Wednesday, 8 April 2020

On Kings Versus Chiefs and the Meaning of Words

When I was a university student I read a lot of Richard Hakluyt, a 16th century English writer who chronicled the early English exploration of North America, as well as journeys to many other parts of the globe, often through interviewing eyewitnesses. I don't remember his works in any great detail, because this is now 20 years ago, over half a lifetime, and while his major works are on Project Gutenberg (apart from the one that I spent the most time on, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and the Ilands Adjacent unto the Same, Made First of All by Our Englishmen and Afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons), most of them are sadly practically unreadable because the (extensive) footnotes are integrated into the body of the text.

What I do remember was the, to us, charming eccentricity of 16th century English. Nowadays we refer to Native American chiefs as, well, chiefs. But Hakluyt called them 'kings'. This small difference in terminology makes a big difference to how the reader conceptualises things. Think of a 'chief' and you picture the head of a small, fairly disorganised and informal tribal group. Think of a 'king' and there's an organised, formal kingdom with the trappings of sovereignty. I'll leave the critical interpretation of the shift in how the leaders of Native American polities were referred to from 'king' to 'chief' to the historians - the implications are obvious to anybody who thinks about it for five seconds. I'm interested here in the lesson this holds for RPGs.

It's common to refer, for example, to orc, or kobold, or goblin (or whatever) leaders as 'chiefs'. Things change when, instead, you start talking about them as 'kings'. Or, for that matter, as kritarchs or oligarchs or theocrats. Just a simple change to a single word results in a significant change in the way one thinks of the underlying society. A kobold chief is the boss of an unruly gang of disorganised kobolds. A kobold oligarch is something else. And this isn't just true for the terms one uses for rulers. A society that has orc 'shamans' is one thing. One which has orc 'priests' is another. There are societies which make goblin shamans, and there are those which produce goblin wizards. They are not the same.

Of course, you can also come at this issue from the opposite angle. You generally get elf lords, kings, wizards and priests. An elf 'chief' suggests something else entirely. Not to mention a dwarf 'shaman'.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The Implied Appendix N

I expect most of the people reading this blog know what Appendix N is. It has tended in my experience of reading blogs, forums and so on to have been reduced to a kind of canonical list of influences on Gygax when he was creating AD&D 1st edition. Gygax obviously never intended it to be that way, and in his own framing of his list, his love for those authors and works was built on a foundation formed from the stories his father told him as a child, comic books, movies, fairy tales, and books of mythology and bestiaries.

In other words, the Appendix N 'canon' has to be understood as floating on a great sea of fantastically-oriented cultural products with its far shore in the very ancient past, and which probably informs D&D just as much if not more than its purportedly direct influences.

I think of this as the 'implied Appendix N' - the vast ocean of stuff from which the Appendix N books, and hence the many implied settings of D&D, emerge, like clumsy early quadraped things from a Devonian vista. What I mean to say is: Gygax had his direct and explicitly-acknowledged inspirations, but those inspirations were part of a milieu of gargantuan scope and which had great implicit influence on what D&D came to be.

One of the fields of literature which I think undoubtedly influenced Gygax (and Arneson and the rest, of course), probably more than he knew, was that swathe of belle epoque SF and 'boy's own' adventure stories that in my head begins with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and ends somewhere around the publication of The Hobbit (1937). This was a truly astonishing era, responsible for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), Sir H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), HG Wells' The Time Machine (1895), perhaps even Machen's "The White People" (1904), and many, many other bona fide classics with which you will undoubtedly be familiar; what interests me about so many of these books is that, as well as being great things in their own right, they also sort of comprise the building blocks of what D&D is all about.

You have adventuring in search of treasure (Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines); you have dungeon exploration (King Solomon's Mines again, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Pellucidar' books); you have wilderness exploration leading to exotic weirdness (The Lost World, The Land That Time Forgot); evil humanoids living below the earth (The Time Machine); sinister cults and black magic ("The White People", The Great God Pan, The King in Yellow); and most of all you have daring and derring-do performed by atomised individuals, usually 'men without pasts', who, lacking families or relationships or geographic ties, seem to appear just like D&D PCs, from the ether, to pursue their goals.

Many of these novels read like they could be mid-period TSR adventure modules, the only difference being that they tend to be plotted around one protagonist rather than a group of PCs. The classic example of this in my mind is HG Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau; you could practically run the novel as a mini-campaign of three or so sessions if you didn't mind a bit of railroading. The PCs are shipwrecked on a mysterious island owned by an eccentric wizard who has some odd-looking servants, and go from there. And many of the great novels of that era are of the same ilk.

What TSR-era D&D and the novels of that era also share in common is an innocent sort of optimistic, diet/caffeine-free machismo: TSR D&D PCs, like Wells or Verne or Doyle protagonists, are active and energetic sorts who believe in action and making the best of things - that where there's a will there's a way, and that to a certain extent one makes one's own luck in life. They get on with it. There is something appealing and refreshing (in an era of sensitive and moody anti-heroes) about that willingness to just get up and go off on an adventure which I see write large on the fiction of those days and the 'vibe' of D&D in its formative stages.

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Real World is Weird Enough/Getting the Band Back Together - Ryuutama AP, Pt 1

Last night I sat down virtually with Patrick Stuart, Nate and David W to play Ryuutama.

At one time this was a real-life weekly gaming group - we played campaigns of Apocalypse World, Cyberpunk 2020, D&D/Yoon-Suin, and a heck of a lot of one-shots and story games, many of which I can no longer remember (although Microscope and In a Wicked Age were certainly two of them). We continued to play Pendragon and D&D 5e for some years online, but had not really sat down to game a great deal together since, I would say, 2015 or 2016. It was great to get the band back together.

I was indeed going to use that phrase as the title for the campaign, but I also liked what Patrick said when discussing whether to play Ryuutama straight (as whimsical, charmingly bucolic occidental fantasy akin to the setting of Secret of Mana), or "weird". As he put it, the real world is weird enough. Rightly or wrongly - I won't venture into the debate here - the UK is now effectively a police state and the population is under indefinite curfew. These are not normal times.

That said, things got weird fast - within less than 5 minutes, in fact. But whatever. Here's an AP report:

The World

Ryuutama lets the players create the world together. Yes, it's that sort of game. But I generally enjoy that kind of thing. The world we created is called Xoft (some Vance with your Ryuutama, sir?). It is carried on the back of a giant horned frog swimming in the cosmic ocean, and bears the scars of great floods from when the frog last submerged itself beneath the waves. One of the horns - possibly both - houses a vast city whose people regularly make war against those living on the plains on the frog's back. Recently, a pangolin-shaped meteorite flew across the night sky and, afterwards, giant tadpoles wriggled up from below the earth, as though emerging from the frog's back like a Suriname toad. There is also a problem of dessertification and a 'dinotopia' of semi-intelligent dinosaurs with human companions.

Yeah, not exactly what I think of when somebody says "charming occidental bucolic fantasy", but there's already plenty I know I can get my teeth into.

The Characters


  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man
Ogesana Fall is the leader, partly because he is a noble, and partly because he insisted on it.


What Happened

The PCs began in Hebron Hill, the beginning of their voyage of exploration, which all people on Xoft traditionally do at least once in their lives. The nature of the world is such that each town exists somewhat in isolation due to "reasons", which means nobody really knows anything about other settlements elsewhere on the vast expanse of the frog's back. Voyages of exploration take place to find out, but each such voyage is paradoxically also different from all the others.

It was raining when they set off, and this had the effect almost straight away of weakening Jojo and Kestrel from the sapping effects of the cold and damp.

The PCs decided to get out of the rain. They knew that due north were mountains, north-east were forests, north-west were forests mixed with marshes, south-west were grassy prairies, and south-east were more arid plains. Ogesana Fall, in the mistaken belief that the forests and marshes to the north-east were full of delightful nature spirits while those to the north-west were full of man-eating spiders, suggested north-east. They headed off in that direction, and soon discovered it was dark, gloomy, overgrown, and, basically rather like Mirkwood Forest. They made slow progress.

By mid afternoon they realised that they were approaching a lake. And through the trees, they could make out the threatening shape of a griffon, perched on the shore and gazing at something in the water. The griffon apparently realised they were there, but was unwilling to get into the thickness of the forest where it would be unable to fly. The PCs knew that griffons liked to eat horse flesh, but not humans particularly.

Jojo, remembering that the people of Hebron Hill had a folk tale about a griffon called the Voice of the Sky who they placated with offerings, thought that it might be friendly if given an 'offering' of music. He took out his flute and approached playing a seductive melody which seemed at least to reassure the griffon there was no danger. It crept off along the shoreline, still looking at something in the water.

The PCs decided to investigate. The water was pregnant and dark and pattered with raindrops, but something could definitely be seen lurking below the surface. Thinking it was fish, Kestrel approached with an arrow drawn, ready to try to spear it. But then four humanoid zombie-things burst free from the surface, covered in lake-filth, weeds and sediment, making to pull our brave explorers into the depths.

A very one-sided fight ensued. Ogesana Fall buckled his swash, swinging from willow branches and dancing on top of ants' nests and boulders and thrusting his rapier. Jojo led three of the zombies on a merry chase up the shore, while Kestrel peppered them with arrows. And then the griffon swooped in to finish off the last one, dragging it away to devour.

A job well done. But the PCs realised that in all the excitement Ogesana's donkey, Bartholomew, was missing. He had clearly been spooked by the violence, or else the presence of the griffon, and decided to find somewhere safer. A search instantly took place, Kestrel tracking the donkey's path through the bracken; by late afternoon they finally found him, after having been led very far off their way indeed. He was in a clearing on a small hill rising up above the trees, silhouetted against the skyline - and next to him was a large, imposing windmill built of black stone.

Ogesana summoned the donkey, but as soon as this took place the owner of the windmill appeared. This was a woman in her late 50s, with long grey-blonde hair down to her toes, smoking a pipe that was emitting vast plumes of foul-smelling smoke. From the windmill a flock of chattering starlings at that moment took flight, soaring into the air in a swarming cloud before settling back on the roof, hissing and whistling to each other like many gossiping children. The PCs thought there was a reasonable likelihood this was a witch. They hoped, quote, it was "one of the good ones".

Samantha invited them into the windmill. In it, they found a homely kitchen and pantry with a bed to one side, the only unusual object being a large flat bowl full of impossibly clear water, resting on a plinth. Samantha made them an offer. They could stay the night in complete security and safety, and indeed could return to do so whenever they wished. But in return they would have to agree to whatever request was placed on them in the morning, and fulfil it. Ogesana ventured that they should agree, whereupon Samantha took his word as an oath, binding on the whole group. For good or ill, the PCs settled down for the night.

.

And we paused there. Because it was our first time with the system the fight took ages, and we didn't have much longer than 90 minutes available. I already wonder about Ryuutama. I like the 'feel' of the art and mood. I am not sure that the system can survive the scrutiny of experienced RPGers, particularly of the 'old school' stripe. The combat system, for instance, is highly abstract and based essentially on the Final Fantasy model, with the PCs and monsters being arranged in "ranks" and taking turns to attack each other. This quickly fell apart the instant anybody began to think outside the box with the scenery and environment - which indeed happened almost instantly. The way the system makes travel 'interesting' is also contingent on placing what are effectively random conditions on the PCs through a fairly boring series of dice rolls which you are then supposed to 'role play' to bring to life. It is not big on PC agency as a factor in determining what happens and how bad it is. And I am not sure that what we achieved ultimately would have been any different had we been using BECMI D&D. With that said, I really enjoyed the session - it was great fun and I'm already looking forward to next Thursday.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Random Redcap Lair Generator

A table I am working on for the Meeting of the Waters/"Northumberland Yoon-Suin" project. Also serves as Exhibit A for those who complain about the landscape format of the Yoon-Suin book. This is what all those tables looked like when printed in portrait.






Thursday, 26 March 2020

The End of the World As We Know It

With the world in meltdown about a disease that may kill about 0.5-1% of the people who catch it, to use a commonly cited figure, it is worth reflecting that European diseases killed somewhere in the region of 60-90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be an Andean native during the smallpox epidemic that struck shortly before Pizarro's arrival? Think of the generalised anxiety among the population now about COVID-19, give it a liberal dose of ignorance about the very concept of infectious diseases that can spread through breath or touch, and then multiply it by 50 or so.

And they still managed to have the wherewithal to fight a civil war - what's your excuse for sitting around all day watching Netflix?

This is not the apocalypse, or anything like it, but it does at least put one in mind of the concept. We are familiar with games set in post-apocalyptic settings, and we are familar with both post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic fiction. But I'm not sure I know of many game settings or games proper that take place during the end of the world or an apocalypse event - All Flesh Must Be Eaten, I suppose, but zombies have never really interested me very much. I prefer my apocalypses to be Dionysian in tone. Although I am also intrigued by what you might call the Nyarlathotepian Apocalypse, in which a travelling scientist/philosopher drives everybody insane by inflicting them with nightmares which mean they can never sleep again, with this in turn meaning that society very quickly declines into fatal insomnia. And I also have a deep, abiding love for the Donald Sutherland Invasian of the Body Snatchers - which, by a form of free association between late 70s/early 80s SF/horror flicks, then gives me the idea for the "Apocalypse of The Thing", in which the eponymous Thing somehow gets off Antarctica and is suddenly all over humanity like a cheap suit.

What is your favourite flavour of the apocalypse?

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Hrotha's Town

Everyone knows that Hrotha’s Town exists. They see its people - the women bright-eyed, intelligent, gregarious, quick to laugh; the men laconic and somehow ponderous and bland - coming to their markets to trade, and they are real enough. And everyone knows that the Town lies somewhere to the north of Drummond’s Quarter, up the Sixthstreet. But few could take one to the spot, nor tell one how to get there, and its people will never say, no matter what the inducement.

To get into Hrotha’s Town, one must know that its entrance lies between two trees in a glade not far from the bridge over the Red River, and that, when drizzle falls on a bright day such that one could expect to see a rainbow, if one looks through the rain falling between those two trees where the sunlight strikes it, one will see the faintest outline of a wrought-iron gate. One must then step forward, making as though as to grasp the bars - convincing oneself that, despite the fact that they are as delicately translucent and as pale as gossamer, one can feel the hard cold metal as one presses one’s palms against them - and at that moment one will realise that it is in fact a real gate, and that it is as strong and heavy as iron can be, and that behind it is a track leading to what is clearly a large village with fields and orchards and people laughing in the distance.

Hrotha is a wizard with a thick black beard that bristles almost to his feet, and hair to match it. His violet eyes twinkle from a tanned face creased by laughter lines and his nose and cheeks are red with humour and the flush of wine. He is the image of avuncular affection. But he carries an iron rod, and rules with it both literally and figuratively. None of the populace dares to cross him, and his vengeance when he feels himself slighted is terrible.

It is their terror of his wrath that ensures the people of the Town continue to abide by Hrotha's rules for the most part even after his long and unexplained absence, which has now stretched to three years and thirty-three days with no sign of ending. One morning the people awoke to find he was gone, and his servants - the bands of unruly goat-men who serve as his eyes and ears - would not say where, nor even reveal if they knew that destination. Life has continued as before because the expectation is that one day he will come back, and none of the people of the Town wishes to be found in violation of his rules at that moment - the consequences of that far outweighing whatever benefit might have been gained from breaking them. For their part, the satyrs could not care less whether anybody abides by the rules, and in principle there is nothing stopping anybody flouting them at will if they were of a mind to do so.

The rules themselves are simple. First, it is forbidden to tell any outsider how to get into Hrotha’s Town, unless they are being brought there directly. Second, an outsider must not be brought to Hrotha’s Town without having agreed to Hrotha’s terms of residence. Third, once one has agreed to the terms of residence and come into the town, one may come and go as one chooses on the proviso that one never spends a night elsewhere again. And fourth, one must take part in the bacchanals, held each equinox and solstice. In return, one is guaranteed the safety and comforts which life in the Town provides.

Were a stranger to visit Hrotha’s Town one would be struck by the happiness and fulfilment of its women and the demoralised bitterness of the men. This is for the simple reason that, over time, being exposed to the vigour, virility and joyous abandon of the satyrs, the women of the town usually become dissatisfied with their menfolk, who come to strike them as unimpressive and weak-willed - not least because they have sacrificed all courage and zest for life by seeking craven comfort in this hidden place of safety. They readily take on lovers among the goat-men, and scorn their erstwhile human husbands. The men as a consequence grow almost visibly pale and wilted. The consequence is that Hrotha’s Town is largely barren of children, and the population only sustains itself by bringing in outsiders. A slow trickle of these flows in, perhaps in the order of a dozen people a year all told - a family with young children seeking protection; a runaway; an outlaw - brought by promises of safety and of plenty given in whispered conversation. The women of Hrotha’s Town’s desire to bring in others of their sex is evangelical in nature. For the men, it is more accurately described with the old saw that misery loves company.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

He Achieved Most of What He Wanted Through Charm - the Karajan Effect

From a comment on this post last week comes this interesting observation:

[T]he issue is that you have a lot of people who are very poor at basic speaking-to-audience skills who don't realize that the number one reason the DMs they see on youtube are effective is that they are comfortable speaking *as a general matter*. A good teacher or salesman or improv actor is going to need a completely different type and degree of instruction to become a good DM because they don't have to first figure out how to be engaging in front of a crowd. People who don't have that background have a real challenge ahead of them.

This is true of many, many activities that involve social interaction - teaching, sales, management and public speaking among them. Some people are either naturally good at it, or have become conditioned to be really good at it by circumstance, and this puts them at a huge advantage in comparison to others.

I would like to christen this the Karajan Effect, after the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was one of the greatest classical conductors of the recorded era. He is probably the only classical conductor apart from Leonard Bernstein who you have a fighting chance of having heard of if you're not into classical music, and was by many measures one of the highest-selling recording artists of the 20th century. If you want to hear him in action, listen to this performance of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony and compare it with the one you may remember from the Fantasia of your childhood:



But by all accounts he did very little of what one is "supposed to do" as a conductor. He usually conducted with his eyes closed, which is considered to be precisely the opposite of what you would learn in conducting 101, because there is purportedly no way to properly communicate with the musicians if you don't do it, and he didn't particular care if his players played the wrong notes as long as they kept perfectly in time. One of his musicians said of him that "He achieved most of what he wanted through charm", rather than any sort of technique - he just made people want to play better.

You may see where I'm going with this, which is that when one thinks that somebody is a really good DM, it's often (not always!) simply the Karajan Effect in action - they're good at public speaking, performance, bluster, clarity of expression, and simply being fun to be around. This then rubs off on the players, who feel as though they are having a good time and get on board accordingly. It might superficially seem the right thing to do to copy a DM's technique if the players seem to be enjoying themselves, in other words, but you may not be able to replicate it if you don't have the requisite charm.

Another way of putting this is that figuring out what works well is not really something that you can learn from what a purportedly great DM writes about in his blog, talks about in his YouTube videos, or even demonstrates in actual play streams. Even if it is true that what he is telling you about or showing you apparently "works" for him (which I sometimes have my doubts about, especially with bloggers), that might just be because he happens to be charming - which is highly likely if, for instance, he has a very watchable and popular YouTube channel.

A simpler way of putting it even that this is: practice makes perfect, and not necessarily aping others or learning tricks and techniques.

Monday, 23 March 2020

20 Rumours Overhead in Drummond's Quarter

1/In a glade called Scrabby Wood a parliament of rooks gathers each evening at twilight; if one goes there in the gloaming, one can hear in the rooks’ cries their gossip about what they have seen while going about their business in the course of the day

2/A tiny hamlet called Burradon Mains survives the predations of reivers by its population retreating into a network of tunnels underground, which they say goes all the way down to the centre of the earth

3/In a forested cleugh called Greenlish Wood there are the remains of a large village, now long overgrown, whose people were all eaten by ettins - except for a few children left in hiding who starved; their ghosts haunt the wood still and crave revenge on the giants' descendants

4/A band of robbers called Lanternside’s Boys used to operate from a cave at the top of Turnberry Cleugh; Laternside was always rumoured to have a hidden stash of treasure somewhere, and it has never been found

5/A big raid by the reivers from the hill known as the Swire recently returned from the settled coast, bringing with it several prominent captive ladies

6/A deep pool lies at the top of Dove Crag; in its waters their swims the Lady of Dove Crag, a great witch who was transformed by her sisters into a pike

7/A redcap who calls himself the Master of Fleehope Manor lives in a ramshackle half-ruined castle in a narrow cleft on the side of the hill known as the Curr; he keeps his captives alive and forces them to take part in frenzied bacchanals each full moon, and to practice their entertainments in between

8/An ancient road, called the Quickening Street, runs through the hills between High Bleakhope and the Nag’s Head; it was built in the days of the Emperor and people say that it leads to a great temple hidden beyond the fastness of the hills, where the descendants of an imperial cult still practice the old ways

9/Huge wild hogs roam the woods of Kidland Forest; they were bred by ettins long ago and let loose for hunting, and ever since it has been impossible for local people to access the woods for firewood, timber, mushrooms, and so on

10/Three waterfalls called the Rushy Linns follow in quick succession through Red Cleugh; diving into the pools of each in turn will cure any illness, but the water will turn one's skin red forever thereafter

11/A spring wells up in the woods by the hamlet of Nettlehope to form Drummer’s Pool; bathing in its waters is said to cure infertility, but the people of Nettlehope only allow their own to go near it

12/The reivers of Sneer Hill are said to have been tasked with guarding a place which the elves of the Hardwater hold secret and sacred

13/The ruin of a former imperial fort lies at Kinch Knowe, a remnant of an abandoned attempt to subdue the Hill of Wolves; its Prefect had a powerful magic sword that is hidden somewhere at the site

14/The redcap known as Father Moneylaws lives in a peel tower in the middle of Marl Bog; he is renowned for ‘adopting’ children, who are shortly after drowned in the bog when they inevitably disappoint him

15/The ettins of the Hethpool lair on an island in the middle of a dark, cold lake on Laddie’s Knowe, where they are said to have held captive an elf prince for a hundred years

16/A red dragon called Dreams-Coldly-Sleeping lies dormant under the Shank, a heather-covered hilltop; she is the daughter of Yehud-Shining-in-the-Twilight and inherited his wealth on his death

17/In the woods a waterfall, called Black Linn, plunges into a deep pool filled with dark green loaches; these are the spirits of 33 bastard children who were drowned as a sacrifice by an imperial cult long ago, and legend has it they will bestow great blessings on anybody able to release them

18/Down in the Hepplewoods there is an old gallows; a troll lives in a hut nearby and hangs anybody he finds out in the woods at night

19/A cave known as Darden Parlour lies hidden in the woods between Drummond’s Quarter and Hrotha’s Town - it goes deep under the earth

20/On the moor known as Ottercops Moss there is a large, single standing stone which is said to mark the burial site of a king of the people who lived in these lands before the days of the Emperor

Friday, 20 March 2020

D&D and Mental Health

Let's try talk in a sensitive and entirely non-judgmental way about something which I feel like is a bit of an elephant in the room: a lot of people involved in OSR blogging and self-publishing have (self-declared) mental health problems - much more so, I would say, than in the general population. I used to notice this a lot even back in the early days, and with a high level of frequency in the G+ era. I see it all over Twitter, too, on the occasions when I look at RPG related tweets.

I have my worries, like anybody, but I thankfully (to my knowledge) don't have any mental health problems particularly. (Although severe psychotic disorders and rare degenerative brain conditions both appear to run in the family, so this may not last forever.) But I am interested in why this apparent correlation between an interest in RPGs and mental health arises, partly because I'm just curious, as a disinterested lay person, in the ways in which the conditions of modern life appear to be producing a crisis of spirituality of a kind, and partly because I like D&D nerds and I want to know what makes them tick.

Maybe you have noticed something similar to what I have described. If so, do you think it is:

-A function of the fact that 'extremely online' people who spend large portions of time each day on the internet discussing anything are more likely to have mental health problems than average, and I'm just noticing the ones who happen to be discussing old school D&D?

-A function of the fact that D&D players, particularly those who are really into it, and so immersed in it indeed that they would discover OSR games, tend to be quite creative people, and creative people have a tendency towards neurosis, anxiety and depression?

-A function of the fact that this is a relatively small corner of the internet that has the feel of a community and which therefore has a comfortable atmosphere that encourages openness about these things?

-A function of D&D having some kind of therapeutic benefit, whether intended or otherwise?

-Something else?

Or do you disagree with the initial premise?

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Useful Advice about Narrating and Describing

The topic of how to narrate and describe things as a DM came up in the comments to a recent post. It put me in mind of a topic that I have written about before - namely, the difference between skills which are primarily learned through explanation (reading and writing, speaking a new language as an adult learner, driving, most sport) and those which are primarily learned through introduction (law, philosophy, teaching, acting, creative writing).

In a nutshell, learning how to drive is a skill which you can for the large part learn from being directly taught a series of techniques such as how to change gears, how to do a three-point turn, how to parallel park, etc., combined with practice. This is what makes it mostly an explained skill.

Learning how to write fiction is a skill which you can only really learn by reading good fiction, combined with practice. You can't become a good writer by learning technical tricks. This is what makes it mostly an introduced skill.

For both types of skill you need a lot of practice to get good, and you need intuition and experience to do whatever it is well. But the former category is the type of thing that is amenable to being taught through a course and/or textbook, while the latter is the type of thing that can only really be taught by consistent informal exposure for a period of years. This is why there are useful textbooks on how to learn Romanian, but there are no useful textbooks on how to write fiction well. Romanian, like any other language, is mostly learned from putting into practice rules and techniques. Writing fiction well cannot be learned through a similar process (which is why 'how to write fiction that sells' type books are full of useless crap like, 'Write what you know' or 'Don't use adverbs', which no great novelist, or even bog-standard novelist, has ever actually followed).

Learning how to DM is in my view quite clearly much more like learning to write novels than it is like learning to drive. Yes, there are rules of thumb, and you will need to learn the rules of whatever game you're running, but what makes a good DM is mostly learned from watching others and from practice rather than from following technical guidelines or lists of 'best practices' or anything of that nature.

I am willing to be proved wrong, but I think in particular that the elements of DMing which concern describing and narrative events can't really be learned other than through watching good DMs and through practice. How to describe a fight scene in an exciting way? How to make wilderness travel interesting? How to make a scene, or a particular NPC, really 'come alive' in the players' minds? You have to do it a lot, reflect on what works and what doesn't, and watch other people who you think are good at DMing and reflect on that, too.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

"Because God Loves Wondrous Variety"

Spot the difference:

Foreign observers never failed to be impressed by the exotic regiments of the Tsar - Don, Turkistan and Ural Cossacks, the latter 'big, red-bearded, wild-looking men'. Officers carried their maps in their high hats; many enemies were killed with the lance...As for the men, correspondent Alexei Kayunin wrote: 'The yellow and purple robes of the Turkmens appeared blindingly brilliant against the background of village houses. They wore enormous sheepskin hats, above dark features and wild hair  which made them seem picturesque and majestic. Galloping on their horses they caused no less panic than armoured vehicles. I offered cigarettes and tried to talk to them. It was useless, for they didn't speak any Russian... 
An American correspondent described a squadron of Kubanski Cossacks: 'a hundred half-savage giants, dressed in the ancient panoply of that curious Slavic people whose main business is war, and who serve the Tsar in battle from their fifteenth to their sixtieth years; high fur hats, long caftans laced at the waist and coloured dull pink or blue or green with slanting cartridge pockets on each breast, curved yataghans inlaid with gold and silver, daggers hilted with uncut gems, and boots with sharp toes turned up...They were like overgrown children.' First Army's cavalry were commanded by the old Khan of Nakhichevan, who was found weeping in his tent one morning because he was too crippled by haemorrhoids to mount his horse. 
-From M. Hastings, Catastrophe, pp. 260-261
*

[W]e began to saunter along the embankment, while the Professor gossiped about the holiday-makers around us. He showed us some peasants from the villages down on the Greek border, who could neither read nor write, but got the silly fellows who had gone to the bother of learning such stuff to tell them the commodity prices on the foreign exchanges, and on that information they very cunningly calculated what crops to sow. He showed us also a superb being, like a Cossack in a Russian ballet, who went strutting by in a wide-skirted coat made from the wool of a brown sheep. This, he told us, was a wealth Tsintsar, a true nomad, who moved with his herds between summer and winter and hoarded all his wealth, according to the classic nomadic fashion, in the form of necklaces and bracelets worn by his womenfolk. And he hurried us across the road to see a family of gipsies who were clearly natives of fairyland. Only there could a father and mother still shapely as gazelles and bloomed with youth have eight children; only there could they have arrayed their coffee-brown beauty, which fastidious nostrils, secretive lips, and eyes like prune-whip made refined and romantic, in garments of chrome yellow, cinnabar, emerald, royal blue, and vermilion, which were so clean that they made the very sunlight seem a little tarnished. 'They are Gunpowder gipsies,' said the Professor; 'we call them that because they used to find saltpetre for the Turkish Army, and they are renowned for their cleanliness and their beauty.' 'But they are like Hindus!' I exclaimed. 'They might be from the Mogul court.' 'They are something of that sort,' said the Professor; 'when Gandhi's private secretary came here he could make himself understood to our gipsies in Tamil. We think that they are descendants of some conquered Indian people who fled out of Asia after some unrecorded catastrophe in the Middle Ages, and certainly these Gunpowder gipsies represent the ruling castes.' [...] 'All, all is in Yugoslavia,' said Constantine, glowing happily... 
-From R. West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p. 657
*

All sorts of people hung about the stations, men turbaned and fezzed and capped with conical hats of brown fur, men in Turkish trousers, or in long shirts and tights of creamy homespun linen, their leather vests richly worked in coloured wheels and flowers, or in suits of heavy brown wool ornamented with patterns of black braid, high red sashes wound round and round their waists, leather sandals sewed to a circular spout on the toe and bound to the calf with leather ribbons wound to the knees; women with the Turkish yashmak and bloomers, or in leather and woollen jackets embroidered in bright colours, waists of the rare silk they weave in the village, embroidered linen underskirts, black aprons worked in flowers, heavy overskirts woven in vivid bars of colour and caught up behind, and yellow or white silk kerchiefs on their heads. 
-From J. Reed, The War in Eastern Europe, p. 3
*

Coad was a busy town. Along the crooked streets, in and out of the ale-coloured sunlight, moved men and women of many castes and colours: Yellow Islanders and Black Islanders, Horasin bark-merchants muffled in grey robes; Caucasoids such as Traz from the Aman Steppe; Dirdirmen and Dirdir-men hybrids; dwarfish Sieps from the eastern slopes of the Ojzanalai who played music in the streets; a few flat-faced white men from the far south of Kislovan. The natives, the Tans, were an affable fox-faced people, with wide polished cheek bones, pointed chins, russet or dark brown hair cut in a ledge across the ears and foreheads. Their usual garments were knee-length breeches, embroidered vest, a round black pie-plate hat. Palanquins were numerous, carried by short gnarled men with oddly long noses and stringy black hair: apparently a race to themselves; Reith saw them in no other occupation. Later he learned them to be natives of Grenie at the head of the Dwan Zher.... Once Traz grabbed his elbow and pointed to a pair of thin men in loose black trousers, black capes with tall collars all but enveloping their faces, soft cylindrical black hats with wide brims: caricatures of mystery and intrigue. 'Pnumekin!' hissed Traz in something between shock and outrage. 'Look at them! They walk among other men without a look aside, and their minds full of strange thinking!' 
-From J. Vance, Servants of the Wankh

Fantasy and SF settings need more of a 'Mos Eisley Cantina' vibe than less, I think.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

PCs From the Deep

A long time ago, I speculated that Werewolf: the Apocalypse was secretly a game in which the PCs were terrorists.

Today during my lunch break I went down a weird rabbit hole of watching XCOM 2: Terror from the Deep play throughs on youtube. Perhaps it is just the use of the word 'terror' that forced a connection between these two things in my mind. But I got to thinking about the following high concept for a campaign:

Aliens have taken over the world, and the PCs are freedom fighters in underwater submarine bases engaged in a futile campaign of disruption and defiant violence against them.

The problem with turning a game like XCOM or Terror from the Deep into an RPG is that it falls prey to the old samurai sandbox problem. Having the players act like policemen or alien hunters forces them into a reactive mode which is repetitive and deprives them of agency. A campaign in which the PCs are elite soldiers or superheroes staving off alien attack is one in which they are basically at the beck and call of the DM, either directly because they are generally carrying out missions on behalf of some higher authority, or indirectly because their job is to wait for something bad to happen and then ride to the rescue like cavalry. You can possibly have a fun game that way, of course, but it won't be a sandbox and the players won't have much choice about what to do. It'll be more like a wargame with acting. It'll also be hard on the DM, who has to constantly come up with interesting scenarios rather than following the players' lead, which is one of the main virtues of a traditional sandbox campaign.

(This is the same problem in a nutshell as a "the PCs are cops" campaign: following orders and waiting for bad stuff to happen before acting is not as interesting as its opposite.)

But spin Terror from the Deep on its head and you have something very different. The basic idea behind TftD, for those who haven't played it, is that aliens who have been slumbering on the ocean floor for millennia have suddenly been awakened and are rising up from the oceans to attack human cities, spreading fear, panic, destruction, blah blah, and a special international agency has been set up to stop them. The parallel universe version is that the aliens have taken over the world, and the humans, rather than stopping alien terror, are engaged in a terrorist campaign against the alien overlords.

Rather than casting the PCs as guardians of humanity, in a reactive/defensive role, it makes them purposive actors - planning activities (bombs, raids, assassinations, whatever) - with the whole world as their oyster. Each session they're not looking to the DM to discover what their mission is; they're deciding for themselves how they are going to further their terrorist campaign.

A concluding observation is that players love this sort of thing. I find that the best moments in RPGs, the times when things really seem to sing the most, come when the PCs are coming up with some dastardly plot or scheme; that's when the players come to inhabit their PCs the most, and the point at which distinction between player and character begins to break down. When players are cooking up a plan, they start to truly think 'in character', and they do it collectively into the bargain. A terrorist campaign is one which maximises the opportunities for precisely that kind of mood to develop.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

To Be Alone Amongst Friends

George Mallory, explaining the attraction of mountaineering, said: "Why do we travel to remote locations? To prove our adventurous spirit or to tell stories about incredible things? We do it to be alone amongst friends and to find ourselves in a land without man."

Most fantasy RPGs are about what Mallory puts under the umbrella of "proving [one's] adventurous spirit or telling stories about incredible things". That is what I think you would describe as the main motivation for D&D PCs (along with gaining wealth and power), for example, and the game models that well enough.

Fantasy RPGs model the pleasure of "being alone among friends in a land without man" much less successfully. The struggle of man in the wilderness and the pleasures and hardships of travel and exploration have largely escaped our focus.

This may replicate an imbalance at the heart of fantasy literature, which I think has tended to draw from the more bombastic, saving-the-world and derring-do elements of The Lord of the Rings while neglecting the (huge) parts of the story which concern travel and exploration as interesting activities in their own right. You don't get many fantasy epics which are mainly about the experience of a journey, although Vance's books can have this quality.

Eventually I will get around to buying Ryuutama, which promises to be able to produce that type of play experience. Some elements of the game (the "players and GM create the world together" and the idea of nudging PCs to help each other through the mechanics) are a turn off. But it seems worth putting up with that - by which I mean cutting out those bits - for "Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail". As long as I can transpose the contents into Lower Druk Yul or Lamarakh or whatever, we're golden.


Friday, 13 March 2020

Drummond's Quarter

Shaped like the remains of a circle from which three quarters have been removed, Drummond’s Quarter sits on top of a triangular mound with steep slopes on all sides, at the top of which are high wooden stockades. Behind these bristle towers and watchposts - many spines which give the fourth-of-a-town the look of a hedgehog. And its people bristle too, with weapons and aggressive martial fervour, and with the unspoken anger of those who find themselves shackled by law, custom and circumstance.

According to legend Drummond’s Quarter was once part of a full town, roughly circular in shape, with each quarter owned by a brother. The brothers became proud and rode against an ancient and mighty golden wyrm, Yehud-Shining-in-the-Twilight, who once lived in the hills nearby. Their punishment was to have their town taken from them and cast into a netherworld of the dragon’s choosing, where it would remain for all time. At the last moment, however, the youngest of the brothers, Drummond, managed to declare an oath to the dragon which saved his own quarter of the town - though nobody knows what was the promise he gave.

This may or may not be true. But the main festival day in Drummond’s Quarter celebrates the return of the souls of those lost in the dragon’s punishment. And the people of the town insist that there are secret tunnels in Blackhaggs Rigg, the wooded hill which by legend is where Yehud-Shining-in-the-Twilight made his home, and that these tunnels lead down into a netherworld where - somewhere - the remaining quarters of the town and their inhabitants can be found. In some tales, those people wait for a saviour to come and rescue them, but in others they have created for themselves a paradise far below the surface of the earth, where they want for nothing and are safe from all dangers. 

Drummond’s Quarter is ruled by its martial orders, of which there are dozens, each with its own tower or keep, and each with its own peculiar focus, be it the capture of enemies without killing them; the use of the greatsword; the net-and-trident; or the skill of trench-digging. Each order is small, having usually less than fifty or so members (who are collectively referred to as ‘electors’), every one of whom spends all of his time in practising so as to be ready to defend the town when necessary. To be a member of such an order is prestigious: most have two or three wives, and a number of chattel slaves to perform the work of their household, and they are the only inhabitants of the town who may vote to elect the Leader. Their daughters they marry off; their sons they treat with brutal harshness so as to burn off all hint of weakness, like the fire sears the skin of a roasted hog and makes it into crackling. The rest of the population live in meek subservience, mostly bonded to measly plots of farming land outside of the town itself in serfdom, although there are a few merchants and other traders and artisans performing necessary tasks. The mood among the non-electors is that which would prevail among any population denied the capacity to develop wealth or status through their own merits - by turns despairing, stoical and violent.

Travellers come to Drummond’s Quarter rarely. The journey is too dangerous, and the town itself is full of unkindness and has little laughter in it. But by the same token, for those who seek adventure its position at the edge of the wilds is of unparalleled potential.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

On RPG Hobbyists and the Didactic Mode

The latest Bundle of Holding campaign is for Blue Rose. I am not one of those people who has anything against Blue Rose in particular. I am actually totally on board with the idea of a fantasy RPG which is about being the good guys - and I will quite happily admit that I have a real soft spot for romantic fantasy and for the artistic style of Blue Rose range:


I mean, I like sinister cats and weird uncanny-valley-inhabiting androgynous fae beings and creepy butterflies and flowers. I am all about those things.

I also completely understand the appeal of:

“[A] style and a point of view that’s generally positive, hopeful, and cooperative: good people can make a difference, true love can and does win in the end, we can make the world better, people of good conscience can work together (and even disagree) but still coexist peacefully, and, ultimately, there is good in the world and it’s something worth fighting for. That romance often includes interpersonal relationships, from boon comrades to passionate love, and such things are both the reasons why characters take action and the rewards they receive for their efforts." [from an interview with the Lead Designer, here.]

But where I part ways with projects like Blue Rose is the didacticism. It's the idea that it isn't sufficient to just create a product that takes inspiration from romantic fantasy literature or that is inclusive; one also has to teach people something:

"I think it’s remarkable that, in this day and age, even mature adult gamers won’t blink at games and stories that model the most terrible forms of violence, but become sheepish and embarrassed by stories modeling love and friendship and family, especially when tabletop roleplaying is such a social activity. While Blue Rose will most likely (we’re still in the design phase) have some game mechanics to support those relationships, my best advice to gamers is to balance a regard for everyone’s comfort level at the game table with a willingness to perhaps reach beyond that comfort zone for something that can be a powerful story element that has been missing from games aimed at telling legendary or mythological stories: the notion that love and connection are powers as great, if not greater, than any magic, any battle-prowess, or any cunning scheme." [from the same interview] 
In other words, it's not enough to just have fun playing a game - the players have to "reach beyond their comfort zone" and, the implication goes, learn something about the importance of love, connection, and so on and so forth through play.

Why is it that RPG designers feel that they have to do this - to prove that what they are doing is about more than just playing a game? That there has to be a didactic element to what they're creating? What is wrong with it just being for fun?

I wonder if it is the vestiges of that protestant work ethic, with its strong roots in the Puritanism that found its roots in the New World, which feels as though there is something base in enjoyment for its own sake, and insists that fun can only be fun if there is an element of work or self-betterment involved? Or is it just a manfestation of the insecurity of somebody of an artistic bent who frets that they are not doing something more important? Either way, it lends Blue Rose the unfortunate air of the closing sequence in a 1980s children's cartoon series, a Thundercats or a Dungeons and Dragons or a Defenders of the Earth - yes, didn't we all have fun fighting the baddies and setting off lots of explosions, but more importantly, didn't we also learn something about friendship? Cue millions of children throughout the land rolling their eyes and switching channel to ITV; the creators of Blue Rose might want to ask themselves if that is the mood they really want to capture with the product they've invested so much time and creative effort in.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

This Post Mentions Swanmays

Swanmays are one of that gang of monsters I tend to think of as symbolic of D&D during its Silver and, more prominently, Bronze ages, when the role of the DM was increasingly conceptualised as being to include the PCs in what was basically an interactive story of his or her own making. (This group of monsters also includes things like the lammasu, couatl, and sphinx.) That is, their presentation in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual results in an ever-present temptation to the DM to give them a prominent role in the story, to use them as a walking 'quest dispenser' for the PCs, or - worse - deploy them as a GMPC to wander around with the party and keep them on track so that they don't stray too far from whatever it is they are supposed to be doing.

(The clear inspirations for this kind of character are Beorn and Aragorn - powerful helpers who step in to aid our heroes at crucial moments.)

But that's not to say they're irredeemable; rather, they are a concept crying out for reskinning, reformulating and rethinking. Perhaps the easiest and best way to do this is to give them prefixes.

War swanmay and Chaos swanmay have their appeal, but in the comments on my post about dungeon scavengers from the other day, somebody commented that you can turn anything into a dungeon scavenger by putting 'blind cave-' in front of its name. So I'm going to make the case for blind cave swanmay, because it so nicely illustrates the power that comes from randomly putting words together. What is a blind cave swanmay? First, you have to explain why there is a swanmay in a cave, and then you have a vision of blind, flightless (or flighted and echolocating?) swans eating fungus from the bottoms of vast but shallow underground lakes, cut off from the outside world by dark eons of isolation. You then have to imagine what a blind cave swanmay looks like, and then your imagination conjures up an albino woman with blank eyes (perhaps covered in skin), able to hear and smell her way through the blackness, and determined at all costs to preserve the peace and isolation of her flock. And then you have to think about what might threaten it, and then you have local noblemen on the surface who prize the feathers of a blind swan for their regalia, or orcs down below who present such feathers to their females as a prelude to mating. And all of a sudden you have the concept for an extended area of a dungeon map and its connections to the outside world and/or the rest of the dungeon which practically writes itself.

You can play the prefix game with more or less any prefix you like (as well as war-, chaos-, and blind cave-, there's also stuff like winter-, fire-, lightning-, magma-, etc.; magma zaratan, anyone? Lightning zombie? Fire yeti?). The thing to remember is that you're not coming up with the name of the monster necessarily, because the results in that respect are frequently very cheesy and 4e-ish indeed. The blind cave swanmay doesn't have to be what you call the thing for the players, in other words - it can have a more sensible in-setting name than that. It's the concept that matters. Try it and see.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Video Games - Role Playing versus Just Playing

I have never been a huge video gamer, and I gave up, semi-deliberately, about three years ago to avoid time wasting. But I have played a lot of strategy games over the years - mostly the Civilization, Total War and Paradox Interactive ones - as well as quite a lot of roguelikes. 

In my playing days, I used to watch the occasional YouTube video longplay or keep abreast of 'After Action Reports' at places like the Paradox Interactive forums. What I noticed after a time was:
  • Some people get insanely good at strategy games, mostly by identifying certain loopholes and exploiting them mercilessly;
  • Other people like to play the game in a more immersive way by imagining game play as being something like an unfolding, un-planned story
  • There is nothing wrong with either, because it is entirely a matter of taste, but...
  • I was in the latter of these camps
For example, I am not a great master at any of the Civilization games. I can conquer the world on the lower difficulty settings, but usually get squashed at higher difficulty settings. This I attribute to being more interested in imagining that I am the demigod ruler of a race of minions than I am in getting 'good' at the game. It's more important to me to imagine that I am creating a pleasant city for people to live in than I am in figuring out the precise combination of buildings and resources I need to generate the optimal amount of research or military units (or whatever). I'm more interested in emotional connections to AI civilizations (loyalty, revenge, etc.) than I am in getting what I need from them. I value the experience of narrative more than winning, in other words. 

Put another way, I am probably a romanticist rather than a classicist. I prefer Role Playing to Just Playing. 

(And this extends to other types of game too. In a roguelike, for instance, I'm more interested in playing a halfling demonologist or whatever because it sounds weird and I like to imagine what the character is like, than I am in picking something optimal or working out how to make a certain configuration of race/class work.)

Is this due to me playing RPGs during my formative years and hence valuing that kind of play experience more than the one of getting good at the game? Or am I naturally attracted to RPGs because I am of a romantic sort of disposition? I'll leave that question to the philosophers.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

What Happened to the Bodies?

PCs often end up killing big monsters, or large numbers of humanoid ones. (For example, it wouldn't be unusual to have the PCs kill a dozen orcs in a confrontation.)

This would leave a big mess. As a DM I have tended to deal with this on an ad hoc basis but I wonder if there is a more systematic way of doing so. For example, here is a table to determine what happens to the bodies (or body) after a battle with humanoids or a big monster such as a giant, dragon, manticore, etc. You would roll on this table whenever the PCs return to the scene of a battle in a dungeon.

Humanoids

1-4 - The bodies remain as they lay, but have attracted small scavengers who are now feeding on them* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects)
5-8 - The bodies remain as they lay, but have attracted large scavengers who are now feeding on them* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects, 4 - Monstrous**)
9-12 - The bodies have been disturbed and looted (the looters are still nearby on a roll of 1-2 on a d6)
13-16 - The bodies have been removed by allies (the allies are still nearby on a roll of 1-2 on a d6; they are of the same type (1-4) or a different species (5-6))
17-19 - The bodies have been mutilated and defaced by rivals (the rivals are still nearby on a roll of 1-2 on a d6; they are of the same type (1-2) or a different species (3-6))
20 - The bodies have mysteriously disappeared (they have been e.g. taken away by a necromancer to turn into undead, taken away by body snatchers for parts, taken away for food by intelligent cannibals, and so on)

Large monster

1-6 - The body remains as it lay, but has attracted small scavengers who are now feeding on it* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects)
7-12 - The body remains as it lay, but has attracted large scavengers who are now feeding on it* (roll to determine whether these are 1 - Reptiles, 2 - Mammals, 3 - Insects, 4-6 - Monstrous*)
13-16 - The body has attracted humanoids who are cutting it apart to obtain the skin, organs and so on for magical or religious purposes*
17-19 - The body lies pristine and untouched (because dungeon denizens are afraid of it; because it is haunted by the spirit of the original owner, etc.)
20 - The body has mysteriously disappeared (they have been e.g. taken away by a necromancer to turn into undead, taken away by a magic-user for ingredients, taken away for food by intelligent dungeon dwellers, and so on)

*If a period of time longer than 3 days has passed, the bodies/body have been eaten or picked clean and now lay as carcasses
**'Monstrous' indicates a carrion crawler, otyugh, pudding, ooze, etc.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Refractions of Hobbiton, Categorised

It occurred to me yesterday while watching an 11-hour long play-through of Secret of Mana (don't judge me) that Tolkien's greatest influence on the fantasy genre may be the basic structure of his plot. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be roughly summarised as: naive young hobbit leaves Hobbiton, has adventures and comes back changed by the big bad world beyond it. The evidence of this plot is all around us within the genre (it is even, I would argue, present in the version of A Song of Ice and Fire which GRRM was writing before he let himself get carried away), but it reaches an apogee of cliche in the Squaresoft games. Just watch the following 5 minutes of this video:



There is a lot to this basic plot structure, of course, because it raises all sort of interesting questions (in The Lord of the Rings, is it perhaps more the case that the naive young hobbit leaves Hobbiton and changes the big bad world, rather than the other way round, while the big bad world comes and changes Hobbiton?) but not many of Tolkien's imitators were anything like as subtle. They have, however, shown a certain capacity to innovate in the type of Hobbiton which they have created. Here is a non-exhaustive list of Hobbiton variants, with Hobbiton here defined as "a nice, innocent homely place which the main character lives in before going off on his or her adventures":

1. The Unfinished Hobbiton - a Hobbiton to which the hobbit never actually returns; see e.g. Emond's Field in The Wheel of Time (I never got very far in the series, but I think I'm right anyway)

2. The Reverse Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is the locus of the hobbit's adventures, rather than his original home; see e.g. Hogwarts, the USS Enterprise, and possibly Armada in The Scar

3. The Cold-Hearted Hobbiton - a Hobbiton from which the hero is, fairly or unfairly, exiled; see e.g. Potos in Secret of Mana

4. The Violated Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is destroyed, generally early on in the plot; see e.g. Uncle Owen's farm in A New Hope, or that place with the treehouses in Dragons of Autumn Twilight

5. The Hobbiton by Numbers - a Hobbiton which effectively fulfils the role of the Hobbiton in The Hobbit, often complete with a bucolic quasi-English rural setting; see e.g. Aunt Pol's farm in The Belgariad 

6. The Internal Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which the main character never leaves, because adventure comes there instead; see e.g. Redwall Abbey from Redwall

7. The False Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is actually evil and from which the main character is happy to flee; see e.g. the Citadel in The Shadow of the Torturer, or the Dursleys' house in the Potter books

8. The Refused Hobbiton - a home that also generates its own adventures; see e.g. Gormenghast

9. The Mos Eisley Cantina Hobbiton - a Hobbiton which is a hub serving as a base for adventure; see e.g. Sigil, the Magic Faraway Tree

Thursday, 27 February 2020

On Frozen and Fantasy for People Who Aren't Into Fantasy

The fantasy genre is split into many sub-genres. You can imagine it as a sprawling country manor house with many stories and annexes. There's the high fantasy wing; the sword-and-sorcery suite; the sword-and-planet attic; and so on.

Over the other side of a 6-lane motorway traversable only by a narrow footbridge is another genre altogether: Fantasy for People Who Aren't Into Fantasy (FPWAIF), which is a mansion all of its own. There is a small amount of foot traffic between it and fantasy proper. But not much.

Because I have a young daughter Frozen and Frozen II have invaded my life. She hasn't seen Frozen II and only brief glimpses of Frozen, but Disney permeates the world of little girls like water to fishes, and so anything and everything are now to do with Elsa and Anna (when they're not to do with Belle, or Rapunzel, or Cinderella, all of which are also from films she hasn't seen but is nonetheless obsessed with). So, whether I like it or not - no guessing as to which - I have to know about earth giants and trolls and elemental spirits in enchanted forests. This is FPWAIF at its zenith: stuff that sounds like it would embarrass even the author of one of those awful Tolkien rip-offs from the 60s or 70s, Terry Brooks or David Eddings.

Confronted with FPWAIF, it is difficult for the bona fide inhabitant of the fantasy genre manor to resist turning into the comic store guy from The Simpsons. When the Harry Potter films were at the height of their popularity, I remember hearing Mark Kermode reviewing one of them (it must have been the sixth or seventh in the series) and lavishing praise on JK Rowling for coming up with the idea of a horcrux, which was a "completely original idea" in his view. I almost had an aneurysm: what is a "completely original idea" in the FPWAIF mansion is the oldest of ancient hats in fantasy manor; but, of course, for the Person Who Isn't Into Fantasy even the most hackneyed ideas are novel, and even JK Rowling's grab-bag of cobbled-together Fighting Fantasy cast-offs are a breath of fresh air.

(Not that this makes Harry Potter books bad, I hasten to add. I haven't read them, but I have watched and enjoyed the films, even though I will maintain to my dying day that the plots of the last handful make absolutely no sense and presumably rely on prior knowledge on the part of people who've read the stories.)

JK Rowling is FPWAIF mansion's most famous inhabitant, but joining her for dinner are a large number of more celebrated authors - people like Margaret Attwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie - who have dabbled in attempting to write SF or fantasy without any of real understanding or appreciation for the genres and their history, and who have ended up producing bland and old-fashioned claptrap as a result. For these people, it's enough to take a Sunday afternoon stroll over the motorway bridge and peer in a few of the windows at old fantasy manor, and be back home in time for tea.

It is interesting to speculate what will become of FPWAIF in the post-Game of Thrones age. Is the number of People Who Aren't Into Fantasy going to dwindle? Or was all that Westeros stuff just a flash in the pan? My money is on the latter, all things considered, but you never know.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Cultural Differences

I've talked before, a little bit, about British and American approaches to fantasy.

What I've never written, much less read, about is the difference between British and American gaming groups. All regular groups are unique, of course, and every session is different. But is it possible to make any general statements about how cultural differences play out in play (no pun intended)? 

We need hardly limit ourselves to just cultural differences between Americans and Brits, of course, but they would make an interesting comparator because they share a language while being, in my experience anyway, culturally very different. Americans are much less like British people than are Germans, Danes, or the Dutch, for example. Given that language is basically the same, how might cultural separation reveal itself in what happens at the table?

Stereotypically, I would imagine Americans to be more at ease acting and doing voices (less reserved), more at ease getting in touch with PCs' feelings (more touchy-feely), and more involved and engaged (less likely to filter everything through arch humour).

I have no real idea whether this is true, but it would be an interesting thing to study if one could come up with a method for doing so.

The mystery to me is how Japanese gamers are at the table. I lived in Japan for a long time but never got involved in the Japanese TRPG scene. On the one hand, Japanese people are famously reserved. But on the other, as anyone who has spent time among the Japanese will tell you, when being unreserved is socially sanctioned and the shackles are off, you discover they're not very shy at all. Indeed, where being outgoing is expected, Japanese people will as in all things rise to the occasion. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Rumours Overheard in the Place of the Keepers

1/There is a circle of five standing stones on a windswept hilltop a few miles west of the Place of the Keepers, with gaps where there were once two more; it is called the Once-Were-Seven Stones, and is said to be an ancient gateway to the Hardwater - which might be usable again if the missing stones are found

2/A redcap, Certain Jacob, lives in an abandoned holdfast in the forest with a pack of wolf servants who bring him human prey to enjoy; he is said to have a treasure trove as big as a beer barrel

3/There is a cave in a sea cliff just a short distance north of the burgh from which the locals say they can sometimes hear noises, like distant shouting, or music

4/A heugh called Shepherdskirk Hill is home to a clan of bogles who hide among the gorse on its ridge top and light fires at night which appear to be signals - though nobody knows for what

5/Somewhere in the Hill of Wolves there is a monstrous beast trapped in a stone prison, put there by dwarves long ago; when it knows people are close, it promises them rewards if they are able to release it

6/A cursed knight lives in a bastle house on the Hill of Wolves, haunted by the ghosts of his murdered wife and daughters - he craves release

7/A series of sinkholes in the forest, called the Hazelrigg Doors, go deep underground to where there is an underground city

8/A mad old woman roams hither and thither up and down this section of the Great North Road, claiming she was once an elf

9/A flock of red sea birds roams the sandy beaches to the south, and these were formed from the body of a red-haired daughter of the Nineyear family who drowned herself in the sea here long ago; they know all the secrets of the estate at Stuck Gates

10/A black dragon who the locals call Quick-of-the-quiet sleeps with his treasure horde under a hill named Rackside, but nobody has seen him in many years

11/A tower known locally as Mary’s Lantern stands on a hilltop in the wilderness between the Place of the Keepers and Hrotha’s Town; its owner is a witch who studies the stars and collects starlight

12/A nature spirit made from fallen leaves lurks in the woods off the Great North Road, whispering secrets about travellers who have recently passed by; it is only present when nobody is looking at it

13/A brackish pool sits a short distance from shore, inhabited by water birds, including a swan who can transform herself into a woman - she kills poachers and anything which would harm local animal life, and knows more about the wilderness in this area than anybody

14/Under the dunes somewhere south of the Place of the Keepers is a hidden fortress buried under the sand, built by the Emperor to guard against invasion

15/A cluster of boulders called the Shivering Stones stands on the hillside of Lamb Crags; they are said to hum and tremble from time to time, almost as if singing

16/Somewhere in the barren coast between the Place of the Keepers and Dolorous Garde there has recently arrived a group of whalers and seal-hunters from a distant place, and they are harassing fishermen from the Place of the Keepers

17/A mad knight-errant has recently been in the Place of the Keepers before setting off into the forests on some crazed quest; his brothers have arrived and are asking questions about his whereabouts

18/On top of a hill known as Gallowlaw there is an ancient fort of the people who lived in these lands before imperial rule; all that remains is a series of large circular foundations, and various tunnel entrances closed off by large stone slabs

19/A giant with a deer’s head roams the forests between the Place of the Keepers and Hrotha’s Town

20/It is said that the Guild Hall of one of the prominent guilds in the burgh contains extensive cellars that have fallen into disuse and have never been fully mapped

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Shades of Evil

So what are Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil, exactly?

The best way to conceptualise these alignments is, I think, to describe them as being circumstances in which the excess of law, neutrality or chaos becomes indeed so excessive that it turns to evil.

Neutral Evil is the easiest to explain in this way. Here is a character who has no interest in the furtherance of anything beyond himself, and especially not in the grand conflict between Law and Chaos which permeates the multiverse. He is completely self-centred and devoted to his own pleasure and success. That this can turn to evil is obvious.

The more difficult questions are where Lawful Neutrality and Chaotic Neutrality turn to evil. Lawful Neutrality - the absolute insistence on the letter of the law and the preservation of order - can clearly have negative consequences where it results in harsh or unmerciful application. This is Javert from Les Miserables in a nutshell; a man for whom the enforcement of the law is everything and who therefore becomes blinded to unfairness or injustice as a result. That falls short of evil, because it lacks the necessary intentionality - it's not that Javert is a bad man; he's just misguided. Where the excess of law becomes evil is I think where anything which is outside of or orthogonal to established norms becomes seen as inhuman, worthy of extermination, and open to whatever forms of abuse one wishes to subject it to - it is Nazis casting aside human "impurities"; it is the Khmer Rouge expunging all bourgeous elements. The insistence on a hypertrophied sense of purity or orderliness taken to the point at which it justifies any form of brutality or depravity. It doesn't have to be racial or political purity as these examples are, of course - it could be, for instance, a religious person who insists on absolute orderliness and inflicts horrible torture on anybody who strays outside of accepted boundaries, or a village elder who enforces cultural norms with sadistic glee. (Is a girl being burned alive or stoned to death for daring to report a sexual assault committed against her by a teacher in Bangladesh an example of Lawful Evil in action?)

Chaotic Neutrality, similarly, can have very bad consequences. Think of Drop Dead Fred (I generally try not to think about that film, but this is one occasion where a character is a great example of an alignment). If that character were a real person, he would be the prime example of Chaotic Neutrality - he lacks any malice, but obeys no norms whatsoever. He is capable of causing physical devastation, pain and suffering as a result, but these are byproducts of his chaotic nature, not the result of intent. The Joker from The Dark Knight, on the other hand, is Chaotic Evil, because although he too emphasises disobedience of norms, the point of him doing so is to destroy those norms entirely such that he can give free reign to criminality and vice and "watch the world burn" or whatever the line is. Drop Dead Fred is merely capricious. The Joker is purposively so.

The Place of the Keepers

There will be more to come on alignment, but I was chided, or chastised (is there a difference?) for not putting up more Northumberland Yoon-Suin stuff, so here is something for the peanut gallery:

The Place of the Keepers

Where the mouth of the Border Water spills out into the sea stands an ancient burgh with mighty walls made of pinkish-gold granite. It has stood at least since the Emperor made it, as a place to station His fleet. Since he disappeared a long line of men have “kept” it, and his ships - under what they claim was His final command and deriving the status from His ultimate authority.

Whether there was originally intended to be just one Keeper or many is a point of historical and legal debate. Whatever the truth of the matter, the number of Keepers has grown inexorably over time due to a custom instituted long ago. When a Keeper dies, a new one is elected by the burghers from among their number to replace him. The previous Keeper is then interred in a barrow to the south of the burgh, whereupon spells are cast by the Vestals, a caste of priestly witches, in order to retain his wisdom and vitality for the furtherance of the task the Emperor gave him. He thus remains in his dark barrow as a wight, and is periodically exhumed and brought back to the burgh to give advice when required.

As a result of this practice, there are now many dozens of Keepers, one of whom is alive - for the time being - but the rest of whom are dead. Whenever the living Keeper is called upon to do or decide anything, he is required to consult all of the others, who are accordingly exhumed with great ceremony and brought into the burgh to speak and cast a vote. This is partly as a result of custom, but mostly as a result of political prudence. Each dead Keeper generally retains the loyalty of his household, followers and descendants after death; these people cling on to the status and privileges which accrued to them when “their” Keeper was alive, and form an ongoing power bloc within the burgh ever after. The result of this is that the current living Keeper is faced with great pressure to accommodate the views of the dead ones in order to placate potential sources of civil strife.

Another result of this is that governance of the burgh grows ever more fractious over time, because with each dead Keeper there are new vested interests jostling for influence. Some powerful families have three, four or even five dead Keepers in their ancestry. The exert great pressure on the living Keeper as a result. Their rivals compete vigorously to have their sons elected Keeper so that they can expand their voice and maintain it through the generations. The burgh is riven with plots, counter-plots, assassinations and fluctuating alliances - and the streets and alleyways and taverns are forever filled with whispered rumours about goings-on among the burghers; for the common people, the shenanigans of the great and good are more interesting than any sport.

The burgh still harbours a war fleet, nominally owned by the Emperor and awaiting the return of imperial rule. These old ships - sleek, oared things built for ramming - are meticulously repaired and maintained, though of course over time they have grown fewer, and the ones that remain inevitably show their great age in the vast encrustations of barnacles on their hulls and in their constantly expanding patchworks of repairs. Each ship by convention is given only a number and not a name, but they are treated as demigods or saints by the inhabitants of the burgh, who recite tales and legends (whether fanciful or true, none can say) about them from their many centuries of service, and insist that their captains and crews know them to be sentient - capable of communicating strange needs and desires through the dreams of those on board, and able at times to control the winds so as to avoid danger or change course to some unknown place. Each ship has its cult, whose members offer it prayer and sacrifice, and ask it to intercede on their behalf with the forgotten imperial gods - or even the soul of the Emperor Himself - whenever they are anxious, joyous, or otherwise in need of blessings. Whenever a ship of the fleet leaves the harbour, the words goes out ("The IVth is on its way"; "Is that the XIXth? The repairs must have been finished") and the members of that particular cult flock to the quayside to throw flowers, shower it with ale, or dive into the water to swim alongside it. In those moments of passion and excitement in the morning sun, it is easy for the participants to forget that the fleet has had no apparent purpose for many generations, and the voyages of its ships are as lacking in wider meaning as the blowing of the wind or the falling of the rain.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Alignment Embodiments

Here's a game you can play along to on your own blog or social media platform of choice. Which fictional character (or group of characters) from book or film epitomises you understanding of each alignment? Go.

Lawful Good - Jean-Luc Picard

Lawful Neutral - Javert from Les Miserables

Lawful Evil - The Dark Judges from Judge Dredd

Neutral Good - Gandalf

True Neutral - the Laputans from Gulliver's Travels

Neutral Evil - Aila Woudiver

Chaotic Good - Tom Bombadil

Chaotic Neutral - Raoul Duke

Chaotic Evil - Judge Holden from Blood Meridian

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

RPGs, Intimacy and Stand-Up

RPGs are most often compared to video games or board games, or perhaps to novels. In many ways, they are much more similar to stand-up comedy, traditional communal story-telling, or preaching. This is because at its core playing an RPG is a communal exercise in shared visualisation. 

You can play video games communally, but all of the players are seeing the same things (literally, in the case of the old fashioned shared-screen/split-screen games I used to play; almost literally when it comes to online gaming). When you read a novel, you are trying to visualise something which another person is describing, but it's just you and the writer.

During an RPG session, on the other hand, the DM or a player is imagining something and describing them to the other participants, and they are trying to 'see' what it is in their own heads, all at once. 

The phenomenology of this is fascinating. If it were somehow possible to do so, one would be able to look into the minds' eyes of all of the participants and see a different version of the events being described in each of them, all playing out simultaneously. It would be like a case study in human perception, consciousness and communication, all at once. 

People are uncomfortable with the idea that there is an intimacy in this, but there is, isn't there? Somebody is imagining something, and describing it, and you and several other people are sitting listening to this and trying to imagine the same thing. This can't help but be a bonding experience, I think, even if of a very trivial kind and mediated through humour and distractions and snacks and beer. No big deal - there are plenty of bonding experiences in life. But there aren't many that I can think of that are based around shared visualisation of something, particular amongst a group of people. 

One that stands out is storytelling, of the old-fashioned variety - a person standing up in front of an audience to tell them a tale. This is also true of stand-up, which is a kind of bastard progeny of that tradition, and preaching, which has a strong story-telling component at times. One person is imagining something and describing it to others, and those others do their damnedest to try to imagine it too. It is no accident that these activities are also strong sources of human bonding - whether it's a tribe, a religious community, or an audience watching Dave Chapelle. 

Another way of putting this is: playing RPGs helps you form lasting friendships. You knew that already. But it's worth emphasising. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Unholy Island

A few miles north of Dolorous Garde and perfectly visible from its walls lies Unholy Island - a flat and mostly featureless expanse of dunes, tough grasses and marsh, with, at its very eastern tip, a hill which thrusts itself up like a dorsal fin. Beneath the hill is a natural harbour and standing on its summit is a fort of red stone: The Nunnery.

The nuns of Unholy Island have given themselves in marriage to Old Mister Sharpness, a God of Theft. Their worship of him consists in devoting themselves to stealing - of material possessions, naturally, but also of skins, which they flay from their captives alive. This is a function of their doctrine, which stipulates that theft can only be theft if the item is taken from somebody living (because the dead have no possessions); if its taking deprives the owner of its use; and if the taker gains a benefit from the taking. A flayed skin meets these requirements - provided of course that the victim can be kept alive to the end of the process, which is by no means straightforward. This is because the skin is taken from the living; because its taking deprives the victim of its use; and because it benefits the taker, who can put the skin to various practical effects. It is a point of dispute among the nuns as to whether it is necessary to actually use the skin, or whether it suffices that it could in theory be put to use, in order for its taking to count as theft. Those who hold with the former interpretation use skins to make velum books and scrolls, to make leather items, to repair their coracles, or even for ships’ sails. Those who hold with the latter hoist them like flags in praise of their husband and master at various places around the island.

The piracy of these women extends up and down the entire coast. By longstanding custom they do not molest the people of the Town of Dolorous Garde, and they do not stray too close to the Place of the Keepers. But any fisherman, merchant or coast dweller must be constantly vigilant for their presence. Fortunately, for the locals, their numbers are relatively few.

Unholy Island is a tidal island and is accessible by a south-easterly approach across mud flats for d3+3 hours twice over the course of any 24 hour period. Whenever the PCs visit, or if it is necessary in advance to work out tide times, simply roll 1d12 to determine the hour between 1am and noon at which the first accessible period begins. Then roll another 1d12 to determine the hour between 1pm and midnight at which the second accessible period begins. At all other times the island is a genuine island which can only be accessed by boat.

A tiny islet sits just off the southernmost tip of Unholy Island, like a small boat moored to the sea’s bottom. On it there stands a low circle of six thin white columns. Each day, a group of nine Type IV automata walk across the mud flats as soon as the tide is out, whether it is night or morning. They remain there from that point for the rest of the day until the last possible moment before the second accessible period ends, at which point they return to the shore and wait for the next accessible period to begin. According to the people of the Town of Dolorous Garde, they have done this since the time of the Emperor. To what end, they cannot tell.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Transparent DMing

My DMing style is highly transparent.

I roll all dice in the open. I almost always tell the players what I am rolling for and what number will indicate 'success' (with e.g. monster 'to hit' rolls). I even do this for surprises and traps as a general rule - so when the players are going round the dungeon I will, for example, tell them when I am rolling for a random encounter, then the surprise roll if there is an encounter, then the reaction roll, etc.

I never use a DM screen.

I am happy to give the players some narrative control by asking them things like, "Where do you think the orcs you just captured were going?"

I am also happy to ask their advice when making rulings. "What do you guys think would be a fair way of judging if this PC can jump over the chasm?"

I generally let them know I am just a guy behind a curtain pulling rods and levers rather than a wizard. I am willing to be persuaded out of things and retcon when I have clearly made an error of judgment.

I am fine with saying, on occasion, things like, "Sorry that I have to do this to you, but the random wilderness encounter I just rolled up is a real bastard." But I never change the result of a roll or fudge.

I think all of this makes the players more involved and invested in the success of the session and takes a lot of the pressure off DMing. I also think it creates useful narrative distance between events in the game and the players. By making things partially non-immersive through putting the mechanics in the open, the 'feel' is more arch - one is tempted to say Vancian - and there is much less temptation to get carried away with trying to make up a story and start fudging. In this sense it is a bit like postmodern architecture - rather than hide the plumbing, wiring and so on, it's made into a centrepiece.

I have found that the more I do these things, the better and more fun my sessions are.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Everything is Unique

The most popular children's character in Japan by a country mile is Anpanman. Forget Pokemon and Hello Kitty. Those are for foreigners. If you want to know what actual Japanese children are into, it's Anpanman all the way.

The interesting thing about Anpanman is that almost every character who ever appears is a unique, named individual. According to wikipedia, in the first 980 episodes and 20 films there are 1,768 distinct named characters - and most of them recur from time to time in the vast range of merchandised products available to waste your money on, ranging from snacks to bikes to nappies to stationary. For a sample of this, here are some random pictures from an Anpanman iteration of the Where's Wally? idea.





As you can perhaps see from these photos, this lends the Anpanman universe an unusual atmosphere: half-Star Wars cantina, half-small town in which everybody knows each other. The characters are in one sense a throng, but in another are portrayed as distinct persons each with their own goals, desires, hopes and fears. What they are definitely not is just "orcs" or "storm troopers" or "klingons" or whatever. They are people. Most children's TV series and books are a little like this, but Anpanman is unique in the scope and range of characters appearing in it.

I very much like the idea of a D&D campaign in which not just every NPC is a distinct, named individual (this may be one of the best bits of advice in Apocalypse World, actually), but in which every single monster is also a type all of its own. I don't just mean that every orc in the group of 6 you've just encountered has a name; I mean that you didn't just encounter a group of 6 orcs - you encountered a group of 6 individual beings, allied together but all of their own individual kind. This requires time and effort (or a really big and detailed random table) but would I think be worth it - because it would make every single encounter, every single lair, an event and a surprise.