Thursday, 15 August 2019

For a "Western" Yoon-Suin

I am working on a project I think of as The Meeting of the Waters, which is a setting book taking the approach of Yoon-Suin but allowing the creation of a fantasy Northumberland (which can really be dropped into any Europeanish/Westernish/occidental sort of setting).

Here is something from it, an intro for one of the handful of fixed settlements (most of the rest being randomly generated):

Joyous Garde 

The town of Joyous Garde appears suddenly, nestled amidst pastures in a hidden fold of the landscape, like a secret the hills are keeping from the world outside. Around it loops a high wall which divides the town proper from those who dwell in huts clustered around it at its feet: what is inside the wall is known as Gatewithin, the abode of all that is right and proper; outside is Gatewithout, where dirt, disease and death stalk.

Twice a year, at the summer and winter solstices, the people living in Gatewithin and Gatewithout switch places for one night, the only rule on those nights being that they may take nothing in or out of Gatewithin for the duration, whether coming or going beyond the walls. For some this is an opportunity for reflection; for most it is the opportunity for debauchery or the settling of old scores within the heady air of a night free from the usual shackles of custom and status.

The Swapping Nights, as they are known, may be intended to reflect the role of Fate in human life - Fate being the personal, capricious force which the people of the town worship as a God. The most frequent guise in which Fate appears in their religion is as the personification of sudden reversals of fortune, in which he has the visage of a two-faced, prancing green man with the horns of a stag. Yet the religion itself is characterised by great disagreement about the inevitability or alterability of Fate, and about what precisely is Fated and how that is known, and dozens of churches can be found in the town, each with its own zealously-promoted variant of the truth.

Joyous Garde is under the de facto rule of its burghers, who elect a town council and make what decisions are necessary save one, which is always made for them by ancient law: to give the town’s de jure rulers whatever they demand in taxes each autumn. These de jure rulers are the Nineyear family, an extended clan of cloud giants who own Joyous Garde and all the land around it for miles in all directions. Their tax demands vary at their whim, for they have genuine need of nothing which the town can offer, and the Nineyear family delight in abusing their privileges in malign and unpredictable ways. One year they may demand a virgin girl to burn alive and devour; the next they might require the entire contents of the warehouses of all the members of the brewer’s guild; the one after that they could simply ask for a bonnet each of strawberries - so as to make the population of the town anxious to find out what the demand is to be the following year when “the other shoe falls”. This unpredictability may, indeed, by the source of the townsfolks’ obsession with the vagaries of Fate. For the rest of the year, however, the giants ignore the town entirely.

The ancestral home of the Nineyears is Stuck Gates, a great castle hidden at the foot of a hill a few miles from Joyous Garde. It is so named because its main gates are permanently locked, only to be opened when an Emperor once again rules at Dolorous Garde (see page [x]). Stuck Gates sits in a vast forested estate, mostly comprising the Nineyears’ hunting grounds, dotted with overgrown ruins and monuments from an era in which the family were evidently more prosperous than they are now. Much of the estate is rarely visited if ever - the haunt of outlaws and fugitive creatures released for sport but never subsequently killed.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Bog Standard Capitalism and the Price of the Hobby: What Would Jurgen Habermas Do?


My last post apparently attracted the attention of some people on a certain forum site you may be aware of (traffic source stats are a wonderful thing). The discussion is actually perfectly reasonable for the most part, but I was intrigued by the post I pasted in above.

"Bog standard capitalism" is here defined as "setting the retail price of your product at the upper end of what your customers would be willing to pay but not so high that they don't cough up". I would quibble that this is not exactly what I wrote in the post. And I would also quibble that this is an accurate definition of "bog standard capitalism" - it sounds more like a description of "bog standard pricing in circumstances of oligopolistic competition" to me. But then what do I know? Noisms' thoughts on the OSR publishing as oligopoly will have to wait for another day.

The reason why this post intrigued me is what it says about modern geekdom and its "intensely relaxed" attitude to what Habermas would probably call the colonisation of their lifeworld by market rationality.

Let me put it in less pretentious terms. A hobby is a deeply human experience of shared communal values and respect for craftsmanship and skill. It is the endeavour of amateurs who do what they do for the love of it and out of a desire to collaborate with peers who feel the same way. When it is subject to the forces of "bog standard capitalism" much is gained but much is also lost. Its hobbyish nature is denuded and is replaced by price-based considerations which distort existing relationships forever.

It is hypocritical of me to complain about this for many reasons. First, I am in the lucky position of having gainful employment which pays me comparatively well and gives me quite a bit of free time to write stuff about elf games. Second, I have released RPG materials for money. Third, I did that in such a way that, it seemed to me, reflected a fair approach to pricing - a luxury I would not necessarily have been able to afford if I was doing it professionally.

But be that as it may, none of us is without sin. My desire is only to point out that it's good that people can now make money and support themselves independently as professional producers of amazing stuff. Yet it has its downsides. Just look at what has happened to "the OSR" in the period 2008-2019 if you don't believe me.

Monday, 12 August 2019

A Lot of RPG Books Are Too Expensive

Not all are. But a lot of them. I won't name names; every reader will have their own ideas about which releases constitute good value for money and which do not. And it's not exactly a question of expensive=bad. Some expensive books are worth their price. But the number is fairly small.

How did the publishing model for RPG books, particularly OSR ones, become so skewed towards high-production values and hence high costs?

It seems to me that, probably entirely accidentally, the "indie"/OSR/kickstarter-publishing wing of the RPG world has moved towards a Games Workshop-based approach to pricing. This can be summarised as: make the costs so high that people will moan, gripe and complain, but not so high that they won't make the purchase.

I emphasise that this is probably entirely accidental. Nobody thinks that way by design. I think social pressure to make good-looking books may explain most of the development; modern geekdom is defined if nothing else than by acquisitiveness, and in particular acquisitiveness of items that are aesthetically pleasing in some sense. Pricey "event" books generate buzz and expenditure just like a Hollywood blockbuster does, and this creates a certain expectation, if not exactly demand, which publishers or creators feel obliged to meet in future.

I was until fairly recently ambivalent about this, leaning towards the positive, even. But as time goes on and I get older I increasingly feel as though all of this has negative effects: it prices kids out of the hobby unless they've got indulgent parents; it (relatedly) results in the hobby becoming more of an adult-oriented pursuit than it used to be; it produces an emphasis on style over substance; and it makes the hobby resemble less of a hobby and more of an industry or - perhaps a better metaphor - a system of devolved private patronage. I am particularly unsure whether this last development can be sustainable in the long term.

It is useless to complain about market preferences. All I can do to reverse them is to try to make products that are inexpensive and heavy on substance, and write blog posts like this. Consider half of that project completed.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Ways of Describing Combat

Tolkenian Heroic Expressionism
How many there were the Company could not count. The affray was sharp, but the orcs were dismayed by the fierceness of the defence. Legolas shot two through the throat. Gimli hewed the legs from another that had sprung up on Balin's tomb. Boromir and Aragorn slew many. When thirteen had fallen the rest fled shrieking...
-The Fellowship of the Ring 
A lot of the violence in Tolkien's work happens "off camera", so to speak, or is described in very broad brush strokes. Even when we get a "live" account, as in the scene above, it tends to be a sketch or a few edited highlights - the only blow-by-blow fight we really get in The Lord of the Rings, at least as far as I can recall off the top of my head, is the scene just after this one when Frodo gets stabbed by the orc captain's spear. (Possibly the fight between Eowyn and the Witch King of Angmar also counts.) The point is not to get into the nitty-gritty, but to express important plot points and depict the heroes as properly heroic.

Tolkien wasn't interested in the minutiae of combat, and certainly not in glorifying that aspect of war (perhaps for perfectly natural personal reasons). He was more interested in replicating the way in which combat is described in the medieval and dark-age literature which he enjoyed, which tends also to be a fairly terse or indirectly-reported affair. Fighting in those source texts serves the purpose of making it clear that the heroes are heroic - the idea that combat should in itself be realistically depicted or in itself entertaining is unheard of.

Replicating Tolkenian Heroic Expressionism in an RPG is hard if one is using a traditional combat system where the flow of combat is necessarily narrated round-by-round. ("You swing at the orc...you hit it...the orc misses you...") This, incidentally, is why the Rolemaster combat system was such a uniquely poor fit for actually replicating Tolkien's oeuvre, like so much else about MERP. Also incidentally, despite the hard-boiled nature of Zelazny's prose (so different to Tolkien's), he frequently adopts this kind of approach too.

Vancian Detached or "Bathetic" Realism
The assassin ignored Zarfo. To Reith he said, "Please do not make an undignified display. The process then becomes protracted and painful for us all. So then - "
Zarfo roared: "Stand away; have I not warned you?" He snatched up a chair and struck the assassin to the ground. Zarfo was not yet satisfied. He picked up the splint, jabbed it into the back of the man's thigh, through the rust-ochre corduroy of his trousers. "Halt!" wailed the assassin. "That is Inoculation Number One!"
Zafro seized a handful of splints from the splayed-open wallet. "And here," he roared, "are numbers Two to Twelve!" And with a foot on the man's neck he thrust the handful into the twitching buttocks. 
-Servants of the Wankh
As in every other aspect of his writing, Vance's accounts of combat are detached and somewhat arch, but it is also possible to detect in them a genuine understanding of how violence tends to unfold in the "real world" - in a messy and entirely unromantic way, and almost never on fair or equal terms. Nobody is really edified by it (except in the boxing ring).

Vancian Bathetic Realism is the way in which combat almost always unfolds in RPGs my experience, at least in your average non-crunchy system like Basic D&D which doesn't artificially "balance" encounters. It is an untidy affair, it very often explodes without warning, and it has nasty consequences. (Rolemaster combat is much more like this, too.)

Wolfeian Hyper-Realism
The slave with the scorpion advanced first, lashing the air to make a savage sound he must have hoped would frighten me. I stepped forward and slashed at the rawhide lashes. He jumped back and in doing so impaled himself on one of the javelins held by the man behind him.
The terrible thing was not that it killed him, but that it did not. With the head of the javelin in his back, he remained alive, bleeding and gasping like a fish on a gig as he dropped the scorpion and flailed about with his arms.
I caught it up - and as I did so, saw that Pasicrates was almost upon me. Its stock was of some heavy wood, and the leather-tipped lashes looked as though they might easily entangle a man; I threw it at his legs.
He was too quick for me. The stock rang against the bronze facing of his hoplon. I swung Falcata in the downward stroke that is most powerful of all. Again he was too quick, raising his hoplon to block her blade, but it bit the bronze like cheese, cut the hoplon to its centre, and leaped free as a lynx springs from a rock.
-Soldier of the Mist
In Wolfe's books we do often get blow-by-blow accounts of combat and they are exciting to read: there is a genuine thrill in his depictions and also frequently a certain poetry ("bleeding and gasping like a fish on a gig"). There is a bloody, often almost sadistic, realism to his fights, but it is not the genuine realism of Vance - it is, if you will, realism with knobs on: there is a cinematic quality to it that makes it, if not melodramatic, then at least deliberately entertaining. I would include George RR Martin's depictions of combat in this category also.

Wolfeian hyper-realism is what a lot of crunchier RPG combat system tend to aim for. These run the gamut from Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 2nd edition, to Cyberpunk 2020, to Shadowrun, to GURPS. In these systems, fighting is itself a kind of sub-game, and is designed to in itself be both fun and sufficiently detailed that it feels real and consequential.

Mievillian Comic-Book Cinematism 
But then, at that moment, as Bellis retreated from that hot carnage of pig- and sheep-blood and drained offal, the repulsive frenzy of the anophelii repast and then their bloated torpor, a mosquito-woman looked up from the sheep she had arrived at too late to drain, and saw their retreat. She hunched her shoulders and flew dangling towards them, her mouth agape and he proboscis dripping, her stomach only a little swelled by her sisters' leftovers, eager for fresh meat, angling past the cactacae and scabmettler guards and bearing down on the terrified humans, her wings awail, and Bellis felt herself jerked by fear back towards that confused trash of disjointed images, and she saw Uther Doul step forward calmly into the mosquito-woman's path, raise his hands (carrying two guns now) and wait until she was nearly upon him, till her mouthparts jutted at his face, and he fired. Heat and noise and black lead exploded from his weapons and burst the mosquito-woman's stomach and face.
-The Scar
'Nuff said. Combat here is stylised: for all its detail, it is not a realistic depiction of a fight, and nor is it meant to be - it is about enjoying the visceral, almost-visual thrill of violence for its own sake, more comic-book than film.

Mievillian Comic-Book Cinematism has its paradigm expression in D&D 4th edition, of course, though there are other systems which aim to produce something like it - Exalted, I suppose; Rifts; and GURPS in some of its guises.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Sound of D&D

If you are asked for a musical genre to associate with the fantasy/SF genre, you'd probably choose metal, thinking of, for example:






Alternatively, you might choose the Gustav Holst-inspired film soundtrack classical end of the spectrum, also encompassing whatever type of music Enya is:





Neither of these has ever really sounded like the music that is going on inside my head when I read fantasy and SF fiction or play D&D, though. Fantasy/SF-inspired metal is generally too self-consciously doom-laden, and the classical-inspired stuff tends to be too faux-portentous or grandiose (much as I love me some Wrath of Khan OST).

These things are all a matter of taste, of course, but I more and more am coming around to 1970s jazz fusion as my personal backing music for D&D - specifically, the music generated by the weird conglomeration of virtuosos surrounding keyboard legend and crazed scientologist Chick Corea, particularly the outfit Return to Forever.  What is it about this music that screams JACK VANCE MOTHERFUCKER so loudly in my ear? Is it just that I can totally imagine a Dying-Earth spellcaster mixing potions in her laboratory to this soundtrack in some long-forgotten late-70s exploitation flick?:



Or this kind of sounds like the background music playing while somebody is travelling across the countryside in a never-made anime version of Lyonesse?




Or that this actually does sound like an alien chase in an Arabian desert (wait until the 2:25 mark)?



Or that it sort of feels like Cugel could be in the audience here, nodding his approval?



Monday, 5 August 2019

Matter is What I Am Not: On Thin and Thick Tertiary Realities

Patrick S asked me to write a blog post about the Holodeck. This spurred me to think about tertiary realities in general.

What I mean by a tertiary reality is a subreality within fiction. Star Trek characters visit the Holodeck. A character in a novel has a dream or hallucination. Somebody in a film tells a story. And so on. In other words, something which is fictional or illusory taking place in an already fictional narrative (the secondary reality).

Tertiary realities are useful for doing various things. They can give an insight into the psychology of the characters or foreshadow an important event (think of the dream sequences in American Beauty, or Luke's imaginary duel with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back). They can provide a space in which characters can develop outside of the normal framework in which we're used to seeing them (lots of Star Trek Holodeck scenes are like this - the one which springs to mind right now is "The Emissary", in which a "calisthenics" program provides the opportunity for us to see, er, a progression in the relationship Worf and Kehleyr). Or they can just be a cheap but possibly effective trick in which the viewer thinks they're seeing something purportedly "real", but it turns out they're not (the aforementioned scene in The Empire Strikes Back is an example of this, obviously - I guess Dallas is the most famous extended one in history).

What they are not particularly good at is provoking a sense of threat. If the viewer knows something is just a dream, or just a story-within-a-story, or just a holographic projection, it's hard to get interested unless there is known to be some impact on the "real" world - that is, the secondary reality. This is why filmmakers try to keep the "it was all just a dream - or was it?" motif hidden until the end (a la Labyrinth, or indeed Dallas), or make it clear that what is happening in the tertiary reality will have serious effects in the secondary one - like all those Next Gen episodes in which Something On the Holodeck Becomes Sentient and Tries to Take Over the Enterprise (or whatever). There is also a very narrow middle ground in which it's possible to communicate to an audience or reader that what they are experiencing might be a dream and might not - a lot of David Lynch's films do this, for example, as I suppose does Inception at the end. But in the main a tertiary reality only generates emotional investment if there is something about it that means something in the "real world".

(Inception is an interesting case inasmuch as it proves the general point that if it's clear what's happening is in a tertiary reality, the audience doesn't really care. There's no sense of danger at all in the action sequences in Inception in which the characters are mucking around in interior dreamscapes and fighting off the weightless ciphers they encounter there. It's only when something else is at stake that it's really worth watching.)

A DM is venturing onto thin ice when getting his characters involved in dreams, drug-fuelled hallucinations, giant illusions and so on for these very reasons - it's easy to get the players to join in for the fun of it, but not very easy to get them to feel a sense of danger. That has to come about either because they're  going to get trapped in the tertiary reality or something that happens within it is going to harm - or kill - their PCs for real. He steps onto even thinner ice if he does the "it was all just a dream" bait-and-switch; I can't really imagine that ever ending well, because if there is one thing that really ought to bind a DM as a point of honour, it's that he shouldn't out-and-out deceive the players about the purpose or nature of the campaign itself.

Yet I also think that such episodes are, on balance, worth doing, for precisely the reasons identified earlier in this post: they give the players an opportunity to think about their PCs in new ways and in new and unfamiliar frameworks. Something as simple as asking the players "What did your PC dream about while sleeping in the wizard's tower?" (or whatever) can generate highly creative answers which get the player thinking about their character as though they are a real person. And that is often the key to a successful campaign.

Friday, 2 August 2019

A Day in the Life of a Monster: How to Make Better Bestiaries

From JA Baker's The Peregrine:

[A] peregrine's day usually begins with a slow, leisurely flight from the roosting place to the nearest suitable bathing stream. This may be as much as ten to fifteen miles away. After bathing, another hour or two is spent in drying the feathers, preening, and sleeping. The hawk rouses only gradually from his post-bathing lethargy. His first flights are short and unhurried. He moves from perch to perch, watching other birds and occasionally catching an insect or mouse on the ground. He reenacts the whole process of learning to kill that he went through when he first left the eerie: the first, short, tentative flights; the longer, more confident ones; the playful, mock attacks at inanimate objects, such as falling leaves or drifting feathers; the games with other birds, changing to a pretence or attack, and then to the first serious attempt to kill. True hunting may be a comparatively brief process at the end of this long re-enactment of the hawk's adolescence.  
Hunting is always preceded by some form of play. The hawk may feint at partridges, harass jackdaws or lapwings, skirmish with a crow. Sometimes, without warning, he will suddenly kill. Afterwards he seems baffled by what he has done, and he may leave the kill where it fell and return to it later when he is genuinely hunting. Even when he is hungry, and has killed in anger, he may sit beside his prey for ten to fifteen minutes before starting to feed. In these cases the dead bird is usually unmarked, and the hawk seems to be puzzled by it. He nudges it idly with his bill. When blood flows, he feeds at once.

Imagine if RPG bestiary entries were written like that.

Now, we can't all be JA Baker, widely thought of as one of the greatest nature writers to have ever lived, and I suppose at some point length becomes an issue. But what we can think about is how to actually describe monster behaviour which is relevant and interesting to the players - such as, what a monster generally does over the course of a day or night. That allows them to learn patterns of activity through observation and/or listening to experts, and to plan accordingly if they are clever enough. If you know that orcs usually nap mid-morning after their breakfast of elven infants' livers on toast, or whatever, you also know when to plan your attack on their village for best effect.

That may be too Gygaxian-naturalistic depending on the style of game you're going for, but the idea that a DM can predict what a monster is likely to be doing at a given time of day is also useful for interesting encounters on the cuff and adding depth to the randomness of the reaction dice: imagine if each monster had a different set of reaction dice values depending on the rough time of day - not all that hard to pull off, and not requiring two paragraphs of Barkerian purple prose either.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Monsters and Manuals' 1500th Anniversary: Half Time After the Time?

I hadn't noticed until just now, but the previous entry was the 1500th published Monsters & Manuals post.

Crikey. Blimey. Shiver my timbers and knock me down with a feather. That's a lot of posts, isn't it? The work of a tragic case, a strange obsessive with too much time on his hands? A bloody-minded and obstinate eccentric intent on continually howling his half-formed thoughts into the void to no effect on anything "because fuck you, that's why"? Or a self-important know-it-all who can't bear the thought that his ill thought-out ideas and ignorant opinions should not be heard by anyone who will listen?

You decide.

The problem with having written 1500 posts is that there are so fucking many of them. Picking a top 10, or even just a general "best of", is not easy. I mean, this year there have already been 102, and it would take hours just to sift through those. I'd need to clear a week of my schedule if I wanted to whittle All My Posts Ever down to a top 50 - and that's not to claim that it's because there would be 50 brilliant ones; just that once it got to 50 or so I'd have no way to pick one set of 10 over another.

So what's a long-term blogger to do on an occasion such as this? I guess it's just to spend 30 minutes or so randomly clicking through his back catalogue ("Did I really write that?" "I'd totally forgotten that one" "What was I thinking there?") and picking out some forgotten gems - or, at least, some non-turds. I did that, and found the following ones I liked, five-ish by year:

2008
Chaos Patrons
Sumo Clerics
The Two Towers of Fantasy
Beware the Were Stuff
Govgim Dahl, the Reluctant Demigod

2009
We Do Not Know What Thing the Universe Is
Towards a Theory of Demihumans
Yiyik's Hookah
Warhammer and British and American Fantasy
Sorcery! Art

2010
Man on Wire and Never to be Played Games
Authentic Cave Scratchings
Panthro Says Silly Names Are Silly
Toying With Things That Should Be Avoided
The Magic Faraway Express Sailing to Utopia

2011
The Cannibal Elves of Byrkije
The Undead Pigs of Andong
Larry Elmore and Utter Ridiculosity: A Love Story
Faking It; Or, You'd Better be Al Pacino
I Blame the Children; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Declaring Actions Before Rolling Initiative

2012
Parachuting From a Plane While DJing
Being an Illustration of the Contents of 1-Mile Hexes Through Examination of Divers Locations in the British Isles
The Contents of Hexes
Samurai Sandbox and Noisms' Reactivity Spectrum
Noisms' Verfremdungseffekt

2013
Hexology I: Lindisfarne Case Study
Hexology II: Travel
The Tri-Dimensional Planebox Megacrawlathon Sandhexamagig
On Charm; Or, the Perfection of Imperfection
Abstracted Weapon BenefitsSwords and Arrows and Dragonslaying, and Player Creativity Within the d6 for Damage Framework

2014
Out With the Old
Spear of Eternity
Angus McBride Ate My Hamster
On Reaching Into the Subconscious Mind
Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass
The Art of Describing a Monster

2015
Faerie Knights
In Defence of Violence
The Importance of Shadowrun
Watching Wesley Crusher DM a Game
Paradigmatic D&D: OR, a Verbeeg, Grell, Ankheg and Orog Walk Into a Bar...
The Death of HP Lovecraft

2016
Moons of Jupiter Ring Map and Random Moons of Jupiter
On the DM's Guild; Or, Let's Be Innovative with the Forgotten Realms
The Imagination is a Muscle
The Seaside Town That They Forgot to Bomb: On Psychic Distance and the Victims of the New
Random Encounters with RooksReaction Tables Which Create the World, and More Game World Building Reaction Tables
Grimdark Kitsch: Let's Talk About Shit

2017
We Were Never Being Boring, We Were Never Being Bored...
In Praise of Maximalism
Creating Things in Order to Be Free
Once You Pop You Can't Stop
Literary Dungeon Making for Fun and Profit
The Pacification of the Nerd
Where's Wally and the Shadow Fantasy Genre

2018
What Is the Blogosphere for Now?
Everybody Loves Our Game: The OSR Scene
The Homogenization of D&D
Harlan Ellison, Cognitive Dissonance, and Defaulting to Openness
Gygaxian Scientasy
The Modern D&D Venn Diagram

2019
British Regional Accents: A Guide for American DMs
Really Very Much Faster Than Light
My Recommendations
Here, Piggy Piggy Piggy
Rust Fantasy - With a Hey Nonny No!
Real Life Maps, Hexcrawling, and Rustic Fantasy Names