Monday, 2 October 2023

On Being Unimaginative and Failing to Follow Through

For complicated and not entirely explicable reasons (which include the most small 'c' conservative PC in the group voting whimsically to go through a known interplanar portal along with the party's confirmed nutcases), the PCs in my regular campaign ended up in the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning in last week's session.

Needing to actually now devote a level of thought to the contents of this plane where previously there was a very brief sketch, I turned to the old Planescape splatbook, The Inner Planes, to see what it might have to offer. 

I was disappointed. But this is not an unfamiliar feeling where Planescape is concerned. I loved the setting as a 12-year old, because it was so genuinely different to anything else that I had previously encountered, because of Diterlizzi's wonderful art, and because at the level of broad brushtrokes it was indisputably highly imaginative: an infinite plane of radiance! An infinite plane of the natural world, writ large! An infinite plane of technological pursuit of war! An infinite prison! The ambition that is hinted at, and the larger-than-life scale of what is depicted, is still inspiring to me as an exercise in demonstrating what 'fantasy' can be thought to mean. And I treasure the original boxed set that I have in my possession accordingly. 

But the reality is that Planescape is a tease. At the level of implementation, it is not imaginative at all: it is humdrum and dull - inspiring only by accident. Lacking the creative tools to do anything with the setting, the authors only ever seemed to come up with practical results that were barren and inert, leaving the individual DM to do all the imaginative heavy lifting. For all that the line presents itself as the apotheosis of TSR's imaginative flair, in truth it is in its own way as banal as the Forgotten Realms. 

The Inner Planes and its treatment of the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning is a case in point. Here we have something that could be mindblowing: an infinite plane of pure storms. What could live in such a place? What could happen within it? What would its politics, its economy, its society resemble?

In the hands of Monte Cook and William W Connors, though, the answer is: we don't know, except insofar as it is not very interesting. The lack of intellectual energy and commitment in the prose is itself striking: 

'In appearance, this quasiplane resembles the Elemental Plane of Air that sired it, but rather than endless blue skies, it holds nothing but black storm clouds that rumble with thunder and flash with inner fires (heat lightning). Janison's treatise Planar Energies descibes "bolts of lightning and balls of energy dancing amid the billowing, threatening clouds".' You don't say. 'The Grand Archives of the Fraternity of Order list a total of 143 portals leading to and from [the plane]...' it goes on. 'Rumours speak of individuals struck by powerful discharges of lightning - whether from a storm, a magical item or spell, or the breath of a dreagon - who were transported [there] as a result. This seems highly unlikely to the scientific mind, but as we all know, each rule has exceptions and loopholes, so it could be possible.' Later on, we learn that 'Although the quasiplane...is not without life, most of it is difficult to discern, since it resembles the lightning of the realm itself. Some theorists have speculated, in fact, that all lightning in the quasiplane is alive somehow...This is far from being proved true, however, and most still assume that the majority of the lightning seen here is nothing more than it seems (which makes it no less incredible or worthy of study).' Later still, the ghost is given up entirely: 'For all their somewhat chaotic nature, the creatures that populate Lightning do not seem to value individuality, as few single beings stand out from the proverbial crowd...The vast majority of the quasiplane is little but one storm-cloud after another...For some reason, the natives of the Thundering Realm rarely conflict at all....Records of travelers journeying to the quasielemental plane of Lightning are extensive, but they provide little consistent explanation as to the nature of their stay.'

What on earth is this? The text should be fizzing with ideas that the DM can use for adventure hooks and weird and wonderful content for him to riff on. Instead, the laziness on display is almost palpable. It is phoned-in. It is padded out. It is verbiage for the sake of it. It is words written to fill space. Its tone is almost insultingly flat. 

And the substance itself gives one nothing to work with. It's not that there are no ideas in the text at all - some of them are even quite good. It seems, for example, that near the neighbouring plane of Ice, there exist floating icebergs made from frozen stormclouds, and imbued with inner radiance; another interesting idea is the existence of beings which live and reproduce inside lightning bolts. The problem is that what ideas there are are simply cast before the reader like chaff, without any help with implementation - mere fluff, with nothing to crunchify it.

It should hardly be surprising that if I had been writing the book I would have approached it from entirely the other direction, producing a method by which, through the use of random tables and the like, the DM could actually build up a campaign region within his or her chose plane: in this hex is a stormcloud-berg, and here are a set of tables to generate its inhabitants and some adventure hooks; in that hex is a floating chunk of earth that has strayed in from the respective plane, and here is a way to find out what lives on it; and so on. But the book advances no such method. It is the lightest of salads.

The broader problem is that, wedded to their broad brushstrokes-project and therefore wishing therefore to always be innovative, the authors of products like The Inner Planes neglected the vast back catalogue of TSR lore, to the great detriment of the usability of their products. It should be plainly evident to anyone, for example, that the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning would be the abode of storm giants, blue dragons, tempests, and all the other existing D&D monsters who would naturally call such a place home. Thinking how standard D&D races such as humans, orcs, elves, etc. would make their homes in such a place would also be in itself an interesting creative endeavour and produce vastly more usable content. But, wishing to be fresh, the authors ended up producing something that is only ephemeral and insipid; this could indeed, sadly, be Planescape's motto. 

Thursday, 28 September 2023

[Review] Dungeons & Dragons Adventurer


Last week I was idling down the magazine section at the local supermarket and spotted the first issue of something called D&D Adventurer - which, it turns out, is a line of introductory short zines which one can collect and put together in a binder and which will 'teach you how to play the world's most popular tabletop roleplaying game'. I think I just about know how to do that already, to a point (we are all of us works in progress and 5th edition seems terribly complicated to a forgetful old sausage like me) but it was only £1.99 and I was curious as to how the game is now being sold to newcomers.

The answer, it turns out, is that it is being sold very slickly indeed. What one gets for one's £1.99 is an entire set of dice ('One special die, the d20, helps decide if your character succeeds or fails at a task or attack...the remaining dice in the set are mainly used to determine how much damage their attacks deal'), some pregenerated characters and character sheets, some very brief instructions which are actually quite hard to parse for the middle-aged adult reader but probably very accessible for a youngster, some photographs of a wholesome and photogenic bunch of such youngsters enjoying themselves tremendously while playing D&D (and, improbably, drinking orange juice), and a short adventure that can be run straight 'out of the box'. The production values are high given what the product itself is; the art is very much of the modern probably-painted-by-a-person-but-indistinguishable-from-midjourney school of Generic Fantasy Banal, but competently executed, and the whole thing looks very plausible - at the level of the type of thing Games Workshop would put out. 

The idea, it would seem, is that little Johnny (probably more like 8 or 9 years old than the college students depicted in the zine itself) sees the magazine in the supermarket, is impressed by how exciting it looks, pesters his parents to buy it, and then goes and plays it with his friends and decides that for Christmas he wants Santa to bring him the full game.

Worth a punt, as Duncan Bannatyne used to put it, from WotC's perspective. But is it worth a punt from the punter? Unless one is 8 or 9 years old, the answer is: not really. I was quite taken aback by just how ludicrously slim the beginning 'adventure' is. If you thought the entanglement with Bargle in Red Box Basic was somewhat slight, let me tell you that 'King Under the Hill', the first encounter in D&D Adventurer, is positively anorexic in comparison: basically two rooms and a fight with some cranium rats. This is supposed to last '1-2 hours' (this may be accurate given what D&D combat is like nowadays) but it could be comfortably writtten up in half a page. 

The main reason for a grown adult to be interested in the product is its sociological - nay, anthropological - import. Some observations and idle speculations:

  • Someone at WotC obviously believes that physical objects and physical tabletops retain appeal to youngsters, and possibly even could be a USP for a game like D&D (rather than trying to compete with video games) - I find this interesting.
  • Diversity is pressed very strongly, which is fine, but done quite heavyhandedly, so that, for example, the fighter pregen is (inevitably) a sexy female elf. It seems we've become stuck in a bit of a rut wherein 'diversity' has come to always mean doing what is stereotypically unexpected, in a very obvious and slightly hamfisted way - such that, indeed, it ends up becoming its own stereotype. (Is anyone any longer remotely surprised or intrigued by 'Guess what? The heroic fighter lead in this piece of culture is actually a woman!'?)
  • It seems odd, and vaguely sad, that the d20 seems to have taken over as the unacknowledged King of D&D dice; running BECMI as I do, I actually far and away use the humble d6 the most, because it's what's used for encounter rolls, monster reactions, surprise rolls, initiative, and so on. This may say Important Things about the direction in which the game has gone, though I'm not sure what they are.
  • The Forgotten Realms seems to have been honed, carved, and polished over time such that it now more or less perfectly epitomises Generic Fantasy Banal; it genuinely cannot be improved upon as the pinnacle of what non-fantasy fans think of when they think about the aesthetic of the genre. This in itself may indeed be D&D's chief cultural achivement - the creation of the mildest and most inoffensive, but still palatable, form of what we know of as fantasy (the Glenfiddich of the genre).

What else is there to say? At £1.99 it may have actually been worth it for the dice.

2 bec de corbins



Monday, 25 September 2023

On Categorising Oneself and the Appeal of Archetypes

It is an interesting feature of human beings, revealed I think by role playing games, that while we like thinking of ourselves as individuals, we also quite like the idea of being exemplars of one of a smallish number of archetypes. 

The obvious example of this is star signs, as I've written about before. For some reason, while we all imagine ourselves as special snowflakes, at the same time we are also frequently willing to accept that we are members of 12 distinct divisions within the human race that to some extent define our personality in the same way as for others within our caste.

Similarly, part of Harry Potter's ongoing appeal seems to be the idea that young (nowadays not so young) people can feel affinity with one of four houses, which seem to indicate that one is variously good and brave, clever and swotty, evil 'resourceful and cunning', or, er, a bit shit. The same is - I can attest - true in English schools in general; in my own school there were three houses who for some reason were considered to have certain characters even though this patently couldn't have been the case in reality. (One was 'swotty', one 'sporty', and one - inevitably - 'remedial'.) 

But RPGs are particularly ripe with this kind of thing. D&D is the obvious illustration: one is not a unique adventurer in D&D, but an elf or a fighter or a cleric. The idea that the appeal of this is really just a matter of division of labour is not I think really true; it's much more to do with the individual liking the idea of adopting a persona that is to a certain degree archetypal. This is why most D&D players still like to be able to make these kinds of choices even when there is no real mechanical benefit attached - it is important to be able to say, "This time, I am going to be a dragonborn and it is going to affect my PC's personality accordingly."

The apotheosis of this was probably the mid-late 90s, when the most popular RPGs all seemed to come with big lists of archetypes which one could adopt. (Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun are the ones that come to mind, but think in particular of the oWoD games, which not only each came with a dozen or so 'races' that one's PC could be a member of, but also cross-cutting divisions like Changeling's seelie/unseelie and young/wilder/grump, or Werewolf's different phases of the moon - so that there were archetypes, sub-archetypes, and sub-sub-archetypes for you to choose from.) There was a reaction against this in both the OSR and amongst storygamers, but it is clear from looking at the 5th edition materials that things haven't changed all that much in the period since. 

Why is this? Clearly, part of it is to do with one of the well known, but not well remarked-upon aspects of role playing games, which is that they provide a way for people to imagine how they would conduct themselves if they belonged in a different skin - as an extension of the childhood impulse to imagine oneself in archetypal forms ('I'm a cowboy'; 'I'm a cat'; 'I'm the planet zog'). It's easier to do this if one can, symbolically, think of oneself as stepping into a kind of pre-made costume or suite of characteristics than it is with coming up with something entirely new on the fly. 

But I think it's also because we tend naturally to categorise ourselves and each other and indeed the world around us, and this indeed seems to be a feature of how we interact with the world: there are different animal species, different species of trees and plants, and also different categories of human (and here I don't mean in the sense of different races or ethnicities, but in the sense of different personality types: the nerd, the jock, the cool kid, the sneaky politician, the femme fatale, the dirty old man, etc.). We are comfortable with this, and it seems to strike us as natural. We are individuals, but we also fit into conceptual groups or tribes that do not map to race or language or place of origin. 

In any event, this way of approaching setting design seems to be popular because it taps into something deep in our psyches. Anyone who wants to design a role playing game or write popular YA fiction take note: if you want it to sell, make it tribal.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Thoughts on a First Reading of Chapter One of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

I have recently started reading the first Harry Potter book to my eldest child, and, as I've never read a single word of the series before,* I am in a sense reading it to myself as well. I thought I would share some observations.

The first is banal, but as Milan Kundera reminded us, it is often the most banal observations that shock us the most. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released in 1997. This still somehow feels recent to me (I was 16 at the time), but, of course, it isn't at all - 1997 is as distant to us as 1971 was distant to it. An awful lot changed between 1971 and 1997, and an awful lot has changed afterwards. There were no mobile phones to speak of in 1997; no internet really; no hipsters (except possibly in Seattle). It was still an analogue, print world - one in which, indeed, it was possible for a series of books for children to sell hundreds of millions of copies around the world (a thing now truly inconceivable). It was the world of Friends, of Starbucks, of cheap and easy international travel, of optimism, of Brit Pop. That world has gone, and it is genuinely difficult now to conjure its texture in the mind, let alone communicate it to children. Without wishing to sound too maudlin, I am nearly as old now as my dad was in 1997. Shit - I need to start writing that great English novel, learn Ancient Greek, visit Tasmania and make a bucket list.

The second is only a little less banal: it's now possible for a child to sit down and watch all the Harry Potter films, back-to-back, instantly, and essentially at no cost, in the comfort of their own bedroom. I of course will not let my own children do this, because I am an ogre and only let them watch 30 minutes of TV a day, and because after the second one the films get too scary for a 6 year old. But there is nothing stopping it in practice. Our children do not really have an experience of scarcity of entertainment in the way we did, unless it is forced upon them by their parents. A lot of parents don't enforce any such scarcity (just look at how many quite happily let their toddlers zone out in front of an iPad while at a restaurant or out in the pram), and we are as a result going to see something of a social experiment unfold as the current generation ages: some kids will be brought up in something like a traditional way; others will be brought up without even a concept of how to process boredom. Something to think about.

The third concerns JK Rowling's own implicit views. No, I'm not opening the trans can of worms: I mean about class. I glean from her wikipedia entry that I am not the first person to observe this, but there is something really in-your-face snobby about the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and to which I had quite a visceral reaction. JK Rowling is a sensitive, bookish, creative middle-class girl, and she wears her prejudices on her sleeve. For her, the bumptious, upwardly-mobile, suburban, lower middle-class Dursleys (the father of whom owns a factory that makes drills - ugh! They're trade!) are beneath contempt, made worse because they don't appreciate the things that nice people like she does - things like books, and reading, and, er, books, and reading. This snootiness is not appealing; it's something Roald Dahl could also be guilty of, but the saving grace of Dahl was that he was a genuine misanthrope whose hatred was scattergun. JK Rowling's feels focused on a particular type of English family - privet hedge, car in driveway, bacon for breakfast, smallish mock-tudor detached house in suburban estate - which it is easy to mock and belittle, but without whom society simply could not function.

The fourth concerns the writing. JK Rowling is not Proust. Nor is she Roald Dahl, a writer she obviously copies, both stylistically and thematically (the plot of Harry Potter is essentially The Lord of the Rings meets Matilda, and the opening paragraph of The Philosopher's Stone is pure, undistilled Dahl, but Rowling doesn't have the twisted turns of phrase that he had or the comic timing**). I can't say I quite understand how the book ever captivated adult fans. But, for what it is, it is readable, well-paced, competent - better, much better, than I was expecting. (Far better, for instance, than the truly execrable Twilight books, which in my head was the closest comparator.) 

The fifth concerns the films. I have seen each of the films, though only once; they're okay - mostly within the solid, three-star range. But what is immediately noticeable (again, a banal observation) is how their content merely skates over the surface of the book. One of the things that I disliked about the later films was that the plots lost coherence (something about horcruxes and elder wands and Helena Bonham Carter), and one got the strong sense that the filmmakers were simply relying on audiences basically knowing the stories already and being easily distracted by nice special effects and classically-trained English actors being very serious and important. This suggest that, when one reads the books, the plot is actually coherent, and serves to remind me of the important maxim that films of books are the absolute pits.

The sixth and final concerns my eldest. Disappointingly, she loves it. I think I'm in for the long haul.


*I was 16 when the first book came out, which was exactly the wrong age: too old to appreciate a kids' book, but too young to have an adult perspective on a kids' book. I was also (and still am, really) one of those genre snobs who hates mainstream, crossover successes. 

**An example of Dahl's brilliance:

'In a way, the medicine had done Grandma good. It had not made her any less grumpy or bad-tempered, but it seemed to have cured all her aches and pains, and she was suddenly as frisky as a ferret. As soon as the crane had lowered her to the ground, she ran over to George's huge pony, Jack Frost, and jumped onto his back. This ancient old hag, who was now as tall as a house, then galloped around the farm on the gigantic pony, jumping over trees and sheds and shouting:

"Out of my way! Clear the decks! Stand back, all you miserable midgets or I'll trample you to death!" and other silly things like that.

But because Grandma was much too tall to get back into the house, she had to sleep that night in the hay-barn with the mice and the rats.'


Wednesday, 13 September 2023

King Arthur vs Devil Kitty

I hope you forgive a brief commercial interlude, but my friend Dan Sumption is currently running a Kickstarter for a project called King Arthur vs Devil Kitty and I'd like you to know about it.

I have no idea how Dan unearthed it, but it turns out there is a medieval French epic about King Arthur fighting, well, a devil kitty. Dan has had it translated, together with a scholarly introduction by an expert at the University of Durham, and beautifully illustrated (and I mean beautifully). I have backed the project - I recommend you do too. Here's some examples of the incredible art:




You can also see an interview with the illustrator about it here:



Tuesday, 12 September 2023

Amazonpunk and the Giantess Setting

I recently finished reading Buddy Levy's River of Darkness, about Francesco de Orellana and the first European voyage down the Amazon in 1542. It is one of the most riveting books I have read, if perfunctorily written - the story is itself genuinely incredible, but the window it offers onto a world now disappeared is unparalleled. We are used to thinking of Amazonia as a pristine natural wilderness, but the truth is that it is anything but: it is a post-apocalyptic wasteland whose original human inhabitants have now almost entirely disappeared, and whose great civilizations were laid to ruin by disease centuries ago before being recaptured by jungle. I knew this story from the (also excellent) 1491, but in River of Darkness we see it from the ground up, as it was first observed by the conquistadores who witnessed these civilizations (albeit only briefly) when at their zenith.

I suppose I had always innocently and naively assumed that there was some mythological reason why the Amazon is referred to as 'the Amazon', so I was flabbergasted to learn that the reason was because Orellana and his men seem to have encountered there a race of powerful women who ran an empire of their own. From 'The Trumpeter's Tale', recounted in the book:

[The Trumpeter, an Indian captive of Orellana, said] that [the Amazons] lived in the interior seven days' journey away...The Captain asked if they were married, and the Indian said no. The Captain asked how they lived, and the Indian answered in the interior, and that he had been there many times, and seen their customs and way of life, since he had been sent there by his chief to carry the tribute. The Captain asked if they were numerous, and the Indian answered yes, and that he knew seventy of their villages by name. He then named them before those of us who were present, and said that he had been to several of them. The Captain then asked if their houses were made of straw, and the Indian answered no, that they were built of stone, and had proper doors, and that the roads that ran between these villages were walled on both sides, and that they had guards at intervals alone them, to collect dues from those who used them. [Another version describes these walls as paneled with silver all around for half a man's height from the floor, and against them were placed silver seats, which they used for their worship and their drunken feasts. There is the addition, too, of a temple ceiling lined with variegated feathers of parrots and macaws.]

The Captain asked if their villages were large, and the Indian answered that they were. He asked if they bore children, and the Indian answered yes. The Captain asked how they became pregnant, since they were not married and no men lived in their villages. He said that at certain times they felt desire for men and assembled a large army with which they went to make war on a neighbouring chief and brought his warriors by force to their villages where they kept them for as long as they wanted. Then, when they were pregnant, they sent their prisoners back unharmed. If when their time came they bore a male, they killed him or sent him to his father. If they are girls they rear them carefully and train them to war. He said that their queen was called Conori, and they had great quantities of gold and silver, and that the principal women are served on gold and silver plate and have gold and silver vessels, while the common women use earthware, otherwise wood.

He said that in the principal city, where the queen lived, there were five very large buildings used as temples, and sacred to the Sun. He added that they call these temples caranain, and that they contain gold and silver idols in female shape, and that from three feet above the floor these temples are lined with heavy wooden panelling painted in various colours. He said that they have many gold and silver vessels used in the divine service, and that the women are clothed in very fine wool. For in that land there are many llamas like those in Peru. Their clothing is a blanket, worn either girded across the breasts or thrown around the neck, or secured at the front with a pair of cords like a cloak. They wear their hair down to the ground and golden crowns on their heads, as wide as two fingers.

The Indian informed us further that no man is permitted to remain in the women's villages after sunset but must depart for home at that time, and that many provinces bordering on these women's lands are subject to them and pay tribute and services to them. But with others they remain at war...He added that these women are white and of very great stature and numerous.

Levy goes on: 

Carvajal (Orellana's chaplain) noted that it all sounded plausible since he and his compatriots had been hearing tales and reports as early as Quito: the women warriors were so famous that in order to see them, some Indians traveled over 3,500 miles just to behold them, "and anyone who should take it into his head to go down to the country of these women was destined to go a boy and return an old man".

I of course lap this kind of thing up and I suspect you probably do too, redolent as it is of high adventure in a world of ancient and unknown mystery and rumoured wonder. But it also chimes interestingly with two recent themes here on the blog - the meaning of '-punk' and also The Wizard Knight.

'Amazonpunk' first, then: doesn't the account above suggest to you a campaign setting based around the concept of the Amazon civilization, run by women, in which men are decidedly third-class citizens (if not effectively almost slaves)? Here the PCs - they would chiefly have to be men in order for this to really work - are rogues, vagrants, adventurers, and outlaws (or, perhaps, foreign visitors a la Tekumel) trying to eke out for themselves glory, riches and honour despite the system of social hierarchy being implacably opposed. Down in society's underbelly, they strive to work their way upwards, with the implicit end state as they accrue power being grudging acceptance or perhaps even accomodation into the social establishment. IN THIS SOCIETY, WOMEN ARE IN CHARGE! is a trope almost as old as SF itself, but one which is underexplored in fantasy RPGs - at least in OSR circles. Doing something new with hoary old cliche is always a worthy endeavour, and I see no reason why IN THIS SOCIETY, WOMEN ARE IN CHARGE! should be any different.

Oddly, in The Wizard Knight - a book that, like really all of Gene Wolfe's fiction, gives the impression of having mostly been written about men, and for a mostly male readership - we get an interesting twist on the Amazon tale. The Angrborn, the race of evil giants exiled from the realm of Skai, have a society that is only comprised of males. Initially it seems that this is just the way things are, but later we learn that there are in fact Angrborn females who, disgusted with the oppressiveness of their male counterparts, go off into the wilderness to found their own society. 

It is intriguing that Orellana's Amazons (whom his conquistadores later encountered and killed in some number) are described througout as being very tall, of great stature, etc. What if the Amazons in our Amazonpunk campaign are, then, originally descended from a group of female giants who set up a Queendom of their own and propagated through breeding with human males? This would, of course, over time result in the creation of a race of half-giantesses, perhaps now not all that much taller than humans, but certainly big and powerful enough to dominate an entire region and subdue and enslave populations as they saw fit. 

I like this idea, and think it is worth running with, not least because it conjures up in the mind a dream of pulp fantasy novellas from ages past - books that one perhaps never read, but which one nonetheless retains an awareness of from the hazy penumbra of nostalgia which shrouds this hobby of ours so completely.

Thinking Seriously About Halfling Empires

The question of whether halflings are capable of constructing empires, and what those empires would look like, is one which has concerned Western philosophy at least since Plato.

In this post, I mused briefly that:

[A halfling empire] would I think be the anti-empire, the empire of no empires, the empire of paradox, spreading its decentralisation and hairfoot-anarchism across regions, continents, the world...

The idea here is that halfling empire building is almost a living critique of the concept of empire itself - it would comprise what I suppose would have to be called imperialistic libertarianism or perhaps big Englanderism: the aggressive enforcement of quiet, homespun anarchism via conquest.

But let's tone things down a bit and come up with some ideas that are a bit more palatable and useful for gaming purposes. Are there plausible ways in which one could imagine halflings coming to run an empire, given the way they are described in D&D materials?

One obvious way is to posit a deus ex machina explanation: halflings are the only ones who can do some special sort of magic or psionics, which means they can boss around the members of other races; halflings have a symbiotic relationship with some very physically powerful race of beings (I would suggest umber hulks, but neogi have already bagsied those) who can do all the fighting for them; halflings have some special ability which the members of other races are willing to pay to have access to. These could potentially lead in interesting directions, but I think ultimately they cheat a little bit by bending the actual description of halflings as found in the source texts.

Another, less obvious cheat is to imagine that halflings are just really good at commerce (and there is, I suppose, some justification for this if we imagine halflings as, basically, the English: we are after all renowned as a 'nation of shopkeepers' whose own imperial adventures were generally motivated by commercial imperatives over the conquest of land per se). If you are really good at commerce you can pay other people to do things for you; imagine halflings as a race of merchants whose expertise in arbitrage alone allows them to dominate a vast and disparate region united by trade.

Of course, one could also think of halflings as being something more like Hutts - congenitally predisposed towards dastardly criminal enterprises and therefore presiding over a vast feudal anarchy: each halfling 'family' or clan essentially hoovering up taxes from the locals of other races and, in return, exerting a minimal form of stability and order through hired goons. Naturally this would make more sense if they controlled the trade in pipe-weed, though I think the license that this would give DMs to do hammy noo yoik or tutti frutti Napolitan accents means that it is an idea best approached with caution.

Thursday, 7 September 2023

'Punk-rogue-ing' D&D in the Aftermath of the Quasi-Apocalypse

Bruce Sterling's preface to the William Gibson short story collection Burning Chrome made a lasting impression on me when I first read it as a thirteen-year old. For those not familiar with it, he - very briefly - sets out an agenda for what might be thought of as the '-punk' movement (as in 'cyberpunk', 'steampunk', and so on). Without saying so in so many words, he makes the case that the focus of literature of the '-punk' kind (what makes it 'punk') is its focus on the rebellious down-and-outs who live in wake of vast and irrevocable change. Such fiction is in other words predicated on there having been some big Revolution (technological, societal, economic, whatever) which has left certain sections of society dispossessed. And this body of fiction is interested in telling stories about these 'victims of the new' (Sterling's phrase) and how they make a life for themselves in the aftermath of a quasi-apocalyptic change.

Cyberpunk fiction obviously posits its quasi-apocalypse as the cybernetic/information revolution, and Gibson's stories - at least the Sprawl trilogy ones and his early short pieces - can very much be read in this way. But the concept of '-punk' has since become degraded into a shorthand descriptor of a vaguely 'edgy' or self-consciously 'cool' aesthetic (which I have absolutely zero patience for, or interest in). Hence steampunk fiction is not really about the rebellious victims of a rapid steam/industrial revolution; clockpunk fiction is not really about the rebellious victims of a rapid clockwork revolution; raypunk fiction is not really about the rebellious victims of a rapid scientific revolution predicated on the far-future visions of the 1920s and 30s, etc. These terms are just a way of referring to one's project as being in line with a certain mood or feel (generally because that is the only notable thing about it).

The '-punk' suffix therefore has outlived its usefulness and has to go. But there is something interesting, important, and useful about the way Sterling originally described things. Fiction about the 'victims of the new' - i.e., those dispossessed by rapid, quasi-apocalyptic upheaval - is inherently interesting, and I think those of us who feel ourselves to be on the edge of such an upheaval in our own time find such stories particularly apt. 

D&D, on the face of it, does not have much of a relationship to the '-punk' aesthetic (though there have been some highly cringeworthy attempts to bridge the gap). But once the aesthetic connotations are jettisoned, there is actually something similar at work at least in the OSR conception of D&D as being fundamentally interested in rogues (or 'murderhobos' or whatever you wish to call them). D&D in this vein too is interested in rebellious down-and-outs starting small and trying to make a life for themselves; it just doesn't generally posit them doing so in the aftermath of revolutionary change. 

Is there, then, space for doing so? Is there room for '-rogueing' D&D?

What about, for instance, 'abyssrogue', in which a fantasy world has been recently exposed to a demonic invasion? The demons suddenly rule; they have many 'native' allies who have done very well out of the changes wrought by their presence. But at the same time there are those whose lives have been thrown into permanent confusion and impoverishment; these 'abyssrogues' try to make the best of things regardless. Then there's the 'undeadrogue' setting (after the takeover by the lich-lords), the 'dragonrogue' setting (after the rise from slumber of the forgotten race of ancient dragon princes), the 'great-old-one-rogue' setting (self-explanatory, I think), the 'magicrogue' setting (after magic has returned to the world), and so on. In each the emphasis is on fundamental upheaval, and its aftermath - the 'victims of the new' and their roguelike efforts to survive and prosper. 

Interestingly, seen in these terms, there is a precursor to this way of thinking, about which we are all very familiar: Shadowrun, with its sudden interjection of fantasy tropes (a fantastical quasi-apocalypse, if you will) into a cyberpunk future. Shadowrun is often thought of as basically a cyberpunk game, or a cyberpunl-fantasy mashup. I think in retrospect it might be better to think of it as proto-fantasyrogue.

Tuesday, 5 September 2023

Orcs Wish to Have an Independent Existence

One of Tolkien's great innovations was the notion that, in his sub-created world, there would not only be sentient beings of other 'races' (elves, orcs, dwarves, etc.), but they would have their own cultures and languages. 

Human beings have probably always imagined that there might be faeries, gnomes, goblins, bogles, and all the rest, and told stories about such beings. But in those stories these creatures generally exist as a series of those funny-shaped mirrors one encounters at fairgrounds or piers, which simply reflect our own features and characteristics back at us in distorted, exaggerated ways. They not only don't speak their own languages or develop their own cultures - it is actually necessary that they don't, because they are supposed to exist as a kind of commentary on ourselves. Despite their oddness they are essentially part of the culture from which the story itself springs.

Tolkien did his damnedest to give his fantasy races an independent existence. Thus, they speak their own languages and have their own apparently autonomous cultures. Since he wished to create a more genuinely freestanding other world, rather than write mere folklore or fairy tales, it was important to him that the creatures inhabiting that other world were themselves freestanding. Human beings are not at its centre, and the world does not revolve around them, as it does in for example the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.

Ultimately, of course, he fails in this endeavour, partly deliberately and partly not. We see this most clearly in the example of the orcs. Orcish speech, for all that it is apparently 'another language' to the common tongue, is apparently only actually an amalgamation of existing Middle Earth languages, borrowed by the orcs haphazardly. This reflects Tolkien's own ideas about what the orcs were - elves who were corrupted by Melkor - and also about the nature of evil as essentially parasitic on good. It is a very important feature of Tolkien's legendarium that although evil can manufacture, it cannot create. It can construct machines and weapons of war, but it can't build in the sense that a real city is built, or cultivate a countryside, or produce art. Just as Melkor could not make his own beings but could only mangle the already-created elves, so the orcs who resulted could not produce their own language, but only piece together an approximation of one from existing linguistic material.

The fundamentally parasitic nature of orcish speech is therefore consistent with how orcs themselves were imagined to have been created, in Tolkien's world. But it is also consistent with his own interpretation of Christianity and, particularly, his understanding of theodicy: evil is the prideful attempt to equal or better God's achievements through artifice - which can only ultimately fail, producing corrupt works that will in the end cause simply destruction and/or decay. 

The failure of orcish speech to achieve an independent existence is therefore due to a choice on Tolkien's part that is consistent with the nature of his world. But it also demonstrates the ultimate impossibility of human beings actually imagining things that do not in some way relate to the author's ideas (conscious or unconscious) about the human condition. Even in our fantasy worlds - one is tempted to say, especially in our fantasy worlds - we are incapable of coming up with ideas that do not in themselves comment on our own nature and position in the universe. Orcish speech cannot have an independent existence because Tolkien could not escape his own perspectives and, in the end, his human nature. Whatever he created, in the final analysis, ended up being a commentary (however accurate or otherwise) on ourselves. 

This is true of all of fantasy fiction since Tolkien was writing - meaning all fantasy fiction that was not self-consciously rooted in the real world in the manner of fairy stories and myths. Grasping for an independent existence, they end up reflecting ourselves back to ourselves in hall-of-mirrors fashion just like folklore - except perhaps in more attenuated, and strangely shaped, form. 

Does this mean that we are better off not bothering? Since the goal of creating independently existing fantasy worlds is a quixotic one, should we, like CS Lewis or JK Rowling, limit our horizons to the amalgamation of the real world and the fantastical, thereby producing the modern equivalent of the fairy tale? Or should we continue to set our sights on that unrealisable ambition - the imagination of a world which bears no relation to, and does not comment upon, our own?

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

Scenes from The Great North

Tom Kilian has sent me some more works-in-progress for art for The Great North (formerly The Meeting of the Waters). As a reminder, this is my follow-up to Yoon-Suin, in which I give the same 'setting construction toolbox' treatment to a pseudo-Northumberland; the text has long been complete and Tom has been beavering away at producing the illustrations. 

Some choice pictures, with text from the book itself:


Barghest - 'A malevolent and vindictive shapeshifter sighted in its animal form at night or at times of grief, but otherwise walking the earth in disguise as a solitary man or woman...' 



Followers of the Old Ways - 'A religious group whose members are still engaged in Emperor worship or even pursuit of the gods who used to walk these lands in the ancient past. Often such people are merely in love with secrecy and the excitement of strange ritual, but there are those with sincere belief that the Emperor will someday return, or that they can revive old spirits who are not gone, but sleeping...'




Grindylow - 'The lank-haired, long-armed pool-dweller who delights in drowning. She waits for passers-by who she can grab and pull beneath the surface of her dark waters, and spends the rest of her time plotting to expand her power and influence...'



Heron man - 'Long limbed, lurching walkers, with the feathered heads and beaks and sharp yellow eyes of the heron, and the gracile limbs of the man. Like the birds which are their namesakes they are patient and quiet; they prefer to wait for the chance to kill, and their eyes are as adept at spotting a chink in a man’s armour as they are seizing on the silvery flicker of a fish darting in the shadows of a pool....'

Hobgoblin - 'Foul mannish things who live to playfully ape some aspect or other of the life of mankind, poorly understood and perceived through a lens of pure malevolence...'



Knucker - 'A slithering, serpentine water dragon, enslaver of the weak-willed, coiling its mighty length in the murky depths of a lake or river....' 

Lamprey man - 'Slimy, sinuous swimmers, made of soft cartilage which renders them pliable, loose, bendy. They emerge from their watery homes to roam on land in search of prey who they can drag back to feed their young, creeping close to the ground before suddenly rearing up to walk bipedal on uncertain but unfailing legs. Their mouths are jawless, sucking, rasping, hungry - filled with circular rows of teeth for slicing through flesh....'



Nature spirit - 'The land itself is capable of feeling: of mourning, of yearning, of hating, of loving, of hoping. Anyone who has walked in a forest in spring as green life appears to instantiate itself from the very air around it, stood on a hilltop as the winds of autumn blow in wild, or strolled along a desolate and mournful beach in winter, will be unable to dispute this. Usually, these feelings are expressed only in the minds and hearts of those who are present to observe them. Sometimes, however, the land makes its emotions tangible in much more direct form, creating a spirit of great power to walk the earth and give voice to what made it....'




Ogres - 'The man-eating sons of Orcus, the Punisher of Lies, who have been in these lands since they came from abroad as mercenaries in the Emperor’s pay long ago. His rule bound them, but in his absence they have reverted to their old faith. Their deity demands of them that they kill and devour all oath-breakers, and since that word can describe all human life, any man, woman or child may be made their victim....'



Lares - 'Patron demigods were brought to the Great North in their thousands by the Emperor’s servants during his reign, each being given purview over a tiny sliver of public or private life - a road, a house, a family, a field, even a single room. Many have faded into nothingness now that their cults have disappeared and the places which they inhabited have fallen into ruin. But there are those which remain, often in the most unlikely places: a forgotten cellar on an urban street; a small shrine hidden in a  barn; a toppled statue in a copse of oak in a hidden fold of land; a narrow lane running from nowhere in particular to nowhere special. Some are sorrowful, some are imbued with rage, while others have long gone mad; a few, though, retain the devotion to protective care which they were originally given, and exercise it still...'