Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Early Development Sketches for the Great North

'The Great North' is the working title of what I have previously referred to as, amongst other things, 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin' and 'The Meeting of the Waters'. It adopts the same basic approach to creating a campaign setting as Yoon-Suin did - being a toolbox with which the reader can create his or her own version of the region. In this case, the area in question is loosely based on the desolate and debatable region between England and Scotland, and can be thought of as being the equivalent to it in the same way that Yoon-Suin is very roughly like the real-world Himalayas and its foothills. 

The text has long been complete. I wrote it in what felt like a fever dream during the original 'lockdown' of March-June 2020, generally waking at 4.30am and writing for 3 hours or so while I had the house to myself (a productive fugue which I sadly was not able to keep going indefinitely). Now, the art is coming together - it is been done by the fabulous Tom Kilian. Tom has recently sent through some early development sketches, and I thought I'd share some of them on the blog, together with snippets of the writing which inspired them. The images contain quite a bit of negative space because they will have room for text in their final iterations, but I'm sure you will like them as much as I do.

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...'

Beast - 'A large, wild, dangerous animal, whether natural or magical...'

The Brown Men - '[R]umours also tell of the islands which stand off shore. A cluster of two dozen of them, the Brown Men, lurk on the surface like the exposed backs of a pod of impossibly large seals. Some are mere rocks, but others are big enough to carry towers, fortresses or other ruined buildings, clearly visible from the shore. Biggest of all, like a vast mother which pupped these islets, is the place men call Unholy Island - joined to the land for a third of the day by the retreating tide. The rumours about that place bring few visitors indeed....'

Ettins - 'The left head is full of spite and cruelty, and controls the body. It enjoys committing acts of the most repulsive malice in order to better torment the right head, which is sensitive and sorrowful, but lacks any power over the body’s actions. All that the right head can do is plead with the left to refrain from whatever vile course of action it is pursuing - to no avail.'

Green Man - 'A spirit of the forest, vengeful and fierce, proudly protective, or fecund and virile. He appears as a robed man with thick green beard and hair, disgorging leaves and vines and other foliage from his nose and mouth, and walking without a sound.'

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

Joyous Garde - 'Joyous Garde is under the de facto rule of its burghers, who elect a town council and make what decisions are necessary save one, which is always made for them by ancient law: to give the town’s de jure rulers whatever they demand in taxes each autumn. These de jure rulers are the Nineyear family, an extended clan of cloud giants who own Joyous Garde and all the land lying around it. Their tax demands vary at their whim, for they have genuine need of nothing which the town can offer, and the Nineyear family delight in abusing their privileges in malign and unpredictable ways. One year they may demand a virgin girl to burn alive and devour; the next they might require the entire contents of the warehouses of all the members of the brewer’s guild; the one after that they could simply ask for a bonnet each of strawberries - so as to make the population of the town anxious to find out what the demand is to be the following year when ‘the other shoe falls’.'

Killers' Way - 'Imperial rule in the Great North found it expedient to deploy assassins to help achieve its ends. These were trained almost from birth, and divided into groups by specialism - strangling, poisoning, stabbing, and so on. What begins in necessity ends in ritual: over the centuries these groups evolved into formal religious cults, devoted not only to the Emperor but also to murder itself as a holy act, and believing purposeless killing to be the ultimate celebration of the triumph of the uncaring cosmos over man’s petty goals and desires. Their religiosity enabled them to survive whatever precipitated the collapse of the Empire, and thereafter they roamed the region where the Dark River meets the Great North Road, further refining their arts and the application of them, preying at random on the populace. 

It took the Lady to unify them and to found what became the town of Killers’ Way. Nobody knows to which cult she belonged, and it has become important subsequently for her origins to remain mysterious; but what is known is that she was a prominent, skilled assassin, well-versed in her technique and devoted like no other to the cause of empty and premature death. Yet she herself became the target of rivals, and was murdered by them - only to come back from the dead a month later with a revolutionary message. This was that it is possible to cheat the cosmos and defeat death through will alone, and in doing so to return fully alive rather than in the empty parody of life that is undeath. She brought the different cults together with this tale of hope, and created with them a settlement which grew gradually into a burgh....'

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. '

Pwca - 'A race of shapeshifters who may be helpful or cruel depending on the day, location of the moon, temperature, direction of the wind, and so forth - but may be more likely to be benevolent if given a gift which is a genuine sacrifice. One can transform into a hare, stag, horse, dog, goat, boar or bear, at will: the animal always has jet black fur. Otherwise pwcas appear as humans, but each with one discrepancy, such as a dog’s tail, a hare’s ears, a horse’s hooves, etc.'

Questing Knight

Recaps and Reivers - 'A wizened, miserly and hateful old man, powerful in magic, invincible in the belief in his own greatness, and given to acts of extreme sadism visited on his unfortunate captives. Each wears a cap that he soaks in blood, and carries a long pikestaff; if either of these implements are lost, the redcap loses his power and shrivels into a frail and pathetic figure who can only beg for forgiveness of his sins....' / 'The wild, free horse-men of the hills, unconquered centaurs, who live for honour, pride and glory and the visiting of misery and fear upon those they deem weaker than themselves - which is anyone not of their clan. They range far and wide across the Great North from their desolate hills, coming back blood-smeared and flame-scorched with wives, slaves, and plunder....'

Saturday, 6 August 2022

Life in the Unremembered City (Cont’d)

How the Unremembered City floats, and what dictates its movements through the sky, are questions whose answers are now unknown - except perhaps in the fragmented memories of the Old Naacals. That it does float is widely understood, because of the widespread existence of holes in its surface - some tiny, some many hundreds of metres in diameter - which reveal great vistas of cloud, ocean, and land far below. And, of course, the people of some Plazas live close enough to the City's edge to be able to simply peer over, which is invariably a source of delight and very often provides an opportunity for elaborate daredevil games.

In some places, moreover, there remain antique flyers - now temperamental and difficult to command, but still usable - which allow travel to occur between the City and the land. Through this method limited congress takes place between the Young Naacals and the barbaric people who inhabit the Somniatic Earth, and as a consequence there can be found small numbers of traders, envoys, entertainers and slaves throughout the City's Plazas who originated below. In some locations, indeed, there a semi-permanent communities of these barbarians, tolerated because of services they are able to perform, crafts that they provide, or even simply because the local Naacals find them unusual or charming. 

The City usually suspends itself several thousand feet above the surface of the Somniatic Earth, high enough to often be obscured by cloud, but low enough to be able to pass through rain clouds and hence prevent drought. It does not go close to high mountain ranges, whether due to an internal mechanism or innate intelligence or something other; aside from this, there is no discernible pattern to its motions, although this does not prevent legions of soothsayers, astrologers, sages and priests (both on the City itself and the Somniatic Earth) from claiming the capacity to identify one. 

Occasionally segments of the City collapse and plummet to the earth below, usually without warning. To be caught in such a fall is the great fear or all who live in it, but it also probably accounts for the great vitality and energy with which the Young Naacals tend to pursue their endeavours. The prospect of the ending of one's life, which is common to us all, is to the inhabitants of the Unremembered City particularly acute, and they live their lives with gusto as a consequence. 

Friday, 5 August 2022

Life in the Unremembered City


The Naacals of the Unremembered City are divided into two castes: the Old Naacals, essentially immortal, who have survived the long eons since the fall of Mu, and the Young Naacals, who were born in the Unremembered City itself and live and die there in the normal span of a human lifetime. 

The Old Naacals who remain in the City are few now, and have long been rendered senile, sadistic or strange. They roam in its wastes or lurk in isolated towers and ziggurats, companioned only by their servitors; the Young Naacals shun them in fear and distaste. It is the latter who form what society exists.

That society is found in what have come to be called the Plazas. No authority exists that is capable of counting how many Plazas there are, and no living person is known to have ever traversed the geography of the City in order to ascertain the number. (Indeed, it is widely thought that travelling across the breadth of the City would take longer than a single lifetime.) All that is certain is that, dispersed as they are - separated from one another by vast swathes of wilderness - there are very many of them; possibly thousands.

Each Plaza is independent, autonomous, and largely isolated from the others, and each consists of a wide, flat space, usually several hundred metres across, surrounded by high ziggurats - often partially ruined and lying empty, and subject to strict taboos. The people of the Plaza live in the open area, which they generally divide into residential, religious, commercial and entertainment districts with the cunning use of walls and curtains - though many exceptions exist. (There are indeed Plazas in which the inhabitants live together in a communal throng, conducting all of their activities in public, and others in which they construct elaborate, labyrinthine hives; there is even rumoured to be a Plaza somewhere in which the people go about blindfolded so as to maintain the strictest standards of privacy.) Each Plaza's culture is distinct, and dependent to a great degree on the interpretations its people give to aspects of the pantheon of gods whom the Naacals worship. A Plaza, for instance, might largely venerate Shezmu, and emphasise the lion god's love of dancing; another, venerating the same god, may instead take inspiration from his love of blood and slaughter and form a public religion and cultural life very different from the first. Since there are well in excess of a hundred gods in the pantheon, the result is a patchwork of religio-cultural variety of bewildering scale and scope. 

The City's networks of canals, where they remain clear and safe to traverse, link its Plazas together. Typically, access to these canals is restricted to particular classes, guilds or clans, and jealously guarded, because it is largely only through these arteries that wealth still flows about the Unremembered City. Anybody seeking to travel from one Plaza to another without using a canal would have to do so on foot, and this would mean a dangerous journey across miles of waste ground - ruined ziggurats, towers, temples, and tombs; overgrown gardens, parks and cemeteries; ancient reservoirs and aqueducts captured by the wild and transformed into murky lakes and pools; strange monuments and fields of broken stone - and all of it populated by outlaws, mad servitors driven to malice and cruelty by malfunction, crazed Old Naacals muttering and malevolent, and carnivorous plants and wild predatory beasts evolved over eons to savour the taste of human flesh. For these reasons, it is rare that an inhabitant of the Unremembered City ever leaves the Plaza of his or her birth, save for those occasions when marriages are arranged between the youths of one Plaze and another; it is through such mechanisms that the pools of familial inheritance among the Young Naacals do not grow brackish and stale. 

Thursday, 28 July 2022

Further Questions Regarding D&D Movies

Two interesting questions popped up in the comments on yesterday's post, and I felt they merited further discussion at length. 

The first is: why would the creators of this new D&D film create a new storyline, world, and cast of characters, when they could have made (say) a Dragonlance or Baldur's Gate movie and garnered a bit more name recognition?

I think the answer to this question has to be that while there is a certain amount of recognition of those names among old farts like us, we're not really the people this film is being marketed to. Middle-aged male neckbeards are nailed on to watch a D&D movie, irrespective of how it is titled. Non-middle-aged male neckbeards will need to be coaxed into it, and I can easily see how associations with fairly obscure artefacts of 1980s or 1990s nerd-dom would be off-putting or alienating to those potential audiences. D&D: Honour Among Thieves just sounds friendlier and more down-to-earth than Baldur's Gate (or whatever). 

The second is: why is it that D&D films always seem to be so bad? 

This is a good question, but one which could be broadened out to: why is that fantasy films in general always seem to be so bad?

It's difficult now to remember, but prior to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the landscape of fantasy film-making was an absolute ocean of cringeworthiness. No self-respecting actor or director would want to be seen dead in a fantasy movie, unless it was being played for laughs; the idea of pretending to be an elf or wizard and spouting hey-nonny-no lines would have struck anybody with an ounce of awareness as being deeply silly at best. The suspicion I always had as a fantasy reader back in those days was that almost any fantasy film you could name had been made to try to cash in on the genre's popularity rather than out of any authentic love for the field on the part of writers or directors. They almost universally displayed an absolute tin ear for what fantasy fiction is really all about, and were imbued with an atmosphere of faint embarrassment among all concerned. 

The surprise me for is not that D&D films are always bad, but that The Fellowship of the Ring was able to capture the imagination of mainstream audiences so successfully. Peter Jackson's LOTR project turned into a monster, but he caught lightning in a bottle with Fellowship, and it changed the way the fantasy genre was conceived of forever. This has caused us to forget what things used to be like. If the new D&D film is crap, it will really just be (yet another) reversion to the mean.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

13 Reasons Why the New D&D Movie Will Be Terrible

 (Never let it be said I can't write good clickbait headlines when I want to.)

So, there is a new D&D film coming out. I am so thoroughly and profoundly outside of its target audience (I don't even really watch films per se anymore, let alone big blockbustery ones) that I feel like a churl even expressing an opinion about it. So, sorry for the disappointment; I'm not actually going to do the 13 reasons thing. What I will do is express some reservations about the aesthetic on display in the trailer.

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are responsible for a lot - and above all for staking out a particular highly influential mood and look, which I suppose one could call 'Dimly Lit LARP with CGI Andy Serkisface Monsters'. When I was a university student, there was a 'Scandinavian Society' on campus who would get together on Sunday morning to hold re-enactments of viking raids. My friends and I used to watch, hungover, from our dorm windows; it was on the one hand impressive (a lot of time and energy went into all the costumes) and yet on the other very anticlimactic - an awful lot of fuss and shouting over essentially nothing. If you were to take that basic framework and bolt on lots of CGI creatures participating in all the fuss and shouting over nothing and make them all look a bit like Andy Serkis, and then shoot the whole thing at night when it's raining and visibility is poor, and possibly hire a Hollywood actress to stand in the middle of everything looking very serious while waving a sword and mouthing important-sounding gibberish, you capture this aesthetic perfectly. You all know what it is intimately; you know it the instant you see it. It is just what modern fantasy cinema and TV looks like.

D&D: Honour Among Thieves looks as though it is moving us into new territory, and for that we should be grateful. It appears as though the viewer will actually be able to see what is happening clearly and there may even be some sequences happening during the daytime. There is also a distinct lack of baddies who look like Andy Serkis. This is all very welcome.

However, we seem to have reached a point of technological advancement at which, while it is possible to make CGI monsters look 99.9% real, they still don't quite - with the result being a viewing experience taking place at the bottom of uncanny valley. When watching a cartoon, or a Ray Harryhausen film, one's imagination works overtime to paper over all of the obvious differences between what one is seeing on screen and what it would really 'look like', and the result is a satisfying amalgamation of the director's vision and the viewer's. When watching real people do real things, the viewer's imagination is largely irrelevant, and he or she can enjoy the director's vision unfiltered. What we seem to have achieved with modern blockbusters is a (to me) undesirable middle ground, in which the director is able to realise a vision which is very close to what a real owlbear (say) would actually look like, but not quite; the consequence is the viewers spend most of their time simply studying the behaviour of the CGI creations on screen and being aware they don't look altogether real. This communicates a feeling of weightlessness and lack of consequence, and ruins immersion - what is taking place in the film comes to appear like, well, a film. 

I personally would prefer watching a very brilliantly realised animation to a bunch of real actors running around playing make-believe amidst not-quite-real-looking monsters. But maybe this is why I am firmly beyond that target audience, as I mentioned.

Monday, 18 July 2022

In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard Issue 1 - PDF Released

Issue 1 of my new 'zine, In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard, is now available for purchase in PDF at the noisms games website. A print edition is soon to follow, but bear in mind that many copies are spoken for by Kickstarter backers. 

The PDF is 222 pages long and contains 95% OSR materials (including my "The Devil in the Land of the Rushes", an experiment in creating gameable stuff that is also enjoyable to read as fiction), 5% OSR-adjacent short stories, and beautiful art. 

Contents include:

  • The Well at the World's End by Roger Giner-Sorolla - an essay about the William Morris book of the same name, and how to use it to inform old school play, complete with a usable hexmap and key.
  • Offspring of the Siphoned Demon by Ben Gibson - a dungeon based on that oldest of old favourites, the prison of an ancient demon. 
  • The Chevrelier by Brian Saliba - a clever piece of flash fiction, or a micro-story; if I described it in any more detail, the description would be almost as long as the story itself. 
  • The Beloved and Oft-Recounted Tale of the Marvellous Birth by JC Luxton - a story I recently described to a friend as being "Like Little, Big but good". 
  • The Cerulean Valley by George Seibold - a genuine old school hexcrawl, containing everything one could possibly need in such an offering: a near-perfect example of its type (and worth the price alone for the beautifully evocative monster name, "The Nightening Beast"). 
  • The Black Pyramid by 'Terrible Sorcery' - a jungle temple built over the cave of a gigantic carnivorous worm which was worshipped by an ancient cult; D&D's answer to a Werner Herzog film? 
  • The Hollow Tomb by Harry Menear - described by its own author as "if Chekhov or Gorky wrote as part of the OSR (and were much, much worse) they might have written this". Be that as it may, it's an extremely well-written and put-together module. Again, a near-perfect example of its type. 
  • A Turn of Fortune by Jose Carlos Dominguez - an excellent example of an almost non-violent puzzle adventure. 
  • She Who Came Once to Oldgraves by Autumn Moore - a really exceptionally good entry in the "dungeoneering fiction" genre I seek to nurture; it has shades of Gene Wolfe, I thought. Whoever Autumn Moore is, they've got talent. 
  • Winter in Bugtown by J. Colussy-Estes - it's an underground city inhabited by various sentient insect races and it has "mothman necromancers". YOU HAD ME AT MOTHMAN NECROMANCERS.
  • The Garden of Khal-Adel by Zane Schneider - a whimsical-in-the-right-way adventure, about music and sorrowful giants and...flumphs. 
  • The Thirteen Dwarves by Jason Blasso-Gieseke - anything I say about this story will spoil it, so I can't say anything, really. 
  • Moonrhythm Mire by Dave Greggs - a bizarre and brilliant feast for the senses; OSR DIY D&D turned up to 11.
  • And more!

Please spread the word if you find it a worthwhile purchase.

Friday, 15 July 2022

Theorising What Is and Is Not Permissible - Lines and Veils

There is a lot of theft and murder in my games. There is never any on-screen torture, though it might be implied. There is categorically no rape or sexual abuse, and indeed that would be a red-line for me: if you think that kind of thing is fair game as subject matter at the table, then we're probably not going to get along.  

Why is it that most people are okay with depictions of looting, violence, arson and the like in games (and indeed often see such activities as the most enjoyable element of the entire enterprise) but not rape? To extend the question a little further: why is that we do not see anything particularly concerning about cinema audiences getting excited about watching, say, swathes of Zulu warriors being mown down by Welsh riflemen gleefully singing 'Men of Harlech' while being egged on by Michael Caine, and yet we would (quite rightly, for reasons which we will come to) be very worried indeed at the prospect of people being entertained by sexual violence?

The answer I think is relatively straightforward, though not often articulated. It's that while we can envisage circumstances in which violence, or for that matter theft, is morally ambivalent or even justified,  rape is simply always and unambiguously a moral enormity. It is absolutely right that people should be squeamish about it: it is disgusting and horrible and there is no situation in which it could possible be deemed as having any redeeming features whatsoever. 

This is probably also why torture occupies a bit of a grey zone. I'm not persuaded that torture is ever justifiable even in the classic 'ticking timebomb' scenario. But I recognise that there is some fuzziness about that and there are some people who would take the opposing view. So while I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of PCs torturing an orc merely to find out where the tribe's treasure is hidden or whatever, I couldn't envisage imposing a blanket ban. Instead, in that kind of scenario I have usually accepted a statement to the effect of 'we torture the orc' and then moved on. (Thankfully, it doesn't often come up.) 

I was intrigued to discover that the 'yoof' of today have come up with a way of systematising what is and is not permitted, and in what form, in a game, with the concept of 'lines and veils'. The idea here, at least as I understand it, is that a 'line' precludes a particular thing from cropping up during play entirely, whereas a 'veil' is something that can happen, but only ever, as it were, 'off-screen'. As is often the case when  mainstream gamer nerds try to parse their way through normal human interactions the concept is always framed in an intensely cringeworthy way - like Martians trying to explain to each other how to get along with earthlings - but this is one innovation I can see some merit in. Sexual violence is a line. Torture is a veil. That works for me: I get it.

Thursday, 7 July 2022

The D&D Campaign as Shaggy Dog Story and Biography

It's often said that OSR campaigns eschew narrative, or indeed are not "narrativist". This is wrong. A better way of putting it is that OSR campaigns are not like novels, but are more like shaggy dog stories - or biographies.

A shaggy dog story is one which has no identifiable overarching plot or climax, no purpose, and which involves many digressions:

I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois–got him of a man by the name of Yates–Bill Yates–maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon–Baptist–and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west. Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson–Sarah Wilkerson–good cretur, she was–one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was–no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all–it was a galoot by the name of Filkins–I disremember his first name; but he was a stump–come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul–had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’ other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow–the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, “Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear”–and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again–wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’t much difference, anyway; becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yaller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow. Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on; it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig–Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife–a ratty old buzzard, he was...

-From Mark Twain, Roughing It...

Almost any OSR campaign you care to chronicle rapidly takes on this quality. This, for example, is an account of just a portion of the weekly campaign I've been running for the past 18 months. The idea that there is no narrative per se to an OSR game is therefore wrong; there is one. It's just not directed.

I think it was Robert Caro - the exact quotation escapes me - who said that you can only really understand a person's life story by reading it in the order in which it was lived. It's no good writing a biography of somebody divided by theme. You have to begin at the beginning and go through to the end, because that's how the figure in question encountered the events of his life. History in general is like this: thematic histories usually suck, because the point about human affairs is that they are chronologically ordered. Events follow one another, and to therefore to get a grasp on one you have to know what happened before it and what happened afterwards. This may allow one to identify themes retrospectively, but the actual telling of the tale has to happen in chronological order.

A biography is very like a shaggy dog story in this sense. It's one damned thing after another, the only coherent thread really being that the narrative follows what happens to one person across time. There is no necessary climax, no discernible plot, and many digressions. 

Very few people do this, but it would be possible I think, once a long-running campaign is over, to - like a Robert Caro or Charles Moore - go back over it and identify themes that emerge; to write, as it were, the biography of the game. It's probably important to do this once the whole thing is over, to avoid pre-empting things, and requires some sort of a log to be kept. I'd be interested to know if anybody has ever attempted this.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Why D&D?

Very often - Monday's post is an obvious example - I will post an idea on the blog for a campaign I'd like to run or a book I'd like to write, and people will pop up in the comments to say something like: "Why use D&D for this? Wouldn't Troika!/Into the Odd/FUDGE/etc. be better, for reasons X, Y and Z?"

These suggestions are always well meant. But I'm now at the point in my life where I feel comfortable saying that I can't really imagine ever playing anything with a ruleset other than D&D of the B/X or BECMI "classic" variety (with Pendragon and Cyberpunk 2020 being possible exceptions). 

Why is this? Partly, I have to admit, this is just because classic D&D is comfortable for me now - as comfortable as a well-worn pair of slippers I can potter about in before bedtime. I don't really have to think about it. Yes, I still have to look things up in the rules, but I know where to look, and I know the system well enough to be able to wing almost anything and be confident it won't go horribly wrong. 

But I would also make the case that D&D in its classic form is just a fabulously good game - certainly much better than any of its competitors in the fantasy genre:

  • It deals with advancement so much better. The rate at which PCs gain levels is at the Goldilocks "just right" point, so that it is not too easy and feels meaningful, but is not so rare as to be frustrating. More importantly - and the genius of this is very rarely if ever remarked upon - PC levels map perfectly onto monster HD and also dungeon levels, so it is easy for the DM to gauge levels of challenge, what needs to be on each dungeon level, how much treasure needs to be in it, and so on (PCs in level 1 of a dungeon will be roughly 1st level and the monsters in it will need to have roughly 1 HD, and there will need to be X number of gp-worth of treasure present to permit advancement to level 2 - and so on). 
  • Relatedly, D&D has a huge catalogue of monsters in its many bestiaries, and is simple enough that new monsters can easily be created by the DM. As PCs advance in level, it is always possible for it to be the case that there of are lots of monsters weaker than them, as strong as them, and more powerful than them, thus presenting a variety of challenges throughout the gameworld. Even as they get to 9th level or above, there are going to be monsters out there who they can aspire to some day strive against, monsters they can easily beat up, and monsters which present a decent challenge. 
  • Advancing by level in my experience is just more exciting and fun than the alternative, which many systems deploy, of the PCs getting XP and spending it to improve a stat or gain a particular ability. Going from level 3 to 4 is simply more satisfying and feels like an achievement. 
  • This is admittedly a subjective thing, but the level of crunch in classic D&D is, again, at the Goldilocks "just right" point. More detailed and running the game would become a chore. More abstract and events would feel weightless and inconsequential. 
  • XP for gold. More than with any other game - and, again, the genius of this is not remarked upon frequently enough - classic D&D has a reason to go adventuring built in. The PCs need gold and will go out in pursuit of it. They don't need to ride the DM's railroad, and the DM doesn't need to put vast amounts of time and energy into coming up with a "plot". You just wind the campaign up and watch it go. 
  • D&D doesn't break. It's like an ABBA song: even when Piers Brosnan or Stellan Skarsgard are singing one in a ropey jukebox musical, it still kind of works. D&D also has this quality. You can bash it around and mess with it and do it badly, and it will still be ok. I'm not sure any other roleplaying game really has this quality. 
Perhaps another way of putting it is that classic D&D is simply the most enjoyable role playing game to have ever been created, and this is the reason why there is still such a relatively big community of people who are into fiddling with it 40+ years after its birth. 

Monday, 27 June 2022

Notes Towards a Changeling: The Dreaming OSR-Based Retroclone

Buried underneath an awful lot of nonsense, there is a game somewhere in Changeling: The Dreaming, desperate to get out. It is difficult to imagine that there could be a worse, more complicated and confusing - albeit beautiful - rulebook, and vast swathes of it are dedicated to perpetuating a vision of role playing that should really be anathema to anybody with an ounce of sense. One can read the book a dozen times and still have no clear idea how to begin, and ultimately everything just seems to boil down to 'make a railroad'. 

And yet the idea - basically, there is a world of 'faerie' existing behind or in parallel to our own, visible only to certain people who have a fae soul - works when stripped down to its essence. Alongside and underneath the urban environment of houses, schools, parks, offices, pubs, shops and abandoned lots that we know so well is a fantastical landscape brimming with mythical beasts and fairy tale creatures; what looks like an empty old folks' home is really the palace of Lord Grey; what looks like a disused railway tunnel is the entrance to a network of caverns leading to a dragon's lair; what looks like a nondescript office building is really an enchantress's tower. The PCs inhabit the real world, but with exciting 'extras'. Walking down an ordinary city street, they notice that amongst that gaggle of teenage chavs there lurks a redcap, and that peering out of the window in the cafe in the floor above HSBC is the face of a witch. They have normal jobs and normal lives - but at evenings and weekends, they're searching for lost sidhe treasure or hunting a rogue member of the local unseelie court.

There is a way, in other words, to take the basic elements of C: tD and building it into something that is actually playable - a sandbox to have adventures in. It is ripe, that is to say, for the OSR treatment. 

Some basic thoughts:

  • I would probably make it race-as-class, and likely keep the original Changeling kith types, basing them on existing D&D race/classes with some modifications. So there would be:
    • Boggan (halfling)
    • Eshu (druid)
    • Nocker (dwarf)
    • Pooka (illusionist)
    • Redcap (fighter)
    • Satyr (bard)
    • Sidhe (elf)
    • Sluagh (thief)
    • Troll (barbarian)
  • The PCs would begin as low-ranking squires in a noble sidhe house, borrowing slightly from Pendragon, and would work their way up - to perhaps one day founding their own 'cadet' houses
  • Gameplay would revolve heavily around pursuing sources of adventure through investigating rumour of the kind already described above: a friend of a friend says there's an ogre's lair in the waste ground at the back of ASDA; let's check it out
  • XP for gold might not work and would need replacing with a different mechanic - XP for glory, or something?