Friday 24 May 2024

Eddison-Tolkien-Zelazny: The Sweet Spot

I am currently engaged in something of a strange literary enterprise in that I am daily listening to an unabridged (and utterly fantastic, by the way) Audible audiobook of The Worm Ouroboros by ER Eddison on my way to and from work, but reading The Chronicles of Amber by Zelazny at night. (These are both re-reads after many years, although I don't know if I ever finished Ouroboros when I encountered it long ago.) 

It is hard to imagine two more stylistically different literary works, for all that they are in content oddly similar (both being, in the end, fun adolescent fantasy romps which unashamedly lionise an old fashioned, 'Boy's Own Adventure Story' aesthetic - and both, oddly enough, commencing with a short framing 'real world' narrative which has no bearing on the actual story). Ouroboros is written in a wonderfully self-conscious pastiche of early modern English in which there are absolutely no visible seams: the verisimilitude is total. Viz:

When the King was come into his high seat, with Corund and Corinius on his left and right in honour of their great deeds of arms, and La Fireez facing him in the high seat on the lower bench, the thralls made haste to set forth dishes of pickled grigs and oysters in the shell, and whilks, snails, and cockles fried in olive oil and swimming in red and white hippocras. And the feasters delayed not to fall to on these dainties, while the cupbearer bore round a mighty bowl of beaten gold filled with sparkling wine the hue of the yellow sapphire, and furnished with six golden ladles resting their handles in six half- moon shaped nicks in the rim of that great bowl. Each guest when the bowl was brought to him must brim his goblet with the ladle, and drink unto the glory of Witchland and the rulers thereof. 

Somewhat greenly looked Corinius on the Prince, and whispering Heming, Corund's son, in the ear, who sat next him, he said, "True it is that La Fireez is the showiest of men in all that belongeth to gear and costly array. Mark with what ridiculous excess he affecteth Demonland in the great store of jewels he flaunteth, and with what an apish insolence he sitteth at the board. Yet this lobcock liveth only by our sufferance, and I see he hath not forgot to bring with him to Witchland the price of our hand withheld from twisting of his neck." 

Now were borne round dishes of carp, pilchards, and lobsters, and thereafter store enow of meats: a fat kid roasted whole and garnished with peas on a spacious silver charger, kid pasties, plates of neats' tongues and sweetbreads, sucking rabbits in jellies, hedgehogs baked in their skins, hogs' haslets, carbonadoes, chitterlings, and dormouse pies. These and other luscious meats were borne round continually by thralls who moved silent on bare feet; and merry waxed the talk as the edge of hunger became blunted a little, and the cockles of men's hearts were warmed with wine. 

"What news in Witchland?" asked La Fireez. 

"I have heard nought newer," said the King, "than the slaying of Gaslark." And the King recounted the battle in the night, setting forth as in a frank and open honesty every particular of numbers, times, and comings and goings; save that none might have guessed from his tale that any of Demonland had part or interest in that battle. 

La Fireez said, "Strange it is that he should so attack you. An enemy might smell some cause behind it." 

"Our greatness," said Corinius, looking haughtily at him, "is a lamp whereat other moths than he have been burnt. I count it no strange matter at all." 

Prezmyra said, "Strange indeed, were it any but Gaslark. But sure with him no wild sudden fancy were too light but it should chariot him like thistle-down to storm heaven itself."

This can be contrasted with Zelazny's hardboiled prose, in which no matter the occasion or context everybody sounds like they hail from the Midwestern USA circa 1971. Here we find the main character, Corwin, having a conversation with a camp follower in a pseudo-Arthurian setting:

'Let's have another glass of wine.'
'It'll go to my head.'
'Good.'
I poured them.
'We are all going to die,' she said.
'Eventually.'
'I mean here, soon, fighting this thing.'
'Why do you say that?'
'It's too strong.'
'Then why stick around?'
'I've no place else to go. That's why I asked you about Cabra.'
'And why you came here tonight?'
'No. I came to see what you were like.'
'I am an athlete who is breaking training. Were you born around here?'
'Yes. In the wood.'
'Why'd you pick up with these guys?'
'Why not? It's better than getting pig shit on my heels every day.'

Nobody can question Zelazny's storytelling power, his pacing, or his skill for deploying dialogue, but this, my friends, is the precise opposite of verisimilitude: demigods and medieval camp followers would not talk like they hail from the late 20th century USA - and certainly wouldn't sound as though they had just stepped out of an afternoon TV mystery movie, as these two do. Don't get me wrong: I love the Amber books, but Zelazny was very much a storyteller first and a worldbuilder a far distant second. His settings never strike the reader as plausible worlds in their own right, but as mere backdrops for the plot. 

We can think of Zelazny and Eddison as being two poles on a spectrum in fantasy literature - the former strongly emphasising the telling of a good story at the expense of detail, and the latter lovingly and almost obsessively painting a picture of a fully realised and inhabited world. I like both; I have a hard time accepting that Eddison's is not by far the greater achievement, but it is hard to find a more entertaining series in the fantasy canon than the first five Amber books. 

One of the reasons why I think Tolkien still stands supreme in the genre is that his work strikes almost the perfect middle between these two extremes. He is a thousand times more accessible than Eddison (one can hardly imagine a Peter Jackson blockbuster version of The Worm Ouroboros) but a thousand times weightier than Zelazny. Hence, for example:

'Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!' 

A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn! He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.' 

A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.' 

'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!' 

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.' The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt.

Nobody could accuse these people as sounding like they are from 1970s Illinois, but at the same time the prose is perfectly digestible and understandable to a reasonably well-read adolescent - as most people reading this blog can probably attest. Tolkien presents with a totally coherent world, so real and so complete that it feels as though it exists, but in a way which still allows us to easily access it - there is no requirement, as there is with Eddison, to spend a while getting one's ear in before one can easily parse the ornate prose. 

What lessons lie here for the D&D DM? Only that every single RPG session I have ever been involved with has, more or less, followed the Zelaznyian mode in the way in which the participants have approached the subject of realism. I feel a sense of regret about this, while recognising the strong biases, incentives and preferences that lead things in that direction. I would love to one day be involved in a campaign in which people invested the time and energy in creating a setting and an experience of Eddisonian depth (if not of subject matter and substance) - but I would more than settle for a Tolkienian one. 

Monday 20 May 2024

Make Animal Fantasy Great Again

I am a qualified fan of animal fantasy - I confess it. My tastes lean more towads the quasi-realistic Watership Down/Duncton Wood end of the spectrum, wherein the animals basically act like animals except for having human-level intelligence and being able to 'speak' an actual language; while I adored the Redwall books in particular as a child, as an adult the inconsistencies in size dynamics between the different animal kinds and their surroundings makes the events depicted impossible to really visualise. But the basic concept appeals wherever on that spectrum it appears.

It's a source of some regret to me that there is no animal fantasy OSR game or campaign setting, at least that I know of,* which does what I think animal fantasy really needs to do in the sense of creating a plausible-seeming depiction of anthropomorphic animals such as they do not simply come across as 'furries' or as human beings in funny suits, but rather as actual sentient animal species. Join me then while I dream up a list of central characteristics that a proper animal fantasy OSR game needs to have in order to merit the description of being truly Great.

First, it should be embedded in a real-world ecology and geography. What I mean by this is that animal fantasy is going to be inherently more interesting if it is based on the anthropomorphisation of animals from a particular biome - a fantasy England in which there are harvest mouse-people, badger-people, hedgehog-people, robin-people etc.; a fantasy Japan in which there are crane-people, fox-people and deer-people; a fantasy Botswana in which there are secretary bird-people, cheetah-people and eland-people, and so on and so forth. Too much animal fantasy is based on the same bog standard set of cutesy species from basically Western European environments, and too much of it feels divorced from a specific region or locality. 

Second, it should follow through on doing justice to the goal of creating plausible sentient animal civilisations. In particular, it should think clearly about the type of civilisation a race of intelligent predators, or a race of intelligent birds, or a race of intelligent herbivores, would produce. Animals definitionally are not human, so the kinds of societies which such an RPG depicts should not seem like human societies as such - their core assumptions should be different, and flow from the type of animal species depicted.

Third, it should be founded in fantasy - it should involve magic, and weird gods, and the other trappings of fantasy, because that's what the audience is entitled to expect. Fantasy without magic feels wrong. (This is another major failing of Redwall.)

Fourth, it should acknowledge the founding sin of all animal fantasy, which is that it makes no sense which animal species get anthropomorphised and which don't. One has to simply accept that there are going to be mouse-people (or whatever) but they are mostly surrounded by ordinary animals - spiders, butterflies, beetles, and so on which are the 'proper' size in the sense of being about as big to a mouse-person as they are to a human. One could make an interesting animal fantasy setting in which everything is its 'proper' size, but this becomes hard to make work logistically if different animal species find themselves interacting. 

The best approach structurally is I think to decide where in the world the setting is based (let's, despite my earlier comments, use the British Isles as a basic template) and then take somewhere between 5-10 'core' species that are going to get the anthropomorphism treatment: let's say rabbits, stoats and weasels, blackbirds, wrens, newts, badgers, and pheasants. And then one would need to sit down and think through carefully what type of societies, what type of religions, what type of magic systems, and so on, these creatures would create - whether in isolation from each other or in a more symbiotic form.

For instance, it seems to me that one could readily dream up a type of society in which the lower-classes are rabbits, living a relatively independent existence as subsistence farmers or serfs, but who owe a kind of fealty to an aristrocracy of stoats and weasels who get to periodically come and kill and eat sacrificial victims on the basis of being pseudo-protective demigods. (Something like this type of society was indeed depicted in The Sparrow, a book which does not get recommended enough in OSR circles.) Or you could dream up a society of blackbirds which forms a kind of dispersed empire of different pockets of forest scattered across a very wide territory - because, since birds can fly, they see no particular need to rule a contiguous physical space. Or a society of badgers who live underground in hugh cathedral-setts ruled over by 'dominant' sows. Or a society of pheasants who roam nomadically over vast ranges and place little to no value on each other's lives. Or a society of newts who create lake-cities and form together for orgiastic religious mating rituals and protect each other's spawn in underwater fortresses. And so on and so forth.

The greatest controversy of RPG animal-fantasy of the OSR stripe would probably be species-as-class. I can see the arguments on either side, but I suspect this may spark a culture war the likes of which we have not seen since the days of G+.

*There was long ago an attempt.

Monday 13 May 2024

Ungoliant's AI

But she had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness; and she fled to the south…Thence she had crept towards the light of the Blessed Realm; for she hungered for light and hated it. In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished. - JRR Tolkien, from The Silmarillion

We return, my friends, to a familiar theme: the Satanic nature of AI art (see also, for example, here).

Notice how Ungoliant is described by Tolkien: evil is only, and can ever only be, parasitic. It draws in and 'sucks up', and then 'spins' the results forth again 'in dark nets of strangling gloom' - it does not create. And in the end it becomes famished, precisely because nothing about it is nourishing (one can think of it, in fact, as the absence of nourishment). 

Hence, of course, Morgoth and Sauron (and Saruman, their pale imitator) cannot create either - they can repurpose and redesign and corrupt what already exists, but they cannot make afresh. They can at best deploy machines to extract what they can from the earth and forge it into materials they can use, but they add nothing to creation itself.

This is fundamentally what AI does - and, for the avoidance of doubt in case there are any literalists out there, I do not mean to suggest that AI is actually Satanic in the sense that the devil is behind it - in that it simply trawls through, and 'sucks up' what already exists, in order to spit it out into repurposed, repackaged chunks. The results are thin, vapid pastiche, interesting only inasmuch as it can fool the human eye into thinking it was produced by a real person, or insofar as it is fascinating trying to figure out what it will do next. It is not substantively art in the sense that it can move, or transcend, or communicate the sublime.

What it can also do is creep us out. In my previous writings on the subject, I have noted that there is something ineffably eerie about AI-produced images - there is a kind of deadness to them. Yet at the same time they also manage to communicate a sense of flat affect, particularly in the human visage - as though the people it depicts have seen great sadness, and horror, and that they have come to the conclusion that the only appropriate means of interacting with the world is to disengage from its pain and sorrow:


It struck me as almost too 'on the nose', then, when I came across this highly thought-provoking piece on the subject of how AI training sets are put together and curated. It begins with the findings that LAION-5B, one of the biggest and most important AI training sets, contains thousands of images of the sexual abuse of children (which in itself I think should probably give you pause if you are in the habit of using this new toy). But it goes from there in an interesting direction, showing to us that what we think of as 'AI' is very much human-directed, and reliant of human input, in this case assessments made by actual human beings to vet the quality of images. As the authors of the piece make clear, this means that while we might think of AI as applying a kind of neutral 'brute force' method of generating images, it is actually doing it on the basis of a set of preferences of real-world human beings, and these are human beings of a very particular kind:

The creators of SAC are transparent about the shortcomings of the set, specifically the fact that the scores were submitted by users who were both WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and developers of AI art, a demographic they describe as leaning toward "nerdy" and "esoteric." Furthermore, they admit that most of the ratings in the dataset were submitted by a "handful of users," whose "aesthetic preferences dominate the dataset."...The concepts of what is and isn't visually appealing can [therefore] be influenced in outsized ways by the tastes of a very small group of individuals, and the processes that are chosen by dataset creators to curate the datasets.

The point here of course is that the type of person who develops AI art and is therefore 'nerdy' and 'esoteric' is likely to be the kind of person who has been hardened by many years of prolonged internet usage against any sort of geniune feeling, and has come to adopt the highly-arch, sardonic, sarcastic and cynical perspective within which any long-term internet user invariably comes to marianade. It is the tastes and preferences of this kind of person - we all know this kind of person - which influence the composition of the datasets on which AI art is generated, and it is their emotional tone which therefore bleeds through most strongly in the AI art which we end up seeing. We don't really see this explicitly, but I think we (those of us who feel as I do, anyway) intuit something of it in the pervasive sense of unease and inchoate nastiness which pervades this stuff wherever it is encountered. It is I think the type of art that would be prized by Melniboneans, or Melkor - and there is actually a reason why it feels that way.

Thursday 9 May 2024

Pimp My Orc (and everything else)

One of the things that I aim to achieve with the World of TSRan project (see here, here and here) is to vastly expand the variation and range of existing 'standard' TSR D&D monsters based on geographical location and terrain/climate type. The reader should be able to identify a hex as, say, jungle or hot desert or tundra or whatever, and be able to populate it with terrain-appropriate variants on old standards.

To give a short applied example, here is what that would look like with respect to orcs inhabiting 'cold coast' terrain (meaning coastal regions in cold temperate and subarctic climates):

Orc Variants: Cold Coast

Wilderness encounter: 3d6 hunters or raiders, with a leader and 1d3 ‘big-men’ with maximum hp; all are armed with harpoons/spears and clubs, and half have darts, or short bows; all wear reinforced hide armour (AC 6)

Lair encounter: 30-300 warriors, with same number of females and infants; for every 100 warriors there is a 5 HD shaman (cleric) and a 4 HD witch doctor (magic-user), and a 2 HD sub-chief and 2d6 guards with maximum hp, and the entire lair has one 3 HD chief and 3d6 guards with maximum hp; a lair also has a 1 in 6 chance of having each of the following type of pets: 1d3 giant hermit crabs, 1d6 seals, 1d3 elephant seals, 1d2 cave bears, or 1d2 polar bears

Treasure variations: Cold coastal orcs have TT C, L, Qx10, S in lairs, and Ox2 and Px2 in wilderness encounters

Cold coastal orc tribe generator

Dice

Aesthetic variation

Lair

Other flavour

Hook

1

Semi-aquatic (have flipper feet and hands and fish scales; can swim at 120)

In huts made from porpoise or whale corpses

Daub themselves in whale blubber – vile stench means they never surprise opponents, but opponents must successfully save vs poison in order to make a first melee attack (subsequent attacks do not require a roll)

Have a tribe of rival orcs living nearby

2

Cormorant heads

Can explosively spray white fecal matter in a 6’ x 2’ cone, acting as a stinking cloud; this attack must be prepared a round in advance by disrobing

Live near a giant, dragon, etc. of appropriate type, to whom they make sacrifices

3

Fur seal heads

In cliff caves

Use skins as trophies; must spend 1d3 rounds skinning or scalping slain opponent if delivering the coup de grace

Live near a valuable source of guano which they mine

4

Gull heads

Worship a bestial shark, gull, kraken or orca god; must spend 1d3 rounds devouring body parts of slain opponent if delivering the coup de grace

Prey upon nearby human settlement for slaves (holding 3d6 at any given time)

5

Shark heads

On floating rafts, moored a short distance from shore

Worship a hungry shark, gull, kraken or orca god; will attempt to capture opponents reduced to 1-4 remaining hp for subsequent sacrifice

Lair near a gigantic glacier within which is a vast network of tunnels

6

Sea-bird feathered

Daub themselves in silt mud as camouflage; surprise opponents on a roll of 1-3 on surprise roll

Are engaged in summoning a demigod or demon from the deep

7

Lichen-covered

In huts made from rocks and seashells

One in every six individuals has a crab pincer for a hand and has an additional attack doing 1d4 hp damage and grabbing the victim on a successful hit, doing 1d4 hp damage automatically thereafter

Are the escaped slaves of a powerful tribe of ogres, merrow, sea trolls, etc.

8

Seaweed hair


Bleed brine – sprays out after a serious wound (doing 4+ hp damage) or at death, blinding melee opponent for next round on a failed save vs poison

Are split into two warring factions under rivals for power

 


Tuesday 7 May 2024

A Prismatic Spray Inside the Brain

I have been thinking for some time about the right metaphor to use to describe the phenomenology of reading an RPG book, and ultimately have decided that it is the phrase 'Prismatic Spray', which has the advantages of approximating what I mean, while also nodding to the right influences - Jack Vance, and true, dyed-in-the-wool D&D basic furniture (imagine a set of core D&D rules in which there was no prismatic spray spell).

So let's go with it: reading an RPG book is like a prismatic spray inside the brain. It produces an array of different trajectories of kaleidoscopic range, in a way in which no other artform can, and it is this which gives it its - I think genuinely unique - appeal. 

What do I mean by this?

Picture yourself reading a D&D module, setting book, bestiary, or splatbook of any quality. What happens as you are reading it? Are you simply imbibing information? No: if you have any sort of imagination at all, you are rather engaging in a different exercise entirely (one which I tried to describe here and which Joseph Manola once described here) - you are imagining what could be. Hence, as I once put it:

[T]he vast bulk of my memories associated with RPG books [from the time I was an adolescent] was paging through them on long car journeys or while on holiday and just, well, imagining what it would be like to use them. "Wouldn't it be great to be in a session where we encountered a morkoth?" I would think as I browsed through the Monstrous Manual. "Wouldn't it be great to have a PC find the Hand of Vecna?" I would think as I read the section of the 2nd edition DMG on 'artifacts'. "Wouldn't it be great to run an all-druid campaign?" I would think as I flicked through the Complete Druid's Handbook. "I'd love to run a campaign set in the Philippines," I would think as I sat reading the Cyberpunk 2020 Pacific Rim Sourcebook. My experience of actual gaming was a pale shadow of the kind of things that my adolescent brain could come up with left to its own devices. 

(Not incidentally, I had a similar relationship, thinking back, to Games Workshop books. My friends and I played a heck of a lot of Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, and Necromunda. But being impoverished 13 year olds, we could barely afford any models. We primarily resorted to using a huge mass of ancient lead figures bequeathed to one of us by an older brother or cousin, and we could only dream about the possibilities of actually being able to buy a Basilisk/Lehman Russ Battle Tank/Dark Angel Dreadnought/Orc Shaman Riding a Wyvern or whatever, while paging through 'Codex' books. With Games Workshop, though, the requirement to just sit around reading books and imagining was more or less a nakedly commercial phenomenon rather than anything else.)

The important thing to emphasise about this, though, is that you are not just imagining one thing in response to what you are reading. You are imagining a whole array of different scenarios that are to a greater or lesser extent inchoate. Reading the description of a room in a dungeon, you are imagining a range of different possible scenarios that might unfold. Reading a description of a monster, a dozen or so different ways in which the monster could appear, or be encountered, are racing through your mind in a jumble. Reading a description of a character class, you are conjuring an array of different potential PCs. And so on and so forth - each little chunk of information (a monster, a room, a hex, an NPC, etc.) is like a concentrated bundle of potential energy which suddenly erupts in a spray of possibile outcomes once it makes contact with the brain. Your mind at first must fight to make sense of all of this, and at times you almost feel like a cat experiencing sensory overload through its whiskers, and have to tune out while your subconscious rediscovers its composure. Importantly, there is never a conclusion - it is not like reading a novel, wherein a narrative gradually coheres and finally you are led to an ending. Instead there is only yet more to imagine, more to create, more to envisage. 

Nothing else in life is really like this (the closest analogy I can think of is the experience of being a sport fan and eagerly anticipating the range of possible outcomes from this weekend's fixtures) and there is something delicious about it. In fact perhaps food and drink is the best metaphor of all: reading a good RPG book and experiencing the prismatic spray of unrealised potential burst through your imagination is something like the first sip of a fine wine or spirit or the first mouthful of a truly great dish - a sudden eruption of many different sensations which, at first, you struggle to process, and must spend time carefully reflecting on as they wash over your palate and recede. Even better, you don't get fat or turn into an alcoholic while reading them - although you might, I suppose, find yourself experiencing an excess of neck hair growth.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Why the dearth of 'other world' campaigns?

JRR Tolkien was a crucial 'break' between two conceptions of the fantasy genre. Before him, most (though not all) fantastical tales either involved people in the real world, 'our' world, travelling to other realities, or situations in which the real world was merged with such other realities. After him, fantasy worlds took on independent existences: they were largely complete, enclosed creations - worlds in their own right, with no necessary connection to our own.

This was the major influence exerted by JRR Tolkien over D&D, and most subsequent fantasy role playing games. D&D does not involve adventurers from our world straying into others. Its campaign settings - whether official ones or the amateur creations of DMs - are discrete, and the PCs are 'native' to them. And this is true even of multiworld or multiplanar settings like Spelljammer or Planescape; the PCs in such settings are from the broad canvas setting as such, rather than our own.

When I was young, I much preferred this state of affairs - I thought fantasy fiction in which an 'ordinary boy' (or whatever) from 29 Acacia Avenue accidentally wanders into Dragonland were the absolute pits. As I've got older, I've come to understand the appeal. And it has come to mystify me as to why nobody has ever really successfully 'OSRized' a particular concept which makes complete sense when you think about the history of fantasy fiction - a campaign archetype in which people from the real world go adventuring in a realm of fantasy and thereby gain improvements and advantages which they can deploy when they come back. No doubt such games have existed in the history of RPGs, but I have not heard of one that has sounded remotely interesting - and certainly not in recent years. 

The Chronicles of Narnia are the obvious model for this: the PCs are ordinary children who gain access to portals to another world where they have adventures, and as a result of having these adventures, their real lives become powerfully enriched when they return. Another example would be Stephen Lawhead's Song of Albion series, an (excellent, by the way) series in which an American academic accidentally strays into a mythologised bronze age Britain and comes back transformed into a muscle-bound nobleman irresistible to women - wish fulfilment, of course, but charming wish fulfilment for all that. Slightly different is the Chronicles of Amber, wherein an ostensibly 'normal' man discovers he is actually a demigod and that there is an infinite other reality out there for him to explore. And then, of course, there's Mythago Wood and its sequels, in which Big Important Things happen to people in the wood, and they come out forever changed.

The archetypal iteration of such a campaign would I suppose be the one in which real world people discover a portal to another realm (the Abyss, Valinor, Middle Earth, whatever), amass treasure and magic, and bring it back to sell and gain power. Kind of like what I was planning with There is Therefore a Strange Land, come to think of it... With the right kind of systematisation for gaining XP and level advancement, and a compelling setting - I think it is important for such a campaign setting to succeed that the PCs are part of a secret subculture - this could be an important addition to the OSR canon. 

Monday 29 April 2024

The OSR is Much, Much Bigger Than You Think

I recently came across a fascinating article, called 'No one buys books', which, while misleadingly titled (it should probably be 'people only buy certain types of books'), is well worth reading. The author basically read through all of the transcripts of a major antitrust trial involving the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. and gleaned from it some fascinating nuggets of information about the business model of publishers. I think I already knew that the publishing industry basically functions on the basis of publishing lots of loss-making books on the basis that one or two each year will be huge bestsellers and make megabucks. But I didn't realise quite the extent to which this is true. From the article:

The DOJ’s lawyer [the DOJ having brought the antitrust case] collected data on 58,000 titles published in a year and discovered that 90 percent of them sold fewer than 2,000 copies and 50 percent sold less than a dozen copies.

The money is basically made from four categories: classics (The Lord of the Rings, etc.), kids' books (The Hungry Caterpillar, etc.), celeb biographies (Michelle Obama, etc.) and franchise authors (Stephen King, etc.). Everything else is almost certainly loss-making, and the numbers are surprisingly small even for books by major public figures:

Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, is no global pop star, but she has a significant social-media presence, with 3 million Twitter followers and another 1.3 million on Instagram. Yet her book, This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman, which was published in May 2020, has sold just 26,000 copies across print, audio and e-book formats, according to her publisher. 

Tamika D. Mallory, a social activist with over a million Instagram followers, was paid over $1 million for a two-book deal. But her first book, State of Emergency, has sold just 26,000 print copies since it was published in May, according to BookScan. 

The journalist and media personality Piers Morgan had a weaker showing in the United States [than the UK]. Despite his followers on Twitter (8 million) and Instagram (1.8 million), Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts has sold just 5,650 U.S. print copies since it was published a year ago, according to BookScan.

Of course, the big takeaway is, to repeat, that most books don't really sell. In the US market:

[I]n 2020, only 268 titles sold more than 100,000 copies, and 96 percent of books sold less than 1,000 copies.

Yes, you read that correctly. And, yes, it means the OSR is much, much bigger than you think: Yoon-Suin, in the year it was published, sold far more copies than 96% of books put out by actual publishing companies in 2020. It really did. And you will be able to think of books recently put out after successful kickstarters that have sold, or will sell, far, far more copies than that, too.

Of, course, we are not Brandon Sanderson, who recently earned $42 million from a kickstarter campaign to self-publish four novels. (Perhaps The Great North....?) But I find it fascinating that the humble elfgame fare that we collectively vomit forth into the collective subconscious is actually, barring the big exceptions that make the publishing companies their actual money, more lucrative than the vast swathe of contemporary literary fiction. On the one hand, this says something depressing about the state of mainstream publishing and its ability to produce things that inspire people to read them. But on the other, it says something quite extraordinarily positive about our level of cultural influence in comparison to New York publishing houses.

Friday 19 April 2024

Play as Sculpture, Play as Prism

Watching my eldest child and friends engaging in imaginative play, I'm often struck by the fact that what seems to excite them is deciding who gets to be what, and describing the many different situations that could unfold, rather than actually taking on those roles and acting out those scenarios. 'You can be the big sister and I can be the little sister, ok? And your name can be Annie and mine can be Becky.' 'Ok, and we can both be mummies.' 'Yeah, and I'm a doctor but in my spare time I teach aerobics.' 'And I'm a doctor too but I teach swimming. And I have three babies, one boy and two girls.' And so it goes on. And on. And on. And on. After a while they get bored entertaining these options and either move onto something else or shift to a different imaginary landscape: 'Let's be fairies!' But they never actually seem to spend very long doing what they spend an inordinate amount of time imagining themselves being.

This is because the activity of imaginative play really engages two rather different pleasures, and operates in two different modalities (to use a horrible word). 

On the one hand, the undertaking can be thought of as an exercise in foreclosing options. Picture yourself sitting quietly, minding your own business, doing something dull and anodyne - calculating your monthly incomings and outgoings, for example. At this point, you are not really imagining anything at all: your creativity is not at all engaged. Now picture yourself being distracted by some thought or other, and - you'll be familiar with the sensation - shifting your gaze to the middle distance while mental images rise up in your mind.

At this point, you are shifting from a position of complete imaginative openness - you could be imagining literally anything conceivable - to one of gradual imaginative closure. You are imagining nothing, and now you are imagining....a swan floating down a river. Why? It bubbled up from your subconscious. OK: so now you are imagining that, and you by definition can't be imagining any of the other near-infinite things you could be. You've gone from a position of unfettered imaginative freedom to one in which whatever it is you are going to imagining next is going to relate is some way, however indirectly and unpredictably, to swans floating down rivers. Obviously this gives rise to many other options, but it is much, much fewer options than literally anything.

Imagination in that sense is a funny business, and it has a way of leaping about in unfathomable ways: you're thinking about a swan floating down a river one moment and the next, for some reason, you're remembering an ex-girlfriend. Why? There is some reason dwelling in your subconscious why the two things are connected, but heaven knows what. The matter becomes clearer when reflecting on the task of a novelist. A novelist begins with a real or digital blank sheet of paper. He could write anything. But he sets pen to paper and starts to write: 'The frog-man woke in a cold sweat with the bedsheets wrapped tightly around him.' Given that he has written this, in the next sentence the novelist could write many things, but, for the story to make sense, whatever he writes has to relate now to the character of the frog-man and to the fact that he is in bed, has been apparently feverish and dreaming, and so on. And what he writes next will have to relate to those things. And so on; the world of options becomes narrower.

This is a pleasurable sensation in that we experience something of the same feelings that are experienced by the sculpture, who begins with a blank slab of stone - near infinite options - and, with his tools, starts to carve. He chisels out a human face - and now the options of the sculpture being non-figurative, or not being human at all, dissipate. He chisels out a beard. Now the sculpture will be a man. He chisels some more. Now it will look like this and not that or that or that or the other thing. Eventually, it is honed into finality.

On the other hand, imaginative play has a kind of prismatic quality to it in that it can take what has been tightly bunched and linear - tightly bunched and linear like a ray of light - and scatter it open. The game has been 'mummies' and an entire complex scenario has accreted; now suddenly it's 'let's be...fairies!' New options appear. These moments can almost be thought of as paradigm shifts, in which what was settled is suddenly and radically destabilised.

This too is pleasurable. It keeps everything from going stale. It gives us a sense of unpredictability and excited anticipation about what is going to happen next. 

These two pleasures, or two modalities - sculpture and prism - of course interact, and I think it is safe to say that, acting in harmony, they produce an iterative process that is highly conducive to creativity. Ideas are had and the foreclosure of options necessarily begins; gradually things grow narrow before being exploded outwards again by new suggestions, new notions, new potentiality. And so things go, back and forth, oscillating between these twin modalities of closure and expansion. 

The beauty of a role playing game is that it, of course, incorporates both of these different pleasures - 'What shall we play? D&D. What is your PC going to be? A fighter. And so on. In these moments the session, and the campaign, are sculpted. But of course there are other moments, often moments of decision - or moments when dice are rolled - at which things are exploded open again. A PC dies - who will replace him? A random encounter sends everything off on a tangent. The PCs decide to venture overland, across the wilderness. A hitherto-uncharted or unmapped (by the DM) region is suddenly brought into awareness. A process of foreclosure is reversed - before itself being reversed again. The new PC is going to be a magic-user. The newly-mapped region is inhabited by X, Y and Z and contains A, B and C. And so on. 

RPGs can, then, be thought to capture - and formalise - two important substrates on which imaginative play, perhaps the most truly human activity, since no other animal can do it, rest. 

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Moons around the Storm God


What moves the wind, brings the rain, boils the clouds into the sky and freezes them into snow? 

Not the Storm God. He is rather the one who takes what the weather gods have wrought and imbues it with his malice, his pride, his might, and his indignation. His task is to bring low, to strip away, to break down, and to shatter, splinter, smash. He waits in a brooding simmer, and at moments when his umbrage at the sheer gall of the living grows too great, he summons the power of his rage to remind them that their lot is to suffer.

He sits as a tempestuous mass of wondrous colour deep in the great ocean of rainbow dream-scape that is drawn into the sky of all possible worlds. But he does not sit there alone. Around him he has flung his children - ninety-five of them he has sired - as a man casts a great fistful of salt into the air around him. Each a world in its own right, hanging imprisoned and transfixed before the vastness of his bulk and the greatness of his outraged splendour; they are the closest to the power of his anger, and bear it at its most frequent and savage. 

But the peoples who inhabit them, near as they are to him, also know a secret - that when a storm abates, in its wake is revealed a world transformed in its freshness and clarity, such indeed that it never fails to be shown as it really is, with all that is shrouding, or misleading, or veiling, or deceitful, swept aside and gone forever. It is in such moments, these peoples know, that opportunity takes its moment to presence in creation - and the Storm God is unwittingly displayed to be the agent not only of sorrow, but also of hope.

(A Moons of Jupiter planetcrawl to put the new Spelljammer in WotC's pipe and make them smoke it. 'Nuff said?)

Thursday 11 April 2024

Real World Dungeons: The Norman Chapel

To be truly effective, a good narcotics agent should know and love narcotics. Similarly, a good DM should know and love dungeons.

Today I went to the Norman Chapel at Durham Castle, a subterranean place of worship built around 1080. It was packed with sightseers (Durham Castle isn't normally open to visitors) and, because it was cold and wet outside, the air within was full of that distinctive warm, slightly foetid smell that seems to arise in an encolosed space in which there are a lot of people who have just stepped in from the rain. My eldest said it smelled like the reptile house at the zoo; I thought it smelled like my old classroom at school on what we used to call a 'wet lunch' when we weren't allowed outside at lunch hour because it was too inclement. 

But it retained its ability to impress. It is not a large space - I would estimate something like 10 x 10 metres if that. And it was empty of the paraphernalia that must have once been in there: pews, candles, altars, etc. Yet there was a lot going on in it all the same. There are a lot of columns, none of which are identical, and all of which are decorated with interesting symblic carvings at the top (including a mermaid, leopards, hunting dioramas, and so on):





There was attention to detail evident everywhere. This was an empty room, but it was no 'empty room'. There was stuff - were it a room in a D&D dungeon - for a group of PCs to investigate, ponder, note down, ask about when back in town. Giving some of the carvings a minor magical effect when interacted with, or some sort of historical importance or thematic tie-in to objects found elsewhere, would transform it from something to merely pass through to an entire mini-encounter in its own right.

I was most struck, though, by how difficult it would be to fight down there - even with lights on, let alone in the dark. This photo gives a good taster (click to enlarge):


But it doesn't quite convey just how cramped it is. There's barely room to swing a cat, let alone a sword, and there is everywhere something to duck or hide behind. It gives the '1 minute combat round' a whole other aspect to imagine how hard it would be to actually land a telling blow in a fight in such circumstances, considerations of armour set aside. 

More crudely, the room makes a very good case for the column. Like most DMs, the rooms in my dungeons tend to lack columns unless I feel it would be interesting to include them or they had some aesthetic or other purpose. But, of course, 'real life' dungeons would be full of columns. This makes the column a much neglected phenomenon in OSR writings. How to make columns interesting ought to be a subject to which we have devoted large amounts of time and generated much theoretical insight. Courtney Campbell, Melan/Gabor Lux, Prince of Nothing, Ktrey Parker - we are looking at you.