Thursday, 29 October 2020

We Need Long Campaigns

Pay close attention to what has happened to your mind. You are beset, besieged, bewildered by notifications from your phone, your social media accounts, your emails. You are unable to sit at a computer for longer than 10 minutes without giving in to the relentless need to check, something, anything, nothing. You switch on the TV but can only tolerate a minute or two of what you're watching before the urge to fiddle with some electronic device becomes overwhelming. You open up YouTube or Netflix and flick between short videos, chopped up segments of longer ones, that can hold your attention only for a moment before you move on to something else. You spend hours each day, if you tot up all the fragments of time here, there and everywhere, scrolling Twitter or Facebook feeds, or scanning over news websites, or swiping right on Tinder. You are not really living, and you know it. You can picture yourself on your death bed, looking back at your life and regretting how much time you spent on passive time-wasting bullshit, but you still can't shake your bad habits - and anyway, there's always another tweet, text message, email or TikTok to salve the ennui for another second or two. 

Cultivating the capacity to concentrate, think, and plan for deep, long, rich periods of time has never been more urgent than now. We slide toward dystopia. What we do with our inner lives has always mattered, but now it matters more. 

We need long campaigns. We need to sit down with the same group of people on a regular basis over the course of years, telling the kind of stories which require concentration and thought and, above all, loyalty; stories which gain their own momentum through peaks and troughs, ebbs and flows, ups and downs and ins and outs; stories in which the events which happen matter because they have a context and a background and an unknown future waiting to be discovered. We don't need the inconsequential frippery of the one-shot; we need time.

When Rachmaninoff wrote his 18th variation of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, he knew that he had a hit. "This one is for my agent," he said. It was a flip remark, but he was hitting on something that mattered. The 18th variation is justly famous, but taken on its own it is candyfloss. It is pop music. It is 3 minutes that make you feel a bit of a warm fuzz before you skip onto the next thing. It is mass market. But take it in its context, somewhere in the middle of a difficult and complicated 23 minutes of virtuoso concertante playing (not the crescendo, not the culmination, but almost shyly hidden), it is something else altogether: a moment of dizzying transcendent beauty in the midst of something moody and intellectual and strange. Like a gap between dark clouds through which a ray of golden light gleams for a moment before being once more concealed. A taste of some vast ocean of feeling the content of which can be communicated only in the smallest of wordless doses, lest it overwhelm you and the player herself. You have to work to get this feeling - you have to put in the time. But which is best: to sit with eyes closed and really listen for the payoff, or to gorge yourself on a YouTube clip (the modern day equivalent of a Best Classical Music EVER! CD album) before moving on to the next treat?

Rachmaninoff knew this about music. Listening to Stravinsky's The Firebird, whose moment of climax is one of the great eucatastrophes in all of Western art, he was moved to remark, "Great God! What a work of genius this is!" You can only identify it as a such when you have been on the long, difficult, sometimes dissonant, always challenging journey with Prince Ivan, Kaschei the Immortal, and the Firebird herself; when you have put in the hours (the minutes, anyway). The music repays your effort, your focus, your loyalty. If you don't, all you get is a cheap and meaningless thrill - a triumph of thought and feeling and taste reduced to a bit of ASMR-inducing fluff. 

Almost everything worth doing, knowing, reading, hearing, feeling or saying in life has the character of being unobtainable via shortcuts except in a form which diminishes both you and it. Why would you expect RPGs to be any different? 

Sunday, 25 October 2020

An Introduction

What does one do when it is a Saturday night (the worst time for blog traffic)? Certainly not post a content-only post (the worst type of post for blog traffic) on one's blog. Right? Wrong. Here is the introduction to The Great North, which is the final title for 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin'/'The Meeting of the Waters'. 

Once, there was an Emperor, who had already made half of the known world his own, yet grasped endlessly for the rest. At the zenith of his strength, when he was perhaps already sensing its impending failure, he reached out, straining in defiance of age and time, to clutch once more at conquests. The touch of his fingertips in one of those final desperate grabbings brushed against the shores of a distant, wild land of heather-moored hills and deep narrow valleys, wind-seared beaches and damp-cold forests, where magic was strong and there were powers that were old, and strange, and rooted in the ancient earth and rock on which they stood. The Emperor ruled parts of that land, here and there, but he could never fully tame it, and as he grew old and feeble and his Empire shrivelled back upon itself, it was the first of his provinces that he abandoned to its fate. 

The Great North has since lain free for long eons. None rule it. It was wild once, and so it remains. A frontier land where the tide of civilisation once washed before retreating, leaving fragments of flotsam behind it to lie where they may be found. A cold land. A fierce land. A debatable land. And a land of opportunity for those willing to grasp for it, much as the Emperor once tried in the faded past.

Monday, 19 October 2020

I Want to Break Free

God knows I want to break free...from Drive Thru RPG.

Yes, I said it. I hate that site. I hate publishing through it: the eye-watering royalties (30% as opposed to the 3% you might get with a non-RPG-related competitor), the fact that it doesn't provide instant access to those royalties but forces you to wait, and - perhaps, irrationally, the thing I hate about it most - the fact that it seems to think I am a Spanish-speaker and doesn't apparently have a setting to switch my display language back to English.

It's not that I object to any of the political decisions or non-decisions that it has made. It's that it takes us for a ride in terms of pricing - for both consumers and publishers - because it is a quasi-monopoly. And the only reason that I can think of as to why this should be the case is that we have a misplaced loyalty to it: a species of geek social fallacy that says, "Because this website unashamedly and unabashedly makes clear that it relates to my weird hobby, there is a rebuttable presumption that I like and will use it."

Well, it's time to stop liking and using it. There are better options. I've always been satisfied with payhip; there are plenty of others. Use them instead. 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

What Did Medieval Battles Look Like, Really?

Today marks the something-and-somethingth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. No, before you start, I don't have the date memorised as the point at which England began its long slide to the dogs; wikipedia told me - and in any case, England only started going to the dogs in 1832. 

Anyway, according to wikipedia, about 6,000 men are thought to have been killed in the battle - roughly 2,000 Normans and 4,000 Anglo-Saxons. That took place between 9am and 'dusk', which in Kent at this time of year must be, what, about 6pm? Let's say 9 hours of fighting, then. That's 540 minutes. Assuming the 6,000 deaths figure is accurate, 11 people were therefore killed each minute on average during the battle. Not a great deal, when you think about it - certainly nothing like what a Hollywood depiction of a battle tends to look like. 

Now, obviously, this didn't all happen at a continual rate from start to finish. We can assume most of the deaths, certainly on the Angle-Saxon side, took place in the final crescendo. Since the deaths almost all presumably happened in relatively condensed clumps, it's probably the case that an awful lot of time was spent just waiting around, jostling, manoeuvring, hurling insults, ineffectually taking potshots, the odd tussle between particularly aggressive individuals (maybe even conversations), and so on. 

You can get a bit of a sense of this from watching footage of two rival sets of football hooligans getting ready for a brawl. There is a huge amount of bluster, chanting and histrionics (not really much different to what you get to see at the chimpanzee enclosure on a visit to the zoo), and not a great deal of fighting; the kind of thing my dad, who had been to many an Old Firm game in his time, used to call "handbags at 12 paces" or "handbags at dawn". Gradually, the tension builds and builds, though, throughout the course of the day, as more and more alcohol is consumed (how many of the combatants at the Battle of Hastings were off their tits on mead?), and then, at a certain indefinable point there might be the noise of something snapping and you can sometimes get actual violence.

This is all mostly harmless hijinks for a lot of football fans, and probably almost nothing like what a medieval battle was like (as it has none of the discipline, none of the real threat of death, none of the unbelievable adrenaline rush that it must have been for the men involved), but is maybe the closest we can get to at least imagining something of the atmosphere surrounding one before it, so to speak, kicked off. It is also, not incidentally, the closest we can get to understanding how hard it must have been to train men to stand firm when charged by a large group of cavalry. 

Friday, 9 October 2020

The Books You Liked Best, 2000-2020

You know what? Let's cheer ourselves up. What are your favourite 20 books of the last 20 years? Not by date of publication - I mean the book you liked best from those you read in each of the last 20 years. This does not have to be, and probably cannot be, accurate. Just do your best - try to remember what you were reading in 2000, and what your favourite book of that year was. Then go from there. The point is to try to build a picture of what your tastes were like 20 years ago, what they are like now, and how they have changed. But it is also an enjoyable exercise in itself to try to remember in what year you read a particular book, what you were doing at the time, and why the book mattered to you.

I have tried to do this by year. This will not be entirely accurate, but I think it mostly is:

2000 - It is very hard to remember what one was reading 20 years ago, but I do remember that I read Viriconium, by M. John Harrison, in omnibus form, in the first year I was at university - which would have put it in either 1999 or 2000. Assuming it was 2000, it was almost certainly my favourite book that year, as it would probably have been in almost any year you care to name.

2001 - Yes, I am going to have A Game of Thrones in this list, and I am going to say it was 2001 that I read it, although again I may be late by a year or two. GRRM has disappointed us all on so many occasions. He may well never finish ASoIaF. But I will have no truck with people who pooh-pooh A Game of Thrones. It is an absolutely bravura performance which revolutionised the way we think of fantasy book series. Having got used to reading bog-standard fantasy fare for so long, I couldn't believe how high the bar had been raised when I first read it. 

2002 - I was introduced by my father to Raymond Carver when I was in my late teens, but I don't think I read Elephant until I was in my early 20s. It's my favourite collection of his - one in which you can see him really begin to hit his stride before his untimely death. For a time, it made me want to be a short story writer in precisely his mould. You won't get much discussion of how to 'Carverise' your OSR games out there in the blogosphere; indeed, this may be the first and last time his name ever gets a mention in an OSR blog, so I claim that mantle. 

2003 - High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I know this was in 2003, for sure, because I read it practically in one sitting shortly after new year, before leaving the UK for foreign climes for what I felt was for good. This is very much one of those books that you have to read at the right time, and, what can I say? It was the right time (I was 21, sensitive, romantic, indecisive in matters of the heart, very much into music and books, not sure what to do with my life), and I read it. 

2004 - I read Shogun, by James Clavell, when living in Japan, and I was riveted by it, despite being horribly let down - as anyone must be - by the ending, in which Clavell gives every impression of simply having become bored by his complex plot and wraps everything up in the space of about 10 pages. I don't make a point of re-reading books and I'm glad I've not re-read this one, because I suspect now I would find it cringeworthy; I loved Clavell's Noble House, but I've tried some of his other books more recently and I find them almost literally unreadable. 

2005 - Mieville is a frustrating writer: he has phenomenal imaginative and creative gifts and is a master storyteller, but I find I just don't really like any of his characters. Iron Council has stood the test of time, in that it feels as though he was really trying to stretch his craft while writing it; I think it's the only book he's written in which he seems to be trying to create beautiful prose. This makes a difference. I remember reading this on work breaks in a tiny staff room, not much bigger than a cupboard, in 10 minute bursts between lessons at the school where I was working, like a smoker getting his hit to last him through the next hour. 

2006 - The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. I have now read a large number of WWI histories which criticise The Guns of August for its apparent inaccuracies and looseness with the truth, and I've since read Max Hastings' Catastrophe, which has a much superior breadth and depth. But this remains one of the best books to have been written about war, and one of the most breathlessly entertaining non-fiction works that I have read. I loved it. 

2007 - Funnily enough, you could probably say the same about Guns, Germs and Steel as you could about The Guns of August. Perhaps it has an oversimplistic narrative that is now thought of as outmoded, and it has become something of a cliche because of its popularity and influence, but I find it hard to think of a more thought-provoking book that I have read. I am fairly sure I read this one in 2007, as I was back in the UK that summer and have memories of paging through it, ensconsed on my father's sofa on lazy days with nothing much else to do forever for all that I cared.

2008 - For all of his naffness and mainstream appeal, Bill Bryson's works have been a guilty pleasure of mine going back to The Lost Continent, which I read on a family holiday in Portugal when I was about 14 and which I still sometimes re-read as a literary equivalent of comfort food; I can still vividly remember lying on the beach with that book and almost weeping with laughter at some scene while my parents and older sister watched me with concern on their part, disgust on hers. A Short History of Nearly Everything is his best book.

2009 - The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes. This I definitely read in 2009, and I know that, because I wrote a blog post about it. Not one of my finest efforts, I'll admit, but I was still relatively knew to it. (It's amazing to think that Yoon-Suin was actually a thing then; I was writing that damn book 11 years ago.) 

2010 - Economic Sophisms & 'What is Seen and What is Not Seen', Volume II in the Complete Works of Frederic Bastiat. I read this on a Kindle when I first got one, and that would have been late in 2010. It made a lasting impression on me; that Frenchman from the early 19th century spoke to me in ways that very few political theorists have before or since. 

2011 - Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. An underrated film, and a fabulously funny, moving and insightful book, with quotable lines on almost every page. (One remains a favourite: "There is nothing more embarrassing than to have earned the disfavour of a perceptive animal.") Again, here I am clear on the dates, because I had almost literally just finished reading this book on one of the worst days of my life, March 11th, 2011 - one of those before/after events that come along from nowhere and just change your and your loved ones' lives irrevocably, and without giving you the tiniest say in the matter. 

2012 - Dark Companions by Ramsay Campbell. I can't say that this is a great work of literature, but what I can say is that it scared the bejeezus out of me and also really bummed me out with its spectacularly bleak approach to the horror genre; these stories don't just have unhappy endings - they have terribly sad, nasty, unredemptive endings which leave you with the certain impression that nothing will ever be well again, and that takes some serious doing.

2013 - TH White's The Once and Future King; I had read the first volume as a child, but not the others, until that year, and if you were forcing me to pick one of those, it would have to be The Ill-Made Knight, whose moment of apotheosis may be my favourite passage in all of English literature. 

2014 - Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. It is possible I read this in 2015, but I really can't now remember; what I can remember is how good it is - beautiful and epic, but also moving in the way that great literature can be, but fantasy so rarely is. 

2015 - This would probably be My Dark Places by James Ellroy, a book that confirms him in my view as one of the greatest living prose stylists, and which provides a slice of 1950s low-life so real you can practically smell it. 

[We enter now the 'Goodreads era', when I started cataloguing the books I read and have much more certain records of when I read what.]

2016 - I read a huge number of stellar books in 2016. How do you pick one from The Neverending Story, Meadowland, Cutter and Bone, The Goshawk, Lavondyss, and American Tabloid, to name but a few? I suppose really it has to be The Neverending Story, which blew me away - one of those books that you can't believe you have never read, that you can't fathom that nobody has ever sat you down and forced you to read because of how good it is. But because it is less well-known, let's go for Cutter and Bone. A haunting and wonderfully-written book, and possibly the finest mystery story I've ever read. 

2017 - This, on the other hand, was a bad year for books, if I recall, and I spent much of it re-reading Tolkien, which feels like cheating. It probably has to be Bix's Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, which is big, important and fascinating, although lacking I think the narrative verve that a truly riveting non-fiction book needs.

2018 - Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary. I read some fabulous books in 2018, looking back at my Goodreads bookshelf - Everybody Loves Our Town, Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Arete, Trial By Battle... But The Master and His Emissary may be the most important book to have been written in the past 50 years; I can't put any book I read that year, or most years, above it. 

2019 - Jack Vance's The Dirdir, the third volume in his 'Planet of Adventure' series. Beautiful, funny, sad and moving - it showcases Vance at the absolute pinnacle of his talent, combining sardonic wit with emotional heft and demonstrating an unrivalled imaginative palette. 

2020 - It will almost certainly be Master of the Senate, the third volume of Robert Caro's epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. I have small misgivings about it - it is not quite up to the standard of the first two volumes - but it is still a phenomenal work of literature, not to mention history or biography. It is very hard for me to imagine reading anything better this year, that's for sure, and I am hoping beyond hope that Caro doesn't 'pull a GRRM' and leave this series unfinished. 

Monday, 21 September 2020

What Counts as a F*** You Moment?

If there is one principle upon which I submit almost RPGs agree, it is that 'fuck you' moments are weak DMing. They belong in the realm of bad fantasy game books, in which you are regularly faced with binary choices in which one option leads to death without any fair warning whatsoever. 

The devil, as always, is in the detail. What is a 'fuck you' moment? It is one in which a PC blamelessly dies or suffers serious harm. But that definition needs teasing out. We all know that if the PCs simply enter a room and the ceiling falls on their heads, and there was absolutely no way of them discovering this in advance or avoiding the result, then the DM is fucking them over. It's the edge cases, that are much more common, which need careful thought.

Here are some guidelines I think are appropriate:

1. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs fail to make adequate preparation in advance and suffer harm as a result. If they fail to bring adequate light sources in to the dungeon and get trapped in the dark, for instance, then that is just a natural consequence of their own actions. 

2. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs simply get out of their depth in a dangerous environment as the result of a roll of the dice. The wilderness is dangerous. If they randomly encounter a red dragon in the mountains, and it kills them, it is not a 'fuck you' moment. (The analysis would be different if the DM simply inflicted a red dragon on them deliberately, on a whim.)

3. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if the PCs fail to perform proper reconnaissance. This could be as simple as having a scout tapping the ground with a 10' pole in a dungeon, or as complex as sending an invisible servant into an orc den to establish its contents. If the ceiling falls on the PCs but they could have discovered it was unstable by just stopping and looking or listening, or tapping it with a spear, then the results are fair.

4. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if a PC is poisoned or paralysed by a monster or dungeon 'scenery' or similar. These are expected risks. 

5. It is not a 'fuck you' moment if a PC is made a target for revenge. If a PC makes enemies, then those enemies might attempt to assassinate, steal from, injure, or inconvenience him or her - and the results of this may be a complete surprise to the PC/player concerned. As long as the DM makes the appropriate rolls for those enemies fairly, then the results are also fair. 

Can we add any others, or nuance the above?

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The Fourth Model

There are, I think, three basic models which DIY D&D publishers have divided between themselves. (I am talking about commercial publishers here, not the honourable ones who give things away for free.) 

1) The irregular-but-big model. Occasional megaprojects, basically, often done through kickstarters. See, for instance, Patrick Stuart.
2) The regular-but-smaller model, usually through Patreon. See, for instance, Michael Prescott.
3) The LLC model, meaning the creation of an actual publishing company with, like, a legal personality and stuff. See, for instance, LotFP. 

I wonder if there is a fourth. Let's call it the email newsletter option. 

You will be familiar, I hope, with the Fixed World, a project I have been working on semi-regularly for some years. The elevator pitch for the setting is that it is a world in which the sun is fixed in place, so that, depending on where you are, it will always be winter and night time, or autumn and dusk, or summer and dawn, and so on.

At the heart of the Fixed World idea is that it is really a love letter to paradigmatic D&D. It is about pushing that wide-eyed and slightly naive tone of the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual much further than it was taken back in those days, rooting the tone in 1980s high fantasy but expanding the palette a thousandfold - so that you get su-monsters owning vineyards, neogi heptarchs ruling over populations of puffin-headed orcs, ettercap queendoms, glacier cities filled with grimlocks, islands ruled by night hags, tribespeople who live off the bodies of dead dragons, and so on. 

In other words, it's big and strange and vibrant and weird when taken as a whole, but broken up into very small pieces it can be slotted into just about any 'standard' fantasy setting. 

That's where the newsletter comes in. What if the Fixed World did not come out as a book, but was released piecemeal to newsletter subscribers (for instance, via substack)? What if, say, once a week an adventure site or portion of a hexmap was released by email? And what if what was released was set nominally in the Fixed World, but could just as easily be part of any D&D setting? You could use a vineyard owned by a su-monster as an adventure site in your game, right? Or an abandoned heath-elf tomb? Or the ruin of a were-raven lord's keep? 

It's something that I am thinking about. Who knows if it will come to anything?

Yoon-Suin Kickstarter Trailer and Special Offer

I have completed a draft of the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin. Those of you who were hoping for a u-turn towards minimalist design will be disappointed. It adds approaching 150 pages of additional material, including new appendices, new monsters, new treasure tables, and 12 fully mapped, fully keyed adventure sites for varying party levels.

It will also have nice maps and lots more art. 

There will be a kickstarter announced in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I have decided that I will have to, sadly, retire the original Yoon-Suin in PDF form. But it won't go without a bang: for the remainder of this month, you will be able to buy the PDF for £1 from the Noisms Games website. If for whatever reason you have been unable to make up your mind whether to get it or not, well, it's time to shit or get off the pot. 

Here is the link:

And here is a trailer, or amuse bouche if you will; these are the introductory paragraphs for all 12 of the new adventure sites.

The Mourning Garden of the Unrequited Lover 

The garden was created in joy, and defiled in sorrow by the one who made it. A brahmin who wished to celebrate her forthcoming nuptials with a pleasure garden to present to her groom, she was spurned at the last. Her name is now forgotten, but the garden remains as a testimony to love’s cruelty and caprice. It now lies hidden behind high walls of pale rose-coloured stone with its secrets and treasures intact. Human children from the quiet neighbourhood which surrounds it jest in whispers about climbing those walls someday, but even the bravest cannot be dared to do it; the best they can manage is to cluster at the garden’s iron gate, gaze inside, and then scatter in shrieks of delighted terror at some imaginary glimpsed-at horror within. 

The Hornet’s Sting 

Navigators in the Gulf of Morays make use of the constellation of the hornet as their guide, because the bright star at the point of its sting does not move in the night sky. Lying directly under this star is a small island. Some quirk of geographical fortune gives it an appropriate shape, for while it sits low on the horizon for the most part, at its northern end there suddenly spikes up a sheer needle-like crag rising six hundred feet into the air. From a distance, this even seems to slightly curve like the stinger of some vast insect otherwise submerged beneath the sea. For these reasons the name of the island is obvious, and is the same in all of the languages spoken by the many peoples who call the Gulf of Morays and its coasts home.  The island's reputation is also universal: at the tip of that crag lurks a huge spider of unearthly scale, visible from all around, and only an outlaw or lunatic would think it worth the attempt at landing.   

The Museum of Relics Gathered by Wu-U the Brave and Magnificent on His Voyages to the Four Corners of the Earth 

Red Hill is a neighbourhood of faded grandeur growing ramshackle and senescent. The Old Town surrounds it on three sides; the visitor cannot escape forming the impression that, like a sand bar exposed to the rising tide, its sleepy streets and half-deserted markets will soon be engulfed by the emptiness around it. At its very edge, at the point where the Old Town can truly be said to begin, stands Wu-U’s museum: a two-storied building of white stone with elegant colonnades and handsome tiled floors coated with dust. Whether Wu-U was brave or magnificent, as the sign above the entrance to his museum suggests, is not now remembered. Nor is it known whether he did indeed travel on voyages to the four corners of the earth - or even take any voyages at all. It is at least thought that relics can indeed be found inside, although the locals - despondent, decrepit, discouraging - insist that there are probably ghosts and demons protecting them, and that it is surely not worth entering to find out. 

The Pit Near “______” Somewhere in the thickness of the jungle the level ground suddenly falls away in a sheer drop and the traveller winces against the dazzling light of the sun with eyes that had grown accustomed to the shadows. He stands at the edge of a great circular hole, three hundred yards in diameter and a hundred feet deep, which looks not so much as though it was gouged from the surface of the earth, but rather that it was crushed downwards as though by the footstep of some gargantuan beast. He feels a slight breeze on his cheek where before there was only the still fetidness of the forest air, and he savours that moment as he surveys what lies before him. Steep cliffs overgrown with creepers and shrubs, broken here or there by the blackness of a cave. The bottom of the pit concealed almost entirely by the canopy of the trees growing there. A hornbill or monkey-eating eagle gazing at him as it passes, parallel with his position at the lip of the hole. And the dark surface of a pool, flat and unreflective in the shade cast by the great walls of the pit. 

The Ruin of the Dhole God’s Temple 

On a lonely, dusty mound rising up from the plain there sits a crumbling heap of brownish-yellow stone. In it there once sat a mighty avatar of the Dhole God, who hunted far and wide with his followers - men, women, and dholes - and whose name the local people dared not speak. He is now long gone, and the temple which he inhabited is this lonely ruin: a square base with a pyramid squatting on top, and a single minaret close by, the stone here and there speckled with red or white where once there was bright paint. Some memory of the fear which the place used to instil lingers in the minds of those who live nearby, and it now stands silent and rarely visited, a testament to how strength and power eventually fail, but are long in the fading. 

The Fighting Pits at Hailakundpur 

In lush, green Pajuli, where the grass grows shoulder high, where termite mounds rise up like the monoliths in some vast cemetery of giants, and where buffalo wallow in great herds in the fecund mud, there once stood a mighty city: Hailakundpur. Nothing is now left of it, except for a low hillock which rises above the grasslands like the dome of some massive sunken tomb. Here the grass grows short in the rocky ground, where chunks of masonry lie covered in the dust and soil of the eons. And on the top of this mound is a cluster of circular pits of various size, lined with clay bricks and connected by tunnels. They were once used by the people of Hailakundpur for the blood sports that they enjoyed, and according to legend remain haunted to this day by the souls of the men, women and animals who died there long ago. 

The Falls of the Pale Nãga 

Deep in the forests of Lamarakh a high shelf of land rises up in a sudden slab, as though placed there by some ancient race of giants in an antique age. Many of the countless rivers of the jungle plunge over the edge of this great sheet of earth, creating waterfall after waterfall up the hundred miles of its length. Most are nameless, and remote even from the knowledge of the boat tribes. But about others there are tales told, in mothers’ lullabies or storytellers’ songs, or written in tattoos on the skins of the wise. One such is the place known as the falls of the pale nãga, where a snake demigoddess of the purest white is said to hold sway over a series of waterfalls and pools which tumble down a steep slope like the sections of an ornamental fountain. In her realm, it is said, powerful magical beings are given sanctuary in return for abiding by the demigoddess’s laws, and the pale nãga herself is thought to hold court in one of its pools, where she sits in judgment in disputes and bestows her blessings and knowledge on those who come to offer her their fealty. 

The Tor of the Petrified Fakirs 

A low, flat tor rises above the badlands of Lower Druk Yul - a fortress of granite that stands resolute against the sweeping and unrelenting wind. From a distance, it looks perfectly level, as though a hill once jutted up from the ground here and was sliced away by a mighty sword close the ground. But as one gets closer, one begins to discern that there are bumps in its surface - what at first look like they might be dark, motionless figures, or the hunched backs of monsters, but which are gradually revealed to be boulders, monoliths, and a single hexagonal tower standing over them as an inscrutable sentinel. This is the resting place of the fakirs of the Unmoving and Impassable End, a cult for whose members the apotheosis of their faith is to merge their bodies with cold and unmoving stone, and thus complete the permanent transformation of flesh to rock, of spirit to material reality. Those who know of the place say that it may be possible to glean some precious fragments of knowledge from these wise men before they give themselves over entirely to the rock, just as a man might hope to gather some uncut precious stones from an exposed seam in the last moments before a landslide buries them. 

The Tower of the Experimenter in Light and Glass 

In a steep and narrow valley in a nameless range of arid hills in Lower Druk Yul there stands a tower. It is the only artificial thing for miles around, and it proudly proclaims that fact by looking unlike anything that could possibly exist in nature: a high finger of glass which gleams with multi-coloured refracted light whichever direction the sun is shining. From a distance it looks like a shard of a shattered rainbow has plummeted to earth and embedded itself deep into the ground. Up close, it is revealed to be a circular spire, five stories high, which is built from pinkish granite but whose walls are almost entirely comprised of huge sheet-like windows - some transparent, some coloured and opaque - which let the sun beams blaze through and scatter across the ground beyond. It was built by a madman who believed that all of the universe was made of light and that, by refracting, altering, dissipating and enhancing it, he could unravel the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. He has long gone. But his servants, and the results of his experiments, remain. 

The Mad Sorceress’s Blessed Retreat 

In a narrow valley high in the foothills of the great mountain Pachamuchare, a small lake lies hidden among the green that surrounds it. Its surface, covered with lilies and beds of reeds, is still and silent; its position, guarded by the slopes which rise up around it, cloaks it from the wind. The repose is only broken by the movements of the waterfowl who creep, splay-footed, across its surface, or the occasional tahr who ventures to the waterside to ripple its surface with a drink. It is here that the sorceress Khribtsun chose as the location for her summer residence - a place where she could sit in quiet comfort and enjoy the solitude of nature while contemplating her mystical arts. And when she was cursed by her enemies to a future of slow but inevitable descent into senility, it was to this place that she fled, rather than face the humiliation of being in the society of her peers as her mind decayed. Whether or not she dwells there still, few can say; if she does, then only the faintest scraps of her sanity can now remain. The more pertinent question to many is whether any of her treasures do. 

The Fields of Poppies Standing Unharvested 

The Pirimkul family once owned one of the most fertile and productive poppy plantations in the Yaghnub valley - the envy of the neighbouring dynasties up and down the length of the river. But two years ago, those neighbours noticed something unusual. The Pirimkul, unlike each autumn, were not taking in their harvest. Indeed, there seemed to be no activity taking place in their land at all. And nor were they attending any of the many festivals and tournaments which fill the calendar in the Yaghnub, like all the valleys of Sughd, throughout the year. Rumours spread. Had the Pirimkul taken ill? Had their pride, always their defining characteristic, got the better of them, such that they no longer considered themselves to be part of human society at all? Eventually, visits were made, and messengers sent, and it became clear that the Pirimkul had, with all of their servants and chattels, simply disappeared. Their plantation was deserted. But there was no clue as to where they had gone. Now their plantation lies quiet and overgrown; the fields grow high and unkempt, and the house and other buildings stand empty and eerily still. The fields still blaze merrily and prettily with the vivid colour of the flowers. But the plantation has taken on a reputation. One does not go there. Something terrible must have taken place within it. 

The Dwarves Who Forgot Their Own Names and Faces 

All over the highest places of the highest mountains, mountains which have never felt the touch of rain or the caress of the root of a tree, one finds the empty, silent gates of abandoned dwarven halls. Some are vast citadels, others are clearly forts or holdfasts, others tombs; many have functions now lost to time. One of them sits below the peak of Torugart, a week’s climb from the Oligarchy of Ibatash Vo. Its entrance is a circular black hole at the base of a sheer grey cliff shaped like a handprint pressed into the mountainside; on either side of the gate a single eye has been carved into the rock. Its name has long been forgotten, and so has its role, but there are, unusually, dwarfs who still live within - though they are very strange dwarves indeed. Wizened, crippled by age and long eons of cold, they go everywhere in masks which, while once they must have been removable, have over time come to be almost be a part of them, moulded to their flesh and impossible to take off. They can no longer remember what their own faces looked like, or even their names, much less what they once did or why they are there. Instead, they simply exist, hiding in their chambers and clutching their treasures lest they fall into the hands of the tulpas and other spirits which gradually rise up from the blackness below them.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The Modern Post-Apocalypse

Are you familiar with 'Without Sky', the astonishing (and astonishingly short - you can read it in 5 minutes) piece of micro-fiction/philosophical treatise/prophecy/strategy document penned by Vladislav Surkov, one of Vladimir Putin's closest advisors?

Set aside for a moment conspiracy thinking about Russian influence over Western democracy, which I think has always said more about the insecurity of Western democracy in our current moment than the activities of the Russian state. What is abundantly clear is that the people in charge in Russia appear to have grasped something about the instability of advanced modernity that those of us in more pampered societies are only beginning to understand. A few days ago, off the cuff, I was chatting to a friend about the state of our country (the UK) and I found myself making the observation that it feels as though we are at war, but against nobody. I was suddenly reminded of Surkov's story, and the image it depicts of a war in which there are not two sides, but many ever-fluctuating coalitions; in which some sides fight not to win, but to lose; and in which the belligerents are not states, but individual cities, professions, generations or sexes. It sounds very unlike our world, and yet also somehow reminiscent of it. 

Nick Bostrom has an interesting thought experiment. In it, humans are engaged in a continual process of taking balls out of an urn. Some of the balls they take out are white: these represent inventions that are beneficial on the whole. (The discovery of antibiotics, for instance.) Some are grey: these represent inventions for which the results are mixed (for example, TV or nuclear power). None so far have been black: this would be an invention that invariably or by default destroys the society which invented it. Bostrom's concern is that AI, or one particularly AI, could be such an invention. But in my darker moments, I sometimes wonder whether we haven't already pulled a black ball out of the urn, and we just haven't got the point yet of realising that it will end up in our ruination: social media, and the way it has turned us,  over the course of only 15 years or so, utterly loopy. 

Be that as it may, the idea of the post-apocalypse not as the aftermath of an extinction-level event (nuclear war, plague, global warming, new ice age, whatever) but as an ongoing and unending descent into non-linear war and thenceforth chaos increasingly interests me. For a long time, as long-term readers will be know, I have been playing around with Behind Gently Smiling Jaws, a campaign setting which exists within the memory of an ancient crocodile demigod, into which an ancient race (the Naacals) entered, and into which YOU TOO can adventure. These days I wonder if the more interesting question would be: what if what was inside the crocodile's memory palace leaked out into our reality? Not immediately, but slowly, and progressively. In a random and haphazard, jumbled-up sort of way. As if one were to wake up one day, look out of the window, and realise that half the local park had become a fragment of a city populated by birds. Or one were to switch on the news one evening to see images of an army of early hominids led by Ethiopian knights marching on Kathmandu, or Caracas, or Bergen? Or if one were sent a whatsapp message by a friend with a link to a pornographic website showing people mating with hideous amphibian beasts of the Carboniferous period. Or if one received a phone call from a colleague when about to set off on the morning commute, telling you not to come into work because there were men in the building wearing face paint and feathers and armed with blowguns and clubs, slowly killing everyone, room by room, floor by floor. Then, what if you accelerated that process over the course of 10, 50 or 100 years and imagined how the world would then look, and used that as the start of the campaign?

Just some idle thoughts on a Wednesday lunch time. 

Monday, 7 September 2020

RPG Theory: Moments for Taking the New Ball

I'm now going to do something I rarely if ever do: give technical advice, rooted in theory, for making your campaign better.

A long time ago I wrote this, about Ben Bova's advice to novelists: every time your protagonist solves one problem, give him or her two more. This not only ratchets up the tension; it also gives the plot a drive and momentum all of its own. 

Often (usually) this happens organically. Indeed, as play goes on it will often be unavoidable. Through the very process of solving one problem, PCs will tend to generate opportunities to create others. Nonetheless, there are certain times during a campaign which you can think of as prime targets for the "two problems for every solution" technique. I have recently been thinking of them as opportunities to 'take the new ball'. 

In a test match in cricket, the fielding side gets the opportunity, after 80 overs have been bowled, to change the old ball (soft and relatively slow) for a new one (polished, very fast, and very hard). This is always the moment to look forward to in the rhythms of a test match (which takes 5 days to play), because it has a way of suddenly expediting things in unpredictable ways. It makes it easier for the bowling side to get the batsmen out, but it also makes it easier for the batsmen to score (because the hard ball moves more quickly off the bat as well as out of the bowler's hand). If it's two skilled batsmen who have been batting for a long time and have hence got their eye in, the new ball can dislodge them - or it can allow them to suddenly accelerate the rate of scoring. So taking the new ball can go either way. It can suddenly swing the match in a new direction, out of its established pattern.

There are moments in an RPG campaign like this. These are the moments when new problems can be introduced and the established pattern can be broken. Let's list some:

Back to town: Particularly when the PCs have brought back treasure. This is a natural time for new problems to assert themselves. For instance: the PCs become targets of thieves, or they have to search for somebody to whom to sell a specialist or magical item, or they let slip where they have been and are followed by NPC adventurers who want in on the action, or they sell something to a powerful magician and he binds them to get more for him with a geas, or many other things that will spring to mind, or - better - more than one of these things happens.

Between sessions: This is the DM's thinking time, and he should use it so that, when the next session begins, it has momentum. Maybe when the next session starts, the DM informs the PCs they have all seen the same dream. Maybe at the beginning of the next session they're visited by an old ally who needs their help. Maybe it's when longstanding enemies choose their moment to strike. Whatever: this is a natural break in which the DM can give himself a half-time team talk and come out in the next session with all guns blazing.

Long distance travel: When the PCs are moving across the hexmap, other pieces should be moving elsewhere too. These could be big, seismic campaign-setting level shifts (an earthquake, a volcano, a plague, an invasion, a dragon attack). Or they could be moves by known NPCs (spies, rivals, villains, allies). When the PCs arrive where they are going, or return from a journey, they find out there have been changes while they've been away. They always should.

Night time: Surprisingly effective when the PCs are staying, for instance, at an inn or tavern. In the morning, the barmaid informs them somebody came asking questions about them last night. Or there was a murder in another room. Or, during the night, there's a fire - or enemies come calling.

Think about the maxim: two problems for every solution. (These should be natural consequences of what the PCs have done previously, of course, and there is a fine art to this; whatever happens should seem like the organic consequence of player choice, except for the really unusual event like an earthquake.) Then, think about moments for putting this into effect - the new ball opportunities which inevitable arise during a campaign.