Friday, 19 July 2019
Have you ever had one of those sticker books which contains a load of blank faces and a random assortment of eyes, noses, mouths and the rest, allowing you to make your own "crazy" characters?
There is a kind of D&D equivalent. It works as follows.
First, you choose a list of monsters. It could be 6, 10, 20, the whole Monster Manual, whatever. For the sake of illustration, let's go with 6: black pudding, blue dragon, derro, storm giant, harpy and basilisk.
Second, you break your monsters of choice up into their body shape (meaning a very basic physical description), their flavour characteristics (meaning a thumbnail sketch of their "personality" or behaviour), their special abilities (including magic), and their level or organization. Hence:
Third, you roll some dice accordingly - 4d6 in this case.
Let's use some examples. Here I am, 4d6 in my hand, ready to roll.
Monster One: 4, 2, 1, 6. So it is something that looks like a giant, is intelligent, manipulative and hierarchical, can spray acid and envelop opponents, and lives on its own or in a family. Here, I am imagining something which, while it resembles a giant, is actually something like a slime mold or gargantuan humanoid spore - an amorphous semi-solid colony-type entity which forms itself into a vast and sentient walking monstrosity oozing corrosive and noxious fumes and fluids.
Monster Two: 3, 2, 4, 2. So it is dwarf-like, intelligent, manipulative and hierarchical, can cast spells and control the weather, and is solitary or lives in family groups. This is perhaps something akin to the Icelandic huldufolk: a race of diminutive spirits who can manipulate the weather and their environment by channelling the magical energy imbuing the natural world - probably in a manner which strikes humans as capricious and cruel.
Monster Three: 4, 3, 6, 3. Another giant-thing, which is a mad, sadistic would-be conquerer, has a petrifying gaze, and forms an empire. All I can say to that is....nice! A race of giants who can turn their foes to stone with a mere glance, and who constantly attempt to use this power to bend entire continents to their will - an endeavour in which they would undoubtedly be successful were it not for their inevitable tendency to descend into hereditary insanity....
Thursday, 18 July 2019
Back in 2008, when the world was young, I wrote this post, the essence of which was that modern fantasy tends to sit in between two different poles. On the one hand, there is classicist fantasy (in which everything in the setting is internally consistent and explainable on its own terms, even if it contains magic and monsters) and on the other, romanticist (in which the whole point is the weirdness, the mystery, the fact that nothing makes sense or can be predicted in advance). The quintessentially classicist fantasy writer is probably George R R Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire novels feature human beings acting in basically rational ways in the world that they inhabit, which contains magic that, even while it is rare and unpredictable, can be dealt with roughly as a form of strange super-technology. The quintessential romanticist writer is probably M. John Harrison, the entire point of whose fantasy novels is to express a kind of illogic or unreality; not even the characters feel as though they are at home in the world that they inhabit.
The classicist tradition is very clearly at work in D&D, particularly when it comes to what I am going to from now on call Linnaean Monster Classification. You know how in the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual there is no individual entry for "dragon", but instead dragons are classified into white dragons (which live in cold places), black dragons (who live in swamps), blue dragons (who live in the desert), amethyst dragons (who live in underground lakes), shadow dragons (who are from the Plane of Shadow), and all the rest? And there is no individual entry for "giant", but instead you get cloud giants, frost giants, reef giants, stone giants, and so on? Most of the truly iconic monsters are given this treatment to some extent or other: they are sliced up, boxed up, compartmentalised and classified, as though there is an actual genus, "dragon", with species within it.
(There are perfectly sound practical reasons for this: it provides more variety for DMs to draw from when filling up their boxes of tricks.)
Compare this with how the dragon appears in, say, Beowulf. (Or The Hobbit, for that matter.) It's not so much that people in 8th Century Scandinavia, or Middle Earth, didn't have the time or expertise to catalogue subdivisions of dragon types. It's that in their context monsters are really monstrous: not just another kind of animal, albeit a very dangerous one, but a thing apart from the natural world - something which does not belong; an interloper; a Thing Which Should Not Be. You get a great sense from this in Tolkien's description of Glaurung in particular as a being whose very presence seems somehow to soil the natural world around him. Glaurung is not of the animal kingdom. Glaurung is a dragon.
Another way of thinking about this is: the assumptions of the AD&D Monstrous Manual are that, if only some sage somewhere had access to all the necessary information, he could provide an accurate taxonomy of dragon species which reflected some underlying biological reality. That is classicism in a nutshell. The assumptions of the Beowulf poet or Tolkien are not that this task would be impossible at a practical level; it's that the attempt at classification itself would be a category error. You don't think of a monster in that way. It just is.
There is nothing wrong with the normal way in which D&D bestiaries approach the matter. It makes life easier by providing DMs with a wide range of choices for encounters and lairs. But it does, to hark back to another 2008 post, have a banalifying effect. The dragon in Beowulf, or Smaug, or Glaurung, or even Falcor, loom far larger and longer in the memory than the Just Another Gold Dragon of your average D&D campaign. The next time you're thinking of a monster lair to put in your hexmap, think about how you can lean it towards the Glaurungian rather than the Linnaean, and see if it makes a difference to how the PCs interact with it.
Monday, 15 July 2019
I am not a big watcher of TV these days, to put it mildly. Whenever TV comes up in conversation I tend to sit and listen and nod and smile politely at what seem like appropriate moments, and I always give the half-joking response, if asked, that all I watch is Match of the Day and University Challenge. The truth is, I haven't really watched either of them in years either. Basically, what I watch on TV (including streaming services) is a bit of football, a bit of cricket, a bit of rugby, a bit of boxing, some kids' TV, and the occasional indulgence like Can't Pay? We'll Take it Away! or Cable Girls or the old Pride and Prejudice BBC series on Netflix. (My wife's choices.)
The exception is Star Trek: TNG. There is something ineffably comforting for me about Next Gen, mostly because it has such associations with a very comforting era in my life. Whenever I watch it, it seems like I go through some sort of TECHING THE TECH device which allows me to imbibe the original milieu in which I first encountered it across space and time: when I watch Next Gen, I am for those 42 minutes an 11 year old boy again, and it's a hazy summer evening on a Wednesday, and I am sitting in front of the little black-and-white TV we used to have in the sitting room, and dinner will soon be on the table, and Deanna Troi's cleavage is doing strange and wonderful things to me, and I am wishing I could one day be a tenth of the man Captain Picard is. And also, let's face it, it's partly because the whole thing was televisual comfort food to begin with - who wouldn't want to live on the Enterprise?
But it's not just that - watching Next Gen today isn't merely an exercise in bleary-eyed nostalgia. For the fact of the matter is that, for the most part, and for all of its (many) flaws, it is simply bloody good telly: taut, funny (often unintentionally) and packed with narrative - each episode like a coiled spring, quivering with elastic potential energy of plot. Yes, for every Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes or Brent Spiner there is a Michael Dorn, Rosalind Chao or Will Wheaton. Yes, for every "Inner Light" there is yet another episode in which Worf struggles to reconcile his Klingon heritage and human upbringing/Data gets taken over and goes berserk/Riker shags somebody he shouldn't have/Troi has weird dreams and uncomfortable feelings/Something goes wrong on the holodeck/the Enterprise is trapped in a mysterious energy field and can't escape. Yes, for every good idea there are three ridiculous ones. (A species who can only communicate in metaphor? A "best of" clip show when there have only been two seasons? Code of Fucking Honor?) Nobody could call it perfect. But even at its worst it is somehow compellingly watchable.
This watchability stems in no small part from the cast. Casting chemistry is highly underrated, probably because it is so difficult to analyse or describe. However you do analyse it, though, the Next Gen cast had it in spades. They actually look and behave like what they are supposed to be: a crew of professionals who have been working and living together for years. And this gives them an understated bonhomie which is precisely what you'd expect in similar circumstances in the real world. There is no forced melodrama, no shouted confrontations, no childish whooping and cheering when something goes right and no tears and emotion when things go wrong, which seems to be the general approach in modern TV drama. The Next Gen team actually come across like a real team should be (which must surely stem from a great working relationship off-camera as much as from the writing and direction).
With that in mind, rather than come up with a Top 10 List of episodes for TNG, I thought I'd list my favourite episodes for each member of the cast, together with some honourable mentions. You might disagree how much a given episode is mostly "about" the character I've chosen; it's just a personal list.
Picard: The toughest one, because there are probably more "Picard-centric" episodes than for any other character, but it really has to be "The Inner Light". It might be too much of an obvious choice, but sometimes obvious choices are obvious for good reason. It's a fabulous episode. Honourable mentions go to: "Tapestry", "The Drumhead", "Family", "Starship Mine", and "The Perfect Mate" (although my judgement about the latter may be clouded slightly by his co-star in that one).
Riker: The temptation with Riker is to go for episodes which feature him shagging somebody he shouldn't have, especially if that person is a hermaphrodite. But I think the one I enjoy most is "Schisms", which is a nicely creepy SF horror chamber piece that rarely gets mentioned in "best of" lists. Honourable mentions for "Second Chances", "First Contact" and - although this may be a stretch to call it Riker-centric - "Lower Decks".
Data: Similarly, there is an "on the nose" option for picking Data episodes, which is to go for the ones in which he meets/builds other former family members or experiments with being human. I much prefer the slightly melancholic yearning-to-be-human Data to the actually-human Data, and so I tend to like the episodes in which he is simply himself, so to speak. Again, I have to go with the obvious choice, which is "Data's Day" (this may be my absolute favourite episode of Next Gen), but "The Most Toys" - another brilliant episode which rarely gets mentioned in the "best of" lists - runs it very close. Other honourable mentions include "Elementary, Dear Data" and, naturally, "The Measure of a Man".
Crusher: Without a doubt it's "Remember Me", which is beautifully creepy and suspenseful. Is it a coincidence that so many of my favourite episodes lean towards the (admittedly mild) horror tonal palette? The series, as a general rule, did that kind of episode exceptionally well - a tough ask for something that always remained staunchly for the family. Honourable mentions: "Attached", "Suspicions", and "The Host".
Troi: Troi is hard, primarily because of all the characters she has consistently the least to do, and the ones which centre on her character are generally bland at best ("The Loss", for example). I am tempted to go for "Night Terrors", but to avoid choosing yet another horror episode, I'll try instead for "Dark Page" which - if you set aside everything that is bad about it - does at least give Marina Sirtis the chance to do some proper acting. If I was stretching the definition of a Troi-centric episode, I might also include "Timescape".
Geordi: Geordi is often a bit part, playing second fiddle to Data (to mix my metaphors slightly). I have a real soft spot for "Identity Crisis", particularly for the stunningly effective set piece scene on the holodeck with the unidentified shadow; I found it utterly riveting as a kid. But "The Enemy" is clearly superior. Honourable mentions (again, possibly stretching the definition of Geordi-centric): "Galaxy's Child", "Force of Nature", and "The Next Phase".
Worf: The Worf-centric episodes all tend to blur together because they are all so similar and so dreary (what is it about Klingons that makes people actually interested in them enough to learn Klingon?). That said, I always really enjoyed "Heart of Glory", if only for the hilarious escape scene and the way Worf's character arc in it goes from loyal Starfleet officer to potential renegade and traitor in the course of what must surely be less than 24 hours. But then again, what am I saying? Of course, it can only be "Qpid".
Wesley Crusher: Much as I resent the existence of the little prick, there are some good Crusher-centric episodes in the early seasons - I assume because he was the character the adolescent male audience was supposed to identify with. Hands down, the best of these is "The Game", with an honourable mention for "Final Mission" (which almost makes you feel like you'll miss him).
Natasha Yar: "Skin of Evil". 'Nuff said. I hated Yar's character, and especially Denise Crosby's acting, so to have her disposed of in such inglorious fashion (basically giving a minor villain a chance to show off its powers) was exceedingly gratifying.
I can't think of a Pulaski one; most of the time I can barely remember she existed. I can't believe they thought that having a female version of Bones would work out better than good old Gates McFadden.
Wednesday, 10 July 2019
What would the platonic Wizard's Garden, the ur-Wizard's Garden be like? Well, first it would be apparently very pleasant and welcoming, full of the scents of flowers and freshly cut grass (almost certainly with a variety of magical effects).
Parts of it would be overgrown and full of hidden threats.
While other parts would contain ponds and streams and other waterways in which mysterious aquatic beings dwell.
There would be follies, such as a bell tower.
And there would be walled sections behind magical, secret or perhaps even sentient doors.
There would be fancy podiums and raised areas.
There would be eccentricities.
And wildflower meadows hiding all manner of creatures, objects and ruined buildings.
Not to mention greenhouses full of exotic, sentient plant life and the servants who tend and guard them.
And right in the middle, of course, there would be the home of the wizard himself, surrounded by the garden he created for his own pleasure, or to keep out trespassers - or to lure them in and trap them for eternity.
Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Wednesday, 26 June 2019
The existence of the megadungeon as mythic underworld, and faerie/wilderness as mythic otherworld, suggests of course that there is a third mythic -world - the Mythic Upperworld.
Don't mistake the mythic otherworld for heaven. It is a place that is hard to get to, and harder still to remain in, but it is not utopia. It is a dangerous place where demigods, giants and dragons dwell. Vast wealth can be found there, if you can find it - and if you can find a way to keep yourself from falling, and to grasp what is out of reach.
Tuesday, 25 June 2019
Psychic geography is real. I was struck by this last week when I visited my home town, which like most urban or semi-urban English landscapes is a place of vast contrasts between rich and poor. (Britain, as a comparatively small and very densely populated country has the "haves" and "have nots" nestling alongside one other like almost nowhere else on earth.) Having an afternoon free on my hands I decided to take a drive to Noctorum, a place where a friend of mine used to live; I hadn't been there in 20 years so I wanted to see if I could find it.
Noctorum is not easy to get to. There are few signs pointing to it, and it's not really on the way to anywhere. This latter quality (what you might cynically call the "out of sight, out of mind" approach to poverty reduction) is perhaps one of the reasons why it was chosen as the location for the building of a council estate back in the 1960s - one of a string of such developments built in the local area as a way to, supposedly, provide bettter accommodation for the urban poor than the town-centre slums in which they had previously been living. This large estate was tacked on to the existing semi-rural village location of Noctorum proper, and is now commonly referred to locally and by the residents as "The Nocky".
What you get when you drive from Noctorum proper to the Nocky is a lesson in inequality in microcosm. Noctorum is stunningly wealthy. It is full of vast, detached homes which you can only get to by ignoring signs which say "PRIVATE ROAD" in big red letters, built in a landscape something like arcadia - a deliciously lush woodland on a secluded hillside in which it isn't unusual to see people trotting on horseback. Then suddenly you pass a crossroads at the bottom of the hill beyond which are tiny terraced houses and the only colours are beige and grey, and the sky itself seems to darken.
The Nocky itself resembles a stockade, though one formed from roads, not walls. It is surrounded by a big looping road, inside of which is the estate and outside of which on three sides, more or less, are open fields (the other side being Noctorum proper). This, you have the feeling, was done by design. You can't get out of the estate easily even in a car - you have to do a big circuit - but doing it on foot is hard. You have to slog it up hill to Noctorum, beyond which there is no real public transport, or you have to trek across fields, or just go the considerable distance along one road to the nearest train station. Whenever local people mention this they always say this was the result of a deliberate choice by the local authority "in case there was violence" - if riots ever took place they would have nowhere to spread. It also serves to keep criminal activity in general insulated from the outside world. And it also serves to keep the community itself cooped up with nowhere to go and nobody to turn to when things go wrong.
Make no mistake about it: the Nocky is in a different world to Noctorum. It would be completely crass, simplistic and stupid to describe it as a "mythic underworld" or something of that nature, but when you pass from one place into the other you can feel yourself crossing a barrier of some kind - an invisible and yet also somehow visible wall which keeps the two places apart. There is something of The City & The City about it - two communities living side by side but unable or unwilling to see each other - but something much more brutally real: you can see the Nocky easily enough from parts of Noctorum. But you don't want to go there.
It's not all that difficult to understand, then, how it would feel to live in a reality in which there was a forest "over there", or a cave system "down there", which people can nakedly see and yet into which they do not, and perhaps dare not, go. That feeling is one with which most of us are familiar from the societies in which we find ourselves - the difference of course being that in a fantasy setting it is based on the supernatural, whereas in our own it is merely due to the starkness of the distinctions which exist between life opportunities.
Friday, 21 June 2019
I know what they mean. What they want to make clear is that it's all very well for a book or product to read well and look good. But these things are made to be played, and in the final analysis it is how they work at the table, under fire as it were, that really matters.
I respectfully disagree with this view. Partly this is because I have never run anything I have bought as is, and can never really imagine how anybody would; I can only really imagine somebody buying an adventure or module and pulling out bits here, removing bits there, switching X around with Y and Z with A, or perhaps just going away inspired to do their own vague pastiche of the contents. Given that every reader is going to use the product differently, then, I'm never sure what value a review of how something works in play has beyond the individual reviewer.
Partly, though, it is also because of a related problem, which is that of the players. No two groups of players are the same, and no combination of players is the same as any other - we all know this, of course. This means that, much as with DMs, you have to wonder whether a review of the experience of a particular group of players can be generalised to others. But that's not the important point, for me, which is that while no two groups of players are the same, it is just as true that no group of players is the same from one session to the next. Sometimes somebody is in a bad mood. Sometimes people have had a few too many drinks. Sometimes people at the next table are noisy. Sometimes the DM has just had a row with his girlfriend. Sometimes people are just in the mood for one type of session and not another. Circumstances differ. The play experience is so subjective, and so variable, that it is very hard to trust an "actual play" review as being of widespread usefulness.
That's not to say that some products are not better than others. But I suspect this is something that can be discerned easily enough in the abstract merely through reading by an experienced eye. I don't need to play my way through a module to know if it's useful, mostly because I'm not going to play my way through it anyway, in that sense, but also because I have run some gaming sessions in my life and have a feel for what's good and what isn't.
And nor is to suggest there is no value in people going online to post about how they've just run a brilliant campaign set in Yoon-Suin* and how wonderful/terrible it was, because, let's face it, discussion and feedback are interesting in their own right. It's only to suggest that I would never not buy a product just because somebody posted a review in which they felt it hadn't worked as well as they would have liked in play.
*Other RPG products are available. [Do people outside the UK get this joke?]
Wednesday, 19 June 2019
Abbey lubber - A lazy monk (1538-1750), a lazy, thriftless person (1750-1900)
Academician - A harlot (1760-1820). Ex academy, a brothel (late C. 17-18)
All wind and piss - Contemptuous (C. 19)
Avering - A boy's begging naked to arouse compassion (late C.17)
Avaunt, give the - Dismiss a person (C. 16-17)
Bachelor of law - A drinker (1650)
Bachelor's baby - An illegitimate child (1670)
Batty-fang - To beat (C.17)
Beggar-maker - A publican (C.18)
Beggar's velvet - Downy matter or fluff (C.19)
Chair-days - Old age (C. 19)
Chovey - A shop (C. 19)
Church-work - Work that proceeds very slowly (C. 17)
Clapper - The tongue (human) (C.17)
Cold cook - An undertaker (1720s)
Cunny-warren - A brothel (1785)
Dive in the dark - The act of coition [it actually says this] (C.19)
Dismais - In low spirits (1760)
Disguised - Drunk (C. 16)
Docked smack smooth, to be - To have one's penis amputated (C.18) [Be thankful you don't live at a time in which this was happening frequently enough to need a slang term]
Dusting - A thrashing; rough weather (C. 18)
Ebb-water - Lack of money (C. 17)
Earwig - A malicious prompter or flatterer; a crony (1610
Eve's custom-house - The female pudend [it actually says this] (C.18)
Execution day - Washing day (C.17)
Fair trader - A smuggler (C.19)
One of the faithful - A drunkard (C.17)
Fart-catcher - A footman or valet (mid-C.18)
Fingers made of lime-twigs, to have - To be a thief (1596)
Flying camp - A gang of beggars (Late C.17)
Gawk - A simpleton; a fool (C.17)
Gin-trap - The mouth; the throat (1827)
Glimmerer - A beggar alleging loss by fire (1560
Goats and monkeys (at), to look - To gaze lecherously (at) (1749)
Grin at the daisy-roots, to - To be dead (1880)
Hard neck - Extreme impudence (1870)
Hoddy-peak - A fool; a cuckold (1585)
Horn-thumb - A pickpocket (1565)
Howsomever - Nevertheless (1750
Hydromancy - The "study" of drink, i.e. alcoholism (1650)
Idea-box - Head (C.18)
Ivory-box - Mouth (1880)
Ivy-bush, like an owl in an - Having a large wig or very bushy hair (1606)
Jack Ketch's pippin - A candidate for the gallows (C. 18), also called a "Gallows apple"
Jelly-bag - The scrotum (C. 17)
Jug - A prison; to imprison; lock up (C.19)
Jump, see how the cat will - To watch the course of events before committing oneself (1820)
Keep back and belly - To clothe and feed (C.18)
Ken - A house or compound (1560)
Ken, crack a - To rob a house (late C.17)
Ken-crack lay - Housebreaking (C.17)
Ken-cracker - Housebreaker (C.17)
Key of the street, have the - To be shut out for the night or homeless (1835)
Kick the wind (or clouds) - To be hung (late C. 16)
Lay in water - To defer judgement (C.16)
Lion, as valiant as an Essex - Timid or fearful (C.18) [substituting "Essex" for a suitable location of your choice]
Loose fish - A person or irregular, esp. of dissipated habits (1827)
Lullaby - The male member (C.19)
Lump and bump - A fool; a simpleton (C.19)
Marriage face - A sad face (C.19)
Maunding cove - A beggar (C.17)
Maw-wallop - A filthy dish of food (C.18)
Maw-wormy - Captious; pessimistic (C.19)
Moon's man - A gypsy; a robber by night (C.16)
Nail - A person of an overreaching, imposing disposition (1812)
Napkin, take sheet and - To eat and sleep with someone or in some place (C.17)
Nasty man - A garrotter; the one in a garrotting gang who does the critical work (1840)
Night-flea - A boarder (C.19)
Number the waves - To engage in a pointless or time-wasting task (C.18)
Old man's milk - Whisky or other spirit (1860)
Otherguess - Different (C.16)
Oysters, drink to one's - To fare accordingly (esp. badly) (C.15)
Pad in the straw - A hidden dagger (C.15)
Peery - Sly (C.17)
Pickers and stealers - Hands (C.16)
Play the duck - To show oneself a coward (C.17)
Priggism - Thieving (1743)
Queer duke - A decayed gentleman (C.17)
Quiet as a wasp in one's nose - Uneasy, restless (1670)
Quirklum - A puzzle (C.18)
Give green rats - To slander; to malign (1860)
Ride out - To become a highwayman (C.17)
Rise arse upwards - To be lucky (1670)
Rum dubber - A dextrous picklock (C.17)
Running snavel - A robber of children (C.18)
Safe as a crow in a gutter - Very safe (1630)
Satyr - Professional sheep-rustler (1714)
Secret - in the grand - Dead (1780)
Snail's gallop, go a - Go very slowly (1545)
Snub-devil - A clergyman (1780)
Tip the lion - To press a man's nose against his face and gouge his eyes out (1712)
Toad on a chopping block - Somebody sitting awkwardly, e.g. on a horse (C.17)
Tongue enough for two sets of teeth - To be very talkative (1786)
Topsail, pay one's debts with the - Got to sea having left debts unpaid (1785)
Town bull - A wencher or lady's man (C.17)
Umble-cum-stumble - To understand (C.19)
Upper storey - The head; the brain (C.18)
Useless as tits on a bull - Utterly useless (C.19)
Used up - Killed (C.18)
Vegetable breakfast - A hanging (C.19) [Because it's a "hearty choke" - geddit??]
Voyage of discovery - Going out stealing (C.19)
Virtue, to have one's [...] rewarded - To be imprisoned (1870)
Warming-pan - A bedfellow (C.17)
Waste, house of - A tavern or alehouse (1780)
Water in one's shoes - A source of annoyance (C.18)
Wedge-hunter - A thief specialising in silver plate and watches (C.19)
Well-fucked and far from home - To be very tired (C.19)
X, Y, Z
Yappy - Foolishly generous (C.19)
Yellow stockings, wear - To be jealous (C.17)