Thursday, 23 May 2019

Doing Things With Humanoids

These days when I look through a bestiary the excitement comes from digging out the stranger and more esoteric monsters (Jackalwere, anyone? Urchin? Elven cat?) and doing interesting things with them. (A civilisation of Jackalweres who farm urchins, ruled by elven cat sorcerer-brahmins...hmm.) Elves, goblins, orcs, bugbears - for the likes of me these are as cans of lager shandy to a crack fiend. They just ain't going to cut it.

Or are they?

The thing about humanoids is, each is basically a simple archetype that can be summed up in a handful of adjectives. Hence: 

Elf - Immortal, intelligent, gracile, inscrutable
Dwarf - avaricious, stubborn, unfriendly
Halfling - pastoral, naive, gluttonous
Orc - brutal, bellicose, cruel
Goblin - mean, sneaky, cowardly
Hobgoblin - militaristic, hierarchical, cruel
Gnoll - savage, violent, isolationist
&c.

Your adjectives may differ, but you get the point. 

Once you break the humanoid races down in this way and think of their essence as being mere descriptive words it becomes very easy to change them cosmetically and also alter their abilities accordingly. You could of course simply swap them round, and have hyena-men being immortal, intelligent, gracile and inscrutable, and elves being savage, violent and isolationist. More interesting, I think, is combining those adjectives with animal types - the more unusual the better. So, for example:

What if the dwarf archetype (avaricious, stubborn, unfriendly) were a race of nudibranch-people?
What if the elf archetype (immortal, intelligent, gracile, inscrutable) were otter-people?
What if the orc archetype (brutal, bellicose, cruel) were gull-people?
What if the hobgoblin archetype (militaristic, hierarchical, cruel) were African wild-dog-people?

One wouldn't have to use the term "African wild-dog-person", of course. One could continue to refer to them as "hobgoblins". But you could change their abilities accordingly - maybe hobgoblins now have immense stamina and can run for vast distances without tiring. Maybe nudibranch-dwarves can spit acid. Maybe orc-gulls can fly. And so on.

Perhaps one could also mix things up by juxtaposing archetype and animal species, so that, for example, the orc archetype is something that in common perceptions is very non-brutal, non-bellicose and non-cruel (swan?), or the elf archetype is something very un-gracile and un-intelligent (tortoise?). Again, you get the point. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

In Defence of Geographical Appropriation, or, the Lake Malawi Dilettante Problem

The other day I visited an aquarium. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you like (nobody else does), but I find it very hard nowadays to go to a zoo; even in the enlightened conditions of the modern ones I still find myself feeling a sense of pity for the animals which is a bit too overwhelming. Aquariums are different because - perhaps entirely wrongly - I can convince myself that fish haven't got much of a clue what's going on anyway and can be reasonably happy if fed, kept healthy, and given plenty of space.

Anyway, the aquarium in question had among many other things a "mini Lake Malawi zone" with a huge tank populated entirely by different types of Lake Malawi cichilds. It is very effectively set up, with the surface of the water at roughly eye level and fake beaches (with real sand) arranged around it, along with background art that creates the feel of being really there. Squint a bit and stretch your imagination slightly and you can half-imagine being a snorkeler in the waters of the lake one hot morning before breakfast.

It got me thinking about Lake Malawi as a D&D campaign setting. A vast freshwater sea, in effect, populated by many varieties of cichlid-people, giant catfish (and catfish-people?), dangerous spirits formed from millions of zephyr-like lake flies, and tribes of fishermen who capture starlight to use as magic. The PCs could be Traveller-esque (or Mercator-esque) traders, perhaps, sailing from one port to another, trading rare and strange commodities and avoiding lake-monsters. Or hopping from island to island exploring ruined temples, cave systems, or baobab forests full of weird nature spirits. And that's just the ideas that pop into my head in the space of 5 minutes.

Throw a dart at a world map (you're allowed a re-throw if it falls in the ocean) and investigate the immediate area around where it hits. The chances are high you'll be able to base a D&D campaign on something roughly inspired by it. Some might call this geographical appropriation - why don't you set your game in the environs you're familiar with? I call it an easy way to come up with something new but accessible.

I don't have a problem with cultural appropriation - in almost all cases if viewed in good faith, anything that could be called "cultural appropriation" turns into imitation-as-sincerest-form-of-flattery. The same is just as true of geographical appropriation. I don't know much about Lake Malawi. But I like what I do know about it. Read the wikipedia entry: is it not a place to be celebrated? Isn't everywhere? (Well, not Greater Manchester.)

Monday, 20 May 2019

Three Vignettes from an Unpublished Setting

A long, long time ago, Patrick SChris MNathan R and I sat down in a pub in Liverpool and plotted the release of a kind of RPG-supergroup book featuring four separate but linked campaign settings. The whole thing eventually went precisely nowhere. I wish I could tell you this was a result of bitter rivalry, hatred, murder and fraud, but I think it was mostly because we all have enough on our plates as it is. The big - very big - caveat to that is that Patrick's bit of it did eventually became Silent Titans.

My setting, The Devil in the Land of the Rushes, has foundered in unpublished obscurity. I have long harboured ambitions of producing bits and pieces of it in a second volume of The Peridot, but now I think I might finish it off as a stand-alone and cheaply-available module. Here are some vignettes from it:

1.
The Curate's House. A small cottage with three upstairs rooms and two downstairs ones. While the structure is aged and the contents faded, the building is in reasonable condition. The curate who once lived there, Mr Edgar Gravel (a kind and generous man), was transformed by the devil into a big, black ethereal spider with long legs of shadow and an intangible central mass of unlight. It now inhabits the garden, which is a hundred yards long and somewhat, but not entirely, overgrown - as if haphazardly tended. During the night, the spider spins strands of darkness into silk; anyone looking into the garden at that time would see many thin lines of clear translucent pale light where the spider has tugged the darkness away for its webs. During the day, the spider spreads its webs of shadow over the house itself and in the neighbouring area to ensnare prey.

At the very bottom of the garden stands a folly - a cylindrical tower - which Mr Gravel originally had built to provide work to unemployed labourers. He used it for stargazing. The telescope remains on the top floor. Looking through it at night reveals strange constellations - resembling insects, birds, snakes, human figures, flowers of unknown types, and faces with too many eyes or hands with too many fingers. This is because gazing through the telescope gives the viewer a vision of the universe as Lucifer would have created it - a strange pastiche of how things really are. The North Star is the tip of the beak in a constellation that resembles the woodpecker - this always points to the place the devil is resting, because the devil is the focus of all he creates.

2.
The Sons of Gawain. Two-and-a-half knights, Sir Florence, Sir Lovell, and Gingalain, roam the Land of the Rushes in search of the Devil to slay him. They are either an embodiment of chivalric faith, a creation of the land itself formed spontaneously to force off the chains of chaos which bind it, or both. They are expert at overcoming their enemy's wiles, yet every time they defeat him, they find traces of him again in another form. The older pair are Sir Florence and Sir Lovell. They are twins with grey eyes like an approaching storm and black hair and beards; one uses a great axe, the other a mace. Gingalain, their adolescent half-brother, is the son Gawain got on a fairie spirit. His other name is Le Bel Inconnu, "the Fair Unknown" - and he alone in all of the Land of the Rushes can see and understand things as they once were.

3.
The Assassins. 11,110 years and 364 days ago, a mission was issued in a language which is no longer spoken anywhere. The goal is simply stated: murder of the Maid with the White Hands. The path, however, was tortuous and complex, and exquisitely timed so that the entire process would culminate in her death precisely 11,111 years after the order was given. [...] There are five assassins. The first, Methodos, knows how the Maid is to be killed. The second, Mandatum, knows who gave the command. The third, Ratio, knows the reason why. The fourth, Locus, knows where the Maid lies. And the fifth, Supplicium, knows nothing, but is the one who must carry out the act.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

The USP of RPGs and the Phenomenology of New Beginnings

There is no word in English to my knowledge which describes the feeling one gets at the start of a fictional adventure. We have words like "excitement", "anticipation", and so on which describe the general feeling of looking forward to something. But nothing which specifically refers to that special kind of looking-forwardness that you feel when you first crack open a long novel or opening book in a saga; sit down to watch a Hollywood epic or long Netflix series; or begin a D&D campaign. You will be intimately familiar with that feeling, I am sure. It is the feeling which says, "Buckle in - almost anything could happen next."

That feeling is a long-lost cousin of the ontological flicker. Cast your mind back to the first time you read The Fellowship of the Ring or A Game of Thrones, watched Star Wars, started a long-running D&D campaign, or similar. The sensation of anticipation that you get in those circumstances doesn't come from knowing what's going to follow. It comes from guessing at it. You begin with a very vague sense of what's the come (in the sense that you think The Fellowship of the Ring probably won't feature cowboys or aliens or a murder mystery), and a myriad of different possibilities opening up like a vista in front of you. Who are these characters? What are they going to do? Where are they going to go? Where will they end up? Your mind starts racing with fifty ideas a second about what the answers to those questions might be, and you start to mentally slaver at the prospect of discovering what they in fact are. To refer to another family resemblance, it is a bit like the giddy feeling one gets when one steps off the airport shuttle into a new and unfamiliar city and looks about oneself and says, "OK, so this is Rome/Paris/Tokyo/Frankfurt/Moscow/Geneva/Chicago/Cape Town. What next?" You think you have a bit of an idea what Rome is supposed to be like. But that's about the size of it, and now you intend to find out about the real thing.

As you progress with your reading, the vista of possibilities very gradually narrows. With each passing chapter new possibilities open up, but many more are closed off (it becomes clear that the story will be about Frodo and not some other person in Middle Earth; it becomes clear it will be about destroying the Ring and not, say, a holiday in Rivendell; it becomes clear that the Fellowship will go into the Mines of Moria and not go any of the other million places they could conceivably go, and so on). Reading a work of fiction, or watching a film or TV series, then, is an exercise in the gradual closing off of possibilities. Slowly, but surely, potential plot paths wither away until, with the final page, you can look back and see that there was only ever one route from Chapter One to The End after all.

The USP of RPGs (provided you aren't doing the pre-plotted thing) is that, almost uniquely in possible fictional narratives, there is no such closing-off - or does not have to be. Because of the influence of random chance, and because there is no fixed ending and no real authorial control over what happens, new vistas of possibility open up all the time. It's not so much that you get a gradual narrowing of potential plot paths until the vista disappears in the ultimate denouement. It's more like you are constantly climbing from one hill to the next; each time you get a new view, and while what you can see has a relationship to where you've come from, you can never quite have anticipated its precise contours, nor what the view from the top of the next peak is going to be like.

What is similar, though, is that special kind of anticipation for which we have no word. Rolling up a group of PCs at the start of a campaign is a lot like reading the first chapters of a fantasy saga as the characters are introduced, or watching the first half hour of a long-running film- or TV series. How is this all going to pan out? It's an intoxicating sensation. Maybe the Germans have got a word for it instead. They've got one for everything.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Slaughter, Mayhem and Destruction

Some quotes on life in Gascony and south-west France in the early years of the Hundred Years' War, from Jonathan Sumption's Trial By Battle (more of which here):

Private war, a long-standing privilege of the Gascon nobility, continued to destroy whole regions and to divide and weaken Edward III's allies...The English government's correspondence with its officials in Gascony during this period is filled with complaints of civil disputes between noblemen and injunctions to reconcile the rivals before one of them deserted to the enemy. In the southern extremity of the Landes and the Bayonnais the last vestiges of central control had disappeared by the early 1340s. Arnaud de Durfort, who had been granted the lordship of Labourde for its better defence against the French and Navarrese, conducted a private feud against the Albret clan...and both groups waged a persistent guerilla war against the citizens of Bayonne. Edward III sent the Chief Justice of the Gascon court of appeals to...enforce his will by confiscating Labourde...Arnaud reoccupied his lands with "slaughter, mayhem and destruction". The merchants of Bayonne continued to be attacked and plundered on the roads and waterways about the city. Stone towers appeared throughout the area and robbers made their camps around them. In the two years ending September 1343 the ducal revenus of the Bayonnais yielded nothing. On account of the anarchy prevailing there, the clerk recorded in his ledger, it was "quasi tota destructa".

...

The symptoms of a crisis of loyalty and a grave breakdown of public order became very noticeable by the end of 1342 as economic distress intensified and demobilised soldiers began to pour across Languedoc...The men who laid waste to Albigeois in 1345 did so with banners unfurled, trumpets blowing and 400 cavalry. In the march of Gascony private war had actually been legalized by the French crown in times of peace or truce on the basis that those regions had once formed part of the duchy of Aquitaine where custom sanctioned it. The appearance of the first self-governing companies of routiers was a more sinister event: large gangs of armed men, organized like military units with a formal structure of command, emblems and names. The Societe de la Folie, so called, terrorised the district of Nimes for some eighteen months until its leader was taken and hanged in June 1344. Like most of his kind he was a member of the minor nobility of the province, the group which had suffered most from the economic troubles of the period. 

...

The Talleyrands, counts of of Perigord, although still the dominant family of the region, were a declining power. The Rudels, lords of Bergerac and principal potentate of the Dordogne valley, had died out in 1334 in a welter of fighting and private war. Their place was being filled by aggressive and covetous rivals from the neighbouring regions of Aquitaine, pre-eminently the lords of Albret and Caumont; and by a host of turbulent petty lords very similar in their outlook and ambitions to the hill-barons of the Agenais. The Count of Perigord...was a natural focus for their opposition. The rebellion of some of these men in 1340...was a watershed in the province's history, introducing a long period of anarchy and civil war of which the Bordeaux government took full advantage. In August 1340 the English had lodged a garrison at Saint-Astier in the Isle valley which remained there for a year until the place was taken by storm in the autumn of 1341. The "rebels and enemies" who had occupied Montences in the name of Edward III...withstood a siege of more than six months in the following year...Fresh sores were continually opened. At about the time that the Bishop of Beauvais was demolishing the towers of Montences, the English planted another garrison at Mussidanm with the assistance of its lord...This place remained in English hands for more than five years. The boundary between banditry and war was never exactly drawn. The French government, however, referred to the provincial capital of Perigueux as a frontier town.

...

Long terms of garrison service interrupted by guerrilla warfare, armed robbery and castle-rustling under minor commanders was not a life for the impressed townsmen and minor landowners who traditionally made up the numbers of medieval armies. Instead the fighting fell to volunteers drawn from a growing military underworld of disparaged gentry, refugees and drifters, malcontents and petty criminals. The court records and letters of pardon of the period are filled with the stories of their lives. The tale of Arnaud Foucaud could stand for many of them. He came from the small village of Clion in Saintonge. His family seem to have been rich peasants. He had learned how to fight on horseback and could handle a lance. When Foucaud was about fourteen or fifteen years old he got involved in a village feud and killed one of his antagonists in a fight. This was in 1337, the first year of the war, as the French were overrunning English-occupied Saintonge. When the Seneschal's officers came to arrest him he fled to the nearest "English" garrison, which was at Montendre, an enclave of the duchy about 15 miles from his home. The commander there, a louche petty nobleman from Bearn, hired him as a soldier. His life at Montendre consisted in keeping watch and periodically pillaging and burning villages. When the castle was captured by the French in July 1338, Foucaud received a safe conduct as part of the terms of capitulation and returned home. In 1340, after two relatively uneventful years, he went to Jonzac, the nearest market town, and met two relatives of the man he had killed. There was a fight. Foucaud himself was badly wounded, but both his antagonists were killed. Five weeks after this incident, as he was still nursing his wounds, he was arrested. But he never stood trial. The Seneschal only wanted to be rid of him. So he allowed him to go free on condition he would leave the province for good. Foucaud went to Bourdeaux. Here, he took service in the household of Jean Colom, a rich urban knight who employed him as a cavalryman and took him on several expeditions...In June 1341 another soldier in Colom's pay persuaded him to join a small armed band which was being formed for some private purpose of the La Motte family. This turned out to be the daring capture of Bourg, by far the most brazen of the Bourdeaux government's breaches of the truce of Esplechin. Foucaud fought gallantly in this enterprise and served in the garrison of the town after it had fallen. But his reward was meagre. His wages were unpaid and his share of the spoils amounted to no more than ten livres' worth of equipment. Moreover, he quarrelled with the garrison commander, who suspected him of being a French sympathiser, and tried to extract a confession by torturing him. By 1342 he was back in Bourdeaux hiring out his services as a jobbing trooper. He joined a band of 100 men recruited by the lord of Pommiers to carry out long-range raids in Saintonge, but the pillage of this enterprise was worth only fifty livres to be divided between all of them. He fought with Ingham's army in the campaign of Saintonge and Angoumois in the autumn of 1341, taking part in the capture of Blanzac, and gaining ten livres in cash as his share of the spoil. At some stage during 1343 he seems to have obtained a pardon from the French royal lieutenant in the south, the Bishop of Beauvais. But by the autumn of 1344 he was back in Bourdeaux. According to evidence which he gave under torture...he was next hired in Bourdeaux by a Bearnais nobleman to take party with twenty-five others i na raid on a small priory not far from the city. He and six men stood guard outside, while the rest went in, tied up the Prior and his servants and stripped the place of gold and silver, horses and everything of value. But the captain of the troop took most of the spoil for himself. Foucaud's share was only twenty florins. This incident was his undoing, for it was not covered by his pardon. It is not clear how he fell into French hands. He probably tried to go home. In May 1345 he was taken to Paris and held in the prison of the Chatelet to answer charges of treason, robbery and murder. He was convicted on the 27th and beheaded in Les Halles on the following day. Foucaud was twenty-three years old when he died. Booty was an incidental bonus for men like him, but it was not booty that drew them to warfare and most of them got very little of it. They were drop-outs, desparados.

...

Even a small number of these licensed bandits posted as garrison troops in the middle of French-held territory had a catalytic effect in accelerating the breakdown of public order...They stole and killed over an extending radius, creating islands of ungovernable territory and roads too dangerous to pass...In the spring of 1343 the visitors of the Order of Cluny, touring the provinces of the Order in western France, were able to see very little in the southern parts of Saintonge and Angoumois. Most of the priories there were inaccessible, abandoned or incapable of feeding their occupants. "They have enough to eat today," the visitors reported about one of these places, "but they have no idea whether they will eat tomorrow. The troops and mercenaries stationed hereabouts are eating up the whole wealth of the house." [...] The garrison of Blanzac had reduced everything within marching distance to desert.


Who needs orcs and goblins for a D&D hexcrawl? 

Friday, 10 May 2019

Reading RPG Books and the "Ontological Flicker"

Reading an RPG book is I think almost a unique experience in that it induces a special kind of what Brian McHale in Postmodern Fiction called the "ontological flicker". 

What he meant by this was what happens in the space between a book's physical text (the paper, the words on the page) and the fictional reality it creates in your head as you read. When you read a novel, for instance, your attention seems to oscillate between the physical object of the book, and the imaginary fictional world it presents in your mind - flipping from one to the other and back again endlessly. One millisecond you're reading a sentence, then you're imagining what it represents, and then you're back to the text again, repeating ad infinitum - and you do all this entirely instinctively and unconsciously. Indeed, you can't really help yourself doing it. You'll know instantly what that feeling is like, I am sure, when it is described to you in this way, even if you have never quite thought of it like that before.

You can think of fiction as existing in the tension within the liminal space between two poles: the physical reality of the book/text and the false reality it produces in your mind as you read.

An RPG book like, say, the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, also has this character of producing ontological flickering, but it happens in a different way to a novel, short story, or other text - because what you imagine tends not to be merely a picture in your head of what is being described on the page. Rather, it tends to be a range of speculated, hypothetical scenarios inspired by it. To read the text of the "Cockatrice" entry is not for your mind to merely to flicker between the physical text and an imagined image of the cockatrice. It's for it to flicker between the physical text and visions of cockatrices appearing in many different scenarios - in some campaign you are currently involved in; as a random encounter result; as a creature in a "lair" on a hex map; in a fight with PCs; and so on. In other words, the ontological flicker is between text on the one hand, and a range of imaginary things which are perhaps only very indirectly connected to it. 

RPG materials, in other words, exist in a somewhat different space to fiction: a liminal space between the physical reality of the book and the spectrum of many and varied false realities it produces in your mind as you read. 

This is true even of, for instance, looking at a hex map. To do so is to enter a space of tension between the real object - the image - and what it produces in the mind: ideas for what to put here, what to put there, what this mountain would actually look like "on the ground", what this forest contains, how deep this lake is. It's not one fictional reality, but many brief fictional realities which exist for slivers of seconds before they are gone.

This is what makes reading good RPG books so pleasurable - a bit like reading tends of thousands of novels boiled into one; much less depth, it is true, but much more imaginative potential within that ontological flicker. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Incomplete List of Underrepresented Musical Genres in the RPG/OSR Community

Folk for Rural Hexcrawling, because this is the sound of the countryside:








Dylan for Character Generation, because every Dylan protagonist kind of sounds like a PC from OD&D:





Which is true of Tom Waits too, by the way:




Jazz fusion, because you can just totally picture dungeoncrawling to this:



More jazz fusion, because you can just totally picture this being the BGM in a mad archmage's tower (and it's not quite as unlistenable as you might think until 50 seconds in, trust me):



Reggae and dancehall, because of the romanticized vision of rogueishness it routinely delivers:





Scott Walker for Call of Cthulhu, because, well, just listen to it:



Experimental ambient post-pop for SF goodness:







Lebanese jazz fusion for those Al-Qadim moments:





Traditional jazz for dungeoncrawling - tell me you can't picture a group of PCs creeping down tunnels, peering round corners, and searching for traps to these:




Big band, for when a Big Bad Evil Guy appears on the scene:




Russian orthodox choral music, for just about anything really:




Post your own recommendations in the comments!

Just Do It Well - Revisited

A couple of months ago I posted this, the long and short of which was:
"What works for you and your group" [is] the most profound and important advice there is, and the most difficult to carry out.
I have been blogging for long enough now to have learned the lesson time and time again that some readers are not particularly interested in what you actually mean, but only see your words as an opportunity to grind a particular axe of their own. So I was not very surprised when this was interpreted (by some people, anyway) as a kind of repudiation of skill, rigour and experience, or a platitudinous recommendation along the lines of "just do you" - as though I would seriously suggest that DMing is just a matter of unreflectively doing "whatever" and hoping for the best.

My observation - that "what works for you and your group" is profound advice - does not lead to the conclusion that anything goes and that there are no better or worse ways of playing. Far from it. What I meant (and this should be apparent from the sentences which followed in the original entry), was that human social interactions are complex, and achieving a pleasant equilibrium in which everybody feels as though they have enjoyed themselves while also contributing to others's enjoyment is extremely difficult. But that pleasant equilibrium, if achieved, is one of the best things there is about being human.

Think of the average social gathering - family get-together, lunch with colleagues, dinner with friends, drinks at the pub, whatever. If you're like everybody else, what you will have noticed is that it's easy chit-chat and gossip, but comparatively hard to leave afterwards feeling as though you've actually had a meaningful encounter - like you genuinely connected with another person in a significant way. When you do get that feeling, it's nice. But what's even better is when you leave afterwards feeling as though that was true for everybody in the group - like all five or six of you were really on the same page, discussing things that mattered, sharing ideas, sharing a common sense of humour, actually conversing in the true sense of the word.

We treasure those moments because they're rare. Like your average British male aged 30-50, I spend a decent amount of time in the pub after work or with friends (less than I used to since becoming a parent, but I do manage it at least once in a blue moon). It's easy to go home after a few pints thinking to yourself "Yep, that was a decent night." But it's not very often that you do thinking "Wow, I really felt like we all connected in a positive way." (Indeed, it is comparatively much more frequent to go home thinking, "Ah, I wish I hadn't said that,=", or "Bob was kind of a prick tonight", or whatever.)

Gaming is no different. It's easy to go home after a session thinking, "Yeah, that was fun". It's also easy to go home thinking, "That was fine, but..." It is not common at all to go home feeling as though not only you were on fire, but everybody else was - that there was, for want of a better word, synergy. Everybody contributing, everybody of a similar mood, everybody excited about what was unfolding before your eyes.

Finding "what works for you and your group" is hard, and since any group of five individuals is different from the next, it isn't straightforwardly a matter of applying advice or rules of thumb (although those things are not entirely useless). You have to do it by feel, and you have to learn through doing - that is, through building up a sense of how to hit that sweet spot for everybody through meeting week after week. Sometimes it comes more naturally than others. Sometimes it never does. But you have to work at it.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Help Me, Blog Reader Brain Trust, You're My Only Hope

I have been searching in vain for four books or series of books I faintly remember from my youth. Google has failed me; TOMT has failed me. Monsters & Manuals blog readers - I believe in you!

The four books/series I am searching for are as follows:

1) A novel about a teenage school boy who is always day dreaming about a fantasy land he invented. One day, he discovers it is real and goes there. The people in the fantasy land speak a strange pig-latin-type language. He meets a girl (naturally). I think the front cover was a picture of a boy in school uniform carrying a ruler as though it was a sword?

2) A series of children's books which were something to do with a boy exploring strange places on a flying carpet with a cat called Timothy (?); I think a 13-hour clock was also involved. I may have dreamed elements of this.

3) A book about gnomes and/or other folkloric spirits, like elves, goblins and so on. It had a vaguely environmentalist message - something about how human beings are wrecking the planet and disappointing said beings. The main thing I remember was that one of the characters in it was a creepy gnome organist, with horribly long fingers, lank hair, and a vast underground pipe organ. I don't think it was the Wil Huygen book.

4) A fantasy series which I think was for adults (or teenagers). As I recall it, there were two volumes. The story involved a barbarian invasion of more settled lands, and the defence against it. I mainly remember the villain, who was an extremely tall, thin devil-creature disguised as a man, who also at one point I am convinced also disguised himself as a flea (though again, I may have dreamed this).

If you know what any of these things are, please comment accordingly. You will earn my undying gratitude, and lots of karma for the next life.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Lost in Dreams of Mu

Somebody asked for an update on Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. I shall oblige, but be forewarned; it's not pretty.

BGSJ is a setting about exploring an ancient crocodile's memory palace. From that humble beginning, it has sprawled. There is a game setting under there somewhere. But presenting it has proved difficult.

The potted history of the setting is that said crocodile has been alive since the Triassic period. During its life it has roamed far and wide across oceans, seas, and freshwater systems, and created a memory palace to store its knowledge of all the things that it has seen. But it has recently gone into a period of quiescence - a long slumber in its old age. During its sleep it slowly sifts through its memories, and dreams about its life, as it slides inexorably but glacially towards death.

Approximately 50,000 years ago the Naacals, the inhabitants of the lost continent of Mu, discovered the sleeping crocodile in a small freshwater lake (in what we now know of as New Guinea). A group of their philosopher-mages discovered a mechanism for entering its memory palace. They used this as a means of escaping an apocalypse which they were predicting, and they moved into the memory palace wholesale. There they constructed a city ("The Unremembered City", because it was the only thing in the memory palace which the crocodile did not actually remember) and used it as a base to explore. They discovered that the crocodile's "palace" is really a world: a huge ocean full of strange lands, beasts and places which the crocodile remembers - and which have slowly become warped and strange over the many millions of years which separate the actual events from the memories themselves.

The apocalypse came and caused the continent of Mu to sink beneath the sea, leaving only remnants of the original Naacal civilization behind (who went on to find civilizations in India, Egypt and Mesoamerica). But the Naacals in the crocodile's memory palace continued their exploration and colonisation of the lands they found there, and created a new civilization of their own within it.

However, since time stands still in the world of memory, these Naacals effectively became trapped in a static environment. As much as they enjoyed exploring the memory world, and constructing things within it, they eventually became bored, listless and decadent, and finally their civilization too collapsed. A few remained sleeping in The Unremembered City; others scattered across the memory world to pursue esoteric goals and lost contact with one another.

Fast forward 40,000 years in the outside world and newcomers came upon the crocodile and entered its memories. In order, they are:

  • Xu Fu - an ancient Chinese magician/courtier/sage who went in search of the Elixir of Life at Mount Penglai 
  • Pape Jan - an Ethiopian king who went to spread the word of God among the heathens of Asia 
  • Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani - a Persian Neo-Platonist who went abroad to spread Truth
  • Anak Wungsu - a Balinese merchant who went searching for new luxuries to trade
  • Jorge de Menezez - A Portuguese conquistador who was wrecked in New Guinea after a life of rapine and slaughter in the Spice Islands
  • Ebu Gogo - a diminutive hominid from one of the Spice Islands whose people were all massacred by conquistadors, who fled and began looking for a new home
  • Sese-Mahuru-Bau - a New Guinean hunter who went into the jungle to search for a dowry to give to the father of his beloved 


Each of these people came to a different region of the memory world and began to transform it inadvertently in their own images, implanting their own needs, desires, hopes and fears within it - so that their individual goals began to transform they stuff of the world itself and warp it into something else entirely. So:

  • Xu Fu came to an area of placid sea dotted by tropical islands and discovered within it Mount Penglai - an impossibly tall mountain inhabited by dragons, a phoenix, and other creatures from Chinese folklore, as well as things and peoples that he saw on his journeys around the Pacific Rim
  • Pape Jan came to an area of bushland featuring the crocodile's memories of early humans, and discovered within it tribes of pagans, each with their own devout belief systems, and each in need of conversion; he also found there Solomonic or Goetic demons
  • Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani came to the crocodile's memories of the aftermath of the meteor strike which killed the dinosaurs, now inhabited by the surviving avian dinosaurs and the ghost and wraiths of those that died, and discovered in the midst of the chaos all of the Neo-Platonic philosophers pursuing theurgy 
  • Anak Wungsu came to a shallow sea where in the distant past the crocodile witnessed ziggurats constructed on the seabed, made by aliens, and introduced the notion of commerce to the remembered alien civilizations there
  • Jorge de Menezez came to the crocodile's memory of an ancient Atlantean city which the crocodile mistakenly believed to have been inhabited by birds, and found it to be a new place to raise an army with which to carry out further conquests and set himself up as ruler of the world
  • Ebu Gogo came to the crocodile's memory of the carboniferous swamps of distant eons, and there began to breed with the amphibian inhabitants to create species of hybrid spawn to be her new people
  • Sese-Mahuru-Bau came to the crocodile's memory of an ice age, and transformed it into a hunting ground dotted with patches of mountainous jungle amidst the glacial ice


And also, inadvertently, these intruders also awakened the Naacals sleeping in The Unremembered City - who have now woken to discover a world very different to the one which they had originally discovered. The PCs are from the younger generations of these Naacals, who have now once again begun to reproduce and spread across the crocodile's much transformed memory palace.

The presentation has changed quite a bit but I now think I have a fairly good structure with which to proceed. The key is avoiding too much infodump; so much so that I am now strongly leaning towards not actually having any of the above background fluff in the book itself. I instead intend to present the world "as is" and let individual DMs and players figure things out for themselves. They can of course stumble across my blog entries on it, but there is a lot more depth to the background than what I have presented here.

In other words, basically it is 7 different "planes" of weird stuff to explore, that is inspired purely by real world history and folklore and my own corruption of those things, and not by any existing fantasy setting of any kind. At the centre is a city with a pseudo-Egyptian/Mayan flavour, from where the PCs derive.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Name That Aesthetic: Niceland?

There is a certain kind of 'look' which exists across a multitude of visual depictions of fantasy and SF settings. If I could describe it in words I would say that it is as though somebody took the architectural styles and geographic context of every culture in the Eurasian continent, created a dreamy pastiche of each of them, and then put the results in a blender with a sprinkling of Africa and Mesoamerica and served it up as a porridge with a generous helping of molasses. The world that it depicts (for it appears to be one world - one region of one world, in fact; or even just one city in one world) is all domes, minarets, muted colours, waterfalls and pleasant mediterranean sunshine, like it is always about 7pm on a late summer's evening in Marseille; there is never any litter and there are no slums, and the fauna are mostly birds soaring about in a genteel and stately fashion to lend things an air of peace and calm. It is a place you want to go for your holidays, so you can sit outside a streetside cafe with a beer or glass of white wine and peoplewatch all day while deciding what you're going to have for your dinner.

What is the name of this aesthetic, and what is the name of the world which it depicts?

Here's the quintessence of it - Naboo in The Phantom Menace:





Another good example is James Gurney's Dinotopia (wikipedia informs me that I'm not alone in noticing the resemblance between Dinotopia and Naboo):


Then there's pretty much every city scene which has ever appeared in an episode of NextGen:




John Howe's Minas Tirith from certain angles appears to be in this whatever-it's-called-world also:



And one mustn't forget basically every cityscape in Magic: The Gathering (all the ones I've ever seen, anyway, which I admit isn't all that many):




But perhaps the best way of finding examples is just googling "fantasy cityscape". Here's some I found:






My own suggestion for the name of this aesthetic is "generic pleasant mildly-exotic fantasy city", and for the world it depicts, Niceland. You may have something better in mind.

Friday, 26 April 2019

He Was Merely King

I have been reading Jonathan Sumption's mammoth and as-yet unfinished history of The Hundred Years War. (Three series of books which I desperately hope I will some day see concluded: Sumption's The Hundred Years War, Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and, against my better judgment, A Song of Ice and Fire.) Sumption puts us all to shame; a career as a hugely successful barrister and QC, followed by summary appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court...and meanwhile manages to find the time to write 4000 pages of serious narrative history drawing from a vast range of sources in English, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and Dutch.

The bastard.

I love reading books which attempt to seriously grapple with the question of what medieval life was actually like - mainly out of genuine interest, obviously, but also out of a desire to give my D&D a slight veneer of authenticity without being boring or pompous about it.

Here's Sumption on French kingship in the early medieval period:

[T]he reality of power was more elusive than the formulae. At the beginning of the eleventh century Robert II...exercised direct power in less than a tenth of his kingdom, a compact lozenge of land stretching from Paris in the north to Orleans in the south. Here he was the immediate feudal lord. Elsewhere he was merely king, compelled to rule through vassals who exercised the royal power for him but did so in their own names and with an independence which reduced the monarchy to a portentous honorary dignity. The princes could and quite frequently did make war upon him and upon each other, as well as maintaining direct relations with the papacy and foreign powers.

I love that: merely king. A reminder that medieval "countries" were nothing like "countries" as we understand them today. How much power does the king in your Blahblahland have?

Along similar lines:

Provinces long engulfed by the expansion of the royal domain remained nations in themselves, sustained by traditions rooted in recent history and geographical fact. Paris was infinitely remote from most of France at a time when a mounted messenger could cover only 30 miles in a day in the best conditions. Convention and conservatism isolated these communities even when geography did not. Strangers were to be ejected from parish churches, as the statutes of provincial synods never ceased to declare. Villagers marked out their territory with rows of stakes and crosses. Beyond these frontiers, there lay the cathedral city, the market town, the shrine of a local saint, little else. 

"Points of light", anyone? I love the idea of PCs turning up at a village and finding it marked out by sinister-looking stakes, and then being summarily ejected as "strangers" for not having some form of legitimate and accepted customary introduction. And, on the subject of language and the medieval state:

[A] bishop of Viviers could..threaten to disinherit his nephews if they spoke French instead of the 'language to which I was born and my father before me'. Pope John XXII was born in Cahors, was educated at Orleans and reigned in Avignon, but he was nevertheless unable to understand a letter which the King had addressed to him in French.

Even better: at the village they not only don't understand "common", they virulently despise it and will cast out and disinherit anybody who even dares to let it pass their lips.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Every Man for Himself and God Against All

Walking back home earlier today I discovered the local sparrows in much consternation; a magpie raid was in full flow. It's been a warm Easter and they must already be incubating - the magpie would have been after eggs, although I've seen them take live fledglings regularly over the years too. 

Spring is a low-level guerrilla war fought out in a thousand tiny skirmishes a second, right on our very doorsteps and lawns, inside our hedges and flowerbeds, across our rooftops and driveways. It's a conflict of ambushes and surprise attacks, of espionage and manoeuvre - one in which nobody has real allies but all have enemies, where no tree or bush can be trusted not to harbour predators with murderous intent, and no mercy or quarter is ever expected or given. 

It is hard to believe in a compassionate creator god if you spend any time watching nature. You don't even have to go out into the wilderness. Just sit in a suburban garden and watch. I've seen dogs tear the belly out of a still-living hedgehog and pull out is entrails. I've seen a cat break a mouse's spine just for fun and leave it broken and bleeding but still gasping for breath, and had the task of having to put it out of its misery with a spade. I've seen the local sparrowhawk unceremoniously spread the contents of a pigeon's digestive tract, undigested seeds and all, across my patio in the process of ripping out its organs. It might be all barbecue, sandpits and deckchairs for us, but for animals it's a world of misery and fear - through no fault of their own. 

"April is the cruelest month." It's also the best month for a D&D campaign; it makes me long for a bit of survival horror. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Hobby Shivers: Definition and Caterogisation

Patrick posted an interesting interview with Kevin Chin, an artist who does a lot of work for Games Workshop. In it, the subject of "Hobby Shivers" comes up. Here's Kevin describing what it is:

Let me introduce you. Well, hobby shivers to me is, when you read about something in the background and the narrative, maybe Black Library novel, or in the army books. The codecies, the battle tomes. You read about it, and you go, that's cool.

You will all, I think, know what he means instinctively. You are looking at something related to your hobby or interests, and you just get - let's use the word without sniggering - a thrill. A delicious and actually physical feeling of excitement - and let's use those words without sniggering, either. It's something very similar, I think, to the sensation you would get as a kid when you would walk into a toy shop or sweet shop and see everything there on the shelves waiting for you and it would be almost as though somebody flipped a switch to send electricity racing up and down your spine. A sense of - is it anticipation? is it vicarious excitement? is it just your brain overloading with a sudden eruption of too many possibilities? - overwhelms you for a second and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

You've all been there. Don't pretend you haven't.

The interesting thing about "hobby shivers" is that it's not confined to nerdish pursuits. I am sure that whatever your hobby is - fishing, rock climbing, cross-stitch - you will experience it (when looking at a particular fly, cliff-face, or....whatever equipment cross-stitch involves). It's a human universal.

There is a taxonomy of hobby shivers, though. First, there is what I would call excitement kitsch. Kundera described kitsch as being the "second tear"; it is what happens when you see something sentimental and cry one tear for yourself and then a second one from knowing that everybody else is shedding a tear as well. Excitement kitsch is when you see something that you know millions of other people are also seeing and getting excited about, and your own excitement is accentuated by that. Some examples would include:

Mitchell Johnson's 7/40 against England at Adelaide in the 2nd test of the 2013/2014 Ashes series (which, incidentally, is the clip I would show to anybody from a non-cricketing country who thinks that cricket is some kind of genteel, toff's sport):



Johnny Wilkinson's drop goal in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final:


The highlights from Germany's 7-1 drubbing of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup Semi-Final (where the excitement kitsch spills over into what you might call schadenfreude kitsch):


Second, there is the aesthetic sublime. This is something which possibly speaks for itself: hobby shivers just because something looks absolutely wonderful.

Like Paolo Di Canio's volley against Wimbledon in the 1999/2000 season (a bona fide fascist has not done something as visually pleasing since the days of Leni Riefenstahl):



Or Sakumoto Tsuguo doing Annan in 1988:


And then there is the vicarious thrill which is the type of hobby shivers you get when you know that you will never do something but can savour the feeling of it in your very imagination.

Like Horst Leuning tasting a 42-year old Black Bowmore you will never buy:


Or this guy talking about guitar riffs you will never have time to learn:



All three of these taxons can appear in fields more relevant to the interests of readers of the blog. Here, for example, is excitement kitsch:



Here is the aesthetic sublime:



And here is something that gives a vicarious thrill:


Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and Friendships Across the Divide

Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin were friends. (Wolfe talks about this a little bit in the interview I linked to yesterday.) Nothing unusual in that, you would have thought; they moved in similar circles, were roughly the same age, and there is a certain similarity in their approaches to narrative.

But you couldn't get two more different people politically. One a traditional Catholic conservative; the other an ardent advocate of left-wing thought of the anarchist variety and a feminist icon. I bet they didn't agree about abortion; I don't have hard evidence for this, but it seems a reasonable supposition (and I'm certain they would have disagreed about plenty of other things). 

Yesterday, when I was googling for news about Wolfe's death, I came for some reason across P Nielsen Hayden's twitter account. (I hadn't heard of him either; he's apparently the Editor-in-Chief at Tor.) Here's him tweeting in response to the news:

Something made me scroll down and look at his other recent tweets, though, and here we find this, nestled in among a very long list of other extremely partisan tweets:




The irony won't be lost on you, but there's a broader point to be made: the texture of life has changed a lot since Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin were in their heyday, hasn't it? You don't just agree to disagree any more; people from the other end of the political spectrum are unclean.

Now, this is twitter, which is all about people completely losing their minds, and sense of perspective into the bargain, so you wouldn't want to read too much into it. But as a foreigner in social media, I find it more than striking: here you have all these apparently intelligent, reasonable people, successful in their fields, collectively acting out a descent into a kind of Reformation/Counter-Reformation style of politics that you might have thought had gone out of fashion with the Patent of Toleration. That can't fail to have some sort of influence on the culture in general.

Long-term readers of the blog may be tired of me harping on about this issue, but it's an important one for us nerds. Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin were nerds, and their shared interests allowed them to set aside profound political differences and get along. That was a good thing. Modern day nerds (P Nielson Hayden can, I think, be put into that category) seem at the forefront of the movement to drive wedges between oneself and others on the basis of political differences alone, and that's a bad one. I feel it's important for those of us with a bit of perspective left to keep pointing the finger at divisiveness in order to emphasise how silly it all is - and how unkind. Nobody chooses to believe anything; neither politics nor religion works that way. You arrive at the views you have for host of very complicated reasons, and pure free will is never one of them; you're at the end of a very long chain of circumstances which led you to where you are today. If somebody thinks something radically different to you, it's because they're at the end of a very different, but equally lengthy, chain of circumstances to yours. You've got two alternatives with such a person: you can treat them with kindness and respect because they are a fellow human who is just as much a victim of circumstance as you are (which does not have to mean inviting them round to dinner, by the way; it can simply mean being civil), or you can vilify them for being bad and wrong. Which one, ultimately, has the stronger chance of turning them round? And which one will make you fearful and stressed-out and a narrower, meaner-spirited sort of person?

Answers on a postcard.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

So. Farewell then...

You will have probably heard of Gene Wolfe's death by now. 

This is a nice interview with him in the last year of his life. He begins slightly irascibly and maybe even rather shyly, but he warms up after the first 10 minutes or so. 




If you aren't already familiar with Wolfe's work, this is a very good opportunity for you to start. The Book of the New Sun is what he is rightly most famous for, but I think the Wolfe beginner would be better off starting with the Soldier of... series (Solder of the Mist, Soldier of Arete, Soldier of Sidon). I read these books a year or so ago after a recommendation from somebody commenting on an entry on this blog, of all places (which entry it was, I can't now remember; whoever it was who recommended it - thanks!), and I was blown away by them. They are the finest novels I've read in a very long time. That the series will now forever be unfinished seems also sadly apt.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Footnotes Suck

I do quite a bit of peer-reviewing for a certain academic publishing house, which means I often get paid in kind with book vouchers. (Generally I prefer this over the cash option, because it is an opportunity to build my library with intellectual-looking books and make a show of being well-read. If I chose cash it would end up getting spent on beer.)

This means I have a big, and growing, collection of classical literature, from Homer to Camus and everything in between.

Generally speaking I love the reading, but the big exception is the footnotes. In almost all cases, these books are absolutely packed with explanatory footnotes (or endnotes), purportedly to help the reader better understand what is meant by an unusual word, phrase, or idiom. The impulse is a fine one. But the end result, of course, is not increased understanding but a worse reading experience. You just can't help yourself looking at the footnotes or flicking through to the endnotes whenever called to do so, and so at every turn immersion is shattered; it's like having somebody tap you on the shoulder every thirty seconds during reading to say, "This may be an indication of offerings made to the dead, or of a region of great fertility..." or "This is apparently from the Sanskrit [...]" or whatever. It's mildly interesting. But it's not the story, and eventually the story starts to get lost in the thicket of glosses and distractions.

Reading a work of classical literature, like The Iliad, is like reading a superior form of fantasy fiction, one in which the setting is richer and more detailed and interesting than anything a single person could just make up. The best reading experience therefore is to immerse yourself in it, just like you would with a great piece of fantasy or SF, trusting that you will learn what you need to about the setting via osmosis, and if there's something that went over your head, it probably wasn't important anyway. Footnotes and endnotes almost actively militate against this; the latter are more forgivable because the strong-willed can ignore them while reading and then just peruse them with interest afterwards, but the former are truly beyond the pale.

And don't get me started on Introductions and Prefaces.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Wimmelbilderbucher for Grownups

In a comment to a recent post I lamented the lack of bestiaries-for-grownups in the fantasy/SF genre, by which I mean straightforward ones unlinked to an RPG of some type. There are a few of them (Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings springs to mind; as does Fire on the Velvet Horizon, of course) but not nearly as many as I'd like or think the market would bear; all it needs is for a publisher to give one a punt.

In the same vein, there is surely a gap in the market for fantasy wimmelbilderbucher for adults, by which I mean something akin to Richard Scarry/Where's Wally books but depicting vast, crowded scenes from fantasy settings, full of monsters, strange architecture, and weird goings-on. Each spread a single vista to be explored, whether it be a cross-section of a cave network, the inside of an archmage's tower, a forest or desert or other geographic scene, or a huge battle featuring trolls and giants and god-knows-what else. Wikipedia has a scene from a Brueghel painting postulated as an ancestor of the wimmelbilderbuch that has something of what I am talking about; picture something along these lines but with orcs and derro and it's the Underdark. That's the spread for pages 2-3, and we'll take it from there.




Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Cockatrice Variants

I love me a petrification monster, and have often felt that you can't beat a good cockatrice for a dangerous encounter. In the early days of OSR blogging I read a hilarious story about a fight with a cockatrice; I couldn't find it when searching for it in preparation for this post, but there's one on reddit which is similar and may have been written by the same person (with less verve than the original telling).

I also made good use of a Peacockatrice (a concept which I think our old friend Melan may have come up with in an rpg.net post) in an old Yoon-Suin campaign - it had the ability to cause paralysis with hallucinogenic displays as well as petrification-by-pecking, and was found in an archmage's walled pleasure garden. The PCs killed it with slingstones, but not before one of them had been turned into a statue (which I seem to remember sparked off a lengthy discussion on how much a petrified PC would weigh in cn).

What other cockatrice variants could there be (other than the pyrolisk?). Some ideas that spring to mind (stats as cockatrice unless otherwise stated):

Swanatrice: has +1HD and the touch of its beak turns the victim into water rather than stone; he or she becomes in effect a water weird with none of its magical abilities (and could possibly be carried about in a bucket)

Turkeytrice - the touch of its beak turns the victim into clay, which crumbles easily and is dissolved by rain; the other PCs would need to get it to shelter very quickly if they wanted to find a "cure"

Emutrice - has +2HD and Move 180, and the touch of the beak turns the victim into a dried vegetal husk, like grass in the dry season somehow rendered into a human form

Kiwitrice - has -2HD and the touch of the beak turns the victim's mind into that of a beetle, with all the intelligence and ability to communicate that suggests

Secretary Bird-trice - has +1HD and the touch of the beak turns the victim into a dozen wriggling, squirming snakes who immediately flee in all directions

Quailatrice - has -2HD and the touch of the beak causes permanent incorporeality, such that even the victim's voice can no longer be heard, though a faint remnant of his visage remains visible

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

On Books and Boys

A friend sent me a text message earlier saying that he'd seen my recent post and had popped into the kids' section of the local library to see if they had any Fighting Fantasy books on offer. The answer was "no". A sign of the times; when I was a kid the library was my number one source of books in general and Fighting Fantasy ones in particular. I don't preach or predict doom for the publishing industry - there will always be books and people reading them. But it's a reminder how much the world has changed, and it makes me feel old and sad and nostalgic for a much simpler age. The texture of life was so different in those days, when a trip to the library on a Saturday morning was something I would look forward to all week; how quaint that concept seems nowadays when entertainment and information is all there at a few mouse clicks' distance.

By coincidence I was in a city centre bookshop yesterday. Waterstone's is booming. You can sense it just walking in the door of my local branch - it's always packed to the rafters. What isn't booming, though, is books for boys. Everywhere you look in the kids' section there are young adult books written by women, for girls. Further down the age scale there's a bit more variety, but not much. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that an alien could walk into the children's section of my local Waterstone's and think there was only one human sex.

It's not fashionable to worry about this - woke capitalism doesn't give a fuck about boys. I do, though.  It's not that there shouldn't have been a rebalancing towards novels in which female characters get more of a chance to shine. Of course there should. It's rather that I wonder what I would do if I had a son and was thinking of how to get him interested in reading. There just isn't much available. It's not even as though I can dig out the books I used to read when I was a boy, because I haven't got them anymore, and were I to do so I'm not sure dusty old paperbacks from 30+ years ago would have a lot of appeal. There's only so long "Harry Potter" can remain a viable answer to this problem, if it ever even was one.

What happens when you get a generation of young men who have had such little encouragement to engage in reading and spend all their time looking at screens? We're about to find out, and I fear it's not going to be pretty.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Caverns of the Snow Witch: That Gary Ward and Edward Crosby Look

Caverns of the Snow Witch is in my memory as probably the most enjoyable Fighting Fantasy book. This is so even though I probably haven't looked at the content in, what, getting on for 25 years?

It might be because even after all this time, the art from that book lingers in my mind as being something special and different: as though a Japanese woodblock printer and Russ Nicholson had a lovechild - I can't think of any fantasy art that is quite like it. Take a look at these and tell me that the static nature of these pieces isn't more than made up for by the stark evocativeness of their style:








This is my favourite of the lot. The composition on this piece is stunning:




The illustrators, unbelievably, never did any Fighting Fantasy illos again, and I don't think I have seen either of their work elsewhere. Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, wherever you are - you did a grand job on this one.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Real Life Maps, Hexcrawling, and Rustic Fantasy Names

This post is sort of a follow-up to this recent one. The excellent comments on that previous post got me thinking about this much older piece, in which I put up a link to this truly beautifully-useful tool - a vast library of old maps that you can overlay onto a georeferenced map of Britain for all kinds of different purposes. You can truly waste days, even weeks, playing with it.

But it has a direct use for gaming. Comments on my "Rustic Fantasy" entry mentioned two chief ways that a DM can convey a certain "realness" (for want of a better term) to players - granularity of scale and names.

Here's proof of that concept, and a great way to create the bare bones for a small scale D&D campaign into the bargain. This is a map of the area around Eals, a tiny hamlet close to the Northumberland/Cumbria border in probably the least-developed part of England. It's an area I know well, because I go hiking around there quite a lot and often rent holiday cottages there and thereabouts. The map is an old Ordnance Survey one from approximately 1900, at a scale of about 1 inch to a mile (the level of zoom I used in my browser might not quite make that absolutely accurate, but it's there or thereabouts). The only thing that has really changed is that there is no longer a railway line - it was victim of "Beeching's Axe" in the 1960s - but you would presumably want to ignore that for a fantasy game anyway (although not necessarily!).



So, names first. Part of the reason why I chose this location was because Eals itself is such a wonderful name for a village (what prospective DM would ever think of it?), but check out some of the other place names. Snope Common. Knaresdale. Larchet Hill. Merry Know. Softley. Town Green. Perhaps best of all, The Hill. Bear in mind that this is a couple of square miles in the most sparsely-populated region of the country. Zoom in on literally any other location in England and you will find an even greater density of real names than there is here.

Second, granularity. I spent a few minutes circling in red the potential adventure locations that leapt out at me on this map. Each settlement, obviously, would have some reason to visit it - whether it's because there's a hedge witch who lives there; an outlaw in hiding; a werewolf; a plague of brownies; whatever. So would the church at Knaresdale with its healer-cleric. Then of course there's Larchet Hill with its caves that the local people say are haunted by knockers. And one mustn't forget Knaresdale Hall, home of the Baron Knaresdale and his somewhat impoverished but proud family of eccentrics. But I didn't even circle Thinhope Burn (home of a merrow?), Small Cleugh (with a bridge with a troll underneath?), or Eals Fell (haunted by a banshee?).

You can do a similar exercise with pretty much anywhere in England. You can do Wales or Scotland too just as well, but then you encounter Welsh and Gaelic place names which may be hard for non-locals to pronounce. Once you've cordoned off a small piece of the English countryside, your starter campaign area almost writes itself.

What I also love about this is that the future of the campaign also becomes easy to think about when the players begin to want to explore beyond the immediate region around Knaresdale. What's upstream? What's downstream? What's beyond Eals Fell? Those are concrete questions the players will ask and that the DM then has to answer. Once again, the future then begins to write itself.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Red and Black and Blue and White...I Can Sing a Rainbow Too

Long-term readers may be familiar with my interest in the notion of mythical beings associated with points of the compass.

While doing some idle wikipedia research for a probably-never-to-be-realised attempt at doing a Herodotus campaign setting, I learned that what we call the Black Sea was actually also known as being "black" in Herodotus' time (despite being called by the Greeks the "Euxine Sea" or "Hospitable Sea"). This was not because of its colour, but because in those days, the colour black was associated with the north. This is also why the Red Sea is known as being red (red being the colour of the south). White was thought to be the colour of the west, and blue the east. (It occurs to me that this may well be the reason why Tolkien's blue wizards went to the east.)

It is striking that the Chinese system was more or less exactly the same, with the Black Tortoise in the north, the White Tiger in the west, the Red Bird in the south, and the Blue Dragon in the east. This may well have beene due to ancient trading routes that existed even before Herodotus's time - it can't be a coincidence - but I also wonder if there is some sort of Jungian collective-unconscious thing going on there too.

Whatever: there are so many ideas that pop into my head at the thought of colours (let alone mythical beasts) associated with points of the compass that it almost gives me a migraine. I expect you are the same. Have at it in the comments.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Gamer Tribes: The Saxondale Gamer

There is a certain subspecies of Englishman (or -woman, but it's by far and away mostly -men), which is very distinctive but which to my knowledge has never been accurately labelled or studied. I call it the "Saxondale type", after the main character of the brilliant but sadly unsuccessful Saxondale Steve Coogan vehicle from the mid-2000s.

The Saxondale Type is defined by outfit (jeans, t-shirt - usually a metal band tour t-shirt from a decade or so ago - leather or denim jacket, boots), economic class (lower-middle/upper-working borderline), outlook (phlegmatic and sarcastic), and interests (metal music, beer, probably muscle cars, probably military history, possibly Warhammer, possibly historical re-enactment, possibly wargames). He could be from anywhere but the paradigm example would be from the East Midlands, probably Nottingham. His politics could be anywhere on the spectrum but would tend either towards the UKIPpish, or alternatively Corbynista loony-leftism. He is staunchly against political correctness but it would be unfair to call him bigoted - beneath the bluster and "blokeishness" and sarcastic approach to conversation, he's usually a very nice guy. He is probably of above-average intelligence but has been frustrated in life by having gone to a crap comprehensive school.

Most Saxondale Types are not RPG players but a very large percentage of RPG players, in my experience, are Saxondale Types. Wargame and RPG clubs across the land are absolutely chock-full of them. They are not my tribe, but a lot of the people I played RPGs with in my formative years were putative Saxondale Types. I like them.

The problem with Saxondale Types, though, is that they're not cool, and they are most certainly not the image which Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, or any other major "geek" industry companies would want to cultivate or have represent them. Their faces don't fit. I find this very sad, because their loyalty to their hobbies is unquestioned, and if anybody deserves to be celebrated, it's them: in its lean years the RPG hobby in particular in Britain at least would probably have been economically unviable without them. So here's to you, Saxondale Gamers: I at least identify you, and salute you.