Friday, 19 July 2019

"Funny Face" D&D Monsters

Have you ever had one of those sticker books which contains a load of blank faces and a random assortment of eyes, noses, mouths and the rest, allowing you to make your own "crazy" characters?

There is a kind of D&D equivalent. It works as follows.

First, you choose a list of monsters. It could be 6, 10, 20, the whole Monster Manual, whatever. For the sake of illustration, let's go with 6: black pudding,  blue dragon, derro, storm giant, harpy and basilisk.

Second, you break your monsters of choice up into their body shape (meaning a very basic physical description), their flavour characteristics (meaning a thumbnail sketch of their "personality" or behaviour), their special abilities (including magic), and their level or organization. Hence:

Third, you roll some dice accordingly - 4d6 in this case.

Let's use some examples. Here I am, 4d6 in my hand, ready to roll.

Monster One: 4, 2, 1, 6. So it is something that looks like a giant, is intelligent, manipulative and hierarchical, can spray acid and envelop opponents, and lives on its own or in a family. Here, I am imagining something which, while it resembles a giant, is actually something like a slime mold or gargantuan humanoid spore - an amorphous semi-solid colony-type entity which forms itself into a vast and sentient walking monstrosity oozing corrosive and noxious fumes and fluids.

Monster Two: 3, 2, 4, 2. So it is dwarf-like, intelligent, manipulative and hierarchical, can cast spells and control the weather, and is solitary or lives in family groups. This is perhaps something akin to the Icelandic huldufolk: a race of diminutive spirits who can manipulate the weather and their environment by channelling the magical energy imbuing the natural world - probably in a manner which strikes humans as capricious and cruel.

Monster Three: 4, 3, 6, 3. Another giant-thing, which is a mad, sadistic would-be conquerer, has a petrifying gaze, and forms an empire. All I can say to that is....nice! A race of giants who can turn their foes to stone with a mere glance, and who constantly attempt to use this power to bend entire continents to their will - an endeavour in which they would undoubtedly be successful were it not for their inevitable tendency to descend into hereditary insanity....

Thursday, 18 July 2019

On Linnaean and Glaurungian Monsters

Back in 2008, when the world was young, I wrote this post, the essence of which was that modern fantasy tends to sit in between two different poles. On the one hand, there is classicist fantasy (in which everything in the setting is internally consistent and explainable on its own terms, even if it contains magic and monsters) and on the other, romanticist (in which the whole point is the weirdness, the mystery, the fact that nothing makes sense or can be predicted in advance). The quintessentially classicist fantasy writer is probably George R R Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire novels feature human beings acting in basically rational ways in the world that they inhabit, which contains magic that, even while it is rare and unpredictable, can be dealt with roughly as a form of strange super-technology. The quintessential romanticist writer is probably M. John Harrison, the entire point of whose fantasy novels is to express a kind of illogic or unreality; not even the characters feel as though they are at home in the world that they inhabit.

The classicist tradition is very clearly at work in D&D, particularly when it comes to what I am going to from now on call Linnaean Monster Classification. You know how in the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual there is no individual entry for "dragon", but instead dragons are classified into white dragons (which live in cold places), black dragons (who live in swamps), blue dragons (who live in the desert), amethyst dragons (who live in underground lakes), shadow dragons (who are from the Plane of Shadow), and all the rest? And there is no individual entry for "giant", but instead you get cloud giants, frost giants, reef giants, stone giants, and so on? Most of the truly iconic monsters are given this treatment to some extent or other: they are sliced up, boxed up, compartmentalised and classified, as though there is an actual genus, "dragon", with species within it.

(There are perfectly sound practical reasons for this: it provides more variety for DMs to draw from when filling up their boxes of tricks.)

Compare this with how the dragon appears in, say, Beowulf. (Or The Hobbit, for that matter.) It's not so much that people in 8th Century Scandinavia, or Middle Earth, didn't have the time or expertise to catalogue subdivisions of dragon types. It's that in their context monsters are really monstrous: not just another kind of animal, albeit a very dangerous one, but a thing apart from the natural world - something which does not belong; an interloper; a Thing Which Should Not Be. You get a great sense from this in Tolkien's description of Glaurung in particular as a being whose very presence seems somehow to soil the natural world around him. Glaurung is not of the animal kingdom. Glaurung is a dragon.

Another way of thinking about this is: the assumptions of the AD&D Monstrous Manual are that, if only some sage somewhere had access to all the necessary information, he could provide an accurate taxonomy of dragon species which reflected some underlying biological reality. That is classicism in a nutshell. The assumptions of the Beowulf poet or Tolkien are not that this task would be impossible  at a practical level; it's that the attempt at classification itself would be a category error. You don't think of a monster in that way. It just is.

There is nothing wrong with the normal way in which D&D bestiaries approach the matter. It makes life easier by providing DMs with a wide range of choices for encounters and lairs. But it does, to hark back to another 2008 post, have a banalifying effect. The dragon in Beowulf, or Smaug, or Glaurung, or even Falcor, loom far larger and longer in the memory than the Just Another Gold Dragon of your average D&D campaign. The next time you're thinking of a monster lair to put in your hexmap, think about how you can lean it towards the Glaurungian rather than the Linnaean, and see if it makes a difference to how the PCs interact with it.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Greatest Star Trek: NextGen Episodes

I am not a big watcher of TV these days, to put it mildly. Whenever TV comes up in conversation I tend to sit and listen and nod and smile politely at what seem like appropriate moments, and I always give the half-joking response, if asked, that all I watch is Match of the Day and University Challenge. The truth is, I haven't really watched either of them in years either. Basically, what I watch on TV (including streaming services) is a bit of football, a bit of cricket, a bit of rugby, a bit of boxing, some kids' TV, and the occasional indulgence like Can't Pay? We'll Take it Away! or Cable Girls or the old Pride and Prejudice BBC series on Netflix.  (My wife's choices.)

The exception is Star Trek: TNG. There is something ineffably comforting for me about Next Gen, mostly because it has such associations with a very comforting era in my life. Whenever I watch it, it seems like I go through some sort of TECHING THE TECH device which allows me to imbibe the original milieu in which I first encountered it across space and time: when I watch Next Gen, I am for those 42 minutes an 11 year old boy again, and it's a hazy summer evening on a Wednesday, and I am sitting in front of the little black-and-white TV we used to have in the sitting room, and dinner will soon be on the table, and Deanna Troi's cleavage is doing strange and wonderful things to me, and I am wishing I could one day be a tenth of the man Captain Picard is. And also, let's face it, it's partly because the whole thing was televisual comfort food to begin with - who wouldn't want to live on the Enterprise?

But it's not just that - watching Next Gen today isn't merely an exercise in bleary-eyed nostalgia. For the fact of the matter is that, for the most part, and for all of its (many) flaws, it is simply bloody good telly: taut, funny (often unintentionally) and packed with narrative - each episode like a coiled spring, quivering with elastic potential energy of plot. Yes, for every Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes or Brent Spiner there is a Michael Dorn, Rosalind Chao or Will Wheaton. Yes, for every "Inner Light" there is yet another episode in which Worf struggles to reconcile his Klingon heritage and human upbringing/Data gets taken over and goes berserk/Riker shags somebody he shouldn't have/Troi has weird dreams and uncomfortable feelings/Something goes wrong on the holodeck/the Enterprise is trapped in a mysterious energy field and can't escape. Yes, for every good idea there are three ridiculous ones. (A species who can only communicate in metaphor? A "best of" clip show when there have only been two seasons? Code of Fucking Honor?) Nobody could call it perfect. But even at its worst it is somehow compellingly watchable.

This watchability stems in no small part from the cast. Casting chemistry is highly underrated, probably because it is so difficult to analyse or describe. However you do analyse it, though, the Next Gen cast had it in spades. They actually look and behave like what they are supposed to be: a crew of professionals who have been working and living together for years. And this gives them an understated bonhomie which is precisely what you'd expect in similar circumstances in the real world. There is no forced melodrama, no shouted confrontations, no childish whooping and cheering when something goes right and no tears and emotion when things go wrong, which seems to be the general approach in modern TV drama. The Next Gen team actually come across like a real team should be (which must surely stem from a great working relationship off-camera as much as from the writing and direction).

With that in mind, rather than come up with a Top 10 List of episodes for TNG, I thought I'd list my favourite episodes for each member of the cast, together with some honourable mentions. You might disagree how much a given episode is mostly "about" the character I've chosen; it's just a personal list.

Picard: The toughest one, because there are probably more "Picard-centric" episodes than for any other character, but it really has to be "The Inner Light". It might be too much of an obvious choice, but sometimes obvious choices are obvious for good reason. It's a fabulous episode. Honourable mentions go to: "Tapestry", "The Drumhead", "Family", "Starship Mine", and "The Perfect Mate" (although my judgement about the latter may be clouded slightly by his co-star in that one).

Riker: The temptation with Riker is to go for episodes which feature him shagging somebody he shouldn't have, especially if that person is a hermaphrodite. But I think the one I enjoy most is "Schisms", which is a nicely creepy SF horror chamber piece that rarely gets mentioned in "best of" lists. Honourable mentions for "Second Chances", "First Contact" and - although this may be a stretch to call it Riker-centric - "Lower Decks".

Data: Similarly, there is an "on the nose" option for picking Data episodes, which is to go for the ones in which he meets/builds other former family members or experiments with being human. I much prefer the slightly melancholic yearning-to-be-human Data to the actually-human Data, and so I tend to like the episodes in which he is simply himself, so to speak. Again, I have to go with the obvious choice, which is "Data's Day" (this may be my absolute favourite episode of Next Gen), but "The Most Toys" - another brilliant episode which rarely gets mentioned in the "best of" lists - runs it very close. Other honourable mentions include "Elementary, Dear Data" and, naturally, "The Measure of a Man".

Crusher: Without a doubt it's "Remember Me", which is beautifully creepy and suspenseful. Is it a coincidence that so many of my favourite episodes lean towards the (admittedly mild) horror tonal palette? The series, as a general rule, did that kind of episode exceptionally well - a tough ask for something that always remained staunchly for the family. Honourable mentions: "Attached", "Suspicions", and "The Host".

Troi: Troi is hard, primarily because of all the characters she has consistently the least to do, and the ones which centre on her character are generally bland at best ("The Loss", for example). I am tempted to go for "Night Terrors", but to avoid choosing yet another horror episode, I'll try instead for "Dark Page" which - if you set aside everything that is bad about it - does at least give Marina Sirtis the chance to do some proper acting. If I was stretching the definition of a Troi-centric episode, I might also include "Timescape".

Geordi: Geordi is often a bit part, playing second fiddle to Data (to mix my metaphors slightly). I have a real soft spot for "Identity Crisis", particularly for the stunningly effective set piece scene on the holodeck with the unidentified shadow; I found it utterly riveting as a kid. But "The Enemy" is clearly superior. Honourable mentions (again, possibly stretching the definition of Geordi-centric): "Galaxy's Child", "Force of Nature", and "The Next Phase".

Worf: The Worf-centric episodes all tend to blur together because they are all so similar and so dreary (what is it about Klingons that makes people actually interested in them enough to learn Klingon?). That said, I always really enjoyed "Heart of Glory", if only for the hilarious escape scene and the way Worf's character arc in it goes from loyal Starfleet officer to potential renegade and traitor in the course of what must surely be less than 24 hours. But then again, what am I saying? Of course, it can only be "Qpid".

Wesley Crusher: Much as I resent the existence of the little prick, there are some good Crusher-centric episodes in the early seasons - I assume because he was the character the adolescent male audience was supposed to identify with. Hands down, the best of these is "The Game", with an honourable mention for "Final Mission" (which almost makes you feel like you'll miss him).

Natasha Yar: "Skin of Evil". 'Nuff said. I hated Yar's character, and especially Denise Crosby's acting, so to have her disposed of in such inglorious fashion (basically giving a minor villain a chance to show off its powers) was exceedingly gratifying.

I can't think of a Pulaski one; most of the time I can barely remember she existed. I can't believe they thought that having a female version of Bones would work out better than good old Gates McFadden.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

The Wizard's Garden

Perhaps CS Lewis is to blame, for making the perfectly-manicured but eerily-empty garden of Coriakin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader so compelling to my young mind. Or maybe it's just having been dragged around so many stately homes and gardens by my parents as a child. Whatever: I find the idea of a magical, and/or haunted, and/or labyrinthine, and/or infinite wizard's garden very compelling.

What would the platonic Wizard's Garden, the ur-Wizard's Garden be like? Well, first it would be apparently very pleasant and welcoming, full of the scents of flowers and freshly cut grass (almost certainly with a variety of magical effects).

Second, it would have a maze - perhaps one that is deceptively modest-looking in scale...until you enter.

Parts of it would be overgrown and full of hidden threats.

While other parts would contain ponds and streams and other waterways in which mysterious aquatic beings dwell.

There would be follies, such as a bell tower.

And there would be walled sections behind magical, secret or perhaps even sentient doors.

There would be fancy podiums and raised areas.

Not to mention fountains and statues - none of which, of course, would be what they seemed.

There would be eccentricities.

And wildflower meadows hiding all manner of creatures, objects and ruined buildings.

Not to mention greenhouses full of exotic, sentient plant life and the servants who tend and guard them.

And right in the middle, of course, there would be the home of the wizard himself, surrounded by the garden he created for his own pleasure, or to keep out trespassers - or to lure them in and trap them for eternity.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

After the Collapse(s)

I recently got back from a business trip in Santiago de Chile, home of the fabulous Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. What one cannot help but be impressed by, when walking around its galleries, is that human civilisation is so layered. One culture rises to prominence, then appears to fall, and is then replaced by another - over and over again, like coats of paint being applied and then reapplied to a surface as each wears away. Of course, people at that time presumably had no clear conception of this (we are the Chimu culture, and before us there was the Moche culture, and before that there was the Chavin culture, and before that there was the Cupisnique culture...). But they would certainly have had a conception of living in a world that was in some sense inhabited before them and had within it the monuments, ruins, and items - the cultural clutter, you might call it - of peoples of the past.

By coincidence, I had just finished reading Max Adams' book In the Land of Giants, about Dark Age Britain. In it he describes how people in that era living in England literally thought of themselves as inhabiting a landscape which was full of things that giants had built - not least of which being Hadrian's Wall. Those people did not have an accurate understanding of their history. But they certainly knew that they had one - the stuff of it was all around them.

We have a lot of cultural baggage associated with the fall of the Roman Empire, which makes us think of this aspect of historical change in terms of collapse. A great civilization rises, then falls into ashes, and an age of barbarism ensures - from which, eventually, another great civilization then duly comes into being. James C Scott is persuasive in arguing that this is probably a mistake. What is thought of as "collapse" in most such circumstances was probably a period of comparative liberation and much better health for ordinary people, who were no longer oppressed by the drudgery of economic servitude or out-and-out slavery which they had likely previously been subject to, and had much healthier diets and lifestyles living as so-called "barbarians" than farmers in an early proto-State. 

The Americas in the era after Columbus stand out as probably the most important exception to this rule - the Aztec and Inca empires may not have been pretty, but their collapse was most certainly that, in terms of population loss and cultural destruction. Be that as it may, a D&D campaign set amidst the detritus, the monuments, the ruins and the cities of old civilizations long-gone is one that makes perfect sense: it is the milieu in which our ancestors have lived since time immemorial (and one which of course we still live in today). 

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Mythic Upperworlds

The existence of the megadungeon as mythic underworld, and faerie/wilderness as mythic otherworld, suggests of course that there is a third mythic -world - the Mythic Upperworld.

What is the mythic upperworld? The touchstones in fiction that occur to me are Zelazny's Amber, Miyazaki's Laputa, Wolfe's Skai (from The Wizard Knight), possibly the realm of the Q Continuum from Next Gen, possibly also Narnia, and possibly the lands at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree - the latter three depending on how you wish to draw the line between "upper-" and "other-". Where the underworld is the abode of dark chaos, and the otherworld is the abode of the natural weird, the uipperworld is where we find that which is both literally and metophorically above and beyond us - the ethereal, the ephemeral, the unattainable, the divine.

Don't mistake the mythic otherworld for heaven. It is a place that is hard to get to, and harder still to remain in, but it is not utopia. It is a dangerous place where demigods, giants and dragons dwell. Vast wealth can be found there, if you can find it - and if you can find a way to keep yourself from falling, and to grasp what is out of reach. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Mythic Underworlds, Mythic Otherworlds, and Psychic Geography

The dungeon as "mythic underworld" is a concept as old as any in what we now tend to refer to as the OSR (see, for example, Philotomy's thoughts on the subject from 2007, still available here). "Mythic otherworld" is newer - I like to think I coined that one myself in 2014 - but based on the same underlying motif: a place that "obeys its own laws and is weird, otherworldly, and apart from the natural order of things". The underworld/otherworld is a place where adventure happens - the place into which PCs go. It is set apart from the ordinary world of human civilization, towns and settlements, and the rules of physics which exist there. It is faerie, it is muspel, it is Mythago Wood, it is Moria, it is Angband, it is warp space, it is whatever other metaphor you choose to use.

Psychic geography is real. I was struck by this last week when I visited my home town, which like most urban or semi-urban English landscapes is a place of vast contrasts between rich and poor. (Britain, as a comparatively small and very densely populated country has the "haves" and "have nots" nestling alongside one other like almost nowhere else on earth.) Having an afternoon free on my hands I decided to take a drive to Noctorum, a place where a friend of mine used to live; I hadn't been there in 20 years so I wanted to see if I could find it.

Noctorum is not easy to get to. There are few signs pointing to it, and it's not really on the way to anywhere. This latter quality (what you might cynically call the "out of sight, out of mind" approach to poverty reduction) is perhaps one of the reasons why it was chosen as the location for the building of a council estate back in the 1960s - one of a string of such developments built in the local area as a way to, supposedly, provide bettter accommodation for the urban poor than the town-centre slums in which they had previously been living. This large estate was tacked on to the existing semi-rural village location of Noctorum proper, and is now commonly referred to locally and by the residents as "The Nocky".

What you get when you drive from Noctorum proper to the Nocky is a lesson in inequality in microcosm. Noctorum is stunningly wealthy. It is full of vast, detached homes which you can only get to by ignoring signs which say "PRIVATE ROAD" in big red letters, built in a landscape something like arcadia - a deliciously lush woodland on a secluded hillside in which it isn't unusual to see people trotting on horseback. Then suddenly you pass a crossroads at the bottom of the hill beyond which are tiny terraced houses and the only colours are beige and grey, and the sky itself seems to darken.

The Nocky itself resembles a stockade, though one formed from roads, not walls. It is surrounded by a big looping road, inside of which is the estate and outside of which on three sides, more or less, are open fields (the other side being Noctorum proper). This, you have the feeling, was done by design. You can't get out of the estate easily even in a car - you have to do a big circuit - but doing it on foot is hard. You have to slog it up hill to Noctorum, beyond which there is no real public transport, or you have to trek across fields, or just go the considerable distance along one road to the nearest train station. Whenever local people mention this they always say this was the result of a deliberate choice by the local authority "in case there was violence" - if riots ever took place they would have nowhere to spread. It also serves to keep criminal activity in general insulated from the outside world. And it also serves to keep the community itself cooped up with nowhere to go and nobody to turn to when things go wrong.

Make no mistake about it: the Nocky is in a different world to Noctorum. It would be completely crass, simplistic and stupid to describe it as a "mythic underworld" or something of that nature, but when you pass from one place into the other you can feel yourself crossing a barrier of some kind - an invisible and yet also somehow visible wall which keeps the two places apart. There is something of The City & The City about it - two communities living side by side but unable or unwilling to see each other - but something much more brutally real: you can see the Nocky easily enough from parts of Noctorum. But you don't want to go there.

It's not all that difficult to understand, then, how it would feel to live in a reality in which there was a forest "over there", or a cave system "down there", which people can nakedly see and yet into which they do not, and perhaps dare not, go. That feeling is one with which most of us are familiar from the societies in which we find ourselves - the difference of course being that in a fantasy setting it is based on the supernatural, whereas in our own it is merely due to the starkness of the distinctions which exist between life opportunities.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Bad Reviews, Bad Moods and Bad Games

There is a certain school of thought, of which many RPG bloggers and online commenters are members, which holds that the superior way to review a game or gaming product is through play. "Ah," these people will pipe up whenever a review is posted, "But how does it work in play? How is it at the table?"

I know what they mean. What they want to make clear is that it's all very well for a book or product to read well and look good. But these things are made to be played, and in the final analysis it is how they work at the table, under fire as it were, that really matters.

I respectfully disagree with this view. Partly this is because I have never run anything I have bought as is, and can never really imagine how anybody would; I can only really imagine somebody buying an adventure or module and pulling out bits here, removing bits there, switching X around with Y and Z with A, or perhaps just going away inspired to do their own vague pastiche of the contents. Given that every reader is going to use the product differently, then, I'm never sure what value a review of how something works in play has beyond the individual reviewer.

Partly, though, it is also because of a related problem, which is that of the players. No two groups of players are the same, and no combination of players is the same as any other - we all know this, of course. This means that, much as with DMs, you have to wonder whether a review of the experience of a particular group of players can be generalised to others. But that's not the important point, for me, which is that while no two groups of players are the same, it is just as true that no group of players is the same from one session to the next. Sometimes somebody is in a bad mood. Sometimes people have had a few too many drinks. Sometimes people at the next table are noisy. Sometimes the DM has just had a row with his girlfriend. Sometimes people are just in the mood for one type of session and not another. Circumstances differ. The play experience is so subjective, and so variable, that it is very hard to trust an "actual play" review as being of widespread usefulness.

That's not to say that some products are not better than others. But I suspect this is something that can be discerned easily enough in the abstract merely through reading by an experienced eye. I don't need to play my way through a module to know if it's useful, mostly because I'm not going to play my way through it anyway, in that sense, but also because I have run some gaming sessions in my life and have a feel for what's good and what isn't.

And nor is to suggest there is no value in people going online to post about how they've just run a brilliant campaign set in Yoon-Suin* and how wonderful/terrible it was, because, let's face it, discussion and feedback are interesting in their own right. It's only to suggest that I would never not buy a product just because somebody posted a review in which they felt it hadn't worked as well as they would have liked in play.

*Other RPG products are available. [Do people outside the UK get this joke?]

Slang Which Builds the World

The real world is lived in. It's a home. And like any home, it gathers knick-knacks, clutter, and idiosyncrasies of layout and design. It is hard to replicate this as a DM designing a campaign setting, because you're only one person and the setting isn't home for anybody at all - just a small section of your brain, perhaps. This compares with the real world, which is home for billions of people and has been for tens of thousands of years.

One way of doing it might be through slang expressions. In my last post, in the list of examples of historical slang, there was the phrase, "As valiant as an Essex lion", meaning timid or cowardly. What do you think when you read that idiom? First, if you're not familiar with it, you might wonder where Essex is and what kind of place. But second, you might then wonder why an "Essex lion" is considered cowardly. Is it a regional stereotype about Essex people? Is it a reference to an actual sub-species of lion that lives in Essex? Is it a historical reference? (The truth is that an "Essex lion" is an old term for a calf in the cockney dialect, because Essex was the main source of cattle for the meat markets in London.) In any event, one little phrase sparks curiosity and provides a little bit more richness - what a social scientist might call "thickness" - to the world in which we live.

You wouldn't want to go crazy with this as a DM. A little would go a long way. But dropping in the odd idiomatic phrase of the "valiant as an Essex lion" variety here or there in NPC dialogue could be a nice way of doing exactly what is described above: sparking curiosity among the players about the world which the PCs inhabit, and if nothing else making it seem a little more "lived in" than it is in reality. "He's as tight as the arse of a Druk Yul quail." Where is this Druk Yul? And what's a Druk Yul quail? Let's find out. And the players become that little bit more invested in the world you're jointly creating. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Historical Slang for Your Edification and Amusement

From The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang, by Eric Partridge (which runs at 1000+ pages and is utterly fascinating), to smatter into NPC dialogue for that "authentic ye olden days" vibe. I chose a handful for each letter of the alphabet with the approximate dates of first usage according to the book. You could choose thousands more.

Abbey lubber - A lazy monk (1538-1750), a lazy, thriftless person (1750-1900)
Academician - A harlot (1760-1820). Ex academy, a brothel (late C. 17-18)
All wind and piss - Contemptuous (C. 19)
Avering - A boy's begging naked to arouse compassion (late C.17)
Avaunt, give the - Dismiss a person (C. 16-17)

Bachelor of law - A drinker (1650)
Bachelor's baby - An illegitimate child (1670)
Batty-fang - To beat (C.17)
Beggar-maker - A publican (C.18)
Beggar's velvet - Downy matter or fluff (C.19)

Chair-days - Old age (C. 19)
Chovey - A shop (C. 19)
Church-work - Work that proceeds very slowly (C. 17)
Clapper - The tongue (human) (C.17)
Cold cook - An undertaker (1720s)
Cunny-warren - A brothel (1785)

Dive in the dark - The act of coition [it actually says this] (C.19)
Dismais - In low spirits (1760)
Disguised - Drunk (C. 16)
Docked smack smooth, to be - To have one's penis amputated (C.18) [Be thankful you don't live at a time in which this was happening frequently enough to need a slang term]
Dusting - A thrashing; rough weather (C. 18)

Ebb-water - Lack of money (C. 17)
Earwig - A malicious prompter or flatterer; a crony (1610
Eve's custom-house - The female pudend [it actually says this] (C.18)
Execution day - Washing day (C.17)

Fair trader - A smuggler (C.19)
One of the faithful - A drunkard (C.17)
Fart-catcher - A footman or valet (mid-C.18)
Fingers made of lime-twigs, to have - To be a thief (1596)
Flying camp - A gang of beggars (Late C.17)

Gawk - A simpleton; a fool (C.17)
Gin-trap - The mouth; the throat (1827)
Glimmerer - A beggar alleging loss by fire (1560
Goats and monkeys (at), to look - To gaze lecherously (at) (1749)
Grin at the daisy-roots, to - To be dead (1880)

Hard neck - Extreme impudence (1870)
Hoddy-peak - A fool; a cuckold (1585)
Horn-thumb - A pickpocket (1565)
Howsomever - Nevertheless (1750
Hydromancy - The "study" of drink, i.e. alcoholism (1650)

Idea-box - Head (C.18)
Ivory-box - Mouth (1880)
Ivy-bush, like an owl in an - Having a large wig or very bushy hair (1606)

Jack Ketch's pippin - A candidate for the gallows (C. 18), also called a "Gallows apple"
Jelly-bag - The scrotum (C. 17)
Jug - A prison; to imprison; lock up (C.19)
Jump, see how the cat will - To watch the course of events before committing oneself (1820)

Keep back and belly - To clothe and feed (C.18)
Ken - A house or compound (1560)
Ken, crack a - To rob a house (late C.17)
Ken-crack lay - Housebreaking (C.17)
Ken-cracker - Housebreaker (C.17)
Key of the street, have the - To be shut out for the night or homeless (1835)
Kick the wind (or clouds) - To be hung (late C. 16)

Lay in water - To defer judgement (C.16)
Lion, as valiant as an Essex - Timid or fearful (C.18) [substituting "Essex" for a suitable location of your choice]
Loose fish - A person or irregular, esp. of dissipated habits (1827)
Lullaby - The male member (C.19)
Lump and bump - A fool; a simpleton (C.19)

Marriage face - A sad face (C.19)
Maunding cove - A beggar (C.17)
Maw-wallop - A filthy dish of food (C.18)
Maw-wormy - Captious; pessimistic (C.19)
Moon's man - A gypsy; a robber by night (C.16)

Nail - A person of an overreaching, imposing disposition (1812)
Napkin, take sheet and - To eat and sleep with someone or in some place (C.17)
Nasty man - A garrotter; the one in a garrotting gang who does the critical work (1840)
Night-flea - A boarder (C.19)
Number the waves - To engage in a pointless or time-wasting task (C.18)

Old man's milk - Whisky or other spirit (1860)
Otherguess - Different (C.16)
Oysters, drink to one's - To fare accordingly (esp. badly) (C.15)

Pad in the straw - A hidden dagger (C.15)
Peery - Sly (C.17)
Pickers and stealers - Hands (C.16)
Play the duck - To show oneself a coward (C.17)
Priggism - Thieving (1743)

Queer duke - A decayed gentleman (C.17)
Quiet as a wasp in one's nose - Uneasy, restless (1670)
Quirklum - A puzzle (C.18)

Give green rats - To slander; to malign (1860)
Ride out - To become a highwayman (C.17)
Rise arse upwards - To be lucky (1670)
Rum dubber - A dextrous picklock (C.17)
Running snavel - A robber of children (C.18)

Safe as a crow in a gutter - Very safe (1630)
Satyr - Professional sheep-rustler (1714)
Secret - in the grand - Dead (1780)
Snail's gallop, go a - Go very slowly (1545)
Snub-devil - A clergyman (1780)

Tip the lion - To press a man's nose against his face and gouge his eyes out (1712)
Toad on a chopping block - Somebody sitting awkwardly, e.g. on a horse (C.17)
Tongue enough for two sets of teeth - To be very talkative (1786)
Topsail, pay one's debts with the - Got to sea having left debts unpaid (1785)
Town bull - A wencher or lady's man (C.17)

Umble-cum-stumble - To understand (C.19)
Upper storey - The head; the brain (C.18)
Useless as tits on a bull - Utterly useless (C.19)
Used up - Killed (C.18)

Vegetable breakfast - A hanging (C.19) [Because it's a "hearty choke" - geddit??]
Voyage of discovery - Going out stealing (C.19)
Virtue, to have one's [...] rewarded - To be imprisoned (1870)

Warming-pan - A bedfellow (C.17)
Waste, house of - A tavern or alehouse (1780)
Water in one's shoes - A source of annoyance (C.18)
Wedge-hunter - A thief specialising in silver plate and watches (C.19)
Well-fucked and far from home - To be very tired (C.19)

X, Y, Z
Yappy - Foolishly generous (C.19)
Yellow stockings, wear - To be jealous (C.17)

Friday, 14 June 2019

The Island Campaign

Like I suppose a lot of people do, I have a romantic feeling for islands, particularly small ones. I think this has three roots. First and most obviously, all of us (some more so than others) have fantasies from time to time about being able to retreat from the world and live in splendid isolation from its worries and woes, and life on an island promises this. Second, there is something attractive in the idea that, in living on an island, one could eventually come to know its entire geography and contents intimately, so as to extend a sense of homeliness and familiarity - of ownership, even - over everything on it. Third, there is simply something inherently beautiful about island views and island life; whether a sandy atoll in the aquamarine of the Pacific or a windswept rock in the grey North Atlantic, an island almost invariably comes with a picture-postcard aesthetic that is hard to resist.

An island, or a small archipelago of islands, is also a great location for a D&D campaign. It's a confined territory that PCs can come to know in detail relatively easily - which always makes for a richer experience for both DM and players. It's an isolated territory, so that it can "plug and play" into almost any wider setting, or simply have no relationship to an outside world at all. And it's a small territory, so it provides a framework in which to give player choice real consequence; they're not going to want to piss off that tribe of orcs who live on the other side of the island, because those orcs are going to be able to figure out where the PCs live pretty easily, and there's going to be nowhere to run when they do.

There are 187 permanently inhabited islands in the British Isles, so there are plenty of examples to choose from, but I think the best has to be St Kilda. St Kilda can not only lay claim to encompassing all the virtues of a small archipelago of islands as outlined above. It can also very probably lay claim to being about the most interesting place of its size in the world.

It has neolithic sheepholds dating back to 1850 BC. It has a ruined house of an "Amazon" who supposedly lived on the main island in prehistoric times. It has a ruined fort that was supposed to have been built by the Fir Bolg. It is covered in neolithic cleitan - small rock-built bothies for storing and preserving items (including, surely, magic ones) on a treeless island. It has an empty medieval village (which is, surely, haunted). It has feral sheep who are thought to be the remnants of the earliest domesticated sheep in Europe. It had a system of paying rent with seabirds. It has a name that is not actually that of a saint (except maybe it was).

Above all, it also has sea-stacks, cliffs that look like faces, and landscape features to die for. I loved this line from Baxter and Crumley's St Kilda: A Portrait of Britain's Remotest Island Landscape, cited in the wikipedia entry:

[St Kilda] is a mad, imperfect God's hoard of all unnecessary lavish landscape luxuries he ever devised in his madness. These he has scattered at random in Atlantic isolation 100 miles from the corrupting influences of the mainland, 40 miles west of the westmost Western Isles. He has kept for himself only the best pieces and woven around them a plot as evidence of his madness.

Add a thriving village with some interesting NPCs, a dragon, a giant, a few orcs, some pirates, a mad archmage's tower, a hermit druid and an entrance to some variant of the Underdark on one of the islands and you're good to go for an entire year-long campaign.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Eight Sample Hex Locations in the Bay of Sweetness

Galletue, self-styled Queen of Mist and Rain, a lunatic exile-turned pirate matriarch. She is mostly convinced that anyone who has ever been touched by mist or rain belongs to her, except for rare lucid moments when the horror of her new reality confronts her. She rules over a small band of disaffected and decadent former nobles manipulating her for their own ends, and a much larger band of thugs and killers she believes will help conquer what is rightfully hers.

The Old Man of Bariloche, monstrous inhabitant of a small island lying off the coast. He is a chimera with the rear of an elephant seal, the front of a cave bear, the wings of a huge seabird, and the heads of a red dragon, cave bear, and giant herring gull. His presence is used as a bogeyman to scare children, but he is very real - as is the treasure he has amassed over the years from passing ships.

Long Sands. A stretch of beach on which, for the duration of the gibbous and full phases of the moon every other month, tiny purple jellyfish are washed up in their dead thousands. They are the young of breeding adults who spawn in unison at these times; the bodies of the larva are collected and used for dye, while the adults are caught in nets and dried out to make tough slabs used for armour. The people of the nearby port-states intermittently war over possession of the beach.

The Seal King. A huge statue of an elephant seal, built from granite by a mad exile of long ago. It stands on the tip of a narrow peninsular overlooking the sea all around. Hollow, it has a door in its belly leading to a staircase down to a series of chambers in which the mad exile’s heirlooms can be found - along with his entombed and now-undead followers.

The Kelpie Cult. A religion of death, formed from those who long to find blissful extinction in drowning in the embrace of a kelpie. Each lunar month, one of their number is selected for presentation to a local kelpie in an elaborate ceremony of joyful worship; the kelpie merrily fulfils her part of the bargain. The cult live in a stockade from which they send beggars and thieves out into neighbouring areas to sustain the endeavour.

The Ribs. An ancient sea-elf structure which still partially rises above the sea’s surface not far from shore. It consists of three dozen columns encrusted with barnacles and seaweed arranged in two parallel lines of approximately 150 yards; the first two dozen columns are visible above the surface. Swimming underwater all the way up the route formed by these columns when the moon is full transports the swimmer to the Elemental Plane of Water. This is only known about by the very long-lived and wise. Otherwise the Ribs are described by local people as being haunted and/or the bones of a giant who will one day rise from the dead.

The Flotsam Giant. An ungainly, towering long-limbed figure which appears permanently on the verge of collapse. It is formed from some of the remnants of a wrecked ship which was once carrying a cargo of spirit-beings from elsewhere in Orbis Immobilis - in the aftermath of the wrecking, they escaped and imbued the detritus with their sentient energy. The giant roams a large island attacking all it encounters; it long ago drove away the human inhabitants, who live as refugees in a nearby port-state.

The Broiling Channel of Malalhue. A large whirlpool which forms in the channel between two islands when the tide rushes in and out shortly before moonrise and the high moon. This produces 1d6 sea-spray mephits (treat as mist mephits) who then fly off in search of employment or mischief; they dissipate after one lunar day. There is a 1 in 6 chance on any visit at the specified times that a wizard or cleric is present to try to convince the mephits to join him in some endeavour.

Monday, 10 June 2019

The RPG Hobby is Bigger Than You Think

It depends on how "role playing" is defined.

I've come to believe that human beings cannot help themselves role-playing under certain conditions. Yes, I know that in a broad sense we are all always inescapably playing various roles - father, mother, husband, wife, teacher, plumber, professional snooker player, etc. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking specifically about games.

There are certain types of games - war games, board games and computer games - in which players naturally start to associate themselves with a certain role or character such that at a phenomenological level they begin to think "as" somebody else, somebody who they are not. 

The most obvious example of this from my experience is the computer game Football Manager and its earlier iteration Championship Manager. Here, the player notionally takes on the persona of the manager of a football club somewhere in the world, and the game simulates the decisions that a manager supposedly takes - buying/selling players, picking the team before matches, carrying out training, coming up with tactics, and so on. It would be entirely possible to play Football Manager in the manner of chess - just doing what is necessary to win as an abstract challenge. But the actual experience of playing Football Manager is nothing like this. In fact it is an emotional rollercoaster in which every last outcome is keenly felt and in which one comes to identify so strongly with one's abstract "manager" that one can quite readily come to hate opposing managers, clubs, and even one's own players for frustrating one's wishes in-game. (One of the reasons I stopped playing the game in around 2013 was because it was making me so angry and stressed that I thought it was no longer worth the inescapable emotional investment. I would be better off with the real-life stresses of actually managing a football club, and being paid for it.) Football Manager is not just a computer game. It's actually a role-playing game. It just isn't thought of in that way.

Other examples which may be more pertinent to your experience are strategy games like Civilization and those in the Paradox Interactive stable. I don't think anybody plays Civilization as though it is just an abstract challenge like Scrabble or Go. Instead, they quickly take on the personas of all-powerful Gods, bossing their little Egyptians/Mayans/Mongols around and taking against those dastardly Persians while looking favourably on the sexy Carthaginians (or whatever). They may not take it as far as writing Crusader Kings II After Action Reports in the first or third person, which thousands of people do. But they certainly, to some extent or other, come to feel as though they occupy a "role" - and become emotionally involved in the decisions and activities associated with it. 

Some board games - the best examples I can think of being Monopoly and Diplomacy - also have this character. Play a game of Monopoly and you'll quickly find that the players will begin to act as though they are real-estate entrepreneurs, threatening each other with bankruptcy and bargaining ferociously once all the locations are bought. It's not as though their entire personality changes for four hours. But there's slippage from the role of player into the role of character. They aren't just rolling the dice and trying to amass money as though they are just a stand-in for abstract points. They are trying to amass money because, briefly and conditionally, they want money.

What, then, are the conditions in which "role playing" takes place? I'd suggest:
  1. There's a game
  2. The game is one which has at least some connection to a concrete reality, typically the real world but perhaps a made-up one (from Football Manager, which is about the real world right down to accurately modelling the abilities and actions of tens of thousands of living professional footballers, to Civilization V, which isn't about the real world at all)
  3. The game conceals its mechanics behind an interface (like Crusader Kings II), or a fake set of tokens or other realia (like Monopoly) and isn't based on abstracted or notional items like cards (poker)
These conditions may simply be ideal ones. Chess probably doesn't meet them, and yet it is possible to think of oneself as "being" the King when playing (although most players likely don't do this). 

Thought of in these terms, there are hundreds of millions of us - maybe billions - around the world. 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

CRPGs and the Silver Age

Very little to my (admittedly rudimentary) knowledge has been written about the synergies between computer-game RPGs and RPGs-proper during what has been called the hobby's Silver Age and the Bronze one which followed.

This is somewhat surprising, because the period in question, roughly 1984 to 1999 or thereabouts, was one in which both fields might have been said to have entered "maturity". It's also one in which there was presumably considerable overlap between people involved in the RPG hobby during its development into an industry and people who played CRPGs.

It would have been odd if the two fields had not influenced each other. And we are all familiar with how the RPG hobby lead the way for CRPGs. Many of the early successful RPG games were actually D&D based (Pools of Radiance) and the others borrowed many of its tropes such as classes, levels, hit points, equipment list management etc. A lot less is said about the cross pollinisation going on in reverse, though, and I think this may have been even more significant for all that it was often hidden.

The thing about CRPGs is that, until recently, it was impossible to realistically use them for proper sandbox play except in very limited "kind" environments like early roguelike games (more on "kind" versus "wicked" play in a future blog post). There simply wasn't the processing power or data storage. This meant that one simply couldn't use them for genuinely open-ended exploration. Instead, there had to be constrained environments with a "story" to follow. These games - the Final Fantasy series being maybe the paradigm examples - had to take on the nature of interactive fiction almost by default. There was a bit of freedom to move around and a bit of chance in terms of encounters. But by and large play was a matter of going from cut-scene to cut-scene.

It is surely no accident that this kind of play rose to such prominence in the RPG hobby as well during the era of CRPGs prominence. Any such discussion will of course rapidly devolve into an argument over chickens and eggs. But one that is nonetheless perhaps worth having.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Avatar 10 Years On

It is hard to believe that Avatar was released in 2009 - in both senses in which that can be true. On the one hand it's difficult to accept that it's not just yesterday. And yet on the other it feels like several eons have passed since it came out.

The overwhelming sensation, though, is a vague doubt that it ever even came out at all. What happened to Avatar? Where did it go? Considering that it is the highest-grossing film of all time, it's amazing that it's so rarely mentioned: when was the last time Avatar came up in conversation in your hearing?

I have a soft spot for James Cameron's films in general and Avatar in particular. In a way, there is a lot of the George Lucas about him: the end product may be dreadful, but at least he seems like he's trying do do something grand and original and amazing. There's a peculiar honour in George Lucas's tilting-at-windmills endeavours with the Star Wars prequels (terrible as they are), and James Cameron is frequently the same. Avatar is dreadfully flawed. But, at the same time, wow. That is the sensation that I left the cinema with after having watched it, and the sensation I still vaguely remember now: Wow. The script was dreadful. The plot was formulaic. The acting was wooden. But still, the spectacle was quite something.

Here was a man who not only did something BIG, but sensed it. Doing something BIG in itself isn't enough, of course - just watch the John Carter film, or Oliver Stone's Alexander, for instance. But Avatar is more than that. There's feeling in it too. I think in the final analysis that's what carries it over the line: James Cameron's own emotional investment in the project which finds its way through the Hollywood machine, the money, the special effects, the awful cliches, and communicates itself to the audience - in the thinnest of whispers, but communicated nonetheless. He really wanted to make Dances with Wolves in space with blue aliens, god damn it, and he will carry you along with him, come what may.

I am uplifted by Avatar. There is so much wrong with it. But the sheer genuineness of it shines through. It sweeps you along. I can't tell you why, any more than I can tell you why the first Star Wars film does. All I can tell you is that enthusiasm counts for a lot, and that even on a project as big as Avatar undoubtedly was, it can still manage to make itself felt.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Living Larders and Monster Mutualism

Out in the garden the other day I was amazed to discover ants farming little clusters of black aphids on one of the plants. I knew this sort of thing went on and had seen it in nature documentaries, but for some reason I had never expected it to be possible that it would take place before my very eyes in suburban Newcastle, of all places. It was one of those transcendental moments that one experiences from time to time when confronted with nature's awesome (I use the world advisedly) richness - one in which your consciousness unfolds beyond itself and becomes momentarily subsumed in the interconnectedness of all of Gaia's children, or something. I definitely wanted to put on something tie-dyed, that's for sure.

(What I settled for was violating the Prime Directive - I couldn't help myself - and putting a ladybird on said plant in the vicinity of the aphids. The immediate consternation and aggression among the ants was terrifying when seen from the perspective of something less than half a centimetre in size.)

The word for this sort of thing is, apparently, mutualism, or a mutualistic relationship - an "ecological interaction between two or more species in which both species benefit". The ants get nectar from the aphids; the aphids get protected from ladybirds. There are plenty more examples, many of which seeming to involve ants (my favourite being the Devil's Garden phenomenon). 

I am not sure whether human-animal farming relationships can be classed as a form of mutualism - it depends if you see the farm animals as benefiting or not. Possibly in classically pastoral relationships the case is easier to make than modern industrial farming, but that's an argument for another day. But there's clearly a similarity between the ant/aphid dynamic and that of, say, humans and goats.

Or, humans and pigeons. This is a photo of the remains of the "living larder" at Speke Hall, a restored Tudor manor house which I also recently visited. It was once used to store pigeons, who were bred for their tasty flesh in Tudor times; the birds were obviously kept in the stone box things on the back wall.

What kind of mutualistic and/or farming relationships would exist in a D&D campaign setting taken to its sensible conclusions? Most obviously and boringly, giants would presumably herd giant animals. There are plenty of other relationships that suggest themselves. I wonder if there isn't a more interesting way of doing it: count the number of monster entries in the Monstrous Manual, randomly generate numbers so you can pick two of them, and see if you can think of a mutualistic relationship between the resulting entries. For example, I've just performed the exercise three times and come up with:

Firedrake and Insect Swarm. A species of firedrake that follows swarms of locusts as they travel across the land, feeding off the weakened and starving beasts and people left in their wake. The locusts benefit by the firedrake occasionally searing off old vegetation with its breath so they can get at the lush green shoots underneath. 

Owlbear and Peryton. Owlbears often live near peryton nests, scavenging the corpses of the people whose hearts have been removed by the perytons during mating. The owlbears protect the nests in "return" (though of course neither party is conscious of this). 

Giant Rat and Sprite. Sprites tell giant rats where to find birds' nests to steal eggs; sometimes - though not often enough for the rats to cotton on - they lead them instead to the homes of enemy sprite clans to cause mayhem. 

Clearly, this won't work for every pairing (rust monster and giant squid, anyone?) but juxtaposition can produce excellent results. Do your own. For those working with the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, I reckoned there were 304 entries (though I may have miscounted). does the rest. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Bay of Sweetness

East of the Forested Sea, beyond the peninsular known as The Finger, a vast wide gulf opens up in the land. Into it flow rivers bringing with them fresh rainwater deposited at the feet of distant mountains in the warm north. This carries the rich fecundity of those lands pouring into the dawn sea and filling it with vigorous life. The waters throng; the peoples living along the coast are richer than they have any right to be given their climate. But this in turn makes them prey for others.

Small city-states cluster all along the length of the bay, supported entirely by the bounty of the sea. Ostensibly human, occasional individuals among their populations are born with appearances betraying an elven lineage; families with a propensity for such qualities tend to form their political and cultural elites. Quixotic madness is also a feature of these families, manifesting as manic episodes growing in frequency and severity as old age approaches. Often these episodes involve a desire to drown, or to descend into the ocean and live on the sea bed. Legend has it that long ago a race of sea-dwelling elves mingled with the human population on the shore; this caused elven blood to be subsumed in that of the more vigorous humans, remaining only to make itself apparent as fortune dictates. Whether this is true or not nobody knows, but what is true is that on the sea bed - often in very shallow places easily accessible to divers - are built forms overgrown with seaweed and coral, resembling overgrown buildings, monuments, or tombs.

Rocky islands dot the bay itself, and here live other beings and other polities. A heptarchy of neogi petty-kings, ruling over their subject semi-aquatic puffin-headed orcs in an archipelago of seven islets. A were-walrus magician on an isolated island crafting golems from sand and seaweed for protection and companionship. Tribes of primitive cormorant-aarakocra living in filthy villages of nests lying exposed on rocks. Mad human noble exiles carrying out bizarre utopian schemes or plotting conquest with their loyalist retinues. Bands of pirates and brigands living from theft and kidnap. And much more besides. Between these islets are the shallow, fertile waters of the bay itself, mother to endless swarming undersea life and, in turn, all who live off it.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Why Animal People?

Comments on a recent post got me thinking about anthropomorphised animals. Why is it that as children we are told stories about rabbits, frogs, badgers and bears, and why do we carry this through into grown-up fantasy literature and RPG bestiaries? Why do so many of Aesop's fables feature talking animals? Why are non-humans the protagonists of so many myths and folkloric tales from around the world?

There is a reasonably large literature on this, it seems - I found a sizeable number of journal articles on it when searching earlier today. Approaches to the question vary. On the one hand, this article has a purely pragmatic perspective: we anthropomorphise animals in fiction because it is easy for children to identify with them, because we like flights of fancy and escapism, because an animal character has a ready-made personality (wily fox, lazy sloth, cheeky monkey, etc.) without any need for elucidation, and because of the potential for humour.

On the other, there are more self-consciously academic pieces which locate anthropomorphism of animals in a broader discussion of the functions of literature, reading and education.

I think the practical observations do have some bite, but this somewhat throwaway observation in the second piece I linked to seems to get closest to the mark:

When the risks and rewards are high, when the signs are ambiguous, when we are up against powerful forces, we envision human intents and actions cloaked in the shapes of objects and animals, and we act accordingly. Intuitively then, we begin to see faces in the clouds, a man in the moon, assign people’s names to life-threatening storms, and watch our investments in bull and bear markets.

This is an important observation, but it only gets us so far, Undoubtedly in situations of emotional urgency we tend to imbue both animals and inanimate objects with feelings (who hasn't hissed "Stupid thing!" at some recalcitrant tool or fiddly object that seems to be deliberately and malignantly refusing to cooperate in whatever task you want to carry out?). And we do sometimes create stories about objects too - Thomas the Tank Engine, Boris the Digger, Gwen the Carrot, or whatever. But it doesn't tell us why, and nor does it explain why children are in particular drawn to stories about animals over objects, and both over stories about other people. The authors of the piece in question suggest that anthropomorphism helps create emotional distance, allowing us to deal playfully and safely with difficult themes - for example, I suppose, by thinking of an economic downturn as a bear, or an oncoming deadly storm as Katrina. I don't think that's quite right. We want to think of a storm being Katrina or a bear market because we want someone to struggle against, to hate - not because we want to think of them in a light-hearted way.

I'm inclined to think that our tendency to anthropomorphise animals comes about because animals have a vibrancy, a certain "thinginess", to them; they are real in a way that other things are not. Partly this is because, as I've said before, we have a deep interest in, and connection with, animals that can surely only be explained by their importance to us in our evolutionary past. (Or, if you prefer, by the fact that they are created beings just like we are.) But mostly I think it is because to watch an animal go about the business of living is to watch something truly putting its all into the task in front of it. Animals never engage in half-measures - everything they do, they do for real, whether it's looking for food, mating, sleeping or playing. Their doings spark our curiosity and engage our emotions because they are vested with so much more vigour and determination than our own. This is why children respond to stories about them. And it is also why when we want to think of something monstrous, something vivid, something exciting, the minds of DMs so often instinctively go towards animal people.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Map Porn

I am not very active on reddit, but I do occasionally drop in, primarily to visit this subreddit. It is called "Map Porn". It features map porn. There is no false advertising. In lieu of a proper post (it is a holiday weekend after all) here are some of the maps featuring on it that tickled my fancy recently - perhaps they'll tickle yours.

Above is a map of the lands that would have been revealed if the Atlantropa movement had been a success. The Atlantropa story is weird enough but I also like to imagine if the scheme had been carried off by a crazed magician at the time of the Punic Wars, or a holy mad man at the time of the Black Death, or some other point in history when it would really have fucked things up.

Above is what the British Isles and its surroundings looked like in 5,500 BC. What was in the bit that's now under the North Sea? 

Here is somebody's imagined map of what Africa would have looked like in the modern day without European colonisation. It reminded me very strongly of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. 

Above is French Polynesia overlaying a map of Europe, to scale (featuring Air Tahiti's network). A reminder of the oceans' vastness, but what fascinates me most are the really isolated islands. Like Temoe, which is now uninhabited but once featured temple structures, or Marotiri, which must surely feature long-buried aliens, the tombs of gods, or the last resting place of Prester John.

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

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:

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.

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.

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.