Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Heather Sea

I am writing a real book (don't get too excited - it's an academic monograph) and it's getting close to the deadline. This means I am working on it almost constantly. At the end of each day I am creatively spent. This has made blogging ideas slow to come if at all, and has rendered my desire to blog almost nonexistent.

The best way to remedy this is probably not to post a campaign-setting idea, which people don't usually read or comment on, on a Saturday when nobody reads blogs in the first place. But here goes.

While out walking last week in the hills I struck off the beaten trails and headed out across a wide expanse of heather moorland on something of a wild goose chase in search of what my ordnance survey map suggested were some caves. This led me across this kind of landscape (excuse the use of a naff stock photo):

It felt not unlike wading across a very wide pond interspersed with stepping stones of granite. You basically pick your way from hunk of rock to hunk of rock (which retreating glaciers deposited long ago) by striding uncertainly amidst thick, bouncy, thigh-deep fragrant heather. The heather often bears your weight, but also has a tendency to treacherously give way so that your foot plunges down into sodden mud underneath. It's a pain in the arse to cross, but also a good work out. 

It also made me imagine what that landscape would be like if it was blown up to a scale 100 or 1000 times bigger than it really is. Each hunk of granite would not be merely a convenient place for somebody to stand for a moment to get their bearings, but big enough for buildings, even towns, even cities, to be built on (or inside). The heather sea would be a deep, dark, impenetrable mega-forest which the rock-dwellers would dread to cross, and which would they would never enter except as outlaws or madmen. Passage from rock to rock might be done through trained birds or other fliers, or possibly by enlisting giants or other gargantuan beasts capable of walking across the ocean of vegetation in between. 

Maybe different types of heather would bloom in different colours, and their fragrant pollen washing over the landscape would create different magical effects. Maybe the only time any rock-dweller would venture into that landscape would be to try to harvest that pollen. Maybe they would raise giant bees or other insects to harvest it for them, and to make use of the honey.

And maybe those big hunks of granite would contain mineral deposits. And maybe dwarves and derro and other subterranean beings would burrow up from the underdark so as to mine the giant rocks from underneath. Maybe the rock-dwellers would find themselves living atop networks of burrows filled with wonders to explore.

Maybe that would be a fun campaign setting to run a game in.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Mud and Floods

I spent all weekend hiking in the countryside. This being England, and this being November, this meant rain and mud. Lots of it. There is a certain point in the English autumn at which there is almost daily rain. The earth gets completely saturated, but the temperature no longer gets much higher than 6 or 7 degrees and the standing water does not evaporate. This turns the entire country outside of towns and cities into a gigantic bog of mud and swamp-like quasi-lakes of brown water. 

It makes you realise why there was a campaign season in the good old days. Sure, you had to get the harvest in and armies were extremely hard to supply between October and March. But getting from place to place on foot is also just a gigantic pain in the arse. Better to just stay at home and wait for spring.

I did some hikes that I have done before and worked out that I was on average travelling at half my usual pace just because I was constantly having to pick my way around impromptu bodies of water where once there was grass. This also meant that I spent most of my time looking at the ground rather than the world around me, because I was more or less constantly picking my way from one patch of firm ground to another - like stepping stones.

We tend to think about the weather and terrain as basically being a matter of movement rates when we remember them at all. Just as relevant, if not more so, is I think the surprise roll. When the weather is bad you have to concentrate. If there had been a gang of goblins out there on the hunt, I would have been a sitting duck. That's not even to mention footprints and the ease of tracking.

Two rule suggestions, then:

1) During heavy rain, in random encounters intelligent creatures (including PCs) are automatically surprised unless they have prepared for rain or their nature suggests otherwise (Trolls, for instance, are unlikely to be concerned by mud)
2) Tracking during heavy rain and the following day is automatically successful 

Friday, 1 November 2019

Nicobobinise Your Game: Interpreting Dreams and Omens

One of my favourite techniques for giving players a little bit of narrative control and a stake in setting creation without getting all storygamerish about it is giving them opportunities to describe their PCs' dreams and hallucinations. 

If the PCs get the opportunity to take a hallucinogen or are put in that state magically, go on a spirit journey, or the like, I will often ask them: what does your character see? Or, alternatively, I will sketch out a scene ("You see yourself on the back of a flying whale" or whatever) and ask them to add some details ("Where does the whale go?"). 

They will without fail come up with something that you:
a) Would never have thought of yourself;
b) Can incorporate into the game somehow, turning the hallucination into a "premonition" of some kind.

You have to do this sparingly, and in a subtle, non-obvious way. It's no good being literal about things - you need to get dream-logical. The best approach is opportunistic: you might never use the "whale flying to the stars" motif even metaphorically, but you never know when something star or deep-sea related will come up, and when it does...

I have been reading Arrian's Anabasis lately. It is fascinating how much ancient people relied on what they thought were the correct interpretations of goings-on in the natural world. For example:

[W]hen Alexander was still besieging Halicarnassus and was taking a midday rest, a swallow had flitted about over his head chirping loudly and settled here and there on his bed giving voice in a more than usually insistent way. Alexander was too exhausted to wake up, but the sound bothered him in his sleep and he brushed the swallow away with a light sweep of his hand. Far from flying off at his touch, the bird perched right on Alexander's head and kept going until he was completely awake. Alexander took this business of the swallow seriously and recounted it to Aristander of Telmissus, a seer. Aristander told him that it signified a plot by one of his friends, and meant also that the plot would come to light, as the swallow is a domestic bird, friendly to man, and the most talkative of all birds.

I love this kind of thing, because it is so immersive in a strange and beautiful and foreign way of conceiving of the world. How to use it in a game is difficult, but I wonder whether one method might be something like:

-There is a table of random natural events that the DM consults very occasionally
-When he does so, an event like the sparrow/nap incident takes place
-The player gives an interpretation of what has happened and what it means
-The DM writes down an interpretation of what has happened and what it means (keeping it secret from the players)
-A coin is tossed to determine which is the correct interpretation BUT the DM does not reveal the result
-Play continues: it could be that the player's interpretation of the swallow/nap incident is correct, or it could be the DM's; the players might act on the assumption that they are right, or wrong...and sooner or later they'll find out

You could. of course, do something similar with the interpretation of dreams: every so often you could roll on a Random Dream Table and ask for the players' interpretations accordingly, following a similar pattern to the above.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Incentives Matter

The other day I listened to an RPG-related podcast in which a story gamer talked about playing an old school game. She was broadly positive, but said that she was dissatisfied with the way in which combat worked - if a PC was out of action or killed, it would mean that the player would have nothing to do, for the rest of the fight at least. This was seen as bad because, I gather, it would make that player feel left out or bored.

I am trying my best these days not to be judgmental and dismissive, which are always my driving instincts, but I do sometimes wonder where the infantilisation of adults will end. Even young children understand the concept that incentives matter - if there is a consequence to playing unintelligently, and the consequence is that you can't "play", then there is a good reason to play intelligently instead. The result is a better experience for everybody.

Let me put that a different way: if you remove the consequences of bad play in order to satisfy any given individual player and stop them feeling left out, you make things worse for the group, because you encourage the players not to take things seriously.

Death and incapacitation are important because they encourage thoughtful engagement with the game. If those threats feel real, players understand that what happens actually matters. This raises the bar for everybody - the other players, who feed off each other's energy, and the DM, who has gone to the trouble of starting up and planning a campaign that he or she wants them to engage with.

[EDIT: Apparently because it's not clear, I am not talking about the DM doing this in an authoritarian or "yah boo sucks" sort of way, and nor am I talking about character death meaning having no further contribution to the session. I am talking about the natural incentives which will arise when players know that getting incapacitated is going to mean having to sit and watch for 5 minutes or so, and that character death is going to mean having to roll up a new one and wait until there's an opportunity to be reintroduced to the game - i.e. a little while later in the same session.]

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The Greatest OSR Blog Posts Known to Man

Attempting to list the greatest OSR blog posts ever is a fool's errand of the highest order. I have forgotten 99.9% of the posts I have ever read, especially those from the early days. BUT LET'S DO IT ANYWAY.

Post yours in the comments. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: - Not even anything to do with RPGs, let alone D&D, and let alone the OSR, but probably the blog post I have enjoyed reading most of all in the last 10 years. - Like the last Ichthyosaur in the ocean, this is a recent reminder of the magnificent beasts which once roamed the Blogosphere Sea but which long ago diminished and went into the West...or something., and - A series of three posts which set out the case for OD&D from the get-go and were instrumental in hooking me back into all of this nonsense. - Just good solid advice on sandbox building from the days when the basic principles of OSR play were still being properly elucidated; it seems like something everybody nowadays would take for granted, but this stuff was important, dammit., and - More really useful technical advice, again from the days when this sort of thing was necessary in establishing the rudiments of OSR campaign design. - One of Delta's truly magnificent deep dives, which might genuinely change how you see a fundamental element of the game. - It still makes me smile. - The best blog post written about "RPG theory". And it was nearly 14 years ago. - You can pretty much make a campaign setting just by answering these questions and use it for years and years.

I have merely scratched the surface. What else can you remember?

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Once You Label Me You Negate Me - About the OSR, DIY D&D, Sword Dream, and the Rest

What's your label?

I was never a big fan of "OSR". I am not old school (I never played OD&D when it first came out, for the very good reason that I was not yet born); I hate the phrase "old school" to begin with, whatever the context (self-congratulatory stick-in-the-mudism); and the word "renaissance" is pompous and silly. Speaking strictly objectively, I always thought "DIY D&D" made a lot more sense: what I do, after all, is play D&D and make stuff for it myself rather than buy what others produce.

And I am also not by nature a joiner to begin with. Let's be clear about this: I am proud, vain, and self-motivating, and I don't get why some people seem to feel an intense need to be part of social movements or support networks. For some people, it appears to be important to feel like an insider - whether it's through energetically participating in online "communities", retweeting the latest hashtag, or being on top of the latest boxed-set everybody's talking about. I am basically the opposite of that. This is not a criticism of those people, because I'm sure that impulse comes from a nice place. It is  just the reflections of a man who is probably now at the threshold of middle-age, and is becoming able to look at his own settled personality with something approaching objectivity.

In short, I like people, I have lots of friends and a loving family, and I think those who comment on this blog are generally fabulous (I will refrain from naming the exceptions). But I have a very low level of tolerance for anything that seems to me even remotely like it might be a bandwagon. This is almost pathological: if people like something, I tend to go out of my way to hate it. Long-term readers of the blog may be familiar with this tendency of mine. I swear I'll get around to reading Harry Potter one day.

With all of that said, what the OSR has going for it is that is not, as others have rightly pointed out, a community. Attempts to turn it into one have pretty much universally been obnoxious, exclusionary in one direction or other, politicised, and dominated by superficially charismatic...I am trying to think of the right term here...I'll be polite and say "fevered egos". The OSR is a scene or, better, a genre - a style of play. It is at its heart politically and socially empty: really, it's just a loose set of principles about what play looks like. Not principles about who gets to play. Not principles about what the content should or should not be. Not principles about which type of designer gets supported and which doesn't. Not principles about who is a good person and who is a bad one. Principles about what happens at the table, and in preparation for it.

Where the OSR has been led astray in the past, and where I am sure it will continue to be led astray in the future, is when people have become sidetracked from just expounding on the relevant principles and making games along the guidelines which those principles provide. In other words, the whole thing has become corrupted when people have started trying to put up barriers of any kind, to create in-groups and out-groups, or to achieve certain ends beyond promoting the principles in question.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying, I will not piss all over any attempt to create a community if that's what the members of said community wish to do. But there is nothing wrong with "the OSR" beyond it being a bit of a silly name, if one concentrates on the fact that it is a style of play and nothing more than that.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Let's Discover: The Nicobobinus Gambit

"This is the story of the most extraordinary child who ever stuck his tongue out at the Prime Minister. His name was Nicobobinus. He lived a long time ago, in a city called Venice, and he could do anything.
"Of course, not everyone knew he could do anything. In fact, only his best friend, Rosie, knew, and nobody took any notice of anything Rosie said, because she was always having wild ideas anyway.
"One day, for example, Rosie said to Nicobobinus, 'Let's pull up every weed on your doorstep.'
"'Let's not,' said Nicobobinus (which is what Rosie thought he would say).
"'In that case,' replied Rosie, 'Let's discover the Land of Dragons!'
"'Don't be daft,' said Nicobobinus, 'How can we do that?'
"'Because you can do anything,' said Rosie."
I recently came across a copy of Nicobobinus in a second-hand book shop and snatched it up. It was a vague memory from my childhood, which I probably read when I was about 8 or 9 years old. But something of it had always stuck with me - nothing much more than an evocative mood, really, most likely thanks to Michael Foreman's wonderful illustrations (which were always a winning combination with Terry Jones - see this old post for more on this), but one powerful enough to have never quite been forgotten.

The concept of somebody who can "do anything" deliberately going to discover a place which does not exist, and in doing so thereby calling it into existence, is fairy tale logic at its finest. But something like this also happens a lot in games, whether by design or otherwise. No, one doesn't tend to begin a campaign with the PCs announcing they want to discover a place one of them has plucked from thin air. (Although you certainly could.) But one does tend as the DM to create people, places and things on the fly as the players ask questions either in- or out-of-character. Hence:

Player: "I ask NPC X where he's from."
DM [who has just invented NPC X because the situation has called for it, perhaps because the players are in a tavern and asked something like "Who is sitting next to us?" and has given his background no thought]: "Er, he says he's from the land behind the mountain."
Player: "Ooh, I wonder what that's like..."

And suddenly there's a land behind the mountain where there was none before. One which the PCs might well end up visiting and which the DM is going to have to detail when all it was originally was a phrase which popped into his head in the heat of the moment.

I intend to call this form of knock-on creation the Nicobobinus Gambit from now on. The DM in the mini-scenario I just described deployed the Nicobobinus Gambit as an emergency measure. (It was an Emergency Nicobobinus Gambit, if you will.) But it is entirely possible to use the Gambit in a pre-planned way. The most obvious example I can think of is that DM beginning his campaign by sitting down the players and asking them, "So, where is your PC from? Make something up."

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Are We Stupider or More Discerning?

Layout has moved on a lot. Take a look at these spreads:

The first is from Cyberspace, the little-mentioned ICE cyberpunk Rolemaster variant from 1989. The second is from Judge Dredd: The Roleplaying Game, from 1985, by Games Workshop (and authored by Rick Priestley and Marc Gascoigne, no less).

Notice anything? Christ, that's a lot of text, isn't it? And, to the modern eye, isn't it presented in an almost aggressively unapproachable way? It's not just boring. It's also unintuitive - to get the hang of the rules you would have to devote careful study, almost as a separate project, making your own notes and staying up all night to revise before each session. They look like law textbooks with a few more interesting pictures.

I got these two games, along with quite a few others, secondhand over the course of a number of years from various physical shops, with the idea of reviewing them for the blog. (These two cost £3 and £5 respectively, since you're asking.) But each time I have sat down to begin this task, I have failed miserably. I just can't be bothered. Whatever initial enthusiasm I have drains out of me like air from a rapidly deflating bouncy castle, leaving me a flacid floppy mound of rubber - the party long gone and not even a doggy bag left.

What's wrong with me? At the age of 14 I would have lapped all this stuff up. The impenetrability wouldn't have bothered me one jot. Partly this is age, and lack of time, and better things to do, and fewer brain cells. But also I think it's because when I was 14 basically all RPG books looked pretty much like this (the text might have had nicer backgrounds in the mid-90s and the internal illos were usually in colour by then, but that's about all that would have changed). And I hadn't experienced "good" information design - I hadn't grown up in a world in which you had to do anything other than just sit down and digest a massive shitload of infodump text if you wanted to know how to play an RPG. I hadn't been molly-coddled, in other words. I was a better and more focused reader.

All of that is to ask: am I just old and stupid now? Or is it the case that getting used to information being presented in an accessible format has made me less able to actually just sit down and do some proper reading and retain the information I've read?

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Ex-Pat Rogues

For the first time in quite a while I heard Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money" today. This song speaks to ex-pats, or people who have been ex-pats, quite profoundly. This is because it manages in its light-hearted way to communicate two indelible truths that anybody who has lived in a foreign country will know. First, when you are a foreigner you have license to live outside conventional social mores, which is very enjoyable. But second, and because of this, it's easy to get into crazy hijinks, and when you do, you might get into "shit hitting the fan" territory very quickly - indeed before you even know it.

Ex-pats (and here I am talking really about young ex-pats, and mostly male ones) are basically D&D PCs. They generally have no family or responsibilities in the country in which they live; they usually have a fairly high disposable income because they have no real financial commitments beyond paying rent; they are treated as exotic outsiders by the mainstream culture; and they often also have the unconscious arrogance that comes from being "young, dumb and full of cum" in an exciting location far from home. The sense of freedom one gets is intoxicating. Everything feels like an adventure.

While they might not be going around slaying orcs and pillaging dragons' treasure hordes, they do find themselves getting into all manner of scrapes, both good and bad. I moved to Japan when I was 21 1/2. Before I was 22 I had broken my toes diving off a sea cliff, had numerous fights, dated and broken up with a stripper, befriended a Peruvian drug dealer, fallen asleep on at least three or four 5am trains after nights out on a Sunday mornings and woken up at strange railway stations with no idea how to get home, had flings with several married women, and imbibed about three times more alcohol than I had in my entire life prior to that point.

And I was by far and away the most sensible of my friends. One of my housemates was robbed of all his possessions by associates of said Peruvian drug dealer after a party; another fled Japan for Australia after having apparently taken something or other that disagreed with him and descending into serious paranoid delusions about being pursued everywhere by an old woman on a bike with a camera. I knew a number of people who did prison time for various offences concerning drug possession, theft and/or violence, several of whom were subsequently deported. Like me, I am sure that they all left their home countries as sensible young men imbued only with a spirit of adventure.* Being at large in foreign climes with no roots or ties or social constraints turned them into rogues. Not quite murderhoboes. But possibly getting there.

I would not like to go back to those days. But I would like to run a sort of ur-cyberpunk campaign set among petty ex-pat criminals in an exotic location. Picture it as an Elmore Leonard novel taking place in a non-existent simulacrum of a Havana, Shanghai, Zanzibar or Adelaide, but with cyberarms and Johnny Silverhand songs on the radio. That I could get behind.


*That's not to mention the people who go to live overseas because they are fleeing the law in their home country, quite a number of whom I have met, nor those who are just crazy, weird, or psychopathic to begin with; it's possible of course that I fall into that latter category somewhere without me knowing it.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Don't Fall in Love

Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels are a case study in what goes wrong when a creator falls in love with a main character. In Red Dragon, Lecter is a sinister and inexplicably malicious psychopath who seems to be a minor plot point until he becomes the joker in the pack right at the end. His presence is a tour de force. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is a mysterious and compelling anti-hero, brilliantly rendered. But something happened to Harris in the course of writing that book. He started to get carried away with this Hannibal Lecter fellow. By the time Hannibal is completed Lecter is practically a demigod and his every word and action has turned into high camp. He's impossible to take seriously. With Hannibal Rising we get a descent into farce with a laughable origin story complete with Nazis (of course), a ludicrous, sexy suicidal Japanese femme fatale, and, well, an explanation for Lecter's descent into psychopathy that it is charitable to describe as implausible.

Harris's love for Lecter became his downfall. Not in terms of his bank balance, I'm sure. But as a serious author his reputation is forever shot.

Something similar happened to George Lucas. George just couldn't let Darth Vader be. Pause at the end of The Return of the Jedi and we have a highly satisfying resolution of that character's "arc", as I believe the cool kids call it nowadays (and of the entire trilogy itself for that matter). But George was a fool in love. He couldn't leave well alone. Like an over-eager suitor, he came on too strong. Incapable of having a good first date and then giving the girl some space, he had to call. And call. And call. The inevitable result then followed. 

Origin stories are bad news. They sell tickets. But they disappoint. There was never any way for Harris to provide a reason for Lecter being what he is which would have been anything other than an anticlimax. It's the same with Darth Vader: no explanation for why Anakin turned to the dark side could possibly have matched the audience's expectations. Not because the audience would have had a good explanation themselves - it's not that good characters are mysteries who call on the viewer or reader to try to fill in the blanks. It's that good characters are mysterious in such a way that their "blanks" appear so deep, complex or terrifying that their existence alone is a thrill. We didn't like the Hannibal Lecter of Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs because we wanted to speculate about what turned him into a cannibalistic serial killer. We liked him because he appeared to us to be inexplicable, and thus made us shiver deliciously at the prospect that evil is out there and cannot possibly be rendered banal by being understood. 

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Virtuosity and Practicing RPGs

Practice makes you a better DM and a better player. But it's not something you can practice on your own. This is significant.

When a human is able to practice a skill on his or her own, it can result in a level of accomplishment that seems to the untrained eye to be practically superhuman - a point at which the practitioner's technical ability is such that his or her movements manage to be both so effortless and yet so full of energy and precision that it does not seem possible for something to be so simultaneously relaxed and powerful. Check out Paco de Lucia here, for instance - there is more strength and volume in his index finger naturally strumming than I could muster with a plectrum and a full arm swing:

Or the performance of this Okinawan master karateka, so gentle and soft, almost, and yet done with such strength:

Or the way Jimmy Chamberlin drumming live somehow looks like he is both pre-programmed (so precise) and yet also hitting the drums at random:

The only way to approach these levels of skill is to practice. A lot. On your own. Single-mindedly. Al di Meola once said in an interview that he basically played the guitar 8 hours a day, every day, when he was growing up. This is how you get this kind of result:

And to put a stop to all this YouTube stuff, here's Keith Brymer Jones speaking quite nicely and simply about certain elements of all this:

Being a DM or an RPG player is not a skill anybody can practice for 8 hours a day - unless you have really available friends, or slaves, or something. And it's not something you can just sit down and do because you "have to". That's because you can't do it on your own. But that's only if you take a narrow view of what constitutes practice. Think about how much time each day you spend:

-Talking to people (telling them what to do; making them laugh; arguing with them, whatever)
-Listening to people
-Making decisions
-Pretending to be somebody you are not (you do it all the time - admit it)

And consider that reflecting on those activities and making efforts to improve them will also make you a better RPGer.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Booze as Treasure

Alcohol is important. 13,000 years ago people were using it to honour their dead (and presumably also to get pissed). More recently, it has had great commercial significance. I was reminded of this by the news that the US is putting a 25% import duty on whisky among other things produced in the EU in retaliation for subsidies given to Airbus. Apparently over £1 billion worth of whisky was exported from Scotland to the US last year. Next year we can presume it will be less. But it matters.

It mattered even more during the Middle Ages in Europe, when practically everybody drank only alcoholic drinks, and alcohol was the only way to ensure an unspoiled supply of hydration for sailors on long voyages. It was also in itself a powerful motivator to engage in trade and exploration overseas. Later, it became a luxury: I was going to say that Poet Laureates of England were originally paid with a butt of sherry or "sack" (I heard that this was worth in the region of £25,000 in today's money) but apparently they still are - 720 bottles' worth.

Alcohol has throughout our history been a safe way to hydrate oneself, a social glue, a religiously sacred substance (think of the Eucharist; think of the Incas drinking chicha at festivals to honour their gods), and a valuable commodity. We humans also just really like it.

Yet it does not generally appear in D&D treasure tables. Is this the result of a vestigal suspicion of alcohol in certain sections of the American midwestern culture that served as the crucible for the game? Is it because D&D has to appeal to "kids"? Is it just because "my character gets drunk" is one of the most annoying things that a player can do at the table and must be stamped out with extreme prejudice?

The logistics of transportation are what interest me the most. A butt of "sack" would weigh something like 500 kg. Smaller barrels like hogsheads are about 250 kg. They may be worth moving if they are going to be worth, say, £25,000 gold pieces. But the extraction of a 500 kg barrel from a dungeon is an adventure in itself.

But that's not to mention the other possibilities. What do the contents of a mighty wizard's wine cellar look like? What rarities are found within? More to the point: what do elves drink? What about orcs?

(Further reading:

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Connoisseurs and Cost: A Compromise?

I wrote a slightly crotchety post about the cost of RPG books, particularly OSR ones, a while back, and then followed it up with another. Perhaps this one will reframe things in a slightly more positive light.

My other hobby after RPGs is drinking. That sounds worse than it is. Basically, I like good beer, fine spirits and dessert wines and I enjoy exploring the sensory experiences they offer - not drinking to get drunk but drinking for the palate.

You can think of me as a much less well-off and much less intelligent version of Fraiser Crane with a different job, who likes RPGs and doesn't live with his father and doesn't have a brother or a housekeeper. And isn't American.

The thing about liking fine spirits is - they're expensive. An entry level, probably-not-even-decent single malt is about as expensive as a hardback mainstream WotC book (say, £30).* A decent single malt will be closer to £40. You really have to spend £50 a bottle to get to the good stuff. And I have bought bottles of whisky for £70, £80, £100 in the past. (Of course, there are people who will pay much more than that.)

I am prepared to pay such amounts because, well, I like whisky and hence I think it's worth it. That's because (and I don't meant to sound like a complete twat here, although I'm aware that it's impossible for me not to do so given what I am about to say) I am a connoisseur, albeit of a very minor variety. I am in a position to know what I like, and I have drunk enough whisky to know what won't interest me. Buying two £30 entry-level single malts is therefore probably going to give me less pleasure than a single £50 or £60 bottle; once you can appreciate quality in something you like, quantity ceases to be a relevant measure. So does cost - although of course only within the limits of what you can actually afford.

I was reminded of this recently by doing something I never normally do - posting a comment on Reddit. I subscribe to various drinks-related reddits, including a cocktail one. I am not a massive cocktail fan but I do dabble here and there. Seeing a post by another user, who was using what I consider to be a rather nice single malt to make a cocktail with, I couldn't help myself suggesting that he use something a bit cheaper and a bit less nice with a similar flavour profile, so as not to waste the good stuff.

I should have known better. I was dealing with a cocktail buff, and hence (like me with whiskies) somebody who appreciates quality within the bounds of his hobby. For him, the better the ingredients, the better the cocktail. He's not bothered about being wasteful or spending money - except in the sense that he can obviously only spend what he can afford. What he's interested in is quality. Which is completely fair, and I was completely stupid to poke my nose in to suggest he do otherwise.

You can probably see where I am going with this. For people who are really into RPGs, and who have played a lot and read a lot about the subject - connoisseurs, if you will - price ceases to be an important consideration within the bounds of what they can afford. They want quality. And if that means spending a lot of money on something, on an artisan product like a Veins of the Earth or Stars Without Number, I think that is completely fine and, in its own way, laudable. And it would certainly be hypocritical of me to criticise it.

Where I worry is the occasions when I have sensed that people are not actually buying things because they want quality, but because they feel a compulsion to do it through the fear of missing out, a desire to be in with the in-crowd, or just sheer acquisitiveness and showing-off. I used to see that quite a bit on G+. There is a strand of modern geek culture which has embraced consumerism so wholeheartedly that it has almost come to associate the mere act of spending lots of money on nerd-artefacts as being in some sense sacramental. Clearly one has to be a bit judgmental to feel that way - but I still feel it.

(*You can get great deals which complicate this a bit. 12 year old Highland Park is available in my local supermarket for about £25 often on sale, and it's a perfectly nice whisky. The same is true of the 10 year old Glenmorangie, available in my local Costco at ridiculously low prices.)

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

On Redwall and the Flexible Imagination; Or, How Big is a Badger?

Because I have been reading some fairly heavy-density stuff lately during the day, at night for bed time reading I decided to revisit Redwall

I can't have read Redwall in getting on for 30 years, and I've been surprised to rediscover how good it is. Later books in the series are soured in my memory slightly by repetition of plots and themes (and also, let's face it, the fact that your patience for talking-animal series wanes slightly as you age beyond 13 or so). But the first book is expertly paced, exciting, and very charming - even if the main character's overnight transformation from bumbling adolescent into heroic warrior is a bit far-fetched. 

What is unusual about the Redwall books (well, one of many things that's unusual about them) is that its characters are of species ranging in size from shrews all the way up to wildcats and badgers, but their size in relation to one another is not defined. 

On the one hand, these creatures are all part of the same society and inhabit them same buildings and use the same weapons and tools. While you do get a sense that a wildcat is bigger than a mouse, for example, it's still possible for a mouse to fight one with a sword on a roughly equal footing. So, at times, the different species seem more like simply different humanoid races of basically similar size, each of which is based cosmetically on a type of animal found in the British Isles.

On the other hand, though, when it suits the author, "big" animals (wild cats, badgers, otters, etc.) are suddenly a lot bigger than "small" ones (mice, rats and so on) despite the fact they're all in the same social milieu. You get a badger character all of a sudden being able to pull a cart around for passengers in a way that implies it's as big to them as a horse is to us, for example. You also get predatory creatures like pikes and snakes being portrayed as being roughly as big as you would expect them to be in proportion to a human-sized mouse. 

The experience of reading Redwall at a phenomenological level, then, is an odd one. Your brain has to constantly conjure and then re-conjure mental images that are forever changing. On one page, it seems as though everybody's roughly the same size. On the next, suddenly things can only make sense if one character is much bigger (or smaller) than the others. Then on the page after that you're back to having to assume they're about as big as each other. And so on, endlessly. 

Strangely, this doesn't affect the entertainment value of the book, and I think this is evidence for the argument that text provides much more imaginative flexibility than art. If Redwall was a picture book, an artist would have to make decisions about how big the different animal species are in relation to one another, and the reader would from that point onwards inevitably adopt that framework in his or her imagination. Because it's not a picture book, we can read it as taking place in a kind of liminal space in which things are as big as they need to be on one page and then as big as they need to be on the other. The visual imagery your own mind comes up with is consequentially contingent and subject to never-ending revision and reassessment and review. And that's okay. 

Monday, 16 September 2019

Yoon-Suin Hardback Version: Errata Help

I am thinking of putting out the much-requested hardback version of Yoon-Suin.
This will not be an all-singing, all-dancing fancy 2nd edition kickstarter, or anything like that, but just a hardback option available alongside the paperback version on Lulu for those who want it.
That said, while the substance of the text won't change, it will be an opportunity to tidy up the layout a bit and also fix ideally all the errata in the existing version. (I'll also update the PDF and paperback versions accordingly and, if I can think of any efficient and easy way to do it, offer a method for getting the updated PDF to existing purchasers for free.)
To that end, can you let me know what errors or inconsistencies you have found in the text of Yoon-Suin? Whether it's just one thing or a billion. Obviously I will be going through the text myself with a fine-toothed comb, but one pair of eyes is never enough for these things.
Either post here or contact me directly if you know how. Thanks!

Friday, 13 September 2019

Villainous Animals

Certain animal species are often encountered as the model for villains or evil races in D&D and in fantasy books in general. Off the top of my head, these species are wolves, snakes and spiders. I suppose if an alien from Mars or elsewhere in the universe was asked to pick the most likely three animal species to be selected by human beings as representing evil and/or danger, those would all be pretty high up the list - the alien would just have to ask himself which animals have been most likely to be dangerous to humans over the course of our evolutionary past (and recent history too, of course).

Some distance behind these - the best of the rest, just about picking up the last Champions' League spot - is the ape, specifically the chimpanzee. Chimpanzees make great villains not because they are our Species Enemies like the other three mentioned above, but because they are in a kind of uncanny valley. They look and act rather like us - or, I should say, rather like our children. But they do so in a way that disturbs us. When we see them flinging shit or publicly masturbating or eating people's noses and hands while they're still alive, they look too close to us for comfort. They appear to be telling us, even as they engage in these acts of degradation and savagery: "Look upon us, you who think you are so advanced, and see your TRUE NATURE REVEALED. Only a thin veneer of civilisation separates you from acts like this, and it can be torn asunder AT ANY MOMENT".

That's what the chimps at the zoo seem to be telling me whenever I see them, anyway. I have mentioned it to a succession of therapists. 

Other apes are less effective in this role than chimps. Where a gorilla appears as a villain it arouses our sympathy because of its inherent nobility; King Kong is of course the prime example of this. Gorillas are just far enough away from us to be outside of the uncanny valley and in the territory of awe and majesty. I was going to say that the same is probably true for orangutans, although of course King Louie and Dr Zaius both stand out as radical exceptions to this. 

Next are the kind of animals that monster-creators cast around for when wolves, bears, snakes, spiders and apes have become boring. These are the animals that would be dangerous to us if only they were really big. Lizards, crabs, eagles and most types of insect are the chief examples that spring to mind. Despite the fact that a giant eagle would in reality, I am sure, be terrifying, it is hard in the abstract to get excited by a giant eagle monster because eagles themselves are not dangerous to humans. The eagle simply doesn't strike a chord of danger on the strings of the human psyche. (Or something.) 

Behind these are animals that certainly are dangerous to humans, but which we probably didn't encounter very frequently, if at all, during the course of our evolution, and which have been done to death so frequently in cinema that they now seem like very, very old hat. Sharks and crocodiles comprise the bulk of this category. It also includes bears.  

And bringing up the rear is literally everything else. Seagulls. Porcupines. Mongooses. Camels. Giraffes. Bandicoots. 

It follows that if you want to make a really interesting animal-based monster or "bad guy" race, a seagull or porcupine is the way to go, because if you can pull it off and really make it scary you'll definitely have it made. 

Monday, 9 September 2019

The Strange Alchemy of D&D's Genre Emulation

In some ways, "old school D&D" has a laser-like focus on producing a certain type and mood of play. It doesn't feel like this when you read the rulebooks. But it does when you read its main literary inspiration at length. 

In the comments to my last post, Ivan provided a link to an essay Gary Gygax wrote about Jack Vance in the early 2000s. In it, Gary cites some of the ways in which Vance's writing directly influenced the content of D&D. Two of these examples are trite and obvious - the magic and the Thief class. The third is more telling:

Aside from ideas and specific things, the very manner in which Jack Vance portrays a fantasy environment, the interaction of characters with that environment, and with each other, is so captivating that wherever I could manage it, I attempted to include the “feel” he brings to his fantasy tales in the AD&D game. My feeble ability likely managed to convey but little of this, but in all I do believe that a not a little of what fans consider to be the “soul” of the game stems from that attempt.

Gary was "old school" in more ways than one, so he wasn't scared to talk about the "soul" of D&D rather than some bland technical term. I like that sort of language too. He was also obviously attempting to be humble here, so he didn't come out and say that, in play, his attempt to imbue the "soul" of his game with the "feel" of Vance's fiction is often highly successful. 

It is, though. I have recently finished reading The Dirdir, the third in Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series, and I was struck again and again by not only how obvious were the inspirations in it for the "feel" of D&D, but also how this manages to follow-through into what you might call the "lived experience" of D&D players. Not to put too fine a point on it, but basically every D&D campaign I have been involved in has felt like a Jack Vance story without any of us consciously attempting to make it that way. It's as if, by some strange alchemy, Gygax's intentions manage to find effect without ever being stated and without, in many cases, the players even knowing who Jack Vance was.

At times the inspirations are unbelievably direct. In the central portion of the book, the main characters basically act out a D&D campaign, exploring not a megadungeon but an area of wilderness, and searching for "sequins" in the form of "nodes" rather than gold, in a setup which provides the paradigm format for "OSR" games to this day. Here they are arriving in Maust, the settlement on the edge of the "dungeon", which attracts adventurers from all over the world of Tschai:

By noon Maust appeared in the distance: a jumble of tall narrow buildings with high gables and crooked roof-lines, built of dark timber and age-blackened tile...Running boys came out to meet the motor-wagon. They shouted slogans and held up signs and banners: "Sequin-takers attention! Kobo Hux will sell one of his excellent sequin-detectors." "Formulate your plans at the Inn of Purple Lights." "Weapons, puff-pads, maps, digging implements from Sag the Mercantilist are eminently useful." "Do not grope at random; the Seer Garzu divines the location of large purple nodes." "Flee the Dirdir with all possible agility; use supple boots provided by Awalko." "Your last thoughts will be pleasant if, before death, you first consume the euphoric tablets formulated by Laus the Thaumaturge." "Enjoy a jolly respite, before entering the Zone, at the Platform of Merriment."

After arrival, they stop at an inn and haggle with the innkeeper ("For three modest chambers you demand three hundred sequins? Have you no sense of proportion? The charges are outrageous!") and then go to a library to research "the Zone" which they will be exploring for gold:

The side wall displayed a great map of the Zone; shelves held pamphlets, portfolios, compilations. The consultant, a small sad-eyed man, sat to the side and responded to questions in a confidential whisper. The three passed the afternoon studying the physiography of the Zone, the tracks of successful and unsuccessful ventures, the statistical distribution of Dirdir kills. Of those who entered the Zone, something under two-thirds returned, with an average gain of sequins to the value of six-hundred. "The figures here are somewhat misleading," Anacho stated. "They include the fringe-runners who never venture more than half a mile into the Zone. The takers who work the hills and the far slopes account for most of the deaths and most of the wealth."

When the actual exploration gets underway, it even feels a bit like the combat in some D&D campaigns when the PCs have levelled up a bit and are starting to "grind":

There were four slaughters that day, four on the next, five on the third day, by which time the process had become an efficient routine. During mornings and evenings the bodies were buried, and the gear repaired. The business seemed as passionless as fishing...

Mostly the inspirations, though, are subtler and more in the way of mood (or "feel" as Gygax put it). Does this not sound like a prototype for every conversation that has ever taken place between D&D PCs and a prospective "business associate"?

Woudiver seemed in no hurry to have them go. He settled into a chair with an unctuous grunt. "Another dear friend deals in gems. He will efficiently convert your treasure into sequins, if the treasure is gems, as I presume? No? Rare metal, then? No? Aha! Precious essences? 
"It might be any or none," said Reith. "I think it best, at this stage, to remain indefinite." 
Woudiver twisted his face into a mask of whimsical vexation. "It is precisely this indefiniteness which gives me pause! If I knew better what I might expect - " 
"Whoever helps me," said Reith, "or whoever accompanies me, can expect wealth." 
Woudiver pursed his lips. "So now I must join this piratical expedition in order to share the booty?" 
"I'll pay a reasonable percentage before we leave. If you come with us - " Reith rolled his eyes toward the ceiling at the thought - "or when we return, you'll get more." 
"How much more, precisely?" 
"I don't like to say. You'd suspect me of irresponsibility. But you wouldn't be disappointed." 
From the corner Artilo gave a skeptical croak, which Woudiver ignored. He spoke in a voice of great dignity. "As a practical man I can't operate on speculation. I would require a retaining fee of ten thousand sequins."

Does this not sound like a description of every "city of thieves" in every D&D campaign in which one appears?

"A warning: the city seethes with intrigue. Folk come to Sivishe for a single purpose: to win advantage. The city is a turmoil of illicit activity, robbery, extortion, vice, gambling, gluttony, extravagant display, swindling. These are endemic, and the victim has small hope of recourse. The Dirdir are unconcerned; the antics and maneuvers of the sub-men are nothing to them. The Administrator is interested only in maintaining order. So: caution! Trust no-one, answer no questions! Identify yourselves as steppe-men seeking employment; profess stupidity. By such means we minimize risk."

And at times even the conversations between the main characters sound like the sarcastic bickerings of players sat round a table (if a little effusive in their vocabulary):

"He is a notable gourmand and voluptuary, with tastes at once so refined, so gross and so inordinate as to cost him vast sums. This information was given freely, in a tone of envious admiration. Woudiver's illicit capabilities were merely implied." 
"Woudiver would appear to be an unsavory colleague," said Reith. 
Anacho snorted in derision. "You demand that I find someone proficient at conniving, chicanery, theft; when I produce this man, you look down your nose at him!"

And this is even more true when they are squabbling about treasure, as here:

"Look there." [Anacho] pointed. Not twenty feet distant the ground had broken, revealing the wrinkled dome of a large mature node. "Scarlets at least. Maybe purples."

Reith made a gesture of sad resignation. "We can hardly carry the fortune we already have. It is sufficient."

"You underestimate the rapacity and greed of Savishe," grumbled Anacho. "To do what you propose will require two fortunes, or more." He dug up the node. "A purple. We can't leave it behind."

"Very well," said Reith. "I'll carry it."

Or here, where they even start fighting about encumbrance:
"One more kill," said Traz. "Here now comes a group, rich from their hunting." 
"But why? We have all the sequins we can carry!" 
"We can discard our sards and some emeralds, and carry only reds and purples."

But the Vancian "feel" also finds its way in to the structure of the game's ephemera. Nobody involved in writing Monster Manual entries has ever said anywhere (to my knowledge) that they were riffing on Vance. But take a look at this passage from The Dirdir and tell me it doesn't sound like it could have come from the pages of a bestiary, or Dragon magazine (were it not for the sprinkle of sardonic humour, of course, and the fact that D&D bestiary entries are never this imaginative):

"Remember," Anacho warned, "the Khors are a sensitive people. Do not speak to them; pay them no heed except from necessity, in which case you must use the fewest possible words. They consider garrulity a crime against nature. Do not stand upwind of a Khor, nor if possible downwind; such acts are symbolic of antagonism. Never acknowledge the presence of a woman; do not look toward their children - they will suspect you of laying a curse; and above all ignore their sacred grove. Their weapon is the iron dart which they throw with astonishing accuracy; they are a dangerous people." 
"I hope I remember everything," said Reith. 

Playing D&D, in other words, mirrors the experience of reading Vance's fiction very closely indeed, and it happens without this ever being the stated "point" of the designers or generally the intention of the players. It happens through "feel". That is Gary Gygax's possibly unique achievement. Lots of designers explicitly attempt to emulate a genre or piece of fiction through an RPG system and fail. Gygax did it implicitly and suceeded. Perhaps there is a lesson in that.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Did any Appendix N authors know about D&D?

Many of the authors who wrote books listed in the famous 'Appendix N' were dead by the time D&D came out. But some weren't. Off the top of my head, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Roger Zelazny would have been alive, and I presume a systematic check would show lots of others. It is reasonable to assume some of them, maybe all of them, knew about D&D - that some indeed would have played it, even.

Did Jack Vance know that D&D magic was "Vancian"? Did Michael Moorcock know about the "multiverse" and the alignment system? Did Zelazny know that Shadowjack was an inspiration for the Thief class?

If so, we face the curious possibility that some of these writers may, later in their careers, have been writing in awareness of and even in some sense in response to their supposed influence on D&D. I'm curious to know if anybody has any thoughts about that or has read anything about it.

(I will return to "heavier" blogging tomorrow.)

Why Didn't You Tell Me?

There was apparently a recentish kickstarter for a licensed Planet of Adventure/Tschai RPG. Not a sourcebook like the old GURPS one, but a standalone game. It is "powered by the Apocalypse" and Dungeon World (sigh) and in French, but still, an English translation also appears to have been done or is in the process of being done.

Did anybody back it? Does anybody have it? Having just about finished off the last volume of the series, I can say Tschai one of the very, very few settings not made up by myself which I would actually consider running a game in,* and I'm very curious about what the results of this project are like. (This is not a hint at fishing for a copy - I will buy it myself if I can find out how to online, and if it's confirmed to be any good.)

(*The others would probably be Mythago Wood, the Viriconium of The Pastel City, and possibly Lyonesse.)

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Childish Imaginings and the Tyranny of Art

I hadn't thought about this in years, but a comment on a recent post reminded me that when I first read The Lord of the Rings I imagined orcs as having crocodile heads. It is hard to believe there was a time when I had not seen a Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy, or D&D orc. But obviously there was, and in my childish imaginings that was what they looked like.

This would have been in around 1990, I think, when I was still in primary school - about 9 years old. I had read The Hobbit some years before that, and had heard of The Lord of the Rings but had a vague sense it might be "scary". But, while I am not sure I knew there was such a thing as a "fantasy genre", I knew that I was drawn to that kind of book and I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I'd move on to reading the Rings trilogy. I remember the immediate trigger vividly: a friend of mine had taken The Fellowship of the Ring out from the library and was showing it to me in school. I don't think either of us yet understood there was a concept of a trilogy, and we probably thought the Rings books were like the Narnia ones; there was notionally an order, but you could read them as stand-alone pieces. So that night I went and got out The Two Towers and started from there.

(Starting The Lord of the Rings half-way through is an interesting experience: beginning in media res, there's a lot to figure out, but the narrative isn't harmed at all, and to this day I still think of the main characters of the trilogy as really being Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf and Merry and Pippin. Frodo and Sam's journey still somehow feels like a sideshow, because I was already caught up in the other branch of the plot - Helm's Deep and all that - before I even knew who Frodo was.)

Illustrations and art can be wonderful things but they can also, perversely, be very restrictive of the imagination. When I read a book I tend, like most people I suppose, to built a picture of what is going on in my mind's eye, but it's very hard to do this when an artist's vision has been imposed on you. The crocodile-head orcs were vivid to me once, but now I've seen a thousand pictures of orcs or various kinds, it's hard for me to think of them that way. Not impossible, but it requires mental effort. This problem is made infinitely worse when you've seen a film or televised version of a book: who now can read The Fellowship of the Ring and not picture Gandalf as Ian McKellan, Aragorn as Viggo Mortensen, and Legolas as a petrified piece of cardboard masquerading as an actor? I must have had a picture in my mind of all of these characters as a child, when I hadn't seen an artistic representation of any of them, but they're largely lost to me now.

The tyranny of art is a benevolent and beautiful dictatorship, but it is a dictatorship all the same. The images it conjures in your mind are not your own - they are a piece of the artist's imagination, etched into your brain. Much is gained from this, but some things, like the crocodile-head orcs or the non-McKellan Gandalf, are lost. This is why, sometimes, I wonder whether when it comes to art in RPG books, less is really more.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Occidental Fantasy Gaming (OFG): The Case of the Early 90s SNES

From the period between, say, about 1992 and 1996, I played a lot of SNES games. I didn't actually have a SNES (my parents didn't allow me to have one; my misery-porn memoir about my childhood spent living in a basement subsisting on buckets of fish-heads will include a chapter on this), but it seemed like all my other close friends did, and our social lives tended to revolve around either that or Games Workshop games (or cricket and football for those of us not completely steeped in nerdiness). Most of the time it was Mariokart or Street Fighter II. But every so often it would be something else - something which I now realise was of a genre all of its own: Occidental Fantasy.

Occidental fantasy is a particular type of pastiche of Western medieval high fantasy tropes, made in (usually) Japan. Here, for instance is the bizarrely-titled Knights of the Round [sic], which features up to three players controlling King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival as they, well, basically fight their way through a particularly cheesy 1980s jidaigeki (complete with suspiciously Japanese-looking swordsmanship) with incongruously European furniture.

On a similar theme, but showing that occidental fantasy can be based on Tolkien-esque rather than folkoric tropes, there is King of Dragons, which is more or less exactly the same game as Knights of the Round, but with magic and goblins and the like:

But exhibit A in the OFG dossier is, without doubt, the Squaresoft oeuvre, and chief among these is the original Secret of Mana.

Words can't express quite how nostalgic it makes me feel to watch the first few minutes of that YouTube video, but setting that to one side, notice its key characteristics. The Japanese aesthetic touches (the birds which look like cranes; the fetishization of swords) layered on a pseudo-European foundation; the preternaturally lush green grass and bucolic charm of a British Isles rendered hyper-real by an Asian imagination; that peculiarly East Asian merging of the high- and low-tech; those Tuscany-via-the-Cotswolds cottages. This is the occidental fantasy palette at its most vivid and enticing.

The Final Fantasy series also fill a significant section in the OFG dossier. Feel free to offer your own suggestions; here I have barely even scratched the surface of the iceberg.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Anti-Cruel Discrimination and the Bestiary of Flukes

"Summon all our people to meet me here as speedily as they can. Call out the giants and the werewolves and the spirits of those trees who are on our side. Call the Ghouls, and the Boggles, the Ogres and the Minotaurs. Call the Cruels, the Hags, the Spectres, and the people of the Toadstools. We will fight..." 
-The White Witch, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Chapter 13) 
Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. In fact here were all those who were on the witch's side and whom the Wolf had summoned at her command... 
-The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Chapter 14)

If D&D had been less influenced by Tolkien and more by CS Lewis, its bestiary would have looked very different. No goblins or orcs, but plenty of boggles. Evil sprites. Incubuses, ettins, werewolves and efreets as major villains rather than rare encounters. Orknies (meaning nuckelavees?) and wooses (woses?). "Cruels" and "horrors" (whatever they are) running amok - not to mention the people of the Toadstools.

The familiar and iconic entries in the D&D bestiary - orcs, goblins, kobolds, bugbears, ogres and the rest - are really there by fluke. Yes, some were made up by D&D designers. Most weren't, though. They were simply pilfered from other sources. They could just as easily have been overlooked for others in that process. Gary Gygax might have decided not to have orcs, but redcaps, say, and our modern game would be something rather different as a result. (Can you get a half-redcap?)

Want a different tone to your campaign setting and you could do a lot worse than starting off with a copy of the Monstrous Manual and just crossing out and replacing all the iconic monsters and going from there. Redcaps instead of orcs, bogles instead of goblins and nockers instead of dwarves and suddenly it's a different game. Try it with the book or folkloric tradition of your choice and see what you get.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Elves as Tourists

I have spent the last week on holiday in rural Britain. What this tends to mean these days, whichever county you are in (be it Devon, Dorset, Derbyshire or Dumfries) is a kind of bourgeois paradise of delightful rented cottages in picturesque chocolate-box villages full of antique shops, grand old country pubs (all of which seem to be called the White Horse, the White Hart, the Turk's Head or the Fox and Hounds), smart cafe-bars, boutiquey art galleries and impeccably preserved medieval churches and castles. I was going to say that the only difference you get between Scotland and England in this respect is that in the former there's also whisky distilleries - but you also get them in England now as well.

I love exploring my country, which manages to pack astonishing variety and regional flavour into a pretty tiny and absurdly densely-populated space. But I am always struck, when I do so, by the feeling that there is something deeply weird and possibly morally corrupting (in some sense I can't quite identify) about a billion posh people suddenly descending on picturesque pastoral locations every weekend and school holiday and transforming them into their own idealised versions of country living. And that's not to mention all those who choose to retire to such locations, or use them as second homes, or even live in them but spend all their time commuting to the nearest city. Bourgeois people running the show in urban Britain, you sort of expect, but there's something galling about them doing it in the countryside too.

Speaking to relatives (a branch of my family live in one of the most famously picturesque areas of the country), the thing that annoys them is not so much that all this enforced poshness pushes up the cost of living and particularly the cost of housing - though that does, of course, annoy them. It's that it makes them feel like outsiders in their own homeland - their own community activities and their own tastes being drowned in a sea of middle-class frivolity. Where once they had pride in their jobs, their social circles and their roots, they are now forced to dance attendance on the capricious tastes of their society's elites in order to scrape what living they can in the service industry. Nobody ever asked them if they wanted that. It just sort of happened.

Thinking about all this got me imagining a world in which elves visit human societies as tourists. Much as a modern wealthy person visits rural areas in his own country or goes on a grand tour of South East Asia or Latin America, elves - richer, more powerful, more educated - might also choose to savour the texture of life on a lower rung among the humans, so to speak. And if they did it often enough, entire human settlements - maybe entire human regions - would develop to cater to these visitors. Their economies would come to revolve around pleasing the whims of their eccentric and capricious overlords. Their local delicacies would be tweaked to suit the elven taste buds. Their young men and women would learn to exaggerate whatever characteristics the elves found attractive. They would begin producing pastiches of elven goods to make their visitors feel at home. They would all have to learn elven. They would even end up giving up their "charming and rustic" homes for periods of time so that elves could get to experience life at a different pace. They would become essentially parasitic and utterly reliant upon the elven tourist gold piece. Maybe, in time, they would lose any sense of connection with their own cultural practices, performing them rather as quanit, superficial museum pieces for the entertainment of their visitors.

The question then becomes: how does one make such a campaign setting dynamic? The possibility that first pops into my head is what happens when suddenly one day, the tourists stop coming? Now these people, who have spent generations catering only to the pleasures of the elves, find themselves horribly exposed to reality - and without anybody to protect them.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

1001 Dungeon Entrances

Look at an interesting or spooky entranceway and I start to imagine it as the entrance to a dungeon. This is a never-ending source of inspiration. Here are some examples:

Post some of your own, here or on your own blog if you have one. 

Friday, 23 August 2019

[Review] The Dragon Never Sleeps, Glenn Cook

I am going to experiment with putting some book reviews on the blog - SF and fantasy ones mostly, with some others I think may be of interest. (There will be some crossover with my hastily-jotted reviews on Goodreads for the tiny number of people who are connected to me there.)

First up is Glenn Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps, which somebody commented here on the blog to recommend (though I forget on which post):

To enjoy this book (which, in the end, I definitely did), you have to enter a zen-like state of acceptance that you will not understand the absurdly convoluted plot, or even what the characters are talking about half the time. Instead, you just need to get a sense, a feeling, of what's going on: conspiracy after conspiracy, twist after twist, betrayal after betrayal, battle after battle. 

You have to do this for four reasons. First, Cook's sub-Hemingway/sub-Ellroy hardboiled prose is here so unrelenting, so monotonous, that it simply ends up beating you into submission. You can't stop to savour it. All you can do is read it, as fast as you can, and hope to get through each page so you can take a breath before the next one. The text just won't let you do anything else. When you're being hit in the face with a prose frying pan, you don't stop to examine it carefully.

Second, the characters, with a very few exceptions, are all so similar in the way they think, talk, and behave that they become almost interchangeable. With nothing to distinguish one character from another except for their names, keeping track of their machinations becomes a kind of Rubik's Cube puzzle in narrative form. You just have to keep spinning and fiddling with it and in the end take it on faith that there is actually a way to solve it. (Perhaps there's some kid in China somewhere who can read five copies of The Dragon Never Sleeps simultaneously in 13 seconds while juggling, or something).

Third, I'm not sure that it is actually possible to perform that leap of faith. By the end, in particular, it had become so hard to follow who is who and what all the different clones of the characters are doing that I did start to wonder if even Glen Cook knew quite what was going on as he was writing. Is he a plotter of impenetrable genius, or just a little old man behind a curtain with a microphone and smoke machine?

Fourth, the pace of the thing is so breakneck, its tour through its fictional universe so whistle-stop, that the reader never really gets a sense of the context in which the events which come at him pell-mell are taking place. There are fascinating hints of an interesting setting (vast depopulation which nobody is noticing; a constructed interstellar travel system which nobody understands; the capacity for spaceships to become sentient; potential immortality), but they really are only just hints - nobody likes an infodump, but here there really isn't enough of the background revealed to even properly picture things in your mind as you're reading. "Less is more" works with fine dining, fine spirits, and fine SF worldbuilding - but all of them only to a point.

Rumour has it that this book was supposed to be a much longer series, but a falling-out with the publishers led to Cook simply writing up all his notes for that series in novel form in breakneck speed. I can believe it, because that's exactly how the book reads: like somebody trying to provide a comprehensive account of everything that happens in a plot so complicated it makes A Song of Ice and Fire read like a Hardy Boys mystery, all compressed into 400 pages. (I kind of wish GRRM would take this approach in his remaining books...). For all that said, the fact that it remains a riveting read is quite some feat on Cook's part - there can't be many writers who could condense a trilogy into an extended synopsis with dialogue and have it be readable, let alone thrilling, but he manages that in spades.

3 1/2 becs des corbins.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Stone Balancing and the Upwards Dungeon

I confess that I do a little bit of rock balancing from time to time. Not for any particularly hippyish reason, other than that it's nice to be outside somewhere peaceful in the natural world; more because it's a fun challenge, not all that different conceptually from a sudoku puzzle or jigsaw - how do I get this rock to balance on top of this one?

(It's also a lot easier than it looks - you'd be surprised how much the friction of the surface of two rocks combined with gravity will allow freakishly unbalanced looking combinations to, well, balance.)

The other day I was stacking some stones at the beach and it occurred to me that it would be a fun idea for a dungeon: perhaps a wizard's tower; perhaps an ancient monument built by an extinct race of giants. Each stone a boulder of epic size, riddle with tunnels and caverns, and each of them having a distinct physical character (as well as a distinct variety of inhabitants: its own types of rock golem; its own types of pech; its own types of earth elemental; its own types of dwarf; its own types of gem dragon, and so on). And, possibly, able to fall over... or be dismantled.

I am a fan of the idea of upwards dungeons. (As is probably evidence by my many posts about the giant tree dungeon, not to mention the Mountain to the Moon.) The descent into hell is fine, but the attempt to climb to heaven seems more human somehow: obviously it has a figuratively optimistic appeal, but it also feels more real - you can see an upwards dungeon, and so George Mallory's reasoning for climbing Everest becomes the perfect justification: why did you want to climb the wizard's tower full of rock golems and gem dragons? Because it's there.