Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Hidden Fortress and Bludgeoning Down the Fourth Wall

As time goes on I come around to George Lucas. If you watch the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD with the Director's commentaries turned on (trust me: this is actually riveting - possibly even better than just watching the actual films) you grow to like him. For all his flaws, his heart was resolutely in the right place: this is a man who merely wants to tell good stories that people will like. There may have been a large element of fluke in the success of Episode IV, but there was also method behind the madness and a considerable amount of craft. Sometimes, that boils down to a willingness to indulge in sheer theft, but there's even a craft in that - if you're going to steal, you steal from the best, and you don't get much better than Kurosawa Akira.

A New Hope steals heavily from The Hidden Fortress. (So did The Phantom Menace, but you don't mention the prequels if you want to build a case for the defence for George Lucas.) It steals elements of plot, character, and theme. But it also steals the setting, in a sense. The most important lesson George Lucas learned from The Hidden Fortress is: any story set in an "alien" or unknown setting is better without infodump. The Hidden Fortress was made for a Japanese audience and it doesn't bother to explain anything to do with Japanese history or culture as a result - it assumes the audience would know it already. Western audiences don't understand everything, but that doesn't matter - they just get caught up in the story.

Star Wars doesn't indulge in infodump, unless you count the sketch provided in the opening credits. It doesn't waste time explaining who the Jedi are, what the Clone Wars were, what the Empire is, and so on. It just tells its story and the audience follow along, either filling in the details themselves or merrily ignoring whatever background fluff is alluded to. There's no slack in it as a consequence - it is pure narrative verve.

This seems like a simple thing, when you realise that George Lucas is one of the few people to have ever learned it, and even he forgot it when he came to make the prequels. I just spent a few hours in my local city centre bookshop looking through the SF/Fantasy section and trying desperately to see if anything might grab me. None of it does, because almost every book repeats the same mistake. You flick to the first page of the book proper (all such books have an annoying "Prologue" or "Prelude" nowadays - authors don't have the confidence to just begin at the beginning), and what do you get? 99 times out of 100, it's an opening sequence in which the viewpoint characters indulge in strange interior monologues setting the scene for the reader. You don't get pure narrative. You get a narrative in which the characters are constantly making unnatural asides to a reader who they aren't supposed to know is there.

Here's an example of what I mean, taken from the very first page of the Andy Hoare's Rogue Trader Trilogy (available here), Rogue Star. It is not the most egregious example one could think of - just a common-or-garden example of what I am from now on going to call "Bludgeoning Down the Fourth Wall":

‘Helm, seven degrees pitch to starboard! Number three’s mis­behaving again. Deal with it.’
Lucian Gerrit, rogue trader, turned his back on Raldi, his helmsman and resumed his vigil at the bridge viewing port. His vessel, the heavy cruiser Oceanid, felt cold to him. The after-effect, he knew, of so long a voyage through the empyrean to reach this far-flung system at the very border of the Emperor’s domains.
A jarring shudder ran through the deck plate, felt in the bones more than heard.
‘If you can’t compensate for a grizzling plasma drive, Mister Raldi, I can always disconnect one of the waste ingestion servitors and see if it’s capable of making a better show of it than you appear to be. Do I make myself clear?’
If the helmsman answered, Lucian wasn’t in the mood to hear. Though a ship to be proud of, the Oceanid was long past her prime. Even in a space-faring culture in which vessels remained in service for centuries, even millennia, she was old. Her homeport, Ariadne Halo, had fallen to alien attack in Lucian’s great, great grandfather’s time. All her sister ships were distant memories. She was the last of a long line. Much like Lucian himself, in fact.
Where once a deck crew of dozens had attended to their stations in the crew pit, now half of Lucian’s crew were hard-wired servitors, each mumbling an impenetrable catechism of the Machine-God. Vacant-eyed and drooling, each monitored a single aspect of the vessel’s running. Vessels such as the Oceanid relied on their like, for many tasks were beyond the abilities of a man to perform. Yet, over the years, the availability and quality of competent crewmen had diminished to such an extent that Lucian was forced to rely on servitors. Though essential in many roles, the hideous machine-corpse custodians were no substitute for a man when it came to obeying orders in a crisis. Each knew only its allotted purpose, and would remain tethered uncaring to its station even were it to burst into flames.Raldi, one of the men of flesh and blood, rather than carrion and oil, onboard the Oceanid, called out. ‘Sir, we’re beginning our run on the rendezvous point. Provided we don’t pick up any ionisation we should be within hailing range.’

See what I mean? The chances are that if you have read much SF/Fantasy fiction you have read an opening passage like this a thousand times, and you have probably grown used to it, but take a moment to look at how unnecessary it is. What is this passage actually doing? At most, it is three lines of dialogue - which are themselves totally unnecessary. All that has happened is that a spaceship has arrived somewhere for a rendezvous. It could be dealt with in a sentence. Everything else is setting fluff that can come out much more elegantly in dialogue or simply through inference.

Why is it bludgeoning down the fourth wall? Because it constantly reminds the reader that they are reading a book, rather than immersing them in the story. It is an endlessly-repetitive Brechtian distancing effect which reminds the reader at every turn that they are not part of the world which the characters inhabit. By explaining everything, the author sets the reader outside of the narrative and prevents them losing themselves in it.

For counter-points which do not bludgeon down the fourth wall, I direct you to The Book of the New Sun, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, A Clockwork Orange, and the Helliconia books. (And, it is worth adding, that there are elegant examples of infodump in the hands of skillful authors when the book self-consciously presents itself as a story told to the reader by the author: The Hobbit, The Face in the Frost, and The Chronicles of Amber.)

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Apropos of Nothing

This blog is ostensibly about role playing games. Often, it isn't, but what I'm writing about at least bears a family resemblance to them. Every once in a while, though, I come across something I want to share which has absolutely bugger all to do with the topic at hand. But it's my blog, so there. Here are some little scraps that amused or intrigued me recently and wanted to share without comment:

"[The tortoise] not only goes under the earth from the middle of November to the middle of April, but sleeps a great part of the summer; for it goes to bed in the longest days at four in the afternoon, and often does not stir in the morning til late. Besides, it retires to rest for every shower; and does not move at all in wet days.

"When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squandor more than two thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months altogether in the profoundest of slumbers."

-Gilbert White, from The Natural History of Selborne

"Like many another great captain who has sent thousands of men to their deaths, [Churchill] shrank from personal violence. This was most striking in his treatment of animals, even insects. Since he detested fresh air - he had his bedroom windows sealed with putty - it was hard for bugs to get at him. But sometimes a bee, wasp or moth flew in from another part of the house. 'Don't kill him,' he would tell his valet. 'Make sure you put him out of the window.' Once, during a division of the House, Anthony Head, the first man out of the chamber, spied a ladybird on the carpet. Realizing that a thunder of MP feet would soon pass this way, he bent down to rescue it. At that moment the Prime Minster arrived and immediately grasped the situation. Taking charge, he said, 'Put her out of the window.' But since the introduction of air conditioning the windows had been permanently locked. 'Use the Chancellor's office,' he said, 'And report back to me.' Head did, but when he returned Churchill was in conference with the French Foreign Minister. The secretary told him he could look in for a moment. Head did and told Churchill: 'She escaped. I let her out through Macmillan's window. Nobody touched her.' 'Good! Good!' the Prime Minister boomed. To this day Head wonders what must have passed through the Foreign Minister's mind."

-William Manchester, from The Last Lion - Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

"This, then, is how the idea of Europe and European balance was born. It is crystallized, of course, with the treaty of Westphalia, the first complete, conscious, explicit expression of a politics of European balance, the main function of which, as you know, is to reorganize the Empire, to define its status and its rights in relation to the German principalities, and the zones of influence of Austria, Sweden, and France on German territory, all according to the laws of equilibrium, which actually explains why Germany could become, and actually became, the center for the elaboration of the European republic.

"We should never forget that Europe as a juridical-political entity, as a system of diplomatic and political security, is the yoke that the most powerful countries (of this Europe) imposed on Germany every time they tried to make it forget the dream of the sleeping emperor, whether Charlemagne, Barbarossa, or the little man who was burnt between his dog and his mistress one May [sic] evening on the chancellery premises. Europe is the way of making Germany forget the Empire. So, if the Emperor never really wakes up, we should not be surprised that Germany sometimes gets up and says: 'I am Europe. I am Europe since you wished it that I be Europe.' And it says this precisely to those who wanted it to be Europe and nothing but Europe, namely French imperialism, English domination, or Russian expansionism. In Germany they wanted to substitute the obligation of Europe for the desire for Empire. 'Fine,' Germany replies therefore, 'that’s no problem, since Europe will be my empire.'"

-Michel Foucault, in Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-78, trans. G. Burchell

"After one of my many presentations following my return from Rwanda, a Canadian Forces padre asked me how, after all I had seen and experienced, I could still believe in God. I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God."

-Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, from Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Mountain to the Moon

I may have written about this campaign setting idea before; I'm not sure. The elevator pitch is straightforward: it's a mountain that goes all the way to the moon. Hence:

The mountain was built by an advanced civilization - the Naacals* - to escape the apocalypse then overtaking the world in which they lived. This was no apocalypse of lack, but one of plenty - a sudden flourishing of flora and fauna that became so fecund and monstrous that life, sheer natural life, overwhelmed civilization, except on one island which managed to maintain its defences. Here the mountain was erected and the Naacals ascended through it to the moon, to live in safety and isolation for ever more.

But not all ascended, naturally - only the aristocratic elect - and they made sure to prevent anybody coming up behind them. They withdrew a metaphorical drawbridge by filling the mountain with deadly traps and guardians. Those left behind were forced to make do as they could, and they created a city around the base of the mountain in which to live. The seas around the island protect them and sustain them, and over the millennia they have fashioned a new civilization of a kind.

The mountain exists as, of course, a kind of megadungeon - it is networked by a vast labyrinth of tunnels filled with the decaying traps and mad sentinels left behind by the Naacals, as well as treasures and technological artefacts abandoned on the way. There has grown up around the mountain a vast quasi-religion of myth and ritual that has prevented general exploration but which is circumvented or ignored by a secret guild of explorers/adventurers who venture into its depths and share their discoveries. The guild is secretly sponsored by curious members of the nobility and magic-users who occasionally purchase what it uncovers, whether through academic interest or because they believe it will aid them socially or in other, more nefarious ways. The PCs are members of the guild, natch.

At the same time there is also a mainland across the sea - a world which is filled with danger but one which, possibly, might once again harbour human life for anyone brave enough to colonise it. The PCs could try that, just as they could try to get all the way up to the moon - but they would need to be pretty powerful in order to do so.

[*The Naacals are also a major element in Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. I have it in mind to create a "Naacal Trilogy" of loosely-related campaign settings, which may or may not be on the same world in hugely distant eras.]

Friday, 25 January 2019

Revisiting Warhammer - or, Age of Sigmar: I'm Surprised I Don't Hate This

Until last year, I did not know there was such a thing as "Age of Sigmar". Currently, my knowledge of the setting extends to its wikipedia page.

I ought to hate it. I do, happily, hate aspects of it. The names are horrendous - not just the druadin=dwarves, orruks=orcs nonsense, but the terrible unimaginative pseudo-exotic rubbish monolingual English speakers come up with when they try to think of a place name that sounds fantastical ("Ghur", "Ghyran", "Ulgu" - give me "Bretonnia" any day). The "Stormcast Eternals" concept is dreadful (you can just imagine the conversation in the board room: "People love Space Marines. We've got to find some way to get Space Marines into Warhammer"). It seems on its face to be have been designed deliberately to reward system mastery, which is an approach I instinctively despise. I don't understand what's going on with Slaanesh and the apparent replacement with the Horned God; doesn't the Horned God overlap too much with Nurgle, and isn't Slaanesh kind of cool? And, once again we get huge faction proliferation, mostly at the expense of humans (I had to search really hard to find any information on the wikipedia entry about humans).

Plenty to dislike, then. But, damn it, I do find plenty to like, too. I think the distinctly Moorcockian shift is welcome, even if the Order/Chaos/Death/Destruction split into super-factions doesn't make any real sense: at least it's a bit different from your typical bog-standard fantasy setting. And the separation of the setting into different realms or spheres is reminiscent both of Planescape, which I like, and also Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight, which I also like, and that is not to mention Moorcock's multiverse concept itself; all good so far. There is enough actual weirdness in there to genuinely intrigue me: Slaan floating around in cosmic vessels remembering seraphons lizardmen into existence to fight for them; Fyreslayers Fireslayers, a race of mercenary dwarves who fight in exchange for something they think is the remnants of their dead God; a type of marine aelf elf which raids the surface for souls; the fact that is an entire faction of spooky ghosts.

I think you also have to hand it to Games Workshop for, well, "going big or going home". They went big with Age of Sigmar. It's what there was before, not turned up to 11, but 111. It is absurdly OTT: Bonesplitterz? Aleguzzler gargant? Maggotkin of Nurgle? Swifthawk agents? The lion raiders? Are you kidding me? It's only a few steps removed from what a 9-year-old boy would come up with over the course of a weekend. But they went for it. You sort of have to doff your cap to them. In a strange way, my reaction to it is a bit like my reaction to James Cameron's Avatar. It's not actually very good. And yet.... it certainly was a whole lot of movie. In the same way, Age of Sigmar is a whole lot of Games Workshop. And ultimately there is nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Non-Euclidean Justifications for Character Classes

Comments on yesterday's post brought up the old question of what makes a new character class necessary. Why have a Sage class when knowledge is something that a character of any class can have? Why a Thief class when a character of any class can steal, hide, etc.? (If memory serves, the example provided in the AD&D 2nd edition DMG was the Assassin: why have an Assassin class when a member of any class can kill for money?)

On the one hand, there is a strange conservatism, almost a reactionary flavour, to this argument: a default against having new classes, as though new classes is per se to be frowned upon. Admittedly, this is a position which has its attractions for me. But it isn't likely to convince doubters. What arguments might?

At first glance the strongest argument for the existence of classes, which is basically a variant of niche-protection: a class should mean a type of PC who has exclusive purview over one or more particular activities. Wizards for magic, Clerics for healing and turning undead (perhaps working better when exclusively able to do the latter), Fighters for fighting.

Except, er, members of any class can fight.

And, except Elves, Dwarves and Halflings, who could be described as being special cases were it not for the fact that this would make for just as many special cases as "standard" Basic D&D classes. (In fact, if you include the Fighter, it would make Wizards and Clerics the special cases in being classes-based-on-exclusive-abilities. Not to mention the fact that Elves also cast spells. But I've made my point, I think).

What other justifications might exist for creating a character class, then? One other argument standing a fighting chance might be that of fidelity to source material. There are wizards in fantasy literature, and there are warrior/fighter types - hence Wizards and Fighters. And there are Rangers (Aragorn), and there are also Elves and Dwarves, and Halflings. But Clerics? I'm also not convinced that there are many Druids appearing in fantasy fiction, at least those who are described as such, nor Paladins.

A better argument could simply be functionalism, which is somewhat related to the argument from niche-protection. Here, the idea would be that a class can exist where there is an actual need for it. You need a class to heal and turn undead. Hence Clerics. You need a class to be able to fight. Hence Fighters. You need a class to be able to cast spells. Hence Wizards. But don't Dwarves and Elves complicate both of the latter, creating functional redundancy with the existence of two classes doing more-or-less the same things?

The truth is, you are a fool if you think D&D is based on anything like rational or logical principles. D&D is resolutely non-Euclidean. Euclidean geometry is based on the notion that you can identify a small number of irrefutable apex principles from which all rules logically follow. This is not just an idea from the realm of mathematics: for somebody like Descartes or Rawls, it's also how you should organise anything, more or less - whether a role-playing game or an entire society or system of justice.

D&D is not like that. It's rules are a tangled mess with no coherent underlying principles: it is, in effect more of a result of Darwinian selection combined with inherent inertia on the part of players and rule-makers. Why does an iteration of D&D have the classes it does? Partly because it has always had them (Wizards, Clerics, Fighters). Partly because people clearly just want them (Rangers, Paladins, Druids). Partly because they are what works (you need there to be Fighters in a combat-heavy game; for some players, it's just easier to have a Thief class who disarms traps rather than having them puzzle them out for themselves). Partly because of fidelity to a shared notion of what fantasy fiction is (Elves, Dwarves). And partly because the creators of a new edition for obvious reasons are compelled not to stray too far from what has gone before.

It seems to me to be no accident that the more designers tend to try to start from apex principles and work from there, the less effective and interesting D&D becomes - 4th edition being the paradigm example. A slightly different way of putting all this is what Jeff Rients once said in what is probably still the single most intelligent blog post to ever emerge from what we now call the OSR - "every RPG theory fails the moment D&D comes into consideration".

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Towards an Adventurer Sage Class

In order to operationalise a Sage class that can be remotely interesting, it needs to be a class of adventurer sages - explorers, "faunists" (I got this great 18th century word from The Natural History of Selborne, which I'm currently reading), botanists, xenobiologists, and the like, who study in the field. But that in itself, I think, needs a mechanism for giving Sages something to do: finding new things and, crucially, getting that task into the XP/gold economy.

In other words, Sages need to get money for finding stuff out and telling other sages about it.

How to do that? Well, a basic price system, assuming that there is some kind of market among other sages (guilds of sages, for example) for the new knowledge a Sage produces. Let's think about how that could work.

Well, there could be a basic base rate for different discoveries based on the detail of the knowledge generated. So, for example:

Sketch on the fly of a monster: 5gp (x1 if the monster is common, x2 if uncommon, x5 if rare, x10 if very rare)
Sketch of a monster from careful study: 15gp per week of close observation (same modifiers)
Sketch of a monster from memory: 2gp (same modifiers)
Detailed notes on a monster: 5gp (same modifiers)
Monster sample (hair, bone, tooth, etc.): 10gp (same modifiers)
Monster corpse: 50gp (same modifiers)
Live monster: 100gp
Sketched map of new hex (takes 1 week of exploration for a 6 mile hex, multiplied by travel rate (e.g., x1 for open terrain, x3 for hilly, etc.)): 250gp, 
Detailed map of new hex (takes 3 weeks of exploration for a 6 mile hex): 1000gp
Map to a special site from nearest settlement: 250gp per hex traversed 

Prices are based on there being an applicable Guild of Sages to which to sell the information (e.g., a Guild of Geographers for maps). If there is no applicable Guild of Sages but there are sages present, the price obtained is 0.1 of the normal amount. If there are no sages present at all, no sale can take place.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Revisiting 40k: Eldar

Eldar were "my" army back in my Warhammer 40,000 playing days, so revisiting modern Eldar material has the feel of visiting very old and dimly-remembered relatives: names like Striking Scorpions, Howling Banshees, Dire Avengers and Dark Reapers, that I have not heard or read in years, unlock certain attic doors inside my brain where it has packed away all sorts of memories it thought it wouldn't be needing anymore.

I have mixed feelings about what has been done with the Eldar. On the one hand, the development of new sub-Eldar factions, the "Drukhari" (sigh) and Harlequins, seems like the worst combination of fan service, raw commercial exploitation, and lazy adoption of current cultural reference points (would there have been an entire Harlequins faction were it not for the success of The Dark Knight?). The name "Drukhari" in particular sends shivers of cringe down my spine: the fact that it has nothing to do with all other Gaelic-influenced Eldar naming conventions, the fact that it uses that terribly bland and over-used plural suffix "-i" as a shorthand for exoticism...then there's also the fact that Eldar are dark enough for there not to need to be a "Dark Eldar" faction at all, the fact that the backstory is completely ridiculous ("To save your own souls you have to become EVIL!!!!"), the fact that the Eldar brand of evil ends up being exactly the same as the human type: slavery and torture.

But all of that said, you would have to say that Games Workshop have managed to make, in the Eldar, a variant of Tolkien's elves which is much more interesting than those found elsewhere - especially more so than your common-or-garden D&D elf. Partly it's because, perhaps perversely, there is a stronger streak of Noldor in them than you tend to get in other Tolkien derivatives; the arrogance, vanity, vengefulness, and also of course the susceptibility to corruption and the motif of a long-running, but ultimately doomed, struggle against an ancient enemy. There's also the fact that, Drukhari aside, the Games Workshop designers didn't shy away from the idea - again ultimately Tolkien's - of elves-as-sidhe. The concept of fae-in-the-far-future shouldn't really work, but does, and is one that I feel they could push even more strongly: I can't help but feel the Harlequins be more interesting if the idea of the capricious trickster was followed through properly and they became true against of chaos in the ordinary sense - souped-up uber-warriors whose true motives are never made clear and who pick fights apparently at random, all in the name of some game that only they understand?

But at the same time, the Eldar also draw a lot from Moorcock and other veins of "weirder" British fantasy writing. I mean, take a look at these models: this is like the Melniboneans turned to 11 (especially the woman with the stilettos and pet alien-cat-thing), and I can't help just loving it:

It is completely, ludicrously camp and silly. But brilliant with it: what in official, bland WotC standard D&D-land comes close to it?

Friday, 18 January 2019

Yoon-Suin is Not an Analogy for Anything or Anywhere

I have been quite lucky that Yoon-Suin seems to have escaped online culture wars relatively unscathed; before it was released I worried some people might make bad-faith readings of racism and orientalism in it, but rather pleasingly, they mostly haven't. That said, I do occasionally come across negative posts about it on various online platforms, mostly describing it as "problematic" or words to that effect, because it is wrongly thought to be an "analogue" (I hate that word; it makes me think of watches, and anyway, "analogy" is itself a noun) for real world places and cultures. 

I want to take the opportunity to write a definitive statement on the matter, mainly so that when I see people making this kind of statement (as in a recent thread on Reddit which I won't link to), I can direct them here.

Yoon-Suin is not an analogy for anything or anywhere. Words actually have meanings, and an "analogy" does not merely mean something which just takes inspiration from another thing, or which happens to superficially resemble another thing in some way. An analogy is a thing which is very similar to another in at least one important respect, and is generally used a method for illustrating something about that other thing for the purposes of argument or clarification. In other words, an analogy is not just a resemblance between X and Y. It is an observed similarity between X and Y which reveals something about one or the other.

Yoon-Suin is not intended to reveal anything about anything in the real world. Nor is it similar to the real world. It has slug-men in it, for goodness' sake. And a city populated by people cut in half. There is no analogy being made or drawn in it. None whatsoever. If you are worried that is my intention, don't. If you are worried others will draw that inference, that's their problem. 

That said, all ideas come from somewhere, and the root of what became Yoon-Suin did begin as me idly wondering one day why there were fantasy versions of most places in the world (Europe, China, Japan, India, and so on) but not Tibet or Nepal. I used that initial seed of an idea to create a campaign to run games in which became the Mountains of the Moon area of the setting. Yoon-Suin kind of spread from there. It sort of looks like the geography of the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal because that's what I was looking at when I made up the map. It has some monsters loosely based on folklore from Burma, Bengal and Tibet and many which aren't. It is a fantasy version of that region of the world to the extent - probably less than the extent - to which Greyhawk is a fantasy version of Europe. In other words, it's nothing like it but has a little bit of the furniture. 

You might think it is illegitimate for me to have made it that way, maybe because you have read online summaries of Edward Said's Orientalism or half-paid attention to his writings as an undergraduate; if so, there's probably no getting through to you, except to resort to an old but sensible cliche: sometimes imitation is just the most sincere form of flattery. And only that.

In closing, I did once, perhaps stupidly, make the statement that Yoon-Suin is "Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk." (Some people call Yoon-Suin "fantasy China" or "fantasy India" or "fantasy South-East Asia"; please, if you're going to call it "fantasy-anything", which you shouldn't, then call it "fantasy Tibet, Nepal and Bengal and a bit of Tajikistan and also Burma".) I thought it would be evident when I wrote that sentence that I had my tongue firmly in my cheek and was self-deprecatingly calling attention to the fact that I am a very ignorant person, not a student of real-world cultures in any formal sense, and was poking fun at myself and others in that position. I forgot that people who comment on Reddit don't understand irony and themselves have egos too massive to contemplate self-deprecation. 

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Revisiting 40k: Orks

When I am back in my hometown I sometimes hang out with Patrick S, and his interest in Warhammer 40,000 has slightly revitalised mine. I haven't kept up with Games Workshop games for about 20 years, so a whole raft of developments have passed me by; I thought it might be interesting to do some posts on my observations about what has changed.

The first observation (apart from fucking hell things got expensive) is that something seems to have happened to the Orks: they haven't gone away exactly, but their role - I am judging this by the number of other factions, the number of models available in shops, and other external paraphernalia like White Dwarf and the novels and codices - seems very much diminished. When I wur a lad, Warhammer 40k was basically Space Marines, Imperial Guard, Eldar, Orks, and Chaos. Tyranids had, I think, just begun to become a "thing". Now, from what I can tell, there are three types of Eldar, three types of Chaos army (more if you include separate codices for Death Guard and Thousand Sons), all manner of different Space Marine armies, something like eight (eight!) different non-Space Marine human armies broadly conceived, new factions like the Necrons and Tau... and then, somewhere lost in the middle of all this, Orks.

I wonder if this observation is accurate. Regardless, I will idly speculate that is partly because:

a) Orks have been around for so long and the Games Workshop version of the "orc" - markedly different to that given us by Tolkien - is so influential in popular culture that they are almost now part of the furniture and hence can't escape being thought of as old hat;
b) There is too strong a humourous (at least, attempted humourous) streak in the orks for modern Games Workshop and especially modern 40k, which now gives off a vibe of being relentlessly and oppressively humourless which it never used to;
c) There was always too much of a conceptual overlap between Orks (a hostile external force which unwaveringly seeks to destroy and dominate mankind through force) and Chaos (a hostile external force which unwaveringly seeks to destroy and dominate mankind through force and other more interesting insidious means), and this may finally be causing Orks to be eclipsed: they just aren't quite as compelling as enemies as heretical and corrupted humans and grotesque daemons, and the only thing they had going for them (a sense of anarchic fun) doesn't have the traction it once did (see point b) above).

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Billy Liar and Tolkien's Sub-Creation

Once more, with feeling.

There are certain hobbies - D&D, certainly; model railways and model village-making, definitely; arguably also military-modelling - for which the creation of miniature worlds is a chief component. Whether it's a DM creating his own campaign setting (which could be literally an entire world or just a small region of one), a model railway enthusiast setting up a rail network complete with villages and mountains in his attic (like, weirdly, Jools Holland), or a military history enthusiast setting up a diorama of a battle in his study, these people are united by an interest in a peculiar activity: the making up of imaginary places for its own sake.

There is a certain armchair psychological view that would have it that this sort of hobby is the exclusive preserve of socially-inept neckbeards who live in their mothers' basements and compensate for their complete lack of real-world success and influence by playing God with made-up places where the shackles which currently bind them do not apply.

The best statement of this view is probably Billy Liar, the novel/play/film about Billy Fisher, a young man still living with his parents, with a dead-end job, who fantasises about becoming a comedy writer, compulsively lies to make his life sound much more interesting than it really is, and spends much of his free time dreaming about a made-up place he calls "Ambrosia", of which he is the ruler. It's a kind of tragicomedy about a character who is endearing but also sort of monstrous: a warning about the perils of daydreaming.

Tolkien would take a different view. For him, God was the creator par excellence, and because we are made in his image we have a desire to create, too (to "subcreate"). This manifests itself in different ways, and can be good or bad (for Tolkien, staunch Catholic that he was, acts of subcreation which echo God's creation honour Him and are therefore good; those which mock it are bad) but all our creative (subcreative) activities are inescapably done in that context.

I think, though, that there is a perfectly credible non-religious interpretation of Tolkien's thesis, though, which is simply that human beings clearly have an urge to make places of their own. It's in D&D and model railways, but it's also in fiction writing, in gardening, in DIY, and in any sort of painting that isn't strictly representative. There is an impulse in all of us to take joy in, broadly speaking, imposing a desired sense of place in either physical reality or figurative-imaginative space. The socially inept nerd down in the basement drawing up his never-to-be-played D&D campaign setting is doing something deeply and wonderfully human, and should be congratulated for it.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Good Non-Fantasy/SF Novels for Fantasy/SF Fans

I just wrote a long post about Billy Liar and various other topics but you're going to be denied those insights, possibly forever: just as I was adding a link to finish things off there was a slip of the finger and my decrepit laptop interpreted this as me wanting to go "back" a billion times in quick succession in my browser - and now the post is gone, not even saved. Yay. I'm too dispirited to write it out again, so, in lieu of that, something totally different: a list of some good Non-Fantasy/SF Fiction Books for Fans of Fantasy/SF, jotted down in no particular order:

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Could possibly be categorised as horror, but isn't really. I don't think it is the work of genius it is sometimes cracked up to be, but it's a very effective little novel you can read in one sitting.
  • The Magus by John Fowles. You can't read this one in one sitting. You might want to, though. Possibly the best literary thriller ever written? I can't think of a rival candidate that comes close. Again, it could be categorised as horror, or fantasy, but isn't really either.
  • Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. One of the rare huge bestsellers that I think deserves it. 
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I mean, come on.
  • Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell. You all know who Cornwell is and you have all read some of his books, of course. This is a lesser known one, but one of his better efforts (I think).
  • Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. Kind of feels like a technoir/cyberpunk novel, even though it isn't. 
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie. Okay, it isn't a novel, but it has that character. It's Christie's strangest and, I think, best work: not fantasy, but almost like proto-slipstream fiction - stories about what happens when the real world touches something that isn't quite real itself.
Tell me some others.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Silence Around a Predator

While waiting for a guy to come and install a new electricity meter today (supposed to come at 12, arrived at 1.50...) I spent some time idly staring into the garden. I was happy to see the local sparrowhawk female there, scoping out the bird feeders where sparrows, dunnocks, starlings and other little birds tend to congregate. She quite frequently appears in our garden with dead pigeons she's caught - I've seen her arrive with a bird as bid as a wood pigeon, which must be considerably heavier than she is. A sparrow would presumably not be much of a meal.

There were no little birds around, though, of course. Normally my neighbourhood, if you stop to listen for it, is a riot of background bird noise, and there are constant comings and goings of feathered life - from wrens all the way up to herring gulls. When the sparrowhawk is around, they scarper. God knows where. Eerie silence descends. (You really notice the constant noise birds make when it isn't there any more.) The exception is crows and magpies - they'll try to chase off the intruder, and are apparently the only ones with the balls to pull this off.

It got me wondering: what kind of effect would a griffon, dragon, manticore, etc. have on the animal life around it? How far would the radius of silence around such a creature be? What would the local fauna do if they saw a griffon, no matter how apparently-blissfully high in the sky it might be? Would a herd of deer squirrel themselves away in a wooded hideout like birds reacting to a sparrowhawk, or would they do what gazelles do on the Serengeti and start prancing?

To operationalise this phenomenon, a random encounter with a predator when the PCs are not surprised should probably be preceded by clear activity on the part of other animals in the area - perhaps in quite a big area in the case of a big (flying) predator. When the PCs are surprised, it indicates that the predator has successfully camouflaged or hidden itself - or simply that they've badly blundered.

Friday, 11 January 2019

My Tin Ears

I consider myself a fan of fantasy, horror and science fiction, and speculative fiction in general. But this is very much an abstract notion. When it comes down to concrete reality, I have absolutely no interest in huge swathes of those genres/sub-genres/whatever you want to call them. In particular I have tin ears for:
  • Dr Who. The BBC does documentaries well, but is almost incapable of producing drama that doesn't make me want to cringe myself into a ball and then roll into the nearest bin. (I make an exception for the old 1990s Pride & Prejudice series - catch it now on Netflix.) Dr Who is horrendous. Like watching somebody scratch their nails down a blackboard for an hour. Have you ever bitten into a sheet of tin foil? Try it now. Nasty, isn't it? That's what watching Dr Who is like for me.
  • Superheroes. Hearing about some superhero comics, I am often intrigued. They seem to be full of interesting characters and ideas. I get why intelligent people like them. But, fundamentally, I just don't like looking at the pictures. For me, the thrill of fiction has always come from picturing things for myself, in my own imagination. Comics thrust the artist's vision into my head, and it is never as interesting as what I would have come up with myself just by reading words on a page.
  • Vampires. Even without having been done to death in recent years, and transformed into annoying emo-teens in the process, vampires never interested me particularly. Ooh, a guy in a suit who is going to suck your blood and doesn't like garlic. Scary. 
  • While we're at it, gothic horror in general. I like my horror to be of the more prosaic variety: the humdrum rendered terrifying by incongruity or skillful manipulation by the author. Gothic horror is, in essence, about scary things self-consciously visually representing themselves as scary; I have no interest in it as a consequence.
  • Dark elves. It is easy to take pot shots at D&D drow and RA Salvatore. But my complaint is broader than that, and runs as follows: elves are most interesting when presented as morally ambivalent, capricious, inscrutable and fey - basically, in the manner in which Tolkien gives us the Noldor in The Silmarillion. Dividing elves into "good" and "bad" is the ultimate banalifying impulse. Elves are better when they're neither. 
What do you have tin ears for? 

Thursday, 10 January 2019

2nd Edition: The Friendship Edition

The 2nd edition of AD&D is almost universally disliked. It is too bowdlerized for those on one side ("old schoolers"), and too complex and cobbled-together for those on the other ("Pathfinders"). It is also probably the least distinctive of D&D's editions; whether you love or hate 3rd edition, 4th edition, 5th edition, or indeed 1st edition, I don't think you can argue that they don't each have a certain character all of their own. 2nd edition does too, but its character is best summarised as: bland, 1980s high fantasy Tolkien-derivative kitsch. It is basically The Sword of Shannara: The Role-Playing Game.

All that said, I have a big soft spot for 2nd edition and its aesthetic. One of the strongest themes running through that era of D&D - it is all over the art, the fiction, the way the rules are presented - is friendship. 1st edition AD&D PCs are rogues and ruffians who are thrown together through pure self-interest. 2nd edition AD&D PCs, on the other hand, are buddies. They get along well together. They are Tanis and Flint - Legolas and Gimli. They have each other's backs. They make jokes about each other. This is what 2nd edition AD&D PCs look like:

The utter ludicrousness of this painting (who are they supposed to be posing for? Are there cameras in Faerun now - or are they standing for a painter with an easel?) shouldn't detract from its charm. This is a group of people saying yes, we are not alike, but we are comrades and friends who achieved something together. We are more than the sum of our parts.

It is a short step from there, of course, to PCs having plot immunity and fudging dice rolls to keep them alive, and so one should certainly tread with caution, but I think the central message is an interesting one. It is not just making the superficial point: people of different races and backgrounds can get along. When one thinks of what is undoubtedly the beating heart of 2nd edition, the Dragonlance novels- if you'll forgive me for bringing up that topic - it is actually saying something a bit deeper: people who have fundamentally different views (Raistlin, Flint, Tas, Sturm) can also get along. Friendship and loyalty to the group trump personal differences of opinion. There are bonds of comradeship which are stronger than arguments about points of principle. (The entire thrust of Planescape seems to be a statement of this position writ large.) I am sympathetic to that idea, and I think it is what genuine community (more about that in a future post, maybe) is all about. It is a good tenor to adopt, I think, with the kind of audience 2nd edition was aimed at - i.e. older children and adolescents.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The Lost Moon of Mercury

Long-term readers will know I have a fascination with the solar system as a place for SF adventures. I was recently browsing wikipedia when I came across this article about a hypothetical moon of Mercury which was briefly thought to exist in the mid 70s.

Naturally enough, my first thought was: let's imagine there was a moon of Mercury in the mid 70s, but it disappeared. This is because:

a) Aliens took it
b) It is the ghost of a destroyed moon which only appears at certain times or in certain circumstances
c) It is a demigod
d) "That's no moon - it's a space station" (but possibly long dormant and only recently reactivated?)
e) It's a moon which has been turned into a spacecraft a la The Sparrow

Either way, room I think for an interesting scenario combining near-future hard-SF and horror in the vein of Event Horizon or Sunshine?

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

A Small Experiment

[I did this shortly before Christmas. It is a - probably very silly - experiment in presenting a dungeon in the form of a novel. The idea is: it's a collection of stories about adventurers exploring a dungeon, which follows their escapades in a sort of detached pseudo-Vancian narrative. Accompanying the accounts are maps, which can be pieced together. Periodically there are summaries consisting of big sections of the dungeon mapped out and keyed, detailing "the adventure(s) so far" - and at the end there is a full map of the entire thing, with contents, which you can then use to run your own parties of PCs through. Why would anyone create such a thing? Good question. Here is the first bit of the first adventure.]

Many others came before him. Many other came after. This history begins with him because it must begin, and it must begin somewhere.

He came to the Brothers' island on a boat he hired from the fisherwoman Malavin, a widow of forty summers with forearms as hard as varnished oak, who lived off the silver-green tench of the inner lake. He told her his name was Pyotr, and that he had also made a living from the water. This was a half-truth. He had been a river pirate, once. Sailing up and down the mighty waters of the steppe lands in a longboat, sleek, quick and deadly, with his greedy crew. Preying on fat merchant boats gorged on treasure like an otter catching roe-filled salmon swimming upstream to breed.

His work, as he called it, had eventually taken him south to distant Trapzon, where he fought in the pay of the Kastrioti, raiding the ports of the Circassian coast. He read of the Ring Lakes on a scroll in the library of a monastery in Epidamnos as he sat recuperating from a dagger-thrust to the ribs, given to him by a whore in the throes of love-making in a bungled attempt to kill and rob him. Strong again, he left the warm south, where he no longer felt the people could be trusted, and made the long journey to the damp and misty north. He wanted to see what fortune he could find in the caves which the unknown author of that scroll had described.

Malavin delivered him to the muddy, pebbled shore of the Brothers' island and did not herself get off her boat. They nodded to each other as she slowly rowed her way back through the drizzling mist towards the other shore. He had given her two gold coins embossed with the image of the Autokrat of the Kastrioti. They would be spent in Arinagour on mead and goat meat, and examined with great curiosity and suspicion by Malavin's friends and acquaintances there.

The island in the middle of the inner lake is as the scroll had described it: a small hillock, with twelve rowan trees around its skirts and a chunk of granite as big as a house on its top. The rock loomed above him in the dank morning light, implacable like the haunch of an ox hunched against the wind and rain. The scroll had said there was a mighty crack in that lump of stone, wide and tall enough for a horse to enter if it could, and that it could be found on boulder's north face in winter, east face in spring, south face in summer, and west face in autumn. Now it was autumn. And Pyotr, sure enough, found the crack facing west.

He slipped into the blackness inside, out of the rain. Underfoot the soil was soggy from the weather, but within two paces it became dry. The ground thereafter rapidly inclined downwards, creating a steeply descending tunnel, a yard or so wide; the weak gleam of grey light from outside did not illuminate it. Pyotr crouched to the ground and listened for a while, breathed in the stale scent, put his attention to the skin of his face to feel if there was any movement in the air. There was nothing: stillness, silence, emptiness.

He had with him flint, a little kindling, a torch and some oil. In seconds he had a flame. Light and warmth filled the space around him. Below his feet, the tunnel floor: rocks and stone. On either side and overhead, rough granite. Beyond the glow - blackness.

He was still for a long time before he started to edge his way downwards. Eventually he crept forward, his torch in his right hand, the fingertips of his left touching the wall of the tunnel as if to comfort himself with its solidity. The incline was steep. He trod carefully. Step by step. For ten, then twenty, then thirty yards. As he descended, the air grew warmer - the heat of the torch held close by the blanket of rock around him. Every short while, he would pause, and listen. There was no sound except for his own breath and the faint crackle and snap of the flame. Eventually, he would continue.

Finally, the ground beneath his feet levelled off and the tunnel ended, and seemed to open up into a wider space before him - a room, a cavern, or a wider tunnel - just visible in the faint glow of the furthest reaches of the light of his torch. He stood still and listened for long minutes. And then, achingly slowly, he began to edge forward. The fingers of his left hand no longer touched the wall of the tunnel. They went to his side, where he kept a knife.

It was not long before the light of the torch revealed that what lay at the end of the tunnel was no cavern. The floor was, quite clearly, tiled. Black and white squares, each about a square foot, were slowly and delicately revealed by the torch's glow. He gently slid his knife from its sheath and held it like a dagger, its blade close to his wrist.

When finally he reached the end of the tunnel, he could see out into a square chamber, illuminated flickeringly and dully copper-orange by the torch light.

He was standing in an entrance in the middle of one wall. In the middle of each of the other three walls was, likewise, a doorway - a black gulf, a hole, big enough for a man to enter. On each of the walls were smaller tiles, arranged in detailed mosaics. And above, the ceiling was low, and black. It alone was not tiled.

He did not yet step into the room. He counted the floor tiles and measured the chamber as 6 yards square. Then, he looked up at the ceiling. It was a single slab of stone, painted in the deepest, darkest and purest black, but flecked all over with tiny specks of white that seemed to shimmer iridescently even in the dim torchlight. The firmament.

Then, he studied the wall to the left. The entire wall was a single mosaic, the only gap being the entranceway itself, a block of absolute darkness. The image was of the sun, an orange globe covering the left hand side of the wall, with rays of orange spreading from it from left to right. The dawn.
In the wall to the centre, the image was of the sun, but this time in the middle of the wall, and yellow, with yellow rays spreading out in all directions. Noon.

In the wall to the right, the image was again of the sun, but now to the right hand side, and red, with red rays spreading from right to left. Dusk.

Many tiles were missing, here and there, cracked or having apparently been prized away. Fragments of ceramics and dust were scattered over the floor. The chamber was very old. it had not been disturbed in a very long time. Nobody had entered from the outside in many years. None who lived below it had ventured to the surface in many years longer yet.

Pyotr stepped into it, and turned round to regard the wall from which he had just emerged. It was grey, unadorned, solid rock. He leaned his back against it and looked at the other three entranceways before him.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

A Slight Return; Or, Back from the Flounce

Fuck it. I will be blogging again shortly. Having dwelt on things for a while, I have realised that: a) Giving up something I enjoy just because of annoying culture warriors is pretty silly; and b) Now that I am more or less totally divorced from social media I don't notice all the nonsense anymore and the world seems much more normal and sensible.

I leave you with the Bluetones. Not a great song but one I had not heard in probably 20 years and which suddenly popped into my head when thinking up a post title.