please remain patient. 

Planescape 25th Anniversary Rereading - Part I (Player's Guide to the Planes)

It occurred to me earlier today that Planescape was probably about 25 years old, and, sure enough, I have just checked the publication date - 2019 is the 25th anniversary of its initial release.

While I don't have a clear memory of buying most of the RPG books I had as a youngster, I do remember buying the Planescape boxed set vividly; I got it in a shop in Tel Aviv after badgering my parents for extra pocket money (I must have been 12 or 13 at the time), and spent the next week doing basically nothing but poring over its contents and wearing out some EPs by Therapy? I had on cassette (and what the fuck happened to them, I wonder?). I would say that I can't hear the song "Screamager" without thinking of Planescape, but the truth is I don't think I have actually heard the song "Screamager" since about 1995, so I'm not sure if that statement would actually be true.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to do a kind of Planescape retrospective on this illustrious occasion - reading the original materials and, possibly, some of the other books from my collection (I have most of the official releases) depending how it goes. And if you're all good children and sit nicely and listen, I might share with you the special Easter Egg I found at the bottom of my Planescape boxed set which I just opened for the first time in God knows how many years.

Where we'll begin is where I began all those years ago: with the "Player's Guide to the Planes" - the bit of the boxed set which players are supposed to read before beginning a campaign: as such, it's the definitive beginning statement on what Planescape is and why it is going to be worth getting to know.

A few things are immediately apparent the instant you turn the contents page and start to read the text proper:

1) The bar set by the production values on the original Planescape boxed set has still not been raised since. The unique typeface for headings and subheadings, the layout, the colour palette, the art and what the kids nowadays call "information design" are not only of the highest quality, but also hang together with a strange sort of cogency; I'm not sure why it is that Diterlizzi's pseudo-Victoriana pictures fit so nicely alongside the vaguely medieval-looking typeface and why the marble-effect background theme doesn't clash with either of those things, but the whole thing undoubtedly works, and works well. It is stunning what people who know what they are doing visually and are lavished (comparatively speaking) with money can achieve.

2) The slang/cant has not aged well. I think when I was 13 I appreciated it a lot more: opening the "Player's Guide to the Planes" and being told on the very first page "Welcome, addle-cove!" probably struck me as "edgy" and was undoubtedly completely different to every other RPG book I'd read. (I can't remember if I'd encountered Cyberpunk 2020 yet, though; it's possible.) And I still get what they were trying to do - to cast Sigil as being a kind of interplanar Mos Eisley/Victorian London with very rough edges, like a literal port to the planes, with the attitude that port cities have everywhere. But, let's face it, as a 37 year old man I now find the whole berk/basher/cutter thing more than a little cringeworthy - a deliberate attempt to appeal to an audience of teenagers being tempted away from D&D by the more "adult" (read: teenage) language and themes in White Wolf books and other rivals. "This is not your father's D&D" is the message, but from the vantage point of 25 years it feels more than a little forced.

3) The setting to my jaded eye now does not seem quite as innovative as it once did - if anything it very much undersells all the things that make it interesting. This a theme that I will undoubtedly come back to as this series of posts goes on. But with that said, it's worth pausing for a moment to put yourself in my shoes in 1994, when as a young teenager my only encounters with the fantasy genre at all had been Tolkien, Fighting Fantasy!, Warhammer, the Lone Wolf game books and novels, and, I suppose, a few comics. I was blown away by the scale and ambition and sheer differentness of what was being done with Planescape. I've now read the Viriconium books, The Book of the New Sun, Mieville, Borges, Calvino, Le Guin, and so on; I hadn't then. And still, despite the fact that the designers never quite followed through on the promise shown in those first few pages of the "Player's Guide to the Planes" (again, a theme I'll come back to), it still does show promise. There is something balls-to-the-wall about starting off a mainstream D&D product line by describing life in a city which hovers on top of an infinitely tall mountain on the inside of a giant loop which is lying on its side:

Compare that with all the mainstream D&D settings since - not to mention Pathfinder.

4) The "Player's Guide" seems to suggest a schema of travel between the planes that was quietly dropped afterwards: if you want to go from the Prime Material Plane to the Inner Planes you have to go through the Ethereal Plane; if you want to go from the Prime Material to the Outer Planes you use the Astral Plane; and if you want to travel between the Outer Planes you have to go via the Outlands or Sigil using doors and gates, or you have to physically actually go from one Plane to another by traversing the Planes in between. Perhaps I am misremembering, but I am pretty sure that later Planescape products were predicated on there being portals between Planes, so you could go from e.g. Arborea to Mechanus directly through one.

5) Tieflings. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see why tieflings became so popular - what could be more appealing to a teenager in the 1990s than to be somebody who was part demon? - but as I recall, at the time my friends and I didn't particularly find that new PC race appealing, and it's interesting how little time and space the "Player's Guide" devotes to them. They are almost in there as a throwaway, with the really interesting introductions being the bariaurs and githzerai as PC races. They're easily skipped over. And, in fact, it's an odd choice - perhaps the only really bum note in terms of art and design - not to have explicit illustrations of any of the PC races in the book.

6) But that's easily offset by the factions. Question: How do you make the notion that the planes are literally formed by philosophical belief something that the average adolescent D&D player can understand and get his teeth into? Answer: Give them philosophical "factions" to choose from and get Tony Diterlizzi to do character sketches for each one like so:

7) Once again, the spectre of White Wolf seems to haunt Planescape, here, though: was the creation of the factions an effort to ape the by-then phenomenally popular White Wolf motif of having PCs belonging to one of a dozen or so tribes, clans or other groupings to help define their character and beliefs?

Monday, 25 February 2019

Revisiting 40k: Four Explanations for Turning to Chaos - Or, Milton, Orwell, Burke and Lenny Murphy Walk Into a Bar...

Why would an ordinary human in either the Warhammer Old World or the 40k Imperium turn to worshiping chaos? "Because they want power" is not a good answer; most of those who do it end up the lowliest mooks, dead in fairly short order or horrendously mutated and abused. I can think of four explanatory theories, which I describe as the Miltonian, Orwellian, Burkean and Murphyist accordingly.

Miltonian: Because, ultimately, you feel that you have been unjustly treated and your feelings of frustration boil over into open rebellion. This makes sense as an explanation for the actions of Horus and his comrades (which, let's face it, is a cheap knockoff of the Paradise Lost story anyway) and, perhaps, for chaos space marines. You feel betrayed because you are not accorded the accolades you know you deserve, and you become capable of monstrosity as a result.

Orwellian. In Orwell's famous 1940 review of Mein Kampf, he said:

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”

(Try to imagine a journalist saying anything remotely as thoughtful or important today.)

Need one say more than this? The Imperium offers (apparently) a quasi-feudal social structure in which many people can expect only at best a life of drudgery in return for physical security. Worship of the chaos gods offers "struggle, danger and death", and so some people - perhaps the populations of entire planets - embrace it for that reason alone.

Burkean. There is a kind of implicit social commentary running through Games Workshop games - although it is a very Anglo-Saxon one. It says, roughly, that class structure exists and is grossly unfair and has all sorts of other negative consequences, but overthrowing it is worse. You have a choice between the present feudal order and, both literally and metaphorically, chaos.

But it would hardly be surprising if some people didn't turn to chaos in that context, just as some people turned to Jacobinism and untrammeled blood-letting during the French Revolution or violent anti-clericalism during the Spanish Civil War. If the current system is shit, radicalism begins to appear sensible, and in the Imperium, radicalism = chaos, QED.

Murphyist. Occasionally in life there pops up a special brand of psychopath who, through personal charisma, is able to convince people around him to not only commit heinous acts but to enjoy it - to embrace darkness. The classic example for me is Lenny Murphy, leader of the "Shankill Butchers", a band of loyalist paramilitaries who cooperated to torture and murder at least 23 Catholics in and around the Shankill Road area in Belfast - ostensibly as acts of "terrorism" but more likely simply to satisfy Lenny Murphy's psychotic and sadistic impulses. Other examples would include Charles Manson, and John Bunting for Australian readers (Snowtown ranks up there with the most disturbing "Never watch again" films I have ever seen, but it is a really effective study in this phenomenon). What would it take for people to turn to the worship of Khorne? Answer: perhaps not all that much if they've not got much going on in their lives and a very compelling lunatic persuades them it would be a good idea. It's all downhill from there.

Don't worship any chaos gods, kids.

Friday, 22 February 2019

British Regional Accents: A Guide for American DMs

So, I sat down and tried to watch the first episode of the first Critical Role campaign. I gave up a few minutes in. I had half an idea to write a series of blog posts critiquing it, but, on reflection, what would be the point? I'm not the target audience, and if some people enjoy it, good for them. (I write this through teeth that are slightly less gritted than they would once have been; I've mellowed over the years.) 

But the post did get me thinking about the topic of British regional accents and American cultural products, particularly in Fantasy & SF, mainly because the first PC to get introduced in that Critical Role campaign is described by an actor straight from the Dick Van Dyke School of Linguistics, and it got me thinking about how Americans make use of such a limited palette of British accents when going for some sort of specific effect. 

The general rule for Americans when it comes to British accents seems to be: British people are either very posh or cockneys, and if they're not, they're either the Beatles or Scottish. The Welsh and Northern Irish certainly don't exist, and nor does any English person outside a kind of mythical idealised London roughly between the years 1850-1945, or Liverpool between the years 1962-1970.

This is reflected in the way British regional accents are used in American Fantasy & SF: villains speak in RP, unless they are mook and/or comedy villains, in which case they're cockneys; dwarves are Scottish, and now and again somebody from Somerset appears, usually to represent a yokel (viz: Sam in the The Lord of the Rings films). 

This won't do. You guys need to expand your range a little bit. 

The best way to do this is by watching videos of interviews with football fans on YouTube - an unintentionally hilarious genre of programming which never fails to combine vitriolic anger, self-entitled outrage, politically incorrect asides, and logical incoherence - all presented in the funny voices of grown men who should really know better. 

Here are some examples. First, Estuary English. How about the guy on the right for a hobgoblin?

Second, how about this Mancunian kobold?

Third, a couple of Liverpudlian gnolls complaining about modern football.

Fourth, some slightly downtrodden Geordie orcs dissecting the result of a recent battle.

Fifth, check out this Boro fan (that's Middlesborough) - a goblin for definite (although he is right about Leeds).

Sixth, a clan of Brummie bullywugs? 

And finally - Welsh wererat?

GMing Advice: Everyone Gets a Chance

I don't tend to post much GMing advice here on the blog, mainly because I don't tend to read it myself when others post about it; I suppose I just don't find the topic all that interesting and think that a lot of good GMing is learned through practice alone.

That said, last night I happened to go back to some old reddit posts and came across this one from the old "Ask Me Anything!" thread I did on /rpg when Yoon-Suin was Game of the Month.

In it, somebody asked me for "general Dungeon Master tips" and I said the following:

Hmm. In all honesty I increasingly think that the best DMing advice is to give everybody a shot at the limelight. Make sure you roughly devote the same amount of time to everybody's goals/desires/activities/in-character conversations, and if somebody seems to be left out, ask them "What's your character doing?" or something like that to involve them. It really helps when everybody at the table feels like they are "in the game".

I had completely forgotten typing that, and was surprised that I had actually said something which, looking back, I agreed with. That is good DMing advice.

I would now nuance it slightly to make clear that "having a shot at the limelight" does not mean a chance to "be awesome" or to show off. It just means having a chance to actually be the centre of everybody else's attention for a minute. Even if it's just switching the focus to somebody by asking them "What does your PC think about this?", it works wonders. Suddenly somebody who was a passive observer is part of things (even if they are just offering a view).

Judging when to do it, and balancing attention between the players, is something that has to be learned. But the principle derived from practice is sound. Perhaps I was wrong after all here.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Whisky and D&D 6th Edition

I like whisky.

The whisky industry is in an interesting moment: more whisky is being sold around the world than ever before, and while this has caused certain problems, it has also had some benefits. One of these is the explosion in fairly small, craft distilleries who produce premium products at affordable prices. Where previously they would have struggled to find a market for their single malts and would have ended up supplying their stuff purely for blended whisky, they can now sell boutiquish, high quality single malts very easily online throughout the world.

Good examples, if you are interested, are Glencadam and Tomintoul (these two have the same owners), Springbank, Benromach, Edradour, and Kilchoman.

What these "craft" whiskies tend to have in common is a commitment to naturalness. Your average mass market single malt whisky will tend to have caramel colouring added to it to maintain consistency when on display on supermarket shelves (and also to make them look older). This makes whiskies look much darker than they really are, like a fake tan. They will tend to have the minimum level of alcohol necessary to be classified as whisky (40% ABV). And they will typically also be chill-filtered, meaning they have gone through a process of being chilled to below freezing and then passed through a filter to remove residue and make them look clearer than whisky naturally is. (Whisky should be cloudy when cool.)

Whisky enthusiasts despise all this. Caramel colouring alters the flavour. Lower alcohol results in a milder taste experience. And chill-filtration makes for a thinner taste and also a thinner "mouthfeel" - it just doesn't feel good on the tongue. So "craft" distilleries, catering as they do to whisky enthusiasts, make a big point of putting on the labeling: NATURAL COLOUR - NON-CHILL-FILTERED - 46% ABV (or whatever).

Once you have tasted whisky that has been presented in this way (particularly once you have tasted whisky that has not been chill-filtered) you really find it hard to go back.

What's interesting about this for non-whisky drinkers is the effect it has had on the industry. Because "craft" whisky has started to find a market, the big players have begun to experiment to try to take advantage. It's almost as though the craft distilleries have staked out a new market segment, and the big boys are now trying to fill it. Glenlivet, for a long time the biggest-selling single malt distillery in the world, now has a revamped "Nadurra" range which is non-chill-filtered and marketed as being "natural" and "old fashioned". Cutty Sark, one of the big blended whiskies, now has a "Prohibition Edition" which is 50% ABV and non-chill-filtered (and fucking delicious, by the way). It's not that the big industry players are panicked or running scared - they just sense an opportunity to make more money.

A very similar thing happened with the OSR and D&D 5th edition, I think. It's not that WotC were panicking that all their loyal customers were flocking to download Labyrinth Lord. (Although 4th edition didn't do well by all accounts.) It's that they noticed there was a way to make more money by playing up the "craft" aspects of what was going on in the OSR blogs and their influence on 5e. Most buyers wouldn't notice, but the crazy hardcore nerds would, and would like it. You keep your main customer base but also widen your appeal to some of the more opinionated and passionate gamers. It seems to have worked.

The question I suppose is what happens next. Will there be a 6th edition in the near future? Almost certainly not. But I expect if there is one it will take even more influences from OSR playstyles - more emphasis on sandbox play, more emphasis on random tables, and more emphasis on DMing as rulings over rules. I could be wrong; we'll see.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Children's Books and the Reading Experience

I am not a publisher of children's books, but with a toddler around I sure do buy a lot of them. From the outside, it looks like a brutally competitive market: the major players pump out thousands upon thousands of titles in the hope that one or two will catch on and become million-sellers, and because parents buy a lot of books and are generally discerning about what they give their kids, there is a huge race to the top in terms of quality. Children's books (the ones outside of the bargain-basement box anyway) are really nice. The colours are beautiful. The text gorgeously typeset. The art is stunningly good. The books themselves just feel lovely to hold and page through and look at. It is a fantastic reading experience.

(Children themselves don't give a fuck about this - it is totally lost on them. My daughter prefers looking at mail-order catalogues.)

People publishing RPGs, particularly self-publishing them, will find it next to impossible to match the production values of your average children's title, but there are a few things that I think could be replicated.

The first of these is the use of smaller formats. A4 (or "letter size" as you Americans charmingly call it) is horrible to read. There are plenty of kids' books that employ it, but they do so unwisely. It is too big to focus the eye and annoying to hold and a hassle to page through. You really notice this more when the person you are reading a book with has small hands, but once noticed, you realise it's crap for adult hands too.

The second is giving space for the text to breathe. Many children's books have a single sentence on a page, aligned in the centre. Nobody would advocate that for an RPG rule book. But it is a very nice and uncluttered way to present information. Imagine an RPG book with this sort of design, with text (more text, of course) nicely arranged on one side and art on the other, all the way through:

The third (but then I would say this) is the use of landscape format - small landscape format. Big landscape format just makes things more unwieldy. But small landscape format works very nicely: something about having the pages spread out across your lap makes the information much more easily digestible than squashed into a trade-paperback or even A5 portrait format. See for instance:

And the fourth is the use of cardstock. I have increasingly wondered whether there might be space for more rules-lite, or fluff-lite, RPG books to be presented on cardstock rather than paper. Perhaps it is only due to nostalgia, but the experience of holding and turning cardstock pages really is rather nice indeed - you really want to know what is on the other side. Something in the weight of the pages, and their relative scarcity, makes turning them an event. It works. And it's also robust to continual use at the table.

Monday, 18 February 2019

I Don't Know What to Think

I have been very hesitant to post this entry, partly because I have not entirely made my mind up what I think, partly because I don't really see much value in fanning flames further than they are being fanned already, but also partly because I expect it will make some people angry. But I've decided to go ahead and do it anyway for a few reasons. First, I feel a strange sense of ownership over this issue for reasons we'll come to. Second, I expect there is a silent majority out there who will feel like I feel but are scared in the current climate to say it and/or are drowned out by the noise from a very vociferous minority. Third, I think our public discourse is being ruined by braying hordes of people who are obnoxiously sure that their own opinions are right and that to hold opposing views is not just wrong but evil. The only way to fight that is to actually fight it, and I can do my very small bit here on my blog. And fourth, while I am worried that putting this post up is going to alienate people and possibly very severely impact on the blog and my involvement in making RPG stuff, it is more important in the final analysis for me not to feel as though I am a moral coward, and being silent about this matter would be in my view moral cowardice on my part.

First, let's set the scene. I would call myself an online acquaintance of Zak. He played in a PBEM Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign I ran a long time ago, I want to say in 2008-2009ish, and when he started his blog, James Malizewski and I were those he asked to let people know he had one, which is what gives me that odd sense of ownership I referred to earlier. Over the years we have occasionally commented on each other's blogs or G+ posts but not in a particularly regular way (I would say once a month on average if even that), and we played in a couple of online hangouts sessions together a long time ago (maybe 5 total?) but not since I think about 2011 at the latest. We did from time to time discuss working on something together in a very vague way, but nothing ever came from it. And I have to be absolutely honest and also say that, you know what? Zak did a lot to promote Yoon-Suin and in a sense I owe him for that - irrespective of what he has or hasn't done or what kind of person he is.

Since roughly 2013 or 2014, though, I made a deliberate decision that I would not get into debates with him online, because let's face it, he was an argumentative bastard and it was never worth getting involved in a debate with him, and also that I wouldn't pay much attention to all the online controversy surrounding him or "the OSR" in general, mainly because online controversy in general annoys me but especially in the context of discussing elf games. And it always amazed me when I saw other people complaining about him being a bully or being manipulative - I still can't quite understand why others can't do what I did and just take him with a pinch of salt and get on with their own business, but then again I was never really in the bubble, so to speak, and I tend to strictly separate my real life, which I care about, from the online world, which I do not take at all as seriously.

Second, and on that note, I don't really think of myself as part of any sort of "community" when it comes to OSR games; if there is a flock, then I am not exactly a black sheep, but some disinterested ram in the next field who occasionally bleats contributions but is mostly interested in what's going on in the hedges and pastures on the far side of his own enclosure. I am not wedded to this issue like others evidently are, and so I will freely accept that I am not as emotionally involved as I might be if I knew the parties personally.

So, with all that said, I have something to say about the Zak S controversy (and please make sure you actually read it all):

I genuinely don't know what I actually think about it. My work involves the law, and I understand what it means to say that the criminal standard of proof has to be "beyond all reasonable doubt" (although nowadays for dumbing-down reasons in English courts juries tend to be instructed that they have to be "sure"). We don't just have that principle merely by historical accident or because otherwise there would be miscarriages of justice (though there would be of course). We have it because if people are presumed guilty before it is proved, criminal justice moves outside the legal system altogether and the public begins to execute its own forms of sentencing without any concern for the trial process, and that is where madness lies. It's not that a criminal justice system based on the notion that you are "innocent until proven guilty" is perfect. There are plenty of problems with it. It's that the alternative is much worse: people then end up being convicted through public opinion alone, and then there's no reason for the public not to carry out its own very harsh and arbitrary forms of punishment and circumvent the justice system altogether. You can't actually have a functioning civilized criminal justice system which is not based on this principle. And it is critical that the public understands it and are committed to it.

And if you are of the view that this should be the case, there can't be half measures. The principle only works at all if it works for the most odious people and for all criminal accusations. So, I'm sorry, but I don't agree that "believing accusers" is the right way forward to solve the problem which I entirely accept exists and is awful: it's hard to secure successful convictions against sex offenders and lots of them get away with it. There has to be a better solution to the problem than that one and I am all in favour of finding it.

That's my general view, and it would lead to the conclusion that I am not, to use that crucial word, "sure". I am convinced from my own experience that Zak could be a complete prick to other people and, having seen recent posts from others, I am also convinced that he was manipulative and used his influence for malign ends at times. But as I said, having a history of being nasty isn't a smoking gun for having committed a given criminal offence or offence(s). The criminal standard of proof is the same whatever type of person you are. I don't really know Mandy Morbid from Eve - she was in those hangout games I played in with Zak but that was 8 or 9 years ago and was the only context in which I ever knew her. I have never exchanged two words with her outside of the context of those hangout games. She made some allegations which seem plausible but not enough to make me "sure". The matter is not beyond all reasonable doubt, for me, and I'm worried that so many people seem to think it is. I think that has more to do with the Zak's often-obnoxious online persona and the nature of the accusations rather than actual "sureness" in the technical sense.

But on the other hand, I have known Patrick Stuart for a long time and he is one of very few people who are involved in this online hobby who is actually a friend - as in, a person who I hang out with face-to-face and know properly and trust. And he, being much more knowledgeable about the key players than I am, thinks Mandy's account is credible, and paints a compelling picture of Zak which I take on face value because I take Patrick's word seriously. In that sense, then, I am "sure". I believe the account on a gut level because of that.

In other words: I am not not sure, and yet I am sure; I'm conflicted. And, perhaps because I'm conflicted, I don't want to live in a world in which people aren't allowed to feel conflicted and own up to it. I don't want to live in a world in which people are scared that if they are not sufficiently convinced that the prevailing opinion of the crowd is right, they will be mobbed and exiled for confessing it. I want to live in a world in which it is perfectly acceptable for people to say what they actually think and feel, if it comes from a position of good faith, and they are not then bullied or ostracised for doing so. And I think that, insofar as a "community" exists, the only communities worth being in are those in which people can express their views freely and get a fair hearing when they do. So I have gone ahead and said what I actually think and feel, from a position of good faith: I don't know what I think.

To which I will of course add: this is not a post in defence of Zak, and certainly not a post in defence of abuse of women. Nor is it a post criticising anyone for saying they can't comfortably interact with Zak anymore or buy any of his products - I am also probably in that camp on balance. It's a post in defence of being honest and open, and being non-judgmental about others' opinions and beliefs and reactions to what they read and hear. And that is all.

[Comments are open but I will not be replying to them.]

Friday, 15 February 2019

Just Do It

I went through a phase, as a wee sprog, of wanting to be a writer, and so I read a lot of books on the topic of "How to Write". I stopped, though, and don't read those sorts of books any more, for the simple reason that they are a waste of time. There is no magic bullet for learning how to write well - you just have to practice at it, really hard, every day, and read as much as you can - and any of the other "advice" in those books is dreadful. Don't use adverbs! (Except all great writers do, just in the right amount.) Read the Chicago Manual of Style! (Except that, while good grammar is necessary, all the best writers know when and how to break the rules.) Show, don't tell! (Except when "telling" works, which it sometimes does.) Write about what you know! (Except if you're trying to write anything except autobiography.)

It's useless stuff served up to desperate dreamers convinced they just need to know how to make it. The only such book worth reading is Stephen King's On Writing, because although he does serve up some of those chestnuts, he mostly just describes his own process and emphasises that - yes - you just need to read and write (and rewrite) a lot. By doing so, you learn - in a totally atheoretical, experiential sort of a way - how to use adverbs judiciously, how to break the rules of grammar where necessary, and all of that jazz; it comes with experience.

(There is also a very short section of Ben Bova's How to Write Science Fiction That Sells that has always stuck with me, and which I think I have mentioned on the blog before: "If you want to be a writer, write. A writer writes.")

Likewise, I have also at various times attempted to learn how to draw, through buying books that promise me they'll help me do it. At best, they are just collections of activities to spur you to practice, and which would have no particular violence done to them by being summarised as: "Take a pencil and pad wherever you go and draw stuff when you can, at least once a day."

And that's not to mention songwriting; I am not a songwriter and do not aspire to be, but I am interested in songwriting and, again, the people you need to listen to are those like Glen Ballard, who once said in an interview that he's probably written over 10,000 songs in his life. Or Nile Rodgers, who says "I'm not a good writer, just a good re-writer." Or Gary Barlow, who in his early days used to go home after performing a concert and play more music. Or Paul McCartney, who will still be up writing songs at 1 in the morning.

You just have to do it.

This is a hard message to take onboard, because it forces you to confront the fact that you probably really have no excuses other than laziness and lack of moral fibre. All those hours of your life you've spent watching TV, mindlessly scrolling your Facebook news feed, or lying in bed reading a crappy paperback? You could have spent half of that time, a third of that time even, getting good at a craft of some kind. You didn't. You only have yourself to blame.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

There's No Substitute for Good GMing

I used to work at a startup. The founder of the company was very much into applying what he had learned doing an MBA, and one of his big interests was translating tacit knowledge and know-how into formal rules, processes, "playbooks" and so on. Because I was deemed to be "good at what I do", I was his test case, and we spent many a long afternoon sitting down trying to transform my know-how into a series of documents that others within the company could use to improve. That experience, I can see now in retrospect, sparked a long-standing skepticism of mine towards all such attempts to formalise the knowledge and skills that professionals develop through practice. Let me put it another way: if you're good at a profession or craft, most of what makes you good is learned unconsciously and practiced without deliberate thought. And the exercise of trying to extract all of that and transform it into a set of procedures, guidelines, processes and so in is not only largely doomed to failure but actually can very frequently be detrimental to the practitioner himself - it certainly made me second-guess myself a lot more than I had done when I was just blissfully being good at my job.

(This is why most books on "How to Write/Draw/Write Songs" and so on completely suck, by the way, with the only useful information ever imparted being "practice a lot" - something which one day I will write a blog post about in itself.)

Nothing new here if you've read your Polanyi or Oakeshott or for that matter ever watched a genuine craftsman (using the term broadly to include teachers, doctors, engineers and so on) do anything. But an important observation for me at that time.

It applies very strongly to GMing. You can learn to be a good GM. And there are certain rules of thumb which will help. But by and large you get good at it from experience, and the know-how of a good GM tends to be tacit and untheorized. Good GMs don't think about what makes a good GM and put that into practice. They just do it. What skills they learn they learn "on the job" - and, it's worth adding, from social interactions as they go through life, GMing being a social activity.

It is important, of course, not to confuse the necessary and the causal. It is necessary to wear a suit to a job interview, but that won't cause you to get the job. Likewise, it's necessary to study medicine if you are going to be a doctor, but that won't make you a good one. You need to know some rules if you are going to be a GM, but they won't make you good at it.

And it's important, too, not to discount the je ne sais quois of talent; some people do have natural gifts (and natural disadvantages). But I very much believe that good GMing comes from just going ahead and doing it - frequently - and letting your brain's natural propensity for trial and error and unconscious learning to get into gear.